3 New Zealand Books For Junior Readers

Kate De Goldi and Kim Hill discuss three books on Radio New Zealand.

The Queen and the Nobody Boy by Barbara Else

This is the second installment, following The Travelling Restaurant, which is hysterically funny.

Sequels can fall down a bit but this is very good, if not a little more taut in its storytelling than the first.

Queen Sibilla is about to come of age and everyone hopes she’ll come into her magic, though there’s some anxiety around this. The story is told from the point of view of a young man. – Hodie, the odd-job boy. He’s a boy of character and sensibility and kindness. He ends up doing good against his better nature. This is a story of a growth of nature.

Else has a very arch way of poking fun at the inflated egos of people of status. For a fantasy writer she is very good at describing the material. There’s a lot of food in here too.

Highly recommended, especially for junior readers.

Guardian Review.

Here is the official Fontania Website.

The New Zealand Art Activity Book

This is allegedly for kids, but adults may want to keep it. Strongly reminiscent of a previous book about creative writing in the classroom. [If anyone knows what that book is, let me know!]

This book tries to jump would-be artists out of their comfort zones when it comes to making art. Exercises on every page narrows the process to give readers a specific way in to a project. There are ways of translating noise into art, ‘taking a line for a walk’, ‘sticking two pencils to your hand’, and other activities that wake up the kid inside the adult, or actual kids. You’re asked to cut things out of the book, so De Goldi recommends buying two — one to keep, because you don’t really want to cut bits out of it.

This book is full of fantastic ideas. Published by Te Papa Press.

A Winter’s Day in 1939

A really riveting first novel. Set during WWII. There are all the coordinates of people being taken away to camps. Adam and his family live in a part of Poland that was once the Ukraine. Their father has been given land as a reward for services to the army. He’s done good things with the land.

The story includes wonderful detail about living from the land. Readers will learn so much from that.

The story is not complicated, though there is a lot going on.

A device used is italicised, interpolated narration to explain what’s going on in the wider world of the war.

The story is told through the view of Adam, the second child in the family, and pretty immediately they are the victims of what’s going on between countries. Their farm is taken from them and so begins an enormous journey across a huge amount of the USSR. The author makes the reader wonder what it might be like to lose absolutely everything. Every now and again she reminds us clearly and sweetly that this is from a boy’s point of view (rather than an adult’s) because he’s feeding a rabbit.

The soviet labour camp is just dire, but their capacity for survival blows you away. There are many tales about children surviving through war, and this one can stand proudly beside them.

There is a big surprise at the end which will make you sad. The family eventually comes to New Zealand. This is the author’s father’s story blended with facts from other people’s lives. He had kept documentation. There is much attention to material detail. The relationships are fascinating, with the boy having a difficult relationship with his father.

There are small and big kindnesses from the people they eat.

There’s a strong sense of the family coming from the land, with the land being their life blood, which is surprising in a story with a backdrop of war.

Highly recommended for anyone between about 8 and 12, or even adults. Would be good to read aloud.

Unusual Eating Phobias

Getting annoyed at someone when we listen to them eating or breathing is called Misophonia, and it’s an actual neurological disorder.

 

Here are some more strangely specific fears:

 

Air swallowing- Aerophobia

Alcohol- Methyphobia or Potophobia

Chopsticks- Consecotaleophobia

Cooking- Mageirocophobia

Crystals or glass- Crystallophobia

Dampness, moisture or liquids- Hygrophobia

Dining or dinner conversations- Deipnophobia

Eating or swallowing- Phagophobia

Eating or food- Sitophobia or Sitiophobia

Eating or swallowing or of being eaten- Phagophobia

Food- Cibophobia

Garlic- Alliumphobia

Meat- Carnophobia

Mushrooms- Mycophobia

Sourness- Acerophobia

Taste- Geumaphobia or Geumophobia

Teeth- Odontophobia

Vegetables- Lachanophobia

 

Fantasy vs Reality In Children’s Stories: A hard balancing act

Fantasy is the metaphor through which we discover ourselves.

– Susan Cooper

“I think a lot about the fact that, for most of the history of literature that we know about, most literature was fantasy. Up through Shakespeare, it was not looked askance upon to have witches and magic and spirits in your stuff. The more time I spend reading and writing fantasy, the more perverse it seems to me that fiction has to pretend to act like the real world and obey the laws of thermodynamics.”

– Forget why fantasy matters. Why does realism matter? from io9

See Also: Four Techniques To Mix Fantasy With Realism from The Write Practice


 

In some ways, kids like things to be rightHere is a video of a four-year-old girl complaining that the picture of a toy dinosaur is anatomically incorrect. (I’d like to see her do some work with Barbie.) In other ways, kids love to be drawn into fantastic worlds. Picturebook creators tread a fine line between the two expectations.

 

Small Presses Contributing Great Books

Book Island is a new venture rather like Gecko Press in Wellington, bringing in European books to translate into English. There is room for two such enterprises — there must be because Gecko haven’t done these two particular books. Book Island is focusing on Dutch and Belgian books.

Sammy and the Great Skyscraper Sandwich by Lorraine Francis and Pieter Gaudesaboos

An incredibly simple story about Sammy who is very hungry and builds himself a massive sandwich.

The illustration style is 1950s formalism. This book asks you to hold it up and be a part of the story. There’s a lot of food in it, and there are lists of what will be put in this absurd sandwich. At the end he decides to just have a banana, which depicts the feeling you sometimes get after cooking something.

Bernie Loves Flora by Annemie Berebrouckx

Bernard derives from ‘Bear’. This is a take on that old story The Gift of the Magi. You can see what’s going to happen. At the end is a lovely index for the meaning of different flowers. It’s very sweet, very charming, a beautiful production for under fives, but a book to be appreciated by adults as well.

The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde are magnets for illustrators, particularly European illustrators (for obvious reasons).

See: How Hans Christian Andersen Revolutionized Storytelling, Plus the Best Illustrations from 150 Years of His Beloved Fairy Tales

The Little Mermaid

(This mini edition also happens to be a book app, developed by Auryn Apps.)

The number of times this has been either filmed or used as the basis for another story or otherwise recreated is astounding. The controversial thing about this story is the ending. Hans Christian Andersen was somewhat excoriated for in her time. Mary Woolstonecraft would not have approved. The basic idea is that unlike humans, mermaids don’t have a soul. They fuse with the foam in the tide and they die. It’s all about yearning and endurance. This has been appropriated in gay scholarship because Hans Christian Andersen may have written this story as a disguised love letter to the son of his mentor.

So the ending is often left off, because Andersen added a new ending a few years after writing the original, in which the sky fairies come down and tell her that there is a way of immortalising herself even though she is a mermaid. She has to do good and help others. Andersen’s ending said that every time a kid did a bad deed it took away a year in the life of daughters of the air. They cried, and every time a good deed was performed it added a year.

It’s interesting to see how this story is concluded in modern times. The original ending is simply not used. P. L. Travers, the real expert on fairytale, lambasted Andersen for the ending.

This particular edition has been illustrated most beautifully by the Viennese Lisbeth Zwerger, who has illustrated just about all the Grimms and Andersen stories. If you’re looking for a gorgeous edition of a classic fairytale, look for one illustrated by Zwerger. The pictures are in the tradition of Arthur Rackham, an English illustrator who used sepia tones, but she’s got a lot of colour in her work now. She also won the Hans Christian Andersen medal when she was only about 36 or 37, which is pretty extraordinary. She has exquisite perspectives. In these particular pictures the hair of the characters is quite arresting and is a standout feature. The pictures make you want to blow them up and hang them on the wall.

The translator, Anthea Bell, is also fantastic, and was the person charged with the formidable job of translating Asterix for the English speaking market.

It’s about six years old now, and if you buy the hard copy it makes a beautiful gift. [De Goldi does not mention the app version.]

View entire book online.

For more on The Little Mermaid, see: (Un)dressing The Little Mermaid: Disney Adapts Andersen from Bad Reputation

IN THE PHILIPPINES, YOU CAN GO TO A MERMAID ACADEMY AND LEARN TO SWIM LIKE ONE from Lost At E Minor

For a list of books about Mermaids, see this list from the Miami University Database

funny-reasons-mermaid-pant-perfect-hairbook of mermaids robin jacques cover

The Selfish Giant

This is a very sad story, along with The Happy Prince — a Christian allegory. This is a very beautiful edition illustrated by Australian based artist Ritva Voutila, published by Allen and Unwin. The illustrations are reminiscent of Maurice Sendak, bordering on the grotesque occasionally. The Giant looks rather attractive in a sort of soft, gentle way and he’s been depicted variously over the years, often as a skinny, fierce fellow depending on the period in which the artist is working. The pictures are dark and illustrated, scanned from full-blown oil paintings. This is one of the most beautiful retellings.

The stigmata is not too explicit in this version. At any rate, the child isn’t depicted ever. You find yourself looking for the child all the time, so it can be interpreted as the giant being a believer, but not everyone is. This is a product of a post-Christian era.

 

More in the gallery here.

MermaidsBooks

Things Possible With Digital Stories Which Are Not So Possible With Paper Stories

A lot is still being said about all the ways in which ebooks and tablet books are not as good as ‘real books’: you can’t smell them, there’s screen glare, you don’t know where you are up to in the book…

Ebooks: “I hate them. It’s like making believe there’s another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of book! A book is a book is a book.”

Maurice Sendak

Then there are the dissenters and skeptics who think that excessive focus on the physical beauty of books undermines the real purpose of literature, which can be found in the text and not in the vessel that delivers it.

Internet Book Fetishists, from The New Yorker

But there are also some excellent things that are newly possible in the age of digital books. I focus here on digital picturebooks in particular.

1. ALTERNATIVE ENDINGS AND OTHER NON-LINEAR STORYLINES

Postmodern Non-linearity

I know from book club that endings pose a particular challenge for authors; no single ending can satisfy all readers. But with eBooks and apps, technically, it’s possible to offer a few different endings. Whichever one the reader gets might be based on a few simple questions at the very beginning of the book, such as, ‘Do you have a high tolerance for ambiguity?’ or ‘Are you a fan of happy endings?’ or something like that. Or the reader might simply be asked, ‘Do you want the happy ending or the tragic ending?’

I can’t see publishers ever embracing the option to encourage readers not to read every single book in a series — publishers are making most of their money from series after all — but I write now of pie-in-the-sky possibilities afforded by the electronic age.

It’s possible that most readers don’t want to choose when they sit down with a book, though this doesn’t explain the popularity (though niche) market of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series. It’s possible that paper books do best when it comes to lengthy, linear works:

“Printed content also tends to be packaged in a way that encourages the reader to consume it, if not in its entirety in one go, at least in a linear fashion. In doing so, the reader leaves mental footprints from the beginning, through the middle, to the end of the textural landscape. Some psychologists believe these mental maps of a reader’s journey through a piece of text provide the deeper sense of understanding that distinguishes reading on paper from reading on a screen.”

The Paperless Dilemma

But what about the non-linear works? Speaking of her book Paradise, Toni Morrison said:

“People’s anticipation now more than ever for linear, chronological stories is intense because that’s the way narrative is revealed in TV and movies,” she says. “But we experience life as the present moment, the anticipation of the future, and a lot of slices of the past.”

Might we be on the cusp of a new age of non-linear storytelling?

 

2. MULTIPLE RATINGS IN THE ONE STORY

After realising that our three-year-old had remembered one of the more scary pages in a proto version of Midnight Feast, and that she was requesting this page before bedtime, I worried that she might start waking from nightmares. As it happened, she didn’t, but at the time I had been mulling over whether a certain scene in our next story was perhaps too scary for the more tender individuals in our target readership.

So for the Midnight Feast release version readers or parents can turn off the scariest elements of the story for younger or more sensitive readers. This is definitely something which might be more widely implemented if time and money were no object.

Related to this: Same book but not: Publishers offer titles in adult, kid versions (from the Los Angeles Times).

 

3. TOUCH INTERACTIVITY AND ANIMATION TO INDICATE THE PASSING OF TIME

Depicting the flow of time in a picturebook isn’t easy, especially if the story is for younger children, who haven’t yet learnt the usual codes. For instance, in Eva Eriksson’s illustration of The Wild Baby, we see six different babies on and around the stairs. The wild baby is doing a different naughty thing in each picture, and older readers will easily pick up that there are not suddenly six different wild babies — this is the same baby doing different naughty things successively. Young readers can get confused, wondering where the other wild babies came from.

A storybook app can avoid this problem, if touches to the screen get rid of one baby before the next one appears.

(Over at The Guardian, Naomi Alderman has contributed an excellent article in her capacity as both games writer and ‘serious writer’ explaining how interactive technologies open up various possibilities in storytelling.)

art by Alice and Martin Provensen. The Odyssey.
by Alice and Martin Provensen. The Odyssey.

 

4. THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE

The element of surprise in a picturebook is constrained by the page turn. In order to reveal something unexpected, an author/illustrator team must sometimes contrive the prose so that the surprise doesn’t happen on the recto side of a double spread, but rather overleaf. Lift-the-flap books do more with the element of surprise, though in my experience, are best man-handled by an older reader, even though the target readership are chubby little destructive fingers! In an app, a surprise can be hidden until it is found via touch.

 

5. SYNCHRONISING TEXT AND PICTURE

Related to this is that sometimes in a picturebook (though more often in illustrated stories) the words and pictures are somewhat out of sync. I notice when reading illustrated chapter books to my six year old that she’ll often ask about some element of a picture but if she were to wait for me to read all of the accompanying text she would have her questions explained. Sometimes questions are good; other times they are distracting, and occur only due to the constraints of the physical page. An app can manipulate timeing with touch interactivity; text and the relevant part of an illustration can appear together, or not, as best serves the reader.

 

6. BORROWING ELEMENTS OF FILM

For Hilda Bewildered we are playing around with various light effects in the screen transitions. Done badly, these can look like a terrible PowerPoint presentation. On the other hand, various film camera techniques can enhance a picture book in an unobtrusive and subtle way. For example, a ‘pan’ can be emulated by swiping to reveal more of a scene; a zoom effect can get around the limitations of the fixed-size screen; tilt-shift can be emulated to draw attention to a certain story element; the list is endless, if only the budget were.

 

7. WORD PLAY

I haven’t seen this yet (not to say it doesn’t exist) but there are many possibilities for word placement. In a printed book, the words are static on the page, which is indeed fine for most stories. But there is plenty of scope for an imaginative development team to come up with an interactive picturebook in which the movement/substitution/reader-selection of words becomes part of the story, and fosters a love of language via word play. Inspiration can be drawn from (rather old-fashioned, now) tomes of word puzzles (you know the kind, printed on newsprint, designed to be written in), or perhaps inspiration can come from some of the many word game apps on the App Store today. In an app, words could be flung off the page, arranged by the reader (a la Endless Alphabet), shuffled around to create something new (like fridge magnet poetry with pictures to match)… The possibilities are endless for developers who are adept in storytelling.

 

8. PALIMPSESTIC POSSIBILITIES

This style of painting by Tang Yau Hoong is perfectly suited to rub-to-reveal interactivity.
This style of painting by Tang Yau Hoong is perfectly suited to rub-to-reveal interactivity.

The rub-to-reveal feature of some book apps is sometimes used to no real effect, but we have used it with a definite purpose in mind: The image which is revealed beneath the rubbings reveals the inner-world of a character, or in Hilda Bewildered it reveals a different interpretation of the same event. The underlying picture can be completely different or it can be mostly the same. In a printed book, palimpsestic relationships between spreads work well if the picture is completely different; harder to convey is where the picture is only slightly different. The rub-to-reveal abilities of touch screens draw readers’ attention towards similarities in a way I’ve only seen in ‘Spot the difference’ type gamification in printed books.

 

9. SOUND EFFECTS AND NARRATION

This is yet another area to get badly wrong, but when done right, sound effects and music can really enhance the mood of a story. Print books sometimes come bundled with CDs; others such as the Little Einstein publications have a panel of buttons which the young reader can press when told to inside the story. In picturebook apps, sound is more flexible: Sound can either autoplay, or it can be activated by the user, depending on how the developers would like to manipulate the reader’s experience of the story. Sound effects can be calm and unobtrusive or they can be surprising and comical. It almost goes without saying, but the read-aloud benefits of narration help emerging readers and readers with dyslexia. Even competent readers can be helped though difficult texts via narration. Other apps may avoid the option of narration, opting instead for a soundscape that sounds best on its own.

 

10. CINEMAGRAPHIC INTEREST

A cinemagraph is like a GIF. Well, it is a GIF, except the difference between a cinemagraph and a GIF of a cat falling down a crevice over and over again is that a cinemagraph is more subtle, and often loops seemlessly. For instance, the only moving part in a cinemagraph of a woman sitting on a park bench may be the slight up and down movement of her foot. This simple movement can signify her impatience in a way a static picture could not. In short, the cinemagraphic possibilities of pictures in apps allow for even more telling of the story via pictures, which is good, because picturebook apps don’t tend to do well with large blocks of text.

 

11. HELPING WITH READING DIFFICULTIES

I’m looking forward to emerging research on this.

Reading Difficulties

 

***

But in the end, is it right to expect more of a storyapp than of a picturebook? Is it not enough to expect the same immersive experience, preferably shared? Such discussions are taking place all around the Internet, with a variety of diverse opinions. As for me, I’m looking forward to seeing the research, which is by necessity behind the new technology itself.

 

Talk of ‘Babysitting’

Good apps or games should facilitate conversation between parents and children during this play, not get in the way of it.

– from a study from the Children’s Media Center at Georgetown University, summarised here.

But I don’t really buy the idea that gadgets can babysit. Kids need attention, and they demand it.

This chair sums it up perfectly.

chair

It’s called The Abooba Chair. Someone without kids — or else someone with an amazing tune-out ability — designed it to allow parents to read while their children play.

Bwahahahahahahaha

Do We Have Free Will?

brain

Graham Lawton: Even people who have largely come to terms with neuroscience find certain ideas troubling—particularly free will. Do we have it?

Patricia Churchland: A better question is whether we have self-control, and it’s very easy to see what the evolutionary rationale of that is. We need to be able to maintain a goal despite distractions. We need to suppress certain kinds of impulses. We do know a little bit about the neurobiology of self-control, and there is no doubt that brains exhibit self-control.

Now, that’s as good as it gets, in my view. When we need to make a decision about something—whether to buy a new car, say—self-control mechanisms work in ways that we understand: We decide not to spend more than we can afford, to go with the more or less practical car. That is what free will is. But if you think that free will iscreating the decision, with no causal background, there isn’t that.

Slate: The Self As Brain

Using iPads In The Classroom

Excellent Books Released 2012 Which May Have Flown Under Your Radar

Kate De Goldi and Laura Kroetsch discuss books of 2012 on Radio New Zealand

Lists have been massively cut. So the number of books traditional publishers is shrinking, so people have to find new avenues to follow. We used to poo-poo self publishing but in the USA and increasingly in Australia lots of good stuff is happening online and in zines. New writing feels really healthy.

Self-publishing is happening in a very quiet way, often from mainstream published authors, things to share among friends e.g. Noel McKenna and Jenny Bornholdt’s Knives: A Personal History, very cheaply produced chapbook distributed last Christmas among their friends, hysterically funny. This gets no audience beyond friends. Sally Schwartz has been publishing zines — lo-fi publishing, done on computers and historically on photocopiers. Zines were an underground movement that came out of punk rock. (Chapbooks have been around since the beginning of publishing.)

The same thing is happening with blogs. A number of people have high literary blogs. Blogs are no different from printed matter in that readers discover them primarily via word-of-mouth. Bloggers are also no different from most writers in that most writers don’t make enough money to live. The average author in Australia makes about 6k per year. This can be a liberating notion because then you can do what you want. Bernard Beckett is a good example of a writer who uses a blog to write about various political and social issues.

Communities of readers are important for book discovery, along with online journals. The power has moved away from publishers and back to readers.

One bugbear for Laura: there’s almost no American literature in New Zealand and Australia.

eBooks

The problem in the eBook market is that there’s no consistent pricing. Many eBooks are priced the same as the paperbacks. It’s good that indie bookshops in NZ are bringing in Kobo readers, but who is going to pay $40 for an eBook? Kate is about to get a Kobo, partly to support booksellers as an ethical decision (rather than getting a Kindle). Owning a Kindle though can dramatically increase your purchase of books because of instant gratification. But publishers need to address the fact that readers of eBooks read twice as many books as readers of paperbacks. Why do readers have to carry the complete bag on this one? Why must publishers continue to charge so much for eBooks? This view is controversial.

The Publishing Industry 2012

The merging of big publishing companies in 2012 is very concerning. The number of places writers are pitching to will be more limited, and it will probably reduce the amount of money authors are getting. The fallout will be indie booksellers.

In a way, the collapse of the industry has been good for creativity. We have to let go of this notion that we’re going to make money. Huge sums of money are not going to change hands. If you want to make money, write Harlequin Romances.

Misery Memoirs

The ‘Misery Memoir’ seems very popular this year. The biography section used to be quite different. De Goldi thinks that the misery memoir forms the worst of the YA genre, and that misery memoir tends to be read by people still forming their reading tastes, popular among 17, 18, 19, 20 year olds. Everything is overblown and less than profound and the narrator is unreliable. It’s untransformed experience. It’s literal, and when it hits the page it becomes something else. Once a reader’s experience becomes more nuanced they start to want something else. This isn’t to diminish the experience the writers of such novels have actually had. They are a strange gauge of what’s going on in mental health. For years it was sexual abuse, there’s also been a period of books about eating disorders, cutting, drugs, another period of people writing about being overweight children. For Christmas this year there seems to be a surge of ‘I went crazy for a month’ sort of story. A lot that comes out of the USA speaks to the pharmacological industry. It’s the season of ‘Crazy Books’. (A M Homes May We Be Forgiven – something Oprah would promote if she went mad.) Misery memoir is quite different from the literary tradition. To become literary, a miserable experience must have been through a mouli of all sorts of other things from literature, which isn’t about hype and ‘unearned emotion’. Have we been misled by this thing we know as ‘real’, in the ‘reality TV’ sense of the word. Anecdote is not literature.

 

Kate’s Selection

Francis Spufford is a very intelligent writer who also writes with beautiful prose.

The Child That Books Built (Observer review) is autobiographical.

Red Plenty is about British boffins and English inventors.

Kate talks about Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Good Sense. The author himself doesn’t know if he believes. He’s non-fundamentalist, but has enormous theological understanding. Would one only enjoy it if one were disposed to faiths? Heaps of atheists really like it, so no. Spufford doesn’t like that people of faith are often cast as unfashionable. He’s cross about Dawkins having the moral highground.

Kate’s favourite book for 2012 is The Invisible Rider by Kirsten McDougall, a NZ book. This is a novel/novella about a married man living in the Happy Valley somewhere in Wellington wanting to engage with the world in an ethical way but isn’t quite getting it together. Elegiac, poetic and beautifully put together. Although it’s about a middle-aged man it’s pretty much the opposite of Jonathan Franzen. Philip, the main character, is the invisible rider. Each episode could stand alone as a vignette. It could be called a broken novel or discontinuous narrative.

Blueprints for a Barbed Wire Canoe by Wayne Macauley

This Australian author has written two books previously. This book has a post apocalyptic feel about it. People drain away and survivors are left behind to deal with a surreal surround. It’s a quite excoriating comment on modern consumption and yet is a hopeful call for community. Macauley is a wonderful writer and thinker. He’s making a connection with destroyed civilisation and saying something about what we’re doing to ourselves. He’s also written about arts funding in a scathing way. Macauley’s earlier books were sitting in his publishers garage, and he has been pulled back from obscurity after writing for 20 years and having books fall out of print. He’s not a big name yet. He is a uniquely talented writer. In some way his obscurity has served him well. He’s been able to do what he wanted. He’s been involved in drama and theatre in Melbourne as well.

Edith Pearlman

Lots of people wonder why they haven’t heard of Edith Pearlman before. How many great short story tellers do we know, though? Short story writers are the Cinderellas of literary world. Ann Patchett has a lovely forward, full of praise. She’s sort of compared to Alice Munro. Pearlman is a fantastic stylist. The stories are faultless. She writes about Jewish people all over the world. Pearlman says it’s so much easier to write about despair than to write about hope. But Pearlman is able to do it.

 

I Got His Blood On Me by Lawrence Patchett

Another collection of short stories. Patchett had some firm views about historical fiction. He didn’t want to approach it in the way he’d been reading it. He writes almost speculative historical fiction which requires the reader to have a different entry point. He writes about Maori and he wants to be sure to have a perspective on them which is from the Pakeha rather than coopting them, so to speak. This feels like a very fresh new voice.

He regards writing as being like a craft, like a carpenter or a piano player in that you have to work at it.

He grew up without a television. Neither did Edith Pearlman, as it happens. (She’s not good on popular culture.)

Laura’s Selection

A.M. Homes’ last book was This Book Will Save Your Life.

May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes

Her new one is the story of two brothers and a man’s midlife crisis. Do we end up caring? Yes, enormously. She’s taking huge aim at contemporary American culture.  Homes has a lot more humanity than Jonathan Franzen. Both authors take modern life to task. But Franzen seems to have given up on us as a people, that our own greedy, messy ways have been our undoing.  People don’t know enough about Homes. That said, she’s a very disturbing writer. So does Franzen, but Homes may not be for everyone.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

This novel has gone like a rocket, about two boys surviving in the Iraq war. One gets killed, the other comes home. It’s told in past tense, so we know from the start that he survives. This highlights the crucial decision of tense. The past tense also allows the writer to question the big questions about being in the war in a larger, philosophical way. Their place in the war is meaningless. Only fiction can convey this idea. The character only sees it by looking back in a reflective way. This is an extraordinary book. The author was himself in the Iraq war for two years. Nearly half of the narrative is set back home, not in Iraq. An American soldier commits suicide everyday in America. There has been a reluctance to talk about it. The author talks very well about the desire to be annihilated, but at the same time there is something very hopeful about it. This book has been lavished with awards but deserved.

The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham

Shockingly forensic but also hugely moving.

Joan Wickersham’s new book is The News From Spain.

This is a series of love stories that begin in the 14th century and which all in some way involve the phrase ‘the news from Spain’. They are sad, with a terrible emotional poignancy about them. The author is an amazing stylist and a trickster. Each time you don’t expect ‘the news from Spain’ to occur, and yet it has.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner

This collection is from a Canadian writer. (First name is pronounced Suzy.) Short stories are something that exist within a community. Gartner is an incredibly refreshing voice who is not for everyone because she’s also a very manic voice. Her stories are about all the ways in which we collide with technology, and about how the world has become frenetic in bad ways. They’re funny, and reminiscent of Miranda July. She’s a clever writer with very engaging characters, but she’s writing about the oddballs in the confusing world we live in. She’s very attached to the short story form and has talked about stupid literary bias against the form. The same thing happens in NZ. Like a poet, who can sell 500 copies but have a great reputation online. You can watch a writer for years and years and be really delighted when the collected stories come out. There will be a whole community of readers who do know about short story writers and poets but then they seem to break out when someone gives them an award or a collection comes out.