Book Reviews 2020

Michael Christie:  Greenwood                                                                           reviewed by Sussan Thomson

Biography Brief:  Michael Christie is the award-winning author of the novel If I Fall, If I Die, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller prize. His linked collection of stories, The Beggar’s Garden,  won the Vancouver Book Award.  His essays and book reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Globe & Mail.  His most recent novel, Greenwood, deals with a futuristic family’s fortunes with Canada’s dwindling old-growth trees.  Michael Christie divides his time between Victoria and Galiano Island, where he lives with his wife and two sons in a timber frame house that he built himself.

You will love diving into this epic novel that centers around our complex relationship with trees.  Even the plot is like a big, noble tree, branching here and there over decades, across Canada and through generations of the Greenwood family.  Some chapters are short, some are long, and some characters occupy much more space than others as the story naturally grows and builds.  

The Greenwood family is full of interesting characters, some of whom worship trees and want to protect them, while others mercilessly log and profit from them.  Others craft useful and beautiful things out of wood.  The plot held big surprises for me, and I enjoyed all of the tree lore, tree science, and tree metaphors woven through.

Christie reminds us that trees are royal beings and that is why they have crowns.  It is beautiful how Christie helps connect us to the Canadian landscape as we travel across the country with his characters.  Even more, as his novel moves us through a devastating climate event, he deepens our appreciation for the trees around us.

Christie is a master writer, each sentence a treasure to read and the whole book has an organic rather than formulaic feel, written in a confident, trustworthy voice.

At this pandemic time when we need to help each other, I loved the idea of moving from thinking of family as a tree, to thinking of family as a forest, with each tree having the job of nurturing the others who are kin.

 

Anosh Irani:  Translations from the Gibberish                                              reviewed by Danni Crenna

Biography Brief:  Anosh Irani was born and brought up in Mumbai and moved to Vancouver in 1998.  He has published four critically acclaimed novels:  The Cripple and His Talismans, a national bestseller; The Song of Kahunsha, a finalist for Canada Reads and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize; Dahanu Road which was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize; and The Parcel, which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and more.  It was chosen as one of the best books of the year by the Globe and Mail, National Post, the CBC, The Walrus, and Quill and Quire.  He has published many acclaimed plays and had short stories that appeared in Granta and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and his nonfiction has been published in the New York Times.  His work has been translated into eleven languages, and he teaches Creative Writing at SFU.  His latest book of short stories, Translated from the Gibberish,  features seven fictional tales of characters living between two worlds, India and Canada, much like Irani himself.

This book calls itself “Seven Stories and One Half-Truth”.  The half-truth brackets the stories with an account of the author’s life in Mumbai and Vancouver and his decision to emigrate as a young man.  The stories include the theme of emigration and living in two worlds, no longer truly belonging in either, which the author also seems to experience in his real life.

The stories are superbly written, spell-binding; but so dark as to be included in the genre of horror stories.  It is fascinating to see ordinary life become the stuff of nightmares through tiny shifts, twists of fate.  The subjects vary quite widely but each story has at its core, the essential element which is the seed of its own ultimate disaster.  Not a cheerful or lighthearted book, but fascinating.

 

Jónína Kirton:  page as bone ~ ink as blood & An Honest Woman  reviewed by Lorraine Martinuik

Biography Brief:  Jónína Kirton, a Red River Métis/Icelandic poet, facilitator and manuscript consultant, was born in Portage la Prairie, Manitobe (Treaty One).  She currently lives in the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Skwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh Peoples.  She graduated from the Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio in 2007 where she now teaches and is their Indigenous Advisor.  Kirton has published two poetry collections:  page as bone ~ ink as blood (2015), and An Honest Woman (2018), both with Talonbooks.  Her interest in the stories of her Métis and Icelandic ancestors is the common thread throughout much of her writing.  An Honest Woman was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize.  In 2016, she received the City of Vancouver’s Mayor’s Arts Award for an Emerging Artist in the Literary Arts.  Her literary activities include being one of the founders of the reading series Indigenous Brilliance, and developing and curating Turtle Island Responds, an online news related poetry series.

The title of Jónína Kirton’s first book, page as bone ~ ink as blooddeclares a territory for the poems.  The poet’s tools – paper, ink – tap directly into the physical body – bone, blood.  The poems emerge from the body, or perhaps are located there, to be uncovered.  The poem “the temple” opens with “my body has things it would like to say // (others it would like to hide)”.  The speaker in “the same lines” says:
our bodies house all memories
most lie just below the skin
some go deep into our bones
marrow houses stories

 

An Honest Woman, Kirton’s second volume, delves even more deeply to compose an intimate portrait of traumas lodged in the body.  The poem “REDress” tells us “grief cuts bone”, and speaks of “the daily dismemberment of our hearts”.  These poems also present some of the all-too-common stories of physical and emotional abuse, alcoholism, violence – a grievous and often chilling array of mistreatment on all levels.  The opening poem, “between” , ends with:
hitchhike home
from disco
not knowing
‘our women’ go
missing

 

Memory in Kirton’s work is not so much an imaginal process as it is a mapping of the hurts.  These are narratives of pain that tell how one comes to be a certain way in the world.  The poem “dear pain” asks “what do you want from me?”  More than once, the question comes up: “where does it hurt?”, specifically, never being asked where it hurts.  In “grab that pussy”, the speaker says, “….it does hurt everywhere!”

These poems are also narratives of anger: so much injustice, inhumanity, and violence in the way a Métis woman is treated by our society.  These are internalized, and integrated into the family dynamic, such that the fifteen-year-old subject of “collective history” is “a shame carrier …. a vortex of empty space ….”

There are, too, gentle moments:  in “nisîmis”, “the laughter once shared / with your brothers in the tub”; a reprieve from grief in “a quiet thread”, “this morning / I wept at the joy of the sun / the way it creeps into every crack”.  The “hungry ghosts” “…. look over your shoulder // wish you read more poetry”.

Kirton’s voice is strong and clear.  The rhythm of the voice is shown on the page.  Lines use open space to separate parts of an idea or image, where the speaker pauses for breath, or to find the right next word.  There is no punctuation, and few capital letters.  A reader’s eye follows the thought and breath rhythms of the speaker of each poem.  Through this technique, Kirton helps us ‘hear’ the voice.

These two collections are not without hope.  An Honest Woman closes with “I will rise”.  page as bone ~ ink as blood closes with Otipemisiwak (the people who own themselves)“, which the end-notes explain is a Cree word used to refer to Métis.  The poem ends with “I want to own myself”.  This reader cannot say whether the speaker has found her way there, but from my reading of these two books, I would say that the poet has found, and owns, her voice.

Peggy Herring:  Anna, Like Thunder                                                   reviewed by Stewart Goodings

Biography Brief:  Peggy Herring is the author of novels, short stories and essays that are published in magazines and literary journals.  She has worked as an editor, a communications consultant, and as a producer and journalist for CBC Radio.  Her latest novel Anna, Like Thunder is based on historical facts of a young Russian woman who came to live among Indigenous people of the Pacific northwest coast in 1808.

When I find myself totally absorbed by a good novel, I often imagine myself as the main character, wondering how I would react to the challenges depicted by the author.  This happened to me when reading Peggy Herring’s historical novel Anna, Like Thunder.  Since the main protagonist is an 18-year-old Russian woman, the wife of the captain of a sailing brig trading down the Oregon coast in the early 1802s, it was a bit of a stretch for me to see myself as Anna Petrovna Bulygina.  

Yet the power and beauty of Herring’s prose, the extraordinary situations Anna finds herself in, and the sheer adventure of the narrative compelled me to identify with Anna in 1809 – shipwrecked, meeting Indigenous people for the first time, discovering things about herself, changing her mind about long held beliefs, and struggling to stay alive and cope with a very different life from that of a noblewoman in St. Petersburg.

The story is based on the truth: there was a Russian vessel, the St. Nikolai which ran aground off Washington State in 1808.  The sailors then encountered three different Indigenous tribes.  Some were hostile, some friendly – all were impacted powerfully by their interaction with the Russian sailors.  And vice versa.  Accounts by both a Russian survivor and an American Indigenous ancestor were the inspiration for Herring’s novel, and the research she did, and the care she took in working with contemporary Indigenous organizations gives the narrative real strength.  Her descriptions of the scenery and environment are breathtaking, as is the way she shows how her character Anna gradually comes to see the Indigenous people with whom she must live as fellow human beings and friends, not her ‘captors’.

Read this book and you too will be entranced by the writing, the story, and the discovery of an imagined world from 200 years ago.  I am confident Peggy Herring’s description of how she came to write this book, and her readings from it, will be one of the highlights of this July’s festival.

 

 

Libby Davies:  Outside In:  A Political Memoir                               reviewed by Cindy Critchley

Biography Brief:  Libby Davies is well known to most Canadians for her work on social justice, both inside parliament and out on the streets, for more than four decades.  Her aptly titled memoir, Outside In, is both a political and personal story of Davies’ forty years of work at the intersection of politics and social movements.

Libby began working as a community organizer in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 1972, and spent the next 45 plus years working to improve the lives of those living in her community.

Libby fell in love with community activist, Bruce Eriksen (25 years her senior) and they were devoted partners for the next 24 years.  They had one son, Lief.  Libby and Bruce were key figures in the founding of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association.

Libby was elected to Vancouver City Council for 5 consecutive terms beginning in 1982, and in 1997 she was elected the Member of Parliament representing Vancouver East for the NDP.  During that election campaign, she was also dealing with great personal tragedy – Bruce was dying.  Shortly after his death and while still trying to come to terms with her grief, Libby spent her first night in Ottawa with only a mattress on the floor of her new apartment and a pair of sheets.  At first she felt like an imposter, but she gradually found her way in the complicated world of federal politics, using the skills she’d learned on the Downtown Eastside to form alliances and build bridges.  She became well known for her grassroots approach to working with diverse communities, her grasp of information, and her work ethic.  She followed a brutal schedule, flying back to her son and her constituency often.  Libby continued to advocate for those most vulnerable in her community (drug users, sex workers, and the homeless), even when she was also filling the busy role of house leader for the NDP.

Outside In is both a political and personal memoir, filled with interesting anecdotes.  This is a compelling story of effective activism and Canadian politics from an insider’s perspective.  It is also the personal story of a strong and resilient woman.  Outside In is a reminder that passionate individuals working together can make change happen.

Exciting News:  Libby has agreed to participate in the Readers & Writers Festival in July, and to offer a workshop, as yet undefined, but to do with politics, lobbying, how to work for change, accessing the political system, etc.  Stay tuned for more details in May.

 

Brian Goldman:  The Power of Kindness                                          reviewed by Val Hammell

Biography Brief:  Toronto’s Dr. Brian Goldman is an emergency room doctor, a leading voice for reform of the healthcare system and the host of the CBC Radio show White Coat, Black Art.  In researching his current book, The Power of Kindness:  Why Empathy is Essential in Everyday Life, he undertook a personal odyssey around the world to meet the most empathetic people alive, learn their secrets and understand more about how kindness is vital to our physical and mental health.

Brian Goldman’s book starts with a question.  Am I a kind soul?  He begins his journey reading about empathy, seeking answers from experts that he hopes can measure his empathy for him, and interviewing people in many unusual places. On the way he learns a lot about himself and empathy’s importance.

Goldman wants to know if he and other people are hard-wired to be empathetic and kind.  He describes his meeting with a brain research scientist, Phillip Jackson, one of Canada’s top researchers in empathy.  In one session an MRI of his brain was taken while looking at people in pain.  Then he is off to see Derek Mitchell, a neuroscientist, where Goldman reacts to an assessment of his personality.

Next Goldman interviews people from all over the world known for their kindness to others.  All his encounters are written with strong detail and insights into the experience each one has to give.  He keeps us interested and wondering how this will add up for him and us.

In the two chapters before his conclusions we learn about programs to teach empathy to children and to experience people working with dementia patients using empathic skills.  Both chapters have many observations and lessons for all of us.  For example, “There is a difference between just listening and being empathic”, says Lorrie Quick.  “You listen to respond to someone.  If your’re being empathic you’re actually paying attention.  You’re invested and focused.  You’re in tune with that person.  You feel what they feel.  That’s the difference.”

Read the book for Goldman’s MRI results and his epiphany that he writes about in the last chapter.  Or better still, come meet him this year in July at the Readers and Writers Festival.  I strongly recommend you to do both.  I enjoyed this powerful and engaging book.  I agree with Goldman that the book is about us and our understanding of why kindness and empathy is essential in today’s world.

 

Tetsuro Shigematsu:  One Hour Photo                                              reviewed by Annette Reinhart

Biography Brief:  Tetsuro Shigematsu is a writer/director/cineaste/actor/radio host/stand-up comic/scholar who was a former writer for This Hour Has 22 Minutes on CBC television and hosted The Roundup on CBC radio.

One Hour Photo chronicles the life of Mas Yamamoto who grew up in a fishing community on the banks of the Fraser River in BC.  Mas is now 90 years old and a family friend with whom Tetsuro Shigematsu did numerous kitchen table interviews in order to chronicle his long and eventful life.  There are several love interests, confinement at a Japanese Canadian internment camp during World War II and participation in building the Distant Early Warning Line in the Canadian Arctic during the height of the Cold War.  He also worked on the railway, in orchards, and ….. yes, opened a One Hour Photo store which gives this work its title.

Shigematsu’s book is the script for the one-man play he performs in theatrical venues.  It describes his multimedia storytelling techniques where, on stage, Shigematsu manipulates tiny furniture and objects in a small model of the room where he had interviewed Mas.  Then this action gets projected live on-screen above him bounced up using Bluetooth from his tiny Go-Pro camera.  In addition, there are projections of historic footage and recordings of character voices that bring Mas to life; various period images evoke the time and link the personal story to historic events.  The book vividly describes his use of live music, historical video, live and archival projections, miniatures and narration to create a multifaceted portrait of a man and his times.  It’s a well-deserved acknowledgement that One Hour Photo was short-listed for the 2019 Governor General’s Award for Drama.

 

Kate Harris:  Lands of Lost Borders – Out of Bounds on the Silk Road

reviewed by Noni Fenwick-Wilson

Biography Brief:  While taking a break from her studies towards becoming a scientist fit for a space mission, Kate Harris and a friend embarked on a bicycle trip in Asia.  Lands of Lost Borders is the travel memoir describing her experiences bicycling 10,000 kilometers of the historic Silk Road.  Her writing has been featured in The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, and Arc Poetry Magazine, among others.  A Rhodes and Morehead-Cain scholar, she was named one of Canada’s top modern explorers.  She lives off-grid in Atlin, BC. 

Kate Harris’s travel memoir Land of Lost Borders – Out of Bounds on the Silk Road is a charming account of two gruelling bike trips across Central Asia she took with a friend.  This treasure of a book offers far more than a traditional travel memoir.  Harris lives her life pushing the bounds of what is physically and mentally possible, and in writing of her life and travels, she challenges the reader to do the same.  Her writing is beautiful; contemplative, reflective, poetic, humorous, at times lyrical, always thought-provoking.  She blends history and literature with adventure and reflection.  She opens our minds and eyes to peoples and regions of Asia we hear and read about but few of us are able to visit, much less how she does it.

Harris and her friend Melissa cycled across Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tibet, Nepal and India, retracing the ancient Silk Road.  Without the proper permits, they twice sneaked into Tibet illegally and disguised themselves as Chinese cyclists to avoid attention.

As a child and youth, Harris dreamed of becoming an astronaut and going to Mars.  To achieve this aim she acquired several science degrees and studied at Oxford and MIT.  However, Harris gradually came to realize she would rather spend her life as a writer, exploring Earth on her bike instead of in front of a microscope in a laboratory or swathed in an Earth-isolating spacesuit.

Harris sees herself as a writer first, and an adventurer/explorer second.  In an interview with her editor, Harris says her book is about ‘defying the rules we have for ourselves, and crossing boundaries’.  Her hope is that her book makes people want to explore, ‘whatever territory is available to them’, and she hopes it ‘moves people, makes them fall in love with the earth so that they never want to abandon it’.

Kate Harris is coming to our very own precious territory, to the 2020 Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival.  You will find Lands of Lost Borders at Abraxas Books in downtown Denman.