Thursday, April 30, 2020

April 2020 Reading Round-Up

Audiobooks, comics, novellas and short stories: that's what has been hitting the spot lately. Here are some highlights from my reading life in April, plus one audiobook that's a cure for sleepless nights:

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories edited by Jay Rubin
Translations by various people

I started reading a short story a day from this collection on Dec 1, 2019, then got derailed—first by a concussion, then by coronavirus anxiety. I finished it in April with a feeling of triumph. And I loved the book! Extending the reading time probably contributed to my enjoyment because I had time to savour each story. The 34 stories vary widely in content, style and original publication date. A lovely assortment.

My friend Shawn and I discussed one of these stories, "UFO in Kushiro" by Haruki Murakami, and then Shawn made a video:

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls
by Mona Eltahawy, Audiobook read by the author

Mona Eltahawy's rage against the patriarchy really struck a chord with me. The necessary “sins” in her manifesto are anger, ambition, profanity, violence, attention-seeking, lust and power. I want to join her in dismantling an unjust system. Burn it down! I join her in celebrating the audacity of teenage girls around the world who save themselves and teenage girls who will save the planet. I join her in celebrating women and girls who sin.

We must reject civility. There is nothing civil about racism or misogyny or transphobia. Warnings precede profanity to protect the sensibility of the reader. Where are the warnings that precede patriarchy to protect the lives of women and girls?

Girls know their power. They are born knowing it, which is why patriarchy socializes it out of them and why it extinguishes the pilot light of their anger.

Saga Book One by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples

If you haven‘t yet embarked on the Saga bandwagon, what are you waiting for? Adventure, great characters of all types, family dynamics of all types, humour, pathos, a vivid universe and fantastic art. Rereading issues 1-18 in digital format was such a pleasure. Sigh. The Saga graphic novel series is available in digital format through Hoopla at the library. Book One gathers issues 1-18 (Volumes 1-3). Fiona Staples, a comics artist from Calgary, has created the outstanding art.

Younger writers are always looking for “blurbs,“ one of the few words that
sounds exactly as awful as the crime it's describing.
"Just a moment, and I'll transfer you to my claims
adjustment supervisor. Your name again?"

"The Will. As in losing mine to live."

Saga Book Two by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Issues 19-36 (Volumes 4-6) are collected in deluxe Book Two. Insurrections on several fronts; drug addictions; several occasions where being “lady folk” is in question; Klara gets tattooed in a women‘s prison; The Will gets fat; The Stalk keeps making posthumous appearances; we see more of gay journalists Usher and Doff; a baby android gets older along with our narrator, Hazel... there‘s so much going on. I could happily reread this every year. Next up on my digital comics reading list is deluxe compilation Book Three. 
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But anyone who thinks one book has all the answers hasn't read enough books.
Hum by Natalia Hero

Whimsical, devastating, and hopeful. It's hard to describe this novella about a young woman living with the trauma of sexual assault. Her traumatic experience manifests as a hummingbird, a constant visible and audible companion. I was reminded of Chanel Miller's memoir, Know My Name: this slip of a book packs similar power, while approaching the subject in an entirely different way. 

I picked this gem up at Glass Bookshop in Edmonton, by the way. It was the cover by artist Louise Reimer that that drew me in. 

And I think Help. I need Help. But I don‘t say that, because you don‘t say that. You don‘t say you need Help unless you know what Help you need.

Actress by Anne Enright
Audiobook read by the author

Listening to Anne Enright perform her idiosyncratic sentence structure in the pitch-perfect voice of Norah is an absolute delight. It‘s intimate, funny and dark. There is so much nuance in this story of a mother and daughter, family secrets, misogyny, bad sex, Dublin, mental health, and the way our lives are performances. An outstanding audiobook for lovers of character, language and place.

…we kissed endlessly on a window ledge on the corner of Suffolk Street, where I left my bag behind, so drunk was I with kissing, the memory of it lingering for years, even as the window was knocked into a doorway through which people walk now, right through the ghost of our kissing…

The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here by Hope Jahren
Audiobook read by the author

Jahren makes the case that our world's current state, on the brink of climate disaster, “arises from a relentless story of more.” The statistics are depressing but “doing something is always better than doing nothing.” Consuming less and conserving resources are measures we can take while scientists continue to dedicate their lives to further solutions. 

The Story of More is more satisfying than Greta Thunberg's No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, which was a repetitive compilation of her speeches. Also, if you haven't yet read Hope Jahren memoir Lab Girl, it's also very good.

Barring something awful—famine, plague, genocide or forced control over reproduction—Earth will never again contain fewer than 7 billion people. We must learn to live together if we want to live well.

Henry George [1839-1897] was also right in that most of the want and suffering that we see in our world today originates not from the earth‘s inability to provide, but from our inability to share.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Audiobook read by Joseph Kloska

This 12-hour audiobook is clearly abridged, even though the edition notes in Overdrive state otherwise. Based on page length of print editions (784-906 pages) I would expect the audio to be at least 25 hours. Nevertheless, I found this thoroughly immersive and engaging, so hats off to narrator Joseph Kloska and to Katie and John Nickell, who are credited at the end of the recording for the abridgment. It's a fitting conclusion to the trilogy that started with Wolf Hall, one of my all-time favourite historical novels. Thanks to Hilary Mantel, “he, Thomas Cromwell,” will have a place in my heart forever.

[Ambassador Eustace Chapuys:] “Henry is a man of great endowments, lacking only consistency, reason and sense.”

[Thomas Cromwell]: "I like your deceit. It makes me think highly of you."

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Audiobook read by Nicole Lewis

First Look Book Club, a free email subscription which provides sample text from forthcoming books, got me hooked from the opening pages. My 3-month wait for a library copy was worth it. This nuanced exploration of racism and ethics opens with a Black woman caring for a white child and being confronted by a grocery store security guard. Later, the woman says to her white boyfriend: “I don't need you to be mad that it happened. I need you to be mad that it just like... happens.”

Zara leaned in closer. “That's the guy who filmed you that night?!” 
“Girl, yes.” 
“Why you so sneaky?” 
“I didn't think he'd come!” 
Still looking over the railing, Shaunie asked, “Is he wearing an Everlane sweater?” 
Emira rolled her eyes. “Why are you acting like I know what that is?”

Special mention as a soporific: 
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Audiobook read by John Lee; translation by William Weaver

I checked this out from the Hoopla database because Kamila Shamsie recommended it (in The Guardian) as a good choice for reading during the pandemic. I gave up trying to make sense of the content--Marco Polo telling Kublai Khan about fantastical cities he had visited--because I kept falling asleep. Then I realized that this was the book's superpower! I played the audiobook four times through, in 10- or 15-minute segments, whenever I couldn't sleep in the night. 

Monday, April 20, 2020

Knitting books, helping me through a pandemic

Knitting is a calming activity and that's just what I needed in the past month. I found a box of cotton yarn under the stairs, stashed away since the 1990s, and decided to create a top for myself. I own a few knitting reference books and I also happened to have several out from the library before the doors were closed to the public on March 14. (I read knitting books like cookbooks, which is to say, like magazines.) So anyway, that's what I had at home to work with.

I started by knitting test swatches, figuring out what I could do with the yarn. Then I made a paper pattern, tracing the outline of a favourite top to get the shape. After that, math helped me to figure out how many stitches and rows. Math is a handy friend to know. Four different books helped me to create the design:

The sleeve lace is taken from the pattern for Heather Zoppetti's Dahlia Cardigan in 100 Knits: Interweave's Ultimate Pattern Collection.
The "Rising Suns" hem lace is from Japanese Stitches Unraveled by Wendy Bernard.
The short rows method of making the sleeves after picking up stitches around the armholes is from Knitting from the Top by Barbara Walker.
And the neck shaping is from Knitting Pattern Essentials: Adapting and Drafting Knitting Patterns for Great Knitwear by Sally Melville. This last book's author disapproves of knitting in the round, which was the method I used, but I don't actually like any of Sally's finished examples in her book, so I guess she and I won't ever be friends. And that won't stop me from learning her techniques.

It took a month. Fourteen different audiobooks saw me through the process. (See my previous post.) Now all I need is some warm weather so I can wear it.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Can't focus on print during a pandemic? Audiobooks to the rescue!

In other circumstances, staying home to read as much as I like would be a dream come true. Also, it's pretty much my everyday life. But things are different during the covid-19 period of self-isolation. During the first month, I found myself too anxious to focus on print reading, barely managing 10 pages a day.

Fortunately, my audiobook listening has continued unabated. What I'm looking for in books of all formats is to expand my world by living other lives vicariously. The pleasure I experience from print reading also has to do with intellectual stimulation and love of language. What I get from audiobooks is slightly different and more comforting. The added aural aspect feels like storytelling is surrounding my brain in a cozy toque.

I'm grateful that digital audiobooks (and other materials) continue to be accessible through Edmonton Public Library's databases while the library buildings are closed. Here are some that I've enjoyed that you might also like:

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
Audiobook read by Indira Varma, Himesh Patel and Antonio Aakeel (available through Overdrive)

Up to 180 children go missing every day in India, which inspired this immersive novel told from the viewpoint of kids. They are full of life, jokes, hopes and worries. The story starts with one child missing, getting darker as more disappear amid sectarian violence, dire poverty and police unwillingness. What really resonated is the way these people live with uncertainty. Another thing that resonated is that the stories we craft to make sense of our lives can comfort us, but they can also fail us.

"Papa's words scatter on the ground for hens to peck and goats to chew, because K-'s ears are shut and they can't get in."

The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care by Anne Boyer
Audiobook read by Amy Finegan (available through RBdigital)

This is a powerful, poetic revolt against misogyny, pink ribbon commerce and the injustices of the health care system in the USA, where a woman dies of breast cancer every 13 minutes. Diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, Boyer experienced “the curative forces of medical decimation.” She writes: “I survived, yet the ideological regime of cancer means that to call myself a survivor still feels like a betrayal of the dead.”

In these covid-19 days, it's so obvious that everything I read is understood through the filter of what's going on in my life at the moment. For example: "The only time I leave my apartment is to take walks alone. On one of these walks, I forgot myself, petted a large black poodle, then remained in fear of my own hands for a mile." 

Boyer describes this experience: "Every movie I watch now is a movie about an entire cast of people who seem not to have cancer, or, at least, this seems to me to be the plot. Any crowd not in the clinic is a crowd that feels curated by alienation, all the people everywhere looking robust and eyelashed and as if they have appetites for dinner and solid plans for retirement. I am marked by cancer, and I can't quite remember what the markers are that mark us as who we are when we are not being marked by something else."

“It's like the condition of lostness is, when it comes to being a person, what finally makes us real.”

"The great orbs of the unsaid still float through the air."

An American Sunrise: Poems by Joy Harjo
Audiobook read by the author (available through Overdrive)

An absolute gem: I listened to it five times. (It‘s only about 2 hours long.) The collection of poems and other literary forms is about historical and contemporary ramifications of the Trail of Tears. Joy Harjo, a member of Mvskoke Nation, is currently Poet Laureate of the USA.

"I lied frequently. No, I was not okay, and neither was James Baldwin, though his essays were perfect spinning platters of comprehension of the fight to assert humanness in a black and white world. That‘s how the blues emerged, by the way. Our spirits needed a way to dance through the heavy mess, the music a sack that carried the heavy bones of those left alongside the Trail of Tears when we were forced to leave everything we knew by the way."

"We knew our plants like relatives. Their stories were our stories. There were songs for everything then."

"We‘re not losing the birch trees. 
The birch trees are losing us."

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
1. All Systems Red 2. Artificial Condition 3. Rogue Protocol 4. Exit Strategy
Audiobooks read by Kevin R Free (available through RBdigital)

I have loved these science fiction novellas more and more as the series goes on, perhaps because they form a larger narrative arc. Murderbot is such a great character: a genderless AI security unit gone rogue, who prefers to be left alone to watch tv dramas, but can‘t help being drawn into situations where humans require help. The stories are told in Murderbot's endearing, funny, and addictive voice.

"Possibly I was overthinking this. I do that; it's the anxiety that comes with being a part-organic murderbot. The upside was paranoid attention to detail. The downside was also paranoid attention to detail."

"I was having an emotion, and I hate that."

The Murderbot Diaries has garnered all kinds of recognition, including Hugo, Nebula, Alex and Locus awards. The fifth in the series, Network Effect, is a full-length stand-alone novel due out next month, May 2020.

Milkman by Anna Burns
Audiobook read by Brid Brennan (available through Overdrive)

Audio is definitely the way to go with the idiosyncratic phrasing and sentence structure of this spellbinding novel. The singular, mischievous voice is perfectly captured in the narration by Brid Brennan. With a jaunty wit that counterbalances the sinister atmosphere, a young woman recounts, in a meandering fashion, being stalked by a creepy politically powerful man. The author's insights into the psychological effects of life under totalitarian control in 1970s Northern Ireland left a deep impression. 

"I didn't know whose milkman he was. He wasn't our milkman. I don't think he was anybody's. He didn't take milk orders. There was no milk about him. He didn't ever deliver milk. Also, he didn't drive a milk lorry. Instead, he drove cars, different cars, often flash cars, though he himself was not flashy."

"So shiny was bad and 'too sad' was bad, and 'too joyous' was bad, which meant you had to go around not being anything; also not thinking, least not at the top level, which was why everybody kept their private thoughts safe and sound in those recesses underneath."

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Audiobook read by the author (available through Overdrive)

Absolutely brilliant and utterly tragic. I tried reading this in print format when it first came out, but I wasn‘t in the right head space at the time. Similar to my current head space, I guess. Audio was definitely the right choice for me, with the Irish author performing her own stream-of-consciousness narrative. No names. No holds barred. Poetic. Gritty. Transcendent.

"And I will not think of your feelings anymore. For it's a bit too much to know."

"But suddenly it's clawing all over me. Like flesh. Terror. Vast and alive. I think I know it. Something terrible is. The world's about to. The world's about to. Tip. No it isn't. Ha. Don't be silly. Stupid. Fine. Fine. Everything will be. Fine. Chew it lurks me. See and smell. In the corner of my eye. What? Something not so good."

To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer
Audiobook read by Imani Parks and Cassandra Morris, for the two main characters, plus a full cast for various other missives (available through Overdrive)

"Subject: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re:..." This was so much fun! Emailed epistolary exchanges between two 12-year-old girls on opposite sides of the USA, getting to know each other because their gay fathers have fallen in love. Summer camp mayhem. Tweens meddling in adult affairs. Human fears and foibles. Middle school fiction that's perfect for family listening. It also shows that it's possible to develop friendships while remaining physically distant.

"I tried to press a waterlily—bad idea. Do not attempt. I stuck it in a book. Good thing I‘d already read it and wasn‘t a big fan: dystopian and really depressing. Who needs it?"

The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Deborah Blum
Audiobook read by Kirsten Potter (available through Overdrive)

A riveting account of the fight for food safety and labelling requirements in America. Consumers were at one time unaware that the food they were buying contained such things as borax, copper sulphate, lead, burnt rope, coal tar dyes and floor sweepings. (We probably still don't know much about additives, but that's another story.)

You need a strong stomach to read about all the food additives and fakery described in this book. 19th-century dairy producers diluted skimmed milk with water, then added chalk, plaster, dyes and /or calf brains to give it a better colour. “People could not be induced to eat brain sandwiches in a sufficient amount to use all the brains, and so a new market was devised.” Formaldehyde was widely used to hide or prevent spoilage.

John Newell Hurty, Indiana's chief public health officer was asked if he thought it was unhealthy to put formaldehyde in milk. He said: "Well, it's embalming fluid that you are adding to milk. I guess it's alright if you want to embalm the baby."

"In 1847 three English children fell seriously ill after eating birthday cake decorated with arsenic-tinted green leaves."

Harvey Wiley, chief chemist at the US Dept of Agriculture, is the larger-than-life central figure but other heroes include Upton Sinclair, Fannie Farmer and Heinz ketchup. 

I'd also like to give a shout-out to Gastropod, a podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, which is the reason I picked up this book in the first place.

Falcon by Helen Macdonald
Audiobook read by the author (available through RBdigital)

And, finally, if nature writing is what you need right now, here's something that's loaded with fascinating stuff about falcons: natural history, mythology, species conservation in the era following Silent Spring, hawking as a sport, and other human-raptor interactions around the world. The author also wrote the brilliant H Is for Hawk; she knows her stuff and her passion shines. Macdonald narrates her own work and her voice is lovely. 

"Falcons can excrete uric acid 3,000 times more concentrated than their blood levels. That‘s acidic enough to etch steel."

"When fixing their eyes on an object, falcons characteristically bob their heads up and down several times. In so doing, they are triangulating the object, using motion parallax to ascertain distance. Their visual acuity is astonishing. A kestrel can resolve a 2 mm insect at 18 m away."

"All encounters with falcons are in a strong sense encounters with ourselves--whether the falcons are real or imaginary, whether seen through binoculars, framed on gallery walls, versified by poets, flown as hunting birds, spotted through Manhattan windows, sewn on flags, stamped on badges, or seen winnowing through the clouds over abandoned arctic radar stations."

"Falconry has a vibrant present. In some countries, it‘s part of everyday life. Falcons are carried in local marketplaces and malls to tame them in the United Arab Emirates."

Monday, April 6, 2020

In the Kitchen during Social Isolation: Vin d'Orange Extravaganza

Like many of you, I haven't been able to settle down with books lately. I have been busy in the kitchen, instead. These are my adventures making vin d'orange--a fortified citrus-flavoured beverage that is lovely straight up and also in cocktails--and how I used the leftover wine-soaked oranges after the batch was finished.

Back in early February, I started a batch of vin d'orange. Alice Waters has recipes in two of her books: The Art of Simple Food II and My Pantry. David Leibovitz also has instructions online. A few days ago, I strained the oranges and poured the wine through a coffee filter to make it as clear as possible. That took an entire day, because drip... drip... drip.

What to do with the orange peels? Candy them! Last year, when I made my very first batch of vin d'orange, I consulted candied peel recipes in the aforementioned Alice Waters cookbooks. The books were published only three years apart, but the recipes are quite different. Since I had borrowed the books from the library last year, and now the libraries are all closed, I followed instructions I found online here: Food Network but I skipped the blanching step. The peel had already lost most of its bitterness by being soaked in white wine for two months. It turned out gorgeous and delicious. I use candied peel to decorate cakes, or in baked goods, or else I just eat it like candy. It's also nice chopped up and sprinkled on almond butter on toast--sort of like marmalade.

Next, I had a pile of wine-soaked orange flesh to deal with and I decided to make orange and date muffins. My trusty Mennonite muffin book--Muffins and Quick Breads with Schmecks Appeal by Edna Staebler--gave me a starting point, but I changed her recipe quite a bit. They turned out so well that I've since made two more batches (and gave most of them away to my neighbours).

Still to use up: the orange syrup created when I candied the orange peels. Also, all that vin d'orange! It's sunshine in a glass. For cocktail recipe ideas, I look for anything that calls for Lillet. Cheers!