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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

October Reads

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

Kristyn Dunnion, Stoop City

Joseph Boyden, From Mushkegowuk to New Orleans: A Mixed Blood Highway

Joe Sacco, Paying the Land

Jeanette Winterson, FranKissStein

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt

Kristyn Dunnion, Stoop City

Kristyn is a great writer and a dear friend of mine.  You will not be getting any kind of “objective” review here, if by “objective” you mean measured and unbiased.  But it doesn’t matter, because all of you out there who aren’t friends of Kristyn’s should still read this awesome short story collection.

Stoop City’s characters are generally some combination of disenfranchised, queer, addicted, shady, and desperate. Many grew up in small towns where religion defined the moral code, and now find themselves in the present, scrambling to survive as adults in the big city, haunted by a series of damaged and neglectful parent figures.

Few writers are this good at exploring without judgment the attention to survival needed when you are poor. Heather O’Neill and Jesmyn Ward come to mind. And the title is our tip off that we are not reading about the rich or even comfortable, but instead those who would not just use a word like “stoop”, but also spend a fair bit of time hanging out on one.

Dunnion masterfully describes lingering scenes of loss and despair.  There is the abandoned house used for teenaged parties and hookups, its glory days as the finest place in town long forgotten.  There is fourteen year-old Ohio who roams her small town, taking crisp twenty dollar bills for furtive hand jobs all the while yearning to visit the state across the lake, the one she’s named after.  Ohio’s friend Mary Louise “lives in a run-down bungalow on the other side of the KFC...Mary Louise’s mom cuts her hair using a mixing bowl as guide, which makes her look like a medieval clown...Her parents regularly kick her out so they can party all night.”

Mary Louise is one of my favourite characters, turning up again in the story “Pristine” where she works the nightshift at a factory decontaminating used surgical equipment. Mary Louise has lost her long-term partner Shirley, and pines for her sexy co-worker Lucinda, imagining wooing her, “Hand on the curve of her back...Treat her real good.  Smile.  Listen. Shirley said I never listen." We know Mary Louise has no chance with Lucinda, but we root for her anyway, recognizing her desire for a new romance to take the edge off a decades-long routine, and to provide hope for the future.

Stoop City’s inhabitants, including Ohio and Mary Louise, are lovable because, despite their terrible childhoods, their dreams and desires are the same as anyone's. They're looking for love and comfort, hoping to find room in a world designed for everyone else, waiting on the stoop to be let in.

Joseph Boyden, From Mushkegowuk to New Orleans: A Mixed Blood Highway

I was putting together a bin of books by Indigenous authors to be used by our FNMI (First Nations, Métis, Inuit) Studies class when I found this slim volume on the shelf.  It’s a print copy of Boyden’s 2008 inaugural speech for the Henry Kreisel Lecture series at the University of Alberta.  Holding the book in my hand I had a few questions, the first of which was, “Hmm, what is the world thinking of Boyden these days?”  In case you've forgotten, here's the APTN article that exposed Boyden as being maybe not so Indigenous as he had claimed. I set the book down, not to be given to the class, but also not to be put back in the collection, and I kept working on filling the bin. Later that day I started reading it.

In one of those coincidences that seems a bit more than just random, I bumped into a colleague who, eyeing a copy of Boyden’s most famous title on our free book cart said, “I’m so torn about Three Day Road.  Such a great book!” Then, as we chatted, another colleague joined the conversation and asked if we’d read the recent National Post interview with Boyden’s wife Amanda, about her new memoir.  In the interview (and presumably the memoir) she frankly reveals Boyden’s philandering ways, and his reliance on her as editor of his work.  She doesn’t say she wrote his stuff, but the idea that she might have is certainly, well, believable.

So frequently in conversations about d-bags like Boyden (who, let's be clear, was never accused of sexual assault), Jian Ghomeshi, or Louis C.K., my friends and I talk about the art, and what to do with our former love of it. Do you stop enjoying the art, or even your memories of the art, because its creator is a criminally misogynist asshole? I think so, frankly.  I really loved that show Master of None, but I can’t look at Aziz Ansari anymore without imagining him trying to cajole a woman he just met into giving him a blow job. And I guess that’s the price you pay for not being a good guy. People give up on your art.  Honestly, it seems fair to me.

I really enjoyed Boyden’s books; I gave The Orenda as a gift to six different people. In reflection, I think it might have been so successful because in it he tells an Indigenous story that white people want to hear.  Sure colonizers were violent and heartless, but so were those who occupied the land before they arrived.  Check out these gross battle scenes between the Huron and the Iroquois!

But do you know who else has written incredible Indigenous stories?  Actual Indigenous people. I’m going to list different and better authors to read if you want to know more about Indigenous culture and identity, but before that I will say that there was one element of Boyden's lecture that was both riveting and unforgettable: the story of he and his wife witnessing a violent crime happen right in front of their car as they drive down a deserted New Orleans street. He's still a solid storyteller, despite his many, many flaws.

OK, check out any of these other writers:

Cherie Dimaline (Métis), David Robertson (Cree), Richard Wagamese (Ojibwe), Eden Robinson (Haisla), Alicia Elliott (Tuscarora), Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi saagiig Nishnaabeg), Drew Hayden Taylor (Ojibway), Katherena Vermette (Métis), Chelsea Vowell (Métis), Tanya Talaga (Anishnaabe), Wab Kinew (Ojibwa).

They never claimed an identity not their own, and they deserve your attention more.

Jeanette Winterson, FranKissStein

What a cheesy title!  Honestly, I almost didn’t read this book because of it, but my love for Jeanette Winterson is strong and I knew in my heart she couldn’t write a bad book.  Thankfully, I wasn’t wrong.

The story opens with a scene set in Geneva at the estate where Mary and Percy Shelley are holed up with Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, and Dr. Polidori.  I must confess that my main point of reference for this event was the 1986 Ken Russel film Gothic, and so I very briefly imagined Mary Shelley as Miranda Richardson and Julian Sands as her husband, Percy Bysse Shelley.  Should you be one of the five other people who saw that film, I assure you the impression doesn’t last long.

This book is partly set in the past and narrated by Mary Shelley herself, who creates Dr. Frankenstein and his monster through the process of imagining what artificial life could look like.  It is also set in a near future where A.I. technology is being used to construct personalized sex dolls.  In this storyline Dr. Stein is a well respected scientist and lecturer whose work is focused on the extension of human consciousness beyond what he perceives as the limitations of the human form.  Trans character Ry (short for Mary) Shelley is a doctor, interested in Stein's research about preserving and extending human life, but also romantically involved with him. The twin narratives challenge us to consider the nature of sex and gender, especially as they relate to artificial life, be it zombie or sexbot.  Is sex with a human analogue a sufficient substitute for human interaction, as developer Ron Lord hopes?  Or is it a passionate exchange of desire as Dr. Shelley and Dr. Stein show us? Can it be both?

Winterson is a feminist, and that’s part of why it’s so wonderful to read to her work.  Through the characters in this novel she invites us to consider the power of Mary Shelley’s ideas, influenced as they were by her own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft.  She also writes Ada Lovelace into the novel, Lord Byron’s real life daughter and pioneer mathematician, reminding us of the many less-famous women of the past whose ideas were never heard because of their gender and position in society.  There’s some mention of the horrific Bedlam psychiatric hospital, and a few chapters wherein Mary Shelley visits her creation Captain Walton, who bore witness to Dr. Frankenstein’s terrible confession in her novel.  "But wait! you say. "Isn't Walton is a fictional character?"  He sure is, and so we are placed in the no man’s land of art mirroring life.  And if an unbelievable place like Bedlam and an incredible person like Mary Shelley can be real, well, why not Walton too?

This book straddles a few themes and genres. Maybe, like I did, you worry that a book about gothic horror, A.I., sexbots, and brains on ice in the Manchester underground might be more speculative fiction than you need.  I get it and I’m here to tell you: fear not! You will be engaged from the very beginning in this tale.  Enjoy it!

Joe Sacco, Paying The Land

“I thank all my interview subjects in general.  People told me difficult stories about difficult times or intimate stories about their connection to the land, and they simply trusted that I would use what they said in the right way, mostly so others might learn from their experiences and knowledge.  It was a privilege to be let into the lives of the Dene even in a small way.” (Acknowledgements, 264)

Joe Sacco is a journalist and graphic novelist who has reported on and written from some of the most volatile parts of the world, including Bosnia, Palestine and Gaza. 

In Paying The Land, he visits the Northwest Territories to speak with Dene residents about their relationship with the land, as well as their responses to corporate efforts to drill oil from the far north and ship it south. Sacco’s depictions of people are astonishing.  He attends so carefully to their faces and expressions that you never run the risk of forgetting who is narrating at any particular time.  He also works with comic book conventions to identify which words are spoken by his subjects and which are by him. (Round and square bubbles, respectively.) It’s such a tiny trick but so helpful in sorting out the details of the story being told and reminding us to focus not on him and his story, but on the words of his interviewees.

It is not easy to capture and convey the complexity of land claims, treaties and borders, but Sacco’s patient storytelling provides historical and contemporary clarity around these issues.  Not all indigenous people feel the same way about the use of the land and their prospects for the future.  Many believe that they can benefit from the extraction of resources, and Sacco captures without judgement the differing beliefs about land use that exist between Indigenous communities in the NWT.  

Sacco’s travel was made possible by his friend Shauna Morgan, who arranged for him to travel to extremely remote locations (Yellowknife to Fort Good Hope) and speak with members of their communities. She is also his driver, which is important, since he can’t drive a stick shift and doesn’t know the difference between an ice road and a winter road. FYI, the ice road, basically a frozen waterway, is the preferred choice but not available where they are travelling.

Even in a place this remote, settlers were responsible for imposing their ideas about land ownership and education on the Dene.  In the late 1800s, when petroleum and gold were discovered in the Northwest Territories, the government formalized its control over Indigenous land.  Here’s how Sacco describes the process:  “In that period, the Dominion extended its control not by the slaughter that defined the advance of the white race south of the national border, but clinically, methodically, and administratively - through treaties.” (61) Namely, Treaty 8 and Treaty 11.  Though the treaties were designed by the government to lay claim to resource rich land, Dene inhabitants did not necessarily object to the agreements.  They understood the treaties as a “friendship pact” which would not compromise their use of the land for survival.

The problem was that the Dene were not located in a single village or community, but travelled throughout the area depending on the time of year and according to their needs.  Settlers, seeing the land as a commodity, treated it like packages to be distributed in ways most beneficial to their commercial needs.  Add to this the removal of Dene children from their homes and communities to be educated in residential schools, and it is easy to see how the erosion of Dene identity and livelihood has destroyed their ability to maintain traditional ways of life.

I can’t really recommend this book enough.  It’s not easy to read and you won’t soon forget its subjects and their land.  That is its extraordinary power.  

Marie Battiste, Decolonizing Education

This book, chosen by the Anti-Racist Educator Reads Podcast for its most recent series, was a perfect companion to Sacco’s story.  Battiste is an educator who has spent many years exploring the effect of Eurocentric educational systems on Indigenous learners.  Throughout the book, Battiste explores and defines cognitive imperialism, which is a form of cognitive manipulation used to disclaim other knowledge bases and values. Validated through one's knowledge base and empowered through public education, it has been the means by which whole groups of people have been denied existence and have had their wealth confiscated.” If you had to slow down and read that definition a few times to really grasp it, you are well prepared to read this book. Go slowly and leave yourself time to reflect. Battiste's academic training and background are always present here. Through personal anecdotes, historical context, and thoroughly researched evidence, she shows that Indigenous learners suffer when they are deprived of access to their cultural heritage and knowledge, but so do whole education systems. 

In Chapter 3, Battiste writes about the history of colonial and religious invasion of Indigenous communities and settlers' failed attempts to convert Natives first to French Catholicism and next to English Protestantism.  The English were worried about eradicating not only any trace of Indigenous knowledge and culture, but also newly acquired French language and religion. The insanity of this, of a community being colonized twice, is something I had never considered.  Educators talk a lot about "resilience" as a desirable quality for learners to possess, and I have to suggest that the durability of Indigenous identity and knowledge despite such comprehensive destructive efforts by two different colonial nations is what we must hold up as an example of the power of resistance.

If you don’t work in education, I wouldn’t recommend you begin your journey of understanding Indigenous Canadian history with this book.  It’s academic and a bit meander-y.  But I am grateful to have read it and continue to digest its ideas.

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt

I was intrigued by the controversy around this book, so I thought I’d give it a go.  Lots of contentious books are great reads, but this is not one of them. The story is that Lydia, a Mexican middle class book store owner living in Acapulco, has a quiet and lovely life with her journalist husband Sebastian and eight-year-old son Luca.  She befriends a new customer, Javier, who begins to visit her regularly at work, bringing gifts and showing her his poetry.  Unfortunately, it turns out that the charming stranger is...dun dun dun...the new boss of a deeply powerful drug cartel, Los Jardineros. Javier's behaviour towards Lydia is that of a schoolboy with a crush, and hardly seems congruent with the life of a violent drug dealer; it's an early red flag as to the many logical flaws of the story.

Lydia's husband Sebastian writes a widely-read expose on the Jardineros, and their lives are immediately at risk. Lydia downplays the danger, believing instead that they are safe because she and el jefe have such a strong friendship. That makes sense, right?

Unsurprisingly to any rational person, the Jardineros are unhappy, and arrive in the middle of Lydia's niece’s quinceañera, killing everyone present except Lydia and Luca, who happen to be in the bathroom, witnessing, but also escaping, the violence. She knows immediately that she must leave the country, so she gathers all the money she can (which is quite a lot, luckily, for someone who must flee their country) and heads north with Luca.

In all ways the storytelling is poor.  The book begins with the quinceañera massacre, forcing the story to be told in flashback.  The narrative is told primarily from Lydia’s point of view, but, sometimes in the middle of a page or even a paragraph, the perspective switches over to Luca’s, who despite being eight seems to have the observational and vocabulary skills of a grown ass man. Listen to this:  “On top of the train, Luca watches Rebeca and tries to act like he’s not watching Rebeca.  Not that anyone would notice anyway, because everybody’s too busy watching Soledad to notice anything else.  In the half-light left over from Soledad’s corona, Rebeca glimmers like a secret sun.” I know he’s a smart eight, but come on “Soledad’s corona”? Eight is Grade 3.  Eight is Dog Man books, fart jokes and Pokémon. Do you want to know how kids really think and sound?  Talk to a kid!  Or, read Emma Donoghue’s Room, which really effectively captures a child’s voice without ever drawing attention to the work it takes to create a genuine and believable young character.

Also, I don’t know exactly how to describe this, but Lydia and Luca read like white people.  To this Canadian reader, there is nothing at all "foreign" about their relationships, desires, or habits. It’s one thing to “other” a culture by exploiting its difference, but it’s quite another to erase differences altogether.  Plus, all the dialogue in the book is in English, of course, but English peppered with the occasional Spanish word, for example “futbol” or “abuela”.  This only serves to draw attention to the overall lack of Spanish language or Mexican culture in the storytelling.  

I can’t really say more, because I didn’t finish this book.  But again, if you’re looking for a story about characters fleeing their beloved country because living there is dangerous, maybe pick up a book by Joe Sacco, or one of these instead.  

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