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.