Amphibian by Carla Gunn

Amphibian by Carla Gunn

Phineas William Walsh is on a mission.  He’s going to save the world one endangered species at a time – and he’s depending on the Green Channel to help him do it.  That is until things go terribly, horribly wrong… as they only can in the life of a fourth grader.

Carla Gunn’s first novel, Amphibian, is both entertaining and engaging.  Written in the first person, it’s greatest strength may be it’s  narrator –  who owes a significant debt to Holden Caulfield (the hero and narrator of Catcher in the Rye).  And I mean that in the best possible way.  Because there’s more going on in Phin’s life than meets the eye – and he has a lot on his mind other than the planet.   His grandfather just passed away and his grandmother is sad.  His parents are separated and his Mom is dating a guy Phin doesn’t like. Not that he likes the idea of her dating. Period.  His father is out of the country 80% of the time and doesn’t know what’s going on.  He’s also the class bully’s favorite target.

And then (if that wasn’t enough!) there is the issue of the Gorachs from the planet Reull.  They’re destroying the planet and the other creatures of Reull need to figure out what to do before it is too late:

When my mom went to do some work in her study, I went upstairs and wrote about Reull and drew some pictures of them.  I drew the Jingleworm, who is red and white and has a part on the end of its body that jingles like a bell wherever it goes.  The Jingleworm’s predator is the Three-clawed Wren and it jingles so much that the Wren doesn’t have any problem finding it to eat.

But then the Jingleworms started to hide in the coat of the Green-tailed Squirrel, which didn’t mind because the loud jingling noise of the Jingleworm scared away its predator, the Electric Cat.  The Electric Cat’s ears are very sensitive to the jingling noise.  To it the Jingleworm sounds like somebody scraping their nails on a chalkboard sounds to us.  Sot the Jingleworm and the Green-tailed Squirrel have a symbiotic relationship.

The problem again is the Gorachs.  They are starting to collect Jingleworm tails for jingly bracelets, which they give to their Gorach children.  The Gorachs are parasites, so many of the animals are working on making more symbiotic relationships.  The Gorachs are in for a surprise.

Sure, it has become a cliché to compare novels narrated by juveniles to Catcher in the Rye, but in the case of Amphibian it works.  I’ve always believed that readers tend to miss the whole point of what Salinger was trying to do, – not surprising since his novel has mainly been defined by controversy.  The focus has always been on Salinger’s creation of a smart ass kid doing scandalous things, at least by 1950’s standards.  (You can just imagine what the reaction would have been to Gossip Girl)!

Subsequently, the story Salinger was trying  to tell is too often overlooked.  It is about a young boy, whose even younger brother has just died of leukemia.  Catcher in the Rye, at its heart, is about Holden attempting to deal with his grief.  And doing so in the absence of (I’d even go so far as to say his abandonment by) the adults who should be comforting him.  All the rest, the celebrated language and famous scene with the prostitute, is just so much white noise put up by Holden between himself and his emotions.

I do not want to misrepresent Amphibian as being a heavy novel, though it does touch on some surprisingly heavy material.  Phin is dealing with kinds of grief (and accompanying feelings of helplessness) that he’s too young to put a name to.  Or, like Holden, to even recognize.  But to Gunn’s credit, she chose to tell her story through the eyes of a 9-year old boy – which gives it a very different flavor than if it had been told by, let’s say, that boy’s mother or teacher.  Gunn reveals what’s going on with Phin in a way that perfectly captures a young child’s lack of perspective.   Divorce, bully, species extinction and permission to watch the Green Channel all carry equal weight and importance in Phin’s world.  Because everything is the end of the world – nothing is.  And Phin is a really funny kid.  His humor moves the book along quickly and, thankfully, saves it from becoming the angst-fest it might have been.

This morning I woke up to an awful sound – it was like a wolf trying to howl after swallowing one of those birthday-party noisemakers.  And it was standing over me.

I was a little worried about what I might see – maybe a pack of wolves having a birthday party and the cake just happened to be me – but I took a chance and opened my eyes.  My mother was standing there and that awful noise was coming from her.  She was smiling so I figured she wasn’t choking or something, so I asked her what the heck she was doing.

“I’m yodeling, Phin,” she said.

“But you’re not on a mountain,” I said.  “You’re standing over me making that awful sound.  I thought you were a wolf with something caught in its throat.  If you were a wolf, you’d have to be the alpha because if you were a submissive, the others would attack you for making a sound like that.”

Overall, Amphibian tells a good story about an average child working his way through a world where very little is under his control.  Carla Gunn allows us to smile at his tribulations knowing, even if he doesn’t, that Phin is one of the lucky ones.  Unlike Holden he has grown-ups around who love him and have his best interests at heart.  In the end, that makes all the difference.

Note:  Amphibian is Carla Gunn’s first novel.  While I’ve no knowledge of it being marketed as a YA, it is definitely  straddling the line between categories.  It does not rank high on the BookSexy scale, but it shouldn’t be dismissed.  Think of it as enviro-lit made more palatable by added sugar.

The book, itself, is more attractive than your average paperback  – with bright glossy covers.  The front end paper is a full page bleed b&w photo of a South America Red-eyed frog (the same little guy who made the cover).  The pages are nice and thick with a slightly corrugated texture.  The publisher is Coach House Books, out of Canada.

It’s Monday, Again! What Am I Reading?

It’s Monday! What Am I Reading? I wish I could say something more exciting than this… but I’m working my way through A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book.  I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m  under halfway in… and I’m still waiting for something to happen.  Anything.  A meteor from the sky might liven things up a bit.  What is getting me through is the sheer beauty of the writing and… well, that’s about it.  I will finish this book.  My hope is that at some point it will turn around and blow me away.  It’s happened before.

While I should have been reading my Byatt I finished Homer & Langley.  It’s a refreshing, well written and  a nicely thought out book.  The review will be up by Thursday night.  I’m pleased to say that this was a wonderful intro to E.L. Doctorow and predict a long and beautiful relationship ahead of us.

Tuesday I’ll be posting an interview I did with another blogger (which is why I’m waiting until Thursday to post my review of Homer & Langley).   Definitely come back to check it out.  Stop by at Bookduck in the meantime.  She leans towards  YA and some adult fiction, mainly in the historical and fantasy genre.  She also has great taste in music.

And the best thing about my Monday?  It’s telling you about what I did on Sunday!  The 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival!

Brooklyn Book FestA free yearly event, the Brooklyn Festival features new and emerging figures in literature – as well as some not so new favorites like Edwidge Danticat, Jonathan Ames, Pete Hamill and Steven Millhauser (to name just a few).  The authors participate by giving readings, taking part in panel discussions and signing their books.  And next year I intend to do all that – attend the panels, listen to the readings and have my books signed.  This year I was weak… I couldn’t tear myself away from the tables!

Everywhere you turned there was something to see.  Several small presses are represented – the ones that put out the great books that don’t always make it to the shelves of your local B&N, let alone get put on the feature table.  There were the literary reviews and magazines (Bookforum, The Paris Review & The New York Review of Books), and tons of new writer anthologies.   They even had a children’s section with readings and authors who took questions – exactly like they do for the adults.  I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face when I heard an author announce very seriously to the crowd, “The question is:  Why was the cow silly?”.

The Brooklyn Book Festival (and other festivals of its kind) is a great opportunity to see what’s going on outside of the bestseller list.  It’s also a chance to connect with authors and publishers.  So, here’s a sample of what I got to take home.  (Remember: this is just the stuff I found interesting and put in my tote.  I’ll be posting reviews in the upcoming weeks with my final thoughts).

  • The Coral Press is an independent press dedicated to a fiction genre they call musical fiction.   They gave out a nice sampler of six of their novels.  You can check them out at www.coralpress.com.  The website features musical accompaniments to their novels.
  • This Republic of Suffering: Death & the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin was a freebie courtesy of the  people from The National Book Award.  I’ve always had an interest in the American Civil War, so while it doesn’t sound all that upbeat I’m looking forward to giving it a try.   But here’s a question thats been troubling me:  Why doesn’t the National Book Award get the attention of, say, the Booker Prize or the Pulitzer?  There are some great books that have won over the years… and this year is their 6oth Anniversary.  To celebrate they’re opening voting for the best of the best to the public (voting begins September 21st).   On September 30th they post their 5 Under 35 (which I’m assuming is their shortlist?) for 2009.  Click here to see their website.  Sheesh, people, it’s time we got serious about our own awards!  The British bookies make ODDS on the Booker!
  • Museum Legs: Fatigue & Hope in the Face of Art by Amy Whitaker (who was kind enough to sign my copy) is a new book by a new author published by a new press.  Hol Art Books specializes in books by authors writing about the visual arts.  They also have a nice selection historical writings, including pamphlets put out for the International Exhibit of Modern Art in 1913.  Definitely a niche market, but an interesting one I’d like to learn more about.
  • Amphibian is a novel by Carla Gunn published by Coach House Books.  This is one of those books I can’t wait to start.  The nine-year-old hero’s name is Phineas William Walsh and he’s an environmentalist.  And I quote from the description on the back cover: “So, when a White’s tree frog ends up in an aquarium in his fourth grade classroom, it’s the last straw, and he and  his best friend, Bird, are spurred to action.”  Tell me, what’s not to like???

And my #1 score of the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival (drumroll)…

  • The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers and published by The Overlook Press.  Moers is a German author and this is his fifth book published in the U.S.  It’s the fourth that takes place in Zamonia (and yes I’ve read the other three).  It’s about a Crat.  It’s fully illustrated.  It makes me want to learn German just because I know there are books of his that haven’t made it into English yet.  If you like J.K. Rowling, you’ll like Moers.  Not because this is anything remotely like Harry Potter…it’s probably the farthest thing from Hogwarts.  You’ll have to take my word for it:   Moers is just fun… and in terms of his books there’s no one out there writing anything like them.  Click here to see.

So there’s just a taste of what followed me home.  For the rest of the month I’ll be posting bits and pieces of the rest of it.

Happy Monday!