Book Review: The Break and If There Were Roads

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I somehow managed to read not one, but two books in the last month: a book of poetry and a novel! I’d like to review them both here for you today.

Book Review #1

The book: “The Break” by Katherena Vermette

What it’s about: A Metis woman is up late one winter’s night, nursing her baby, when she sees an attack taking place in “the Break”, a barren strip of land outside her house. She calls the police to report the crime: it takes them hours to arrive, and they seem skeptical of her story. The novel is structured as a series of shifting points of view, all giving the reader pieces of the events leading up to the attack, and the days following it, detailing a history of trauma, healing, and family love.

What I thought: This book is both powerful and heartbreaking. Although the story is set up in such a way as to make it a compulsive read, I found I had to put it down frequently. There is a lot of recounting of abuse, making it very intense and possibly triggering. That being said, Vermette showcases an incredible resiliency in the characters of First Nations women. The deep and constant love that holds these women together is beautiful. I found myself frustrated, though, that they had to be so strong, time and again, in the face of repeated abuses. It made me angry that this isn’t just fiction: it’s a reality for so many, and in that sense, it’s an incredibly urgent and important book.

From the opening pages: “I’ve always loved the place my girl calls the Break. I used to walk through it in the summer. There is a path you can go along all the way to the edge of the city, and if you just look down at the grass, you might think you were in the country the whole way. Old people plant gardens there, big ones with tidy rows of corn and tomatoes, all nice and clean. You can’t walk through it in the winter though. No one clears a way. In the winter, the Break is just a lake of wind and white, a field of cold and biting snow that blows up with the slightest gust.”

Book Review #2

The book: “If There Were Roads”  by Joanna Lilley

What it’s about: The poems in this collection are largely a meditation on place: the places we’ve come from, the places we’ve been, the places we are now. Notions of home, a tension between solitude and connection, and a sweeping geography–from Scotland and England, across Canada and into Yukon, thread through these poems.

What I thought: I really love Joanna’s poetry. She has a way of taking ordinary moments and making them into something special, so that I begin to look at my own ordinary moments differently. Her poems are accessible, too, something I value in poetry. Much of this book resonated with me: from what it’s like to travel alone, to ideas about home and ghosts and animal welfare, and of course, her writing about the north. I often found myself pausing in recognition, her poems leading me deeper into my own ideas about the world.

From the book: 

Bare-faced

She needs large skin
to smear her self back on
each morning after a shower,
smoothing it with her lifeline,
her fingertips, twisting her hand
to reach between her shoulder blades
which are not the nubs of atavistic wings.
They’re the bones that will be most
ambiguous when unearthed,
collapsed onto shifted ribs.
She is a woman in all the right places,
a man everywhere else.
She is brazen, bare-faced.

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Book Review: Even This Page is White

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April was National Poetry Month, and I found myself (finally) turning back to reading more poetry. I read two excellent collections, one of which I want to review for you today. I confess to being a bit nervous about reviewing poetry: unlike a novel, I feel like the experience of a poem is highly subjective and personal. I’ll give you a very general review, and then point you to some other more experienced poetry reviewers, if you’d like to read more (or, you could just read the book!)

The Book: “Even This Page is White” by Vivek Shraya

What It’s About: These poems explore Shraya’s experience of racism and its intersections with gender and queer identity. She also highlights anti-black racism, and racism towards Indigenous peoples in Canada.

What I Thought: I found this book to be incredibly eye-opening, causing me to think deeper on issues that I’d only had a cursory understanding of before. Shraya writes about the racism present in the Canadian literary scene, as well as in her personal life, with language that is stark and accessible.

The poems are positioned in the lower corners of the pages, emphasizing the remaining white space but also marking it, changing it. In the opening poem “White Dreams”, she writes: “even/this page/is white/so I protest this page/mask it with words/words about being brown”.

The poems that follow include lists of the books on her lover’s shelf, found poems gleaned from comments on a petition to ban Kanye West from playing the closing ceremonies of the Pan Am games, from newspaper articles and interviews, and from another poet’s biography. One of my favourite pieces wasn’t a poem at all: titled “A Conversation with White Friends”, Shraya asks several friends questions on whiteness and white privilege. This piece has the epigraph: “because i still believe in the value of dialogue/and because white people listen to white people.” And to that end, I found the answers to be incredibly enlightening.

Reading this book, I felt grateful towards Vivek Shraya for bringing these words into the world, for teaching and informing me through them, and for reminding me that while it is important to be quiet and listen to the voices of marginalized folks, and to amplify those voices, it is also my job to call out (or call in) and educate other white people.

If you don’t usually read poetry, if you’re afraid of poetry, this book is for you. The poems are highly accomplished, yes, but also very accessible. They don’t make you “work” too hard to discern meaning, but they do lead you into deeper contemplation and understanding of racism and gender identity. I can’t recommend this poetry collection enough!

From the Book:

Cycle of Violence

without seeing a white cock i knew
my teenage penis was too dark
no patch of my brown body is safe
from white sovereignty not even between my legs

without means to under my over colour
i warned potential lovers:
i nicknamed it “oprah”
shifting shame into a joke about a black woman.

Further Reading:

Speaking Past Whiteness by Gwen Benaway

Learning to be Comfortable with Uncomfortable by Kyla Jamieson

Book Review: The Translation of Love

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The book: The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake

What it’s about: In post-WWII Japan, under the U.S. occupation led by General Douglas MacArthur, the Japanese people struggle to find their footing in a changing political climate. A Japanese girl named Fumi is desperately seeking her missing older sister, Sumiko. With the help of her friend, Aya, a recently repatriated Japanese Canadian girl, she writes a letter to General MacArthur, imploring him to help her find her sister.

What I thought: I really enjoyed this book, from the characters to the story to the way Kutsukake structured the book. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character, and these intertwining threads serve to pull the reader along in the book, making it hard to put down at times. Through the characters, we get a sense of a wide range of experiences for people of Japanese decent during this period of history. From Japanese Canadians living in interment camps, to Japanese families who lived through the war, to Japanese Americans working in Japan for the U.S. military, I really enjoyed reading so many different angles. Starting this book, I knew about interment camps (another excellent novel about Canadian interment camps is Obasan by Joy Kogawa), but it was eye-opening to get these other perspectives. Another theme throughout the book that I really loved was the subtle commentary on translation and language. There are essentially three different translators in this story, working to help the characters pass along deeply personal and important messages.

From the first pages: “Ever since her sister had gone away, Fumi looked forward to the democracy lunches with a special, ravenous hunger. The American soldiers came to her school once a week with deliveries, and though she never knew what they would bring, it didn’t matter. She wanted it all, whatever it was. Sometimes it was powdered milk and soft white bread as fluffy as cake. Sometimes it was peanut butter, a sticky brown paste whose unusual flavor–somehow sweet and salty at the same time–was surprisingly addictive. The lunch supplements supplied by the Occupation forces reminded her of the kind of presents her older sister, Sumiko, used to bring in the days when she still came home. Fumi’s hunger was insatiable, and although she couldn’t have put it in so many words, some part of her sensed that her craving was inseparable from her longing for her sister’s return.”

Book Review: Ravensong

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The book: Ravensong by Lee Maracle (1993)

What it’s about: This novel is set in the 1950’s, in a small First Nations village on the Pacific Northwest Coast. The main character and narrator, Stacey, is the only one in her community to attend and complete school in “white town”. She dreams of going to university and coming back to teach the kids in her village. The village is devastated by a ‘flu epidemic, taking the lives of elders and infants alike. Throughout the book, Stacey grapples with the divide between her traditional culture and the encroaching influence of white colonialism.

What I thought: This is not an easy read. The story begins at a funeral of an elder on an grey, rainy day, and this sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Maracle is unflinching in her portrayal of the hardship faced by this First Nations village, and, by extension, First Nations people in Canada. Through Stacey’s thought process, and also through the voice of Raven, Maracle is critical largely of “white town” and colonialism, but also at times critical of the villagers who seem caught in limbo; who wish to keep their old ways without acknowledging the threat of the tides of change sweeping over them and washing them away. There is hope in Stacey, who comes to serve as a bridge between cultures, but it is only a glimmer. The oftentimes bleak truths of the story are tempered with the innate sense of humour the villagers possess. It allows them to move through the many tragedies of the story with a certain amount of grace. I believe it’s an important book that invites readers, particularly white readers, to ask ourselves how we’ve been complicit in the devastation felt by First Nations people, and how we can do better.

From the opening pages: “Change is serious business–gut-wrenching, really. With humans it is important to approach it with great intensity. Great storms alter earth, mature life, rid the world of the old, ushering in the new. Humans call it catastrophe. Just birth, Raven crowed. Human catastrophe is accompanied by tears and grief, exactly like the earth’s, only the earth is less likely to be embittered by grief. Still, Raven was convinced that this catastrophe she planned to execute would finally wake the people up, drive them to white town to fix the mess over there.”

Book Review: Barkskins

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The book: Barkskins, by Annie Proulx (2016)

What it’s about: Barkskins starts out as the story of Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, two men who come to North America from France in 1693. Sel’s new life is one of extreme hardship, working to cut down the seemingly endless forests around him. He marries a Mi’kmaw woman and their children struggle to find footing in cultures at odds with one another. Duquet escapes the hard life of a woodsman, first becoming a fur trader and then building a timber empire. He views his children as heirs to the fortune he amasses from nothing. The novel follows the descendants of both Sel and Duquet, who later changes his name to Duke, all the way up to 2013, detailing their relationships with the forest, colonialism and family.

What I thought: I was so taken by this book on many levels. Proulx is a fabulous writer: her prose is beautiful and the depth of her research amazed me. She writes unflinchingly of the horrors of colonialism and the conquest both of the forests of the “new world” and the people who lived in them for centuries before Europeans arrived. I loved how the stories of the two families played off each other, twining together and coming apart like forest streams. I appreciated the contrast between the settler mentality and that of Indigenous people trying to hold onto themselves in a rapidly changing world. It was heartbreaking, but also so necessary to read. Barkskins is a sweeping family history but also a much larger story of habitat destruction, conservation and climate change; it is both historical fiction and a real-world, cautionary tale. I loved it.

From the opening pages: “The forest had many edges, like a lace altarpiece. Its moody darkness eased in the clearings. Unknown plants and curious blossoms caught their eyes, funereal spruce and hemlock, the bright new-growth puffs at the tips of the pine branches, silvery tossing willow, the mint green of new birth–a place where even the sunlight was green. As they approached one opening they heard an irregular clacking sound like sticks–grey bones tied in a tree, stirred by the wind. Monsieur Trepagny said that the sauvages often hung up the bones of a killed animal after thanking its spirit. He led them around beaver ponds protected by almost impenetrable alder queaches, warning that the narrow pathways were moose runs. They passed through wet country. Hollows brimmed with tea-coloured rainwater. The quaking sphagnum, punctuated with pitcher plants, sucked at every step. The young men had never imagined a country so wild and wet, so thickly wooded.”