Three Months of Reading...
Where I try really hard to do justice to many great books
Thanks for being here! This post contains a reasonably complete list of the books I have read but not written about since I last published in… um… September. Due to the backlog, these will not be comprehensive reviews, but I’ll say a bit about each and then plan for a return to more thorough and consistent reviewing in 2023. I’m partway through George Saunders’ Liberation Day right now, and I cannot wait to tell you all about it when I finish. Holy Hannah it’s good.
Also: I definitely read a book that was a fictionalized account of the affair Charles Dickens had with his much younger companion Ellen Ternan, but I cannot tell you the name of that book nor can I find it anywhere on the interwebs. I don’t know what to say, except I definitely did not make this book up! The only title I get from searching is this one, by Claire Tomalin, and it looks good too, but it is non-fiction rather than a novel. So if you’re out there reading this and can name the book I’m talking about I will be much obliged to you for solving the mystery.
Diana Clark, Thin Girls
I’m embarrassed to admit that for the first half of this book I mistakenly thought it was a true story, which is a bit nuts, because plot-wise, the story is quite implausible. Rose, the main character, is a twin, but estranged from her sister Lily. As children, the girls were indistinguishable, sometimes swapping identities as it suited them to trick others. As they enter adolescence the girls begin to grow more separate. For example, they both belong to the same friend group, but under its influence Lily becomes outgoing and popular while Rose becomes introverted and shy. As teenage girls do, both submit to the coercive powers of the clique’s queen bee, and Rose carefully follows each of the fad diets imposed on them by this bully. These are the origins of Rose’s anorexia. Lily, on the other hand, begins overeating, putting on weight with the same extraordinary speed that her sister loses it.
Ultimately this is a story of trauma’s impact on the body, and women’s bodies in particular. The book is narrated by the adult Rose, homed now in a medical institution where she is meant to be receiving treatment for her illness. But Rose is committed to staying in the hospital forever, carefully maintaining her weight to just barely high enough to avoid being given a feeding tube, but never higher, never healthier. The community of patients at the facility share her obsession with avoiding treatment, sharing tips for how to remain uncured, to remain thin. However, on making the discovery that Lily is in a dangerously abusive relationship, Rose risks her carefully balanced life in order to seek out Lily and offer help. In reconnecting, the girls are able to work together again at long last to heal one another’s pain.
It’s the realism of Rose and Lily’s fractured relationship plus the sadly common nature of their adolescent suffering that made this book feel so true to me. It’s a powerful book.
Alex Haley, Roots
I don’t know what I can say about Roots that the world hasn’t already said. It’s an expansive story that opens with protagonist Kunte Kinte growing up in the quiet village of Jufurah, located in the Gambia. While his life is not always idyllic, he understands the social structure of his community, and recognizes what is expected of him as a member of it. His quiet existence is shattered at the age of seventeen when he is snatched from the jungle by slave traders and imprisoned on a ship carrying hundreds of kidnapped Africans destined to be sold in America.
At 700 pages, the book takes its time to explore Kinte’s story both before and after he is enslaved. His headstrong nature is evident in his many escape attempts. Because he is so physically strong, the enslavers he’s run away from are reluctant to kill him and lose his valuable labour.
Importantly, he is committed to telling the story of his original home and family to each of his newborn children, and they tell the same story to their own children, and so on, until 600 pages later, when the Emancipation Act is being passed, and we are reading the story of Kunte Kinte’s great, great, great, great, great, great grandchild: Alex Haley.
Overall, this is a horrifying book, full of the torture and violence that defined the lives of enslaved people who built the American economy. It is also quite riveting.
I will say, though, that the extensive attention given to describing the life and times of Kunte Kinte’s grandson “Chicken George” and George’s skill at raising chickens to be competitive fighters is kind of boring. Though full of what are clearly deeply researched details about raising chickens, this is not interesting storytelling. What’s important about George’s story is that he is favoured by his owner, and their relationship in a more modern time period would have been as equals and friends. Despite his preferential treatment, George is never allowed to forget that he is a prisoner, nor are we, the readers of his story.
Despite controversy over the veracity of Haley’s research, this is a significant piece of literature that contributed to a (let’s be real here, white) mainstream consciousness of the effects of slavery on human history.
Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Written by adult protagonist Little Dog as a letter addressed to his beloved and illiterate mom, this is a lovely and sad coming of age tale. It’s also a sharp and gorgeous criticism of contemporary academia with its self-defined and casually racist standards of acceptance.
Little Dog is the child of a Vietnamese immigrant mother and an absent American G.I. father. It’s the 1990s in Hartford, Connecticut, and he is a lonely, alienated child, picked on mercilessly by his white schoolmates. His mother does not speak or read English, so he is her translator and de facto caregiver, a burden that she makes more difficult by being emotionally abusive and mentally unstable. Little Dog eventually finds solace with his first boyfriend, a co-worker, but this guy is both closeted and an addict. Though it is doomed from the start, the experience allows Little Dog to step away from the claustrophobia of his upbringing and begin to grow into his true self.
An adult graduate student, Little Dog discovers his advisors to be no less racist that his childhood bullies. His indictment of the system is profound: “They will tell you that to be political is to be merely angry, and therefore artless, depthless,”raw,” and empty. They will speak of the political with embarrassment, as if speaking of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
They will tell you that great writing “breaks free” from the political, thereby “transcending” the barriers of difference, uniting people toward universal truths. They’ll say this is achieved through craft, above all. Let’s see how it’s made, they’ll say - as if how something is assembled is alien to the impulse that created it.”
Nevertheless, Little Dog tells his story, for his non-English speaking mom, for the academics who are not listening, and for us, the lucky people who get to read it.
Ottessa Moshfegh, Lapvona
I’m a huge fan of Ottessa Moshfegh, whose writing is always remarkable, always surprising, and always really different from whatever she last wrote. This story is set in a fictional medieval village called Lapvona and governed by a ridiculous despot, Lord Villiam. Our hero, the young Marek, is a deformed and motherless child, whose innocence stands in stark relief to the depravity that surrounds him. The story is gross, the violence is copious and random, and the story’s outcome is, well, absurd. But also kind of appropriate. Moshfegh is not afraid to show humanity’s potential to be rotten, and you will absolutely find these people to be irredeemable monsters. But dang, that girl can write and I am here for it.
Alexander MacLeod, Animal Person
As you know, I am a lover of a well-crafted short story, and this collection is full of them. MacLeod, son of Canadian author Alistair, grew up in two places: Cape Breton, where his ancestors are from, and Windsor, Ontario, where his family lived through the academic year, while Alistair taught at the University of Windsor. As someone who also grew up in the Windsor area, I appreciate McLeod’s attention to the geographic detail of his stories set there. Few locations share the agricultural flatness and baking heat of an Essex County summer, both of which are captured authentically in this book. The shitty summer job of detasseling corn appears in “The Ninth Concession,” which resonates for me personally, having a) grown up between the Fifth and Sixth Concessions, and b) known many folks who earned a bare minimum wage pulling the tops off corn stalks for a few weeks every July.
Anyway, I digress. What makes the stories great is MacLeod’s willingness to explore the complicated nature of human relationships, mainly to our own motivations and feelings. There’s a realness here that I cannot recommend enough.
Brandon Taylor, Filthy Animals
Maybe you took some time over the holidays to re-watch John Hughes’s classic 1990 film Home Alone, in which case the title of this collection of stories will be familiar to you. The film is cited in one of the stories, but also serves as a theme throughout all of them. As in, what are we humans really, except a bunch of filthy animals? (See below for Justin Gregg’s take on this in his book about human versus animal intelligence) Acting on our basest instincts, getting involved in complicated relationships, harming people who don’t deserve it - these are the actions of Taylor’s characters and the conflicts they face. Or, more accurately, create. Like Alexander MacLeod, Taylor is skilled at revealing the power of a small moment to profoundly change our lives with artful subtlety.
Jennifer Haigh, Mercy Street
This is one of those rare books that successfully walks the line between being both politically astute and just plain entertaining. It is narrated by several different characters, a counsellor at the Mercy Street abortion clinic, a drug dealer hoping to turn his life around with one final big score, a radically misogynist neo-Nazi, and an impressionable, brain injured anti-abortion protestor. While those descriptors could for sure suggest a cliches and predictable plots, Haigh is able to weave together the humanity of each character, artfully but not pedantically producing a believable pro-choice narrative.
Anne Tyler, French Braid
Tyler is a reliably competent writer, and this family saga (shorter than Roots, no raising of chickens) will not disappoint you. Chapter One, set in 1959, introduces us to Mercy and Robin Garrett, parents to Alice, Lily and David. The family is on a rare vacation in a rented cottage on a lake, and against this setting Tyler allows us to see how members of the family are able to annoy each other. Robin insists that seven-year old David learn how to swim, despite David’s fear of the water and preference for imaginative play. Mercy’s failure to encourage David to explore beyond his comfort zone creates tension between the parents. Oldest sibling Alice, meanwhile, takes on the role of peacekeeper while Lily is almost completely absent, having spent the week with a wealthy young man at his near-by family cottage.
The story takes place over seven decades, extending into 2020’s arrival of the covid pandemic. A different family member narrates each chapter, offering an alternative, equally nuanced perspective of the family’s relationships. This reviewer suggests that Tyler doesn’t so much create her characters as simply let them be, and I find that to be an apt descriptor of how gentle and engaging the storytelling is through this book. I do have complaints though. First, both Alice and Lily choose to name one of their children “Robin” after their father, and I find this kind of implausible and irritating. They must always be referred to as “boy Robin” or “girl Robin” to distinguish who’s who. Second, multiple female characters give birth well into their forties, and while wealthy celebrities seem to do this all the time, in real life I sincerely believe it is far less common. Because of the range of ages of Robin and Mercy’s grandchildren, I found myself wishing for a family tree inside the front cover of the book to help me keep track of who everyone was. (Yes folks, that is me requesting a map inside the front cover.) Third, the book’s central metaphor and title is meant to reflect the interweaving of separate parts (i.e. family members) into a complicated and beautiful whole (i.e. family or braid). It needs no commentary whatsoever, because who’s going to miss noticing such an obvious comparison? Still, the end of the book includes a conversation that names and explains the metaphor. It felt a bit cheap, really.
None of these complaints should discourage you from reading this book, though. It is otherwise a marvellous study of quiet humanity.
Gabor Maté MD with Daniel Maté, The Myth of Normal
Maté, a doctor who specializes in and has written about addiction, explores how our physical ailments are often manifestations of emotional trauma. It’s a daunting read, through which he shares many illustrative case studies and personal anecdotes to support this key idea.
Forgive this tangent, but also, bear with me. There’s a scene in Robertson Davies’ 1970 novel Fifth Business where the main character, Dunstan Ramsay, is confronted by his much wiser female friend Liesl. She is critical of his obsession with Faustina, a young and beautiful starlet, asserting he will never ever win Faustina over because, “you don’t know her, but much worse, you don’t know yourself.” (emphasis mine) Like all good people who are afraid to face their innermost selves, he argues strongly against Liesl’s assessment. The disagreement escalates to the point where Liesl, in frustration, picks up Dunstan’s prosthetic leg (removed before she arrived, as he was getting ready for bed) and beats him with it.
Then Dunstan and Liesl have sex noisy enough to disturb their neighbouring hotel guests.
I don’t mean to oversimplify Maté’s ideas, but I suspect Davies’ intent in writing this scene was to show that our most important lessons are the ones we will do anything in the world to avoid learning. Ramsay is blind to his own vanity and weakness; Liesl’s actions create a scenario where he cannot escape confronting these aspects of his character. The fact that they then become lovers only underscores what I think is also suggested by Maté: there is peace and joy to be had in acceptance of even the hidden, most devastating truth about ourselves.
Through the anecdotes Maté shares of patients coming to terms with a terrifying diagnosis, what remains constant is that their healing only begins once they have acknowledged and accepted the illness’s power. Maté provides a compelling connection between traumatic childhood events and chronic illness, drawing a direct link, as well, between systemic forms of trauma (poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia) and common afflictions. I particularly appreciate his assertion that women, in bearing the majority of the world’s physical and emotional labour, are statistically most likely to suffer autoimmune illnesses such as fibromyalgia or ALS. He’s careful to clarify (and this is very important) that we do not cause our own illnesses through any intent or action. Rather, illness is the body’s response to long buried trauma. Our best hope for good health is to reckon with difficult, possibly suppressed experiences.
It would be easy for a book like this one to become the kind of faddish self-help movement that is popular every few years. But I don’t think it will. Maté’s extensive medical research and his own experiences remind us throughout of how we can claim power over our own healing. It can be done without the literal beating required by Davies’ fictional hero, but requires a commitment to honestly reckoning with the past.
Emi Yagi, Diary of a Void
Mieko Kawakami, Heaven
If 2022 taught me anything, it’s that I have yet to be disappointed by a female Japanese writer. (Shout out to: Banana Yoshimoto, Sayaka Murata, Yoko Ogawa and many others!)
Shibata, protagonist of Diary of a Void, is a single female office worker, overextended by the many demands her coworkers make on her. It is not in her job description to be the person who produces food for meetings and celebrations and then also to clean up after those celebrations, yet clearly this extra work is expected of her because she is a woman. One random day, in an effort to excuse herself from this unfair burden, she impulsively claims to be pregnant, and thus too tired to clean up after a meeting. As it turns out, pregnancy comes with many benefits - suddenly Shibata’s coworkers express concern over her workload and she is no longer required to put in overtime hours. Even better, she is able to anticipate a year of maternity leave, another break from her workplace.
I really like this tale of a woman using pregnancy as a way to carve out her own life, separate from the male defined workplace that oppresses her. Super ironic, since child rearing is so often a burden carried by women alone. I also love that the pregnancy is fake, but that no one questions it. Indeed, because Shibata becomes so invested in the narrative of having a baby, and because her new freedom from work stress allows her to take care of herself, she puts on some weight. At times I questioned whether in fact she was actually pregnant, a narrative feat of characterization for sure. Can you cause yourself to become pregnant through sheer willpower? I wondered.
Brief, sharp and intensely readable, this book is one of the highlights of the list.
Mieko Kawakami is the author of the similarly insightful feminist novel Breasts and Eggs, a book so female-centered that the title announces it. Heaven offers the story of a stoic fourteen-year old boy who is subject to daily and horrific cruelty at the hands of his classmates. It is the kind of behaviour some might describe as “bullying” but honestly, that word does no justice to torture our narrator endures: he is mocked for his lazy eye, beaten, shoved into a locker, and forced to eat chalk. There is no element of teasing to this treatment; it is clearly intended to destroy him. And even more harrowing than the relentless beatings is the protagonist’s ability to integrate them into his daily life, abiding the behaviour and carrying on as though it hasn’t happened, a coping mechanism learned over many years of abuse. A spark of hope is ignited when Kojima, the narrator’s female classmate who is similarly a victim of schoolyard cruelty, befriends him. They seem to intuitively know that a public friendship will only lead to more bullying, so maintain their connection via notes exchanged at school and meetings that take place outside of school hours. The friendship is a salve for the boy’s devastating loneliness, but also it creates problems for him. Kojima chooses to perceive her cruel treatment as contributing to an honourable and pure state. Furthermore, she sees in the protagonist proof of her belief that rising above the bullying while still allowing it to happen builds his emotional strength and shows his superiority over his abusers. The friendship suffers because the narrator is unable to accept that his suffering can be just or have any purpose. He is able to confront Momose, the meanest of his tormentors, begging for an explanation of why he must continue his awful behaviour, and the conversation they have is equally unsatisfactory for the protagonist. Momose can only laugh at his victim, ridiculing this need to find purpose in his suffering: “Don’t try to tell me something stupid like it’s my responsibility to think about your feelings. Who does that?” Neither Kojima’s martyrdom nor Momose nihilism provides comfort or meaning to the torture our protagonist endures.
Both Kawakami and Yagi’s books show us characters who must find a way to carve a basic human freedom out of the structures and relationships that inhibit them. They are powerful, beautifully written people you will find very difficult to forget.
Jennifer Worley, Neon Girls: A Stripper’s Education in Protest and Power
What is the most feminist way to seize the means of production when sex work is the product on offer? Worley’s endlessly entertaining book tells the story of her involvement building the first ever unionized workforce at a strip club, San Francisco's The Lusty Lady.
Worley is a grad student in the nineties when she takes a job at The Lusty Lady. It’s more a peep show situation, in that the dancers take their clothes off on a stage that patrons pay to view from behind glass. Not your average peeler bar, The Lusty Lady employed punk rock women, many of whom are queer, with piercings, tattoos, and real boobs. Though inexperienced as both a dancer and a stripper, Worley quickly adapts to the work and is able to find a kind and supportive group of colleagues.
Worley consistently engages with the core philosophical struggle of sex work, namely: is it still exploitation if I’m choosing to do it and it benefits me? I can’t answer that question and neither can Worley, really. Ultimately the pay and flexible hours keep her working at the Lady off and on for many years. In response to new (and worse) management changes in 1997, the dancers build a collective, organize a union which gives them the power to negotiate a fairer contract with the owner of the club. In 2003, When the club’s owner announces he is selling the building and moving on to new pursuits, the dancers take over the lease and run the club themselves, hanging on until its ultimate closure in 2013.
Worley’s memoir is a slice of nineties feminist history not to be missed.
Douglas Stuart, Young Mungo
Oof. If you are looking for a tale that dispels the reputation of Scottish people as drunkards, this is not it. Titular character Mungo is fifteen, but a very young fifteen. He is deeply attached to his neglectfully fickle alcoholic mom Maureen while effectively being raised by his older siblings, kind hearted Jodie and criminally truant Hamish. Their Glasgow housing estate creates space for the poorest and loneliest of satellite characters - Wee Chickie, the gay bachelor endlessly tormented by his homophobic neighbours, for example, and Mrs. Campbell, the meek woman who feeds Mungo food and affection whenever she observes he is lacking in both.
No specific year is offered as the setting of the story’s events, but the mention of mix tapes, anti-Catholic sentiment and Mungo’s ever present “cagoule” suggest the late 1980s or early 1990s. Mungo’s only options for the future appear to be becoming a gangster like his brother or labouring in the local factories. It’s a hopeless existence that improves significantly when Mungo befriends James, a slightly older boy who keeps pigeons in the housing estate across the way. They slowly develop a sweet romance, but it is inhibited by the fact that James is Catholic and Mungo is Protestant. Petty drug dealer and generally pugilistic Hamish spends his time denigrating the “Fenians,” which means Mungo must keep secret not only the fact that he is gay, but also that he’s in love with a Catholic.
The story unfolds slowly, told in two timelines. First, we meet Mungo as he embarks on a weekend fishing trip with a couple of older men engaged by Maureen to make a man out of him. These are not good men, and the progressively horrifying events of the desperate and relentlessly rainy camping weekend are described in alternating chapters. The rest of the story provides insight into Mungo’s upbringing and the origins of his friendship with James, until both storylines come together on Mungo’s return from the camping trip.
Forever altered by his experiences, Mungo still gets to maintain a sliver of the hope ignited by his friendship with James, and truly, what more could we ask for in this dreary old world? It is beautiful storytelling, unflinching, for sure, but also generous in describing the small kindnesses from Jodie, and James and Wee Chickie, that make Mungo’s life bearable.
Gwen E Kirby, Shit Cassandra Saw
This is a marvellous collection of stories that show famous and also ordinary women taking charge of their own lives in ways that never mesh with society’s expectation of women’s roles. In the title story, for example, Cassandra, a ghost observing the year 2020, comments on the fact that the mighty Trojan (her mythical contemporary) will not ultimately be remembered for his bravery or strength but instead as the brand name of a condom. All of Kirby’s female characters are sassy, their tales surprising, their politics astutely feminist. You will laugh your way all the way through, I promise.
Kate Beaton, Ducks
I’ve been a huge fan of Kate Beaton’s since the release of her amazing first comics collection, Hark a Vagrant! She has an incisive sense of humour and a deep understanding of classic literature - it’s a combination you (or at least I) can’t help but love.
Published in 2022, Ducks is Beaton’s memoir of her time working in the Alberta oil sands. Like many Cape Bretoners before her, Beaton must leave home in order to make the money she needs to start her adult life. However, as one of few women in the collective workforce, she also suffers daily sexual harassment and general disrespect. The story grows even darker when she is sexually assaulted at a party, and this devastating event only further alienates her from her own sense of self. She is torn between an immediate desire to return to the warmth and safety of home and sticking out her commitment to pay off her student loans. That she must choose between personal safety and her own livelihood is its own terrible realization.
Beaton’s epilogue addresses a question that remains with her many years after these experiences. Does being in an environment almost completely occupied by men create sexual predators, or were those same men predators back home? Put another way: is a rapist always a rapist, or only when an opportunity to rape someone presents itself? I mean, the answer is yes, a rapist is always a rapist, but Beaton’s preoccupation is a sensible one, given her experiences working in this place, populated by lonely and disconnected men. The lack of female workers in the camps creates a community dominated by masculinity that somehow becomes more dangerous in its separation from the “real” world. Beaton recognizes that the timing of her assaults (circa 2008) also defines the way her friends react when she finally reveals what has happened. She is questioned about whether she’d been drinking and if she could be sure the rape really happened. She suggests that in our post- Me Too world, she might feel more confident about pressing charges against her attacker, or at least rejecting the idea that she is somehow responsible for the crime committed against her.
I hope she’s right about that.
Justin Gregg, If Neitzsche Were a Narwhal
I’ve never met Justin Gregg, but we have mutual friends in my good pals Doug and Christie, who work with him at St. FX University in beautiful Antigonish, N.S. Said friends kindly gave this book to me as a gift during a summer 2022 visit to their idyllic farm. It’s a much appreciated gift since I would not otherwise have read this book, and that would have been my loss.
Gregg begins his argument with the premise that it is common for humans to believe that what separates us from the beasts is our capacity for reason and our inherent intelligence. He systematically disabuses readers of this flawed notion through a variety of case studies that show animal intelligence to be superior. On the surface, this seems patently incorrect - they can’t do math or build spaceships, for example. But non-human animals have also not engaged in behaviour that leads to environmental destruction. Nor have they orchestrated a genocide or built a nuclear weapon so powerful it could destroy the planet in a matter of minutes. Furthermore, Gregg argues, humans are disinclined to make decisions based on a distant future, focusing instead on our immediate needs and desires. We are doomed by this lack of foresight.
The title refers to Nietzsche’s belief that the inability of animals to comprehend time or any concept of the future is, in fact, what gives them the edge, survival-wise, over human beings. It’s a compelling argument, rendered entertainingly in this very readable book, that somehow remains funny even while predicting that humans will (like, kind of soon) be responsible for our own extinction.
But that’s waaay in the future. I wouldn’t worry about it now.