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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

January 2022 Reads

A full month of no white guys!

Angeline Boulley, Firekeeper’s Daughter

Catherine Hernandez, Crosshairs

Tiffany D. Jackson, Grown

Katherena Vermette, The Strangers

Jamie Cortez, Gordo

What a glorious time for reading! Days are short, there’s no need to leave the house and the coffee supply is strong and steady. Aside from Jaime Cortez’s amazing short story collection Gordo, you will notice that these are books written by women, mostly women of colour. And while that wasn’t exactly an intentional move, I do wonder if I was working through some post-Franzen need to diversify my narrative consumption. Either way, this is a rich collection of sweet sweet reads. Dive in!

Mariana Enriquez, The Dangers of Smoking In Bed

Enriquez is an Argentinian writer and spook-queen on par with the great Shirley Jackson. This collection of stories explores an undercurrent of darkness that exists just under the surface of regular life. Between 1976 and 1983, Argentina was ruled by a military dictatorship unrelenting in its violence. While Enriquez’s stories are fictional with an edge of magical realism, they are also, definitely, imbued with the spirit of those turbulent years. Characters refer to missing loved ones frequently. In “Kids Who Came Back,” children long missing appear again to their families, unchanged from the day they disappeared, bearing the wounds and scars they left with. At first, the return is an unexpected gift, and families embrace their lost children, ignoring the unbelievable circumstances of the return. Of course, though, the children are not the same as they used to be, and their presence ultimately destabilizes the community.

“Our Lady of the Quarry” explores rivalry and pettiness among teenage girls as it develops over a series of hot summer days spent swimming. The story lulls you gently into thinking that the girls’ emotions are the main conflict and biggest threat (this is entirely plausible if you know anything about teenage girls and their lethal gossip). But then, boom, like a great Twilight Zone episode, the low grade fear is manifested in the physical world as a pack of dangerous wolves, much discussed by the characters but never seen. Did they bring the wolves forth with their malice? Will the snarky girls protect their friends from this actual physical threat? I’ll let you find out for yourself.

I have such respect for a well crafted short story, and this collection, with its darkly believable weirdness, is one that deserves your attention.

Angeline Boulley, Firekeeper’s Daughter

There’s a ton of buzz around Ojibwe author Angeline Boulley’s first book - the Obamas' Higher Ground production company has optioned it for a Netflix series and it was chosen as one of Reese Witherspoon’s YA book club picks in 2021 - which indicates to me that the world is hungry for female Indigenous crime solving protagonists!

Set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the novel is narrated by first year University student Daunis Fontaine. Daunis has dreams of attending medical school, but has stayed close to home for her first year in order to help manage the care of her ailing grandmother. One of Daunis’s more believable characteristics is her doubt over making this decision; she acted based on what her gut was telling her, but in reflection is concerned that delaying the achievement of her goals is going to negatively affect her future.

Daunis also struggles with determining her identity, feeling the influences of both her mother’s wealthy white Sault Ste. Marie family and her father’s past as a hockey star from the local Sugar Island Ojibwe Reservation. Daunis is herself a talented hockey player, but has stopped playing due to a mysterious event or injury she sometimes refers to but never talks about.

Staying close to home allows Daunis to spend another year hanging out with Lily, her high school best friend. But things are kind of weird here. Lily’s boyfriend Travis’s drug use has spiraled out of control, and Daunis tries hard to support Lily in escaping what is clearly an abusive relationship. Also intriguing is the arrival of a new hockey player, Jamie, to Daunis’s brother Levi’s high school team. This is one of those things where high school aged players move around to different locations to play hockey for the local team. As a parent and non-sports person, I ask you, Does any other sport do this? It just seems short sighted to prioritize hockey over school and family life, but I guess I’m not getting how important hockey is to some people?

Anyway, there’s clear chemistry between Jamie and Daunis, but Jamie has said he has a girlfriend back home, and Daunis is committed to not breaking the cardinal rule of civil relationships: don’t be a cheater. Jamie is not exactly who he seems to be, as it turns out, and plays a role in inviting Daunis to operate as an undercover agent for the FBI (!) investigating the production of a particular type of meth associated with Sugar Island.

Thus, the story is essentially a mystery, and Daunis’s investigation leads her to explore her ancestors’ knowledge of traditional medicines that will aid her in the search for this unique meth. (Go ahead, remember Walter White and the blue sky meth. I did.) Daunis and Jamie decide to make being in a relationship part of their cover, but as much as she likes him, Daunis is reluctant to trust Jamie altogether, knowing his existence in her life is based on a fictional identity constructed for a purpose that has nothing to do with her. Their romance, her complicated relationship with both branches of her family tree, and the existence of trauma among indigenous members of her community are what create multiple threads of tension in the story.

I liked Daunis a lot, and her personality is a big part of what makes this book successful. At the same time, she is not always consistent in her motives or actions, which I found frustrating(ly real?). Daunis is extraordinarily critical of Jamie for keeping secrets from her, even though it’s his job, while she herself holds back key personal information from him and also from the reader. Her suspicions about him lead her to go rogue, which places her in danger and further isolates her from the organization that could offer protection.

On the other hand, Daunis’s struggle to find and own her identity in a community committed to its own divisions, is effectively, relatably rendered. She is in so many ways an ordinary young adult, about to embark on a promising future, but reluctant to leave her familiar, maddening people behind. She grieves the loss of friends and family to addiction, and she herself experiences the trauma of being devalued and abused by dominant white culture. Boulley’s willingness to dive deep into Daunis’s experiences, all too common for women of colour everywhere, with unflinching viscerality, are what make this book amazing. The action and romance are what will make it a great Netflix series.

Crosshairs is set in Toronto and tells of a completely plausible near future time when climate change-related disasters have destabilized the city and led to homelessness and general devastation. The conditions are just right for a government sanctioned military style regime called The Boots to gain power. The Boots are most interested in preserving the interests of “True Canadians”, i.e. straight white people. Appropriately, those who aren’t True Canadians because they are queer, Black, Indigenous, people of colour are called “The Others.” The Boots, combined with government agencies, are working to enforce the processes required to remove people’s basic human rights. Here’s its predictable trajectory: Step one: remove access to bank accounts and liquid assets (as in The Handmaid’s Tale); step two: restrict free movement of the Others and enforce a curfew; step three: move citizens out of their homes (as in Palestine) and destroy their neighbourhoods (as the Gestapo did) and finally, step four: re-locate now homeless queer and BIPOC citizens to government run “work camps” (like Hitler did). All citizens identified as Others who wish to remain free must go into hiding to protect themselves from their own government.

Crosshairs is narrated by Kay, whose fledgling career as a drag queen is cut short by sanctions imposed by the government and enforced by the Boots. When we first meet him he is hiding in his friend’s basement, having lost his boyfriend and beloved roommates to work camps. His journey out of hiding connects him with a rebel group who enlists him to train for a planned uprising in exchange for safe housing in the countryside. He is joined by Bahadur, a trans refugee, Firuzeh, a social worker, and Beck, a former army officer now working for the resistance.

What’s incredible about this book is how beautifully Hernandez captures nuances of identity and politics. Bahadur, for example, is suspicious of the resistance movement, recognizing that it is being led by the very same (white) people who created the Restoration movement in the first place. Beck, who is training Kay and Bahadur, struggles to reconcile his actions of the past with his current commitment to resisting the regime that once employed him. Firuzeh’s work with new Canadians at a community centre has shown her the many ways society is built to oppress the marginalized; her experiences as a woman of colour confirm what she has learned from her clients.

At least as upsetting as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Crosshairs presents a vision of what happens when governments are led by people whose primary interest is protecting their own privilege (cough cough January 6 2021). It’s definitely time for us to hear this old story from newer, more diverse, and smarter voices.

Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You?

If you’ve read Rooney’s 2018 book Normal People, then you know that what goes on in her stories is not so much action as it is emotion, and not so much movement forward as reflection on the past. Beautiful World, Where are You? is set in Ireland and narrated in the third person, alternating focus between Alice and Eileen, best friends about to turn 30. Mixed in between each chapter are emails written by each character to the other, and here Rooney digresses from the sharp observance of omniscience to the reflective and emotional reality of each character. It’s quite the stylistic risk, I think, and could potentially disrupt the flow of the story. One of my biggest reading pet peeves happens when characters in books fail to be nuanced and complex because they are mere soap boxes for their authors. (Looking at you G.B. Shaw). Alice may well be a version of Rooney herself, with her thoughts on early international success, but overall the addition of these personal narratives from each character makes for a rewarding reading experience. I’m not sure I can say the same of Shaw.

As in Normal People, the story revolves around romantic relationships, Eileen’s with her longtime friend / crush Simon, and Alice’s new romance with Felix, a factory worker she met through a dating app. To call Alice romantically “interested” in Felix is a bit of a stretch, because they seem not to like each other at all. After two mediocre dates Alice invites Felix to come with her to Rome for a promotional book event. They don’t seem remotely suited to one another, but stay together nevertheless, Felix ultimately moving in with Alice to her rented country home.

Eileen and Simon, on the other hand, are clearly perfectly matched, but have remained friends (with occasional benefits) for many years. They spend much of the book resisting their mutual attraction, or avoiding talking about it, in a way that is as exasperating as Alice’s commitment to Felix. Why can’t these people get it together? You may well ask.

What’s important about Eileen and Alice is that they are deeply conscious of the fact that they are still figuring out their lives. All of their relationships are insecure, including the one they share with each other. They don’t have enough experience to stop putting up with ambiguity and confusion, so those are their resting states. It’s a real thing, is what I’m saying, and Rooney is a master at conveying the authenticity of this kind of emotional stasis.

In their letters, Eileen and Alice talk deeply about Marxism, about the meaning of art and consumerism, the inevitable collapse of the planet. Is it sort of hard to believe that they write these long and philosophical narratives to one another and email them, like it’s 1998? Yes. A little bit. But maybe it is also just a pleasant reminder of how writing allows for sharing and deep exploration of ideas in a way that texting and phone calls never will.

Alice’s letters reveal a kind of darkness in her past that reminded me of Marianne in Normal People; there are clear indications of maternal neglect and abuse at the hands of an older sibling. It’s possible to surmise that childhood experiences with complicated “love” are what draw her to the elusive and often unkind Felix. Eileen’s writing is imbued with loneliness and insecurity. As she prepares to participate in her older sister’s wedding party, she is bombarded by associated self consciousness around her own apparent lack of life “success” so far: she is single and working for below poverty level wages at a literary magazine.

Rooney has been praised and criticized for being the voice of her generation. Have you noticed that only old people do this, people in different generations from the one they’re targeting? I continue to blame boomers. Anyway, regardless of how you feel about millennials and their apparently unique way of being in the world, this story, with its intimate portrait of young women tentatively navigating adult life, will stay with you long after you have finished it.

Tiffany D. Jackson, Grown

This is a YA novel about Enchanted Jones, a teenaged aspiring singer, who is taken on as a protege by an older, very famous musician. In her author’s note, Jackson asserts that Grown was “inspired by a case…but this book is not about R. Kelly, nor is it a recount of his allegations.” That is perhaps true, but it is definitely a book about a guy like R. Kelly, who abuses his fame and power to destroy Enchanted’s life. It is also a thorough exploration of how abuse works (in case there’s anyone in the world out there still asking, Why didn’t she just leave?) Twenty-nine year old Korey Fields sweeps Enchanted Jones off her feet, assuring her parents that he will help to build her career. He wins the trust of her family and under the guise of helpfulness whisks her away on tour with him. Once she’s been taken away from her family he creates barriers that prevent her from contacting them and balances his violent and controlling behaviour with apologies and gifts, further gaslighting her into making excuses for and staying with him.

The novel opens at a present day murder scene, and then cycles back through the past events leading to the scene, which I appreciated, because it assured me that Enchanted was going to make it out of the story alive. The mystery is plausibly maintained through the book, which makes it difficult to put down. And where, at times, artfulness in storytelling is lost in favour of making a point - minutes of meeting presented as recorded, for example - the power of the narrative does not suffer as a result. It’s a tough read, but a good one overall.

Katherena Vermette, The Strangers

I thought this might be the saddest book I’ve ever read, but I just started Catherine Hernandez’s Scarborough and I’m concerned it’s also a contender, with its many impoverished and neglected children.

“Stranger” is the surname of the Indigenous family at the centre of this book, but also, clearly, a descriptor for their relationships with each other and the world. They are strangers because they have been systematically, relentlessly prevented from participating in white society. It’s an incredibly powerful book and one that you will not be able to forget.

The story is told by three generations of women from the Stranger family - Phoenix, who is giving birth in a detention centre when the book opens, Phoenix’s sister Cedar-Sage, who is in foster care, their mother Elsie, an unemployed drug addict, and Elsie’s mother, Margaret. It’s no accident that the book’s focus is on the women of the family; Vermette is reminding us that women most often bear the burden of ensuring their family’s day-to-day survival. These women, each hardened in her own way by the difficulties of living in a white dominant society, behave in the only ways they know how: by shutting down (Elsie), by lashing out (Phoenix) or by sacrificing themselves so others can survive (Margaret). Each girl has been parented badly, neglected or abused by family members, left to fend for themselves when others should have been taking care of them. And, in the same way that Grown illustrates clearly why abused women struggle to leave their abusers, The Strangers creates a thorough picture of what intergenerational trauma looks like, and why it is so difficult to overcome.

Margaret, for example, is a promising law student who falls in love with a white classmate. She is going to do what no one else in her family has - get an education and a career - and is well on track to succeed until she finds herself pregnant. She dreams of getting married and creating a home for the baby, but her lover is shocked by the news and insists that she not have the child. Instead, Margaret’s family works out a solution to ensure the baby stays in the family, but a tragedy disrupts the plan and Margaret is left to raise baby Elsie alone. Margaret’s coldness towards Elsie, and later her sons Joseph and Alex, is so familiar. She never recovers from the loss of her intended future, and her children, while always clothed and fed, do not experience warmth or kindness from her.

It’s difficult to empathize with Margaret - she seems so cruel all the time - at the same time, this is the effect of shattering someone’s dreams. Elsie’s estrangement from Margaret leads her to seek love elsewhere and to have children while still a teenager. Elsie loves her children very much, but struggles to care for them. Sparrow, her youngest, dies suddenly of an unexpected illness, and Elsie’s attempts to manage her grief lead to the behaviour that causes her other two children to be removed from her home. Elsie is aware of how the white world sees her, as a negligent and addicted single mom stereotype, but is so broken by her experiences that all of her best intentions to stay clean are easily overcome by sadness and grief.

There is no sugar-coating in this narrative. So if you want to keep believing that the justice system and family and children’s services are not oppressive tools of white supremacy, this is not the book that will allow you to rest in your ignorance. Should you desire a tale of fierce survival through rage and grief, though, you will find it here. Do not look away.

Jamie Cortez, Gordo

Oh gosh this is a funny and beautiful book. It’s a collection of linked short stories, set in a 1970s migrant camp in California. Gordo, our hero, is chubby and gay, struggling to understand the social dynamic of the camp, where rules about status, masculinity and appropriate behaviour are unspoken but nevertheless clearly understood.

I have not often read stories like these, where the perspective of children is so authentically (and hilariously) recreated. In one scene that made me laugh out loud, a bunch of kids discover a stack of pornographic magazines in an old man’s abandoned room. On opening up the centerfold, a six year old viewer gasps at what Kurt Vonnegut would call a “wide open beaver” and says, “You can see her guts!” The ensuing negotiations over who should take care of the magazines and who is even old enough to look at them leads to yelling and fist fights. In another story, Gordo watches as high schooler and fellow camp resident Fat Cookie uses tiny pencils stolen from the library to create a beautiful mural along the camp’s blank walls. Gordo (and I) marvel at Fat Cookie’s talent, but also her crusty dismissal of anyone’s praise or kindness. She doesn’t need external affirmation, her behaviour suggests, she’s got a big life to lead and no one in the camp is going to influence whether that does or does not happen.

Another deeply memorable story is called “Alex”. In this one, Gordo’s family has moved from the camp into a house in the town of Watsonville. One morning, they witness their neighbour Alex fall out of the tree he is pruning. Alex is seriously injured, and while Gordo's father is in the process of assessing his injuries, Gordo is surprised to discover that despite presenting as a cisgender male, Alex has breasts, tightly bound under his shirt. Gordo’s family makes no mention of the revelation, but afterward, notably, they refer to Alex as “she” instead of “he”. Sylvie, Gordo’s sister insists that Alex is creepy and weird, but Gordo himself feels a warmth towards Alex that he cannot easily explain. Do they share the same kind of secret? he wonders.

Cortez’s stories beautifully capture the double edged sword of living in a small community - people are there to look out for you, because they know you so well. Also, they know you so well they’ll drive you crazy.

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