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.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter

Novella Carpenter created a farm in an abandoned lot in a ghetto in Oakland, California. She didn't stop at growing vegetables and fruit. Novella also raised poultry for eggs and meat, as well as rabbits and pigs. I listened to the Tantor audio of Farm City [10 hours], read by Karen White. Novella describes her surprising education as a farmer in this charming memoir.

From killing an opossum with a shovel and feeling an urge to place its head on a spike to warn other predators to stay away from her birds, to scolding a teenage would-be mugger about the dangers of carrying a gun, there isn't a dull moment in Novella's life. When she experimented with a 100-yard diet for a month, vowing to eat only what she either grew herself or foraged, Novella resorted to consuming home decor -- the ornamental indian corn she had grown a few years earlier.

Today at an excellent Edmonton Litfest event, Food Matters, I listened to Kevin Kossowan talk about supporting his family with food grown in his small urban garden, supplemented by hunting and fishing. Check out Kevin's blog, complete with videos. The other authors at the event were Jennifer Cockrall-King and Dee Hobsbawn-Smith. I was delighted to have received complimentary tickets to the event AND a signed copy of Jennifer's book (Food and the City) because I won a review contest earlier this year. I also own a copy of Dee's excellent guide to small Alberta food producers, Foodshed, and must get around to reviewing it soon.

Readalikes for Farm City: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Barbara Kingsolver); Trauma Farm (Brian Brett); The Omnivore's Dilemma (Michael Pollan); and Food and the City (Jennifer Cockrall-King).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Batwoman: Hydrology by JH Williams III and WH Blackman

Kate Kane is many things: "estranged daughter, grieving sister, proud lesbian, brave soldier, determined hero. She is Batwoman." In the first volume of the DC Comics New 52 series, Hydrology, Batwoman is battling on several fronts.

On the emotional side:
  • Her father wants to reconcile their differences and Kate isn't ready for that. (It's important to read Batwoman: Elegy first to understand the backstory in Hydrology.)
  • Her cousin Bette -- aka Flamebird -- is trying to convince her that she will be a good sidekick.
  • Her romantic involvement is with a member of the police force, which increases the danger should her vigilante identity be revealed.
On the crime-fighting side:
  • Two different organizations are attempting to learn Batwoman's civilian identity.
  • Children are disappearing from Gotham City.
The artwork is mostly by J.H. Williams III and features his striking layouts. One of the many effective pages shows La Llorona, the weeping woman, morphing through four grisly incarnations and facing a twinned Batwoman plus reflection. Layers of mythology. In other places, a series of graphite-type drawings are juxtaposed within full-colour action pages. I wasn't happy with this effect when it was used to contrast a sex scene between Kate and Maggie happening at the same time as a violent encounter between Flamebird and some baddies. It made me feel queasy, actually.

I loved the La Llarona element, however. Who knew dripping water could hold such menace? Readers with a fear of water might find this story especially scary.

Williams III is also the author, along with co-writer W. Haden Blackman. The story isn't quite as substantial as that in Greg Rucka's Elegy, but Hydrology certainly held my interest. I look forward to future issues.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Five Bells by Gail Jones

Five lives loosely intersect over the course of a single day at Circular Quay in Sydney in Five Bells by Australian author Gail Jones. Memories rise gently to the surface as the narrative switches between the different protagonists. Jones has an introspective style that I found piercingly beautiful:

"It was a quiet, folded moment, entirely her own."

"Images lined up for her memory, for the future, for wild or idle surmise, this little collection that made up the blunder of the moment, and of James's pure fear, and of her own shameless sense of triumph."

Whether this previous line brings John Keats, Dorothy Porter or some other poet to mind, it's an example of the nuances that Jones adds through literary references. There are also many references to art.

(On Aboriginal art in a museum): "Pattern was thought, and spirit, and land, and time. Here were no portraits or conventional depictions of objects, but something aquiver, energetic, like human activity seen from the sky."

(On Rene Magritte, witnessing his mother's body after she had drowned, and how small details might be the salvation from ideas that are too large): "The space a drowning might make, the milky-green water closing over a face, was a tremendous, vile and unassimilable thing."

"A woman standing still in a main street on a Saturday afternoon could carry all this: death, time, recollected acts of love-making -- all together, simultaneous, ringing in her head."

"The world did not acknowledge private misfortune." But readers can, and that acknowledgement is a precious thing. Five Bells explores themes of memory, grief and forgiveness within the "breathing of the world."

Readalike: Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf).

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Notes on the Vancouver Writers Fest 2012

With a new and shorter name, the Vancouver Writers Fest celebrated its 25th birthday this year. It was just as wonderful to be there as it had been in previous years, when it was called the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival. Artistic Director Hal Wake assured me, when I asked him about the name change, that everything else is the same.

100 authors, six days, and over 75 events. How to choose? I ended up going to 13 events and every one of them was great, so it's hard to even narrow down the highlights for this post.

At the Grand Openings, authors from 8 different countries read excerpts about:

An abbess who kept a ball of yeast alive by stowing it beneath her sweaty breasts on the hot journey from Syria so that the new convent in Italy would have bread... (Simonetta Agnello Hornby; The Nun)
A Dominican immigrant in Jersey who asks her daughter for help, to knead her large breast and feel for the lump there... (Junot Diaz; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao)
An elderly Chinese immigrant who wakes in Sydney, Australia, with the thought of Dr. Zhivago's dark head upon her breasts... (Gail Jones; Five Bells)
A grieving French immigrant hears the strange Australian birds outside and is driven almost to madness with longing to hear the voice of her dead son... (Marie Darrieussecq; Tom is Dead)
A boy mixed up with terrorist operatives in Mogadishu hears seabirds but cannot understand their language... (Nuruddin Farah; Crossbones)
A 50-year-old man searching for information about his birth mother is jolted by the tart observances of an 11-year-old girl... (Kyo Maclear; Stray Love)
A boy's birth, thrown out of his acrobat mother to the applause of elephants and seals... (Rawi Hage; Carnival)
Being born with cerebral palsy and the size of a mango, weighing 900 grams, the start of life's long striptease... (Ekiwah Adler-Belendez; he read his poetry from a looseleaf binder, but this piece is possibly included in Love on Wheels)

Best panel is actually a tie between two outstanding discussions: Women in Literature (about the critical response to women's writing) and Beyond Survival (about the place of Canadian literature in this country and abroad).

Most entertaining presentation: Chip Kidd (with his slideshow images from Batman: Death by Design). Douglas Coupland as host hardly needed to get a word in edgewise.

Most dazzling conversation: Cory Doctorow and William Gibson. There was some confusion in the line as we waited to get in; was this a William Gibson event? Or was it about Cory Doctorow? It was very much both. Their topics covered a lot of ground, including gun culture in the USA, 3D printing of working guns, and the positive impact of internet access on low-income families.

Best spoken word: Word! (with Lemn Sissay, Ivan Coyote and C.R. Avery, hosted by Brendan McLeod)

Best poetry event: The Initiation Trilogy, a dramatic performance of the works of three poets. If you're in Vancouver, you can still catch this; the run continues to October 28.

Most laughter: Humour with a Bite. I normally borrow books from the library, but these women were so funny that I got out my wallet after the event so that I wouldn't have to wait to get more from them.

New-to-me authors I'm most excited to have heard about directly as a result of the festival: Gail Jones, Anne Fleming, Miranda Hill and Linda Svendsen.

Vancouver is a beautiful city at any time of the year. The festival is held on Granville Island, a location that's always a treat, with its bustling market, artisan shops, and the seabirds and boats all around. I was hosted by my dear friend Kathy, who enjoys talking about literature as much as I do. In her apartment, I dreamed nightly against a wall of books. Tomorrow I'm back to the real world, back to work. Where there are also plenty of books...
Just a few of Kathy's books. Why ever did I bring my own?

Apples are in season at the
Granville Island market.
Honey Crisps, Pippins,
Ambrosia and lots more.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Lots of Laughs at the Vancouver Writers Fest

Sculpture by Yue Minjun, English Bay, Vancouver
Why haven't more than a handful of women won the annual Stephen Leacock medal for humour? At the Women in Literature event at the writers fest in Vancouver on Thursday evening, this question was asked as part of the broader context of the systemic discrimination affecting female artists. It was an excellent, thoughtful discussion.

I've had the good fortune to hear lots of funny women at the festival this year, most of them Canadian: Ivan Coyote, Anne Fleming, Shari Lapena, Emily Schultz, Linda Svendsen, Rebecca Rosenblum, Jessica Westhead and A.L. Kennedy (from Scotland).

One more (very full) day of festival events and then I'll be heading home to Edmonton on Sunday. I plan to share more festival stories when I have access to my own computer.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Vancouver Writers Fest

I'm on my way to Vancouver today for the writers festival. Yay!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif

Conspiracy theories surround the 1988 plane crash that killed the president of Pakistan, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, as well as most of Zia's top commanders and an American ambassador. Mohammed Hanif has spun the mystery into an entertaining satire, A Case of Exploding Mangoes. It's narrated by a gay junior officer in the Pakistan army, Ali Shigri.

"There's poetry in committing a crime after you have served your sentence. I do not have much interest in poetry, but punishment before a crime does have a certain singsong quality to it."

"My punishment had started exactly two months and seventeen days before the crash, when I woke up at reveille and, without opening my eyes, reached out to pull back Obaid's blanket, a habit picked up from four years of sharing the same room with him. It was the only way to wake him up. My hand caressed an empty bed. I rubbed my eyes. the bed was freshly made, a starched white sheet tucked over a grey wool blanket, like a Hindu widow in mourning. Obaid was gone and the buggers would obviously suspect me."

Where has Shigri's lover, Obaid, gone? Who killed Shigri's father? Who will revenge his death? And what is to be done about a crow that heard the curse of an old woman and then flew across the Pakistani border illegally?

A dark and funny look at life under an unhinged dictator. Excellent!

Readalike: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz).

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Victoria Jones had been a ward of the State of California since she was a baby, growing up in foster care and group homes. In The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh's debut novel, Victoria narrates her own story. It begins with her emancipation at 18 and her difficult path forward, flashing back intermittently to her childhood and a misdeed that continues to haunt her.

When she was 9, Victoria learned about the Victorian craze for using flowers to communicate. This aspect of the novel was the big hook for me, since I went through a similar obsession when I was about 12. Victoria did not outgrow hers, however. A flower dictionary was her most prized possession afterwards, and she used flowers to leave messages, despite knowing that their recipients wouldn't understand. Peonies (anger) for her social worker. Zinnias (I mourn your absence) when she left another group home.

The flower Victoria chose for herself was thistle (misanthropy), and I would add lavender (mistrust) and mustard (I am hurt) to that. I don't mind prickly protagonists, and I was sympathetic to Victoria's situation, but I sometimes lost patience with the way she wallows in feeling worthless and unlovable.

Victoria's talent with flowers gets her a job in a florist shop in San Francisco, where she becomes known for her significant choices, catering to emotional needs. Before long, Victoria has her own business. "My pre-wedding consultations were as in demand as my arrangements. Couples treated their appointments like visits to a fortune-teller or priest; they told me, often for hours, the many hopes they held for their relationships, and also the challenges they faced."

Victoria's success stretched my credulity, especially given her contempt towards her customers. "The fall had officially become as busy as the summer months had been, full of demanding, superstitious brides who would rather marry on a Sunday in late autumn than use another florist. They were my least favorite. Not wealthy enough to have simply outbid other brides for the summer months and planned extravagant weddings with grace and gratitude but wealthy enough to run in the same circles and feel the grief of constant comparison. Fall brides were insecure, and the men they were marrying overindulgent."

Early on, at the flower market, Victoria meets a man who recognizes her and who also knows the language of flowers. Love is in the air and all that. Unfortunately, romance is just not my genre. The mystery of what went awry at the only foster home where Victoria had felt loved is what kept me listening to the Random House audiobook [11 hours], performed by Tara Sands. It's "unabashedly romantic" according to the Boston Globe. My bouquet for The Language of Flowers would include begonia (caution), turnip (charity) and saffron (beware of excess).

Readalikes: Chocolat (Joanne Harris) for those readers who enjoy romance; Three Little Words: A Memoir (Ashley Rhodes-Courter) for those looking for a true tale of foster care.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Snake Ropes by Jess Richards

Longlisted for the Green Carnation prize, which is open to GLBT authors worldwide, Snake Ropes is Jess Richards' debut novel. A matriarchal society of about 150 people subsists on a remote island and holds its secrets close. The only outside contact is through mysterious traders who come once per month. Richards has created a quirky world where ghosts converse with the living and a Thrashing House is used to mete out punishment. Selkies search for their skins. Ropes bite with the venom of snakes.

The narration alternates between two 18-year-olds, Mary and Morgan. One steals keys and the other is locked up, so of course they will help each other. I was immediately drawn in by Mary's voice in the opening lines:

"The tall men in boats are coming. I see them through the window, close to the beach. My little brother is sat on my lap. Him puts hims hands on the table, leans round and looks up at me. Hims brown eyes have my reflection inside.
I smile at him, stroke the curls on the back of hims head where them need a wash. I say, 'Sorry Barney. I've got to get you hid, them're coming.'"

Boys have been disappearing from the island.

On the other side of the island, the eldest of three daughters chafes at being locked up for her own safety:

“I know from all the storybooks that wicked stepmothers are to be avoided if you wish to remain good or pure or ignorant. I really want one.”

Morgan has books for company, but they no longer sustain her. 

“I’ve been dancing in ashes for a hundred years with a frog that has turned from me, kissed a prince and become a toad. I’m meant to have been a much loved daughter made from snow but my parents used icing sugar so I can’t melt and leave them thinking I was always perfect.” (I was delighted to see this reference to the same folk tale that inspired Ivey's The Snow Child.)

Even though it's a Green Carnation book, Snake Ropes has no overt queer content. Look for lesbian subtext between the lines. An older woman advises one young woman to look after another, stressing mutuality. “Not have one care more than the other, but both have to care just enough. Be yourself first.” 

Jess Richards appears to have followed that final bit of advice in creating this unique and enchanting fantasy. I loved it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White is said to be the very first detective novel written and dates from 1860. Wilkie Collins presents first person statements from a number of different witnesses in order to expose a complicated case of subterfuge. I remained enthralled for nearly 25 hours by the audiobook narrated by Ian Holm [AudioGO], which won an Audiophile Earphones award in 2011.

Summaries of this classic are so widely available (Wikipedia entry here) that I'll go directly to why I recommend this book. As with other works that were first published in serialized installments (from Dickens to Armistead Maupin), the episodic quality is part of its appeal. Piecing together a puzzle through multiple viewpoints; wrongful incarceration in a mental institution; a dastardly evil count; and volatile family secrets are some of the other attractions. I also liked the characters of Walter and Marian very much, even though Laura Fairlie seemed too weak and insipid to have inspired such devoted love and loyalty from them.

I did not like some of the Victorian-era viewpoints, such as the belief that no woman could create art as good as that of a male artist, but that didn't detract from my overall enjoyment.

Readalikes: Fingersmith (Sarah Waters) for a lesbian take on Victorian skulduggery.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Jeeves to the Rescue by P.G. Wodehouse

Novels by P.G. Wodehouse fill several shelves in the library where I work. I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to try one, but I am very glad that I finally did! I listened to Jonathan Cecil perform Code of the Woosters: Jeeves to the Rescue [BBC Audiobooks America; 7 hours] and it was hilarious.

In the opening pages, Bertie has a hangover and asks his manservant, Jeeves, if he might provide his usual remedy:

"He shimmered out, and I sat up in bed with that rather unpleasant feeling you get sometimes that you're going to die in about five minutes. On the previous night, I had given a little dinner at the Drones to Gussie Fink-Nottle as a friendly send-off before his approaching nuptials with Madeline, only daughter of Sir Watkyn Bassett, CBE, and these things take their toll. Indeed, just before Jeeves came in, I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head -- not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones."

Later that morning, Bertie goes to see his aunt Dahlia, who "laughed a bit louder than I would have wished in my frail state of health, but then she is always a woman who tends to bring plaster falling from the ceiling when amused."

Bertie Wooster gets out of one wacky predicament after another with the help of Jeeves. The farce is sustained because Bertie is oblivious to his own ineptitude. Bertie's way of expressing himself is also quite inventive, so I didn't grow tired of the schtick. I wouldn't want a steady diet of Wodehouse, but I'll certainly pick up another one sometime.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Forrests by Emily Perkins

In 1967, an unusual family moves from New York to Auckland in Emily Perkins' character-based novel, The Forrests. "Reasons to do [...] with lack of success back home, a paucity of funds, an excess of entitlement." Frank Forrest threw himself into directing an amateur dramatics society in his new community and alienated most of the membership. His family lived in poverty and his wife, Lee, was his only cheerleader.

"Dot and Eve agreed that they hated their father."  Three years later, Frank abandoned them all and flew back to New York. Lee packed up her four children -- Michael, Evelyn, Dorothy and Ruth, plus Michael's friend Daniel, who at age 13 had pretty much moved in with the Forrests permanently -- and they moved to a commune on "wimmin's land" outside Auckland.

"Dot lay in the children's cabin on a bunk bed, on top of the thin red sleeping bag, sloughed like a cocoon over the foam mattress, yellow and bitten, that covered the plywood bunk base, and she wept over The Little Mermaid and for all her selfishness. When her father returned she would love him with an open heart."

Dorothy was 7 when the family first moved to New Zealand. The story follows the stages of her life in vivid, sensory snapshots all the way through to old age. From a child reading fairy tales to a senior woman with an eReader:

"Dot scrolled the pages of her book, another book she couldn't read without her glasses and magnifying glass; all very well enlarging the font but not when it ended up three words per line."

Perkins' writing style brings not only people but also individual moments into focus:

"The light was indecisive, shifting between bright and low, and it disoriented her, made her hurry in case of being late, so that when she reached the floral clock, tightly coiled in this early spring but still marking time between the green minutes, the Roman hours, it took Dorothy a moment to be able to read that she was early." (See a heritage photo of the clock online here.)

A beautiful, unsentimental look at the hardships and the rewards that make ordinary lives extraordinary.

Readalike: Carry the One (Carol Anshaw) for the examination of family dynamics over a long period of time.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Game of Thrones: The Graphic Novel by GRR Martin, adapted by D Abraham, art by T Patterson

I've been wanting to read George R.R. Martin's acclaimed series, A Song of Ice and Fire, but have been daunted by its length. The five books together are over 4,000 pages long. That's why I was pleased to see a graphic novel adaptation of the first book, A Game of Thrones. I hoped to get a feel for the original work through the creative collaboration of Daniel Abraham and Tommy Patterson.

Result? Unsatisfactory. I enjoyed the epic scope and the multiple narrative threads. There are interesting relationships between different sets of siblings. Individuals are changed by power and circumstance.

Patterson's full colour art, however, is unappealing. It's hard to tell who is who because many faces are similar. (And similarly unattractive, distorted.) Narrative boxes are in saturated colours that don't allow enough contrast to easily read the black text. The men bulge with muscles. A giant of a groom is three times the size of his bride. The women are shown naked as often as possible, bathing and dressing as well as during sex. It put me in mind of the erotica in John Norman's Chronicles of Gor. Examples include a female attendant who has both hands on a young woman's waspish waist, supposedly assisting her into a bath; an outdoor sex scene where both participants are aware that everyone in the tents around them are watching; and an orgy scene in a brothel (traversed in order to get to a woman hiding for safety on an upper floor).

I'm not planning to read beyond volume 1 of the adaptation. The original books, however, still interest me. And the television series as well, perhaps.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Almond Picker by Simonetta Agnello Hornby, translated by Alistair McEwen

In Sicily in 1963, the death of the Alfallipe family's longtime maidservant is not the end of her influence upon them. Known as Mennulara (the almond picker), Maria Rosalia Inzerillo had worked for the Alfallipes since she was 13. At the time of Mennulara's death, she had been managing the Alfallipe family estate for years. How did she come to hold such power, far above her station in life? Why did an important mafia boss attend her funeral? And what about the inheritance due the three adult Alfallipe siblings? Will they still be forced to follow Mennulara's instructions now that she is dead?

Simonetta Agnello Hornby's The Almond Picker spans one month in time and encompasses a multitude of characters, each contributing a piece to the larger picture. I sometimes found it hard to keep track of how the different townspeople were related to each other and what their connections were with Mennulara. It didn't matter if the voices occasionally blended into a noisy crowd because the remarkable woman at the centre emerges clearly by the end of the novel. She was despised, loved, scorned and admired, depending on the individual.

Some folks get in trouble for prying to closely into Mennulara's background: "Today, he found that someone had destroyed the engine of his car, a Fiat Seicento, by pouring cement into it. Neither he nor that spineless boss of his knows which saint to turn to." Meanwhile, the Alfallipe siblings are exposed for their grasping, lazy, presumptuous and ungrateful selves -- putting on quite a spectacle for the town.

It's a big-hearted Italian Peyton Place and I highly recommend it.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Apocalyptic daydreams, an ancestral curse, and the horrific regime of Trujillo -- "the dictatingest dictator who ever dictated" -- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a story of diaspora. From the Dominican Republic to New Jersey, author Junot Diaz follows the members of the fated Cabral family, mostly told in the voice of Yunior, a fellow Dominican immigrant. Yunior's narration is uncensored, as if the reader is one of his ghetto buddies. He sounds like Diaz's alter ego in this excerpt about fuku, a curse or doom:

"A couple weeks ago, while I was finishing this book, I posted the thread fuku on the DR forum, just out of curiosity. These days I'm nerdy like that. The talkback blew the fuck up. You should see how many responses I've gotten. They just keep coming in. And not just from Domos. The Puertorocks want to talk about fufus, and the Haitians have some shit just like it. There are a zillion of these fuku stories. Even my mother, who almost never talks about Santo Domingo, has started sharing hers with me."

Yunior was Oscar De Leon's dorm mate in college, as a favour to Oscar's older sister, Lola. Oscar was a lonely geek who weighed 307 pounds. He was obsessed with reading, and writing, science fiction and fantasy. Lola worried about Oscar's coping skills.

"I wasn't as old-school as I am now, just real fucking dumb, assumed keeping an eye on somebody like Oscar wouldn't be no Herculean chore. I mean, shit, I was a weight lifter, picked up bigger fucking piles than him every damn day.
You can start the laugh track anytime you want.
He seemed like the same to me. Still massive -- Biggie Smalls minus the smalls -- and still lost. Still writing ten, fifteen, twenty pages a day. Still obsessed with his fanboy madness. Do you know what sign fool put up on our dorm door? Speak, friend, and enter. In fucking Elvish! (Please don't ask me how I knew this. Please.) When I saw that I said: De Leon, you gotta be kidding. Elvish?
Actually, he coughed, it's Sindarin."

The story moves back and forth in time and place, occasionally switching over to a woman's voice. Audiobook narrators Jonathan Davis and Staci Snell take turns performing in the Penguin edition [5 hours], handling the intermingled Spanish words smoothly. (Davis grew up in San Juan.) I'll be seeing Junot Diaz at the Vancouver Writers Fest later this month, and I must be prepared that his voice will not be that of Jonathan Davis. (Nor of Yunior, for that matter). I'm curious, however, to hear if his conversation style is similar to that in his writing. His storytelling has impressed me immensely. Here's one last excerpt:

"The family claims the first sign [of the curse] was that Abelard's third and final daughter, given the light early on in her father's capsulization, was born black. And not just any kind of black. But black black -- kongoblack, shangoblack, kaliblack, zapoteblack, rekhablack -- and no amount of fancy Dominican racial legerdemain was going to obscure the fact. That's the kind of culture I belong to: people took their child's black complexion as an ill omen."

I enjoyed the literary references throughout. Beli Cabral, Oscar and Lola's mother, is the black daughter mentioned above. She landed a scholarship at one of the best schools in her town in the Dominican Republic, but she had no friends there. "It wasn't like In the Time of the Butterflies, where a kindly Mirabal Sister steps up and befriends the poor scholarship student. No Miranda here: everybody shunned her." (Note to self: you must really get around to reading Julia Alvarez's novel about the sisters who resisted Trujillo and were murdered.)

I look forward now to Diaz's newest book, a collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, which are also narrated in the voice of Yunior. Diaz was awarded a MacArthur fellowship earlier this week.

Readalikes: Diaz himself suggested one, by titling one chapter The Gangster We Are All Looking For; Le Thi Diem Thuy's award-winning first person narrative, shifting in time and place, is about a Vietnamese immigrant to America. The Dew Breaker (Edwidge Danticat) is about the Duvalier regime in Haiti. Fault Lines (Nancy Huston) moves backwards in time (as Diaz does in the first part) loosely linking characters in the Jewish diaspora. And for another account of survival under cruel dictatorship, The Orphan Master's Son (Adam Johnson).