Book Bits

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick

In musical terms, a picture book is harmony, with words and illustrations creating a perfect chord. So what, then, is Brian Selznick's latest offering? Not a picture book, not a graphic novel, and certainly not merely a novel with illustrations. No, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which weighs in at a whopping 544 pages of text and artwork, is something else entirely. I would call that something a duet.

The two voices in this story – Selznick's dramatic pencil drawings and his lively, suspenseful text – alternately sing the melody line. And yet, as in any good duet, both voices work together throughout – distinct, yet inextricably woven together.

The novel begins with a page of text, followed by a series of pictures that mimic a camera moving in on the opening scene of a movie, complete with a close-up of our hero's intelligent, curious face–and frightened eyes. Meet Hugo Cabret, whose head – and world – are full of mysteries.

In this story it's 1931, and Hugo lives in a little boy's paradise: inside the walls at Paris's bustling train station where he keeps the clocks wound and spies on the station's masses. And yet, Hugo's world is anything but paradise. He misses his father dreadfully, and he lives in constant fear of discovery.

Hugo's one solace is the automaton his father was working on just before he died. Though it can't speak, the mechanical man is built to hold a pen. And appropriately, given Selznick's focus on pictures-as-storytelling, what the automaton eventually draws is the catalyst for the miracle Hugo has been hoping for – although not without some bumps (and a near fatal run-in with a train) along the way.

Since we're on the subject of music – and the interplay between art and text – I'll say that one of the most successful aspects of Selznick's experimentation with form is his rhythm and timing.

The hand-off between the written sections of the novel and its illustrated portions always occurs at precisely the right moment, such as the introduction of a new character or at the beginning of a chase scene.

Likewise, the text provides welcome opportunities for the reader to catch his breath by offering some distance from the action and allowing Selznick to take the storytelling reins once again.

Through it all, and no matter who carries it, the melody of this story rings out clear and true: Dreams are worth believing in – and following.
– Jenny Sawyer

Three books about fine dining

Dining well was not always the passionate pursuit it has become today in the United States. Some credit the current "foodie" movement to one determined California woman, Alice Waters. An authorized biography, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee traces the genius and life of this visionary-turned-chef-turned-local-food activist across three decades in the heat of the kitchen.

On the other coast, successful New York restaurateur Danny Meyer tamed the kitchen beast by focusing on two things: good food and good service. In Setting the Table, Meyer explains in frank language how excellent hospitality set his popular restaurants above and apart from others.

All cooks at some point fall in love with the intimacy of preparing a meal. Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries presents a year of in-season recipes and sensory musings. (March 27 is an ode to fresh greens.) Food- making is a delightful adventure in Slater's book, and the accompanying color photographs are a pleasure.
– Kendra Nordin

Readers' picks

I am currently reading The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford. A must read for anyone living in the 'Permanent Period' of their lives.
– Bill Oldread, Manila

Runaway by Alice Munro. These are short stories with amazing staying power. Heart-wrenching. Real. People in all their glory and with all their warts. Brilliant. Munro is brilliant.
– Nita Sweeney, Columbus, Ohio

I just finished reading Knitting by Anne Bartlett. A friend and fellow knitter loaned it to me, and I thought it would be a book about knitting. It started out that way, but ended up being a book about healing. How wonderful!
– Dorothy Mcdonald, Sterling, Colo.

Desert Queen, by Janet Wallach is as timely as today's headlines. Gertrude Bell, the brains behind Lawrence of Arabia's brawn, left a wealthy Victorian life to explore, map, and excavate the Arab world on camel back. Recruited by British Intelligence during World War I, her maps and her friendship and understanding of key Arab leaders was crucial. After the war, she played a major role in creating the modern Middle East and was considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire.
– Patricia Mitchell, Santa Barbara, Calif.

I am reading Four Quarters of Light by Brian Keenan. It is basically a travelogue and reflections on his extended sojourn in Alaska. It is an interesting tapestry describing what he sees and does, metaphysical reflections on the mystical nature of wilderness, and a realistic and nonromanticized portrait of living in the last frontier. Just the description and musings on the Northern Lights is worth the price of the book.
– Joe Call, Fairfax, Va.

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.

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