What We're Reading / August 2019

Our August reads include The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind by Nicola Redhouse, and Brute by Emily Skaja.

There’s no doubt about it – true happiness is snuggling up with a good book and a hot cup of tea while winter rages outside. And while we probably can’t help you with the tea, we can definitely help in the book section! Read on to discover what our staff have been reading in the cold winter months. Who knows, you might even stumble upon your new favourite book!

Ashley Kalagian Blunt, Senior Program Officer

The Erratics, Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s debut memoir, won this year’s Stella Prize, and last year’s Finch Memoir Prize. In a talk about the book, Laveau-Harvie insisted there’s no point writing memoir if you’re not going to tell the truth, wholly and utterly. This makes her story of rescuing her starving father from her pathological mother that much stranger. Her writing style is spare, much like the Albertan landscape where the story unfolds. It’s also conversational. She guides you through her story as if by the hand, never flinching, not even at her own grief, and often employing a dry, understated humour that made me wonder, could it really have happened like this? The shoe boxes full of cancelled cheques paid to scammers around the world? The neglected rural-nowhere mansion? The mother’s ploy to get out of a job by claiming to be deceased? Her refusal to acknowledge her own daughter’s existence? And there is Laveau-Harvie, nodding along, as if to say she could barely believe it either.

Read our interview with Vicki Laveau-Harvie for our special member feature, Spotlight On.

Sarah Mott, Project and Communications Officer

When I was a kid I loved the movie Troy. I was – and still am – a sucker for a big ol’ sweeping movie (Braveheart makes me cry every time), especially when I was young enough not to question the social, cultural, sexual and ethnic appropriation/massacre Hollywood manages to squeeze into these classics. By the time I was in first-year uni, though, I couldn’t watch Troy: I’d studied Homer’s Iliad, I’d taken classes on gender politics – the film was laid bare in all it’s horrible, toxic masculine, queer-erasing, white, hetero-glorifying splendour.

Which is why The Song of Achilles feels like a delicious little revenge for me. Take that, Hollywood! Fuck you, Brad Pitt, we all know that’s not your cousin! Achilles and Patroclus were lovers and here is the story in all its sweeping, emotional greatness. The story is told from the perspective of Patroclus (Miller has an excellent habit of picking sidelined figures in legend and exploring them with a feminist/queered twist  – see Circe) as he blunders from exiled prince to companion and eventually lover of Achilles. We see the war and eventual fall of Troy from his eyes. It is also a love story in the same vein as Call Me By Your Name – coming-of-age and sexuality within the confusing confines of teen angst.

There are mixed reviews of Miller’s writing in this book – some call it sloppily grandiose with cliched characters. But I think that’s a matter of taste, it’s an emotive story told from the perspective of a teenager. Miller is also working within a grandiose legend with characters whom cliches were based on, and I enjoyed how she took these – Odysseus, Agamemnon, Achilles – and deftly added her own touches. Scenes are repainted – same actions but different meanings that give us a whole new sense of the legend. As a queer reader, it’s a little fist-pump moment too, as sad as that is. Years of erasure from mainstream narratives means that I’m excited over the visibility of queer characters that existed before heterosexuality was even an acknowledged idea. But it’s something.

Jane McCredie, CEO

In Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind, Nicola Redhouse describes the depression and anxiety she experienced after the birth of both her children, skillfully weaving together the personal with her interrogation of the various scientific and therapeutic approaches to perinatal depression. Her book belongs in a growing genre of books about mental illness: accounts from authors with lived experience that go beyond pure memoir to place the relevant condition in a broader cultural or scientific context. The lived experience of people with a condition is rarely incorporated into scientific research, Redhouse points out, but this intelligent, nuanced book manages to weave the two together in an engaging and thought-provoking way.

Lou Garcia-Dolnik, Membership Intern

“In my history,” begins Skaja, “I was bones eating paper or I was paper eating bones./ Semantics.” Ouch.

Skaja’s Walt Whitman Award winning poetry collection Brute navigates the interstices that traverse gender, sexuality and violence, the niggling voices, the devil in the corner whispering “you will be alone forever and then you will die” (à la Richard Siken). Out of an abusive relationship, her poems address themselves to the exit wounds: the world of Brute never lets up on lamenting this loss or on reliving it ad infinitum. The text answers to a new traumatic sensibility, one that revels in devastation, destruction and wreckage. And then the reparations. I put down Skaja’s Brute and didn’t read poetry for a week. I’m still mulling over this one months after.

Brute is brave, tender, rehabilitative. Brute is self-loathing, crawling out from under the banner of history and skinning its knees in the process. An absolute must-read, but keep your Kleenex on hand.


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