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.