Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer's newest book, Imagine, offers insights into the complex dynamics of creativity, based on research in neuroscience and psychology. His topics include the role of mind-altering drugs, why some urban environments are more conducive to innovation than others, the connection between mental illness and creativity, and why brainstorming doesn't work. Fascinating stuff.

The Brilliance audio recording [8 hours] is nicely produced, with the final sentence from the previous CD repeated at the start of the next one. I also like that the beginnings and endings of each CD are identified with a little bit of music. It's read by the author, whose public speaking experience is evident. Hear him read a few minutes from Imagine here, accompanied by great animation art.

Readalikes: Quiet (Susan Cain); Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell); Where Good Ideas Come From (Steven Johnson); My Stroke of Insight (Jill Bolte Taylor) and Information (James Gleick).

Monday, May 28, 2012

Sheepish:Two Women, Fifty Sheep & Enough Wool to Save the Planet by Catherine Friend

In her first memoir, Hit by a Farm, Catherine Friend described how she and her wife, Melissa, started a sheep farm in Minnesota. Even though Melissa is the true farmer, 15 years of farming has had an effect on Friend. In Sheepish, Friend admits that she has absorbed a little of what Gene Logsdon describes as the true farmer's spirit: "that blend of creative artistry, independence, manual skill and love of nurturing that marks a true farmer."

"Most of us use the word 'sheepish' to mean embarrassed, ashamed, or chagrined." Friend writes that this definition makes no sense because sheep are never those things. She uses sheepish in a different way: "of or belonging to. Think Spanish -- of or belonging to Spain. Danish -- of or belonging to fruit-filled pastries. Sheepish -- of or belonging to sheep. Sixteen years ago I was not at all sheepish. I was bookish, library-ish, wine-and-appetizer-ish. Decidedly unsheepish." That has really changed.

Sheepish is full of amusing anecdotes about farm animals, woollen fiber arts, menopause and life in general. Here are a few things that I learned: Oxytocin, the hormone that establishes social attachments between mammals, is "the reason farmers keep farming even though animals beat them up and batter their bank accounts." There are fewer allergies to wool than to any other known fiber, and the reason why over 30% of Americans believe they're allergic to wool has to do with its structure. "If you joined the fiber of five Merino sheep end to end, you could wrap a thread of wool around the world." You can minimize exposure to dust mites with woolen bedding because wool wicks away moisture and dries out more quickly than synthetic or down, plus the lanolin in wool repels dust mites.

Friend is a funny woman. When Melissa was recovering from abdominal surgery, Friend had to convince her to stay put, by telling her "if she doesn't stop sneaking out of the house to work in the shed, all the internal organs still left inside her will come undone and head for the nearest exit." Sometimes it is the situation itself that is funny, like when a duck and a chicken each laid an egg in the same place and both refused to give up the nest, so they looked like either a chicken's body with a duck's head or vice versa. "Later I find five hens in a nest box meant for one, basically stacked on top one another, each determined to lay her egg in that nest." (This last anecdote is especially for people who love chickens, like my friend Claire at Egg Venturous.)

Readalikes: Trauma Farm (Brian Brett); At Least in the City, Someone Would Hear Me Scream (Wade Rouse). Also recommended for people who enjoy reading about knitting, spinning and weaving.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Hannah Payne is found guilty of murdering her unborn child and sentenced to 16 years with bright red skin in Hillary Jordan's When She Woke. People are "chromed" yellow, blue, green or red, depending on their crimes. They face society's extreme prejudice in a dystopian future Texas. In this character-based thriller exploring themes of religious faith and intolerance, The Handmaid's Tale meets The Scarlet Letter with a little lesbian action thrown in. Enjoy.

Note added June 1, 2012 - See my subsequent review of the Classics Illustrated edition of The Scarlet Letter.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson's thrilling epic, The Orphan Master's Son, is set in contemporary North Korea. It begins in the Long Tomorrows orphanage and follows the life of one remarkable man who chose a martyr's name for himself: Pak Jun Do. Jun Do adapts to whatever situation is thrust upon him, going from starving orphan to tunnel soldier to international kidnapper to sailor to prison mine inmate to impersonating a high-ranking public official. He is a heroic figure, facing the most brutal hardships with dignity and integrity.

I was totally enthralled by the Random House audio recording [19.5 hours] narrated mostly by Tim Kang. Some segments of the story are told in first person by a young interrogator/torturer who considers himself a biographer. There are also propaganda broadcasts throughout, which lighten the story with touches of humour. In the audio production, two additional narrators, Josiah D. Lee and James Kyson Lee, provide contrast for these sections.

"Good morning, Citizens! In your housing blocks, on your factory floors, gather 'round your loudspeakers for today's news: the North Korean table-tennis team has just defeated its Somali counterpart in straight sets! [...] Don't forget, it is improper to sit on the escalators leading into the subways. The Minister of Defense reminds us that the deepest subways in the world are for your civil-defense safety, should the Americans sneak-attack again. No sitting!"

There are scenes of cruelty and torture, but there is also beauty, loyalty and love. The sense of place is strong, the plot is lively and there is a large cast of interesting characters. I am grateful to Adam Johnson for giving me a peek into what it might be like to have been born in one of the most oppressive countries in the world, but especially for introducing me to unforgettable Pak Jun Do.

Readalikes: The Lizard Cage (Karen Connelly) although it does not have the same epic scope. A good read-along is Pyongyang, Guy Delisle's true account in comics format of three months spent working in North Korea. The children playing accordions in Johnson's novel could be the very same girls depicted on the cover of Delisle's travelogue.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

I got back from a trip in the wee hours of this morning, so it is fitting to write about Where Things Come Back as my re-entry into this blog. I finished reading  John Corey Whaley's fine and nuanced novel in the airport in Chicago, just before boarding my flight home.

A tiny town in contemporary Arkansas makes national news when a naturalist spots a giant woodpecker that was thought to be extinct. The media attention overshadows another story in the same town, the disappearance of 15-year-old Gabriel Witter. Gabriel's older brother, Cullen, is devastated by the loss of his sibling and struggles to maintain hope that he will be found alive. The point of view shifts occasionally away from the immediacy of Cullen's first-person narration, circling around far-flung events that come to bear eventually on his own situation.

Described as an "existential thriller," Where Things Come Back is about the search for meaning and purpose in our lives. It is an amazing debut novel and winner of both the Printz and the William C. Morris awards earlier this year.

Readalikes: The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp (for the cynical voice); Looking for Alaska by John Green (for the voice and the bittersweet experience of first love); King Dork by Frank Portman (for the cynical voice and because Cullen's collection of titles for his yet-to-be-written books reminded me of Tom's every-changing names for his mostly-imaginary band); What They Always Tell Us by Martin Wilson (for the sibling relationship and the hope) and Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet (for the layered storytelling and suspense). I also recommend a great nonfiction work about the elusive woodpecker: The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose.

NOTE added May 25, 2012 - At my YA book group last night, we talked about this book and one member had a different take on the ending than the rest of us. After discussion, the rest of us saw this book in a new light. It's a good example of why I love discussing books with other people. I also love ambiguous endings, so I like Where Things Come Back even better now.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

One Soul by Ray Fawkes

In One Soul, Canadian comics artist Ray Fawkes chronicles the lives of 18 people, all of them born in different eras and in different parts of the world. Each double-page spread has 18 black-and-white panels, and each panel follows one person from babyhood until death. Fawkes uses the crown chakra to represent the soul at significant moments, and echoes this image in other panels with a shock of hair, a hair ornament or some other focus on the forehead. After death, that person's panel goes black. The afterlife or soul continues with occasional white text in these dark panels.

The story lines include a baby left in a basket at the door of a church, a child born into slavery, and the rags-to-riches adventures of a lucky man. There is a gay shepherd in a primitive time and place, while the most contemporary setting follows a lesbian drug addict.

You can flip through the book and focus on any one of these stories at a time. What is most powerful, however, is reading all 18 stories at the same time, as they are presented on the page. They form one multilayered portrait emphasizing the common aspects of human existence. Love, kindness, religious faith of all kinds, greed, cruelty, redemption... all of it. This is a magnificent book.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

In the year 2044, many people escape ugly reality by living in a virtual world, OASIS. You can work, play and even attend school there. The original programmer, James Halliday, was enamored with the coin-operated video games of his youth. That is why READY PLAYER ONE is "always the last thing an OASIS user saw before leaving the real world and entering the virtual one."

When Halliday dies, he leaves all of his wealth to the person who can solve a treasure hunt online, one which requires extensive knowlege of 80s pop culture and video games. It's a geek extravaganza with cut-throat action. If your avatar dies, it's game over. But the stakes are so high that some players will kill each other in the real world... if they can be found.

Wil Weaton narrates the audio version for Random House [15.5 hours] (creating a nice bit of irony when Star Trek: The Next Generation comes up in the storyline). It would have been nice to have more vintage electronic sounds included, rather than having them described only, but that's a quibble.

I remember some of the sounds because when I was about 21, I was addicted to Atari games like Pac Man, Space Invaders and Frogger. After recognizing what a time-waster this was (and experiencing cramped muscles from hours hunched over a game), the only way I could quit was cold-turkey. I might be sorry about that if I ever have the opportunity presented in Ready Player One. Sympathetic characters, a thrilling plot, an online romance and a trip down nostalgia lane are a winning combination for author Ernest Cline.

This is an adult novel that will appeal to older teens. (It doesn't really matter if the 80s are familiar to the reader or not.) The only readalikes I can think of are teen novels: Epic (Conor Kostick); Little Brother (Cory Doctorow) and Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd. You might also want to re-watch the classic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis

Penguin Press describes The Conference of the Birds as artist Peter Sis' first book for adults. It is really a picture book - a long one - for all ages. The story is an adaptation of a 12th-century Persian poem. It is about a visionary bird who leads a quest to find a king who will have answers to the troubles of the world: "Anarchy--discontent--upheaval! Desperate fights over territory, water, and food! Poisoned air! Unhappiness!"

Illustration by Peter Sis
When the birds face doubts along their difficult journey, their leader has words of wisdom and encouragement. It is a spiritual search with a pantheist theology. The text is brief, however, and most of the pages are taken up by beautiful, meticulous illustrations. It is a pleasure to handle this book; even the heavy linen paper itself is gorgeous.

Spiritual questioning readalikes for all ages include: The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery) and Stormy Night (Michele Lemieux); for more fables, try The Night Life of Trees (Shyam, Bai, Urveti) or Flight of the Hummingbird (Michael Nichols Yagulanaas); and for other intriguing picture books for adults, try The Arrival (Shaun Tan) and either Principles of Uncertainty or 13 Words (Maira Kalman).

Friday, May 11, 2012

Around the World by Matt Phelan

After Jules Verne published Around the World in Eighty Days, people were inspired to try circumnavigating the earth themselves. Travelling around the world is still an exciting proposition, but it was much harder to do in the 19th century than it is today. Graphic novelist Matt Phelan recounts the adventures of three historical figures who rose to the challenge before the turn of the twentieth century. They travelled alone: Thomas Stevens by ship and bicycle; Nellie Bly by ship and train; and Joshua Slocum by boat.

Phelan's soft, expressive lines and muted use of colour evokes the era nicely. The determination and fortitude required to undertake such remarkable journeys can be seen on all three faces in Phelan's cover illustration. Around the World will appeal to a wide range of readers, from Grade 3 right up to adults.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon is a little like Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series combined with Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander. Set in an alternate early 19th century Europe, naval Captain Will Lawrence, a true gentleman bound by codes of honour and duty, forms an unlooked-for bond with Temeraire, a talking Chinese dragon. Dragons are crucial in the war between Britain and France and so Lawrence must switch to the Aerial Corps, where things are run much differently than he was used to in the navy.

I listened to the Books on Tape audiobook (10 hours), robustly narrated by Simon Vance. Temeraire's voice was distinctive without being annoying. His Majesty's Dragon is appealing on multiple levels: rich world-building, well-developed characters (both human and animal), and a swashbuckling adventure plot. Highly entertaining. This is the first volume of a series.

Readalikes: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke); Bone (Jeff Smith); The White Dragon (Anne McCaffrey); Master and Commander (Patrick O'Brian).

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The events leading up to the Iliad are told in a very personal way from the viewpoint of Patroclus, the longtime companion and lover of Achilles, in Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles. Patroclus was only 9 when his father, King Menoitius, took him to present himself as a suitor to Helen, daughter of the Spartan king. (The same Helen who was the catalyst for the Trojan war.) When Patroclus was 10, he was disowned by his father,  and exiled to the kingdom of Phthia, where Prince Achilles chose him as a special friend.

Achilles' mother, Thetis, was a goddess. She took a strong dislike to Patroclus right from the start... and things do not go well when the gods are against you. Patroclus and Achilles know that they are doomed to die young. Despite this, their relationship is tender and strong. The ending is sweetly romantic, rather than tragic.

The Song of Achilles is currently on the shortlist for the Orange Prize (which also includes other books that I've reviewed: Half-Blood Blues, The Forgotten Waltz and State of Wonder).

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks

Starting high school is a really big deal for Maggie because she has been homeschooled up until this point. She is overwhelmed by all of the other students and has no idea how to fit in and make friends. Maggie's mother has abandoned her family and her father is preoccupied now that he is promoted to police chief. Maggie's three older brothers provide some moral support, but mostly they encourage her to forge her own path. Even the ghost that has been haunting her for years is no help at all. (Oh yes, Maggie has a complicated life.)

Canadian comics artist Faith Erin Hicks has created some wonderful sibling dynamics in Friends with Boys. I really enjoyed getting to know Maggie's family as well as the two outcasts that befriend her at school. Maggie's brothers are rough with each other but teasing and tender with their little sister. In one scene, Lloyd tries to convince Maggie that she should style her two high ponytails into buns like Princess Leia. "It combines two of the greatest things in the world: science fiction and breakfast pastries." Another brother commands Lloyd to stop annoying Maggie, which he does under protest: "But I'm getting in touch with my inner hairdresser."

Hicks uses black ink on white with gray shading for her expressive artwork. Her distinctive, overlarge eyes melt my heart. See for yourself -- Friends with Boys is available as a webcomic here.

Grade 5 to adult. Readalikes: Smile by Raina Telgemeier; and Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, art by Maira Kalman

Every last thing that reminds Min of her heartbreak is packed into a box and dumped onto her ex-boyfriend's doorstep. Min writes a long accompanying letter to Ed, documenting the many reasons they broke up. "You know I want to be a director, but you could never truly see the movies in my head and that, Ed, is why we broke up."

Daniel Handler has created a fabulous character in Min Green, a high school girl who loves old movies. She was never part of the "in" crowd and everyone knows she should never have been going out with the promiscuous co-captain of the basketball team. They connected at a bitter-sixteen birthday party for Min's best friend. Ed showed up uninvited, after a game. Min says, "Basketball is still incomprehensible to me, some shouty frantic bouncing thing in uniform, and although I didn't listen I hung on every word."

Min would not let Ed get away with excusing himself for making offensive remarks by saying "no offense" and she also would not let homophobic comments pass. When she brought him a cup of take-away coffee he told her he didn't like coffee. She urged him to try it her way, with extra cream and three sugars. He refused, insisting black was the only acceptable way, because "any other way is for girls and fags." Min tried to sort him out. "You. Must. Stop. With the fag stuff. Join the twenty-first century."

Also, Min did win Ed over to coffee. His response after a big, big sip: "Fucking delish. I don't care it's a faggy word, oops, sorry, no offense, sorry again. Delish! Criminy! This is like a cookie, it tastes like a cookie having sex with a doughnut." Min's response: "Wait till the caffeine hits."

Kalman's quirky art is given room to shine.
Later, Min writes about their encounter with an Italian liqueur, Pensieri: "I went and got it, no glasses, just twisted at the top until it was open and the strange rich smell was in my face, like wine but with something running through it, herbal or mineral, dazzling and weird. 'You first,' I said, and handed it over. You frowned into the bottle, then smiled at me and took a slow swig and immediately spat it out down your T-shirt. 'Criminy!' you shrieked. 'That is, what is that? It tastes like somebody killed a spicy fig. What's in that?' I was laughing too hard to answer."

I don't know if this drink even exists, but after reading that, I want some! Paintings by Maira Kalman are included throughout the book and her Pensieri looks similar to Chambord, which I love. (It's sort of like raspberry cough medicine.)

More of Kalman's great art in
Why I Broke Up
Ed tells Min he loves her, and "Every time you said it, you really said it. It wasn't like a sequel where Hollywood just lines up the same actors and hopes it works again. It was like a remake, with a new director and crew trying something else and starting from scratch." Until it wasn't... in a big way. And that is why they broke up.

I love, love, love this book. Captivating voice. Real emotion. Fabulous art. If you need any more encouragement, check out the Why We Broke Up Project online, where everyone is encouraged to share their sad, bitter, and funny stories.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans

10-year-old Stuart Horten is often mistakenly thought to be much younger because of his small stature. It isn't easy for him to make new friends when his family moves to a different part of England, but Stuart is a pretty good at amusing himself. He is not quite as good at dodging the nosy triplet girls who live next door.

When Stuart learns that his great-uncle Tony used to live nearby, that he was a magician and inventor, and that he disappeared under mysterious circumstances, Stuart's summer is suddenly much more interesting. Magic, mystery and a very strange adventure await.

Lissa Evans' Small Change for Stuart would make an excellent family read-aloud.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

If We Were Birds by Erin Shields

In If We Were Birds, Toronto playright Erin Shields has retold one of Ovid's tales of rape and revenge. It is a happy coincidence that I saw another retelling of this story only a month ago, when The Love of the Nightingale was performed at the Walterdale Playhouse in Edmonton. I've also just finished re-reading Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean, about Aristotle and Alexander the Great, and have started The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller's reinterpretation of the Iliad, so my head is deeply in the world of ancient Greece.

Pandion, King of Athens, gives his daughter Procne in marriage to King Tereus. Procne's younger sister Philomela is later raped by Tereus, and then her tongue is torn out so she cannot tell what happened. Eventually, Procne and Philomela join forces to take revenge on Tereus. Everyone morphs into birds at the end of this tragedy.

Shields' cheeky humour in the early part of the play is a welcome counterpoint to the horrific violence encountered later. The chorus of slave women, survivors of war right up to current times, add another level of poignancy and relevance. It's a powerful play and I hope to have the opportunity to see it performed sometime.

Readalike: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood.