Wednesday, February 28, 2018

February 2018 Reading Round-Up

Lots of diversity in my reading this month. Here are my top ten:

Winter by Ali Smith
Ali Smith astounds me with each new creation, each unfailingly wise and full of heart. The central story here is about the thawing of frozen relationships, interwoven with current issues - Brexit, Syrian refugees, fake news, the power of protest, etc. All the stars. All the love. All the gratitude for making me believe in humanity again.

Sophia has never known, and probably never will, what the straw was that broke the camel's back the night Iris left.
Straw. So light. Just a smoke.
Camel, broken back.
Such a violent piece of cliche.

Then the chipped-headless saints in reliefs popped into her head, and the ones carved on the fonts and so on, the knocked-off nothing-but-necks in Reformation-vandalized churches in whatever self-righteousness of fury, whatever intolerant ideology of the day. There was always a furious intolerance at work in the world no matter when or where in history, she thought, and it always went for the head or the face.

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein
An inspiring biography of Sandra Pankhurst, a trans woman in Melbourne, Australia who has experienced much trauma in her own life and now has a business that specializes in difficult clean-up jobs. I was touched by the kindness Pankhurst shows to the hoarders and other mentally-ill people that she deals with on a regular basis.

His grandparents come over on Sundays for dinner and, while they know Peter has his own room out the back, to them it is just a practical measure in a small house. What they do not know, as they sit there at the table with their son and daughter-in-law and four grandchildren eating "a roast and three veggies overcooked to the shithouse," is that this is the only night of the week that Peter is allowed inside the house, the only time he is given a meal.

Sandra's lack of friendships with other members of the LGBTQI community is not active; she would not turn away from someone on those grounds. But her frame of reference regarding that community is her drag days. Her aversion is not to gay people or trans people, but to the image of herself that she associates with that period of her life. She identifies her straight friends with a healthier, happier, safer and more productive self.

I'm not sure I will be able to tell you, exactly, how Sandra has made it through. I believe it has something to do with her innate calibration: an inherent and unbreakable conviction that she, too, is entitled to her live her best life. I believe it has much to do with the emotional machinery she has jettisoned in order to stay afloat. That is the buoying wonder and the sinking sadness of the particular resilience of Sandra.

A Promise of Salt by Lorie Miseck
A memoir of living through private grief amidst the media storm and public attention directed at an Edmonton murder investigation. The focus is not on the gruesome death, but rather Miseck's interactions with people around her, and her internal process over time, expressed in poetic vignettes. A member of my Two Bichons book club read this when it first came out in 2002, and I'm really glad that she suggested we include it in our project of reading local authors, which is now in its third year. Everyone in the group loved it.

After the funeral I stayed in bed for days and days and months. I have read that death awakens the dead in you. I slept and slept. I slept while my ghost crawled out of my bones each day and dressed before the children came home. The ghost washed her hair, her body, her feet so tenderly it left no mark. The ghost drew a smile on her face with lipstick and made meals, read them stories and pretended she was their mother, while I slept.

This is an inverted story, beginning at the end. And if the story begins at the end, is it an unfeeling? An undoing? I've heard any story twice told is fiction.

I've been told our prairie winters are exotic, that we who experience the hard fist of a prairie winter are unique. The rarity of this endurance proves a certain hardiness on our part. Maybe this is true, or maybe we are just fools, have forgotten we could live elsewhere.

Lost Words: A Spell Book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris
This oversize picture book of acrostic poetry celebrates some of the nature words - from acorn to wren - that have been cut from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in order to make room for recent lingo. Sumptuous illustrations by Jackie Morris include lots of gold leaf. Some of the printed text is in gold-coloured ink. The font used for each feature word has letter elements that have disappeared: I love all of the attention to detail in the design of this gorgeous book. It's suitable for all ages and would make a lovely gift.

Magpie Manifesto
Argue Every Toss!
Gossip, Bicker, Yak and Snicker All Day 
Pick a Fight in an Empty Room!
Interrupt, Interject, Intercept, Intervene!
Every Magpie for Every Magpie 
       against Every Other Walking Flying
       Swimming Creature on the Earth!

Rustle of grass, sudden susurrus, what the eye misses:
       for adder is as adder hisses.

Kingfisher: the colour-giver, fire-bringer, flame-flicker, river's quiver.

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters 
by Michael Mahin and Evan Turk

The life of McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters, was a remarkable one, even in the condensed version necessitated by a children's picture book biography. Inspirational, lyric text. Electric, energetic collage art by Evan Turk incorporates bits of newspaper, along with oil pastel, watercolours, china marker and printing ink.

"Last I checked, you can't eat the blues for breakfast," said Grandma Della. "No child of mine is gonna waste his time with music."
But Muddy was never good at doing what he was told.

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut 
by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C James
There's irresistible joy in this celebration of newly-cut hair. Lots of different African American styles, a distinctive barbershop setting, and a jaunty text that captures the feeling of a boy's happiness and pride. I picked up this fun picture book poetry because it made the honour list in four different categories categories at the 2018 American Library Association awards: the Newbery, Caldecott, and both author and illustrator categories of the Coretta Scott King.

It's how your mother looks at you
before she calls you beautiful.
Flowers are beautiful.
Sunrises are beautiful.
Being viewed in your mother's eyes
as someone that matters - now that's beautiful.
And you'll take it.
You don't mind it at all.

I Am a Truck by Michelle Winters
Absurd, warm and surprising. A short novel with great characters set in rural New Brunswick. Acadian French dialogue adds an extra layer of humour. When Agathe's giant of a husband goes missing, she asks the police how it is that they can't find him because "ye big comme crisse" (i.e. he's friggin massive). Agatha is sure Rejean would never willingly leave what he loves most: his truck and her. Fresh and fun, laid on a bedrock of kindness.

"Viens voir l'Acadie" was playing. It played every day; the French folk-music canon had hard limits. The sound had gone from a nagging drone to a roar, and bumping her head against the window frame was not scratching the itch.

#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale
An outstanding collection of artworks and short literary pieces, all created by Indigenous women with an array of experiences from across North America. Poetry, comics format, personal essays, inspiring quotes: there's all kinds of good stuff here in a visually appealing scrapbook-like format. Art by Dana Claxton (including a couple that were at the Art Gallery of Alberta in the Face the Nation exhibit in 2008), Pamela J Peters,  Aza E Abe, Ka'ila Farrell-SmithDanielle Daniel and many more.
artwork by Ka'ila Farrell-Smith

we grow brave
in the absence
of any safe touch,
in our father's rage.
we have nothing,
everything is in us
our love of these
impossible bodies
our faith in this
unbroken sky
our trust of the
infinite universe
our should to burn
as an offering
to any being
who will listen.
-from Honor Song by Gwen Benaway

My Cheechum used to tell me that when the government gives you something, they take all that you have in return - your pride, your dignity, all the things that make you a living soul. When they are sure they have everything, they give you a blanket to cover your shame.
-Maria Campbell

The Customer Is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond
A big fat second volume to Pond's lightly fictionalized operatic memoir in comics format, about working in an Oakland diner in the 70s. In a Jezebel interview, it was noted that the first volume, Over Easy, "is one big party, and then this book is like the hangover." There are consequences to all of the drugs, sex and alcohol. Sweet, hand-drawn art washed in retro blue-green; memorable characters; accomplished storytelling; and so much warm humour.

Going into Town by Roz Chast
Rob Chast's love letter to New York City is utterly charming. It's a quick read in comics format and it left me with a smile and the desire to travel again to Manhattan, even though I've sworn off visiting the USA under its current administration.
"If you feel that there's 'nothing to do' while you're in Manhattan, then this is
DEFINITELY not the book you should be reading. Also, you might be dead."

Thursday, February 1, 2018

January 2018 Reading Round-up

My January was full of poetry and books by New Zealand writers.

I wrote about January's poetry highlights in a previous post. Other January highlights include:

Electrifying Short Stories: What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah. 
Audiobook [5 h 20 m] narrated by Adjoa Andoh.

Well-crafted, sad, nuanced and energetic. These stories are all quite different from each other, yet unified by themes: the place of women in society, particularly in relation to class, status and men; family relationships; and female friendships. Some are set in Nigeria, some in USA. Some have supernatural elements, one is set in the distant future, one a retelling of a traditional tale. Outstanding.

"And he should chastise the girl, he knows that, but she is his brightest ember and he would not have her dimmed."

Epic Fantasy: The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin.
Audiobook [15 h 27 m] narrated by Robin Miles.

Absorbing first volume in a trilogy with great female characters in a world where life is constantly under threat from volcanic eruptions. Three separate storyline voices come together in a most satisfying way. I've got nothing but praise for this audio production and eagerly await my turn in the hold queue at the library for the next in the series.

"Home is what you take with you, not what you leave behind."

New Zealand Fiction: Potiki by Patricia Grace

A fabulous--in all senses of the word: phenomenal, heroic, mythic--and moving novel about a group of Maori people and what happens when developers want access to their land. Deceptively simple writing style, finely crafted and told in multiple viewpoints. I was aided in my understanding by having some previous exposure to elements of Maori culture and language, plus the fact that I was reading a special copy of the book. It had belonged to a deceased friend, who taught this text in her high school English classes. I felt like she was at my shoulder with her helpful marginalia, including handwritten translations of Maori words. The characters, setting and story remain vivid in my mind.
"We had become tellers, listeners, readers, writers, enactors and collectors of stories. And games are stories too, not just swallowers of time, or buds without fruit."

"The gift has not been taken away because gifts are legacies that once given cannot be taken away. They may pass from hand to hand, but once held they are always yours."

Memoir in Comics Format: Pretending Is Lying by Dominique Goblet. Translation from French by Sophie Yanow.

Memoirs told in comics format make my heart beat faster, especially when they are as breathtaking as this one by a Belgian artist, professor of comics and illustration, and certified electrician, plumber and welder. Fragmented scenes--Goblet's estranged alcoholic father and his bizarre wife, G's young daughter, and G's new boyfriend who was not yet over his ex--combine into a compelling literary whole.

The afterword is an insightful piece written by Goblet's partner Guy Marc Hinant. Hinant doesn't come off well in the content of the book, where he's portrayed as disturbed and deceitful. Goblet also illustrates him shadowed by the ghost of his ex. I was pleased to learn that he contributed to this book's creation and is able to feel at a distance from it because it is art. "How have we created, in ourselves, that which we consider to be our own reality? The past is fiction, re-memorization, re-interpretation, fleeting obsession, projection, hypothesis and opacity."

Blandine is always shown with a face reminiscent of Munch's Scream.
Nikita [author's child]: That's my friend.
Blandine [author's stepmother]: Ah, does your friend have long hair?
N: No, why?
B: You just said that it's your friend and that she has long hair!!
N: Ha, nope, it's just a character! [...] just for pretend!
B: Then you are a LIAR! Pretending is lying! It's LYING!

I found a great reading spot at Devonport Library in Auckland.

Three New Zealand Poets: Dinah Hawken, Sue Wootton and Rhian Gallagher

I am doing a poetry challenge on Litsy. It involves focusing on a particular poet each month, and I had a hard time choosing among the tempting possibilities recommended by my knowledgeable friend Claire, at whose house I've been staying in Auckland. I ended up choosing Dinah Hawken, and I read other poetry as well. Three out of the seven books that I rated 5-stars on Goodreads in January were poetry by New Zealand authors. That's a testament to Claire's expert advice.

Oh There You Are Tui! New and Selected Poems by Dinah Hawken

The more time I spend with Dinah Hawken's feminist poetry, the deeper my appreciation. Her words are carefully poised to deliver maximum power. I love her awareness of nature and her sincere consideration for the lives of homeless individuals. I feel like she is sharing important things in an intimate way. I'm very glad to have chosen her for an in-depth study this month.

Oh There You Are Tui! collects pieces from three of Hawken's early books, plus newer work, as indicated by the subtitle. It was published in 2001. I struggled at first with a particular portion of her work, the brief prose poems (selected from Small Stories of Devotion). They are apparently based on dreams, and even these grew on me over time and reflection. Example:

A Visitation
A few young Maori men have walked into her house. 
One of them has found a copy of her father's will 
and is lying down on the bed to read it through.

While the prose poems are like fragments, there's something intriguing about them, and collectively they create something with a larger scope. Reading scholarly criticism of her work helped me understand what Hawken might be doing with these particular poems. She demonstrates that there are many ways to speak, many things to draw upon and many ways to understand the world. The "diary-like entries transform the sentence with a lyrical metre, repetition, brevity and fluencies that tumble and turn and coil" as Paula Green and Harry Ricketts write in 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry. I'm staying in a great place for poetry: Claire pulled the aforementioned 99 Ways, plus Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets and An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry off her bookshelves, as well as supplying me with two collections by Hawken. (The other is One Shapely Thing, 2006. )

In Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets, Hawken writes: "Poems have given me pleasure, recognition, insight, wisdom, solace, direction, company, shocks and strength. I try to reach a reader and to give him or her some of what poetry has given to me." Success! I feel like I've received that entire list of things from Hawken. I've also been convinced that spending time building familiarity with one poet's work is very rewarding. I will seek out her newer work in the future.

"The harbour is hallucinating. It is rising
above itself, halfway up the great
blue hills. every leaf of the kohuhu
is shining. Cicadas, this must be the day
of all days, the one around which
all the others are bound to gather."
"Here is the green verb, releasing everything."
"Let me put in a word for trees.
Let me put in a word for breathing."
"...I know women
too frightened to leave their own
houses, sleeping beauties. Don't for Christ's
sake wait for any prince to show up.
Fashion one from a rib or sling up
onto the wild horse rearing in your

These words won't be slapped down to size
they're putting on their blue shoes, mounting
their red horses and swirling out un-
relentingly over everything."

The Yield by Sue Wootton

Being a writer, a cook, a gardener, a friend, a daughter, a mother and a wife - it's all fodder for Wootton's lyric poetry. Joyous wordplay celebrates human interactions with weather and the natural world, as well as the risks inherent in loving and living. This outstanding collection was published in 2017.

An international poetry festival in Vietnam
The authorities are nervous. It's risky
to bring in the poets. When they say 'flower'
are they speaking of flowers?
The kneeling rail. I kneel. I quietly rail.
Saline solution: the ocean. Oxygen therapy: the sky. Mineral deficiency: socks off.
The ghost of you shall set
like rimes of frost inside my chest
and never melt, nor quit
me quite, nor give me rest. It's
not easy to recall our best.

Shift by Rhian Gallagher

Yes, this happens to have the very same title as another book of poetry that I love, Shift by Kelly Shepherd of Edmonton. Gallagher is a lesbian from the South Island of New Zealand. Hers is a luminous collection about experiencing change, homecoming after being long away, and leaving a lover on the other side of the world. Shift was published in 2011 and won the New Zealand Post Poetry Book Award.

Flower of the ice plant
plumping its cheeks
to the mirror of the sky.
Everywhere -- changes;
more touch, more go.

Van Gogh painted sunflowers for a friend's return
- spilled from a vendor's bucket, the dark-eyed flower
in rapture with the sun. I chaperoned the rough stems
back up the avenue. You were awaited
and the tall flowers had the energy of a torch.

To believe we could have it all - the liberty, your city
while the documents themselves stalled. Attachments
officials specified in great detail; head and shoulder shots:
the resolution, the neutral background.

Yet we were always on our way, always coming back.
Before that future crumpled up as paper in our hands
there was a constancy: gold and all the sisters of gold,
saffron, yellow. The sunflowers lasted on your sill,
                                         our heads were turned.
Right mind and how I was never in it,
but not wrong
just some other mind.


Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more poetry adventures in 2018.