Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Essex County by Jeff Lemire

Cartoonist Jeff Lemire's three interrelated stories about lonely people living in a rural part of southwestern Ontario have been collected into a single volume in Essex County. I had read each one individually as they were released and now I'm very glad to have read them again, all together. Their combined impact is stunning. I marvelled at Lemire's craftmanship - both the narrative and images are powerful and moving.

Book one: Tales from the Farm. Lester, a ten-year-old orphan, goes to live with his uncle and the two are painfully awkward in their grief and inability to connect with each other. Luckily, Lester finds a kindred spirit in Jimmy Lebeuf, the former NHL player who runs the local Esso station. A nice touch: Lemire used his own childhood drawings for Lester's attempts at superhero comics.

Book two: Ghost Stories. Lou and Vince Lebeuf are brothers playing on the same professional hockey team in the early 50s in Toronto, until Lou's attraction to Vince's fiance drives a permanent wedge between them. Nice touch: The illustration of Lou flying through the air right after he scores a winning goal is based on the iconic photo of Bobby Orr taken by Ray Lussier at the Stanley Cup in 1970. (Even I, a non-sports fan, was able to recognize it!) Another nice touch: The Fuel Station bar where the hockey team hangs out in Toronto forms a link to the gas station operated by Vince's son in book one.

Book three: The Country Nurse. Flipping back and forth between two time periods, a young nun cares for a group of children in a church orphanage in 1917 and a travelling nurse looks after her patients in present day. Nice touch: The parallels between the two time periods are emphasized with two almost identical panels, the young orphan Lawrence Lebeuf feeding chickens in 1917, and Lester Papineau doing the same chore in contemporary times. Only the scene through the open door of the chicken coop is different. Which reminds me of another nice touch: The Forest Glade Nursing Home (in books two and three) echoes the former orphanage in its clearing in the woods.

I really love this work and was delighted that it was one of the five Canada Reads titles this year (even though my pick, Skim, didn't make it past the top 40). It was disappointing that the comics format, rather than the content, was the focus of the discussion on air. My library book club has chosen Essex County for our meeting tomorrow. One of the members said she had brought it in on hold at the library some months ago because of Canada Reads but then sent it back when she saw it was a graphic novel. I'm pleased that she decided to give it a try for the book club and I look forward to our discussion.

NOTE: This is my 500th post on Lindy Reads and Reviews. I had hoped to mark this milestone with the addition of an alphabetical index to all of the books here, but I haven't had time to create that. Soon, I hope. (Well, after I'm back from holidays... and after I've got the weeding caught up in my garden when I return... and who knows what else will interfere... besides reading more books... )

Another note, added July 28: The book discussion of Essex County went very well last night. 8 out of the 13 people there had never read a graphic novel previously and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Hooray for Jeff Lemire!

NOTE, added August 17: I was tickled to see a French edition of Essex County in a comic store in Brussels. It was displayed next to one by another Canadian, Guy Delisle.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Olive Tree by Carol Drinkwater

Carol Drinkwater is a British actress who has an olive farm in Provence. She is absolutely passionate on the topic of olives and her enthusiasm is contagious. I think I ate olives or cooked with olive oil every day while I listened to the Clipper audiobook (15 hours), which is read by the author. Check out Drinkwater's website for details about her numerous other books, all with 'olive' in the title.

Subtitled A Personal Journey Through Mediterranean Olive Groves, this book is mostly a travel memoir. Drinkwater travelled on her own through Spain, Morocco, Algeria and Italy, following a proposed UNESCO Olive Heritage Trail. It is also an exploration of the history of olive cultivation and of 21st century agricultural concerns like water shortage, intensive farming, climate change and pesticide use versus organic practices.

Drinkwater has some pet theories about how olives were introduced to the Mediterranean. Her pure conjecture annoyed me, but then she admitted she was kicking around ideas on history to make historians turn in their graves, and I felt better. I also cut her some slack when she landed in Algeria at the same time as the capital had been bombed. A network of beekeepers had arranged to assist her travels through their country by putting her up in their homes, but Drinkwater stubbornly insisted on time to herself in a hotel. She didn't find out until afterwards how dangerous the situation had become for foreigners in Algeria.

Like Drinkwater, I enjoy travelling on my own. I'm heading off to Europe later this week, where I'll have 10 days to myself before joining a friend for a week in Ghent. My iPod is loaded up with audiobooks, ready to go.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

An Unfinished Business by Boualem Sansal

Rachel Schiller learned two horrible things in 1994: that his parents who lived far away in Algeria had had their throats slit by Islamic fundamentalists, and that his father had been a Nazi SS officer working at concentration camps during WWII.

Rachel had been sent to be educated in Paris in 1970, when he was 7. The only time he returned to Algeria before his parents died was in 1985, when he collected his younger brother, Malrich, so that he could also have the benefit of a French education. 14 years apart in age, the two brothers are also of very different temperaments. In alternating passages from their journals, the reader learns how they coped with the shock of learning the truth about their respected father.

Strong parallels are drawn between the Nazis, and the Islamic jihadists who control the banlieu of Paris where the brothers grew up in a foster family. Rachel wrote, "you can't commit atrocities with enlightened people, you need hatred, blindness and a knee-jerk xenophobia." Grief and pain are central emotions in this story, but there is also a determination on Malrich's part to make a better future and to avoid repeating tragic history.

Author Boualem Sansal's books are banned in his native Algeria. He was awarded the German Book Trade Peace Prize this year.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Klondike by Zach Worton

"The story of how a handful of colourful characters sparked the largest mobilization of gold seekers in history is brought vividly to life in this debut graphic novel by cartoonist Zach Worton." (From the back cover.)

I was disappointed. The vignette style would have worked better with a more coherent connection between the parts. I would barely get to know a character and then the action would leap to another place and other people. Many of the secondary characters are never mentioned again. For example, the scene in 1897 Skagway, in which a Japanese worker was shot in a dispute over who could work stevedore jobs, ends as abruptly as the death and the story moves on to other events. I was often left wanting to know more. I also wanted to correct the spelling of 'greenhorn' (which doesn't have an 'e' on the end).

The black and white artwork is appealing and captures many different kinds of people as well as the beauty of the northern landscape. I especially liked the way Soapy Smith's eyes were drawn as zigzags - it's a good way to represent his mad intensity.

Since the book feels incomplete on its own, I suggest pairing this with either Gold Diggers by Charlotte Gray or Klondike by Pierre Berton for back-up information on the central events and characters.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mennonites Don't Dance by Darcie Friesen Hossack

This collection of short stories depicts Mennonites living in the area around Swift Current, Saskatchewan. If you take away the cream gravy and the rollkuchen, they could almost be any farm or small town families in the Canadian prairies. Having been raised in a similar (albeit Catholic) environment, I could identify with the setting (and a vocabulary that includes chesterfields). Hossack's characters, however, are hard on each other and themselves and are so beaten-down by life in general that I felt fortunate not to have known their sort when I was growing up.

I wasn't wowed by Hossack's plain writing style, which relies heavily on exposition, and I found some of the stories too sentimental. I was also unconvinced by the similes, for example describing a laugh as "a sound as dry as paper being crumpled." If I hadn't just read Cate Kennedy's remarkable prose, I would perhaps have felt more generous. Still, if you're looking for realistic hard-luck tales about surviving rather than thriving, you'll find them in Mennonites Don't Dance.

Saskatchewan short stories that I really liked: A Hard Witching by Jacqueline Baker; Cool Water by Dianne Warren; and A Song for Nettie Johnson by Gloria Sawai. If you're looking for more about Mennonites, you can't go wrong with A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews. Last summer at the Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festival, I heard some very funny stories about growing up Mennonite as told by Rebecca Schellenberg.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Blackout by Connie Willis

A genre-blend of historical fiction and time travel, Blackout is set in the same world as The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. In this case, several historians at Oxford in 2060 travel back to study England at war in 1940. The main ones are Michael - there for the evacuation at Dunkirk, Merope - who observes children evacuated from London to the countryside, and Polly - who's right in the middle of the London blitz. The story leaps around with cliffhangers everywhere: include the final ending. To find out what happens to everyone, you must read the next book, All Clear.

I listened to an audiobook (Brilliance; 19 hours) performed by Katherine Kellgren, who sounded like she spoke through clenched teeth whenever the dialogue was in a protagonist's thoughts, rather than out loud. There's a lot of this, and it gave the impression that the historians had simmering frustrations. Which may be accurate, since they were obliged to hide their true identities and their foreknowledge of events. Still, it made me feel a bit on edge. It may also have increased my annoyance with the historians, who did a lot of rationalizing when things went wrong. They are supposed to be intelligent people, but they did some pretty stupid things.

Blackout is an entertaining page-turner, but I liked To Say Nothing of the Dog much better. I picked up this book in response to a read-along at two other book blogs: She Reads and Reads and Books and Movies. Instead of stopping at the correct place for first week, however, I've read it all the way through. Oops! How did that happen? My excuse is that I'll be away in Europe by the end of July. I'm looking forward to following the ongoing discussion, however.

Monday, July 11, 2011

There but for the by Ali Smith

A guest at a dinner party in London locks himself into an upstairs room and refuses to come out. This odd event opens Scottish author Ali Smith's darkly comic look at modern society. She captures the ingrained bigotry that is revealed in casual conversations, including thoughtless assumptions made about blacks, gays and immigrants.

By staying locked in a room for weeks and then months, Miles affects a large number of people. Each part of this story - named for each word in the title - is nimbly told from four different points of view, in limited third person. Smith is widely read and has a quick wit, so I shouldn't have been surprised by the frequency that I found serendipitous connections to other stuff I'm reading. Here are a few:

a) Precocious 10-year-old Brooke asks philosophical questions like "If you travelled to the past to make the future better, would you actually be able to?" I'm currently listening to the audiobook Blackout by Connie Willis, which is about time-travelling historians in England. Also, Blackout and There but for the both reference the last words of Admiral Nelson. ("Kiss me Hardy.")

b) Several of the protagonists are music fans, so there are numerous references to songs and songwriters and I undoubtably missed some, but I noted that 85-year-old May's internal dialogue referenced a line from 'She Moved Through the Fair.' ("I won't slight them for their lack of kind.") I'd not thought about this traditional ballad for a long time, but heard it recently performed by members of the Edmonton Opera chorus at the Devonian Botanic Garden.

c) "A lot of the people Anna had seen had trouble speaking, either because of translation problems, or because a rain of blows had made them distrust words. Or both." This could apply equally to the silent refugees in one of Cate Kennedy's stories collected in Dark Roots.

d) At the infamous dinner party in There but for the, guests debate the relevance of art to human society and it looks like two of the men might come to blows over "that pointless skull encrusted with diamonds." My nephew Graham learned this week that a piece of his artwork was chosen as the regional winner in a national art competition. It's a sculpture (and working iPod dock) of a skull covered in computer circuitry created in homage to Damien Hirst's crystal skull.

The prose is lively and insightful. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy

This wonderful collection of short stories from Australia is aptly endorsed in the quotes on the back of the book:

"sly, seductive, and surprising"
"talent for the comic and the chilling"
"clear-eyed, unsentimental empathy"
"a feeling for the precise moment when stars move in the cosmos"
"funny, wise, and achingly sad"
"incredibly spare and gifted writing"

What can I add? The stories differ widely, yet almost all of them deliver a little jolt at the end. I would be seeing a situation one way, and then suddenly have my perspective altered. This could have been unsettling, except the endings were just so fitting, it was more like an a-ha! feeling. A very good reading experience.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Sweet In-Between by Sheri Reynolds

Kenny (Kendra) is a gender-variant teen who learns to trust that ze is loved and welcome in the family where ze has lived in the years since hir mother died and hir father was imprisoned. Kenny disguises hir body and never uses the bathroom at school. Hir self-loathing is heartbreaking. After a friend confides that she'll pray for hir, even though Kenny's lifestyle goes against her personal beliefs, Kenny doesn't know what to say.

"I kick along the beach and think about my lifestyle. I didn't know I had one, and truth be told, I sort of thought you had to be eighteen to qualify. I'm surprised that Wendy doesn't agree with my lifestyle, because that implies I've chosen to live a certain way when I haven't really chosen anything at all."

My heart went out to Kenny, who always tries so very hard. If you enjoy coming of age stories about young people overcoming difficult situations, I recommend this. It's too bad that the cover photo on the edition I read has got nothing to do with Kenny, who would never have been caught wearing a dress.

Readalikes (none of which are about trans people): Rose of No Man's Land by Michelle Tea; Breathing Underwater by Lu Vickers; Someday this Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

True Grit by Charles Portis

Oh. Wow. This book is AMAZING. The plainspoken narrator, Mattie Ross, totally won me over with her voice. It has the feel of a memoir, rather than a novel, as Mattie looks back on the winter when she was 14, when she left her home determined to avenge the murder of her father. She is practical, unsentimental and unselfconcious. She is a force to be reckoned with, undaunted by the lawlessness of the old west.

The story has plenty of adventure and action as well as colourful characters. I'm not surprised that it's been translated to film. Not having seen either of the movie versions, I can't say how closely they follow the book. I look forward to watching the Coen brothers version soon. (Well, not so soon. I just checked and there are 464 people ahead of me on the waiting list for the dvd at the library.)

I listened to the Recorded Books audio edition (6.5 hours) read by Donna Tartt. Her deadpan delivery is perfect for the part. In an afterword, Tartt says that four generations of her family all fell in love with this book at about the same time. I know exactly how that feels and I'm already planning to buy copies to give as gifts. I'm sure that my mom and siblings will love it too.

Monday, July 4, 2011

We Had It So Good by Linda Grant

Stephen and Andrea Newman are the couple at the center of this family saga that spans three generations. Stephen, the son of Jewish immigrants to the USA, travelled to England as a Rhodes Scholar in 1968. He met Andrea at school and they made a life together in London.

Before their two children were born, Stephen and Andrea used to live in a communal squat house and for a while Stephen made LSD in his lab. These sorts of facts about their younger years seem totally outlandish to their children. Andrea says, "The past is a narrative, a story. You try to tell them but they don't believe you, you might as well relate the tale of Little Red Riding Hood." And yet there remain aspects of their children's lives of which Stephen and Andrea are also unaware.

It's a quiet story about ordinary, flawed people, living their lives as best they can manage. British author Linda Grant treats all of her characters here with loving compassion, more so than in her earlier novel, The Clothes on Their Backs. When I think back on what it is that makes me slightly less enthusiastic about The Clothes on Their Backs (in comparison), all I can pinpoint is that it felt less balanced... too much emphasis on clothing. Both books incorporate similar elements: Jewish immigrants; family secrets; clothing-related work or hobbies; and coming of age in the 70s in England.

Stephen suffers an existential crisis in his old age, but his longtime friend tells him, "You have to accept that we're all condemned to live in our own times, our own little piece of history. We've been terribly lucky, you wonder if the luck is bound to run out, but we've had it made." Living a good life - isn't that what we all want?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Trash by Andy Mulligan

Raphael is an orphaned teen who lives at Behala dumpsite and scavenges trash for a living. He knew immediately that uncovering a leather bag containing a wallet, a map and key was important, but Raphael couldn't dream of the ramifications this find would have on his life. These objects lead to criminal corruption at the highest levels of his country's government, something that those in power will do anything - including murder - to hide.

Raphael and his friends, Gardo and Rat, find themselves solving a high-stakes mystery that involves millions of embezzled foreign aid dollars and a political official. Every move that takes them closer to the answers also brings them into greater danger.

The story is set in an unnamed country, possibly the Philippines, but it could be any country with a huge gulf between the masses of poor and the ultra-rich few. It is told through multiple viewpoints, including the three boys, Father Julliard (head of the Pascal Aguila Mission School, which is made of donated metal shipping containers), Olivia Weston (a British 22-year-old volunteer at the school), Grace (a maid in a senator's mansion), plus some newspaper extracts.

Olivia writes, "I learned perhaps more than any university could teach me." She learns that money is more important than values and virtues. "Money [...] is dripping all the time, like precious water. Some drink deep; others thirst. Without money, you shrivel and die. The absence of money is drought in which nothing can grow."

The dumpsite boys and their strong moral code may prove Olivia wrong. This thrilling and uplifting adventure will appeal to readers from Grade 6 all the way up to adults.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Karma by Cathy Ostlere

Happy Canada Day! In the Canadian literature book club that I host at the Woodcroft library, one of the members commented that a lot of the books we were reading are set outside of Canada (Waiting for Columbus, The End of the Alphabet, Three Views of Crystal Water) even though the authors are Canadian. Other folks have noticed the same thing - I think a Giller judge commented on it in the recent past. Is the use of a foreign setting a reflection of Canadian social values as identified by analyst Michael Adams (Sex in the Snow; Fire and Ice)? Adams found that a typical Canadian who won $100,000 would spend it on a trip, whereas an American would be more likely to buy a car with the same windfall. Or maybe it's because the themes of identity and belonging that are prevalent in our literature, as well as explorations of the meaning of 'home,' lend themselves to stories placed outside of our native land.

And then there are stories of immigrants, like the Sikh-Hindu couple in Cathy Ostlere's verse novel, Karma, who left India to escape their families' disapproval over their mixed marriage. Their daughter grows up in small-town Saskatchewan in a blend of three cultures. Her father named her Jiva, but her mother always called her Maya, for the goddess of illusion. Maya's father doesn't approve. He quotes Sikh philosophy: "The world is a dream, / Any moment it may pass away [...] All this is Maya."

Maya's mother never adjusted to the isolation of her life in Canada. She commits suicide in 1984, which is why 15-year-old Maya and her father travel to New Delhi with an urn of ashes. The day they arrive, prime minister Indira Gandhi is assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Father and daughter are separated during the ensuing violence, while marauding gangs search the city streets for turbaned men. Maya finds herself alone, traumatized and still grief-stricken from the death of her mother.

The extraordinary circumstances make for a very compelling story and I found myself unwilling to put this down until I'd finished. At 517 pages, it is substantial, even though it is written in verse. Maya's search for herself amid multiple identities will resonate with both teen and adult readers in Canada and beyond.