Friday, July 29, 2011

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (CBR Book #21)

Do you know why "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" is a well-known phrase? It's a panagram...or a phrase that contains all the letters of the alphabet. A quick look at wikipedia reveals the phrase's earliest known appearance is in the late 1800's, but its author isn't mentioned.

Well...look no more! Mark Dunn has the story of its creator in this cleverly written book, which is presented as a collection of letters. Most of the letters are written to or from Ella, and other members of the Pea family. Ella lives on the fictional island of Nollop, off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop derives its name from Nevin Nollop, the supposed creator of the panagram.

Everything in Nollop seems pleasant. It has a small town feel with a council that governs the island's business. There is even a monument to Nollop including the famous phrase. Everything is business as usual, until lettered tiles begin to fall off of the monument. The town council interprets this as a sign from Nollop himself; it appears that Nollop wishes the letter to be removed from speech and writing, they surmise. The first letter to fall is relatively harmless enough, a Z. After the council decrees that each letter is not to be used anymore, the use of the letter is removed from the book as well. As the characters write their letters to each other, they struggle with avoiding certain words. As more and more tiles fall off the sign and their use is banned, the writings become more and more ludicrous.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when the D falls off the sign. As each message written has the day listed, it becomes necessary to assign new names to each day. Tuesday becomes Toes, Wednesday becomes Wetty, Thursday Thurby. During the month of November, as more and more letters fall off the sign, the name of the month changes accordingly until each note has a new word for November, "nosegay," "no-trump," "norepinephrine" and "noopers" are just some of them.

Eventually, speaking and writing becomes so difficult, the council passes a provision that states, in written form only, "hear twins" may be used as a proxy for certain letters. In other words, words may be written phonetically with the remaining allowed letters. So "farewell" can be written as "pharewell," "you" as "ewe" and so on. But even this proves difficult as creative substitutions must still be made. "Phrents" becomes the closest thing to the words "friends," "achieve" becomes "asheeph." Here's an example of a sentence near the end of the book, "Tee otts are not goot," which is "the odds are not good." Of course "hear twins" can only be used in writing because when spoken, one wouldn't know if you were actually using the banned letters or not. Eventually, more and more lettered tiles fall off the monument until only 5 remain, LMNOP.

Is your head spinning? The good news is, this progression is gradual, and although the book becomes harder and harder to read, it also becomes sillier and sillier. And you get used to it. And by this time, you're invested in Enterprise 32. This is the task assigned to those who oppose the council. In an effort to prove Nollop isn't divine, as the council has come to believe, the remaining townspeople work to create a panagram in 32 letters. This would beat Nollop's panagram by 3 letters, proving that any mere mortal could do what he did, and better.

At this point, you may have some questions, like, "what do you mean by remaining townspeople?" and "how could they work on a panagram if there are letters banned from use?" Well...all those questions and more would be answered if you read the book! And I definitely recommend it if you have an interest in words, word play, word puzzles, or anything related to that. Even if you don't, it's a great book, adeptly written, and entertaining.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger (CBR Book #20)

How would you react if you visited a library that consisted only of books, magazines, and anything else that you've ever read or written? Maybe you see the Little Golden Book you treasured as a child, or you glimpse your favorite mystery novel. Even a textbook for your college biology course finds its way to the shelves...and then you spot your diary!

This is what happens to Alexandra one night, when she goes for a walk. She sees an old Winnebago on the street playing her favorite music. Going against her better judgement, she enters to find a library that is definitely special, but when she finds her diary, it becomes magical as well. The library, whose hours are from dusk until down closes before she's ready to leave it. After her visit, she obsesses about the Night Bookmobile and goes for long walks at night to find it again.

Eventually, Alexandra runs into the Night Bookmobile at different times in her life. Each time, she notices it has new shelves filled with the material she has read since her previous visit. Her obsession with the Night Bookmobile grows and grows and she even goes to school and becomes a librarian, hoping that someday, she can be a librarian for the Book Mobile. Eventually, Alexandra thinks she understands what she must do to fulfill her life's dream, but is the price she has to pay worth it?

This book was a serialized graphic novel that appeared in the London Guardian. You may recognize the author for her books like the Time Traveler's Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry. I checked out her website that also has some of her paintings and drawings on it. They have the same dark, eerie quality that her short graphic novel has. You can click here, if you're interested in seeing some of her work.

So my opinion on The Night Bookmobile? It literally took me just a few minutes to read and was an interesting story. I'm not sure I'd tell someone to run to the library to get it, but I can imagine if it were slowly told in a newspaper, how people would be into the story. I'm not a fan of Niffeneggar's drawings, they're not really my style, so that kind of distracted from the story. But the story itself is great. It's a cautionary tale of how someone can love something so much, it becomes an obsession and takes over her entire life. I guess if you're a Niffeneggar fan, check it out. Otherwise, don't obsess about it.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (CBR Book #19)

Never Let Me Go is about life, death, love, acceptance of one's circumstances, and all of those emotional aspects of the world around us. There are a million different ways to tell a story about these things, right?

The problem I had with Never Let Me Go, is that Ishiguro uses a sci-fi premise to tell his story. In fact, it's a great premise. But, and here's the downfall, this is NOT a sci-fi book. If it were, Ishiguro would do more explaining of the mechanics of his premise - how things came to be, how they work, and what exactly happens. But he's not really concerned with that. And that's where I'm left frustrated.

Never Let Me Go is the story of three individuals who grew up together at Hailsham, a boarding school they attended in England. All the students at Hailsham are special, set apart from society for a specific purpose, which is slowly revealed throughout the book. Kathy, our narrator, takes us through her life at Hailsham and beyond.

The tone of the book is introspective, like we're inside Kathy's thoughts. She remembers events in the past and wonders how they have affected her present. As Kathy examines her past, we relive events in her life. We learn snippets of what makes her "special" as she does. But, and here's where I'm different from Kathy, I question things she doesn't. Kathy has accepted her lot, I haven't. But this is HER story, not mine. For her, life is as it is. She doesn't question her circumstances but tries to understand the relationships around her. Just like anyone would. And I guess that's the point. Even if you are "special," like Kathy, you still have to deal with love and longing just like the rest of us.

And I understood this as I read, but I couldn't help wondering more about each nugget Ishiguro would provide. "The students just learned they were meant to do WHAT?" "But why don't they ask more about THAT?" I'd think. Kathy would move forward in her story but I was still struggling what had just transpired, not ready yet to just forget about that and move on. But perhaps by creating this conflict, Ishiguro better makes his point. That regardless of your circumstances, some things in life are inevitable. The question is, how do you deal with them, and do you accept them willingly or not?

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (CBR book #18)

The Help came out in 2009 and has slowly grown into its popularity. It's the story of women and their maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960's. The book is written in three voices; Abileen Clark and Minny Jackson who are maids, and Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, who was raised by a maid.

Skeeter's group of friends are young 20-something white women who all have maids of their own. But Skeeter realizes that she has less and less in common with them as she learns about their attitudes towards their maids. While Skeeter is haunted by loving memories of her childhood maid who disappeared without a word, her friends treat their maids like slaves, even insisting on having separate "colored" bathrooms" installed on their property for the help.

When I read the book, I hadn't heard much about it so I had no expectations. The story involves a lot of different characters who all have their own secrets, stories, and opinions. It kept me reading and was interesting. I think, however, had I heard all the hype about it, I might have been disappointed. I know books that deal with things like racism, stereotypes, and societal classes have the potential to garner a lot of attention. But I can't help but think that this is the only reason this book is gettting so much press. The story is good but beyond the social issues, it doesn't strike me as any more well written than other books I've read. It would be interesting to see if Stockett's next book gets as much attention.