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.

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