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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

September Reads 2020

Updated: Nov 1, 2020

Emma Donoghue, The Pull of the Stars

Ninni Holmqvist, The Unit

Ali Benjamin, The Thing About Jellyfish

Dr. Jen Gunter, The Vagina Bible

Robyn Maynard, Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada From Slavery to the Present

Thomas King, Indians on Vacation

Thomas King, DreadfulWater

Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made For Whiteness

Emma Donoghue, The Pull of the Stars

Dr. Jen Gunter, The Vagina Bible

If you are thinking of someday having a baby, or maybe you’re currently expecting a baby, I have to say that now is not the time for you to read The Pull of the Stars.  It is a gorgeous and powerful read, but it also vividly presents an inescapable truth: childbirth can be dangerous and horrifying, and even when everything works out (i.e. the baby and the mother survive) it’s still a visceral, bloody, roller coaster of joy and pain.

Set over three days in 1918 in the maternity ward of an Irish hospital, The Pull of The Stars is narrated by Julia Power, a nurse left to work largely alone in a hospital supply room hastily turned into a maternity ward. The room and the story are occupied by three beds and a rotating cast of quarantined pregnant women.  Like every nurse I’ve ever met, Julia is a pragmatic and sharply observant straight shooter.  She is politically progressive, frustrated by the judgmental nuns she works with, and keen to acknowledge the blood and guts sacrifice made by women whose job, she is reminded daily, is to repopulate both the country and the world.

The 1918 pandemic bears spooky similarities to the one we are currently experiencing.  Posters quoted in the book advise citizens, “If in doubt, don’t stir out”; disinfectants are near impossible to locate, and there is ongoing debate about whether ordinary folks should protect themselves and others by wearing masks.  The hospital is crowded and understaffed.

Sound familiar? 

While there is theoretically a doctor on-call, Julia is largely left alone with her three patients, until, at shift change, her nun colleague brings in a volunteer from the nearby home for unwanted children, Bridie Sweeney, who has agreed to help out in the maternity ward.

Bridie is charismatic and a quick study, which means she is a genuine help to Julia, despite having no medical training or experience.  Bridie has no understanding of the mechanics of reproduction and childbirth, a fact that Julia finds shocking and is quick to remediate.  

The pacing of this book is frantic, which makes it intensely readable.  Characters come and go, notably, the crass jokester who collects bodies to take them to the morgue, and the real life figure of Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who is trying to do her job while also evading capture for her association with Sinn Fein.  Through Julia's conversations with them, we get a view into her politics, and a reminder of how lucky we are not to be living in 1918.  I became so enthralled by the drama of the delivery room that, near the end of the book, when the story focuses more on Julia’s own life, it felt sort of abrupt. This is not a criticism so much as evidence to show the believability of the world Donoghue creates.  It is small and claustrophobic, containing tiny joys and huge catastrophes, not unlike the Room of her earlier novel. 

This novel’s power lies in its compelling characters, so many of whom are female firecrackers.  Through them, Donoghue is careful to acknowledge the lethal impact of poverty and religious fervor on women’s lives, weaving such details into a riveting narrative about life and death. It is a novel quickly read, but not soon forgotten. 

If we want to stay on the topic of the power of women and their vaginas (and we definitely do, right?) let’s talk about the masterpiece that is Dr. Jen Gunter’s The Vagina Bible.  It’s. So. Great.

When I was about eighteen, I discovered a sweet copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and it was a revelation to me that women could write so frankly about their bodies and sex.  That book gave me a critical understanding of the power of knowledge when it comes to women’s bodies and health.  And while I will always be grateful to the Boston Women's Collective for publishing that book, for today’s women, there are a host of newer and funnier titles on offer.  The Vagina Bible is one of them. It is also appropriate for trans women and men, in that their concerns, genitalia-wise anyway, are addressed in each relevant section, in a completely natural, NBD kind of way.  

If ever you’ve been told that you should wear plain cotton underwear to avoid UTIs, please rest assured that Dr. Gunter is here to call bullshit on that: “The vulva can handle urine, feces and blood, and vaginas can handle blood, ejaculate and a baby, so this idea that a black lace thong is the harbinger of a vaginal or vulvar apocalypse is absurd.”  Worried about tampons and their connection to Toxic Shock Syndrome?  Fear not!  This book dedicates a chapter to breaking down the causes of TSS and assuring you that most of us are already undertaking behaviours to avoid contracting it.  She is unambiguous about the roots of this type of advice: it’s the fucking patriarchy, man!  If you disbelieve the ubiquity of blaming women for their own vagina-related and totally normal conditions, please take a boo at this clip from the great Baroness von Sketch ladies. 

Even better, though, is her takedown of “wellness” advice from such suspect sources as Gwenyth Paltow’s Goop, which have suggested practices as bizarre and useless as “vaginal steaming”, inserting jade eggs into your vag, and herbal douching. In this interview with The Atlantic, Gunter speaks of such seemingly crazy or innocuous programs as “Big Natural”:   “They’re a trillion-dollar industry—supplements and natural stuff. And the thing that kills me is people are always like, “Oooh, Big Pharma.” But at least Big Pharma tests the drugs. I mean, they might not give us all the data, which is bad. But Big Natural gives us no data. It’s just bizarre to me that we think of Big Natural as good and Big Pharma as bad; they’re both capitalistic enterprises making money.” In other words, love yourself, put jade stones in your vagina if you must, but do not keep believing that such activities will have any impact on your actual, physical health.  

Gunter knows the difference between a vagina and a vulva, and you will find loads of info about both here, but her publisher warned her against using the word “vulva” in the title because it might turn people off.  There you have it people.  Any other body parts strike you the same way?  Duodenum maybe?  Coccyx?  Okay, maybe scrotum.  I’d like to live in a world where no human body part evokes disgust or discomfort, and until we actually do, please read this book and get us one step closer.  Plus, you will laugh out loud.  I guarantee it.

It took me about eight weeks to finish Policing Black Lives.  That’s eight weeks after it sat on my night table for a year.  This is a hard book in a lot of different senses, but it is one you should definitely not put off reading for as long as I did.  Also, let’s point out the privilege I was able to enjoy in delaying my confrontation of this book’s truths, unlike Black folks who must bear them every day.  

Maynard is a Canadian intellectual and grass-roots activist located in Montreal.  Her writing is engaging but also academic and, I don’t say this often, should be mandatory reading for Canadians.  Beginning with the existence of slavery in Canada in the 18th century, she traces a path to the current state-sanctioned and pervasive surveillance of daily lives of Black Canadians.  Each chapter is thoroughly researched, which makes it the perfect answer to that guy you know who likes to suggest “racism might exist in Canada, but it’s never been so bad here as it is in the United States.” Maynard lays down some hard truths to refute that delusion, so dear to our obedient and law-abiding Canadian identity.  She writes about the two hundred years that Canadians enslaved Blacks, the fact that the last Canadian segregated school (in Nova Scotia) closed in 1983, and, most harrowingly, about a six year-old Black student handcuffed by police after the school administrators claimed she was “out of control”.

Before reading this book, I had never really considered the power our society and governments afford to Family and Children’s Services.  This is an organization that can and does remove children from their parents based on a set of criteria created by the organization itself.  I don’t mean to suggest no good has ever been done by F+CS, but I do believe that stories such as that of Tina Fontaine, or the one in this book, where Family and Children’s Services is called by a teacher who believes a Black student’s lunch represents a neglectful homelife, serve as reminders that like all colonial institutions, this one sustains and is sustained by racist ideology.  Nor let us overlook the education system and those of us who are teachers, and who have the power to determine a child’s self worth through our daily work.

Reading this book is a tough journey, but not one to be avoided.  Listen to the great Anti-Educator Reads podcast based on the book, especially episode two, in which host Colinda interviews Maynard herself. Keep talking with your close friends about how it feels to read and listen.  And then, most importantly, map out what you will do differently in your life, knowing what you now know.

Austin Channing Brown is an American writer whose memoir is a great follow-up read to Maynard’s book.  Brown is American, not Canadian, but the stories she tells are at once personal and universal, genuinely identifying the impact of racist ideology on one woman’s life and also on the world.

I was surprised to learn that Austin is a woman.  So is pretty much everyone else.  In a forward thinking move, her parents gave her a white boy’s name, knowing that much of the world would decide who she was based on her name alone.  She is also a practising Christian, and many of her anecdotes are about church communities who hire her because they are seeking “diversity” in their mandates and practices.  We learn in short order that what many organizations seem to be asking for is really just performative allyship, an activity that signals their commitment to diversity without any need for change or action on their part.  Sigh.

She has many stories about leading anti-racist training sessions for people who have not necessarily chosen to be there and who would prefer not to acknowledge the existence or reality of anti-Black racism.  She’s never been hired to prove that racism exists, and yet that is what so many white folks demand.  This is why she titles Chapter One “White people are exhausting.”  As a study of human behaviour, the stories remind us that white folks in particular will commit to an idea that serves their worldview rather than accept evidence placed neatly in front of them.  Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking To Strangers also explores this idea, sort of, using it to explain Sandra Bland’s arrest.  And while he also relies on powerful anecdotes, he refrains from connecting behaviours of people to the institutions and systems that create and support their biased thinking.  It’s a flaw in his book, if you ask me.

Brown, on the other hand, does not attempt to explore or rationalize the racist behaviour of the white people she works with.  She tells us about it and leaves no room for dismissal of or argument with her experience.  This is the strength of such a slim and inviting volume.  Just like Robyn Maynard, Brown is giving her readers a gift of insight and a call to action; let’s be sensible and heed it.

Thomas King, Indians on Vacation

In this novel, Canadian Indigenous couple Bird and Mimi are travelling through Europe, in search of a medicine bag lost a century earlier by Mimi’s Uncle Leroy. They are using the postcards Leroy sent home from his travels to build their itinerary, though for most of this book, they remain in Prague. There is no forgetting where they are, since Bird opens every other chapter with this sentence:  “So, we’re in Prague.”  Alternating chapters, those not set in Prague, are flashbacks to Bird and Mimi’s home life in Guelph and their past travels. This is an effective device (and a funny one) which helps us situate Bird in the overall timeline of his life and his story.

The book is like that. Effective and funny.  

But I have to say that I found it extremely difficult to separate the narrator Bird from the author Thomas King.  I do not personally know King, but we live in the same town and fifteen or so years ago his children attended the school where I teach.  (Fun fact: he once sent in a note to a colleague complaining about a grammar error in our textbook.  “Is there no vetting of these texts?” he wanted to know.) Like Bird, King lives in Guelph, he is married to a professor, and he is a writer. Can you blame me for picturing him?  Local readers will eat up the specificity of his descriptions of home too.  Listen to this: 

“Guelph, Ontario, is a lovely place.  University town.  Couple of rivers, the Speed and the Eramosa, running through it.  Eric the Baker, Artisanale, The Bookshelf, Wyndham Art.  In the summer, when they lower the floodgates, you can canoe the Speed up past the Boathouse, all the way to Victoria Road, before you run out of clearance.” Shoutout to the Guelph institutions!

All of which is to say that I found the King / Bird correlations a bit distracting and definitely pictured Thomas King himself in the role of Bird while I was reading. And I want to think Thomas King is a lot more likeable than Bird, who is an insufferable grump. 

Midway through the book, we learn that back home Bird had been working on a three-part investigative piece of writing about, among other things, the removal of Indigenous children from their families in the Sixties Scoop.  He has only finished the first part of the series, and remains preoccupied with the story and his inability to continue writing it. We wonder if it is writer’s block or a more existential “stuckness” that plagues him.  

Bird meets a stranger in the hotel’s breakfast room who shares his own stories but also beautifully understands the importance of Uncle Leroy’s tale.  So much so that he writes an ending to Leroy’s story and hands it to Bird to bring home. Sometimes you have to just make something up, the stranger seems to be suggesting.

Inclined to be depressive, in his weaker moments Bird is taunted by his personal demons - self loathing, despair, pessimism - which actually speak to him as though they are real characters instead of just voices in his head.  Mimi, a goddamned saint, is able to make light of Bird’s pervasive gloom, continuing to offer engaging conversations and day trips despite his pessimism.  I felt her exhaustion like it was my own, and her commitment to Bird is, frankly, a mystery.  At the same time, that’s how life and relationships work.  We don’t get to hear Mimi’s side of the story.  Maybe she too is wracked by insecurity and doubt, fearful that her life’s work is meaningless.  Maybe what Bird gives her is a steadiness and reliability.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that Bird is aware of the great gift that Mimi is to his life, and most of the time (despite the demons) he realizes he is lucky to be with her.

“The truth about stories is that’s all we are,” King has famously written.  This story, which on its surface is about a travelling couple fighting the inertia of comfortable middle age, is actually about identity, fear and hope. It will remind you how much we all need a story, sometimes to define us, and sometimes to distract us.

Thomas King, DreadfulWater

Thumps DreadfulWater, narrator of King’s mystery novel, is a bit like Bird, introspective, with strong and wise women in his life.  He is a retired Cherokee police officer, living in the small American town of Chinook, and making a living, such as it is, as a photographer.  He can’t help but become curious when called in to photograph the scene of a murder in Chinook's brand new condo development. Things become more complicated by the fact that the crime’s key suspect is Stanley "Stick" Merchant, son of Claire Merchant, who happens to also be head of the local tribal council and Thumps’ good friend.

I really like Claire and Stanley’s relationship. Through it we get to see the complicated nature of Indigenous and white relations when it comes to land.  Claire has collaborated with the developers of the condominium and local casino, but her son (and primary murder suspect) objects to the commercialized use and development of their land. Claire is trying to support her community's financial security, but as Stanley points out, this is happening on terms that white people have established, the very people who originally robbed them of their ancestral lands. In Stanley’s opinion, It’s simply not a fair arrangement.

The storytelling is sharp and engaging.  Thumps has a troubled past, which includes the unsolved case of a serial murderer he was investigating in California.  He quit when his girlfriend and her daughter were murdered by the very killer he sought, and the unresolved nature of the case continues to traumatize  him. (I found myself wondering: was it coincidence?  Did the killer target his family intentionally?  If so, we don’t find out in this book.) 

Thumps lives alone with his cat and is known about town more as a former cop than a photographer. Locals frequently consult him on details of the case, despite his insistence that he is not investigating.  No one believes this line, not even Thumps himself.  You can almost see him as Columbo, shuffling through the pockets of his rumpled trench coat, looking for a pen and saying, “Uh, er, just one more question, sir…” 

Did I like this book?  Sure.  It’s full of quirky characters, and surprising twists and turns.  But, confession time:

I have never read a mystery novel.  True story!  Sometimes I dipped into those Two-Minute Mysteries, but honestly, I never even read Nancy Drew when I was a kid.  So as a first encounter with the genre, I have to say this is a compelling and well-told tale. Its characters are believably constructed, even the minor ones, which I appreciate in a story.  And sure, the mystery will keep you guessing till the end, which I guess is what people look for in this kind of book.  It’s the first in a series of three.  Go on, check it out. 

Please just read this sweet little book written for 10 - 12 year-olds.  It’s like 100 pages long, narrated by Suzy Swanson, a girl in grade 7 who has lost her good friend and who is, to be honest, a bit of a weirdo.  As an accidental coping mechanism, she becomes obsessed with jellyfish, and who can blame her?  They’re amazing.  It’s just a heartwarming tale that you or any of the middle school people in your life will really enjoy.  Trust me.

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