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.

Young Fredle by Cynthia Voigt

In this delightful, subversive novel, Voigt gives young readers everything they usually aren’t supposed to get: strangers, dangers, and unanswered questions.

Voigt, Cynthia. Young Fredle. Illus. Louise Yates. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

Genre: middle grade

Summary: Separated from his home and family in the walls of the house, Fredle the young mouse must make his own way in the outside world. Deadly barn cats, owls, scamming field mice, snakes, and raccoons are just some of the hazards he encounters. When Fredle finally does find the way back home, he is not sure he can give up stargazing, flowers, and all his new friends.

Critique: One night, while scouring the dark kitchen floors for food, Fredle finds an unknown object. Flat and round and with a ridged edge, the thing tasted of metal. It was not food, but he still wanted to know what it was. His family and all the other mice warn him not to wonder. Wondering is how good mice get “went.”

Readers remain actively engaged throughout this novel because Voigt is a master of crafting inference moments. Fredle may not know what a coin is, but we do and we can infer it from the description provided. Fredle also does not know about stars, flowers, rain, chickens, owls, raccoons, snakes, grass, dirt, and so many other things. For each encounter with a new thing or creature, Voigt takes her time relaying all the clues readers need to solve the riddle.

As a result, young readers accumulate a sense of mastery, feeling clever and knowledgeable. By providing these inference moments, the author cunningly mirrors and echoes Fredle’s feelings and experiences as he learns more and more about the world. He too feels increasingly knowledgeable, clever, and adroit.

Fredle also encounters strangers: Bardo and Neldo, the field mice; Angus and Sadie, the dogs; Tarnu, Ellnu, and all the cellar mice. He learns skepticism and trust. Not everyone is as altruistic as they seem, and not everyone is as dangerous as we might like to assume.

Like a good teacher, Voigt’s narration is very patient. When a trap snaps, all the mice flee. Readers wait a long time before discovering which mouse just got “went.” When a band of raccoons thieves from the trash the ice cream carton with young Fredle inside, readers again wait a good while before Fredle is discovered. Will they crunch him as a snack, will he escape, or will they induct him into their gang? The answer unfolds gradually.

Other times, answers do not unfold at all because Voigt is unafraid to ask potentially unanswerable questions. For instance, should we honor tradition and remain close with our family and community, or should we change and adapt with life’s waxing, waning rhythms even though those changes lead us far away from the home and family we love? What should we love more: family or self?

Failing to supply a ready answer is simultaneously a great taboo and mighty treasure. Too often, we adults rush in with answers for all the queries young people have. We tend to believe danger lurks in the dark, blank spaces. But a dark, blank space can also be home to trillions of stars. A gap can be gain, such as when space makes way for growth.

The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr

Did you say dragons? In turn-of-the-last-century Vienna?? Enchanted and entrapped as everyday working Joes??? What ought to be a most marvelous storytelling feat turns into a lengthy, dozy tellingstory book.

Weyr, Garret. The Language of Spells. Illus. Katie Harnett. Chronicle Books: San Francisco, 2018. Print.

Genre: middle grade fantasy

Summary: Grisha the dragon and his first best friend, Maggie — a young, human girl — set out to find and free the seventy or so dragons Sleeping-Beauty’ed and buried underground by a power-hungry sorcerer.

Critique: You know those old, possibly apocryphal, world maps which pointed to their own outer edges — those fringes marking the extent of human exploration — with dire Here Be Dragons! warnings? I feel obliged to put similar warnings around this book…

Here Be Exposition!

For anyone unfamiliar with the literary component called exposition, I shall unbriefly elaborate. Exposition explains. It’s the information sections included in a book to summarize past events, ongoing actions, or a character’s thoughts and feelings and motivations.

When you’re not reading exposition, you’re most likely reading scenes, which are the moments when characters interact, talk, conflict, pick locks, unload groceries, kiss, dig tunnels, spy, gossip, or eat turnips.

Imagine you’re reading about Tillie, a supermarket cashier who’s beeping items over the scanner while the shopper unloading the cart prattles on about pineapples and their secret homeopathic applications. The point at which the text begins to explain how back in 1992, Tillie developed an extreme aversion to pineapples in the midst of a disastrous, tropical honeymoon getaway is the point at which you are reading exposition.

One minute, you were observing an interaction, gathering clues about the characters, making judgments and assumptions, forming opinions, and anticipating what’s to come. The next minute, you pause your work so that the author can inform you. Fill you in. Get you up to speed. Tell you a thing or two, rather than show you.

In good writing, exposition and scene go hand-in-hand. One is not better than other. Each involves the reader in a different way. Scenes make you work and spark your curiosity while exposition affirms your budding theories. In the best writing (which is also the best kind of storytelling), you never notice the narrative switching between the two tactics.

But in this book, you cannot help but notice that you are perpetually in exposition. Chapter after chapter, the author tells you this and tells you that. You are told that the dragons with golden eyes are put to work as tour guides in old museums and castles around Vienna. But what you want is to see this dynamic play out. You want to witness some of those interactions. You want to experience this strange, unfamiliar world where these chosen dragons must work or be eliminated; where these fire-breathing work-a-day Joes gather once a week at 2 a.m. at a hotel bar to share old war stories.

Heck, you want to hear those war stories, but instead, you are told about young Maggie sleeping under the nearby bar table where her poet father and his eccentric artist friends gab until dawn (amongst themselves and not with the dragons, by the way). You are told her entire backstory, about her mother’s tragic and untimely death, about her troubled interactions with other children, about her homeschooling, and her wanderings through the city on its new cable cars.

And bear in mind, much of what I have described here doesn’t arrive until you’re halfway through the book. The preceding chapters have been telling you about Grisha’s time enchanted and entrapped as a teapot.

Yes, you heard me right. You’ll spend nearly half a book watching a dragon teapot watch the world the change.

And so, dear readers, believe me when I tell you: He Be Exposition! Here be a book that opts for tellingstory instead of storytelling.

The Push by Tommy Caldwell

In this memoir, doubt dances with glorious vistas where success, aspiration, and limits all fight for a grip on the same dime-thin ledge.

Caldwell, Tommy. The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits. New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2017. Print.

Genre: nonfiction, memoir

Summary: Caldwell’s memoir chaperones readers up treacherous escarpments and deep into the human psyche. Doubt dances with glorious vistas where success, aspiration, and limits all fight for a grip on the same dime-thin ledge.

Critique: As bullet points, Caldwell’s life story is remarkable and riveting. The young climbing phenomenon who is taken hostage by terrorists; who loses is confidence to searing self-doubt; who continues climbing and redefining the sport even after he loses an index finger in a freak DIY home carpentry project…

Expanded into entire paragraphs, the story is about as claggy as an under-whipped Genoise sponge. I suspect a faulty combination of ingredients may be the culprit. Each chapter either begins with or is punctuated with italicized vignettes. These short scenes combine succinct sentences and punchy verbs to land the reader smack-dab in the middle of a climb or dire situation. The memories encapsulated in these scenes are rich and poignant. The writing is gripping. All too soon, however, these vignettes break off and yield to “the text.”

The text comprises dense paragraphs flooded with long, wordy sentences. Perhaps not ironically, each paragraph resembles a sheer cliff…a Dawn Wall built not from granite, but instead, from daunting exposition.

Why grunt through the pages when you could just jaunt through those zesty, refreshing sloped, slanted sections? In other words, why eat the claggy cake when you could just lick off the fantastic frosting?

With a new movie featuring Caldwell’s amazing feats, perhaps now is a prime time to reassemble the ingredients and convert the mountainous memoir into a graphic novel.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

I need only one word whenever I am asked, “What’s your all-time favorite book?”

Eliot, George. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial life. 1872. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1994. Print.

Genre: fiction (19th century British)

Summary: An idealistic young woman and a noble-minded doctor enter disastrous marriages. The consequences of their choices ripple through the wider community. Both doctor and woman might find redemption and rediscover hope if they can find each other amidst rigid class structures and isolating social barriers.

Critique: True, all print editions of Middlemarch are roughly the size and weight of a brick.[1]

Doubly true, you are unlikely to heed even my most urgent pleas and gushing recommendations to read any brick-like book.[2]

I urge you nonetheless because Middlemarch is precisely the brick we all need to come crashing through our windows.

Writers can gawk at Eliot’s tenacity. To construct the masterwork, she wove together two going-nowhere projects that chewed up countless months of her writing time. At first, there was the tale of an ambitious doctor, Tertius Lydgate, foisting modern medical treatments on a backwards British village. When that rough draft petered out, Eliot switched to a new story about the ingenuous Dorothea Brook, whose marriage to a fusty scholar twice her age does not result in the spiritual and intellectual self-refinement she desires. Once again, the rough draft stymied. While most writers might have abandoned the second project and gone on to a third, Eliot saw a connection between the two protagonists. She identified parallels in the stories and combined them.

I suppose she hit two stones with the same bird.

All readers—whether they are writers or not—can marvel at how Eliot’s narrator[3] repeatedly expands the focus out from the two heroes to the supporting cast of characters as the repercussions resulting from the unfortunate marriages rumble across the community. The more we learn about other characters and how their lives are impacted by Dorothea and Lydgate, the more we discover our untold potential for compassion.

Of course I could readily empathize with Dorothea—the pitiable young dynamo who marries an abusive nerd-turd, Mr. Casaubon. I was that young dynamo at one point in my life. I was in that very relationship. But then, the narrative shifts and presents Casaubon’s inner working. Suddenly, I discover how, at other times in my life, I have also been a nerd-turd—jealous, suspicious, and trying to mask my paralyzing self-defeating fear with pedantry. The more I read, the more I realize how many “others” I am and have been. When I read Middlemarch—which happens annually at this point—I feel my fundamental connection to all beings.

When I read Middlemarch, I feel my own infinity.

This brick-like book smashes my perception of the world made of strangers. Through the eyes of the Middlemarch narrator, we are all familiars.

[1] I am borrowing, and promise to give back, the brick comparison from Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014), a memoir told through the guise of a literary examination of the novel plus a biography of George Eliot.

[2] Naxos AudioBooks produced an exceptional, unabridged recording of the novel. Juliet Stevenson’s reading is powerful. Her finesse with diverse character voices is also stunning!

[3] Jonathan D. Culler notes in his 2004 essay “Omniscience” that Eliot’s narrator is not actually omniscient, but heterodiagetic. That is to say, a person who is not directly involved in the plot or the world of the novel (AKA the diagesis), but who has elected to sift and present germane information for the reader’s consideration. Indeed, the Middlemarch narrator refers to itself as a historian making a case study of the town and its folk. (Culler’s larger point about the impossibility of god-like omniscience in any story is well worth reading.)

 

Note: As always, I do not earn commissions or other compensation for any of the books/audiobooks I recommend.