Tag Archives: adventure

Book Review: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes Is a Bildungsroman and Issue Book for All

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Let me preface this review with a life update:  I’m back in grad school!  I’m about to embark on my first ever online course: ENG 561: Giving Voice to the Voiceless, a literature class taught by the Hillary Homzie.  We will be reading books where the writer has given voice to an otherwise voiceless child or teen, whether that child is physically incapable of speech, she is forced to be silent by adults, or her situation is such that her voice cannot be heard, and examine the techniques and forms used by these writers in trying to genuinely capture a voiceless voice to be able to emulate these in our own writing.

This class is going to consist primarily of realistic fiction, and a lot of it will be darker.

Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is not the first book on our reading list, but it was the first that I was able to get my hands upon, again, having found it at my local used bookstore.  It is a hard read.

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is narrated by Eric “Moby” Calhoune, a once fat middle school student, now a somewhat slimmer high school swim team star.  Eric’s best friend is Sarah Byrnes, a tough and clever girl who has been outcast because of the severe burns that mar her face.  Those burns she claims to have gotten when, as a toddler, she pulled a boiling vat of water off the stove.  At the beginning of the novel, Sarah Byrnes (who goes only by her full name because she is aware of its irony and would prefer others to ridicule her on her terms to her face rather than behind her back) has ceased talking and ceased responding to the world at large.  She is living in a psychiatric ward, where Eric visits her.

The bildungsroman follows Eric as he tries to negotiate the secrets that he learns and the pain that he experiences.  Apart from Sarah Byrnes’ apparent withdrawal from the world, Eric is in a new class where they discuss relevant contemporary issues (abortion and religion are the main issues to which Crutcher devotes scenes), is striving to ready himself for the state swim championships, gains a girlfriend as his mother gains a boyfriend….  Issues that arise in the class force him to reevaluate his rival, who is a legalistic Christian.

Crutcher incorporates more of a villain and more of plot into his bildungsroman than some (Salinger) have done, and I greatly appreciate that for its good-versus-evil battle familiarity.  I think that this and the broader spectrum of issues with which Crutches deals (abortion, child abuse, the dangers of a narrow worldview and a worldview that allows only perfection, suicide; issues that should be talked about, dealt with) make Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes more readable than some others and rescue Staying Fat from the casual label of “boys’ book” that I would throw at it on the grounds of it being a bildungsroman from a male perspective.  I believe that Staying Fat is readable, enjoyable, and helpful to both genders.  Another “well done” to Crutcher.

As per giving voice to the voiceless:  Crutcher uses voicelessness in two ways: first as a disability or effect of abuse (as with Sarah Byrnes, Jody Mueller, and Mark Brittain) and second as a shield against abuse or hurt (as with Sarah Byrnes and Carver Middleton).  This paradoxical dichotomy lends an original voice and complexity to the very idea of voicelessness and makes the novel both more enjoyable and interesting.

The epilogue resolves what it can and allows for a generally happy ending to a heavy and dark read, while acknowledging that high school and the beginning of college are a time of flux and it cannot be tied in a neat bow.

***3/4

Crutcher, Chris.  Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.  New York: Greenwillow-HarperTempest-HarperCollins, 2003.  First published 1993.

This review is not endorsed by Chris Crutcher, Greenwillow Books, HarperTempest, HarperCollins Children’s Books, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Quick and Light Romp in Gooseberry Park Hides a Shadowy Theme

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I first read Cynthia Rylant’s Gooseberry Park as part of my local library’s Nutmeg Book Award group in 2000.  Looking over the list of nominees, I am either amazed that this book left such a lasting impression upon me—or certain that I missed several weeks of the program (both are possible, but the latter actually more likely as I know that Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted is on my to-read and not my read list).

I had of late been itching to reread Gooseberry Park and snatched the first copy that I found on the shelves of my local used bookstore.

Gooseberry Park is a quick story of friendship, the coming together of unlikely friends in acts of heroism against nature and disaster, using manmade comforts to combat the cold and the ice and to find one another again after natural disaster has separated them—and wow, that just got a whole lot deeper and darker than I ever gave the book credit for being.  Generally, a man over nature plot is not one to which I ascribe.

The story is fun and easy (apparently hiding some deeper, darker themes).  Humor peppers the story, often through the animal characters’ fascination with human inventions, primarily through Murray, a bold and scatterbrained bat.

Arthur Howard’s memorable, expressive, and realistically rendered illustrations are much to be praised I think for the book’s memorability.

Fans of Rylant’s Mr. Putter and Tabby series for younger readers will find some familiarity in Gooseberry Park, though Mr. Putter is the protagonist of that series and here Professor Albert is more of a background figure while the animals take a more prominent role.  This, like that, is children’s literature with adult protagonists, a rarer thing among children’s literature, and something I would not expect to work well, except that I have heard young children say how much they enjoy the Mr. Putter and Tabby series and Pixar’s movies, almost all of which I have felt were fantastic and many of which have been major blockbusters, have honored almost exclusively adult protagonists.  Somehow, though, it is easy to forget that Stumpy, Kona, and Murray are adults, though Stumpy’s motherhood is central to the plot; only wise Gwendolyn the hermit crab reads unmistakably like an adult, and she is the senior of the other three main animal characters.

In rereading, I was honestly a bit disappointed with Gooseberry Park, but I had also held it high in my mind and had been eager to reread it.  As I said, it was fun and it was quick, and apparently there were themes that I hadn’t expected to find and didn’t recognize till I sat down to analyze the light read, but I’m also unsure why I remembered it with such fondness unless it was for its illustrations and readability—both of which I have to praise.

***

Rylant, Cynthia.  Gooseberry Park.  New York: Apple-Scholastic, 1998.  First published in 1995.

This review is not endorsed by Cynthia Rylant, Apple Paperbacks, Scholastic, Inc, or the Nutmeg Book Award committee of 2000 or any other year.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Invention of Hugo Cabret: The Book That Was Meant to Win Oscars and the Caldecott

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I finally got hold of a copy of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret and tore through it.  I took it out Thursday night.  I was done by Sunday afternoon.  For me, that’s a quick read, but as I pointed out to my mother when she expressed her surprise that I had finished, it’s only 26,159 words and 158 pictures.  For those looking for some perspective, that’s just over fifty typed pages of text; this review is just over one page including the independence claim.

This book was made to be cinematically adapted.  Film history is central to the plot, and film can be so much better appreciated as moving picture than as stills, though it is obvious that Selznick has done his research.  The book even includes sketches of creatures never created and set designs for Méliès films.

I wondered how much Martin Scorsese had changed the plot, but as it turns out, Scorsese adjusted very little; he cut one or two characters to more fully focus on others, avoided some of the injuries incurred in the drama, and tweaked the dialogue and the staging of a few scenes.  One of the main differences between the book and the film is the focus put on more minor characters.  Selznick’s book more narrowly focuses on Hugo’s and Georges Méliès’ story.  Scorsese expands Hugo’s idea that all the world is a machine and all the men and women in it merely cogs and that no cog is extraneous in a machine, so no person is extraneous.  Scorsese decided to treat all the characters in his story, then, as with the importance and respect that the world would give them as vital cogs.  The Station Inspector, Madame Emile, and Monsieur Frick are given their own individual stories in Scorsese’s film.  In Selznick’s novel, they are cogs to move Hugo and Méliès towards their destinies, vital but meant to be virtually unseen, as one sees the clock’s hand move without seeing the inner workings.  Both are interesting ways of viewing the people who come into and disappear out of our lives.  I don’t think that I judge either as having more merit.  Though I enjoyed knowing the back-stories of these characters in Scorsese’s film, in Selznick’s book, I appreciated the speed and focus of the story too.  If Hugo had stopped to observe others, I wonder if it would have seemed to slow the plot and maybe even break Hugo’s character.  Hugo in both versions is focused and task-oriented; I don’t know that he would be distracted by the interactions of the crowd as the audience is in Scorsese’s film.

I want to amend too what I said earlier: Selznick’s book is more like a flipbook than a picture book.  One turns the pages, viewing each full page illustration, and follows the story that way till the flipbook is interrupted by text, which expands upon the story, offering ideas that could not perhaps be grasped as fully in illustrations alone, names and relations, for example.  It is a beautiful symbiosis of text and image, film and book.

Beyond being beautiful and revolutionary in composition, this is a delightful story of finding family and friends, the importance of dreams, and a person’s ability to “fix” another.  I add my praise to others’.

****1/2

Selznick, Brian.  The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  New York: Scholastic, 2007.

Hugo.  Dir. Martin Scorsese.  GK Films and Infinitum Nihil, 2011.  Film.

This review is not endorsed by Brian Selznik, Scholastic, GK Films, Infinitum Nihil, Martin Scorsese, anyone in the cast, or anyone involved in making the film.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader and viewer.

Film Review: The Inventive Hugo of Martin Scorsese

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I finally did it!  I finally went out and saw films!

One was Hugo, the cinematic adaptation of Brian Selznick’s graphic novel dare I say “revolutionary” graphic novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  I have not yet been able to get my hands on a copy of the book for any longer than to flip through the pages and admire the detailed, dynamic, black-and-white illustrations (for those who will understand, much in the style of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick).  Having done that much, I recognized the dynamism and imagination of Selznick’s illustrations in the film.  Having seen that much, I think I can claim that Hugo in some ways, then, captured the spirit of Selznick’s novel, which I look forward to reading, especially after seeing the film adaptation.

I very much enjoyed the film version of the story, though as the friends with whom I saw the film said afterward, the film’s plot is more loose than I generally enjoy.

But aside from plot, there are real reasons to see the film:

The cinematography is absolutely stunning.

Another feature of note is the risks that the director, Martin Scorsese, took in looking back on a bygone era of film and reintroducing it to a modern audience beside 3-D (Hugo was very much intended to be a 3-D film; even wearing Hank Green’s 2-D glasses to prevent the film from being ruined by my dislike of and discomfort when watching 3-D films, I could tell and appreciate that) and highly advanced computer animation.  Hugo includes snippets of reenacted Georges Méliès films, produced between 1896 and 1913, of a style that would be laughed at if presented alone to modern audiences, I feel.  The colors are strange, the costumes are blatant, and the effects can hardly compare with what computers have allowed present-day filmmakers to do.  For its time, my friends and I agreed, those films would have been fantastic, especially as Hugo talks of them as the introduction of imagination and dreamscape into film.

By including such films, Hugo compares itself to them, naming itself a reintroduction of imagination and dreamscape, a label that I would almost allow the film to claim for its creative storytelling and mix of modern and ancient.  But there are many films more imaginative and more dreamlike than Hugo, including I think it must be said, James Cameron’s visually stunning Avatar (2009).  However, these film clips remind me of the graphic novel upon which Hugo is based, graphic novels being an incorporation of words and pictures and, in some ways, a reclamation of the picture book for older audiences.  The film clips suggest to me that Hugo was made in the spirit of the original graphic novel, as Hugo reclaims Méliès’ films for the modern audience and integrates different storytelling and filmmaking techniques.

A tale of humanity, of searching for love, of searching for purpose, and of the necessity of healthy interactions between humans, Hugo is a philosophically heavy film, and I would actually say that at times, it seems to preach.  But I mostly forgave the film these speeches were poetic, and the tale—the dangers and interactions between characters—kept my  attention.

Hugo.  Dir. Martin Scorsese. GK Films and Infinitum Nihil, 2011.  Film.

This review is not endorsed by GK Films, Infinitum Nihil, Martin Scorsese, anyone in the cast, or anyone involved in making this film. It is an independent, honest review by a viewer.