Thursday, July 30, 2015

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

The short stories in Rebecca Makkai's Music for Wartime are wonderfully varied in style, setting and length. I didn't need to pace myself with one story per day, my usual habit, because each one remained distinct in my mind. The longer ones (around 20 pages) reminded me of Alice Munro's work, in the way it feels like a whole novel is contained within a short story. The shorter ones (2 or 3 pages) are the most stylistically diverse, and act like palate cleansers in between the longer pieces. At the same time, it is the shorter pieces, those which draw on Makkai's Hungarian family history, that tie the collection together into such a satisfying whole.

In an interview in Harper's, Makkai explains: "When I began putting together Music for Wartime, I decided I wanted these family legends sprinkled throughout the fiction. In the collection, they come at you separately, so that as you read you're not just getting my short stories, but also some of my own psychology, the reasons a young American writer would be drawn to write fiction about refugees and war zones."

"The Museum of the Dearly Departed" is a longer story with an elderly Hungarian couple in a supporting role. Laslo and Zsuzsi (a Holocaust survivor) were away in Cleveland when everyone else in their Chicago apartment building died during a gas leak. The story is about Melanie, whose fiance Michael was one of the people who died, nine weeks before their wedding. He was in bed with Vanessa, his ex-wife, in an apartment Melanie learned about when it was left to her in Michael's will.

"Melanie waited for some dramatic feeling to wash over her. But she hadn't registered much emotion that summer, unless numb was an emotion. Grief would be an embarrassing surrender, considering the new facts. Rage was inappropriate, given Michael's death. The two reactions had stalemated each other. She was an abandoned chessboard."

Zsuzsi consoles Melanie by telling her about Rigo Jansci, a Hungarian cake named for an adulterer. (I'm going to make one of these chocolate mousse cakes. Sounds delicious.)
Photo source and recipe at: East European Food
Other stories include one about an American literature professor who accidently kills an albatross in Australia ("Painted Ocean, Painted Ship"); a cello player who must contend with an elaborate memorial to a traffic fatality that has been constructed on her front lawn ("Cross"); and producers of a reality TV show who manipulate participants into a romantic entanglement ("The November Story"). Two of the stories feature gay central characters: "Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart" and "Good Saint Anthony Come Around."

In "Couple of Lovers on a Red Background," Johann Bach climbs out of a woman's piano and moves in with her. "He's fond of Mozart, unsurprisingly, but for some reason Tchaikovsky makes him giggle."

I highly recommend this collection.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Book Bingo: Second Card, First Row

My first Books on the Nightstand bingo card was so much fun that I'm playing again and I've just completed the top row. (Click here for earlier posts.) I can't seem to help going overboard; several of the categories have more than one title.

A NOVELLA (or three): The Girl of Fire and Thorns: Stories by Rae Carson [Blackstone/Harper Audio: 7 hr: narrated by Jennifer Ikeda]. I thought I was getting the first novel of the trilogy, which is called The Girl of Fire and Thorns. When I discovered that this is actually a collection of three novellas set in the same medieval fantasy world, where princesses come in size large and behave in believable ways, I thought what the hell, I need a novella for bingo anyway. I'll listen to one. Yeah, right. I was hooked, and listened to all three. Now that I'm familiar with the back stories of some side characters, I'm even more interested in the actual trilogy.

ABOUT A DISEASE: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe [Books on Tape: 9 hr 37 min: narrated by Jeff Harding]. A memoir of a son who connects with his mother through books while she undergoes cancer treatments. "Books are how we take part in the human conversation." This is one of my favourite audiobooks of 2015 so far.

I also read On Immunity by Eula Biss, which takes a compassionate look at the unfounded fears parents have about vaccinating their children against diseases like polio, smallpox and measles. Some go so far as to buy lollipops licked by sick children in order to take immunization into their own control. Favourite quote: "We are continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other."

THAT YOU SAW SOMEONE ELSE READING: I was about 150th in the holds queue at the library for Go Set a Watchman when the first copies arrived. One of my colleagues had been quicker to place her hold and so I saw her with a copy and felt a pang of envy. Shortly afterwards, I spotted a copy in a stack of Hits to Go (EPL's bestseller collection: 1 at a time, 1 week loan, no holds, no renewals). I gobbled it up in 2 days, live tweeting some of the passages. Stay tuned for an entire blog post about the book. In short: heartbreaking and recommended.

It was also in the library (where else?) that I saw a girl reading Raina Telgemeier's Sisters from start to finish. She left it on a table afterwards and I read it during my lunch break. This charming graphic novel is based on the author's own experience of a summer road trip when she was a kid. I could very much relate, since I have four siblings and my family travelled all over Alberta for my Dad's work. Great for all ages.

BY AN AUTHOR BORN THE SAME YEAR AS YOU [1960]: I kept checking author's birthdays as I made my way through my reading pile. Several were only off by a year or two, but I realized that serendipity wasn't going to cut it and I would have to do some research in order to fill this bingo square. An online list included many that I have previously enjoyed: George Elliott Clarke, Siobhan Dowd, Deborah Ellis, Neil Gaiman, Nicola Griffith, Nalo Hopkinson, Kathe Koja, Margo Lanagan, Jeannette Walls, Kathleen Winter and Tim Winton. (I've linked to my reviews.)

The library has a poetry collection by George Elliott Clarke that I hadn't seen before: Lasso the Wind. It's a picture book with bright illustrations by Susan Tooke, suitable for all ages. Some of the verses are very short: "A snake passes; / The field rumbles. / A cloud masses; / Down rain tumbles." The two-page spread that accompanies this poem is visually arresting, with red trees, a dark red thundercloud and a green garter snake moving through a field of grain. Fun to share with children.

A picture book seemed kind of like cheating for the bingo square, and there were some authors on the aforementioned list that I have been meaning to read, like Hua Yu, Kij Johnson and Wolf Haas. I'm really pleased that I picked up Resurrection, the first in Haas' Inspector Brenner mystery series (translated by Anne Janusch). It opens with two elderly people frozen to death on a ski lift in Austria. I immediately adored the conversational tone of the narrator.

"Now, coincidentally, it turns out that police officer Simon Brenner, Detective Inspector, or whatever his rank was, has quit the police. Now, you should know, he'd been on the force nineteen years. Because he was twenty-five when he started and now he's forty-four. But he never really got anywhere with the police. That wasn't the real reason why he quit, though, because he'd never been especially ambitious. More the quiet type. A nice guy, actually, I've got to admit."

I look forward to more in this entertaining series.

YOUNG ADULT NOVEL: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman [Listening Library audiobook: 18 hr 10 min: narrated by Mandy Williams and W. Morgan Sheppard]. This is the second in the Canadian fantasy series that began with Seraphina. Seraphina is a wonderful character, half-human and half-dragon coming of age in a Renaissance-type setting where humans and dragons mostly hate each other. Xenophobia, identity and gender issues. I loved it.

I've got six squares left on my bingo card. Can anyone recommend a good parody?

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall

Rachel Caine, a foremost wolf biologist, has agreed to leave her post in Idaho in order to lead the reintroduction of wolves into England. This means returning to Cumbria, where she grew up and has long been estranged from her mother and brother. The wolf project encounters resistance, unsurprisingly. Meanwhile, the political background feels very contemporary: across the border 40 miles to the north, a referendum for Scotland's independence is taking place.

Sarah Hall's The Wolf Border is a character-based novel that progresses at a measured pace. I happened to be reading a book with similar themes concurrently: The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson. Both are about wildness, power, truth and lies, and feature people who have difficulty forging human connections. Both stories use weather to reflect the protagonists' emotional states. Here is a sample of Hall's lyrical prose:

"All week, rain. Big splashing drops on every surface, like a child's illustration of rain. Blue vanishing light and winds from nowhere, bringing slant, destructive showers, or fine drizzle. At night there is rain that exists only as sound on the cottage roof, leaving doused grass in the morning and pools in the rutted lane. The streams and rivers on the estate swell. Spawn clings to submerged rocks and reeds as the current tugs. The lake accepts the extra volume indifferently. And then, when it seems the rain will never end, there's an explosion of sunshine, the startling heat of it through the cool spring air. Within days a green wildness takes over Annerdale."

I first encountered Sarah Hall's writing in her feminist dystopia Daughters of the North (The Carhullan Army is the UK title) some seven years ago. I also enjoyed How to Paint a Dead Man, a stimulating and astonishing novel. Hall has received the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, the BBC National Short Story Award, the Portico Prize for Fiction, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the E M Forster Award. The Wolf Border was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Readalikes: Wild Dogs or The Evening Chorus (Helen Humphreys); Adult Onset (Ann-Marie MacDonald); All the Birds Singing (Evie Wyld); and Fauna (Alissa York). For a much shorter readalike, try The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, which is only 181 pages compared to The Wolf Border's 435. I'm not saying shorter is better, by the way. It is all about style, and both authors have used what seems the correct number of words to tell their respective stories.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Best Books So Far in 2015

Of the 150+ books I've read so far this year, these are my favourites. If you are looking for something good to read, you won't go wrong with any of them. Titles published this year are in red, titles with queer content have a little purple asterisk, and I've included links to my previous reviews.

Two MacDonalds are tied for top position overall and both were published last year: Adult Onset[2014] by Ann-Marie MacDonald and H is for Hawk [2014] by Helen Macdonald. These books made me want to put my arms around them and hug them tightly. They're the books that, if I see them in a bookstore, I will touch lightly, like talismans. Both books are (in part) about individuals surviving emotional pain and gaining insight into our human need for interconnection. They both left a deep impression.

Best Historical Fiction (tie): The Evening Chorus[2015] by Helen Humphreys and Euphoria*[2014] by Lily King. Character and setting - if you are looking for that immersive experience, either one of these will take you there.

Best Narrative Voice (tie): The First Bad Man[2015] by Miranda July and Mermaids in Paradise [2015] by Lydia Millet. Voice, voice, voice; my reading catnip. These are both so much fun.
Most Heart-warming: Etta and Otto and Russell and James [2015] by Emma Hooper. Gentle and wise.

Best Fantasy: The Buried Giant [2015] by Kazuo Ishiguro (with honorable mention to Uprooted [2015] by Naomi Novik). As with historical fiction, what I'm looking for in fantasy is complete immersion in setting. Ishiguro had a slight edge over Novik in sustaining that feeling. If plot is more important to you, then you may prefer Uprooted over The Buried Giant. They are both wonderful.

Best All-Ages Graphic Novel: Nimona[2015] by Noelle Stevenson. So smart. So funny. This is for everyone.

Best Graphic Novel for Adults: Saga.* Volume 4 [2014] by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples. This series remains as strong as ever. Great writing, fantastic artwork.

Best Poetry: The Door [2007] by Margaret Atwood.
Best Short Stories: The Stone Mattress [2014] by Margaret Atwood.
Oh, Margaret Atwood! I love her writing so much. Her new novel, The Heart Goes Last, is coming out in September. I may have three Atwoods on my best of 2015 list by the end of the year.

Best Essay Collection: Men Explain Things to Me [2014] by Rebecca Solnit. Solnit can explain things to me anytime.

Best Retelling: Antigone [2013] by Ali Smith. A tragedy adapted for young readers and appealing to all ages. One of the categories on my new book bingo card is "written before 1700" and that, together with Ali Smith's retelling, has made me consider reading Sophocles' play.

Best Picture Book (tie): The Promise [2014] by Nicola Davies and Dolphin SOS [2014] by Roy Miki and Julie Flett. For environmentalists of any age.

Best Audiobook Fiction (tie): Big Little Lies [2014] by Liane Moriarty and How to Build a Girl [2014] by Caitlin Moran. Both are funny. Both have a feminist core.

Best Audiobook Nonfiction: The End of Your Life Book Club[2012] by Will Schwalbe. I was late to the party on this one. Favourite quotes: "Whenever you read something wonderful, it changes your life, even if you aren't aware of it." "Books are how we take part in the human conversation."

Best Science/History (tie): The Human Age [2014] by Diane Ackerman and The Sixth Extinction [2014] by Elizabeth Kolbert. I listened to these first on audio and then read them in print. Both are about the relationship that humans have to the natural world. Ackerman's is the more hopeful of the two; both are important.

Best Tale of Forgiveness and Redemption: All the Birds Singing [2013] by Evie Wyld. Okay, I'm stretching for categories in this final entry, but this one has really stuck with me and I can see myself reading it again.

*indicates queer content.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Book Bingo Blackout!

All done! My first book bingo challenge is complete and it feels great.

These are the books in the final three categories:

PUBLISHED THE YEAR YOU WERE BORN [1960]: The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien

To Kill a Mockingbird was the only 1960 title I could think of off the top of my head, and with the upcoming release of Go Set a Watchman, I considered re-reading it. When I searched online for other books published in 1960, I spotted one that has been on my radar. It's on lists with titles like 1001 Books to Read Before You Die and the author is said to have influenced some of my Irish favourites, like Anne Enright and Colm Toibin.
The Country Girls is the first in a trilogy about two friends who want their lives to be different from those of their parents. The 1950s time period and the complicated relationship between Baba and Caithleen reminded me very much of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name from her Neapolitan trilogy. I finished Edna O'Brien's novel a couple of days ago and I feel like I'm still processing it. Her characters are vivid and still there in my brain, not easily forgotten.


I've been a fan ever since Ali Smith's debut novel, Like, and this is the only one of her books that I hadn't yet read. (See my reviews of How to be both and There but for the.) It was my turn to choose a book for our feminist book club and I'm so glad that I remembered Artful. It's an innovative hybrid: four essays about art, linked with a fictional narrative about someone haunted by the ghost of her/his partner, and it's bristling with flagged passages, ready for our upcoming discussion. The book made my brain stretch in the best possible way. It has also lodged in my brain a Doris Day song from my childhood: "Let the Little Girl Limbo."

NONFICTION ABOUT YOUR HOMETOWN OR STATE: Weird Edmonton: The Odd, Quirky and Wonderful People, Places, History and Hauntings by Mark Kozub

Trivia is perfect for browsing, which is what I've previously done with Weird Edmonton. For bingo, however, I read it straight through, picking it up in between other books. I love that the cover photo is of our stunning Art Gallery of Alberta. For conversation starters, it'll come in handy to know stuff like:
  • More than 30 species of mosquito are found in Edmonton.
  • Edmonton's river valley features North America's largest expanse of urban parkland and it includes 150 km of walking trails.
  • The term BYOV, "Bring Your Own Venue," was first coined at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, which is the second largest in the world (after Edinburgh).
  • Edmontosaurus is a duck-billed dinosaur first discovered in the late 1800s southwest of here.
  • Edmonton has the largest population of Dutch elm disease-free trees in the world: more than 60,000.
  • In the 1950s, a horse trapped in an abandoned coal mine shaft was rescued when people could hear it whinnying through the wall of their basement.
  • The first mosque in North America was the Al-Rashid, built in Edmonton in 1938.
  • Daryl Katz, owner of the Edmonton Oilers, bought the multi-million-dollar home next to his and demolished it to build an ice rink for his kids. After reading about it, I walked over with my dog to have a look, since it's only about a mile from my house.
    The Katz mansion (background, 2400 sq m) and rink at 4 Valleyview Point.

Previous posts on this project are here (2 lines), here (4 lines), and here (6 lines). Overall thoughts and stats:
  • I've read more widely than I would have otherwise and I feel enriched for having done so. 
  • 9 out of the 25 were chosen especially for this bingo card: The Country Girls; Law of the Desert Born; Soccer; The Wife, The Maid and the Mistress; Artful; If I Ever Get Out of Here; Phenomenal; My Guardian Angel; and Weird Edmonton.
  • One of my categories was "Borrowed from the Library," but every single one of these books came from the public library (including one on interlibrary loan).
  • 20 out of 25 are written by women.
  • 10 out of 25 are in audiobook format.
  • 5 out of 25 are in graphic novel format.
  • 6 out of 25 are by Canadian authors, 10 are by Americans and the remaining 9 are from Ireland, Uruguay, Italy, Australia, France, England, Scotland and Spain.
  • 7 out of 25 are by PoC/Aboriginal authors
What's next? A new card! It was so much fun that I'm doing it again.