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.

Monday, October 1, 2018

30 Books Hath September

There were mountains of tasty books in my reading diet in September. Out of 30 books, half of them were so good that I gave them 5 stars on Goodreads. Another eleven were almost as good; they were 4-star reads. What a stellar month! These are the top fifteen, in alphabetical order:

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. Translation by Ginny Tabley Takemori.

Short and pithy. I felt like I briefly inhabited the body of a non-neurotypical Japanese woman in contemporary Tokyo. Family and societal expectations may be a bit different in Canada, but not so very different that I couldn't relate. Isolation, questioning what is "normal," and learning to accept oneself are themes that I never tire of - what a delight to encounter them in this witty translation.

I picked this up because of Eric of Lonesome Reader, who described it as similar to, and even better than, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (which I loved). Not sure it's better than EOICF, but it's at least equally delicious.

As far as I was concerned, there wasn't any difference between my friend Miho's child and my nephew, and I didn't understand the logic of coming out all the way here just to see him. Maybe this particular baby should be more important to me than the others. But so far as I could see, aside from a few minor differences they were all just an animal called a baby and looked much the same, just like stray cats all looked much the same.

I stroked my sleeping nephew's cheek with my forefinger. It felt strangely soft, like stroking a blister.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. Translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

I love the voice in this novel so much! It's the voice of Mrs. Dusezjko, an eccentric 60-year-old vegetarian English teacher in a remote village in Poland. Animals, astrology and the writings of William Blake are her passions. She gets involved in investigating the deaths of local hunters: her theory is that the animals are taking revenge. Dark, funny and delightful.

It was my great good fortune to be loaned an advance reading copy of this novel by Laura Frey of Reading in Bed. It won't be published in Canada until next year, so do make a note to yourself to look for it in February 2019.

Geninne's Art: Birds in Watercolor, Collage, and Ink: A Field Guide to Art Techniques and Observing in the Wild by Geninne D. Zlatkis.

This art technique book is chock full of ideas and inspiration. I love seeing how she translates the plants and animals that she observes in the natural world into whimsical works of art. I could look through this 100 times without getting bored. Check out her lovely website.

The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan

Lesbian mermaids (perhaps), selkies (maybe), and islanders who most definitely turn to stone on a clifftop when they die - there are magical elements in this Scottish novel that is otherwise quite realistic in its setting and portrayal of family, siblings, grief, loneliness and first love. I adore the fluidity; not knowing what to expect next in this richly-imagined story, layered with myth and real emotions and a prose style that gives me tingles.

An added bonus for readers who love language: the chapter titles are either Scots words, or ballet terms, or boxing terms, and there's a glossary at the back. (Stramash: a fight. Stravaig: to wander. Swither: to hesitate.) Also, this was one of three novels in a row in which I encountered jellyfish. I wrote about that earlier, here.

The Ross girls were raised on fairy tales. The kind of books that would curdle your blood. Ravening beasts and handless maidens and hacked-off toes. Stepmothers dancing to death in red-hot shoes. Mermaids turning into sea-foam, ugly sisters having their eyes pecked out by birds, little red-hooded girls being eaten by wolves. All sorts of lovely things.

I'm Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya.

An important, articulate extended essay about the harm that can be done to an individual's psyche because of societal expectations in regards to gender. Vivek Shraya, a trans woman who grew up in Edmonton, provides new ways of looking at masculinity and femininity. She will be at LitFest in Edmonton on October 13, 2018.

How cruel it is to have endured two decades of being punished for being too girly only to be told that I am now not girly enough.

Sexist comments, intimidation, groping, violating boundaries, and aggression are seen as merely "typical' for men. But "typical" is dangerously interchangeable with "acceptable." "Boys will be boys," after all.
If we want masculinity to be different, we must confront and tackle the baseline instead of longing for exceptions.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing. Audiobook [10 hours]  narrated by Susan Lyons.

This nonfiction falls into several categories: history, biography, memoir and cultural journalism. The artists at the core of Laing's study include Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Klaus Nomi and Edward Hooper. People who felt alone even in a crowd. Loneliness is a fascinating topic, and often sad, but there's also a recognition that solitude can be a good thing.

Loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.

I'd never been comfortable with the demands of femininity, had always felt more like a boy, a gay boy, that I inhabited a gender position somewhere between the binaries of male and female, some impossible other, some impossible both. Trans, I was starting to realize, which isn't to say I was transitioning from one thing to another, but rather that I inhabited a space in the centre, which didn't exist, except there I was.

David Wojnarowicz on AIDS: "My rage is really about the fact that when I was told that I'd contracted this virus, it didn't take me long to realize that I'd contracted a diseased society as well."

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. Audiobook [10 hours] narrated by the author.

Insightful, poignant, bleak and devastating. If you like to read about social justice, this is for you. Romy Hall, serving two life sentences for murdering her stalker, feels frustrated, but not sorry for herself, as she navigates the prison juggernaut and worries about her young son. She is so different from me, yet I could identify strongly; Kushner's skill is in making all of her characters human.

The story switches sometimes between points of view and Kushner doesn't have the skill of professional narrators who can immediately alert listeners to a change in first person POV, but that's the only drawback I found with the audiobook. I love hearing authors perform their own work.

The problem with reading was how relentless it was. You managed to concentrate long enough to read a whole paragraph and then there was another one, and they just kept coming.

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg

Clever, dark and so much fun. I shivered, chuckled and guffawed through this witty collection of short stories that mash together traditional tales as far ranging as the Grimm brothers, the Old Testament, Scottish ballads, and modern children's classics like The Wind in the Willows and Frog and Toad. I kept putting this one off because of the word horror on the cover - I'm fussy about what I like in that genre - and because of the scary mermaid/sheela-na-gig/ creature on the cover. It only took the first story, a riff on The Little Mermaid, to hook me. Once I got going, I didn't want to stop. Delightfully weird.

The frog looked like a calf's heart with a mouth slit across it.

A rich executive had three children; she had other things besides, but for the purposes of this story, we will not concern ourselves with the rest of her inventory.

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

Seen from a distance, our lives are brief; what matters are the connections we have with other people, and the satisfaction we derive from our endeavours. Beauty and nature can sustain and enrich us. This is a gorgeous, brief, tender novel set in northern England, where a shellshocked veteran heals after WWI as he works to uncover a medieval-era painting on a church wall.

Winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980, and shortlisted for the Booker, this melancholic novel was chosen for an online buddy read. I read it over three days, allowing much time to ponder, and enjoyed sharing the experience with my reading comrades, all of them Booktubers: Shawn the Book Maniac; Heidi of My Reading Life; Wilsonn Shugart; Curtis of Books and Books; and Chris of Bookish Cauldron.

Am I making too much of this? Perhaps. But there are times when man and earth are one, when the pulse of living beats strong, when life is brimming with promise and the future stretches confidently ahead like that road to the hills. Well, I was young...

Our jobs are our private fantasies, our disguises, the cloak we can creep inside to hide.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. Audiobook [7 hours] narrated by Julia Whalen.

Holy insomnia! Moshfegh writes like a dangerous drug. I was mesmerized by the voice of the main character, a woman in NYC whose plan to escape the world and her emotional pain is to hibernate for a year. Dark, funny and poignant.

I counted out three Lithium, two Ativan, five Ambien. That sounded like a nice melange. A luxurious freefall into velvet blackness. And a couple of Trazodone, because Trazodone weighed down the Ambien. Because if I dreamt, I'd dream low to the ground. That would be stabilizing, I thought. And maybe one more Ativan. Ativan, to me, felt like fresh air, a cool breeze, slightly effervescent.

Not that Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture edited by Roxane Gay. Audiobook [9 hours] narrated by 30 different people; each author performs their own work.

The power of a chorus: thirty women and men, straight and queer, from different ethnic backgrounds, have written brief personal essays about their experiences with harassment and assault. On the audiobook, each one is performed by the individual author.

Why read or listen to this? To feel less alone. To bear witness. To gain greater understanding of the many emotional responses to rape culture trauma, including rage, fear and silence. To take action.

A good therapist knows you have to live in the house while you remodel. -Claire Schwartz

I wanted to deny that my body is part of who I am, because it had been used against me. -Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes

I am a hard person because hardness is what comes from a life lived underground. -Brandon Taylor.

Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper

Emma Hooper's Etta and Otto and Russell and James was a One Book One Edmonton choice three years ago. I wrote about it here. Hooper was born and raised in Edmonton and now lives in the UK. She will be in St Albert for StarFest on October 18, 2018. I plan to see her in Vancouver at the Writers Fest that same week.

Our Homesick Songs has a lot of similarities to Michael Crummy's Sweetland: it's lyrical and character-based, it's about our connections to people and to home, and set in a remote Newfoundland island community facing resettlement when the cod are overfished. Differences: Our Homesick Songs has more whimsy; a more uplifting ending; lacks Newfie dialect; and shows a typical life-after-fisheries, working in Alberta's tar sands. I gave 5 stars to both books.

   What are you writing?
   Music. Violin music.
   Aidan stretched out his neck to see over onto the page while still rowing. It was covered in shapes. Each with a number inside. Circles, triangles, squares and diamonds of all different sizes.
   I've never seen proper music-writing before, he said.
   Oh, neither have I. This is just a way I made up to do it. Each shape is one of my strings and the numbers are a finger and the size is the duration.

I included a different passage when I posted about this book earlier, here.

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison. Audiobook [16 hr] narrated by the author.

This audiobook about alcohol addiction is about 16 hours long (the print edition is over 500 pages) and while it sometimes felt like a marathon, I never thought "well, that part could have been edited shorter," even when I recognized stuff from her earlier essays. (I wrote about The Empathy Exams here in 2014.) A combination of memoir and reportage, this story is important and has shifted my world view. I'm impressed.

But the accusation of sameness - "just another addiction memoir" - gets turned on its head by recovery, where a story's sameness is precisely why it should be told.

Several years after recovery started changing my mind about cliches, I wrote a newspaper column in their defence. I called them subterranean passageways connecting one life to another, and basically pulled a Charles Jackson, smuggling recovery into my prose, and praising its wisdom, without naming it directly.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

This novel kept bringing other books to mind: Andrea Levy's The Long Song (the plantation setting); then Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things (the 19th century science aspect); and Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes (the travelling part). In the end, it's its own thing, abut the nature of family. I was engrossed in the characters and the adventures of a singular Black boy, who travelled from Barbados to Virginia to the Arctic to Nova Scotia to London to Amsterdam to Morocco.

After I finished reading this, I thought about it for a long time, pondering whether I would rate it 4 or 5 stars on Goodreads. (That whole star rating business is such a crude tool, of course, but it has its uses for readers.) Anyway, Washington Black seemed so different from Edugyan's Half-blood Blues, which I reviewed here and was a 5-star read for me. Then, I started seeing the similarities between the two: the melancholy mood; lonely characters; racism in different countries; a distinctive first-person narrator; and some improbable plot points. I can see myself rereading Washington Black, so that definitely tips it into 5-star territory. I'm looking forward to seeing Edugyan at the Vancouver Writers Fest in a couple of weeks.

"I do not much care for childhood. It is a state of terrible vulnerability and is therefore unnatural and incompatible with human life. Everyone will cut you, strike you, cheat you, everyone will offer you suffering when goodness should reign. And because children can do nothing for themselves, they need good advocates, good parents. But a good parent is as rare as snow in summer, I am afraid."

I had been warned by Mister Ibel that snow was white and cold. But it was not white: it held all the colours of the spectrum. It was blue and green and yellow and teal; there were delicate pink tintings in some of the cliffs we passed. As the light shifted in the sky, so too did the snow around us deepen, find new hues, the way an ocean is never blue but some constantly changing colour. Nor was the cold simply cold - it was the devouring of heat.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

An astounding, emotionally resonant novel based on a true story. The group of Mennonite women talking - the voices that create the narrative - have so many things in common with each other: they are three generations of blood relatives, their entire lives have been sequestered within a closed religious community, and they have all been raped. Yet, each person is also clearly a unique individual, each their own mix of smart, funny, thoughtful, impatient, angry or serene. I expected to read about women whose lives are different from mine. I discovered we are the same.

I remember how my father, two days before he disappeared, told me that the twin pillars that guard the entrance to the shrine of religion are storytelling and cruelty.

The house are so far apart and there is no electrical light anywhere, inside or out. The houses are small tombs at night.

Mariche can contain herself no longer. She accuses Ona of being a dreamer.
We are women without a voice, Ona states calmly. We are women out of time and place, without even the language of the country we reside in. We are Mennonites without a homeland. We have nothing to return to and even the animals of Molotschna are safer in their homes than we women are. All we women have are our dreams - so of course we are dreamers.