Hiatus over! Let's talk about books!
Morgan Murray, Dirty Birds
Toni Morrison, Recitatif
Alice Oseman, Heartstopper volumes 1,2, and 3
Lorimer Shenher, That Lonely Section of Hell
Pola Oloixarac, Mona
Tayari Jones, Leaving Atlanta
David Sedaris, Happy Go Lucky
Morgan Murray, Dirty Birds
Well this is a weird tale! Testimonials on the cover suggest that Murray is Canada’s own Kurt Vonnegut Jr., which is maybe a tiny bit true, in that both are very funny writers. I daresay Vonnegut is able to say more with fewer words. Also, what we know about Vonnegut is that his humour is rooted in the trauma he experienced as a soldier in World War Two, which is not something that can be said of Murray. Still, Murray’s epic tale of a young poet named Milton Ontario, who moves from the fictional Bellybutton, Saskatchewan to Montreal in search of his hero Leonard Cohen, is every bit as absurd as any of Vonnegut’s works. It even contains hand drawn illustrations in the style of Breakfast of Champions.
Poor Milton Ontario. First, his name is confusing and everyone gets it wrong. He has very little life experience, having attempted but never completed many different trades programs at his local college. He works at a joe job where he’s tipped in nickels, which he saves until there are enough to buy a bus ticket to Montreal. Surely he will find his fortune there, he thinks. It’s Canada’s sexiest city!
Milton arrives in Montreal in the winter of 2008 to the bitterest cold of his life, dragging a backpack that is slowly leaking his possessions all over town. He wanders the city, looking for the room he’s rented, sight unseen, in a house on the plateau. Once he gets there he discovers his new home is a windowless hovel, sublet from an absent roommate who has not told her three other housemates to expect Milton.
What follows is a series of misadventures on the scale of Don Quixote, or Mr. Bean, or at least Three’s Company. It includes a surprising characterization of my boyfriend Leonard Cohen as the ruthless leader of an organized crime syndicate. Because the story is set in 2008, the world’s financial collapse is taking place as a backdrop to Milton’s own personal and financial demise. Given the choice between doing what is sensible or what is absurdly ill-conceived, Milton will always choose the latter, which is yes, humorous, but also, at times, extremely trying. His accidental engagement with criminals (thanks to his roommate Morgan, a dangerously aimless goofball and Newfie stereotype if ever there was one) leads Milton to go on the lam as far away as Labrador, where he is invited to be a grad student and to participate in a study of the habits of birds off the coast. If you’ve, say, applied to grad school, or embarked on your own research project, the guilelessness with which Milton falls into these opportunities will annoy the shit out of you. As might Murray’s depiction of grad students themselves, who are pompously verbose and so violently committed to their own esoteric theories that they regularly engage in fisticuffs at the local pub. It’s a bit much, is what I’m saying.
Still, Milton’s love interest Robin, a documentary filmmaker, is an intriguing subplot. Also, I don’t know how significant it is, but birds are a motif, appearing as the title, several character names, and the subject of Milton’s “research”. Plus, I’ve failed altogether to address the fact that Milton is a poet who frequently shares his work with inappropriate audiences at all of the wrong times. Milton’s lack of awareness is so very deep he fails to understand the feedback provided to him as anything but encouragement, even though, honestly, he’s terrible.
Overall, Milton is a bit like that other epically bumbling fool, Don Quixote; he even has a Sancho Panza in the marvelously fucked Morgan, whose blind wisdom makes him one of those archetypal wise fools. But I do not suggest there is a profound truth buried here, beneath all the nonsense, as you might find in a Vonnegut story. Read it instead for what it is: a rollicking adventure full of Canadian hallmarks.
Toni Morrison, Recitatif
“Recitatif” is Toni Morrison’s only short story. It’s recently been published in a tiny volume with a remarkable introduction by Zadie Smith, who you may or may not know is my motherfuckin’ hero. Zadie Smith could spit on a plate and I’d read it. (Though, someone fight me on this: I feel like her best work is still White Teeth, published when she was, like 25. Thoughts?)
I one hundred percent recommend this book, but I suggest you read it not in the order it’s presented - introduction then story - and instead start with the story itself. In it, Morrison describes Twyla and Roberta, who meet at St. Bonny’s, the orphanage they are taken to when their mothers can no longer care for them. We understand early on that one of the girls is black and the other is white, but Morrison never reveals who belongs to which race. In doing so, she presents us with a challenge that influences every moment of the story. First, which girl is black? Second, and more importantly, why do you need to know?
This challenge is the subject of Smith’s introduction, and her analysis of the story is excellent. But she gives away all kinds of plot details in exploring the story, and wouldn’t you rather come to it fresh, with no preconceptions?
There are tantalizing clues for us to mull over. Twyla explains that she is taken to St. Bonny’s at the age of 8 because her mother “likes to dance all night.” Roberta is there because her mother is ill. They are assigned to the same room, and grow into the kind of friendship that might not happen out in the regular world, but forms in places where our companions are determined by circumstance. Together they are fascinated by Maggie, a fellow resident whose disability prevents her from being able to speak, and who is often the victim of harassment by older girls at St. Bonny’s. An incident occurs in which Maggie is pushed down, and it weighs heavily on Twyla. She witnesses the event but merely watches, frozen, instead of helping Maggie up or providing any comfort. Later, when Twyla and Roberta meet up again as young adults, the incident is recalled differently by them, and this lack of historical continuity is deeply unsettling for Twyla, leading her to question her memory, her history, and her sense of self.
Indeed, as adults, Twyla and Roberta disagree not only on what caused Maggie’s fall, but also on whether Maggie was black or white. Roberta suggests Twyla acted intentionally to harm Maggie rather than simply being a mute bystander. And these details make all the difference, don’t they?
Of this event, Smith notes, “it’s hard to admit a shared humanity with your neighbour if they will not come with you to reexamine a shared history.” As they move on from St. Bonny’s and grow into adults, Twyla and Roberta bump into each other - at a restaurant where Twyla works, at the grocery store, at a protest against the busing of students - and each time their shared past and how it is defined by their black- and whiteness creates a tangible tension between them. This is the tension that defines critical race theory. Avoiding the discomfort created by an unspoken acknowledgment of shared trauma is what allows white supremacy to thrive. Smith explains it better: “Such reexaminations I sometimes hear described as “resentment politics,” as if telling a history in full could only be the product of a personal resentment, rather than a necessary act performed in the service of curiosity, interest, understanding (of both self and community) and justice itself.”
Morrison never lets us off the hook in this story, in that she never definitively reveals whether it is Twyla or Roberta who is black. And maintaining this mystery is no small feat. At one point Twyla sees Roberta protesting the integration of black and white students at a local school. Twyla is appalled by the protest, wondering what the big deal is about sending kids to a different school. At the same time, she is motivated to protest against Roberta, and shows up the next day with her own sign, contributing to the deadlock of the pro- and anti- integration protesters. All along, though, it’s clear that Twyla’s action is more personal than political, that she wants to stand up against Roberta more than she cares about what school her kids go to. Twyla’s motives allow us to question whether the core of all racial strife is actually just pettiness, the resentment politics Smith writes about.
Through “Recitatif” Morrison invites us to interrogate our own racist beliefs, our own reliance on stereotypes and our own understanding of historical truth. How we define human behaviour, and more specifically, our own behaviour, cannot be ignored any more than Twyla can ignore her revisionist history of what happened to their classmate Maggie, and to what extent she was responsible for it.
It’s a deeply unsettling and unforgettable read, well worth your time.
Alice Oseman, Heartstopper Volumes 1,2, and 3
If you love teenagers, if you believe that romance is not dead, and if you have a soft spot for British private school uniforms, I implore you to read this series. You could, instead, check out the Netflix show, which is equally tremendous, but you’re here because you like reading, right?
Heartstopper tells the story of Charlie and Nick, whose romance faces many obstacles. Charlie’s friends are arty nerds, while Nick’s are popular athletes. Harry Greene is Nick’s rugby team captain, but also responsible for bullying Charlie relentlessly the previous year. Charlie is out, Nick is still figuring out his sexuality, but as far as Charlie’s friends are concerned, Nick is straight. They insist that it makes no sense for Charlie to be interested in a straight bro like Nick.
True love knows no bounds, though, and Charlie and Nick’s romance eventually flourishes. They behave (I think?) like real teenagers, in that they ruminate excessively over details of conversations, social media posts, and the offhand gossipy remarks of their best friends. In this way Oseman captures the rare excitement and terror of falling for someone you’re not sure likes you back. It’s lovely to witness Charlie’s fear and doubt ultimately overcome by the undeniable chemistry he shares with Nick.
Charlie’s friends Tao and Ellie are equally fully realized. Ellie, recently transitioned, has just transferred to an all-female private school (or public? I always forget which is which in the U.K.) Tao and Charlie miss seeing her every day, but recognize that their school was not an easy place for Ellie to be. Both Ellie and Tao wonder why Charlie would be interested in a jock like Nick, especially given his association with Charlie’s nemesis Harry. Their worry creates friction in the friendship, especially as Nick and Charlie grow closer, and this detail felt particularly real to me - that tension of caring about someone who’s been hurt before while at the same time wishing them well, but not wanting to see them victimized again. These are very common, very human feelings, and Oseman depicts them with grace and authenticity. It’s a gorgeous story. And if you must, I suppose you could just skip reading the books and go right to the Netflix series, which is an accurate and heartwarming adaptation, but I can’t in good conscience recommend that. Y’all know the book is always better.
Lorimer Shenher, That Lonely Section of Hell
If you have doubts about the systemic neglect of and harm done to vulnerable citizens by the police, I urge you to read this book. Published in 2015, That Lonely Section of Hell explores the B.C. police investigation into the many missing women whose bodies were eventually found buried on Robert Pickton’s farm.
Author and lead investigator Lorimer Shenher is now a man, but at the time of this book’s publication and during the time of his life being described, identified as female. And I’m not trying to sound like J.K. Rowling here, but I actually think Shenher’s identity as a woman appointed to lead a task force in charge of locating missing and murdered women is relevant, on account of how the patriarchy likes to perform equity rather than work towards it. Politically, a female-led task force looks like an equitable move, which makes good cover for a botched and underfunded investigation. Anyway, I’m using male pronouns throughout, because that's who Shenher is, but I understand if you find it confusing.
Shenher’s experience as a cop made him an excellent candidate for this job. He had spent lots of time getting to know Vancouver’s most vulnerable residents, the addicts and sex workers who occupy the city’s downtown eastside. Furthermore, he’s excited to take on this leadership role, hoping to play a part in solving the mystery of why so many women had disappeared from those streets. What he discovers from the get-go, though, is that he is the leader of a task force that is woefully short of resources, namely, staff, money and time. The team is dedicated, but simply not big enough to handle an investigation the size of the one he’s uncovering. Even worse, the actions of his superiors show a pervasive lack of concern for the missing women and their families. Leads are not followed up. Files go missing. New software is imposed on their process with no training or tech support to troubleshoot. As a leader in these circumstances, Shenher is torn between a commitment to the work and his role as a person in charge of what is essentially a sham of an investigation. His response is one that many of us will recognize: he just keeps trying to make the investigation work, despite the toll it’s taking on his physical and mental health. Even worse, as the public face of the task force, he is the person to whom dissatisfied members of the public express their feelings.
At one point, Shenher is promised two new staff members. It’s an exciting prospect, because he realizes the extra person-power will allow for a more sensible distribution of workload for the struggling team. But once the new cops join - let’s call them Dick 1 and Dick 2 - it becomes immediately clear that they have no interest in acknowledging Shenher’s leadership or working as part of a team. They spend a huge amount of time following up on a lead that is clearly contrary to the established path of the investigation, the one that is pointing in the direction of Pickton as a suspect. As a result, weeks and months pass where Shenher’s mandate cannot be fulfilled on account of the two worst cops in B.C. being assigned to her force. It’s tragic and also so so familiar. We’ve all watched in shock and awe while (*cough* white *cough* male) colleagues whose incompetence is common knowledge are allowed to carry on being incompetent because the bureaucracy of disciplining them takes more effort than looking the other way. In this case, though, actual lives were lost while Dick 1 and Dick 2 went rogue.
Reading Shenher’s story is devastating. It’s an indictment of our criminal justice system, one that shows how deeply entrenched racism and sexism sustains inequity at all levels of policing. Nor does Shenher understate or sugarcoat the impact of this level of neglect on Pickton’s victims or on him. At the time of the book’s publication in 2015, he was in therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, unable to work, and definitely unable to see any justice having been done when the investigation she had to leave to take care of his mental health finally arrests and successfully charges Pickton. (FYI, in the present, Shenher seems to be doing better. Check out his website for current projects.)
Shenher’s story is a tough read, but also a necessary one.
Pola Oloixarac, Mona
If you have both an awareness of and a disdain for contemporary academic literary theory and you enjoy a narrator who is not so much likable as off-putting, then perhaps this is the novel for you? Rare is the satire that successfully exposes the absurdity of its subject without also giving it the space and time it doesn’t deserve. I’m not so sure Oloixarac pulls off satire here. What she does, though, is create a tableau of the least appealing characters imaginable and sets it against the backdrop of a literary award ceremony in Switzerland. As in Dirty Birds, the academics are extraordinary caricatures, and Mona herself, despite viewing them from a place of hazy righteousness, also owes them her professional success. Dicey, right?
I could tell you more, but honestly, the perfect review of Mona exists already. It’s called “So You’re At a Literary Conference With a Bunch of Jerks” and is better than anything I could write about this book. Enjoy!
Tayari Jones, Leaving Atlanta
Between 1979 and 1981, more than 25 children between the ages of 7 and 17 went missing and were later found murdered in Atlanta, Think about that for a minute. Two years, 26 children means more than once a month a child did not make it home from a trip to the corner store, a bicycle ride, a walk to the community pool. It’s terrifying.
Tayari Jones’ first book, Leaving Atlanta, views this time period through the eyes of three child narrators, classmates living under the threat of abduction and murder: Tasha Baxter, Rodney Green and Octavia Fuller. All three attend school at Oglethorpe Elementary, and know each other but are not close. Divided into three parts, and told from a variety of narrative perspectives, the novel allows each child a voice in telling the story. Particularly haunting is Rodney’s section, called “The Opposite Direction of Home”. Told from the rare (and rarely effective) second person point of view, Rodney vividly represents his deep fear of his abusive father, which ultimately drives him away from home and towards his own abduction. What stayed with me about Rodney’s section is the viscerality of his experience of abuse, and the profound way he is able to show how an unsafe homelife creates children vulnerable to all manner of exploitation.
In a cool move, Jones inserts her childhood self into the book as a sixth grader who sometimes interacts with the children telling the story. She’s a minor character, with no speaking lines, but her presence is a good reminder to us that the novel is a piece of fiction, but the stories are rooted in true events. In part 3, when Octavia goes to seek counsel from her beloved former teacher, Mrs. Grier, the teacher tells her the story of her own childhood as part of a large sharecropping family. This recollection is also rooted in an ugly truth, the indentured servitude of “free” black American citizens by former slave owners and farmers. It’s all connected, Jones seems to be reminding us. The oppression of a people has far reaching consequences. Mrs. Grier’s hope is to persuade Octavia that her mother’s choice to send her to live with her father is one that will not only secure her safety from the child murderer, but can also lead to better opportunities in her future.
Jones’ ability to weave the personal with the political, fiction with truth, contributes to the overall strength of this book. You won’t soon forget it.
David Sedaris, Happy Go Lucky
There’s nothing I can say to you about David Sedaris that can make him more appealing. He’s a genius at writing comically dark personal essays, never shying away from describing an embarrassing anecdote or a questionable decision.
Happy Go Lucky is Sedaris’s newest collection of essays, written through COVID. In it, he writes about his usual process of creating new material, which involves workshopping it first in front of a live audience before publishing. But, because of pandemic related travel restrictions, many of these essays appear for the first time collected here in print. I don’t have a single complaint about this book, but I will say that you can kind of tell it’s rawer material, that it wasn’t shared with an audience before being printed.
Sedaris speaks at length about his 97 year-old father Lou, with who passed away in 2021, and with whom he had a complicated relationship. Lou’s lack of support for David, and unwillingness to acknowledge his son’s success, is never more evident than when they travel together to Oberlin in 2018, where David has been invited to give the commencement address. Upon arrival, Lou asks if they are sure they want David to give the speech. Amy’s the funny one, he claims. It’s be a great line if he were joking.
David writes, “As long as my father had power, he used it to hurt me.”
There’s some weirdness around Lou, too. David’s youngest sister Tiffany died by suicide in 2013 after a long struggle with mental illness. Before her death she publicly accused Lou of having molested her as a child. David thinks that probably did not happen, but does share a story of his father asking his older sister Gretchen to pose topless for a photograph, and this made me think, “Well, he sounds like a guy who’s capable of pedophilia, honestly.” These painful stories are told with Sedaris’s characteristic deadpan delivery, which doesn’t so much negate the pain, but put into perspective. In interviews, David insists that the strife caused by his father helped form his personality and contributed to his success, and he could never break ties with him.
I’m doubtful that many folks in David’s position would have remained loyal to a parent as abusive as Lou. But there’s no denying his impact on David’s ability to spin a hilarious yarn. This book is full of them - stories of learning how to fire a gun, stories of being an English speaker newly arrived to France, stories of David and Hugh’s beach house (the Sea Section) being swept away by a hurricane. So intimate are the details that it’s hard not to feel, while reading, as though you are a part of the Sedaris clan. You belong there too, with your flaws and your contradictions. It’s a beautiful experience.