A quick update on what’s been going on around here…
I wrote my last post on March 31, 2018, which in dog years is basically a lifetime ago, and in human years is also a pretty long time. While I kept reading (oh, I read so many things) I was also caught up in a very busy chapter of my own life. Which left not a whole lot of time to report back on my findings in the literary field.
Well, my kids are now sleep-through-the-night years old, and I have settled in at the (new) job (I started a year ago), and it seemed like a great time to get back to writing about books which, let’s face it, is the only thing I would do with my time if my time were entirely my own. (Reader, it is not.)
Some info about where life has taken me since spring 2018:
- Moment Factory: a multimedia studio where I get to write, all day long, stopping only for group brainstorms and more coffee. I work on everything from client pitches and marketing copy to storylines and dialogues to museum panels and the occasional tweet. It’s a total blast and I couldn’t be happier and due to some very firm confidentiality policies I am not allowed to discuss most of what I do, but here’s the website:
- The Cole Foundation Prize for Translation jury: another thing that I can mention in passing, but not discuss in detail. (Wow, my life is mysterious…) This year I served as a jury member for the translation prize that is part of the annual Quebec Writers Federation awards, sponsored by Montreal’s Cole Foundation. My impressions? Resoundingly non-specific!
The shortlist has been announced:
And the gala will take place on November 5th.
So, that was where the entirety of my reading time went this summer. And I think I’m allowed to at least say that it was time incredibly well spent, and I am so glad to have had the experience.
- The kids: also resoundingly non-specific! No just kidding, they’re great. And they love books, which works out well for me, because I love reading to them. It’s a house full of attitude–between the raging independence of a 4yo and the tantrum-y boundary-pushing of a 2yo (and Life’s Insane Grab Bag of Shit that succeeds in making me a grumpy-ass 30-something from time to time). But, the little guys are happy, healthy, and conspiring to be the next big thing in toddler vaudeville, keeping us hugely entertained at all costs.
- And speaking of kids, the Montreal Review of Books asked me to review their young readers selections in the upcoming issue and WOW, WHAT FUN! So that’s coming soon.
Other than that, I actually have been reading a lot lately! I have a COMMUTE now, which is largely occupied with novels. Specifically the following:
The Pisces by Melissa Broder; Hogarth, 2018 (found randomly browsing at the BAnQ)
Did not love the narrator, I must say I must say. You know that self-help book that was big in the 90s, Women Who Love Too Much? This is kind of like the millennial portrait of that woman. I don’t think that made it a bad book. I think that was sort of the point. And by the way, I don’t think that this character was anything more or less than EXACTLY the distillation of certain codependent tendencies that we all have. (Which is I guess to say…there was nothing that annoyed me about this character that I did not also identify with. Maybe that’s why it was tough–it was a collection of ick-factor emotional tendencies writ large.)
However, as a book, one that establishes its own terms and then follows through with them, it’s very well executed.
The big narrative is the moonlight appearance of a merman, with whom the narrator begins a sort of satisfying (but also full of longing) relationship. (Actually yes, let’s talk about this. There was a lot of sex in the book and it was pretty well written as far as those things go. There was bad sex, and there was good sex, and it was all told plainly and believably and a little bit erotica-ly and sometimes it was low-key abuse. Which, sadly is part of its believability. That aside, I would personally have traded about half the book’s sex for more presence of the side characters, who were all very interesting in their regrettably short appearances.)
Anyway, back to the merman… The book’s most impressive feat was its portrayal of animals and our relationships with them–the establishment of a clear divide between us and them, and then the blurring of that divide. The way it’s paced is really well done, sort of prepping you for the moment when a half-person half-animal character appears. There are moments where men are like animals. Then moments were animals are like men. Where they occupy each other’s roles and spaces in relation to the narrator. So by the time a merman appears, you’ve been allegorically prepped to accept it. And so has the narrator… The main dichotomy in the book is, in fact, not between the merman and the narrator’s ex but between the merman and the dog that she is sitting.
So all in all, an interesting and well-written book. I’d recommend it as a beach read for those who hate beach reads.
Boat People by Sharon Bala; Penguin Random House Canada 2018 (ibid.)
Yah, this one really dug into my skin. As you could probably guess from the title (if you haven’t been totally ignoring immigrant issues for the past…forever) it is a refugee story. As a premise, you might pick up the poem by Warsan Shire, “No one puts their children in the boat unless the water is safer than the land”. Basically this book is that poem, but with more context.
The narrative begins with the landing of a huge boat full of refugees from Sri Lanka, who have fled the violence inflicted by the Sinhalese majority upon the Tamil minority–which led to the formation of the Tamil Tigers, an infamous terrorist group. Much of the context, once this refugee arrives on the shores of Canada, is the fear among the bureaucracy that members of the LTTE are among those who fled. And some of the most intense scenes unfold within hearings, as adjudicators and attorneys (with varying levels of expertise) attempt to discern whether these newly arrived Tamil have any relationship to the Tigers. Obviously this is complicated because when you come from an area controlled by a terrorist group, it’s very difficult not to be in some way involved with them. Such is the case with Mahindan, who worked as an auto mechanic and performed small jobs for the group, but was not “conscripted” as such.
The three perspectives that alternate in the book are those of Mahindan, who fled violent persecution and landed in an abusive Sinhalese-controlled refugee camp with his son; Priya, his reluctant attorney, who is assigned to the case purely because of her Sri Lankan background, which is something her family spent the entirety of their time in Canada trying to obscure if not forget altogether; and the conservative adjudicator Grace whose parents and grandparents lived Canada’s Japanese internment camps, and who is under-qualified for the job and very aware of it.
The book is absolutely beautiful, despite is very tough themes. Some scenes are hard. But the book is also hard to put down. And it is a very useful source if you’re curious about the general attitude that Canada holds toward refugees. There’s a lot going on under the welcoming surface, and if you’re coming from outside of Canada, you may not realize how close we are, at all times, to closing the doors.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead; Doubleday, 2016 (ibid.)
There is one way in which this book might be considered magical realism and it’s that the Underground Railroad has been rewritten as an actual railroad. Other than that, it is mostly realist. There are some moments of embellishment, hyperboles that serve as allegories, but sadly, most of what is found in this book comes directly from verifiable detail.
It’s an accounting. In the sense that it is an account of common events in the lives of slaves within the Antebellum South, but also in the sense that it is a listing of horrors, from the physical punishments inflicted on the bodies of Africans (both enslaved and free) to the institutional wrongs such as ethnic cleansing and slave codes.
The story follows Cora, who escapes the Randall plantation along with Caesar. Her odyssey–a kind of Gulliver’s Travels infused with racial violence–takes her to South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana, all the while chased by the slave catcher Ridgeway.
I found the structure of the book to be really well suited to the story. While chapters are broken into places that Cora travels, they also break off into narration of other characters, often after those characters have died. They reach back in time to describe how people came to be in the situation they are in–from slaves to reluctant works on the railroad.
One of the most compelling stories, that is only revealed in pieces over time, is that of Cora’s mother Mabel, who was the only slave to successfully escape the Randall farm and whose ghost haunts everyone from her owner to her daughter to the slave catcher charged with retrieving her, who inflicts his obsession upon Cora.
This book has more in common with slave narratives than, say, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But it feels just as contemporary. Startlingly contemporary.
Coming up for me is probably the latest Deb Harkness book (and while I’m at it I may even reread the All Souls Trilogy…might I? I might… Probably in preparation for the second season of A Discovery of Witches). And I think I’m FINALLY going to get around to Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, which has been sitting on my shelf for far too long.
If I’m still feeling science fiction-y, I might continue with some Becky Chambers. (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was so goooooooood)
But then who knows? I’ve been taking time to peruse the library shelves lately and books a way of throwing itself at me unpredictably.
But, rest assured, I am at least going to TRY and keep up with my reading life here, for the foreseeable future. Just in case you need some good recs.
One of the odd things about a blog (and this is why blogging is so strangely outdated–how did THIS become the arcane means of information dissemination?) is that you never know who out there is reading. I assume someone–someones?–stop by this way every once in a while? Who knows.
I’m pretty proficient in SEO (according to my resume), but I certainly don’t use it here. Which means that if you’re here, then there was something distinctly (defiantly?) non-algorithmic that brought you. Which I appreciate. More than I can say.