Thursday, December 31, 2015

The River by Helen Humphreys

Elegant. Poetic. Nature writing / fiction / memoir / meditation. Gorgeous book design: small, square format; translucent dust jacket; lavish full colour illustrations made up of contemporary and archival photos as well as historical images of flora and fauna. Helen Humphreys' The River is a gem.

Humphreys documents Depot Creek, the river near her home in Ontario, across years and across seasons.

"The test for how to tell if it's too cold for swimming is to plunge your hand into the river and if the bone in your wrist aches, then the water is too cold to enter."

"The British naturalist and writer Roger Deakin once said that watching a river is the same as watching a fire in the hearth. Both are moving and alive, and the feeling from watching them is a similar one." That feeling is beautifully evoked in The River.

Throughout the book, Humphreys incorporates fictional vignettes based on true stories, similar to those in her earlier nonfiction / novel / short story collection, The Frozen Thames. In The River, these all have environmental themes. They feature characters like a 19th century plume hunter, froggers, hungry boys shooting robins for their supper, and children catching fireflies for NASA in 1965. Two London women joining forces in their opposition to the barbaric fashion of feathered hats. Teenagers cooking at a frog festival where local population depletion necessitates frog leg imports from Indonesia.

"The blackbird sings after every sip of water."

The River makes my soul sing.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Caribbean Fiction: A List

It's the time of short days and long nights in Edmonton. Join me in an escape to tropical island settings, creole cultures and vibrant socio-political histories with these novels by Caribbean authors.

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
A novel of political oppression based on the real lives of sisters who were martyred in 1960 during the rule of General Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.

Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique
A lush intergenerational epic that begins in 1917 when control of the Virgin Islands were transferred from Denmark to the USA.

The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke
A woman's confession of murder in 1952 Bimshire (Barbados) leads to a moving exploration of the island's rich and tragic history.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy
In a wry, saucy voice that brooks no nonsense, July Goodwin tells of her life that began in slavery in the 1800s on a Jamaican sugar cane plantation. My longer review is here.

Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo
Jonathan's search for a parent he hasn't seen since he was nine takes him from Canada to Trinidad in this moving portrayal of gender identity and the immigrant experience. My longer review is here.

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
A radiant portrait of a Haitian community, told in interlinked stories that center around a seven-year-old girl who disappears from her village. My longer review is here.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
Yunior, the irresistible Dominican Don Juan with a foul mouth, whom Diaz introduced in his earlier books, returns in many of these dazzling stories. I previously reviewed another of Diaz's books, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Cuba, My Revolution by Inverna Lockpez and Dean Haspiel with Jose Villarrubia
A fictionalized memoir by a woman whose idealism at 17 gradually faded after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba. Told in graphic novel format with blocky, surrealist artwork in shades of grey and red. My longer review is here.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Winner of the Man Booker Prize, this story centers around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. The audiobook, read by an ensemble cast, is an ideal way to experience the multiple voices and the Jamaican patois. A Brief History of Seven Killings also won the Green Carnation Prize, which is awarded to LGBT writers for any form of literature. My longer review is here.

I created this list for the Edmonton Public Library, where you can find it with live links  directly to the titles in the library's catalogue.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Tormenting Left-handed People

Three books I've read in the past month have portrayed historical cruelty to southpaws. All three also feature lesbian characters, (none of whom are left-handed).

Meags Fitzgerald was born in Quebec in 1987. In Long Red Hair, she uses graphic novel format to tell how she has come to terms with her bisexual identity, including a dramatic coming out scene at her family's supper table when she was 16. As an adult, Fitzgerald was shown a copy of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger's The Malleus Maleficarum.

"It was published in 1487, the printing press was just invented so it became one of the first bestsellers. It spread the idea that people with abnormalities like birthmarks, moles, red hair, or left-handedness, were likely witches."

Fitzgerald's expressive inkwork in shades of gray and red captures the era and emotions very well. Grade 8 and up.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge is an atmospheric mystery set in the mid-nineteenth century. Fourteen-year-old Faith's intelligence and curiosity about the natural sciences is routinely overlooked because she is a girl. Sneaking around is her only recourse to knowledge. Her father, the Reverend Sunderly, has brought many rare specimens back to England from China, but none are as unusual as the mendacity tree. It's a plant that feeds on lies.

Faith looks after her 6-year-old brother Howard after their family's fortunes take a sudden change. She often has to wrestle him into his special jacket. "Howard loathed the jacket, which he had to wear for all his lessons. The left sleeve was stitched to his side, trapping his left hand in his pocket so that he could not use it." Howard must learn to write with his right hand before he is sent to boarding school, but he would rather not go to school at all. It makes Faith so angry because she would love the opportunity to study beyond her father's library.

When her father is found dead under questionable circumstances, Faith gives up on being a good girl. "She did not feel hot or helpless anymore. She felt the way snakes looked when they moved." She is determined to find the truth.

This is a novel with a wide age-range appeal, and I hope other adults will pick it up. Grade 5 and up.

I wrote about Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's The War that Saved My Life in a previous post. There was a puzzle partway through the story about why Ada's little brother Jamie was coming home with bruising and wounds on one wrist. It turned out that his teacher was tying his left hand to his chair to prevent him from using it. When she was asked why Jamie couldn't use that hand, she said:

"Everyone knows that's the mark of the devil. He wants to write with his left hand, not his right. I'm training him up the way he's supposed to be."

This is another children's story that will appeal to adult readers, particularly if you are looking for an audiobook for a family car trip. Grade 4 and up.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Reading Life, Or, All Reading, No Blogging

I'd rather read than write, so blogging falls by the wayside sometimes. Then I'm sorry that I don't have a record of some of my favourite books this year. So here are a few notes about the amazing connections I've noticed between books that I've read in the last month or so:

Alex + Ada (by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn) is a 3-part comics series about sentient robots that I loved. Alex never wanted a robot but Ada is a gift from his grandmother. A complicated situation that turns out well in the end. Then I listened to the audiobook The War that Saved My Life (by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley; read by Jayne Entwistle) and the narrator is a crippled 10-year-old girl named Ada. She and her little brother are evacuated from London before bombing begins during the second world war and they get placed with a reluctant host, a crotchety single lesbian. It ends up being the best thing that could have happened to all three of them. (And I'm game for more heros named Ada.)

In The Thing About Jellyfish (by Ali Benjamin), a 12-year-old girl studies jellyfish as a way to understand her friend's death by drowning. She also follows the failures and eventual triumph of Diana Nyad, who successfully swam from Cuba to Florida. I hadn't remembered hearing about Nyad before, but encountered her name soon afterwards in The Argonauts (by Maggie Nelson). The Argonauts is an exciting literary memoir about motherhood and living queer; I listened to the audiobook read by the author and was tempted to start back at the beginning as soon as I finished it. Then I picked up Red Jacket (by Jamaican-born Canadian author Pamela Mordecai). Within the first few pages, when the central character Grace is still a small child, she encounters a jellyfish for the first time:

     "'Well, it's never stung me,' Gramps say the day Grace ask him about the pretty purple-blue bubble lying on the sand at Richfield. It was the first day she put her eyes on so much water, big shining acres of it that blind her as the truck emerge round corner from the dark of the forest. 'However, I know plenty people who it sting and make well-sick,' Gramps continue. He sound serious, like parson at a funeral."

Red Jacket is set on a fictional Caribbean island, St Chris, and follows Grace from babyhood into her adult years, when she works toward a global strategy to combat HIV/AIDS. Another novel that I recently read was also set in the Caribbean and also revolved around family secrets: The Land of Love and Drowning (by Tiphanie Yanique) is a compelling saga set in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

As part of my job, I'm going out to schools to book talk the contenders for this year's Bataille des Bouquins, a French-language reading program for children in Grade 4 to 6. When I talk about Bine: L'affaire est pet shop (by Quebecois author Daniel Brouillette) I mention that Bine wants to catch the eye of the coolest girl in Grade 6, Maxim, who can burp the entire alphabet. Should I have been as surprised as I was to encounter another burping genius? One of the minor characters in Circus Mirandus (by Cassie Beasley) can burp the Greek alphabet. I listened to Circus Mirandus in audiobook, narrated by the incomparable Bronson Pinchot. It's a charming tale about believing in magic.

Okay, I'm going back to my books now. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Pemmican Eaters: Poems by Marilyn Dumont

On November 16 in 1885, Louis Riel was hanged for treason. There will be a commemoration ceremony to pay tribute to him today at the Alberta Legislature, starting at 11 am. It is Metis Week in Edmonton: see details of events online here.

The following review was part of a longer post that I wrote three months ago when my reading project was book bingo.

The beautiful cover image
is by Linus Woods.
I grew up on an Alberta farm in a francophone community that was originally called St Paul-des-Métis. When I was younger, I thought all Canadians considered Louis Riel to be our greatest national folk hero. And that Gabriel Dumont, Riel's general in the 1885 rebellion, was famous too.

When I began working at Edmonton Public Library in 1989, I signed up a brown-skinned young woman for a library card and made a comment about her historic family name, "Dumont." She looked at me blankly. I said, "Gabriel Dumont." Still nothing. After telling her we had books about him in the collection, I proceeded with the library card. Later, I quizzed Edmonton friends and colleagues and discovered that Dumont, and even Riel, were not as well-known as I had assumed.

There are other books about Riel and Dumont, but Marilyn Dumont's latest collection of poetry does something different. With potent, dexterous verse, it connects contemporary lives to Canadian history.

"Upon discovery that our Gabriel, Gabriel Dumont Senior, our great-great-grandfather and uncle of the famous Gabriel, had held the position of leader at Lac Ste. Anne, I finally understood why our family's annual summer visit to the pilgrimage was so important to us."

In Dumont's poems, Louis Riel is sometimes 'Louis' and sometimes 'Riel,' but Gabriel Dumont is referred to always by first name: either 'Gabriel' or 'Gabe.' Riel is 'Our Prince' - "Louis / the one who gave us Manitoba / brokered pluralism / and language rights."

Elizabeth Brass Donald in front of
Frank Oliver's house.
(photo reference link)
Women are in these pages too, nurturing other humans and the earth, their needlework like prayers.

A photo of Elizabeth Brass Donald is referenced in 'The Land She Came From.' She was one of the victims of land swindles that are a part of Edmonton's early history: "crow woman dig down / scrape away the layers / of sleeping memory / down to the stake lines of river lots / in Rossdale and beyond / far down to the Métis family names / still breathing there: Donald, Bird, Ward [...]" 'To a Fair Country' is about wholesale land thefts through "official trickery:" "I want to forget the number of Métis / less than one percent / who hold property from that scrip today."

Much hardship is summed up in a few words in 'Letter to Sir John A. MacDonald' - "we were railroaded / by some steel tracks that didn't last / and some settlers who wouldn't settle."

Language is another aspect of Métis culture: "neither Cree, Salteaux nor French exactly, but something else / not less / not half / not lacking" - 'These Are Wintering Words'

The Pemmican Eaters is a history book with so much heart, and it's one I would have loved to suggest to that young library patron back in 1989. I will recommend it widely from now on.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

What can I say about Marilynne Robinson's Lila except that I love her writing style so very much. Beth Kephart wrote about what is meant by beautiful writing in her blog post about Lila last month. Kephart herself is no slouch in the writing department, and I encourage you to read her thoughtful words.

Following are just a few excerpts from Lila that capture the distinctive voice of the main character and the philosophical nature of the prose.

"The days came and went on their own, without any praying about it. And still, everywhere, meetings and revivals, people seeing the light. Finding comfort where there was no comfort, just an old man saying something he'd said so many times he probably didn't hear it himself. It was about the meaning of existence, he said. All right. She knew a little bit about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. [...] The evening and the morning, sleeping and waking. Hunger and loneliness and weariness and still wanting more of it. Existence. Why do I bother? He couldn't tell her that, either."

"Plenty of times he was called away to do what he could where comforting was needed. The last time it happened he came in the door after midnight, grumbling to himself. He said, 'Asking a man to apologize on his deathbed for the abject and total disappointment he was in life! that does beat all." He took off his hat. 'So I took them aside, the family. And I said, If you're not Christian people, than what am I doing here? And if you are, you'd better start acting like it. Words to that effect.'"

"The old man always said we should attend to the things we have some hope of understanding, and eternity isn't one of them. Well, this world isn't one either."

It is rare for me to read a novel with all-out positive portrayals of Christian religious figures, and I appreciated that very much. Yet I, a former Catholic and now non-Christian, also felt a strong negative reaction to the story's Christian underpinnings.

"There was no way to abandon guilt, no decent way to disown it. All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, grace had to fall over them."

The section quoted above is an example of what troubled me. The whole issue of guilt, of original sin. Of whether or not it is necessary to be absolved by a higher power. We had a great discussion about this at my book group meeting last month. I adore a novel that can engage me so fully, as this one has. And Lila is a character that will remain close to my heart.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon

Told in the voice of Pythias, daughter of Aristotle, Annabel Lyon's The Sweet Girl opens when she is seven years old.

"The first time I ask to carry a knife to the temple, Daddy tells me I'm not allowed to because we're Macedonian. Here in Athens, you have to be born an Athenian girl to carry the basket with the knife, to lead the procession to the sacrifice. The Athenians can be awfully snotty, even all these years after our army defeated their army."

Lyon's use of words like "snotty" is one of the playful elements in this novel that's based on real people in ancient Greece. Another is that gods make cameo appearances and interact with Pythias. The blend of historical fact with myth is very appealing. I don't remember any fantastical elements in Lyon's earlier novel,  The Golden Mean which is set about 20 years further back in time, when Aristotle tutored the 15-year-old prince who grew up to be Alexander the Great.

I read one of Aristotle's works, Poetics, and blogged about the experience a few years ago. Pythias has, of course, read all of her father's writings. As a precocious prepubescent, she is given a rare opportunity to speak in a room of men. Impressed, one of them says:

"The question, then, is whether little Athena is unique, or whether she is an example of what many girls could be, if they were encouraged by such fathers."

Another says: "A freak. Oh, I don't mean that unkindly. But how could such a great man produce an ordinary child? The tallest mountains have the tallest shadows. She's not representative of her sex."

Perhaps Pythias is a freak, because she is an early version of a modern woman. Orphaned at 16 when her father dies, she discovers there are few options open to her. Somehow, she must find a place for herself in society. This book really made me appreciate how far we have come since then in terms of women's rights.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

I was wrong about A Brief History of Seven Killings. I did not want to read it because review descriptions made me think it wasn't my kind of book. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times called it: "raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting." Aside from "darkly comic" and "exhilarating," the rest of that string scared me away. "Dense, violent and exhausting" sounds like something to avoid. And it's a doorstop on top of that, 688 pages, which means investing a significant amount of time.

People that I trust were raving about how good this is, so I decided to give it a try in audio. Excellent decision! I love this book so much that now I am the one raving about it.

The story spans decades of history in Jamaica, centered around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. Pieces link together in surprising ways. The characterization is outstanding. Most of them are men, but there are a few women, including Nina Burgess:

A Brief History of Seven Killings
had me revisiting all things Bob
Marley, including this picture
book biography by Tony Medina
and Jesse Joshua Watson.
"Kimmy learning from Ras Trent to take the words English people gave her as a tool of oppression and spit them back in their face. Rastaman don't deal with negativity so oppression is now downpression even though there is no up in the word. Dedicate is livicate, I and I, well God knows what that means, but it sounds like somebody is trying for their own holy trinity but forgetting the name of the third person. A lot of shit if you ask me."

The audiobook [Highbridge: 26 hours] is read by an ensemble cast (Robertson Dean, Cherise Booth and Dwight Bacquie), so not only are the multiple voices distinctive, the Jamaican patois rolled easily into my ears. I enjoy the way dialect gets me into a setting and it's even better when I can hear it in audio format. Sensitive listeners are forewarned that the dialogue has a lot of profanity, which in Jamaica relies heavily on words that have to do with the vagina and menstruation. But I hope this warning will not scare you away from a fantastic reading experience.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, along with another title I adored, A Little Life. It's a close call, but I think I like A Brief History of Seven Killings best. The winner will be announced tomorrow and I would be pleased if either of them wins.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt

Patrick deWitt's Undermajordomo Minor is a dark comedy that transforms European folktale elements into something entirely original. Imagine a mash-up of Wes Anderson's film The Grand Budapest Hotel with Pauline Reage's The Story of O and PG Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster.

Lucien (Lucy) Minor, a puny young man from a village of giants, accepts a position as assistant to the majordomo at a distant castle. When he gets to the castle of Baron Von Aux, you know it doesn't bode well for him when he is instructed to lock himself in his room at night.

I reviewed deWitt's The Sisters Brothers, a few years ago. As in that earlier novel, this one has dialogue that I found extremely amusing. In the following passage, the majordomo Mr Olderglough has asked Lucy what he thinks of a plan that has been proposed:

Lucy said, "I think it is somewhat far-fetched, sir."
"Are you not up for it?"
"I'm not, actually, no. And to be frank, sir, I don't believe you are, either."
"What sort of attitude is that? Let us rally, boy."
"Let us come up with another plan."
"Let us look within ourselves and search out the dormant warrior."
"Mine is dormant to the point of non-existence, sir. There is no part of me that wishes to lay nakedly abed and await that man's arrival."
"I tell you you will not be alone."
"And yet I shall surely feel alone, sir."
Mr Olderglough looked down the length of his nose. "May I admit to being disappointed in you, boy."
"You may write a lengthy treatise on the subject, sir, and I will read it with interest. But I highly doubt there will be anything written within those pages which will alter my dissatisfaction with the scheme."
"Well I'm sorry to have to tell you this, boy, but it must come to pass, and it will."
"I believe it will not, sir."

We will leave Lucy and Mr Olderglough at this point in their oh-so-polite disagreement. In their world, soldiers fight because they are soldiers, not because there is a war, and servants work because it's their job - even if they do not get paid. Befriended by a family of thieves, Lucy struggles to find meaning in his life.  

This gothic tale charmed me from the very start. There are no illustrations in Undermajordomo Minor, yet the books that I think most closely capture its essence are in graphic novel format: Tinder (Sally Gardner); Through the Woods (Emily Carroll), The Adventuress (Audrey Niffenegger), Baloney (Pascal Blanchet); and Beautiful Darkness (Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet). It would make a great movie.

I look forward to hearing Patrick deWitt at the Vancouver Writers Fest on October 23, 2015.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Likely Event of Literary Connections

There's a frisson that comes from encountering related passages in entirely unrelated books that I just happen to be reading at the same time. Yesterday I finished two: Patrick deWitt's Undermajordomo Minor, a dark fable set somewhere in central Europe during the steam-powered era, and the audiobook of Judy Blume's In the Unlikely Event, realistic fiction set in New Jersey in the 1950s. In each story is a character who ends his emotional torment the same way.

What follows will not spoil either of the plots, because these are minor characters and the excerpts do not identify them. Both describe a socially-sanctioned form of suicide: men who intentionally sacrifice themselves during wartime action.

"At last he simply ran towards their cannons, and that was the end of him." -Patrick deWitt.

"He walked into enemy fire, didn't he?" -Judy Blume

While I wouldn't describe myself as someone who seeks out books set during wartime, war does come up often in the novels I read. Mental health, on the other hand, is a topic I do look for in fiction. I had not expected to find it addressed in these two novels, but I was pleasantly surprised. Blume and deWitt incorporate mental health issues throughout their respective storylines. I enjoyed both books very much.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

On the book jacket of A Little Life is the face a man who looks like he is suffering. So many people have recommended it that I overrode my reluctance to tackle a 720-page novel that looks like it might be full of pain. Now I'll add my praise to that already heaped upon Hanya Yanagihara for this sad story that I love so very, very much.

I found Yanagihara's first novel, The People in the Trees, intellectually compelling. A Little Life is better. It's emotionally compelling. Unlike the repulsive characters in The People in the Trees, A Little Life is full of people that I would be honoured to spend time with in real life. (There are also a few who are true villains, whom I'd never want to meet.)

Jude St. Francis and three other guys meet in college and remain close for the rest of their lives. They come from mixed ethnic backgrounds and have diverse sexual identities and career paths. The focus on their remarkable bonds of friendship that last over decades is one of the reasons that this book so wonderful. There are mysterious, heartbreaking circumstances in Jude's past that are slowly revealed, propelling the plot forward. The main story, however, is that of people's ordinary lives and the importance of human connections.

"And yet he sometimes wondered if he could ever love anyone as much as he loved ___. It was the fact of him, of course, but also the utter comfort of life with him, of having someone who had known him for so long and who could be relied upon to always take him as exactly who he was on that particular day."

There was a part that reminded me of the excellent essay collection Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed (Meaghan Daum, ed.):

"But he and his friends have no children, and in their absence, the world sprawls before them, almost stifling in its possibilities. Without them, one's status as an adult is never secure; a childless adult creates adulthood for himself, and as exhilarating as it often is, it is also a state of perpetual insecurity, of perpetual doubt."

Here's another example of Yanagihara's introspective style:

"He found himself doubting therapy - its promises, its premises - for the first time. He had never before questioned that therapy was, at worst, a benign treatment: when he was younger, he had even considered it a form of luxury, this right to speak about his life, essentially uninterrupted, for fifty minutes proof that he had somehow become someone whose life deserved such lengthy consideration, such an indulgent listener. But now, he was conscious of his own impatience with what he had begun to see as the sinister pedantry of therapy, its suggestion that life was somehow reparable, that there existed a societal norm and that the patient was being guided toward conforming to it."

Details about food preparation are always a hook for me. In the following passage, Harold has asked Jude to teach him to cook.

"And so he did. [...] My main problem, it emerged, was a lack of patience, my inability to accept tedium. I'd wander away to look for something to read and forget that I was leaving the risotto to glue itself into a sticky glop, or I'd forget to turn the carrots in their puddle of olive oil and come back to find them seared to the bottom of the pan. (So much of cooking, it seemed, was petting and bathing and monitoring and flipping and turning and soothing: demands I associated with human infancy.)"

A Little Life is currently on the Man Booker shortlist. The only other title on the list that I've read so far is Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings. I'm glad I'm not a judge choosing between these two because they are both outstanding. The winner will be announced on October 13.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell

Fairytale retellings are always a treat. Best of all is when they are as surprising as Betsy Cornwell's steampunk version of Cinderella. Nicolette is an inventor, as adept with mechanical creations as her mother had been, so she doesn't mind that her nasty stepsisters call her "Mechanica."

The action plays out within a larger political and religious arena that is integral to Nicolette's personal story. Prejudice against magic and the Fey is rising to the point where war seems imminent. Social justice is a central theme, an aspect I found particularly satisfying. When she was still alive and healthy, Nicolette's mother warned her not to trust everything in their country's history books. (That's always good advice.)

"'What are the books wrong about?' I asked, tucking into another sandwich. Thin radish, sweet butter, speckles of salt. An unladylike swig of clear tea."

Which reminds me of another thing I enjoyed; Cornwell's writing style. In the example above, she clearly describes what Nicolette is eating and how enthusiastic she is about her food. These are the kinds of details that make her characters and setting real. 

(And now I'll go off on a complete tangent, because Nicolette's lunch could have been "Radishes with Sweet Butter and Kosher Salt" served at Prune, chef Gabrielle Hamilton's restaurant in New York City. In her cookbook, Prune, Hamilton admonishes: "There is nothing to this, but still... I have seen it go out looking less than stellar - and that's embarrassing considering it's been on the menu since we opened and is kind of 'signature,' if Prune had such a thing as signature dishes." It's a bit different from most restaurant cookbooks, because it's addressed to staff instead of home cooks, even though the recipes are adapted to fewer servings. Before I leave this tangent, I'd like to recommend Hamilton's memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter.)

Back to Mechanica. It's a totally enjoyable feminist tale for ages 11 and up.

Readalikes for more fresh takes on Cinderella: Ash by Malinda Lo and Cinder by Marissa Meyer.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Book Bingo, Second Card, Black Out!

These are the final three categories on my second Books on the Nightstand Book Bingo card. The project, which started on the May long weekend and ended on Labour Day, was created by Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness and promoted on their delightful weekly BOTNS podcast. Links to all of my book bingo posts are here.
A BANNED BOOK: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel.

This multiple award-winning memoir has received much acclaim since it was first published in 2006. It has also been adapted into a Broadway musical that won five Tony awards in 2015. It's the story of a complex relationship between a closeted gay or bisexual father and his lesbian daughter. The main ingredients that have made it a target for censorship are its queer content and comics format, plus its wide popularity. That makes me sad. I love this book so much!

I've read it multiple times and each time I notice new things. This time, one of the scenes that caught my attention was related to the current adult colouring book craze. When Bechdel was a child, she had a "huge oversize colouring book of E.H. Shepard's illustrations for The Wind in the Willows."

"Dad had read me bits of the story from the real book. In one scene, the charming sociopath Mr. Toad purchases a gypsy caravan. I was filling this in one day with my favourite colour, midnight blue."
Alison's father says, "What are you doing? That's the canary-coloured caravan! Here. I'll do the rest in yellow, and your blue side will be in shadow. Look, by adding thin layers of goldenrod and yellow-orange, I get a richer colour." Alison, meanwhile, has wandered off. "It was a crayonic tour de force."

LAST BOOK OF AN AUTHOR BEFORE HE/SHE DIED: Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff.

This is Canadian gay humourist David Rakoff's only novel and it was published after he died. I reviewed it in 2013, and re-read it this year for the July meeting of the Jasper Place Library book club. Rakoff's skill as a wordsmith was widely praised. The format of the book provided us with almost as much to talk about as the content. There was near unanimous agreement in the contention that it was not a novel at all, but rather a collection of interlinked short stories. I was in the minority, finding that the short stories - told in rhyming couplets! - interlink individual lives over the course of the twentieth century and encompass a larger social commentary. That makes it a novel, as far as I can tell.

At the same meeting, the reasons people have for attending the library book club came up, including the broadening of one's reading horizons. This title is a good example, because participants said they never would have picked it up otherwise, yet were surprised by how much they enjoyed it. Stretching my book horizons is also the reason that I enjoy playing Book Bingo.
MANGA: Library Wars, vol. 1. Love and War. Story and art by Kiiro Yumi, original concept by Hiro Arikawa, translation by Kinami Watabe.

I read a lot of western-style graphic novels, but not many Japanese-style comics. Links to some of my earlier manga reviews are here.

The premise of Library Wars is pretty cool. In near future Japan, under the Media Betterment Act, the federal government creates a Media Betterment Committee that "seeks to exercise censorship over all media, including restricting offensive books." Armed units have been set up under local governments to fight censorship under the Library Freedom Act. "Working for the Library Defense Force is considered even more dangerous than being a police officer or in the army."

In the first volume of Library Wars, we meet a young Defense Force recruit, Iku Kasahara, whose parents think she is studying to be a librarian. Iku and her drill instructor, Atsushi Dojo, are obviously attracted to each other but they act like they can't stand each other. Their relationship drove me nuts.

What I did not take into account when I picked this up is that it's shojo manga. The target audience for shojo is teenage girls and there tends to be too much romance in the storylines for my taste. I won't be continuing with the series, even though the art is pretty and I've heard that the pace picks up after the first volume.

The English edition of Library Wars preserves the traditional right-to-left layout. Volume 14 is due to be published by Simon Schuster in October 2015. The full story is serialized over 15 parts in Japan, according to Wikipedia.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Book Bingo, Second Card, Sixth Line

My book bingo card is now complete, but I'm going to separate the final two lines into two separate posts, just to keep it manageable. It took me so long to get the last few squares that I managed to read additional titles for several other categories in the meantime.

ABOUT A DISEASE: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe [Books on Tape: 9 hr 37 min: narrated by Jeff Harding]. Bonus title: On Immunity by Eula Biss.
(Intersection. See previous book bingo post here.)

A COLLECTION OF ESSAYS: A Bone to Pick: The Good and Bad News about Food, with Wisdom and Advice on Diets, Food Safety, GMOs, Farming, and More by Mark Bittman [Books on Tape: 8 hr 42 min: narrated by Robert Fass.

Social justice, public health and the environment are all addressed in Bittman's passion about food issues. This collection of about 60 short articles was originally written for his column in the New York Times. The subtitle is a good indication of the breadth of topics, as are the subheadings in the table of contents: Big Ag, Sustainability, and What's in Between; What's Wrong with Meat?; What Is Food? And What Is Not?; The Truth About Diet(s); The Broken Food Chain; and Legislating and Labeling. Thought-provoking and entertaining.

Bonus title: Selfish, Shallow and Self Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum.

I already knew and loved Meghan Daum's writing and now I know that she's great at getting other writers to contribute to an anthology on a controversial topic. It is top notch! Here's just one example, from Geoff Dyer, in 'Over and Out':

"To be middle-aged and childless is to elicit one of two responses. The first: pity because you are unable to have kids. This is fine by me. I'm always on the lookout for pity, will accept it from anyone or, if no one is around, from myself. I crave pity the way other men crave admiration or respect. So if my wife or I are asked if we have kids, one of us will reply, 'No, we've not been blessed with children.' We do it totally deadpan, shaking our heads wistfully, looking as forlorn as a couple of empty beer glasses." (The second response is "horror, because by choosing not to have children, you are declining full membership in the human race.")

Selfish, Shallow and Self Absorbed would make an excellent book club choice, because there are many different views expressed and it's a hot-button topic.

SPORTS-RELATED: Lost Canyon by Nina Revoyr.

This was one of the three final categories that snagged my progress. I had it on my first card, where it also created a hindrance, until I read a great nonfiction book about soccer. It took me a while to realize that I could count Nina Revoyr's brand new novel, Lost Canyon, for this category. It's about four people who know each other only through their trainer at a Los Angeles gym, and their planned four-day backpacking trip through strenuous mountain terrain.

As it happens, I've had an advance electronic copy of it since mid-June, thanks to Akashic Books. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the pdf to open in the reading app on my iPod. Every time I wanted to read it, I had to scroll to the message in my email, open the pdf, and then advance page by page to my last stopping point. Quite a nuisance... until I came to a point in the narrative where the hiking adventure went completely sideways and the story switched gears into thriller mode. I didn't stop again until I was finished. (Format problem solved.)

The viewpoint in Lost Canyon rotates between the multi-ethnic cast of believable protagonists. If you are familiar with Revoyr's previous work, you won't be surprised that issues of race and class are explored within a compelling plot. Lost Canyon is her most adrenalin-fueled novel to date.

HISTORICAL FICTION: Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass.
(Intersection. See previous book bingo post here.)

AT LEAST 800 PAGES: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude - 880 pages [Blackstone Audio: 33 hr 34 min: narrated by Wanda McCaddon].

Audio is my favourite way to experience classic literature. Skillful audiobook narrators make complex sentence structure easy to understand. In the past three years, I've had the immense pleasure of listening to works by Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte, Edith Wharton, Jack Kerouac, Chinua Achebe, Beryl Markham, Ann Petry, E.M. Forster, P.G. Wodehouse, Wilkie Collins and George Eliot. Another great thing about audio is having someone else do the work of pronouncing unfamiliar names, of which there are plenty in Tolstoy.

My choice of this particular version of Anna Karenina was all about the voice narrator, Wanda McCaddon, and not about the translators. McCaddon, who also records under the names Donada Peters and Nadia May, is a sure bet. I did find some interesting articles online, however, that made me aware of the linguistic differences I would have encountered if I had listened to a different translation. (See examples in The Guardian and the New York Times.)

As with pretty much any novel that uses a person's name as the title, Anna Karenina is character-based. I didn't have a lot of patience for Anna. Her tragic romance bored me, although I felt some sympathy for the societal restrictions placed upon Tolstoy's women strictly because of their gender. My favourite character is definitely Konstantin Levin. I adored the descriptive passages about the Russian countryside and found the ideas about social, agricultural and educational reforms intellectually engaging.

One thing that still mystifies me is why the men would be so keen to shoot snipes rather than ducks. Are snipes so much tastier? Are they a more challenging target because they are smaller? If you know the answer, please tell me!

Bonus title: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson - 861 pages.

After I'd read (listened to) Anna Karenina, someone gave me a raised eyebrow about counting it for this category, since an audiobook technically has no pages at all. I still think it counts, and Ann and Michael of BOTNS concur, but since then I've read another long book, and this time it was proper paper door-stop.

Seveneves begins in the near-future, when something collides with Earth's moon and causes it to break up into seven large chunks. This in turn has a big effect on our planet. One of the most memorable points in the book is the line that begins: "Five thousand years later..." An impressive narrative leap! Some parts were a little too science-explainy but that didn't stop me from loving this overall.

Coming up next: Black Out! My final book bingo post for 2015.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Thoughts on the Giller Prize Longlist

Today the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller prize was announced and it is a very interesting list! Stephen Beattie wrote a good summary of the group on the Quill and Quire blog here.

I've only read two of them so far, and both were outstanding: Daydreams of Angels by Heather O'Neill and Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis. Don't I wish that I had been keeping up with my reviewing and had already written about these! (My review of O'Neill's charming The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is here)
The one that I'm most excited about reading next is Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt. If I had not already been hooked by my love for the black comedy in deWitt's The Sisters Brothers, I would have picked this up based solely on its description as a fable without a moral. I intend to read this before hearing deWitt speak at the Vancouver Writers Fest on October 23.

The next two that I plan to read (before the shortlist announcement on October 5) are by Rachel Cusk and Connie Gault. I haven't read either of these authors before. Their respective settings are enough to interest me: Gault's A Beauty is set in the prairies in 1930, and Cusk's Outline is set in a writing class in Athens.

Marina Endicott's Close to Hugh has an art gallery setting, a large cast of artistic characters, and a one-week time frame, all of which sounds appealing. I'm a bit hesitant to pick it up, however, because I experienced a slog with her last book. I was 250 pages into The Little Shadows before I cared about what would happen. I admired The Little Shadows once I was done, but I'm not sure I'm up to the time commitment required for another long book by Endicott. I'll be hearing her at a couple of different events at the Vancouver Writers Fest and that may be all it takes to get me excited about picking up Close to Hugh.

It's unlikely that I'll read All True, Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley, which is about Daniel Boone, because I've already given it a try and quit after a few chapters. It was okay, but didn't really grab me. I definitely do not want to get into the mind of a sexual deviant, so I will avoid Martin John by Anakana Schofield, no matter how good everyone says it is.

Check out more about these and the rest of the list on the CBC Books site.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Book Bingo, Second Card, Fifth Line

So much reading, so little blogging. I started my first Book Bingo card on the May long weekend and I've finished 84 books since then, so you would think that I'd have completed three cards by now. But the final four squares on this card just haven't matched what's been on my reading pile. The stumper categories have been: a banned book; sports-related; manga; and borrowed from a friend. Thanks to my dear friend Amy, I've completed another line.

YOUNG ADULT: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman [Listening Library audiobook: 18 hr, 10 min: narrated by Mandy Williams and W Morgan Sheppard].
(See previous Book Bingo post.)
THAT INVOLVES MAGIC: Uprooted by Naomi Novik [Books on Tape audiobook: 17 hr, 47 min: narrated by Julia Emelin].

Uprooted is an outstanding fantasy novel that combines elements of traditional Russian or Polish fairytales with the freshness of realistic characters. It's told in the voice of Agnieszka, who is not your average village maiden.

"Our Dragon doesn't eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travellers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that's not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he's still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we're grateful, but not that grateful."

I love that Novik doesn't ignore the reasons why people would choose to remain living in a place that isn't safe. She also reveals the origins of the situation - why it became dangerous in the first place. It's a compelling and satisfying tale.

WITH AN UGLY COVER: Switch by Douglas Davey (with honorable mention to Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass, which I used for the Historical category instead; see previous Book Bingo post.)

YA novels with ugly covers are one of my pet peeves. Even with a good pitch, it takes extra effort to convince a teen to read something with an unattractive cover. Without an advocate promoting them to readers, these books sit on library shelves unread for months and even years. It makes me sad when I'm performing collection maintenance tasks and find books that have never been borrowed. They are nearly always from Canadian publishers. Sigh.

Inside its unfortunate cover, I found Douglas Davey's Switch to be an enjoyable surprise. The title refers to an ambidextrous switch hitter, someone who "plays for both teams." It's a term that's had derogatory connotations for bisexuals, but the portrayal in this case is positive. Switch is a first-person account about a bisexual high school student, set in the 1980s. Circumstances have the protagonist Sheldon coming out to his entire school, an unusual experience for that era. Copious wry footnotes, written as if from a much older version of Sheldon, add a perspective that makes this novel particularly interesting for both teen and adult readers. Just ignore the cover.

I'm grateful to Red Deer Press for providing a review copy of Switch.

BY OR ABOUT A CELEBRITY: The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae [Simon and Schuster Audio: 5 hr, 50 min: read by author].
(See previous Book Bingo post.)
BORROWED FROM A FRIEND: Ariel: Poems by Sylvia Plath

Amy Willans (a headliner at the Edmonton Poetry Festival earlier this year) kindly loaned me her copy of Ariel. I've read it through several times and feel like I've barely begun to understand its layers. Poetry is such a potent form of language.

"The vivid tulips eat my oxygen." - Tulips

"I am mad, calls the spider, waving its many arms. / And in truth it is terrible, / multiplied in the eyes of the flies." - Totem

My feminist book group will be discussing Ariel next week. It's the first time we've done poetry, and that's only one of the reasons I'm excited. I want to talk about the foreword by Robert Lowell (from 1966) and how it got my back up, because of the way he writes about gender. I want to talk about the poems I loved from the very first reading, and about those that still have me puzzled after three or more readings. I want to talk about mental health. I want to compare the contents of the edition I borrowed (original copyright 1961 with Ted Hughes as editor) with differences in the edition some other book group members are reading, one that restores Plath's original selection and arrangement. It should be a great discussion!

If you want to see all of my Book Bingo posts, click here.