Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Age by Nancy Lee

The brink of nuclear war in 1984 fuels a Vancouver high school girl's rocky coming-of-age in Nancy Lee's urgent novel, The Age. Gerry is angry and restless. She ingratiates herself into a group of older anarchists who are planning a dangerous mission. Unrequited sexual attractions to both women and men keep Gerry feeling unsettled and awkward. She lashes out at everyone, including her divorced mother.

Gerry longs for contact with her estranged father. Her mother appeases her with a rare anecdote, one about their honeymoon:

"We were in the Rockies, in Banff. Your dad and I were walking together down the main street, looking in the shop windows, enjoying all the touristy stuff, and along comes this grizzly bear. Not a real bear, mind you, but a man dressed in a bear suit. [...] And he grabs hold of your dad and starts dancing with him, waltzing him around the sidewalk. Well your dad is mortified but trying to look like he's enjoying it. And I'm laughing and clapping and wishing we owned a camera so I could take a picture because no one would believe this was happening, especially to your father. Then all of a sudden the bear stops and just wanders off down the street, I guess to look for some other tourists to entertain. A few blocks later, your dad realizes his wallet is gone, all of our wedding money."

Meanwhile, there is a second narrative running parallel to Gerry's story. It is set in the same place, but in a bleak possible-future, after a nuclear apocalypse.

Family ties are at the heart of both narratives. Gerry muses on "The clueless tragedy of being a parent. Her own mom saddled with a daughter who has brought her only sadness." Gerry's recklessness may prevent her from ever realizing the extent of her mother's fierce love.

Readalikes: Hey, Nostradamus (Douglas Coupland); Any Empire (Nate Powell); The Sky is Falling (Caroline Adderson) and Inferno (Robin H. Stevenson).

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir

An astronaut is the sole inhabitant of Mars in Andy Weir's The Martian. Mark Watney was believed dead and left behind by his crew mates during an emergency departure. The next ship will not arrive for another four years.

Mark is resourceful and his journal entries reflect his resilient sense of humour.
"I'm a full-grown man who only occasionally wears diapers (you have to in an EVA suit)."
"Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped."
"I'm even going to electrolyze my urine. That'll make for a pleasant smell in the trailer. If I survive this, I'll tell people I was pissing rocket fuel."
Weir includes other great characters, too. The action alternates between Mark's survival journal, the people on Earth who are trying to help him, and the crew on the ship headed away from Mars. The story is compelling and I zipped right through it, occasionally skimming over parts with a little too much scientific detail. The premise of the book is the first hook, and Mark's memorable voice kept me engaged.
"I need to ask myself, 'What would an Apollo astronaut do?'
He'd drink three whiskey sours, drive his Corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my Rover. Man those guys were cool."
Mark Watney, you are pretty cool yourself!

For curious readers eager to learn more about the practicalities of space travel, check out a fun nonfiction book: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

I would never have picked up Gaile Parkin's Baking Cakes in Kigali if it wasn't my book group's choice. A funny, heartwarming story about a baker in contemporary Rwanda? I was dubious, and the whimsical book cover design didn't help.

When I read about the lives of people in other parts of the world, I want authenticity. The author grew up in Zambia and has worked in Rwanda, where she counselled girls and women who survived the 1994 genocide. While that is in her favour, the fact that Parkin is white meant she was going to have to convince me in her portrayal of the central character, Angel Tungaraza.

It took me a while to relax my critical attitude. Some slapstick humour at Angel's expense gave me the idea Parkin was making her a buffoon. I did not like that. Eventually, however, I was won over. Angel is a wise woman with a huge heart. I was charmed in spite of my misgivings. I appreciated the feminist emphasis throughout the book, as well as the strong sense of community. I also like the way that difficult topics like AIDs were handled.

I had only read two other novels set in Rwanda: Deogratis (Jean-Philippe Stassen) and Broken Memory (Elisabeth Combres). Both are set closer to the time of the genocide than Baking Cakes in Kigali. I welcomed the hopeful tone of Parkin's novel and the way she shows that healing has happened and is ongoing. I could have done with fewer of Angel's menopausal hot flashes, but I now feel like I have a more rounded overall impression of life in Rwanda.

Readalike: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (Alexander McCall Smith).

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Happy, but not (too) sappy. Gabrielle Zevin achieves that tricky balance with her heartwarming novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

A grumpy widower's life changes for the better when a toddler is left in his bookstore.

"He picks up the baby. Her diaper is soiled. A.J. has never changed a diaper in his life, though he is a modestly skilled gift wrapper."

The bookstore is located on Alice Island in northeastern U.S.A. The small town gathers around in support when A.J. takes on responsibility for Maya. Books and reading foster the child's growth as well as community involvement. The greatest change happens within A.J.

"A.J. watches Maya in her pink party dress, and he feels a vaguely familiar, slightly intolerable bubbling inside of him. He wants to laugh out loud or punch a wall. He feels drunk or at least carbonated. Insane. At first, he thinks this is happiness, but then he determines it's love."

People who love to read will see their passion celebrated in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. Lots of different books and authors are mentioned throughout. Each chapter is preceded by A.J.'s comments about a particular short story that he admires, by Roald Dahl, Mark Twain, Flannery O'Connor and others.

"Maya, novels certainly have their charms, but the most elegant creation in the prose universe is a short story. Master the short story and you'll have mastered the world."

How nice to encounter an advocate for short stories!

As a book blogger, I can relate strongly to one of things A.J. writes in regards to Raymond Carver's 'What We Talk about When We Talk about Love:'

"A question I've thought about a great deal is why it is so much easier to write about the things we dislike/hate/acknowledge to be flawed than the things we love. This is my favourite short story, Maya, and yet I cannot begin to tell you why."

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is sweet, but not cloying. Pick it up when you are in the mood to be charmed.

Readalikes: Rooftoppers (Katherine Rundell); Unexpected Lessons in Love (Bernadine Bishop); The Emperor of Paris (C.S. Richardson); Minding Frankie (Maeve Binchy).

Monday, May 19, 2014

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews writes about suicide with more heart than I had imagined possible. All My Puny Sorrows is hopeful, witty, breezy and absolutely devastating.

Elfrieda is a successful, internationally-known musician with a loving husband. Her younger sister Yolandi is a struggling writer, a single mother with poor judgement when it comes to men, and two children by two different fathers. Elfrieda is the one who keeps trying to kill herself.

Elf took my hand, weakly, like an old dying person, and looked deeply into my eyes.
Yoli, she said, I hate you.
I bent to kiss her and whispered that I knew that, I was aware of it. I hate you too, I said.
It was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem. She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.

Sometimes, all the love in the world is not enough. Sometimes, we are given impossible dilemmas. Mental illness is as mysterious for the patient as it is for that person's family. There are hard truths in All My Puny Sorrows, and also the healing rays of forgiveness. This is Toews' best book yet.


By the time I'd finished reading, my copy was full of little flags marking favourite passages. I've copied some below, to make it easier for me to revisit them. Read on if you like. (No spoilers ahead.)
When [Nic] came back to the table he asked me to look at his eyes.
They're seeping, he said. Like I have an infection or something.
Pink eye? I asked.
I don't know, he said. They always seem to be running, just clear liquid, not pus. I lie in bed and all this liquid dribbles out the sides. Maybe I should see a doctor, or optometrist or something.
You're crying, Nic.
Yes. That's what they call crying.
But all the time? he asked. I'm not even conscious of it then.
It's a new kind of crying, I said. For new times.
Yoli, she said, I'm just saying that apologies aren't the bedrock of civilized society. All right! I said. I agree. But what is the bedrock of civilized society? Libraries, said Elf.
All right, so the brain is an organ that's made to solve problems so if the problem is life and its unlivability then a rational, working brain would choose to end it. No? I didn't know what to do. It felt like someone was throwing darts at the side of my head, five seconds apart. It sounded naive to me now and selfish and fearful to say you must live, you must want to live, you have to live. That's your one imperative, the single rule of the universe. Our family had once been one of those with normal crises like a baby (okay, two babies) born out of wedlock. Now I couldn't think or write. My fingers hated me. I was afraid that when I went to sleep I'd wake to find them wrapped around my throat.
Look, he said. I'm not interested in passing a notebook back and forth between us and waiting while she scribbles things down. It's ridiculous.
I know, I said. I understand. It can be laborious but I'm just, I mean, you're a shrink, right, so you must have seen this sort of thing before?
Of course I understand it, he said, I just don't have time for it.
No? I ask.
Look, he says, if she wants to get better she'll have to make an attempt to communicate normally. That's all I'm saying.
My phone was buzzing away, texts from men wanting divorces and children wanting me to condone underage sex and kill insects from three thousand kilometres away.
I kissed my aunt and she held me tightly, incredible strength for a pre-op heart patient, and looked me in the eye. Yolandi, she said, give my love to Elfrieda. Tell her I love her and tell her that I know she loves me too. She needs to hear that.
I promised I would and turned to go.
Also! called my aunt from her bed. We are Loewens! (That was their maiden name - my mother's and Tina's.) That means lions!
I smiled and nodded - and I murmured to the nurse passing me that my aunt was the king of the jungle so please handle her with care. The nurse laughed and squeezed my arm. Nurses in cardio are far more playful and friendly than they are in psych.
If you have to end up in the hospital, try to focus all your pain in your heart rather than your head.
I googled: can writing a novel kill you? And found nothing useful.
My mother was often asked to write eulogies because she had a breezy style that was playful, good with details and totally knife-in-the-heart devastating.
[A friend] told me that she's been worrying about me so much, it must be awful, everything I've been going through, and that in her opinion 'to die by one's own hand' is always a sin. Always. Because of the suffering it causes the survivors. I asked her what about all the people who suffer because of assholes who are alive? Is it a sin for the assholes to keep on living?
The girls had to pee and I suggested they do it into a cup and throw it under the front steps to keep the skunks away, like the renovation crew guys had recommended. Don't worry about my mother, Nora told her friends, she's a hippie. When she was a girl she had nothing to play with but the wind. You don't have to pee into a cup. We have a washroom.
It was all familiar to me, the gurneys in Emergency, but hers was a cardio case not a head case so there were no lectures from the staff, no righteous psych nurse demanding of her: why won't you behave?
Will carried Zoe on his back and zoomed up and down and lost one of her flip-flops so we had to go back and retrace our steps in the dark which I suppose is the meaning of life.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (with a tangent on star ratings)

The last entry that I'll share from my 2004 travel/reading journal is about the book I liked best from that period: Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines. I added a star to the entry, which was my code for "outstanding." That was before I kept a Shelfari account and got into the habit of using a 5-star rating system. In case you were wondering, I don't use stars on this blog because I find them too crude for evaluating creative work. Star ratings can be used to gage popularity and polarity, so I think they have their place in conversations about books and reading. My goal is to share more specific information about books, so I avoid the shorthand of star ratings.

Anyway, these are the patchy notes I recorded in May 2004:

Look up Rilke - Third Sonnet to Orpheus. [I don't remember if I did this then, but I did just now: it's online here.]

Pascal - gave opinion that all of our miseries stemmed from a single cause: our inability to remain quietly in a room. One reason he found for the restlessness of human nature is the natural unhappiness of our weak mortal conditions: so unhappy that when we gave to it all our attention, nothing could console us. The one thing that could alleviate our despair was distraction, yet this was the worst of our misfortunes, for in distraction we were prevented from thinking about ourselves and were gradually brought to ruin.

Chatwin wonders if our need for distraction, our mania for the new, is an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn.

"All the great Teachers have preached that Man, originally, was a 'wanderer in the scorching and barren wilderness of this world' - the words are those of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor - and that to rediscover his humanity, he must slough off attachments and take to the road."

- sedentary peoples more aggressive than migratory ones

My notes leave out the framework of The Songlines. I remember it being mostly a travelogue of the Australian outback and the musings of a British author about Aboriginal culture. It gave me things to think about and I love books that do that. While I worked on my wwoof hosts' farm, I pondered what I had read. Nowadays, I wear headphones and listen to audiobooks while I garden. The drawback to this is that I'm missing out on thinking/daydreaming time. Is my craving for stories simply a need for distraction? Will my epitaph be "Ruined by Books"?

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey

Still looking back on books that I read 10 years ago. These are my notes from July 2004 about The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.

A most unusual and inventive narrative. I was reminded of Ella Minnow Pea (the fabricated country, the footnotes) and of A Prayer for Owen Meany (the freakish protagonist and the bizarre humour). The tiny country of Efica had a relationship to Voorstand that reminded me of the relationship between Canada and the U.S.A. Loved it. Great ending!

It was my first introduction to the multitalented Peter Carey and I've since enjoyed several more of this Australian author's works. The only one that I've previously reviewed on my blog, however, is Parrot and Olivier in America. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Healthy lambs are one of
the many joys on a farm.
I was wwoofing* at a farm in the French countryside in 2004. The place was a bed and breakfast operated by a gay British couple. They had a well-stocked library and I had plenty of time to read. The following notes about The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter are from a journal entry made during my time there.

Gay classic. Five different people coping with loneliness. Also a commentary on social, economic and racial situation in the American deep South.

Recommend this to people who liked To Kill a Mockingbird, but it's darker and grittier.

Beautifully written. I liked McCullers' absence of judgement.

I also copied down an excerpt from the final page of the book:
"The silence in the room was deep as the night itself. Biff stood transfixed, lost in his meditations. Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him. His heart turned and he leaned his back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valour. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labour and of those who - one word - love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror. Between the two worlds he was suspended. [...]
And he was suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith. Sharply he turned away."

*World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Volunteer farm work in exchange for food, accommodation and learning. Visit the WWOOF international site for more info.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Restoration by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain's Restoration is set in the British court of King Charles II, 1664-1667. Robert Merivel, the central character, is an indolent buffoon who falls from the grace of the king before finding spiritual peace and social restoration. I read to page 149 (of 382) and gave up. "Winner of the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award and Shortlisted for the Booker Prize." Humph! I gave up at page 149 (of 382). Too much drivel.

Above are my grumpy notes from a reading journal kept 10 years ago. Obviously, the problem is that Tremain's book doesn't match my personal taste. My hope is that transcribing my old thoughts about books will help me get over my recent reviewer's block.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Power of One by Bryce Courtney

I recently came across a journal I kept while I was in France for three months in 2004. I had forgotten that I made lots of notes about the books that I read during that time. Here are my thoughts on Bryce Courtney's The Power of One, just as they were recorded back then.

[Warning. Major spoilers ahead. Proceed only if you've already read the book or never intend to.]

The book is divided into three parts and I enjoyed the first part very much. I liked it less and less from then on. Disliked the ending intensely.

Peekay is too perfect. The term Renaissance man is even used several times in the book. Although he is humble - a big point in his favour - I found him self-righteous. He turned down his friend's offer to pay for his schooling at Oxford because he was too proud to accept handouts... yet he would have taken a scholarship.

Minor complaint: the word 'approbation' is used too frequently.

The coincidence of Gideon Mantoma being the son of Peekay's nanny was almost enough to make me throw the book at the wall. And then they became as brothers? Puhleese!

The coincidence of Botha in the mines being the very same Judge of Peekay's childhood was too too much. What did the fight between them signify - other than revenge is sweet. This seems to go against the theme of love and tolerance through the rest of the novel. The fight with Botha coming so soon after the death of Rasputin also irked me. That he died saving Peekay was overly smarmy. It was all laid on too thick at the end.

And what about the Tadpole Angel? The author seemed to go nowhere with that aspect of the story except to say hope and dignity are important.


My journal entry from May 16, 2004 ends there. I know this book has legions of fans, but I'm not among them. Ten years later, I still remember the strong feelings I had about The Power of One. It seemed so promising at the beginning, and I was invested in the characters, so by the end I was not merely disappointed but felt something closer to betrayal and disgust. Fortunately, this extreme kind of reaction doesn't happen to me often.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Adventures in Book Clubs

Four book clubs in two weeks -- even for me, that is a lot! I host two monthly book clubs: a CanLit group as part of my work at Jasper Place Library, and one at my home, where our only criteria is that we choose books written by women. I've also been a longtime member of two other book clubs: the Edmonton Lesbian Book Club that has met monthly at Audreys Books for 11 years, and a YA group that has been meeting at the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Alberta for more than two decades.
I did some bookshelf sorting today. These are TBR.

My attendance at the lesbian and YA book clubs has been sporadic in recent years, but I rejoice when my calendar is clear on the corresponding evenings. That's what happened in April and the result has been a book clubbing bonanza. Read on to discover what books we talked about (with links to my earlier reviews) and some of the topics they inspired.

April 21 - The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. Morality; loyalty; jealousy; 1970s; feminism; likable vs unlikable characters; parenting. The Two Bichons list of previous titles is on Goodreads.

April 23 - Astray by Emma Donoghue. Historical role of women in society; mothers; ethics; manipulative behaviours; characterization; writing style; short story format; increasing general knowledge via fiction. The CanLit Book Club title roster is available online. Drop-in members are welcome.

April 29 - Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashi. Voice; 1970s setting; multiple entry points for readers relating to story; writer's craftsmanship and attention to detail; racism; grieving; character development; small-town lesbians; books that make us cry. Everyone at this meeting was blown away by Prairie Ostrich, by the way. It's a magnificent, universal story. See the Edmonton Lesbian Book Club website for previous and upcoming titles.

April 30 - Lighter than My Shadow by Katie Green. Size/length (it's a hefty book); visuals/artwork (it's a graphic novel); pros and cons to memoir genre. We always discuss two books at the YA group. The second was Australian science fiction: And All the Stars by Andrea K Host. Despite its faults, most of us were impressed with this self-published work. It prompted discussion of "studly nerds" in YA fiction in general, and whether or not there is now such a thing as the "female gaze." 

What adventures have you had in book clubs?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark

Gender identity is the focus of Freakboy, Kristin Elizabeth Clark's debut YA novel. It's a fat book told in verse format, in a style much like that of Ellen Hopkins. Powerful words are carefully placed on the page to accentuate emotional states like fear and disconnection. Sometimes a concrete image is formed, as in the case where a poem in the shape of a T contains an important conversation about feeling transgender. There are three voices in Freakboy, each in their own font and headed with their names.

Brendan is in his final year of high school. He's on the wrestling team, struggles with depression, and dreams at night of being a princess.

Vanessa, the only girl on the school's wrestling team, gets called a dyke. She is Brendan's girlfriend and their mutual attraction feels real.

My favourite character is Angel, a transwoman who works at a drop-in centre for queer youth. Because of her interactions with Brendan, she finds herself struggling with ethical dilemmas that give additional complexity to this story.

This is from Angel:
Some girls
think pumping
is trashy-
judge those who go
to pumping parties,
strip down in apartments
or hotel rooms,
let someone with
no medical connection
inject that silicone
right into their
chests, hips, lips.
My opinion? 
It's judging that's trashy.
"Everyone feels like a freak until they make up their mind they're not." Angel's words to Brendan could equally apply to so many other teenagers.

Freakboy is a thoughtful exploration of gender fluidity.

Readalikes: Tricks and other verse novels by Ellen Hopkins