> Zed Book Club / What We’re Reading

Talk show host, drag queen, actor and television personality RuPaul, New York City, 1990. Photo: Michel Delsol/Getty Images

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What We’re Reading

Zed contributors review memoirs from RuPaul and Rebel Wilson, and new fiction from Tommy Orange, Helen Oyeyemi and Tana French / BY Zed Staff / April 30th, 2024

Zed contributors sprang into reading in April, devouring some of the hottest, and most powerful, books of the season. They review an ode to the nursing profession, RuPaul’s rags-to-riches story and a book of food essays that braids family, place and sustenance. Mysteries abound, like The Hunter, Irish writer Tana French’s sequel to The Searcher, about retired detective Cal Hooper. Capture the triumph of kaleidoscopic fiction that is Tommy Orange’s Wandering Stars and follow it up with The Hollow Beast, Québecois writer Christophe Bernard’s slapstick hockey epic that adds an addictive Yukon elixir to a tale about an outrageously weird and wealthy grandfather.

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1The Hollow Beast by Christophe Bernard

Home Base: Burlington, Vt.

Author’s Take: “[My grandfather] went to the Klondike again, found more gold, returned to Gaspésie and was the richest man in the village. He invested in the village and built the first sidewalk, etc. … He was exactly that kind of eccentric entrepreneur that winds up losing everything.”

Favourite Lines: “This story of yours, Marquis old friend,” he managed to get out, “is it all true?” It was a thorny question that made François knit his brow. “All Gaspésiens are liars,” he said.

Review: Québecois writer Christophe Bernard’s 2017 barnburner debut, The Hollow Beast, unfolds decades of intergenerational drama. Recently published in English (translated by Lazer Lederhendler), the novel opens in 1911 with a hockey game and whisks readers along in a hurricane of language before ending with a gun. Something more than weird is going on, and the novel’s main character, François Bouge, is determined to figure it out.

The hockey game features François’ grandfather Monti, who kicks off three generations of revenge when he catches a zinger of a slapshot in his teeth … but loses the game. Puck clamped in his jaw, Monti has fallen, his head crossing the goal line. Victor Bradley, local volunteer referee and mailman, signals that the goal counts! Enraged, Monti vows to exact more than a pound of flesh. Along the way he accumulates vast wealth and an addiction to Yukon Gold, a mysterious elixir. More than alcohol, the Yukon drink produces hallucinations or possibly a blood-curdling curse. François tracks the mystery across North America to wilderness mining camps and big city hotels as bodies pile up.

At 600+ pages, The Hollow Beast is its own kind of monster, but the story never surrenders momentum. It is a slapstick epic that chases an addict’s high. The novel was a finalist for the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award in French and the winner of the Quebec-Ontario Prize, the Quebec Bookseller’s Prize and the Jovette-Bernier Prize.—Michael Bryson


2The Hunterby Tana French

Home Base: Dublin, Ireland

Author’s take: “It’s a book about revenge in its various forms, but it’s also a book about families – both the ones we’re born with and the ones we forge for ourselves – and about how far we’ll go, what we’ll sacrifice, for our loved ones.” 

Favourite Lines: “Their mam is silent, but it’s not a silence with peace in it. It takes up space, like some heavy thing made of rusted iron built around her.”

Review: Tana French has returned with a much-anticipated sequel to her 2020 suspense novel The Searcher. This latest instalment continues the story of Cal Hopper, a retired Chicago police officer, and Trey, his troubled teenage protégé, as they navigate the dark underbelly of their bucolic Irish village. Set two years after the disappearance of Trey’s older brother, the pair face a new upheaval with the sudden arrival of Trey’s absentee father and a strange associate of his from London. Together, these two have cooked up a scheme that soon sets the whole community spinning. 

With an easy-to-follow but never predictable plot, The Hunter keeps readers hooked with writing that vividly captures a blistering Irish summer. This new series from French is lighter than her popular Dublin novels, with a less intense setting and a much more lovable cast. As French has said, these protagonists are focused on building healthy relationships, not destroying them, which gives even the story’s darkest moments a heartwarming touch not often associated with her works. 

A brilliantly paced mystery, this is the perfect book to jump into spring reading with a page-turner. When you finish, I’m sure you’ll join me in crossing your fingers that French will make Cal Hopper’s story a trilogy.Hope Mahood


3Wandering Starsby Tommy Orange

Home Base: Oakland, Calif.

Author’s Take: “I realized St. Augustine [Florida, 1875] was the blueprint for the Carlisle and boarding schools across the country that for decades were about ‘killing the Indian to save the man.’”

Favourite Lines: “One of the doctors … told him the bullet shard in him was shaped like a star, like that was some cool shit. … The doctor said they would keep an eye on it, the star shard, because, he warned, they’ve been known to wander.”

Review: It is humbling to read a novel with such a command of complex themes, voices, time frames and characters. Wandering Stars blew my mind with each sentence, cadence and insight.

It begins in Colorado with the Sand Creek Massacre of the peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples, by the U.S. Army in 1864. In the opening scenes, Jude Star escapes on a horse with another boy, and they struggle to survive. From there the novel winds (not wanders) through seven generations of the Star family – who endure all the monstrous things First Nations peoples have suffered from colonizers – but it is told through such intimate portraits that you feel you are experiencing them first-hand. 

The most disheartening and yet significant passages cover Jude’s time  in Florida, after he is picked up as a prisoner of war and sent by train to a “prison-castle” in St. Augustine, Fla. On the way, he describes, shocked, riding past piles of buffalo bones, saying, “Every buffalo dead was an Indian gone.” At the Indian Industrial Institute, Supt. Richard Henry Pratt – a white man with a self-righteous sense of mission – forces his wards to learn English, read the Bible,  then go out and drive Indigenous people from their tipis. 

The story of losing fathers, losing babies, losing homes, losing voices, being despised, addicted and alcoholic is all told through the wandering stars. These are not just the characters Jude Star and his son Charles Star (whose first names are even exchanged at one point), but the motif pops up slyly: stars in the sky; the bullet shard in Orvil Red Feather’s leg – a flick to Orange’s first novel There There. The beautiful prose does curious dances throughout, depending on who is speaking, like nothing I have read before. It’s a marvel; so stay alert.

As many readers have pointed out, the novel is both a prequel and a sequel to There There, which was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize. But Wandering Stars, a plait of intergenerational trauma that goes backward and forward,  is powerful, original, deep and sparkling … all on its own. – Susan Grimbly


4Bite by Biteby Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Home Base: Oxford, Miss.

Author’s Take“As a poet of the natural world, I had questions that begat questions such as: Where did some of my favourite spices come from? Why do I associate mint with maternal love? Why do pawpaws make me think of promises?”

Favourite Line: “Maybe because in Tagalog, halo halo means mix-mix, I carry a special fondness for it since my mom married a man from India who also loved Elvis, even shaped his sideburns like his, so I am mix-mix too.” 

Review: Rendered in imaginative detail and illustrated in vivid colour, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s new book of food essays is a sensory adventure. Bite by Bite is the author’s second foray into non-fiction and, like her previous bestseller, World of Wonders, this collection pays tribute to the natural world. Nezhukumatathil, who has published four poetry collections, is an English and Creative Writing professor in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program, where she was the 2016-2017 Grisham writer-in-residence. 

Known for tackling the intersection of science and art, her newest release offers a scrapbook of lyrical recollections, peppered with culinary history. She evokes wonder, curiosity and celebration over the course of 41 essays — each ingredient and dish accompanied by lush illustrations from Fumi Nakamura. 

The collection sheds light on charming and unlikely food destinations, from the “world’s sweetest watermelons” at a festival in Cave City, Ark., to sweet, dark Bing cherries “the size of shooter marbles” in small-town western New York. In other essays, Nezhukumatathil assembles a culinary calendar where the sap moon both signals the tapping of sugar maples and “reminds us of the burst and blossom soon to come, even after the deepest winter.” Her most compelling reflections are rooted in family and her Filipina and Malayali Indian background cultural identity, like when she explains how love and loyalty are as much a part of Filipino breakfast as garlic rice and a crispy filet of the country’s national fish, bangus.

The collection makes for a cosy and informative reading experience, perfect for a rainy spring day. Bite by Bite feels as though Nezhukumatathil has invited us into her kitchen for a warm meal and a chat. As she writes in the introduction: “What is home if not the first place you learn what does and does not nourish you?”  — Dhriti Gupta

5Parasol Against the AxeHelen Oyeyemi

Home Base: Prague

Author’s Take: “Once you start trying to nail down a place is when it begins to elude you. That’s especially the case with Prague. … There is always some element of deception involved with trying to represent a place, and I wanted to be upfront about that in the text.” 

Favourite Lines: “A great many books are firmly closed despite the general impression that they’re wide open – they’ll jovially present their back cover as page one and be baffled that you thought there’d be more. Some of these adamantly closed books are also people.”

Review: Nigerian-born, London-raised writer Helen Oyeyemi has been one of our foremost literary fabulists since she published her first book, The Icarus Girl (2005), which she wrote while preparing for her A-levels. While media coverage made much of her youth, the book press praised the quality of the novel (the New York Times called it “masterly”). That level of quality has continued through six further novels that twisted fairy tales and mythologies into unexpected and utterly modern new forms. Each book from Oyeyemi is part treasure chest, part puzzle box, every one a delight.

Oyeyemi’s latest, Parasol Against the Axe, continues this unbroken streak. Set in Prague (where Oyeyemi has lived since 2013), the novel follows ex-journalist Hero Tojosa, who comes to Prague ostensibly for a friend’s wedding, but more to escape from a letter that has been pursuing her (trust me – it will make sense). In the city, Hero falls into a constantly shifting landscape, populated by strangers and their doppelgangers, a world that seems to be shaped by the book her son has given her, a novel entitled Paradoxical Undressing.

There’s something odd, though: The book changes every time she reads it. She might have been tipped off by online reviews, which “seemed to be talking about different books with the same title” – but no one expects the book they’re reading to be different every time they pick it up. Nor do they expect the hallways of their bed-and- breakfast to shift in time. Nor do they expect…

I will stop there. Much of the joy of Parasol Against the Axe – as with all of Oyeyemi’s work – is the sheer discovery, the experience of seemingly unlimited imagination, the feeling of plunging into a dream world while entirely awake. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that for you. –Robert Wiersema


6The House of Hidden MeaningsRuPaul Charlres

Home Base: Los Angeles, Calif. 

Author’s take: “I think it’s an important story for young people to hear today and understand: ‘What are the possibilities that are here in America?’ I wanted to let young people know that there is a way to navigate these difficult, difficult waters.” 

Favourite Lines: “My father had been so involved with my sisters. He loved the ladies. Fawned over them. Praised their beauty. Adored them. This was how the world worked after all. What would it be like for me to become the prettiest girl of all? Now that – that would be real power.”

Review: When RuPaul Charles’ mother Toni was pregnant with him, she went to visit a psychic who told her: “It’s a boy and he’s going to be famous.” (RuPaul uses he/him pronouns in his personal life; when he’s in drag, he uses she/her.) RuPaul, who was raised in San Diego and lived in Atlanta for much of his early career, spent the next three decades fighting to make that vision a reality. The internationally acclaimed drag superstar first came into the limelight with the 1993 single Supermodel (You Better Work). He then became a household name with the 2009 launch of his competition variety show RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has spawned countless spin-offs and made him the Emmys’ most-awarded host for a reality program. 

Now, his memoir, The House of Hidden Meanings – named after a friend’s nonsensical comment during an acid trip – traces RuPaul’s unlikely rise to stardom from a struggling go-go dancer to a fixture of the New York nightlife scene. He had a tumultuous childhood: His mother once doused his father’s car in gasoline and threatened to set it ablaze after learning about an extramarital affair. After their divorce, RuPaul’s father was largely absent, his mother became almost catatonic with grief and RuPaul found community in the alternative club scenes of the ’80s and ’90s. The book features a cast of characters that could throw Tolstoy for a spin, but this is a natural side-effect of the drag star’s discombobulating life. The House of Hidden Meanings is a timely and fascinating portrait of an icon of the LGBTQ+ community coming into their own. So, sashay away to pick up a copy. –H.M.



7The Wisdom of Nursesby Amie Archibald-Varley and Sara Fung

Home Base: Hamilton, Ont.

Author’s Take:  “It’s time to finally break the stereotypes. We aren’t sexy nurses. We aren’t Nurse Ratchet. We’re not meek handmaidens to doctors. … Nurses today are change-makers”

Best Line: “Time for that old lamp of hers to shine its light forward.”

Review: Hospitals are places where experiences are intensely private, whether it’s the joy of a baby’s smooth birth or the long-lasting agony of a difficult delivery. Yet, behind the scenes is a registered nurse who is going through the joy, too, but also the traumatic experience, and enduring it with a steel heart. We may take nurses for granted, but COVID-19 pushed these valiant stewards to the forefront of the national conversation. People finally acknowledged the trials that the people behind the masks faced.

The Wisdom of Nurses: Stories of Grit from the Front Lines – a series of essays and historical retellings that has already made bestseller lists in Canada – gives us the chance to hear their stories. Swardiq “Q” Mayanja is a standout, a South Africa-born Boston citizen who works as a travel nurse, taking on short contracts across the U.S. He drives around in his Prius like a vagabond, spending just enough time to touch lives, and then he’s off. It’s one of the brilliant ways the book interlocks human stories with subtle lessons about the evolving forms of nursing. The “travelling nurse” in 2020 alone grew 35 per cent over the previous year, thanks to the pandemic. First-time authors Aime Archibald-Varley (labour and delivery) and Sara Fung (postpartum), both experienced RNs from the Hamilton and Niagara area, host the popular podcast The Gritty Nurse, giving voice to nurses all over the world. They first met as co-workers,  but their relationship changed in October 2019 when they stepped away from a decaying staff environment at a state-of-the-art hospital that was disillusioning. The idea for the podcast blossomed, resulting in the mission to shine a powerful light on their undersung profession. The narratives – where the authors share their struggles with their mental health issues, or relate stories about dealing with racism, bullying or general burnout – pack a mighty punch, and come with a simple message: Protect our nurses.

Expertly sprinkled between are history accounts: greats like Harriet Tubman (nurse and teacher to the Gullah people in 1862) and Agnes Chan (first Chinese Canadian to graduate from Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital School in 1923).  These one-page summaries of the lives of a “Nurse with Grit” serve as a small yet important candle illuminating those who left a mark on the profession.  One of the book’s great feats is addressing the elephant in the hospital room: Florence Nightingale. While acknowledging the infamous English nurse’s positive contributions, the authors bravely refuse to shy away from the controversy of her legacy, such as her support for British colonization. The Wisdom of Nurses is a loving ode that moves the conversation away from the cartoonish evils of Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and the saintly adoration of Nightingale. Nursing can be thankless and invisible work, given society’s reverence for doctors who get the gratitude or the sexism inherent in an occupation historically employing mostly women. The Wisdom of Nurses challenges all that.  – Nathan Abraha


8Rebel Risingby Rebel Wilson

Home Base: Los Angeles, Calif.

Author’s Take: “It is a very deeply personal memoir, so I’m feeling [some] anxiety. To be so vulnerable and to put it all out there takes a bit of courage.”

Favourite Lines: “It was as if I was fighting a war against the patriarchal gaze. Against the corporate spin that wants you to go on that weight-loss program and exercise and hate yourself enough to buy this product. I was Fat Amy leading a rebellion.”

Review: There is no lack of juicy Hollywood dirt in Rebel Rising, memoir from comedic actor Rebel Wilson. For instance, Wilson unflinchingly reveals that Kristen Wiig bought the female cast of Bridesmaids lap dances at a strip club before filming began. And there are plenty of jaw-droppingly candid personal details, like how the Australian-reared Wilson was so focused on her career that she didn’t lose her virginity until age 35. She also chronicles her troubled relationship with her father — who was prone to blind rages, gambled and eventually abandoned his family, hobbling them financially — and her relationship with food, which she used as an emotional crutch. 

Rebel Rising often reads like a diary jammed with breathlessly scrawled declarations. There’s myriad Australian slang translations and metric-to-Imperial calculations. Presumably, two versions of the book, one for American readers and another for Australians, wasn’t in the cards, but the constant parenthetical takes are somewhat distracting. Nevertheless, the book gains traction about the time Wilson lands her breakthrough role in Bridesmaids in 2011. Wilson comes off as supremely likable, enormously focused (she earned a law degree as a backup to the acting thing) and very down to earth. —Kim Hughes



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Prince Harry’s Memoir is Set to Rock the MonarchyFriends say the California-based royal got a million-pound book deal to write "an intimate take on his feeling about the family."

European Jewish Congress Asks Publisher to Pull Anne Frank BookThe Congress says 'The Betrayal of Anne Frank' has "deeply hurt the memory of Anne Frank, as well as the dignity of the survivors and the victims of the Holocaust."

Canadian Author Details Anne Frank Cold-Case Investigation That Named Surprise Suspect in Her Family’s Betrayal in New BookAhead of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Frank's 'The Diary of a Young Girl' in June, a team that included a retired FBI agent and around 20 historians, criminologists and data specialists identified a relatively unknown figure as a leading suspect in revealing her family's hideout.

Man Who Tricked Authors Into Handing Over Unpublished Manuscripts Arrested by FBI in New YorkFilippo Bernardini, an employee of a well known publication house, has been arrested for stealing hundreds of unpublished manuscripts.

Hollywood Legend Betty White Has a Last Laugh in New Biographic Comic BookThe creators of the biographical comic book have released similar books about Hollywood legends like Carrie Fisher, Lucille Ball, David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor.

Barack Obama Reveals His List of Books That Left “A Lasting Impression” in 2021Obama's favourite 2021 reads include two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead's 'Harlem Shuffle' and 'Klara and the Sun,' by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro

“Interview With the Vampire” Author Anne Rice Dies at 80 — Tributes Pour in From Stuart Townsend and OthersThe author, who was best known for her work in gothic fiction, died on Saturday evening as a result of complications from a stroke.

Norma Dunning wins $25,000 Governor General’s English fiction prize for ‘Tainna’The Edmonton-based Inuk writer explores themes of displacement, loneliness and spirituality in six short stories

Omar El Akkad wins $100,000 Giller prize for “What Strange Paradise”The former Globe and Mail reporter, who published "American War" to acclaim in 2017, tackles the global migrant refugee crisis in his second novel

South African Author Damon Galgut Wins the Booker Prize For ‘The Promise’Galgut received nominations for his 2003 and 2010 works before finally taking home the prize this year. 

Hollywood Legend Paul Newman Discusses Life, Acting and Aging Gracefully in Newly Discovered MemoirPublishers of the newly discovered memoir say the Hollywood legend wrote the book in the 1980s in response to the relentless media attention he received during that time.

Here’s What You Need to Know About the Toronto International Festival of AuthorsDirector Roland Gulliver lands in Toronto to open his second, much-expanded virtual festival with more than 200 events

Tanzanian Novelist Gurnah Wins 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for Depicting the Impact of Colonialism and Refugee StoriesGurnah, 72, is only the second writer from sub-Saharan Africa to win one of the world's most prestigious literary awards

Miriam Toews Garners Third Giller Prize Nomination for “Fight Night” after Shortlist AnnouncedSophomore efforts from novelists Omar El Akkad and Jordan Tannahill join debut books from Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia and Angélique Lalonde

Tina Brown’s New Book, ‘The Palace Papers’, Covers the Royal Family’s Reinvention After Diana’s Tragic DeathTina Brown's sequel to her 2007 release 'The Diana Chronicles' is set to hit shelves April 12, 2022. 

Audible.ca Releases Andrew Pyper’s Exclusive Audiobook “Oracle” For New Plus Catalogue LaunchThe thriller about a psychic FBI detective is one of 12,000 titles now available for free to members

Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen to Release Book Based On Their “Renegades” PodcastThe new book will feature a collection of candid, intimate and entertaining conversations

Prince Harry Will Publish a Memoir in Late 2022Harry says he's writing the book "not as the prince I was born but as the man I have become."


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