Friday, November 17, 2017

Where It Hurts by Sarah de Leeuw

These are powerful personal essays about living through pain and surviving loss of all kinds, and violence, and injustice. Beautiful, cathartic and bleak, like the remote British Columbia settings where author Sarah de Leeuw has lived.

"It is the early summer of 1989. For the two of us it is the end of Grade 10. Gravel pit parties and plastic bottles of Silent Sam vodka, bootleggers met in the mall, twenty dollar bills changing hands behind pickup trucks and just the hint of nights that will soon be lit up with pale green washes of northern lights. We the girls of northern BC are coming loose of our parkas. We are like freshwater invertebrates, larva shedding our hard casings and wriggling up onto the surface of social streams, wings still sticky with winter we are ready to become terrestrial beings, darting into sunshine and getting ready to spread beach towels down on the gravel bars of the great northern rivers we live up against."
- What Fills Our Lungs

"We should have known right then, my love, that we could not outrun the things that haunted us, the things we could not name. I remember that night when we stood watching fireflies and owls during that one bluing hour before full night, a transitioning hour. We stood transfixed in the sparks of extinguishing light."
- Belle Island Owls

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Tim Hortons References in Canadian Fiction

   "Darwin came home before the children went to bed, Lorraine asleep already. He had brought Timbits, assorted. The jelly ones, the tiny perfect jelly doughnuts, made Clara cry. Because they were so perfect and Lorraine was dying. She had salt in her mouth and powdery, dissolving sweetness.
   Dolly had climbed on Darwin's lap, and then Trevor, and they both had a good time crying, but it would not last. Like the pleasure of doughnuts only lasts for a second."
Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott, p 112

"I commanded only a mild and glancing notice. The difference, in a city, between a distracted man with toys standing on a busy street and that same man sitting in a cafe is oddly considerable. It's as if we just don't believe that a lunatic or a derelict will sit calmly down to drink a coffee. It he does, it will probably be at a McDonald's or a Tim Hortons, not a Second Cup - lunatics aren't sensible enough to drink coffee, and derelicts can't afford a second cup, not unless they find and sell a magician bank worth seven thousand dollars."
- The Heavy Bear by Tim Bowling, p 95

"My head was turned back to the pet shop as Chelsea pulled out of the strip mall and onto the highway, alarmingly close to the front of a big rig with Tim Hortons and a giant brown doughnut painted on its side."
The Heavy Bear by Tim Bowling, p 151

"i want to visit every tim hortons in northern alberta
so that homophobes can tell me sad things like
i love you
your hair looks nice
you have nice cheekbones
until someone kills me
and then the creator will write my eulogy
with phrases like
freedom is the length of a good rim job
and the most relatable thing about him
was how often he cried watching wedding videos on youtube."
'THE CREATOR IS TRANS' in This Wound Is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt, p 24

"They drove and listened, stopping for gas at Swan Hills and passing the road map of her childhood. When they got to Grande Prairie, Bernice noted that it had really grown. On the highway into town there was a Tim Hortons and a Sawridge Hotel where the roller rink used to be."
- Birdie by Tracie Lindberg, p 169

"She puts the tray down, opens her black coffee to let it cool, and leaves her friend's Double Double for the taking."
- The Break by Katherine Vermette

"On the way to Mills Memorial Hospital [in Terrace, BC], Jared bought his dad a twenty pack of old-fashioned plain Timbits and a coffee."
- Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

"Petronius Totem and Kamp Kan Lit were pillories on radio phone-ins, condemned from the
newsroom, from the pulpit, from the lecture hall of Tim Hortons and Coffee Time, from behind the cash registers at Value Village, and from both floors of the provincial and federal apoplectic lady columnist with unfortunate hair accused Petro of conducting 'a literary sex-slave colony' and demanded that he be 'kneecapped, chemically castrated, and forced to do community service.'"
- Searching for Petronius Totem by Peter Unwin
(Thank you to @LauraTFrey of Reading in Bed for bringing this one to my attention.)

"We spent an hour together in the nearby Tim Hortons, drinking those slushy coffee drinks, beads of cold on their plastic cups."
- Brother by David Chariandy, p 172
(Thank you to @YoDessa of new book in the house for bringing this one to my attention.)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Indigenous Picture Books and Residential School Ramifications

These three recent picture books by Indigenous authors make the Canadian residential school experience and its continuing ramifications easier for children to understand.

When We Were Alone by David Alexander Robertson and Julie Flett
Stunning, powerful, sensitive and poetic. Nehiyawak (Cree) vocabulary. Repeating question and answer format between a child and her grandmother: "Nokom, why do you wear your hair so long?" Then the grandmother gently explains about having her hair cut when she was a child at residential school, and so on. Gorgeous collage artwork by the incomparable Julie Flett. Governor General Award winner. Kindergarten to Grade 3.

I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis, Kathy Kacer and Gillian Newland
A poignant story with longer text, based on the experiences of Dupuis' Anishinaabe grandmother, Irene Couchie, of Nipissing First Nation in Ontario. At Spanish Indian Residential School, students were referred to only by numbers. Some of the difficult topics directly addressed in this picture book for older children include the physical abuse of students at school and the fact that parents could be jailed if they tried to keep their children at home. Grade 3 to 6.
"Back home, long hair was a source of pride. We cut it when we lost a loved one. Now it felt as if a part of me was dying with every strand that fell."

You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith and Danielle Daniel
Dedicated to the Aboriginal Head Start program, this deals with the intergenerational impact of residential schools. It's a teaching message for the very young - age 3 and under - and their caregivers.
From the author's note: "With this book, we are embarking on a journey of healing and reconciliation. I wrote it to remind us of our common humanity and the importance of holding each other up with respect and dignity. I hope it is a foundational book for our littlest citizens."
It's never too early to learn about building relationships and fostering empathy. Simple, straightforward, with brightly-coloured art portraying Indigenous people of all ages.
"You hold me up when you play with me, when you laugh with me, when you sing with me. You hold me up. I hold you up. We hold each other up."

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Year of Literary Trepanations

In 2016, I read six different books that mentioned trepanation. So far in 2017, I have read none. So, I am looking back on 2016 as my Year of Literary Trepanations.

Venomous by Christie Wilcox

Fascinating information about deadly poisons and how people can benefit from them. Did you know that a handful of botulism toxins is enough to kill everyone on the planet, if divided equally among them? Yet you can safely inject minuscule amounts of it into the forehead of someone who is overly concerned about their wrinkles. I learned about bee sting therapy and the recreational use of snake bites and all kinds of other cool stuff. Wilcox mentions trepanation in a tangental way:

"... dubious antique medical practices like trepanation: drilling a hole into one's skull to let out evil spirits"

Patient H.M.: Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich

The subtitle says it all. Much of what we know about memory is thanks to Henry Molaison, a patient with epilepsy who received a botched lobotomy. It sometimes felt like a thriller, with unexpected twists even towards the end. The audiobook has a great narrator, George Newbern, but I'm too squeamish for play-by-play details of brain surgery, so I had to fast-forward through those parts. Engrossing true subject matter.

"My grandfather, like most lobotomists, performed a disproportionate number of psychosurgeries on women. The known clinical effects of lobotomy, including tractability, passivity and docility, overlapped nicely with what many men at the time considered to be ideal feminine traits."

"Freeman believed he could train any reasonably competent psychiatrist how to perform an ice pick lobotomy in an afternoon."

"August 25, 1953. Henry lies on his back on an operating table in the Hartford Hospital neurosurgery suite. At the head of the table, flanked by scrub nurses and assistants, my grandfather leans over Henry with a trepan in his hand. Henry has been sedated and given a local anesthetic, and the flesh has been peeled down from his forehead, but he is conscious. A trepan is a sort of wide-mouthed serrated drill."

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie

Warmth, wackiness and squirrels. Lessons about being true to yourself. I loved this satirical feel-good novel. One of the characters is a young guy who has invented the "versatile Pneumatic TURBO Skull Punch," a trepanning device "well suited to a range of hole punching operations," and both the pharmaceutical and defence industries are excited about its possibilities, calling it "the greatest contribution to warfighter injuries in years." Trepanations everywhere!

"I pledge allegiance to the marketplace of the United States of America TM and to the conglomerates, for which we shill, one nation, under Exxon-Mobil/Halliburton/Boeing/Walmart, nonrefundable, with litter and junk mail for all."

"Art is despair with dignity."

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

A poignant, insightful novel with an ensemble cast of immigrants from various Latin American countries, who live in the same cinderblock apartment building in Delaware. One of the central characters is a Mexican teen with severe head trauma.

"So now what we need to do - what I need your permission to do - is remove a small piece of her skull to make room for the swelling and to keep the pressure from building too much." He stopped and looked at us again. "If it builds too much, she could die. And the longer we wait to relieve it, the more damage she'll likely experience."

"We're the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they've been told they're supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we're not that bad, made even that we're a lot like them. And who would they hate then?"

Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki

Monty is an endearing 16-year-old coping with mean girls and rude boys, making mistakes and finding forgiveness. Her parents are caring and in the forefront (a rarity in YA, where parental absence allows the protagonists more freedom to act) and Monty's parents are also lesbians (a rarity in any novel).

"a link to the craziest thing I have ever seen on the Internet, a site about people who actually drill holes into the tops of their skulls to increase brain blood flow. To improve psychic powers. That's what trepanation is!"

I resisted the temptation to actually search for this sort of thing on YouTube. It makes me shudder just thinking about it.

The Fireman by Joe Hill

Post-apocalyptic thriller with a plague that causes people to burst into flames. Harper Grayson, a conscientious nurse, is one of the central characters in this fast-paced story. Kate Mulgrew performs a fantastic narration for the audiobook, which is over 22 hours long.

"[Harper] told him about trepanning Father Storey's skull with a power drill and disinfecting it with port."

"She had treated John Rookwood's mauled arm with a weak dose of good intentions."

"The hens are clucking. Harper thought it would be a toss-up, which term for women she hated more: bitch or hen. A hen was something you kept in a cage, and her sole worth was in her eggs. A bitch, at least, had teeth."

So that's it for my literary encounters with trepanation. Have you encountered any lately?

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Best of September Reading 2017

Out of 30 books that I read in September, there are a handful that really stand out, and half of them happen to be by Indigenous authors.

Best Indigenous Short Stories: 
Annie Muktuk and Other Stories by Norma Dunning
A brilliant collection by an Edmonton author of Inuit heritage. Tragedy and joy; a conversational style; intimate and fresh - I loved it all.
"He had said he was there to study mollusks. Siutiruq in her language - snails. No one ate snails! She told him that if he was looking for wrinkles to visit her anaanatsiaq. He didn't understand. She had dug in some mud along the shoreline and held one close to his blue eyes. 'See the wrinkles on their shell - like Grandma's face!' she had exclaimed. He grinned with all those perfect white teeth." "They are my daughters, the extension of me in this cold northern world. I taught them some English but mostly they all speak their moms' tongue and so do I. When I learned their language, I began to respect their culture and it became a part of me. It moved into my heart and set up camp in my soul. It became who I am." "'Hey, see that big rock over there - let's roll it!' 'Rock and roll - old style, husband?' Elipsee grins. We begin our game of tundra bowling. When we were kids we used to go out and just roll the tundra rock around. We'd make castles and forts and igloos and cairns. We didn't make inukshuks though. That was serious stuff for serious hunters."

Best Indigenous Queer Poetry: 
This Wound Is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt
Wow! I was bowled over by the sorrow, rage and beauty in these powerful poems. Belcourt is a Rhodes Scholar from Driftpile Cree Nation in Alberta.
"the cree word for a body like mine is weesageechak. the old ones know of this kind of shape-shifting: sometimes i sweat and sweat until my bones puddle on the carpet in my living room and i am like the water that comes before new life."
"i ran off the edge of the world
into another world
and there everyone 
was at least a little gay."
"one of the conditions of native life today is survivor's guilt."
"femininity is a torch only the bravest men can carry."
"i never liked goodbyes, but some of us aren't here to stay."

Best Indigenous Nonfiction: Indigenous Writes: 
A Guide to First Nations, Metis & Inuit Issues in Canada by Chelsea Vowel
This looks intimidating, like a textbook, but it is very engaging once you start reading. Each chapter is short, with lots of endnotes guiding readers to more information if you want it. I read a library copy and loved it so much that I bought my own copy afterwards. Marie Wilson, Commissioner of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada, describes Vowel's outstanding narrative voice as 'passionate, intellectual and populist.' 'With facts, examples, patience and sardonic humour, she takes us on a guided tour of the legal, political and social wrangling that has torn at the founding relationships of this country.' Thomas King's The Inconvenient Indian is another title that I recommend for readers who want a better understanding of modern relations between settlers and Indigenous peoples. King covers a broader and more historical North American context, while Vowel keeps a tight focus on contemporary issues in Canada and the historical contexts from which they arise.
"While there are certainly people claiming a First Nations identity based on blood myths (long-lost or imagined ancestors), it tends to be a less common phenomenon in Canada than in the United States. Part of that, at least where I come from, is a deep-rooted racism against Indigenous peoples that makes being Indigenous in no way an enviable or sought-out identity."

Best Indigenous Dystopia YA: 
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Read a long post about this thought-provoking novel on my blog here"Wildlife was limited to buzzards, raccoons the size of huskies, domestic pets left to run feral, and hordes of cockroaches that had regained the ability to fly like their southern cousins. I had been scared of them all when I was still running with my brother. Now they were nothing. I crunched over lines of roaches like sloppy gravel, threw rocks at the pack of guinea pigs grunting at me with prehistoric teeth."
Best Queer Fantasy: 
Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
Twins from a nursery rhyme, thrown in with elements from two horror classics - Dracula and Frankenstein. Dark, playful, witty: a stylized folktale effect. A doorway fantasy with a creepy atmosphere, perfect for Halloween. I actually liked this slim follow-up to Every Heart a Doorway quite a bit better than the first one, and it does stand alone.
"At the crest of the hill Jacqueline's foot hit a dip in the soil and she fell, tumbling down the other side of the hill with a speed as surprising as it was bruising. Jillian shouted her sister's name, lunging for her hand, and found herself falling as well, two little girls rolling end over end, like stars tumbling out of an overcrowded sky."
"It would become quickly dull, recounting every moment, every hour the two girls spent, one in the castle and one in the windmill: it would become quickly dull, and so it shall not be our focus, for we are not here for dullness, are we? No. We are here for a story, whether it be wild adventure or cautionary tale, and we do not have the time to waste on mundane things."

Best Queer Science Fiction: 
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Warm and compelling adventure in two timelines with a focus on AI (artificial intelligence) personhood.
"Life is terrifying. None of us have a rule book. None of us know what we're doing here. So, the easiest way to stare reality in the face and not utterly lose your shit is to believe that you have control over it."
"Among their galactic neighbours, Aeluons used the usual set of male-female-neutral pronouns that any species would understand. But among themselves, they were a four-gendered society."

Best Cookery: Salt, Fat, Acid Heat: 
Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat
"Use salt to enhance, fat to carry, and acid to balance the flavour." 
The first half covers the basic elements listed in the title, presented with warmth and encouragement. Classic recipes follow, with lots of suggestions for variations. 
"Recipes do not make food taste good; people do."
"The choice to embellish this book with illustrations rather than photographs was deliberate. Let it liberate you from feeling there's only one perfect version of every dish." The whimsical art is by Wendy MacNaughton.
Fold-out charts are packed with information. This would be a great gift for anyone who wants to learn how to cook, or who doesn't feel confident about improvisation in the kitchen.
All of the recipes that I tried from this cookbook turned out great.
This is a carrot salad with ginger and lime,
topped with borage from my garden.

Also notable is the fact that four of the children's audiobooks that I listened to in September happened to feature trees in a prominent role. All of these are recommended for family listening.

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle [2 hr : various readers] age 12 and up
A powerful history of Cuba's three wars for independence, told in verse through multiple perspectives. Heartfelt and heartbreaking.
"How can there be
a little war?
Are some deaths 
smaller than others,
leaving mothers
who weep
a little less?"
Hurricanes were battering the Caribbean when I read this, making the words even more poignant.
"People walk in long chains of strength, arm in arm, to keep from blowing away. The wildness of wind, forest, sea brings storms that move like serpents, sweeping trees and cattle up into the sky. During hurricanes, even the wealthy wander like beggars, seeking shelter arm in arm with the poor."

The Skeleton Tree by Iain Lawrence 
[8 hr : narrated by Christopher Gebauer] age 7 and up
Wilderness survival adventure. Two boys who don't get along are shipwrecked in Alaska. 
"I don't read endings. It's more real that way."

Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne 
[5 hr : narrated by Andrew Sachs] age 7 and up
"Anyway, it was probably best that he went out to make his own way in the world. After all, he was already eight years old and the truth was, he hadn't really done anything with his life so far."
A warm and whimsical fable about coping with adversity. It's a clever riff on Carlo Collodi's classic, and I recommend adding Pinocchio to your family's audiobook playlist as well. Maybe listen to Pinocchio first, so that young folk won't miss the literary allusions. Some aspects of Boyne's writing will be best appreciated by an older audience, but it's layered books like this that make for great intergenerational listening.
"... to London, stopping for a couple of days at a literary festival, where I ran in and out of the authors' readings at such a speed that the wind I generated turned the pages of their books for them, leaving both their hands free for drinking and fingerpointing."

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate 
[3.5 hr : narrated by Nancy Linari] age 8 and up
A red oak named Red (216 rings old) is the narrator of this brief and elegant story about kindness and bigotry.
"Different languages, different food, different customs. That's our neighborhood: wild and tangled and colorful. Like the best kind of garden."


And, finally, some book synchronicity in September: 

In his haunting, satirical and cinematic novel The Golden House, one of the many things that Salman Rushdie lampoons is the shifting and competing incarnations of Communist parties in India. In Ants Among Elephants, a nonfiction family history about untouchables that I was reading at the same time, Sujatha Gidla describes her uncle Satyam's involvement with various Communist groups and their ideological differences. "After that meeting, the Revolutionary Communist Party split into two splinters, each one claiming the same name CPI(M-L) - ML for Marxist-Leninist." The same name! They made it easy for writers like Rushdie to make fun of them.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

Fiction is a great vehicle for probing the big questions. In the case of The Marrow Thieves by Metis author Cherie Dimaline, those questions are:

A. What does it mean to be human? and
B. What does it mean to be Indigenous?

These questions are packaged in a gripping survival story set in the near-future in the area that used to be Canada, after devastating population loss due to illnesses, climate change and pollution. The first-person narrator is Frenchie (or Francis), a Metis boy who has lost his brother and parents, but joins up with a small group of Indigenous people led by a gay man named Miigwans, and an Elder named Minerva, who is "dark and round and tiny like a tree stump."

The whole group is on the run because Indigenous people are being hunted. New laws require mandatory incarceration in residential schools. I'm not letting the cat out of the bag to say that the reason they are being hunted is that it's been discovered that bone marrow from Indigenous people provides a cure for the current illness of non-Indigenous people. This information is right on the back cover of the book.

Miigwans explains: "They stopped dreaming. And a man without dreams is just a meaty machine with a broken gauge." Indigenous people are like living dreamcatchers in this novel, in a way, because they continue to dream. An interesting premise. Anyway, there are many themes that relate directly to Indigenous experiences in Canada:

Othering. Dehumanizing tactics, including rape and other violence; treating people as if they are not human beings.

Residential Schools. The historic purpose in Canada of annihilation through assimilation is ratcheted up to the highest level in the terrifying prisons depicted in this novel.

Skin colour and its connection to the concept of race. Based on appearance, how can you tell if someone is West Indian or Pilipino or Nehiyawak? And of the three, only the Nehiyawak person has the right kind of bone marrow...

Homelessness and poverty. The Indigenous characters we follow over the course of several years are constantly on the move, evading capture that will mean certain death, so they have very little in the way of security and material goods.

Disenfranchisement. All Indigenous peoples in the former Canada have been stripped of their rights.

Addiction. Of the extensive cast, only two minor characters have substance abuse issues, but their addictions have significant consequences for themselves and others.

Treaties. A climate of distrust and broken promises; in the backstory of this novel, attempts to negotiate with government representatives have been unsuccessful, to put it mildly.

Language. Importance of Indigenous languages as a tie to cultural rootedness.

Respect and reverence for Elders. Minerva is more than an archetype or placeholder; her involvement is central to the plot and the motivations of the other characters.

Storytelling as teaching and connection to community. Frenchie and all of the others in his current band of chosen family each have "coming-in" stories (something like the way queer people have "coming-out" stories). Stories also are used to educate the younger folk, as in the passage quoted earlier, where Miigwans explains about dreaming.

Connection to the land. This is a big one: the love and respect the characters have for the broken land they are living on comes through strongly in the story. Healing water and land from pollution is as important as personal survival.


There were a few rough spots that I wish had been caught in editing, like when Frenchie has blood in his mouth and "tasted wet pennies," even though pennies were phased out of use in Canada before he was born. Also, when he was alone in the bush, how could he know that his cough broke a blood vessel in his eye?

In another passage: "I crossed my arms, refusing to be impacted." Okay, maybe by this time in the future, "impact" will be acceptable as a verb that way. So I will try not to be grumpy about it.

I do appreciate that Frenchie has an affinity for literature: "I reverted to the books I loved, those rare and impractical luxuries I'd happened on a few times in my life and hoarded until they fell apart, all pulp and tears."

The Marrow Thieves is the kind of story that merits being read until it falls apart. May copies be passed among many eager hands.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Reading Envy Podcast

Do you love book podcasts as much as I do? If so, you can understand how excited I was to be a recent guest on Reading Envy.

Jenny Colvin is a warm host and we enjoy similar kinds of books, so I felt quite relaxed during our conversation. I took advantage of the opportunity to draw attention to three Alberta authors that I admire: Tim Bowling (The Heavy Bear), Kimmy Beach (Nuala) and Suzette Mayr (Monoceros). Jenny shared three titles as well.

We also talked about book clubs and what we are currently reading. Afterwards, I was embarrassed that I totally forgot Sylvia Plath's name when I mentioned her book Ariel, but Jenny smoothly edited out my fumbling. She carefully edits all of her recordings, making them nice and tight, which is one of the reasons that her podcast is such a pleasure for listeners.

What Jenny cannot do is put the right words in your mouth when you say the wrong thing. It was weird and humbling to hear my verbal quirks, like jamming two words together accidentally (voracious and ferocious became verocious) and I said "reader" when I meant "author," but there you have it. Human frailty.

To listen, click here, or follow one of the links on the Reading Envy website, or else search for episode 95 of Reading Envy (Lose the Outside World with Lindy Pratch) in your favourite podcast app.