Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

“…leaving home always hurts–home isn’t a space, it’s a feeling. You have to feel home and to feel it, you have to sense it: smell it, taste it, hear it. And it isn’t always comfortable–“

4/5 stars.
ebook, 224 pages.
Read from January 19, 2021 to January 24, 2021

This is my first of five of the Canada Reads 2021 shortlist. Devery Jacobs will be championing this book in the debates that will take place from March 8-11. The debates will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

Jonny Appleseed is about a self-professed Indigiqueer named Jonny who battles his way out of growing up queer on a native reservation in Manitoba, Canada. Reflections of his youth mix the abuse he suffered from his step-father along with the toxic masculinity and patriarchy of the reserve that is beautifully counterbalanced by the strength and acceptance of the women and intimate friends in his life, especially his kokum. Jonny’s history intertwines with his modern day struggles as a self-employed prostitute and his conflicting love and friendships that have been affected by his upbringing. The story and his reflections take place one week before he is set to return home to the ‘rez’ of which he has not been back to for many years. Jonny’s reflections take on a dream like quality that takes the reader through many years of turmoil, determination, grief, sex, kinship, and love.

“Funny how NDN “love you” sounds more like, “I’m in pain with you.””

Jonny’s story embodies the racial and cultural situation of many native americans, or NDNs as they refer to themselves, in a raw and matter of fact manner. Jonny is poetic and unapologetic which is complimented by the graphic and honest writing that is both sympathetic and emotive. Jonny’s story is also very sex and LGBTQ+ positive in the way Jonny’s behaviours and descriptions are handled within the book. At its root, Jonny’s story is about coming home, find yourself, and connecting with the people who have supported and shaped the person you become.

I enjoyed the poetic qualities of this book immensely, especially with how they jived with the gritty descriptions of sex, grime, and poverty. The author’s writing is solid, engaging, and details his talents. He is able to portray feelings and relationships in an emotive and inclusive way that reaches the a reader at their core.

So, does this book meet the theme of this years Canada Reads, One Book to Transport Us? While there are more moments of transportation within Jonny’s story in terms how he views his home and his kokum along with the dream-like approach of the writing, when I envision a book that transports me it’s normally in a setting that portrays a lot of more happiness and hope. While I loved this novel, I am uncertain it will meet the bill for this year’s theme. I will be interested in seeing how Devery Jacobs defends this.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

“May your Paths be safe, your Floors unbroken and may the House fill your eyes with Beauty.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 272 pages.
Read from October 20, 2020 to October 22, 2020.

I read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in 2010, more than 10 years ago. While I remember next to nothing about the book I must have enjoyed it enough to show interest in this new book by the same author. Now that I have read Piranesi and having added a few more years of age (maybe some wisdom in there too), I would probably enjoy re-reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell again. With more than 15 years between the publications of these two books, here is hoping we don’t have to wait that long for another book by this great author.

Piranesi is a curious man living within an even more curious home he calls The House. Its rooms and corridors are infinite and surrounded by oceans with its water that flood and fill rooms with ebbing and flowing with the tides. The rooms are decorated with stunning pieces of art and sculptures as well as ocean wildlife like birds and fish. Piranesi spends his time mapping this labyrinth that he lives in and living off the meagre resources it provides him. There are others in the House but the majority of them are dead in which Piranesi honours their rotting bodies and speculates how they came to be here and their previous existence. He doesn’t get lonely though as there is The Other, a man that comes and goes, talks to him frequently while he carries out his Great and Secret Knowledge research that he is obsessed with. Piranesi never questions his existence or the strange world he lives in until a newcomer, he calls 16, since they are the sixteenth person to come to the House (including the dead) but is warned by The Other to avoid this person at all costs. Piranesi’s inexpiable trust in The Other begins to wane as he begins to communicate with 16 through secret messages. 16 is trying to locate a person he doesn’t know and is inquiring about the bodies with The House. Piranesi begins to wonder if The Other is his friend at all and about his existence within The House, as well as the presence and life of a world outside of The House.

What a concept and plot! There were so many ways this book could have gone wrong since. From the historical references to the abstract concept and world within the book. To truly appreciate the genius of the book you need to know who Giovanni Battista Piranesi is. Piranesi lived in the 1700s and was a respected etcher, painter and architect. He is most known for his series of prints called ‘Carceri d’invenzione or ‘Imaginary Prison‘. The series shows a whimsical labyrinth of underground rooms, stairs, art, and machinery.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi - Le Carceri d'Invenzione - First Edition - 1750 - 01 - Title Plate.jpg
First plate in the first edition of ‘Le Carceri d’Invenzione

This art as well as the artist is the inspiration and metaphor for The House Clarke’s story. When Piranesi’ world begins to unravel is when you start to fully grasp just how crazy this story is. The concept of this story could have easily gone wrong if it were in the hands of any other writer but Clarke executed it perfectly. The story is engaging and whimsical but grounded enough even for those who may not be as interested in fantasy. Having never seen the real ‘Imaginary Prison‘ etches prior to reading this book, Clarke’s imagery and descriptions of The House provided me with the intimate detail and feel of the real etchings. The world that Clarke creates is immensely visceral and as a reader, you come to feel at home in The House, especially because Piranesi’s character is so endearing.

I adored this book and was dismayed at its short length. Even with its historical reference, it wasn’t a requirement to enjoy this story though it adds an immense amount of depth to the story. It’s a book I would reread and would recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or fantasy.

Obit by Victoria Chang

“The obituary writer said that the obituary is the moment when a someone becomes history.”

5/5 stars.
ebook, 115 pages.
Read from September 10, 2020 to Sept 14, 2020 and from November 19, 2020 to November 27, 2020

The beautiful thing about reading is that it plays many roles and serves a multitude of purposes. Reading allows everything from escapism to learning, opening up your mind to a new world view or a way to open up your heart to feelings you’ve compartmentalised. Especially good poetry, that seems to be its specialty.

“The way grief is really about future absences.”

p. 18, Obit

I can’t remember how I found this book. It feels like it found me. The first time I read it was nearing the one year anniversary of a death that I had still hadn’t come to terms with. I read the book, noted its form, and enjoyed its content. I even related to it but it wasn’t enough to pull me out of the protective grief-shell of denial I had surrounded myself in. The second time I decided to read this book, the anniversary was fresh but had passed but something had changed in that time. It’s like I was finally able to process some of my grief because just enough time had passed making the pain less sharp. I was able to drop my shell, just a little bit.

When I revisited this book for the second time it was with unclouded eyes and a heart that was little bit more open to the pain and beauty it would bring.

The way our sadness is plural, but grief singular.

p. 32, Obit

Obit is written in the style of a newspaper obituary with each section detailing the death of the author’s mother, the grief and pain of her father’s dementia, as well as parts of herself as it too died. Written in the freshness of the loss of her mother, Victoria Chang spent the next two week putting her grief and all of her losses into words in the form of obituaries. Having now lost both of her parents, her father first, her words carry the weight of the author’s loss. She discusses the shared familiarity of sadness yet the loneliness of grief. The otherness she shares with her family and her friends as well as the discussions she has with her children take shape within the poems. She also discusses the loss of different parts of her father literally as well as through carefully thought out metaphors as she slowly loses the man she knew to dementia.

It’s true, the grieving speak a different language. I am separated from my friends by gauze. I will drive myself to my own house for the party. I will make small talk with myself, spill a drink on myself. When it’s all over, I will drive myself back to my own home.

p. 23, Obit

Maybe that’s what happens when language fails, a last breath inward but no breath outward. A state of holding one’s breath forever but not dying.

p. 20, Obit

This small book of poetry sums up grief in a concise way that really only those who know loss will understand. It’s healing and refreshing to know that though our grief is unique and can’t be shared at least there are some relatable features in its loneliness.

The men had dug up the dirt stood with their shovels and waited. I looked at their eyes for and sign of drowning. Then I noticed that one man’s body didn’t have a shadow. And when he walked away, the grass didn’t flatten. His shovel was clean. I suddenly recognised this man as love.

p.22, Obit

The format that Chang has chosen takes on a numb familiarity which not unlike the numbness that comes with the immediacy of fresh grief. The writing feels formal like an obituary but is the opposite of many obituaries in its honest emotion.

Like grief, the way it dangles from everything like earrings. The way grief needs oxygen. The way every once in a while, it catches the light and starts smoking. The way my grief will die with me. The way it will cleave and grow like antlers.”

p. 50, Obit

Chang acknowledges how grief changes a person, how there is no going back from this loss that feels so earth-shattering and how grief becomes this ever changing omnipresent entity in your life that you have so little control over.

To acknowledge death is to acknowledge that we must take another shape.

p. 28, Obit

I don’t remember the last time a book of poetry so aptly captured such raw feelings, especially my own. Chang writes in such a concise and visceral manner that makes her approach to grief accessible for even those who are stone-resolved in denying it. Chang’s work is a stunning tribute to grief. It’s personal and intimate yet highly relatable. I would recommend this book to anyone going through the grieving process, no matter where you’re sitting with it.