Welcome once again to the semi-regular meeting of the Maniacal Book Club. Today we are presenting an award-winning Australian book under its American title and cover, owing to the fact that we requested it thinking it looked very interesting, only to discover it was in fact a book that we’d previously seen and added to the TBR list under its original name. Without further babbling, I present to you…The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg
Or, as it’s known in Australia, My Life as an Alphabet (also by Barry Jonsberg, obviously)…
Candice Phee is a twelve year old social outcast who reads the dictionary and Charles Dickens in her spare time and worries about the spiritual life of her pet fish. Since her baby sister Sky died from SIDS seven years ago, Candice’s parents’ relationship has become rocky and her father has had a major falling out with his brother, Rich Uncle Brian. When a new boy arrives in Candice’s class claiming to be from another dimension, it appears that Candice is about to make her first friend. What follows is by turns hilarious, poignant and plain bizarre as Candice and Douglas Benson from Another Dimension attempt to sort out all the problems currently affecting those they care about most.
Whether comparing life to a categorical universe or attempting to reduce one’s life to fit within the confines of the alphabet, it is undeniable that young Candice Phee will discover that human existence often defies the limitations that we place upon it. It is obvious that those around Candice are suffering in various ways and this delightful story emphasises that caring can come in the most unexpected of packages. We could all learn from the easy manner with which Candice shucks off the taunts of her classmates and the openness she demonstrates in meeting a new friend.
This book gives us the lesson that different is not necessarily bad – although sometimes it pays to get some help, depending on how different your differences are and the manner in which you acquired them. For instance, a difference obtained after falling out of a tree could be a difference that sets one apart as charmingly quirky. Or it could be a difference that is best addressed by the attentions of a neurological expert.
No dragons in this book. Again. There’s not any monsters at all actually. There is a fish with a cool name though (Earth-Pig Fish) and some inflatable bosoms that are really funny (but also turn out to be really important and useful). I think the book would have been better with monsters, or at least a big dinosaur. I think Rich Uncle Brian could have bought one and given it to Candice for a present and it would have made the book a lot better.
Today I will honour Candice’s story by writing a slightly awkward, alphabetical poem of sorts.
If Candice’s life were an alphabet, it would probably make more sense if recited backwards.
If her life were an alphabet, it would probably be a lot less eventful, given that it would need to be condensed
into a form that is easily understood by small children.
Not to mention sung to a jaunty (yet memorable) tune.
If her life were an alphabet, it would probably start with U for unique.
Or maybe C.
For Confused reCollections.
Or maybe, most appropriately, with J.
Reading The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee was both a familiar and slightly unusual experience for me. Told in a series of essays, each beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet, and letters to her (yet-to-respond) American penpal, Candice attempts to give voice to the important things in her life while simultaneously musing about how to make things better for those around her. This format accounted for much of the “unusual” part of the reading experience, and while I did enjoy the narrative style, the 26-letter chapter headings did seem to make the book a little longer than it probably needed to be.
The familiar bit came mostly from seeing another young protagonist who may (or may not?) be identified as having Asperger’s Syndrome. While it’s never explicitly stated that this is a label that has been placed on Candice, there are a lot of references to her social difference and her idiosyncratic manner in percieving certain situations. I’ve read quite a few books with protagonists of this sort and so I quite easily fell into Candice’s narrative voice and turn of phrase.
There are a lot of funny situations in the book that caused me to either grimace in embarrassment or laugh out loud. Two notable examples are Candice’s well-meaning attempts to address the problem of her favourite teacher’s lazy eye, and her life-saving deployment of a pair of inflatable fake breasts that Candice receives as a birthday gift from her only friend, Douglas Benson from Another Dimension. Possibly my favourite bits of the story were Candice’s letters to her American penpal, who has not yet responded to Candice’s epistles – upon reading them, it is not hard to see why.
This, actually, reminds me of a good point to note – as a book from an Australian author, this book has a distinctly Australian sense of humour. It’s dry and understated, and seems to fit quite well with a character like Candice who can be particluarly blunt in delicate social situations. On the other hand, it also deals in a reasonably matter-of-fact way with a number of difficult issues, such as SIDs, cancer, difficult parental relationships, depression, and family conflict.
Although there were a lot of things I liked about the book, the overall impression I have is that it was just an okay reading experience. The book never really drew me in to the point that I felt that I had to rush back to it and it wouldn’t be one that I would rave about to others.
However, it would be a good pick for those looking for an Australian book with a protagonist who is (possibly) on the Autistic Spectrum or a book about fitting in and dealing with family problems generally. I’d also recommend it for those looking for something that’s reasonably light, funny and a bit quirky and different.
Overall, we give The Categorical Life of Candice Phee three (out of a possible four) thumbs up. Toothless just never really got into it, but the rest of us liked it just fine.
The Maniacal Book Club received a digital copy of this title for review from the publisher via Edelweiss.
Until next time,