MOON OF THE CRUSTED SNOW

WAUBGESHIG RICE

When the power goes out in a northern Anishinaabe community in early winter, its tribal leaders aren’t initially worried, it happens frequently. But then the power stays off. A food delivery from the south does not turn up. Evan and the other community leaders begin to plan for the worst.

Then an outsider, Justin Scott, arrives, towing guns and a personal supply of booze. He states that he is a survivalist and that he can help the community. He describes chaos in the south and begs to stay, but chaos trails him anyway. His influence poisons community relations, and Evan—with his partner, Nicole, and their two young children—faces the possibility that the Anishinaabe won’t make it through the winter intact. Young girls turn up dead in the snow; suicides follow. Some of the elders die. Scott has something dark and inarticulable planned, not to mention aspirations to an unearned leadership role.

Survival is the priority, as well as maintaining community traditions and knowledge. Moon of the Crusted Snow is an uncommon dystopia.

THE PISCES

MELISSA BRODER

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Lucy knew she had made a mistake. She wanted the words, ‘Maybe we should just break up,” to jump back into her mouth where they belonged. Especially when Jamie replied, “I think you maybe right.” Lucy packed up and moved to Venice Beach to lick her wounds and recover. She joined a support group for sex and love addiction where one of the more sane members convinced her to try Tinder. That didn’t work out so well. But she found a pleasant surprise on the rocks by the waters edge. The Pisces is a treaties on love and life that sparkles with magic and eroticism.

VI

KIM THUY

My first name, Bảo Vi, showed my parents’ determination to “protect the smallest one.” In a literal translation, I am “Tiny precious microscopic.” As is often the case in Vietnam, I did not match the image of my own name.Vi is about what Thúy calls “the invisible strength” of women, especially Vietnamese women. “I didn’t see the invisibility of their power until I went back as an adult, and saw the difference between my cousins and me.” Fleeing from the war Vi left Vietnam for Canada with her mother and siblings. Her mother worked hard to provide for the family without the support of her husband who stayed. As with so many immigrant families the offspring get educated and do well in their new world. Vi travels the world and returns to Vietnam with a different outlook than those who stayed in Vietnam.

Well-written Vi is a gem.

Blinded by the gentle, intermittent movement of the dress’s wings, [grandfather] declared to his colleague that he would not leave Cai Bè without [his future wife.] He had to humiliate another young girl who had been promised to him and alienate the elders in his family before he could touch my grandmother’s hands. Some believed that he was in love with her long-lashed almond eyes, others, with her fleshy lips, while still others were convinced that he’d been seduced by her full hips. No one had noticed the slender fingers holding a notebook against her bosom except my grandfather, who kept describing them for decades. He continued to evoke them long after age had transformed those smooth, tapering fingers into a fabulous myth or, at the very most, a lovers’ tale.

HEART BERRIES

THERESE MARIE MAIHOT

In a slender volume, Maihot’s poetic memoir explodes with power.  “How could misfortune follow me so well, and why did I choose it every time?”  Her life is heaped with poverty, addiction, abuse and shame. Mailhot’s grandmother went to a brutal residential school. So many children starved to death there, the nuns ran out of places to bury them so their bones were hidden in the walls of a new boarding school under construction. Her affectionate but absent mother brought home men who preyed upon her children. She had a child, and lost custody of him as she was giving birth to another. “I wasn’t stable, but men don’t usually care about that.”  About her husband she writes,  “I wanted to know what I looked like to you. A sin committed and a prayer answered, you said. You looked like a hamburger fried in a donut. You were hairy and large.” 

“In white culture, forgiveness is synonymous with letting go. In my culture, I believe we carry pain until we can reconcile with it through ceremony. Pain is not framed like a problem with a solution.”  “I wanted as much of the world as I could take and I didn’t have the conscience to be ashamed.”

It’s great to see a new voice in indigenous literature open with a powerful work.

THE IMMORTALISTS

CHLOE BENJAMIN

Would you want to know the date of your death?  In the late 1960s, when all four Gold children: Varya, Daniel, Kara and Simon, bored from too much time during their summer vacation — decide to visit a fortuneteller famous for predicting when people will die. Only Varya is told she will live to old age. Knowing he will die young, Simon leaps into the late 1970s San Francisco gay scene “like a dog into water.” He love the promiscuous lifestyle of sex and drugs. But it is through ballet he finds romantic love. He succumbs to the “gay cancer,” which claims him barely out of his teens and before the disease is named. Had he not known he was to die young he would have stayed home and run the family business. Each sibling is followed in order of their deaths. Do they die on the augured date because it is their destiny, or because the prediction draws them into an altered pattern of life choices? Provocative question.

JONNY APPLESEED

JOSHUA WHITEHEAD

Jonny is a wild ride through reserve life and city life through the eyes of a “two-spirited, indigiqueer, NDN glitter princess.” Jonny knew early on that he was different from most boys. He liked dressing up in his mother’s clothes and putting on her makeup. When his step-father beat him to made him a man he had a loving kokum to run to for comfort, support and affirmation. She knew he was “2S” and told him stories of the old ways before colonization. Off the reserve and trying to find ways to live and love in the big city, Jonny becomes a cybersex worker who fetishizes himself in order to make a living. His best friend and sometimes lover Tias is a huge support for Jonny in the city. They grew up together and know each other like an open book. Jonny’s step-father has died and Jonny needs to make arrangements to get back to the reserve. Memories flood his consciousness and make up most of the book. Memories of love, trauma, sex, kinship, ambition and the heartwarming recollection of his beloved kokum.

A powerful book.

“Funny how an NDN ‘love you’ sounds more like, ‘I’m in pain with you.'”

“I figured that I was gay when I was eight. I stayed up late after everyone went to bed and watched Queer as Folk on my kokum’s TV. She had a satellite and all the channels, pirated of course. At the time, my mom and I were living with my kokum because my dad had left us thinking he was Dolly Parton or Garth Brooks or something. Queer as Folk aired at midnight on Showcase; I muted the channel, added subtitles, and watched as four gay men lived their lives in Pittsburgh. I wanted to be like them, I wanted to have lofts and go to gay bars and dance with cute boys and blow and get blown in a Philly gloryhole. I wanted to work in comic shops and universities, be sexy and rich. I wanted that.”

“If you say the word ‘queerness’ now, it always signals this idea of whiteness, especially of white cis males, shirtless, dancing at Pride festivals that are so heavily vested in corporations,” he says. “For me, it was important to remove Indigenous queerness.”

THE SHOE ON THE ROOF

WILL FERGUSON

The Shoe of the Roof is a thought-provoking novel about faith and the thin line between madness and reality. Thomas Rosanoff is a brain-research grad student. His father, Dr Rosanoff, is a famous psychiatrist who gained his notoriety by studying his son’s life in great detail and publishing in “The Boy in a Box.” Having a famous father is a double-edged sword for Thomas: he gets away with a lot at the university, but he has to put up with a lot of ribbing.  Using his father’s name, Thomas kidnaps three patients from the mental hospital, who think they are Jesus. He wants to experiment with them to prove that bringing them together will cure them.  He believes that they will sort out among themselves that three Jesuses can’t exist all at once, and so at least two of them will have to cure themselves of their delusion.

You need to read Shoe to find out what the title means. Also, read Ferguson’s 419; it won a well deserved Giller Prize. There was an excellent Peter O’Toole movie of a similar theme from 1972, The Ruling Class. O’Toole was a British lord who believed he was Jesus. I may be available online.

ADVOCATE

DARREN GREER

Jacob lives with his mother, aunt and austere grandmother Millicent. “The grandmother of complaint and derision.” His estranged uncle returns home because he is sick. His sisters are overjoyed. His mother is full of criticism and reproach. As he gets sicker and sicker the reader realizes that he has AIDS and in fact, he is the first AIDs victim in Nova Scotia. As rumour is spreading in the community Jacob loses the one friend he had because his friend’s mother has condemned their relationship. Eventually, in the panic about his uncle’s disease, Jacob is barred from school and most other places in town, and his family become pariahs just when they need community the most. Advocate is a well-written book about a sad time.

RECKLESS DAUGHTER: A PORTRAIT OF JONI MITCHELL

DAVID YAFFE

Joni Mitchell fans this book is for you. It is less about her life and more about her music. She once said she paints her joy and sings her sorrow. The book has tons of fasinating facts about the her lyrics. “You said you were as constant as the northern star. I said constantly in the dark, where’s that at?” was written about Leonard Cohen. I read the book with my computer at hand, so I could plays songs on You Tube that I wasn’t familiar with. The defining act of her life was making an adoption plan for her child when she was an unknown singer-songwriter in Toronto. It is refered to in song through out her writing career. It brought back memories of seeing Joni in concert and of loving her music. Fans will not want to miss this.

HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS

BIANCA MARAIS

Set in Johannesburg, HUM centres on Beauty Mbali and 9-year-old Robin Conrad, each of whom is impacted by the 1976 Soweto Uprising, in which white police officers opened fire on peacefully protesting black schoolchildren. Robin’s parents are killed in the backlash, while Beauty’s daughter, Nomsa, goes missing from her Soweto school after taking part in the uprising. Robin’s liberal aunt is an airline hostess so hires Beauty, an educated Xhosa, as a caretaker for Robin so she can remain in the city and continue her quest to find her daughter. This is a difficult transition for Robin who is used to staff having a separate living unit, not using family plates and utensils and certainly not being treated as part of the family. As she bonds with comes to love Beauty, Robin withholds information about her daughter, Nomsa for fear of losing Beauty. The only criticism I have is that Robin’s narration does not ring true for a nine-year-old girl.

I didn’t know what to say in a world where people were hated and attacked for not being the right colour, not speaking the right language, not worshipping the right god or not loving the right people: a world where hatred was the common language and bricks the only words.”

“She speaks Zulu, but I am able to understand her. All our languages overlay one another like blankets of mist on a mountaintop.”

“a river of blood in the streets and the children are floating in it… they are human debris swept along in a flood of destruction.” 

“Almost everyone who mattered most to me was in the same room…. Black, white, homosexual, heterosexual, Christian, Jew, Englishman, Afrikaner, adult, child, man, woman: we were all there together, but somehow that eclectic jumble of labels was overwritten by the one classification that applied to every person there: ‘friend.’ “

INTO THE WATER

PAULA HAWKINS

“Seriously: how is anyone supposed to keep track of all the bodies around here? It’s like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides and grotesque historical misogynistic drownings instead of people falling into the slurry or bashing each other over the head.” 

The death of Nel Abbott in the Drowning Pool opens this overly complicated novel.  Her teenage daughter Lena believes her mom committed suicide, but Nel’s estranged sister Jules, returned reluctantly back to Beckford to care for Lena, believes it was something else. As Jules looks for answers, in her own past and among the locals, she finds that Nel has made a number of enemies while writing a book about the Beckford drownings, and that Lena’s best friend, Katie, died a few months earlier in the same place. “Beckford is not a suicide spot. Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women,” Nel wrote.

Once the cases are closed, the people of Beckford debate who is and is not a “good person.” They apply the label forgivingly to men with excuses for their misdeeds but withhold it from the women who end up tangled in the weeds of the drowning pool.

It takes careful reading to follow all the twists and turns, and follow all the characters and clues, but in the end, it is worth the effort. This is Hawkins first book since she wrote The Girl on the Train.

“Yes, it is. It’s, like, when someone has an affair, why does the wife always hate the other woman? Why doesn’t she hate her husband? He’s the one who’s betrayed her, he’s the one who swore to love her and keep her and whatever forever and ever. Why isn’t he the one who gets shoved off a fucking cliff?” 

“Some say the women left something of themselves in the water; some say it retains some of their power, for ever since then it has drawn to its shores the unlucky, the desperate, the unhappy, the lost. They come here to swim with their sisters.” 

 

THE BEST PEOPLE

ZOE WHITTALL

Everyone loved George Woodbury. Ten years earlier he became a hero, tackling a gunman in the prep school where he taught. Year after year he won the Teacher of the Year award voted on by the students. He sat on many boards and committees in the town. Until he was arrest for sexual misconduct and attempted rape that was said to have happened when he was supervising on a girl’s volleyball away trip. Five girls have come forward and made complaints. At this point, Whittall chooses to leave the perpetrator and the victims and follow the innocent bystanders: Joan, his wife and a well-respected nurse, Sadie, his daughter, an overachieving high school senior, and Andrew, his son, a lawyer who lives in New York with his boyfriend Jared. They become pariah, nobody wants to talk to them or be seen with them. They gossip about the mother, “How could she not have known?” Sadie refuses to visit her Dad and moves in with her boyfriend, Jimmy’s family.

People is a page turner with a great ending.

TESTIMONY

ANITA SHREVE

A sex scandal at a New England private school comes to light. There is a tape of three senior basketball players with a girl in a drunken bacchanalia. The trouble is the girl is only 14. The headmaster tries to deal with the matter internally but it escalates beyond his control: the police are called.  The ramifications ripple into the community and beyond.The national press gets wind of the story. We become aware of other incidences that precipitated this assault. There is a death. Careers are ruined. Marriages end.

Shreve is a master of timeline manipulation, slowly painting the narrative as we read.

THE LONELY HEARTS HOTEL

 

HEATHER O’NEILL

Two abandoned babies are dropped off at the orphanage run by sadistic nuns. Rose develops a gift for humour and movement; Pierrot for music. When they were young adolescents they were sent to rich people’s homes to entertain for generous donations to the orphanage. Escape seems possible, happiness imminent. They dream of creating their own circus together for fame and fortune. As the mother superior knows, though, happiness always leads to tragedy. Rose and Pierrot are farmed out as teens to separate homes, with no idea where the other has gone. And the Sisters make sure they never find each other. A good portion of the book is the two yearning for each other and almost crossing paths, so it is a delight when they find each other as adults.

Hotel reminded me of The Night Circus which was full of magic realism. O’Neill is a wonderful writer so Hotel is a page turner.

“Women were still strange and inscrutable creatures. Men didn’t understand them. And women didn’t understand themselves either. It was always a performance of some sort. Everywhere you went, it was like there was a spotlight shining down on your head. You were on a stage when you were on the trolley. You were being judged and judged and judged. Every minute of your performance was supposed to be incredible and outstanding and sexy.
You were often only an ethical question away from being a prostitute.”

All children are really orphans. At heart, a child has nothing to do with its parents, its background, its last name, its gender, its family trade. It is a brand-new person, and it is born with the only legacy that all individuals inherit when they open their eyes in this world: the
inalienable right to be free.” 

A GOOD COUNTRY

LALEH KHADIVI

Laguna Beach, California, 2010. Reza Courdee, a fourteen-year-old straight-A student and chemistry whiz, takes his first hit of pot. In that instant, he is transformed from the high-achieving son of Iranian immigrants into a happy-go-lucky stoner. He loses his virginity, takes up surfing, and sneaks away to all-night raves. For the first time, Reza–now Rez–feels like an American teen. Life is smooth; even lying to his strict parents comes easily. His girlfiend Fatima describes it as “all that American-white-boy shit”.

When the Boston marathon bombs and things begin to change for Rez. He falls out with the bad boy surfers and in with a group of kids more awake to the world around them, who share his background, and whose ideas fill him with a very different sense of purpose. Fatima attends a mosque out of curiosity and afterwards decides to wear a headscarf. Rez is given a post-graduation surfing holiday in Bali by his father, and while he is there he stumbles into a modest neighbourhood mosque and muses: so this is Islam. Within a year, Reza and Fatima are naively making their way to Syria to be part of a Muslim nation rising from the ashes of the civil war. The novel charts the journey to radicalisation. A Good Country is expertly shaped, and persuasively investigates an important phenomenon of our times.

 

A TWO-SPIRIT JOURNEY: An Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojbiwa-Cree Elder

MA-NEE CHACABY

 No one should have to endure the shocking amount of sexual and physical violence this woman endured from childhood. As a child she had the support and guidance of her grandmother who saw the two spirits in her and knew she would have a difficult life. Her step-father taught her how to hunt, trap and survive in the wilds, yet ended up sexually assaulting her. Her abusive mother sent her to marry a man who would torture her for years. It is no wonder that she became addicted to drugs and alcohol. When she finally embraces her two-spirit orientation, she discovers that despite two-spirit teachings being a long-standing indigenous tradition, a new kind of abuse — virulent homophobia — soon comes her way, both from the aboriginal reserve community and from the white community residing nearby in Thunder Bay.

That all this sorrow and pain happened in this country is a national shame. The solution she puts forward, by the example of her exemplary life, is for our government and her own community to support the myriad of programs and teachings Ma-Nee Chacaby and women like her have introduced over decades. From groundbreaking and controversial AIDS awareness programs in the 1990s to the work she continues to do today, both with her own family and her extended reserve family, her life and this memoir ultimately serve as handbook of hope.

ETTA and OTTO and RUSSELL and JAMES

EMMA HOOPER

ETTA, 83 years young, sets off to walk to the ocean, the long way from her farm in Saskatchewan. “I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there, I’ll try to remember to come back.” reads the note she left her husband Otto. In the wild, Etta meets James, a coyote who talks and sings cowboy songs when no one else is around. Otto chooses to wait for her return. He keeps busy building a papier-mache menagerie of all kinds of animals. The reader does have to suspend belief that a woman suffering from dementia can walk over 3,200 kilometres and never sleep indoors or have to deal with winter. This story is balanced with the story of their youth when Etta was a teacher and Otto was her pupil for a short time before he went off to war. While he was fighting in Europe the two correspond with a multitude of letters. She corrects his mistakes and improves his literacy. They have a brief but intense relationship when he comes home on leave, but when he departs Etta is left with Russell, with whom she has a more traditional courtship.

Etta is a fun, light read reminiscent of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

LOST BARBARIAN: Travels in the New China

ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU

Trudeau started his latest travels in China in 2006 as Bejing and the nation were preparing for the Olympics. The heart of the travelogue is his meetings with individual Chinese citizens. The disabled worker, rural families, the university professor, the artist Ai Wei Wei and even his guide, all reveal realities about China and its people that westerners don’t see from a distance. “The Chinese story, especially the recent one over the last 30-40 years is perhaps the greatest success in human history, in terms of the amount of wealth created.”

“On Chinese streets, the people just want to live their lives. We put way too much emphasis on politics. We read China through its state structure.  (Most) Chinese people are radically a-political. They don’t see the Communists as anything different than all the dynasties that preceded. They are a strong authority that has absolute power over them.  The people either embrace politics and become an active player and rise through ranks or turn their backs on it. Ordinary Chinese are also going: ‘Wow look at all the things we have achieved.’ They are very proud of their success.”

If you want to learn more about China, this is your book. Though I wish he included photographs especially since he usually works in a visual media, tv and film.

BLACK BERRY, SWEET JUICE: On Being Black and White in Canada

LAWRENCE HILL

“Canadians have a favourite pastime, and they don’t even realize it. They like to ask—they absolutely love to ask—where you are from if you don’t look convincingly white. They want to know it, they need to know it, simply must have that information. They just can’t relax until they have pin-pointed, to their satisfaction, your geographic and racial coordinates. They can go almost out of their minds with curiosity, as when driven by the need for food, water, or sex, but once they’ve finally managed to find out precisely where you were born, who your parents were, and what your racial makeup is, then, man, do they feel better. They can breathe easy and get back to the business of living. ““I suppose the reason many of us mixed-race people find [This] Question offensive is not just that it makes assumptions, which are often false, about our identity, but because it attempts to hang our identity on one factor: race.”

Part memoir, part thesis and part history Black Berry is a thought provoking read. Hill struggles to understand his own personal and racial identity. Raised by human rights activist parents in a predominantly white Ontario suburb.  “Canadians are quick to point out what we are not – we are not white, and we are not black – but they don’t tell us what we are. This is the quintessential Canada: the True North, Proud and Vague.” Mixed raced people feel alienated from both races: not black enough to be black nor white enough to be white. It must be a lonely existence.

 

THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE

LISA SEE

East meets west as the world impinges on the Akha hill tribe in Hunnun province in China. One of the most interesting themes is the exploration of the Akha culture. Young teens are encouraged to explore their sexuality but if a baby is born out of marriage it must be killed. Twins are considered to bring bad spirits so they must be killed as well.Elaborate cleansing ceremonies help protect the individuals, the families and the village. Li-yan falls in love with San-pa but San-pa is born on Tiger Day, while she is born on Pig Day, so their parents see them as an incompatible match. But their love overpowers tradition and taboo, resulting in Li-yan’s pregnancy.  Tradition is broken and the child is not killed. Li-yan is allowed to take her baby to an orphanage. When foreigners arrive from Hong Kong in search of a renowned, aged tea called Pu’er, Li-Yan is the only one who can translate. Girl is over melodramatic, the worst of the worst and the best of the best happen to Li-yan but the story of tea binds the narrative together and makes an interesting read.