Sunday, January 31, 2021

January 2021 Reading Round-Up

January highlights include:
  • Two Canada Reads titles that I serendipitously read before the list was announced.
  • Two astounding novels that transported me out of winter and into a summer climate.
  • Four wonderful memoirs.
  • Two for youth that I picked up on account of them winning American Library Association awards this month.
  • Two contemporary novels (Weather and Memorial) that I meant to get to last year and were well worth the wait.
  • Three absorbing works of speculative fiction.
  • Two haunting books in translation, both about Jewish experiences during WWII.
  • Two gorgeous graphic novels.
  • One fantastic reread.
  • One eyeopening popular science audiobook.
  • And two in French, but not reviewed below. They are Grand frere by Mahir Guven and Nos richesses by Kaouther Adimi.

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Anna Tromedlov (read that backwards for fun) is a bisexual hench (a gender neutral version of henchman) doing office work through a temp agency. After being injured in the crossfire between a superhero and a villain, she uses her data analysis skills to show that heroes are actually a net detriment to society. It‘s dangerous to expose truth, no matter what world women live in. Fast-moving, feminist and highly original. I'm curious to see how this will do in the Canada Reads competition.

“Okay everyone,” the woman with the call sheet said, clapping her hands for a moment of attention. “Remember your job is to make your boss more impressive. Loom, but don‘t mean-mug too hard. Try to project some intensity, but take your cues from E and don‘t go overboard. You‘re like … evil bridesmaids. You‘re here to make him look even better.”

“Pretty tough, then, for a nerd chick.” Blowtorch let his eyelids become heavy and he smirked at me. “That‘s hot.” He shot some sparks out of the tip of one finger for emphasis. It was extraordinarily embarrassing for everyone in the room.

Two Trees Make a Forest: Travels Among Taiwan's Mountains and Coasts in Search of My Family's Past by Jessica J Lee
Audiobook [6 hr] read by the author

In an articulate, wide-ranging mix of botany, geography, history, travel and memoir, Canadian author Jessica J Lee writes about Taiwan and her search for answers about her family. The title comes from her description of massive trees that have been saved from logging: two are big enough to make a forest. I‘m glad to have listened to the audiobook narrated by the author, who explains key Chinese words related to nature. This is another of the Canada Reads contenders this year and I'm hoping it will win.

The island is now building a DNA database of its trees, effectively creating a genetic footprint for samples of illegal wood, a forensic track to the forest in which a tree was felled, in hopes of increasing successful prosecutions. The situation for both poachers and police remains brutally dangerous.

The cedars [Taiwania cryptomerioides] in this forest were once abundant. Fossils of them have been found as far away as Alaska dating from more than 100,000,000 years ago and in Europe some 60,000,000 years ago. Once spread throughout the northern hemisphere, these lonely trees now stand endangered in the few places they remain. 

… opening to a brush of fine filaments. They looked like those fibre optic lamps made from fishing line, with great feathered clusters of pink strands, yellow at their tips, and so lightly fused to the base of the flowers that the slightest disturbance showered the ground in a floral rain. [Barringtonia asiatica]

Summer by Ali Smith

I slowed my reading pace to savour the gorgeous prose and because I didn‘t want this novel to end. Then, when I finished, I immediately wanted to start again from the beginning. Instead, I think I will go back to the first in the quartet, Autumn, then reread them all in order. Summer is the final book in the quartet. They are cunningly interlinked, yet each stands on its own. Beautiful, breathtaking, big-picture novels, attuned to the reality that each life is valuable.

Change just comes, the man says. It comes of necessity. You have to go with it and make something of what it makes of you.

T‘was ever so, her mother says. Since summer first was leafy.
Now her mother‘s saying lines from when she was an actress. But the only thing her mother was apparently ever really in was a washing up liquid advert on TV back before everything. Sacha was shown the advert when she was little, there‘s a video of it in a cupboard, now unwatchable because there are no video players left alive.

Of course I‘m quoting Einstein, Hannah says. Well, paraphrasing. He said that the only real religion humans have is the matter of freeing ourselves from the delusion that we‘re separate from each other and second that we‘re separate from the universe, and the only peace of mind we‘ll ever get, he says, is when we try to overcome this delusion.

Face like an Eastertime lamb, head like a dandelion clock, but a dandelion clock holding the hidden infrastructure not just of the world. Universe too.

Dishevelled genius; because genius doesn‘t need to be hevelled, whatever hevelled is.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
Audiobook [7 hr] read by Pauline Constantine

Three longtime friends, all in their 70s, are each such distinct and believable characters that I found it easy to follow the shifting viewpoints in this poignant Australian novel. Tempers flare and long-held secrets surface as they grieve the death of a fourth friend who was the glue in their friendship. Two of the women are bisexual: an added bonus. An elderly dog* is an important and fully realized character in his own right. If you love character-based novels, this is exquisite.
*note: The dog does NOT die.

The 30s were the age you fell most dangerously in love, Adele had discovered, after the fact. Not with a man or a woman, but with your friends.

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May
Audiobook [7 hr] read by Rebecca Lee

A soothing literary balm that helped me see winter and depression from an entirely new viewpoint. I borrowed the audiobook from the library after hearing a friend read from it during a zoom literary salon. I've since bought a print copy so that I can reread it whenever I like.

Once we stop wishing it were summer, winter can be a glorious season in which the world takes on a sparse beauty and even the pavements sparkle. It's a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order.
Doing those deeply unfashionable things -- slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting -- is a radical act now, but it is essential. This is a crossroads we all know, a moment when you need to shed a skin. If you do, you'll expose all those painful nerve endings and feel so raw that you'll need to take care of yourself for a while. If you don't, then that skin will harden around you.

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

An uplifting combo of nature writing and memoir by poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Her father is from southern India and her mother is Filipina. Each brief chapter focuses on an animal, bird, insect or plant, linking it to her own life in some way.
Note: Ebook available through Edmonton Public Library‘s Hoopla collection.

In one chapter, the author records the questions asked by her half-white sons, ages 6 and 9, during their participation in an Audubon bird count. The following part reminds me of Mira Jacob‘s book, Good Talk:

Mommy, you are like a lady cardinal because you are brown.
Why do you have better camouflage than Daddy?
Right now, I have medium camouflage.
Will I be brown or white when I grow up?
Why do some white people not like brown people?
Don't worry Mommy. You can hide in the forest from those bad people. You have good camouflage.

Even though I spent almost a year studying whale sharks on my sabbatical, I wasn‘t prepared for the sheer size of one. I wasn‘t prepared for scores of other dangers: blacktip reef, spotted wobbegong, zebra, and sand tiger sharks. ‘All fed just before we entered the tank,‘ according to our dive master, ‘so no need to worry.‘ Of course I worried.

How to Lose Everything by Christa Couture

Christa Couture is a Cree queer woman, a Canadian broadcaster, songwriter and musician who grew up in Edmonton. A lot of personal tragedy is packed into her slim memoir, and in it she answers the question many have asked her: how do you manage to go on? This poignant book is the answer. Music and writing have saved her.

That summer, I‘d written a song about couples counselling, likening our therapist to a zookeeper and us to pacing animals.
Careful those cages aren‘t locked
Careful when the animals talk because they never lie
And the questions you‘ve been asking may need no reply

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller
Audiobook [7 hr] read by Greta Jung

I hadn‘t heard of this until it was awarded the Newbery medal and it‘s great! It‘s about grief, sisters, friendship and the power of stories.
Lily's older sister calls her a QAG—Quiet Asian Girl—but Lily eventually understands that being invisible is not her superpower. She does, however, see invisible things. Things such as a tiger, who “rolled her terrible eyes and gnashed her terrible teeth.” The literary allusions are a treat, ranging from Where the Wild Things Are to Hansel and Gretel to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie to Korean mythology. The relationship dynamics within a contemporary American family of mixed ethnicity are extremely well portrayed.

I‘ve got about 20 layers of fears stacked over my heart.

Kent State by Deborah Wiles
Audiobook [2 hr] read by Christopher Gebauer, Lauren Ezzo, Christina DeLaine, Johnny Heller, Roger Wayne, Korey Jackson and David de Vries

I listened to this from Edmonton Public Library‘s Hoopla collection when I saw it won the 2021 Odyssey audiobook award. The brief book presents multiple viewpoints looking back on the murder of Kent State students by the Ohio National Guard in 1970. It‘s narrated by a full cast. I was moved to tears.

Weather by Jenny Offill

In funny and increasingly poignant snippets, this novel is Lizzie‘s internal monologue as she nearly goes out of her mind with a sense of impending doom. At work as a librarian, at home as mother of a young child, and on the streets of New York City, Lizzie worries about climate change, the results of the presidential election, and her brother who‘s addicted to narcotics and crashing on her couch. Upbeat social and political commentary.

These people long for immortality but can‘t wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee.

I buy running shoes because I want to run. This block smells like garbage. Turn left for greener streets. Yes, better. I try to run all the way to the park but these shoes don‘t work.

There are little signs everywhere in the library now that say BREATHE! BREATHE! How did everyone get so good at this breathing thing? I feel like it happened while I was away.

Memorial by Bryan Washington
Audiobook [8 hr] read by the author and Akie Kotabe

A tender novel in the voices of two gay men—one black, one Japanese American—who are figuring out whether their relationship is going towards the rocks or the open sea, while they are physically separated—one in Texas, one in Japan—and also while reckoning with their families. The interior shifts that occur while navigating rough water are portrayed with deft nuance. 

“This isn‘t a part of town that historically takes well to outsiders.”
“History changes,” I said. “It adapts.”
“In the best case scenarios,” said Ben. “ And this isn‘t a best case country.” 

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Audiobook [16 hr] read by Amy Landon

Intricate plotting, rich world building, and fascinating, complicated queer characters—this science fiction novel
 kept me awake late into the night. It‘s almost too obvious to compare it to Ann Leckie‘s Imperial Radch trilogy, since a blurb from Leckie graces the cover of some editions, but if you like stories that centre on an amazing, queer, lone representative from elsewhere who's embroiled in political intrigue, both authors will appeal. 

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

The combination of a unique voice and unusual setting captured my imagination from the start. Cheerful, practical Piranesi lives nearly all alone in a huge house, partly destroyed by the sea that swirls in and out of endless rooms full of magnificent marble statues. Birds and skeletons are his main companions, but there is one other human. Isolation during covid times has added an extra layer of relevance as I read this intriguing novel.

Birds are not difficult to understand. Their behaviour tells me what they are thinking. Generally it runs along the lines of: “Is this food? Is this? What about this? This might be food. I am almost certain that this is.” Or occasionally: “It is raining. I do not like it.”

When she was a teenager D— told a friend that she wanted to go to university to study Death, Stars and Mathematics. Inexplicably the University of Manchester didn‘t offer such a course, so she settled for Mathematics.

Not everything about the Wind was bad. Sometimes it blew through the little voids and crevices of the Statues and caused them to sing and whistle in surprising ways; I had never known the Statues to have voices before and it made me laugh for sheer delight.

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah
Translated from French by Geoffrey Strachan

Feelings of longing and regret permeate this lyrical novel in which a Mauritian man in his 70s looks back on the time he was 9, in 1944, when he befriended a Jewish boy who was detained with other refugees in a prison camp. All of my senses were engaged by the vivid prose. It portrays a little-known aspect of WWII in Mauritius and also showed me what things can give a child inner strength. 

This journey could have united us even more, nourished hopes of bright new dawns, we could have been pioneers, people might have spoken to us with admiration, the first family to leave Mapou entirely of their own free will, because we wanted something better, refusing to believe all the tales that said this was our destiny: rain, mud, dust and poverty. But no, we were simply a family at our wit‘s end, poleaxed by immense grief, and so we fled.

Sunlight and rain were now essential, pleasant, and gentle things, nothing like those monsters at Mapou, which overturn the earth, get into your stomach, crush your heart, and kill children.

Before going to bed I thanked god for his great kindness, for his mercy in giving us an evening without a father hammering down his hand, his feet, beside us, beside my mother, upon my mother, upon me.

[David] showed me his medallion and talked to me about the Star of David while I, poor simpleton, poor kid born in the mud, I was hopping mad. A likely story. And I suppose this forest is called the forest of Raj, eh? How could a star have his name? Could he tell me that? Did he take me for an idiot or what?
My friend gripped his star firmly and told me this David was a king. So what? Raj also meant king!

House on Endless Waters by Emuna Elon
Translated from Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Linda Yechiel

Past and present blur in this excellent novel about a Jewish Israeli writer who comes to terms with family secrets when he visits Amsterdam, the city where he was born. I felt transported to a city I love, wandering and viewing art along with the main protagonist through the museums that I also love, and which was the respite I needed from the tragic passages set during the Nazi occupation. 

Sonia goes into the house without treading on the red autumn leaves piled in the doorway. Eddy had smiled when he noticed it this morning & suggested he get a broom from their apartment and clear the way for her. But Sonia, also smiling, asked him to leave the leaves, and her, alone. This autumnal message makes me happy, she told him. And fallen leaves aren‘t dirt, Edika. You have to admit that the threshold looks much lovelier.

All these painted and sculpted mothers and infants of course depict Jesus and his mother, Mary, but before they depict Jesus and Mary they are first and foremost real infants in the arms of real mothers, and it is not difficult to see how each of the real mothers loves her infant with real love and keeps them close to her real heart, even though some of the painted infants look less like infants and more like miniaturized old men.

Avant-garde, schmavant-garde, said Bat-Ami, wrinkling her forehead as she pondered the scattering of geometric shapes through which the Russian artist had chosen to express himself. But Yoel stood before the piece ‘Black‘ and knew that this is the way he yearns to write.

The Daughters of Ys by MT Anderson and Jo Rioux

Two sisters with opposite temperaments are at the centre of this Breton dark fairytale, retold by MT Anderson. There‘s always a price to pay for magic. Jo Rioux's art, complete with sea monsters and an enchanted castle, is done in rich tones of green, gold and rust.
Rioux, a cartoonist and illustrator from Ottawa, has a style that, along with the mythical subject matter, reminds me of two other cartoonists: Noelle Stevenson and Isabel Greenberg. Anderson usually writes for a younger audience, but this graphic novel is for high school age or older. 

Almost American Girl by Robin Ha

When Robin Ha was 14, she thought she and her mom were just going on vacation from Korea to the USA. Instead, it became a permanent move. In this poignant memoir in comics format, Ha documents the challenges and eventual rewards of her new life. I especially love the way her perspective on her amazing mother shifts as Ha matures.

(When she returned for a visit in 2002, the author is saddened by the ubiquity of
plastic surgery among young people in Korea.)

The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya

This was a great pick for the 200th book in my lesbian book club this month: everyone loved it. One of the many aspects we appreciated is that the trans representation is totally embedded and not in any way a conflict aspect of the storyline. The first time I read this was back in May 2020, and I was certain it would make the Giller shortlist. It's a page-turner with a believable cast of brown women and offers nuanced social commentary. I don't know why this finely-crafted Canadian novel hasn't received more attention. 

“You are not predictable and you are not controllable.”
“Damn. What is [June Jordan] talking about here?”
“Wow. See? These words need to soar. They can‘t be delivered in a predictable way. You have to sing them. Just try.”

Rukmini made her reflect on how much she missed not always feeling right or sure, how uncertainty was a gift that could lead to adventure or an opportunity to discover something new.

Clean by James Hamblin
Audiobook [7 hr] read by Barrett Leddy

James Hamblin is a doctor with a residency in preventive medicine, & a journalist. In Clean: The New Science of Skin, he talked to people in a wide variety of scientific disciplines as well as folks involved in beauty & grooming industries. He outlines cultural & theological meanings of cleanliness, & the ways our personal care habits affect the microbiome of our skin & our larger environment. Fascinating. 

The skin microbiome represents a new and important reason to reconsider much of the received wisdom about soap and skin care, and to think deliberately about the daily habits many of us undertake in pursuit of health or wellbeing.

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