Days and days throughout this July have contained book after book after book: a swell of print.
From graphic novels (revisiting the Game of Thrones saga in this medium) to short stories (lots of those!), from memoirs (I’ve just finished Zarqa Nawaz’s Laughing All the Way to the Mosque) to bestsellers (I’ve just started Tom Rachman’s latest), even a mini Canlit read-a-thon.
There will lots of full-length reviews next month but here are a few words about some recent discoveries:
- Jordan Abel’s the place of scraps (2014),
- Lily Poritz Miller’s The Newcomers (2014),
- Liane Shaw’s Time Out: A teacher’s year of reading, fighting, and four-letter words (2014), and
- Alice Walker’s The Cushion in the Road (2013).
Jordan Abel’s the place of scraps (2014)
Dedicated to the Indigenous peoples of North America, the place of scraps juxtaposes poetry and visual art with excerpts from Marius Barbeau’s “classic” anthropological study Totem Poles.
Text and black and white photographs collide. A full set of paragraphs on one page is presented on the following page with only select words evident, suggesting a new meaning. The ‘his’ of history appears like a settler’s declarative statement upon arrival in a homeland.
Sometimes only the punctuation remains, and readers must wonder at the decision, for instance, to include the indigenous language only in parentheses in Barbeau’s work.
Curators and collectors claimed articles as small as beads and as large as totem poles, often in the name of preservation not extermination, and Jordan Abel invites readers to reconsider elements of this his-torical process and its legacy for today’s descendants.
Lily Poritz Miller’s The Newcomers (2014)
“Across from the field when Mr. Wolfson had taken Libka lived the widow Sharon Krinsky and her daughter, Fanny, who worked as a seamstress in a local mill. They occupied the second floor of the tenement house that Mrs. Krinsky owned, and she spent most of her time looking out of the window. On the night when Mr. Wolfson pulled up in the field and turned off his engine, she watched the activity in the car through her binoculars, highlighted by a street lamp.”
Carrying on from In a Pale Blue Light, reading The Newcomers feels somewhat like turning to a Galsworthy novel, as though the family saga might unfold endlessly. But with a dash of the Sydney Taylor All-of-a-Kind Family series, for the focus is on the children in the family and the action eventually shifts from South Africa to the United States.
In this volume, the second, the focus is the daughter, Libka, whom readers have followed since her father’s death at the beginning of the first volume, through her school years and graduation. But just as the quote reveals, there is a wider ensemble cast, and readers are as likely to get details about her mother’s work in the laundry as about parked cars and untoward behaviour.
The covers, too, hint at the voice and themes; their cool colours and charcoal lines suggest that these stories are told from a distance, when passions have cooled, and both language and preoccupations are soft and controlled, neither stark nor highly emotive.
These stories reward the patient reader with a solid connection to characters followed across time and space and a desire to continue with the story in as-yet-unpublished volumes.
Liane Shaw’s Time Out: A teacher’s year of reading, fighting, and four-letter words (2014)
“Social workers, teachers, doctors, parents, principals – so many adults in the lives of these kids. It reminds me of an old joke: how many adults does it take to screw up a kid?”
My girlhood copy of A Circle of Children is off-colour and worn; I reread Mary MacCracken’s books about her years working with “troubled kids” as often I reread my favourite Lois Duncan novels; Time Out bears some similarity as the emphasis is on emotional connection (and disconnection) between teacher and students more so than academics.
But Liane Shaw did not pursue this career. “It seems I have just agreed to a job that I don’t want to do,” she writes. But over the course of the year, “these” kids become “her” kids. Her elementary school room is both a refuge and a prison, for the bullies and the bullied, but with a course in crisis management, she survives (they do too).
There is just enough of her personal life shared for readers to understand the bleed-over of a committed teacher’s care-taking and compassion, and there is just enough detail overall to add depth to the cursory treatment of a single academic year.
The balance between broad-strokes and specifics is deftly handled and the author’s voice is warm, sometimes witty and sometimes tender, and her delivery is assured.
Alice Walker’s The Cushion in the Road (2013)
“A writer’s heart, a poet’s heart, an artist’s heart, a musician’s heart is always breaking. It is through that broken window that we see the world; more mysterious, beloved, insane, and precious for the sparkling and jagged edges of the smaller enclosure we have escaped.”
The subtitle reveals the breadth of content covered in this collection of essays: Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way. Palestine, the Drug War, the importance of napping, compassion, subsistence farming, justice: the subject matter is broad.
“I would be remiss, as an elder of the planet, to remain silent at this point about some of the ways to deal with this period of emotional, psychological, ideological, and financial instability,” she writes, with conversations about the instability alongside conversations about the impossible.
People like Howard Zinn, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Frieda and Diego, and Edwidge Danticat (and their work) appear in the pages with commentary, and the essays certainly lengthened my lists of books to read and films to watch and places to visit.
Sometimes inspiring and always informative, this collection is best enjoyed in short bursts, for though the wordcounts are sometimes slim, the girth of the ideas herein is substantial indeed: food for thought.
How about you? What has caught your attention recently?
Have you been indulging in bookishness?