BOOK PERSON | Vol. 10
Road trip reading & comics for babies.
|Michelle Cyca||Feb 7|
An exciting week for me, book-wise: I got my hands on a review copy of Return of the Trickster (my review will appear sometime in March in the Vancouver Sun), which was worth the series of humiliating emails I sent to the PR department at Penguin Random House, where everyone I corresponded with seemed suspicious I was some kind of scammer trying to get my hands on a book for purely pleasurable reasons. Admittedly, it’s true that my number-one motivation in becoming a book reviewer is to eventually scam my way into free advance copies of books I want to read, sure, but I’m not there yet.
I also purchased Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, in order to receive free shipping on my order of a back-up version of Maeve’s favourite stuffed cat, in case she ever loses the original. Two-thirds in I am on the fence about it, but we’ll see how I feel next week.
Enough about me! This week’s BOOK PERSON is Doug Hamilton-Evans. I know what you’re thinking: men can read? But it was time for a little gender parity in this newsletter, and Doug has some excellent faves. He also has a very cute baby.
Where are you from, and where do you live now?
I grew up all over Victoria, BC, but I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a city I have a lot of allegiance to despite having little memory of it as my family moved away when I was six. My partner and I moved to Vancouver about a decade ago and feel very at home in Riley Park, which I know is a rarity – this city tends to spit people out.
Have you ever read a book about your hometown?
Alice Munro’s short story Five Points is largely set in Victoria and two characters engage in a very long, hollow and transactional affair in places I associate with happy childhood memories, which upset me in a weird, icky way.
Describe your literary tastes.
I find myself alternating between fiction and non-fiction because I haven’t figured out how to read two books at once properly yet.
On the fiction front, I take turns reading contemporary fiction and ‘literature you’re supposed to read’ from the ‘canon.’ For non-fiction, I’m drawn to history; sociology; books on politics, media and democracy; technology and culture; drug policy and activism; cities; anything to help me better understand what the hell is going on.
When travel used to be a thing, I’d try to read books set in or about the places I was going. So, for a road trip from Washington, D.C. to Chicago, I read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson for Chicago, The Switch by Elmore Leonard and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides for Detroit, The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates for Baltimore and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon.
What is your favourite independent bookstore in the whole wide world?
I have a deep memory attachment to Munro’s in Victoria and try to visit it whenever I’m on the island. But, it’s hard to beat the massive Powell’s in Portland for sheer immersion.
Oh, but there’s also MacLeod’s in Vancouver. Books piled to the ceiling and falling out of shelves in a beautiful chaos, like walking into an old wizard ‘s mind palace, yet somehow the folks working there know exactly where everything is. I was on the bus reading the last chapter of Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, about the historic court decision that deemed Ulysses not obscene and fit for publishing, and the man next to me, who was clearly reading over my shoulder, said, “We have a copy of Ulysses with that judge’s decision in the shop.” He handed me his card, then got off the bus. It was Don Stewart, owner of MacLeod’s.
What are the last five books you read?
Are you fastidious about your books?
I like evidence that a book has been digested, but I try to keep them clean.
I’m more fastidious about how books are organized on a shelf. Fiction: alphabetical by author, then by date of publication. Books I haven’t read go on a separate shelf. Non-fiction is trickier, but I organize by theme and categories that probably only make sense in my head, but it’s still very important. More power to the folks who organize their books aesthetically by colour and size, but I could never do it.
What's the best book you read last year?
Summer by Ali Smith. I was stunned by the contemporaneity of Smith’s entire seasonal quarter. From Autumn being the first ‘post-Brexit’ novel, to Winter and Spring seamlessly weaving our post-truth era, climate anxieties, the rise of extremism and white supremacy, the carceral state and treatment of migrants and all the other hallmarks of our fractured present. And then Summer casually touches on the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd as part of its world-building. I didn’t know novels could feel so current without feeling rushed. How did she write these? What was her intended arc when she started this? How could she be so adaptive to the social and political issues of the times and make it fit so naturally into a bigger story about family, art and history? Summer’s subtle connections to previous books in the quartet made me feel like a genius when I recognized them, obviously by design. The characters were often both insufferable and loveable and I wanted them to spend more time with them spending time with each other. Finishing it made me want to pick Autumn up and start the whole series again.
But, if I’m being honest, one of the best cultural experiences of this last year, the pandemic and the first year of my child’s life was watching The Sopranos for the first time.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Now that I have a child (a smol one), I’m thinking more about the books I’m most excited to share with him and I keep coming back to comic books and graphic novels, two in particular. Jeff Smith’s Bone series is the story of Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone, three cartoon characters who are run out of Boneville and find themselves in The Valley, a medieval fantasy fairytale land, illustrated as such. Everyone there finds the Bones a bit ridiculous but takes them in as the forces of the Hooded One, the Lord of Locusts and an army of rat creatures circle around them. I first read it as part of issue #1 of Disney Adventures magazine. It had Rick Moranis on the cover and I insisted my mom buy it at the till of Thrifty Foods. For almost ten years I received the newest paperback volume of Bone as a Christmas present to comfort me after the inevitable comedown from the excitement of Christmas morning.
I also can’t wait to share the friendship, imagination and adventure of Calvin & Hobbes with George. I love its honesty about the difficulties of being human, and that it didn’t hold back on big concepts or a big vocabulary. Plus, Bill Watterson’s strength to not compromise his art and make millions from merchandising is also a story to learn from. Could I do that?
Do you have a beloved under-the-radar author who you think more people should read?
I want to take this opportunity to shout out my friend Nadine Sander-Green who is on her umpteenth draft of her debut novel Little Rabbit, which I will be pre-ordering as soon as possible. Nadine wrote a beautiful and hard piece for The Globe & Mail about her and her family's experience with myalgic encephalomyelitis. The condition, insufficiently referred to as chronic fatigue syndrome, is widely misunderstood and people who have it — mostly women — are often gaslit and dismissed by doctors. Drawing similarities to COVID-19 'long haulers' who also often feel silenced and hopeless, Nadine calls for a "cultural shift toward radical empathy." Nadine writes with an incredibly honest voice and is very funny for it. Can’t wait to read more from her.
What is your favourite opening to a book?
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” From One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.
Do you have a favourite passage or line?
It’s probably because it’s the last book I read, but there’s a passage from Moby-Dick that won’t dislodge from my brain. After hunting and murdering a sperm whale, and rendering its blubber for oil, Captain Ahab talks to the whale’s severed head hanging over the ship’s side, compelling it to speak of the great mysteries it has seen. “Speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee.”
“O head! Thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham and not one syllable is thine!”
It’s just so horrific and absurd. And I find this awe and admiration at the unknowable power of nature right alongside the need to violently consume it for fuel disturbingly relevant.
What is the funniest book you have ever read?
I used to think the correct answer to this question was The Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, but I have almost zero recollection of that book, and am looking forward to reading the reflective critique of it by Tom Bissell in The New Yorker. I find all of Patrick DeWitt’s books hilarious, except for maybe Ablutions.
What book are you most excited to read next?
I’m in the middle of The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson and I’m very excited to return to it.
It’s hard science fiction, about the immediate future confronting climate change when it’s essentially too late, ideologically driven by the quote, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” often attributed to Frederic Jameson, whom the book is dedicated to. What if, after suffering unimaginably from the effects of climate change, certain countries transformed their entire political and economic systems? What if state and non-state actors started to embrace asymmetric warfare using newly available technologies to prosecute those most responsible for the climate crisis? It’s both existentially dreadful and hopeful.
Because of my current book— Fake Accounts, the debut novel by critic Lauren Oyler— I’m thinking about how sometimes it’s more enjoyable to read a critique of something than experience the thing itself. This is doubly true if it’s an extremely negative critique, because if it’s well-written enough it can redeem or at least reframe the experience of suffering through something you didn’t enjoy.
The supreme example of this is the legendary 2012 review of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant, but the greatest example in the genre of literary critiques is Patricia Lockwood, whose retrospective of John Updike for the LRB has the best lede of all time, and only gets better from there:
I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling. ‘Absolutely not,’ I said when first approached, because I knew I would try to read everything, and fail, and spend days trying to write an adequate description of his nostrils, and all I would be left with after months of standing tiptoe on the balance beam of objectivity and fair assessment would be a letter to the editor from some guy named Norbert accusing me of cutting off a great man’s dong in print. But then the editors cornered me drunk at a party, and here we are.
If you have a favourite scathing critique— of a film, a book, another Guy Fieri franchise— I’d love to consume it.
If you know a BOOK PERSON, please send them my way so I can pry into their shelves. All preferences welcome! And if you enjoyed this edition of BOOK PERSON, why not subscribe or share it with a pal by clicking these cheery buttons?