Friday, September 26, 2014

Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet

The cover shows Aurora
next to the hand of a
human corpse.
A quirky combo of sweet and macabre, Beautiful Darkness is an astonishing full colour graphic novel by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet. On the back cover of the Drawn & Quarterly English language translation, it is aptly labelled an "anti-fairy tale."

Take Thumbelina, Hansel and Gretel, Moomin, The Borrowers, Lord of the Flies and Gulliver's Travels, mix them together, and then twist the storytelling dial over to the darker end.

The action takes place in a forest, where a dead school girl sprawls, slowly decomposing. A loose community of Lilliputian beings scavenge for food and tools from the corpse and its accoutrements. They crawl in and out of its body cavities. They play amongst maggots as they hatch. ("Hee hee! That tickles!")

The community members are a varied assortment of doll-like creatures. They have big eyes and are portrayed in a cartoony style. In contrast, the corpse and one other (living) human are realistically illustrated, as are the insects and animals of the forest.

The lives of the miniature beings are precarious. They die in such a variety of black comedy misadventures that Andy Riley's The Book of Bunny Suicides comes to mind. Their challenge is to sort out the way their society will function... or malfunction. Who will lead them best: kind and selfless Aurora... or vain and ruthless Zelie?

Readalike graphic novels: Temperance (Cathy Malkasian); Pinnochio (Winshluss); Through the Woods (Emily Carroll; and Ant Colony (Michael DeForge).

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Anne of Green Gables: Revisiting a Childhood Favourite

It was a pleasure to recently re-read a book that I loved when I was young. More than 40 years separate my two readings of Anne of Green Gables, and some things surprised me. These include the language, my sympathy for Marilla, a misremembered incident (which must be from a different book), and, most importantly, the depth this story holds for adult readers.

I hadn't remembered how lyrical, nor how challenging, Montgomery's prose can be. Young readers today probably find it difficult.

"For Anne to take things calmly would have been to change her nature. All 'spirit and fire and dew,' as she was, the pleasures and pains of life came to her with trebled intensity. Marilla felt this and was vaguely troubled over it, realizing that the ups and downs of existence would probably bear hardly on this impulsive soul and not sufficiently understanding that the equally great capacity for delight might more than compensate. Therefore Marilla conceived it to be her duty to drill Anne into a tranquil uniformity of disposition as impossible and alien to her as to a dancing sunbeam in one of the brook shallows. She did not make much headway, as she sorrowfully admitted to herself. The downfall of some dear hope or plan plunged Anne into 'deeps of affliction.' The fulfilment thereof exalted her to dizzy realms of delight. Marilla had almost begun to despair of ever fashioning this waif of the world into her model little girl of demure manners and prim deportment. Neither would she have believed that she really liked Anne much better as she was."

I do remember the feeling I had when I first read this book. It was like something opened inside me. How her words gave me a sense of the vastness and beauty of this world. It was lovely to revisit that.

"Spring had come once more to Green Gables -- the beautiful, capricious, reluctant Canadian spring, lingering along through April and May in a succession of sweet, fresh, chilly days, with pink sunsets and miracles of resurrection and growth."

While my affection for Anne and Matthew remains unchanged, I discovered a new empathy for Marilla. Unsurprising, since now I am close to Marilla's age. She is the emotionally aloof type of character that Helen Humphreys, Anne Michaels and Jane Urquhart usually write about, and that I find fascinating.

"The lesson of a love that should display itself easily in spoken word and open look was one Marilla could never learn. But she had learned to love this slim, grey-eyed girl with an affection all the deeper and stronger from its very undemonstrativeness. Her love made her afraid of being unduly indulgent indeed. She had an uneasy feeling that it was rather sinful to set one's heart so intensely on any human creature as she had set hers on Anne, and perhaps she performed a sort of unconscious penance for this by being stricter and more critical than if the girl had been less dear to her. Certainly Anne herself had no idea how Marilla loved her."

Here are a few more passages that delighted me:

"[Mrs. Barry asked] 'How are you?'
'I am well in body although considerably rumpled up in spirit, thank you, ma'am,' said Anne gravely."

"It was in January the Premier came, to address his loyal supporters and such of his non-supporters as chose to be present at the monster mass meeting held in Charlottetown."
('Monster' used this way conjures an image of a 19th century monster truck rally.)

Jacqui Oakley's cover design
"Ruby was a very handsome young lady, now thinking herself quite as grown up as she really was; she wore her skirts as long as her mother would let her and did her hair up in town, though she had to take it down when she went home."
(Propriety and cultural mores change so much over time!)

I kept expecting to come across Anne's propensity for underlining as a means of emphasis in her prose. It wasn't there, so I must have been thinking of some other book's character who loved to write. Anyone know who/what book that might be?

Anne of Green Gables was a popular and rewarding selection for the CanLit Book Club that I facilitate at Jasper Place Library. My favourite comment came from Susan, who brought her battered original childhood copy to the meeting. She said it had a profound influence on her, by inspiring her to be a better person. What more can we ask of literature?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

In the introspective new novel from Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, a young man eventually discovers his sense of self worth after being cast out from a tightly-knit group of friends. It's a melancholy, realistic story set in contemporary Japan.

The Books on Tape audiobook [10 hr] is a totally hypnotic performance by actor Bruce Locke, who uses a slight Japanese accent for lines of dialogue. I was transported by Murakami's descriptions of sensory quotidian details. The mystery that lies at the heart of the story, the reason why his friends rejected Tsukuru, is another thing that kept me hooked.

On the same morning that I started listening to this book, I read an article in The Week about Murakami's use of music in his writing. Because of that, I took note any time a particular musical piece was mentioned. Franz Liszt's Years of Pilgrimage Suite (Annees de pelerinage) is the most significant. (Also the obvious source for the book's title.) I listened to this piano composition streaming via Edmonton Public Library's Naxos Music Library database. It captures the mood of Murakami's sorrowful and lovely tale about being human.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

"My father's wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us."

From these opening lines, Amy Bloom sucked me right into Lucky Us, a novel about unconventional families. Stepsisters Iris and Eva are 16 and 12 when they first meet in 1939. Iris lives in a fancy mansion, while Eva and her mother have been barely scraping by. Eva's mother abandons her at her father's house.

"I was thirteen before I realized my mother wasn't coming back to get me."

Their father is a fickle man, so the sisters forge a life together. In Hollywood, Iris gets swept up in a racy, but very closeted, lesbian crowd. Later, they move to New York City, where Iris once again falls for a woman who will break her heart.

Sweet, loyal and resourceful, Eva is the most endearing character. Through good luck and bad, she is the steadfast heart of a family that grows over a period of ten years to include a motley, lovable crew.

I listened to the audiobook [Books on Tape: 7 hr. 18 min.] narrated with warmth and expert comedic timing by voice actress Alicyn Packard.

Readalike: Tell the Wolves I'm Home (Carol Rifka Brunt).

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger

It took me nine weeks to read Ruth Kassinger's A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants. Not because it isn't good, only because I kept being distracted by other books.*

I always have more than one on the go, and if I'm not totally hooked by something, I'll set it aside for when the right mood strikes. In the case of library books, this means that they sometimes go back to the library unread. A Garden of Marvels is about botany, a subject I love. It's also full of intriguing scientific information, like why orchids tend to remain in bloom for months. (It's so that their highly specific insect pollinators have time to find them.) Kassinger's style is personable and light, as exemplified in the following passages.

"Flowers dressed in green petals are generally not dressed for evolutionary success. They are less likely to catch the eye of a pollinator, and therefore less likely to produce offspring. (Wind-pollinated plants, like grasses and many trees, needn't invest in gay apparel.)"

"Insects favored flowers that provided not only a pollen dinner but a sweet postprandial drink. Over time, as plants whose flowers always kept a well-stocked bar prospered, mutations in nearby structures evolved into nectaries. Ever more attractive petals and scents evolved, too, to ensure that the location of the restaurant would be no mystery."

Anyway, the book was approaching the end of its maximum loan period and so I finished it yesterday morning. I don't know if the last third is so much better than the earlier part, or if I was just in the perfect mood, but I loved it.



Prompted by Kassinger's enthusiasm, I went off exploring. I searched YouTube for clips of bees tricked into pseudocopulation by orchids of the Ophrys genus. I looked for more information about Miscanthus giganteus, a type of grass that grows 12 feet in a season and is grown as a source of heating fuel for a greenhouse in Ontario. I investigated fruit cocktail trees (and knew exactly what my friend was talking about when she said she was getting one). Kassinger notes that seeds from a 2010 prizewinning pumpkin sold for $1,200 each. Prices have risen. In 2013, they could be purchased online for $1,600 per seed. With all these tangents to follow, it's no wonder it took me a while to actually read the book!

If you enjoy popular science writing along the lines of Mary Roach and Michael Pollan, A Garden of Marvels is for you.

The final lines in the book echo my own sentiments: "[Earth's] garden is more than a marvel. It's as close to a miracle as there is on Earth."

*During the same period that I was reading A Garden of Marvels, I started and finished:
5 adult novels
3 YA novels
3 nonfiction books plus 1 cookbook
8 graphic novels
1 short story collection
1 poetry collection
and listened to 8 audiobooks, including Middlemarch.
I also abandoned 4 books after an hour or two of reading.
Shelfari makes it easy to track these stats.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Seconds is a charming full-colour graphic novel stand-alone by Bryan Lee O'Malley, author of the Scott Pilgrim series.

Katie is a chef who started the restaurant Seconds four years earlier, along with some friends. It's owned by a gay couple who put up all the money and the place has come to be recognized as the best place to eat in town.

Now, Katie dreams of opening her own place. A house spirit and some magic mushrooms might be able to help... if Katie doesn't get too greedy.


Katie to Lis, the house spirit:
"...are you wearing an ironic t-shirt?"

Chef Katie is the star at Seconds.
Click to better see the food imagery.
Katie's new place seems to be a money pit.
Note the realistic background with cartoony figures.






















Red is prominent in the art, and it's also the colour of Katie's hair. O'Malley's style has many elements of manga. Cartoony people with big eyes and exaggerated facial expressions are portrayed against highly realistic backgrounds. The food looks yummy! There are house spirits and multiple worlds. Katie is an independent young woman interacting with the spirit world in a way that reminds me of Hayao Miyazaki's animated films.

Seconds is a funny and heartwarming look at the pitfalls of perfectionism. Don't miss it.

Readalikes (and watchalike): RASL (Jeff Smith); Life after Life (Kate Atkinson); and the film Spirited Away (Miyazaki).
When a chef can't sleep...

Sunday, August 31, 2014

War of Streets and Houses by Sophie Yanow

Two things prompted me to re-read War of Streets and Houses, Sophie Yanow's slim comics memoir about the Montreal student strike in 2012:

     1) The part in The Girl Who Was Saturday Night where Nouschka goes to a Quebec sovereignty demonstration before the 1995 referendum: "We were very into the collective experience in Montreal. There was nothing that we liked more than a pretty mob." (Heather O'Neill)

     2) Recently learning that a Quebec judge has given the green light to class action lawsuits against police kettling tactics during the student protests.

Muggy summer scene,
War of Streets and Houses
Actually, there was a third thing. It's that War of Streets and Houses is such an intriguing and intelligent book and I wanted to feel my mind stretched by it once again. Yanow's sketchy line drawings encompass large ideas about urban design, military power and crowd control. She also documents the personal risks and thrills that go along with participating in mass demonstrations.

Yanow is a lesbian cartoonist who moved to Montreal from the forests of California.

"I always felt I had no choice but to go to a city. Where else can a queer kid go to find people like them to experiment with the possibilities only made real by city life."

Urban life brings its own complications, but Yanow is also seduced by its rewards.

After the events in War of Streets and Houses, thousands of people of all ages walked in the streets with pots and pans, protesting the brutal treatment of student activists by police, as well as proposed new legislation curtailing civilian protest rights.

This little book is worthy of many re-reads.