Thursday, January 31, 2013

Wildwood by Colin Meloy

Wildwood is the first volume in a children's fantasy adventure series by Decembrist lead singer Colin Meloy. Twelve-year-old Prue McKeel's baby brother is kidnapped by crows and she goes into the Impassable Wilderness next to her home in Portland, Oregon to rescue him. Inside, she finds a magical place at the brink of war.

At my YA book group last night, we talked about the way Wildwood pays homage to earlier novels, ballads and folklore such as Narnia, the Snow Queen, George MacDonald's work, The Dark Is Rising, Robin Hood and Yggdrasil. I liked that Wildwood features a plant more dangerous than Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors.

Wildwood is beautifully illustrated by Meloy's wife, Carson Ellis. There are about a dozen plates of artwork inside, some in full colour. See her art in this lovely book trailer (it's less than a minute long), and at the Wildwood Chronicles website, where you can find out more about the next books in the series.

I've handled the book, admiring the art, maps and deckle-edge pages, but chose to listen to the HarperCollins eAudiobook available through OverDrive at the library. Amanda Plummer narrates at a measured pace, modulated in the calm tones of a bedtime story, without being soporific. She reads so slowly that I was able to comfortably listen at double speed; if you don't, the recording is about 16 hours long.

Grades 5 - 7 are the prime audience, but older readers will enjoy this too. It's a fat book with heaps of action.

Readalikes: The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis); Breadcrumbs (Anne Ursu).

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Goddess Gone Fishing for a Map of the Universe by Sheri-D Wilson

Performance poet Sheri-D Wilson's latest poetry collection -- her eighth -- is outstanding in every way. Reading Goddess Gone Fishing for a Map of the Universe is like riding a comet while shooting stars crackle in my brain. It is the most invigorating poetry I've yet experienced. Seriously! I could almost feel each zap in my synapse.

It's hard to find a good excerpt because a) there are so many and b) it's hard to find a place to stop without quoting the whole thing.

From 'Ode to My Microscopic Life'

"Ode to the incandescent cantation -- to the dot on a map
Without destination -- all about navigation
I see a woman much older than I look
(Handy perspective) then again,
Maybe I just need stronger glasses
 Wilson's  poem The Barcelona Bakery of
No Return made me feel fortunate that no
bakery bouncers prevented me from taking
photos of cakes in Vienna last year.
Of wine; ode to the optical delusion
And the compass rose and the skeleton
Key, which remind me -- of what

The Cuban Shaman said to me
He said: You are Shango

I replied: I am Yemaya

You are Shango

I am Yemaya



Only Shango would argue they are Yemaya
You are a fierce woman!

Thank-you, I said
I am"

Fierce, intelligent and very funny, Wilson makes wordplay appear effortless. Her encounters at home and abroad are all fodder for her work. A phone call from her mother about a grave plot Sheri-D might like. Being mistakenly construed as the mistress of a 78-year-old Cuban. 'Thrown Out' is her record of the many times she has been thrown out of places and onto the street... and sometimes even off the street.

"And at Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump
I was told I could not take pictures
Of the open prairie without written permission."

My favourite incident is when she was thrown out of a bakery in Spain. You can watch Wilson performing 'Barcelona Bakery of No Return' recorded at the launch of Goddess Gone Fishing in Calgary in March 2012. She is also the Artistic Director of the Calgary Spoken Word Festival.

The QR codes in the book prompted me to download a scanning app to my iPod so that I could link to additional material online. It was cool when it worked but I had trouble holding the book open while simultaneously keeping the iPod steady enough for clear focus. The poems on the page are enough for me.

From the Frontenac House publisher's website: "Pervading the book is Wilson's belief that an upsurge in feminine divine energy that will quell the madness of our time." Yay! Poetry to the rescue.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Looking at Lincoln by Maira Kalman

Looking at Lincoln is a picture book biography by the inimitable Maira Kalman. Her cheerful artwork always makes me smile. Influences of surrealism, fauvism and French impressionism are there, along with her signature panache. After all, history isn't complete without hats and cake!

Many of the bright paintings in the book made an appearance in 2009 in Kalman's illustrated column for the New York Times online, where she wrote about her fascination with Abraham Lincoln. More images are also at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Most pages in Looking at Lincoln have only a few sentences, choice facts about his amazing life. I learned that he went to school for only one year, and then taught himself after that.

"One day he was kicked in the head by a mule. He slept for two days. Then he woke up and grew up and decided to be a lawyer. (He did like to argue.)"

A similar thing happened to Sir James Hector when he was on an expedition through the Canadian Rockies in 1858. Hector was kicked unconscious by a horse and believed dead, which is how Kicking Horse Pass on the Alberta/B.C. border got its name. Hector went on to live many years in New Zealand afterwards, where his name is still quite famous... but probably not on par with Lincoln.

Kalman has made a whimsical addition to the "over 16,000 books" already written about Lincoln. Great for all ages, from preschoolers to adults.
Detail from Kalman's Looking at Lincoln. It reminds me of the time I was volunteering at the gate of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival and had refused entry to a couple of guys who didn't have tickets to the sold-out event. They had come all the way from the States because they were fans of a particular band. I was momentarily puzzled when one of them asked if Ben Franklin would change my mind about letting them in. Occasionally people would toss around festival producer Terry Wickham's name in hopes of getting through the gate, but I couldn't think of who this Franklin guy was. Then the fact that they were Americans helped me realize what offer was being made. No money changed hands, but I did direct them to where they could hear the music they wanted from outside the perimeter fence.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is about a scholarly secret society. It celebrates passion for nerdy subjects like typography, computer programming, pre-13th century world history, online alternatives to commercial software, and old books. Especially books. It's told in the voice of Clay Jannon, the night clerk in a very unusual bookstore in San Francisco. When Clay is hired, Mr. Penumbra warns him to never look inside the books in the shop. "You may not browse, read, or otherwise inspect the shelved volumes. Retrieve them for members. That is all."

Was Clay able to stick by that injunction? Of course not. The books contain clues to an ancient puzzle. That's where the adventure begins.

I loved the way this book led me off onto tangents. For example, when a protagonist "produces another e-reader -- it's a Nook. Then another one, a Sony. Another one, marked KOBO. Really? Who has a Kobo?" (Answer: Canadians. I see patrons with Kobo e-readers in my library all the time.)

Clay's clandestine activities involve "a pair of white Stormtrooper binoculars" at one point, which reminded me of a great vlog post by author John Green, where he talks about book editors and whether stormtroopers is one word or two (and many other things), and I had to go find it again here. Come to think of it, Clay bonded with his friend Neel over a fantasy novel that they read as kids in much the same way as Green's protagonists in The Fault in our Stars.

Even though I was going off onto side roads, I never found these detracted from the main journey. It's all a brain game, really. Also, Sloan's humour hit the right notes for me, like naming a bibliophile 'Mr. Deckle.' Clay's girlfriend Kat gushes about her employer's (Google) projects:

"They are making a 3-D web bowser. They are making a car that drives itself. They are making a sushi search engine -- here she pokes a chopstick down at our dinner -- to help people find fish that is sustainable and mercury-free. They are building a time machine. They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris."

Clay's description of his first experience with audiobooks got me thinking about why I love them so much:

"I've never listened to an audiobook before, and I have to say, it's a totally different experience. When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes."

Yes, that is how it is for me. Sound adds a visceral element to books also; a gut sensation. I nearly missed my bus stop yesterday because I was so absorbed by Amanda Plummer's audiobook narration of Wildwood by Colin Meloy. (My literal knit cap did not cover my eyes, but it was about 15 below, and I put my headphones on top of my hat. Then my hood.)

I leave you with Sloan's final paragraph (and don't worry, it isn't a spoiler):

"A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time."

That special book is Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.

Readalikes with underdog nerds banding together to problem-solve at the intersection of old and new technologies: Ready Player One (Ernest Cline); For the Win (Cory Doctorow).

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Drops of God by Tadashi Agi and Shu Okimoto

Japanese collaborative team Tadashi Agi and Shu Okimoto have created an engaging manga series that elevates wine to ambrosia status. I found myself wishing I had a glass of French red while reading the first volume of The Drops of God. Apparently I'm not the only one. According to the wine magazine Decanter, The Drops of God is "a comic so influential that a mere wine mention leads to sell-out stocks." It was also winner of a Gourmand World Cookbook Award in 2009.

The three main protagonists are Miyabi Shinohara, a young apprentice sommelier; Shizuku Kanzaki, estranged son of a recently-deceased famous wine critic; and Issei Tomine, adopted as a second son by Yutaka Kanzaki before he died. Whomever of the two brothers solves a wine-related quest will inherit the estate. Issei has the advantage, being a well-known wine critic himself. Shizuku has rejected everything to do with wine, but his father trained him from early childhood to have an outstanding sense of taste and smell. With Miyabi's help, he has a chance in the competition.

The story is a fun mix of romance, problem-solving and general education about wine. Miyabi is such a wine geek that she practically swoons while watching Shizuku decant wine.

"A... amazing! He can decant from that height... The wine droplets formed a line as straight as a thread of scarlet silk. It danced into the spout. In my experience with wine, I'd never before seen such divine decanting."

A sip of a 1999 Burgundy is enough to transport Miyabi in the first chapter, titled 'The Scent of a Hundred Flowers.' (In the images below, remember to read right to left, Japanese style.)

My iPod photos do not do justice to Okimoto's delicate art. See more of her images from this series online here. Her attention to detail on the wine bottle labels is remarkable. All of the wines mentioned are authentic. In the first volume, the focus is on comparing vintages from the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions. I think there are about 5 volumes out in English now and I hope the rest are as good as the first.

I would recommend this even to readers who haven't yet tried manga. It is character-based fiction with a strong plot line and realistic artwork. Have wine and a corkscrew handy.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

Tara Martin disappeared when she was 15 years old, and then 20 years later on Christmas Day, she shows up at her parents' door. In Graham Joyce's Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Tara's family is understandably skeptical about her story. Was she really abducted by fairies? Tara claims she has only been gone for six months and admittedly, she looks about the same age as when she left. But this is England in the 21st century. There must be some other explanation. Her parents are just regular British folk, the kind who rely on a spot of tea for comfort.

"Tea being the drug of choice in the Martin household, Dell concocted more of it, thick and brown and sweet. After all, they'd had a bit of a shock; and whenever they had a shock or an upset or experienced a disturbance of any kind they had poured tea on it for as long as any of them could remember."

Tara's brother Peter is now married with four children. Tara's old boyfriend Richie, however, hasn't been able to get over her. The police strongly suspected, at the time, that he had something to do with her disappearance. Some Kind of Fairy Tale is more of a domestic drama than a fantasy, since Tara's accounts of another world populated with dangerous sex fiends could be fabrication or perhaps a sign of mental illness. Peter pays for her to have therapy sessions with an eccentric psychiatrist.

Joyce shifts between different points of view, opening each chapter with quotations like this one from Albert Einstein: "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales." Clinical records of Tara's psychiatrist are interspersed with the Martin family's daily affairs and the reacquaintance happening between Tara and Richie.

Out one night at a pub, Richie tells Tara it's time to drink up and get home, but she protests.
"It's not eleven o'clock. The landlord hasn't called last orders yet."
"That's all changed. They don't do that anymore," he said. "That's all gone."
(I wonder if that applies in Edmonton also? I haven't been out late drinking in so long that I've no idea if there's still a "last call." I may as well have been away with the fairies.)

Bluebells underfoot when I visited Wales in 2007.
Tara disappeared from an ancient woodland in early May, when the forest floor was carpeted in bluebells. She urges Peter to think back to that time.

"Do you remember how they were? Their perfume stole the sense right out of your head. It turned you over and shook the juice right out of you. You couldn't walk between them that year they were so dense; you had to swim in them. The madness of it! The scent was so subtle that it got all over you, in your nostrils, in your cavities, and on your fingers like the smell of a sweet sin. Didn't it bind you in blue lace and carry you away?"

Some Kind of Fairy Tale transported me to a place touched with magic. I loved it.

Readalikes: The Snow Child (Eowyn Ivey); Impossible (Nancy Werlin); Kit's Wilderness (David Almond); The New Policeman (Kate Thompson); and The Folk Keeper (Franny Billingsley). Interesting that all but the first of these are YA novels.

You might also check out Graham Joyce's list in The Guardian of his favourite literary fairy fiction (which also includes some YA). Joyce is careful to note, however, that fairies don't use that word for themselves, and so he tends to avoid the 'F' word. He has selected books "where the structures of fairytales are abandoned but the world of 'fairy' is imported as a delicate spice." I didn't know what tags to use in this post for Joyce's Some Kind of Fairy Tale. I believe it fits into his description of "fantasist" literature: "a sense of awe and dislocation is upheld here, and a new way of knowing is always the prize."

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, + Me by Ellen Forney

In Marbles, cartoonist Ellen Forney explores the connection between creativity and mental illness. After she is diagnosed as having a bipolar disorder in the early 90s, Forney fears losing her self-identity and also her livelihood if she starts taking lithium or any other medication.

"Along with my romantic preconceptions about what being a crazy artist meant... were my terrified preconceptions about what being a medicated artist meant." "If I get treatment, am I killing any chance to do my best work?"

This memoir documents Forney's struggles to find balance when her manic self would prefer to find brilliance. Forney dedicates the book to her mother and her psychiatrist. I found the scenes with her supportive mother, who happens to be a lesbian, especially poignant. Forney writes that they have always been close. "Mom paid for Karen [the psychiatrist] and for half of my rent. I had health insurance but it didn't cover mental health."

Forney is a bisexual artist who is known for her sex-positive journalism in comics format. For example, her collected work in I Love Led Zeppelin includes saucy pieces about twirling nipple tassels, mapping male and female erogenous zones, and "How to Fuck a Woman with your Hands." Forney also created the illustrations in Alexie Sherman's award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. Check out Ellen Forney's website to see her work.

Readalikes -- other works that use graphic novel format to explore the topic of mental health:

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
Hyperbole and a Half webcomic by Allie Brosh
Bitter Medicine by Clem and Olivier Martini
The Next Day by Paul Peterson, Jason Gilmore and John Porcellino
Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell
How I Made It to Eighteen by Tracy White

And speaking of Marbles, my sweetie says she feels like she lost hers while putting together fighting normal, an art show about mental health that will run from January 24 to March 2, 2013 in Edmonton at the Visual Arts Alberta gallery. The opening reception is next Friday.

NOTE added Jan 25 2013: A preview of the show was published in the Edmonton Journal: read it here online.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Hoeg

The Elephant Keeper's Children is a quirky coming-of-age tale, very different in style and mood from Peter Hoeg's earlier thriller, Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Set on Fino, a tiny Danish island, the story revolves around the disappearance of the eccentric vicar, Konstantin Fino, and his wife, Clara. It's narrrated in a philosophical, round-about way by their 14-year-old son, Peter. This isn't the first time they've gone missing. Previously, the pair returned with stacks of money, a mink coat and an Italian sports car.

"I don't know if you have ever seen a Maserati, so in case you haven't I can tell you that it is a car designed for people who are exhibitionists by nature but who nevertheless wish to demonstrate that they are modest enough to not simply open their raincoats and flash their wares."

That was two years earlier. This time, Peter and his sister Tilte are determined to figure out what their parents are up to before the authorities do. Even though the police have already combed through their house, the siblings find a clue in their mother's workshop.

"The life of wood shavings is brief, albeit replete with beauty. When fresh, they are as elastic as corkscrew curls, fragrant, and almost transparent. But within a week they dry out and may break and become sawdust. The specimen I hold in my hand is still fresh. On its way toward old age, as indeed we all of us are, but fresh nonetheless.

Tilte and I think the same thought: we cannot rule out the possibility that the flying squad took the opportunity of indulging in handicrafts, that they perhaps spent time at the carpenter's bench, working with the fretsaw and the smoothing plane. Perhaps they wanted to take a present home with them for the children. It's not impossible. But then again, it's not exactly likely, either."

The other quest in this novel is spiritual. Peter yearns for the numinous feeling that he has experienced occasionally. Fino, small as it is, manages to support a large number of religious faiths, and their leaders are all going to Copenhagen for a multi-faith synod.

Which brings me to the pointedly ridiculous names chosen by Hoeg (and his translator, Martin Aitken). Bishop Anaflabia Borderrud, Grand Mufti Sinbad Al-Blablab (imam of the mosque housed in Bullybluff House), Polly Pigonia (of Fino Puri Ashram, which was formerly the Pigslurry Farm), Leonora Ticklepalate (head nun of Fino's Buddhist community) etc.

I was reading along, feeling entertained, enjoying the offbeat humour... until suddenly I had enough. At page 249, which is pretty much the halfway point in the book, I just didn't want to read any more. It was weird. So I skipped ahead to read the final chapter to see how it all wrapped up and considered it done.

It is highly unlike my usual habits to give up so far into a story and it's taken some time to pinpoint what exactly turned me off so completely. It probably has to do with the intrusion of the author's voice (the real Peter) into the character Peter's narrative. The disrespectful names for religious leaders offended me at some level. It makes a farce out of spiritual beliefs, including the boy's own. I recognize that I have a low tolerance for this kind of flippancy. And then, once this irritation threw me out of the story, I was unwilling to get back in.

My reaction will not stop me from recommending The Elephant Keepers' Children to other readers, because I realize my response is out of proportion and the book truly is amusing. I am eager to speak to others who've had a reading experience similar to mine, however.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Rook by Daniel O'Malley

The opening scene in The Rook by Australian author Daniel O'Malley has a badly-bruised woman waking up in a London park surrounded by dead bodies, all wearing latex gloves. She has total amnesia and must rely on letters left by her former self to reconstruct her identity. Quickly, because she obviously has enemies.

Myfanwy (rhymes with "Tiffany") Thomas is a Rook, a high-ranking officer in a top secret organization tasked with maintaining British security. Someone in the organization is a traitor. Everyone has special powers, including Myfanwy. She's kind of a mash-up of James Bond, Thursday Next and Christine Lucas (from Before I Go to Sleep). Myfanwy Thomas is intelligent, resourceful and appealing. She's also dangerous.

I listened to the audiobook performed by Susan Duerden [Dreamscape: 18 hours]. Duerden does a fine job of sorting out the dialogue of the many characters. Expect lots of action, a good dose of humour, and mutants with X-men-like powers. Throw in a bit of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, too. The Rook is inventive, suspenseful and highly entertaining.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

Alison Moore's The Lighthouse is all about undercurrents in the lives of some lonely people. Futh is a British man who goes on a walking holiday in Germany after his marriage disintegrates. Ester and her husband Bernard run a bed and breakfast called Hellhaus (the light house), which is Futh's first and final stop on his weeklong circular route.

The narrative moves back and forth in third person between Futh and Ester, revealing past events that have shaped their current existence. There are similarities that take on significance and a sense of menace builds as the story progresses. Connections between human beings are sometimes harmful, rather than supportive.

An ornamental silver container in the shape of a lighthouse, and that once held a vial of perfume, is at the center of the slowly simmering plot. There is evidence from the start that things are not as they appear on the surface. A reflection of this can be seen in Ester's technique for cleaning her guest rooms:

"In the bedroom, she strips the sheet from the bed, shakes it out and inspects it and then smooths it over the mattress again. She turns over the pillows, plumping them up." (Reminds me of Tomsky's Heads in Beds memoir.)

Later, Futh occupies that room. "He opened a book and tried to read but could not concentrate, kept reading the same lines over and over and reaching the bottom of the first page without having taken it in. He was distracted by the moth flying at his lamp. He got out of bed again and opened the curtains and the window to let it out, knowing that this disoriented moth was really after the moon, its navigational aid, although Futh could not see the moon from where he was standing. Getting back into bed, he turned over his pillow to get the cool side and noticed the stain of a stranger's mascara like a spider on his pillowcase."

Moore chose a quote from Muriel Spark as the epigraph: "she became a tall lighthouse sending out kindly beams which some took for welcome instead of warnings against the rocks." A perfect preface for this unsettling novel.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel

Animator and storyboard artist Sanjay Patel has condensed the sacred Sanskrit tale of Ramayana into a gorgeous illustrated version. In the introduction, he calls it "epic mythology without all the paper cuts." Each two-page spread of eye-popping artwork is accompanied by a paragraph of text. Instead of a thousand pages, Patel uses only about 150. The presentation is fun and easily digestible, yet the story's majestic sweep and concepts of idealism are retained.

Ravana, a demon with ten heads, is taking over the universe and the gods are powerless to stop this cosmic bully. Lord Vishnu points out that there's a loophole in Ravana's special powers, which is that he can be defeated by humans or animals. Vishnu reincarnates himself as a human, Rama, who happens to have blue skin, just like Vishnu. Rama is the hero who eventually, with the help of bears and flying monkeys, defeats Ravana (who has been holding Rama's wife Sita hostage).

Patel has an engaging, informal storytelling style that gives this a totally modern feel:

"One day a demon named Soorpanaka, who happened to be Ravana's sister, spotted Rama and fell in love with him. I know, gross, but hey, demons have hearts as well, even if they want to eat everyone else's most of the time."

The stylized art uses decorative patterns against bold shapes in bright, high-contrast colours, like blue next to orange, purple against yellow. Characters have enormous eyes and distinctive silhouettes. Check out images from the book online here.

So there's fabulous art, plus adventure, loyalty, monsters, romance, and good triumphant over evil. This book is also a great way to brush up on classic literature. Suitable for all ages.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sleeping Funny by Miranda Hill

Miranda Hill's debut collection of nine short stories, Sleeping Funny, is a treasure trove. Every story in here is strong and there is no risk that her writing will be overshadowed by that of her more well-known husband, Lawrence Hill. Even readers who normally avoid short stories might like to give Sleeping Funny a go, because Hill's narrative flow and sense of humour are irresistible.

Here's a bit from the title story:

"At the party, Clea's daughter Minnie got a goldfish instead of a loot bag. On the way home in the car, Minnie held the plastic bag in her lap. Out of the corner of her eye, Clea watched the fish bob like a shimmering piece of guilt.
When Clea came down, groggy and off balance, Monday morning, Minnie was brushed and dressed and eating her cereal. The fish was lying motionless at the top of the water. One clouded eye stared up at Clea.

'This goldfish was not the right pet for us,' Minnie said. She tapped the fishbowl with her spoon. 'This goldfish did not know how to adapt.'"

Three strangers are drawn together by their desire for a modern-day miracle in "Petitions to St. Chronic," which was awarded the Journey Prize in 2011. A World War II widow tries to shield her grief from her young son in "Digging for Thomas." A couple of the stories veer delicately into the supernatural realm. In "Apple," a particular clairvoyance is more effective on high school sex education students than toting around a plastic baby simulator.

"The Variance" is the lead story and also the longest. It's about what happens when a nonconforming family moves in and shakes up the social interactions in an affluent urban neighbourhood. Sort of a cross between Where'd You Go, Bernadette (Maria Semple) and the short stories in Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. It's all good.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with artwork by Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama's art adds freshness to a beloved familiar tale in a new edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. From the publisher: "Since childhood, Kusama has been afflicted with a condition that makes her see spots, which means she sees the world in a surreal, almost hallucinogenic way that sits very well with the Wonderland of Alice. She is fascinated by childhood and the way that adults have the ability, at their most creative, to see things the way children do, a central concern of the Alice books."

It's a Penguin Classic with the full text. The book design plays with font as well as colour. The result is delightfully whimsical and best demonstrated with examples of some of the pages. You really must handle it yourself to appreciate the high production quality in this beautiful, hardcover book. It would make a lovely gift.

Readalikes: Shakespeare's Hamlet: Staged on the Page by Nicki Greenberg. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, illustrated by Maira Kalman. The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Inspired Vegan by Bryant Terry

Chef and food activist Bryant Terry describes his cooking style as "ingredient-driven." In The Inspired Vegan, as in his earlier Vegan Soul Kitchen, Terry explores "Afro-diasporic" cuisine with imagination and social consciousness. Terry's inspiration comes from the comforting home-cooked meals of his childhood in the American South. He writes, "I also think it is important that these recipes chip away at the deep-fried stereotypes of "soul food." We are talking vegan here -- no meat, no dairy, no eggs -- and lots of fresh produce. Especially lots of leafy, dark green vegetables, which I happen to adore.

The menus are organized by the four seasons; Terry is the kind of chef who refuses to serve asparagus out of season. 16 pages of appetizing photos in the middle of the book are the only ones in full colour. The food presentation is rustic and hip, served in mismatched plates and glasses, and displayed on weathered wooden surfaces.

Individual recipes are accompanied by a suggested soundtrack, book, or film, and often contain historical information. For example, Ida B. Limeade "is dedicated to one of the fiercest freedom fighters of the twentieth century -- Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She was an early leader in the civil rights movement and a vocal anti-lynching activist. She was also instrumental in the women's rights and women's suffrage movements. The sour juice of freshly squeezed limes is combined with cayenne and raw cane sugar. It is finished off with a tablespoon of beet puree to give this drink a beautiful light fuchsia hue." The soundtrack for this drink is "Strange Fruit" by Nina Simone remixed by Tricky and Tool from Verve Remixed, the book is A Sword Among Lions by Paula Giddings, and the film is The Show directed by Cruz Angeles. Multiply by 50 or so other recipes and you have quite an impressive discography/bibliography/filmography.

I enjoy reading cookbooks in general, without necessarily testing the recipes. The Inspired Vegan tempted me sufficiently to try several. The Sparkling Rosemary-Grapefruit Water was a hit at my book club last month. It's made with rosemary-infused simple syrup, freshly-squeezed ruby grapefruits, and sparkling water. I've made the Sweet Potato-Cornmeal Drop Biscuits with Maple Syrup enough times to consider it a new staple in my repertoire. (The recipe calls for chilled coconut oil. Storing it in my cupboard is all I need to do in order to have it rock-hard at my house. Just a little reminder that I'm not in Oakland, California, where Terry lives.)

Terry does mention his friends in the text... and he only seems to know people with distinctive names, like Breeze, TiTi Layo and Kalalea. I would likely find him intimidating in person, but I like the way he stimulates my thoughts about food culture and the role of good food in everyday life.

The layout is the main drawback in The Inspired Vegan. In the section on basics, where he shares his foundations for kitchen creativity, pages of recipes interrupt the flow of general text at awkward places, sometimes mid-sentence. Also, the title index to the recipes (called "Interlude") is located on pages 34-35. They are categorized into: drinks; bites; salads; mains; and sides. I ended up placing a bookmark there because it was hard to find otherwise. The recipes are also in the general 10-page index at the back of the book, but that one works better if you are looking for something by main ingredient. Still, I enjoyed dipping in and out of this book and feel like I've learned a few things too.

Now, I think I'll go cook up some Red Beans with Thick Gravy and Roasted Garlic for lunch. Yum!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Canada by Richard Ford

"First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later."

Richard Ford's philosophical novel, Canada, is told in the voice of Dell Parsons, looking back on the chain of events that began in Great Falls, Montana, when he and his twin sister were 15 years old. Their lives diverged when their parents were taken away in handcuffs. Berner ran away to San Francisco, while a family friend took Dell to a desolate small town in Saskatchewan.

"What I know is, you have a better chance in life -- of surviving it -- if you tolerate loss well, manage not to be a cynic through it all; to subordinate, as Ruskin implied, to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is not simple to find."

I listened to the audiobook [Recorded Books; 13 hr, 45 min] skillfully performed by Holter Graham.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky

Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality is Jacob Tomsky's hilarious account of his years spent working in the hotel industry. I'm glad I'm not particularly fastidious, but his anecdotes will probably make some people cringe, thinking, for example, about the times you've used a clean-looking water glass in your hotel room.

"You know what cleans the hell out of a mirror, and I'm talking no streaks? Windex? No. Furniture polish. Spray on a thick white base, rub it in, and you'll be face-to-face with a spotless mirror, streak-free. However, I am not recommending you take this tip and apply it in your own home. Though using furniture polish is quick and effective, over time it causes a waxy buildup that requires a deep scrub. Another dirty secret I didn't uncover until much later: I walked in on ladies with Pledge in one hand and a minibar glass in the other. Keeping those glasses clean 'looking' was also part of the job. Do you see any dish soap on a housekeeping cart? Usually hot water and a face towel equals clean. But to be absolutely sure they won't be singled out for spotty glasses, they might spray furniture polish all over them. So the next time you put a little tap water into the minibar glass and wonder to yourself why it has a pleasant lemon aftertaste, that's because you just took a shot of Pledge. Honestly, furniture polish might be more sanitary than simple hot water and a wipe down using the (hopefully untouched) hand towel from the previous guest. Either way, sorry about that."

Before he worked his way up to housekeeping supervisor, Tomsky was a parking valet at a luxury hotel in New Orleans. One newly-hired valet couldn't drive a manual transmission, so the captain of Tomsky's crew had a plan: "Listen, keep an eye out for a stick-shift overnight ticket. Something grimy, not too nice. Take him up to the top stretch, and learn him on it, dig?"

"And that's what I did. We burned the life out of a guest's clutch teaching Eddie to drive. It smelled like a metal-and-oil barbecue up there."

On his first shift on the front desk at a hotel in midtown Manhattan, Tomsky got an intimidating pep talk from a bellman:

"Listen very closely to me, FNG. I see you handing guests their own keys, I'll stab you. I hear you asking them if they need help with their luggage, I'll stab you. You don't ask them shit. You call 'front' and hand the keys to a bellman. Let them tell me to my face they can take their own luggage and my baby girl has to starve. I catch you handing them keys, I figure you're the one who wants my baby girl to starve. In which case I will find out what train you take home and collapse your throat as soon as you step into your borough."

Tomsky also shares useful advice on such things as the most effective way to complain, to receive special services, to guarantee that you'll have a room ready if you know you'll be arriving hours before the official check-in time, and how to avoid paying minibar charges. It's no holds barred and highly entertaining.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Dark Rain by Mat Johnson and Simon Gane

A New Orleans bank heist set in the chaos of Hurricane Katrina -- Mat Johnson spins a morally ambiguous tale in Dark Rain, a graphic novel illustrated by Simon Gane.

Dabny Arceneaux and Emmit Jack are an unlikely pair of accomplices. In addition to maneuvering in a city besieged, the would-be robbers must outwit the ruthless members of a private security force called Dark Rain. Definitely shades of the notorious real-life Blackwater agency in that name... not to mention the treacherous weather.

Suspenseful and satisfying. Readalike: A.D. by Josh Neufeld.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Paris Changing: Revisiting Eugene Atget's Paris by Christopher Rauschenberg

When I was a kid, I loved games that involved spotting the difference in two nearly-identical pictures. I've discovered that it's still fun, because that's what it's like perusing Paris Changing. It's a coffee table book that pairs photos taken by Eugene Atget in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the same shots taken by Christopher Rauschenberg in 1998.

Atget's photos are atmospheric, emphasizing light and space, while Rauschenberg's capture texture: carved stone above a doorway; bark on a tree; flaking paint on a windowsill. It's a pleasure to compare their respective ways of looking at the City of Light, as well as to study the changes wrought by the passage of time.

An absorbing book that is suitable for all ages.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

If a year's first book is an auger, then 2013 promises outstanding reading ahead. Deborah Levy's Swimming Home is a slim powerhouse of a novel, seeded with quiet detonations.

Two British couples sharing a holiday villa in the south of France, one teenage daughter, and one sexy stranger, invited to stay on after she's found swimming naked in the villa's pool on the first day. Dark family secrets. Ulterior motives. Mental instability. Ingredients for catastrophe.

The photo reference that I used for this pastel painting
was taken when we were on holiday in Nice in 2004.
The mood reminds me of Levy's book: dark clouds
mass over the hills while the beach is bathed in sunlight.
The Hotel Negresco, which features in Swimming Home,
can just be seen; the pink dome far down the promenade.
Eerie, nightmarish undertones are just under the surface of an otherwise ordinary holiday. Levy's fascinating characters are at the mercy of their desires. The writing is tautly structured and so, even though it is packed with literary allusions, these remain understated and storytelling is at the forefront.

This Booker prize finalist is a very fine novel. I already know it will be on my best of 2013 list.

Readalikes: Bonjour Tristesse (Francoise Sagan) or The Red House (Mark Haddon)... with maybe a little Sylvia Plath and Hansel and Gretel thrown into the mix.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Best Children's and Teen Books of 2012

These are my 10 favourites from among the many children's books and teen novels that I read in 2012. I've included the publishing date only for those that were published prior to 2012. They are not ranked in order of preference; I loved them all.

 This is me multitasking - reading Mieville's Railsea and doing laundry in the summer of 2012.
No. 1 Car Spotter (Atinuke) 2010 (I didn't review this one, but you can listen to Atinuke reading from her very funny book here.)

The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)

Why We Broke Up (Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman)

Friends with Boys (Faith Erin Hicks)

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny -- Detectives Extraordinaire! (Polly Horvath)

The Brides of Rollrock Island (Margo Lanagan)

Railsea (China Mieville)

The Pull of the Ocean (Jean-Claude Mourlevat) 2006

Liar & Spy (Rebecca Stead)

Code Name Verity (Elizabeth Wein)

Martin Chilton at The Telegraph in the UK has one title in common with mine in his Top 10 YA Books of 2012. And one title in common also in his Top 10 Children's Books of 2012.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Best Books 2012 - Adult Fiction

This is the list of my favourites from among the adult fiction that I've read over the past year. All were published in 2012. They are not ranked -- it was hard enough narrowing this down to 10! I'll post my favourite older titles, youth titles and nonfiction soon.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

When I compiled my favourite books of the year for the Fiction-L discussion list, I realized that I hadn't reviewed some of the books I liked best, including The Round House by Louise Erdrich.

I listened to an e-audio version [Recorded Books; 12.5 hours] and it's a testament to the power of Erdrich's story that I stuck with it, even though I wouldn't recommend this particular recording. It's performed by Gary Farmer, who should have been a good choice, because he is an experienced actor and also a member of the Cayuga Nation, born in Ohswekan, Ontario. He sounds so tired as he speaks, however, that I wonder if his health is poor. There are some places where he muddles words into unintelligibility. There are also segments that have been re-recorded and the voice in these parts is so different that I wasn't sure it was still Farmer. The Round House is entirely told in first person by one Ojibwe character named Joe Coutts, looking back on the year 1988 when he was 13 years old, so it was disconcerting to have these random shifts in tone and clarity throughout.

Now, I'll get to the good stuff, a story deserving of its National Book Award prize. It is a compelling coming-of-age tale set on a reservation in North Dakota. Joe's mother, Geraldine, survived a brutal attack but was too traumatized to speak about it afterwards. Joe is determined to bring the criminal to justice and he gets his young friends to help him investigate. However, even when he and his father, a judge, learn the identity of the attacker, the nightmare continues. The crime could have taken place in any of three different jurisdictions, and cannot be successfully prosecuted without knowing exactly where it happened.

As in Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road, the traditional tale of the wiindigoo in The Round House offers insights into ways of dealing with evil. There are plenty of memorable characters, including Father Travis, an ex-marine Catholic priest, and Joe's aunt Sonja, a former stripper. The time and place are richly evoked. Food is important to a growing boy like Joe; he describes banana bread and baloney sandwiches and wild berries. I was intrigued by the mention of high bush pembina, which also grows where I'm from. The name for Viburnum trilobum that Erdrich uses is a combination of the two that are familiar to me: either high bush cranberries or else the French Canadian term my mother uses, pembina.

Erdrich educates readers about a serious legal loophole that affects Aboriginal people in the U.S. She writes with warmth and humour and I look forward to reading her earlier novels.