The Recommend: December 2016

Research shows that most of the books we read are the result of one thing: someone we know, trust, and/or admire tells us it's great. That's why we run this series, The Recommend, where readers, writers, reviewers, bloggers, and others tell us about a book they'd recommend to a good friend ... and why.

This month, we're pleased to present the picks of authors Yaskuko Thanh (Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains), Mark-Leiren Young (The Killer Whale That Changed the World), Danila Botha (For All the Men and Some of the Women I Have Known), Melanie Martin (A Splendid Boy), and Mia Herrera (Shade). 

*****

Yasuko Thanh recommends Anosh Irani's The Parcel

Sometimes you read a book that understands you. Where you find yourself dog-earring pages that were written so truthfully or that speak to you like you’re the only one in the room that you can’t let them go. Anosh Irani’s The Parcel recounts the story of Madhu, a retired transgender sex worker living in Bombay’s red light district. The tragedy of Madhu’s life is felt in every line. Every third sentence or so I had to check my heart because the story kept stopping it.

But the power of this work goes beyond its subject matter. There is an urgency behind each word driving the narrative that makes this book my favorite read of 2016. I say Irani’s writing is honest, as both the mother of a transgender child and as a sex-traded child myself. The lived experiences feel real and the emotional cadence of the book’s rhythms hit with the power of a groundswell. I dare anyone to read The Parcel and remain unmoved.  

When I heard Irani speak at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, he told the audience that he “writes from the body.” I believe him, because this book sure packs a punch. 

Yasuko Thanh is the winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her debut novel, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains. She previously won the Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize in 2009 for her story “Floating Like the Dead.” In 2012, her debut collection of the same name was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Thanh’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Prairie Fire, Descant, PRISM international, and Vancouver Review. She lives in Victoria.

** 

Book Cover Daydreams of Angels

Danila Botha recommends Heather O’Neill’s Daydreams of Angels

Heather O’Neill’s Daydreams of Angels is a gorgeous short story collection. It is the book that I reread both when I want to be comforted (or stunned by unexpected beauty, compassion or hope in humanity) and when I want to be inspired by my favourite writer. Each story is full of the remarkable metaphors, brilliant descriptions, and the beating heart that is always quintessential O’Neill. The collection is like fairy tales for adults. There is the story of a young boy, Michal, who is inspired to read and have confidence in his individuality by his single mom’s ex-boyfriend, Lionel ("The Man Without a Heart"). There is the story of three characters linked by the name Ferdinand—a young boy who decides to be a boxer, an old man whose only companion is his beloved dog, Ferdinand, and my favourite, Isabelle Ferdinand, a brainy, idiosyncratic teenager who changes her mind about losing her virginity at a party: “Isabelle still wanted to be a kid and to be loved the way that a kid who still has a future is loved…she wanted to bury herself in the ground, like a mustard seed, until she was ready to grow up wild and enormous.”

The title story is incredibly beautiful and heart shattering. It is full O’Neill’s unique, signature humour: “It was a shame to have to use the cherubim, the angels that were normally in charge of romantic love. They were so sleazy and ridiculous. But what else could God do that day?” It also pokes gently and sensitively at our concepts of religion, our consideration and control over life and death. It describes lovely, kind Yvette Olivier on her last night. The final lines of the story—“She looked as if she was still alive and having the most fantastic dream of her life. She looked as if she was about to burst out laughing”—make me cry every time I read them. I can’t recommend Daydreams of Angels highly enough.

Danila Botha is the author of the novel Too Much on the Inside, which recently won a Book Excellence Award, and the short story collections For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known and Got No Secrets.

** 

Melanie Martin recommends Michael Crummey’s River Thieves

I picked up River Thieves, by Michael Crummy, while I was completing my undergraduate degree in 2001. It was midterm break and I had been researching the fate of the Beothuk in Newfoundland for an Aboriginal studies course. Never before had a fictional story been written about this tragic time in the province’s history detailing the extinction of the Beothuk. I expected an interesting story to complement the research I’d been undertaking, but I hadn’t expected the beautiful prose, the descriptive passages, the vivid setting of the savage-in-winter backlands of The Exploits River. It's a story every Newfoundlander knows on the surface, but River Thieves is eloquently executed through its complex characters and Crummey brings them to life in ink.

It was in those hours with Crummey’s debut novel (when I should have been writing my term papers) that I learned the essence of historical fiction. I had read British Naval officer David Buchan’s journal accounts of his time on the Exploits. As a young student, I soon realized Crummey’s talent lay in his translation of fact to fiction, creating his own interpretation of how these people may have interacted with each other. An intermingled tale of the demise of a race from the tragic imposition of an outside culture, River Thieves is an enthralling piece of historical fiction that will stay with you long after you’ve closed the cover.

Melanie Martin is the Director of Arts with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.  She lives in St. John’s and her debut historical fiction, A Splendid Boy, set during the First World War, was published in May 2016. She can be found on twitter @authorMelanieM.

** 

Mark Leiren-Young recommends The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis

After Vladimir Putin and the FBI selected the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse to run the world’s ultimate reality TV show, the book that jumps to mind to temporarily numb some of the pain is the Canadian comic classic, The Best Laid Plans.

As tough as it may be to swallow the premise of someone winning political office despite apparently doing everything in their power not to, author and ad-man, Terry Fallis, creates an Ottawa fantasia in the Leacock-winning novel that established him as fixture in the world of Canuck comedy. The book is more lyrical than satirical, almost a love letter to the power of good people and good government. After Daniel Addison loses his job as a top speechwriter he’s banished to the boonies to manage a sacrificial candidate up against an unbeatable Cabinet Minister. But as we were recently reminded, declaring a candidate “unbeatable” is like declaring the Titanic “unsinkable.”

Fortunately, a relentlessly decent professor of mechanical engineering, Angus McLintock, is willing to take a few minutes away from building his own dirigible to sign some nomination forms—as long as he never has to campaign. There’s a perfunctory love story and a plot twist or two, but the pleasure of this book is the obvious insider’s knowledge of Ottawa courtesy of a former Liberal party strategist.

CBC TV recently took a run at adapting the novel and the short-lived series was about as popular as a pipeline proposal in BC, but it may have been the right show at the wrong time. In an era when the leading candidate to take over a Canadian political party which shan’t be named is running on a platform built on hate, it’s impossible not to yearn for the curmudgeonly common-sense and defiant decency of Angus McLintock.

Mark Leiren-Young is a journalist, filmmaker, and author of numerous books, including Never Shoot a Stampede Queen, for which he won the Leacock Medal. His most recent book, The Killer Whale Who Changed the World, is the fascinating account of the first publicly exhibited captive killer whale, Moby Doll—a story that forever changed the way we see orcas and sparked the movement to save them. His article for The Walrus on Moby Doll was a finalist for the National Magazine Award, and he won the Jack Webster Award for his CBC Ideas radio documentary Moby Doll: The Whale that Changed the World. Leiren-Young is currently finishing a feature length film on Moby Doll. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.   

 

Mia Herrera recommends The Complete Journals of L.M. Montgomery: The PEI Years, 1889–1900, by Mary Henley Rubio and Elizabeth Hillman Waterston

I read my way through the Anne of Green Gables series in my pre-teen years and, like so many before me, was captivated by Anne—the fiery redhead trying to find a place for herself in Prince Edward Island. After finishing the series, I moved on to the Emily of New Moon books, and then to Chronicles of Avonlea, looking for more of Montgomery’s compelling work. One day, while hunting for my next read at the library, I stumbled upon a different sort of Montgomery book—her journals.

Montgomery’s journals reveal yet another world that is just as relatable as her novels, though perhaps not as clear cut as the stories of Anne or Emily ended up being with their satisfying conclusions. Her journals begin in 1889 when she is fourteen, continue until the year of her death in 1942, and are filled with the incidents and impressions that provided the basis for her characters’ lives.

Oxford University Press published the complete unabridged versions of Montgomery’s journals in 2012, revealing an even deeper side to Montgomery than what was originally released. Montgomery’s journals cover important historical periods while also relating her innermost thoughts and personal struggles. Despite her success, Montgomery’s life was fraught with legal challenges, mental health issues, and artistic anxiety, including the feeling that her work was not literary enough.

L.M. Montgomery’s journals provided me with an inside view into the life of one of my favourite authors and continues to be a source of entertainment and inspiration. Not only do they contain her beautiful writing, but they serve as a reminder that writers can encounter trials and tribulations that may seem insurmountable—including the constant love-hate battle with writing— and still go on to produce lasting works of art.

Mia Herrera’s short stories, feature articles, and reviews have appeared in various publications, including CGMagazine, Live in Limbo, The Hart House Review and TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Book 7. She is a recipient of the Youth Scholarship Award from the Tatamagouche Centre and the Writers’ Trust Fund Scholarship. Her debut novel is Shade. She can be found online at miaherrera.com

December 15, 2016
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