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The Summer 2020 Book Room

The Summer 2020 Book Room

Summer reads from Saleema Nawaz, Walter Scott, Madhur Anand, Eva Crocker and others.

Songs for the End of the World

“We often turn to stories for guidance when the world frightens us,” writes Saleema Nawaz in Songs for the End of the World (McClelland & Stewart). As she worked on this novel for the last seven years, the plot was merely a work of fiction. Now, Nawaz’s imagined story—in which the world is overcome by a pandemic—parallels our contemporary reality with an eerie accuracy. Nawaz’s plot unfolds in New York City, over the summer of 2020, examining how the catastrophe affects various people’s interconnected lives. Moving between different perspectives and time periods, it’s slowly revealed how the characters are related. Mostly, their lives are linked by a mysterious girl who is known to have been at the first site of infection. Songs for the End of the World is a world apart from many of the dystopian stories that preceded it. Rather than honing in on panic, Nawaz focuses on family, love and community—experiences that may closely echo what we’re all going through right now. She meditates on the importance of human connection, grief and parenthood, and the broader ramifications of individual actions. Immersive and hopeful, her book is as a reminder that we are not alone, even in the most troubling of times. Strangely, despite its stark parallels, this story offers a moment of respite as we learn to navigate our current crisis.— Lorenza Mezzapelle 

Wendy, Master of Art

Wendy is back! And she’s just as lost as ever. Walter Scott’s Wendy, Master of Art (Drawn & Quarterly) is the third installment of the cult-classic graphic novel. Scott throws his highly relatable, artistic anti-hero into the wild world of her MFA. Wendy finally has the structure, time and guidance to come into her own as an artist. But she keeps up her signature nervous sweats, saucer-mouthed drunkenness and ever-present half-frown. Longtime fans of the series will be happy to see she hasn’t left behind her general feeling out-of-place or return trips to Montreal. As always, Scott portrays Wendy with an earnestness that cuts through the pretensions of art-school life in the book’s setting of Hell, Ontario (the name kind of rhymes with Guelph, where Scott recently completed an MFA of his own). Other highlights include Wendy’s brush with polyamory, the pains of moving away from a best friend and the token straight white male classmate who is perpetually and anxiously asserting his own wokeness. With Wendy, Master of Art, Scott charts the familiar territory of the art world with his usual incisiveness. Plus, he gives Wendy a little bit of personal growth, as a treat.— Madeline Lines

Everyone at This Party 

At a certain point, the familiarity and comfort of routine dissipates and long-established habits begin to feel like failure. The link between failure and routine continually resurfaces in Tanja Bartel’s debut poetry collection Everyone at This Party (Goose Lane Editions). Bartel takes us to the outskirts of Vancouver, where she slices through the suffocating heat of a suburban summer in an exploration of grief, recovery and loneliness. In this world, patience is a monstrosity, funerals are perpetual and eulogies offer no consolation. “Each morning I wake anxious but cheerful,” she writes, “aware that sleep is death’s rehearsal.” The collection is tough, yet vulnerable, much like a friend insisting that she is “fine” through gritted teeth. Bartel staves off a total descent into despair with small moments of joy—“[t]rampled hyacinths dared bloom again”—tentatively edging forward, even while her hope stays tinged with the fear of self-sabotage. “I crave warmth, but knit holes,” she writes. Simultaneously aching for and resenting connection, Bartel untangles the sort of ugly grief that is unacceptable in polite society.— Paisley Conrad

Birding in the Glass Age of Isolation

Curtis LeBlanc probes mental illness, masculinity and the weighted memories of small-town living in his sophomore poetry collection, Birding in the Glass Age of Isolation (Nightwood Editions).  “I’ve been a sucker for the tragedy of memory,” he writes in “Frankenfish,” a poem about our reverence for the events that shape us. LeBlanc sculpts the raw material of his own memories with care. “My shoes were ruined / my bones bruised, my body / a prop for cringe comedy,” he writes of teenage antics gone awry in “Slave Lake Epithalamium.” Born in Alberta, LeBlanc succinctly captures the prairie landscape, describing skies as “minutes before lightning.” The men in his poems leave for Fort McMurray, where they work “long days beneath the oil drips of backhoes and dozers” (“Career Aptitude”) and fly home on their weeks off. Our environments shape us in ways big and small, he shows us. There is something of famed poet and novelist Denis Johnson in LeBlanc’s work—Johnson might have also described his capacity for love as a “raspberry beer / exploding after too long in the freezer,” as LeBlanc does in “Fair Oaks Summer.” Under LeBlanc’s care, not much goes unnoticed.— Ryan David Allen 


“People often talk about a fear of the unknown, and fair enough—we do tend to be wary of the strange and the new,” writes Eva Holland. “But we can also learn to fear what we know.” Fittingly released during a panic-stricken time, Holland’s non-fiction book Nerve (Penguin Random House Canada) explores the place of fear in our lives. Drawing on years of experience as a journalist, she skillfully weaves personal anecdotes with scientific research. “What we to examine the layers and varieties of fears that can afflict us,” she writes. Using the destabilizing loss of her mother as a jumping-off point, Holland’s investigation into the psychology and physiology of fear is accessible and gripping. She remains transparent about her own fears throughout the book, and whether you share them or not, you’ll come to sympathize with them; as Holland is rock-climbing, for instance, you might just find yourself sweating alongside her, and learning a few things about why you’re sweating as you go.— Chloë Lalonde

Langosh & Peppi: Fugitive Days 

On the surface, Veronica Post’s debut graphic novel is about a Canadian fugitive and his dog travelling through Eastern Europe. Langosh and Peppi explore the hidden treasures of the region—its imposing caves, abandoned buildings and stunning countryside. But this isn’t just the story of a breezy backpacking trip. Beneath a playful exterior, Langosh & Peppi: Fugitive Days (Conundrum Press) is grappling with a difficult subject: the 2015 European migrant crisis. Early on, the protagonist finds himself in a seemingly innocuous, yet uncomfortable, conversation with a racist old man in Sarajevo. By the end of the story, he’s witnessing a skinhead demonstration against Syrian refugees in Budapest. Langosh is an interesting—and intentional—narrator for this story. As a white man with Canadian citizenship, he’s able to travel freely through European borders with little notice. He’s always presumed to be a tourist, and his movement across Europe is seen as apolitical. The arrival of the refugees, by contrast, is anything but politically neutral, sparking heated debate and even violence. Post’s clean and expressive drawings, combined with her nuanced confrontation of her characters’ privileges and limitations, make for a unique and evocative debut.— Gretel Kahn

This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart 

This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart (Strange Light) by Madhur Anand is a memoir that manages to mimic, in style and form, the elusive nature of memory itself. In the first half of the book, Anand occupies each of her parents’ perspectives as she tries to relive their emigration from India to Canada after Partition. This section barrels forward through time, brimming with information, its pace evoking the urgency of documenting memories that are in the midst of being forgotten. The book’s second half alleviates the density of the first, with a more ruminative exploration of memory and familial history. Anand, who later pursued academics, uses her background in science to contextualize her own childhood memories of growing up in Canada. One childhood vignette begins: “When scientists discovered the adaptive significance of ear tufts in owls, I cut my first bangs and entered grade five.” The book is literally bifurcated along its middle—its second half is flipped upside down and begins on the last page. By playing with form, through a fragmentary style and dismissal of chronology, Anand explores the past as a fluctuating space. The effect is that each narrative moves toward the others within the physical space of the book; the past reaches toward the present as the present reaches back.— Alexandra Trnka

All I Ask

“I didn’t have a choice,” thinks Stacey Power, the protagonist of Eva Crocker’s buoyant debut novel All I Ask (House of Anansi). Cops have descended on Stacey’s drafty St. John’s rowhouse, seizing her and her roommate’s electronics to search for “illegal digital material.” Stacey is convinced it’s a mistake—she’s new to this address, after all—but the “ongoing investigation” leaves her unmoored and frustrates her relationships. In one sense, the novel is about power, its abuse, and fighting to become yourself when life is working against you. Stacey struggles to find a footing as an actor in her home province after graduating theatre school, and the local news is never far out of earshot, fogging the narrative with reminders of government austerity and systemic injustice. But All I Ask is also about the more granular ways in which we assume and are denied power: in work, in friendship, in sex, in public. The novel is most striking in these smaller vignettes—when Crocker, each time, places her finger on some iota of truth in quotidian life, as if noticing the contour of the air she’s just inhaled.— Brennan McCracken


Until she was twenty-two, Marie-Andrée Gill lived on the Mashteuiatsh reserve in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec, and in her poetry, she seeks to harmonize her Innu identity with her Québécois one. Translated from the original French by Kristen Renee Miller, Gill’s collection Spawn (Book*hug) is a glimpse into the life of a teenager on a First Nations reserve, tracing every moment of the writer’s childhood, from picking flower petals and dreaming of falling in love to sneaking out of the house as an adolescent. Among the emotional patchwork of growing up, Gill viscerally evokes anxiety—“If I don’t touch the sidewalk lines / if I keep on running / till I reach the third street light/ everything will be fine”—and often uses frank and direct language: “get me out of these fifteen square kilometres,” she writes. Part of what makes this collection captivating is the double meaning to nearly every word. Rather than using the traditional meaning of the word “spawn”—a fish laying eggs—Gill’s Spawn is about hatching something entirely new.— Mia Anhoury

Swimmers in Winter 

In these three distinct stories, a handful of women—young and old, driven and lackadaisical, bold and timid—are bound together by their dependence on other women. The lives of Faye Guenther’s protagonists diverge as they pursue their respective callings, whether music, cooking or military service. But they remain thematically connected by the challenges they face as queer women in their individual contexts. Swimmers in Winter (Invisible Publishing) is a perfect title for this book, as its characters are all trying to stay afloat in unwelcoming environments, moving against currents they’re expected to follow. There are Eva and Claudia, who fall in love while working in a kitchen rife with discrimination. There’s Magda, a strong-willed retired musician, still as free-spirited as she was in her youth but now reminiscing in her old age. Alone and with the help of others, these women navigate poverty, mental illness and loss. Their stories are memorable, though perhaps too brief. Readers will likely want to sit longer with these characters than they’re able to.— Callie Giaccone