Monday, March 29, 2010

In Our Mothers' House by Patricia Polacco

The position of the apostrophe in the title sets the stage; there are two mothers in the family described in this picture book. A couple of Caucasian lesbians (who look like most lesbians I know -- short-haired and dressed always in trousers) adopt three children of assorted skin colours. The eldest daughter narrates this story about growing up in Berkeley, California. Polacco's illustrations depict a lively, loving household. I like that the story takes place over decades, starting with babies and ending with the middle son married with children and living in the house where they all grew up. Age 3 - 7

Sprout by Dale Peck

It is a cultural shock for 12-year-old Daniel to move from New Jersey to small-town Kansas after his mother's death. His father tries to escape grief with alcohol. Daniel is left to cope on his own with the bullies at his new school. His strategy is to hide in plain sight: he dyes his hair green and embraces his new nickname, Sprout. He protects his inner sadness and his gay identity with sarcastic wit. But how will he find a boyfriend this way? Told in Daniel/Sprout's distinctive voice, opinionated and funny, there are a few too many duhs for my taste but it is ultimately satisfying.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson

I enjoy travelling because I enjoy opening myself up to new experiences, learning new things and seeing how other people live their lives. That's also why I enjoy reading travel writing. Craig Thompson spent three months travelling on his own in Europe and Morocco in the spring of 2004 - which overlapped, incidentally, with one of my trips to France. It was cool to remember the same Miro exhibit at the Pompidou Centre. His travel diary is mostly composed of sketches - places and people - together with his commentaries. It isn't a polished work. It feels very personal, sometimes touching and often funny. Thompson's Blankets was translated in France and Spain and his publishers there had organized all kinds of book signings, interviews and appearances at comic conventions. He met up with lots of different comics artists and some of their work is also included in this journal, which is pretty neat. There are several sketches of Thompson done by other artists - a nice multidimensional touch.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison by Cathleen With

A haunting and bleak image of life in the Mackenzie Delta emerges through the voice of Trista, a new mother who is in prison. The Polar Girls' Youth Facility is north of Inuvik and south of Tuktoyaktuk. Trista is 15 and waiting for her court date. Her daughter, Faith, was born premature on the day Trista was arrested. Trista knows that Faith will only be allowed to stay with her for about two months. The baby has severe health problems: "Some workers say maybe even foster care can't take her, she's so retarded."

The details of Trista's crime are unclear until the last part of the book. She disassociates from the present and her thoughts ramble back and forth through her tragic childhood. Trista never knew her father, who was a rig pig working on the Beaufort Sea. Her mother was 13 when Trista was born and died when she was seven, which is also about the time that Trista was introduced to sex and alcohol. Her story is heartbreaking and yet offers the balm of forgiveness and hope in the end. Grade 9 - up.

Note added July 9, 2010: Cathleen With and Robert Arthur Alexie were interviewed by Joseph Boyden last autumn at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival. The audio-archives are available online and include an excerpt of With reading from Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Color of Heaven by Kim Dong Hwa

The final volume in this manwha trilogy about a widowed tavern owner and her daughter ends happily with two weddings. I admire Kim Dong Hwa's delicate drawings. I enjoyed learning details about village life in historical Korea too. I was not so enamoured with the sappy, sexist stuff. For example, when Ewha talks to her mother about leaving her in order to marry, her mother offers these platitudes, in six panels, all in a row: "Pickles taste better the longer they sit, but an unmarried woman gets crankier the longer she's single." "It's better to arrive early and get a good seat to a show, and it's better to marry early and establish yourself." "Only foolish women complain that married life is hard. If you think about it, there is nothing better in life than getting married. There's a shoulder you can always lean on - There's a chest you can always embrace - There's a face you can always stare into." Help! The scariest thing to me is that so many contemporary women continue to believe these things. Anyway, fans of romance will likely enjoy this entire trilogy. I liked the first book, Color of Earth, the best. Grade 10 - up.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Incontinent on the Continent by Jane Christmas

Jane Christmas, a Canadian journalist in her fifties, writes, "It has been a source of sadness and perplexity that my mother and I have not been able to get along." Ever. On his deathbed, her father requested that Jane make friends with her mother. So, she invited her mother to join her on a 6-week tour of Italy.

This account - subtitled My Mother, Her Walker, and Our Grand Tour of Italy - is witty and candid. Magical scenery, rude men, attractions that were closed (it was early spring), getting lost in labyrinthian medieval streets, unexpected generosity, days of cold rain and disappointing meals... told with upbeat humour, the details add up to a compelling travel story. It is also a touching journey of another sort, as Jane realizes just how frail her mother has become. Even though her mother continues to exasperate her, their bond appears to be stronger by the end of the trip.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitriou and others

I'm happy that so many fabulous graphic novels are being published these days. The title of Logicomix doesn't appeal to me, but that is pretty much my only criticism. It is an ambitious blend of fictionalized biography, math, philosophy and self-referential storytelling. Greek artist Alecos Papadatos and his wife, colourist Annie Di Donna, have used a style similar to that of Herge's Tintin.

The tale centers on the life of British logician, Bertrand Russell. The central question revolves around whether or not logic can be used to solve life's most vexing problems; the context is World War I and II. The concepts of responsibility, justice and a sense of good and evil are shown to fall outside of logical theories. It is an excellent read for people like me who like to ponder.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer uses an engaging combination of philosophy, folklore, science, research and memoir to expose why choosing to eat a vegetarian diet makes sense. 99% of meat is raised in industrial circumstances. Because only 1% is raised on farms with decent animal husbandry and environmental practices, Foer makes it clear that the choice is between cruelty and ecological destruction on one hand, and ceasing to eat animals on the other. He takes Michael Pollan to task for sidestepping this ethical issue in The Omnivore's Dilemma. Pollan writes "I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian... Yet part of me pities him , too. Dreams of innocence [...] depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris." I agree with Foer - Pollan is the one who denies reality when he chooses to ignore what he learns about industrial agriculture and continues to eat meat.

Food Rules by Michael Pollan

Food Rules is a compendium of 64 simple statements of food wisdom, one to a page. It answers the question "What should I eat?" Pollan already answered this question with his previous book, In Defense of Food. In both books, he narrows the response to 7 words:
Eat food.
Mostly plants.
Not too much.
Food Rules doesn't really offer much that In Defense of Food does not, but it is much shorter.

One thing that annoyed me was that Pollan perpetuates the myth of food combining. He states that beans eaten with corn will supply amino acids missing from corn and therefore create a complete protein. In fact, vegetables and grains all have complete protein and do not need to be combined in the human diet. It is important to eat a wide variety of foods, but that is not for the reason of protein complementarity. Scientists debunked the food combining myth decades ago.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Love Is the Higher Law by David Levithan

Claire, Jasper and Peter tell, in alternating voices, what it was like to be a teenager in New York City on September 11, 2001. Jasper and Peter were to have had their very first date that night - they had planned to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Claire and Peter were in their final year at the same high school, 30 blocks north of the World Trade Center. I enjoyed witnessing the slow development of friendship between the three of them.

Other books, like the graphic novel memoir American Widow, tell of the emotional devastation of losing a loved one when the twin towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed. In Love Is the Higher Law, the tragedy of 9/11 is just as real, but with a loss that is perhaps harder to define. None of the three teens knew anyone who had died in the attack, but they all suffered a trauma that went much deeper than a gap in the skyline. Their road to healing is shared in their friendship.

Twin blue lights were beamed upward from Ground Zero on March 11, 2002. It was in the novel that I first read about the anniversary lights. Afterwards, the cover photo on the edition I read, taken across the water from Manhattan at night, with the blue lights representing ghostly towers, had a much greater impact on me. Grade 9 - up.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Village Life by Louise Gluck

The poems in this collection are set in a timeless Mediterranean village in the hills, not too close to the sea. There's a fountain in the plaza, a cafe, a bar, a catholic church. Figs and olives and wheat grow there. We step into the simple homes; kitchens, bedrooms, corridors. Moments are calmly examined. Joy, love, sadness and loneliness are details in the greater cycle of the seasons; what it feels like to be human is contrasted with the geography of a place. Louise Gluck is an award-winning American poet and this book is a treasure.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude by Jonah Winter and Calef Brown

Written in a playful, repetitive style that plays homage to Stein's distinctive work, this brief biography shows Gertrude and Alice entertaining famous artists in their home in Paris, driving in the country, enjoying picnics and writing (Gertrude) and typing (Alice).

Publishing has come a long way since Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate. I've included this book in a list of recent children's picture books with GLBTQ content at the Edmonton Public Library.

Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherford

Carole Boston Weatherford used first person and free verse to narrate the life of an unwanted child named Eleanora Fagan who grew up to become a Harlem jazz legend. Art by Floyd Cooper suits this tale of bittersweet triumphs; his grainy images are predominantly in rich shades of brown.

Almost all of the poems borrow their titles from Billie Holiday's songs. In "Our Love is Different" there is mention of the double standard commonly experienced by young bisexuals, even today: "Mom wouldn't hear / of my boyfriends sleeping over / but never said a word when I brought / girls home: prostitutes, socialites / and stars. I won't drop names / but I had them call me 'Bill.' " When I finished this book, I immediately had to listen to some of Billie's music. (Grade 7 - adult)