Book Review: Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_memoirs_of_a_polar_bearFor some reason, when I picked up Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, I didn’t think it was actually going to be the memoirs of a polar bear. I completely judged the book by its cover and thought it was a YA book, perhaps like Margo Lanagan’s excellent novel Tender Morsels. Either that, or surely Tawada’s book was an allegory of some sort.
Nope. Memoirs is exactly what it says it is – the recollections and life history of a polar bear, or more specifically, three generations of polar bears, living in Cold War Europe. The first bear, a former performing circus bear now relegated to going to conferences on performing, begins writing her autobiography and eventually escapes the Soviet Union to flee to Berlin. Her daughter, Tosca, then picks up the story as she herself becomes a dancing performing bear. We then see Tosca’s son Knut, born in captivity in Berlin Zoo.

Part of the intoxicating strangeness of this novel is that the bears are bears but, for the most part, no one else seems to notice. The bears learn languages, write, take part in panel discussions, act in children’s theatre shows, and read the newspaper. Their bear-ness does show through sometimes, particularly with the grandmother bear upon her move to Berlin. Wintery Berlin is too hot for her (of course, she’s a polar bear); she play-fights with the human supervising her move to Berlin but she doesn’t realise his terror is real (of course, she’s a polar bear and doesn’t realise what it must feel like for a human to be thrown around by a bear); she blows all her money on buying all the salmon in the nearby shop (of course, she’s a polar bear, what else is she supposed to eat?). But interestingly, these things sound to the reader like cultural clashes. Tawada is talking (in a deliciously odd way) about the immigrant experience here, not the disconnect between humans and animals.

But the relationship between humans and animals is clearly a theme here, and making the main narrators polar bears only highlights the strangeness of being a human. And the cruelty. All the bears are living in a human-built cage – both the grandmother and Tosca are trained in circuses, and the grandmother has memories of being ‘taught’ to stand on her hind legs by having metal plates heated up under her front paws, forcing her to stand like a human lest her front paws be burned. And little Knut is raised in a zoo – treated well and with love by his handlers but, still, captive. Tosca at least has the benefit of a strange and deep bond with her human circus trainer Barbara – a soulful, indescribable communion between the two that seems to transcend language and exists most strongly in their mutually shared dreams. (Told you it was strange.)
Tawada’s prose, as rendered in English by translator Susan Bernofsky, is, by contrast, clear, sharp and fresh. Weirdness has never been expressed so cleanly. The grandmother says, “I lay there like a croissant, embracing Tosca”. The night time square outside her hotel reminds her of a theatre stage, “maybe because of the circular light cast by a streetlamp. A cat bisects the circle with its supple stride.”

This novel may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly was mine. With many thematic strands of motherhood, humanity, captivity, and immigration woven through a generational story that I found absorbing at every turn, Memoirs of a Polar Bear will make you ponder its rare qualities for some time to come.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Memoirs of a Polar Bear
by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky
Published by New Directions Publishing
ISBN 9780811225786

Advertisements

Having a baby? You’ll need (kiwi) books!

By books, I don’t mean books telling you what to do when you have a baby, though a couple of them might be a good idea early on in the pregnancy. Really, don’t look at them later though as it’s a sure way to convince yourself you’ll never be good at this parenting gig. I’m not going to suggest titles of pregnancy/ parenthood books, but Kaz Cooke is amazing and I keep seeing stuff around about Constance Hall’s Like a Queen, and um did you know Emily Writes has a book coming? Anyway.

What is really important, is starting your new bump’s very own library. Your first stop is going to be school fairs – think Spot, Dr Seuss, the eponymous Golden Books. And make sure you have plenty of board books – not only are they tear-proof for destructive-minded toddlers, but they are easier to hold with one hand while breastfeeding. And your second stop – bookshops, of course. Perhaps for Bookshop Day this Saturday 29 October?

All of these essential first kiwi books are available in board book format.

cv_the_noisy_book1. The Noisy Book, by Soledad Bravi (Gecko Press)
Nothing beats it. My boys have destroyed two copies of this – the only notable change in the second edition being a PC-ism of Spinach – it was just ‘Yuk’ now it goes ‘Yuk Yum’. Possibly for the American market?
2. Hairy Maclary Touch & Feel, by Lynley Dodd (Puffin)
Your baby will love touch & feel books, and be disappointed with any books that don’t have this function, right until they are around 2.5 years old. This is a favourite, with lots of fuzzy, soft and velvety dog fur.
3. ABC, 123 and Colours, by James Brown and Frances Samuel (Te Papa Press)cv_my_NZ_ABC_book
These books are gorgeous and genuinely inventive. A may be for Apples, but they are big, shiny Billy Apples – we get relevant letter-meanings, gorgeous countables and the most wonderful artwork in Colours. Just brilliant.
4. Duck’s Stuck, by Kyle Mewburn and Ali Teo (Scholastic NZ)
So you don’t believe that a tiny baby discovers their literary taste literally on the boob? Think again! This book was my bedside book while I fed my little baby to sleep, and is still now a fallback when every other book is rejected. Thank you, Kyle – this is a gift he gave me when still pregnant with number 1, and it’s still going strong.
construction_crew5. Roadworks, Demolition and Construction, by Sally Sutton and Brian Lovelock (Walker Books) – available now in a box set.
These are must-haves for the machine-mad child. This was so popular with my older boy when he was 2 there were thoughts of “losing” it for awhile…
6. The Wheels on the Bus (Hachette), The Great Kiwi ABC Book (Upstart Press) and Old McDonald Had a Farm (Hachette), by Donovan Bixley
Okay, you may think once you’ve seen one version of these classics you’ve seen them all, but Bixley’s richly detailed, characterful illustrations make sure this isn’t the case with these books.
cv_the_big_book_of_words_and_pictures7. My Big Book of Words and Pictures, by Ole Konnecke (Gecko Press)
My first child, age 2, insisted that we made up stories based on the pictures on each of the pages of this book. Every Single Night. It was wonderful, most of the time. But seriously, this is a top-of-the-line word learning book, with a bit of a story on each page to help the tired parent’s mind. This could, admittedly, be a first birthday present.
8. Stomp! By Ruth Paul (Scholastic NZ)
Ruth Paul’s Stomp! is a great first dinosaur adventure, where small turns the tables on big when it’s their turn to lead the pack. Subtle, effective illustrations make sure there’s something to discover on every re-read. And there will be plenty.
9. Piggity-Wiggity Jiggity-Jig, by Diana Neild, illustrated by Phillip Webb (Scholastic NZ)
One of the best rhythmic books out there, this is the first in a series about Piggity, with the slightly awkward name. A huge favourite with no 1 kid, it didn’t really work for no 2, and fair warning it is a little long when you have a small baby; maybe one to jiggle the cot to for a night-time read.cv_kakahu_getting_dressed
10. Kākahu – Getting Dressed; Kararehe – Animals; and Kanohi – My Face, by Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson (Reo Pepi)
Essential first Te Reo titles, teaching the very young some essential first words in Te Reo to begin their understanding of New Zealand’s own language.
11. Colours, and Animals, by Donovan Bixley (Hachette NZ)
A similar concept as above, including Te Reo first words, with Bixley’s usual cast of animated characters, which will be familiar to anybody who has read his Old McDonald’s Farm or Wheels on the Bus stories.
12. Mrs Wishy-Washy, by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Elizabeth Fuller
Mrs Wishy-Washy is an enduring favourite for my youngest boy, though I will admit that sometimes when he has nightmares they appear to include Wishy-Washy and Grandma (possibly related to that one time we left him to go to sleep with Grandma: the trauma!) The words trip off the tongue, and you’ll have it memorised in no time. Joy Cowley is a national treasure.

Now, a disclaimer that will be familiar to anybody who has had the pleasure of being at The Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie when John McIntyre hosts a parents night. Before you buy your library, go to the library – with your child, if they are already born! Every child is different – my boys have very few of their preferred books in common – but all of these books are quality. Writing, production & everything: brilliant.

So here’s the sell: It’s NZ Bookshop Day on 29 October: what better chance to go out and get your little ones some quality kiwi (and translated, in the case of the Gecko Press) books! Most of the bookshops participating will be giving out books to kids who come in-store dressed up, and there are children’s authors popping up in bookshops all over New Zealand. Here’s the event calendar, so get your skates on!

by Sarah Forster

Book Review: The Lion and the Bird, by Marianne Dubuc

Available in bookshops nationwide.LionAndTheBird_Cover_WEB (2)

From Book Island, this is a gorgeous book which has its narrative brought to life by the finest of illustrations.

Lion, while out doing a spot of gardening, finds a very unwell little bird whom he befriends and helps to restore back to good health. The birds’ birdie friends leave and a delightful friendship unfolds, every facet of life shared in the cutest possible way.

This isn’t a book of words, they are sparse, unnecessary; the illustrations do the talking, leaving the reader to expand and explore if an adult, and their imagination to run wild if a child.

Day turns into night, seasons come and go and the inevitable happens and we the reader are left to shed a tear and experience grief and loss with the golden-hearted lion, followed the next year with the joy of reunion.

This book is simply delightful, not heavy even in loss. It has been put together with an eye for detail. Just holding this book is a tactile experience, and I can’t think of an adult or child who wouldn’t love it. For both, it is just an ideal experience which will help foster a love of books in any child who is lucky enough to come across it. Like Shirley Hughes with Dogger, this is a book that will live on.

Add it to your collection, give it as a gift.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

The Lion and The Bird
by Marianne Dubuc
Published by Book Island
ISBN 9780994109873

Two Book Reviews: Detective Gordon: The First Case, by Ulf Nilsson

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Book review #1, by Hannah

The first case is about two detectives trying to solve the mystery of nuts being stolen from cv_the_first_casewoodland animals. Its a bit tricky though. The thieves are very cunning and also clever, which makes this case very hard to solve. Will the two detectives solve this mystery? Or will the thieves win this time? See for yourself!

I thought this book was wondrous to read, a tricky mystery that was nice, entertaining, adventurous and mysterious all at the same time. I know this book will be delightful to anyone who reads it. I hope you liked my review.

by Hannah Wong-Ming, age 8

Book Review #2, by Hannah’s mum Emma 

I am truly thankful for Gecko Press. Without this creative Wellington-based publisher, we would be very unlikely to have good access to such authors as Ulf Nilsson. Finding and translating excellent children’s books from all around the world is a passion of the publisher, Julia Marshall. I have not ever been disappointed by a Gecko Press book (I own an embarrassing number of them), and find them to be reliable presents. Ulf Nilsson’s All the Dear Little Animals and When We Were Alone in the World are two of my favourite children’s books.

The First Case features animals making sense of the forest around them. This forest features very polite animals, except for the thief who has stolen a squirrel’s stockpile of winter nuts. Chief Detective Gordon (a toad) is the most important (and only) policeman in the forest. It is his job to find the thief. In doing so he comes across a frozen, nameless mouse. They help each other, and on learning the mouse has no name, Chief Gordon solemnly names her to help make the mouse find her place in the world. He then uses his ever-present stamp to make it official. The newly named Buffy becomes Chief Gordon’s apprentice. Their combined skills, and a little logic, solve the case.

The story is simply and beautifully told. The accompanying pictures (illustrated by Gitte Spee) communicate the special world of the snow-laden forest. This is a gentle mystery story, suitable for young readers aged 7-9. I’m hopeful that it is the first in a series of further forest mysteries.

Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming

Detective Gordon: The First Case
by Ulf Nilsson, illustrated by Gitte Spee
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781927271506

My animals and other family, by Susanna Andrew

When I was small I avoided non-fiction the way other children avoided vegetables. I skipped the history in the School Journal and went straight to the fiction bar. In my reading habits, I was fact-averse. There was, however, one non-fiction book that I swallowed whole: The World of Pets.

index_dogs_cats_birds_others

I was given it for my birthday when I was eight years old. It was a large, hefty book with full-colour plates and chapter headings such as How to Care for Mice, Keeping Guinea Pigs and Which Breed of Cat Is For You? I loved its grave and factual tone. There were animals in that book that I could only dream of having – cats with pedigrees, silky rabbits, chubby hamsters, voles, and even chestnut horses with long manes. My animal-loving obsession was tolerated by my family. They nicknamed me Daktari, and banned all pets inside the house.daktari

Perhaps it was being the youngest of eight siblings that made me want to be the boss of others, but it was true that whatever was able to be caught and brought up in a cage, I had at some stage tried to be the master of. As Seamus Heaney put it, “I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied /specks to range on window-sills at home,..and wait and watch until, the fattening dots burst into nimble -/swimming tadpoles”.

I bred mice in different colours in a four-storey cage built by the caretaker at the school my mother taught in. The cage allowed me to partition off floors and separate the babies from the males, who sometimes ate them. I also owned a cat, some goldfish and an axolotl. I kept guinea pigs named Wilbur (but of course) and Charlotte – and all of their offspring. I had an aviary which housed ring-necked doves, quails and finches. I managed this whole animal kingdom alone, with the book as my guide.

possumOne day, the caretaker at my mother’s school arrived in her class with an orphaned baby possum and my mother brought it home for me. It was a tiny pet furball, the cutest thing imaginable, and it clung to me. Whenever I picked it up it climbed up on to my head and sat spreadeagled in my hair. One morning I woke to find the possum was missing from its cage. I remember crying in the morn-ing before school.

There was no chapter in The World of Pets titled How To Look After Your Pet Possum. It could only have contained the unhelpful sentence ‘It doesn’t belong to you’. The writing in that book was prosaic and encyclopaedic but at the age of eight it gave me my fictional life: Hamster Trainer, Rabbit Keeper, Horse Owner.

Susanna Andrew is co-editor with Jolisa Gracewood of Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015 published by Auckland University Press RRP $30.00 ISBN 9781869408244

gracewood-and-andrew_cMarti-Friedlander

Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood, image copyright Marti Friedlander