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.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Children's Picture Books: Looking Back on 2015

I love picture books. Fortunately, I have had more exposure to them than the average childless adult because of my work at the public library. It will be different now that I have retired; I'll have to make more of an effort to seek them out in the future. (Yes! Today is the first day of the new year AND my first day of retirement.)
My very favourite picture book of 2015, one that I could return to with pleasure again and again, is The Bus Ride by Quebecois author/artist Marianne Dubuc. A modern child's solo journey on public transit, with hints of little red riding hood and other fairy tales. So much is going on in each page spread, playfully illustrated in Dubuc's distinctive, naive style. Charming X 10.

Two more that came in at a very close tie for second place are also by Canadians: Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith, and The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton. Sidewalk Flowers, like The Bus Ride, has a bit of an urban little red riding hood thing going on. It's about paying attention to the beauty that surrounds us. The Princess and the Pony is a sure bet: subversive, feminist and hilarious.

All three of my favourites have got that perfect alchemy of artwork and story. I use the word "story" rather than "text" because two out of the three are wordless. It's the narrative appeal that makes a picture book more than something beautiful to look at. If you are an adult fan of graphic novels and you haven't been reading picture books, you are missing out on great visual storytelling. Looking back on the many picture books I read in 2015, the following stand out.

Missing Nimama by Melanie Florence and Francois Thisdale - for tackling the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women in a way that is appropriate for young children. (Francois Thisdale also illustrated Bird Child, reviewed here.)

Pool by JiHyeon Lee - for the wonder that builds as you turn the pages, and the wordless portrayal of a developing bond between two young introverts.

Ballad by Blexbolex - for its puzzle of a story and striking graphic design. (Published in 2013)

Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman and Zachariah OHora - for its whimsical take on the idea of family.

La Science du caca by Frederic Marais - for its appealing combo of humour, graphic design, and scientific facts about poop. (Published in 2013; only available in French.)

The Secret Life of Squirrels by Nancy Rose - for the cuteness factor. (Published in 2014. Longer review here.)

Shackleton's Journey by William Grill - for its inventive visual presentation of historical information. (Published in 2014.)

The Potato King by Christoph Niemann - for a fascinating story told with unusual illustrations that combine potato prints and photos.

Toys Meet Snow by Emily Jenkins and Paul Zelinsky - because I was delighted to encounter another story about Lumphy, StingRay and Plastic (the book-loving ball), who were first introduced about ten years ago in Toys Go Out.

Float by Daniel Miyares - for masterful use of a limited colour palette, and for immersing me all the way back into the world of childhood.

Louis 1, King of the Sheep by Olivier Tallec - for pointed social commentary delivered with maximum humour. (See my review of Tallec's Waterloo & Trafalgar here.)

Bug in a Vacuum by Melanie Watt - for comedic genius in presenting the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief.

Are you a fan of picture books? What are your favourites?