Books: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

25150798The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
Published March 21, 2017
star-4
Lisa See is an author who has been on my TBR for a long time, but this is the first book of hers I’ve read and it did not disappoint. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane tells the story of Li-yan, an Akha ethnic minority girl in Yunnan, China and her family, who align their lives around the farming of tea. When a stranger arrives seeking a rare tea, Li-yan, as the most educated girl in her village, is tasked with translating for the stranger, whose arrival marks the entrance of the modern world into the lives of the Akha. Li-yan begins to reject the superstitions and rules that have shaped her existence, and when she gives birth to a daughter while unwed, she brings her child to an orphanage in a neighbouring city and abandons her, rather than submit to the tradition that would compel her to give the child over to be killed. While Li-yan’s intelligence and education enables her to move into the modern world, she never forgets about the daughter she gave up. Meanwhile in California, her daughter Haley is raised by loving American parents in a privileged home, but wonders about her origins.

See’s grasp on the setting and the rich historical and cultural detail she provides is deeply immersive and I learned a great deal about the Akha, an ethnic group I knew absolutely nothing about, as well as about the process of farming, brewing, and selling tea. In fact, I was so fascinated by the description of the rise in value of Pu’er and its potential health benefits, that when I was in a tea shop this weekend I bought a sample of Pu’er tea to try!

Admittedly at times the immersive quality of the setting and culture was difficult for me to encounter because it clashed so wholly with my western sensibilities. It helps that even Li-yan, raised within this culture, is upset by the killing of healthy twin babies, in one of the novel’s most shocking scenes. As Li-yan’s midwife mother explains,  “only animals, demons, and spirits give birth to litters. If a sow gives birth to one piglet, then both must be killed at once. If a dog gives birth to one puppy, then they too must be killed immediately.” This explanation may help to understand why the Akha believe what they do, but it is still difficult to accept. Other examples are less drastic, but the idea of whether or not two people are a good match for a relationship being decided by their day of birth, is still hard to accept.

See writes beautifully, with prose that makes you feel like you were there. She provides enough detail to paint a picture and is informative without the writing and historical context ever feeling dull. Although I can see why other readers might not enjoy her choice to include awkward terms, like “doing the intercourse”, which I assume is a close translation of words the Akha’s language would actually use, this decision didn’t affect my reading experience and it’s infrequent enough that I enjoyed the terms as a marker of authenticity.

Undoubtedly my favourite things about this book was Li-yan. She is one of the most engaging protagonists I’ve encountered in a long time. Compassionate towards others, even when they wrong her, strong in her ability to get through hardship, and intelligent. Li-yan sees education as her way forward and as a means to escape the life that has been planned for her, to follow in the footsteps of her midwife mother. She is a character I cared about deeply. Her successes in business and in life brought me joy, and more than anything I wanted her to be happy. On the other hand, I felt the stab of betrayal from her former friend and, later in the book, the hole in her otherwise idyllic life left by her abandoned daughter.

I wish See had spent more time on Li-yan’s daughter Haley and her story, because I found it really interesting to read about her experience in the group therapy she undergoes for Chinese adoptees. Haley describes herself as ‘grateful but angry’, grateful to be adopted into a privileged home with parents who love her, but angry at being abandoned by her birth parents. I loved both the unique methods of presenting Haley’s experiences, through letters, essays, and even a transcript of a therapy session, See uses and the sentiments that are expressed by Haley and other Chinese adoptees of not fitting in, of being subject to stereotypes, and of the conflict they each have with their origins.

I raced through this book, not wanting to put it down. Usually I enjoy a good bittersweet ending, or even a sad ending, but with The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane I was desperately afraid that after all the trials of Li-yan’s early life she would not get her happy ending. This feeling intensified when she seemed to be in a happy relationship mid-way through the book and I feared there was too much of the book left for the author to not introduce additional drama. I also worried that the reunion with Haley might not occur. Ultimately though, he story is brought to a gratifying end.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is a very moving tale of love, sacrifice, and hard work, that features a protagonist you will root for and interesting glimpses at a little known ethnic minority and the process of making and selling tea.  I would highly recommend it and I look forward to reading more of Lisa See’s work in the future.

 

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Series I’ve Been Meaning to Start

As every reader knows, there are far too many books to read in this lifetime and the tbr list is always growing. How appropriate then that this week’s topic is the Top Ten Series I’ve Been Meaning to Start but Haven’t. Some of the series that made my list have been on it for years, while others are more recent additions. Whether new or old, these are all books that I hope to get to soon and that I look forward to reading…one day!

Want to join in the fun? Head on over to Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and Bookish.

AssasinsApprentice1. The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
A good friend, who previously recommended a series that is now one of my all-time favourites, gave me her copies of The Farseer Trilogy before she moved to New Zealand, so I have no excuse for not starting this one! The books follow the life of Fitz, the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, who becomes a trained assassin and may be the key to the survival of the kingdom. I’ve only heard good things about this series, particularly from some of the other lovely book bloggers I follow, who have started reading Hobb’s books and loved them. The Farseer Trilogy is definitely near the top of my tbr list!

1274552. The Gentlemen’s Bastards series by Scott Lynch
I’m cheating a tiny bit here because I actually picked up The Lies of Locke Lamora several years ago, read not even fifty pages, and put it back down. I can’t remember why it didn’t grab me at the time, although I vaguely remember the prose putting me off a little, but I suspect it was more a case of coming across the right book at the wrong time. These days I’m more willing to give a book a chance and to persevere when it doesn’t grab me immediately, and I know this is a series that several people I respect have enjoyed, so I’m looking forward to starting it again. From the description it seems to involve heisting, and a band of confidence men, so what’s not to like?!

DaughteroftheForest3. The Sevenwaters series by Juliet Marillier
A historical fantasy loosely based on the legend of the Children of Lir and “The Six Swans”, this series wasn’t even on my radar until earlier this year when a friend with similar taste gave the first book a rave review on goodreads. When I looked it up, it turned out several friends had also given the series five star ratings! I tend to enjoy books that feature mythology and/or folklore, and I’ve heard the first book in the series mentioned as a good choice for fans of Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, one of my favourite reads so far this year, so I’m definitely looking forward to trying out this series!

684284. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
I’m a long-time fantasy fan who devoured George R.R. Martin’s ASoIaF series (to date) along with Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles among other doorstopper epic fantasy novels, so I feel a little like an English major who hasn’t read the great classics when I say that I’ve never read anything by Brandon Sanderson. I keep meaning to but, quite frankly, the size of his books and his back catalogue are a little intimidating. I’m not even sure if Mistborn is the ideal place to start, but at some point I would really like to read his work. I’d definitely appreciate suggestions about where to start with Sanderson though!

553995. The Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson
Going hand-in-hand with Brandon Sanderson is another epic fantasy great, Steven Erikson. I’ve owned a copy of the first book in the series, Gardens of the Moon, for at least a few years now, but it’s still sitting unread on my shelf. Once again I have heard such positive things about this series from friends and it’s definitely a series I want to tackle, but a case where the size of the book has been intimidating.

233956806. The Illuminae Files by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Before I started this blog I hadn’t even heard of the Illuminae Files, but the positive reviews from book blogs I follow and from friends on goodreads have pushed this one well up the tbr list. I’ve been reading a lot of science-fiction, both adult and YA, this year but these books definitely look interesting!

189523417. The Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu
I have to admit that the reviews I’ve heard of this series are mixed and that the main issue readers seem to have is the lack of female characters, so I’m a little on the fence about starting it, but I love the fact that it’s an Asian-influenced historical high fantasy story and I’m certainly interested enough to give it a try. I gather Liu’s short stories have been more universally acclaimed, so I may start with a collection of those before tackling a full-size novel.

213268. Fables by Bill Willingham
At least when it comes to comic books I can pinpoint exactly why I haven’t gotten to a certain series. The main factor is reading time. I tend to read on my commute, but depending on how busy work is I may also read on my lunch hour, or even after work in a park. With a comic book I’d worry about running out of material. Also, comics tend to be expensive to buy and few grab me enough that I would want to re-read them, so I often borrow them from the library and sometimes libraries don’t have all volumes of a book. All of this is a tangential way of saying that Fables is one of those comic books/graphic novels, like Saga or Sandman, that I’ve heard a lot about and have never quite gotten to. Luckily a laid-back friend (I say laid-back because she has been REALLY cool about it taking months for me to get through the issues of Saga I borrowed from her) has agreed to lend them to me whenever I’m ready, so I’ll try to get through this series soon.

187128869. The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
The Queen of the Tearling is another series that makes it onto my list, but that I have some trepidation about reading. Most of my goodreads friends have given it four or five stars, but one friend who I often share opinions with said that she hated it so much she couldn’t even be bothered wasting her words on an eloquent review explaining why it was terrible. Yikes. Still, the synopsis, about an untested young princess who must claim her throne, learn to become a queen, and combat a malevolent sorceress in an epic battle between light and darkness, sounds interesting.

2031246210. Jackaby by William Ritter
I have to admit that this is a rare case (for me) of judging a book by its cover…and liking what I saw! I don’t know much about this Victorian England-set novel about a detective of the paranormal, but it sounds interesting enough to give a try and again, how gorgeous are those covers?!

Have you read any of the series I’m on the fence about starting? What did you think, worth my time or should I pass? Any series I should move to the very top of my tbr? Please let me know in the comments!

Books: The Dark Forest

23168817The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, Translated by Joel Martinsen
Published August 11, 2015
star-2
In the first volume of Cixin Liu’s Hugo-nominated Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, a secret military project sent signals into space to make contact with aliens. The signal was captured by an alien race on the brink of destruction, who formulate a plan to travel to Earth, a trip that will take four centuries, and stage an invasion. The Dark Forest continues this story. Although their ships will not arrive for 400 years, the Trisolarans have planted sophons, subatomic particles that give them access to all human information on Earth, making it nearly impossible for humanity to form a response that the aliens will not see coming. Only the human mind remains a secret.

As a result, the Wallfacer Project is formed, a plan that grants four selected individuals almost unlimited resources to design separate and secret strategies, which are to be hidden from both Earth and Trisolaris through misdirection and deceit. Most of the Wallfacers are influential statesmen and scientists, but Luo Ji is a wildcard. A Chinese astronomer and sociologist of seemingly little consequence, he is baffled by his new status, and yet he is the one Wallfacer that Trisolaris fears.

Is there some pay-off at the end of the book? Yes. Is it enough to justify slogging through 500 pages of this? Not even close.

I was acutely aware that the first book in the series, The Three-Body Problem, was not my kind of book (see my review here), and yet I was capable of admiring its merits and understanding why it had been so acclaimed. Not so with The Dark Forest. The book suffers from a bad case of Second Book Syndrome and manages to not only be dull and devoid of interesting characters, but also uncomfortably misogynistic throughout.

It is clear that characters are not a strength of Cixin Liu’s. Most of his characters have so few distinguishing characteristics that they all blend together into one bland, not particularly likable, type. The female characters, of which there are few, fare even worse. His women exist primarily as love interests for the male characters, who lead, make the tough decisions, and generally hold positions of importance, including all four Wallfacer appointments. This may be a realistic stance. Given the state of the world today I suspect men would be chosen, based on the assumption that they have a stronger background in both scientific accomplishments and strategic warfare, and yet I can’t help thinking how much more interesting the story would have been (in the hands of another writer that is) if a female perspective and plan had been included.

I could have put aside the lack of main female characters if the minor characters had been three-dimensionally written, but there are problems here too. Multiple women (again, from a small cast of female characters to begin with) betray their husbands, enough to make me wonder if the author has some unresolved issues. Additionally, The Dark Forest opens with its womanizing main character’s latest fling being killed in an attack on them both and the main character initially can’t even remember her name. When he does, the author never reveals it.

But the most offensive portrayal of women comes from the main character, Luo Ji, falling in love with an imaginary perfect woman that he has created. Far from being told this is abnormal, the doctor tells him he doesn’t have a sickness, he just has natural literary talent in creating a character so real the writer is unable to control them. “There’s nothing excessive about imagination. Especially where love is concerned,” says the doctor. It’s a scene made particularly ironic by the fact that Cixin Liu’s characters are so one-dimensional it’s hard to imagine any of them having a mind of their own.

Luo Ji is so infatuated with this non-existent women that it destroys his one close relationship with a real woman. When he is appointed a Wallfacer and has the resources of the world at his disposal in order to save the planet, he uses them to find a real woman who fits exactly the image he has in his head, by describing the woman to his bodyguard and asking him to find her and bring her to him. The imaginary woman is described as:

“She… how should I put it? She came into this world like a lily growing out of a rubbish heap, so… so pure and delicate, and nothing around her can contaminate her. But it can all harm her. Yes, everything around her can hurt her! Your first reaction when you see her is to protect her. No, to care for her, to let her know that you are willing to pay any price to shield her from the harm of a crude and savage reality.”

“She likes to wear-how would you put it?-simple, elegant clothing, a little plainer than other women her age.” Luo Ji nodded dumbly, over and over, but there’s always something white, like a shirt or a collar, that contrasts sharply with the dark colors of the rest of her outfit… Finally, she’s not tall, one hundred and sixty centimeters or so, and her body is…well I guess you could say slender, as if a gust of wind could blow her away.”

In a particularly unbelievable turn of events, the bodyguard finds a woman who exactly matches this description, brings her to Luo Ji, and they proceed to fall in love and have a child together. The impending alien invasion is easier to believe than this ridiculous plot twist. After they’ve been together for a few years, long enough for her to produce a child, the woman (Yan Yan) is quite literally fridged! She’s put into refrigerated hibernation along with her daughter, effectively held as hostages to ensure that Luo Ji does his duty as a Wallfacer by producing a strategy! If this wasn’t disturbing enough, Yan Yan herself is infantilised, described repeatedly as innocent, trusting, and childlike (all of the following quotes come from just five pages):

“Looking at her innocently holding the wineglass stirred the most delicate parts of his mind. She drank when invited. She trusted the world and had no wariness about it at all. Yes, everything in the world was lying in wait to hurt her, except here. She needed to be cared for here.”

“She flashed him that innocent smile that dashed his heart to pieces.”

“She tilted her head, giving his heart a jolt. The naive expression was one he had seen on her countless times before.”

“The look in her eyes was one of slight curiosity mixed with goodwill and innocence.”

“He was completely overcome by her childlike nature.”

Putting aside the poorly written characters and sexism, there are things that keep The Dark Forest from being a complete dud. The book has less of a focus on physics and hard science-fiction, which makes it easier to understand for those of us without a science background. The translation, by Joel Martinsen instead of Ken Liu, also seems better and less clumsy this time around, although there is some purple prose that I’m not sure if I should attribute to Liu or to Martinsen.

The concept is interesting, and I particularly enjoyed the parts of the novel set in the more distant future and the glimpses at technology in this world. Leaf houses, screens on every flat surface, personalized ads (including an ad for a bandage shortly after a character is in an accident) are all imaginatively rendered and created a detailed picture in my head. There are also scattered moments of humour, such as when a character is repeatedly targeted for assassination, but is informed that he will receive compensation for each failed attempt on his life. Each Wallfacer’s plan is also interesting to read about.

The Dark Forest paints a rather grim, but realistic I think, portrait of humanity and how we would react to a crisis like this. When humanity is aware that the Trisolaran fleet will be coming for them and strategies for survival are looking uncertain at best, some try to escape but Escapism is banned, as humanity can’t decide on who should be allowed to survive. Of course the most interesting part of the novel is the reason for its title. I’ve whited this out and warned for spoilers below, so scroll past if you’re considering reading this.

*SPOILERS for the end of the book/central concept*

In sharp contrast to the optimism of Star Trek with its United Federation of Planets, the author presents a dark answer to the Fermi paradox, proposed by physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950, which asks why humans haven’t seen evidence of intelligent aliens when the probability of their existence is high. The novel takes its name from the analogy used to describe the state of the universe. Liu posits that the universe is a “dark forest”, which is populated by predatory species who will wipe out lesser beings. Most intelligent life forms therefore know well enough to keep quiet in order to preserve their existence, but “there’s a stupid child called humanity, who has built a bonfire and is standing beside it shouting, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’ In sending a signal to the universe, humanity has made itself vulnerable. 

*End of SPOILERS*

I’m a keen supporter of diverse voices in books and particularly in Science-Fiction, a genre which is still predominantly being written by white men, but that diversity shouldn’t come at the cost of three-dimensional female characters. I wavered stubbornly over whether I should try to finish the series in the name of reading all of the Hugo award nominees for best novel this year, but reviews for Death’s End, the final volume in the series, have convinced me that this would be a waste of my time. With no one to root for and the book often demonstrating the worst of human civilization, it’s difficult to care about whether humanity survives or not. It’s a shame that the potential of The Three-Body Problem was squandered in such a way.

Sunday Snapshot: Stories in Stratford

25p2ycy

I spent a wonderful Saturday in Stratford, Ontario, shopping, eating, and taking in two shows (reviews to come!) at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, both of which I enjoyed. Although it was a long day, capped off with a bus ride that returned me to downtown Toronto at 1 AM, it was completely worth it. And what better to read by the River Avon than M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains about seven Shakespearean actor students at a prestigious conservatory?!

Top Ten Tuesday: Favourite Dads in Literature

In May I paid tribute to my mom with a list of my favourite fictional mothers, so it seemed only fair that this week I count down my top ten favourite fictional fathers/father figures. When it comes to fiction, it can be difficult to find positive father figures. In fact, I could probably create an entire list of awful fathers (and three-quarters of them would be from Lost!), which is all the more reason to celebrate those positive fathers who make an impression. Want to join in the fun? Head on over to Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and Bookish.

242801. Jean Valjean (Les Miserables)
As a huge fan of both the book and the musical, how could I not place Jean Valjean at the top of this list? The ultimate in adopted fathers, Valjean keeps his promise to Fantine, retrieving her daughter Cosette, who has been treated as a servant, from the Thénardiers and raising Cosette as his own. Despite the looming threat of Javert, Jean Valjean ensures that Cosette wants for nothing. The love in this father-daughter relationship is incredibly moving. Cosette and Valjean are so lacking in love that when they are brought together the bond is that much stronger between them. He thinks the world of his daughter, and she of him. When Cosette worries that her father is eating the poor brown bread, she insists that she will eat what he does, knowing that he will not let her do so and will accept the white bread for her sake. When Valjean learns that his daughter has a young man who loves her and intends to fight on the barricades he is initially relieved that the man (Marius) will certainly die, but feels such guilt that he goes to the barricades and rescues the young man, carrying Marius on his back through the sewers to safety for Cosette’s sake. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is!

“When he saw Cosette, when he had taken possession of her, carried her off, and delivered her, he felt his heart moved within him.
All the passion and affection within him awoke, and rushed towards that child. He approached the bed, where she lay sleeping, and trembled with joy. He suffered all the pangs of a mother, and he knew not what it meant; for that great and singular movement of a heart which begins to love is a very obscure and a very sweet thing.
Poor old man, with a perfectly new heart!”

26572. Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)
Through the book and the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch has made such an impression as a positive role model and father that he can be found on just about every list of great fictional fathers. Controversy about the recent sequel aside, Atticus deserves this place of honour. He is a model of fairness and justice, encouraging daughter Scout to see things from the perspective of others, and defending the cause of social outcasts.

“Atticus, he was real nice.”
“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

j6n48z3. Arthur Weasley (Harry Potter)
Like his wife Molly, Arthur is a wonderful parent not just to his red-headed brood, but also to the orphaned Harry. Admittedly it has been a long time since I read Harry Potter, but I remember Arthur as being the kind of man who believes in the equality of muggles and magical folk, who may not be ambitious but he is good, and who cares deeply about the wellbeing of his family. The Weasleys may be poor, but they are rich in love with parents like Molly and Arthur on their side.

Pachinko4. Isak (Pachinko)
Above all, what I loved about Pachinko was its characters. This fabulous multi-generational novel about a Korean family through the twentieth century has characters who are real, who work hard, and who are generally good people. Isak is one such character. A young and sickly, missionary, he encounters the pregnant Sunja at her mother’s boarding house and decides it is his destiny to give this young unmarried woman’s child a name. He marries Sunja and brings her with him to Japan, raising her first son Noa as his own, as well as their biological child, Noa’s younger half-brother Mozasu. Although he endures hardship, including the discrimination that Koreans living in Japan face, poverty, and even torture and unjust imprisonment, Isak is a kind husband and father who tries to do right by his family and his faith.

alittlelife5. Harold (A Little Life)
One of the things that prevents A Little Life from being the bleakest book on the planet (don’t get me wrong, it is definitely still DARK, but there is some light in the darkness) is Jude St. Francis’ support system, and Harold Stein, the Harvard law school professor who officially adopts an adult Jude as his son, is a big part of that. Having lost his biological son Jacob to sickness in childhood, Harold tries to make Jude feel like he is Harold’s son and selflessly takes the troubled Jude’s sorrows into his life. And if your heart hasn’t already been broken earlier in this 700-page novel, the final letter written by Harold will definitely do it.

134966. Ned Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire)
It goes without saying that Eddard Stark, in following his principles and honour, does not always make the best decisions, but he obviously cares deeply for his family and children. I loved the glimpses we see throughout the first book of Ned’s regard for his wife and children. He never admonishes tomboy Arya or expects her to act more like a lady (likely because she reminds him of his deceased sister), even hiring a swordsman to instruct Arya in the basics of how to use her sword Needle. Although the reader doesn’t see as much of Ned with his other children, his love for them is always clear.

“She had never loved him so much as she did in that instant.”

162830147. Bob Cratchit (A Christmas Carol)
Surprisingly A Christmas Carol is the only Dickens this English major has read, but it’s an interesting book and involves, of course, an excellent father in Bob Cratchit. Although they are a very poor family, as Cratchit, the clerk at Scrooge’s moneylending firm, is overworked and underpaid, they are kind and respectable. Cratchit clearly loves sickly son Tiny Tim and for the rest of his family and works hard to ensure his family’s survival.

81331908. Matthew Cuthburt (Anne of Green Gables)
His sister Marilla is a fair but sometimes sharp-tongued woman, who sometimes finds herself in conflict with imaginative Anne Shirley, the girl they accidentally received from the orphanage instead of a boy to help with the farm, but shy kindly Matthew takes a liking to Anne from the start. While Marilla serves as the stern parental figure, Matthew spoils Anne and serves as a sympathetic ear and a “kindred spirit”. Noticing that Anne is dressed more plainly than her friends, he buys a dress in the new fashion with puffed sleeves as a Christmas present for Anne, which brings her to tears of joy. This father figure bond with Anne has stuck with me all of these years and still comes to mind when I think of positive father-daughter bonds.

“That’s a Christmas present for you, Anne,” said Matthew shyly. “Why–why–Anne, don’t you like it? Well now–well now.”
For Anne’s eyes had suddenly filled with tears.
“Like it! Oh, Matthew!” Anne laid the dress over a chair and clasped her hands. “Matthew, it’s perfectly exquisite. Oh, I can never thank you enough. Look at those sleeves! Oh, it seems to me this must be a happy dream.”

15q8eaf9. Pyotr (The Bear and the Nightingale)
A recent favourite of mine was The Bear and the Nightingale. Like Pachinko, this was a book I loved because the characters are so vividly rendered and likable. The story centers around Pyotr Vladimirovich’s daughter, Vasilisa who is compassionate but also wild and brave, with something of the supernatural about her. Despite the fact that the novel is set in medieval Russia, Pyotr obviously loves and admires his family, especially his daughter, who reminds him of his deceased wife. Although he invites strife by bringing home a highborn woman as a new bride (who turns out to be very devout and spooked by the northern household spirits, which she believes to be devils) this is obviously not Pyotr’s intent and he tries to do the best he can for his children.

1118107010. The King (The Balloon Tree)
The Balloon Tree was my favourite picture book as a child and it remains a favourite today. The beautifully rendered artwork, the fantasy story about a princess and a kingdom that she saves, and that fairytale balloon tree sent my imagination soaring. In the story, the King leaves for a tournament, telling his beloved daughter Princess Leora “If anything goes wrong, release a bunch of balloons from the castle tower. Wherever I am, I will see them and come home right away.” Leora’s evil uncle wants to become king though and the first thing he does is pop every balloon in the kingdom. It’s up to Leora to find one remaining balloon to save her kingdom. Of course she does, plants it, and a beautiful tree full of balloons grows, releasing enough balloons to warn the King and bring him back in time.

Have you read any of these books? Who are your favourite literary fathers or father-figures?

Sunday Snapshot: Musical Mugs

image1 (1)

As a lover of musicals and the theatre, I couldn’t let today pass without recognizing that the 2017 Tony Awards are tonight! The Tony Awards are undoubtedly my favourite awards show, and one of my favourite nights of the year. When else do you get to see incredibly talented people gratefully accepting recognition for their work alongside performances and songs by skilled companies of actors and actresses?

Here’s my collection of musical mugs, which span three cities and several fabulous shows (also Doctor Zhivago and Love Never Dies… try not to judge me too hard)!

Books: Exit, Pursued by a Bear

25528801Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
Published March 15, 2016
star-4-half
After my last few YA contemporary reads, which I really enjoyed but felt were a little fluffy and perhaps aimed at a younger audience than me, Exit, Pursued by a Bear was a very welcome change of pace and I absolutely loved it.

The novel is loosely based on Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale, and draws its title from the play’s most famous stage direction. Protagonist Hermione Winters has everything going for her. Alongside best friend Polly, she’s co-captain of her school’s cheerleading team, she has a boyfriend, and she’s about to enter her senior year, but at the team’s summer training camp, someone slips something in her drink and she blacks out. Exit, Pursued by a Bear deals with the lead up to, and the aftermath of, the rape, as Hermione figures out how to move on from here.

Although Exit, Pursued by a Bear deals with serious themes, including date rape drugs, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, and abortion, it differs from other rape survivor stories in a few ways.

First of all, and most importantly, Hermione has an excellent support system in place that helps her through. She has parents who are protective but supportive of her decisions, who want to be there for her but also know when to take a step backwards, even when it hurts them to do so. She has a best friend who would go to Hell and back for her, who is her champion, and who will happily fight anyone who dares to so much as look at Hermione the wrong way. She has a therapist who is quirky but effective, letting her come to terms with and remember what’s happened to her in her own time and without pushing, and she has a cheerleading team who, after some initial awkwardness and a few poor decisions, completely have her back. This support system is part of what prevents the book from being a tragedy.

The rest comes from Hermione herself. Rape is often about power and control. The use of date rape drugs in particular leaves Hermione unable to remember any details about her attacker or the assault itself that she can provide the police with. Her rapist takes away her power, but Exit, Pursued by a Bear is primarily a book about taking back power and regaining agency.

Hermione is a wonderful protagonist. Intelligent, popular, and courageous, she is determined not to be defined by what’s happened to her and to move forward with her life. Although she does have trauma to work through and the attack does change things for Hermione (she stays off of social media, is triggered by the scent of pine, etc.) she is also determined to keep living. Hermione continues her cheerleading, she plans to go to college and live in residence away from home, she doesn’t fall apart. There is nothing wrong with stories where the victim does fall apart, these stories are every bit as valid as Hermione’s in Exit, Pursued by a Bear, but I love that this is a story about strength, about support systems, and about a girl who takes back power and does so in her own time.

This is not to say that the book sugarcoats the assault or the aftermath. Johnston doesn’t dance around the slut-shaming and victim-blaming that initially follows sexual assault, but much of this is shut down early in the novel. The overall picture I got was one that shows the pain, the helplessness, and the fear Hermione feels and, importantly, the impact that Hermione’s assault has on those around her (from her parents, to the friends who blame themselves for not spotting what was happening, to the inexperienced police officer whose career path she influences), but that also shows the bravery of the main character and the excellent support system she has in place.

I also loved the way the book ended, putting the power back in Hermione’s hands in a way that is more than just symbolic. Exit, Pursued by a Bear is an insightful examination of strength and support in the face of trauma after an assault, and features a protagonist and other characters who I cared about deeply. I highly recommend it to all.

 

 

Stage: A Streetcar Named Desire

Streetcar

Unsettling and intense, A Streetcar Named Desire, danced by the National Ballet of Canada in the work’s Canadian premiere, is a striking ballet that sticks with you long after the standing ovation ends.

Rather than a literal retelling of the acclaimed Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire is choreographer John Neumeier’s reaction to the thematic, emotional, dramatic and psychological realities that the play represents. He chooses to set the opening scenes of the ballet where the play ends, with Blanche DuBois in an asylum. The first act follows Blanche’s back-story, from her love for and marriage to a younger man, Allan Gray, her feelings of betrayal as she discovers him locking lips with another man, and Gray’s resulting suicide. Her devastation is hauntingly shown through the repetition of his suicide, the gunshot ringing out again and again in her mind.

As her home of Belle Reve falls into decay, Blanche follows her bolder sister Stella to the French Quarter of New Orleans and the second act more closely follows the story of the play. Out of place in the jazzy modern city, Blanche clashes with her sister’s rough husband Stanley Kowalski and although she is courted by his earnest friend Mitch, Blanche cannot escape her past.

The play is a perfect match for Neumeier’s dark and expressive choreography, which has the ability to convey emotional complexity. I’ve seen a few of Neumeier’s ballets before, most notably Nijinsky, my favourite ballet of all time, and each work seems to require its dancers to be especially strong actors in order to convey the emotional depth of the material. This quality makes Neumeier’s ballets an excellent fit for The National Ballet of Canada’s repertoire.

I was thrilled to hear that Sonia Rodriguez, in my view one of the most gifted dancer-actresses this universally talented company has to offer, would be dancing the role of Blanche DuBois on opening night. As Blanche, she is quite simply stunning, showing the fragility of a woman who can’t adapt to the changing world around her. From her opening scenes, where she trembles on the bed in an asylum, Rodriguez is vulnerable and expressive. She is matched by an excellent Guillaume Cote, as the rough Stanley Kowalski. A savage alpha-male, he beats his chest and engages in boxing matches (a change from the movie Stanley’s stationary love of poker to a hobby more dynamic and action-oriented). Despite this, Blanche is drawn to him, leading to the fateful rape scene, depicted with a brutal, unflinching, physicality.

The rest of the opening night cast was similarly strong. Jillian Vanstone is a lively, carefree presence as Stella, and although the character of Mitch doesn’t have a lot to do, Evan McKie makes the most of the role, giving a sympathetic portrayal of a man who genuinely cares for Blanche and is enraged when Stanley reveals the truth about her past.

There are just four leading roles, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Allan Gray, danced in the opening night cast by Skylar Campbell, had nearly, if not more, to do in the ballet than Mitch. Campbell’s duet with his friend, played by Francesco Gabriele Frola, was a highlight for me, as the choreography demonstrates the pull Gray feels towards the other man and his suppressed longing. Campbell is precise and expressive in the role, and reappears in the second act as a doppelganger newspaper boy who Blanche tries to seduce.

Like he did with Nijinsky, Neumeier chooses music that effectively intensifies the unnerving atmosphere of the work. Set to music by Prokofiev and by Alfred Schnittke, A Streetcare Named Desire has no live orchestra though, a decision that allows the stage to be extended over the pit and the action to take place closer to the audience. Although the loss of a live orchestra is felt, I think the choice works for Streetcar.

A Streetcar Named Desire is a very physical ballet, particularly for Stanley and for Blanche, who is thrown around the stage a great deal. In that respect it makes for an interesting contrast with Neumeier’s Nijinsky, where the male lead throws himself around the stage in a way that must leave bruises.

Personally, I not only enjoyed the inventive choreography and emotional intensity of the ballet, there were also several refreshing things to admire. The National Ballet of Canada has often focused, to a certain extent, on height-based casting, so the opportunity to see Evan McKie, one of the tallest dancers in the company, partner petite Sonia Rodriguez was a first for me. Although the height gap could look awkward, as McKie has to bend nearly in half to rest his head on her shoulder, I really enjoyed the opportunity to see these two gifted dancers duet.

A Streetcar Named Desire also presented the opportunity to see McKie play a role entirely different from the classical prince roles or, alternately, the characters who are quite frankly somewhat dickish (Onegin, Leontes) he has often played in the past. Although he dances these roles very well, it was a nice departure to watch him portray a slightly awkward sweet and earnest man.

And finally, kudos to the multi-talented Dylan Tedaldi, who shows off a fine singing voice (and to my untrained ear a pretty good southern accent!) with his rendition of Paper Moon.

I’ve never seen Tennessee Williams’ acclaimed 1947 play or even watched the movie. Beyond the famous STELLA! cry and Blanche’s famous final line, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers”, I probably couldn’t tell you a single other thing about the play, so I certainly can’t comment on the ballet as an adaptation. I loved the National Ballet of Canada’s A Streetcar Named Desire though, and highly recommend it to those interested in an intense, emotional, but very beautiful night out at the ballet.

A Streetcar Named Desire is on stage until June 10, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

Photo of Guillaume Cote and Sonia Rodriguez by Aleksandar Antonijevic.