Lovers Fall Back to Earth
A hilarious misconception of youth is that life gets increasingly simple as you age. There is the assumption that the actions of your past and present will slip into interlocking puzzle-piece perfection and you will effortlessly canoe across the mirrored calm of a still lake, with the trees backlit on a sunny afternoon and the birds singing a happy chorus.
 
Or you believe I’ll be old, I won’t care and even if I do, it won’t matter. You think that your hopes and dreams and desires will become as politely as invisible as you imagine you yourself will feel and your reward for getting old will be a life of untangled placid yet satisfying adventure.
 
Nothing could be further from the truth. Life is the same tangled mess as it ever was and not only that but you’re dragging your unwieldy past behind you, like a tired Santa leaving a Goodwill, hoping to convince the crowds that his gifts are the shiny new real deal and not the dented and chipped relics from a bygone era.
 
And this is where the power and strength and beauty of Cecilia Frey’s writing lies. Frey takes youthful assumptions, the relentless passing of time, the pervasive culture that surrounded one during those formative years and she adds to it the complicated plots and subplots of siblingness and the result is an extremely well-crafted, fine tale.
 
The writing itself is inspiring. I’ve read a number of books lately in which POV is switched back and forth and Frey uses this in Lovers Fall Back to Earth and proves herself the master. It’s as if you slip inside the skin of each character and feel how their bodies move, where it aches and what brings pleasure. You feel the switchblade of conflicted emotions and the resolve thereof.
 
Ultimately, this is a hopeful, feel-good book. Santa doesn’t get mowed down by the avalanche of his weighty load. He (or she!) makes peace with the past – even when that means not making peace with it – and moves on, with a flowered pedicure and a fantastic glass of wine! And if this sounds cryptic, well, you’ll have to read the book!  
In a land such as South Africa, is it possible to ever understand the complex consequences of injustice, cruelty and racial discrimination? How can one right the wrongs of the past and the present and in some way forge a new country, one that is  governed and run with respect for the individual, equality, stability, prosperity and peace?
 
The fallout from colonialism and apartheid, along with the forces of greed and the resultant corruption of power, have all come together to create an uneasy no man's land - more realistically, a no woman’s land because of the heavy-handed patriarchy.
 
Electric Fences is a a highly recommended read for anyone who'd like to understand the psyche and workings of a damaged and bruised land, a land that is birthplace to exiles who remain and exiles who leave. 
    
13 Claws
13 Claws is the third anthology penned by the Mesdames of Mayhem and I've been meaning to do a shoutout for the anthology – and now I've got even more reason!
13 Claws had a fab FOUR nominations in the Arthur Ellis Awards: Cathy Astolfo, Jane Burfield and Sylvia Warsh for Best Short Story and M. H. Callway for Best Novella! And Cathy Astolpho won the award for Best Short Story and believe me, it's an insanely creepy read! 
The stories in 13 Claws range from thrillers to cozies to noir and what all the stories have in common is that they centre on animals. Fifteen authors have penned 17 fantastic tales (pun intended), featuring cats, dogs, snakes, an exotic fish and a dragon! 

Reviews for 13 Claws:

“A great mix of shuddery dark and tongue-in-cheek funny. What devious minds all these nice women have.”
~ Maureen Jennings, author of Murdoch Mysteries, the Tom Tyler series and Christine Morris Books.

“There’s enough suspense and intellectual fascination built into the plots of the majority of stories to satisfy even the most ferociously cynophobic reader.”
∼Jack Batten, Whodunit, The Toronto Star

So in case you were looking for a wonderfully entertaining anthology with a plethora of thrilling stories, then 13 Claws is a great bet! You can get the book on Amazon. 


Black and White
I’m not sure if readers of ​​The Minerva Reader recall reading a post about Wubit Zewdu, author a book I spotted in the Enat Convenience Store on the Danforth? The post was also on Goodreads, so please check it out! Here is the followup but first, an excerpt to contextualize: 
 
"I saw a fascinating book with a girl on the cover, a girl with a crow on one shoulder, a dove on the other, her hair a white braid on the left, a black braid on the right, an owl to her right foot and a rooster receiving benediction from her outstretched left hand. She is holding scales in her other hand and her torso rises from a tree, with two leaves modestly covering her breasts. Four stars dot the sky and clouds from which she ascends. A moon is a crown on her forehead, a half-dark, half-white moon. What is this book?
 
The book is written in a language I cannot understand. It looks Arabic. I am disappointed. I will never know what the book contains. I look up ‘Ethiopian language’ when I get home and Wikipedia tells me that “Amharic is spoken principally in the central highlands of the country. Amharic is an Afro-Asiatic language of the Southwest Semitic group and is related to Geʿez, or Ethiopic, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox church; it also has affinities with Tigré, Tigrinya, and the South Arabic dialects.

The interior of the book is beautifully designed, there is a faded image of the girl on each page, with a border and carefully spaced type.”
 
Well, I found the author! Her name is Wubit Zewdu and we had a great chat. Wubit is a twenty-six year-old refugee from Addis Ababa. She got her degree in Folklore and Journalism at Abbis Ababa University and is now a social worker here in Toronto where she has lived for two and a half  years. 
 
The book, Black and White, is a collection of a hundred poems and the theme is balance. Wubit explained to me that Amharic (the language in which the collection is written), is far more complex than English, and one word can hold several hidden ideas and messages. 
 
Wubit’s work is influenced by the work of  Gebre Kristos Desta (1932–1981) (also Gebrekristos Desta) was an Ethiopian modern artist. He was also known as a poet and the father of modern Ethiopian art. Both his paintings and his poems unleashed waves of controversy. He died young at 50 but during his short life he transformed Ethiopian art and continues to influence today's generation of artists on many levels. 
 
Wubit started writing poetry while she was in Grade 5, at the age of eleven. When she was fifteen, she was walking to school one day and she found a stone painted with the yin yang sign and this became the inspiration for her poetry. 
 
Wubit explained the the book cover to me, the artwork created by Nicholas Franklyn. Life is all about balance and how we can choose to find good in a bad situation, or choose to find bad in a good situation. The Earth is our mother and she loves us all equally and most of the struggles we have in life are in our own heads. 
 
Wubit also explained that we have such traditional ways of thinking – we think in terms of curses and punishment, we live in fear. If we could stop this fear-driven way of thinking, we would be much happier. But people fear giving up their traditional ways of thinking and this includes the fear-driven way of living. If we could all learn to love ourselves, we would be much happier and at peace. 
 
The poems vary in length, the title poem of the collection, Black and White, is six pages long. I have asked Wubit if she would be interested in translating two of her poems and reading them at a Secret Tartan Turban Event that I will be hosting at the end of the year and I very much look forward to hearing her work. 

The Dictionary of Animal Languages
Let me start by saying that I loved ​​​​The Dictionary of Animal Languages by Heidi Sopinka (Penguin Random House) for all the reasons that Steven Beattie didn’t! 
 
Here’s the excerpt I am referring to, from the review in the Quill & Quire:

… “Unfortunately, these dramatic elements are subsumed by a prose style that tries too hard, shows too little, and tends to have an alienating effect on the reader. In Sopinka’s novel, night “jewels in.” Lev’s hand “detains” Frame’s ankle. The “world drops away” and Frame is “filled with these sonorities, this opalescence.” This kind of romantic overwriting reaches its apogee late in the novel when Frame hears laundry flapping in the wind: “The sound reminds me of Lev saying listen to nothing but the sound of your own heart beating when there is the nuptial flight of turtledoves high and circling, the whipcrack of their downward-flicked wings against the grey sky.”

At the other end of the spectrum, we are offered a series of pithy aphorisms (“Time does not heal, it medicates”; “Age makes you sensitive as a Geiger counter”) and anodyne observations (“Isn’t the very definition of insanity repeating the same thing over and over again in the same way, expecting a different result”). These are embedded in a narrative that refuses to allow itself the luxury of forward momentum, instead becoming bogged down in rumination and self-conscious intellectualizing.

This languid quality is exacerbated by another aspect, one that is somewhat surprising in a novel that derives so much stimulus from Leonora Carrington’s life and work. Though Carrington’s imaginative output – and most especially her short stories – could be remarkably funny, The Dictionary of Animal Languages is almost entirely devoid of humour. It is as though Sopinka feels that the only appropriate approach to her themes – love, art, aging, existence – is to adopt and maintain a pose of artificial high seriousness. Looking at Lord Candlestick, or reading Carrington’s story “The Debutante,” one is initially shocked by the content, then moved to guffaw at the absurdity of its presentation. In Sopinka’s version, the heightened prose and relative lack of dramatic incident tend to preclude either of these reactions.”

I am particularly careful to not look at reviews before I read a book (in order to not colour my own reactions) but, once I’ve read a book, I’m curious to see what others have to say about it and, as I say, I loved the book for the very reasons Steven Beattie didn’t. I was immediately drawn in by the prose, the vivid imagery and of course, the story. 
 
The philosophical observations are cleverly woven into the fabric of the thing so as to read like a natural part of the thread and I found the insights fascinating. I knew, while reading the book, that there were countless references and quotes to and about other artists but I decided to read as a work of pure fiction, without sources or links to real life. The book examines love, poetry, art, obsession, animals, family, ageing, friendship and the meaning of life – all of it as poetic and visceral as listening to Patti Smith’s Horses while sitting under a tree in a wild thunderstorm. 
 
The only criticism I had was that the profound loneliness of the human condition was perhaps focused on for seemingly too long, particularly with regard to the aspects of aging, loss, memory and family. But, if the love and joy were written in such a moving way, then equally would be the sadness and sorrow. The overarching message was profound and beautifully written, the book speaks to your heart and carries you on a cinematic journey of an artistic life. 
 
I recently read Fugue in Green by Brenda Clews and while Fugue in Green tells a completely different story to The Dictionary of Animal Languages, both books feature nature as character (in a surreal manner), and both pay attention to our duties and responsibilities as well as the consequences of our being part of the human race on Earth, an experience we largely forget or disregard. 
 


Fugue in Green by Brenda Clews (Quattro) is a marvellous, magical treat! Exquisite writing takes you by the hand and leads you into this secret, surreal garden of wonder and delight.​

"Let the imagination go - see what is crawling, blooming, bursting out of the edges of the world. Take seeing back to before you knew a tree was a tree, or that the chair was from the tree that was. Let the world be lights and colours, undefined, without perspective or time; a marvellous vista, explore." But there is darkness, hardship, cruelty and abuse: "Reality was unrelentingly hard." Two children live at the mercy of a controlling, vicious matriarch, with an absent father. The whirling crisis of anger and hatred reaches a powerful crescendo and climaxes. 

Fugue in Green would be a perfect work for a Guillermo del Toro-style director, as the work is filled with symbolism, nature and metaphor. Much like Ofelia in Pan's Labyrinth, Steig, the teenage girl, bonds with nature and is protected and guided by the animals and inhabitants of that fantastical world. There is fantastic Dali-esquse imagery: "The greening infiltrated her. Separations between person and field disappeared, so there was only one field with an indistinct human shape of the same substance. When the sun shone, she turned to the power and energy of the light suffusing her cells. She was a leaf, a twig, a whirl of wind, the pink petal of a bee-pollinated flower. She was of the arborescent greening of the world, it shaped her." 

A strong story arc creates mounting tension, observed in the narrative by Stieg's father Reb, with his desire to turn painful life into a meaningful work of art via film: "… they could compose the story as a gothic fairy tale. A gothic fairy tale that was replete with a cruel witch and a maiden in distress."

Stieg's observation echoes her father's: "The process of making their film was helping her to integrate what was fragmented within, to keep the warring voices, memories, desires and humiliations in her from splitting her apart. It gave her a story, a narrative, to organize the chaos within."

And, isn't that the point of most art? 

Erotic and sensual, extraordinarily vivid and imaginative, Fugue in Green is a magical treat indeed.

In Praise of Dandelions
​​​​​​​​​ P.S. As readers of The Minerva Reader know, the signature owl was sculpted by my great-aunt Dora de Pédery-Hunt. Dora was an avid lover of nature and she recognized this trait in me (I really do hug trees.) And that’s why I am posting her medallic sculpture In Praise of Dandelions, a message I subscribe to with great passion. This seemed like a good fit for these two books, both of which remind us that we are merely a small part of nature, we should be the caretakers of the Earth, not riding roughshod over its surface, carelessly destroying that which lies in our path. And if we listen, we can hear nature speak. 



Fugue in Green
Descent Into Darkness
​​​​Descent Into Darkness by Edem Awumey (Mawenzi House Publishers). 

Wow. This book just blew me away. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness meets The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan's Winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize) meets The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño.

Bleak, yes, with its visceral descriptions of man's unfathomably extensive ability to torture and destroy his fellowmen. 

The poetical lyricism of the work intensifies the power of the horror of the story being told. The prose is an unflinching spotlight that shines directly into that morass of unspeakable events. 

One of the most powerful works I have read this year. Let's try to give this book the attention I truly feel it deserves. 

And kudos to the translators, Phyllis Aronoff & Howard Scott. A wonderful job. 


A Matter of Geography
A Matter of Geography by Jasmine D'Costa (Mosaic Press). 

Rare is the adult who lives in the same world as that of their youth. Take the fallout from Colonialism and mash it up with the disarray and fury of the powerhouses of organized religions – those are the seeds from which our current world bears fruit. 
 
The ever-prevalent power class pays careful homage to societal strata which are still as solidly in place as ever, they’re simply better hidden by a shield of platitudes that subscribes to the banner-bearing cause du jour.
 
And witness the erosion of faith by the betrayal of religious leaders to whom we turned for guidance and structure. All of these, along with family, friendship, tradition, love, history, mathematics and the notion of reality are what makes A Matter of Geography such a fine work. 
 
I was riveted from the start by this book. It pulled me in with its cinematically beautiful writing and warm, rich characters. 
A Handbook for Beautiful People
Beautifully written, the most compelling aspect for me, about this book, is the unflinching realism. You’re ever aware of a sense of inevitable catastrophe, all of which is realized (and then some),  as the dominoes start to fall. 

Twenty-two-year-old Marla is a perfect mix of naiveté, optimism and reckless foolhardy expectations. And yet, when you least expect it, she rallies and shows that world that she’s got some real fight in her, she really might have the seeds of what it takes to be a survivor and go the distance in life, despite the weight of her unchosen (and chosen) burdens. 

The book also explores the complex relationship between the family one is born into and the family who takes you in. I’ve always felt dismayed by the assumptions that birth family trumps that of chosen family and A Handbook for Beautiful People explores this theme from the various points of view.

The character I felt the most empathy for was Marla’s brother, Gavin. Gavin tries the hardest and he crashes to the lowest depths. A Handbook for Beautiful People is not an easy read but it is a worthy, memorable one. This book is not about happy endings, it’s about young lives that start out disadvantaged and spiral further. I would be extremely interested in a sequel. What happens to Liam, Marla, Dani, Gavin and Kamon? One wishes them the very best. 
A Trifecta of Fabulous Reads!
​​In what should be titled Featured Books, I have three lovely, fascinating and entirely different reads to offer you, a trifecta of fabulous writing: The Muslimah who Fell to Earth (personal stories by Canadian Muslim Women) edited by Saima S.Hussain (Mawenzi House), Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact and Speculation by Terri Favro (Skyhorse Publishing) and Rituals of Parsing by Jade Wallace (Anstruther Press).


The Muslimah who Fell to Earth (personal stories by Canadian Muslim Women) edited by Saima S.Hussain (Mawenzi House)
 
What a powerhouse of moving stories. Each story tells of a life, a family, and many families behind that, of homes left behind, homes forged out of nothing.  And too, love, faith, religion and choices.
 
This book is all about choices - the ones we want to make, the others we are forced to.
 
Often, when I take public transport, I look at the women around me and I wonder about their lives. I want to ask them about their stories, I wish they could tell me about their lives. Many of them look as tired as I feel (and as I probably look too!) and I want to say ‘I understand, let’s share a moment, let’s get off this bus and talk about our lives. How did we get here, to this faraway land of long winters and salt-crusted windows and acres of mud?’ But of course I can’t say that! But reading this book was like having a bus pull over and the women all piled out and we sat and had coffee and listened to the tales of each other’s lives.
 
Before I read each story, I went to the bio in order to get a sense of the author, to feel closer to the narrator. And with each, stories of such hardship, such courage, such faith and such joy.
 
I loved what Carmen Taha Jarrah said in Finding God, Finding Me: “Reading is the one thing we can do to grow and to remedy what ails our planet.”
 
One of my favourite stories was Letters to Rumi by Meharoona Ghani. “Dear Rumi, What if you were caught in a hairball?” With hilarious internal narrative and bluntly honest observations, her bio says Meharoona Ghani is working on a book Letters to Rumi which I very look forward to reading.
 
And Azmina Kassam, A Muslim's Womans Perspective, said it best: “writing allows one an intimate lens into the spaces that are intimate and private so that ‘we may realize our common humanity through these words and these stories.’ ”
 
Thank you Mawenzi House for giving me the opportunity to read and review this lovely, relevant, insightful work.
 
-.-
 
Generation Robot: by Terri Favro (Skyhorse Publishing)

Fascinating. Brilliantly written and hilarious, with sharp-as-a-tack insights, observations, past, present and future. 

I haven’t enjoyed a book this much since Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything by Amanda Gefter. That book, about which this was said, “In a memoir of family bonding and cutting-edge physics for readers of Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality and Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?, Amanda Gefter tells the story of how she conned her way into a career as a science journalist--and wound up hanging out, talking shop, and butting heads with the world's most brilliant minds”, was voted one of the Best Books of the Year by Kirkus Reviews and, in my opinion, as should Generation Robot.

This is essential (and highly entertaining and thoroughly researched) reading in a time when the fantasies of Black Mirror are more like a dire prognosis of what our future holds and Electric Dreams brings Philip K. Dick’s insanely unreal stories into the realm of the scarily real.
And Favro’s personal spin draws the reader in, we sit at the table having lunch with the family, chatting about robots, workplace safety and the impending nuclear war.

One of Favro’s greatest strengths as a writer (and she has many) is to create such a vivid sense of time and place. Her writing is itself a time machine whisking you back into the past and hurtling you into the future.

Generation Robot also a lovely homage and tribute to Attilio ‘Tee’ Favro, Terri’s father and to the workplace and lifestyle of the 50's.

You’ll learn all kinds of interesting things in this documentation of pop culture through the decades – a lot of which was a trip down memory lane, dating me, no doubt!

And, for those fearful of reading the book in case the prognosis is dire, fear not, we humans hold the cards, the future is ours, and what an interesting future it is!

-.-
 
And last but never least,

Rituals of Parsing by Jade Wallace (Anstruther Press)
 
What an achingly beautiful collection of poems.

If I were to tattoo lines of poetry on my arms, I would make my sections from these poems. How can a person write an entire movie into a poem – soundtrack included? Well, Jade Wallace does just that.

I am reminded of Ryan Gosling and Zack Shield’s Dead Man’s Bones, which was created in collaboration with the Silverlake Conservatory Children’s Choir – Wallace’s poems have that same echoey choral hauntedness to them, there are ghosts at every turn, ‘freaky baby ghost feet’ that follow luckless love and the loss it leaves.

I was quite addicted to Dead Man’s Bones, as I am with Rituals of Parsing – each reading reveals greater depths and new visions. With each reading, a new film plays before my eyes. A visual and haunting treat of a read.

-.-
 
And one last note, you might have noticed there are four book covers at the top of the page! Don't worry, I can count, the last is a P.S. re good news, I heard from the author of the mysterious book I purchased on the Danforth, Black to White, Wubit Zewdu! She and I will be meeting for coffee towards the end of April and I look forward to updating you all on her story and the story behind the book!
 
 
    
Things She Could Never Have
About the book:
"Accomplished, sensitive, and often disturbing, these stories take us into the lives of modern Pakistanis—privileged and poor, gay, trans, and straight, men and women, in Karachi and Toronto. “Whisperings of the Devil” takes us into the mind of a mistreated maidservant’s boy who gets seduced into the role of a suicide bomber. In “To Allah We Pray,” two privileged and educated young men, one of them home from Toronto, gallivant through the streets of Karachi, finally walking into a doomed mosque. “Things She Could Never Have” is a love story about two young trans women living in Karachi. “Born on the First of July” opens the door into the home of a Toronto girl who has left to join ISIS and the devastated family she leaves behind. “The First” will astonish many readers by its depiction of sexual encounters of young college girls in Pakistan. These and other stories link us into the complexities of a sometimes troubled and often misrepresented Muslim society.

My Review:
Powerful, rich, evocative and heartbreaking, Things She Could Never Have is filled with memorable stories about religion, gender, marriage, family, country and culture.

In this exquisite collection of short stories, life’s toughest issues are deftly tackled with finesse, sensitivity, compassion and empathy.

Presented from various points of view, the inter-connectedness of some of the pieces satisfies the reader’s desire to know more, to know what happened, and I found myself wishing for more ‘inside information’ with others. 


It was easy to get lost in these stories and feel as if you were right there. I loved this author's writing and I look forward to her next book.

Excerpt: 
"But don't think I am unhappy. There is a roof over my head, food that I cook for myself, and clothes that I stitch so well. There is a pleasure in being alive, spiced with few regrets. Sometimes I wish we had had kids so that I could see you in their faces, listen to you in their speech, realize you in the angles and contours of their bodies and rejoice you through the living of their lives. 

But then, I remind myself, I still have you. I have you here, within me, listening to my stories." – excerpt from Come Listen to Me.

Downward this Dog
Downward this Dog by Sanjay Talreja (Mawenzi House).

This year, I plan to read the works of more diverse Canadian writers and I’d like to thank Mawenzi House for supporting The Minerva Reader in this quest. 

I loved the short stories in this collection. From the very start, you’ll be gripped by the poignant tension and the vivid writing that engages all the senses.

Downward this Dog perfectly describes the immigrant experience, the difficulty in integrating, the rapture of the seasons, the orderly politeness, the quiet Canadian welcome. While far away, war rages with bombs and violence.

And Downward this Dog is also hilarious! I loved the insights, the creeping disillusion, funny despair and self awareness, as well as the insights into the Westernization of yoga. 

Downward this Dog is a beautifully written, insightful testament to the bravery of ordinary life, exploring themes of religion, family, love, marriage, money, success and failure.

"We will make a mix of flavours and dishes, but always with a hyphen. So it will be Italian-Tamil dishes or Punjabi-Spanish; instead of hiding in the kitchens, we'll show our faces to the public." – from The Kick. 

"And then, the journey back in the fading evening light. All of us strangely quiet, hypnotized by the unending expanse of snow-covered fields and the grey wet tarmac of the roads, and the lulling sound of the engine. All of us enveloped in our own thoughts—reminding us that the life we had glimpsed was only a brief moment and our yearning for home would have to lie buried deep within us. Bleak?" – from Downward this Dog.

"For all of those who struggle in the trenches—if experience has taught me anything, it is this: there is no other way." – Acknowledgements. 
    

Bats or Swallows

Bats or Swallows by Teri Vlassopoulos (Invisible Publishing).

Bats or Swallows is a treasure I nearly missed! Published in 2010 by Invisible Publishing, I was truly delighted and enthralled by these stories!

I met Teri at the Tartan Turban Reading series and, after hearing her read her short story, I rushed off and got my hands on a copy of the book. 

With huge apologies to Forest Gump (and those of you out there who are tired of the analogy), there are times when a good book of short stories is like a box of chocolates. And I mean the good kind, like marzipan-filled Belgian chocolate, not that Hershey's-encased strawberry pink gunk which will light up the inside of your eyeballs like a neon sign, from sugar overkill.

No, reading this book was more akin to eating Mozart balls accompanied by a lovely latte on a cold winter's day!

I'm looking forward to doing a lot more reading and posting on The Minerva Reader in 2018. I planned to do a lot of reading over the Christmas holidays but I ended up writing more than I read! Which is fine by me – when the muse knocks on my door, I rush to answer her call!

But I'll have books coming from far and wide across Canada this year, and I hope you'll join me in celebrating them. 

And don't forget to pick up a copy of Bats or Swallows! Each story is a real treat. I look forward to reading Escape Plans by Teri, (Invisible Publishing).