Sunday, June 12, 2022

April, May & June 2022 In Books: What I've Been Reading

As always, I've been reading older books, although Akwaeke Emezi, Kacen Callender and Elizabeth Acevedo have all published new works in May that I'm looking forward to reading.

Thanks to colleagues clubbing together to buy me a gift certificate, I now also have Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin.

In paper form I finished reading the five tales by Nikolai Gogol. In the end, The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich, maybe also Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt, and The Overcoat were my favourites: the scene-painting, the emotions, and even the discomfort of seeing the social inequalities and imperfections that must have been full-blown tragedies in everyday reality.


Vaguely I remembered reading Lebanese Australian journalist Rania Abouzeid's posts on Twitter during the early years of the Arab Spring. A decade later, it turns out that she wrote at least two books about her experiences: living in Syria with middle-class families, and interviewing protesters and militants across an impressive spectrum.

Sisters of the War (2020) focuses intimately on the lives of two girls and their families: one, from a pro-Assad, Alawite family — the other, from a revolutionary family. Perhaps it is written more for a younger audience, and the intention to draw attention to our shared humanity breathes through every page. I listened to an audiobook that helpfully offered the proper Arabic pronunciations.

Cover of Sisters of the War (Scholastic Publishing)

No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria (2018) follows adult Syrians as they negotiate their path amongst various anti-Assad groups, culminating in being either witnesses to or also perpetrators of intense violence and in one case even sympathy with Isis. Abouzeid makes an unusual decision not to speak about rape, except when an al-Nusra militant alleges that Alawite prisons perpetrate it against women. While Sisters of the War also proves if proof were needed that she thinks the women's perspective is just as important, the book is guided largely by masculine points of view.

She uses the book to bust myths about the Syrian Arab Spring, and finds the leading threads in the entanglements of different revolutionary groups, al-Qaeda, the Turkish government, foreign intelligence agencies, etc. knowledgeably. (I was following the news at the time and recently rediscovered a diagram I'd drawn of which group or party was linked with which other group or party.)

The food scarcity, cut-off water supplies, self-interested diplomacy, disappearances, technological makeshifts, and bombing of residential areas, in the 2022 invasion of Ukraine; the torture and other abuses that Abouzeid describes in Syrian government prisons that will not have ended with the war; and the legacy that Syrians today still carry —these many open ends and tragic parallels make No Turning Back and Sisters of the War still feel urgent years later.

No Turning Back [W. W. Norton & Company]


Public Service Announcement: I'd like to take the opportunity to link to the resources at the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. They take a modern approach, founded in mental health best practices and a care for the wellbeing of any journalist, source, and assistant, to understanding, acknowledging, and counteracting the risks of war reporting. On a personal note, I've cribbed some of the ideas here to help cope with work stress unrelated to war.


Tilly and the Crazy Eights is a fictional novel that addresses another traumatic history — colonial and post-colonial treatment by Canadian government authorities of Indigenous people. 

Monique Gray Smith had already written about Tilly, the youngest of the core cast of characters and a registered nurse who is tasked with caring for her elderly cohort, in another book that I haven't read. In this sequel, she introduces a knitting circle of elderly Indigenous ladies. They decide to travel to the southern United States in a bus, and to try to address something in their own 'bucket lists' — lists of things they would like to have done before they die.

Along their journey they carry their nightmares. For example: often sexually abused in Canadian residential (boarding) schools, many of the elder characters were forced to repress their own language, and taught that their cultural traditions were inferior and wrong. A few older and younger characters are trying to mend broken relationships; one older character has also survived cancer, and another is living with diabetes. In one case, an elder is personally affected by one of the thousands of unresolved murders and disappearances of First Nations women that are rarely prosecuted in Canadian courts.

I appreciated that the author included an Indigenous woman who came out as a lesbian during the Second Wave in urban Canada, a perspective which one doesn't read about that often and is well (if sparingly) presented here.

Gray Smith guides the plot perceptibly with magical realism and other devices to the conclusions that she wants. I'd argue that a firefly that zooms in during a crisis moment like a B2 bomber, is not really a fair analogue to the coincidences and talismans that we sometimes look for as guideposts in life, for example. Some of the humour is maybe a little corny — realistic for the cast of characters, and yet I did feel the urge from time to time to stick a fork in my eye.

But I loved the genuine warmth in Tilly and the Crazy Eights.

The road trip itself — a writing challenge to the greatest literary genius and the 'merest plodder' alike — is well executed. Gray Smith gives tastes of the scenery and locations at just the real pace and depth of highwayside observation, not weighing down the book with pedantic exposition about historical, geographical or cultural minutiae.

Cover of Tilly and the Crazy Eights (Second Story Press)


Lastly, I read Efrén Divided, by Ernesto Cisneros, and some of The Ghost Squad, by Claribel Ortega. The first book — which explores the effects of American immigration law enforcement in the 2010s on Latino-American families from a teenage boy's perspective — especially is wonderful and a 'tear-jerker', not necessarily just for tween and teenage readers. The Ghost Squad is a little unfairly positioned chronologically, between the Harry Potter books, which also deal with magic, and were published before Ortega's book, and the film Encanto, which also deals with magic, and was released after Ortega's book. If you're interested in imaginary young people doing fun magic for good causes, I recommend Encanto.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Around the World in 32 Countries: South Korea

Official languages:

  • Korean (Pyojuneo)
  • Korean Sign Language
Capital City: Seoul
Surface Area: 100,363 km2 (smaller than North Korea, larger than Taiwan)

Currency: Korean Republic won
Driving side: right

Main trading partners: China, United States, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan

Sources: "South Korea" [Wikipedia] and "Economy of South Korea" [Ibid]


As a twenty-something I spent hours watching the entirety of the Korean romance drama television series Goong (Princess Hours), and one of my siblings was a fan of Coffee Prince. So the South Korean cultural output I've been exposed to was generally cheerful.

My reading experience of South Korean books, during my literary journey around the world, has turned out by chance to be rather strikingly grim in contrast.


Mount Halla, in South Korea
Photo ca. 2005, photographer unknown. (Gnu Public License)
via Wikipedia

One Spoon on This Earth, I've already mentioned in this blog before.

In this novel (published in 1999 by a Korean writer who made it part-autobiographical), a man who was born on Jeju Island in the mid-20th century mirrors his horrific experiences of growing up in the shadow of World War II. Starvation, house burnings, massacres, and more gruesome incidents crowd the pages, in chapters that act as vignettes.

The vignettes 'photograph' a bookish, introverted young boy who survives into teenagerhood despite the violence in his neighbourhood, the starvation and disease, that threaten him and his big multigenerational family. He himself is sickly, less socially adept than some of his peers, and haunted by his resentful relationship with his often-absent father.

At the same time he loves his natural environment, except where mountain slopes are the haunted field of a massacre or the oceanside reminds him of a drowned friend, and a few of his experiences with childhood playmates.

The author, Hyun Ki-young, published a story "Aunt Suni" in the 1970s, which was also about the Jeju massacre. It was so politically fraught even decades after the events it described that, according to his Wikipedia biography, "shortly after its release in 1978, Hyun was arrested and tortured for three days by the South Korean authorities"

"Jeju citizens awaiting execution in May 1948."
Public domain (South Korean law), via Wikipedia

One shock to a North American or European reader may be that the 'democratization' of South Korea post-World-War-II was not the squeaky clean transition one might have learned of in a history class: Syngman Rhee was a deadly leader and it was not only North Korean leaders who cracked down on civilians in revenge for political and armed opposition in the post-war period.

Two passages I copied into my notes embody the author's endurance and deadpan humour:

Since I survived a politically dangerous and volatile period when living and dying was purely determined by chance, perhaps my fate isn’t so bad after all.


Entering an elementary school meant having a new set of family. In other words, it was like having an even stricter father and even more selfish brothers and sisters.


Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 takes up the early 2000s. It has more of a hardened dystopian quality, although the events it tells are of ordinary life and not wild flights of fantasy or brutal wartime events.

The book was a bestseller, published in Korea in 2016 and a hit not just there but also in Japan, Taiwan and other countries. But there was also a wave of antagonism in reaction to it. Perhaps it hit a nerve because statistically South Korea is surprisingly unequal in its treatment of genders. Over 90% of the population mention in polls that they want a power balance between the sexes, so it is not necessarily intentional.

An interview from 2020 with the American media outlet National Public Radio summarizes how and why the author chose her theme:

Author Cho Nam-Joo wrote the book inside of three months. She says she never expected it to take off — and she didn't even know if she could get a book deal. "I just wanted this book to be in the bookshelves, in bookstores and the library as evidence of how women in this era, the 2010s, lived, thought and made efforts," Cho says through an interpreter.

In the book, Kim Jiyoung's life looks regular; she is an everywoman, married with a child, family around her, cooking and tending the household. But she begins to slip into irregular outbursts of apparent psychosis.

Original cover of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982
Minumsa publishing house
via Wikipedia

Cho Nam-Joo sketches an unhealthy reality for Korean women, finding madness that underlies not her titular character's own psyche but rather her titular character's world. ("[S]he wanted women to know they're not alone," says NPR)..

A pattern of (semi-)benevolent and at rare times outright malevolent repression underlies her everyday life. It gives rise to malaise: Kim Jiyoung is not the only one who notices that something is wrong. But it simmers away insidiously instead of looking like an outright cause for reform or outrage.

Sexism makes Kim Jiyoung's family life in childhood tilted in favour of some siblings, her academic environment limited, her career doomed, a walk in the streets fraught with discomfort, and her marriage annihilating.

When she does express unhappiness about the invisible limits that hedge her every day, she is met with 'gaslighting' and her protest sinks away into oblivion. People who don't bear the brunt of the system, or have decided not to fight, are too comfortable with the way things are. The echo of George Orwell's year 1984 in the title is surely not unintentional.

(I read the book a while ago, so please excuse any inaccuracies.)

So in the end Kim Jiyoung, despite her middle-class income, her education, and the lack of crime or violence in her environment, has very few genuine means.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 tells part of the truth of being a woman as I haven't read anyone else tell it — certainly not only relevant to South Korea. Thank goodness, it is only a part of the truth.

"Gender inequality in South Korea" [Wikipedia]
"Hoju" [Wikipedia]
"Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982" [Goodreads]
"Kim Ji-young, Born 1982: Feminist film reignites tensions in South Korea" [BBC News Korean], by Hyung Eun Kim (October 23, 2019)
"South Korean Bestseller 'Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982' Gives Public Voice To Private Pain" [National Public Radio], by Elise Hu, with Se Eun Gong, Dasl Yoon, and Petra Mayer. (April 19, 2020)


Lastly, a Canadian missionary, educator and translator, James Scarth Gale, published an English-language edition of Korean fairy tales by Im Pang and Yi Yuk, in 1913. The Koreans' tales are set in a time frame roughly equivalent to the Early Medieval period through the European Renaissance and Baroque eras.

Each tale tells of old times and practices, in a landscape of animals, hermits with incredible powers, mysterious wanderers, aristocrats, goblins, mountains, and wilder regions of the afterlife.

The tales also sketch a great bureaucracy, Confucian religion, and imperial armies that fictionally adumbrate the bygone empires. The plots do not insist that life must be fair; but the characters in them sometimes find that 'what comes around, goes around.'


The Old Woman Who Became a Goblin

There was a Confucian scholar once who lived in the southern part of Seoul. It is said that he went out for a walk one day while his wife remained alone at home.

When he was absent there came by begging an old woman who looked like a Buddhist priestess, for while very old her face was not wrinkled. The scholar's wife asked her if she knew how to sew. She said she did, and so the wife made this proposition, "If you will stay and work for me I'll give you your breakfast and your supper, and you'll not have to beg anywhere; will you agree?"

She replied, "Oh, thank you so much, I'll be delighted."

The scholar's wife, well satisfied with her bargain, took her in and set her to picking cotton, and making and spinning thread. In one day she did more than eight ordinary women, and yet had, seemingly, plenty of time to spare. The wife, delighted above measure, treated her to a great feast. After five or six days, however, the feeling of delight and the desire to treat her liberally and well wore off somewhat, so that the old woman grew angry and said "I am tired of living alone, and so I want your husband for my partner." This being refused, she went off in a rage, but came back in a little accompanied by a decrepit old man who looked like a Buddhist beggar.

These two came boldly into the room and took possession, cleared out the things that were in the ancient tablet-box on the wall-shelf, and both disappeared into it, so that they were not seen at all, but only their voices heard. According to the whim that took them they now ordered eatables and other things. When the scholar's wife failed in the least particular to please them, they sent plague and sickness after her, so that her children fell sick and died. Relatives on hearing of this came to see, but they also caught the plague, fell ill and died. Little by little no one dared come near the place, and it became known at last that the wife was held as a prisoner by these two goblin creatures. For a time smoke was seen by the townsfolk coming out of the chimney daily, and they knew that the wife still lived, but after five or six days the smoke ceased, and they knew then that the woman's end had come. No one dared even to make inquiry.

Translated from a tale by Im Bang, or Pang, (1640-~1722), son of a provincial governor, scholar.

Im Pang rose in the political ranks, but in 1721 (already an elderly man) he fell from grace. He was banished a year later when he was involved in 'disturbances.' He died in exile.


Changdeokgung (Palace)
Photo ca. 2014, by unknown photographer
(License: CC-BY-2.0-KR )
via Wikimedia Commons


Pang, Im and Yi Ryuk. Korean Folk Tales: Imps, Ghosts and Fairies, James Scarth Gale, transl. (London: J.M. Dent, 1913) via

Thursday, March 10, 2022

March 2022 in Books: What I'll Be Reading

BECAUSE of the literary tour around the world begun last year, I'd been reading Ukrainian books when the country was invaded on February 24th.

In the family's translated copy of Nikolai Gogol short stories, I have finished "The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich" and begun reading "The Nose."

Portrait of Nikolai Gogol (early 1840s)
by Otto Friedrich Theodor von Möller
via Wikimedia Commons

Even as a sheltered Berliner in peacetime Germany, it hurts the soul to read the jaunty, satirical prose — framed in imperial Russia; with its tin soldier figures, small-town drama, and tempests in a teapot. Because his tales are harshly real at times, but at other times far away from harsher realities even of Gogol's time.

(That said, since I was also a reader who did not want to read pandemic literature during Covid, but others enjoyed 'the hair of the dog' as an approach to handling times of duress, your mileage may vary.)

I am often thinking before reaching for the book of the decimated 21st century apartment buildings, dead Ukrainians and Russians, and fleeing civilians of 150 years later.

"Picket Ural Cossacks" (1813)
by Korneev E. M. (1782 – 1839)
via Wikimedia Commons

But, to paraphrase the Bible, the wars are always with us. In Berlin, I live in what used to be a village that was practically annihilated during the Seven Years' War. Gogol would certainly have known war at least at a distance — like the heard roll of cannon thunder.

The beautiful depictions of landscapes, people, and other vignettes in his prose are a little, but very little, comfort. Here is a passage from "St. John's Eve," another Gogol story I haven't read entirely yet, which illustrates his style:

As I now recall it,—my old mother was alive then,—in the long winter evenings when the frost was crackling out of doors, and had so sealed up hermetically the narrow panes of our cottage, she used to sit before the hackling-comb, drawing out a long thread in her hand, rocking the cradle with her foot, and humming a song, which I seem to hear even now.


The sky is red only on one side, and it is already growing dark. It grows colder in the fields. It gets dusky and more dusky, and at last quite dark. At last! With heart almost bursting from his bosom, he set out on his way, and cautiously descended through the dense woods into the deep hollow called the Bear's ravine.

by A. Weitzel, 2013 (attr.)
via Wikimedia Commons

Or, from "A May Night"

The nightingales of the Ukraine are singing, and it seems as though the moon itself were listening to their song. The village sleeps as though under a magic spell; the cottages shine in the moonlight against the darkness of the woods behind them. The songs grow silent, and all is still. 

Which reminds me indirectly of Thomas Hardy's consoling poem "The Darkling Thrush" (1900), about another songbird:

So little cause for carolings
  Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
  Afar or nigh around.
That I could think there trembled through
  His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
  And I was unaware.


(Off topic, I haven't even gotten far into "The Nose" yet. But also based on the internal evidence of "Ivan Fedorovich Chponka and His Aunt", I have already decided that the author is not the Feminist of the Century.)

It also turns out that Gogol influenced Sholem Aleichem, another Ukrainian prose author whose work is sitting on my desk.


Emma Graham-Harrison, foreign correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, noted via Twitter on March 4th:

"We aged a hundred years and this descended/

In just one hour, as at a stroke."

Only realised today that the great 20th century poet Anna Akhmatova was born in Ukraine and had Ukrainian roots.

Her poem on the outbreak of WWI, "In Memoriam" seems apt


Aside from Ukrainian works, the Jimmy Carter biography His Very Best, Canadian author Esi Edugyan's historical Half Blood Blues, Vincent Sheehan's Louis XIV and Omar el Akkad's What Strange Paradise are a few of the half-read books I'm working on.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Valentine's Day: Do Poets' and Novelists' Arrows Hit, or Miss?

[Disclaimer: As a Valentine's Day skeptic, I am also purposely publishing this blog post two days early in sign of protest.]

In my Canadian high school, an English teacher asked us to bring in and discuss a poem that expressed to us what love is. I failed in that attempt because it was hard to find anything that did, even though in the end a Shakespeare sonnet was what came closest. As a teenager, to me there were three pieces of literature that came to mind:

War and Peace. For some reason the later scenes with [spoiler alert: please drag your cursor over the white spaces if you don't mind the spoiler] Pierre and Natasha represented to me what true love was all about. Everyday, boring happiness where you're a little starry-eyed about each other even in your forties; a type of relationship whose harmony makes it livable and comfortable for others (children, friends, relatives) to be around you.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 116.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

⁠If this be error, and upon me prov'd,
⁠I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.

The Scarlet Pimpernel. Even as a teenager I knew that the book was soap opera in its depictions of relationships and human psychology. But this scene was still moving and while it felt over-the-top as a scenario, held a kernel of possible emotional truth:

Pride had given way at last, obstinacy was gone: the will was powerless. He was but a man madly, blindly, passionately in love, and as soon as her light footsteps had died away within the house, he knelt down upon the terrace steps, and in the very madness of his love he kissed one by one the places where her small foot had trodden, and the stone balustrade there, where her tiny hand had rested last.


In the intervening years, I've read other poems that were felt to be romantic classics — amongst others — by the Victorians. For example:

Wordsworth's She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise,
And very few to love.

A Violet by a mossy stone
⁠Half-hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
⁠Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her Grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

I think a poem that idealizes a woman's life being largely unappreciated and ending in early death, is a strange choice as a love poem. Wordsworth's other poems are also infantilizing (Note: which is not to say that I don't appreciate Wordsworth in general):

A Creature not too bright or good
For human nature's daily food;
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles


As a 36-year-old, here's my latest take:

In the end, the Corinthians in the Bible give perhaps the best nudge toward how to love when you have the chance, platonic or romantic:

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

"1 Corinthians" in: The King James Bible. Oxford: 1769 (Wikisource)

As a teenager I'd probably think this idea of 'love' is to be soft-spoken and ingratiating, and find it vomitous. But now I think I understand. It's encouragement to keep fighting the battle not to make ourselves feel better by depreciating others, or by getting hung up on silly arguments.

And, to drop Shakespeare's idea of a constant love that had convinced me as a teenager, I think love needs to keep changing, adapting, growing, stretching and improving the older we grow and the more challenges we find.


Lastly Charles Baudelaire's "L'Harmonie du soir" comes to mind, especially the elegiac but heartwarming final line "Ton souvenir en moi luit comme un ostensoir!" ('Your memory, in me, glows like a church monstrance.')



"Sonnet 116" in: Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare's Sonnets. Edward Bliss Reed, ed. Yale University Press: 1923. (Wikisource)

Orczy, Baroness Emmuska. The Scarlet Pimpernel. Ch. XVI. (Wikisource)
[Edited to add - Feb. 13th: As a strange historical footnote, apparently The Scarlet Pimpernel's central narrative, adopted into a 1940s anti-fascist propaganda film, inspired Raoul Wallenberg.]

Wordsworth, William. Poems, Vol. I. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown (1815) (Wikisource) and "She was a Phantom of delight"

(I hate when people do this self-referential thing, but will do it anyway: For Baudelaire's poem, please see my blog post)

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Danish, Icelandic, Irish Mythologies of Winter: A January Hodgepodge

One thing that's delightful to read across religions, philosophies, and tales is the explanations we have written down for the natural world that surrounds us.

Sitting at my laptop on a grey January day in the Northern Hemisphere, the coal stove fired up, buds still rarer on the oak twigs outside the window, green bulbs beginning to form on the forsythia indoors and a hyacinth bursting into pale pink blossoms on the windowsill, of course looking at winter makes sense. And I'll also reach back further in time than I've done lately on this blog.


Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Folio 1, verso: January
("A New Year's Day feast including Jean de Berry")
by the Limbourg brothers (fl. 1402–1416)
via Wikimedia Commons

Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History:

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Mid-January 2022: Still Reading...

I've already finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Notes on Grief, and am reading a few books in parallel.

Assia Djebar's Less femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement is gathering in interest the longer I read it, hopping back and forth between different epochs of Algerian history in living memory, different generations of women. It has a few echoes of the mythology of Montesquieu's Persian Letters but also a lot more. All written in slender but meaningful prose.

Reading Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue is progressing a little more slowly. The Cameroonian immigrant to the United States who is one of the main characters has obtained a position driving around the family headed by a finance industry professional. He unknowingly witnesses early symptoms of the forthcoming collapse of the Lehman Brothers.

Cover of Empire of Pain, via Penguin Random House

In terms of audiobooks, I am also listening to The Empire of Pain, by Patrick Radden Keefe, last year's bestseller about a family that profited hugely off the medical industry and is arguably also at the core of the American opioid crisis. It takes a perhaps unexpected route to its subject. It traces the early-to-mid 20th century of the family in detail, depicting the mid-century experiences in a psychiatric institution that made a bright future in medication versus institutionalization seem even a moral choice, and also exploring the arts patronage and marriages particularly of Arthur Sackler. (So far.)

The most delightful book, however, has turned out to be the short stories by Nikolai Gogol. Picture a dreary Berlin in January, all grey and social-distancey; and compare flowering gardens with melons and poppies and sunflowers in Gogol's Ukraine, thatched roofs, and in general the beautiful, very 19th century descriptive passages of the novelist. Although of course "The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich" is not a rosy and peaceful story per se — one almost feels one is there, and the regret about the risks and necessary bureaucratic tangles of travel in real-life 2022 diminishes a little. 


Shopping at Dussmann Kulturkaufhaus in a fairly abandoned Berlin city centre today, opposite a long line of anti-Covid safety measure demonstrators with German flags (generally a warning sign of extremism outside of Euro Cup or World Cup soccer seasons) on their cars, I picked up a few books about the 20th century German political scene. Memoirs by Willy Brandt, former mayor of Berlin (this phase interests me most) and later Chancellor; a history of Berlin; and a history of the Social Democratic Party to which Brandt belonged. Besides I bought two presents that shall remain undescribed, and a Swedish language learning calendar.

It was an even nicer experience because I was browsing together with my mother, who picked up a German word-a-day calendar for the sake of her tandem partner.

Monday, December 27, 2021

January 2022 in Books: What I'll Be Reading

On my desk, Menahem Mendel by Sholem Aleichem is still waiting to be finished, alongside Vol. I of Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom (let's see if he mentions Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has just died), Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley, 4321 by Paul Auster, Beatrix Potter's tales, and Assia Djebar's Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement. For Christmas I've also received Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Notes on Grief. Besides, an English-language translation of Delphine Minoui's memoir I'm Writing You from Tehran looks tempting.

2021 in Review

In 2021 I kept a spreadsheet where I tracked part of my reading. I finished over 68 ebooks or paper books and 13 audiobooks. There were signs that I need to diversify my reading: for example, 56% of the books were from the United States.

Reading Journey Around the World

If I finally manage to write up the South Korean books read in 2021, as well as reading Ukrainian books, the next countries would be Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Italy, the UK, and France.

What I've Just Read

I listened to the last of the audiobook of Cherie Dimaline's Empire of Wild yesterday.

Cover of Empire of Wild
via Penguin Random House Canada

Although its writing style leans toward too many similes, and a few patches of bald prose or scenes (like the sleazy affair of a corporate man of affairs with a young church acolyte) remind me of mass market thrillers, I found it incredibly absorbing.

The protagonist is Joan. She is a Métis woman — sometimes mistaken for a 'spicy Latina' in roadside bars — who has finally found an equally somewhat bohemian but loving partner in another Métis person, Victor. The two of them had met in a drinking establishment, decided to join forces and travel through the United States in a camper van, and finally settled down again and married in Canada.

In their rural Ontario community — the one Joan grew up in, with her construction worker mother Florence, grandmother Mère, her grandmother's friends, and her brothers — men and women work in house construction or mines, for example. Men and women also hunt for their food, like deer or rabbits or elk, alongside grocery store fare. Still, there are social conventions against killing more than one can eat. Also, one can't say that any of the characters in the book glorify guns, and there's no trace of Duck Dynasty.

After the pair argue, Victor disappears.

Joan does everything she can to find her husband. She finds irritation and solace in her family, who do not entirely support her quest and have their own battles to fight. Older than her years in spirit, unwise at times but self-aware, warm and reliable in her imperfect way, she felt very real, as if her voice were speaking from the page. [Edit: Some of the credit for this is surely also due to Michelle St. John's narration of the audiobook!]

The leading thread of Joan's longing for her husband, weakened by insecurities and lent interest and realism by the fact that neither of them were perfect, part of a bond whose precise nature is hard to pinpoint in moments of doubt, was in my view well spun. At times this plot aspect has a timeless quality, as old as Penelope waiting for Odysseus — with a positive modern difference: Joan is actively working for the good of her husband instead of waiting for him to reappear on his own.

It is also this plot and characterization thread, though, that makes me a more partial reviewer, prone to over-interpreting — it reminded me of the platonic yearning for family and friends in the era of social distancing. Sometimes descriptions of grief take on a very self-conscious, cult-like quality, but I liked Empire of Wild all the more because it steered clear of that tendency.

Cherie Dimaline's book has one foot in secular reality: the financial needs of Métis communities in Ontario vs. the destruction of ancestral lands and culture through pipelines (e.g. Keystone Pipeline) and mining, along with financial exploitation, casual misogyny, and the ways in which people both embrace and need more than the places they come from. Its other foot is set in the world of Métis legend: the werewolf-like figure of the Rogarou and the spirit world that avenges the misdeeds of the community. Of course, the lines blur.

As oil pipelines and other dilemmas still exist for many First Nations (and other) communities in Canada, as well as the mingled legacy of Christianity on First Nations cultures, Empire of Wild has lost nothing of its contemporary power and relevance.

Altogether, although listening to audiobooks I'm less likely to pick up on problems in the literary style, I'd say that Empire of Wild is one of the best books set in Canada that I've read. Like Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach, Jesse Thistle's From the Ashes, Joshua Whitehead's Jonny Appleseed, and maybe even the works by Guy Vanderhaeghe and Margaret Laurence that I found singularly tasteless, grim and unedifying as a high schooler, it has made me even more aware of never really having understood the cultures and living reality of most of the rest of the country I used to live in. Attending a German-Canadian church in a middle-class suburban community in Victoria in the 1990s and early 2000s, with heavily Americanized influences through school and television, is apparently not all that representative.


Pine Island, Georgian Bay (ca. 1915)
by Tom Thomson
via Wikimedia Commons


"Cherie Dimaline: ‘My community is where my stories come from and it’s also where my responsibilities lie’" [Globe and Mail] (June 30, 2017)

Empire of Wild [Penguin Random House Canada]



Aside from still needing to make more recipes in Yasmin Khan's Ripe Figs (but the tahini swirl buns were excellent), Kirsten Buck's Buck Naked Kitchen, and Sarah Kieffer's 100 Cookies, I now also have a German language translation of Meera Sodha's East, bought as a Christmas present for the family.



To forage in Dussmann Kulturkaufhaus again. Also, to read books in Italian. To read more internationally, and cook many healthy recipes and a few naughty ones ... The list goes on.