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.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Speculative Fiction in Audiobooks

Hiromi Goto spoke at the University of Alberta yesterday, as part of the Canadian Literature Centre's Brown Bag Lunch Reading series. Her talk reminded me why I love speculative fiction.

"the best of speculative fiction is not bound by the mechanics of the systems we’ve developed to date, nor confined to the limits of our bodies and social and historical forces. Speculative fiction allows for paradigm shifts that can have us begin experiencing and understanding in new, unsettling ways. They can disturb us, and can propel us beyond the conventions, complacencies, or determinedly maintained ignorance of the ideologically figured present into an undetermined future." -Hiromi Goto
(Goto's braided essay 'Notes from Liminal Spaces' is available online at Uncanny.) 

This year I've listened to some great audiobooks that fall under the speculative fiction umbrella. If you like being unsettled by literature as much as I do, here are some that I haven't already mentioned on my blog:

American War by Omar El Akkad 
12 h 13 m: narrated by Dion Graham.
Powerful. Envisions a future war-torn, environmentally devastated USA that left me feeling so very sad. Generations of hatred and vengeance = destruction. It's received much critical praise but I've also seen a lot of mixed reviews on Goodreads and Litsy. Maybe this cautionary tale hits too close to home for some readers? Told as if in excerpts from journals and historical records, a style I like very much. It has much in common with Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. American War made a deep impression on me and might be my favourite audiobook of the year.

"You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories."
"Rage wrapped itself around her like a tourniquet, keeping her alive even as it condemned a part of her to atrophy."

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman 
13 h: narrated by Michael Sheen.
Riveting adventure set in an alternate England during an epic flood. Child spies. Wicked adults. Corrupt organized religion. Violence and profanity. And heroic young people determined to save one special baby girl. Volume 1 in The Book of Dust prequel trilogy. I loved being back in the world of His Dark Materials with baby Lyra Belacqua.

"Words belong in contexts, not pegged out like biological specimens."
"His daemon, a large cat with fur of a thousand beautiful autumnal colours, stalked the corners of the study before leaping gracefully to Coram's lap."

Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang
11 h 14 m: narrated by Emily Woo Zeller.
This title was recommended to me by SG Wong (when she came to my book club to talk about In for a Pound). I enjoyed the rich historical detail - especially about the domestic milieu for girls and women in early 20th-century Shanghai. I loved the central character, Jialing, who was mistreated because of her mixed heritage, and I adored her helper, a fox spirit with magical powers - but limited ones (because unlimited powers would be too easy, right?). Audiobook narration with tonal Chinese pronunciation by Emily Woo Zeller is an added bonus.

"That night I dreamed that I had wandered out to Dragon Springs Road all on my own, when a dreadful knowledge seized me that my mother had gone away never to return..." 

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado 
8 h 43 m: narrated by Amy Landon.
Surrealism + dynamite writing + queer = so much love for these inventive short stories. One long story assembles (fake?) summaries of Law and Order: SVU tv show episodes into something more like Twin Peaks. Women's bodies are raped, become non-corporeal, and are surgically altered, yet they are also celebrated here. We are physical beings and sexual pleasure is women's birthright. Machado's prose makes my spine tingle and she is my new hero.

"When the baby cries she could be hungry or thirsty or angry or cranky or sick or sleepy or paranoid or jealous or she had planned something but it went horribly awry."
"I don't like the way she's pulling the darts out of the board, like she is yanking on an opponent's ponytail."
"The power went out for the fourth time that week, so we ate by candlelight. I resented the inadvertent romance."

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch (Also titled: Rivers of London) 
10 h: narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.
Clever, funny, thoroughly entertaining supernatural police procedural set in an alternate modern London. Ghosts, vampires, river deities, Punch and Judy puppet re-enactments... All the scary stuff. Audiobook narrator Kobna Holdbrook-Smith has a versatile way with voicing characters from all sorts of backgrounds. I was late to the party on this. It's first in the Peter Grant urban fantasy series, and I'm glad there are plenty more already published, waiting for me.

"Carved above the lintel were the words SCIENTIA POTESTAS EST. Science points east, I wondered? Science is portentous, yes? Science protests too much. Scientific potatoes rule. Had I stumbled on the lair of dangerous plant geneticists?"

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman 
6.5 h: narrated by the author.
I would have preferred some new twists on these old tales, but it's not that kind of book. If you're looking for a grounding in traditional Norse mythology, this is it. It's always a treat to listen to Gaiman's voice, which is the perfect combination of soothing and alert. His pronunciation of Balder gave me a bit of a start, however. I didn't remember that Odin had a son named Balda. (Doh!)

"The Norse myths are the myths of a chilly place, with long, long winter nights and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them."
"'I'm not happy about any of this,' said Thor. 'I'm going to kill somebody soon, just to relieve the tension.'"

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland 
24.5 h: full cast.
A witty time travel adventure told in journal entries, transcripts, letters, memos (expressed in hilarious bureaucratese) and such like. The letters written by Grainne, an Irish witch and spy in Elizabethan England, were my favourite among many fun aspects. Echoes of Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book and Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Travelers Wife. This long recording with a cast of thirteen performers was so good that I hardly cared about encountering bad weather during a long driving trip. 

"Reader, if you don't know what a database is, rest assured that an explanation of the concept would in no way increase your enjoyment in reading this account."

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward 
8 h 22 m: narrated by Kelvin Harrison Jr, Chris Chalk and Retina Wesley.
A heartbreaking and atmospheric National Book Award-winner with multiple narrators about a Mississippi family that is literally haunted by the past: the ghosts of two young black men who won't stay buried. All of the main characters are complex and real. Leonie, an African American drug addict, struggles to be a mother to Jojo, 13, and Kayla, 3, whose white father is about to be released from prison. Lyric and devastating. 

"And then Leonie laughs, even though it's a laugh that doesn't sound like one. There's no happiness in it, just dry air and hard red clay where grass won't grow."

Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel 
9 h: full cast.
Near-future science fiction set on Earth. The full cast audio (twelve narrators) is an excellent production choice because, just like the first book in this series (Sleeping Giants), it's written as a collection of audio files. The pace has pep, characters are developed enough to be intriguing, and the whole plot is wildly imaginative. I loved it and the cliffhanger ending has me eager for Book 3.

"If you lived on Earth back then, either your line died out, and you have no descendants at all, or you're an ancestor to everyone alive today. Everyone who lived a couple thousand years ago, and whose line didn't disappear, is your ancestor and mine and everyone else's."

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."

-from 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."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
"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."

-from The Heavy Bear by Tim Bowling, p 95 and 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."

-from '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."

-from 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."

-from 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."

-from 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.'"

-from Searching for Petronius Totem by Peter Unwin
(Thank you to @LauraTFrey of Reading in Bed for bringing this one to my attention.)

"He was visiting his sister, still in the neighbourhood, and beside him was a boy of maybe five, his son,  the fattest eyes you've ever seen, although already he could posture, chinning me a quick hello in a way that made me laugh. We spent an hour together in the nearby Tim Hortons, drinking those slushy coffee drinks, beads of cold on their plastic cups. I ordered a doughnut for his son, and I kept watching, mesmerized, as the kid forked off all the icing to eat first."

-from Brother by David Chariandy, p 172
(Thank you to @YoDessa of new book in the house for bringing this one to my attention.)

Update: Further references can be found in this more recent post:

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."

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston

The pamphlet described in great detail a medical procedure that you called mental ventilation, that is the drilling of holes in the skulls of the sick to let the evil spirits out.


New entry, April 2018. I saw a museum replica of a skeleton, from either the Neolithic or the late Stone Age, with a trepanned hole in its skull. Bru na Boinne, Ireland.

Museum exhibit at Bru na Boinne.

New entry, April 1, 2019. (This is not a joke.) I've come across reference to trepanation in:

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

Amanda Feilding, who was born in 1943, is an eccentric as only the English aristocracy can breed them. (She’s descended from the house of Habsburg and two of Charles II’s illegitimate children.) A student of comparative religion and mysticism, Feilding has had a long-standing interest in altered states of consciousness and, specifically, the role of blood flow to the brain, which in Homo sapiens, she believes, has been compromised ever since our species began standing upright. LSD, Feilding believes, enhances cognitive function and facilitates higher states of consciousness by increasing cerebral circulation. A second way to achieve a similar result is by means of the ancient practice of trepanation. This deserves a brief digression. [...]

Trepanation was for centuries a common medical practice, to judge by the number of ancient skulls that have turned up with neat holes in them. Convinced that trepanation would help facilitate higher states of consciousness, Fielding went looking for someone to perform the operation on her. When it became clear no professional would oblige, she trepanned herself in 1970, boring a small hole in the middle of her forehead with an electric drill. (She documented the procedure in a short but horrifying film called Heartbeat in the Brain.) Pleased with the results, Fielding went on to stand for election to Parliament, twice, on a platform of "Trepanation for National Health.” 

Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir by Kwame Onwuachi and Joshua David Stein

The first step is to score a circle with a tournĂ© knife, the smallest in a knife roll, a third of the way down the eggshell. Then, score it again to cut the top cleanly off, leaving the shell looking like a trepanned head. Then you carefully empty out the yolk and white, separating them into bowls to be used later. 
[on preparing eggshells to be used as serving vessels for custard]

The Red Threads of Fortune by J.Y. Yang

Mokoya saw the hole [the dragon-type creature] had trepanned into the domed roof. […] a yawning lobotomy of cracked roof…
[Note: It‘s the roof of the tower containing the library, so this comparison to a brain is apt.]

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.