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.

upcoming...

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.