Sunday, October 31, 2010

Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris

Nouf ash-Shrawi was 16 and engaged to be married went she went missing from her family's opulent home in Saudi Arabia. Nayir ash-Sharqi is the desert guide asked to lead the search for her, but his efforts are in vain; her body is found by Bedouin travellers. When the coroner rules that her suspicious death is accidental, this doesn't sit well with Nayir. Katya Hijazi, the female lab tech who assisted with the examination of Nouf's body, is also unhappy with this obvious miscarriage of justice. Nayir, a devout Muslim batchelor, and Katya, one of the rare Saudi women who work outside the home, make an unlikely pair. Within the restrictions of their gender-segregated society, they manage to continue an informal investigation, even when it looks like the secrets they uncover may destroy their good relations with the powerful Shrawi family.

Nayir's traditional beliefs are challenged and he is forced through his interactions with Katya to rethink his assumptions about women. The plot was compelling and the mystery was satisfyingly complex. I very much enjoyed the glimpse into contemporary life in the Middle East. Author Zoe Ferraris is an American who married into a Saudi-Palestinian Bedouin family and lived in Saudi Arabia.

Readalikes: Mirage by Bandula Chandraratna (for a bleaker look at women's life in the Middle East) and The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang (for another mystery with a focus on contemporary women's lives outside North America).

Friday, October 29, 2010

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Australian author Geraldine Brooks was inspired by a real object, a lavishly-illustrated medieval Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. The book escaped destruction several times and those saviours included Muslim librarians and Catholic priests.

The fictional account begins in Sarajevo in 1996, when the war in Bosnia has just barely ended. Hanna Heath is an Australian rare book expert hired to examine and restore the haggadah. During the conservation process, Hanna discovers minute clues to the book's enigmatic past. In a series of flashbacks to progressively older times, the artifacts uncover the mystery of the book's history and creation.

The present-day storyline revolves around Hanna's troubled relationship with her mother, a world-renowned neurosurgeon, and Hanna's romantic involvement with Ozren Karaman, chief librarian of the National Museum and custodian of the haggadah. The romance aspect rather detracted from my overall enjoyment of this book, but that is a minor quibble. I loved the glimpses into earlier times and the puzzle-solving aspects of the story.

Readalikes (well, I can't think of any book really similar... so consider these tangential readalongs): The Spanish Pearl by Catherine Friend (for readers who enjoyed the section with the lesbian romance set in Moorish Spain); Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay (for those fascinated by the pigments used in the haggadah); The World to Come by Dara Horn (for a Jewish experience told in two timelines); Fax from Sarajevo by Joe Kubert (for what Ozren Karaman's experience might have been like while his city was under siege); and Accordian Crimes by Annie Proulx (for another narrative that follows an object through history).

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

July Goodwin is an elderly woman in 1898, telling the tale of her life that began in slavery on a Jamaican sugar cane plantation. Her voice is wry, saucy and brooks no nonsense. She addresses her readers directly:

"Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink. Waxing upon the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy. Let me confess this without delay so you might consider whether my tale is one in which you can find an interest. If not, then be on your way, for there are plenty books to satisfy if words flowing free as the droppings that fall from the backside of a mule is your desire."

July's musical voice lingers in my mind even after her story is told. She is a remarkable character and I miss her.

Readalike: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill.

Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks

All three children in the Cote family come down with tuberculosis and are admitted to a sanatorium near their farm in southern Manitoba. It is 1941 and treatment consists mostly of absolute bed rest and as much fresh air as possible. No matter how cold it is, patients are bundled up and their beds are trundled outdoors at night. For 15-year-old Marie-Claire, boredom is the worst part of her illness. Having an annoying roommate like Signy is almost as bad. But growing up happens no matter where we are and love can be found in unlikely places. A quiet story about friendship and family dynamics. Grade 5 - 9.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival Highlights

I'm heading home to Edmonton later today after a wonderful week on Granville Island, listening to authors read, chat with each other and answer questions from the audience. The Vancouver writersfest is really good at putting together interesting panel discussions. They also bring in a fabulous line-up and it's hard to choose between concurrent sessions. I did manage to attend ten events. These are the highlights:

Ali Smith at two different events yesterday, impish and witty despite jetlag. I wasn't the only one laughing out loud when she read the story, Last, in its entirety. (Last is available online in the Manchester Review.) When we heard that Smith would only be appearing on Sunday, we rescheduled our flight in order to hear her. I'm so glad we did!

Lynda Barry's fabulous writing workshop, Do You Wish You Could Write? Barry's gospel is that creativity is a human necessity. She was so inspiring and really funny too.

David Mitchell (in an excellent pairing with Katherine Govier). He read from a part in The Thousand Autumns in which there was a continuity error that he hadn't noticed until that very moment. (Birthmark on the right, then the left.) The audience roared when he flipped back to double check, then announced there would have to be a product recall.

Erin Moure performing her work. (I love that there were so many other wonderful poets and spoken word artists there as well.)

Rebecca James, Alice Kuipers and Martha Brooks in a lively discussion about "family and friendship." I'll post something about James' debut thriller, Beautiful Malice, in the near future.

There are always new discoveries at a festival like this. Andrew O'Hagan is a case in point. I didn't hesitate to add his book, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and his Friend, Marilyn Monroe, to the stack I am taking home with me. Funny and philosophical and told in the voice of a Maltese dog that was given to Marilyn by Frank Sinatra. Run out and get it asap!

Emma Donoghue (Room), Kate Pullinger (The Mistress of Nothing), Kamila Shamsie (Burnt Shadows) and Andrea Levy (The Long Song) were all wonderful as well. And there were more. It was such a great festival!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Bannock, Beans and Black Tea by John Gallant and Seth

The title - Bannock, Beans and Black Tea - describes a poor family's daily diet and the subtitle - Memories of a Prince Edward Island Childhood in the Great Depression - describes the content of this collection of anecdotes as told by John Gallant to his son, Gregory (who is better known as the graphic novelist, Seth). Gallant was born in 1917. He was part of a very large and utterly destitute Acadian family. Gallant's slightly bitter humour includes lists of "lucky breaks" that were connected to his upbringing, itemizing such things as: "We didn't have to fast for lent - we were always fasting." "No garbage to put out - you'd eaten it." His voice comes through clearly and these stories would work well read aloud to multi-generational listeners.

Readalikes: Prayers of a Very Wise Child (Roch Carrier); Halfbreed, especially the first part that describes the hardships of her childhood (Maria Campbell).

Curiosity by Joan Thomas

In a novel set in Lyme Regis during the earliest days of paleontological discovery, Joan Thomas imagines the life of a real person, Mary Anning. Born in 1799, Mary was a fossil collector from childhood, selling them as curiosities so that her family could eke out a meagre existence. The seashore and cliffs that were her collecting ground are famous and now considered a World Heritage Site. Mary was barely acknowledged for her part in scientific exploration during her lifetime - the accolades went to the men who purchased her finds.

Using alternating storylines, Thomas explores romantic, intellectual and class tensions between Mary and a high-society gentleman, Henry De la Beche. They are only two in a large cast of fascinating characters. The time and place are as pungent as Mary's folk wisdom: "A cheese full of maggots is livelier than a sound cheese."

Readalike: The Coral Thief (Rebecca Stott).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I Know I Am, But What Are You by Samantha Bee

I've never seen Samantha Bee on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but her book amused me. It also sometimes horrified me - reading accounts of embarrassing moments from her childhood onward made me feel like a voyeur. There is such a thing as too much information! Yet I laughed out loud...

Bee's stepmother PG-yelling at a bear when they were hiking: “GO TO H-E-DOUBLE-HOCKEY-STICKS!”

When Bee was a teenager involved in car thefts (“I don’t know what the hell I was thinking”) she describes her family's car: “there was no great black-market demand for boxy cars from Communist countries […] It was like driving Hitler’s mustache.”

When employed as a costume character in a children’s entertainment show: “The narrative was so vague and ridiculous that it could have been written by a basket of acorns that had fallen onto a laptop by accident.”

More hyperbole in reference to her grandmother’s obsession with American celebrities, who could not possibly have been born vaginally: “She insisted that they had emerged, glowing and smooth from their gossamer star nests, surviving by gently nibbling on the most tender leaves and shoots of spring; their twenty-four-inch-waisted bodies permanently draped in the spangly creations of Bob Mackie; the only discharge their tiny bodies could ever emit was in the form of a fragrant potpourri of organic matter that would make your tomatoes come in bigger than ever, should you ever be privileged enough to have one of them over for a garden party.”

Bee's comic essays about her life growing up in Canada aren't the sort that resonate with wisdom... but they sure are funny.

Readalikes: Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress (Susan Jane Gilman); Everybody into the Pool (Beth Lisick); I Was Told There'd Be Cake (Sloane Crosley).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

This Book Is Overdue! by Marilyn Johnson

How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All - Marilyn Johnson's subtitle sums up her enthusiasm for the profession of librarianship. She is a writer who values the services provided by library staff. She praises the objectivity, determination, idealism and intelligence of people who, as a group, tend to be quietly humble. She profiles librarians of all kinds: missionaries teaching information skills to distance education students; lesbian zine-writers; Second Life avatar librarians; tattooed children's librarians; bloggers letting off steam about library patrons; and library directors gagged by the Patriot Act. Listening to this audiobook (read by Hillary Huber; 7.5 hours) reminded me why I love my job at Edmonton Public Library.

Readalikes: Revolting Librarians Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out. (Jessamyn West and others); The Incident Report (Martha Baillie).

Art & Max by David Wiesner

David Wiesner has been awarded the Caldecott Medal three times. His new book, Art & Max, is worthy of a fourth. Wow! Lizards like you have never seen before.

Arthur is a large and slightly cantankerous portrait artist, rather puffed with self-importance. Max is half Arthur's size, full of goofy enthusiasm, and wants to learn how to paint. From this beginning, events evolve into a metafictional free-for-all, with paint everywhere and drawing lines unravelled. Max's creative problem-solving is infectious and the story ends with a new and joyous freedom for everyone, including the reader.

Readalikes: Bad Day at Riverbend (Chris Van Allsburg); Harold and the Purple Crayon (Crockett Johnson); Have You Seen Art? (Jon Scieszka).

Monday, October 11, 2010

Boom! by Mark Haddon

I have a particular fondness for books with cross-generational appeal like Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Even though Boom! (Or, 70,000 Light Years) doesn't have the depth to be that kind of book, it is highly entertaining and readers in Grade 4 to 6 will love it.

Jimbo and his friend Charlie accidently discover that two of their teachers speak a foreign language. Then Charlie is kidnapped and Jimbo enlists his insufferable older sister's help to rescue his friend. It turns out that the mystery language is from a planet 70,000 light years away... The whole thing is downright silly and loads of fun. It would work well as a read-aloud. Don't be afraid of the alien words, which are not hard to pronounce. Gridzbi Spudvetch was the original title of this book, back in 1992. It looks like mouthful, but is actually quite easy to sound out.

Readalikes: The True Meaning of Smekday (Adam Rex); My Teacher Is an Alien (Bruce Coville); Ignatius MacFarland, Frequenaut! (Paul Feig).

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Pulse by Lydia Kwa

Natalie Chia is a 48-year-old lesbian acupuncturist in Toronto. She had moved from Singapore to Canada with her parents when she was a young woman. Since then, Natalie has had little contact with her old lover, Faridah. But a letter from Faridah brings sad news; Faridah's son, Selim, has committed suicide. Natalie decides to attend the memorial service in Singapore out of loyalty to her friend and because she liked Selim, a young gay man who shared Natalie's interest in kinbaku - a Japanese form of erotic bondage. She is also puzzled about why he killed himself... if it was indeed suicide.

The settings - Toronto's Chinatown and Kensington Market areas as well as Singapore's bustling Joo Chiat district - are richly detailed. Descriptions of colours, architectural details, voices, specific music and street food all add to the feeling of being there in the middle of it all. This quality gives an earthy balance to the cerebral, reflective tone of the story. Natalie is an incest survivor. She promised herself that she would never let anyone get close enough to her heart to hurt her again. "Memories hurt us. Or is it truer to say that it's our refusal to release ourselves from our past that's the cause of our pain?" Natalie grapples with forgiveness as her trip stirs up memories from her past.

Lydia Kwa' s earlier novels, This Place Called Absence and Walking Boy are also recommended.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant

"My life might have been so different, had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded." Pia Kolvenbach was 10 at the time of that freak incident in the small German town where she has lived all her life. Other children shun her afterwards - out of fear that Pia will be the next to burst into flames - and so Pia becomes more of a loner than ever.

Herr Schiller, an elderly friend of her grandmother, is kind to Pia and tells her stories. Pia loves the thrill of his scary tales about witches, ghosts and demons made of fire. But then young girls start disappearing from their town. The police ask children to report anything odd. To Pia, many things are odd. Pia believes Herr Schiller and his stories might hold a clue to these current events. If she can solve the mystery of the disappearances, she hopes that people will finally forget the circumstances of her grandmother's death.

A haunting story in which psychological suspense builds slowly but steadily. Grade 5 to adult.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Tent Peg by Aritha van Herk

Mackenzie did not intend to hire a woman cook for his all-male crew of geologists. They would be spending three months in tents in the Canadian north, sampling rocks, searching for anything of value (uranium; gold). Mackenzie is getting too old to be going out into the field every year, but this is how he runs from his personal demons.

J.L. is also running from her past. She was hired on the basis of her resume and a letter of recommendation - one that didn't happen to mention her gender - and with her androgynous looks, Mackenzie did not even realize she was a woman when he met her. J.L. decided to clear up his misconception when they were getting supplies together in Yellowknife before the other eight members of the crew arrived.

Everyone gets a turn in narrating the story of a summer spent in the wild beauty of the Yukon mountains. The isolation in the wilderness takes its toll, but J.L. is the peg that keeps their sanity tethered. She plays a grounding, healing role - quite unlike the Biblical Ja-el for whom she was named.

I'm glad that someone in my book club suggested Tent Peg. I had read it nearly 30 years ago when it was first published and only remembered a) that I liked it and b) that it was about a bisexual female camp cook amid a group of men. Rereading brought back memories of myself at 20 years of age as well as the mystical earth-mother sensibilities of the late '70s and early '80s. It may have been the first novel in which I encountered multiple points of view.

Nostalgia aside, this book stands up well as a contemporary tale. The vast northern Canadian landscape has changed very little and continues to be a good metaphor for self-exploration. Attitudes towards women in male-dominated fields have (unfortunately) also changed very little.

The Edmonton Public Library only has one copy of the book, and it is kept in the Alberta Literature reference collection (because van Herk was living in Edmonton around the time the book was published in 1981). Luckily for readers, Tent Peg has been reissued by Red Deer Press. My only complaint is about the weird typos in the edition I purchased. These appeared to be errors from OCR translation of copy into digital format, because why else would "you'll" appear as "you 'I!" and "tell" as "tel1"? Other people in our book group read the same edition and did not even notice these, so I guess it is pretty minor.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Room by Emma Donoghue

Five-year-old Jack is the wonderful narrator in this story about a young woman who was kidnaped from a college campus when she was 19 and kept as a sex slave for years. Born in a room that measures 11 feet square, Jack has never known any other world. What he sees on television is not real to him. Even Old Nick, the kidnapper, seems not entirely real, since Jack sleeps inside the wardrobe during his visits. So it comes as a shock to Jack when his Ma tells him that Outside is a real place. And she wants his help to get there.

I've been a fan of Emma Donoghue for a long time. She was the subject of my very first blog post back in 2008. With Room, my admiration for her writing continues. Jack's chatty voice perfectly captures a young child's syntax and mercurial mood swings. His mother is also a memorable character. She has made her son's life as normal as she possibly can in their nightmarish circumstances. It is her love for her son that seems to give her the strength to continue looking for a means of escape.

The only queer content in the novel is a cameo appearance by a couple of gay guys with their little boy, but I'll add the GLBTQ tag to this post for those of you who, like me, prefer to read books by queer authors whenever possible. Irish-born Donoghue has lived in Canada for over a decade, so I'll add a Canadian tag too. I look forward to hearing Donoghue at the grand opening event of the writers festival in Vancouver later this month.