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.”

Coast to Coast at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival

Me at writersfest.
One of the many great things about hearing authors is learning how to pronounce their names and the names of their characters. Miriam Toews (rhymes with ‘saves’) read from Irma Voth (rhymes with ‘boat’)… except that nobody bothers with the Mennonite pronunciation in this book, so Voth rhymes with ‘goth’ instead. Toews read a compelling excerpt in which 19-year-old Irma was travelling in Mexico with her squalling baby sister. Irma admires the infant’s fierce honesty and imagines she was communicating something like: “I possess vital intangibles and when I begin to talk the world will know its shame.”

The four authors at Saturday's Coast to Coast event let their sense of humour come through in their writing. Anita Rau Badami said a sense of the absurd helps for survival in India, where she lived until moving to Canada in 1991. Her newest book has a creepy mood, however, so there isn’t much room for humour in it. She “got tired of writing nice characters” so she filled Tell It to the Trees with horrible people. The seed for this book came from visiting a family whose house was so pristine it made her suspicious of what all that perfection might be concealing. I was surprised to hear that the setting for Tell It to the Trees is a composite town in northern BC, not a real one, and I will update my review of the book accordingly.

Zsuzsi Gartner said “my favourite writers all make me laugh and then punch me in the gut at the end.” That’s exactly what Gartner does to me. She said she writes her endings first, and then figures out how to get there. The audience laughed all the way through her reading of “Mister Kakami,” a typically satirical short story from Better Living Through Plastic Explosives.

Toews signs books.
Wayne Johnston likes to “combine comedy and pathos in a seamless way.” He read a hilarious exerpt from A World Elsewhere in which a 7-year-old boy was travelling by ship from Newfoundland to North Carolina with a man named Landish. Landish explained the ship’s workers to the child: pursers look after women’s purses; stewards serve the stew; porters serve port; and petty officers are “short, unhelpful men.” Yet another book to add to my TBR pile. (Yay!)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Pure Poetry at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival

Olive Senior and John Glenday were the highlights among the six poets hosted by Billeh Nickerson at Friday’s Pure Poetry event. Saturday’s evening Poetry Bash has four of the same authors, but I preferred the Friday afternoon time slot mostly because of the venue, the Waterfront Theatre being so much more comfortable than Performance Works.

Olive Senior read from Shell, starting with a whimsical poem about ginep fruit. She also shared a sweet story about how the poem had inspired an 11-year-old girl to write a story. It was lovely to hear Senior’s Jamaican lilt and phrasing – “in two twos the tree grows.” Senior followed some lighter pieces with a layered poem covering 500 years of Caribbean history, starting with Columbus.

John Glenday said he “did lots of things wrong when I began writing poetry. All my poems were first drafts for two decades.” I don’t know if Apple Ghost is from that time, but I’m glad that he read the title poem, since it is one I am familiar with and like very much. Glenday’s approach to inspiration resonated with me, calling it the work of examining the world, not something that enters passively into an artist. “By examining the world, we breathe life into it.”

Glenday told little stories to introduce the origins of three poems from his newest collection, Grain. Did you know the can opener was invented 48 years after the invention of the tin can? “Tin” is a love poem that made the audience chuckle and then heave a collective sigh at the end. “St Orage” was inspired by a sign with too much space between the “t” and the “o.” The final poem was a result of repeated viewings of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast when Glenday’s son was ill – he retold the fairy tale backwards. I could have listened to this Scottish poet for another hour.

Gull wants my lunch.
Sachiko Murakami, originally from Vancouver, read poems from Rebuild about real estate entwined with the death of her father. She encouraged us to go to her website to create for ourselves.

Sharon Thesen, another BC author, shared images from her childhood in Oyama Pink Shale – a time peopled by creatures like dogfish woman, and mummies who drove Ford F10 pick-up trucks.

American poet Fanny Howe read from Come and See, a collection about the catastrophes of the 20th century from the perspective of a grandparent.

Martin Espada grew up in the projects in Brooklyn and his poems from The Trouble Ball draw on his Puerto Rican heritage. I especially liked the one about getting his tonsils out as a kid – the promised “you can have all the ice cream you want” was a huge disappointment, since the ice cream burned his raw throat afterwards. Espada’s delivery was powerful and he ended with a rousing poem of rebellion in honour of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Conversations with Bill at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival

Some of the things I love about the writersfest have to do with the location, like taking the little ferry shuttle from English Bay over to Granville Island. We’ve been blessed with sunshine up until now, but it looks like there’ll be nothing but rain from here on.

False Creek Ferry
At the first event I attended today, Conversations with Bill, I was most excited to hear Kate Beaton but ended up being entranced (yet again) by Helen Oyeyemi. Three very different authors each had 30 minutes in the spotlight with the always charming Bill Richardson.

Helen Oyeyemi had a good rapport with Richardson, who recognized Mr. Fox and Mary Foxe in an English fairy tale collected by Joseph Jacobs – “Lady Mary was young and Lady Mary was fair” –  and Oyeyemi confirmed that these were stories she had grown up with. The Bluebeard stories bored her, however, because there wasn’t an explanation for why the husband killed his wives, plus she couldn’t relate to the moral that one should not be curious. I remembered my similar displeasure with Bluebeard as a child. Then I totally bonded with Oyeyemi’s dislike of Jane Eyre (creepy Mr. Rochester locking his wife in an attic). I hadn’t previously thought of it as a Bluebeard story. Anyway, Oyeyemi was gracious and well-spoken and I loved her.

Kate Beaton was not initially forthcoming with Richardson, but warmed up after a while. She had interesting things to say about publishing web comics as a full-time job – marketing t-shirts and prints as well as getting advertising revenue – since her comics are viewable free on the internet. Best was when she got talking about her passion for people in history; she got the audience laughing with her descriptions of Canadian historical figures. I admire her work but I didn't feel a need to join the long line-up to get her to sign the book I had bought. Check out Hark, a Vagrant online. (Beaton also gave a nice plug for Craig Thompson's Habibi. )

Barry Callaghan spoke about his stormy relationship with his famous father, Morley. He also read from his hilarious essay “Canadian Wry” written for Punch magazine to explain Canadians. (It is collected in Raise You Ten.) Callaghan’s anecdote about his disdain for Robertson Davies was candid and amusing, especially since he called him a windbag… the pot calling the kettle black?

It all added up to 90 minutes of eclectic entertainment.

The Forest and the Trees at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival

Fall colours on Granville Island

Charlotte Gill stopped counting after she had planted one million trees. She worked 17 seasons as a tree planter and describes the job as one that gives a person full contact with the natural world. I’m really looking forward to reading her memoir, Eating Dirt. At the writersfest yesterday, Gill said she has learned that people can’t put back a forest; only time can do that. About a thousand years. Canada still has 1.5 million square miles of tree cover remaining and Gill would like us to view this as a planetary treasure.

West Coast art on Granville Island
Andrew Nikiforuk talked about a different kind of logging company, one that’s been around for 300 million years: bark beetles. These small creatures – "tree managers without PhDs" – are part of the renewal process. Like all beetles, they are the world’s garbage men. I like the way Nikiforuk compared a tree to a well-defended fortress and bark beetles to medieval knights and peasants, swarming the castle. Humans have aided bark beetles in their work through logging practices that remove biodiversity in forest make-up and through decades of fire suppression in parks. Nikoforuk explained why the government response to the bark beetles has probably been more destructive than the beetles themselves.

Book table at writersfest event
Nikiforuk’s Empire of the Beetle is sure to be a fascinating read. He talked about scientists working with sound to “stress the hell out of the beetle.” They tried Rush Limbaugh and Guns & Roses, but found that it was low frequency amplified insect sounds that completely changed bark beetle behaviour, such as cannibalizing each other and not laying eggs. Another solution Nikiforuk offers is community-based ownership of forests, rather than ownership or lease by multinationals. Trees are the lungs of our planet and as their numbers go down, so does the oxygen in the air we breathe.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Word! at the Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival

This morning as I waited in line to get into The Forest and the Trees, I chatted with a woman who said the Wednesday Word! event was the best out of three festival events she had seen so far. The spoken word event is so popular that it is offered twice and still sells out early; the advance ticket sales are the main reason that I'm a member of the festival. Anyway, we had tix for the Thursday time slot and I felt totally energized after the event.

Brendan McLeod hosted Tanya Davis, Zaccheus Jackson and Sheri-D Wilson. Brendan asked each poet which they would rather have, a talking teddy bear or the ability to shoot staples from their fingers. That should give you an idea of the general wackiness and fun.

Sheri-D had pushed the envelope too far for some people at the event on Wednesday, so she was forbidden to do her panty poem today. She advised us to watch it on YouTube. Instead, Sheri-D performed a powerful piece about the murder of Reena Virk. Zaccheus told heartwrenching stories about homelessness and substance abuse. Tanya's autobiographical stories were disarmingly funny. Check out her How to Be Alone video online.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Grand Openings at the Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival

I am in Vancouver for a week at the Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival, staying at the lovely Sylvia Hotel on English Bay. The weather on Tuesday was gloriously sunny, so my companions and I spent the day walking in Stanley Park before attending the Grand Openings event on Granville Island last night. The lineup of seven authors was stellar, as is usual at this festival, but Cate Kennedy and Helen Oyeyemi were the authors I was most excited to hear.

Kennedy read from two new books, including a heartbreaking excerpt from the novel The World Beneath, about a woman with Alzheimer's, in which her husband and son collude in denying her alcoholism to a doctor. Kennedy chose a poem (from A Taste of River Water) that was a story in itself, and she mentioned that her poems are always like that. I’d love to hear more, but I think that book will be hard to find in Canada. I looked at The World Beneath at the festival bookstore and was horrified to read one of the quotes on the back (from Library Journal) comparing her writing to Jodi Picoult! If you dislike Picoult’s style as much as I do, believe me that Kennedy is nothing like that. She makes keen observations about human interactions and chooses her words carefully. (See my review of Dark Roots.) It was too bad that the festival bookstore didn't have many copies of Kennedy's books available, because the supply had already run out by the intermission.

I’m halfway through Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox at the moment – enjoying it very much – and can attest that it is even more delightful to hear it read aloud. The narrative is a sly twist on Bluebeard in which an author meets his match in a character come to life. (See also my review of The Icarus Girl.)

Dermot Healy told us he would speak slowly on account of his Irish accent. He read a very funny part from Long Time, No See about an infestation of ghost chickens.

David Bezmozgis also made me chuckle. He read about a Russian Jewish refugee worker in Italy who had a special talent – that of finding suitable places to copulate – in The Free World.

Guy Vanderhaeghe seemed nervous and spent a lot of time setting the scene for A Good Man. His excerpt, about Sitting Bull arriving one evening into a Sioux camp after defeating Custer, could have stood on its own. It reminded me of Fools Crow by James Welch. Based on my enjoyment of The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing (as well as Welch’s book), I’ll add Vanderhaeghe’s new book to my TBR pile.

Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter is about genocide in Cambodia, so it was considerate of her to read from a side story in that novel. She said her account of an artist who was losing language because of a neurological disorder was based on a woman from North Vancouver.

Lloyd Jones told us about a blind German man who lives with a companion from New Zealand and a nurse from Tunisia. I’ve really enjoyed a couple of his earlier novels (Mister Pip and The Book of Fame) and will give this new one (Hand Me Down World) a chance too, but either the part he chose wasn't particularly compelling or I was just too tired to take in the last reading of the evening.

I plan to keep blogging through the rest of the festival. The next events I'll attend are on Thursday (The Forest and the Trees and Word!) so today is another day to enjoy the beautiful city of Vancouver.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Reinvention of Love by Helen Humphreys

"He is my neighbour. We live two doors apart on Notre-Dame-des-Champs. He is also my dear friend. I am also in love with his wife."

In Paris in the 1820s, when he was 22, Charles Sainte-Beuve favourably reviewed one of Victor Hugo's early books, a collection of poetry. As a result, Hugo invited Sainte-Beuve to his home and they became good friends.

(Another poet, who did not fare so well under Sainte-Beuve's criticism, came into the newspaper office to challenge the reviewer to a duel, shouting "Choose your weapon." Sainte-Beuve leaned across his desk, staring him down: "I choose spelling. You're dead.")

Sainte-Beuve was a remarkable individual, an intersex person who made public his love for Hugo's wife, Adele, when he published a book of poems about their affair - without changing any names. Canadian author Helen Humphreys writes in her author's note that "with few exceptions, the events in my novel mirror actual events. Where possible, I have used the words of Sainte-Beuve, Adele, and George Sand." The words may come from historical sources, but Humphreys is the one who has gathered them together and shaped the telling, using the distinctive first person voices of Charles, Adele and Adele's youngest daughter.

I really loved this book and think the best way to convey the magic of the prose is through quotes, as in this moment when the friendship between Charles and Adele shifts to romance:

"She was standing in front of the big mirror in the drawing room and her back was to me. The combs weren't staying in place. She was impatiently trying to stab her hair into submission when a comb fell out and her black hair cascaded down her back. It was that movement - that soft tumble, softer than water falling from a fountain - that released something in me. I cried out, just a small noise, as a child might make in her sleep. Adele turned and saw me watching her, and it was as though we had just discovered each other for the first time. I cannot fully explain it. All I know is that I could not roll my feelings back up, twist them into position and secure them into a place of propriety. I was undone. Nothing could be the same."

Charles' use of the pronoun "her" to refer to himself (as a sleeping child) is interesting here. He otherwise seems to consider himself male, although he switches to dresses and a female persona, Charlotte, in order to draw less attention when meeting up with Adele.

Why would the mother of four children and wife of such a publicly-known writer risk having an affair? Humphreys explores this question with a sensitive portrayal of Adele. "Victor loves me. I know this to be true. But Victor loves me for himself, and Charles loves me for myself, and the difference between those two is so astonishing that I don't know how to reconcile them."

The Reinvention of Love is a fascinating and intimate slice of people's lives during several turbulent decades. Highly recommended to fans of literary historical fiction.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This big, juicy cross between Harry Potter, the Narnia books and Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry has adult themes and is aimed at grown-up readers. Quentin Coldlake is the central protagonist, but as with Harry Potter, he is surrounded by a cohort of friends attending the same college of magic.

I listened to the Penguin audiobook [17 hours] narrated by Mark Bramhall. There's a lot of dialogue, which moves things right along. I liked that Bramhall had different voices for each character, since this helped to keep straight who was who.

Grossman's word choices irked me at times, as when he called Quentin's parents their usual glassine selves (when "glassy" would have made more sense in the context) or saying that studying spells was "backbreaking" work. Another minor annoyance was mention of two Inuit students who came from the same reservation in Saskatchewan - either they were Cree or from some other First Nation (not Inuit), or else they were from a territory, not a reservation, and definitely not Saskatchewan.

Quibbles aside, The Magicians is an engrossing fantasy quest adventure that evokes books I loved when I was younger. I've just received an email notice that it's my turn for the digital audiobook of the sequel, The Magician King.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Habibi by Craig Thompson

I was blown away by Habibi, a multi-layered epic about two slave children in the Middle East. Poverty forced Dodola’s parents to sell her into marriage while she was still very young. Later, she was kidnapped into slavery but she escaped with a much younger child, Zam. The two spent six years on their own in the desert before being separated and then spend about the same length of time struggling to find each other again. Their love for each other is complicated: as mother and child; as siblings; and then in a romantic sense also as they get older.

The setting is a dystopian near future, with pollution and water shortages. There is an overall quality of timelessness, however. This is partly because of the stories that Dodola tells, first to amuse Zam and later in a Scheherazade-type role in a sultan's harem. Magic is a part of young Zam's life, as when snakes spell messages for him. He and Dodola are both wonderful characters, storybook ingenues in a corrupt real world. 

Craig Thompson’s Blankets was the first graphic novel to give me a feeling that I’d read a proper novel when I’d finished it. (Most graphic novels have more of a short story feel for me, which isn’t a bad thing, only different.) Anyway, the narrative style in Habibi is much more complex than in Blankets. Retellings of traditional stories are interwoven with present day and with history. Time shifts to the past have the immediate visual clue of switching from white background to black, and the tales told by Dodola have ornate decorative borders to them.

Artwork in Habibi by Craig Thompson
I fretted a bit at the beginning that I was going to have to endure lessons in Arabic script, but that's a tiny fraction of the 665 pages. It was actually a painless introduction to a few Arabic letters and enough that I was able to read the final word, hubb, meaning love. Thompson's black ink art is totally sumptuous. I will only give you a taste of it here with the final double spread.

Nothing comes to mind as a true readalike, only books that have partial similarities. Duncan the Wonder Dog by Adam Hines tackles social issues in a complex narrative style and beautiful graphic novel format. You might want to revisit your favourite translation of Tales from 1001 Nights. Robert Crumb's graphic novel version of The Book of Genesis would make a good pairing, since some of Dodola's stories draw on the common origins of Christian and Islamic traditions. Trash by Andy Mulligan could flesh out possible lives for the people who live on the garbage dump. And of course there are Thompson's earlier works, including Good-bye Chunky Rice, Blankets, and Carnet de Voyage.

NOTE added October 29, 2011: If you'd like to read some far more in-depth critiques of this book, check out the Habibi Round Table at the Comics Journal website, where Hayley Campbell wrote: "I actually really like it when writers go off on some tangent in a madly enthusiastic way." Me too!

ANOTHER NOTE added November 19, 2011: Listen and watch Craig Thompson's lecture that was filmed in Minneapolis and posted on the Forbidden Planet website.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Canterbury Trail by Angie Abdou

After an unexpected dump of spring snow in the Canadian Rockies, a motley group from a tiny ski town makes a pilgrimage to a backcountry ski hut for one last powder extravaganza. Mountain conditions are ripe for an avalanche, but human interactions are just as volatile in this mix of snowmobilers, skiers, snowshoers and a snowboarder together with four dogs, an overcrowded cabin and copious amounts of booze and drugs.

Angie Abdou takes full advantage of the possibilities for humour when incompatible (and immature and horny) people are in close quarters. She pays homage to Chaucer in subtle ways, like having the cook (who made marijuana cookies) become too stoned to tell a coherent story. The short chapters keep shifting to different limited third person points of view and so the reader gets multi-dimensional character sketches. They are believable people, flawed but with redeeming qualities. The only two I could see myself hanging out with are the lesbians, but I could only take Cosmos in small doses. She's the kind of person who would use "goddess" as a verb.

The very best thing about the book, however, is the ending. I LOVED it! If you read Canterbury Trail and disagree that it's a fabulous ending, I'll see you in the comments area.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller was born in England but moved to central Africa with her family in 1972, when she was two. She raised there in poverty, mostly on a tobacco and cattle farm in Zimbabwe during the time of the Rhodesian civil war. Their trips to town were made in a mine-proof Land Rover, her parents holding submachine guns as they drove. Fuller presents her racist, alcoholic and insane mother quite unvarnished in this memoir. It is at turns funny, poignant and horrifying.

I listened to the Recorded Books audiobook which was expertly narrated by Lisette Lecat (10 hours, 15 minutes). Since Fuller is only recording her life into her early 20s, it makes sense that she closes with these lines: "This is not a full circle. It's life carrying on. It's the next breath we take. It's the choice we make to get on with it."

Fuller's latest work, Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, is said to focus more on her mother. I've no doubt that it's every bit as fascinating as Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight.

For more stories about White girlhoods in Africa, check out my list on the Edmonton Public Library website. Child of Dandelions by Shenaaz Nanji is a novel set in Uganda in 1972, when everyone who wasn't ethnic-African was expelled from that country, even those citizens who had been born in Uganda. Another possible readalike is Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace, a fast-paced novel about bullying and racial tensions based on the author's experiences in an elite boarding school in Zimbabwe in the 1980s.

Monday, October 10, 2011

No Sweetness Here by Ama Ata Aidoo

First published over 40 years ago, this collection of thoughtful and entertaining short stories from Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo does not feel dated at all. Her African women and men are doing ordinary things, like moving to the city to find work, or praying over a sick child. They cook, laugh, and fall in and out of love. They are vividly alive.

Aidoo captures voice especially well. Two of the stories are told entirely in dialogue. I love the expressions her storytellers use to object to interruptions: "I'm cooking the whole meal for you, why do you want to lick the ladle now?" (In the Cutting of a Drink) and "I am taking you to birdtown so I can't understand why you insist on searching for eggs from the suburb!" (Something to Talk About on the Way to the Funeral).

The path that led to me choosing this book is rather convoluted. I'll thank a commenter on the Amy Reads blog for linking to an NPR interview with Chimamanda Adichie in which she recommends No Sweetness Here. Adichie's warm praise, together with my having enjoyed Aidoo's novel Sister Killjoy some years ago, spurred me to track down the short story collection via interlibrary loan. I'm very glad to have done so.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Drawing from Memory by Allen Say

Japanese artist Allen Say's picture book autobiography is a treat for all ages.  Photos and archival documents as well as paintings and black and white sketches are used to illustrate his life, up until age 16 (in 1953), when he went with his father to live in the United States.

Say's early life was remarkable. His father said to him "I expect you to be a respectable citizen, not an artist! Artists are lazy and scruffy people - they are not respectable." His parents had divorced when he was a young child and that is partly why he ended up living on his own in Tokyo from age 12 onward. Say's favourite cartoonist, Noro Shinpei, agreed to take him on as a student. Shinpei became a sort of father to Say after that.

Say struggled with drawing hands and asked, "How long do I have to practice?" Shinpei's response: "Drawing is never a practice. To draw is to see and discover. Every time you draw, you discover something new. Remember that." (This advice is also useful for me, since I'm currently taking a drawing class.)

The book is fascinating record of social conditions during World War II and its aftermath in Japan through the eyes of a young person. It is also a moving account of remaining true to one's artistic heart. There's a nice interview with the author in School Library Journal online.

Readalikes: the autobiography A Drifting Life by Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi covers a similar time period and subject in graphic novel format for adults and teens. The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis is another good all ages picture book autobiography.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman and quantum electrodynamics in a graphic novel package = YAY! That was my initial reaction, since I've not yet gotten around to reading anything written by Feynman himself and also because I loved Jim Ottaviani's earlier GN treatment of Niels Bohr, Suspended in Language. Not surprisingly (since the quantum physics world is small - ha!) Bohr makes appearances in Feynman too. What surprised me was the difficulty I had engaging with Feynman's life story. At about 100 pages in, I set it down for a couple of weeks, not sure if I would ever finish it.

Either I gave up at exactly the spot where the story picked up (what Feynman did next after he'd finished working on the Manhattan Project atomic bomb) or else I wasn't in the right frame of mind when I lost interest, because I eventually enjoyed the final 150 or so pages.

In 1965, Feynman was asked in a TV news show to explain in a few words what he had won the Nobel prize for. In a taxi afterwards, a cab driver sympathized, "I'da said, 'If I could explain it in three minutes it wouldn't be worth the Nobel prize!"

Parts of Feynman's lectures are presented frame by frame. It didn't bother me that I couldn't understand most of the science as he explains how photons react with electrons. In the audience, students are pictured with thought bubbles ("How can it be?" "I don't like it." "I don't understand.") with words written backwards; words that would be right-way around from the lecturer's point of view. Feynman says, "I can see you saying 'I don't understand.' Tough. I don't understand it either. I don't like it either." 

Feynman used squiggly line diagrams to explain his theories and these translate well to a graphic novel presentation. Leland Myrick's expressive line art keeps the wide cast of characters identifiable. Feynman's unruly, uncombed hair is unmistakable. Colourist Hilary Sycamore has added solid, muted colours to the artwork. It's an attractive book that will appeal to readers who enjoy graphic novel biographies and/or science.

David at The Centered Librarian has posted links to talks by Feynman that are on YouTube with lovely photo imagery. They are divided into three subjects - Beauty, Honours and Creativity - and each one is only 4 or 5 minutes long.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys

The river Thames in London has frozen solid only 40 times between 1142 and 1895. Canadian author Helen Humphreys has written character-based vignettes for each of those times, based on true archival accounts. Her prose is both lyrical and spare. Since the destruction of the old London Bridge and the building of a new one that allows water to move more quickly and freely, "the Thames would never, will never, freeze solid in the heart of London again." Historical artwork and photographs add to the charm of this little book, which can be enjoyed in brief dips, or read straight through in the way of a story-cycle. 

I recommend this to fans of the sort of historical fiction that spans centuries and in which place is as much a character as the people, such as Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd, or Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett - even though these authors write much fatter books. If you are looking for more slices of life from medieval England, you might also enjoy Good Masters! Sweet Ladies by Laura Amy Schlitz.