Monday, April 30, 2012

Mister Wonderful by Daniel Clowes

In Daniel Clowes' graphic novel Mister Wonderful, friends have arranged for two lonely, middle-aged people to meet. Marshall and Natalie have both been emotionally damaged by earlier relationships, but there is unmistakable chemistry between them on their first date. Dramatic events lead to the couple spending far more time together than originally planned.

Marshall's constant internal monologue is what gives this story poignancy. His fears and flaws are revealed and given centre stage. Marshall's thoughts often obscure the speech balloons of Natalie's conversation.

Marshall is so obviously not Mister Wonderful, nor does he consider himself to be... and yet he just might be perfect for Natalie. There's a lid for every pot.

Readers who enjoy quiet introspection will find Mister Wonderful rich, melancholy and tender. I look forward to hearing Daniel Clowes at the Comics Philosophy and Practice Conference in Chicago in May.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy by Bil Wright

YA literature has introduced me to so many unforgettable characters and now I'm adding New Yorker Carlos Duarte to that list. From Bil Wright's title, Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy, you might think that Carlos is overweight and transgendered. A good guess, but not exactly right. Carlos is big and he does use cosmetics on himself. He is attracted to other boys, although still a virgin. His passion is applying makeup on other people. He is still in high school, but he plans to be a makeup artist to the stars. I love his spirit -- a combination of dreaming big, remaining optimistic and working hard for his goals against the odds.

From the moment that his best friend Angie suggests that he apply for a part-time job at the FeatureFace cosmetics counter in Macy's, Carlos has already leaped into the future, where he has aced the interview, been hired, is able to offer his sister Rosalia discounts and the whole thing is "beyond crazy fabulous!"

Carlos rushes to the fast food outlet where Rosalia works to tell her the good news, ignoring her coworkers stares: "[L]ike my head was spinning around while I was talking. All right, I'm not stupid. It was raining hard and I had on my black vinyl slicker and the hat that goes with it. And my mascara may even have been smudged a little from so much rain. So, I didn't look like any of the yuppies in the stupid place. Or those boys in their dirty uniforms. But I never look like anyone else, and that's the point. I don't want to look like anyone else."

Carlos is a teenager and so of course he messes up occasionally. Sometimes in a big way. I admire the way he takes responsibility for his actions when he makes mistakes. I was cheering for him all the way.

Readalikes: Will Grayson, Will Grayson (John Green and David Levithan) and Freak Show (James St. James).

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

London clockmaker Joe Spork is a really nice guy. (He can't help it that his father was an infamous criminal.) Joe is called on to repair an ingenious clockwork book-type thing. The device is called Angelmaker because it makes angels out of men. It is also referred to as the Apprehension Engine. It may save the world... or possibly destroy it. To recap: "It would seem that at some time between 1945 and 1980, Joe's grandfather and grandmother built a bee-machine which is either a rocket ship, a mobile sculpture, or a brain-melting lie detector."

There are many larger-than-life characters in Nick Harkaway's tale of derring do, but my favourite is Edie Banister. She's a lesbian former superspy, nearing 90 years old but still able to kick ass when necessary. And it is necessary, because an insane despot is trying to become one with god by destroying the planet. Against his better judgment, Joe finds himself hurtling towards a "night of misrule." Swarms of mechanical bees are on their way. Angelmaker is a metaphysical thriller. Wow!

If you enjoy steampunk, this is for you, because, with all the clockwork technology, it has that feel. The setting goes back and forth between present-day England and global spy intrigue after WWII. Some parts, set in a fantastical submarine in the 1940s, bring Jules Verne to mind. Angelmaker also reminded me very much of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire! translated from the Rabbit by Polly Horvath

I seek out translated fiction because I like encountering newness -- different perspectives and styles, that sort of thing -- but this is the first time I've read something translated from Rabbit. The author, Mrs. Bunny, decided on a whim (and a hankering to wear a fedora) that she and her husband should become detectives. Their very first case was to help a girl named Madeline to find her parents.

Madeline's parents are hippies and they live on Hornby Island, British Columbia. "As nature often has it, they had a child who did not want to join them in their all-day pursuit of enlightenment and a better mung bean. Instead, she became very good at cooking and cleaning and sewing and bookkeeping and minor household repairs. She was the one who changed the lightbulbs. When only ten, she got herself a waitress job part-time at the Happy Goat Cafe."

"All the other children on Hornby were homeschooled, but Madeline preferred to get up at five every morning and walk to the harbour, where she took a ferry to Denman Island, the bus across Denman, the ferry to Vancouver Island and then the bus that took her to a real school. She had made the decision to do this when she entered Grade 5 and was finally old enough to make the trip without help. This earned her the reputation for being eccentric, but the happy hippies of Hornby were tolerant of Madeline, if a little wary."

So anyway, some evil foxes kidnap Madeline's parents and Mr. and Mrs. Bunny bumble their way to a rescue. It is highly amusing. (And the pace really hops along!)

Polly Horvath has done a fine job of translating this lively tale which is illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Grade 3 and up.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

First-time author Eowyn Ivey blends historical fiction with a Russian fairytale in this remarkable and unusual novel. A childless couple in their 50s decide to homestead in Alaska in the early 20th century. The harsh winters and the backbreaking work on the farm are almost too much for Jack and Mabel, but their love proves resilient. Their lives are much improved when a little girl shows up out of the wilderness.

"The girl's hair was white-blond, but when Mabel studied it, she saw that woven and twisted among the strands were gray-green lichens, wild yellow grasses, and curled bits of birch bark. It was strange and lovely, like a wild bird's nest."

Could she actually be the child they made from snow the previous night? Will she stay on with them when winter ends?

Ivey's evocation of homestead life reminded me of Willa Cather's My Antonia, but with an added element of magic realism. Readalikes that have both realism and a fairytale quality include: The Old Country (Mordicai Gerstein); The Book of Everything (Guus Kuijer); The Pull of the Ocean (Jean-Claude Mourlevat); Jackdaw Summer (also called Raven Summer - David Almond); Impossible (Nancy Werlin); and The Ghost's Child (Sonya Harnett). I think adults who like The Snow Child will enjoy any of these, even though they happen to be aimed at a younger audience.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Global Forest by Diana Beresford-Kroeger

Canadian botanist and biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger has written something unlike anything I've read before. The brief essays that make up The Global Forest are rather like prose poems, each about 3 or 4 pages long. They are an odd combination of prayer, eco-rant, and university-level science lesson.

Specialized botanic language is used, as when referring to the testa and intima (layers of seed coatings), or the haustoria and ascus (parts of lichens). Most of all, the style is poetic: "the trees will smile their oxygen" and "All of science curtsies around the one bone fragment of flight of a prehistoric hummingbird."

The language and ideas are often playful: "Trees copulate in copious amounts. Plants have had the good fortune of being outside of the rigors of religion, so they do as they please. They are plants after all and everything goes in the plant kingdom. [...] Homosexuality also exists in the forest. Sometimes it is part of the normal family fare and other times it is expressed as a stress factor when nothing else works."

"Walnut Trail" sign seen on a
walking trip in the Dordogne, France.
Walnut wine is an area specialty.
I feel like I learned things: "Pound for pound, [black walnut] nutmeat rivals a standing rib roast in nutrition." But I don't trust everything: "A young child can read the language of a baby with telepathy, as they can distinguish male from female in the very young as if by some unerring instinct." Elsewhere: "Fasting and death produce potent dreams." (I wonder how we know what people dream of as they die?)

Astounding statements might have no supporting information: "Simply by holding a green walnut, J. nigra, a young child will receive protection from early childhood leukemia." I deduced from a later essay that Beresford-Kroeger was referring to the ellagic acid complex that may offer protection from cancer.

Beresford-Kroeger's ecological manifesto can perhaps be summed up in these lines: "The truth is that man is only one species and he stands on a fragile platform of life that is but a whisper away from death. There is some time left. There is time for a different way of thinking in which man can rethread the needle and sew a life for the future."

I could only read a few essays at a time because I would get annoyed with some sweeping statement -- or humans referred to as 'man' -- so it took me a long time to get through the book. I would still recommend it to anyone who is up for some cerebral stimulation... especially if you are fond of trees.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet

Clem and Frankie are two teenagers who should never have fallen in love. Her family is rich; his is working class poor. Their romance is set in 1962 in a remote part of England, far from the Cuban Missile Crisis, but they learn that world politics touch everyone. 

Although Mal Peet's Life: An Exploded Diagram is marketed as a teen novel, it really straddles the line between teen and adult. The pace is leisurely and we first get to know Clem's parents and how they met during WWII. We even get to know his grandparents. Norfolk dialect peppers the dialogue. Peet's prose is a treat: "Ruth's mind ticked like a cooling tractor." Sometimes the setting shifts to 21st century New York, where Clem as an old man looks back: "The past has bloody teeth and bad breath. I look into its mouth like a sorrowing dentist."

The book is divided into three main sections: Putting Things Together; Blowing Things Apart; and Picking Up the Pieces. Give this book your patience and you will be richly rewarded. Peet puts all the pieces together very well. Grade 9 - adult.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Les Tres Riches Heures de Mrs Mole by Ronald Searle

Les Tres Riches Heures de Mrs Mole is a sweet collection of 47 coloured drawings that British cartoonist Ronald Searle made for his wife, Monica, each time she underwent chemotherapy.

Monica Searle was diagnosed with a virulent form of breast cancer in Paris in 1969. Ronald writes about being in the "intolerable situation of being a helpless bystander, trying to find any possible way of being a support." He is an artist, so he made pictures. The couple had purchased a house in Provence shortly before the diagnosis. Ronald's artwork portrays Monica as a blissful mole and evokes the joys that await her through the seasons in their new home.

Against the odds, Monica survived four more decades. She died in July 2011 and Ronald died in December 2011. These whimsical drawings are a testament to their shared love, optimism and gratitude.

Readalike: Sempe: A Little Bit of France. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

My mother, Aline, is a great example of the power of introverts that Susan Cain extols in her book, Quiet. Mom is a soft-spoken, calm, thoughtful, patient, hard-working and humble woman. She is a good listener, nonjudgmental and open to new ideas. Four out of her five children are also introverts, so we thrived with her parenting style. She gave us lots of privacy and encouraged us to take initiative and to become independent individuals. Solitude and time for quiet reflection were always recognized as important in my family.

Cain looks at the reasons that introversion survived as a personality trait from an evolutionary perspective. Temperament and differences in brain chemistry are innate characteristics that affect where we lie on Jung's introversion/extroversion scale. How did extroversion become the cultural ideal in the United States? Is charisma necessary for good leadership? Why is group brainstorming ineffective from a creativity standpoint? (Brainstorming does have the benefit of making people feel closer to each other.) This book is full of fascinating stuff. You can hear and see Cain talk about some of these issues online here.

Mom and me
Mom is 75 today. We'll have a quiet celebration at a restaurant, the kind of social occasion that best suits her personality. Happy birthday, Mom! Thanks for sharing your great love of books with me. And thanks for your assurance, through example, that it's okay to be an introvert.

Friday, April 13, 2012

We the Animals by Justin Torres

In We the Animals, Justin Torres conjures up the rough-and-tumble magic of brotherhood shared by three young boys, very close in age and in their loyalty to each other. Their Black mother was only 14 years old, and their Puerto Rican father was 16, when the eldest child was born. The family's poverty and outsider status barely register with the narrator, the youngest child. He feels the security of his brothers' fierce love, despite the marital troubles of their young parents.

The boys run wild and are mostly unsupervised. Life is a marvelous adventure. They make do with what they find, like making kites out of string and black garbage bags:

"We ran, slipped, the knees of our dungarees all grass stained, we got up, ran, choked ourselves half to death with laughter, but we found speed, and our trash kites soared. We flew for an hour or so, until daylight fully buried itself into night and all the light sank back, except for the stars and a toenail clipping of moon, and the kites disappeared, black on blackness. That's when we let go, and our trash kites really soared -- up and away, heavenward, like prayers, our hearts chasing after."

Their brotherly love is tested as the narrator grows older and explores his gay identity. "See how I made them uneasy. They smelled my difference -- my sharp, sad pansy scent."

A poetic coming-of-age story, both heartwarming and heartbreaking. I loved it.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Pinocchio by Winshluss

Borrowing liberally from Carlo Collodi's dark allegory, French graphic novelist Winshluss has created a surreal comedic version of Pinocchio. Geppetto dreams of the money he will make after creating an indestructible mechanical boy who can be used as a military weapon. Meanwhile, it is in Pinocchio's nature to kill, so violence and bloodshed are his constant companions, even though the little robot appears innocent of any will to cause harm.

The tale is almost wordless, except for the Jiminy Cockroach segments. Jiminy is a lazy wannabe writer who takes up residence inside Pinocchio's head cavity. Collodi's cricket ghost is replaced by the ghost of a police detective's cat in this world. The detective is tracking Geppetto for suspected murder, while Geppetto is in turn searching for his valuable lost boy. Jiminy's quest is more existential.

The humour is definitely of the adult kind, with lots of sex and gore. Seven dwarf perverts -- the "Sleazy Seven" -- along with an unwilling Snow White, make several cameo appearances. Winshluss's full colour artwork is often slapstick; the dwarves have giant bulbous noses and tiny penises. Disney-type cartoon animals looking in on the dwarves' BDSM orgy turn away from the window in disappointment when the joint is raided.

Winshluss references famous art outside of Disney, including Georges Melies' Trip to the Moon and other Belle Epoque work. Pinocchio is a mind-blowing trip... with much blowing out of brains... and yet it's a satisfying journey.

Readalikes: For more macabre humour, Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People by Coupland and Roumieu. For a tamer (i.e. youth-appropriate) graphic novel retelling of Pinocchio with some violence, try Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer by Jensen and Higgins.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Believing Is Seeing by Errol Morris

Errol Morris investigates the stories behind some famous documentary photographs, questioning whether iconic images were staged or had their subjects tampered with. If so, does that matter? Also of interest to Morris is how viewers interpret the images we see in photos, especially when paired with a photo caption.

For example, there is a photo of a toy Mickey Mouse lying amid rubble from bombed-out apartments in Lebanon, taken during the Israeli-Lebanese war in 2006. (The image can be seen online here.) Do we assume that children died as a direct result of the bombing when we see this? Does knowing that the residential area was a rebel stronghold affect how we react to the photo? Does Mickey Mouse bring up the spectre of American politics and influence in the Middle East? There are a number of war documentary photos (from different sources) with a similar composition: a toy in the foreground with gray rubble behind. Were they staged? What message remains with us after seeing these photos?

The way our senses perceive information may be influenced by preconceptions. Norwood Russell Hanson's work along these lines, as well as that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, is touched upon in Believing Is Seeing. A reproduction of Wittgenstein's rabbit-duck profile from Philosophical Investigations took me on an unexpected tangent. I had to have another look at Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld's picture book Duck! Rabbit! after that.