Sunday, July 7, 2013

Cursed. And recommended.

Jeremy C. Shipp
Raw Dog Screaming Press

Reviewed by Carol
Recommended for: read the snippet and see.

Read from June 23 to 24, 2013, read count: not enough 
Four and a half stars

My reactions are:

1. Laughter
2. Compassion
3. Confusion
4. Admiration

This book has been on my GR TBR list for-eveh, or at least since I joined GR. It was one of the first times I added a book despite being stymied by my ability to procure it (I was operating under a 'library-only' rule at the time). But something about it begged to be left on my list, and I finally (three years later? My, my. I'm either persistent or obsessive) was able to get it from the library. What I received had absolutely no resemblance to what I expected. Thank you, Universe. Seriously.

A quick dialogue and list-based read, by turns hysterical and tragic. Some might even add horrific by the end. Two partially broken souls meet at the supermarket and discover they are each laboring under a curse. Our narrator is doomed to be slapped every day. He knows it's true--it has already happened 12 times. His supermarket friend Cecily has a particular vision regarding a tennis ball. What follows is their attempt to discover others like them, as well as solve the questions of who and how to get rid of the curse. It also becomes a very gentle story of developing connections.

Shipp is masterful with character creation. I found myself trying to fit them all in a neat character box, and they don't go willingly. The emphasis on dialogue means that it takes interaction for character to unfold, resulting in a fragmented kaleidoscope view. Add to it their unusual personal styles-for instance, Cecily's insistence on describing ordinary events in the most surreal manner possible--and it makes for an intriguing read.

It is also an unusually structured story. Nicolas' focus on lists is a clever narrative hook, but is not always explanatory. Shipp's refusal to include more than minimal transitions means work is required on the part of the reader, as well as a willingness to forgo literary convention. For example, the book opens with a chapter titled "#12," a short two and a half page interaction between the narrator, Nicholas, and Nadia. The next chapter is titled "#13" and takes place at the supermarket between Nicolas and Cecily. No going home, no backdrop, no character infodump; just a couple of snapshots, clips from a life.

To enjoy a book, I need certain elements present, whether it be character, idea, plot or writing. This has ideas and character in spades. The search for answers to the curse leads to musings on the nature of self-perception, self-definition, mental illness, eccentricity and life, and rather lends itself to reader engagement and compassion. There's a growing sense of urgency and paranoia as the curse victims seek a way out before they are destroyed, left as mere shells of themselves. There are also bizarro moments that caused furrowed brow, so if you are in the mood for concrete, non-dream-based dramatics, look elsewhere. That was perhaps the toughest section for me and my tendency towards plot-based reading, but I find that it largely works. It would also be the major reason for a four-and-a-half star rating.

A teeny, tiny snippet from page 11, "#13" (completely non-spoilery):

"Nicolas," she says, not smiling for once. "The cart's fine, hon. I'm the defective one."

I laugh, because I always feel like laughing when I'm around Cicely. If she told me her cat died, I might laugh on accident. Then I notice the tennis ball in her right hand. I force myself to look away.

"I missed you last week," I say. I didn't mean to sound so sincere. So small.

Now she smiles. And with a smile like that, she can't be #13.

"I'm sorry I missed it," she says. "I was busy being kidnapped by little green men."

"I should have known."

"Luckily, I annoyed their scientists so much they let me go. It turns out aliens despise show tunes. 'Brigadoon' especially."

I laugh. The world is right in the supermarket again.

You see? Absurd, funny, vulnerable, awkward, odd... so very, very human.


by Brian Selznick

Review by Sesana
Five out of five stars

Wonderstruck is two separate stories that meet and intertwine at the end. Set 50 years apart, Rose and Ben live rather different lives, with more and more crossover as the book develops. In 1927, Rose lives just outside New York City. She's deaf, and her father doesn't want to let her leave the house. Not safe enough. Desperate for a certain amount of freedom, and to see a silent movie star she's somewhat obsessed with, she runs away to the city, and the American Museum of Natural History. In 1977, Ben live on Gunflint Lake, in Minnesota. When we meet him, he's deaf in one ear, his mother has recently died in a car accident, and he's looking for clues that will lead him to his father. And then he gets struck by lightning. Still, even after the accident, he's determined to follow those clues, which will lead him to New York City, and the American Museum of Natural History.

Readers of Selznick's previous, wonderful book [book:The Invention of Hugo Cabret|9673436] will recognize the format, part words and part pictures. Here, Ben's story is told entirely in words, and Rose's is told entirely in pictures. It's very effective, Selznick's lovely art aside. Watching Rose's story slowly unfold in pictures lets the reader discovery her story gradually, and it lets us experience the world soundlessly, as she does. I also like how he illustrates what are normally cinematic techniques like zooming in or out, something he did in Hugo Cabret, too.

But much as I loved Rose's half, Ben's was every bit as good. Poor Ben. I felt so bad for him before more than a few pages of his narration had passed, and then it gets worse. He goes through so much looking for his father, but it all comes honestly. Nothing felt amped up for dramatic impact, or like something that a boy his age wouldn't naturally do. And he's just so likeable, and such a sympathetic character, that it's easy to root for him to find what he's looking for.

Luckily, Selznick is every bit as talented of a writer as he is an artist. Both the text and picture portions of the story were equally compelling and well done. At no point did I find myself counting pages until I got through one perspective and back to the other. That can be a hard thing to do. I hope that Selznick has more books like this and Hugo Cabret in him. I'll be delighted to read them.

Also reviewed on Goodreads.