Surviving Home by Katerina Canyon & B: A Year in Plagues and Pencils by Edward Carey

Catching up on two recent review books today: a hard-hitting volume of poems about family dysfunction and racism; and the pandemic year as captured in black-and-white illustrations and short autobiographical essays.

 

Surviving Home by Katerina Canyon

Katerina Canyon is from Los Angeles and now lives in Seattle. This is her second collection. As the poem “Involuntary Endurance” makes clear, you survive an upbringing like hers only because you have to. This autobiographical collection is designed to earn the epithet “unflinching,” with topics including domestic violence, parental drug abuse, and homelessness. When you hear that her father once handcuffed and whipped her autistic brother, you understand why “No More Poems about My Father” ends up breaking its title’s New Year’s resolution!

Threatening forces are everywhere: bears and sharks recur, and beet juice mimics blood. (Though there’s a nice cornbread metaphor, it, too, holds menace: “I have no trust in humanity / I lost that when I was 3 / It was baked in a pan of / Cornbread and eaten by // Demons.”)

Canyon also has anti-Trump material, and the poems about the ongoing effects of racism reminded me of some of Natasha Trethewey’s work. I particularly liked a poem structured around words and phrases coined in the year of the poet’s birth. There’s plenty of noteworthy language and images here, but the tough subject matter may limit the audience.

With thanks to Kelsay Books and the publicist for the free e-copy for review.

 

B: A Year in Plagues and Pencils by Edward Carey

I was a huge fan of Edward Carey’s Little. His black-and-white sketches kept turning up on my Twitter timeline throughout 2020. He sent the first, “A determined young man,” into the world on March 19, 2020, vowing to make a drawing a day until the pandemic was over. Perhaps a rash thing to agree to, and at times he regretted it, but he kept his promise for 500 days and wore out many a B pencil in the process.

This book covers the first 365 days of the project and also provides a rough recap of the turbulent year that was 2020. Carey’s subjects include politicians (his leanings are clear from his unflattering caricatures of Trump and other Republicans), writers, actors, birds and family members. Some were by request; others marked a public figure’s death. You can track the vaccine’s progress and outrage over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims of institutional racism. As an Englishman in Texas, Carey feels he doesn’t understand the country he lives in (though he loves its wildlife) and finds himself missing London.

Carey’s style veers towards the grotesque, so is best suited to fictional characters and those with distinctive features. I particularly liked a drawing of Rudy Guiliani dripping hair dye, the two-part spread of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve versus Christmas Day, and a farewell to 2020 as a wizened ogre opposite a hello to 2021 as a cheerful baby.

I was also delighted to see a drawing of W.N.P. Barbellion to mark the inaugural Barbellion Prize. In general, though, I doubt the value of simple reproductions of well-known paintings and photographs. If the goal was lifelike versions of real people, some of these miss the mark; the features are simply off. And Carey is not always great at rendering non-white people.

The pleasure of this collection is in seeing the variety from one page to the next: a laughing Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare, a capybara, and so on. There are one to four of the drawings printed per page, with short reflections from Carey interspersed between sections. In these mini-essays he talks about his process, where he got his ideas, and lockdown life with his family (his wife is author Elizabeth McCracken; they have two children and a cat).

One day noses will be permissible again. And then there will be mouths, too. And chins, likewise, shall be popular. … I’m forgetting faces. I miss people, of course, terribly. Yet every day out of the window there are still people there. I see these individuals walking up and down the street. Can’t see their faces. Only their eyes and the top of their heads. Like a new breed of human, with no nose, no mouth, no chin. Who are they? Don’t get too close. Everyone’s keeping their distance.

The drawings were a way of marking time, so the book serves as a time capsule of sorts. The text is perhaps an afterthought, and yet the random assemblage of illustrations couldn’t stand without it (I tried to imagine them filling an exhibit, but extensive captioning would be required). I feel a bit uncharitable for criticizing the artwork, given the constraints and the fact that I couldn’t produce even one sketch of nearly this quality. This was a perfectly pleasant and quick read, just not one that will stay with me. I think the same is true of a number of the other Covid diaries I’ve read: they feel ephemeral. However, it’s an attractive small-format hardback that should make it into many a Christmas stocking this year.

With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.

 

P.S. This is my 1,000th post!

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10 responses

  1. Happy 1000th! What great illustrations!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Congrats on reaching the 1,000 milestone

    Liked by 1 person

  3. 1000? Wow – a real achievement. Those illustrations are in many ways charming – not the right word I know – but as you say, perhaps too ephemeral to justify a place on the bookshelf. And the Canyon? Perhaps not for Christmas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True, not the most Christmassy pair here!

      Like

  4. The Carey seems like the perfect kind of book to check out from the library. Congrats on the 1000th post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it would be a perfect one to flip through on the coffee table for a few weeks.

      Like

  5. Wow, happy 1000th! I am still avoiding pandemic books, though Pandemic Solidarity is creeping up the TBR …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is a pretty light one, as these things go.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I wish I could remember the book on which I first spotted the term ‘unflinching’. Sometimes it is just the perfect descriptor, isn’t it, as with the poetry collection you’ve described. I feel like I’ve read a lot of poetry about abuse and suffering.
    Ah, what an ambitious goal indeed. It summarizes just how unlikely most people thought it would be that we’d still be in the same place months later.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I try to avoid all the reviewer-cliche words like “unflinching” and “luminous” … but sometimes they’re apt!

      Liked by 1 person

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