Monday, July 29, 2013

When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams

A white crowned sparrow.
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice is about Terry Tempest Williams finding her writer's voice. It is also about grief and loss. "I am leaving you all of my journals" her mother had said, before she died of cancer when she was 54. There were three shelves full of them. They were all blank. Williams struggled for years to understand her mother's legacy. This collection of poetic essays is the result. It is both elegiac and celebratory.

Over and over, I found resonance with my personal life, with my love of birds, with books I've read and art I've seen. I'll use footnotes to link to a few of them. When Women Were Birds is a treasure that flew straight to my heart. I flagged so many passages that it'll be a challenge to select only some of them here.

The physical design of this small book is lovely and reflects the word repetition Williams employs in the text, except in avian form. The white dust jacket is embossed with a pattern of white birds in flight. The flyleaf features a pattern of overlapping feathers. Repeating black silhouettes of a bird in various stages of flight are positioned on the inside pages in such a way that the bird can be animated by flipping through the pages quickly.

Terry Tempest Williams writes that the title When Women Were Birds came to her in a dream. I think of tales from Greek mythology in which women turn into birds, and also the bird goddess figurines of Old Europe. (1)

Bird goddess figurines at the Louvre.
A book that Williams checked out repeatedly from the library when she was a child was called All About Air. She learned that Earth's atmosphere receives tons of dust from meteors every day. "Not only do we take in the world with each breath, we are inhaling the universe. We are made of stardust." (2)

Raised in the Mormon faith, Williams writes "Indoor religion bored me; outdoor religion did not." She found her senses "more trustworthy than any religious doctrine."

Conceptual art (3) like John Cage's silent concerto, known as 4' 33", and Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings give Williams insight into her mother's blank journals:

"My Mother's Journals are theatrical. [...] My Mother's Journals are a transgression. My Mother's Journals are a scandal of white. My Mother's Journals are a "harmony of silence."

When her grandmother gave her the book Creation Myths by Marie-Louise von Franz, Williams didn't initially understand it as a subversive text. "What I came to appreciate was how the transgression of Eve was an act that led us out of the garden and into the wilderness. Who wants to be a goddess when we can be human? Perfection is a flaw disguised as control. The moment Eve bit into the apple, her eyes opened and she became free. She exposed the truth of what every woman knows: to find our sovereign voice often requires a betrayal. We just have to make certain we do not betray ourselves. For a woman or a man to speak from the truth of their heart is to break taboo. The mask is removed. The snake who tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit was not the Devil, but her own instinctive nature saying, Honour your hunger and feed yourself."

"On October 16, 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the first family planning and birth control center on 46 Amboy Street in the Brownsville neighbourhood of Brooklyn." Williams' mother had her tubes tied -- "not a common practice among her peers," -- and later said it was for "freedom." (4)

"I am a woman with wings dancing with other women with wings. In a voiced community, we all flourish." (5)

Listening to an opera by Strauss left Williams enraptured: "Would you believe me if I told you when I opened my mouth a bird flew out?" (6)

"Cancer. So much cancer. Nine women in my family have all had mastectomies, and seven are dead." Williams' grief paralyzed her. Her husband suggested that walking would help. "Every day, I walked. It was not a meditation, but survival, one foot in front of the other, with my eyes focused down, trying to stay steady." (7)

"To look at the script of Nushu is to see bird tracks, crows walking deliberately down a narrow path of snow. [...] This is the secret script of women, used for hundreds of years in the rural villages of Jiangyong in Hunan Province of China." (8)

"How shall I live? [...] We cannot do it alone. We do it alone."

"Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated."
One of my early pastel paintings, inspired by a photo on the dust jacket
of  a book about the mythology surrounding different animals and birds.
Readalikes: The Turquoise Ledge (Leslie Marmon Silko); Wild (Cheryl Strayed); and A Country Year: Living the Questions (Sue Hubbell).

(1) If We Were Birds (Erin Shields)

(2) You Are Stardust (Elin Kelsey)

(3) Glittering Images (Camille Paglia)

(4) Unterzakhn (Leela Corman) and details from the edge of the village (Pierrette Requier)

(5) The soundtrack in my head while I read this book was the chant "A River of Birds" as performed by Libana. ("There's a river of birds in migration, a nation of women with wings.")

(6) Raven Girl (Audrey Niffenegger)

(7) Wild (Cheryl Strayed)

(8) Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Lisa See)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Special Exits: A Graphic Memoir by Joyce Farmer

Joyce Farmer's Special Exits is a tender, fictionalized memoir in comics of her elderly father and stepmother's final years. Increasingly frail and ill, one nearly deaf and the other blind, Lars and Rachel are determined to remain independent in their home in south Los Angeles. Their daughter, Laura, regularly drops by to help.

Farmer's meticulous black ink artwork depicts the piles of stuff that the old couple have accumulated over decades, as well as the decrepit exterior of their bungalow. As Laura cleans and clears things away, Lars and Rachel share the stories connected with various objects.

The couple experiences the outside world mostly via television news. When he hears that former President Nixon died (at age 81), Lars raises his fists in victory: "Look! I beat out Nixon!" Deaths of celebrities like Jackie Kennedy Onassis, a major earthquake, and the riots after the acquittal of the officers in the Rodney King case all contribute to the strong sense of time and place. Lars and Rachel are complex, fully realized characters. I thought of my dear grandmother, Mary, who died last year. She was in her own home until she was 94. (The inside of grandma's house was crowded with treasures too.)

Laura gets understandably upset with her father's adamant refusal to be a bother. When he can't get up after a fall, he lies there for a day and night even though the telephone is within reach. Laura asks why he didn't call her. He says, "I knew you were coming today."

In hospital for a few days for tests, Lars doesn't complain that he has no view. Instead, he says he enjoys watching airplanes in the sky. "I think about all the people in those airplanes and where they're coming from." He reminded me of Astrid in the YA novel Ask the Passengers.

Farmer's style is similar to that of Robert Crumb, who says of Special Exits "One of the best long-narrative comics I've ever read, right up there with Maus." I agree.

Readalikes: Ethel and Ernest (Raymond Briggs); Mom's Cancer (Brian Fies); and You'll Never Know (C. Tyler).

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a strong and vibrant novel about identity, belonging and race. Nigerian-born Ifemelu does not think of herself as Black until she moves to the United States for college. There, she cannot escape the all-pervasive racism that accompanies her skin colour. She eventually starts a blog directed at other non-American Blacks, explaining the cultural differences they will encounter in the USA. Ifemelu finds a supportive community and intellectual engagement online.

Blogging is an obvious hook for me, and novels that are written in a mix of formats appeal to me too, so I really liked the excerpts from Ifemelu's blog posts that appear intermittently throughout the book.

Ifemelu is considered a difficult person by some of the other characters, but I love her defiant self-reliance and her forthright manner. When she behaves badly, she is usually quick to make amends... except when it comes to affairs of the heart. One character tells Ifemelu that she is too hard, and that she "has the spirit of husband-repelling." Boyfriends are her biggest challenge.
"Ifemelu once told [her African American boyfriend Blaine] as they watched a news item about a celebrity divorce, that she did not understand the unbending, unambiguous honesties that Americans required in relationships. 'What do you mean?' he asked her, and she heard a looming disagreement in his voice; he, too, believed in unbending, unambiguous honesties. 
'It's different for me and I think it's because I'm from the Third World,' she said. 'To be a child of the Third World is to be aware of the many different constituencies you have and how honesty and truth must always depend on context.'"
Ifemelu's broken relationship with Obinze, the sweetheart of her youth, propels Adichie's narrative. Americanah is one of those rare books, a romance that affected me so deeply that I wept a little at the end.

It's pure chance that I was already listening to Daughters Who Walk This Path (Yejide Kilanko) when my hold for Americanah came in at the library. Ghana Must Go bags, unreliable electricity and traditional proverbs (Yoruba in one, Igbo in the other) are just a few of the small overlapping details in the two novels. I felt completely immersed in Nigerian culture for a while. Overall, however, Daughters Who Walk this Path is more like Adichie's debut novel Purple Hibiscus than Americanah.

Readalikes: Ghana Must Go (Taiye Selasi) and On Beauty (Zadie Smith). There are also similar themes of identity and belonging in the latter part of We Need New Names (NoViolet Bulawayo).

Thursday, July 25, 2013

2013 Man Booker Prize Longlist

Hooray, the Man Booker longlist has been announced!

Perusing titles on the longlist for awards like the Giller, the Women's Prize for Fiction, and the Booker is exciting because I know I'll find titles that are new to me that I will enjoy. I also derive some pleasure from having already read some of the books on the lists, partly because it makes me feel au courant and partly for the sense of accomplishment. As if a longlist is a "to do" list and I can check some of them off... which is kind of crazy. It's not like I set out to read every prize contender, only those that appeal to my taste. Anyway, these are the books I've read that are also on the Booker longlist, with links to my reviews:
People have told me they like to see pictures on my blog
so here's a random photo from my garden.  

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Harvest by Jim Crace

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Of the remaining 10 titles, I'm most looking forward to:

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, because I adored his Brooklyn

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw, because I loved The Harmony Silk Factory

Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, because everything she writes is wonderful


The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, because it's described as Dickens meets Deadwood in nineteenth-century New Zealand and I don't mind tackling a doorstopper once in a while. I think The Luminaries is over 800 pages long. I think she's the only author on the list who will be at the Vancouver Writers Fest this year.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Daughters Who Walk this Path by Yejide Kilanko

In Daughters Who Walk this Path, Yejide Kilanko follows the life of Morayo from her childhood into womanhood in contemporary Nigeria. Many of Morayo's female relatives also have significant roles in this story, especially her Aunty Morenike and her younger sister Eniayo, an albino. Their lives are not very different from those of girls and women living in North America, negotiating family relationships, friendships, romance, education, work and motherhood.

The tone of Kilanko's novel is sometimes dark, addressing difficult issues like sexual violence and injustice based on gender, but this is counterbalanced with a lighter tone in other parts, more reminiscent of chick lit. It ends on a hopeful, uplifting note.

Traditional proverbs are at the head of each chapter, and Yoruba words for food and clothing -- egusi soup, a woman's iro (wrapper), a man's agbada (robe) -- add to the sense of place. I was interested to note a reference to carrying things in a Ghana Must Go bag, because I only just learned about this particular type of tote bag this year, when I read Taiye Selasi's book of the same name. (The expression originated in xenophobia, but I don't know it's context in Nigeria today.)

I listened to a Blackstone audiobook [10 h 19 m] narrated by Claudia Alick, whose perfomance is a bit too theatrical for my taste. Alick puts extra emphasis on words that don't need it and her voice often conveys something close to farce which I found at odds with the unadorned style of Kilanko's prose. I got used to it, however, and found myself caught up in Morayo's life.

Kilanko grew up in Nigeria and now lives in Ontario.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Glittering Images by Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia writes that her new book, Glittering Images, was inspired by her "dismay at the open animosity toward art and artists that I have heard on American AM talk radio over the past two decades." Her introduction explains why we need art in today's society. Children, in particular, need the opportunity to focus the eye, to perceive deeply and become receptive to contemplation.

"Civilization is defined by law and art. Laws govern our external behaviour, while art expresses our soul." [...] "Art is not a luxury for any advanced civilization; it is a necessity, without which creative intelligence will wither and die."

From ancient Egypt to twenty-first century film, Paglia has chosen 29 works of art and writes about what makes them endure in our culture consciousness. The essay for each is only a few pages long and gives historical, social and political context, as well as examining details of the artwork itself. Later essays reference the artworks in earlier chapters, so it's a good idea to read them in order.

I especially appreciated Paglia's explanations about styles that tend to mystify me, such as Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, conceptual art, and performance art. I came away with greater understanding of difficult works, like Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon: "There are no welcoming smiles in this cabal of urban nymphs. Their snakelike lidless eyes are fixed and blank or at mismatched angles or missing altogether. They are sleepless watchmen of the heaven-hell of sex, where the price of momentary ecstasy may be disease or obliteration of identity."

Paglia isn't shy about voicing her opinions. In the chapter on Eleanor Antin and conceptual art, she writes: "Antin's feminist pieces avoided doctrinaire victimology as well as the lugubrious excess often marring feminist productions of that period, such as Judy Chicago's Dinner Party (1974-79), with its florid vulval table settings." I don't agree with her assessment of Chicago's work, but it doesn't stop me from respecting Paglia's knowledge and views on art. Her writing is always interesting.

Paglia's thesis in the final chapter, that film director George Lucas is the worlds' greatest living artist, emerged during the five years she spent working on Glittering Images. "Nothing I saw in the visual arts of the past thirty years was as daring, beautiful, and emotionally compelling as the spectacular volcano-planet climax of Lucas's Revenge of the Sith (2005)." "The exhilarating eight-minute battle over Coruscant that opens Revenge of the Sith, with its dense cloud of stately destroyers, swooping starfighters, and fiendish buzz droids, cuts optical pathways that are as graceful and abstract as the weightless skeins in a drip painting by Jackson Pollock."

I came away from Glittering Images determined to watch all of the Star Wars movies. I think I saw the first three when they came out in theatres, but not since then, and I've never seen the more recent films. Star Wars references pop up all the time in modern literature, like Friends with Boys (Faith Erin Hicks) and The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (Tom Angleberger). Jeffrey Brown's cartoons about Darth Vader as a single father raising young twins contributed to my interest in re-watching the movies too.

Readalikes: A History of the World in 100 Objects (Neil MacGregor); and My Favorite Things (Sister Wendy Beckett).

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Vader's Little Princess, and Darth Vader and Son: two books by Jeffrey Brown

The gentle warmth in Jeffrey Brown's comic strip memoirs (Funny Misshapen Body, Little Things) comes through strongly in his two hilarious new books, Vader's Little Princess and Darth Vader and Son. Brown re-imagines the Star Wars backstory and pictures Darth Vader raising Luke and Leia from early childhood into their teen years. 

Each page is a single-panel comic in full colour. Brown often plays with dialogue (out of context) from the Star Wars movies. Darth Vader's lines are in all caps and a zigzaggy word balloon helps convey the amplified scary tone of his voice. In one panel, Vader stands with fists clenched, declaring "TOGETHER WE CAN RULE THE GALAXY AS FATHER AND SON!" Luke as a preschooler asks, "And then I can have a treat?"

These books made me laugh out loud. Getting a ride to school, Leia tells her father "Just drop me at the corner." Vader responds, "IT'S OKAY, I CAN TAKE YOU RIGHT TO THE FRONT DOOR..." and Leia thinks, "I'm so embarrassed" as she disembarks from one of those giant walking machines.

Fun for the whole family!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger

In Audrey Niffenegger's, Raven Girl, a postman rescues a fledgling raven. The two fall in love and eventually raise a daughter who looks human but can only speak raven. She has a sort of body dysphoria, always feeling more bird than human. What she wants more than anything is to fly.

Full-page etchings are as haunting as those in Niffenegger's earlier picture books for adults, The Adventuress and The Three Incestuous SistersRaven Girl follows a more linear storytelling path, however. It reminds me of the original Little Mermaid (not the Disney version) except with a happier ending (darker than the Disney kind).
detail from Audrey
Niffenegger's artwork

One of Niffenegger's whimsical illustrations reminded me of Dale Auger's paintings, so I've paired them opposite each other here. Both are magical. (If you're going to release creatures from your mouth, birds are so much nicer than toads.) Raven Girl is a quirky and enchanting fable.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Sticks and Stones by Janice MacDonald

Randy (Miranda) Craig, a part-time lecturer in the University of Alberta English Department, gets mixed up in a murder investigation in Sticks and Stones: A Randy Craig Mystery by Janice MacDonald. Steve Browning is the detective assigned to investigate the death of one of Randy's students, which may be connected to anti-feminist graffiti and poison-pen letters on campus.

I loved all the references to Edmonton landmarks, especially the bookstores. Of Audreys Books, MacDonald writes: "Nice tall stacks make it possible to browse for hours, and no one comes up behind you with a frown. There is an air of sanctity for the printed page, the same feeling you'd get in some medieval ecclesiastical library. The sun coming through the windows and dappling the dark wood helps the image."

Some establishments no longer exist, like the Paramount and much beloved Orlando Books, but the weather in December remains the same:

"One of the things that most impresses me about living in Edmonton is how the weather never seems to stop anyone. It can be forty below, and there will still be people lined up outside to get into the Paramount cinema downtown. Blizzards slow people down, but there will be a line of cars behind every snowplow. Today might be considered balmy by January standards, but it was still pretty damn cold out, and Whyte Avenue looked just as crowded as it did during the Fringe Festival in August.

Nine long blocks later, I was peeling my scarf off in Orlando Books. Jackie Dumas, the owner, a feisty activist for local culture and a gifted novelist herself, smiled at me and pointed toward the coffee machine against the wall."

MacDonald mixes humour into the suspense:

"I felt about my desk for a weapon. Where are those handy Inuit sculptures when you really need them?"

... and romance too, between Randy and Steve, the handsome police officer. It's an entertaining combination that lightens the weighty theme of misogyny. Check out MacDonald's website for the other titles in the Randy Craig mystery series.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman weaves fairy tale elements into contemporary Sussex in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. A man revisits the place of his rural childhood and looks back on the ominous events that took place when he was seven. He was a boy who loved cats and books.

"I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were."

Three Hempstocks live at the farm at the end of the lane. They are straight out of  mythology: maiden, mother and crone. The youngest, eleven-year-old Lettie, is the boy's friend. 

"I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth, the dark swollen currants in the spotted dick were tangy in the cake-thick chewy blandness of the pudding, and perhaps I was going to die that night and perhaps I would never go home again, but it was a good dinner and I had faith in Lettie Hempstock."

(I immediately wanted my own dish of pudding. A recipe can be found here.)

As with many of Gaiman's stories, this slim and haunting novel is suitable for a wide age range, about 10 and up.

Readalikes. In trying to come up with similar titles, the first ones that come to mind are, unsurprisingly, by Gaiman himself: The Graveyard Book, Coraline and Stardust. Stories with fantastical and mythical elements that would likely appeal to readers who enjoy The Ocean at the End of the Lane include: The Pull of the Ocean (Jean-Claude Mourlevat); Skellig (David Almond); The Snow Child (Eowyn Ivey); Some Kind of Fairy Tale (Graham Joyce); Ragnarok (A.S. Byatt); and I Shall Wear Midnight (Terry Pratchett).

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Friendship bonds formed at a summer camp for the arts in the 1970s extend over the course of the lives of a group of New Yorkers in The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Jen Tullock [Dreamscape: 15h, 43 m]. Tullock skillfully differentiates the large cast with subtle voice changes.

Ethan and Ash become rich, while Jules and Dennis struggle with low-paying jobs and Dennis' chronic depression. Ash and Jules are best friends but the disparity in their incomes causes problems. Jules' jealousy is tedious at times (for readers and for her husband) but it also adds to the realism of the characters. Goodman and Kathy become involved in an event that changes their lives abruptly. Jonah, son of a famous folksinger, is the character I liked best. He is gay and comes out in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Jonah is a gifted musician, but chooses a different career path for a heartbreaking reason. All of the characters are interesting.

As in Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, flash-forwards occasionally offer glimpses into the future lives of minor characters. Wolitzer also uses them to foreshadow and as metaphor. I liked the effect, as in the following example, when Rory was a child demonstrating her karate chop on a stick of balsa. "The wood went flying, some of it landing under the radiator. It would stay there for months, years, wedged in a small space, even after the Jacobson-Boyd family moved out. The wood would go unnoticed for a very long time, like the library book that had been flung under the bureau during Rory's conception."

Readalikes - other character-driven novels that follow individuals as they age and include elements of unrequited love, secrets kept for decades, divided loyalties, living with a spouse who has a mental illness, pop culture references through the decades, and/or parenting a child with autism: A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan); Arcadia (Lauren Groff); The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides); The Middlesteins (Jami Attenberg); and Carry the One (Carol Anshaw).

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra covers an eventful 5 days in 2004 during the Russian conflict in Chechnya. Eight-year-old orphan Havaa is rescued by her neighbour Akhmed when her father is 'disappeared.' Akhmed brings her to the only safe place he can think of, a nearly-abandoned hospital, where he asks the lone remaining doctor, curmudgeonly Sonja, to care for her. The story moves back and forth in time as information is revealed about the compelling main characters and how their pasts have brought them to this point.

People struggle to maintain their humanity in a harsh world. Some parts are painfully gritty, but humour and beautiful prose lighten the otherwise tense and somber atmosphere.

"Havaa was studying the pale blue flowers on her mother's skirt, annoyed she couldn't find them in the Caucasian flora guide. Why invent flowers when so many real ones would be honoured to find their faces on a skirt?"

Sonja and a powerful supplier of black market goods have an argument about whether turtles are reptiles or crustaceans:
"Everyone knows a turtle is crustacean on its mother's side."
"Explain that to me," she said.
"A lizard fucks a crab and nine months later a turtle pops out. It's called evolution."
"I hope your biology teacher was sent to the gulag," she said.

"He woke early and performed his ablutions and prayers on the trapezoid of dawn light that lay like a prayer rug on the floor."

Using brief flash-forwards, Marra fleshes out secondary characters with random details from their futures. An example is the one-armed guard at the hospital: "In Ingushetia he had an eleven-year-old daughter he didn't know about, who was waiting for him to call. In two and a half years, he would hear her voice for the first time." The effect reinforces the feeling that everything is interconnected and that everyone is contained within the circle of life and death.

The title is taken from a definition found in a medical dictionary: "Life: a constellation of vital phenomena -- organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation." Marra's debut novel is gorgeous, expansive, and ultimately uplifting.

Readalikes: Between Shades of Grey (Ruta Sepetys); Purge (Sofi Oksanen); The Lizard Cage (Karen Connelly) ; and The Tiger's Wife (Tea Obreht).

Friday, July 12, 2013

Waterloo & Trafalgar by Olivier Tallec

Waterloo and Trafalgar is a charming wordless picture book about the pointlessness of war. French artist Olivier Tallec named the two soldiers in this story for two battles lost by Napoleon's troops. According to the editor's note, "Each reader will absorb the story in his or her own way, and we hope that young readers will find Waterloo and Trafalgar to be oddball and appealing names. For other readers, the echoes and connections with history might mean something."

The cartoon soldiers look nearly identical. One is orange and one is blue. The men are visible through die cut circles pierced through the thick cover board, each seen as if through the other's telescope. Throughout the story, they watch each other from across a narrow divide.

Comic daily life dramas unfold as seasons pass. The soldiers try to outdo each other using the volume of their music. Orange Trafalgar makes a pet of a snail. The snail crawls across to the other side, where it is eaten by blue Waterloo. In the end, it is a baby bird who precipitates an end to the hostilities.

Recommended for all ages.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Take What You Can Carry by Kevin C. Pyle

Graphic novelist Kevin Pyle follows the lives of two teenage boys in Take What You Can Carry. Alternating between suburban Chicago in 1978 and the internment of Japanese American citizens in 1942-1944, the storylines eventually intersect.

The two time periods are visually distinct. The WWII-era scenes have a Zen wordlessness. They are sepia-toned and the brush strokes are washed in an Oriental style. Pyle's ink lines are crisp in the blue-toned panels set in Chicago. The font used for the text has the appearance of neat hand-lettering.

I love how perfectly the title suits the story. The Japanese families are forced to leave their homes with only small bags of their things. In Chicago, Kyle shoplifts for kicks, taking things he doesn't even want. The concluding message is that we all carry the consequences of our actions, and that forgiveness is not only possible, but crucial.

A quiet and moving graphic novel suitable for Grade 7 - adult.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler feels more like a memoir than any other first-person novel that I've encountered so far. 22-year-old Rosemary Cooke, a student attending the University of California at Davis, is the compelling narrator.

Rosemary confesses that she always talked too much. When she was five: "I remember Mr Bechler asking me if I was maybe in training for the talking Olympics. I was gold-medal material, he said."

She has been trained to cut out much of what she wants to say, to choose one thing out of three, and so she begins her tale in the middle.

"In 1996, ten years had passed since I'd last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn't told you that, you might not have known."

It takes Rosemary a long time to get around to telling us that her sister Fern was a chimpanzee, and that the pair of them were studied intensely during their early childhood. I don't feel like I'm spoiling the plot, because this fact is revealed on the cover blurb. It's also what drew me to read this book in the first place.

Fowler deftly tackles issues like family dynamics, the vagaries of memory, and animal welfare. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an entertaining and highly original story with wonderful characters and a fascinating premise.

I listened to the Penguin audiobook [9 hours] narrated by Orlagh Cassidy.

Readalikes: Half Brother (Kenneth Oppel); All Over Creation (Ruth Ozeki) and pretty much anything by Barbara Kingsolver.

Monday, July 8, 2013

660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer

I didn't do as much reading and gardening as I had expected during my recent month of holidays, but I sure had fun in the kitchen. Cooking is something I enjoy, but working full time means I usually fall back on my old favourite dishes. Raghavan Iyer's cookbook 660 Curries inspired me to spend hours with complicated recipes, creating big piles of pans and dishes to wash... as well as tasty meals.

Iyer admits to the effort required in the introduction to Fried Potato Sandwiches (Vadaa Pav): "Let me be the first to tell you that this is a production. On the day I make it, it's all I eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- oh and let's not forget afternoon tea." Fried potato and pea patties are topped with a roasted spice and peanut chutney as well as a cilantro and coconut sauce in a soft bun in this recipe from Mumbai. Delicious as it sounds, I didn't attempt this version of a veggie burger because I'm not keen on deep-frying my food.

One of the recipes that I liked best was 'Drumsticks' in a Spicy Yogurt sauce with Roasted Chickpea Flour (Sing Pitta). Drumsticks are a woody vegetable that isn't available here, so I substituted asparagus, as suggested. When local asparagus is in season, we eat pounds of it for several weeks straight. (We get ours from Edgar Farms at the farmer's market in Edmonton.) I think I'll try the yogurt sauce with peas sometime; it was a hit.

This isn't a vegetarian cookbook, but with 660 recipes to choose from, you can be sure that there are plenty of meatless choices. There are no illustrations (apart from a handful of glossy photos at the beginning) yet the descriptions that preface each recipe are enough to make me salivate.

The best parts of this book are all of the tips and general information. It's interesting to read even without preparing any of the dishes. Iyer explains how as many as eight different flavours can be obtained from a single spice, depending on technique (combinations of dry-toasting, frying in oil, grinding and soaking). I've been relying on my four main masala blends for too long and Iyer inspired me to go back to using more specialized combinations for each dish. My spice grinder hasn't seen so much action in a long time!

Iyer recommends using canola oil because it "has no flavour and does not assert itself." (He erroneously states that it is extracted from canola flowers, but it is actually from the seed.) I never use canola for two reasons: a) it's impossible to get GMO-free canola in North America and b) my sweetie and I both find it unpleasantly stinky. I went online to find out why other people don't complain about canola's fishy odour and learned that only a minority of people are sensitive to its smell. I used sunflower oil instead.

Anyway, I'm grateful to Lynne Rosetto Kasper, host of The Splendid Table podcast, for interviewing Iyer and bringing 660 Curries to my attention.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Queer and Pleasant Danger: A Memoir by Kate Bornstein

Nobody can accuse transgender activist and performance artist Kate Bornstein of having a boring life. Her memoir A Queer and Pleasant Danger is "the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today." Never a dull moment, from signing a billion-year contract with Scientology, to being a willing sex slave to a pair of West Coast lesbians.

Bornstein is comfortable with paradox, writing, "Paradox? Bring it on." "I was born male and now I've got medical and government documents that say I'm female -- but I don't call myself a woman, and I know I'm not a man... " Refusing to claim a gender has got her into trouble with other transwomen. She also took a controversial stand on women-only spaces that forbade admission to transwomen: "I thought every private space has the right to admit whomever they want -- I told them I thought it was their responsibility to define the word woman. And I told the transwomen to stop acting like men with a sense of entitlement. So everyone was pissed off at me."

Kate is attracted to women, so she hangs with lesbians. I know from a lesbian-identified transwoman friend living in England that it isn't easy finding community. There's also the example of Judy, the transsexual in Anne Wheeler's film, Better than Chocolate. Anyway, things got even more complicated for Kate when Catherine, her partner for several years, decided to become David. "I was now a lesbian with a boyfriend, but I wasn't a real lesbian and he wasn't a real boy -- so did that make us a heterosexual couple the other way round? Don't talk to me about paradox."

I found the Scientology stuff the most shocking aspect of this book. Long before sex-reassignment surgery, Bornstein was an officer on L. Ron Hubbard's flagship yacht, the Apollo. He married another officer, Molly, and when they were expecting a child, they were transferred to land duty. "Molly and I were a pair of perfectly trained theologically guided missiles." "Before they fired us out on our mission, we had to prove to the Action Chief that we knew precisely where our mission fit into Ron's plan to take over the planet." Their daughter Jessica was born in 1973.

Bornstein was later excommunicated and hasn't seen Jessica since she was about 8. A Queer and Pleasant Danger is dedicated to Jessica and to Bornstein's two grandchildren, whom she has never met, since they are all still within the cult. Bornstein hopes that Jessica will read this book at some point... which makes things awkward when it comes to sex. Readers are given the opportunity to skip over the graphic descriptions of sadomasochistic sex play. The e-book has a link, while the paper edition advises "please skip to the middle of page 218." The graphic part is only 2 and a half pages long.

Anorexia, cutting and suicide are some of the other very personal subjects that Bornstein tackles honestly in this memoir. She ends with a handful of life lessons as an offering to her daughter. "Don't be mean" is my favourite. The one that surprised and delighted me most is "Watch and read a lot of science fiction and fantasy -- the good stuff." (Not mediocre stuff by L. Ron Hubbard.)

I plan to follow that advice. It just so happens that I've been wanting to re-watch the Star Wars movies, spurred on by Camille Paglia's Glittering Images (where she calls George Lucas the greatest living artist) and Jeffery Brown's hilarious books, Darth Vader and Son and Vader's Little Princess (which may cause me to giggle at inappropriate moments when I see the films).

Bornstein is a brave and funny gender outlaw and her memoir is unforgettable.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is my favourite American poet and today is Independence Day in the USA, so I've chosen to write about Oliver's newest collection, A Thousand Mornings, from my stack of finished books awaiting blog review.

Oliver has won many literature prizes, including the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. She is a lesbian who doesn't write about sexuality; her concern is the connection humans have with the natural world. She celebrates life and beauty with simple wonder.

A single sentence comprises the entirety of 'Poem of the One World:'

"This morning / the beautiful white heron / was floating along above the water / and then into the sky of this / the one world / we all belong to / where everything / sooner or later  / is a part of everything else / which thought made me feel / for a little while / quite beautiful myself."

I picked up A Thousand Mornings at Village Books in Bellingham WA when I attended Booktopia last month. I mostly read library books, but I buy several books every month. Almost all of my purchases are given away, either after I've read them or because they were intended as gifts from the start. I rarely reread and I don't feel strongly about keeping my own collection. My rooms would all be full to the ceilings if I did! I make exceptions for my very favourites, however, including Mary Oliver's poetry. The calming effect her words have on me never wears out. I can count on them to instill a feeling of joy, peace and gratitude. My soul needs this. A Thousand Mornings will join West Wind and What Do We Know on a shelf close to my bed, where I can pick them up anytime.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Doll Bones by Holly Black

C.S. Lewis said, "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest." Holly Black, coauthor of The Spiderwick Chronicles, has written the good kind of story. Doll Bones is a horror adventure for children in Grade 4 to 7 that can be appreciated by readers of any age.

Friends Poppy, Zach and Alice have been having such a good time creating ongoing fantasy scenarios that they are reluctant to stop, even now that they are twelve and too old to still be playing pretend games with toys.

A creepy porcelain doll is at the center of their final quest. The doll that comes alive is not as scary as Chucky from the movie Child's Play, but she is still pretty spooky. Poppy has seen a particular spot in a dream:

"We look for a willow tree," said Poppy. "You know, one of the ones with the long branches and the leaves that hang down."
"A weeping willow?" Zach put in.
Poppy nodded. "I think so, but I think regular willows have leaves that hang down too, just not as far."
"Okay," Alice said. "Depressed-looking trees. Got it. If it seems droopy and miserable at all, I'm calling you to confirm its willowy status."

The three get help from a pink-haired librarian who wears yellow shoes with bows on them. (I love encountering librarian heroes!)

Doll Bones would make an exciting family read-aloud. Ethical issues that arise could fuel further discussion. An example is Zach's father's behaviour, when he throws away some precious things belonging to Zach, then later explains: "I thought you needed to be tougher. But I've been thinking that protecting somebody by hurting them before someone else gets the chance isn't the kind of protecting that anybody wants." Serendipitously, the same sentiment was expressed in the audiobook I was listening to at the time: His Illegal Self (Peter Carey), and in the ebook memoir I had on the go: A Queer and Pleasant Danger (Kate Bornstein).

Readalikes for Doll Bones: The Crossroads (Chris Grabenstein); Amy's Eyes (Richard Kennedy); and Wait Till Helen Comes (Mary Downing Hahn).

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Nocturne: Dream Recipes Varied and Easy to Make (in just 5 minutes) by Isol

I was up very late watching spectacular Canada Day fireworks over the North Saskatchewan river in Edmonton, so a book about sleep is perfect for this morning.

Nocturne is the singular creation of Isol, an Argentine illustrator who received the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award earlier this year. More artifact than book, Nocturne is coil-bound at the top and has a base that unfolds to make it stand sturdily at bedside. Two different whimsical illustrations are superimposed on each page, one printed with glow-in-the-dark ink.

"Before you go to sleep, open the book to the dream you've chosen and place it on your night table under a bright light. (A dream is like a moth that loves to get close to the light when no one is looking.) Wait for a least 5 minutes, and don't make any noise or you will scare the dream away. [...] Turn out the light! You will see the luminous traces that the dream leaves behind on the page. Look for as long as you like, then close your eyes and follow the dream to its hiding place."

Included are: the boring book Dream (with giant animals peering down at a reader who has fallen asleep); the Dream of going far away (to find friendly aliens on another planet); and the Dream underwater (complete with mermaid). In the Dream of growing, a girl waters three seeds under a tiny orange sun. The phosphorescent image shows the girl riding the tops of the grown plants, with the sun in the location of her heart. Magical!

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, another children's book that I've read recently, coincidentally mentions dreams. In De Lint's book, under the branches of an ancient beech, "cats would come to dream and be dreamed." Nocturne offers a wonderful opportunity for adults to talk about dreams and dreaming with young people from about Grade 2 and up.

Children who enjoy Nocturne might also like The Dreamer (Pam Munoz Ryan) with its surreal illustrations by Peter Sis; Stormy Night (Michele Lemieux) about the thorny philosophical questions that keep us from sleeping; and The Rabbit Problem (Emily Gravett) another quirky book that is more of an artifact than container for a story.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Susceptible by Genevieve Castree

Happy Canada Day! I've been celebrating Canadian books every day of this long weekend (see yesterday's Sister Mine and Saturday's The Cats of Tanglewood Forest) and have saved Susceptible ("a trans-Canadian exploration of identity" according to the back cover) for the big day today.

In her graphic novel Susceptible, Genevieve Castree has created a fictionalized autobiography in two separate editions, French and English. Goglu, the central character, has been drawn in lovely brush washed ink to resemble Castree's self-portraits (which can be seen here on her blog). Her style is a little like Mary Engelbreit's, with big eyes and lots of intricate patterns, but her story is sometimes harrowing. Goglu, btw, is the French word for a bobolink (and Castree is also a musician).

The opening four pages are the most metaphorical of the book. Goglu muses about her mental health and whether or not her depressions are innate, inherited or acquired as a result of life's difficulties. She shows herself growing from babyhood into adulthood while being gradually consumed by vegetation, then breaking free of the plants. "I have pulled myself so far away from my family that it is almost like I don't belong to it anymore." According to her interview in Comics Journal, this corresponds to Castree's real life.

I love all the detail in Castree's realistic images. The fourteen women massacred at the Ecole Polytechnique are each shown as individuals, with their own tastes in clothing and hair, as they lie dead together. When a panel is text-heavy, the background is usually plain, but the figures remain specific; messy hair, expressive faces, particular clothing. In the scene below, Goglu is wearing the kind of chequered knitted slippers that I remember being popular at that time. (I still have a pair.)

Goglu's mother and stepfather are called Amere and Amer, the feminine and masculine words for bitterness. They qualify for a worst parents award. Amere is an alcoholic with wild mood swings. Amer is so disengaged that he is irritated by any interaction from talkative Goglu, even a simple greeting. During one of their many bouts of marital disagreement, Amere and Amer tell Goglu that they have decided to break up. Amer says, "We don't want you to think that this is all your fault... it's half your mother's fault and half your fault..."

Goglu's birth father Tete d'oeuf (Egghead) abandoned their family in Quebec and moved to Vancouver Island, so he didn't have much to do with her until she was a teenager. When Goglu visits him in Malahat, she experiences the shock of difference between city life and Tete d'oeuf's tiny house in the forest. The interior and exterior settings in both places add to the realism of Castree's poignant story. As with the women who were massacred, Castree illustrates her father's cats as individuals.
Since I read this back-to-back with The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, I compared Castree's cats to those of Charles Vess. Castree's cats look like Japanese art while Vess' remind me of classic children's picture books from the western hemisphere. I like them both.
Two-page spread by Charles Vess in The Cats of Tanglewood Forest.
The final images in Susceptible are contained within round frames, reminding the reader to circle back to the message in the initial pages of the book. Goglu survives her traumatic upbringing and is free to make her own way in the world. I highly recommend this haunting graphic novel.