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.
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.
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.
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll (Margaret K. McElderry Books) is a collection of short, folk-tale flavoured horror stories told as a graphic novel.
The sentence that best encapsulates the collection comes from “His Face All Red”: “[it] came from the woods (most strange things do)” including but not limited to ghosts, parasites, dead brothers, mysterious strangers, and murderous husbands. Carroll’s stories allude to and invert classic fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard and The Velvet Ribbon, while her illustrations set an eerie atmosphere in greys, blues and reds. “The Nesting Place” twists together the best parts of the wicked-stepmother tale with a fresh take on the monster-in-the-woods/monster-within duality to stand out for me as Carroll’s creepiest story.
Folktale and horror enthusiasts will enjoy the strange things that come from Carroll’s mind, and might think twice next time they venture into the woods.
This review first appeared as “Strange Things Come From the Woods” in Geist 94.
The appeal of Nox (New Directions), Anne Carson’s collection of poems eulogizing the unexpected death of her brother Michael, is not only its skillful verse but also its unusual format: it is printed on a single long piece of paper which is folded like an accordion into a sturdy box.
The book opens with Catullus’s ancient poem of brotherly loss in Latin (Catullus 101); Carson proceeds to give a dictionary-length definition of each word in the poem on the left hand pages, while the right sides are reserved for Carson’s poems, black and white photographs, collages, graphite smudges and/or fragments of handwritten letters, each appearing to be pasted onto the pages. The poems themselves are understated remembrances of Michael’s “windswept spirit” and his absence in her adult life.
The power of the collection comes from the juxtaposition of the debris of Carson’s sorrow and the Latin vocabulary that makes up Catullus’ 2000-year-old elegy: Carson suggests that grief, like the work of translation, is forever a work-in-progress.
This review originally appeared as “Grief-in-Progress” in Geist 85.