From my discovery of Neil Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine books, I have sought out books that play with form. (Even earlier, I fell hard for Anastasia Krupnik’s To-Do lists which appeared as handwritten notes on lined paper in Lois Lowry’s books.)

Recently, Kim Belair’s and Ariadne MacGillivray’s Pure Steele (2013) struck my fancy. Each of its pages was assembled by hand and then scanned (apparently page 109 contains real blood). Yes, you read that correctly. (No, you shouldn’t take it seriously. But it is a dangerous tale.)

Pure Steele

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It is comprised of the writing of Henry Flemyng (a competent physician and dreamer who seeks adventure), portions of the journal of Eleanor Pryce (sometimes assembled from her discarded pages), and excerpts from publications (like “Gentlemen’s Moustachery, June 1908 and Abroad Monthly about the Wonders of British West Africa).

A bulk of the narrative is also derived from the letters of several people: Thomas Gordon (provided by Elizabeth Gordon), Lord T.F. Cunningham (Thomas Gordon was his secretary), Jacques-Henri Francois (who was stationed in Africa by the Paris Chapter of the French Poets’ Society), the hoity-toity Dr. Alan Smith and, finally, Hilary Mapsgoode (Cartographer).

The story is over-the-top adventure, tales of derring-do with an anything-boys-can-do-girls-can-do-better spirit. The collage-style presentation has a Victorian flavour, but the prose is written in a modern-though-clearly-admiring-of-Victoriana style.

“Steele gave me another hour of practice on wooden targets before he trussed up the goat for me to carry back on my shoulders. It was only rented property after all, and will be made into stew tonight by the farmer who lent it to us. It was heavier than I imagined, but I managed it after a bit of a struggle. Briefly I was bothered by a wasp that persisted in flying about my face while my hands were busied, but it dared annoy Steele and so he shot the villain’s wings off its back.”

As you can tell, more than anything, it’s just plain fun. “She took the butt of a pistol to the cheek and never flinched. She saved our lives because she dared to do something I would never even have devised! That woman, Steele, could be our hero! The Unlikely Adventures of Daring Lady Adventurer and Botanist Eleanor Pryce in Darkest Africa featuring the brilliant Eleanor Pryce.”

The volume is oversized and the glossy paper weighs it down, but the overall impression is lush and stylish.

Murakami Strange LibraryIt’s hard to imagine a more different volume than Haruki Murakami’s latest, The Strange Library (2014), which is slim and slight and has been translated by Ted Goossen.

Designed to make readers conscious of the process of entering a fictional world, this edition of Haruki Murakami’s story forces a series of steps more complicated than simply opening the cover of a book.

There are two cover-flaps to open, top and bottom, to gain access to the narrative and, even then, there is the question of what to do with the flaps. (It presents as being particularly compact, as though it could slip into a pocket but, in fact, it’s a little too big for comfortable quarters in most pockets.)

Does one first fold back the opening flap which is illustrated with an eye or the one with the mouth, for that decision affects the image which then obscures the kinda-3D-mandala-image which serves as the back cover while the book is closed and not being read?

The Strange Library is about the relationship between readers and the fictional worlds they inhabit when they disappear into a bound volume.

The story allows the line between living and imagining to fade in and out, until the idea of reading about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire seems like the most interesting story ever and a pet starling the most desirable pet ever known.

But this is not entirely comfortable reading, for The Strange Library also considers the basis of our living and dreaming fears, often strange and disorienting, which loyal Haruki Murakami readers will expect.

Rakoff Love DishonorAnother slim volume with a striking form is David Rakoff’s last book Love, dishonor, marry, die; cherish, perish (2013).

I find the cover itself mesmerizing, thick stock with holes punched to reveal the letters which form the title (the opposite side and inner sheet reveal a mass of letters, although ‘marry’ does seem to jump out from its centre nonetheless).

My fingertips trace the holes as the book sits flat on the table and, also, as I read, circling them from beneath.

“The infant, named Margaret, had hair on her head
Thick and wild as a fire, and three times as red.
The midwife, a broawn and capable whelper,
Gave one look and crossed herself, ‘God above help her….”

These the first words of David Rakoff’s story, but readers have already been introduced to young Margaret via a full-page illustration by Seth. In fact, each character is represented by one of his illustrations, which sometimes appears just slightly after they have appeared in the narrative proper (and sometimes repeatedly).

The verses make for addictive reading once readers adjust to the style. (In fact, when I finished and picked up a novel in my stack, it was difficult to adjust to ordinary and un-rhyming sentences in clunky and over-burdened paragraphs.)

But what is even more compelling is the sense of playfulness which infuses the story. Which is not to say that Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (a title which brings to mind Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage) is light reading. It is energized and lively, but it is often sad, even at times, deeply sorrowful.

The most striking illustration is the final one, which appears on an overpage, so that readers flipping through to see the portraits offered of the characters will not readily alight upon it until interconnections between the characters are more fully understood. This is the image of the story which will remain with me, I believe, perfectly encapsulating aspects of the story which could only unfold after this image was captured on the page, like memories cluster around a photograph.

Diane Schoemperlen has been playing with form and story since her son commented on the dearth of illustrations in adults’ books. Her latest, By the Book, is a collection of both visual and literary snippets, “fragments and collage, fraternal twins in both form and process”.

She created the illustrations, the colourful collages, herself to accompany the seven stories. The first story is partly fiction and partly “exact excerpts from a book originally published in 1900 called Nuovissima Grammatica Accelerata: Italian—Inglese Enciclopedia Popolare, a guidebook intended for the use of Italian citizens moving to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century”. (Both in and out of context, some of the statements made and subjects considered in this book are fascinating and, sometimes, amusing.)

By the Book SchoemperlenThe next six stories rely on a variety of source texts, including A Catechism of Familiar Things (1854), Seaside and Wayside Nature Readers (1887), The Commonly Occurring Wild Plants of Canada: A Flora for Beginners (1897), The Cyclopedia of Classified Dates With An Exhaustive Index (1900), and The Ontario Public School Hygiene (1920). In her introduction, Diane Schoemperlen describes her creative  process as follows:

“I did not exactly write any of the lines in any of them. I discovered them (like a continent), mined them (like gold or coal or potash), unearthed them (like bones), excavated them (like archaeological artifacts), solved them (like a crossword puzzle), deciphered them (like a secret code), organized them (like a filing cabinet or a clothes closet), choreographed them (like a ballet or maybe a barn dance), arranged them (like a symphony or a bouquet of flowers). In each case, I picked out the pieces (like gold nuggets from gravel or maybe like worms from the garden), shuffled them many times (like playing cards), and then put them together again (like a jigsaw puzzle, ending up with a picture entirely different from the one on the front of the box). I have used each sentence exactly as it appears in the original text, except in a few cases where I have changed pronouns and verb tenses for consistency.”

Diane Schoemperlen’s Governor-General’s-Award-winning Forms of Devotion was the first book that I bought in hardcover on a whim. It combined woodcuts from older books (with titles much like those cited above as having inspired the final six stories in this new collection) with fiction inspired by them, and I immediately loved it, had to have it, and I have reread portions of it and flipped through it many times.

Because she does not publish often, I have not rushed to finish reading By the Book. In fact, I might even return to some old favourites (like Our Lady of the Lost and Found, for instance) before I finish her latest, which was published by Biblioasis. But I have, already, read all the pictures in this beautifully constructed volume.

Some authors, like Molly Peacock, visualize and characterize the actual alphabet (as in Alphabetique, with the visual poems of Kara Kosaka). Others make up their own rules and put the letters and palette to work in different ways. Alice in Wonderland complains “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?”

Do you like your books better with pictures?