Before I post about the new reading year, there are a few memorable reads from my 2020 log that I haven’t mentioned yet.

Like Pourin’ Down Rain, Cheryl Foggo’s memoir about growing up in 1960s Calgary, in a small and tight-knit Black community. When she was young, she heard many “horrific” tales of life south of the border and felt “lucky to have been born in Canada”. When a specific neighbour was prejudiced, she perceived that as being one individual’s contempt and she didn’t attribute “their bigotry to a world condition”. Her memories of childhood include Hair Day (“a torment, a day of relentless brushing, pulling, plunging into the yellow tub of water and then, at the end, the dreaded ‘hot comb’”) and a local march to honour Martin Luther King, Jr after his murder (when she was eleven years old).

Foggo takes readers back, observing her younger self with an appreciation for changing times. She notes, for instance, that, as a child, she did not fully understand King’s struggles and how his efforts were intended to change the lives of Black Americans, but had a literal understanding of it, so that she believed his efforts to have Blacks ride buses in the front seats would have a profound impact on their lives. In a way, she also takes readers forward, for initially her memoir was published in 1990, and this thirtieth anniversary edition, revised in 2020, affords her the opportunity to update the document in footnotes (which consistently offer a modern perspective on past events and once made me laugh aloud—I’ll simply say there was a cake involved).

Considering her family history is particularly interesting because one of her great-grandfathers was enslaved while the other was born just after slavery had officially ended. As the chapters unfold, the generations fold, and readers have a glimpse of changing times from a personal perspective. The photographs are numerous and make the discovery process feel pleasantly intimate as well as informative; I especially loved the photographs of the sisters and the women in the family, often smiling and sometimes joyful. (One photograph of a group of neighbourhood children was especially interesting; it leaves me wondering, who was that one boy, half-shadowed, who isn’t even named, and what would his story have been.)

Over time, Foggo comes to recognise elements she’d previously associated with being Black in America in Canadian society as well. “I no longer believed that Canada was a refuge from racism and resented being raised in isolation from other Blacks.” She studied to fill the gaps in her experience (from literature to history to music). After she identifies “sweeping, legislated bigotry” in Canada, her view of her childhood is fundamentally affected; she marvels at her naivete and observes that her study of history shows no differentiation between past and present in terms of how racism is expressed then and now.

W. B. Yeats’ collection The Tower (1919) opens with “Sailing to Byzantium” and Paul Legault’s The Tower (2020) opens with “Sailing to Byzantium Again”.

Not all of the parallel works are so immediately recognizable. At least not to me, because that Yeats poem is the only one I knew from school (the other two in my high-school poetry textbook are not revisited in Legault’s collection).

If you scan the books’ tables of contents, you can see the alignment: not “A Prayer for My Son” but “A Prayer for My Dog”, not “The Three Monuments” but “A Few Monuments”. So, I borrowed Yeats from the library. Which meant I had two books of poetry to flummox me.

In Legault’s retelling of “A Man Young and Old”, the poet lies around getting stoned and making .gifs—in this case, images of Jessica Alba.

“I made this one in which you emerge like a twinkle
in your own eye, again and again, I guess forever.
Like a TV lost in a hospital, it keeps playing.
It’s rush hour somewhere. Everywhere,

my spatial recognition is off.
That square opened up into the whole world.”

Yeats was big on symbolism, so part of me wants to think hard on Jessica Alba. Or Fly Away Home. Or The Vampire Diaries. Or American Horror Story. (And maybe there’s something to that, because Yeats was part of The Golden Dawn, so if he was streaming shows these days, Legault might have an eye for what would hit W.B.’s queue.)

But then I get stuck in the strange motion of motionlessness in this stanza. And I think, too, of the bit in “Día de Muertos” (which is riffing on “All Souls’ Night”), where we have “Hit the gas / and the brakes at once.” And I pull off my high-school copy of my guide to the Tarot and find that the card interprets the tower as ambition built on false premises: change, conflict and catastrophe.

When I put my copy of Yeats’ poems in the stack to return to the library, I put it in upside-down. Reversed, it means freedom.

Tyler Enfield’s Like Rum-Drunk Angels (2020) is a literary western. And it’s not Enfield’s first trip at the rodeo: he’s written for younger readers so he knows how to captivate your attention. Thomas Trofimuk calls this a “mad-dog of a novel” but I laughed more than that might suggest. This comes from Atlanta Canada’s Goose Lane Press, but the author was born in California (and the plot does touch down in Modesto) and now lives in Edmonton: this fits, given the on-the-trail spirit of young Samuel and Francis Blackstone’s adventures. If you loved deWitt’s The Sister Brothers, but wished there was less about teeth, more about avalanches, and a titch more joy: this one’s for you. (Because I had more to say about how much fun it is, I reviewed this for The Temz Review.)

Although one of the later works in his Pittsburgh Cycle, chronologically August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean (2003) is the earliest; set in 1904, it features Aunt Esther, a near-ancient spiritual figure in the Hill District, a predominantly Black community. Her services are much desired by a Citizen Barlow, who comes to the door of 1839 Wylie Avenue because needs his soul washed out. 

His is not the only crisis: a young man accused of stealing a box of nails at the mill drowns himself and another character’s sister writes from Alabama to say “times are terrible here the most anybody can remember since bondage”. Vivid dialogue and relatable scenes create an engaging drama even on the page; it’s easy to see how powerful this would be (particularly Aunt Esther’s interventions) on the stage. There’s much talk of freedom and law, responsibility and justice—but I’ll also return to the cycle because I care about these characters (some of whom appear in other plays in the cycle).

The first two volumes of Skull-Face Bookseller, Honda-san (2016; Trans. Amanda Haley, 2019) would make a fine introduction to manga, for former/current booksellers who are curious about the form and unsure where to begin. This is exactly where Honda’s story begins, with the paralytic state that eclipses all ideas and possibilities when faced with that very request in the course of an average workday—and the sense of inadequacy that accompanies it. Imagine someone asking you, an avid reader: “I’d like to read more, could you suggest a book for me?”

Ironically, the avid manga reader will find even more to appreciate in this series, which is chock full of references and allusions (both in the text and the illustrations, many of which are explained in the volumes’ end-notes) to artists, books, and animations. The series begins by asking readers what they think of, when they think of booksellers. There are a variety of suggested responses, none of which is a skull-faced person, but that’s what Honda is. (The rest of the staff is also unusual: one wears a plague-doctor mask–ahem, prescient?–another wears a bunny face, and another a paper bag. Don’t worry: there’s a chart.)

There are also peripheral characters who offer a peek into the bookselling business: they don’t have visible faces, only pieces of paper taped to their foreheads that identify them as company employees, working for the publishers (with a P) or for a wholesaler (with a W), for instance. There’s also an insider’s perspective of various bookselling-related activities: like a book-signing or customer service training sessions.

These were not laugh-aloud reads for me, but they were nod-along and smile reads, so thanks to Rachel for a perfect-match recommendation and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series being translated.

When Charlie announces that he’s “taking a break”, because “doing the math of quantum physics feels like thinking with tweezers”, it’s just one instance in which readers are given to understand that Charlie’s way of thinking is unusual. Just one instance in Bernice Friesen’s Universal Disorder (2020), in which we are reminded of the ways in which we struggle to make order out of chaos. Pluck out one thought, then one more.

There’s a glossary of mathematical symbols in the back of the book. Six of them, I recognized—plus, divided by, approximate equal, not equal to, parallel and infinity—enough to be reminded that one can imagine mathematics as being about relationships.

There’s no glossary to make sense of Charlie’s relationships in Universal Disorder, no equations that translate into a shared understanding: “The father he’d learned to hate was gone, was an equation that had no result, a theory that could never be proven, a memory—a figment of his imagination.” And there’s at least one loss in Charlie’s life (one of the symbols is for an “empty set”) which has left a hole in his view of the world.

It seems as though readers are meant to make sense of what Charlie cannot; the narrative is a close third-person, so readers are as close to Charlie’s perspective as they can be, without actually viewing from his insides. But it’s as though we are on the other side of a parenthesis, the inner workings of which haven’t been resolved. And because Charlie is uncomfortable, in his present-day consciousness (in which a telephone number’s display on his phone provokes a series—or is it a sequence—of difficult memories), readers are caught between rationalizations.

What compensates for the sense of unease is the undercurrent of transformation. Even that is complicated, because when they erupt, these moments are suffused with energy and a specific kind of chaos bubbles from beneath, but there are moments of wholeness that offer a strangely satisfying kind of liberation.

“But now the water felt warm. There were ripples and concentric waves above him. Shafts of gold lit the tadpoles and larvae and dragonfly nymphs. What would it be like to be one of them? To know nothing but water, then fold yourself into a chrysalis and tear your way out transformed—a different creature clinging naked in the wind for the first time, not knowing your own wings were unfurling behind you until you gave in to the urge to soar?”

In Universal Disorder, a character who is changing a lightbulb in the subway system underground might also be  debating the relationship between art and truth. Someone who is struggling with a sense of inadequacy might also be  negotiating the gap between re-membering and re-living, the gap between nothing and something.

Does the line blur between your reading years? Which of these books would be most likely to capture your attention in this moment?