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The Tyee's Summer Reads

Our seasonal staff picks for a sunny (cross your fingers) BC summer. Suggest your own!

Tyee Staff and Contributors 18 Jun

To the beach!

Or a hammock chair. Or a park bench, or your favourite patio. Even your couch will do.

We’re out of the West Coast’s famous Juneuary and into sunny summer weather, and it’s time to take some time off. If you’re anything like us, that means you’ll be in need of a few good books. We’re sharing our recommendations here — please add yours in the comments!


If you’re chafing against ageism (and looking to outrun death!):

Hiromi Goto, Shadow Life (First Second)

Poet and novelist Hiromi Goto’s wildly fierce and funny new graphic novel Shadow Life has at its centre a truly unique heroine. After fleeing a drab seniors’ facility, 76-year-old Kumiko makes a new life for herself in a funky downtown neighbourhood. Her adult daughters are less than pleased with their runaway mother, but Kumiko has bigger problems to solve. Death has come a’calling and will not be so easily evaded.

If you want to know the deal with Keith Raniere:

Sarah Berman, Don’t Call it a Cult (Viking)

Sarah Berman’s thorough reporting on the inner workings of the cultish self-help group NXIVM and its secret, coercive “women’s group,” DOS, fully elucidates how scores of incredibly talented, smart young women fell under the spell of a mousey, volleyball-playing con man — and how so many young Vancouverites ended up joining a group ostensibly based in Albany, New York. There’s a good reason why Don’t Call It a Cult was an instant national bestseller.

If you want to know what zombies have to do with Black sovereignty:

junie désil, eat salt | gaze at the ocean (Talonbooks)

Recently shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, junie désil’s eat salt | gaze at the ocean uses the metaphor of Haitian zombies to explore themes of Black sovereignty and Haitian sovereignty. désil intersperses her personal story of growing up Black and Haitian in Canada with snippets from fictions, newspaper articles, dictionaries and judicial papers, creating a multi-layered exploration that is as political as it is personal.


For those who enjoy a bit of suspense and a dash of grisly death in their fiction:

Michael LaPointe, The Creep (Random House Canada)

Journalist Whitney Chase puts the “creative” in creative non-fiction. In other words, she’s a bit of a fibber, embellishing details in search of better, more compelling stories. But worrying about if and when she’ll get caught is just part of where the tension of The Creep comes in. Whitney finally comes across a story she doesn’t need to beef up, only to stumble across the (dangerous! deadly!) lies lurking just under its shiny surface.

The book to make you mad, sad and grateful for journalists:

Eric Eyre, Death in Mud Lick (Simon & Shuster)

Eric Eyre was working for a small, failing daily newspaper in West Virginia, already covering a state lawsuit against drug distributors, when a young woman contacted him about the overdose death of her brother. That led to this riveting book revealing the way drug companies shipped millions of pills into tiny coal towns, and prescription mills and pharmacies with drive-thru lanes and free hot dogs to keep people happy while waiting pushed pills throughout the eastern U.S. All while the DEA and other regulators did nothing and politicians fought action against an industry that fuelled overdose deaths and dependencies and a wild illegal market. (Empire of Pain, about the truly vile Sackler family who made billions pushing opioids, would be a good companion read.)

For everyone who loves to read queer stories (in graphic novel format!):

Syan Rose, Our Work Is Everywhere (Arsenal Pulp Press)

“When I say, ‘our work is everywhere,’ I intend to expand the definition of ‘work’ beyond what is recognizable and valuable under capitalism,” writes Syan Rose. The work she’s talking about is, instead, all of the labour — tough conversations, shared nourishment, emotional support — that forms part of the work of challenging systemic racism, fatphobia, colonialism, etc. The book consists of beautifully drawn — think the best of zine culture, printed in hi-res — conversations between activists and artists in different movements, talking about their struggles, their wins, and everything adjacent and wound in, from cooking to admiring moss hanging from bald cypress trees in New Orleans.


The book to read when you’re in the woods and already a little bit freaked out:

Cherie Dimaline, Empire of Wild (Vintage Canada)

Joan, the protagonist of Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild, is propelled through this novel by a fast-moving plot that includes the mysterious missing husband she pines for, a man-wolf creature called the Rogarou, Christians wearing matching khaki pants, and her really annoying family. Set in a close-knit Métis community in Ontario, this story will have you on the edge of your seat!

The perfect book for reimagining post-pandemic life:

Anna Pitoniak, The Futures (Little, Brown)

The pandemic isn’t over yet, but it’s already forced many of us to rework our lives, and to think about what we want out of them once pre-pandemic options return. In The Futures, Whistler-raised author Anna Pitoniak brings the 2008 financial crisis to life through a young couple starting their life together in New York, bound by love and estranged by class background and upbringing. The reverberations of that period’s anxiety is spun out between the two central characters as they grapple with who they think they are and who they could become, either together or apart. Pitoniak’s rich prose is the ideal canvas for a reader pondering their own dreams and desires during a time just as destabilizing and uncertain.

If you want insight on how settlers and Indigenous people might walk together:

Darrel J. McLeod, Peyakow:Reclaiming Cree Dignity (Douglas & McIntyre)

For a memoir about a life rooted in Canada’s genocidal policies, Peyakow is remarkably hopeful. McLeod is unblinking and nuanced as he shows the effects of intergenerational trauma on him and his family, while also describing his path through a career of remarkable achievement. The beauty of Peyakow, Cree for “one who walks alone,” is in how the exuberance and gloom are entwined throughout. 


When you want to be surprised by how one dull idea can change everything:

Marc Levinson, The Box (Princeton University Press)

Containers: stacked high on ships in Burrard Inlet, on trains and trucks. Utilitarian. Boring even. But Levinson explains how the shipping container, first tried on a converted oil tanker in 1956, changed the world. Goods that were once loaded onto ships as individual cargo got shuffled into big metal boxes. Longshoremen lost their jobs and their unions lost power. Criminal organizations that made money stealing the cargo suffered. Crews went from enjoying five days in port as cargo was unloaded to never leaving the giant ships. Global commerce shifted to the countries and cities big enough to guarantee the ever-larger ships a full cargo. Distances were erased by new, faster shipping. In other words: just as the internet changed the world, so did a metal box.

For anyone feeling like this damn-demic has to be good for something:

Patrick Condon, Sick City: Disease, Race, Inequality and Urban Land (Creative Commons, Levellers Press)

Well sorry, it just plain sucks. But the plague did inspire UBC professor and former Vancouver mayoral candidate Patrick Condon to connect some dots rather elegantly in Sick City: Disease, Race, Inequality and Urban Land. Condon ties COVID-19’s low-income victims to the global land-rush pushing them into tight quarters and cramped commutes. To be healthy, we should focus on beating back land inflation, argues Condon, who contrasts North America’s affordable housing policies with Vienna’s radically different model of public investment, and offers solutions we aren’t hearing from our politicians. Yet.

The best book for raging against the (white) machine:

Laina Dawes, WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal (Bazillion Points)

Despite originating in Black genres of blues and rock n roll, heavy metal is seen as the domain of angry white men. But who has more to rage against than Black women and femmes? Music critic Laina Dawes’s first book is part memoir of a Black fan in an aggressively white scene, part musical ethnography, centring the growing cadre of Black women who didn’t find space for themselves in metal: they kicked down the door and took it. 


The book for everyone who has itchy feet but is waiting out the pandemic to travel:

Andrew Sean Greer, Less (Little, Brown)

After his lover announces he’s getting married, Arthur Less accepts every residency and award offer sitting in his inbox, planning a round-the-world trip that will take him as far from the impending nuptials as possible. Less expertly depicts the human tendency to diminish — ourselves, our achievements, our relationships. But with skill that is nothing less than sleight of hand, Andrew Sean Greer slowly reveals that Less is actually more. He weaves his self-deprecating wit throughout, creating an endearing and very human character, and a beautiful love story in the process.

The book for queer folks muddling through mid-life, love and friendship, and family-making:

Christopher DiRaddo, The Family Way (Véhicule Press)

Montrealer Christopher DiRaddo is the host of the Violet Hour reading series and book club. His most recent book, The Family Way, tells the story of 40-year-old Paul, who is approached by his friends Wendy and Eve to help them get pregnant. The novel is tender, and approachable, and real — like when Paul and his partner Michael are talking about an important decision, only to be interrupted by the need to care for their cat, who is upchucking in the kitchen.

For those looking to learn a little more about Nova Scotian history:

Laura Ķeniņš, Nova Graphica (Conundrum Press)

Nova Graphica features the work of over a dozen contributors sharing, in graphic novel form, the lesser-known stories of Nova Scotia. Vanessa Lent and Sarah Ziolkowska, for example, tell the story of the Halifax Women’s Home from the perspective of Frances, a woman living there in her third trimester. The home replaced Belvidere House, one of the oldest buildings in Halifax, which had been “deemed damaged beyond repair”; Frances wonders if “a building could contain both its conception and its slow creep forward in time towards its eventual destruction.” Nova Graphica contains, in a relatively small volume, a refreshing range of writing and drawing styles.


If you’re looking for a contemporary Indigenous Matriarch story:

Kim Senklip Harvey, Kamloopa (Talonbooks)

Kamloopa, a recent winner of the Governor General’s Award for English-Language Drama, is a deeply funny and deeply touching play about sisterhood, friendship and Indigeneity. Harvey’s play is set simultaneously in the messy apartment of two sisters, and in “the multiverse.” It’s set in the here and now, and it’s set across, and outside of time. In other words, it’s both incredibly specific, and much broader than the constructs of any given book.

The book for everyone who loves a good epistolary text: Ivan Coyote, Care Of (McClelland & Stewart)

Ivan Coyote’s latest is a series of letters — some handwritten, some emailed, some sent via Facebook — from readers and audience members. Coyote began saving these letters in 2009, sometimes finding a moment to write back — but it was only the stuck-in-time halted momentum of the pandemic that allowed them to answer many in earnest. The result is an intimate anthology of queer experience, with youth and elders and parents sharing their own stories after reading Coyote’s or attending one of their many pre-pandemic performances. Come for the description of Judith Butler using a slip ’n slide at a camp for trans kids, stay for heartfelt conversations about gender and queerness.

If you’re a writer whose bestselling friends have “thick hair and marketable teeth”:

Nancy Lee, What Hurts Going Down (McClelland & Stewart)

What Hurts Going Down is UBC creative writing professor Nancy Lee’s first book of poetry — her previous books are The Age, a novel, and Dead Girls, short stories. But the same strong voice that propels her fiction is present in What Hurts Going Down, which is alternately funny, startling and sad. The poems in this collection are about violence, and power, and gender, and choice, and their own power is rooted in Lee’s muscular language, the way she wields words like “husbandry.”


A masterpiece for anyone who loves language:

Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything (Oxford University Press)

Simon Winchester is the bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and The Map that Changed the World. But the best book he’s ever written — well, the best non-fiction book ever — is his The Meaning of Everything, which tells the history of the Oxford English Dictionary and the English language. English is a language that has a very well-known centre, and no known circumference.

To take aim at the patriarchal goofs of old-time comic strips:

Joe Ollmann, Fictional Father (Drawn & Quarterly)

Targeting the dynamics of the nuclear family, as well as the lingering, perhaps surprising resilience of the old-time daily comic strip, Fictional Father  is a nuanced and painful but ultimately humanizing look at family ties, punctuated with Ollmann’s scratchy, catchy, wonderful drawings.

Those are our picks for enjoyable summer reads. What are yours? Please share your recommendations in the comments below.  [Tyee]

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