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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Review: Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin

Minds of WinterAuthor: Ed O’Loughlin
Title: Minds of Winter
Format/Source: ebook/Netgalley
Published: 7 March 2017
Publisher: Quercus
Length: 496 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley, cover + topic caught my attention
Rating: ★★★½
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I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Fay Morgan and Nelson Nilsson have each arrived in Inuvik, Canada, about 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Both are in search of answers about a family member: Nelson for his estranged older brother, and Fay for her vanished grandfather. Driving Fay into town from the airport on a freezing January night, Nelson reveals a folder left behind by his brother. An image catches Fay’s eye: a clock she has seen before. Soon Fay and Nelson realize that their relatives have an extraordinary and historic connection — a secret share in one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of polar expedition. This is the riddle of the “Arnold 294” chronometer, which reappeared in Britain more than a hundred years after it was lost in the Arctic with the ships and men of Sir John Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition. The secret history of this elusive timepiece, Fay and Nelson will discover, ties them and their families to a journey that echoes across two centuries.

At 500 pages long, Minds of Winter dwarfs the kind of books I usually prefer to read. Had I known that, I might not have requested it. Still, I wanted to give it a go because of the focus on Arctic exploration. I hadn’t read any fiction about the Franklin expedition. Knowledge of the disastrous undertaking stuck in my mind from a video I watched a few times throughout grade school and from the recent discoveries of Franklin’s ships. Minds of Winter is far more the story of lost explorers than it is of Fay and Nelson. Their story serves as a framing device. Nelson and Fay piece together documents gathered by Nelson’s missing brother, connecting mysteries and the lives of various historical figures.

Characters who actually existed include Francis Crozier, Roald Amundsen, Jack London, and “the Mad Trapper of Rat River”, whose true identity remains unknown today. The years in which each chapter takes place range from 1841 to 1957 (plus 2009 for Nelson and Fay’s storyline). Many of the characters I had a passing familiarity with. One character I didn’t know turned out to be a strong thread throughout. The beginning of the book had me constantly looking things up on Wikipedia to discern fact from fiction (more so I was just confirming things that I suspected were ‘real’). Apparently there are some notable deviations from known fact, but none that I could recognize. That doesn’t really matter anyway. This is historical fiction; let’s have some fun. Either way, the story is based in quite a lot of fact. O’Loughlin did his research, as his acknowledgements confirm.

Fun fact: Of all the fact-based storytelling in this novel, I assumed that the chronometer had to be a contrivance, as it just fit so neatly into the plot. I was shocked (and pretty amused) to learn that the chronometer is real and that the 2009 Guardian article about it that appears in the book is also real. You can read that article here.  Kudos to O’Loughlin for tying so many elements of history together.

The story finally comes together in the epilogue. That’s pushing it for me (I would have liked things to start making sense earlier). The stories didn’t come together in the way I anticipated. However, the epilogue pleased me so much that I forgave the later half of the book, which I thought dragged on a bit. When I rated the book on Goodreads, I was sure I would calm down after a couple hours and go back to whining about how long the book was. That’s why I gave it three stars instead of a euphoric four. Yet that good feeling remains a week later, and so thankfully I can give three and half stars on my own blog. Some readers won’t like the ending, if not because it doesn’t hand out easy answers, then perhaps because it’s too blunt in its message.

The Bottom Line:

Minds of Winter may not satisfy those who want to uncover secrets about Franklin’s voyage, but it will likely satisfy those who love tales of Arctic exploration or hefty historical novels.

Further Reading:

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Review: The Wizard’s Dog by Eric Kahn Gale

The Wizard's DogAuthor: Eric Kahn Gale
Title: The Wizard’s Dog
Format/Source: ebook/Publicist
Published: 17 January 2017
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Middle-grade fantasy
Why I Read: Light-hearted fantasy – something I needed!
Rating: ★★★½
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I received a complimentary copy in exchange for my honest review.

Meet Nosewise. He’s spunky. He’s curious. And he’s a dog who can’t understand why his pack mates Merlin and Morgana spend all day practicing magic tricks. If it’s a trick they want, he’s the dog to ask! He can already Sit!, Stay!, and Roll Over! But there’s no way Nosewise is Stay!ing when his master and best friend, Merlin, is kidnapped. There’s nothing Nosewise won’t do to get Merlin back, even if it means facing the strange Fae people and their magic-eating worms, or tangling with the mysterious Sword in the Stone. But it may take more than sniffing out a spell to do it! Nosewise’s hilarious escapades and steadfast loyalty get him and his companions through King Arthur’s Dark Ages.

Arthurian legend is one of those literary fields I have always assumed would interest me, but it is one I have yet to properly pursue. (The Once and Future King has been on my TBR for longer than Goodreads has existed. My best knowledge of King Arthur probably comes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail…). It’s taken a tale told from a dog’s perspective to ease me into the literary retellings! 😉 The Wizard’s Dog stars Nosewise, a dog Merlin rescued who has an exceptional nose (even for a dog). The story describes Nosewise’s adventure in rescuing Merlin and Morgana, with the help of young Arthur. No spoilers, but this isn’t the most traditional retelling of how Arthur pulled the Sword from the Stone!

Nosewise is definitely the star of this tale. He is an easy character to love, sounding just like you might imagine a loyal dog would. His unique perspective as a dog infuses humour (ex. when the magical Asteria allows him to speak, he’s excited that he’s learned a trick no dog has learned before because that will impress Merlin [20]) and difficulties (ex. he’s a dog; he can’t open doors!) into an Arthurian fantasy that’s likely never been told like this before.

Speaking more generally, I haven’t read a lot of (any?) stories that have an animal speaking regularly with humans in a world where animals don’t speak. That normally doesn’t work for me (I prefer all or nothing), but I think The Wizard’s Dog balances the human-animal interactions well. Nosewise doesn’t chat throughout the whole book – there is a chunk where he has lost the Asteria and is without his voice.

Black and white shaded illustrations appear throughout the book. I like their style – not too cartoony or simplified. Nosewise’s silly expression on the cover is as animated as the characters get. My favourite illustrations are the darker ones depicting castles, magic, or fae. The story wraps up neatly, though not without leaving room for further adventures of Nosewise, Arthur, and the gang.

The Bottom Line:

A light-hearted tale narrated in first person by a dog, I recommend The Wizard’s Dog to those who might enjoy an ‘animalistic’ twist on Arthurian legend.

Further Reading:

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