The Summer 2017 Book Room
In Boundless (Drawn & Quarterly), a collection of graphic short stories, Jillian Tamaki’s many gifts are on display, particularly her ability to exploit the liminal space between the meaning of words and the meaning of images. Tamaki takes poetic, lateral leaps across the distance between the two, pushing the reader to make connections and drawing thematic power from the gap; this effect is most notable in “The Clairfree System,” where the text—a straightforward pitch for a multilevel marketing scam—is made strange and haunting by loosely symbolic, free-floating, painterly imagery. Even in the more plot-driven, narrative pieces, with clearly defined panels and magic-realist premises (a woman who slowly shrinks to nothing, Facebook posts coming from an alternate universe, a viral music file on the internet that forms the basis of a cult), unexpected and suggestive visuals make the stories feel larger than what’s on the page. If plots sometimes end abruptly—or rather, deny conventional narrative closure—it only serves this largeness, the sense that each line of text or image implies dozens more, and the characters’ lives continue before, beyond and between what we see.
Comma (BookThug), the latest full-length work from Winnipeg-based poet Jennifer Still, is part erasure, part collage, part collaboration and part elegy. A tribute to Still’s brother, who spent many months in a coma, Still transcribes and rearranges text found in her brother’s notebook, a small, handwritten field guide to prairie grasses. The book reads like one long pregnant pause: the stillness, expectation and uncertainty that comes after a comma—or a coma. The first of Comma’s seven sections, “Common Blue,” is a long poem where words fall delicately down the pages, interspersed with transparent collages of butterflies and flowers. Blending erasure and collage, two opposing forms, reads as a reparative act—one as careful and delicate as the art of paper conservation. Other sections, like “Scroll,” encompass more prosaic, dreamlike poems, and every phrase is a combination of startlingly original wordplay. Section four, “Papery Acts,” a collection of interwoven prose fragments, is Still’s own ars poetica on erasure: “The scrap poem as suture. A mend. The scrap poem as prayer. Amen.” Still speaks deeply to human nature through flowers and grasses; out of her brother’s text, she has written an indelible field guide to humans.
Robert Clark, the author of Down Inside: Thirty Years in Canada’s Prison Service (Goose Lane) began his career in corrections in 1978, as a recreation volunteer at Millhaven Institution in Kingston, Ontario, and ended it a year after Harper’s Conservatives inaugurated new tough-on-crime rules and regulations in 2008. The Conservatives’ approach meant keeping prisoners inside longer, instead of gradually working up to parole, as well as offering fewer programs and less structured release measures—“[h]ow could such a practice make Canadians safer?” Clark asks. The plain-written book lives up to its marketing as prisoner-centred and educational, but, like many memoirs, it also reads at times like a justification of the writer’s own past actions. The most interesting chapter provides a perfect example; it relates, from Clark’s perspective, the tragic story of Ty Conn, a bank robber who repeatedly escaped prison and eventually killed himself during a police standoff. An episode of the fifth estate on the incident laid part of the blame at Clark’s feet. Furthermore, though the author largely comes across as the fair-minded person he wishes to portray, some of his blind spots are troubling. Early in the book, for example, while introducing a group of inmates to the reader, Clark identifies only the race of the Black inmate, and proceeds to put in quotation marks the blandest of slang (“copper,” “crib,” “prison shrink”) to underline the inmate’s otherness.
Health Advocacy Inc. (UBC Press), the second book on the politics of breast cancer by journalist, professor and activist Sharon Batt since her own diagnosis, tells the story of how pharmaceutical funding has changed breast cancer advocacy. While thoroughly researched and incredibly informative, the book is dense with statistics and scientific research, and anything but a light read; it leans closer to an academic thesis than the general-interest book one might expect. Patient recollections provide a necessary reprieve for readers, allowing for a more personal connection to the book and subject matter, and numerous subheadings and lists keep us from getting too lost. Despite the difficulty and scholarly tone, however, Health Advocacy Inc. is well worth the effort—Batt’s revelations about the relationship between patient advocacy groups and the pharmaceutical industry are vital and disturbing.
Be Ready for the Lightning (Random House Canada), Grace O’Connell’s second novel, is a raw, unsettling tale of violence and empathy, captured in poetic and visceral prose. Veda, a thirty-year-old Vancouverite trying to escape her history and family baggage, finds herself trapped in a hijacked bus in New York City. As the brutal hostage situation escalates and readers hold their breaths, O’Connell breaks the tension to suck us back in time, drawing a series of scrambled, candid moments from Veda’s memories. Crafted with wit, compassion and vulnerability, the complexity of the characters unfolds as the story advances, particularly how Veda’s commitment and loyalty to her violent brother has led to her search for reason within the often-unreasonable dynamics of mental health. The suspenseful and provocative storytelling keeps a wild train of thoughts from derailing completely, even as Veda herself comes apart. As the character puts it, “you can waste away in those moments, taking them apart like clocks, spreading their pieces out on the floor, putting them back together again.”
—Marie Brière de la Hosseraye