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March 2020

Jo's Picks

Recollections of My Nonexistence

by Rebecca Solnit

It should come as no surprise to Solnit fans that this memoir is not really a memoir, at least insofar as it is merely an account of Solnit's coming of age. Rather she gives us snippets of her life and not much about her troubled past before she leaves home, told mostly through her interaction with the people, events and the city (San Francisco) that shaped her as an activist, feminist and essayist. It reads as a biography of her writing, how she came to write the things she does.  Spanning her teenage years in 1980's punk rock San Francisco, she turns her incisive eye to the many forces that informed and liberated her. We get the micro (personal) and macro (bigger picture) of gender, identity and the experiences of marginalized people (the LGBT community, people of colour), in the small piece of the world she inhabits. She is able to write about this seismic time, which included the gentrification of neighbourhoods, the rise of queer culture, the AIDS crisis, and gendered violence, without appropriation or at least, she is candid about her own filters and suppositions as a white woman, and it is refreshing and brutally honest. The sometimes dreamy quality of her prose, interspersed with sharp moments of clarity and self-reflection, is evocative, relatable and nostalgic.


The Changeling

by Victor LaValle
(Random House)

What a wonderfully strange book. A blend of fantasy, horror and literary realism, this reads like a sort of fairytale (the Grimm kind.) Apollo Kagawa is a loving father and husband, a rare book dealer by trade. He's been raised by his Ugandan immigrant mother after his white parole officer father abandoned them. His wife Emma seems like the perfect partner, a strong, opinionated librarian and wonderful mother to their newborn son. Things seem perfect until they are not. Emma commits an unspeakable act and Apollo is left searching for any kind of answer. Slowly monsters begin to enter their lives. Lavalle handles this beautifully, concocting a mash-up that interweaves themes of casual racism, parenting, race, postpartum depression, fatherhood, and social media with creatures out of dark fables. Trolls are trolls. The lyrical prose flows between descriptive and curt. This book plays on our assumptions. What we see and what we think we see, what we believe and what is true. Unique and disturbing.


Reservoir 13

by Jon McGregor

A mystery but unlike any I have ever read. It's like a cross between Tana French or Kate Atkinson and H is for Hawk, less plot-driven and more of an immersive account of life in a small village in the Peak district of England. It opens with the disappearance of a thirteen year old girl vacationing during the New Year with her parents. She is not found and no one is arrested. Clues and red herrings are sprinkled throughout amidst descriptions of the seasons, landscape, the birds and animals, both domesticated and wild, and people who live in and around the village. It is an immersive experience. There is a rhythm which is profoundly attractive, the natural cycles forming a backbone of sorts for the dipping into and out of people's lives. Each chapter, there are thirteen, is a year in the village, chronicling the changes, and lives and deaths of the inhabitants. It takes time to get to know everyone but once you do, they live and breathe. There are thirteen reservoirs, one per chapter, which are investigated in the girl's disappearance leading to a growing sense of unease as we get closer to number thirteen. Unique. Omniscient. Rewarding. 

Fortunately, the Milk

Written by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Skottie Young

This is a perennial middle-grade favourite at the store and in my own home. The premise is this. A father neglects to pick up some milk for the breakfast cereal and instead spins a tall tale for his children, a crazy series of adventures which mostly end with the phrase 'but fortunately the milk...'. Encounters with time-traveling dinosaurs, pirates, aliens and wumpires drive a plot that is a delight of ridiculousness, boisterous and silly, and a story that demands to be read aloud (especially the wumpire dialogue.) Illustrations by Skottie Young are the cherry on top. 


Alice's Picks

Underland: A Deep Time Journey

by Robert Macfarlane
(Penguin UK)

Robert Macfarlane's Underland is an extraordinary book. It is an investigation into deep time, through the portals into existence that are accessible through caves and crevices in the earth, through icebergs, and made by humans over centuries. From the beginning, the claustrophobia implicit in venturing below the earth's surface is effectively conveyed. It is a sensible response to being submerged away from light and familiar life, but there is incredible and strange beauty in the worlds below. Macfarlane's writing style is informative and poetic, and he conveys the danger of these journeys, and the human history of the underground, from its importance in mythology to its practical use as a burial place and also, tragically, to hide massacres and abuses. It is also a place for the cultural underground, from being a safety place for resistance fighters and artists as well as a place for general bacchanalia. Macfarlane is a wonderful writer, and he writes in a deeply personal way about nature, climate change, language itself, and humanity. An exciting and strange book, deeply engaging in its exploration of the deep space of the underworld.


For the Ride

by Alice Notley
(Penguin Books)

Alice Notley has long been one of my favourite poets. As an associate of the New York School of poetry (a style rather than a physical school, if you're wondering!) with a feminist ethos and extremely personable and inventive style, she consistently publishes fascinating poems. For the Ride is an epic work of linked chapter-like poems, with a strong narrative drive. In a post-apocalyptic future the narrator - One - and a group of "ones" try to save language itself. It is a challenging work but once you are in, you are definitely along "For the Ride" and it is a humourous, visionary book, and extremely rewarding. One of the great poets - please dive in.


Anne-Marie's Picks

Pokko and the Drum

written by & illustrated by Matthew Forsythe
(Simon & Schuster)

The drum was a big mistake,” father frog announces to mother frog (who always has her nose in a book). The frog family is an unassuming one, never wanting to draw attention to themselves, living contentedly in their mushroom. But then they had to go and give Pokko a drum. Father frog (harried and aproned) gently suggests Pokko take her drum outside and not make too much noise. But the forest is too quiet so Pokko taps her drum for company. Soon a raccoon with a banjo and a rabbit with a trumpet fall in behind her and she begins to play with gusto. More and more animal musicians and fans alike join the parade (including - with a nod to Jon Klassen - a wolf who unfortunately gobbles up one of the other musicians). Eventually father frog and mother frog get swept up with the crowd and they must admit Pokko is pretty good. Matthew Forsythe’s humorous illustrations are rendered in earth and jewel tones and populated by animals sporting stripes and harlequin diamonds. Pokko and the Drum dares young readers to make some noise even though they might normally hide their light under a mushroom.


Seasons Before the War

written by Bernice Morgan 
illustrated by Brita Granström

(Running the Goat)

This is author Bernice Morgan’s first book for children, and it shows in its mature themes and length, which lead to a certain dissonance between the crowded text and artfully executed illustrations. There is, however, magic in the pairing of her detailed memories of life in St. John’s between the wars with the immersive, evocative paintings of Brita Granström. The St. John’s of Morgan’s childhood had plenty of empty fields for neighbourhood kids to claim, more horses than trucks, watering troughs on corners, and a geography magnified by the challenges of travel. Grocery stores were the size of garages and all manner of goods and services were produced and offered in people’s front porches or sheds. Farmers would go door-to-door selling their vegetables and sometimes could be spotted at day’s end asleep in their carts as their horses plodded home. Granström allows the texture of her canvases to show through, lending her paintings a handmade and time-worn quality. Offering up a fascinating account of everyday life in the Maritimes during the interwar years, this picture book will appeal to local history buffs of all ages.


Alice's Recommendations

Anne-Marie's Recommendations

Jo's Recommendations