Sunday, December 1, 2019

November Reading Round-Up

Eleven of my favourite reads from the eleventh month of 2019. It is totally by accident that the titles all consist of one, two or three words (not counting the subtitles on Underland and Blowout).

Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway

Indigenous trans woman Benaway‘s Governor General Award-winning collection of intimate, autobiographical poems uses a confessional conversational style to talk about sex, love, violence and transitioning within the larger context of Canadian (settler colonial) society. She writes about forgiveness, and also of finding sanctuary and healing in nonhuman entities, like water & forests. 

do not perform your body, 
be a holy place only the blessed can enter.

what sleeps in language is what sleeps in me,
possibilities and consequences 
for which the surface has no hope,
an unwritten alphabet of shadows 
I learn in secret, undercover from a hormonal moon 
in a dark tongue.


remember you
are not wrong 
neither are your lovers 
who love you— 
confused and changing 
like you love the earth 
under the weight of spring 
as summer breaks open 
as everything is blessed 
by its sudden wonder 
forgive us our sins 
daughter of yourself 
as we forgive you 
the miracle of your being.

Quarrels by Eve Joseph

This collection of brief prose poems had me feeling a bit puzzled and off-balanced at first. Then, as if a switch was flipped, something clicked in my brain. Our world is a place of wonder. Humanity's imagination is our strength. I have been obsessed with these whimsical gems ever since. Winner of the 2019 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize.

On the couch, Al Purdy was going on about the stunted trees in the Arctic. Upon closer examination, we could see that the leaves were tiny parkas. The illogical must have a logic of its own you said. 

The poet keeps a jar of commas on his desk. They look like the sheared ears of voles and are soft as apricots. Late at night, blindfolded, he loves to take them out and play pin-the-tail on the donkey while his wife and children are fast asleep. He plays his sentences like fish in a stream, tickling for trout with curled fingers.

Prometheus is at it again. […] In his room, he‘s building something out of matchsticks for the science fair. The little charred heads like so many executioners. 

Birdsong by Julie Flett

A child named Katherena (in homage to Metis writer Katherena Vermette, perhaps?) learns to cope with change. The intergenerational friendship, the passage of seasons, a few words in Cree language, the sweet digital collage illustrations created from pastel drawings… this gentle Indigenous picture book is so very lovely. I am always happy when Flett has a new book out.

Julie Flett‘s illustrations convey warmth 
and realism using simple shapes.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

I was spellbound by this journey into what lies in the dark: in caves, mines, underground water and petroleum resources, hollow spaces quarried out under cities and made into catacombs, the depths of glaciers. Macfarlane goes to dangerous places that I only want to experience vicariously and he writes about it all so exquisitely. “A charm of goldfinches flitters away, the birds‘ high song glittering around us.” Nature writing at its finest.

The Anthropocene compels us to think forwards in deep time, and to weigh what we will leave behind, as the landscapes we are making now will sink into strata, becoming underlands. What is the history of things to come? What will be our future fossils? […] The Anthropocene asks of us the question memorably posed by the immunologist Jonas Salk: ‘Are we being good ancestors?‘

Everywhere are the emerald leaves of the tiny dwarf willow. We have pitched our tent on top of a forest, I realize. We are canopy dwellers.

The Knud Rasmussen glacier is a body of ice so great that it makes its own weather. The glacier is invisible the afternoon we arrive, concealed by a bank of fog that runs the full span of the fjord, a mile or so wide but only a few hundred yards high. Above the fog is blue sky, below it is blue water, and behind it is blue ice.

In Oregon […] there exists a honey fungus, Armillaria solidipes, that is two and a half miles in extent at its widest point and covers a total lateral area of four square miles. The blue whale is to this honey fungus as an ant is to us. The best guess that the US Forest Service scientists have been able to offer for the honey fungus‘s age is between 1,900 and 8,650 years old.

Fungi and lichen annihilate our categories of gender. They reshape our ideas of community and cooperation. They screw up our hereditary model of evolutionary descent. They utterly liquidate our notions of time. Lichens can crumble rocks into dust with terrifying acids. Fungi can exude massively powerful enzymes outside their bodies that dissolve soil. They‘re the biggest organisms in the world and among the oldest. They‘re world-makers and world-breakers.
(Macfarlane is quoting mycologist Mervin Sheldrake in this passage.) 

Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth by Rachel Maddow
[audiobook read by the author]

Kickass lesbian political analyst Rachel Maddow untangles the far-flung tentacles of Big Oil in this very readable exposĂ© of “Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth.” Informative, depressing, shocking and infuriating, but—ultimately—hopeful. I highly recommend the audiobook narrated by Maddow herself, which also includes a recording of Pussy Riot's song 'Putin Zassel' (Putin Pissed Himself).

The United States was beginning to look like it might be capable of overtaking Russia, become the world leader in oil production. All glory to the frackers… and all apologies to the cows… and the neighbors… and the future prospects for their drinking water. 

If you are a 15-year-old boy, your lifetime expectancy is three years longer in Haiti than in Russia. 

The Vigor Marine company website boasted “even the blue and white paint scheme was chosen to accommodate the preferences of whales.” This was news on a few fronts, not least that whales have colour preferences.

The Student by Cary Fagan

I love rich, character-based fiction and felt immediately caught up in the inner and outer life of one Toronto woman, Miriam Moscowitz, who is out of step with her contemporaries in 1957 because she wants to go on to graduate school and become a professor. The second part of this quiet novel skips ahead to 2005, allowing a glimpse of the intervening years while showing the fullness of Miriam's life in the 21st century.

She didn‘t mind seeing a Hollywood horse opera if it made Isidore happy. […] 
He wanted to talk about the film and so she went on about moral ambiguity until he interrupted her by saying, “Why are you trying to spoil the film? Come on, Minnie. Lancaster was the good guy and Douglas was the bad guy. All that studying is going to your head.”
“Where else is it supposed to go, my kidneys?”

Twice he had asked her to marry him, or rather talked about being married without quite asking, afraid of what she would say, so she hadn't felt obliged to give him an answer. But one day, she knew, he'd do something atrocious like get down on his knee.

Each year they rented a cottage on the south shore of Lake Simcoe, in the section where Jews could buy property, the drives marked by wooden signs: The Horvaths, The Targovetskys, Camp Kugel. On Friday nights candles could be seen burning in cottage windows.

“…they make a promise to each wear the jeans and then send it to the next person and describe all their adventures while wearing them. I mean, it‘s a pretty stupid idea, like that would ever happen, and the girls are way too nice to each other, which in my opinion is less believable than anything in Harry Potter. But you know what? I can‘t put it down.”
“It sounds quite delicious. I wonder what makes us just have to keep reading a book? Does that mean it's good and we don't want to admit it because it doesn't fit our idea of real literature? Or is it like eating candy? You know, all immediate pleasure but no nutrition."

The Wagers by Sean Michaels
[audiobook read by the author]

My audiobook hold came in at the same as the print edition, making it easy to note passages like: “The sun was raying all around.” A thoughtful, dreamy story set in Montreal—a grocery store, a comedy club, a betting track, riding a bicycle through rainy nights—and combining fantastical elements with realistically developed characters. It's also a Robin Hood-type crime caper with action that spans the globe and plumbs the human heart. I especially enjoyed the author's own narration of his book.

To certain observers, Theo might have appeared bored, but he wasn‘t bored, exactly. Boredom requires a degree of self-knowledge. It is not enough that an activity be tedious (i.e. without momentum) or aimless (i.e. without direction): for it to be boring the doer must recognize he is being dulled. Theo was too restless for that.

Sometimes it is easier to trust someone than to doubt them, a kind of gift you give yourself.
[This passage happened to echo the subject of the nonfiction book I was reading at the same time, Malcolm Gladwell's Talking to Strangers.]

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran
translated by Sophie Hughes

Thousands of missing loved ones, “disappeared” by Pinochet‘s security forces, haunt subsequent generations of Chileans. In this dizzying, surreal, gritty, funny and heartbreaking novel, a corpse has gone astray when ash prevents planes from landing in Santiago, prompting the trippiest of road trips. I feel forever changed by my journey through this book.

[…] I went about gorging on nectar as I picked the city flowerless, snatching dismembered petals, petals that I tore from the sepals and the stamens and the corollas and the anthers and the receptacles, which I left floating in the gutters, there among the tadpoles I abandoned those shredded flowers, white canoes in the muddy water for the tadpoles to paddle with, pistils floating with their ugly bug captains, and there I was, winding my way through Santiago […]

[…] and then day broke and I still hadn't gathered my thoughts; they were still lost in the night and everybody knows that the daytime thoughts and the nighttime thoughts never find each other again […]

Her Spanish was correct but old-fashioned, the kind you might still hear in parts of Sweden, Berlin, Canada, but which to me sounded hollow, or perhaps hollowed out.

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman
[audiobook read by Michael Sheen]

This fantasy spy thriller is a heady ride across the alternate-Europe landscape of Pullman's imagination, and, in fact, involves the search for Lyra's lost imagination. Lyra is 20 in this second volume of a trilogy and I like seeing the development of her character, even though it's also painful to see that she and her daemon have fallen out. Mainly, their disagreements focus on the way Lyra's outlook has been influenced by philosophies she has encountered in books. Warning: cliffhanger ending.

Lyra bent over the open vessel and found the concentrated fragrance of every rose that had ever bloomed: a sweetness and power so profound that it moved beyond sweetness altogether and out of the other side of its own complexity into a realm of clear and simple purity and beauty. It was the smell of sunlight itself.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
[audiobook read by the author, Kivlighan de Montebello, William DeMerritt and Maia Enrigue Luiselli]

A deeply moving novel about family dynamics and the way our lives are affected by larger events happening in society—in this case, the migrant children refugee crisis at the southern US border. The audiobook is a rich experience with four different narrators—including the author—slowly building layers of prose, metafiction, fragments of documents, descriptions of photos. Compassionate and unforgettable.

The conversations between the parents and their kids are a wonderful aspect of this novel. Example:
Child: What's a midwife?
Father: Someone who delivers babies.
Child: Like the postman?
Father: Yes, like the postman.

…I get asked about my accent and place of birth and I say no, I was not born in this country and when I say where I was born, I don‘t even get a nod in return, just a cold dead silence, as if I‘ve confessed to sin.

Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
[audiobook read by Stig Wemyss]

My review in three words: Thriller Melts Heart.

“Clutch! First gear! Steadily on the pedal.”

I asked Slim if he‘d ever read Moby Dick and he said he‘d read it twice because it‘s worth reading a second time, though he said the second time around, he skipped the bit where the writer goes on about all the different species of whales found all across the world. 

I asked Slim to tell me the whole story, and for two hours, while we washed his land cruiser, he told me that thrilling adventure tale so enthusiastically I wanted Nantucket fish chowder for lunch and white whale steaks for dinner.

Friday, November 1, 2019

October Reading Round-Up

Out of 28 books that I read in October, these fifteen are all worthy of five stars. 

Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson 
Audiobook read by John Sackville and Perdita Weeks

Smart, witty and feminist. Alternating storylines—early 19th century, and science-fictional near future—fit together like puzzle pieces. I love the mirroring of all the characters: author Mary Shelley = trans person Dr Ry Shelley; poet Lord Byron = sexbot magnate Ron Lord; author John Polidori = journalist Polly D, etc. “What is your substance? Whereof are you made?” Literary allusions and philosophical musings anchor the playfulness.

Shelley adores towers, woods, ruins, graveyards, any part of Man or Nature that broods.

"An iPhone is not a human right,” Victor said mildly. “Privacy is."

Maybe being a bodysnatcher is bad for my joie de vivre.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
Audiobook read by Rebecca Gibel

I started this in print format and found it hard to follow Odell's long, philosophical sentences. When I switched to audio format, I adored her style. Her work is a call to activism that stresses the importance of taking time to listen, to pay attention, and to contemplate. Also, it's an invitation to reconsider the idea of what it is to be productive. I‘ve listened to the audiobook twice. 

As someone who is both Asian and white, I am an anomaly or a nonentity from an essentialist point of view. It‘s not possible for me to be native to anywhere in any obvious sense, […] but the sight of western tanagers, a favourite bird, migrating through Oakland in the spring, gives me an image of how to be from two places at once. 

In a public space, ideally, you are a citizen with agency; in a faux public space, you are either a consumer or a threat to the design of the place.

My most-liked Facebook post of all time was an anti-Trump screed. […] It‘s not a form of communication driven by reflection and reason but rather a reaction driven by fear and anger. Obviously these feelings are warranted but their expression on social media feels like firecrackers setting off other firecrackers in a very small room that soon gets filled with smoke.

We the Survivors by Tash Aw
Audiobook read by Jamie Zubairi

Social injustice, class and racial stratification, discriminatory treatment of undocumented migrant labourers in Malaysia: these are the weighty topics of this compelling, humane novel. Told in a circular, conversational style, as a privileged lesbian journalist interviews an ex-convict about his life. How much choice do the underdogs of society have, when all they want is to live a good life? Devastating and insightful. I also really enjoyed hearing Tash Aw at the Vancouver Writers Fest last week.

Sometimes your brain doesn‘t recognise danger or risk until much later — days, weeks, years — and it‘s only then that the event feels scary, because the passing of time has made it seem that you had a choice.

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch
Audiobook read by the author

The passive aggressive potential in a single period… the confusion caused by generational differences in ellipses use… and other aspects of typographical tone are covered in this delightful audiobook about communication. Linguist McCulloch calls language “humanity‘s most spectacular open source project.” Her enthusiasm for her topic is infectious. I also love her sense of humour, like when she talks about putting “our harrumphing hats on.” Informative entertainment.

Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson

A highly entertaining history and current use commentary on a punctuation mark that isn‘t for “highfalutin snobs,” but for anyone who loves language. “If we can learn to see past rules as the only framework with which we can understand and learn to use language, we might be able to see what purposes rules could really serve.” From the badassery of Elizabeth Anscombe, to liquor laws and the death penalty, the semicolon is at the heart of some great stories!

Kurt Vonnegut was unequivocal in his last book, advising writers, “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you‘ve been to college.”

The US Supreme Court has ruled that “punctuation is a most fallible standard by which to interpret a writing.” Taking it even further, courts have opined that “punctuation is no part of the English language.”

By the early 1800s, parentheses were already so last century, inspiring T O Churchill's 1823 grammar to coolly pronounce that "the parenthesis is now generally exploded as a deformity." It got worse: three years later, the parenthesis had gone from Quasimodo to quasi ghost, [being deemed] “nearly obsolete.” The curved marks that humanist thinker Desiderius Erasmus had romantically called “little moons” (lunulae) had crashed down to earth.

Uncertainty, after all, is very human, and can call forth our best human virtues.

Punctuation has to be judged by how it shapes the text in which it‘s situated. The problem, for writers and readers, is how to go about figuring out whether punctuation is any good or not without the security of a book of rules. It‘s a tough thing to do, to learn to let go of getting answers from stylebooks and to replace that practice with asking exploratory questions about our texts.

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
Audiobook read by Vikas Adam

Smart, funny and surprising satire entwined with a humane meta storyline. I smirked my way through the audiobook, admiring the quotable quips and amusing list sentences typical of Rushdie. A thoroughly enjoyable modern version of Don Quixote. 

I don‘t know when I‘ve walked so far except on the treadmill at the gym. 

Another, more colloquial term for going off-label might be… becoming a drug dealer, or even… becoming a narcolord.

Shut Up You're Pretty by Tea Mutonji

Interconnected short stories follow Loli, a Congolese Canadian immigrant, from age 13 to 26, as she blunders through sexual encounters with boys and men, supported and confused by intense female friendships. Raw, surprising and unforgettable.

In Galloway, Mrs Broomfield was legend for witnessing the Rwandan genocide. Her attitude so much positivity and optimism, like, “This is a war, child, it‘s not going to last.” I liked to apply that to everything else: this world is a war, this neighbourhood is a war, this street, this house, this body, this person, this feeling, this war.

Henry had more hair than I expected. On his top lip, a pair of bushy brows, an entire grass field slapped across the bottom half of his face. When he got out of the car and waved, I gave Jolie a look that said, You didn‘t tell me he was a hundred years old. In turn, she gave me a look that said, Stand up straight and stop acting your age.

We once saw a man at the intersection of Galloway and Lawrence with a small teardrop tattoo. It meant he had killed someone, Theresa told me, and lost the love of his life because of it. Detailed, I thought. Didn‘t understand how she could get all of that from a tattoo. 

He just talked and talked and talked. I think my father had enough words in him to rewrite Don Quixote. His favourite book. Because he believed in so many of his stories, I never knew which one belonged to either one of us.

The Innocents by Michael Crummey

Ada and Evered* are children, 9 and 11, when their baby sister and parents die of illness. The two manage mostly on their own for several years in an isolated Newfoundland cove in the early 19th century. Cinematic descriptions, lots of archaic vernacular, the seasonal rhythms, and the immersion into both the outer and inner lives of this pair of siblings as they grow into adolescence—all of these made for a bewitching & meditative tale. 
*note Biblical reference to Adam and Eve

As far as Ada could tell a mother‘s role was incidental at best, her body a passive vessel for the passing wildflower that was a child. The Virgin Mary had gotten her feet wet out picking berries and so fell pregnant with Jesus. It was a condition women caught like a fever or a cold, something that resulted from their own weakness or impudence. Something vaguely shameful.

Sarah Best was half-asleep with her mouth to the newborn‘s downy crown and she glanced across at Ada without raising her head. “What should we call her?”

It hadn‘t occurred to Ada that a name was bestowed on a person and not something you were born with. The lack made the infant seem almost as naked and pitiable as when she first landed in Mary Oram‘s lap.

“He‘s got all the grace of a cow aboard of a dory,” another said. “The gangly old stilts on him. He‘ll never shit a seaman‘s turd, that one.”

She could talk the bark off a tree, their father said, a note of awed disbelief in his voice.

Goodbye Vitamin by Rachel Khong

30-year-old Ruth discovers it‘s possible to make something sweet when life hands her lemons—dumped by her fiancĂ© and then called to spend a year with her parents to help cope with her father‘s Alzheimer‘s. Surprisingly buoyant, this novel is told in Ruth‘s diary vignettes, tenderly collecting moments—absurd, mundane or sublime—like: “The moon is doing something beautiful.” The fragments add up to something charming, heartfelt and beautiful.

“Another weird thing is that pigs don‘t get milked,” I said. “Pigs don‘t get milked.”
“Because piglets drink it all?” Bonnie said.
“Because piglets drink it all.”
“There‘s something beautiful about that,” Linus said, “beautiful and perfect.”
We toasted to piglets and didn‘t notice Theo approach.

At the library, I run into Regina, who was homecoming queen our junior year. She had hay-coloured hair to her waist and I envied it. She has children now. They share names with hurricanes—I don‘t know if it is intentional or what.

“This is Katrina and this is Sandy,” she introduces. The children are 4 and 8, and even so young, their expressions look overcast.

Later, at the farmers‘ market, I watch a couple bros sample dates.

“Shit,” says one bro, coughing, “I think I‘m allergic to this giant raisin!”
“That‘s not a raisin, Steve,” says another bro. “That‘s a Medjool date.”
Born humans, I remind myself.

I like to collect those almonds with the slight curve, the ones that hold your thumb. And not only the curved nuts, but also the nuts that don't have the standard tear shape, that are shaped more like buttons, with a rounded edge instead of the point. Almond anomalies.

What a ridiculous person I am. I unscrew the jar and tip as many anomalies as will fit into my mouth.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Quiet yet powerful. Woodson creates vivid characters using the sparest of prose. In this polyphonic novel that spans several decades, we come to know five people from three generations of a single Black family in Brooklyn. I especially loved Iris, a prickly unwed mother without much in the way of maternal feelings, who explores her bisexuality at college.

Something about memory. It takes you back to where you were and lets you just be there for a time. 

King Mouse by Cary Fagan and Dena Seiferling

Delicate graphite drawings by Dena Seiferling are perfectly matched to the gentle tone of this story about instant celebrity and friendship. A heartwarming Canadian picture book.

Slay by Brittney Morris
Audiobook read by Kiersey Clemons, Michael Boatman, Alexandra Grey, Dominic Hoffman and Sisi Aisha Johnson

Washington state high schooler Keira Johnson secretly develops SLAY, an online role playing game to celebrate the Black experience in a worldwide diaspora. “It‘s a double entendre, meaning both to greatly impress and to annihilate.” When a player is killed in real life, media attention brings cyber trolls and claims that it‘s racist and illegal to exclude non-Black players, Keira‘s haven might be destroyed. Excellent fast-paced and moving audiobook.

As we duel, as we chat, there's an understanding that “your black is not my black“ and “your weird is not my weird“ and “your beautiful is not my beautiful,“ and that's okay.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
Audiobook read by Jason Isaacs

The use of botanic materials to create every
part of the illustrations in Drawn from Nature is
astounding. For example, look closely at
this hibernating frog in an underground den
made of a desiccated leaf.
I was happy to be back in a gripping story with former police detective Jackson Brodie, friend to anarchy, upholder of justice (which is not always the same as upholding the law). Human trafficking, murder, and so many secrets… but Brodie untangles the mayhem and even sorts out some of his own personal stuff too.

[Her older brother] was employing a very nice illustrated edition of the Grimm brothers to introduce Candace to the more evil side of fairies, tales where people were cursed or abandoned or had their toes chopped off and their eyes pecked out […] because he felt that someone ought to counter the fluffy pink world she was being swallowed up by.

Drawn from Nature by Helen Ahpornsiri

An adorable natural science picture book for all ages. All of the illustrations are collages, painstakingly created entirely from flowers and foliage. Inspiring!

Tentacle by Rita Indiana
Translated by Achy Obejas

My admiration grows the longer I reflect on this queer, peppy time-travel triple narrative set in the Dominican Republic. Can the past be manipulated to avert future ecological disaster? Can altruism triumph over self-interest? A transgender man, Santera sorcery and a magical sea anemone are key elements in this vertiginous exploration of colonialism, gender, art and greed. 

Los Charamicos was a backwards town, dirty and small, and completely dependent on tourism—in other words, prostitution, in all its varieties.