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The Winter 2017 Book Room

In Spirit by Tara Beagan (Playwrights Canada) is a heart-rending piece of drama that distills the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women in Canada into a singular, visceral and unforgettable presence—the sole on-stage character, a twelve-year-old named Molly. Uncertain of her location in place and time, Molly recounts the day of her disappearance, interspersed with anecdotes and reflections on her all-too-short life; her memories are interesting in their own right, and build to surprising and intelligent thematic purpose. Her production-length monologue is paired with minimal but effective staging (particularly the reconstruction of her bicycle, initially scattered across the stage in pieces) and thoughtful multimedia elements. While audiences of In Spirit’s past and future productions are to be envied, the play also reads brilliantly on the page. The specificity of Molly’s personality combined with the universality of her childishness—she is both an individual the reader comes to love as well as a realistic emblem of childhoods lost more generally—is nothing less than devastating.
—Kim Fu

Emily Anglin’s debut story collection, The Third Person (BookThug), operates on the subversion of expectations. Even the title is misleading, as nearly all of these stories are told from the perspective of first-person narrators. While distinct from one another, these narrators are mostly single women with quiet lives, thrown off balance by unexpected situations or intruders. The nine self-contained stories build upon common themes, often addressing adult loneliness, strained relationships with family or employers, collective consciousness, and the comforts of food. The prose is sharp and clear with occasional dips into beautiful metaphorical description; in one story, the narrator wants to get off the phone so she can head to her basement in order to “feel the building above me sitting like a giant creature roosting on the rocks, gazing out over the lake, me its unhatched egg.” Anglin’s finest skill is in how she handles endings. Precisely as soon as each story’s complication has been outlined and the implications are evident, the stories abruptly end. It’s an almost mathematical approach—introducing volatile variables to stable situations in order to record the reactions—and the results are often thrilling.
—Thomas Molander

Forward (Arsenal Pulp) is artistLisa Maas’s first graphic novel. Set in Victoria, BC (think harbourfront backdrop, wharfy townhomes, earthquake-proof new-build condos), the novel’s visual style is reminiscent of the nineties-era semi-realism of Sally Forth. Forward’s narrative spans three segments from three perspectives: Rayanne, who works too much and lives her romantic life via fantasy; Ali, who is grieving the loss of her partner to cancer and lives her romantic life via flashback; and, finally, a blended Rayanne/Ali, which picks up elements of both. The first segment, which focuses on Rayanne, stumbles a bit, hitting the beats of a lukewarm sitcom: all the action revolves around the central character being single and other characters’ well-meaning but pushy attempts to set her up with every eligible woman in the vicinity. By the second segment, the narrative thankfully hits its stride, creating space for deeper and less archetypical relationships. The third section gives structure to what came before, such that the reader ultimately closes the book on a well-crafted, three-act rom-com.
—Andrea Bennett

Alice Major begins Welcome to the Anthropocene by considering all the ways humans have meddled with the environment—climate change, mass extinction, genetic manipulation—before acknowledging a discomfiting paradox: the greater the destruction, the more convinced we become of our species’ significance in the face of time and space too vast to comprehend. The traditional and experimental forms which appear throughout the book reinforce Major’s argument (formalism is itself a perversion of nature, but one we find too useful to live without), and hint at unseen evolutionary forces at work; rhyming couplets which make up the first poem call to mind the “base pairs” of DNA, even as they echo Pope’s “An Essay on Man.” Having established the cosmic ramifications of our destructiveness, Major zeroes in on the way each individual life takes part in that destruction. She excels at depicting situations when humans are themselves little more than kind animals, unusually intelligent but never quite intelligent enough, and often confounded by their own place in the ecosphere. Poems like “Old Anna” and “The Afternoon Before the Clocks Turn Back” are standout examples.
—Patrick O’Reilly

The term “precarious employment” only feels like it entered the lexicon in the last few years—or, more exactly, in the nine years since the economy collapsed, generating thousands of thinkpieces about frazzled university grads. Precarious Employment (Fernwood Publishing), edited by Stephanie Procyk, Wayne Lewchuk and John Shields, takes a wider view of the fringes of Canada’s workforce, providing a vivid snapshot of the people who have been living on contract for much longer than the last decade. The editors—two academics and a nonprofit policy director—aren’t aiming for economic theorizing or neutrality; they set out to explore how precarious work affects real people and what can be done to improve their lives. This includes full and often heartbreaking biographies of, for example, Hasina, who arrived in Toronto with a master’s degree from Bangladesh but ended up living hand-to-mouth. The book paints a picture of a family split between jobs in Dubai, Hong Kong and Oakville, and breaks down how “contract flipping” works among Toronto’s building cleaners. The authors take the same care in describing the environment in which these workers must survive, furnishing up-to-date childcare costs, transit issues and all the messy economic minutiae that make up Canadians’ lives. These concrete details and human faces should make Precarious Employment useful to a wide range of readers.
—Selena Ross