Sunday, March 30, 2014

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue's Frog Music is a raunchy romp closely-based on historical fact. A chance encounter in 1876 San Francisco upsets a menage-a-trois and ends in tragedy.

Blanche, Arthur and Ernest are three former circus performers from France. In San Francisco, Blanche supports the men with income from burlesque dancing and prostitution. When Jenny, dressed in men's clothing and riding a stolen high-wheeler bicycle, bumps into Blanche, it's like she has knocked over the first domino in a set. Jenny's friendly curiosity goads Blanche into some serious soul-searching. Question: Where is Blanche and Arthur's infant son? Question: Is Blanche's love for Arthur reciprocated, or is he more interested in Ernest? During a smallpox epidemic in a summer heatwave, resentments simmer to the surface.

Donogue is great at evoking the details of time and place, immersing readers in the setting. Her characters are fascinating because of, rather than despite, their flaws. Amidst the almost vaudevillian narrative drive, Frog Music also addresses social and environmental issues like racism, misogyny, child welfare, and species extinction. Plus, Donogue takes a plausible crack at explaining a murder that has never been solved.

"There is one myth I would like to put to rest. Jenny Bonnet shows up all over the Internet these days as a proto-trans outlaw: presenting as male, persuading women to give up the sex trade and forming them into a thieves' gang. Attractive though this image is [...] I have found no evidence to substantiate it." - from Donoghue's afterword. Nevertheless, Jenny is my favourite character in this very entertaining novel.

Readalikes. Although I can't think of anything that's a close match, there are some similar elements in: Tipping the Velvet (Sarah Waters); Miss Don't Touch Me (Hubert & Kerascoet); True Grit (Charles Portis); Instructions for a Heatwave (Maggie O'Farrell); The Good Thief  (Hannah Tinti); The Coral Thief (Rebecca Stott); Outlander (Gil Adamson); The Sisters Brothers (Patrick DeWitt); and maybe The Little Shadows (Marina Endicott).

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Abandoning Books

I abandon books freely, but not frequently. Any book that I start has already passed my personal, idiosyncratic appeal test. There are mistakes, of course. Sometimes I can check off a whole bunch of factors in a book's favour and I still put it down after a few pages.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage is an example:

  • loved previous book by same author (De Niro's Game)
  • topic of mental health
  • immigrant experience
  • stylish, literary prose
  • Canadian

... and yet I didn't get past the first chapter.

In a different mood, I might react differently and be immediately drawn in, but once I abandon a book it is rare for me to pick it up again.

Today I abandoned a book before I even got past the front matter.

I had waited for it to come on hold at the library, then thought something along the lines of "Oh, here is this book I've heard good things about," then brought it home, so it was with a feeling of pleasure that I picked it up to begin reading. I started with the epigraph:
"here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)"                 - e. e. cummings
Cue shivers of delight. Love this poem.

Next is the half title page.

Next is a brief preface:

"By the window, she sits in her favorite chair, jumping a doll up and down in her lap. A shadow flickers in the doorway behind her. Someone else is watching her, too."

At that point, I shut the book. Nope. Not for me. Not my taste. I'm not reading this.

And then I got curious about my own negative reactions. Why had I assumed it would be for me in the first place? On the back cover is praise from authors (Lisa Gardner, Luanne Rice, etc.) with familiar names, but I haven't read their books. Because not my taste.

I flip to the copy on the inside cover and there's enough there to justify my interest: "intimate family drama;" "profound power of the truths we're scared to face;" "deeply moving;" "hope and forgiveness." I've loved plenty of family dramas involving secrets: The History of Love; The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches; The Almond Picker; The Good Parents; and Swamplandia are just a few.

The book in my hands is described as "stunningly suspenseful" and a thriller. Again, I can think of many that I've loved that are like this. Gone Girl. The Passage. Before I Go to Sleep. The Expats. Apple Tree Yard. So Much Pretty. I've got nothing against page-turners, per se.

But now I remember reading a review that recommended this to readers who like Jodi Picoult. Red flag. Wooop, wooop, wooop. I read two of Picoult's books and disliked them both. Enough already. There are too many great books waiting. My good feelings of anticipation about this book have completely evaporated. Carla Buckley's The Deepest Secret is going back to the library today, where I know that other -- more appreciative -- readers are waiting for it.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

Lighter Than My Shadow is artist Katie Green's brave and unsentimental account of the years she has spent overcoming an eating disorder.

This hefty 508-page memoir unfolds in clean line drawings, mostly in shades of gray. Green's illness is represented with clouds of messy black marks, varying in size depending on her state of health. It's a powerful visual choice, effective in the way of David B's representation of his brother's illness in Epileptic.

Images, rather than words, are the main vehicle for Green's story. Text balloons are patches lighter in colour than the medium gray background, not outlined. The black hand-lettering is easy to read.

Green has reserved the palest shades for people. There is just enough detail to make it easy to identify the different characters. An overall textured effect, as of graphite on rough paper, unifies the panels beautifully.

See images of Katie Green's artwork on her website here.

I was riveted by Green's story and grateful for her insights into the internal process of regaining mental health. It's an adult book that older teens will also appreciate.

Readalikes: Unbearable Lightness (Portia de Rossi); Wintergirls (Laurie Halse Anderson); Page by Paige (Laura Lee Gulledge); How I Made It to Eighteen (Tracy White).

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Black magic, graveyard robbing, and dungeons full of rats are not the reading subjects that come first to mind at this time of year, but who knows? A deal with the devil might be what we need to get spring underway here.

Jeanette Winterson's atmospheric take on the 17th-century witchcraft trials in Lancashire includes a lesbian romance gone wrong. The Daylight Gate is entertaining, stylish and deliciously spooky.

I'm off to make a winter poppet now, and then I'll stick some pins in it.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Forest Has a Song by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater and Robbin Gourley

Forest Has a Song is perfect for two occasions being observed today, March 21. It is the UN's International Day of Forests and also UNESCO's World Poetry Day. This beautiful collection of poems by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater and watercolour illustrations by Robbin Gourley is great for any day, actually.

A girl and her dog spend time in the woods near her home through all four seasons. A spicy breeze invites them in. They play with spongy sticks and puffballs, ponder fossils and animal bones, listen to and watch birds and insects. All of the senses are engaged. Walking barefoot on moss: "I softly sink in velvet green. / Oh how I wish for socks of moss." Biting into a wintergreen leaf: "Snowflakes fill my mouth."

First person narration draws readers right into the moment. "I stop to read / the Forest News / in mud or fallen snow. / Articles are printed / by critters on the go." References to human culture are omnipresent.  A frog croons a marriage proposal and a slipper orchid is left by a Forest Cinderella. "Lichens are graffiti artists."

Gourley's bright paintings create their own separate, sustained narrative about the girl's life with her family. Time spent lingering over the artwork also works to appreciate each poem individually. My favourite spread ties poems on opposing pages together: Snowflake Voices and Colorful Actor. It shows the girl in falling snow against a background of evergreens, striding uphill towards bare birch trees. Her red boots and red mitts lead the eye towards the cardinal flying ahead.

"Each silver / snowflake / sings my name. / Guess what? / No two sound the same."

And here is one last poem, which I hope will charm spring into arriving here sooner rather than later:

April Waking
Ferny frondy fiddleheads
unfurl curls from dirty beds.
Stretching stems they sweetly sing
greenest greetings sent to Spring.

Instead of dwelling on the fact that it's -15C in Edmonton, one day after the official start of spring, I bid you all a happy International Day of Forests and World Poetry Day!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault

Understatement can be powerful. Example: Jane the Fox and Me, a graphic novel by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault about a girl who is bullied at her elementary school in Montreal.

"Don't talk to Helene, she has no friends now." The words that Helene saw on the toilet stall door remain with her. They float scrawled across the bleak late winter street scene as Helene waits for a bus.

Helene encounters a fox while camping.
"Its eyes are so kind I just about burst. That
same look in another human's eyes, and my
soul would be theirs for sure."
Helen's escape is into the pages of Jane Eyre. "I have time to read something like thirteen pages between school and home."

Artist Isabelle Arsenault depicts Helene's world in charcoal shades. Vegetation is an extended motif representing mental health and well-being. When Helen's spirits lift -- a new dress made by her mother; an ice cream cone -- plants spring up around her, always gray. Even the new shoots in the window boxes of her apartment are a pale, smudgy gray.

The lush vegetation is in contrast to the sombre colour palette, creating a pleasing tension between exuberance and restraint. When Helene makes a new friend, things get better for her. Hope is visually represented -- but quietly, as befits this bookish child. A little sprout of yellow among the gray leaves, another of cyan: together they hold the possibility of green. It's absolutely lovely.

Readalikes: Harvey (Herve Bouchard and Janice Nadeau); Chiggers (Hope Larson).

Friday, March 7, 2014

For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu

For Today I Am a Boy is Kim Fu's tender coming-of-age story about a transgender Chinese Canadian.

Growing up with three sisters in small town Ontario, Peter Huang must play the role of honoured son. There is no way for Peter to express what Peter knows: that Peter is a girl inside. Their immigrant parents had high expectations for all of them. The girls would become doctors and lawyers. Peter would get rich and marry and have children to carry on the family name. 

Peter's voice is honest and compelling. Moving to Montreal after graduation, working at low-paying restaurant jobs, there is at least the freedom of anonymity. Yet adulthood is no easier than childhood or adolescence for a trans person in the 1980s. Disgusted by the physical appendage marking Peter's body as male, Peter avoids intimacy. 

"There was a deep-down, physical ache. The opposite of a phantom limb: pain because that thing, that thing I loathed, was always there. I had to use it and look at it every day. But more than that, pain because I wanted to be seen. I wanted to be noticed, in a way that both men and cooks were not. The hostesses at the Japanese restaurant wore makeup that made their eyes cartoonishly large and dresses in oriental prints that were slit to the upper thigh. They were required to wear their hair in high, old-fashioned buns. They were art. They were there to be looked at and admired and worshipped. I was there to serve a purpose, to make things. A workhorse. A man."

Fu does not neglect Peter's sisters. They are fully-realized individuals with their own challenges. It is with their support that Peter finds a way forward. For Today I Am a Boy is delicately heartbreaking and beautifully redemptive.

Readalikes: Annabel (Kathleen Winter); Money Boy (Paul Yee); First Spring Grass Fire  (Rae Spoon); Confessions of an Empty Purse (S. McDonald) and Wandering Son (Shimura Takako).