Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff

Meg Rosoff (How I Live Now; There Is No Dog; The Bride's Farewell and more) has again hit just the right combination of intriguing plot and distinctive characters in Picture Me Gone.

Twelve-year-old Mila narrates this engaging mystery novel. She and her father had planned a visit from England to upstate New York to see his oldest friend. When Matthew disappears just before their arrival, the two go in search of him, while Matthew's wife and baby stay home. Mila is a good detective because she is unusually observant, perhaps even a little clairvoyant.

"I register every emotion, every relationship, every subtext. If someone is angry or sad or disappointed, I see it like a neon sign. There's no way to explain how, I just do. For a long time I thought everyone did."

But the adult world contains emotional minefields. Mila discovers hard truths, including the knowledge that parents are "imperfect, dangerous, peppered with betrayals and also with love." "We are all woven together, like a piece of cloth, and we all support each other, for better or worse."

A thoughtful coming-of-age story with strong crossover appeal; Grade 7 to adult.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant  is a webcomic by Canadian artist Tony Cliff, now also available in paper. The tale begins in Istanbul in 1807. Delilah is an intrepid daredevil who lives for excitement.

Her resume includes learning to survive in the jungles of India at a young age, being the master of forty-seven different sword-fighting techniques, being a high-ranking member of at least three royal courts, and being able to pick any lock and escape any restraint. She has nerves of steel and owns cool stuff like a sailboat that can take to the skies.

Erdumoglu Selim is a refined and peaceful Turkish lieutenant who lives for a nice cup of tea and is a man of words rather than action.
Here, Selim contemplates the attraction of a secure
and settled life.  I love the 3-D effect of the
word balloon slipped behind his hand.
Selim politely refuses when the owner of a tea shop tells him it's on the house.

"Be assured - I appreciate your kindness. Your generosity is a great credit to you, and goes not unnoticed. And kind as you are, I know you'll not be offended by my modest request that you do me the personal favour of accommodating my insistence on recompense."

Dirk and Selim are an unlikely duo, paired by circumstance. Their madcap adventures are great fun for all ages, from 11 and up.

Readalikes: Les aventures extraordinaires d'Adele Blanc-Sec (Jacques Tardi); and, for younger readers: Tower of Treasure (Scott Chantler); and Polly and the Pirates (Ted Naifeh)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Journey by Aaron Becker

Like Harold-of-the-purple-crayon in Crockett Johnson's classic children's book, in Aaron Becker's wordless picture book Journey, a girl uses her fat red crayon to transport herself to new worlds and to extricate herself from peril. Unlike the starkly simple artwork in Johnson's book, the setting in Journey is finely detailed and rewards careful examination. The everyday world is all in shades of brown, while the imaginary one is lush with colour.

In a clear homage to the earlier book, Becker's girl makes friends with a boy who wields a purple crayon. Their charming magical adventure is a treat for all ages.

Readalikes:  Of course, Harold and the Purple Crayon (Crockett Johnson), and maybe Grandpa Green (Lane Smith), because of the red/green colour scheme as well as the sense of wondrous possibility.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty

Jaclyn Moriarty, author of Feeling Sorry for Celia and The Year of Secret Assignments, incorporates letter-writing into her delightful new fantasy series, The Colors of Madeleine. In book 1, A Corner of White, Madeleine and Elliot are teens in two different worlds who discover a crack just big enough to pass notes through to each other.

Madeleine is being home-schooled in Cambridge, England, where she lives with her mother, possibly in hiding from their former lives. Elliot is in the Kingdom of Cello, determined to find his father who has disappeared, possibly kidnapped by violet.

"A Note on Colors. While Cello is a wonderfully 'colorful' place, in the traditional sense of that word, it is also home to a large population of 'Colors.' These are living organisms: a kind of rogue subclass of the colors that we see when we look at a red apple or blue sky."

That's an excerpt from The Kingdom of Cello: An Illustrated Travel Guide. There are hilarious newspaper columns penned by two giddy princesses on tour ("Dearest, Sweetest, Most Arduously Marvelous Subjects of this! our Fine and Salutary Kingdom of Cello! Hello!"), the writings of Isaac Newton, a long-awaited Butterfly Child, and lots more.

I listened to the wonderful audiobook [Scholastic: 11.5 hr] narrated by Fiona Hardingham (Madeleine); Andrew Eiden (Elliot); Kate Reinders (ditzy princess sisters); and Peter McGowan (newspaper corrections editor). Inventive, fresh and fun.

Readalikes: The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman); and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Catherynne Valente).

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The 10 PM Question by Kate De Goldi

Bolinda audio edition 2009 with
illustration by Sarah Maxey
The 10 PM Question by New Zealand author Kate De Goldi is one of my all-time favourite books. It's wise and funny and heartbreaking. I've read it twice so far, plus listened to the audiobook narrated by Stig Wemyss [Bolinda: 8 hr 27 min].

12-year-old Frankie Parsons worries obsessively. Earthquakes, dead batteries in the smoke detector, flu epidemics, intestinal parasites in the cat, hepatitis, a hole in his heart, food poisoning... everything. 

U.S. pbk edition 2012
On a hot day, Frankie's friend Gigs suggests that they cool off at the swimming pool. "But [the pool] would be unbearably crowded today, Frankie thought. And last Saturday when they'd been there, he'd had his annual unsavory collision with a Band-Aid. There was nothing more revolting in Frankie's view than freestyling your way, innocent and blissful, into the path of a used Band-Aid. In Frankie's private hierarchy of squeamish experiences, the casual caress of a stained Band-Aid was right up there with accidentally catching sight of writhing maggots in a forgotten rubbish bag. He'd had to get out of the pool immediately last Saturday and lie on his towel in the sun to recover."

Frankie also shoulders the burden of keeping his dysfunctional family's household running smoothly. The family cat, the Fat Controller, is as intractable as the rest.

"The day began in the worst possible way. Twice. First, it began at 3:49 a.m. when the Fat Controller jumped through Frankie's bedroom window with a rat and proceeded to do a presentation juggle on the floor in front of his bed. [...] But removing the Fat Controller wasn't easy, since she became ferocious and most uncooperative if her hunting celebrations were interrupted. Since Frankie couldn't bring himself to pick up the rat (in case it was still alive) and since the Fat Controller couldn't be persuaded to leave the rat, he had to pick up the Fat Controller -- no mean feat, considering her body mass -- with the rat in her mouth, and cart them both down the hall, out through the kitchen, and into the backyard, all as quietly as possible and holding the growling cat at rigid arms' length in case any part of the rat brushed his skin and he somehow contracted bubonic plague."

De Goldi has packed this novel with wonderful characters who live on past the pages. The 10 PM Question is one of those rare gems with strong cross-generational appeal. At the Edmonton Public Library, it's shelved in the children's department, but it could just as comfortably sit in the teen section or with the adult fiction. Grade 6 - adult.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

William and the Lost Spirit by Gwen de Bonneval and Matthieu Bonhomme

William and the Lost Spirit is a graphic novel with the appeal of Arthurian legends and tales about the Knights Templar. It's an adventure quest set in the late medieval period, blended with mythology and mysticism. Created originally in French by writer Gwen de Bonneval and artist Matthieu Bonhomme, I read the English translation published by Graphic Universe.

William and Helise are grandchildren of the Count de Sonnac. Their father has died and their mother remarried to a man who abuses his feudal power. Meanwhile, Helise is convinced that their father is not dead. William goes in search of the truth, accompanied by a knight, a troubadour and a mysterious goat.  It's a great story that sits comfortably between historical fiction and fantasy. Grade 5 - adult.

Readalikes: Mouse Guard (David Petersen); and Bone (Jeff Smith).

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Fox in Winter: Three Northern Picture Books

My Father's Arms Are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde and Oyving Torseter
Once upon a Northern Night by Jean E. Pendziwol and Isabelle Arsenault
Fox on the Ice by Tomson Highway and Brian Deines

All three of these lovely picture books have a fox in snow on the cover. In honour of that crazy Ylvys video on YouTube (What Does the Fox Say?) I'll start with the Norwegian book on my list.

The kitchen is in topsy-turvy
perspective: their lives have
been turned upside down.
My Father's Arms Are a Boat is a quiet book about finding solace during a time of grief. A small child's bedroom door is ajar, "'So that your dreams can come out to me,' Daddy said when I left." But the boy can't sleep, so he climbs into his father's lap and is comforted with reassuring answers to his many questions. (Will the fox eat the bread that has been put out for the birds? No, the fox doesn't like bread.)

I love the ordinariness: the typical
bungalow, the swing, the trees.
They go out into the stillness of a winter night, the boy carried wrapped in his father's sheepskin coat. They draw comfort from each other and from nature. They wish on a star. Then the two return inside to the cozy red warmth of a fire.

Torseter's illustrations combine digital techniques with three-dimensional paper sculpture. They are understated and effective. The colour scheme is muted, mostly gray and white, with judicious use of hopeful beating-heart red.

While father and son are talking in the house, we are shown what's happening outdoors: the fox sniffs the bread left for the birds, then leaves. In the final wordless scene (above left) morning has come and the birds eat the bread. As his father promised, "Everything will be alright."
You have to look closely for
the fox because it's gray.

The northern Canadian landscape is not so different from Norway. In Once upon a Northern Night, the child's home is also set in a wooded area. The story also moves through night into morning. Pendziwol has written a gentle bedtime story, a lullaby in winter's voice. "While you lay sleeping, / wrapped in a downy blanket, / I painted you a picture. / It started with one tiny flake, / perfect / and beautiful / and special, / just like you."

A picnic table covered in snow;
a tiny mouse scurries away.
Snow and frost slowly transform the scene, inhabited by wild creatures like deer, snowshoe hares and a fox. In the morning, the child views the final magical result through his window.

Arsenault's whimsical art is understated in charcoal tones with lots of white. Each double page spread features one colour; a bit of green or red or blue. The animals are lively, full of activity. The hares have rosy-cheeks like the sleeping child. "And then / I had the moon gently kiss you / and the wind whisper... / I love you."
Contemporary Cree boys typically
wear their hair in a braid, like this.

The final picture book is also Canadian. Highway has written dual text in Cree, his first language, as well as English. The action takes place during an Indigenous family's daytime ice fishing expedition. A fox causes a commotion by stirring up the sled dogs, who then give chase. A child's pet dog saves the day. Deines luminous paintings are full of life and colour. I love his work so much that I have one of his prints on my bedroom wall.

The fox says nothing in these three picture books. I say they are all very fine.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

One Gorilla by Anthony Browne

British illustrator Anthony Browne seems to have a particular affinity for painting primates. His recent counting book, One Gorilla, shows off his talent in superb form. The first three examples (one gorilla, two orangutans, three chimpanzees) also happen to be the three that are studied by the scientists in the book Primates that I just finished reviewing.

Within each group, Browne portrays individual animals with care; special attention is given to facial details like noses and eyes. They each have their own personality. Four mandrills, 5 baboons, 6 gibbons, 7 spider monkeys, 8 macaques, 9 colobus monkeys and 10 lemurs. And then...

"All primates. All one family. All my family ..." accompanies Browne's self-portrait on a two page spread. The final page ("and yours!") is filled with human faces of all kinds (including some from his earlier picture books). Look closely at them and you will find one who could be closely related to a macaque. Another man in a Russian hat looks a lot like a colobus monkey.

I love, love, love this! Yes, it is a counting book suitable for very young children. It also visually explores another concept: the science of species classification. It's Anthony Browne at his subversive best.

Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

Primates is a brief and wonderful biography in graphic novel format of three amazing field scientists: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas. They were recruited to study chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans by Dr. Louis Leakey, the famous British naturalist and paleoanthropologist. He believed that "women are fundamentally better in the field than men. They're more patient and give more of themselves."

Jim Ottaviani (author of many other science comics, including Feynman and Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards) wrote the text and Maris Wicks created the bright, appealing illustrations in a clear line style. The realities of roughing it for long periods in remote jungles come through very well. Readers get to know a little of the personality of each woman, as well as their most important accomplishments. It's an inspiring book for readers from Grade 6 to adult.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Oh. Wow. Rainbow Rowell is a force to be reckoned with. I was blown away by her earlier novel, Eleanor and Park. And now Fangirl. Two fantastic books published in the same year!

As with Eleanor and Park, the plot isn't the big draw in Fangirl: twin sisters experience their first year of college, with all the challenges that entails. The characterization and the relationships are what hooked me. Rowell gets us right inside their heads and they are such interesting people.

Wren is the outgoing and vivacious twin while Cath is anxious and fearful of anything new. They have both been huge fans of Simon Snow (think Harry Potter) since they were children, but Wren is ready to move on. Cath is not. She has a huge following for the gay Simon Snow fan fiction she writes online. Unfortunately, the prof in Cath's fiction-writing class considers fan fiction plagiarism. Throw in some cute guys, some roommate drama, and communication from the mother who abandoned them 10 years earlier. Plus, their father's mental health is fragile and he struggles to cope without his daughters around. I felt like I knew these people.

Rowell has joined the ranks of John Green and A.S. King. In other words, I will read anything she writes from now on.

Monday, December 16, 2013

This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales

Elise Dembrowski is a smart and funny teenager who can do anything she sets her mind to... except fit in. Bullied at school for her nerdiness, things finally start looking up when she stumbles upon an underground dance party venue and discovers she not only loves to DJ, but has a talent for it too. Juggling a double life isn't sustainable, however. Something is bound to come crashing down.

This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales hooked me from the start. Elise has a great voice and I could immediately relate to her. Her divorced parents are realistic, rounded characters too. This book is among the most emotionally resonant I've read on surviving unpopularity in high school. I loved it.

Grade 7 and up.

Readalikes: Eleanor and Park (Rainbow Rowell); An Abundance of Katherines (John Green); Ask the Passengers (A.S. King); What They Always Tell Us (Martin Wilson).

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Redstart by John Buxton

While waiting in the line-up for one of the events at the Vancouver Writers Fest, I chatted a bit with author Helen Humphreys. She told me about John Buxton, a British officer who studied birds while being held in a German prison camp during WWII. I was intrigued, so via interlibrary loan, I tracked down a copy of a book Buxton wrote about the common redstart, which was published in 1950.

The Redstart has supplied me with extensive information about a species I had never even heard of beforehand. There are some photos and drawings in the monograph, but it is Buxton's words that have given me the clearest picture of this bird:

"The first glimpse of a redstart usually leaves an impression of an active little bird with a red tail which it shivers in a strange way that at once catches the eye." 
"The displaying male, with his bright tail fanned and pressed down on to the branch, his rosy body flattened, his black face and white cap thrust towards the hen, with his wings held straight up to show their shimmering pink undersides as he waves in his plumes the various light; his wild, darting flight after the act, accompanied by a sweet warbling song as he flies -- all combine to make one of the most striking lovely scenes I have ever watched in the lives of birds. It is all the more surprising that no one else seems ever to have noticed it."

Buxton often quotes from classic literature, such as the line above from Andrew Marvell's poem 'Thoughts in a Garden.' Each chapter opens with a poetic epigraph, and there are no translations for those that are in their original language. Readers are clearly expected to have studied Greek, Latin and modern European languages; my education seems paltry in comparison.

I love books that contain rare or specialized words because encounters with vocabulary give me great pleasure. The Redstart contains seldom-used words like dilatoriness (tending to postpone), ferruginous (rust-coloured) and perforce (by force of circumstance). Of course it also has plenty of ornithological terms as well, like cock-feathering ("adult hen common redstarts have often been noted with plumage more or less resembling that of the cock, which is normally so strikingly different"); gape (used to describe the mouth line on a closed beak); and tail-coverts (feathers at the base of the tail).

What touched me most are the small clues that Buxton's careful bird-watching is taking place within the context of a prison. His observations are made from within a camp parade ground that was a daily place of exercise for 2000 men, and he could only do so when they were allowed to be outside. Via correspondence, German ornithologists gave him assistance, as did several of his fellow inmates.

Buxton kept meticulous journals while imprisoned and was grateful to regain possession of them after the war. He counted song repetitions, the minimal number of visits required for a redstart hen to build a nest (600), the number of minutes a hen would leave her eggs (an agitated 27, when a prisoner sheltering from rain too close to her nest prevented her from returning), and the rate of alarm calls per minute (84-59). "On 1 May 1941 at Laufen a sparrow-hawk flew low through the trees near one of the redstarts at 9:37 a.m. The cock flew up into a willow at the north end of his territory, and called the alarm twee twee continuously until 10:15, by which time I was exceedingly bored."

The final few pages (139-142) are the very best, where Buxton expresses his gratitude to "these strange creatures that, merrily busking about the trees which shaded us, or perching on the wire that kept us close, delighted us, [..] by the very incomprehensibility of their lives. They lightened (if only for a little while)  the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world simply by their unconcern in our affairs, and by the beauty and pathos and vivacity of their lives."

I'm now interested in learning more about Buxton so, at some time in the future, I'll probably read Birds in a Cage: The Remarkable Story of How Four Prisoners of War Survived Captivity by Derek Niemann.

Readalikes: Moonbird (Phillip Hoose); The Big Year (Mark Obmascik).

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Kuessipan by Naomi Fontaine

Naomi Fontaine, an Innu from the Uashat and Mani-utenam reserve in eastern Quebec, writes about her community in Kuessipan. It's a novel written in vignettes that are rather like scenes in a documentary film, with images created from words.

The English translation by David Homel captures the succinct poetry of Fontaine's words.

"Of course I lied. I threw a white veil over the dirt."

Stark beauty coexists with substance abuse, teenage pregnancy and men who die far too young. Traditional culture offers solid ground for lost souls.

"The Innu language is like music that you sing, with slow intonations that you stretch out further with your breath. There are no vowels, and that makes the language impenetrable, like a return to nature: harsh, all bark and antlers."

The narrator does not try to be anyone other than her true self. She has come through difficulties and faces reality with a clear eye: "grass doesn't naturally grow on sand." She looks with confidence to the future.

A quietly triumphant gem.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert

The true story of a blind, deaf and nearly feral child and her fearlessly unorthodox teacher does not grow old. Joseph Lambert's Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller is an inspired double biography in comics format.

From an unpromising start, Sullivan and Keller grew to have a very close, lifelong friendship. Lambert focuses on their first years together in this book, along with Sullivan's own early hardships. Her journals and letters bring her personality alive.

Keller's extremely limited and amorphous sense of herself and the world around her is portrayed in dark panels with vaguely human shapes and movements. The other panels are in a crisp and colourful clear line style.

Excellent for ages 10 to adult.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Goliath by Tom Gauld

Goliath by Scottish artist Tom Gauld is a bittersweet retelling of the David and Goliath story, from the point of view of a gentle giant. Goliath prefers army administrative tasks over patrol duty. His role as champion is purely a marketing strategy dreamed up by a captain with lofty ambitions. The gamble has tragic consequences.

The dark, dry humour in Gauld's You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack collection of comics is present in Goliath. "There's been a mistake... I'm not a champion. I'm the fifth-worst swordsman in my platoon... I do paperwork!"

The bronzy-copper colour of the ink is just right for the biblical setting. Gauld uses simple, stylized shapes and lots of crosshatchings, nicely capturing the passage of time over an unchanging landscape.

The characters ring true, so even though this is presented as an absurdist comedy, it's also a thought-provoking look at the senselessness of war from a soldier's point of view.

Readalikes: Run Far, Run Fast (Timothy Decker); The Island (Armin Greder).

Monday, December 9, 2013

Mr Wuffles by David Wiesner

 Mix together Mary Norton's The Borrowers with the Toy Story movie, add a little of Shaun Tan's short story 'Eric' (from Tales from Outer Suburbia), and you will have something like David Wiesner's magical new picture book, Mr. Wuffles. Nearly wordless, and told in graphic novel format with colourful bright paintings, it is every bit as delightful as Wiesner's earlier works, such as Art & MaxFlotsam, and Tuesday.

A tiny spaceship lands in a house ruled by a cat named Mr. Wuffles. Their ship blends right in with the cat's toys, as far as the humans are concerned, but the cat is not fooled. The aliens form an alliance with the house's insect inhabitants against the dangerous cat. Three cheers for the itty bitty underdogs!

All ages.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

There's a lid for every pot, as one of my friends used to say. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion follows an Australian scientist's efforts to find a wife using logical methods. Don Tillman is a geneticist who probably falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. People find his blunt honesty bewildering and sometimes hurtful, but Don is just as confused by everyone else's irrational behaviour. I was immediately beguiled by Don's first-person voice.

When Don cycles to a fancy dinner reservation on a rainy night, he is stopped at the entrance.
"You need to wear a jacket." 
"I'm wearing a jacket." 
"I'm afraid we require something a little more formal, sir." 
The hotel employee indicated his own jacket as an example. In defence of what followed, I submit the Oxford English Dictionary (Compact, 2nd Edition) definition of 'jacket': 1 (a) An outer garment for the upper part of the body. 
I also note that the word 'jacket' appears on the care instructions for my relatively new and perfectly clean Gore-Tex jacket. But it seemed his definition of jacket was limited to 'conventional suit jacket'. 
"We would be happy to lend you one, sir. In this style." 
"You have a supply of jackets? In every possible size?" 
I did not add that the need to maintain such an inventory was surely evidence of their failure to communicate the rule clearly, and that it would be more efficient to improve their wording or abandon the rule altogether. Nor did I mention that the cost of jacket purchase and cleaning must add to the price of their meals. Did their customers know that they were subsidising a jacket warehouse? 
"I wouldn't know about that, sir," he said. "Let me organise a jacket." 
Needless to say I was uncomfortable at the idea of being re-dressed in an item of public clothing of dubious cleanliness. For a few moments, I was overwhelmed by the sheer unreasonableness of the situation. I was already under stress, preparing for the second encounter with a woman who might become my life partner. And now the institution that I was paying to supply us with a meal -- the service provider who should surely be doing everything possible to make me comfortable -- was putting arbitrary obstacles in my way. 
My Gore-Tex jacket, the high-technology garment that had protected me in rain and snowstorms, was being irrationally, unfairly and obstructively contrasted with the official's essentially decorative woollen equivalent. I had paid $1015 for it, including $120 extra for the customised reflective yellow. I outlined my argument. 
"My jacket is superior to yours by all reasonable criteria: impermeability to water, visibility in low light, storage capacity." I unzipped the jacket to display the internal pockets and continued, "Speed of drying, resistance to food stains, hood..." 
The official was still showing no interpretable reaction, although I had almost certainly raised my voice. 
"Vastly superior tensile strength..." 
To illustrate this last point, I took the lapel of the employee's jacket in my hands. I obviously had no intention of tearing it but I was suddenly grabbed from behind by an unknown person who attempted to throw me to the ground. I automatically responded with a safe, low-impact throw to disable him without dislodging my glasses. The term 'low impact' applies to a martial arts practitioner who knows how to fall. This person did not, and landed heavily. 
I turned to see him -- he was large and angry. In order to prevent further violence, I was forced to sit on him. 
"Get the fuck off me. I'll fucking kill you," he said. 
On that basis, it seemed illogical to grant his request.
I was routing for Don every farcical step of the way. At its core, this story is about an important issue: everyone needs human love and companionship. Funny, touching and sweet. Highly recommended.

The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida

Naoki Higashida was 13 years old when he wrote The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-old Boy with Autism. He communicates by spelling out words on an alphabet grid, which are then transcribed by a helper.

The Reason I Jump was translated into English by author David Mitchell and his wife KA Yoshida, who have a son with autism. In the introduction, Mitchell writes that Higashida's writings offered them "transformative, life-enhancing knowledge" that people with autism do experience empathy. "The conclusion is that both emotional poverty and an aversion to company are not symptoms of autism but consequences of autism, its harsh lockdown on self-expression and society's near-pristine ignorance about what's happening inside autistic heads."

The book is small and attractively-presented, with full page artwork by Kai and Sunny. The question and answer format is broken up by brief fables composed by Higashida. Even so, it took me a long time to get through it because I read only a little at a time, much the way I read short stories.

Higashida answers questions like Why do you ignore us when we are talking to you? and Why are you always running off somewhere? and Should we listen to every word you say? The answer to that last one is no. "Just because some of us can make sounds or utter words, it doesn't follow automatically that what we've said is really what we wanted to say."

This unusual memoir is suitable for readers from about age 11 and up. It's a remarkable look at the inner  emotional, intellectual and spiritual life of someone with neurological differences.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Property by Rutu Modan

Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan's wonderful novel, The Property, was translated into English by Jessica Cohen and published this year by Drawn and Quarterly. Hooray! Modan's Exit Wounds is one of my very favourite graphic novels. Another of hers is the charming Maya Makes a Mess, published by Toon Books and intended for beginning readers -- but don't let that stop you from enjoying it at any age.

The Property is on the longlist for next year's prize at Angouleme, along with some others I've read: Are You My Mother? (Bechdel), Goliath (Gauld), Saga (Vaughn and Staples), and Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller (Lambert).

Regina Segal, an elderly Polish Jew, travels from Israel to modern Warsaw in order to reclaim family property that was lost in the second world war. The story opens at Ben Gurion airport. Regina is accompanied by her granddaughter Mica, who is mortified by her grandmother's behaviour at the security check. Regina insists on drinking an entire two-litre bottle of water rather than have it confiscated, meanwhile refusing to allow anyone else to go ahead of them in line.

Regina is stubborn and prickly, but I found her sympathetic. She has her own reasons for not having shared with her granddaughter the whole truth about her past. Old family secrets and complex modern relationships add layers to the plot. Modan has a great ear for dialogue and the humour inherent in the everyday. Her art is in the full-colour clear line style that is similar to Herge's Tintin. She is excellent at conveying facial and body expressions. The background indoor and exterior settings are highly detailed, so the city of Warsaw is vividly present. It is a heartwarming story with a hopeful conclusion. I loved it.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

Kadir Nelson's gorgeous picturebook biography, Nelson Mandela, begins with these lines:

"Rolihlahla played barefooted
on the grassy hills of Qunu.
The smartest Madiba child of thirteen,
he was the only one chosen for school.
His new teacher would not say his Xhosa name.
She called him Nelson instead."

Free verse is used to outline important moments in Mandela's life within the context of South African politics. Kadir Nelson's paintings glow in warm, rich colours and brown faces and hands dominate the pages. The cover of this book has no text on it at all. Instead, there is a striking portrait of the beloved South African lawyer who fought for justice and to end apartheid, was a political prisoner for over 27 years, won a Nobel peace prize, and was elected president of his country by a landslide.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela: July 18, 1918 - December 6, 2013.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Blue Is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh

Blue Is the Warmest Color is the English translation of Julie Maroh's graphic novel that inspired the controversial film adaptation that won a Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. The book has also won awards, the most notable being one at the Angouleme International Comics Festival in 2011.

Unlike the film -- with its uncomfortably long sex scenes -- the book is a more delicate lesbian love story. It is told mainly in retrospect, through 15 years of diary entries that Clementine began recording during her teens. She has willed the journals to her former lover, Emma.

The women first meet in the mid-1990s, when Clementine is 15 and blue-haired Emma is in her fourth year of art school. Their parents have opposite reactions to their respective daughter's lesbianism and Clementine remains very private about her sexuality, while Emma is out and proud.

The setting is Lille, a city on the border between France and Belgium. Maroh's expressive washed ink art has more colour in the contemporary scenes and a somber gray and sepia palette with touches of blue (of course) for the flashbacks.

I saw the film before reading the book. Even though the two plots are only superficially similar, I think the film allowed me to more quickly grasp some important elements that are only briefly shown in the book. Two examples are the blatant homophobia Clementine experiences from her classmates, which in turn contributes to her difficulty in coming out; and the affair with a male colleague some years after Clementine enters the workforce.

The book is beautiful, with realistic characters and a wistfully romantic mood. It is better than the film.

Readalikes: A Canadian high school student in the mid-1990s is attracted to a woman several years older than herself in Skim (Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki); 12 Days (June Kim) is about grieving the end of a lesbian relationship and the death of that former lover at the same time; The Blue Dragon (Robert Lepage and others) has a similar melancholy mood and theme of lost (hetero) love, plus, you can compare the two different endings between the book and film versions of Blue Is the Warmest Color to the multiple-choice endings in The Blue Dragon.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

I'd heard of Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods and was both intrigued and repelled by its premise. The scheme is to proactively address sexual harassment in the workplace by hiring specific women as sexual lightning rods for men. But then I saw it on Flavorwire's recent 50 Books that Define the Past Five Years in Literature, and spotted it on audio via Hoopla at the library, so I decided to give it a listen.

Joe is a salesman who couldn't sell encyclopedias, and then couldn't sell vacuum cleaners, and then was inspired by his lonely masturbation fantasies to come up with the lightning rods idea. It was a hit.

Audiobook narrator Dushko Petrovich [Dreamscape Media: 7.5 hours] delivers this audacious literary satire in a perfect deadpan. DeWitt has a great ear for language and the close third-person voice makes Joe very real.

"'Oh, you have the Encyclopaedia Britannica!' exclaimed Lucille.
As a former rep Joe had been able to get himself a good deal. It was a lot of money, but then you never know when you're going to need to look something up -- if you have a crazy schedule, you could do worse than just have a Britannica in the home. The Internet is a wonderful thing, but it multiplies a millionfold the dual hazards of creative reportage and fantasy enhancement; if you need the straight poop on some area of research which you have over-hastily sketched in for a client, the Britannica, with its team of accredited experts, will give you a wealth of bibliographical citations not easily refuted by casual recourse to the wackos at Wikipedia. In this type of eventuality focus is all-important; the apparent saving represented by an online subscription or CD, with the attendant opportunities for XXXX-rated distraction, may too easily prove a false economy."

It's edgy and thoughtful and funny and I loved it.

Readalikes: Worst. Person. Ever. (Douglas Coupland); The Blondes (Emily Schultz).

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Me, in a pub in Greymouth,
133 years later and just a
little north of Hokitika, the
setting of The Luminaries.
I most certainly agree with the judges of the Man Booker and the Canadian Governor General awards: Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries is a winner. Because of its size, I kept it at work and read it during my lunch and coffee breaks. It's taken nearly three weeks to get through it, but I looked forward to every moment spent within the world of the goldrush on New Zealand's South Island. It is a delightfully rewarding book.

The Luminaries is big in every way, not just in its 832 page count. There's a large cast of memorable characters, a devilishly complex plot, a great amount of dialogue (that charmed me with period language such as lucifers [early matches], spills [twists of paper for lighting fires], whatnots [small tables], and clews [metal loops]), and a setting made vivid with details.

I could imagine what it would be like in the gaolor's house:

"the gaoler ushered everyone from the room and pulled the door closed, causing the hallway to shiver. The interior walls of the gaoler's house were made of patterned calico that had been stretched tight and tacked to the building's frame, and when the timber creaked in the wind, or was disturbed by a heavy footfall or the sudden slam of a door, the walls all quivered and rippled, like the surface of a pool --"

A young man, when asked how he likes Hokitika, responds:

"I like it very well indeed. It's a perfect hive of contradictions! There is a newspaper, and no coffee house in which to read it; there is a druggist for prescriptions, but one can never find a doctor, and the hospital barely deserves its name. The store is always running out of either boots or socks, but never both at once, and all the hotels along Revell-street only serve breakfast, though they do so at all hours of the day!"

The entire narrative neatly balances opposites, creating a harmonious whole. I like it very well indeed.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

With too many other books currently on the go and a looming TBR, I nearly abandoned Claire of the Sea Light when I was about 30 pages in. But because I greatly admired another of Edwidge Danticat's novels, The Dew BreakerI persevered. I am so glad that I did, because it only took a little longer to get me totally hooked. Claire of the Sea Light is a radiant and worthy novel.

Claire is a girl who disappears on her seventh birthday in a small town in Haiti. Danticat starts there, then circles back and around in a way that imitates the singing game Claire played with other little girls on the beach that evening.

One character and then another steps to the middle of the story and we gradually get a sense of Claire's place within a larger, interconnected community. There is a gay storyline that is particularly heartbreaking, but also linked to the redemption in the final pages. Very rewarding.

Readalikes for those wanting entwined narratives: Is Just a Movie (Earl Lovelace); How to Paint a Dead Man (Sarah Hall); The Lighthouse (Alison Moore); Ghana Must Go (Taiye Selasi); Visitation Street (Ivy Pochoda); and The History of Love (Nicole Krauss).

For another take on contemporary life in Haiti, plus historical context, I suggest reading In Darkness (Nick Lake).

Friday, November 22, 2013

Is Just a Movie by Earl Lovelace

I knew I had to read Is Just a Movie after hearing Earl Lovelace at the Vancouver Writers Fest last month. He had the entire audience laughing. The story is narrated in the voice of a calypso singer, KingKala, and through him we get to know a wide assortment of individuals in a small town in 1970s Trinidad.

One of these is KingKala's friend Dorlene, who was pitied because her parents sent her away to get a better education in Port of Spain. KingKala's aunt is "sad for the girl who had grown up remote from our world. 'She will not know the bush teas and the songs and the dances. She will live on the edge of the world that is her world.'"

"When she left school, Dorlene would have loved to get a job in Port of Spain. Instead, the job she got was in the library in Arima seventeen miles away. The librarians there agreed that nice men did not read, and, in order to expose themselves to a wider pool of a suitable set of men, had organised a programme to invite poets to read their work in the library, calypsonians to sing, and John de John the novelist from Matura with thirty-five unpublished novels to read from his current novel, which he had been finishing for forever, Dorlene herself appearing on the programme playing the piano and beating the tenor pan. I was one of the calypsonians invited. It was a successful project. At the end of the series, one of the librarians was engaged to be married, one of them had moved in with a man, and a man moved in with one. Mabel, a girl who had started same time as Dorlene, was pregnant and Miss Trim the head librarian, who had been most sceptical of the idea had found romance."

I really enjoyed the circular motion of this novel. Lovelace introduces a new topic or character in the last line of one chapter and then springboards from there into the next chapter. Moments of everyday life are vividly evoked through a colourful cast of characters, while the larger cultural and political picture of Trinidad and Tobago comes slowly into focus. It's an uplifting novel infused with the magical spirit of Carnival. And it left me with a craving for calalloo and pepper sauce.

Readalikes: The Emperor of Paris (C.S. Richardson) has a similar circular style, even though it has a much different setting. Trinidadian classics to read: A House for Mr. Biswas (V.S. Naipaul) and Dream on Monkey Mountain (Derek Walcott).

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas by David Almond

In The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, David Almond gently reminds us that a human being is an astonishing thing, and that we are part of "the wonderful and terrifying vastness of the universe." This is why Almond, who also wrote Skellig, is one of my very favourite authors.

His language is playful -- disgracious; the pea's knees; we must bite our time; the land of Rackanruwin -- and his characters speak the dialect of northern England -- how do; dun't know; wotch yer step; good for nowt.

Young Stanley is orphaned and then his uncle Ernie goes a bit nuts and turns their house into a fish canning factory, where Stanley's pet goldfish are no longer safe. So Stanley runs off to work in a travelling carnival, where he meets lots of different kinds of people, including adults who treat him as an equal.

"I'm Seabrook. What's your name and what's your poison?"
"Poison?" says Stan.
"Forgive me. You're new, aren't you? Seabrook's way is we have a drink and a chinwag, then we get down to business. I can do you water, fizzy water, or black pop."

I also love Almond's metafictional storytelling style.

"But, reader, let's leave this trio for a moment in their caravan. Let's have something like our own dream. Let's rise through the caravan roof and over this strange field filled with sideshows and rides and peculiar practices and magical moments and fires and chops and spuds and scorpions and fish and tents. Let's rise into the moonlight so that the fires shrink to the size of fireflies; the spinning waltzer becomes like a distant comet. [...] And let's look down, almost as if we were the moon itself, and see if we can see what has happened to the other fragments of our story. [...] How can we do this? you may well ask. But it's easy, isn't it? All it takes is a few words put into a few sentences, and a bit of imagination. We could go anywhere with words and our imaginations. We could leave this story altogether, in fact, and find some other story in some other part of the world, and start telling that one. But no. Maybe later. It's best not to leave our story scattered into fragments, so let's find them and start to gather them up."

And all of the parts are indeed gathered up into a wise and witty tale about courage and forgiveness. "The hearts of these people, despite all their faults and failings, are good and true." Yes, yes and yes.

Illustrations by Oliver Jeffers hit just the right whimsical note. Grade 4 and up, or all ages if read aloud.

Almond recently won the Eleanor Farjeon award for outstanding contribution to the world of children's books and I say YES! to that too.

Readalikes: The Several Lives of Orphan Jack (Sarah Ellis); Small Change for Stuart (Lissa Evans); Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, Detectives Extraordinaire! (Polly Horvath); Flora and Ulysses (Kate DiCamillo).

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo's children's stories keep getting funnier and more adorable. Holy bagumba! Flora and Ulysses had me laughing out loud. Flora is ten years old and a natural-born cynic. Ulysses is a squirrel who attains superpowers after a near-death encounter with a vacuum cleaner.

The vocabulary is rich with words like malfeasance, planetary dislocations, and existential terror. There are "astonishing acts of heroism" and a great many "unanticipated occurrences." I also loved the way that poetry is treated with due respect.

After vanquishing a vicious cat, Ulysses "was enormously, inordinately pleased with himself. He felt immensely powerful! He felt like writing a poem!"*

The waitress at the Giant Do-Nut had her name tag spelled out in all capital letters: RITA! "Flora narrowed her eyes. The exclamation point made Rita seem untrustworthy, or, at the very least, insincere."**

Flora and Ulysses is a rollicking and witty adventure that would make a fantastic family read-aloud, suitable for all ages.

Readalikes: Mr and Mrs Bunny, Detectives Extraordinaire! (Polly Horvath); The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas (David Almond); The True Meaning of Smekday (Adam Rex)

*Coincidentally, in Thea Bowering's short story 'The Cannibals' (in Love at Last Sight), a modern-day little mermaid out for revenge is similarly inspired: "She had been trained to attack: when you find your mortal enemy, don't hesitate, close in quickly and write a poem."

**In yet another coincidence, this time in Worst. Person. Ever., Raymond has frustrating encounters with a airline lounge waitress wearing a name tag that says LACEY, and each time LACEY is mentioned in the text, her name is always presented like that: in all-caps and in a contrasting bold font.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

A remote island in Micronesia in the 1950s. A "lost tribe" who apparently lived for centuries. A doctor who won a Nobel prize in 1974 for his discovery of a syndrome of delayed aging that was related to eating a rare turtle. The same, never-married doctor, convicted of pedastry in 1997, after charges are brought against him by one of his own 43 (!) adopted children.

What a plot! Hanya Yanagihara has loosely based The People in the Trees on the real life drama surrounding Nobel prizewinner Dr. Gajdusek. Like other recent novels inspired by sensational news stories -- You Are One of Them (Elliott Holt) and Cartwheel (Jennifer duBois) -- it is very well executed.

The People in the Trees is framed as a memoir written by the imprisoned doctor Norton Perina, edited and with footnotes added by his one staunch supporter, Dr. Ronald Kubodera. NYTimes reviewer Carmela Ciuraru aptly compared them to a couple of characters from The Simpsons: [Kubodera] "serves as Smithers to Perina's Mr. Burns." (Except this book is not in any way a comedy.) In the audiobook [Dreamscape: 16.5 hr], the two men are narrated by Arthur Morey and William Roberts.

Perina is a fascinating character, a closeted gay man who seems nearly incapable of experiencing emotion. He writes of a time when he was a young man, travelling with his brother Owen (who is also gay):

"I can still recall, with a sort of odd, unpleasant clarity, that unfamiliar and inarticulable sensation I began experiencing, about halfway through the journey, whenever I gazed at Owen. I remember feeling something pressing against my chest at those times, substantial and insistent and yet not uncomfortable, not painful. After a few episodes, I deduced it was, for lack of a better word, love."

Later, Perina's distaste for women is a stumbling block when he considers that he might enjoy having children around.

"A wife! What would I discuss with her? I imagined days sitting around a plain white table and sawing away at a piece of meat burned crisp as toast, hearing the clop of her shoes as she walked across a shining linoleum floor, her hectoring conversations about money or the children or my job; I saw myself silent, listening to her drone on about her day and the laundry and whom she had seen at the store and what they had said." 

Perina's attitude towards children:

 "I have never found it difficult, as some do, to speak to children. All one has to do is pretend that they're some kind of intelligent farm animal: a pig, perhaps, or a horse. In fact, one should be much more intimidated by the prospect of speaking to a horse, since they can often be quite quick-witted and possessed of a great disdain for those they feel are not worthy of their attention."

If you only enjoy reading about characters that you like, you will want to stay away from The People in the Trees. It was weird that I found myself with concurrent books starring misogynists in the South Pacific. (See Worst. Person. Ever.) To have them both reference the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) was also a surprise. On top of that, the Tuskegee syphilis study is mentioned in The People in the Trees as well as in another book I've got on the go, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Another odd coincidence. Anyway, The People in the Trees audiobook held me spellbound.

Readalikes: State of Wonder (Ann Patchett); I was also reminded of the creepy yet erudite narrative voice in By Blood (Ellen Ullman); and the anthropological field study that makes up a large part of The People in the Trees has echoes of Coming of Age in Samoa (Margaret Mead).

Thursday, November 14, 2013

My 10 Favourite Books

I'm on a new team at the Edmonton Public Library: the Great Stuff Crew. Our job is to promote the great content we've got in the library collection -- books, movies, music, games, digital delights -- the whole breadth and depth of it. We'll be doing this primarily online, via the EPL website.

As a way of introducing ourselves to the public, crew members have been asked to come up with a list of our ten favourite books (or other materials). Only ten? Impossible!

This is my list of three dozen, in alphabetical order by title, leaving out many, many, many favourites. I've included links to my reviews on this blog.

The 10 PM Question. Kate De Goldi
Autobiography of Red. Anne Carson
Better Living Through Plastic Explosives: Stories. Zsuzsi Gartner
The Botany of Desire. Michael Pollan
Carry the One. Carol Anshaw
Cereus Blooms at Night. Shani Mootoo
Chime. Franny Billingsley
A Country Year: Living the Questions. Sue Hubbell
I'm reading something by China Mieville here... which
reminds me that the audiobook of his City and the City
(narrated by John Lee) is another favourite. Oh dear!
Exit Wounds. Rutu Modan
Fall on Your Knees. Ann-Marie MacDonald
Fugitive Pieces. Anne Michaels
Fun Home. Alison Bechdel
How I Live Now. Meg Rosoff
How to Heal a Broken Wing. Bob Graham
I Want My Hat Back. Jon Klassen
Jinx. Margaret Wild
The Lesser Blessed. Richard Van Camp
Lighthousekeeping. Jeanette Winterson
The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches. Gaetan Soucy
The Lost Garden. Helen Humphreys
Monkey Beach. Eden Robinson
Mr and Mrs Bunny, Detectives Extraordinaire. Polly Horvath
Packing for Mars. Mary Roach
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Annie Dillard
The Pull of the Ocean. Jean-Claude Mourlevat
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. Susan Cain
Skellig. David Almond
Skim. Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
Stitches. David Small
Someday this Pain Will Be Useful to You. Peter Cameron
The Summer Book. Tove Jansson
There But For The. Ali Smith
True Grit. Charles Portis. audiobook narrated by Donna Tartt
A Visit from the Goon Squad. Jennifer Egan
West Wind. Mary Oliver
When Women Were Birds. Terry Tempest Williams
Why We Broke Up. Daniel Handler

Some of my most favourite authors -- Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland, Carol Ann Duffy, John Green, Sonya Hartnett, A.S. King, Margo Lanagan, Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje (that's another ten right there) -- aren't on this list because it was too hard to choose only one of their books. How could I ever only pick ten?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland

Worst. Person. Ever. is Douglas Coupland's demented and satirical new novel. The man of the title is Raymond Gunt, a British cameraman hired to film an American Survivor-style reality TV show in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. He's a boorish horndog adept at offending and alienating everyone around him. Worst. Person. Ever. is as outrageous as it is hilarious.

Imagine every obnoxious person you've ever met, all rolled into one, and you've got the greatest anti-hero ever. I even found myself agreeing with Raymond sometimes, like when he describes processed foods as "overpackaged chemical goatfuckings manufactured in the same factories that make dildos and pesticides." (Not the particular phrasing I would have chosen, but I'm sympathetic to the sentiment.)

The novel rockets along from one misadventure to another. It's entirely in dialogue, counting Raymond's first-person narration.
"I like to think of myself as a giving, caring person who really does think about the modern world -- someone who tries to improve the planet, even though it seems pretty much doomed. As a consequence, maybe I'm not fully qualified to pass judgment on the diet of most Americans. But as I stood there staring at the shit-coated guano logs and repulsive cans of room-temperature weasel piss in the airport vending machines, I was appalled. 'Come on, America, you're living creatures, not science experiments.'
'Ray, I don't think there's anything in there we could actually put in our bodies.'
Still we scanned the grids of toxins wrapped in bright paper and the cans of sugary blight.
'Look!' Neal was pointing, with a heartbreaking note of hope in his voice. 'Look at that bar there -- it's got peanuts in it. That's food.'
'Probably tastes like a pocket calculator garnished with dried herpes juice flakes.'"
I don't think other readers will have wishy-washy reactions -- you'll either love it or hate it. I loved it.
Sporks and knoons are among the newfangled
cutlery featured in Worst. Person. Ever.
(Image from the flyleaf,
Random House Canada edition.)

Readalike (minus the profanity): Beauty Queens (Libba Bray).

See also other books by Coupland that I've reviewed: Generation A; Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People; and Eleanor Rigby.