Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: Island of the Blessed, again

Readers will enjoy (and possibly sympathize) with today's most excellent and enjoyable Wondermark comic.

And also, today is:

Still working on Island of the Blessed. It's very good, and I'm quite enjoying it. But it's not a fast read by any stretch. It takes a fair bit of concentration, but pays off well. I'm hoping to finish it this week, because the TBR stack is calling me.

Teaser Tuesdays are hosted by Should Be Reading. It works as follows:
  • Grab your current read.
  • Open to a random page.
  • Share two teaser sentences from somewhere on that page.
  • Be careful not to include spoilers!
  • Include the title and author.
From Island of the Blessed: The Secrets of Egypt's Everlasting Oasis by Harry Thurston, p281:

"He is portrayed as a walking sphinx, indicating his active nature and his readiness to come to his worshippers' rescue against illness and the forces of evil in the world. He is well armed for the job and in many ways resembles the kind of chimera common to fantasy comic books, like some superhero of antiquity."

Update: If you want to know who this mysterious, Gadget-like god is, I'll put the answer in the comments!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

My mother reads mysteries. She is my authority when it comes to a good mystery. So when I was wandering through the stacks at the local public library the other night, not quite ready to start in on the giant tome about Egyptian ruins that sits next on my pile, the name Ellis Peters caught my eye. I remembered the Brother Cadfael mysteries from my mother's reading pile at the bedside, and I figured it was time to try one for myself. A crime-solving medieval monk? I'm in!

A Morbid Taste for Bones is the first of the Brother Cadfael series. We are introduced to the good brother in his monastery garden, in a somewhat clumsy but informative exposition scene in which we learn that Cadfael is a relatively recent convert to the abbey at Shrewsbury, having been a soldier during the crusades and the captain of a military ship, among other (perhaps less savoury?) exploits that are only vaguely hinted at here. He is a patient, kind, very shrewd older Welshman with a love of gardening and perhaps a little bit of a love for mischief.

The bones in question belong to one Saint Winifred, a minor Welsh saint, who is deemed the patron saint of the Shrewsbury Abbey by its zealous and ambitious Prior, Robert. Suspecting trouble, Cadfael gets himself included in the company sent to retrieve Winifred's remains, ostensibly as the only fluent Welsh speaker available. Needless to say, the retrieval of the relics does not go as smoothly as the prior might have hoped, murder is done, and Cadfael sets himself the task of making things right.

I am thoroughly enchanted by Brother Cadfael. He is a delightful character, well-drawn and pleasant to spend time with. He exhibits enough scepticism that I can relate (I wasn't expecting to relate to a Benedictine monk), is observant but not superhumanly so, enjoys his comforts and his garden, is sympathetic to those who deserve it, and tolerant of those who do not. In other words, he's a comfortable, comforting hero who makes the story worth reading. Furthermore, Peters does a great job with the secondary characters, giving them distinct personalities and motives, making us care about those she wants us to care about.

The mystery isn't one of those rush-to-the-end things, but it's interesting, and there are a number of twists and somewhat unexpected turns along the way. I was definitely surprised at the way things ended for the murderer, and at first was a little frustrated (I can't say more without spoilers) but I think it does work out. The resolution is clever and though the loose ends all get tied up, it's not in a completely unbelievable way.

I also really enjoy how Peters uses the credulity of some of her more devout characters to make what otherwise might seem crazy believable to us, the 20th (or, now, 21st) century reader; yet she also leaves a little bit of room for mystery that seems plausible to both Cadfael and the reader. There are no thunderbolts or deus ex machinas at work here -- there's just a hint of something that might be Mystery but also might be ordinary humans doing extraordinary things. She doesn't hit us over the head with it but it makes sense given the context -- the 12th century and a comfortably sceptical monk. I should mention, by the way, that Cadfael doesn't come across as a character written by a writer in the 1970s, which is a trap that historical authors sometimes slip into. Peters has given him the benefit of being well-traveled and well-aged to create a character that views things with the objectivity and bemusement of wisdom; he doesn't do anything outside of what we might expect.

One more thing to mention: I like Peters' sense of humour. It's very dry, and might almost be missed. She sets things up with long sentences, lots of description, and lulls the reader into complacency before delivering a short, sharp little barb. It's not slapstick, there are no setups and punchlines -- it's just always there, never quite absent but not garishly obvious.

The next in this 20-volume-long series is One Corpse Too Many, and I've got it on hold at the library now.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Teaser Tuesday: Island of the Blessed

This book was a bit daunting to pick up, aside from its size. The subject matter is a little outside of anything I've read before, but I know I like Harry Thurston's writing and I find archaeology fascinating so I figured I'd give it a try. So far, so good, although I have a little niggling worry that he might ambush me with doom at any point.

Teaser Tuesdays are hosted by Should Be Reading. It works as follows:
  • Grab your current read.
  • Open to a random page.
  • Share two teaser sentences from somewhere on that page.
  • Be careful not to include spoilers!
  • Include the title and author.
From Island of the Blessed: The Secrets of Egypt's Everlasting Oasis by Harry Thurston, p91:

"The desert is a tabula rasa, stripped of all vestiges of modern life and most signs of the prehistoric past. To suddenly come upon a structure of the scale of the stone ring is somehow exhilarating, life-affirming, in the face of so much barrenness."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Ranma 1/2 Volumes 4 and 5 by Rumiko Takahashi

Oh Ranma. How do I love thee? The hilarity and insanity continues...

The fourth and fifth books are both much better than the third. There's still a lot of indiscriminate grappling, but the plot gets furthered too; in fact, I'd say in the fourth volume, the balance is nearly perfect. With the arrival of Shampoo's grandmother Cologne, we begin to see Ranma's first really big challenge; she's way better than he is, and she's determined that Ranma shall marry Shampoo. This sets up all sorts of hijinks through both volumes 4 and 5, which Ranma seems to manage to get out of largely by the skin of his teeth, and often with a little help from his friends. Mostly Akane.

I have to say, it does irritate me that Akane always seems to come out last. Well, last of the characters we know, anyway -- she's better than the average onlooking population, but we're not invested in any of them and so it doesn't count. She's never quite good enough, and sometimes this leads to her needing rescuing by Ranma. At least this time she didn't sprain her ankle before the battles began in 4 and 5. I really like Akane, but if she really wanted to prove how good she is, maybe she should get some training in? Anyway. I want to see Akane be really good at something that saves the day, rather than just saving the day by throwing herself in harm's way. I don't know if that happens, but I'll be watching for it.

One of the things I do enjoy about Ranma is that, for all his tough exterior, he really can't stand to see a girl cry. Even if that girl is Shampoo, who is a constant thorn in his side (and the reader's too, actually; she's as irritating as Ryoga, but she's meant to be), he has to find a way to make it better. This gets him into all sorts of trouble as people seem to walk in at the wrong moment and draw completely wrong conclusions, in the longstanding tradition of romantic comedy. There's also a couple of scenes where he's trying to get up the nerve to apologise to Akane that are quite sweet. Akane is truly terrifying when she's angry.

Kuno, the man who cannot possibly decide between Akane and female-form-Ranma, makes his return and is predictably melodramatic and hilarious. I look forward to seeing him again. Ryoga's still around, too, and it looks like he's not going anywhere soon, but I actually found him far less annoying this time around. Maybe because there was just the right amount of him, as opposed to an entirely Ryoga-centred volume.

So! Volumes 6 and 7 are on order at the library now. It's going to be a while before I see either of them, but that's okay. I've got a stack of things to read before I get there.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

I've had to sit on this review for a bit, because I find it hard to write an insightful review when I have nothing but praise for a book. I'm not jumping-up-and-down in love with The Graveyard Book like I was with Lost at Sea or any of the Pratchett I've read; but I really, thoroughly enjoyed it, and the only bad thing about it that I can think of was that it ended, when I could have happily spent several more chapters it its world.

I've never read Gaiman before. Can I say that, or is it heresy? I've always approached him as a difficult author, and I'm not sure why. But what with the Newbery I figured that this volume might be approachable, and I figured that I had better read something by him eventually since I often recommend his books to patrons based on the strength of others' love for them. Anyway. I've had a Gaiman mental block, but I leapt over it by reading the entirety of The Graveyard Book in one day.

The story starts out somewhat darker than I was expecting. I mean, I've read books with orphans in them before -- but it's not so often children's books open with a view into the mind of the assassin responsible for making the main character an orphan. It's not gory, but it's pretty clear what has happened, and it's scary. For the kid I was, I think, it would have been terrifying. But our hero toddles his way to safety, which happens to be the graveyard up the hill. He grows up there, surrounded by a cast of charming characters, most of whom just happen to be dead. Christened Nobody Owens, Bod for short, he has a number of fascinating, exciting adventures, and slowly learns about being human and being alive, about friendship and loss and love and fear. It's a great fantasy adventure tale, and it's a great coming-of-age tale.

I think what I loved the most was the world that Gaiman has created here. It's full of little details. It's gothic, as one might expect of a book set in an old graveyard. The world outside of the graveyard doesn't have the same clarity, but there's a scene in a little old pawn shop in Old Town that is remarkably well-described. I love, too, how many of the ghosts in the graveyard were introduced with their dates and their epitaph, particularly those who tend not to be significant in the tale itself, which gives them each just a little more depth than they would have otherwise.

There's humour, too, although I don't think it's ever laugh-out-loud humour. Sometimes it's so gentle it's easy to miss it. But this particular part did make me smile, for a lot of reasons:

"You know everything, then, boy? Six years old and already you know everything."

"I didn't say that."

Miss Lupescu folded her arms. "Tell me about ghouls," she said.

Bod tried to remember what Silas had told him about ghouls over the years. "Keep away from them," he said.

"And that is all you know? Da? Why do you keep away from them? Where do they come from? Where do they go? Why do you not stand near a ghoul-gate? Eh, boy?"

Bod shrugged and shook his head.

"Name the different kinds of people," said Miss Lupescu. "Now."

Bod thought for a moment. "The living," he said. "Er. The dead." He stopped. Then, ". . . Cats?" he offered uncertainly.

My favourite character is Silas, Bod's guardian. I think it's because in my head he was always Alan Rickman. He even had Alan Rickman's voice, and Silas' dialogue is particularly well-suited to Rickman's voice. This made him awesome on its own; however, he's also one of my favourite character types: the mysterious, removed, ageless and infinitely knowledgeable guardian figure. What I liked, too, is that we know fairly early on what Silas is, in our mythology, and yet it is never once named in the book. I thought that was cool. There are lots of little mysteries like that; things we guess at, but are never explained fully. It invites the reader to think for herself.

Bod is a worthy hero to carry this book, and I thought he was fantastic. If I have one small criticism, it's that in his younger years he a touch of that preternatural intelligence of a child hero, and sometimes appears quite a lot older than I feel he should be. That said, he's not exactly an ordinary child any way you look at it, being raised by centuries-old ghosts, so I can forgive a little bit of extraordinary intelligence and maturity.

In conclusion -- I loved the concept, I loved the plot, I loved the characters, I loved the world. The ending made me tear up. I got my copy from the library, but if I have the chance to purchase it for myself, I'll be doing so.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays: Ranma 1/2 Volume 4

This week's teaser is tricky, because I'm currently reading manga. But I managed to find a small section that will give you a taste of the awesomeness of the sheer insanity that is Ranma 1/2. Remember, too, that this is translated from the original Japanese. And not always well, I might add.

Teaser Tuesdays are hosted by Should Be Reading. It works as follows:
  • Grab your current read.
  • Open to a random page.
  • Share two teaser sentences from somewhere on that page.
  • Be careful not to include spoilers!
  • Include the title and author.
From Ranma 1/2 Volume 4 by Rumiko Takahashi, p115 (picture a couple of bystanders to a ridiculous schoolyard brawl):

"It's... it's a toilet training potty! What an insult!"
"Yes. An insult too grievous to bear!"

Monday, April 13, 2009

Apples to Oysters by Margaret Webb

Canadian farmers are suffering through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Shockingly, few of us know that crisis even exists. Fewer still understand how that crisis is affecting us, not just farmers, but us.

This has been one of the harder reviews I've ever written. I have a lot to say about this book. I did not love it. At times I didn't even like it. But I think it's an important book, and it was definitely good enough that when I didn't like it I still kept reading. I think every Canadian should read it, and I think every country in the world should have a Margaret Webb who visits the farmers where they are and writes about them. The basis for this book was that Margaret Webb took recommendations from chefs, friends, and locals and traveled from her home in Toronto across Canada to visit, one per province, a small farmer producing one of this country's iconic foods. It's a brilliant concept and largely well-executed.

The book's overarching themes are lofty, and she does a good job of illustrating her points. The story of Canadian farming should be inspiring and impressive. Instead, it's largely frustrating and depressing. Family farms are disappearing across Canada, farmers unable to support themselves or their families on the meager living they make running a farm. Rural communities are depopulating. City sprawl is gobbling up prime farmland. And fewer and fewer people understand where their food comes from, how it's grown, and who grows it. This country was built on the backs of families of farmers, fishermen, and ranchers, and nowadays those people are largely invisible unless it's a bad news story. Webb argues that it shouldn't be this way.

There is so unbelievably much wrong with our food systems in Canada, and Webb has done a laudable job of showing what is wrong and why. She points the finger squarely at big agribusiness, chemical companies, and often at our own government for this sorry state of affairs, and thus far I can't find any reason to argue with her on that. One of the farmers she talks to (who is able to view the situation from a position of prosperity and comfort, due to a lot of hard work, good planning, and superlative marketing) also points the finger at farmers themselves:

[Paul Stark of Henry of Pelham winery] has little patience for farmers who refuse to change their practices when the model is no longer working. "Farmers fight things like waterway management and pesticide control and traceability ... Those farmers would do themselves a big favour if they would just get on with environmental sustainability. That's just entry-level. The next step, they have to make a really good product, then explain why it's the best. ... I think you can make a pretty sexy demonstration of why we need to pay more for a food, and farmers need to show us why we should."

Aside from my discomfort with laying the problems on the backs of farmers themselves (although I think there's unfortunately something to that, too), this quote also illustrates one of the major problems I had with this book. Webb has a tendency to put this food out of people's reach. One of the problems with our food systems overall is that there are lots of Canadians who can barely afford to eat at the prices they pay for food now. Raising food prices to allow farmers to be both environmentally and fiscally sustainable within the current system would mean a large cost-of-living increase, one that Canadians already living in poverty cannot afford. Often the recipes she chooses to include are esoteric and completely out of reach -- how many of us ordinary Canadians have a local fishmonger to ask for dry scallops or farmed cod, for example? And even if we do, how many of us can afford it?

Now, I can understand that she might not address this because it's a huge issue and mostly outside the scope of the book. But by not addressing the problem of affordable healthy and ethical food, even in passing, she appears to be either oblivious or underestimating the problem; at worst, she appears uncaring or even callous.

While we're looking at things that bugged me, let's do a couple more. Webb is enthusiastic about food. She's enthusiastic about the people she meets. This is good. What caused me more than a little consternation every once in a while was her tendency to hyperbole. She is so bloody enthusiastic at times that she seemed irritatingly naive. But her worst transgressions are when she's lambasting some part of the food chain that she sees as failing farmers and/or consumers, as when she's taking on the issue of raw milk.

The whole issue is a bit of a sore point with me, because our local Ontarian raw milk crusader, Michael Schmidt, has been painted as a victim by the media. Webb follows this trend, suggesting that the government and medical establishment had an "hysterical" reaction, that they suggested that raw milk is some "virulent, plague-infested stew." Really? They did?

Raw milk can indeed be perfectly safe. However, as Webb herself says, raw milk can also contain any number of vicious pathogens like tuberculosis, listeria, and E. coli. Therefore, there is a law that all milk sold to consumers in Canada must be pasteurized. When Mr. Schmidt broke that law, the establishment reacted to what they saw as a threat to food safety. Regulators don't think the risk posed by raw milk is acceptable; for them to allow the sale of raw milk in Ontario under our current regulations and testing apparatus would be irresponsible. Why that makes the establishment "hysterical," I don't know. And that kind of hyperbole is present throughout the book.

She also has some factual errors: "little penguins" are not present in Quebec, though Webb blithely tells us that they are on page 230. I think she must be referring to the penguin cousins by convergent evolution in the auk family; perhaps puffins, murres or dovekies. Or maybe she is translating from a French term for the mystery bird? Perhaps a small detail, but again, it irritates me.

But enough about what I didn't like. I think I am particularly hard on this book because I think the concept is so great, and because it's a subject dear to my heart; but also because there are many, many things to like about this book too, and it makes the not-so-good things more painful. She describes the farmers and their farms in loving detail, takes us through why their food tastes better, and gives us recipes. She gets the reader excited about food, and farming.

I particularly, and predictably, enjoyed the chapters where she looks at farmers who are doing well the best. I loved the chapter about apples in British Columbia, because it is such a good news story. The chapter on flax in Saskatchewan is fascinating, and despite the melancholy and horror found in the Manitoba chapter on hog farming, I learned a lot and again thought it was really interesting and even a little hopeful. Plus I love pigs. But perhaps the best chapter in the book was the one on scallop farming in Nova Scotia.

This is not a good news story, yet. Scallop farming is not done, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Nova Scotia, and yet Webb was able to find one scallop farmer who is doing it, and doing a good job of it. He's not really making money yet and he's been at it for many, many years -- but he's dedicated and determined to make it work (like every other farmer she interviews). What makes this chapter better than the rest is that she makes a concerted effort to see things from the conventional side, as well. With scallops, that means spending a day on a dragger, a ship that scrapes a giant net across the bottom of the Bay of Fundy and scoops up everything in its way. Webb's description of these conventional scallop fishermen is staggering and vivid, and extremely sympathetic to the fishermen. This understanding of what the conventional guys are going through, rather than lumping them in with the problem, is rare throughout the book and it added a beautiful depth and urgency to this chapter. She doesn't just tell us that scallop farming is the better way to go -- she shows us. And she leaves us to draw our own conclusions as to why scallop farming hasn't caught on in Canada's fishery.

Webb is really good at showing us the heart of Canadian food. As advertised, it makes me want to hug a farmer. It also makes me want to be a farmer, but I think we all know I'm really not cut out for it. I like sleeping in and having vacations. So instead I have my little vegetable garden and I'll make a much more concerted effort to find ethical, local producers for things I can't grow here myself. This book made me ill, made me happy, frustrated me and occasionally infuriated me. But most of all it made me think, and for that I'll be recommending it to everyone I know.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Amazon rank

If you haven't noticed, Amazon is getting itself into a pretty serious PR fiasco. Web 2.0 is in a tizzy. For a little more background, have a look at Dear Author's excellent explanation. The wonder of hyperlinking: I don't have to explain this full issue because lots of people have done it better than I have.

As a librarian, I have issues with censorship. And to me, what Amazon is doing is tantamount to censorship. So I'm joining the Smart Bitches in their effort to sabotage the term amazon rank.

My policy, and our library's policy, and the sane thing to do, is to let parents decide what "adult content" is -- this means parents have to be aware of what their kids are surfing. And then buying online. Hard work, being a parent. You have kids, you have responsibilities. Don't expect the world to police itself because the world won't always agree with you on what is appropriate.

Censorship is worse than pretty much anything. To me, it doesn't matter what is being censored. It prevents people from becoming informed and making their own decisions. It eliminates choice. It is an insidious attack on freedom of thought and freedom of expression in the name of "decency." Censorship makes me sick.

Now, I know Amazon isn't a library. Amazon is a company. Amazon can do whatever the hell they like with their rankings, and as long as consumers keep supporting them they'll continue to do whatever they like. Either someone has made a really stupid decision, or Amazon thinks this is what their consumers want. But I won't be buying anything from them until they stop being evil (which, being an optimist, I'm sure they will shortly because I'm sure it was some stupid automated oversight), and I intend to politely suggest that everyone I know does the same.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Seeing Stone by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi

Man, two hours can really fly by when I'm reading. It's even better when I can read an entire book in that time. It either means the book is really short, really bad (leading to skipping) or really good (leading to skipping, followed almost immediately by a second, more thorough re-read).

In this case the book was both short and good. The Seeing Stone is the second book in Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi's Spiderwick Chronicles, and the plot is thickening. I don't want to give too much away, so I thought I'd talk a little bit more about some of the trappings of the story rather than the plot.

Jared, Simon and Mallory Grace are still living with their mother at Spiderwick Estate, an enormous, rambling property with an enormous, ramshackle house and an enormous, ominous forest. We get to know all three a little better in this book, Jared especially. Unfortunately, things still aren't going well for Jared at school; when we catch up with him here, he's coming home from detention after getting into a fight at his new school. Of course, it's all relatively clear in Jared's head, so we sympathize with him -- but at the same time, even Jared's not sure how things seem to be going so bad. It's not like he's trying to cause trouble.

What he is, and we see this even more clearly in this book than we did in the first, is impulsive. He's very smart, and quick-thinking -- but he also does things he should probably know better not to do in his rush to make things right or make things happen. Luckily, Mallory's along to help pull him out of trouble, and she's brave and practical, but also a little stubborn. I suspect that the two of them make a rather flammable combination when they're not both focused on getting the same thing -- which in this case happens to be Simon. Simon, the softy and the peacemaker, the one who cannot stand to see an animal in distress, has been kidnapped by goblins. Jared and Mallory set out to get him back.

The sense of urgency is definitely greater in this book, but not jarringly so. It's building and one gets the impression that it's only going to keep building in the following books. But already we're getting glimpses of how unpleasant things might get for the Grace children. The fairy world that Jared is so fascinated with is not sunshine and roses. It's not all horrible, but there are aspects of it that are pretty frightening, and one gets the impression that the kids are probably already in deeper than they know. Even their fey helpers, like Thimbletack and Hogsqueal, are two-faced and wild, and have the capacity to harm the kids. They're like wild animals; they might appear tame, but they're capricious and incredibly dangerous if they want to be. And the Grace children aren't necessarily going to be able to know when they're going to go off. Nor, one suspects, are the Grace children physically a match for the powers of the fey.

I really like that the authors keep the fey dangerous and unknowable, and inhuman. It doesn't appear (other than the goblins) that the fey the Grace children meet are malicious and out to get them specifically (yet), but more that they're just following their inhuman nature. I like that these essentially wild creatures are not too humanized or cutesy (although the pictures that DiTerlizzi draws of some of them are pretty cute -- not in a saccharine way). They're wild, and their wildness is very well done.

I need to find myself some kids to read this story to. I want to see if they enjoy it as much as I do. Next up: Lucinda's Secret, in which I believe we finally get to meet great-aunt Lucinda, who owns the Estate and who is currently institutionalized for being insane. The reader suspects that she may not be insane at all -- or perhaps she is, but driven insane by creatures no one else could see...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays: Apples to Oysters

I'll be the first to admit that I'm very leery of challenges and so forth, because (for me, I know that this is a very personal thing) they sometimes look like more work than fun. But Teaser Tuesdays aren't so much of a challenge as a way to advertise interesting books. Not to mention that it's really no work at all, and I'm always drawn by that little section excised from a book and displayed out of context. (See also: Seen Reading, which is such a cool project.) So I've decided that I'm going to try Teaser Tuesdays for a while and see how it goes for me.

Teaser Tuesdays are hosted by Should Be Reading. It works as follows:
  • Grab your current read.
  • Open to a random page.
  • Share two teaser sentences from somewhere on that page.
  • Be careful not to include spoilers!
  • Include the title and author.
From Apples to Oysters: A Food Lover's Tour of Canadian Farms by Margaret Webb, p193:

"Her shadow in the noon sun is no wider than a sapling, yet, with one arm, she can heft a five-gallon pail full of water onto the back of a truck -- a task that takes me two hands and considerable struggle. She says she loves growing good food for people though admits being tired of her and Garret's complete focus on farming, misses having the time to do her sculpting and painting."

Monday, April 6, 2009

Lost at Sea by Bryan Lee O'Malley

It's like how the grass is greener on the other side. Grass just looks nicer from the other side, you know? Grass where you're standing looks like dirt with green hair.

Lost at Sea is an earlier graphic novel written by Bryan Lee O'Malley, of Scott Pilgrim fame. This is, without a doubt, one of my new favourites. I had to ILLO it from another library system, but halfway through it I purchased it online from my local bookstore so that I can have it and love it forever and ever. It was just one of those books that I know instinctively I will never want to do without.

Raleigh is an eighteen year old, caught between her last year of high school and her first year of university. More specifically, she is caught in a car with three of her classmates, driving back to Canada from California. She is painfully shy and terrified of everything, including her classmates, friendship, and cats. The story unfolds slowly from a very personal first-person point of view, as we read Raleigh's thoughts throughout the book, interspersed with events as they are happening.

I think Raleigh is wonderful, as are her classmates. But that wasn't the only reason I loved this book. I love it for its quirky sense of humour, yes, and the art is cute, the writing is fantastic, and the plotline is engaging. But what shifts it from a good read to likely my favourite book of the year so far (maybe even as favourite as The Wee Free Men) is the way O'Malley has managed to capture that terrifying, confusing, painful, yet unique, tender, and beautiful feeling of growing up and being somewhere between a kid and an adult. I remember being there. Not exactly where Raleigh is, because each of us experiences growing up differently, and one of the things this book did for me was remind me of how individual the experience of trying to become an adult is. It reminds me to look at teens I meet and not just think "I've been there" but also "but not exactly there."

I remember having Raleigh's superlative quality to my thoughts; now I think of it as angst but I suspect I do myself (and other teens) a disservice to think it was only that. I really was trying to figure out my place in the world, in relation to my family, my friends, my ideals, my path in life. It all seemed so immediate and urgent. Sometimes I made good decisions. Sometimes I was stupid. But I was living it all with immediacy, even while desperately hoping to get out of it soon and wondering if anything would ever make sense. (It still doesn't all make sense, but I'm a lot more comfortable with that now.) Part of what amazes me is how well O'Malley captures that kind of thought process. I don't want to go back to being a teenager, but this was a surprisingly pleasant visit to that mental space again.

As for the material of the story, we don't know why Raleigh is in California, or how she met up with her classmates, or what has happened that has so unsettled her that she would agree to drive to Canada in a car with three people she barely knows. Things have happened to Raleigh and even when we begin to see the full story, it's not the full story. Much of this is left up to the reader to surmise. I think O'Malley has given us just the right amount of information. My reading of the story was not that something bad had happened to Raleigh, although I suppose that's a possibility; just something big and different and scary and wonderful. I'd be interested to see what others interpreted.

A few more quotes. I've tried to take the ones that still give you a sense, even divorced from the art, but there's a lot of wonderful moments in which both are so completely integrated that there's no way to share them if I can't show you the images.

But excuse my digressing because I do have a life story and it may not be important or interesting but it begins with a best friend and it ended this morning. Sort of. Well it ends with now, technically, or it doesn't really end at all but it doesn't go past now, yet, at least.

This specific trip, even, California to home: this isn't the first time I've taken it. This trip is a recurring theme for me. I'm sure it means something, but I'm kind of bad at taking meaning from things that way. The cats, the road, mom, California, Vancouver and everything in between. It means something to have no soul and no friends and too many cats that I can't even touch. What does it mean?

I'm also going to parrot part of the back blurb as my recommendation for who should read this:
Raleigh is eighteen years old, and she has no idea what she's doing. If you've ever been eighteen, or confused, or both, maybe you should read this book.
Yes, I'd say that covers it.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Place Between the Tides by Harry Thurston

I first read this book a couple years ago now. It was another one of those somewhat serendipitous Christmas finds; I saw it at the local bookstore and I decided my grandmother would like it. She loved it, and leant it back to me. I devoured it, despite starting a new job and all of the stress and craziness that accompanies that. We had great conversations about this book, Grandma and I.

I bought my own copy recently, wanting to recapture the same awe and warmth I had felt for Thurston and his salt marsh. It didn't work entirely, but it worked enough that it remains one of my favourite books about nature. I love Nova Scotia and I intend to visit there again soon, but last time I read this I was feeling particularly rootless and dissatisfied with Ontario; this book made me desperately long to pick up and move East. It still did a little bit, but I didn't have that desperate longing that followed me into my dreams the last time I read it. That's not the book's fault, that's just me being in a different place.

Part of this book's charm for me, I am realizing, is the format. I really like the [seemingly] straightforward chronological setup in a nonfiction book. It's an easy way to set up a narrative even where there might otherwise not be one. It worked for me in An Ecology of Enchantment and it works for me here.

A Place Between the Tides is contains years of observation all packed into one "year"; that is, each chapter contains years' worth of observations taken in that month as opposed to a face-value day-by-day chronology. This can be a little jarring. For example, when we first meet the foxes the main vixen is Black Socks; but other chapters discuss White Face, Black Socks' mother, and the fluid continuity of the narrative is marred. At other times it works really well. Because let's face it -- a year's worth of observations on a salt marsh might be interesting, but there may be only three or four really tale-worthy events in any given year.

Not that Thurston tells us only of the big things -- the beaching of a minke whale, or the first glimpses of a litter of foxes, or the hurricanes or the peregrine falcon. He spends a gratifying amount of time on the little things, too, the "ordinary" ecology of a salt marsh, talking about the marsh grasses or the processes that bring nutrients into the marsh or carry them out again. Because of my own personal inclinations, I think he's at his best when offering cool tidbits of information about the marsh or its inhabitants, as here when describing the physical adaptations of the northern gannet to spectacular aerial dives into the ocean:

It has no nostrils, and its upper and lower bill fit tightly together to prevent ingestion of water on hitting the waves. Most important, it has a system of air-cells between the skin of its neck and shoulders and the muscles beneath. Upon diving the gannet inflates these cells to cushion its body and head from the tremendous force of impact.

That kind of stuff fascinates me, and it clearly fascinates and delights Thurston too. Bits like this are woven throughout the entire book, intertwined with poetic descriptions so vivid that I am sure I can see every blade of Spartina sp. grass, every cloud, every minnow. Anyone who has ever encountered a spring evening frog chorus or a June bug will recognize this:

This is the night music of spring, and an anthem to evolution. We listen a long while, until the night chill descends. As we make our way back to the house, June bugs splutter out of the grass, crashing blindly into the clapboard.

There were a few things I noticed more this time around that did have an impact on my enthusiasm for the book. Occasionally the poetic is a little overdone and it slides from vivid and refreshing to excessively wordy and a little purple. What's worse, to my mind, is Thurston's habit of falling into the same trap that many naturalists and environmentalists do. I know why he does it, and I do it myself although I am very deliberately trying to stop. Take this passage:

Because I do not have the ear of an expert birder, I must see the birds to know which ones have survived the contemporary threats of pesticides and deforestation and the age-old perils of migration to return to the north woods. (Warbler populations have declined by as much as 20 percent in recent decades.) For the most part, it is the male birds that sing, feathered Carusos belting out their love songs to attract a mate.

Way to ambush me there, Mr. Thurston. It's a little like watching a Sir David Attenborough nature documentary (you know, "Look at these cute, helpless little baby animals, whose parents work tremendously hard to care for them, and are the pinnacle of evolution to fit this niche... ... EATEN!")

I know why it's done. People need to be aware of human impact, aware of the challenges, and aware of frankly terrifyingly precipitous declines in biodiversity. (Wait, did I just do it there?) But as I grow older and hopefully wiser, I have to wonder, what do we naturalists accomplish by doom and gloom? Wouldn't we be better to use our opportunities, such as this wonderful book, to open others' eyes and show them how remarkable all of nature is? I think the doom leads to disillusionment and helplessness, when it doesn't piss people off; none of these feelings are conducive to creating motivation or passion.

That said, I don't think Thurston ever chastises. He keeps it to facts. Some of the facts are sad. Many of them are not. I don't think the occasional doom and gloom seemed as prominent last time I read it, and I wonder if I'm perhaps a little oversensitive to it now.

Overall, this is a wonderful book about the rhythms of nature, about history and homecomings, about a very special place, and about one man's deep and abiding love for the world around him. Despite the occasional shortcomings, I highly recommend it for nonfiction and science junkies like myself, or people interested in reading about interesting places and the creatures (human and not) who inhabit them. I have Thurston's book Island of the Blessed, about an Egyptian oasis, tucked in the queue.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Fables: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham; art by Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha, and Craig Hamilton

Oy. I did not mean to get sidetracked. I am re-reading A Place Between the Tides by Harry Thurston, one of my favourite books, and I'd hoped to have it finished today or tomorrow. But it just so happened that the first installation of Bill Willingham's Fables crossed my desk... and here I am, finished reading it and ready for more.

I hadn't even heard of this series before reading Nymeth's review of the second book quite a while ago. I made the recommendation, and the library has picked up the first two in the series, Legends in Exile and Animal Farm. They are, however, doing that strange thing where they disperse series to different branches; my branch got Legends in Exile and someone else has Animal Farm. I think the logic is that then more people are likely to know of the series' existence, than if they were all collected at one branch. But I habitually refuse to start a series with the second or third book, and it's pretty frustrating to have to sniff around the catalogue to see if we even have the first books (which we often don't.)

Anyway.

My mistake was in thinking "I'll just read the first page to see what it's like" which turned into "I'll just read the first chapter" and I'm sure you know where it went from there. Legends in Exile is really, really cool. And it grips you right off the top -- once you've started, there's no going back. This is a function of the story. I don't have nearly as much experience with comic book-style art as I do with manga; so the art, I thought, was fine, but it wasn't what made the book for me. I don't really have much basis to compare or contrast with. I wouldn't have picked it up based on the art, because of my own personal taste in art, I think is what I'm trying to say. But the story is a completely different... um, story.

We're in New York City, where many of our favourite fairy-tale, myth and legend characters have ended up after a devastating war back in the Homelands. Fleeing a character called The Adversary, they are exiled to our world -- the world of the mundanes or "mundies" as we're called. They have their own government and their own land, and they do their best to blend in and go about their day-to-day lives without getting noticed. Many familiar faces are here: Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf (Bigby), Bluebeard, King Cole... and we start with Jack (of giant-killing fame) running into Bigby's office reporting a terrible crime. The apartment of Rose Red has been trashed -- there's blood everywhere -- and Rose is nowhere to be found.

It's a classic mystery, and the story is tightly woven and very well done. The narrative is imaginative and the characters believable. I was particularly drawn by the politics and the personality clashes woven throughout the main tale; it's what one might suspect would happen if all the heroes and villains of fairy-tale and legend were thrown together in a desperate struggle to adapt and survive. I was particularly glad to see that Willingham gives a lot more credit to fairy-tale heroines than the fairy-tales themselves do. Snow White is actually pretty scary at points. I wouldn't want to cross her, and none of the other characters seem to want to, either. I think my favourite part in the whole thing was when she brought out the "Vorpal blade of Jabberwocky fame. Kills in one cut, snicker-snack, and all that?"

Although, to be honest, I didn't think her character was quite as well done as some of the others; I think she's meant to seem deeper than she felt to me, but she seemed like a bit of a stereotypical ball-busting "woman in a man's world" kind of character, whereas some of the others (Bigby especially) seemed to have a bit more depth. That could just be a function of the tale focusing pretty exclusively on Bigby. Or the fact that I think Bigby's a superlative character, and I only loved him more after reading the short story by Bill Willingham at the end of the book.

I can't say much without giving things away, but I will say this: throughout this entire story, Willingham and the artists manage to cultivate both a melancholy and an unease that is much larger than the story at hand. Though the current mystery is resolved, there's still a sense that something much larger is happening, something much larger is at stake. I couldn't tell you where exactly that sense of atmosphere comes from, but I am incredibly impressed with it. It's subtle and rich and to be able to portray that atmosphere without beating us over the head with it is very impressive.

The whole thing is rather intense, and I can't quite decide whether I need to get Animal Farm right this minute, or whether I need to take a bit of a break and let myself breathe for a bit. I'm also thinking I'd better get on ordering the next books or I'm going to regret the delay.