Friday, April 13, 2007

Invention of Hugo Cabret

Selznick, Brian. 2007. The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Sometimes I wonder if I just have to be contrary. Is there something about a book receiving such broad critical acclaim that makes me hyper-critical of it? Is the fact that everyone and their dog is proclaiming THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET to be the best book of 2007--at least so far--leading me to think otherwise? I know it has received at least five starred reviews, so far, including Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal. Unfortunately, BooksinPrint does not list if the provided reviews of a title are starred or I don’t know what the other three journals are. So why my hesitation to jump on the bandwagon?
School Library Journal writes, “With characteristic intelligence, exquisite images, and a breathtaking design, Selznick shatters conventions related to the art of bookmaking in this magical mystery set in 1930s Paris.” Publishers Weekly notes, “Here is a true masterpiece—an artful blending of narrative, illustration and cinematic technique, for a story as tantalizing as it is touching.”
Booklist points out that, “his hybrid creation, which also includes movie stills and archival photographs, is surprising and often lovely, but the orphan's story is overshadowed by the book's artistic and historical concerns (the heady extent of which are revealed in concluding notes about Selznick's inspirations, from the Lumi'ere brothers to Fran'eois Truffaut). Nonetheless, bookmaking this ambitious demands and deserves attention--which it will surely receive from children attracted by a novel in which a complex narrative is equally advanced by things both read and seen.” Of the three reviews I’ve mentioned, I’m most closely aligned with the last. Selznick’s work is amazingly unique. The artwork is outstanding and brilliant. And the concept is close to genius. I won’t deny that. But is a unique concept and the fact that there are no other books like it on the market enough to automatically make it the best book of the year? Is originality all that matters? I’m not disputing the artwork being a masterpiece. But the text is less obviously so...if it can be called that at all. There are moments of brilliance in the text. Qualities I liked. But overall, the plot, the characters, the language, the style...all are average. Not bad by any means. Compared to many texts, they would rate as slightly better than average. Paired with the artwork, it’s an enjoyable read. But if there were no artwork...would the story be getting any applause at all? The artwork is strong enough to carry the text. No doubt about it. But for me to proclaim it “the best book of the year” I’d have to be more in love with the text itself. Here is a book in love with itself. The book has an inflated ego, and rightly so. It is the first of its kind. It will be remembered for years to come...if not generations...simply because it was the first to incorporate such illustrations with the traditional novel. It is a picture book married to a novel. The pictures tell the story. Reveal the story. Tease and satisfy the reader. They do most of the work, in fact. I just wish that the text was more of an equal partner and equally as worthy of praise.

That being said here is the beautiful first paragraph of the novel:

The story I am about to share with you takes place in 1931, under the roofs of Paris. Here you will meet a boy named Hugo Cabret, who once, long ago, discovered a mysterious drawing that changed his life forever.
But before you turn the page, I want you to picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a movie. On screen, the sun will soon rise, and you will find yourself zooming toward a train station in the middle of the city. You will rush through the doors into a crowded lobby. You will eventually spot a boy amid the crowd, and he will start to move through the train station. Follow him, because this is Hugo Cabret. His head is full of secrets, and he’s waiting for the story to begin.

Soon the black and white pictures sweep the reader up into the story and the plot begins to unfold. A young boy, Hugo, is living secretly in the train station. He takes care of the clocks in the station as his uncle did before him. His father died in a tragic fire. His mother is dead as well. His only family--since his uncle’s death--is a broken automaton. A wind-up man of sorts who if functioning looks like he would write or draw something since there is a pen in his hand. It is Hugo’s intention to repair this automaton and receive a ‘message from beyond the grave’ from his father who first discovered this creation in the attic of the museum where he worked. To repair this automaton, the boy must steal mechanical toys from a toy shop in the train station. It is when he is caught that the real mystery begins to unfold.
Fuse 8's Review of the Invention of Hugo Cabret
Washington Post's Review of The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Which I must admit I really, really agree with and which I didn't discover until after I wrote up my review).
NPR's The Intricate, Cinematic World of Hugo Cabret
AmoxCalli's Review of The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Emilyread's Haiku Review of The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Orson Scott Card's Review of The Invention of Hugo Cabret


Kailana said...

I liked this book because it was different. I am glad I bought it on a whim and not because of what I had heard about it. I wouldn't call it stellar, but it was a nice change from the ordinary.

Melissa said...

This one *has* been making the rounds, and I'm like you in that way. It makes me suspicious. If it's really that good, then I should jump right on and read it just like everyone else. But, what if I hate it? (I have a track record of hating books that are raved about by many). Thanks for the not-so-stellar review. It adds some balance to the pot. I'll probably wait until the hype has passed...

Anonymous said...

I just read Hugo Cabret yesterday and completely agree. There are a lot of things to admire about the book, but the writing isn't one of them. It was enjoyable enough, but worth a starred review? I don't think so. Novelty and ambition alone don't merit a star. I do plan on booktalking it, though, since I'm sure there are kids who will love it.

Bellezza said...

I've wanted to read this book for some time, but only based on the acclaim it's getting. Yet, sometimes a book can be held up on a pedestal which can't sustain it. Like you, I often shake my head after reading a highly lauded book and wonder what I've missed. They're almost always a disappointment. I'm looking forward to your discussions on books for the Once Upon a Time Challenge.

Alyce said...

I have only heard about this book in passing, but didn't remember anything specific about it. It sounds interesting though.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for such a great review, Becky! I wasn't familiar with this one at all. It sounds like it may be worth checking out at the library, if not for the story then for the illustrations.