Saturday, June 30, 2012

Among Others by Jo Walton

Jo Walton's Among Others is a lovely hybrid of fantasy and boarding school coming-of-age story, told in diary format. It's set in 1979 in England and Wales; it's also an homage to science fiction novels.

15-year-old Morwenna is painfully lonely at school in England. Her twin is dead and their mother is insane. Morwenna's only solace is found in books. I devoured science fiction when I was a teen too, which happened to be during the same time period, so it was very cool to be reminded of my own experience reading authors like Le Guin, Heinlein, McCaffrey, Clarke, Silverberg and Vonnegut.

Morwenna is extremely grateful to have access to books. "Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization. Libraries really are wonderful. They're better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts." Bless the child, how I could I not love her?

Fairy creatures have always been a part of Morwenna's world, growing up in Wales. In England, the fairies don't take much notice of her, but nobody else even sees the fairies. At home, she spoke Welsh to them and they occasionally communicated with her, especially if they needed her to do something for them.

"Fairies tend to be either very beautiful or absolutely hideous. They all have eyes, and lots of them have some recognisable sort of head. Some of them have limbs in a roughly human way, some are more like animals, and others bear no resemblance to anything at all."

There is a frightening task that the fairies ask of Morwenna, one that will require her to work some magic. I like the way she describes magic: "Everything is magic. Using things connects them to you, being in the world connects you to the world, the sun streams down magic and people and animals and plants grow from sunlight and the world turns and everything is magic. Fairies are more in the magic than in the world, and people are more in the world than in the magic."

Among Others is most definitely not "a lot of angsty wittering" as Morwenna puts it. Her compelling story is both fierce and gentle; a quietly magical tale that will appeal to both teens and adults.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Death-Ray by Daniel Clowes

If you were a lonely misfit teenager who suddenly discovered you could zap people right out of existence, would you use your power wisely? That is Andy's dilemma in the graphic novel The Death-Ray by Daniel Clowes. Andy's only friend during his teen years is Louie, a hotheaded misanthrope. Would things have turned out differently without Louie's bad influence?

Clowes (Ghost World; WilsonMr. Wonderful) writes about people that seem boring at first glance - average joes living nondescript lives - and then right away you get inside their heads and even the grumpy, bitter and jaded become sympathetic. Andy in The Death-Ray is just that sort of lonely middle-aged guy when we meet him in 2004. He has a chip on his shoulder about his two ex-wives: "Neither one of them was worth a damn. Just a couple of whores out to drain a man of his money and vigor. Too bad for them, I don't have much of either. Tough shit, ladies." Based on his boring present life, who would guess about Andy's exciting youthful misadventures?

The comics panels are in cheerful primary colours: bright yellow vomit; bright red blood. The Death-Ray is over-the-top and tongue in cheek. It's thought-provoking, tragic and absolutely brilliant.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker

Dutch author Gerbrand Bakker's new novel, The Detour, is suffused with the quiet strength of the woman that is its focus. She is an expert on Emily Dickinson who abruptly leaves her university position in Amsterdam and rents a cottage in a remote part of Wales. She is all alone except for a small flock of geese, whose numbers mysteriously dwindle. 

Why is she there? It appears to be more than the fact of an affair with one of her students. As the  answers to what precipitated her flight become clear, another question propels the narrative. What will happen next? 

I wondered why there was some minor gay content involving secondary characters, until I realized it was included to give further examples of sexual transgressions. The human instinct for sex, however, is a sideline to the main story.

I enjoyed the spare prose style and I will be haunted by the choices made by the central character. This would be a good book for discussion.

Readalikes: The Spare Room (Helen Garner); Vital Signs (Tessa McWatt); The London Train (Tessa Hadley); Molly Fox's Birthday (Deirdre Madden).

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

Jaffy Brown was just a small boy when he came face to face with an escaped tiger on the streets of mid-nineteenth century London. He didn't know enough to be afraid of this very large kitty. He only wanted to stroke its beautiful face. That is how Jaffy briefly spent some time in the mouth of a tiger, and how he ended up working at Jamrach's Menagerie of exotic animals.

As a teen, Jaffy embarks on a whaling ship that has a secondary mission: to capture one of the dragons rumoured to live on an island in the West Indies. It is an eventful trip. British author Carol Birch tells the tale in Jaffy's voice, looking back with the wisdom of years, sitting in the aviary he created.

"You should hear my nightingales. Here in the seedy depths of a Rathcliffe Highway night, they carol like angels. There are no words for that high sweetness. They carol to me that all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well (Jaffy Brown, see, became quite well read), yet I know the tiger's mouth awaits. Come what may, whatever we may say, the tiger's mouth awaits. Every little second is the last chance to savour the time that remains. How I swam here to this rock I'll never know. A canary lands before me on a cherry branch, a jonquil, pure deep yellow."

Jamrach's Menagerie is an adventure story, a survival story, and an exploration of friendship, grief and survival. I loved it.

Readalike: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Expats by Chris Pavone

The Expats are an American couple with two children who move to Luxembourg and then Paris, both of them keeping huge secrets from each other. Chris Pavone's novel has been compared to Robert Ludlum's early works. That was enough to make me want to read this book; I went through a bit of a spy thriller phase in the 80s and Ludlum was my favourite back then.

I've only got good things to say about The Expats:

  • It's a first novel, which in itself is an attraction for readers like me who like novelty.
  • The plot is enjoyably twisty.
  • The narrative flips back and forth in time, with convenient font changes to keep present-day Paris separate from two years earlier in Luxembourg. 
  • There are enough details of daily life in a foreign country to feed my appetite for travel writing. 
  • The children are never in danger.
  • The open-ending is of the sort that concludes the main storyline while leaving lots of room for imagining what might come next.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Food and the City by Jennifer Cockrall-King

Earlier this month, the city of Whitehorse was completely cut off by road for several days due to washouts, flooding and mudslides across the Yukon. News services published photos of empty grocery store shelves in Whitehorse. Supermarkets carry only an illusion of abundance. Grocery stores at any given time in any North American city are stocked with only about 3 days worth of food. If transportation routes to a city are cut off due to natural disaster, unusual weather, terrorism, fuel shortage or whatever, people living in that place will face a major food crisis.

"If that is not sobering enough, consider that there are a mere five corporations behind 90 percent of the US food supply." Americans typically pay the lowest ratio of income-to-food in the world (9.4% of disposable income), but that's because the industrial food system hides the real costs. The effect of industrial agriculture on the environment is not factored into the cost of food. Neither are social and health costs. The "cheap-food diet has rendered two out of three Americans overweight and strains the healthcare system to the breaking point." The solution? Growing food in cities.

Edmonton author Jennifer Cockrall-King found exciting examples of urban agriculture in cities across North America as well as in Europe and Cuba. So much of our population is urban and it just makes sense to grow food where we live. Vegetables, mushrooms, fruit, honey, nuts, eggs and fish can be easily produced in an urban environment. (Exactly the kind of ingredients that contribute to a healthy diet.) For people who do not have time or space for gardens of their own, there are more and more urban farmers offering ultra-fresh, very local produce.

In my own yard in Edmonton, where we average
only 140 frost-free growing days in a year, I
am pleased to have apples, cherries, raspberries,
highbush cranberries, saskatoons, strawberries,
rhubarb, hazelnuts, and various perennial herbs,
as well as vegetables (seen here).
Government action and policies make a big difference in the urban agriculture movement. Cockrall-King documents success stories, such as London's ambitious initiative to source food for the 2012 Olympics locally. "There will be an estimated 25,000 loaves of bread, 232 tons of potatoes, 75,000 liters of milk, 19 tons of eggs and 330 tons of fruit and vegetables consumed in the Olympic Village during the games." Other stories are not so happy. The 13-acre South Central Farm, created in Los Angeles to help unite a battered neighbourhood after the Race Riots of 1992, was a community success that came to a tragic end in 2006. View the trailer of the award-winning documentary, The Garden, here.

Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution, published in 2012 , pulls together a lot of information that hasn't been collected into one book before. I hope that it will inspire even more innovations in urban food production. I also hope that there will be future, updated editions complete with colour, rather than black and white, photos. See Cockrall-King's website here.

Readalike: The Omnivore's Dilemma (Michael Pollan) and Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser).

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Set in the wilderness of colonial America, Toni Morrison's exquisite short novel, A Mercy, reminded me of one of her earlier books, Beloved. An enslaved mother feels that she must make an unthinkable choice, one that will have long-reaching ramifications. The point of view shifts between characters of various ethnic backgrounds who are landowners, indentured workers and slaves. Morrison explores love in its many guises, between parents and children, husband and wife, gay men, close friends, and the unrequited kind too.

I listened to the Random House audiobook [6.5 hours], narrated by the author. Morrison has a beautiful, rich voice that, unfortunately, tended to lull my brain into a drowsy state. A Mercy is compelling enough to have kept me from daydreaming, but there were some close calls. I also had to work to figure out who was speaking every time the narrative shifted, since Morrison does not alter her voice for different characters.

It's unusual for me to listen to two books in a row with a similar setting, yet A Mercy and Year of Wonders both take place in the 17th century. I appreciated that the women in both books act like they belong to their time, not like modern women who have been plunked down in the midst of historical trappings. In A Mercy, Rebekka travels from England to the colonies in order to wed a stranger, believing that of her three options -- servant, prostitute, or wife -- the last is the safest option, although she is well aware that this will depend on the "character of the man in charge."

Rebekka's male siblings had "learned from her father their dismissive attitude toward the sister who had helped rear them." I came across a similar sentiment in Are You My Mother? in the part where Alison Bechdel asked her mother "What's the main thing you learned from your mother?" Her immediate reply: "That boys are more important than girls." Will that ever change? I hope so.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

In 1665, a shipment of cloth from London carried a deadly plague infection to a remote village in Darbyshire. Geraldine Brooks based her novel Year of Wonders on historical records of an actual event, a small village of lead miners that volunteered to close itself to the outside world, rather than to spread the disease further.

It sounds like this would make for a grim tale, which is why I have avoided this book for years, even though friends who know my tastes strongly recommended it and I've enjoyed other books by the author. Turns out that Year of Wonders is not depressing at all, but the opposite.

Anna Frith, an eighteen-year-old mother of two, narrates the story of what happens to relationships and social order in the extreme circumstances of the time. So, we are a witness to family violence, extreme poverty, lunacy, mass hysteria, alcohol and poppy addiction, wantonness and religious fanaticism... as well as many, many deaths. The uplifting part is seeing what gives a person strength to carry on in spite of multiple tragedies. Anna's development of strong friendships, her appreciation of nature's beauty, the miracle of new life, the possibilities of love and the power of faith are some of the wonders that Anna encounters in the year of the plague.

Anna's ability to read and write is highly unusual for the time, but believably explained. Her period turns of phrase are charming: "I found a strange cock discomposing my hens." Anna's personality is modest, polite and within the bounds of social propriety, even in what she records: "She called us all manner of ill things that are not set down here."

Year of Wonders has something for every kind of reader: an eventful plot, fascinating characters, a detailed historical setting, and gorgeous language. The Penguin audiobook [10 hours] is read by the author, who has a soft, dreamy voice.

Readalikes: Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel) and Curiosity (Joan Thomas).

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman

If you're in the mood for something along the lines of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, then Robin Wasserman's The Book of Blood and Shadow is for you. An eccentric professor and a group of five modern day American college students run afoul of an ancient religious cult when they decipher an ancient manuscript. Nora, the narrator, isn't sure if she can trust any of her companions -- while they are still alive. "I should probably start with the blood." is the first line in the book. It's a thrill-a-minute, especially when they travel to Prague where all the really scary stuff happens.

The dialogue is sassier than you'll find in Dan Brown's work. For example, when Nora translates the following sentence from Latin -- The sperm of Sol is to be cast into the matrix of Mercury, by bodily copulation or conjunction, and joining of them together -- her friend responds: "This is how you build a telephone to God? Looks more like porn for chemistry nerds."

The arcane book that is at the center of the adventure does actually exist; it's called the Voynich manuscript. (More about that document can be found here). The Book of Blood and Shadow contains an entertaining mix of humour, suspense and alchemical secrets.

Readalikes, in addition to Dan Brown: Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Laini Taylor); Angelology (Danielle Trussoni); and The Eight (Katherine Neville).

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle

Jerusalem was created after Quebecois cartoonist Guy Delisle and his family spent a year living in Israel. Delisle cared for their two small children while his wife worked for MSF (Doctors Without Borders) in Gaza and the West Bank. His vignettes of their everyday lives are like a series of postcards sent home to friends: his search for interesting playgrounds for his kids, the frustrations of transportation within the city, the omnipresence of soldiers with rifles... that kind of stuff.

They lived in East Jerusalem, which is the Arab quarter. The disparity between the east and west sides of the city are illustrated in Delisle's clear, cartoony style. He has a quirky way of drawing himself in profile, with both eyes on one side, Picasso-like. The artwork is mostly black and white, with one other soft hue, except for occasional effective splashes of a brighter colour. Images from Jerusalem can be seen in this brief clip on YouTube.

single panel from Jerusalem
When he wasn't with his children, Delisle enjoyed sketching scenery. He was particularly fascinated with the graphic design possibilities offered by the giant wall that separates the two sides of the city. Sometimes soldiers made him move, telling him he wasn't allowed to sit alongside the road. One day he met a man who lived right next to the wall, selling roasted corn at the roadside after losing his land when the wall was built. Delisle sketched the man and I like this panel (from page 271) because it shows two different sides of Delisle's art.

About 10 years ago, Canadian author Deborah Ellis interviewed a number of Israeli and Palestinian children, then published their voices in Three Wishes. One of the questions she asked was if the Israelis knew any Palestinians and vice versa. The answer was no in almost all cases. Delisle asked a young graphic artist in the West Bank if he had ever met any Israelis. "I met one once in Jericho. A real nice guy. I remember I asked him if he'd ever been to Ramallah. He said, 'Yeah, I've been to Ramallah... in a tank.'"

The original French language edition was awarded the prestigious Angouleme award. Drawn and Quarterly published the English translation in April 2012. The situation in Israel and Palestine is such a complicated tangle that I welcome the opportunity to read observations from outsiders like Delisle. Jerusalem is an absorbing travelogue and memoir.

Readalikes: Joe Sacco's masterpieces of comics journalism: Palestine and Footnotes in GazaHow to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden; and also Delisle's earlier travelogues, Pyongyang, Shenzhen and Burmese Chronicles.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

The Antagonist by Edmonton author Lynn Coady was discussed at one of my book groups earlier this week. We were nearly unanimous in the sentiment that we would not have read the book if not for book group. Which is one of the reasons that most of us are in this group -- to stretch our reading horizons. And everyone said they were glad to have read this dark, literary, character-based novel. Our conversation was lively from the start, as we debated who could be the antagonist of the title.

Rank -- Gordon Rankin -- is as initially unpleasant as his nickname suggests. Over the course of the novel, the reason for Rank's anger, guilt and self-hatred is related through his one-sided email correspondence with an old friend from his university days. It doesn't take long to see past Rank's vulgar language and big brute persona to the troubled man within. Readers are taken on Rank's existential journey as he comes to terms with past events that he has avoided for too long.

Readalike: It is set in Lebanon rather than Canada, but De Niro's Game by Rawi Hage has a similar gritty feel with a focus on character.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel's Fun Home might be my favourite book ever, so I was very excited to pick up her newest memoir in comic strip format, Are You My Mother?, when I was in Chicago last month for the Comics Philosophy and Practice conference.

Bechdel at conference in Chicago.
Background image from Fun Home.
Are You My Mother? is just as fabulous as Fun Home. With the same self-deprecating humour and poignancy that she used to examine her relationship with her father, Bechdel dissects her interactions with her mother. It is more complicated, partly because her mother is still alive. It is even more personally revealing than her previous work. Bechdel has spent her life wanting more from her mother than her mother is equipped to give. Her struggle is to come to terms with that fact, and to accept the gifts of strength and independence that she received from her mother.

Bechdel has a large fan base of lesbians who, like me, have followed her since her early Dykes to Watch Out For comic strips. With the release of her two memoirs, her readership has broadened and now people of all stripes are finding relevance in her work.

When I'm talking to folks who are new to graphic novels, I always say to go slow. It takes time to absorb visual information and to synthesize it with printed text. This advice especially holds true with Are You My Mother? The pages are dense and the narrative is layered. It makes for a rich experience that rewards re-reading. (My sweetie has read it twice already.)

Bechdel's artwork is highly controlled, yet expressive. In Chicago, she talked about her need for accuracy. This is reflected in her careful imagery. While she chooses her words skillfully as well -- and there is plenty of written text in Are You My Mother? -- Bechdel knows when pictures say it best. I love the way she depicts her response to her therapist's question about her religious beliefs:

from Are You My Mother, p 103
Very highly recommended. Readalike: Stitches by David Small.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Writing about Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead yesterday reminded me of 2011's National Book Award-winning novel by Jesmyn Ward which I read awhile back but haven't yet mentioned here. Salvage the Bones takes place over a period of 12 days in a backwoods coastal town in Mississippi.

15-year-old Esch is the narrator, telling us about the simmering tensions in her dirt-poor family while hurricane Katrina is building off the Gulf of Mexico. She and her three brothers share a fierce love and loyalty, protecting each other from their alcoholic father's volatile temper. Her brothers' involvement in illegal dog fighting, a basketball game with a scholarship riding on it, and the coming storm all add to Esch's main concern. Her pregnancy is just starting to show and she hasn't talked to anyone about it yet.

Readalikes: We the Animals by Justin Torres and AD: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

Private eye Claire DeWitt has been solving mysteries since she was twelve. She's a gal who is willing to ingest pretty much anything. She's like a Nancy Drew who studied with Carlos Castaneda.

"A few months ago, after a hard case, I'd gone on a fast to purify myself from its ill effects. I stopped eating. I stopped sleeping. I did not stop using drugs. A week went by, then two, then a month. After fourteen days, I could see the codes in grocery receipts and billboards. After thirty days I could read clues in the wind, see signs in the clouds." Some hospital time follows.

The job that Claire thinks of as the Case of the Green Parrot takes place a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina. A man in New Orleans hires her to find out what happened to his uncle, who disappeared during the big storm. Claire tells her client that she is 42, even though she is 35, because "no one trusts a woman under forty."

Constance Darling taught Claire the finer points of detection. There was always something going on at her mansion in New Orleans. "The day before it had been Constance's meditation teacher, Dorje, in his saffron robes, making mushroom tea in the kitchen. The day before that we'd interviewed a German shepherd. Life was never dull with Constance." "She taught me to read fingerprints like tea leaves and eyes like maps."

Claire casts the I Ching for clues. A scrap of paper stuck to her shoe? Definitely important. Drug-addled dreams supply more clues. Mornings are hard: "I need food. But first I need to take a shower. In coffee." 

Strangers are often fearful of Claire, based on her appearance: "I'd dressed in a hurry and I wasn't at my visual best. I wore boots, jeans, two black sweaters, and a red vintage women's overcoat with an ermine collar that probably should have been retired. I was also suffering from an unfortunate homemade haircut/bleach job that had involved pinking shears." Claire has few friends... and even they won't take her calls.

Claire trusts that all will be revealed if she pays attention as she moves through a world of crime and corruption.

"The hardest thing about buying a gun in Louisiana was that there were so many options I hardly knew where to begin. I heard shots at least once a day. Half the men in the city wore clothes so big, they could carry an arsenal under them. Out of the sliver by the river, spent casings and shells crunched underfoot on the sidewalk like crack vials or fall leaves. The suburbs west of the city were lined with pawnshops that advertised $99 SPECIAL ON 9 MILLIMETER and HANDGUN SALE and SPECIAL ON UZIS."

"[T]his city knows how to tell a beautiful story. But if you're looking for a happy ending, you better be lookin' somewhere else." Author Sara Gran knows how to tell a spellbinding story. She has created an unforgettable character in Claire DeWitt and I sure hope to encounter her again.

Readalikes that match the noir crime aspect where the difference between the good guys and bad is unclear, because everyone is both, plus stylish writing and some humour: The Monkey's Mask by Dorothy Porter; and pretty much anything by James Sallis or Walter Mosley. I was also reminded of the Micky Knight lesbian detective series by J.M. Redmann (beginning with Death by the Riverside) because of the female sleuth in one dangerous situation after another in New Orleans.

What makes Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead so crazy good is how unusual it is. For readers like me who are attracted to the new and different, not necessarily noir, try: Please Ignore Vera Dietz (A.S. King); or The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn (Sean Dixon).

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Erin Morgenstern's Victorian-era fantasy, The Night Circus, has already received much attention. Two old magicians each train a student from early childhood in order to use them as pawns in their game. The competition takes the form of a fabulous circus and lasts for many years. The entirely black-and-white circus contains marvels of every kind. The conceit that circus goers remain totally ignorant of the fact that magic makes it all happen seems pretty far-fetched, however.

As often happens with something that I've been meaning to read for ages, it was the audiobook that propelled the story from TBR to reading underway. The incomparable Jim Dale is the narrator for the Random House edition [13.5 hours]. Morgenstern's broad cast of characters are all pretty much placeholders to move the action forward, but Dale imbues each person with vitality and a distinct voice. I don't know if I would have persevered with the printed book but I enjoyed being immersed via audio. The circus itself is the star of the novel.

I would recommend this to readers who enjoy historical fiction imbued with magic and a touch of romance.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry

While riding on a ferry, Troy Chance happens to see something fall from the rear deck of the opposite ferry. "It could have been a bundle of trash; it could have been a child-sized doll. Either was more likely than what I thought I saw: a small wide-eyed human face, in one tiny frozen moment as it plummeted toward the water."

Without stopping to think, Troy dives into Lake Champlain and she rescues the child. This is the story of what happens next. Troy, a freelance sportswriter living in Lake Placid, encounters the dangerous world of kidnapping and murder. She also finds herself attracted to two new men that she meets as a result of saving the boy, but loving either of them presents more than the usual risks.

I was grateful that the plot kept me turning pages because there was far more romancey stuff in the middle than I usually tolerate. I would recommend this especially to readers who enjoy romantic suspense that moves at a sedate pace.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer was first published 28 years ago, but William Gibson's classic story about sentient computers still feels fresh. It is compelling, inventive and suspenseful. As with all the best science fiction, it combines physical and intellectual adventure in a complex world. It won all three of the major science fiction awards: the Nebula, the Hugo and the Philip K. Dick.

I've been meaning to read this book for years and recently listened to the Random House audiobook 20th anniversary edition [10.5 hours], read by Robertson Dean. It includes an introduction by the author and a lengthy afterword by Jack Womack.

I expected it to be bleak, but it was almost upbeat... considering that Case, the central character, is a drug-addicted, suicidal computer hacker. He and a ninja-like mercenary named Molly are hired to steal some well-protected code. Molly has had extensive body modifications, including lightning-quick responses, mirrored implants over her eyes, and claws made of 4-inch blades that retract under her fingernails. The story is set in an unspecified near-future on Earth; that there isn't a date perhaps helps it to remain relevant today. Case ventures into a cyberspace world that could have been imagined under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. It's a wild ride from gritty start to bittersweet finish. Wow.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne / P. Craig Russell / Jill Thompson

I was 12 years old when I read Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, so naturally I had forgotten many of the details. Reading When She Woke prompted me to pick up the Classics Illustrated comics edition of The Scarlet Letter, adapted by P. Craig Russell and Jill Thompson. It was enjoyable to find more correlations between Hillary Jordan's and Hawthorne's work than I had remembered, like the red rose at the prison door, Hester's/Hannah's needlework, and the baby named Pearl.

Memories of experiencing this text as my younger self came back as I read the Puritan dialogue: "Goodwives, if only we women of virtue should have the handle of such as this Hester Prynne, would she come off with such a merciful sentence? Marry, I trow not!"

These adult women of the 17th century were as mean and intolerant as some of the girls I knew at school. I admired Hester's integrity and wept at the injustice of her situation. My youngest aunt was 16 and unmarried when she had a child; that happened a few years before I read The Scarlet Letter. Her baby's father remained a mystery, but my aunt and little cousin were treated well by everyone, as far as I could tell. I was very thankful that we didn't live in the time and place I discovered in that book. As an adult reader, I can see that this whole tale is an allegory, but that was totally above my head 40 years ago.

Hawthorne's lush prose is much abbreviated in the comics edition, of course, but the flavour remains. The art suits the story well. Watercolour illustrations are in muted shades of blue, green, red and brown. The layout features many interesting shifts in perspective. Very nicely done.