Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Starling by Sage Stossel

Sage Stossel's Starling is a lighthearted graphic novel in full colour. It plays with the superhero tropes of comics, turning them inside out and hanging them to drip dry on the shower curtain bar. It made me think of Michael Brennan's Electric Girl (minus her gremlin), grown into adulthood with a career in marketing. It also brought to mind the examined relationship between protector and protected in Steven Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen's It's a Bird.

Stossel's procrastinating superhero, Amy Sturgess, has supernatural strength and speed. She can fly and shoot electricity from her hands. Recruited by the Vigilante Justice Association while still in her teens, Amy takes on a secret identity: Starling. There's a hilarious sequence where the VJA sorts out her costume.
"Who's your costume designer? A thirteen-year-old boy?"
"Actually, yes."

Amy struggles to find balance in her life while being constantly interrupted by emergency calls. Xanax and therapy are her coping strategies. Crime never sleeps, but Amy gets tired of always being a hero. She also has to come up with a reason for constantly dashing off, so her excuse is irritable bowel syndrome.

Meanwhile, Amy has an ambitious colleague who wants her accounts; a deadbeat brother who's been crashing at her place; a former sweetheart, now married, who has rekindled her romantic interest; and a mother who lives with 36 cats. Luckily, Amy has a supportive circle of friends to help her out.
Not a good place to hide something valuable...
Stossel's paintings are charming and her dialogue is often very funny. I loved Starling.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Just Kids by Patti Smith

I kept wanting to do something special to mark the milestone of my one-thousandth blog post. Instead, I've written nothing for two weeks. So this is just another review.

The Harper Audio edition of Patti Smith's Just Kids [10 hr] is great. With memoirs, I like hearing the author narrate their own work, and this production is no exception. Hearing the way Smith pronounces certain words makes it feel even more personal. Examples: window, piano (windah, pianah); entered, filtered (en'ered, fillered); shelter (shelder); and drawing (drawling).

There's a part where Smith recites five lines from "Fire of Unknown Origin," which was the first of her poems that she turned into songs. I replayed it three times because I loved it so much. Then I searched for it in YouTube and listened to versions by Blue Oyster Cult (dimly familiar from my teen years) and sung by Smith herself. I like it best spoken.

Patti Smith's self portrait, Brooklyn, 1968
Since I listened to the audiobook some time ago, I had to use the print book to refresh my memory. Bonus! A lot of artwork is included there; drawings and photos.

Robert Mapplethorpe was Smith's close companion for years. They were lovers before he started sleeping with men. They created art in their shared living spaces when they were young and poor, in the 1960s and 70s. Their social circles included people like Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsberg, and filmmaker Sandy Daley. Daley lived in the room next door to Smith and Mapplethorpe at the Hotel Chelsea. Mapplethorpe started out taking photos with a camera he had borrowed from Daley.

In "Fire of Unknown Origin," the line Death comes sweeping down the hallway in a lady's dress was inspired by Daley's dresses. "Sandy didn't have a diverse wardrobe but was meticulous in her appearance. She had a few identical black dresses designed by Ossie Clark, the king of King's Road. They were like elegant floor-length T-shirts, unconstructed yet lightly clinging, with long sleeves and a scooped neck." This passage had me googling fashion designer Clark as well as Daley. Books that send me off on tangents are the best!

I was friends with kd lang when we were in our 20s. She used to cut her own hair, and that inspired me to do the same. I thought of kd when Smith described this:

"I realized that I hadn't cut my hair any different since I was a teenager. I sat on the floor and spread out the few rock magazines I had. I usually bought them to get any new pictures of Bob Dylan, but it wasn't Bob I was looking for. I cut out all the pictures I could find of Keith Richards. I studied them for a while and took up the scissors, machete-ing my way out of the folk era. I washed my hair in the hallway bathroom and shook it dry. It was a liberating experience."

From a young age, Smith was a bookworm with literary tastes. It's a pleasure to read (or listen) to her prose. She has lots of interesting anecdotes, many of them featuring interactions with cultural icons. What I liked most about Just Kids is gaining a greater appreciation and understanding of the artistic works of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Bear by Claire Cameron

In 1991, a bear killed a couple who were camping on an island in Algonquin Park. Claire Cameron based her novel The Bear on this incident, but she added two young children. They survived. That's not a spoiler; this story is about how that might happen. It's also a portrait of the bond between siblings.

If you love unique voices in fiction and especially if you enjoy child narrators, The Bear is for you. The viewpoint is that of five-year-old Anna, who follows her mother's final instructions to take care of her two-year-old brother. Anna calls him Stick because he is always sticky. She has a believable love/hate relationship with him. Anna's voice is convincing and endearing.

Cameron drew me all the way back into the volatile emotions of childhood. I recognized the sibling rivalry, self-absorption, imperiousness, magnanimity, and pride in new accomplishments. Anna gets annoyed when she has trouble helping Stick to get his pyjama top off. "Stop growing your head." She gets angry that her mother isn't there to feed them when they are hungry. "Momma is the lunch."

Anna's terror at night, not recognizing the sound of her brother's snores, is palpable. "I can't see the animal but then maybe I can. A black shape is close to the tree and it has a low growl that goes grrrr gaaaa grrrr gaaaa to let me know that it is there. And it is going to eat me because I don't have an army or sword except the one in my mind and I can't find it."

I fondly remember camping with my family and cousins at Pinehurst Lake in northeastern Alberta in about 1970. It took several trips in a motorboat to get all of us and our gear -- including a metal Coleman cooler similar to the one described by Cameron -- to a secluded spot across the lake. How different that trip would have been if an atypical bear had been in the vicinity.

Readalikes: Room (Emma Donoghue); The First True Lie (Marina Mander); The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Stephen King).

And for francophones, here's a link to one of my favourite Tetes-a-claques videos, the one where Lucien and Monique are camping and argue about whether or not a bear will eat toothpaste: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RNLjUj447g

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue's Frog Music is a raunchy romp closely-based on historical fact. A chance encounter in 1876 San Francisco upsets a menage-a-trois and ends in tragedy.

Blanche, Arthur and Ernest are three former circus performers from France. In San Francisco, Blanche supports the men with income from burlesque dancing and prostitution. When Jenny, dressed in men's clothing and riding a stolen high-wheeler bicycle, bumps into Blanche, it's like she has knocked over the first domino in a set. Jenny's friendly curiosity goads Blanche into some serious soul-searching. Question: Where is Blanche and Arthur's infant son? Question: Is Blanche's love for Arthur reciprocated, or is he more interested in Ernest? During a smallpox epidemic in a summer heatwave, resentments simmer to the surface.

Donogue is great at evoking the details of time and place, immersing readers in the setting. Her characters are fascinating because of, rather than despite, their flaws. Amidst the almost vaudevillian narrative drive, Frog Music also addresses social and environmental issues like racism, misogyny, child welfare, and species extinction. Plus, Donogue takes a plausible crack at explaining a murder that has never been solved.

"There is one myth I would like to put to rest. Jenny Bonnet shows up all over the Internet these days as a proto-trans outlaw: presenting as male, persuading women to give up the sex trade and forming them into a thieves' gang. Attractive though this image is [...] I have found no evidence to substantiate it." - from Donoghue's afterword. Nevertheless, Jenny is my favourite character in this very entertaining novel.

Readalikes. Although I can't think of anything that's a close match, there are some similar elements in: Tipping the Velvet (Sarah Waters); Miss Don't Touch Me (Hubert & Kerascoet); Instructions for a Heatwave (Maggie O'Farrell); The Good Thief (Hannah Tinti); The Coral Thief (Rebecca Stott); and maybe The Little Shadows (Marina Endicott).

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Abandoning Books

I abandon books freely, but not frequently. Any book that I start has already passed my personal, idiosyncratic appeal test. There are mistakes, of course. Sometimes I can check off a whole bunch of factors in a book's favour and I still put it down after a few pages.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage is an example:

  • loved previous book by same author (De Niro's Game)
  • topic of mental health
  • immigrant experience
  • stylish, literary prose
  • Canadian

... and yet I didn't get past the first chapter.

In a different mood, I might react differently and be immediately drawn in, but once I abandon a book it is rare for me to pick it up again.

Today I abandoned a book before I even got past the front matter.

I had waited for it to come on hold at the library, then thought something along the lines of "Oh, here is this book I've heard good things about," then brought it home, so it was with a feeling of pleasure that I picked it up to begin reading. I started with the epigraph:
"here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)"                 - e. e. cummings
Cue shivers of delight. Love this poem.

Next is the half title page.

Next is a brief preface:

"By the window, she sits in her favorite chair, jumping a doll up and down in her lap. A shadow flickers in the doorway behind her. Someone else is watching her, too."

At that point, I shut the book. Nope. Not for me. Not my taste. I'm not reading this.

And then I got curious about my own negative reactions. Why had I assumed it would be for me in the first place? On the back cover is praise from authors (Lisa Gardner, Luanne Rice, etc.) with familiar names, but I haven't read their books. Because not my taste.

I flip to the copy on the inside cover and there's enough there to justify my interest: "intimate family drama;" "profound power of the truths we're scared to face;" "deeply moving;" "hope and forgiveness." I've loved plenty of family dramas involving secrets: The History of Love; The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches; The Almond Picker; The Good Parents; and Swamplandia are just a few.

The book in my hands is described as "stunningly suspenseful" and a thriller. Again, I can think of many that I've loved that are like this. Gone Girl. The Passage. Before I Go to Sleep. The Expats. Apple Tree Yard. So Much Pretty. I've got nothing against page-turners, per se.

But now I remember reading a review that recommended this to readers who like Jodi Picoult. Red flag. Wooop, wooop, wooop. I read two of Picoult's books and disliked them both. Enough already. There are too many great books waiting. My good feelings of anticipation about this book have completely evaporated. Carla Buckley's The Deepest Secret is going back to the library today, where I know that other -- more appreciative -- readers are waiting for it.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

Lighter Than My Shadow is artist Katie Green's brave and unsentimental account of the years she has spent overcoming an eating disorder.

This hefty 508-page memoir unfolds in clean line drawings, mostly in shades of gray. Green's illness is represented with clouds of messy black marks, varying in size depending on her state of health. It's a powerful visual choice, effective in the way of David B's representation of his brother's illness in Epileptic.

Images, rather than words, are the main vehicle for Green's story. Text balloons are patches lighter in colour than the medium gray background, not outlined. The black hand-lettering is easy to read.

Green has reserved the palest shades for people. There is just enough detail to make it easy to identify the different characters. An overall textured effect, as of graphite on rough paper, unifies the panels beautifully.

See images of Katie Green's artwork on her website here.

I was riveted by Green's story and grateful for her insights into the internal process of regaining mental health. It's an adult book that older teens will also appreciate.

Readalikes: Unbearable Lightness (Portia de Rossi); Wintergirls (Laurie Halse Anderson); Page by Paige (Laura Lee Gulledge); How I Made It to Eighteen (Tracy White).

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Black magic, graveyard robbing, and dungeons full of rats are not the reading subjects that come first to mind at this time of year, but who knows? A deal with the devil might be what we need to get spring underway here.

Jeanette Winterson's atmospheric take on the 17th-century witchcraft trials in Lancashire includes a lesbian romance gone wrong. The Daylight Gate is entertaining, stylish and deliciously spooky.

I'm off to make a winter poppet now, and then I'll stick some pins in it.