Saturday, August 29, 2009

Step Closer by Tessa McWatt

Emily is a Canadian writer living in Spain, trying to make sense of what happened between four people who walked together on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela. Besides herself, there was Marcus, Emily's roommate of two years, Gavin, a handsome crippled Brit who seemed to know Marcus from the past, and Claire, an American bisexual who was the only one of the four who set out intending to walk a pilgrimage. But all of them were seeking answers.

It happens often that there are ties between books that I read. I've just finished Waiting for Columbus, also set in Spain. The feeling of place comes through more strongly in Step Closer than in Waiting for Columbus. Both novels jump backwards and forwards in time, incorporate multiple narratives and use some experimental ways to tell the story. It was not accidental that Trofimuk mentioned writings by Nathalie Sarraute on Consuela's bookshelf; she is known for transforming the traditional novel's models of character and plot. McWatt has followed in Sarraute's footsteps as well.

Emily obsessively washes her hands (as does one of the minor characters in Trofimuk's book). She tells of her present day rocky relationship with Sam in first person, detailing her struggles with the writing of the story we are reading. She goes back to the events on the Camino four years earlier and to Scotland, 15 years earlier, using third person to relate her imagined accounts of Gavin and Marcus and what lay between them. Emily's deepest search, however, is for her own identity.

"My father is flamboyant. He is a sculptor and an aesthetic gourmand. Paris suits him, whereas my mother prefers the aesthetics of a canoe. That may or may not have contributed to why they are no longer together, but the fact is they made a daughter who would like to be in Paris. In a canoe. Paddling down the Seine at dawn might just be the perfect expression of my complete self."

McWatt's very nuanced portrayal of human interaction reminds me of the British author Sadie Jones (Outcast). So much happens below the surface. Both Step Closer and Waiting for Columbus have a mystery at their core, one that is not unravelled until the end. Canadian fiction at its best.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk

A man claiming to be Christopher Columbus is fished out of the Strait of Gibraltar. He is cared for in a mental hospital in Sevilla, where nurse Consuela takes a special interest in him and listens to his stories. Columbus is eager to get back to his three ships. He tells Consuela about his long quest to fund the risky venture westward and also about the many women he loves in fifteenth century Spain. The anachronisms in his stories -- like telephones, tonic water and billiards -- become expected elements because they are encountered so frequently, yet they add to the puzzle of his identity.

Meanwhile, a French Interpol investigator named Emile Germain is tracking down various missing persons and Columbus may be one of the people he is seeking. Emile has a shadowy past of his own. I really liked the way Trofimuk drew all the threads of his narrative into a satisfying conclusion.

There is a great deal of wine consumed in this book; not only Spanish cava and Pesquera (I remember how wonderfully inexpensive it is to buy good wine in Spain), but bordeaux, pfaelzer, chardonnay, pinot grigio, pinot noir and more. If you are as open to suggestion as I am, you may wish to stock up your cellar before beginning to read.

Trofimuk is a member of Edmonton's Raving Poets Band. His fondness for cigars and the Scottish beverage is apparent in his earlier novels (The 52nd Poem and Doubting Yourself to the Bone) as well as this most recent one.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Children of Freedom by Marc Levy

A French Jewish man looks back on the period in his life when he was 18 years old, working in the French Resistance in Toulouse during World War II. He and his younger brother, Claude, were part of the 35th brigade, which was a historical reality. The members of this brigade were almost all young people, aged 20 or less. They came from Poland, Italy, Hungary, Spain and other places. They risked their lives many times over to impede the Germans who had occupied France. Most of them died.

Adventure is coupled with tragedy. The storytelling is straight-forward and the chapters are brief. It's an adult novel that is suitable for teens in Grade 9 and up.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Color of Water by Kim Dong Hwa

I liked The Color of Earth better than this second graphic novel in Kim's trilogy based on stories told to him by his mother. He calls them "little gems from my mother's life at sixteen." Some of the episodes seem to be of a much younger girl's experience, which is partly why I didn't find the story entirely convincing. Ehwa's unfamiliarity with the shape of a man's penis, for example. On the other hand, her unfamiliarity with the similarity between the smell of chestnut blossoms and semen was fully plausible. The description of Ehwa's first experience with masturbation was overly twee and I think that extends to the rest of the book; too flowery and sweet. And then there's the repeated emphasis on the importance of looking pretty in order to attract a good man. On the plus side, the lush evocation of setting and culture - late 19th century village life in Korea - makes this an interesting read and Kim's delicate artwork is gorgeous. The close relationship between Ehwa and her widowed mother is another aspect that kept me turning the pages.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Alan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope by Emmanuel Guibert

French artist Emmanuel Guibert was 30 and Alan Cope was 69 when they met by chance and became friends. Guibert recorded Cope's tales of his life experience, of being drafted into the American army at age 18, serving in France and then continuing to work in France and Germany until his retirement. Cope made friends wherever he went and he maintained contact with many of them.

Cope was a dreamy, philosophical man. He returned to the States for a short time in order to attend university, but didn't finish his studies. "I realized that what I wanted was Europe. I didn't like America any more. Sure, I liked the country, the landscape, the people -- but I no longer liked the mentality. Even though there's a lot that's good about the American mentality, it somehow doesn't plumb the depths of existence. And that's why, in some ways, America is not doing well. Most Americans live on the surface of existence; I wanted to know its depths."

I found myself agreeing with Cope's comment about the largest living being on Earth, a giant sequoia named after General Sherman. "I don't doubt that he was a good general, but it's sort of too bad for the tree."

Cope died in 1999, the year before this biography was published in France. The English translation that I read was published in 2008. Guibert's black & white inkwash artwork is beautiful and easy to follow. It's quite different in style from his previous work in books like Sardines in Space and (with Joann Sfar) The Professor's Daughter.

It took me a long time to get around to reading this because the picture of a young soldier sitting on a tank on the cover made me think it would be too much about war for my taste. I was so wrong. It is far more existential than I expected. I loved it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Then by Morris Gleitzman

Two children are running up a steep hill after jumping from a train on its way to a death camp in 1944 in Poland. Felix is 10 and Zelda is six. They must get to the safety of the forest above them before the next train comes along with machine gun-bearing German soldiers watching from the train roof. A third child has already died escaping as a result of the jump.

Felix narrates this harrowing and heartbreaking story of survival. Each chapter in this page-turner begins with the word "then." The word can also be used to describe consequences, like farmers being hanged in the town square along with the Jewish people they've tried to hide. "Then" can also refer to a past period of time, as opposed to now. The time of the shoah, the holocaust.

An obvious book to compare to this one is John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Bruno, Boyne's young narrator, is totally clueless compared to Felix. Felix has first-hand knowledge of atrocities. He and Zelda hear gunfire and afterwards come upon a pit full of the bloody corpses of children who have just been massacred.

The power of stories helps Felix and Zelda to persevere. When Felix prays, it is to Richmal Crompton, because she is his favourite author. As it happens, I have a copy of collected William stories by Crompton on my to-read shelf, so that has moved to the top of the pile.

A nine-year-old reader could easily handle the text in Then, but I would suggest the accompaniment of an adult's guidance because of the content. Teens and adults will find much to appreciate in this thoughtful novel. Readalike: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (in addition to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas).

New, Aug 27, 2009: I've just listened to an excellent Australia Radio National podcast conversation with both John Boyne and Morris Gleitzman. This is the description:

How young is too young to read about the Holocaust?
Is there a danger of oversimplifying complex events or downplaying the true horror of Nazism by writing about history in this way?
That's what authors John Boyne and Morris Gleitzman are discussing live from the Melbourne Writers' Festival.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Creature of the Night by Kate Thompson

Bobby is fourteen and thinks he is a pretty tough criminal. He started stealing cars and other valuables with some of his Dublin mates when he was eleven years old. When his mother decides that Bobby and his little brother, Dennis, are moving with her to a little village in County Clare, Bobby has no intention of staying there. He will get back to Dublin however it takes.

Bobby had no idea that something about the little house they move into would change his life. He and his mother almost laugh when an old woman who lives nearby tells them that they must put out a bowl of milk for the fairies every night. But things get very strange. Soon Bobby's mother is just as eager to get back to Dublin as Bobby... if it were only that simple.

The Landing by John Ibbitson

This is the third book in a row that I've read that features a person obsessed by a musical instrument from a very early age. In this one, it is teenaged Ben with his fiddle. It's a quiet story set in northern Ontario in 1934. Ben Mercer feels like he is trapped by his life on a farm with his mother and curmudgeonly uncle Henry. "Henry never smiled, never had a good word. Henry and Ben were pretty much at war now, the two of them, though they rarely spoke and never raised their voices. The war was fought in the silences."

The Muskoka cottagers who own most of the property nearby seem to come from another world entirely. Ben gets summer work fixing up a nearby cottage for a rich widow from New York and suddenly the doors of possibility swing open... but dreams are a far cry from reality.

I recently saw the movie Julie and Julia, so I took notice when boeuf bourguignon was served at a lavish party by the New York widow. The story took place 27 years before Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published, (the book that brought French recipes to American cooks), but it entirely possible that the widow learned how to make this stew without the help of Julia Child.

Readalikes: Tales from the Farm by Jeff Lemire; Mistik Lake by Martha Brooks; A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Mia is a seventeen-year-old classical cellist, waiting to hear if she's been accepted to Julliard. Her parents are involved in Oregon's alternative music scene and Mia's boyfriend, Adam, is the lead singer in an up-and-coming band, Shooting Star. Will Mia choose to move to New York and leave her boyfriend behind? When she hears Adam strumming an unfamiliar melody, she asks him what he's playing. He says, "I'm calling it 'The Girlfriend's-Going-to-Julliard-Leaving-My-Punk-Heart-in-Shreds Blues'."

But Mia's choices are soon to be even more important.

[Spoiler Alert: If you plan to read this book, wait until after you've finished to read the rest of what I've got to say about it.]

Her parents are killed in a car crash that leaves Mia and her little brother in critical condition. She finds herself outside of her body, looking on, deciding whether to stay in this world or to let go.

It is too much of a sappy romance for me, but teen girls will no doubt love it. The author has included some strong female role models, including Mia's mother and her mother's friend, "another tough-as-nails, tender-as-kittens, feminist bitch." (Stereotype much?) Which doesn't explain why Mia would say, of the nurse with acrylic nails decorated in heart decals, "She must have to work hard to keep her nails so pretty. I admire that." (Gag. This really is not my kind of a book.)

There are places in the story that cry out for a sharp editor. The crucial scene of the car accident, for example. "The car is eviscerated. The impact of a four-ton pickup truck going sixty miles an hour plowing straight into the passenger side had the force of an atom bomb." I was distracted by 'four-ton pickup.' I am familiar with 1/4-ton, 1/2-ton, 3/4-ton and one-ton pickups, but by the time you get to a truck of a size that can carry a load of 4 tons, it is no longer considered a pickup. It must be something like a big delivery truck. Unless the author means the weight of the pickup truck itself was four tons... but that is still bigger than any pickup I can imagine, which is more likely to weigh about two tons, I'm guessing. Maybe four tons. In that case, if the sentence was changed to "The four-ton impact of a truck...", readers like me wouldn't get all hung up on trying to picture what kind of pickup it was while reading a pivotal line in the novel.

In another scene, as Mia watches herself being operated upon, she says "I don't appear to feel anything, even though they are yanking at my body." Yet she also mentions that the anesthesiologist has gentle fingers. So can she feel those fingers or not?

I didn't give up on the book, so I concede that it did hold my interest through to the end. Mia and Adam's relationship had elements that I applaud in a teen novel. The only one I'll mention is when Mia lists the things they fought over, like her stealing the covers. I liked the way Forman slips in the fact they have slept together more than once, without going into any more detail about their sex lives.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bluesman by Rob Vollmar and Pablo Callejo

A graphic novel about a pair of travelling blues musicians in Arkansas in the 1920s. The evocative, dark artwork suits the themes of poverty, hardship, jealousy, murder and lynch mobs. As sorrow-filled and mesmerizing as the Delta blues, this is a tale for adults rather than teens.

For similar stories, see Stagger Lee by Derek McCulloch and Shep Hendrix (events that led to the popular blues song); Incognegro by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece (murder, suspense and lynch mobs in the early 20th century); Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse (race relations in the southern states in 1960s); Contract with God by Will Eisner (darker side of human nature in 1930s New York City); and Deogratias by J.P. Stassen (tragic tale of modern Rwanda).

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Wake by Robert Sawyer

15-year-old Caitlin has been blind from birth. A Japanese scientist tries an experimental procedure on her, inserting a tiny device behind one eye. A larger, external device - Caitlin dubs it an "eyepod" - is intended to decode visual signals to allow her to see, but the results are unexpected... and wonderful. I don't want to give away the plot, so I'll just recommend this book unreservedly. Sawyer has been awarded more than 40 book awards and his novels appeal to the general adult reading public, not just science fiction fans. Teens will find this a good introduction to his writing and - bonus! - it's the first in a projected trilogy.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

Brown-skinned Sam is 17 and lives in New Jersey with her mom. She has never seen a picture of her father and has no idea what her grandparents are like, except for what her mother has told her, which is basically that they made her life hell and she doesn't want Sam to have anything to do with them either. A few days after September 11, 2001, a man in a turban rings their doorbell. Sam discovers that this is her mother's brother, Sandeep. He is a wonderful man. Sam is about to undergo a crash course in Sikh culture and face the realities of racism head-on as she comes to terms with her true identity.

American Widow by Alissa Torres and Sungyoon Choi

On September 10, 2001, Eddie Torres started a new job at the World Trade Center. The next day, he said goodbye to his 7-months-pregnant wife, Alissa, and headed out the door. 658 employees of Cantor Fitzgerald died in the North Tower. Eddie was one of them, although he hadn't yet signed his employment contract. This is Alissa's memoir of the aftermath of 9/11: the shock, the grief, the bureaucracy, widowhood, birth and motherhood.

Sungyoon Choi's artwork is somewhat similar to Alison Bechdel's realistic style in Fun Home; black and white with turquoise shading. A quick read.

After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson

Since I work in teen services at the public library, it would help if I cared more than I do about popular culture. I love teen literature, but I watch no tv, almost no movies and I listen to folk, blues and world beat music almost exclusively. Then a novel like After Tupac and D Foster comes into my hands and gets me searching out YouTube rap videos.

I had heard of Tupac Shakur, of course. He died in 1996 but his collection of poetry, The Rose That Grew From Concrete, is still popular with teens. Now I've watched a couple of his music videos (Brenda's Got a Baby; Dear Mama) and I have a better understanding of the world of Woodson's novel.

We never learn the name of the narrator, who tells how she and her best friend, Neeka, became fast friends with D Foster when they were 11 years old. "The summer before D Foster's real mama came and took her away, Tupac wasn't dead yet." The girls call themselves 'Three the Hard Way' and relate strongly to Tupac and his music. "By the time her mama came and got her and she took one last walk on out of our lives, I felt like we'd grown up and grown old and lived a hundred lives in those few years that we knew her."

Neeka appears to have a crush on D, although this interpretation relies on very subtle clues because the narrator is unaware of it. One of Neeka's older brothers, Tash, is flamboyantly gay and calls himself a sister. Tash is in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Themes of intolerance and injustice are central to the story.

The main readership for this novel is probably girls in Grade 5 to 7, but this is a novel I will also recommend to older teens and adults. Anyone who enjoys a bittersweet coming-of-age story with insights into the complexities of human behaviour.

Monday, August 10, 2009

My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy by Andrea Askowitz

Don't let the title scare you away. This is one funny book and you don't have to be a lesbian or ever been pregnant to enjoy it. I concur with reviewers who have compared Askowitz's writing to David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs. This book is also along the lines of Everybody Into the Pool by Beth Lisick and Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress by Susan Jane Gilman.

I've chosen this excerpt because watermelon is one of my favourite foods:

Week 34, Day 3
I bump into a guy I know at the grocery store. He says, "Wow, does it feel like you've got a watermelon under your shirt?"
I say, "Yeah, especially at night, trying to sleep."
We do our shopping, and then he's in front of me at the checkout line. He says, "Does it feel like you have a watermelon under your shirt?" I think he doesn't know what else to say.
I say, "You can say that again!"
I buy a watermelon. Some women can't eat one piece of chocolate or they'll eat the whole box. I have this problem with watermelon. I go home and eat the whole thing. I know watermelons come in different sizes, but no watermelon is a single serving. Right now, I feel like I have a watermelon under my shirt.

Check out Askowitz's website for lots more.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau by Dan Yaccarino

We watched The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (1966-1976) on television every week when I was growing up, so I was pleased to discover a picture book biography of the man. The text is minimal, but it covers the highlights of Cousteau's brilliant career.

Bright colours, simple shapes and heavy line drawings give a retro feel to Yaccarino's illustrations.

Each spread has a quote from Cousteau; this was my favourite aspect of the book. "If we were logical, the future would be bleak indeed. But we are more than logical. We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work."

Hand Luggage: A Memoir in Verse by P.K. Page

P.K. Page was born in England in 1916 and then immigrated with her family to Red Deer, Alberta, in 1919. She has won a Governor General's Award for poetry and has travelled extensively with her husband, William Irwin, who was a diplomat. Her memoir has a delightful cadence and employs language and rhyme in playful ways.

"But in my classroom, Canadian voices --
hard r's and flat a's, a prairie language --
were teaching me tolerance, telling me something.
This vocal chasm divided my childhood.
Talking across it, a tightrope talker,
corrected at home, corrected in classrooms:
wawteh, wadder -- the wryness of words!"

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

'Near novel' and 'story-cycle' are the terms I've heard used for books like Olive Kitteridge. It's a collection of connected short stories that, when taken together, form a novel. Elizabeth Strout's near novel is set in a small town on the coast of Maine. Her stories deal with the big things -- death and love -- as well as the small details of our existence.

Olive Kitteridge is the one constant character in these stories. I took a dislike to her in the first story and was uncertain about continuing the book as a result. I'm glad that I gave her another chance because I grew to appreciate this cranky, no-nonsense math teacher. In "Basket of Trips," Olive stands next to a woman named Molly as they both wait outside the church after a funeral. Molly says of the new widow, "Such a nice woman. It isn't right." Olive thinks this is a stupid thing to say. "Stupid -- this assumption people have, that things should somehow be right. But she finally answers, 'She's a nice woman, it's true.' "

In "A Little Burst," at her son's wedding, Olive thinks about the different perfumes women are wearing, "including one that all day has smelled like that bug spray Off!" I have smelled that very same perfume and wonder how anyone can find it attractive.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

A central character in this suspenseful novel is the once grand house of the Ayres family, Hundreds Hall, now falling apart. I was reminded of Penge in Maurice. Mrs. Ayres and her adult children, Roderick and Caroline, live in poverty at Hundreds Hall. They maintain their upper class snobbery, however. The time period is just after the second World War.

Dr. Faraday's first visit to the house was back when he was a child. His mother was once a nursemaid there. As an adult, he is called to the house when medical attention is required and the Ayres' regular doctor is unavailable. After that, he becomes entwined in the lives of the Ayres and the disturbing goings-on at Hundreds Hall. The tension builds slowly. The use of Dr. Faraday as narrator helps to put the brakes on melodrama because he dismisses the possibility of ghosts or poltergeists. Yet events get stranger and more sinister and harder for Faraday to explain away.

All of Waters previous novels have had lesbian content but you won't find any in this one. You will find a supernatural thriller of high literary quality.

Note added November 2, 2009: I saw Sarah Waters interviewed by Bill Richardson at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival a couple of weeks ago. What a fabulous session! The venue was large and it was sold out - lesbians everywhere! Waters said that in spite of the total lack of lesbian content in The Little Stranger, readers were finding it in the book anyway. The lesbian is represented by Dr. Faraday (a man) for some; for others, it is the house itself. Richardson said he was sure that Caroline Ayres was the dyke. Waters doesn't mind this sort of interpretation of her work, being used to doing the same thing in her own reading.