Monday, April 26, 2010

Confessions of an Empty Purse by S. McDonald

Reading Toronto poet S. McDonald's confessions, I was transported. From the opening piece, I could feel myself in the shoes of a teenager aching for role models and giddy with the excitement of spotting real, live "transexuals on parliament." A teenager who longed for a mirror that would reveal a fabulous, glamorous, willowy, female inner self - so different from hir fat, pimply outer self. What is to be done when passing as a woman is not an option, no matter how strong the desire? The inherent tragedy had me weeping through the entire narrative. Yet, there is also campy humour and a great deal of courage. It takes grit to accept that some dreams will never come true.

McDonald will be reading with nine other poets as part of the ten book Dektet launch at 7 p.m. tomorrow, April 27, at the Stanley A. Milner Library in downtown Edmonton. See details of the other works being launched on the Frontenac House website.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp

It is rare for me to read a book more than once, no matter how much I like it, because there are so many other great books calling out to me. When I do re-read, however, it feels like a treat. Especially when it is a fabulous book like The Lesser Blessed.

It's a skinny little book (119 pages) about a skinny teenager named Larry Sole. Much like Larry, who hides big secrets inside his burn-scarred body, the story contains mysteries. Larry's humorous first person voice is part of what makes this book memorable. Escaping a tragic past, Larry and his mother have recently moved to Fort Simmer (a thinly-disguised Fort Smith) in the NWT. They are of the Tlicho (Dogrib) Nation. Larry is a virgin and he is obsessed with sex. He has a particular fascination with doing it doggie style. He also has the hots for Juliet Hope: "I adored her seven dreams deep." But Juliet is Johnny Beck's girlfriend. And Johnny is Larry's best friend. Or is he? Larry's entry into adulthood takes place amid violence and substance abuse.

Van Camp wrote another piece in Larry's voice - How I Saved Christmas - published in his short story collection Angel Wing Splash Pattern. Van Camp's new collection of stories, The Moon of Letting Go, is outstanding. In an interview on the Kegedonce Press website, Van Camp explained his view of the role of Aboriginal authors: "To be a scout, messenger and tattletale as well as to hold up mirrors and prayer flags and sorrow balloons." Amen to that.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway

In 1951, Abraham Okimasis and his dogs raced 150 miles in three days to win the World Championship Dog Derby in Oopaskooyak, Manitoba. He was the first Aboriginal man to be awarded the title. In addition to a silver cup, he was given a kiss on the cheek by the Fur Queen, winner of the Trapper's Festival Beauty Pageant. Nine months later, Abraham's wife Mariesis gave birth to a boy they named Champion. At age six, Champion was sent to a residential school 300 miles from his large family. Two years later, he was joined at school by his youngest brother, Ooneemeetoo. Forbidden to speak Cree, forced to answer to new names - Jeremiah and Gabriel - both boys were molested by the Catholic priests at the school. One grew up to be a classical concert pianist, the other a ballet dancer. One was ashamed of his heritage, the other was gay. A trickster in the shape of the Fur Queen watched over their lives. This is their heartbreaking and triumphant story.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Dog Tracks by Ruby Slipperjack

I've been reading so much lately that I haven't found time to write, but I'll try to remedy that in the next little while. If I don't blog about a book shortly after I read it, then it becomes less and less likely that I'll ever say anything about it. I've had a huge stack of Aboriginal literature to get through in preparation for a presentation on Aboriginal Books for Teens that I'll be giving at the Alberta Library Conference in Jasper at the end of this month. There are so many great books to talk about - and I'll get to them - but I'll start with a disappointment.

I really wanted to like Ruby Slipperjack's Dog Tracks. It is set in contemporary times and contrasts life in a small town to life on a reserve in northern Ontario. Abby is twelve at the start of the story which spans about two years of her life. She has been raised by her grandparents in town, but goes to live on Bear Creek reserve with her mother and stepfather when her grandfather is hospitalized. Abby has a hard time adjusting to her new life at first. Her young halfbrother, Blink, annoys her very much. She gets teased at school. But really, not a lot happens.

Abby's parents are starting up a business venture that will give tourists the opportunity to spend a few days living in the bush in the manner of the Anishnaabe of the 18th century. This plot device allows the author to share a great deal of information about the traditional ways of the Anishnaabe people. That was the best part of the book, for me. I wish I would have been able to care more deeply about Abby, however.

These are the final three lines in the novel: "Suddenly, Blink landed flat on his back in front of me and I nearly tripped over him. He'd insisted on wearing moccasins and he'd stepped on a sheet of ice on the road. Ice on snow-covered moccasins was indeed very slippery." I found the writing style too stilted for my taste, but I hope that young readers won't be as fussy.

The publisher (Fitzhenry & Whiteside) suggests this book for age 12 and up (probably because Abby gets her first period during the course of the story) but it seems more likely to appeal to younger readers, maybe age 10 - 13.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

City Boy by Jan Michael

His name is Sam. Not Sammy and not Samuel. But if nobody except an aunt seems to care much about a young orphan, they care even less about his name. Sam was raised in a city in Malawi, but after his parents die of AIDS complications, his aunt takes him into her rural home. There, he has no computer (and no electricity). Instead of a bed, Sam learns to sleep on a mat on the floor with his cousins. The hardest thing for Sam, however, is learning to share his things. His bright blue running shoes with lights on the heels were a special gift from his mother. When they go missing, Sam learns many things about making his way in the world.

A touching glimpse of life in contemporary Africa. Grade 4 - 8.