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.

Monday, August 10, 2015

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? by Matthea Harvey

Poetry and images are combined with startling effect in Matthea Harvey's lively collection If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?

Harvey's work is fresh and compelling. Many of the poems are self-contained narratives, and these have the flavour of short stories by authors like George Saunders, Karin Tidbeck and Karen Russell, the kind of tales that are funny, dark and weird.

Some of the poems' titles herald the fun within, like "Michelin Man Possessed by William Shakespeare" and "Using a Hula Hoop Can Get You Abducted by Aliens." One series of poems has images instead of titles. Another series is all images without text: a sort of visual poem consisting of photographs of ice cubes. Each ice block contains something frozen within it.

Each in an entertaining series of mermaid stories is accompanied by a silhouette of a half-woman, half-household object. "The Deadbeat Mermaid," for example, has a grandfather clock in place of a tail/legs. She is flanked by two fish, one with an alarm clock for a head, and one with a pocket watch head. "Between meals, the Deadbeat Mermaid floats on her back and watches the giant sky, stuck on the same stupid cloud channel all day long."

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? is a fantastic mix of words and art. Harvey is also the author of a quirky children's picture book about a child with a pet glacier. Cecil the Pet Glacier is illustrated by Giselle Potter. Find out more about Harvey on her website here.

I experienced connections between many of Harvey's poems and works by other writers, so I'm going to record some of them here. It may seem contradictory, because If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? is unquestionably unique, but the sheer variety of literary connections also indicates why I found it so appealing.

"The Backyard Mermaid": "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" (in Tenth of December) by George Saunders.

"Cheap Cloning Process Lets You Have Your Own Elvis": "Cloudberry Jam" AND "Miss Nyberg and I" (in Jagannath) by Karin Tidbeck.

"Prom King and Queen Seek U.N. Recognition of Their Own Country... Promvania!": 99% Invisible's podcast episode #174 about micronations.

"Inside the Glass Factory": "Reeling for the Empire" (in Vampires in the Lemon Grove) by Karen Russell.

"There Is a String Attached to Everything": Ronnie Burkett's style of marionette theatre, in which the puppeteer plays an occasional role.

"In the Hell Between Heavens of Nothingness": "Torching the Dusties" (in Stone Mattress) by Margaret Atwood.

"This Is What the Last Ones Left Us": Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Book Bingo, Second Card, Fourth Line

Four out of these five books were published in 2015 and I'm pleased that I managed to get two Edmonton authors in this line! (Catch up on previous book bingo posts via this link.)

THAT YOU SAW SOMEONE ELSE READING: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

This square intersects with the first row that I completed on the card. Haven't yet got around to writing a full blog post about this hot title, but the following passage confirmed my realization that there would be no way to untangle my reading of GSAW from my fond memories of hosting a To Kill a Mockingbird costume party to celebrate its 50th anniversary, my knowledge of Harper Lee's life, the story of how GSAW came to print, and my own inclination to tease out lesbian subtext from between the lines.

In the first chapter, Jean Louise (AKA Scout) decides she will not marry her boyfriend. "For the present she would pursue the stony path of spinsterhood." There may be a lot that is autobiography in GSAW. It's a book that made me feel very sad.
Party invite designed by my sweetie. (Click to enlarge.) Everyone came in costume on that memorable evening.

POETRY COLLECTION: The Pemmican Eaters by Marilyn Dumont.

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 new 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 either 'Gabriel' or 'Gabe.' Riel is 'Our Prince' - "Louis / the one who gave us Manitoba / brokered pluralism / and language rights."

Women are in these pages too, nurturing other humans and the earth, their needlework like prayers.
Elizabeth Brass Donald. Photo source:

A photo of Elizabeth Brass Donald is referenced in 'The Land She Came From.' She was one of the victims of land swindles in 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.

Books On The NightStand BOOK BINGO FREE SQUARE: The Social Life of Ink by Ted Bishop.

Micro-history; memoir; travel writing; nonfiction; local author: if I wasn't using a free square for this, it could have fit into any of these categories (none of which happen to be on my card). The book taught me new things (i.e. Winston Churchill's mother had a snake tattoo) and made me think.

"The work you're reading is simply black marks on a page. The text that derives from it takes shape in the mind. Thus all texts are shaped by experience and context, and are always different, even for the same reader." That's exactly what I was talking about in my comments regarding Go Set a Watchman, above. More quotes and notes are included in my earlier review of Bishop's book.

The Social Life of Ink: Culture, Wonder and Our Relationship with the Written Word is a finalist for the 2015 Alberta Readers' Choice Award. Online voting is open until August 31, 2015.

WRITTEN BEFORE 1700: The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare.
Intersecting square: see previous post.

WITH A HAPPY ENDING: Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertelli.

Set in Atlanta, Georgia, the angst in this up-to-the-minute YA novel derives more from the social politics of high school relationships than from the fear of coming out. It's witty and sweet and includes an ensemble of realistic characters. Suitable for readers in Grade 7 and up.

Readalikes: Boy Meets Boy (David Levithan) and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Benjamin Alire Saenz).

Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Bingo, Second Card, Third Row

HORROR: Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk [Recorded Books audiobook: 7.5 hr, narrated by Richard Poe].

I've been meaning to read something by Palahniuk for a long time. What I expected was dark satire and that's pretty much what I got with Lullaby. The premise is that a journalist investigating crib deaths discovers that there's a culling song in a book of collected poems from around the world. The song has the power to kill. The journalist has rage issues. Do you see where this is going?

There's also a realtor who flips haunted properties. "Blood running down your kitchen walls? Well, of course you shouldn't have to live with that." (Nor a severed head that bounces down a stairway at night, nor a biting phantom doberman, nor a severed hand that crawls out of the garbage disposal...)

The realtor's secretary is a flaky new-ager. Mona made a Hopi medicine bag using a design in a book called Traditional Tribal Hobby-Krafts. "The fun part about primitive crafts is they're so easy to make while you watch TV," Mona says, "And they put you in touch with all sorts of ancient energies and stuff."

I listened to the first 15 chapters in audio, but then switched to the print book for the rest. The first person narration in the crass voice of a boorish man - "she had a decent little pooper in tight jeans" - was a bit too full-on with the addition of audio's visceral quality to the reading experience. In the end, I was surprised by how much I liked the book.

HISTORICAL FICTION: Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass

Here's another book that surprised me, mostly because the cover doesn't do it justice. ("With an Ugly Cover" is actually one of my categories on this bingo card, but I found one that was even worse than this. Stay tuned.)

Canadian author Karen Bass set this realistic page-turner in post-WWII East Germany, where a 16-year-old boy dangerously rebels against the Soviet occupation in Leipzig. My YA book club will be discussing this soon, and I've heard positive feedback from other members already.

WRITTEN BEFORE 1700: The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare [Arkangel Complete Shakespeare audiobook: 3 hr, full cast recording].

The reason I chose to listen to this play in particular is because I saw that Jeanette Winterson's new book coming out in October, The Gap of Time, is a retelling of The Winter's Tale.

In Shakespeare's version, there's a king whose jealousy gets so out of hand that he imprisons his wife and orders their newborn daughter killed (because he believes she is a bastard). And another king who gets bent out of shape because his son has fallen for a shepherd's daughter (who is actually the baby princess, all grown up). The shepherd's daughter is so beautiful and so well-mannered because of course her royal breeding comes through. (Yeah, right.) Anyway, it's entertaining and even the tyrants get to live happily ever after.

Full cast audio recordings are the best, by the way. I felt like I was at the theatre, totally engrossed in the fancy language. Music between scenes was a nice touch.

A PARODY: Fun with Kirk and Spock by Robb Pearlman.
(See previous Book Bingo post.)

BY OR ABOUT A CELEBRITY: The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae [Simon and Schuster Audio: 5 hr, 50 min, narrated by the author].

Authors narrating their own memoirs are also the best, especially when they are like Issa Rae, who has oodles of comedic talent. Her essays in this book draw on her experiences growing up in the USA with an African American mother and Senegalese father. Check out her show on YouTube.

More book bingo posts can be found here.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Book Bingo: Second Card, Second Line

There are some tricky categories on these book bingo cards. Out of the following row of five, three required special effort to track down a suitable title. That's what makes this reading game an interesting challenge.

BY AN AUTHOR BORN THE SAME YEAR AS YOU: Resurrection by Wolf Haas, translated by Anne Janusch (see previous book bingo post).

THAT YOUR PARENTS DIDN'T/WOULDN'T HAVE LET YOU READ AS A KID: Exquisite Corpse by Penelope Bagieu, translated by Alexis Siegel.
I called my mom about this category because I couldn't think of a single book I had been denied as a kid. She confirmed this. She let us read anything we wanted, including novels from her bookshelves. I was about 11 when I read and loved Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar.

Mom recalled an incident when I and two of my siblings told our youngest sister (who might have been in Grade 2) that The Wizard of Oz was too difficult for her. Mom said we quizzed her and then were satisfied that she had indeed not only read but understood the story.

I told Mom about the Sex Criminals comics by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. (A librarian's orgasms stop time and she uses that power to rob banks--for a good cause. A lot of the funniest stuff is in the porn shop scenes.) Then I asked if she would have been comfortable having us read them when we were kids. She sounded a bit flabbergasted when she said, "I don't think they had books like that when you were kids."

The cute, cartoony style on the cover of Exquisite Corpse accurately reflects the sweet and funny story it is, but there is also a lot of nudity and sex inside. While it isn't quite as raunchy as Sex Criminals, I wouldn't recommend this for readers under 16. (I'm surprised that Edmonton Public Library has shelved it in the teen section.) A French woman on her lunch break from her trade show booth job meets a reclusive author when she asks to use his bathroom. It's lust at first sight. Her boorish boyfriend and his ex-wife be damned. Or not. This is a light-hearted look at the tension between the creative process and making a living.

Funny and devastating and healing. This is one of my two favourite books so far in 2015. I wrote at length about it here.

For me, the easiest categories on this bingo card are LGBTQ, Historical, Poetry, YA, Essays, and Involves Magic. Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness have been discussing individual bingo categories and making suggestions on their Books on the Nightstand podcast. Kingman was poised and gracious as she spoke about feedback, specifically about their episode that dealt with the LGBTQ category. She gently suggested that it wasn't necessary for people to write to let them know that the reason for unsubscribing from the podcast was because they didn't want to hear about LGBTQ books. If you haven't been listening to Books on the Nightstand, why not start?

A PARODY: Fun with Kirk and Spock by Robb Pearlman.
The nostalgic-style illustrations in muted primary colours evoke the original Fun with Dick and Jane series. This book warmly pokes fun at the costuming and plots of the original Star Trek episodes. For example, the way it's always a guy in a red shirt who doesn't make it back to the ship. There are so many passages that made me chuckle that it's hard to choose just a few.

"See Khan wake up. 
Khan is cranky. 
Khan wants to take over the Enterprise
Mine! Mine! Mine! 
Khan wants to take over the universe. 
Mine! Mine! Mine! 
Khan is not a morning person."

detail from Fun with Kirk and
by Robb Pearlman.
"See the Gorn.
The Gorn is tall.
The Gorn is green.
The Gorn is wearing a one-piece sleeveless tunic with brocaded accents and matching gauntlets.
The Gorn is fashion-forward."

George Takei, the gay actor who played Mr. Sulu, gets a ribbing too:
"See Sulu's sword.
Sulu's sword sure is sharp!
Sulu's sword goes swish!
Swish swish swish!"

Some jokes will go right over kids' heads, but that doesn't stop me from recommending this for all ages.

"Go go go, Enterprise!
Go boldly!"

AN AUTHOR'S DEBUT: Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm [Books on Tape audiobook: 13.5 hr: narrated by Catherine Taber].
New voices add variety and spice to my reading diet, so I'm often excited by an author's debut novel. This one is a thriller about an art heist and the central protagonist is a young American woman who is living under an assumed name in Europe. I listened to the audiobook 6 weeks ago and the story has stuck with me, although I wasn't wild about it at the time. Haves and have-nots, envy, greed and deception. It reminded me of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and I felt similarly lukewarm about it when I was done. But both books made an impression, so there is that.

Scherm's opening lines sucked me in and I still find them compelling: "The first lie Grace had told Hanna was her name. 'Bonjour, je m'appelle Julie,' Grace had said. She'd been in Paris for only a month, and her French was still new and stiff. She'd chosen the name Julie because it was sweet and easy on the French tongue--much more so than Grace was. The best lies were the simplest and made the most sense, in the mind and in the mouth. These lies were the easiest to swallow."

If you liked The Goldfinch, then this is for you.