this is not a review — ‘our souls at night’, by kent haruf

 

I’ve said this before… my favourite books are those where nothing much happens other than whole worlds change.

Oh my lord did I love this book of nothing and everything.

In a nutshell:

Louis Waters and Addie Moore are widowed, long time neighbours, who really only have a passing knowledge of each other’s lives, in the way of neighbours who have shared a street for decades. Aware but not involved.

They’re both good people. And, now, perhaps, also lonely.

The book opens with Addie knocking on Louis’ door and asking if he would be at all interested in sleeping with her. She means it literally. No funny business, just pj’s and slumber. Oh, and talking. That’s really what she’s looking for, that special kind of conversation that only happens when you’re lying in bed next to someone.

He accepts.

He continues to live in his own house in the same way he’s been doing for years, but at night he goes over to Addie’s for a single beer while she has a glass of wine and then they brush their teeth and hit the hay.

(The tooth-brushing is not incidental. Remember this is a story where nothing and everything happens. The details of life are beautifully wrought.)

Once in bed they talk.

At first, of course, it’s all awkwardness, but it evolves into something so essential to their well-being that neither of them can imagine living any other way. They’re not a couple but they’re more than friends. They come to reveal everything to each other in ways they never did in their marriages.

But people being people soon begin to pass judgments, especially those people unhappy in their own lives. Louis and Addie don’t give a fig. If anything the judgements only cause them to judge themselves (which is such a healthy reaction) and when they don’t find anything sinister about themselves they take it up a notch and begin hanging out together in public. Not necessarily an easy decision given how the elderly are made to feel they don’t count, that they hardly have a thought in their heads worth hearing.

Addie and Louis know this is the way old people are seen but they don’t see themselves or others this way. They have such wonderful, admirable balls.

A really charming part of the book is when Addie’s six year old grandson Jamie comes to live with her while Addie’s son Gene and his wife try to fix their marriage. Louis and Addie and the boy become a kind of family unit (along with Ruth, a friend of Addie’s) and Jamie is nourished in a way he’s never experienced. He stops crying, he’s able to sleep at night. Life is good.

“They ate a supper of macaroni and cheese casserole and iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing and canned green beans and bread and butter and iced tea poured from an old heavy glass pitcher and there was Neapolitan ice cream for dessert. The dog lay at Jamie’s feet.” 

All of which royally pisses off Addie’s son when he hears about all that happiness. He decides to pay a visit, assumes (the truly wonderful) Louis has nefarious intentions, chastises his mother for her lifestyle and takes Jamie back home well before his marriage is anywhere near fixed. Then he forces Addie to choose between her relationship with Louis and her relationship with her grandson.

This is one of those deliciously slender books, easily read in a day, spare writing yet saying all that needs to be said, in the way of the best conversations. Satisfying to the core. I would read this one again and again for the layers it reveals and the questions it asks us to consider about family, friendship, intimacy, community, loyalty and aging. For starters.

Haruf is new to me but I’m already looking for more of his earlier work.

Available online at two of my favourite indies — Hunter Street Books and Blue Heron Books.

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this is not a review: ‘glass beads’ by dawn dumont

 
Classed as ‘stories’ on the cover, I began reading Dawn Dumont’s Glass Beads  in tiny slivers, a page here, an opening paragraph there, trying to find a story that hooked me, a place to begin since for some reason I didn’t choose to begin at the beginning. The truth is I almost stopped reading because these little snippets of things weren’t grabbing me. All I gleaned was that each story was about very young people and various kinds of young people angst.

But something about Dumont’s writing style kept me reading… just one more snippet, and then another. The rawness of the characters (they felt like people I knew, maybe in some cases people I once was), the way she captures voice and her superb handling of dialogue (which soon begins to feel less like reading and more like eavesdropping), all of it coming across so true… and before I know it I’m flipping to the beginning of the book and starting again from there.

In a nutshell:  the stories follow four friends over the course of fifteen years, through the angst of teenhood to the angst of young adulthood.

So what makes it special?

Dumont’s writing. It’s as simple as that.

Also, she taps into a universal feeling right off the bat in the opening story, “Kokum’s House”… with a line about how if you’re told something often enough, no matter how sad….“tears don’t come after a while.”.

The tone of the book is….. let me tell you a story about people.

That the characters are indigenous isn’t incidental.

Not for one moment do we forget these are Native kids growing into Native adulthood and that there are issues, events and problems that are specific to them and to no other culture (starlight tours). But neither do we forget for a single moment that there are issues, events and problems these characters experience that are universal (the floundering of youth, drugs, alcohol and parties), and it’s the way she blends things that gives the book its power.

Dumont has written what might be one of the hardest stories to write, one that features a specific culture (it could as easily be a specific race or religion, a sexual orientation… anything that isn’t WASP and cis-gendered) without shining a light on that ‘difference’ or making the difference  the story.

It’s not about   being indigenous any more than a story with white characters is a story about whiteness.

It’s about Nellie who is level-headed and wise and not especially the popular one, the one who “… had never worked as a waitress but she had delivered beers to her dad in the big chair.” And Everett, who womanizes and drinks too much and to whom she’s emotionally drawn.

It’s about Julie, whose attractiveness is part of the reason she succeeds and part of the reason she fails.

“What other people wanted came naturally to Julie and they weren’t complimenting her so much as expressing their desire to have it.”

It’s about these indigenous kids looking at Cosmo and Chatelaine, reading about diets and fung shui, just like everyone else.

It’s about Taz who strives to climb the ladder of Native politics and lands a job with the federal government, in land claims. He calls himself a hired gun. “I come in and bury the Natives in paperwork.” He says it pays well but a comment puts it into perspective. “Enjoy that blood money.”

It’s about what works and doesn’t work on reserves. The band that neglects to send tuition, resulting in a student being unable to register for college.

It’s about how there’s a perception that being in the city will be different than being on the reserve, “… he won’t drink in the city because being away from the reserve will allow him to make connections…  he would be building things, not tearing them apart. Crow’s Nest was behind him along with all of his sad eyed friends and their growing guts and whining that the chief and council sucked but never doing anything about it.”

And it’s about reality.

“But the people in the city turned out to be exactly like the people on the rez. There was always another party, another reason to turn it up.”

Dumont doesn’t put a glossy sheen on anything. She admits there are problems on reservations, with Native governments, people with all kinds of differing views. There isn’t one Native Culture. But neither does she shy away from softness. The sense of community is strong and comes through.

Toward the end of the book, when the characters are young adults, a more adult focus on what’s happening within communities comes to light. In one scene, men just shooting the shit, eating Chinese food, the tone becomes serious when talk centres around how the Assembly of Chiefs has lost connection to what’s important.

“I see that our people are getting arrested, locked up, committing violence or getting dumped by the side of the road – I see the young kids on the streets wandering – where are their parents? Why aren’t they at home? – like how I was at home at their age, doing my homework, watching TV with my family… that’s where kids should be… because pretty soon they’re not kids anymore, they’re adults and then we’ve lost them.”

Native youth…. youth is what’s important.

“That’s what those fuckers should be focusing on.”

The title, Glass Beads,   doesn’t have a corresponding story, leaving me to wonder what the reference is. My interpretation is the idea of trading… what we trade, what anyone trades, for what they hope will be a good life.

And how we forge ahead when that trade turns out not be an entirely a fair deal.

While the stories are stand alone quality, they’re so much more when standing together. For that reason I prefer to think of the book as a novel.

And I would absolutely recommend starting at the beginning.

Glass Beads is available at Hunter Street Books and Blue Heron Books.

Support indies! (These are two of my faves.)

♦♦

Thanks to one of the comments I picked up a copy of Nobody Cries at Bingo,  and not only loved it, I think it ought to be essential *Canada150*  reading. What a brilliant way she has of presenting modern indigenous life so that it feels simply like life, no labels, yet we feel the difference. Such subtleness, and that humour….

“Auntie and Mom looked at one another and shook their heads. What had happened to kids these days? Back in their day, a kid was lucky to get to go anywhere. Growing up in a family of twelve, you were lucky if your mom remembered your face, never mind took you to bingo. And if you did want to go to bingo, it wasn’t just a quick five-minute drive, it was a two-day journey involving a horse, a wagon and three portages. Now those were days when people appreciated bingo…”

 

 

this is not a review: ‘when we were alone’, by david a. robertson (pics, julie flett)

 
A little girl and her grandmother tend a garden and as they do the girl asks simple questions about the beautiful clothing the grandmother wears, the luxurious style of her hair, the language she whispers as she feeds a bird…

The grandmother tells what life was like when she was the child’s age and still lived at home, in her “community”. She talks about friends and traditions and then refers to the school she went to, described only as being “far away from home” where things were very different. The child asks why they cut her hair, why Cree was a forbidden language and each time the grandmother offers a gentle sliver of truth, ending with some version of: “They wanted us to be like everybody else.”

The title is a reference to the instinct for their sense (and survival) of ‘self’, the small pleasures they found in things like the colour of leaves and braiding grass into their shorn hair.

I love this book for its story of courage and strength, but also for its structure, the rhythm of the questions and answers, the repetition of certain lines, especially the reference to a school that was “far away from home”… (which surely begs the question from any young reader/listener as to why  it was so far away). I love the beautiful illustrations by Julie Flett (the colour palette, all rich earth tones and vivid brights alternating with the institutional monotones of muted greys and brown). But mostly I love this book because it invites children who know nothing about the history of residential schools to ask questions of their own, and so maybe, and gently, we can begin a conversation long overdue.

When We Were Alone  can be purchased on-line from Blue Heron Books and Hunter Street Books, which I only mention because they’re two of my faves.

Support indies!

this is not a review: ‘mitzi bytes’, by kerry clare

 
Whether reading her blog Pickle Me This, her essays or short fiction, The M Word  or trash writing... I’m never disappointed with Kerry Clare’s style… that kind of literary voice that feels conversational, as if what you’re reading is something you could also be hearing over lunch with a friend.

Mitzi Bytes  is no exception. You lean forward into the pages, waiting for the next thing, the next laugh (Oh my god, the No Angle tatoo!), the yes yes, I get that!,  or the next bit of outrage and when it comes you lean back, take a breath and wonder how you’ll figure it out, this problem, this mess of a situation, whatever it happens to be, because by this point you are totally signed on.

Pass the bread.

Order some wine.

Keep talking.

Clare excels at writing about the ordinary, which happens to be one of my favourite subjects. She draws the reader in with wide open, honest emotions and isn’t afraid to say this is the truth as I see it  in exactly the way you hope the best of your friends will always say things.

In Mitzi Bytes  she writes about blogging, which is really about noticing.

Sarah Lundy is someone who notices. She’s the person behind a popular blog called Mitzi Bytes. She’s also the author of some very successful books, compilations of her “domestic tales”. But it’s the blog where her notoriety lives, along with her candid, often bitchy posts, which she writes anonymously and which mostly centre around the people in her life, none of whom, including her husband, have any idea that Sarah and Mitzi are one and the same.

Until a comment comes through the site saying she’s been found out.

This is where we meet Sarah, on the verge of her world imploding. She has no idea who would want to do such a vile thing… no idea mainly because the options are many. After all, she’s made a career, literally, of mocking and judging others. (But to be fair, she has also mocked and judged herself in the process.) The *who* of this threat is only one part of the mystery the book sets out to solve. The other is how Sarah’s world became this vulnerable to attack in the first place… not to mention what, exactly, she’s hiding, protecting, and afraid of losing.

But, really, it’s about so much more. It’s about living online, the need to share every thought through a keyboard, the way of virtual friendship and the reality of remaining angry, afraid and alone IRL.

It’s about children and marriage and the effort of not losing oneself (or one’s melon baller). It’s about the history of blogging and the way history is recorded.

“She was thinking of the mother of the baby in the bathtub… Of all the men in towers supposing they were conducting the business of the world, imagining themselves to be the foundation civilization was resting upon–financial markets, circuit boards, and machine guns. Systems to which libraries of multi-volume encyclopedias had been devoted…. while women’s real lives, the stuff of life itself–blood, milk, sweat, tears, and the burn of fevered foreheads–was deemed inconsequential, or even worse, these stories weren’t acknowledged, weren’t even written down, let alone read, reviewed, history continuing on as it had ever been, delivered by the pens of men.”

And it’s about the kind of insecurity society breeds and the way the internet is a place to pretend we’re someone other than we are. Sarah Lundy represents all of us in a way, the part of us that’s just trying to clunk its way through life. What Clare does so well is show us this process in a way that we see Sarah and also see ourselves in  Sarah. We recognize the insecurity in her railing, know that it’s the frustration of powerlessness. The question then becomes: why do we give our power away?

A lovely read. And so discussable. Book club or lunch, you choose.

Mitzi Bytes is available online

at Blue Heron Books and at Hunter Street Books.

Two of my favourites. (Support indies!)

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘meatless?’, by sarah elton

 
I so enjoyed Meatless? : A Fresh Look at What You Eat…. a book (but also a really lovely, enlightening and important conversation) about eating meat or not eating meat… the choice being ours and the emphasis being on choice. (There is nothing, nothing, nothing judgy or even suggestive of one ‘side’ being righter than the other. It’s merely info.)

The author, Sarah Elton, is a well known food writer. She also eats meat, although she truly understands the ‘other’ side. This, in my view, is the ideal perspective by which to write such a book. Balanced, in other words.

It’s picture book size with loads of gorgeous illustrations by Julie McLaughlin, and tons of easy to digest info. Really the most brilliant tool to start a chat with kids about veggie-ism, before they get their ideas on the schoolyard or to clarify some already-got misconceptions.

A smattering of things of note:

♦ It was Pythagoras that came up with the germ of the idea that became veggie-ism. He felt animals were reincarnated humans.

♦ Why is meat the MAIN part of a meal? And why, in a restaurant, do we order ‘the chicken’ that comes with the lentils and asparagus…. instead of ordering the ‘lentils and asparagus’ that come with chicken?? (This one item is a whole conversation in itself in my world.)

♦ 20 million pigs are killed EACH YEAR in Canada.

♦ 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the production of meat and dairy. This is more than from cars. (Kids will love the ‘how’ of this one!)

♦ There’s a terrific section on food combos that create complete proteins (for the days you choose not to eat meat). Beans, rice, legumes… nut cheeses. All of which are equally nutritious in terms of protein, but much cheaper. Good for students and families who need to make their food dollars stretch. A few meatless days a week = money saved.

♦ From the section titled ‘Telling Your Friends and Family’, this struck me as a fair warning: “Meat eaters sometimes take offense or react defensively when they hear someone is a vegetarian…”  Equally valid, that veggie people sometimes need to stop preaching. (And this is the best thing about the book…. no defensiveness, no preaching. The message is that there’s no way to be wrong, just misinformed. And that judgment serves no purpose.)

♦ Gallo Pinto is a beans and rice dish that I want to make. The name means spotted rooster.

♦ There is a small section on animal welfare, the reality of factory farms,  overcrowded stalls, pens, and feedlots, and animals that can barely move.

And before everyone starts wringing their hands about how the wee ones mustn’t be traumatized by the truth and that surely it’s better they believe ‘meat’ has nothing to do with animals… that, instead, it arrives by pelicans, already saran-wrapped at Costco or delivered with pickles in a burger under golden arches… and that the animals that are used to create such happy ‘bargain food’ have indeed lived sunny lives… let’s remind ourselves that country children grow up knowing where meat comes from and they somehow manage to understand, and survive the info..

Tell kids the hard truth about unethical meat farming, I say. And, harder still, tell ourselves while we’re at it.

Like Elton, I’m a meat eater, though it’s not a huge part of my diet and I can easily go a week without missing it or even noticing that I haven’t eaten any. I’m not a vegetarian but I do care about where my meat comes from. I care about how the animal lived and died and I care about its food source. I care about over-production and over-consumption and waste and I continue to hope that the big players, the golden arches, the chicken purveyors and bacon mongers, will one day insist their meat suppliers follow more humane practices because, mostly, I care about responsible farming practices. I hope, too, that maybe some of us will consider the effects of supporting the alternative. And given that information, we make our choices.

That’s really what this book is about… the idea of informed choices.

Meatless? : A Fresh Look at What You Eat  can be ordered online at Hunter Street Books.

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this is not a review: ‘why shouldn’t i drop litter’? by mj knight

 
I’ve recently set out on a quest for trashy reading and have been happily led to what appears to be not only a most wonderful book on the subject of litter but to a whole line of (very smart) books being published by Smart Apple Media, primarily for schools as far as I can make out, but they’re such excellent things it would be a shame not to flaunt them more broadly.

Formatted as one of those hardcover, mini encyclopedia for kids, Why Shouldn’t I Drop Litter?  opens with a colour photo of autumn leaves on the ground and the reminder that this, too, is called ‘litter’, leaf litter.  The difference being that “Nature has ways of dealing with things that are no longer wanted…”

And with that perfectly passive aggressive irony, we enter the book by addressing a few facts about ourselves and how much we throw away every year (about five pounds per person  EVERY DAY). That *you*, personally, don’t throw that much away doesn’t matter. It’s not a problem that’s searching for someone to blame. It’s a problem that requires everyone to take responsibility. At least everyone who lives on the planet.

The pages, 32 of them, are beautifully laid out and not crowded with information in the way this style of book can sometimes be. Nor is its intention to scold or even shock. Rather, it seems only to want to remind us of the consequences of litter, that something which seems so trivial and innocuous has all kinds of horrible consequences.

Hedgehogs, for example, tend to get stuck in yoghurt containers because their quills make it impossible to back out.

Used or tangled fishing lines are often cut and left in the water (because we’re such geniuses). And if you can’t understand how this is dangerous for birds, fish, turtles, dolphins, etc…. google fishing lines/wildlife  sometime. Meanwhile, here’s a two minute story with a happy ending.

And those plastic holders that six-packs come in? If you haven’t yet heard, all kinds of birds and animals, fish too, get them wrapped around their beaks, bodies or necks and die that way. If you see one laying around, please pick it up. You may save a life, and you won’t die of cooties.

Oh, but if it’s germs you’re worried about, consider the gum that’s all over pavement everywhere. It costs between $2 and $3.50  PER PIECE to scrape off. Apparently no one has yet figured out a better way to remove it. Probably because all the money and brainpower is working on how to inhabit Mars (which will only remain gum free until we get there).

One of the biggest problems in the matter of waste is that which comes from fast food restaurants. Our convenience is apparently nature’s problem. It’s no small potatoes what we choose to support with our dollars. When we give all the money and power to fast food places we shouldn’t be asking ourselves why standards are slipping everywhere we look.

(Of note: interesting how people will throw money at the burger joint that happily pollutes the world for profit, but the same person resents paying a few extra bucks to keep a community well supplied with garbage cans.)

The problem is always us.

The solutions too.

It’s about the choices we make.

Anyway, the book is part of Smart Apple Media’s ‘One Small Step’  imprint, which seems designed to inspire engagement in our individual slivers of the world, to encourage us to understand that problems like litter are not someone else’s problem, but something we can work together to improve.

I think it would make dandy reading for families that give a hoot.

~

Also, if you come across books that deal effectively with the subject of litter, garbage, recycling, you get the idea… please let me know. I’m compiling a list for The Litter I See Project.

A million thanks.

 

this is not a review: ‘the year of living danishly’, by helen russell

 
I shot through this on the weekend. A delightful read that had me google searching the author, Helen Russell, for more Helen Russell pov. Turns out she writes for The Guardian and, according to her website, has a new book coming out in December, also a sort of how to find happiness  type 9781848318120-289x450thing. It’s a genre I don’t read a lot because I’m already pretty jolly most of the time. The book was mentioned in an article about hygge, the Danish word for coziness or comfort, although it’s more than that… it’s a state of mind, a state of being, a lifestyle, a homestyle, an all-encompassing thing  that has no equivalent word in English.

I wanted to know more.

Hygge  sounded awfully appealing.

Enter The Year of Living Danishly  which is written in a very breezy, but not too annoyingly (although it gets a little close at times) conversational tone, in monthly chapters that cover the year the author lives in rural Denmark. She decides to use the time to write a book on what makes this supposedly happiest country in the world tick. To that end she talks to people in various fields and presents some stats. As well, she asks people to rate their happiness out of ten. Turns out no one she spoke with is less than eight. Pretty much every agrees the secret is  equality, that everyone is equally  well off.

Equality is big in Denmark. And it appears to be the key to finding hygge…. and happiness. Everyone is equal, regardless of age, status, job. There is no hierarchy. Jante’s Law is gospel.

For instance, everyone earns a fair wage and a doctor or lawyer or banker is not seen as a higher status job or more important than a grocery clerk or garbage collector or teacher. Especially not a teacher. There is apparently such an extraordinary focus on learning that it makes your eyes water to think how brilliant schools can be when people take it seriously.

And it starts from the get-go. And the children learn more than finger-painting. They are, apparently, encouraged to think, to question authority even. A tendency that may have its roots in the German occupation of Denmark in WWII, after which it was seen as essential to teach children to go against authority if they didn’t agree with what they were being told.

…We wanted citizens who were democratic and could have their own ideas, so self-development is a big part of learning in Denmark.”

Almost 90 percent of packaging is recycled and people take recycling very seriously to the point of neighbours knocking on a newcomer’s door to explain if they’re not separating things correctly.

There is extraordinary healthcare and assistance in caring for children.

There is a refreshing absence of blue for boys and pink for girls. Russell cites advertising that shows boys playing with Barbies and girls with tractors and suggests it’s not a nation of girly girls and tiaras on toddlers. Independent thinking is valued not feared.

Sex education begins early and is matter-of-factly inclusive of all manner of sexually relevant subjects. Gender in all its forms is not a hot button topic or reason for shock or under-the-breath muttering, judgments or bullying. She points out Denmark was the first European country to allow changes of gender without sterilisation.

Private schools aren’t popular as it goes against the idea of equality.

Danish pastry is as good as rumour makes out.

Unemployment is low.

As with all northern latitudes, the winters are dark with some months averaging an hour and a half of daylight. This leads to a high number of SAD cases, as well as depression, and suicide.

Taxes are high but apparently put to good use to equalize earnings so that all are well compensated. Russell does not mention striking sanitation workers, teachers or nurses. Instead we see an absence of class system, or at least the social inequities are small and because everyone has what they need, resentments and judgments are fewer. Back to equality, which might be the simple math of happiness.

Also, Russell says, there is trust. And this is huge, an essential value to Danish life. People trust one another.  They have faith in their government and their administrative bodies. Things work…  Because it’s easier that way, for everyone. And everyone knows that the good of all is pretty much the collective mantra of all. There is an absence of one-upmanship culture; to have more than someone else doesn’t sit right with Danes.

Back to Jante’s Law. Which basically means that no one is better than another, and which was referred to in almost every interview the author conducted.

Equality and trust.

Imagine!

Russell writes with humour and for the most part it’s welcome, though a little less would also have been good. On missing the noise of London, she notes:
“I now hear birdsong, tractors or, worse, nothing. The place is so still and silent that the soundtrack to my day is often the ringing of long-forgotten tinnitus…”

She does not mention senior care, nor does she indicate how diverse the population is, except to say that diversity is increasing.

Ultimately, she and her husband fall in love with the place and decide to stay on a second year.

“…it’s no wonder Danes are so happy. They have an obscenely good quality of life. Yes, it’s expensive here. But it’s Denmark – it’s worth it. I don’t mind paying more for a coffee here because I know that it means the person serving me doesn’t a) hate me or b) have a crappy life. Everyone is paid a decent wage, everyone is looked after, and everyone pays their taxes, just as I pay mine. And if we all have marginally less money to buy more stuff that we don’t really need anyway as a result, well I’m starting to think it’s a deal worth making”

At the end of the book she summarizes in ten elements How to Live Danishly, which is a little gimicky, but makes its point nonetheless. The greatest interest in the book, for me, was knowing that it’s possible for a country to put happiness right up there on the agenda, in seriously practical ways.

And to better understand the magical powers of hygge.

It’s the kind of book I’d like to send to a few world leaders…

**