Saturday, April 3, 2010

Review: The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear

The 13.5 Lives of Captain Bluebear
The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, by Walter Moers (trans. from German) was recommended to me by one of my co-workers.  It sounded fun and I love that it is illustrated, so I got it right away.  The novel recounts the first 13 (and a half) different eras in the life of Bluebear, from his birth to his finding eventual happiness.  He starts life on the ocean, is saved from a whirlpool by minipirates, is almost eaten by a gourmet island, escapes through a desert, walks through a giant's head, visits Atlantis and saves the world from a maniacal thinking element.  And that's not all.

He is a pretty busy guy.

This book weighs in at 700 pages.  There is a lot of information included.  There are also lovely and fun illustrations- some that take up two full, face-to-face pages, and some that just take up part of a page.  The illustrations really add a lot to the story.  I wonder why adult novels don't have illustrations, for the most part.  I love them and I don't think they should only be in children's literature.  I think they should be in everything!

That said, I think Walter Moers is one of those authors who is filled with millions of ideas and wants to get them all down right now before he forgets them.  So he puts everything into his story.  Captain Bluebear is only the first book in a series about the fictional continent of Zamonia.  The second book, about a dog named Rumo, also is about 700 pages long.  I am not sure what he put in that book that isn't already in here!

I think this is one of those books that is very witty and clever and fun but only in small doses.  I read it in a few days (including a marathon read over a weekend), and I think it would have been better if I had read it in smaller doses.  Sometimes, the wittiness would get grating.  For instance, the author spends sixteen pages detailing the many life forms that make up the population of Atlantis.  There is no plot in these pages, no interaction.  Just descriptions of various species.  While this can be fun to read for a while, it got old way before the sixteen pages were up.  However, I did appreciate the illustrations.

Often in his adventures, Bluebear would encounter people or situations he had never known before.  At these times, the narrative would pause and we would get an excerpt from an encyclopedia telling us more about that particular phenomenon.  This was fun, too, at first, but would also get tiring.

Personally, I feel that if an author wants to include encyclopedic excerpts and sixteen pages of species descriptions, then he should perhaps write an anthology or a reference book in addition to his novel.  While I enjoyed some of the descriptions, others just annoyed me.  I would have preferred a smoother narrative, with multiple footnotes, or an appendix.  Moers has obviously created a fantastic world and I'm thrilled he wants to share it with me, his reader, but at the same time, I can only absorb so much at a time.

I do think this book would be fun to read with someone.  Some of the descriptions, some of the events, are just so ridiculous that they beg discussion.  It's a book that I think I would want to read with a 14-year-old, if I had one conveniently around me.  And I would recommend reading it only a chapter or two a day (though the Atlantis chapter is really, really long!).

It's interesting because I think this is one of those books that you remember reading, but won't remember anything about.  There is just so much information in it that even now, I feel certain I don't remember much of what happened in the book.  I know how the book feels, and how quirky it is, but I feel like if someone were to ask me in a few weeks, "Oh, wasn't Bluebear's time spent weeping with the hobgoblins so fun?" that I would have absolutely no recollection of hobgoblins.  I blame this on information overload with the book!

I enjoyed reading this book, even though it exhausted me.  I think if I go for it again, I'll take it slower.  It reminded me of an adult version of The Phantom Tollbooth, but much longer and more detailed.  It does have a lot of wordplay and a lot of random, fun occurrences.  I don't know if I can say it really has a plot, but that sounds unfair.  It dos have a plot and a story and it moves forward, but it isn't as though there is an overreaching arc, exactly.  It's much more episodic.  If you're willing to lug it around for a while, you could have a lot of fun with it!


  1. I agree that this was hefty -- both physically and mentally. I think I read it about two or three years ago and I am finally feeling ready to continue on to Rumo!

  2. I've never heard of this book but it sounds fascinating! I agree with you about illustrations - you don't often see them in adult novels but they can really add something to the story.

  3. I've lived in Germany for 12 years (half of my life) so I know Käpt'n Blaubär (that's how he's called in German). I'm so glad that you 'got to know' him:)

  4. I really like having episodic books around that one can pick up and put down as needed. This sounds very entertaining as well.

  5. Well, God knows I loved The Phantom Tollbooth, so maybe I should give this a try as well. How was the translation?

  6. Wow, sounds very unusual & interesting. Thanks for the review!

  7. Kristen- Oh, fun! I look forward to seeing your thoughts on Rumo. I am not ready for him quite yet.

    Helen- Yes, I think illustrations can be really fun. And, in this book, definitely added a touch of whimsy.

    Andreea- I'm glad I know him, too! Between him and Cornelia Funke's Inkheart, I wonder if I'm missing out on a lot of great German authors not being translated...

    rhapsody- Yes, I think it would be, though I wonder if it's also really easy to forget things that happened in the book beforehand as it's so... random .

    Jenny- I never know how to answer questions on translation! I personally didn't have trouble with the language, but I would have no idea how the book is compared to the original.

    Marie- Yes, it was definitely unusual, and outside my norm (though I am a big fantasy fan). A little exhausting, but good fun.

  8. I love illustrations too! I remember being so disappointed when I switched to adult books and could no longer page through, looking for pictures. :(

    This does sound fun, even if it's the sort of thing you need to draw out.

  9. When
    i used to work in a bookstore, I remember seeing this book and hesitating to buy it. I couldn't quite make up my mind. I don't think I'll be reading now after all.
    But I agree, adult books should have some illustrations, it would be fun.

  10. "I wonder why adult novels don't have illustrations, for the most part." I know! So unfair that it's mostly kids that get them :P Not that we can't read children's books, but you know.

    It's a pity that the book was sort of crowded and overwhelming, but I'm still interested. Like you said, maybe it'd work better if I read it slowly.

  11. This sounds like a very unusual read. I admit that your descriptions of it make me want to pick it up out of curiosity, but I bet I would probably be just as overwhelmed with it as you were. It sounds as though this book was just jam packed full of the author's ideas and creations, which could be fun, but it also sounds a bit exhausting. The fact that he fills 16 pages with a list of the various creations in Atlantis makes me laugh, but it also tells me that this book is probably not for me, at least for right now. At 700 pages, I admire you for sticking with it! Very cool review! I am wondering if this might be a book that my son would like.

  12. Memory- Yes, I think we should make a motion to bring the illustrations back!

    lilly- Yes, I think this is a book that takes some effort and patience, so I don't blame you for hesitating! It's a "mood" book, for sure.

    Nymeth- Yes, I think it's one to read in smaller spurts. Though it's hard with the chapters to do it that way, too, I feel. But I don't know- I feel like it depends on your reading style.

    Zibilee- I picked it up out of curiosity myself, so I don't blame you for wanting to like that, either! I was overwhelmed, but I also think I would appreciate it more if I were younger so maybe your son would like it.

  13. I've just read Captain Bluebear (having noticed that you'd read it, but avoided reading your review until after I'd finished it myself) - and was really surprised having posted my blog to look at your review, and see how similarly we'd both reacted to it. I had very mixed feelings about the novel, I agree with you that the descriptive elements did tend to go over the top. I suspect that I might be like one of your other commentors, who had to leave it several years before going on to the next in the series!

  14. Thanks for commenting on my blog about this - also agree with you (one book and several days later) about the stickability of the characters - they are fading rapidly from my memory already!


I read every comment posted on this blog, even if it sometimes takes me a while to respond. Thank you for taking the time and effort to comment here! Unless you are spamming me, in which case, thanks for nothing.