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.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Heavy Bear by Tim Bowling

"After making a press of dark roast, I slipped in the DVD and watched The Railrodder. Then I watched Buster Keaton Rides Again, the documentary shot simultaneously with the filming of The Railroader, which is even more haunting in its depiction of a dying legend and a vanishing nation. And I stepped straight out of linear time - just like Keaton as the projectionist in his classic 1924 film Sherlock Jr., who leaves his own body and enters the story he is showing on the screen - and arrived in the past where the light animates the dead and every shadow is a snarl of tape on the cutting-room floor."

Just like Keaton does, as the protagonist in the silent film Sherlock Jr., Bowling seems to step out of his life into a dream. The protagonist in Tim Bowling's latest book happens to be named Tim Bowling. He happens to be a writer living in Edmonton (where I also happen to live). He has a family and sometimes must make ends meet by taking teaching jobs... just like the real Tim Bowling. However, there are other elements that make it immediately clear that this is fiction. Bowling wakes up really early (or is he still dreaming?) on the morning that he is to begin teaching an English class. He cannot bear the thought of surmounting his introversion and standing in front of his students. What to do? What to do? His companions during his day-long existential crisis include the ghost of Buster Keaton and a large, but invisible, bear-poet.

"I had an imaginary bear who wept, a silent film ghost who remained true to silence, and my own sense of reality, which might either have been slipping away or speeding straight at me like an express train, depending on how you define reality. One fact was clear enough: the more I taught, the less I would write. And if I did not write, what would keep me out of a straitjacket? Yet what I wanted to write didn't pay me enough to support a family of five."

Bowling is someone best described as a writer's writer, and, with phrases like: "I pointed my heavy compass to campus," it's evident how much he enjoys playing with words.

"I checked my watch. It was almost one o'clock. I checked my pulse. It was still quick, but not alarmingly so. I checked my mood. It had sped through a few phases since the morning, and now had slid down toward where it started. Much had happened, but little had changed."

Tim's chance encounters on the streets of Edmonton lead him to an unlikely source of wealth and unwitting involvement in criminal activity. There's enough humour and narrative action to keep the storyline compelling even as it meanders through thoughtful interludes.

"I looked around at the cages and tanks. There were at least a dozen, and all were grimy. Some sort of a large lizard - perhaps a Komodo dragon - blinked up at me with its bulbous, Peter Lorre eyes. The sandpaper of its skin seemed to cast sparks against being. I could relate, too much so."

"For some strange reason, the depressing shop comforted me. Despite the filth and gloom of the place, the presence of other species, even these poor specimens, always lifted my spirits. I remembered my Whitman:

I think I could turn and live with animals: they are so placid and self-contain'd;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God:
Not one is dissatisfied - not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

It's a bizarre, twenty-first-century form of comfort, but you hear it from time to time: the earth and its life existed before us, and it will survive us. Even when you don't hear someone articulate the thought, you can feel it."

The Heavy Bear is an inventive, introspective and thoroughly rewarding novel.

Thank you to publisher Wolsak and Wynn for sending me a review copy.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Best of August 2017: Reading Wrap-Up

Above, my Goodreads page of books I've read in August. Let me tell you about some of them:

Most Outstanding Graphic Novel: 
My Favourite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris
I have been telling everyone about this gorgeous, hefty, moving graphic novel whenever the subject of books comes up. (It comes up a lot around me.) Ten-year-old gumshoe Karen Reyes doesn't want to be a vulnerable girl; she wants to be a scary monster. She stole my heart so fast. What a great character, and a budding lesbian too - reminding me of Harriet the Spy. This book is for adults, though. It's set in Chicago in the 60s, where Karen tries to make sense of the tragedies around her, starting with the death of her upstairs neighbour. It's the first of two parts and I am very excited about the yet-to-be-released sequel.

Best Audiobook: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness 
by Arundhati Roy [16.5 hr: narrated by the author]
Fiction may be the best way to grasp some understanding of the situation in Kashmir, the most militarized area in the world. I had so much to say about this brilliant novel that it has its own page here on my blog.

"How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything."

Best Multiple Perspectives: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
A disturbing, suspenseful, heartbreaking novel about ethics, the individual and the state. Contemporary global issues dramatized in five perspectives from two British Pakistani families. Relevant and absorbing. 

I had heard before reading this that it was a retelling of the myth of Antigone, but forgot that entirely as I got caught up in the narrative. Then, in the final segment, all of the pieces that relate to the Greek myth suddenly popped into my awareness, adding a rich overlay. A more idiosyncratic connection came when I encountered reference to the Laila-Majnu Sufi folktale, which also came up in Arundhati Roy's novel that I had finished just before this one.  

Dr Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall by Suzette Mayr
A lesbian Alice in Wonderland-ish spoof on the politics of academia, set in an invented university that could very well be Calgary... if the U of C had malevolent buildings infested with carnivorous jackrabbits. Nightmarish and funny.

"Edith claws through the chlorinated water in the university's Olympic-sized swimming pool. She squints through her goggles. 7:35 a.m. Soon it will be 8 a.m. and her day basically gone. Wasted!"

"She extracts her red pen from her purse and slowly begins scribbling and ticking her way through the wildly ungrammatical pages, miles of faulty logic, the written-the-midnight-before wool gatherings. Soon she is a marking powerhouse, she has graded 17 essays in 15 minutes, she is a marking automaton. She should grade papers at 3 in the morning every single day! Her mind vinegar-sharp, a slayer of dangling, squinting and misplaced modifiers."

Best Thriller: 
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
Character-based, funny, violent, rich and suspenseful. Timeline flips back and forth between early scenes leading up to each bullet wound in Hawley's body, and his current life doing his best to avoid trouble. 

Michael Kindness from the now-defunct Books on the Nightstand podcast gave this high praise long before it was released, so I've been looking forward to it ever since. I was not disappointed. As I read, I kept seeing Samuel Hawley as Parker in Darwin Cooke's graphic novel adaptations of Richard Stark's hardboiled noir series. The difference is that Hawley's earlier life of crime might be redeemed through raising his daughter on his own. 

Best Short Story Collection: 
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
At first I thought I was pushing too quickly through this 400-page collection, and that maybe I should space the stories out with other things, but by the middle of the book I was just too hooked to stop. Autobiographical, warm and colourful: the cumulative effect is like one fat post-modern novel. Berlin has a fabulous conversational style: "matter of fact you can lie and still tell the truth. This story is good and it rings true, wherever it came from." Oh, yes!

"'You get DTs?' Pepe asked.
'Yes,' she lied. God, just listen to me... please accept me you guys, please like me you runny-eyed bums. I don't know what DTs are. The doctor asked me that too, and I said yes and he wrote it down. I think I've had them all my life, if, in fact, they are visions of demons." -from Her First Detox

"It had a fur collar. Oh the poor matted fur, once silver, yellowed now like the peed-on backsides of polar bears in zoos."

"Often they wore their hair in pin curls and a turban, getting their hair ready for - what? This still is an American custom. You see women everywhere in pink hair rollers. It's some sort of philosophical or fashion statement. Maybe there will be something better, later."

"Angie Dickinson liked my eye shadow. I told her it was just chalk, the kind you rub on pool cues."

"I couldn't go to heaven because I was Protestant. I'd have to go to limbo. I would rather have gone to hell than limbo, what an ugly word, like dumbo, or mumbo jumbo, a place without any dignity at all."

Best Picture Book: The Fog by Kyo Maclear and Kenard Pak
Friendship between misfits with a nerdy hobby + a love of the natural world + global activism on the part of the environment = an adorable picture book with the quiet heft of a velvet hammer. 

Kenard Pak's digitally-manipulated pencil and watercolour art reminds me of Jon Klassen's work. (See I Want My Hat Back, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, and House Held Up by Trees.) 

Tiny yellow bird Warbler, the people-watcher, is pictured with a telescope inside a nest piled high with reference books about humans. The endpapers portray a whimsical array of human types, such as the "Dapper Bespectacled Booklover" and the "Hairy Orange-Crowned Male (Juvenile)." So much to love in this Canadian picture book for all ages.

Best Children's Graphic Novel: Brave by Svetlana Chmakova
Jensen gets through each day at middle school by treating it like a video game, fraught with dangers. This charming graphic novel is chock full of diverse characters and deals well with the issue of bullying. It even made me cry. Creator Svetlana Chmakova immigrated to Canada when she was a teen and she obviously knows what being an outsider feels like.

Best Nonfiction Reportage in Comics Format: 
Hostage by Guy Delisle [translated from French by Helge Dascher]
Another brilliant work of nonfiction comics by Guy Delisle, who can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. This time, instead of documenting his own travel adventures, working in other countries, he tells the true story of a French NGO worker, held hostage in Chechnya for 111 days. I felt like I was right there, experiencing the boredom and despair while chained by the wrist for months. Amazing visual storytelling, few words.

Best Nonfiction Memoir in Comics Format: 
Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke
An eloquent, marvellous and melancholy study of senescence, presented in meticulous art with minimal text. People, relationships, and the things created by humans-- all will crumble to nothing in the end. I've learned from this book that "ruin porn" is a thing. What Radtke manages to do, with clear-eyed compassion, is to allow us to see the beauty in the inevitable. The controlled lifework and attention to photographic detail reminds me of Alison Bechdel's art.

Best Science Fiction Graphic Novel: Bitch Planet, Book 2 
President Bitch by Kelly Sue DeConnick et al.
Volume 2 collects issues #6-10 of this outrageously funny feminist sic fi spoof. It's just as strong as the first volume and I want more! The fake adverts at the end of each issue help to lighten some heavy content in the storyline: "Makeup is also a LIE! You ugly cow, he actually thought you really did have cheekbones that were cut with a laser."

Best Science Fiction Novella: Nuala by Kimmy Beach

"'Why are these irons called sad? What makes an iron sad?'
She laughed at me and explained that neither the irons nor the future Iron-Servants were sad. Did I not notice the joy with which they performed their duties, even though there was then no Giant to wear the dress they tended? It was simply the name given to the heavy slabs of metal."

Teacher-Servant is the human man graced with a giant mechanical puppet's first awakening gaze. He rides on her shoulder as they communicate via thought. "Shh, my Nuala. I am with you. Today I shall teach you the newness of you."

My book club spent a long time discussing this intriguing exploration of jealousy and autonomy, written by an author from nearby (Red Deer, Alberta) and set in an atypical dystopia. The tale is short and haunting. It had me watching hours of videos of giant marionettes on YouTube.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

It's been 20 years since Arundhati Roy's last novel was published, the astonishing The God of Small Things. Her new one, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was worth the wait. 

Grief and hope are inseparable. Life, love and death: it's all mixed together. A brilliant, breathtaking novel, featuring a wide cast of characters swirling around Anjum, an intersex hijra in Delhi. There's even a character with my name, a young Australian hippy who marries a crusading Indian journalist and then gets arrested for trafficking heroin. 

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, then picked up a paper copy so that I could savour her brilliant prose:

"They had always fitted together like pieces of an unsolved (and perhaps unsolvable) puzzle - the smoke of her into the solidness of him, the solitariness of her into the gathering of him, the insouciance of her into the restraint of him. The quietness of her into the quietness of him."

"A posse of mop-haired dogs smelling of perfume and cigarette smoke ran amok among the guests, like a small army of yapping, motorized floor swabs."

"Some distance away a bare-torsoed man, with yellow limes stuck all over his body with superglue, sucked noisily on a thick mango drink from a small carton. He refused to say why he had stuck limes to his skin or why he was drinking mango juice even though he seemed to be promoting limes, and grew abusive if anyone asked."

"...the battered angels in the graveyards that kept watch over their battered charges held open the doors between worlds (illegally, just a crack) so that the should of the present and the departed could mingle, like guests at the same party. It made life less determinate and death less conclusive. Somehow everything became a little easier to bear."

"How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything."