Fish in the Sky

Farsælt komandi ár, everyone, or: Happy New Year!

As I mentioned recently, I had the pleasure of reviewing Fridrik Erling’s Fish in the Sky for the December issue of The Reykjavík Grapevine. The review has now been made available online, which you can see here. Or, you can just read the full piece below.

Some interesting links and background context, for those of you who might be interested:

  • Fridrik was a founding member of The Sugarcubes (with Björk, author Bragi Ólafsson, and current Reykjavík City Council member Einar Orn Benediktsson, etc.) before he decided to focus his attention on his writing.
  • Although he has worn many professional hats–biographer, screenwriter, and graphic designer, among others–Fridrik’s novels “…usually either depict children or are written for children, if not both.” See Hákon Gunnarsson’s article “At the Crossroads of Childhood: On the works of Friðrik Erlingsson” over at literature.is for a more comprehensive overview of his work.
  • Fish in the Sky was originally published in 1998 under the title Góða Ferð, Sveinn Ólafsson. The novel was translated by the author. As he says in his translation note (which you can read via the “Look Inside” preview on Amazon.com, here): “Halfway through this [translation] process, a translation by Bernard Scudder was brought to light. This translation was immensely helpful during the editing process.” Fridrik dedicates the English edition of the novel to Scudder, who died in 2008.
  • Fridrik was interviewed a few years ago by Groupthing when Fish in the Sky was published (in Britain, I think). The interview–conducted, it seems, by a teen interviewer–has some really interesting snippets about Fridrik’s work, his decision to leave music, writing for a youthful audience and more. Worth a watch.

***

“To actually cease being a child, that’s probably the greatest experience in life.” So thinks Josh Stephenson, the unusually sensitive and observant teen narrator of Fridrik Erling’s Fish in the Sky, a recent English translation of his novel Góða ferð, Sveinn Ólafsson. Josh has just turned thirteen and, according to his mother, is “one year closer to being considered a grown-up.” But getting older isn’t helping Josh make sense of life—it only seems to be complicating things.

Like most thirteen year olds, Josh occupies a purgatory somewhere between innocence and worldliness, regularly bouncing between pure joy and deep despair as he tries to navigate the seemingly insurmountable problems that crop up around him. First, there are his parents: his mostly-absent father who spends nearly all of his free time with his girlfriend or drinking buddies and his ardently religious mother who is too exhausted from working two jobs to pay much attention to his problems. Added to Josh’s list of worries are his rebellious older cousin—a girl—who moved in with Josh and his mom and is living in his closet, a vindictive math teacher, humiliating gym classes, the possibility that he has fallen in love, and the horrifying fact that he has started to get pubic hair. “I’m like a piece of bread in a toaster,” he thinks. “No matter which way I turn, all around me are the glowing iron threads that heat me up until I start to burn around the edges.”

Fridrik captures the profound extremes that characterize adolescence with a balance of poetical empathy and sly humour, all delivered through Josh’s sometimes wry and often perplexed observations. Of an irritating but popular classmate, Josh reflects that “It is unbearable how shameless and disgustingly free of low self-esteem he is.” While guiltily thumbing through a nude magazine he admits to finding “…at least two really hot descriptions of copulation,” which he doesn’t entirely understand. There is self-awareness and self-depreciation in Josh’s flailing attempts to reconcile with the world around him that ring very true to the teenage experience.

Although he spends most of the novel navel-gazing, Josh does undergo a significant transformation in discovering the simple truth that everyone has problems (many of which are more serious than his own), and everyone feels alone in them. The universality of this theme is further underscored by the fact that in the English translation, Fish in the Sky has very few orienting details that identify it as occurring in a particular country or even a particular time period. It’s worth noting that Fridrik completed the English version himself with reference to a translation by the late, great translator Bernard Scudder, to whom he dedicated the book. All of the character names have been anglicised, and while certain small details may hint at the original version’s Icelandic origins, it stands as a story that could have happened anywhere, to any young person.

Fun Reads for Friday: BTBA Finalists / 100 Great Books for Kids

25 Days of the BTBA (Three Percent)

As you may remember, Three Percent recently announced this year’s long list for the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA). Leading up to the announcement of the short list of ten titles on April 10, 3P is running a daily series of posts explaining why each of the 25 books on the long list should win the award. All of the posts are archived here, and many are rather compelling. (I’ll actually be writing one of these myself for the only book on the list that I’ve read–Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?) Chad Post’s pithy one-liners on why each book should win are also pretty fun. Some of the more amusing examples:

On Upstaged by Jacques Jouet, translated by Leland de la Durantaye:

Why This Book Should Win: Oulipians have the most fun.

On New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry [Ed: and this book sounds awesome]

Why This Book Should Win: Because Marani invented Europanto, a “mock international auxiliary language.”

On Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger, translated by Ross Benjamin

Why This Book Should Win: Two reasons: 1) during Thomas’s reading tour, three consecutive events were disrupted by a streaker, a woman passing out and smashing a glass table, and a massive pillow fight amid a Biblical thunderstorm; 2) the phone number. [Ed: Not sure about this reason…]

On Lightning by Jean Echenoz, translated by Linda Coverdale

Why This Book Should Win: Tesla, duh. And Linda Coverdale. But mostly Tesla.

Scholastic’s Parent and Child Magazine’s “100 Greatest Books for Children”

A friend who works at Scholastic brought this list–which actually includes Young Adult titles, as well as those for children–to my attention on the evening of St. Patrick’s Day. While drunken faux-Irish bar patrons sloshed about around us, we had quite a nice time of guessing books which were included on the list. I was happy to have guessed several in the top twenty, and was surprised at some of the omissions (Ed Young’s Lon Po Po; anything by J.R.R. Tolkien, but mostly The Hobbit). Since authors were only represented once on the list, some of the representative selections were also a bit suprising (Green Eggs and Ham over Cat in the Hat, even though I like the former better; Matilda for Roald Dahl over James and the Giant Peach or The Witches; The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik instead of Wonderstruck; The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks over basically any other Magic School Bus book…)

Of course, the question of what makes something a “great” book for kids is a big and incredibly vague one. P&C attempts to clarify their selection process here, although I think there is still some ambiguity. But here’s the gist:

“To create our list, we asked several highly respected literacy experts, educators, and parents for suggestions. (See “Contributors” on our bookshelf.) They came through in a big way — nearly 500 books were in the running. We used a variety of criteria to narrow down to 100 and then rank our titles, including diversity of genre, topic, format, ages and stages, authorship, and cultural representation. Factors such as literary and/or illustration excellence, popularity, and longevity or innovative freshness were all qualities of books in the final round.

Along the way, a few familiar and well-loved titles made way for fresh, unique books that children today know and love. Some authors’ secondary works stepped aside to allow for a greater variety of names and faces who may be new to you. We also included nonfiction, a rarity among these kinds of lists, but a must, given the high demand for it in schools today and the great quality of these works. In the end, we came up with a diverse range of timeless titles, classic and new, that children of all ages will learn from, grow through, and enjoy.”

And here’s the top 10:

  1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  2. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown / Illustrated by Clement Hurd
  3. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
  4. The Snowy Day written/ illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats
  5. Where the Wild Things Are written / illustrated by Maurice Sendak
  6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling / Illustrated by Mary GrandPré
  7. Green Eggs and Ham written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss
  8. Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  9. The Giving Tree written / illustrated by Shel Silverstein
  10. Frog and Toad Are Friends written / illustrated by Arnold Lobel

See any glaring omissions/terrible choices? Especially happy about a selection? (I was thrilled that The Phantom Toll Booth and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH were included, myself.) Discuss…

Spontaneous Reads: Wonderstruck

Illustration by Brian Selznick, via the website of the Queens Museum.

On the incredibly enthusiastic recommendation of my mother and ten-year-old sister (my mom actually surprised me by sending me a copy of the book–that’s how much she wanted me to read it), I picked up Wonderstruck. I was not familiar with Brian Selznick’s previous novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but I will definitely be reading it now. This book was an absolute treat, and I finished the whole (rather extensive) book in two days–less than two if you consider that I was working/sleeping for much of that time.

Wonderstruck tells the two parallel stories of Rose, a young deaf girl in 1927 who runs away from her home in Hoboken to New York City, and in 1977, of Ben, a young boy from Gunflint, Minnesota who was born deaf in one ear and then loses hearing in his other ear after being indirectly hit by lightning in a rainstorm. After his mother’s death, Ben runs away to New York to find the father he’s never known. And although the two stories are separated by 50 years, they run surprisingly parallel throughout the novel, until they eventually–and beautifully–connect.

Selznick excels on so many levels: his pencil drawings are vivid and richly detailed, and are have an incredible nuance with light that I would not have expected from pencil drawings. He also has a very cinematic way of leading you through the visual part of his stories–he uses close-ups particularly well.

His writing is also fantastic–what a great vocabulary to find in a kid’s book! Selznick’s characters are full realized, three-dimensional people and he balances tough themes (a parent’s death, an unknown parent, loneliness, isolation, an inability to communicate) with a general sense of hope and well-bring. The children in both stories have their fair share of problems and need to both grow a lot throughout the story, but Selznick is able to capture these transformations without trauma. I didn’t spend the whole book worried that something terrible was going to happen to both of these kids on their own in New York City, without money or friends, or really any way of communicating with most people. I knew that they were going to be okay–that everything was going to turn out for the best. And sometimes, that’s exactly what you need from a book. Enough reality and seriousness so that it isn’t total fluff, but balanced with a general feeling of ease and enjoyment. These kids are, after all, both on huge adventures.

Illustration by Brian Selznick, via the website of the Queens Museum.

The other great thing about Wonderstruck is all the great references and intricate details. Selznick obviously did extensive research (his acknowledgments and partial bibliography in the back are impressive) and he’s not only folded in accurate portrayals of things like the Museum of Natural History in both 1927 and 1977, but also of the blackout in 1977, and tons of factoids about Deaf culture, wonder cabinets, and more. He’s got lines from “Space Oddity” by David Bowie all over in the first part of Ben’s story (loved that) and also–apparently–makes a lot of references to E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. (I haven’t read that book, but my sister is reading it right now in her 5th grade class and it is definitely on my list now.)

Selznick also makes me want to discover and rediscover parts of New York now. I want to go back and see all the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History and I finally want to get out to Queens and see the Panorama. And there’s a high commendation: a book that makes a jaded New Yorker get excited all over again about all the wonders there are in her city.

***

It bears noting that an exhibition of Brian Selznick’s drawings from the book is ongoing at the Queens Museum until January: “Wonderstruck in the Panorama: Drawings by Brian Selznick.”

Also, in October, the website for the book will feature “a collection of brilliant essays written just for you by experts, illuminating the world of Wonderstruck.” Topics will include essays on New York in 1977, Deaf history and culture, the transition from silent to sound film, the inspirational source material of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and a piece on Hoboken by none other than David Levithan. Nice to see a book website that adds to the content in such a useful, interesting way.

Banned Books Week: A Look Back at the Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2010

Banned Books Week is August 24 – October 1 this year.

Infographic: Top Ten Banned or Challenged Books of 2010 (via The Huffington Post)

A visually impressive and illuminating infographic, indeed. Interesting to see that among repeat challenge favorites–like the nefariously adorable gay penguin family picture book, And Tango Makes Three–there are also some surprising (to me, at least) entries, such as Brave New World and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

As a side tangent, based on this handy break-down of the most challenged books and the most-cited reasons that they were challenged: Many people tend to think of censorship challenges as only coming from ‘conservative’ individuals, but as the chart reveals, these challenges come from all sides of the religious/political/social spectrum. Books here are being challenged because they are “inaccurate,” or “racist,” or “insensitive,” or strongly represent a “religious viewpoint.” (These things may be true about each book, of course, although it doesn’t necessarily follow that you then ban that book.)

I actually had an assignment in library school where, pretending to be the head librarian at a school library,  I had to draft a response to a group of parents who wanted to challenge books glorifying gun violence. In this hypothetical scenario, the parents said that they tell their children to borrow the books from the library, and simply not return them. I think they even said they’d pay the late fines. Apparently, this is a very common way that people choose to self-censor in libraries.

Protecting Our Children from Lesbians and Sherlock Holmes: Two U.S. School Districts Get a Jump on Banned Books Week

Two posts on recent cases of censorship in school districts:

Haruki Murakami Yanked from School District Reading List

Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood was removed from a New Jersey school district required reading lists, days before classes were scheduled to begin for the year. Apparently, this book and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines “were both pulled from the list after parents complained about their gay sex scenes.”

Now I can’t speak for Tweak, but Norewegian Wood is on my bookshelf at home, although I haven’t read this particular Murakami title yet. However, based on other books of his that I’ve read, I have to assume that this is a rather knee-jerky bunch of censors. I’m guessing that most of the book is about a lonely man (perhaps a woman) with a love of at least one, if not more, of the following things: jazz, Anglo pop culture, and/or whiskey. Occasionally, I might also guess, s/he pines after someone younger than him, while other times, s/he talks to a particularly receptive cat. Devastating for young minds, I’m sure. Has anyone read this (or Tweak) who might care to comment?

Elsewhere, (via GalleyCat, which was itself via New York Magazine) a Virginia school district has removed “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, the author’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, from sixth-grade reading lists after a parent complained that it was anti-Mormon.” Apparently, the book will still be available for older students. GalleyCat has helpfully linked to a free copy of the book on the Project Gutenberg website. Because as we all know, nothing makes a book more popular than trying to ban it.

And apropos of book banning leading to popularity, check out this recent Unshelved comic strip: http://www.unshelved.com/2011-8-24

Banned Books Week runs from September 24 – October 1 this year.

Snape Dominates All Other Harry Potter Characters in Incredibly Scientific Study Conducted by MTV

I will not descend into Pottermania, I promise, but in honor of the forthcoming release of the last epic film in the Harry Potter series, I must bring this to your attention:

Severus Snape Crowned Greatest Harry Potter Character of All Time

Well, I’ve been saying it for years, but now there’s this helpful data pool to back me up:

Professor Severus Snape has been crowned the winner of the Harry Potter World Cup. Over at MTV News, 64 characters were pitted against one another to determine who is the greatest Harry Potter character of all time.”

And you have to love The Rickmaster as he accepts the large tin cup award saying, “And it doesn’t weigh nothing.” Also, to quote Sir Deadpan further:

Interviewer: What does that mean to you? The fans–seven and a half million votes said he was the best.

The Rickmaster: It’s a vote for, em…ambiguity. And things where you don’t know quite how things are going to turn out. And all sorts of values that you can’t talk about without ruining the film, but…things like courage, and loyalty, and determination, and love, actually.”

I’ll leave you to watch it yourself–there are many highlights.

Fun for Friday: What Your American Girl Doll Says About You

What Your American Girl Doll Says About the Rest of Your Life

I’m posting this because it is, ostensibly, related to the American Girl book series, and although I know not many young girls/tweenagers read them these days, they (and the amazing American Girl catalogs) made a *huge* impression on me as a child. Some snippets that appealed to me, who did not have an American Girl doll, but balanced an adoring sort of love of Samantha with a far more practical affinity with Molly:

On Samantha: “a Samantha doll was the designer jeans of third grade”

On Molly: “If you had Molly, you probably wanted Samantha instead, but contented yourself with Molly because you too wore glasses, liked books, were bad at math, and would concoct various schemes to get attention…As an adult, you’ve developed a carefully honed aptitude for sarcasm. You’ve gotten contacts, and a slightly edgy haircut.”

On No Doll: “Your parents wouldn’t buy you an American Girl doll because $80 is a ridiculous price to pay for a toy, which would then inevitably lead to the purchase of multiple accessories ranging from the overpriced ($18 for “Winter Accessories,” consisting of tiny doll mittens and a hat), to the exorbitant ($56 for an “Ice Cream Set,” consisting of tiny plastic scoops of ice cream), to the highway robbery ($349 for a “doll’s chest,” a.k.a. tiny wooden box). You grew up to be financially independent, level-headed, unspoiled, and still just a little bit resentful whenever you walk by American Girl Place.”