Gutenberg’s Fingerprint – “Papers, Pixels, and the Lasting Impression of Books”

Gutenberg's Fingerprint by Merilyn Simonds

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint by Merilyn Simonds

Format/Source: Hardcover/Publisher
Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 380 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/memoir
Rating: ★★★★
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I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Four seismic shifts have rocked human communication: the invention of writing, the alphabet, mechanical type and the printing press, and digitization. Poised over this fourth transition, e-reader in one hand, perfect-bound book in the other, Merilyn Simonds — author, literary maven, and early adopter — asks herself: what is lost and what is gained as paper turns to pixel?

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint trolls the past, present, and evolving future of the book in search of an answer. Part memoir and part philosophical and historical exploration, the book finds its muse in Hugh Barclay, who produces gorgeous books on a hand-operated antique letterpress. As Simonds works alongside this born-again Gutenberg, and with her son to develop a digital edition of the same book, her assumptions about reading, writing, the nature of creativity, and the value of imperfection are toppled.

In 2011, author Merilyn Simonds partnered with Hugh Barclay, the one-man wonder behind Thee Hellbox Press, to produce a limited run of The Paradise Project. Simonds agreed to the printing at Barclay’s urging. He wanted to print a collection of her short stories. Barclay introduces Simonds to the finer details of book printing, which she explores in Gutenberg’s Fingerprint. In following the development and creation of The Paradise Project, Simonds describes the history of book making. She also reflects on what has (and hasn’t) changed with the shift to digital books, as she and her son work on creating an ebook of the Paradise Project.

Four sections of the book focus on stages of a book’s creation – paper, type, ink, and press. Barclay is the star of these pages. His enthusiastic and creative personality bring the task to life. He is a tinkerer full of ideas, with the intelligence and ambition to bring those ideas to fruition. In Barclay’s small printing workshop, each stage is given careful consideration. What colour should the ink of be? What impression will the endpapers give? How will the type be set? How can images be incorporated?

Simonds explains the complexities that inventors throughout history had to be overcome to make each element work together and produce a legible book. Most of her exploration focuses on the print run of The Paradise Project. Simonds also includes comments to contrast the development of the ebook, a format which has both pros and cons over a printed book.  The Paradise Project sounds like a lovely work of art. I would to get my hands on a copy, to see and feel all the care that went into making it. Gutenberg’s Fingerprint includes a few black and white photographs, but they don’t do the work justice. You can view full colour images of the completed work at Thee Hellbox Press website.

Simonds delves further into reflection in the final two sections, “Book” and “Lasting Impressions”. I found her balanced view of ebooks refreshing. Simonds loves her physical books, as many of us book lovers do, but she does not deny the advantages of ebooks. She goes beyond acknowledging the practicalities of digital reading (such as being able to carry numerous books or customize the formatting for reading comfort). For example, she notes that more voices in publishing (via digital self-publishing) cannot be a negative thing. She discusses the potential of ebooks to make a wider variety of stories available to a wider variety of people. Simonds quotes Kamila Shamsie:

Are we hearing all the complex, nuanced human voices we need to help us understand our own times, our fellow citizens, the world in which we live? No. But we could. And we must. And that should be publishing’s bottom line. (341)

Yet physical books (for Simonds, at least) easily win in the debate about superiority. I have never heard someone put it so clearly or simply than when she writes, “We are more than brains: we have ears, noses, fingertips, all of which engage with a physical book” (351). What sparks that particular feeling of joy we may find when we gaze happily at our bookshelves?

My books are my brain and my heart made visible. (366)

The Bottom Line:

Simonds chronicles the exquisite print run and ebook development of her short story collection The Paradise ProjectGutenberg’s Fingerprints gives book lovers food for thought as to what it is we love about physical books and what digital books have to offer us. Simonds leaves no doubt that print books will likely endure, but does leave room to ponder – what may come next?

Further Reading:

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Sputnik’s Children by Terri Favro

Sputnik's Children by Terri Favro
I think this is an improvement over my last book snap? Look at those pretty iridescent stars…

Author: Terri Favro
Title: Sputnik’s Children
Format/Source: Paperback/Publisher
Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 348 pages
Genre: Science fiction in literary clothes
Rating: ★★★★
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I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Cult comic book creator Debbie Reynolds Biondi has been riding the success of her Cold War era–inspired superhero series, Sputnik Chick: Girl with No Past, for more than 25 years. But with the comic book losing fans and Debbie struggling to come up with new plotlines for her badass, mutant-killing heroine, she decides to finally tell Sputnik Chick’s origin story.

Debbie’s never had to make anything up before and she isn’t starting now. Sputnik Chick is based on Debbie’s own life in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time. As a teenager growing up in Shipman’s Corners — a Rust Belt town voted by Popular Science magazine as “most likely to be nuked” — she was recruited by a self-proclaimed time traveller to collapse Atomic Mean Time before an all-out nuclear war grotesquely altered humanity. In trying to save the world, Debbie risked obliterating everyone she’d ever loved — as well as her own past — in the process.

Or so she believes . . . Present-day Debbie is addicted to lorazepam and dirty, wet martinis, making her an unreliable narrator, at best.

Alternate timelines + cult comic books = say no more. (Though I am generally not a fan of unreliable narrators, that turned out to be less of a transgression against my personal preferences than I braced myself for.) Sputnik’s Children combines alternate history and literary character building to tell a creative and entertaining story.

I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret the above summary, particularly this statement: “Sputnik Chick is based on Debbie’s own life in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time”. Is Debbie imagining this alternate timeline or did she actually believe she lived it? The latter turns out to be true. To clarify, Debbie currently lives in ‘the real world’ of 2011. She’s considering writing the origin story of her cult comic book hero, Sputnik Chick. Debbie believes she (herself, Debbie) grew up in Atomic Mean Time (AMT), an alternate universe similar to ours, but that’s stuck in Cold War time with a constant threat of nuclear bombings and World War III. Debbie’s youth in this other timeline inspires her Sputnik Chick stories. The bulk of the book is Debbie’s first person narration of her time in AMT, with occasional chapters of third person narration in the ‘real world’ leading up to the present. The question is, did Debbie actually live through AMT or is this just a concocted story?

At its core, Sputnik’s Children may be described as a coming of age novel. The majority of the story takes place during Debbie’s teen years, beginning when she’s 12 and continuing to mid-twenties. Debbie has to deal with a maturing body, unwanted sexual attention, and her first romantic relationship. This relationship is a significant component of Debbie’s life in AMT. Debbie is White and her boyfriend John Kendall is Black. This relationship creates tension from societal expectations in their small town of the 1970s.

What sets Sputnik’s Children aside from other small town stories is the science fiction setting of AMT. Debbie has to contend with the fact that her community expects to be destroyed at any moment by an atomic bomb. Favro establishes the AMT world in the first few pages, laying out the core differences between Atomic Mean Time and Earth Standard Time (the ‘real world’). This gives the reader a chance to focus on character and plot right away, without having to spend too much effort on becoming oriented with the setting. AMT differs in slight ways from the real world, resulting in an alternate universe where the Cold War only intensified in the seventies and corporations manufacturing weapons rule the day. (I do love a shadowy overseer organization.)

The plot of the story comes in the form of a time-travelling man from the future, who wants to prevent World III. He believes Debbie is the key to doing that. Debbie herself only time travels once, with seemingly little impact on the plot (aside from the personal changes she notices, having skipped a few years into puberty).

The Bottom Line:

Sputnik’s Children is a character-based take on science fiction that blends comics, the Atomic Age, the seventies, and interracial romance into one compelling tale. The question of whether Debbie has made everything up or actually lived it is almost irrelevant – you’ll enjoy the story either way.

Further Reading:

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Mad Richard by Lesley Krueger

Mad Richard
My first attempt at book photography…

Author: Lesley Krueger
Title: Mad Richard
Format/Source: Paperback/Publisher
Published: 14 March 2017
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 326 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: ★★★½
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I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Called the most promising artist of his generation, handsome, modest, and affectionate, Richard Dadd rubbed shoulders with the great luminaries of the Victorian Age. He grew up along the Medway with Charles Dickens and studied at the Royal Academy Schools under the brilliant and eccentric J.M.W. Turner.

Based on Dadd’s tragic true story, Mad Richard follows the young artist as he develops his craft, contemplates the nature of art and fame — as he watches Dickens navigate those tricky waters — and ultimately finds himself imprisoned in Bedlam for murder, committed as criminally insane.

In 1853, Charlotte Brontë — about to publish her third novel, suffering from unrequited love, and herself wrestling with questions about art and artists, class, obsession and romance — visits Richard at Bedlam and finds an unexpected kinship in his feverish mind and his haunting work.

Masterfully slipping through time and memory, Mad Richard maps the artistic temperaments of Charlotte and Richard, weaving their divergent lives together with their shared fears and follies, dreams, and crushing illusions.

ECW Press, an independent Canadian publisher, has become my go-to for finding new fiction that expands my reading horizons. The linking of two historical figures not popularly known to have interacted and the “questions about art and artists, class, obsession and romance” drew me to Mad Richard. Written by Richard’s “first cousin-in-law five times removed”, the book apparently draws on the author’s knowledge of “family information unknown to biographers” (author bio in book).

Mad Richard shares two protagonists, painter Richard Dadd and author Charlotte Bronte. I found Richard to be a likable character – well-rounded, considerate, and yet somehow not dull, haha. I specifically noted my fondness for Richard on page 113, where he awakens from a fainting spell, has a small epiphany about his art, then states “I’m famished. Don’t imagine I could have a chop?” I knew just a smidgen more about Charlotte than I did about Richard going into this book. Mad Richard brings her to life in a way I’ve not experienced Victorian writers before. They have always felt so distant from writers I know of today or even from the 20th century. Krueger portrays Charlotte’s hopes and fears in a relatable manner.

Krueger’s prose often impressed me, particularly in the ways she chose to detail her characters. I find myself asking – “How can see people like that? How could I be so observant, to write something like this?” (as I often find myself asking when I read good literary fiction). This bit about Elizabeth Gaskell particularly struck me:

Mrs. Gaskell’s famous charm lay in her unaffected interest in people; her entire absence of self-regard. She didn’t know why she should speak about herself. She knew all about herself. She would rather hear other people’s stories. A beautiful, tall, solid woman, a tree trunk, she would fold herself into whatever chair was empty, and her “How are you?” to whomever she found beside her was so obviously sincere, her silences so attentive, her wit so fertile, she could draw even a pedant into the liveliest of conversations. Even Charlotte. (184)

My primary qualm with Mad Richard is that the story moves very slowly. The book begins with Charlotte’s visit to Richard in Bedlam. They interact only once. The remainder of the book tells Charlotte’s story from that moment onward, while telling Richard’s story from his teen years to the time he commits a murder. Charlotte and Richard’s stories were less interconnected than I expected. The connection is more in the parallels in their situations.

I found the passages about Richard often stretched on for longer than necessary. I wasn’t bored, per se…The Victorian setting and ruminations about the process of creating art kept me interested, but there was only so much of the style I could manage at a time, resulting in me taking three weeks to read the 330 page book. The story dragged at times, bogged down in details and minor happenings. I did not feel that Charlotte’s passages dragged on, though her story line was arguably no more riveting than Richard’s. (I imagine one familiar with Charlotte’s life might have found it more dull, knowing how her romances played out?)

The Bottom Line:

An enlightening work of historical fiction, although dry at times. Recommended for those interested in people creating art during the Victorian age.

Further Reading:

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March 2017 Month in Review

March Month in Review banner

This post is linked up at the Monthly Round-Up Wrap-Up @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction.

March was a much more consistent month for me than February. Although I still ended up travelling for four days! I snagged some last minute work up north during spring break (when there’s no work for an EA). The most exciting bit of March is that piece of news I shared above 🙂 I will be attending the University of British Columbia in the fall. This means moving to Vancouver from the prairies. I am so excited about living out west, but less excited about finding a place to live (let alone an affordable one, hah…). Reading wise, I had better success than in February. I still haven’t quite caught up to my Goodreads goal. I didn’t read as much middle grade as I thought I might have, so I plan to remedy that during the 24 hour read-a-thon towards the end of April.

Books Finished

  • Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin
  • Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  • A Secret Vice by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Mad Richard by Leslye Krueger
  • Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa
  • The Plants of Middle-Earth by Dinah Hazell

Books Reviewed

  • Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
  • Middle Grade feat. Some Personal Favourites (from the 2016 Cybils middle-grade fiction nominees):
    • Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand
    • Allie, First at Last by Angela Cervantes
    • Just Like Me by Nancy J. Cavanaugh
    • Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes
  • The Girl Who Beat ISIS by Farida Khalaf
  • Neverhome by Laird Hunt
  • The Uncommon Readeby Alan Bennett
  • Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin
  • Middle Grade feat. Historical Fiction (from the 2016 Cybils middle-grade fiction nominees):
    • Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm
    • Ruby Lee and Me by Shannon Hitchcock
    • Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk
    • Finding Fortune by Delia Ray
    • Aim by Joyce Meyer Hostetter
    • Some Kind of Courage by Dan Geimenhart
    • Nine, Ten by Nora Raleigh Bashkin
  • Tolkien in Translation edited by Thomas Honegger (guest post at Pages Unbound)

Words and Pictures

  • A Silent Voice Vol. 2 and Vol. 3  by Yoshitoki Ooima  – I ranked vol. 3 higher than vol. 2 on GoodReads because the main issue I was concerned about (Nishimiya not being depicted as having any agency) is starting to be addressed. I think the point of vol. 2 and 3 were to demonstrate how self-centered Shoya was being in his desire to make things right with Nishimiya. His actions and therefore the story was about him instead of her. Kind of a ‘manic pixie dream girl’ thing going on, though Shoya is clearly depicted as being in the wrong. Towards the end of vol. 3, Nishimiya starts taking visible action for herself, so I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing more of her character in the next volumes.  (Not sure about where the ‘cliffhanger’ is going, though…) The inclusion of more old classmates from grade six added new perspectives to the story. I was so glad when Shoya realized how awful one of his classmates still is.
  • Will I See? by David Alexander Robertson, GMB Chomichuk and Iskwe – I started writing about this graphic novel about missing and murdered Indigenous women, but I have now decided it deserves its own post.
  • Triangle by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen – TriangleAnother excellent release from this duo. I had the pleasure of first encountering this book through a reading Klassen did. I would love to find more picture books with this kind of humour.
  • What Do You Say, Dearby Seslye Joslin and Maurice Sendak – I read this book and the next when I checked out an exhibition of the Perry Nodelman Maurice Sendak collection at my alma mater (on until April 10 at the University of Winnipeg, if you’re in the area!). Originally published in the 1950s, this cute book introduces polite phrases in creative ways (ex. “What do you say when you bump into a crocodile on a crowded city street?”)
  • Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak – See above. This book inspired the film Labyrinth (which I was wondering about when I read it, haha – “Was this published before or after Labyrinth?”, I thought.)

outside over there

Features

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Upcoming in April

Borne by Jeff VandermeerSputnik's Childrengutenberg's fingerprintMusic of the Ghosts

  • 11 Apr – Publication of Sputnik’s Children by Terri Favro (woman writes a Cold War-era inspired comic book featuring a heroine based on herself in an alternate reality – I’m currently reading this and it’s actually pretty cool, more so than I can briefly sum up here), Gutenberg’s Fingerprint by Merilyn Simonds (memoir about the “past, present, and evolving future of the book”), and Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner (woman returns to Cambodia from America for the first time since fleeing as a child refugee)
  • 24 Apr – Elizabeth Goudge Reading Day hosted by Emerald City Book Review
  • 25 Apr – Publication of Borne by Jeff VanderMeer (How do you sum up a VanderMeeer novel? New weird scifi release from author of The Southern Reach trilogy)
  • 29 Apr Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon

What new releases or bookish events are you looking forward to in April?

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Guest Post At Pages Unbound

Since March 19, Pages Unbound has been hosting two weeks of posts about Tolkien in celebration of Tolkien Reading Day. Today features my review of Tolkien in Translation edited by Thomas Honegger. Here is the first paragraph:

Tolkien in TranslationOnce upon a time, I wanted to write a paper about translating Tolkien for an undergraduate course. Numerous challenges accompany the task of translating literature. Tolkien crafted his stories on a foundation of language. His careful use of the English language and his creation of Middle-earth’s own languages further complicates the process of translating his works. As he wrote of The Lord of the Rings, “Hardly a word in its 600,000 or more has been unconsidered” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 160). Though my paper never materialized, the beginning of my research led me to Tolkien in Translation¸ a volume of works that “reflects on some of these challenges and how different translators overcame them” (back description). This book is the fourth volume in the Cormarë series from Walking Tree Publishers. The series currently consists of 35 books collecting scholarly papers and studies about Tolkien and his writing.

Head on over to Pages Unbound to read the rest of my review. Be sure to check out some of the other great posts from the Tolkien Reading Event as well.

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