Tuesday, November 30, 2021

November 2021 Best Books Round-Up

November stats: 41 books; and 26 of them were outstanding. I get fussier as I age so I will only read those books I think I will love. As a result, I read so many great books in November that I decided to break up my monthly round-up into three parts. The first part was yesterday, all audiobooks. Tomorrow will be all LGBTQ. And today is for the rest!

Everything Affects Everyone by Shawna Lemay

Be kind to yourself. Read this compassionate novel by multitalented Edmonton poet and photographer Shawna Lemay. Read it slowly. Within it, six women have conversations and contemplations about art, and about how best to live. Before the first page, its philosophical and experimental bent is revealed by the epigraphs, which are by the likes of Clarice Lispector, Hélène Cixous, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Later, Alan Watts is quoted on the distinction between belief and faith. I learned that the word angel comes from the word for messenger. I learned that angels eat Fruit Loops and whipped cream. I also learned it was impossible to rush through this book, because I kept stopping to savour the language and the ideas.

Everything will be okay. This is what I tell myself, and I think about what a good, sweet word is “okay.”

I want to know what characters are thinking and how they attempt to speak what‘s in their soul, honestly and simply. Or, alternatively, how they circle around things, how they attempt to conceal, or how they fail to express what they mean to convey.

The way we come to a conversation matters. The openness, the trust. Is every conversation a type of annunciation? Each person is an angel giving the other person, who is also an angel, a message. In that moment we are each responsible for the other. If one of the people in the conversation were to faint or to cry, for example, it would be up to the other person to act.

The angel bows to Mary and announces her fate. And some of what‘s happening in the image continues to speak to me. The deep bow of respect. The acknowledgment of beauty of another human being, the strength and endurance. The potential. Acknowledging the light in another being. Bowing to that light.

All of those artists painted angels, or found angels, and who‘s to say they didn‘t see or feel them? For me, it wasn‘t a question of belief in angels, but it was about a willingness to see what is there, and to witness the world with a deeper awareness. But also, to be open to the unseen world.

It is the questioning around the story that gives the story its dimension. But the story is there only as a kind of basic pretext.

There is an ongoingness that I wish to convey. The traditional narrative arc is wonderful, but it is not the only mode in which to talk about how things occur, how life rolls out, how life comes at us and is so boring and delightful at once, so unpredictable and so obvious, so weird and so lovely and hidden and open.

The air and the atmosphere are a miracle. We don‘t have to look around for examples of the miraculous; we need merely to breathe in and out, or move our hands through the air, the wind.

I like reading diaries better than novels, and better than watching movies. Diaries are life, you see. And life can be rather dull. Rather ordinary. If I have learned one thing, it is that the ordinary is more closely aligned with bliss and to splendour than to what might be deemed spectacular.

I know how to make myself appear completely ordinary so that I might observe others. What I observe is that not a single person on this earth is ordinary.

I was thinking about something so beautiful that I entered the silence of flowers.

The Years by Annie Ernaux
Translated by Alison L Strayer

I felt like I was swimming through time in company with French author Annie Ernaux, who intertwines personal and societal experiences in this memoir/cultural history spanning seven decades. The voice shifts between “she” for the author and “we” for the collective, managing to be both intimate and expansive. Not every detail (ie French politics) resonated, but I identified strongly with the changing landscape of women‘s lives and the rise of consumerism.

By their clothing, we could distinguish little girls from young girls, young girls from young ladies, young women from women, mothers from grandmothers, labourers from tradesmen and bureaucrats. Wealthy people said of shopgirls and typists who were too well dressed, “They wear their entire fortune on their backs.”

With the Walkman, for the first time music entered the body. We could live inside music, walled off from the world.

The USSR disappeared and became the Russian Federation with Boris Yeltsin as president. Leningrad was St Petersburg again, much more convenient for finding one‘s way around the novels of Dostoevsky.

Only teachers were allowed to ask questions. If we did not understand a word or explanation, the fault was ours.

But for the first time, we envisioned our lives as a march toward freedom, which changed a great many things. A feeling common to women was on its way out, that of natural inferiority.

Of all the information we received daily, the most interesting, the kind that mattered most, concerned the next day‘s weather. The rain-or-shine monitors in the RER stations displayed predictive, almanac-style knowledge that provided us with a daily reason to rejoice or lament, thanks to the surprising and yet invariable factor of weather, whose modification by human activity profoundly shocked us. 

Under the spell of media simplifications, people believed in the technological delicacy of bombs, “clean war,” “smart weapons,” and “surgical strikes”: “a civilized war,” wrote Libération.

Under Giscard d‘Etaing we would live in an “advanced liberal society.” Nothing was political or social anymore. It was simply modern or not. Everything had to do with modernity. People confused “liberal” with “free” and believed that a society so named would be the one to grant them the greatest possible number of rights and objects.

Television sets were turned in for newer models. The world looked more appealing on the colour display, interiors more enviable. Gone was the chilly distance of black-and-white, that severe, almost tragic negative of daily life.

The word “struggle” was discredited as a throwback to Marxism, become an object of ridicule. As for “defending rights,” the first that came to mind were those of the consumer.

Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve by Alexandra Shimo

Lesbian journalist Alex Shimo had permission from the band chief to live on the reserve and document the story of unsafe water at Kashechewan in northern Ontario. But too much didn‘t make sense. Was it a hoax? Yet the shocking living conditions, the dire poverty—Shimo could see there was an important story to share with non-indigenous Canadians, but she struggled to maintain her mental equilibrium there. Words can hardly express how profoundly moved I was by this book.

This is where Canadian history differs from that of other developed countries, such as the United States and New Zealand, which also committed mass displacement of their Indigenous populations, but mostly stopped after the 19th century. As a result, Canadian First Nations have less land compared to those in other developed countries. For example, in the United States, Native Americans account for 2 percent of the population and reserves account for 2.3 percent of the total land. In New Zealand, Maoris account for 14.6 percent of the population and own 5.5 percent of the country. By contrast, Canadian Aboriginals make up 4.3 percent of Canada's total population, while reserves account for 0.2 percent of the nation. This, although Canada is an underpopulated, sprawling country near the size of a continent, with a land mass larger than the size of the United States and a population one-tenth the size.

Manikanetish by Naomi Fontaine
Translated by Luise von Flotow

Yammie left her Innu reserve, Uashat, on Quebec‘s North Shore, when she was a child. She returns 15 years later as a high school teacher. This quiet yet powerful novel documents a year of her experiences, connecting with her troubled but remarkable students, who face nearly insurmountable challenges. Meanwhile, she sorts out her own feelings of belonging to the place. This book pairs well with Shimo's Invisible North, because of the teenagers and the school situation in both.

An old, very wrinkled woman wearing the traditional Innu red-and-black felt bonnet. Not bothering to look directly at the camera. I was told later on that the missionaries were the ones who made Innu women wear the bonnets and keep their hair in braids rolled up on the sides of their heads and pinned at their temples. Because, with their long hair caressing their backs au naturel, they were beautiful. Attractive. Savage. Too beautiful for men of God and their oath of celibacy. They made them ugly.

Journal of a Travelling Girl by Nadine Neema

This remarkable chapter book for children (Grades 4-6) honours the traditional ways and stories of the Tłįcho people as well as a landmark historical moment in Canada: the signing of the Tłįcho land and self-government agreement in 2005. The action—external and internal—takes place through the eyes of 11-yr-old Julia while on an important canoe trip. Simple line drawings by Archie Beaverho accompany and enrich the text.

At the start of one of the portages, we saw a bird‘s nest that was so perfect it looked like a precious piece of art that someone had made for Easter. Inside, there were eight or nine eggs. It was just sitting there by itself in the long swampy grass. Grandma told us they were duck eggs. I couldn‘t believe that was made by a duck.

The Night Walk by Marie Dorleans
Translated by Polly Lawson

Many families turned to the solace of time spent in nature during the pandemic. Whether or not this activity was actually possible for readers of this endearing picture book, its portrayal of a quiet nighttime adventure is very inviting. There‘s also a natural propulsion: an unknown but important destination. A perfect laptime book: enjoy it slowly, studying the detailed pencil illustrations and seeking out the various nocturnal creatures. The art is understated, yet magical. Which is a feat, considering that the whole of the action takes place in the dark, and the story remains realistic, not drawing on any fantasy elements.

We threaded through the whispering forest. The earth was damp, the bark smelled comforting. Dead branches snapped under our feet, and ferns swayed quietly as we passed.

Mel Fell by Corey R Tabor

One of the many great things about this children‘s picture book about an intrepid young kingfisher is the orientation: the pages are designed to be viewed vertically instead of horizontally, and at one point in the story, the reader is instructed to flip it around with the opposite end up. Great manipulation! And it's also an inspiring story about bravery and community spirit. The appealing art, created with pencil and acrylic, is bright yet simple. 

Love from A to Z by SK Ali

I was not thrilled that my YA bookclub chose this title, since I am not a fan of romance. I‘d read Toronto author SK Ali‘s Saints and Misfits previously and it was okay, but I have little patience these days for books that I am not passionate about. I confess that I was pre-hating this book. I decided to just read enough of it to be able to join in the discussion. Then, I got sucked into the story. Wow, was I ever wrong about this book!

Believable characters. That's why I loved this YA romance even though I normally despise romance. Zayneb takes action in the face of bullshit and injustice. Adam is quiet and considerate. Islamic faith is satisfyingly woven into the narrative in an ownvoices way. I wept at a stranger‘s kindness, then at the description of MS symptoms, but didn‘t feel like the author was toying with my emotions. I guess “believable” is the key word here. I cared.

Everyone has a different definition of what “doing your best” means. For Mom and Dad, it means not rocking any boats.
For me it means fixing things that are wrong.

The Look of the Book: Jackets, Covers and Art at the Edges of Literature by Peter Mendelsund and David J Alworth

I have always been interested in book covers—I use them to judge contents like most readers do—but after reading this, I‘m hyperaware. Graphic designer Peter Mendelsund and scholar David Alworth collaborated on this heavily-illustrated investigation into the cover art on literary fiction. The way cover design first grabs our attention; how it frames and even shapes our reading experience; and the tricks or techniques used to translate verbal art into visual form. Love!

Like a bag of potato chips or a television commercial, book covers have an obvious mandate, which is to sell a commodity, except in the case of literature the commodity is also art.

Announcing the text and creating a conduit between imaginary and real space are two key tasks of the book cover. They are what the book cover does, first and foremost, but they are not all that it does. The cover‘s job is not over when you begin reading the pages. A good book cover has that time-release quality: it changes with you as you read.

If a book contains a map, it is likely either military history or fantasy—or Faulkner, which is both. Certain paratextual details, in other words, are indicators of genre: they tell you what kind of book you hold in your hands.

“A great book cover is, for me, like a great Spanish edition. The designer takes the manuscript and deftly translates it into a language I understand but am unable to speak with any clarity. ‘How on earth did you do that?‘ I think when I‘m given the finished product. To take 70,000 words and turn them into a single image. How is that not a miracle?”
—David Sedaris

Author Teju Cole insists that we push back against the “epidemic of relatability” that has besieged book culture. “It‘s like everybody wants to be ‘fun,‘ but not all books are ‘fun.‘”

Monday, November 29, 2021

Best Audiobooks in November

These are the audiobooks that I enjoyed most during the month of November 2021, while quilting, baking, walking, and doing household chores:

The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves by J B MacKinnon
Audiobook [12 hr] read by Kaleo Griffith

Consumption is the greatest driver of environmental problems. Framed as a thought experiment, journalist and environmental activist James MacKinnon writes about powerful external forces urging us to consume and how we rely on a consumer-driven economy, which is destroying our world. I appreciate the optimism in this book, which looks at what a difference can be made by only a small shift in habits, as demonstrated at the start of Covid lockdowns. This book was a finalist for the GG award for nonfiction.

We have to stop shopping. We can‘t stop shopping.

Unreconciled: Family, Truth and Indigenous Resistance by Jesse Wente
Audiobook [7 hr] read by the author

CBC arts columnist Jesse Wente is of mixed Anishinaabe and white heritage. In this memoir he shows what anti-Indigenous racism in Canada feels like. From war-whoop taunting when he was a kid, to racial profiling by police, to anonymous death threats when he has spoken up about Indigenous issues on air. I remember Hal Niedzviecki's Appropriation Prize editorial in the May 2017 issue of Write magazine, an issue that showcased Indigenous authors. Wente was a weekly columnist for the CBC at that time and he recounts the heated conversations and strong emotions that were a fallout from that piece. He also writes poignantly about how his grandmother‘s experience at residential school has shaped the lives of her descendants. 

Storytelling is one of the key methods used by colonizers to explain and obscure their lawless treatment of the lands and peoples over which they claim dominion. But storytelling is also one of our best weapons in the fight to reclaim our rightful place.

I‘ve met people whose view of the world was so shaped by [Hollywood] misinformation that they believed all Indians were dead, that we‘d gone extinct. I‘ve met others who refused to believe I was Indigenous because I didn‘t have long hair.

Tokenism is a byproduct of dehumanization. It‘s hard to tokenize someone you see as fully human, someone whose ideas and work you respect.
In my experience, no matter how well disguised the tokenization, that realization always comes eventually, and it‘s never been fun when it arrives. At Toronto International Film Festival it took years, and it ultimately ruined the job of my dreams.

The Na‘vis‘ only chance at defending themselves and their way of life comes in the form of a white man who uses technology to remotely operate a lab-grown Na‘vi body. He is literally wearing Indigeneity as a costume. This revolting form of “going native” climaxes in the usual way, with the white saviour out-Na‘vi-ing the Na‘vi. He taps into their ancient spirituality in a way none of the Na‘vi seemingly can and uses the planet‘s energy to save the day. [regarding James Cameron's film Avatar]

Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-Up Call by Arthur Manuel and Chief Ronald Errickson
Audiobook [10 hr] read by Darrell Dennis

Arthur Manuel, son of influential Indigenous political leader George Manuel, combines memoir with an excellent overview of continuing Indigenous political and economic struggles over land rights. Sometimes while listening to this audiobook I would feel so frustrated about the way successive Canadian governments continue to ignore treaty agreements, Supreme Court judgements and our own constitution that I would either pace the floor or have to take a break entirely. Audiobook narrator Darrell Dennis is Secwepemc, as is author Arthur Manuel; I appreciate hearing the correct pronunciation of the many different Indigenous nations in British Columbia. 

Another thing I appreciate is the multifaceted knowledge I am acquiring by seeking out works by Indigenous authors. In Unsettling Canada, for example, Manuel has a completely different reaction to the film Avatar than film critic Jesse Wente (see previous entry); Manuel's experience with BC treaty negotiations is very different from Darrel McLeod's (in Peyakow); and Manuel's approach to self-government is different from Jody Wilson Raybauld's (see Indian in the Cabinet). 

The first obstacle in defining our new one-to-one relationship with Canada will be the very heavy debt from the seizure and economic exploitation of our lands for 150 years since Confederation. This debt is enormous. I suspect that one of the main reasons that the Canadian government refuses to acknowledge our Section 35 rights is that it would leave it open to paying a percentage of the astronomical wealth that has been taken out of our lands.

[On the 10 years spent drafting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples]: Even referring to us as Indigenous "peoples” was a battle with the [United Nations member] states‘ representatives, who wanted us referred to as Indigenous "populations." That term would have kept us outside of the UN‘s basic rights covenants, which offers protections to all of the world‘s “peoples.”

There is no downside to justice.

A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey by Jonathan Meiburg
Audiobook [10 hr] read by the author

Before listening to this audiobook, I knew nothing about caracaras, which are falcons found mostly in South America. They are remarkable creatures, as the title claims: highly intelligent, sociable and inquisitive. The author does a deep dive into everything about them and the entire book is riveting. A must for natural science nerds.

Peregrines have the fastest visual processing speed measured in any animal and their eyes are so sharp that they could read the headline of a newspaper from a mile away. A human with eyes in the same proportion to its skull as a peregrine would have eyes that measure three inches across and weigh four pounds each.

The trouble with the past is that it keeps changing. The [dinosaur extinction] asteroid‘s effects on the history of life were so sudden and pervasive that it‘s easy to forget we didn‘t even know about it until very recently.

Social wasps share a skill that exceeds the ability of nearly every mammal on earth: they‘re master builders. Most social wasps fashion their homes from a papier-mâché of chewed-up wood fibres mixed with their own saliva, and each species builds in their own style.

Immune: A Journey Into the Mysterious System that Keeps You Alive by Philipp Dettmer
Audiobook [10 hr] read by Steve Taylor

The human immune system is amazing and indispensable. It is also incredibly complex, so I was happy to have its multiple layers explained with humour and many analogies in this entertaining science book. The audiobook has frequent information summaries and is read by Steve Taylor, who also voices the Kurzgesagt science channel on YouTube. After listening, I went out and bought a print copy from Audreys bookstore so that I can refer back to this book in the future. The print copy has lavish colourful illustrations.

To most living things, you are not a person, but a landscape covered with forests, swamps and oceans, filled with rich resources and plenty of space to start a family and settle down.

The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield
Audiobook [15 hr] read by Ray Porter

Unlike the way I kept stopping to wonder about the science in Andy Weir‘s The Martian, I trusted all the space technology stuff in Hadfield‘s writing and just immersed myself in the setting, enjoying the psychological thrill of a suspenseful mystery set during the Cold War between the USA and the Soviets. I especially loved the woman cosmonaut and all the character dynamics. I was incidentally reminded of the cool facts in Mary Roach‘s Packing for Mars

Despite the tv ads, astronauts haven‘t drunk Tang in space since Gemini in the 1960s. One of the early astronauts had vomited Tang during space motion sickness and reported that it tasted even worse coming back up.

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
Audiobook [9 hr] read by Natalie Naudus

Demonic deals, small acts of magic, queer characters and a Vietnamese Jordan Baker as story narrator (stolen from her homeland when she was a baby) are exactly the ingredients I didn‘t know I wanted in this delicious reinvention of The Great Gatsby. Nghi Vo obviously loves the original classic, paying homage while adding her own imaginative spin. Jazz age excess with social justice undercurrents.

—And her man? Is he behaving himself?
—Of course not, Aunt Justine. But you know the type: a new girl every time he looks about & finds his arm free.
—Well, that‘s a shame for Daisy then. She ought to keep him in better line.
I thought sometimes that my aunt forgot about how big men were, how much space & air they could take up.
[transcribed from the audio edition]

So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix by Bethany C Morrow
Audiobook [8 hr] read by Adenrele Ojo

Like the previous audiobook, this is a retelling of classic literature. I loved Alcott's Little Women when I was in Grade 5, but it‘s not the kind of book I enjoy now (because too much fussing about physical appearance and boyfriends). This remix, on the other hand, is a treat. The setting, a Civil War-era freedpeople colony in North Carolina, is as vivid as the formerly-enslaved characters. Also, it has subtle queer content. Nods to the original are nicely folded in, while portraying a little-known side of American history.

Jo spoke gently now, so that [Amy] wasn‘t confused into thinking she‘d done anything wrong. “No one was ever a Master, dearheart. They were only enslavers, and they aren‘t now, not anymore, and never again.” [transcribed from the audio edition]

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Short Books: Sweet and Sharp

Short books, those "which pretend to little, but abound in much" as Herman Melville says, can pack a literary wallop. I made a video talking about some of my favourite little book gems and you can find it on Shawn the Book Maniac's booktube channel: Lindy Does the Short and Sweet Book Tag.

(link to the video is above)

Here's my short list of the short books:

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches by Gaetan Soucy, translated by Sheila Fischman

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys

Home by Toni Morrison

Bear by Marian Engel

We the Animals by Justin Torres

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith

Weight by Jeanette Winterson

God Loves Hair by Vivek Shraya

I also talked about:

The 2021 Short Story Advent Calendar, edited by Alberto Manguel (which you can find in Edmonton at either Audreys Books or Glass Bookshop, or from anywhere via this link:


And Also Sharks by Jessica Westhead

Manikanetish by Naomi Fontaine, translated by Luise Von Flotow