book review: roughneck

Roughneck by Jeff Lemire is, like his classic Essex County, a story featuring a hockey player. Derek Ouellette had a stint with the Rangers where he was aviolent goon, and now he lives in a small shitty town in northern Ontario working at a diner and beating people up. When his sister comes to town to get away from a terrible boyfriend things change. Sort of.

What I love about this story is its handling of violence. It’s not a hugely complicated story, but the resolution shows exactly the kind of earned change I want to see in fiction.

The thing I feel weirdest about this book is that Jeff Lemire is a white guy telling stories about indigenous people. In this article he says:

“For me, these were a way to educate myself, that’s what it comes down to. And I hope my experiences up there allowed me to create something and reflect what I saw and show other people.”

For me that makes sense, but like Lemire I need to work out my thoughts in writing and I’m not from a community that has my story told for me, so I’m kind of primed to be sympathetic. I understand that it’s shitty to have white dudes in all these spaces. Don’t read white people’s writing about indigenous people: read (and pay) indigenous people telling their own stories. If you like comics a good anthology for finding some new creators would be Moonshot (here’s an article with some blurbs and examples of artists featured in that book, and Moonshot vol. 2 should be coming out soon).

But as far as Roughneck goes I do like this specific story, even if it’s a symptom of greater terribleness in the world.

book review: will the real alberta please stand up?

A useful tool for my ongoing attempts to get to know the province I’m living in is the Read Alberta eBooks project. Through my library I can download stuff by Alberta writers and not just lament that the government presiding over me funds horse racing more than the arts. Where did I get that nugget? From Will the Real Alberta Please Stand Up? by Geo Takach, which is an Alberta ebook. That I read. Following the project’s orders.

The book was not great. Part of it comes from being written 10 years ago, so “the present” was very Ralph Klein focused (but Stephen Harper was only mentioned twice). Part of it comes from the writer being a journalist who wasn’t really interested in any kind of rigour. He just talked to a lot of Albertans and non-Albertans about what they thought of Alberta, then assembled those quotes thematically. That led to it being very much a boosterish kind of thing, with loads of sentiment about the land and an almost total absence of indigenous voices. In that vein you’d think that the first nations people were totally a part of Alberta’s prehistory and have nothing to do with its present. Because it’s just white people it’s all about insecurity around being perceived as rednecks and pointing at historical good things that happened here. And the fucking “individual initiative and volunteer spirit that everyone has to exhibit because they don’t want to fund social programs through the state.

Though it was generally off-putting, I did learn about the province through the book. Mostly about history, including some of the basics of the listener-supported radio station CKUA (which is my favourite thing about living here). There was acknowledgement that the tar sands are kind of bad, but that Albertans don’t really care because everything has to be “balanced” against economic development. Which is the same as the rest of Canada I guess.

But as a book, it was an okay primer that repeated itself a lot. I wouldn’t recommend it.

book review: up up and away

I grew up a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays. I was the perfect age to see them win back-to-back World Series in 92 and 93 and though I had my bleh years when I paid them less attention, I’ve been back in my childhood fandom for at least a decade. Since getting more into baseball I added the San Francisco Giants as my west coast team since it’s good to have a team to root for that’s in the same timezone as you. I chose the Giants because of Tim Lincecum and the Barry Zito fiasco and having missed all the Barry Bonds amazingness of the early 2000s (I did briefly flirt with Dodgers fandom, but I figured it made more sense to support a team because of onfield actions and players rather than primarily for their amazing play-by-play guy; I could still appreciate Vin Scully calling a game even if I wasn’t rooting for the Dodgers). More importantly, I needed a National League team to follow, and there wasn’t another that was an immediate obvious choice.

All of that is to say I regret not having paid more attention to the Montréal Expos when they existed. Jonah Keri did pay attention and wrote a book called Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montréal Expos. It’s a good summary of some of the team’s history and the stories around the teams that were good and the ownership troubles and the Big Owe and all of that. I quite enjoyed it.

I didn’t realize that the Blue Jays and their assertion of all of southern Ontario as their TV market was so detrimental to the Expos’ finances. Growing up I assumed there was a Québec law that said Expos games had to be in French and that was why we so rarely saw them play on TV. I remember the strike season and how even without watching the games we knew they were great and that it was a crime to not have a World Series. But I didn’t know the background fire-sale that decimated the team for the next season. And I totally didn’t know about the late ’70s early ’80s coke-fuelled party teams.

It’s a good book, written journalistically, with maybe a few too many personal stories of Keri’s games he was a spectator at, but whatevs. I have a better idea of the history of the Canadian MLB team I never knew I’d enjoy rooting for.

book review: green grass, running water

Casting about for something to read while my eink device was charging (remember that most of my physical books are still in boxes) I grabbed my iPad and discovered I’d begun Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water months ago but never gotten very far. So I remedied that.

It’s really good. It’s very fragmented and I needed to get into the proper headspace to bounce around between all the different characters (and mythological versions of the story no one will let Coyote tell), but once I found that rhythm I really really liked it.

There’s a dam on an Alberta reserve that is being kept nonfunctional by a dude living in his mother’s cabin (and a court injunction). There’s a not-quite-love triangle between a woman named Alberta and a pair of cousins, neither of whom she wants to marry. The Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe and Hawkeye (not the Matt Fraction-written version) are on the run from an asylum trying to fix the world.

Yeah. I really really liked it, and my buddy Patrick with whom I used to bookfight on the radio should read it as a better version of the Tom Robbins books he likes to dislike.

book review: company town

Madeline Ashby’s scifi novel Company Town is on the shortlist for Canada Reads 2017. Though it’s very specifically Canadian, it doesn’t feel like CanLit, and I am interested in how it will be championed.

Company Town is set on a futuristic city-sized oil-rig of the coast of Newfoundland. The protagonist, Hwa, is a bodyguard working for the sex-workers’ union when she gets hired by the new owners of the city/rig to bodyguard the young heir. She takes the new job and then her friends start getting murdered and disappeared, so she’s trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.

A couple of the Canadian bits include there are comments about universal healthcare (and how that doesn’t cover Hwa’s chronic health issues), and when the first sex-worker is found dead they mention the authorities immediately implementing the standard Missing Murdered Disappeared protocol, and Hwa’s Newfoundland accent coming out in times of stress.

Otherwise it was a good techno thrillery kind of thing, with a mostly genetically enhanced population (who still have to work in the resource extraction industry, go Canada) and an outsider protagonist that dealt with things like post-traumatic stress pretty well. I noted while reading that it felt a bit like Charles Stross’ books (most notably Halting State in my mind) and then Stross was in the acknowledgements for getting the manuscript to an editor.

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book review: the right to be cold

I get to do some collection development in my new job and my main area I’m dealing with is Adult NonFiction ebooks. It’s kind of fun to do that slightly more traditional library role (most collection development at my old library was outsourced to the company LibraryBound, who decided what users like ours wanted and then sold the materials to us). Now I get to actually scour lists and say “this would be something good for our community!” And then because of that I’m caring a bit more about things like awards and buzz and Canada Reads. This year I’m planning to read most of the Canada Reads shortlist and started with Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet (which our library already owned in ebook format so I didn’t get to heroically buy it for our users).

Sadly, I didn’t really like this book. It has interesting content, and talks about how southerners tend to care more about the animals that live in northern Canada than the people. Watt-Cloutier’s stories of growing up Inuk were great. Her discussion of how climate change makes this region unpredictable, which has deadly results was great and changes the way I’m thinking about icepack.

The problem was that much of the latter part of the book was written like a retirement speech. “I tried to do this. There was this obstacle. This person helped and said this nice thing about me.” I feel bad complaining about the aesthetics of a book that had important content, but it made it a chore, like reading a very boring corporate report.

So I don’t know if I would recommend the book, simply because reading it felt so much like an “eat your vegetables” kind of task.

book review: siege 13

I read Tamas Dobozy’s collection of short stories entitled Siege 13 on the recommendation of one of our library members. Dobozy writes about Hungarian immigrants to Canada and their communities, sort of. I didn’t know much about 20th century Hungarian history before reading this book, but the WW2 occupation by the Nazis and then the Communists led to a lot of traumatic life-shattering events, even for those who managed to emigrate to the west, so that forms the backdrop to most of these stories.

They were well-written enough, but I was lured in by a promise of beguiling weirdness, which there definitely wasn’t enough of for my taste. They were stories of informers, and of relationships between people who hid themselves away and who tried to falsify histories. They weren’t bad, and Dobozy is very skilled but they just weren’t my kind of thing.