Books for Bibliophile #1 – Bei Vollmond by Antoine Guilloppé

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ISBN 978-3868733945, currently out of print, Publisher Knesebeck

From Rabbit-Hutch to bookshelf

Although there are plenty of bunnies inhabiting the literary landscape out there (just think about Peter Rabbit, Hazel from Watership Down, the White Rabbit of Alice in Wonderland fame and the netherlands’ very own Miffy), I fear that these cotton-tailed characters might not be into collecting arty children’s book, except perhaps Peter and Miffy.

Sorry for the jabbering about bunny-ology, it’s just that I got the book from a small independent bookshop in Münster (Germany) called Hasenstall (if they got their name to honour the literary heritage of all the bunnies out there?), which translates to Rabbit-hutch in English. Back then I was hunting for children’s books because my partner had expressed the wish to learn German. By ensuring the constant growth of our library, but also focusing on his needs, I would buy him German children’s books. Cunning, indeed. We would sit down together and while he read to me, I would translate the content if necessary.  For everyone who is interested in the success of this project: James is now capable of saying “Karotte, köstlich”, in case conversational topics include the diet of wombats.

Bei Vollmond an aesthetic experience

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Originally published as Pleine Lune in France, late 2010, the German publisher Knesebeck later published the translation as Bei Vollmond (By Full Moon), in September 2011. The book is designed by Antoine Guilloppé, a renowned French children’s illustrator.  Unfortunately, the German edition now seems to be out of print, hence, if you are in Germany and you find this book on the shelf, you should probably invest your euros in it posthaste.

I keep on mentioning the German edition, I know.  Sadly the book has never been translated into English. Although the English book market has become more open to translated titles in recent years, there is still a lot of work to do.

The story of this children’s book is quickly told: Bei Vollmond takes its reader on a journey through the woods by full moon. A strange noise has caught the attention of the forest animals; some of them are determined to find out what has caused the noise, others are scared for the children who have ventured out in the night. Funnily enough only the bears are relaxed….

DSC_0255The concept of a full moon lit night has successfully been transferred to the page here; the book shows how the woods become a magical place during the night. The book itself is printed on heavyweight black and white paper and the pictures are carefully cut out of each page with a laser; the technique has a similar effect to the one known as Scherenschnitt in Germany.

This is a marvellous gift for any bibliophile out there. And if you can’t get hold of Bei Vollmond, you should try to get a copy of Ma Jungle (German: Tief im Dschungel) you can view a preview of the book down below.

The dictatorship of the aligned – The Circle by David Eggers

All that happens must be known

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ISBN 978-0241146507, Price £8.99, Publisher Penguin

Be aware, a brave new world is lurking around the corner. While Huxley was focused on genetic engineering, Eggers gives his take on our internet age and creates a dystopian vision that we have more than happily invited into our own houses.

I love the internet. I admit that it’s part of my daily life. I check Facebook more than once (British understatement at work), I like Instagram a lot and this is the third or fourth attempt to write a blog. I have an eBay and paypal account and I ask myself if I should use Pinterest as well? I certainly use Skype to chat with my friends in Germany. I download the occasional game on my phone and wonder if the app really needs access to all my contacts?  My parents have finally entered the age of Whats App… I mean what else is there to come? I doubt that anyone wants to dispute that the internet has bought a lot of advantages with it.

It has also shaped the way in which we build and maintain our relationships to others. The line between what is ‘the internet’ and so called ‘real life’ has become rather thin:  how important is the relationship status of a social networking profile to us really? Has someone ever deleted you from their Facebook profile without telling you? Did you spend more than a second thinking what this could mean?

To know we must share – Imagine, Innovate, Share

With The Circle, Eggers has written a satire of our internet affine times.  While 1984 and Brave New World were set in a distant future, the scenario of The Circle doesn’t seem to  be so far away.

The protagonist of the novel, Mae Holland, has landed a job with the Circle, an internet service that seems like a mash up of Google, Apple services, Facebook, paypal  and the like. As with most of these fancy tech companies, it is highly desirable to work there and everything is crazily hip; the opportunities on campus, itself a temple of glass, are endless. Work has essentially become the never ending party everyone has yearned for, fading the line between social network life and real life. Deeper and deeper, Mae becomes sucked into the world of the Circle and becomes aligned with its philosophy and ethos; where everything is measured and recorded, showing us readers what it could mean if we say goodbye to good ol’ privacy.

Privacy is theft – a satire for our times

One of the big achievements of The Circle is that it holds up a mirror in front of us. Let’s take our online activism for example. Eggers astutely describes how online activism works in most cases. One morning Mae gets a message from a college friend, telling her about an initiative that condemns the crimes of a paramilitary group in Guatemala:

“Mae’s friend Tania, never an activist in school, said she had been compelled to action by these atrocities, and she was asking everyone she knew to join in an initiative called We Hear You Ana Marīa. […]

Mae saw a picture of Ana María, sitting in a white room on a folding chair, looking up, expressionless, an unnamed child in her lap. Next to her picture was a smile button that said “I hear you Ana María,” which, when clicked on, would add Mae’s name to a list of those lending their support to Ana María. Mae clicked the button. […] Next to the photo was a frown button that said “We denounce the Central Guatemalan Security Forces.” Mae hesitated briefly, knowing the gravity of what she was about to do – to come out against these rapists and murderers – but she needed to make a stand. She pushed the button.”

Afterwards Mae feels elevated and sure of the fact that she has made a group of powerful enemies in Guatemala.

In The Circle are plenty of scenes that are equally funny and concerning because they ring true: Another time Mae’s friend Annie fires off 11 text messages in less than 25 min, trying to get hold of Mae.

“The second: You get my last msg?

The third: Starting to freak out a little. Why aren’t you answering me? […]

Fifth: If you were offended by what I said about Dan don’t go all silent-treatment. I said sorry. Write back. “

Annie’s bombardment of messages, that get more desperate in tone the longer Mae’s response take, highlights what constant availability through the new media suggests – a necessity to respond to everything at any time, otherwise the friendship can’t be functional.

In Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer the novel has its own ‘Cassandra’. While sitting at the dinner table at Mae’s parents, he points out:

“And that’s what’s so scary. Indivdually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively. But secondly, don’t presume the benevolence of your leaders. For years there was this happy time when those controlling  the major internet conduits were actually decent enough people. Or at least they were not predatory and vengeful.  But I always worried, what if someone was willing to use this power to punish those who challenged them? […]

Here, though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen, searching for strangers in Dubai.”

Sounds familiar?

You only need to deal with its flat characters

While Egger’s ideas and the familiarity with the topic carried me through the book, I found that in some regards the characters are flat. Mae’s complete self devotion to The Circle seems unreal. Although Mae’s positive attitude towards The Circle is challenged more than once, there is no room for doubt in her. Even towards the end, when Mae feels the stress of a fully transparent life, she is not able to reflect on her circumstances. Eggers doesn’t allow Mae to become any deeper than shallow water.

Annie, the friend of Mae, seems in her responses, quite often unnecessarily aggressive. She comes across like a stereotype rather than a three dimensional character, which I personally found rather more annoying than believable.

And then there is Mercer – in case the reader didn’t get what was going on, it is the job of this character to let you know what’s wrong in Circle world. It would have been far more elegante if Eggers had found a more subtle way of getting his message across, rather than having a character just saying it in a dialogue. The book lacks the subtext a reader could use to explore the work in more depth.

But perhaps this is the book our internet generation deserves? If I had to rate the book (staying in tune with its theme), I would give it three and a half stars out of a possible five. It’s up to you what you make out of it, but be aware Big Brother is watching you.

It’s all the fault of the internet

David Egger’s The Circle has just been published in Germany by the well-known publisher Kiepenheuer & Witsch. And if I hadn’t read the blogs and tweets of Texte und Bilder and 54books where you can find a review of the book, I wouldn’t have considered buying it. It suddenly felt necessary to me that I would be able to form my own opinion about the book. Yup, it seems like both bloggers managed to raise their retail raw successfully.

 

The Moth: This Is A True Story edited by Catherine Burns – Book review

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ISBN 978-1846689895, Price £12.99, Publisher Serpent’s Tail

The thing with Neil

Neil Gaiman is like my mum. Both tend to be unavoidable. Let me explain: I am fairly new to Twitter and once I had created my account, I started to add authors, publishers and the like. When I open Twitter I see at least three tweets by Neil himself. I go on Facebook and see he shares status updates from his wife. At home, I can pick up his books and comics, at work people buy his writings. While I genuinely like his work of fiction, I have found that his recent omnipresence has a negative impact on my relationship to him. It all leads to a feeling of “Please, not you again!”.

When The Moth: This Is A True Story arrived in the bookshop and I saw that Neil Gaiman had written the foreword, I decided to give it a miss.  But the thing is, I can’t escape good marketing and the Guardian had this storytelling special where they published some stories from The Moth named:

  • How I accidentally shot and killed my best friend
  • A Mormon’s guide to dating
  • ‘I looked at my birth certificate. That was not my mother’s name.’
  • How I told my brother that I was now a woman …at my father’s funeral
  • ‘For the first time in my life, I found myself consumed by stage fright’
  • Why I am scared of telling stories…and why I love The Moth

And as you can see from the picture above, the whole thing did the trick. I just followed an impulse that told me I needed to buy the book. Why? I guess, because curiosity motivates the Kät.

What is The Moth?

The Moth is easily explained: it is a storytelling event where true stories are told to a live audience. Founded by George Dawes Green, The Moth intends to recreate the feeling of the warm summer evenings he had spent with friends on a porch in New York, telling stories to each other. The name of the event derives from the moths that were attracted to the light when he and his friends sat outside. So far, so idyllic. The event quickly became popular, moving to bigger venues and spreading to different cities. London’s first Moth event will be held on the 28th of August this year and guess who will be hosting the evening? Yes, indeed, Neil himself. The event is sold out which speaks for its popularity or  successful marketing or at least the curiosity it has sparked in some of us.

But is it any good?

Most stories in this book are between six and eight pages long. Seldom is a story longer. At the centre of each story is the storyteller, the unavoidable I. All I’s in the book have great stories to tell, that goes without question. They come from diverse backgrounds and it goes to show that every single one of us has the potential to tell a good story.

I loved to read about the exorcism of depression, in fact I was telling everyone that I worked with how funny this little story was, trying to recap it in each tiny step. I was in tears over Adam Gopnik’s use of LOL, tears of joy mind you.  You will find accounts from astronauts, a doctor who cures Mother Theresa, the story about an African American woman that works as a carer for a Klansman and the account of a professional poker player gaining her confidence in an big-stakes international match to name but a few. All stories have different themes that are life affirming, challenging and often have a confessional character.

As with all collections, it goes without saying that some of the stories interested me more than others. If you read too many of them in a row, you might think that the stories are just evidencing the ‘coolness’ of the authors and are a little bit too self-indulgent. Only a few of the stories deal with failure, failure doesn’t seem like a big option.

It is worth keeping in mind that these stories are meant to be told live, some of the stories clearly lose drive on the page. If you want to compare how the written and oral versions differ from each other, it is worth searching the actual footage of the story on YouTube. You might be lucky and able to find it. There are a few on there.

Final verdict – The Moth a treasure trove

I would recommend reading the book in small portions. You can easily dip in and out, it’s excellent for commutes and in-between waits as the text in front of you doesn’t require too much attention, but is still enjoyable to read. As mentioned before, each story is short so that you don’t need to drag yourself through the text when you don’t like a particular story. Another positive is that it’s quite an inspirational read. My synapses made leaps of joy and I promised myself to take some more notes during the reading sessions. As someone who is interested in writing, I think it is a treasure trove when it comes to weird little characteristics and side stories that could enrich my own writing.  Which just evidences the well known fact again, that life tells the best stories.

 

 

 

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler – Book review

 Book review We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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ISBN 978-1846689666, Price £7.99, Publisher Serpent’s Tail

 

  “Sometimes in matters of great emotion, one representation, retaining all the original intensity, comes to replace another, which is then discarded and forgotten. The new representation is called a screen memory. A screen memory is a compromise between remembering something painful and defending yourself against that very remembering.”

Rosemary and her sister, Fern, are part of a psychological study conducted by their father. When Rosemary is five her sister Fern vanishes; a traumatic event that later leads to the break up of the family. First the mother becomes an emotional wreck, then a few years later Rosemary’s brother, Lowell, absconds from the family home and joins the Animal Liberation Front, an underground animal rights organisation,  Before the event of the sister’s disappearance, Rosemary was a talking machine gun, people would tell her to start stories in the middle rather than at the beginning, just to cut them to a manageable length. Now at college, Rosemary only shares prepared stories with strangers, keeping her mouth shut to hide her past in an attempt to protect herself from the painful memories relating to these traumatic events from her childhood. But Rosemary can only move forward with her life, if she faces her past. People who have issues with spoilers, probably shouldn’t read further. Personally, I don’t mind – we all know that Romeo and Juliet both die at the end and yet we still enjoy the play when we see or read it. There is a difference between knowing and experiencing something for yourself.

“What would it be like to have been the child in that experiment?”

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Peanut, my monkey

Rosemary carries her nickname ‘monkey-girl’ for a reason: her sister Fern happens to be a chimpanzee. The idea for the book came to Fowler whilst speaking to her daughter about the Kellog experiment; Winthrop Kellog famously conducted a study in which he tried to raise his infant son with a chimp (needless to say that this study and similar ones have never been successful). Fowler’s daughter suggested she (Fowler) write a book about the child in the study, which Fowler evidently thought was an excellent idea.

What makes the book a good summer read is not only the chimp-human relationship, but also the esprit in the voice of our narrator Rosemary. It captures the reader on the first few pages and carries them the whole way through the story. But don’t be fooled, the book deals with big issues: loss, identity, ethics and animal rights.

So what would be the consequences of growing up with a chimp? Rosemary, for example, mimics her simian sister, jumping on the desk of her father when wanting his attention. Not anticipated by the father, it is revealed that it is not just Fern who adapts human traits but also that the daughter imitates the actions of the ape. Fowler describes this process; ‘[…] the neutral system of a young brain develops partly by mirroring the brains around it.’ Which leads us to ask the question, if Rosemary adapts ape traits and she is still a human, are the traits in Fern not then human like? Furthermore, is it ever acceptable to treat another living being just as an experiment? And, if Fern comes to think that she is human, how can we ever cage her again?

Additionally, Fowler showcases the problems that come with our memory. At various points in the book, Fowler reminds the reader how flawed our memory is. Do we narrate stories so many times until they become our own memory? If I I remember an event in our family history but no one else can, does this mean the event never happened? There is a brilliant passage where Rosemary seems to rediscover a long lost memory: she believes that her father has impatiently run over a cat that wouldn’t cross the street. When she talks to her grandma about it, the old lady assures her grandchild that her father would never be capable of such a cruelty. The memory becomes Rosemary’s own ‘Schrödinger’s cat’: “To this day, I can feel the bump of the tire over the cat’s body. And to this day I am very clear in my mind that it never happened.” Can the reader trust such a narrator? What is a genuine true memory and what is just fable?

On a meta level the reader is in a similar position to Rosemary – the plot of We Are Completely Besides Ourselves is carefully woven together by using a combination of both fact and fiction. Throughout the book Fowler uses factual events to anchor her story in our world, making it plausible for the reader to believe that someone like Rosemary could exist. By doing so, the effect on the reader reflects Rosemary’s state; it becomes our role to distinguish between the fictional and factual elements of the book, thus we are thrown in a similar state of confusion as our heroine.

The word list

As a non-native speaker, I thought it would be interesting to see what words caught my attention. Be prepared, I might bring them up in the conversations to come…

  • ithyphallic – (especially of a statue or other representation of a deity) having an erect penis.
  • Latinates – words that entered the English language through a Romance language, borrowed directly from Latin.
  • Catachresis – grammatical misuse or error or a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is being applied in a way that significantly departs from conventional (or traditional) usage.
  • ebullient – cheerful and full of energy.
  • limpid – completely clear and transparent.
  • refulgent – shining very brightly.