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The Old World

By Cary Fagan

House of Anansi/Astoria, 304 pages, $19.95

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Cary Fagan's latest collection, 35 short stories each based on a found black-and-white photo, is a study in storytelling about the past. In the title story, two black children stay inside as a result of some sort of unrest in the street. To placate her kid brother, Kathry tells a story of the "old world": their family's rural life before they moved to the city. In Kathry's telling, the country becomes a promised land – the desire to turn this past into a paradise saying much about present circumstances. Fagan's old world – the world of these photographs, the past as a whole – is far from this ideal: surprising, jaunty, colourful, but no Elysium. Bloody Tuesday, a spaghetti western told by a white child, is full of comical misunderstanding until the "Sheriff" reveals he's learned the lesson of cowboy stories: The white boy's life is worth more than his Native American friend's. It's arguably the most horrific moment in this collection about – not history – but the kinds of stories missing from history: a photo album of the personal monologues that make up the old world.

Arabic for Beginners

By Ariela Freedman

Linda Leith Publishing, 302 pages, $18.95

Almost halfway into Arabic for Beginners, Hannah, furious with yet another instance of casual racism, asks, "How could everyone pretend that living like this was normal?" "This" is her life in Jerusalem, having returned to Israel for the first time since a teenager, now with young children in tow as her husband takes a year-long university appointment. The story then jumps to one of Hannah's memories from New York: a young black man whooping and kicking on a subway platform, fellow transit-goers forming an invisible cordon sanitaire around him, wary of someone they presume violent. A damning comparison: How could anyone pretend living like this was normal? After Hannah befriends Jenna, a Palestinian woman, another friend accuses Hannah of being "an anthropological friend, a perpetual voyeur," but Hannah, though a sharp observer of hypocrisy and paradox, is hardly disinterested – she's implicated. Freedman allows her character little leniency in navigating the unease this arouses – a fine debut novel of home, family and nation worked through a story of personal entanglement.

Glass Beads

By Dawn Dumont

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Thistledown Press, 266 pages, $20

While these distinctions can sometimes feel academic, it seems significant that Dawn Dumont's latest book, marketed as stories, feels much closer to a novel. Significant because, while told from multiple perspectives and with some jumps in time, there's a clear narrative arc to this book, and that arc – about the relationships between four friends trying to live their lives off-reserve – feels like the book's heart. After Nellie leaves home for university, she's soon followed by Everett and Julie, the three of them having grown up together on the same Plains Cree reserve. In Saskatoon they meet Taz (Cree-Dene) and the four quickly form two on-again-off-again couples. While I argue Glass Beads could be a novel, it's equally important that there's no single protagonist here. Instead, Dumont balances characters off one another, offering a range of experiences as the four navigate 15 years through education, ceremony, politics, work, violence and love. Comparable to the complexity of Richard Van Camp's work, Glass Beads is a compelling representation of urban Indigenous life.

Funding for school libraries in Canada is woefully inadequate and children at high-needs elementary schools are paying the price. Read Between the Lines, a documentary produced by the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation, captures the importance of early literacy and the challenges we face in Canada by underfunding school libraries.
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