Monday, November 23, 2015

A Reading Life, Or, All Reading, No Blogging

I'd rather read than write, so blogging falls by the wayside sometimes. Then I'm sorry that I don't have a record of some of my favourite books this year. So here are a few notes about the amazing connections I've noticed between books that I've read in the last month or so:

Alex + Ada (by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn) is a 3-part comics series about sentient robots that I loved. Alex never wanted a robot but Ada is a gift from his grandmother. A complicated situation that turns out well in the end. Then I listened to the audiobook The War that Saved My Life (by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley; read by Jayne Entwistle) and the narrator is a crippled 10-year-old girl named Ada. She and her little brother are evacuated from London before bombing begins during the second world war and they get placed with a reluctant host, a crotchety single lesbian. It ends up being the best thing that could have happened to all three of them. (And I'm game for more heros named Ada.)

In The Thing About Jellyfish (by Ali Benjamin), a 12-year-old girl studies jellyfish as a way to understand her friend's death by drowning. She also follows the failures and eventual triumph of Diana Nyad, who successfully swam from Cuba to Florida. I hadn't remembered hearing about Nyad before, but encountered her name soon afterwards in The Argonauts (by Maggie Nelson). The Argonauts is an exciting literary memoir about motherhood and living queer; I listened to the audiobook read by the author and was tempted to start back at the beginning as soon as I finished it. Then I picked up Red Jacket (by Jamaican-born Canadian author Pamela Mordecai). Within the first few pages, when the central character Grace is still a small child, she encounters a jellyfish for the first time:

     "'Well, it's never stung me,' Gramps say the day Grace ask him about the pretty purple-blue bubble lying on the sand at Richfield. It was the first day she put her eyes on so much water, big shining acres of it that blind her as the truck emerge round corner from the dark of the forest. 'However, I know plenty people who it sting and make well-sick,' Gramps continue. He sound serious, like parson at a funeral."

Red Jacket is set on a fictional Caribbean island, St Chris, and follows Grace from babyhood into her adult years, when she works toward a global strategy to combat HIV/AIDS. Another novel that I recently read was also set in the Caribbean and also revolved around family secrets: The Land of Love and Drowning (by Tiphanie Yanique) is a compelling saga set in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

As part of my job, I'm going out to schools to book talk the contenders for this year's Bataille des Bouquins, a French-language reading program for children in Grade 4 to 6. When I talk about Bine: L'affaire est pet shop (by Quebecois author Daniel Brouillette) I mention that Bine wants to catch the eye of the coolest girl in Grade 6, Maxim, who can burp the entire alphabet. Should I have been as surprised as I was to encounter another burping genius? One of the minor characters in Circus Mirandus (by Cassie Beasley) can burp the Greek alphabet. I listened to Circus Mirandus in audiobook, narrated by the incomparable Bronson Pinchot. It's a charming tale about believing in magic.

Okay, I'm going back to my books now. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Pemmican Eaters: Poems by Marilyn Dumont

On November 16 in 1885, Louis Riel was hanged for treason. There will be a commemoration ceremony to pay tribute to him today at the Alberta Legislature, starting at 11 am. It is Metis Week in Edmonton: see details of events online here.

The following review was part of a longer post that I wrote three months ago when my reading project was book bingo.

The beautiful cover image
is by Linus Woods.
I grew up on an Alberta farm in a francophone community that was originally called St Paul-des-Métis. When I was younger, I thought all Canadians considered Louis Riel to be our greatest national folk hero. And that Gabriel Dumont, Riel's general in the 1885 rebellion, was famous too.

When I began working at Edmonton Public Library in 1989, I signed up a brown-skinned young woman for a library card and made a comment about her historic family name, "Dumont." She looked at me blankly. I said, "Gabriel Dumont." Still nothing. After telling her we had books about him in the collection, I proceeded with the library card. Later, I quizzed Edmonton friends and colleagues and discovered that Dumont, and even Riel, were not as well-known as I had assumed.

There are other books about Riel and Dumont, but Marilyn Dumont's latest collection of poetry does something different. With potent, dexterous verse, it connects contemporary lives to Canadian history.

"Upon discovery that our Gabriel, Gabriel Dumont Senior, our great-great-grandfather and uncle of the famous Gabriel, had held the position of leader at Lac Ste. Anne, I finally understood why our family's annual summer visit to the pilgrimage was so important to us."

In Dumont's poems, Louis Riel is sometimes 'Louis' and sometimes 'Riel,' but Gabriel Dumont is referred to always by first name: either 'Gabriel' or 'Gabe.' Riel is 'Our Prince' - "Louis / the one who gave us Manitoba / brokered pluralism / and language rights."

Elizabeth Brass Donald in front of
Frank Oliver's house.
(photo reference link)
Women are in these pages too, nurturing other humans and the earth, their needlework like prayers.

A photo of Elizabeth Brass Donald is referenced in 'The Land She Came From.' She was one of the victims of land swindles that are a part of Edmonton's early history: "crow woman dig down / scrape away the layers / of sleeping memory / down to the stake lines of river lots / in Rossdale and beyond / far down to the Métis family names / still breathing there: Donald, Bird, Ward [...]" 'To a Fair Country' is about wholesale land thefts through "official trickery:" "I want to forget the number of Métis / less than one percent / who hold property from that scrip today."

Much hardship is summed up in a few words in 'Letter to Sir John A. MacDonald' - "we were railroaded / by some steel tracks that didn't last / and some settlers who wouldn't settle."

Language is another aspect of Métis culture: "neither Cree, Salteaux nor French exactly, but something else / not less / not half / not lacking" - 'These Are Wintering Words'

The Pemmican Eaters is a history book with so much heart, and it's one I would have loved to suggest to that young library patron back in 1989. I will recommend it widely from now on.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

What can I say about Marilynne Robinson's Lila except that I love her writing style so very much. Beth Kephart wrote about what is meant by beautiful writing in her blog post about Lila last month. Kephart herself is no slouch in the writing department, and I encourage you to read her thoughtful words.

Following are just a few excerpts from Lila that capture the distinctive voice of the main character and the philosophical nature of the prose.

"The days came and went on their own, without any praying about it. And still, everywhere, meetings and revivals, people seeing the light. Finding comfort where there was no comfort, just an old man saying something he'd said so many times he probably didn't hear it himself. It was about the meaning of existence, he said. All right. She knew a little bit about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. [...] The evening and the morning, sleeping and waking. Hunger and loneliness and weariness and still wanting more of it. Existence. Why do I bother? He couldn't tell her that, either."

"Plenty of times he was called away to do what he could where comforting was needed. The last time it happened he came in the door after midnight, grumbling to himself. He said, 'Asking a man to apologize on his deathbed for the abject and total disappointment he was in life! that does beat all." He took off his hat. 'So I took them aside, the family. And I said, If you're not Christian people, than what am I doing here? And if you are, you'd better start acting like it. Words to that effect.'"

"The old man always said we should attend to the things we have some hope of understanding, and eternity isn't one of them. Well, this world isn't one either."

It is rare for me to read a novel with all-out positive portrayals of Christian religious figures, and I appreciated that very much. Yet I, a former Catholic and now non-Christian, also felt a strong negative reaction to the story's Christian underpinnings.

"There was no way to abandon guilt, no decent way to disown it. All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, grace had to fall over them."

The section quoted above is an example of what troubled me. The whole issue of guilt, of original sin. Of whether or not it is necessary to be absolved by a higher power. We had a great discussion about this at my book group meeting last month. I adore a novel that can engage me so fully, as this one has. And Lila is a character that will remain close to my heart.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Vancouver Writers Fest 2015 Here I Come!

These are just a few of the authors that I'm looking forward to seeing at 18 different events at the Vancouver Writers Fest: Kelly Link, Jeff VanderMeer, Hannah Kent, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Susan Juby, Bill Richardson, Jim Shepard, Nicole Brossard, Karen Solie, Patrick deWitt, Steve Burrows, Lorna Crozier, John Freeman, Lauren Groff, Roxane Gay, Paula Hawkins, Wab Kinew and Camilla Gibb. I'll be boarding a plane shortly. So happy!

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon

Told in the voice of Pythias, daughter of Aristotle, Annabel Lyon's The Sweet Girl opens when she is seven years old.

"The first time I ask to carry a knife to the temple, Daddy tells me I'm not allowed to because we're Macedonian. Here in Athens, you have to be born an Athenian girl to carry the basket with the knife, to lead the procession to the sacrifice. The Athenians can be awfully snotty, even all these years after our army defeated their army."

Lyon's use of words like "snotty" is one of the playful elements in this novel that's based on real people in ancient Greece. Another is that gods make cameo appearances and interact with Pythias. The blend of historical fact with myth is very appealing. I don't remember any fantastical elements in Lyon's earlier novel,  The Golden Mean which is set about 20 years further back in time, when Aristotle tutored the 15-year-old prince who grew up to be Alexander the Great.

I read one of Aristotle's works, Poetics, and blogged about the experience a few years ago. Pythias has, of course, read all of her father's writings. As a precocious prepubescent, she is given a rare opportunity to speak in a room of men. Impressed, one of them says:

"The question, then, is whether little Athena is unique, or whether she is an example of what many girls could be, if they were encouraged by such fathers."

Another says: "A freak. Oh, I don't mean that unkindly. But how could such a great man produce an ordinary child? The tallest mountains have the tallest shadows. She's not representative of her sex."

Perhaps Pythias is a freak, because she is an early version of a modern woman. Orphaned at 16 when her father dies, she discovers there are few options open to her. Somehow, she must find a place for herself in society. This book really made me appreciate how far we have come since then in terms of women's rights.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

I was wrong about A Brief History of Seven Killings. I did not want to read it because review descriptions made me think it wasn't my kind of book. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times called it: "raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting." Aside from "darkly comic" and "exhilarating," the rest of that string scared me away. "Dense, violent and exhausting" sounds like something to avoid. And it's a doorstop on top of that, 688 pages, which means investing a significant amount of time.

People that I trust were raving about how good this is, so I decided to give it a try in audio. Excellent decision! I love this book so much that now I am the one raving about it.

The story spans decades of history in Jamaica, centered around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. Pieces link together in surprising ways. The characterization is outstanding. Most of them are men, but there are a few women, including Nina Burgess:

A Brief History of Seven Killings
had me revisiting all things Bob
Marley, including this picture
book biography by Tony Medina
and Jesse Joshua Watson.
"Kimmy learning from Ras Trent to take the words English people gave her as a tool of oppression and spit them back in their face. Rastaman don't deal with negativity so oppression is now downpression even though there is no up in the word. Dedicate is livicate, I and I, well God knows what that means, but it sounds like somebody is trying for their own holy trinity but forgetting the name of the third person. A lot of shit if you ask me."

The audiobook [Highbridge: 26 hours] is read by an ensemble cast (Robertson Dean, Cherise Booth and Dwight Bacquie), so not only are the multiple voices distinctive, the Jamaican patois rolled easily into my ears. I enjoy the way dialect gets me into a setting and it's even better when I can hear it in audio format. Sensitive listeners are forewarned that the dialogue has a lot of profanity, which in Jamaica relies heavily on words that have to do with the vagina and menstruation. But I hope this warning will not scare you away from a fantastic reading experience.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, along with another title I adored, A Little Life. It's a close call, but I think I like A Brief History of Seven Killings best. The winner will be announced tomorrow and I would be pleased if either of them wins.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt

Patrick deWitt's Undermajordomo Minor is a dark comedy that transforms European folktale elements into something entirely original. Imagine a mash-up of Wes Anderson's film The Grand Budapest Hotel with Pauline Reage's The Story of O and PG Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster.

Lucien (Lucy) Minor, a puny young man from a village of giants, accepts a position as assistant to the majordomo at a distant castle. When he gets to the castle of Baron Von Aux, you know it doesn't bode well for him when he is instructed to lock himself in his room at night.

I reviewed deWitt's The Sisters Brothers, a few years ago. As in that earlier novel, this one has dialogue that I found extremely amusing. In the following passage, the majordomo Mr Olderglough has asked Lucy what he thinks of a plan that has been proposed:

Lucy said, "I think it is somewhat far-fetched, sir."
"Are you not up for it?"
"I'm not, actually, no. And to be frank, sir, I don't believe you are, either."
"What sort of attitude is that? Let us rally, boy."
"Let us come up with another plan."
"Let us look within ourselves and search out the dormant warrior."
"Mine is dormant to the point of non-existence, sir. There is no part of me that wishes to lay nakedly abed and await that man's arrival."
"I tell you you will not be alone."
"And yet I shall surely feel alone, sir."
Mr Olderglough looked down the length of his nose. "May I admit to being disappointed in you, boy."
"You may write a lengthy treatise on the subject, sir, and I will read it with interest. But I highly doubt there will be anything written within those pages which will alter my dissatisfaction with the scheme."
"Well I'm sorry to have to tell you this, boy, but it must come to pass, and it will."
"I believe it will not, sir."

We will leave Lucy and Mr Olderglough at this point in their oh-so-polite disagreement. In their world, soldiers fight because they are soldiers, not because there is a war, and servants work because it's their job - even if they do not get paid. Befriended by a family of thieves, Lucy struggles to find meaning in his life.  

This gothic tale charmed me from the very start. There are no illustrations in Undermajordomo Minor, yet the books that I think most closely capture its essence are in graphic novel format: Tinder (Sally Gardner); Through the Woods (Emily Carroll), The Adventuress (Audrey Niffenegger), Baloney (Pascal Blanchet); and Beautiful Darkness (Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet). It would make a great movie.

I look forward to hearing Patrick deWitt at the Vancouver Writers Fest on October 23, 2015.