Sunday, May 31, 2020

May 2020 Reading Round-Up

Of the 30 books I read in May, these are the highlights:

Flèche by Mary Jean Chan

Mary Jean Chan grew up in Hong Kong and moved to England as a teenager. She competed in the sport of fencing, which is where the title of this brilliant poetry collection comes from. Flèche, which sounds like 'flesh,' alerted me to the importance of the corporeal in these poems. Of bodies that long for food and love. Discovering her lesbian self, multilingualism, and a complex daughter-mother relationship are some of the subjects. I keep finding new, bittersweet delights each time I reread this book. 

tell the one who 
detests the queerness in you that dead 
daughters do not disappoint
I would like to live like the trees
my lover often says look up!
as she admires a canopy of green
her tree-like behaviour astounds me
if you looked within me now, you‘d see
that my languages are like roots
gnarled in soil, one and indivisible
except the world divides me endlessly
some days I dare not look at the trees
they are such hopeful creatures
if the legislators of our world
looked to their trees for guidance
would they reconsider everything?

lately I‘ve been trying to write 
a poem that might birth a tree
a genuine acceptance of the self
continues to elude me

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

An outstanding collection of quiet stories, told with compassion and humour, about Laotian refugees. They are bus drivers, beauticians, farm labourers and factory workers—people with self confidence and integrity. People who carry a sense of home within themselves. People who know the power of laughter. There‘s a porous quality to the writing: the sense of possibility that lies in all that is unsaid and unnamed.

The note had been typed out, folded over two times, and pinned to the child‘s chest. It could not be missed. And as she did with all the other notes that went home with the child, her mother removed the pin and threw it away. If the contents were important, a phone call would be made to the house.
At the farm, where processing took place, carrots arrived from warmer climates and sometimes came in unusual shapes. She had to discard those. No grocery store was going to buy something that looked like a balled up fist and call it a carrot.
Raymond didn‘t know what happened out there in the ring—a flurry of jabs and punches, and then he was out. At the time, none of that hurt. The pain came afterwards, and matched the sadness he felt in his body like an extra set of bones. 
“What, you think you got a chance with that Miss Emily there? She‘s rich and educated. None of the things we are or are ever gonna be. Don‘t you be dreaming big now, little brother. Keep your dreams small. The size of a grain of rice. And cook that shit up and swallow it every night, then shit that fucking thing out in the morning. It ain‘t never gonna happen. That woman ain‘t for you.”

Polar Vortex by Shani Mootoo

As it happens, I started reading this when a polar vortex
covered much of North America in May 2020.
“No matter how long you know someone, or how intimately, you can‘t really fully know them.” 

The underlying unease—all that‘s unspoken between two women who‘ve been married six years and also between two longtime friends—made for a suspenseful read. I love Shani Mootoo‘s nuanced exploration of a complex character, a South Asian lesbian artist from Trinidad who emigrated to Canada after attending university in Toronto. Bonus: insights into experiences of immigration.

It dawned on me that his experiences in Uganda itself was not only a story about his family or about the history of Uganda, but it was a part of Canada‘s history too, as are the conditions in the Middle East that have led to the arrival of the Syrians today. 
I began to wonder if the calm in which Alex and I lived was possibly a veneer, beneath which lurked a disquieting incompatibility.
An enormous amount of energy is required for a heart to toughen, and in the end it‘s draining. 

The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya

“The idea had come to her […] to write an entire album of songs that focused on the thrill of solitude, the luxuriousness of her own company.“

This novel comes with a link to an entire original soundtrack created by the multitalented Vivek Shraya.

The nuances of friendship, artistic competition and striving to assert individual identity by members of a minority group—in this case, South Asian Canadian women—are extremely well portrayed in this novel set in Toronto. Shifting viewpoints capture misconceptions, miscommunication and insecurities, all of which are exacerbated by social media. At least one of the women is trans, and I love that it isn‘t in any way an issue for these characters, who feel so real I ached for them.

Rukmini had made out that the girl‘s name was Malika from the mandatory name tent displayed on the edge of her desk but they had never spoken to each other. This wasn‘t unusual—there was an unwritten code of silence amongst brown girls in white rooms. Staying separate was a way to assert their distinctiveness and delay the moment when their classmates would “accidentally” refer to one of them by the other‘s name. 
She reached for her dad‘s old wooden harmonium, tucked on the bottom row of her bookshelf. He had given it to her when her parents had decided they were officially over the frigid climate and locals and moved back to Pakistan. 

Book synchronicity: I finished Shani Mootoo‘s Polar Vortex, then picked up Subtweet, wherein I read a text exchange between friends, suggesting they go hear Shani Mootoo speak at Harbourfront: “Cereus Blooms is one of my favourite books.” (Mine too! I think to myself.) Then this in Wisdom from a Humble Jellyfish by Rani Shah, the audiobook I had on the go at the same time: “Take it from the reliable night-blooming cereus: knowing what time of day works best for you helps you truly bloom.” 

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

A polyphonic verse narrative about queers? Yes, yes and yes! The lives of 12 British characters—women and nonbinary, all members of the African diaspora—intersect and interconnect in delightful ways. Evaristo‘s fluid style kept me rolling along, and that‘s a feat, since I read this at the beginning of May when I had been having difficulty focusing and I was reading this in ebook format (from Hoopla) on my tiny phone screen.

ageing is nothing to be ashamed of
especially when the entire human race is in it together

it’s important to counterbalance the state of being cerebral with the state of being corporeal
gender is one of the biggest lies of our civilization

Decline and Fall on Savage Street by Fiona Farrell

The format is definitely part of the strong appeal of this novel: alternating chapters follow the story of a fancy house in Christchurch, New Zealand, with the story of an eel in the nearby river, beginning in 1906 and advancing two years with every chapter in Part 1, switching to monthly in 2010, up to and after the first big quake. Not much changes for the eel, but the house‘s many inhabitants go through wars, social activism and events like 9/11. By the end you get a wonderful sense of history‘s sweep.

He never knows what to do now: to kiss or not, both cheeks or not. Or his usual solution, knocking noses in the middle. To hug or not. To shake hands or opt for his preferred stance: to stand back, nod and grunt in a way he hopes will be construed as reasonably affable. (COVID-19 observation: this passage was set in 2012. If it was 2020, he would definitely be opting to stand 2 metres away.)
Paul categorically refuses to use Barry-speak: consumers, clients, units. They‘re patients, damn it. It‘s a good word, an old word, for people who are waiting as they mostly do, with the touching submission of the ill and damaged, for him or someone like him to do his best to make them well. These are not consumers, fecklessly occupying their free beds, gobbling up some finite resource. They are patients.

The Red Chesterfield by Wayne Arthurson

I felt totally enchanted by this odd crime novella that's told in vignettes. A bylaw officer investigates a complaint about a yard sale, then spots an abandoned chesterfield nearby and then things go sideways when he finds a severed human foot. But this story isn‘t about that mystery. It‘s about a man‘s relationship with his brothers and his girlfriend who is also his boss, and …that intriguing piece of furniture that keeps showing up.

I knew going into this book that Edmonton author Wayne Arthurson is of Cree and French Canadian descent. I like how the central character is slowly revealed to be Indigenous:
1. A comment early on about his people having “a long history with the authorities, a lot of it bad.”
2. Later: “I light some sage, let the smoke blow over me. I‘m too jittery for the smudge to work.”
3. Still later: “Who is it?” [...] “Some Indian,” he says with disdain.”
When I sit, I don't fall to the ground. The red chesterfield is real.
It is also extremely comfortable, further supporting my belief that this is a chesterfield and not a sofa or a couch. Only chesterfields have this kind of bearing. The springs are well maintained, the fabric soft to the touch without being rubbery. My hands have tactile sensitivity, making them defensively reactive to materials. Velvet and velour give me the heebie-jeebies, while some leathers can be too smooth.

Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine

Six impeccable slice-of-life stories told in comics format. Deadpan wit, emotional nuance, perceptive observations and lots of warmth for these sad, alienated, frustrated characters. These are the kinds of stories with a whole lot going on in the gutters and outside the confines of the pages. Tomine uses clean lines, matching subtly different art styles to the mood of each story.

La légèreté par Catherine Meurisse

Parisian political cartoonist Catherine Meurisse overslept and missed her bus… and thereby missed being killed or injured like her colleagues at Charlie Hebdo in 2015. In this emotional, philosophical and darkly funny memoir in comics format, Meurisse turns to beauty, literature and art for answers as she struggles through grief and disassociation to put her life back together. Also available translated into English with the title “Lightness.

Welcome to my planet.
Why a minute of silence in honour of victims?
What we need is a century of burning rage!

[my translation]

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
Audiobook narrated by the author and Melania-Luisa Marte

I raced through this novel in verse, captivated by the situation and the characters. Two half-sisters, born two months apart, only learn of each other‘s existence after their father dies. One lives in the Dominican Republic and dreams of becoming an obstetrician, the other is an out lesbian in NYC. Both are kind, fierce and stand up for themselves. Their stories alternate, read by two different narrators in the audiobook, including the author.

If you asked me what I was, and you meant in terms of culture, I‘d say Dominican. No hesitation, no question about it. Can you be from a place you have never been? You can find the island stamped all over me, but what would the island find if I was there? Can you claim a home that does not know you, much less claim you as its own?

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Audiobook narrated by Tom Hanks

Family relationships, obsessions, resentments, forgiveness, and a mother who mysteriously abandons her children—all of these are ingredients that appeal to me. I don‘t know why I put off reading this, even though I‘ve enjoyed Patchett‘s previous works. Late to the party, but happy to say that I enjoyed the riches-to-rags saga very much, and the audiobook narration by Tom Hanks is wonderful. His delivery of the chapter numbers has a verve I haven‘t experienced in audio before.

There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you'd been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you're suspended knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Book club responses…

A: I thought I would like it more than I did.
B: Spent a day trying to visualize the layout of the farm based on a descriptive paragraph early on, felt confused, and then I bailed.
C: Liking it so far, but not very far into it—Flora hasn‘t arrived at the farm yet.
D: Forced myself to finish it.
E: Hated! They don't talk like that in Sussex. My beloved Sussex is maligned in this novel.
F: Hated the Roz Chast illustrations on the cover so much I couldn‘t bring myself to read any of it (not in the mood for misery).
Me: It was hilarious! I loved it so much I plan to listen to the BBC radio drama adaptation.

“Does she go to school?” asked Flora. “How old is she?”
“Seventeen. Nay, niver talk o‘ school for my wennet. Why, Robert Poste‘s child, ye might as soon send the white hawthorn or the yellow daffydowndilly to school as my Elfine. She learns from the skies an‘ the wild marsh-tiggets, not out o‘ books.”
“How trying,” observed Flora.
“What‘s that you‘re making?” he asked. Flora knew he hoped it was a pair of knickers. She composedly shook out the folds of the petticoat and replied that it was an afternoon tea-cloth.
The dawn widened into an exquisite spring day. Soft, wool-like puffs of sound came from the thrushes‘ throats in the trees. The uneasy year, tortured by its spring of adolescence, broke into bud-spots in hedge, copse, spinney and byre.
He stood at the table facing Flora and blowing heavily on his tea and staring at her. Flora did not mind. It was quite interesting: like having tea with a rhinoceros.