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."