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February 16, 2021

The Midnight Bargain, by C.L. Polk

I’m not especially fond of the Canada Reads debates. I find them frustrating and annoying, to be honest, though this is mostly because of my own sensibilities than anything else. I don’t really like yelling at the radio. Last year, Jael Richardson did a daily recap of the debates on Instagram Live and I preferred following the series this way to the show itself. What I do love, however, is a Canada Reads lineup like what they’ve come up with this year, a list of books that are off the beaten track, that I might not have picked up otherwise, and that don’t immediately seem to have much in common, which means the connections between them are fascinating (and this is why I am not especially fond of the Canada Reads debates—I love the idea of how the books are enriched by their relationships to each other rather than having to pit them as competitors).

It helps that I’ve already read three of the titles on the list—Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots; Butter Honey Pig Bread, by Francesca Ekwuyasi; and Two Trees Make a Forest, by Jessica J. Lee—and that I really loved them. And that I probably wouldn’t have read the final two titles otherwise, but not it seems kind of lazy not to read them all. Even if C.L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain seems so far from up my alley that it’s in a different universe altogether. “It’s fantasy meets a regency romance,” I told my husband. He said, “But you don’t really like either of those things.”

“Ahh,” I answered him. “The power of hybridity.”

If not for Canada Reads, I wouldn’t have read The Midnight Bargain, set in an otherworld that feels a but like 19th-century England, but with magic, and if colonialism had never happened. I will admit that the world-building felt arduous to me at times, which is often my problem with fantasy—so much to keep track of and understand, when I’d prefer to get lost in the plot. But it started to pay off when it meant that the plot would have kinds outcomes that I’d never encountered in a novel before, where characters motivations turned out to be so much more complex and fascinating than they could have been in a world that was familiar.

Beatrice is a sorceress and about to embark on her first bargaining season, where she will be paired off with a husband, especially important since her father’s business stumbles have landed their family in enormous debt. But here’s where it gets complicated—once paired off, Beatrice will be required to wear a collar to suppress her magic powers, supposedly because the risk of being pregnant and inhabited by spirits is just too great, and so women are not permitted to practice magic until their childbearing years are over. But really this is just an excuse to keep women from realizing their own power, which suits the patriarchy just fine. But Beatrice has a plan—she’s been practising magic in secret and is so close to becoming a full-fledged Magus. If she can complete her self-taught course before her bargaining season, can she convince her father to let her stay single and join him in running their family business, saving her family from financial ruin and keeping her freedom at once?

But when Beatrice meets Ianthe Lavan, things get more complicated. Turns out he’s everything she’s dreamed of and so wealthy that her family’s fortunes would be saved by their union–but is she willing to give up the most essential part of herself to fulfill societal expectations?

Is such a thing worth the promise of love?

Totally not my kind of thing at all, but that’s what I liked best about it. The Midnight Bargain was rich, absorbing and wonderful, totally transporting.

March 29, 2017

Talking Canada Reads on the Radio

Today I got to talk about my favourite Canada Reads contenders from days of yore on CBC Ontario Morning. If you missed me on the radio, you can listen again on the podcast. I come in at 41.00.

March 11, 2015

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, by Kamal Al-Solaylee

intolerableKamal Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes is the final book of my 2015 Canada Reads selections, and an interesting way to finish them off having started with Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian. Both are non-fiction and work to complicate perceptions of people some of us best know from stereotypes. Both also reframe history to present their people—King with Canada’s First Nations and Al-Soylaylee with Muslims in the Middle East—as victims of a capitalism. For Al-Soylaylee, this is only a small part of the narrative, but it’s an important one—he sees the move toward extremism in Egypt being fundamentally linked to Anwar Sadat’s open-market policies and free-market capitalism in the 1970s, which drove Egyptians into poverty and situated the state as an enemy of the people. Politicized Islam filled the gaps. Al-Solaylee states, “And because Egypt exerted huge cultural and moral influence on other Arab countries, the shift towards a more politicized and economics-driven notion of Islam quickly spread to other parts of the region.”

How does it connect to the other Canada Reads books? Like Ru, this is the story of an immigrant’s journey to Canada and place to call home, and the narrator’s starry-eyed idealism never wavers. Like When Everything Feels Like the Movies, it’s a story of growing up gay and seeking a place where one can belong—although the characters’ journeys are very different, partly because we don’t have the same access to Al-Solaylee’s isolation that we do Raziel Reid’s Jude’s. Al-Soylayee’s narrative strikes me as similar to the image on the cover—a writer moving from darkness to light but he’s so focussed on that momentum that the dark corners are left unexamined. They’re alluded to—he writes of falling into a years-long depression after a trip to Yemen in the 2000s, years after leaving. But most of the story merely skims the surface on the road from there to here.

Which is not entirely mere—it’s a fascinating road. His own family’s from affluence to poverty; from enlightened liberal ideals to religious extremism; from Yemen to Beirut, to Cairo, and back to Yemen again. It’s a movement that’s emblematic of transformations in the Middle East in general. While Al-Solaylee’s had a different trajectory—to get OUT, whatever it takes. Living as a gay man in Yemen, in his own family, would be impossible. Could be punishable by death. And so he plots his path—to England to study, and then to Canada. By the time he’s made his success in Canada as a journalist and cultural critic, the gulf between his world and his family’s is nearly impossible to bridge. He doesn’t even want to try. He writes of his terror at border crossings still—his fear at being forced back to the world he’s escaped. By the time his mother dies, he’s just about given up on remaining connected with his family. He has spent years turning his back on his Arabness—the language, the culture, the geography. And was this selfishness or self-preservation? He’s not entirely sure of this. But then with the 2011 Arab Spring and war and unrest in Yemen, Al-Solaylee finally realizes that he can’t entirely disown the places—and the people—he comes from. And it’s this transformation that to me is the most compelling journey in the book.

Intolerable is the link between the three Canada Reads books I’ve already noted, and the fourth, Jocelyn Saucier’s And the Birds Rained Down. Because it’s also a book that’s all about choice, except that it’s mostly about what happens to people who don’t have any. Al-Soylaylee notes that he took the freedom to pursue his dreams in Canada, while his sisters—educated and once-liberated women—retreated to Islam. They tell him they find comfort there, but he’s not sure they would have been permitted comfort anywhere else. And even his brothers, whose hard-line points of view were pivotal to eventually wearing down their sisters’ resistance to religious infringement upon their lifestyle, are given a bit of leeway. What else did these men have? It’s true, Al-Soylaylee notes, that his brother became more devout the worse he did at school, but even if he had been successful, what opportunities could a country like Yemen have offered him? Over and over again we see that poverty and economic stagnation is a hole that radical Islam rushes to fill.

While not as structurally innovative as the other Canada Reads books, there is a whole lot going on here, but, as I’ve said, it’s happening far beneath the surface. I found the prose confusing at times, sentence after sentence beginning with conjunctions to show disagreement—even, but, although, however, though. To the point where Al-Solaylee is not debating between sides but moving in circles, suggesting his own discomfort with his history, with his take on it, and that he’s still not sure how to hold it. While this detracts from the subject matter a bit, keeping the writing from going as deep as I’d like, it’s also interesting to consider, and typical of something that promises “a memoir of extremes”. That while where we’re talking about breaking barriers, life is complicated, not necessarily two-sided simple, and that some barriers are not easily broken.

February 22, 2015

And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyn Saucier

and-the-birds-rained-downI approached And the Birds Rained Down, by Jocelyn Saucier, translated by Rhonda Mullins, the opposite of how I found Raziel Reid’s novel, When Everything Feels Like the MoviesThe latter with so much hype, all my expectations, but I knew nothing about Saucier’s novel except that it had won several awards when published in its original French. And this is typical. Here is where the Canada Reads theme of “breaking barriers” first becomes relevant to And the Birds Rained Down. As critic J.C. Sutcliffe writes in her article, “On Not Reading Books from Quebec“, French Canadian Literature is barely on the radar of most English Canadians, French Canadian Literature barely accessible outside of Quebec. Except for the publishers—small publishers in particular, like Goose Lane, Anansi, and Coach House (who published this one)—who translate these books into English. Not so much breaking barriers as building bridges from one place to another.

And the Birds Rained Down is a quiet book, a tidy book, a comforting book. The most comforting book you’ve ever read about mass destruction, trauma, mental illness, suicide, marijuana, and love. It begins with a photographer arriving deep in the forest in Northern Ontario at a clearing where a stream cascades into volcanic rock. She’s come to interview a survivor of devastating fires that had taken place nearly a century before, but she’s come too late. He’s died, of natural causes, she’s assured by that two old men with whom the man she’d come to see, Boychuck, had created a community away from the world, their only connection to it two pot farmers. She’s been travelling the province photographing survivors of the fire, documenting their experiences. And while the other two men can’t contribute to her project, she’s intrigued by their company and drawn to return. And the photographer is not the only disrupter to this bucolic idyll. Not long after her departure, one of the pot farmers shows up with his Great Aunt who has been her whole life in mental institutions and refuses to return. Her arrival in the community changes the dynamic forever.

It’s not so much what the story is about, but how it’s told. And the Birds Rained Down is the kind of book you’d expect from a setting deep in the woods at the end of a road by a waterfall. It’s otherworldly with many elements of fairytales. An all-seeing narrator guides us through the book’s various sections from different characters’ points of view, though we are not so guided that there is not mystery here, or surprise The novel’s first paragraph is, “In which people go missing, a death-pact adds spice to life, and the lure of the forest and of love makes life worth living. The story seems far-fetched, but there are witnesses, so its truth cannot be doubted. To doubt it would be to deprive us of an improbable other world that offers refuge to special beings.” 

This is the most different of the other Canada Reads books I’ve read this year, quieter in its intentions, subtler in its message, more playful and nuanced (though this makes me think of “Like life is always fucking subtle,” and how sometimes books have to be huge and devastating to get their points across). A mysterious book that’s lyrical, lovely, and rich with story and stories. It doesn’t really do anything except be a book (and it does that so well), which is a political statement in itself I think.

February 16, 2015

When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid

Book Cover When Everything Feels Like the MoviesBack in high school when everybody was watching My So-Called Life, I used to tune in and wonder why Angela Chase had ditched her normal friends to galavant with Rickie and Rayanne. I mean, I liked Angela’s hair, and dyed mine the exact same colour (although it didn’t take because my hair was too dark—probably safer that way), but the misfit friends didn’t gel with me. I’d turn the channel back to Party of Five. Similarly in real life, I would encounter characters with as much regard for the status-quo as Rickie and Rayanne (and I encountered them often—I went to an arts-focussed high school, a social environment far more welcoming than most), and I found these people baffling, even threatening. Because there was this thing called normal whose rules I was desperate to follow, and it was unnerving to come across someone who didn’t even play the game.

The one legacy of those years is that while I’m more broad-minded, I still don’t like “edgy”, and when something is described as such, I don’t think it’s for me. I am still annoyed at having had to read about people taking a shit in books as disparate as Franzen’s Freedom (ugh) and Heti’s How Should a Person Be? In most “edgy” books, there comes a point at which a character pulls out a blade and starts carving things into her arms and legs, and I’ve read that book already. It’s possible that edgy is boring. Or that I am boring, and more partial to reading books about spinsters and brewing proper cups of tea. I would like there to be a Bechdel test, but for women over the age of 65 who are crocheting tea cosies, and basically if your book doesn’t pass it, I’m just not interested.

So I was nervous about Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like The Movies, even though it had been awarded a Governor General’s Award, had been run through the mud by a deplorable right-wing columnist (for being “a waste of taxpayer dollars” no less), and there had been censor-like calls to have the GG Award removed—circumstances all of which, obviously, made me want to run out and buy a copy of the novel right away). When the book was selected for Canada Reads 2015, I went right out and did so, intrigued by the opportunity to discover what the fuss was all about. And I am so glad I did.

It was devastating, like a trip back in time. Although Raziel Reid’s references are uber-contemporary, the atmosphere he creates of high school—its geography, social structures, how students pass their time, the rate at which time passes—was completely as I remembered it from back in the days before we had cameras on our phones, or phones at all, or twitter or Facebook or anything like that. It’s a culture onto itself, and while Reid’s character Jude is a misfit—he wears make-up, women’s clothing, has a troubled home-life, few friends or allies—misfit is the wrong word because he’s irrevocably a part of that culture. Because he’s too young to get away to someplace better, because he has so little agency over his existence. It’s not the right word either because a misfit describes an anomaly and there are a lot of kids out there like Jude—including one whose murder inspired Reid’s text.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies is convincing from the very start, Jude’s point of view perfectly executed and consistent. In order to create a sense of agency over his life, Jude imagines high school as a movie set, the complex social structures comprising players with their parts. And his part is unabashedly himself, for there is no one else he can be (and the alternative would be being no one at all), moreover his self-definition is limited by others’ expectations of his behaviour, and he plays right into that role. Jude and his friend Angela are crude, stupid, vindictive, reckless, and cruel in the manner that all people are when they are learning about words and responsibility and the power to hurt and shock (and be noticed). In this way, they’re not so different from their more conventional classmates. Every single one of them is scared, insecure, terrified of being found-out, and trying to be bullet-proof. And this is what I don’t think I knew back when I was in high school, wondering why my gay classmate couldn’t just act a bit less flamboyant. He scared me because we was me. We are each of us not so far apart after all.

But such platitudes mean nothing at the time, mean nothing in Reid’s book which is perfectly plotted towards a devastating conclusion alluded to in its first sentence. When Everything Feels Like the Movies is exactly the kind of young-adult fiction I appreciate, in which there is a gap between the protagonist’s sense of his experience and how I perceive reading as an adult. Though that gap is further complicated by the movies conceit, by which Jude’s experienced is reflected in a million mirrors and cameras—his sense of self at one multiplied and broken into pieces. He is so thoroughly in control of the narrative, never breaking character and rarely displaying any vulnerability, that there is something almost triumphant about the story, as much as it is heartbreaking—how he owns it. Except that he doesn’t own it at all, or rather his ownership is an act of desperation. Or is it? (and here is where the mirrors are important, reality staring back at you a thousand times, so it’s impossible to know where life ends and its reflections begin, or if the distinctions even matter).

Like Ru, while the text is straightforward and easy to read, it’s deceptively complicated, riddled with clues and traps. Similarly to Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, it’s tone attempts a certain casualness which nearly belies the care with which the book is constructed. I’m not really sure how this novel fits in with the other two, though I’d be loathe to rank them at all because they’re all pretty extraordinary. These are not books that need to be pitted against one another, but indeed they’re books that need to be read.

February 10, 2015

Ru by Kim Thúy

ruMy favourite thing about Canada Reads has been the reading, the strange context that arises from particular and unlikely groupings of different books, how books become oddly illuminated by these connections. For example, it would never have occurred to me to read Ru by Kim Thúy in light of The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. It hadn’t really occurred to me to read Ru at all, actually. I figured everyone had already read it for me. And I had been expecting something familiar—an immigrant’s tale like I’d encountered before, a literary tradition beginning with Frances Brooke in the 18th century, right on to Susannah Moodie, and Jane Urquhart with Away, and so on and so on.

But Kim Thúy’s novel turned out to have a lot more in common with Thomas King’s book than a two hundred year old settler tale. First, Thúy similarly jettisons chronology, her narrative weaving in and out of time, the past forever present. And as King uses his own experience and story-telling voice (lyricism) to inform his factual non-fiction, Thúy uses the same tools for her autobiographical novel. The boundaries of genre are blurred, as boundaries continue to be blurred through the entirety of Ru, the uselessness of borders being one of the book’s central themes.

A slim and quiet book, Ru is powerful as a disturber of binaries. Between North and South Vietnam, French and English Canada, between then and now, here and there, day and night. An Tinh, the narrator, immigrates to Quebec in the 1970s, escaping Vietnam via a Malaysian refugee camp. But she returns to her home country years later, lives and works there. The narrative moves between her time in Hanoi as an adult, her childhood in Saigon, her years growing up in Quebec, her present existence working and living in Montreal, a mother two to sons (one of whom is autistic, which becomes an interesting branch of this novel which is so much about motherhood and daughterhood, not to mention mother tongues and mother countries).

The trajectory of An Tinh’s tale is a hopeful one: from peril to safety, from poverty to prosperity, from war to peace, from dream to reality. Though it’s more complicated than that: there is trauma and loss, and An Tinh addresses a fellow immigrant from Vietnam,  “our own ambivalence, our hybrid state: half this, half that, nothing at all and everything at once.” But still, it’s the everything that the reader takes away from the novel. It is a story of fullness.

And yet. To read about the uselessness and blurring of borders in the context of The Inconvenient Indian is a peculiar exercise. I can’t help but think about the forced assimilation, a national policy for centuries. That perhaps the template of Ru, while analogous to First Nations experiences in some ways (trauma, an ever-present past), is far too simplistic to apply to King’s history. We’ve done enough breaking barriers and blurring borders over the years, and perhaps a far better approach now might be to begin to respect them.

January 28, 2015

The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

inconvenient-indian“You see my problem. The history I offered to forget, the past I offered to burn, turns out to be our present. It may well be our future.” –Thomas King

Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America is a curious contender for the Canada Reads debates, which this year is mixing fiction and non-fiction for the first time. Its scope is outsized compared to the other books. It comes with a moral imperative so great that a reader might be shamed to offer up a different book instead, a book championed for, say, its aesthetic concerns. It’s a book that might be difficult to discuss in its own right, outside of its subject matter.

But let’s for just a moment do such a thing.

For in all my years of reading, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a more curious “curious account” of anything. A history whose narrator shrugs away any claims of authority, chronology abandoned, national borders ignored, a narrative tone that’s sarcastic and a bit snarly. Plus haunted by the spirit of King’s wife, Helen, much esteemed, offering her own feedback from somewhere in the background: give examples, don’t generalize, and other editorial suggestions. What is the historian who offers up lines like, “I don’t know. I wasn’t there”? King’s supposed insouciance, his humour, his edge—with wry understatement—all rhetorical devices. There is a begrudgingness here, King offering up a book his readers have done nothing to deserve except be ignorant. This history is painful and terrible, and to tell it all chronologically, straightforwardly would be to be writing the same thing over and over again. The way he’s done it, at least, King gets to have a little bit of fun.

“I never knew,” I said to my husband, when I finished reading this book on Sunday afternoon, “what they meant when they said that we stole their land.” I’d assumed it was in a general sense—Europeans arriving on these shores and planting a flag, the First Nations people displaced with that one gesture. What I never knew, and only learned from reading The Inconvenient Indian, is the way in which First Nations land has been stolen over and over again. First Nations people moved and moved again, and displaced and relocated. This in itself traumatic—I’d known about the Cherokee Trail of Tears from reading King’s novel Truth and Bright Water—but then there was more, one example being the General Allotment Act of 1887, which broke up Indian reservations into individual pieces. Though to divide that land evenly between its inhabitants would make for too much land per person, the government decided, so they came up with an arbitrary amount, split that, and the rest became surplus land—theirs. Or the golf club in Vancouver whose land came from the Musqueam Nation, via agents in Ottawa—the Musqueam never even saw the agreement—with a long-term lease far below value. Later, the government signed a deal with developer to turn 40 acres of Musqueam land into a subdivision, also at rock-bottom prices fixed without increases for decades. When the Musqueam were eventually able to raise the rents to market rate, the homeowners refused to pay and took the case to court.

I knew about Indian Residential Schools, a terrible tragedy whose effects are trickling down through generations. But I never knew that one in two children in residential schools lost their lives there. King asks, “What would have happened if the residential schools had been public schools instead? Schools in Toronto, San Francisco, Vancouver, New York? What would have happened if the children who were dying were White? What would have happened if one of them had been your child?/ Sure It’s a rhetorical question.” King also asserts that “tragedy” is the wrong term with which to describe the residential schools. “It suggests that the consequences of residential schools were unintended and undesired, a difficult argument to make since…the schools were national policy.”

The underlying argument in The Inconvenient Indian—when casinos and garbage dumps become rare economic opportunities for First Nation communities; when land and rivers on reserves is ravaged by industrial waste from corporate neighbours; when it’s argued that the Indian land wasn’t being “used” anyway; when Native people are seen as unable to manage themselves without government handouts, all the while “Air Canada, AIG, Bombardier, Halliburton, General Motors, and the good folks at Alberta’s Tar Sands Project manage on their own without relying on government handouts”—is that capitalism is the problem. King writes, “there is little chance that North America will develop a functional land ethic until it finds a way to overcome its irrational addiction to profit.”

And there is so much more—on racism, historical perceptions, First Nations men murdered by police, First Nations women murdered by… well, who knows who, because no one can be bothered to investigate, the history of the AIM and activism throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and Oka and Ipperwash, the dots connected, pieces fitting, a shocking context, the same patterns, disregard and abuse repeated over and over, a hundred years ago, a decade ago. Which is why history is a slippery thing here, and why some critics would prefer the past be forgotten altogether—it’s simpler. King writes, “Using this approach as a template, one could write a book about the United States dropping two atomic bombs on Japan without having to mention World War II.”

I was thinking about this as I read the newspaper on Saturday, an editorial about the death of a Native child after her parents had halted her chemotherapy. “So far, no one has stepped forward to appeal the decision [to halt the treatment], probably because of an oversensitivity to the native rights issues that the judge allowed to cloud what should been a simple decision to protect the life of a child.”

An oversensitivity to native rights issues.

Has there ever been such a thing?

Which is not to say that the death of the child is not tragic, that she should not have been protected, that there are any easy answers in this situations, that there are any easy answers at all. But it is a failure to acknowledge complexities that has always been the problem, a tendency to fit people into boxes, for the human part of the matter (humanness, with all its foibles) to be disregarded. For someone, like say Christie Blatchford writing about Caledonia, or whoever wrote that editorial, to think that some matters are simple, that the weight of history might be sloughed off altogether. Hence the reason King subverts history, authority, chronology in his book—this is a story that has to be told another way.

The Inconvenient Indian has been sitting on my shelf for three years. I bought it for my husband who is an immigrant and wanted context to what he was hearing about First Nations issues in the news. He read it but I hadn’t. I’d been meaning to get around to it, and am pleased that Canada Reads has provided me with the incentive to finally do so. (Though I do wish a book by First Nations woman writer had been on the list this year—I learned by a campaign in November that in its history, Canada Reads had never featured such a book. I’m going to make an effort to seek out books by First Nations women for myself this year.)

I do wonder if the other books selected for Canada Reads are going to be unfairly pitted against this one, if there will be an unequal distribution of importance—it seems obviously slated to win. Who’d argue that? But someone will, and I wonder too if that will seem to trivialize The Inconvenient Indian when that happens. It seems like potentially an awkward exercise. But if the point is that the book gets read, then I think it’s a good thing. For me it’s always been the reading more than the debate that’s been the chief appeal of Canada Reads anyway.

January 20, 2015

Delighted to be excited about Canada Reads

canada-readsCanada Reads hasn’t been so high on my radar, and my reaction to this morning’s announcement took me by surprise. I am really delighted to be excited about this year’s line-up, and to finally interrupt my incredible streak of being a Canada Reads killjoy. (I think it’s been about five years now.) I still don’t know why a book has to break a barrier, or what that even means, but I was pleased to see that the public voting component of the campaign was not so prominent this year (and it seems like authors didn’t feel the pressure to push themselves as much, which was refreshing). I wasn’t crazy about the old host even before it all fell out, so I am pleased by the fresh start of a new one who’s already demonstrated his Canada Reads chops. So I’m back in the game, and mostly, I am thrilled that the list is a selection of books that I’m really excited to read—this is the whole point. There are two books in translation, two books by great small presses, the Thomas King book that’s sitting our shelves (it’s my husband’s) but I haven’t read yet. In fact, I haven’t read any of them yet, but I ordered the other four from the Bob Miller Book Room this morning. I am excited for them to arrive, and to start to read The Inconvenient Indian tonight. I’ll be blogging about the books over the next month, and I am excited about this also. When I first participated in Canada Reads in 2009, I met readers online who’ve been my friends ever since then. I hope some of them will be reading along too. And you too? Looking forward to it.

Pre-Order my New Novel: Out October 27


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