Monday, May 25, 2015

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James has such a strong sense of place that I felt immediately transported to the rural setting in Kerala in southern India. The story centers around an elephant called the Gravedigger. He was orphaned by poachers as a calf and sold into labour. Later, he escaped and became a killer of men. Part of the narration is from the elephant's point of view, a stylistic feat that James pulls off nicely. She uses a close third person, close enough to glimpse inside the alien brain of another species.

"The flames of tiny lamplights trembled down the road to the temple. The Gravedigger could smell the hot oil, the chili-rubbed corn, the ice cream and peanuts, the plastic of inflatable toys, the petals of flowers, marigolds and rose water, all these shifting, rippling scents, and beneath them all, a heavy silt: the smell of people."

Images are from postcards I got in Sri Lanka in 1978. Copyright Ceylon Pictorials, Colombo.
The point of view shifts with different narrators, allowing a complex picture to emerge. The following is from the publisher's description on the dust jacket:

Transplanting rice (in Sri Lanka).
"Manu, the studious younger son of a rice farmer, loses his cousin to the Gravedigger's violence and is drawn, with his wayward brother, Jayan, into the sordid, alluring world of poaching. Emma is a young American working on a documentary with her college best friend, who witnesses the porous boundary between conservation and corruption and finds herself in her own moral gray area: a risky affair with the veterinarian who is the film's subject. As the novel hurtles toward its tragic climax, these three story lines fuse into a wrenching meditation on love and betrayal, duty and loyalty, and the vexed relationship between man and nature."

Even the minor characters seem very real, making it easy to feel swept up in their lives. The story is a gripping and immersive experience. I cooked rice and curry after I had finished, as a way to linger in the world of The Tusk That Did the Damage.

Readalikes (with links to my reviews): Fauna (Alissa York) for realistic fiction about humans and wilderness coexisting, while incorporating some animal viewpoints; and two layered, sensory novels by Ru Freeman that are set in Sri Lanka: On Sal Mal Lane and A Disobedient Girl.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy by Sarah Lazarovic

In A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy, Toronto artist Sarah Lazarovic rethinks her buying habits and her attitude towards owning material goods. Paintings and hand-lettered text make a charming memoir-cum-meditation on consumerism.

Two-page spread from A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy

The two-page spread above is a good example of Lazarovic's witty style and judicious use of quotes from other sources. "Writing recently in Scientific American, Sonya Lyubomirsky says that one of the most effective ways to achieve happiness through money is to spend on small pleasures instead of big-ticket items." I'm sorry that my photo is fuzzy; the text on the bottom right (next to "After") says "flowers/$3." I love the way the blue wash spreads across to the lefthand page, visually linking the rectangle of the text box to the two images of rectangular furniture in a pleasing, sturdy tripod. The smiley handle on the chest of drawers makes me smile, too.

The entire essay, with illustrations, can be viewed online here, but it is such a sweet, small-format hardcover to handle in its physical form. It is the size that I think of as a gift book - the size for impulse purchasing - which in itself offers a certain amount of irony. In any case, it would make a lovely gift. If it is for someone who has been talking about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, even better.

In her annotated bibliography, Larazovic includes titles I've previously reviewed: The Thoughtful Dresser (Linda Grant) and Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (Elizabeth Cline).

Readalike: for another whimsical illustrated essay/memoir, try My Favorite Things (Maira Kalman). For another personal exploration into consumerism, I suggest Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping (Judith Levine).

PS - I would like to thank the inimitable Shelagh Rogers and her CBC podcast, The Next Chapter. That is how I first heard about this book, and about many more Canadian titles too. Love that show!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

When her father dies, Helen Macdonald retreats from the world into her childhood passion for falconry. She gets a young goshawk and her grief is subsumed in the long hours spent training it. H is for Hawk is a masterpiece of nature writing and literary memoir. It's a book I want to hug. It also makes me want to feel the weight of a raptor on my fist, something I'd never imagined would interest me.

Some of the reasons I loved this book:

  • Macdonald, who doesn't like to kill, showed me something new: an appreciation for hunting, seen from a hawk's perspective.  
  • Macdonald's thoughtful re-examination of a book she had found infuriating when she was a child: T.H. White's The Goshawk
  • The specialized vocabulary of falconry, which Macdonald describes as one of the aspects that attracted her to this sport from the start. 
  • Macdonald's struggle through grief and mental illness into healing.
  • Beautiful, beautiful prose.

Not a falcon, but still.
Photo taken at Bojnice
Castle in Slovakia.
"Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn't human at all. The hawk in flight, me running after her, the land and the air a pattern of deep and curving detail, sufficient to block out anything like the past or the future, so that the only thing that mattered were the next thirty seconds. [...] I looked. I saw more than I'd ever the seen. The world gathered about me. It made absolute sense. But the only things I knew were hawkish things, and the lines that drew me across the landscape were the lines that drew the hawk: hunger, desire, fascination, the need to find and fly and kill."

Macdonald writes that the "ability of hawks to cross borders that humans cannot is a thing far older than Celtic myth, older than Orpheus - for in ancient shamanic traditions right across Eurasia, hawks and falcons were seen as messengers between this world and the next."

There's a time when Macdonald was writing her father's eulogy and wanted to check a fact and so she reached for the phone to call him... "and for a moment the world went very black."

Siobhan, one of the other
wwoofers I worked with,
 whitewashing in Spain.
My own father had been dead for 10 years when I had a similar experience. After a disorienting couple of weeks spent uprooting brambles from a mountain slope while wwoofing* on a rustic farm in Spain, I was given an easy job: whitewashing a plaster wall. My father would do things like spend an afternoon while on a Hawaiian holiday helping a crew install tile on a roof simply because he had never done that before. I planned to write to him, describing the fat round brush and the paint mixed from a powder... and then came a sudden remembering that I would never write to him again. A sorrow that I thought was long finished. If only a falcon could have carried a message on my behalf.

Falconry is described as "a balancing act between wild and tame - not just in the hawk, but inside the heart and mind of the falconer." In time, Macdonald finds her equilibrium.

H is for Hawk is one of my favourite books so far this year.

Readalikes (with links to my reviews): The best I can do for comparison is to combine the meditative nature writing and memoir in Robert MacFarlane's The Old Ways with Cheryl Strayed's grief process in Wild and the intimacy of living with a wild bird in Stacey O'Brien's Wesley the Owl, (mouse carcasses and all).

*Wwoofing is a verb formed from WWOOF = World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization that links volunteers with organic growers.

NOTE added May 24, 2015: Today I listened to Mary Oliver in conversation with Krista Tippett on the On Being podcast episode "Mary Oliver - Listening to the World" from February 5, 2015. I was struck by a similarity in one aspect of Macdonald's and Oliver's experiences. Both had found themselves too much captivated by the natural world and eventually had to learn to fully embrace the human world. It's a great interview, by the way.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips

I adored Gods Behaving Badly, Marie Phillips' playful novel of Greek gods living in contemporary London, so it was with much anticipation that I began reading her latest, The Table of Less Valued Knights. And yes, it is funny. After a few chapters, however, I found myself reluctant to pick it up again. Humour is appealing, but I need substance, too. I decided to give it one more chance before returning it to the library. And then everything fell into place.

It's a brilliant social satire. Misogyny, gender inequality and sexual violence are all included; plenty of substance there! Gay and transgender issues are also integral to the story.

The action begins at King Arthur's court in Camelot, with a bunch of knights chomping at the bit for quests. Sir Dorian was the fastest one to leap at the chance to search for Queen Martha, kidnapped on her wedding night. Sir Humphrey, who had been demoted from the prestigious Round Table to the Table of Less Valued Knights, is the only one left in the room late in the evening when another quest opportunity presents itself. Lady Elaine needs help to find her abducted fiance.

Later, Humphrey has second thoughts about having volunteered for the job. "I'm not even supposed to leave Camelot, let alone be gazumping [Sir Dorian's] quest." Gazumping! I love the way Phillips threw that word in there. It's fitting, because the knights treat the quests like hot properties, and a good example of the novel's style, incorporating contemporary sensibilities and terminology into Arthurian fantasy.

More examples of style:

"He waited. Time passed. In another man doubts would have set in. In Edwin, doubts presented themselves, decided that this was not a hospitable environment, and left again."

"Elaine's home village, close to the tuft border, had seen better days, although even in those better days it probably still looked as if it had been put together using an avalanche and some string."

"The next hamlet they came to [...] was a tiny place, even more deprived than Elaine's village had been. Humphrey had seen houses of cards more robust."

Sometimes the farce stretches a bit too far:

Martha "headed for the nearest village, a rather bleak place where the houses were still black with soot from the last time marauders had tried to burn it down, which, had they succeeded, would probably have been an improvement. The inn was called the Dipsomaniac Camel, and she supposed that the sign might have been of a camel, but she had never seen a camel, and neither, she was fairly certain, had the sign painter."

Comedy is tricky, and Phillips manages to be lavish with it while controlling multiple story threads that come together in a satisfying conclusion.

The sexism inherent in Arthurian tales - damsels are the ones in distress; gallant knights come to their rescue - is turned on its head in The Table of Less Valued Knights. Women prove very much capable of looking out for themselves. Laurie Penny, in Unspeakable Things, writes, "Men have sex; women are sex." This attitude is strongly embodied in a couple of characters who receive their comeuppance (it is a fantasy novel, after all). It's presented with such a light touch that it took me a while to appreciate the feminist strength of this novel.

The Table of Less Valued Knights was longlisted for the 2015 Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Sita's Ramayana by Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar

Sita's Ramayana is a fantastic retelling of a classic Sanskrit epic. If you've never read any version of the Ramayana, this is a fine place to start. If you're already familiar with the tale, there are significant twists in this Bengali version, beginning with the fact that it's told from a woman's point of view.

The images are adapted from Moyna Chitrakar's wordless scroll paintings, with text by Samhita Arni.

The story opens with sorrowful Sita, eye makeup running down her cheeks, asking the forest to shelter her. "Let me live here. The world of men has banished me." Then the narrative backs up 14 years, to the point where Prince Rama has been exiled from his kingdom, accompanied by his wife Sita, and his brother Lakshmana.
Sita was abducted, rescued, and then doubted.
She returns to the forest sad and alone.
Sita gets kidnapped by Ravana, a demon with ten heads, and Rama gets help from an army of animals to get her back from the island of Lanka. War means death and destruction, and Sita has empathy for both sides.

"The cries of the women of Lanka lamenting Kumbhakarna's fall filled my ears, even though he fought on the side of my enemy. I could not help but feel his death was tragic, for he had advised Ravana wisely, and gone, knowingly, to meet his death."

"their people had met death on the battlefield - for what? For one man's unlawful desire. Men had been killed, widowed, and children orphaned. It was such a high price to pay."

Rama is the human incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He excels at everything he does. He is essentially virtuous, obedient to his father and loyal to his wife. But he sometimes acts dishonourably (using treachery to kill), is obstinate (won't go back on a promise even when it no longer makes sense), and he also doubts his wife's fidelity. This makes him more interesting as a hero.
Rama (left), Sita (center) and Lakshmana (right)
Ravana, beloved of his family...
but not so much by others.
In my previous encounters with Rama, he's had blue skin (like Vishnu) so I found it a bit disconcerting that Chitrakar uses a sort of greenish-brown for his colour. Meanwhile, some of the other characters are blue, notably Ravana and his family, even though Ravana is more typically green. Chitrakar portrays Hanuman - monkey god and son of the wind - as black (like the other monkeys) instead of his usual white. These differences made me pay more attention, so I liked them.

When Hanuman is sent on a Hercules-type mission to get a distant medicinal herb, he stuns the rest of his army upon return:
"You brought the entire hill?" says one monkey.
"Well, I couldn't find the plant you told me to find, and I was running out of time, so I brought the whole hill to you instead."

The irregular page layouts feature large panels that emphasize ornamental details in the paintings, as well as taking advantage of the angles and curves of Chitrakar's overall graphic design.
 
The three panels across two pages (below) are repeated on the lower right of the spread above.
A combination of rectangular and round text boxes are used.
Note how the angled sides of the panels (top) characterize the movement of water.
I found the huge eyes on Chitrakar's characters particularly striking.
Eye-catching use of blue, red and yellow. Check out the crazy eyes on the elephant!
This is possibly the most bad-ass squirrel I've ever encountered.
Ancient stories are repeated and retold because they continue to resonate. Like other classic tales from around the world - Greek, Roman and Norse mythology, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, King Arthur, European fairytales, etc. - the Ramayana has influenced authors of contemporary literature. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children is just one example.

Pair Sita's Ramayana with Sanjay Patel's hip and funky Ramayana: Divine Loophole.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Secret Life of Squirrels by Nancy Rose

Jessica Olin wrote a fun post about squirrels on her Letters to a Young Librarian blog, prompting me to share my own love for these little beasts with a photo taken at Abkhazi garden in Victoria, BC:
...and a link to my archives for a review of Squirrels of North America nature guide by Tamara Eder.
...and give a preview of my next review, which will be of Sita's Ramayana by Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, a tale with some scary fierce squirrels that join other animals and Rama in a battle against a demon king with ten heads.
Detail from Sita's Ramayana. Art by Moyna Chitrakar, Text by Samhita Arni.
...and to write about a wonderful children's picture book: The Secret Life of Squirrels by Nancy Rose.

Through the window at her home in Nova Scotia, Nancy Rose photographs squirrels exploring dioramas that she has created. I cannot tell you how adorable these images are. You must see for yourself at The Secret Life of Squirrels website.

The photos have been assembled together with text into a charming narrative about Mr. Peanuts, an atypical squirrel. Instead of gathering nuts and climbing trees, Mr. Peanuts cooks on a tiny grill, plays piano, and reads. "He especially likes to read aloud. (You may have heard him chattering in your backyard.)"

Mr. Peanuts invites his cousin to visit. His preparations include vacuuming, laundry and baking. When Cousin Squirrel arrives, they play games, go out for ice cream, and "scare each other with ghost stories, including 'The Old Haunted Tree' and 'The One-Eyed Owl.' You can't tell yourself a ghost story, thinks Mr. Peanuts. You need a friend."

The Secret Life of Squirrels is great for all ages. The simple story has a familiar scenario - preparing the house for a visitor, having fun with a friend - and it's easy for very young children to follow. The photographs are as cute as they are fascinating. Examining them for the details of how they were created is part of their attraction. Children who like crafting things will enjoy figuring out how they might make similar scenes. Lots of adults like miniature worlds too, and will appreciate the hours of patience necessary for Rose to get the perfect shot with live squirrel models.

Readalikes: Here Comes the Garbage Barge (Jonah Winter); Meerkat Mail (Emily Gravett); Town Mouse, Country Mouse (Jan Brett).

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

There are so many reasons that I loved Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant.

  • Legend of King Arthur viewed from a fresh angle
  • World building: early Britain complete with ogres, pixies and dragons
  • Death as a narrator
  • A journey on foot
  • Distinctive language
  • Love story about two elderly people - I've enjoyed others lately: Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Emma Hooper), and And the Birds Rained Down (Jocelyne Saucier).

During a long period of peace brought about by King Arthur, the people of Britain have been bewitched by a mist of forgetfulness. Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple who struggle to remember details of their shared lives, yet their love for each other remains strong. They embark on a journey to visit their son in another village and encounter many surprises along the way.

The language cast its own spell on me. There's a meditative rhythm to the prose, with lots of dialogue that moves the story along at a steady pace. The dialogue has a distinctly archaic feel, even while using only common words. Everyone is politely formal with each other, including husband and wife:

   "Who knows what goes on with Saxons," said Axl. "We may be better seeking shelter elsewhere tonight."
   "The dark will be soon on us, Axl, and those spears are not intended for us. Besides, there's a woman in this village I was wanting to visit, one who knows her medicines beyond anyone in our own."
   Axl waited for her to say something further, and when she went on peering into the distance, he asked: "And why would you be after medicines, princess?"
   "A small discomfort I feel from time to time. This woman might know of something to soothe it."
   "What sort of discomfort, princess? Where does it trouble you?"
   "It's nothing. It's only because we're needing to shelter here I'm thinking of it at all."
   "But where does it lie, princess? This pain?"
   "Oh..." Without turning to him, she pressed a hand to her side, just below the ribcage, then laughed. "It's nothing to speak of. You can see, it hasn't slowed me walking here today."
   "It hasn't slowed you one bit, princess, and I've been the one having to beg we stop and rest."
   "That's what I'm saying, Axl. So it's nothing to worry about."
   "It hasn't slowed you down at all. In fact princess, you must be as strong as any woman half your age. Still, if there's someone here to help with your pain, what's the harm in going to her?"
   "That's all I was saying Axl. I've brought a little tin to trade for medicines."
   "Who wants these little pains? We all have them, and we'd all be rid of them if we could. By all means, let's go to this woman if she's here, and those guards let us pass."

The relationship between Axl and Beatrice is characterized by their steadfast loyalty and gentleness, yet complexities remain. If the mist of forgetfulness is lifted, will that bode well or ill for them? And what about mortality, must it be faced alone?

The Buried Giant is an atmospheric and immersive reading experience.

Readalikes set in historical early Britain: 7th-century - Hild (Nicola Griffith); 9th-century - The Edge on the Sword (Rebecca Tingle); 5th-century - The Skystone (Jack Whyte) and The Lantern Bearers (Rosemary Sutcliff). I'm not sure of the exact time period of Harvest (Jim Crace) - maybe 16th-century - but it has a similar clear and meditative style of prose. See also Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation by W.S. Merwin, and/or an amusing retelling of Sir Gawain's legend that is suitable for all ages - The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True (Gerald Morris).