Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

December 28, 2012

Canada Reads 2013 Review #1 – Indian Horse

If you, like me, are horribly, inexcusably ignorant of Canadian Indigenous history, you will probably want to read Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse with Wikipedia open next to you.

Perhaps you don’t; perhaps Wagamese’s beautifully crafted sentences and compelling story alone will suffice for you. Perhaps you will read for the fire and excitement of the sport – hockey – that is the focus of most of the book’s narrative. Perhaps you will just read to know what happens to Saul Indian Horse, the book’s very likeable protagonist. Perhaps you won’t find your mind racing away with the issues and implications of what he has written. Perhaps you are that very focused person.

I am not that focused person. I got as far as page 8 before my jaw hit the floor and I scrambled for my iPhone. I thought I knew my history. How did I not know children were being kidnapped at gunpoint by representatives of the residential school system as recently as 1961? But wait – it continued after that? The Residential schools were still run by the churches until 1969? The last school didn’t close until nineteen-ninety-six?

Was I asleep during the reports from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Apparently so; but I, like so many other people, get most of my history from novels, for better or for worse. Historical fiction has a lot of detractors in literary circles, people who feel that fancy costumes, dates and out-of-scale events deter from the human heart of good writing. I think this is 100% pure crap. A story is a story, and stories have characters and there is nothing less human about Wolf Hall‘s Thomas Cromwell than Things Fall Apart‘s Okonkwo. I wasn’t there for either of their lives: thats why I read the bloody book. But I digress.

Richard Wagamese is telling the very human story of a boy heavily, heavily damaged by Canada’s horrifying colonial history who finds some peace through his incredible gift as a hockey player. The stark contrast between his off-rink and on-rink life is beautifully illustrative of the power of talent or sport to provide an escape from the most awful circumstances. But it was difficult for me to share Saul’s love of the game because, though evocatively, powerfully written, as soon as a white person showed up, he would ruin everything.

The short period of peace in the book takes place during the time Saul plays with an Indian hockey team against other Indian hockey teams. It’s a beautiful thing to read, the camaraderie and hope borne of these games. As word of Saul’s talent gets out, his team – The Moose – starts to play games and tournaments against white teams, and from there everything goes to hell. It is very hard for a person like me not to have a political reaction to a narrative like this. The history is so recent, and the setting so familiar. Canada continues to deal out racism, oppression and vast injustice to its Indigenous peoples. Read the news lately? Exactly. I could not be a passive reader of this book.

Horrified though the book left me, I think this book’s ability to evoke a reaction like this in me – and, I hope, thousands more Canada Reads readers – is a very good thing. I hope it provokes us all to bone up on our history, current political movements, and provokes some action. I doubt that was Wagamese’s intention when he wrote Indian Horse, but frankly there are few enough books being written about Canada’s Indigenous history that even the even-handed, polite and non-accusing narratives like this one should shock and incite the reader.

The book is not perfect. Wagamese makes use of one of my pet peeves, the Character Saved By Books trope. I know, books can protect and save anybody, but surely, once in a while, an illiterate person can be the hero of their own story? Must every sympathetic protagonist be bookish?

I also found Saul’s descent into alcoholism abrupt. He doesn’t take his first drink until page 180 of a 220 page book. Saul’s life between the ages of 15-18 takes most of the book, time spent exploring and understanding the world through Saul’s eyes with beautiful, careful prose and acute observations. The years between 18-25 seem to float away in one three page chapter, and the next thing we know he’s in his thirties, an alcoholic, and writing a book. I got the feeling Wagamese knew where he wanted to go with the ending but didn’t know how to get there, so he just left the time in between off the page. I would have been happier with a book longer by fifty pages, better understanding Saul’s post-hockey existence. It might have brought his return to hockey at the end a little more gravitas.

Still, I think this book will be a fierce competitor for the Canada Reads title! I certainly feel it should be a must-read for Canadians. If there are any educators out there reading this, get Indian Horse on your syllabi. It’s a beautiful, readable book students will adore and the history is so, so important. Don’t wait for it to win or not win Canada Reads. This book should be out there either way.

December 18, 2012

Review: Kitchen Party by Sheryl Kirby

I first met Sheryl Kirby in Parkdale as a wide-eyed, totally hysterical and completely raw 17-year-old in the late 90s. At that time I was so overwhelmed by Toronto and living alone for the first time that I gravitated towards Sheryl, who was, in my eyes, a stylish, savvy and competent urban citizen; the perfect role model and tour guide for someone in completely over her head. I don’t know that I was a very good student of this school of urban chic, but I certainly did learn a thing or two on the subject of Toronto and its food. It was with Sheryl that I had my first roti, my first pad thai, and my first Ethiopian meal. Reading Kitchen Party, Sheryl’s first collection of essays, I realized how deep and intrinsic to Toronto life those experiences Sheryl offered were.

When talking about culture, food is a divisive subject. Culture is more than food, and the various attempts to celebrate “multiculturalism” through food pavilions are generally reviled. But at the same time, food rituals are deeply, deeply ingrained in all cultures, Toronto being no exception. Part of Toronto’s cultural identity can be best experienced through its culinary offerings in a way that is unique to our city. Kirby, who along with her husband wrote, edited and maintained the popular food and drink website TasteTO for 5 years, has been deeply involved in Toronto’s food culture for decades. She has arrived at a place where she can now describe Toronto to us through a variety of food-related experiences and anybody who has lived in this city will recognize its soul through her essays.

The collection is divided into three sections: essays which bring us back to her childhood in Halifax, essays relating to her experiences in Toronto, and what she calls “food writing” which is supposed to transcend the Toronto-centric quality of the previous section, but which I found to be a more focused extension of the same. Kirby is at her best when she lets it all hang out, so to speak: her strong voice and opinions are what really makes a piece leap off the page, and when she doesn’t restrain herself the results are poignant  insightful and hilarious. Sheryl is the best character in any of her essays, whether she is pushing fruitcake, deriding Alexander Keith’s, stealing quinces from Toronto parks or screaming in horror as a roommate deals with a cockroach infestation with a pair of chopsticks – on LSD. Kirby confides to us that she is not much of a world traveller, but in place of foreign adventures she seems to have experienced Toronto all the more intensely.

Kirby as a savvy adult Torontonian visits those early essays about simple Nova Scotia childhood as well, with mixed results. The early essays have a more restrained tone than what comes later, and though this helps to show the differences between the 1970s and now, or between Halifax and Toronto, I found the work less engaging. Kirby has a chance to show us a softer side of her writing here. She offers some poetic gems and nostalgic insights, but the energy of the later essays is missing. My favourite essay of the first section is a history of the Alexander Keith’s brewery in Halifax and it is a bit of a polemic, but it is the unrestrained sharp tongue of modern-day Sheryl that gives the essay its kick, not the softer, more sentimental writing.

The “food writing” of the third section will be irresistible to anyone with an interest in food justice issues. With a joint focus on food culture and Toronto-specific phenomena Kirby analyzes the political side of eating with a sharp and savvy pen. Her observation that the “local food” bandwagon might actually be what defines the Toronto culinary scene resonated with me and could be the basis of much more analysis and debate. So-called “foodies” (and Kirby hates this term – “who doesn’t like food? Who among us isn’t a “foodie”?”) will find a lot of think about here. As a simple eater and Toronto citizen I appreciated instead how Kirby contextualizes the Toronto food experience and helps us understand how the “scene” is more than a hobby for the rich and privileged  Her history of Harlem soul food, personal experiences with an array of Haggis and discussion of Oaxacan mole all dissect how local food can be, even when it claims to offer “authentic” experiences of elsewhere. There are few essays where the word “privilege” doesn’t appear, but her writing brings out the element of the eating experience that is common to any reader.

One final note in case you’re now considering Kitchen Party as a Christmas gift – the book is illustrated by Toronto artist Katherine Verhoeven to great effect. Verhoeven’s stark ink badges bring out the comic and the kitch in Kirby’s essays, but are also lovely little Toronto set pieces in and of themselves. The resultant book is lovely in a lot of ways – I can not speak to how the look translates to the ebook, but the physical copy is quite nice.

Kitchen Party is available through the usual channels, but if you’re local I recommend sticking with the spirit of Toronto and grabbing it from The Cookbook Store! It’s where we live, doncha know.

December 12, 2012

Five Big-Idea Holiday Best-Sellers

My bookstore is an unusual one. We are a trade bookstore, but we have a disproportionate number of academics and intellectuals as customers and this has flavoured our stock. So when I look at other peoples’ round-ups of the biggest books of the season I often feel left out. We don’t sell a lot of fiction, so that pretty much leaves us out of the true bestselling loop, nor do we sell the usual celebrity memoirs, cookbooks, self-help scams or whatever else serves as the mainstay of most big bookstores.

We have our own bestsellers here, books I rarely see on other lists but which clearly resonate with a large percentage of the people who walk through the door. These are often big idea books: trade books still, intended for a general audience, but not quick reads for casual readers. If you have a heavy thinker on your holiday gift list, you could do worse than the following off-the-beaten-path works!

The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan by George Steiner

Steiner is a huge name in literary criticism and has been since the 60s, but my first encounter with him was through Eleanor Wachtel, whom he told in an interview that he felt there wasn’t much interesting going on in novels anymore (I’m paraphrasing). For a big reader of contemporary novels, this was a jarring thing to hear from someone who seemed to know so much. Steiner did admit he felt poetry was going places, however, and now he offers us a book giving full literary credibility to philosophy, to the act of philosophizing. The idea is remarkably new and Steiner has always been a pleasure to read. This is a must-have for the literary critic.

Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism by Judith Butler

Butler is a most un-classifiable academic, writing about gender, race, violence, politics, philosophy and anything else that seems to catch her fancy. At the end of the day, however, she is a literary critic, seeking to give us the tools we need to think critically about all those things we tend not to. Her latest, and by far the most popular new work of hers we have carried in a long time, tackles the Israel/Palestine problem. She mines the public sphere for support for her theories of cohabitation and ethic of social plurality, which is at the heart of her other work as well. You can’t write a word on the topic without being controversial, but Butler seems to be offering a good tool for critique without having to criticize.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King

Okay, a little Can-con. The Inconvenient Indian hasn’t been out as long as some of these others, so it hasn’t sold quite as well in terms of sheer numbers. But the way it is flying off the shelf now, I think is deserves a mention. King sells well here as an essayist, if not as a novelist. His Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories is among the all-time top-selling Canadian books we have in the store, so it’s no surprise that the people who thought so highly of his last collection would come seeking the latest. The collection is funny, smart, insightful and a desperately-needed addition to Aboriginal Canadian history. King deserves to be better recognized as one of this country’s most important public  intellectuals. On top of being a top-notch writer he is an engaged political figure, an academic and now a film-maker. When we speak of Margaret Atwood, we should speak of Thomas King in the same breath.

Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature by Charles Rosen

I picked this list three days ago, and so of course that’s the day Charles Rosen picks to die. I don’t mean to suggest I had anything to do with it, but honestly? Really? Freedom and the Arts is now officially Rosen’s “last and best” work, at least that’s what we’re calling it today. Rosen was one of those incredible people who just happens to be best at everything, and excels everywhere he chooses to allocate his effort. Rosen is best known as a pianist and a music writer, but this collection of essays covers everything from music to literature, philosophy and academia, and does it all with a beautiful word and a deft mind. I hate him for it, but this collection is just masterful.

Memorial : A Version of Homer’s Iliad by Alice Oswald

There are some years when re-worked versions of Homer are a dime a dozen. I feel like Christopher Logue’s offerings weren’t that long ago (All Day Permanent Red was published in 2004) and David Malouf’s Ransom was actually published yesterday (i.e.  2010). And yet Oswald’s kick at the can is an incredible work. She seeks to memorialize in prose all two-hundred-plus people killed over the course of the Iliad, and manages to do so in a smart, sparse, 81-page poem.

December 6, 2012

Holiday Round-Up Pt. I

I like to find cool literary gifts for people. I don’t mean books, since I have been long since barred from buying members of my family “any more damn books”; but the next best thing, items which tastefully display a person’s literary leanings. Gifts for the reader: that’s what I like to find.

I’m a little bit obsessed with neckties this year. I am close – VERY CLOSE – to re-imagining my own wardrobe in order to ensure that I can wear a tie every day. Given that my current uniform consists exclusively of jeans and t-shirts this would be a very expensive overhaul, but I think you will agree with me that the ties make this a very attractive prospect regardless.

Latin Lover 1: Spondeo. (Vow) from Cyberoptix Tie Studio

The Lindau Gospels Tie from the Morgan Library & Museum

Harry Potter House Ties from ThinkGeek

Canterbury Tales Tie from the British Library