From the Library: A Dystopian, a Thriller, and a Memoir

These three genres are not my usual fare, but I dip into them from time to time, and usually enjoy it when I do.

Crosshairs by Catherine Hernandez

In southern Ontario, the concrete jungle of Toronto was transformed into a shallow bayou. Park benches sat in water like rafts in muck. Beneath the surface of floating detritus, curbstones and fire hydrants grew fluffy with green algae. Metal posts wavered in the tide with submerged bicycles still chained to their stems.

Crosshairs takes place in a dystopian world not too far in the future. There are signs of climate destruction and unrest, but the focus is on social injustice. In this world, people with skin that is anything other than white begin to lose their rights. It starts with bank card malfunctions and job loss, and ends with being put to work in labour camps and workhouses.

The central characters in Crosshairs are mainly queer persons of colour, with intersectional identities. For example, Kay is a queer Filipino-Jamaican first generation Canadian. He was also a drag queen before the “Renovation” occurred. He and a couple of others are being hidden by the Resistance.

No room in Toronto is ever used in the way it was originally intended. That’s what happens in a city always trying to reinvent itself. Like it has an itch it can’t scratch. Like it has a commitment problem. This room was meant to be a cold cellar. A place where, before the invention of refrigeration, the woman of the house would have stored things like butter or eggs. That’s why even in the heat of the summer, the heat of this hellish summer, I feel like I’m swimming in the cold breath of ghosts. I’m wearing all the clothes I ran away in. Five layers, which you told me to wear. There is no finding me. At least I hope so.

As well as being a book that explores the “universal desire to thrive, to love and to be loved as your true self”, Crosshairs is a book with a clear message. It is dedicated to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando with a description of the author’s dream and a message for readers: “To the people of privilege: / You will survive your discomfort while reading this book / But many like me, / who sit dangerously at various intersections of identity, / will not survive long enough for you to complete the last page. / What will you do?

The Need by Helen Phillips

I have been wanting to read The Beautiful Bureaucrats since it came out, and so, naturally, I read The Need instead.

It was quick and fun and disturbing.

The need to go home. The need to dispense with this intruder, this nightmare, and return to two small impeccable bodies. The excruciating need.

Phillips gets the details of living with young children just right. If Molly’s life as a mother hadn’t been so convincing, the book would have fallen flat. But I believed in Molly’s devotion to her children, so I was properly spooked and horrified.

… her heart rate was elevated as it always was when she was the sole caretaker of her children, imaginary footsteps or no. She wondered if other mothers experienced it, this permanent state of mild panic, and worried that perhaps they didn’t, that perhaps there was something wrong with her. What a phenomenon it was to be with her children, to spend every moment so acutely aware of the abyss, the potential injury flickering within each second.

How far would you go to be with your children?

“… why do you keep forgetting that you would behave the exact same way if the tables were turned?”

Dirty Work by Anna Maxymiw

I can’t remember where I first heard about this book. I read a couple of positive reviews for it and because it’s about spending a summer up North in an isolated area, I was curious about it.

Anna Maxymiw wanted to do something to shake up her quiet, literary world, so she applied to be a housekeeper for the summer at a fishing lodge in Northern Ontario (on Kesagami Lake). Accessed only by plane. No internet connection. Just hours of grueling work and spending time with a bunch of strangers.

It’s like tracing the footsteps of giants, travelling back in time… there’s a feeling that the forests below hold secrets that none of us would be able to whisper. That below these wings are monsters and gods: bears taller than me, pike as long as children, things that lurk in the latticework of the woods. That agreeing to work at this lodge this summer is the smartest or stupidest thing I’ve ever done.

It was interesting to read about what the experience was like for her, but at times I found the stories, and the dynamics between the other lodge workers, a bit juvenile. To be fair, most of them were very young. And maybe that’s what happens to people when taken out of their safe places and put into an unfamiliar environment that involves working closely with strangers for many hours a day on very little sleep and very few showers.

Call me strange, but I especially liked the chapter about the Northern Pike. I had never given this species of fish a thought before, but Maxymiw has me thinking of them now as ancient, mythical creatures who are wise and all-knowing. Which is as it should be.

Pike break your heart. Pike make you stronger. They have sneakily, sensually captured our imaginations: “A pike dozed,” Amy Lowell writes. “Green and copper, / A darkness and a gleam.” “With one sinuous ripple,” Theodore Roethke describes in the finale of a poem, “then a rush / A thrashing up of the whole pool.” These are fish that have seen the deaths of kings, eaten lips of mules, besieged the fisherman. These are eyes that have seen the fillet knife, the faces of excited and frustrated anglers. For all of this, the pike deserves more credit than we’ve given it. Water wolf. Survivor in the fullest. This queen of fishes.

Despite the aforementioned gripe, I found this book entertaining, insightful, well-researched, and well-written. I’ll probably never spend a summer at a fishing lodge in Northern Ontario (or any other fishing lodge, for that matter), but I now have a vicarious taste of it.

Without any tackle boxes or seat cushions or accoutrements, the boats are exoskeletons, carcasses of the precious temperamental behemoths that were such crucial parts of our summer. Even the trails left in the sand looks as though some great beast has pulled itself out of the water and into the forest and curled up, ready to hibernate and wake again when winter turns to spring.

Have you read anything outside of the usual lately?

16 thoughts on “From the Library: A Dystopian, a Thriller, and a Memoir

  1. A Life in Books says:

    I’ve read The Beautiful Bureaucrat which could also be described as ‘quick, fun and disturbing’. Your Dirty Work review reminded me of Kings of the Yukon, partly the jacket but also that description of pike. Adam Weymouth’s descriptions of salmon are similarly arresting.

    • Naomi says:

      I remember your Kings of the Yukon review reminding me of Dirty Work! (My Dirty Work review is actually from a couple of years ago, but got lost in my drafts. I wonder what else is lost in there…)
      I hope to still read The Beautiful Bureaucrat!

  2. wadholloway says:

    I like the trend to dystopian fiction, even if the writers do turn somersaults to avoid being labelled SF. My first question is Will L. Ontario be affected by rising sea levels? Is that the reason Toronto is a bayou? Then – why isn’t the cellar flooded? Cellars are almost unknown in Australia. I don’t know why, perhaps we like our food hot. My farmer grandparents stored theirs in a coolsafe hanging in the verandah, but could easily have dug a cellar into the sand and limestone. Also – are you ok with a woman writing a trans man? How was the second person POV?
    If you answer half these questions I suppose I’ll have to do the right thing and buy Crosshairs as an ebook.

    • Naomi says:

      Ha! I will try my best to answer them all!
      Toronto is on one of the Great Lakes and the Great Lakes are connected to the Atlantic Ocean, so I’m guessing Toronto would be affected. As for why the cellar wasn’t flooded – that’s a good question! I don’t know if it was an oversight, or if maybe the house is on a hill. πŸ™‚
      It’s interesting that you don’t have cellars there. Where do you store all your stuff? πŸ˜‰
      I did question the second person POV only because it was so easy to forget that the narrator was telling this story to someone who wasn’t there. But I also don’t have any complaints about it.
      The main character, Kay, is queer and a drag queen, but he’s not trans. The author is queer as well, with an intersectional identity, so I felt pretty comfortable with the way she portrayed her characters. I think the biggest issue someone might have with this book is its obvious messaging. Not that I don’t think it’s needed. And, because of that, I was okay with it, but I can see why others might not be.
      If you decide to read it, I would be very interested in reading your thoughts on it! It’s a good one for discussion.

      • buriedinprint says:

        So you answered *more* than half of Bill’s questions, so did you convince him to buy the book? πŸ™‚ Also, I looked it up and apparently Toronto is at #14 on the list of cities most affected by climate change by 2050, with a rating of only 1 on sea levels rising (as compared to Bangkok, which has a rating of 100 on that scale, and the only Aussie city on there is Melbourne, which is at number 5).

  3. annelogan17 says:

    I remember reading the Need a few years ago and finding it very strange, the parts where she sits in her basement waiting for the ‘other’ to leave was so weird! Very impressive sense of imagination in that author. And I know I say this almost every day to you, but Crosshairs is on my shelf and I keep meaning to read it! LOL very powerful dedication too

  4. buriedinprint says:

    The first two I can see as being outside your usual vein of reading, but what was it about the third that made it seem so for you? Just that it wasn’t AtlCanada? or that you can’t remember how it ended up in your stack?

    I’ve been reading some poetry this year, and Elizabeth Alexander’s poems have been unexpectedly engrossing. She writes in a narrative style, so it’s more like reading very short stories, and I respond well to that…just fall into them. Even though it’s not exactly UNusual for poetry to be in my stack, I didn’t read as much of it last year and I wanted to make sure to start 2021 with a good selection of poets in mind.

  5. Naomi says:

    Just that I don’t often read memoirs, either. I always want to, but it doesn’t happen very often – it’s the non-fiction problem…

    I’ve been reading more poetry than usual, too, so far this year. Not nearly as much as you, I’m sure, but a lot for me!

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