Sunday, December 30, 2012

a + e 4ever by i merey

Ilike Merey's a + e 4ever is a searing graphic novel about queer unrequited love. It is not for the faint of heart, both for its edgy content -- including rape, nudity, swearing, underage drinking and recreational drug use -- as well as the emotional turbulence of the two central characters who are coming to terms with their hormones and their identities.

Eu (Eulalie) Mason and Ash (Asher) Machnik are best friends in high school, united in their outsider status as well as their love of art and their taste in music. Eu is a dyke, but sometimes goes out with boys. She is over 6 feet tall and not afraid to use her switchblade. She has a painful crush on Ash... who is gay. He is wispy and beautiful and easily mistaken for a girl. He cannot bear to be touched. He sometimes goes out with girls but makes it clear to Eu that he doesn't feel that way about her.

"You won't be my girlfriend. I won't be your boyfriend. We are not going to go out. We are not going to fuck. EVER. So if you're waiting for one of those to happen and that's the only reason you're friends with me... you can stop talking to me altogether."

Merey's inkwash artwork is raw and expressive. It's a little like Craig Thompson's work in Blankets, without the polish. Merey's close-up faces are very effective with their beautiful eyes. She is inventive, too. Ash, for example, is portrayed with one eye as a black hollow after he ingests a drug given to him by a stranger at a night club. Sometimes Merey uses manga techniques like distorting facial features with jagged fangs to show rage. I love the occasional costume design-type sketches of Eu. Many of the panels in this novel are not pretty, but they give off a creative energy nevertheless.

It took me some time to get used to the mishmash of different font styles. The scribble-scratchy lettering used to name chapters was especially hard to decipher. That's a minor quibble, however. The story is gritty and honest and absolutely remarkable. It is suitable for older teens as well as adults.

Readalikes: How Loathsome (Tristan Crane & Ted Naifeh); Mosh Pit (Kristyn Dunnion).

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Astray by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue has drawn on assorted historical documents to create the 14 character-based short stories collected in Astray. Many have been previously published elsewhere, but they are all thematically linked by the concept of straying. As Donoghue explains in her afterword, "Straying has always had a moral meaning as well as a geographical one, and the two are connected. If your ethical compass is formed by the place you grow up, which way will its needle swing when you're far from home?"

Most of the tales take place in the 19th century, but the earliest is set in 1639 in Cape Cod, and the most recent in 1901 in New York City. Five of the stories wander into queer territory. Donoghue includes her source for each one, giving insight into the tantalizing hold even the briefest of mentions can have on her imagination. Wonderfully vivid scenarios showcase Donoghue's perceptive portrayals of people from all walks of life. Losing myself within Astray was a pleasure.

Readalike: The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Monarch in my friend
Claire's kitchen,
Auckland 2009
Set in the Appalachians in Tennessee, Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior centers around Dellarobia, a young mother who discovers that millions of monarchs are overwintering in the forest on her family's sheep farm. Because of dire financial straits, Dellarobia's father-in-law is determined to clearcut the land, regardless. In this novel, Kingsolver addresses social and environmental concerns with an open-hearted understanding of opposing points of view. Her characters and their circumstances are fleshed out through dialogue as well as their actions.

Conversation between Dellarobia and a butterfly expert, Dr. Byron:

"Tell me, Dellarobia. What did you do in science class?"
"In high school? Our science teacher was the basketball coach, if you want to know. Coach Bishop. He hated biology about twenty percent more than the kids did. He'd leave the girls doing study sheets while he took the boys to the gym to shoot hoops."
"How is that possible?"
"How? He'd take a vote, usually. 'Who says we shoot hoops today?' Obviously no girl would vote against it. You'd never get another date in your life."
He seemed doubtful of her story. But it was true, and in Dellarobia's opinion no more far-fetched than the tales he'd told her. Of newborn butterflies, for instance, somehow flying thousands of miles to a place they'd never seen, the land where their forefathers died. Life was just one big fat swarm of kids left to fend for themselves.

Conversation between Dellarobia and her best friend, Dovey:

"You should hear Bear on his rant against raising taxes on the millionaires. He says they worked for every penny, and that's what he went in the military to protect."
"Wow. He was a gunner in 'Nam to protect CEO salaries?"
"I guess."
"Well, yeah," Dovey said. "That's America. We watch shows about rich people's houses and their designer dresses and we drool. It's patriotic."

Conversation between Dellarobia's father-in-law, Burley ('Bear'), and their church pastor, Bobby:

Bear, apparently at the end of his argument rope, called Bobby a tree hugger.
Bobby looked amused. "Well now, what are you, Burley, a tree puncher? What have you got against the Lord's trees?"

Flight Behavior is a warm and engaging tale with characters so realistic that I'm still thinking about them two weeks after finishing the book. I loved it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams

'Toxic Breast Milk?' is an article Florence Williams wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 2005. In Breasts, Williams examines more closely the stew of chemicals increasingly prevalent in our bodies, as well as many other aspects about women's breasts. Similar in style to science writing by Mary Roach, Breasts is both informative and entertaining.

Fun facts are included: "In the Middle Ages, French King Henry II reportedly had casts made of the 'apple-like' breasts of his mistress Diane de Poitiers for his wine cups. Marie-Antoinette's breasts were believed to inspire the design of shallow French champagne coupes (not the narrow fluted ones, heavens), as well as of some celebrated porcelain milk bowls made by Sevres." (One of these bowls was recently on display at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.)

Not so fun are the scary American statistics about increasingly earlier onset of puberty: "by 2011, one-third of black girls between the ages of six and eight were 'budding' breasts (that's actually the technical term) or growing pubic hair, along with 15 percent of Hispanic girls, 10 percent of white girls, and 4 percent of Asian girls. [...] Today, half of all girls in the united States start popping breasts by their tenth birthday." Plastics that mimic estrogen may play a role.

Williams looks at cultural attitudes and how women's vanity can be manipulated by drug companies and physicians, such as by "essentially inventing a new pathology called menopause, in the same way the surgeons had invented one called micromastia, for small breasts."

Breast cancer is the biggest topic in the book. It has been known for millennia: One [ancient Egyptian] papyrus recommends applying a plaster made from cow's brain and wasp-dung to tumors for four days. [...] The most advanced treatment [in the Middle Ages] was the application of insect feces."

The rate of breast cancer is steadily increasing, however. The disease now strikes "1 out of every 8 women who reach old age. Worldwide, a quarter of all malignancies are breast cancer."

Breast cancer is rare in men, which is why it is significant that there are growing numbers of cases connected to one place, Camp Lajeune Marine Corps base in North Carolina. High levels of toxic chemicals have been ingested by people living there, including children. "The legal drinking water level for TCE and PCE, long considered probable carcinogens, is 5 parts per billion. [In 1984] tap water at the elementary school contained 1,184 parts per billion [TCE]." A man "who, as an infant on the base attended a day-care center in the early 1980s that had been converted from a pesticide-mixing facility," is now deceased. "He underwent a double mastectomy when he was eighteen years old."

"Most of the major breast cancer organizations say there is no clear evidence that chemicals can cause breast cancer in humans. But in fact, there is little clear evidence that other things cause breast cancer, including the top favorites of obesity and smoking. If we look at all of the known red flags for breast cancer, such as reproductive and hormonal factors, family history, and radiation, they account for little over half of all breast cancers." The men currently diagnosed with breast cancer may help researchers shed light on the effect of chemical exposure.

"Twentieth-century medicine had us believe our DNA was our destiny. The pendulum of science is swinging away from the preeminence of the genetic code to the surprising power of our soil, air, water, and food. In this current cultural moment that worships technology and throwaway convenience, it's a good time to remember our physical interdependence with the larger world." Amen.


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Poetics by Aristotle

Last month, Simon of Savidge Reads blogged about Aristotle's Poetics. I was intrigued that, even though Simon isn't a classicist, he found this work of literary theory still relevant more than 2,000 years after its original publication. Another factor that swayed me is that the entire book is very short. The edition I read, a 19th century translation by Theodore Buckley, was only 67 pages... but I had to read some pages twice to get the meaning.

It is philosophy, so it isn't a light read, although it is manageable for the average person. The method I used was to switch back and forth between a few pages of Aristotle and a few pages of Kinky & Cosy comics. I passed a very enjoyable afternoon that way.

And what did I get out of it? There were some great passages (of course) and connections to books that I've read, and even a word for epic poetry -- épopée -- that I'd only encountered previously in the French lyrics of our Canadian national anthem. What are the chances that I'd read about a clepsydra in Five Bells by Gail Jones, and then encounter a water clock again so soon in Aristotle's advice to regulate a performance with a clepsydra?

Aristotle discusses things that continue to be debated, like the comparative merits of nonfiction versus fiction. "For an historian and a poet do not differ from each other, because the one writes in verse and the other in prose; for the history of Herodotus might be written in verse, and yet it would be no less a history with metre, than without metre. But they differ in this, that the one speaks of things which have happened, and the other of such as might have happened. Hence, poetry is more philosophic, and more deserving of attention, than history. For poetry speaks more of universals, but history of particulars."

Another contemporary literary topic is whether or not episodic style has value. Aristotle is not a fan. He does, however, have high praise for Homer. Here is the way he shortens the Odyssey (spoiler alert): "a certain man wandering for many years, and persecuted by Neptune, and left alone. And besides this, his domestic affairs being so circumstanced, that his wealth is consumed by suitors and stratagems are plotted against his son. But driven by a tempest, he returns, and making himself known to certain persons, he attacks the suitors, and is himself saved, but destroys his enemies."

I was introduced to Aristotle as a character in Annabel Lyon's novel, The Golden Mean. It's lovely to follow this with Aristotle's own words, and to glimpse a bit of the ancient world through the eyes of a man who lived then. It was a time when writers used specific verse rhythms, depending on the type of poetry or drama that was being created. How different now, when even novelists who write in verse mostly eschew formal metres. What has not changed is the imperative to use words wisely. "But the greatest thing is to employ metaphors well. For this alone cannot be acquired from another, but it is an indication of an excellent genius; since to employ metaphors well, is to discern similitude."

My favourite quote: "Poetry is the province either of one who is naturally clever, or of one who is insane."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Kinky and Cosy by Nix

Kinky & Cosy are little twin girls in red dresses. They terrorize their teacher, their parents and pretty much anyone they encounter on the street. They are the offbeat creation of Belgian cartoonist Nix (Marnix Verduyn) and have become so famous that a street in Brussels is named for them.

The collection of strips that I've just finished is an English translation published by NBM in 2011. Many of the 3-panel strips included would be fine for kids and teens, but this collection also contains adult material such as gags about women masturbating with dildos and kids using guns with live ammo, so it lives in the adult collection at my public library. Imagine The Simpsons, The Book of Bunny Suicides and Monty Python all rolled into one. Perfect if you are in the mood for dark and irreverent humour.

For a taste of Nix, check out some animated Kinky & Cosy cartoons (in English) available online here.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

An island where men prefer selkies over human wives is the setting for Margo Lanagan's atmospheric new novel, The Brides of Rollrock Island. Enchantment subverts the natural order and takes a hard toll on the entire community.

The tale unfolds in a leisurely way though a series of interconnected first-person stories, spanning several generations. The characters are thus explored from various angles, starting with the central figure, Misskaella the witch. We first meet her through the fearful eyes of a young boy, Daniel Mallett, who nearly wets himself when he must pass by her old form as she knits blankets out of seaweed on the beach. (Lanagan tantalizes with details like this; the reader must wait to discover the why of this unusual craft.) The next tale flips the perspective 180 degrees to Misskaella Prout's point of view, beginning with her difficult childhood. I immediately felt sympathetic.

Rollrock Island feels as real as the people who live there. This is from the opening page, in Daniel's voice:
"And down the cliff we went. It was a poisonous day. Every now and again the wind would take a rest from pressing us to the wall, and try to pull us off it instead. We would grab together and sit then, making a bigger person's weight that it could not remove. The sea was gray with white dabs of temper all over it; the sky hung full of ragged strips of cloud."

I recommend The Brides of Rollrock Island to adults and teens who enjoy magical stories, legends retold, a vivid sense of place, well-developed characters, and a plot that frames moral questions. It certainly has dark undertones, but it isn't as harrowing as Lanagan's Tender Morsels.

Readalikes: Snake Ropes (Jess Richards); The Scorpio Races (Maggie Stiefvater); Chime (Franny Billingsley).

Monday, December 10, 2012

Albert of Adelaide by Howard Anderson

Howard Anderson's Albert of Adelaide is a charming, oddball tale about a platypus who escaped from a zoo with a quest to find somewhere that he could feel at peace. In the remote desert of northeastern Australia, the first animal that Albert the Platypus encounters is a wombat arsonist and con artist named Jack.

"Jack paused to pour more tea into his cup. 'I don't know how much you know about wombats, Albert, but we're a boring lot, let me tell you.'
'I've seen one or two from a distance, but you're the first one I've ever talked to,' Albert replied.
'We live in deep holes, come out in the early morning or late in the evening, eat some leaves, and then call it a day. What kind of life is that?' [...]
Except for all those leaves, the life didn't sound too bad to Albert. 'Quiet.'
'Damn right it's quiet. It was too damn quiet for me.' Jack spit a tea leaf into the fire."

Some of the characters that Albert meets are not so friendly as Jack. In a bar at Ponsby Station, he encounters outright prejudice: "WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE WHO ISN'T A MARSUPIAL. The Management." Misadventure ensues.

It is rare to find an allegory written with such a light touch as Albert of Adelaide. Animal fantasy is also an unusual subgenre for an adult audience. Actually, this book would be fine for readers as young as 9 or 10. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the film Rango.

Readalikes: The Sisters Brothers (Patrick DeWitt); Mr and Mrs Bunny--Detectives Extraordinaire! (Polly Horvath); and The Rabbits (John Marsden and Shaun Tan).

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Best Audiobooks 2012

Comfy headphones are important
to me. I can't stand earbuds.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is audible.com's selection as best audiobook of 2012 and I also liked it very much (and reviewed it here).

Quiet by Susan Cain, on the top of audible.com's nonfiction list, was probably my personal favourite in 2012. I listened to it with my sister Simone when we spent about 6 hours in a car together and the good memories from that day are entwined with my enjoyment of the book. I've recommended it to so many people since then... thankfully, my friends are patient with my evangelistic zeal about books I love.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened, a memoir by Jenny Lawson, made the top 10 of Listener's Favourites of 2012.

I love "best of" lists like this because it's a good way to be reminded of stuff that I've meant to read but haven't got to yet. Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness is at the top of audible.com's fantasy list. Seeing it there prompted me to start listening to the first book in that series, A Discovery of Witches, which is performed by the same narrator, Jennifer Ikeda. I've had it on my iPod since August, but the publisher's comparison to Anne Rice and the Twilight series rather put me off. I'm about 3 hours in and liking it much better than I expected. So far, it reminds me of Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman (which I enjoyed) and the best parts of Endymion Spring by Matthew Skelton (the part about the magical book hidden in a library at Oxford).

My blogging motivation had temporarily deserted me, so I'm also thankful to this particular "best of" list for getting me back at my keyboard.

The Guardian's best audio list is here. It includes another that I'd place in my top listens of 2012: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, read by Derek Jacobi. It's one of many that I just never got around to reviewing.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Emperor of Paris by C.S. Richardson

C.S. Richardson's The Emperor of Paris opens with a fire at a bakery in the 8th arrondissment of Paris, then eventually circles back through several decades in the earlier part of the 20th century before arriving at the same fire at the end of the book. Readers move through the novel like flâneurs, meandering through interesting little tableaus that eventually coalesce into a larger picture.

Along the way, we get to know the baker, his parents and the course of their marriage; a young woman and how she came to have a scar across her face and all about her parents; and there's a penniless portrait artist, a bookseller with an outdoor stall on the Seine and various other people in the neighbourhood.

The baker cannot read but all he needs is a picture and he is able to invent fabulous stories. The woman with the scar loves art and books. The two are perfect for each other, if they can only overcome their shyness.

"The baker passes a pair of old women sitting on a bench. Each reads an identical copy of a cheap paperback. One grimaces as though stabbed through the heart and slaps her book closed. At the same moment, the other stifles a gasp with her hand, her eyes growing wide." I love this image of two readers reacting to the same book.

There's a marvellous sense of community in this gentle novel. I've got even more warm feelings about The Emperor of Paris since someone who selected it via my staff picks at the library loved the book so much that they wrote a letter to thank me for recommending it!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Bernadette, an architect who had received a MacArthur genius award, disappeared from the public eye when she moved to Seattle and devoted herself to being a housewife and an oddball recluse. Twenty years later, Bernadette disappears a second time. Her brilliant teenaged daughter, Bee, collects various memos and correspondence in her search for clues to her mother's whereabouts. These documents, together with Bee's wry commentary, form the structure of Maria Semple's highly entertaining Where'd You Go, Bernadette.

Bee had convinced her parents to take a family trip to Antarctica at Christmas. They were to board their ship in Ushuaia, Argentina. "When we arrived at the dock, we were ushered into a kind of hut, with a wall of glass dividing it the long way. This was immigration, so of course there was a line. Soon the other side of the glass filled up with old people decked out in travel clothing and carrying backpacks with blue-and-white ribbons. It was the group that had just gotten off the ship, our Ghosts of Travel Future. They were giving us the thumbs-up, mouthing, You're going to love it, you have no idea how great it is, you're so lucky. And then everyone on our side started literally buzzing. Buzz Aldrin, Buzz Aldrin, Buzz Aldrin. On the other side was a scrappy little guy wearing a leather bomber jacket covered with NASA patches, and his arms were bent in at the elbows like he was itching for a fight. He had a genuine smile, and he gamely stood on his side of the glass while people in our group stood next to him and took pictures. Dad took one of me and him, and I'm going to tell Kennedy, Here's me visiting Buzz Aldrin in prison."

Semple's satirical humour and her playful style make Where'd You Go, Bernadette an engaging read. I loved it. I also appreciated one of the more sober messages in the novel: that stifling creativity can be dangerous to one's mental health.

Readalikes with quirky characters: The Woefield Poultry Collective (Susan Juby); Come, Thou Tortoise (Jessica Grant); and My Most Excellent Year (Steve Kluger).

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder

When my YA book discussion group chose to read Carrie Snyder's The Juliet Stories, I had already  placed it on hold at the library because it was shortlisted for the Canadian Governor General's Awards. (The group occasionally reads adult titles, like this one, that have appeal for teen readers.) I didn't end up making it to the discussion because I had to work that evening, but I hadn't yet read the book anyway. I've only just now finished it, actually, having several other books on the go at the same time.

I liked The Juliet Stories very much. The weird thing is that I never noticed that the book is a series of interconnected short stories until I'd finished it. I assumed it was a novel and didn't read the inside flap or back cover until today: "A stunning new novel-in-stories set against the backdrop of the political turmoil in 1980s revolutionary Nicaragua." The 's' on the end of 'Stories' should have clued me in. I love story-cycles in general but this is the first time I've read one all the way through without noticing the format. When I'm reading short stories, I usually read them one at a time, interspersing them with other reading. And that's exactly what I did with The Juliet Stories, putting it down between chapters.

One of the things that I read in-between was a post on the Ken Haycock blog which looked at readers who skip between books like I do. It's actually about how books in digital format allow companies to track reading behaviours.

"Barnes and Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science fiction, romance and crime fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend to skip around between books." (Your E-Book is Reading You.)

Anyway, back to Carrie Snyder's wonderful stories/novel. The nuances of family relationships - between siblings, between husband and wife, and between parents and children -- are deftly delineated. Setting -- both time and place -- is another of Snyder's strengths, especially as seen through a child's experience.

"Ronald Reagan is the president of the United States of America. He is fighting the commies. Commie is short for communist, a thick plank of a word that is used often and ominously on American television; on American television communist means evil. But Juliet takes her definition from Gloria, who says that communists are people who share everything. (Imagine fighting against people who share! It is the punchline to a joke. Juliet writes a skit on the subject, and Keith plays Ronald Reagan with gusto: "I declare a war on sharing! There will be no more sharing!")"

Later, when Juliet's family moves from Nicaragua to Canada, there's a whole new cultural environment to negotiate. "Hockey is a violent sport that rewards angry men and boys. Ringette is an unsolved feminine mystery."

Snyder's memorable characters and poignant insights into family dynamics make The Juliet Stories a very rewarding book -- whether it is approached as a single novel or as individual stories.

Readalike: The Forrests by Emily Perkins

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

House Held Up by Trees by Ted Kooser and Jon Klassen

Illustrator Jon Klassen (Cat's Night Out; I Want My Hat Back) has created a powerful and delicate work in collaboration with award-winning poet Ted Kooser. House Held Up by Trees has an unusual storyline for a children's picture book. Set in the quiet beauty of the rural American midwest, it shows the life of a man who was apparently widowed at a young age, and how nature and time erase his efforts to make a lasting mark on the landscape.

The man is always shown at a distance, small against the wide open space where he lives. His preoccupation with maintaining a perfect lawn exhibits his need to be in control. He appears to have little connection with his children, who prefer the woods on the edges of their property to the barren expanse of their yard.

The man's constant battle is with tree seedlings that persist in taking root in his lawn. "This went on year after year, and the children slowly grew up, as children will, and in time became a young man and a young woman, ready to go off into the world." The illustration accompanying this text shows the young people facing the woods, the boy with his cap at his side in a gesture of respect, the girl holding a tree leaf. They do not value the same things as their father.

Klassen's restrained colour palette and liberal use of the palest shades evoke a mood of lamentation while maintaining the feeling of country expansiveness and fresh air. The man's missing spouse isn't mentioned in the text, but we see two chairs near the house, and one of these is occasionally used by the man, never by his children.

Later, when people have abandoned the property, the house is abused by weather and vandals. Trees inevitably take over the yard. "Some of the seeds had sprouted along the foundation, where water ran off the roof and into a deep crack, and these little trees were soon saplings, pressed against the side of the house." Practical details like this show Kooser's awareness and respect for the interplay between the natural world and manmade things. The trees growing against the house eventually lift it from its foundations. The result is otherworldly. Not a treehouse, which is purposefully built for play or refuge, but something else. Something of wonder.

House Held Up by Trees -- it took me a while to notice that there is no article at the start of the title (being as I am so used to omitting them in keyword searching and alphabetical filing). "House" has become an abstract concept here.

Children who live in dysfunctional families may see aspects of their lives reflected here. The tale is recounted without preaching or judgement and the ending is unexpectedly uplifting. It's a multi-layered picture book that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

Companion reads: The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton (for a different take on the movement of people from rural to urban life); Jack Pine by Christopher Patton (for another poetic celebration of the power of trees vs. humans); Grandpa Green by Lane Smith (for the contrast of a gardening aesthetic shared by a younger generation, rather than rejected).

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Home by Toni Morrison

Fran Lebowitz tells a good story about the time she was Toni Morrison's guest when Morrison received the Nobel prize for literature and Lebowitz ended up sitting at the children's table at the banquet. Anyway, hearing that anecdote reminded me that I've been meaning to read Morrison's recent novel, Home... and so I did. It is a jewel of a book, a powerhouse in under 150 pages.

Frank Money comes back from the Korean war shell-shocked, but learning that his beloved younger sister needs his help brings him back to his senses and to his hometown. The first lines from each short chapter are enough to reveal the attraction of Morrison's style:

   They rose up like men.
   Breathing. How to do it so no one would know he was awake.
   Mama was pregnant when we walked out of Bandera County, Texas.
   A mean grandmother is one of the worst things a girl could have.
   Women are eager to talk to me when they hear my last name. 
   The actors were much nicer than the actresses.
   Lotus, Georgia, is the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield.
   Jackie's ironing was flawless.
   Korea. You can't imagine it because you weren't there.
   The Georgian boasted a country-ham-and-red-gravy breakfast. Frank got to the station early to reserve a coach seat.
   Her eyes. Flat, waiting, always waiting.
   Frank walked down Auburn Street across from the station on Walnut.
   It was so bright, brighter than he remembered.
   I have to say something to you right now. I have to tell the whole truth.
   The next morning at breakfast Cee appeared to have returned to her newly steady self, confident, cheerful and occupied.
   Cee refused to give up the quilt.
   C'mon, brother. Let's go home.

Morrison's writing has become even better as it has become more spare in recent years.  A Mercyher previous book, had only 167 pages. I particularly love her characters. Even her villains get fair treatment -- the mean grandmother in Home, for example, has her own chapter to provide context for her actions. The bigger issues are always present, too: social, cultural and political issues that add a rich depth and feeling. It's a treat for a reader to experience such masterful work; storytelling that seems effortless.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin

Despite having no experience and not speaking French very well, Rosecrans Baldwin landed a job in an advertising agency in Paris. He and his wife packed their stuff into duffel bags and left New York to spend a year and half living in Paris. I love that city so much and wish I could live there. Since that isn't likely to happen, I lived vicariously through Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down. The magic and the merde -- Baldwin is adept at capturing the whole baffling experience of life in a foreign culture. (LCD Soundsystem's "New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down" plays in my head as I write this. Baldwin's book is funny, but it also feels wistful, like the song.)

"'French' became an umbrella term for me, describing things I liked before I knew why I liked them. but Paris was different. Paris was an umbrella, a dream I carried around in case the weather turned bad."

Parisian bar service.
Baldwin's first assignment was to create breast feeding pamphlets. His office mates shamed him out of eating at his desk, so he ate his lunch in a park most days, surrounded by other "office workers picnicking, students smoking and chatting, and college girls who would undress down to bikinis and sunbathe on the lawn while men gazed from their benches, eating their sandwiches with two hands. Not me, though. I was married. Plus I was fed up with breasts. I'd think, Oh, cover up your functionality already."

Pears at Luxembourg Garden
greenhouse display
During his lunch break, Baldwin worked on his own writing. Like me, he was curious about what books other people were reading. "The big book on the Metro that season was Millenium, a trio of crime novels by the Swedish author Stieg Larsson. At that point, the books were still unknown in America, but they were everywhere in France. Coworkers lugged their copies to the office each morning, walking through the front door with their noses buried deep. I wasn't feeling very hopeful about the future of books. The novel I was writing appeared to be going unhurriedly backward, sliding toward the trash."

When Baldwin asked his colleagues what symbol said France most of all, they were quick to reply. "The baguette. Or the Eiffel Tower. But this is a recent development." This pretty much sums up the Parisian preoccupation with food and cultural heritage. I wish I was there again.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Whole Day Through by Patrick Gale

I was first introduced to Patrick Gale when I swapped books with a fellow traveller in Scotland in 2001. I'd just finished Timothy Findley's Pilgrim and happily traded it for Gale's Rough Music. Mine was definitely the better half of the deal.

This morning I finished listening to Gale's The Whole Day Through [Clipper Audio; 4 hrs 45 min] and I already miss the protagonists. Sandra Duncan and Ed Stoppard perform the limited third-person narration as it alternates between Laura and Ben, both in their mid-forties. Laura, who is single, comes back to England from her home in Paris in order to care for her mother. Ben, who was Laura's lover when they were at university but has since married, has returned home to care for his brother after their mother dies. Ben's brother has Mosaic Down Syndrome -- and he's gay. Laura and Ben happen to bump into each other in the hospital where he works and where Laura has just dropped off her mother for an appointment. Will their second chance at romance succeed?

Ordinary lives become extraordinary when examined with loving precision; Gale does that well. The Whole Day Through is understated and melancholy, yet uplifting. It has left me thinking about the unintended effects that words can have on our lives. And thinking about Laura and Ben too, and what might lie ahead for them.

Gale's newest novel, A Perfectly Good Man, made the Green Carnation Prize shortlist this year.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Fran Lebowitz Reader by Fran Lebowitz

Since Fran Lebowitz was going to be speaking in Edmonton as part of the University of Alberta's Festival of Ideas, my book club decided to make the event a group outing. Instead of choosing a specific book, we agreed to read anything by Lebowitz beforehand. It isn't a vast oeuvre: Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981) are it, basically. The two works were combined in The Fran Lebowitz Reader (1994).

Lebowitz also wrote a children's book, Mr Chas and Lisa Sue meet the Pandas, published in 1995. Allan Gregg interviewed Lebowitz on TVO some years ago (during the Clinton era) and asked about her interest in children's books. Lebowitz responded that she has always kept reading them, along with other books. I was pleased to learn that, since I don't know many adults, outside of parents and librarians, who regularly read children's literature. The whole interview is great, by the way. You can find it in iTunes, or else here on YouTube.

So anyway, it was Eleanor Wachtel from CBC's Writers and Company who interviewed Lebowitz live on stage in Edmonton a couple of days ago. Wachtel is one of my very favourite interviewers, but she was a bit off her game that evening. She asked Lebowitz about Tales from a Broad: An Unreliable Memoir. Lebowitz responded that not only had she not written that book, but would be unlikely to even read a book with that title. Turns out that it's a different Fran Lebowitz who wrote that one. A member of my book club had made the same mistake, since we had agreed to read anything by Lebowitz and she happened to pick that one on Amazon.

Lebowitz (the New York lesbian one, not the Unreliable Memoir straight one) writes witty social commentary. Because her books are old, the cultural references in them are dated: macrame, est, mood rings, using the word "artistic" as a euphemism for gay, etc. I enjoyed The Fran Lebowitz Reader in small doses, setting it down to read other things in between. Here are a few lines from the piece titled 'Children: Pro or Con?':

"Moving, as I do, in what would kindly be called artistic circles, children are an infrequent occurrence. But even the most artistic of circles includes within its periphery a limited edition of the tenaciously domestic. As I am generally quite fond of children I accept this condition with far less displeasure than do my more rarefied acquaintances."

"Notoriously insensitive to subtle shifts in mood, children will persist in discussing the colour of a recently sighted cement-mixer long after one's own interest in the topic has waned."

Martin Scorsese's feature-length documentary about Lebowitz, Public Speaking, is an even better way to get to know her than through her writings. But I'm happy to give her the last word:

"Life is something that happens when you can't get to sleep."

Readalikes: Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

"Oct. 11, 1943. A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a shot at survival. The other has lost the game before it's barely begun." -- from inside the dust jacket of Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

This World War II adventure had me spellbound from the opening lines. The Gestapo have given Julie a choice: write down the details of her mission, or else be executed. Like Sheherazade, she spins out her tale over time, but it isn't enough to save her from ongoing brutality.

"Of course I was not allowed to take the paper into my room with me (in case I should tear it into strips and weave it into a rope with which to hang myself, I suppose), so had to wait for a while in the big outer chamber while von Linden was busy with someone else. See me, cowering in the corner in my wrist and leg irons, clutching my armful of blank recipe cards and trying not to notice what they were doing to Jacques's fingers and toes with bits of hot metal and tongs."

Code Name Verity straddles the boundary between adult fiction and YA. It is about a friendship so strong that it inspires extreme acts of heroism. It is such a good story.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Indigo by Jenny Balfour-Paul

The use of blue dye has a fascinating history as Jenny Balfour-Paul's Indigo demonstrates. Humans have prized the colour and used it to decorate textiles for millenia.

"In theory blue dye (from woad) could have been used as early as around 6000 BC in the Near East, for evidence at the early Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk in southern Anatolia suggests knowledge of dyes at the time." Weavers in Ancient Egypt inserted blue stripes into the borders of plain linen mummy cloths as far back as 2400 BC. Egyptians also used woad overdyed with madder or lichen dye to imitate the shellfish purple that was so highly prized. "Even today people of Oaxaca in Mexico will taste purple-dyed fabric to ensure they are not being palmed off with an indigo and red fake."

Most dyes come from plant materials, but natural purples are created from whelks. "Huge quantities of shellfish had to be killed (about 10,000 to obtain one gram of dye) in order to extract from the tiny hypobranchial glands enough of the photo-sensitive whitish secretion containing the precursor to purple." It's good to know that in Central America today, "the glands of Purpura patula are 'milked' without harming the whelks."

Logwood was discovered in the Americas at the time of the Spanish conquests, but the blues it produced were not colourfast. "It did, however, make a black so valuable in commerce that it was the cause of many conflicts between the Spanish and the English in Central America, and even resulted in the creation of British Honduras (Belize) -- but that is another dyestuff story!" (I want to read that one too.)

More than one kind of plant can be used to create blue dye, but some are superior. The introduction of indigo to Europe from Asia threatened the European woad dye industry. In France, the plutocracy had grown so rich on woad profits, that the king issued an edict in 1609 which sentenced to death anyone found using "the deceitful and injurious dye called inde." "French dyers were not officially free to use imported indigo as they wished until 1737." "At the close of the eighteenth century the magistrates of Nuremberg were still forcing their dyers to swear annually under oath not to use indigo, and, like the French authorities, actually threatened dyers with the death sentence for disobedience. The edict concerned was still on the books at the end of the nineteenth century but had long since been ignored." It was such a valuable commodity before the invention of synthetic dyes that in South Carolina "indigo dyestuff could be exchanged for slaves," pound for pound.

All of this is just in the first quarter of Indigo. Balfour-Paul also writes about indigo's use and cultural role around the world right up to modern times. It's an oversize, almost coffee-table-size book with lots of illustrations and colour photographs. Its appeal extends beyond readers with a special interest in textiles to anyone who enjoys learning about the many ways people manipulate the world around us.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Every Day by David Levithan

Waking up in a new body every morning, A -- the narrator of David Levithan's Every Day -- is resigned to this unique existence until A falls in love with a girl. A has no gender. A is always in a body that corresponds to A's real age, which is about 16 at the time of the novel (starting with day 5994). Whether inhabiting a male or female body, of whatever sexual orientation, size and skin colour, A only wants to be with Rhiannon. Every day a different body. Every day in love with the same girl.

The body jumper premise in Every Day is intriguing and Levithan does a good job exploring what role the physical body plays in romantic attraction.

Levithan seems to have no shortage of ideas for creative storytelling twists. Previous books include The Lover's Dictionary (written in a series of alphabetical vignettes), Boy Meets Boy (a sweet gay teen romance set in a town with no homophobia), and some lively collaborations with other authors, including John Green (Will Grayson, Will Grayson) and Rachel Cohn (Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist and others) and a photographer, Jonathan Farmer (Every You, Every Me).

Note added Nov 17, 2012: Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes have created a great promotion for Every Day via their online comic strip, Unshelved. See it here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Adult fans of children's fiction already know Rebecca Stead, whose genre-blurring When You Reach Me won the Newbery and many other accolades in 2010. Her new novel, Liar & Spy, is just as enchanting, although firmly based in reality. 12-year-old Georges makes friends with a couple of home-schooled kids when he moves to a new apartment in Brooklyn and joins their spy club. Meanwhile, Georges is not coping well with bullies at school and with his mother working long hours since his father was fired.

"Dad is looking at the bookshelves, deep in thought, deciding exactly which book should go where. Once, Mom came home from work and discovered that he had turned all the books around so that the bindings were against the wall and the pages faced out. He said it was calming not to have all those words floating around and 'creating static.' Mom made him turn them back. She said that it was too hard to find a book when she couldn't read the titles. Then she poured herself a big glass of wine."

Can't you just picture this scene? From start to surprising finish, Liar & Spy is rewarding for adults as well as readers in Grade 5 and onward.

Readalikes: Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh); The 10 pm Question (Kate De Goldi); and My Name is Mina (David Almond).

Monday, November 12, 2012

Boyfriends with Girlfriends by Alex Sanchez

I've been catching up on a lot of recent queer YA lately because I'll be at the GSA Student Conference happening in Edmonton next weekend. Since I've read other books by Alex Sanchez (Rainbow Boys; Getting It), I thought I'd just flip through his Boyfriends with Girlfriends to get a feel for it instead of reading the whole thing. It didn't work that way, however, because I got sucked right in and read every word.

Sanchez has created four believable teen characters with a mix of ethnic backgrounds: a gay guy, a bisexual guy, a butch lesbian and a bisexual young woman. The issue of bisexuality is sensitively handled and central to the romantic conflicts. The realistic dialogue moves the story along quickly (although I disapprove of all the cell phone use while driving!). The four of them go through all kinds of relationship angst as they sort out the early stages of attraction and dating. They are sweet kids and the book is sweet too.

The book jacket does a good job of reflecting the contents. I found some background about the design on the CBC (Children's Book Council) Diversity website. Laurent Linn, art director at Simon & Schuster, said he "aimed to create a cover that looks 'hot,' like a movie poster, but shows the characters interacting in ways that suggest the story's complexities. Casting models who resemble the characters was key, of course, as was posing them to be true to their relationships (it was quite a photo shoot)!" Read the whole post about portraying diversity on book covers here.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Blondes by Emily Schultz

A worldwide rabies-like plague breaks out in Emily Schultz's witty new novel, The Blondes. Hazel Hayes is a graduate student in New York City when the epidemic starts. News media are calling it Blonde Fury, Gold Fever, Suicide Blondes, or California Rabies because only blonde women appear to be susceptible. While coverage of a bloody attack plays on a television screen nearby, Hazel meets with her thesis advisor for the first time and answers questions about herself:

"'I did my BA in Communications in Windsor, Ontario,' I told her.
'I know that Windsor is in Ontario. I lived in your country for seven years, hmm.' She tacked on hmm's for emphasis. Everything about her had emphasis, from her eyeliner to her phrases. 'There it sits, across the border from Detroit. Such an absolutely ruined city.'"

Cities all over the place pretty much get ruined shortly after this conversation. Hazel eventually takes refuge in a cottage in Wasaga Beach, north of Toronto. She shares the place with its owner, Grace, who is the wife of Karl, who is Hazel's former professor at the University of Toronto... and who is also responsible for Hazel's pregnancy. Hazel addresses her story to her unborn child, calling the fetus her "little womb-raider."

As in her earlier novel, Heaven is Small, Schultz skewers modern culture and society, yet maintains loving patience for her protagonists and their human frailties. It's a fun ride!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Happy Families by Tanita Davis

In alternating chapters, fifteen-year-old twins Ysabel and Justin Nicholas tell how they are affected when they learn that their father is transgender in Happy Families by Tanita Davis.

"That thing Tolstoy says about happy families got to me. Happy families are all alike -- all of them are safe and confident that nothing on this earth can take that away from them. Just like we were, before Dad's little secret hit us like a wrecking ball."

Ysabel is an artist who handcrafts glass beads. Justin is an academic high-achiever. They are enrolled in a Christian academy and attend weekly church services. Their parents are good people who love each other. The fact that they also happen to be African American wasn't confirmed for me until page 181. I had wondered if they might be, but only because I know that the author, Tanita Davis, is African American. The late reveal emphasizes how little it matters to the story, and probably serves to increase close identification with the protagonists by readers of any ethnic background.

The conflict centers on the emotional struggles of the twins as they adjust to their new information about their father's transitioning and what it means for them and their family. An online Kids of Trans chat line helps, as do therapy sessions, and outings with other families with transgender parents.

Readers will come away informed about transgender issues, reinforced by transgender-specific terminology reference at the end of the book, along with advice on names and pronoun usage. Happy Families nicely adds to the growing diversity of queer content in YA literature.

Other teen literature featuring transgender protagonists include: One in Every Crowd (Ivan Coyote); Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy (Bil Wright); I Am J (Cris Beam); Almost Perfect (Brian Katcher); Wandering Son (Takako Shimura); Brooklyn Burning (Steven Brezenoff); Parrotfish (Ellen Wittlinger); Luna (Julie Anne Peters); Jumpstart the World (Catherine Ryan Hyde); and The Boy in the Dress (David Walliams).

Friday, November 9, 2012

Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller

It's highly unlikely that the extra virgin olive oil that we find in grocery stores is correctly labelled, according to Tom Mueller in Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. The book examines the widespread fraud associated with extra virgin olive oil, as well as the fascinating social and cultural history of this amazing fruit. I listened to the Dreamscape audiobook [10.2 hours] expertly read by Peter Ganim.

Each chapter opens with one or two quotations. I was particularly taken by this one from "Lady of the Vines" by Yannis Ritsos: "Silently, the olive is reading within itself the Scriptures of the stone."

Mueller's closing paragraphs contrast olive oil with wine:

"Wine in a meal is the soloist, set apart in its gleaming glass, while oil permeates the food, losing itself but subtly changing everything. Wine's effects on us are vivid and swift, while oil works on the body in hidden ways, slow and lingering in the cells and in the mind, like myths. Wine is merry Dionysus; oil is Athena, solemn, wise, and unknowable.
Wine is how we would like life to be, but oil is how life is: fruity, pungent, with a hint of complex bitterness -- extra virginity's elusive triad."

From the rise in popularity of the "Mediterranean diet" (and its distortion by the U.S. government into an anti-fat mesage) to chefs creating room-temperature ice cream based on olive oil -- there are so many interesting things in this book.

Another example is the eureka moment when scientist Gary Beauchamp recognized the specific sharp burn while tasting olive oil as being the same as that caused by ibuprofen. "It's not like hot peppers, which burn everywhere on your lips, mouth, throat. Ibuprofen produces an entirely different sensory percept, which is extremely localized in the throat, and only happens after you swallow it." Turns out that olive oil does indeed have similar anti-inflammatory properties.

I love micro-histories that focus on a single topic like this. Mark Kurlansky's Salt and Jenny Balfour-Paul's Indigo are of the same sort.

Companion read: The Olive Tree by Carol Drinkwater.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Unusually introspective for a post-apocalyptic survival story, Peter Heller's The Dog Stars is also remarkable for the voice of its narrator, Hig. 

"I don't want to be confused: we are nine years out. The flu killed almost everybody, then the blood disease killed more. The ones who are left are mostly Not Nice, why we live here on the plain, why I patrol every day."

Hig's only companions are his dog and a guy who would rather kill people than speak to them. They live at a small airport and Hig's regular patrols with a 1956 Cessna relieve the bleak monotony of his lonely life. He's a man of few words, but he does love language. In the night when his dog wakes at his side and sniffs, Hig is reminded of a poem from the Tang dynasty.

"I lift my head from the pillow
I see the frost the moon.
Lowering my head I think of home.

Li Po's most famous poem.

Even then: long before before the end, the bottomless yearning. Almost never home, any of us."

I love the way Heller makes Hig so real and his interior life so accessible -- using prose that's brief to the point of terseness. This next is an excerpt from Hig's memory of a time he chatted with a religious fellow who happened to be skiing at the same resort:

"We just follow the Bible word for word he said. Word for word you can't go wrong. Shook his head nice smile. I'd be crazy to disbelieve him.

I told him I always got stuck at the Begats. I said I had just read Lamentations though and it seemed like Mad Max. I mean women eating their babies, everybody dying.

He didn't laugh.

He said, I try to stay on the Right Side of the Bible. Left side was written by Jews. Some things to pay attention to, I guess, but if I were you I'd start with John.

We should have all paid more attention to the Left Side I am thinking now. The Wrong Side, the Side Where Shit Goes Really Really Wrong."

Some parts of The Dog Stars are like Mad Max and maybe even like the Old Testament. Mostly, it's a book that made me think about what is important in life. It's also surprisingly uplifting.


Monday, November 5, 2012

Canadian Pie by Will Ferguson

Me at Ferguson's  event at
Edmonton Litfest in 2011
(photo by Donna Fong)
Since I haven't yet read Will Ferguson's Giller Prize-winning 419, I've decided to review Canadian Pie instead, which I read last year. It's a collection of light and funny short pieces that have been previously published in various magazines and newspapers since the mid-1990s.

Most Canadians will identify with Ferguson's self-deprecating humour in Canadian Pie, and will likely have read at least some of this work elsewhere. Ferguson has won the Stephen Leacock medal for humour three times -- there is no question that he is funny. I like best, however, when his heart is at the forefront.

Rodeo week is upon us in Edmonton, so I'll pull an example from 'Father's Day and the Brothers Hardy':

"When I took Alex to the Calgary Stampede he was five years old and wearing a hat with a plastic whistle. I wanted my son to see the bull riders and chuckwagon races; I hadn't thought about the calf-roping. By the time the second calf had been yanked off its feet and tied down Alex was in tears. 'Make them stop,' he said. 'Make them stop.'

It's a burden and a glory, being a dad. It's the one time in your life when someone really believes in you, really believes that you can stand up in the middle of a grandstand filled with twenty thousand people and say loudly, firmly, in much the same manner as you'd announce it's time for bed and no more dilly-dallying, 'This has to stop. Right now! I'm sorry, but I'm the Dad and you have to stop hurting those little cows.'"

We all got to make pie at
Edmonton Litfest in 2012
(photo by Donna Fong)
There are plenty of strong pieces included in Canadian Pie, but the quality is not consistent. Some of the writing is hackneyed and a few of the articles are dated. In 'Mind the Gap!' (which is from an introduction he wrote for an edition of Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town) Ferguson writes: "Analyzing humour, it's been said, is a lot like dissecting a frog. You may learn something about anatomy in the process, but the frog itself usually dies." Just five pages earlier, in 'Dead Politicians,' Ferguson carefully explains why a certain joke is funny.

Two of Ferguson's novels, Spanish Fly and 419, are about con games. The germ of both books can be found in 'Pedigreed Pooches and Spanish Prisoners' which opens: "Dear reader, I am the son and/or widow of an exiled Nigerian diplomat." It ends with tongue-in-cheek, yet sage, advice on how to avoid being conned. I'm looking forward to reading 419 -- although with over 200 people ahead of me on the waiting list at the library it'll be a while before I get to it.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

For the Win by Cory Doctorow

Young people fight for justice worldwide in Cory Doctorow's For the Win. In the near future, the arena of sweatshop labour has broadened to include online gamers, a workforce of mostly teens. The concepts of labour union organizing, market forces, inflation, pyramid schemes and more are folded into the adventure and Doctorow manages to balance it all with enough action and suspense to keep up a forward momentum. The story moves back and forth around the world with a large cast of characters. Not all of them emerge unscathed -- or alive -- which is partly why the plot is so engaging.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by George Newbern [Listening Library; 16.5 hours]. Newbern uses subtle intonation shifts and slight accents to distinguish the many voices, which are mostly from China and India as well as the U.S.A.

Readalike: Ready Player One (Ernest Cline).

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Gay Dwarves of America by Anne Fleming

Anne Fleming's Gay Dwarves of America is a collection of offbeat stories with queer content. They are smart, funny and poignant. When Fleming was at the Vancouver Writers Fest last month, all but four copies of this book sold out at her first reading, so I feel lucky to have snapped one up. After her second event, Fleming signed pieces of paper instead.

To give you an idea of Fleming's stylistic range within the collection, consider a) Backstock: The Musical, written as musical theatre set in the storage area of an outdoor equipment store; b) Puke Diary, hilarious excerpts from each family member about the occasions when they vomited, starting with Sarah the cat; and c) the self-descriptive Thirty-One One Word Stories, which is the only one that left me scratching my head a bit.

Peter Who Once Loved Margaret opens: "I saw my Aunt Margaret, who died in China the year I was born, on West Hastings one morning last fall." It's not your usual sort of ghost story.

"Of three stalls only one was occupied, by the owner of size seven-and-a-half shoes whose heels beggared the imagination. It took me right back to last season's Canadian Idol and the mesmerizing drama of whether the poor young women with toes stuffed down a ski hill of a shoe into vicious little leather arrowheads would possibly make it through the three or four steps they were required to make so as not to incur the criticism of being Celine Dionesque comme Martha Joy, in my opinion the most talented of the year's crop, MOR taste in music notwithstanding."

In The Pear, a lonely parasitologist considers her feelings for another woman: "You're too old for her, intimated the furtive wordless homunculus lodged in the crypt of my inner mind. You're the wrong sex. I think. (The homunculus and I have ever been foggy on such matters.)"

Teenaged Jenny experiments with a femme fatale look in Unicycle Boys. Seeing her mirrored reflection made her suddenly feel sad and uncertain. "And then I took out my lipstick and fell all over again for its crimson plushness. Reapplying strongly-coloured lipstick, I've discovered, is a fail-safe curative." (I wonder if Fleming knew my friend Helen, who also put on fresh lipstick whenever she needed reassurance. Helen said she unwisely accepted a ride from a drunk and, by the time she got home, she looked like a clown.)

In Soyez Blessé, a lesbian comes to terms with being dumped, her thoughts on marriage (a decade before Canada legalized same-sex marriage), and her newfound knowledge of her mother's lesbianism. At her brother's wedding: "Bless you, she wanted to say to everyone in the church. May you be blessed. She imagined herself doing it, saying it to everyone, and when she came to Monique's relatives, she imagined herself speaking French, saying, 'Soyez blessé,' and then realized she would be saying, 'Be wounded.' Which of course was about as likely."

Laughing is an excellent way to cope with life's wounds... so read Fleming's stories and feel great.

Readalikes: Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (Zsuzsi Gartner); And Also Sharks (Jessica Westhead).

Friday, November 2, 2012

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Ari Mendoza and Dante Quintana are best friends in El Paso, Texas, where Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Author Benjamin Alire Saenz crafts a powerful coming out and coming of age story through Ari's distinctive voice. He is a loner and a tough guy to outside observers, but a lot is going on under his surface.

"I knew I wasn't a boy anymore. But I still felt like a boy. Sort of. But there were other things I was starting to feel. Man things, I guess. Man loneliness was much bigger than boy loneliness. [...] I was changing into someone I didn't know. The change hurt but I didn't know why it hurt. And nothing about my own emotions made any sense."

Dante is opposite to his friend in many ways, but especially in how he wears his unabashed heart on his sleeve. His love of poetry rubs off on Ari, to Ari's surprise.

"You could smell the rain in the desert even before a drop fell. I closed my eyes. I held my hand out and felt the first drop. It was like a kiss. The sky was kissing me. It was a nice thought. It was something Dante would have thought."

Saenz explores self-identity and personal relationships in layers: ethnic heritage; sexual orientation; machismo; fathers and sons; mothers and sons; brothers; and friends.

"What should we eat?" I said.
"Menudo," he said.
"You like menudo."
"Yeah."
"I think that makes you a real Mexican."
"Do real Mexicans like to kiss boys?'
"I don't think liking boys is an American invention."

I highly recommend this book to teen and adult readers alike. It is just so full of heart... which happens to be where all the secrets of the universe reside.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy

Darkly funny and cleverly crafted, Scottish author A.L. Kennedy's The Blue Book offers sharp and tender insights into human nature. I read passages aloud to anyone who would listen. By the end, my copy fluttered with sticky notes marking favourite parts.

When I was about a third of the way into the book, I read a unfavourable review of it in The Globe and Mail. Kathleen Byrne called it "a mess of fractured narrative" that takes "the patience of Job" to appreciate. Woah! I know that taste is subjective, but this kind of review is what I'd expect on someone's blog, not from a professional reviewer. Anyway, I wouldn't say that I have much patience as a reader. If a book doesn't grab me, I'll pick up something else, but The Blue Book hooked me from the start. It was longlisted for the Orange Prize earlier this year, so I'm not the only one who loved it.

My heart went out to Beth, one of the central protagonists, because in spite of her lively intelligence she has difficulty negotiating social interactions. With conflicted feelings about an upcoming encounter, for example, Beth "decides she should stand and worry that she isn't properly dressed. This will pass the time."

Beth has reason to suspect that Derek will ask her to marry him while they are on holiday on an Atlantic ocean liner. She worries about what that will mean for the future, "how much you will have to do: memorising mutual preferences, habits, frustrations, ticks -- and you'll discuss -- you will have to discuss -- God knows -- futures and kittens, or dogs, or stealing a baby from outside a shop -- you probably won't have the time to make one of your own -- and, if not that, then certainly there will be carpets and curtains to consider and accommodations, gardens, flats, renting, mortgages, life insurance, drawing up your wills -- and what if he dies before you? -- then you'll be upset -- and planning how many you'll have at the wedding breakfast -- although you might want something quick, a quiet affair with the cabby who drove you in as a handy witness -- I mean, why not? -- it could happen -- it genuinely, horrifyingly might -- when, Jesus Christ, you don't want to get married, not you -- marriage, that's an institution -- since when did you want to spend life in an institution? -- this whole thing is unpicking you, reworking you into someone else -- which means he will, in actuality, he'd be marrying someone else and how could you possibly cope with that? -- the jealousy alone would kill you..."

There's another person on the boat who has known Beth for a long time. The two of them used to prey on people's gullibility, supposedly transmitting messages from the dead to their grieving loved ones. Arthur was always better at this game than Beth was.

Arthur's trick is to "love his enquirers into openness, trust. When he actively considers their frailty, it becomes irrelevant if he dislikes them, loathes them -- because love is his only appropriate response. He loves them and they know it and that means they will let him burrow in."

"He can read anyone. He is a burning man and reads by his own light."

"get enough people together and someone is bound to qualify for any competent opening description [...] maybe had a chest condition, bad legs -- or someone they knew had bad legs -- or forget it and slide on, keep talking -- they had blond hair, wanted blond hair, had a friend with blond hair, had hair -- they worked in an office..."

Beth and Arthur have unfinished emotional business and, despite their acute awareness of what makes other people tick, neither of them are good at communicating their own feelings. Actually, it's more a matter of them being hyperaware -- requiring extra tact and precision with each other. As the events of their shared history are unveiled, my fascination with these characters grew. I also found myself thinking about spiritual mediums from a new point of view.

Readalikes: Lighthousekeeping (Jeanette Winterson); There but for the (Ali Smith).

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Assassin's Song by M.G. Vassanji

Karsan Dargawalla did not want to be a god. He spent his boyhood in a village in Gujarat in the 60s and 70s, where he was heir to Pirbaag shrine. He spurned his father's wishes and the expectations of the saint's followers and escaped to America. In M.G. Vassanji's The Assassin's Song, Karsan's story begins in 2002, upon his return to India after decades spent in the U.S. and Canada.

"But now the shrine lies in ruins, a victim of the violence that so gripped our state recently, an orgy of murder and destruction of the kind we euphemistically call 'riots'." "Do we always end up where we really belong? Do I belong here?"

In the year 1260, a wandering sufi mystic was also searching for a home. Nur Fazal asked the king of Gujarat for his permission to stay in the city. "Your kingdom is known far and wide outside Hindustan as a haven of tolerance where differences in belief are not persecuted. There is but one Truth, one Universal Soul, of which we all are manifestations and whose mystery can be approached in diverse ways."

This introspective novel switches back and forth in time, with a focus on Karsan and his family relationships. I listened to the Recorded Books audio [14.25 hours] narrated by Firdous Bamji (who also has performed Daniyal Mueenuddin's work).

Vassanji read from The Magic of Saida at the Vancouver's Writers Fest and now I've added his newest book to my massive TBR pile.

Companion reads: The part set in medieval times draws on the Mahabharata and reminded me of The Palace of Illusions (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni). One of the first Sufi texts that Karsan encountered as a boy was The Conference of Birds (which has been beautifully adapted by Peter Sis.)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Cure for Everything! by Timothy Caulfield

University of Alberta professor Tim Caulfield untangles the Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness, and Happiness in The Cure for Everything! Physical fitness, diet and remedies -- both alternative and conventional -- are the three main topics, all explored via the evidence of scientific studies.

The good news is that exercise is good for you. Which is also bad news, since many of us don't get enough exercise. The "benefits of regular physical activity for health, longevity, and well-being easily surpass the effectiveness of any drugs or other medical treatment."

The benefits do not include weight-loss, however, which is considered one of the biggest myths associated with physical activity. Todd Miller, professor in the Department of Exercise Science at George Washington University, states "People don't understand that it's very difficult to exercise enough to lose weight. If that's why you're doing it, you're going to fail. In part, it's because you're fighting creeping obesity. Everyone puts on weight as they age. If you're keeping your weight constant, you're winning the battle." Working out to stay the same is depressing... unless you remember the other benefits (see previous paragraph).

Another pervasive myth is "spot reduction." "You cannot lose fat in a particular region of the body by working that part of the body. You cannot 'tone.' You cannot lose stomach fat by doing sit-ups." Hunh!  That was a revelation for me, brainwashed by the cover copy on all the fitness magazines I see in the library and at the grocery checkout. I've been doing 20 minutes of core strength exercises every morning for several years and wondered why they had no effect on my round tummy. My reasons for embarking on this particular activity had to do with physical health: being tired of feeling old and creaky and prone to back injury. And the results have been rewarding, which is why I continue. But I was puzzled about my unchanged stomach fat and now I know the answer. I felt stupid not to have realized this sooner.

I also learned is that strength training is more important than aerobics exercise. "Women and the elderly are the ones that benefit most from resistance training, not young healthy men." I've added more push-ups to my morning routine since reading Caulfield's book.

The section on diet didn't hold any surprises for me. Caulfield's advice is basically the same as Michael Pollan's. In another chapter, alternative healthcare and conventional pharmaceuticals are both found lacking. Both are affected by the powers of money and wishful thinking to distort scientific fact.

"The results of [Caulfield's] research point to a disheartening conclusion, which is, basically, that nothing works. Despite the immense diet, fitness, and remedy industries, very little actually does what it promises to do." What steps can we take to achieve maximum health? "First, exercise often and with intensity (intervals work best) and include some resistance training. Second, eat small portion sizes, no junk food, and make sure 50 percent of what goes in your mouth is a real fruit or vegetable. Third, try your best to maintain a healthy weight (yes, this is insanely tough -- but we should, at least, try). Fourth, do not smoke, and drink only moderate amounts of alcohol."

In the end, these are Caulfield's tips for untangling the twisted messages: "be skeptical, be scientific, be self-aware, be patient, and look for the best, most independent information."

Tim Caulfield's LitFest appearance in Edmonton was sold out. Catch him on YouTube here.