Backman weaves beautiful stories. Human stories. Beautiful human stories that are insightful, and empathetic, and honest, and ugly, and brave.
Anxious People is a story about a robbery. A botched robbery. Or, moreover a love story. No, a hostage taking. Anyway, doesn’t matter how they all got there. Eight odd strangers all show up at the New Year’s eve showing of an apartment in Sweden (but most definitely not in Stockholm)– and become unwitting confidantes, counsellors, and chums.
Here’s the passage I shared with my students today:
She could see winter making itself comfortable across the town. She liked the silence of this time of year, but had never appreciated its smugness. When the snow arrives autumn has already done all the work, taking care of all the leaves and carefully sweeping summer away from people’s memories. All winter had to do was roll in with a bit of freezing weather and take all the credit, like a man who has spent twenty minutes next to a barbeque but has never served a full meal in his life.
(Backman, p. 230-1)
When I got to the end, I wanted to start all over again.
New this September to book stores, on your bookshelf or to be read pile next!
Title: White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White Poeple to Talk About Racism
Author: Robin Diangelo
Date Read: August 27, 2020.
White people can’t really talk about racism. Racism is a loaded and pejorative term that white people go out of their way to shun. The fragility arises in attempting to deflect hard conversations about race by insisting they are ‘colour-blind’; ‘that they don’t see race’; ‘that they were taught to treat everyone equally’; ‘that they have black friends.’
DiAngelo addresses her book mostly to white people, and she reserves her harshest criticism for those whom she sees as refusing to acknowledge their own participation in racist systems. She makes clear that: “[r]acism is deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. It is not limited to a single act or person. Nor does it move back and forth, one day benefitting whites and another day (or even era) benefitting people of color. The direction of power between white people and people of color is historic, traditional, and normalized in ideology. Racism differs from individual racial prejudice and racial discrimination in the historical accumulation and ongoing use of institutional power and authority to support the prejudice and to systematically enforce disctiminatory behaviours with far-reaching effects.” (DiAngelo, 22).
One of the most potent ways that white supremacy is propagated is through media representations which have a profound impact on how we see the world. The people who write and tell these stories (and who are predominantly white, upper class, males) help shape our worldview. All of our societal systems create an inequity that favours and privileges white people. “At the most general level, the racial frame views whites as superior in culture and achivement and views people of color as generally of less social, economic, and political consequence; people of color are seen as inferior to whites in the making and keeping of the nation. At the next level of framing, because social institiutions (education, medicine, law, government, finance and the military) are controlled by white, white dominance is unremarkable and taken for granted (DiAngelo, 34).
Most white people have limited information on what racism is and how it works. But they almost always have predicatable reactions to the suggestion that they benefit from, and are complicit in, a racist system. These reactions are characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue.
Watch this quick video in which DiAngelo explains how white fragility reinforces racism.
The current climate in the United States makes this book extremely important and timely. We need to be open to real conversations about race.
In some ways, what has unfolded on the streets of Kenosha, Wis., over the past week has had a wearying sense of familiarity. There was another demoralizing shooting of a Black man by the police, another angry outcry in the streets, another disturbing trail of destruction that had the potential to overshadow the message of the need to end police violence and racism.
Trevor Noah asks in this video: “Why was Jacob Blake seen as a deadly threat for a theoretical gun, while this gunman, who had already shot people, was arrested the next day and treated like a human being whose life matters?”
Simply, white supremacy. Which means white people need to start having real conversations about race. Use DiAngelo’s book as a tool to help navigate real ways to start these important conversations with an open heart and a willingness to accept feedback with grace and a desire to move us toward equality instead of division.
Alicia Elliott’s collected essays explore a large array of topics that include but are not limited to: poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse, inter-generartional trauma, colonization, gender, parenthood, mental illness, and racism. Elliott writes with searing precision and a captivating prose. She makes clear perspectives and positions that are often overlooked and underexamined.
Her work posits essential questions about the treatment of Native people in North America while drawing on the intimate details of her own life and experience with intergenerational trauma. What is the relationship between depression, colonialism and loss of language — both figurative and literal? How does white privilege operate in different contexts? How do we navigate the painful contours of mental illness in loved ones without turning them into their sickness? Elliott skillfully navigates these complex problems with intelligence, thoughtfulness, and honesty.
Not only is this an enjoyable read– it is necessary for your anti-racist education; your better understanding of mental illness and a clear vision of how poverty and colonialism link them all.
This book will make it’s way to my classroom bookshelf to be shared widely.
Title: Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club
Author: Megan Gail Coles
Date Read: August 17, 2020.
This year’s Canada Reads has had many winners in my mind. This is yet another amazing contestant, and I loved it.
The subject matter is heartwrenching and powerful. The writing is absolutely beautiful.
Set in Newfoundland, Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club explores the lives and interwoven stories of Olive, Iris, John, George, and Damian as they prepare for guests to arrive at The Hazel, the over-priced artisnal restaurant in which they are employed. The book is split in to three sections: prep, lunch, and dinner. As guests arrive for Valentine’s dinner we begin to understand the complicated connections between the employees and their guests.
Coles pens a compassionate portrait of poverty; highlights the juxtaposition of privilege; and bravely confronts rape and sexual assault and the complicated and disasterous unravelling of its victims. Her forward to the novel reads simply: “This might hurt a little. Be brave.”
Her writing is nothing short of poetic prose to be slowly inhaled like clean laundry.
While waiting on an incorrigible customer, Iris detaches from reality and [feels] “Like a person drowning on the bottom of a pool, Iris is held down by some unknowable force, looking up through the shimmering blue crest at the surface just beyond her reach. She kicks and stretches and struggles. She tries to retain breath yet it escapes her. She watches the bubbles break.” (224).
A terrible rucus breaks out in the restaurant: “Damian approaches the scene reluctantly and hyper aware of the booze his body is focused on metabolizing. He places his man mask on as that is the only mask acceptabe in this particular circumstance.” (252).
When yet another dramatic incident unfolds and a guest calls Damian a faggot, “[George] had stood horrified over by the linen vestibule holding folded cloth napkins in a stack between both plams. Transfixed by the language. The man’s sharp decriptors came as no surprise. His nature held firm to everything George presupposed about the class of people that caused scenes such as this in dining rooms such as these.
Raw skeet, she had thought when she walked past the table hours earlier. (356)
And, as the dinner hour is cut short by the raging white out outside:
“Iris registers the sound of the wind first.
The power loss has created a vacuum seal temporarily absent of human sound. The first wave of shock cascaded over them but now everyone is held in place willing the music to return. They can suddenly and properly hear the storm surge against the corner picture windows. It is swirling and unpredictable. Great arms of it feel hauled up by a Precambrian grudge as if the weather patterns themselves were trying to break the place even further apart to right an ancient wrong. A great shoulder of air heaves itself against the door and blows it open. The candles near the entry fall victim to the gale and the whole front of house falls into complete darkness as Ben dashes out from behind the bar to push the door closed again. Shuttering them all in here together. Everyone can hear things being picked up outside and thrown down.
Don’t want that. Don’t want that either. Don’t want none of this.” ( 386)
Although Canada Reads has declared their winner, I submit that there are two better choices for this year’s win: Jesse Thistle’s From the Ashes, and Megan Gail Coles’ Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club.
I watched this series recently on Prime Video. I really enjoyed it. I knew it was first a book, and so I had to backtrack and read it. The book was better. And the series was pretty awesome.
The story is set in Shaker Heights, a planned community near Cleveland, Ohio. Everything in this community is planned out– the heighth of your grass, the colours of your home… and when Elena Rochardson rents to Mia Warren, we realize that the house is built to conceal the fact that is a duplex, separate entrances are within the front door, but from the outside the house on Winslow Avenue looks just like the rest. Appearance is everything in Shaker Heights.
Elena and Mia have a strained relationship through the course of the novel that intersects with their differing parenting styles; the relationships formed between their children; and the court case regarding the custody of a baby with whom each woman is differently connected.
Ng is a beautiful writer and many passages stood out as compelling. This one caught my attention in both the TV adaptation and while reading.
“Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less. As a baby Pearl had clung to her; she’d worn Pearl in a sling because whenever she’d set her down, Pearl would cry. There’d scarcely been a moment in the day when they had not been pressed together. As she got older, Pearl would still cling to her mother’s leg, then her waist, then her hand, as if there was something in her mother she needed to absorb through the skin. Even when she had her own bed, she would often crawl into Mia’s in the middle of the night and burrow under the old patchwork quilt, and in the morning they would wake up tangled, Mia’s arm pinned beneath Pearl’s head, or Pearl’s legs thrown across Mia’s belly. Now, as a teenager, Pearl’s caresses had become rare—a peck on the cheek, a one-armed, half-hearted hug—and all the more precious because of that. It was the way of things, Mia thought to herself, but how hard it was. The occasional embrace, a head leaned for just a moment on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.”
A really fun read! Jenkins Reid explores a unique format for storytelling in this fictional oral history that reads like the transcript for a rock band biopic.
Set in Los Angeles in the 1970s– we are taken backstage, on the bus, and in the studio with the characters who fuel the band: Daisy Jones & the Six. There are two founding brothers, handsome and talented Billy (lead singer and song writer) and the shy, dutiful Graham (lead guitar); Warren the surly drummer; Karen the feminist keyboardist; Eddie (rhythm guitar) and his brother, Pete (guitar). The Six get their start as a blues-rock band called the Dunne Brothers in the mid-sixties. As they grow in fame, they pick up Daisy Jones and the real roller coaster ride begins.
As they are interviewed, we begin to understand that memory is not always reliable; many characters outright contradict the recollections of their bandmates. Searching back over decades makes it difficult to remember the events clearly– but so does the haze of hard living in a rock and roll band on tour in the 70s– when many of them indulged widely in drugs and booze. But we come to understand the bandmates as fallible humans; more fleshed out than the flat characters known by their fans.
Dasiy Jones & The Six is an examination of fame, addiction, love, family, and friendship. The narratives of these fictional bandmates echo lyrics you have heard before and they thread throughout the story. Eric Clapton wrote about cocaine; David Bowie wrote about fame; Sister Sledge wrote about family– and everybody writes about love; it hurts, it scars, it lifts us up, it’s a battlefield, it’s a drug… But it is also all we need.
Get on the bus with Daisy Jones & the Six. You’ll have fun, promise.
Title: Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Author: Brene Brown
Date Read: June 26, 2020
You have likely heard of Brene Brown from her powerful TED Talk on the power of vulnerability. Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston who studies and writes about courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. This book picks up on the vulnerability thread.
While vulnerability is the birthplace of many of the fulfilling expereinces we long for– love, belonging, joy, creativity, and trust, to name a few — the process of regaining our emotional footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged.
Brown, p. xviii
In each of our lives we face situations where we need to rumble with our emotions, and the enivitable stories we make up as we work to handle them. The emotions we feel in response to the shame, guilt, anger, and heartbreaks in our lives require that we address our thinking about the situation, how we feel and how we are behaving– and know that all of these are connected.
Brown writes that our desire to make up stories is a primitive survival wiring. In the absence of data, we make up stories. Meaning-making is our biology. This struck a chord for me. I don’t know about you, but I have (on more than one occasion) written the screenplay dialogue between myself and a person with whom I was in disagreement with. I could tell you why my boyfriend acted a certain way; the response my roommate would give to my complaints; the story behind a co-worker’s behaviour; and on and on. Truthfully, I wasn’t often very good at it. The second thing that seized my attention was her own row with an idea given to her by her psychiatrist in response to a situation she had been in. Instead of taking sides (as Brene had hoped she would) she instead asked her if she believed that people are really just doing the best they can. Brene shirked this explanation with fury but set out to test the theory. The best summation came from her own husband: “I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.” (p.113). I love that thinking, and it was a true take away from this book.
As Brown notes, “We make up hidden stories that tell us who is against us and who is with us. Whom we can trust and who is not to be trusted. Conspiracy thinking is all about fear-based self-protection and our intolerance for uncertainty.” Problem is, these stories distort how we relate to others.
But it isn’t that we should not capture these first stories– we should. But we need to interrogate them more closely and look at what’s really there. We need to be honest about the stories we make up about our struggles, to revisist, challenge and reality check them. This is rumbling with a problem– owning it, looking at the stories we are making up, and getting curious about why we are thinking and feeling that way. This spoke to me. I had written lots of “shitty first drafts” (Brown, p.85) about all kinds of things– but many of them did little capture the real essence of the situations I found myself in. In fact, they often distorted reality and caused further damage.
The Rising Strong Process is really quite simple, but transformative. The goal is to rise when we fall, overcome our mistakes and face our hurt in a way that brings more wisdom and wholeheartedness to our lives. First, we need to recognize our emotions and get curious to figure our how they connect with how we think and behave. Second, we need to get honest about the stories we make up and challenge confabulations and assumptions. Last, write a new end to the story based on what we learned from our rumble. Then, use this new story to transform how we live, love, parent, and lead. (Brown, p.37).
This book came highly recommended to me, and I highly recommend it to you.
I think I would like to be friends with Glennon Doyle. She is thoughtful, intelligent, and fierce. She reminds me of many women I am lucky to call friends.
She also has a unique back story that make her all the more interesting to listen to. She suffered with bulimia, alcoholism and drug addicition. She became pregnant and vowed to overcome her addicitons and be the best mother she could. What followed was a prescribed Chrsitian path; she married, had more children and then became a Christian mommy blogger and successful writer.
But, after her husband cheated on her and threw her marriage in to closer inspection , she fell in love with Abby. She is now in a loving marriage with a woman and sharing the raising of her children with her ex and her new partner, whom the children refer to as a bonus mom. I love this picture of Abby’s sweatshirt proclaiming her status.
Untamed begins with an explanation of a metaphor that she weaves throughout several of the essays contained in her book; about Tabitha the Cheetah. She talks about visiting the Cheetah Run at a zoo. The zookeeper explained the training they gave Tabitha, and Glennon felt sick to her stomach as she thought of how Tabitha had been tamed– and that she must miss the wild.
“I knew what she’d tell me. She’d say, “Something’s off about my life. I feel restless and frustrated. I have this hunch that everything was supposed to be more beautiful than this. I imagine fenceless, wide-open savannahs. I want to run and hunt and kill. I want to sleep under an ink-black sky filled with stars. It’s all so real I can taste it.
Then she’d look back at the cage, the only home she’s ever known. She’d look at the smiling zookeeepers, the bored spectators, and her panting, bouncing, begging best friend, the Lab.
She’d sigh and say, “I should be grateful. I have a good enough life here. It’s crazy to long for what doesn’t even exist.
Tabitha. You are not crazy. You are a goddamn cheetah.” (Doyle, xv-xvi).
It is in this spirit that Doyle uncovers what tames us– what keeps us from what we are longing for. Our work to be good mothers, partners, daughers, employees, friends– we strive so hard to be good, and deny that this work actually makes us feel weary, stuck and overwhelmed. Doyle offers her insights in a series of short essays where she unpacks the thinking that blocks women– the cultural conditioning and institutional allegiances– they are cages, and we don’t have to stay in them. Untamed is a feminist manifesto; a parenting handbook; an introspection; a love story; marriage counselling; and thoughtfully and beautifully written. It should be on every woman’s to be read pile.
Glennon Doyle is also the founder of Together Rising. Together Rising exists to transform collective heartbreak into effective action. It has raised over $20 million for people in need with a most frequent donation of $25. They have taken on projects such as pulling children out of the sea outside of refugee camps in Greece, providing a single mother access to breast cancer treatment, or reuniting families at the U.S. border. She speaks of the foundation’s work in her book, but you can also find and follow on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
Title: From the Ashes: My Story of Being Metis, Homeless and Finding My Way
Author: Jesse Thistle
Date Read: May 19, 2020
Some of the best stories are the ones lived and not made up. From the Ashes was heart-wrenching and traumatic– but also honest, poetic and hopeful.
Jesse Thistle’s memoir was a short list contender for this year’s (pandemic post-poned) Canada Reads competition. This year sought the one book all Canada should read. I think they found it.
I try to select titles from the annual Canada Reads short-list. I have reviewed a few in the last two years: Marrow Thieves (short-listed in 2018 as a book to open your eyes); Brother and The Woo Woo (both on the 2019 short list as a book to move you); and We Have Always Been Here (short listed this year alongside From the Ashes).
Why should you read this book? Because Thistle’s lived experience reveals the consequence of trauma. Children who experience disconnect in childhood, inevitably seek to numb in adulthood. Thistle and his brothers experienced severe physical and emotional neglect from their father, a drug addict, who was frequently incarcerated or on the run. As much as relatives did step in to look after the boys, much of the enduring damage was done.
His memoir is divided in to four sections: Lost and Alone; Falling Apart; The Stolen Streets; and Reconciliation. His dedication speaks to the damage done not only to himself and his family, but to so many Indigenous families. He writes: “The pages of this book speak to the damage colonialism can do to Indigenous families, and how, when one’s Indigeneity is stripped away, people can make poor choices informed by pain, loneliness, and heartbreak, choices that see them eventually cast upon the streets, in jail, or wandering with no place to be.”
The Homeless Hub, (part of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness) suggests that many of the personal issues (including familial dysfunction, substance use, addictions, health issues, community violence) faced by Indigenous Peoples and that act as contributors to homelessness can be directly linked to various types of historical trauma. Research has also shown that Indigenous Peoples experience lower levels of education, poorer health, higher rates of unemployment and lower income levels compared to non-Indigenous people. You can research this and more about the trauma and injustices faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada, but if you need one book that Canada needs to read, to really understand— it should be Thistle’s story.
There is power in story. We live our stories everyday– we show up and face our truth. Our stories make us who we are; the torment that breaks us and the mettle that builds us up. And, in sharing our stories we give voice and power to our ways of seeing the world and living in it.
As Maya Angelou writes, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Let Thistle’s catharsis be your invation to see Canada in a whole new way. From the Ashes is my (unofficial) choice for the book Canadians should read.
This. This is the history book, that’s not a history book– but a narrative about race interspersed with the history of why black people have been oppressed in the United States; needed by every child of this generation who might have a chance to change it.
You have heard my rally cry about why Jason Reynolds is the best Young Adult writer writing for teenagers right now. And if you haven’t, read here, here and here. This partnership with Ibram X. Kendi is no exception.
Award-winning historian Ibram X. Kendi wrote Stamped from the Beginning, in it, he argues that racist ideas in America have a long and lingering history, one in which nearly every great American thinker is complicit. As Kendi provocatively illustrated, racist thinking did not arise from ignorance or hatred. Racist ideas were created and popularized in an effort to defend deeply entrenched discriminatory policies and to rationalize the nation’s racial inequities in everything from wealth to health. This is a remix of Kendi’s book. A book written especially for young people.
In the first chapter, Reynolds invites his readers in (in his usual, laid-back, ultra hip way) by explaining: “Before we begin, let’s get something straight. This is not a history book. I repeat, this is not a history book. At least not like the ones you’re used to reading in school. The ones that feel more like a list of dates (there will be some), with an occasional war here and there, a declaration (definitely gotta mention that), a constitiution (that too), a court case or two, and of course, the paragraph that’s read during Black History Month (Harriet! Rosa! Martin!) This isn’t that. This isn’t a history book. Instead, what this is, is a book that contains history. A history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. A book about the here and now. A book that hopefully will help us better understand why we are where we are as Americans, specifically as our identity pertains to race.” (Reynolds & Kendi, p.1-2). Reynolds has a way of engaging young readers, and that’s exactly why he was chosen to remix Kendi’s book.
Reynolds delivers on his promises. Stamped presents the history of America’s racial inequities spanning the period from 1415 to the present. In his unique style, Reynolds offers historical facts alongside the narratives of the people, the politics, and the popular culture that shaped the racist beliefs that have endured. He also recounts the courageous battles fought by those who eschewed simply ‘fitting in’ and assimilating in favour of an antiracist future that would embrace Black people as fully human and equals in their country. He does it, all the while speaking directly to his readers: “But whenever people rise up against bad things, bad things tend to get worse. You know the old saying, When the going gets tough, the tough get… racist. Or something like that.” (p. 24); “People like Benjamin Rush, a physician from Philadelphia who wrote a pamphlet saying that Black people weren’t born savages but instead were made savages by slavery. Record scratch. Pause.” (p.45-6); “And the president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, feared that beig treated decently overseas would embolden Black soldiers. Make them too big for their britches. Make them expect fair treatment at home, the home for which they’d just risked their lives. Let that sink in.” (p. 142). Reynolds never forgets his audience.