Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

A woman hitchhikes solo through New Zealand in Catherine Lacey's compelling novel Nobody Is Ever Missing. 

Elyria is missing. She left her husband and her job as a daytime television scriptwriter in New York without saying anything about her plans to anyone. In fact, she had little in the way of plans when she landed in New Zealand. She just needed to get away. Finding out why kept me turning pages, and so did Elyria's busy internal voice.

"He turned the music up, lit another cigarette, and opened a beer as we drove up a mountain, making hairpin turns at unadvisable speeds. My organs let me know how much they disapproved of where I was sitting--I couldn't remember why I had ever wanted to go anywhere at all."

Elyria saw many odd things on her road trip in New Zealand. I did too.
Many of the people who give Elyria a ride warn her about the dangers of hitchhiking. She, however, has more lofty things on her shattered mind.

"Let me say that whoever invented wanting, whoever came up with desire, whoever had the first one and let us all catch it like a hot-pink plague, I would like to tell that person that it wasn't fair of him or her to unleash such a thing upon the world without leaving us a warranty or at the very least an instruction manual about how to manage, how to live with, how to understand this thing that can happen in a person against her will, by which I mean desire and the need it gnaws in us and the shadow it leaves when it's gone."

New Zealand road ornament.
The world through Elyria's filter is mesmerizing and often surreal. I appreciated the grounding I felt during her moments of clarity.

"I walked into the library and the library smelled like every library I'd ever been in and Dewey decimals were on all the spines, same tiny font, tiny numbers, and I thought, for a moment, that there actually were things you could count on in this world until I realized that the most dependable things in the world are not of any significant use to any substantial problems."

There isn't a resolution for Elyria in the end--her problems are substantial--and yet I had seen enough shreds of resourcefulness to have hope for her. Nobody Is Ever Missing is a thought-provoking novel written in a fresh, wry style.

Readalikes with similar humour and themes: The Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offill) for its exploration of marriage; The First Bad Man (Miranda July) for the mentally troubled main character; and Save Your Own (Elizabeth Brink) for a woman floundering to make sense of her life.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Tinder by Sally Gardner

Tinder is more than a gothic retelling of Hans Christian Anderson's The Tinderbox. It's an exploration of the psychological trauma wrought by war, as seen through the eyes of an 18-year-old soldier. In the author's note, Sally Gardner reveals that her inspiration came from conversations with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who found it difficult to adjust back into civilian life. She chose to set her story in the time of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), one of the most devastating conflicts in European history.

So, yes, there's a magic tinderbox that calls powerful wolf creatures to the soldier's aid, and there's a trapped princess to be saved... but much more is going on in Gardner's version. The tale is told in the voice of Otto Hundebiss, and begins when he evades death after a bloody battle in November, 1642.

   "I lay injured, a bullet in my side, a sword wound in my shoulder, watching night creep through the trees. Maybe I should have gone with Death when he offered me his bony finger."

12th-century half-beast half-man on
Saint-Pierre-es-Liens church in
Gluges, near the Dordogne river.
Instead, Otto is saved by a sort of shaman ("half-beast half-man") who tends his wounds.

   "Next time I woke it was daylight and I had a thirst on me of which a river would be proud."

He tells the shaman:

   "I was born in war, raised in war; in war I lost my family. I was fourteen when the soldiers came to our farm looking for food."

His entire village was burned to the ground and Otto was recruited to the Imperial army. Parallels are clearly drawn with the contemporary use of children as soldiers. Otto has frequent nightmares related to the horrors that he has witnessed. On the page, they are separated from the rest of the text by being printed in white against a black cloud.

The shaman has a prophecy for Otto:

   "When you fall in love, that is when you will come into your kingdom. Not a day before."
Otto falls in love with an elusive princess named Safire.
Illustration by David Roberts in Tinder.
And so Otto's adventure begins. It's a mesmerizing historical fantasy with suitably sad and sinister illustrations by David Roberts.
Roberts' illustration at right reminded
me of the massive doors of the 14th-
century Sainte-Marie church in Sarlat.
I took this photo while on a walking
trip in the Dordogne in 2009.
"Light spilled through their
splintered planks." 

Tinder is currently on the CILIP medal shortlists for both the Carnegie (for outstanding writing) and the Kate Greenaway (for outstanding illustration).

Illustrated readalikes: Through the Woods (Emily Carroll) matches most closely Tinder's spooky, haunting yet delicate beauty; A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness & Jim Kay) for menacing suspense and a folkloric creature, but in a contemporary setting; The Sleeper and the Spindle (Neil Gaiman & Chris Riddell) for the twisted fairytale retelling; Poisoned Apples (Christine Heppermann) for modern resonance using various fairytale tropes; Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses (Ron Koertge & Andrea Dezso) for rather more lighthearted, yet still bloody, retellings.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

My Favorite Things by Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman's books lift my heart. Her art is bright and whimsical. Her words celebrate the pleasures around us: sunshine, the taste of a lemon tart, the extravagant swoop of a large hat, a dog's devotion. I'm attracted to her passionate nature. She writes: "I love crazy things, crazily."

In 2011, Kalman was invited to curate an exhibit based on the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. My Favorite Things is divided into three parts. The central part consists of Kalman's paintings of these museum objects, along with her reasons for selecting each one, written in her distinctive hand lettering.

"The pieces that I chose were based on one thing only--a gasp of DELIGHT." Doesn't that sound a lot like clutter expert Marie Kondo in The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up?

It's an eclectic assortment of everyday objects--textiles, clothing, dishes, furniture, etc. Some of them are humble, some are fancy. There is Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch and the black pall that covered his coffin. "Adding fringes was a decision someone had to make." Lincoln is a favourite subject, obviously, since Kalman has a whole book about him: Looking at Lincoln.

Small photos of each item from the exhibit, along with descriptive detail, are in an appendix at the back of My Favorite Things. While I would have enjoyed seeing the museum's show, I don't feel like I have missed out. Kalman's charming interpretations are enough to make this catalogue stand on its own.

In the first part of My Favorite Things, Kalman uses objects to share stories of her family's history. The third part is devoted to items from her own collection of memorabilia, like packages tied up with string... bringing to mind Maria von Trapp's favorite things in The Sound of Music. I get the feeling that Kalman is the kind of person who isn't afraid to break out in song.

A prolific children's picture book artist and columnist for the New Yorker, Kalman has also illustrated Strunk and White's classic The Elements of Style, Michael Pollan's Food Rules, and Daniel Handler's novel Why We Broke Up. I wonder what she will surprise us with next?

Monday, March 16, 2015

The First Bad Man: A Novel by Miranda July

Voice, voice, voice. Man, oh man did Miranda July hook me hard with the narrator's voice in her hilarious novel, The First Bad Man. It combines the similar voice of Lydia Millet's Mermaids in Paradise with the outrageous sexual fantasies of Helen Dewitt's Lightning Rods.

Cheryl Glickman searches for a particular transmigrated soul in each baby she meets. She reminds me of the socially awkward characters in Jessica Westhead's short story collection, And Also Sharks. Cheryl lives alone and finds it impossible to say no to the houseguest from hell because Clee is the bosses' daughter. Clee is so irritating that even Cheryl's homeless gardener threatens to quit. Rick came with the house and Cheryl couldn't bring herself to fire him when she moved in. Now, she is used to his presence and wants him to stay.

(I doubt this is an African snail, since
I photographed it in rural France.)
Anyway, when Rick asks Cheryl to get a few African snails to help aerate the garden, she so badly wants to placate him that she goes overboard and orders a 100 of them. When they arrive, it's clear there are too many.

Rick: "I will deal with four of them. That is the number of snails I am prepared to supervise. I don't have the training to care for a herd."

Meanwhile, Cheryl is becoming sexually obsessed with Clee. "Her cowlike vacuousness didn't really bother me anymore. Or it didn't matter--her personality was just a little piece of parsley decorating warm tawny haunches."

Masturbation emergencies and equally desperate therapy sessions ensue. The First Bad Man is a wild and raunchy ride that suddenly veers into lesbian territory. The destination is immensely satisfying. Sigh. I loved July's short story collection No One Belongs Here More than You and I love The First Bad Man even more.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Me: [Searching through house for a book.]
Sweetie: "What book are you looking for?"
Me: "The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up."
Sweetie: [Falls over with laughter.]

The book was found, sitting in a stack of other library materials. In my defence, it's a slim, small-format volume. I listened to the audio* edition back in January, then waited two months for the paper edition so that I could quote some of the lines that made me laugh. I'm not sure if Japanese author Marie Kondo intended her book to be funny or not.

By the way, no de-cluttering magic has taken place since reading the book, but, to be fair, I haven't tried her KonMari Method. It requires piling every single thing you own on the floor, handling each item, and then only keeping the ones that spark joy. Everything else goes.

"Do not even think of putting your things away until you have finished the process of discarding."

Apparently, once you complete the KonMari Method, there are no relapses. Your mind-set has been changed and you will never be untidy again. You will also be someone who anthropomorphizes everything around you. Is that a Japanese thing?

You will announce: "I'm home!" to your house when you come in. You'll take off your shoes and thank them for their hard work. You'll take off your outdoor clothes and tell them "Good job" as you hang them up or place them in the laundry basket. You'll empty everything from your purse/messenger bag/backpack/pockets and put each item away, expressing gratitude to each. You'll put the purse/messenger bag/backpack away saying, "You did well. Have a good rest."

"The purpose of a purse or messenger bag is to carry your things for you when you are away from home. [...] it carries them all without complaint, even if it is full to bursting. When you put it down and it scrapes its bottom on the floor, it utters no word of criticism, only doing its best to support you. What a hard worker! It would be cruel not to give it a break at least at home. Being packed all the time, even when not in use, must feel something like going to bed on a full stomach. If you treat your handbags like this, they will soon look tired and worn."

This is Rhoda.
When my sweetie and I spent an experience week at Findhorn back in 2001, we encountered an attitude something like that described by Kondo. My work contribution at the commune was to clean the floors with a vacuum named Buttercup. Buttercup was included in the prayer circle of intention and gratitude both before and after our shift was done. I had always disliked vacuuming, but treating the appliance as if it was a sentient helper changed that. When I got home, I bought a new vacuum--a red upright named Rhoda--and now I don't mind when it's time to clean the rugs. That, however, is as far as I'm willing to go with this business of personifying household objects. We all draw the line somewhere.

Okay, so back to The Life-changing Magic. Organizing has been a lifelong obsession for Kondo. She started reading home and lifestyle magazines when she was five. When she was in junior high, she became so absorbed in a book called The Art of Discarding (by Nagisa Tatsumi) that she almost missed her train stop on the way home from school.

I am in awe of her passion as she urges readers to aim for perfection, and feel swept up by the desire to be a better person. Then she shares another anecdote that makes me question her sanity.

"I visited the home of a client in her fifties. [...] when she pulled open her sock drawer, I could not suppress a gasp. It was full of potato-like lumps that rolled about. She had folded back the tops to form balls and tied her stockings tightly in the middle. I was speechless. [...] I pointed to the balled-up socks. 'Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that?'"

"Vertical storage can be used anywhere. Messy fridges are common, but their content can be organized quickly and simply by standing things on end. [...] If you open my fridge, you'll find carrots standing in the drink holders on the door."
I tried Kondo's method of rolling
clothing and standing them up
in my dresser drawers. It's easy
and I like the immediate visual
access and efficient use of space.

There are things that I can learn from Kondo, like how to deal with the avalanche of paper in my house. Her rule of thumb is to discard everything. That's refreshing... and impractical. Under the heading "How to organize those troublesome papers that must be kept" she advises making three piles: 1) Currently in use, 2) Needed for a limited period of time, 3) Must be kept indefinitely. I'm willing to give this a try, since I'm losing library books under piles of paper.

And speaking of books, you must also pile these onto the floor before evaluating them.

"Just like the gentle shake we use to wake someone up, we can stimulate our belongings by physically moving them, exposing them to fresh air and making them 'conscious.'"

Kondo's method may be foolproof, but I'm not ready for it. "Putting your house in order is the magic that creates a vibrant and happy life." Someday, maybe.

*The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up Tantor audiobook is 5 hours long and read by Emily Woo Zeller. English translation by Cathy Hirano.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Looking at the Baileys Prize Longlist

The Baileys is the literary prize longlist that I look forward to the most, even more than the Giller, the Booker, or the Dublin IMPAC. It's great to see books that I love honoured, and even better to hear about titles I have overlooked. The 2015 longlist was announced on March 9.

I treat the Baileys longlist like a suggested reading list, knowing from experience that most of the books match my tastes. It's like it's been curated especially for me and this year is no exception.

I've already read and written about...

How to Be Both by Ali Smith
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
The Bees by Laline Paull
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

... and I've ranked the above in order of personal preference, with my favourite on top: How to Be Both.

I'm a little sad that All My Puny Sorrows didn't make the longlist, but what is to be done when there are just so many fabulous novels written by women? The Miniaturist isn't there either, which pleases me because I found its flaws outweighed its good points.

So, looking at the rest:

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey - already in a stack by my bed.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler - already on a waiting list at the library for this one.

The Offering by Grace McCleen - I didn't even know she had a new book out and I still haven't read an earlier book of hers that's been on a shelf in my room for three years. I've moved The Land of Decoration to my dresser so that I'll remember to pack it for an overseas trip next month. (Digital books and eAudio must be supplemented by at least one paper book when travelling.)

Marie Phillips is another author I didn't realize has something new out. Gods Behaving Badly (2007) is such a playful mash up of Greek gods in contemporary London. I'm excited about her take on Camelot in The Table of Less Valued Knights.

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey - Her name is familiar, so I searched my blog and found that I abandoned her earlier novel, The Wilderness, when I wasn't in the right mood and then never went back to it. That doesn't deter me from putting Dear Thief on hold at the library. A line in the description has hooked me: "Samantha Harvey writes with a dazzling blend of fury and beauty about the need for human connection." Yup. Right up my alley.

I loved the epic scope of Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows and look forward to A God in Every Stone, which is described as a "kaleidoscopic masterpiece of empire."

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman - I'd heard about this, but can't remember where. A podcast? Anyway, the apocalyptic setting, combined with hefty page count, gives me pause, but this line from the Guardian review: "While the glittering linguistic shackles slow the reading process, the narrative still manages to unfold at rampaging speed" is enough to give it a shot. Plus the fact that I'm really enjoying a near-future science fiction novel right now: The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne.

I Am China by Xiaolu Guo - Reviews are mixed on this one, but I'm always searching for stories of women's lives that are different from anything I've read before, especially in the way that they are told. Review fragments that grab me: "dark, witty;" "slowly unveils missing pieces of the puzzle;" "struggle to maintain her creative integrity in China;""feelings of otherness associated with migrancy and exile; "history through letters, diaries, notes and two photos;" "bittersweet tale of love and politics;" "characters will remain in memory long after the final page." That's more than enough to give this a try.

There are plenty more on the longlist to explore and I expect to find something new that will delight me. See the entire list here: Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

One woman, five possible lives. The End of Days is Jenny Erpenbeck's haunting novel about a red-haired girl born of a Jewish mother and Christian father in the Austrian empire in the early twentieth century. She dies as an infant in the first book, which begins:

"The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother had said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn't right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up."

What happens to her parents and their marriage makes up the rest of that part of the story. The child was not in the world for long, but she has had an impact on the lives around her.

What if the baby's life had been saved? Book II portrays another trajectory for her, this time into her teens. In each of the five parts, she lives longer. Her life plays out against the larger theatre of events through the twentieth century in Austria, Russia and Germany. In the final part, she is in her nineties at her death. The closing sentence (not a spoiler!) sums up the philosophical and melancholy tone of this remarkable work:

"Many mornings he will get up at this early hour that belongs only to him and go into the kitchen, and there he will weep bitterly as he has never before, and still, as his nose runs and he swallows his own tears, he will ask himself whether these strange sounds and spasms are really all that humankind has been given to mourn with."

Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky and published by New Directions, the jacketless dark green cover design--featuring a gravestone surrounded by vegetation--is a good match for the sober and surprising contents. The more I think about this novel, the greater my admiration for it.

Readalikes: Great House (Nicole Krauss); Life After Life (Kate Atkinson); and Aquamarine (Carol Anshaw).

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Hondo by Louis L'Amour

For over 10 years, I've been giving workshops and presentations on the topic of readers' services, which is the art of matching readers with books. When someone approaches a library staff member and asks for help finding something good to read, an ideal starting point is: "Tell me about something that you've read and enjoyed."

There's a particular film clip that I've often used in an introductory course. In it, a man responds to that question, talking passionately about Hondo by Louis L'Amour. Last week, before I gave my annual presentation on readers' services to students in the library and information technology program at MacEwan University, I decided it was finally time for me to read Hondo.

So, I did. I tried to keep an open mind. It's set in 19th-century southeast Arizona. Hondo Lane is a US Army Calvary scout who falls in love with Angie Lowe, a woman who is raising a small boy on a remote ranch. Her husband has abandoned her but he shows up later. Meanwhile, a treaty breech has caused the Apache people to be at war with the US Army and every white settler.

Hondo was written in 1953, when attitudes toward women and Aboriginal people were different. L'Amour is sympathetic to indigenous peoples... in a noble savages kind of way. Hondo Lane had lived among the Apache with an Aboriginal wife, who had died. The following is just one of the many passages that made me cringe:

"He was no man to be thinking about a woman. He had never lived with a woman... wouldn't know how to. He wouldn't know how to handle a kid, either. And women... It was one thing with a squaw. After a while you knew them. But a girl like Angie, now, that would be different."

That Hondo's Apache wife doesn't even count as a woman is bad enough. White women are helpless without a man's protection. Angie grew up on a ranch, yet needs a man to look after anything to do with tools. She is somewhat of a damsel in distress, mopping the floor when she doesn't know what else to do, and is presented as a paragon of womanly virtues. Hondo admires her clean hands and she gets all bashful that he noticed. Oh, please.

My sister Simone is an example of a farmer who can build
and repair pretty much anything she sets her mind to.
Today is International Woman's Day, a fine day to contemplate sexism:

"There were things a man must face and things a man must do that no woman could understand, just as the reverse was true."

L'Amour's bad guys have no redeeming qualities and the good ones are only slightly more complex. The reader in the film clip that I mentioned likes that Hondo uses his wits, and only resorts to violence as a last resort. True enough, but I need more than a strong and silent he-man hero.

I don't care for romance in general, so that aspect of the plot did not appeal. Then there are the military ideals that are foreign to my nature:

"He saw all that remained of Company C, the naked bodies of the dead, fallen in their blood and their glory as fighting men should."

So what does that leave? The western genre definitely has a focus on plot and this one has good pacing. While I had guessed early on how things would end up, there were enough obstacles to keep me interested.

Westerns tend to be rich in jargon and Hondo is no exception. I came across words like sutler, guidon, jacales, cantle, simoleons, lineback (horse coloration), and nopal. There's also some evocative landscape imagery:

"Broken clouds floated above, and in the far off west the storm rolled and grumbled like a drunken sergeant in his sleep."

Readers who love westerns are looking for the myth and legend of the wild west; a nostalgic tone, cowboys and Indians action; a romanticized depiction of a particular historical and geographical setting; and a lone hero who triumphs over injustice. Louis L'Amour has got this all wrapped up. But this kind of book isn't for me. Give me less typical westerns, like The Sisters Brothers or True Grit, instead.