P is for Pterodactyl by Raj Haldar and Chris Carpenter

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Repeat after me: W is for wren. M is for mnemonic. D is for Djibouti. This book is the worst alphabet book EVER…and it’s proud of it!

Haldar, Raj and Chris Carpenter. P is for Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever. Illus. Maria Tina Beddia. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2018. Print.

Genre: picture book (ABC)

P-for-PterodactylSummary: Like any alphabet book for young readers, this text runs through all 26 letters providing a key word starting with each letter, a funny sentence incorporating that word, plus a memorable illustration to depict the action described and the letter featured. Unlike any other alphabet book, the letters here misbehave. Either they go entirely silent or they take on the sound of another letter.

Critique: When I sat on my front steps to read this book, I had no idea what an uproar it would cause. My neighbors and random strangers out walking their dogs all paused to inquire if I was okay.

I was doubled-over, face-palming, snorting, snrking, and straight up laughing out loud. Every page of this text delighted me. I adored its original concept: using silent letters to teach the alphabet and help early readers grasp the many weird and irregular spelling combinations inherent in English. So subversive!

Subversive books — those that buck or invert genre and audience expectations — are among my all-time favorites. P is for Pterodactyl soars to the top of my favorites list not only because of its irreverent play on sounds (k is for knight and h is for heir), but also because of its engaging and comprehensive glossary and for the way it fearlessly embraces and showcases big and bizarre words like eulogy, psoriasis, or bdellium, aeon, quays, and czar.

Children’s authors are trained to avoid big words because young readers won’t grasp them, which is a practice I find about as useful as blindfolding a track and field athlete every time a hurdle appears. Heaven forbid they should glimpse a challenge…

Without guidance from a skilled adult reader, this book is likely to frustrate new readers who don’t fully grasp basic spelling rules. With thoughtful conversation, however, this text can spark a rewarding dialogue about the miracle that is written and spoken communication.

 

 

Feeld by Jos Charles

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charles-jos-feeldLanguage. It’s as slippery and fluid as gender. And some of us need poetry to grasp that.

Charles, Jos. feeld. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2018. Print.

Genre: poetry

Summary: Jos Charles, trans editor and poet, recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s 2016 Ruth Lily & Dorothy Sargent Rosenburg Fellowship, crafts poetry in Chaucer’s English to simulate and capture a transgender existence.

Critique: About the time I found feeld at my public library, I had just listened to a series of mind-blowing podcasts on gender; how it’s determined genetically, why it’s never fixed or chemically constant, and how modern society is coming to terms with new definitions and expectations for “female,” “male,” and everything we now realize is possible in between.

(Curious? Check out RadioLab’s “Gonads” series.)

These episodes broadened my scientific understanding of the gender spectrum; however, Jos Charles’ poetry irrevocably enlightened my internal, heartfelt sense of that spectrum.

At first, reading a contemporary text in Middle English (the version of medieval English best preserved in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) was jarring. Middle English arose after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The cultural, social, political upheavals waylaid what had been a relatively standardized language. In other words, grammar rules, punctuation patterns, and spelling conventions all went out the window. Consequently, when I read Middle English, I am reminded of my earliest attempts to spell without adult/academic supervision. Acting with only the slimmest understanding of phonetics, I (and many young children) kobbul letrs that mach the sownz uv the werds.

Under Charles’ precise, poetic influence, the Middle English spelling variations result in sparkling homonyms and heteronyms that spur new understandings, reinterpretations, and re-appropriations.

For instance, Charles’ writes:

1 drags so much alonge the bottom off the see

and..

i care so much abot the whord i cant reed/ it marks mye back wen i pass

and…

as mye hole extends it nevre entres conchesness as myne

See or sea. Whole or hole. Reed or read. Either way, these words resonate with so much fecund and versatile meaning that suddenly all the standardization rules built into modern English to produce precise, clear, unambiguous communication seem limiting and naive. To that same end, all the societal conventions we’ve built into gender definitions to prohibit the unambiguous also seem to hamper more than help.

See or sea? Hetero or homo? Male or Female? What’s the difference and who cares if I am not truly comprehending and appreciating the inherent and beautiful complexity that is humanity?

A Wilder Time by William Glassley

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When taught to love this Earth like a geologist, we appreciate and crave even the smell of rocks.

Glassley, William. A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2018. Print.

Genre: narrative nonfiction

Summary: Two geologist colleagues invite Glassley on a return visit to Greenland because a newly published research paper accuses them of misinterpreting data they published years ago. Their thesis: Greenland is but geologic scar tissue; the site of colossal tectonic subduction; a place where the earth slowly swallowed a mountain range that would have shadowed the Himalayas. Unless Glassley and the team go back to reassess their data, the scientific community may think them imbeciles.

Critique: As a writer dealing with a somewhat obscure topic, Glassley is a patient teacher. Readers steadily acquire complex geologic concepts and terminology as the book progresses.

My favorites: foehn (a strong warm wind forming on the downslope side of a geologic feature), palsa (a round mound of soil many feet across, rising out of a watery region), and pingo (a larger palsa, measuring hundreds of feet across).

As a writer brokering in passions on the page, Glassley is a master. He is to science prose what Byron is to poetry. Quite often, Glassley wallops readers with revelations like, “In Greenland, water and rock are consanguineous.” He is so deft at describing the grand, cyclical conversations between atoms, chemicals, gravity, and molecules which form not only continents, but also life.

Like the handsome Indiana Jones lecturing about archaeology, Glassley gets us swooning over a topic we didn’t know we could crush on so hard. He convinces us not just to study rocks, but to go so far as to smell them! Why? Because one day their atomic makeup will fold into our atomic makeup and feed our very thoughts, ideas, and dreams.

His superpower is to make the study of rocks something intimate, delicate; something blush-worthy to read about. Take, for example, Glassley’s nearly erotic description of the way foamy waves coax and massage all the pebbles on a beach to align. The bubbles charm the small stones to flatten together and form the kind of slope which water prefers to slide along. One pebble sits askew until the waves tickle it with foam. “One wave, one pebble, and the metronome of process registers one more click,” says Glassley.

This book, at its core, is a love poem to science. Glassley explains, “When Kai, John, and I return to our laboratories, we will describe much of what we have seen through equations that honor the observations and data we have collected.”

Wait–wait–wait! You mean equations aren’t just devious and maniacal forms of mathematical torture? They are devotional and even a tad spiritual?

Could somebody please get me a fresh college registration form? I think need another degree…in geology.

“Earth,” Glassley writes, “is the construct of wandering stardust, accreted from the atomic debris of supernovae and the elemental winds of unknown starts. The gentle fall of interstellar particles, the collisions of comets and meteors and frozen water, gave rise to our planet in a rush of cosmic artistry just over four-and-a-half billion years ago.”

In other words, our world derives from galactic erosion! Our home is but space tallus recombined!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to fill all my spiral notebooks with the equation: me+rocks=<3.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

A pervasive color, temporal slip n’ slides, hop-scotching graphics, one voice to rule them all—everything you’ve ever loved in a Samuel Beckett play now in a graphic novel memoir!

Bui, Thi. The Best We Could Do. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2017. Print.

Genre: graphic novel memoir

Summary: A graduate school assignment turns into a decades-long quest to collect one family’s immigrant history morphs into a graphic memoir. The author recounts her family’s escape war-torn Vietnam and their rough, raw transition to America.

Critique: Orange hues pervade, warm, and stain every page and panel. It’s an apt color because the memoir roots back to Vietnam’s most turbulent and violent years of occupation, liberation, and civil insurrection. However, the unrelenting “Agent Orange” on every page adds as much as it detracts. To be sure it contributes an entire whispered universe of historic weight and suffering and survival. At the same time, it muddies the narrative timeline which alternates between then and now. The orange past is often indistinguishable from the orange present.

Perhaps this temporal slipperiness is exactly how the author lives with her heritage. The graphic novel may well be her attempt to share that experience with readers. And isn’t that one of the primary and most fundamental objectives embodied within every literary work? Creating that magical, telepathic exchange between the writer and the reader (to poorly paraphrase Stephen King from his memoir, On Writing). I believe it is, but I’m not convinced the exchange here has been entirely successful.

And the omnipresent orange is not the only culprit.

The confusion between past and present may also be tied to how this novel uses its panels. Commonly, graphic novel panels contain moments arranged sequentially—like individual frames from a movie reel. One panel can show a man approaching a door. The next can show keys sliding into a doorknob. The reader connects these two otherwise disconnected ideas: ah, that man is unlocking that door.

As Scott McCloud puts it in Understanding Comics, “…panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments.” Our minds have the power to fill in the gaps based on experience and prior knowledge, thereby creating a continuous narrative.

In this graphic novel, the moments within the panels are not entirely sequential. For instance, in one panel, you might have two people huddled at a dining room table. In the next panel, farmers work rice fields. It takes a while to decode that those farmers exist in the past and are being remembered by the people at the dining room table set in the present.

Presumably, the dialogue in that first panel would have made it clear that the subsequent panel was going to represent the memory being discussed. That’s not the case and is almost never the case because this novel rarely employs dialogue. Instead, exposition pervades the panels. It’s a one-way dialogue—the author’s monologue. Imagine watching a movie with no sound other than a voiceover telling you about what you’re seeing. Characters come together, interact, discuss, argue, but you don’t get to hear any of that. You only get the voiceover…for 330 pages.

Pervasive orange…. Temporal slip n’ slides…. Hop-scotching graphics…. One voice to rule them all.…

I can’t help feeling as if all these oddly juxtaposed elements should have combined into a brilliant, unconventional narrative. I mean, really, aren’t these precisely the kinds of bizarre components we know and love in every Samuel Beckett play?

Sigh. If only Samuel Beckett had made graphic novels.

Inkling by Kenneth Oppel

Cheating thuds from this book’s heart. A father and son must confront the question: what exactly counts as cheating on work projects or school assignments? And, how much are they cheating themselves by not facing their fears, which are really their sorrows?

Oppel, Kenneth. Inkling. Illus. Sydney Smith. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. Print.

Genre: middle grade, graphic novel hybrid

Summary: One night, for reasons unknown and unclear, ink lines, scribbles, and splotches on a sketchbook page congeal into a sentient blot that jumps off the page. The little blot, Inkling, is on a quest to find something…something that summons and beckons with a steady pull. Amidst this quest, Inkling befriends Ethan Rylance, son of Peter Rylance, the famous comic book artist! Both father and son are struggling to produce the artwork required at school and work. Inkling lends his own tremendous talents to their projects, and in the process, discovers the grief holding them back and tearing apart their familial bond.

Critique: Inkling is one of those rarest of literary characters. That one-of-a-kind charmer which only comes along once in a generation, if we readers are lucky. He is earnest and noble. He is kind and generous. He is rambunctious, meddlesome, and curious. He is Mr. Toad and Winnie the Pooh and Stewart Little and Ramona Quimby and Calvin (plus Hobbs).

After a long day spent drawing for Ethan or Peter, Inkling needs to refuel by gobbling the ink off books or newspapers. Each meal imparts its unique voice to Inkling. For instance, after he devours Anne of Green Gables, he is a dreamy, wordy chatterbox who sees kindred spirits in everyone he meets. Or, when he eats an Earnest Hemingway novel, he communicates only in short phrases. And the short phrases were simple. The simple phrases were repetitive. And they were good.

Inkling also has a serious sweet tooth for colorful comics, but those send him literally bouncing off the walls, leaving BLAMMO CRASH BOOM murals everywhere.

No small wonder that Ethan and Peter have a hard time keeping Inkling a secret. Once word gets out, everyone wants to borrow or steal little Inkling.

All the while, the ink blot senses something summoning him, pulling him to a box hidden in the back of Peter Rylance’s closet. If he can only sneak past Richman the cat (and his painful claws), he can maybe see why the contents of that box have halted the Rylances’ creative powers along with their ability to laugh with and love each other.

The book’s ending is a heart-twisting tear-jerker, but you need not drain the entire Kleenx box just yet. Thanks to some unresolved subplots, I suspect a sequel or three in the works.