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Mike Marra’s Holiday Reads

Kim Whaley’s “Christmas Read List” from the January Newsletter inspired me to revisit the books that I had read during the holiday period. To be fair, at this stage of my life I read constantly in my spare time. The following are the books that I read over the period from roughly December 15 to January 15.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (2019). The author’s memoir of domestic violence in a same sex relationship. As a long time family law lawyer and mediator this account brings home the chilling reality of psychological and emotional abuse. The new Divorce Act amendments contain an expanded definition of intimate partner violence, including, “coercive and controlling violence: a pattern of emotionally abusive intimidation, coercion and control, often combined with physical violence.”

The new definition is a big step forward but the evidentiary challenges facing the victim are obvious. In the Dream House the onset of the abusive behavior was subtle and seemingly out of character. As it continued the victim questioned whether it had actually happened or was in her own head all the while believing and feeling that her partner was the love of her life and the relationship was amazing. Until it finally became clear that it wasn’t.

Blanket Toss Under the Midnight Sun by Paul Seesequasis (2019). I encountered the author online where he features archival photos of indigenous folks in northern or prairie communities.  He began to search archives in response to his mother’s stories and accounts of life in the communities and his own review of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report on the residential school system.

He began to post the photos on FaceBook and Twitter and generated a large following who were able to identify relatives and dates and places in the photos. In his book, Seesequasis provides a historical narrative of the eight primary indigenous areas in what is now known as Canada, as depicted by many photographers who assembled thousands of candid pictures taken within the communities as far back as the 1940’s.

This is not a depiction of devastation, despair and misery. It is a celebration of resilience and joy.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. My seven year old granddaughter is obsessed by all things Hogwarts. She has just finished reading the fifth book. So in order to have some clue about what she is talking about I suggested that I would like to read the first book. As an early Christmas present she provided me with a well-used copy with the note “I hope that you enjoy this book as much as I did.”   I did. I get it. Now if only I could learn to properly pronounce the name of her hero Hermione Granger.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016). Last summer I was fortunate to attend Whitehead’s launch of his 2019 novel The Nickel Boys at the AGO. That led me to his 2017 Pulitzer Prize and 2016 National Book Award winning The Underground Railroad. No one can begin to understand the African-American point of view without really appreciating these types of accounts. At times these stories are too much to bear. Then you recognize that these stories are based on real life archives and pieced together as unforgettable fiction.

Hello Please Fix Me I Want to Die by Anna Mahler Paperny (2019). Unlike Kim, I am only half way through. I watched Anna’s interview with Steve Paiken on TVO and was struck by her courage, candor and depth of knowledge. Her first person accounts and research are equally compelling and heavy going. As a parent of many and with direct experience with our mental health care system I have some appreciation of the desperation, feelings of helplessness and hope so vividly described.

The Border by Don Winslow (1919). The third installment in the Cartel Trilogy is a page turner that kept me going through the heart of the Christmas break. Picking up with our hero (or anti-hero) Art Keller in 2012 and following him as he becomes head of the DEA in the past Democratic Administration and forward to the 2016 Republican President who bears a not  dissimilar resemblance to Trump. The book details how the Mexican Cartel adapted their business model from marijuana to cheap brown heroin and lab manufactured fentanyl in response to the emerging legalization of weed and explosion of pharma opioids in the US market.

After watching the Senate Impeachment Fiasco and the daily abrogation of the rule of law in America, I long for the honour, integrity and courage of one person who can stand up and make a difference like Arturo Keller.

Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga (2018). Former Toronto Star reporter Tanya Talaga received numerous accolades and awards for her detailed chronical of the tragic deaths of seven indigenous high schoolers in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011. Systematic racism of our indigenous people is part of our Canadian identity and these accounts highlight just how entrenched the colonial status quo is in our society.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeannette Winterson (1985). The first novel by the acclaimed British writer describing her coming of age in a strict Pentecostal household and community in Lancashire in the early ‘70’s. A remarkable story of perseverance and courage as the writer is ostracized from her community and church due to her sexuality all the while immersing herself in literature and mysticism.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (2019). An immigrant’s experience captured by way of an adult’s letter to his mother chronicling his experiences as a Vietnamese refugee in the ‘70’s growing up with his mother and grandmother in Hartford, Connecticut. Our writer, “Little Dog”, begins at age five, unable to speak any English while being raised in a home where only Vietnamese was spoken. You can well imagine the difficulties that he experienced in school and with peers growing up in the hard scrabble inner city. I will never look at a nail salon the same way after reading Little Dog’s accounts of spending every day after school and weekends within the toxicity of the salon while his mother worked long hours for tips to support the household.

I also watched Pain & Glory, Uncut Gems, Queen & Slim, Little Women and Parasite on the big screen. Good times.

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