Oh Canada…

Canadian flag fridge magnets on display in shop.

Earlier in the year, I happened to be very lucky to learn that work would be amenable to funding my attendance at a professional conference to be held in Vancouver. (Canada? Yes please.) After jumping through the required administrative hoops, I soon found myself in a plane seat heading for the Great North. Good stuff.

The actual conference occurred for the first half of the week, and then I opted to stay a few more days to meet up with the Superhero and see what we could experience in the metropolis of Vancouver. So much to choose!

One of the first places that we visited (and actually, this was pre-conference as I’d also arrived a bit early) was the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Vancouver doesn’t support Uber or Lyft so we were forced to either pay for a taxi (big bucks) or figure the journey out old-school by public transportation (meaning mostly buses). (No biggie but did take us by surprise a bit.)

Luckily, it was pretty ok to figure out bus schedules and pick-up places etc., but it still took quite a long time to actually get to the UBC campus. In the end, it was so worth it as the university has a gorgeous location full of plenty of trees, public art and close to the sea. (What a treat for this person.)

Close-up pic of a wooden piece of art  showing First Nation's symbols and colors (from University of British Columbia-Museum of Anthropology).

The actual museum itself was modern and well organized, so kudos to those folks. The most interesting section (and the one where we spent the most time) ended up being the Great Hall section where it was focused on the local First Nation people’s experience in the region. This included totem poles which were fascinating!

I happen to live in West Texas and Native American tribes were common throughout our region, but these were Plains tribes who commonly moved around and also did not have access to plenty of forest for totem poles so the poles were a new thing for me.

One thing that I hadn’t realized about totem poles is that there were usually several poles outside the dwellings of prominent people in the tribe’s community. I learned that these important houses would have two totem poles outside their front entrances, so although I think it’s inaccurate to report that each village was a forest of totem poles, there were definitely more than just one (which is what I had originally thought).

Each totem pole is carved with significant symbols that tell a story related to the family or individual outside whose house these poles would stand, and when I saw the poles in the museum standing in this awesome display area, they looked very majestic. They were huge – much taller and more sturdy than I had thought, but then that would make total sense as I think the Vancouver-area tribes weren’t that nomadic (at least compared with the West Texas tribes.) (Plus the no-trees thing which is significant around these here parts, pardner.)

This was a fascinating area to explore as it was all very new for me, and I loved it. The museum also focused on aboriginal/First Nations artists as well, so we were introduced to such luminaries as Bill Reid, a modern First Nations artist whose work was solid, beautiful and meditative in a way with strong connections with the natural world. (And slightly randomly, the place also had big collections of ceramics…Not sure of this connection with anthropology but there you go… ?)

Pic of sculpture, The Birth of Man by artist Bill Reid. Wooden carving.
Sculpture by Bill Reid: “The Birth of Mankind”. (At the UBC.)

So, after walking through the museum, we had a bite to eat at the small museum cafe (great food, btw) before we visited the nearby Nitobe Memorial Garden, a 2.5 acre Japanese garden also on the UBC campus and about a five-minute walk from the museum. This was gorgeous: incredibly green (so many different shades of green!) and serene, with a lovely winding path over bridges and around the different park spaces.

Before my trip, I hadn’t really put it together in my mind how geographically close Vancouver actually is for visitors and immigrants from many of the various Asian countries, but of course it is. (It’s actually closer to these countries than LA since the land sticks out a little bit around Vancouver.) Thus, there were absolutely tons of overlap between the different cultures and how they existed in Vancouver. (Another cultural layer to uncover for us!)

More to come, but don’t want to overstay my welcome with you with all this travel news. Suffice to say, we had a fab time. 🙂

Photo of serene Japanese garden, the Nitobe Japanese Garden, with stone wedding lamps, a small bridge and lots of trees and plants.
A view in Nitobe Memorial Gardens in Vancouver. Worth a visit!

There, There – Tommy Orange (2018)

Wow. Just wow. This was a novel that makes you say just that word when you finally turn its last page. It’s that good. 

There, There, written as a first novel by Tommy Orange, a Cheyenne and Arapaho author, is a muscular narrative that weaves together the disparate stories of a large group of Native Americans (First Peoples) who all live in the same city of Oakland, CA. They don’t all know each other, but as the plot progresses, their lives overlap as they each plan to attend the annual pow wow in their community. 

(This is a read that sucks you in and won’t release you until the end of the narrative when you finally emerge, slightly battered and with the air sucked right out of you.)

It’s an “easy” read (in terms of the experience reading as smoothly as “a hot knife through butter” type of thing), but the story is high impact in terms of that it doesn’t shy away from the tough issues of life: depression, alcoholism, unemployment, fetal alcohol syndrome, hopelessness, not to mention life in poverty and as a marginalized indigenous person. 

You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You’re both and neither. In the bath, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.

So it sounds like a dreadfully depressing read, and although it addresses these issues, the plot introduces you to each of the characters one by one. You get to know these individuals as humans with lives and hopes of their own, and it’s easy enough to keep each character straight.

(That’s what I meant when I said you got sucked in to the book. I really felt as though I knew these people and cared how things worked out for them. I might not have agreed with some of their life choices, but I can’t deny that I would have chosen anything different than they did if I had been in their situations.) 

So, this book follows a group of characters, all individual but inter-related (at least by the end of the book) and who all decide to attend this community pow wow, an event where life undergoes a sudden and significant change for all. 

A seriously great read which will take your breath away. It’s not an easy read, but it is a good read.

(Plus it’s been recognized with a bunch of literary awards, so it’s not just me feeling the love for this one.) 

Killers of the Flower Moon – David Grann (2016)

I am learning that “The New Yorker” journo, David Grann, is a consistently good writer which then makes a consistently good read. Honestly, Grann’s work is such sophisticated narrative nonfiction that you know you can trust the text for both impeccable grammar and accurate facts, all bundled up in a way that is just so enjoyable for me as the reader.

(Gushing words, right? Grann’s worth them. Unfortunately, he’s only published three NF books, so far (that I know about): this one, “The Lost City of Z,” and “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes,” and so I only have one more read to go. I hope Grann’s busy working on something else. đź™‚ )

To this particular title: Grann has done several years of painstaking detective work and reporting to uncover the truth about the “Reign of Terror” that was inflicted on the Osage tribe in Oklahoma at least during the 1920s and 1930s. (It may have lasted longer than that, but due to suspiciously shoddy record-keeping, it’s hard to say.) 

The story itself sounds as though someone has just invented it for a high-dollar movie. There are so many twists and turns within it and such a large group of nefarious and powerful people involved, that it’s hard to believe that it happened. But that’s what money will do to some people. 

This is an in-depth look at the clash between the First People Osages and the surrounding white community when an enormous oil field is discovered under the Osage’s reservation land. It’s also the story of a baby FBI just starting out and of what people will do for love and money. (Mostly money, in this case.)

The Osage story is a familiar and sad one: impacted by the Trail of Tears’ forced migration, the Osage tribe was forced to hand over its ancestral land to the U.S. government. However, unlike a lot of other less fortunate tribes, this tribe was able to keep ownership of the mineral field under their land. 

Oil means money (and a lot of it), and the Osage people’s wise legal agreement meant that the tribe were then the richest people per capita in the world. Combine the land grab with the oil boom and things get rather dicey. Add into that combination the heady mix of power and money… 

Grann adds to this story the beginning of the FBI, and then he leads the reader through this winding journey of how Hoover and the agency he heads overlap with the strangely large numbers of Osage tribal members who kept dying under suspicious conditions on the reservation. Money could protect them from many things, but not from a network of high-powered businessmen determined to get even richer.

So, this is about 300 pages of, as Grann describes it, “a chilling conspiracy” that in many ways is not over for the tribe. More than twenty-four Osage tribe members (and friends) were murdered around this time on the reservation, but written records are so sloppy and spread out across the country, that it’s hard to know the final count — there may be many more that are unaccounted for. 

it’s so compelling that I actually read this whole book in two days which is a direct reflection of Grann’s storytelling abilities.  There are a LOT of moving pieces and variables, but Grann’s mastery of his material means that he doles these pieces out in a logical and manageable way for the reader, but I must admit, it’s not a book that you can really snooze your way through. (That’s also another reason why I blasted my way through the book really quickly.)

This title is so worth the interweb hype that’s bubbling through many book blogs, and I can only add that this book is one that lives up to its reputation. Stellar storytelling, thorough reportage and great writing make this one of the best books that I’ve read in a long while. 

P.S. Just found out that there is a movie in the making. Cool.

ETA: And then there’s this: Perusing Wiki for more info about this topic, I came across the little nugget of info that the Osage Tribe referred to (white) Europeans as I’n Shta-Heh (or Heavy Eyebrows) because of their facial hair. 🙂

March 2019 reading review…

March passed by in a flash and that speed-of-light passing was reflected in my reading totals for the month. At first, I thought this low number was quite strange, but when I look back at other past March reading totals since I started teaching, I can see it’s historically this way. I think I forget just how busy and occupying teaching can be sometimes. Plus – there were Spring Break travels!

Still, no worries. 

The reads for March 2019 included:

And wow. No review blog posts. Gasp. Never mind. I’m going to do a recap post with some reviewlettes in a bit to get me back up to speed… 

So to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in March 20195
  • Total number of pages read 1,219 pages (av. 244). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / non-fiction.
  • DiversityPOC. 2+ books by women. (The + is because I read a couple of anthology-type books which included both male and female authors.) 
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and e-books.

Plans for April include continuing the POC author/topic focus, finishing up a read of a teaching skills book, and placing my focus back on my own TBR. 

Some Mini-Reviews for You…

WowStationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes. The last few weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind, but as I’m figuring out how the world turns in my new position at work, I think there will be a bit more breathing room for me to get back to blogging.

So – let’s jump to it. Some mini-reviews to catch up on some of the titles that I’ve finished recently:

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

Different from my usual fare and searching for a “hot knife through butter” reading experience, this met the match on so many levels. Set in a fairly near future in the U.S., this fast-moving novel revolves around an emerging flu pandemic which devastates the world and the people in it. Just a few communities populate the world now, and they have to learn how to survive without electricity, without running water or pipes, without regular food shopping, without government… Mandel does a superb job here of describing how unmoored regular twenty-first century people would be in such a situation. (If you think about it, most of us would be woefully unprepared without replenishing grocery stores, without public governance, without communication.)

As the plot progresses, things begin to get more dire as the usual order of things collapses left, right, and center…

The story revolves around a roaming group of musicians and actors who travel from community to community, trying to avoid being attacked and sharing their message of culture to those who may not remember or be exposed to Shakespeare and the like. (In fact, this whole story starts with the unexplained death of an actor playing one of the parts in King Lear.) Since this is a book that uses the different threads in a tapestry structure, you’re lost at first (or at least I was), but then the magic happens, and you get the whole picture through different POVs and characters.

This was a great read, and I have no idea why I’d put it off for so long. If you’re searching for a fast-paced novel that’s really well written with an involving story line, you can’t go wrong with trying this one.

thunder_rednissThunder and Lightning – Lauren Redniss (2016)

Described as an “uncategorizable fusion of storytelling and visual art”, Redniss here covers the huge topic of weather and atmospheric science in bits and pieces. It’s a little random, but it was an good read, and I’m developing a more detailed post about this. (See here for my review of Radioactive , Redniss’ 2010 creative exploration of the biography of Marie Curie, and a finalist for the National Book Award in 2011.)

Moving on, I had a quick read of Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (1977) which I enjoyed, although it wasn’t a very happy novel detailing, as it does, the modern day challenges of a group of First Peoples in the US whLeslie_Marmon_Silko_-_Ceremonyo are in the midst of unemployment, modern day choices, and trying to retain their old tribal ways. (Sounds horrendous. It wasn’t an awfully depressing read, but it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns.)

Then, a read-through of Our Longest Days: A People’s History of the Second World War (edited by Sandra Koa Wing, 2009), an edited collection of Mass Observation diary entries from WWII England. There’s something about reading diaries which is irresistible to me, and so I gobbled this one up. (Perfect for a Monkey Mind, but you do need to track who’s who where and when. Luckily, there’s an appendix which details this, so you just flip back and forth. Easy to do, and you can kinda figure out who’s saying what in the end as you get to know the characters…)

Then there was a lot of picking up and putting down of titles (talk about Monkey Mind), but then I finally landed on an old Virago read of an Aussie author. Completely unknown to me, but ending up to be a witty read in the end. (Just finished it, so post to come.)

So, these are the past titles from the last few weeks, and then a couple more posts to come about two titles that each deserve their own reviews.

Glad to be back. I’ve missed you.

Indian Horse – Richard Wagamese (2012)

book316Not certain where I came across this title, but this was one of the best reads this year so far. Richard Wagamese has written “Indian Horse”, a novel that revolves around a First Nations person with a drinking problem who is trying to dry out at an inpatient facility. Part of his ongoing therapy asks him to track back down his past years to try to understand why he’s chosen the paths that he has throughout his life. “You can’t change the present if you don’t understand the past” idea…

This was one of the titles chosen as part of the Canada Reads program featured in 2013, so I knew that it had a good chance of being a good read even if I’d never heard of the title or the author. And it was, my friends. It was.

Saul Indian Horse, the protagonist, has lived a tough life. His childhood was spent in the wild bush with his extended family of the Ojibway tribe from the Wabaseemong First Nation in the northern end of Ontario. (It’s also the same tribe as the author so it makes it pretty autobiographical, I would think, at least historically speaking.) As Saul gets older, his family goes through some horrible situations, and the one constant in his unstable life is his love and talent for ice hockey.

It is the comradery of the team and also his uncanny ability to “see” the game (as the elders would see into the mystical world of old) that keeps Saul on track from self-destruction for some time, but eventually, the outside world overcomes his inside strength and things change from then on.

Richard-WagameseThis was far outside my normal reading, but I loved it. (It’s good to push the boundaries every now and then.) Wagamese is a great author who obviously knew what he was writing about, from the collective pain as a disenfranchised and abused child isolated from his family to the thrill of the game on the ice hockey rink. (And here I was surprised at just how exciting he made ice hockey games to read about. He described learning and playing the game in such great detail that even I, who have never played ice hockey, was involved with the outcome of each game his team played.)

The narrative builds up as the story progresses, and once it seems to reach its apex, I (as the reader) thought that was how life was going to stay for Saul. But then there is a huge twist at the end which brings things together and it took my breath away as, by that time, I’d fallen in love with troubled Saul. Interestedly, the story starts off with Saul being kept (willingly) in a residential treatment facility for his addiction, but that later more informal incarceration was a direct result of an earlier forcible incarceration of a kind during his childhood when he went to the school of hell. The earlier one put him in a cage – does the later prison cage (though of his own choices) set him free?

When the Indian Act of 1876 passed in Canada, it became compulsory for First Nation kids to attend a day, industrial or residential school as part of a large plan to assimilate Native Canadians into European-Canadian society (because we all know now that that’s the right thing to do. Sigh.) In fact, one of the key goals of this program was stated as “killing the Indian in the child” which affected more than 150,000 First Nation children and their families for generations.

ice_hockeyWith Canada being so large and spread out, this ruling (the Indian Act of 1876) meant that some young children were forced to attend boarding (or residential) schools run by mostly Catholic and Anglican churches where there was limited learning and excessive hard labor for the student body. The schools were funded in small part by the Canadian government, but not enough to meet all their financial needs which meant that the school children were frequently used in hard and manual labor, the products of which were income-producing for the schools. It was all a big mess (which might qualify for “Understatement 0f the Year”…)

Numerous records attest that, whilst in these residential schools, the students were forcibly removed from their families, their culture and their languages, some children were sterilized and purposely malnourished, and there were significant amounts of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of both other students and staff. There were also high mortality rates for illness (notably TB) for students with inadequate (or nonexistent) medical care from untrained staff, and numerous children went missing with their families never to hear from them again.

The schools were spread across the nation, and for tribal children far from towns or landed communities, it meant being kidnapped and forcibly removed from everything they knew to a pretty hostile environment. (Not every government school engaged in this abuse, but it was quite widespread – enough that there was a government public apology not only by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper but also the leaders of all the other parties in the Canadian House of Commons. And just nine days prior to this had been the establishment of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission to uncover the truth about this situation.)

The last residential school didn’t close until 1996. (Blimey!) They sound like a terrible idea, but par for the course in early English colonial days. (See also Australia, USA, etc.) However, kudos to Canada for developing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that provided a $1.9 billion compensation package to benefit tens of thousands of former residential school students who had been affected, both as families and through support of more and better educational opportunities for First Nation peoples.

So – a pretty serious book on serious topics, but it reads so quickly and I was so drawn into the story that it passed incredibly fast. I just loved this book on so many different levels, and you may as well.