Monday, November 30, 2020

November 2020 Reading Round-Up

November has been a fantastic reading month! Here are some highlights:

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley
Audiobook [4 hr] read by JD Jackson and the author

“Holy hell, Beowulf, how‘d it go out there?” He “battled like a brawler” with monsters, that‘s how. This hero is “hashtag: blessed.” I find great pleasure in reading multiple interpretations of classic works, especially when the language play is as thrilling as in this new translation. Headley‘s nods to other versions, including this reference to Tolkien‘s Smaug: her dragon has “piles of preciouses.”

After reading the print edition, I listened to the audiobook. I couldn‘t get enough! JD Jackson‘s golden voice is absolutely perfect for the bar stool boasting in this new translation.

Meanwhile, Beowulf gave zero shits.
He dressed himself in glittering gear
his mail-shirt finely forged, links locked
and loaded. He‘d meet this murdering mother
under mere, and amend her existence.

Beowulf is a living text in a dead language, the kind of thing meant to be shouted over a crowd of drunk celebrants. Even though it was probably written down in the quiet confines of a scriptorium, Beowulf is not a quiet poem. It‘s a dazzling, furious, funny, vicious, desperate, hungry, beautiful, mutinous, maudlin, supernatural, rapturous shout.
—from the author‘s introduction

Maria Dahvana Headley‘s reason why we need to keep analyzing texts like Beowulf: “We might, if we analyzed our own long-standing stories, use them to translate ourselves into a society in which the hero doesn‘t require monster killing, border closing, and hoard clinging, but instead requires a more challenging task: taking responsibility for one another.”

Dearly: Poems by Margaret Atwood

It was serendipity that I experienced Dearly and the new translation of Beowulf at about the same time. They pair well, because Headley and Atwood incorporate a similar muscular flair and sly humour. So good!

Shine on, orange messengers!
Repel the darkness,
tell Death: No rush.
At least there‘s some kind of brightness.

(From: Carving the Jacks)

Through the night they nudged,
unfurling like moist fans, living sponges,
like radar dishes, listening.

(From: September Mushrooms)

A Little Called Pauline by Gertrude Stein and Bianca Stone

Gertrude Stein‘s puzzling poem, the title of this picture book, is from Tender Buttons. The words make more sense to me when I see them as a story told through Bianca Stone‘s whimsical illustrations. The single mother and daughter relationship is richly portrayed, and I also love the sense of queer community that we can see on the occasion of a party for little Pauline‘s birthday. Lots of white space gives the text emphasis. Delicious for all ages. 

Gertrude Stein was a really amazing, wild poet. She liked to use sentences in new ways that looked different than other people‘s. ‘Why not try saying something silly while saying something serious?‘ she must have thought. ‘Let‘s get people to think about words differently because they have to when they read my poems!‘
-from the illustrator‘s afterword

A little lace makes boils. This is not true.

Truth Be Told: My Journey Through Life and the Law by Beverley McLachlin

The endpapers show Beverley McLachlin‘s path from growing up in a log cabin in the Alberta
foothills to being the longest serving Chief Justice on the Supreme Court of Canada. She proved her Grade 8 teacher wrong; the woman told her she had no useful abilities for the working world. An inspiring memoir that looks not only at a remarkable life, but the many important judicial decisions in the wake of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Pincher Creek Municipal Library saved my life. Or so it seems to me now. Would I have survived without it? Probably. Would I have grown up to be the person I am without it? Most certainly not. In the pages of those books, I learned new ways of writing and thinking and feeling and being. And I discovered new worlds far away from my provincial little town in the foothills of southern Alberta.

In my first year on the Supreme Court of BC, an elderly judge offered me a few tips on how to succeed. One of them related to judgement writing. “Fudge it up,” my mentor advised. “The Court of Appeal won‘t be able to overturn you because they won‘t be able to figure out what you said.”
I was too polite to contradict him, but I have never followed his advice. Litigants and the public were entitled to a judgment they could understand.

If I Knew Then by Jann Arden
Audiobook [3 hr] read by the author

A funny, inspiring memoir about how good it is to get older. I especially recommend listening to Jann Arden narrate the audio edition of her story because she has perfect comedic timing. She speaks of coming out, overcoming alcohol addiction, and the deaths of her parents, all with a positive attitude towards the future.

For such a long time, I didn‘t think getting older was going to be all that useful, to be honest. The glamour and the joy of youth is pounded into us at every turn, so that we end up dreading the one thing that holds a hell of a lot of power in real life: wisdom.

And yes, it IS possible to bloom extremely late in life. I am blooming as I sit here. I can feel myself blooming. You can never stop blooming, people. It‘s the best part of being a human being.

The Erratics: A Memoir by Vicki Laveau-Harvie
Audiobook [6 hr] read by the author

An amazing, darkly funny memoir about two sisters in their seventies who, after being estranged from their nonagenarian parents for decades, return home to deal with a dire situation. Their mother is more than difficult: she‘s mentally ill, a manipulative and charming liar who‘s been starving their father and waking him every half hour at night. When she‘s hospitalized with a broken hip, the daughters take action. Their efforts are complicated by a number of factors, including the fact that neither woman has any legal authority in regards to their parents, plus there's geographic distance. The parents have a rural home near Okotoks, one sister lives with her wife in Vancouver, and the author lives in Sydney, Australia.

When winter comes, summer is the memory that keeps people going. The remembrance of a long slanting dusk, peonies massed along the path, blossoms as big as balloons, crimson satin petals deepening to the black of dried blood in the waning light.

In winter the cold will kill you. Nothing personal. Your lungs will freeze as Christmas lights, tracing the outline of white frame houses, wink cheerfully through air so clear and hard it shatters.

The Best of Me by David Sedaris
Audiobook [13 hr] read by the author

An excellent selection of previously published pieces, some hilarious, some touching, all of them read with the author‘s perfect comedic timing. I especially enjoyed the stories about his family: he makes it clear how much he enjoys the company of his remaining siblings. His last interaction with his sister Tiffany is heartbreaking. Even though I had encountered most of the stories before, it‘s like listening to good songs again.

Their house had real hardcover books in it, and you often saw them lying open on the sofa, the words still warm from being read.

A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet
Audiobook [6 hr] read by Xe Sands

This starts out as a disaffected group of teenagers who are disdainful of their parents‘ bad behaviour. Then, it takes a turn towards biblical apocalypse when a hurricane hits the coastal mansion where they‘ve all been vacationing. Then, the Book of Revelation becomes even more evidently an inspiration. This is a wild ride! 

For our parents, religious education wasn‘t a priority. Driving out of the city for the summer, taking a break from Minecraft on his tablet, Jack had gazed out the car window, pointed at the top of Bethany Baptist church, and asked our mother what the long plus sign meant.

Is there a tick crawling on me? Right this minute, burrowing into my skin? And then I thought: Wait. Forget the tick. Why are we always complaining? We get to be alive.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
Audiobook [7 hr] read by Marin Ireland

Blame it on the mood of this point in our history: there are eschatological similarities between this novel and the previous one, A Children's Bible. Happily, they enrich each other rather than detract. Leave the World Behind is suspenseful without being edge-of-your-seat. When it looks like the world is ending, what‘s most important to you? This character-based novel explores that question as well as issues of class and race. Brief glimpses into what is and will be happening elsewhere add just enough context for the listener, while following the people who end up sharing a house but are cut off from what‘s going on in the wider world.

“I remember thinking at first: oh this is so odd. People in spangled costumes; they dance for a few minutes and scurry off the stage and then they do it again. I thought it was a story, but a ballet is just a bunch of short things loosely organized around a theme that doesn‘t make much sense to begin with.”
Like life, Clay didn‘t say.

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack
Audiobook [6 hr] read by Gabra Zackman and the author

Taking a long view (say, 7 billion years) is a comfort to me, a way to get beyond current anxieties about the state of the world. Bring on phantom dark energy, the multiverse landscape abd women scientists. I can‘t entirely grasp the theoretical concepts outlined by Katie Mack, but I‘m inspired by her creative thinking and her passion. And I really love her sense of humour.

But red shift is also connected to cosmic time. The expansion of the universe makes a lot of things weird in astronomy, and one of them is that we use what is essentially a colour, written as a number, to denote speed, distance, and the age the universe was at the time when the thing was shining. Physics is wild.

Human thermal radiation comes out at the low frequency of infrared light because we‘re much cooler than open flames, unless things are going very badly for us.

There‘s really no theory out there in which dark energy can destroy our planet before our own sun does the job. But vacuum decay is another matter.

Network Effect by Martha Wells
Audiobook [13 hr] read by Kevin R Free

And speaking of outer space, it was such a treat to be inside Murderbot‘s head again, that security unit creature who is part mechanical, part biological. Murderbot hates being touched but will do ANYTHING to protect those who‘ve earned its loyalty. Fifth in a series, it‘s a standalone, but why miss out on the earlier episodes? If you're looking for intelligent escape and entertainment, I highly recommend these. The first four are novellas and this one is longer. All five audiobooks are read by Kevin R Free. Space adventure with lots of action and social justice too. 

Crosshairs by Catherine Hernandez

The global rise in fascism in the real world makes this near-future dystopia particularly frightening and relevant. “Others”—people with black or brown skin, trans and disabled folk, etc—lose citizenship rights in Canada. Will the majority of the population just sit back and do nothing? A fast-paced climate change novel that reminds me of Cherie Dimaline‘s The Marrow Thieves.

When I do not act, I am complicit!
When I know wrong is happening, I act!
When the oppressed tell me I'm wrong, I open my heart and change!
When change is led by the oppressed, I move aside and uplift!

[The anthem of white allies]

The Beguiling by Zsuzsi Gartner

Dark, very funny and very weird. I was immediately swept up in this bizarre tale of a mother in Vancouver who can‘t cope with motherhood, and to whom strangers keep confessing their deepest secrets. All of their stories eventually link together—I found myself flipping back to previous pages to ascertain details—and I felt the weight of grief by the end. 

The Beguiling and Crosshairs were both eligible for the Giller prize, so I'm considering these to be part of my Shadow Giller project, even though the Giller has already been awarded. The Beguiling was a finalist for the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize this year.

“Give me my epidural!” I hollered. “I want my fucking epidural!” But it was a rapid-fire labour & too late for even a pathetic little extra-strength Tylenol.
“I‘m going to roar like a lion,” I announced in an oddly calm & determined voice to the sweaty & excited faces around me. And I did. So ferociously the women in the fertility clinic in the next wing of the hospital fled en masse. All the impala of the Serengeti ran for cover. The MGM lion would have shit himself. The baby did shit herself in the womb, have I mentioned that? An advance deposit, I guess.

There were things that had flown out of my mouth on the trip home that don‘t bear repeating. The flight attendant actually asked Julian, as he sat placating the baby on his lap, “Is this woman bothering you?” He replied, “This woman is my wife.” Were sadder words ever spoken by a man?

“Not everything is Julian‘s fault. Actually”—this was drawn out to its full four syllables, each one punctuated by a bullet with my initials scored on its casing—“nothing is Julian‘s fault.”
62 pounds of porcelain-skinned, coruscating disdain, sparking like a Catherine wheel and who could really blame her? People say adolescent girls tend to turn on their mothers. But could I really be considered her mother? (I am the eggmom, they are the eggmoms, I am the walrus, goo goo g'joob.)

[…] may have been the best thing that ever happened to me. It triggered the confessions that added a dimension to my life otherwise undreamt of in philosophy. And it freed me, in the sense of freedom meaning nothing left to lose, although I would not have traded all my tomorrows for even a single yesterday or all the la-las and da-das in the world.

He barked at anything that moved, including dust motes, targeting them with his quivering eyes as if each one were a personal enemy. Poor little creature had all the signs of PTSD. He had seen the enemy and the enemy was us.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

This novel about a poverty-stricken Hawaiian and Filipino family looks at interpersonal dynamics and responses to tragedy, via the rotating distinctive voices of all five members. It is grounded in an understanding of the colonial economic forces underlying poverty. There‘s also a fantastical element connected to traditional Hawaiian spiritual beliefs; it gives this novel a feeling of expansion and triumph over hardship.

If someone were to ask me what money means this would be what I would say: The world feels like it will stay under you no matter what you do.

“So life‘s still good at home?” I said. “You and Mom still doing your thing?”
“What, you mean like sex?” he asked. “Yeah, we still oofing. In fact, just last night we was —“
“No, serious, just last night we went for happy hour at Osmani Bar and I was like, ‘Babe, no one gonna see nothing in the parking lot and—‘“
“Dad! I‘ll hang up the phone. I swear to God.”
He laughed and laughed. “Only joke! Sheesh, everyone‘s all uptight over there.”

I‘ve learned that laughter is the first wall he puts up against the hurt of the world. The walking he‘s doing now is what comes after that wall is smashed apart.

On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera, translated by Christina MacSweeney

A microhistory of lighthouses, mixed with memoir, travel, science and literature: this little book is a gem. Mexican author Jazmina Barrera‘s introspection on why she is so passionate about lighthouses adds to the appeal.

The Fresnel lens brought about the greatest revolution in lighthouse history. The stepped surface allows for a large aperture and short focal length; the lens occupies less space and uses fewer raw materials. It is, in addition, beautiful, like those monstrous animals that glow in the depths of the ocean.

Bruce Chatwin stopped collecting art because the pieces anchored him to one place and he wanted to travel, but he discovered that travel was another form of tyranny since “as you go along, you literally collect places.”

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
Audiobook [2 hr] read by a full cast: Barbara Rosenblat; John Franklyn-Robbins; Jill Tanner; Shristina Moore; Simon Prebble; Barbara Caruso; and Davina Porter

This collection of correspondence between a New York writer and a London bookseller in the mid-twentieth century is delightfully presented as a multicast audiobook

We are all hoping for better times after the election. If Churchill and company get in, as I think and hope they will, it will cheer everyone up immensely.

Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon by JonArno Lawson and Nahid Kazemi

Ethereal mixed media illustrations by Iranian illustrator Nahid Kazemi match the philosophical tone of Canadian JonArno Lawson's poetic text about solitude, community and interconnectivity. It‘s truly a picture book for all ages because adults and children alike are apt to absorb new insights into life‘s big questions. Enigmatic, exuberant, and somewhat unsettling.
Color arrives, sometimes when you least expect it.

Small in the City by Sydney Smith

Ink and watercolour artwork matches the somber mood in this story about a child looking for a lost cat. Sydney Smith has previously won awards for picture books he‘s worked on with other people. This is his first where he‘s gone solo. The results are spectacular, with perfect pacing and moody art. This gorgeous picture book is on several noteworthy best-of lists and has garnered a Governor General award, a TD Canadian Children‘s Book award and the inaugural Sheila Barry Best Canadian Picture Book award.

“Even the term “children‘s book” can be limiting. We all have limited ideas surrounding what it is to be a child and it‘s hard to dive deep when you are jumping from such a low height. Instead, we should be asking what is to be human, including children. And then just write for yourself.”
—Sydney Smith, from an interview here: Art of the Picture Book

Being Frog by April Pulley Sayre

Natural science and poetry in picture book format. Simple rhyming text and gorgeous photography add up to a perfect introduction for young children to Rana clamitans, the green frog. The author‘s note at the end contains more information and points to further resources.

In many children‘s books, a frog is a character. It has human thoughts and habits. It is basically a human in a frog suit. I love these imaginary frogs, but I also like real ones. Real frogs are not humans. But they are not toys, either. They are animals. They are alive. They are beings.
—from the Author‘s Note

Killer Style: How Fashion Has Injured, Maimed and Murdered Through History by Alison Matthews David and Serah-Marie McMahon

Scary—and highly entertaining—examples of the dangers inherent in fashions: mercury used to make 18th-century hats; exploding celluloid hair combs; lethal makeup and hair dye; women strangled by scarves caught in machinery; flammable pjs and ballet costumes; poisonous fabric coloured green with arsenic; radium wrinkle cures; skirts and shoes that hobble movement; the dangerous working conditions in the garment industry... it‘s horrifying and fascinating. All ages.

Archaeologists discovered that early humans used rust to redden their hair in the Stone Age. Thousands of years later, ancient Romans made black hair dye by soaking leeches in red wine for 40 days. And to cover up grays? They prepared a mixture of boiled walnut shells and charred earthworms.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Shadow Giller Jury Selects a Winner for 2020

No discussion was necessary because our Shadow Giller jury was unanimous in our choice of a winner this year:

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

My thoughts: These quiet stories, told with compassion and humour, feature Laotian refugees and immigrants. They are bus drivers, beauticians, farm labourers and factory workers—hard-working, self confident people. People who carry a sense of home within themselves. People who know the power of laughter. There’s a lovely porous quality to Thammavongsa’s writing: it holds the sense of possibility in all that is unsaid and unnamed. 

More from the other jurors at Shadowing the Best of CanLitAnd the winner is

The official Scotiabank Giller prize judges will announce their choice tomorrow evening, November 9, 2020. The ceremony will be online.