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Review: New work from Carlyn Zwarenstein, Margaret Christakos and others

Opium Eater: The New Confessions

By Carlyn Zwarenstein, Nonvella, 110 pages, $13.95

Earlier this year, Prince died of accidental overdose on fentanyl, a prescription opioid pain reliever. His death was only the latest high-profile case in the far-reaching issue – some have called it a crisis – of opioid use and abuse in North America. Canadians and Americans are the greatest consumers of legal opioid painkillers. Like Thomas De Quincey before her, Carlyn Zwarenstein didn't start taking opioids for their recreational side effects. She took what her doctor prescribed to treat her severe, chronic, debilitating pain from spinal arthritis. In her Confessions – a 21st-century update on De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) – Zwarenstein achieves that rare thing: a dispassionate account informed by deeply personal experience. Readers will benefit from this measured look at the causes of our increased dependence, which doubles as a critical memoir on the relationship between opioids, creativity, and pain. This is the sixth book from Vancouver-based Nonvella, which publishes novella-length works of non-fiction readable in one sitting.

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Her Paraphernalia: On Motherlines, Sex/Blood/Loss & Selfies

By Margaret Christakos, BookThug, 200 pages, $20

paraphernalia: arrived into use in the mid-17th century, denoting property owned by a married woman apart from her dowry; for example, her own things. This is a memoir about Margaret Christakos's paraphernalia – or is it her daughter's? Her mother's? Her grandmother's? Great-grandmother's? In 2012, Christakos turned 50; her daughter, 15; her mother, 80, had a stroke. Three years later, the author's 23-year-long partnership ended. In the confluence of these life events, she embarks on a journey to explore her motherlines, which in physical travel will take her to Britain, Greece, and Sudbury, Ont.,where she was raised. In artistic wandering it takes this wide-ranging, intergenre memoir that gallivants through selfies, prose poems, concrete poems, and Facebook photo album captions. It's visceral in both senses: radically grounded in the female body (at 50) and intensely emotional, often erotic. Her Paraphernalia is the first in BookThug's new Essais series, intended to "challenge traditional forms and styles of cultural enquiry."

Curatorial Dreams: Critics Imagine Exhibitions

Edited by Shelley Ruth Butler and Erica Lehrer, McGill-Queen's University Press, 400 pages, $39.95

Sometimes a book has such an original premise, you can't help but be intrigued. Such is the case in Curatorial Dreams, a collection of 14 imagined exhibitions by researchers in wide-ranging fields. Echoing through these dreams are the verbs: question, critique, reframe, intervene, resurrect – these are critical exhibits in subject matter and presentation. The editors pushed contributors to imagine their exhibitions as concretely as possible. Effects range from sobering (Lissette Olivares and Lucian Gomoll look at Pinochet's dictatorship through Chilean folk dance) to cheeky (Matti Bunzl's But Is It Art?: Not Really), to playful (Janice Baker shows films set in museums … in a museum) to curative (Shelley Ruth Butler redressing the Royal Ontario Museum's infamous 1990 show Into the Heart of Africa is just one example). Opening up to the realm of possibility can make for abstract reading at times. That said, this is a highly inventive and intellectually rewarding approach to thinking about the world.

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