My Favourite Books of 2022

As usual, these are books I read in 2022, not necessarily books published in 2022. As a new parent, I have found it hard to make time for print books, so you’ll notice a lot of these I read as audiobooks. These are almost all queer and a good number Canadian! And of course, I know the year isn’t over yet, so I reserve the right to add a few books in the next week or so. Let’s get to it!

Yerba Buena by Nina LaCour

This is maybe a perfect book? It is just lovely: gorgeous, understated, evocative prose; a rich sense of place; a focus on pleasure, beauty, and growth while not forgetting pain, loss, and grief; intricate queer characters whose lives felt so true. LaCour follows two women, Emilie and Sara, from teenagehood to their late twenties, charting their journeys until they have a chance meeting at a restaurant where Sara is consulting as a bartender and Emilie is doing flower arrangements. Although they are instantly drawn to one another circumstances prevent them from acting on it initially. They come from different backgrounds but both of their lives have been altered irrevocably by addiction in their families. But in the end they find beauty and purpose. Sometimes simple miscommunications can have big consequences, that happens in life. Sometimes you lose contact with people you didn’t intend to and that’s sad but okay. This is the kind of book that made me feel good about being alive. Bittersweet.

People Change by Vivek Shraya

A very readable, thought-provoking book of essays that I gobbled up in one morning. This is a short book but Shraya covers a lot of ground discussing change, reinvention, and fluidity through referencing fashion, trans identity, Sai Baba, Madonna, her own artistic practices in multiple mediums, bisexuality, friendships, divorce, her relationships with her parents, and more.

I particularly loved reading her thoughts on friendships and their intersection with your changing self after her fascinating investigation of that theme in her novel The Subtweet. It made me think of some growing pains I’ve had in longterm friendships where the person I or my friend was growing into was very different than when we’d established the friendship.

Shraya’s writing on trans identity reminded me of Meredith Talusan’s memoir Fairest, which also resists mainstream, simplified narratives about trans identities and finally arriving at an inevitable true self. If you like People Change, read Talusan or vice versa! I actually wrote a full review on this very blog of this book, one of only three (lol sob) that I wrote this year.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

When I started this novel, which came out in 2021, I was shaking my head at myself for not reading it sooner. It was a book I was very excited about so why did I wait until January 2022 to read it? Now it feels like it was meant to be that I read Detransition, Baby at this time in my life, when I have had a baby. (My baby Jimena is almost five months old!) I don’t think I would have identified so deeply and viscerally with Reese and her desire to be a mother if I hadn’t recently become one myself.

Reese is one of those characters that I early on decided I would do anything for; which in some ways made the parts of the novel that focused on Amy / Ames more difficult to read and empathize with, because I was so firmly in Reese’s corner. But Peters, of course, won me over to Amy in particular in her transition period. And I came to see Reese in a more well rounded way as well. Peters’ writing is brilliant: brutal honesty, keen insights, sharp jokes, nuanced characters, and thoughtful explorations of its themes of motherhood and trans community / found family. This novel also has a perfect ending, in my humble opinion.

An example of the very funny writing:

“Heterosexual cis people, while willfully ignoring it, have staked their whole sexuality on a bet that each other’s genders are real. If only cis heterosexuals would realize that, like trans women, the activity in which they are indulging is a big self-pleasuring lie.”

[I’ve realized I didn’t give a synopsis of what this book is about. In case you don’t already know: three women, two trans — one who has detransitioned — and one cis who have a series of tangled relationships with each other in NYC, culminating in an accidental pregnancy which offers them the potential opportunity to make a new type of queer family]. I can’t wait to see what Torrey Peters writes next. Also I highly recommend this review of the book by Drew Gregory. She writes that it is “a book for trans women — the rest of you are lucky to read it.” I do feel lucky!

You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi

Reading this book was truly a journey. It’s billed as Emezi’s debut romance, so I went in with plenty of genre-related expectations. The book immediately thwarted them.

Feyi, the main character, begins the story just at the cusp of coming back to life five years after the death of her husband in a car accident. She’s not even 30, but is already a widow who holds a huge grief close in her heart. In the novel’s opening scene, she meets a guy at a party. Of course, convention would have it that this dude is the main love interest. It’s not a spoiler to say he is definitely not. It’s clear he’s not, pretty much right away.

I’m hesitant to write anything more about the plot details and structure of this book, as Emezi is clearly playing with the reader’s expectations and that works best when you’re not prepared for the twists and turns. I will say though, that the first 75 pages or so of this book frustrated the hell out of me and that I considered not continuing with it multiple times. If the first six chapters feel flat and lifeless to you as they did for me, keep in mind it’s intentional (or, at least I read it that way).

In the end, this was a beautifully sensual and artistic romance story. There is a lot of food, music, art, and tropical nature. This novel made me HUNGRY! For a book that is a lot about grief, it’s also really about pleasure and beauty. (Hence the title, I guess). It’s also one of those romances that is just as much about the character’s personal growth as it is the love story (my favourite kind).

Have I mentioned this romance is also queer as hell? First of all, it’s a bi for bi M/F romance. Then there’s Feyi’s delightfully vulgar bisexual BFF, Joy. And the curator at a museum where Feyi is showing her work. The security guard at the museum. The collector who commissions some of Feyi’s artwork. Literally, no straight people in sight. There are also no white people, as far as I can remember (most of the characters are Black, of various national and ethnic backgrounds, as well as a South Asian character).

I’m not sure what to make of my mixed experience reading this book. Now, after just finishing it, having recently cried while reading it, it’s hard to remember my annoyance at it early on. (I will say too that the plot details that seem extraneous at the outset turn out to be important near the book’s close). I can’t help but feel like I wish Emezi hadn’t challenged me quite so much, but perhaps that’s exactly what they intended to do. Overall, this is a gorgeous book very much worth reading.

Cold by Mariko Tamaki

Ooof this book snuck up on me. By the end I was bawling. Mariko Tamaki’s deceptively simple prose lures you into the worlds of these two teenagers — one gay boy and one gay girl — and then quietly pulls the rug out from under you somehow without you even knowing it’s coming, even though you should have.

I love how Tamaki brings queer teenagers’ voices to life in such an authentic and nuanced way. These two kids, Todd and Georgia, are no exception, even though one of them is a ghost for the whole novel and they never knew each other in real life.

This book is a mystery, but it’s unconventional genre-wise. Georgia, the teen who isn’t a ghost, doesn’t take much of an active role in being a detective, although she does slowly figure out what happened on the night Todd died. Todd, as an omniscient presence, hovers over the official investigation and shares with readers what he sees and feels (as much as a ghost can feel, he explains).

Cold is a book about a queer kid dying, and you know that right from the beginning. You know that homophobia must have planned some part in what happened.

But Tamaki’s investigation of this theme is delicate, nuanced and goes in a direction you might not expect. The book is not about the kind of headline-making, explicitly violent homophobia you might expect. It’s about how it makes queer kids vulnerable, about how it makes it so difficult for queer adults to mentor queer kids, about how one persuasive kid’s bigotry can move seemingly “nice” kids — even closeted queer kids — to go along with awful stuff.

Tamaki called this book Cold and oh my god did it make me feel that way. Chilled.

Glorious Frazzled Beings by Angélique Lalonde

I didn’t absolutely love every story in this book (there are a lot and some are only a few pages!) but some are so amazing, capturing my imagination, that I have to give the collection as a whole five stars. Incredible writing, incredible insights. Wonderfully strange, devastatingly sad, magical and real.

Lalonde’s range in terms of style and voice is enormous, impressive. The themes of motherhood really got me in the heart and gut. Memorable and extraordinary Indigenous characters as well. (The author’s mom is Métis). A bit of casual queerness.

I was really craving a book whose prose I could just sink into, which Glorious Frazzled Beings really delivered on! I was tempted often to record Lalonde’s astonishing sentences and phrases but instead I just let them wash over me. Highly recommended!

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

This was an utter delight from start to finish. (Not that there isn’t hard stuff in this novel, because there is). It has so much going on — a incredibly romantic love story, the protagonist Hana’s journey of personal growth, an indictment of Islamophobia and racism, a celebration of family, and a cast of lovable secondary characters with their own compelling subplots — yet it never felt too busy or cluttered or rushed.

The book is billed as a loose retelling of “You’ve Got Mail,” set in Toronto with a Muslim Indian Canadian woman at the centre. IMHO, Jalaluddin’s novel is much better than the movie. She’s taken the film’s concept of two people who are anonymous friends online but business enemies in real life falling in love and done it spectacularly. Everything she’s added or changed is excellently done and all the shitty stuff from the movie is gone!

Hana is a 24-year-old podcaster / radio broadcaster hopeful who also works part time at her mom’s halal restaurant in Golden Crescent, a Toronto neighbourhood of diverse immigrants she’s lived in her whole life. Enter Aydin, a Vancouver native who’s planning on opening a halal restaurant right down the street from her mom’s!! Which is already struggling!! Of course Hana is primed to hate him (no matter how cute he is). Little does she know Aydin is her longtime podcast listener / anonymous online friend!!

As I said this is a deeply romantic love story (with some beautiful and simultaneously sexy moments), but there’s a lot more going on. There’s Hana’s mom’s restaurant, of course, but also her sister, who’s pregnant and recently been put on bed rest. Hana’s 18-year-old mischievous cousin from India, Rashid, has just arrived to stay with them, along with a surprise guest, her sophisticated and rebellious aunt and her aunt’s mysterious friend visiting Canada at the same time. (Rashid is hilarious and a total scene stealer).

Hana is having a lot of trouble in her internship at a local radio station, trying to take advantage of the opportunity while navigating constant microaggressions from her white lady boss and clashing with her fellow desi intern who wants to go about getting ahead differently. She’s also navigating changing friendships with Yusuf and Lily, her childhood friends and on again off again couple. Even characters not on the page much, like the local imam, feel fleshed out and real.

I just loved this! Highly recommended! In addition to how thoughtfully everything is done, this book is very funny too!

I will say a tiny thing that irked me was the little asides (I am guessing they were placed there at the prompting of an editor) that explain South Asian and/or Muslim terms and cultural details. (For example, explaining what the Moghul empire is and basic Muslim funeral practices).

As a white and non-Muslim person I assume these asides are directed at, I would like to say that I am perfectly capable of googling things and also inferring from context! My main worry is that they’d feel alienating or annoying to readers who are South Asian and/or Muslim. I’d be interested to hear what those readers think.

Dead Collections by Isaac Fellman

This delightfully weird novel was maybe my favourite all year. The fact that it’s about a trans vampire archivist was enough for me to be excited going into it, but I really wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to love this book. I loved it so much I’m feeling incapable of explaining why. But I’ll try anyway!

Sol Katz, said trans vampire archivist, spends a lot of time musing on all three of these facets of his identity. (Archivist is definitely an identity for him, no mere vocation or career). It’s a fascinating, lovely character study. But it’s not just about Sol as a (n undead) person. It’s about vampirism, being trans, and the nature of archives more generally. It’s about how all three are about life and death.

Sol doesn’t just deal with or talk about trans, vampire, and/or archivist stuff (sometimes his problems seem like all three mixed together, poor guy). In the short span of the book, Fellman also writes thoughtfully and beautifully about grief, fanfiction and fandom, music, and life stories. The novel takes place mostly in conversations. Sometimes it’s just Sol musing in his own head.

But sometimes the conversations with his love interest! I haven’t even mentioned yet that this is also a completely delightful eccentric romance. I don’t want to spoil anything about who it is or what their journey is alongside Sol. But it is very cute and sexy and just as weird as the rest of the book, with a bit of a melancholic edge. There is also a subtle mystery element. Something is happening in Sol’s archives to make the materials deteriorate much faster than they should be. Some materials are transforming into a weird sap-like goo…

Feldman’s take on vampirism is truly unique. In this world, it’s more like a chronic illness with severely limiting symptoms. No added sexiness or glamour or superpowers. (Not that Sol isn’t sexy; he is, if you think neurotic nerds are, like me ha). But his being a vampire plays wonderfully with the idea, as the title days, that archives are “dead collections,” materials someone considered throwing in the trash but instead are kept sort of alive while still being dead. You know, like a vampire.

Highly recommended especially for my fellow queer and trans archives and libraries people! Also, if you’ve read and loved Hazel Jane Plante’s Little Blue Encyclopedia like I did, Dead Collections is a wonderful companion. It also talks a lot about an invented TV show that feels *so real* and about grief and being trans.

Shout-out to Dani Martinek who does an incredible job performing the audiobook. I’m off to go see what other books they’ve narrated!

Little Witch Hazel by Phoebe Wahl

Wow this is like the most beautiful picture book I’ve ever read. I bought this on a whim for my 7-month-old (who is admittedly more into eating books than reading them at the time) and I’m so glad I did! Little Witch Hazel is who I want to be when I grow up, a stout chubby lady with hairy legs and a big pointy red hat living in a cozy little house in the forest helping her fellow creatures. There are four stories in the book, one for each season. They all evoke the season so viscerally. The illustrations are sooo beautiful and full of tiny gem details (for example, in two page spread of creatures floating on leaves on a pond, one of the tiny elves is breastfeeding a baby). A picture book for everyone! 

The Falling in Love Montage by Ciara Smyth

A truly outstanding contemporary YA  about a lesbian teen, Saoirse, and the summer after she graduates from high school. She meets a girl staying in her seaside Irish town for the summer and rom com aficionado Ruby convinces Saoirse to embark on a tour through the tropes of rom coms — hence the title — like going to a fair and having a phone conversation where neither of them want to hang up. 

Saoirse is determined to keep the relationship light and fun, despite her growing feelings for Ruby. There are a lot of reasons: her best friend turned girlfriend who she thought she’d be with forever broke up with her recently. Saoirse is terrified of having her heart broken again. The fallout soured her friendship with their mutual friend too. 

But most of all, it’s the fact that her mom has early onset dementia and lives in a fulltime care home. Saoirse visits her every day but her mom no longer remembers who she is. Her mom’s condition is genetic, and it’s making Saoirse feel like it’s not worth investing in anything: a relationship, or the conditional acceptance she’s received to Oxford. She’s also furious at her dad, who wants to get remarried. 

As you can tell, this book isn’t the lighthearted rom com the cover might lead you to believe it is (although it certainly has elements and rom com fans will enjoy all the references sprinkled throughout). But I loved it. The book was so heartfelt and authentic. It felt very true to an older queer teen’s experiences and mistakes. It was sad and funny and thoughtful. 

Recommended in audiobook format – it’s a great performance and especially fun to hear the Irish accents (if you are a non-Irish person like me).

She Gets the Girl by Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick

This is an absolutely delightful dual POV YA/new adult sapphic romance. I adored Alex and Molly, watching these two opposites attract lesbians realize they’re not so different after all, become friends, and then discover that the girls they thought they wanted aren’t actually right for them because they love each other!! 

So Molly begins college a socially awkward, shy, compulsive organizer whose best friend is her mom. Like, her mom is her only friend. Her mom, who was adopted from Korea and grew up in a hostile white town, is also struggling with internalized racism that Molly is trying not to inherit. 

For most of high school, Molly’s been in love with — from afar, like never having really talked to! — this quirky girl Cora. Cora is attending the same university, and Molly is determined to come out of her shell and finally get Cora to notice her so the two of them can live happily ever after. The thing is, Molly doesn’t actually know Cora and is more in love with her fantastical idea of who Cora is than Cora as a real person. Good lord I identified painfully with her! 

Alex is a particular kind of person I have known in real life who is very hard to evoke in writing — but the authors really succeeded, I think. She’s charismatic, flirty, confident, and conventionally attractive enough that she gets attention from strangers. She knows it, and uses it to her advantage when she needs to. People assume she’s a superficial bimbo. 

Her single mom is an alcoholic and Alex has been working through high school to support herself and her mom. Basically, she’s the parent. Her musician girlfriend, Natalie, has just dumped her for “not being emotionally available” and apparently being a player who can’t commit to a relationship.  (Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be Natalie who likes to play petty relationship games and fuck around with Alex’s feelings).

These two do not like each other much when they first meet! But Molly reluctantly lets Alex help her get Cora to go out with her. Alex figures she can show Natalie that she *is* a good person who can use her flirtation skills to help another lesbian while not hooking up with anyone! Molly can’t deny Alex seems good at attracting girls — except Molly herself, who is decidedly not charmed and therefore able to be herself around Alex. The fault with this plan is, of course, that it results in the two of them spending a lot of time together, including “practice” dates, and it turns out they actually really like each other? More than either of the girls they are apparently trying to woo.

I suspect people familiar with Pittsburgh and who went to university there will love all the campus and city setting details. Fellow sapphics are going to love all the cultural references, from TV shows including Killing Eve and Wynonna Earp, celebrity crushes like Cara Delevigne, and lines like “I thought I told you I’m not a sporty gay!” I also loved how homophobia and even the fact that all these characters are queer are not even minor plot points.

I was rooting from the get go for each girl individually and for them to figure out their feelings for each other. I was sad to see them go at the end of the book. My only qualms are I wanted the scene when they finally got together and when Moliy realized her feelings to be a little bit more drawn out. I also felt like one of their mom storylines was tied up a bit too neatly. I read an ARC though, so those elements might be changed in the final book. 

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

This is an incredible story, with meticulously weaved threads of multiple plotlines, endearing and complex characters, a unique mix of genres, fun world-building, and sensory prose that delights equally in food and music. It’s part trans girl musician runaway tale, part alien escape and adventure in disguise on earth, part older Asian women sapphic love story, and part Faustian epic about selling your soul for musical success. Its tone is overall joyful and hopeful, despite being very upfront about the transmisogyny Katrina (the young runaway musician) faces. The twists and turns of the plot consistently surprised and delighted me. 

Essentially, it is the story of Katrina Nguyen running away from home to LA. There, she happens to meet Shizuka Satomi, a renowned violin teacher, in a city park. Shizuka has made a deal with the devil long ago to deliver seven souls to Hell. Her six previous students all sold their souls. But time is running out on her contract to deliver the last soul. Enter Katrina. But also: enter Lan Tran, who appears to be a mere “donut lady” at a family-run donut shop but is actually an alien and captain of a ship that escaped her galaxy’s pending doom with her family. Lan and Shizuka have an instant spark. Is it possible for Shizuka and Katrina to escape damnation and for these two lovebirds to live happily ever after? 

In addition to these three fascinating ladies, there are a lot of wonderful secondary characters, including Shizuka’s delightfully unflappable Swiss housekeeper Astrid; a master violin repairwoman Lucia Matea, who has inherited her family’s gift with violins despite not being a son; a demon that pops in and out to hurry Shizuka along while gobbling up earth food; and Shirley, Lan’s loyal and all too human AI daughter. Recommended in audiobook format narrated by Cindy Kay. 

Ma and Me by Putsata Reang

A fascinating, moving, and beautifully written memoir. Putsata Reang writes with compassion and nuance about her complicated relationship with her mother. Her family escaped Cambodia as the civil war came to a head in the 1970s, leaving just before the genocide began in full force.

Put was only a year old and as their family drifted on a ship throughout Asia trying to find a place that would take them and others as refugees, baby Put appeared lifeless and barely ate for three weeks. The ship’s captain suggested her mother throw her overboard so as not to contaminate the overcrowded boat. Her mother, known as Ma throughout the memoir (pronounced in Khmer “Mak”), of course refused and managed to get Put medical care in the Philippines. She saved her baby’s life. 

Put carries this debt with her her entire life; on top of the already heavy burden as a child of refugees who arrived in the US with nothing, not even knowing any English. She works hard for the first forty years of her life as a journalist in the US and abroad. She lives for a long time in her home country of Cambodia, making her mother proud by becoming fluent in Khmer again and embracing her Cambodian identity. 

But she can never be the perfect Cambodian daughter she wants to be: she’s gay. 

As I said at the beginning, Reang brings so much compassion and nuance to telling her mother’s and then her own story. Her mother grew up steeped in a sexist and homophobic culture that hurt her a lot too (notably, in an arranged marriage she did not agree to and which crushed her dreams of continuing her education and career). Severed from her home, Ma clings to traditional Khmer values and feels she has failed as a parent for having a gay kid. Reang holds space for the circumstances and feelings of her mother, while also honouring her own of anger, guilt, shame, defiance, and right to happiness. 

Apart from the fascinating story of her family’s life leaving Cambodia and establishing themselves in rural Oregon, Put’s life as a journalist who lived and worked around the world, including Cambodia, Thailand, and Afghanistan during the war in 2005 is equally fascinating. The interior journey of self actualization and discovery she goes on while she attenpts to run away from herself is also just as compelling.

I will say I was eager for a bit more discussion about her identity and how she’s using the word gay. I was a bit confused as to why she only used this label to describe herself (looking back on her childhood up to her adulthood). She writes a few times about meaningful relationships with men she had as an adult and at one point writes “Like me, [April] wasn’t hung up on the gender of who she was involved with. She fell in love with the person.” I couldn’t help but think, the word that describes that is bisexual or pansexual not gay!

Obviously people get to choose their own labels and I want to honour that. But also biphobia is real and it impacts what labels and identities people think are available to them and which are acceptable. I know Reang is bringing the same kind of nuance to her identity as she’s applying to her mom and their relationship, I guess I just wanted a more explicit investigation. 

Some examples of the great writing are below! Reang’s prose is sparse but powerful. The image of her mother casting her overboard as an adult for being gay made me cry.

“To go to the country of your birth on these terms puts joy so adjacent to sadness that they mute each other’s edge.”

“When you live in one country but belong to another, your feet fall hesitantly upon the earth.”

“When you cannot wrap your daughter in the finest silks, you wrap her in your most elaborate stories.”

“Forty years after saving me, the hope we both clung to capsized. Ma had cast me overboard.”

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

A soothing balm of a book about a troubled soul looking for peace and purpose in an optimistic, abundant science fiction future where humans all have their needs met.

Sibling Dex is a nonbinary tea monk who travels from village to village dispensing tea and a friendly ear to tell your troubles to. Although they enjoy their work, they are finding life increasingly less bearable for unknown reasons. They wonder off their life path, quite literally, into the wilderness.

There they are astounded to meet Mosscap, a robot who is the descendants of sentient robots created by humans hundreds of years ago and who left civilization to reside in the woods apart from humanity. Mosscap is an envoy of sorts, a representative of the robots sent to investigate the current state of humans. 

A delicate friendship between these two oddballs blossoms. There is some lovely gentle humour and thoughtful conversations about what makes a meaningful life. Becky Chambers’ books are like the equivalent of wearing a cozy sweater and sitting around the campfire with friends talking about the meaning of life. Cozy queer sci fi!

Truly outstanding audiobook performance by nonbinary voice actor Emmett Grosland!

Beast at Every Threshold by Natalie Wee

A truly incredible collection of poetry. Themes include queer love and desire; pop culture; immigration; racism and being othered; pets and plants; diaspora; myth and folklore; parenthood and childbirth. Intertextual in nature, the poems often explicitly reference other poet’s work, from Sappho to Ocean Vuong, as well as musicians including Mitski and Phoebe Bridgers.

They are delightfully and fiercely innovative in their form, style, and word play. One poem is written as a crossword with clues. More than one is written in multiple columns/stanzas justified left and right so it’s open to being read straight across both columns or one column at a time — or both, of course. Wee has a talent for clever line breaks that appear to end on one word only to supply the second part of the word on the next line, changing the meaning as you first read it. For example: “I understand how one mistakes the kind / -ling of lovers for a fuse.”

Her word choice is often delightfully uncanny, making mundane words strange and wonderful in their unexpected use. I’m not surprised to see the collection has a blurb from Billy-Ray Belcourt, who has a similar ease and play with language that makes the old and familiar look new and curious. 

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

Delightful doesn’t even begin to describe this incredibly fun but also thoughtful bi-for-bi historical romance. A soft thief with a heart of gold and a penchant for crime a la Robin Hood and for brusque woman who order him around? A prickly determined woman who’s new to crime but fiercely committed to protecting those she loves? A couple who meet while one is blackmailing the other and then the blackmailee kidnaps the blackmailer and all is even and forgotten? A couple who falls in live via letters which start out as notes between enemies?? Queer found family of criminals?? What is not to love. 

If you are looking for some refreshingly different M/F sex scenes this is the book for you, especially if you like top-ish  women and bottom-ish men and also no vaginal penetration! 

Like Other Girls by Britta Lundin

I ABSOLUTELY LOVED THIS BOOK! There is a lot going on in Like Other Girls – effortlessly and deftly balanced, by the way – but at its core it’s a story about a closeted butch lesbian teen struggling with and overcoming internalized misogyny. Also: lots of football, female friendship and solidarity, swoony romance, intergenerational queer mentorship, masculine of centre gender expression, anger management, and a whole lot of personal growth. 

I wrote a glowing review of this book for Autostraddle!

The Hurting Kind by Ada Limón

What a lovely coincidence that the day I started writing this review was when Ada Limón was announced as the US’s newest Poet Laureate. What wonderful news!

It’s a soothing collection of poetry that is most often occupied with the natural world, but in the end has a lot to say about humanity. This is my first book by Limón, and I expect many have made the comparison to Mary Oliver before. I can’t help but make it too, as these poems made me feel right with the world – particularly the human portion of it – by way of nature in a similar way to Oliver’s work. Both writers are queer women as well, for what that’s worth. Limón, of course though, is her own poet. 

Limón writes about the relief you feel at the natural world’s disinterest in you. It felt apt that I left this book outside in my backyard for an afternoon and came back to find that a bird had pooped on it. That bird didn’t care about my book of poetry! Limón reminds us to look outside our perspective, to decentre ourselves for a while, to revel in our own unimportance.

“I am always superimposing / a face on flowers … / It is what we do in order to care for things, make them / ourselves… But perhaps it is a lazy kind of love. Why / can’t I just love the flower for being a flower? / How many flowers have I yanked to puppet / as if it were easy for the world to make flowers.”

There’s a lot to learn from nature: how play is work, how death is ordinary, how there is wildness in everyone, how aging happens  to us all, how desire is not something to rid yourself of: 

“I do not want to kill / that longing woman in me. I love her and I want her to go on longing / until it drives her mad, that longing, until her desire is something / like a blazing flower, a tree shaking off”

The collection is divided by season, as Limón moves through flora and fauna of the natural world and its intersections with the human drama about which it is so emphatically neutral. She seamlessly integrates the two, like in “Calling Things What They Are,” where she ponders 

“To think there was a time I thought birds were kind of boring. … Before, the only thing I was interested in was love, how it grips you, how it terrifies you, how it annihilates you and resuscitate you”

But just as she’s learnt the names of different birds, she’s learnt that her youthful obsession with love was in reality one with her own suffering and pain. 

Nature in Limón’s poems is wonder-ful. One of my favourite poems, in the “fall” section, was ” It’s The Season I Often Mistake.” Limón writes: 

“And today, just when I / could not stand myself any longer, a group of field sparrows…flew up into / the bare branches of the hackberry / and I almost collapsed: leaves / reattaching themselves to the tree / like a strong spell for reversal. What / else did I expect? What good / is accuracy amidst the perpetual / scattering that unspools the world”

YES. That’s how that poem makes me feel: YES. Actually, that’s how all the poems made me feel, whether they were sad, hopeful, elegiac, or happy. YES 

They Never Learn by Layne Fargo

What a surprisingly heartwarming (??) feminist revenge thriller about a woman serial killer who targets men who are abusers/rapists/etc. Scarlet moonlights as an English professor, but her true passion is giving terrible men who’ve gotten away with assault and abuse what they deserve. Interspersed is the story of shy, awkward Carly, a first year student at the same university who’s falling in love with her roommate who was recently sexually assaulted. 

Extremely cathartic and satisfying to read. Bi representation galore! Fun narrative twists! A dual perspective narrative that keeps the book going at a galloping pace. 

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers

The second Monk and Robot book is a spiritually nourishing, often funny queer utopian novella about two increasingly close companions, a nonbinary monk and a sentient robot. This book is so thoughtful and kind and curious. It’s full of conversations and open-ended questions and abundance and comfort and joy. What do humans need, especially in a society where all their basic needs are met? How does one find their purpose in life? I want to live here! Beautiful, soulful narration  of the audiobook by Emmett Grosland. 

Ace by Angela Chen

An accessible and thought-provoking book that shares ace perspectives on feminist politics, disability, race, consent, relationships, and more. I thought the mix of Chen’s personal story, those of other aces she interviewed, and her more academic writing on the topics worked really well. I learned a lot and found a lot of food for thought. 

The observations that hit me the hardest were those about progressive feminist attitudes to sexual practices, expectations of consent and sex in relationships, and about rape culture vs. feminist responses that rape us violence, not sex. (Likely the sections on race and disability didn’t stand out as much to me because I’m white and able-bodied). 

On sex and feminism:

“If having sex were merely cool, this would have bothered me little. However, sex had also become feminist, and this I cared about. Through a subtle series of twists, like in a game of telephone, sex for liberal women has become more than a way to enjoy ourselves or even prove that we are desirable. Conspicuous consumption of sex has become a way to perform feminist politics.” 

She emphasizes how an ace perspective asserts that “I don’t want to” is always more than adequate as a reason to not have sex, especially in long term  relationships. She also writes about how consent can be viewed on a spectrum rather than a simple yes or no. 

Rape and sex as binaries — with the assumption that sex is always “good” or not harmful in comparison — is better seen as a spectrum too, she writes, given the experiences of aces with sexual encounters that fit in neither category. This discussion reminded me of another book I recently read, Girlhood by Melissa Febos, which also discusses the slippery nature of consent and the concept of “empty consent.” 

The short section where she discusses aro and ace representation in books was the weakest, imho, but obviously the area of LGBTQ2IA rep in books is an area I have expertise in so it’s easy to criticize. I will say her dismissal of SFF as potential sites for affirming aro and ace representation really bugged me, especially as she gave no rationalization and then soon after included an interview with an SFF ace writer!! 

We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

This one really snuck up on me, in a good way. It’s a searing portrait of a borderline unlikable character, Cass. On the precipice of big success as a queer feminist playwright in NYC, she has to flee across the country in the wake of a scandal. Silverman expertly draws out the revelation of what exactly it is that Cass did that, and let me tell you, it was NOT disappointing. But finding out is not at all the point of the book. It’s her character arc. 

The book is about women and a lot of things: women’s rage, women and violence, women’s ambition, women making art (plays, movies, poetry), women’s desire, women and success (conventional and not), women being jealous of each other, women’s friendship (and lack thereof). The book also has a lot to say about bisexuality, making mistakes, queer friend/mentorship, self sabotage, internalized homophobia, failure, different types of intimacy, and theatre. 

Cass, who narrates the novel, is brutally honest even as she suffers humiliation, makes mistake after mistake, and is relentlessly misguided. The tone is somehow wry and also emotionally resonant. The secondary characters are so real, as if you can see them living their lives off the side of the page when they exit the stage. Tara-Jean Slater!! Helène!! Liz!! Even Liz’s wife who only makes a brief appearance. B.B!! I learned a lot about theatre and found it fascinating how deep a dive the novel did. The ending is majestic. 

I listened to the audiobook, which in general was very well done. It was a tall order for an American voice actor to do a number of different accents, including Australian, French, and Swedish. The Aussie accent is pretty bad, but it’s a minor character. More importantly, the French accent is quite good and that character is much more important. Speaking of French accents, Helène, will you marry me??? 

All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Matthews

I am at a loss for words with this book, which is truly a masterpiece, an incredible success in so many ways it’s hard to know where to start. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, one of the only books I’ve read that felt so viscerally real but at the same time so brilliantly crafted as a work of fiction. The sentences frequently stunned me with their sharp insight, exquisite beauty. 

It’s an intimate, generous, and honest portrait of Sneha, a woman in her early 20s. Sneha is an aloof, emotionally cautious woman making her way in that daunting post-college period in an American recession as an immigrant from India. Her parents have returned to India, the reason why a slow unfolding as the story inches forward. 

The novel focuses as much on friendship, work, and the practical details of life as it does on Sneha’s first major romantic relationship, with a New Jersey dancer named Marina. Her evolving friendship with Tig – a fellow queer person of colour Sneha originally meets on a dating app – is a highlight. Her racist, passive aggressive property manager sent chills down my spine and brought back harsh memories of the brutalities of renting. 

There’s an ample amount of food and sex in this book, described so lusciously it almost hurt to read. The constant bearing down of capitalism, the small (and not so small) indignities Sneha endures at work are difficult to endure, painful to read in an entirely different way. I’ve never read such a millennial book, one that felt written by and for our generation, one that felt so recognizably like my own and my friends’ lives. What a gift. 

If you only read one contemporary / lit fic book this year, All This Could Be Different should be it. If you read audiobooks, I definitely recommend that format, majestically performed by Reena Dutt. 

Read Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya’s review at Autostraddle for a much more eloquent take on why this novel is so amazing.

Not My Problem by Ciara Smyth

I absolutely loved this. Ciara Smyth is the best, one of the best queer YA authors writing today. I can’t wait for her next one!I wrote a review / glowing recommendation of her work for Autostraddle, where I talked about how Ciara Smyth’s books remind me of being a teenager.

Chouette by Claire Oshetsky

This book is incredible. As a new mom I feel incredibly seen by Oshetsky’s weird tale of giving birth to and taking care of an owl-baby. I felt the mother Tiny’s experiences viscerally. They are otherworldly yet so true. 

Both fabulism and magical realism at their respective best, Chouette is a fierce, dark, loving story about motherhood and caring for a child that others want to ‘fix.’ It works both as a fable and as a literal story in its own right. There’s a lot to chew on in a reading of Chouette as a narrative about queerness and/or disability but it’s not only that, or it’s those things and also more. It’s not a story where the metaphor takes over. Oshetsky’s prose is spare but simultaneously so rich, totally hypnotic and velvety but also to-the-point and brutal. 

Some favourite passages: 

“The pursuit of goodness is a fragile aspiration when survival calls for ruthless cruelty, especially from mothers.” 

“I resolve never again to be taken in by those who offer friendship to me, and acceptance of you, merely as a way to feel good about themselves.” 

“I’m talking about our little girl. I’m trying to say that she’s already perfect. She’s a small, perfect thing in this world. She doesn’t need to change for you to love her. She just needs you to keep still long enough to see her.” 

I truly can’t recommend this wonderfully strange, very queer, very feminist story enough! 

Small Game by Blair Braverman

I loved this! And just to assert up front because I see a lot of reviews not mentioning it at all: this book is super queer! Also, the ending is great, what are the rest of you talking about?? 

Okay so back to the beginning: Mara grew up with increasingly paranoid survivalist /  doomsday prepper parents and doesn’t really know any other way to live as an adult. She’s sharing a camper in the woods with her boyfriend when TV producers come to the survival school where she works, recruiting people to participate in a six-week long survival reality TV show. The show’s called Civilization, where five people are supposed to be building a society from the ground up while in the woods with pretty much no supplies. Anyone who makes it to the end gets $100 000. 

Mara is chosen, along with an older grumpy hunter with a heart of gold, Bullfrog; a math teacher who quits after three days; an earnest 19-year-old Eagle Scout named Kyle; and another woman about her age with nothing more than car camping experience: Ashley, clearly chosen by the producers for her conventional good looks. These characters are all so richly drawn, so much beyond their archetypes, so flawed and so believable. 

The first half of the book or so is great in its own right. Mara prepares to leave for the show, we learn about her floating numbly through her current existence, and we see the survivors getting to know each other and struggling to come up with a steady food source. This part of the book succeeds as a character study of Mara (including a sort of coming out / falling in love), as an ode to the beauty and harshness of nature, and as a fascinating inside scoop into how these kinds of survival shows work and what they feel like (Blair Braverman should know, she was on Naked and Afraid).

Then the second half flips a switch: one day, the survivors wake up and the crew is gone. A few supplies left behind but otherwise nothing. Shit gets real fast. They can no longer quit any time they want. What was a survival game becomes an actual survival test. Ahhh!!! 

This whole book is immensely readable, a true page-turner if I ever read one. It’s so easy to sink into, its story, world, and characters feel effortlessly real, practically and emotionally. Small Game is the kind of book that I could barely put down, but I also hesitated to keep reading, alternately because it was so tense or because I didn’t want it to end. 

Faltas by Cecilia Gentili

What an incredible book. In a series of letters, Cecilia Gentili writes to friends, foes, and family in her hometown of Galvez, Argentina and in turn shares the story of her childhood and growing up. She writes with a breathtaking directness, a remarkable vulnerability, and a charming sense of humour. Her charisma oozes off the page, even as – or perhaps especially when – she describes her ‘bad’ behaviour. 

It’s an unexpected comparison, but Gentili’s writing reminded me sometimes of Fiona Apple. Both women have a way of unflinchingly laying bare their truth, in a deceptively simple way that feels brand new while at the same time being deeply familiar. It’s as if Gentili is saying, “Here they are, these hard truths. Coming at them askance or beating around the bush isn’t going to do us any good.” And it’s not just when she writes about other people; she also looks right at herself in the mirror and shares what she sees. She writes: “It has been hard to come to understand myself as this person that I sometimes don’t like at all.” Writing about the complicated relationship she had with her mother, she drops a truth bomb like this: “I am saying sometimes people who love us don’t know how to treat us right.”

The trauma of childhood sexual abuse at the centre of this book is clear in its subtitle: “letters to everyone in my hometown who isn’t my rapist.” Gentili doesn’t give her rapist the attention of a direct letter, but she tells her story from different angles throughout the book. It’s fucking heartbreaking, obviously. But it also seems clear that offloading the burden of pretending it didn’t happen is a relief. No more trying to uphold the fiction of a nice little town where nothing bad happened. 

Gentili is here to hold people accountable and to share how she was targeted as a young queer, trans kid. It’s heavy. But, remarkably, at the same time this book is consistently funny and endlessly gracious. How did she do that?? When she first learns about menstruation, she is told that women who have a hard time with her periods are being punished for their sinfulness. As a trans girl who has passed the age when she’s told beginning to menstruate is normal, she takes in this information thoughtfully. She muses: “I was upset at this further confirmation that I was not a normal girl. At the same time I thought: Thank God I am not, because I for sure am closer to the devilish side, and my period would be filled with pain!” She also often makes you laugh and feel sad at the same time: “All that pain made me strong, of course, but who wants to be strong? I wanted to be happy!”

The letter that really shows off Gentili’s graciousness is the one she pens to her mother. It’s infuriating to read that her mom and other adults in her life were aware she was being abused and did nothing. But that’s not the emotion you get from Gentili, who asks her mom, “What happened to you that made you navigate all of this as if it was normal?” Her deep empathy and compassion are astounding. And it makes her deeply satisfying “fuck you” to the self-righteous and hateful Doña Delia and her refusal to address her rapist all the more poignant. 

The letter to her oldest friend Juan Pablo, in contrast, is a wonderful testament to the power of queer friendship and solidarity. She tells him: “I guess finding each other saved us. I am sure finding you saved me.” The letter to her grandmother was similarly joyful. Although lacking the language of “trans” or even that Gentili was a girl, her grandmother wholeheartedly accepted Gentili’s femininity, encouraging her to be herself. The love and gratitude expressed in the letter are beautiful to witness. 

Faltas – fault or lack in Spanish, both meanings of which are clearly applicable – is an immensely readable book. It has a late night kitchen table storytelling feel to it that the frame of the letter format really emphasizes. It often feels like Gentili is right there, telling you these stories over a mug of tea. She’s addressing the letter to someone, speaking to “you,” but the letters weave in and out of directly talking to the addressee and recounting relevant stories. The immediacy is stunning. 

I’m truly honoured to have received a review copy of Faltas, <a _=”””&#8221; href=”http://Little Puss Press‘s first book. What a beginning. Don’t miss this book people.

The Mistletoe Motive by Chloe Liese

I guess I have a new favourite romance author! This was just utterly delightful: funny, sexy, very holiday-ish, and full of bookish content! It’s like this smart combo of romance tropes was made just for me: grumpy / sunshine, enemies to lovers, bookstore setting, self-consciously emulating Pride and Prejudice and You’ve Got Mail (but with all the bad parts taken out!). I can’t remember the last time I wanted a couple to get it on so badly. Swoon. Oh, and it features a demisexual and autistic heroine! Going to read all of Chloe Liese’s backlist now! (Also I’m excited about her new one that just released in November, apparently it has a bi heroine). 

Posted in Asian, Bisexual, Black, Canadian, Fiction, list, Mariko Tamaki, mystery, Non-Canadian, Non-Fiction, Queer, Romance, Science Fiction, Short Stories, South Asian, Trans, Trans Feminine, Trans Masculine, Transgender, Zoe Whittall | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Thoughts and Feelings in Hannah McGregor’s Brilliant Book of Feminist Essays A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION

This book … may have gotten me excited about academic writing for the first time in what feels like a millennium, more accurately about two decades. As McGregor writes, A Sentimental Education is her trying out a new type of academic writing that is more in line with her podcasting voice. It’s not a voice, she says, that’s an essentially truer version of herself, but one she likes a lot better than what’s common in conventional academic writing. 

Like with any ideas-focused writing, I know it’s a hit with me when it gets my brain buzzing and has me itching to record my thoughts and responses. Also, though, this book made me cry and have, well, feelings. I laughed out loud multiple times! The illusion that these two responses — intellectual vs emotional — are contradictory or ill-paired is explored in the book at length. 

If you’re like me, you’re a fan of McGregor’s podcasting work already: her longstanding and now rebooted Harry Potter podcast Witch, Please that she co-hosts with tongue-in-cheek self-defined fellow “lady scholar” Marcelle Kosman and Secret Feminist Agenda, an interview podcast where McGregor talks to experts in all types of disclipines about feminist topics. Obviously I highly recommend both. (Secret Feminist Agenda has concluded, but Witch, Please is still running new eisodes). But if you’re not already listening to her podcasts, I have no doubt this book will have you racing to subscribe on the podcatcher of your choice. 

But back to the book. A Sentimental Education is a collection of essays that run the gamut from analyzing the politics of whiteness in many beloved classics for (white) girls such as Anne of Green Gables and Little Women to discussing the mechanics of the podcasting form and how it engenders intimacy, authenticity, and familiarity. The book is a master class in the seamless integration of diverse tones, going from formal citations of Sara Ahmed to sentences like “Frankly, podcasting made me into a real hard-line bitch about open access” as if these different kinds of sentences were meant to coexist in the same essay. 

McGregor writes about Witch, Please as originally conceived as a discussion of feelings and thoughts, about reclaiming feelings about books as they “were being rigorously professionalized out of us.” (This note reminded me of well-meaning advice I got when working on my applications to grad school in English lit: “for God’s sake don’t say you love to read.”) This lens applies to A Sentimental Education as well, as evidenced by my twinned reactions both emotional and intellectual. McGregor’s careful attention to affect when discussing literature, her moving inclusions of details from her personal life – especially about her mother’s death – and more are so refreshing. They’re not an addition to the intellectualism of the book; it’s an incorporation and a whole way of approaching the intellectual. I love it. It’s why the book spoke so deeply to me. 

Other topics that I haven’t already mentioned you might be interested to know feature in A Sentimental Education: fatness, queer and asexual identity, feminist ethics of care, the call for relatability in art, the joys of critique as well as reading, the importance of action for social transformation instead of passive empathy, and more. 

Here are some of my favourite passages. They are ones that made me laugh, ones that made me think deeply, and ones that made me cry: 

“Relatability has become not just a frequently identified quality of, but almost a requirement for, white women’s art – and, by extension, the art of women of colour who seek to break into cultural industries by reproducing the normative, generic expectations of white culture.”

“I remember intensely the desire to *be* desired, and the awareness that my invisibility to men in particular was a problem — despite the fact that I was deeply uninterested in actually spending time with them.” 

“As with sentimentality, hasty rejections of relatability always feel a touch misogynistic to me, even while I recognize the way that relatability as a broad demand for art is reductive at best and, at worst, a deadening of our collective capacity for empathy.” 

“I’m tired of pretending that [my mother’s] love and her loss aren’t as central to the scholar, feminist, and human I’ve become as any other lines on my CV. There is a hole blasted straight through me, like the sculpture she once envisioned; what a relief it is to finally tell you about it.”

It’s funny that a few times when I was writing this review I had an impulse to write “Hannah” instead of “McGregor.” Using an author’s last name is what I typically do to show I take the author’s work seriously. (I was taught this in academia, of course). Women authors tend to get first-named more often than men authors, surprise surprise. But I know this impulse is not coming from either disrespect or internalized misogyny. Sure, McGrgegor lives in Vancouver (where I used to live) and queer literary circles are not that big, so we have friends in common. But I’ve never actually met her IRL! 

Instead, I think this instinct is coming from an effect of podcasting which she discusses at length in one of the book’s chapters. The intimate, personal nature of podcasts is an integral feature of the form itself. You might say a podcast’s airs of authenticity and listener intimacy is likely indicative of the craft and effort that have been put into it to make it seem so. In other words: the podcast is trying to make you feel like the hosts are your friends! But they aren’t! In other words, this meme: 

(Shout-out to Heather Hogan who found this meme for me with only my vague description). 

Anyway, that’s a long-winded explanation of the kinds of self-reflection and deep thinking this book encouraged me to do, and it happened when I was writing this very review! I’ve only scratched the surface of much of the brilliant and thought-provoking prose in A Sentimental Education. I encourage you to pick it up and then come talk to me about it when you’re done! Tell me which parts made you cry, laugh, and think. 

Posted in asexual, Canadian, memoir, Non-Fiction, Queer, Vancouver | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Stop using what’s left of our muscle to press against crumbling / walls; use them to hold another body”: Queer Bodies and Illness at the End of the World in Jason Purcell’s SWOLLENING

I’d been thinking about the body even before the devastating news that Roe vs Wade was overturned in the US. I’d been thinking about bodies because I’d been reading Jason Purcell’s debut poetry collection, Swollening. The book is full of the body as a material reality, of the horrors of the body, of wanting to escape our bodies, and of the queer body and its complexities. “Sickness,” they write, “is not a metaphor.” 

It’s not that bodies aren’t frequently found in poetry. The objectification of women’s bodies in the name of so-called praise is old hat. But I’d challenge you to find any other poet writing about the (queer) body like Purcell. Look at the teeth on the cover. Have you ever read a poem whose setting is the dentist’s chair? The sick bed? The toilet? This is not, as Purcell has already reminded us, a sanitized version of sickness used figuratively to express heartbreak or love. This is not the obsessive fascination with the perfect gym sculptured body you see in mainstream gay culture.

Writing from their experiences as a chronically ill queer person, Purcell sees the world from a certain vantage point and invites you – the reader, perhaps, but also the poet speaking to themself – to look as well. They write: “You see from the ground / what the well step over.” Have you ever thought of “the well,” those who are not sick, as a distinct group? I have, when I was stuck in bed for weeks with debilitating pregnancy nausea. I, too, felt like my body “want[ed] to quit from the inside.” I wished for “escaping the body.”

Mental as well as physical illness is a material reality in Swollening. It might be just as physical:  “The sleepy slap of depression / from a concept to a practice.” The dissonance of a “sleepy slap” feels just about right for the visceral exhaustion of depression. Physical illness also bleeds into the soul, the “you” that inhabits your body. Purcell’s word play with “tooth” and “truth” in “Cavity” asks us if pulling one means pulling out the other. 

What else is happening to bodies in Swollening? Motherhood, homophobia enforced on queer youth, nonbinary gender, Alberta masculinity, queer friendship, and surviving the apocalypse, to name only a few themes. 

In the third and last section of the collection, “If I had a window, it would be open,” Purcell doesn’t leave behind their queer youth and sickness, the first two section’s major themes. But they add to them, wondering what it means to be living in these times, in the end of days in a queer, sick body. Is there … hope? Can we perform a “danse macabre” at the end of the world?

We can say this world, what’s left of it, is for us. / We have learned to make life, to walk / long distances, to be together, to coax from the rubble / a sign of life.

There’s still, of course, “[h]aving a body in the petrostate.” In Alberta, environmental degradation, “the bruise of” toxic masculinity, and illness go hand in hand: “bad backs from the hard / work of shouldering this culture.” There’s the knowledge that you are not innocent: 

We are mouthing anger / that the world will be taken from us / the way we took away the world. / Look how we limp forward.

At the same time, there’s room to ask questions and remake what’s been given to you, “what is formulaic and normative.” What if you “twist[…] the language by its nipple”? What if you adapt and fuck around with your gender like a recipe that was just a suggested starting point? (“I would like to substitute myself / thoughtfully, as when forgetting / to pick up cilantro and so basil instead”). 

And is there some perverse freedom in the “end times”? Purcell writes “it would be best if we all agreed to stop pretending.” In fact, they tell us we should:

Stop using what’s left of our muscle to press against crumbling / walls; use them to hold another body, and another, and another. / Open your doors and pour out your desire into the street so that it takes / the shape it’s meant to, so that it mixes with all else, so that you can finally / see it in the light.

I have to say: I agree. 

Posted in Alberta, Canadian, disability, Non Binary, Poetry, Queer | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Review of PEOPLE CHANGE by Vivek Shraya: “Our ideal self is actually holding us back, not propelling us forward.”

People Change is a very readable, thought-provoking book of essays that I gobbled up in one morning a few months ago. It’s a short book but Shraya covers a lot of ground, discussing change, reinvention, and fluidity through referencing fashion, trans identity, Sai Baba, Madonna, her own artistic practices, bisexuality, friendships, divorce, her relationships with her parents, and more.

I particularly loved reading her thoughts on friendships and their intersection with your changing self. It reminded me of her fascinating investigation of that theme in her novel The Subtweet. It made me think of some growing pains I’ve had in longterm friendships where the person I or my friend was growing into was very different than when we’d established the friendship. I am excited to see more work, fiction and nonfiction, investigating the complexities of friendship and taking it seriously as a relationship.

Shraya’s writing on trans identity reminded me of Meredith Talusan’s memoir Fairest, which also resists mainstream, simplified narratives about trans identities and finally arriving at an inevitable true self. If you like People Change, read Talusan or vice versa!

Not to go all academic and talk about Foucault, but Shraya’s writing made me think of his work in The History of Sexuality which pinpoints the “invention” of the homosexual not as a site of proud self-identification but as a means to box in and control. Queer as a noun is a lot less slippery than queer as a verb.

I found this book hard to read at longer intervals because I wanted to record so many passages! Here are some favourites:

“There’s nothing more frightening than fluidity. At some point when the individual ‘chooses’ an identity in defiance (even rejecting identities is a kind of identity), we’re then gaslit through arguments for the need to eradicate labels because ‘we’re all human.'”

“Like when newly gay friends state they weren’t actually attracted to their previous opposite-sex lover or partner. This might be a genuine assertion, but even in queer communities there’s pressure to deny bisexual attraction, or rather, bisexuality is commonly read as still being in the closet… how often do we embrace the narrative of a true self because it’s expected of us? No one advises you to ‘be yourselves.'”

“Seizing the moment has been less about embracing the present and more about understanding that I am not entitled to a future. None of us are.”

“Our ideal self is actually holding us back, not propelling us forward.”

“Reinvention requires both a kind of death and a desire to keep living.”

“Let this book be a new prayer. One to rewrite the old ones, one for more growth, for more change.”

Have you read this book? Did Shraya’s writing and ideas strike a cord with you too? Let me know! And if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend it!

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Non-Fiction, Queer, South Asian, Trans, Trans Feminine | Tagged , | 1 Comment

My Favourite Reads of 2021

2021 was not my best reading year in recent times; there are lots of books I own or was sent by publishers that I’m excited about that I have not read yet! That’s because I spent most of last year pregnant (and very sick for half of it!) and then taking care of a newborn since September. I am very happy to have my beautiful baby but I did not realize my reading would suffer so much. But! I also read some amazing books in 2021. Here they are, in no particular order. Of course, these are mostly queer and quite a few Canadian.

Squad by Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Lisa Sterle

This YA graphic novel was a bit darker than I was expecting, but not in a bad way. Becca is the new girl at a posh school and is surprised when the popular clique recruits her–literally, they’re a werewolf pack who need a fourth member!

They prey on the predators, satisfying their monthly hunger by eating shitty guys they pick up at parties. Things get a lot more morally grey when one of their boyfriends is accidentally killed and they’re forced to look for food outside of their usual places.

There are great vintage horror vibes in both the art and storytelling; the drawings are kind of Archie comic style but polished. There’s also a cute coming out, sapphic romance, and an intriguingly complex portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship where they never say what they mean.

I appreciated how all the women characters aren’t crafted with likeability or niceness in mind. They felt very authentic!

This book gave me strong Buffy vibes, capturing my imagination in the way it gave teen girls the physical power to fight the patriarchy as embodied in entitled rapey teen boys. It felt cathartic and empowering to read like Buffy has often made me feel. There are also shades of The Craft in the girls’ relationship and power dynamics with one girl being the leader.

Personal Attention Roleplay by Helen Chau Bradley

This book is a wonderfully inventive authentic collection of queer Asian Canadian short stories, including:

— a queer metal band’s tour with a new manager (AMAZING ending in this one!)

— a woman replacing her codependent relationship with her roommate with an ASMR channel

— two people who meet waiting in line in Covid times (the first story I’ve read featuring Covid!)

— an unemployed Montrealer juggling a relationship with a fickle lover and a friendship with a meals on wheels client

— two cousins who do a pilgrimage in Spain (one enthusiastically, the other reluctantly)

— a tween gymnast who has a crush on her older more talented teammate

— a kid who plays Greek heroes with her best friend but sabotages their relationship when she feels she doesn’t measure up

These stories have great precise details that bring the characters alive. They all felt so emotionally true. There’s also some lovely writing and skilled storytelling (the Covid story is told solely in unattributed dialogue!).

Some favourite passages:

“The top of her head smells like a good dream.”

“I thought about how enormous life was and how enormous also the space between people could be.”

Pride Colours by Robin Stevenson

My baby’s first LGBTQ book! And by a local Vancouver Island author no less. This board book is just beautiful. Lovely rhyming text about love, acceptance, opportunity, affection, and more centred on the meaning of the colours of the Pride flag. There are photos of racially diverse babies and toddlers and a couple pictures of queer couples with kids. The last page introduces the idea of the Pride parade. This book reminded me that I can’t wait to take my kid to Pride!!

Little You by Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett

This board book is a beautiful, soothing story about an Indigenous couple welcoming a baby. (The writer is from the Dene Nation and the illustrator is Cree Métis). “You are life and breath adored.” “Little you / little wonder / Little wish / gentle thunder.” I am melting. Flett’s illustrations are gorgeous and earthy.

Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body by Megan Milks

One of the most unique books I’ve ever read! It’s at once a reimagining of tween girl series like the Babysitter’s Club (a paranormal girl detective club a la first season Buffy), a brutally honest YA novel about a queer / trans coming of age and disordered eating, a choose your own adventure / video game level style surreal metaphorical journey through the body, and an intellectual adult reflection on all this. It is truly many books in one.

Wonderfully imaginative, thoughtfully intertextual, emotionally resonant, critically 90s nostalgic. I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time. It’s a one of a kind masterpiece in the same vein as Sybil Lamb’s I’ve Got a Time Bomb and Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom. Wildly weird and thought-provoking.

A Dream of a Woman by Casey Plett

I’ve been a big fan of Casey Plett’s work since I first encountered it, so it’s no surprise I loved her most recent short story collection. She writes about (and I suspect for) trans women, often looking at relationships between them. To get a glimpse of their intimacies, interiorities, and experiences is a privilege I don’t take for granted as a cis woman!

Her characters are so intricate and authentic. From one woman with Mennonite roots returning to her home in the Canadian prairies to another leaving cozy Portland queertopia to transition in New York’s anonymity, the stories crackle with quiet complexity. They made me ache, laugh, cringe, cry.

The characters felt like friends who came for a visit and had to go home. I miss them.

NDN Coping Mechanisms by Billy-Ray Belcourt

I’m not sure how to talk about this book except to say it’s a phenomenal collection of poetry. Reading Billy-Ray Belcourt feels like an enormous privilege. It’s a collection where I had to stop myself from collecting every other line in my phone notes because it’s all just so good.

I love his play with language, his seamless shifts between tones, his irreverent humour, his powerful interrogation of colonialism, and, of course, the queerness.

“A white boyfriend of mine wanted me to be less beholden to the clouds. / I told him we are all at the mercy of the sky, for better or worse. / Part of me thinks he doesn’t deserve to know / about this mode of attention, this art of description. / But I can’t keep secrets. I am addicted / to the high of letting my own words forsake me.”

“I make out with my imaginary NDN lover / on the ashes of every Canadian pastoral poem ever written.”

“My hobbies include / not dying / obsessively apologizing to the moon for all that she has to witness”

Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto and Ann Xu

This graphic novel is an utter delight from start to finish. Kumiko is a bisexual Japanese Canadian woman in her 70s who is stubborn, quirky, funny, and independent. After escaping the longterm care home her daughters set her up in, she sets up a life in her own apartment in East Van only to find death has come too early for her. She intends to fight it, sometimes literally like with the vacuum cleaner she’s pictured with on the front cover.

I just LOVED Kumiko as a character, such a wonderfully rich depiction of a BIPOC queer elder. More books like this please!! This book was like getting to sit down with queer elders and learn about their lives (Kumiko’s ex is a supporting character as well).

Gorgeous, expressive art and complex questions about death, mortality, and a life well lived. Just an all round excellent book.

Stoop City by Kristyn Dunnion

I’d forgotten how much I liked Kristyn Dunnion’s writing until I read this, her most recent book. This is a great collection of short stories, mostly realist but a few with a speculative edge. All the characters are outcasts or misfits of some sort.

A young homeless guy whose boyfriend disappears after their latest con. A rockabilly butch nurse whose longterm partner has left her. A street sex worker sharing the tricks of her trade. An elderly woman living with schizophrenia.

Amazing grasp of character and punchy, visceral writing. It’s incredible to see the range of different characters Dunnion disappears into, especially in the span of a short story.

A Natural History of Transition by Callum Angus

What an extraordinary collection of short stories. Callum Angus takes the overdone and/or exoticized theme of transition for trans characters and in each of these speculative stories creates something unique, surprising, and thought-provoking.

All of the stories went in a direction I didn’t expect. They blend keen observations on contemporary and future life with fabulist, magical elements. They also felt very grounded in the natural world.

In one story where everyone chooses their gender at age 11, a character changes their mind after the initial decision, and then decides that a simple gender transition is not enough–they would like to be a rock. And then, perhaps something else…

In another, a trans guy living in a future dystopia returns to his hometown to find its inhabitants mutating into something horrifying and strange.

A story about a pregnant trans guy whose ‘baby’ comes out a cocoon also really resonated with me, as I read the story while I was pregnant.

The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

On the surface this is a graphic memoir about fitness and exercise, told in decades of Bechdel’s life and moving through different activities like skiing, running, biking, yoga, and martial arts.

But once you get into it, it’s a deep meditation on the interwovenness of the body and mind, the search to escape the prison of your own ego, romanticism (the literary/aesthetic movement), and the profound power of nature. It’s an interesting blend that I think readers expecting or wanting a more narrow focus on fitness and exercise might be disappointed in. I, however, loved it. The art is exquisite with detail, movement, and expression.

Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand

Now that is how you write a compelling, sympathetic character who is messed up and self-destructive! This is an older book that I had on my to-read list for a long time and I’m so glad I finally got to it in 2021.

It’s about a has-been bisexual photographer, Cass Neary, who had one hit book decades ago and has been working in a bookstore and drinking too much ever since. An acquaintance sends her on a kind of pity assignment to interview an aging reclusive photographer who lives on an island. Shit gets bad and dark fast, and Cass finds herself oddly working as a kind of detective.

I loved the gorgeous, effective writing, the subtle creeping mystery, Hand’s evocative images, and the coastal Mains setting. I also loved how this book is deeply uninterested in respectability politics for queer characters.

I will definitely be continuing with this series. I have the next book sitting on my shelf, taunting me.

Little Blue Encyclopedia (For Vivian) by Hazel Jane Plante

One of the best books I’ve ever read! A wonderfully unique combination of character study, a letter to grief, a celebration of trans women, and an innovative format: an encyclopedia centered on a fictional TV show called “Little Blue.”

Our narrator, with the kind of authentic mesmerizing voice that immediately captures you, is a queer trans woman who has just lost her best friend Vivian, a straight trans woman who was the love of her life.

Stumbling through her grief, she ends up channeling it through writing. The best format, it turns out, is an encyclopedia dedicated to Vivian’s favourite TV show, a cult classic with a small devoted following, the kind of show fans watch over and over, catching new details and coming up with new fan theories every time. Of course, the encyclopedia is just as much about Vivian–and our narrator–as it is the show.

The book traces the women’s friendship, the narrator’s relationship with her brother and Vivian’s sister, and talks a lot about art: its power to soothe life’s grief, oppression–everything that feels unbearable.

Plante’s artistry is stunning. Little Blue Encyclopedia is about a TV show with a cult following, but the book itself is similarly art that inspires that kind of devotion. “Little Blue” couldn’t feel more real, with every detail so meticulously crafted it’s easy to forget while you’re reading that it isn’t actually a real series! The same could be said of all the characters, even the secondary ones: they are full of authenticity and heart.

The end of this book made me sob: heart broken but hopeful, sad but full of love. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how very very funny this book is too. It’s the best combination.

Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

What a delicious, beautiful book this is. Three Nigerian women, a mother and her twin daughters, have drifted apart as adults as a result of one of the girls being sexually assaulted in childhood. The story goes back and forth from the past to the present when they have reunited in Lagos. It’s a heartbreaking story in many parts (miscarriage, suicide, and the death of a parent by homicide also feature in the book) but it is somehow not a dark story at all, but one full of life and hope.

The characters are just wonderful, fully fleshed out. I especially loved to see them in their different relationships, as well as in different places: Lagos, London, Montreal, and Halifax. Taiye is a particular kind of messy, hedonistic lesbian character who felt so deeply real. Her queer Black/Nigerian friendship with Timi was one of my favourite parts of the book. Kehinde’s relationship with her first boyfriend also stunned me in its authenticity and heart.

And then there’s their mom, Kambirinachi, who is an Ogbanje, a spirit who is not supposed to linger long in a human body, but who falls in love with being alive at great cost to herself and her loved ones. I find it fascinating to learn about different cultural stories that explain the toughest stuff of life that is inexplicable (like miscarriage, death of a child, suicide).

And the food!! God this book made me so hungry. Taiye loves food and eventually becomes a chef, but Kehinde’s sections also involve a lot of food as she works at a restaurant in Montreal.

To top it all off, Ekwuyasi’s writing is just beautiful. Here is one of my favourite passages from Kambirinachi:

“Life is an ambivalent lover. One moment, you are everything and life wants to consume you entirely. The next moment, you are an insignificant speck of nothing. Meaningless.
But I am not insane. Imagine this:
You are made unbound, birthed from everything glorious and fermented and fertile and free. Unbound. You visit this binding, this flesh cage. It’s sacred and robust but a cage nonetheless. You visit because it’s your nature.”

This is just an incredible book. It made me cry. And it’s only Francesca Ekwuyasi’s first. I am so excited to see what she does next!

A Duke in Disguise by Cat Sebastian

An utterly delightful, practically perfect historical romance. Verity Plum is a radical bookseller and writer whose childhood friend Ash, an engraver, has recently come to board with her and her brother. Their friendship and intellectual connection teeters on the edge of romantic love and lust, only having balanced there so long because of a mutual worry that their current relationship (they’re both to each other one of the few people in their life who has stuck around and can be trusted) might be ruined.

But when Ash–an epileptic brought up in foster care who has always assumed he was illegitimate–discovers he’s actually the legitimate heir to a dukedom and has the opportunity to take it from a terrible abusive man, it drives a wedge between him and Verity.

Superb writing that covers all manner of fascinating historical details like seditious journalism, naughty book publishing, engraving, 19th century inheritance law, women running small presses, and more!

Plus, Verity is bisexual and her ex-lover and friend Mrs Allenby is a prominent secondary character. (Staying good friends with your ex is queer lady culture, is it not??)

One favourite passage:

“For all she was one of Ash’s dearest friends and one of the few constants in his life, for all she and her brother were now the closest thing to family that he had in this country, being near her was a pleasure he meted out for himself in small doses, like the bottle of French brandy he kept in his clothes press, lest he succumb to the emotional equivalent of gout.”

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

What a masterpiece! I’ve never read anything like this Indigenous epic fantasy. It’s a remarkable achievement in storytelling, world-building, and character. There’s so much richness of cultures, character motivations, politics, religions, genders, sexualities, and more, alongside an intricately woven plot with threads unfurling in different places at the same time.

I’m at a loss as to how to even begin to summarize the complex plot–you’ll just have to read it to find out!

I loved the naturally integrated queer representation too! Perhaps not surprisingly Xiala, the bisexual Teek sea captain and siren was my favourite. But I empathized with every character on all sides of the political, cultural, and religious divides Roanhorse so deftly creates.

The audiobook format is also stunning. Wonderful performances by four different actors, one for each main character. (Three of the actors are Indigenous, one is Black).

What were your favourite reads in 2021?

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