“The Box” by Gunter Grass

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“The Box: Tales from the Darkroom”

Gunter Grass

Date of publication: 2010

ISBN: 978-0-547-24503-4

Said to be a fictionalized memoir, Gunter Grass’ “The Box” was certainly unlike anything I’ve read before (at least recently). I picked up this novel on a whim from the “last copies in store” shelf at the local bookstore. The pale cover attracted me and the jacket copy, describing a family of eight children coming together to record their discussions of their childhood memories for their aging father, seemed to promise an interesting, casual, and enjoyable read. The novel, only 194 pages long, was short enough to be a quick read, but not so short that I’d feel cheated of my money. I’d hoped I’d found a gem when I first picked it up. 

The children (in no particular order): Lena, Lara, Georg (Jorsch), Paul, Nana, Jasper, Pat, Taddel. Certainly enough names to keep you concentrating hard, especially when the narrative is lacking any “he said/she said.” The reader perceives the recorded conversations as the father will later hear them–an interview transcript where the speakers are not clearly identified. Their stories centre around their memories of their father, there many different mothers, and the woman whose relationship to the family is ambiguous, Marie. The box refers to Marie’s camera which, perhaps out of childhood fantasy, they say had the ability to capture what was, is, and will be in it’s magical lens. Their stories often stray on the side of the fantastical, seemingly merging dream, reality, and imaginations. 

Marie’s photography becomes the focal point (or the launching point) of many of their conversations. Their memories stem from her cameras and her pictures and her passion of documenting their lives. The children’s father, a well-know bestselling author, knows them through these pictures and the children’s memories seem to come more from the pictures rather than the reality.  After the first 50 pages, I quickly became sick of hearing about the camera: what camera she was using, how it worked, where she bought it, why each was significant. It was too much shop talk for me. I felt like I was listening to an enthusiastic salesperson attempting to sell me a mid-20th Century camera. 

The memories that come up in the family’s discussions are stated to often be the inspiration for the father’s many bestselling novels. This observations suggests the many ways we as human beings employ memory and document those events that we determine to be memorable. The way in which the camera falsifies, or perhaps reconstructs/predicts, the moments in time that the children remember, reminds the reader that our memories, too, change with time and as we acquire new experiences and as we gain distance from the original event. Often the photos in the story are lost and the documented moments fade into what may have happened or what might have happened, with no concrete proof to show whose memory is the most accurate.

What I was interested in were the discussions of the families interactions in and around the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. Whether historically accurate or not, their memories of the wall and Marie’s time-lapsed photos of the wall being torn down are fascinating. I would have liked to see more of this written in, but there was enough to keep me interested and to keep me reading.

I wouldn’t suggest this as a novel that you should read in your lifetime. My account of this story may interest you enough to pick it up and check it out, but it isn’t something I’d encourage you to read. 

A Disappointing Read in Stephen Kelman’s “Pigeon English”

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It’s always a disappointment to pick up that novel you’ve been excited to read for ages only to have it not live up to those high hopes you had for it. This was my experience with Stephen Kelman’s “Pigeon English.” What drew me initially to buy this book was it’s bright orange and yellow cover with the silhouette of a boy and a pigeon. The story is compelling: a young Ghanaian immigrant, Harrison Opuku, living in London attempts to solve the murder of another boy. His experiences lead him to encounter gang violence and poverty. 

The author’s style is not one that I prefer to read. Dialogue is presented in a similar way as a screenplay (Name: Comment). I found this style created a choppy element to the story and made it difficult to get in to the flow of the text. It failed to hold my attention for extended periods of time, so I was unable to read this novel quickly. It was difficult to bring myself back to the text and I only continued to pick it up because I am unable to walk away from any novel that I’ve begun to read. 

Harrison Opuku is an intelligent and likeable character. He is a boy on the cusp of adolescence and still holds onto the innocence of childhood. He struggles with morality as he is put through gang initiation (which he walks away from) and faces the murder of a boy in his neighbourhood. As the story is told from his perspective, the narrative contains the idiosyncrasies of Harrison’s presumably recently learned, and not completely correct English, as well as the language fumbles of a child attempting to use those large adult words that he does not yet totally understand. Harrison’s own pigeon English gives a unique voice to the story, however in my opinion, it serves to further the disruptive nature of the story’s structure. 

The second half of the novel was much better than the first for me. I adjusted to the diction and the format of the story and came to really like Harrison as a character. The novel sells itself as a tale of Harrison’s journey to solve the murder. He “decides to act, unwittingly endangering the fragile web his mother has spun around her family to keep them safe” as the jacket copy states. The extent of the danger to Harri’s mother seems to be the anonymous carving of the word “DEAD” onto the families door. Perhaps there was more danger lying under the surface of the story, however if this exists, it’s not something I picked up on. An additional 50 pages on the end may have helped to round out the narrative and to provide a satisfying conclusion to the intense investigation that the boy conducts. 

I have no desire to read this novel again. Perhaps in a few years, when I have forgotten what the story is about, I may pick it up again. This novel was short listed for many awards, but it wasn’t to my taste in the slightest. 

Joseph Boyden’s “The Orenda”

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Since I read “Three Day Road” a few years ago, I’ve come to expect wonderful things from the hand of Joseph Boyden. “The Orenda” is proof that he has produced yet another masterpiece. I read this novel faster than I’ve read any other novel in a very long time. I have this thing where when I pick up a book, I become so completely entranced that I’m deaf to the world around me. Try talking to me while I’m so absorbed and you won’t get a response, I can assure you of that. This describes my experience with “The Orenda” over the few hours it too me to devour these pages.

Set in early Canada (probably not called Canada at that time), the novel centres on the relationship between the French and the native Hurons and their clash with the Iroquois. It is astonishingly beautiful and brutal, not sparing any details of the violent tortures, the religious clashes, the sufferings of harsh Mother Nature, and so on. Boyden paints a vivid picture of the Wendat clan and their differences from the Aanishinaabe and the Haudenosaunee peoples and the stark contrast between the French and those they call “sauvages.”

Told from three perspectives–clan leader Bird, Jesuit priest Christophe, and Haudenosaunee captive Snow Falls– “The Orenda” shares tales of love, magic, religion, exploration, hatred, violence, fear, and wild, unpredictable land. Each perspective takes some adjustment. Boyden’s style of writing for each is quite consistent until you read far enough to distinguish each character’s situation and thought process. His style here is subtle and allows you to get to know each character over time. Personally, I would have liked to see greater differentiation between the narrations of Christophe and the Huron. Bird and Snow Falls are forced to share their thoughts in the English of the book as the general English reader obviously would not understand their language. However, incorporating some of the Huron language into their text would have helped to distinguish them from Christophe’s words.

One thing I noticed was a large number of references to language: the harsh language of the Iroquois in comparison to the language of the Huron, the strange tongue of the French foreigners. This book is about communication in many ways. How do members of the same clan communicate with one another? How do newcomers adapt and learn the various languages? What tongue is dominant, what language are most people communicating in? Problems arise from a lack of understand and a lack of communication? Language is used as a tool of deception. It is a form of trickery and persuasion. It marks difference.

“The Orenda” is a wonderful tale. Boyden is as much the storyteller as his characters. A definite must read and my signed copy is a wonderful addition to my collection.

Beautiful Artwork in Isabel Greenberg’s “The Encyclopedia of Early Earth”

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The best thing about Isabel Greenberg’s “The Encyclopedia of Early Earth” is the beautiful artwork that fills this graphic novel. Using a mix of ink and watercolour, Greenberg’s artistic touch bring this book alive. It is not filled with vibrant colours, however the watercolours bring life to the vast seas, the bright fires, and the clothing of new peoples as the protagonist, the storyteller, discovers the places and peoples of Early Earth. With muted tones of orange, yellow, and blue, the focus is drawn to the various natural elements and creates difference between the various people that Storyteller interacts with. Ink on paper demonstrates the vast and endless white of Nord and the people of Nord. The storyteller himself, originating from this frozen land, is unpainted and is drawn only in black and white. His colours are the epitome of Nord and those colours (or lack thereof) remain with him on his travels as he spreads the stories of his land and his people. 

Ink is also used throughout this graphic novel in a very textural way. The pictures reach out to the reader through their rough and realistic depiction. Creating such texture requires a lot of ink in each image, however Greenberg’s style leaves her images clear and clean. She plays with light and dark and that spotting of colour to add an emotional dimension to the story. She captures the long days and nights of Nord, the threat of the vast oceans, the density of the forests, and the cluttered bustling of city life with her careful hand.

Overall Greenberg’s story is a very sensory experience. The reader hears the words that the storyteller shares, feels the heat of the bright fires and the cold of the pale seas, feels the texture of the grass and the snow. Greenberg, a storyteller herself, shares this retelling of Earth’s origins and those first peoples with an overwhelming and tactile technique. 

I loved how the font throughout the novel is the author’s own penmanship developed into a computer font, as the author states in a note in the book. It added an extremely personal touch to the narrative and gave a visual to Greenberg’s own voice. 

My only criticism is that I did not feel a consistency in Greenberg’s own narrative. Often times I found the dialogue too simple for the quality of the images and it was quite basic in relation to other parts of the text. Other times her words were captivating and intense and evoked a very visceral experience in myself as the reader. As a reader, another edit to insure that there was a consistency in the strength of the authors voice throughout “The Encyclopedia of Early Earth” may have helped to make this graphic novel even better and to bring it to a whole new level. Those moments of writing that I felt were slightly weaker were, however, carried by the strength and beauty of the images, establishing this book, on the whole, as a beautiful work of art that I am thrilled to add to my collection.

If you’re looking for something wonderful to look at with stories of discover, exploration, love, magic, giants, gods, war, travel, shamanism, and more, this is the right book for you.

So Goes “Slaughterhouse-Five”

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It’s been a while since I’ve picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” but opening up this novel is like putting on my favourite pair of jeans. I don’t have too much to say about Vonnegut’s novel other than no matter how many times I read it, I enjoy it more than the previous time. 

I feel sympathy towards the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, and my feelings are likely similar to Billy’s daughter Barbara. His ramblings of alien abduction and his captivity in an alien zoo require a suspension of disbelief if one is to believe Pilgrim’s story. However, despite these ravings, if in fact they are simply ravings, Pilgrim is an interesting character. Although being pretty boring and simple and generally disliked by those around him, he has an in-depth outlook on life. 

“So it goes” the narrator says again and again. Billy learns from the Tralfamadorians, who can see the fourth dimension, that we exist, we have existed, and we always will exist. Although death comes to us all, we will continue to exist somewhere in time. Quite comforting, don’t you think? This also means that we die, have died, and will always die. Everything is inevitable. 

I love how Billy is “unstuck” in time. It provides excellent comedy to the brief window of Billy’s life that we read about. It gives dull Billy an air of excitement as the reader never knows where he’s going to end up in the next paragraph. 

I’ll pick up this book again soon. I can’t resist Vonnegut’s call from my bookshelf. And if you haven’t yet read “Slaughterhouse-Five,” well, it’s about time you do. 

 

Warming up to “Blankets” on a Chilly Day

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Craig Thompson’s “Blankets” is one of the best books I’ve picked up in a long time. Thompson’s black and white images are beautiful in their clarity and detail. I love the lack of any colour in the images. I feel as though colour would have taken away from the telling of Thompson’s story. Coloured ink would detract from truthful depiction of his memories. Through the use of black and white, Thompson tells his story without embellishment. I read the entirety of this graphic novel in a day, unable to put down its beautifully illustrated pages. Through his images, Thompson tells the story of his movement from childhood into adolescence and young adulthood and the struggles of being an outcast in both his secular and religious lives. 

“Blankets” is a story that most people will be able to connect with. We all feel like the outsider at some point in our lives. We all struggle to fit in or to find connections with others who feel as we do. Thompson shows through his protagonist, the difficulties of finding oneself and of learning to be an individual. Thompson’s character struggles especially because of his extremely devout Christian parents, teachers, and friends who disapprove of his art: art as a career, art as self-expression, art as a way to praise God. It is difficult for him to consolidate his love of drawing and the lack of support from the authority figures in his life. I’m sure we can all relate to this in one way or another.

Thompson’s character faces sexual awakening, abuse, rejection, and also first love, brotherly connection, and self-discovery. His relationships, both familial and romantic, are often governed by his understanding of Christianity and he often conceptualizes his actions in relation to his/his parents’ religion. Having grown up in the Catholic church and attending Catholic elementary and high school, I felt connected with Thompson’s story: the second guessing of one’s actions, the attempt to live as one is told is right. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed this story so much. I felt like I was reading my own story in a way. Ultimately, Thompson’s character leaves the church and finds happiness and sustainability in his art.

One of my favourite images in the entire book shows a teenage Thompson kneeling on the ground with the drawings of his childhood exploding from his mouth into the sky above him. It is accompanied by the discussion that although his drawing was a form of escapism for him throughout his childhood, no matter how much he desires to forget the past, those drawings that once provided relief are now what haunt him. The escape has become the inescapable. This image really resonated with me. 

This graphic novel is definitely being added to my “to read again” list. It’s telling of the struggles of adolescence is touching and stark. It is straightforward and truthful. I would recommend it to anyone, whether you love graphic novels or not, whether you’re religious or not. We’ve all experienced the emotions and the struggles that Thompson demonstrates in his drawings and with this medium of images, Thompson shares a breathtaking tale.