As usual, I've got assorted literary treats to share with you this month. Two of these are by Canadians, three by Americans, and one each by a Byelorussian, an Italian, a Frenchwoman, a Brit and an Australian. Two are Nobel prizewinning authors. All but two of these are fiction, including three audiobooks and one in graphic novel format.
To keep this post to a manageable size, I've set aside some of my favourites for separate posts. Watch for upcoming spotlights on poetry, kids' books, and works by Indigenous authors.
You Are Eating an Orange, You Are Naked by Sheung-King
An elegant, playful novel that captures the inner thoughts of a Cantonese Canadian and his dialogue with a Japanese Canadian as he falls in love with her, never sure if his feelings are reciprocated. The two travel from Macau to Hong Kong to Toronto to Prague. Surreal and sensual, it‘s told in second person, floating in and out of vivid reveries and sharing of childhood memories, interleaved with retellings of traditional stories, plus footnotes.
You manage to finish half of The Unbearable Lightness of Being over the course of a large coffee. I, on the other hand, over the course of drinking my coffee, manage to reply to an email regarding my tax return.
“Vivaldi‘s music is like a teenage boy masturbating.”
“Yeah. Not only are the transitions obvious, Vivaldi, especially, spends so much time on the bridge. It‘s like he‘s about to cum but is holding back—just a little bit longer, just a bit—and then, bam—loud finish, orgasm, done, and the audience claps. I think masturbating is healthy. I just don‘t like music that resembles male orgasms.”
You take out two tall cans of Suntory Premium Malt. The beer cans are gold with blue labels.
“What else is in your bag?” I ask.
You take out a small makeup pouch, a copy of Mieko Kawakami‘s Breasts and Eggs, Purity by Jonathan Franzen, a pair of headphones and cucumber sandwiches.
I pick up your copy of Purity. “This doesn‘t seem like the kind of book you‘d normally read,” I say.
“It‘s awful,” you say. “A guy who used to be in my creative writing class gave it to me, saying that I remind him of the main character. Isn't that gross?"
"I don't think I'll be talking to him ever again. What kind of douche gives people books like this? It's misogynistic, and everything he writes is about white people."
“You‘re like a cucumber sandwich.”
“Do you know why I like cucumber sandwiches?”
“If there‘s just the right amount of butter, and the cucumbers are sliced to just the right degree of thinness, and the bread is just soft enough, a cucumber sandwich can be quite sophisticated without being fancy. You‘re not quite there yet, but I think you have the potential of becoming a cucumber sandwich one day.”
"I don't want anything fancy or extravagant. If I wanted that, I'd just marry a rich guy. It's easy. I much prefer cucumber sandwiches. And you tell me stories. You're like a storytelling cucumber sandwich."
To Know You're Alive by Dakota McFadzean
These unsettling short stories in comics format make visible the vague fears we have about existence, especially in our childhood years. Canadian cartoonist Dakota McFadzean‘s expressive art is printed in black, white and salmon pink. The pink skies and trees--and pink skin growths, monsters and aliens--accentuate the eeriness.
Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West by Lauren Redniss
Lauren Redniss has a distinctive style in her works of visual nonfiction: delicate line drawings with saturated colour. Here, she takes a nuanced approach to the issues underlying a controversial copper mine by interviewing three generations in a white settler family and three generations in an Apache family in Arizona. People‘s lives take centre stage in this story of historic injustice plus spiritual, environmental & economic concerns.
Mike McKee has advice for opponents of the Resolution mine [a lot of whom are former miners]. “I tell them, “Hey, it‘s gonna be 20 years before it opens up. You‘ll be dead, so you don‘t have to worry about it.”
By the summer of 1886, the United States had mobilized approximately one quarter of the army‘s soldiers, some 5,000 troops, as well as Mexican fighters and Apache scouts fighting on the government‘s side, to pursue the remaining Apache fighters: 17 men.
[One group of Apache people were forced to settle on a reservation in the Arizona desert, where temperatures can reach 120F.] “Conditions in San Carlos were so merciless that the army strictly limited periods of deployment. But Natives were prohibited from leaving. Congress‘s 1876 appropriations act stipulated that ‘Indians shall not be allowed to leave their proper reservations.‘ In San Carlos, enforcement was rigorous. Apache who left were routinely hunted down & killed.”
Wendsler Nosie attended high school in Globe, Arizona, the town closest to the San Carlos Reservation. Globe was once inside reservation boundaries, but the US seized the area by executive order in 1876 after silver was discovered.
Wendsler Nosie: “In 1974 in the town of Globe, they still had signs, ‘Dogs & Indians Keep Out.‘ We still had to order outside of restaurants.”
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich
Translated by Keith Gessen
April 26, 2021 will mark the 35th anniversary of the nuclear power plant disaster in Chernobyl. Nobel prizewinning journalist Svetlana Alexievich has curated a profoundly moving chorus of voices, of people talking about their experiences after the disaster. It portrays a particular time in post-Soviet history, a time not only of political and social change, but also of shifting inner landscapes, of how people viewed themselves. Heartbreaking, humane and utterly compelling.
We take the salami, we take an egg—we make a roentgen image—this isn‘t food, it‘s a radioactive byproduct.
When people saw that the milk was from Rogachev, and stopped buying it, there suddenly appeared cans of milk without labels. I don‘t think it was because they ran out of paper.
There was a Ukrainian woman at the market selling big red apples. “Come get your apples! Chernobyl apples!” Someone told her not to advertise that, no one will buy them. “Don‘t worry!” she says. “They buy them anyway. Some need them for their mother-in-law, some for their boss.”
"I'm not afraid of anyone--not the dead, not the animals, no one. My son comes in from the city, he gets mad at me. 'Why are you sitting here! What if some looter tries to kill you?' But what would he want from me? There's some pillows. In a simple house, pillows are your main furniture. If a thief tries to come in, the minute he peeks his head through the window, I'll chop it off with the axe. That's how we do it here. Maybe htere is no God, or maybe there's someone else, but there's someone up there. And I'm alive."
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
Translated by Ann Goldstein
An interior novel that somehow is also a page turner. Giovanna‘s coming of age in Naples is a visceral experience and I loved every bit of it. This book and Voices from Chernobyl were buddy reads with my friend Kathy in Vancouver. Buddy reading is a great way to get even more out of a book by sharing reactions, discussing thoughts, and parsing meaning.
What happened, in the world of adults, in the heads of very reasonable people, in their bodies loaded with knowledge? What reduced them to the most untrustworthy animals, worse than reptiles?
I‘d thought I couldn‘t live without him, but time was passing, I continued to live.
He took off his shoes, pants and underpants. He kept on his linen jacket, shirt, tie, and, right below, the erect member that stuck out past legs and bare feet like a quarrelsome tenant who‘s been disturbed.
“Poetry is made up of words, exactly like the conversation we‘re having. If the poet takes our banal words and frees them from the bounds of our talk, you see that from within their banality they manifest an unexpected energy. God manifests himself in the same way.”
“The poet isn‘t God, he‘s simply someone like us who knows how to create poems.”
(An English translation by George Miller is available)
Aging, aphasia, acknowledging loss, and being thankful for what we‘ve received: this quiet, finely crafted French novel hit me at the perfect moment. Pandemic times have left me acutely aware of our continuing need for physical human contact, as well as emotional and intellectual intimacy, all of which is touched upon, though not the main story. I read this in French, but it‘s been translated into English (among other languages) and it deserves a wide audience.
The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay
A bizarre road trip through Australia during a zooflu pandemic—a virus that enables humans to understand animals. Jean is at the wheel—she‘s a hard-drinking granny looking for her son and granddaughter. Sue—half dog, half dingo—is riding shotgun. Author Laura Jean McKay‘s skill in using language to create a disorienting sense of otherness astounded me. It is a probing look into our relationship with other creatures on this planet. Winner of the Victorian Prize for Literature and currently longlisted for other awards.
"In this country the animals / have the faces of / animals." The epigraph is from Margaret Atwood's poetry collection, The Animals in That Country.
Andy‘s voice breaks. “I heard … heard the pregnant mice say that they‘ll … what do you call it? … self-terminate because things aren‘t right. They can do that. Did you know they can do that?”
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Audiobook read by Sura Siu
Kazuo Ishiguro's writing skills are not in question--he is a Nobel laureate--and the power of this understated novel crept up on me. The voice is immediately engaging: we see the world from the viewpoint of Klara, an extremely observant Artificial Friend--robot--who‘s destined to be a companion for an adolescent. The politics and social unrest of a possible future can be glimpsed by readers, but they are not Klara‘s concerns. Her job is to understand the human heart. Klara's character is a haunting combo of naïveté and wisdom.
A few weeks ago, reading Noreena Hertz's Lonely Century, I learned about the contemporary use of compassionate AI in the real world. For example, as companions and health monitors for the elderly; or as a listening ear and sexual companion for single men. It left me entirely receptive to a question raised by Ishiguro‘s novel: is our loneliness a precious aspect of our humanity?
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Audiobook read by Renata Friedman
As with Klara and the Sun, this was initially a slow simmer. It took a little while before I warmed up beyond enjoying the writing and finding the characters interesting, to feeling emotionally invested. Once in, however, I was ALL in. These trans women feel so real, facing their desires, flaws and mistakes head-on. Written by a trans woman, this novel is a stunning exploration of queer white womanhood, friendship and chosen families.
She had previously been under the impression that she had failed majorly for most of her life, but, in fact, she had simply confused failure with being a transsexual.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Audiobook read by Kristen Sieh
The wordplay in this stream-of-consciousness novel made my heart sing. It begins with our bonkers addiction to social media, accessed through the portal of handheld devices, then morphs into online social justice and political awareness, and eventually it's a wake-up call: a return to the importance of being physically present when our loved ones need us. Invigorating and poignant.
But then, almost as a serious laugh, a strength entered her voice and she stood like a tree with a spirit in it. And she opened a portal where her mouth was and spoke better than she ever had before. And as she rushed like blood back and forth in the real artery, she saw that ancestors weren‘t just behind, they were the ones who were to come.
The cursor blinked where her mind was. She put one true word after another and put the words in the portal. All at once they were not true, not as true as she could have made them.
Because when a dog runs to you and nudges against your hand for love, and you say automatically, “I know, I know,” what else are you talking about, except the world.
Beau‘s mother called his feeding tubes his cheeseburgers. It was important to do things like that. If you didn‘t call your baby‘s feeding tubes his cheeseburgers, then somehow the feeding tubes won.