BOOK PERSON | Vol. 16
Trilingual recommendations from Jorge Amigo, who likes to read in public.
A couple weeks ago I bought a hummingbird feeder and Luke helped me hang it outside our kitchen window. For a few days I only saw chickadees drinking from it— cheaters!— but then the hummingbirds began arriving, with their iridescent pink faces, and now it seems like one stops by every few minutes. Today I switched my chair with Maeve’s to give her the best view, and during lunch she would exclaim, “Der it is!” every time a bird reappeared.
Right now I’m reading Detransition, Baby, which you will not be surprised to learn is excellent, if you’ve seen any reviews at all: sharp, stylish, and witty. If you want a snack-size treat, I also enjoyed this essay on Stanley Tucci’s culinary sex appeal.
This week’s BOOK PERSON is Jorge Amigo, head of cultural programming at the VPL and fellow extrovert.
Where are you from, and where do you live now?
I'm from Mexico City, and moved to Canada in 2007. I currently live in Vancouver.
Describe your literary tastes.
I mostly gravitate towards contemporary fiction and literary fiction, but also adore memoirs and the occasional non-fiction book. Also love graphic novels.
I tend to read BIPOC authors in English, and a healthy dose of books in Spanish. I find that my mother tongue allows for more lyrical and expressive prose than English; also, idioms and metaphors in Spanish just make me feel home. Occasionally, I also read novels in French, mostly classics.
What is your favourite independent bookstore in the whole wide world?
Too many! I like places where I can build relationships. When I lived in Toronto, I loved visiting my friends at Another Story, TYPE, and Ben McNally. In Vancouver, I love saying hi to Chris at Pulpfiction on Main, or Zoë and Ian at the new Upstart & Crow on Granville Island. If you visit Mexico City, don't miss going to El Péndulo in Polanco or in La Condesa.
Where do you read at home?
I prefer reading in public. I like to sit in a public square, park bench, or a café and have life go by around me while I read. Something about that kind of ambient noise makes it easy for me to concentrate and get lost in a story. I also love reading in public transit (miss reading on my Toronto subway commutes) or sitting at a bar. I partly love this because it usually leads to a conversation about books with a passing stranger...there's always someone who asks what you're reading.
But if I MUST read at home (Canadian winter, pandemic, etc), my spot is usually laying down on my couch, facing a window where I can watch the rain.
What time of day do you do your best reading?
I love reading before bed, and then waking up the next day to re-read the last few pages I fell asleep to. Something about ending and starting my days in another world feels nice.
But I do my best reading when I intentionally take myself on a reading date outside my house, usually to a coffee shop. My very best reading happens in planes, trains, or long bus rides.
What are the last five books you read?
Are you fastidious about your books?
Not fastidious... which is one of the reasons I despise hardcovers. They feel too precious to me. I love French paperbacks because they feel like convenient vessels for ideas, not delicate Christmas gifts. I scribble all over my books, throw them in my coat pocket, take them to the beach, eat with them—their edges are scruffy.
How do you choose your books?
Well, for the past three years, my job has been to program cultural and literary events, so I try to stay current by getting ARCs for upcoming releases and visiting local bookstores often to pick up new titles.
I also regularly read reviews in Quill & Quire, CBC Books, NYRB, Literary Hub, and the books section on the weekend editions of the NYT and Globe & Mail.
Also, I go to literary events and pay attention to what literary festivals are programming, which helps me constantly discover new authors.
How do you keep track of what you read?
At the beginning of every year, I create a new note on Evernote where I write down the list of books I want to read that year, in the order I want to read them. I keep adding to the list as the year goes by, and keep marking off the ones I've read. As the months go by, I love getting a glimpse of my year in reading. When the year ends, I just copy the books I didn't have time to read to the next year's note and start again...
What's the best book you read last year?
Ooof tricky question. I was floored by Fernanda Melchor's Temporada de Huracanes (Hurricane Season), which is a noir novel about violence against women in Mexico. It's grotesque and enraging, but also beautiful and poetic. She plays with form and language to create an almost surreal atmosphere of total insecurity, and digs deep into the psychology of misogyny. (If you're interested, Toronto Public Library hosted a great talk with Melchor last year.)
My second vote is for Desmond Cole's The Skin We’re In. I read it right as the BLM protests erupted, and I had just moved from Toronto to Vancouver, so it was an especially powerful read for me at that moment.
What books are next to your bed right now?
What was your favourite book as a child? Could you summon to mind a favourite quote even now, through the haze of nostalgia?
Le Petit Prince, of course! I learned to read French with it, so here goes: "On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur, l'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux." (I find it so cheesy now)
Do you have a beloved under-the-radar author who you think more people should read?
Yes! Yuri Herrera. Everyone, stop what you're doing and go read Señales que precederán el fin del mundo.
If you don't read in Spanish, the title in English is Signs Preceding the End of the World, and translator Lisa Dillman won the 2016 Best Translated Book Award for it. Many independent bookstores in Canada carry copies.
It's just 128 pages, but the kind of pages where you'll savour every word, dissect every sentence, and find deep meaning in every scene. The story is about a migrant crossing the US-Mexico border, but it's also about revealing the larger story of violence against migrants.
Herrera also won the PEN English Award in 2015 for his other novel, La transmigración de los cuerpos, or The Transmigration of Bodies, which is about the drug war and cartel violence in Mexico. The story is about two rival families fighting each other (leaning on Romeo & Juliet) as a plague takes over their town and people are stuck at home fearing infection. Herrera got inspired by the Swine Flu pandemic of 2009, so it's particularly interesting to read it during our little COVID situation now. Even if you don't care much for these specific topics, his books are about much more—he deals with the human condition. Reading them, I feel like he's invented a new language for violence, that allows anyone, without any context or knowledge of current affairs in Mexico, to feel connected to existential dilemmas. I also love how his books deal with the tricky subject of narco violence without sensationalizing it, but rather by painting a big picture, and creating characters that let you understand the surreal aspects of life in Mexico.
As the LA Review of Books puts it: "Herrera writes about people along the border between Mexico and the United States, but his real subject is a border condition, a state of exile, an existence between two extremes — this side and the other side, narco and gringo, life and death."
What is your favourite opening to a book?
Don't really play favourites, but this opening of The Sellout by Paul Beatty is pretty irresistible:
“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face. But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.”
Which book has your favourite ending?
I remember my heart racing as I got to the last pages of There There by Tommy Orange. After following so many story lines and characters throughout the book, it felt incredible to watch how he weaved them all together and connected their struggles in such a suspenseful and explosive end.
Which book do you give most often as a gift?
I don't usually gift the same book twice, but I recently gave two copies of Hanif Abdurraqib's Go Ahead in the Rain, which is basically a love letter to A Tribe Called Quest (and a history of hip hop).
If you haven't read Hanif Abdurraqib before, don't miss his poetry collection A Fortune for Your Disaster or his collection of essays on music, culture and race, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us.
Generally speaking, I'm interested in books you love, but I am also desperate to know: What’s a widely-praised, critically-acclaimed book that you hated?
Ugh. Sally Rooney's Normal People. Next question.
(Seriously though...why can't these normal people just SAY what they feel? Her hermetic characters made this latino feel very confused.)
Has a book ever fundamentally changed your opinion about something?
As an immigrant to Canada, it's easy to buy the narrative that Canada is an inclusive, multicultural society of nice, peaceful people. Reading works by Indigenous authors has destroyed this myth for me and allowed me to understand the pervasive white supremacy and ongoing injustice that is the organizing principle of this colonial state. Here's three specific ones:
Alicia Elliot's A Mind Spread Out On the Ground helped me understand the effects of intergenerational trauma.
Thomas King's The Inconvenient Indian gave me a framework for understanding the many ways in which racist stereotypes have been constructed.
Is there a place you dream of visiting, now that you've read about it?
After reading Ali Smith's How to Be Both, I wanted to time-travel to Italy in the XVth century!
What's a book that helped you believe in the fundamental decency of humanity?
Valeria Luiselli, who is one of my favourite authors (and also my age and from my hometown), wrote two recent books about the crisis of migrant children from Central America detained at the US-Mexico border. The first one is called Tell Me How it Ends (originally Los niños perdidos), which is a collection of essays organized around the 40 questions that US immigration officers ask these terrified children in order to determine whether they are eligible to claim refugee status. Valeria went to volunteer at the border to help these children at the height of this crisis a few years ago, so it's not only a chilling account of the racism and violence of borders, but also an incredible story of the human will to help others in dire need.
She followed it up with a stunning novel in English, Lost Children Archive, which takes her real-life experience and turns it into a fictional account of a family on a roadtrip from New York to Texas to go help migrant children at the border.
We get so desensitized to injustice and violence with the daily barrage of news, that I found it inspiring to read about people who don't accept the status quo and are moved to go help others in the middle of a crisis, out of a sense of basic human duty to each other.
Has a book ever sparked an obsession with a niche subject?
I dare you to read Charles Montgomery's Happy City and not want to immediately become an urbanist. Urban planning can be such a dry and bureaucratic topic, but Charles makes it fun and relatable with beautiful stories, and by pointing out the things you intuitively know about how a city makes you feel, and explaining why with the latest research on wellbeing. Ever since I read this book, I became more involved in city policy conversations, and started reading other books or articles about planning or urban issues in general.
Is there a book we all absolutely need to read during the pandemic?
Yes, yes there is. It’s called Severance by Ling Ma.
What book are you most excited to read next?
Weather by Jenny Offill...I've been waiting for a year for the paperback to come out (as I mentioned above, my disdain for hardcovers runs deep).