Saturday, July 23, 2016

Book Bingo Summer Reading Project 2016

The idea of Book Bingo is to have fun and expand your reading horizons. Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman of the Books on the Nightstand podcast created online bingo cards with all kinds of categories. If you want to play, go here: BOTNS and refresh the screen to get a new card. I decided to play two cards simultaneously, and started at the end of May. Card #1 is now complete - YAY! - with details below. There are 25 books, so I'll go row by row and make my descriptions brief.

Published the year you were born: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, audiobook narrated by David Horovitch. English translation by Archibald Colquhoun published in 1960.
     - Unification of Italy in the 19th century, as experienced by a Sicilian prince. Tipping point of cultural and political change. Atmospheric with period details. Understated, elegant prose. Only book on my card that I would not have even known about if not for bingo-related research. It was a rewarding experience.

An academic/campus novel: Yabo by Alexis de Veaux.
     - Layered. Poetic. Mythic. Interwoven lives of two people existing across centuries, from the middle passage to colonial times to present day USA. Black women, lesbians, and a fabulous intersex character named Jules. So good! Parts are set at university in Buffalo, NY, where Zen has an affair with her professor, a Jamaican woman.

Published in 2015: You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman, audiobook narrated by Kelly Pruner.
     - This satire of consumer culture is like a cross between Margaret Atwood's The Heart Goes Last and the Welcome to Nightvale podcast. Wonderful, weird, smart, funny. I remember bailing on this last year after a couple of pages because I wasn't in the right mood. So glad that I gave it another chance!

Recommended in a BOTNS episode: The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson, audiobook narrated by Nathan Osgood.
     - In episode 369, Ann said she had fun with this. So did I. Travel. Amusing trivia. Cranky humour. It's Bill Bryson, how can you go wrong?

Young Adult novel: Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki.
     - Monty is an endearing 16-year-old coping with mean girls and rude boys, making mistakes and finding forgiveness. Her parents are caring and in the forefront (rare in YA) and her parents are also lesbians (rare in any novel). I liked this a lot.

A novella: Trouble Is My Business by Raymond Chandler, audiobook narrated by Elliott Gould (who is perfect for this).
     - "I felt terrible. I felt like an amputated leg." Chandler's hard-boiled style cracks me up. "'...he should be there in 20 minutes.' 'Ok, that just gives me time to drink my dinner.'"

About a subject that challenges you: We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greening.
     - Wow. Thought-provoking and compelling. A Black family agrees to be studied while they raise a chimpanzee as a member of their family. Eugenics. Racism. Well-observed interpersonal dynamics. This one has zing and sting!

By any Booktopia* author: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, audiobook narrated by Heather Alicia Simms and Rosalyn Coleman Williams.
     - "My father was a bigamist." One father, two mothers, two sisters. Audio switches to a different narrator when the storytelling switches between the two sisters at the midpoint. Black lives. Bittersweet and satisfying.
*Booktopia events are like mini writers festivals hosted by Michael and Ann at various bookstores over the past few years. BOTNS podcast listeners know about them; I attended one in Bellingham, Washington in 2013 and wrote about it here.

Hated by someone you know: The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translation from Korean by Deborah Smith.
     - Poetic. Surreal. Disturbing. Haunting. A short novel about transformation and other heady things. International Man Booker prizewinner. Some people I know through the books social media app, Litsy, hated it, as did reviewer Tim Parks in The New York Review. Loved isn't the right word for how I felt, but it had a strong impact on me. Spent days processing it after it was done.

Speculative fiction: ODY-C Vol. 1 Off to Far Ithicaa by Matt Fraction, Christian Ward etc.
     - I like the idea of this gender-swapped science fiction retelling of Homer's Odyssey better than its execution. Shades of Paul Pope's 100% and Fiona Staple's planet Sextillion from Saga. Prefer Gareth Hinds' graphic novel rendition of the Odyssey.

Humour or satire: Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
     - Gender pronouns. Radical queers. Racism. Intersectionality. Polyamory. So many issues, and yet this is a bubbly affirmation about finding one's truth. Delightful.

With an animal on the cover: Some New Kind of Slaughter, or, Lost in the Flood (and How We Found Home Again): Diluvian Myths from Around the World by Marvin Mann and A David Lewis
     - "Stories have the power to guide us through the dangers of the world to a fuller understanding of our place in it." Interwoven flood tales in graphic novel format. Powerful.

Free square in the middle: Kay's Lucky Coin Variety by Ann Y K Choi
     - Poignant coming-of-age, balancing traditional expectations of immigrant parents, long hours working in family's convenience store in dicey Toronto neighbourhood, and desire to assert independent identity. Well done. With "lucky" in the title, I had to use this for my free middle square!

Revolves around a holiday: From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle by Kate De Goldi
     - I'd planned to use this for the 'Gifted to you' category - it's from my dear friend Claire in Auckland - but it turns out that this quirky tale of a New Zealand boy obsessed with filmmaking begins and ends with Christmas holidays one year apart. Took a while to draw me in, but things fell beautifully and cogently into place. The final 30 pages are outstanding and I cried at the end. So worthwhile!

With a mythological creature on the cover: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, audiobook narrated by Jenny Sterlin.
     - Battling for women's rights... to perform magic in an alternate England. Excellent historical fantasy with people of colour as main characters.

Gifted to you: Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith.
     - Passionate about books and reading. Loops together unrelated thoughts into creative, profound fiction. Humane. Genius wordsmith. Ali Smith never fails to astound me. My friend Kathy ordered this direct from the UK in order to give it to me at Christmas six months ago. Somehow it got lost in my piles of books until now. So happy that book bingo made me go looking!

With a protagonist/narrator over the age of 50: Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery, translation from French by Alison Anderson, audiobook narrated by Norman Dietz and five others; I love it when audio productions do this, especially when the narrative switches between points of view (including, here, a cat).
     - This short novel about a despicable restaurant critic longing for just the right taste before he dies is all about food. Since I've used a different book for that square, I'll  count it here. If there was a square for "made you salivate while reading" this would be perfect.

Recommended by a librarian or bookseller: The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales, audiobook narrated by four different narrators as the perspective switches around; all are good and Natasha Soudek is my fave.
     - It's girls with superpowers trained as assassins, or not that but a secret organization battling evil, or not that exactly but fireballs of love and revenge, or maybe it's not that but something else entirely. Wild. Genre-bending. Loved it. Liberty Hardy from All the Books podcast recommended this.

With food as the theme: Love, Loss and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi, audiobook narrated by author.
     - Memoir. Immigrant/international fashion model/celebrity chef/former wife of Salman Rushdie. Cooking has helped Lakshmi cope with hard times and she includes recipes. I'd like to try making her kumquat chutney when the fruit is in season.

A literary magazine or journal: Geist, Fall 2015.
     - This issue has an excerpt from Ivan Coyote's latest: Tomboy Survival Guide. It wasn't hard to get my hands on something for this category, since we have stacks of Geist, Eighteen Bridges and Room Magazine around the house.

Poetry collection: Shift by Kelly Shepherd.
     - Humble things: animals, trees, rubber tires, manual labour, even in the oil camps of Fort McMurray - all are transformed by grace in these compassionate, intimate poems. So lovely. "close to a fire, we no longer / see the night sky; we / are seated around a star."

A dark, upsetting, or sad book: The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni, audiobook narrated by Xe Sands.
     - As melancholy as can be (in the best possible way). Elegiac. Atmospheric. Nature, red in tooth and claw. A wildlife photographer mourns her mother during a year on an island bird sanctuary. Human behaviour is as interesting as that of any other creature.

With a blue cover: Sistering by Jennifer Quist.
     - (Trust me, the cover in person looks more blue than the image above.) Dark comedy. Chapters alternate between five sisters' points of view. Lots of domestic drama in my hometown, Edmonton. At one point, a sister was doing something that made me want to put my hands in front of my eyes so I didn't have to witness it, like I was watching a movie, saying no no no no no!

Sports-related: Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems by Randall Maggs.
     - Powerful and compassionate narrative verse captures soul of mid-20th century hockey and glimpses into psyche of one goalie. Terry Sawchuk takes stitches to his mouth without anaesthetic in order to stay in the game; hit in the shoulder by a 120 mph slapshot, he stands up and keeps playing; blocks all but 3 of 108 shots in back-to-back games (losing both) then is too tired to lift his hand to smoke; gets traded and traded again; plays for two decades. I felt something change inside me as a result of reading this book. That was unexpected, because I'm not a hockey fan.

Manga: Planetes, Vol 1, by Makoto Yukimura, translated by Tokyopop.
     - The opening scene in this character-based manga takes place on July 13, 2068, my 108th birthday! Three garbage collectors working in space. Traditional right-to-left Japanese comic format. Solid writing and appealing art.

Thank you for reading this very long post! I hope you will return for bingo card #2.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Best Fiction So Far in 2016

I've read 150 books so far this year. In an earlier post, I compiled my top 10 audiobooks, so this list is just for non-audio, narrowing things down even further by only including adult fiction. Here's a baker's dozen of favourites.

Overall Hands-Down Favourite:

At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison [2015] - A cross between lyric nature writing and fiction. Storytelling that circles back to the opening scene via multiple points of view; broad cast of characters whose lives connect tangentially; references to myth within a realistic setting; close attention to the natural world; changes to a landscape through human activity over time. Beautiful prose.

Best Canadian Fiction Combining Elements of Music, Historical Fiction and Contemporary Realism (tie). I'd like to read more in this category, please:

Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin [2015] - Alternating storylines. Women's lives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Canada and USA. Mixed ethnicity. Female friendship. Opportunities taken/not taken. Jazz. "I was not lonely with Coltrane and Tyner inside me. I thought, 'This music is what marriage could be, playing solos at the same time and ending up together.'" 

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thein [2016] - "Don't ever try to be only a single thing, an unbroken human being." Three generations of individuals in China's tumultuous 20th century. Eloquent. Classical music. Tragedy. Survival.

Best Lesbian Novel (tie):

One Hundred Days of Rain by Carellin Brooks [2015] - Brief chapters chart inner and outer weather over the period of a messy lesbian break-up. Atmospheric. Made me glad I don't live in Vancouver.

Yabo by Alexis De Veaux [2015] - Layered. Poetic. Mythic. Interwoven lives of two people existing across centuries, from the Middle Passage to colonial times to contemporary USA and Jamaica. Black women, lesbians, shapeshifters, and one fascinating intersex character named Jules.

Best Historical Fiction (3-way tie). All three of these expanded my view of women's lives in other places and times:

Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea [2015] - Real historical figures: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Colourful first-person voice of Lizzie Burns, an illiterate Irish woman who grew up working in the nineteenth century mills of Manchester and became the common-law wife of Engels. Complex lives and a rich historical setting.

The Cosmopolitans by Sarah Schulman [2016] - It's a retelling of Honore de Balzac's Cousin Bette, set in 1950s New York City. I tried Cousin Bette and bailed  at the midway point, but that didn't stop me from diving into Schulman's latest novel. I love everything she writes. "Bette liked a novel whose insights into the human mind were not predictable and yet, upon revelation, were stunningly and obviously true." I like that kind of book too. A masterful novel just like this one.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart [2015] - A small dispute with an unsavoury businessman escalates into a campaign of terror against a trio of unconventional sisters in 1914 rural New Jersey. Based on historical fact. Danger. Mystery. Comedy.

Best Contemporary Fiction (tie):

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill [2015] - A novel about people, not horses. Brief chapters, quick pace. Narrative alternates between Ginger, an Anglo alcoholic in upstate New York, and Velveteen, 11-year-old Brooklynite with a Dominican single mother. Everyone is negotiating emotional minefields.

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie [2016] - Adorable! Lessons about being true to yourself. Warmth, wackiness and squirrels.

Best Speculative Fiction (tie). Both are blends of fantasy and near-future science fiction, with elements of environmental catastrophe. Both also happen to be steeped in queer sensibilities:

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders [2016] - A couple of misfits take different paths as they grow up - will it take magic or technology to save the world? Ethics and responsibility. Exuberant. Whimsical. Hopeful. Refreshing.

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan [2015] - Folkloric. Evocative. Quietly enchanting. A drowned world with most living on water and few on islands. A travelling circus. A self-imposed solitary existence. Forgiveness.

Best Short Story Collection:

American Housewife by Helen Ellis [2016] - Hilarious! Short stories interspersed with other short pieces; reminded me a bit of Rebecca Makkai but Ellis has her own sly style. The things her housewives get up to, you would not believe!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

10 Best Audiobooks So Far in 2016

Out of the 48 audiobooks I've read so far this year, here are 10 of my favourites.

Overall Favourite:
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren [2016] - Loved this so much. SO MUCH! Natural science research, mental health, friendship. Clever comparisons between plant and human behaviours. "People are like plants, they grow towards the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed - a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be." Audiobook is narrated by author and her voice catches with emotion at times. So many layers of wonderful, I could gush about it for a long time.

Best Nonfiction:
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon [2012] - Important. Relationships between parents and offspring who are different from each other, i.e. down's syndrome, deaf, gay, prodigies, mentally ill, criminals, or transgender. It's long and it's fascinating and it has won awards. I listened to it and then also read it in print. Narrated by the author.

Best Memoir:
A Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes [2015] - Ebullient. Warm. Inspirational. Not ever having watched any of the television shows Rhimes created (i.e. Gray's Anatomy), I didn't know what to expect. I was astonished by the power of her story, and the impact is all the greater because the author narrates it herself.

Best Historical Fiction:
Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee [2016] - Enthralling. From the 19th century wild west to the opera stage in Paris, it's an operatic epic starring a woman who uses her wits and talent to survive numerous reversals of fortune. Made me want to hear the music of Puccini, Gounod and Verdi. Narrated by Lisa Flanagan.

Best Speculative Fiction (tie):
The Fireman by Joe Hill [2016] - Thriller. Near future. Dark humour. Plague of human spontaneous combustion. Narrated in the gorgeous voice of Captain Janeway: Kate Mulgrew.
The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales [2016] - It's girls with superpowers trained as assassins, or not that but a secret organization battling evil, or not that exactly but fireballs of love and revenge, or maybe it's not that but something else entirely. Narrated by four excellent performers, including Natasha Soudek.

Best Short Story Collection:
Mothers Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell [2015] - Rural noir. Gutsy. Gritty. Insightful. Droll. Narrated by the versatile Christina Delaine. Following is an excerpt from 'Daughters of the Animal Kingdom' -
"My students never believe me at first about the love dart, the gypsobelum, that needle-sharp arrow made of calcium or cartilage. A snail or slug will shoot the dart from its body like a hormone-slick porcupine quill to subdue the object of its desire. Sometimes they don't believe me until the quiz, though I've drawn love darts on the board and explained how they can be long enough to pierce a semi-slug's foot, pinning her to the ground. A love dart can take an eye out. In all fifty states, it is against the law for a person to shoot anything resembling a love dart at another person, but there is no such law protecting the daughters of the animal kingdom."

Best Children's Book (tie):
Pax by Sara Pennypacker [2016] - Loyalty, friendship, survival. Alternating storylines between a boy and his pet fox. Cost of war to both humans and animals. Dramatic. Heartbreaking. Narrated by the youthful-sounding Michael Curran-Dorsano.
Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan [2015] - Unique. Enchanting. A magical harmonica links several stories that are otherwise historical realism. Undesirables in Nazi Germany. Orphans in the American Great Depression. Migrant workers and Japanese-Americans in post-Pearl Harbor California. Four talented narrators plus musical recordings combine to make this an outstanding audiobook.

Best Essays:
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay [2014] - A thought-provoking collection about definitions, human failings, and reconciling contradictions. Narrated by the talented Bahni Turpin.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Edmonton Book Club Enjoys A Year of Reading Local Authors

Cassie (left) is now deceased. There's a new
Bichon in her place: Thor. Nenette is not so
much of a party dog since this photo, but
still takes a turn in each lap during meetings.
My friend Maureen and I started "Two Bichons Book Club" (because we both have Bichon Frise dogs) in 2009. Up until this year, the only criteria we've had in choosing books for our group has been that they are written by women. In January 2016, we embarked on a special project: A Year of Reading Local. We've been enjoying it very much, and not only because of the Edmonton settings. Some members have commented that they had never read a local author before and had no idea that there was so much talent right here in Edmonton.

January: A Wake for the Dreamland by Laurel Deedrick-Mayne
          Friendship. Self-sacrifice. Closeted gays. Pacifism during wartime. Mental health. A moving story about two very young soldiers and the woman who loves them both. The trio of friends are well-drawn and the many details of daily life during the 1930s and '40s make the setting vivid. Special highlight: the author graciously attended our meeting. That's one of the perks of reading local. It was so interesting to hear about her research and it also deepened our appreciation for this wonderful novel.

February: Rumi and the Red Handbag by Shawna Lemay
          Reflective. Ethereal. Secrets. Through working together, a friendship develops between two women of different ages and backgrounds. Slim in size, but mighty in content. Women were observed hugging this book during our meeting. We took turns reading aloud our favourite parts. Gorgeous prose!

March: The Unfinished Child by Theresa Shea
           Multiple storylines converge in this novel about children with Down syndrome. Changing views about disabilities across decades. Ethical dilemmas. This book provoked so much discussion! Members reported buying copies for friends and colleagues.

April: The Sicilian Wife by Caterina Edwards
          Mystery regarding a double fatality car crash is the hook in opening scene. Multiple timelines and settings. Mafia. Girl striving for independence within traditional Sicilian family. Chauvinism faced by female police officers. Dysfunctional families. Most of us liked this quite a bit but the member who read it in ebook found it hard to follow.

June: Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium by Myrna Kostash
           Quest to learn why a Greek saint, known for killing Slavs, is popular with Slavic people. Memoir. Travel. Spiritual journey. I think I was the only member who made it all the way through this. Under 300 pages but dense with history and religion. On the plus side, I flagged many passages for discussion. Bonus: we shared a special Ukrainian meal in honour of the book.


July: Sistering by Jennifer Quist

October: A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail by Jenna Butler

November: Santa Rosa by Wendy McGrath

December: Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott

It has been fun discovering new authors and there are many other titles that we could add to this list. Our project is going so well that we are considering continuing with it next year.

Please look for Two Bichons on Goodreads if you want to see what else we've read over the years.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison

Melissa Harrison's novel At Hawthorn Time has captured my heart. These are some of the reasons:

  • Storytelling that circles back to the original scene via multiple points of view.
  • A broad cast of characters whose lives intersect mostly tangentially. 
  • Internal lives that feel real, recognizable. 
  • People who pay close attention to the natural world. 
  • Documentation of changes to a rural area over time: human activity versus nature.
  • References to myth (the Green Man, Puck) within a contemporary setting. 
  • Lyric language. The kind that makes me want to reread and underline and hug the book for being so beautiful.

"As the sun rose slowly over Jack's head a hawthorn in the hedge behind him felt the light on its new green leaves and thought with its green mind about blossom."

"The ash was hung here and there with lilac and green frills [...] and a slate-blue nuthatch decanted itself like a shot cork from a hole."

At Hawthorn Time is both nature writing and fiction. The closest readalikes I can think of are nonfiction: H Is for Hawk (Helen Macdonald) and The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Robert MacFarlane) - for engaging, poetic prose that places humans firmly within our natural world. A novel with similar elements of aging, myth, cyclic history, and of humans connecting with landscape is Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Emma Hooper).

I hope this is enough to convince you to read it. You will not regret it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Wonder Women by Debora Spar

It's been a long time since a book annoyed me as much as Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection by Debora Spar. It was chosen by one of the members of our feminist book club, so I persevered. Strong feelings make for good discussion, and that was certainly the case here: we all hated it and we talked about it for nearly four hours. (Wine and tasty snacks were also involved.) I had to rush to catch the last bus home.

Why did I dislike it so much? I'll start with this: "At the risk of veering too far into anecdote..." Spar is all about anecdotal evidence. At one point, she says she looked around and everyone she knew had had botox treatments. Also, "every single woman I know worries about her hair." (Maybe she needs to hang out with some different people. Members of my book club, for example.)

"The irony here is that the all-pervasive search for bodily perfection may come, in part, from the feminist movement. Because insofar as feminism liberated women to enjoy their sexuality, it also and simultaneously highlighted the importance of women's physical and sexual attraction." Later, she blames feminism for eating disorders. Because suffragettes threw off their corsets and took to unstructured garments that look best on thin women... or something to that effect. (That was an hour of discussion right there.)

Spar finds young women's sexual freedom - "It's hard for me to render a judgement without sounding and feeling hopelessly middle-aged" - to be misguided, since they are "giving away their power" and young men therefore don't have any reason to marry them. (Another hour of discussion.)

The author states at the beginning that she never used to consider herself a feminist. Her mother was never a "women's libber" either. That viewpoint intrigues me. I have difficulty understanding why smart women would reject feminism. Mostly, it appears to be because of ignorance about what feminism is (and isn't). Wonder Women documents Spar's partial conversion. She wants things to be better for girls and women, but by the end of the book it seems she is still not comfortable calling herself an unqualified feminist:

"we can move to a softer and gentler form of feminism, one less invested in proving women's equality (since that battle has more or less been won) and less upset with men." 

"And feminists, or anyone who seeks to advance the cause of women, can focus on more practical elements of the problems rather than on a protracted battle of the sexes."

I will leave the final words to Darcie, another member of my book club, who commented about Wonder Women on GoodReads: "Feminism, written by someone who is clueless about Feminism, for people who don't like Feminism."

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

After Delores by Sarah Schulman

I've been going through old copies of Womonspace News for a Canadian lesbian history project. That's where I found this review that I wrote 23 years ago. It brought up a lot of memories: a previous romantic relationship, my younger self, my early attempts at book reviewing, and lesbian life in Alberta a quarter-century ago.

After Delores, Sarah Schulman. Dutton, NY, 1988. (The following review first appeared in the May/June 1993 edition of Womonspace News in Edmonton.)

I thought this book was great. My partner hated it. 

If you get depressed reading about people who are down in their luck, stay away. On the other hand, if you enjoy reading about emotion, you'll find heaps of it among the working class poor of Lower East Side New York City. This is a side of lesbian life I've not often seen in fiction. It is written with warmth and acute perception.

Delores abruptly leaves the central character for another woman, and this story tells the aftermath. We feel her intense grief, her longing for revenge and her undying obsession for Delores. We never learn the name of the woman who suffers and tells this tale, but we're intimate with her bewilderment, her pain, and her struggle to regain balance in her life. She gets caught up in thrilling events which carry the plot quickly along to a satisfactory end.

I'm looking forward to reading Sarah Schulman's newest book, Empathy.


I reread After Delores when Arsenal Pulp Press released a new edition of it in 2013. It's a fantastic novel - dark and funny. I'm a huge fan of Sarah Schulman and I think I've read all of her books, including Empathy, which I've read at least twice since mentioning it at the end of this review. Originally published in 1992, Empathy was rereleased in 2006 as a Little Sisters Classic by Arsenal Pulp. Hooray for Arsenal Pulp!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

This Is Happy by Camilla Gibb

Reasons why I engaged with Camilla Gibb's memoir that explores the meaning of family, This Is Happy:

  • elegant prose
  • struggles with mental illness
  • her unusual childhood situation
  • her lesbian marriage and divorce
  • demonstrated gift for empathy
  • finding of emotional support
  • context for her novels (which I have also loved)

Gibb writes about being in the midst of a major depression while doing graduate studies in England, feeling "not just unseen, but unseeable."

"Perhaps it was the need to know whether I still had a body that led me to open my door to relative strangers: my door, my bed, my legs. To men, women, couples. The net result of a lot of random sex was that what was left of me disappeared."

Coincidentally, immediately prior to reading this memoir, I encountered a fictional protagonist who preferred having sex with couples: Ameera, in Farzana Doctor's All Inclusive.

That's just an aside, because Gibb's compelling story has little to do with her sexuality. She was pregnant when her wife left her and their daughter was born shortly afterwards. It's about what happens when you are devastated but now have a child as well as yourself to look after. It's about finding a way forward, partly through storytelling.

Gibb reminds us that storytelling is vital to our humanity, that we are a narrative species. Stories "make us knowable to others" and give children "the tools to help them know themselves." We are "bound for better or worse, in all sorts of complex and beautiful ways, where we become ourselves in relation to each other and carry something of the other - visceral, embodied - within us."

This Is Happy is a "story without an ending at all. And this, I know, is happy."

Readalike: Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald. 
See also my review of The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Thunder and Lightning by Lauren Redniss

When art and science get married, I am first in line with the confetti. That's why I want to shower Lauren Redniss' work with rose petals. Thunder and Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future is full of fascinating information about weather, the font and unusual page layout are all part of the author's design and it's illustrated with hand-coloured photogravure and photopolymer prints. So gorgeous!

"I hoped to [...] capture a certain feeling - a sensation of strangeness, wonder, terror - that we experience in the presence of nature, most powerfully perhaps when encountering the forces of the elements: a howling wind, a thunderstorm, the beating sun."

Yes, Redniss captures that feeling very well. She also steps up to the challenge "to embrace the whole sky with the mind." (This is from a Latin inscription 'Totum animo comprendere caelum" on the wall at the National Weather Center on the University of Oklahoma's Norman campus.)

From Arctic explorations to desert ecology to classic Greek literature to meteorological warfare to interviews with folks at the Old Farmer's Almanac, Redniss covers a whole lot of ground. With such range, it should not have surprised me to encounter mention of the Humboldt current while I concurrently was listening to the audiobook about Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature (by Andrea Wulf). Redniss also writes about endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, whom I've recently encountered in other books: The Thing About Jellyfish (Ali Benjamin) and The Argonauts (Margo Nelson).

Thunder and Lightning is a book that can be revisited with much pleasure and enjoyed by curious minds age 12 and up.

Readalikes: Maps (Aleksandra Mizielinska & Daniel Mizielinski); Animalium (Jenny Broom & Katie Scott); The Where, The Why and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science (Jenny Volvovski et al) and Unflattening (Nick Sousanis).

See also my review of Lauren Redniss' book about Marie Curie, Radioactive.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple

"Without art, you're dead!"

The opening line in Molly Crabapple's memoir, Drawing Blood, is a quote from her great-grandfather. Crabapple loved to draw from the time she could hold a crayon, but she hated being a child and describes that feeling of powerlessness very well.

Crabapple supported herself through art school and beyond as a model. She performed burlesque. She regularly attended an exclusive nightclub, where she sat in near-darkness, sketching the louche goings-on. She slept with men and women.

The point in Crabapple's narrative where I felt my interest kick into high gear was when she began using her art as a vehicle for activism. Her New York City apartment was right next to the site of Occupy Wall Street. In London, Crabapple bonded with feminist writer Laurie Penny. (I love Penny's work. If you haven't read her essays, go check out Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution.)

   "Unhealthily, we pored over conservative British message boards, where trolls talked about garroting Laurie to death, or tying me to a post and smothering me with shit. White men never seemed to provoke this sort of rage."
Poster by Molly Crabapple
Full colour artwork, like the teargas poster above, accompanies the text in Drawing Blood. If you want to see more of Crabapple's work, I recommend her scenes from the Syrian War, viewable on her website.

   "Art is hope against cynicism, creation against entropy. To make art is an act of both love and defiance. Though I'm a cynic, I believe these things are all we have."

Drawing Blood is fiercely feminist and compelling.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Here by Richard McGuire

Richard McGuire's Here is the visual story across time about one small corner of the world. It's a literal corner: in contemporary times, it's the corner of a living room in an American house. Through full colour images and a very few words, readers experience the diversity of events that have happened in this spot. Most of the action takes place in the twentieth century, but some scenes stretch as far back as primordial history, while others imagine near and distant futures.

Several years are usually represented on one page, in overlapping panels. It's remarkable how well this works to build a rich sense of the passage of time. The circle of life is timeless, so the overall narrative can be read in any order. I comfortably flipped backwards and forwards through the book to confirm details and sort out sequences. To make it easier, each panel is labelled with a small date in the upper left corner and the colour schemes remain consistent for each year. The prominent shades are mustard, grey-blue and plum.
Here (partial page detail): against a background scene from 1775, 
an inset labelled 1564 shows the maple when it was a seedling, 
while a man hopes for the best in 1953.
There is meticulous attention to small details. For example, a museum poster advertising a Vermeer exhibit occupies the same place on the wall in 2015 where a print of Vermeer's The Letter hung in 1943. A child hiding behind a tree in 1775 echoes a child hiding behind a window curtain in 1936. 

In the same place where a circle of chairs are set up for a children's party game in 1993, a dinosaur walks in 80,000,000 BCE, a bison rests in 10,000 BCE, a buck forages beneath the snow (moments before being struck by an arrow) in 1402, a wolf carries a deer leg in 1430, indigenous women scoop water from a stream in 1553, an indigenous couple flirt with each other in 1609, a cow grazes in 1869, we see the house being built in 1907, and a child builds a tower of blocks in 2017. One of the final images is of children playing ring-around-the-rosy outdoors in that spot in 1899. "Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down!!!"

We all have a place on this planet we call Earth. For McGuire's humans and nonhumans alike, that place is Here.

Readalikes: One Soul (Ray Fawkes); Building Stories (Chris Ware); and several picture books by Jeannie Baker: Where the Forest Meets the Sea, Home, and Window.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Beastly Verse by Joohee Yoon

Joohee Yoon's hallucinogenic art is what makes Beastly Verse an outstanding collection of poetry for readers of all ages. All of the poems are about animals, and the beasts Yoon portrays are those of folklore and imagination. They wear clothes and cheshire-cat-smiles with nightmarish teeth. There are no black lines. Instead, borders overlap in a style that mimics traditional block printing, using transparent cyan, yellow and magenta inks.

Walter de la Mare, Christina Rosetti, William Blake, Ogden Nash, Lewis Carroll and DH Lawrence are among the authors included. The humour in their work is amplified by the playful images. If their poems had instead been combined with photographs of animals in the wild or in a zoo, they would have provoked a completely different response. Animals hold a place in our culture that is separate from their physical reality. They occupy a place of wonder, dream and metaphor. That is what Yoon has captured in this mesmerizing picture book.

Readalikes: Dark Emperor (Joyce Sidman and Rick Allen); In the Wild (David Elliott and Holly Meade); and the edition of Alice in Wonderland that's illustrated by Yayoi Kusama.

Check out more of Joohee Yoon's art on her website.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Fishbowl by Bradley Somer

Warm-hearted. Funny. Interconnected lives.

Assorted characters in Bradley Somer's novel Fishbowl include:

  • homeschooled Herman (who passes out whenever he's under stress)
  • stoic Jimenez (who is not so good at elevator repair)
  • evil seductress Faye (experiences panties from heaven)
  • pregnant Petunia Delilah (her baby is due any minute)
  • Claire the shut-in (an agoraphobic with the perfect quiche recipe)
  • secretive Garth (who brings home a very special package)
  • the villain Connor (a lothario who has ensnared our heroine)
  • our heroine Katie

"Katie's sure there are other people in the world with her ability to fall in love. She sees her affliction as a good thing and refuses to become jaded by her many rejections. Her belief is that love doesn't make one weak; it does the opposite. She thinks that falling in love is her superpower. It makes her strong."

A goldfish named Ian leaps from his bowl on the 27th floor of the Seville and glimpses human lives in the apartments as he descends.

"Ian is a bon vivant [...]. He's always been happy as a goldfish. It doesn't dawn on him that, with the passing of another twenty-five floors, unless something drastically unpredictable and miraculous happens, he'll meet the pavement at considerable speed."

Miracles do happen. Bravery can overcome loneliness. Insight can pierce selfishness. There is birth and also death. People are changed. Queer folk find happiness. The action in the entire story spans a mere 30 minutes; nearly enough time to bake a quiche. The ending is upbeat and the whole experience is lots of fun.

I love that the book is designed with a drawing of a goldfish in the margin of each right-hand page. Ruffle the pages like a flipbook and you can watch the fish descend. This trick will give you an idea about what happens to Ian, but not how it happens.


It's odd that I've recently read and heard about a couple of other stories that take place during the time that a body falls. "Robin" by David Whitton (originally published in Taddle Creek) is in the voice of a young woman with some regrets about lemon gin and her spring break trip to Daytona beach. The story was day 19 of the 2015 Short Story Advent Calendar. On the Guardian Books podcast, Philip Hensher praised Malachi Whitaker (pseudonym for Marjorie Whitaker) and mentioned one she wrote that was about the events that take place between the time a retired grocer falls out of a fifth-floor window and his death on impact.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

Voice, voice, voice - and setting too. I'm always looking for an immersive reading experience and Gavin McCrea's Mrs Engels delivers big.


  • Includes real historical figures: Karl Marx and Frederick (Friedrich) Engels.
  • An unforgettable first-person female narrator: Lizzie Burns, the illiterate common-law wife of Frederick Engels. She's an Irish woman who grew up working in the mills of Manchester.
  • All the small details that bring nineteenth-century England alive.
  • Expands my view of women's lives in other places and other times.

Following are a couple of excerpts to give you an idea of McCrea's flair.

   "Mary used to say my feet were like boats, that in the last detail God mixed me up with Moss, whose dainty little yokes keep him upright only with the help of the angels. I follow the girl's gander down to them - my boat-feet - and we stand together a minute, marvelling at their reach: several long inches over the threshold, and solid as blocks, hobnails like rods, no hope of closing a door against them.
   Defeated, she lets me in."

At a communist party meeting in London after the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871:

   "Karl lumbers off and Frederick gets back up to take questions. They come in the guise of insults, most of them. But Frederick is quick with the right responses, just enough honour and sincerity to take the sting out of the attacks. He doesn't get riled, nor does he resort to insults himself, and this--when he has the public to himself--is when he's at his most seducing. He can handle his words like no one else, and even if you don't catch their meaning first time, you hold on to them, somewhere, they've been said with so much believing."

Complex lives in a rich historical setting. It's fabulous.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

The Mare is not what I was expecting from its ingredients: a woman, a girl and a horse. Mary Gaitskill is a master storyteller and that is what makes all the difference. The woman is Ginger, an Anglo artist and alcoholic, living in rural upstate New York. The girl is 11-year-old Velveteen, whose Dominican mother struggles to support her two children in Brooklyn. The horse is Fugly Girl--abused, untrustworthy, and boarded in a second-rate stable.

The narrative alternates between Ginger and Velvet, with occasional chapters in the voice of Ginger's husband Paul or Velvet's mother Silvia. Each voice is distinctive and each chapter is short, sometimes just half a page, so the pace is quick.

Ginger and Paul host Velvet for a couple of weeks one summer as part of a charity program to get inner-city kids into the countryside. At a nearby stable, Velvet discovers her affinity for horses. Ginger and Velvet develop a bond that extends past the length of the program and so Velvet continues to visit.

I was never certain where this novel was headed. Explosive scenarios are real possibilities because these characters are all negotiating emotional minefields. I'm not giving away any spoilers, so I'll just say that this book is fantastic. Don't worry if horses aren't your thing, because that is only nominally what this is about. Don't miss it!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Marcus Off Duty: The Food I Cook at Home by Marcus Samuelsson

I picked up Marcus Off Duty at the library because I had enjoyed Marcus Samuelsson's memoir, Yes, Chef. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and grew up in an adoptive Swedish family. He now lives (and cooks!) in New York City. The following notes were jotted down when I read Marcus Off Duty last year.

Captures vibrant multi-ethnic urban environment. Photos show people of all ages cooking and eating together; street and market scenes; also paintings. Very appealing book design. Introductions to each recipe are personable and interesting. The whole experience is a lot like reading a food magazine. I also like the "music to cook by" playlists for each chapter, i.e. Street Food includes selections by Santana, Lou Reed, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Marvin Gaye, Paul Simon and Grandmaster Flash.

"Add 2 teaspoons of garam masala to a batch of oatmeal cookies." Note: I did try this and it was great!

Recipes I'd like to try:

Mac & cheese & greens - p. 66
Sweet potato gnocchi - p. 74
Potato-spinach pie - p. 78
K-town noodles - p. 170
Green pea soup - p. 254
I love carrots soup - p. 259
Shiro - p. 284
Platanos mash - p. 288
Swedish potato dumplings - p. 292
Addis dip (awaze) - p. 303
My Swedish Princess Cake - p. 330

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Mislaid by Nell Zink

An entertaining lampoon of American culture: Nell Zink's Mislaid is wild and wonderful and I didn't expect to love it as much as I did.

Meg, a mostly-lesbian white student, gets pregnant sleeping with Lee, a mostly-gay white professor. It's the 1960s. They marry. She eventually escapes their unhealthy relationship, taking with her their youngest of two children. To avoid getting drawn back into his web, she and her daughter Karen live in a swamp, where they pass as African Americans, despite Karen's blond hair and blue eyes.

"Meg's financial situation was delicate. Her expenses were low. She had a thousand dollars of capital left in her emergency fund. If something worse than that came up, she'd cross that bridge when she got to it. She had no rent, no utility bills, and a daughter who could survive on a noodle a day. Karen ate dutifully, not with feeling. But sooner or later she was going to get her growth spurt and start liking food. And there was the little matter of clothing. The county had a thrift shop. Like thrift shops everywhere, it specialized in the leavings of the elderly dead. People always had acquaintances who needed children's things and seldom donated them. Well-off children wore late-model hand-me-downs, but to get in on the action, Meg would have had to join a church. And although she was prepared to accept that the world was adopting stodginess as a fashion trend--that girls were putting away their mules and feather earrings and donning prim sweater sets like Lee's mother--she could not face praising Jesus in song to put Karen in Pendleton kilts. You have to respect your boundaries."

There's also Flea, a character who ditched school when she was in Grade 6 in order to move in with an adult man.

"Flea took up gardening, hoping to add vegetables to their diet. She didn't get very far. On her knees in the sand, she planted radishes she thought would sprout in three days and be ready to eat in two weeks. A typical country girl, raised between the TV and the car. Agriculture to her was clouds of pesticide raining down on corn. She knew traditional uses for many wild plants--as toys. Which seeds would fly farthest, how to best step on puffballs, how to make a daisy chain."

There's also a society for the protection of squirrels.

The whole thing is wacky and vaguely surreal, yet the characters got under my skin. It's like Zink shook views on race, poverty, class, gender and sexuality out of a box, then reconfigured the pieces into something sharply beautiful. And funny.

Readalike author: Miriam Toews.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

My 2015 Reading Stats

302: that's the number of books I've read this year (not including picture books). I know that reading is not a competition. I just really, really love to read. Reading is obviously a big part of my self identity, so looking back and crunching numbers helps me to understand myself better. I made pie charts! (Click to make them bigger and more legible.)

Primary Audience: The proportion I read of kids' and YA to adult hasn't changed over the past few years.
Literature Category: A few books are impossible to categorize neatly. For example, Helen Humphreys' The River is both fiction and nonfiction. Erin Moure's Kapusta is both poetry and a play. Some categories are arbitrary.
Format: My audiobook numbers keep going up: 23% in 2013, 30% in 2014 and 36% in 2015. 
Nationality: These numbers are slightly fudged, since some authors have moved from one country to another. For example, is Claudia Rankine a Jamaican author or an American author? I skipped books with multiple creators (comics) and any that I didn't know the author's nationality. Italy got a bump this year because of all four in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series. Other countries include: Australia (5); France (5); Japan (5); India (3); Germany (3); and one or two each from Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Iran, Vietnam, Nepal, Indonesia, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Uruguay, Jamaica, Trinidad, Virgin Islands, Haiti, and Spain.

Diversity: These should each have their own pie or maybe a Venn diagram to show overlap, but it was simplest for me to do it this way. An example is Shani Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Night, (a favourite book that I re-read) which is counted in LGBT and PoC and Women authors categories. Each category (except the space filler, duh) is a percentage of the total number of books that I read this year. I skipped any authors whose ethnic heritage is unknown to me. My numbers of books by queer authors are down a bit this year: I read 50 in 2014 and only 36 in 2015. 
Fiction Genres: Fantasy, science fiction and fairy tale retellings are all together in the Speculative category. Classics is for anything published over 50 years ago. Contemporary is mostly realistic fiction, but also a catch-all for stuff that doesn't fit neatly into any of the other genres.
A few more stats:
Read in translation: 29.
Edmonton authors: 6. My Two Bichons book group is doing a year of reading local in 2016, so I should have higher numbers in this category next time.
Read in French language: 5.
Books over 700 pages: 4.
Books that I didn't finish (after at least an hour's worth of time invested): 19.

I'm not the kind of person who needs a push to expand my reading horizons, but I looked at Book Riot's Read Harder Challenge for 2016 anyway. I've already done everything on it in 2015 except read a book and then watch the movie. I plan to see Room and The Martian this month, so that's that. I'll move right along to the big stack of books by my bed.

If you are interested in my reading stats from previous years, 2014 is here and 2013 is here.