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.

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