O Death Where is Thy Sting?

by Stephen Sheeran

Prodnose (1)

Raymond Briggs’ Time for Lights Out (2019) is not for the faint-hearted. It is unusual—an autobiographical graphic novel, in which he presents a meditation on impending death. Some of you, like me, may inwardly scoff at the whole concept of “graphic novel” (glorified comic book?), but in Briggs’ works, I am happy to report, there is no lack of depth or artistry.

Those of you with children or grandchildren may already be familiar with his portfolio. He was trained as an artist/illustrator and achieved early recognition for his Mother Goose illustrations (1966). He then branched out into both writing and illustrating children’s books, with Father Christmas (1973) and The Snowman (1977); then, later, came more adult-focused graphic novels. Throughout, his trademark style has combined vibrant-yet-understated illustrations with quirky and sometimes terribly dark themes. For example, When the Wind Blows relates the slow demise of an elderly English couple from the radiation fallout generated by a nuclear attack.

In Time for Lights Out Briggs presents what is essentially a scrapbook of his life. Returning to subjects from his earlier works, he takes a long look back at his parents’ generation (both born in the late 1800s), his birth and coming of age in WWII England, and his subsequent career as writer/illustrator. He also weaves in specific details about his first wife and his parents, who all tragically died in the space of two years in the early 1970s, at the start of his career.

Contents include whimsical poems, snatches of conversations, lists of instructions and symptoms, cartoon storyboards, free-standing drawings, notes to himself, graveyard epitaphs, and snippets of famous quotations on the subject of death. The illustrations vary from finely finished drawings to half-executed sketches (some, in fact, oddly reminiscent of the artwork of Kay Kinsman, one-time resident of Lennoxville). But gone are the rich colour combinations and experimental media of his earlier works. All is rendered in black and white—mainly black—including a few photos of loved ones, historical events, old illustrations from newspapers. Significantly, as the work progresses the artwork becomes less distinct and the focus darker. A recurring image is a lone, dark, distant figure lost in a vast landscape.

One would expect all these bleak biographical ingredients to result in a thoroughly dark and depressing work. In fact, many critics have characterised Time for Lights Out as a depressing or melancholic or “plangent” denouement to Briggs’ oeuvre.

On the surface this seems fair. It is true that Briggs provides a catalogue of the physical indignities of aging—everything from bunions to incontinence to decreased vigour to redistribution of body hair to heart palpitations to deafness. In one poem, for example, he writes: “It’s not that I am going deaf/No. Not at all./I am not in denial./Young people today just don’t speak clearly./ It’s pointless them denying it,/You can’t hear  what they say./ Q.E.D.”

It is also true that he highlights the psycho-social depredations of old age—the increased loneliness as one’s peers bite the dust, the indignity of having youngsters a fraction of our age condescend and over-explain, and the ongoing shock of the new: a sense of dislocation and being out of touch with modern technology (cf. entire spread devoted to %@#*&#$ remote controls!). He walks through the empty silent fields and sees high-speed trains whiz by, while “silver pencils” fly through the heavens five miles overhead…and a friend has to telephone Pakistan from England to organise a car rental in Oklahoma.

Yes, the critics may be right. Death colours the entire work. Briggs reflects moodily at one point that he has just purchased what is likely his last ever package of art paper. He muses that people of his age automatically turn to the obituary pages in the newspaper to see “who’s in, who’s out”.  Dark half-opened doors, hills that wind out of sight figure frequently in the scenic and thematic background of the work.

However, to dismiss the work simply as melancholic is to miss the entire point.  In his earlier works, we saw a Father Christmas who complained bitterly about “bloomin’ rain!” “bloomin’ COLD!” “bloomin’ CHIMNEYS!!” but doggedly went about his business and finally tucked himself into bed after a hard day’s work. In The Snowman we saw the Snowman come to life and spend some happy mischievous hours with the young boy, exploring all the marvels of the mundane world—beds, fireplaces, refrigerators—before taking the boy aloft in a wonderful journey of imaginative discovery…and then, finally, melting into nothing.

Time for Lights Out is of a piece with these earlier works. In its lines and illustrations Briggs takes us up close to the undying mystery of human imagination, curiosity, and engagement in the physical and social world. The dire predicament of the human approaching death is redeemed by the aesthetic, the unconquerable desire to make sense of things.

Briggs is most emphatically not religious; however, his is a relentless impulse towards transcendence: “I don’t believe in ‘the spirit of the place”./Nor do I believe in ‘auras’./Nevertheless,/Up on the hill, near the church,/There is one./ Dammit.”

 

 

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Hanging Out at McDonald’s?

by Vince Cuddihy

Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman (2012) is the first part of a trilogy that includes Countdown City (2013) and World of Trouble (2014). Winters blends elements of science fiction with detective fiction to create a new twist in crime novels.

The story begins with the news that Asteroid 2011GV, a chunk of rock about the size of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, is on a collision course with Earth. There was hope that its trajectory would take it past this planet, and it got lost to Earth observers when it aligned with the sun, but now that it has re-emerged there is no question that it will impact in six months time.

Last PolicemanPeople are reacting strangely to this impending catastrophe. Many are committing suicide. Others are cashing out their savings, quitting their jobs and setting off to pursue their bucket list. It is a combination of these two phenomena that introduce us to Hank Palace, a newly promoted detective in the Concord New Hampshire police department. Even though Hank is only a rookie cop, he has been promoted to detective because his predecessor has decided to chuck his badge and set off to fulfill his dreams in the little time he has left. Hank finds himself investigating the putative suicide of Peter Anthony Zell, who has been found with a belt around his neck and hanging from a horizontal rail in a stall in the men’s room of a McDonald’s restaurant.

Hank has his doubts about the circumstances. He is not sure that the deceased has died in this place. For one thing, he is too tall to be strangled at so low a height; so Hank thinks he died somewhere else and has been brought to this location. The belt raises suspicions too. The dead man is still wearing the belt that holds his pants up; the belt around his neck is a very fancy and very new, and sold only in the most exclusive shops in the area. Who goes out and buys an expensive belt when he knows he will be dead in a couple of days?

Further enquiries provide a set of conflicting pictures about the victim, who was an actuary with a local insurance company. The man was a mathematical wizard. His family—his sister and her husband—say he was badly depressed and they are not surprised that he took his own life. Zell’s boss—who is using alcohol to ease the transition towards the demolition of the planet—and his co-workers report that the victim was fascinated by the impending peril and has been keeping detailed scrap books about the asteroid’s approach to Earth.

Palace’s fellow cops feel he is wasting his time looking for a possible murderer. Even if he can actually catch someone, there is no chance that the accused will ever stand trial, let alone get convicted. Palace sees it the other way around; if he can make an arrest, the killer is guaranteed to spend the rest of his life in prison, even if that is only a few months.

One thing Palace does learn is that Zell had been a drug user, and may have been dealing drugs to help pay for his habit. He had managed to get off cocaine, but the impending doom had got him back into drugs. So now Palace may be chasing a drug trafficker as well as a murderer. To which his fellow cops make the same rejoinder: Who cares? If people want to spend their remaining time in a narcotic haze, what difference does it make to a society that won’t exist in another one hundred days?

Palace is beginning to think that his fellow officers may be smarter than he is. Then a close friend of Zell’s dies in a fire. This may also be an accident, but the fire looks suspicious. When one of Zell’s co-workers is also killed, there is no question about murder; she has been shot at close range. Palace is motivated to step up his efforts. He also realizes that he is dealing with someone who is pretty ruthless, and that Palace himself may be the next target. His challenge is to motivate the other detectives to help him out, even though they think he has brought his problems on himself.

This is an intriguing book. Not only is it a good mystery story, but it also raises important questions about how people will react in the face of near certain doom. Is Palace right to keep on trying? Are the other cops right to just go through the motions? Are the ones who quit work entirely making the correct response? Or are the people who quit life entirely the wise ones?

Winters, who lives in Los Angeles, is quite a prolific writer. He has ten novels to his credit, including both satirical and children’s novels. He has also published three books of poetry and several plays. He has been nominated for several literary awards. He won the Philip K. Dick Award for Countdown City and an Edgar Award for The Last Policeman.  The Last Policeman is now available at the Lennoxville Library.

 

 

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Everything Grows!

by Shanna Bernier

Everything grows and grows
Babies do
Animals too
Everything grows

Everything grows and grows
Sisters do
Brothers too
Everything grows

A blade of grass, fingers and toes
Hair on my head, a red, red rose
Everything grows, anyone knows
That’s how it goes

-Raffi

 

Spring had finally sprung! The flowers are blooming, birds are nesting and the worms cover the sidewalks after the rain. My front lawn is a veritable yellow swath of dandelions, not yet mowed – partly for the sake of the bees and partly because we are busy and it keeps raining. I cannot help but notice how much my children are growing too. The little one, three years old, has recently learned to summersault and her favourite expression is “on my own, Mommy!” The six year old is writing grocery lists, (mainly composed of popsicles and bubble-gum) and completing monkey-bar sequences. Their shorts from last summer are too small, their shoes are too small, and more and more baby teeth are wiggly. They are growing and changing every day, right before my very eyes. I decided to write my kid-lit library column this week, not about any major world issues or difficult parenting struggles, but about the simple truth of springtime and child-rearing, that everything grows.

very hungryI chose two picture books this week on the subject of growth, spring and renewal. The first, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Erik Carle is delightful classic of early childhood. Originally created in 1969, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has been delighting young readers for generations. This book is a winner of many children’s literature awards and it has sold almost 50 million copies worldwide. It is the tale of a hungry caterpillar who eats his way through a number of foodstuffs over the course of a week during which he grows into very fat caterpillar. At the end of the book (spoiler alert!), he forms his cocoon, and transforms into a beautiful butterfly. This book shows a rather fictional diet of the average caterpillar, but none the less is a potential gateway to the magical science of transformation and growth in the natural world. I own a board book edition with dye-cuts of the holes the caterpillar makes through fruit and leaves, giving the pages an addition interactive attraction to the youngest of readers. I like this story for its simple and humorous story, but especially because of Eric Carle’s distinctive illustration style. His painted collages form the backdrops and characters of all his books, and offer a unique visual pleasure that is deeply fun to imitate with a child at home or a classroom.

we are growing

The second book I chose for this week’s column is a more recent children’s literature contribution: “We are Growing” by Laurie Keller, published in 2016. This story, which is part of the “Elephant and Piggle like Reading” series, is a great book for early readers. Like other books in the series, it doubles as a fun read-aloud picture book for kids of all ages. We are Growing tells the tale of a group of blades of grass, all together in a row. Each blade of grass is the most “something”. One is tallest, one is curliest, and one is crunchiest. The last blade of grass cannot distinguish himself specifically from his companions. He feels a bit left out and not very special. Then in a slightly shocking twist, all of their growth is chopped off by a lawn mower and they must all begin again. The grass is reassured that it will grow back and they enthusiastically embrace their fate. The book addresses the differences human beings all have as we grow up and the pressures kids feel to be the “something-est”. By the end of the story all the grass blades are able to identify their gifts and skills, and also accept that sometimes there are set-backs (like lawnmowers!) but that we must carry on and continue to grow.

Growing – we do it every day

We’re growing when we’re sleeping

And even when we play

And as we grow a little older

We can do more things,

Because I’m growing and so are you.

 

Each day we grow a little taller,

A little bigger, not smaller.

And we grow a little friendlier too.

We try to be a little nicer

As we grow each day,

Because I’m growing and so are you.

 

-Barney the Dinosaur

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The Plague: A Story of Our Times

by Stephen Sheeran

In the category of ’Tis-an-ill-wind-that-blows-nobody-some-good, sales of Albert Camus’ The Plague (La Peste-1947) have skyrocketed over the past couple of months. Misery loves company, I guess, and in lockdown what better way to seek diversion than in the company of Dr. Rieux, along with Othon, Rambert, Tarrou, Cottard, Grand, & Cie—those somewhat glum denizens of Camus’ classic.

The PlagueBLU526902._SY475_

In 194- all is quiet in Oran, a French prefecture on the north coast of Algeria. A very precise and self-conscious narrator provides a neutral if slightly jaded account of the town (somewhat ugly and characterless in spite of its proximity to the sea) and its people (bourgeois, engaged in commerce mainly—but also in predictable leisure activities).

One fine spring day, as Dr. Bernard Rieux exits his consulting-room, he comes across a dead rat in the landing. He reports it to the concierge, who concludes that this dead rat must be a practical joke. Later in the day, Rieux comes across another rat in the throes of death, and in subsequent days more and more are discovered dead or dying on the streets. Prefecture authorities are concerned, but not alarmed. Then, Dr. Rieux’s concierge becomes ill with a strange malady, which assails him with buboes in his lymph glands, vomiting, high fever—and death. This is just the beginning. In spite of the misrepresentations of the authorities and the denial of the populace, Oran prefecture must finally acknowledge that there is a full-blown epidemic of the bubonic plague.

Authorities scramble to set up protocols, to lock down the borders of the town (no-one in or out!), to find ways of diagnosing and quarantining and treating the sick, and then of disposing of the overwhelming numbers of dead (i.e., through incineration and mass burial).

Superimposed upon these events are the stories of the individuals who are contending with the epidemic. Dr. Rieux finds himself on the front lines in the battle, and we are introduced to other main characters through him. There is Cottard, a petty criminal who profits from the plague through smuggling and black market trading. There is Tarrou, a wealthy tourist with an interesting past, who happens to be in Oran at the wrong time—he becomes one of the main organizers of volunteer brigades to help manage the sick, and he keeps a plague diary.  Paneloux, a fire and brimstone Catholic priest, tries from the pulpit to make sense of the calamity. Rambert, a Paris journalist, attempts ceaselessly to effect an escape while railing at the unfairness of it all.

A recurring motif in literature is that humanity is best revealed under circumstances of imprisonment and deprivation. Think Solzhenitsyn in his gulag, Dostoevsky in Siberia, 12 Angry Men in a jury room—you get the idea. Curiously, though, this recurring motif is not so much about the source of the suffering or deprivation as it is about the human behaviour that arises in the crucible.

 

The main question posed in The Plague is how the individual can face up to the overwhelming despair, isolation, loneliness, and loss of humanity that result from the infestation. The gruesome deaths level all human hierarchies and pretenses, and they assault normal human emotions and interactions.

Father Paneloux, waxing Augustinian, preaches that the plague comes as divine retribution for sins, and that the best course is to embrace the fate that God has assigned and trust in ultimate redemption through love. This suffering is visited upon believers to test their faith—to force them into an all-or-nothing reliance upon divine will. This approach rings hollow for the other characters, especially Dr. Rieux. Together these other characters articulate a more human response to suffering, a response which involves the acknowledgement of the arbitrariness of the evil but the necessity of sharing the burden and acting with integrity. It is Tarrou who has experienced first-hand in the Spanish Civil War the meting out of death as punishment, and he recognizes a greater pestilence: a power structure that systematically victimizes and kills. It is he who comes closest to articulating a moral center: “What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest, health, integrity, purity (if you like), is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.” In short, the evil in the pestilence lies in the attitudes people assume towards it.

Although Camus’ work is widely understood to be a metaphorical representation of the Nazi occupation of France, it transcends its particular historical circumstances. Camus had indeed lived through France under the Nazis and the infamous Vichy collaboration, but in a broader context he was conscious of the more universal ravages of war, slavery, and oppression. In The Plague, Camus provides a metaphor for any kind of massive, traumatic destabilization of normal life.

Our very own Covid-19 surely comes as a metaphorical visitation revealing some fatal flaws in our social and economic organization. We have outsourced/globalized our means of production to achieve greater wealth, but we have instead achieved greater vulnerability. We have unwittingly embraced relentless growth and frenetic hyper-consumption, and the stability of our society actually depends on maintaining our habits and mindsets. In terms of fairness and justice, this pandemic has shown how empty are our notions of freedom, liberty, equality, and democracy. And the human behaviour that has arisen in THIS crucible has shown the very same extremes of self-interest and saintliness that Camus evokes.  Moreover, given the way the natural world is breathing a sigh of relief at the cessation of human consumption, the questions arise: Who or what is the real pestilence?

In the words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”

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Fantasy and Escapism while parenting in a pandemic

By Shanna Bernier

Parenting during a pandemic is wild. There have been countless articles, blogs and rants shared online and in print about how untenable it is for most parents to manage their full-time jobs, children, a home as well as growing expectations of formalized distance learning or home schooling. This whole situation makes my brain spin sometimes. With announcements made about schools possibly reopening, instead of celebration and relief, a completely new can of anxiety-worms was opened as millions of parents must contemplate the safest and most reasonable approach to managing the never-ending to-do list.  Our dark apocalyptic thoughts shift to fears of unleashing a second pandemic wave on our precious children.  Barring a medical miracle or divine intervention this situation is not magically going to go away. As my first-grader and I re-read the perennial favourite Harry Potter book, The Half Blood Prince (a light-hearted read at the best of times) I find myself connected to the nervous parents worried about sending their children back to Hogwarts in a time when Voldemort is gaining power and is not under control. The government (the Ministry of Magic) can make posters and claim to have the situation secured, but none of us have ever faced a threat like this before (The Dark Lord – Covid-19). Clearly all this time at home is making me feel a bit loopy.

5w Despite my husband and I both having been trained as teachers, both having experience with the Quebec curriculum and classroom experience, we have taken only the most hesitant jump onto the home-schooling bandwagon. We are working full time at home, so we share the day back and forth, ensuring (on good days) that our kids are not overly neglected and are not too reliant on the delightful screens they love so dearly. Our kids are little, 7 and 4, so we aren’t too worried about them “falling behind”. We have been encouraging independent play, letting them colour every colouring sheet our printer can expel, going on many bike rides and watching the Quebecois treasure: Passe-Partout.  When we do engage in formal educational activities, the joy is usually fleeting. There have been a few successes: a sight-word scavenger hunt in the basement, lots of math with baking and Lego building challenges. We also read daily. I love reading out-loud, and even when I am completely exhausted from the weight of overwhelming doom, I can still manage to read. In a wonderful moment of clear thinking, on the last days before the major shutdown we managed to get to our Lennoxville Library and stock-up on some books. This trip would prove to be the last for many moons, but we managed to borrow a few true gems in our panic grab of pandemic reading. One such grab, an impulsive and uninformed choice, yielded an enthusiastic new fandom I would not have predicted. Bea chose a series of graphic novels entitled “5 Worlds”. This was a success in judging a book by its beautiful cover art. These books, whose story is written by Mark Siegel weave a complex tale of a civilization spread over five small planets. The inhabitants of the five worlds are facing an environmental cataclysm and are collectively threatened by an evil force called the “mimic” which seems to be able to possess people who wish to gain economic or political power. It is a beautiful story of adventure and struggle against an unfair capitalist system, which punishes the vulnerable. The protagonist is a rebellious young girl, named Oona, who is gifted in the art of sand bending. Sandbenders do a kind of dance where sand is moved telekinetically, and some can achieve the illusive “living flame”. Oona engages in a quest to light the ancient beacons on her own world with the living fire and the four moons that encircle it, in order to complete a prophesy in time to prevent an apocalyptic scenario. After a war breaks out on her home world her adventure continues in the subsequent books, with her unlikely companions. These supporting characters include an itinerant youth plagued with a mysterious vanishing disease and an ability to speak to plants, as well as a robot with a soul. It is quite the epic tale. Three out of the five books have been released and we wait anxiously for the next chapter to unfold.

I think it is natural for us to escape into fantasy and magic in the time like this. I have always enjoyed fantasy as a genre, but I wouldn’t have thought as deeply about finding comfort or escape in the other worlds, as they are often dark and much scarier than our own reality. I know while re-reading Harry Potter yet again serves as a comfortable sink into a predictable story where I know what the ending will be but reading a new series like the “5 Worlds” books offer a moment of escape to imagination. While some of the social challenges and conflicts described are important and real in our world, it is still far cry from the our reality at the moment. This reality is hard, and caring for kids throughout is especially challenging. I can still count my blessings, and I am forever grateful to be able to escape into a good book.

Don’t forget about our local libraries! There are many resources available online, and many programs for folks of all ages being offered. Visit the Lennoxville library website to check out the latest news: http://bibliolennoxvillelibrary.ca/

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Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club By Megan Gail Coles

Reviewed by Janine Taylor-Cutting

It has been months since I read this electrifying book, which is a Canada Reads selection this year. So today I sat down in front of my laptop and asked myself what I remembered about Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club.

Capture

I remember that reading this novel is like opening yourself up to a slap across the face. Through her raw yet delightfully poetic word art, Coles expertly displays the lines dividing humans. She ushers in an understanding in the reader of how these lines are visible to some, ignored by others, and reinforced by those in power and their systems.

I couldn’t put this book down. In a time of shortening attention spans and 24 hour news cycles and all the bestsellers at my fingertips through my Kindle app, I am a little reluctant to admit that I sometimes stop reading even good books part way through, to move on to the next thing. But I burned through Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club in a couple of evenings.

This book is set in St. John’s, Newfoundland during a February storm. An eclectic cast of characters with ties to an upscale downtown restaurant, The Hazel, are revealed to us over the course of a day and evening. We come to know their pasts and scars and foibles intimately, and the whole affair culminates in the trendy restaurant. The Hazel, with its unwitting host of customers, some of them implicated in crimes and injustices in various ways throughout the novel, even serves as a metaphor for the strange human experience Coles serves up. There is the visible front dining room, with people trying to act like good, upstanding citizens, and the steamy, rooty kitchen, where dark secrets are revealed.

We have Olive, a young, indigenous woman, and Iris, a struggling artist and waitress, both from Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, whose experiences serve to present the great historic rural/urban divide in this province. We have Omi, an immigrant from Nigeria who works at the restaurant. We have John, the owner, and his privileged wife, George. We have Damian, the gay waiter. We have Calv and his friend, Roger, two goons who have never been taught (or refuse to understand) that women should be given the opportunity to consent to a sexual act.

Coles gives us all these characters and more, and shows us how they have learned to accept a larger or smaller heap of suffering depending upon their station in life. There is an uncomfortable feeling of “knowing one’s place” in this novel:

I’m … not all white. Not really. Part Indian.

And that was the first time Olive had said it aloud to a stranger.

…So who are your relations?

I don’t know.

And Olive is embarrassed because it’s true. She doesn’t know her

relations. Some were accidentally lost, others mispronounced on

purpose. Few could read the little paperwork they had to prove

themselves before the flames came. Never was there a parish hall

built permanent stone enough to protect against fortune’s wood

stove and a minister in his cups. St. John’s burns down encore and

all applaud the rebuild while Olive’s forgotten place is blamed

indefinitely for reckless kindling. The wealthy are permitted

accidents, the poor found guilty.

 

Coles forces us to contemplate daily insults to human dignity via street interactions, an extra-marital affair, and a brutal sexual assault. Through it all, there is an undercurrent of helplessness, as characters who somehow know better take the cowardly path.

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is chock-full of visceral images, swear words, drinking, sex and drugs. Coles reveals not only the dark underbelly of St. John’s, but the underbelly of humanity. And she deftly explains the historical and societal implications of each uncomfortable act: “Damian let that girl walk out of there without trying to help her. Didn’t even ask if she was okay. Didn’t even call her a cab…Though Damian was quick to defend himself because he was taught… to perpetually feel deservedly under attack.”

The power dynamics between rich and poor, indigenous and white, and male and female are not just implied in this book, they are wildly real and complex. The wayward behaviours of each character are punctuated by rich explorations of their childhood traumas and present-day stressors.

All of this is set against a backdrop of cold and slush. Light a candle when you read this book, and have a sweater nearby. You will feel the needles of sleet spraying from the tires of the passing oil workers’ trucks. You will shed a tear for tender skin.

There is no hero in this story. Rather, there is a call for all of us to do better, to speak out more, to have some dignity, and to look after those less fortunate than ourselves.

This book is available at the Bibliothèque Lennoxville Library.

Note: Guest reviewer Janine Taylor-Cutting is a lifelong Newfoundland resident, guidance counsellor, blogger (A Year of Weather), and Melanie Cutting’s daughter-in-law. Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is the fifth and last book to be reviewed from this year’s Canada Reads competition. The local version of the event took place in Lennoxville March 11, but the official Canada-wide CBC event slated for later in March was postponed until later this year due to public health concerns.

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We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir, by Samra Habib

Reviewed by Linda Buchanan

This is the fourth of the Good Reads reviews of this year’s Canada Reads event held in Lennoxville on March 11 2020

 

Samra Habib is a journalist, writer, photographer and activist. She sprang into the spotlight in 2014 when she launched her photography project called ‘Allah and Me’. This project was created to document the life, existence and experience of queer Muslims all over the world. We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir is her first book, her story in her own words.  

We Have Always Been Here

Habib was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan. Her family is Ahmadi Muslim. The Ahmadi faith began in the late 19th century and was founded on principles of non-violence and tolerance for other religions. It is rejected by mainstream Islam as heretical. From a very young age, Habib was taught that revealing her faith was dangerous; she had witnessed enough violence that she had grown accustomed to keeping her identity hidden.

 

Habib describes her 7th birthday, when conflicts between Sunnis and Shias erupted into riots. Her parents returned to the house much later than expected, bringing others with them. Habib shared that birthday with strangers in need of safety. But despite the dangers and challenges her faith imposed, Habib grew up feeling the love of her parents, and this created the foundation for many of the reconciliations she experienced later in her life.

 

While Habib was still a child it became clear that if her family remained in Pakistan her father would be killed or jailed. So when she was ten, she journeyed with her mother and siblings to Canada. Her father arrived a month later. In her writing she sheds a light on one of the realities of refugee children, telling how she acted as her mother’s translator when they arrived at the border.

 

The first few years in Canada were challenging for Habib. However, she found herself in groups and places that gave her the freedom to learn and discover. In an ESL class, the room was full of people who had come from all corners of the globe. She was captivated by their stories of the journeys they had taken. High school also became a place where she was able to explore and be curious. Her high school in Toronto was a diverse place, and she discovered that bullying is less of a problem when everyone is a little different. However, even as she began to discover her own self, traditions practiced thousands of miles away followed her. At the age of 16, before graduating, she found herself in an arranged marriage.

 

At 19, following her graduation and having been accepted at her chosen university, Habib told her parents that she did not want to be married, and moved out of the family home without telling them where she was going. Because of the dissolution of her marriage, she became the center of rumors and was ostracized by her faith community.

 

The next decade was full of moments of liberation for Habib. After graduating from university in journalism, she found an editorial job, where she created relationships that helped her to grow, and found a chosen family that affirmed her very being. She began to try on different labels to see if they fit. The one she became most comfortable with was queer. She continued to be curious, focusing on learning while connecting with others in the LGBTQ community. She rekindled her relationship with her mother, who had opened a salon that became a place where reconciliation and love could grow. To mark a new phase in her life, Habib decided to take a trip she had long dreamed of. Ever since her ESL class, she had been intrigued by Japanese culture. Once in Japan, she became immersed in the queer culture there. There is a touching moment when, in a gay bar, she has a conversation with someone in Urdu, her mother tongue. Even though she was on the other side of the planet, she found acceptance within the queer community and felt a sense of belonging. Her time in Japan marked a turning point in her liberation; she was ready to go home and find her people.

 

The last third of the book is full of travels, relationships, encounters with strangers and beautiful moments of reconciliation with her faith. Now in her 20s, she had discovered much in the queer world and had learned a lot about her own self through these discoveries and experiences. But she had begun to feel isolated within the mainstream queer scene which was predominantly white, at times heavily male and often unsympathetic to religion. This changed when an invitation to the Unity mosque for queer Muslims in Toronto left her feeling once again accepted and seen.

 

As she reclaimed her Muslim faith, Habib became inspired to write stories about others like her. She knew that representation is important and wanted everyone to realise that LGBTQ Muslims like herself have always been here. She became an advocate for the rights of queer and trans people of color. Fear would no longer dictate her actions. She cast off what had been ingrained in her as a child and moved towards a fuller understanding of herself and the desire to help and love others.

 

Habib writes with passion. Her hope is to help others experience what she has had the privilege of experiencing: liberation from fear and prejudice, reconciliation with family and faith and acceptance of one’s true self.

 

This book is available at the Bibliothèque Lennoxville Library.

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Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

Today’s review is the third from the participants in the Canada Reads event recently held at the Lennoxville Library.

Reviewed by Sébastien Lebel-Grenier

Son of a Trickster is a ‘coming of age’ novel about a sixteen-year-old boy with a big heart and a knack for getting himself into complicated situations.  His name is Jared and he lives in Kitimat, BC.

son of a trickster

Frankly, some would say Jared is a loser: he’s on a fast track to becoming a dropout, regularly blacks out after binge drinking, tends to get beat up and has somewhat of a foul mouth. In fact, this book has been dropped into a potion of swearing and foul language–be advised.  And also, Jared gets by on money he makes through baking and selling the best pot cookies in town.

 

Mind you, he comes from a disturbingly dysfunctional family.  His mother is sometimes fiercely protective of him: she nail-gunned a former boyfriend to the floor when he tried to crush Jared’s ribcage, and she had a pit bull intent on mauling Jared meet an untimely end.  She is violent, highly dysfunctional, generally unfit as a mother and, it could be argued, the source of many of Jared’s woes.  As a result, Jared crashes in the basement of the family home or couch-surfs at the homes of friends who one could characterize as bad influences.

 

So why is Jared such a compelling character?  First, notwithstanding the chaos that is his life, Jared is a good kid.  He genuinely cares about others.  He supports his father and his teen-mom stepsister, keeping it secret from his mother. He helps out his neighbor, Ms. Jaks, whose husband has dementia.  He falls for Ms. Jak’s activist granddaughter, Sarah, who has her own issues.  Jared is anything but oblivious to those who surround him and seeks the solace of genuine human relationships in his troubled existence.

 

The author, Eden Robinson, obviously loves Jared.  She graced him with a complex personality and all the space required to develop as a character through extensive trials and tribulations.  Some critics thought these parts of the novel dragged on, but this is a coming of age book; Robinson therefore gives us complete access to the hand Jared has been dealt and the unfolding of events that shape his future trajectory.  Indeed, this book is the first of a trilogy and is presumably also meant to provide context for the next two volumes.

 

Son of a Trickster showcases Robinson’s precise writing, her sense of timing and her storytelling abilities, as well as her witty, matter of fact, violent and very dark humor.  Her writing is descriptive, presenting her characters’ points of view without passing judgement on their choices or situation.  Her writing also often has a metaphorical, almost poetic quality:

 

Jared heard dogs barking loud enough that they penetrated his headphones and he looked up and across the street in time to see a tall, swaggering man pause and stare back at him.  The man wore a leather jacket too light for the weather and had two pit bulls straining at their chains.  His face was burnt brown and his head was shaved and unshapely, bumpy and folded.  His nose had a crooked, off-kilter look, like it had been broken then reset in the dark.

 

Son of a Trickster ‘s characters are deeply flawed, but they are not victims of their circumstances, however dire those might be.  The love they awkwardly try to express to one another is ultimately what binds the book together:

 

“I was your age when I was knocked up.  I want you to live a bit before you settle down and give me grandkids.”

Jared played with the tab on his beer can, bending it back and forth.  “Sorry.”

“I don’t regret you.”

“Gran doesn’t like me,” he said.  “I remember that.”

“My mom’s messed up,” his mom said.  “The nuns messed her up.  They made her think everything Indian was evil.  And that includes you and me.”

 

The fact that Jared and almost all of the characters are Indigenous is, of course, central to Son of a Trickster, but it does not make the experience of the characters remote or unrelatable to a non-Indigenous reader. As a Haisla/Heiltsuk from BC, Eden Robinson obviously writes from a profound knowledge of the indigenous experience, and she masterfully weaves traditional aboriginal narratives into a universal story about authenticity in the face of hardship.

 

Indeed, early in the book, Robinson brings us into the realm of the fantastic and of traditional beliefs.  Jared hears voices, speaks with animals and sees monsters crawling under little old ladies’ skin.  Although he describes himself as a “random town native”, and although magic is increasingly prevalent in his life, he has little appetite for it.  However, it will play a central role in the unfolding of the story.  The Aboriginal spirits, which increasingly manifest themselves as the book evolves, are part of a complex world: troubled spirits with complicated motivations, the trickster in the title being one of them.

 

Ultimately though, Robinson has written a book on the banality of poverty, violence, addiction and lack of purpose.  She does not dwell on those circumstances but masterfully uses them as context for a deep dive into her characters’ psyches.  These circumstances might explain, but they do not define who they are.

 

This is a story about empathy, resilience and the complex choices involved in growing up. It is also a story about our embeddedness in a complex natural and spiritual world.  Underneath the bravado of coarse language, it encourages us to reflect on our purpose and identity in the world, and as such, it should speak to all Canadians.

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From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle

Today’s review is the second of five from the participants in the Canada Reads event recently held at the Lennoxville Library.

Reviewed by Charity Kerrigan

 

From the Ashes is a book written as part of Jesse Thistle’s AA 12 Step Program. In it, he walks us through the journey of his childhood trauma, fractured relationships, addiction and homelessness, and through his recovery and the journey back to find his Metis roots. We bear witness to his atonement, his revelations, his hope, his forgiveness and his love.

From the Ashes

The novel opens with a snapshot of Jesse berry-picking in Saskatchewan with his Kokum, surrounded by generations of his family. There, he is provided with abundance, security, warmth, roots, all the things it takes to raise a child, to help him grow and become his fullest self. It is one of the few times in the book that there is a sense of peace. Soon Jesse is thrust into circumstances of scarcity, where he remains for most of the book. There is never enough food or money or love, which creates a restlessness that leads to so much of his pain. With his parents, or alone with his father, there is no stability. Even when he is removed from the awful experience of foster care and is left with his grandparents there is no space for healing or connecting to his heritage or history.

 

One of the most poignant chapters in the novel is ‘Robins’ Eggs’ in which Jesse’s friend, Brian, shares the secret of a nest filled with robins’ eggs that Brian and his family are caring for. On an impulse, Jesse steals the eggs, puts them in his socks and runs home, slipping and breaking the eggs on the way. He hides, and when Brian’s family arrives to question him, he breaks down, full of apologies. But he cannot, or will not, explain why he has done this, though he is given what he considers the “licking of his life”. Only years later does he realise that he had felt a deep jealousy of the birds and their mother, and of Brian and his nurturing family, and had wanted to take some of that love for himself, as though being closer to the eggs could help him remember what it felt like to have his own mother’s love. What if this action had been met with understanding? Would it have meant he hadn’t learned his lesson? Or rather, would he have learned that when we make mistakes, we are still worthy, that our relationships can survive mistakes, that repairs can be made, that we are all human?

 

But this isn’t what happens in this story. Time and again, Jesse’s decisions are met with judgment and punishment. He starts to find different outlets for his emotions. He continues to steal and begins to use drugs. This is where society begins to turn its back on him. As he slides further into addiction, more and more people in his life are unable to stay in relationships with him. He is left with a few peers who are in very similar situations to his own. When his brothers start reconnecting with their heritage, Jesse continues to pull away and ends up floating alone, belonging nowhere, eventually becoming homeless in Vancouver.

 

Dr. Gabor Mate who works in Vancouver on the front lines of the opioid crisis and talks often about the need for connection as cure for addiction, states, “We readily feel for the suffering child, but cannot see the child in the adult who, his soul fragmented and isolated, hustles for survival a few blocks away from where we shop or work.” We want to look away, we want someone else to deal with people’s pain, or hide it where we can’t see it. This is especially true when homelessness brings us face to face with the deep, systematic racism that is part of the fabric of this country. Fifty-two percent of children in foster care are indigenous, thirty-eight percent are living in poverty and one in fifteen indigenous people have suffered homelessness. Thirty percent of the prison population is indigenous.

These statistics correlate with the history of colonization in Canada, the displacement of Indigenous people from their traditional lands, their marginalization in Canadian society and the devastation of their families and cultural traditions. As many as five generations of Indigenous families have been victims of residential schools, cutting them off from their families, traditions and languages while failing to provide access to adequate education, leaving these children lost between two worlds.

 

It is through relationships and the love of others that Jesse is finally able to find his way: his relationship with his partner and her belief in him, his recovery programs that help him work through his life story, his ability to see the beauty of this country despite all of its flaws. He leaves us with a deep sense of hope through these relationships with those who didn’t give up on him along the way and the forgiveness he has found.

 

This book matters. It matters to me as I sit here with all of my privilege in a world where I was expected to succeed. It helps me to understand the effects of colonization and failed systems. It matters to students and to the schools that are finally branching out to include stories like this in their studies. And it matters to Indigenous youth and communities.

 

As Dr. Mate states in his work, The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, “No society can understand itself without looking at its shadow side.” This is why I think this book needs to be read by every Canadian. We need to look at where our system is broken. Until we start to react with deeper humanity and informed care, this system cannot improve. This is a powerful and moving story, and without a doubt a book to bring Canada into focus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cory Doctorow:  Radicalized

Prof. Jean L. Manore, Bishop’s University

Today’s review is the first of five taken from the recent Canada Reads presentations at the Lennoxville Library.

radicalized

Radicalized consists of four novellas each tackling an issue of increasing concern:  refugees, race relations, paying for health care, and the boom/bust cycles of capitalism.  Doctorow frames these issues within the political, technological, economic, and social systems of the United States, where the protagonists must develop strategies to overcome the hardships imposed on them by these systems.   For example, in “Unauthorized Bread,” Salima, is a refugee who is given a subsidized apartment, after making it out of the camps in Arizona.  The catch with these apartments is that all of the electrical appliances are owned by companies which program them to only accept their products.  “Unauthorized Bread” refers to bread that is not approved by the company who owns the toaster-oven and thus the toaster will not toast.  When the company goes bankrupt, the toaster goes off line and will no longer work.  How does Salima respond to this?  Well, read the novella to find out.  In “Radicalized”, Joe Gorman finds solace in a facebook group consisting of angry men, when his insurance company refuses to fund an experimental cancer treatment for his wife, who is dying from the disease.  The other two stories force a superhero to come to terms with White/Black relations in the United States and a 1%ter to become a survivalist in the face of an impending economic collapse.

The book is dystopian, yet Doctorow’s stories are not meant to horrify but rather to inspire critical thinking and action.  While our toasters are not yet programmed to take only certain baked goods, we can easily foresee that as a possible future.  Additionally, our capitalist economy is subject to boom and bust cycles, as the current global economic slowdown is demonstrating.  The refugee crisis is something that we are all facing and in Canada, insurance companies are gaining a greater foothold in our lives as rising technological costs and patient-loads overwhelm our public health care system.

I think I liked the story, “Model Minority” the best because Doctorow plays on the idea of the “white saviour,” who in this case, is the American Eagle, who intervenes in the beating of a black man by white police officers. In the story, Doctorow sets up a dialogue between the superhero and the African American protagonist, Wilbur Robinson.  When the Eagle offers to help Robinson fight the American legal system, Robinson is not particularly enthusiastic.  He tells the Eagle that though he appears to be white, his whiteness is a “wholly contingent proposition”. Robinson then warns the Eagle that if he persists in challenging the police forces in their actions against African Americans, he will never be forgiven by the American (white) establishment.

So how does this book bring Canada into focus, given its reliance on U.S. “case studies”?  Well I have already given some hints in my remarks about the themes of the novellas. Even though the book is centred in the U.S., the challenges raised speak to us as well.  There are refugee “camps” south of Montreal, where some migrants are being housed.  Canadians are increasingly relying on private insurance companies to fund some of the costs of their health care and they are just as unlikely to pay for experimental treatments as was the company in the story about Joe Gorham.

Doctorow gives us the opportunity to see the possible unfortunate outcomes of these trends, if we do nothing to challenge them.  How would we respond to having to buy just certain bread products?  Should we demand that government fund expensive experimental treatments that may produce dubious results to save one life? And what about refugees:  should we open our borders so people do not end up in internal camps, possibly for years?  Doctorow tackles these sorts of questions and we should too.

Another aspect of this book that brings Canada into focus, is what I call ‘wiggle room’, the space that Canadians are constantly creating in an effort to maintain or develop the kind of country they want to live in.  Canada has always existed within the shadow of someone’s empire, first France, then Britain and now the United States, and has had to struggle within these imperial contexts to maintain some degree of independent thought and action.  Then within Canada, there have been numerous struggles between majority and minority peoples, whether within the contexts of “anglo-conformity” or colonization, or even regionalism.  By these struggles, people have fought to find spaces within the greater systems for their ideas, their rights, their livelihoods, and/or their ways of being. The struggles represent our constant search for freedom to be who we want to be.  Like Canadians, none of the protagonists I have discussed overthrow or overwhelm the systems against which they struggle, but they do find ways within them to improve their lives and their communities.

In contrast, in the final story, Martin Mars, the 1%ter, tries to ride out the storm of economic collapse rather than challenge it directly; yet, he is the one character that ends up facing catastrophe.  The point here for Canada is that the country exists because people are always challenging the various systems that are being imposed upon them and if Canadians do not continue to do so, then the essence of the country as a place that challenges the status quo, however that is defined, will be gone.  As Doctorow says:  “This isn’t the kind of fight you win, it’s the kind of fight you fight.”    Radicalized brings that very real quality of Canada into focus and rather than viewing the book as a dystopian look at the United States, we, as Canadians, can applaud the efforts of individuals and communities who improve their lives and those of others by creating that space that allows for greater freedom and independence from the oppressive systems that surround us, but because of our struggles, do not engulf us.

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