Michael F. Recommends

Fall, or autumn if you prefer, is usually associated with things and events changing in a short span of time. Falling leaves are a classic sign of death, change, and eventual renewal, when spring comes. In their brief blaze of colour before they fall, they leave (no pun intended!) a lasting impression.

Change is part of the world in general. How often have you felt you’d like to read more, but don’t have time, because of changes in your life?

Submitted for your consideration are some falling leaves. Short books of fiction and nonfiction that despite their size (none are over 250 pages) pack a lot in a small space. I hope they leave a lasting impression.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air Book Jacket

Dr. Paul Kalanithi was a talented young neurosurgeon in the prime of his career, thinking of starting a family, when he was suddenly stricken with inexplicable back pain. All the common causes and diagnoses seemed to come up negative.  He was young and working hard, but relatively healthy—it surely couldn’t be cancer, could it?

The book is a powerful examination of the connection and interrelation between life, mortality, family, and the need to manage time available to you. Written while Dr. Kalanithi was undergoing cancer treatment, he died before it was completed and published. His widow wrote the afterword which gives perspective from the family side. 

The Double Hook by Sheila Watson

The Double Hook Book Jacket

Set in the Cariboo region of British Columbia during the 1930’s and the Great Depression, the lives of people in a small remote community are thrown into turmoil through a series of bad choices.

I read this back in university. It clearly had an effect on me despite its size, because I felt the need to reread and decide if I should include it. This book is a challenge. Its prose is a combination of dream, poetry, magical realism, and nearly a stream of consciousness. The author obviously trusted her readers to make the connections. Nothing is spelled out clearly: the dialogue doesn’t even have quotation marks!

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

Riddley Walker Book Jacket

How many readers studied Lord of the Flies at some point in school? How many read A Clockwork Orange, in school or otherwise?

Riddley Walker is neither of those things, but owes something of its existence to both earlier books—it deals with the aftermath of a nuclear war, and written in its own unique dialect.  Challenging, but not impossible. Civilization, such as it is, is recovering after a cataclysm, and writing and reading and technology are being re-discovered. Don’t let the word “dialect” intimidate you. There are no bizarre invented words—they’re spelled phonetically. There are strange definitions for certain things because characters have no historical context or knowledge for them. This forces you to read slowly, which the author admits in his Afterword he liked because it makes you experience and think about the world just like Ridley.

Once you get used to the rhythm, and the book casts its spell, the pages fly by. I found the Afterword, Author’s Notes and Glossary just as interesting. I like peeking behind the curtain, and learning how things are done.

Russell Hoban was originally a children’s illustrator and author, which may be why his writing is so concise.  Another brief novel by him is Amaryllis, Night and Day, which is rather dreamlike and perhaps shares that connection with The Double Hook.

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies by Joyce Sidman

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies Book Jacket

Before I read this book, I had no idea who Maria Merian was. After I read this book, I have no idea why everyone doesn’t know Maria Merian. This is why you should read the book: Maria Merian is worth knowing.

In 17th century Germany, a young woman trained in the arts of copper engraving and painting by her father and stepfather. Maria defies the conventions of her time to celebrate the beauty and development of creatures seen as unclean by the world at large.

Maria became one of the most influential amateur naturalists of her day. She was a huge influence on fellow collectors and contemporaries like John James Audobon, She was the first to discover and show how butterflies and moths actually developed. Carl Linnaeus, father of scientific classification, cited her over 130 times!

Don’t let the fact this is a children’s book put you off.  It clearly describes Maria Merian’s life, with gorgeous colour reproductions of her original paintings and sketches, and personal writings. It won the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal in its year of publication. This medal is awarded to the best informational book for children published in the US.

The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison

The Origin of Others Book Jacket

A print version of a series of lectures Toni Morrison gave in 2016, it clearly explores the concept of racism and otherness—subjects she continually explored through her entire literary career.  As the author knows full well, racism has be taught. She skillfully takes her literary scalpel to the contortions and contradictions people put themselves through. Not only to invent, label and dehumanize “the other”, but convince themselves they are still “decent” human beings despite doing this.

Barely over a hundred pages, and just as relevant today as it was six years ago—if not more, sadly.

Tao Te Ching by Laozi

Tao Te Ching Book Jacket

The oldest book on this list by a couple thousand years, the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing in some translations) is even more elusive, allusive and suggestive than The Double Hook. One reason is language—translating Chinese into English is a challenge. Many concepts and phrases don’t translate easily or clearly (if at all).

It can be considered a manual for living, but not in a concrete way. (Which may explain its lasting appeal.) Much like The Double Hook, the Tao Te Ching suggests, implies, and lets the reader decide for themselves.  China’s other famous moral philosophy, Confucianism, was about obeying strict rules and regulations. Taoists greatly enjoyed teasing Confucianists about this.

Also available in e-book and audiobook formats.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Luster Book Jacket

Edie is twenty-three years old. She has a job she dislikes, and work relationships that range from openly hostile to inappropriate. She lacks the skills and movitvation to get what she really wants—a better job, a better apartment, better relationships. What’s a young woman to do?

Then she starts a relationship with a married man, and through a bizarre series of circumstances, ends up moving into his house, family, and life while he’s away.

A dark and funny meditation on modern relationships, race, and generation gaps, Luster is very well written. I didn’t know if I’d like it before I started—this sort of book is not my usual choice. I’m glad I made the effort. because while I expected cliché and fluff, I got surprising character depth and plot twists that felt earned.

The Shoe Boy: A Trapline Memoir by Duncan McCue

The Shoe Boy Book Jacket

I must thank our colleague, Mark Hamilton for this addition. CBC journalist McCue relates the time he spent in the bush as a 17-year old living in a Cree hunting cabin. For five months Duncan learned traditional Cree skills and values he, as a Torontonian never knew or experienced.

Once again, The Shoe Boy proves a book needn’t be long to be relevant. You get a short crash course on traditional Cree culture, its relation to the land, and even a few choice Cree words along the way. Highly recommended. For young adult readers, this would make an interesting comparison read with a classic adventure novel like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet.