Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery

"Is there a woman left in Paris who sleeps with men?" asks one of the characters in Ellis Avery's latest novel, The Last Nude. A 17-year-old American, Rafaela Fano, is drawn into the decadent artistic social scene in Paris in 1927 when she models for Tamara de Lempicka and the two become lovers. Tamara and Rafaela are separated in age by over 10 years and there is an even greater gulf of power between them. Their affair does not end well, but it sure makes a good story!

Many well-known lesbians from that era make appearances -- Sylvia Beach, Djuna Barnes, Romaine Brooks and Gertrude Stein to name a few. Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Barnes' Nightwood would make excellent companion reads for The Last Nude.

Never having heard of Lempicka before, I went looking for images of her paintings online. The cool eroticism of Lempika's work is reflected in Avery's characterization of the painter. The book's jacket cover image is Lempicka's The Dream. The model is Rafaela. She now feels like a real person to me.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Batwoman: Elegy by Greg Rucka and JH Williams III

Kate Kane's lesbianism is out in the open in the graphic novel Batwoman: Elegy. It is the reason she was thrown out of the army right after graduating from West Point. The thing that complicates Kate's love life is her secret identity as the Batwoman.

In an earlier graphic novel written by Greg Rucka, Gotham Central: Half a Life, readers were introduced to Renee Montoya, a detective in Gotham's police force. Renee was outed and framed for murder in that story. Renee appears briefly in Batwoman: Elegy as an ex-lover for whom Kate pines.

A new leader of the Religion of Crime has come to Gotham City and her name is Alice. She speaks only in dialogue from Lewis Carroll's works. Artist JH Williams III seems to have been inspired by Tim Burton and his Alice looks like a saucy Victorian punk goth version of Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter. Williams' dynamic page layouts also include neat visual tricks that foreshadow an important plot element.

Kate and Alice are well-matched as adversaries. While there are evil minions with superpowers around them, these two women are athletic humans with lots of nifty military gadgets. Thrilling, dark and fun. There's also a great introduction by Rachel Maddow, praising the Batwoman's moral spine.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Pull of the Ocean by Jean-Claude Mourlevat

The Pull of the Ocean is a retelling of Tom Thumb, set in contemporary rural France. Yann is the youngest of seven brothers. He is 10, but he is the size of a two-year-old. When Yann wakes the older boys one evening and tells them they must flee or be harmed by their father, the three sets of twins do not hesitate to follow him.

Jean-Claude Mourlevat uses multiple points of view in brief chapters to tell of their adventure on the road, headed towards the sea near Bordeaux. It's a captivating story with a touch of magic at its heart, magic that is best described as awe in the fact of human existence.

This would make a wonderful family read-aloud and is suitable for readers in Grade 4 and up.

Readalike: The book that comes most strongly to mind is Anne-Laure Bondoux's The Killer's Tears. Both have the timeless quality of fables, feature extremely poor families with terrible parents, and end in redemption. Both Mourlevat and Bondoux have been translated from French to English by the same person: Y. Maudet.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield

Simon Garfield's collection of snappy essays about fonts is just the thing for font nerds like me. I confess that I started with Chapter 21: The Worst Fonts in the World, second from the end, before flipping back to the beginning.

A little bit of Garfield's material is duplicated in the Helvetica documentary film. There are some great quotes, such as this one from Peter Fraterdeus: "There is no legitimate typographic reason to create an alphabet which looks like it leaked out of a diaper." Garfield also quotes Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typographical Style.

Thanks to Garfield, I learned that there is a YouTube video of a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog. Learning + fun = Great book.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food by Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik's The Table Comes First is an erudite cross between travel writing and food writing. Here are some of my favourite passages:

“Home, Robert Frost wrote, is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. A restaurant is a place where, when you go there, they not only have to take you in but have to act as though they were glad to see you. In cities of strangers, this pretense can be very dear.”

“The potential miracle of the cookbook was immediately apparent: you start with a feeling of greed, find a list of rules, assemble a bunch of ingredients, and then you have something to be greedy about. In cooking you begin with the ache and end with the object, where in most of the life of the appetites – courtship, marriage – you start with the object and end with the ache.”

“behind nearly all taste squabbles are value disputes” (contrasting eco/green sensibilities vs. proponents of industrialized agriculture)

“There is no right way to eat, spell, get dressed, wear clothes, make love, listen to music, drink wine, raise children, because there is no natural way to do any of these things. Every attempt to say what nature wants us to do turns out to be what someone thinks we ought to.” Taste lies beyond reason: “We can explain why people like music, but we cannot explain why some prefer Barry Manilow to Mozart.”

“The fragility of life means that our goal is not to extend it but to enjoy it, for the simple reason that we can’t really extend it and we know right now if we’re enjoying it.”

On the appeal of cookbooks like Ducasse’s Culinary Encyclopedia, which has lavish photos: it doesn’t matter that “even for a good cook, the dishes are essentially unrealizable, but that does not alter their encyclopedic significance: images of Heaven are painted to encourage you to go there, not to help you build it in your backyard.”

I wanted to go to l’Arpege, a (mostly) vegetarian restaurant in Paris, based on Gopnik's glowing description – until I read further, and learned that a meal could easily cost $200 per person. I guess that isn't surprising, since the produce comes fresh every morning via TGV from the chef/owner’s permaculture gardens, worked with horse-drawn equipment. A meal that is probably better in my dreams than it would be in reality.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

There is no question that John Green is a fantastic writer. Who else could create such a funny, moving -- yet unsentimental -- story about a romance between two teens with cancer? The Fault in Our Stars is faultless. Here's just a taste:

"Mom reached up to this shelf above my bed and grabbed Bluie, the blue stuffed bear I'd had since I was, like, one -- back when it was socially acceptable to name one's friends after their hue."

Read it.

(I'm still mostly too busy to post, but reading up a storm.)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

The wartorn Balkans is the setting for Tea Obreht’s nuanced exploration of what death and the dead mean to the living. The Tiger’s Wife also shows how stories can sustain us through the most difficult of life’s circumstances.

There are three tales here, the central one being the first person account of Natalia, a young doctor bringing medical aid to an orphanage on the other side of a newly- created border. She interweaves her story with two that have been passed down from her grandfather, also a doctor. One is about a deathless man and the other is about a tiger. Many decades earlier, a tiger escaped from a city zoo and made its way to her grandfather’s remote village, where the people mistook it for a devil wearing fiery pyjamas. When he was a boy, the grandfather had only one book, Kipling’s Jungle Book, but it was enough for him to recognize the tiger as Shere Khan.

The Books on Tape audiobook (11.3 hours) has two narrators: Susan Duerden for the voice of Natalia and Robin Sachs for her grandfather. The pace is measured, as suits the reflective nature of the story. It also allows time to appreciate the vivid images conjured up by Obreht’s prose.

Readalike: Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. Although set on the other side of the world, this has a somewhat similar feel with young people growing up amid the violence and uncertainty of war, plus it has a classic work of literature in a talismanic role.

The Tiger’s Wife also brought a pair of graphic novels to mind:
Notes for a War Story by Gipi (It's bleaker than The Tiger’s Wife, but setting is similar to what Natalia would have experienced as a teenager during the Balkan war.)
Pride of Baghdad by Brian Vaughan (This one is a heavy-handed allegory based on a true story about lions which escaped from a zoo during bombing in 2003 in Iraq and there’s a battle between a lion and a bear that’s echoed in The Tiger’s Wife - except with a tiger rather than a lion.)