Saturday, January 31, 2015

Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. Jon Mooallem's subtitle pretty much sums up his book's topic and its appeal. Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction covers similar ground, but oh, is it ever depressing. I was grateful for Mooallem's lighter approach. He is indeed "weirdly reassuring" as he investigates human responses to three species: polar bears, an endangered butterfly, and whooping cranes.

Mooallem wanders off onto fascinating tangents, like the origin of the toy teddy bear. The author has a young daughter and he noticed that she is surrounded by animal imagery on her things and in her picture books. What real animals will be left in the natural world when she grows up? He brought her along with him on his road trips while writing this book to give her the opportunity to see rare animals.

You can hear Mooallem read some of this work together with musical accompaniment online via the 99% Invisible podcast. That's how I learned about Wild Ones. I'm so glad that I did.

I listened to the Penguin unabridged audiobook [10 hr. 16 min.] narrated by Fred Sanders. It would be a great all-ages choice for a family road trip.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Right now, I have zero books on the go. (Hard to believe, but it's true.) Yesterday, I brought home the novel I had been reading on my breaks at work because I was so close to the end (My Brilliant Friend), I finished an audiobook (Wild Ones) and the novel I was reading at home (Euphoria). This morning, I even finished reading a cookbook that I have been dipping in and out of (The New Persian Kitchen). So, with a clean reading slate, I am determined to write about all four of these books before I start something new.

Having heard a lot about Elena Ferrante's series of Neapolitan novels, I was curious to see if they lived up to the hype. The short answer is yes. I was immediately swept up in the soap opera of the first book, My Brilliant Friend, translated by Ann Goldstein.

With its large cast of characters and strong sense of place and time, it's sort of a cross between Jane Smiley's Some Luck and Simonetta Agnello Hornby's The Almond Picker.

My Brilliant Friend spans a decade of friendship between two girls, starting in 1950 when they are about six years old. Lila is very smart and willful to the point of naughtiness--qualities that attract shy and cautious Lenu. I found the close character studies of the girls and the people around them surprisingly compelling, even though there isn't a lot that happens. The place and era--an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples with its undercurrent of violence--is vividly real.

Lenu is the first-person narrator throughout. I was reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich's memoir Living with a Wild God when Lenu describes something that Lila experiences:

   "On December 31st of 1958 Lila had her first episode of dissolving margins. The term isn't mine, she always used it. She said that on those occasions the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared."

The final scene, which takes place at 16-year-old Lila's wedding banquet, caught me by surprise. It's not exactly a cliffhanger, but it doesn't bode well for happily ever after. Does a contented life ever make a good story? Anyway, I'm hooked. I want to know what will happen in the next book: The Story of a New Name.

Readalikes: Some Luck (Smiley); The Almond Picker (Agnello Hornby); The Girls from Corona Del Mar (Rufi Thorpe), and also maybe Arcadia (Lauren Groff).

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ms Marvel by G Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

I'm sure you've already heard about Ms Marvel. If not, it's a fantastic comics series starring a 16-year-old Muslim superhero whose parents immigrated to New Jersey from Pakistan. Kamala Khan is one of the best characters in comics these days. She has to sneak out her window at night in order to save people. She gets nagging text messages from her mother while battling bad guys. She repurposes a bathing suit from Auntie's Modest Swimwear as her Ms Marvel outfit.

These comics are funny and smart. As proof, I'm going to note just a few of the side jokes that can be found outside of the main action in the first bound paperback volume - Ms Marvel: No Normal - by writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona.

  • Mr Khan reads a newspaper  with the headline: "Tax on Color Orange Approved."
  • Kamala eats "GM-O's Tasty Cereal" for breakfast in Issue 3 - the same product that was advertised in the paper her father read in Issue 1. The side of the box says: "Listen to your gut not the lawsuits."
  • A bookstore window shows a new release: "The Ur-Do's and Ur-don'ts of Chillin in Pakistan."
  • Magazines at the Circle Q corner store include: Asian Wedding Leftovers; The Joy of Cooking Rare Animals; Superhero Paparazzi; and Dropkick Enthusiast.
  • There's a cleaver stuck in a parking meter.
  • News report: "High school cannibalism experiment proves disastrous."
  • A bystander exclaims (with shades of Lumberjanes), "Holy Sriracha!" 
photo credit: Street Cred - Advertising for the People

There are so many more. And that's on top of the great plotting and character development. I love Ms Marvel so much!

Readalikes: Starling (Sage Stossel); and The Adventures of Superhero Girl (Faith Erin Hicks).

Note added Jan 28 2015: Ms Marvel fights bigotry in real life on San Francisco transit vehicles. See feministing and Street Cred.

Monday, January 26, 2015

When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid

Gritty, funny and heart-wrenching: that's my quick summary of Raziel Reid's Canada Reads finalist, When Everything Feels Like the Movies. I've got a lot more to say.

Reid's vocabulary is rich with pop culture. On the very first page, we encounter consumer products (Louboutins, iPhone) and urban slang (werk), as well as a word that might appear on the SAT exam (coruscate). Even if it hadn't already won a Governor General award for children's literature, the language alone would have been enough to pique my interest. What I found additionally appealing is the first person narration. I can't resist a great voice.

Jude is flamboyantly gay, the lone member of an exotic species in his small-town high school, where he is bullied relentlessly. His mother dances in a strip club. His stepfather is a violent drug addict.

A powerful imagination is Jude's way of coping with bleak circumstances. Walking to school, he pretends that the shabby mining town bungalows are Beverly Hills mansions. Barking dogs are "the honking horns of limos with starlets overdosing in the back." School graffiti becomes the tabloids.

   "I was totally famous. I'd imagine that the drawing in the handicap stall of my alleged crotch with 'Hermafrodite Jude/Judy' scribbled next to it was the cover of the National Enquirer. Misspelled headline included. I was addicted to them. I'd look all over the bathroom and on all the walls in the hallway, and if there wasn't one waiting for me on my locker for Jim to paint over at the end of the day, I was crushed. I wanted them to hate me; hate was as close to love as I thought I'd ever be."

I've read a lot of gritty YA, and so there needs to be something fresh about a book in this style to draw me in. In When Everything Feels Like the Movies, what is special is Jude's voice. I admired the bravery that it takes to throw such attitude. He's not a caricature: there are cracks in his campy veneer, revealing his vulnerability.

I also enjoy the uncertainties that are part of the reading experience with an unreliable narrator. In the first chapter, Jude describes a violent event that happens in "the summer before I had my brains blown out in heart-shaped chunks." Will he end up literally getting his brains blown out? Or is it hyperbolic metaphor? Or one of his fantasy scenes?

(detail of graffiti on Oscar Wilde's gravestone)
Jude's flair for the dramatic adds a farcical element, but what lies underneath is perfectly believable. Take the following passage as an example:

   "The first person I came out to was my grade-two teacher. Her name was Mrs Schaeffer. She took me out of class because I spontaneously broke out singing Britney Spears during a test. When she told me to "Stop that racket!" I said, "It's not racket. It's Britney, bitch."
    Mrs Schaeffer didn't know what to do with me. She had already called my mom and told her she should take me to the doctor. Mom did. The doctor prescribed Ritalin for me after diagnosing me with ADHD, even though my mom said I was just an attention whore. I never did take the Ritalin; Ray got to them before I could. Mrs Schaeffer took me out in the hall and crossed her arms, looking down at me. "Every day it's the same thing, Jude. You insist on causing trouble for yourself." I tried to make myself cry because tears get you out of everything. "What's wrong with you?" she asked. I didn't know if I was supposed to answer. She looked at me, waiting.
    I looked up at her and shrugged. "I'm gay." That was what everyone else seemed to think was wrong with me.
    "How do you know that word?" she gasped.
    Mrs Schaeffer called my house that night. I heard the whole conversation because I was sitting next to my mom on the couch, helping her sew one of the broken straps of a sequined bra. Most kids had to vacuum once a week for allowance. Not me. I had to wipe down the latex."

Jude's mother calls Mrs Schaeffer a bitch after she hangs up. His inappropriate language has obviously been learned at home. And what was his mother's reaction to his news?

   "Shocker," she said, rolling her eyes. "You've only been walking in heels better than me since you were three years old."

What struck me most in the scene above is Mrs Schaeffer's gasp in response to the word 'gay.' From this tender age onward, his teacher and others make it clear to Jude that he is transgressive merely by existing. It's the root of the tragedy. It's the reality for too many students today.

"Canada Reads 2015 is all about books that can change perspectives, challenge stereotypes and illuminate issues." When Everything Feels Like the Movies is a fitting choice to this end.

Queer, gritty and darkly funny readalikes: Freak Show (James St. James); Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy (Bil Wright); The Desperates (Greg Kearney); Fruit (Brian Francis); and Look Who's Morphing (Tom Cho).

More gritty/funny/tragic readalikes, without the queer content: The Lesser Blessed (Richard Van Camp); A Complicated Kindness (Miriam Toews); You Don't Know Me (David Klass); and Lullabies for Little Criminals (Heather O'Neill).

Monday, January 19, 2015

How the World Was: A California Childhood by Emmanuel Guibert

"So you want me to tell you a little bit about my childhood in Southern California?"

Yes! Tell me, Alan Cope. And show me, Emmanuel Guibert. In spite of their age difference, French cartoonist Guibert (born 1964) and American expatriate Cope (1925-1999) were friends. Recorded conversations have given Guibert some wonderful material to work with. An earlier example is the graphic novel memoir Alan's War, which I reviewed in 2009.

How the World Was transported me to the era of the Great Depression, in the decade leading up to 1937. Cope is an excellent storyteller, with clear memories of what it was like to be a child, and specific details of southern California before freeways and pollution. Guibert's artwork, a mix of manipulated old photos and nuanced ink brush figures, make that world even more vivid.

The urban landscape is so different:

  "At that time, trains still ran on city roads. The tracks were right there on top of the pavement, like trolley tracks. The train slowly pulling into the station made for an impressive sight. Automobile traffic halted to let the huge locomotive pass, its puffing punctuated by the clang! clang! clang! of its bell.
    In those days, aerodynamics wasn't yet a factor in the design of land vehicles. Those locomotives were monuments--monsters.
    To travel by train was to travel by black dragon."

Cope witnessed the introduction of consumer products that we now take for granted:

   "We started seeing ads in magazines showing a well-dressed, healthy-looking little girl with golden curls. I could read a bit. The ad said: 'Oh, she's so pretty! She's so healthy! She uses Kleenex!' I had no idea what a Kleenex might be.
    I found out one day that a little girl who lived up the street had a box of Kleenex. That's how I met her. She was pretty nice, and sometimes we'd play together.
    I wonder what happened to her. No idea."
Detail from Guibert's How the World Was, taken from larger spread below.
Cope remembers a bachelor who used to rent a room in their house. "He had a machine that sharpened safety-razor blades. Those razors, which were fitted with small rectangular blades, were still a novelty and the blades were fairly expensive, so our renter sharpened them. Sometimes he'd let me turn the handle of the machine." (See detail above, from larger page-spread below.)

I wonder how well this little machine worked. As it happened, before I came to this panel I had just listened to a passage in a different book explaining the difficulty, at the molecular level, entailed in sharpening razer blades. It was in the audiobook Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape our Man-made World by Mark Miodownik.

Guibert's layout is polished and precise. There's a lot of text, all nicely proportioned on the pages. His use of negative space is evocative. In the page spread above, on the bottom left panel, Cope's father is shown isolated in an enlarged pull-out from the soda fountain scene directly above. The white space around him gives the impression that he is somewhat of a mystery, as a father is to his young son. On the opposite page, where children run into empty space, the text ends with the line: "California cities were full of vacant lots in those days."

If you are a fan of graphic novel memoirs, do not miss this. I read the English edition translated by Kathryn Pulver and published by First Second.

Readalikes: Alan's War (Guibert); Fun Home (Bechdel); Dotter of Her Father's Eyes (Talbot & Talbot); You'll Never Know (Tyler); Over Easy (Pond); Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me (Pekar & Waldman); and Marzi (Sowa).

Monday, January 12, 2015

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Some Luck is the first in Jane Smiley's family saga trilogy that is to span 100 years by the time it is complete. The chapters progress year by year, starting with 1920. Walter Langdon has returned to a farm in Iowa after fighting in World War 1. He and his 20-year-old wife Rosanna have just had their first child when Some Luck opens.

By 1953, the closing chapter, the Langdons have had several more children, most of them grown and with families of their own. Family members have spread out across the USA, from Chicago to San Francisco to New York City. Their individual lives play out against the larger backdrop of historical events--the Great Depression, World War 2, McCarthyism--and of technological developments like automobiles, tractors, chemical fertilizers and electricity.

In the hands of a skillful writer like Smiley, ordinary people are fascinating. As Rosanna's mother says about the children: "Each one is his or her own little universe."

I felt totally absorbed by the Langdon family as I listened to the audiobook [Random House: 15 hr] read by Lorelei King. King has a certain warmth and affinity for the characters, making the story even more enjoyable. She even sings softly a capella when called for in the text. (A couple of years ago, I enjoyed another audiobook with a varied cast, narrated by King: Moon Called.)

In 2006, Smiley received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. Her work just keeps getting better. I look forward to the next two books in the Langdon family trilogy.

Readalikes: The Son (Philipp Meyer); Ethel and Ernest (Raymond Briggs); The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough).

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

The Guest Cat is a quietly luminous novella by Japanese poet Takashi Hiraide, translated by Eric Selland. There isn't much of a plot: a young couple renting a cottage in the suburbs of Tokyo interacts with a neighbour's cat.

It took a little while for Hiraide's descriptive prose to draw me in. I had to let my mind slow to the meditative rhythm, to the contemplation of moments of beauty, the inevitability of change, the natural cycles of life and death.

 "In mid-July, as the seasonal rains came to an end, the blue figure of a white-tailed skimmer dragonfly appeared on a large rock beside the pond in a perfect spot to catch the sun. Could it be the offspring of the skimmer who in the summer of the previous year came back again and again to kiss the arc of water produced by the spray from the hose? United in the shape of a distorted heart, the blue-and-yellow male and female had flown from branch to branch among the trees. Could this be their child, now emerged from its pupa?
Scout, the cat who lives at our house.
    The male skimmer I'd become friends with had vanished by the end of August. For a while I regretted the disappearance of my winged friend and his wife from the garden, which had now also been left behind by the old man and the old woman. But I felt as if that same skimmer had been brought back to life along with the bright light of summer. Then--between the effacement of death and this birth that was in a sense a kind of rebirth--I found vividly recalled to me those who had left and would never return."

The Guest Cat won Japan's Kiyama Shohei award in 2002, was a bestseller in France, and the English translation made several best-of-2014 lists. I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago, but I'm still thinking about it.

Contemplative readalikes: The Fur Person (May Sarton); Glaciers (Alexis Smith); Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Annie Dillard). Also, a couple of picture books that capture somewhat of the same feeling: Once Upon a Memory (Nina Laden & Renata Liwska); House Held Up by Trees (Ted Kooser & Jon Klassen).

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Spera by Josh Tierney

When two princesses from neighbouring kingdoms learn that they are to be murdered, they escape together. Lono is a girly girl and Pira is a tomboy; they are best friends. They are accompanied and protected by an elemental fire creature, Yonder. He shapeshifts between the form of a large dog, and a portly man with a red beard. The three of them face one monster after another.

Spera is a graphic novel for all ages, written by Canadian Josh Tierney. The three main characters are great, yet what I love best is that each of the chapters is illustrated by a different artist. In volume one, these are Kyla Vanderklugt, Hwei, Emily Carroll (also the creator of Into the Woods), and Olivier Pichard. Then, there are five shorter scenes at the end, again by different artists: Jordyn Bochon, Cecile Brun, Luke Pearson, Leela Wagner and Matt Marblo. Each comics style is quite different, so it's like a series of re-imaginings of one classic fairytale.

Depending on the artist, Yonder's dog form goes from something like an orange husky (Vanderklugt), to a red sheepdog (Hwei), to a flaming schipperke (Carroll), to more wolf-like (Pichard), to a brown labrador (Brun), to a foxy thing that looks like a campfire when he's curled up (Pearson)... and so on. Multiple interpretations of Yonder's human form, and of the two princesses, are just as varied. It's fresh and exciting to have such a variety of gorgeous art within one episodic tale.

The series is published by Archaia and there are two more volumes so far. In them, I hope to find additional adventures with Chobo the Warrior Cat, a character introduced near the end of volume one. Also, Lono has started to defend herself when necessary, rather than relying on Pira and Yonder, and I look forward to seeing even more of that development.

Fantasy fans from Grade 4 to adult will enjoy these adventures in the land of Spera.

Readalikes: Bone (Jeff Smith); Castle Waiting (Linda Medley); Rapunzel's Revenge (Shannon Hale, Nathan Hale & Dean Hale); Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant (Tony Cliff); and William and the Lost Spirit (Gwen de Bonneval & Matthieu Bonhomme).

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

A 14-year-old misfit from the backwaters of England re-invents herself as a bitchy critic in the pages of a national music magazine: Johanna Morrigan, AKA Dolly Wilde, won me over completely. I listened to the Harper audio production of Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl, and now I'm sad. Because I miss Johanna. She is smart and funny and I miss her very much.

Voice narrator Louise Brealey perfectly conveys Johanna's sassy bravado, her lady sex adventurer exterior... and her interior qualms. This is a poignant, wonderful, coming of age tale.

Readalikes: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (Heather O'Neill); A Complicated Kindness (Miriam Toews); and This Song Will Save Your Life (Leila Sales).

Sunday, January 4, 2015

El Deafo by Cece Bell

El Deafo is a charming graphic novel based on comics artist Cece Bell's own childhood experiences of becoming profoundly deaf after an illness when she was four. In Bell's full colour art, humans are depicted in an animorphic style with pink triangular noses and large, rabbit-like ears.

It's the 1970s and Cece attends school with wires in her ears that are connected to an enormous phonic contraption strapped to her chest. Her teachers wear a corresponding microphone that amplifies sound so well that Cece can hear what's going on wherever the teacher happens to be... like the staff lounge... or the bathroom. It's like having a super power!

Humour and Cece's sweet, indomitable spirit balance the challenges that she faces growing up with a disability. For readers of all ages, from Grade 3 to adults.

Readalikes: Smile (Raina Telgemeier); and Ariol (Emmanuel Guibert).

Friday, January 2, 2015

Library Pockets on New Books

I was fortunate to receive some wonderful new books at Christmas. Two of them have library date due card pockets decorating the covers.

The Strange Library by Murakami is the Harvill edition from the UK. I discovered that the illustrations in the US edition are entirely different when I read this article in the New Yorker. I'll write more about Murakami's delightfully odd novella in the future.

I haven't yet done more than dip in and out of Toronto poet Jay MillAr's Timely Irreverence (Nightwood Editions), but here's a bit in honour of today's big snowfall:

"Winter opens frenetic doors, the stuffs of poems / spill out--we're snowed in again"

Now, off to work I go.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Crunching Numbers: Overview of My Reading Stats 2014

A lot of people find it hard to believe that I read over 250 books a year. Do I skim? No. Sometimes I'll skim through a book to familiarize myself with something that's popular, as part of my job, but I don't count that as a book that I've read. Then how do I do it? I spend 3 or 4 hours each day reading and listening to audiobooks. On days when I'm not working at the library, I sometimes read for 8 hours. So, yeah, it's excessive.

Total books read in 2014 = 277 (I haven't counted picture books.)

What kind of books did I read?

Adult fiction (a mix of realistic fiction, speculative fiction, historical, and thriller/suspense + others)164 (59%)
     - includes 16 (6%) short story collections
     - includes 10 (4%) poetry collections (I don't know why I didn't make a separate pie slice for them but I'm not going to start over.)
Adult non-fiction (mostly memoir, biography, science & history) = 56 (20%)
YA = 41 (15%)
Children's fiction & non-fiction (not picture books) = 16 (6%)

Who wrote these books?
Canadians = 62 (22 %)
Edmonton authors = 5 (2%)
Americans = 116 (42%)
British/Irish/Scottish = 48 (17%)
Japanese = 6 (2%)
Other countries = 45 (16%)
     Read in translation = 17 (6%)
     Read in French language = 3 (1%)

Women (as sole creators) = 115 (42%)
Men (as sole creators) = 98 (35%)
Queer authors/queer content = 50 (18%)
Aboriginal & People of Colour (as sole creators) = 51 (18%)
(Note that there is overlap in the author categories above, as in a single author who could be a female queer Canadian POC.)

In what format were these works?

Regular print books = 119 (43%)
Audiobooks = 84 (30%)
Graphic novels = 64 (23%)
eBooks = 10 (4%)

Compared to last year's stats, not much has changed, except in format. This year I listened to more audiobooks (84 vs 67) and read more graphic novels (64 vs 34). My eyes give me more trouble as I age, so I'm a little more likely to listen to audiobooks while I relax instead of picking up a paper book. In the past, audiobooks were reserved for activities that precluded holding a book.

Credit for my intake of graphic novels nearly doubling probably goes to the Oh Comics podcast (and the Panels website). While I prefer standalone graphic novels, I got hooked on trades because of great stuff like Saga, Rat Queens, Sex Criminals, Afterlife with Archie, Kevin Keller, The Fuse, The Wicked and the Divine, FBP, Suicide Risk, Pretty Deadly, and Lazarus. (I'm excited about volume 1 of Lumberjanes coming out in April 2015. I don't count reading individual comics as "books," no matter how many times I go through them. But they totally count when they are bound together. It's not logical, so don't ask me to explain.)

Last year I noted that I wanted to read more local authors in 2014, but that didn't happen. Nine of the books I read last year were by Edmontonians and only five this year. I did read a few more books by Canadians than I did last year, yet American authors still make up the largest slice of the pie.

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign prompted me to focus on this aspect when I was compiling stats today. Although I didn't consciously select my reading based on this criteria, I'm pleased to see lots of works by PoC.

Creating pie charts was fun. Now, time to start my reading for 2015!