Books

My Body is Yours

My Body Is YoursArsenal Pulp Press
236 pp.
Michael V. Smith, MFA’98 (Assistant Professor of Creative Writing, UBC Okanagan)

In his provocative and candid memoir, My Body is Yours, Michael V. Smith tells the story of growing up an inadequate male in a small town. In sometimes startling detail, he describes what it is like to be the child of an alcoholic father, how obsessive compulsive disorder creates addictions and compulsions similar to alcoholism, and how difficult it has been to reconcile his fey, sissy self with societal gender expectations. At the heart of the book is a community of queer artists and left‑leaning politicos who have helped Smith create both an artistic and personal space for self-expression while challenging notions of masculinity.

Smith alternates between anecdotes that include childhood memories, hospital visits to his father, and explicit sexual encounters in private and in public, but he balances all graphic details with deep, meaningful moments of reflection. He does so by referencing the words of writers, philosophers and poets as well as people like anthropologist Loren Eiseley, who says that we are process not reality. To this, Smith adds the idea that gender is something you create rather than something you are born with. Gender, according to him, is a theatre we all perform. It’s just that some performances, such as those of heterosexual males and females, are more widely accepted than others. This idea is why people feel threatened by Smith, and by his drag persona, Miss Cookie LaWhore.

At the end of Smith’s memoir, he has come to terms with his inadequate masculinity as well as his inadequate, alcoholic father. Anyone who believes that gender is a simple binary should read this. But be forewarned, it is as graphic as it is illuminating.


The Orenda

The Orenda

Penguin Canada, 2013
490 pp.

Through Black SpruceThrough Black Spruce

Penguin Canada, 2009
359 pp.

Three Day RoadThree Day Road

Penguin Canada, 2008
384 pp.

A trilogy by Joseph Boyden (UBC Lecturer, Creative Writing Program)

Joseph Boyden’s trilogy, comprising The Orenda, Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, attempts to reconcile the cycle of violence and injustice done to First Nations peoples with the reality of day-to-day existence. The books explore themes of friendship, family, loss, redemption, survival, innocence and identity, and while the novels unfold chronologically – from the 17th century to the First World War up to the present day – there is no need to read them in order. In fact, Boyden wrote The Orenda, which takes places in the 1600s, after the other two books. In combination, the three novels tie together threads of violence, racism and addiction so often emphasized in writing about native peoples, but Boyden upsets this simplistic narrative by telling a story across centuries and placing the horrific alongside the human, revealing that the need to love and be loved gives one the will to survive.

The seventeenth century Huron warrior, Bird, from The Orenda is an ancestor of Cree sniper Xavier Bird, whose story is told alongside his aunt, Niska, and friend, Elijah Whiskeyjack, in Three Day Road, a haunting tale of the horrors and brutality of the Great War. Niska’s life in the bush is in stark contrast to the residential school, which wrecked Elijah, and the war, which destroyed Xavier’s body and spirit. The story is one of death and devastation but in the end, it is a tale of healing and love.

Both Niska and Xavier also figure in Through Black Spruce, a story about legendary Cree bush pilot Will Bird, son of Xavier. Will’s niece, Annie, is a favourite of her grandfather, Xavier. She also has the seeing powers of Niska, her great aunt. Annie and Will’s story is characterized by obsession and addiction as well as the juxtaposition of the urban and rural. Like the other two novels, there is murder and mayhem. Women are raped and beaten. Drugs and alcohol are abundant and problematic.

In the end, Boyden’s masterful storytelling shows how it is possible to soldier on in the face of violence and injustice. In combination, the three novels elucidate a long, complicated history so often breezed over in news reports and anecdotes. While there are no answers here, Boyden reveals that life is as simple as it is complex.

Three Day Road won the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2006. Through Black Spruce won the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize.


All-Day Breakfast

All Day BreakfastBy Adam Lewis Schroeder, BFA’95, MFA’99 (UBC Lecturer, Creative Writing Program)
Douglas & McIntyre, 2015
378 pp.

Adam Lewis Schroeder has used hyperbole, satire and sarcasm in crafting All-Day Breakfast, a humorous zombie tale that is a social commentary on apathy, consumerism and racism. A large part of the story revolves around the gory, meaningless violence that has killed more than five million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 1998. The book alternates between the loss of limbs in the DRC with the body parts that fall off and are then stapled back on to high school substitute teacher Peter Giller and his zombie students. As with all humour writing, All-Day Breakfast is transgressive. It uses the living dead as a metaphor to highlight the wilful ignorance the general public shows toward global atrocities.

Giller, whose wife recently died from stomach cancer, tries his best to raise his two children in the most normal way possible. But he is falling apart. When he refuses to sign a petition in support of the Nbzambi March, an initiative intended to raise awareness of the atrocities in the DRC, one of his students accuses Giller of putting his children’s needs over the greater good. “Nice priorities,” says Grace, who tells Giller that Nbzambi is the Congolese word for the walking dead.

Even before the accident during a class trip that turns Giller and his students into zombies, Giller is half dead. After the accident, though, Giller and the students develop an obsession with bacon, an inexplicable urge to commit violence and an unnerving ability to drop fingers and other body parts then staple them back on. Houses are burned down. People are run down in the street. Violence escalates. So does the urge to eat bacon. Through all of this, Giller attempts to maintain whatever shreds of humanity he can.

“A zombie’s anything that’s wounded, like left for dead, but keeps moving forward, against all odds,” says the mother of one of the zombie students. “It could be a mouse in a trap, a whacked out substitute teacher or… a reanimated corpse.” To this her daughter replies, “Could be an impoverished African nation.”

All-Day Breakfast speaks to the absurd ability people have of moving forward in their lives despite being half dead.


Ian McTaggart-Cowan: The Legacy of a Pioneering Biologist, Educator and Conservationist

Ian McTaggart Cowan: The Legacy of a Pioneering Biologist, Educator and ConservationistHarbour Publishing, 2015
416 pp.
Edited by Wayne Campbell, Dennis A. Demarchi, and Ronald D. Jakimchuk

Zoologist and biologist Ian McTaggart-Cowan lived to be 100 years old. During his long life, he served as the curator of biology and assistant director of the British Columbia Provincial Museum, was appointed head of the Department of Zoology at UBC, served as the dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies at UBC, was named Officer of the Order of Canada, became a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, was awarded the Aldo Leopold Memorial Award by the Wildlife Society, became chancellor of the University of Victoria, co-wrote four volumes of The Birds of British Columbia and was recognized in 1991 by the Order of British Columbia.

The Legacy of a Pioneering Biologist, Educator and Conservationist is a tribute to his accomplishments and scientific contributions.

The book includes sections of speeches and lectures delivered by McTaggart‑Cowan during his illustrious career, details of his connections to environmental organizations, as well as anecdotes from acquaintances and students. Deborah Kennedy, the development and communications manager for the Nature Trust of British Columbia, recalls a conversation she had with McTaggart‑Cowan about the importance of nature as the foundation of his career. “If you spend part of your life alone in the wild,” he said, “you are changed.” McTaggart-Cowan spent a lot of his time alone in the wilderness, researching large mammals in Canada’s national parks. His focus, from early on, had been on learning about the complexities of the natural world so that he could apply that understanding to the preservation of the environment. In a 1969 speech, he wisely noted, “The laws of our society follow the pattern of ancient ethics that are often poorly suited to governing a complex, crowded, rapidly changing, technological world.”

McTaggart-Cowan worked hard to counteract what he called the natural tendency to do the wrong thing. His legacy as a leader in protecting the environment lives on in the attitudes and wisdom he shared with his students. This book is a testament to that legacy.

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