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.

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.”

LIFE ON THE GROUND FLOOR: Letters from the Edge of Emergency Medicine

James Maskalyk

Those who work in the ER burn out faster than any other type of physician. I’m not sure if it’s the shifts or the long, steady glimpse of humans on their worst day. In this memoir Maskalyk takes us from Toronto’s St. Mike’s Hospital to a teaching hospital in Addis Abba, Ethiopia, to his original home, a cabin in northern Alberta, where his grandfather is preparing to die. All add depth to his ruminations on caring for others, life and love. “Medicine is life caring for itself, to me, it’s the greatest story.” 

It is easy to ignore your own worries when there is a never-ending list of worse ones placed in front of you,” he writes wistfully. “My relationship failed. Friends fell away. Beauty too. I felt fine.

Most of the work here is in minor. ERs are open all hours, and since the service is free, people often come in early, instead of an hour too late. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with their bodies at all. There are so many measures in place to keep people well, or to catch them before they get too sick, I can go weeks without intubating someone. Worried minds, though, latch onto subtle sensations that magnify with attention, and lacking context, they line up to be reassured. The two populations, the sick and the worried, mix together, and separating them keeps us up all night.

Suffering souls, though, there is no shortage of them. They circle this place. Some sleep right outside, on sidewalk grates, wrapped in blankets, waiting. One is splayed in the clothes he lives in, face pressed against the metal grille in a deep, drunk sleep. Every few minutes, a subway passes below the grates, and a rush of warm air flutters his shirt like a flag.

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.

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.

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 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.

 

NEXT YEAR FOR SURE

ZORY LEIGH PETERSON

Their friends all agreed that Chris and Katheryn had the perfect relationship. He called her, “Katheryn the Awesome.” Their relationship is a mutual admiration society. Petterson explores what Chris and Kathryn actually need from others – friends and lovers both. “What she secretly wanted,” Kathryn thinks of a couple she and Chris are old friends with, “was for the four of them to be married somehow.… [Not] where you’re in each other’s beds, but the promise, that explicit understanding, that [they] were bound to each other, the four of them, for life.”

 When Chris starts to harbour feelings for his friend Emily, Kathryn encourages him to act. I think I have a crush on Emily, he tells Kathryn in the shower. This is where they confide crushes. A heart crush or a boner crush? Kathryn says. He doesn’t know how to choose. It’s not particularly sexual, his crush. He hasn’t thought about Emily that way. And Chris would never say boner. But it’s not just his heart, either. It’s his molecules. So he tells Kathryn about his molecules. How the first time he met Emily, it felt like his DNA had been re-sequenced. How he felt an instant kinship and a tenderness that was somehow painful. How, whenever he talks to her, he comes away feeling hollowed out and nauseous like after swimming too long in a chlorinated pool. And how – this, sheepishly – he has spent days arranging and rearranging their bookshelves and postcards and takeout menus, to make the apartment not only as welcoming as possible but as informative. As compelling. You’re awesome, Kathryn says.

Chris’ crush is a young free spirit named Emily who works odd jobs and lives in a communal house full of interesting characters. Chris does approach Emily, the two begin going out, and Chris’s formerly “perfect” life with Kathryn rapidly starts to change. Rapidly and lots. This is polyandry at its tamest. Chris prefers cuddling to sex.

Petterson’s excellent storytelling stills make it an excellent read.

HELPLESS

BARBARA GOWDY

Rachel is an usually beautiful nine-year old girl, dark skinned with “miraculous chromium yellow” hair. Celia is a single mother, working hard at two jobs to make ends meet. Luckily they have Mika in their lives. He is their landlord who gives them a great deal on their apartment but is also a friend and almost an uncle to Rachel.  Ron is a nerdy appliance repairman who drives around town looking at young girls. One day he spots Rachel. “Yes, he said to himself, something happened. I fell in love. Only as he thought it did he realise it was true. A ripple of terror went through him … he began to see himself for what he was: a man gearing up for suffering.” He began stalking Rachel. He created a back story for Rachel that her life at home was terrible, full of verbal, physical and sexual abuse. He convinced himself that she would be better off with him. Ron begins to convert the basement of his home into a girl’s bedroom, awaits his chance while promising his baby-hungry girlfriend that they will adopt a child.  The night of a blackout he gets his chance and steals her away. He convinces his girlfriend to help him care for Rachel.

I don’t want to reveal more of the plot but Gowdy is an excellent writer. All the main characters are helpless in their own way. It’s a great read.

THE HUNGRY GHOSTS

SHYAM SELVADURAI

“In Sri Lankan myth, a person is reborn a peréthaya [hungry ghost] because, during his human life, he desired too much” When his father died,six-year-old Shivan’s mother and sister moved with him into his maternal grandmother’s house. Daya was an angry and demanding woman who refused to talk to her daughter. Shivan, the grandson, became the golden boy, the reason she would take the family in. While he soaked up his grandmother’s recounting of ancient Buddhist tales about ghosts who haunt their future selves until past wrongs are redeemed, Shivan also chafed against her hold on him as he aged. He persuaded his mother to move the family to Canada, as much to get away from Daya as to flee the escalating conflict in Sri Lanka. Not that he could really escape—neither his grandmother nor his troubled country were anywhere near finished wreaking havoc in Shivan’s life. On an extended visit back to Sri Lanka, Shivan was taking over his grandmother real estate business until his grandmother had his lover killed.

Ghosts is a well written book. But when Shiven’s affair with Michael goes south I wanted to tell the young men to grow up. It could have used some paring down.

SERIAL MONOGAMY

KATE TAYLOR

SM tells the stories of two relationships where the men fall out of monogamy with much younger accolades. The story is narrated by Sharon Soleymani, a writer of popular novels. She and her husband, Al, a professor who is a decade older than she is, have young twin daughters and an easy life until their marriage is shaken first by his admission of an affair with a research assistant and then by her diagnosis of breast cancer. When Al first hears of the cancer, he heroically returns home to look after Sharon and his children. Ironicly Sharon married Al only after his first marriage was destroyed by his affair with her. When her treatment finished, Sharon begins to write a serialized novel about Charles Dickens’s affair with the actress Nelly Ternan, which began when Nelly was 18 and Dickens a married 45-year-old father of nine. Taylor balances the two stories well, alternating chapters. It is based on historic fact.

THE PARCEL

ANOSH IRANI

“I am reviled and revered, deemed to have been blessed, and cursed, with sacred powers.” Madhu is a eunuch, a hijra, a third sex living in a community of hijras. Once she was the crown jewel of the brothel.  Her “arsehole,” she recalls, “was a cash crop.” Now at 40 she begs on the street. One day Madhu receives a call from Padma Madam, the most feared brothel owner in the district: a “parcel” has arrived – a young girl from Nepal, betrayed and trafficked by her aunt -“And the truth was a ten year old girl had been sold into slavery.” And Madhu must prepare her for her future of prostitution. Madhu took pride of opening the parcel gently much differently than the pimps would do, though the parcel was still kept in a cage.

“Born and bred to mortify,” Madhu is a breathtaking figure, admirable despite that fact that the “very things that made one human – love, hope, health – had been ripped from her calmly and precisely, the way a syringe extracted blood.”  The Parcel is not an easy read but it does grip you by the heart and squeeze.

 

ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS

ELAN MASTAI

Tom Barren lives in 2016, in a utopia. In 1965 a generator of clean of unlimited energy was invented. It generates energy based on the earth’s movement. The earth spins on its axis as it revolves around the sun, as it turns in the milky way galaxy, as it flies through the universe in the ever expanding universe. With all that energy the world created a reality that was predicted by futurists of the 50’s and 60’s: flying cars, robot maids, peace. Tom’s father is a genius who is building a time machine. His idea is to return to the past to witness origins of the generator that allowed such a utopia to be created. But when Tom goes back in time he disturbs the timeline to return to 2016 as we know it. How can he restore the world to the utopian future it could and should be?

What a great concept! Great speculative fiction. All the way through the book I thought this would make a great movie, then I read that the author was a screenwriter as well as a novelist.

THE BREAK

KATHERINE VERMETTE

The Break is a haunting book full of both love and hate. On a cold winter night, two girls are violently assaulted in an empty lot. One was raped with a beer bottle. The Break shows how the violence affects the families and community, a large rock thrown into a body of water. The raped victim’s aunt saw the assault from her house and called the cops but being night did not comprehend what was really happening. Could she have done more? The girl who was the ringleader of the assault reminds me of Serena Nicotine a troubled sociopath I taught in grade two, who when a teen drowned a little girl, then later when in a halfway house stabbed the attendant to death.

Unfortunately, The Break was the first book voted off the Canada Reads program on CBC. I would have enjoyed hearing the discussion of this great book.

TOMBOY SURVIVAL GUIDE

IVAN COYOTE imgres

Tomboy Survival Guide, by the Canadian writer, performer and musician Ivan Coyote, is of well-told tales about the author’s experiences growing up as a transgender person in the Yukon. Adapted from Coyote’s successful stage show of the same name, these stories are entertaining but also impart serious messages and offer the reader a window into the experiences of a transgender person who became a successful writer and performer. Like many transgendered people, Coyote prefers the pronouns they and them. Coyote describes grandmother Flo, a devout Catholic, as “not a cuddly woman” and as someone who was “far more likely to cuff the back of your head than she was to pat the top of it.” Yet Flo was perhaps the first person to reassure Coyote that, while they might not be just like everyone else, they was just fine the way they was. As Coyote remembers it, Flo said that “Some of us have hard roads, but the Lord never gives anyone a burden without also giving them a gift. Your job is to find out what that gift is and use it, y’hear me? God doesn’t make mistakes. Never forget that. You are exactly who God meant you to be.”Public bathrooms and change rooms for me have always been a choice between very uncomfortable and potentially unsafe, so I try to be polite about it because if I get angry it become so much easier for them to

Public bathrooms and change rooms for me have always been a choice between very uncomfortable and potentially unsafe, so I try to be polite about it because if I get angry it become so much easier for them to dismiss me, plus an angry someone who looks like a man in the ladies’ change room? Then I am seen as even more of a threat. Then it is even more all my fault.

coyote-tomboy-survival-guide-s650But my day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body. A am not trapped in the wrong body. I am trapped in sa world that  makes very little space for bodies like mine. I live in a world where public washrooms are a battleground where politicians can stand up and be applauded for putting forth an amendment barring me from choosing which gendered bathroom I belong in. I live in a world where my trans sisters are routinely murdered without consequence or justice. I live in a world where trans youth get kicked out onto the street by their parents who think their God is standing behind them as they close their front doors on their own children. Going  to the beach is an act of bravery for me. None of this is a battle between me and my own flesh. For me to be free, it is the world that has to change, not trans people.

THE ILLEGAL

arts_books1-1-72464fd7f6b3c94d                                                                                                         LAWRENCE HILL

THE ILLEGAL seems even more timely today, with the election of Trump and his executive order to start construction of the wall on the border of Mexico, than when it was first published. Illegal follows the story of Keita Ali and his family in the fictional country of Zantoroland. It’s populated by people whose ancestors, a century and a half ago, were the slaves whose labour built the third wealthiest economy on the planet, the nearby fictional country of Freedom State.  Keita Ali is running a marathon in Freedom State against a vicious opponent who is tormenting him with racial slurs. “Go Home N—–.” Keita is not just running a race, he’s on the run from the authorities who want to deport him. With his tormentor at his heels, the unflappable hero calmly ticks his pace up a notch and begins to sing as he surges up the hill: “Want to shatter your opponent’s confidence? Just when he starts to hurt, you sing.” Keita’s sister is captured by the Zantoroland’s military government and held for ransom so Keita must run and win every race so he can buy her freedom. Hill creates a trove of fascinating characters: a violent sports agent, a woman who runs a brothel and AfricTown (the black shantytown), a prime minister who is evil incarnate, and a schoolboy who films everything by hiding in various closets.

Hill is an excellent writer. The Illegal is not to be missed.