Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Aristotle and Dante and The Bear

  1. The Bear Who Wasn't There: And the Fabulous Forest by Oren Lavie illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch
    • I knew I loved his music, but ohmygoodness this picture book is PURE JOY. A bear materializes out of just about nowhere (well, an itch, but that itch is nowhere really before it encounters a tree against which it scratches itself, producing the bear!), WITH A POCKET, and proceeds to try to find - what turns out to be - himself. Along the way, he bumps into the Convenient Cow, conveniently the shape of a sofa, upon which is lounged the Lazy Lizard, too lazy to move himself, too lazy to fall, even, except for the rare occasion. Apparently they're all friends. The Bear skips along to find the Penultimate Penguin, who haughtily informs the Bear that there is nothing that the Penguin is not already thinking of, and so the Bear is not allowed to infringe upon what thinking matter has been already claimed by said Penguin: not even nothing. The Turtle Taxi is probably my personal fave, transporting the kind Bear, who calls for a taxi to humour the Turtle, Forward. Are they lost? Yes, but it seems like being lost is a transitory step to arriving at Forward, so all is well. Until finally, after bidding adieu to the Turtle, the Bear traipses along in the forest to find a house! And of course, whose house can it be but his own?
    • Delightful for both a younger reader as well as adults alike! Lavie plays with words and semantics like a child with building blocks, and it's incredibly charming to see. The illustrations also go perfectly with the story, what with the somewhat clumsy-looking bear and the outline of a bird that is never addressed - is it even there? is it less There than the Bear who wasn't? - to the portrayal of an itch, it's all just a complete joy to meander into this forest (which grows even when it's not being observed) with the Bear!
  2. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
    • This is such a beautiful novel, capturing very well the uncertainties and frustrations associated with growing up while at the same time negotiating each of the characters' identities. Sáenz's writing does not immediately register this novel as being for teens, in that the writing itself is not reminiscent of the self-consciousness I associate with YA novels - the teenage characters themselves do exhibit these doubts, and there is a self-awareness of their being not quite an adult, yet no longer a child, and the subsequent frustration this results in. The fact that these characters are teenagers and at the cusp of change is highlighted not in the style of writing, so much as what is being written, and how they are portrayed, which makes this such a triumph, for me personally - I mean, alongside the plot, and the character developments, the self-revelations, the relationships these characters have with one another. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a beautiful novel touching upon friendship, love, sexuality and the discrimination that is targeted at homosexuality, growing up, family: the secrets of the universe.
    • None of the characters are perfect, but they're very human, and Sáenz has done a wonderful job portraying them as flawed human beings trying to figure out their place in the world and attempting to navigate human relationships.
  3. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
    • This was another book recommended to me by a coworker, and there's going to be a musical playing in Toronto, for anyone interested. The parallels that Bechdel draws between herself and her father, coupled with the title "Fun Home" (in reference to the Funeral Home in which Alison and her brothers grew up), makes for the feeling that the story told is sad, but not all sad, in the same sort of ambivalence one might get from a funhouse at the fair: it's amusing, but in a somewhat disquieting sort of way. (Not that I've been to a funhouse, mind you, but the idea itself strikes me as such.)
    • There is also an irony in Bechdel analyzing her parents' lives in a manner similar to the literary analysis she views with such skepticism. Bechdel's residual confusion is palpable, because she can no longer confer with her father (with whom she was, according to a family friend, towards the end of the book "unnaturally close", a description that didn't seem to come through in her own retelling of their relationship, where she appeared to always be craving more attention from her father, more understanding, more openness) about his sexuality, his decisions.
  4. The ACB with Honora Lee by Kate De Goldi
    • We were off to a bad start, this book and I: there was a run-on sentence not long into the first pages of it. A semicolon would have sufficed - not even a full stop! - where a comma instead sat. I forged ahead.
    • As the story progressed, I came to expect more and more that it would deal even more strongly with death as it visited Honora Lee, but I think De Goldi has done a marvelous job here depicting Perry's understanding and acceptance of death, her sensitivity to the fact of death and her celebration of the lives of the deceased in her ACB book. I loved the connection made between the nonsensical tangents of conversations at Santa Lucia and those at home between her parents: her Gran might have said of another resident that they're bonkers (for B!), but the same could apply to her parents, of their comments about Gran.
    • The illustrations throughout were a treat, especially the bumblebees that have collapsed throughout the book, more frequently found in the beginning when Perry and Claude collect most of their bees, their numbers diminishing over time.
  5. Blood Brotherhoods by John Dickie
    • I sped through this because someone else had requested the book out of my hands, so I probably didn't absorb the information quite as deeply as I would've liked. It strikes me as incredible, though, that it took so long for the Sicilian Mafia to be recognized as a criminal organization rather than scattered gangs or even just a mindset, and even more that the 'ndrangheta has yet to be recognized as such. Of course, if the decisive evidence isn't there, it makes perfect sense that it should not be legally recognized as a criminal organization, and going by Dickie's description of the way Italy's legal system works (or doesn't), perhaps it shouldn't come as that much of a surprise.
    • Not so much an update on Cosa Nostra so much as a separate volume altogether, comparing the histories and structures of the three main crime organizations hailing from Italy: the camorra, the Mafia, and the 'ndrangheta. One of the things that stood out to me the most is probably that it's the constant switching of sides on the part of the government, over such a long period of time, that contributed so much to the issue of organized crime in the form of the Sicilian Mafia, the 'ndrangheta, and the camorra, not to mention the various other unspecified gangs or collectives. I found that this volume was great at putting things into context, in terms of how powerful the Sicilian Mafia is/was and where it stands (and stood) with the 'ndrangheta (less so the camorra).
    • Someone please write this volume encompassing also criminal organizations around the world and the ways in which they interact with one another and in their respective societies! Even just the three main mafias in Italy took up these 660 pages (or thereabouts), so I'm assuming it would be a rather monstrous undertaking requiring probably multiple lifetimes (preferably with access to different languages per lifetime) to put together a worldwide edition of organized crime. That's the question that got me into reading about the Mafia, though, so I'd really appreciate it if someone could just get started on that tome right now.
  6. The Bird King by Shaun Tan
    • Delightful sketches that are getting me pretty excited to read Tan's books! I really enjoyed the typewriter on tea-stained paper aesthetic, as well as the way the sketches were split up into different categories.
  7. The Jumblies by Edward Lear illustrated by Edward Gorey
    • Who are the Jumblies? What are the Jumblies? It says they got taller, but THEY CLEARLY DIDN'T. Is one of the sections missing a line (with the Jumblies carrying stuff in their arms)?
  8. The Shrinking of Treehorn by Florence Perry Heide illustrated by Edward Gorey
    • Whoa. So it's a trilogy? It stands perfectly well alone, too.
    • "Maybe it's better if I don't say anything - that way they won't notice." It's less trouble, after all, when the adults simply ignore you anyway. Amusing depiction of the way in which ingrained beliefs, such as "there's no such thing as people shrinking", affect the way people choose to interpret events ("it's alright if you're shrinking; just don't do it at the table, dear"). It's also a nod to how adults underestimate the importance of the problems children face, leaving them to deal with it themselves, with the possibility hanging over the reader the entire time that although you're pretty sure Treehorn will figure it out, perhaps he'll simply disappear (this is Gorey after all...) and that'll be that! It's not even necessarily adults ignoring children when they speak: adults do it to other adults, too.
  9. The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey
    • Are you seeing a pattern here? I actually read this on Brain Pickings after a coworker asked if I had heard of this abecedarium, and was thoroughly delighted. It rhymes! It uses odd names (I've never heard of a Prue)! The illustrations hint at what's outlined, and the tinies die of ridiculous causes (such as Neville, who dies of ennui), some of which quite befit the name: Yorick's head gets knocked in. This is PURE GOLD.
  10. Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch
    • I recommended this to two people shortly after reading it and both said it gave them goosebumps - THAT GOOD. And I agree wholeheartedly! Duck and Death strike up an uneasy but heartwarming friendship, with Duck offering to warm Death when he gets cold after dipping into the pond; the reciprocated action by Death parallels the warmth of the gesture, except it's the hug of Death: Duck's time has come. The raven/crow introduced the page before that also foreshadows the inevitable (what would be the point of personifying Death if death never comes to Duck?) as the only other character apart from the titular three, with the Tulip appearing as a reminder of Death's role. I also really enjoyed Duck getting goosebumps, along with the dynamic shown between Duck and Death. And those illustrations! If I could give more than 5/5, I would.
  11. The Memory Tree by Britta Teckentrup
    • This was a sweet story that starts off with the death of Fox, but is really about the celebration of Fox's life by his forest friends, and how that celebration helps them move on (in the shape of the orange tree that grows as they recount their stories, and continues to grow as the seasons go by). The story the rabbit told about the fox playing tag with her in the grass did make me chuckle a bit.
  12. Shine: A Story About Saying Goodbye by Trace Balla
    • I didn't enjoy this one much at all - the horse constellations traverse space in mind-boggling ways, shifting between the stars in space and a mountainous terrain, and it seems like the story tried to tackle way more than it needed to in going through the whole cycle of life. It takes the focus away from the death and grief aspect of the book, which I believe was supposed to be the main theme, and instead tells a really abbreviated version of the life of Shine, a constellation horse. It also reinforces stereotypes of what a family is supposed to look like, as well as falling completely in line with heternormativity, so I can't help but feel like there are already more than enough books that help children understand death and grief without needing another one that doesn't really target the concept that well.
  13. The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life by Alex Bellos
    • Easy to understand and read, with appendices that detail specific explanations if you're so inclined to read them, or for you to skip over if you aren't. What really interested me was the Game of Life at the end, and how really simple rules using a grid and either alive or dead (1 or 0) could result in such complex actions. It's of particular interest of me because I'm taking a workshop on how to host a coding workshop at the library right now, and it feels as though using the creation of a game (make up rules, run the game, see what kind of real-life applications this game might have, or what can be learned from the game) could be a pretty good prompt. It would incorporate math into the coding, in addition to game theory, with prizes for the hackathon!
    • I feel as though some things could be expanded upon, but I also realize that expanding on them would be outside of the scope of this book, so I'm perfectly alright with that.
  14. Pinocchio Ballet
    • I wasn't expecting the use of the screens as overlay - they worked marvelously, especially for the ocean swimming scenes, but most of all for the dark ocean scene when Geppetto and Pinocchio couldn't reach each other! That being said, there were a couple of things about the projections I would have liked to see changed:
      • That monster was not a whale. Sharp teeth and eyes on either side of the screen? Not a whale. Not even close!
      • The Pac Man-esque silhouette of the whale coming to swallow Pinocchio was also kind of juvenile. I feel as though there was a huge jump from the really well-done graphics to the other, really half-assed seeming ones.
    • Now I'd really like to read the original Pinocchio, to see what had changed, because I couldn't really get a straight moral tale out of the ballet at all. Even the Blue Fairy's birds tell Pinocchio curious things (e.g. "What make a real boy, is dough (i.e. money)"), and Pinocchio doesn't repent for long - in any of his lapses - so I can't see why the Blue Fairy decided to reward him by turning him into a real boy, even though he saved everyone from the whale's stomach. I mean, I do understand, but at the same time I get the feeling that because Pinocchio has demonstrated a track record of not really feeling guilty over doing "the wrong thing" over and over again, he's going to relapse into it as a real boy.
  15. Poison: Sinister Species with Deadly Consequences by Mark Siddall
    • I was so excited about this when I saw it on the shelves! That cover! The illustrations! In retrospect, given the size of the volume and the sort of book it appears to be, I probably shouldn't have raised the bar so high in terms of expectations as to how deep the coverage would be for each creature/category. It's still relatively well put together, although I find that the critters in each chapter are a bit too separate from each other, as though it were more just a collection rather than a cohesive volume. Even as an introduction to poisonous and venomous animals, insects, and arachnids, I don't feel that Siddall covers quite enough ground: neurotoxins are mentioned and described, and I have the advantage of having read Venomous before (in addition to having taken psychology), but it's only at the end where there's a glossary (which, I might like to point out, is not mentioned at all in the text) that tells you what each of the molecules referred to (e.g. dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, etc.) actually do. It's kind of clear in the text - you can infer what each of them might mean - but it would have been great to see better explanations in the introduction. Likewise, I'm still not 100% clear what the difference is between Müllerian and Batesian mimics. I think I've got the gist, but it was never truly defined; I suspect straight up definitions were given up in favour of the cheeky tone that dominates the entire book.
    • I did enjoy the tone of writing and the writing itself, but it feels more like an unofficial guidebook (the sort that doesn't give you quite enough info, mind you) you might get at an exhibition - perhaps an art exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. Who knows? Even as far as the anecdotes go, Siddall doesn't always tell the full story: he gives you the names, he gives you the creature they encountered, and then there are times he just sort of leaves you hanging. Case in point: did the taipan captured by Budden serve its cause? Did he sacrifice his life in vain, or was that the heroic deed that helped generate the antivenom for what killed him?
  16. Wooden Bones by Scott William Carter
    • So I immediately put a bunch of versions of Pinocchio on hold at the library right after seeing the ballet, along with this riff off of Pinocchio, or rather a telling of the story of the boy who was once Pinocchio (he now goes by Pino - I have no clue where the stress goes). That cover's pretty gorgeous, and set the tone quite nicely for the story, which does get quite dark (Geppetto almost dies, there's a dark forest with dying trees all around, one of the characters does a 180 - maybe not, more like a 90? - and declares her one and only wish after being made a suit by Pino that allowed her to move, was for everyone who had taken care of her to die, etc.). Carter shoves a lot of stuff into this slim volume, which I kind of understand as a parallel to the original Pino, where Pino does goof up a number of times before finally becoming a real boy, but I kind of wish everything tied together more. As it is, once Pino & Geppetto are done ruining the lives of those left behind, they skedaddle and make for the next town or city, and the voice of the fairy in the cave never gets mentioned again. I do think Carter did a pretty good job in tying in the lesson to be true to yourself, because one of the things about the original story, from what I know of it (because I have yet to read the translation), is that there is a very real pressure to become a real boy: that's the crux of the entire story, and Pinocchio never really questions whether he wants to become a real boy or not, or whether it's better to be a puppet or to be a real boy. In Wooden Bones, while Pino does still want to remain a real boy, trying his best to fit in to the "real boy" role, he addresses the issue of identity beyond the dichotomy of wooden puppet v.s. flesh and bone.
    • As a children's novel, I think it's pretty great. As a novel in general, reading it as an adult, I think it's missing something that encompasses the entire plot, making everything cohere. However, that could also have been a conscious decision by Carter, in order to better follow the style of the a fairy tale proper while still transforming it into a novel, by keeping the characters (apart from Geppetto and Pino) and overall plot facile - each encounter is simply a challenge to be overcome rather than an event that directly changes the main characters, and it is only in the amalgamation of the encounters that Pino reaches his decision.
  17. Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan
    • The same artist who created the beautifully enigmatic and haunting (haunted, perhaps, by the souls of the characters trapped within the fairytales?) sculptures for The Singing Bones, as well as the collection of sketches and drawings The Bird King (above), is the author of this compendium of fantastical short stories. My personal favourites are No Other Country, Alert but not Alarmed, and The Nameless Holiday. This collection is not just a collection of short stories with their accompanying illustrations: each of the stories is somehow fully integrated with the illustrations, even those where the drawings are separate from the words - for those where the written story is encompassed by the collage-style image, this cohesiveness and unity is emphasized even more.
    • I've also borrowed The Arrival and Lost and Found, and am very eager to start on both!
  18. Ida, Always by Caron Levis
    • I read this on recommendation after recommending Duck, Death and the Tulip (above) to my coworker, and I'm so glad I followed up on it! The two polar bears have such a great friendship and are clearly the centre of each others' lives (whether that's out of choice or not is another story altogether, their lives being confined to the zoo), and it's wonderful that Levis chooses to have the two go through Ida's slow-coming death together, with full understanding of what is going to happen in the future. They make the most of their remaining time together, and when Ida has gone, Gus remembers all that they have done together and knows that Ida is with him, always, in everything that is around them.
  19. Life and I: A Story About Death by Elisabeth Helland Larsen
    • Those illustrations! The plants and the creatures and the people and Death personified into this rather odd creature reminiscent of a person, yet different, without whom Life cannot be Life - Life and I is a beautiful and sensitive take on life and death and the interplay between the two, that discusses how one cannot exist without the other, and offers Love as the solution to the sadness arising as a consequence of Death's visit.
  20. The Flat Rabbit by  Oskarsson
    • Honestly this one was a bit of a let-down. The dog and mouse's ignorance regarding the true state of the rabbit is a big part of the plot, yet the thing is, they understand the concept of death, because they want to move the flat rabbit off the road in case another animal comes around and eats it up. Flying the rabbit up in a kite was a novel idea, but also returns back to the refrain told to children about their pet dog or cat or rabbit going up to pet heaven.
  21. The Arrival by Shaun Tan
    • No words are used in this story; no words are needed. The progression of what is happening is clear, and the experiences relatable to anyone who has ever traveled someplace where they were not familiar with the language or the customs, as well as (obviously) to those who have immigrated, especially later on in life. The kindness of all the strangers he comes across, and the pet that he finds in the jar in his room, is repayed in kind when the man's daughter helps someone else out - it all comes full circle. There is also an ambiguity to the nationality of these characters, though not all of them, which I appreciate, because they remain familiar and relatable to what I would believe is a wide audience. In addition to this, the choice of a made-up country with customs the reader is unaware of as well - along with odd food items and fantastical critters that abound wherever you go - played out very successfully.
  22. Lost & Found by Shaun Tan
    • I found these incredibly dark and evocative, exploring such concerns and issues as depression, losing your attention to details and ability to empathize as you grow older and fit yourself into the dullness of society, and colonialism. And they could be read as very depressing and pessimistic if you interpret it one way, or the exact opposite, adding layers of depth to the stories and leaving it open to interpretation.
    • I am fast becoming a big fan of Shaun Tan!
And as always, a couple of things I'm either working on or have waiting in the ever-growing wings:
  1. Spirals in Time by Helen Scales
    • Shells and the creatures that live inside of them. SO COOL. Also I love that I just finished reading Grapes of Wrath, which talked about the Sierpinski Sieve and how it very closely approximated existing patterns on a specific shell-bearing species, and then it gets a mention in Spirals in Time and in Spineless! The different theories about how shells are made are pretty interesting, and even more interesting is that the patterns on the shells might have something to do with memory. And if it deals with memory as we experience it, despite these animals not having any brain (as opposed to simply reacting to particular chemicals linked to the pattern that triggers a specific set of shell-building action), then we might need to revise our thoughts about intelligence.
  2. Spineless by Susan Middleton
    • Everything is so beautifully captured! There's one invertebrate, I think it's a nudibranch, though I don't have the book in front of me, but it looks like it's really casually flipping the bird and I love it.
    • The essays are interspersed throughout the book, which was unexpected, but effective at holding your interest and helping to gently guide the viewer in how to see the creatures portrayed in the photographs. One of the things about some art books is that they contain all the information at the front before moving on to all of the plates (the images), which for myself personally serves only to sever the connection between the image I'm seeing and the information I just read, or if not sever it then at the very least place the image and the essay at a further remove from each other. Sometimes I'll have to flip back and forth, and I still do have to do a bit of that in Spineless, but it's more because some of the captions refer to an overleaf spread rather than because the essays refer to specific plates that don't immediately follow. The content of the essays themselves from where I am in the book right now generally inform the reader as to how few phylum of the natural world humans (and all other vertebrates) make up - chordata only occupy one of 34 phyla, and even still there are invertebrates in the chordata phylum - and how we should make a greater effort to learn more about and to help protect all the life in the oceans, because they in turn help us to survive. This reminds me of Phytoplankton by Elizabeth Mitchell.
    • Something I find interesting is the thought that most likely all of the creatures photographed in this book have never been seen in such a way before, and probably were never meant to be viewed as such (in nature, I suppose, is how I mean that, in that its fellow inhabitants of the seas, wherever they live, most likely do not see them as they have been photographed, even if we take into account that they've been taken out of all context).

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