Wednesday, June 30, 2021

June 2021 Reading Roundup

I hope you enjoy these highlights from a few of the books I read in June.

The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

I wouldn‘t have thought it possible but Alison Bechdel‘s art just keeps getting better. In this volume of graphic memoir she brilliantly observes the consumerism surrounding physical fitness, tying in theories of Buddhism, the Romantics and Transcendentalists, and writings of Jack Kerouac, Adrienne Rich etc. In a panel quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, she describes him as giving a 19th-century TED talk. Each chapter covers a decade in her life, with concurrent fitness trends. The whole thing is funny and smart and I kept recognizing stuff from my own life, which isn‘t surprising since we‘re both lesbians and we're the same age. Full colour artwork too! It's a sign that Bechdel is loosening up: the colouring is done in collaboration with her longtime companion, Holly Rae Taylor. 
Note: This was one of the books I recommended to my friend Shawn when I was on his BookTube channel to talk about queer books recently. You can find our conversation here: Lindy Recommends Queer Books

My Life in Transition: A Super Late Bloomer Collection by Julia Kaye

Out trans woman Julia Kaye documents six months of her daily life in comic strips. Her emotional support comes from friends and chosen family. She‘s honest about the ups and downs, yet always manages to see the humour in being human. Sweet and uplifting.

Seeing soft butch women in the media and online makes my heart swell. I see a reflection of part of myself in them I didn‘t realize needed validation. A reminder that there are countless ways to present myself as a woman.

Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard
Audiobook [12 hr] read by the author

Forestry was nearly my chosen career when I left high school in 1978, but I decided on libraries instead because I realized I would more likely be involved in clear-cutting than in studying tree ecology. Which is the situation bisexual forestry scientist Suzanne Simard found herself in. Her engaging memoir documents her efforts to have her research results respected by policy makers and thereby save British Columbia forests. I love this library audiobook so much that I've ordered a paper copy from Audreys.

Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado Lopera

If distinctive voice is your thing, check out this potent blend of Colombian Spanish and English por el amor de Dios! Francisca at 15 has immigrated to Miami with the women in her family. Her loneliness and feverish irreverence is sometimes jaded, sometimes raw with self-discovery, her story both tragic and funny, as she negotiates fanatical Christianity and her own queer coming of age. 

Buenos días, mi reina. Immigrant criolla here reporting desde los Mayamis from our ant-infested townhouse. The broken air conditioner above the TV, the flowery couch, La Tata half-drunk directing me in this holy radionovela brought to you by Female Sadness Incorporated.
(Opening lines of Chapter Uno)

Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile
Audiobook [10 hr] read by the author, and includes her music too

The audiobook edition is a great way to experience Brandi Carlile‘s memoir. She not only reads her words, she even performs two or three songs between chapters. The acoustic music is also compiled like an album at the end of the book. Carlile‘s ability to see grace even in her most difficult times is impressive and inspiring. She was a guest at Calgary's online Wordfest in June and our tickets to her event included a hardcover copy of her book, delivered to our door. Lots of great photos in it!

Singing and vocalizing in general create X-ray levels of emotional exposure.

When you're told your whole life that it's wrong for two women or men to marry, when your homeland agrees, and when you realize that you believe it too, deep within your primitive senses, a reckoning is imperative. It's a process, but it's mandatory, whether you're LGBTQ or not. A person's self-worth is dictated by what inalienable rights are allowed to them. The right to not live your life alone is a big one.

Where Things Touch: A Meditation on Beauty by Bahar Orang

A lovely collection of thoughts about beauty, told in fragments that blur the line between essay and poetry, written by queer Canadian Bahar Orang when she was a medical student.

Beauty is not indulgence, beauty is our right.

Even lovers have tried to impress upon me the importance of reading Hegel or Heidegger, lovers who have declared my sheepish disinterest a symptom of a modern, shallow throng. In one case, I was advised to be permanently suspicious of beauty. How unnerving, then, all the times this same lover remarked that I was beautiful.

There‘s a hypothesis in medicine: reading, a word unconsidered and unqualified, will make you a more empathetic and humane doctor. Except I have known students and scholars who, despite all their literary cunning and writerly prowess, seem to know little about things like compassion. I have known voracious readers who, in reading, simply reinforce their own small-minded beliefs—readers who find, by reading, new logics and arguments for those beliefs.

My head was full of phrases and sayings. What was that lovely one again? A path is made by walking on it.

I am taken instead by the strangeness of flowers, a strangeness familiar and unfamiliar. Flowers can be called queer, their style, their manner of swaying in the half-light, dressing and undressing, spread-eagle, leaning against each other, exhaling, falling apart, coming back together, dying then living.

Beauty governs me. No, it‘s not an obsession. No, it‘s not just a project. Well, maybe it is. A project that is my life.

The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Space Time and Dreams Deferred by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Audiobook [11 hr] read by Joniece Abbott-Pratt

Being a black, Jewish and agender femme particle cosmologist, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has grappled with all the threads of her history, including misogynoir and colonialism‘s relationship with Indigenous knowledge. Her passion for ethical science makes my heart sing, while her journey to professional status has been harrowing. One of many cool things in this book: the physics of skin—understanding melanin might help us build better, greener technologies. The audiobook performance is good, despite the fact that the narrator mispronounces the author's first name, starting it with a soft 'sh' sound. 

Black lives are the stuff of stars and black lives matter. All of them.

Even for all its facts, Western science has struggled with acknowledging a core reality: humans are not the masters of our ecosystem, but rather are dependent on it.

In my view, to be an American president is to helm a sprawling system that does not understand freedom, even as it drones on and on about it.

True Colors: World Masters of Natural Dyes and Pigments by Keith Recker

Artists around the world are exploring environmentally-friendly colours in their textiles, paper and pottery. This collection of conversations about culture, history, and colour is fascinating and the photographs are stunning. Many of the people featured in these pages have also been guests on Botanical Colors Feedback Friday videos, which I also recommend:

Just last year, it was revealed that the ever-popular “millennial pink” is actually a shade of the oldest color on earth! More ancient than dinosaurs, this natural pigment was unearthed after a billion years by Australian scientists analyzing shale rock from the Sahara Desert, suddenly giving pink an architectural & cultural dimension. The mines carved out by the very first humans were exploited in order to extract minerals for making color […]

“Natural dyeing is a gateway drug,” Sasha Duerr asserts with humour, meaning that the thrill of seeing textiles soak up fresh plant colour is a memorable sensory experience and, as such, a step along the road to her overall goal of fostering ecoawareness in students, clients, colleagues, friends and family.

What Willow Says by Lynn Buckle

What Willow Says has many similarities to a classic I adore—Tove Jansson‘s The Summer Book, so of course I love this new one too. The similarities include: a warm, intense relationship between artist grandmother and exuberant granddaughter; told in vignettes; the mood is sometimes melancholic with grief over the death of the child‘s parent(s), sometimes serene, and often buoyant with discovery connected to the natural world. What Willow Says is set in Ireland, the orphaned child is deaf and the prose sings with poetic conventions. (I'm grateful to the publisher Epoque Press for access to a review copy.)

She already knows the slow, steadfast way an oak grows or how eucalyptus rushes to the sky in the fight for light, how aspen quivers, and ivy gropes.

And I swear to god she makes up some sign which both intonates, and says, that the pines are brushing their sorrows against one another. No spoken words detonate feelings quite as deeply as these movements of hers. I have tried convincing fellow writers to watch the beauty of sign language poets. She surpasses them in signing her loss. She signs the trees singing.

Shirley and Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goertz

A fun contemporary
 graphic novel about two 10-year-old girls who, upon first meeting, form a pact to their mutual benefit in order to avoid spending their summer at camps they‘re not interested in. Instead, they become friends and solve mysteries. Colourful art with expressive faces and a diverse cast that reflects their home city of Toronto. This is the first volume of a projected series.

Fungipedia: A Brief Compendium of Mushroom Lore by Lawrence Millman

Have you been longing to become more conversant in mycological facts and lore? No? It doesn‘t matter! This is the funny and informative compendium you didn‘t know you were missing! You‘ll learn that a mushroom stem is called a stipe and that a sloth‘s hairs have grooves that serve as hydroponic gardens for fungi! And so much more! Amaze and amuse your friends with trivia about mushroom sex, deification of fungi and poisonings!

Fairy rings can be quite venerable. Purple-spored puffballs (Calvatia cyathiformis) can form fairy rings that survive for 400 years or more. One particularly large fairy ring near Stonehenge in southern England is estimated to be at least 1,000 years old.

Also, lysergic acid diethylamide, otherwise known as LSD, is an ergot derivative accidentally discovered in 1943 by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann when he was investigating the pharmaceutical properties of ergot.

Upon seeing a specimen of Phallus impudicus, Thoreau wrote in his journal: “Pray what was Nature thinking of when she made this? She almost puts herself on a level with those who draw in privies.”

A bright orange, extremely spongy member of the bolete family first discovered as recently as 2011 in Sarawak, Malaysia, by mycologist Tom Bruns, is named after the well known Nickelodeon cartoon character Spongebob SquarePants. [Spongiforma squarepantsii]

Recently, the wood of several ordinary violins was inoculated with Xylaria polymorpha mycelia, and the sound ended up very close to that of Strativarius violins.

A typical mushroom in the prime of its life might produce upward of 30,000 spores per second. Certain spores can remain viable for 100+ years, so when they walk into a bar, they can simply sit down on a stool and wait, then wait some more, until a compatible mating type also walks in.

The mating types of spores are sometimes called genders. To ensure their survival, most fungi have many genders, but the split gill (Schizophyllum commune) takes the proverbial cake by having 28,000 genders.

At Le Pré-Saint-Gervais outside Paris, German composer Johann Schobert picked a batch of mushrooms and brought them to a restaurant so the chef could cook them. “Poisonous,” the chef said. Schobert left in a huff and brought them to another restaurant, whose chef said the same thing. Whereupon Schobert went home and cooked the mushrooms himself … with the result that he, his wife, and all but one of his children departed this world.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

May 2021 Reading Round-Up

Half of the books that I read in May were 5-star reads. That's what I call a great month! Here are just some of the highlights, starting with three that focus on seniors in long-term care.

A Funny Kind of Paradise by Jo Owens

A warm, intelligent and insightful Canadian novel that looks at life for patients and caregivers inside a long-term care facility. Francesca is partially paralyzed and unable to speak. The main narrative is inside Francesca‘s head, composed as a conversation with her best friend who died a couple of years earlier. Interspersed are conversations that Francesca overhears, mostly between caregivers and sometimes other residents. I was captivated right from the start. 

    I have time for reflection now in a way I‘ve never had before. Although I complained about being busy all my adult life, I am now beginning to suspect that an element of choice kept me on the verge of overload all the time. We both admired hard workers; we had that in common. But it never occurred to me that working hard might be a way to disengage.

    –Did you shower Tiny again?
–No, I didn‘t. There‘s no mistaking the way she‘s saying “no,” so if anyone hassles me, I‘m going with her right to refuse care.
–But she smells.
–Yes. Yes she does. That‘s not going to kill anyone. Look, I‘m sorry, but I‘m just not going to do it. It‘s bordering on abuse. Hers and mine! After last week‘s performance, I went home and had two stiff shots of Scotch straight out of the bottle and then I cried. Screw that! I didn't become a vegan to prevent cruelty to animals just to turn around and torture little old ladies. I ain't doing it!

Neglected No More: The Urgent Need to Protect the Lives of Canada's Elders in the Wake of a Pandemic by Andre Picard
Audiobook [5 hr] read by Miles Meili

Over 90% of seniors would prefer to continue living in their own homes, but we have inadequate home support for this to happen. Instead, Canada has one of the highest rates of institutional senior care in the world. A series of government inquiries had already exposed the inadequacies in Canada's eldercare system, but the resulting report recommendations haven't been implemented. The pandemic has made what was known even more clear, and many Covid-19 deaths in long-term care homes could have been prevented. Health reporter Andre Picard outlines what needs to change in order for all of us to live with dignity into our old age.

    What you measure can also create perverse incentives. To prevent falls, LTC homes put people in wheelchairs, but that's bad for their health. It also increases their acuity score, the measure of how sick and disabled they are, which results in the home getting more money, for what is essentially bad care.

    La Presse revealed that Quebec has only seven inspectors for elder care homes, compared with 18 inspectors for the wellbeing of animals.

    We need to guarantee patients a minimal level of care. For example, four hours daily of hand-on care in nursing homes. Then we need to provide funding. Making vague promises about funding four hours of care and then providing budgets that barely allow for three hours, as all provinces do, is simply embedding inadequate care into the system.

    In Ontario alone, there are 36,000 people on the waitlist for a LTC bed.

    The Conference Board of Canada estimates that by 2035, Canada needs to build 199,000 more long-term beds to meet the demand of the aging population. That would cost a whopping 64 billion dollars and that doesn't include operating costs. Yet there is virtual unanimity among the experts that simply building more beds under the current model would solve nothing. And might even exacerbate our problems. The last thing we need is more beds where the care is not great. What we need is better care.

Happily Ever Older: Revolutionary Approaches to Long-Term Care
by Moira Welsh

Positive stories are the ones that “create the most danger for companies or governments that pretend it‘s too difficult to change, preferring the old rigid ways.” Toronto journalist Moira Welsh has researched innovative examples of alternatives for elder care, in North America and beyond. Her particular focus is on people with cognitive decline. This book is an inspirational call to action, because the status quo is unacceptable.

    The three plagues of loneliness, helplessness and boredom conspire to create a miserable existence.

    The [Spirit of John] concert brought it forward; it normalized dementia, destigmatized it. The number one fear, study after study will tell you, is not the physical body aging. The number one fear is dementia. It‘s the sense of losing our current understanding of who we are.

    In 2011 the Toronto Star published an investigation into nursing-home abuses […] and the end result was a task force that wrote a good report on leadership and culture change. Yet nothing truly transformational happened. The problem is that without a massive effort, good intentions cannot override the medicalized system that controls nursing homes, with its slavish adherence to rules.

    [Being Mortal] was a wildly popular book and I admit to only reading bits of it, fearful of any details lodging in my brain since I was writing on a marginally similar topic. I told my mom about the chapter that discussed society‘s modern belief that science should keep us alive and that we will fight death at any cost, even though the attempt at a cure often poisons our final months of life. My mom ordered it [and] Being Mortal became her new bible.

Tuco: The Parrot, the Others and a Scattershot World
by Brian Brett

Brian Brett was born in Vancouver in 1950 with Kallmann‘s syndrome, a genetic disorder that makes him look androgynous and has made for a difficult life. In this memoir/natural history, he gracefully ponders what he has learned through his lifelong fascination with birds. Darker moments are lightened by hilarious anecdotes about his rescue parrot, Tuco. Warm-hearted wonder, lateral thinking, and praise for the beauty of diversity.

    I didn‘t fully understand how much I was an outsider, an outlier, until I met Tuco. He taught me how to understand the thinking of the Other, how our world is becoming an Other, and how to respect the Other.

    Pugnacious reactions to the Other are not only a human fault. They‘re an evolutionary behaviour, evident from earwigs to eagles. One doesn‘t have to do much thinking to realize how “a stranger came to town” can be considered a threat.

    In the early days, hardly a car went up the road, so it thrilled Tuco if one drove into view. He‘d start shouting: “Hi! It‘s party time! Party time! Yooohhhooo? Come in!” Then, if the car continued up the hill, there‘d be silence and maybe a sigh and a long “Awwwwww” of sorrow. Tuco lives for the party.

    Like the story of all life, we can be beautiful and monstrous simultaneously. Born mutant, I understand why this thought is painful to live with.

    Hope is what drives our world, our inventions, and our lives. It fuels our intelligence, but what even is intelligence? And why does our species need to deny that parrots are intelligent?

Towards a Prairie Atonement by Trevor Herriot
With an afterword by Norman Fleury

An important, lyrical essay about the need for conservation of our prairie landscape, presented in a physically pleasing, well-designed little book. Includes a historical timeline, a map, an afterword by Norman Fleury, a Métis elder, plus notes and references.

    Beneath each of those wounds is a midden of stories bearing layers of loss and suffering that settlers too quickly lacquered over with tales of butter down the well and hogs in the horseradish. Colonialism, we have learned too late, is an utterly unreliable narrator.

    The wind all around us was strung with the bells of chestnut-collared longspur song, but this was the first nest we came upon.

    The southern edge of the pasture is wrinkled with ravines or coulees on the rim of the Qu‘Appelle Valley. Coulee is a Michif word that has made its way into English in the west.

    "When we talk among ourselves, there are no questions of who we arewe know who we are. But it gets lost in translation. Trying to tell your story in another language is not easy."
Norman Fleury

    The eight-thousand year reign of the plains bison was over. [...] plains peoples would have had the self-reliance to hold off on signing treaties until they could be sure they would not be losing the prairie and its resources. No reserves, no Indian agents, no pass laws, and no residential schools. That we did not take that fork in the road and instead dispossessed the ancient prairie of its native peoples, buffalo and grass stands as one of the great tragedies of the modern era.

An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky
Translation by Jackie Smith

Blurring the line between fiction and essay, the 12 pieces in this contemplative book are about things forgotten, destroyed, extinct or otherwise lost forever. The settings vary widely and each piece has its unique genre, tone or voice. From the strong introductory preface to the black-on-black images between stories to the final setting on the moon, I took my time and enjoyed the gorgeous prose, deftly translated from German by Jackie Smith.

    This book, like all others, springs from the desire to have something survive, to bring the past into the present, to call to mind the forgotten, to give voice to the silenced, and to mourn the lost. Writing cannot bring anything back, but it can enable everything to be experienced.

    I was leading the life of a home dweller, of a library frequenter, permanently on the lookout for new research subjects to shed light on some hidden source of my existence and lend some kind of meaning to my life by the semblance of a daily work routine. So once again: they thought what they thought, and they saw what they saw, and they were right.

    The fragment, we know, is the infinite promise of Romanticism, the enduringly potent ideal of the modern age, and poetry, more than any other literary form, has come to be associated with the pregnant void, the blank space that breeds conjecture. […] Intact, Sappho‘s poems would be as alien to us as the once gaudily painted classical sculpture.

    At some point someone taps me on the shoulder. My mother‘s voice says: It‘s over. I open my eyes. We are back outside. I kept my eyes closed the whole time, I say proudly. I cheated it. I cheated fear. What a waste of money, says my mother and lifts me out of the car.

The Inheritors by Asako Serizawa

A heartbreaking family saga, told in interconnected stories. It starts in 1868 in Japan and ends in 2035 in the USA, with many connections to WWII. A family tree in the front helps to orient the characters and time frame of each story. Identity is a major theme, as well as the tragedy of war and imperialism on the part of both Japan and America. Deeply thought-provoking.

    I always assumed that the worst thing about betrayal would be the injustice. In fact it‘s the disappointment.

    But here lies the problem: the issue of “transgression.” In peacetime all lines are clearer; one need only assemble one‘s motives and evidence for the courts to make the determination. And even if proceedings are flawed and verdicts inconclusive, in one‘s heart, one likely knows if one has transgressed. But in war? Does transgression still require intent?

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud

The voice! I‘m “happy as pappy” when I encounter distinctive voice, and it works in all three of the rotating points of view in this novel. The characters in this unconventional family in Trinidad will live on in my heart. Also, all the talk of Trini food, liming and wining reminded me of the wonderful time I spent as a host for a Trinidad-Canada exchange.

    —I would hug you up but it look like you forgot where the shower is. And shave nah, man. I tired telling you that hair on your face don‘t take you.
He stared at me and I could tell he wasn‘t overjoyed. Politeness stopped him from saying it out loud but I knew he was probably asking himself—what the ass this woman think she doing coming to my flat and bossing me around? When he didn‘t move, I squeezed his arm.
—Go nah. While you're surprising your skin with water, I'll put out our lunch.

    Oh, the colour made her look like she was swimming in callaloo soup. I won‘t say boo, but you see the replacement yellow sari she bought? Now she‘s drowning in dhal. 

Switch by AS King
Audiobook [6 hr] read by the author

I am excited every time A.S. King has a new book out. Each time it's a challenging piece of literature and you can tell she trusts in the intelligence of her main readers—teens. Her innovative, surreal fiction is about finding and trusting in our best selves. In Switch, a family healing from trauma lives in a house that looks fine outside, while the interior walls, floor and ceiling spin like a “plywood rotisserie.” Youngest daughter Tru is in high school. She can freeze time, but what she really wants is for people to start giving a shit about other people.

    Daddy is yelling in the corridor. Mama is yelling back. I don‘t know what language they‘re speaking. Sounds like disappointment.

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells
Audiobook [4 hr] read by Kevin R Free

Murderbot describes itself as “a construct made of cloned human tissue, augments, anxiety, depression and unfocused rage.” Book 6, like four of the others in the series, is a novella. In it, Murderbot is enlisted to help solve a murder mystery. The audiobook narration by Kevin R Free perfectly captures the distinctive voice that makes this SF series such a delight. Fun and smart.

    I just realized I don‘t like the phrase “as far as I knew,” because it implies how much you actually DON‘T know. I‘m not going to stop using it, but I don‘t like it as much anymore.

Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever
by John McWhorter

Audiobook [7 hr] read by the author

“Slurs are today‘s true obscenity.” In addition to being a linguistics professor, John McWhorter is African American, giving his viewpoint on the “N-word” — one of the nine nasty words of the title — even greater weight. He narrates his own audiobook with humour and obvious passion for his subject and makes learning about the etymology, history and culture of curse words an absolute delight.

    “I‘m going to fire your ass.” […] ‘your ass‘ means ‘you,‘ and thus ‘your ass‘ is a pronoun.

    ‘Bitch‘ joined the legions of words in English referring to women that have drifted into contempt. Not all of them became profane. The tendency is even broader. Housewife […] became hussy. A mistress was once what it looks like: a female master. Now it‘s something else and ickier. A tart started as a jam tart, meaning ‘good looking woman‘ but after a while it got shorter and nastier and wound up out on the pavement.

    Despite our fear that upon exposure to such words our children will shout them around, unaware of their taboo status, the truth is that kids easily sense that some words are hard liquor.

    "He turned out to have this big-ass house" means that he turned out to have, against expectation, a big house. Maybe you'd have expected him to live in a bungalow or an apartment. This adjectival usage of ass conveys an attitude. It's these kinds of usages that challenge our ability to say quite what a word means.

Making a Life: Working by Hand and Discovering the Life You Are Meant to Live by Melanie Falick

“Why do we make things by hand? And why do we make them beautiful?” Melanie Falick‘s interviews with more than 30 makers in North America and Europe hold the answer to this question. My initial doubts had to do with the woo-woo subtitle—Discovering the Life You Were Meant to Live—but there‘s no mysticism in the contents. The photos are gorgeous and the whole book is an inspiration.

    I believe that using my hands to make things and generally being competent with my hands are essential to my happiness. I would even say essential to my emotional wellness.

    Humans have probably been spinning for over 20,000 years, and weaving for nearly as long. Threads have been made by machine only since the late 1700s.

    When we are following someone else‘s pattern, we are mostly stuck in our heads: thinking, counting, reading. When we are figuring out a design for ourselves, we are feeling, asking questions, observing, and making decisions, connecting to the process and the metamorphosis of the work at a deeper level. 
—Renate Hiller

    Each person has to find their own way of satisfying the basic emotional needs that were laid down in the way of life of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. I think a lot of modern people‘s ennui, or feelings of depression or meaninglessness, comes from the fact that although our physical and material needs are met, we are not satisfying these psychological or emotional needs of our hunter-gatherer nature.
—Ellen Dissanayake

    Part of human happiness is being able to make and provide for ourselves. Cooking, repairing a car, or building a house—these are all skills we need for life. When we get to the point where we aren‘t able to make things with our hands and feel no mastery, we feel lost.
—Natalie Chanin