July 11, 2015 § 5 Comments
Title: The Travels of Daniel Ascher
Author: Déborah Lévy-Bertherat
Translator: Adriana Hunter
Publisher: Other Press
ISBN: 978 159051707 9
The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat is a generally inoffensive, if slight, novel brought out just in time for Summer. According to a Publisher Weekly article, Other Press is marketing the title as a “YA Crossover”, which speaks to the awkward position the book occupies. The plotting and prose are not sophisticated enough to impress adult fiction readers, but the characterizations (and perhaps even some of the situations?) are too sophisticated (without being engaging) for tweens and early teens. In other words: the novel lacks the pleasurable appeal of genre, and at the same time offers no challenge to the literary fiction reader.
Hélène Roche is a 20-year old archeology student, invited by her Great-Uncle Daniel to stay with him while completing her studies in Paris. He is the author of a beloved series of children’s adventure novels known as The Black Insignia series. Novels everyone seems to have read and adored… except Hélène. Her relationship to Daniel is complicated. Even as a child she was critical – thinking his word games “dumb”, his adventure stories “all the same” and finding his behavior clownish. Whereas Daniel, in contrast, is inordinately fond of her. At holidays he never forgot to single her and her brother out from the other cousins with special gifts – exotic items he picked up on his travels. And, of course, inscribed copies of all his books. Still, despite his many kindnesses Hélène goes out of her way to avoid him.
Otherwise it’s a very convenient arrangement for her: she is given her own apartment on the top floor of Uncle Daniel’s building. Rent free. He resides on the ground floor and is frequently out of the country. He leaves her notes and sends her letters, planning for them to spend time together when he returns. Otherwise he leaves her to her own devices.
That evening she found a postcard of Patagonia in her mailbox. It was sent from Ushuaia, featured low-slung houses against a background of mountains, and had a really beautiful stamp. She recognized her great-uncle’s handwriting, the same writing as those dedications in the Black Insignia books, its sloping letters clinging to each other with tiny connecting hooks as if afraid of losing eachother. My dear Hélène, I hope you’ve settled into rue Vavin. It’s magnificent here. I’ll tell you all about it, but only if you insist… Affectionately, Daniel H.R.
Hélène is not the only member of the Roche family who has issues with Daniel. The adults in particular seem to have mixed feelings, his two sisters and Hélène’s mother and father seemingly the only ones who have a genuine affection for him. Which makes what happens next so odd. Hélène begins to probe into the mysteries of Daniel’s life. Daniel is Jewish. A war orphan, adopted by the Roches after his family was killed in the Holocaust. And while she goes to great lengths – even so far as to travel to America with her boyfriend to visit Daniel’s “Ascher” relatives – her sudden interest is inexplicable. Almost half-hearted. In fact, everything about Helene comes across as half-hearted. Her research is never presented as a means for her to become closer to Daniel, to understand him, or to learn about her family’s history. With one or two exceptions she does not engage with him in any meaningful way as she sets about excavating his life as if digging through an ancient ruin. Hélène moves through the world in a state of self-absorbed ennui. Smoking, brooding and thinking herself better than everyone around her. Déborah Lévy-Bertherat has done something worse than create an unlikeable character… she has written a thoroughly uninteresting one. One who has no more self-knowledge at the end of her narrative journey than she did at its beginning. This matters as, despite it being a third person narrative, the entire story is told through the lens of Hélène.
As for the ending and the mystery’s final resolution – well, to be blunt, it’s a bit ridiculous. My reaction to it all is very similar to my reaction to Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook, another French novel written in a similar vein. Neither book demands an emotional commitment from its characters or readers.
The redeeming feature of The Travels of Daniel Ascher is the amount of care and thought which went into publishing the English/American edition. Adriana Hunter has made a lovely and flowing translation (she was also the translator of Hervé le Tellier’s Eléctrico W) of the source text. The writing itself is really very fine with pretty flights of fancy – for example that line in the passage above describing Daniel’s handwriting. Other Press has created a lovely book in a style reminiscent of the Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events series and filled it with charming pen and ink illustrations by Andreas Feher. Included at the end of the book is a drawing showing the spines of a complete set of Black Insignia books and a list of the titles in the series “so far”. Overall the physical presentation is delightful – whimsical in a way which is normally just my style.
October 9, 2009 § 2 Comments
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.