Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

As with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick's new novel is constructed with sections of text alternating with wordless illustrations. The enlarged graphite pencil artwork is stunning in both books, but it is used to even greater storytelling effect in Wonderstruck. Instead of mostly contributing texture and atmosphere, this time the illustration pages carry an entire storyline, starting in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927. The text portion of the story begins in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota in 1977, with the two timelines eventually converging in New York City.

Rose, the child in the earlier timeline, is deaf. The sense of being cut off from the outer world translates beautifully in the wordless images. Her restlessness and yearnings are portrayed through her actions. Ben, 50 years later, is an orphan searching for information about a father he never knew. Imbued with a gentle sense of wonder, the stories explore what it means to find one's place in the world. A heartwarming experience.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Legend by Marie Lu

A YA post-apocalyptic dystopia needs believable characters in order to distinguish itself from the many other books in this genre. Marie Lu's Legend accomplishes this in the alternating voices of Daniel "Day" Wing and June Iparis. Day is a teenaged outlaw who failed the Trials and has since eluded the authorities, while becoming an embodiment of the Robin Hood legend. June is a member of the ruling elite, four years younger than her classmates in her university graduating class, legendary for being the only person to get a perfect score on the day of the Trials.

The setting is a repressive dictatorship called The Republic of America, occupying former California after much of the coastline has been flooded. Sure, there are elements shared with The Hunger Games et al, including an America at war with itself, young people forced to undergo some kind of life-changing ceremony, and even personal ornaments that carry symbolic significance. Day and June are star-crossed lovers as well as being pawns in a game much larger than themselves. It was the honest emotions kept me enthralled, along with thrilling adventure and secrets revealed. I also liked that Day's portion of the story is printed in bronze-coloured ink - sometimes it doesn't take much to please me!

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Set in 1851 during the California gold rush, this adventure is told in the introspective voice of Eli Sisters, a gentle-hearted contract killer. His job doesn't suit his temperament, but Eli follows the lead of his more ruthless older brother and partner in crime, Charles. Eli is loyal to Charles, while being aware of his faults. He also has complaints about their shared living arrangement. "Charlie has many unsavory acquaintances. They have no respect for the traditional hours of sleep." Eli himself is prone to sudden rage, but only when confronted by the actions of a bully.

Eli describes mastering a surge of anger: "My pants were still down and after collecting my emotions I took up my organ to compromise myself. As a young man, when my temper was proving problematic, my mother instructed me to do this as a means of achieving calm, and I have found it a useful practice ever since."

The chapters are short and the pace is quick. If you like darkly funny books with a strong sense of place and told in an original voice, you will enjoy The Sisters Brothers as much as I did.

Pair this with True Grit (Charles Portis) for another unusual western, or with In Bruges, a comedy about a couple of hitmen written and directed by Martin McDonagh.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Shakespeare's Hamlet: Staged on the Page by Nicki Greenberg

An inkblot Hamlet and psychedelic background illustrations -- I would not have guessed that these ingredients could make such an enthralling interpretation of Shakespeare. Australian artist Nicki Greenberg put fountain pens and paint brushes into her actors' inky hands, but kept the archaic language. It works brilliantly. I thought I'd just flip through it and enjoy the sumptuous artwork, but I could not help being drawn into the story and appreciating how Greenberg made it come to life. A playful play, suitably tragic. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg and others

Fourteen outstanding authors tell stories inspired by the surreal charcoal drawing illustrations from a book Chris Van Allsburg published more than a quarter century ago: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I especially liked A Strange Day in July by Sherman Alexie and Missing in Venice by Gregory Maguire, but there isn’t a dud in the bunch. They all include some element of the supernatural and celebrate the peculiar.

When Van Allsburg was interviewed by Nancy Pearl on Book Lust, he said that Harold and the Purple Crayon was one of his favourite childhood books. Hooray for art and the power of human imagination! The Chronicles of Harris Burdick would make a fine family read-aloud. Grade 3 and up.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

The current precarious state of our planet makes Ragnarok, a story about the end of the Norse gods, particularly relevant. A.S. Byatt writes: "We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we were born into. Not out of evil or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lopsided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our own kind, and a biologically built-in short-sightedness."

In addition to drawing on the power of the myths themselves, Byatt ups the ante by examining a young reader's relationship to them. Elements of Norse mythology are entwined with the story of a thin child -- perhaps herself -- in wartime Britain. This child was sure that her father would never return from overseas fighting, and consoled herself reading fairytales and mythology. I like the way Byatt distinguishes between the two, pointing out that myths are often haunting puzzles, unlike the narrative satisfaction offered by the foreseeable outcomes in fairy stories.

Both kinds of writings "offered the pleasure to the mind that the unreal offers when it is briefly more real than the visible world can ever be." The horrors of angry gods, giant wolves and sea snakes were an escape from the uncertainties of real life. "What was fearsome, the thin child understood, was to have helpless parents."

A detail from the death of the god Baldur attracted me, since this is something that niggled me in Libba Bray's teen novel Going Bovine. In Bray's book, the Baldur character is pierced and killed by driftwood mistletoe. I simply couldn't picture how a floppy plant like mistletoe could be used this way (nor survive as driftwood). Byatt describes the special preparations taken by the trickster god Loki, who "tore it gently from its foothold in an ash tree. It squirmed a little in his facile fingers. [...] Loki stroked and stroked his fleshy bundle, and pulled, and made hard, and spoke sharp words to it, until he had not a clump but a fine grey pole, still a little luminous, like the round pale fruit, still a curious colour like snakeskin or sharkskin rather than bark, but a pole, which he twirled in his clever hands until it balanced like a javelin and had a fine, fine point like a flint arrow." Isn't that nice and clear? Byatt's prose is always a joy.

Readalikes: Other books in the Canongate Myth series, such as A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, Weight by Jeanette Winterson and Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wandering Son by Shimura Takako

Gender nonconformity is the central theme in this gentle manga story set in contemporary Japan. Shy Nitori Shuichi is a boy who could easily be mistaken for a girl. All of his friends are girls, including Takatsuki Yoshino. Takatsuki-san is tall and handsome. She wishes she could be a boy. Both children are about 10 years old and are classmates in Grade 5 at school.

In a longish afterword, translator Matt Thorn explains some of the word choices he made, since gender and language are inextricably linked. Shimura's artwork is clean and straight-forward, although I sometimes had a little trouble distinguishing similar-looking protagonists.

In volume 1 of Wandering Son, Nitori-kan and Takatsuki-san make hesitant explorations of opposite gender identity, experimenting with clothes and haircuts. Nitori-kan derives a secret pleasure when he buys himself a girl's hairband, for example. Takatsuki-san makes forays into the city while dressed as a boy. The awkwardness typical of their years is portrayed with warmth and humour. They are surrounded by their loving, happy families and school teachers who show genuine care for them. It adds up to a reassuring sense that all will be well for these two as they continue on their journeys to self-knowledge. I look forward to volume 2.

Suitable for Grade 4 and up.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Porcupine in a Pine Tree by Helaine Becker and Werner Zimmermann

In this Canadian version of the 12 Days of Christmas, it was the title - A Porcupine in a Pine Tree - that first got my attention. Last winter, porcupines living near my mother's rural home denuded the bark from all of the pine trees that had been planted around her house nearly 20 years ago. None of those trees survived the damage. It's always good to be able to laugh at misfortunes like that, so I showed this picture book to her. It had the desired result: much laughter.

Helaine Becker plays well with word sounds (two caribou; six squirrels curling; nine loons canoeing) and her poem could easily be sung to the familiar tune.

After a porcupine feast
Werner Zimmermann's bright artwork supplements the text with lots of action. The "eight Mounties munching" have their box of donuts stolen by the "seven sled dogs sledding," for example. By the time the "ten Leafs a-leaping" enter, the tottering stack of five Stanley Cups has tumbled and the hockey players attempt to catch them. (When was the last time the Leafs won the Cup?)

The chaos builds until the porcupine restores harmony with a bit of magic at the end. The spindly Charlie Brown tree grows into a giant pine in the final illustration, ornamented with all of the iconic Canadian animals and people. The Stanley Cups are still out of the reach of any of the Leafs.

This is a book for preschoolers that the rest of the family will also enjoy.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Tina Fey is funny and she's a feminist. It's a great combination. I really enjoyed listening to her narrate the audiobook edition of her memoir, Bossypants [Hachette: 5.5 hours]. In addition to the benefit of Fey's comedic talent in delivery, the audio version includes the inaugural Saturday Night Live nonpartisan sketch with Fey playing Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton. Fey is always respectful, even of people she parodies -- including Palin. On the rare occasion that she has less-than-kind things to say about someone, she conceals his or her identity, for example by telling us the letters that spell this person's name are scattered throughout the chapter.

Liz Lemon at the NBC store in NYC
I've never watched Fey's creation, 30 Rock, but her praises of the comedy writers on staff there, as well as examples of some of their jokes, made me want to see a few episodes. My sweetie has the first five seasons on dvd; she thinks Fey is the funniest woman on the planet. Fey was the impetus behind a pilgrimage we made to 30 Rockefeller Plaza and the NBC store when we were in New York earlier this year.

Fey not only writes about her career (and working with men who pee in jars because they are too lazy to walk down the hall to the toilet) but also covers some of her childhood experiences, her parents, her (disastrous) honeymoon and motherhood. Recommended to anyone who enjoys a feel-good story from a woman's viewpoint.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Beaver Manifesto by Glynnis Hood

"If I could design the perfect animal, it would be the beaver -- even its looks are compelling." Glynnis Hood's opening sentence makes her admiration for Canada's bucktoothed symbol clear. A longtime National Parks warden and now professor of environmental science at the University of Alberta Augustana campus, Hood has studied beavers for years. Her passion for them is inspiring.

I learned that beavers have been around for millenia and that there were once giant beavers the size of black bears in North America. Beavers have "outlasted the Ice Age, major droughts, the fur trade, urbanization and near extinction." The export of beaver pelts began in the 17th century, fueled by a craze for beaver felt hats. "The trade was to become a big industry; it was a mammalian gold rush complete with espionage, smuggling, ecological warfare and greed." It is a fascinating piece of history, told with tongue-in-cheek humour. She writes about antique maps portraying zombie-like beavers and I found an example online here. Hood outlines the way beavers and the fur trade shaped the formation of Canada as well as contemporary Canadian psyche.

It is the ability of these "remarkable hydrological engineers" to mitigate the effects of drought that has made the strongest impression on me. I grew up on the shore of a small lake near St Paul, about 200 km northeast of Edmonton. Beavers lived there when I was a child, but they were trapped and removed as pests when they prospered and chopped down a lot of trees. In 2002, that lake dried up completely. After reading The Beaver Manifesto, I believe that the lake would have survived if the beavers had still been there. "Whether land managers can bring themselves to see beavers as allies rather than pests, however, is as unpredictable as the weather."

Hood's book is only about 120 pages long and would make a lovely gift for anyone interested in the environment, eco-politics and Canada's history. I love the cartoon beaver on the cover with its fist raised high. Readalike: The Grizzly Manifesto by Jeff Gailus, also published by Rocky Mountain Books.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Children of the Wolf by Jane Yolen

Two feral children were found living with wolves in 1920 in northeastern India, near Medinipur. Jane Yolen was inspired by diary records of that time to create Children of the Wolf (published in 1984). It's a fascinating story, even though there is some dispute about the historical facts. Yolen chose to tell it in the voice of 14-year-old Mohandas, who lives at the Christian orphanage where the two wild girls were brought. It isn't a happy story, because Yolen remains true to the inherent tragic circumstances and misguided good intentions on the part of adult caregivers.

This book will make a good complement to the two books our Two Bichons club will be discussing in January: Wild Dogs by Helen Humphreys and Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George. Cindi, a member of our book club, loaned her personal copy to me and I am impressed by the high quality book design. Viking Press used a lovely thick paper that shows no signs of yellowing 27 years after publication. I also really like the font used for the chapter titles and cover title (see dust jacket image).

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Next Day by John Porcellino, Paul Peterson & Jason Gilmore

"Every year, nearly one million people die from suicide. What if they had waited just one more day?" Those two sentences break my heart. I've known too many people who have died. The Next Day is based on interviews with Tina, Ryan, Chantel and Jenn, four people who survived near-fatal suicide attempts. Their stories are entwined and told in John Porcellino's minimalist comic strip style. Sometimes I found it hard to tell who was who, but that didn't seem important anyway.

Porcellino's art looks simple but packs an emotional punch. His autobiographical graphic novel, Perfect Example, is the best description I've ever read of how it is possible to feel both aimless and depressed while also feeling good about hanging out with friends. He was an excellent choice for this project, which can also be viewed online in an interactive website.

Jenn has the last words: "Surviving a suicide attempt has to change you. It changes everything about you. Because at some point you have to come to terms with a very simple fact... you are not meant to be dead." This book feels so much more honest than Jay Asher's teen novel about suicide, Thirteen Reasons Why, which did not ring true because the dead narrator sounds so perky. Another thing that I dislike about TRW is that Hannah blames her death on other people's actions. It is vital that we talk about suicide, however, so I'm grateful that the subject is being addressed in popular fiction and graphic novels for young people.

Readalikes: How I Made It to Eighteen by Tracy White and Hello, Cruel World by Kate Bornstein.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Dr. Jennifer White is the prime suspect for the murder of her best friend, Amanda, who lived three doors down from the White's Chicago residence. Jennifer herself has dementia and cannot remember what happened. She had been a top notch orthopedic surgeon, but was forced to retire at 64 because of her mental illness. Alice LaPlante wisely chose first person to narrate this account, locking the reader inside of a deteriorating mind. Towards the end, Jennifer switches to second person as she gets more removed from her surroundings and from language itself. It is both a compelling character study as well as a mystery novel.

I listened to a Brilliance Audio production [10 hours] read by Jean Reed Bahle that kept me so enthralled I took extra-long walks with my dog.

Friday, December 9, 2011

My Name is Mina by David Almond

In this prequel to Skellig,* we meet the highly intelligent Mina, who is being homeschooled because she did not fit well into the traditional elementary school system in England. Mina is a child who admires William Blake's poetry and spends a lot of her time thinking in a tree. Her story is told in the form of a journal (with effective changes in font style and size).

I love Mina and her lively imagination. She wonders about such things as a future world without humans, and "what if there was a story where nothing interesting happened at all?" Mina did create such a story: an empty page. "It's like an empty sky waiting for a bird to cross it. It's as silent as an egg waiting for the chick to hatch. It's like the universe before time began. Look at it closely, and it can be filled with memories, with dramas, with dreams, with visions. It's filled with possibilities, so it isn't really blank at all."

Life is a magical adventure for Mina. She records ideas for extraordinary activities in her journal: "Stare at the dust that dances in the light" and "Listen for the frail and powerful thing at your heart." David Almond knows how to get to what is at the very heart of things. He knows that daydreaming is an important activity and that growing up can be hard, but it also contains great joy. What a gift of a book this is. For ages 10 and up.

*Skellig is one of my all-time favourite books and David Almond is one of my all-time favourite writers.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Paris to the Past by Ina Caro

New Yorker Ina Caro had a great idea: to use Paris as a home base and then make day trips to places reachable by train in 90 minutes or less in order to make French history come to life. She begins with the cathedrals and fortresses of the middle ages and travels century by century, ending with Napoleon in the 19th century. I love France and travelling by train - as well as being interested in history - so I thought this book would be perfect for me. It would have been, if I didn't find Caro's chatty and repetitive style so annoying. With only 50 pages (out of 349) left to go, I gave up.

How many times would I have to read that Caro could only imagine historical people and events by having physical evidence? I got it the first time. Yet her imagination does seem pretty vivid. When she learned that a beheading had taken place in a garden she passed on foot in Paris, Caro "began picturing the courtyard with the count's severed head rolling in puddles of blood" and "began taking another route to the Place des Vosges." She is also good at editing out present-day people dressed anachronistically, and seeing only the architecture around her.

Caro uses first person and is so much present that I felt like I was reading a blog. Regarding Claude Monet's dreams: "I was surprised to learn that his nightmares, unlike my black and white dreams, were in pre-Hollywood technicolor, largely in pinks and blues." Louis X11's wife carved these (translated) words on the wall of their chateau at Blois - Nothing means anything to me anymore - and Caro comments "the words I would have carved if my love had died." In describing the assassination of King Henry IV, Caro twice mentions the irrelevant fact that the killer was red-haired. At another point, Caro is surprised by "the French tide, about which I had totally forgotten" and I wondered if the tide in France could possibly be different from the tide in Spain or England.

Caro's constant presence isn't actually the problem. I usually enjoy feeling like I'm right there, right beside the author... as long as it is someone I get along with. Caro just rubs me the wrong way. I happen to be reading another Jewish author's historical exploration now: Edmund de Waal's The Hare with the Amber Eyes. He has brought me right to a particular street in Paris as he examines the mansion of an ancestor and then slips inside behind a delivery person. The difference is that I like hanging out with de Waal.

Another detraction is that Caro's sense of humour doesn't appeal to me. "Those who dismiss the great-man theory of history have obviously not considered the consequences of Louis the Fat's obesity on the city of Paris, or for that matter on me." Sentence structure can get pretty convoluted: "What becomes clear as we travel in Joan [of Arc]'s footsteps is that what the people of France in the fifteenth century believed had a truth in the consequences it produced: their faith in the legend replaced despair and bound the fragments of a feudal country into a nation with a messianic patriotism strong enough to finally drive the English out of France." (Whew!) Some of her references are obscure: "The keep itself [at the Chateau de Vincennes] is as typical of the period as a Levitt house would have been in 1950s America." (I had to google images of Levitt homes, never having heard of them before.)

I was able to relate to Caro's experience of the crowds of tourists at Versailles: "My day had been comparable to shopping at a department store during the Christmas season." For a more engaging account of French history, I recommend Graham Robb's Discovery of France.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel

It's been more than a week since I read Beatrice and Virgil but the story haunts my thoughts. In spite of loving Yann Martel's Life of Pi, I had put off reading his most recent book because I knew it was about the Holocaust - always a heartbreaking subject - and because reviews have been mixed. Now, I'm very glad to have finally read it because it is brilliant. As well as being heartbreaking.

In Vancouver last year, I heard Martel explain why he chose to write about the Holocaust through fiction. He believes that it is through art that people can make sense of complex reality by comprehending it at an emotional and psychic level... or something like that. He said it more eloquently; he has a way with words.

In Beatrice and Virgil, autobiographical elements create an interesting tension regarding truth. How much is the writer Henry in the story like the author himself? Yet the writing style is fable-like, as when Henry and his wife move to a different city: "Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin." And then there is the play within the novel, which is presented only in fragments. It is clearly an allegory and told as a conversation between close friends who happen to be a donkey and a howler monkey.

I look forward to discussing this short and powerful novel at the Woodcroft Branch Library CanLit Book Club. It's a drop-in event and everyone is welcome. These are the details: December 7, 2011 at 7:00 p.m. at 13420 114 Avenue in Edmonton. Call 780-496-1830 for more information.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Prospector Jack Halloway's smart mouth and disregard for protocol gets him into trouble with the mining corporation he works for on the day he finds an extremely valuable seam of sunstones on a backwater planet. Then he goes home to his treehouse (safe from the dinosaur-type predators on the jungle floor) to find a previously-unknown native species inside. If this fuzzy little ewok-type thing is sentient, all of the rules will change and the mining company will lose its lucrative rights on the planet. The stakes are high - and that makes for a page-turner of a story with a fascinating character at its heart. I stayed up 3 hours past my bedtime to finish Fuzzy Nation last night.

Similar to: the movie Avatar.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

For an eleven-year-old boy, 21 days travelling on his own on a steamer ship is enough time to have many adventures. In 1954, Michael and two other boys made a sea voyage from Ceylon to England. "I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything. And Ramadhin, Cassius, and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden."

When not enjoying clandestine picnics in the lifeboats on deck, the three boys took their meals together with an interesting group of adults at the least-privileged table in the dining room. They sat with Mr. Mazappa, a pianist for the ship's orchestra, who "cheerfully claimed to have 'hit the skids'" and Miss Lasqueti, who "had a laugh that hinted it had rolled around once or twice in mud." There were also a mute tailor, a retired ship dismantler and a botanist growing poisonous plants in a garden in the hold. Table talk might amble from Italian Madonna paintings to breast-feeding to learning that Mr. Mazappa had children. (I've seen quite a few paintings of anatomically-odd breast-feeding Madonnas in Italy and have to agree with Mr. Mazappa's complaint that "there is a child that needs to be fed and the mothers are putting forth breasts that look like panino-shaped bladders. No wonder the babies look like disgruntled adults.")

The boys paid close attention to the details of mysterious adult world affairs around them, but some of these things did not actually become clear to Michael until long after the voyage. To the adult Michael who is narrating the story, the long-ago trip is somewhat dreamlike: "A blurred dive into the swimming pool, a white-sheeted body dropping through the air into the sea, a boy searching for himself in a mirror, Miss Lasqueti asleep on a deck chair - these are images only from memory." Later in the narrative, these images are explored more fully. Was your curiosity piqued by the white-sheeted body? Mine too.

In vignette scenes, the events unfold like memories growing sharper upon close reflection. The Michael in the novel also happens to be a writer of mixed heritage born in Sri Lanka, adding a layer of surrealism that reminded me of Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil. Ondaatje's tale remains firmly realistic, however. It has the feel of a memoir. I was right there on the ship with young Michael, experiencing the wonders. How nice it was to be young again, if only vicariously.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Flint Heart: Freely Abridged from Eden Phillpotts's 1910 Fantasy by Katherine Paterson & John Paterson

If you're looking for a great family read-aloud, I recommend The Flint Heart. This episodic tale begins: "Many years ago, oh, let's say five thousand, there lived in the south of England, in what is called Dartmoor, tribes of people who had never thought to make anything out of metal, much less plastic."

A talisman with dangerous powers, two wise children and their dog, a damaged hot water bottle and a whole heap of fairies keep the story lively. There are also lots of full-colour illustrations by John Rocco. All ages; the large-size type and wide leading will be friendly to young readers just getting started on chapter books.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mini Mia and her Darling Uncle by Pija Lindenbaum

I'll be giving a talk on queer role models in children's picture books later this week as part of the InsideOUT speakers series at the University of Alberta. I'm looking forward to talking about some of my favourite books, like Pija Lindenbaum's Mini Mia and her Darling Uncle. The story has been translated to English from its original Swedish. It's narrated in first person by Ella, a preschooler who is such a fan of soccer that she gets called Mini Mia, after the soccer player Mia Hamm. Tommy, Mini Mia's favourite uncle, causes her much dismay when he shows up with a boyfriend. Fergus tags along wherever they go and really gets on Mini Mia's nerves. ("Doesn't he have a home to go to? Apparently not.") Her jealousy makes her extremely naughty and finally so unhappy that she takes to her bed. ("Now no one is allowed to talk to me and I don't want any dinner -- just a little bit of jam. I'm never going to hang out with Tommy again. I'm just going to lie here bored stiff. Forever.") But Tommy doesn't give up on her and, in the end, it turns out that Fergus is much better at soccer than Tommy.

I've blogged previously about some of the other books I'll be showcasing, including Christian the Hugging Lion, In Our Mothers' House, Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude, Pink, and The Odd Egg, The full list of titles I'll be talking about is here.

The talk is at 5 pm in room 7-152 Education North on Thursday, December 1, 2011. Full details available at the website for the Institute of Sexual Minority Studies and Services. It's open to the public; I hope to see some of you there.

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

In 1975, the year she turned 10, Ha and her family were forced to flee Vietnam and take refuge in the U.S.A. Author Thanhha Lai drew on her own immigration experiences to craft this moving tale. Lai's free verse format is like looking through snapshots over the course of a year. The focus on Ha's emotions is particularly effective.

Ha is a child who loves to eat. She planted a papaya tree in her yard in Saigon and watches closely for fruit: "Two green thumbs / that will grow into / orange-yellow delights / smelling of summer." Later, at the refugee camp: "Someone / should be kissed / for having the heart / to send cases of fish sauce / to Guam." Ha's family is sponsored by a man in Alabama, who brings them a paper bucket of chicken one day. They find it almost inedible, because they are used to "fresh-killed chicken / that roamed the yard / snacking on / grains and worms. / Such meat grows / tight in texture, / smelling of meadows / and tasting sweet. / I bite down on a thigh; / might as well bite down on / bread soaked in water. / Still, / I force yum-yum sounds."

The hardships are many in this National Book Award-winning story of total upheaval.

Readalike: Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate is another verse novel immigration story for children and tweens.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Theodora: Empress, Actress, Whore by Stella Duffy

Theodora is a strong and engaging character in this rags to riches story set in the sixth-century Byzantine empire. It is based on a real woman who became the consort of emperor Justinian the first. She was five when her father, the bear-keeper in Constantinople's Hippodrome theatre, was killed by a bear. Theodora began her training as an entertainer shortly afterwards and discovered that comedic acting best suited her quick wit. Throughout her life, Theodora's hot temper flares when she encounters personal injustice. This is in sharp contrast with her stoic self-control over revealing any physical discomfort. I admired Theodora's attitude toward life, as summed up in this quote: "mistakes are simply steps from which to move forward."

Theodora is a fascinating character and I enjoyed getting a glimpse into what life might have been like for a lively young woman living in this ancient time and place. Theodora and her cohorts took both male and female lovers. Queer sexuality comes up in other ways also. My favourite part, however, concerns the celibate time she spent in the desert near Antioch, living with religious mystics.

Davina Porter narrates the Recorded Books edition of Theodora [11.5 hours] with her usual elegance and attention to subtle emotional details. Porter's British accent provokes strong reactions from audiobook listeners. When I worked in the division of the library that provides materials to blind and home-bound patrons, we kept a list of who loved or hated various narrators, and Porter appeared frequently -- sometimes loved, sometimes hated. I'm a fan, so Porter's voice was a bonus in listening to Theodora as an audiobook.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Voice and character are two outstanding aspects of Esi Edugyan's award-winning novel, Half-Blood Blues, about musicians in a jazz band in Europe during the second World War. The tale is narrated by Sid Griffiths, who is 82 years old in 1992. His story often flips backward in time as he relates the events surrounding the disappearance of his youngest bandmate after being picked up by Nazi soldiers in Paris.

Sid played bass in the Hot-Time Swingers in Berlin in the 1930s. Ninteen-year-old Hieronymus Falk, a German with a Black father, played trombone. Chip Jones, Sid's boyhood friend from Baltimore, was the drummer. Here Sid describes a session they played with Louis Armstrong, who had heard about Falk's talent:

"Chip's kit was crisp, clean, and I could feel the lazy old tug of the bass line walk down into its basement and hang up its hat, and I begun to smile. Then the kid come in. He was brash, sharp, bright. And then, real late, Armstrong come in. I was shocked. Ain't no bold brass at all. He just trilled in a breezy, casual way, like he giving some dame a second glance in the street without breaking stride. It was just so calm, so effortlessly itself. Give me a damn chill."

Fifty-two years later, on the way to the airport, Sid's cab driver asks, "Where you off to?"

'"London," I said. "I'm going back to London. I live there." Better not to tell folks your business, I figure. Nor to let them know you're leaving your pad empty. A man's got to be careful these days.
 "London?" the cabbie said. "No kidding. I used to live in London. England's alright but the food'll kill you. Whereabouts you live over there?"
I frowned. I ain't got no mind for this damn small talk. Best to shut him up quick. "Not London England," I said. "London Ontario. In Canada."
The cabbie's eyes sort of glazed over. Canada kills any conversation quick, I learned long ago. It's a little trick of mine.'

Ha! I never got tired of Sid's cranky voice. I could tell he was suffering from an old pain -- a mix of sorrow and guilt and shame -- and I stayed glued to his telling right up to the last satisfying word.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean

"Rin Tin Tin is that rare thing that endures when so much else rushes past." Journalist Susan Orlean spent years investigating the many stories that originated from one German Shepherd puppy that was found in France by an American soldier near the end of World War 1. From that dog and his owner, Lee Duncan, grew a dynasty in movies and then on tv that spanned four decades and made Rin Tin Tin known around the world.

Rintintin and Nenette dolls
Lee Duncan kept two puppies he found in a bombed kennel: a male and a female. He named them Rin Tin Tin and Nenette, after a couple of French good-luck charm dolls. Duncan wore a pair of these tiny woollen dolls around his neck. My own dog happens to be named Nenette, but I had never heard of these dolls before Orlean's book. (Nenette is named for a pet goose I knew in central France - even though my girl has a much sweeter temperament.)

Orlean's research covers such topics as the origin of the German Shepherd breed, the use of canine corps in wartime and the rise in popularity of obedience training in the U.S.A. Early movies, the advent of sound and colour and some of the personalities of the film industry are also covered. It would not have occurred to me that in silent films, a dog's inability to speak is not a handicap, and so, from the beginning, Rin Tin Tin was considered a star in his own right.

I listened to a Simon Schuster audiobook (12.5 hours) read by the author. Orlean did a better job than Jennifer Jay Myers, who narrated Orlean's The Orchid Thief, but I found my interest waned at times while listening to Rin Tin Tin, depending on the topic being explored. The Orchid Thief, on the other hand, held my attention throughout. What I liked best about Rin Tin Tin was that the central theme has to do with the importance of stories in our lives. I also enjoyed the personal perspective Orlean brought into her research near the end, as she examined her own involvement in the subject.
My darling Nenette

"I had wanted [...] some proof that everything, in its way, mattered. That working hard mattered. That feeling things mattered. That even sadness and loss mattered because it was all part of something that would live on. But, I had also come to recognize that not everything needed to be so durable. The lesson we have yet to learn from dogs, that could sustain us, is that having no apprehension of the past or future is not limiting, but liberating. Rin Tin Tin did not need to be remembered in order to be happy."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Set to Sea by Drew Weing

A poverty-stricken poet is shanghaied aboard a clipper ship bound for Hong Kong in this charming graphic novel. With one panel on each page of this little book, Drew Weing uses very little text to show how, after long adventures at sea, the poet finally has the wisdom to create a successful book of poetry - which is also titled Set to Sea. It's a fable that will appeal to all ages. (Be warned that there is violence depicted in an extended pirate fighting sequence.) Set to Sea deserves all the praise it's been getting, including a Lynd Ward honor award.

Check out Drew Weing's website.

Readalike: Good-bye, Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

Come, Thou Tortoise is told in the unforgettable voice of Audrey Flowers, who leaves her tortoise with friends in Oregon when she flies home to Newfoundland after getting word that her father is in a coma. She grew up in St John's with her scientist father, Walter Flowers, and her sweet Uncle Thoby, who has one arm longer than the other. The family had great fun playing with language and puns.

"My dad did sometimes refer to us - the three of us - as the Bouquet. I think the Bouquet should hit the sack, he'd say. The bouquet is wilting. Or at least one Flower is. Speak for yourself, Wilter." Audrey may have a low IQ, but like her father and uncle, she is a master of words: "The Fairfont Hotel greets you with signage so cursive you curse your inability to read it." She meets the lawyer Toff, who is "wearing a purple scarf. Sorry, cravat. Some silk business tucked into his shirt. [..] My dad used to have an expression for a flamboyant dresser: Christmas on a stick. I'm sorry but a purple cravat is flamboyant."

At one point, Audrey cannot get into her house because the doorknob broke off. She goes to her neighbour for help, still holding the doorknob, and they call a locksmith. "On the table, the brass doorknob looks amazed to be reflecting the inside of someone's house. It lies on its side like it has fainted." (I was very sympathetic, since the doorknob to my front door broke off earlier this year. Unlike Audrey, I have another door that enabled access while I waited to repair the knob.)

Audrey grieves for her father, sorts through family secrets and frets about her tortoise in the most hilarious manner. Occasionally, the narrative switches to the voice of Winnifred the tortoise, who puts up with such indignities as being used as a bookmark while she waits for Audrey to return. Winnifred loves to sit on the dashboard when she travels in a car. (She is much smaller than Mrs. Cook, the tortoise in The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart.)

I would not say no to another book by Jessica Grant.

Monday, November 14, 2011

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

There are a lot of beautiful picture books these days with just a few words and a clever twist at the end and they are cute, but they're not the kind of book that invites re-reading. Jon Klassen's I Want My Hat Back is not of that ilk. Yes, it only has about 250 words, many of them repeated, and yes the art is lovely. The book is beyond clever; it is outstanding. I'm fascinated by it -- both the narrative and the art. I'm not at all surprised to see it on the "best of" lists that are starting to appear (like this one in the NYT).

It's a story about a not-very-smart bear looking for his lost hat. Jon Klassen, illustrator of Cats' Night Out (and others), has combined simple cut-out shapes with textured art. The large-font text -- which would work very well for emerging readers -- is all in dialogue and in a different colour for each animal. Red, the colour of the lost hat, is used to great effect. Most of the illustrations are on the left, with text by itself on the right-hand page. Whenever this layout changes, it signifies a dramatic moment. The white background changes to red on another significant page. A crucial moment is wordless. The denouement is delicious. I love the deadpan humour thoughout. I love this book.

All ages. Readalike: Wolves by Emily Gravett.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik

This true story documents three American men who competed in 1998 to see the most different species of birds in one year. One of them managed to collect 745, which is amazing, considering that the area of the contest was restricted to Canada and the U.S.A. (minus Hawaii). Journalist Mark Obmascik profiles the men, including how they became interested in bird-watching and how they managed the time and money to chase rare birds.

I saw this white-crowned sparrow near Whitehorse.
I listened to an abridged audiobook (Random House; 6 hours), capably read by Oliver Wyman. It reminded me of another book about people and their obsessions, The Orchid Thief, although The Big Year is not as funny as Susan Orlean's book. A movie version, just released, is apparently more of a comedy; I read about it in Film Journal International online. My sweetie's father, Cliff, was a lifelong birder who kept meticulous records - he was in my thoughts as I listened to the escapades of these guys.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Humans are a story species, according to Joseph Gold. Thirteen-year-old Conor O'Malley learns about the power of stories when he meets an ancient British monster. Can anything be scarier than knowing his mother is terminally ill? Conor must find the courage to face his nightmares as well as the bullies at school.

Illustrator Jim Kay has created lots of atmospheric black and white art that adds to the menacing suspense of the tale. The expensive clay-based paper shows off Kay's subtle textures and spiky sharp contrasts. It also make the book feel nice and heavy, even though it is barely over 200 pages long.

Irish author Siobhan Dowd died of cancer at 47, leaving behind two completed manuscripts (since published) as well as an idea sketched out for another novel. Patrick Ness crafted this story based on Dowd's notes. It is fabulous. Have kleenex handy.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

An Audience of Chairs by Joan Clark

Mental illness has been Moranna MacKenzie's lifelong nemesis in this character-driven novel set in Cape Breton. She was just a child when her mother committed suicide. Years later, the loss of custody of Moranna's two daughters was due to her own instability. When Moranna learns that one of her daughters is to be married in Halifax, she is determined to finally see them again. 

The cover art on the Vintage trade paperback edition -- a folk art mermaid set against a background musical score -- ties in well with elements of the story. Moranna created a mermaid tale to entertain her girls when they were still with her; she carves folksy images of her Scottish ancestors to support herself; and Moranna performs concerts on a painted piano board every morning to an audience of chairs in her kitchen. The cover illustration also captures the whimsical, fun-loving nature of Moranna (when she isn't being contrary and self-absorbed).

There are lots of other interesting and well-rounded characters too. It's a powerful and uplifting story of redemption and family pride.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

Was the re-discovery of a thousand-year-old poem the catalyst that caused the shift from medieval Europe to Renaissance? Stephen Greenblatt starts with Poggio Bracciolini (a 15th century book hunter that brought the webcomic Family Man to mind) who located a long-lost copy of On the Nature of Things by Lucretius in a remote German monastery. Lucretius recorded some mighty powerful ideas.

What was so startling - and dangerous - about the very long poem by Lucretius? Greenblatt writes that "On the Nature of Things is that rarest of accomplishments: a great work of philosophy that is also a great poem." It contained subversive ideas on politics, ethics and theology, including these elements:

1. "Everything is made of invisible particles." (atoms)
2. "The elementary particles of matter are eternal."
3. "All particles are in motion in an infinite void."
4. "Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve."
5. "The swerve is the source of free will."
6. "Nature ceaselessly experiments."
7. "The universe was not created for or about humans."
8. "Humans are not unique."
9. "The soul dies."
10. "There is no afterlife."
11. "All organized religions are superstitious delusions."
12. "Religions are invariably cruel."
13. "There are no angels, demons, or ghosts."
14. "The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain."
15. "The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion."
16. "Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder."

It took me about 100 pages to get sucked in by the narrative. Even before that, however, I enjoyed quotes like that of a 4th century historian complaining that "people were driving their chariots at lunatic speeds through crowded streets." In the end, I found The Swerve's blend of philosophy and history to be thought-provoking as well as entertaining.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor

"Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well." The first two lines of the book pretty much set the tone for this paranormal romance. The first part of the book is set in contemporary Prague, where 17-year-old Karou is studying art. Later, the action moves into the world of seraphs and chimaera.

"Karou was, simply, lovely. Creamy and leggy, with long azure hair and the eyes of a silent-movie star, she moved like a poem and smiled like a sphinx." This kind of description rings all kinds of warning bells in my head, but I liked Karou anyway. She is feisty and smart and self-sufficient. She is ignorant of her family origins and was raised by monsters. Karou is such a great character and I was curious enough by the mystery of her background to keep reading though all the romance-y stuff. ("___ and ___ were like two matches struck against each other to flare starlight.")

Romantic intrigue -- a handsome prince with his eye on one beautiful sister whose heart belongs to another while her ugly step-sister is secretly in love with the prince -- is really not my thing. Neither is fussing about clothes, hair and cosmetics while getting ready for a ball. Iron abs and wild, timpani hearts don't interest me. I usually sort of skip past those parts when I'm reading, but since they are central to the plot of Daughter of Smoke & Bone, I couldn't ignore them. Sigh. I much preferred Taylor's first book, Blackbringer.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People by Douglas Coupland and Graham Roumieu

The macabre weirdness in Douglas Coupland's new book, Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People, is perfectly suited to Halloween. I found it a good antidote to the overly-sweet holiday decorations that I've seen in some people's front yards - Winnie the Pooh wearing a purple witch hat, that sort of thing. At first glance, Graham Roumieu's full-colour illustrations and the sparse text on each page make this look like a kid's book. It is not. One child is barfing copious amounts and another has pooped his pants right there on the front cover. The stories are nasty and gory and bad behaviour goes unpunished. Hee hee hee! I especially liked "Kevin, the Hobo Minivan with Extremely Low Morals."

 If you like Edward Gorey's irony, or the wickedest tales in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (David Sedaris), Coupland's demented collection of short stories is for you. Read one of them, "Mr. Fraser, the Undead Substitute Teacher," online in the Globe and Mail here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

International smuggling, a mentally-unbalanced genius, orchids, Seminoles and the Florida swamps -- The Orchid Thief covers a lot of ground, but it's mainly about people and their peculiar passions.
Photo of ghost orchid by Mick Fournier
HBI Producers of Fine Orchids
John Laroche first came to New York journalist Susan Orlean's attention because of a small news item about plant poaching in Florida's Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. Laroche wasn't the only orchid collector Orlean met who she would describe as having an "air of benign derangement."

 The kooky orchid enthusiasts are portrayed sympathetically. Orlean developed a passion of her own: she wanted to see a ghost orchid in bloom. She was willing to hike for miles through mucky swamp water up to her waist, hoping for a glimpse. Like Orlean, I've experienced that "time spent in a greenhouse had a rare shapeless quality." I could totally identify with Laroche's approach to gardening. He said things like "I'm a plant. Why would I want rough bark instead of smooth bark? Why would I want wide leaves instead of narrow leaves?"

Orchid I saw in the Royal Botanic
Garden in Belgium, July 2011

I listened to a Random House Audible production (9 hours) with Jennifer Jay Myers narrating. Orlean has written in first person and I had to remind myself several times that Myers was not Orlean, since I found Myers' voice irritating. She's overly dramatic in her pronunciation: "I HATE hiking with CONvicts armed with maCHEtes." "THEN I heard about SNAKE boy, who LIVES in his little SHACK surrounded by REPTILES and BUGS." (Every time Myers said "bugs" it was more like "buuuugs.") It didn't hinder my enjoyment by much, but I hope to never listen to another book narrated by Myers.

The movie made about the book -- Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze -- appears to bear little relation to Orlean's story. If you've watched the movie, don't expect to find a love affair between Laroche and Orlean in the book. There's no illicit drug made from rare orchids, either. But there's a whole bunch of other great (and funny) stuff.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi's newest novel dazzles with an inventive narrative format and playful prose. It opens with a famous author, St. John Fox, sitting in his study in 1937, "sort of listening to something by Glazunov; there's a symphony of his you can't listen to with the windows closed, you just can't. Well, I guess you could, but you'd get agitated and run at the walls. Maybe that's just me. My wife was upstairs. Looking at magazines or painting or something, who knows what Daphne does. Hobbies." Anyway, Mary Foxe drops by to visit Mr. Fox. She is a character he has created and she is pissed off that St. John keeps killing off the women in his books, so she challenges him to a game. They take turns going into each other's stories and Mary's goal is to make St. John change his wicked ways.

I enjoyed Oyeyemi's riffing on the Blue Beard fairy tale. She is especially interested in why a husband would kill his wife. Some of the stories incorporate more elements of magic realism than others. Several of these stories draw on Oyeyemi's Yoruba background. At the writersfest in Vancouver, Oyeyemi said that although she was born in Nigeria, she doesn't feel a particular attachment to that country, only to the Yoruba people. She grew up in England, immersed in western mythology as well as traditional Yoruba stories.

It is her way with words that is especially delightful, so I'll quote a few bits. When Mary lay in a dead woman's bed and couldn't sleep, "Minutes pricked shallowly, like thorns."

In a tale of an adopted child: "The woman insisted on being called mother. (Which the boy called her, but with a secret hiss that came from a place inside him that he did not understand - inside his head, her name became motherhhhhhhh, smothered myrrh.)"

St. John Fox says of public libraries that they " always make me feel covered in ink. Ink on my clothes, ink in my eyes. Terrible. All the body heat in there is bound to make the pages mushy."

It's lots of fun. Readers might also like read and compare the original tales that inspired Oyeyemi.  Joseph Jacobs' version from English Fairy Tales is here and Charles Perrault's Blue Beard is here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Afternoon Tea at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival

Six Canadian authors entertained us while we enjoyed tea with currant scones, clotted cream and jam, shortbread, fancy cookies and mini cupcakes at the Afternoon Tea on Sunday. Rose petals were scattered over each white tablecloth. It is not surprising that this event sells out weeks ahead of time.

Lynn Coady read a funny scene from The Antagonist in which Rank, a young and jaded hockey player, is approached in a bar by Beth, a fat lady with religious intentions. Her “wrists jangled with bangles” and “her ears drooped with hoops.” I’m looking forward to reading this book.

Author D.W. Wilson could have been dressed to play the part of Rank, wearing a plaid shirt, ripped blue jeans and a Canucks baseball cap. He read the story “Sediment” from his collection Once You Break a Knuckle. It is set in Wilson’s BC hometown, Invermere, where young men ping rocks off coal trains, drive camaros in loser laps down the main street which has only one traffic light, and build bonfires the size of mobile homes. It’s the kind of place where “Life is a series of events between shit storms, or so my dad says.”

Michael V. Smith wore a skinny black suit and bow tie, telling us, “Some boys like camaros and a few boys like bow ties.” He read a section from Progress in which a woman who has been idly watching the construction progress on a dam witnesses a terrible accident.

An awful thing also happens to one of Tessa McWatt’s characters in Vital Signs; she begins losing language due to a brain aneurysm. Read my review here.

Elizabeth Hay said, “You write a book and then you try to find ways to talk about it as if you knew what you were doing.” Alone in the Classroom is about a school teacher in 1929.
Inukshuk on English Bay

Wayne Johnston made a funny speech about always going last, then read from the same passages in A World Elsewhere as he had read at the Coast to Coast event. It was just as amusing the second time.

And that wraps up another writersfest for me; I’ll be back in Edmonton on Monday. Goodbye, Vancouver. It’s been great!

When Then Was Now at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival

some of my ticket stubs...
Historical fiction was the unifying element for the four authors in Saturday’s When Then Was Now panel. C.C. (Chris) Humphreys’ latest novel, A Place Called Armageddon, is about the fall of Constantinople. He said a historical novelist “jumps into the gaps in history” and “facts are, more often than not, interpretations.”

Esi Edugyan feels it is most important to get to the essence of real-life characters, and that makes it alright to make slight alterations to historical details. In giving voice to her African-American musicians in WWII Paris in Half Blood Blues, Edugyan meshed patois of the era with invented slang and more contemporary phrasing.

The Reinvention of Love is also set in Paris, but in the 19th century. Helen Humphreys grew so fond of her character Saint-Beuve that she gave him a somewhat happier ending than he had in real life. I was thrilled that she read from one of the same sections that I quoted in my review, where a poet challenges Saint-Beuve to a duel.

I’ve also reviewed Randy Boyagoda’s amazing new novel, Beggar’s Feast. He talked about finding the balance between the personal and the history, an especially tricky thing for him since he based his Sam Kandy character on a distant relative. (Imagine learning that a family member had killed two wives with no legal repercussions. Shades of Bluebeard…)

In response to a question about how modern concerns affect historical fiction, Helen Humphreys said literary petty jealousies are as relevant today as they were in Saint-Beuve’s time. Boyagoda’s publisher wanted Sam to have “a Dr. Phil moment when the emotions of the main character became available,” but Sam was not that sort of man and not at all of that era. Wars are perennially of interest, while the ideas of citizenship and belonging from Half Blood Blues are certainly relevant to readers today.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Community Centred at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival

One Irish man (Dermot Healy) and three Canadian women (Suzette Mayr, Farzana Doctor and Angie Abdou) made up Saturday’s Community Centred event. It initially appeared that Healy was the odd one out, but all four authors contributed to a lively panel discussion on the many definitions of community.

Mayr began with a reading from Monoceros, which is based on a true event; a 17-year-old boy committed suicide after homophobic bullying at a Calgary school. Using multiple voices, the novel explores the way a tragedy can affect a broad spectrum of people. We heard from the boy’s (secretly gay) guidance counsellor, who wonders “What was the last thing he said to the dead boy? Good luck. Or Perk up.” Mayr spoke about the importance she placed in documenting contemporary Calgary (which reminded me of Chimamanda Adichie’s admonition about the dangers of the single story). We learned that her publisher asked her to disguise Calgary in an earlier novel, Venous Hum, in order to make it more appealing to an American audience. (Venous Hum is on my top ten list of favourite books, by the way.)

Farzana Doctor’s new book, Six Metres of Pavement, is also based on a true and tragic story. A news clip about a man who forgot his child in the back of his car stayed in the back of Doctor’s mind for a long time, wondering how that man would be able to carry on with his life afterwards. Six Metres of Pavement was discussed earlier this year at the Lesbian Book Club that meets at Audreys Books in Edmonton; we had previously discussed her earlier novel, Stealing Nasreen. Both books feature intersecting communities in Toronto.

There's a wonderful cross-section of people in the community Angie Abdou created for Canterbury Trail. She said that each of her characters thinks he or she is the main character, but really it is the place/geography that carries that role. It was nice to have the opportunity to thank her in person for commenting on my review of her newest book. The excerpt she chose was in the voice of Michael, a real estate developer who was uncharacteristically stoned on mushroom tea. His pregnant wife, Janet, fondly remembered Michael’s former ski bum self, murmuring, “Long time, no see.”

Abdou's last line was the perfect lead-in to the final reading, Dermot Healey’s Long Time, No See. Healey said he incorporated details he encountered in his County Sligo community and calls himself a “global local.” One of my favourite lines from the book is: “Memory is a stranger who comes to call less and less.”