Sunday, May 1, 2016

At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison

Melissa Harrison's novel At Hawthorn Time has captured my heart. These are some of the reasons:

  • Storytelling that circles back to the original scene via multiple points of view.
  • A broad cast of characters whose lives intersect mostly tangentially. 
  • Internal lives that feel real, recognizable. 
  • People who pay close attention to the natural world. 
  • Documentation of changes to a rural area over time: human activity versus nature.
  • References to myth (the Green Man, Puck) within a contemporary setting. 
  • Lyric language. The kind that makes me want to reread and underline and hug the book for being so beautiful.

"As the sun rose slowly over Jack's head a hawthorn in the hedge behind him felt the light on its new green leaves and thought with its green mind about blossom."

"The ash was hung here and there with lilac and green frills [...] and a slate-blue nuthatch decanted itself like a shot cork from a hole."

At Hawthorn Time is both nature writing and fiction. The closest readalikes I can think of are nonfiction: H Is for Hawk (Helen Macdonald) and The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Robert MacFarlane) - for engaging, poetic prose that places humans firmly within our natural world. A novel with similar elements of aging, myth, cyclic history, and of humans connecting with landscape is Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Emma Hooper).

I hope this is enough to convince you to read it. You will not regret it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Wonder Women by Debora Spar

It's been a long time since a book annoyed me as much as Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection by Debora Spar. It was chosen by one of the members of our feminist book club, so I persevered. Strong feelings make for good discussion, and that was certainly the case here: we all hated it and we talked about it for nearly four hours. (Wine and tasty snacks were also involved.) I had to rush to catch the last bus home.

Why did I dislike it so much? I'll start with this: "At the risk of veering too far into anecdote..." Spar is all about anecdotal evidence. At one point, she says she looked around and everyone she knew had had botox treatments. Also, "every single woman I know worries about her hair." (Maybe she needs to hang out with some different people. Members of my book club, for example.)

"The irony here is that the all-pervasive search for bodily perfection may come, in part, from the feminist movement. Because insofar as feminism liberated women to enjoy their sexuality, it also and simultaneously highlighted the importance of women's physical and sexual attraction." Later, she blames feminism for eating disorders. Because suffragettes threw off their corsets and took to unstructured garments that look best on thin women... or something to that effect. (That was an hour of discussion right there.)

Spar finds young women's sexual freedom - "It's hard for me to render a judgement without sounding and feeling hopelessly middle-aged" - to be misguided, since they are "giving away their power" and young men therefore don't have any reason to marry them. (Another hour of discussion.)

The author states at the beginning that she never used to consider herself a feminist. Her mother was never a "women's libber" either. That viewpoint intrigues me. I have difficulty understanding why smart women would reject feminism. Mostly, it appears to be because of ignorance about what feminism is (and isn't). Wonder Women documents Spar's partial conversion. She wants things to be better for girls and women, but by the end of the book it seems she is still not comfortable calling herself an unqualified feminist:

"we can move to a softer and gentler form of feminism, one less invested in proving women's equality (since that battle has more or less been won) and less upset with men." 

"And feminists, or anyone who seeks to advance the cause of women, can focus on more practical elements of the problems rather than on a protracted battle of the sexes."

I will leave the final words to Darcie, another member of my book club, who commented about Wonder Women on GoodReads: "Feminism, written by someone who is clueless about Feminism, for people who don't like Feminism."

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

After Delores by Sarah Schulman

I've been going through old copies of Womonspace News for a Canadian lesbian history project. That's where I found this review that I wrote 23 years ago. It brought up a lot of memories: a previous romantic relationship, my younger self, my early attempts at book reviewing, and lesbian life in Alberta a quarter-century ago.

After Delores, Sarah Schulman. Dutton, NY, 1988. (The following review first appeared in the May/June 1993 edition of Womonspace News in Edmonton.)

I thought this book was great. My partner hated it. 

If you get depressed reading about people who are down in their luck, stay away. On the other hand, if you enjoy reading about emotion, you'll find heaps of it among the working class poor of Lower East Side New York City. This is a side of lesbian life I've not often seen in fiction. It is written with warmth and acute perception.

Delores abruptly leaves the central character for another woman, and this story tells the aftermath. We feel her intense grief, her longing for revenge and her undying obsession for Delores. We never learn the name of the woman who suffers and tells this tale, but we're intimate with her bewilderment, her pain, and her struggle to regain balance in her life. She gets caught up in thrilling events which carry the plot quickly along to a satisfactory end.

I'm looking forward to reading Sarah Schulman's newest book, Empathy.


I reread After Delores when Arsenal Pulp Press released a new edition of it in 2013. It's a fantastic novel - dark and funny. I'm a huge fan of Sarah Schulman and I think I've read all of her books, including Empathy, which I've read at least twice since mentioning it at the end of this review. Originally published in 1992, Empathy was rereleased in 2006 as a Little Sisters Classic by Arsenal Pulp. Hooray for Arsenal Pulp!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

This Is Happy by Camilla Gibb

Reasons why I engaged with Camilla Gibb's memoir that explores the meaning of family, This Is Happy:

  • elegant prose
  • struggles with mental illness
  • her unusual childhood situation
  • her lesbian marriage and divorce
  • demonstrated gift for empathy
  • finding of emotional support
  • context for her novels (which I have also loved)

Gibb writes about being in the midst of a major depression while doing graduate studies in England, feeling "not just unseen, but unseeable."

"Perhaps it was the need to know whether I still had a body that led me to open my door to relative strangers: my door, my bed, my legs. To men, women, couples. The net result of a lot of random sex was that what was left of me disappeared."

Coincidentally, immediately prior to reading this memoir, I encountered a fictional protagonist who preferred having sex with couples: Ameera, in Farzana Doctor's All Inclusive.

That's just an aside, because Gibb's compelling story has little to do with her sexuality. She was pregnant when her wife left her and their daughter was born shortly afterwards. It's about what happens when you are devastated but now have a child as well as yourself to look after. It's about finding a way forward, partly through storytelling.

Gibb reminds us that storytelling is vital to our humanity, that we are a narrative species. Stories "make us knowable to others" and give children "the tools to help them know themselves." We are "bound for better or worse, in all sorts of complex and beautiful ways, where we become ourselves in relation to each other and carry something of the other - visceral, embodied - within us."

This Is Happy is a "story without an ending at all. And this, I know, is happy."

Readalike: Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald. 
See also my review of The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Thunder and Lightning by Lauren Redniss

When art and science get married, I am first in line with the confetti. That's why I want to shower Lauren Redniss' work with rose petals. Thunder and Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future is full of fascinating information about weather, the font and unusual page layout are all part of the author's design and it's illustrated with hand-coloured photogravure and photopolymer prints. So gorgeous!

"I hoped to [...] capture a certain feeling - a sensation of strangeness, wonder, terror - that we experience in the presence of nature, most powerfully perhaps when encountering the forces of the elements: a howling wind, a thunderstorm, the beating sun."

Yes, Redniss captures that feeling very well. She also steps up to the challenge "to embrace the whole sky with the mind." (This is from a Latin inscription 'Totum animo comprendere caelum" on the wall at the National Weather Center on the University of Oklahoma's Norman campus.)

From Arctic explorations to desert ecology to classic Greek literature to meteorological warfare to interviews with folks at the Old Farmer's Almanac, Redniss covers a whole lot of ground. With such range, it should not have surprised me to encounter mention of the Humboldt current while I concurrently was listening to the audiobook about Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature (by Andrea Wulf). Redniss also writes about endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, whom I've recently encountered in other books: The Thing About Jellyfish (Ali Benjamin) and The Argonauts (Margo Nelson).

Thunder and Lightning is a book that can be revisited with much pleasure and enjoyed by curious minds age 12 and up.

Readalikes: Maps (Aleksandra Mizielinska & Daniel Mizielinski); Animalium (Jenny Broom & Katie Scott); The Where, The Why and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science (Jenny Volvovski et al) and Unflattening (Nick Sousanis).

See also my review of Lauren Redniss' book about Marie Curie, Radioactive.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple

"Without art, you're dead!"

The opening line in Molly Crabapple's memoir, Drawing Blood, is a quote from her great-grandfather. Crabapple loved to draw from the time she could hold a crayon, but she hated being a child and describes that feeling of powerlessness very well.

Crabapple supported herself through art school and beyond as a model. She performed burlesque. She regularly attended an exclusive nightclub, where she sat in near-darkness, sketching the louche goings-on. She slept with men and women.

The point in Crabapple's narrative where I felt my interest kick into high gear was when she began using her art as a vehicle for activism. Her New York City apartment was right next to the site of Occupy Wall Street. In London, Crabapple bonded with feminist writer Laurie Penny. (I love Penny's work. If you haven't read her essays, go check out Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution.)

   "Unhealthily, we pored over conservative British message boards, where trolls talked about garroting Laurie to death, or tying me to a post and smothering me with shit. White men never seemed to provoke this sort of rage."
Poster by Molly Crabapple
Full colour artwork, like the teargas poster above, accompanies the text in Drawing Blood. If you want to see more of Crabapple's work, I recommend her scenes from the Syrian War, viewable on her website.

   "Art is hope against cynicism, creation against entropy. To make art is an act of both love and defiance. Though I'm a cynic, I believe these things are all we have."

Drawing Blood is fiercely feminist and compelling.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Here by Richard McGuire

Richard McGuire's Here is the visual story across time about one small corner of the world. It's a literal corner: in contemporary times, it's the corner of a living room in an American house. Through full colour images and a very few words, readers experience the diversity of events that have happened in this spot. Most of the action takes place in the twentieth century, but some scenes stretch as far back as primordial history, while others imagine near and distant futures.

Several years are usually represented on one page, in overlapping panels. It's remarkable how well this works to build a rich sense of the passage of time. The circle of life is timeless, so the overall narrative can be read in any order. I comfortably flipped backwards and forwards through the book to confirm details and sort out sequences. To make it easier, each panel is labelled with a small date in the upper left corner and the colour schemes remain consistent for each year. The prominent shades are mustard, grey-blue and plum.
Here (partial page detail): against a background scene from 1775, 
an inset labelled 1564 shows the maple when it was a seedling, 
while a man hopes for the best in 1953.
There is meticulous attention to small details. For example, a museum poster advertising a Vermeer exhibit occupies the same place on the wall in 2015 where a print of Vermeer's The Letter hung in 1943. A child hiding behind a tree in 1775 echoes a child hiding behind a window curtain in 1936. 

In the same place where a circle of chairs are set up for a children's party game in 1993, a dinosaur walks in 80,000,000 BCE, a bison rests in 10,000 BCE, a buck forages beneath the snow (moments before being struck by an arrow) in 1402, a wolf carries a deer leg in 1430, indigenous women scoop water from a stream in 1553, an indigenous couple flirt with each other in 1609, a cow grazes in 1869, we see the house being built in 1907, and a child builds a tower of blocks in 2017. One of the final images is of children playing ring-around-the-rosy outdoors in that spot in 1899. "Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down!!!"

We all have a place on this planet we call Earth. For McGuire's humans and nonhumans alike, that place is Here.

Readalikes: One Soul (Ray Fawkes); Building Stories (Chris Ware); and several picture books by Jeannie Baker: Where the Forest Meets the Sea, Home, and Window.