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Jimmy Beaulieu's Bikini

Here's a review I wrote for the Summer 2014 issue of the Montreal Review of Books. Because the following graphic novel was pretty slim, I spent some time at the public library reading other works by Jimmy Beaulieu. He definitely dares to be an innovator, and I'm sure that there are people "borrowing" some of his unique ideas. I particularly enjoyed his take on body image, both male and female.  

My Neighbour’s Bikini
Jimmy Beaulieu
Conundrum Press

Jimmy Beaulieu is a creative force in the French-speaking graphic novel milieu. The cartoonist has published 16 books in the past 14 years, in addition to working as the publisher at Mécanique Générale and starting his own small-print press Colosse. In 2010, English Canada was finally able to see some of Beaulieu’s work with the release of Suddenly Something Happened. It was the story of Beaulieu’s life, his childhood growing up among a huge extended family on Île d’Orléans, his parents’ separation, his years of singledom in the Métropole, and finally life with his girlfriend in Montreal’s Rosemont. Suddenly Something Happened showcased Beaulieu’s significant skill as a graphic artist and his wonderful sense of humour. However, it failed to show another aspect of the cartoonist’s considerable talent, something that is fortunately in My Neighbour's Bikini.

Originally published in French in 2006, My Neighbour’s Bikini is the story of two shy neighbours living on the Plateau who meet on a sweltering summer day when everything grinds to a halt because of a power blackout. Simon introduces himself to his neighbour Bernadette on a downtown street, and after they walk home together, Bernadette invites Simon to go for a swim at the neighbourhood pool. The chance meeting has an authentic cringeworthy feel to it, mainly because of the realistic dialogue, and this short tale offers a very accurate depiction of Montreal. However, at first glance, the story has some sizable shortcomings. I initially thought that the problem might be the translation, but upon closer examination I realized that there was a problem with the story’s flow.

In a graphic novel the reader has to be able to readily understand the relationship between two consecutive panels, through visual or textual clues. However, in my first reading of My Neighbour’s Bikini, this relationship between panels was not always clear. Two vignettes have been inserted into the storyline that have zero or little impact on the outcome of the narrative. In the first instance, Bernadette and Simon’s conversation is interrupted by a sequence with a young man cycling on the Mont-Royal. In the second, the story jumps abruptly from Bernadette and Simon walking home to two women in an apartment sharing an intimate moment. One of these women, who the reader later meets at the pool, is Bernadette’s neighbour. While these two vignettes were initially confusing, they do add some atmospheric detail to the story, lending it an overall dreamlike quality. Introducing vignettes into the traditional storyline, I discovered, was a recurring pattern in Beaulieu’s other work. This is especially true in À la faveur de la nuit, a humourous tale about two women telling each other stories late into the night.

Another recurring feature in Jimmy Beaulieu’s work that was non-existent in Suddenly Something Happens is nudity, which is tastefully presented and never gratuitous in My Neighbour’s Bikini. Beaulieu has considerable talent at drawing nudes, and the author should be given credit for presenting natural-looking full-hipped women rather than the standard waif variety. In the past, he has presented work with frontal nudes of men, which was the subject of complaints at the Quai des Bulles Festival in St Malo, France. Naked women were apparently fine, but a naked man in an intimate moment was apparently offensive….

I must admit that I was initially puzzled by the publisher’s choice to translate a book that was first released in French eight years ago. Obviously, it did not reflect how far the author has come since then. But My Neighbour’s Bikini, although not Beaulieu’s best, is tamer than some of his other work, and it may be a way to test the waters to see how English speakers will react to his more audacious content. Overall, once I accepted his non-traditional storyline, I enjoyed the oneiric quality of his work, and of course, I liked that his characters, both male and female, looked like everyday people, a refreshing and welcome change.

Other book-related reviews
Lily and Taylor by Elise Moser
World of Glass by Jocelyne Dubois
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Letting It Go by Miriam Katin
My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me by Gina Roitman
Stony River by Tricia Dower
Susceptible by Geneviève Castrée
Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado
Bombay Wali and other stories by Veena Gokhale
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Gay Dwarves of America by Anne Fleming



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Interview w/ Heather O'Neill, author of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night


Here's an interview I did with Heather O'Neill last May. I made the fatal error of not writing it up and pitching it immediately. Instead, I pushed headlong into planning our summer holidays in the UK and registering my two children for day camp. When I came up for air, I noticed that every conceivable media outlet in Montreal had interviewed the author, so I decided wait for a lazy day, like today, to post it.

It’s been seven long years since the release of Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals, the gritty tale of Baby, a motherless child raised on Ste-Catherine Street by her drug-addicted father. The book went on to become an international bestseller, shortlisted for the Orange Prize and long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin International Literary Award. This is indeed impressive for a first novel. But that unexpected success put considerable pressure on the author to come up with an equally as good follow-up, and according to the author, this was not easy.

“The idea for The Girl Who Was Saturday Night came very slowly,” said O’Neill at our interview, one of many she would give that day.

According to O’Neill, the pressure came mainly from herself. “I’d start something and then ask myself how it would be received in say, South Africa. There was this idea that I had to please, something I didn’t feel with my first book. ” She added that her brother-in-law had once referred to her distracted stare as second bookitis.

Although the idea came to her like a coffee-machine set to slow drip, there are some undeniable commonalities between Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. Baby, like the twin protagonists Nouschka and Nicolas, basically raise themselves in the same sordid area of Montreal, clinging to each other for comfort as parentless children often do. O’Neill described the twins as “enmeshed.”In the story, they often feel like a single character with Nicholas embodying the dark side and Nouschka the light. However at age 20, Nouschka begins to forge her own path away from her brother, just as in the backdrop, Quebec is moving away from Canada.

“I chose to set the story in the period leading up to the 1995 Referendum to emphasize the theme of separation, both for the twins and Canada.”

Another commonality between the two novels is the less than ideal paternal figure. The twin’s father, the top-hat wearing Etienne Tremblay, is a washed up 70s folk singer with a criminal past. He is self-obsessed and uses his cute little twins as props, a means to garner more of the public’s attention. As I read the story, I tried to think of whom the character might be based on, and Jean Le Loup immediately came to mind. “Yes, he definitely wore a top hat,” said O’Neill. “I do have an unrequited love for Jean Le Loup, but he’s the wrong period.” Etienne was in fact a composite character based on many Quebec folk singers and performers, such as Gilles Vigneault, Robert Charlebois, Leonard Cohen and Claude Dubois. However, O’Neill emphasized that she drew on their very best, charismatic sides. After all, Etienne has some unsavoury proclivities.

But is The Girl Who Was Saturday Night a condemnation of celebrity? According to O’Neill it isn’t. Instead, she was interested in what it would be like to be a star or the child of a star growing up in Montreal.

“The Quebec star system has always been of great interest to me, and it’s funny that so few people outside of Quebec actually know it exists,” said O’Neill. Apparently, her US publisher needed to get the rights to the work of a Quebec artist that O’Neill had used in her previous novel. The publisher was incensed that she had to jump through so many hoops for the rights to something from a forgotten folksinger. The artist in question was Félix Leclerc. . . .

Overall, O’Neill’s latest novel is fun-loving with plenty of highly visual metaphors and simile. The author confessed that she did “have a soft spot for similes.” To give you an example of their visual quality, here is one my favourites: “When he exhaled, the cigarette smoke looked like a girl doing rhythmic gymnastics with a ribbon.” In fact, there were many scenes in Girl that I could easily see in another short animation like Claire Blanchet’s adaptation of O’Neill’s short story “The End of Pinky," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.

This book will be a hit with many young readers, or any reader for that matter who enjoys living vicariously through ingénues who chase bad-boys for some intense short-term pleasure, even when it means long-term pain. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night serves up a whimsical, sensual adventure through Montreal's dark side, complete with criminals, bikers and brilliant psychiatric patients–a great escape for a hot August day.




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2014: So Many Good Books So Little Time

Photo credit: ProfDEH Wikimedia Commons
I felt a little overwhelmed when I read the National Post's 25 of the most anticipated books of 2014. Not only did it list the Literary Editor's picks, it also listed many other books that would be released this year. And truth be told, it is going to be a stellar year for books, even better than last year. I immediately spotted five that I was dying to get my hands on. Here they are:

Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood, publisher and release date to be announced
Last year was a great year for short fiction with Alice Munro's Nobel Prize. As a lover of short fiction, I'm looking forward to Margaret Atwood's Stone Mattress collection. After seeing her and Sheila Heti at the Drawn and Quarterly-sponsored event in early December, I remembered how much I enjoyed Surfacing in my final year of high school. I went on to read everything available by Atwood at the time, but I haven't read anything by her recently. Seeing the witty literary giant on stage reignited my interest in her work. What will a master storyteller's short fiction be like? I can't wait to see.

Ellen in Pieces, by Caroline Adderson, HarperCollins, September
Canadian novelist and short story writer, Caroline Adderson is a gifted writer. Although well-known among avid readers and Canadian literary circles, she has not yet made that break into the mainstream. Ellen in Pieces is a collection of connected short stories that centers around the life of Ellen, a young Vancouver woman stricken with cancer but who still has a healthy sexual appetite. It contains a story entitled "Erection Man," which was long-listed for the world's richest (£30,000) short story prize, Britain's Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. Let's hope this book brings Adderson the recognition she deserves.

Margaret Atwood and Sheila Heti at D&Q event
Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi, Penguin Canada, March  
Boy, Snow, Bird is Oyeyemi's fifth novel, the first of which she wrote while writing her final high school exams. The Cambridge graduate has also published two plays. Not bad for someone who is not yet 30. In 1953, Boy Novak, a woman obsessed with beauty, leaves New York to live in a small Massachusetts town where she marries a widower and becomes the stepmother to the gorgeous Snow Whitman. When Boy gives birth to dark-skinned child, she discovers that the Whitmans are light-skinned African Americans passing for white. It will be interesting to see how Oyeyemi treats the cultural constructs of race and beauty in the Pre-Civil Rights era New England, more than 30 years before the Nigerian-born, London-based author was born.

The Girl That Was Saturday Night, by Heather O'Neill, HarperCollins, May
Here is the long-awaited follow-up to O'Neill's 2007 international bestseller Lullabies for Little Criminals. This time, O'Neill tackles celebrity. Noushcka and Nicolas Tremblay are beautiful twins who live in a sordid apartment on St-Laurent Boulevard with their grandfather. As the offspring of famous bon vivant folksinger Étienne Tremblay, the inseparable twins are media darlings as children. However, their self-destructive behaviour on the eve of their 20th birthday attracts the attention of a journalist who unearths some disquieting secrets. It has been said that this book is classic, unforgettable Heather O'Neill.

The Fledglings, by David Homel, Cormorant Books, April
The Fledglings is award-winning translator David Homel's seventh novel. It is about the daughter of a Jewish bootlegger in Prohibition-era Chicago. What could be more interesting than a tale set in the days of Al Capone, particularly when it is written by a native Chicagoan? What might be even more interesting is to see how convincingly Homel writes from the point of view of a woman protagonist.

Other book-related reviews
Lily and Taylor by Elise Moser
World of Glass by Jocelyne Dubois
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Letting It Go by Miriam Katin
My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me by Gina Roitman
Stony River by Tricia Dower
Susceptible by Geneviève Castrée
Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado
Bombay Wali and other stories by Veena Gokhale
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Gay Dwarves of America by Anne Fleming





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My Prairie Home by Chelsea McMullan

The only Canadian feature film in the official selection of this year's Sundance Film Festival, My Prairie Home was enthusiastically received in Park City, Utah. In the 77-minute NFB documentary, filmmaker Chelsea McMullan follows Montreal-based indie singer Rae Spoon across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in a Greyhound bus. But this is not your standard music documentary of a road trip. As we travel the highway across the endless prairie, we learn about the hills and valleys of Rae Spoon's early life.

The indie singer was raised in an evangelical Christian family under a tyrannical father, a church deacon of questionable mental health. Early on Spoon sought refuge in music to avoid her parents' continual sightings of signs of the Rapture. Life was already difficult enough for Spoon who couldn't see herself as a wife and mother, answering to a husband. In fact, a husband was almost unfathomable. Spoon is gay and describes herself as gender neutral, using the personal pronoun "they" in self-reference. As can be expected, high school was not easy, nor was coming out. In a soft-spoken manner, Spoon relates standing up to family, community and high school bullies, but the prairies remain an integral part of Spoon's identity and the place the singer still calls home.

Besides the stunning shots of the Canadian prairie, the viewer is treated to Spoon's hauntingly beautiful singing voice. For anyone who has driven across Canada, the prairie provinces seem endless. But there is a magical beauty to the golden velour-textured wheat fields and that great big prairie sky. My Prairie Home is a moving coming-of-age film that may be instrumental in challenging many preconceived notions about the transgendered.

If you missed the film at the Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal the NFB is screening it free online for 48 hours (January 26 and 27). To view the film on the NFB site click here.

Other film reviews
The Missing Picture by Rithy Panh
Detropia by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Finding Dawn by Christine Welch
The Fruit Hunters by Yung Chang


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To Patch or Not To Patch

Amid frigid temperatures last week, I found myself on St-Hubert Street, north of Jean-Talon, trying to find of all things, iron on-patches. And with all the fabric stores and sewing accessory shops you'd think that it would have been easy. But I was directed and redirected to a number of stores before I finally found what I was looking for. It would appear that people don't patch anymore.

My son, Sacha, now six years old won't stop growing. I bought him two pairs of jeans in September, and they're already too small. This winter, he's been wearing navy blue hand-me-down snow pants, the ones his sister wore 5 years ago. But because he likes to rough-house, there are holes in the knees. I could go out and buy him a new pair, but these snow pants still fit him.

To patch or not to patch? This is a makeshift solution, not altogether aesthetically pleasing, but an attempt to salvage rather than discard. This wasn't a protest against the flood of cheap Chinese imports as some of you might imagine. Instead, this was brought about by pure nostalgia. I wanted to see the steps my mom, a single mother, had gone through to patch clothes.

When I found the patches I was looking for, "Made in Canada" was printed on the label, something I have not seen in years. Factoring in the dust and the metal hook I found the patches on, I guessed that they might be decades old, possibly hanging in that exact same place.

Now some of you will smile at my attempt to iron patches on snow pants because, as I soon discovered after reading the patch instructions, you can't iron rayon. It melts. But now I was determined to find a way to do it.

While in Accessoires de Couture St-Hubert, I was also relieved to find "Made in Canada" cotton socks. Although much more expensive than their "Made in China" counterparts, they come with the added bonus that they don't strangle your ankles. But don`t talk to me about the Chinese-sizing conundrum. In November, I spent an hour in a department store trying to find winter boots for my daughter, but nothing fit her size-5 foot, except a size-7 boot. But I digress...

The new cotton socks were placed around the edges of the patch so the hot iron would not come into contact with the rayon snow pants. The sock solution was my contribution to the iron-on patch effort. My more patient husband volunteered to do the ironing portion. To some, it would appear that he had hijacked my pious effort to revisit my late mother's memory, but in fact his help was greatly appreciated. We could share the blame if it all went south.

I was able to revisit my late-mother's memory vicariously through my husband's ironing. It all came rushing back to me, leaving me to wonder why I'd wanted to stroll down memory lane in the first place.

I suddenly remembered her saying "Shit!" as she ironed on patches because there was never enough glue on the edges for them to stick properly. But my more virtuous husband just pressed his lips together and then calmly said, "The patch edges aren't sticking." Then I remember my mother grumbling, "God damn it! Now I'm going to have to stitch around those useless patches!" This involved more work and created another problem. My mother was a perfectionist, particularly when it came to sewing, and the strongest hand-sewn stitches would show, a major sewing faux pas, the mark of an amateur.

My husband did suggest using the sewing machine to sew down the edges, but I told him that the pants were too thick for a sewing machine needle. "I'll sew around the edges," he offered. I cringed. I watched him do a whip stitch around the edges, the weakest and most obvious stitch, but at least he tried to match the colour of the thread.

In the end, my son's snow pants looked only marginally better than when they were ripped. As can be expected, after a few falls, the whip stitch came apart. But overall the patches are still intact, and the pants should last the entire winter. Every time I see his snow pants I laugh, and I'm sure my mother would have laughed too.


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The Other Side of Youth by Kelli Deeth

This is one of four reviews that I wrote for the Globe and Mail this year. It was a big step up from being a book blogger, and more than once, I wondered if I was up to the challenge.

Some of you may also know that I am now the Books Editor at Montreal's Rover Arts, an online arts review. This is a volunteer position for a few hours a week to hone my editing skills. I also have a day job. I'm a language professional, which is both demanding and rewarding, yet my blog is still my first love. 

I'd like to thank you, my readers, for your support. I've just completed my fifth year of blogging.

Happy New Year!

The Other Side of Youth, by Kelli Deeth, Arsenal Pulp Press, appearing in the Globe and Mail on November 29.

More than a decade has passed since the release of Kelli Deeth’s critically acclaimed The Girl Without Anyone. Set in a middle-class Toronto suburb, the collectio n of connected stories followed Leah, a young teen of recently divorced parents who are too self-involved to notice their daughter’s need for attention. After dropping out of school, Leah engages in high-risk behaviour, seeking love in all the wrong places. This highly realistic collection showcased Deeth’s ability to write taut, compelling fiction about someone as familiar as the girl at the mall, or the girl next door.

Deeth’s latest collection of short stories, The Other Side of Youth, is far more ambitious and even more intense. Set entirely in and around Toronto, the stories focus on life-changing events, serving up highly plausible yet often unsettling outcomes–the other side of personal issues that often go unseen. The female protagonists in the 11 tales range in age from their early teens to their late thirties. Each struggles with the life-choices she has made and their inherent consequences.

Picking up a theme from The Girl Without Anyone, Deeth writes convincingly about the vagaries of adolescent longing. Using simple prose, the Toronto-based writer delivers powerful narratives that are both alarming and realistic. In “End of Summer,” 13-year-old Sandra, grieving the loss of her brother, is repeatedly drawn to a field where girls are rumoured to be assaulted. In “Correct Caller,” one of several exceptional tales in this collection, 16-year-old Michelle sets out to distance herself from her embittered mother and prove that she can take care of herself. Landing a job over the phone, the 16-year-old is unfortunately hired by exactly the type of man her mother has warned her about, inadvertently putting herself in harm’s way. In “A Boy’s Hand,” adolescent Tanya seeks affection from an unstable boy, even after he is openly hostile towards her.  In the end, he threatens her with his father’s hunting rifle. In the conclusion of this disquieting tale, Deeth brilliantly taps into the traumatized girl’s mind: “…because it was a gun and it was pointed at me, it had gotten inside. Things that were on the inside never got out. They found a place to live, and when you closed your eyes, they showed themselves.”

Many of the exceptional stories in this collection deal with difficult choices related to motherhood. In “The Things They Said,” Courtney is reaching the end of her child-bearing years, and although she and Michael have decided not to have children because of their own dysfunctional childhoods, Courtney still feels that something is not right, regardless of what they tell each other. In “Ari,” Jana is unable to carry a child to term, and her otherwise loving relationship with Peter begins to disintegrate. Peter longs for a daughter like his niece Ari. The centerpiece, however, is the very moving “Vera’s Room.” The narrator and her husband Andrew adopt seven-year-old Vera, a foster child. Despite the couple’s decision, the narrator’s mothering instinct does not kick in. Vera senses this and rebels against her new mother. For the narrator, Vera is not the child she thought they would have. To make matters worse, Andrew is a natural father who reminds his wife that “it’s not all about her.”

The Other Side of Youth
is a series of finely honed short stories, the kind that linger in the mind well after the book is finished. The extremely rich subject-matter and the author’s ability to write satisfying endings could well be the reasons for this. Deeth is a great writer of short fiction, and The Other Side of Youth is the best collection of short stories I have read in recent memory. It was well worth the 12-year wait.

My other reviews in the Globe and Mail.
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Bone & Bread by Saleema Nawaz
Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado


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A Moment in Villeray

The beginning of December is a busy time, and one of the hardest things is to muster enough energy on these short days to get everything done. December is also the month when I, like everyone else, take stock of the year passing. My family and I went through a lot this year, but the tragic events were offset by many positive moments.

I fell and injured my knee last year, and it stopped me from doing a lot of blogging this year. I just can't sit for extended periods of time anymore without some degree of pain, and because I work seated for 7.5 hours a day, something had to give.

But as luck would have it, the injury pushed me to spend a lot more time walking year-round in Jarry Park. There is nothing more beautiful than the intense blue of a winter sky, something I can't remember enjoying since I was a kid. And I know that this will annoy the s**t out of some people, but winter can be enjoyed with the right clothing.

Because of my injury I also carved out some time to go to yoga and pilates, which have been beneficial in more ways than one. Not only am I doing something I enjoy, but it also gives me a chance to socialize with people in my neighbourhood. Social opportunities are sorrily missed for people who work from home. But while regular exercise has helped, it has not cured my knee problems or the pain from sitting for long periods of time.

On Friday, I started physiotherapy. I checked on the Internet to find a physiotherapist within walking distance. The address was curiously on Rue Gary Carter, formerly known as Faillon Ouest. Everyone who is at least 40 will remember Gary Carter, the Expos golden-boy catcher, back when we had three TV stations, and if the Expos were playing that's what you were watching, whether you liked it or not. When I saw the sign, it was a happy nostalgic moment.

The physiotherapy session was less cheery. Plenty of prodding later, I discovered that I will need more than a few sessions of physio to correct the muscle imbalance caused by my fall. The problem with uncorrected damage is that our bodies compensate in different ways, which can cause subsequent injuries, namely in the back, neck or ankle.

With my list of exercises in hand, I walked home through the park by the pond. I thought about all the writing I had wanted to do this year but wasn't able to. Nevertheless, the quality of my life definitely improved with regular exercise and fresh air. Below is part of the beautiful silver lining of my injury.

The Pond at Jarry Park in Early December



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The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

At 6:00 pm this evening, the Governor General of Canada, David Johnston, will be presenting 14 winners with literary awards. Eleanor Catton will be among the recipients of Canada’s highest literary honour for her historical suspense novel The Luminaries. The 28-year-old author has been making headlines around the world, but not just for her GG win. Six weeks ago, Catton won the much-coveted Man Booker Prize. She was the youngest winner for the longest novel (832 pages) in its history.

Catton was born in London, Ontario, where she lived until she was six while her father completed his PhD at the University of Western Ontario, but she grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand. Writing fiction is a lifelong endeavour, and the world is anxious to know how Catton managed to become such an exemplary writer at such a young age. She has said on repeated occasions that she has been writing for as long as she can remember and credits her mother, a librarian, for always keeping her with a fresh supply of books. Four years ago, Catton penned her debut novel The Rehearsal, which was also her Master’s thesis. A sex scandal at a high school formed the basis of the story, which received a number of awards, including the Amazon.ca First Novel Award.

A departure from her previous novel, The Luminaries takes place in Hokitika, a gold-rush town on the west coast of New Zealand’s south island in the 1860s. On a dark and stormy January evening, Walter Moody steps off a shipwreck and walks into the first Hokitika hotel he finds. He has come, like other European prospectors and Chinese labourers, to start afresh and seek his fortune in the New Zealand goldfields. Moody has had a deeply unsettling experience aboard the barque Godspeed, and is still shaken when he enters the hotel. There, he finds himself in the midst of 12 men who are holding an informal meeting about a series of unexplained events that involve a drugged prostitute found unconscious in the street, a wealthy young man who has disappeared and a fortune in gold found in the home of a  hermit who has died under suspicious circumstances.

The reader must comb through multiple layers of speculation, contradiction and fact to uncover the reasons for these three events and the connection between them. In the course of this highly complex novel, the reader meets 20 characters that include a whoremonger, a chaplain, a greenstone hunter (the sole Maori character), an opium addict, a fortune-teller, a jailer, a politician and a former convict. Every character is privy to a piece of information that no one else knows. Gold is concealed in the seams of gowns, identities are stolen and fortunes are lost. Then, there is the astrology-based structure with charts at the start of each of the book’s sections. Catton has assigned personality traits that are stereotypical of one zodiac to each of the 12 men, while 7 other characters are said to have planetary influences.

The Luminaries reads like a Victorian novel, reminiscent of Dickens or Collins. The writing is beautiful, compelling and detailed, with so much keen insight that it is hard to imagine that the author is under the age of 30. There are multiple narrative threads, but the story under Catton’s deft hand never becomes unwieldy. At times, however, the many details are hard to keep straight. Fortunately each chapter starts with an epigraph with the names of characters who are to appear, making it easier to go back and check details. This is not a book to read on your commute to work. Instead, it is best enjoyed when you can read for hours at a time.

The narrative threads may not always be tied up perfectly, but there are plenty of wonderfully written distractions to make you quickly forget. Towards the end of the book, the epigraphs may tell too much of the story, but the author nevertheless serves up a highly satisfying ending. The Luminaries is a booklover`s novel.

Eleanor Catton’s abilities as a writer are astounding. If this is what she produces at age 28 then I look forward to what she will write at 50, when most writers are just hitting their stride. She is a shooting star in the literary firmament and a more than worthy recipient of the Governor General’s Award for fiction.

Other reviews
Lily and Taylor by Elise Moser
World of Glass by Jocelyne Dubois
5 Broken Cameras by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
Detropia by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Finding Dawn by Christine Welch
The Fruit Hunters by Yung Chang

This has been cross-posted at Rover Arts.




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The Missing Picture by Rithy Panh

Rithy Panh has made many films about his native Cambodia, but none as personal as The Missing Picture, awarded the Grand Prix (Un Certain Regard) at the 2013 Cannes International Film Festival. Now almost age 50, Panh states in the film's opening that he often finds himself revisiting memories of his childhood, that he seeks his childhood like a missing picture.

But because all of his family's photos and keepsakes were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge after it evacuated Phnom Penh in 1975, Panh has reconstructed his childhood from clay, creating intricate sets and colourful figurines of himself and each of his family members in order to tell his story. Images of the clay figurines are combined with and superimposed on footage from the regime's meticulously kept archives. The figurines take the edge off the many atrocities detailed in The Missing Picture, adding a warm childlike touch to an otherwise dark and chilling story.

As we see in the film, the director's childhood was happy and peaceful before the bombs began to fall in Cambodia. After the evacuation in 1975, Panh and his family were transported in a cattle car to a labour camp, where they were forced into re-education. As part of the Year Zero policy of the Khmer Rouge, families were separated and assigned numbers in lieu of names. Their clothes were dyed black, and their possessions destroyed, all in an attempt to erase their identities. Panh miraculously survives years of hardship and later seeks refuge in Thailand.

The Missing Picture is an extremely moving film. Although the atrocities of Pol Pot's killing fields are now well documented, this film's significant force comes from the fact that it is a first-person account of life in a Khmer Rouge labour camp and that no detail is spared. The regime's grainy black and white footage will also remind many people of US war coverage seen on the nightly news in the late 1960s and early 70s. TV images of US soldiers and terrified children in Indochina are perhaps some of the most powerful images of my own childhood. The Missing Picture reminded me of all the questions I had about war and bombs but that no adult could ever answer. 

The Missing Picture is poignant and more than deserving of its accolades. Rithy Panh has not only reconstructed the missing picture of his childhood, but he has also created an enduring record of what transpired in Cambodia where 2.5 million people lost their lives.

The Missing Picture is playing tonight at Cinéma du Parc 1 as part of the Rencontre internationale du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM).


Other related posts:
Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien
Detropia by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Finding Dawn by Christine Welch
The Fruit Hunters by Yung Chang
Review of the Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder
The Day of the Crows directed by Jean-Christophe Dessaint
M60: Faux Pas











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Zines, Zines, Zines

Montreal's small press, comic and zine fair, Expozine, is happening this weekend at the St-Enfant Jésus Church on St-Dominque Street in the Mile End. Expozine started in 2002 in order showcase the multitude of publications that fall outside the mainstream. Since then, it has become one of the centrepieces of alternative publishing in North America. It is also one of my favourite events.

As I walked up to the entrance of the long hallway leading to Little Burgundy Room, formerly known as the church basement, I couldn't help but notice all the people congregated outside on this uncharacteristically sunny November afternoon. Then I recalled how hot the basement was in previous years and quickly took off my coat.

This year there are more than 270 exhibitors, and at 4:00 yesterday, the room was jammed full of people. This is an over-the-top fun event that is best enjoyed earlier in the afternoon when there is plenty of infectious enthusiasm among the creative people anxious to show off their latest work. By late afternoon, the heat hampers some of that exuberance.

The collection of handmade zines, buttons and T-shirts was as deliciously eclectic as ever, but there's quite a bit more polish to the work now than in previous years. Word is evidently out that internationally renowned comic publishers scout new talent at this event. Last June, Drawn and Quarterly Associate Publisher Peggy Burns told CBC radio that Montreal's Expozine was one of three fairs in North America where the publisher looked for new artists with new mini comics. Yesterday,  Publisher Andy Brown of Conundrum Press told me that he, too, shopped for new talent at Expozine.

Every year, I track down a few artists I have been watching over the years, wondering if this will be the year of their big break. I spotted the dark yet hilarious Richard Suicide and the charming Hasemeister, but did not find Iris, a young comic artist originally from Gatineau who creates intriguing and highly believable female characters. Visitors will inevitably find some of their own favourites.

If you're looking for some artistic inspiration drop by the Expozine, Canada's largest zine fair. To really enjoy the event, you might want to wear a short-sleeved shirt. If not, they serve beer.

This has been cross-posted at Rover Arts.

My previous trips to Expozine:
Montreal's 8th Annual Small Press Expozine (2009)
Expozine's Broken Pencil (2010)
Expozine 2011 (2011)

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