Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best of the Year, 2016




Already time for the yearly roundup of some of the best reads this year. I always wait until the very last possible moment to post my list; you never know what you'll come across around Christmas! I like to give every book I've read this year a chance to appear on my favourites list, no matter if I read it in the first week of January or the last few days of December.

I also create a statistical summary each year, mostly for my own geekish pleasure. As I've said before, I don't think of reading as a competition -- I keep track of numbers and various stats for my own interest, not to prove anything or compare myself to anyone. 

Here are my reading stats for 2016:

 Total Reading: 154

Authors

Female: 129
Male: 24
Nonbinary: 1

Genre etc.

Fiction: 99
Non Fiction: 42
Poetry: 6
Graphic Novels: 7

In translation: 

French (Quebecois):12
French (France): 2
Inuktitut: 2
Italian: 1
Catalan: 1

My Own Books: 23
Library Books: 103

Review Copies: 28

Rereads: 3
E-reads: 7

Author who I read the most from: Mary Burchell (3)

2015's Weird Random Stat - Books with a Number in the Title: 11

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And now on to my favourite reads of this year!

I found quite a few great novels this year, all of which I liked for their powerful writing, great characters, beautiful settings, or just for their sense of fun. All of these are my personal favourites of the year -- I've chosen them because I personally enjoyed and/or admired them. 


1. Crosstalk / Connie Willis
This entertaining new novel was one of my rereads this year even though it only came out in October. I read it twice in prepub and then again when it came out in paper. So much fun!

2. Five Roses / Alice Zorn
Set in Montreal, this novel has a lot of my favourite things in it: baking, fibre arts, Montreal, and a large cast of characters who are connected in more ways than they know. A great discovery.

3. Do Not Say We Have Nothing / Madeleine Thien
When I first read this sweeping family saga of classical musicians swept up by the Cultural Revolution, I said it was one of the best of the year already. I haven't changed my mind - it has won numerous awards this year, and it is a spectacular read.

4. Memoria / Louise Dupré
I finally read this long time resident of my bookshelves, and the story of a Montreal translator getting over a romantic breakup and moving on is much more than it sounds like. Gorgeous writing. Loved it.

5. Serial Monogamy / Kate Taylor
A mix of perspectives on marriage; from the contemporary central story to the serial novel that the main character is telling about Dickens and his famous mistress, it all slots together beautifully. This one is a bit of a sleeper that I haven't seen much talk about this year, but I think it deserves more attention.

6. The Spawning Grounds / Gail Anderson-Dargatz
Set in the Shuswap region of B.C., this tale of two families facing their past history,  dual cultures, and a river spirit was a very rapid read.

7. The Hidden Keys / Andre Alexis
A fun and entertaining mystery-adventure tale, which evokes a visceral sense of Toronto as place in addition to the plot's Treasure Island quest inspiration.

 

There was also some noteworthy poetry this year:

8. The Pillow Book / Suzanne Buffam
I loved the way this book mixed up form, and took inspiration from Sei Shonagon, and made it all spectacular.

9. Standard Candles / Alice Major
One of my favourite poet-essayists, Major had another wonderful poetry collection out this year, and I really enjoyed it. Her mixture of poetics and science hits all the right notes for me. 



Then there were a few good nonfiction titles that caught me:

10. In-Between Days / Teva Harrison

This graphic novel/memoir about her cancer diagnosis and life afterward is powerful, honest, and an unforgettable read.

11. The Tomboy Survival Guide / Ivan Coyote
A collection of personal essays that are warm, funny, honest and very timely. Highly recommended. 

12. The Name Therapist / Duana Taha
This very light and entertaining book all about names and how they affect us was so enjoyable to read - I ended up sharing it with many friends as we all laughed about waiting to hear our names mentioned on Romper Room... ;)


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And there were so many more enjoyable reads this year. I hope you've all had an equally good year, at least in terms of our reading. Let's hope we all find some inspiring and uplifting reads in 2017.


  

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Year of Challenges Past & Challenges to Come

In 2016 I decided to slow down on my Challenge reading. But as it turned out, I read much more than expected for challenges that popped up throughout the year!


First, I read for my year-long Century of Books project. Originally this was a 2 year challenge but I'm just reading along with it now until I'm done, however long it takes. 

I've read & reviewed titles representing 69 years, only 31 to go.



I joined in on the RIP Challenge once again, and really enjoyed a month of mysteries & spooky reads. I read:

The Couple Next Door / Shari Lapena
Running on Fumes / Christian Guay-Poliquin
The Spawning Grounds / Gail Anderson-Dargatz
Uncanny Stories / May Sinclair
The Motion of Puppets / Keith Donohue
The Hunter & the Wild Girl / Pauline Holdstock
An Air That Kills / Margaret Millar

 
I also happened upon the #WomenInTranslation challenge month in August, and jumped right in -- that was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed combining #WIT with my ongoing Canadian Book Challenge. I reviewed 10 books first published in Canadian French, 2 translated from Inuktitut, 1 from Catalan, 1 from Norwegian, and 3 from France French.




And on that note, I'm halfway through this year's Canadian Book Challenge (wherein the challenge is to read and review 13 Canadian books from July 1 - July 1) and have been meeting my own monthly goal of 13 reviews a month, so far at least! 

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And for 2017, my reading challenges will be much the same: 

Reading as many titles for the Century of Books as possible (hopefully 31!)

Reading more Women in Translation all year long, but especially in August.

Joining the RIP Challenge again, as usual.

And, reading and reviewing LOTS more Canadian books for the rest of the 10th Canadian Book Challenge and more for the 11th Canadian Book Challenge! 


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016 First Lines: A Year in Review

My annual calendar choice


As usual at this time of year, I review and share my reading/blogging year with First Lines.

Simply put, we share the first line of the first post of each month and see what that overview tells us about our year. Often it can be an uncannily accurate summary.

If you haven't tried this before, give it a go this year; it's a fun exercise, and often summarizes the year quite efficiently. If you do, please share a link in the comments so we can all enjoy!

Anyhow, without further ado, here is my 2015 in First Lines:

January
I recently read this book on the recommendation of Kate Sutherland, who said it wasn't to be missed, which was then seconded by Kerry Clare, whose review has recently gone up at her blog.

[from Birdie by Tracey Lindberg]

February
The Year of the Monkey begins!

[from Happy Year of the Monkey!

March
I picked up this book on a sale table one day, recalling that I'd seen it mentioned by -- I think it was DovegreyReader & that it had sounded interesting.

[from Meg Lukens Noonan's Coat Route]

April
This charming art book is written and illustrated by Janet Hill, a local painter & bookish type.

[from Miss Moon]

May
Today is the anniversary of the birth of my blog, ten long years ago!


[from  Ten Years of Blogging: How the Time Does Fly!]

June
I was offered a beautiful book for review recently, and didn't hesitate on this one.

[from Shakespeare's (Beautiful) Gardens]

July
John at the Book Mine Set has been running this relaxed challenge for the past 9 years, and now the 10th year of the Canadian Book Challenge is underway

[from A Decade of the Canadian Book Challenge!]

August
It's the 3rd annual Women in Translation month, created and hosted by Meytal at Biblibio.

[from August is #WomenInTranslation Month]

September
This is what I love about the book blogging world...so many enthusiasms! One reading month ends, another begins. 

[from Fall is Here... Because RIPXI is Beginning!]

October
This is a beautifully told, fable-like novel of 19th c. France that I came across by chance and really loved.
 
[from The Hunter & The Wild Girl]

November
I thought I was done catching up with the mystery books I've been reading, after last month's string of reviews, but then I found just one more. 

[from The Keys of My Prison]

December
This was one of my favourite reads of this year -- I've already read it 3 times!

[from Crosstalk]

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So there it is -- a year full of great books (many recommended by other bloggers), a notable blog milestone in May, and a rash of reading challenges right there in the middle of the year. Sounds like most of my past reading years as well! Hope yours was just as great. Do share a link to your own First Lines in the comments if you've rounded up your year this way as well.

Sunday, December 25, 2016



Merry Christmas to All!

May there be great feasting & relaxation for all my readers, 
and of course, many books under the tree! 

Happy Holidays to all

Monday, December 19, 2016

Rose's Run

Rose's Run / Dawn Dumont
Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, c2014.
302 p.

Now this book was just a crazy read -- hilarious, dark, feminist, and totally entertaining. I've had this on my TBR for a while, but have only now got a copy in hand. I eagerly started it, noticing from the author bio that Dawn Dumont is a stand-up comic, which shows in this story. She's also Plains Cree, and from my home province of Saskatchewan, so I was also interested in the setting -- a reservation in Saskatchewan.

Rose Okanese is overweight, with two kids and a deadbeat of a husband who has just run off with her cousin - which means she is also suddenly carless, and thus jobless. She heads down to the band office for help, and runs into the new chief, her high school crush Taylor . Somehow she also gives the impression that she's a runner, in training for the reserve's annual 10K marathon, held in just four months. And with her reluctance to lose face, she has no choice but to begin training.

Her newfound confidence and running skill come in useful in ways she could never have expected, as her daughter Sarah and Sarah's best friend Ronnie somehow awaken a vengeful female spirit who possesses all the women on the reserve, with the exception of Rose, her children, and Ronnie's mother Jane. Rose must fight back against this hungry and violently anti-man spirit, luring her away through the woods on a wild, frantic run at one point.

With the help of her own mother's spirit and her own inability to take herself too seriously, Rose saves the community. But she can't help herself from always commenting on what's going on around her; she has, you might say, a problem with focus. The writing is pretty straightforward in this book, it doesn't have an elaborate literary style. It's more about the characters and the cheesy horror film plot in the end. It's hilarious -- Rose's asides were cracking me up -- and also uplifting in its look at friendships, the power of mother love, and personal growth.

Since this is the start of Christmas week, I'll also share a tidbit from near the end, when Rose is leading the insurrection against the possessed women of the reserve, which occurs quite late in the year. This is typical of her attention span:
The house was humid with the smoke. Rose smelled mint, lavender, and something else she didn't recognize. It was sweet and cloying and slightly burnt her nostrils. Jane sat at her table, a rolled smoke in one hand and her hunting knife in the other. Her ashtray was overflowing onto the red and green tablecloth. Rose noted the poinsettia design.

"I gotta start my Christmas shopping!" Rose blurted out.

Sarah turned her head and performed the slowest, most tired eye roll Rose had ever witnessed.

"I always get so behind and then I'm running from store to store on Christmas Eve," Rose babbled on. "I keep wanting to try online shopping but then I'd have to get the Internet and I'm not even sure they have it down my road. Also, what happens if you buy the wrong size -- do you send it back? And who pays for that? What if it's something big like a fridge? I mean, I couldn't afford to mail a fridge."

Everyone stared at her.

"How about focusing on the end of the world right now?" Monty suggested.

I enjoyed reading this: for farcical humour with a leavening of sentiment, and a large dollop of the supernatural, this one is a good bet.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Break

The Break / Katherena Vermette
Toronto: Anansi, c2016.
350 p.

I saw this book mentioned by some of the bloggers I know who always steer me in the right direction -- Buried in Print, Pickle Me This -- so I knew I had to find a copy.

It's a beautiful and harrowing read. Vermette writes of North End Winnipeg, of a large family of Metis women whose lives are affected by violence over and over again, as a systemic reality. But who are also people first, not victims, not just another statistic.

It's a nail-biting story, a mystery to be solved, at the same time that it is also a literary novel of family, history, belonging. It begins with a family tree, which is useful at the start since it's really a large tangle of female relatives at the heart of the book. But once you get reading the voices begin to separate themselves a bit more, and become recognizable.

As the book opens, we hear from many different characters; Stella who has moved to the other side of The Break -- an open field that stretches north to the edge of the city, and represents a division from the North End neighbourhood she grew up in; her cousins Lou, Cheryl and Paulina; her Kookum (grandma); niece Emily (victim of the crime at the centre of the book); her deceased mother, and more. There are a lot of narrators, and some of the cousins melded together for me, all seeming quite similar. But the effect of a chorus telling the story of the shades and facets of a female aboriginal experience in Winnipeg is strong; there are only a few men in the story, the focus is on women's lives. 

Including elements like gang culture, gender-based violence, drug and alcohol use, and abandonment, it's gritty, at times almost unbearably sad, and relentless in its expose of casual, everyday, continual racism affecting all aspects of the characters' lives. But it is a read that is necessary in this era. About 3/4 of the way through I started seeing what was coming, and was cringing from it -- Vermette doesn't hold back, and it's a hard conclusion to see. But it doesn't seem that 'justice' will be served, or will help in the end; it's the support of the women in this extended family, and their revisited cultural healing practices, that will help them through this crisis.

It's a dark story, perhaps a little long -- I felt that some of it could have been slightly streamlined -- but beautifully written with great compassion and great honesty. This family is made up of survivors, of women who, in the end, refuse to be seen only as victims. 


Friday, December 16, 2016

Last Year

Last Year / Robert Charles Wilson
Tor, c2016
352 p.

I love a good time travel book. And I also love history. And this is a great read in light of both those things. 

It's late 19th century Ohio, and Jesse Cullum is hard at work in the city of the future. Literally. A group of individuals from the near-future have come back to this part of this past to set up a modern resort for future tourists to come and sight-see. For a price, of course.

Wilson sets up a time travel plot that seems realistic: people in the future have discovered The Mirror, a portal to limited parts of the past -- they can stay for a few years, but this is their Last Year, before the portal will close. Between now and the due date for the closure, the owner of the City will try to get as much as he can out of this world. The time travel paradox is explained by the multiple universes idea: this is one version of the past but may not result in the future that these people are coming from, especially because of their influence on historical developments on things like technology and medicine. 

But Jesse's a great character, introspective and heroic in the strong, silent manner. His partner/boss from the future, Elizabeth, is pretty badass and it's a race toward the portal's closing for them as they begin to develop a relationship. 

It's a fun read with elements of thriller, political drama, time travel, Western and more. I liked the way he dealt with the paradox of time travel and the encounters between past and future people (I just wish he'd have lightened up on the "humourous" mention of Jesse's having lost his pair of future-made Oakley sunglasses in the opening pages -- I was getting tired of reading "Oakleys" pretty quickly!)

Anyway, a fun, engaging, accessible read that brings up concerns about colonialism, 'first contact', social constructs of behaviour, politics and money, and more. I enjoyed the fast moving plot that seemed a little bit loosey-goosey at times but was so enjoyable to read that I didn't mind the few reservations I had about it. For example, there are no Native characters in the story, just a quick mention of their existence, and the women of the past are primarily prostitutes, apparently.

And the blurb for this book has the story wrong -- it says "Jesse Cullum is a native. And he knows the passageway will be closing soon. He's fallen in love with a woman from our time, and he means to follow her back--no matter whose secrets he has to expose in order to do it." But Jesse does not intend to follow Elizabeth back -- in fact, they discuss the implications of just such ideas, as well having part of their job being  trying to locate "runners" -- those who've come to the Past and run from the tourist city to live in their ideal of the past. 

But despite that, this is a good read that might be a fun, unusual pick for a book club: there are many ideas to discuss. If you are a time travel fan, and can take a bit of thrillerish violence & some f-bombs, you will probably like this one too.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Hidden Keys

The Hidden Keys / Andre Alexis 
 Toronto: Coach House, c2016.
 232 p.

This is Book 4 of Alexis' planned 5 book set of connected stories. I've read all of them except the very first one, which I keep meaning to go back to -- he's said that they are each written in a different style, playing with genre & philosophical themes.

He's also said that The Hidden Keys was inspired by Treasure Island -- that classic search/adventure story. This book is also about a hidden treasure, and an intrepid treasure hunter, Tancred Palmieri. 

Tancred is a professional thief, and in his meanderings around his Toronto neighbourhood he meets up with Willow Azarian, a very wealthy woman with a heroin addiction. Willow is the youngest daughter of the wealthy Azarian family, and its patriarch has died and left each of his five children a gift, one that is particularly meaningful to them. But Willow is convinced that each of the five gifts, seen together, would provide clues to a bigger treasure. Her father was fond of puzzles and so this makes sense to her. Unfortunately, she is both semi-estranged from her siblings, and treated with condescension and suspicion because of her addictions and history of obsessions over various ideas. So she can't get her hands on everyone's particular gifts: enter Tancred.

Alongside of Willow's Japanese screen, Tancred goes on a quest to steal a painting that plays music, an aquavit bottle, a framed poem, and a model of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Willow plans on decoding the secret messages contained therein; but as it turns out Tancred is left to do most of the deciphering. He encounters an artist, an old man who made most of the original pieces and has also puzzled over the particularity of each one. And Tancred must also deal with the local drug dealer, a young albino named "Nigger" Colby and his sidekick, Sigismund "Freud" Luxemburg, an oversized psychopath, both of whom feel entitled to lay claim to Willow's hidden fortune as well. 

There are riddles, strange encounters, odd places Tancred has to go, and surrounding all of the story there is Toronto. Alexis has traced a map of Toronto with his storytelling, and even if you aren't from there, you will feel very familiar with the neighbourhood when you're through.

There are indeed some hidden keys, both literal and metaphorical, in this story, and there is a treasure to be found. Tancred is an interesting, multifaceted character who manages to live both an honourable and a criminal life, at the same time. Some of the other characters -- Willow, the two drug dealers, artist Alexander von Wurfel, Tancred's friend Olivier, for example -- are also well-drawn and individual. Alexis is a confident writer who is clearly in control of his characters and setting in each of the books I've read thus far. 

I could see the Treasure Island inspiration in it, as well as a fleeting cameo by Majnoun from his previous hit novel Fifteen Dogs (nice touch). This was a quick-moving and entertaining novel that I read all in one sitting, and would definitely recommend if you can stand a little bit of violence and a large dash of ambiguity about motivations and morals.

I look forward to Book 5!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Serial Monogamy

Serial Monogamy / Kate Taylor
Toronto: Doubleday, c2016.
352 p.

I unexpectedly loved this book. The cover is so beautifully simple, and the story is so beautifully complex.

Sharon discovers her husband Al is having an affair with a student. After a lot of upheaval, they decide to split. But then Sharon is diagnosed with breast cancer, and Al returns to care for her and their two young daughters. 

Meanwhile, Sharon is also writing a serial for a local newspaper to mark a Dickens anniversary. The editor, a big Dickens fan, wants something to commemorate this date. But what he gets is a story of Dickens' relationship with Nelly Tiernan, his long-term mistress, a theme on Sharon's mind for obvious reasons.

This is a complex book, with intertwining narratives moving from the present to Sharon and Al's past (and one particularly lovely piece about Al's childhood). And then moving to Dickens' life, with its resonances with the modern narrative. 

Questions of marriage and fidelity, the secrets that are held by and between couples, and love in a wider sense, are all explored in both storylines. I thought it worked well, with the style reflecting Sharon's preoccupations and the way her mind is flitting between past, present, and a possible future or lack of one. The writing also carries a Victorian flavour, not in an ornate prose style or stuffiness, but in a sense that reminds me of Byatt's Possession with its openness about passion and clandestine relationships, and its flitting between past and present with a very literary focus.

I found it a sad, or perhaps solemn, book, but with moments of hope and beauty, and honesty. I came to understand many of the motivations of the characters even if I didn't quite agree with all their choices. This is a thought-provoking book about subtle things, and one which I found very suited to my reading tastes. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

This is Not My Life & Red Star Tattoo: Two Midlife Memoirs

This is Not My Life: a memoir of Love, Prison, and other Complications / Diane Schoemperlen
Toronto: Harper, c2016.
354 p.

Diane Schoemperlen is a beautiful, deliberate writer, whose novels I've read and enjoyed in the past. Some of her books are in my all-time favourites categories -- Forms of Devotion, Our Lady of the Lost & Found, for example -- and her recent By the Book is also a delight. 

This memoir is written in an equally skilled fashion; Schoemperlen knows just how to conceal and reveal information to keep the pace up and the reader engaged. The insights she gains and shares are both measured out and cumulative, giving a larger sense of meaning to her experience. And a 6 year relationship with a convicted murderer who she met through her volunteer work at a soup kitchen is quite an experience. 

She details their meeting, their romance and the eventual downfall of their relationship. While she tried her best to provide support and empathy throughout, it just wasn't enough, and learning this was part of her journey. It's a very candid story, with lots of personal detail and exploration (sometimes I felt it was a bit TMI for my own taste; like this book was an assignment from her therapist rather than a straight-up memoir). But it delves into Canada's prison system and reveals an inside look into how and why it both supports and fails inmates and their families. 

Red Star Tattoo: My Life as a Girl Revolutionary / Sonja Larsen
Toronto: RandomHouse, c2016.
272 p.
A small, skinny 8-year-old girl holding a teddy bear stands by the side of a country road with a young man she barely knows. They're hitchhiking from a commune in Quebec to one in California. It is 1973 and somehow the girl's parents think this is a good idea.
This is how the publisher's blurb begins for this book, and it sets the tone for sure. Sonja was a young girl who was incorporated early on into her mother's commune/cult, inspired by their grand leader, The Old Man. She had a childhood ruled both by benign neglect and by random, arbitrary rules. She was being raised as a good communist, and didn't lose faith despite being molested by her mother's boyfriend at a young age, and experiencing the murder of her best friend. 

As a teenager she moves to Brooklyn to live at the Old Man's commune, an organization known publicly as the National Labor Federation and privately as the Communist Party USA Provisional Wing. She becomes one of his true believers & revolutionaries. But things go as you might expect with a cult: the Old Man controls their coming and going, their friendships (stoking competitive behaviours) and choosing some of the younger women as his "special girls" -- setting up his own harem. 

It takes her 3 years of this kind of psychological control before she breaks and leaves the commune, mostly because it's broken up by a raid. Everyone has pretty much lost heart by then, anyhow, as the date of The Revolution that was promised has come and gone with nothing to show for it. This is a story of a dark, troubled life which Larsen was eventually able to escape. But it doesn't seem to have a conclusion or a turning point in it; it just ends because the commune does. We're not sure what Larsen's thoughts about it are, or what her new direction is.  I feel like there's another book about the "afterward" waiting to be written, as the conclusion just wasn't complete enough for me. But if you like books about messed-up families and bizarre childhoods, you will find this one a great read. 



Sunday, December 11, 2016

Milk & Honey

Milk & Honey / Rupi Kaur 
Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, c2015.
204 p.

Another confessional piece, this self-published book of poetry took off and sold so extensively that it was traditionally published a year later. Rupi Kaur is a powerhouse, a writer, artist and performer in her mid-20s, based in Toronto. She travels the world delivering spoken word performances and facilitating writer's workshops. She also broke Instagram with her now famous banned-then-unbanned photo of herself with her period.

Milk & Honey is her first collection of personal poetry. It's poetry about the pain of breakups, of sexual violence, of family issues. It's clearly a teenage voice, full of longing, angst and pithy Instagrammable phrases. But it has most certainly hit a nerve; I've never heard a poetry book being talked about so much by regular readers. And I've never had to place a hold and wait on a poetry book at the library before! 

I think it's great that so many younger people are interested in what Kaur is doing. She's a force unto herself. After she self-published this collection in 2014, she toured it and social media-d it to a more traditional publication/distribution. She's an artist who is also business minded and makes no apologies for her ambition. It's great to see.

The poetry itself, well, perhaps it doesn't speak to me as much as it does to her audience. It really does read like poetry by a teen/new adult writer. It's emotional and doesn't have much ironic distance from itself. It actually reminds me of the kind of poetry I was writing at that age as well -- though I never shared it with anyone and most definitely did not have the self possession to perform, publish, or believe that I could even consider any of those things. I'd say this poetry is not aimed at middle-aged women who are no longer surfing the ocean of relationship drama -- but it resonates deeply with that young woman we once were. And her readers are confirming that this kind of performance poetry/artwork is catching a whole new generation. Respect to Kaur for making it work.

Want to see more of Rupi Kaur? See a profile on Kaur & her popularity, by Flare magazine. And then explore her faq at her blog to learn how she got started and why.

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Just for fun, I thought I'd dig out a notebook I kept, full of my carefully copied poetry from my undergraduate years. Ooh boy. Did that bring back memories! Here's a short piece I thought you might all enjoy, a pithy, emotional plea from the 19 yr old me:




Saturday, December 10, 2016

Modern Memoirs of Canadian Women

Now here are some flash reviews of two books I read this year that also have strange connections. They are both memoirs by young Canadian women, famous for excelling in their respective areas of sport and music, with connections to both Manitoba & mental health.


Open Heart, Open Mind / Clara Hughes
New York: Simon & Schuster Canada, c2015.
227 p.

Clara Hughes became the first and only athlete ever to win multiple medals in both Summer and Winter Games, in cycling and speed skating. Her high achieving sports life hid many personal issues though, primarily her long experience with depression.

The book shares her difficult childhood, growing up in Manitoba with a trouble family. She was  a typical teenager, getting into all sorts of bad situations, until she found sport -- it was a conduit for all her high energy and restlessness. But she found herself focused and obsessive about sport, driving herself to peaks of Olympic glory. She shares the toll this took on her personal life, with an abusive coach, the physical demands she set on herself, and the lack of any kind of "downtime". In essence, she traded her abuse of drugs and alcohol for an approved system of abuse of her body and eating habits as an elite athlete -- just another way to drown her emotional pain.

The second part of the book delves into her understanding and management of her depression, and to her role in mental health promotion, primarily through Bell Canada's Let's Talk program. And she also shares a lot about her involvement in Right to Play, a children's charity that uses sport in a positive manner.  

This was an interesting glimpse into the "golden" life of an admired athlete, good to share in an Olympic year, for sure. I found it an okay read but a little repetitive, and it's clear that she's not a professional writer, but of course language not the point to this story. She does use some cursing, and peppers in the word "crazy" frequently, which may be offputting for some.



I, Bificus / Bif Naked
New York: Harper, c2016.
320 p.

Bif Naked is well known in the music world, but all I knew about her was her name. In this memoir, she explores her childhood -- she was adopted by missionaries after being born to a Canadian woman and British man in India and given away. She has some issues; though her mother is a wonderful & supportive woman, she still acts out as a teenager, getting involved in gangs, drugs and more. She finds punk music as her way out, starting to tour at age 15. She forces herself to make it in a "man's world", overlooking the sexism, abuse, and drugs she's exposed to until she realizes she's hit bottom,in a drug den in Vancouver. 

She claws her way back up, and then at age 37 she is diagnosed with breast cancer. She becomes a survivor in a new way, finding herself in a circle of other women facing the same situation. Throughout her story, she never complains about being hard done by, she never takes a victim stance, despite all that she faces. She has a strong, creative personality that helps her through her struggles with mental health and difficult situations.

This story has a real focus on her struggles and triumphs; it features her sexuality, mental health, and creative achievements. Unfortunately, there isn't much of a flow in this book. I found it was made up of a lot of anecdote and unconnected narrative, and it's a bit repetitive, with some content that feels included just for its shock value. Overall I didn't find enough depth to it to make it worth reading unless you're a big fan of Bif Naked or of Canadian music history in general. 


Thursday, December 08, 2016

Tomboy Survival Guide

Tomboy Survival Guide / Ivan Coyote
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, c2016.
239 p.

I was very eager to read this book after hearing Ivan Coyote speak -- or, perform -- at the inaugural Stratford Writers Festival this October. What a performer! Ivan's a regular on the storytelling circuit, even touring a multimedia show with fellow trans writer/performer Rae Spoon in 2013 (see a clip of them here).

Ivan's event was utterly engaging; family stories wonderfully told, with tears and laughter side by side. They read mostly from the latest book, this one, which I tried to buy afterward to get signed but it had already sold out by the time I got to the book table... I've made do with a library copy for now.

Anyhow, the book. It's a set of stories, brief anecdotes, essays, which all form a memoir of Ivan's years growing up in a Catholic family in Whitehorse, in the Yukon -- while of course coming out in a place and time that didn't make it so easy. 

The stories are about gender, and sexuality, and identity, and they are powerful. Their essay on bathroom use for trans people should be required reading for everyone; it clarifies and makes obvious the key issue that people should use the bathroom they are comfortable with and feel safe in, not one that someone else tells them to. And does it calmly and logically, kind of like the whole book does. Another essay on using a person's preferred pronoun is also extremely timely, and simplifies the issue to make it easy to grasp. Another recommended read. Ivan's pronoun of choice is "they" and while it's hard to accustom yourself to using "they" as a personal pronoun when you aren't used to it (ie: me) it becomes natural with repeated use. And it's respectful to the individual, so why wouldn't you work to accustom yourself?

I loved the stories of Ivan's grandmother, especially. She sounds amazing -- a tiny matriarch who clearly loved and supported all of her grandkids. There is so much love in these stories, but also so much humour. One of the stories that Ivan read during the show I was at was "Kraft Singles for Everyone". I think everyone in the audience was crying with laughter by the end, and as I read it again in the book, I could hear Ivan's voice telling it, and burst out laughing again alone in my reading chair. It's the story of their teen cousin having to have lunch at their grandma's house, the classic tomato soup and grilled cheese...with a twist.

Anyone, this is a fabulous read that I can't recommend enough. It's timely, illuminating, and also written so very, very well. Engaging, funny, touching, honest -- and sprinkled with classic black & white instructional images for everything from tatting to electrical wiring, in a nice touch. If you ever have a chance to see Ivan read in person -- do it! This is one of my top reads this year. Highly recommended.


Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Duo of Immortals: Nostalgia vs My Soul To Keep

And now two quick reviews of books I really wanted to like but found a bit meh in the end. Weirdly enough, they both focus on the idea of immortality, whether supernaturally gifted or technologically constructed. What does that shot at living forever do to someone's humanity? Good question.

So there were some good ideas here, some unique characters to follow as well, but the overall effect didn't really work for me in either. If you have any words of support for either, please share!
 
Nostalgia / M.G.  Vassanji
Toronto: Doubleday Canada, c2016.
258 p.
 New memories in new bodies. New lives. That's the ideal, though we are still far from it. The body may creak and wobble; memory develop a crack or hole. In the leaked memory syndrome, or Nostalgia, thoughts burrow from a previous life into the conscious mind, threatening to pull the sufferer into an internal abyss.
This is the  premise of this faintly dystopian novel; in the nearish future individuals can extend life via regenerated body parts, leading to what could be immortality -- but the catch is that life can not continue under the weight of accrued memories. Thus, each time someone "regenerates" they have their memory wiped, to start anew with a lovely backstory for their new life implanted in their mind. But sometimes, old memories begin to seep through, which is never good.

Our hero, the psychologist Dr. Sina, treats patients who suffer from Nostalgia. His latest patient had one sentence return, opening the flood gates to his past life, which, as it ends up, is a revolutionary one that is connected to Dr. Sina -- and the Department of Internal Security is interested. 

Vassanji brings up many intriguing topics here: immortality and memory, identity and memory, and questions of social justice when one privileged society is valued above another, or when one generation, the New Generation, is pitted against the BabyGens -- those on their first lives and struggling to get a foothold. It had a lot of potential with it's suspenseful plot and great concept. But unfortunately, I found the characters flat and mostly dull, with a dash of sexist male gaze thrown in just to top it off (Dr. Sina's young BabyGen girlfriend is described in a cringe-worthy way). 

The generational conflict and governmental conspiracy really reminded me of a fave 70s read, The Forever Formula by Frank Bonham, which I reread a while back and found pretty retro in its gender roles - apparently it's impossible to imagine something different for 180 years in the future...


My Soul to Keep / Tananarive Due
New York: Harper Voyager, c1997.
346 p.

I thought this had potential: interesting premise, but not all that interestingly told. I found it...well, a bit dull and slow-moving. The main character Jessica was an investigative journalist, but she seemed to have no curiosity or research skills when it came to her eventually very oddly behaving husband David. She was not as decisive as I had hoped an investigative journalist might be. And the other main character, her husband David (or Dawit) was an ass -- possessive, secretive, violent, etc. I realize that Due was trying to draw a picture of what might happen to someone's humanity if they were to become immortal...but I've had a lot of bad experiences with people named David, and I'm sure that didn't help with my opinion of him! 

And their relationship was a bit stifling - even with a daughter in the mix, they are quite codependent. As we learn about Dawit's past, and the fact that 400 years earlier he was granted immortality via a ritual in an Ethiopian sect (all men; it's important that women aren't allowed to receive this gift) we see more and more of his past(s) leaking through to colour his present life. And perhaps we begin to understand his obsession with Jessica and his desire not to outlive her.

I did like the larger network that Due created around these two; Jessica's family, some of the characters from David's past, for example. It added depth and complexity, and I really enjoyed the black community that this story is rooted in. My favourite bits were his memories of living in the 20s with jazz and marvellous energy flowing.

Overall, though, it was the casual descriptions of violence that really put me off. So many murders! And of children too.

I might try something else by Due to see if I'll enjoy it more. My lacklustre response may also come from the fact that this isn't my usual kind of read - and perhaps it will never be my favourite kind, personally. Don't let my tastes put you off though; if this sounds intriguing, give it a try.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Top Ten New-To-Me Authors of 2016


I haven't done a shared post for a long, long time. But I've noticed quite a few people sharing this Top Ten Tuesday list today, and it looked too good to pass up! Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted by the Broke & The Bookish, with a new question each week. This week's is:


Top Ten New-To-Me Authors I Read For The First Time In 2016

So, looking at my list of books I've read this year, I have a few interesting authors to share who I read for the first time this year. Some are debut authors and some are established ones that I've finally got around to reading!

The first few are authors who've created fascinating mixes of writing and art. The remainder are novelists and essayists who I was very glad to encounter this year.



Noelle Stevenson: I first read the brilliant graphic novel Lumberjanes, then went on to read more of this series, plus Nimona. All great.




Sarah Lazarovic: I found her charming illustrated nonfic book, A Bunch of  Pretty Things I Did Not Buy, by chance - lovely read



Teva Harrison: In-Between Days is her powerful memoir of living with cancer. I found it so memorable I also just bought the colouring book she's just released just to have more of her.



Anne Michaels: I've always *meant* to read some of her serious fiction, but finally read her for the 1st time with her very sweet children's book, The Adventures of Miss Petitfour, in which I discover my literary doppelganger, Mrs Collarwaller.



Frances Shelley Wees: this classic mystery writer has been re-pubbed by Montreal based Vehicule Press, and Keys to My Prison was a fine mid-century take on Toronto



Kate Taylor: I've sort of read her before -- I read the first chapter of her earlier novel Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen, years ago, but it didn't stick and I put it down very early on. This novel, however, was wonderful! (review to come)

Madeleine Thien: Despite her earlier books, I'd never read anything by her. Then I read this award-winning, amazing novel. Great read.



Lynne Kutsukake: this fellow librarian's debut novel is a wonderful tale of girls in post-war Japan. Perfect book club book!


Alice Zorn: this Montreal set novel is fabulous and was a wonderful find.


Ivan Coyote: *Amazing* I knew of Ivan Coyote but hadn't read anything until this year, after I heard Ivan perform at our first ever Stratford Writers Festival. Tomboy Survival Guide is SO good. (review to come)