Friday, May 31, 2019

May 2019 Reading Round-Up

Thirty-one books in 31 days: that's very tidy reading stats, isn't it? These are a few of my favourites:

What the Eyes Don't See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance and Hope in an American City by Mona Hanna-Attisha 
[Audiobook performed by the author; 11 hours]

When an Iraqi-born American paediatrician learned there was lead in the Flint water supply, she immediately took action. At first I was a little impatient with the memoir aspect that's interwoven, a lot of personal family history, but then I realized the author was showing us how she became the kind of person who could take on corrupt, lying bureaucrats and politicians. Resilience can be learned: it's one of the things that makes this a hopeful and inspiring true story.

Again and again, the state and federal officials‘ disdain for Flint was shocking. At the EPA, when asked about using federal money to buy water filters for city residents, the Region 5 Water Division Chief wrote, “I‘m not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for.” The pointed cruelty, the arrogance & inhumanity. Sometimes it is called racism. Sometimes it is called callousness. And sometimes […] it can be called manslaughter.

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

There's a blurb on the cover from Roxane Gay that says "Read this book." I'm glad that I took her advice because WOW! This funny and gruesome collection of near-future short stories isn't for the faint of heart. Adjei-Brenyah cranks up satire to hyperbolic levels -- and the results are powerful because it's  so easy to see what lies beneath the exaggeration: today's truths.

When Marlene was 6 and I was still a crying bag of poop, my parents tried to convince her that having a younger brother would actually help her to be a good teacher because she could practice information transfer on me. They also told her that I could never be in competition with her in life or their hearts after they caught her trying to smother me with a pillow. They tell that story and laugh about it now.

Emmanuel started learning the basics of his Blackness before he knew how to do long division: smiling when angry, whispering when he wanted to yell.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Quiet and powerful at the same time. The opening chapter, an imagining of a Neolithic ritual, had me worried because I dislike having my emotions manipulated. Fortunately, everything settles down after that, and it becomes a compact compelling story about a dysfunctional family, a queer girl's coming of age, and human connections to nature. Feminist themes are at the forefront. I loved it.

Dad and I find ash, I said, up on the moortops at home, people say they want to be scattered there as if scattering is making something go away entirely and then we sit down with our sandwiches and realize we‘re in the middle of someone‘s granny, of course they always choose the places you‘d stop for lunch, somewhere on the top of a ridge with a nice view.

I ducked under the flap in the doorway and waited a moment—I could, after all, be going into the wood to pee, or getting a drink of water. Without a house, it occurred to me, it is much harder to restrict a person‘s movement. Harder for a man to restrain a woman.

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
[audiobook performed by Adepero Oduye; 4 hours]

Macabre, shocking and witty. I devoured this short audiobook in a single morning. Psychopaths and psychological thrillers aren't usually my thing; it's the relationship between two Nigerian sisters that kept me enthralled. How far would Korede go to help her sister Ayoola? Also, actress Adepero Oduye's audio performance is brilliant.

Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai 
[Audiobook performed by Michael Crouch; 18 hours]

I let myself sink into this epic audiobook and feel all the emotions of the AIDS crisis in 1980s Chicago and its aftereffects in contemporary Paris. It's got the ingredients I like: believable characterization; vivid settings; queer content; the art world; social commentary -- and it's deserving of its many awards and accolades.

You can never know anyone‘s marriage but your own. And even then, you‘ll only know half of it. 

Left to his own devices, he‘d be listening to The Smiths, which wouldn‘t have helped a thing. And if it turned out he only had a few years to live, shouldn‘t he be listening to Beethoven?

For these eight hours, she was unable to do a thing. Being on an airplane, even in coach, was the closest an adult could come to the splendid helplessness of infancy.

Adulthood Is a Myth by Sarah Andersen

I'm guessing that many of you already know how great this self-deprecating collection is, because I've seen Andersen's cartoons posted all over social media. Humour is medicine. It triggers the release of serotonin and endorphins, lowers stress, lifts our mood, helps put problems into perspective, and improves our physical health. We all need to laugh.

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Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau

It's a sweet gay romance in graphic novel format, but I'm not a fan of romance in general, so it was other attributes that kept me interested. What I love most is the believable characterization, capturing the uncertainty and confusion of life after high school, and the weight of parental expectations. I also love Ganucheau's beautiful ink wash art and all the (yummy) extended scenes of baking process.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Four Book Clubs in Six Days

I'm in four book clubs at the moment. Typically, the meetings are spread out over a month, but sometimes the stars align and all of them happen in less than a week. I'm not complaining! I love it. Book discussions give me more insights into what I've been reading, allow me to feel more closely connected to people in my clubs, and broaden my understanding of people who make up our larger society. Following are brief descriptions of the titles chosen for May.

In Two Bichons book club, we read all kinds of books written by women:

Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin

We all enjoyed this slim, poetic memoir and we ran out of time before we finished talking about the issues raised, such as: work satisfaction; knowing when to quit your job; trust; clothes and self-image; gender bias in the trades; the different ways we learn and the joy of learning. We also compared our own responses to wooden things versus high tech materials. It's a book brimming with gratitude and interesting facts.

"The poet Jon Cotner pointed me to a Korean proverb 'Knows the way, stops seeing.' It's not an argument for getting oneself lost, but a nudge to stay awake, stay focused, alert even when time and experience have dulled us."

For each YA book club meeting, we choose two titles that appeal to teenage readers (mostly these are in a publisher's Young Adult category, sometimes they are middle grade or adult crossovers):

Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau

Ari wants to leave his small town and his family's struggling bakery, but a handsome new guy who's taking a year off cooking school throws his plans into question. It's a sweet, leisurely gay romance in graphic novel format, and since I'm not a fan of romance in general, it was other attributes that kept me interested. What I loved most is the believable characterization, capturing the uncertainty and confusion of life after high school, and the weight of parental expectations. I also love the beautiful ink wash art and all the yummy baking scenes.

A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena

Other members of my book club liked this debut more than I did. I wasn't enamoured with the writing style, and yet I still consider it a pick and recommend it for its portrayal of gender discrimination and for its rich immersion into the lives of Parsi immigrants from India living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I also enjoyed the portrayal of Zarin Wadia, the tempestuous sixteen-year-old at the centre of this gritty, contemporary story. Author Tanaz Bhathena, a Parsi woman who now lives in Canada, was born in India and then lived in Saudi Arabia until she was 15.

"In this world, no one cares if you are starving to death. No one even looks at you. They only care when you start doing things they don't approve of - like dancing with your clothes off."

In Feminist book club, whether we are reading nonfiction or fiction, we always examine it through a feminist lens:

One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul [audiobook]

A collection of personal essays about topics like feminism, rape culture, self-image, racism and being a brown-skinned Canadian born of Kashmiri immigrants. The pieces fit together smoothly so this reads like a frank and witty memoir. It's her relationship with her parents that ties everything together. I like that her father reads the segments between chapters, with Koul narrating the rest of her work in the audiobook.

"Mom talks about moving to Canada as if my father had requested she start wearing fun hats. 'Why not try it?' she thought, instead of, 'This fucking lunatic wants me to go to a country made of ice and casual racism.'"

In Lesbian book club, we read mostly fiction, mostly by lesbian authors:

Bingo Love by Tee Franklin and and Jenn St-Onge (plus others)

They fall in love as schoolgirls in 1963, are separated by their families, and then get back together 49 years later. After that, only death can separate this pair of grandmothers. A charming second chance romance/family saga with a cast of African American characters. The graphic novel format features brightly-coloured art in a cartoony style. I love stories about older lesbians! I look forward to hearing what the other members think of this when we meet tonight.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Tim Hortons in CanLit, Take 4

I'm excited about sharing a fourth winning batch of literary Timmys references with you. Drink up!

Getting a ride home from work,
the day hot and dry and almost over,
everyone was covered with dust,
and dirt from Bruce's workboots
was falling on the dried-mud floor
as he held his foot poised
above the dashboard radio,

It started when he said Turn
this garbage off!
and she replied with I like this song
and he lifted his boot     its heavy heel
inches from the volume knob,
his leg bent and ready to smash
something     the worksite clay
and pebbles rattling down 
from the fold in the cuff of his jeans,
You know I'll smash this thing
now turn it down!

Kelly Shepherd, author of Insomnia Bird
Three of us in the backseat
drinking warm tapwater
from Gatorade bottles,
hats low over our eyes,
pretending not to notice.

The next morning, they picked me up
at the usual place outside
the Southgate bus stop,
already in work vests
and holding hands.
Deanna smiled     said Good morning,
asked me if I wanted anything
from Tim's

-from 'The North Saskatchewan's Seventh Shade of Green,' Insomnia Bird: Edmonton Poems by Kelly Shepherd, p 86-87

We stopped for coffee at the Tim Hortons in Seaforth. I'd have preferred the drive-through, but Professor Bruno wanted to drink his double-double in 'civilized fashion' - which was the first time in my life I'd hear Tims referred to as 'civilized.' It made me wonder what an alien species would make of our civilization if Tims were the only thing left of us.
--That's a fascinating question, said Professor Bruno. Do all the Tims survive or just one?
--Do you think it makes a difference, Professor?
--Of course it makes a difference, Alfie. If your alien species comes upon a single Timmy's in the middle of a wasteland, they won't know what to make of it or us. This lone Tim Hortons would be a mysterious artifact. But if all the Tims survived, like Canadian industrial cockroaches, they'd think we were insanely fond of plastic and bad coffee.
--But if that's how you feel, Professor, why did you want to stop at Tims?
--I'm Canadian, son. I am fond of bad coffee and plastic!

-from Days by Moonlight by Andre Alexis, p 184

"How can you drink Tim Hortons? You probably put milk in it too, don't you?"
"Double double."

A pink foam had formed along the banks of the artificial lake. Leaves, Tim Hortons cups, and refuse from Kentucky Fried Chicken bobbed on the small waves.

-from The Garneau Block by Todd Babiak, p 215; p 282

I spent a week in Fort MacMurray, the heart of Canada's tarsands, camping on the fringe of the city and walking to downtown appointments along arterial roads with vehicles whipping past at highway speed. I surveyed the litter in the ditches -- Tim Hortons cups, cans of Black Horse beer from Newfoundland, lottery tickets -- and counted pickup trucks.

-from Born to Walk by Dan Rubinstein

For more excerpts about Tim Hortons, see my previous posts here.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

January 2019 Reading Round-Up

Highlights from my usual eclectic mix of books this month include:

Best in Translation:
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
Audiobook 13 h; performed by Julia Whelan

While Edmonton Public Library has categorized this existential, free-wheeling novel as short stories, I disagree. I'm not sure exactly what it is, but I am sure that I love it. It's an electrifying accumulation of fragmentary flights of fancy in historical and contemporary settings, interconnected in a variety of ways, most especially by the themes of escape and the preservation of human corpses. (Doesn't that sound appealing?) I listened to the audiobook first, and then picked it up in print so that I could better absorb Tokarczuk's magnificent mastery of language. Translation from Polish by Jennifer Croft.

That smile of theirs holds--or so it strikes us--a kind of promise that perhaps we will be born anew now, this time in the right time and the right place.

Best Indigenous Novel:
Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman

Escape. Pursuit. A desperate quest for freedom. In this impressive, red-hot novel that pays homage to Rabbit Proof Fence and other Indigenous Australian survival narratives, the action shifts between concurrent scenes in multiple Western Australia locations, gradually widening out into a much larger perspective on humanity. Wow.

Stealing something to eat, that is a crime that would get me flung into jail. Stealing everything, that is just good government.

Best Poetry:
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen

Instead of my paltry review of this invigorating collection, read Chen Chen's own words:

Trying to get / over what my writer friend said, All you write about is being gay or Chinese. / Wish I had thought to say to him, All you write about is being white / or an asshole. Wish I had said, No, I already write about everything-- / & everything is salt, noise, struggle, hair, / carrying, kisses, leaving, myth, popcorn, / mothers, bad habits, questions.
I'm envious of the clouds who can from time to time fall completely apart & everyone just says, It's raining, & someone might even bring cats & dogs into it, no one says, Stop being so dramatic or You should see a professional.
Dreaming of one day being as fearless as a mango. 
As friendly as a tomato. Merciless to chin & shirtfront.
I tried to ask my parents to leave the room,
but not my life. It was very hard. Because the room was the size
of my life.

Best by Edmonton Author. Also, Best Essays:
Little Yellow House by Carissa Halton

Social justice, humour and a warm heart. A collection of essays about raising a young family in Alberta Avenue, an inner city neighbourhood in Edmonton, and being an activist for social change and strong communities. An added attraction for me is that I used to live there (but in the early 80s, before prostitution had shifted into the area). I'm excited about the author being at our book club in February.

Even the truly dejected properties are transformed in spring by resilient low-maintenance lilacs whose early blooms pop purple and unleash a scent with a special kind of power in our winter city: walkers who for months hurried along the sidewalks navigating ice and poorly-shovelled sections with their heads down, suddenly stop, then turn towards a stranger's home and inhale so deeply that their chests strain the buttons on their soon-to-be-stored parkas.

Best Audiobook About Essays:
The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl
Audiobook 9 h; performed by the author

A gorgeous memoir/meditation on the art and importance of daydreaming, of solitude and the time to imagine, read and create; an elegant, perceptive reminder about what is precious; and musings on historical figures like Montaigne, who invented the essay form.

an essay is an attempt... to locate meaning between the irretrievable then and equally unfathomable now.

For the worker bee, life is given over to the grim satisfaction of striking a firm line through a task accomplished. On to the next, and the next. Check, check. Done and done. It explains--and solves--nothing to call this workaholism.

Best Irish Audiobook:
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

Audiobook 12 h; performed by Richard E Grant, Richard Cordery, Nina Sosanya and Laurence Kennedy

The psychopath at the heart of this novel is so disturbing that I almost abandoned it when I was only an hour into the audiobook. I'm very glad that I stuck with it, because it's brilliant. It's about extreme literary ambition--which is like a ladder to the sky. Also, in West African tales, Anansi built a ladder to get stories from the sky god. From now on, when I'm at an author event where someone asks: "Where do you get your ideas?" I will think of this book (and wonder if the author would ever kill someone for story ideas).

Best Children's Audiobook:
No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen
Audiobook 6 h; performed by Nissae Isen

The endearing, funny and sincere first-person voice of 12-year-old Felix is what makes this novel special and it's perfectly conveyed in the audio performance by Nissae Isen. Mental health issues and the housing crisis in Vancouver contribute to a mother and son family being homeless in this uplifting tearjerker for ages 10 to adult.

"What the heck is in your gene pool?" a girl named Marsha asked me one day.
"50% Swedish, 25% Haitian, 25% French," I answered. "Add it up and it equals 100% Canadian."
She pursed her lips. "You look like a clown."
It wasn't the first time someone had made fun of my hair.

Best Toddler Boardbook:
A Bubble by Genevieve Castree

Canadian cartoonist Genevieve Castree was dying of pancreatic cancer when she created this book as a legacy of love for her 2-year-old daughter. A heartbreaking story, yet it's also gorgeous, tender and comforting. I can imagine it being treasured by families going through similar circumstances. The cardboard pages and stubby shape are especially designed for toddlers. Its content is meaningful for all ages.
Note: I reviewed Castree's autobiographical Susceptible here.

Best Picture Book:
Little Red Hood by Sarah Ardizzone

I love sassy retellings like this picture book translation from French. Just a few words on each page, expressive scribbly art, and a slam dunk of an ending. Smart girl. Stupid wolf. All ages.

Best Book About Cows:
The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young

"The seemingly mundane day-to-day existence of a cow or a calf is perhaps not a subject that would capture everyone's imagination," states UK farmer Rosamund Young in her introduction. If, like me, you are curious about the surprising things cows get up to when allowed a lot of freedom, this quiet, meandering collection of anecdotes is a treat. Some anthropomorphism, some lovely asides about other farm inhabitants, much sweetness.

In the house we label the milk jugs with the cows' names and we all have our particular preferences.

As calves get older and genuinely need to spend most of the day eating, they develop a routine for games at dusk. This is the time of night when we have seen calves playing tag with a fox, chasing pheasants, and organizing heats in race-me-to-your-mother-and-back with the eventual winner leading a lap of honour round the perimeter of the field.

Best Comics:
Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan

Heavens to Murgatroyd! A smart, funny and touching mashup of Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters with real-life writers Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, plus the New York City 1950s gay scene and the American Cold War communism scare. Lots of delightful pop culture references in the artwork and dialogue.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

My Top 18 Books of 2018

Out of 370 books in 2018... so hard to choose favourites. I agree with Neil Gaiman, who has said "Picking five favourite books is like picking the five body parts you'd most like not to lose." Nevertheless, I go bravely forward. Here are eighteen books, not all of which were published in 2018, and only the top one is in order of preference:

Best of the Best:

Machine Without Horses by Helen Humphreys
This genre blend of grief memoir, writer's guide and historical fiction made every part of my brain tingle.

Best Picture Book:

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris
An oversize book of acrostic nature poetry, celebrating words - from acorn to wren - with sumptuous illustrations.

Best Audiobook (tie):

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo 
Vibrant, authentic and moving verse novel in the passionate Afro Latina voice of a young slam poet; audiobook performed by the author.
The Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett 
Interconnected stories and vignettes of an eccentric woman living in extreme solitude in Ireland; an exploration of human connection to the physical world, the link between our outer and inner selves... a sensory experience. As I listened to this audiobook performed by Lucy Rayner, I could almost feel myself vibrating with the book's energy.

Best Poetry (tie):

Welcome to the Anthropocene by Alice Major
Humanity and our relationship to the cosmos: these witty poems address the big questions. Edmonton author.
Insomnia Bird by Kelly Shepherd
Wordsmith collage that maps the exterior and interior places where city people, the natural world and work intersect. Edmonton author.

Best Essays:

The Flower Can Always Be Changing by Shawna Lemay
Stunning poetic fragments by an introvert musing about her interactions at work at a public library, photography as a daily practice, and seeing beauty in ordinary things. Edmonton author.

Best Fiction in Translation (three-way tie):

Baba Dunja's Last Love, Alina Bronsky, translation by Tim Mohr
The unforgettable voice of an elderly woman in Chernobyl after the nuclear "incident."
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translation by Ginny Tabley Takemori 
Another unforgettable voice, this time a pithy non-neurotypical Japanese in contemporary Tokyo.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
It's all about the dark and delightful voice; an eccentric 60-year-old vegetarian English teacher in a remote village in Poland investigates the deaths of local hunters. Canada publication: February 2019.

Best Nonfiction:

The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography by Deborah Levy
Clear, urgent and inventive documentation of Levy's passage into a new life, post marriage, at 50.

Best Graphic Novel (tie):

The Park Bench by Chaboute
Crisp black-and-white art uses a park bench to anchor a story of urban public life across decades. Warm, funny and nearly wordless.
On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
An epic boarding school/science fiction space adventure with beautiful art and a cast of fascinating queer characters.

Best Fiction by an Indigenous Author:

There, There by Tommy Orange
Set in contemporary Oakland California, brilliantly crafted with 12 alternating points of view, the multiple strands drawing together with increasing urgency. Best ending too!

Best Literary Fiction (a catch-all for all the rest):

Motherhood by Sheila Heti
Introspective, elegant and funny - in the style of a personal journal - as much about having a mother as it is about ambivalence towards being a mother.
Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper
Lyrical, character-based, uplifting story of a remote community facing dissolution in Newfoundland.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
"Writers have to bear witness, it's their vocation." What grieving illuminates about our truest selves. Differing views on artistic expression. The special bond between humans and dogs.
Winter by Ali Smith
The thawing of frozen relationships, interwoven with current issues - Brexit, Syrian refugees, fake news, the power of protest, etc. Wise and full of heart.