Friday, November 30, 2012

The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder

When my YA book discussion group chose to read Carrie Snyder's The Juliet Stories, I had already  placed it on hold at the library because it was shortlisted for the Canadian Governor General's Awards. (The group occasionally reads adult titles, like this one, that have appeal for teen readers.) I didn't end up making it to the discussion because I had to work that evening, but I hadn't yet read the book anyway. I've only just now finished it, actually, having several other books on the go at the same time.

I liked The Juliet Stories very much. The weird thing is that I never noticed that the book is a series of interconnected short stories until I'd finished it. I assumed it was a novel and didn't read the inside flap or back cover until today: "A stunning new novel-in-stories set against the backdrop of the political turmoil in 1980s revolutionary Nicaragua." The 's' on the end of 'Stories' should have clued me in. I love story-cycles in general but this is the first time I've read one all the way through without noticing the format. When I'm reading short stories, I usually read them one at a time, interspersing them with other reading. And that's exactly what I did with The Juliet Stories, putting it down between chapters.

One of the things that I read in-between was a post on the Ken Haycock blog which looked at readers who skip between books like I do. It's actually about how books in digital format allow companies to track reading behaviours.

"Barnes and Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science fiction, romance and crime fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend to skip around between books." (Your E-Book is Reading You.)

Anyway, back to Carrie Snyder's wonderful stories/novel. The nuances of family relationships - between siblings, between husband and wife, and between parents and children -- are deftly delineated. Setting -- both time and place -- is another of Snyder's strengths, especially as seen through a child's experience.

"Ronald Reagan is the president of the United States of America. He is fighting the commies. Commie is short for communist, a thick plank of a word that is used often and ominously on American television; on American television communist means evil. But Juliet takes her definition from Gloria, who says that communists are people who share everything. (Imagine fighting against people who share! It is the punchline to a joke. Juliet writes a skit on the subject, and Keith plays Ronald Reagan with gusto: "I declare a war on sharing! There will be no more sharing!")"

Later, when Juliet's family moves from Nicaragua to Canada, there's a whole new cultural environment to negotiate. "Hockey is a violent sport that rewards angry men and boys. Ringette is an unsolved feminine mystery."

Snyder's memorable characters and poignant insights into family dynamics make The Juliet Stories a very rewarding book -- whether it is approached as a single novel or as individual stories.

Readalike: The Forrests by Emily Perkins

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

House Held Up by Trees by Ted Kooser and Jon Klassen

Illustrator Jon Klassen (Cat's Night Out; I Want My Hat Back) has created a powerful and delicate work in collaboration with award-winning poet Ted Kooser. House Held Up by Trees has an unusual storyline for a children's picture book. Set in the quiet beauty of the rural American midwest, it shows the life of a man who was apparently widowed at a young age, and how nature and time erase his efforts to make a lasting mark on the landscape.

The man is always shown at a distance, small against the wide open space where he lives. His preoccupation with maintaining a perfect lawn exhibits his need to be in control. He appears to have little connection with his children, who prefer the woods on the edges of their property to the barren expanse of their yard.

The man's constant battle is with tree seedlings that persist in taking root in his lawn. "This went on year after year, and the children slowly grew up, as children will, and in time became a young man and a young woman, ready to go off into the world." The illustration accompanying this text shows the young people facing the woods, the boy with his cap at his side in a gesture of respect, the girl holding a tree leaf. They do not value the same things as their father.

Klassen's restrained colour palette and liberal use of the palest shades evoke a mood of lamentation while maintaining the feeling of country expansiveness and fresh air. The man's missing spouse isn't mentioned in the text, but we see two chairs near the house, and one of these is occasionally used by the man, never by his children.

Later, when people have abandoned the property, the house is abused by weather and vandals. Trees inevitably take over the yard. "Some of the seeds had sprouted along the foundation, where water ran off the roof and into a deep crack, and these little trees were soon saplings, pressed against the side of the house." Practical details like this show Kooser's awareness and respect for the interplay between the natural world and manmade things. The trees growing against the house eventually lift it from its foundations. The result is otherworldly. Not a treehouse, which is purposefully built for play or refuge, but something else. Something of wonder.

House Held Up by Trees -- it took me a while to notice that there is no article at the start of the title (being as I am so used to omitting them in keyword searching and alphabetical filing). "House" has become an abstract concept here.

Children who live in dysfunctional families may see aspects of their lives reflected here. The tale is recounted without preaching or judgement and the ending is unexpectedly uplifting. It's a multi-layered picture book that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

Companion reads: The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton (for a different take on the movement of people from rural to urban life); Jack Pine by Christopher Patton (for another poetic celebration of the power of trees vs. humans); Grandpa Green by Lane Smith (for the contrast of a gardening aesthetic shared by a younger generation, rather than rejected).

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Home by Toni Morrison

Fran Lebowitz tells a good story about the time she was Toni Morrison's guest when Morrison received the Nobel prize for literature and Lebowitz ended up sitting at the children's table at the banquet. Anyway, hearing that anecdote reminded me that I've been meaning to read Morrison's recent novel, Home... and so I did. It is a jewel of a book, a powerhouse in under 150 pages.

Frank Money comes back from the Korean war shell-shocked, but learning that his beloved younger sister needs his help brings him back to his senses and to his hometown. The first lines from each short chapter are enough to reveal the attraction of Morrison's style:

   They rose up like men.
   Breathing. How to do it so no one would know he was awake.
   Mama was pregnant when we walked out of Bandera County, Texas.
   A mean grandmother is one of the worst things a girl could have.
   Women are eager to talk to me when they hear my last name. 
   The actors were much nicer than the actresses.
   Lotus, Georgia, is the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield.
   Jackie's ironing was flawless.
   Korea. You can't imagine it because you weren't there.
   The Georgian boasted a country-ham-and-red-gravy breakfast. Frank got to the station early to reserve a coach seat.
   Her eyes. Flat, waiting, always waiting.
   Frank walked down Auburn Street across from the station on Walnut.
   It was so bright, brighter than he remembered.
   I have to say something to you right now. I have to tell the whole truth.
   The next morning at breakfast Cee appeared to have returned to her newly steady self, confident, cheerful and occupied.
   Cee refused to give up the quilt.
   C'mon, brother. Let's go home.

Morrison's writing has become even better as it has become more spare in recent years.  A Mercyher previous book, had only 167 pages. I particularly love her characters. Even her villains get fair treatment -- the mean grandmother in Home, for example, has her own chapter to provide context for her actions. The bigger issues are always present, too: social, cultural and political issues that add a rich depth and feeling. It's a treat for a reader to experience such masterful work; storytelling that seems effortless.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin

Despite having no experience and not speaking French very well, Rosecrans Baldwin landed a job in an advertising agency in Paris. He and his wife packed their stuff into duffel bags and left New York to spend a year and half living in Paris. I love that city so much and wish I could live there. Since that isn't likely to happen, I lived vicariously through Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down. The magic and the merde -- Baldwin is adept at capturing the whole baffling experience of life in a foreign culture. (LCD Soundsystem's "New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down" plays in my head as I write this. Baldwin's book is funny, but it also feels wistful, like the song.)

"'French' became an umbrella term for me, describing things I liked before I knew why I liked them. but Paris was different. Paris was an umbrella, a dream I carried around in case the weather turned bad."

Parisian bar service.
Baldwin's first assignment was to create breast feeding pamphlets. His office mates shamed him out of eating at his desk, so he ate his lunch in a park most days, surrounded by other "office workers picnicking, students smoking and chatting, and college girls who would undress down to bikinis and sunbathe on the lawn while men gazed from their benches, eating their sandwiches with two hands. Not me, though. I was married. Plus I was fed up with breasts. I'd think, Oh, cover up your functionality already."

Pears at Luxembourg Garden
greenhouse display
During his lunch break, Baldwin worked on his own writing. Like me, he was curious about what books other people were reading. "The big book on the Metro that season was Millenium, a trio of crime novels by the Swedish author Stieg Larsson. At that point, the books were still unknown in America, but they were everywhere in France. Coworkers lugged their copies to the office each morning, walking through the front door with their noses buried deep. I wasn't feeling very hopeful about the future of books. The novel I was writing appeared to be going unhurriedly backward, sliding toward the trash."

When Baldwin asked his colleagues what symbol said France most of all, they were quick to reply. "The baguette. Or the Eiffel Tower. But this is a recent development." This pretty much sums up the Parisian preoccupation with food and cultural heritage. I wish I was there again.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Whole Day Through by Patrick Gale

I was first introduced to Patrick Gale when I swapped books with a fellow traveller in Scotland in 2001. I'd just finished Timothy Findley's Pilgrim and happily traded it for Gale's Rough Music. Mine was definitely the better half of the deal.

This morning I finished listening to Gale's The Whole Day Through [Clipper Audio; 4 hrs 45 min] and I already miss the protagonists. Sandra Duncan and Ed Stoppard perform the limited third-person narration as it alternates between Laura and Ben, both in their mid-forties. Laura, who is single, comes back to England from her home in Paris in order to care for her mother. Ben, who was Laura's lover when they were at university but has since married, has returned home to care for his brother after their mother dies. Ben's brother has Mosaic Down Syndrome -- and he's gay. Laura and Ben happen to bump into each other in the hospital where he works and where Laura has just dropped off her mother for an appointment. Will their second chance at romance succeed?

Ordinary lives become extraordinary when examined with loving precision; Gale does that well. The Whole Day Through is understated and melancholy, yet uplifting. It has left me thinking about the unintended effects that words can have on our lives. And thinking about Laura and Ben too, and what might lie ahead for them.

Gale's newest novel, A Perfectly Good Man, made the Green Carnation Prize shortlist this year.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Fran Lebowitz Reader by Fran Lebowitz

Since Fran Lebowitz was going to be speaking in Edmonton as part of the University of Alberta's Festival of Ideas, my book club decided to make the event a group outing. Instead of choosing a specific book, we agreed to read anything by Lebowitz beforehand. It isn't a vast oeuvre: Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981) are it, basically. The two works were combined in The Fran Lebowitz Reader (1994).

Lebowitz also wrote a children's book, Mr Chas and Lisa Sue meet the Pandas, published in 1995. Allan Gregg interviewed Lebowitz on TVO some years ago (during the Clinton era) and asked about her interest in children's books. Lebowitz responded that she has always kept reading them, along with other books. I was pleased to learn that, since I don't know many adults, outside of parents and librarians, who regularly read children's literature. The whole interview is great, by the way. You can find it in iTunes, or else here on YouTube.

So anyway, it was Eleanor Wachtel from CBC's Writers and Company who interviewed Lebowitz live on stage in Edmonton a couple of days ago. Wachtel is one of my very favourite interviewers, but she was a bit off her game that evening. She asked Lebowitz about Tales from a Broad: An Unreliable Memoir. Lebowitz responded that not only had she not written that book, but would be unlikely to even read a book with that title. Turns out that it's a different Fran Lebowitz who wrote that one. A member of my book club had made the same mistake, since we had agreed to read anything by Lebowitz and she happened to pick that one on Amazon.

Lebowitz (the New York lesbian one, not the Unreliable Memoir straight one) writes witty social commentary. Because her books are old, the cultural references in them are dated: macrame, est, mood rings, using the word "artistic" as a euphemism for gay, etc. I enjoyed The Fran Lebowitz Reader in small doses, setting it down to read other things in between. Here are a few lines from the piece titled 'Children: Pro or Con?':

"Moving, as I do, in what would kindly be called artistic circles, children are an infrequent occurrence. But even the most artistic of circles includes within its periphery a limited edition of the tenaciously domestic. As I am generally quite fond of children I accept this condition with far less displeasure than do my more rarefied acquaintances."

"Notoriously insensitive to subtle shifts in mood, children will persist in discussing the colour of a recently sighted cement-mixer long after one's own interest in the topic has waned."

Martin Scorsese's feature-length documentary about Lebowitz, Public Speaking, is an even better way to get to know her than through her writings. But I'm happy to give her the last word:

"Life is something that happens when you can't get to sleep."

Readalikes: Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

"Oct. 11, 1943. A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a shot at survival. The other has lost the game before it's barely begun." -- from inside the dust jacket of Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

This World War II adventure had me spellbound from the opening lines. The Gestapo have given Julie a choice: write down the details of her mission, or else be executed. Like Sheherazade, she spins out her tale over time, but it isn't enough to save her from ongoing brutality.

"Of course I was not allowed to take the paper into my room with me (in case I should tear it into strips and weave it into a rope with which to hang myself, I suppose), so had to wait for a while in the big outer chamber while von Linden was busy with someone else. See me, cowering in the corner in my wrist and leg irons, clutching my armful of blank recipe cards and trying not to notice what they were doing to Jacques's fingers and toes with bits of hot metal and tongs."

Code Name Verity straddles the boundary between adult fiction and YA. It is about a friendship so strong that it inspires extreme acts of heroism. It is such a good story.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Indigo by Jenny Balfour-Paul

The use of blue dye has a fascinating history as Jenny Balfour-Paul's Indigo demonstrates. Humans have prized the colour and used it to decorate textiles for millenia.

"In theory blue dye (from woad) could have been used as early as around 6000 BC in the Near East, for evidence at the early Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk in southern Anatolia suggests knowledge of dyes at the time." Weavers in Ancient Egypt inserted blue stripes into the borders of plain linen mummy cloths as far back as 2400 BC. Egyptians also used woad overdyed with madder or lichen dye to imitate the shellfish purple that was so highly prized. "Even today people of Oaxaca in Mexico will taste purple-dyed fabric to ensure they are not being palmed off with an indigo and red fake."

Most dyes come from plant materials, but natural purples are created from whelks. "Huge quantities of shellfish had to be killed (about 10,000 to obtain one gram of dye) in order to extract from the tiny hypobranchial glands enough of the photo-sensitive whitish secretion containing the precursor to purple." It's good to know that in Central America today, "the glands of Purpura patula are 'milked' without harming the whelks."

Logwood was discovered in the Americas at the time of the Spanish conquests, but the blues it produced were not colourfast. "It did, however, make a black so valuable in commerce that it was the cause of many conflicts between the Spanish and the English in Central America, and even resulted in the creation of British Honduras (Belize) -- but that is another dyestuff story!" (I want to read that one too.)

More than one kind of plant can be used to create blue dye, but some are superior. The introduction of indigo to Europe from Asia threatened the European woad dye industry. In France, the plutocracy had grown so rich on woad profits, that the king issued an edict in 1609 which sentenced to death anyone found using "the deceitful and injurious dye called inde." "French dyers were not officially free to use imported indigo as they wished until 1737." "At the close of the eighteenth century the magistrates of Nuremberg were still forcing their dyers to swear annually under oath not to use indigo, and, like the French authorities, actually threatened dyers with the death sentence for disobedience. The edict concerned was still on the books at the end of the nineteenth century but had long since been ignored." It was such a valuable commodity before the invention of synthetic dyes that in South Carolina "indigo dyestuff could be exchanged for slaves," pound for pound.

All of this is just in the first quarter of Indigo. Balfour-Paul also writes about indigo's use and cultural role around the world right up to modern times. It's an oversize, almost coffee-table-size book with lots of illustrations and colour photographs. Its appeal extends beyond readers with a special interest in textiles to anyone who enjoys learning about the many ways people manipulate the world around us.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Every Day by David Levithan

Waking up in a new body every morning, A -- the narrator of David Levithan's Every Day -- is resigned to this unique existence until A falls in love with a girl. A has no gender. A is always in a body that corresponds to A's real age, which is about 16 at the time of the novel (starting with day 5994). Whether inhabiting a male or female body, of whatever sexual orientation, size and skin colour, A only wants to be with Rhiannon. Every day a different body. Every day in love with the same girl.

The body jumper premise in Every Day is intriguing and Levithan does a good job exploring what role the physical body plays in romantic attraction.

Levithan seems to have no shortage of ideas for creative storytelling twists. Previous books include The Lover's Dictionary (written in a series of alphabetical vignettes), Boy Meets Boy (a sweet gay teen romance set in a town with no homophobia), and some lively collaborations with other authors, including John Green (Will Grayson, Will Grayson) and Rachel Cohn (Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist and others) and a photographer, Jonathan Farmer (Every You, Every Me).

Note added Nov 17, 2012: Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes have created a great promotion for Every Day via their online comic strip, Unshelved. See it here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Adult fans of children's fiction already know Rebecca Stead, whose genre-blurring When You Reach Me won the Newbery and many other accolades in 2010. Her new novel, Liar & Spy, is just as enchanting, although firmly based in reality. 12-year-old Georges makes friends with a couple of home-schooled kids when he moves to a new apartment in Brooklyn and joins their spy club. Meanwhile, Georges is not coping well with bullies at school and with his mother working long hours since his father was fired.

"Dad is looking at the bookshelves, deep in thought, deciding exactly which book should go where. Once, Mom came home from work and discovered that he had turned all the books around so that the bindings were against the wall and the pages faced out. He said it was calming not to have all those words floating around and 'creating static.' Mom made him turn them back. She said that it was too hard to find a book when she couldn't read the titles. Then she poured herself a big glass of wine."

Can't you just picture this scene? From start to surprising finish, Liar & Spy is rewarding for adults as well as readers in Grade 5 and onward.

Readalikes: Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh); The 10 pm Question (Kate De Goldi); and My Name is Mina (David Almond).

Monday, November 12, 2012

Boyfriends with Girlfriends by Alex Sanchez

I've been catching up on a lot of recent queer YA lately because I'll be at the GSA Student Conference happening in Edmonton next weekend. Since I've read other books by Alex Sanchez (Rainbow Boys; Getting It), I thought I'd just flip through his Boyfriends with Girlfriends to get a feel for it instead of reading the whole thing. It didn't work that way, however, because I got sucked right in and read every word.

Sanchez has created four believable teen characters with a mix of ethnic backgrounds: a gay guy, a bisexual guy, a butch lesbian and a bisexual young woman. The issue of bisexuality is sensitively handled and central to the romantic conflicts. The realistic dialogue moves the story along quickly (although I disapprove of all the cell phone use while driving!). The four of them go through all kinds of relationship angst as they sort out the early stages of attraction and dating. They are sweet kids and the book is sweet too.

The book jacket does a good job of reflecting the contents. I found some background about the design on the CBC (Children's Book Council) Diversity website. Laurent Linn, art director at Simon & Schuster, said he "aimed to create a cover that looks 'hot,' like a movie poster, but shows the characters interacting in ways that suggest the story's complexities. Casting models who resemble the characters was key, of course, as was posing them to be true to their relationships (it was quite a photo shoot)!" Read the whole post about portraying diversity on book covers here.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Blondes by Emily Schultz

A worldwide rabies-like plague breaks out in Emily Schultz's witty new novel, The Blondes. Hazel Hayes is a graduate student in New York City when the epidemic starts. News media are calling it Blonde Fury, Gold Fever, Suicide Blondes, or California Rabies because only blonde women appear to be susceptible. While coverage of a bloody attack plays on a television screen nearby, Hazel meets with her thesis advisor for the first time and answers questions about herself:

"'I did my BA in Communications in Windsor, Ontario,' I told her.
'I know that Windsor is in Ontario. I lived in your country for seven years, hmm.' She tacked on hmm's for emphasis. Everything about her had emphasis, from her eyeliner to her phrases. 'There it sits, across the border from Detroit. Such an absolutely ruined city.'"

Cities all over the place pretty much get ruined shortly after this conversation. Hazel eventually takes refuge in a cottage in Wasaga Beach, north of Toronto. She shares the place with its owner, Grace, who is the wife of Karl, who is Hazel's former professor at the University of Toronto... and who is also responsible for Hazel's pregnancy. Hazel addresses her story to her unborn child, calling the fetus her "little womb-raider."

As in her earlier novel, Heaven is Small, Schultz skewers modern culture and society, yet maintains loving patience for her protagonists and their human frailties. It's a fun ride!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Happy Families by Tanita Davis

In alternating chapters, fifteen-year-old twins Ysabel and Justin Nicholas tell how they are affected when they learn that their father is transgender in Happy Families by Tanita Davis.

"That thing Tolstoy says about happy families got to me. Happy families are all alike -- all of them are safe and confident that nothing on this earth can take that away from them. Just like we were, before Dad's little secret hit us like a wrecking ball."

Ysabel is an artist who handcrafts glass beads. Justin is an academic high-achiever. They are enrolled in a Christian academy and attend weekly church services. Their parents are good people who love each other. The fact that they also happen to be African American wasn't confirmed for me until page 181. I had wondered if they might be, but only because I know that the author, Tanita Davis, is African American. The late reveal emphasizes how little it matters to the story, and probably serves to increase close identification with the protagonists by readers of any ethnic background.

The conflict centers on the emotional struggles of the twins as they adjust to their new information about their father's transitioning and what it means for them and their family. An online Kids of Trans chat line helps, as do therapy sessions, and outings with other families with transgender parents.

Readers will come away informed about transgender issues, reinforced by transgender-specific terminology reference at the end of the book, along with advice on names and pronoun usage. Happy Families nicely adds to the growing diversity of queer content in YA literature.

Other teen literature featuring transgender protagonists include: One in Every Crowd (Ivan Coyote); Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy (Bil Wright); I Am J (Cris Beam); Almost Perfect (Brian Katcher); Wandering Son (Takako Shimura); Brooklyn Burning (Steven Brezenoff); Parrotfish (Ellen Wittlinger); Luna (Julie Anne Peters); Jumpstart the World (Catherine Ryan Hyde); and The Boy in the Dress (David Walliams).

Friday, November 9, 2012

Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller

It's highly unlikely that the extra virgin olive oil that we find in grocery stores is correctly labelled, according to Tom Mueller in Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. The book examines the widespread fraud associated with extra virgin olive oil, as well as the fascinating social and cultural history of this amazing fruit. I listened to the Dreamscape audiobook [10.2 hours] expertly read by Peter Ganim.

Each chapter opens with one or two quotations. I was particularly taken by this one from "Lady of the Vines" by Yannis Ritsos: "Silently, the olive is reading within itself the Scriptures of the stone."

Mueller's closing paragraphs contrast olive oil with wine:

"Wine in a meal is the soloist, set apart in its gleaming glass, while oil permeates the food, losing itself but subtly changing everything. Wine's effects on us are vivid and swift, while oil works on the body in hidden ways, slow and lingering in the cells and in the mind, like myths. Wine is merry Dionysus; oil is Athena, solemn, wise, and unknowable.
Wine is how we would like life to be, but oil is how life is: fruity, pungent, with a hint of complex bitterness -- extra virginity's elusive triad."

From the rise in popularity of the "Mediterranean diet" (and its distortion by the U.S. government into an anti-fat mesage) to chefs creating room-temperature ice cream based on olive oil -- there are so many interesting things in this book.

Another example is the eureka moment when scientist Gary Beauchamp recognized the specific sharp burn while tasting olive oil as being the same as that caused by ibuprofen. "It's not like hot peppers, which burn everywhere on your lips, mouth, throat. Ibuprofen produces an entirely different sensory percept, which is extremely localized in the throat, and only happens after you swallow it." Turns out that olive oil does indeed have similar anti-inflammatory properties.

I love micro-histories that focus on a single topic like this. Mark Kurlansky's Salt and Jenny Balfour-Paul's Indigo are of the same sort.

Companion read: The Olive Tree by Carol Drinkwater.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Unusually introspective for a post-apocalyptic survival story, Peter Heller's The Dog Stars is also remarkable for the voice of its narrator, Hig. 

"I don't want to be confused: we are nine years out. The flu killed almost everybody, then the blood disease killed more. The ones who are left are mostly Not Nice, why we live here on the plain, why I patrol every day."

Hig's only companions are his dog and a guy who would rather kill people than speak to them. They live at a small airport and Hig's regular patrols with a 1956 Cessna relieve the bleak monotony of his lonely life. He's a man of few words, but he does love language. In the night when his dog wakes at his side and sniffs, Hig is reminded of a poem from the Tang dynasty.

"I lift my head from the pillow
I see the frost the moon.
Lowering my head I think of home.

Li Po's most famous poem.

Even then: long before before the end, the bottomless yearning. Almost never home, any of us."

I love the way Heller makes Hig so real and his interior life so accessible -- using prose that's brief to the point of terseness. This next is an excerpt from Hig's memory of a time he chatted with a religious fellow who happened to be skiing at the same resort:

"We just follow the Bible word for word he said. Word for word you can't go wrong. Shook his head nice smile. I'd be crazy to disbelieve him.

I told him I always got stuck at the Begats. I said I had just read Lamentations though and it seemed like Mad Max. I mean women eating their babies, everybody dying.

He didn't laugh.

He said, I try to stay on the Right Side of the Bible. Left side was written by Jews. Some things to pay attention to, I guess, but if I were you I'd start with John.

We should have all paid more attention to the Left Side I am thinking now. The Wrong Side, the Side Where Shit Goes Really Really Wrong."

Some parts of The Dog Stars are like Mad Max and maybe even like the Old Testament. Mostly, it's a book that made me think about what is important in life. It's also surprisingly uplifting.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Canadian Pie by Will Ferguson

Me at Ferguson's  event at
Edmonton Litfest in 2011
(photo by Donna Fong)
Since I haven't yet read Will Ferguson's Giller Prize-winning 419, I've decided to review Canadian Pie instead, which I read last year. It's a collection of light and funny short pieces that have been previously published in various magazines and newspapers since the mid-1990s.

Most Canadians will identify with Ferguson's self-deprecating humour in Canadian Pie, and will likely have read at least some of this work elsewhere. Ferguson has won the Stephen Leacock medal for humour three times -- there is no question that he is funny. I like best, however, when his heart is at the forefront.

Rodeo week is upon us in Edmonton, so I'll pull an example from 'Father's Day and the Brothers Hardy':

"When I took Alex to the Calgary Stampede he was five years old and wearing a hat with a plastic whistle. I wanted my son to see the bull riders and chuckwagon races; I hadn't thought about the calf-roping. By the time the second calf had been yanked off its feet and tied down Alex was in tears. 'Make them stop,' he said. 'Make them stop.'

It's a burden and a glory, being a dad. It's the one time in your life when someone really believes in you, really believes that you can stand up in the middle of a grandstand filled with twenty thousand people and say loudly, firmly, in much the same manner as you'd announce it's time for bed and no more dilly-dallying, 'This has to stop. Right now! I'm sorry, but I'm the Dad and you have to stop hurting those little cows.'"

We all got to make pie at
Edmonton Litfest in 2012
(photo by Donna Fong)
There are plenty of strong pieces included in Canadian Pie, but the quality is not consistent. Some of the writing is hackneyed and a few of the articles are dated. In 'Mind the Gap!' (which is from an introduction he wrote for an edition of Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town) Ferguson writes: "Analyzing humour, it's been said, is a lot like dissecting a frog. You may learn something about anatomy in the process, but the frog itself usually dies." Just five pages earlier, in 'Dead Politicians,' Ferguson carefully explains why a certain joke is funny.

Two of Ferguson's novels, Spanish Fly and 419, are about con games. The germ of both books can be found in 'Pedigreed Pooches and Spanish Prisoners' which opens: "Dear reader, I am the son and/or widow of an exiled Nigerian diplomat." It ends with tongue-in-cheek, yet sage, advice on how to avoid being conned. I'm looking forward to reading 419 -- although with over 200 people ahead of me on the waiting list at the library it'll be a while before I get to it.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

For the Win by Cory Doctorow

Young people fight for justice worldwide in Cory Doctorow's For the Win. In the near future, the arena of sweatshop labour has broadened to include online gamers, a workforce of mostly teens. The concepts of labour union organizing, market forces, inflation, pyramid schemes and more are folded into the adventure and Doctorow manages to balance it all with enough action and suspense to keep up a forward momentum. The story moves back and forth around the world with a large cast of characters. Not all of them emerge unscathed -- or alive -- which is partly why the plot is so engaging.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by George Newbern [Listening Library; 16.5 hours]. Newbern uses subtle intonation shifts and slight accents to distinguish the many voices, which are mostly from China and India as well as the U.S.A.

Readalike: Ready Player One (Ernest Cline).

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Gay Dwarves of America by Anne Fleming

Anne Fleming's Gay Dwarves of America is a collection of offbeat stories with queer content. They are smart, funny and poignant. When Fleming was at the Vancouver Writers Fest last month, all but four copies of this book sold out at her first reading, so I feel lucky to have snapped one up. After her second event, Fleming signed pieces of paper instead.

To give you an idea of Fleming's stylistic range within the collection, consider a) Backstock: The Musical, written as musical theatre set in the storage area of an outdoor equipment store; b) Puke Diary, hilarious excerpts from each family member about the occasions when they vomited, starting with Sarah the cat; and c) the self-descriptive Thirty-One One Word Stories, which is the only one that left me scratching my head a bit.

Peter Who Once Loved Margaret opens: "I saw my Aunt Margaret, who died in China the year I was born, on West Hastings one morning last fall." It's not your usual sort of ghost story.

"Of three stalls only one was occupied, by the owner of size seven-and-a-half shoes whose heels beggared the imagination. It took me right back to last season's Canadian Idol and the mesmerizing drama of whether the poor young women with toes stuffed down a ski hill of a shoe into vicious little leather arrowheads would possibly make it through the three or four steps they were required to make so as not to incur the criticism of being Celine Dionesque comme Martha Joy, in my opinion the most talented of the year's crop, MOR taste in music notwithstanding."

In The Pear, a lonely parasitologist considers her feelings for another woman: "You're too old for her, intimated the furtive wordless homunculus lodged in the crypt of my inner mind. You're the wrong sex. I think. (The homunculus and I have ever been foggy on such matters.)"

Teenaged Jenny experiments with a femme fatale look in Unicycle Boys. Seeing her mirrored reflection made her suddenly feel sad and uncertain. "And then I took out my lipstick and fell all over again for its crimson plushness. Reapplying strongly-coloured lipstick, I've discovered, is a fail-safe curative." (I wonder if Fleming knew my friend Helen, who also put on fresh lipstick whenever she needed reassurance. Helen said she unwisely accepted a ride from a drunk and, by the time she got home, she looked like a clown.)

In Soyez Blessé, a lesbian comes to terms with being dumped, her thoughts on marriage (a decade before Canada legalized same-sex marriage), and her newfound knowledge of her mother's lesbianism. At her brother's wedding: "Bless you, she wanted to say to everyone in the church. May you be blessed. She imagined herself doing it, saying it to everyone, and when she came to Monique's relatives, she imagined herself speaking French, saying, 'Soyez blessé,' and then realized she would be saying, 'Be wounded.' Which of course was about as likely."

Laughing is an excellent way to cope with life's wounds... so read Fleming's stories and feel great.

Readalikes: Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (Zsuzsi Gartner); And Also Sharks (Jessica Westhead).

Friday, November 2, 2012

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Ari Mendoza and Dante Quintana are best friends in El Paso, Texas, where Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Author Benjamin Alire Saenz crafts a powerful coming out and coming of age story through Ari's distinctive voice. He is a loner and a tough guy to outside observers, but a lot is going on under his surface.

"I knew I wasn't a boy anymore. But I still felt like a boy. Sort of. But there were other things I was starting to feel. Man things, I guess. Man loneliness was much bigger than boy loneliness. [...] I was changing into someone I didn't know. The change hurt but I didn't know why it hurt. And nothing about my own emotions made any sense."

Dante is opposite to his friend in many ways, but especially in how he wears his unabashed heart on his sleeve. His love of poetry rubs off on Ari, to Ari's surprise.

"You could smell the rain in the desert even before a drop fell. I closed my eyes. I held my hand out and felt the first drop. It was like a kiss. The sky was kissing me. It was a nice thought. It was something Dante would have thought."

Saenz explores self-identity and personal relationships in layers: ethnic heritage; sexual orientation; machismo; fathers and sons; mothers and sons; brothers; and friends.

"What should we eat?" I said.
"Menudo," he said.
"You like menudo."
"I think that makes you a real Mexican."
"Do real Mexicans like to kiss boys?'
"I don't think liking boys is an American invention."

I highly recommend this book to teen and adult readers alike. It is just so full of heart... which happens to be where all the secrets of the universe reside.