Excerpt: "Not so long ago we'd simply dismissed girls for their inability to achieve boyhood. How awful, we used to think, it must be not to be a boy. Nowadays, of course, women were magnetic - always making us want to point North." It's a treat to come across a great book for guys. Grades 8-12.
Friday, October 30, 2009
The Ostrich Boys are three British fifteen-year-olds who don't know how to grieve the loss of the fourth member of their group, Ross, who was hit by a car while riding his bicycle. They do know that the funeral they attended for Ross did not satisfy their needs and so they decide to do their own funeral for him. They decide that a tiny place in Scotland called Ross is the perfect place to hold the event. None of them had been there before, but Ross had always talked about going there to find himself; to be Ross in Ross. And so they steal the urn of Ross's ashes from his family and hop on a train. That is the start of their adventures... and misadventures. A road trip funeral with much learning along the way about the importance of friendship.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
The Bonesetter's Daughter is told in three parts: present day San Francisco; a small village in China pre-1940; and then back to present day U.S.A.
Ruth's mother, LuLing, was born in China and raised by a horribly disfigured nursemaid called Precious Auntie. There is a mystery surrounding the identity of LuLing's mother. LuLing's husband died young, so it was just Ruth and her mother in her family as she grew up. As an adult, Ruth has great difficulty negotiating intimate relationships. She has lived with a divorced man and his two teenaged daughters for 10 years, but still doesn't feel like she belongs there. Meanwhile, she worries about her mother, who is developing Alzheimer's. LuLing and Ruth are both complex, interesting women.
The first two parts were excellent but the final part seemed rushed and everything gets resolved into an unrealistically happy ending. Still, I would recommend this to women who enjoy reading about mother-daughter relationships. That is definitely Amy Tan's greatest strength.
This bittersweet memoir told in comic strips explores the way events in history continue to have repercussions. Carol Tyler's father was a young American soldier who fought in World War II. He was taciturn, prone to sudden rages and would never talk about his experiences there. Carol was born in about 1950, grew up surrounded by siblings, attended Catholic schools, married, moved far away, had a daughter, split up with her husband - all the normal stuff. What is remarkable is her honest examination of her own life and how it was shaped by her family, as well as her determination to delve into the emotional scars of her father's past. It wasn't until he was in his nineties that stories about war suddenly began to pour out of him. Something awful happened in Italy, but we still don't know what it was by the end of book one.
Usually I include a cover image from a graphic novel in order to give an idea of the art style. This time I've chosen one of Tyler's story panels because I could identify so strongly with it; the period in my life when I cried every time I went into a church.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
The French artists who dared to paint in an entirely new way in the late nineteenth century were scorned by the arts establishment. Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Cezanne, Renoir, Degas, Morisot and others struggled to make money through their art. Their work was rarely accepted into the yearly Paris Salon, the main venue for exhibition and sales in France.
The parts I enjoyed most in this rather dry and lengthy collective biography were the quotes from art critiques and cartoonists of the period. When one of Manet's portraits of Berthe Morisot, Repose, was displayed in the Salon, it was ridiculed with "derogatory captions that played on Manet's depictions of Berthe's darkness and disarray: A Lady Resting after Sweeping the Chimney; Seasickness; The Goddess of Slovenliness."
A small number of colour plates are bound into the book, which is helpful, but I found myself googling many more images that were not included. (See here for an online image of Repose.) Roe portrayed all of the artists in their very best light, which seemed rather unrealistic to me, but I gleaned interesting information from this book and will look elsewhere for the down and dirty.
Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, has also published a couple of unusual books that are a cross between graphic novels, picture books (for adults) and art books. Niffenegger herself calls The Adventuress and The Three Incestuous Sisters "visual novels," while the publisher has added stickers to the covers identifying them as "novels in pictures." They consist of a series of aquatint etchings with a very small amount of text on the facing pages. The illustrations pretty much carry the narrative on their own, with the text supplying names for the protagonists and such.
The Adventuress is about an unlucky young woman who is rather blown about by the winds of fate: created by her alchemist father, stolen away by an evil baron and then forced to marry. But she has spunk and surprising inner resources, so this is only the beginning of her adventures. The story is surreal, the images engaging and the total effect is magical.
The Three Incestuous Sisters is more of a melodrama: two sisters in love with the same man, a number of tragic deaths and then a happy ending. One sister can levitate and mentally commune with her unborn nephew (who will be born with wings), so expect some dream-like sequences here too. The aquatints are truly fabulous. This kind of printmaking takes a lot of time; Niffenegger spent 14 years creating this book. It only takes a short time to read, but the images can be enjoyed over and over. See more of her work at her website.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Robert Bringhurst was at two of the events that I attended at the Vancouver writers festival. I was not impressed with him at the first one, "The Look of the Book," where he sat hunched in such a way as to be facing away from the rest of the panel and the audience, usually not looking at the images of the other authors' works on screen and giving curmudgeonly one-word answers to questions.
Seth, Anik See and Audrey Niffenegger were the other panelists. Their contributions were lively and thoughtful. I'll write about them in future blog posts.
My friend Merle kindly loaned me two of her books by Bringhurst after I blogged about The Elements of Typographic Style: they are The Surface of Meaning and The Solid Form of Language. The latter is an essay about the written forms of world languages and the special challenges inherent in recording sound and meaning in a visual form. It is a tiny, beautifully-made book with such a tactile dust jacket that I would say I liked the look of this book better than the contents, which are a bit too academic for me.
The Surface of Meaning, on the other hand, is very accessible and mostly consists of illustrations. It is a large book with glossy, heavy clay paper to reproduce the images as well as possible. I was particularly intrigued by Bringhurst's prologue, in which he argues that books are not necessarily physical objects. "In oral cultures, books are invisible - but in every healthy and mature oral culture, books are present. Oral books that occupy no shelf space can and do unfold to epic size in storytellers' voices - and can retain that size, and that complexity, in a thoughtful listener's mind."
I happened to come across an essay by William H. Glass (In Defense of the Book; Harper's Magazine; November 1999) this past week and he says a similar thing about books: "every real book (as opposed to dictionaries, almanacs and other compilations) is a mind, an imagination, a consciousness. Together they compose a civilization, or even several."
I was pleased that Bringhurst brought up this alternate definition of books at the festival, but the other authors were quick to disagree with him when he pronounced that neither a telephone directory nor a catalogue of paintings are books. It might have been after this interaction that Bringhurst partially withdrew from the remainder of the evening's discussion; I can't remember. Anyway, Bringhurst was also in the Saturday evening "Poetry Bash" and his poems and delivery were outstanding, so he totally redeemed himself in my eyes.
Monday, October 26, 2009
I've just returned to Edmonton after a week at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival and I'm way behind in blogging about the books I've been reading but WOW, what a great time I had!
Annabel Lyon was in a panel called "Playing with Real People," along with Thomas Trofimuk (Waiting for Columbus) and Kate Braid (A Well-Mannered Storm: The Glenn Gould Poems). I had taken note of the hype surrounding Lyon's novel; it was hard not to, since it is a finalist for the Giller, the Governor General and the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. It is told in the voice of Aristotle and covers a time period from about 343 to 350 B.C.E. I enjoy historical fiction, but I was put off recently by my strong disappointment with Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia (a retelling of Virgil's Aeneid) and so I was purposefully avoiding The Golden Mean. Big mistake!
After listening to Lyon read an excerpt from her new novel, I was totally hooked. I read it yesterday. I loved it.
There's a lot of action, what with Philip of Macedon intent on world domination and grooming his psychopathic son, Alexander to follow in his footsteps, while Aristotle, as Alexander's tutor, tries to shape the boy's ethics and brilliant mind. My pleasure in reading this book is explained by Alexander, talking to Aristotle: "That's the point of the literary arts, surely. You can convey ideas in an accessible way, and in a way that makes the reader or the viewer feel what is being told rather than just hear it." Just so. The characterization is richly rewarding. The setting feels real. The language is beautiful. The Golden Mean has all four of Nancy Pearl's doorways into reading.
The final line from The Golden Mean is: "Can anyone tell me what a tragedy is?" It would have been tragic if I'd missed out on reading this. I'm glad I'm not a Giller judge having to choose between this and Anne Michael's The Winter Vault. If you want to guess the winner, by the way, there's a contest.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Unlike The Arrival, Tales is not a wordless book. The stories in Tales are all brief, however, sometimes less than a page of text. Water buffalo hang out in vacant lots and give advice. Exchange students come in bizarre shapes and sizes, like Eric, who is paper-thin and about ankle-height to a human. Gifts are given to a rooftop reindeer on the nameless holiday. Hidden rooms can contain paradise gardens. Backyard missiles become part of the suburban landscape. Surrealism for everyone; Grade 4 to adult.
Mary Gooch swore she would kill herself if she ever got over 300 pounds. It happens. She doesn't. On the eve of their 25th wedding anniversary, Mary's husband disappears. Her adventure begins when she decides to go looking for him, leaving her hermit-like existence in tiny Leaford, Ontario and travelling to Los Angeles. She discovers much about herself, not least of which is courage. I liked Mary very much, rooting for her all the way.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Meg Rosoff's teen novels have all been quite different from each other, although they are all coming-of-age stories. How I Live Now is a page-turner transgressive love story set in the near future, in an England occupied by an invading army. Just In Case is a hilarious, present-day story with touches of surrealism about trying to outwit one's destiny. What I Was feels timeless and is told from our near future about a time in our near past; a leisurely exploration of friendship and identity that highlights the difference between perception and reality.
Rosoff's latest is a dashing mix of adventure and romance set in the mid-nineteenth century English countryside. Pell Ridley, eldest of a family of 10 children, flees home on the morning of her wedding day, accompanied by her mute brother, Bean, the youngest. The tale is of a plucky heroine, getting by on her wits, determination and hard labour. The adults, usually absent in Rosoff's books, are plentiful here, but do not fare well. They are untrustworthy, if not unsavoury, and even the best of them, an old Romani woman, has her own mysterious ulterior motives for helping Pell.
The Bride's Farewell will appeal to a broad cross-section of female teen readers (and probably adults too); fans of historical romance, horse stories and even fantasy - the low-technology, small town and rural setting brings Tamora Pierce's books to mind - and, of course, there is the appeal of a spirited and capable girl-adventurer. Grade 6 and up.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
I don't usually blog about the books of poetry that I read unless they form a verse novel. The reason is that I don't know what to say about poetry. I like reading poetry, but don't feel smart enough to write about it. This post is an attempt to conquer that feeling of inadequacy.
The very first poem in Pigeon, called Pathology of the Senses, stumped me. I liked the science words - phospholipase, eutrophic, caducous - but couldn't grasp what the whole thing was about. I handed it over to my sweetie, a poet and wordsmith extraordinaire, and she handed it right back to me, turned off by the first word of the poem, oligotrophic. Solie includes the meanings of these specialized words right in her poem, so that was not the problem for me. My friend Amy was more helpful. She read it and told me it was all about feeling the summer heat and humidity of an urban lakeshore in Ontario... and a tryst. Ahh! I've read that poem a few more times and I really get it now.
The rest of the book took no effort at all, so it is maybe a mistake to have Pathology of the Senses appearing first. But maybe that's just me. There are poems that I read over and over because I loved them so much: The World of Plants; Migration; Geranium. I took the book to my friends' house when I was invited there for thanksgiving dinner so that I could read the poem Tractor, in honour of the farmers who grow our food. Four Factories is about industrialization in Alberta; a poet describing the chemical plants in the east end of Edmonton deserves accolades for that alone. In Air Show, Solie echoes my own sentiments about the folly of this so-called entertainment: "celebrating / car alarms, panic attacks, canine / episodes, migraines, / childhood hearing loss / and it's free, an added bonus / of the CNE." There's also a great narrative poem, Archive, set on the High Level Bridge in Edmonton.
The blurb on the back of the book describes Solie as a "sublime singer of existential bewilderment." That says it better than I ever could.
A sweet, gentle story to help children cope with name-calling. The setting is a lake in northeastern U.S.A and the young protagonist, Jeannie, is a modern American Indian. The kids at school call her and the other Indians who live at the lakeshore "Lake Rats." Jeannie's grandfather tells her a traditional Seneca tale about the role muskrat played when Skywoman came to Earth. Rich watercolour illustrations by Robert Hynes. Grades 1 - 4.
In 1930, Emily Carr and Georgia O'Keeffe met at an O'Keeffe exhibition in New York. Canadian poet Kate Braid wonders what would have happened if these women had become friends and visited each other in New Mexico and Vancouver Island. The result is a fictional account of a dynamic friendship between two iconoclasts in the male-dominated world of fine art, told in a series of original poems by Braid and brief excerpts from O'Keeffe's writings.
I found the first part, Solo, a bit slow - it is the background of O'Keeffe's life up to 1930 - but the momentum picked up once the friendship - the fictional part - began. At Ghost Ranch, O'Keeffe complains that Carr can see no other colour but green: "Her eyes drip curtains of tree colour." O'Keeffe, on the other hand, sees "the bones of hills / They shimmer in the heat - / amethyst, ivory and flame." When O'Keeffe goes with Carr to paint in Tofino, the rain almost drives her mad: "In this country, by day I sip the air / and by night I float." Yet she admires the visceral drive to create that fuels Carr's emotional work: "I am brittle and thin, starving / for what feeds her."
The afterword is a quote from O'Keeffe: "Art is a wicked thing. It is what we are." A perfect end for this verse novel and an excellent summation of why art is so important to all of us.
Monday, October 12, 2009
In Coupland's future, bees have gone extinct. Human diets have changed quite a bit, since so many plants depend upon bees for pollination. Hand-pollinated apples command exorbitant prices, when they are even available. People eat a lot of potatoes and wind-pollinated plants like corn.
Except that corn has its own problems. We are introduced to Zack in his Iowa cornfield, driving Maizie, "a harvester so luxurious it could shame a gay cruise liner." Zack's concern is not harvesting efficiency because "the whole crop was contaminated with some kind of gene trace that was killing off not bees (a thing of the past) but moths and wasps." So he is creating a ten-acre masterpiece design chopped out of cornstalks, using real-time satellite feeds to keep track of his work. And then he is stung by a bee.
Four other people around the world get stung shortly afterwards: Harj in Sri Lanka; Julien in Paris; Diana in North Bay, Ontario; and Samantha in Palmerston North, New Zealand. I was tickled to see that Coupland used kiwi slang when he was writing in Samantha's voice - 'Palmy' for the name of her town, and 'crikey dick' to express her exasperation. The five end up in a remote location together, being studied. They are one of the Haida Gwaii islands, in the temperate rain forest of British Columbia. "Within that forest, from all directions - up, down and sideways - life squished out like a Play-Doh Fun Factory."
A clue is given early on as to what might be happening to the five stingees, when a French scientist tells Julien (regarding the human frontal lobe not yet being completely developed at his age, 22: "nature gives young people fluid personalities because society would otherwise never get soldiers to fight its wars. Young people are still capable of being tricked by idiotic ideas."
Coupland covers some of the same ground as Margaret Atwood in The Year of the Flood: the natural world gone awry with scientific tinkering and a drug that is globally popular. His humour is more ebullient than Atwood's, however. I giggled often while reading. When Samantha returns home after having been in isolation for weeks, she says, "A reunion is always nice, so please insert some generic welcome-home family greetings here." (I think Coupland stole that idea from Nicole Brossard in Yesterday at the Hotel Clarendon, but it was way funnier in Coupland's version.)
The title comes from a university commencement address given by Kurt Vonnegut in 1994. "Now you young twerps want a new name for your generation? Probably not, you just want jobs, right? Well, the media do us all such tremendous favours when they call you Generation X, right? Two clicks from the very end of the alphabet. I hereby declare you Generation A, as much at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago."
The first part of Generation A is definitely the strongest. I was not sure how I felt about the ending, so I've taken a few days (reading five other books) to think about it before blogging. I've decided I like it in its entirety. Please feel free to offer your comments.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Fashion designer Christian Lacroix has done the illustrations for this cheeky satire of home decor from the 60s through the 80s. Mauries' witty essays on styles like Disco Deco, Lofty Aspirations, Minimalism to the Max and Shabby Chic don't appear to have lost much in their translation from French to English.
Regarding the Shaker esthetic: "Everything the average home of today needs - spinning wheels, wooden brooms, farm tools - were suddenly transformed into works of art by the Good Fairy of Utility, who works only in cherrywood or pear." I googled unfamiliar names as I came across them. For example, in Sure-Fire Chic, ("They limit their palette to a range that can't miss: gray, beige, gray-beige, white, and the mother of all colors - black") Eileen Gray rugs and Reitveld chairs were mentioned. I image googled and discovered that I recognized their work, only not by name. So, between the entertaining words and whimsical drawings and the impromptu bit of design education via the internet that it spawned, I had a great time with this book.
Anke is fourteen, the youngest in her family. Her father is violently abusive to her older brother and sister and to her mother, but he ignores her. Anke feels like a powerless bystander, even while defying her father behind his back, playing volleyball against his wishes. Anke's confidence and courage grow along with her ability on the volleyball court. Is she strong enough to take action against her father?
This story is told in poems, so it is a very quick read. Read-alikes: Touching Snow by M. Sindy Felin; Burned by Ellen Hopkins; When She Hollers by Cynthia Voight and Such a Pretty Girl by Laura Weiss. Grade 7 - up.
It isn't often that I give up on a book partway through, but that's what happened in this case. (I made it to page 80.) I liked another of de Kretser's books - The Hamilton Case - which was set in historical Sri Lanka. The Rose Grower is set in Gascony during the time of the French Revolution. Earlier this year, I spent three weeks hiking through the same places mentioned in the novel, so that was another appeal factor for me. Plus, there is Sophie, the rose grower of the title, who is a passionate gardener, determined to breed a dark red repeat-blooming rose. Botany and gardening hook me every time.
Except for this time. It isn't a bad book, it just isn't the book for me, right now. It's about an aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times - and times are about to get even harder, with the revolt of the peasants imminent. There are three daughters: Claire, Sophie and Mathilde. An American artist, Stephen, crashes his hot air balloon near their estate and then falls in love with Claire, the beautiful one, and she returns the attraction, although she is already married (to a brute who isn't around much). Sophie pines for Stephen's attention while a local doctor, Joseph, is secretly pining for Sophie. Ho hum. All that mushy, unrequited love stuff turned me off and I found I didn't care about the characters at all. Except for Mathilde, the youngest, who quotes Rousseau and is leaning towards vegetarianism.
I would recommend this to readers who like Jane Austen.
Friday, October 9, 2009
Australian editor Strahan has assembled a fine anthology of original science fiction stories. (I noticed that his name can be re-arranged to 'Starman' with one letter substitution... coincidence?) He has included writers from Canada, England, Ireland, Wales and the U.S.A as well as Australia: great YA authors like Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman, Margo Lanagan and Scott Westerfeld.
In the introduction, Strahan writes: "Although people think that science fiction is about the future, it's not. Like all fiction, it's about its own time. It's about the world we live in - what we think and feel about it, and how we think or fear it might change in the coming years." The stories in this anthology are full of ideas and most of them are cracking adventure tales also. I read one every few days or so (in between reading other things) and I found each one taking up the size of novels in my head as I thought about them afterwards.
Grade 7 up to adult.
What is an idea made of? What is an image? What is the source of memory and imagination? What happens in our heads when we compose words or create anything? What happens in our heads when we read something? What are thoughts? How is thinking different from experiencing?
These are the kinds of questions Barry explores in What It Is. Her collage style may present an obstacle to people approaching this book with the left side of their brains, but her goal is to get people to play, to overcome internalized self-criticism and to embrace the notion of not-knowing-where-the-pen-is-taking-you. A right-brained way of acting.
"I have found that writing by hand slowly is faster than a computer-way of doing it, though I know it's not easy the way a computer is easy. Tapping a finger is not as complicated as making an original line in the shape of an S. Different parts of the brain are used when we make an S by hand and more of the body than a finger tap - and - images seem to come from this kind of being in motion." (Handwritten, with some letters coloured-in, some in all caps, some underlined, etc.)
This is the second time I've read this book and I know I'll be reading it again when I feel like being inspired to create.
[Barry's captions in the fuzzy image above: 1. "I want to write... but how to begin? Let me think about it..." 2. "Gotta think of a story worth writing..." 3. "TEN YEARS LATER. Shh! Still thinkin'."]
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
My sweetie and I will be travelling to the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival later in October. We've already got tickets for six events and Robert Bringhurst will be speaking/reading at two of them: The Look of the Book (with Seth and Audrey Niffenegger) and the Poetry Bash (with Carol Ann Duffy, Xi Chuan, Gregory Scofield and others).
The Elements of Typographic Style is pretty much the bible for its field. I read it some time ago (it was first published in 1992) and decided to revisit it recently. Bringhurst writes with clarity, passion and humour. He loves the printed word and celebrates when it is presented with grace and beauty. So do I. The printing museums in Antwerp and Lyon have both enthralled me.
Bringhurst's aim for typographers is to "induce a state of energetic repose which is the ideal condition for reading." He warns of "typographical slums," "hyphens like refugees" and texts like "shrink-wrapped meat." It isn't all about the fonts, either: "Perhaps fifty per cent of the character and integrity of a printed page lies in its letterforms. Much of the other fifty per cent resides in its margins." Yay for white space!
I'll close with a quote about one of my pet peeves when I'm editing: double spaces after a period. "In the nineteenth century, which was a dark and inflationary age in typography and type design, many compositors were encouraged to stuff extra space between sentences. Generations of twentieth-century typists were then taught to do the same, by hitting the spacebar twice after every period. Your typing as well as your typesetting will benefit from unlearning this quaint Victorian habit." To my dear blog readers, may you take note.
Saturday, October 3, 2009
This second book in the Chaos Walking trilogy sustains the tense pace of the first, picking up the action directly from the cliff-hanger ending of The Knife of Never Letting Go. Todd and Viola are separated, but struggle to return to each other. They also battle to maintain their individuality in a violent world where the pressure to conform is immense. A world where thoughts can read by others and self control also means a disciplined mind. A world where the war is men against women. Grade 9 and up.
Ness is a gay man and dedicated The Ask and the Answer to Patrick Gale (also gay), so I hoped there would be some gay content, as there was in the first book - where Todd was raised by two men who loved each other - but there wasn't. I have no complaints about the storyline, however, and the gender themes certainly have a queer sensibility. Indeed, The Knife of Never Letting Go won the James Tiptree, Jr. prize last year (among other awards). That's an award given to books that expand or explore our understanding of gender.