Wednesday, January 1, 2020

December Reading Round-Up

Here are some of my favourites from December 2019. These include some older titles, children's picture books, audiobooks, poetry, short stories, novels and nonfiction. Surprisingly (because I don't seek out books about war), five of them have to do with world wars. Four have queer content, two are created by Indigenous women, and two are in translation from other languages. It's my typical eclectic mix.

the small way: poems by onjana yawnghwe

In this graceful, heartfelt collection, Onjana Yawnghwe, a Shan Canadian, writes about recovering from the breakup of a relationship, during the period of time that her husband transitioned to a woman. Striking imagery connects the timeless mysteries of the cosmos to the depths of our inner lives. The book (Caitlin Press) has a beautiful cover with a rubberized treatment that accentuates its rich blue colour.

Scientists know little about dark matter, and much less about dark energy, which makes up ninety-six percent of the world beyond earth. We know these things exist because light bends towards and becomes curved.
What exists between two people I know little of. But by the bending my heart I know a kind of truth.
Dead Name
For a period of a few months I don't know what to call you. You have chosen a name, Hazel, from a shortlist we brainstorm together. Vivian, Irene, Ava. Hazel is botanical and somehow suits you. I rehearse the name on my tongue; it comes out hesitantly, with a fade in the beginning and a question mark at the end. The feeling of a borrowed coat. It tastes of sweetened coffee but is lukewarm and strange in my mouth.
You had a psychologist and your trans 
support group, and the handful of 
work friends and family you'd told.
I was tethered to a particular silence 
of the lonely, of the inexplicable.
Dimensions shifted: instead of time 
and space, uncertainty and doubt.
Secrets were imposed on me, 
it was not my place to tell.
Tears stay close to the skin.
Drop by drop, the sea accumulates.

Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis

A handful of lesbians create community and relative safety with each other while living under the brutal oppression of military dictatorship in Uruguay. This immersive novel shines with warmth and humanity, and spans decades—1977 to 2013—documenting changes in society along the way.

“I think silence killed her.”
“Yes,” Diana said. “That is the way of silence.” 
“What do you mean?” La Venus said gently, knowing there was more beneath the surface.
“That the silence of the dictatorship, the silence of the closet, as we call it now—all of that is layered like blankets that muffle you until you cannot breathe.”

Two in the Bush and Other Stories by Audrey Thomas

I loved everything about this feminist collection of short stories by award-winning Canadian author Audrey Thomas. The richly-evoked settings vary from Ghana to Galiano Island to Mexico and Scotland. The prose style also varies, including stream of consciousness, multiple viewpoints and epistolary. The stories are sometimes enigmatic, yet always offer the pleasure of carefully crafted sentences. Best is that they are about women‘s lives and seem to live on almost like novels in my head.
A big thank you to Shawn Mooney (of Shawn the Book Maniac) who gifted this to me and then buddy-read it with me through the month of December.

He and his first wife had been so shy, so horribly reticent about their bodies. It had nearly killed him. It would, in the end, have killed him. She had written him long, hysterical letters, proclaiming her love, her unhappiness, her desire to try again. Or presenting him with past hurts like unpaid bills.
The continual muttering in the long ward grew louder, rumbled like a vast stomach as the orderly ladled porridge into plastic cups, stacked up in small towers the toast that had been made three hours before and margarined hastily before dawn.

Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter
Audiobook [22 h] narrated by Grace Conlin

A powerful and immersive novel set in 1931 aboard a German ship travelling for a month between Mexico and Germany, with sharp insights into the frailties of a large cast of characters who are together at close quarters. Katherine Anne Porter wrote: “I believe that human beings are capable of total evil, but no one has ever been totally good; and this gives the edge to evil.”

The past is never where you think you left it: you are not the same person you were yesterday.
People can't hear anything except when it's nonsense. Then they hear every word. If you try to talk sense, they think you don't mean it, or don't know anything anyway, or it's not true, or it's against religion, or it's not what they are used to reading in the newspapers...

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and Harmony Becker

Star Trek actor and gay rights activist George Takei was a child in 1942. That's when the US government ordered all Japanese Americans be sent to prison camps in the interior of the country. This gripping memoir in comics format shows that experience from his small boy‘s perspective as well as looking back with the understanding of an adult. Takei learned about loyalty and integrity from his parents during these hard years and those that followed the war. Excellent art and pacing by cartoonist Harmony Becker. Outstanding delivery of history and memoir.

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy

“While he listened to my heart murmur and mope, I understood his ears were the listening device hidden inside and outside his head.” This looping, layered novel explores the many ways of seeing and being watched. The bisexual character of the title does not see much. He is beautiful and extremely self-absorbed. Levy‘s lithe, warm prose playfully reveals his gradual realization of how his behaviour affects others and how he fits in the world.

He and I had both been very lonely in our teenage years in East Berlin and East London. I had suffered in the care of my authoritarian father and he had suffered in the care of his authoritarian fatherland.
His white shirt was ironed and starched, the collar pinned with a single blue topaz in the shape of a rose. Perhaps it was blue because I was looking at it. I was black and blue all over. My hair was black and I was blue inside.
He did not speak spontaneously, certainly not the first thoughts that came to mind. Perhaps he said the third thought that came to mind. 

An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans
Translated by David Colmer

Told in the singular voice of a Dutch partisan who‘s fed up with the chaos of war and having no control over his life, this novella with its clear, unsentimental prose is one of the best depictions I‘ve read concerning the senselessness of war and how it can deform human minds. 

“Culture gives no quarter! Extraordinary circumstances are only an excuse! Someone who gives in to extraordinary circumstances, nah! He is simply no longer a person of culture!”
I said nothing.
“In the last war the British barrage began one morning at 6:15. At 6:30 I began shaving. It was too dark in the trench, so I moved to higher ground. That cost me half my little finger. But at 7:30 I was sitting down to eat breakfast!”

Captain Rosalie by Timothee de Fombelle
Translated by Sam Gordon, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

A five-year-old in France lives a rich imaginary life while her father is away fighting in the First World War. The poignancy of her story and her limited point of view are perfectly matched with Isabelle Arsenault‘s moody illustrations. Spots of fiery orange brighten the bleak grey and brown washes of ink. A heartbreaking coming-of-age story for ages six to adult.

To Speak for the Trees: My Life's Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest by Diana Beresford-Kroeger
Audiobook [9 h] narrated by the author

After Diana Beresford-Kroger was orphaned at a young age in Ireland, she was taught Celtic wisdom by her maternal ancestors. She eventually became a respected botanist and moved to Canada with her husband, where she encountered universities who wouldn't hire women -- some of this memoir reminded me of Hope Jahren's Lab Girl. Undaunted, Diana has carried out her own research and is an expert on global forest ecology. Gentle, impassioned and poetic, she shares her vision of the future for our planet in this audiobook.

I want to remind you that the forest is far more than a source of timber. It is our collective medicine cabinet. It is our lungs. It is the regulatory system for our climate and our oceans. It is the mantle of our planet. It is the health and well-being of our children and grandchildren. It is our sacred home. It is our salvation. 

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Audiobook [8 h] narrated by the author

Potawatomi author Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s enthusiasm for moss is infectious and I learned fascinating things about a subject I hadn‘t much thought about previously. This collection of essays combines memoir, Indigenous teachings and scientific knowledge for general readers. She writes about humankind‘s relationship to the natural world and the important gifts that even such humble things as moss have to contribute to the ecological system.

There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents. This is what has been called the “dialect of moss on stone - an interface of immensity and minuteness, of past and present, softness and hardness, stillness and vibrancy, yin and yan.“
I think you cannot own a thing and love it at the same time. Owning diminishes the innate sovereignty of a thing, enriching the possessor and reducing the possessed.
Moss leaves are only one cell thick.

The Girl and the Wolf by Katherena Vermette and Julie Flett

This children‘s picture book is a collaboration between two talented Canadian Métis women and it is absolutely wonderful. The Red Riding Hood tale is turned upside down with a wolf who is a helping spirit, quietly encouraging a lost girl to rescue herself. The gorgeous art, contemporary setting and the extrinsic significance of the red dress (MMIW: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) add power to the underlying message. All ages.

That night she tied tobacco in red cloth and left it at the bush‘s edge.
Because she didn‘t know a better way to say thank you.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

November Reading Round-Up

Eleven of my favourite reads from the eleventh month of 2019. It is totally by accident that the titles all consist of one, two or three words (not counting the subtitles on Underland and Blowout).

Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway

Indigenous trans woman Benaway‘s Governor General Award-winning collection of intimate, autobiographical poems uses a confessional conversational style to talk about sex, love, violence and transitioning within the larger context of Canadian (settler colonial) society. She writes about forgiveness, and also of finding sanctuary and healing in nonhuman entities, like water & forests. 

do not perform your body, 
be a holy place only the blessed can enter.

what sleeps in language is what sleeps in me,
possibilities and consequences 
for which the surface has no hope,
an unwritten alphabet of shadows 
I learn in secret, undercover from a hormonal moon 
in a dark tongue.


remember you
are not wrong 
neither are your lovers 
who love you— 
confused and changing 
like you love the earth 
under the weight of spring 
as summer breaks open 
as everything is blessed 
by its sudden wonder 
forgive us our sins 
daughter of yourself 
as we forgive you 
the miracle of your being.

Quarrels by Eve Joseph

This collection of brief prose poems had me feeling a bit puzzled and off-balanced at first. Then, as if a switch was flipped, something clicked in my brain. Our world is a place of wonder. Humanity's imagination is our strength. I have been obsessed with these whimsical gems ever since. Winner of the 2019 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize.

On the couch, Al Purdy was going on about the stunted trees in the Arctic. Upon closer examination, we could see that the leaves were tiny parkas. The illogical must have a logic of its own you said. 

The poet keeps a jar of commas on his desk. They look like the sheared ears of voles and are soft as apricots. Late at night, blindfolded, he loves to take them out and play pin-the-tail on the donkey while his wife and children are fast asleep. He plays his sentences like fish in a stream, tickling for trout with curled fingers.

Prometheus is at it again. […] In his room, he‘s building something out of matchsticks for the science fair. The little charred heads like so many executioners. 

Birdsong by Julie Flett

A child named Katherena (in homage to Metis writer Katherena Vermette, perhaps?) learns to cope with change. The intergenerational friendship, the passage of seasons, a few words in Cree language, the sweet digital collage illustrations created from pastel drawings… this gentle Indigenous picture book is so very lovely. I am always happy when Flett has a new book out.

Julie Flett‘s illustrations convey warmth 
and realism using simple shapes.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

I was spellbound by this journey into what lies in the dark: in caves, mines, underground water and petroleum resources, hollow spaces quarried out under cities and made into catacombs, the depths of glaciers. Macfarlane goes to dangerous places that I only want to experience vicariously and he writes about it all so exquisitely. “A charm of goldfinches flitters away, the birds‘ high song glittering around us.” Nature writing at its finest.

The Anthropocene compels us to think forwards in deep time, and to weigh what we will leave behind, as the landscapes we are making now will sink into strata, becoming underlands. What is the history of things to come? What will be our future fossils? […] The Anthropocene asks of us the question memorably posed by the immunologist Jonas Salk: ‘Are we being good ancestors?‘

Everywhere are the emerald leaves of the tiny dwarf willow. We have pitched our tent on top of a forest, I realize. We are canopy dwellers.

The Knud Rasmussen glacier is a body of ice so great that it makes its own weather. The glacier is invisible the afternoon we arrive, concealed by a bank of fog that runs the full span of the fjord, a mile or so wide but only a few hundred yards high. Above the fog is blue sky, below it is blue water, and behind it is blue ice.

In Oregon […] there exists a honey fungus, Armillaria solidipes, that is two and a half miles in extent at its widest point and covers a total lateral area of four square miles. The blue whale is to this honey fungus as an ant is to us. The best guess that the US Forest Service scientists have been able to offer for the honey fungus‘s age is between 1,900 and 8,650 years old.

Fungi and lichen annihilate our categories of gender. They reshape our ideas of community and cooperation. They screw up our hereditary model of evolutionary descent. They utterly liquidate our notions of time. Lichens can crumble rocks into dust with terrifying acids. Fungi can exude massively powerful enzymes outside their bodies that dissolve soil. They‘re the biggest organisms in the world and among the oldest. They‘re world-makers and world-breakers.
(Macfarlane is quoting mycologist Mervin Sheldrake in this passage.) 

Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth by Rachel Maddow
[audiobook read by the author]

Kickass lesbian political analyst Rachel Maddow untangles the far-flung tentacles of Big Oil in this very readable exposé of “Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth.” Informative, depressing, shocking and infuriating, but—ultimately—hopeful. I highly recommend the audiobook narrated by Maddow herself, which also includes a recording of Pussy Riot's song 'Putin Zassel' (Putin Pissed Himself).

The United States was beginning to look like it might be capable of overtaking Russia, become the world leader in oil production. All glory to the frackers… and all apologies to the cows… and the neighbors… and the future prospects for their drinking water. 

If you are a 15-year-old boy, your lifetime expectancy is three years longer in Haiti than in Russia. 

The Vigor Marine company website boasted “even the blue and white paint scheme was chosen to accommodate the preferences of whales.” This was news on a few fronts, not least that whales have colour preferences.

The Student by Cary Fagan

I love rich, character-based fiction and felt immediately caught up in the inner and outer life of one Toronto woman, Miriam Moscowitz, who is out of step with her contemporaries in 1957 because she wants to go on to graduate school and become a professor. The second part of this quiet novel skips ahead to 2005, allowing a glimpse of the intervening years while showing the fullness of Miriam's life in the 21st century.

She didn‘t mind seeing a Hollywood horse opera if it made Isidore happy. […] 
He wanted to talk about the film and so she went on about moral ambiguity until he interrupted her by saying, “Why are you trying to spoil the film? Come on, Minnie. Lancaster was the good guy and Douglas was the bad guy. All that studying is going to your head.”
“Where else is it supposed to go, my kidneys?”

Twice he had asked her to marry him, or rather talked about being married without quite asking, afraid of what she would say, so she hadn't felt obliged to give him an answer. But one day, she knew, he'd do something atrocious like get down on his knee.

Each year they rented a cottage on the south shore of Lake Simcoe, in the section where Jews could buy property, the drives marked by wooden signs: The Horvaths, The Targovetskys, Camp Kugel. On Friday nights candles could be seen burning in cottage windows.

“…they make a promise to each wear the jeans and then send it to the next person and describe all their adventures while wearing them. I mean, it‘s a pretty stupid idea, like that would ever happen, and the girls are way too nice to each other, which in my opinion is less believable than anything in Harry Potter. But you know what? I can‘t put it down.”
“It sounds quite delicious. I wonder what makes us just have to keep reading a book? Does that mean it's good and we don't want to admit it because it doesn't fit our idea of real literature? Or is it like eating candy? You know, all immediate pleasure but no nutrition."

The Wagers by Sean Michaels
[audiobook read by the author]

My audiobook hold came in at the same as the print edition, making it easy to note passages like: “The sun was raying all around.” A thoughtful, dreamy story set in Montreal—a grocery store, a comedy club, a betting track, riding a bicycle through rainy nights—and combining fantastical elements with realistically developed characters. It's also a Robin Hood-type crime caper with action that spans the globe and plumbs the human heart. I especially enjoyed the author's own narration of his book.

To certain observers, Theo might have appeared bored, but he wasn‘t bored, exactly. Boredom requires a degree of self-knowledge. It is not enough that an activity be tedious (i.e. without momentum) or aimless (i.e. without direction): for it to be boring the doer must recognize he is being dulled. Theo was too restless for that.

Sometimes it is easier to trust someone than to doubt them, a kind of gift you give yourself.
[This passage happened to echo the subject of the nonfiction book I was reading at the same time, Malcolm Gladwell's Talking to Strangers.]

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran
translated by Sophie Hughes

Thousands of missing loved ones, “disappeared” by Pinochet‘s security forces, haunt subsequent generations of Chileans. In this dizzying, surreal, gritty, funny and heartbreaking novel, a corpse has gone astray when ash prevents planes from landing in Santiago, prompting the trippiest of road trips. I feel forever changed by my journey through this book.

[…] I went about gorging on nectar as I picked the city flowerless, snatching dismembered petals, petals that I tore from the sepals and the stamens and the corollas and the anthers and the receptacles, which I left floating in the gutters, there among the tadpoles I abandoned those shredded flowers, white canoes in the muddy water for the tadpoles to paddle with, pistils floating with their ugly bug captains, and there I was, winding my way through Santiago […]

[…] and then day broke and I still hadn't gathered my thoughts; they were still lost in the night and everybody knows that the daytime thoughts and the nighttime thoughts never find each other again […]

Her Spanish was correct but old-fashioned, the kind you might still hear in parts of Sweden, Berlin, Canada, but which to me sounded hollow, or perhaps hollowed out.

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman
[audiobook read by Michael Sheen]

This fantasy spy thriller is a heady ride across the alternate-Europe landscape of Pullman's imagination, and, in fact, involves the search for Lyra's lost imagination. Lyra is 20 in this second volume of a trilogy and I like seeing the development of her character, even though it's also painful to see that she and her daemon have fallen out. Mainly, their disagreements focus on the way Lyra's outlook has been influenced by philosophies she has encountered in books. Warning: cliffhanger ending.

Lyra bent over the open vessel and found the concentrated fragrance of every rose that had ever bloomed: a sweetness and power so profound that it moved beyond sweetness altogether and out of the other side of its own complexity into a realm of clear and simple purity and beauty. It was the smell of sunlight itself.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
[audiobook read by the author, Kivlighan de Montebello, William DeMerritt and Maia Enrigue Luiselli]

A deeply moving novel about family dynamics and the way our lives are affected by larger events happening in society—in this case, the migrant children refugee crisis at the southern US border. The audiobook is a rich experience with four different narrators—including the author—slowly building layers of prose, metafiction, fragments of documents, descriptions of photos. Compassionate and unforgettable.

The conversations between the parents and their kids are a wonderful aspect of this novel. Example:
Child: What's a midwife?
Father: Someone who delivers babies.
Child: Like the postman?
Father: Yes, like the postman.

…I get asked about my accent and place of birth and I say no, I was not born in this country and when I say where I was born, I don‘t even get a nod in return, just a cold dead silence, as if I‘ve confessed to sin.

Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
[audiobook read by Stig Wemyss]

My review in three words: Thriller Melts Heart.

“Clutch! First gear! Steadily on the pedal.”

I asked Slim if he‘d ever read Moby Dick and he said he‘d read it twice because it‘s worth reading a second time, though he said the second time around, he skipped the bit where the writer goes on about all the different species of whales found all across the world. 

I asked Slim to tell me the whole story, and for two hours, while we washed his land cruiser, he told me that thrilling adventure tale so enthusiastically I wanted Nantucket fish chowder for lunch and white whale steaks for dinner.