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What We’re Reading

Zed contributors review non-fiction from Kazuo Ishiguro, M.G. Vassanji and Michael Norton, as well as the latest novels from Leigh Bardugo and Carleigh Baker / BY Zed Staff / May 8th, 2024

The latest mini-reviews from Zed contributors delve into delightful titles that enchanted them, like niche books by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro – on the lyrics he wrote for American jazz singer Stacey Kent – and essayist Nicholson Baker, who writes about learning to draw during the pandemic lockdown.

If you’re looking for radical submersion into a fantasy world, dip into 16th-century Spain and the Inquisition with The Familiar by Leigh Bardugo, which has been speeding up bestseller lists since its publication. And Canada’s man of letters, M.G. Vassanji, dissects the meaning of being an itinerant in Nowhere, Exactly.

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1The FamiliarLeigh Bardugo

Home Base: Los Angeles, Calif.

Author’s take: “A historian who helped make sure the book was authentic to the period said, ‘look, I deal in generalities. History deals in generalities. There are always exceptions.’ And that was sort of a guiding touchstone for me.”

Favourite lines: “He strode away and she had to resist the urge not to let a little song slip free and trip him with a tree root. But with or without Santángel, she had a real battle to fight. Her rivals were waiting at the front of the stage.”

Review: Anyone thirsting for a radical submersion into a fantasy world with just enough historical detail to help suspend disbelief should grab The Familiar, author Leigh Bardugo’s gothic-y tale of mystics, murderers and lovers in 16th-century Spain. However, there is a lot of plot and subplot in its 55 chapters, making summary a challenge. But here goes.

Protagonist Luzia labours as a kitchen servant to a married couple in Madrid. She can perform magic, something the wife discovers and hopes to leverage to elevate her lowly status. But word travels fast, and soon Luzia is preparing for a kind of magic-off against gifted others (fakers? backstabbers?) who can then rally to help King Philip II recover from his high-seas defeat against Elizabeth I. Treachery abounds, the church suspects evil and Luzia intersects with the Familiar of the title, a sort-of-human entity enslaved by a nasty nobleman with an agenda. Oh, and Luzia is secretly Jewish at the time of the Inquisition. So, yeah, the stakes are substantial.

Bardugo, best known as author of the Shadow and Bone YA trilogy adapted by Netflix a few years back, is fearless in courting the out-there which, ironically, makes her story somehow more forceful. Here, as in life, weirdly inexplicable stuff just happens. It’s a squirrelly yarn, sure, but it’s also, absolutely, one of a kind. — Kim Hughes

2Every Living ThingJason Roberts

Home Base: Northern California

Author’s Take: The true-life story of the quest to survey all life on Earth. It features duels, shipwrecks, lifelong rivalries, beasts with seven heads, and Thomas Jefferson dragging a giant moose from Vermont to Paris. It’s not your ninth-grade biology textbook.”

Favourite Line:  “It was against faith to envision new species coming into existence, or existing ones fading into extinction.”

Review: The Economist cited “Homo sapiens. Tyrannosaurus rex. Boa constrictor. Even the layest of laymen know that the scientific names of species have two parts.” In the 1700s, when two men started looking closely at living systems, people believed animals like geese were born of flowers, or sprang from the leaves of trees. 

This fabulous non-fiction book details the lives of France’s Georges-Louis Leclerc (Iater known as the Comte de Bouffon) and Sweden’s Carl Linnaeus, and their rivalry to be the most triumphant “savant” (scientist didn’t mean what it means now) in classifying the natural world. The Comte came from a middle-class family, but had a more instinctive approach; he grew to be the hero of the battle, with a statue in his honour raised in the French King’s garden. But, in a twist of fate, the extremely poor and pious Carl Linnaeus, destined at one point to be a cleric, toppled the Comte (even his statue was replaced by Linnaeus). 

In this vivid, well-researched story, we hear the parallel stories of the rise of Linnaeus, from wearing broken-down shoes fitted with bags to premier naturalist, alongside the playtime of Bouffon. The count-to-be, along with two other young men, made a lot of hay travelling throughout Europe, for instance, learning to love brocades and philandering … and being part of the intelligentsia. 

Bouffon, relatively forgotten to naturalist history, ultimately was closer in his “radical daring” speculations to Darwin. The French naturalist believed species shouldn’t be boxed into strict categories and  all of them adapted to their surroundings. Linnaeus, who relied on the Bible for his intel, was a cataloguer, who felt all life came out of the Garden of Eden without change. It’s a grand journey. —Susan Grimbly

3Last Womanby Carleigh Baker

Home Base:  Vancouver, on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and səl̓ilwəta (Tsleil-Waututh) peoples.

Author’s Take: “I think it’s very easy to read my work as very serious, but my coping mechanism is humour. … Of course it’s my job to take you on a ride, go dig into the places that might be uncomfortable and upsetting at times, but I sort of hoped that there would be a chance maybe to purge some of that.”

Favourite Lines: “Well, this is unexpected, but I guess no one ever expects dead bodies. Not in places that aren’t morgues, or battlefields, or graveyards. I certainly didn’t think there’d be one here, in the abandoned, boarded-up house next to my own home, on the corner of Cambie and King Ed. But here we are.”

Review: Where would we be without the unexpected? Certainly not living interesting lives. This is the diamond truth that award-winning Cree-Métis/Icelandic writer Carleigh Baker’s lets sparkle in Last Woman. Deeply contemporary, the 15 stories in Baker’s new collection showcase characters under keenly recognizable stresses.

Existential fear arising from the climate emergency. COVID-19 lockdowns. Economic shifts driven by technological change. Doom is either impending or already in the rearview mirror in these stories, but hope is also ever present. For example, the three-part story, Billionaires, provides an intergalactic perspective on the state of the planet. It also suggests aliens enjoy a good joke.

Humour and a good-natured approach to the day-to-day is a common feature of Baker’s characters. In Outraged on Your Behalf, the narrator awaits the arrival of her parents, who have had to abandon their home due to a wildfire evacuation. Her mind turns to social media hashtags, how attention gets amplified, and memories of a childhood camping trip where disaster struck but was neatly resolved. How to survive the unexpected is a matter of adjustment, Baker’s characters conclude, and the ability to improvise is a key survival tool.

In the title story, Last Woman, the narrator plays a video game featuring a woman alone in the wilderness. Every action is critical to solving problems that will keep the game going. It’s a game, but it’s also a metaphor the narrator applies to her own life. Keep going. One step at a time.

Baker’s stories glimmer with optimism and surprises – natural, super-natural and extraterrestrial. Her debut collection, Bad Endings (2017), won the City of Vancouver Book Award and was a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Emerging Indigenous Voices Award for fiction. —Michael Bryson


4Nowhere, Exactlyby M.G. Vassanji

Home Base: Toronto, Ont.

Author’s Take: “Canadian art has long sought endorsement and inspiration from Europe and America. How does a poet or novelist, a musician or painter arrived from another culture, fit into it? Am I a Canadian writer, or an African one, or an Indian one? I have been called all three, and have been denied as any of the three.” 

Favourite Line: “It is left to the storyteller and poet to remember, to imagine and recreate, and thus to resurrect the past with some integrity and give history, memory and myth to his people.”

Review: Toronto writer M.G. Vassanji has long been at the summit of Canadian letters. The winner of the inaugural Giller Prize in 1994 for The Book of Secrets, he won the Giller again in 2003 (The In-Between World of Vikram Lall) and has been awarded the Governor General’s Award, the Commonwealth First Book Prize and the Harbourfront Prize. And he’s a member of the Order of Canada.

His new book Nowhere, Exactly reveals that, beneath the esteem, Vassanji struggles with questions of belonging, at a cultural and personal level. This is, perhaps, to be expected: born in Kenya to Indian immigrant parents, he grew up in Tanzania, and decamped to the United States to study nuclear physics. He performed his post-doctoral work in Deep River, Ont., in the late 1970s, and settled in Toronto in 1980. He credits his “inherent, itinerant tendency” to his family roots in the Indian community “traditionally known as the Khojas,” whose members are “known to set off across the sea as traders and settlers.” While this might serve as an explanation, it doesn’t free Vassanji from a relentless inquiry into the meaning of his life and its peregrinations.

Vassanji has written from these questions before, but never quite so directly as in his new book. Drawn from decades of lectures, Nowhere, Exactly is (“after numerous revisions”) a powerful, beautifully written journey into the seeming contradictions and paradoxes of Vassanji’s life, his journeys back to his small childhood community in Africa and to the India of his forebears, the nature of immigrant communities in Canada, and of such figures as Gandhi and Lawrence Durrell. The somewhat fragmented nature of the book  – preserving the standalone quality of the lectures/pieces – creates a kaleidoscopic effect, as observations and events are revisited and recontextualized. The result is curiously intimate, as if the reader were a part of the process of examining Vassanji’s questions, a witness to the inner workings of his powerful mind. —Robert Wiersema


5The Ritual Effectby Michael Norton

Home Base: Cambridge, Mass. 

Author’s Take: “We did some experiments where we wanted to see if rituals could also enhance our experience of eating. The first thing we did was say, ‘Here’s some chocolate, eat it!’ Afterwards we said, ‘Did you like it?’ And people said, ‘Yeah, I’m pretty happy. Thanks for the chocolate.’ But for some other people we said this: ‘Break the chocolate bar in half inside the wrapper. Unwrap half. Eat that half. Unwrap the other half. Eat that half.’ Those people liked the chocolate more than the people who just got to eat it.”

Favourite Lines: “Good habits automate us, helping us get things done. Rituals animate us, enhancing and enchanting our lives with something more.” 

Review: Michael Norton is doubtless a fan of what yoga practitioners call mindfulness: being fully present in the moment. Only Norton’s form of mindfulness is at once more quotidian and more exultant than that, and it’s arguably more impactful for a wider swath of the population. In The Ritual Effect, Norton — a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School — differentiates between habits and rituals. And he argues (via a tremendous cache of research across multiple disciplines) that elevating simple everyday actions by reframing their significance “is akin to switching from black and white to Technicolor. “

From that intriguing introduction, Norton goes on to detail how consciously ritualizing small stuff can boost our lives in big ways: in relationships (nurture an activity together), in the working world (find unique ways to bond with co-workers) and within ourselves (savour what goes in your mouth). Readers are encouraged to draw correlations between action and reward. “How can we distinguish a ritual from all the other routines and tasks we perform throughout the day? And are rituals foolish or wise? Can they really improve our lives?” The answer is yes, and Norton shows us how and why. 

The author’s greatest achievement may be the readability of what could be very dry text in less capable hands. With impeccably vetted research — his own and the findings of esteemed others from all corners of the globe — Norton gives us an accessible self-help book offering practical strategies most of us can implement without breaking a sweat. Nice. —K.H.

6The Summer We Crossed Europe in the Rainby Kazuo Ishiguro

Home Base: London

Author’s take: “One of the key things I learnt writing lyrics — and this had an enormous influence on my fiction — was that with an intimate, confiding, first-person song, the meaning must not be self-sufficient on the page. It has to be oblique, sometimes you have to read between the lines.”

Favourite lines: “I dreamt that I had lost you and become a movie queen/Searching through the ruins of a movie we’d once seen/Like Catherine in Indochine/Like Catherine in Indochine.”

Review: Back stories don’t come better than the one propelling The Summer We Crossed Europe in The Rain. In 2002, acclaimed novelist Kazuo Ishiguro outed himself on BBC radio as a massive fan of American jazz singer Stacey Kent. She asked him to write liner notes for her next album. As Ishiguro explains in the new book’s introduction, that led him to meet with Kent and her multi-instrumentalist husband and musical collaborator Jim Tomlinson. A friendship developed. 

As it happens, long before the Nobel Prize-winning author penned Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, he wrote songs; “mostly ghastly” by his estimation, but songs, nonetheless. With Kent and Tomlinson, he returned to his writing roots. The Summer We Crossed Europe in The Rain gathers 16 song lyrics he crafted for Kent since 2006.

So, while the book is niche, it’s also lovely, and is itself propelled by imaginative depictions of Ishiguro’s words by Italian cartoonist Bianca Bagnarelli. To further enhance the experience, an included QR code allows readers to stream the music. For fans of author or artist, it’s a delight. — K.H.

7Finding a Likenessby Nicholson Baker

Home Base: Bangor, Maine

Author’s Take: “My aspiration, in fact, is not to become a serious artist but to learn more about the world than I can learn by doing, say, photography.”

Favourite Line: “My pencil-pointed mind swooped and swerved in and around the sinuses of the leaf, then paused to feel how strangely sharp the lobe-tips were.”

Review: For decades I have followed essayist and novelist Nicholson Baker, 67, through his genre explorations. Among his oeuvre, he has written a novel that’s a transcript of phone sex, a non-fiction treatise championing paper archives and a novel without plot, narrated by a nine-year-old.  He is a singular voice. So, I was curious when he turned his attention to visual art during lockdown. 

Finding a Likeness is, in keeping with tradition, genre-vague: Is it a “how to”? Is it a staging platform for his newfound talent? Neither, exactly. It does have an arc, from his beginnings as a doodler to his status as a, well, Reddit star (more later). The book is larded with reproductions of his favourite works, as well as a plethora of his own drawings, paintings and digital stuff.

What kind of visual artist is he? Well, he starts off trying to draw faces, mostly, but soon realizes that rendering a likeness is tricky (early attempts have the distinctive look of high-school yearbook art). Idiosyncrasies and shortcomings feel like an opportunity for any visual artist to begin to find their style – I’m thinking of Fernando Botero and Margaret Keane, who leaned in to their proportional whimsies. But Baker’s frustration with imperfection instead leads him to begin tracing. From a traced outline, he fleshes out the face. At one point he shares his portraits to online forum Reddit, where he finds an appreciative audience. He becomes hooked, and those tracing-based pencil drawings are the bulk of the book. 

A hint of his artistic boldness can be seen in an early painting of a winter squash, mottled and beautiful in both form and colour, but he retreats from the risk of freehand, maybe to defend himself from the feeling of being a failure.

The old Bakerian observations occasionally glint off the page – “Maxfield Parrish’s heaped, beehive-hairdo clouds fill me with shuddering, bulbous joy” – but mostly his words (and thoughts!) are minimal, simple, without showiness, like Shaker furniture. —Lisan Jutras


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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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