Monday, December 31, 2018

December 2018 Reading Round-Up

My highlights from December include a designer box of short stories, world-class local poetry, a translated novella set in Ukraine, science fiction, historical fiction, a couple of memoirs, and lots of graphic novels.

2018 Short Story Advent Calendar, produced by Michael Kingston and Natalie Olsen

A limited annual edition. One short story per day, each in its own beautifully designed booklet. For four years in a row, I've enjoyed this treat. It's hard to pick favourites, but some of the standouts were by George Saunders, Jessica Westhead, Sara Levine, Doretta Lau, Rodrigo Fresan, Liliana Heker, Kim Fu, Eugene Lim, and RO Kwon.

I've been inspired to continue the daily habit by embarking on a project starting January 1, 2019: reading one chapter per day of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, an epic Japanese classic.

Insomnia Bird: Edmonton Poems by Kelly Shepherd

New and found text, woven into a warm and witty nest of poems that map the exterior and interior places where city people, the natural world, and work intersect. Public transit, magpies, the North Saskatchewan river valley, and construction crews. A glorious celebration of the confounding way in which we experience our lives.

Magpie: twilight bird - two-lighted bird -
feathered yin-yang,
nest builder and robber of nests -

you hop and clatter on the road like hail.
Black and white offspring of the raven
Kelly Shepherd, book launch
at Audreys, September 2018

and the dove, the only bird

who did not go into the ark with Noah -
you gather in loud tidings,
you point the direction of the wind.

You pull behind you invisible threads,
you stitch stories together,
you needle through the sky!

(from Picamancy Charm)

Baba Dunja's Last Love by Alina Bronsky 
Translation from German by Tim Mohr

"Bronsky instinctively understands that the way to a reader's heart is through great characters." -Library Journal. That pull quote from Library Journal is on the front cover and it's spot on. Baba Dunja is such a memorable character. A tiny Russian Ukrainian in her 80s, she's the first to move back to her home in Chernobyl's "dead zone" after the "nuclear incident." I loved this short novel so much, for its heart and humour. It reminded me of Olga Tokarczuk's forthcoming (February 2019) Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

A biologist explained to me later that the stuff was stuck in my bones and gave off radiation around me so that I was myself like a little reactor.

But God was abolished from our land when I was little and I haven't managed to get him back.

I ask Marja if she needs anything from the city, I ask Petrow, and [...]
Petrow asks me for good news.
"Don't joke around," I say. "I can bring you honey."
"I don't want any honey," he says. "I don't eat honey because it's made of bee vomit. Bring me good news."
That's how he always is.

An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim

An amazing, lyrical and intellectually stimulating novel. Time travel, dystopia, romance and refugees. It reminds me somewhat of Exit West, in the way science fiction elements are used as a shortcut to get to the real issues: displacement, social inequality, and the human heart. I raced through this in two days.

One car behind them honks. The voice of their driver, made tinny by the intercom, says, "You gotta go." They squeeze each other's hands so hard the skin of his suit bites the web between her fingers and there's no way they can touch skin to skin and the seat of her heart falls away and so does her resolve. But there is no more time. All the cars honk like the end of days.

You cannot put life on hold to have a moment of grief, so every second, half the people in the world are split in two. This is what they mean by life goes on, and the worst is that you go on along with it too.

On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden, Graphic novel

What fun! A boarding school/science fiction space adventure with a diverse cast of mostly lesbian characters plus one nonbinary. It's over 500 pages long and I wanted more. So good!

[Elliot is non binary and mute. When their construction crew gets a new boss, Jules comes to Elliot's defence.]
Boss: You are all on very thin ice. Your insubordination will be reported and there will be consequences. Now, Jules, tell me about your work today.
Jules. Hmm. You know it's really tough to remember, Jo. But I'm sure you get that. You can't remember one person's pronouns.

Sanity and Talulah by Molly Brooks, 
Graphic novel

100% girl power, mad scientist madcap adventure on a space station. Action + friendship + supportive families + a cat with three heads = a winning graphic novel for readers of all ages.
A nice diversity of characters.

Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka, Graphic novel

A moving memoir about growing up in a difficult family situation: Krosoczka's mother was a heroin addict, often in prison, and he didn't know his father, so his grandfather became his legal guardian. His grandparents were heavy drinkers and smokers, but they loved him. One of the best things they did was to pay for art classes after his school stopped offering his favourite subject. The ink wash art is wonderful, the story inspiring.

All the Answers by Michael Kupperman, Graphic novel

A fascinating father-son relationship memoir. Award-winning cartoonist Michael Kupperman's father Joel experienced trauma as a result of his childhood fame on the radio and TV show Quiz Kids. As an adult, he became ill and had to leave the room if someone even mentioned the show. So, nobody talked about it and it was like a rot that soured the relationships in the Kupperman family. A touching story of a son trying to understand his dad.

Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

An atmospheric survival story in gorgeous prose with a slow pace and yet inexorable forward movement. Nine Scottish boys and three men are left stranded on a tiny island of rock in 1727. Based on a true story. Suitable for ages 10 to adult.

She was nothing akin to anyone Quill had ever met. There was the talking, for one thing. In sentences! Sentences as long as an anchor chain sometimes. They had him holding his breath to hear where they would end. Hirta folk were not great talkers.

"Jesus made all the herring in the world, am I right? So the herring surely came when He whistled? So when He was on the shore and His friends were out on the sea, He whistled up this huge shoal of herring and walked over the water on their backs--to reach the disciples, yes? And Jesus told St Peter to try it too... which Peter did--and managed it, of course! Then the herring said enough was enough and stopped cooperating and Peter started sinking."

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq
Audiobook [6 hr] performed by the author

The most memorable audiobook I listened to all month. I read the print version last month and loved it. (See my November Round-Up.) Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq not only performs her own words (short stories and poems) on the audio edition, she also includes a short vocalization between each piece.

We sipped the air. It was too cold to chug.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Timmies Times Three: More Tim Hortons in Literature

I continue to document my encounters with Tim Hortons in Canadian literature. The first two installments of quotations can be found here and here. This time I've got a really long, really funny excerpt from Eden Robinson's Trickster Drift, so I'm going to stop at three instead of waiting for more.

Johnny watches the steady onslaught of Sunday afternoon coffee-junkies gushing in and out of Tim Hortons. The drive-in cars lined up all the way into the hotel parking lot across the way like some nullified serpent. Two girls tucked in under the one umbrella, wolfing back a smoke. A man with a small boy on his shoulders and the boy cracks his head off the doorframe on the way inside. Johnny watches through the front windows at the boy screeching and the gangly man, the boy's father or uncle or something, tryna quiet him down with a five-dollar bill.

-from We'll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night by Joel Thomas Hynes, p. 78

Mave rolled down her window and studied the menu board as if it were a secret treasure map. Jared willed himself to unclench his jaw.
"Welcome to Tim Hortons," a young woman's voice droned over the intercom. "How can I help you?"
"I don't think you understand your potential," Mave said.
"I didn't catch that, ma'am. Are you ordering poutine?"
"Potential!" Mave yelled into the intercom. "The possibility contained within you before full realization."
"Good, 'cause we don't make poutine here."
"How did you decide what you wanted to do with your life, if you don't mind me asking?"
The line of cars was growing behind them. A man yelled, "Fucking order already!"
Jared peered in the side mirror. The yelling man was behind them in the black SUV. He laid on his horn. Jared sighed. Trust his luck to finally make it to Vancouver and get shot because he was between some asshat and his caffeine fix.
"I hated retail," the attendant was saying over the intercom. "This was close to my apartment and I don't have to do the night shift. It's kind of boring, but I like being home when my kids get home."
"Order a fucking coffee like a normal person!" the SUV guy shouted.
"He's going to shoot us if you don't order," Jared said.
"Some people," Mave said.
"Amen," the woman said. "I miss real winters. I'd move home if there were any jobs there."
"Where's home?"
"Just a sec, honey," the woman said.
Honk. "What the fuck is wrong with you?" Honk. Another voice chimed in: "Some of us have lives, you know."
The intercom crackled. "Uh-huh. Okay, uh, my manager is going to give you a free coffee if you get out of line."
"What a sweetie! Do you want anything, Jelly Bean?"
"No, nothing. I'm good."
"Don't worry. I'm paying."
"Let's just move."
"Are you too shy to ask for what you want?"
"He sounds shy," the woman said.
Honk. Honk. Honk.
"A grilled cheese panini," Jared said. "Okay? Can we go?"
"Oh, that sounds good. I'll have one of those too."
"My boy loves it with ham."
"That sounds better," Mave said. "One regular and one with ham on multigrain."
He checked his phone, more for something to look at, something to do.
"I worry too," Mave said as they pulled up to the takeout window and a pale blond woman with black rings of eyeliner leaned over and smiled at them.
"Sorry if I got you in trouble," Mave said to her.
"Not a problem. That guy behind you is a regular. His wife left him for his business partner and he's cheesed at the world."
"Hey, add his order to my bill, okay? Tell him I understand heartbreak."

-from Trickster Drift by Eden Robinson, p. 73-75

The postscript was always something Zareena missed about Canada. Her words brought the taste of maple dip donuts and too-sweet hot chocolate to his lips. Their father, Raheem, used to treat them on the way back from Sunday morning Islamic school when they were kids. Before Zareena went away.
"You made me look bad in front of those horrible women," Nani said in Urdu. "They're going to think we didn't do a good job raising you. I'm going to teach you how to cook, right now. Grab some onions and garlic-ginger paste."
Ayesha looked alarmed. From the living room came Nana's voice. "Beti, you promised to take me to Tim Hortons."
"But Nana, you just had tea," Idris said, his lips twitching. Unlike his older sister, he got a kick out of causing trouble.
"I wish to purchase an apple fritter," Nana said with dignity. "I shall be waiting in the automobile."
"You can teach me to cook when I come back. Or maybe tomorrow," Ayesha said. She kissed her grandmother on the cheek and hurried outside.

-from Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin, Chapter 3 and 10

Sunday, December 2, 2018

November 2018 Reading Round-Up

Novels, poetry, nonfiction, audiobooks, picture books, graphic novels for adults and kids... here are highlights from the assortment of books that I tackled in November, in no particular order:

Disoriental by Negar Djavadi

Kaleidoscopic storytelling swirls through the entire 20th-century history of Iran, as well as four generations of a Persian family, giving context for the punk rock lesbian main character--Kimia Sadr--who's living in exile in Paris where she has to lie about her marital status in order to receive treatment at a fertility clinic. I was totally engrossed in this delightful translation by Tina Kover.

I devoted myself to studying the way he handled the shaving brush and razor, trying to memorize his technique so I could duplicate it when I was a grown-up. Basically, before other developments occurred, I knew I was a girl--but I was sure that, when I grew up, I would become not a woman, but a man.

"He went to America?!"
"That's what I just said."
"What does he do over there?"
"What do you think he does? He's a Sadr. He shakes his little pipe and makes babies."

To really integrate into a culture, I can tell you that you have to disintegrate first, at least partially, from your own. You have to separate, detach, disassociate. No one who demands that immigrants make "an effort at integration" would dare look them in the face & ask them to start by making the necessary "effort at disintegration." They're asking people to stand atop the mountain without climbing up it first.

What perfect serendipity for me to read this book and the next one concurrently. Both are by queer nonwhite authors, writing about experiences of exile and how global politics have shaped individual lives.

If They Come for Us by Fatima Asghar

An outstanding collection of vibrant poetry--in forms that range from traditional to experimental--and cover a spectrum of emotions: fierce, sad, hopeful, raw, vulnerable, angry, playful and joyful. Orphaned young, Pakistani American Asghar tackles issues of identity, belonging, racism, misogyny, and the trauma passed down through generations by the Partition of India.

I promised myself I'd be naked,
here, in all this nature, but the first day
I found a tick clinging to my arm hair for dear
life & decided no way I'm exposing
my pussy to the elements. My love
for nature is like my love for most things:
fickle & theoretical. Too many bugs
& I want a divorce.

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq

A unique and poetic novel told in fragments, a collection of experiences of an Inuit coming of age: from childhood through to motherhood, and of learning shamanism along the way. Gritty realism with fantastical touches. Illustrations by Jaime Hernandez are a bonus. Debut author Tagaq is an internationally-known throat singer.

The windows have garbage bags taped over them for curtains and we lock the door by jamming a butter knife into the door frame. We stuff some socks into the hole where the doorknob used to be. We have some naphtha, gas, nail polish, rubber cement, and Wite-Out. It's a Bring Your Own Solvents party and I want to let the colours shine.

After death my body is the newborn of inanimate objects. Maybe my minerals will come back quickly as a plant or insect. Maybe parts of me will become the Old Blood in millennia, the Old Blood we suck out of the earth to burn and destroy the surface, to burn and eviscerate the clouds. Leave the blood in her. Let the deep black of time stay where it belongs. Compressed and ancient, we force the Old Blood to work in the wrong time, at the wrong pressure.

Tuesday evening I venture with my dog out onto the tundra. The summer night is dusty and dry. The clouds make patterns that look like a Morse code warning: The summer will not last. This is life. Eat it now.

I realize that birds see in a completely different way than we humans do. We are slow and lumbering, our language is deep and muddy. Our confinement to the ground elicits pity. They look at us as we look upon the trees, slow but full of longevity. The trees look at the rocks that way. Rocks look at the mountains that way. Mountains look at the water that way. Earth looks at the sun that way. Everyone has an elder.

There is a celebration when we bring the babies home. People come over and bring food. Auntie brings fresh muqtak and uujuq. There is baked char, fried char, frozen char, and dried char.

Trickster Drift by Eden Robinson

Ghosts and shapeshifters and psychopaths, oh my! Outstanding Indigenous literature. Second in a trilogy, this held me enthralled. Start with the first, Son of a Trickster, before jumping into this one, in which newly-sober Jared moves to Vancouver from the tiny community of Kitimat, B.C. Jared is the son of Trickster--Wee'git--and a powerful Heiltsuk witch. Will he ever step into his magical potential?

There's a brilliantly comic passage that involves a Tim Hortons drive-thru, but I'm saving that for my next (the third!) compilation of Timmies cameos in CanLit. (See here and here for the first two installments.)

The continent of North America rides on a giant shell called a tectonic plate, one of the great slabs of mantle and crust separating all living things from the earth's molten core. The speed at which the North American plate crawls across the planet makes glaciers seem like rabbits on Red Bull.

We'll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night by Joel Thomas Hynes

Shawn Mooney at McNally Robinson
in Saskatoon in August 2018.
Our buddy read selection is in his stack.
When I attended Shawn and Kenji's wedding in Saskatoon earlier this year, I connected with wonderful people I had previously only known through the internet book world. The day after the ceremony, Shawn organized a book store crawl, and during that event we chose a title as a buddy read project. This was the GG winner of 2017, and we read it over the course of a week in November, two chapters per day, commenting in a group on Facebook Messenger. Not everyone enjoyed it as much as I did, but the project was fun for all.

It's bleak, violent, and very funny. The narrative voice is in a distinctly scrappy Newfoundland dialect. One of my favourite expressions is when Johnny describes someone as the "toughest motherfucker ever tried on socks." My heart went out to Johnny, a petty criminal on a cross-Canada pilgrimage. (Of course there was another Tim Hortons reference for my collection. Stay tuned.)

He wants to know where Johnny is from and when Johnny tells him he roars laughing and thinks it's great and right away says how he heard a wicked Newfie joke and starts tellin it to Johnny. Johnny cuts him off though, wont let him tell the joke, but instead asks him if he heard the one about the fella who picked up a hitchhiker and got his face smashed in for tryna tell a Newfie joke.
Do you know that one? Stop me if youve heard it already.

Milkshake is about all I can handle these days. And no chewing going on in our John-John's immediate future, that's for sure. Thank Christ me teeth are bashed out cause all I gotta do is move my top lip outta the way and poke the straw in the gap where the teeth used to be. Life is good.

On the Camino by Jason

This is a wholly different kind of pilgrimage than in We'll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night. Jason, the pseudonym for Norwegian cartoonist John Arne Saeternoy, is a very different kind of man, too: extremely introverted. This is a memoir in comics format about his experience walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain when he turned 50. As in his fiction, Jason draws his people as anthropomorphic animals. His black and white clear-line art depicts encounters with other pilgrims that remind me of my own adventures on walking trips. He also includes wonderful flights of imagination: humorous insights into what goes on inside a brilliant mind with nothing to do but walk and think. Quiet and lovely.

In San Justo de la Vega I discover that I have a hole in one of my socks. In Astoria I buy a pair of sports socks for 21 euros and a Ryanair plane ticket from Santiago to Barcelona, which costs 23 euros.

My Brother's Husband, Volume 2, by Gengoroh Tagama
The charming conclusion to a story about a Canadian man who, after his Japanese husband Ryoji dies, travels to visit Ryoji's twin brother Yaichi in Tokyo. Yaichi, a divorced dad caring for his daughter, continues to develop empathy and to check his assumptions about queerness. I loved all of the embedded details about daily life in Japan, which made me even more excited about my upcoming trip there next year.

The story is laid out in right-to-left Japanese manga. The black and white art is highly realistic with a pleasing balance of funny and poignant scenes. Start with volume 1, if you haven't yet read it. And, if you are new to manga, this is an easy entry into the format.

Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

A heartwarming picture book for all ages, in which a little boy is encouraged to celebrate his inner mermaid. The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. The story starts wordlessly on the endpapers and there's even a epilogue on the final endpapers. A cameo on the inside dust jacket shows a mermaid in Julian's selection in the mirror. It's details like this that add up to a glorious package that would make a great gift.

And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness

A re-read. I listened to the audiobook last month and enjoyed it very much. (It's only about 3 hours long, performed by Cassandra Campbell.) Rovina Cai's expressionist illustrations in the print edition made my re-read an even better experience. A thought-provoking and powerful twist on Moby Dick, told from the perspective of a whale. The fable explores blind loyalty, obsession, revenge, and our capacity for violence.

For there are devils in the deep, but worst are the ones we make.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver 
Audiobook [17 h] performed by the author

Alternative ideas about family, plus issues of social justice and environmentalism, give lots of depth to this dual narrative set in the same New Jersey urban location, separated in time by nearly 200 years. Fascinating characters and a thoughtful storyline--just what I've come to expect from Kingsolver.

"Vineland does not need a second newspaper. Can you see any reason for it, Thatcher? It causes confusion about everything and encourages shadows of doubt."

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper 
Audiobook [10 h] performed by the author

Most lexicographers had no clue that such a career path existed until they were smack in the middle of it.

If I--who read the dictionary for pleasure from a young age--had known such a career existed, lexicography would have been my number one career choice, so it's no surprise that I loved this memoir/documentary/social commentary. It's hilarious and full of fascinating trivia. If you are the kind of person who reads my blog, I'm sure this is the kind of book you would like.

People do not come to the dictionary for excitement and romance; that's what encyclopedias are for.

Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions 
by Alberto Manguel 
Audiobook [4 h] performed by James Cameron Stewart

When Manguel and his husband had to permanently leave their home in France, their huge library had to be boxed up. I enjoyed these fragmentary musings about books and reading so much that I listened to the audiobook twice. It's only about 4 hours long.

If every library is autobiographical, its packing up seems to have something of a self obituary.

I had on the shelves dozens of very bad books which I didn't throw away in case I ever needed an example of a book I thought was bad.

In literature, dreams often serve to bring the impossible into the fabric of everyday life, like mist through a crack in the wall. Unfortunately, it often happens that dreams are brought in as an alibi for the unbelievable plot.

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Thompson-Spires writes with refreshing verve, tackling troubling issues of contemporary society, unafraid of unlikeable protagonists. Her loosely interlinked short stories showcase the diversity of middle class African Americans. Whip smart, innovative and funny.

He was two shades lighter than Brian, but also believed himself two shades blacker, as far as those things can be measured.

I really hope that in addition to help for her lies and early signs of psychosis, you will get Christinia some help for her weight problem before she ends up--and I say this respectfully, so I hope you won't be offended in the least--like you.

The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O'Neill

Until I read this, I didn't know that what was missing from my life is this gentle, oversized graphic novel from New Zealand, featuring children interested in unusual careers (blacksmithing; tea dragon husbandry), people living with disabilities (memory loss; parapalegia), and two wise gay men in a long-term relationship (one is a tea expert). And, oh yes, only one among all of the characters is human. A story about friendship, suitable for ages 8 and up, with beautiful full-colour art in rich tones of green, teal, cinnamon and salmon pink.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Magnolia Table by Joanna Gaines

Magnolia Table first came to my attention when I saw it on some cookbook awards longlist (can't remember which) back in the spring, then waited on a long list of library holds to finally get my hands on it this month. I wasn't aware of the existence of HGTV's Fixer Upper, which features Joanna Gaines and her husband Chip. They also own Magnolia Market, a shopping complex that includes a home decor store and restaurant in Waco, Texas.

After all that waiting, this cookbook was a disappointment: beautiful design, with gorgeous photos on thick matte paper stock, but the recipes aren't anything special. The ingredients in many are a throwback to the 70s—using Velveeta, cardboard tubes of refrigerated dough, cans of creamed soup, and flavour packets by Knorr. I don't like the taste of these things.

I'm surprised that there are so many reviews praising the recipes, and in particular for such ordinary things as baking powder biscuits (Jojo's Biscuits are made with eggs) and chocolate chip cookies (a variation on Toll House, with half the butter, so that they stay mounded instead of going flat). Comfort food is great, but I expect some little twist in BLTs or mashed potatoes when they are included in such a prettily-designed book.

Gaines writes: "If you told me I could have only one thing every day for the rest of my life, it would be mac and cheese. I realize this is exactly the choice that many 8-year-olds would make, and I'm okay with that." 

My reaction: great choice! But why make it with Velveeta cheese? And why put it in the chapter on side dishes? Why recommend serving it with chicken or meatloaf? You said yourself that you could happily survive on mac and cheese alone!

On a tangental aside, the Gastropod podcast recently did an episode on mac and cheese and I learned that Canadians consume more of it than any people from other country in the world. 

Gaines: "Creamy risotto is filling and satisfying enough to be a full meal, but if you are serving it to someone who doesn't consider anything a full meal without meat, stir in shredded rotisserie chicken. On the other hand, if you want to make it truly vegetarian, use vegetable instead of chicken broth."

My first reaction to the vegetable broth advice was: well, duh! But the core audience for this cookbook may not know that chicken broth isn't vegetarian. When I tell people that I'm a vegetarian, they sometimes ask if that means that I eat chicken.

Speaking of chicken, there are many recipes for that in this book. I counted eleven that call for purchasing whole rotisserie chickens, and another nine that start with uncooked chicken.

I get the impression that it's the men in the Gaines family who think meals aren’t complete without meat. In the recipe header for Sweet Pepper & Pancetta Frittata, Gaines notes that it's perfect for “lunch with the ladies.” A frittata, even one that includes meat, is apparently too much like quiche for the menfolk.

Scenes from my Syrian donuts baking adventure.
The recipe for Syrian donuts is the only one I was interested in trying. It's a baked yeast donut with a firm texture, flavoured with anise and cinnamon, and then soaked in syrup. Gaines advises eating them while still warm, but I found the flavour and texture was better on the second day. 

The story that goes with this recipe is touching: it's from her Syrian grandfather and he typed it up for her. A photo of the original is included, and you can see that he used less sugar. Gaines doubles the sugar because she likes "everything sweeter." (I followed his recipe.) I'm obviously not the only one intrigued by this recipe because you can buy it printed on a tea towel from Magnolia Market.

Speaking of sweetness, Gaines describes her recipe for Green Beans Amandine as "lightly sweetened." In a recipe for four people, she adds half a cup of sugar to the sauce. Sounds awfully sweet to me.

There were other things that inspired me. I'm allergic to tomatoes, so I think I'll try her suggestion to substitute peaches for tomatoes in Caprese salad sometime. I've also tried her way of spreading mayo on both sides of each slice of bread when making grilled cheese sandwiches and I like the result. I don't like using her favourite cheese for that sandwich, havarti, because I find it gets too liquidy. I may also try her way with cinnamon buns sometime, which is to roll the dough flat after layering cinnamon and sugar inside, then cut it into squares.

Amy Neunsinger's photography has a romantic-rustic ethos, executed in creamy pastels. There are lovely shots of the Gaines' four children, the goats, and the milk cows. The outdoor shots of the farm are as spotlessly clean and American-dreamy as those taken indoors. I went to the blog and saw the same aesthetic in the photos there.

Borrow this from the library to admire the photography, and maybe try a few recipes, but save your kitchen shelf space for more useful cookbooks.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

October 2018 Reading Round-Up

Out of the 34 books that I read this month, here are some highlights:

Machine Without Horses by Helen Humphreys

The title comes from the name of a Scottish dance that replicates the movements of a steam train. This book is also a dance, a duet of nonfiction and fiction. Behind-the-scenes writing concerns of a novelist are followed by the results: the fictionalization of the life of a real person. Megan Boyd was an eccentric Scottish woman, one of the best salmon-fly dressers in the world, and she was probably a lesbian. This book rolls along - warm, wise and beautiful - and I hardly put it down from start to finish.

Feeling that we belong to humanity and behaving with compassion towards our fellows is perhaps the most important responsibility of being human today. So, it matters to be able to relate to anyone whom we consider to be "other."

You cannot just kill [your characters] off with no real warning. It will feel unbelievable to readers and they will stop trusting your story. Fiction is measured and reassuring in a way that life isn't, and perhaps that's why we read it, and also why I write it.

Once, the great bustard was considered for the national bird of India but was decided against because of possible misspellings of its name.

Maggie Terry by Sarah Schulman

Like Humphreys, Schulman is an author who makes me happy whenever she has a new book out. She's in tiptop form here, dark and witty, with deeply flawed characters and a gritty portrait of New York City. I immediately cared about Maggie, ex-cop, post-addiction rehab, desperate just to get through each day and determined to convince her ex-wife that she can be trusted to see their young daughter again. Over a period of five days, a murder is solved and there's hope in the world.

That afternoon was Maggie's first staff meeting. She had been warned by a gentle, whispery Sandy that there was a signal, a series of buzzes, that meant right now! Toilet paper in hand, needle in arm, cock in mouth, or one foot out the window, when summoned, everything had to stop for the gathering of the team.

"One mint tea, one apple, one tabloid please."
He held up the Daily News. The headline held a jarring photo of Orange yelling "I'M PRESIDENT AND YOU'RE NOT." 
"Uhm." Maggie felt anxious. "Do I have to?"
"Good call, I'll give you the Post. They like to pretend it's not happening."

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley 
Audiobook, 9 hrs, performed by Susan Bennett

"The flip side of hero is monster." 

Dualisms abound in this imaginative retelling of Beowulf with contemporary mothers as the focus of the tale. One is a returned soldier with PTSD, and another is a trophy wife in a gated community that displaced the original inhabitants. What makes someone "other"? Told partly in first-person plural, which I love, and the collective points of view include steely society matrons, a pack of dogs, and the elemental spirits of the mountain setting. It's been a Beowulf year for me: I read a couple of graphic novel adaptations earlier, and also listened to Seamus Heaney read his own translation.

Did you know you can kill someone with a stiletto heel? Our daggers travel with us, underfoot.

I call death onto those who don't know a child when they see a child. Men who think they made the world out of clay and turned it into their safe place. Men who think a woman wouldn't flip the universe over and flatten them all beneath it.

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms by Amy Stewart 
Audiobook, 6 hrs, performed by Heather Henderson

"I've come to understand, like Darwin had, that earthworms are not destroyers, but redeemers. They move through waste and decay in their contemplative way, sifting, turning it into something else, something that is better." 

Fascinating science about a keystone species, told in a charming way. This audiobook would be great for family listening on a car trip. New vocabulary: oligochaetologist, someone who studies earthworms.

Any environment, any single life, is in a continuous state of change. This is just more obvious when you pay attention to earthworms. Their work may seem unspectacular at first. They don't chirp or sing, they don't gallop or soar, they don't hunt or make tools or write books. But they do something just as powerful: they consume, they transform, they change the earth.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson 
Audiobook, 11 hrs, performed by Fenella Woolgar

Nuanced MI5 espionage with a female central character, set mostly in two alternating times: 1940s and 1950s London. Civilians in wartime, making choices and then facing consequences. Witty and tragic, with an interesting cast of characters and a gradual unveiling of events. Reminds me of Ondaatje's Warlight and McEwan's Sweet Tooth, but even better than either of those.

She couldn't shoot every drab housewife. She'd be here all day.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Audiobook, 27.5 hrs, performed by Patience Tomlinson

I was surprised by how much I loved this Victorian novel! 1830s England, with all its intricacies of class and etiquette, is made real. Brothers, stepsisters, widows, wives and spinsters - they're all characters that will live long in my imagination, thanks almost as much to the audiobook narrator's skill as to that of Gaskell. And I doubt I'll ever find a chapter title that will delight me as much as "Secret Thoughts Ooze Out." 

I didn't know, until I reached the abrupt ending, that this novel wasn't finished when Gaskell died; it's completed in the form of an afterword written by someone who knew her intentions. I've heard that a similar thing was done with Richard Wagamese's final novel, Starlight. I'm more open to reading Starlight now that I've read another book that was published unfinished posthumously.  

I won't say she was silly, but I think one of us was silly, and it was not me.

The new Mrs. Gibson: "But, really! I cannot allow cheese to come beyond the kitchen."
Dr. Gibson: "Then I'll eat it there."

Next up, three books that I picked up especially because I was going to see the authors at the Vancouver Writers Fest earlier this month:

The Cost of Living: A Living Autobiography by Deborah Levy

Levy documents her passage into a new phase of life at 50, post-marriage, finding space and time to write while caring for her teenaged daughters and rising the plumbing. Vibrant, clear and inventive - her prose is a delight.

The appeal of writing, as I understood it, was an invitation to climb in-between the apparent reality of things, to see not only the tree but the insects that live in its infrastructure, to discover that everything is connected in the ecology of language and living.

Writing a novel requires many hours of sitting still, as if on a long-haul flight, final destination unknown, but a route of sorts mapped out.

I've Been Meaning to Tell You: a Letter to My Daughter by David Chariandy

Inspired by James Baldwin's letter to his nephew about racial politics (the same essay that inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates to write to his son, and also, coincidentally, one that Deborah Levy mentioned in The Cost of Living), Chariandy addresses this thoughtful essay to his 13-year-old daughter. She is of mixed ethnic heritage - Black, South Asian and white - born in Canada (as was her father) and where she must sometimes contend with the question, "Where are you REALLY from?" He talks about their family's past and uses it to illuminate a way forward.

A further impediment to working together was the enormous prejudice, throughout the Caribbean, based not only upon one's race but also upon the shade of one's skin. My mother tells stories about places where a brown paper bag was hung outside the door, and people were allowed entry only if their skin was judged lighter than the bag.

Happiness by Aminatta Forna

A complex life-affirming novel that stitches slender threads into a mighty tapestry: a 19th century wolf hunt; 21st century coyote and fox hunts; war in Bosnia and Sierra Leone; a wildlife biologist; a Ghanaian psychiatrist specializing in PTSD; plus many other characters who've come to England from elsewhere. Set in present-day London, looping backwards in time to America, Africa and Europe. My takeaway: trauma = suffering, but trauma doesn't necessarily = damage.

Homesickness was an adjustment disorder, that was the long and short of it.

When the structures of Waterloo Bridge began to fail, London City Council had it demolished and replaced with a new bridge built by a task force of 25,000 women who were paid less than their male counterparts and written out of the opening ceremony of 1945.

Attila leaned back in his chair. Neither man spoke until the Kenyan said: "You see how the people here [in Bosnia] do not look at us, they will not meet your eye." He leaned forward and looked directly at Attila. "But it is not because we are black. No. It is because they are ashamed that now we have seen what they are."

How do we become human except in the face of adversity?

Ocean Meets Sky by Eric Fan and Terry Fan

A wondrous dreamland journey through sea and sky, taken by a small Asian boy in remembrance of his grandfather. Grandfather's wispy moustache on one page is echoed on another in the whiskers of the giant carp, then both faces merge as the man in the moon. Magical and nostalgic overall, with a comforting ending. The illustrations can be examined endlessly. Below, amid submarines, sampans, pirate ships, zeppelins and whales, the boy's tiny vessel is hard to find against the giant whale (see arrow). 
detail pages from Ocean Meets Sky by the Fan brothers.
Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

Gentle, yet penetrating, because of the nuanced layers touching on timely social and political issues. I was made aware of a Portland, Oregon that I hadn't known before, seen through the eyes of 16-year-old Jade. She is a collage artist with "coal skin and hula-hoop hips." Refreshingly, her size is never an issue in the YA "problem novel" sense, and also there's no romance to clutter the story. Also admirable is that two of the adults in her life are three-dimensional, authentic women. Winner of the Coretta Scott King award and the Newbery Honor.

Things That Are Black and Beautiful:

A Starless Night Sky
Storm Clouds
Black Swans
Afro Puffs
Michelle Obama


Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Subdued colours in this graphic novel match the bleak tone of a story about how we process trauma in the aftermath of tragedy. Two of the main characters are inarticulate men, detached from their emotions, yet the author allows room for empathy. Online conspiracy theorists and paranoid radio talk show hosts contribute to the climate of uncertainty and fear. Unsentimental psychological realism that kept me engrossed; it's understandable why it's the first graphic novel to ever make the Man Booker Prize longlist. 
detail from Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Animals of a Bygone Era by Maja Safstrom

Another in comics format: a compendium of extinct animals, rendered in sweet line drawings, with very brief information and funny comments. Swedish illustrator/author writes: "I hope that you learn something new and are reminded of the beautiful, complex and delicate history of this world." The humour starts right on the table of contents page, where a dinosaur reacts "Wait, what?!" to the news that her kind will not be included in the book, in order "to give some attention to other fascinating - but less famous - creatures." It will appeal to all ages and would make a great gift for a family.
"Terror birds (Phorusrhacos) were once the largest predators in South America. (They were taller than a person!)"
detail from Animals of a Bygone Era by Maja Safstrom.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

"Writers have to bear witness, it's their vocation."

I love this trenchant and bittersweet novel which deals with a subject I'm very sensitive about: suicide. It's also about:
How what we love and mourn says much about our truest selves.
The way artistic expression is viewed in contemporary society.
The special bond between humans and dogs.

Your whole house smells of dog, says someone who comes to visit. I say I'll take care of it. Which I do by never inviting that person to visit again.

Later thinkers have suggested that, despite Christianity's absolute prohibition against committing suicide (though nowhere in the entire Bible is there any explicit condemnation of it), Christ himself could be said to have done just that.

Consider rereading, how risky it is, especially when the book is one that you loved. Always the chance that it won't hold up, that you might, for whatever reason, not love it as much. When this happens, and to me it happens all the time (and more and more as I get older), the effect is so disheartening that I now open old favourites warily.


All of these are books that I can see myself rereading in the future. It's going to be really tough to come up with my favourite books of the year when that time rolls around.