Sunday, December 30, 2012

a + e 4ever by i merey

Ilike Merey's a + e 4ever is a searing graphic novel about queer unrequited love. It is not for the faint of heart, both for its edgy content -- including rape, nudity, swearing, underage drinking and recreational drug use -- as well as the emotional turbulence of the two central characters who are coming to terms with their hormones and their identities.

Eu (Eulalie) Mason and Ash (Asher) Machnik are best friends in high school, united in their outsider status as well as their love of art and their taste in music. Eu is a dyke, but sometimes goes out with boys. She is over 6 feet tall and not afraid to use her switchblade. She has a painful crush on Ash... who is gay. He is wispy and beautiful and easily mistaken for a girl. He cannot bear to be touched. He sometimes goes out with girls but makes it clear to Eu that he doesn't feel that way about her.

"You won't be my girlfriend. I won't be your boyfriend. We are not going to go out. We are not going to fuck. EVER. So if you're waiting for one of those to happen and that's the only reason you're friends with me... you can stop talking to me altogether."

Merey's inkwash artwork is raw and expressive. It's a little like Craig Thompson's work in Blankets, without the polish. Merey's close-up faces are very effective with their beautiful eyes. She is inventive, too. Ash, for example, is portrayed with one eye as a black hollow after he ingests a drug given to him by a stranger at a night club. Sometimes Merey uses manga techniques like distorting facial features with jagged fangs to show rage. I love the occasional costume design-type sketches of Eu. Many of the panels in this novel are not pretty, but they give off a creative energy nevertheless.

It took me some time to get used to the mishmash of different font styles. The scribble-scratchy lettering used to name chapters was especially hard to decipher. That's a minor quibble, however. The story is gritty and honest and absolutely remarkable. It is suitable for older teens as well as adults.

Readalikes: How Loathsome (Tristan Crane & Ted Naifeh); Mosh Pit (Kristyn Dunnion).

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Astray by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue has drawn on assorted historical documents to create the 14 character-based short stories collected in Astray. Many have been previously published elsewhere, but they are all thematically linked by the concept of straying. As Donoghue explains in her afterword, "Straying has always had a moral meaning as well as a geographical one, and the two are connected. If your ethical compass is formed by the place you grow up, which way will its needle swing when you're far from home?"

Most of the tales take place in the 19th century, but the earliest is set in 1639 in Cape Cod, and the most recent in 1901 in New York City. Five of the stories wander into queer territory. Donoghue includes her source for each one, giving insight into the tantalizing hold even the briefest of mentions can have on her imagination. Wonderfully vivid scenarios showcase Donoghue's perceptive portrayals of people from all walks of life. Losing myself within Astray was a pleasure.

Readalike: The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Monarch in my friend
Claire's kitchen,
Auckland 2009
Set in the Appalachians in Tennessee, Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior centers around Dellarobia, a young mother who discovers that millions of monarchs are overwintering in the forest on her family's sheep farm. Because of dire financial straits, Dellarobia's father-in-law is determined to clearcut the land, regardless. In this novel, Kingsolver addresses social and environmental concerns with an open-hearted understanding of opposing points of view. Her characters and their circumstances are fleshed out through dialogue as well as their actions.

Conversation between Dellarobia and a butterfly expert, Dr. Byron:

"Tell me, Dellarobia. What did you do in science class?"
"In high school? Our science teacher was the basketball coach, if you want to know. Coach Bishop. He hated biology about twenty percent more than the kids did. He'd leave the girls doing study sheets while he took the boys to the gym to shoot hoops."
"How is that possible?"
"How? He'd take a vote, usually. 'Who says we shoot hoops today?' Obviously no girl would vote against it. You'd never get another date in your life."
He seemed doubtful of her story. But it was true, and in Dellarobia's opinion no more far-fetched than the tales he'd told her. Of newborn butterflies, for instance, somehow flying thousands of miles to a place they'd never seen, the land where their forefathers died. Life was just one big fat swarm of kids left to fend for themselves.

Conversation between Dellarobia and her best friend, Dovey:

"You should hear Bear on his rant against raising taxes on the millionaires. He says they worked for every penny, and that's what he went in the military to protect."
"Wow. He was a gunner in 'Nam to protect CEO salaries?"
"I guess."
"Well, yeah," Dovey said. "That's America. We watch shows about rich people's houses and their designer dresses and we drool. It's patriotic."

Conversation between Dellarobia's father-in-law, Burley ('Bear'), and their church pastor, Bobby:

Bear, apparently at the end of his argument rope, called Bobby a tree hugger.
Bobby looked amused. "Well now, what are you, Burley, a tree puncher? What have you got against the Lord's trees?"

Flight Behavior is a warm and engaging tale with characters so realistic that I'm still thinking about them two weeks after finishing the book. I loved it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams

'Toxic Breast Milk?' is an article Florence Williams wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 2005. In Breasts, Williams examines more closely the stew of chemicals increasingly prevalent in our bodies, as well as many other aspects about women's breasts. Similar in style to science writing by Mary Roach, Breasts is both informative and entertaining.

Fun facts are included: "In the Middle Ages, French King Henry II reportedly had casts made of the 'apple-like' breasts of his mistress Diane de Poitiers for his wine cups. Marie-Antoinette's breasts were believed to inspire the design of shallow French champagne coupes (not the narrow fluted ones, heavens), as well as of some celebrated porcelain milk bowls made by Sevres." (One of these bowls was recently on display at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.)

Not so fun are the scary American statistics about increasingly earlier onset of puberty: "by 2011, one-third of black girls between the ages of six and eight were 'budding' breasts (that's actually the technical term) or growing pubic hair, along with 15 percent of Hispanic girls, 10 percent of white girls, and 4 percent of Asian girls. [...] Today, half of all girls in the united States start popping breasts by their tenth birthday." Plastics that mimic estrogen may play a role.

Williams looks at cultural attitudes and how women's vanity can be manipulated by drug companies and physicians, such as by "essentially inventing a new pathology called menopause, in the same way the surgeons had invented one called micromastia, for small breasts."

Breast cancer is the biggest topic in the book. It has been known for millennia: One [ancient Egyptian] papyrus recommends applying a plaster made from cow's brain and wasp-dung to tumors for four days. [...] The most advanced treatment [in the Middle Ages] was the application of insect feces."

The rate of breast cancer is steadily increasing, however. The disease now strikes "1 out of every 8 women who reach old age. Worldwide, a quarter of all malignancies are breast cancer."

Breast cancer is rare in men, which is why it is significant that there are growing numbers of cases connected to one place, Camp Lajeune Marine Corps base in North Carolina. High levels of toxic chemicals have been ingested by people living there, including children. "The legal drinking water level for TCE and PCE, long considered probable carcinogens, is 5 parts per billion. [In 1984] tap water at the elementary school contained 1,184 parts per billion [TCE]." A man "who, as an infant on the base attended a day-care center in the early 1980s that had been converted from a pesticide-mixing facility," is now deceased. "He underwent a double mastectomy when he was eighteen years old."

"Most of the major breast cancer organizations say there is no clear evidence that chemicals can cause breast cancer in humans. But in fact, there is little clear evidence that other things cause breast cancer, including the top favorites of obesity and smoking. If we look at all of the known red flags for breast cancer, such as reproductive and hormonal factors, family history, and radiation, they account for little over half of all breast cancers." The men currently diagnosed with breast cancer may help researchers shed light on the effect of chemical exposure.

"Twentieth-century medicine had us believe our DNA was our destiny. The pendulum of science is swinging away from the preeminence of the genetic code to the surprising power of our soil, air, water, and food. In this current cultural moment that worships technology and throwaway convenience, it's a good time to remember our physical interdependence with the larger world." Amen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Poetics by Aristotle

Last month, Simon of Savidge Reads blogged about Aristotle's Poetics. I was intrigued that, even though Simon isn't a classicist, he found this work of literary theory still relevant more than 2,000 years after its original publication. Another factor that swayed me is that the entire book is very short. The edition I read, a 19th century translation by Theodore Buckley, was only 67 pages... but I had to read some pages twice to get the meaning.

It is philosophy, so it isn't a light read, although it is manageable for the average person. The method I used was to switch back and forth between a few pages of Aristotle and a few pages of Kinky & Cosy comics. I passed a very enjoyable afternoon that way.

And what did I get out of it? There were some great passages (of course) and connections to books that I've read, and even a word for epic poetry -- épopée -- that I'd only encountered previously in the French lyrics of our Canadian national anthem. What are the chances that I'd read about a clepsydra in Five Bells by Gail Jones, and then encounter a water clock again so soon in Aristotle's advice to regulate a performance with a clepsydra?

Aristotle discusses things that continue to be debated, like the comparative merits of nonfiction versus fiction. "For an historian and a poet do not differ from each other, because the one writes in verse and the other in prose; for the history of Herodotus might be written in verse, and yet it would be no less a history with metre, than without metre. But they differ in this, that the one speaks of things which have happened, and the other of such as might have happened. Hence, poetry is more philosophic, and more deserving of attention, than history. For poetry speaks more of universals, but history of particulars."

Another contemporary literary topic is whether or not episodic style has value. Aristotle is not a fan. He does, however, have high praise for Homer. Here is the way he shortens the Odyssey (spoiler alert): "a certain man wandering for many years, and persecuted by Neptune, and left alone. And besides this, his domestic affairs being so circumstanced, that his wealth is consumed by suitors and stratagems are plotted against his son. But driven by a tempest, he returns, and making himself known to certain persons, he attacks the suitors, and is himself saved, but destroys his enemies."

I was introduced to Aristotle as a character in Annabel Lyon's novel, The Golden Mean. It's lovely to follow this with Aristotle's own words, and to glimpse a bit of the ancient world through the eyes of a man who lived then. It was a time when writers used specific verse rhythms, depending on the type of poetry or drama that was being created. How different now, when even novelists who write in verse mostly eschew formal metres. What has not changed is the imperative to use words wisely. "But the greatest thing is to employ metaphors well. For this alone cannot be acquired from another, but it is an indication of an excellent genius; since to employ metaphors well, is to discern similitude."

My favourite quote: "Poetry is the province either of one who is naturally clever, or of one who is insane."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Kinky and Cosy by Nix

Kinky & Cosy are little twin girls in red dresses. They terrorize their teacher, their parents and pretty much anyone they encounter on the street. They are the offbeat creation of Belgian cartoonist Nix (Marnix Verduyn) and have become so famous that a street in Brussels is named for them.

The collection of strips that I've just finished is an English translation published by NBM in 2011. Many of the 3-panel strips included would be fine for kids and teens, but this collection also contains adult material such as gags about women masturbating with dildos and kids using guns with live ammo, so it lives in the adult collection at my public library. Imagine The Simpsons, The Book of Bunny Suicides and Monty Python all rolled into one. Perfect if you are in the mood for dark and irreverent humour.

For a taste of Nix, check out some animated Kinky & Cosy cartoons (in English) available online here.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

An island where men prefer selkies over human wives is the setting for Margo Lanagan's atmospheric new novel, The Brides of Rollrock Island. Enchantment subverts the natural order and takes a hard toll on the entire community.

The tale unfolds in a leisurely way though a series of interconnected first-person stories, spanning several generations. The characters are thus explored from various angles, starting with the central figure, Misskaella the witch. We first meet her through the fearful eyes of a young boy, Daniel Mallett, who nearly wets himself when he must pass by her old form as she knits blankets out of seaweed on the beach. (Lanagan tantalizes with details like this; the reader must wait to discover the why of this unusual craft.) The next tale flips the perspective 180 degrees to Misskaella Prout's point of view, beginning with her difficult childhood. I immediately felt sympathetic.

Rollrock Island feels as real as the people who live there. This is from the opening page, in Daniel's voice:
"And down the cliff we went. It was a poisonous day. Every now and again the wind would take a rest from pressing us to the wall, and try to pull us off it instead. We would grab together and sit then, making a bigger person's weight that it could not remove. The sea was gray with white dabs of temper all over it; the sky hung full of ragged strips of cloud."

I recommend The Brides of Rollrock Island to adults and teens who enjoy magical stories, legends retold, a vivid sense of place, well-developed characters, and a plot that frames moral questions. It certainly has dark undertones, but it isn't as harrowing as Lanagan's Tender Morsels.

Readalikes: Snake Ropes (Jess Richards); The Scorpio Races (Maggie Stiefvater); Chime (Franny Billingsley).

Monday, December 10, 2012

Albert of Adelaide by Howard Anderson

Howard Anderson's Albert of Adelaide is a charming, oddball tale about a platypus who escaped from a zoo with a quest to find somewhere that he could feel at peace. In the remote desert of northeastern Australia, the first animal that Albert the Platypus encounters is a wombat arsonist and con artist named Jack.

"Jack paused to pour more tea into his cup. 'I don't know how much you know about wombats, Albert, but we're a boring lot, let me tell you.'
'I've seen one or two from a distance, but you're the first one I've ever talked to,' Albert replied.
'We live in deep holes, come out in the early morning or late in the evening, eat some leaves, and then call it a day. What kind of life is that?' [...]
Except for all those leaves, the life didn't sound too bad to Albert. 'Quiet.'
'Damn right it's quiet. It was too damn quiet for me.' Jack spit a tea leaf into the fire."

Some of the characters that Albert meets are not so friendly as Jack. In a bar at Ponsby Station, he encounters outright prejudice: "WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE WHO ISN'T A MARSUPIAL. The Management." Misadventure ensues.

It is rare to find an allegory written with such a light touch as Albert of Adelaide. Animal fantasy is also an unusual subgenre for an adult audience. Actually, this book would be fine for readers as young as 9 or 10. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the film Rango.

Readalikes: The Sisters Brothers (Patrick DeWitt); Mr and Mrs Bunny--Detectives Extraordinaire! (Polly Horvath); and The Rabbits (John Marsden and Shaun Tan).

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Best Audiobooks 2012

Comfy headphones are important
to me. I can't stand earbuds.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is's selection as best audiobook of 2012 and I also liked it very much (and reviewed it here).

Quiet by Susan Cain, on the top of's nonfiction list, was probably my personal favourite in 2012. I listened to it with my sister Simone when we spent about 6 hours in a car together and the good memories from that day are entwined with my enjoyment of the book. I've recommended it to so many people since then... thankfully, my friends are patient with my evangelistic zeal about books I love.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened, a memoir by Jenny Lawson, made the top 10 of Listener's Favourites of 2012.

I love "best of" lists like this because it's a good way to be reminded of stuff that I've meant to read but haven't got to yet. Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness is at the top of's fantasy list. Seeing it there prompted me to start listening to the first book in that series, A Discovery of Witches, which is performed by the same narrator, Jennifer Ikeda. I've had it on my iPod since August, but the publisher's comparison to Anne Rice and the Twilight series rather put me off. I'm about 3 hours in and liking it much better than I expected. So far, it reminds me of Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman (which I enjoyed) and the best parts of Endymion Spring by Matthew Skelton (the part about the magical book hidden in a library at Oxford).

My blogging motivation had temporarily deserted me, so I'm also thankful to this particular "best of" list for getting me back at my keyboard.

The Guardian's best audio list is here. It includes another that I'd place in my top listens of 2012: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, read by Derek Jacobi. It's one of many that I just never got around to reviewing.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Emperor of Paris by C.S. Richardson

C.S. Richardson's The Emperor of Paris opens with a fire at a bakery in the 8th arrondissment of Paris, then eventually circles back through several decades in the earlier part of the 20th century before arriving at the same fire at the end of the book. Readers move through the novel like flâneurs, meandering through interesting little tableaus that eventually coalesce into a larger picture.

Along the way, we get to know the baker, his parents and the course of their marriage; a young woman and how she came to have a scar across her face and all about her parents; and there's a penniless portrait artist, a bookseller with an outdoor stall on the Seine and various other people in the neighbourhood.

The baker cannot read but all he needs is a picture and he is able to invent fabulous stories. The woman with the scar loves art and books. The two are perfect for each other, if they can only overcome their shyness.

"The baker passes a pair of old women sitting on a bench. Each reads an identical copy of a cheap paperback. One grimaces as though stabbed through the heart and slaps her book closed. At the same moment, the other stifles a gasp with her hand, her eyes growing wide." I love this image of two readers reacting to the same book.

There's a marvellous sense of community in this gentle novel. I've got even more warm feelings about The Emperor of Paris since someone who selected it via my staff picks at the library loved the book so much that they wrote a letter to thank me for recommending it!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Bernadette, an architect who had received a MacArthur genius award, disappeared from the public eye when she moved to Seattle and devoted herself to being a housewife and an oddball recluse. Twenty years later, Bernadette disappears a second time. Her brilliant teenaged daughter, Bee, collects various memos and correspondence in her search for clues to her mother's whereabouts. These documents, together with Bee's wry commentary, form the structure of Maria Semple's highly entertaining Where'd You Go, Bernadette.

Bee had convinced her parents to take a family trip to Antarctica at Christmas. They were to board their ship in Ushuaia, Argentina. "When we arrived at the dock, we were ushered into a kind of hut, with a wall of glass dividing it the long way. This was immigration, so of course there was a line. Soon the other side of the glass filled up with old people decked out in travel clothing and carrying backpacks with blue-and-white ribbons. It was the group that had just gotten off the ship, our Ghosts of Travel Future. They were giving us the thumbs-up, mouthing, You're going to love it, you have no idea how great it is, you're so lucky. And then everyone on our side started literally buzzing. Buzz Aldrin, Buzz Aldrin, Buzz Aldrin. On the other side was a scrappy little guy wearing a leather bomber jacket covered with NASA patches, and his arms were bent in at the elbows like he was itching for a fight. He had a genuine smile, and he gamely stood on his side of the glass while people in our group stood next to him and took pictures. Dad took one of me and him, and I'm going to tell Kennedy, Here's me visiting Buzz Aldrin in prison."

Semple's satirical humour and her playful style make Where'd You Go, Bernadette an engaging read. I loved it. I also appreciated one of the more sober messages in the novel: that stifling creativity can be dangerous to one's mental health.

Readalikes with quirky characters: The Woefield Poultry Collective (Susan Juby); Come, Thou Tortoise (Jessica Grant); and My Most Excellent Year (Steve Kluger).