Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

“I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.” 

Trying to categorize Brian Selznick's 2007 children's book is pretty difficult.  The author himself described it as "not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things".  Indeed, with 284 out of its 533 pages being pictures, even the literary community has not been able to fully decide where to shelve this one.  It won the 2008 Caldecott Medal as a novel, even though the award is traditionally reserved for picture books.  The one thing that those who have read it can agree on is that it is a very unique book full of a fantastical and magical qualities that will delight readers both young and old.

The Plot:

It is 1931 and twelve year old Hugo Cabret is living in the walls of the Montparnasse train station in Paris.  After being orphaned by the tragic death of his father, Hugo was taken in by a drunken uncle who trained him to help keep the train station clocks running smoothly.  Hugo continues this after his uncle's death in order to keep from being taken to an orphanage.

Hugo's main obsession in life is to finish fixing an automaton that his father had discovered in the attic of a museum.  He is convinced that his father has left him a message in the automaton and the only way to discover it is to fix the machine.  His need for parts brings him into contact with Papa Georges, a grouchy old man who runs the station toy store, and his spunky goddaughter, Isabelle.  As the story progresses, Hugo and Isabelle discover that there are secrets that Papa Georges is keeping and that the automaton seems to be the key to both their past and their future.   

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I became aware of this book after seeing Martin Scorsese's Academy Award winning film Hugo.  I loved that film (more on it later) and was determined to read the original source.  It is such a unique book that I am sure I will have some difficulty in reviewing it, but here it goes anyway.

I was a little afraid when I saw that about half of the novel's pages were devoted to pictures.  I couldn't help but feel that this would in some way slow the story down.  But Selznick's masterful artwork actually did the opposite.  Each picture contained enough information that additional words were unnecessary and the pace remained quick and smooth.  They also added to the magical quality of the story, especially the stills from Georges Melies' films.  I also enjoyed each of the characters in the story.  Hugo is full of ambition and yet his loneliness and insecurities help you sympathize with him.  Isabelle is smart, compassionate, and brave...qualities that we all like to see in ourselves and our daughters.  And one can't help but love Papa Georges whose grumpiness is covering a large amount of pain and regret.

As an adult, what I enjoyed most were the real life historical aspects of the novel.  I had no previous knowledge of the works of Georges Melies and I found myself fascinated by his story.  He was a popular filmmaker at the turn of the 20th century, and he used his background in magic to create seemingly impossible special affects for his films.  Most of them have a fantastical, almost dreamlike quality to them and Selznick especially highlights his famous "A Trip to the Moon".  Anyone who has even a basic interest in the history of film will appreciate this part of the story.

Though this isn't a perfect novel (I did find the ending to be somewhat anticlimactic, and some children may find the plot dull), it is certainly a fascinating one.  It is so different from almost anything else you will read, and it has a beautiful and magical quality that will stay with you for a long time.  It is completely worth your family's time.   

The Movie:

As I said before, I was drawn to this book by the 2011 film adaptation.  It stars Asa Butterfield as Hugo, Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle, Ben Kingsley as Papa Georges, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Station Inspector.  In many ways, this film brings out the truly fantastical qualities of the story that the page just can't.  The special effects of the film really reflect the magic of Melies' films and you actually get to see clips from them as they were meant to be seen, not just as stills.  In many ways, I feel that a story centered on an early filmmaker is best told through that medium.  

Besides the effects and cinematography, the acting was also top notch.  I thought that Asa Butterfield especially did a wonderful job with the character of Hugo (you may remember him from his touching work in "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas").  He was able to portray an almost wise-beyond-his-years boy who still retained an air of innocence and vulnerability.

I really hate that this film did not perform as well at the box office as it should have.  It is a truly beautiful film that should be enjoyed along with the book.  I would definitely put it on the list for your next family movie night.                

Sunday, July 28, 2013

And That's the Way It Is...

I hope all of you are enjoying your summer (or winter if you happen to live in the southern hemisphere)!  There are lots of cool things that have been happening in the literary world over the past few weeks.  Here are some of the things that have grabbed my attention:

  • The longlist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize is out, and it is being hailed as one for the ages.  Robert Macfarlane, this year's chair of judges, said: "This is surely the most diverse longlist in Man Booker history: wonderfully various in terms of geography, form, length and subject. These 13 outstanding novels range from the traditional to the experimental, from the first century AD to the present day, from 100 pages to 1,000, and from Shanghai to Hendon."  Head over to Guardian UK to read more about this impressive list!
  • July is National Ice Cream Month here in America (yes...we'll celebrate anything) and Quirk Books is celebrating by coming up with some literary themed flavors.  Want to try some "War and Peach"?  How about "Clockwork Orange Creamsicle"?  Here's hoping Ben & Jerry's takes the hint and gives us the chance to eat our favorite books.
  • Publishers Penguin Books and Random House have completed a merger that will give them a huge share of the global book publishing market.  The combined companies will control more than 25 percent of the book business, with more than 10,000 employees, 250 independent publishing imprints and about $3.9 billion in annual revenues.  Read the full report on the pros and cons from the NY Times
  • The Bank of England is going to be putting a woman on one of their bank notes for only the third time in history (excluding Queen Elizabeth II).  Plans have been announced to put Jane Austen on the 10 Pound bank note.  But while most are praising the choice of person, some are not so happy with the quote to be placed on it alongside her.   The words “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” Mr. Mullen pointed out, were actually spoken by Caroline Bingley, a minxy conniver who sidles up to Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice” and merely pretends to read a book to impress him.  What do you think?  Is this a decent choice, or should they look for a more fitting quote from one of English lit's leading ladies?
What literary news have you found interesting over the summer?  Please feel free to share!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Too Busy for Books

It is no secret that modern life is moving faster than it ever has before.  We are a world that is plugged in and on the go 24/7.  While it has created innovations that make our lives more efficient, it has also robbed us and our children of some values and pastimes.  A report entitled Is Children's Reading a Casualty of Modern Life? for the Children's Media Conference in the UK suggests that today's children are missing out on the pleasure of reading.  Some of it blames strict educational standards for not allowing teachers to really encourage reading:

"...82% of teachers blame the government's 'target-driven' education policies for the fact that fewer children are reading for pleasure.  They believe that a 'straitjacket' of regimented schooling is squeezing young people's ability to read more widely. Two-thirds of teachers polled said they lacked time in the school day to introduce a variety of books and that this was a 'major barrier to being able to develop a level of reading'".

Other reports also suggest that technology is changing the way children interact with the world around them and that they are becoming more likely to spend time in front of a screen than with a book: 

"Touch-screen phones and tablets are intuitive to children," it said, and predicted a period of "awkwardness" as everyone else adapts. By 2018, children's television will have adopted the presence of this second screen, and it "will be odd not to have children at home drawing along on tablets and then having these appearing live in the show".

While I don't think that all technology is is inherently bad for children, I do think that parents are going to have to take more responsibility for their child's reading habits.  As our lives become busier, it is often easier to let the digital nannies keep the kids amused while we catch up on chores, work, sleep, or our own pleasures.  Bedtime stories have given way to bedtime movies and games.  But while this makes our lives seem less stressful, I don't think that it is ultimately the best thing for children.  I know that some of my best childhood memories have less to do with watching television and more to do with the great books my mom (and dad) would read to us before bed.

What do you think about this trend?  Is there a way to change it?  How do you balance modern conveniences with traditional pastimes?  Share your thoughts here.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Snow Child

“In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.” 

One of the beautiful things about fairy tales is their continued relevance in our modern world.  Though we may cast it in a new shape to suit our present times, the essence and beauty of the story remains and connects us to generations past.  In her debut novel, journalist and bookseller Eowyn Ivey takes an obscure Russian fairy tale and sets it in the harsh and beautiful landscape of her native Alaska.  The Snow Child would go on to garner much praise and was even a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize.

The Plot:

Set in the Alaskan wilderness of 1920, The Snow Child tells the story of Jack and Mable who have newly arrived from the milder climate of Pennsylvania to homesteadThe backbreaking work of the farm, the depression and loneliness of the long winter nights, and the memory of a lost child all combine to push their relationship to the breaking point.  In a brief moment of levity, Jack and Mable play in the first snowfall and build a snow child.  The next morning, the snow child is gone, and a little blond haired girl appears on the edge of the forest.

The girl (named Faina) soon becomes a regular visitor, and Jack and Mable begin to have differing views of her origins.  Mable has an unshakable belief that Faina is the embodiment of a fairy tale her father read to her long ago.  Jack discovers information that convinces him that her tragic past is all too real.  As time passes and Faina appears and disappears with the snow, Jack and Mable come to love her as their own.  But life in Alaska is harsh, and not even the snow maiden is immune to the change of the seasons.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I'm not entirely sure how this book showed up on my radar, but there was something about it that made me want to read it.  Maybe it was the fact that the author's name was Eowyn (you know her parents had to be pretty awesome people).  Maybe it was the idea of a story set against the harsh Alaskan wilderness that is a complete mystery to this Southern girl.  Maybe it was the magical realism that the plot promised.  Whatever the reason, I soon found myself curling up and losing myself within the pages of this delightful little book.

There is a lot that Ivey gets right in this book.  Her portrayal of sadness, loneliness, and disconnect are beautifully portrayed through Jack and Mable.  Throughout the entire novel there is a sad and forlorn tone that somehow makes it easier to connect to the couple.  Their pain is stark and real, and their inability to talk about it with each other leads their marriage onto thin ice (literally in Mable's case).  It is only when they allow themselves to open up to the people and beauty around them that they can begin to reconnect to one another.  The character of Faina serves as a tool to draw out the characters of Jack and Mable.  We are never really allowed to connect with her and she remains this mysterious being on the edge (and yet at the center) of the story.  We are never really sure if she is the real child that Jack believes her to be, or the fairy child the Mable knows her to be.

The other thing that Ivey does really well throughout this novel is painting the picture of her home.  She is able to bring Alaska to life in all of its raw, powerful glory. “She looked directly up into the northern lights and she wondered if those cold-burning specters might not draw her breath, her very soul, out of her chest and into the stars.”  Whether it is the gentle spring evening or the harsh winter night, we are left in no doubt that nature is the true master here.  It is only when Mable and Jack learn to work together that they can truly create a home out of the wilderness.

Having said all of this, The Snow Child is not a perfect book.  I think my biggest disappointment was in the ending.  After the build up of Faina's mysterious existence, her demise was a bit of a let down.  I was left somewhat confused by the end and wondered why she melted away outside in the snow rather than in the height of summer.  Also, some of the praise for the book compares her writing to that of Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and while it is not bad, it isn't THAT good.

While this isn't a literary masterpiece, it is still a wonderful read.  It is magical and brutal at the same time, and though I found the ending disappointing, I still enjoyed it overall.  The tragic, unspoken pain of Jack and Mable's relationship and the wonderful description's of Alaska's stark beauty bring a lot to this story.  A nice debut for Eowyn Ivey.

Note: If you like re-tellings of classic fairy tales or myths, I highly recommend C. S. Lewis' "Till We Have Faces".  It is an incredible recreation of the Cupid/Psyche myth that is at once powerful and convicting.  You will get the most out of it if you read his nonfiction book "The Four Loves" first.               

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!

Today is Bastille Day, the day that the people of France celebrate the moment they overthrew a tyrannical king and created a democratic society (for a while, anyway).  The French Revolution is perhaps one of history's most confusing, dichotomous, and riveting moments.  And it makes for some great literature.  Jonathan Grimwood over at The Guardian has created a list of his choices for the top 10 novels about this epic moment in western civilization.  They are:

#1: Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
#2: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
#3: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
#4: The Duel by Joseph Conrad
#5: Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
#6: The Glassblowers by Daphne du Maurier
#7: Napoleon Sympathy by Anthony Burgess
#8: A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
#9: Our Lady of the Potatoes by Duncan Sprott
#10: Pure by Andrew Miller

Are any of your favorites on this list?  Do you have another favorite novel set during this period?  Let us know, and take a moment to celebrate the good things the French have given us.  Vive la France!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past

If the only book that F. Scott Fitzgerald had ever written was The Great Gatsby, he would still be one of America's most famous novelist.  It is undoubtedly his magnum opus and is consistently ranked among the greatest works of American literature.  In many ways it captures a moment in time, and in others it is a mirror reflecting not only its own generation, but that of every generation before and since.

The Plot:

It is the summer of 1922 and our narrator, Nick Carraway, has left his Midwestern hometown for a job in New York City.  He rents a house on Long Island, across the bay from his cousin Daisy Buchanan and her husband, Tom.  It isn't long before he his pulled into their glittering world.  Tom even introduces him to his mistress, Myrtle, and he is at once shocked and intrigued by their lifestyle.  But even more intriguing is his mysterious neighbor, Jay Gatsby.  Gatsby's name is on everyone's lips, and his mansion is the home of some large and boisterous partiesNo one really knows anything about Gatsby himself, but his parties are the place to be for New York society.

One day, Nick is informed that Gatsby and Daisy had a past romantic encounter, but she married Tom while Gatsby was off to war.  Gatsby asks Nick to orchestrate a meeting between himself and Daisy.  Nick agrees, and this meeting would begin a course of events that would ultimately shatter the worlds of each of the characters.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I am probably one of the few people who did not read this book in high school.  Though I was, of course, familiar with the title and it's place in American literature, I knew very little about the plot and point of the book.  But with the recent release of Baz Luhrman's new film adaptation, I figured it was a good time to become fully acquainted with this classic.

While I'm not prepared to call this the greatest work of American literature (it didn't really beat To Kill a Mockingbird in my mind), it certainly deserves it's ranking near the top.  Fitzgerald's writing is simply incredible.  There are so many quotes that jump out and grab you; moments and thoughts that are beautifully captured in words.  Phrases like "Her voice is full of money..." and "So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight." just make you stop in your tracks.  His words can't just be breezed through.  They have to be savored and mulled over.  Half the beauty of this book is found in the sentences that Fitzgerald created.

The other half is found in the intense symbolism found here.  There is lots of it and no way I can talk about all of it in this one review.  While much of the symbolism continues to speak to our modern world (like the elusiveness of the American Dream), ultimately this story encapsulates the world of the Roaring 20s.  Like Gatsby, much of the world had an almost innocent quality until the early part of 20th century.  After spending the years of World War I fighting, serving, and dying, we wanted to re-claim that innocence.  We partied, drank, and spent money lavishly in order to recapture that carefree and happy lifestyle of years gone by.  But the death and destruction had changed us forever.  No matter how much we loved, drank, or spent there was just no going back.

Ultimately, there is nothing that I can say in this review that hasn't been said before.  If you'd like to see an insightful (and funny) review, check out John Green's.  Though it isn't necessarily a book that you will "connect with" or love, it is a book that must be read.  It certainly deserves it's place among the great works of American literature.

The Movie:

There are two main film versions of this film.  The first is the 1974 adaptation starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.  I have not seen this version, but I know many people who really like it.  Many also consider it to be the definitive version.

The other is this year's adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire.  This film got a lot of mixed reviews, but I actually liked it.  Was it flashy and over the top?  Sure, but isn't that exactly the kind of world Fitzgerald is describing?  I thought that DiCaprio's portrayal of the beautiful, hopeful Gatsby was wonderful and (like the story) achingly beautiful.  Mulligan also turned in a fantastic performance as the spoiled yet emotionally damaged Daisy.  As far as the modern soundtrack, I though that was a bold decision that helped connect the story with our own time.  If you are a diehard fan of the book, I'm sure you can find all kinds of little things that didn't seem to fit.  But to this first time reader, it brought all of the color, drama, and heartache of the book to life in a very vivid way.  Halfway through I was already dreading the end that I knew was coming.  I think it is definitely worth seeing.