Wonderland from a Wonderfan

This week I decided to review a Canadian author (Yes, I am aware that he was actually born in England and actually lives in the US at present, but he lived in Canada for a short time and also this novel is set in Toronto so I’m going to go ahead and claim him as one of our own), Steve McCaffery. No? You won’t let me call him a Canadian author? Fine. But it’s a Canadian novel at least; you can’t take that from me!

Alice-in-Plunderland-Steve-McCaffery-Illustrations-by-Clelia-Scala-Cover-510

Now, this novel is the first I’ve read of his work, and from what I understand he typically writes poetry. Not that this novel doesn’t have a poetic tint to it, but it is in fact a prose work (usually, anyway. You’ll see what I mean.) This book is the first in a series which McCaffery calls “Queering the Classics”. If there’s one classic I love more than any other, it’s definitely Alice in Wonderland — so upon seeing the cover of this novel on a good friend’s coffee table, I decided right then and there that I had to have it. (This was the exact same reasoning behind my purchase of a Dr Who/Alice crossover tshirt). If you look very closely at the front cover, alicetshirthowever, you’ll notice that this is not the Alice we know and love, but a seedier version of Wonderland. For those of you who love Lewis Carrol as is and refuse to hear any nonsense talk about drug-use or the slightly creepy photographing of little girls because it would ‘ruin your experience of the book’, maybe you should stop reading right now. Maybe go find a herd of talking bunnies rolling around in rainbows and kittens instead. Forget that you ever even heard of this book. The rest of you, come with me and let’s corrupt us some childhood, shall we?

The idea is relatively simple: the classic story of Alice with a huge makeover, and a heck of a lot more drugs. Alice is a little girl, addicted to all kinds of hallucinogens, who falls down a sewer in Tranna one day while trying to mug a bank teller. (Tranna is how native Torontonians pronounce the name of their city, FYI. I told you it was a Canadian novel.) The plot structure is very similar to the original novel, in fact some of the phrasing is incredibly similar, but what McCaffery has done is to change the environment around these events. So, while Alice still runs into a the character of the caterpillar, he is now a burned out junkie who advises her that “one capsule will give you an upper, and the other will give you a downer” (p64). It’s the simplicity of it all that makes it so ingenious; McCaffery has incredible skill as a wordsmith as he’s able to change certain things ever so slightly to get a whole new effect (for example, the chapter ‘Lobster Quadrille’ is now a ‘Mobster Quadrille’; or the gardeners become the avant-gardeners).

But it’s not all simple changes. There were a lot of larger changes to the story line (mainly in the form of drugs or other seedy business). While I appreciated a lot of the changes, mostly out of mere awe and admiration at the ease with which McCaffery pulled them off, there were times when I found myself taken out of the authenticity of it all because of something that was too similar to the original. Sometimes this would be a line that wasn’t altered, or the parenthetical style of the narrator which seemed out of place in this reworking, but often times it was simply because the action was too difficult to explain away in this new context: what I mean is that there are quite a number of times during Alice (original) that she measures her height by placing her hand above her head and feeling herself grow. A lot of the reworkings of these felt forced, using drug-induced hallucinations to explain it away. Luckily there were few of these moments, because I did find them a bit jarring. The other big change that I had an issue with was the choice to change the white rabbit into a female hooker – now, I know it’s a book about sordid characters in the underbelly of the city. I don’t mind that the rabbit became a prostitute at all. What I mind is that it had to be a female prostitute (aka the more recognizable stereotype) when the classic-Alice rabbit is male and McCaffery hasn’t genderbent ANY other characters (with the exception of the drag queen which was also poorly handled by being confused with trans* [usually using slurs] so I’m not even going to talk about that one because it’s pretty self-explanatory why I wouldn’t have been on board with it). For a book that claims to be ‘queering’ the classics, I think it would have been a more progressive choice to leave the rabbit character as a male prostitute rather than opting for the more normative stereotype.

Overall, I enjoyed the novel. As I said before, while reading it I had to pause every few pages just to admire how much McCaffery was getting away with it. I didn’t think he would be able to keep the authenticity of his rewrite running for more than a dozen pages before it got repetitive, but, for me at least, it never did. Also– the images were marvelous. The artist has used some of the classic Carrol drawings and done what I can only describe as collage-ing and scrap-booking with them. These were done incredibly successful, and I loved the style.

That’s all for now! Until next time: Happy Reading!

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Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me Review

mindyI’m not normally very big on comedy style novels. I’ve only ever read 5 in my life, including this book, and three of those are Ellen Degeneres’s flawless works of comedy (which you should all obviously go and read right this second). When Tina Fey’s Bossypants came out and everyone including my grandmother’s dog was reading it, I just sort of shrugged politely and said “I’m sure it’s wonderful, really. I’m sure it made you pee your pants with laughter. It just isn’t for me.”

I still don’t particularly understand the comedy/memoir/advice column/autobiography style of writing. I think it’s really hard to mash all those different things together and create a diamond. Part of the reason I believe this is because of the only other comedian’s novel I’ve read: Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please, which just recently came out. I thought I would love it; I really, really did. Parks and Recreation has been my favourite (half hour) TV show for the past several years. And with Parks coming to an end, I decided I should pick up Poehler’s novel and bask in her comedic genius one more time. But I didn’t really get comedic genius. I barely got comedy. I got a long, rambling list of names that she’s worked with, a lot of different anecdotes that seemed to skip back and forth and not really go anywhere. I wasn’t a fan. So when my partner suggested we read Kaling’s novel, I wasn’t holding my breath for anything special.

Maybe I just prefer Kaling’s comedy stylings. Maybe I just relate to her more. Maybe she just organized her book better and created more seamless transitions between parts. (It’s all of these things, in case you were wondering.) Her novel is split up into different sections, but was also organized chronologically – so you start with anecdotes from her childhood, her young adulthood, her career, the Office, and she caps it all off with a section on romance (more on this later), and within each of these periods of time she’s also limited herself to stories featuring certain themes. For example, her young adulthood section is mainly about New York and what it’s like living there as a semi-successful writer. I appreciated this progression through themes, as it all felt like it was leading to something.

Moreover, Mindy just gets me. Or I just get her. Either way, we’re two peas in a pod, even if she doesn’t know it yet. I feel like, even though our lives have never been similar as far as I can tell, we have a lot in common in our histories: both embarrassing younger siblings, both striving for friendship, both struggling with body-image and confidence in our abilities, both slightly androgynous in our youth…the list goes on. Mindy’s novel is very personal (something I felt was lacking in Poehler’s) and it made me want to keep reading. She just gets it.

There are also a lot of things she doesn’t get, though. One of the last sections was one on men/boys and romance. I could’ve lived without most of the material in this section. This last part was kind of rambling and not as well connected as the rest of her book, for a start. But it also rubbed me the wrong way – Kaling goes on a rant about real men having chest hair, and how she wants a man with that kind of burliness, and that men without it are just boys. I get the kind of liberalism she’s going for: guys don’t have to shave or wax to be sexy, just like women shouldn’t feel the need to do so. But at the end of the day, if a man wants to wax his chest and it makes him feel sexy, then I say ‘You go, guy!’. It all sounded a little too “real women have curves” to me. This entire section was probably her least politically correct, since she’s also got a letter to Jewish men asking them to stop doing certain things, and a couple of really classist remarks about people who can’t afford to buy certain things. My understanding is that Mindy is aware most of the time when she’s saying somewhat sketch things (anyone who’s watched her TV series The Mindy Project will know that when Mindy Lahiri says something racist or ableist or whatever, likely Mindy Kaling is behind that line saying ‘do you see how this is a kind of not okay thing to say?’) but I don’t know whether or not that excuses it. Overall, the section just seemed out of place in the novel as a whole.

If you’re considering picking up this novel, and are really on the fence about it, I suggest watching 10 episodes of The Mindy Project before making any decisions. If you’re finding yourself laughing at that, you will be very pleased with this book. If not, well, maybe you should try Bossypants.

Until next time; Happy Reading!

Fables Review

Hi again, everyone. Sorry for the delay from yesterday! (I know how eagerly you await these reviews). Over the weekend I finished reading the first volume, or the first five issues, of Fables. Fables is a graphic novel that has been highly recommended to me by a couple of sources, and I’ve gotta say – it really delivered.

fables

I wasn’t expecting anything great. The recent influx of fairy tale revision stories (starting with Once Upon A Time and only getting worse from there) have left a sour taste in my mouth and I didn’t think I would be very impressed with this latest one (I say latest because it is the latest one that I’ve encountered, but actually Fables began in 2002 and so predates most of the sloppy trash that’s circulated in the past handful of years).

When I picked this book up, I read the back cover, which told me that the fairy tale creatures, after being exiled from their magical lands, now live among regular New Yorkers and I thought “Wait. Hold up. How is this NOT Once Upon A Time? Fairy tale creatures living regular lives? It’s been done!” And it has. But not so well as this. I think a big part of the reason I enjoyed it so much was what the graphic format allowed for (but I’ll get to that in a moment).

The story is pretty simple: the Big Bad Wolf is a now-human detective trying to solve a case – the murder of Snow White’s sister. Let me just pause here to say that you can give me any kind of whodunnit story and I will likely love it. About 65% of the television shows I watch are whodunnit style dramas. So, of course, I was sold on this pretty quickly. If mystery isn’t your cup of tea, don’t worry, because it’s got a lot of other merits too.

Some of its best qualities lie in the detail – Snow White (assistant to the mayor, but essentially the mayor)’s office is a great example of that. It’s filled with trinkets and statues like a giant’s armor, a lamp on a pedestal, and a buff man wielding a trident… all things that pretty much scream fairy tales. There was also one scene, which I particularly liked, that showed the now-human BBW’s shadow as a wolf – very cool stuff, and very rewarding for those willing to stare at a single page for 10 minutes. (I’m also pretty sure that Aslan makes a guest appearance – I’d be lion if I said I didn’t appreciate that.)

The characters are pretty wonderfully done too: you’ve got the wolf turned detective, who sniffs out crime. There’s the trickster Jack who’s always got a get-rich-quick scheme. Let’s not forget Prince Charming, the sly devil whose only useful trait is that he’s handsome, and moreover is quite the philanderer. Every transformation that the characters have made seem like natural roles for their fairy tale selves to assume; plus, they’ve all got some good nicknames and insults for one another based on their fairy tale stories.

There are currently 149 issues (not including spinoffs), and I’m really excited to get into the next arc, wherein we’ll find out what the heck the Farm is and why one of the three little pigs is so desperate to escape it.

Stay tuned for more, and until next time: Happy Reading!

A Few Faves

In honor of World Book Day, I thought I might give you the lo-down on some of my favourite books by my favourite authors. After a quick peek at my book shelves, it was glaringly obvious about whom I should write since I’ve got a couple of tiny shrines in the works.

The first is none other than Margaret Atwood, . If you don’t know who she is, you’re either not Canadian or you’ve been living under a rock for the past few decades. She’s one of the stars of Canadian Literature, and a pioneer in the field. A quick wiki search will tell you everything you need to know: she writes poetry, short stories, non-fiction and fiction novels, children’s books, helps to edit Canadian anthologies and has won myriad awards in most of those categories. The woman has NINETEEN honorary degrees. That’s how big of a deal she is.

I’ve read a lot of her fiction, especially some of her early feminist works like The Edible Woman or The Handmaid’s Tale (loved both, by the way), but my all time favourite novel by Margaret Atwood is Oryx and Crake. Atwood isn’t new to dystopian fiction, but this is one of the first I’ve read that deals with sci-fi as well. In it, she envisions the future crisis of a world like our own: meat products are grown in labs, most of the animals are genetically engineered… the world is at the height of scientific advancement. The action oryx-and-crakecenters around Snowman, one of the few survivors of the human race, who is surrounded by a gaggle of genetically enhanced super-human creatures called the Crakers, as he tries to piece together how he found himself in the midst of the apocalypse. I could not put this book down. Nor either of the other two books in the trilogy. The novel was actually my first introduction to Atwood, whom I’d always heard was dry. Those allegations are totally false — Atwood is an incredibly witty writer with sardonic humour that you can miss if you’re not paying close enough attention. The story is beautiful, the world-building is stunning. This book has the highest recommendations that I can give, especially for any fans of sci-fi or dystopian fiction. 10/10

The second author I’d like to draw your attention to (though you likely already know him) is Neil Gaiman. I can’t claim to have read even a tenth of his works but I can almost guarantee that they’re all just as wonderful as the ones I have read. You probably know him best for Coraline, one of his best (I mean, creepiest) children’s books. Gaiman has a kind of Tim Burton-esque gothic style in many of his works, such as his graphic novel Sandman, but he’s also got a twinge of magic-realism and fantasy.

It was difficult for me to choose a favourite novel by him. Good Omens, the first I ever read, is in very high standing, as is Stardust, but I finally decided to go with American Gods, which I just read this past summer. In this novel Gaiman brings Gods and Myth, both the old and the new, to life in an epic battle for control. The new gods are ones like Media, the television goddess, or Technical Boy, sniveling dweeb and god of the internet, while the old are classic Norse, African, Egyptian gods. Shadow is just your everyday ex-american-gods-315204criminal caught up in the war, forced to choose sides and fight in it after having shared a cell with a man named Low-Key (get it?). I found the action of the novel very compelling, another one I just couldn’t put down, and was drawn in by the mysticism and mythology of the world, as well as the character of Shadow who is a kind of noble criminal. I recommend it to anyone who wants to get lost in a magical world or who is interested in American Studies, especially those of culture, pop or otherwise.

Those are my two picks for today. I hope you pick them up and really enjoy reading them. Or, if you have read them, what were your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time: Happy Reading!

Doppler Review

Welcome to my first review! I went back and forth quite a bit trying to decide whether I should review an old favourite, or something brand new and I eventually decided on the latter — there’s plenty of time to revisit the classics in the future, right?

dopplerThe novel I’ve chosen is Doppler by Erlend Loe. I picked this one up mainly because of the cover (what can I say? there’s no moose pretending) but it turned out very quickly to be completely worth it. The basic premise is that a man, Doppler, falls off his bike one day and hits his head causing him to realize that he’s tired of the material life he’s been leading and feels he wants more out of life. Shortly thereafter he moves into the forest nearby his village and meets a young moose, whose mother he’s just killed for meat. Throughout the novel the two form an unlikely bond and become somewhat of a family to one another, in spite of the fact that Doppler already has a family — a wife and two children.

The novel is written first person, in short bursts of narration over the course of 8 months. It’s a hard novel to put down, partially because it’s a pretty quick read, but also because of the character of Doppler who is at once enigmatic and deeply philosophical, sort of lost yet also wise, draws you in. The other characters which the book dwells on are all very interesting, including the son of a German soldier who is obsessed with re-creating the scene of his father’s death with models, and a daughter obsessed with Tolkien who prefers to speak Elvish.

At times, I got a bit of a “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” vibe, minus the split personality. Doppler is a very intelligent (and quirky) character who sees the world in very different ways, and finds his solace through isolation, manual labour, and meditation. He contemplates the state of the world and of his own life, trying with all his might for some sense of connectivity with nature and with himself and his family.

Until next time: Happy Reading!

Upcoming Events

Hi all! Due to the fact that I’m still in the midst of finishing up my final paper for this term, this will be a rather brief entry. I just wanted to give an update of some of the things coming up in the city over the next month or so.

First – Inanna Publications is hosting their Spring Book Launch on April 29th in the Kensington Market area (you can check their Facebook page for more details). I only recently discovered Inanna Publications, which is a feminist press here in Toronto. They publish a variety of genres, from fiction to poetry, as well as a literary journal of women’s studies, and are most interested in giving voice to (new) Canadian women writers. These are all things I’m 100% for, as you’ll soon come to realize. Canadian literature has too long been dismissed by popular culture, unless you happen to be Margaret Atwood, and I for one am all for encouraging new Canadian authors.

I’ll quickly mention that I’m most excited for two books in the launch: The Girl Who Was Born That Way by Gail Benick and Bear War-den by Vivan Demuth (links below). The former is about sisterhood, memory, and immigration. Anyone interested in Holocaust lit or Immigration lit would be advised to check it out. The latter follows a park warden, immersed in nature, who begins a spiritual journey guided in part by the talking skull of a bear, a la magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I imagine the novel is written in the traditional theme of haunting in Canadian Fiction (check out Watson’s The Double Hook if that sounds cool to you), and also might follow along closely with Ecofeminist critiques put forth by Val Plumwood (I could write an entire post on her book, the Mastery of Nature, but I won’t bore you with theory, though I really strongly recommend reading some of her work).

Needless to say I’ll be picking both of these books up and will be reviewing them in future posts.

http://www.inanna.ca/index.php/catalog/girl-who-was-born-way/

http://www.inanna.ca/catalog/bear-war-den/

This actually turned out to be a longer entry than I expected, so I’ll save some of the other events until they’re a bit closer on the calendar, and instead just remind everyone that Authors For Indies Day is coming up on May 2nd. Don’t forget to support your local independent book stores and authors and help Canadian literature continue to thrive! Click on the link below to find the official website and a list of participating stores, and which authors will be frequenting them.

http://www.authorsforindies.com/

Until next time: Happy Reading!