Wednesday, February 28, 2018

February Reading Round-Up


Lots of diversity in my reading this month. Here are my top ten:

Winter by Ali Smith
Ali Smith astounds me with each new creation, each unfailingly wise and full of heart. The central story here is about the thawing of frozen relationships, interwoven with current issues - Brexit, Syrian refugees, fake news, the power of protest, etc. All the stars. All the love. All the gratitude for making me believe in humanity again.

Sophia has never known, and probably never will, what the straw was that broke the camel's back the night Iris left.
Straw. So light. Just a smoke.
Camel, broken back.
Such a violent piece of cliche.

Then the chipped-headless saints in reliefs popped into her head, and the ones carved on the fonts and so on, the knocked-off nothing-but-necks in Reformation-vandalized churches in whatever self-righteousness of fury, whatever intolerant ideology of the day. There was always a furious intolerance at work in the world no matter when or where in history, she thought, and it always went for the head or the face.

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein
An inspiring biography of Sandra Pankhurst, a trans woman in Melbourne, Australia who has experienced much trauma in her own life and now has a business that specializes in difficult clean-up jobs. I was touched by the kindness Pankhurst shows to the hoarders and other mentally-ill people that she deals with on a regular basis.

His grandparents come over on Sundays for dinner and, while they know Peter has his own room out the back, to them it is just a practical measure in a small house. What they do not know, as they sit there at the table with their son and daughter-in-law and four grandchildren eating "a roast and three veggies overcooked to the shithouse," is that this is the only night of the week that Peter is allowed inside the house, the only time he is given a meal.

Sandra's lack of friendships with other members of the LGBTQI community is not active; she would not turn away from someone on those grounds. But her frame of reference regarding that community is her drag days. Her aversion is not to gay people or trans people, but to the image of herself that she associates with that period of her life. She identifies her straight friends with a healthier, happier, safer and more productive self.

I'm not sure I will be able to tell you, exactly, how Sandra has made it through. I believe it has something to do with her innate calibration: an inherent and unbreakable conviction that she, too, is entitled to her live her best life. I believe it has much to do with the emotional machinery she has jettisoned in order to stay afloat. That is the buoying wonder and the sinking sadness of the particular resilience of Sandra.

A Promise of Salt by Lorie Miseck
A memoir of living through private grief amidst the media storm and public attention directed at an Edmonton murder investigation. The focus is not on the gruesome death, but rather Miseck's interactions with people around her, and her internal process over time, expressed in poetic vignettes. A member of my Two Bichons book club read this when it first came out in 2002, and I'm really glad that she suggested we include it in our project of reading local authors, which is now in its third year. Everyone in the group loved it.

After the funeral I stayed in bed for days and days and months. I have read that death awakens the dead in you. I slept and slept. I slept while my ghost crawled out of my bones each day and dressed before the children came home. The ghost washed her hair, her body, her feet so tenderly it left no mark. The ghost drew a smile on her face with lipstick and made meals, read them stories and pretended she was their mother, while I slept.

This is an inverted story, beginning at the end. And if the story begins at the end, is it an unfeeling? An undoing? I've heard any story twice told is fiction.

I've been told our prairie winters are exotic, that we who experience the hard fist of a prairie winter are unique. The rarity of this endurance proves a certain hardiness on our part. Maybe this is true, or maybe we are just fools, have forgotten we could live elsewhere.

Lost Words: A Spell Book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris
This oversize picture book of acrostic poetry celebrates some of the nature words - from acorn to wren - that have been cut from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in order to make room for recent lingo. Sumptuous illustrations by Jackie Morris include lots of gold leaf. Some of the printed text is in gold-coloured ink. The font used for each feature word has letter elements that have disappeared: I love all of the attention to detail in the design of this gorgeous book. It's suitable for all ages and would make a lovely gift.

Magpie Manifesto
Argue Every Toss!
Gossip, Bicker, Yak and Snicker All Day 
        Long!
Pick a Fight in an Empty Room!
Interrupt, Interject, Intercept, Intervene!
Every Magpie for Every Magpie 
       against Every Other Walking Flying
       Swimming Creature on the Earth!

Rustle of grass, sudden susurrus, what the eye misses:
       for adder is as adder hisses.

Kingfisher: the colour-giver, fire-bringer, flame-flicker, river's quiver.

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters 
by Michael Mahin and Evan Turk

The life of McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters, was a remarkable one, even in the condensed version necessitated by a children's picture book biography. Inspirational, lyric text. Electric, energetic collage art by Evan Turk incorporates bits of newspaper, along with oil pastel, watercolours, china marker and printing ink.

"Last I checked, you can't eat the blues for breakfast," said Grandma Della. "No child of mine is gonna waste his time with music."
But Muddy was never good at doing what he was told.

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut 
by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C James
There's irresistible joy in this celebration of newly-cut hair. Lots of different African American styles, a distinctive barbershop setting, and a jaunty text that captures the feeling of a boy's happiness and pride. I picked up this fun picture book poetry because it made the honour list in four different categories categories at the 2018 American Library Association awards: the Newbery, Caldecott, and both author and illustrator categories of the Coretta Scott King.

It's how your mother looks at you
before she calls you beautiful.
Flowers are beautiful.
Sunrises are beautiful.
Being viewed in your mother's eyes
as someone that matters - now that's beautiful.
And you'll take it.
You don't mind it at all.





I Am a Truck by Michelle Winters
Absurd, warm and surprising. A short novel with great characters set in rural New Brunswick. Acadian French dialogue adds an extra layer of humour. When Agathe's giant of a husband goes missing, she asks the police how it is that they can't find him because "ye big comme crisse" (i.e. he's friggin massive). Agatha is sure Rejean would never willingly leave what he loves most: his truck and her. Fresh and fun, laid on a bedrock of kindness.

"Viens voir l'Acadie" was playing. It played every day; the French folk-music canon had hard limits. The sound had gone from a nagging drone to a roar, and bumping her head against the window frame was not scratching the itch.

#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale
An outstanding collection of artworks and short literary pieces, all created by Indigenous women with an array of experiences from across North America. Poetry, comics format, personal essays, inspiring quotes: there's all kinds of good stuff here in a visually appealing scrapbook-like format. Art by Dana Claxton (including a couple that were at the Art Gallery of Alberta in the Face the Nation exhibit in 2008), Pamela J Peters,  Aza E Abe, Ka'ila Farrell-SmithDanielle Daniel and many more.
artwork by Ka'ila Farrell-Smith

we grow brave
in the absence
of any safe touch,
in our father's rage.
we have nothing,
everything is in us
our love of these
impossible bodies
our faith in this
unbroken sky
our trust of the
infinite universe
our should to burn
as an offering
to any being
who will listen.
-from Honor Song by Gwen Benaway

My Cheechum used to tell me that when the government gives you something, they take all that you have in return - your pride, your dignity, all the things that make you a living soul. When they are sure they have everything, they give you a blanket to cover your shame.
-Maria Campbell

The Customer Is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond
A big fat second volume to Pond's lightly fictionalized operatic memoir in comics format, about working in an Oakland diner in the 70s. In a Jezebel interview, it was noted that the first volume, Over Easy, "is one big party, and then this book is like the hangover." There are consequences to all of the drugs, sex and alcohol. Sweet, hand-drawn art washed in retro blue-green; memorable characters; accomplished storytelling; and so much warm humour.

Going into Town by Roz Chast
Rob Chast's love letter to New York City is utterly charming. It's a quick read in comics format and it left me with a smile and the desire to travel again to Manhattan, even though I've sworn off visiting the USA under its current administration.
"If you feel that there's 'nothing to do' while you're in Manhattan, then this is
DEFINITELY not the book you should be reading. Also, you might be dead."


Thursday, February 1, 2018

January Reading Round-up

My January was full of poetry and books by New Zealand writers.

I wrote about January's poetry highlights in a previous post. Other January highlights include:

Electrifying Short Stories: What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah. 
Audiobook [5 h 20 m] narrated by Adjoa Andoh.

Well-crafted, sad, nuanced and energetic. These stories are all quite different from each other, yet unified by themes: the place of women in society, particularly in relation to class, status and men; family relationships; and female friendships. Some are set in Nigeria, some in USA. Some have supernatural elements, one is set in the distant future, one a retelling of a traditional tale. Outstanding.

"And he should chastise the girl, he knows that, but she is his brightest ember and he would not have her dimmed."

Epic Fantasy: The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin.
Audiobook [15 h 27 m] narrated by Robin Miles.

Absorbing first volume in a trilogy with great female characters in a world where life is constantly under threat from volcanic eruptions. Three separate storyline voices come together in a most satisfying way. I've got nothing but praise for this audio production and eagerly await my turn in the hold queue at the library for the next in the series.

"Home is what you take with you, not what you leave behind."

New Zealand Fiction: Potiki by Patricia Grace

A fabulous--in all senses of the word: phenomenal, heroic, mythic--and moving novel about a group of Maori people and what happens when developers want access to their land. Deceptively simple writing style, finely crafted and told in multiple viewpoints. I was aided in my understanding by having some previous exposure to elements of Maori culture and language, plus the fact that I was reading a special copy of the book. It had belonged to a deceased friend, who taught this text in her high school English classes. I felt like she was at my shoulder with her helpful marginalia, including handwritten translations of Maori words. The characters, setting and story remain vivid in my mind.
"We had become tellers, listeners, readers, writers, enactors and collectors of stories. And games are stories too, not just swallowers of time, or buds without fruit."

"The gift has not been taken away because gifts are legacies that once given cannot be taken away. They may pass from hand to hand, but once held they are always yours."

Memoir in Comics Format: Pretending Is Lying by Dominique Goblet. Translation from French by Sophie Yanow.

Memoirs told in comics format make my heart beat faster, especially when they are as breathtaking as this one by a Belgian artist, professor of comics and illustration, and certified electrician, plumber and welder. Fragmented scenes--Goblet's estranged alcoholic father and his bizarre wife, G's young daughter, and G's new boyfriend who was not yet over his ex--combine into a compelling literary whole.

The afterword is an insightful piece written by Goblet's partner Guy Marc Hinant. Hinant doesn't come off well in the content of the book, where he's portrayed as disturbed and deceitful. Goblet also illustrates him shadowed by the ghost of his ex. I was pleased to learn that he contributed to this book's creation and is able to feel at a distance from it because it is art. "How have we created, in ourselves, that which we consider to be our own reality? The past is fiction, re-memorization, re-interpretation, fleeting obsession, projection, hypothesis and opacity."

Blandine is always shown with a face reminiscent of Munch's Scream.
Nikita [author's child]: That's my friend.
Blandine [author's stepmother]: Ah, does your friend have long hair?
N: No, why?
B: You just said that it's your friend and that she has long hair!!
N: Ha, nope, it's just a character! [...] just for pretend!
B: Then you are a LIAR! Pretending is lying! It's LYING!
_____________________________

I found a great reading spot at Devonport Library in Auckland.


Three New Zealand Poets: Dinah Hawken, Sue Wootton and Rhian Gallagher

I am doing a poetry challenge on Litsy. It involves focusing on a particular poet each month, and I had a hard time choosing among the tempting possibilities recommended by my knowledgeable friend Claire, at whose house I've been staying in Auckland. I ended up choosing Dinah Hawken, and I read other poetry as well. Three out of the seven books that I rated 5-stars on Goodreads in January were poetry by New Zealand authors. That's a testament to Claire's expert advice.

Oh There You Are Tui! New and Selected Poems by Dinah Hawken

The more time I spend with Dinah Hawken's feminist poetry, the deeper my appreciation. Her words are carefully poised to deliver maximum power. I love her awareness of nature and her sincere consideration for the lives of homeless individuals. I feel like she is sharing important things in an intimate way. I'm very glad to have chosen her for an in-depth study this month.

Oh There You Are Tui! collects pieces from three of Hawken's early books, plus newer work, as indicated by the subtitle. It was published in 2001. I struggled at first with a particular portion of her work, the brief prose poems (selected from Small Stories of Devotion). They are apparently based on dreams, and even these grew on me over time and reflection. Example:

A Visitation
A few young Maori men have walked into her house. 
One of them has found a copy of her father's will 
and is lying down on the bed to read it through.

While the prose poems are like fragments, there's something intriguing about them, and collectively they create something with a larger scope. Reading scholarly criticism of her work helped me understand what Hawken might be doing with these particular poems. She demonstrates that there are many ways to speak, many things to draw upon and many ways to understand the world. The "diary-like entries transform the sentence with a lyrical metre, repetition, brevity and fluencies that tumble and turn and coil" as Paula Green and Harry Ricketts write in 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry. I'm staying in a great place for poetry: Claire pulled the aforementioned 99 Ways, plus Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets and An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry off her bookshelves, as well as supplying me with two collections by Hawken. (The other is One Shapely Thing, 2006. )

In Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets, Hawken writes: "Poems have given me pleasure, recognition, insight, wisdom, solace, direction, company, shocks and strength. I try to reach a reader and to give him or her some of what poetry has given to me." Success! I feel like I've received that entire list of things from Hawken. I've also been convinced that spending time building familiarity with one poet's work is very rewarding. I will seek out her newer work in the future.


"The harbour is hallucinating. It is rising
above itself, halfway up the great
blue hills. every leaf of the kohuhu
is shining. Cicadas, this must be the day
of all days, the one around which
all the others are bound to gather."
----------
"Here is the green verb, releasing everything."
----------
"Let me put in a word for trees.
Let me put in a word for breathing."
----------
"...I know women
too frightened to leave their own
houses, sleeping beauties. Don't for Christ's
sake wait for any prince to show up.
Fashion one from a rib or sling up
onto the wild horse rearing in your
mind.

These words won't be slapped down to size
they're putting on their blue shoes, mounting
their red horses and swirling out un-
relentingly over everything."
____________________________________________________________

The Yield by Sue Wootton

Being a writer, a cook, a gardener, a friend, a daughter, a mother and a wife - it's all fodder for Wootton's lyric poetry. Joyous wordplay celebrates human interactions with weather and the natural world, as well as the risks inherent in loving and living. This outstanding collection was published in 2017.

An international poetry festival in Vietnam
The authorities are nervous. It's risky
to bring in the poets. When they say 'flower'
are they speaking of flowers?
----------
The kneeling rail. I kneel. I quietly rail.
----------
Saline solution: the ocean. Oxygen therapy: the sky. Mineral deficiency: socks off.
----------
Epitaph
The ghost of you shall set
like rimes of frost inside my chest
and never melt, nor quit
me quite, nor give me rest. It's
not easy to recall our best.
__________________________________________________________

Shift by Rhian Gallagher

Yes, this happens to have the very same title as another book of poetry that I love, Shift by Kelly Shepherd of Edmonton. Gallagher is a lesbian from the South Island of New Zealand. Hers is a luminous collection about experiencing change, homecoming after being long away, and leaving a lover on the other side of the world. Shift was published in 2011 and won the New Zealand Post Poetry Book Award.

Flower of the ice plant
plumping its cheeks
to the mirror of the sky.
Everywhere -- changes;
more touch, more go.
----------
Sunflowers

Van Gogh painted sunflowers for a friend's return
- spilled from a vendor's bucket, the dark-eyed flower
in rapture with the sun. I chaperoned the rough stems
back up the avenue. You were awaited
and the tall flowers had the energy of a torch.

To believe we could have it all - the liberty, your city
while the documents themselves stalled. Attachments
officials specified in great detail; head and shoulder shots:
the resolution, the neutral background.

Yet we were always on our way, always coming back.
Before that future crumpled up as paper in our hands
there was a constancy: gold and all the sisters of gold,
saffron, yellow. The sunflowers lasted on your sill,
                                         our heads were turned.
----------
Right mind and how I was never in it,
but not wrong
just some other mind.

________________________________________________________

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more poetry adventures in 2018.




Wednesday, January 3, 2018

New Year's Reading Goal: More Canadian Please!

Reading Envy podcaster and blogger Jenny, who lives in South Carolina, has set herself a goal to read more Canadian books this year. She asked some Canadian readers for suggestions and shared these on Reading Envy episode 107, linked here.

I was one of the people she invited on for this show. It's always so hard to narrow down choices from among the many fine Canadian books, so it was great to hear that some of my favourites that I didn't mention were recommended by her other guests. It also served to increase my own TBR with their suggestions.

Shawn talked about Brother by David Chariandy, which I've been meaning to read since it came out last September. Casey recommended one I hadn't heard of that sounds right up my alley: The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel.

Reading more local, more Indigenous, and more Canadian authors has been my goal for a number of years. Comparing my 2015 stats to my 2017 stats, (2016 was the year I had to switch from Shelfari to Goodreads, messing up that year's stats), I was pleased to see that my intentions have made a difference. In 2017, I read 137 Canadian books (18 of those were by Edmonton authors) while in 2015 I read 56 by Canadian authors. In 2017, I read 30 books by Indigenous authors, from Canada and elsewhere. I hope to increase that number this year, as a way of deepening my understanding of different viewpoints, and enlarging my inner world.

I look forward to following Jenny's journey through Canadian literature this year, and to discovering more great books by Canadian authors myself. Join us.

Monday, January 1, 2018

My 2017 Reading Stats in Pie Charts

Goodreads makes the wonderful infographic above possible. I read 345 books in 2017, up from 323 last year.

I like to examine my reading stats at the end of each year, to see how well I'm doing in my efforts to read as diversely as possible and to focus on reading books written by women. Looking at my statistics regarding format, genre and categories like poetry and nonfiction also help me know myself better as a reader. And so I made a whole bunch of pie charts. If you like pie, please grab a fork and scroll down. The numbers shown next to each piece of pie are the numbers of books that I read in that category.

Note: Add Edmonton authors to Canadian authors for the total from Canada: 137.

Other interesting stats: 25 titles read in translation and 4 books read in French language.

In making comparisons to 2015, the last time that I looked at stats this closely, I discovered: 
  • I'm reading about the same percentage of books by women (62% in 2017 vs 63% in 2015).
  • I've increased the queer content in my reading (18% in 2017 vs 12% in 2015).
  • I'm happy to have a big increase in reading more by Indigenous writers and People of Colour. Last time, I put these two groups together. (31% PoC + Indigenous in 2017 vs 17% in 2015.)
  • I've also dramatically increased the number of Canadian books that I'm reading. (40% in 2017 vs 19% in 2015)


Saturday, December 30, 2017

Best of December 2017: A Round-up


Highlights of the best books I read this month:

The Kappa Child by Hiromi Goto

"I just want to have a normal family! But I'm always tossed into this tornado, this Wizard of Oz meets Godzilla at The Little House on the Prairie." A lesbian protagonist + a dysfunctional Japanese immigrant family + a southern Alberta setting + supernatural beings + inventive prose = an emotionally rich novel that I loved.

"People say 'childhood' and 'adulthood' with such absolute conviction. Like they are two entirely separate rooms of the four-room bungalow of life."
"Not everything is visible to the human eye, or the human heart. Our bodies are over 70% water. And the rest, memories."
"We sit in the clock-ticking silence and drink shitty coffee."
"I leave pieces of my terrycloth housecoat on a stretch of tangled fence but what I don't realize is that I leave a huge trail of dispirit which meanders everywhere I walk. When the farmer tries to plant some winter wheat in the fall, nothing will grow and paranormal investigators will bring extra money into the sagging economy."

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Poignant and funny. A woman juggles the expectations of her Chinese immigrant parents, her ready-for-marriage boyfriend and her PhD studies advisor - all while suffering crippling indecision. Written in present tense, like observing the slow changes in a scientific experiment. The double-meaning of the tiles is a good example of the author's fresh, intelligent voice. I love her writing style and all of her tangential connections to science in her attempts to make sense of herself. It was also nice being reminded of how much I loved chemistry, my favourite subject in high school.

"Books that he likes: Heart of Darkness, The Stranger, The Trial. Books that I like: none of the ones that he likes."
"My mother has a theory about hair. It is that the longer hair grows, the dumber a person becomes. She warns that too much hair will suck nutrients away from the head and leave it empty."
"Some people suffer externally. The dog, for instance, yelps in pain whenever we leave him alone in the house, even for one minute. His suffering takes him to the closet, where he hides and cowers until we come back, one minute later.
What must this feel like? The closet. So I go in there and wrap my arms around my knees. It feels as you would expect - epiphany-less and full of clothes."
"She has a list of publications so long that when I scroll to the bottom, there is a button that says next.
Next is overrated, I say to the dog.
Here is me not clicking next. Here is me closing out of the web page. Here is me reopening the web page, clicking next, and then telling the dog, Not a word to anybody, not even to your squirrel friends."

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Audiobook [11 h 47 m] narrated by Cathleen McCarron

An endearing character with a unique voice and a tragic backstory; a handful of memorable supporting characters; mental health challenges and a Glasgow setting: this fresh and funny debut novel reminded me of Wang's Chemistry and it has got everything going for it. It's completely fine. The audiobook narration by Cathleen Mccarran just adds to the pleasure.

"The barman had created strange enormous holes in his earlobes by inserting little black plastic circles in order to push back the skin. For some reason, I was reminded of my shower curtains. This comforting thought of home gave me the courage to examine his tattoos."
"... and in her spare time she makes hideous jewelry, which she then sells to idiots."
"'Nine years, and you've never had a day off sick, never used all your annual leave. That's dedication, you know. It's not easy to find these days.'
'It's not dedication,' I said. 'I simply have a very robust constitution and no one to go on holiday with.'"

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
Audiobook [7 h 11 m] narrated by Kate Rudd

I noticed early on that this one is distinctly different from Green's other books, in that it's more sensitive in tone. The witty banter is absent, replaced by the amusing steamrolling monologues of best friend Daisy, who writes Star Wars fan fiction. (Love her!) Green has said that the crippling thought spirals experienced by his main character Aza closely resembles his own OCD. It all feels very authentic and this is why it's my new favourite of all his novels.

An unexpected delight: there's a tuatara in this novel! That's more exciting than turtles. I want tuataras all the way down. I've been excited about tuataras ever since my visit to Invercargill in 2002. I'm going to be in Wellington, New Zealand next week, and I'm hoping to see them at Zealandia there.

There's also a weird connection with the audiobook I listened to just prior, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completey Fine: both talk about drinking hand sanitizer. I don't remember ever encountering this activity in fiction before. Is it a reminder from the universe about alcohol consumption?

"Our hearts were broken in the same places. That's something like love, but maybe not the thing itself."
"True terror isn't being scared; it's not having a choice on the matter."
"You're both the fire and the water that extinguishes it. You're the narrator, the protagonist, and the sidekick. You're the storyteller and the story told. You are somebody's something, but you are also your you."
"The problem with happy endings is that they're either not really happy, or not really endings, you know? In real life, some things get better and some things get worse. And then eventually you die."

The Power by Naomi Alderman 
Audiobook [12 h 8 m] narrated by Adjoa Andoh, Naomi Alderman, Thomas Judd, Emma Fenney, and Phil Nightingale

Wow! There's been a lot of fuss about this one and now I know why. Also, it's evident why there are comparisons to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. An intellectually stimulating exploration of gender and power, making good use of the frame narrative device. Plus, it's an outstanding audiobook experience with multiple narrators.

"It doesn't matter that she shouldn't, that she never would. What matters is that she could if she wanted. the power to hurt is a kind of wealth."
"Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn't. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it's hollow. Look under the shells: it's not there."

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
Audiobook [15 h 47 m] narrated by Alex McKenna

Unforgettable characters doing horrific things. It's the kind of situation that stomps your heart to shreds if you're a reader who experiences novels as if you're inside the action (as I do). It reminded me of Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina, and since I keep a special place in my heart for that book, I kept going. The two are just as hard to read, emotionally.

I did almost bail on this in the very first chapter because of the father's misogyny - and the daughter's resultant misogyny - even though I could see that it's the point of the story. Then I nearly bailed in the third chapter on account of the father's cruelty. I had to speed up the audiobook playback in order to reduce the visceral impact. That trick with the audio is a bit like peeking through your fingers while watching difficult scenes on film. Less time for the words to sink in to the point of hurting. It's all worth it in the end.

"She leaves parts of herself unnamed and unexamined, and then he will name them, and she will see herself clearly in his words and hate herself."
"She just wants to build a garden and water it and have everything grow and everything stay alive and she does not want to feel besieged."
"He is saying, 'I am in love with George Eliot! My god! Middlemarch! That is a motherfucking book right there! Such a book--! She has a wonderful, broad, generous style; she writes the way I want my letters to Congress to sound, you know?'" [This is from the character Jacob, who, along with his friend Brett, are kind of like puppies bringing humour and playfulness into a grim story.]


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Best of November 2017: A Round-up


Another thirty days, another thirty books. Here are the highlights of my November reads:

Favourite book of November, and possibly of the entire year:
The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Social change over a span of 70 years in Ireland, as seen through the lens of a gay man who was born to an unwed teenaged mother in 1945. The narrative leaps forward seven years at a time, ending with the same-sex marriage referendum in 2015. Boyne has an exquisite ear for dialogue and humour.

"You won't tell anyone, will you?"
"Tell them what?"
"What I just told you. That I'm not normal."
"Ah, Jesus,' she said, laughing as she stood up. "Don't be ridiculous. We're none of us normal. Not in this fucking country."
"I'm reading Edna O'Brien," said Miss Ambrosia, lowering her voice lest any of the Mr Westlicotts overheard her and reported her for vulgarity. "She's pure filth."
"Don't let the [Education] Minister hear you say that," said Miss Joyce. "You know what he thinks about women who write. He won't have them on the curriculum."
"He doesn't like women who read either," said Miss Ambrosia. "He told me that reading gives women ideas."
Opening sentence: "Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore."

John Boyne kindly offered to be photographed with me at the Vancouver Writers Fest in October 2017.
Best poetry:
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier
Make room in your heart for the song of grasses, the landscape of Oglala Lakota people, and bitter songs of broken promises, broken treaties. This collection is more than a lament, more than a ballad of testimony. It's fierce, intelligent and wry. A singular voice to light the way forward.

Long Soldier plays with form in meaningful ways. I was impressed from the start, and yet it took weeks of living with her words for me to realize that she has touched me at a level that is deeper than appreciation.

Whereas her birth signalled the responsibility as mother to teach what it is to be Lakota, therein the question: what did I know about being Lakota? Signalled panic, blood rush my embarrassment. What did I know of our language but pieces? Would I teach her to be pieces.
Best nonfiction:
Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga
This book made me weep. Suicide rates in Canadian Indigenous communities that are the highest in the world. Official inquiries, followed by recommendations, which never get implemented... so very tragic. Journalist Talaga documents the suspicious deaths of Indigenous teens sent from their northern homes to attend school in Thunder Bay, the hate crime capital of Canada, and writes engagingly about the individuals affected by loss, and also about the systemic racism in the justice and policing systems. I found it hard to put this book down, in spite of the hard truths within.

They get the same $4 in annual treaty payments that their ancestors did when they signed Treaty No. 9. [Mishkeegogamang Ojibway Nation]

Best audiobook:
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir by Sherman Alexie
Alexie narrates his own touching memoir about his complex relationship to his mother, who died recently. It sounded like it was written entirely in verse, so I checked a physical copy and learned that it's half essays and half poetry. There is some circling back and revisiting events covered in his previous writings, as well as earlier in this memoir. Alexie cries easily and this is emotional territory, so sometimes I needed a break from this excellent audiobook. It actually reminded me of Alison Bechdel's comics-format memoir Are You My Mother?, because both authors had to come to terms with wanting more from their mothers than their mothers could give them.

Did you know that you can be killed by a benign tumour? Imagine that news headline: Native American Poet Killed by Oxymoron.

Friend: "Sherman, how come you're so much funnier around strangers than you are around me?"
Alexie: "I think the realest version of me isn't funny. If I'm being funny, it usually means I'm uncomfortable. It usually means I'm angry."
Best comics-format nonfiction:
Spinning by Tillie Walden
A poignant coming-of-age memoir told in comics format. Walden says she knew she was gay from the time she was 5, but she spent twelve years in the hyper-feminine world of competitive figure skating and didn't feel comfortable coming out there. Each chapter begins with a figure skate move that doubles as introduction to an aspect of her life. Clear line drawings made me feel complicit in the 4 a.m. mornings, the cold rinks and exhausting schedule, the loneliness of being closeted, the awkwardness of making new friends, the humiliations and triumphs in front of skating judges. So good.

Best translation:
Irmina by Barbara Yelin
Thanks to this graphic novel, fictional Irmina von Behdinger became real to me and I've had a glimpse of what everyday life was like in Berlin during wartime. Irmina could have lived a different life if she'd made other choices at key junctures, making this a very poignant story. Expressive art in somber tones. Translation from German by Michael Waaler.

Best historical fiction:
A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert
Question: Why another novel about the Holocaust?
Answer #1: Because mass exterminations on the German-occupied Eastern Front are not common knowledge.
Answer #2: Because prejudice, fear and apathy are as relevant today as then. Briefly, indelibly, we enter the lives and minds of individuals: SS officer, civilian road engineer, a pair of courting Ukrainian peasants, a Jewish family headed by an eyeglass lens crafter. It is individual people who do things, or don't. It is individual people who are murdered. It is individual people who show mercy. A heartbreaking yet hopeful novel. Both this author and Barbara Yelin (Irmina) had German Nazi grandparents.

Myko was certain. Yasia felt it in the way he held her and in the way he leaned in to her: "We had the Soviets, remember? Well now we have new masters. And your father, he might think well of them. But it will be just the same - just the same - under this new lot, I'm telling you."
[...] 
"First they will make their promises. But it won't be too long before they break them all. That's how it works, believe me. No one takes a land out of kindness."

Best science fiction:
Landscape with Invisible Hand by MT Anderson
Aliens land on Earth and people have to reinvent themselves to survive in the resulting new political and economic landscape. The satire in this wacky novella addresses serious topics - access to health care; income disparity; the function of art - and reminds me a little of Margaret Atwood's The Heart Goes Last. Smart, insightful and entertaining.

Hunter is trying to lose all his hair to be more like his vuvv bosses. A bottle of Alopeesh-Sure ('Guaranteed Glabrous!') is tipped onto its side.
I can't stand piano music, usually, and I have no idea what the hell is going on in the song, because there aren't any words or singing, but this girl clearly feels it, plays it as if she's cursing all of us through the keys. It's a fluttery sort of cataclysm. It sounds like utter collapse.

Best essay collection:
Where It Hurts by Sarah de Leeuw
From the cover: "Throughout these essays de Leeuw's imagistic memories are layered with meaning, providing a survival guide for the present, including a survival that comes with the profound responsibility to bear witness." I was riveted when I heard de Leeuw read from this at the Vancouver Writers Fest last month and I reviewed the collection earlier this month here.