Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Leaf Can Be... by Laura Purdie Salas and Violeta Dabija

A Leaf Can Be... picture book, authored by Laura Purdie Salas and illustrated by Violeta Dabija, celebrates the wonders of the natural world in rhyming text.

"A leaf can be a... / soft cradle / water ladle / sun taker / food maker"

Information at the end of the book elaborates on the many roles that leaves play in the environment. For example, explaining how certain kinds of caterpillars spin their cocoons on leaves, which then become like a cradle until the moth hatches.

"Water ladle: Animals don't use bowls or spoons or cups. But many drink out of leaves! Leaves' shape makes them perfect for holding dew or rainwater."

Moldovan illustrator Dabija combines traditional and digital techniques to create her luminous, whimsical art -- it's reminiscent of Jon Klassen's work. The rich colours and playful imagery are very appealing. (See more of Dabija's art online here.)

This delightful book is suitable for preschoolers but also nice for all ages.

Readalikes: Red Sings from Treetops (J Sidman and P Zagarensky); You Are Stardust (E Kelsey and S Kim); Gus Is a Tree (Claire Babin); and Ubiquitous (J Sidman and B Prange).

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley

First-time novelist Rhonda Riley has crafted a magical tale in The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope, narrated in the voice of Evelyn Hope.

"My husband was not one of us. He remains, after decades, a mystery to me. Inexplicable.
Sarah, our youngest daughter, sent me a photograph weeks ago, a full year since she moved to China with her husband, Jian, and their son, Michael. In it, her hair is glossy dark brown and straight. Her eyes are a deep brown as well, and the folds of her eyelids now suggest Asian ancestry. Her curly red hair and gold-flecked green Irish eyes are gone; in her new skin, she is her father's daughter. Lil, my daughter who lives with me now, insists that Sarah must have had plastic surgery and dyed her hair. She's puzzled and disappointed that her sister would take such measures to fit in where she now lives. But I know the truth."

This is all from the first page, so I'm not giving away too much. Adam Hope is most definitely not "one of us." Adam is not human. Shortly after the end of WWII, Evelyn pulls a body covered in mud from the red clay of her North Carolina farm. This being soon morphs into Evelyn's mirror image and the two become lovers.

Imagine Orlando (Virginia Woolf) and Every Day (David Levithan) and Camouflage (Joe Haldeman) and Patience and Sarah (Isabel Miller) all rolled into one. The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is an unusual and powerful story about otherness. I look forward to hearing Riley talk about her work at Booktopia in Bellingham in a couple of weeks.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Dotter of her Father's Eyes by Mary Talbot and Bryan Talbot

If you loved Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, read Dotter of her Father's Eyes. Mary and Bryan Talbot, a husband and wife team, have created a compelling graphic novel memoir of Mary's fraught relationship with her difficult father, James Atherton. Atherton was an eminent Joycean scholar and a teacher. Dotter of her Father's Eyes also explores contrasts and parallels between Mary's childhood and that of James Joyce's daughter, Lucia.

Bryan Talbot changes art styles to differentiate between time periods: full colour Tintin-style panels for contemporary scenes; freeform page design in sepia tones on textured paper for Mary's childhood and adolescence (at times reminiscent of David Small's Stitches); and inky washes of dark blue with black for the Joyce family's unsettled life in Paris in the 1920s and '30s. As a young woman, Lucia Joyce began to make a name for herself as a dancer, but her parents dismissed and discouraged her talent. (The dance scenes brought Sabrina Jones' graphic novel biography, Isadora Duncan, to mind.) Sadly, Lucia ended up in a mental institution.

Father-daughter relationships and the restricted options available to women before and immediately after the second world war are the two main subjects in this intriguing book. I loved it.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Tenth of December by George Saunders

George Saunders has already received so much praise for his masterful short stories that I hardly know what to add. His latest collection, Tenth of December, is a showcase for his energetic imagination. I love his life-affirming brand of surrealism. His stories are funny, dark and unsettling, but also tender, and very understanding of human foibles.

Saunders is also known for his stylistic innovation, so I'll give a few examples.

In The Semplica Girl Diaries, a father of three attempts to keep up with his more prosperous neighbours by acquiring an outrageous landscaping fad; live girls on display. It's written in the form of a daily journal.

"Note to self: Try to extend positive feelings with Scratch-Off win into all areas of life. Be bigger presence at work. Race up ladder (joyfully, w/smile on face), get raise. Get in best shape of life, start dressing nicer. Learn guitar?"

In Tenth of December, a man dying of cancer interrupts his suicide plans to rescue a child with a hyperactive imagination. The close third-person point of view shifts between the man and the boy. This is the child:

"He came out of the woods now to the prettiest vista he knew. The pond was a pure frozen white. It struck him as somewhat Switzerlandish. Someday he would know for sure. When the Swiss threw him a parade or whatnot."

In Victory Lap, a boy considers whether or not to disobey his parents' strict injunctions against interfering in someone else's business, when it appears that his neighbour is being kidnapped. Again, point of view alternates and we start in the mind of a teen girl, imagining she's descending a marble staircase, catching the eye of some adorable guy:

"Had he said, Let us go stand on the moon? If so, she would have to be like, {eyebrows up}. And if no wry acknowledgment was forthcoming, be like, Uh, I am not exactly dressed for standing on the moon, which, as I understand it, is super-cold?"

Several of the stories imagine a future with drugs tailored for every situation. Nostalgic theme parks are settings Saunders has used in his earlier collections, including Civilwarland in Bad Decline. Both feature in  My Chivalric Fiasco. where Ted, a historical interpreter, receives a hit of 'KnightLyfe' to help him get into his role.

"Martha: Ted. You okay?
To which I made Reply: Verily, I have not been Well, but Distracted & Remiss; but presently am Restored unto Myself, and hereby do make Copious Apology for my earlier Neglect with respect to Thee, dear Lady.
Martha: Easy there, Ted."

These stories are all fabulously entertaining. Enjoy.

Readalikes: Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Karen Russell); Pretty Monsters (Kelly Link); and Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (Zsuzsi Gartner).

Friday, May 24, 2013

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park is a love story for readers (like me) who don't usually like romance. Author Rainbow Rowell has reminded me why I keep turning to YA fiction. In no time at all, I was emotionally engaged with her teen misfits, Eleanor and Park. They sit together on the bus on their way to school and bond over their shared interest in comics and alternative music.

The viewpoint alternates between Park and Eleanor and, in the audiobook edition [St Martin's Griffin: 9 hours], narrators Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra take turns. It is an excellent collaboration. (Malhotra also performed Behind the Beautiful Forevers.)

The story is set in the 1980s in Omaha. Eleanor is the new kid in her final year at school. She's a chubby redhead with an unique taste in thrift store clothes. Her stepfather is scary abusive and her large family is dirt poor. Park and his brother are the only Asian kids in their white neighbourhood. He's afraid that being kind will make him a target for bullies. Park's father, an army veteran, also has expectations that Park cannot meet. When Rowell tours to talk about this book, she says she is often asked "Why is Park half Korean?" (Follow the link to learn the answer.)

My heart went out to both of these young people. It broke a little at the end, but in a good way. You know what I mean? It's a fabulous book.

Readalike authors: John Green; KL Going; Mariko Tamaki; Jacqueline Woodson; Sara Zarr.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

"What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?"

That's the premise in Kate Atkinson's thought-provoking novel, Life After Life. Ursula Todd is born on a snowy February night in 1910... over and over. Sometimes her life is very short and sometimes it is long, but she always starts back at the same beginning, in the same English family. Nebulous wisps of her previous lifetimes remain with Ursula, overlaid like a palimpsest. In every life, we make choices. Is it possible to always choose correctly? What if you had the opportunity to prevent World War II? Would you do it?

It was serendipitous that I chose to read this while I also had A Tale for the Time Being audiobook on the go. Both novels play the concept of time, so perhaps less surprising is that they both bring Marcel Proust's work into their narratives. (In Life After Life, Ursula's 'shelter book' during the London blitz in 1940 is Du cote de chez Swann.) We all want to know where the time goes. How intriguing it would be to manipulate time to our advantage!

Readalikes: A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki); Blackout and All Clear (Connie Willis); The Time Traveler's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger); I Killed Adolf Hilter (Jason); and When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead).

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A ziplocked plastic bag is found washed onto a beach in Desolation Sound in British Columbia in Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being. The bag contains a carefully protected collection of items, including some letters; an art deco watch; a contemporary diary written in Japanese by a suicidal 16-year-old girl and concealed inside the covers of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu; and a much older journal written in French by a Japanese soldier. The finder, Ruth -- it's a novel, but yes, her name is the same as the author's and her occupation is also the same -- becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to the people connected with the journals.

Buddhism, bullying, war, 9/11, the Tohoku tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, the connections between writers and readers, quantum physics -- Ozeki covers a lot of topics while sustaining a compelling, character-based narrative. I especially loved getting to know Nao, the Japanese school girl, as well as her 104-year-old great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun.

I listened to the delightful audiobook [Blackstone: 14 hrs] recorded by the author, who mentions in the afterword that she always reads her work aloud as part of her writing process. In a tale that plays with the nature of time itself, it is no accident that Nao sounds like 'now.'

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck

Swedish author Karin Tidbeck translated her own work in Jagannath, her first English language collection of short stories. They fall into the broad category of speculative fiction, and often include elements of nordic folklore. The stories are unsettling, yet at the same time gentle. They have a mysterious quality, seemingly pulled out of dreams.

In some of the stories, a parent or relative is of the faerie realm. In Brita's Holiday Village, uncanny things happen during the off-season. In both Cloudberry Jam and Miss Nyberg and I, a sort of child or creature is grown from plant materials. A man falls in love with a zeppelin in Beatrice; this one reminded me of one of Kurt Vonnegut's stories, Jenny, about a man's relationship with a refrigerator.

Tidbeck's stories are eerie marvels, as invigoraing as a brisk morning with the scent of pine in the air.

Readalikes: Black Juice and Red Spikes (Margo Lanagan); Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Karen Russell); Pretty Monsters (Kelly Link).

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman

Sri Lankan author Ru Freeman's A Disobedient Girl takes place in two different time periods during the bitter civil war in her home country. Alternating storylines eventually entwine into a single satisfying conclusion.

One centers on a mistress and servant relationship in Colombo. Latha and Thara, two girls the same age, have been friends since Latha, an orphan, was brought at age 4 into Thara's family home to be a servant. As the girls grow into their teens, the inherent inequity of their situation causes friction.

The other storyline centers on Biso, a mother escaping from her abusive husband, travelling with her three young children from the south of the island to relatives in the hill country.

I spent four months in Sri Lanka when I was 18. Freeman's atmospheric details brought back fond memories of milk rice, wood apples, king coconuts, string hoppers and spicy sambols. The dome-shaped dagoba shrines, sacred offerings of flowers and incense, and Buddhist celebrations held every full moon. The astounding beauty of this tropical island, which I last saw in 1979... which was before violence devastated so many people's lives there.

The war stays very much in the background in A Disobedient Girl. This fascinating character-driven novel is about love and betrayal, tragedy and redemption. Very rewarding.
Canada World Youth Sri Lanka exchange 1978/1979.
I'm in the middle in the bottom row.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

Set in rural England in 1831, Nell Leyshon's The Colour of Milk is a journal in the fierce voice of a fifteen-year-old narrator who has just learned her letters. Mary is the youngest of four daughters on a farm. In spite of being born lame, she is the only one in her family who is always in good cheer. Her constant chatter does not sit well with her dour parents, but Mary works just as hard as her sisters.

"this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand."

"i want to tell you what it is that happened but i must be ware not to rush at it like the heifers at the gate for if i do that i will get ahead of my self so quick that i will trip and fall and anyway you will want me to start where a person ought to.

and that is at the beginning."

The event that Mary records in her own hand begins when she is sent to be a servant at the nearby vicarage. I was captivated by her voice and immersed in her life right through to the shocking finish. The story is short (under 200 pages) and unforgettable.

Readalikes: Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks); Alias Grace (Margaret Atwood); and Harvest (Jim Crace).

The Colour of Milk is an adult novel (suitable for age 15 and up), but the character Mary reminded me of Meggy, the sharp-tongued (and much grumpier) disabled character in a children's book, Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman. Cushman has other historical novels for young people that would enjoyable for adult readers, including Catherine Called Birdy and The Midwife's Apprentice.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Americus by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill

When Christian fundamentalist unite to have a popular fantasy series banned from a small town Oklahoma library, a shy teenager finds the courage to stand against them in Americus, a graphic novel by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill. As happened with the Harry Potter books in real life, the Apathea Ravenchilde series is being challenged on the grounds that it promotes witchcraft. (And witches are girlfriends of the devil, don't you know!) Neil and his best friend Danny are both big fans of the Apathea novels.

Danny's mother is the one who spearheads the campaign against the books. In a heated exchange at the supper table, she tells him, "Everything I do is to protect you from the people who want to put your soul in jeopardy -- the damn liberals, the atheists and gays..." Danny leaps to his feet to exclaim, "Damn it, Mom! I'm gay!" There is major fallout after this declaration, as you might expect.

But before all that, on the night of Neil and Danny's graduation from Grade 8, there's the principal's speech. In addition to being hilarious, it reveals a certain mindset within the community.

"I remember a day, not so long ago, when you parents first brought your young boys and girls here to Americus Middle School. That day we began to fill their empty brains with knowledge, teach them obedience, and burn into their minds respect for God and country. But tonight, we open our doors to push these fledgling birds from the nest so that they can be transformed into beautiful butterflies ready to build a better future for tomorrow and defend our nation against all its enemies. As our little pioneers settle the new frontier of McGraw-Coyne High School this fall, they will bring with them the game plan for success. They will emerge from our locker room of education ready to tackle any rushing based offense, block any tight end, recover their fumbles, and turn life's fourth downs into touchdowns, complete with two-point conversions, and by saying no to drugs and yes to Jesus, they will all be winners. Our future parents, teachers, farmers, soldiers, businessmen, pastors, and athletes all sit before you tonight, preparing to soar majestically like our great eagles that symbolize our nation's greatness..."

Scenes from Apathea Ravenchilde are interspersed throughout the book, providing insight into the actual contents of the much-discussed series. Aspects of it -- dragons with the ability to shapeshift into human form, a heroine who has larger things on her mind than the gossiping girls around her -- brought to mind Rachel Hartman's Seraphina. 

There are gossipy teens in the contemporary storyline, as well as some sassy girls who demonstrate to Neil how to stand up for themselves. In his Grade 9 shop class, there are only two girls. On the first day, the teacher walks in saying, "Quit screwing around, take your seats and shut your traps. This is industrial arts, not home ec. This is where you boys are gonna to learn how to be men." Stacey puts up her hand. "Mr. Geary, what about me an' Amber?" He answers, "This is where you'll learn you don't need men." "Cool." is Amber's response. Took the words right out of my mouth.

Of course there's a great librarian character, too. Charlotte is a valiant defender of intellectual freedom.

Jonathan Hill's clean, swoopy black and white art reminds me of newspaper cartoons like Family Circus and Dennis the Menace. I enjoyed Americus very much.

Readalike: Friends with Boys (Faith Erin Hicks).

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Shore Girl by Fran Kimmel

By the time Rebee Shore turns 21, she has lived in almost every part of Alberta. Calgary author Fran Kimmel uses multiple voices to present a heartbreaking portrait of a lonely girl and her enigmatic mother. It starts with Rebee at age two, left alone in a hotel room.

Rebee is a memorable character, stoic yet fragile, and pretty much raising herself. She and her mother often live out of their van. The pair touch the hearts of other solitary people as they pass through their lives. Rebee's greatest hope is for a real home, somewhere to stay for longer than a few months. I was rooting for her all the way.

The Shore Girl is on the shortlist of the Alberta Readers' Choice Award. Voting ends on May 17 and right now I'm torn between this book and Bowling's The Tinsmith.

Readalikes: Girlchild (Tupelo Hassman); Lullabies for Little Criminals (Heather O'Neill); and The Lesser Blessed (Richard Van Camp).

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Tinsmith by Tim Bowling

The first part of Edmonton author Tim Bowling's The Tinsmith is set in the midst of the 1862 battle at Antietam during the American Civil War. Dr Anson Baird performs one surgery after another under primitive conditions. It was unrelentingly gruesome and I would have stopped reading except that Bowling's In the Suicide's Library was one of my favourite books last year. It took a little while, but once The Tinsmith sucked me in, I couldn't put it down.

Intrigue is introduced in the person of a young man dressed in an ill-fitting Yankee uniform. John spends many hours carrying wounded men to medical assistance. He is an escaped slave with very light skin, hiding in plain sight, and Anson helps him out.

John's backstory is revealed slowly over through the course of the novel. Twenty years after the war, he  is operating a salmon canning factory on the banks of the Fraser River in British Columbia. When trouble comes calling in the form of unscrupulous businessmen, John asks his old friend Anson for help once again.

Bowling is a master wordsmith. With its memorable characters, vivid settings and somber plot, I know the The Tinsmith will haunt me. It is currently one of the five finalists for the Alberta Readers' Choice Awards.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is narrative nonfiction that's as compelling as a novel. The large cast of characters are all real people, respectfully portrayed. Journalist Katherine Boo spent four years interacting with the residents of Annawadi, a small slum adjacent to the Mumbai International Airport and surrounded by luxury hotels. A brief video clip of the place can be seen online in this book trailer.

At my Two Bichons book group last night, we talked about this heartbreaking work. A couple of members found it too depressing to get all the way through, but the rest of us were riveted by the lives of these people. Gowda's The Secret Daughteralso set in a Mumbai slum, is a book our group discussed two years ago. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is infinitely superior.

I recommend the Random House audiobook narrated by Sunil Malhotra.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

Ever since reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, I've been delighted whenever neurologist Oliver Sacks has a new book out. Hallucinations are the intriguing topic of his latest.

"Many cultures regard hallucination, like dreams, as a special privileged state of consciousness -- one that is actively sought through spiritual practices, meditation, drugs, or solitude. But in Western culture, hallucinations are more often considered to portend madness or something dire happening to the brain -- even though the vast majority of hallucinations have no such dark implications."

In the introduction, Sacks describes the work "as a sort of natural history or anthology of hallucinations, describing the experiences and impact of hallucinations on those who have them, for the power of hallucinations is only to be understood from first person accounts."

I especially enjoyed reading about Sacks' own experiences with the phenomenon of seeing, hearing or smelling things that are not there. In the chapter on altered states, he writes about experimenting on himself with various drugs in the 1960s.

Sensory deprivation, migraines and epilepsy are some of the other causes of hallucinations that Sacks explores. Fascinating stuff!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado

Set amid the French expats in New York City in the early 1940s, Ania Szado's Studio Saint-Ex stars a fictional young fashion designer in a love triangle with Antoine de Saint-Exupery and his tempestuous bisexual wife, Consuela. Saint-Exupery was writing The Little Prince at the time. Mignonne Lachapelle, daughter of a French father and Canadian mother, was smarting from the injustice of having the designs from her final college project stolen by her instructor, but Mignonne continued to create.

In the afterword, Canadian author Szado writes that she based the following scene (in Mignonne's voice) on something that a real designer, Valentina Schlee, did at around the same time.
One of Valentina Schlee's iconic creations
'Madame announced, "Allow me to present the first item in my Butterfly Collection."
"Very glamorous for a red carpet entrance," I said, "and a dramatic departure in your limousine."
Binty watched dispassionately. Consuelo was rapt, Madame anxious.
When I was sure Consuelo had taken her fill of the heavy detailing, I slipped off the jacket and placed it on the remaining empty armchair. Now I was wearing only the black blouse and the long velvet skirt.
"Perfect for an elegant evening with your husband," I said.
Consuelo put her fingers together in a steeple and smiled from behind them as I rolled my hips to catch the light in the velvet pile.
Then in one smooth motion, I pulled the blouse straight off, over my head, and dropped it onto the chair. "Or a special evening with someone else's husband." I twirled in the velvet skirt and my sleek black corselet.'
Isn't this Valentina
cap adorable?
Flash forward to Expo 1967 in Montreal, which took the title of Saint-Exupery's Terre des hommes. Mignonne introduces a retrospective of her now-famous work. "It all began at an interesting time. The world was at war. On the fashion front, France was suddenly missing from the global scene. So the American industry was slapped into being -- and it was slippery as any newborn, complete with awkward parts that couldn't be steamed."

I didn't notice any awkward parts in Studio Saint-Ex. It is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of interesting people, both real and fictional. It also prompted me to dream one night that I was hand stitching a garment, and to look up images of Valentina's work, since she was mentioned in the novel.

Readalikes: The Big Why (Michael Winter); The Paris Wife (Paula McLain); and Z (Therese Fowler). An obvious companion read is The Little Prince; I like the graphic novel adaptation by Joann Sfar. Readers who want more on fashion will enjoy Linda Grant's collection of essays, The Thoughtful Dresser.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Being Henry David by Cal Armistead

A teen wakes up in a train station in New York City with no idea who he is or how he got there. He finds a paperback copy of Henry David Thoreau's Walden beside him and a crumpled $10 bill in his pocket. That's the opening scene in Cal Armistead's debut YA novel, Being Henry David.

The boy's search for his identity takes him to Concord, Massachusetts, where he meets a research librarian who rides a Harley. "He pulls up the right sleeve of his green T-shirt to show me the tattoo of a cobra, coiled and ready to strike. Except that it's wearing a pair of black-rimmed glasses just like Thomas's, and above the snake is one word in fancy gothic lettering: Bookworm."

You gotta love cool librarian characters like that! I have a snake tattoo (without glasses) on my arm too but I've never owned a motorcycle and I'm too quiet to be cool.

My snake tattoo
Being Henry David is a compelling, character-driven story. A good companion book would be the graphic novel Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino.

Readalikes: Trouble (Gary Schmidt); Tom Finder (Martine Leavitt); and Blink and Caution (Tim Wynne-Jones).

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin

Sixteen-year-old Garnet Richardson is spending the summer at a Minnesota lakeside resort when she falls in love with Isabella, a dancehall girl. Molly Beth Griffin's Silhouette of a Sparrow isn't a typical YA coming out story because it is set in 1926, the flapper era.

I appreciated Griffin's vivid depiction of time and place. Even better is Garnet's unique hobby. Because her mother considers Garnet's interest in ornithology unladylike, Garnet keeps paper and scissors in her pocket instead of binoculars and a birding record journal. She quickly snips out silhouettes of the birds she sees. Each chapter is given the title of a bird (including latin name) and illustrated with its silhouette. The effect is lovely.

Silhouette of a Sparrow is a sweet, quick, interesting read.

Readalikes: A Northern Light (Jennifer Donnelly); Good Moon Rising (Nancy Garden).

Birds inspire me to create art also. My two pieces below are done with a simple linocut printing technique.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Unterzakhn by Leela Corman

Twin sisters Fanya and Esther Feinberg grow up in a working class neighbourhood of early 20th century New York City in Leela Corman's Unterzakhn. The title of this evocative graphic novel means "underthings" in Yiddish, and women's undergarments feature throughout. Mrs. Feinberg runs Zilber Corset and Foundation shop. Corman's reproduction of an ad circa 1910 is for corsets that lace in front -- women don't need servants to lace these up, a sign that times are changing.

In the opening scene, a woman lies bleeding on the sidewalk and young Fanya is sent for Bronia, the "lady doctor." Later, Fanya has a conversation with a woman who sells pickles in the street. Fanya is told, "That Bronia, she's a pritze. You stay away from her and you'll be better off." Fanya asks, "What's a pritze?" but the woman cuffs her on the head and sends her off. "Not a word for little girls! Now gey a veg!"

The text is full of Yiddish, but it's pretty easy to figure out the meaning through context. The New York accent is in the dialogue too. Fanya has an Italian friend, Sal, who has something to show her. "It's a oyster shell. The shiny stuff is called 'muddapoil'."

Fanya and Esther take different paths into their futures, which are represented on the front and back endpapers. The front double-spread shows fancy corsets, silk stockings and a lacy camisole hanging on a line. Plain slips, bloomers and socks hang from the laundry line across the back endpapers.

Corman's black and white art brings the era to life. Unterzakhn is moving story with memorable characters. I loved it.

Graphic novel readalikes: The Contract with God Trilogy (Will Eisner) for more stories of Jewish immigrants in NYC; Bluesman (Rob Vollmar & Pablo Callejo) for a similar time period but set in the American South; Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi) for another story of women's lives constrained by culture and politics; and Mercury (Hope Larson) half of which is set in mid-19th century Nova Scotia.

Friday, May 3, 2013

My Book of Life by Angel (by Martine Leavitt)

Martine Leavitt's My Book of Life by Angel is inspired by true crime and set in Vancouver's seedy Downtown Eastside before the infamous serial killer Robert Pickton was captured and convicted, but Leavitt's characters are purely fictional. They know that women have been disappearing and that the police appear to be doing little about it.

Angel is a 16-year-old prostitute and this is her journal, written in verse. She has a regular john who pays her to read to him from Milton's Paradise Lost. Lines from Milton are interspersed throughout: "Innocence, that as a veil had shadowed them from knowing ill, was gone..."

I had high expectations because I have enjoyed Leavitt's earlier work, especially Keturah and Lord Death. I also love verse novels and gritty YA. For a book about prostitution, drug addiction, family dysfunction and a serial killer, My Book of Life by Angel is surprisingly tame. Gritty enough for a 12- or 13-year-old reader, I suppose, but not for anyone who has read Ellen Hopkins' Crank.

A pimp, Call, first befriends Angel at a shopping mall, then gets her hooked on some kind of illegal drugs, which are only ever referred to as candy or sugar.

"And then Call said,
you wanna fly, Angel?
He said, you want candy for that sweet tooth of yours?

At first it was so fun, Call's candy,
and all the missing of Mom went away
and I was all
I'm so baby uptown
I'm so baby bless my soul
I'm so baby high heels
I'm so baby rock and roll."

Later, Angel quits cold turkey, refusing the drugs Call offers, even though it makes sex work harder to face. Her withdrawal symptoms over several days include vomiting "bits of stomach," a "bit of spleen," a "bit of liver," and finally, a "chunk of heart." I found this all a bit too precious. The scariest parts of the story are the johns, including one who viciously attacks Angel's neighbour on the stroll; a creepy baby dentist; and a corrupt "call me Daddy Dave" police officer.

My enthusiasm for this book is only lukewarm, but I do think that Angel is a great character. My Book of Life by Angel recently received the CLA Young Adult Book Award. It will be appreciated by teens (and adults) who prefer the safer end of gritty realism.