Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Summer Reading: And We're Done!

Well. That took longer than expected. Is it still even 2012?


The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers
This, I think, is one of my top books of the year. It's like a children's book, but for adults. Its chapters are divided up into easily manageable chunks, and its pages are filled with diagrams and line drawings that help the story along tremendously. The story begins with a tiny blue bear, lost at sea and floating in a nutshell. He is taken in and raised by a band of Minipirates, until the day that he grows too big for their boat, at which point they maroon him on a desert island. Bluebear goes on to have a series of wonderfully crazy adventures, all of which are extremely funny and clever. It's well-written. It has plot. The adventures may twist and turn but they all tie up at the end. It has great big ideas that are incredibly well-realised. And it's about a bear. It really is all you could ask for in a huge thick book of over 700 pages that feels like half that to read. My only regret is that my copy somehow got soggy and now the pages are all curled. I'm almost tempted to think that the water leaked out of one of the illustrations. That's how much I like it. And I just discovered that Moers has written other books set in the same universe. Huzzah!

The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser
The Australian Outback. Tom Loxley is walking his dog, letting it range along on 20 feet of rope tied to its collar. A distraction: he loses the rope, the dog runs off. Fearing that it will snag the rope and starve to death, or run over a cliff and hang itself, Loxley begins a desperate search for the dog, all the while ruminating on his childhood, on his relationship with mysterious and flamboyant artist Nelly Zhang, and on what will become of his ill and elderly mother. The chapters are labelled by weekdays, as Loxley counts the days that the dog is missing. The writing itself is solid: full of tiny truths and realistic vignettes, pretty and precise, picking out the tiny details that bring a story to life.

"In Victoria Street they bought rice-paper rolls from a man with exquisite hands. A soft-bellied god  smiled over joss sticks and golden mandarins. The public housing towers showed scattered patterns of light: the concrete punch cards of a superseded technology. A girl going past said, 'Forgiveness is really important. I forgive myself all the time now'."

What first sold me on this book was the endorsement by my favourite author on the front cover. It wasn't until I started reading that I realised I had read de Kretser's The Rose Grower some years back, and felt that although it was very prettily made it didn't really have much substance. The Lost Dog is somewhat better. I enjoyed it. I found it interesting, and well-written. But overall I found it rather unsatisfying, and lacking that elusive element that makes a book stand out as both special memorable.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
My last experience of Chevalier was somewhat disappointing, so I was pleased to find her back on top historical form with this tale of 19th century fossil hunters Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. The subject matter is very much to my taste: paleontology is fascinating stuff. And reading about Mary Anning - who contributed so much to the field and yet was often unacknowledged and relegated to the sidelines because of her gender and social class - is at once inspiring and humbling. But this is no dry historical text. Chevalier brings Anning and Philpot to life, so that we feel the icy wind on their faces and sympathise with their numb fingers chipping the fossils from the rock. You can read it as a story of friendship, or as an easy starter text on the subject of fossils. Or both. It made me want to learn more, to go out on the beaches of Lyme Regis and hunt out some fossils for myself. If you feel the same way, here's an short slideshow on Anning, narrated by Chevalier herself.

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