Friday, November 30, 2012

The Blondes

As far as I can remember, I've never dyed my hair. It's possible I used one of the 12-wash dyes in the summer once, but I have no real memory of doing so. This is less a style thing than a laziness thing, since once you start dyeing your hair you kind of have to keep going, and because I'm one of those people who only gets two or three haircuts a year, it just wouldn't work out. How is any of this relevant to a book blog? Well, after reading Emily Schultz's novel The Blondes, I haven't been able to stop thinking about hair colour and natural vs. synthetic colours, and it has made me think more deeply than I would have thought possible about my own dyeing choices.

Off the top, I should say this isn't a non-fiction book about the history of hair colour or anything like that. It's a novel, and although it has various plot lines, the one relating to the title is that of an epidemic affecting only girls and women with blonde hair – either dyed or natural. This "disease" – dubbed Blonde Fury because it drives these blonde women to attack others – spreads like wildfire around the world, forcing airports into lockdown and governments into creating "containment areas." The pandemic, though, is only half of the story, which is narrated by Hazel Hayes, who has just discovered she's pregnant.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ender's Game

It will shock approximately no one when I say that I am a public reader. That is, I do most of my reading in public, especially during my work commute, although I also happily read in caf├ęs, on the street corner, and while waiting in line. I read everywhere, and generally, no one notices. Or, at least no one obviously notices. I do see people peaking at my book cover from time to time, but only very, very rarely does anyone ask me about my book, or try to use it to start a conversation. (This is where I should add that every single time someone has asked me about my book, it has been a man. I'm not saying they're trying to pick-up, but it does seem fishy.) Anyway, all of this is to say that I rarely get interrupted when reading in public; that is, until I started Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Apparently it's a sort of seminal text for men of a certain age, because in one week I had at least three men tell me what a good book I was reading. One guy didn't even stop: I was standing on the subway platform and, somehow he caught the cover and timed his "that book is awesome" comment for just when he was walking down. It wasn't a conversation starter, it was a commendation, and while it was surprising, it was kind of nice. Who doesn't like a little positive reinforcement every now and then, after all?

Anyway, enough of that. The novel, written in 1985 but set well into the future, presents an Earth that has barely survived two massive wars with the extra-terrestrial buggers and is on the verge of a third. It is the fear of this third war that has led them to start training children – some as young as five or six – to be soldiers. These potentials are connected to a monitor (and by connected, I mean it's attached to their brain stem and thus records both what they see and what they think and feel) so the adults in command can determine whether the child has potential. The book opens with Ender Wiggin, age 6, having his monitor removed. He assumes this means he was a failure and is simultaneously pleased – it means his older brother Peter (also a failure) might stop bullying him – and disheartened (he is a Third, the third child born to his family despite the two-child policy, and the only reason his birth was permitted was because of his brother and sister's potential). Of course, this wouldn't be much of a novel if Ender wasn't recruited, so when it turns out that the military merely removed his monitor to then see how he would handle himself when no one was watching, it all makes sense. Ender is recruited and taken to military school in space.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Essential Tom Marshall

Kingston, Ontario, has got to be one of my favourite cities in Canada. For one, it's beautiful – think old limestone buildings covered with ivy overlooking the lake – and for another, it's where I did my undergrad, so I had four years to properly explore and get to know it. I even spent a summer there, something many undergrads never do in their university town, and I have to say, it just got better when the population dipped and the temperature soared. Above all, maybe, Kingston had a lively and varied arts scene, with both bands and authors constantly visiting (and, also making it there home). In all this richness, then, it is perhaps understandable that some of its artists would be forgotten; or, if not forgotten, at least not actively remembered. Such is the case with the poet Tom Marshall, who also first went to Kingston to attend Queen's, and ended up making his life there. Although I studied English at Queen's and was active in the creative writing community there, I don't recall ever hearing of him, which is quite surprising since, if the new collection The Essential Tom Marshall is to be taken as representative, he wrote a great deal about the city.

The poems in the collection were chosen by authors David Helwig and Michael Ondaatje, friends of the late Tom Marshall, and while it isn't clear whether the poems are presented chronologically, there is a cadence to their progression as Marshall's tone rises and falls. It is a slim collection, though, and as a result cannot feature many of of Marshall's longer poems – although a few are included. Reading through it, then, you almost feel you are reading many verses of a larger work, which allows the poems to both sit by themselves and slot into one another as images and emotions are repeated. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Age of Miracles

Sometimes the time at which a book makes its way to the top of my to-read pile is downright eerie. This week, for instance, during the "Frankenstorm" that was Hurricane Sandy – possibly the worst natural disaster to hit New York City in the last century – I was reading The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. I would have thoroughly enjoyed this book even if I hadn't been reading it with the backdrop of a hurricane and days and days and days of rain, but all of that gave the novel a kind of spooky feeling, as if I'd stumbled upon some kind of weird prophecy. I know it isn't really possible for a book to decide when it should be read, but I've had The Age of Miracles on my shelf for four months, so picking it up now makes me wonder a little.

Anyway. Thompson Walker's novel is set in more or less present-day California, where everything is just as it is now, except that the Earth's rotation has started to slow down. At the beginning of this slowing, days get longer by a half hour or forty-five minutes, and people start stocking up on canned food. When the news is broadcast for the first time, the narrator, 11-year-old Julia, runs outside to see if she anything looks different, but everything is just the same. Soon, though, the slowing becomes more noticeable. The days and nights start to stretch out until the clocks cease to make sense – 3 a.m. falls in the middle of the afternoon, noon in the morning, etc. The start time for school is announced each morning – that is, after sunrise – and a lot of kids stop showing up. Then birds start getting sick and falling dead from the sky.

The slowing, it seems, has started to affect the magnetic field, causing what is dubbed gravity sickness in people, and wreaking havoc with birds' navigation. In barely a month, there are almost no birds left in Julia's California town, and she's heard that it's like that elsewhere too. The longer days and change in gravity have also served to play with the tides, which are larger and fuller than ever. People have been forced to abandon their seaside mansions, which are now covered at every high tide.

Eventually, the days and nights grow to such exaggerated lengths that the government announces the country is going back to clock time. The rise and set of the sun will no longer have any bearing on what is day or night, they decide, on starting on a Sunday, the U.S. and countries all over the world, return to the clock. Floodlights are set up around Julia's school to when the students have to attend during dark days; quilts are hung over windows to block the sun on white nights, and soon the light and dark periods stretch to 48 hours each. Crops start to die, trees whither, and people begin to invest in green houses; Julia's mother's emergency stash of non-perishables spreads to the guest room.

As if all this weren't enough to try and deal with, Julia is in Grade 6, at that liminal age between being a kid and being something more grownup. Julia's best friend Hannah is sleeping over when the slowing is announced, and after she goes home that morning Julia doesn't see her again for months. Hannah's family is Mormon, so they return to Utah to prepare for the end of the world. When the rapture doesn't happen, Hannah comes back, but she has a new best friend now, leaving Julia more alone that ever. Julia's mother is sick – with gravity sickness – and as the slowing continues, Julia feels increasingly isolated. Until one day, when Seth Moreno, a boy from two streets over who Julia has been watching, invites her to the beach after school. A pod of whales has beach itself, and he wants to go and see and try to help. Although it doesn't happen right away, Julia and Seth become friends, best friends, half in love the way you only can be at 12 years old.

Thompson Walker so completely captures what it's like to be in Grade 6 – strangely aware of yourself and insecure and unsure and defiant – that even if you haven't thought about that time in years, Julia pulls you back there. It's this hyper-realistic experience that grounds the novel, making the other half of it seem not only plausible but frighteningly possible. This gives the title a dual significance, as The Age of Miracles is both the time of the Earth's slowing and puberty, when your body and emotions and everything seems to change both incrementally and overnight. It almost makes you wonder if the slowing is just a metaphor for what Julia is going through personally, but, of course, that it isn't makes the novel all the more fascinating. It is, I think, one of the most inventive novels I've read this year, and I can't imagine that you wouldn't enjoy it as much as I did.

The Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker
First published in 2012 (cover image shown from Doubleday Canada edition)
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