Saturday, April 30, 2011

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

New York City restauranteur Gabrielle Hamilton says she loves to talk, so it isn't surprising that she narrates her own memoir in the audiobook edition (Random House; 10 hours). She's a fabulous storyteller and her unconventional life has provided her with plenty of good material. Hamilton was the youngest of five children in a bohemian family headed by a theatre set designer and a former ballet dancer. At thirteen, after her parents divorced, Gabrielle was mostly left to her own devices and amused herself by stealing cars, doing drugs and landing her first job (washing dishes).

A long series of kitchen and catering jobs, serial lesbian relationships and desultory higher education eventually led to the opening of her own restaurant, Prune. The place was mostly staffed by lesbians in its early years. Then, Hamilton was courted by an Italian doctor 11 years her senior and agreed to marry him so that he wouldn't be deported from the U.S. The couple had little to say to each other and continued to live separately for years, even after they had two children, coming together only for a yearly visit to his family in southern Italy. It is through this ill-conceived marriage, however, that Hamilton sorts out her complicated feelings about family, and which brings her narrative full-circle to a satisfying conclusion.

A deliciously salty combo of food, travel and learning things the hard way. I'll also recommend Blood, Bones and Butter to those of my friends who are tearing out their hair in frustration over their badass teenaged daughters, to give them hope that things will turn out in the end.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli

In 2007, in the midst of a midlife crisis, Lisa Napoli first travelled to Bhutan to volunteer at the only radio station in a mysterious kingdom which had only recently opened its borders to tourists. A $200/day tourist tax helped to keep the numbers of visitors low in this country where the king decided to measure Gross National Happiness instead of GNP.

Kuzoo FM 90, a haphazard affair run by young but enthusiastic amateurs, was exactly the challenge Napoli needed to make peace with herself and gain a humble and grateful perspective on her place in the world. Over a span of about two years and several visits, Napoli witnessed Bhutan's rapid modernization and changeover to a constitutional monarchy. Her engaging travelogue memoir bears similar witness to her own growth, as she learns to get over herself.

Readalikes: A Fork in the Road by Anik See; Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer; Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Promoting Teen Books to Adult Readers

I've been so busy with other stuff (including a five-farms-in-three-days road trip) that I haven't had time to post reviews about all the great books I've been reading lately. I resolve to be back on track soon. Meanwhile, check out this link to an audioconference I'll be presenting next week on promoting teen books to adult readers. (Love that YA!)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Return of the Dapper Men by Jim McCann and Janet Lee

Reading this outstanding graphic novel is like stepping through a looking-glass. Everything looks sort-of familiar, yet not. We've landed in a Victorian-era place where time has stopped and night never comes. In a city by a sea, children play nonstop amid underground machinery. Robots work nonstop above ground; the two groups have little to do with each other. An unlikely friendship between a human boy and a robot girl is at the center of the story.

Janet Lee's decoupage art is absolutely sumptuous in shades of turquoise, russet and olive green. Cogs and wheels are incorporated into intricate art nouveau decorations. Round little-orphan-Annie eyes and disproportionately large keep-on-truckin' feet add to the distinctive steampunk meets fashion illustration style. The background textures are especially interesting. Text partially-obscured with swaths of paint reminds the reader about hidden things.

Change begins with the arrival of 314 red-headed men, dropping from the sky dressed in identical natty black-and-white striped jackets and green bowler hats, each with a folded umbrella at his side. Like Mary Poppins, they've come to restore order. A fable to delight all ages: Grade 3 - adult.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Last night my book group discussed Secret Daughter, a book that's been on the bestseller lists since sometime last year. Most of the group had high praise for it, but two of us didn't care for it overly much. If it weren't for the discussion, I would have abandoned the book 50 pages in (my limit when I'm giving a book the benefit of doubt).

The basic premise is that Kavita Merchant takes her infant daughter (Usha) to an orphanage in Mumbai, rather than risk having her husband kill the baby, as happened with her first one, because the child is not a boy. Somer and Krishnan, a childless mixed-ethnic couple in San Francisco adopt Usha (now called Asha). When she is 20, Asha returns to Mumbai and lives for a year with her adoptive father's family, while also seeking information about her birth family.

I like the way the story shifts between Kavita's family and that of Asha's American family, but I didn't enjoy the emphasis on exposition, rather than action, to demonstrate character growth. For example: A few weeks after her arrival in India, Asha "chronicles the day's events in her journal. She is surprised by her own discovery that, although the food may be spicy, the clothes uncomfortable, and the beauty treatments painful, this place is starting to feel like home, and these people like family." There's little to support her shift in attitude, so a reader must rely on the author's assertion. Asha's mother in San Francisco, meanwhile, is also into self-discovery. Her revelations appear to arrive in her head already complete as she holds a yoga pose: "Always so eager to achieve the next milestone on her path, she has neglected to question that path or to look ahead." (Sermonize much?)

I'm similarly uncomfortable with Gowda's sweeping statements about motherhood. "If the mother falls, the whole family falls." and "In the midst of the poverty and despair of the slums, [Asha's film] showed the fierceness of a mother's love. And how we're really all the same in that way." The truth is that we are not all the same. Some mothers never bond with their offspring. There's also a kaleidoscope of family arrangements that are totally successful - without a mother.

So those are some of the reasons that I'm out of step with the majority of readers - all the ones who love Secret Daughter. Here are other titles about women's lives in India that I liked much better: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy; Tamarind Mem  by Anita Rau Badami; The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan; Babyji by Abha Dewasar; and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman

Fans of Karen Cushman's earlier historical novels about young women living in historical England will enjoy her latest, Alchemy and Meggy Swann. Katherine Kellgren's audiobook narration (Listening Library; 4 hours) bring the characters and setting, already the strongest elements, into even greater relief. Kellgren makes 16th-century English sound like a perfectly natural style of dialogue.

Meggy Swann is a teenager with dislocated hips since birth. She walks, painfully, with the aid of two sticks. Her mother, a village alehouse keeper, never wanted her. Meggy hadn't even laid eyes on her father until he sent for her; his summons lands her in Elizabethan-era London. The rough, dangerous, noisy and stinking city is as much a character as Meggy -- and the city is actually a good match for her cantankerous attitude and inventively sharp tongue. "Ye toads and vipers!"

Meggy's father is an alchemist who sent for her only to have a free servant. He had no idea that she was a girl, not the boy he expected, nor that she was crippled. Since he wants nothing further to do with her, Meggy learns to make her own way. She has the help of Roger Oldham (Meggy calls him "Oldmeat") who is a young member of a theatre troupe. A lively choice for Grade 5 - 9.

Readalikes: The setting, brevity and grumpy protaganist make it most like Cushman's The Midwife's Apprentice. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz is also a good match. Readers wanting more of the theatre aspect might like The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding. Readers wanting more about early printing might like The Printer's Devil by Paul Bajoria. (Both of these last are set in slightly more recent times.)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Illyria by Elizabeth Hand vs. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

There are so many similarities between Meg Rosoff's multiple award-winning How I Live Now and Elizabeth Hand's Illyria that I've decided to blog about both teen novels in one post. Be forewarned that there are some spoilers ahead, although I won't give away very much.

Both are rather dark books that centre around a sexual relationship between 14 or 15-year-old cousins who get separated by circumstances beyond their control (adults, basically) and then reunite years later and affirm their true love. Both are told in first person from the point of view of the female cousin.

In How I Live Now, Daisy is sent from New York City to the English countryside to stay with four cousins whom she has never met. A world war breaks out - this is set slightly in the future - and Daisy's aunt is unable to return to her family, so the kids are on their own. The English cousins have some telepathic abilities, especially Edmond and his twin, Isaac. This magical element is seamlessly woven into the tale. Daisy and Edmond fall into a passionate relationship but the war intervenes.

In Illyria, Maddy and her cousin Rogan are both the youngest members of large families living in side-by-side houses in Yonkers, New York. Their fathers are identical twins. Unlike the vividly-present siblings in How I Live Now, Maddy's six sisters and Rogan's six brothers are barely described, wispy as ghosts. Both sets of parents are vaguely around; they are mostly obstacles that force Rogan and Maddy to greater secrecy in their romance.

The magical element in Illyria is a toy theatre that Maddy and Rogan discover within the walls of the attic, revealed accidently through some rough-housing before or after sex. Although their families have a long history of association with the theatre, nothing really explains the presence of the always-lit stage. The toy comes back into the story at the end, but in such a way that it only made me feel sad and I don't think that is what the author was going for.

Both books feature a troubled protagonist who self-harms. Daisy is anorexic. Rogan is addicted to drugs. Over the course of their stories, they heal themselves, but Rogan's struggle is necessarily offstage, since Maddy the narrator gets little news of him, and so the impact of his triumph is muted.

Maddy and Rogan are separated for decades before their eventual reunion. Maddy was sent to London to study theatre and makes a career as an actor. She describes her life as one long audition, the emptiness of which depressed me. At the end, I was left wondering, "Is that all there is?" Is Maddy nothing without Rogan? I wanted a little more magic, not a patched-up better-late-than-never romance.

The middle part of How I Live Now is an exciting survival story. Edmond is psychically damaged by the horrors of war, so when Daisy and Edmond reunite after about six years apart, there are still hurdles for them to face in their relationship. The ending is charged with hope for the human spirit. In my battle-of-the-books, How I Live Now wins by a mile.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Office Tower Tales by Alice Major

Aphrodite, Pandora and Sheherazad are three white-collar workers in downtown Edmonton, evoking their namesakes as they share stories of their lives during their coffee breaks in the food court of Commerce Place. From April 1999 to January 2000, their talk ranges from the external (the implementation of new smoking bylaws; Y2K worries) to the personal (fear of getting old; Pandora's daughter's pregnancy). Their tale unfolds in a series of narrative verse.

Alice Major plays confidently with words. Her poems are rich with assonance, half-rhyme and alliteration, as in this example (when the women join the summertime crowds outdoors in small green spaces):
"Vegetation has toughened up.
The park's square of grass has matted
to a rough, tufted tan,
hunkered beneath the hustling, rapid
repeat of feet."

Lovely imagery is found in the commonplace: "Aphrodite / takes up her cup again, holds it to her chest / like a portable heart."

My heart was especially won over by Sheherazad - Sherry - the storyteller. She transports and amuses her friends while adding an expansive element to the book. It ends with a hopeful tone, as the women gather with gifts for Pandora's granddaughter.

Find out more about this award-winning book at Alice Major's website.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman

In a series of essays, S. Bear Bergman, "a homesteader on the landscape of gender," celebrates and illuminates the realities of transfolk. A "tranny Jewboy" originally from New York and now living in Canada, Bergman is articulate, funny, charismatic and unapologetic. Ze answers very personal questions  - Have you had surgery? What does the 'S' in your name stand for? - while gently explaining why these questions are rude.

The spectrum of gender fluidity is a wondrous thing. In The Field Guide to Transmasculine Creatures, Bergman talks about the subtle differences between being a (female) butch and a transguy. In Passing the Word, ze makes a strong case that the concept of "passing" is not really viable for real people (who aren't actors) and suggests that any burden of identification should rather be placed on observers by using the verb "to read" instead. "Should" is the key word in that last sentence. In It's Always Easier If You Can Be Something They Recognize, Bergman admits that "you learn to be something that is a compromise, somewhere between reasonably acceptable to you and minimally acceptable to the world around you." "Whether we're twelve and wanting to be liked, or sixteen and wanting to get laid, or thirty and wanting to be employed (and also liked and also laid), we struggle to fit in." It's a struggle for everyone to a certain extent, but the genderqueer are leading the way for the rest of us.

Thoughtfulness about identity, evaluation of choices, recognizing at a young age that there's not just one right way, perseverance in the face of obstacles - these are some of the strengths of transpeople that are praised in the final essay, Sing If You're Glad to Be Trans. Hooray! Bear Bergman has joined authors Ivan Coyote and Leslie Feinberg on my transmasculine warriors bookshelf.