Book Review: Who Censored Roger Rabbit? By Gary Wolf

Rating: Recommended

Number of Pages: 226

Written by Gary Wolf back in 1981, Who Censored Roger Rabbit introduced the toon-infused world that later inspired the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. However, while the two works share many of the same characters and thematic elements, the in fact present much different narratives.

I recently had the pleasure of delving into the original text, which had gone out-of-print years ago, but which is now available again thanks to various print-on-demand services.

Notable differences include:

-While Eddie Valiant is still a gruff sleuth with an affinity for alcohol, the book starts off with him getting hired by Roger Rabbit, who claims the comic strip company he works for–the DeGreasy Brothers–failed to deliver on a promise to make him the star of his own strip.

-Most Toons speak in tangible speech bubbles, which become both fun gags and an important part of the plot as the story moved forward. Of similar importance is their ability to create doppels (or doppelgangers) that last for limited periods of time depending on how much mental energy the original Toon pumps into them.

-Roger Rabbit dies halfway through the story, after which his doppel then helps Eddie to investigate his murder.

Giving away too much information beyond the above information would wade into spoilers.

Regardless, this book has many twists and turns, as a true mystery story should, and I’m happy to say it stayed fast-paced and engrossing right up until the end.

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Book Review: Good Poems for Hard Times Edited by Garrison Keillor

Pages: 344
Published by: Penguin Books
Copyright: 2005
Rating: Highly Recommended

Brief Editor’s Bio:
A blurb on the inside jacket cover for Garrison Keillor states that he is an author based in Minnesota who has written The Prairie Companion and a wide assortment of novels, and that he is a member of the Academy of American Arts and Letters.

By reading the introduction, however, it is possible to get a much better sense of who Keillor is as a writer and person—which goes to show how much a few pages of personal prose can reveal about an individual. In Keillor’s case, the introduction unveils a writer who sees poetry as a uniting force that, when done just right, lends courage to readers regardless of their age or circumstances.

So it is no wonder then that Keillor pulled together a thick collection of poems under the title mentioned in, well, the title of this posting.

Good Poems for Hard Times:
A solid selection of poetry is always welcome, especially when they come from a wide variety of writers, are easily accessible, and have humorous and similarly memorable qualities about them. Good Poems for Hard Times, I’m happy to say, is just such a collection. Done in tribute “To the English teachers of America, doing good work every day, with admiration and affection from an old student,” Keillor breaks the contents of his anthology down into quirky sections like “Kindness to Snails,” “The Lust of Tenderness,” and “Simpler Than I Could Find Words For”—titles which, oddly enough, well match the poems place into each categories.

Many anthologies for literature courses, as an example, tend to pull together a few poems from a handful of well-known historically well-known poets, in addition to short stories and examples of other types of literature. And it’s true that certain poems become classics and pop up again with good reason for exemplifying certain concepts in literary studies, alongside their own truths and attention to the world.

But what makes Good Poems for Hard Times refreshing is that although there are poems by well-known poets like E. E. Cummings, Muriel Spark, William Shakespeare, and Robert Frost, there are many poets whose work might never pop up during undergraduate or graduate studies into literature or creative writing—and seeing them in such abundance here is like a reminder not to overlook all the poets who are currently practicing their craft and deserve to have their work read.

The poems themselves also stand out for having noteworthy titles that catch the eye right away. For instance, pieces like “Why I take Good Care of my Macintosh” by Gary Snyder, and “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative” by Grace Paley can strike close to home for contemporary readers (after all, poems about the connection people have with their personal laptops or computers is something that doesn’t show up very often, oddly enough). Many of these poems use clear, straightforward language to express their mini-narratives, and can invoke an unexpected chuckle or two.

In other words, Good Times for Bad Times certainly is a collection worth having around to clear up anyone’s mood during cloudy moments in life.

Book Review: Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White

Rating: Highly Recommended
Number of Pages: 231
Published by: Berkley Books

While Tim Hanbury (T.H.) White earned great acclaim for his Once and Future King stories—a skillful retelling of the King Arthur legends launched with the publication of The Sword in the Stone—he authored a wide range of works throughout his writing career. He did translations of Latin works, wrote critical essays on a variety of topics, and tried his hand at a range of literary genres.

Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946) was White’s first children’s book, written first and foremost for Amaryllis Virginia Garnett, the daughter of some of White’s close friends, who went on to become an actress and was the great-niece of writer Virginia Woolf. The evidence on that front is also clear, as Amaryllis’ name comes up a few times as the one the narrator, White, is relating his tale.

The tale of Mistress Masham’s Repose follows an orphaned girl named Maria, whose family owned a great deal of land and property Northamptionshire, England. The area gets introduced as having deep-rooted historical significance. White mentions, for instance, that the poet Alexander Pope visited the area, alongside being host to many other important personages and happenings (which for the sake of not spoiling anything, I will keep from including in full detail here). After losing her parents, Maria gets placed under the care of a cruel-hearted vicar and even crueler governess, Miss Brown—with her only friends being the kindly cook in her home, and an old professor who happens to live on the grounds.

Where the action in the tale picks up is when, during an exploration of her family land, Maria stumbles across a whole community of small people—who share origins with the residents of Lilliput told of in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The main plot then follows Maria’s efforts in learning how to interact with these unexpected residents, with many references and allusions made to Gulliver’s adventures, while trying to them safe from the vicar and Miss Brown.

A remarkable aspect of Mistress Masham’s Repose is, in fact, White’s focus on expanding upon the legends of the Lilliputians from Swift’s story. Certain characters from fiction have had their tales retold over the years, from different perspectives, because they stick in the popular consciousness (like the Wicked Witch of the West, Dracula, Ebenezer Scrooge, Grendel, etc.). But Mistress Masham’s Repose was the first instance in which I’d seen Lilliputians expanded upon, despite being from a classic work of literature and easily recognizable.

White’s Lilliputian characters did bear similarities to Mary Norton’s Borrowers, particularly in their urgency to stay undiscovered by the “giants” or larger people, yet White actually published his tale half a dozen years earlier (and thus might have even acted as an inspiration for Norton’s stories). So that fact, in itself, is also an astonishing thought.

This seemingly simple (yet actually very complex) children’s story is a charming read, and one rich in historical and literary significance! So it is a read that I would highly recommend, and a book that deserves more recognition as a beautiful example of what White accomplished as an author.

Book Review: This Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson

Rating: Highly Recommended

Pages: 282

Published by: HarperCollins Publishers

As I’m sure many people would agree, libraries provide havens of knowledge and offer invaluable services for any community lucky enough to have one. The San Marcos Public Library, for one example, provides any number of materials to check out—from books to DVDS—but also holds storybook hours, academic tutoring, and tax information workshops. In addition, libraries come in a wide variety of roles—including ones focused on university collections (like the Kellogg Library at Cal State San Marcos) or that hold genealogical records for their distinct regions (such as the Pioneer Room archives at the Escondido Public Library).

Considering their importance in relation to the knowledge they possess, and to the communities of people they serve, the issue of how libraries and their librarians handle emerging technologies is an important one.

The fact that the very heart of Marilyn Johnson’s This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All focuses on technological shifts in libraries thus turns her work into a timely read. Johnson—current editor of Esquire, among other notable publications— explores different facets and issues found in the library field as it presently stands, through an easy-to-digest essays.

Truly, one of the greatest strengths in This Book is Overdue is in its conversational prose style. Johnson discusses her forays into the library field like an enthusiastic explorer. It is easy to follow along in her interviews with the head of reference services at the Chappaqua Library in New York, or in her navigation of the blogs produced by an increasing number of librarians who wish to highlight their holdings or activities, or even her voyages into Second Life (an online platform getting used to create virtual libraries, develop digital collections, network, etc.).

Johnson develops the term “Cybrarians” as a new term attached to the many talents librarians must now have, indicating the importance technology now plays within their profession. In an age where so much information gets transmitted online, Johnson suggests, librarians or cybrarians are now learning to manage vast computer databases, digitize paper-based materials, and continue to improve accessibility for their patrons—all while dealing with dwindling funds allotted to them by legislators throughout the nation.

A crucial point that comes up again and again in This Book is Overdue concerns the tremendous financial struggles faced by libraries, which Johnson emphasizes need our support to remain up and running to the best of their abilities. These are places that go out of their way to help people, without asking for payment from the people who frequent them; a rare gem, indeed. Johnson highlights this need through her visits to various libraries, interviews, and attended ALA conferences.

The essays found in Johnson’s work also have a nice arrangement that guides the reader on towards more complicated issues. “Information Sickness,” one of the first essays in the collection, describes the gradual transition libraries have made in their use of technologies, and explores public opinion as to where libraries should stand in terms of the materials and technologies they should possess for patrons. Meanwhile, the midway “Big Brother and the Holdout Company” addresses the lesser-known tale of a group of librarians who sought to protect their patrons’ privacy despite a gag order due to the Patriot Act. Yet another essay, “What’s Worth Saving?”—found close to the end—ponders over the fine details of what materials and formats libraries might focus on preserving for future generations.

I would recommend This Book is Overdue for anyone interested in discovering what types of issues currently confront the library world, the types of innovative things librarians are up to in connection with emerging technologies, and simply ways in which our libraries need or could use the support of their home communities.

Book Review: Irish Fairy & Folk Tales, edited by W.B. Yeats

Rating: Recommended

Pages: 416

Published by: Dorset Press

William Butler Yeats is a beloved 19th-century poet and playwright in literature. Born in Dublin, his works–particularly his poetry–have preserved his thoughts and ideas for centuries (an inspirational thought).

However, like many great writers of note, Yeats also did his part to ensure the games of other people endured as well. That includes the need to keep alive the knowledge of folklore passed among through the ages.

Yeats separated each section of this anthology based of distinct legends in Ireland, such as changelings, kelpies, ghosts, and giants. And, in each instance, Yeats gives a brief yet fair overview of their history within Irish lore.

So if you have an interest in delving into crafty fairy tales from Ireland, Yeat’s anthology is a perfect choice.

Happy reading!

Book Review: Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day by Ben Loory

Rating: Recommended

Pages: 210

Published by: Penguin Books

I came across Ben Loory’s Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day in the Fiction section of my local library.

On my first reading through its collection of dream-laden short stories (with many flash fictions woven into its tapestry), I half-wondered if it might rest better in the Fantasy or Science Fiction sections; until I realized Loory’s work really doesn’t for cleanly into one particular category of genre literature or another.

As mentioned, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day contains a collection of tales–which cover anything from televisions that randomly gain life and compose programs on Winston Churchill to Octopuses who rent apartments in major cities. It is an quirky gathering of dreams.

Dreams are, as the book’s title suggests, the central theme that connects all these seemingly random incidents together. Loory has done a wonderful job in giving the impression of these tales being things someone might experience in their dreams. The hypnotic tone of the prose only intensifies that overall mood.

My favorite story would have to be the first, however, entitled “The Book,” a piece that has a lot to say about our personal interpretations of literature.

I would recommend Loory’s collection for reading right before bed, and at off moments for a little douse of peculiarity.

Book Review (sort of): Five Great Books on Books

Narratives focused on books hold a treasured spot in my heart. What I refer to are fictions that are very much like love letters to storytelling, book-making, or even particularly genres of literature—which distinguishes them from creative writing guides or historical accounts of how particular books came to exist (although the stories might touch on such topics in subtle ways). The characters in book-related fictions might do anything from focus on the impact working with particular texts holds in the main protagonist’s life, to saving rare books from the clutches of less savory personages, or even to describing the lives of fictional writers who write fiction.

Over the years, I’ve found a long list of book-related narratives, but here are five particularly stunning examples I would personally recommend to anyone interested in finding works on that subject:

1) Inkheart (and its sequels, Inkspell and Inkdeath) by Cornelia Funke

2) Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel by Robin Sloan

3) The City of Dreaming Books (followed by The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books) by Walter Moers

4) The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

5) The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

 

Does anyone have additions to make to the above list? If so, I would love to learn about them!

Book Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

Rating: Highly Recommended

Pages: 211

Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a metafictional tale with abundant splashes of magical realism, the kind that fits nicely alongside such narratives as Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Jonathan Stroud’s The Bartimaeus Trilogy, and Walter Moers’ The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear. These aforementioned fellow works tend to take for granted the logic of fairytales or fantasy tales as a mundane aspect of everyday life for whimsical (and oftentimes comedic) effect—delivered in a friendly yet confessional manner.

In the case of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Rushdie introduces us to an unnamed city in the fictional country of Alifbay defined by its sadness. Emotions are tangible presences in narrative, and in the case of the town in question, it to the point where nearby factories manufacture the sadness for the inhabitant to purchase and pollute the ocean until even the creatures of the deep moan throughout every day when swimming along its coast.

The only brightness amid all the city’s sadness is Rashid Khalifa, also known as “Rashid, the Ocean of Notions,” and to the envious as “The Shah of Blah,” who makes his living as a storyteller. His tales are so phenomenal as to constitute magic that Rashid uses to lift the spirits of his audiences, influence opinions towards those running for public offices, and teach moral lessons to the local children (an allusion, clearly, to the power of skillful storytellers and writers everywhere).

Most of Rashid’s marvels and humanitarian efforts come to the reader through the third-person narration of Haroun—Rashid’s son and greatest fan, as well as the main protagonist of Rushdie’s story; and the prose they get delivered in is gently flowing and tender in tone. The affection Haroun has for his father remains unwavering throughout the narrative, even when the loss of his mother causes Rashid talent for storytelling to seemingly dry up, and on the evening before Rashid gets commissioned to deliver a particularly influential story to a large audience of people (in the Valley of K—where most of the locales are named after alphabet letters).

But then Haroun happens to find a water genie in the act of removing a “story tap” (treated similar to a water tap) that helped to give his father his storytelling prowess, he convinces the genie to take him on a journey to Gup City, and there to get help from its ruler to return his father’s talent for stories.

I won’t go much further for risk of spoilers, but I can say that Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a wonderful example of a metafictional fairytale. Alifbay is a very literary place, where locations can have alphabet names and the act of storytelling generates its own peculiar type of tangible magic (similar to reciting a spell; some simple well-articulated words can actually influence the shape and mood of the natural environment). The City of Gup also gets treated as a frame, of sorts, that surrounds the “real world” inhabited by Haroun. In addition, magical realism is abundant and seen as a normal part of reality—it surprises no one that sadness can permeate the very soil of the earth and cause sorrowful plants to slink to the surface.

Fun Facts:

-Salman Rushdie has written at least four other novels, including Grimus and Midnight’s Children.

Luka and the Fire of Life is the sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

 

Happy Reading!

Book Review/Writerly Tips: Translation as Creative Writing in 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (Edited by Eliot Weinberger)

Rating: Recommended

Translations as creative writing might sound like a peculiar idea on the surface, specifically when it comes to translating texts from one language into another. There is the tendency to assume, or so I used to assume, that the process was simple and straightforward. The best known translation for the Japanese-language sentence “Watashi no Tomodachi wa yume o mita,” for instance, in American English, is “My friend had a dream.”

But translation, like creative writing in general, is in fact an intricate undertaking—where the knowledge of another language, a sensibility for the culture where the language is in use, and the filter of the translator’s perspective intersect.

For example, consider the “Watashi no Tomodachi wa yume o mita” sentence once again. While the closest equivalent usually agreed upon in American English is “My friend had a dream,” the actual words in Japanese basically read, “My friend saw a dream.” A translator who felt the word-by-word translation was the most faithful might then set down saw in the sentence, perhaps alongside a footnote explaining the difference in structure and ideas between the Japanese and English languages.

In other words, it’s a deliberate choice on the part of any translator as to how a sentence gets translated. An arguably creative act.

With the above said, we can now delve into 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, edited by Eliot Weinberger—which exemplifies the use of translation as a form of creative writing. Weinberger gives us one four-lined poem from the Buddhist, painter, calligrapher, poet, and philosopher Wang Wei, and then proceeds to include 19 distinct translations, from translators of various backgrounds and native languages, of the exact same poem. While similarities are abundant between the various translations, what stands out are the wide range of approaches taken (including some of which rearrange, add to, or cut out parts of the poem). Yet they are all solid translations for the reader to enjoy.

The basic idea of Wei’s poem is of an unnamed character who wants through an inhabited forest.

Here is one translation by Witter Bynner and Kiang Kang-Hu of Wei’s work (Pg. 5):

“Deer-Park Hermitage

There seems to be no one on the empty mountain . . .

And yet I think I hear a voice,

Where sunlight, entering a grove,

Shines back to me from the green moss.”

 

However, here is another translation by W.J.B Fletcher (Pg. 4):

The Form of the Deer

So lone seem the hills; there is no one in sight there.

But whence is the echo of the voices I hear?

The rays of the sunset pierce slanting the forest,

And in their reflection green mosses appear.”

 

Then here is my own translation of the poem:

Of the Deer by Wang Wei

In mountains where people seldom venture

Voices resound amid the gentle solitude

Returned as sunshine into a dark forest

That shines upon green mossy spreads.”

 

It’s clear from the above three translations just how wide a range the perspectives on a poem can be, and the even wider range of texts that can then result. This variety of understandings is something to keep in mind as a creative writer, I believe, and as a translator. Of course, the same is also true of English-to-English translations of creative pieces (which are apparently viable translations as well)—as long as credit goes to the originator of the text.

So I would recommend 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei as a means of exploring translation at work, and the ways in which translations truly are creative writings as well.

Book Review: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Rating: Recommended

What does reality mean, and how can one define the imaginary?

In Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, Matthew Dicks takes as his focus questions such as the above that have puzzled philosophers throughout the ages, which remain important despite of, and due to, their insolvability. But rather than write a lengthy dissertation on various ideological stances and definitions, Dicks chooses to address the issue in the novel-length, first-personal fictional account of Budo, the imaginary friend of a young boy named Max who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome.

First off, I have heard of and read a few stories where the narrative involves children struggling to overcome disabilities or other personal disabilities, including Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; and one key component I’ve noticed in each one is that the way family members or friends treat these individuals. It tends to run the gamut from frustration to patient understanding. Similar reactions are present in Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, specifically in the case of Max’s parents.

Yet what I find particularly enduring in this tale is Budo’s perspective towards Max, as his imaginary friend, and his stalwart devotion to the child throughout the narrative. For Budo, nothing is wrong with Max; Max just sees the world differently from other people. And I believe Dicks highlights that approach as something to keep in mind not only in Max’s case, but in that of anyone struggling with similar disabilities, or even with people in general. That everyone experiences reality, and gets influenced by their surroundings, in different ways—and that the issue is really findings ways to connect with each other.

As such, Budo gets introduced as born from Max’s imagination, and acts as a sort of moral and emotional anchor for this child without any friends around his own age. Max basically has basically erected a mental barrier between himself and everyone else (even his parents), with Budo being the one exception. In addition (and without giving away too many spoilers), Budo often comes across as Max’s conscience or voice of reason to make tough decisions, and what is thought-provoking about their relationship is that Budo does truly come from Max’s mind. And as such, the two do share similarities, and oftentimes it is like they are two halves of the same person.

But, as Budo himself makes clear throughout the narrative, he considers himself separate from Max and defined as his own person. In fact, that constitutes his own struggles as an imaginary friend, of which there is apparently a whole community in existence. Dicks gives us a world in which imaginary friends pop into existence in a context much like to Craig McCraken’s show Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, though invisible to all except their children. But none of the imaginary friends in Dicks’ story know why they appear, what the exact nature of their existence is, or what happens to them when their children stop believing in them and they disappear.

In Budo’s case, it terrifies him that he will die if Max stops believing in him, or in the case that something terrible happens to Max. So despite the deep-rooted love of his creator, Budo struggles with concerns over self-preservation, and what his life means as a result. He questions its worth because he is imaginary, which in the context of Dicks’ novel suggests a realm set apart from “reality,” where these beings can grow beyond the children who created them. Yet they are often thrown into the world without the knowledge they are imaginary. It is a term they learn from other imaginary friends. And they come to understand their role in the world the same way, although many must figure it out for themselves (if they last long enough).

The main conflict for the story itself comes from the fact Max has issues interacting with others, acknowledging their existence, or growing beyond a certain set routine. Changes trouble him far more than other children, and his parents fret or argue about him constantly. Then Ms. Patterson (one of the special education teachers) kidnaps Max, and Budo is the only one who knows what has happened. So he must reach out to other imaginary friends, and map out a plan to save his child—even when (at certain points) he gets tempted not to so he might last longer.

Max doesn’t understand the plan Ms. Patterson has in mind for him (which I also will not spoil), but when cast in the light of striving to save him, Budo (and imaginary friends in general) truly matter even though they can only impact their children. They are just invisible and/or have different laws placed upon them. Budo cannot touch or manipulate things in that reality, but he can watch or encourage Max to make a difference in his life, which he gradually begins to do more and more throughout the narrative.

Budo gives Max reasons to push himself as he might not otherwise have done, which Dicks also suggests as a valuable role played by imaginary friends.