Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

In the introspective new novel from Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, a young man eventually discovers his sense of self worth after being cast out from a tightly-knit group of friends. It's a melancholy, realistic story set in contemporary Japan.

The Books on Tape audiobook [10 hr] is a totally hypnotic performance by actor Bruce Locke, who uses a slight Japanese accent for lines of dialogue. I was transported by Murakami's descriptions of sensory quotidian details. The mystery that lies at the heart of the story, the reason why his friends rejected Tsukuru, is another thing that kept me hooked.

On the same morning that I started listening to this book, I read an article in The Week about Murakami's use of music in his writing. Because of that, I took note any time a particular musical piece was mentioned. Franz Liszt's Years of Pilgrimage Suite (Annees de pelerinage) is the most significant. (Also the obvious source for the book's title.) I listened to this piano composition streaming via Edmonton Public Library's Naxos Music Library database. It captures the mood of Murakami's sorrowful and lovely tale about being human.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

"My father's wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us."

From these opening lines, Amy Bloom sucked me right into Lucky Us, a novel about unconventional families. Stepsisters Iris and Eva are 16 and 12 when they first meet in 1939. Iris lives in a fancy mansion, while Eva and her mother have been barely scraping by. Eva's mother abandons her at her father's house.

"I was thirteen before I realized my mother wasn't coming back to get me."

Their father is a fickle man, so the sisters forge a life together. In Hollywood, Iris gets swept up in a racy, but very closeted, lesbian crowd. Later, they move to New York City, where Iris once again falls for a woman who will break her heart.

Sweet, loyal and resourceful, Eva is the most endearing character. Through good luck and bad, she is the steadfast heart of a family that grows over a period of ten years to include a motley, lovable crew.

I listened to the audiobook [Books on Tape: 7 hr. 18 min.] narrated with warmth and expert comedic timing by voice actress Alicyn Packard.

Readalike: Tell the Wolves I'm Home (Carol Rifka Brunt).

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger

It took me nine weeks to read Ruth Kassinger's A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants. Not because it isn't good, only because I kept being distracted by other books.*

I always have more than one on the go, and if I'm not totally hooked by something, I'll set it aside for when the right mood strikes. In the case of library books, this means that they sometimes go back to the library unread. A Garden of Marvels is about botany, a subject I love. It's also full of intriguing scientific information, like why orchids tend to remain in bloom for months. (It's so that their highly specific insect pollinators have time to find them.) Kassinger's style is personable and light, as exemplified in the following passages.

"Flowers dressed in green petals are generally not dressed for evolutionary success. They are less likely to catch the eye of a pollinator, and therefore less likely to produce offspring. (Wind-pollinated plants, like grasses and many trees, needn't invest in gay apparel.)"

"Insects favored flowers that provided not only a pollen dinner but a sweet postprandial drink. Over time, as plants whose flowers always kept a well-stocked bar prospered, mutations in nearby structures evolved into nectaries. Ever more attractive petals and scents evolved, too, to ensure that the location of the restaurant would be no mystery."

Anyway, the book was approaching the end of its maximum loan period and so I finished it yesterday morning. I don't know if the last third is so much better than the earlier part, or if I was just in the perfect mood, but I loved it.

Prompted by Kassinger's enthusiasm, I went off exploring. I searched YouTube for clips of bees tricked into pseudocopulation by orchids of the Ophrys genus. I looked for more information about Miscanthus giganteus, a type of grass that grows 12 feet in a season and is grown as a source of heating fuel for a greenhouse in Ontario. I investigated fruit cocktail trees (and knew exactly what my friend was talking about when she said she was getting one). Kassinger notes that seeds from a 2010 prizewinning pumpkin sold for $1,200 each. Prices have risen. In 2013, they could be purchased online for $1,600 per seed. With all these tangents to follow, it's no wonder it took me a while to actually read the book!

If you enjoy popular science writing along the lines of Mary Roach and Michael Pollen, A Garden of Marvels is for you.

The final lines in the book echo my own sentiments: "[Earth's] garden is more than a marvel. It's as close to a miracle as there is on Earth."

*During the same period that I was reading A Garden of Marvels, I started and finished:
5 adult novels
3 YA novels
3 nonfiction books plus 1 cookbook
8 graphic novels
1 short story collection
1 poetry collection
and listened to 8 audiobooks, including Middlemarch.
I also abandoned 4 books after an hour or two of reading.
Shelfari makes it easy to track these stats.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Seconds is a charming full-colour graphic novel stand-alone by Bryan Lee O'Malley, author of the Scott Pilgrim series.

Katie is a chef who started the restaurant Seconds four years earlier, along with some friends. It's owned by a gay couple who put up all the money and the place has come to be recognized as the best place to eat in town.

Now, Katie dreams of opening her own place. A house spirit and some magic mushrooms might be able to help... if Katie doesn't get too greedy.

Katie to Lis, the house spirit:
"...are you wearing an ironic t-shirt?"

Chef Katie is the star at Seconds.
Click to better see the food imagery.
Katie's new place seems to be a money pit.
Note the realistic background with cartoony figures.

Red is prominent in the art, and it's also the colour of Katie's hair. O'Malley's style has many elements of manga. Cartoony people with big eyes and exaggerated facial expressions are portrayed against highly realistic backgrounds. The food looks yummy! There are house spirits and multiple worlds. Katie is an independent young woman interacting with the spirit world in a way that reminds me of Hayao Miyazaki's animated films.

Seconds is a funny and heartwarming look at the pitfalls of perfectionism. Don't miss it.

Readalikes (and watchalike): RASL (Jeff Smith); Life after Life (Kate Atkinson); and the film Spirited Away (Miyazaki).
When a chef can't sleep...

Sunday, August 31, 2014

War of Streets and Houses by Sophie Yanow

Two things prompted me to re-read War of Streets and Houses, Sophie Yanow's slim comics memoir about the Montreal student strike in 2012:

     1) The part in The Girl Who Was Saturday Night where Nouschka goes to a Quebec sovereignty demonstration before the 1995 referendum: "We were very into the collective experience in Montreal. There was nothing that we liked more than a pretty mob." (Heather O'Neill)

     2) Recently learning that a Quebec judge has given the green light to class action lawsuits against police kettling tactics during the student protests.

Muggy summer scene,
War of Streets and Houses
Actually, there was a third thing. It's that War of Streets and Houses is such an intriguing and intelligent book and I wanted to feel my mind stretched by it once again. Yanow's sketchy line drawings encompass large ideas about urban design, military power and crowd control. She also documents the personal risks and thrills that go along with participating in mass demonstrations.

Yanow is a lesbian cartoonist who moved to Montreal from the forests of California.

"I always felt I had no choice but to go to a city. Where else can a queer kid go to find people like them to experiment with the possibilities only made real by city life."

Urban life brings its own complications, but Yanow is also seduced by its rewards.

After the events in War of Streets and Houses, thousands of people of all ages walked in the streets with pots and pans, protesting the brutal treatment of student activists by police, as well as proposed new legislation curtailing civilian protest rights.

This little book is worthy of many re-reads.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill

Heather O'Neill, author of Lullabies for Little Criminals, has created another unforgettable Montreal narrator: 19-year-old Nouschka Tremblay in The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.

Nouschka and her twin Nicolas were famous from the time they were children because their father was a beloved Quebecois entertainer. Etienne Tremblay's star had faded considerably in the period leading up to the 1995 referendum. The twins never knew their mother, who was 14 when they were born. Instead, they were raised by their paternal grandfather, Loulou.

"Loulou never bought us new toys because they figured we could just play with Etienne's. Our stuffed animals were wretched. They had wanted to retire after Etienne. They had wanted to just chlll out at the bottom of a toy box. They could barely hold their heads up and were missing eyes."

A charming silhouette of a cat graces the start of each chapter and an assortment of cats make cameo appearances throughout the text. 

"A cat slipped in the window, lay on the bed and rolled onto her back happily. She had just been impregnated. She lay there on her back with her paws on her chest, reliving the evening nervously in her mind."

"A beige cat came down the stairs like caramel seeping out of a Caramilk bar." (Nouschka is fond of similes.)

Quebec's culture provides a vivid setting.

"'My Christ of a coffee machine is broken, tabernacle of the chalice,' Loulou yelled out from the kitchen. Even after the decline of the Catholic Church, the Quebecois loved to use religious words in vain in almost miraculous ways."

"Adam was charming and spoke perfect French. Like many anglophones in Montreal, he actually spoke French better than we did. They knew exactly which verbs to use in the same way that people knew which utensils to use while eating at a fancy dinner. It was very proper because they learned it from books. They didn't know slang or how to curse. They didn't know how to do anything other than be proper and reserved. It was a state-sponsored, dry-clean-only French."

Les joies de l'hiver
(For a French language example of Quebecois slang, check out a Tetes a Claques animated clip, "Les joies de l'hiver." It cracks me up every time.)

In Nouschka's world, the mirrors get into lousy moods and sofas grow floral upholstery. Everyone she knows is struggling to cope with everyday life, but Nouschka only wants to love and feel loved. Why is that so difficult, when the "most beautiful kisses in the world" are grown on Rue Sainte-Catherine?

"If you were spiritually inclined around here, it probably wasn't Sunday school that got you that way. Rather, it was a combination of hard drugs and deep injustice to yourself. It was the last resort."

One thing is certain: Nouschka cannot depend on anyone else to save her. She must do that for herself.

The Girl Who Loved Saturday Night is a treat: gritty and sweet and magical.

Readalike: Black Bird (Michel Basiliere). Also, for that mix of funny and heartbreaking, with more than a dash of quirky, the following Canadian authors might fit the bill: Miriam Toews, Emily Schultz, Jessica Grant, Greg Kearney, and Douglas Coupland.

p.s. Loulou was a storyteller. One of his invented stories reminded me very much of Katherine Rundell's historical fantasy for children, Rooftoppers (which I enjoyed but haven't reviewed). In Rooftoppers, a toddler is found floating in a cello case after a ship goes down in the English Channel. Loulou's tale was about twins on an ocean liner on their way to the World's Fair in Paris. The ship sank but the twins were saved by climbing into a floating cello case.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

First person plural: TaraShea Nesbit has chosen an unusual voice to narrate her debut novel and I like it. The Wives of Los Alamos is just what the title says it is, about a group of women whose lives happened to get thrown together because their husbands were working on a top-secret war project. The atomic bomb.

In 1943, hundreds of perplexed women arrived at a site in New Mexico that was mostly mud, plus some newly-erected homes and temporary shelters. They had many different backgrounds, personalities and ways of coping, yet their experience was also a shared one.

"We sometimes resented how our husbands asked us to step out of the room in our own house so they could talk to their friends late into the night. And some of us spied and heard things, and some of us would never eavesdrop though we really, really wanted to, and some of us did not even think to listen to what our husbands and their friends were talking about because we were too busy thinking about our own worries; what Shirley meant when she said that thing yesterday, how to stretch the ration coupons to make a nice dinner tomorrow."

The only place to shop was the army commissary. There wasn't much to do besides make babies and raise families.

"On the mesa, when we felt restless, sleepy, antsy, distressed, and bored we went to the commissary, which did not console us at all."

photo by Laurie MacFayden
"In the autumn, when the aspens turned the mountains into multitudes of gold, we took walks alone. Although when we first arrived we thought hiking was boring, later we wanted to see all of the mountaintops. On the highest slopes, the smallest leaves of the aspens quaked. And we listened to them -- they were such exposed things holding on and making vulnerable, fluttering music -- and this quaking gave us a peaceful feeling. We stood there thinking of nothing except leaves, leaves, leaves."

"No matter how alone we felt there were things we could never do as individuals. A woman cannot conspire with herself. Alone, we were not a pack, a choir, or a brigade. But together, we were a mob of women armed with baby bottles and canned goods, demanding a larger commissary, and we got it. We were more than I, we were Us."

The Wives of Los Alamos takes a unique look at a historic time and place, while considering how a sense of community is built. Women's lives and their relationships with each other form the strong core of this satisfying novel.