Friday, August 1, 2014

Albert Einstein and Antoine de Saint-Exupery in Picture Book Biographies

Biographies in picture book format are a weakness of mine. I think it's the combination of art and true facts, plus they are short. Because these books are usually only about 30 pages long, I know that I can spend a leisurely time appreciating them, and still get through the whole thing in one sitting. For me, they signal a mood of relaxed enjoyment.

I recently read two delightful examples back to back: On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne and Vladimir Radunsky and The Pilot and the little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupery by Peter Sis.

Radinsky's exuberant illustrations in On a Beam of Light radiate joyful energy. His black ink lines are expressively untidy and the rich gouache colours do not stay neatly inside the lines. The paper is light brown, speckled with fibers, giving it a homespun look.
Important lines of text are highlighted in red. (On a Beam of Light. Berne & Radunsky)

Berne has selected details about Einstein's life that will make the most impression on children. For example, when Einstein grew up, he chose specific clothes for thinking. He refused to ever wear socks. Einstein never spoke before age two, and hardly said a word before age three. When he did finally speak, he was full of questions.

"So many questions that some of his teachers told him he was a disruption to his class. They said he would never amount to anything unless he learned to behave like all the other students.
But Albert didn't want to be like the other students.
He wanted to discover the hidden mysteries in the world."

Readers can go on to discover more about Einstein through Berne's notes and resource list at the end.

Even though Peter Sis has a very different style from Radunsky, I was struck by the way they both showed their subjects as babies, floating in space:
Baby Einstein (On a Beam of Light. Berne & Radunsky)

Baby Saint-Exupery (The Pilot and the Little Prince. Sis)
In The Pilot and the Little Prince, Peter Sis uses medium to light colours, mostly golds and heavenly blues. He avoids black. His shading is made up of lots of minute lines and dots. There are whimsical details like the winged horse above. Continents on a map and mountains seen from a plane are shown with facial features. Pictorial elements on a page are frequently grouped in medallions with tidbits of additional text. It's like a treasure hunt to find everything on each page.

Young Saint-Exupery attempted to fly with his bicycle. (detail from The Pilot and the Little Prince. Sis)
There is a great deal more information in this book about Antoine de Saint-Exupery than in the one about Einstein. Older children, teens and adults will all find much to appreciate. Sis packs a lot into his pages! What makes the biggest impression is Saint-Exupery's lifelong love of flight, in spite of numerous crash landings. There are details about the history of aviation as well as Saint-Exupery's writing career and his service in World War II. And I learned a surprising lot about the earliest airmail service.

Peter Sis has written and illustrated many more wonderful books, including The Tree of Life (about Charles Darwin); Starry Messenger (about Galileo); and The Wall, his autobiography about growing up in Czechoslovakia. I've previously reviewed his retelling of a thirteenth-century Persian poem, The Conference of Birds.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Eyrie by Tim Winton

Set in the Western Australia port city of Fremantle, Tim Winton's Eyrie is a gritty and tender novel about betrayal's toll on an idealist's spirit. I was hooked from the start by the distinctive internal voice of Tom Keely, a former environmental spokesperson wrecking himself with booze and prescription drugs.

"Well, the upside was he hadn't died in the night. He was free and unencumbered. Which is to say alone and unemployed. And he was in urgent need of a healing breakfast. Soon as all his bits booted up. Just give it a mo."
[...]
"The lift was mercifully empty. He travelled unseen and uninterrupted to the ground floor. Let the lobby doors roll back. Took it full in the face. All that hideous light. Walked out like a halfwit into a bushfire. It was hot enough to kill an asbestos sparrow."

Tom has been holed up for a year in a dive-y tenth floor apartment. His self-centered anguish finally shifts when he meets two of his neighbours who live on the same floor. Tom knew Gemma when they were both kids living on the same block. She and her sister used to take refuge at Tom's house when their father got violent. Now, Gemma has a daughter in prison and she is caring for her 6-year-old grandson, Kai.

Gemma and Kai are facing deep trouble from some scary folk. The question is whether Tom can help himself, never mind anyone else.

It was smart of me to buy a gift copy of Eyrie for my friend Kathy, because this is a great book for discussion. Winton's storycrafting is impeccable and the ending is left open. There are all kinds of important issues like social justice, natural resources extraction, and class privilege. Kathy and I spent an hour on the phone talking about Eyrie last night. Winton will be at the Vancouver Writers Fest in October and we both look forward to hearing him there.

Readalikes: The Antagonist (Lynn Coady); The Painter (Peter Heller); and Carpentaria (Alexis Wright).

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox

Elizabeth Knox's Mortal Fire is a stand-alone historical fantasy set in Southland, the same alternate-New Zealand as Dreamhunter and Dreamquake. The Dreamhunter Duet totally blew me away, so I was thrilled to read another book set in the same world. I was not disappointed. In fact, I ignored the other four books I had on the go while I was immersed in Mortal Fire.

When I was finished, I felt bereft. Have you seen the Epic Reads video about book hangovers? It was kind of like that. It took a few days before I was able to comfortably settle into a different book.* I only wanted more more more Southland, with its dreamy magic.

Mortal Fire opens in alternate 1959. Canny/Akenesi/Agnes is 16, one of the few brown-skinned students at her school, and the star of the math team. She has an uncanny ability that she can't explain to others, a way of feeling the cracks between things, seeing the patterns that make the world.

Canny's mother Sisema is an indigenous Ma'eu from the Shackle Islands near Southland. When her parents travel to her mother's home island so that Sisema can receive an award of honour, Canny is left in the care of her older stepbrother, Sholto, and his girlfriend. The three of them spend the school holidays in a place unlike anything Canny has previously experienced. Bring on the earth magic!

Believable characters, an atmospheric setting, gorgeous language and an absorbing plot.
I loved this book. Absolutely adored it.

*Tim Winton's dark and stunning Eyrie, set in contemporary western Australia.

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.