Register Tuesday | January 26 | 2021

The Spring 2020 Book Room

There is no better way to lure a reader into a story than by killing off a literal canary, the extractive industry’s preferred harbinger to human health, at the very beginning. Shortly after that, a local creosote plant closes in the rural Ontario painted by Paddy Scott in his hilarious new novel, The Union of Smokers (Invisible Publishing), and it becomes apparent that death and demise will loom large in Scott’s world. It’s set in the fictional town of Quinton, based on Trenton, Ontario—think post-­industrial Yoknapatawpha County, but with fewer people who might remember a time of prosperity. The battle of community versus capital (and creosote) is handled with compassionate humour. Young Kasper, the novel’s folksy, chain-smoking child narrator, waxes on his community by saying, “People can get trapped by their own need to survive, even if it kills them,” and it’s hard not to think of countless dead-and-dying towns across the country. One of the most challenging things about deploying this sort of twangy and precocious Holden-Caulfield-type voice is making sure Kasper isn’t struck by moments of poetic pubescence, whether facing the state of mankind or, worse, gazing into a woman’s eyes. But Kasper’s naiveté steers the course, and like all children’s journeys, brings unexpected moments with it.—Ryan David Allen

Catherine Ocelot’s unique illustrations manage to be both enigmatic and ­startling. In Art Life (Conundrum Press), the Montreal-­based cartoonist assembles surreal depictions of intimate conversations and moments to create a portrait of the life of the modern-day artist. The book is the first of Ocelot’s to be translated into English, finally offering anglophones the chance to appreciate this established Québécoise writer. Popping in as an observer, you might feel ghostlike at the beginning of the book, like a voyeur. But you’ll surrender to Ocelot’s vignettes and start seeing the world as she does. The graphic novel’s lack of initial clarity is part of its brilliance; ambiguities grant the chance to fill in the blanks with your own ideas, allowing the reader to find meaning in the abstract, just as an artist does. All the while, Ocelot offers honest glimpses into the process of art-making: expectations, self-criticism, envy, workflow, and the balance of work and motherhood.—Tristan McKenna 

What are you willing to do to belong in a new country? Souvankham Thammavongsa’s first collection of short stories, How to Pronounce Knife (McClelland & Stewart) tackles this complicated question as she constructs a vivid and tender snapshot of the lives of immigrants and refugees in North America. Thammavongsa dives into people’s struggles, insecurities and hopes, all characterized by their desire to fit in. This desire often butts heads with characters’ cultural identities—their languages, their names. The stories are told with warmth and honesty, transporting the reader inside the disappointments and celebrations they describe. In one tale, a boxer unexpectedly finds himself working at his sister’s nail salon, while in another, a seventy-year-old woman begins a sexual relationship with her thirty-year-old neighbour. The book is driven by immigrant experiences, but anyone, immigrant or not, will be able to relate to the human spirit it captures. As Thammavongsa writes in “Randy Travis,” “A laugh, in any language, was a laugh.”—Gretel Kahn

In case last year’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry left any doubt that Gwen ­Benaway is one of Canada’s best young poets, her new book, day/break (Book*hug), should clear it up. Readers are lucky that Benaway also happens to be trans, because this book is about that—Benaway’s life, and unflinchingly about the joy and pain of being trans—and while every writer is unique, this collection is a one-of-a-kind, often jarring glimpse into an experience that's surely hard to convey to those who haven't lived it. Benaway grapples with the way words limit us: “imagine if language/failed us/and we spoke in gestures/instead of nouns?/without witness,/my body becomes/a field of crabapples,/split-red sour-sweet rotten.” But she goes ahead and tells the story of relationships, violence, love; hospital visits, disappointments, trips to Vancouver, Montreal and New Orleans. As the title promises, a common theme is night versus day, but rather than metaphor, Benaway often writes about real dawns and nightfalls in her life. “each time I wake,” she writes of one new love, “less of me is left.” Benaway’s writing is unselfconscious, sometimes dramatic, and it works in a way that’s hard to analyze—blunt, lyrical and unforgettable.—Selena Ross

It’s strange to read cultural criticism about a feeling as intensely personal as nostalgia. But that’s part of what makes the sentiment so powerful, argues David Berry: it’s intimate, private, despite being a universally shared experience. In On Nostalgia (Coach House), Berry ­traces the evolution of nostalgia’s position within our cultural consciousness. What began as a concept associated with feelings of home­sickness, we learn, was eventually diagnosed by psychologists as a medical condition. Now, it infiltrates everything from politics to pop culture. Berry examines how nostalgia plays out in political strategy (think “Make America Great Again”), TV (think Stranger Things or the recent stream of nineties reboots) and media platforms (think Facebook’s relentless highlight reels of posts from our pasts). Some sections are more rewarding than others; Berry’s analysis of nostalgia in art, particularly pop ­music, feels disjointed and ­contradictory at times. But on the whole, he advances a clear and compelling argument about how this most familiar of phenomena has, in fact, reshaped our world.—Madi Haslam