Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King

Thomas King is at the very top of his game in The Back of the Turtle. It's warm and witty and a cracking good story about family ties. It's got environmental disaster, greed, guilt and redemption. There are elements of First Nations and Christian mythology, plus nods to the Western literary canon.

The action takes place in a remote coastal area of British Columbia, as well as in Toronto. The Alberta tar sands are in there too. King moves smoothly between narrative threads, backstory and present day. His playful style is a joy to read:

  "The morning traffic was heavy, and the limousine was reduced to drifting along with the schools of cars and lumbering pods of delivery vans and transport trucks, everyone jammed together fin to gill, in a sea of diesel fumes and exhaust."

My favourite character is Nicolas Crisp, with his idiosyncratic manner of speech:

  "Ye know trailers from trawlers?"
  "Nothing much to know. Simple they are, not like a house. Now there's a pox. A house, ye see, don't want to move. Once she's built, she figures to stay put. A trailer's more compliant. Ye doesn't likes where ye have come ashore? Well, just drop the hitch on the ball and away ye go. Trailer's the better companion. Happy on the road or off. All love for ye and your caprices and no complaining."

King drops in sly hints about the true identities of Crisp and his addled nephew, Sonny. There's one, in fact, in the passage above. I won't say more, to not spoil the fun.

Dorian Asher, CEO of an agribusiness corporation, is the bad guy. But he is also one who speaks the truth: "the occasional spill is the price we pay for cheap energy." Dorian brings to mind Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, not only for his name, but also because he's a hedonist and a man without a conscience.

There were so many times that I made connections to other books, and I love when that happens. There's an ocean barge carrying toxic waste, unable to find a port that will allow it to dock; it's loosely based on a true event, which also inspired Jonah Winter and Red Nose Studio to create the all-ages picture book Here Comes the Garbage Barge.

King seamlessly incorporates scientific and historical information, like the time in 1950 when an American pilot jettisoned a nuclear bomb over Quebec. One of the scariest genetically modified organisms, Klebsiella planticola bacteria, is central to the plot. It gives me shivers just thinking about its destructive potential. (Go ahead and google it.)

I've encountered readers who are hesitant to read Thomas King's work for fear that too much will go over their heads. Looking back on what I've written so far, I hope I don't reinforce that misconception. The Back of the Turtle is totally enjoyable and accessible. It's heartbreaking and heart healing. I've saved writing about it for the last day of the year because its one of my top reads of 2014.


Nobody writes quite like King, but the closest readalikes are possibly Monkey Beach (Eden Robinson) and Boy Snow Bird (Helen Oyeyemi).

More from Thomas King: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America - nonfiction that I wish everyone would read.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Baby's in Black: Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, and The Beatles by Arne Bellstorf

Baby's in Black is set in 1960-62, when The Beatles were honing their musical skills by playing long sets every night in a dive bar in the red light district of Hamburg, Germany. It's a slice of pop culture history, created in graphic novel format by German artist Arne Bellstorf.

At that time, The Beatles were comprised of John, Paul, George, Pete Best (on drums) and Stu Sucliffe (on bass). A couple of young German friends, Klaus Voortman and Astrid Kirchherr, started going almost nightly to hear them. They eventually got to know the band members very well. Astrid took photos of them (and would go on to be one of The Beatles premier photographers). Astrid and Stu fell in love; this is mostly a story about them.

I love the energy and immediacy of this biography. There's plenty of Beatles trivia too, like George being sent home to England by the German authorities because he was underage (17). And the reason why the band is called the Beat Brothers on their very first recording (backing Tony Sheridan on "My Bonnie").

Here's a bit of dialogue from when the band is first invited to sit with Astrid and Klaus during a break in the music:

John Lennon - "Where did you get them black turtlenecks?"
Klaus - "I bought this one at the flea market in Paris."
John - "And did you get your hair cut there?"
Klaus - "No. Astrid cut my hair."

Later, Astrid cuts Stu's hair too. Apparently, the rest of The Beatles copied the hairstyle afterwards, although that's not told in Baby's in Black. Black, by the way, is Astrid's favourite colour.

Bellstorf's art is in velvety blacks with scribbled graphite shadings. Sometimes the marks go outside the panel borders--an appropriate touch for this free-spirited group of young people who are metaphorically colouring outside the lines. Deep black clothes and accented eyes capture the mod vibe, and smudgy graphite is perfect for the pervasive cigarette smoke.

Listen to some early Beatles, let your hips shake, and your experience of stepping back in time will be complete.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer

Bilal Tanweer's interconnected short stories set in contemporary Pakistan made my Bestest Books so Far list, midway through 2014. I read the whole book again today and I love it even more.

The Scatter Here Is Too Great is about loneliness and community, our inner lives and our exterior interactions. It's about the way "stories give us reasons to connect ourselves to the world," and the way creating art can heal our wounds.

The narrative centers around a few of the people who are affected by a bomb blast at an intersection in Karachi, although most of them have sorrows that are completely apart from this tragedy. For example, a father knocked down by the explosion is thinking of his estranged son:

"You desperately wish to see your son and tell him you are fine. You want to hold his hand like the time when he was a ceaselessly crying newborn and you were alone in the hospital room sitting next to his cot feeling a kind of raging joy, an awe, as if you were looking at Life itself, a presence of something divinely new, as if you had just begun a life outside yourself, and nothing, not even death, could damage all your dying rotting parts that you felt each day."

Another man grieves for his long-dead father, who once told him:

"A city is all about how you look at it. We must learn to see it in many ways so that when one of the ways of looking hurts us, we can take refuge in another way of looking. You must always love the city."

The characters are tenderly portrayed, flawed and so very believable, seen from a variety of vantage points. Seen through Tanweer's eyes, even garbage is beautiful:

"The sea at 11:00 A.M. was one Karachi dream that came true each day. It was one part of the city that remained as it ever was: a vast desert of water meeting a uniform spread of gray sand that shimmered with litter in sunlight: plastic bags lolled their heads in the constant wind, half-buried glass bottles stuck their radiant necks out of the sand, varieties of seaweed lay wasted like old mop cloths, and the sea breeze was forever at work scrubbing sand on everything that interrupted its movement."

It's a powerful book with a big heart that made my own heart feel bigger.

Readalikes: Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Katherine Boo); Five Star Billionaire (Tash Aw); In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Daniyal Mueenuddin); Love Enough (Dionne Brand); and Between the Assassinations (Aravind Adiga).

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Krampus the Yule Lord by Brom

Old magic is afoot on Christmas morning in West Virginia.

Santa Claus had better watch out. Krampus is coming to town, and he is set on revenge.

"Santa Claus... How vile your name upon my tongue. Like acid, hard to utter without spitting."

Santa Claus is not the saint he appears to be. Krampus is not the devil he appears to be.

Also, Brom's Krampus the Yule Lord is not really as grim as the book's cover might lead you to believe. The horned creature with his pointy tongue might have put me off if I hadn't loved one of Brom's earlier novels, The Child Thief (a retelling of Peter Pan).

Yes, Krampus is a dark fantasy. Battles between gods are no picnic, and there are violent scenes involving modern day sociopaths, crooks and meth addicts. At its core, however, this reworking of Norse and Christian mythologies contains a deep love and faith in the natural world. It is possible that good will triumph over evil.

Brom's illustrations add just the right gothic touch. Check out some of them online here, being sure to scroll down to Santa Claus.

Krampus is a great yuletide story for any day of the year.

Readalikes: American Gods (Neil Gaiman); Ragnarok (A.S. Byatt); Weaveworld (Clive Barker).

Monday, December 22, 2014

Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual: Renewing the World's Bird Supply Since 2031 by Kate Samworth

Funny and sad and horrifying. Kate Samworth's Aviary Wonders Inc. is one of the most confounding books that I've ever read. It's a beautifully illustrated picture book that's styled as a future catalog of robot birds made from mix-and-match parts. The re-engineered dodo from Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series comes to mind.

"Whether you are looking for a companion, want to make something beautiful, or just want to listen to birdsong, we'll supply everything you need to build your own bird."

The brief book trailer below will give you a feel for Samworth's sly wit.

There are pages of beaks, bodies, wings and so on, which showcase the diversity of avian forms found in nature. Each page contains valid natural history information about birds. For example, that tails are used for brakes, balance, steering and display; that wing shape affects flying style; and "the Moa was large, flightless--and tasty! The last of the species was eaten in the fifteenth century."

The two-page spread about beaks divides them into four types: carnivores, for birds of prey; insectivores, for perchers, swimmers, and waders; herbivores, best for perchers; and piscivores, for waders and swimmers. "Choose beak according to diet."

A few of the beaks from Aviary Wonders by Kate Samworth (detail)
As seen in the detail above, while the beak shapes are accurate, the colours and patterns are outrageously lurid. They are so obviously unnatural that the overall effect is disturbing. 

Another creepy aspect is the breezy manner in which information about extinction is shared: "Passenger Pigeon. Imagine! These birds once travelled in flocks a mile wide and 300 miles long! The last died in 1914." So there's this uneasy mix of tragedy, hucksterism and humour. "100% Indian silk feathers don't fray with age like natural feathers" almost made me weep with the (unstated) reminder of species that have been made extinct because their feathers were used to decorate hats. 

Aviary Wonders is an important, thought-provoking book for readers of all ages.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Weasels by Elys Dolan

Sharing picture books with young children is always a pleasure. Certain picture books are also a delight for adults reading solo: Elys Dolan's Weasels is one of them. Her zany satire of work culture is delivered with irresistible charm.

"Weasels. What do you think they do all day? Eat nuts and berries? Frolic in the leaves? Lurk in the dark? Argue with squirrels? Hide in their weasel holes? Well, all of these are wrong. What they really do is..."

"plot world domination!"

Things go wrong (of course) and the plan descends into chaos. Dolan's depictions of personality and social interaction are spot on. Stuff is happening on every part of every page. There's the weasel who is "entirely confident that this huge drill will fix everything." Another is disappointed with his "frothuccino:" "You know, I'm not sure about this. I should have gotten a normal coffee." Two weasels chat in front of "World of Woodcraft" on their computer screen: "I'm a level 72 badger."

As it says on the book's cover: "Megalomania has never been so furry!" As Scott Adams (Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel) says: "All people are idiots. And they are also weasels."

Readers of all ages--and pre-readers too!--will have fun poring over the detailed images.

Explore more of Dolan's artwork on her website here.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Shady Characters by Keith Houston

Romping through the history of writing is so much fun with Keith Houston as a guide. His essays in Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks each focus on one or two symbols, with tangental explorations along the way. It is a fascinating journey.

Common characters like quotation marks, the hyphen and the dash had never before excited my curiosity, although I do get worked up about their shape limitations on this blogging platform. (It irritates me that I have to resort to two hyphens in a row to approximate an m-dash. I also would prefer to have proper, curved quotation marks, instead of the ugly straight-up-and-down things that are identical on either end of a quotation.) Anyway, Houston traces the long road through history to the quotation marks and dashes we use today.

"The abundance of fussily named and proportioned dashes came into its own in the swirling melee of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century punctuation. Despite the superficial conformity that printing had imposed on all the jostling marks in circulation, the use of punctuation was still haphazard and excessive--and the dash was at the center of the melee."

From hand-lettered manuscripts to various kinds of printing presses to manual typewriters to computer keyboards, the way we get words on a page (or screen) has influenced the characters we use. I had forgotten that I learned to type on a machine without an exclamation mark key. To create one, we had to make a period, then backspace, and then type an apostrophe over the period.
Examples of symbols are shown in
red throughout the text in
Shady Characters. There are also
plenty of photo illustrations.

The history of punctuation is entwined with the history of books in general, which is another reason that I found Shady Characters irresistible.

"Perhaps the most jarring omission from early printed books was the lack of a proper title page: the closest analogous feature was the "colophon," a single leaf at the back of the book that described its provenance to a greater or lesser degree, including the details such as its title, date and place of its printing--though curiously enough, almost never its author. Over time the colophon was increasingly transposed to the front of the book to greet the reader as he or she opened it, and became in the process a playground for typographic experimentation."

The final chapter documents the efforts, over the centuries, of writers who have lobbied for marks to indicate irony and sarcasm.

"Then came the Internet, plucking many a shady character from obscurity and thrusting them back into the light. The quotidian @ symbol became indispensable; the octothorpe was recast as the dashing hashtag, and the interrobang gained a new generation of admirers. The mythical ironics had their long-awaited debut, and the irony mark was revived too, though their new lease on life came with a caveat. The subtle shadings of verbal irony were bleached flat in the blinding glare of the new medium: what the Internet really wanted to communicate was not irony, but its laser-guided offspring, sarcasm."

Shady Characters is informative and highly entertaining.

Readalike authors: Mary Roach (Packing for Mars; Gulp), Bill Bryson, Simon Garfield (Just My Type) and Amy Stewart (The Drunken Botanist).

Monday, December 15, 2014

Living with a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, an activist, journalist and lifelong atheist now in her 70s, looks back on her teenage self in Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything. In particular, she examines the meaning of a mystical experience recorded in her journal in 1959, when she was 16.

Everyone else in my book group hated Living with a Wild God. I was taken aback by their reaction, because I loved it so much that I read it twice. I listened first to the audiobook [Hachette: 9 hr] performed by the author, which is always a treat with autobiography. Then I read it in paper. Only one other person - the lone scientist in our group - had even finished the book, and while she admitted that the ending was worthwhile, she found most of it a slog.

At our book meeting last month, my library copy was bristling with flags. I'm going to quote some here for future reference. If you like this sort of thing, I invite you to join me while I revisit a selection of passages. It's somewhat of a marathon. If you haven't yet read Living with a Wild God, these excerpts should make it clear whether or not this book is for you.

  "But if you are thinking this is the usual story of dysfunction and abuse, then I'm doing a poor job of telling it, and projecting my own standards as a parent onto a time, and a class, when children were still regarded as miscreants rather than the artisanal projects that they have become today. It's not easy to explain my parents' complicated role in repressing and inspiring me, clamping down and letting go."

  "In the 1950s, when I hit my teens, the 'central developmental task' that psychologists had devised for this phase in the lives of young humans was gradually to put away existential angst and unrealistic ambitions for the benumbed state known as 'maturity.'"

On pondering the meaning of life:

  "The reason I eventually became a writer is that writing makes thinking easier, and even as a verbally underdeveloped fourteen-year-old I knew that if I wanted to understand 'the situation,' thinking was what I had to do."

Family outings on Sunday afternoons:

  "Sometimes there would be a touristic destination or at least a roadside tavern as a turnaround point, where the grown-ups would have a few beers while we kids waited out front. If I had known that drunk driving carried the risk of maiming and death, these Sunday afternoon enterprises might have been more successful at holding my interest."

Ehrenreich's first mystical experience:
  "And then it happened. Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels, and words. I was looking at a tree, and if anyone had asked, that's what I would have said I was doing, but the word 'tree' was gone, along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language."

  "If this was a mental illness, or even just a particularly clinical case of adolescence, I was bearing up pretty well."

Friendless, but not unhappy:

  "On the whole, despite family tensions, social isolation, the ongoing horror of puberty, and intermittent philosophical despair, I was not unhappy, or if I was, I did not see fit to write about it. There was too much going on for that, too much to find out and absorb, and emotions were not my natural beat."

Like Ehrenreich, my favourite subject in high school was chemistry. The next passage is another example of why I identified strongly with Ehrenreich as a teenager. She was required to take a "course brazenly entitled 'Life Adjustment'" at a new school after moving to Los Angeles:

  "On about my third session in this course we were given a 'personality test' to fill out, featuring multiple-choice questions about our eagerness to spend time with friends (of which I had none at the moment), eventual interest in marriage, and general satisfaction with the status quo. I filled it out quickly and guilelessly, prepared to learn something about that mysterious doppelganger, my 'personality.' But no, as soon as we had finished the tests, the teacher instructed us to exchange papers with the person sitting across the aisle from us, so that the test could be corrected.
   I stuck up my hand to raise the obvious, even platitudinous question: How could there be 'right' answers if, as had just been explained, each person has a unique personality? [...] I got some kind of patronizing answer about my being new to the class and how everything would be clear soon enough. So I stood up without saying another word, picked up my books, and walked out, taking my potentially incriminating test with me."

(At book group, I was surprised to find myself alone in sympathetic outrage over the previous passage. The other women found fault with teen Ehrenreich for not being willing to trust the teacher's process.)

On a skiing trip at age 16 with her school friend, Dick, and her brother:

  "[Dick's inexplicable] anger shamed me into silence, suggestive as it was of some sort of intimacy. As far as I had ever been able to determine, anger was the principal emotional bond between husbands and wives and possibly the only thing that held them together."

  "I should have stayed home and read Kafka, whom I'd just discovered in a paperback bookstore and found agreeably disorienting."

  "Dick's looks were not lost on me, but I didn't aspire to be his or anyone's girlfriend. If anything, my secret, inadmissible craving was to be a boy like him or at least some sort of gender-free comrade at arms."

On her relationship with her father:

  "I know I was not his actual son, only a botched reincarnation in which his magnificent genius mind had been misplaced in a female body, where it was dragged down and eroded by the hormonal tides. I was supposed to be smart, like him, but never as smart as him. I was supposed to ask questions, but only answerable ones that gave him a chance to demonstrated his superior logic and education."

Later, Ehrenreich writes of her fear of "the dark, swampy side of female existence."

Ehrenreich, an atheist from childhood, writes about a key mystical experience in 1959:
Interior column in
Les Jacobins, Toulouse,
reminds me of a
burning bush.

  "Here we leave the jurisdiction of language, where nothing is left but the vague gurgles of surrender expressed in words like 'ineffable' and 'transcendent.' For most of the intervening years, my general thought has been: If there are no words for it, then don't say anything about it. Otherwise you risk slopping into 'spirituality,' which is, in addition to being a crime against reason, of no more interest to other people than your dreams.
   But there is one image, handed down over the centuries, that seems to apply, and that is the image of fire, as in the 'burning bush.' At some point in my predawn walk - not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time - the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with 'the All,' as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze."

Then there was a "post-epiphany crack-up."

  "Would religion have saved me, if I had one or could have adopted one? Years later, as an adult, I read in one of the women's magazines I wrote for at the time an article that actually dealt with the subject of 'mystical experiences.' These could be unhealthy, even shattering, the writer averred, unless a person had a religion in which to 'house' them. This was the function of religion, in fact - to serve as a safe storage space for the unaccountable and uncanny."

God is not good: 

 "If there was one thing I understood about God, it was that he was not good, and if he was good, he was too powerless to deserve our attention. In fact the idea of a God who is both all-powerful and all good is a logical impossibility - possibly a trap set by ancient polytheists to ensnare weak-minded monotheists like Philo and Augustine, and certainly not worth my time."

Ehrenreich gives thanks that her grandmother sent an electric frying pan as an early wedding gift, because its implications made her rethink the realities of an impending marriage when she was 19, and to call it off. Her fiance, Steve, took the news "fairly stoically, for which I count myself lucky, because he later received a twenty-three-year prison sentence for the attempted murder of the woman he eventually married, who had, according to the local Eugene newspaper, made the mistake of asking for a divorce."

  "I spent the first few months of graduate school pretending to be a student of theoretical physics. This required no great acting skill beyond the effort to appear unperturbed in the face of the inexplicable, which is as far as I can see one of the central tasks of adulthood."

On remaining open to mystic possibilities:

  "Mysticism often reveals a wild, amoral Other, while religion insists on conventional codes of ethics enforced by an ethical supernatural being. The obvious solution would be to admit that ethical systems are a human invention and that the Other is something else entirely."
Staphylococcus aureus bacteria
(via National Institutes of Health)

"Monotheism inhibits us from imagining anything involved with the 'numinous' or 'holy' as part of a species, since a species generally has more than one member. But if the hypothesized beings are 'alive,' that is, technically speaking, what we are dealing with.

   As for those who insist on a singular deity, I would note that the line we draw between an individual and a multitude is not always clear: Slime molds can exist as individual cells or join together to form a single body; bacterial colonies can exhibit a kind of intelligence unavailable to individual bacterial cells. [...] If there seems to be some confusion here on the subject of case - whether to say Other or Others, deity or deities - it grows out of the limits of our biological imagination."

Living with a Wild God is a powerful book for the right reader, especially one who felt the tension between logic and faith from an early age. My book group experience reveals that it isn't for everyone, but I recommend it anyway. It sparked discussion about spirituality, about memoir in general, and about women in science.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Bleak and optimistic at the same time: that's my kind of book. Many other people agree, because Station Eleven is ubiquitous on "Best of 2014" lists. There are lots of dynamic characters, the story is compelling and the writing is crisp. The setting moves back and forth between now and the future: before and after a flu pandemic wipes out 80% of the world's population. It is on my "Best of 2014" list too.

I listened to the audiobook [Penguin Random House: 10 hr 41 min] performed with Shakespearean aplomb by Kirsten Potter. She does an exceptionally fine job of differentiating the wide cast of characters.

Readalikes: The Dog Stars (Peter Heller); MaddAddam (Margaret Atwood); Finder (Carla Speed McNeil) and Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell).

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests surprised me because I expected to adore it, which I did at first, and then I nearly gave up on it when I was three-quarters of the way through. I despaired for the protagonists in their situation that seemed hopeless. In his recommendation of The Paying Guests, Slate columnist Simon Doonan wrote: "How can one book be so dismal and so utterly unputdownable?" Well, I was ready to put it down, so I asked a friend who knows my tastes if I should continue. I'm glad I asked, because I'm glad I finished it.

Sarah Waters is a fabulous author and I've read every one of her books. (Affinity is my favourite, but they are all delicious in their own ways.) The atmospheric 1920s London setting and vivid characters drew me immediately into The Paying Guests. Frances Wray and her mother rent rooms in their house to a married couple in order to make ends meet, then Frances begins an affair with the wife.

"The door was open, and she and Lilian were inching towards it. More smiles, more handshakes, more apologies ... And then they were free, going out of the house like swimmers. Or so, anyhow, it seemed to Frances, for directly the door was closed again and the clamour of the party was behind them she lifted her arms, put back her head, feeling unmoored, suspended, lapped about by the liquid blue night."

Waters is a master at getting me into the skin of her people. That moment of leaving the party feels so real - the undercurrent of attraction between the two women, and that open feeling of possibilities.

The pace in the early part is measured, with the feeling of being drawn inexorably toward some fateful event:

"But the end, Frances wanted to say, was impossible to imagine. It was like the idea that one would grow old, when one was thrumming with youth; like the knowledge that one would die, when one felt full to one's fingertips with life."

Sarah Waters signing at
Vancouver Writers Fest 2014.
The ending of the book is not what I had imagined and it is very well done. No spoilers. I will, however, mention something that came up in the New York Times. In their 100 notable books of 2014, The Paying Guests is described as: "Hard times, forbidden love, murder and justice are the themes of this nevertheless comic novel, set in London after World War 1." Comedy is different for everyone, but I didn't notice any of it in this particular book.

Another note: I read up to page 282 (out of 566 pages) in my friend Kathy's copy of The Paying Guests (while I was visiting Vancouver in October), and then I started again from the beginning with the audiobook [Books on Tape: 21.5 hours] narrated by Juliet Stevenson. Either way is good.

Readalikes: Alias Grace (Margaret Atwood); Apple Tree Yard (Louise Doughty); The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters); and Slammerkin (Emma Donoghue).

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Love Enough by Dionne Brand

Elegant, thoughtful and life-affirming. Dionne Brand's Love Enough is so good that I found myself reading more and more slowly, wanting to make the 180 pages of her newest novel last as long as possible.

Brand also writes poetry, short stories and essays, but I love her novels most of all. In Another Place, Not Here (1996), has long been a favourite, with its simmering rage and the singular voice in the opening pages. Battling injustice is a central theme in Brand's work.

In Love Enough, the central character is a social activist in Toronto. June has had both male and female lovers.

"Beatriz was clearly passing through and this explosive impermanence was precisely what June wanted at the time. Not love but the fissive encounter, the intense ideas and intense sex and the hypersense that every moment was atomic and defining. Of course one cannot live at that pitch forever, although naturally one wants to."

June's current lover, Sydney, weathers the storms of June's prickly contrariness. Their relationship is part of what makes this book so full of hope: that there is indeed love enough to survive through difficult times.

There are other characters with intersecting lives. Bedri and Ghost are two young Black men on the run from a violent encounter. Bedri's father and Ghost's mother have their own troubles. Ghost's sister Lia is hoping that her friend Jasmeet will return to the city and find her. Paying attention to beauty is how Lia survives. Every morning, she studies the colours of the lake view outside.
View from the house where I've been staying for the past week in Victoria, BC.
"She ought to buy a camera, then she could set it at the window and take shots each minute. But then again, that would not quite do for what she needs. The camera would take the picture but she needs the moment to sink into her, to somehow become chemical, to metabolise, to reconstitute, yes, reconstitute her heart."

As I read Love Enough, I could feel my heart expanding to make room for June, Sydney, Bedri, Ghost and the rest, with their human frailties so tenderly portrayed. Yes. Thank you, Dionne Brand, for this beautiful book.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

When two creative rock stars join forces, great books happen. Author Mac Barnett and artist Jon Klassen previously collaborated on the delightful picture book Extra Yarn. Their latest creation is the playful and subversive Sam & Dave Dig a Hole. It's about two boys doing what kids like, accompanied by their dog who appears to know more than they do.

Readers know more too. Barnett plays the straight man here with the words.
   "When should we stop digging?" asked Sam.
   "We are on a mission," said Dave.
   "We won't stop digging until we find something spectacular."

Klassen's illustrations provide both the real story and the humorous contrast with the text. The earth shown in cross-section reveals that the boys decide to change directions every time they get close to treasure (increasingly massive gemstones, a bone).

Sharp readers will spot the differences when the boys return home empty-handed. The surreal ending makes Sam & Dave Dig a Hole satisfying for all ages.

Look for other wonderful picture books by these talented guys, including Chloe and the Lion (Mac Barnett & Adam Rex), House Held Up by Trees (Ted Kooser & Jon Klassen) and my all-time favourite, I Want My Hat Back (Jon Klassen).

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix

I'm not a big fan of straight psychological horror, but mix black humour with creepiness and I'm hooked. Author Grady Hendrix hits the perfect satirical note with Horrorstor. Bizarre acts of destruction have been noticed by the opening shift at an American box store that sells Ikea knockoffs. A handful of employees are conscripted to stay overnight to find out what's going on. It's a night from hell. And it's funny too.

The book is designed to look like an Ikea catalogue. Each chapter starts with some pseudo-Swedish type of furniture, getting more and more odd as the novel progresses. It's irresistible.

Readalikes: Then We Came to the End (Joshua Ferris); The Blondes (Emily Schultz); Worst. Person. Ever. (Douglas Coupland); Afterlife with Archie (Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa); Zombies Calling (Faith Erin Hicks).
"Unwind on the cushion-firm mattress as this elegantly designed wheeled stretcher transfers you to the destination of your choice. Whether it's a fast-paced trip to an urgent care center or a more leisurely cruise to the coroner's office, GURNE delivers you in style and comfort" 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Dublin Impac Longlist: So Much Good Stuff!

When the folks at the Dublin Impac Literary Award say "long" they mean it. Their longlist announced today contains 142 nominees from 39 countries. I'm always excited to see what's on this list because:

  • Finding out about new books and authors, especially from other parts of the world
  • Seeing which of my favourites are included
  • Reminder of great books that I've already read
  • Nominations are all from libraries
  • Big money prize (100,000 euros) celebrates literary endeavour

Two books that caught my eye are by Australian Indigenous authors:
Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko and The Swan Book by Alexis Wright. (I reviewed Wright's Carpentaria here.) I hope that these are available in Canada, because I want to read them now!

It was good to be reminded of a couple of other titles that I've been meaning to read for a long time: On Sal Mal Lane by the fabulous Ru Freeman and For Sure by Canadian France Daigle. (Note to self: less time on twitter = more time to read books.)

I noticed that two books have single letter titles: S by Doug Dorst and K by Bernardo Kucinski. Interesting. Surely it isn't often that a book gets that kind of title.

The book that intrigues me most based on title alone: Mr. Darwin's Gardener by Kristina Carlson (because Charles Darwin and horticulture).

The book covers that most attracted me: The Humans by Matt Haig (because font and dog looking at night sky) and Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist (because magpies).
Here are some excellent titles on the list that I've previously reviewed:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood
The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Harvest by Jim Crace
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
Eyrie by Tim Winton
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigahara

There are a bunch of other books on the list that I've read and haven't reviewed, so the Dublin Impac longlist is also a kick in the pants reminding me to write my thoughts on this blog before moving on to another book. Aside from Instructions for a Heatwave, these are all titles that I listened to in audiobook format. Every one of them is worthwhile:

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
The Son by Philipp Meyer
Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

If you're looking for something new to read, check out the Impac list. Pick your favourites and see if they make the shortlist that will be announced in April 2015.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg

British artist Isabel Greenberg has made a fresh, witty and charming tale out of ancient mythology and her own imagination: The Encyclopedia of Early Earth.

"Readers! This book is not a real encyclopedia!" -from the back cover.

It's about a storyteller from the land of Nord and his series of adventures as he travels the globe in search of a missing part of himself. Meanwhile, BirdMan and his two children - the Ravens - look on from their perch in the heavens. It's told in graphic novel format with striking linocut-style images.

First panel in the book. How could I not immediately fall in love with a book that starts with mitten love?
The story of historical events depends on who is doing the storytelling. (Note the high five in background.)
The Master Bootlicker made me laugh...
Another panel that made me laugh. (God's reaction to prayer: "What the bloody hell is that noise?")
This panel is from Wonder Woman Vol. 1: Blood (Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang, Tony Akins). It was pure serendipity that I read this immediately following The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, and found this reference to Bird Man / Bird God. The thing that prompted me to re-read the New 52 Wonder Woman series is the news that a new creative team is taking over the writing: Meredith and David Finch. Looking forward to what they'll do!

To see more of Isabel Greenberg's delightful art, check out her website:

Readalikes: Mouse Bird Snake Wolf (David Almond & Dave McKean); The Odyssey (Gareth Hinds).

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King

Every new book from A.S. King is reason for excitement. I know that I will find offbeat characters navigating this confounding world with wit and heart. Each one makes me feel that I'm encountering life in a new way. I am seduced every time.

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future begins with a quote from Walt Whitman: "The future is no more uncertain than the present."

"Prologue: The clan of the petrified bat

   So we drank it - the two of us. Ellie drank it first and acted like it tasted good. I followed. And it wasn't half bad.
   When we woke up the next morning, everything was different. We could see the future. We could see the past. We could see everything."

Yeah, so two teens on the cusp of adulthood mix a desiccated bat into beer and drink it. Then they start getting random visions of the future and the past whenever they look at people. That's the kind of crazy stuff that happens in A.S. King's novels. From then on, it's all really real.

Ellie grew up on the hippie commune across the road from Glory's house. All their lives, they have been best friends by default. Ellie has never talked to Glory about her mother.

When Glory was four, her mother committed suicide by sticking her head in an oven. Glory's father has never replaced that stove; they only eat microwaved meals at home.

Glory is now 17 and her aunt Amy still sends birthday cards with overly girly motifs.

  "Amy always had a way of going over the top because I told her I was a feminist when I was twelve, and she told Dad he'd brainwashed me into being some sort of half-boy.
   Which was bullshit. I was not a half-boy. I was still totally myself. I just wanted Aunt Amy to get paid as much as a man if ever she got off her lazy ass and got a job.
   Why did everyone mix up that word so much?"

Today on twitter I saw this:

In Glory O'Brien's History of the Future, A.S. King takes a dystopian crack at the ongoing equality debate. Glory foresees a federal Fair Pay Act being enacted 50 years in the future. It will require employers to pay women the same as men for performing the same jobs. (That's not the dystopian part!)

  "The loophole in the federal Fair pay Act will be simple. How can states make sure they won't have to pay women fairly? Make it illegal for women to work."

Whoa. Serious societal malfunction ahead. Meanwhile, Glory struggles to come up with a plan for her immediate future.

I loved this book to pieces. King is the ace of YA. You can't go wrong with any of her novels, including a couple that I've reviewed previously: Ask the Passengers and Please Forgive Vera Dietz.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

The Night Gardener contains the most evil tree I've ever encountered in children's literature. J.K. Rowling's whomping willow, Tolkein's ents, Patrick Ness' yew in A Monster Calls, and Chris Grabenstein's oak in The Crossroads have nothing on the sourwood at the heart of Jonathan Auxier's cautionary tale. Even its dried leaves are scary!

Ever think it would be great to have your deepest desire fulfilled? Read this book and think twice!

Two Irish orphans are employed to serve a formerly-wealthy English family who live on a remote, creepy estate. The family is hiding a big secret. Mysterious things happen in the night. It's all dire warnings at the crossroads, disturbing dreams, black roots and ichor. Perfect for children in upper elementary school who love a scary story.

The Night Gardener comes in an attractive package and would make a good gift. The Canadian Puffin edition that I borrowed from the library has a metallic dust jacket, patterned endpapers (black leaves on grey), decorated chapter headings (more black leaves), and black edging on the outside edges of the pages. The three parts of the story (the classic gothic format) are separated by solid black pages. The book design does a great job of setting its ominous mood.

Readalikes: A Series of Unfortunate Events (Lemony Snicket); A Tale Dark and Grimm (Adam Gidwitz; Coraline (Neil Gaiman); and Into the Woods (Lyn Gardner).

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

It's number 1 on Amazon's top 100 books of 2014: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I listened to this on audio in July and didn't blog about it then, even though I really liked it. Let's see how much I remember without referring to anyone's summary or reviews.

Two main themes stick with me: the impossibility of knowing what is going on in another person's head, and the insidiousness of racism in Western society.

The middle teenage daughter has died in a family with a Caucasian mother and a second-generation Chinese American father. What happened to her? Her death has widened the fractures in her parents' marriage, which was already under stress from thwarted ambitions and the absence of outside support. Will their relationship survive?

It's a story of loneliness and isolation. It's about accepting hard truths. It's a story of modern life. I'm glad the editors at Amazon recognized the power of this book.

P.S. The audiobook [Blackstone: 10 hours] is narrated by Cassandra Campbell. (I had to look that up.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Fictional Lives During World War II: A List

Poppies, France - pastel on Canson Mi-Teintes paper - by Lindy Pratch
In honour of Remembrance Day, I put together a list of 10 novels set during World War II. War is an extraordinary, heartbreaking, exciting and horrible circumstance that tests our humanity. I love books that focus on character and setting, so that's what you'll find here. (The links will take you to longer, earlier reviews on my blog.)

Freddy's War by Judy Schultz
War's effects on soldiers as well as those on the home front are examined in this layered novel about a young man from Edmonton who is sent with the Winnipeg Grenadiers to Hong Kong in 1941. Lots of food writing in this one!

Tamar by Mal Peet
After her grandfather's suicide, a British teenager uncovers his secret involvement in a romantic triangle in wartime Netherlands. A nuanced look at the way war affects subsequent generations.

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit
Poetically narrated in the collective voice of hundreds of women, who arrive perplexed in 1943 at a site in New Mexico where their husbands are working on a top-secret project.

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
This powerful novel threads together the lives of two families through five decades of world events, starting in 1945 when the atomic flash in Nagasaki permanently marked the pattern of a woman's kimono onto her back.

Half-blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Cranky Sid Griffiths, 82 years old in 1992, relates the events surrounding his time in a jazz band in the 1930s in Berlin, and the disappearance of his youngest bandmate, who was picked up by Nazi soldiers in Paris.

Once by Morris Gleitzman
A heart-wrenching tale for all ages about a Jewish child, left in a Catholic orphanage, who decides to search through Nazi-occupied Poland for his parents. See also the companion book, Then.

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
A lyrical, layered novel that begins with a small Polish boy, his family's only survivor, who is rescued from the Nazis by a Greek geologist. The pair eventually make their home in Canada.

Coventry by Helen Humphreys
Through the dramatic events on the night of November 14, 1940, two fire wardens on the roof of Coventry's cathedral become unlikely friends as they share the horrors of an extended bombing raid that destroys much of the city.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Friendship inspires extreme heroism when a young British pilot is captured by Germans in 1943 and made to write down the details of her mission. Very suspenseful!

B for Buster by Iain Lawrence
16-year-old Kak's idealism gradually turns to horror when he lies about his age in 1943 to enlist in the Canadian Air Force and becomes a wireless operator on night bombing raids over Germany.

Friday, November 7, 2014

She of the Mountains by Vivek Shraya

Edmonton-born author Vivek Shraya's complex exploration of queer identity in She of the Mountains layers Hindu mythology with contemporary life. Episodes from the life of Parvati, mother of the universe, alternate with scenes from the life of a South Asian boy coming of age in Canada.

I'll start with the book's striking design. Raymond Biesinger's stylized green and black artwork illustrates the text and emphasizes its quality of universality. Green is a colour of growth and transformation, so the bright green pages that divide the novel into sections also contribute a layer of symbolism.

Parvati is a goddess, yet she suffers in ways that humans understand: grieving over the death of her children; feeling conflicted loyalties; emotionally wounded by her husband Shiva. Her sections are told in first person, making her story fresh and immediate.

In her incarnation as the mortal Sati, Parvati yearns for blue-skinned Shiva:

"As the prayers continued, I gazed at the fire ahead, comforted by the only presence in the room that understood my burning sense of betrayal and disappointment.
Contemplating my misfortune, I became mesmerized by the streaks of blue in the flames until all I could see was blue.
Shiva! There you are! I knew you would come, I said. I stood up and walked into the fire, arms open. This was the end of my human life."

The contemporary sections are in third person, following an unnamed boy who grew up in a Hindu family in Edmonton. Gay is an invective used against him when he was too young to even understand the word. The way that bullying squashes human potential is made poignantly clear.

"[He] stopped seeking pleasure altogether. His world was reduced to bare necessity. Home was where he slept and ate, and school was where he learned.
He graduated from high school amorphous, his teenage body and its vast possibilities left on the unpaved field where it was first attacked."

At university, he comes out and and finds community at The Only Gay Bar in Edmonton. Then his life is once again in turmoil, because he falls in love with a woman. Bisexuality is not sanctioned. He is told: "Honey, we all liked girls at one point. But the Bi Highway always leads to Gaytown."

Shraya signs books at the University of Alberta,  Sept 2014
She has skin like his own and their shared browness is a revelation: "Falling in love with her brown had unexpectedly given his own skin new value, a new sheen."

"White was almost every interaction he had, and through this relentless exposure, he learned to value it, serve it, aspire to it, his white bedroom walls plastered with white famous faces. This was where the true power of white resided."

The new couple do not fit into the gay community, yet he cannot disavow the gay aspect of himself either.

"Who could they be outside their parents' homes? Who could they be outside of university? Maybe they would move to Vancouver; she loved the ocean, and he loved every city that wasn't Edmonton."

(I've heard that last sentiment more than a few times.)

Being human is a complicated and lonely affair. This short, sensitive novel is a fine example of the way we can reconcile contradictions and establish a sense of self-worth.

Companion reads (with links to my reviews): God Loves Hair is Vivek Shraya's first book; Ramayana: Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel, for another brief and informal retelling from Indic mythology, combined with stylized art; The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruna, to get immersed in a longer retelling from Indic mythology; Boyfriends with Girlfriends by Alex Sanchez, for another exploration of bisexuality.

Thank you to Arsenal Pulp Press for providing me with a review copy of She of the Mountains.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

How to be both by Ali Smith

How to be both a girl and a boy.
How to be both sad and happy.
How to be both the surface image and the underpainting.
How to be both dead and alive.

Ali Smith's fresh and beautiful novel, How to be both, embraces contradictions.

It's one year after her mother's death and 16-year-old George is still grieving. She skips school to haunt London's National Gallery, to stand in front of one particular painting. It's by Francesco del Cossa, a 15th-century Italian artist whose fresco work captivated George's mother. The disembodied spirit of Francesco begins following George.
"Also, this girl is good at dance : I am enjoying some of the ways of this purgatorium now : one of its strangest is how its people dance by themselves in empty and music-less rooms and they do it by filling their ears with little blocks and swaying about to a silence, or to a noise smaller than the squee of a mosquito that comes through the little confessional grille in each of the blocks : the girl was doing a curving and jerking thing both, with the middle of her body, she went up then down then up again, sometimes so low down that it was a marvel to see her come back up again so quick, sometimes pivoting on one foot and sometimes on the other and sometimes on both with her knees bent then straightening into a sinuous undulate like a caterpillar getting the wings out of the caul, the new imago emerging from the random circumbendibus."
It was from her mother that George learned how to dance the twist. It is through her own inner resources and creative drive, with support from family and friends, that George learns to emerge from grief.

Smith is a master wordsmith. She knows "how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it / up-rising through the skin of it."

How to be both is divided into two parts, both called "one." They are intended to be read interchangeably: some editions start with George, some with Francesco. That aspect alone would make for a good book discussion. There are so many other, deeper things to ponder, like art, perception, and the intangible gifts we get from people we love. This book is a masterpiece.

Readalike: Fabrizio's Return (Mark Frutkin)

Sunday, November 2, 2014

100 Crushes by Elisha Lim

Butches, sissies, and other gender-fluid folk: Canadian artist Elisha Lim showers love on them all in 100 Crushes. Queer people of colour are individually celebrated and given voice in Lim's single-panel illustrated essays. Simple outline sketch portraits, with added rich colours, are accompanied by hand-lettered text and surrounded with hand-drawn decorative frames.

100 Crushes contains selections from old and new serialized works. Gender expression, sexual orientation and pop culture are explored with dignity and appreciation for the beauty in diversity.

I had never before given much thought to the way the performance of masculinity shifts in relation to ethnicity and cultural backdrop. "100 Butches Number 12" moved to the West and was disconcerted to find that she didn't draw lesbian attention in the way she had in Singapore. Layers of emasculating Chinese stereotypes meant she had to seek out a new style: "I sport fur coats, sunglasses indoors, and bleached tips. Maybe the girls don't get it, but in time they will. Chinese men are sexy!"

Pee-wee Herman is the subject in one of the panels from "Sweetest Taboo: Memoirs of a Queer Child in the Eighties." As a child, Lim thought his show was terrifying and "wished that he would stop drawing so much attention to difference." Eventually, she recognized his courage and learned to love him for it.

Lim's interview with Rae Spoon (First Spring Grass Fire) is included in the section "They." Spoon says, "A nice life is when people get my pronoun right."

By sharing personal stories, 100 Crushes helps us to get things right.

Readalike: On Loving Women (Diane Obomsawin). BTW, Lim also did the cover art for Ivan Coyote's One in Every Crowd.

Check out Lim's website, where there's good stuff like God Loves Queers and bumblebees. I also like her brief (51 seconds) claymation film on YouTube: 100 Butches #9 Ruby. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Vancouver Writers Fest Highlights 2014

The weather in Vancouver was
sunnier than the forecast predicted.
There were 100 authors included in the Vancouver Writers Fest and I was in heaven, surrounded by avid readers. For me, this year was all about the queer authors, even though I didn't get to a couple of my favourites: Shani Mootoo and Dionne Brand. Dare I complain of overabundance? Highlights include:

Ann-Marie MacDonald! She is razor sharp, smart and funny. Some (paraphrased) quotes:
"Everything I write is about truth coming out."
"I'm not going to be guilty of pretending that everything is roses and light."
"Comedy lights up the underworld, so you can see what you are scared of."
"Everyone has a personal abyss that opens at the darndest time. Mine is the produce aisle."
"Mrs. Dalloway haunts [Adult Onset], especially when she goes out to buy tulips."
My sweetie currently has dibs on MacDonald's latest novel, and I'm eager for my turn.

Lively conversation between Emma Donoghue and Sarah Waters (photo above) about writing historical fiction, and especially about the inclusion of real people or events. Waters disguised the sensational 1920s true crime that inspired Paying Guests by turning the heterosexual couple into lesbians. Donoghue stayed as close as possible to the facts in Frog Music, while inventing her own plausible solution to an unsolved true crime. When you've got a real woman who kept getting arrested for crossdressing, and who was murdered, there's no need to create someone more interesting. Asked if she isn't disturbing skeletons, Donoghue replied, "Yes, but in a dancing-skeleton-Day-of-the-Dead kind of way."

Michael Cho was the best surprise of the festival. I had expected to hear Cory Doctorow on a panel with Mariko Tamaki, but Cho was there instead. I had just finished reading Cho's fantastic graphic novel Shoplifter, and have been recommending it right and left. He talked about Toronto being a character in the book, which is one of the reasons I loved it. When asked about the challenge of writing a female protagonist, Cho explained that if he focussed on gender, the character would be a stereotype. Instead, he worked hard to make Corrina Park an individual. Another reason that Shoplifter hit me in the heart.

And while I'm on the subject of characters with heart, Mariko Tamaki talked about This One Summer, as well as Skim, one of my all-time favourite graphic novels. She showed a slide of Skim's original cover art (by Jillian Tamaki), which included the words: "This is the diary of Skim Dakota so fuck off." The publisher didn't go for that one.

Vancouver has the sea as well as the Writers Fest.
Characters are really important to me, so I paid close attention to authors who talked about this aspect of their creative process. Cristina Henriquez said, "There's no one immigration story" and "Latino is not a monolith culture." She began The Book of Unknown Americans when one sentence popped into her head -"We heard they were from Mexico"- and expanded her idea from there. Maylis de Kerangal talked about disguising herself by spreading out different small bits of herself into each of her many characters in Birth of a Bridge. Damon Galgut spoke about the contemplative pacing of his novel Arctic Summer, and the way he wanted to use that to mirror E.M. Forster's inner life. Nadia Bozak has placed a coyote/dog cross at the moral centre of her novel El Nino. Tom Rachman: "What is vital about literature is experiencing the world through lives different from one's own. (Yes!)

I saw Rabih Alameddine at a couple of events and I was smitten. I hadn't imagined that he would be impish and campy in person. He's the author of a book that thoroughly delighted me: An Unnecessary Woman. In the '80s, Alameddine was motivated to enter the conversation about AIDS because he didn't see his anger reflected in the gay novels being published then. (Note to self: read Alameddine's earlier works.) The book that made the greatest impression on him and gave him the idea that he could be a writer at all was Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas, because it reflected a family much like his own. I believe this book was an influence for Shani Mootoo, also.

Tim Winton mentioned a similar experience. Coming from a working class background, he owes his greatest debt in becoming a writer to Huckleberry Finn and the way Samuel Clemens turned common folk's vernacular into poetry. Winton likes people who write about their own patch, like Michael Crummey. (Me too!) Winton said landscape is a character - a determinant - in his stories. "The ecological reality of a place determines what can come out of it." (There it is again. A reminder that the fiction I love has a strong sense of place.)

When asked how much of Eyrie is autobiographical, Winton said, "People are quick to conflate me with Keely, which is unfair. I've had the occasional hangover, but not a 30-pager." Another question from the audience was about the ambiguous ending of Eyrie. Winton: "I'm not much interested in closure... Life is not that neat." He said he doesn't believe in housekeeping for the reader. He also said, "I don't buy magical realism. I don't buy realism either. Life is confounding and strange."

Some of my ticket stubs...
I was surprised by how much of Heather O'Neill's fiction is autobiographical, according to her. When she was 7, her mother sent her to live with her father in Montreal... since he was no longer in jail. They lived in rubby apartments in the red light district."My dad was always giving me useless advice. Like, you can't keep a diary; that'll be used against you in court."

Michael Crummy talked about how place is connected with identity in Sweetland. He also said, "Everything I've ever written is elegy. I'm interested in cultural loss."

Three First Nations authors were together at one powerful event: Thomas King, Lee Maracle and Richard Wagamese. King said "I see a lot of empathy for Aboriginal people in Canada, but not a lot of knowledge about Aboriginal people." That's why he wrote The Inconvenient Indian. Wagamese: "The story of Canada is the story of her relationship with her native people."

Maracle said she lied to her grandpa when she was very small. He looked at her for a long time and then told her, "That's a good story. Now I'll tell you one." Over the course of one summer, she learned a lot from him about storytelling. He told her, "White people pay good money for beautiful lies." Mink is a trickster in Maracle's new novel, Celia's Song. (Maracle asked the audience to repeat after her: "Raven is NOT a trickster.") She said "Salish women are strong because our mothers raise us to look after families of 400 people, even though we don't live in longhouses anymore."

At the start of almost every event I attended, the host acknowledged that the Vancouver Writers Fest takes place on unceded Coast Salish territory. Thomas King said, "All art is political. Good writing is a blueprint for the imagination." Maracle joked: "I finally got old enough to justify being idle and then these kids started up Idle No More."
Entrance to Granville Island, under the bridge.
View from the top of the Granville Bridge, including the mural
on the cement plant, created by a pair of Brazilian artists.

The final event on Sunday evening was fittingly inspirational and entertaining. Jane Smiley and Colm Toibin were interviewed by the incomparable Bill Richardson. Hal Wake warned them before they came onstage that it had a metal mesh floor: "I hope no one is wearing high heels." Richardson, waving his hand through the curtain from offstage: "I am!"

Talking about the dark places stories can come from, Smiley said, "If you turn something into a story, any experience is worth it." When he was a small boy, Toibin liked a particular visitor because she brought sweets, but even more because "she never had anything good to say about anyone." He quickly learned that what mattered was the thing that people couldn't bring themselves to talk about. "It is our job, while alive, to notice as much as possible."

Both Smiley and Toibin derive artistic nourishment from visual art and music. They closed the evening with an a cappella rendition of Whisky in the Jar. Big hit! I enjoyed hearing Toibin so much that I plan to attend his speaking engagement in Edmonton later this month. [Of his many acclaimed books, I've reviewed Brooklyn and The Testament of Mary.]

I'm always sad when the festival ends and it's time to return home. But on the plus side, I have a wonderful stack of new books to read!