Reading 2019: A catholicity of interests

December 30, 2019

 

An Ocean of Minutes

NEW WESTMINSTER—The last time I posted a blog about my previous year’s reading (2016), the list was comprised of eleven books written by men. All but four of the authors were white, and the top two have since been “cancelled.” (The first, already in hot water for profiting from dubious claims to Indigenous ancestry, was Joseph Boyden; the second, two years before publishing a self-exculpatory essay by serial sex abuser Jian Gomeshi in The New York Review of Books, was Ian Buruma.) Another favourite that year, Michel Houellebecq, had long been reviled as an Islamophobe and subsequently emerged from his nicotine-stained, misanthropic little man cave of Parisian cynicism to cheer for Donald Trump.

Way to go, Dan.

Writers who share their reading interests don’t tend to be motivated by virtue signalling earnestness. Sure, it’s great to be “woke” and in tune with the zeitgeist. But if we’re good writers we enjoy reading books that challenge or offend mainstream sensibilities and can’t help being drawn to the problematic scribes who write them. That said, I took another peek at the 2016 list and wondered: need my curiosities that year have been so, um, limited? Perhaps it was just an off year. Or perhaps the list really did expose me as the unreconstructed late Boomer, gay-white-middle-class-male-of-privilege that I am. Whatever the case, my 2019 list includes women, writers of colour, and trans authors sprinkled among the usual suspects, all arranged in sections by theme or genre.

Gender and sexual diversity

I Hope We Choose Love

For the past year, I have been educating myself on transgender issues for the purpose of redrawing a major character in my novel. Whatever the result of that pursuit will be worth the effort because of all I’ve learned through the process, not least about my own assumptions around authorial entitlement.

For any non-trans person wishing to get up to speed on the issues, one could do worse than Susan Stryker’s comprehensive Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution (Seal Press), a foundational text on all things trans. Perhaps inevitably, that history is largely a First World western one, but Stryker covers it compellingly with a deep dive into her subject: the origins of gender expression and identity, rising political influence, advances in medicine, the evolving use of language and concepts related to trans living and, soberingly, the sad legacy of transphobic backlash from both mainstream and queer communities.

A good example of the latter was Toronto playwright Sky Gilbert’s hysterical response to trans author Vivek Shraya’s I’m Afraid of Men (Penguin), which only made me want to read the 85-page essay to find out for myself what its author was on about. (Gilbert had written a satirical poem, “I’m Afraid of Woke People,” to dismiss Shraya’s work as political correctness run amok.) For this reader, “I’m Afraid of Men” (with its flip title “Men Are Afraid of Me”) is a moving testimony to the power of memory in determining how we all, as human beings, cope with the outside world. Shraya, a creative writing instructor at the University of Calgary, offers an enlightening corrective for mistaken assumptions about trans people while illustrating why trans women in particular—the continuing target of violence and murder just for being who they are—have so much to fear.

Kai Cheng Thom’s I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World (Arsenal Pulp Press) combines memoir and poetry to examine the state of social justice movements for gender diverse people in times of hate-filled ignorance. Drawing from a vast range of life experiences uncommon for a 28-year-old, Thom uses her insight from years of both counselling and self-therapy to explore how trans women can overcome their traumas to live fulfilling lives. She is particularly damning of call-out culture and its counterproductive habit of “cancelling” potential allies rather than seeking common ground with them.

The ParcelFor a good example of voice appropriation involving a trans-themed novel, I turned to Anosh Irani’s The Parcel (Vintage). This is a heartbreaking probe into sexual slavery and the diminishing value of human life in world that treats people as commodities. (The title refers to a code name for young girls who’ve been trafficked from the provinces for the Bombay sex trade.) The book’s first-person narrator is a eunuch or “third sex” who is tasked by the brothel madam with breaking in new ‘talent’. Irani, a cis-gender Indo-Canadian male, suffered no ill consequences for drawing such a character—perhaps because he spent his first seven years living across the street from the same red-light district where the story takes place. Whatever the case, The Parcel is gut-wrenching and unforgettable.

For insight on race, art, and politics in the queer community, C.E. Gatchalian’s Double Melancholy: Art, Beauty, and the Making of a Brown Queer Man (Arsenal Pulp Press) is a most satisfying read. In some places, it comes off like a gay Filipinix male’s answer to a certain 2005 memoir by yours truly: it includes both serious intellectual inquiry into the writer’s desires and some smoking hot passages recalling sex he’s enjoyed with his own equivalent of ‘The Other.’ The major difference, of course, is Gatchalian’s opposite experience as a queer brown man growing up within the dominant white Western world. The author’s hilarious take on Maria Callas, and his adult re-readings of Camille Paglia and Susan Sontag, are especially noteworthy examples of the impact that white cultural hegemony has had on his own developing sexual and artistic sensibilities.

Meanwhile, at least four gay white authors got my attention in 2019. Edmund White has long been a favourite, thanks to the beauty of his prose. The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading (Bloomsbury) is a delicious memoir of literary life in which the author recalls books that have inspired him, expands on the titles to tell a few tales about their authors (some of whom he got to know), and shares how his thinking about great writing has evolved through the years. Daniel Mendelsohn, another fine writer whose work I enjoy but who has made it a personal mission to cancel White as some kind of irrelevant marginalist, is completely out to lunch on this one.

Luminous TraitorI had high hopes for Martin Duberman’s Luminous Traitor: The Just and Daring Life of Roger Casement (University of California Press), my anticipation due partly to the author’s track record on queer history but mostly to ongoing interest in the subject. Casement, an Irish nationalist done in by the scandalous gay content of his “White Diaries” after being arrested for his role in the 1916 Easter Uprising, remains a tragic signpost for shifting socio-political mores between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But in the hands of Duberman, attempting a “biographical novel,” his story falls flat. The prose is turgid, the book’s modest 278 pages weighed down by the facts and details of Casement’s epic career. The saga covering his investigation of racist atrocities in the Congo before the treason investigation against him—and his transition from dedicated servant to outspoken critic of the British Empire—has been covered before, most succinctly by Colm Toibin in Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar (Picador). For better treatment of Casement as “biographical novel” fodder, try Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt (Faber and Faber), a fabulous work of speculative fiction that convincingly occupies the brilliant mind of its tortured subject.

Edouard Louis, born Eddy Bellegueule in 1992, came out of nowhere at age twenty-two in 2014 with a gripping memoir about growing up gay, poor, and bullied in a tiny French village. The End of Eddy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017 translation by Michael Lucey) is a harrowing story of raw survival in which the narrator’s own education becomes his salvation. One of Louis’s mentors, to whom the book is dedicated, came out in 2009 with his own memoir of escape from the oppressively homophobic world of working-class French suburbia. With Returning to Reims (Semiotext(e), 2013 translation by Michael Lucey), Didier Eribon seamlessly combines intellectual socialism, queer sensibility, French history, and his own personal narrative to produce what became one of my best reads in 2019.
General fiction

I picked up Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes (Viking) after attending a Vancouver event in the Fall of 2018 at which nominees for that year’s Giller Prize read from their works. This little gem of science fiction is a time travel odyssey involving a couple who are separated by seventeen years into the future after one of them becomes gravely ill. It’s a haunting tale of love and longing, of nostalgia for the long-lost worlds of our own innocence. Lim paints a grimly dystopian picture of her characters’ worlds in Texas between 1981 and 1998, a place of perpetual sunlight, dust, and sadness that lingered long after I’d finished reading her enchanting book.

StonerI had never heard of “the campus novel”, much less John Williams and his 1965 book Stoner (NYRB Classics), until three friends—two of them post-secondary instructors—raved about this book during the Writers’ Union of Canada AGM in June. It’s the story of William Stoner, who is born into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family and as a young man is sent to university by his father to study agronomy. Instead of pursuing his education to help the family business, Stoner falls in love with English literature and decides to abandon the unglamorous world of farm life for the glories of high culture in the academe. The narrative covers the rest of Stoner’s life as he embraces his status as a scholar, falls in love, marries and has a daughter, then eventually grows disillusioned with everything: relationships, career, higher learning. Perfectly pitched and well-written, Stoner is both a sad and hilarious account of failed ambition, solitude, and office politics that has aged rather well since its publication more than half a century ago.

The title of Laurent Binet’s HHHH (Picador) is an acronym which, in German, stands for “Himmler’s Hirn Heisst Heydrich” (“Himmler’s Brain is Called Heydrich”). One of the more lethal figures in Hitler’s cabinet as an architect of the Holocaust, Reinhard Heydrich was one of those Nazis who had an aura of invincibility until a couple of exiled operatives rubbed him out in Prague three years before the war’s end. In his debut novel, Binet alternates between Heydrich’s perspective and those of his killers while imagining the courage of two men trying to change the course of history by removing a loathsome human being from the planet. Riveting stuff.

Another World War II novel I read this year was Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Knopf), which centres around the Australian protagonist’s experience in a Japanese POW camp building the Thai-Burma “Death Railway.” Dorrigo Evans is a military surgeon who becomes a hero back home for trying to save POWs from the fatal drudgery of their enslavement. But after the war both he and the Japanese commander, Nakamura, are consumed by their memories of the camp. Flanagan’s talent for the telling detail, including gruesome imagery of wartime surgical procedures, makes for a disturbing read.

Travel literature

For our first trip to Bali in March, I decided on a lark to read Ben Feder’s Take Off Your Shoes: One Man’s Journey from the Boardroom to Bali and Back (Radius Book Group). Billed as “a brutally honest journey of self-rediscovery,” it’s more a self-indulgent litany of unexamined entitlement issues by yet another rich white Master of the Universe using the Exotic Orient as material for “spiritual growth.” The purpose of memoirs like this is to signal the virtue of changing things up: of stepping off life’s treadmill, traveling to other parts of the world, and immersing oneself in foreign cultures in the hope of achieving enlightenment. But in recounting his “journey,” Feder—a U.S. principal for the Chinese Internet titan Tencent, and former CEO of the video game company that gave us Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto—appears to assume his readers are unadventurous losers who never go anywhere. We’re supposed to be envious of his derring-do in having the wherewithal to uproot his young family from New York City and challenge themselves by living in Bali for eight months. Of course, most people don’t have the financial means to do such a thing, even if such a plan were desirable, and wouldn’t boast about their adventures in yoga if they did. While he’s busy infiltrating Bali’s thriving Ubud community, Feder seems obtuse about the irony: in leaving Manhattan to escape a workaholic treadmill and experience a new culture, he only plugs himself into another busy network that happens to be filled with foreign expats. When he finally pulls his family out of Bali and returns to his privileged life in the West—only to pick up, presumably, exactly where he left off—one can’t help wondering how much wisdom he has really attained. Namasté !

Essays

Feel FreeZadie Smith is one of my favourite writers from The New York Review of Books and other publications, so I was happy to gobble up her 450-page collection of essays, Feel Free (Penguin/Random House). Smith is every bit as sharp and funny a social critic as Christopher Hitchens, but without the blowtorch ad hominems or fiery polemic. This tome reveals the range of her interests and expertise, her keen sense of place and community, and her inventive use of memory as a starting point for any kind of reflection. She can switch from pop culture to high art in a nanosecond, reviewing films and covering election results with equal aplomb. Her account of getting over hatred of Joni Mitchell’s music is most entertaining. But then, so are her musings on Justin Bieber, Brexit, the writing life, and the books on her shelf.

Political memoir

Love and Courage by Jagmeet Singh is billed as the federal NDP leader’s story of “Family, Resilience, and Overcoming the Unexpected.” A deeply personal memoir, the book’s narrative pitch is more typical of a celebrity who’s already famous for something than of a newly minted political leader who is mostly unknown to the public he’s trying to reach. Most memoirs by political leaders making their debut are carefully crafted to include the author’s political program—or, if not a grand vision for the future, at least some sense of what motivated them to get into politics, some clue of what readers can expect once they’re elected. But as we now know, Singh—the first person of colour to lead a federal party in Canada—is by no means conventional. His memoir, published several months before the October 20 election, was aimed chiefly at showing Canadians what kind of a person he is. While the title seems to mimic the Brian Topp-authored final letter from a cancer-ridden Jack Layton, and the author’s fondness for new age clichés is somewhat grating (I lost count of how many times he says “We are all one”), there is a tenderness about Singh’s story that can be deeply affecting. The way he has dealt with racism throughout his life is inspiring, as is the perseverance he demonstrated in carrying the burden for his family during his father’s many bouts with alcoholism. Even the revelation of childhood sexual abuse, suffered at the hands of his martial arts instructor, is helpful in portraying Singh as a political leader who’s unafraid of confronting difficult subjects. If personal likeability was the goal here, Singh succeeds.

Outside InOutside In by Libby Davies is the remarkable story of a community activist who made the successful transition from rabble-rousing “outsider” to pragmatic “insider” and seasoned veteran of electoral politics. The book checks off all the boxes for this genre. First, there’s narrative arc: yes, Libby really did start out as a twenty-something protégé of a much older common law male partner, fighting city hall before joining city council and later becoming one of her era’s most effective parliamentarians while publicly disclosing her lesbian sexuality. She also dishes the dirt: from sexist idiots in the media who thought the young Libby should stay at home instead of doing politics, to the inside scoop on her brief fallout with then-leader Jack Layton in 2011 (over an ill-advised interview about Gaza), there’s plenty of behind-the-scenes intrigue here. Finally, she recounts real achievements: from the Downtown Eastside Residents Association to Insite, Canada’s first supervised injection facility, Davies’ advocacy of good causes has arguably resulted, locally at least, in more humane public discourse and a better engaged citizenry. (Full disclosure: apart from our compatible politics, I am predisposed to say nice things about Libby because she and her staff intervened in 2004 when the immigration application for my future husband briefly went off the rails.)

**********

On the day I began preparing this review, I cracked open a new book and watched a documentary bearing the same title, “Scotty.” Both were about men named Scotty whose surnames begin with the letters “Bow” but whose respective worlds couldn’t be further apart. The book was about Scotty Bowman, legendary NHL coach and nine-time Stanley Cup winner. The documentary was about Scotty Bowers, infamous procurer for closeted gay Hollywood stars in the 1950s.

Here’s to diversity—and a greater embrace of it everywhere—in the 2020s.

Happy New Year!

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