Sunday, August 31, 2014

War of Streets and Houses by Sophie Yanow

Two things prompted me to re-read War of Streets and Houses, Sophie Yanow's slim comics memoir about the Montreal student strike in 2012:

     1) The part in The Girl Who Was Saturday Night where Nouschka goes to a Quebec sovereignty demonstration before the 1995 referendum: "We were very into the collective experience in Montreal. There was nothing that we liked more than a pretty mob." (Heather O'Neill)

     2) Recently learning that a Quebec judge has given the green light to class action lawsuits against police kettling tactics during the student protests.

Muggy summer scene,
War of Streets and Houses
Actually, there was a third thing. It's that War of Streets and Houses is such an intriguing and intelligent book and I wanted to feel my mind stretched by it once again. Yanow's sketchy line drawings encompass large ideas about urban design, military power and crowd control. She also documents the personal risks and thrills that go along with participating in mass demonstrations.

Yanow is a lesbian cartoonist who moved to Montreal from the forests of California.

"I always felt I had no choice but to go to a city. Where else can a queer kid go to find people like them to experiment with the possibilities only made real by city life."

Urban life brings its own complications, but Yanow is also seduced by its rewards.

After the events in War of Streets and Houses, thousands of people of all ages walked in the streets with pots and pans, protesting the brutal treatment of student activists by police, as well as proposed new legislation curtailing civilian protest rights.

This little book is worthy of many re-reads.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill

Heather O'Neill, author of Lullabies for Little Criminals, has created another unforgettable Montreal narrator: 19-year-old Nouschka Tremblay in The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.

Nouschka and her twin Nicolas were famous from the time they were children because their father was a beloved Quebecois entertainer. Etienne Tremblay's star had faded considerably in the period leading up to the 1995 referendum. The twins never knew their mother, who was 14 when they were born. Instead, they were raised by their paternal grandfather, Loulou.

"Loulou never bought us new toys because they figured we could just play with Etienne's. Our stuffed animals were wretched. They had wanted to retire after Etienne. They had wanted to just chill out at the bottom of a toy box. They could barely hold their heads up and were missing eyes."

A charming silhouette of a cat graces the start of each chapter and an assortment of cats make cameo appearances throughout the text. 

"A cat slipped in the window, lay on the bed and rolled onto her back happily. She had just been impregnated. She lay there on her back with her paws on her chest, reliving the evening nervously in her mind."

"A beige cat came down the stairs like caramel seeping out of a Caramilk bar." (Nouschka is fond of similes.)

Quebec's culture provides a vivid setting.

"'My Christ of a coffee machine is broken, tabernacle of the chalice,' Loulou yelled out from the kitchen. Even after the decline of the Catholic Church, the Quebecois loved to use religious words in vain in almost miraculous ways."

"Adam was charming and spoke perfect French. Like many anglophones in Montreal, he actually spoke French better than we did. They knew exactly which verbs to use in the same way that people knew which utensils to use while eating at a fancy dinner. It was very proper because they learned it from books. They didn't know slang or how to curse. They didn't know how to do anything other than be proper and reserved. It was a state-sponsored, dry-clean-only French."

Les joies de l'hiver
(For a French language example of Quebecois slang, check out the Tetes a Claques animation, "Les joies de l'hiver." It cracks me up every time.)

In Nouschka's world, the mirrors get into lousy moods and sofas grow floral upholstery. Everyone she knows is struggling to cope with everyday life, but Nouschka only wants to love and feel loved. Why is that so difficult, when the "most beautiful kisses in the world" are grown on Rue Sainte-Catherine?

"If you were spiritually inclined around here, it probably wasn't Sunday school that got you that way. Rather, it was a combination of hard drugs and deep injustice to yourself. It was the last resort."

One thing is certain: Nouschka cannot depend on anyone else to save her. She must do that for herself.

The Girl Who Loved Saturday Night is a treat: gritty and sweet and magical.

Readalike: Black Bird (Michel Basiliere). Also, for that mix of funny and heartbreaking, with more than a dash of quirky, the following Canadian authors might fit the bill: Miriam Toews, Emily Schultz, Jessica Grant, Greg Kearney, and Douglas Coupland.

p.s. Loulou was a storyteller. One of his invented stories reminded me very much of Katherine Rundell's historical fantasy for children, Rooftoppers (which I enjoyed but haven't reviewed). In Rooftoppers, a toddler is found floating in a cello case after a ship goes down in the English Channel. Loulou's tale was about twins on an ocean liner on their way to the World's Fair in Paris. The ship sank but the twins were saved by climbing into a floating cello case.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

First person plural: TaraShea Nesbit has chosen an unusual voice to narrate her debut novel and I like it. The Wives of Los Alamos is just what the title says it is, about a group of women whose lives happened to get thrown together because their husbands were working on a top-secret war project. The atomic bomb.

In 1943, hundreds of perplexed women arrived at a site in New Mexico that was mostly mud, plus some newly-erected homes and temporary shelters. They had many different backgrounds, personalities and ways of coping, yet their experience was also a shared one.

"We sometimes resented how our husbands asked us to step out of the room in our own house so they could talk to their friends late into the night. And some of us spied and heard things, and some of us would never eavesdrop though we really, really wanted to, and some of us did not even think to listen to what our husbands and their friends were talking about because we were too busy thinking about our own worries; what Shirley meant when she said that thing yesterday, how to stretch the ration coupons to make a nice dinner tomorrow."

The only place to shop was the army commissary. There wasn't much to do besides make babies and raise families.

"On the mesa, when we felt restless, sleepy, antsy, distressed, and bored we went to the commissary, which did not console us at all."

photo by Laurie MacFayden
"In the autumn, when the aspens turned the mountains into multitudes of gold, we took walks alone. Although when we first arrived we thought hiking was boring, later we wanted to see all of the mountaintops. On the highest slopes, the smallest leaves of the aspens quaked. And we listened to them -- they were such exposed things holding on and making vulnerable, fluttering music -- and this quaking gave us a peaceful feeling. We stood there thinking of nothing except leaves, leaves, leaves."

"No matter how alone we felt there were things we could never do as individuals. A woman cannot conspire with herself. Alone, we were not a pack, a choir, or a brigade. But together, we were a mob of women armed with baby bottles and canned goods, demanding a larger commissary, and we got it. We were more than I, we were Us."

The Wives of Los Alamos takes a unique look at a historic time and place, while considering how a sense of community is built. Women's lives and their relationships with each other form the strong core of this satisfying novel.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Inside a Pearl by Edmund White

Inside a Pearl is preeminent gay author Edmund White's gossipy memoir of his years as a writer in Paris. He moved there in 1983, when he was 43, and ended up staying for about seven years. White rambles down many conversational pathways; anecdotes about famous people and his commentary about art, culture, sex, and the differences between European and American society kept me fascinated.

I flagged over 50 passages. The difficulty now is to just set down a taste of them here. In the following example, White gives some insight into a writer's choice between autobiographical fiction versus memoir.

   "When French friends read in translation A Boy's Own Story, bizarrely what struck them most was how little supervision I'd had as a teenager. I'd never thought about that. Both the British and the French praised me for my honesty and courage in relating my sexual 'secrets' in that book. A fellow American would never have singled out those qualities, since we Americans all like to bray our secrets to complete strangers on a plane or at the next table.
   To be sure, A Boy's Own Story was presented to the world as a novel rather than as a memoir, but not out of a sense of discretion or modesty. It was just that back then only people who were already famous wrote their memoirs. The victor of Iwo Jima had the right to sign a memoir, but not a battered housewife. The man who invented the rubber band could give us his success story, but not a child who'd been locked in the basement for a decade. All this would change by the end of the 1980s, when suddenly youngsters would ask me with a hint of superiority why I hadn't dared to call my book an autobiography."

Marie-Claude de Brunhoff, two decades senior to White, was a close friend and helped him to integrate into French society. She was the wife of Laurent de Brunhoff, son of the creator of the Babar stories. MC crafted fantasy tableaus in diorama boxes, work that I imagine to be like a blended combination of the two women artists in Claire Messud's novel, The Woman Upstairs.

White worked hard to become fluent in French. The following passage was one of many that had me adding books to my TBR.

   "The best description of what it's like to speculate about what other people are saying in a language you're trying to learn comes from Ben Lerner's hilarious recent novel Leaving the Atocha Station (in which the narrator moved to Madrid): 'Then she might have described swimming in the lake as a child, or said that lakes reminded her of being a child, or asked me if I'd enjoyed swimming as a child, or said that what she'd said about the moon was childish." Neophytes in a new language live from one hypothesis to another."

In New York, White had been president of Gay Men's Health Crisis, the biggest and oldest AIDS organization in the world.

   "Paris was meant to be an AIDS holiday. After all, I was of the Stonewall generation, equating sexual freedom with freedom itself. But by 1984 many gay guys I knew were dying in Paris as well -- there was no escaping the disease. Michel Foucault, for one, had welcomed me warmly during a brief visit in 1981, but he and Gilles Barbedette, a mutual friend and one of my first translators, had both laughed when I'd told them about this mysterious new disease that was killing gay men and blacks and addicts. 'Oh no,' they said, 'you're so gullible. A disease that only kills gays and blacks and drug addicts? Why not child molesters, too? That's too perfect.'"

After Foucault and Barbedette died of AIDS, White helped start up the French AIDS organization AIDES:

   "But I only went to a few meetings. Everything in France was different and beyond my competence. Whereas we in America could only think of having a disco benefit to raise money for research and treatment and prevention, in France AIDES had the cooperation of Mitterrand's minister of health, Edith Cresson. We brought our very sense of marginality and pessimism to the disease, whereas the French made everyone recognize it was a national disaster."

When we are in Paris, my sweetie and I stay at a B&B run by an elderly couple, Christian and Cynthia de Monbrison.
Christian de Monbrison, our B&B host in Paris 
Christian has very strong feelings about art and nearly became incensed when he heard we planned to see the big Miro exhibit at the Pompidou. ("That is not art!")

 When White told James Lord he was writing an article on Cy Twombly, "James looked livid and half levered himself out of his chair.
   'You what? But, my dear, he's a fraud! Are you going to treat seriously those wretched daubs he's managed to fob off on the public?'
   I told him that a Twombly recently went for a million dollars and James said wearily, 'He gave me one, but I put it out in the trash.'"

White encountered so many interesting people.

   "I was skeptical about [Christian Lacroix's] reputation as a heterosexual (at last, a couturier who loved women -- as if the others didn't), and I was curious to meet him. As it turned out he was a soft-spoken art historian born in Arles who'd married his wife, Francoise, in 1974. In the walled garden of their villa they were attended by two young brothers from Champagne who were kept in the nude."

And speaking of champagne:

   "And for some reason the French didn't think of champagne as a 'real drink.' Friends who knew I was a reformed alcoholic still offered it to me. 'What? Not even a little glass of champagne?' The French, otherwise, were more polite than Americans about not pushing alcohol, maybe thinking I was on a 'cure' for my liver -- a common occasional privation for the highly disciplined French."

   "Slowly I was learning that Paris had invented le luxe. Europeans, unlike Americans, were not content to hang valuable paintings over store-bought furniture or leave the interior of a closet unfinished: few Americans would spend forty thousand dollars on the detailing of a closet, which no one would ever see and within a decade would be condemned as demode and replaced."

One of White's boyfriends was an interior designer. He calls him "Brice" and says he's currently alive and well in Paris with a career in furniture-making. "Beside his flower-petal couches were side tables of glass posed on metal daisies." This gave me a little shock of recognition because I might have seen some of those pieces in a shop in Paris.
Furniture spotted in a Paris shop.

 "My little Brice was an antic soul, so funny and cute. He liked to give theme parties. When he repainted the toilet he gave a soiree chiottes (a 'crapper evening') where we ate chocolate pudding and used toilet paper for napkins."

About another of White's boyfriends: "No matter how wifely his fantasies, every man is brought up to be the first violin."

   "Older gay men called their companions their 'nephews.' One time I was with Bernard when he ran into a tante (queen) who said, 'Do you know my nephew?'
   'Yes,' Bernard replied, 'he was my nephew last year.'"

Stories from the inside of literary prize judging panels always intrigue me:

   "When I was a Booker judge the year of London Fields, I tried to get this masterpiece of Martin's [Amis] on the short list because I was sure it was the one recently published novel that people would be talking about fifty years later. The two women on the jury, while admitting the book's superiority, threatened to resign if the novel was nominated because of its supposedly politically incorrect view of women. David Lodge, our chairman, caved. I tried to no avail to argue that the violently misused heroine was an allegory for Mother Earth, who was being ravaged -- and that it was an ecological parable."

   "Certainly my style became simpler and more direct because of living in two languages. As a reader I became more and more impatient with empty locutions and action-free descriptions, not to mention nuanced interior monologues. French -- with the notable exceptions of Proust and Saint-Simon -- doesn't tolerate long sentences and sinuous syntax. Le style blanc (the white, or transparent style), which is the French ideal, sounds a bit like translated Hemingway minus the hypnotic repetitions, which Hemingway picked up from Gertrude Stein."

   "MC and I met Ed Hemingway, the writer's grandson, who resembled the grand old man except that he was without a beard and was twenty-one. In Paris he was arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour but was let off when the gendarmes looked at his passport and saw his historic last name. They saluted him and let him go. Only in France... just as Cocteau had argued at Genet's trial for theft that Genet was a modern-day Rimbaud, and you didn't put Rimbaud in jail."
Sacre Coeur in Paris

"Paris was full of things an older person likes -- books, food, museums. Years later when an American complained of Paris I said, 'I like it. To me it seems so calm after New York, as if I'd already died and gone to heaven. It's like living inside a pearl.'"

I guess that's why I like Paris too. And I like Edmund White's memoir because he talks about books, food and museums, in addition to a whole bunch of rather odd people. Inside a Pearl makes me feel like I've been given the opportunity to listen to him during a leisurely afternoon in his living room.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Musical Interlude: Edmonton Folk Music Festival 2014

Four days of fantastic music on a hill that forms a natural amphitheatre: that's the Edmonton Folk Fest and I love it! Didn't do much reading, but I heard many stories in song. There were other book lovers in evidence; some of them using the live music as background for their reading.
Strangers sitting nearby, reading while Mokoomba was onstage. Since they weren't watching,
they missed out on the Zimbabwe band's great dance moves.
Folk fest tradition is to mark one's tarp with something distinctive. In addition to the Dr Who police box seen in the photo above, I spotted characters like Winnie the Pooh, the Grinch and Harry Potter.
Some celebrities disguise themselves with glasses. Harry
only needs to remove his to make me uncertain of his identity.
This is me, not in disguise, just protected from the sun.
The story tent is another long-standing tradition at the festival.
Apprentice storytellers occasionally step in, having learned their craft by coming
to this tent every year, and listening to Merle Harris and Gail de Vos.
Dancers add another layer of storytelling to the Masters of Hawaiian Music.
I heard a talented young ukulele musician, Jake Shimabukuro, at another stage. It was thrilling to hear his solo rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody. It ranks right up there with the Muppets version in my estimation! (Compare Shimabukuro to the Muppets on YouTube.)
Mortal Coil stilt troupe add their special magic to the weekend.
Another highlight was DakhaBrakha from Ukraine. I didn't get a photo but check out their great hats here.
This woman's tattoo proclaims her passion.
("Life without books is death")
Bless the Privy People for making the porta potty experience fun!
The Police Box-themed unit included an episode of Dr Who
playing on an iPad screen inside. 
One last photo: the early evening view from the top of the hill.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Agostino by Alberto Moravia

A boy and his widowed mother spend a summer at the Tuscan seaside in Alberto Moravia's novella Agostino. It's a contemporary classic with a slow burn, awarded Italy's Corriere Lombardo literary prize in 1945. I read the new English translation by Michael Moore, published by New York Review Books.

Moravia's spare style is rhythmic and easy to read.
"[Agostino] rowed with deep pleasure on the smooth, diaphanous, early-morning sea, and his mother, sitting in front of him, would speak to him softly, as joyful and serene as the sea and sky, as if he were a man rather than a thirteen-year-old boy."
Ignorant of all things sexual and confused by his nascent infatuation with his mother, Agostino gets an abrupt education from a rough group of local boys. Once innocence is lost, it's gone for good. Moravia creates a dreamy chiaroscuro by playing Agostino's sense of a hidden adult world against the bright glare of sunny days at the beach. A beautifully stark novel.

Readalikes: Bonjour Tristesse (Francoise Sagan); A Little Wanting Song (Cath Cowley); and Love Falls (Esther Freud).

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A Memoir by Roz Chast

Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? is cartoonist Roz Chast's funny and emotionally honest memoir about dealing with aging parents.

Chast begins her story in 2001, at a point when her parents were in their nineties and still living in their home in Brooklyn. Elizabeth and George Chast had Russian Jewish heritage. They were completely loyal to each other, but that didn't stop them from engaging in verbal altercations with each other.

Their obstinacy and contrariness drove their only child crazy. Most frustrating was their refusal to discuss anything about their wishes regarding their deaths. A lifetime of difficult family dynamics had left its scars, but Chast also cared deeply about her parents.

We all have family responsibilities, and death is unavoidable, so this personal account has universal appeal. Check out Chast's art, including her covers for the New Yorker, on her website.

Readalikes: Special Exits (Joyce Farmer); and You'll Never Know (Carol Tyler).

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Eddie Campbell

Eddie Campbell's art (detail)
The storytelling genius of Neil Gaiman continues with The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains: A Tale of Travel and Darkness. Gaiman says about this book: "It's not pure prose, not a graphic novel. It's a story with pictures unlike anything else I've written."

The illustrations by Eddie Campbell are comprised of paintings, comics and collage. Campbell's moody dark palette and visible thick brush strokes in the paintings are reminiscent of Van Gogh's 'The Potato Eaters.' The ink lines that create the comics are extremely loose, providing a buoyant contrast.

Eddie Campbell's art (detail)
Eddie Campbell's art
(photo collage detail)
The story has the feel of a traditional yarn and is set in an alternate Jacobite Scotland. It's told by a cattle thief searching for the truth about his missing daughter. He is a little man - a dwarf - accustomed to being mocked for his stature, who employs a guide to take him to a magical place on an island wrapped in fog.
Eddie Campbell's art in opening double page spread. "You ask me if I can forgive myself?"
This is a dark tale, as the subtitle forewarns, and it is in the adult collection at Edmonton Public Library. It is suitable, however, for readers in elementary school and older, except the most sensitive young readers. There's nothing more gruesome or scary than can be found in Jeff Smith's Bone series, or The Hobbit, or a production of MacBeth.

Readalikes: Mouse Bird Snake Wolf  (David Almond & Dave McKean); The Lady of Shalott (Alfred Lord Tennyson & Genevieve Cote, Kids Can Press edition); Mysterious Traveler (Mal Peet, Elspeth Graham & P.J. Lynch); Raven Girl (Audrey Niffenegger); Red: A Haida Manga (Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas); The Cats of Tanglewood Forest (Charles De Lint & Charles Vess).

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Desperates by Greg Kearney

Greg Kearney's hilarious novel The Desperates is set in Ontario in 1998. Nineteen-year-old Joel grew up in Kenora, where his dreamy gay sensibilities had always set him apart. He leaves his small town for Toronto, but Joel has not yet sorted out what he wants to do with his life.

"University wasn't his bag--it was so thinky, so listeny--so he dropped out after three weeks. He thinks he may be a performance artist, but that is only a hunch. He knows he wants to be deranged with love, and to have holy sexual experiences in which both he and the other guy weep throughout from the intensity of the intimacy."

In Toronto, Joel lives in a house with four non-communicative gay men. After deciding to debut his poetry at an open mic event, he leaves a note on the bare bulletin board in their shared kitchen: "Come and see me perform at Tandem next Wednesday! Love, Joel." An hour later, the note has been removed and replaced with one in all capitals: "THIS IS A PRIVATE HOME, NOT A TELEPHONE POLE!"

No need to pity Joel for this slight; he blunders on, unfazed.

Meanwhile, there's a young hustler named Binny who befriends an elderly man whose lover died during the AIDS epidemic. Binny's druggie slang and Paris Is Burning way of speaking confuses Edmund, but also delights him. Binny is all about realness:

"'Is that crack,' she says! I'm not that ghetto. I'm only riding in the car with Diva Whitney, 'I Will Always Love You' video filmed sitting down because of pregnancy realness."

"I want to be a female professional singer, and songwriter, like, a Canadian treasure like Diva Buffy Sainte-Marie, I breast-fed my baby on Sesame Street realness."

"I'm not going to wear silk pyjamas. That's too 'show tune' for me. Props to Diva Liza, Pet Shop Boys 'Don't Drop Bombs' 12 inch remix, hip replacement realness, but I don't go there personally."

There's plenty more from Binny, but other characters get great lines too.

Under Binny's influence, Edmund lets loose. A little too loose. He tells Joel: "Now I sound like something that fell out of Grace Slick's purse."

Joel's grandmother Hazel tells him how much harder it was when she grew up. "My only toy was a clump of hair in a rubber band I found by the side of the road." (Which reminded me of the line in Miriam Toews' All My Puny Sorrows, about having nothing to play with as a child but the wind.)

Joel, Binny, Edmund, Hazel and the rest of the wacky characters are desperate to have their desires fulfilled. This book made me laugh out loud.

Readalikes: Fruit (Brian Francis); The Pursemonger of Fugu (Greg Kramer); and Cooking with Frenet Branca (James Hamilton-Paterson).

Friday, August 1, 2014

Albert Einstein and Antoine de Saint-Exupery in Picture Book Biographies

Biographies in picture book format are a weakness of mine. I think it's the combination of art and true facts, plus they are short. Because these books are usually only about 30 pages long, I know that I can spend a leisurely time appreciating them, and still get through the whole thing in one sitting. For me, they signal a mood of relaxed enjoyment.

I recently read two delightful examples back to back: On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne and Vladimir Radunsky and The Pilot and the little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupery by Peter Sis.

Radinsky's exuberant illustrations in On a Beam of Light radiate joyful energy. His black ink lines are expressively untidy and the rich gouache colours do not stay neatly inside the lines. The paper is light brown, speckled with fibers, giving it a homespun look.
Important lines of text are highlighted in red. (On a Beam of Light. Berne & Radunsky)

Berne has selected details about Einstein's life that will make the most impression on children. For example, when Einstein grew up, he chose specific clothes for thinking. He refused to ever wear socks. Einstein never spoke before age two, and hardly said a word before age three. When he did finally speak, he was full of questions.

"So many questions that some of his teachers told him he was a disruption to his class. They said he would never amount to anything unless he learned to behave like all the other students.
But Albert didn't want to be like the other students.
He wanted to discover the hidden mysteries in the world."

Readers can go on to discover more about Einstein through Berne's notes and resource list at the end.

Even though Peter Sis has a very different style from Radunsky, I was struck by the way they both showed their subjects as babies, floating in space:
Baby Einstein (On a Beam of Light. Berne & Radunsky)

Baby Saint-Exupery (The Pilot and the Little Prince. Sis)
In The Pilot and the Little Prince, Peter Sis uses medium to light colours, mostly golds and heavenly blues. He avoids black. His shading is made up of lots of minute lines and dots. There are whimsical details like the winged horse above. Continents on a map and mountains seen from a plane are shown with facial features. Pictorial elements on a page are frequently grouped in medallions with tidbits of additional text. It's like a treasure hunt to find everything on each page.

Young Saint-Exupery attempted to fly with his bicycle. (detail from The Pilot and the Little Prince. Sis)
There is a great deal more information in this book about Antoine de Saint-Exupery than in the one about Einstein. Older children, teens and adults will all find much to appreciate. Sis packs a lot into his pages! What makes the biggest impression is Saint-Exupery's lifelong love of flight, in spite of numerous crash landings. There are details about the history of aviation as well as Saint-Exupery's writing career and his service in World War II. And I learned a surprising lot about the earliest airmail service.

Peter Sis has written and illustrated many more wonderful books, including The Tree of Life (about Charles Darwin); Starry Messenger (about Galileo); and The Wall, his autobiography about growing up in Czechoslovakia. I've previously reviewed his retelling of a thirteenth-century Persian poem, The Conference of Birds.