One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg (Doubleday Canada) is a beautifully illustrated graphic novel offering feminist adaptations of folk tales wrapped in an epic-feeling love story. Greenberg’s newest book uses the same mythology presented in her earlier graphic novel, The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth, and explores storytelling as an essential element of what makes us human.
The unwilling subject of a bet between her thick-witted husband and his friend, Cherry and her girlfriend Hero find themselves in hot water as the friend vows to seduce the seemingly chaste and loyal Cherry. Scheherazade-style, Hero devises a plan to keep the foolish suitor at bay, telling nightly stories of strong women who defied cultural norms for (often female) love. Retelling fairy tales like the Twelve Dancing Princesses and the Two Sisters, in addition to original narratives, Hero gives the women in the stories fresh agency to choose their lives and lovers. I particularly enjoyed the stories framed by the League of Secret Storytellers, a matriarchal group of women who live outside the authority of men.
Layered storytelling cautioning the evils of men give this book a satisfying feminist twist on familiar fairy tales, and provides a sharp commentary on misogyny and the women who must bloom under its confines. Female relationships, literacy and oral history are portrayed as the antidote to the poison of a patriarchal society. Greenberg’s simple lines and stark colouring add to the tension and moody beauty of the stories; I especially loved the use of colour in her many moonlit scenes.
There are many things to love about this collection, but my favourite is how Greenberg skilfully interweaves her stories and characters to create a rich apotheosis to female relationships.
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua (Pantheon; also available at sydneypadua.com) asks the question: what would the world be like if mathematician Ada Lovelace and inventor Charles Babbage had succeeded in creating the first Victorian computer? The answer is that they would use it to fight crime, of course.
Explored in a steampunk pocket universe, Lovelace and Babbage invent the first spellchecker, avert a revolution of mathematicians, and mingle with our favourite Victorian figures such as George Eliot, George Boole, and Queen Victoria herself. Told through exciting comic panels, contemporary sources, and wry footnotes, Padua explains the historical and social contexts of the duo’s mathematical discoveries, in a way that makes the development of the analogue computer entertaining and accessible.
Even a Victorian enthusiast like myself learned new things about the era’s culture and science, and Padua’s clear passion for the grumpy Babbage and his grand ideas made the book a pleasure to read. I especially enjoyed the literary references sprinkled throughout the comic: in one scene, poetry-hating Lovelace is the infamous Person from Porlock who interrupts Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s composition of Kubla Khan; in another section, the Analytical Engine is drawn as Wonderland, and Lovelace is the Alice who must make sense of it all.
The Thrilling Adventures is, above all, a humorous reimagining of two characters formulating a technology that changes the world. I loved the peek into a universe where the computer reigned a hundred years early, and wish the magic of the functional Analytical Engine could bleed a little more into our own reality.
A Pillow Book by Suzanne Buffam (House of Anansi) contemplates the ordinary object of the pillow as the buffer between internal and external life. Inspired by Sei Shōnagon’s famous Pillow Book, Buffam creates her own series of short reflections of daily life with her husband and young daughter, lists of thematic or alphabetical things (my favourites include Moustaches A to Z, Altered Proverbs and Things That Make My Heart Beat Faster), and odes to the sleep that eludes her.
Weaving through each passage is a pillow: historical pillows, insomnia or dreams spent on pillows, pillows sat on in Japanese restaurants, and the items she finds underneath her daughter’s pillow. Each new pillow marks the text’s restlessness, moving between lists, forms and genres as Buffam observes the muted passing of time; however, instead of measuring out her life in coffee spoons, Buffam counts the pillows that mark her days. Not quite essays, not quite poetry, Buffam’s prose is a quiet and lyrical celebration of the anxieties of life and motherhood.
What I liked most about this book was the struggle of form and content, the internal insomnia of the text that explores the liminal space of the pillow, where the privacy of sleep meets the demands of family life. I’ve returned to this book several times for Buffam’s humorous lists, and expect I’ll be back again for her dreamy stories.
2016 has reached its midpoint and I thought I’d pop in and chat about what I’ve been reading lately. I was in a bit of a slow period for reading books in the spring, but summer’s almost here and I’m picking up speed; there’s hope for my reading challenges yet. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:
Boring Girls by Sara Taylor
How To Build A Girl meets The Basic Eight in this debut novel about Rachel, an angry teen who forms a metal band with her best friend Fern, and uses their success to take revenge on misogyny in the music industry to violent ends. This book has all the components I love in a book – bloodthirsty teens, mysterious best friends, feminism, murder – but it fell a little flat for me; Rachel was underdeveloped and the characters’ emotions and motivations were not as nuanced as I would have liked. Spectacular cover, though.
In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist Art by Sue Roe
I picked up this book as a part of my 2016 Nonfiction Challenge, and it was a lovely change to delve into the mid-century art scene in Paris. Art history becomes accessible in this enjoyable portrait of the birth of modern art in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. I really liked how the author framed the artists’ famous works and stylistic breakthroughs by providing context for the political and cultural developments that influenced the modernist art movement, like telephones, cinemas, and industrialization, while also crafting an emotional narrative centring around the artists in Paris’ famous bohemian neighbourhood. The analyses of the artists’ major works is accessible and ties together the social and emotional influences highlighted by the author. I read this book as prep for a trip to Paris, where I planned to visit friends, eat pastries and see as much art as I could. This book really enhanced my experience of all the modernist art I saw.
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
I’ve long loved Emma Straub – in fact, her first book was one of the first I ever reviewed for print – and you may remember that I first became aware of her as a merchandiser for The Magnetic Fields. Her new novel is a charming and witty portrait of old friends who are struggling with their marriages, their children, and the shadow of their famous and dead former bandmate. This was a quick and fun read with characters that feel human and smart writing. Straub really knows how to write relatable characters – her teenagers are particularly sharp – and I enjoyed the warmth and humour she uses to tackle old wounds, first love and the stress of long-buried secrets.
I was lucky to see Emma Straub in Toronto just this past week, in conversation with Sue Carter Flynn at the Toronto Reference library. She wore one of her fantastic Modern Lovers-print muumuus and talked about her past as a poet, her family, and how many Magnetic Fields secrets are in this book (none, although she did tell me a few!). She was an utter delight and I wouldn’t mind being her best friend, if she’s taking applications.
Dad Magazine by Jaya Saxena and Matt Lubchansky
As one of my favourite columns on The Toast (RIP), I looked forward to a new “issue” of Dad Magazine every month, and the heartwarming dad stories in the comments. The book is a full issue of Dad Magazine, reporting on hard-hitting issues like how every sport has been ruined these days, what’s going on in the neighbour’s yard, and how to talk to your son about growing a beard. My favourite part were all the hilarious dad ads (“(d)ads,” if you will) advertising things like complete sets of state quarters, the local paper shredder emporium, and yarn-spinner’s workshops for dad storytelling – make sure you read the fine print for extra puns. Maybe it’s because I’m not a dad, but the full issue felt like a it was a little too much. I’m hoping for one more column on the Toast as a send-off.
Now Reading: Not Working by Lisa Owen
I’ve only just started it, but so far Not Working has been a fun Bridget-Jones-esque exploration of a young woman’s struggle to find a job as her life comes undone. The writing is funny and sharp, and Claire feels almost a little too familiar as she scrambles to find a place in the world. I’m looking forward to reading more.
That’s what I’ve been reading lately! What’s your favourite book you’ve read in 2016 so far?
In The High Mountains of Portugal (Knopf), Yann Martel returns to magic realism in three interwoven stories about lost love and journeys taken to reclaim the past.
In 1904, Tomas, grieving for his dead lover and son, sets out in a car he doesn’t know how to drive to find a long-lost religious artefact in rural Portugal. Three decades later, a woman from the same rural village brings her husband’s corpse to a pathologist in the middle of the night, where his autopsy reveals a surprising answer to how the man lived. Fifty years after that, Canadian Senator Peter adopts a chimpanzee and moves to the Portuguese mountains after the death of his wife.
In each of these stories, grief manifests in the loss of language: Tomas struggles to learn the mechanical tongue of the automobile; Dr. Lozora fails to communicate the medical procedure of the autopsy, and Peter faces the double language barrier of Portuguese and Odo the chimpanzee. All three must turn away from the past to discover a new way of life. As in his previous novels, Martel uses animals to ponder larger topics, this time Christianity, where the chimpanzee alternatively represents a crucified Christ, rebirth, and God itself.
I enjoyed this novel more than I was expecting (I, too, was wary after Beatrice and Virgil), and the elements of magic realism are used well, most memorably in the story of Dr. Lozora. While there were stronger religious metaphors present in this book, my favourite had to be the extended comparison of Jesus’s life to an Agatha Christie murder mystery. This novel is one that has grown in my mind since I’ve finished it, walking its way backwards into the peaks of my thoughts.
Kate Beaton returns with her signature wit and style in Step Aside, Pops (Drawn & Quarterly), her newest collection of comics that takes on topics in history, literature, pop culture and feminism.
Beaton’s follow-up to Hark! A Vagrant, her first collection and webcomic of the same name, presents a smart mix of new comics and old favourites, such as the Strong Female Characters, Nemesis, and Napoleon. Beaton can find fresh jokes in even the most hackneyed of subjects.
One of my favourites is her Pride and Prejudice / X-Files crossover, where a delightfully grumpy Dana Scully takes the place of Mr. Darcy at the Meryton ball (NB: this was our group Halloween costume at work). Other highlights include Beaton’s takes on Edward Gorey and Nancy Drew book covers, and comics on notable women and Canadian figures like Ida B. Wells and Tom Longboat. Janet Jackson even makes a cameo in a comic critiquing the idea of the oppression of men.
Step Aside, Pops delivers Beaton’s sharp wit and knack for pinpointing humorous situations in history and culture through simple and expressive comics that are charming and hilarious.
A couple months ago, an advance copy of Welcome To Night Vale came across my desk. Or, more accurately, it came across a coworker’s desk and I literally snatched it out of his hands and claimed it for my own. I love the podcast – it got me through many tedious hours of coding – and saw the live show when it rolled through Toronto last year, so I’ve been looking forward to seeing how my favourite surrealist town translates to my favourite medium.
Set in the desert town made famous in the podcast of the same name, Welcome to Night Vale (Harper Perennial) by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor is a hilariously dark novel about family, strangers, lethal flamingo lawn ornaments, and the fallacy of memory.
While working at Night Vale’s pawn shop, nineteen-year-old Jackie Fierro receives a mysterious piece of paper that reads “WELCOME TO KING CITY” from a forgettable man in a tan jacket holding a deerskin suitcase. When the paper refuses to leave her hand, Jackie decides to investigate. On the other side of town, Night Vale PTA member Diane Crayton begins seeing her son’s estranged father wherever she goes, even as she works to keep them apart. Jackie and Diane must work together to figure out why these men keep crossing their paths, and find a way to get to King City, a town that seems to exist in a different dimension.
Fans of the podcast will enjoy learning more about their favourite townspeople and how they live in the bizarre cityscape that is Night Vale. I especially enjoyed visiting Carlos’ science lab (spoiler: everyone in Night Vale ships it), and the heist scenario of breaking into the librarian-infested library.
I had hoped that the novel would focus a bit more on Cecil than it did (he shows up in radio interludes scattered throughout the novel), but thought the novel worked well by following previously-unknown characters. The many new details about the town kept it just as strange and delightful as ever – the kitchen-standard hot milk drawer made me shudder, and the KING CITY paper joke was funny throughout the book. Although I enjoyed the novel, it started slowly, almost grindingly: in parts it felt like it was trying too hard to upkeep the surreal tone set by the podcast; the point that Jackie was nineteen and had been nineteen for decades felt unremarkable by Night Vale standards. However, by the time Diane and Jackie team up, the novel hits its stride and comes to a satisfying conclusion.
While Welcome to Night Vale is just as witty and even frustrating as the source material, I think that the world of Night Vale is better suited to an episodic format, rather than an extended novel. That won’t stop me from consuming another novel (if there is one), or any other media from this franchise – I’ve already got my tickets for the next Night Vale show this fall!
Kitten Clone by Douglas Coupland (Visual Editions) is a look at the company that has developed the internet we know and love today, in a beautifully-designed book that questions what an internet-saturated future looks like.
Alcatel-Lucent is a powerful corporation that builds and maintains the internet via fibre-optic cable networks, research facilities, and patent-generating computer scientists. Coupland details the history of the company, and in more peripheral terms, the internet, through a series of snapshots of what everyday life is in the company, and how the people who work there strive to connect us all. It’s a humanizing portrait of a corporation, and a layperson-friendly crash course on the mechanics of the internet.
The book is structured through visits Coupland made to Alcatel-Lucent branches in New Jersey, Paris, and Shanghai, framing the company’s development through the past, present and future. Images of dim cubicles, skeins of wires, and vacant office space expose the idea of a smooth, silver internet future as instead an unglamorous mess of cables and cutbacks. Coupland focuses on the question of how the internet has begun to shape us, rather than the other way around.
No book about the internet would be complete without cat photos, and Kitten Clone delivers, with a series of anecdotes about the human desire to share images of their cats throughout time, which has culminated in the ultimate cat-sharing network. Coupland fears that “the zeitgeist of the twenty-first century is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist”, but only the internet can tell what the future has in store.
This review first appeared as “All Zeit, No Geist?” in Geist 97.
We Are Pirates (HarperCollins) is a witty adventure through modern-day piracy. The story alternates perspectives between Phil Needle, an increasingly unsuccessful radio executive, and his daughter Gwen, an increasingly bored teenager, as they both try to find happiness, or at least excitement, along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. While Phil waffles about pitching the next big radio show and sleeping with his secretary, Gwen and a band of misfits elect to become literal pirates, and damn the consequences.
Like Handler’s other novels, We Are Pirates excellently portrays what it’s like to be a teenager in the face of indifferent and incompetent adults. I would have liked less of Phil, whose storyline feels interchangeable for any other unhappy middle-aged white man in literature, and more of Gwen, who was daring and unpredictable and a hundred times more interesting. Despite the imbalance between his characters, Handler deftly knits irony, humour and danger into a surprisingly adventurous read.
This review first appeared as “Frisco Freebooters” in Geist 96.
Stephin Merritt’s 101 Two-Letter Words (W.W. Norton) is a collection of illustrated poems based on all the legal two-letter words playable in Scrabble. Merritt originally began writing the poems as mnemonic devices during downtime while on tour with his band, The Magnetic Fields. Each four-line rhyming poem is accompanied by a humorous illustration from New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast; running themes include sloths, songwriting, Scotland, and vampire dogs. Perhaps my favourite was OH, which proposes new curses (“oh, cheesemongers! oh folk art!”) or RE, which is a take on different pronunciations of the word (“Re: about, in memos / Rays: how microwaves make pork”). Merritt’s poetry is like The Gashleycrumb Tinies for Scrabble lovers: a witty, charming, and slightly macabre ode to language.
This review first appeared as “All My Little Words” in Geist 95.