Friday, October 13, 2017

A Year of Literary Trepanations

In 2016, I read six different books that mentioned trepanation. So far in 2017, I have read none. So, I am looking back on 2016 as my Year of Literary Trepanations.

Venomous by Christie Wilcox

Fascinating information about deadly poisons and how people can benefit from them. Did you know that a handful of botulism toxins is enough to kill everyone on the planet, if divided equally among them? Yet you can safely inject minuscule amounts of it into the forehead of someone who is overly concerned about their wrinkles. I learned about bee sting therapy and the recreational use of snake bites and all kinds of other cool stuff. Wilcox mentions trepanation in a tangental way:

"... dubious antique medical practices like trepanation: drilling a hole into one's skull to let out evil spirits"

Patient H.M.: Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich

The subtitle says it all. Much of what we know about memory is thanks to Henry Molaison, a patient with epilepsy who received a botched lobotomy. It sometimes felt like a thriller, with unexpected twists even towards the end. The audiobook has a great narrator, George Newbern, but I'm too squeamish for play-by-play details of brain surgery, so I had to fast-forward through those parts. Engrossing true subject matter.

"My grandfather, like most lobotomists, performed a disproportionate number of psychosurgeries on women. The known clinical effects of lobotomy, including tractability, passivity and docility, overlapped nicely with what many men at the time considered to be ideal feminine traits."

"Freeman believed he could train any reasonably competent psychiatrist how to perform an ice pick lobotomy in an afternoon."

"August 25, 1953. Henry lies on his back on an operating table in the Hartford Hospital neurosurgery suite. At the head of the table, flanked by scrub nurses and assistants, my grandfather leans over Henry with a trepan in his hand. Henry has been sedated and given a local anesthetic, and the flesh has been peeled down from his forehead, but he is conscious. A trepan is a sort of wide-mouthed serrated drill."

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie

Warmth, wackiness and squirrels. Lessons about being true to yourself. I loved this satirical feel-good novel. One of the characters is a young guy who has invented the "versatile Pneumatic TURBO Skull Punch," a trepanning device "well suited to a range of hole punching operations," and both the pharmaceutical and defence industries are excited about its possibilities, calling it "the greatest contribution to warfighter injuries in years." Trepanations everywhere!

"I pledge allegiance to the marketplace of the United States of America TM and to the conglomerates, for which we shill, one nation, under Exxon-Mobil/Halliburton/Boeing/Walmart, nonrefundable, with litter and junk mail for all."

"Art is despair with dignity."

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

A poignant, insightful novel with an ensemble cast of immigrants from various Latin American countries, who live in the same cinderblock apartment building in Delaware. One of the central characters is a Mexican teen with severe head trauma.

"So now what we need to do - what I need your permission to do - is remove a small piece of her skull to make room for the swelling and to keep the pressure from building too much." He stopped and looked at us again. "If it builds too much, she could die. And the longer we wait to relieve it, the more damage she'll likely experience."

"We're the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they've been told they're supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we're not that bad, made even that we're a lot like them. And who would they hate then?"

Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki

Monty is an endearing 16-year-old coping with mean girls and rude boys, making mistakes and finding forgiveness. Her parents are caring and in the forefront (a rarity in YA, where parental absence allows the protagonists more freedom to act) and Monty's parents are also lesbians (a rarity in any novel).

"a link to the craziest thing I have ever seen on the Internet, a site about people who actually drill holes into the tops of their skulls to increase brain blood flow. To improve psychic powers. That's what trepanation is!"

I resisted the temptation to actually search for this sort of thing on YouTube. It makes me shudder just thinking about it.

The Fireman by Joe Hill

Post-apocalyptic thriller with a plague that causes people to burst into flames. Harper Grayson, a conscientious nurse, is one of the central characters in this fast-paced story. Kate Mulgrew performs a fantastic narration for the audiobook, which is over 22 hours long.

"[Harper] told him about trepanning Father Storey's skull with a power drill and disinfecting it with port."

"She had treated John Rookwood's mauled arm with a weak dose of good intentions."

"The hens are clucking. Harper thought it would be a toss-up, which term for women she hated more: bitch or hen. A hen was something you kept in a cage, and her sole worth was in her eggs. A bitch, at least, had teeth."

So that's it for my literary encounters with trepanation. Have you encountered any lately?

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Best of September Reading 2017

Out of 30 books that I read in September, there are a handful that really stand out, and half of them happen to be by Indigenous authors.

Best Indigenous Short Stories: 
Annie Muktuk and Other Stories by Norma Dunning
A brilliant collection by an Edmonton author of Inuit heritage. Tragedy and joy; a conversational style; intimate and fresh - I loved it all.
"He had said he was there to study mollusks. Siutiruq in her language - snails. No one ate snails! She told him that if he was looking for wrinkles to visit her anaanatsiaq. He didn't understand. She had dug in some mud along the shoreline and held one close to his blue eyes. 'See the wrinkles on their shell - like Grandma's face!' she had exclaimed. He grinned with all those perfect white teeth." "They are my daughters, the extension of me in this cold northern world. I taught them some English but mostly they all speak their moms' tongue and so do I. When I learned their language, I began to respect their culture and it became a part of me. It moved into my heart and set up camp in my soul. It became who I am." "'Hey, see that big rock over there - let's roll it!' 'Rock and roll - old style, husband?' Elipsee grins. We begin our game of tundra bowling. When we were kids we used to go out and just roll the tundra rock around. We'd make castles and forts and igloos and cairns. We didn't make inukshuks though. That was serious stuff for serious hunters."

Best Indigenous Queer Poetry: 
This Wound Is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt
Wow! I was bowled over by the sorrow, rage and beauty in these powerful poems. Belcourt is a Rhodes Scholar from Driftpile Cree Nation in Alberta.
"the cree word for a body like mine is weesageechak. the old ones know of this kind of shape-shifting: sometimes i sweat and sweat until my bones puddle on the carpet in my living room and i am like the water that comes before new life."
"i ran off the edge of the world
into another world
and there everyone 
was at least a little gay."
"one of the conditions of native life today is survivor's guilt."
"femininity is a torch only the bravest men can carry."
"i never liked goodbyes, but some of us aren't here to stay."

Best Indigenous Nonfiction: Indigenous Writes: 
A Guide to First Nations, Metis & Inuit Issues in Canada by Chelsea Vowel
This looks intimidating, like a textbook, but it is very engaging once you start reading. Each chapter is short, with lots of endnotes guiding readers to more information if you want it. I read a library copy and loved it so much that I bought my own copy afterwards. Marie Wilson, Commissioner of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada, describes Vowel's outstanding narrative voice as 'passionate, intellectual and populist.' 'With facts, examples, patience and sardonic humour, she takes us on a guided tour of the legal, political and social wrangling that has torn at the founding relationships of this country.' Thomas King's The Inconvenient Indian is another title that I recommend for readers who want a better understanding of modern relations between settlers and Indigenous peoples. King covers a broader and more historical North American context, while Vowel keeps a tight focus on contemporary issues in Canada and the historical contexts from which they arise.
"While there are certainly people claiming a First Nations identity based on blood myths (long-lost or imagined ancestors), it tends to be a less common phenomenon in Canada than in the United States. Part of that, at least where I come from, is a deep-rooted racism against Indigenous peoples that makes being Indigenous in no way an enviable or sought-out identity."

Best Indigenous Dystopia YA: 
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Read a long post about this thought-provoking novel on my blog here"Wildlife was limited to buzzards, raccoons the size of huskies, domestic pets left to run feral, and hordes of cockroaches that had regained the ability to fly like their southern cousins. I had been scared of them all when I was still running with my brother. Now they were nothing. I crunched over lines of roaches like sloppy gravel, threw rocks at the pack of guinea pigs grunting at me with prehistoric teeth."
Best Queer Fantasy: 
Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
Twins from a nursery rhyme, thrown in with elements from two horror classics - Dracula and Frankenstein. Dark, playful, witty: a stylized folktale effect. A doorway fantasy with a creepy atmosphere, perfect for Halloween. I actually liked this slim follow-up to Every Heart a Doorway quite a bit better than the first one, and it does stand alone.
"At the crest of the hill Jacqueline's foot hit a dip in the soil and she fell, tumbling down the other side of the hill with a speed as surprising as it was bruising. Jillian shouted her sister's name, lunging for her hand, and found herself falling as well, two little girls rolling end over end, like stars tumbling out of an overcrowded sky."
"It would become quickly dull, recounting every moment, every hour the two girls spent, one in the castle and one in the windmill: it would become quickly dull, and so it shall not be our focus, for we are not here for dullness, are we? No. We are here for a story, whether it be wild adventure or cautionary tale, and we do not have the time to waste on mundane things."

Best Queer Science Fiction: 
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Warm and compelling adventure in two timelines with a focus on AI (artificial intelligence) personhood.
"Life is terrifying. None of us have a rule book. None of us know what we're doing here. So, the easiest way to stare reality in the face and not utterly lose your shit is to believe that you have control over it."
"Among their galactic neighbours, Aeluons used the usual set of male-female-neutral pronouns that any species would understand. But among themselves, they were a four-gendered society."

Best Cookery: Salt, Fat, Acid Heat: 
Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat
"Use salt to enhance, fat to carry, and acid to balance the flavour." 
The first half covers the basic elements listed in the title, presented with warmth and encouragement. Classic recipes follow, with lots of suggestions for variations. 
"Recipes do not make food taste good; people do."
"The choice to embellish this book with illustrations rather than photographs was deliberate. Let it liberate you from feeling there's only one perfect version of every dish." The whimsical art is by Wendy MacNaughton.
Fold-out charts are packed with information. This would be a great gift for anyone who wants to learn how to cook, or who doesn't feel confident about improvisation in the kitchen.
All of the recipes that I tried from this cookbook turned out great.
This is a carrot salad with ginger and lime,
topped with borage from my garden.

Also notable is the fact that four of the children's audiobooks that I listened to in September happened to feature trees in a prominent role. All of these are recommended for family listening.

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle [2 hr : various readers] age 12 and up
A powerful history of Cuba's three wars for independence, told in verse through multiple perspectives. Heartfelt and heartbreaking.
"How can there be
a little war?
Are some deaths 
smaller than others,
leaving mothers
who weep
a little less?"
Hurricanes were battering the Caribbean when I read this, making the words even more poignant.
"People walk in long chains of strength, arm in arm, to keep from blowing away. The wildness of wind, forest, sea brings storms that move like serpents, sweeping trees and cattle up into the sky. During hurricanes, even the wealthy wander like beggars, seeking shelter arm in arm with the poor."

The Skeleton Tree by Iain Lawrence 
[8 hr : narrated by Christopher Gebauer] age 7 and up
Wilderness survival adventure. Two boys who don't get along are shipwrecked in Alaska. 
"I don't read endings. It's more real that way."

Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne 
[5 hr : narrated by Andrew Sachs] age 7 and up
"Anyway, it was probably best that he went out to make his own way in the world. After all, he was already eight years old and the truth was, he hadn't really done anything with his life so far."
A warm and whimsical fable about coping with adversity. It's a clever riff on Carlo Collodi's classic, and I recommend adding Pinocchio to your family's audiobook playlist as well. Maybe listen to Pinocchio first, so that young folk won't miss the literary allusions. Some aspects of Boyne's writing will be best appreciated by an older audience, but it's layered books like this that make for great intergenerational listening.
"... to London, stopping for a couple of days at a literary festival, where I ran in and out of the authors' readings at such a speed that the wind I generated turned the pages of their books for them, leaving both their hands free for drinking and fingerpointing."

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate 
[3.5 hr : narrated by Nancy Linari] age 8 and up
A red oak named Red (216 rings old) is the narrator of this brief and elegant story about kindness and bigotry.
"Different languages, different food, different customs. That's our neighborhood: wild and tangled and colorful. Like the best kind of garden."


And, finally, some book synchronicity in September: 

In his haunting, satirical and cinematic novel The Golden House, one of the many things that Salman Rushdie lampoons is the shifting and competing incarnations of Communist parties in India. In Ants Among Elephants, a nonfiction family history about untouchables that I was reading at the same time, Sujatha Gidla describes her uncle Satyam's involvement with various Communist groups and their ideological differences. "After that meeting, the Revolutionary Communist Party split into two splinters, each one claiming the same name CPI(M-L) - ML for Marxist-Leninist." The same name! They made it easy for writers like Rushdie to make fun of them.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

Fiction is a great vehicle for probing the big questions. In the case of The Marrow Thieves by Metis author Cherie Dimaline, those questions are:

A. What does it mean to be human? and
B. What does it mean to be Indigenous?

These questions are packaged in a gripping survival story set in the near-future in the area that used to be Canada, after devastating population loss due to illnesses, climate change and pollution. The first-person narrator is Frenchie (or Francis), a Metis boy who has lost his brother and parents, but joins up with a small group of Indigenous people led by a gay man named Miigwans, and an Elder named Minerva, who is "dark and round and tiny like a tree stump."

The whole group is on the run because Indigenous people are being hunted. New laws require mandatory incarceration in residential schools. I'm not letting the cat out of the bag to say that the reason they are being hunted is that it's been discovered that bone marrow from Indigenous people provides a cure for the current illness of non-Indigenous people. This information is right on the back cover of the book.

Miigwans explains: "They stopped dreaming. And a man without dreams is just a meaty machine with a broken gauge." Indigenous people are like living dreamcatchers in this novel, in a way, because they continue to dream. An interesting premise. Anyway, there are many themes that relate directly to Indigenous experiences in Canada:

Othering. Dehumanizing tactics, including rape and other violence; treating people as if they are not human beings.

Residential Schools. The historic purpose in Canada of annihilation through assimilation is ratcheted up to the highest level in the terrifying prisons depicted in this novel.

Skin colour and its connection to the concept of race. Based on appearance, how can you tell if someone is West Indian or Pilipino or Nehiyawak? And of the three, only the Nehiyawak person has the right kind of bone marrow...

Homelessness and poverty. The Indigenous characters we follow over the course of several years are constantly on the move, evading capture that will mean certain death, so they have very little in the way of security and material goods.

Disenfranchisement. All Indigenous peoples in the former Canada have been stripped of their rights.

Addiction. Of the extensive cast, only two minor characters have substance abuse issues, but their addictions have significant consequences for themselves and others.

Treaties. A climate of distrust and broken promises; in the backstory of this novel, attempts to negotiate with government representatives have been unsuccessful, to put it mildly.

Language. Importance of Indigenous languages as a tie to cultural rootedness.

Respect and reverence for Elders. Minerva is more than an archetype or placeholder; her involvement is central to the plot and the motivations of the other characters.

Storytelling as teaching and connection to community. Frenchie and all of the others in his current band of chosen family each have "coming-in" stories (something like the way queer people have "coming-out" stories). Stories also are used to educate the younger folk, as in the passage quoted earlier, where Miigwans explains about dreaming.

Connection to the land. This is a big one: the love and respect the characters have for the broken land they are living on comes through strongly in the story. Healing water and land from pollution is as important as personal survival.


There were a few rough spots that I wish had been caught in editing, like when Frenchie has blood in his mouth and "tasted wet pennies," even though pennies were phased out of use in Canada before he was born. Also, when he was alone in the bush, how could he know that his cough broke a blood vessel in his eye?

In another passage: "I crossed my arms, refusing to be impacted." Okay, maybe by this time in the future, "impact" will be acceptable as a verb that way. So I will try not to be grumpy about it.

I do appreciate that Frenchie has an affinity for literature: "I reverted to the books I loved, those rare and impractical luxuries I'd happened on a few times in my life and hoarded until they fell apart, all pulp and tears."

The Marrow Thieves is the kind of story that merits being read until it falls apart. May copies be passed among many eager hands.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Reading Envy Podcast

Do you love book podcasts as much as I do? If so, you can understand how excited I was to be a recent guest on Reading Envy.

Jenny Colvin is a warm host and we enjoy similar kinds of books, so I felt quite relaxed during our conversation. I took advantage of the opportunity to draw attention to three Alberta authors that I admire: Tim Bowling (The Heavy Bear), Kimmy Beach (Nuala) and Suzette Mayr (Monoceros). Jenny shared three titles as well.

We also talked about book clubs and what we are currently reading. Afterwards, I was embarrassed that I totally forgot Sylvia Plath's name when I mentioned her book Ariel, but Jenny smoothly edited out my fumbling. She carefully edits all of her recordings, making them nice and tight, which is one of the reasons that her podcast is such a pleasure for listeners.

What Jenny cannot do is put the right words in your mouth when you say the wrong thing. It was weird and humbling to hear my verbal quirks, like jamming two words together accidentally (voracious and ferocious became verocious) and I said "reader" when I meant "author," but there you have it. Human frailty.

To listen, click here, or follow one of the links on the Reading Envy website, or else search for episode 95 of Reading Envy (Lose the Outside World with Lindy Pratch) in your favourite podcast app.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Heavy Bear by Tim Bowling

"After making a press of dark roast, I slipped in the DVD and watched The Railrodder. Then I watched Buster Keaton Rides Again, the documentary shot simultaneously with the filming of The Railroader, which is even more haunting in its depiction of a dying legend and a vanishing nation. And I stepped straight out of linear time - just like Keaton as the projectionist in his classic 1924 film Sherlock Jr., who leaves his own body and enters the story he is showing on the screen - and arrived in the past where the light animates the dead and every shadow is a snarl of tape on the cutting-room floor."

Just like Keaton does, as the protagonist in the silent film Sherlock Jr., Bowling seems to step out of his life into a dream. The protagonist in Tim Bowling's latest book happens to be named Tim Bowling. He happens to be a writer living in Edmonton (where I also happen to live). He has a family and sometimes must make ends meet by taking teaching jobs... just like the real Tim Bowling. However, there are other elements that make it immediately clear that this is fiction. Bowling wakes up really early (or is he still dreaming?) on the morning that he is to begin teaching an English class. He cannot bear the thought of surmounting his introversion and standing in front of his students. What to do? What to do? His companions during his day-long existential crisis include the ghost of Buster Keaton and a large, but invisible, bear-poet.

"I had an imaginary bear who wept, a silent film ghost who remained true to silence, and my own sense of reality, which might either have been slipping away or speeding straight at me like an express train, depending on how you define reality. One fact was clear enough: the more I taught, the less I would write. And if I did not write, what would keep me out of a straitjacket? Yet what I wanted to write didn't pay me enough to support a family of five."

Bowling is someone best described as a writer's writer, and, with phrases like: "I pointed my heavy compass to campus," it's evident how much he enjoys playing with words.

"I checked my watch. It was almost one o'clock. I checked my pulse. It was still quick, but not alarmingly so. I checked my mood. It had sped through a few phases since the morning, and now had slid down toward where it started. Much had happened, but little had changed."

Tim's chance encounters on the streets of Edmonton lead him to an unlikely source of wealth and unwitting involvement in criminal activity. There's enough humour and narrative action to keep the storyline compelling even as it meanders through thoughtful interludes.

"I looked around at the cages and tanks. There were at least a dozen, and all were grimy. Some sort of a large lizard - perhaps a Komodo dragon - blinked up at me with its bulbous, Peter Lorre eyes. The sandpaper of its skin seemed to cast sparks against being. I could relate, too much so."

"For some strange reason, the depressing shop comforted me. Despite the filth and gloom of the place, the presence of other species, even these poor specimens, always lifted my spirits. I remembered my Whitman:

I think I could turn and live with animals: they are so placid and self-contain'd;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God:
Not one is dissatisfied - not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

It's a bizarre, twenty-first-century form of comfort, but you hear it from time to time: the earth and its life existed before us, and it will survive us. Even when you don't hear someone articulate the thought, you can feel it."

The Heavy Bear is an inventive, introspective and thoroughly rewarding novel.

Thank you to publisher Wolsak and Wynn for sending me a review copy.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Best of August 2017: Reading Wrap-Up

Above, my Goodreads page of books I've read in August. Let me tell you about some of them:

Most Outstanding Graphic Novel: 
My Favourite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris
I have been telling everyone about this gorgeous, hefty, moving graphic novel whenever the subject of books comes up. (It comes up a lot around me.) Ten-year-old gumshoe Karen Reyes doesn't want to be a vulnerable girl; she wants to be a scary monster. She stole my heart so fast. What a great character, and a budding lesbian too - reminding me of Harriet the Spy. This book is for adults, though. It's set in Chicago in the 60s, where Karen tries to make sense of the tragedies around her, starting with the death of her upstairs neighbour. It's the first of two parts and I am very excited about the yet-to-be-released sequel.

Best Audiobook: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness 
by Arundhati Roy [16.5 hr: narrated by the author]
Fiction may be the best way to grasp some understanding of the situation in Kashmir, the most militarized area in the world. I had so much to say about this brilliant novel that it has its own page here on my blog.

"How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything."

Best Multiple Perspectives: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
A disturbing, suspenseful, heartbreaking novel about ethics, the individual and the state. Contemporary global issues dramatized in five perspectives from two British Pakistani families. Relevant and absorbing. 

I had heard before reading this that it was a retelling of the myth of Antigone, but forgot that entirely as I got caught up in the narrative. Then, in the final segment, all of the pieces that relate to the Greek myth suddenly popped into my awareness, adding a rich overlay. A more idiosyncratic connection came when I encountered reference to the Laila-Majnu Sufi folktale, which also came up in Arundhati Roy's novel that I had finished just before this one.  
Dr Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall by Suzette Mayr
A lesbian Alice in Wonderland-ish spoof on the politics of academia, set in an invented university that could very well be Calgary... if the U of C had malevolent buildings infested with carnivorous jackrabbits. Nightmarish and funny.

"Edith claws through the chlorinated water in the university's Olympic-sized swimming pool. She squints through her goggles. 7:35 a.m. Soon it will be 8 a.m. and her day basically gone. Wasted!"

"She extracts her red pen from her purse and slowly begins scribbling and ticking her way through the wildly ungrammatical pages, miles of faulty logic, the written-the-midnight-before wool gatherings. Soon she is a marking powerhouse, she has graded 17 essays in 15 minutes, she is a marking automaton. She should grade papers at 3 in the morning every single day! Her mind vinegar-sharp, a slayer of dangling, squinting and misplaced modifiers."

Best Thriller: 
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
Character-based, funny, violent, rich and suspenseful. Timeline flips back and forth between early scenes leading up to each bullet wound in Hawley's body, and his current life doing his best to avoid trouble. 

Michael Kindness from the now-defunct Books on the Nightstand podcast gave this high praise long before it was released, so I've been looking forward to it ever since. I was not disappointed. As I read, I kept seeing Samuel Hawley as Parker in Darwin Cooke's graphic novel adaptations of Richard Stark's hardboiled noir series. The difference is that Hawley's earlier life of crime might be redeemed through raising his daughter on his own. 

Best Short Story Collection: 
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
At first I thought I was pushing too quickly through this 400-page collection, and that maybe I should space the stories out with other things, but by the middle of the book I was just too hooked to stop. Autobiographical, warm and colourful: the cumulative effect is like one fat post-modern novel. Berlin has a fabulous conversational style: "matter of fact you can lie and still tell the truth. This story is good and it rings true, wherever it came from." Oh, yes!

"'You get DTs?' Pepe asked.
'Yes,' she lied. God, just listen to me... please accept me you guys, please like me you runny-eyed bums. I don't know what DTs are. The doctor asked me that too, and I said yes and he wrote it down. I think I've had them all my life, if, in fact, they are visions of demons." -from Her First Detox

"It had a fur collar. Oh the poor matted fur, once silver, yellowed now like the peed-on backsides of polar bears in zoos."

"Often they wore their hair in pin curls and a turban, getting their hair ready for - what? This still is an American custom. You see women everywhere in pink hair rollers. It's some sort of philosophical or fashion statement. Maybe there will be something better, later."

"Angie Dickinson liked my eye shadow. I told her it was just chalk, the kind you rub on pool cues."

"I couldn't go to heaven because I was Protestant. I'd have to go to limbo. I would rather have gone to hell than limbo, what an ugly word, like dumbo, or mumbo jumbo, a place without any dignity at all."

Best Picture Book: The Fog by Kyo Maclear and Kenard Pak
Friendship between misfits with a nerdy hobby + a love of the natural world + global activism on the part of the environment = an adorable picture book with the quiet heft of a velvet hammer. 

Kenard Pak's digitally-manipulated pencil and watercolour art reminds me of Jon Klassen's work. (See I Want My Hat Back, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, and House Held Up by Trees.) 

Tiny yellow bird Warbler, the people-watcher, is pictured with a telescope inside a nest piled high with reference books about humans. The endpapers portray a whimsical array of human types, such as the "Dapper Bespectacled Booklover" and the "Hairy Orange-Crowned Male (Juvenile)." So much to love in this Canadian picture book for all ages.

Best Children's Graphic Novel: Brave by Svetlana Chmakova
Jensen gets through each day at middle school by treating it like a video game, fraught with dangers. This charming graphic novel is chock full of diverse characters and deals well with the issue of bullying. It even made me cry. Creator Svetlana Chmakova immigrated to Canada when she was a teen and she obviously knows what being an outsider feels like.

Best Nonfiction Reportage in Comics Format: 
Hostage by Guy Delisle [translated from French by Helge Dascher]
Another brilliant work of nonfiction comics by Guy Delisle, who can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. This time, instead of documenting his own travel adventures, working in other countries, he tells the true story of a French NGO worker, held hostage in Chechnya for 111 days. I felt like I was right there, experiencing the boredom and despair while chained by the wrist for months. Amazing visual storytelling, few words.

Best Nonfiction Memoir in Comics Format: 
Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke
An eloquent, marvellous and melancholy study of senescence, presented in meticulous art with minimal text. People, relationships, and the things created by humans-- all will crumble to nothing in the end. I've learned from this book that "ruin porn" is a thing. What Radtke manages to do, with clear-eyed compassion, is to allow us to see the beauty in the inevitable. The controlled lifework and attention to photographic detail reminds me of Alison Bechdel's art.

Best Science Fiction Graphic Novel: Bitch Planet, Book 2 
President Bitch by Kelly Sue DeConnick et al.
Volume 2 collects issues #6-10 of this outrageously funny feminist sic fi spoof. It's just as strong as the first volume and I want more! The fake adverts at the end of each issue help to lighten some heavy content in the storyline: "Makeup is also a LIE! You ugly cow, he actually thought you really did have cheekbones that were cut with a laser."

Best Science Fiction Novella: Nuala by Kimmy Beach

"'Why are these irons called sad? What makes an iron sad?'
She laughed at me and explained that neither the irons nor the future Iron-Servants were sad. Did I not notice the joy with which they performed their duties, even though there was then no Giant to wear the dress they tended? It was simply the name given to the heavy slabs of metal."

Teacher-Servant is the human man graced with a giant mechanical puppet's first awakening gaze. He rides on her shoulder as they communicate via thought. "Shh, my Nuala. I am with you. Today I shall teach you the newness of you."

My book club spent a long time discussing this intriguing exploration of jealousy and autonomy, written by an author from nearby (Red Deer, Alberta) and set in an atypical dystopia. The tale is short and haunting. It had me watching hours of videos of giant marionettes on YouTube.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

It's been 20 years since Arundhati Roy's last novel was published, the astonishing The God of Small Things. Her new one, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was worth the wait. 

Grief and hope are inseparable. Life, love and death: it's all mixed together. A brilliant, breathtaking novel, featuring a wide cast of characters swirling around Anjum, an intersex hijra in Delhi. There's even a character with my name, a young Australian hippy who marries a crusading Indian journalist and then gets arrested for trafficking heroin. 

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, then picked up a paper copy so that I could savour her brilliant prose:

"They had always fitted together like pieces of an unsolved (and perhaps unsolvable) puzzle - the smoke of her into the solidness of him, the solitariness of her into the gathering of him, the insouciance of her into the restraint of him. The quietness of her into the quietness of him."

"A posse of mop-haired dogs smelling of perfume and cigarette smoke ran amok among the guests, like a small army of yapping, motorized floor swabs."

"Some distance away a bare-torsoed man, with yellow limes stuck all over his body with superglue, sucked noisily on a thick mango drink from a small carton. He refused to say why he had stuck limes to his skin or why he was drinking mango juice even though he seemed to be promoting limes, and grew abusive if anyone asked."

"...the battered angels in the graveyards that kept watch over their battered charges held open the doors between worlds (illegally, just a crack) so that the should of the present and the departed could mingle, like guests at the same party. It made life less determinate and death less conclusive. Somehow everything became a little easier to bear."

"How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything."