Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Days of the Bagnold Summer by Joff Winterhart

Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award last year, Days of the Bagnold Summer is a poignant graphic novel by Joff Winterhart. It's about the relationship between a single mother and her 15-year-old son. The two of them are unexpectedly spending the summer together after Daniel's father backs out of their arrangement, which had been for the teen to fly from the UK to Florida for his school holiday.

Each page of the book is like a separate chapter made up of six comics panels. Sue Bagnold works at the public library and wears the same kind of sweater every day. She does her best to understand her taciturn son. Daniel Bagnold listens to heavy metal and wears a black hoodie every day. His only friend is rather annoying and Daniel longs for more of a connection.

Winterhart's closely-observed portrait of this pair is extraordinary.

Readalikes: I can't think of close matches, but Perfect Example (John Porcellino) captures a similar ennui; Tamara Drewe (Posy Simmonds) delves into the characters of a larger group of adults and teens; and The Night Bookmobile (Audrey Niffenegger) has a similar melancholy nostalgia, but includes a dark fantasy element that is absent in Days of the Bagnold Summer.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold

Rather than being an embodiment of depression, the dog in Levi Pinfold's picture book, Black Dog, represents fear. Members of the Hope family see a dog outside that grows more massive with each glimpse. The youngest child -- Small Hope -- is the only one with the courage to face the beast, thereby shrinking it to normal size.

Pinfold's nostalgic tempera illustrations evoke a pre-television era, somewhat in the way of KG Campbell in Lester's Dreadful Sweaters. Pinfold's style is closer to Australian Shaun Tan's than Campbell's however. Pinfold's details -- the lovely soap dish clipped to the side of the bathtub, the Battenburg cake on a plate -- kept me lingering over each charming page. The Hope's house is just so cozy I want to visit the place! Check out Pinfold's work on his website here.

Black Dog is a great book to share with preschoolers... and fearful people of any age.

p.s. The wintery scene on the cover is appropriate to Edmonton's weather today; it's snowing here.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

May We Shed These Human Bodies: Stories by Amber Sparks

It's hard to categorize the brief, surprising stories in Amber Sparks' collection. The title story, May We Shed These Human Bodies, is a creation fable, a lament in the first-person-plural voices of trees who have been turned into humans. Never-never is a melancholy retelling of Peter Pan told in multiple viewpoints. All the imaginary people are better at life is surrealist contemporary fiction:

   "Ruby can't stop driving, because if she stops she'll be somewhere. If she's somewhere, she'll be real. All the Ruby atoms in the vicinity will come to a screeching halt in the general shape of her. Then she'll have to deal with all of the issues real people deal with.
   No thank you.
   Caleb, her imaginary best friend, calls on the space wires from Chicago to complain about the weather. The best part about Caleb is that he has a direct line into her head so she doesn't incur any long distance charges."

(In a strange coincidence, when I read All the imaginary people are better at life, I had just read a blog post from someone in Chicago who was complaining about the terrible weather they have been having.)

The stories are odd... in the best possible way. There's a great blurb from Ben Loory on the back of the book: "I always love a book that makes me fear for the writer's sanity." This may not always be true for me, but in the case of Amber Sparks, I agree with Loory.

Readalikes: Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (Etgar Keret); Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Karen Russell); Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People (Douglas Coupland) and Anthropology (Dan Rhodes).

Saturday, April 27, 2013

37 Things I Love (in no particular order) by Kekla Magoon

37 Things I Love, Kekla Magoon's tender and sweet story of four days in the life of fifteen-year-old Ellis, is told in 37 brief chapters. Ellis enumerates the 37 things she loves as she comes to terms with saying a final goodbye to her father, who has been in a coma for several years. During this stressful time, Ellis also deals with best friend drama, reconnects with an old friend, and explores her sexual attraction to another girl.

Magoon's previous books have featured African American protagonists, and the dust jacket of this one shows two brown-skinned girls floating in a swimming pool, so I assumed that Ellis and her friends are African American. It wasn't until I finished the book that I realized that the ethnicity of any of the characters is open to interpretation. (If I'm wrong, please correct me in the comments. I've been distracted and overtired lately, so I'm not reading with my usual attention to details. I may have missed physical descriptions of hair or skin that confirmed my initial assumption.)

My heart went out to Ellis and her emotional turmoil during a challenging episode in her life. Her complicated relationship with her mother is also done well. The overall tone is optimistic and fresh, balancing the serious underlying issues. Not everything is tied up neatly at the end of the novel, which feels exactly right.
Grade 7 - up.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon. Actually, lots of people have shared their thoughts on being creative, but if you don't think of yourself as an artist, you might not have realized these things apply to you. Kleon has assembled inspirational quotes from many sources and added his own helpful advice. He encourages his readers to think of themselves as artists, no matter what field of endeavour.

Kleon's basic premise is that no art is original. "The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something 'original,' nine out of ten times they just don't know the references or the original sources involved. What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before."

If you are looking for motivation, this will fit the bill. It's a quick read too. It was handy that I happened to have downloaded the book onto my iPod via the Edmonton Public Library's Freading e-book database. I read the entire book out loud to my sweetie in the hospital while we were waiting for her to have emergency surgery on Sunday. She came home yesterday and is healing nicely. My blog posts may be shorter and less frequent for a while, though.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Where the Why and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science

The Where, the Why and the How is a whimsical book for curious minds. Artists, illustrators and graphic designers were invited to illustrate the brief answers provided by scientists to puzzlers like "What is antimatter?" "Why do cats purr?" "What causes depression?" and "Why do we have fingerprints?"

The editors are Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe. From the introduction: "Today we're spoiled with an abundance of information. We carry devices that fit in our pockets but contain the entirety of human knowledge. If you want to know anything, just Google it." I know exactly what they mean, since I love being able to whip out my iPod to look up stuff in the midst of book reading.

The questions in this book are not the sort that have easy answers, however. The editors encourage readers to "enjoy reflecting on the mysteries themselves." I followed their advice and spent time studying each colourful, full-page illustration before reading the text on the facing page. The text itself is in a small font that discourages the eye from quickly skimming the contents. There is so much white space around the text -- plenty of room for a larger font -- that this must have been on purpose in order to focus attention on the art. (Or maybe my eyesight is just getting really bad.)

The answer that surprised me most was to the question "Do immortal creatures exist?" Apparently, there are some. Huh!

Most of the artwork is quite abstract, which suits the questioning nature of the book. Although adults are the primary audience, I think some younger readers will also find it interesting.

Readalikes: A History of the World in 100 Objects (Neil MacGregor) and, especially for younger readers, You are Stardust (Elin Kelsey and Soyeon Kim) and Big Questions from Little People (compiled by Gemma Elwin Harris).

Friday, April 19, 2013

Harvest by Jim Crace

Harvest is an atmospheric novel set in a remote English village during the time of the land clearances. The crofters count back generations on the land, exchanging with the landowner their labour for their share of the harvest. Author Jim Crace employs the distinctive gentle voice of Walter Thirsk, a relative newcomer to the area, who arrived only about a dozen years earlier and then married Cecily, a local woman.

"I wooed her by working at her elbow in her fields, attending to the hunger of her soil. My labour was an act of love. My unaccustomed muscles grew and ached for her. I put my shoulder to the plow for her. I became as tough as ash for her. I had no choice. The countryside is argumentative. It wants to pick a fight with you."

Violence comes from people, not from the land. Strangers arrive and everything is turned upside down over a span of just a few days.

The vivid setting, poetic prose and memorable characters make Harvest a remarkable gateway into another time and place. It is a way of life that is about to be altered irrevocably.

Readalikes: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (although Harvest is less than a third the length of Wolf Hall).

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker is a love story that takes place in Burma, set partly in 1930s and partly in modern times. Julia Win's father is a lawyer who became an American citizen in 1959. Many decades later, he disappears from his New York home. After finding a clue in an old love letter, Julia decides to go looking for him in the country where he was born.

It's been a long time since I really hated a book, but this is one that I disliked more and more as I got into it. I skimmed through large parts of it rather than giving up entirely because I'm going to hear the author speak at Booktopia in Bellingham in June.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats was translated from German by Kevin Wiliarty. Another translation would not have pleased me any better. It's Sendker's overblown prose style that annoyed me most.

Julia is the only guest at the hotel in the northern town of Kalaw. As she waits for her breakfast -- the waiter "had never heard of cornflakes" -- Julia was uncomfortable in the silent dining room.

"I was not accustomed to this kind of quiet. [...] The place oppressed me. I found it increasingly eerie and wondered if it was possible to turn up the silence in the same way one could turn up the volume. As if in response to my question, the stillness intensified with each passing moment until it hurt my ears and became unbearable."

The way Julia learns about her father's past is through stories told by a stranger she encounters in a tea house in Kalaw. It's a love story that survives a lifetime of separation. For an extra helping of pathos, the young couple are Tin Win, who is newly blind, and Mi Mi, who is crippled and therefore moves about on all fours.

"There was nothing bestial or humiliating in the way she crawled. She wore only the most beautiful self-woven longyis, and although she slid across the filthy floor in them, they were never unpresentable. When she moved, gingerly placing one hand, one knee in front of the other, she radiated such dignity that people at the market would step aside and treat her with great respect."

"Tin Win realized that leaves, like human voices, each had their own characteristic timbre. Just as with colours, there were shades of rustling. He heard thin twigs rubbing together and leaves brushing against one another. He heard individual leaves dropping lightly to the ground in front of him."

In another passage, "hundreds of blossoms withered at the sound" of cruel laughter.

It's all too sappy for me, unfortunately.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Unfamiliar Fishes is Sarah Vowell's highly personal history of Hawaii, from first contact with Europeans to the political machinations which resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy and Hawaii's eventual statehood. Vowell goes off on many tangents along the way, such as anecdotes about her young nephew, Owen. If you prefer objective history and just the facts, this book is not for you. If you're in the mood for an entertaining overview, more travel-writing than history, then stick around and enjoy.
"The United States declared war on Spain in April of 1898. By August, the McKinley administration had invaded the Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam and annexed Hawaii. In this four-month orgy of imperialism, the United States became a world power for the first time -- became what it is now. [...] To Roosevelt and his likeminded cronies in the government and military, the most important objective of all the 1898 maneuvers was possession of far-flung islands for naval bases at strategic ports like Guantanamo and Honolulu's Pearl Harbor. He and his friends had pined for these bases for years the way a normal man envisions his dream house. All they ever wanted was a cozy little global empire with a few islands here and there to park a fleet of battleships."
The end of Hawaiian sovereignty was signalled by the arrival of American missionaries in the nineteenth century.
"All missions are inherently patronizing to the host culture. That's what a mission is. A bunch of strangers showing up somewhere to inform the locals they are wrong."
Vowell's three-minute book trailer on YouTube is illustrated with plates of food. It's a good example of Vowell's chatty style and sense of humour. It's also a good way to get a sense of the audiobook [Recorded Books: 7 hr 45 min] which is narrated by the author. Vowell's nasal tone takes some getting used to. The audio production also includes a lot of guest narrators who give voice to quotations. I found that rather disconcerting. I think the print version is probably a better bet than the audio.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell

Two sisters bury their reprobate parents in the garden at the start of Scottish author Lisa O'Donnell's fierce and funny first novel, The Death of Bees. The story is set in Glasgow and unfolds in three voices: Nelly is 12, Marnie is 15, and Lennie, their gay next-door neighbour, is 80.

Nelly: "My father, a loathsome, malignant type of a fellow, sat me on his lap in the nighttime. Said he loved me. Later I find him spent, stagnant, unclean, crumpled on an unmade bed. I find my pillow by his head and good golly Marnie had pushed it over his face. And a good ruddy riddance to you, Eugene Doyle."

Lennie: "Made contact with the other side. The youngest mostly. Nelly's her name. I like her. She's such a nice girl, beautifully spoken, smells of clean linen and vanilla, unlike the older one, possessing odours not quite belonging to someone so young in my opinion. Marnie's her name and a very direct young lady she is too. She asked immediately about my past.
'You a perv?' she asked. 'Cause everyone round here says you are.'
I told her the truth."

Marnie: "My guidance teacher Mrs. MacLeod said the only thing keeping me from the abyss of total delinquency is my gift for learning. Like Nelly I apparently possess qualities that she believes to be wasted on a girl 'so utterly destructive in temperament' -- she actually wrote that in my report -- meaning I smoke and drink and have abortions, actually one abortion, but still, I have an A average that I maintain with little or no effort on my part and they despise me for it, mostly because they can't take credit for it; in other words intelligence should be the reward of the virginal nonsmokers of the world, not some morally corrupt teenager with dead junkies in her back garden."

The secrets start to get out of hand. Lennie looks after the girls as much as he can, but the whereabouts of Marnie and Nelly's parents becomes more of an issue as time goes on.

A side character that I liked a lot is one of Marnie's best friends, Kim, who is a dyke.

Lennie: "They're very hard on the lesbians, the straight men; gay men are just irritated by them. I found it amusing the way Kim talked to me, like we were gay comrades, like we were men almost."

Highly recommended.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King

Thomas King tackles history with ironic dark humour in The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. He has distilled the centuries since European contact into 266 very readable pages. The facts are heartbreaking, but King's conversational style is entertaining. The views of his wife Helen occasionally provide counterbalance, as in the following section.
"Land. If you understand nothing else about the history of Indians in North America, you need to understand that the question that really matters is the question of land.
Land has always been a defining element of Aboriginal culture. [...]
For non-Natives, land is primarily a commodity, something that has value for what you can take from it or what you can get for it.
Helen thinks that this is a gross generalization. She believes that there are all sorts of people in Canada who have a deep attachment to land that extends beyond the family cottage on the lake, and that there are Native people who have little connection to a particular geography. I don't disagree. Individuals can fool you, and they can surprise you. What I'm talking about here is North America's societal attitude towards land."
Another big issue is sovereignty.
"Each time the subject is brought up at a gathering or at a conference, a hockey game breaks out. To be honest, I'm reluctant to mention it. But if you're going to talk about Indians in contemporary North America, you're going to have to discuss sovereignty. No way around it."
Residential schools are a defining element of Aboriginal history in both Canada and the USA.
"In 1850, attendance at residential schools became compulsory for all children from the ages of six to fifteen. Non-compliance by parents was punishable by prison terms."
"In 1907, Dr. Peter Bryce submitted a report to Duncan Campbell Scott, the Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, which set the mortality rate for Native students in British Columbia at around 30 percent. The rate for Alberta was 50 percent. [...] Scott dismissed the high death rate at the schools, insisting that 'this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem.
Final solution. An unfortunate choice of words. Of course, no one is suggesting that Adolf Hitler was quoting Scott when Hitler talked about the final solution of the 'Jewish problem' in 1942. That would be tactless and unseemly. And just so we're perfectly clear, Scott was advocating assimilation, not extermination. Sometimes people get the two mixed up."
A few years after Bryce's report, the Department stopped keeping mortality figures for residential schools. Officials knew that health conditions and services were substandard, that disease was rampant, malnutrition was a problem, and that children were being physically, mentally, and sexually abused. They did nothing. For generations.
"A great many intelligent and compassionate people have called residential schools a national tragedy. And they were. But perhaps 'tragedy' is the wrong term. It suggests that the consequences of residential schools were unintended and undesired, a difficult argument to make since [...] the schools were national policy."
King's examples of contemporary injustices are also poignant. He calls a personal one "just another of those sharp shards of bigotry you find when you run your fingers across the Canadian mosaic." I was reminded of the hateful anti-Aboriginal comments I overheard in public earlier this year, during the Idle No More protests in Edmonton.

The Inconvenient Indian is highly recommended for anyone who wants to have a better understanding of White--Aboriginal relations in North America today. I particularly appreciated its provision of a coherent context for the many Aboriginal novels that I've enjoyed.

My suggestions for further reading include these novels:

Porcupines and China Dolls (Robert Arthur Alexie)
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (Sherman Alexie)
Three Day Road (Joseph Boyden)
Nobody Cries at Bingo (Dawn Dumont)
The Round House (Louise Erdrich)
Kiss of the Fur Queen (Tomson Highway)
Green Grass, Running Water (Thomas King)
Ravensong (Lee Maracle)
Monkey Beach (Eden Robinson)
The Lesser Blessed (Richard Van Camp)
Keeper 'n Me (Richard Wagamese)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Saga by Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples

Writer Brian Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples have created an engaging fantasy / science fiction adventure for adults in Saga. Against all odds, winged Alana and horned Marko are deeply in love. They met in prison where Alana was Marko's guard. When we meet this pair, at the start of this graphic novel series, Alana is giving birth in a garage. The new parents were soldiers from opposing sides in a longstanding intergalactic war. They and their baby daughter are on the run, pursued by various powerful forces that want them dead.

The characters, dialogue and setting are all fantastic. Saga has robot royalty, a spider-like alien assassin, a magical sword, a ghostly teenage babysitter cut off below the torso, a grease monkey in the form of an ape, and rocket ships that grow from trees. I'm really looking forward to volume 2, which is coming out in July 2013.

Readalikes: The Finder Library (Carla Speed McNeil); Fables (Bill Willingham et al).

NOTE added April 10: Apple has refused to carry Issue 12 of Saga on any of its platforms because of depictions of gay sex. See story on the Comics Beat website. I should have mentioned that the edition I reviewed, volume 1, is a paperback compilation of the first 6 issues. Issues 7 through 12 have been published (Image), but not yet compiled into volume 2.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey and Soyeon Kim

"You are stardust. Every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born."

Environmental educator Dr. Elin Kelsey believes in the importance of reminding human beings that we are a part of the natural world. You Are Stardust, Kelsey's picture book for young children, is illustrated with whimsical dioramas by Korean-born artist Soyeon Kim, who now lives in Toronto.

The text is brief, yet full of amazing scientific facts. "The water swirling in your glass once filled the puddles where dinosaurs drank." "Your breath is alive with the promise of flowers. Each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant." "Inside your brain, electricity stronger than lightning powers your every thought." "From your head to your toes, inside and out, billions of teeny microorganisms live on planet You."

This is science writing to inspire curiosity and awe in children. It's a beautiful thing!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret

Suddenly, A Knock on the Door is a collection of Etgar Keret's short, sharp and strange short stories. A trio of translators have made these poignant Israeli tales available to an English audience.

Most are only a few pages long and are about the average Joe, or Yosef, rather. Mundane life is knocked slightly askew with touches of the fantastic or surreal. There's always a little twist in the narrative, and I could never see it coming. They are like refreshing palate cleansers between reading other things.

You can see an excerpt from Keret's story Todd animated here. Very cool!

Readalikes: Anthropology (Dan Rhodes); The Elephant Vanishes (Haruki Murakami); and Kitchen (Banana Yoshimoto).

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits

The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits is a clever satire on pretentiousness of all kinds, but especially the absurdities in the field of paranormal psychology.

Julia Severn's mother committed suicide when Julia was a baby. Julia attends a psychic college where she possibly views a powerful figure there as a mother substitute. Madame Ackerman is a relentless investigator of past lives. A run-in with her does not end well for Julia.

Doped up to the eyeballs in order to deal with debilitating symptoms after she's been psychically attacked, Julia takes a job at a flooring company showroom in New York City.

"Despite its name the showroom showed very little save a clear Lucite desk, a jute rug -- a barbed and unkempt thing, woven of coconut shell fibers and resembling, because of its swirled weave, the hair that collects over a shower drain -- a red dial telephone, and me; as pedestrians walked by the plate glass that faced Park Avenue, I'd been instructed to hold the phone against my ear and move my lips. Because wires would have been visible behind the clear desk, the phone wasn't connected; nonetheless, when a person entered the showroom I was to speak in prescripted Arabic to a pretend customer calling from a state within the United Arab Emirates."

It is there that she meets Alwyn, another young woman who has issues with her mother. The two of them end up at a psychic treatment centre in Vienna.

Alwyn explains to Julia the "gist of a paper published by the Journal of Mental Science" that established a telepathic link between mothers and babies and proved that babies in orphanages [...] were twice as likely, by the age of three to exhibit psychic predilections.

'What I don't get is why I didn't develop any psychic abilities,' [Alwyn] said. 'My mother might as well have been dead for all I saw of her when I was little. Part of me suspects she must have read that article; she's so competitive, she probably spent just enough time with me to make sure I wouldn't develop powers that she hadn't developed herself.'

'I suppose that's possible,' I said. It sounded totally insane.

'My stepfather told me she tried to abort me.'


'She denied it when I confronted her. I'd deny it if I were her. It's curious, though, right? I mean obviously I'm curious. Why did she want to abort me? Maybe she did have some kind of ... power. Maybe she knew I'd grow up to disappoint her more than she disappointed herself.'

'I thought she was an internationally famous shampoo model,' I said.

'You say that so dismissively. She had iconic hair.'"

Meanwhile, Julia is having trouble following the rules at the treatment centre. Her therapist, Marta, warns Julia against unconscious psychic warfare.

"I promised Marta to engage in no unconscious warfare. I was innocent, at the time, of the lengths to which my unconscious would go to mock my inability to know my own warfare intentions."

The twisty plot revolves around a controversial filmmaker, Dominique Varga.

Alwyn's undergraduate dissertation "promised to show how Varga's portrayal of female exploitation and passivity (deemed 'masochistic' and 'viciously retrograde pornography' and 'satire without the satire' by her critics) could be construed as an antifeminist message that was, in fact, urgently feminist."

The Vanishers is quirky to the max and highly entertaining.

Readalikes: The Blondes (Emily Schultz); Where'd You Go, Bernadette (Maria Semple); and Doing Dangerously Well (Carole Enahoro).

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go is a mesmerizing novel about a Ghanian/Nigerian family in Boston. It's hard to believe that this is Selasi's first novel because it's so polished. It's such a pleasure to read. There's a story about Selasi in the Globe and Mail and I wasn't surprised to learn that she's a high-achiever. Just like her fictional characters.

We meet Kweku Sai first, a brilliant surgeon who abandoned his wife and four children decades earlier in the USA when he returned to live in Ghana. Kweku is in the midst of a heart attack.

"He knows -- as he stands here in wifebeater and MC Hammer pants, shoulder against sliding door, halfway slid open, sliding deeper into reverie, remembrance and re- other things (regret, remorse, resentment, reassessment) -- that's he's dying."

Kweku has never stopped loving them. Fola, his beautiful wife who gave up a law school scholarship to raise their family. Olu, their eldest son, equally talented in academics and athletics. Taiwo and Kehinde, the golden-eyed twins. Sadie, the youngest, born too soon: "her ten tiny fingers all curled up in hope, little fists of determination."

Each member of this family has been broken in their own way, although shame plays a large part in their troubles. Olu, an orthopedic surgeon, doesn't let the rest of his family know that he has married. Taiwo is floundering after losing her (married) lover and being kicked out of college. Kehinde is a famous artist and suicidal. The twins haven't spoken to each other in years. Sadie is bulimic and a closeted lesbian. Fola is sad and lonely once her children are all off on their own.

I especially appreciated the insights Selasi offers into the inner life of her characters. Fola, for example, who was 13 when her father was killed, sensed the "tone people took when they learned that her father had been murdered by soldiers; in the way that they'd nod as if, yes, all makes sense, the beginning of the Nigerian civil war, but of course. [...] She felt it in America when she got to Pennsylvania that her classmates and professors, white or black, it didn't matter, somehow believed that it was natural, however tragic, what had happened. That she'd stopped being Folasade Somayina Savage and had become instead the native of a generic War-Torn Nation. Without specifics."

Selasi's characters are not generic. I felt like I knew them well and was totally invested in them, grateful that Kweku's death presents the opportunity for the rest of them to heal.

(Side note: Kweku Sai is Ga. I learned that Ga coffins are spectacular creations: fish, shoes, birds, coke bottles, airplanes, chili peppers and more. Check out some images online.)

Monday, April 1, 2013

Sea Change by Jorie Graham

Philosophical nature poet Jorie Graham speaks out for our planet in Sea Change: Poems. Her words flow in a dreamy, stream-of-consciousness style.

"I was not a mistake is what my humanity thinks, I cannot / go somewhere / else than this body, the afterwards of each of these instants is just / another instant, breathe, breathe, / my cells reach out, I multiply on the face of the earth" ('Embodies')

Graham has an unusual and distinctive way of placing her words and lines on the page. Short and long lines balance from a centre point, reminding me of tides, and of our ecosystem's delicate balance. I'll try to replicate it here in an excerpt from 'Just Before:'

"- some felt it was freedom, or a split-second of unearthliness - but no, it was far from un-
                                                   earthly, it was full of
                                                   earth, at first casually full, for some millennia, then
desperately full - of earth - of copper mines and thick under-leaf-vein sucking in of
                                                  light, and isinglass, and dusty heat - wood-rings
                                                  bloating their tree-cells with more
life - and grass and weed and tree intermingling in the
                                                  undersoil - & the
                                                  earth's whole body round
                                                  filled with
                                                  uninterrupted continents of
                                                  burrowing - & earthwide miles of
                                                  tunnelling by the
mole, bark beetle, snail, spider, worm - & ants making their cross-
                                                  nationstate cloths of
                                                  soil, & planetwide the
                                                  chewing of insects upon leaf - fish-mouth on krill
                                                  the spinning of
coral, sponge, cocoon - this is what entered the pool of stopped thought - a chain suspended in
                                                  the air [...]"

I love how there are correspondences that connect many of the books I read. In this case, it's krill, which I've also encountered in a teen novel, a collection of short stories for adults, and a nonfiction audiobook about invertebrates, all within the past week or so. The teen protagonist in Jack Tumor says his mother was "completely lost by the horror of the killing-whales bit" of a joke he told her, "when we all should know that they are our brothers, and peace-loving Gentle Giants of the Ocean, even though nobody ever asked the krill what they thought about it." Karen Russell's Vampires in the Lemon Grove has a cheeky short story about the Food Chain Games from the point of view of krill fans: Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating. Sue Hubbell's Waiting for Aphrodite probably mentions krill somewhere too, but even if it doesn't, there is much about beetles, spiders, worms, coral, sponges and cocoons.

Like Hubbell, Graham reminds us that humanity's future on this planet is not guaranteed. These are lines from 'No Long Way Round,' the final poem in Sea Change:

"The dark / gathers. It is advancing but there is no / progress. It is advancing with its bellyful of minutes. It seems to chew as it / darkens. [...]
There are sounds the planet will always make, even / if there is no one to hear them." 

(That last bit reminds me of a song I haven't listened to in ages: Laurie Anderson's 'Blue Lagoon' from Mr. Heartbreak.)

Jorie Graham writes about the things that matter most. April is Poetry Month. Treat yourself.