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Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont

This was an impulse buy some years ago that has been gathering dust on a bookcase. I finally got around to reading it, and it was terrific. The book is a collection of short biographies/essays on the literary contributions of a diverse group of 20th century women writers, including Gertrude Stein, Hannah Arendt, Anais Nin, Zora Neale Hurston, Dorris Lessing, Ayn Rand and others. The essays were universally fascinating (Rand was slightly less of a kook than I had thought, Margaret Mitchell, Arendt and Lessing were every but as problematic in their personal lives as Hemingway, Eliot and Pound) and I have added at least a dozen books to my list of things to read right now. The writing is sharp, it moves at a clip and no more than 30 pages are devoted to any one author. Loved it. Five Stars.

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Book Reviews

Amphigorey by Edward Gorey

This is a collection of fifteen of Gorey’s odd and wonderful little illustrated stories. Gorey’s work has to seen to be believed. From The Gashlycrumb Tinies which illustrates the alphabet with the horrible deaths of children, to The Unstrung Harp which tells the story of the the writing of a novel called The Unstrug Harp, Gorey is delightful and slightly mad in verse, prose and pictures. My favourite story in the collection is The Doubtful Guest about a strange creature that shows up at a family home one day, wreaks havoc and says for seventeen years. Five Stars!

 


Foundation by Isaac Asimov

It lives up to the hype. In a galaxy far, far away, the empire is crumbling and a dark age is approaching. Hari Selden has worked out the future for the next ten thousand years using the science of psychohistory and figured out how to keep the knowledge of the empire alive and cut down the dark ages to a mere millennium – by sending 100,000 people out to a planet at the edge of the empire and starting the Foundation. It’s a fascinating story and it’s truly astounding that this book was published in 1951. But! And it is a big but! In this far away future women are basically invisible and not involved in scholarship, trade, politics or religion, as far as I can tell. There are only two female characters in the entire book – both so minor they don’t actually have names – whose combined presence in the story lasts about three pages. Three and a half stars for the story, negative five stars for severe gender issues.

 

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

First, Toro Okada’s cat goes missing. Then he meets several strange women and an elderly WWII soldier. Then his wife goes missing. Finally, he climbs down a well and things start getting weird. It’s very long and there really isn’t a lot of plot, but it kept me fascinated right up till the end (which I need to think about a bit more). Not all the threads are woven together, but they clearly aren’t supposed to be. I didn’t like it quite as much as Norwegian Wood, which was the first Murakami that I read, but it’s still a solid three and a half.


Graphic Novel Roundup

So April was Graphic Novel month at Chez Laura.

 

Stitches: A Memoir by David Small
Yes, it is another graphic memoir about a dysfunctional childhood – but it’s a really good one! The story is compelling – Small went into the hospital to have a growth removed and woke up without one vocal cord, rendering him mute and only found out later that he had cancer and wasn’t expected to survive. And the art is very nice.

 


Robot Dreams by Sara Varon

This wordless and sweet tale of friendship between a dog and a robot is a perfect example of the Graphic Novel as a purely visual medium. Lovely.

 


The Golem’s Mighty Swing by James Sturm

A 1920s Jewish baseball team, the Stars of David, run into trouble on tour and agree to a publicity stunt – creating a Golem. Sturm’s first graphic novel about baseball and racism is fascinating and powerful, though I liked his later book Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow more.

 

Houdini: The Handcuff King by James Lutes and Nick Bertozzi

I love graphic novels that tell short, self contained stories, especially when the stories are true. This one is about a particular trick that Harry Houdini once did – jumping into the Charles River with his hands and feet bound in chains. Really cool.

 

Fables: Sons of Empire by Bill Willingham et al.
The fourth Fables graphic novel I have read this year is one of the better ones. Picking up where Fables: Wolves left off, the adversary plots the destruction of the Mundy world and Bigby and Snow White deal with family matters. The series is still well worth reading, but I wasn’t too fond of the art in the second half.

 

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis

Brilliant non-fiction children’s graphic book about growing up in Czechoslovakia during the cold war. Sis includes contextual political and cultural information and parallels it with the story of a boy who drew – a boy very much like himself. A brilliant story and a brilliant way to teach kids history. Loved it.

 


The Professor’s Daughter by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert

Strange and wonderful graphic novel about the mummy of Imhotep IV falling in love with an Egyptologist’s daughter in Victorian London. Gorgeous art.

 


The Eternal Smile: Three Stories by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim

Graphic novel month continues with these three short, fascinating and stylistically different stories exploring what these three people want in life, their various escapes from reality and the reconciliation of real life and ideal life. It doesn’t quite live up to the genius of American Born Chinese, but I don’t think anything could have.

Library as Space

“Library as space” is important in a different way than “library as collection” and is a key interest of mine. Libraries are community hubs. In many places, the public library is the only non-commercial indoor public space the community has. Community centres often consist solely of athletic facilities – which are important, but not all the community needs in terms of communal space. Because libraries are public community spaces that exist in most city neighborhoods and rural communities, they are sometimes used to deliver social service programs and cultural initiatives. In Toronto, for example, the central reference library houses a Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration Newcomer Information Desk and all the branches circulate a museum and arts pass funded by a private company and distributed through the infrastructure of the public library. Yesterday, NPR’s All Things Considered did a story about the latest iteration of this phenomena in Baltimore – public libraries in “food desert” neighbourhoods are the delivery method of the Virtual Supermarket Project.

“Under a new city program, patrons can order groceries online and pay with cash, credit or food stamps. The orders are filled by Santoni’s supermarket, a longtime Baltimore grocer. They deliver the items to the library the next day.”

It’s an interesting initiative and one that begs the question – without the infrastructure of public libraries, how would you deliver a program like this? Through the post office?

Storytime for grownups

I recently discovered The Moth podcast. The Moth is a New York non-profit storytelling organization that puts on storytelling performances several times a year. The podcast features one story a week told live onstage, without scripts or notes. The stories range from hilarious to heartbreaking – Deborah Scaling Kiley’s Lost at Sea has to be heard to be believed. The Moth showcases not just stories, but the art of storytelling – something we just don’t appreciate enough. Want to be a master storyteller someday? Pull up a chair and this to this.

Also ridiculously cool is Librivox, which offers free audiobooks of public domain books read and recorded by volunteers. With almost 3000 titles in their catalogue there’s something for everyone. Is Tacitus easier to listen to than read?


Asterios Polyp is the best graphic novel I have read since American Born Chinese. Asterios is a middle aged “paper architect” with a failed marriage. Then his apartment burns down and he buys a ticket for the first bus out of town. The story of Asterios’ marriage is interwoven with his sojourn as a mechanic in the small town at the end of the bus ride. What makes this book so amazing is how Mazzucchelli uses the art to flesh out the story. Like the very best graphic novels, the art is not just illustrating the words, but adding dimensions to the story through its own language. Asterios Polyp is absolutely glorious. Read it!


The Photographer documents a trip into Afghanistan made 20 years ago by a Medicin Sans Frontiers team to treat the sick and wounded during the Soviet invasion. Didier Lefevre went on the trip to photograph it, stayed with the mission in Afghanistan for a month and then left them and attempted to return to Pakistan with a caravan, which turned out to be a disaster that nearly killed him.

I love documentary graphic novels. but it seems like this is an area where a lot of the artists, authors and publishers don’t really understand comics. What I mean by that is that in comics the words and the pictures should each add something to every panel – they should not contain exactly the same information. While The Photographer suffers from this to some extent (1/3 of all panels in the book are of Didier standing next to a horse on a mountain), the book is saved by two things. The comic panels remind us visually every minute of the terrain of Afghanistan and the journey, which is vital to the story. And the whole story is brought to life by Didier’s photographs, which are amazing. It isn’t a great comic, but it is a great story.