Sunday, September 17, 2017

Reading Envy Podcast

Do you love book podcasts as much as I do? If so, you can understand how excited I was to be a recent guest on Reading Envy.

Jenny Colvin is a warm host and we enjoy similar kinds of books, so I felt quite relaxed during our conversation. I took advantage of the opportunity to draw attention to three Alberta authors that I admire: Tim Bowling (The Heavy Bear), Kimmy Beach (Nuala) and Suzette Mayr (Monoceros). Jenny shared three titles as well.

We also talked about book clubs and what we are currently reading. Afterwards, I was embarrassed that I totally forgot Sylvia Plath's name when I mentioned her book Ariel, but Jenny smoothly edited out my fumbling. She carefully edits all of her recordings, making them nice and tight, which is one of the reasons that her podcast is such a pleasure for listeners.

What Jenny cannot do is put the right words in your mouth when you say the wrong thing. It was weird and humbling to hear my verbal quirks, like jamming two words together accidentally (voracious and ferocious became verocious) and I said "reader" when I meant "author," but there you have it. Human frailty.

To listen, click here, or follow one of the links on the Reading Envy website, or else search for episode 95 of Reading Envy (Lose the Outside World with Lindy Pratch) in your favourite podcast app.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Heavy Bear by Tim Bowling



"After making a press of dark roast, I slipped in the DVD and watched The Railrodder. Then I watched Buster Keaton Rides Again, the documentary shot simultaneously with the filming of The Railroader, which is even more haunting in its depiction of a dying legend and a vanishing nation. And I stepped straight out of linear time - just like Keaton as the projectionist in his classic 1924 film Sherlock Jr., who leaves his own body and enters the story he is showing on the screen - and arrived in the past where the light animates the dead and every shadow is a snarl of tape on the cutting-room floor."

Just like Keaton does, as the protagonist in the silent film Sherlock Jr., Bowling seems to step out of his life into a dream. The protagonist in Tim Bowling's latest book happens to be named Tim Bowling. He happens to be a writer living in Edmonton (where I also happen to live). He has a family and sometimes must make ends meet by taking teaching jobs... just like the real Tim Bowling. However, there are other elements that make it immediately clear that this is fiction. Bowling wakes up really early (or is he still dreaming?) on the morning that he is to begin teaching an English class. He cannot bear the thought of surmounting his introversion and standing in front of his students. What to do? What to do? His companions during his day-long existential crisis include the ghost of Buster Keaton and a large, but invisible, bear-poet.

"I had an imaginary bear who wept, a silent film ghost who remained true to silence, and my own sense of reality, which might either have been slipping away or speeding straight at me like an express train, depending on how you define reality. One fact was clear enough: the more I taught, the less I would write. And if I did not write, what would keep me out of a straitjacket? Yet what I wanted to write didn't pay me enough to support a family of five."

Bowling is someone best described as a writer's writer, and, with phrases like: "I pointed my heavy compass to campus," it's evident how much he enjoys playing with words.

"I checked my watch. It was almost one o'clock. I checked my pulse. It was still quick, but not alarmingly so. I checked my mood. It had sped through a few phases since the morning, and now had slid down toward where it started. Much had happened, but little had changed."

Tim's chance encounters on the streets of Edmonton lead him to an unlikely source of wealth and unwitting involvement in criminal activity. There's enough humour and narrative action to keep the storyline compelling even as it meanders through thoughtful interludes.

"I looked around at the cages and tanks. There were at least a dozen, and all were grimy. Some sort of a large lizard - perhaps a Komodo dragon - blinked up at me with its bulbous, Peter Lorre eyes. The sandpaper of its skin seemed to cast sparks against being. I could relate, too much so."

"For some strange reason, the depressing shop comforted me. Despite the filth and gloom of the place, the presence of other species, even these poor specimens, always lifted my spirits. I remembered my Whitman:

I think I could turn and live with animals: they are so placid and self-contain'd;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God:
Not one is dissatisfied - not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

It's a bizarre, twenty-first-century form of comfort, but you hear it from time to time: the earth and its life existed before us, and it will survive us. Even when you don't hear someone articulate the thought, you can feel it."

The Heavy Bear is an inventive, introspective and thoroughly rewarding novel.

Thank you to publisher Wolsak and Wynn for sending me a review copy.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Best of August 2017: Reading Wrap-Up

Above, my Goodreads page of books I've read in August. Let me tell you about some of them:

Most Outstanding Graphic Novel: 
My Favourite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris
I have been telling everyone about this gorgeous, hefty, moving graphic novel whenever the subject of books comes up. (It comes up a lot around me.) Ten-year-old gumshoe Karen Reyes doesn't want to be a vulnerable girl; she wants to be a scary monster. She stole my heart so fast. What a great character, and a budding lesbian too - reminding me of Harriet the Spy. This book is for adults, though. It's set in Chicago in the 60s, where Karen tries to make sense of the tragedies around her, starting with the death of her upstairs neighbour. It's the first of two parts and I am very excited about the yet-to-be-released sequel.

Best Audiobook: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness 
by Arundhati Roy [16.5 hr: narrated by the author]
Fiction may be the best way to grasp some understanding of the situation in Kashmir, the most militarized area in the world. I had so much to say about this brilliant novel that it has its own page here on my blog.

"How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything."

Best Multiple Perspectives: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
A disturbing, suspenseful, heartbreaking novel about ethics, the individual and the state. Contemporary global issues dramatized in five perspectives from two British Pakistani families. Relevant and absorbing. 

I had heard before reading this that it was a retelling of the myth of Antigone, but forgot that entirely as I got caught up in the narrative. Then, in the final segment, all of the pieces that relate to the Greek myth suddenly popped into my awareness, adding a rich overlay. A more idiosyncratic connection came when I encountered reference to the Laila-Majnu Sufi folktale, which also came up in Arundhati Roy's novel that I had finished just before this one.  
Funniest: 
Dr Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall by Suzette Mayr
A lesbian Alice in Wonderland-ish spoof on the politics of academia, set in an invented university that could very well be Calgary... if the U of C had malevolent buildings infested with carnivorous jackrabbits. Nightmarish and funny.

"Edith claws through the chlorinated water in the university's Olympic-sized swimming pool. She squints through her goggles. 7:35 a.m. Soon it will be 8 a.m. and her day basically gone. Wasted!"

"She extracts her red pen from her purse and slowly begins scribbling and ticking her way through the wildly ungrammatical pages, miles of faulty logic, the written-the-midnight-before wool gatherings. Soon she is a marking powerhouse, she has graded 17 essays in 15 minutes, she is a marking automaton. She should grade papers at 3 in the morning every single day! Her mind vinegar-sharp, a slayer of dangling, squinting and misplaced modifiers."

Best Thriller: 
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
Character-based, funny, violent, rich and suspenseful. Timeline flips back and forth between early scenes leading up to each bullet wound in Hawley's body, and his current life doing his best to avoid trouble. 

Michael Kindness from the now-defunct Books on the Nightstand podcast gave this high praise long before it was released, so I've been looking forward to it ever since. I was not disappointed. As I read, I kept seeing Samuel Hawley as Parker in Darwin Cooke's graphic novel adaptations of Richard Stark's hardboiled noir series. The difference is that Hawley's earlier life of crime might be redeemed through raising his daughter on his own. 

Best Short Story Collection: 
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
At first I thought I was pushing too quickly through this 400-page collection, and that maybe I should space the stories out with other things, but by the middle of the book I was just too hooked to stop. Autobiographical, warm and colourful: the cumulative effect is like one fat post-modern novel. Berlin has a fabulous conversational style: "matter of fact you can lie and still tell the truth. This story is good and it rings true, wherever it came from." Oh, yes!

"'You get DTs?' Pepe asked.
'Yes,' she lied. God, just listen to me... please accept me you guys, please like me you runny-eyed bums. I don't know what DTs are. The doctor asked me that too, and I said yes and he wrote it down. I think I've had them all my life, if, in fact, they are visions of demons." -from Her First Detox

"It had a fur collar. Oh the poor matted fur, once silver, yellowed now like the peed-on backsides of polar bears in zoos."

"Often they wore their hair in pin curls and a turban, getting their hair ready for - what? This still is an American custom. You see women everywhere in pink hair rollers. It's some sort of philosophical or fashion statement. Maybe there will be something better, later."

"Angie Dickinson liked my eye shadow. I told her it was just chalk, the kind you rub on pool cues."

"I couldn't go to heaven because I was Protestant. I'd have to go to limbo. I would rather have gone to hell than limbo, what an ugly word, like dumbo, or mumbo jumbo, a place without any dignity at all."

Best Picture Book: The Fog by Kyo Maclear and Kenard Pak
Friendship between misfits with a nerdy hobby + a love of the natural world + global activism on the part of the environment = an adorable picture book with the quiet heft of a velvet hammer. 

Kenard Pak's digitally-manipulated pencil and watercolour art reminds me of Jon Klassen's work. (See I Want My Hat Back, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, and House Held Up by Trees.) 

Tiny yellow bird Warbler, the people-watcher, is pictured with a telescope inside a nest piled high with reference books about humans. The endpapers portray a whimsical array of human types, such as the "Dapper Bespectacled Booklover" and the "Hairy Orange-Crowned Male (Juvenile)." So much to love in this Canadian picture book for all ages.

Best Children's Graphic Novel: Brave by Svetlana Chmakova
Jensen gets through each day at middle school by treating it like a video game, fraught with dangers. This charming graphic novel is chock full of diverse characters and deals well with the issue of bullying. It even made me cry. Creator Svetlana Chmakova immigrated to Canada when she was a teen and she obviously knows what being an outsider feels like.

Best Nonfiction Reportage in Comics Format: 
Hostage by Guy Delisle [translated from French by Helge Dascher]
Another brilliant work of nonfiction comics by Guy Delisle, who can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. This time, instead of documenting his own travel adventures, working in other countries, he tells the true story of a French NGO worker, held hostage in Chechnya for 111 days. I felt like I was right there, experiencing the boredom and despair while chained by the wrist for months. Amazing visual storytelling, few words.

Best Nonfiction Memoir in Comics Format: 
Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke
An eloquent, marvellous and melancholy study of senescence, presented in meticulous art with minimal text. People, relationships, and the things created by humans-- all will crumble to nothing in the end. I've learned from this book that "ruin porn" is a thing. What Radtke manages to do, with clear-eyed compassion, is to allow us to see the beauty in the inevitable. The controlled lifework and attention to photographic detail reminds me of Alison Bechdel's art.

Best Science Fiction Graphic Novel: Bitch Planet, Book 2 
President Bitch by Kelly Sue DeConnick et al.
Volume 2 collects issues #6-10 of this outrageously funny feminist sic fi spoof. It's just as strong as the first volume and I want more! The fake adverts at the end of each issue help to lighten some heavy content in the storyline: "Makeup is also a LIE! You ugly cow, he actually thought you really did have cheekbones that were cut with a laser."

Best Science Fiction Novella: Nuala by Kimmy Beach

"'Why are these irons called sad? What makes an iron sad?'
She laughed at me and explained that neither the irons nor the future Iron-Servants were sad. Did I not notice the joy with which they performed their duties, even though there was then no Giant to wear the dress they tended? It was simply the name given to the heavy slabs of metal."

Teacher-Servant is the human man graced with a giant mechanical puppet's first awakening gaze. He rides on her shoulder as they communicate via thought. "Shh, my Nuala. I am with you. Today I shall teach you the newness of you."

My book club spent a long time discussing this intriguing exploration of jealousy and autonomy, written by an author from nearby (Red Deer, Alberta) and set in an atypical dystopia. The tale is short and haunting. It had me watching hours of videos of giant marionettes on YouTube.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

It's been 20 years since Arundhati Roy's last novel was published, the astonishing The God of Small Things. Her new one, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was worth the wait. 

Grief and hope are inseparable. Life, love and death: it's all mixed together. A brilliant, breathtaking novel, featuring a wide cast of characters swirling around Anjum, an intersex hijra in Delhi. There's even a character with my name, a young Australian hippy who marries a crusading Indian journalist and then gets arrested for trafficking heroin. 

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, then picked up a paper copy so that I could savour her brilliant prose:

"They had always fitted together like pieces of an unsolved (and perhaps unsolvable) puzzle - the smoke of her into the solidness of him, the solitariness of her into the gathering of him, the insouciance of her into the restraint of him. The quietness of her into the quietness of him."

"A posse of mop-haired dogs smelling of perfume and cigarette smoke ran amok among the guests, like a small army of yapping, motorized floor swabs."

"Some distance away a bare-torsoed man, with yellow limes stuck all over his body with superglue, sucked noisily on a thick mango drink from a small carton. He refused to say why he had stuck limes to his skin or why he was drinking mango juice even though he seemed to be promoting limes, and grew abusive if anyone asked."

"...the battered angels in the graveyards that kept watch over their battered charges held open the doors between worlds (illegally, just a crack) so that the should of the present and the departed could mingle, like guests at the same party. It made life less determinate and death less conclusive. Somehow everything became a little easier to bear."

"How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything."

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Bertolt by Jacques Goldstyn: Comparing English and French Editions

L'Arbragan won the French language TD Canadian Children's Literature Award in 2016. Created by Montreal-born geologist and artist Jacques Goldstyn, it's a sweet, imaginative picture book about an introverted child who is content with his status as a loner, and his close friendship with the immense oak tree that he calls Bertolt. The quiet, expressive artwork captures feelings of joy and sadness. There are delightful details, like the way the child's toque resembles an acorn.

I was interested in the differences between the original Quebecois edition (La Pasteque) and the American English translation by Claudia Zoe Bedrick (Enchanted Lion Books). As you can see in the top photo, even the cover choice is different. I guess the winter scene captures the "mon pays c'est l'hivers" spirit of Canada, while the summer scene is more relatable for south-of-the-Canadian border readers.
Differences:

- Gloves become mittens in the English text (even though they clearly look like gloves in the illustrations). I can only guess that the reason might be that children are more likely to wear mittens than gloves?

- Hand-lettered text versus a serif font. This changes the effect: the former emphasizing the individualistic personality of the child, the latter giving it the look of books designed for emerging readers.

- White page background versus a buff background. Again, it changes the effect or mood. White adds a crispness to the contrast with the colours in the delicate illustrations, and is particularly effective in the snow scenes. Buff gives more of a nostalgic feel.

- Text placement. In the example shown above, this subtly changes the feeling evoked by the illustration: instead of walking into fresh unmarked territory, the child has something solid below his feet.

Two pages are entirely cut from the English edition. They show some of things the boy can see from his perch high up in Bertolt. I guess a priest peeping at his sunbathing neighbour is considered too risqué for certain audiences. Also cut: an old woman stealing from someone else's cherry tree, a graffiti artist at work, and a "lawn maniac" with a giant canister of weedkiller spraying a dandelion.


Both editions have the same gorgeous endpapers, created by Goldstyn. The most disappointing difference in the English edition is its didactic tone, which is not present in the original. I prefer the original, but the translated edition is almost as nice. For ages 6 and up.


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sarah by JT Leroy

I remember wanting to read JT Leroy's work back in the early 2000s when Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things came out and there was a lot of buzz about them. Before I got to them, however, a literary hoax scandal broke about the author's identity. After I learned that these supposedly loosely autobiographical novels were written by a straight woman, Laura Albert, and not by a gay man with a tragic personal history of being forced to turn tricks as a child, I lost my desire to read them.

Author, a documentary about Laura Albert and her use of the persona JT Leroy, came out in 2016. Watch the trailer: https://youtu.be/wvMja-moAlE. Albert/LeRoy's story is quite astonishing. The film generated more controversy, revolving around archival tapes used without permission from the famous people who didn't know they were being recorded, folks such as Dennis Cooper, Gus Van Sant, Asia Argent, Courtney Love and Bono.

Sarah was reissued in 2016 (to coincide with the documentary) and chosen for my Feminist Book Club, so I've finally crossed it off my TBR. At our meeting, we spent a lot of time talking about how the story surrounding the author's identity affects the way we read her work.

We also tried to figure out how we would categorize this novel that Tom Spanauer called "road-kill beautiful." It reminded me of a cross between something by Chuck Palahniuk, and Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.  A dark fairytale: raw, horrific, funny, whimsical, offensive and sad.

The first-person narrator is a twelve-year-old boy - who likes to pass as a girl - living with his mother Sarah at a truck stop, part of a group of prostitutes working under the authority of a man named Glad.

I take daily lessons from various boys of Glad's, who affectionately refer to each other as baculum, which Glad tells me means 'little rod' in Latin. I practice rolling a condom on a man with my teeth without him knowing.
I had to google images of raccoon baculum after reading this.
Turns out, many kinds of mammals have penis bones.

Sarah always says before she goes man shopping, 'I look so good when I enter this bar, I'll make all the bitches nervouser than long-tailed cats at a rocking chair convention.'
(Other colourful expressions include "faster than a feather singeing in hell,""ready as snippers at bull-ball cutting' time," and "Don't pee down my back and tell me it's raining!")

I notice her left eye behind her Hollywood sunglasses is half shut in black-and-blue lumps hardly concealed by streaks of powdery beige foundation.
'The trick is to use an oil-based, yellow-tone foundation. You should never use matte!' Sarah would say, wincing while tentatively sponging on tan goop. 'I swear it should say so on the bottle: 'Do not under any circumstance use matte to cover your man's fist kisses.'

'I had my triplets using five layers of rubbers with a layer of tin-foil gum wrapper thrown in for good measure...' says a woman so narrow and white she looks like a body-of-Christ wafer.

'Mary Grace, you just got hit with very acidic ejaculit,' says another woman. 'I heard of truckers' juice so full of strip-mine slag they can burn through a wooden condom!'

I've heard it said too that women have brought their husbands that won't quit drinking their hairspray and nail-polish remover. Mommas have brought their strip-mine babies born with arms growing out of their heads like rabbit ear antennas. Grandparents have brought their grandchildren blinded from masturbating. Not one of them was ever cured.

The quotes above will give you ample notion of what you are getting in for with this novel. The sense of humour left me feeling a strange mix of charmed, dismayed and horrified. I recommend this novel only for those who are curious, and prepared to feel queasy over the portrayal of a child prostitute who has been taught to equate with love with abuse. It's also good for discussing issues of appropriation.

The Feminist Book Club followed up our discussion of Sarah by selecting a memoir written by an actual queer sex worker for the following month: Amber Dawn's How Poetry Saved My Life. I whole-heartedly recommend it.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Books Round-Up: Best of May

If you are looking for some recommendations, it doesn't matter that these are from a few months ago, does it?
Best Thing I Read in May: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore
The way we invent ourselves, even without realizing what we are doing; the weight of our formative on our adult selves; the way a perfect moment can sustain us through all the tougher daily grind of living: Moore puts it so well in this melancholy and enchanting novel.

"There were soft tall weeds growing up from the lake bottom, and they would do a charming kind of hula and then wind around your legs in a death grip."

"In Paris we eat brains every night. My husband likes the vaporous, fishy mousse of them. They are a kind of seafood, he thinks, locked tightly in the skull like shelled creatures in the dark caves of the ocean."

Best NonFiction Audiobook: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson
[audiobook narrated by author: 3.5 hours]
I loved this so much, I listened to it twice in a row. Stars that jiggle, spherical cows, dark matter as our frenemy, the badassery of Einstein, and envisioning the density of a pulsar as like stuffing 100 million elephants into a chapstick casing: Tyson is endlessly entertaining in addition to being informative. 

"For all those who are too busy to read fat books, yet nonetheless seek a conduit to the cosmos."

Best YA Audiobook: The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas
[audiobook narrated by Bahni Turpin: 11 hr 45 min]
The last author who sent me to find Tupac's music on YouTube was Jacqueline Woodson (After Tupac and D Foster). Thank you, Angie Thomas, for pointing me in that direction again. Starr is the brave star of this ripped-from-the-headlines novel: she's real and whole: a fictional teen who will live long in my heart. All the empathy and all the stars for this, and I hope they make the movie soon because I want to see that too!

Best Novel-Told-in-Short-Stories Audiobook: 
Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
[audiobook narrated by Kimberly Farr: 8.5 hr]
If you loved Olive Kitteridge, as I did, then you will also enjoy Strout's latest collection of interconnected short stories. They are about various small-town people, all loosely connected to another of Strout's characters: Lucy Barton.

"As Patti drove into her driveway, and saw the lights she'd left on, she realized that Lucy Barton's book had understood her. That was it. The book had understood her. Lucy Barton had her own shame, and she had risen right straight out of it."

Best Poetry: Passage by Gwen Benaway
I re-read the poems in this collection compulsively, trying to come up with a coherent review, getting sucked back into the pages each time. Powerful words about all kinds of passages: childhood into adulthood; abuse into healing; city life into wilderness; coupledom to single; male to female. Outstanding queer Indigenous poetry.

"It's my promise,
an oath to the land,
to bear my wrecking with a certain grace.
not the grace of trees,
the smooth breasted laughter of bluejays,
but the grace of mollusks:
bottom feeder, black rimmed,
sharp under foot, slit mouthed,
small and as inescapable
as hunger."

Best Novel in Translation: Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi
translated from French by Jeffrey Zuckerman
Alternating POV between four young teenagers who are so real my heart breaks. The poverty and violence of their home - the slums of Mauritius - brands them all, but in unique ways: these are individuals. Knowing them has enlarged me. Transcendent prose lightens this fierce, short LGBTQ novel.

"I wipe my neck. The coarse feel of it surprises me. The lack of hair makes me feel more naked than ever. Then I remember: my mother sheared it off. When I saw myself in the mirror, I saw that I had a lioness's head. I had a mane of hunger."

Best Historical Fiction: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
"It's a poor woman whose ambition is only to be loved. She has better things to be getting on with." And that's exactly why I enjoy the female characters in this novel so much: they are busy doing interesting things. Lots of unrequited love and complicated friendships in an atmospheric Victorian setting.

Best Fantasy Graphic Novel: Eartha by Cathy Malkasian
A unique and dreamy world; memorable and endearing characters; gorgeous art; an adventure quest into a dangerous place - Malkasian gets all the elements right in this immersive, moving fantasy/fable for adults. Muted tones; a hefty 255 oversized pages. Queer content.

Best Arthurian Retelling Graphic Novel: 
Yvain by MT Anderson and Andrea Offermann
A rich, evocative retelling of one of the Arthurian tales, one that highlights the differences between men's and women's lives of that era. A happily-ever-after for the knight is merely obligation and constrained options for the queen. It's bitter and I prefer this kind of story over traditional romance. Gorgeous art with lots of movement.