Friday, July 25, 2014

Fauna by Alissa York

Wildlife and lonely humans in Toronto encounter and change each other in Fauna by Alissa York.

Edal, a federal wildlife officer at Pearson Airport, is on stress leave and finds herself befriending a mouse. Guy, who inherited an auto junkyard from the uncle and aunt who raised him, is rehabilitating a red-tail hawk. Stephen, a soldier on medical leave after traumatic service in the Middle East, works for Guy and cares for an orphaned litter of raccoon kits. Lily, a homeless teen, sleeps in the Don Valley with her beloved Newfoundland dog. Kate, a veterinary technician, mourns the death of her lesbian lover. And then there's the Coyote Cop, a blogger who believes that all coyotes in the metropolitan area should be killed.

Close third-person point of view alternates between these people, along with occasional urban wildlife individuals: a squirrel, a raccoon, a coyote.

I spotted this guy in Vancouver.
Edal was named for one of the otters in Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water. When she was a child, her mother often read to her, but Ring of Bright Water was the only book she read to Edal in full.

"Her mother explained nothing, and she left nothing out. Countless words slipped Edal's grasp and swam away, but they swam beautifully, some darting, others wagging long and languid lines. Pinnacles and glacial corries. Filigree tracery and tidewrack rubbish-heap. Clairvoyance and manna and quarry. Purloined."

Fauna is a graceful meditation on the power of stories, and the way that connecting with other beings can improve our solitary existence.

Readalikes: Prodigal Summer (Barbara Kingsolver); Five Bells (Gail Jones).

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

In her brilliant collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison examines the qualities that make us human, like pain, fear and compassion. She also questions how best to write about these things.

In "Morphology of the Hit,' Jamison builds a story out of her experience of having her nose broken by a mugger in Nicaragua. She uses Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale, a storytelling map with a catalog of plot elements. None of them exactly fit, and Jamison finds herself examining the way she "looked back at [her] own life like text."

Jamison considers "the possibility of representing female suffering without reifying its mythos" in 'Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.'

  "People say cutters are just doing it for the attention, but why does "just" apply? A cry for attention is positioned as the ultimate crime, clutching or trivial -- as if "attention" were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn't wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human -- and isn't granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give?"

If I had to pick a favourite piece, it would be 'In Defense of Saccharin(e).' By posing so many questions, Jamison helps me to understand my own resistance to sentimentality.

  "Sentimentality is an accusation leveled against unearned emotion. [...] Artificial sweeteners grant the same intensity -- sweeter than sugar itself -- without the price: no tax of calories. They offer the shell of sugar without its substance; this feels miraculous and hideous at once. [...]
   The gut reacts toward and against, seeking a vocabulary to contain excess, to name and accuse and banish it: too much sentiment, unmediated by nuance; too much sweet, undisciplined by restraint. The hunger for unmitigated and uncomplicated sensation carries on its tongue an unspoken shame."

  "At what volume does feeling become sentimental? How obliquely does feeling need to be rendered so it can be saved from itself? How do we distinguish between pathos and melodrama? Too often, I think, there is the sense that we just know. Well I don't."

  "Isn't this the problem of saccharine literature? That it strokes the ego of our sentimental selves? That we're flattered when something illuminates our capacity to feel? That this satisfaction replaces genuine emotional response?"

  "As Oscar Wilde said: the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. [...] you need to earn your reactions to art, not simply collect easy sentiment handed out like welfare.
   How do we earn? By parsing figurative opacity, close-reading metaphor, tracking nuances of character, historicizing in terms of print history and social history and institutional history and transoceanic history and every other kind of history we can think of. We think we should have to work in order to feel. We want to have our cake resist us; and then we want to eat it, too."

  "I resist something in sentimentality too. I'm afraid of its inflated gestures and broken promises. But I'm just as afraid of what happens when we run away from it: jadedness, irony, chill."

While the passages above give some idea of Jamison's style, her careful crafting can only be appreciated by reading these essays in their entirety. I highly recommend that you do.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Dust is Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor's epic contemporary saga set in her home country, Kenya. Ajany Oganda returns to Nairobi from her new life in Brazil after receiving the news that her brother Odidi was murdered. Her father meets her at the airport and they travel north with Odidi's body to Wuoth Ogik, where she grew up. Her childhood home, an elaborate house built of pink coral, is falling apart. The history of that house in the drylands, and of her parents' marriage, and so much that came before these things, all have significance in Ajany's search for answers about Odidi's death.

Owuor won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2003 and Dust is her first novel. Her fragmentary, poetic style shifted my brain into a different gear, not quite like anything I'd experienced before. The effect was visceral. All of my senses engaged.

"Remember the moon. It falls to pieces. It becomes whole again. Galgalu had taken to lying under the stars so his nightmares had greater distances to cover before they reached him." Galgalu has worked for the Oganda family since before Ajany was born.

Akai Lokorijorn is Ajany's formidable, mentally disturbed mother. "At unpredictable moments, for nameless reasons, she might erupt with molten-rock fury, belching fire that damaged everything it encountered." Beware the woman who carries an AK-7.

Another of the many characters is Isaiah Bolton, a young British man who wants to learn the fate of his father, a man he never met. The following passage describes Isaiah's arrival in Nairobi:

  "A floral fragrance pierces his senses.
   Uneasy calm. Was the post-election thing over?
   The taxi driver with whom he haggles a day rate is a hearty man called Kalela. Their car is a rehabilitated Suburu.
   On the road.
   Film of shabbiness. The city's tensions in crunched-up shoulders. Honk, honk. Breathing. Movement. A noise jam. A hand-cart jam. A traffic jam. Two men strain at the handlebars of one mkokoteni cart. A woman in a small red T-shirt and white pedal pushers tiptoes across the street in pink high heels. Short-haired gentlemen in gray suits carrying briefcases weave through the traffic. Music boom-booms from a bucking matatu, which a driver steers along a broken island that separates roads, his body leaning outward. "Jinga huyo." Kalela spits at the empty patch where a matatu used to be."

When Ajany's father Nyipir was a child, he was told: "When you get out of this bus, after your feet reach the ground, don't look back. Only a hyena travels the same road twice." But the only way for Ajany and Isaiah to get answers is to stir up dark secrets from the past.

In Dust, desire is coupled with savagery; it's insatiable. Private sorrows entwine with a larger grief for the nation of Kenya.

The narrative rambles back and forth through time: uprisings against British colonial rule in the 1950s; Tom Mboya's assassination in 1969; ghosts and memories. The threads come together with breathtaking assurance. Violence is countered with humanity and hope.

Ajany "sits with a crowd in her heart." Owuor has left a bit of Kenya in mine.

I'm grateful to Knopf for access to an advance electronic review copy of Dust. The hardcover was published in January 2014.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Far from You by Tess Sharpe

Sophie and Mina were best friends and secret sweethearts. Then, Mina is murdered and Sophie sees it happen. The police chalk it up to a drug deal gone bad. No believes Sophie when she insists she has been clean for months. Sophie gets sent to rehab. The killer is still out there.

Possible suspects abound and the suspense gradually intensifies in this mystery with satisfyingly complex lesbian and bisexual characters. Far from You is Tess Sharpe's debut novel.

Readalikes: The Worst Thing She Ever Did (Lost for Words is the US title) by Alice Kuipers; Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher; and Shine by Lauren Myracle.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Over Easy by Mimi Pond

In 1978, Mimi Pond quit art school and began working in an Oakland diner with a wild bunch of coworkers and a varied mix of customers. Perfect fodder for entertaining anecdotes. Over Easy is Pond's fictionalized comics memoir about that time.

Not only is Pond an observant chronicler of human interactions, but her art really captures that moment in California history: the tail end of the hippie era and the start of hipster and punk. Lots of drugs. Lots of sex. Out and proud queers. An exciting time to come of age.

Lazlo Merengue is the manager at the Imperial Cafe. He has a welcoming laugh and everyone likes him. When Margaret (Pond's first-person narrator) asks him for a job, he says, "Tell me a joke. Or a dream. If I like it, I hire you. That's the way it works. That's our policy."

Lazlo: "Promise your old mother you'll never do drugs.
Besides coke and pot and crank, I mean."
In the seventies, while I was in high school, I worked at a pizza restaurant run by three randy Greeks who were also the cooks. Over Easy transported me right back to that time.



When another waitress is dating a guy who brags outrageously, Margaret asks herself: "Aren't liars just storytellers who hate themselves?" Pond isn't that kind of storyteller. Her tale is warm and honest and funny.

Check out Mimi Pond's website too.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

My Real Children by Jo Walton

In 2015, an elderly bisexual woman struggles with dementia in a nursing home in Lancaster, England. Patricia Cowan remembers two different simultaneous lives.

"It was when she thought of her children that she was most truly confused. Sometimes she knew with solid certainty that she had four children, and five more stillbirths: nine times giving birth in floods of blood and pain, and of those, four surviving. At other times she knew equally well that she had two children, both born by caesarean section late in her life after she had given up hope. Two children of her body, and another, a stepchild, dearest of them all."

Montreal author Jo Walton explores the ramifications of choice in My Real Children. Patricia was born in 1926. Her life travels a single path until she is asked to make a momentous decision in 1949. At that point, her life splits in two different directions. The narrative then flips back and forth between Tricia, who marries Mark, and Pat, whose life partner is Bee, a woman. In either case, it is clear that Patricia remains fundamentally herself.

Much of this novel concerns quotidian life for women in the twentieth century.

"[Tricia] made friends with other mothers of small children, and haunted the library with desperation, burying herself in books, the longer the better. She read Middlemarch and found it almost too painful, seeing herself in Dorothea and Mark in Casaubon."

(I've encountered so many references to Middlemarch lately. They seem to be prodding me to get started on that book.)

When her children were grown, Tricia began teaching an evening class in Feminist Literature. "'Some people say women have never achieved anything great,' she said, as she opened her eyes. 'This class is going to demonstrate that women have achieved great things over and over again, but they've been patronized and ignored whenever they have. [...] I'm going to begin by reading you a translation of a poem written by Sappho in the Sixth Century before Christ.'"

The equation [reality + what if? = science fiction] can be applied to My Real Children, although the novel isn't very science fiction-y. There are alternate world histories that go along with Patricia's alternate realities. A world with the United Nations and one without. A world with growing cultural acceptance of same-sex rights, and one without. A world in which President Kennedy had been assassinated and one where he had not. A world in which no nuclear bombs had been dropped after Hiroshima, and one with more.

While hardcore science fiction fans may wish that the background politics and technology had more emphasis, readers looking for character-based feminist stories should be well pleased. Following a single possible life for Patricia would not have been nearly as emotionally and intellectually engrossing as two. The question remains: what makes us who we are?

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Tom Rachman's The Rise and Fall of Great Powers begins in 2011 in a quaint bookshop in the Welsh village of Caergenog. Tooly isn't making enough to afford to pay her only employee, Fogg, but until her money runs out, she enjoys his company as much as she loves being surrounded by books.

  "Against the stacks rested a stepladder that Tooly was always moving to Mountaineering and that Fogg -- not recognizing her joke -- kept returning to French History."

The wit and warmth of Rachman's first novel, The Imperfectionistsis delightfully in evidence. In both books, pieces come together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Tooly lived a peripatetic life, moving around the globe from a young age with an assortment of mysterious adults in charge. Even as an adult herself, Tooly isn't sure what relationship she bears to any of them. It's time for her to find answers. Like the process of memory, the narrative juggles back and forth in time.

Here's Tooly at age 9 in 1988, on a flight to Bangkok with Paul:

  "When the print issued from the Polaroid, the young woman flapped it till the image appeared, holding it out for them to see. Paul took the photo, thanking her for the gift, which it hadn't been, and slid the snapshot into his book.
[...]
  A sniffle alerted them to Paul's return. He stepped back to the middle seat and frowned at Tooly's ponytail. He viewed fashion with bemusement. The purpose of clothing, as best he could tell, was to keep one unembarrassed and at the right temperature. If an outfit served that purpose for a respectable period -- twenty years, say -- and at the lowest price available, then it was successful. He dressed identically every day: a polo shirt tucked into khakis, Velcro-fastened black shoes. 'Your hair looks like a pineapple that fell over,' he told Tooly. The woman in the aisle, with the identical style, blushed and turned away, ignoring them for the rest of the flight."

Paul is a computer systems analyst who reminds me of Don Tillman in Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project. It's in Bangkok that the child Tooly meets Humphrey for the first time. He is the one who instills in her a love for books.

  "He yanked at the jammed door. On the third pull, it burst apart in an explosion of hardcovers and paperbacks.
  'Are you okay?" she asked, stepping through the mess to help him.
  'Books,' he said, 'are like mushrooms. They grow when you are not looking. Books increase by rule of compound interest: one interest leads to another interest, and this compounds into third. Next, you have so much interest there is no space in closet.'
  'At my house, we put clothes in closets.'
  He sneered at this misapplication of furniture. 'But where you keep literature?'"

Tooly's belated search for people who disappeared from her life begins in New York City in 2011.

  "In her absence, New York had been invaded by cupcakes. Joggers ran barefoot now. Hipsters wore nerd glasses and beards. And walking had become an obstacle course, pedestrians inebriated on handheld devices, jostling one another as they passed, glancing up dimly at the shared world, then back into the bottomless depths projected form shining glass."

It isn't Tooly's fault that she knows so little. Eleven years earlier, her questions about the past had been sidestepped like this:

  "...my dearest darling thing. Memories are so boring. They're always wrong, and only cause trouble. Remembering is the most overrated thing. Forgetting is far superior."

Trouble or not, this time Tooly is determined get to the bottom of things.