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book review

Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (And Yours)

By Harold R. Johnson

University of Regina Press, 180 pages, $16.95

The premise of Harold R. Johnson's call for abstention, recently shortlisted for the Governor-General's Literary Award: In Northern Saskatchewan First Nation communities, as in the rest of Canada, the problem is not alcoholism. The problem is alcohol. Not a small group of people who "can't handle it," but a story about booze that normalizes poison. Not only the parolee sentenced for crimes committed while binging, but also the judge who can't wait to crack open a whisky on the next flight home. Johnson writes from experience. A member of Montreal Lake Cree Nation, for decades he has worked as a defence counsellor and Crown prosecutor in Northern Saskatchewan First Nation communities, where he has witnessed first-hand alcohol's harmful effects, which he holds responsible for half the deaths in the region. Writing directly to his intended audience, niwâhkomakanak ("my relatives"), Johnson's plea for community healing holds lessons for kiciwamanawak ("our cousins," white settler Canadians), too.

Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories

Edited by Kelsi Morris and Kaitlin Tremblay

Exile Editions, 304 pages, $19.95

An anthology that shapeshifts from story to story – chimera, troll, mermaid, demon dog – defies easy summary. There's the grafting of genres – fantasy, horror, fable, myth – and then the subject matter. As the editors explain in the book's introduction, as queer feminists, "Monsters have always been a safe haven for us, in the way that they represent non-normative beings who aren't accepted or understood within their society." Those Who Make Us is purposefully multifarious. What is a monster? If some creatures offer parables of difference or appreciation for the deviant, we also know that some humans are monstrous on the inside. Delani Valin's deceptively simple story about a visit to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is haunted by the Métis figure of the Rugaru, or werewolf. This is the 13th book in Exile Editions' anthology series, and like those before it – most recently, New Canadian Noir and Clockwork Canada – it offers a challenging, conflicted, sometimes pleasantly weird reading of Canada.

Tomboy Survival Guide

By Ivan Coyote

Arsenal Pulp Press, 256 pages, $17.95

Bathrooms, pronouns, nipple numbness from top surgery, the cold slick of fear when the body knows danger; teenagers, many teenagers, many parents of teenagers, bullying. If you come to a trans person's memoir with a grocery list of topics, Tomboy Survival Guide ticks all the boxes – but look at that title again. Ivan Coyote didn't identify as trans until their 40s and in that time before has inhabited several roles: Yukoner, older sibling, teenage girl, lesbian, electrician – and throughout, tomboy, an expansive identity of manifold expressions. The trans material, when it does come, progresses naturally from Gender Failure, Coyote's previous book (with Rae Spoon), but in the first half of Tomboy Survival Guide, Coyote resists reading trans-ness in hindsight, refuses to centre trans-ness as the single primary concern in trans lives and, in this regard, is quietly radical. Late in the reading, I realized this is a book about family. An emotionally powerful memoir by a great storyteller about normal life.

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