Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson

In Nalo Hopkinson's latest urban fantasy, Sister Mine, Makeda and Abby are twins with mixed heritage: demigod and human. They were born conjoined, but when they were separated, Abby got all the magic. At 24, Makeda decides it's time to put some distance between herself and her sister, so she finds her own place for the first time. She also finds that she just might have some serious mojo of her own.

I listened to the audiobook [Dreamscape: 11.5 hrs] narrated by Robin Miles, who also did Bulawayo's We Need New Names. I have a lot of respect for Miles' versatility, since these are such different stories, even though both are told in first person. Both books employ a lot of dialogue, mostly by Black characters of different backgrounds, expertly interpreted by Miles. She also conveyed Makeda's personality very well -- her jealousy, short temper and general impatience.

Sister Mine is packed with mythological references, shapeshifters and even a flying carpet... in Toronto, Ontario. There's a sexy guy who used to be a guitar... belonging to Jimi Hendrix. Makeda and Abby's mother has been turned into a sea monster. Their father's soul is possibly held in a kudzu vine named Quashee. Their extended family includes celestials like tricksy Uncle Jack... the grim reaper.

The sisters bicker too much for my liking, but they redeem themselves by being there for each other when it counts the most. There's lots of action and it's all great fun.

Readalike: Anansi Boys (Neil Gaiman).

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles De Lint

A brave and plucky orphan girl gets turned into a cat in The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles De Lint and illustrator Charles Vess. This fantasy novel is greatly expanded from a short story by the same duo, A Circle of Cats, published about 10 years ago.

The setting appears to be the southern Appalachians in the early twentieth century. Aspects of The Cats of Tanglewood Forest brought to mind Kate Atkinson's Life After Life and Patrick Ness' A Monster Calls, but this story is suitable for much younger audiences. Beautiful full-colour artwork and liberal borrowings from the Brothers Grimm, Native American mythology and Uncle Remus tales make this a perfect family read-aloud choice.

Readalikes: The Old Country (Mordicai Gerstein); Tree Girl (T.A. Barron); and The Flint Heart (Katherine and John Paterson).

Friday, June 28, 2013

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

In Ask the Passengers, 17-year-old Astrid Jones could be the poster child for 'questioning' in the multiple choice list that is GLBTQ (or similar). It isn't that Astrid doesn't recognize her mutual attraction to another girl, it's that she resists being defined by a category. A.S. King's latest book is the most realistic depiction of identity confusion I've encountered yet.

Astrid reluctantly agrees to join her queer friends in their plan to sneak into a nearby town's gay bar in the chapter 'It Is Way Too Easy to Get into Atlantis.'

"Looking confident and looking twenty-one are two entirely different things. [...] At first I was scared the bouncer might say, 'Sorry, kids, I need ID,' but then I realized that would be fine. Then we could go home. Kristina could go back to meeting Donna at McDonald's or the parking lot out by Freedom Lake and double-dating with Justin and Chad on Fridays like always, and I could go back to keeping my secret love for Dee stowed away in the deepest regions of my baffled heart."

The Jones family is dysfunctional to the max, but King manages to portray Astrid's sister and parents as broken human beings, rather than one-dimensionally horrible.

Astrid doesn't feel safe giving her love to the people in her life, so she spends her free time lying on a picnic table in her back yard, sending her love up to the people in airplanes overhead. Vignettes in the viewpoint of random passengers are interspersed throughout the story. The juxtaposition of their problems and preoccupations with Astrid's similar woes makes Ask the Passengers even more appealing. I was reminded of King's deft use of multiple points of view in one of her earlier novels, Please Ignore Vera Dietz.

The final passenger is a teenager being sent to a gay conversion camp. I thought of her when I heard the good news that Exodus International would be closing, the director apologizing for the harm the ex-gay group has done to gay people.

There's a lot of other great stuff in Ask the Passengers, like Astrid's enthusiasm for Greek philosophy and the bizarre relationship between Astrid's mother and Astrid's best friend. I loved this book so much that I hugged it before putting it down whenever my reading was interrupted. It is tender, honest and moving. Astrid is in my heart now.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Abelard by Regis Hautiere and Renaud Dillies

Abelard looks like a graphic novel for kids because of the big-eyed anthropomorphic characters. It isn't. Regis Hautiere (scenario) and Renaud Dillies (art) have created a whimsical tale for adults about friendship and the value in living a life filled with gratitude.

Abelard is a long-legged boy-chick who lives in a marsh where there are few women, in a fictional early twentieth-century Eastern Europe. A brief encounter with a bird-girl leaves him besotted and determined to win her affection. Abelard is given dubious advice: "To seduce a gal like Eppily, you got to offer her the moon. Or, at the very least, a bouquet of stars."
"Nobody's innocent!" says Gaston.

Being a total innocent, Abelard decides to travel to America, where he's heard that flying machines have been invented. He hopes to get to the moon in one. I almost gave up on the book at this point, because it seemed rather too sentimental for my taste. Luckily, I didn't, because things picked up after about 30 pages. Abelard encounters many obstacles on his journey, including being severely assaulted for being perceived as a "faggot" and a "poet." A grumpy man-bear named Gaston becomes Abelard's unlikely friend.

While travelling with Gypsies, Abelard consults Madame Zaza.
Dillies' dark contour lines and brushy stroke style can be seen here.
It was fun to find jokes slipped into the illustrations, like the Gypsy clairvoyant who advertises extra lucidity. There's a dead leaf with a note: "God rest its soul." There are two road signs pointing in opposite directions: "Towards America" and "Towards America Too (But It's Farther)."

This charming fable, translated from French by Joe Johnson, is suitable for Grade 9 to adult.

Readalikes: Good-bye, Chunky Rice (Craig Thompson); Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (Eric Shanower and Skottie Young); Robot Dreams (Sara Varon); Bone (Jeff Smith); The Little Prince Graphic Novel (Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Johann Sfar); and Set to Sea (Drew Weing).

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Summer We Got Free by Mia McKenzie

A stranger comes to town and then all kinds of secrets come bubbling to the surface in Mia McKenzie's Lambda award-winning The Summer We Got Free.

The Delaney family has lived in the same house on Radnor Street in west Philadelphia for decades. In 1950, George and Regina Delaney, 6-year-old Sarah, and 4-year-old twins, Ava and Geo, were immediately welcomed into the church on their block from the first day in the neighbourhood. Something major happened after that. By 1976 the Delaneys are shunned by everyone and the grown daughters still live at home. The story shifts back and forth between the 50s and the mid-70s.

Helena, the long-lost sister of Ava's husband Paul, arrives at the Delaney house unexpectedly.

"When Helena crossed the threshold into the house, Ava felt the temperature rise. The chill that had held in the corners since the previous night's rain, that had penetrated the wood floors and clung to the gray-red wallpaper like an invisible frost, melted away in a moment. Ava felt it instantly, a sudden warming on her skin, as if she had just left the shade and was out into the sun on a hot day."

When Ava was a girl, there was something about her that enchanted other people. She was a gifted artist from a young age, and she was wild and fearless. Her unfetteredness was peculiar and yet appealing:

"Up close, the good feelings Ava inspired had been doubled, tripled in some cases. Grace Kellogg found that the little girl's laugh somehow reminded her of the pajamas she had worn as a child -- thick, feet-in pajamas that had kept her warm in the drafty house her family had lived in for many years. Looking into Ava's eyes, Jane Lucas remembered the smile of her love, her young husband, who had died in the war. When Ava tripped and fell over the edge of the rug while running by at full speed, Chuck Ellis lifted her up and in that moment he was sure he smelled morning, though it was six in the evening at the time."

In 1976, Ava is a hollow husk. A line from one of Mary Oliver's poems made me think of Ava:

"sometimes a person just has to break out and act like the wild and springy thing one used to be. It's impossible not to remember wild and want it back." (From Green, Green Is My Sister's Home in A Thousand Mornings.)

Once Ava starts remembering, it can't be stopped. Everyone in her family seems to shake off the spell they've been under. It's a wonderful thing to witness. Ghosts, secret gay and lesbian lives, and unsolved murders are all part of this intriguing story about stepping into our true selves. I loved it.

The smart and scrappy Mia McKenzie has created an activist blog Black Girl Dangerous. Check it out.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Darling, 10 years old at the start of NoViolet Bulawayo's debut novel We Need New Names, is a unique and unsentimental narrator. I really enjoyed hearing her voice performed by Robin Miles in the audiobook format [Hachette Audio: 9 hrs].

The first part of the book is set in the turbulent times following the independence of Zimbabwe. Darling's family has been displaced and lives in a shantytown called Paradise. She and other children go on guava raids to a richer nearby community, Budapest, in order to assuage their constant hunger.

I'm fond of novels for adults that have child narrators, especially when they are done as well as this one. I can imagine the heat when Darling describes it: "the sun ironed us and ironed us and ironed us." She is asked to hold a baby with a surprised look on its face, as if he had "just seen the buttocks of a snake."

Later, Darling goes to live with her aunt in Detroit. Her ferocity increases in the second half of the book as Darling recounts her teen years. I've never before encountered the words "we smiled" written to contain so much anger. Darling, like other immigrants, struggles to find an identity that fits, and to feel at home. She describes that uncomfortable place of being between two worlds. She is no longer considered Zimbabwean by those she left behind, but she isn't American either. Darling wonders what America is for, if you can't fulfill your dreams there.

We Need New Names is expanded from Bulawayo's short story, 'Hitting Budapest,' that won the Caine Prize for African writing. The episodic style of the novel lends itself well to being read a little at a time, in chapter installments. I was so attracted to Darling's voice, however, that I gulped it down quickly.

Readalike: Ghana Must Go (Taiye Selasi). Contrast We Need New Names with Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (Alexandra Fuller), which gives a Caucasian child's point of view of Zimbabwe.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Calling Dr. Laura by Nicole J. Georges

Nicole Georges' memoir in comic strip format is sweetly endearing. In Calling Dr. Laura, Georges portrays her younger lesbian self in search of the truth about her father -- a man who had supposedly died when she was a baby. Along the way, she negotiates relationship minefields with her unpredictable mother and her surly girlfriend.
Georges' blended lesbian household includes an assortment of chickens
(kept outdoors, unless injured) and five dogs (sharing the bed here).
I learned new words from the cover of the book: 'zinester' (someone who creates zines), 'Portlandy' (of Portland) and 'femme gay' (a lesbian femme). These words aren't in the text, by the way. They are used by others to describe Georges, a lovable and multi-talented artist with retro sensibilities.

Fans of poultry will appreciate the details in the panels that include chickens. I smiled to see a speech balloon containing a small heart and an exclamation point: a chicken's response to being fed.
Interior scenes give a lovely sense of Georges' home.
Lots of black ink in the illustrations helps to set apart the later time frame from the earlier one.
Georges describes the time she used baked goods to lure a romantic interest into her home. "Chocolate peanut butter cups were a really popular item during this time, as they were the only fail-proof recipe in the vegan cookbook my Portland friends all owned. The book was from Canada, and had somehow gone awry in the conversion from metric. As a result, 'cookie bars' were hockey pucks, and brownies like biscuits. The peanut butter cups were a stroke of luck, delicious and unscathed." (The cookbook isn't named, but my guess is that it's likely How It All Vegan, by the tattooed, vintage-attired Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer.)
Flashbacks to Georges' childhood are done in a different, less realistic style with lots of white.
Nicole's much older sister is also a lesbian.
Georges' sister Liz did not have a good experience coming out to their mother. "'The verbal beating of my life,' as Liz recalls it. Liz and Mom stopped speaking shortly thereafter. I didn't imagine my coming out would go any better, and so... I didn't tell my mom." Secrets always make life difficult, however, and Georges eventually figures out how to deal with them.

Calling Dr. Laura is a heartfelt, funny and charming memoir.

Readalikes: Fun Home (Alison Bechdel); Likewise (Ariel Schrag); The Floundering Time (Katy Weselcouch); The Imposter's Daughter (Laurie Sandell); and Drinking at the Movies (Julia Wertz).

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

I was totally absorbed by the audiobook Arcadia by Lauren Groff [Recorded Books: 11 hrs]. It's narrated by Andrew Garman, who has a pleasantly unobtrusive manner. I only noticed that he tends to pronounce "t" like "d" as in Bid (Bit), Greda (Grete), Odo (Otto), graditude (gratitude), and stalwards (stalwarts).

Arcadia follows the life of an unusually small man, Ridley Sorrel Stone, 5 feet, 3 inches, born in the late 1960s. Most people call him Bit. He grew up in Arcadia, a hippie commune in New York State. This part made me think of Findhorn, an intentional community in Scotland, where I stayed for a short while.

The relationships, politics and spiritual beliefs that swirl around Bit in his childhood are absorbed in the context of his mother Hannah's mental illness. He is not just a quiet boy, he is voluntarily mute, and strongly influenced by Grimm's fairytales at a very young age.

Groff's language is delicious:

"The icicles in the window are shot with such light of dawn that Bit goes barefoot over the snow to pull one with his hand. Inside again, he licks it down to nothing, eating winter itself. The captured woodsmoke and sleepy hush and achingness of ice. His parents sleep on. All day, the secret icicle sits inside him, his own thing, a blade of cold, and it makes Bit feel brave to think of it."

The second half of the book jumps to Bit in adulthood. He is a successful photographer and university professor, raising a family in New York City. The final section is set in 2018.

Somewhere in the book, Groff describes a novel as "one full life enclosed in covers." That is exactly what you will find in Arcadia. It's complex, dark, and lovely.

Readalikes: Flower Children (Maxine Swann) and The Forrests (Emily Perkins).

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

First Spring Grass Fire by Rae Spoon

First Spring Grass Fire by Rae Spoon is one of those hard-to-categorize books: autobiographical fiction in the form of interlinked short pieces. Spoon is a transgender singer-songwriter who grew up with a schizophrenic father in a strict Pentecostal family in Calgary. Spoon's protagonist, also named Rae, rejects religion and finds a hard-won salvation through music in this poignant coming-out novel.

Spoon describes attending an immense Christian rally in the opening piece:

"Looking out over the crowd around the stage, [Billy Graham] exclaimed, with sweat pouring down his face and a tremor in his voice, that heaven was going to be exactly like this meeting, like church, only it would never end. It would go on for eternity. This was the beginning of doubt for me. I was nine years old and the best option that'd been presented to me was an eternity of Christian contemporary music. My mind was full of places in books where people didn't have to wait for the school bus with numb legs in the cold all week just to spend the weekends inside of a church imagining hellfire. I begged internally for the option of non-existence."

The way that landscape shapes our lives comes through in several of Spoon's stories:

"I couldn't run away from home in a city that was so expansive and cold. You could run for half an hour and not even get to the end of your own neighbourhood, and all of the neighbourhoods looked the same, so it didn't really feel like escaping at all. Instead I was trying hard to become nothing, eating only a granola bar during the day and then hardly anything for dinner."

The two dozen stories that make up First Spring Grass Fire hop scotch from young childhood into early adulthood. There are subtle connections between each vignette and a stronger link between the first and last piece, giving a graceful completeness to the work. Spoon's wry humour and lack of sentimentality add to the appeal. I liked this book very much.

Readalikes: One in Every Crowd by Ivan Coyote; What Night Brings (Carla Trujillo); This Is a Small Northern Town (Rosanna Deerchild); and Nobody Cries at Bingo (Dawn Dumont).

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Cooked by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan writes about learning to cook in his latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Since I love cooking and I enjoy Pollan's writing style, I was sure that Cooked would be a perfect fit for my reading taste. Perhaps my expectations were too high. I found it a little uneven; some parts were great, other sections less interesting.

I listened to the Penguin e-audio [13.5 hours], read by the author. His humble delivery is more enjoyable than that of Scott Brick, who narrated Pollan's The Botany of Desire.

Pollan's culinary experiences are broken down into four elements: fire, water, air and earth. Since the first part was all about barbecuing meat, and I'm a vegetarian, that probably accounts for my ambivalence. Air (about bread-making) and Earth (fermentation) were my two favourite sections, and both are in the second half of the book.

Passion is always a hook for me. Pollan doesn't just learn how to bake bread, he becomes obsessed with baking a perfect whole grain loaf. The chemistry and the biology involved. The social and cultural history. He interviews artisan bakers and tours a Wonder Bread factory. He investigates wheat varieties from ancient times to now. Sourdough starters, French levain, different kinds of yeast. The ways that flour milling has changed throughout history. I was fascinated.

The funniest and most thought-provoking content comes in the final chapter, which is about fermentation. I'm inspired to start making beet kvass again, a drink I used to always have on hand, since Pollan reminded me that naturally fermented foods are so beneficial. My top takeaway from this book, however, is that home cooking is vital to our health, our family relationships, and our environment.

Readalikes: Consider the Fork (Bee Wilson); Make the Bread, Buy the Butter (Jennifer Reese); The Art of Fermentation (Sandor Ellix Katz); Food and the City (Jennifer Cockrall-King); and Salt, Sugar, Fat (Michael Moss).

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson is chock-full of interesting information. By the time I'd finished reading the book, I'd flagged about 20 pages. The illustrations by Annabel Lee add a graceful note as well.

These are just a few of the things I learned:

"We no longer feel the need of cider owls and dangle spits, flesh-forks and galley pots, trammels, and muffineers, though in their day, these would have seemed no more superfluous than our oil drizzlers, electric herb choppers, and ice-cream scoops. Kitchen gizmos offer a fascinating glimpse into the preoccupations of any given society."

"The original curfew was a kitchen object: a large metal cover placed over the embers at night to contain the fire while people slept."

In "1823, Mary Eaton, a cookery writer, advised that the egg whites for a large cake would take three hours to beat adequately."

The Cuisinart "transformed how many people felt about spending time in the kitchen. It was no longer a place of drudgery -- a site of weary arms and downtrodden housewives. It was a place where you made delicious things happen at the flick of a switch."

Wilson writes about one of my favourite gadgets when she explains why it doesn't work to grate ginger on a nutmeg grater and vice versa. "If you need a tool to grate both spices (and zest lemon, and grate Parmesan), then forget tradition and buy a Microplane." I hadn't known the Microplane was a Canadian invention launched in 1994, and that the inspiration came when a housewife "borrowed one of her husband's wood rasps to grate the zest for an orange cake."

"A patent for Nicolas Appert's revolutionary new canning process was issued in 1812, and the first canning factory opened in Bermondsey, London, in 1813. Yet it would be a further fifty years before anyone managed to devise a can opener." (People were instructed to cut open cans with a hammer and chisel before that.)

The drawback to copper pots is that "pure copper is poisonous when it comes into contact with food, particularly acids," so they must be lined with another metal. "Cooks ignorant of the ill effects of copper actually sought out its greening powers, using unlined copper pans to make pickled green walnuts and green gherkins. In short, copper pans are great, apart from the fact that they potentially make food taste bad and poison you."

The chapter on fire recounts the time when "a single fire served to warm a house, heat water for washing, and cook dinner." Cooking was largely the art of fire management at that time, as it still is in some parts of the world. Ten years ago, I spent a couple of months working on a farm (Finca La Mohea) in southern Spain where a hearth fire was used for all of the above. There, my favourite cooking tool was a headlamp. I used it to see inside the pots as I cooked in the dark, non-electrified kitchen.
My instructions for making lemon marmalade included no measurements.
I was told to combine lemons and sugar and cook until it was thick.
It was February, and chilly, so the cats liked to stay warm by the fire.
The kitchen only looks bright because of the camera flash; it was actually very dark.
The marmalade was delicious, by the way!
Did you know that the USA, Liberia and Myanmar/Burma are the only three countries not to have officially adopted the metric system? Discrepancies in cup measurements make recipes confusing. In the UK, it's 284 ml; in Australia: 250 ml; in USA: 236.59 ml; and in Canada: a cup is only 227 ml.

The custom of cutting food into little pieces before it was eaten has made a significant change in our bodies. "What the orthodontists don't tell you is that the overbite is a very recent aspect of human anatomy and probably results from the way we use our table knives. Based on surviving skeletons, this has only been the 'normal' alignment of the human jaw for 200 to 250 years in the Western world. Before that, most human beings had an edge-to-edge bite, comparable to apes."

"We take forks for granted. But the table fork is a relatively recent invention, and it attracted scorn and laughter when it first appeared. Its image was not helped by its associations with the Devil and his pitchfork."

In the eleventh century, a Byzantine princess was "damned for her 'excessive delicacy' in preferring [a fork] to her God-given hands. The story of this absurd princess and her ridiculous fork was still being told in church circles two hundred years later."

Italy adopted the fork before any other European country because of pasta. "Initially, the longer noodle-type pastas were eaten with a long wooden spike called a punteruolo."

"Queen Elizabeth I owned forks for sweetmeats but chose to use her fingers instead, finding the spearing motion to be crude. In the 1970s, real men were said not to eat quiche. In the 1610s, they didn't use forks." "As late as 1897, British sailors were still demonstrating their manliness by eating without forks."

"The system of eating with chopsticks eliminates the main Western taboos at table, which chiefly have to do with managing the violence of the knife."

Margaret Visser writes: "To people who eat with their fingers, hands seem cleaner, warmer, more agile than cutlery. Hands are silent, sensitive to texture and temperature, and graceful -- provided, of course, that they have been properly trained." Which is exactly what I found when I spent 4 months in Sri Lanka. I liked eating with my fingers so much that I resented having to switch back to using a fork when I returned to Canada. The video clip above shows my grand-niece, who has facial paralysis (Moebius Syndrome), using a combination of fork and fingers to eat buckwheat soba.

In 1959, 96 percent of American households owned fridges, compared to 13 percent for Britain. "The American way of life was, to a very large extent made possible by refrigeration." The "British antipathy to fridges was not entirely rational." They considered them to be wasteful and decadent. Frigidaire noted that "Britain regarded ice as only an inconvenience of winter-time and cold drinks as an American mistake."

Fridges surpassed their "original purpose of cold storage, to keep food in optimum condition" and became general food storage units instead. Eggs, for example, are better stored out of the fridge in a cool climate "if you use them up quickly." "In America, unrefrigerated eggs are viewed as hazardous objects; and so they are, in the hotter states during the warmest months. A 2007 study from Japan found that when salmonella-infected eggs were stored at 50 F over six weeks, there was no growth in the bacteria. Even at 68 F, there was negligible bacterial growth. At temperatures of 77 F and above, however, salmonella growth was rampant."

My cousin Miro cooking wild boar stew in Slovakia in 2012.
Wilson covers kitchen design also. Between 1926 and 1930, more than 10,000 kitchens were built to architect Margarete Schutte-Lihotsky's specifications. These Frankfurt Kitchens are still famous. Robert Rotifer created a musical tribute to them, viewable online.

I happened to be reading three different books that overlapped in their subject areas. I was listening to Cooked (Michael Pollan) in audio and dipping into Salt Sugar Fat (Michael Moss) in paper, while I also had Consider the Fork in e-book on my iPod. The Maillard reaction, "an interaction between proteins and sugars at high heats that is responsible for many of the flavours we find most seductive," is one of the things that came up in all three books. Wilson briefly shares her experiences learning various cookery techniques, including roasting on an open fire, knife skills, and using sous-vide technology, which is similar to what Pollan does more fully in his memoir about learning to cook, Cooked.

Readalikes: At Home (Bill Bryson); The Table Comes First (Adam Gopnik); Salt (Mark Kurlansky); Cooked (Michael Pollan) and anything by Mary Roach. Also, since Wilson gives due consideration to the utensil called a spork, check out the delightful children's picturebook, Spork (by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault).

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

You just can't go wrong with David Sedaris, even with a collection that intermixes pieces of fiction with his usual humorous travel writing and essays about his neurotic obsessions. In Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls: Essays, Etc the "etc" refers to a few fictional monologues sprinkled throughout.

When Sedaris was in Edmonton in 2010, promoting Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, he shared anecdotes about air travel. Some of these -- including a description of flight attendants "crop dusting" passengers -- are incorporated in the essay 'Standing By.' I thought about this on my flight home from Vancouver yesterday... but didn't notice any foul odours.

A prodigious memory and strong storytelling skills make a dynamic combination. Sedaris manages to go off onto all kinds of tangents and yet tie the narrative threads neatly together in the end, making a personal story into something universal.

Here are some bits from 'Laugh, Kookaburra:'

"For an American, Australia seems pretty familiar: same wide streets, same office towers. It's Canada in a thong, or that's the initial impression."

"When seen full on, the feathers atop his head looked like brush-cut hair, and that gave him a brutish, almost conservative look. If owls were the professors of the avian kingdom, then kookaburras, I thought, might well be the gym teachers."

As a child, David and one of his sisters annoyed their father by repeatedly singing the kookaburra song, and the end result was a spanking. "As always after a paddling, I returned to my room vowing never to talk to my father again." He remembers simmering in his room, angry with his entire family, yet "knowing even then that without them, I was nothing. Not a son or a brother but just a boy -- and how could that ever be enough? As a full-grown man it seems no different. Cut off  your family, and how would you know who you are? Cut them off in order to gain success, and how could that success be measured? What would it possibly mean?"

Sedaris does comedy well. He also taps into common human fears and foibles. And dreams up some fabulous book titles!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Booktopia WA update

Booktopia Bellingham update - I'm not home yet, but I have the opportunity to expand on my quick note from yesterday. There were seven authors at Booktopia and the whole weekend was a treat. I loved being surrounded by people who are passionate about reading. Everyone was so friendly and I found it easy to get into conversations in between sessions, even though I'm an introvert. We talked about books, of course.

The authors were: Peter Clines, Jonathan Evison, Ru Freeman, Caroline Leavitt, Rhonda Riley, Jan-Philipp Sendker, and Maggie Shipstead. Shipstead was the only one I'd heard of before Ann and Michael announced the author line-up for this event. Like many of the other attendees, I tried to read as many of the books as possible before attending, and I got through five. Follow the links above to my reviews. I haven't posted anything about Shipstead's satirical Seating Arrangements yet, but I'll be discussing it at my Two Bichons book group later this week.

Sendker's book was the only one (out of the five) that I did not enjoy, but there were many readers there who loved it. One woman said she never expected that a love story between a blind man and a crippled woman in Burma would even interest her, but she declared it ended up being the best book she had read in her life! Sendker asked her why she read it, since she didn't think she would like it. She told him it was because it was for Booktopia. (I'd recommend The Art of Hearing Heartbeats to people who liked Secret Daughter.)

Because so many people had read the books beforehand, the sessions with the authors were somewhat like book discussions. I cannot stress enough how special that is. A number of the authors expressed a similar pleasure, since they usually have to convince people to read their books when they attend author readings. Thank you to Michael and Ann of Books on the Nightstand for organizing this event!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Booktopia in Bellingham WA

The fabulous Village Books in Fairhaven hosted a memorable Books on the Nightstand readers retreat this weekend. I'll post more about it when I have access to a computer.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is Jonathan Evison's poignant and funny novel about grief and atonement. It's told in the voice of Benjamin Benjamin, a caregiver for Trev, a young man with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Ben sort of fell into the job. "I was broke when duty called me to minister to those less fortunate than myself, so maybe I'm no Florence Nightingale." "But don't get the idea that just anyone can be a caregiver. It takes patience, fortitude, a background check. Not to mention licensing and a mandatory curriculum of continuing education" which includes "dozens of helpful mnemonics to help facilitate effective caregiving." "To wit:

Ask again"

Ben and Trev have crude conversations about women along the lines of "Would you tap that?" and "Should I ask her out for a pizza and a bang?" They are believable characters, flawed and yet endearing. It isn't hard to see past their macho bravado to the tender hearts within.

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving surprised me with its tenderness. The chapters are short and its a quick, rewarding read.

Readalikes: An Abundance of Katherines (John Green) and, especially if you don't mind a big dollop of romance, Me Before You (Jojo Moyes). A movie with a similar feel is Little Miss Sunshine.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Diviners by Libba Bray

"The X-Files with flappers" is how author Libba Bray jokingly describes The Diviners, while her editor says it's Stephen King meets The Great Gatsby. (I learned this from a YouTube clip on finding the voice for The Diviners audiobook.) January LaVoy does a fabulous job narrating the many different voices in the audio edition [Random House: 18 hrs].

Evie O'Neill is a 17-year-old flapper, always game for a good time and a sip of illegal hootch in 1920s New York City. She also has psychic abilities that come in handy for tracking down a supernatural serial killer named Naughty John.

Ghosts, monsters, a secret religious sect, creepy old mansions, a graveyard, evil at the crossroads, and a prophesied comet are just a few of the gothic ingredients in this paranormal mystery. It's pos-i-tute-ly macabre-ski, as Evie might say.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Monstress: Stories by Lysley Tenorio

The eight stories in Lysley Tenorio's debut collection, Monstress, are about outsiders in either the Philippines or California or both. Two of the stories have queer content and the book is shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award. (The winners will be announced tomorrow, June 3.)

"My brother went on national TV to prove he was a woman." Eric/Erica's sibling learns the true meaning of brotherhood from transgender folk in The Brothers.

Fortunado arrived in the USA in 1934 and rented the same San Francisco room for 43 years, all the while longing for the man next door, in Save the I-Hotel. "Fortunado understood how difficult love could be, how its possibility hinged on a delicate balance between complete anonymity and the undeniable need to be known."

The tone throughout the book is sad and melancholy. What I love most about Tenorio's work are his desperate characters, so humanly real, determined to overcome the hardships life has set before them.