Monday, March 30, 2009

"History is Relatives": The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, an Illustrated Memoir by Ann Marie Fleming

"Distances and differences kept us apart, and we forgot to remind each other of our own stories."

Ann Marie Fleming was inspired to research and document her great-grandfather's life after her grandmother passed away. She was absolutely unprepared for what she found. This wonderful quirky book, adapted from Fleming's documentary film of the same title, follows her journey into her family's half-remembered past. A graphic memoir that recreates the intimacy of a family scrapbook, The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam pulls together photos, posters, archival documents, comics, and illustration to tell its story with great liveliness and creativity. And, let's face it, Fleming lucked out in her subject matter--not all of us have a great-grandfather who was a world-famous Chinese acrobat and magician, and who led such a astonishingly colourful and eventful life.

I like the approach Fleming takes, not to simply tell us about Long Tack Sam but to show us her slow process of discovery. Her research takes her around the world, to China, Hawaii, Australia, and Europe. Some of the stories she hears contradict each other, and cannot be reconciled. From her conversations with magicians, acrobats, friends, family and neighbours, Fleming puts together the story of a charismatic and adventurous entertainer who created a place for himself on the world stage. This is a quick read, but a book I could return to many times with great pleasure.

Friday, March 27, 2009

"Love Fell in Particles, Like Snow": Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd

Meg Rosoff gave Bog Child a stunning review in The Guardian. All I have to say is, what she said.

Well, maybe I have a bit more to say. Bog Child is one of the best books I have read this year. The sense of place in this book is so strong. Bog Child takes you straight to the heart of the authenic Ireland, not the touristy leprechan/St. Patrick's day/green beer Ireland but an Ireland with depth and history and language and landscape. It's an immersive experience, and Dowd's Ireland is a compelling place to be.

What astonishes me about this book is how Dowd manages to infuse light and humanity into the most heartbreaking of political situations, without minimizing their tragedy. Not to give away the plot, but one of the major themes of this book is human sacrifice and self-sacrifice, both prehistoric and contemporary (well, almost contemporary, to some of us older readers). One of the most beautiful lines in Bog Child, "love fell in particles, like snow", is uttered by a young woman meeting her death.

This book has much in common with Dowd's first novel, A Swift Pure Cry, particularly with its focus on rural Ireland and its richness of language and character. Dowd was a truly literary writer. Sadly, she died of cancer last year and Bog Child was published posthumously. She has left one more unpublished work, which will be the last we hear of her moving and humanistic voice.

Monday, March 23, 2009

In Fair Verona, Where We Set Our Scene: The Juliet Club by Suzanne Harper

Did you know that each year thousands of twenty-first century mortals needing advice on that most vexed subject, love, write to Juliet Capulet? And send their letters off to Verona, Italy? And actually get an answer?

How is this possible, you ask? Well, it's the same kind of magic that allows the thousands of children who write to Santa in the North Pole right before Christmas to receive a reply from jolly old Saint Nick. Like Santa, Juliet has a bevy of ghostwriters who manage her correspondence. They call themselves the Juliet Club, and they are based in Verona, Italy.

Inspired by the real-life Juliet Club, Suzanne Harper has concocted a most entertaining romance revolving around a summer high-school seminar on the subject of Romeo and Juliet, whose lucky attendees get to study the Bard in Juliet's birthplace of Verona. The setting is scrumptious--lemon trees, cobbled streets, sunny mazes where one may, by happenstance, meet one's destined mate. The love story is suitably transforming ; our protagonist, Kate, loosens up a lot emotionally in one short month without losing an ounce of her savvy, and her love interest, Giacomo, evolves from a dedicated flirt to a charmingly devoted young man. The Juliet Club is set apart from other contemporary romances by the way Harper so deftly turns the study of Romeo and Juliet into the intellectual backdrop for her more modern tale. The underplayed humour throughout adds to the book's pleasures. This is a happy book that I would have gobbled down as a teen, like a luscious dessert that was actually good for you.


Friday, March 20, 2009

The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West by Sid Fleischman

A very lively and literate account of Mark Twain's roller-coaster life. The title comes from posters advertising Twain's first lecture tour. "Doors open at 7 o'clock. The trouble will begin at 8 o'clock." Later in his tour Twain modestly amended the posters to read "The wisdom will begin to flow at 8 o'clock."

Favourite previously unknown (to me) fact: the pen name Mark Twain comes from Samuel Clemens' early years as a riverboat pilot. "Mark Twain" is a riverboat term that refers to a depth of water 12 feet (or two fathoms), safe for the Mississippi pilots to navigate over.

Favourite anecdote:

"In New Orleans, Clemens passed a school promising to teach foreign languages, one for $25.00, three for $50.00. Who could ignore a nifty bargain like that?...He walked in and signed up at once for French, German and Italian. He was given phrase cards to study in each language. After a few weeks, he decided he could do without German gutterals and the operatic vowels of Italian. But he remained loyal to the French, and years later, on a visit to France, he was disappointed when he spoke French that he never succeeded "in making those idiots understand their own language".


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How to Drive a Librarian Crazy

I don't know about anyone else out there, but there is almost nothing that irks me more than really falling in love with a book and not being able to hook my kids on it. Drives me up the freaking wall. I usually end up having to mutter under my breath that "right book for the right child at the right time" mantra that we librarians use to remind us that kids have their own taste and are in their own unique developmental space, both of which we've got to respect. However much it may floor me (I'm speaking as a parent here) that my otherwise perceptive children don't always appreciate the MASTERPIECES of literature that I expectantly offer them.

How to Heal a Broken Wing is, sadly, a case in point. I loved this book. Loved, loved, loved it. It's one of those perfectly executed picture books that don't just tell a story but illuminate it. The simple prose ("No one saw the bird fall. No one looked down...except Will.") is understated but direct: a bird will die unless someone helps it. And the person who open-heartedly chooses to see and to help is Will, a young boy, and his parents. With patience and gentleness, Will and his parents feed, water and house the broken bird until it is once again whole. And then they let it go.

The pictures are what really fill in the story and evoke our sympathy and joy. Will's face is so earnest throughout, and he is surrounded by rich warm colours, corresponding to his goodness of heart. (The unnoticing, uncaring grown-ups trudging past the wounded bird are all a dull grey). The smaller sequential pictures that show Will and his family caring for their new friend are full of detail and reward lingering. In certain scenes where Will is handling the bird he seem to be surrounded by a halo, like a modern, budding Saint Francis. I love how Will's whole family is so hands-on involved in the bird's healing and care, but how Will is clearly in the centre of the action. After all, it is really his empathy which has given him the eyes to see the distress of his fellow creature and the simple, childlike conviction that he must help.

However, I regret to report that this is definitely not the book to share with 5 year old boys who are currently enamoured of Rotten Ralph.

Monday, March 9, 2009

And the Newbery Goes To.....

The inside of Neil Gaiman's head must be a very spooky place. Interesting, mind you. Inventive. Weirdly captivating. But haunted. What can you say about a man who turns a homage to Kipling's Jungle Book into a story about a human child raised in a graveyard by ghosts, with a werewolf and vampire acting as guardians against human predators? Gaiman's got a lush and exuberant imagination, and it seems to thrive in the twilight zone.

This is a really wonderful book. Little Bod (short for Nobody) Owens escapes the mysterious man who kills the rest of his family and he finds refuge and a new family in an abandoned local graveyard. The whole ghostly graveyard community, in fact, from Caius Pompeius, the senior inhabitant, to Liza Hempstock, the local witch, takes an interest in young Bod, his upbringing, education, and safety. Gaiman cleverly makes the graveyard seem cozy and secure, the outside world perilous (although there are some nail-biting moments around the ghoul's gate) . As Bod grows up, he is increasingly drawn to the outside world, and the dangers around him multiply.

The Graveyard Book is at heart much more of an adventure story than a horror story, and a large part of the pleasure of reading it comes from seeing Bod grow in his capacity to stand up for and protect himself. At the end, I felt a sense of loss when it becomes clear that, just as Mowgli must leave the jungle, the young man Bod has become must leave his graveyard home and take his place with others like himself. But how can a childhood like this fail to leave a mark? Bod will never be ordinary, and I hope Gaiman will treat us to more of his adventures.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

What I Wouldn't Give for a Never-Put-On-Weight Fairy

Justine Larbalestier claims she has a procrastination fairy, but I know better; what she really has is a doos book-writing fairy. (Doos = cool, ace, brilliant--you know you're reached a certain age when you find yourself consulting the glossary in a book of teen fiction). How to Ditch Your Fairy is a fun, fast, playful read with lots of verve and a very determined main character, Charlie, who is at serious odds with her fairy.

Yes, that's right, her fairy. In Larbalestier's world, everyone is born with their own personal fairy. No one can see them (although you can sometimes see their auras in a mirror) but you know that they are with you based on your own special brand of luck. Charlie's best friend has a shopping fairy, so whenever she goes shopping she finds fabulous clothing at ridiculously low prices (that fit her perfectly, natch). Charlie's mother has a knowing-what-your-children-are-up-to-fairy, so when Charlie gets into trouble she has absolutely zero hope of hiding it from her Mom. Charlie herself has a parking fairy. Which means that whenever she is in a car, no matter where she is going, she always finds a free parking spot right in front of her destination.

Now Charlie is only fourteen and can't even drive yet, but she is tired of being made to accompany parents, relatives, neighbours, and the school bully every time they want to drive somewhere. The only way Charlie can win back her life is to change her fairy. When starving her parking fairy by walking everywhere fails to work, she and her classmate Fiorenze decide to switch fairies. Fiorenze has an all-the-boys-will-like-you fairy she can't wait to get rid of. (Literally. All the boys. Even the gay ones. They only like her when she's around, mind you, but that's enough to make her wildly unpopular with the girls).

Well, the fairy swap brings new problems, and the story goes on from there. Happy ending, of course. But the story's turns are never absolutely predictable. (Well, except for the fact that Charlie will want to escape the the all-the-boys-will-like-you fairy. Saw that one coming a mile away). Part of the fun of the book is seeing the types of fairies that crop up. Fiorenze's family is so posh and wealthy thanks to her grandmother's stealing fairy. And Charlie's crush Steffi has a never-get-in-trouble fairy--how useful is that!

Hmmmm...wouldn't mind a chocolate fairy either...