May 21, 2011

Mini Shopaholic

I would not be true to myself if I didn't review this extremely silly latest Shopaholic book by Sophie Kinsella. But now that I've begun, I realize - what does one actually say about a Shopaholic book? It's ridiculous, unrealistic, and, if you suspend disbelief and hang in there, it is guaranteed to make you giggle. This one has the usual elements: the awesome, highly successful but distracted husband, the impulsive shopping sprees, the rich friends, and the party of a lifetime. The "Mini" of the title is Minnie, the main character Rebecca's two-year-old daughter, also of course learning in every way to be a shopaholic. The book cleverly leaves at least two major unresolved issues, ensuring that I (and I assume legions like me) will watch out like a hawk for the next in the series. As a stress-buster or a beach read, Shopaholic is the best escape I can think of.

May 19, 2011

The Red Tent

My sister Carol lent me this book, saying it was her favourite book of all time, and thereby of course upping the ante on my reaction to it. But I loved it and stayed up till 3 a.m. one night to finish it. The book is based on a few lines in Genesis 34 which tell the story of Dinah (dee-na), the daughter of the patriarch Jacob and his first wife Leah. In the Bible this dramatic and terrible story of treachery is written almost entirely about the men who participated in it. The author of The Red Tent, Anita Diamant, re-imagines it from Dinah's perspective, within the framework of the women of the family.

Although I haven't studied that time period, the scholarship in the book seems fantastic to me. Diamant, according to her bio, isn't an academic, but I felt awed by the consistent and beautiful detail in the book and couldn't fathom the research it must have taken to figure out (or even imagine) this much about an ancient culture. The red tent is an actual place - a tent where all the women of Jacob's family go for three days each month when they have their period - and also a symbol of the sisterhood of the family which "covers" the women with great security throughout their lives. Dinah's biological mother is Leah, but she also considers Jacob's other three wives as her mothers, and the other women of the tribe are an intimate part of her life.

The women's subculture is the real theme of the book. It made me long for such a thing as well - it is partly there in my life with all my own aunties, sisters and cousins and now that I've moved away, with the women who have become my friends. But the geographic closeness of the tribe and especially the warmth and intimacy of the red tent create an unforgettable sense of what we may have lost in our mobile and farflung families.

I have certainly shied away from religious fiction - the evangelical versions of these stories I've encountered (and I may not have given enough of them a chance) seem impossibly mawkish to me. This book isn't. The Jewish author has no love for the patriarchs - the book doesn't reflect well on Jacob and his sons, who became the heads of the tribes of Israel - and the jury seems to be out on Yahweh as well, as one of many gods interwoven into the fabric of the story. The Red Tent made me re-think the tidy Bible stories of my childhood and the way in which the God in whom I believe was present in the lives of the Hebrew people, whose early culture was far from monotheistic.

A worthwhile and thought-provoking book.

Essex County

Essex County by Jeff Lemire is the first graphic novel I’ve ever read and I found it pretty interesting. The book was nominated by CBC’s Canada Reads as one of the 40 most important Canadian novels of the decade and was also one of the five Canada Reads novels for 2011. The author grew up in Essex County in southern Ontario.

Essex County is actually three interconnected novels, with some common characters in each. I kind of forgot this while I was reading and I think wasted some energy looking for connections that might or might not be there. It’s a surprisingly emotional read. The characters grab you, the drawings get you, and you really get involved in the relationships between the characters. Both plot and character development sneak up on you, since the medium allows minimal explanation and dialogue.

Being in the midst of making a cartoon book of my own, I was most intrigued with the drawing. Lemire has a scratchy black and white style, looking as though it was done with an old fountain pen that leaked or at least dispensed ink fairly randomly. While Lemire is sparse with faces and bodies, he is lavish with his use of panels – he often has a whole page or two of panels just showing a crow flying off a fencepost and into a night sky, or a page-size panel of the farmyard at sunset. I’m always looking for cartooning shortcuts, so while I didn’t always get the purpose of these dialogue-free graphic panels, I admired them for the sheer work they represent and the author’s willingness to stop and depict a mood rather than just rushing the plot along.

I loved the Canadiana – the farm, the small town, the people who don’t quite understand each other, don’t talk much, but still care, the one-bay garage and gas station, and the omni-present hockey story that ties it all together. It struck me a little bit like watching an old silent movie, except visually much quieter. Some of the dialogue, especially of the hockey players, is flat-out hilarious. I laughed out loud.