Monthly Archives: October, 2015

Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

2418888

Winner of the 2008 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Graphic Novel

Winner of the 2009 Doug Wright Award for Best Book

Shortlisted for the 2008 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature

I’ve talked on this blog before about how young adult lit isn’t really my thing, unless it is a particularly important or well-known piece. Also on this blog, I’ve also talked about how the graphic novel isn’t a genre I’m especially familiar with. In 2011, when a graphic novel, Essex County by Jeff Lemire, was chosen for Canada Reads, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. As I said then, I see graphic novels as not a literary form per se, more of a blend of art and literature – a genre in its own right without parallel. The number of graphic novels in my CanLit collection has grown slightly – I’m up to a whole 5 titles now. That number may grow though, I’m going to be starting to collect the winners of the Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Illustration in the near future now that I’ve gathered all of the fiction, poetry, and drama winners.

Skim fits my aforementioned criteria. It is a young adult graphic novel that is held in high regard in the literary community and was an interesting magnet for some controversy in 2008. No other GG category seems to stir up as much trouble as the Children’s Lit award does (although there was also a snafu in the poetry category this year). This book was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature, but only one of the two “creators” were credited in the nomination – Mariko Tamaki; her cousin, Jillian Tamaki, the illustrator of the book, was omitted. There was an outcry in the comics community over the exclusion because of the collaborative approach taken with this genre (funny enough though, not a peep was made when Jillian herself won the illustration GG for This One Summer last year).

Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim, set in 1993, tells the story of Kimberly Cameron (aka Skim). She is a student at an all-girls high school and is a rather unremarkable average “goth” kid. She goes through the typical crucible of being a teenaged girl – sexuality, shifting friendships, social status, and growing up.

Nothing remarkable happens in this book. If you’ve been to high school, you’ve experienced a lot of what these girls and Skim go through. What is remarkable about this book though, is the way the authors are able to use their particular combination of art and text to build a connection with the title character to the point that you experience her world through her eyes.

The art, from beginning-to-end, is constantly shifting, mirroring the emotional somersaults that take place in the mind of a typical teenager. Jillian Tamaki doesn’t stick to one particular type of illustration – she seamlessly moves from comic strip panels, to full page artwork, to two-page spreads, and to every combination in between. She switches aspects, uses zooming to great effect (I have no other word for it), uses shadows and reflections in interesting ways, and Tamaki is excellent at capturing extremely complex emotion in a single framed facial expression.

In terms of the text, I was interested in the first-person perspective. The text is presented in three different ways – as Skim’s diary entries, her internal stream-of-consciousness, and dialogue. Despite being fairly text heavy compared to the few other literary graphic novels I’ve read, Mariko Tamaki is very efficient with her writing. More importantly though, Tamaki manages to really capture the idioms of teenaged girl without sacrificing the depth and thematic impact of Skim’s story.

So all-in-all, Skim was a very enjoyable read. The primary characters are well developed, the artwork is visually appealing and continually changing, the writing is of a very high quality, and the book deals with themes that will be present as long as teenagers continue to exist. Skim is clear evidence of why Mariko and Jillian Tamaki are powerful forces in the world of the Canadian graphic novel.

Advertisements

The Fly in Autumn by David Zieroth

6876082

Winner of the 2009 Governor General’s Award for Poetry

David Zieroth is a pretty typical Canadian career poet. He regularly puts out collections, he taught English at the post secondary level, and he adheres to a fairly traditional lyrical style. As a side note, a former English professor and thesis advisor of mine, Richard Lemm ­ another typical Canadian career poet, is mentioned in the acknowledgements of this book. In 2009, this career poet published his masterpiece and was awarded the top prize in Canadian Poetry, the Governor General’s Award. The Fly in Autumn is a good example of a satisfying poetry collection ­ accessible, tight in terms of metaphor and symbol, not afraid of humour, and the author doesn’t go out of his way to reinvent the wheel in regards to style.

Now, I have to be honest, this isn’t going to be the most insightful review ever written. I read this book one night in bed when I was very tired, not feeling well and half tripping out on cold and sinus medication.

The strength of this book is the absurdest twist Zieroth takes with a lot of his poems, particularly the closing, and title, sequence, “The Fly in Autumn.” Like in “Insurance”:

Insurance offices are full of fat men
(cramped behind small desks stacked
with forms and notes) willing to act
as agents while chewing on a time when
they were blessed with a full head of hair.
This one’s thinking of lunch, the eclair

As you can see from this stanza as well, Zieroth isn’t afraid to throw a rhyme into the mix here and there. The pattern above, ABBACC, or close enough, is the one which the author continually returns. Zieroth uses this scheme in about a third of the poems but manages to avoid the sing-song feeling that sometimes roars its head with rhyming in contemporary poetry.

I’ve ranted on this blog about how much I am annoyed by collections of poetry that try to find something sublime or transcendent in the minutiae of everyday existence. This book had the potential to go in that direction, but fortunately for all involved, Zieroth took simple subjects and treated them to a quirky re-imagining.

Glenn Gould by Mark Kingwell

13110693

The name Glenn Gould conjures images of greatness, madness, and everything in between. Gould was, without a doubt, one of the greatest classical musicians of his time, if not ever. But, he was also the poster boy of eccentricity. His Goldberg Variations, which bookended his career, are works of legend in the world of classical music, and, at the same time, he was a hopeless hypochondriac, mentally ill, and addicted to a cocktail of prescription and over-the-counter medication. If there was ever a textbook case of contradictions, Gould was it. I first became aware of Gould’s existence 13 years ago in a Canadian Literature class at St. Mary’s University, during a unit on Northern lit in which we listened to his esoteric radio “documentary” The Idea of North. I am a relative newcomer to his music though; I’ve only been regularly listening to him for about a year (the Google Play streaming service has a fairly comprehensive Gould catalogue). He is, not surprisingly, one of the subjects in the Extraordinary Canadians series from Penguin. Philosopher and professor Mark Kingwell takes up the challenge of examining this colourful character. In doing so, Kingwell pushes the boundaries of the biography genre, even interpretive biography, to the extreme.

Kingwell abandons the traditional narrative form that biographies, of any type, typically take. This book could be better described as philosophical biography that attempts to get at the core of what made Glenn Gould tick, rather that simply tell his story. Not all biographical details are left out though: Kingwell does examine some important moments and elements of his subject – including the beginning of his professional career, his love of the microphone and abandoning of live performances, his important recordings including the Variations, and his more unusual personal attributes.

Many of the philosophical digressions and their relation to Gould were quite interesting – even though philosophy is not a discipline I was particularly fond of as a student. Kingwell looks at different aspects related to the philosophy of music and art – such as the line between composer and performer, the idea of “genius” in relation to music, and notions of performance whether live or recorded among others. Importantly, and ultimately necessary in a general audience book, the author is able to delve into this concepts using non-academic language free from much of the jargon inherent in any discipline.

I always hope to learn something whenever I read a biography of someone with whom I’m already somewhat familiar. Kingwell delivered. In the author’s examination of Gould, he looked beyond just the music and undertook a detailed study of his expansive written works. I didn’t know that Gould was a somewhat prolific, if not idiosyncratic, essayist. Over the course of his career, he published numerous articles in piano magazines (and also recorded a handful of spoken word records). In reading this book, it is clear that these somewhat rambling and occasionally incomprehensible articles – which include interviewing himself and regularly referring to himself in the third person, offer the clearest glimpse into the mind of this mad genius.

Overall, I was satisfied once I finished this book. If you are looking for a lot of information and straight biographical facts about Glenn Gould, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. But, as I’ve said before, this is an excellent philosophical biography of Gould. Mark Kingwell does a great job of getting to the heart of the enigma that was Glenn Gould. And from a different angle, Glenn Gould offers interesting explorations of the nature of music and art in today’s society that would be of interest to anyone who takes music seriously. Another great entry in the Extraordinary Canadians series.

The Tiger by John Vaillant

tiger2

Winner of the 2010 B.C. National Book Award for Non-Fiction
Winner of the 2010 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Award
Winner of the 2010 CBA Libris Award for Non-Fiction
A Globe & Mail Best Book ~ 2010
A Quill & Quire Best Book ~ 2010
Selected for Canada Reads 2012

The 2012 edition of Canada Reads switched gears a bit and focused on non-fiction titles for the first time. I remember thinking then that The Tiger by John Vaillant stuck out a bit from the others. It was the only book that didn’t have a Canadian connection, other than the author’s nationality, and it was the only history narrative, while the other four were all memoirs. As such, this title got a rough ride on the show. But, more than most of the other titles that year, this one caught my interest. I planned on reading the book while listening to shows, and it only took me over 3 years to actually get to it. Who wouldn’t be interested in a classic man-versus-nature story of a man-eating tiger? There is a certain primitiveness to this idea. A challenge to Man’s rank in the natural pecking order. What Vaillant has delivered in The Tiger, is an interesting mix of history, nature writing, political science, and psychology.

I’m going to give The Tiger a solid “ok.” Certain aspects of the book were very interesting. Vaillant’s digressions into the biology, ecology, evolution and biogeography of tigers were the highlight of the book; additionally, he went into great depth in exploring the current conservation status and the sharp decline in tiger numbers. During these chapters, I felt strong overtones of one of my favorite nature titles, Song of the Dodo. Another strong point of this book was the correlations Vaillant drew between perestroika – the opening of the Soviet economy in the late 80s – and the desperate poverty in this remote region of Russia forcing people to resort to things like poaching. It was through this particular lens that the central players in the story were most interesting and developed.

This book was a bit of a slog though. The actual forward motion of the narrative component was a little slow and at some points came to grinding halt. The Tiger could have easily shed 50 to 75 pages. But, oddly enough, during the third and final section, “Trush”, the narrative took off with the pace that I was hoping for and, ultimately, you as the reader do feel satisfied with the conclusion.

With all of that being said, one thing that definitely stands out is the amount of primary research that the author must have done to complete this book. Other than one documentary film and the contemporaneous news stories, there would be very little available in terms of first-hand accounts of these incidents. For the author, I imagine striking out into the backwoods of isolated eastern Russia must have been like entering a different planet.

That’s all I’ve got. This is a rather short review, but I just don’t have much to say. I find I always have lots to say on books that I either really liked or really didn’t like, but books like The Tiger where I am just kinda “meh, it’s alright,” just don’t elicit enough excitement in me either way to write a lengthy response.

%d bloggers like this: