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