Monday, August 31, 2015

The 9th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - August Roundup (Sticky Post— Scroll down for most recent post)

1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as John Mutford (Anne of Avonlea)
4. In the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. "This brings me up to 1/13")

Also the first 9 people who reach 9 books read and reviewed can email me for the challenge can email and let me know. I will then put you in touch with Kyle Fleishman, author of Drink Dirt Eat Stone, who has generously donated 9 copies of his book. (It's the 9th annual challenge, after all.)

From the back cover:

Former Native Syndicate hitman and Gulf War hero Tristan Stonehorse walks out of Stony Mountain Penitentiary a free man for the first time in fourteen years. But Tristan owes. Kill one last man and he can put his violent past behind him and possibly mend the relationship with his grown daughter. If only things were that simple. When the job goes sideways, his would-be killers are dead and Tristan finds himself on the run with a group of highly skilled, anonymous killers trying to put him down for good. As he traverses the country he must do the one thing he hates most. Explore his own past. 

Evoking the gloomy violence of the early novels of Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy, Drink Dirt Eat Stone is a savagely beautiful novel about truth and transcendence, and one man’s journey to live down his past. It is a dark but lucid vision, a moving novel about the bleak reality of a world where the lowest common denominator of power is violence, and the winner is always the person who can wield it the most brutally.

Reader's Diary #1188- Katharine Brush: Birthday Party

We drive familiar stretches sometimes without noting anything, even shocked to realize we drove such a distance with little awareness, feeling liked we'd zoned out in a dangerous and irresponsible way. We could could have run over a child for god sake. But of course, had something darted out across our path, chances are we'd have had the senses and reflexes to have swerved to safety. Furthermore, recounting the story later, we'd probably be able to retrieve most of the details of the drive, even details of the drive before the event happened. Our supposedly inattentive commutes are a myth. We note stuff, we just don't store it away unless it counts.

If you keep that in mind, you may note some subtle foreshadowing in Katharine Brush's "Birthday Party." The narrator begins by describing a couple that had sat across from her at a restaurant. Noting that there was "nothing conspicuous about them, nothing particularly noticeable" she has nonetheless noticed the man's "self-satisfied face, with glasses on it" and the woman being "fadingly pretty, in a big hat."

It's the subtlety in this little contradiction and in the tone-setting details (compare "self-satisfied" with "fadingly pretty") that made me admire this very short story so much. It's so deftly and carefully plotted out that by the end the narrator's thoughts and emotions were my own and I barely noticed it happening.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Reader's Diary #1187- Shane Koyczan: To This Day

This summer Shane Koyczan and his band the Short Story Long played at Yellowknife's annual Folk on the Rocks Festival. There were some relatively well known artists playing (Tanya Tagaq, Corb Lund, Leela Gilday, for example) but even then, by most accounts, Koyczan stood out. Enthralling.

I can't imagine how such a success and such praise is interpreted by Koyczan. He's not, I wouldn't think, unaccustomed to such positive recognition. He's performed at the Olympics opening ceremony in Vancouver; at festivals, tv shows, and radios around the world; and had videos of his work go viral—always to critical acclaim. Not bad for a spoken word poet.

But Yellowknife... Yellowknife is where Koyczan was born and raised and if you've followed his work at all, you know he went through a lot of bullying in his youth. I can't imagine what returning, and returning as such a success,  must do to a person's psyche. Is there pride? Bitterness? Showing the bullies they were wrong? I have no idea and I don't know that I'm in the right to psycho-analyze him.

From his poetry, however, it would seem that Koyczan is strong enough for whatever came his way and that his work, his art, has made him so. To This Day provides a clue as to where this stems. What first got major recognition as a video animated by over 80 animators is likewise turned into a picture book with over 30 illustrators from around the world. You might think that such a large smattering of interpretations would make for a disjointed project. You'd be wrong. Koyczan's words— and not just the words but the rhythm and emotion— find such a resonance that all those artists seemed to relate and to understand their beauty, adding their own beauty into a cohesive mix. Usually when something has universal appeal it conjures up ideas of Top 40 style pandering, but oh man, not Koyczan. He holds us all in warm, non-threatening embrace and we connect on the cerebral. Even when the volume of his words fades away like so many songs.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Reader's Diary #1186- Pranaya Rana: In the Hollow of Your Hands Hides a Heartbeat

Some years back I was somewhat critical of a collection of sonnets that had too heavy a focus on sonnets as a theme. In recent months I've questioned if I wasn't being hypocritical. I quite enjoyed Scott McCloud's The Sculptor and today I was really taken with Pranaya Rana's "In the Hollow of Hands Hides a Heartbeat." I am not, as it turns out, completely opposed to art about art. Perhaps the difference between the former two and the book of sonnets is the a divide between the mediums (McCloud's is about scupture, not graphic novels and Rana's is about photography, not short stories) and it keeps the danger of being too meta in check. Or it could also be that the latter two works focus on the artist to make the point. We're left with a commentary on art but expressed through a personal lens that lends an air of empathy.

In "In the Hollow of Your Hands Hides a Heartbeat" Raman exposes the selfish side of art. Art, yes, often aims to reveal truths, but the artist sometimes treats truth like a animal whose head is to be mounted upon a wall once it's captured. There's a sad denial in truth's fluidity. Rana takes this on in a depressing but beautifully written story about a man, his wife, and the distance art (or the misunderstanding of art) creates between them.

Yashica Electro 35 GS with tele lens by bart_, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License
   by  bart_ 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Reader's Diary #1185: Joe Hill (Writer) and Gabriel Rodriguez (Artist): Locke and Key, Welcome to Lovecraft

When I was a young boy we used to play a game called "Witch in the Well." If I may sidetrack with some irrelevant but hopefully amusing details, this is how the game was played: One person would have to take the role of mother, another would have to be the witch, and the rest would simply be "the kids." The kids were to first ask their mother for a piece of "Lassy bread." Lassy bread meant molasses bread, and molasses being a Newfoundland staple at the time, meant that molasses bread was popular and yes, something that kids would conceivably beg their mothers for. The mother, being of the strict and hygienic sort, would first demand to see the kids' hands to ensure they were clean enough to receive said bread. Invariably, they were not. So she would order them to go and wash their hands at the well, warning them, however, to mind the witch in the well. (Apparently this game originated before running water.) The kids would march off, pretend to draw water from an imaginary well, and start to wash their hands. That's when the person playing the witch made a weird noise to emanate from wherever the well was supposed to be. "It's the witch in the well!" someone would shout, but the witch would deny it, usually with some funny remark. The most popular and giggle-inducing was "No, I'm just a pair of your mother's stipeens." (For the uninitiated, this was our thickly accented way of saying, "step-ins" which in turn was a very old word for ladies' underwear.) The exchange would go back and forth with the witch claiming to be a number of ridiculous things or people (I guess similar to the old Saturday Night Live land-shark gag) until finally admitting to being the witch. That was the cue to run home because the witch was about to take chase. If she caught someone, he'd become the new witch and the fun would continue. (If she didn't, the mother bawled the kids out for still having dirty hands and send them back.)

I bring it up as a reminder that the trope of scary things in wells is an old one. But it's still a trope and so I had mixed feelings about it being used heavily in Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's Locke and Key. Last year I read two graphic novels with ghosts in wells— Friends with Boys and Anya's Ghost. To be fair to Hill and Rodriguez, those two books were published after Locke and Key, but I read them first and had my fill of spooks in wells.

Also to be fair to Hill and Rodriguez, much of Locke and Key is intentionally unoriginal. There's a lot of homage to classic and modern horror stories, authors, and movies, including the town of Lovecraft itself, as mentioned in the subtitle of this collection. In that regard the book is fun.

It didn't, however, make for a greatly scary read (despite such a recommendation from a personal friend). Rodriguez's art didn't help matters. Overly large eyes, I suppose, could have given the young characters an innocence and therefore escalated the peril. But for me it left them too cartoonish and distracting from any believable threat. I liked his art; it was stylish, the colouring was great, and he did cool things with certain themes (reflections, for instance, play a big role), but I didn't find it particularly appropriate for a horror book.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Reader's Diary #1184- S. L. Green: Cartwheels

S. L. Green's "Cartwheels" is an unusually frank look at postpartum depression. It does a surprisingly good job of exploring such a heavy topic in such a short piece, providing the mother with enough complexity to evoke empathy. It doesn't succumb to preachiness or overly literary language, but gives just enough insight into the character's thinking. Sparse and judicious imagery gives the domestic scene just enough authenticity.

A favourite sentence of mine, not really related to the plot at all: A car pulls into the driveway: Erik. I don't know why I was so attracted to this line but it got me thinking about the weird way writers can pull off the third person/ limited narrator. The story is told about the main character, Sheila, and yet the construction of that particular sentence mimics her thought process. The story flows almost seamlessly in and out of her head, we're watching her and we are her, creating the opportunity for empathy but still leaving the decision up to us. Brilliant.

Stairs to Basement by kartooner, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License
   by  kartooner 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Reader's Diary #1183- Marguerite Abouet (Writer) and Clément Oubrerie (Artist): Aya of Yop City

I wish I had paid closer to the back cover notes. I would have been given fair warning that Aya of Yop City is a "continuation of the dynamic story" Aya and probably would not have began with the 2nd of a three part series. As it is, I do not believe that Aya of Yop City works as a standalone piece.

To be fair, there are great qualities in this volume. From a sociological point of view, I found it fascinating. Though set in the 70s, it presents a more urban and contemporary view of Africa than I've typically seen and I've never read anything from Côte d'Ivoire before, so I found that all fascinating: all the women sharing the role of raising a child, the pressures and roles of men, and yet there were still universal emotions.

Oubrerie's artwork was colourful and with just the right balance between seriousness and quirkiness to give a sense of Yop City while matching the tone of the story. His thin lines reminded me of somewhat of Gary Larson's (Far Side). One minor quibble I had was with the tiny black pupils and no irises in the eyes. I know it's a personal thing but they reminded me of those old racist "black boy" lawn ornaments.

But despite the art and interesting physical and cultural setting, I never found myself interested in the characters. There's a fair sized cast of characters but there's not sufficient time spent with any to really connect, not even with the titular character. I suspect that had I read the first book I'd have a better sense of who they were, but as it was they felt underdeveloped.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Reader's Diary #1182- Salina Brydson: Downriver

"Downriver" was Salina Brydson's entry and runner up in this year's Canada Writes on CBC. With matter-of-fact but rich and evocative imagery, the writing reminded me of Margaret Laurence's. That's no small compliment. It's all about making the right choices, paying attention to just the right details, without extensive elaboration or ever once succumbing to purple prose.

In "Downriver" a woman named Babette has an affair with a local trapper. She's clearly attracted to the lifestyle and quite possibly is confusing this attraction with an attraction to the man. Trying not to give too much away, the ending subtly suggests that perhaps she has found some self-awareness. And there's a three-legged dog.

Jumping three-legged dog at The Great Go by WarmSleepy, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License
   by  WarmSleepy 

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Reader's Diary #1181- Cece Bell: El Deafo

A recent Eisner Award winner for Best Publication for Kids ages 8-12, I can see why despite the fact that at first glance, her illustrations seem quite simplistic. These, as it turns out, are deceiving. Subtle but brilliant artistic touches elevate the medium. Of particular greatness were the ways Bell played with speech balloons and text. Check out this scene showing how Bell as young rabbit, with new hearing loss:

The simple technique of having the text faded ingeniously captures what is going on in a way that even younger readers would grasp. In other scenes text runs outside of speech balloons or speech balloons are left completely blank. Also impressive were the use of Ben-Day dots whenever Bell would imagine herself as a superhero, giving those scenes a retro comic-book vibe.

But, of course, a comic should be a complete package, with storytelling on par with and complementing the illustrations. Thankfully, Bell's writing is equally clever... and funny. Despite the characters as rabbits, El Deafo is Bell’s autobiographical tale of going deaf at age four and learning to deal with being different in her formative years. Bell is not the only one learning to live with hearing aids; her family and friends also adjust their interactions with her. Some are insensitive, some overcompensate, and some just treat her like everyone else. The results are sad, frustrating, and sometimes touching but the simple characterizations and abundance of humor help take the serious edge off.  Children and adults alike, regardless of their hearing abilities, will hardly realize they are getting beautiful lessons in self-acceptance and empathy.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Reader's Diary #1180- Jim Harrington: Just Another Day

A story that begins "Mom's black pants are in the trash again" knows how to hook a reader. How simple, yet mysterious is that again. It's a sad tale, possibly of the beginning stages of Alzheimer's.

It's microfiction, so there's not a lot of development, but there is a sense of the characters and hints of a plot, but mostly it's a large dose of evocative writing in a short dose of words.
The windy side of the beach by Elenapaint, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License
   by  Elenapaint