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.