Friday, August 29, 2008

A Small Gem: Mistik Lake by Martha Brooks

Martha Brooks has a gift for writing such quiet, lovely stories. It's like they just come floating out of her. She's like if Chekhov were Canadian and wrote stories for teen girls.

Mistik Lake is primarily about family, although there is a story of first love woven into it as well. More precisely, it's about the unravelling of secrets that have broken three generations of a family apart. It's also about compassion and forgiveness. Rich themes which Brooks anchors in the city of Winnipeg and the small town of Mistik Lake, particularly in its Icelandic community.

The three main characters are Sally Thornsteinsson, her daughter Odella, and her Aunt Gloria. Sally is emotionally scarred by her involvement in a serious accident that took place when she was 16; she and three friends crashed through the ice on Mistik Lake in a car, and only Sally made it out. Sally bears a poisonous, hidden guilt which leads her to make some poor choices with her life, and which eventually lead her to abandon her husband and three daughters. Odella, her oldest child, takes on the task of looking after her sisters, but eventually breaks away to a cabin on Mistik Lake where she finds insight into her mother's past as well as first love. Also involved in the story is Gloria, Sally's aunt and Odella's great-aunt, who lives far away from the family in order to hide her relationship with another woman, but who always returns when she is needed.

It's amazing how Brooks manages to convey such nuances of emotion with prose that always feels so unencumbered. The stories of Odella and Jimmy's love, and Gloria and Violet's, are sweet and even a little sexy in a way that is implied rather than shown, and serve as a counterpoint to Sally's more sombre story. This is a book that rewards rereading, and lingers on when you are done.

Monday, August 25, 2008

If Woody Allen Were Undead: Life Sucks by Jessica Abel and Friends

"I'm a geek. I'm participating in a geek activity with my geek friends, checking out the cute geeky girl I like, and what the hell are you and your goddamn cheekbones doing here?"

Good lord. A geeky vampire loser. Just what the vampire genre needs to compensate for Stephenie Meyer.

Life Sucks is a campy, ironic take on goth vampire romance. Test question: there is a vampire on the cover. Which one is it? Nooo, not any of the stylish goth people in the's the store clerk gazing out the window who's the undead mensch. Unlike Rosa, the love interest (she's the one in the black bikini top and skull-and-crossbones handbag) and her swanky boyfriend (right behind her), Dave actually has to live the life. And it turns out your career options are limited when you can't expose yourself to sunlight. Not to mention when your undead master "created" you for the sole purpose of gaining a cheap, unkillable employee at his 24-hour convenience store. ("Iss not for nossing I have vampire for night manager! Iss part of business plan! Convenience store night shift very dangerous for mortal. At Last Stop iss dangerous for creemeenal! ")

Dave's master, Lord Radu Arisztidescu, is disgusted with the fact that Dave refuses to hunt people and exists on plasma stolen from blood banks. (Pre-vampire Dave was a vegetarian). Because of his anemic diet, Dave lacks normal vampire powers such as super strength, and he also lacks the vamp mentality to practise vampire hypnotism and make vampire brides. Despite Dave's being such a "vooss", as Lord Radu brands him, he ends up challenging ghoulish vampire hotshot Wes (who already has three bleached-blonde vampire brides but wouldn't mind adding a brunette to his collection) over the heart of the lovely Rosa.

There's a lot of dry humour in this book, and while it flirts with blackness, it only really gets ugly in one scene. The dialogue is full of snappy repartee. And there is some wistfulness at the end. Considering that almost all the story takes place at night, the art is relatively bright and snappy too. Definitely a hip teen read.

Friday, July 25, 2008

In Which the Gentle Librarian Manages to Read Manga: With the Light by Keiko Tobe

I've never been very open to manga. I'm not fond of the artistic style, for one thing. I have a particular distaste for those big, sentimental manga eyes. To me they look hokey, like something you'd see painted on black velvet at Honest Ed's, or on the kind of Hallmark card I liked when I was about six. I also find the manga back-to-front orientation difficult to follow. Anyway. With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child by Keiko Tobe was involving enough to break through my resistance.

With the Light is fiction, but is based upon extensive research on autism and interviews with families of autistic children. It follows a new mother, Sachiko, from the birth of her son Hiraku until his early elementary school years. Lots of little details make this story come to life. Tobe shows us Sachiko's growing unease with her child's peculiarities and difficult behavior, her husband's blame and rejection of them both, and Sachiko's growing depression caused by her son's lack of emotional attachment to her. Sachiko is a strong and determined mother, and the story of how she heals her family and learns to understand her child and eventually consider herself blessed is very sweet and somewhat humbling. The meticulous planning and organization it takes to run Hiraku's life is truly daunting, and Tobe shows it to us again and again. When his elementary school plans a track and field day, for example, Hiraku's parents and educators begin preparing weeks beforehand. Hiraku is shown photos and videos of previous track meets, given his mouse costume to wear beforehand, and acclimatized to the sounds he will hear. The school switches from shots to hand signals to mark the beginning of each race to accomodate Hiraku's discomfort with loud noises. It is only with this slow building up of routine and high level of community involvement that Hikaru can participate in this special event without distress.

What I liked about this book was how it showed the initially separate worlds of an autistic child and his parents converge through persistence and understanding. The baby who strained away from his mother when she tries to hold him eventually becomes a child who lays flowers at her feet when he senses her sadness, even though he is still unable to make eye contact. The parents who drove themselves crazy trying to tell their child how to behave are happy to later discover that he beomes cooperative when they use picture cards and hand signals to supplement their words. Building up a loving connection is a slow process in the family of a child with autism, but when it comes, each moment is savoured.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Click by Every YA Author Going

"Ten bestselling, award-winning authors unite for a novel of brilliant writing, global adventure, and constant surprise."

I had Click on my desk for quite a while before I read it. I felt kind of torn--the concept was interesting--10 chapters, each one by a different author--but somehow I was still dubious. The authors just didn't seem that compatible--what do David Almond and Nick Hornby have in common, after all? Or Margo Lanagan and Roddy Doyle? Besides all being brilliant. But, unlike collaborations like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Levithan and Cohn, where the writers are kind of similar to begin with (and friends to boot), these writers are all brilliantly, um, individual. I just didn't see how it would all hang together.

Well, it does. It helps that each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character (one character is repeated three times, but by the time that happens, I was happily in the flow of things). The differences between the narrative styles of each chapter, and even the genres (from magic realism to war story to speculative fiction to....) end up being one of the book's pleasures. Rather than rudely jolting, these differences end up being playful, and the chapters reference each other so cleverly that the whole book begins to seem like a lively game of catch between the writers. You can see the sparks of inspiration start to fly. And really, in what other novel can you read something like:

"There we were, Mum and me at the water's edge. Like Gee said, it was like I was something washed up by the sea, like Mum was reaching out to help me up, to help me to be born. I saw how seaweedy my hair truly was, how sealy my skin was. Then I looked away, looked back again, but it was true. A fin was growing at my back. Narrow, pale, half formed, like it was just half grown, but it was a fin."

and then, a few chapters later:

"Now, two years later, Vincent still had two main claims to fame. He was the eejit who'd once spent seventeen hours on a hospital trolley, looking like he was trying to climb up his own bum..."

All royalties from Click are being donated by the authors to Amnesty International.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Lenny's Space by Kate Banks

"All of my friends, all one of them, died."

This is a book I ended up liking quite a bit. Lenny is a boy with mild autistic-like behaviors (he is never named or diagnosed with a condition in this book) who is super-smart and incredibly socially awkward. He's interesting though. The book is told from his point of view in short chapters that sometimes seem abrupt, mirroring Lenny's attention span. You really get inside his head, and see the logic in what to others seems like bizarre, spastic behavior.

Although Lenny can't really relate to the other kids in his class, he makes a friend in the playground. Van is another mechanically inclined kid who, we discover, has leukemia. Through his friendship with Van and his weekly visits to the school counsellor, Lenny comes closer to being able to express himself in ways others can understand. I found Lenny's journey convincing and memorable.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bittersweet Reality: Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

The charming, iced-cookie cover makes this look like innocuous chick-lit. A light, romantic tale. Happy ending, naturally. Anyone would be taken in. Even I, having read Zarr's previous and very gritty teen novel Story of a Girl, was naive enough to start this at work on my morning break. Big mistake. I ended up reading it all through my lunch hour, obsessively taking it out to the reference desk in the afternoon so I could discreetly peruse it between doing my paid work (I hardly ever do that--really) and then finishing it up in the staff room over dinner while great big fat tears rolled uncontrollably down my cheeks. As I sat next to our security guard and tried to hide my face with a blanket.

Well, I get it now. Sara Zarr is just not light and fluffy. I won't be fooled again, even if they cover the whole darned book in pink icing. Next book she puts out, I'll read in PRIVATE.

Sweethearts is decidedly bittersweet. It's the story of two childhood friends, Jennifer and Cameron. Their understanding of each other is unusually deep, since each of them is suffering at the hands of a parent, Jennifer from neglect and Cameron from abuse. They are both children who have faced the dark side of life, and they provide each other with comfort and recognition. As friends, they love each other with a love that sustains them through every painful and unfair thing they have to go through, each insult to their souls that they are powerless to stop, since, after all, they are just kids. They are also witness to each other's suffering. Especially on one terrible day, Jennifer's ninth birthday, when Cameron takes her to his house to give her a present he has made, and Cameron's sociopathic father turns on them both. Jennifer manages to escape, but Cameron does not, and neither one is able to talk about it for years.

One day Cameron vanishes and Jennifer is led to believe he has died. Her grief is intense and she never forgets him. As the years go on she remakes herself with a steely discipline and by high school she is thin, has a boyfriend, and is in with the popular crowd. Her mother has remarried and her home is more stable. She has expectations of university. She has even renamed herself.

Then on her seventeenth birthday, Cameron leaves a card in her mailbox. He had not, after all, died. He has come back to find her. And reconnecting proves difficult and painful, but more real than anything she has done for years.

I think about how there are certain people who come into your life, and leave a mark.

My roommate asks me if I'm in love with Cameron and I say no, not in love. I start to tell her that I do love him, but stop myself before it comes out. It takes some thinking, years of it, in fact. I know I said it to him that night, and I still wonder if he heard me, but as I get older I think--can it really be love if we don't talk that much, don't see each other? Isn't love something that happens between people who spend time together and know each other's faults and take care of each other? Still, by the time I've had my share of boyfriends, I discover that even the ones I truly love never bring on the same kind of feeling I get when I think about Cameron. In the end, I decide that the mark we've left on each other is the colour and shape of love. That's the unfinished business between us.

Because love, love is never finished.

It circles and circles, the memories out of order and not always complete. There's one I always come back to: me and Cameron Quick, lying on the ground in an aspen grove on a golden fall day, the aspen leaves clattering and quaking the way they do. Cameron turning to me, reaching out a small and dirty hand, which I take and do not let go.

This wonderful, subtle story is so rich and layered and yet not one word seems superfluous. Everything Zarr writes about springs right to life before you...Cameron's creepy, sadistic father, the two kids who can understand but can't save each other, the forced nature of Jennifer's relationships with everyone but Cameron, the grown-up Cameron's itinerant, lost quality. The kind of friendship that becomes so deep and all-absorbing it starts to feel like couplehood is absolutely captured here. I got drawn into Jennifer and Cameron's story so quickly, and had trouble coming out at the other end. I really, really wanted them to stay together.

Darn realistic endings. Sniff.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Neil Gaiman Loves It, and I Do Too: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

"My name is Marcus Yallow. I was tortured by my country..."

And really, what's not to love? Another wicked cool book that assumes teens are not allergic to ideas. Ideas about ethics and politics and the use of torture to combat terrorism. Ideas about freedom, social responsibility, political protest. Even ideas about community-friendly city planning, for crying out loud. Now I thought I'd seen it all, but this is the first teen fiction I've ever read that manages to talk about hackers, Jack Kerouac, and Toronto's very own Jane Jacobs, and make it all fit together.

Cory Doctorow, famous for, among other things, his blog Boing Boing and his adult science fiction work, is actually a Canadian. Surprised me, because this book is so very convincingly set in San Francisco, USA, in the very near future (read: tomorrow, maybe). Very convincingly. I had no problem at all believing that any of it could happen. In fact, bits of it already have.

Cory's book hangs on the question: what if a terrorist bombed a major landmark in a major city in the United States of America and killed a lot of Americans? (See what I mean? already happened....) And what if the American government, in the aftermath, became a wee bit paranoid/ national-security-obsessed (just stretch your imagination here)? And what if, say, the people enforcing national security were either too dumb, too lazy or too rigid to distinguish between a dissident and a terrorist? And believed that terrorists could be treated with a whole other set of rules? (you can see where Doctorow is going with this). Who would be left to stand up for good old American freedom?

Well. The teen hackers, obviously.

Little Brother opens with Marcus Yallow and his three best friends all skipping school to play Harajuku Fun Madness. While they are squabbling with another team about who gets to pick up a clue they have arrived at simultaneously, the bomb hits. In the mass hysteria that ensues, Marcus's friend Darryl is badly wounded and Marcus flags down a car for help. It turns out to be an unmarked military jeep, and booted and rifled soldiers hop out, grab all four kids, handcuff them, tie sacks around their heads and haul them into the jeep. From where they are hauled onto a boat. And then jail cells. And then interrogation chambers. Where they are kept for a few nightmarish days, and then released, under threat of death if they ever speak of their experience to anyone.

But rebel Marcus has no intention of letting things lie, especially since his friend Darryl is still "disappeared". He uses his immense computer knowledge, creativity, leadership and patriotism to challenge and expose the DHS in ways they never dreamed of. The resulting ride is scary, ingenious, creepy, thrilling. Lots of people get hurt, including Marcus. And boy, by the time we're done reading, do we ever distrust anyone who finds it expedient to breach civil liberties in times of national crisis.

If I have any criticism of this book, it is that each time Marcus thinks up another way to screw Big Brother, Doctorow has to explain the mechanics of it to us luddites. I ended up just kind of glancing over these sections, since they probably would have driven me crazy if I had really tried to understand them. They just served to reinforce my opinion that Marcus is a genius in nerd clothing.

Monday, June 16, 2008

What Ewan's Loving: Johnny Boo and company

My son Ewan, who just turned five, really loves comics. Unfortunately many of them are just a bit too dense for him still, so he tends to get bored with non-action sections and skip a lot of the story. But I've been dropping into a really cool comic store recently, and have found some reading material that is absolutely just right for him. We've been reading Johnny Boo, the Best Little Ghost in the World by James Kochalka again and again. It's apparently the first book of a new series, and we're looking forward to future titles.

Johnny Boo is a little kid ghost who reminds me a bit of Casper, very friendly and affectionate, who gets into some dramatic and exciting situations. In this story Johnny Boo and his pet ghost Squiggle meet up with an ice cream monster, and when they offer him some of their secret ice cream he gulps it down so fast he accidentally eats Squiggle too. Fortunately the ice cream monster isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, and when Squiggle uses his Sqiggle Power, wiggling around in the monster's tummy, the monster burps him back up and all is well. The book is really visually appealing, with simple but rich blue and green landscapes and lots of dramatic body language, especially when the monster gets the burps. We love it.

Our other favourite find from this store is Geoffrey Hayes' Benny and Penny in Just Pretend. Benny is Penny's older brother, and his idea of a good time is standing in a box pretending to be a pirate on a pirate ship. Alone. Penny's idea of a good time is playing with big brother Benny. Benny's disdain is withering ("No! Pirates are brave, and you are a cry-baby.") but Penny does not give up, driving Benny to distraction until he finally bellows "Go away! You are a dumb, bad little sister!". It's so dramatic. Neither Ewan nor I can really believe he has actually said this. Penny starts to cry and Benny relents and offers to play hide-and-seek ("you hide in this box and I'll find you", he offers). Is Benny's change of heart to be trusted? Heck, no. He goes back to playing pirate and does not look for Penny. What a weasel.

Reconciliation comes when Benny realizes that he can't hear Penny. When he goes to check on her she's not in the box! He looks everywhere and when he finally finds her they end up being pirates together after all. Benny earnestly explains "Penny, before, when I called you a dumb, bad little sister...well, that was just pretend." Sheesh. I hope so.

The pictures are very sweet and lovely, with Benny and Penny portrayed as plump little mice with colourful clothes and surroundings and very expressive faces. The panels are generously sized and there is enough white space to let everything breathe. This story meets kids at exactly their level, and although I don't know a lot about these things, the quality of the book's production is obviously outstanding. A real winner.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Boy Toy by Barry Lyga

"Barry Lyga digs deep into the troubling territory of innocence and manipulation, trust and betrayal. Brave and unflinching, Boy Toy will grab hold of your heart and squeeze."

Tanya Lee Stone

Barry Lyga's first book, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, I liked a lot. His second, Boy Toy, just takes off from there and flies. I'm so impressed. All the more so since Lyga's plot takes us through, let's face it, downright seedy, sensationalistic, tabloid-material territory. "Female teacher has affair with 12-year-old boy!" just about sums up the plot. Despite the rave reviews, I was sure reading this book would make me feel all dirty and kind of guilty, like I'd been caught precipitating the collapse of Western civilization. But surprise...this book is so emotionally compelling, reading it becomes a deep and involving experience.

Not that Lyga isn't very explicit in his depiction of the relationship. He is. But we immediately see that, rather than being the stuff of fantasy, this relationship has left the book's main character, Josh, in ruins from the inside out. Five years later, he still makes students and teachers hostile and uncomfortable. He refers to himself as a "freak", "the kid who fucked a teacher in seventh grade...the kid who beats the shit out of anyone who looks at him cross-eyed." An opening scene shows him being suspended when he viciously punches his gym teacher, who has quietly hissed at him "Pick it up, Mendel! You never slept with me, so I ain't about to take it easy on you!".

We find out that Josh was almost jailed at age 13 for attempting to sexually assault a close female friend who wanted to kiss him. Her terrified reaction, and Josh's shock and bewilderment at having caused it, are what finally end up bringing Josh's situation to light. The scenes at the police station are jarring:

"Purdy kept firing questions at me, looking for details, when suddenly, out of the blue, he said, "What kind of birth control did you two use, Josh? Was she on the pill? Did she make you wear a condom? Do you know what a condom is?

And I knew, but I wasn't going to say because suddenly it wasn't that I didn't want to speak, it was that I couldn't speak. My stomach and my heart had twisted up and risen to my throat and I thought I was about to puke them both up...because I'd never even thought about birth control and Eve had never brought it up and I was just twelve when it all happened so how was I supposed to think of these things and oh my God what if I was going to be a father--"

At age 18, Josh has only one friend, his relationship to his parents is still strained, and he is unable to form emotional or even sexual ties with other women. He has constant flashbacks and carries the guilt of believing that he seduced his teacher and not the other way around, a teacher who is now in jail for what happened between them. And when Eve, his teacher, is let out of jail early for good behavior, Josh really falls apart. Now he could bump into her at any time.

There are so many piercing moments here. Lyga excels at bringing to life all the complexity of Eve's manipulation of Josh, his growing feelings of fear, shame and excitement that she so skillfully plays off, his immaturity and vulnerability to her experience. At its heart, however, it is about Josh slowly and painfully beginning to move on, one small step at a time. A strong, thought-provoking book.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron

"I only feel like myself when I am alone."

Peter Cameron's newest book, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, had me hooked so deeply I didn't want to go to work, sleep or eat until it was finished. This is one of the most intelligent, sharp, subtle books about depression that I have ever read. The publisher is comparing it to Catcher in the Rye. Personally, I think it's way better. (Better cover, too. Doesn't that picture speak volumes? And I love the title. It's all perfect. Just perfect.) I don't think the depression that Cameron is writing about here is coming-of-age, figuring-out-who-you-are angst. It goes deeper than that. It is truly existential, the deadening, deep-down pain you feel when you just can't connect to the people in your life, even those that love you. This is a novel that smashes teen issue books right out of the ballpark.

"I knew she wanted to help me. I knew she was my mother and loved me and I didn't want to be mean, but there was something else inside me, something hard and stubborn that was mean. It just bugged me that she thought if I was gay she could do something to help, like give me a Band-Aid or something...I knew I was gay, but I had never done anything gay and I didn't know if I ever would. I couldn't imagine it, I couldn't imagine doing something intimate and sexual with another person. I could barely talk to other people, so how was I supposed to have sex with them? So I was only theoretically, potentially homosexual."

James Sveck, the book's 18-year-old hero (or antihero) is astutely intelligent, observant, intense, and so disconnected he cannot handle a high school trip to Washington without panicking and going awol. ("I was the missing misfit" he tells his psychologist when she is trying to pry the story out of him.) His only connected relationship is with his grandmother, whose defining interest in decorum is similar to James' defining interest in correct use of language, and whom he visits when he needs to feel understood and comforted. His traumas--such as what he saw outside the window of his manhattan high school on 9/11--are difficult for him to articulate even to himself. His parents are pushing him to go to university, hoping that he will blossom when surrounded by peers of equal intellect. James freezes at the very thought of four years of interaction with other people. A telling moment comes when James, expressing a deeply buried attraction for an employee of his mother's, makes up a false profile on a dating site to attract him. When John finds out that the gay Sorbonne graduate who now works in Sotheby's art department is in fact really James, he is furious in a way that leaves James even more alone.

My heart was with James all the way through, even while I could see all the ways he was pushing people out ( for example, with his habit of turning conversations about emotion into arguments about linguistics). Cameron made me really want James to come to terms with himself and with other people. The ambiguous ending leaves me hoping that perhaps he will.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Hilary McKay's Casson Family

I really, really love Hilary McKay's Casson family books. When I saw the newly released Forever Rose (last of the Casson books, according to McKay, who wants to quit while she's ahead) I grabbed it and gobbled it down in two days. And then I went back and reread all the others, starting with Saffy's Angel. They were all just as good the second time around.

Truly, I can see why McKay feels that this is a good place to leave the Cassons. So much is resolved here: Caddy resurfaces after a year's absence with a mysterious bundle temporarily called Buttercup, David is thrown out of his home by his shrewish mother and takes refuge in the embrace of the Casson clan (Rose's embrace is a mite prickly, mind you--David still can't compare with Tom), and after mom Eve catches pneumonia painting in the shed, dad Bill finally decides to come home for good. It's clear that the older Casson kids are either grown up or well on their way--probably why Rose, the youngest, is the natural focal point of this last volume.

I've been thinking about some of the reasons I find reading about the Cassons so comforting. I think it is partly a fascination with the chaos that abounds in their home. The Casson house is hugely, gloriously untidy. Somehow, this mess seems connected to their creativity. No one fusses when Rose spends weeks drawing a mural of the family all over the kitchen walls; indeed, her Mom happily shoves aside furniture to make more room for it, and when Rose is done, her mother and siblings cover it with spray sealer out of respect for her endeavor. Likewise, Caddy is free to keep enormous guinea pig hutches for generations of pet guinea pigs all over the back yard. Meals may be haphazard, cakes may go up in smoke, and diamond and platinum engagement rings may get lost in the masses of stuff lying about, but guess who's home all the Casson kids' friends want to hang out in? You got it. It's kind of a kids' dream home. Unlike my house, where, inexplicably, the mess doesn't add a bit of warmth, coziness or relaxation, but only shows how chronically disorganized and pressed for time I am and makes everyone, including me, crabby.

The other quality that McKay conveys so well in these books is the particular support a loving family can give each member. The Casson home, without making a big fuss about it, is a loving, caring home. I love all the little ways the kids look out for each other, and include each other in their lives. I love how Eve sees so much good in all of her children, and, without pushing, lets them grow and become their best selves. I love the funny moments each book is so full of, and the more sober, serious moments too. And I love how McKay intertwines them so beautifully. I'm sure I'll re-read Forever Rose very, very soon.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Stones, Bones and Stitches: Storytelling Through Inuit Art

When I was growing up, the only art I could relate to was representational. Anything abstract,allegorical or symbolic was beyond my comfort level and outside my understanding. I had a strong preference for art that was not only classic but also "beautiful", whether Michaelangelo's clean, gorgeous sculptures or the luxurious, aristocratic portraits of Gainsborough. I definitely did not "get" inuit art until at least my 30s. (When I say "get" I mean not "understand" but "see the beauty in".) Today's kids are lucky--this skillfully written and photographed book is, I think, a matchless introduction to a form of art which is perhaps not immediately accessible to those of us outside the inuit culture.

Shelley Falconer and Shawna White are curators at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. They have selected six artists and eight works of art to explore, from sculpture to prints to textile art. I think the sculptures have the strongest presence here. Look, for example, at The Migration by Joe Talirunili. This is one of a series of sculptures the artist has created out of his childhood experience of moving from one camp to the next with his family as the seasons changed. These trips were arduous and terrifying: in one, forty of his family members drowned when the boat was destroyed; in another, the trip lasted so long that "Joe recalls his mother saying that they might have to eat one another because they were so hungry!". The haunting faces in the sculpture capture the memory of the family crammed in together, survival at stake. To me, this sculpture converges the historic and cultural experience of inuit life on the land with a larger, mythic story. The text, which describes Joe's childhood journeys, his family life, and details about the construction of the boat and clothing seen in the sculpture add to our experience of Joe's art.

All the art showcased in Stones, Bones and Stitches--and it is indeed varied, considering it is such a select sample--is given plenty of context. Even the information on the art materials is fascinating. For example, we learn that many inuit sculptors quarry their own stone, an involved and dangerous process. And that whalebone must be at least 50 to 100 years old before a sculptor can work with it (fresh whalebone is too oily and smelly). We are told stories of demonic spirits and shamans who travel to the moon. We see the past and present come together. A rich book that succeeds in that difficult enterprise--communicating between cultures.

Monday, April 28, 2008

"Stupid freakin' reverence for all living things": Zen and the Art of Faking It by Jordan Sonnenblick

I've been a fan of Jordan Sonnenblick ever since reading Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie. He's funny, he draws me right in, his stories always seem fresh. He's been called "bittersweet", "deft" and ""charming" . And he makes it all look so easy. Like you could have done the same thing, if only he hadn't happened to have done it first. Very, very deceptive. Kind of zen, in fact.

I read Zen, his latest, in a couple of sittings and enjoyed it thoroughly. San Lee, our main character, is an adopted asian kid with a con artist Dad. He's spent a lot of his childhood abruptly being moved from home to home and school to school as his father tried to stay one step ahead of the law. Now San's Dad is cooling his heels in jail and San and his Mom have plunked themselves down in "Nowhereville, Pennsylvania". Where San, for the record, is the only Asian person in town. ("But I think it's great that Emily's being exposed to such...diversity", says a local Mom when she meets San, "We don't get much chance to meet, um, people like you in our little town.".) And all sorts of assumptions start to accumulate. For example, when San shows up in a Social Studies class which is studying religion, and is able to answer all the teacher's questions on Zen Buddhism because he's done a poster project on the subject in a previous school, the class assumes he is in fact a Zen Buddhist. And San lets them. In fact, he begins to spend evenings at the local library reading The Tao of Pooh and other Zen Buddhist classics in order to be more convincing. And strewing hints that he is possibly a reincarnated Zen mystic. And conspicuously meditating right smack dab before school, right smack dab in front of the school. And dropping gems of wisdom such as this:

"Why'd you do that?" he spat at me.
"The obstacle is the path."
"What does that mean?"
"It's like saying the path is the obstacle."
"What are you talking about?"
"You know, the reverse side also has a reverse side."
He still looked mad, and now his brain was all jammed up too.

You see, even though San is mad as hell at his slippery cheat of a father, he has picked up some of Dad's bad habits. San remakes himself at every new school he attends, searching for a persona that will serve him well. And Woody, a girl who plays the guitar at lunch and smells like oranges, is fascinated by the zen thing San has going on. So San keeps giving her more of what she wants, until, of course, the whole thing blows up in his face. And San has to figure out how to, in zen terms, walk the middle path, no longer letting his relationship to his father colour who he is.

Sonnenblick stands out from the crowd because he can make it so believable, he can create in San a character who is innocent in his deceitfulness, and in the middle of the laughs he can quietly break your heart like this:

"I remember this one time in Alabama, my dad and I were grocery shopping and the cashier was this really nice teenage girl that had always been kind to me. I used to steer our cart to her line every time, because she sometimes even gave me a lollipop. Anyway, my dad let me pay, and she accidentally gave me change for a twenty when I'd given her a five. I...asked my dad if I could run back and give the money back. My dad said, 'Are you kidding me, Sanny? People are dishonest, and they'll screw you nine times out of ten. So when you get a break, you take it. You don't owe anybody anything.' I asked what would happen to the cashier when she didn't have the right amount of money at the end of the day. He said, 'What do you care? She was probably dipping into the till anyway. They all are. And if the boss does ask about it, she'll bat her pretty little eyelashes and they'll forgive her. Because people are chumps.' I thought about it all the way home, and turned to look out the window so my dad wouldn't see me cry. The next time we went to that store, there was a new cashier. And no lollipop."

What a skunk, eh? Unbelievably, by the end of the book Sonnenblick even had me feeling a little sorry for this screwed-up dad. That Jordan, he's one good writer.