Saturday, March 11, 2023

Five Stalks of Grain


Five Stalks of Grain / Adrian Lysenko;
illus. by Ivanka Theodosia Galadza
Calgary: U of C Press, c2022.
152 p.

This is a hard hitting graphic history -- a story set during the Holodomor in Ukraine. This was an artificial famine, one created by Stalin's policies in the 30s, as part of the ongoing attempts at genocide of the Ukrainian nation. There are in-depth histories of this, one of the best known being Anne Appelbaum's Red Famine, if you want an in-depth study of this horrendous time. However, here we have a personal story being shared, to introduce people to this event in a way that will be striking and unforgettable. 

The illustrations are simple and realistic, all in black and white. We follow Nadia and Taras, two young children who strike out on their own when both of their parents are arrested and killed. They try to walk to somewhere safer where there will be food. They encounter dangerous situations with other starving people, and with soldiers looking for 'enemies of the state'. At one point they are separated, and despite the guilt Nadia tries to keep going. 

This isn't a book about overcoming trauma as much as about explaining and illuminating the trauma. The finale of the book is a scene in contemporary times, in which a couple of Canadian young people are visiting Ukraine, trying to find the home of their relatives lost in the famine. 

It's sad, and stark, but also very necessary to keep these stories alive. The Holodomor was one in a long line of Russian attacks on the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians, which is still going on. This book gives a glimpse into how it affected one family, in a story that will not be quickly forgotten. 

Monday, March 06, 2023

Enemy Alien: a true story of life behind barbed wire


Enemy Alien / Kassandra Luciuk; illus. by Nicole Marie Burton
TO: Between the Lines, c2020.
140 p.

This is an interesting read -- it is based on the memoir of a Ukrainian man, but the authors note that it's not clear who exactly the author was. They've given the main character the name John Boychuk, partly because he's the most likely candidate for author, and because the name is a kind of "John Smith" name.

In any case, it is based in the first person, contemporary account of the experience of Ukrainians in Canadian internment camps during WWI. There were a number of these camps across Canada, with many new Canadians locked up because they'd come from Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. And in this book, it's also shown that other men, even some Americans, were randomly caught up in the sweep to intern anyone "foreign". The illustrations are straightforward, black and white, and clearly representative of the people and the camps.

For those of us who like to think that Canadians are wonderful, kind, sweet etc., we just need to take a look at our history (both older and recent) to see how that's a false narrative. These camps resulted in the expected behaviour that crops up when some men are put into a position of power over others - lots of sadism, abuse and everyday bullying by guards, including withholding food, or making men undress in the middle of winter and run around on a frozen lake until they agree to camp demands. There were men who died due to untreated illness, or who were shot trying to escape. This book focuses on the camp at Kapuskasing, which was full of only men, but there were also other camps like the one at Spirit Lake which interned whole families. The book also shows that once they left the camp, they were sent to factories and industries far away from their homes, as forced labour -- and the end of the war was not the end of this practice. 

If you didn't know about the internment of Ukrainians during WWI already, this is a good introduction to the topic. There is an introductory essay that is a few pages long, which situates the story and provides historical background to the issue and to the specific source for this story. There is also a page long bibliography at the end if you then want to read more on this subject. I would also recommend Barbara Sapergia's novel Blood & Salt, for a fictional look at Ukrainian internment in Western Canada. 

Sunday, March 05, 2023

Yellow Butterfly


Yellow Butterfly / Oleksander Shatokhin
Brooklyn, NY: Red Comet Press, 2023, c2022.
72 p.

This is a wordless picture book by an internally displaced Ukrainian artist, created in the first few months of the Russian invasion. It shows the realities of war and displacement, with black and white images of war and fear and barbed wire -- but with a yellow spark of a butterfly leading the isolated character through the pages, until it multiplies and grows, and in the final pages of the book we have a clear yellow and blue layout with hopeful figures standing together. The images are rough, with a lot of energy and movement in them. You can feel the unsettled atmosphere in the opening pages. But the conclusion has a joy and hope in it, which makes sense when you read the author's statement on the back cover -- that he believes Ukraine will prevail and that "yellow butterflies will flutter freely in free Ukraine".

If you haven't experienced many wordless picture books yet, there is also a helpful appendix included in this book. There is one page titled "Sharing a Wordless Picture Book" which gives tips on how to approach and engage with this kind of book, as well as how to share it with the children you're reading it with. It included lots of visual examination and imagination, and patience to let the images speak to you. Then there is a second page, "Guiding the Conversation", and that includes tips on engaging with the content of this book. It provides ideas to check in with children to make sure they understand, as well as listening to their reactions and providing room for conversation about tough topics. 

I think that these resources make this book way more useful for parents, teachers or anyone experiencing this kind of book, with this kind of heavy topic, for the first time. This is a book that could be used to better understand conflict and to open discussions on hard topics. Well worth checking out if it's available to you. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

By Her Own Design


By Her Own Design / Piper Huguley
NY: William Morrow, c2022.
367 p.

This is a novel based on the life of Ann Lowe, a Black designer who sewed for high society; she's probably best known for Jacqueline Kennedy's wedding dress. However, 'best' known is still not widely known, and when author Piper Huguley discovered her story she decided to write a novel to spread her story. 

Huguley has written three earlier novels, all romance, and that shows in this book. The first half of the book, as Ann is growing up and experiencing her two marriages (she was first married at 12 years old), is rich and dense with detail and emotion. The genesis of her desire to be a designer, and the development of her sewing skills at the feet of her mother and grandmother, is all laid out, explaining Ann's devotion to her dreams of being an artist. The relationships between Ann and her mother, grandmother, and sister are deeply drawn, followed with the appeal of her two husbands and then her love for her only son -- all these elements are compelling reading. 

Once Ann has shaken off the relationships that are holding her back, though, and sets a course for her new life in New York, the story moves more quickly, skimming over a lot of the many storied years Ann spent running various shops and designing for a multitude of famous people. There are highlights of some of the most dramatic moments of her later life - the Kennedy wedding dress and a closely averted disaster, the loss of family members, a retrospective gala for her in her later years -- and each moment is certainly affecting. But the second half focuses less on her personal life than the beginning. 

Still, I really enjoyed this book. The writing brought this woman to life, and evokes an era in which her success was much more unlikely than otherwise. Huguley captures small things that really illuminate the wider world, and Ann is a great character to follow through the many changes across the 20th century. And even better, if you're intrigued, you can look into more about the real Ann Lowe and see some of her work after you've finished the novel. I think this is a great introduction to her life and story, and would recommend for any fashion lovers. 

(this review first appeared at Following The Thread)

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Thread Collectors


The Thread Collectors / Shaunna J. Edwards & Alyson Richman
NY: Graydon House, c2022.
400 p.

This recent novel is co-written by two friends, aiming to give a different perspective on the American Civil War. It's set in 1863, and moves between chapters told from the viewpoints of our two main characters, Lily (a New York Jewish wife) and Stella (a Creole woman in New Orleans who is the mistress of a white man but in love with a black man). 

The dual perspectives add to this book. It looks at the Civil War from a woman's point of view, as well as those of the Jewish and Black communities; it examines love, family ties - or fractures, history, music, racism, and the title hints at how sewing and thread make their way through the story in meaningful ways. 

I can't summarize the plot, there's too much in it. However, the basic outline is that Stella's William has run away to join a regiment accepting black soldiers. To help him, she stitches a map from threads she's pulled from household items. These maps become much in demand and she finds herself surreptitiously making many for local families. All this while dealing with her family legacy of being claimed by a white man as a kind of mistress at the right age, as a way of staying alive. 

Lily, on the other hand, has her eyes opened to wider realities once her husband Jacob joins up and is sent south. She gets involved in war work to support him, which includes a lot of sewing and bandage making. She eventually travels south herself to find him when his letters stop. 

William and Jacob are both musicians and coincidentally end up in companion units, where Jacob befriends him -- unusual at this time. Their experiences and developing relationship make up a lot of the book, which we see from their eyes, not from a distance. This does mean that there are some horrific events included, so be aware. But they are all based in real events or stories, and it's important to remember that. 

The tone of the chapters varies slightly depending on who's telling it, but the book overall is well edited and the narrative is smoothly told. It's a bit long in some ways - some of the backstory could have been tightened up, for me anyhow. And there were some parts that felt a little coincidental, but were needed to keep the story going. These few small caveats were the only issues I had with an otherwise very unusual and compelling read about this time in history. I thought the characters were fascinating and complex. I was especially drawn in by Stella and her sister, finding their story rich and full of life. I enjoyed how Stella upcycled and used the fibres around her to work toward freedom for many, and how this process strengthened her sense of self. 

Definitely a great read for anyone who is interested in widening their view of American history, or loves a story of strong women swept up in big events. The sewing content is another plus for me!

(first published in slightly different form at FollowingTheThread)

Friday, January 27, 2023

Scattered All Over the Earth

Scattered All Over the Earth / Yoko Tawada
trans. from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani
NY: New Directions, 2022, c2018.
256 p.

This one sounded really fascinating, as it grapples with language itself, and what happens when there is nobody left to speak your mother tongue with. 

It's set in an undeterminate near future, in which Japan has disappeared from the earth. Hiruko is a climate refugee who is now a storyteller in Denmark, where she's come up with her own language, PanSka (pan-scandinavian). This language shapes the way the story is told, as she meets a cast of diverse characters -- from the Danish Knut, a young man who is a bit of a linguistics scholar, to Nora, the curator of a German museum where Hiruko hopes to find another Japanese speaker. This is Tenzo, a chef and Nora's lover -- however, he's really (secretly) Nanook from Greenland, not Japan. And rather late in the story we also encounter Akash, an Indian trans woman who joins their motley crew. 

Their search for someone else from Japan is rather like a lost cause; Hiruko seems to be the only person in Europe who still speaks Japanese (it's a stretch, you have to just buy in to that premise). They have all sorts of experiences, encounters with all sorts of people all over Europe and Scandinavia, and just when you think something is going to conclude, this rather short book comes to an abrupt halt -- oh, that's because this is the first in a projected trilogy. 

I had hoped to like this more than I actually did. The PanSka element was a bit irritating after a while, like reading too much dialect. An example: “homemade language. no country to stay in. three countries I experienced. insufficient space in brain. so made new language. homemade language.”

Also, the plotting seemed to be based on just adding more and more to the story: strange encounters and coincidences, characters who are unknowingly linked, and many locales. I did appreciate that the breadth of the characters meant that there was representation of a wide variety of languages and cultures, something the book is investigating as a primary theme. But somehow I just didn't connect to it fully, it felt carnivalesque when I wasn't in the mood for that. So I'm not sure I'll read parts two and three when they eventually appear. This is the second book I've tried by this author, and I didn't find the first one compelling, so perhaps her style and preoccupations just don't mesh well with mine. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Dead-End Memories


Dead-End Memories / Banana Yoshimoto
trans. from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda
Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2022, c2003.
208 p.

I usually like Yoshimoto's writing a lot, so I thought that her latest story collection to be translated into English would be a good choice for the 16th annual Japanese Literature Challenge, hosted by Dolce Bellezza.

It's a collection of five stories, all featuring women dealing with some kind of significant moment in their life. The writing style is very typical of Yoshimoto -- calm, slow paced, with a strong focus on self reflection, melancholy, and food. Most of them have to do with relationships of some kind; family ties that can support or smother, friendships that might turn romantic as well,  childhood friendships that exist in memory, and so on. There is a lot of trauma investigated by these protagonists, and this focus reveals societal expectations for Japanese women in particular to hide their pain away and continue on with making their families and society run smoothly. I think the cover captures the melancholy of fall and the feeling of emptiness that imbues many of the characters.

Yoshimoto has said that these stories are especially dear to her, so I went into this with some pretty high expectations. I did enjoy most of them, with a couple of jarring notes in one of the stories where the so-called love interest is misogynistic and really off-putting. But in so many of her stories, the men who are admired so much don't seem to do much to earn it. 

I think that my favourite stories were Mama! (which deals with a woman poisoned at her work cafeteria, and her slow recovery, along with the unexpected support she receives during this experience) which was strange and touching in many ways. And I also found House of Ghosts memorable, with two young protagonists who both come from food service families, and they talk food as a more esoteric theme -- while they also experience the ghosts of an old couple who don't seem to realize they are dead. Ghosts and paranormal experience often show up in Yoshimoto's stories, and this one definitely falls into that tradition. 

Overall, the book was a good read, though some of it fell a bit flat for me. Maybe because I read it all in one quick go, I felt like the stories ran together a bit. It's always better to let a story sit a bit before continuing on to another. Also, these were all very short stories, and in her longer work there is a bit more time to feel immersed in the story and the characters. I liked this but would recommend her classic, Kitchen, or one of my other faves, Moshi Moshi, as an introduction if you haven't already read much Yoshimoto.