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.