Kids Books: Not Just for Kids

In preparation for the publication (tomorrow!) of Mockingjay–the last, highly anticipated installment in Suzanne Collins Hunger Games Trilogy–I thought I’d draw your attention to an article in The New York Times entitled “The Kids’ Books Are Alright.” This article picks up on a discussion that’s been batted around by many over the last few years, one concerning the fact that adults are progressively buying and reading a greater and greater amount of books published for and marketed towards Young Adults. Check out these statistics:

“According to surveys by the Codex Group, a consultant to the publishing industry, 47 percent of 18- to 24-year-old women and 24 percent of same-aged men say most of the books they buy are classified as young adult. The percentage of female Y.A. fans between the ages of 25 and 44 has nearly doubled in the past four years. Today, nearly one in five 35- to 44-year-olds say they most frequently buy Y.A. books. For themselves.”

The author, Pamela Paul, doesn’t try to decipher, as many have tried before, whether it’s “okay” that adults are reading ‘kid’s books’ more avidly–which actually, I appreciate. She does, however, talk to a lot of literary-minded people and publishing types who are enthusiastic fans of young adult lit and try to explain the draw. The genre’s attention to emotion, its timeless themes of self-discovery and maturation, and its focus on plot are all suggested as being particular draws, along with Paul’s notion that “Y.A. may also pierce the jadedness and cynicism of our adult selves.”

Whatever the appeal, I’m looking forward to picking up Mockingjay tomorrow and ferreting it home with me to read, in one setting, on my couch after work. If you will be doing the same, let me know what you think! I haven’t been this excited about a series since Harry Potter.

Kansas City’s Community Bookshelf

With their Community Bookshelf, the Kansas City Public Library has taken an innovative and beautiful approach to public outreach, urban beautification, and large scale art. The ‘bookshelf’ is actually a ‘signboard mylar’ wall mural running the length of a parking garage (several blocks) which represents “22 titles reflecting a wide variety of reading interests as suggested by Kansas City readers and then selected by The Kansas City Public Library Board of Trustees.” Each book is 25 feet by 9 feet, which I can only imagine is pretty spectacular to walk by. Titles on the book shelf include a number of Kansas-related titles, as well as 100 Years of Solitude, O, Pioneers!, and Harold and the Purple Crayon.

For more on the bookshelf and descriptions of each of the titles represented, see the KCPL website: http://www.kclibrary.org/?q=community-bookshelf

I Curse the River of Time

By now, most people are at least aware of Per Petterson, if not enthusiastic fans: his novel, Out Stealing Horses, made its way onto many ‘Best Of’ lists in 2007, when it was translated into English and also won the Dublin IMPAC award (beating out fellow contenders J.M. Coetzee and Cormac McCarthy, among others). So anticipation has been high for Petterson’s next novel, which comes to us in the form of his surprisingly funny, achingly self-aware, and nostalgic novella, I Curse the River of Time.

Of the (one and a half) other Petterson novels I’ve read, this one was by far my favorite. I loved this book and spent quite a lot of time reading passages out loud to people sitting next to me.  There’s one in particular which not only contains the source of the book’s title, but really shows the narrator, the story, and the overall tone of the novel at its best:

My youngest brother had gone to the Soviet Embassy in Oslo and persuaded the staff to give him a photo of their president…[M]y brother carefully carried the photo home and had it framed and gave it to my mother for her birthday.

“Hang that above your bed,” he said, “then you can talk to him before you fall asleep. Like Arvid talks to Mao.”

And she did, for fun really, but it was not true that I used to speak to Mao. That would have been childish. I did have a picture of Mao above my sofa bed in the early Seventies, that is true, because there was space for it above the bed. But I had a picture of Bob Dylan there too and one of Joni Mitchell on a beach in California (Oh California, California, I’m coming home) plus a reproduction of a landscape by the English painter, Turner, because I had read somewhere that he painted his pictures with brushes dipped in tinted steam and I thought that was beautifully put, so when I came across a poster of one of his paintings of the sea from outside the town of Whitby on the English coast, a town I had been to the year before, I bought it because I thought I could see that it was true.

The picture of Mao I had was the well-known retouched photograph where he sits hunched over his desk writing with one of those Chinese brush pens, and I always thought, or hoped, that it was not one of his political or philosophical articles he was writing, but one of his poems, perhaps the one which begins:

Fragile images of departure, the village back then.
I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed.

for it showed the human Mao, someone I was drawn to, someone who had felt time battling his body, as I had felt it so often myself; how time without warning could catch up with you and run around beneath my skin like tiny electric shocks and I could not stop them, no matter how much I tried.

There’s lots of good supplementary reading I’d like to point out as well. The book was reviewed in The Guardian and The New York Times, and while both reviews put I Curse the River in the context of the rest of Petterson’s work, the writers highlight pretty different elements of his work.

A really fascinating profile on Petterson was also published in The Washington Post in 2007, right after he won the IMPAC. Not least, The Guardian published a profile in 2009 (which seems to quote quite a bit from the Post article) and includes a number of Petterson’s personal anecdotes.

I reviewed I Curse the River of Time for The L Magazine. Read the piece on their website, or see the full text below.

***

It’s the fall of 1989 and although he doesn’t know it yet, Arvid Jansen’s life is in shambles. His wife is leaving him. His mother, just diagnosed with cancer, will die in a little over a week. The Berlin Wall is days from falling. On the cusp of these upheavals, Arvid—a fervent communist who left college to work in a factory—remains firmly entrenched in his own suffering. Discovering that his mother left Oslo alone to return to her small Danish hometown, he follows her, uninvited. He finds her sitting on a beach. “I knew she was ill, she might even die,” he recalls. “…[A]nd yet I said: ‘Mother, I’m getting a divorce.'”

Balancing regret with resignation, Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time is a novel in which the clarity of hindsight offers little comfort. Petterson set himself a high bar with his previous novel, the cathartic and introspective Out Stealing Horses. But he is unquestionably at his best in this newest work, a frank meditation on the youthful missteps and crippling self-absorption which have defined one man’s life.

“I am not Arvid Jansen,” Petterson has stated, but there is no doubt that this richly realized character is a natural conduit for the author’s own experiences: shades of Petterson’s family history have colored all of his works. Arvid was first introduced in In the Wake, which fictionalized the 1990 ferry disaster that killed two of Petterson’s brothers and both of his parents. Petterson also explored his mother’s childhood in Nazi-occupied Denmark in To Siberia; his distant father is a recurrent figure in many of his novels.

It is only natural then that a familial relationship—between Arvid and his mother—grounds I Curse the River of Time. A dedicated reader of three languages, Arvid’s mother never went to college, but rather spent her life working in a chocolate factory. When Arvid announces that he is leaving school to join the proletariat—despite his suspicions that “the working class I spoke of was not quite the same one my mother and father belonged to”—their relationship is irrevocably damaged.

In the course of Arvid’s recollections, however, it becomes clear that the maternal rejection he subsequently feels was the consequence of many previous injuries, not simply one choice. He is openly resentful of his father, an uneducated factory worker who went out of his way to get Arvid a job at the paper mill where he once made a living. When his younger brother dies, he wonders, watching his mother mourn, “…if I were the one… dying… would she be so unconditionally absorbed by what was happening to me?”

Petterson’s lovely prose draws the reader into Arvid’s mind, into a slow-building quasi-monologue where the simplest observation—stated almost plainly—becomes poetic. He describes “trees by the streams blown bare,” and hospital rooms “painted white, painted apple green.” Offset by Arvid’s fumbling, comical pronouncements—”I hated Stalin, he had ruined everything”—these lyrical passages attest to the sharp insight that Arvid has finally attained. Stranded in the present, Arvid can only now appreciate the missed opportunities of even the most troubled days of his young life. “Life lay ahead of me,” he realizes. “Nothing had been settled.”

Young Men in the Woods: On Norwegian Literature

Earlier this year (March, to be exact) the journal N+1 published an article by Silje Bekeng entitled “Into the Woods,” which explored “what happens when rich, well-traveled, and well-educated children from a tiny Viking country covered in forest grow up and try to write fiction.”

Intrigued, I printed out a copy of the essay to read on the train, but life being rather hectic at that time, the article got lost in the shuffle and I only recently found it in a pile of papers on my desk. And although I’m months behind the news cycle (again), this particular delay seems fortuitous, as Bekeng’s examination seems to quite nicely dovetail with the reading–and reviewing–of Norwegian literature that I’ve been doing lately: namely, Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time.

After admitting that she will “resort to generalizations” about the state of literature in Norway today, Bekeng makes a few amusing observations about recently published novels:

“One character keeps showing up in our books: the young man having a breakdown in the woods.

he plot goes something like this: the young man has never left his hometown, or has returned (because of the death of a parent) after an unsuccessful attempt at life in the big, unruly world. He has some problems communicating. Sometimes the reader is left to wonder if he might be mentally retarded.He might meet a traditional animal, like a dog or an elk, that plays a significant role in the novel.

He listens to the silence, falls apart. The story mostly stays within the tradition of realism, though it sometimes flirts with surrealist tendencies. How crazy is he really? Would he ever hurt himself—or someone else? Toward the end, he might seem about to regain his composure. He will probably decide to remain in the countryside. Norwegians resemble Americans in this respect: we know that truth is something people find while walking in golden fields of wheat, that small-town life is more real than city life, and that real people are those who grow up with dirt under their fingernails.”

Although I’ll admit that I’m not incredibly well versed in Norwegian literature–I was only familiar with a few of the novels that Bekeng mentions (such as A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, by the Norwegian-Danish author Aksel Sandemose, which coins the infamous “Jante Law“)–the above descriptions did rather quickly bring Out Stealing Horses to mind, as well as the Petterson novel I just finished, I Curse the River of Time. This is not to say that there isn’t more going on in both novels–and Bekeng does an admirable job of exploring the both limitations and accuracies of this trend–but it did get me thinking.

At any rate, it’s a fun article, with some interesting insights on Norwegian culture and literature, and it will bulk up your book list. So hop on over to the N+1 website and check it out: http://nplusonemag.com/woods

Chad Post on Making a Case for Translations

Chad Post, the director of one of my favorite presses, Open Letter Books, has written a very interesting two part series for Publishing Perspectives on increasing the American reading public’s interest in translations, and also reaching the audience who already wants to read such titles. It is–much like Chad himself–thoughtful, enthusiastic, and very funny. He includes an anecdote about a reader who angrily complained that the Open Letter title The Golden Calf (a Russian absurdist classic) is “nothing like The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” which made me laugh out loud.

Read Part I (“Building an Audience (and a Case) for Translations”) here: http://publishingperspectives.com/?p=18982

Read Part II (“Building a Case for Translations, Part 2: ‘It’s Not The Elegance of the Hedgehog‘”) here: http://publishingperspectives.com/?p=19020

New Yorkers: Tell the Legislature to Release Library Aid

Per the New York Library Association (NYLA):

“Although the Legislature already passed and the Governor signed budget legislation that appropriated $84.5 million in Library Aid, the funds cannot be spent without the accompanying Article VII legislation, which spells out how and when the funding is distributed.”

As it turns out, the Governor vetoed the section of the Education, Labor, and Family Assistance (ELFA) act which “authorizes state expenditures for various programs in the Education part of the 2010-11 State Budget, including Library Aid.”

NYLA has composed a very comprehensive message that you can have faxed or emailed to your upper and lower chamber representatives. They’ll send the message automatically for you–all you really need to do is fill in your contact information.

It only takes a second, so go to their website, and sign!

http://capwiz.com/ala/ny/issues/alert/?alertid=15588521&queueid=5594129871