5.27.2021

what i'm reading: there, there by tommy orange

After finishing and marveling over Kate Reed Petty's True Story, I picked up There There by Tommy Orange and had a similar reaction.

I don't read a lot of popular fiction, so reading two debut novels back to back, and really enjoying both of them, was a wonderful surprise.

What does it mean to be an Indigenous person -- a Native, Native American, First Nations, Native American Indian, an Indian -- in the world today? Not in the pre-contact world romanticized in our imaginations. Not as any of the stereotypes placed on Native lives, be it the tragic-heroic model or that of hopeless despair. What is it like to be Native in the current, urban world in which the majority of Indigenous people in North America now live. 

How do you keep tradition alive without being defined by it? How do you understand a catastrophic history and its impact on your life, without being obsessed with the past? What does it mean to be an "urban Indian"? 

In There There, Orange asks these questions and lets many different characters -- their lives, their stories -- attempt to answer them.

I don't usually like novels that are collection of stories and vignettes, but Orange's writing is so good that it pulled me in and never let go. As connections among the characters are revealed, plot lines emerge, and suspense builds. The chapters become shorter, the connections more urgent, the answers shattering and sometimes surprising.

Here's a bit of an interview with the author in The Guardian that I found interesting.

What made you decide to have 12 narrators?

I really liked what a chorus of voices could do. I like, within a novel, to jump around and see how the different voices connect. It gives the reader a lot to do. And when the reader gets the connection, something really special happens: like a clicking in place. It gives it a kind of propulsion and makes it a really active reading experience.

Did you also want to portray as many different Native urban experiences as you could?

I guess so. There's a monolithic version of what a Native is supposed to be. Writing a polyphonic, multigenerational novel is resisting this one idea of what being Native is supposed to look like. If we all have to be historical, with a headdress, looking off into the distance, that’s hopeless as far as building a proper, complex, human identity.

Many of your characters are deeply troubled. Why?

I wanted to write characters that felt true and real, and there's a lot of harrowing detail about the lives of Native people. You can just look at the health statistics and they're pretty staggering. I wanted the characters to be working-class, because so often the characters in novels that I've read are white and upper-middle-class with white, upper-middle-class problems. I didn't want to go anywhere near the old romanticised view of the Indian as the warrior, the powerful, the unflinching, the brave. That just doesn't feel whole to me.

Each character in There There owns their Native identity in different ways and imbues it with meaning (or not) in their own way. Their stories touch on family history, trauma, addiction, recovery, shame, forgiveness, loss, memory, and identity. Their voices are funny, angry, desperate, and hopeful. The writing is simply amazing.

5.25.2021

what i'm reading: true story by kate reed petty

Kate Reed Petty's True Story is one of the most impressive debut novels you'll ever read. 

It is both a riveting page-turner and a narrative puzzle, twisting and turning in on itself, leaving the reader reeling and uncertain. This book is very smart and very compelling. It is also very difficult to write about without spoiling! But don't worry, I hate when reviewers reveal too much, and always do my utmost to avoid that.

Begin with an incident. A sexual assault. Think Chanel Miller, who was assaulted by Brock Turner, a Stanford University athlete, while she was unconscious. Think Glen Ridge

Add genre references and tropes -- horror, noir, suspense, crime thriller, memoir. Horror and crime movies are especially present. Petty uses these tropes in unexpected ways, to highlight sexism and misogyny, attitudes and stereotypes. I would say Petty gives a feminist reading of the horror and crime genres, but that sounds dry and academic -- and True Story is anything but.

Petty also uses the genre tropes to re-create the fractured memory and dislocation caused by trauma, the way trauma survivors must shape their own scraps of memory into a story, and how people co-opt the stories of others, shaping them into a more easily digestable narrative.

What really happened that night? That clich├ęd question reverberates through the book, as the stories within stories unfold. Other elements -- more than one unreliable narrator, a ghostwriter, rampant rumour and speculation -- create a story about storytelling.

True Story is the kind of suspense novel I'm always looking for: a great read, but with something deeper, something more substantial.

5.24.2021

what i'm reading: the skin we're in by desmond cole

Alternative title: It Happens in Canada, Too.

Desmond Cole's book, The Skin We're In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power may be a difficult book for white Canadians to read. That's exactly why they should read it. 

Cole documents events most Canadians would call "US-style" racism -- except they all take place in Canada. He uncovers historical anti-Black bias in Canada's immigration policies, ongoing anti-Black racism in its public schools, racism embedded in false historical narratives, and racist policing on the streets -- in short, systemic racism. 

As Cole points out, Canadian media is happy to report on anti-Black police violence taking place in the US, which fits nicely into a narrative Canadians know and love. But when it comes to anti-Black police violence within Canada, incidents are glossed over, misreported, or completely ignored. 

In the early days of this blog, before we had even emigrated to Canada, my partner asked if there was a Canadian equivalent of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States -- a counternarrative that tells the often invisible stories of injustice and resistance. Readers  said that kind of history wasn't really necessary in Canada, because Canada's view of itself and its own history was more honest than America's. 

That deserves one massive call of bullshit. 

I'm not suggesting that wmtc readers were bullshitting us. Merely that Canadians think they know the real history of Canada, flaws and faults along with pride and heroics. This is simply not true. Exhibit A: the revelations about the Residential School system that attempted to destroy Indigenous culture and subjugate Indigenous people. Most Canadians were not taught about this in public schools. It was not part of Canada's official history. Without the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Calls to Action, this ignorance would have continued in perpetuity. 

Is it better in Canada than in the US? I think so. But that's easy for me to say, I'll never personally experience systemic racism. Desmond Cole has been stopped by police more than 50 times. And if Canada is better than the U.S., is that the best we can do? 

What does "better than the US" mean to Dafonte Miller? To Regis Korchinski-Paquet and Chantel Moore? To the thousands of young Black men subjected to random stops and searches -- known as carding in Canada and but more aptly named stop-and-frisk in New York City. To the Somali refugees and Haitian immigrants whose families have been illegally broken up and put at grave risk? To the Black Canadian school children subjected to the presence of police in their schools?

This excellent article in the Guardian from June 2020 -- "Canada urged to open its eyes to systemic racism in wake of police violence" -- puts it clearly and succinctly.
... political leaders’ resistance to the idea that systemic racism exists within state institutions often comes from a poor understanding of the country’s past, says educator and historian Natasha Henry, president of the Ontario Black History Society.

“It’s part of the Canadian national narrative of positioning ourselves in juxtaposition to the United States. That’s how we get this ‘exceptional Canada’ of being welcoming and warm – and not paying attention to our own parallel history of racial exclusion and the dispossession.”

In addition to being factually inaccurate, this popular view speaks to a “refusal to take responsibility” for two centuries of slavery within the country’s history, says Henry.

For generations, Canadian history has concentrated on the country’s position as the last stop on the Underground Railroad – a place which meant freedom for those who escaped slavery in the US. But the same narrative omits the experiences of thousands of enslaved people within Canada, says Henry.

According to Henry’s research, the earliest record of African enslavement in colonial Canada was the sale of a young boy, named Olivier LeJeune in 1629.

Slavery was formally ended in the British empire in 1834, including British North America, but legislation was repeatedly passed that would weaken anti-slavery laws in the years leading up to abolition.

After emancipation, black people in Canada still faced segregation, and the looming threat of hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

“You have to decide – are you going to accept all of Canada or none of Canada?” said Henry. “Because you can’t parcel out what you want. That’s not how history works.”

Canadians, if you're ready to confront this -- or even to consider that there may be parts of Canada that you don't yet know or understand -- I urge you to read The Skin We're In.

Desmond Cole has done us a great service. With his unflagging activism, his lively, accessible writing, and his blunt truth-telling, he is helping Canadians to better understand this country, and to consider the experience of Canadians who don't necessarily look like them. If we want Canada to truly be better than the United States, this is a place to start.

------

Personal footnote: Cole was the keynote speaker at the 2017 CUPE Ontario Library Workers Conference, which I helped organize (post is here).

5.14.2021

rtod: kids are jumping out of windows of burning buildings, so we board up the windows instead of putting out the fire

 Revolutionary thought of the day:

What I'm here to talk about is how our whole approach since day one has been like this: Kids are jumping out the windows of burning buildings, falling to their deaths. And we think the problem is that they're jumping. This is what we've done: We've tried to find way get them to stop jumping. Convince them that burning alive is better than leaving when the shit gets too hot for them to take. We've boarded up windows and made better nets to catch them, found more convincing ways to tell them not to jump. They're making the decision that it's better to be dead and gone than to be alive in what we have there, this life, the one we made for them, the one they've inherited.

From There There by Tommy Orange

5.10.2021

north island life: in which we buy a generator (when in rome)

Our new friend
Here on Vancouver Island, frequent power outages are a fact of life. 

Obviously outages happen everywhere, but when high-wind storms come ripping off the Pacific, we're the windbreak. On the North Island, add thousands of acres of tall trees, with instability caused by logging. Add to that a remote region where it may be many hours before work crews arrive, and the source of the outage can sometimes only be located by helicopter. 

The last outage lasted 30 hours, the one before that 19 hours. These are not at all newsworthy. As I said, a fact of life.

Our wood stove keeps us warm, and I bought a little camp stove for basic cooking. (No need to add the indignity of caffeine withdrawal to the general discomfort.) But still, it's boring, it's annoying, and it can be expensive and wasteful.

The last time an outage hit, we had a freezer full of food. Allan works remotely. How many times do you want to tell your employer you can't work because you have no power? He also uses a CPAP machine for sleep apnea. During the last outage, I banished him to the futon.

I thought owning a generator was an indulgence for the wealthy... until now. As soon as the power goes out, there's a long lineup up at the gas station. Now I understand why: gas-powered generators.

We bought a portable, inverter model, enough to run the fridge and some electronic equipment, and some heavy-duty extension cords. We've done a test-run, and with any luck, we've lived through our last major outage.

5.08.2021

the return of a gardenette, plus worms (but no scary pics)

When we moved into our house, the grounds were spectacular. Even in this area where seemingly everyone gardens, the former owners were masters. There were beautifully designed flower groupings everywhere, nine huge raised beds, an herb garden, a large (and locally famous) raspberry patch, a greenhouse, and chickens.

It was the perfect house for an avid gardener... but too bad, we bought it!

We asked the sellers to remove the greenhouse and the chicken coop (and the trampoline), and we removed the raised beds ourselves. Our backyard is a canine playground. We've spent a lot of money, time, and effort making it safe for She Who Cannot Be Contained. We mow the lawn and do a bit of raking and pruning, but serious yardwork is not our thing.

However... we did experiment with a tiny garden in Ontario, growing tomatoes, zucchini (a supposedly fun thing I'll never do again), eggplant, and a few herbs. I enjoyed this on a small scale, with zero intention or aspiration to expand.

While our backyard is a dog park, our front yard gets a lot of sun, and the dogs aren't loose there. So I'm going to try a very modest vegetable garden in the front. In our climate, you're supposed to start tomatoes indoors, so I've done that, and will soon be planting carrots, beets, and basil outside.

I'm also trying composting for the first time. However, in an area where bears saunter into yards to dine off fruit trees, there's no way I'm composting outside. There are supposedly ways to make outdoor composting bear-safe, but it sounds quite complicated, and -- at least where we live -- foolish and dangerous. Reading about indoor composting, I quickly decided I wanted to try vermicomposting, which is the fancy way of saying composting with worms.

The internet is loaded with information about DIY worm composting, the usual "all you need is this!" sites and videos. Reading more deeply, I learned -- as with most things -- that there are myriad ways to fail at vermicomposting. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may know I am not a DIYer. Growing vegetables at all is enough DIY for me!

I investigated various options, and decided to buy a worm habitat from WormBox.ca. After much research, I ordered this Urban Worm Bag, and got a great deal on all the accoutrements needed to create a comfy worm environment. And then -- yep! -- I ordered worms on the internet! One pound of Red Wigglers -- about 1,000 worms -- are on their way from Montreal to Vancouver Island. 

I'm not posting pics, as many people are phobic or just grossed out. But I enjoy the wriggly creatures and look forward to adopting them.

5.02.2021

subscribe-by-email is going away. bloggers, what are you going to use instead?

Blogger will soon stop supporting the function that allows readers to subscribe to blogs via email. This is occurring because Google is killing Feedburner. Like the deceased Google Reader, Feedburner is very popular, used by millions, but Google has not been updating it, and is now officially killing it.

There has been some concern that Google might kill Blogger, but over the past several years, they have been answering Blogger-related questions and upgrading some Blogger features. I am still waiting for an update that will allow me to restore 14 years of lost comments! But it does seem like that will happen, and it appears that Blogger will survive.

However, as of July of this year, Feedburner and Subscribe by Email will be no more.

I very much want to offer readers a subscribe-by-email option, and I also want to use that option for several blogs that I read. I've tried many alternatives, but email subscriptions work best for me. 

Things I will not be doing: switching to WordPress, using Twitter instead of blogging, turning my blog into a newsletter. 

I've been researching alternatives to Feedburner, and there are many good ones out there. However, most are paid subscription services. 

I'm not in the camp that expects everything to be free. I subscribe to many paid services: a ridiculous number of streaming platforms, plus software licenses, news sites, and apps that I use frequently and want ad-free. But my blog is not a commercial venture; it is simply my writing outlet. My blog is not monetized, and never will be. So adding a monthly fee so that a few hundred readers can subscribe by email seems wasteful.

I think the simplest solution is IFTTT. IFTTT, which stands for If This Then That (a coding expression), allows you to create applets that link various apps and services, enabling you to do things that neither app alone will do. (This is a good explanation.) I've used IFTTT before, and it has always seemed simple and reliable.

IFTTT lets you create three free applets, This free option allows you to connect an RSS feed to a Blogger blog

I'm pretty sure I'm going with this one. But if you blog and you've found a solution that you like, please share! And I hope all the bloggers I read will all provide some kind of email option.