Simple Concepts Creating Deep Thoughts | Review of “The Hobo’s Crowbar” Written by JonArno Lawson/Woodcuts by Alec Dempster (2016) The Porcupine’s Quill

I purchased a copy of this book at the 2016 Toronto Word On The Street Festival

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We all engage in some sort of wordplay in our everyday lives. But when words are put into an order to cause us to ponder for a moment, that is a real treat for our minds. And if those words are accompanied by gifted illustrations, then our minds are truly enlightened. And if that complete book is published in a dedicated and well-crafted manner, then it is a truly gifted read. That is exactly what JonArno Lawson and Alec Dempster have done with The Hobo’s Crowbar, published by The Porcupine’s Quill.

There’s Something Almost Real – Page 32

There’s something almost real

In everything that’s fake

Like some banana peel

That startles you awake

It gets beneath your heel

You slip out of your trance

And fall and crack your head

On stones meant for your feet

And if you crawl away enlightened

Then your journey is complete.

It is no secret that I have been waiting for this book. Lawson is an award-winning writer whose skill in taking even a few words and putting them in an order which creates a thought or an emotion in a reader’s mind. And that is exactly what he has done with this book. The phrases are simple yet the thoughts he creates are complex. Definitely a treasure to read.

Page 71

Up And Down

At first sight

I truly loved you

Later

I wasn’t so sure

I was good enough for you.

(I was good enough for you.

I wasn’t so sure

Later

I truly loved you

A first sight.)

Either Way, Again

Noah

Saved

The animals

On the ark-

Noah

Fed

The animals

Fed

Noah

On the ark-

The animals

Saved

Noah.

The woodcuts that Alec Dempster has created for this book are detailed yet with simple lines. They greatly enhance the words of the book yet still allow the reader a great way of leeway to allow their own mind to imagine a scene.

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Scanned image from Page 62 of The Hobo’s Crowbar. Woodcut by Alec Dempster.

There is a strength in the images that Dempster has here. Perhaps because they are woodcuts they seem to command a certain level of attention from a reader. They are intense and thought-provoking and accompany the words of the book well.

 

importantnews
Scanned image of Pages 46-47 of The Hobo’s Crowbar. Woodcut (Left) by Alec Dempster and Important News (Right) by JonArno Lawson.

 The Hobo’s Crowbar, written by JonArno Lawson and illustrated with woodcuts by Alec Dempster is a mind-engaging book. It is simple in its details but complex in its actions and deeds. A great read.

*****

Link to The Porcupine’s Quill webpage for The Hobo’s Crowbar

Link to JonArno Lawson’s blog – The Bottom of the Box

Link to my Q&A with JonArno Lawson-“The Hobo’s Crowbar was written in the way some of my other collections of poems have been written – mostly emerging out of sound ideas or just ideas that I jot down in my notebook as I think of them”

Link to Alec Dempster’s website

Link to my Q&A with Alec Dempster – “The book form is well suited to the black and white images I create whether it be linoleum prints, woodblock prints or paper cuts”

A True Reflection of a Unspoken Reality | Review of “A Gentle Habit” by Cherie Dimaline (2015) Kegedonce Press

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When literature explores the realms of people in gritty or unfortunate circumstances, there is a sense of something being documented that usually isn’t being discussed. Yes it is enlightening but for many of us, but it also reflects a circumstance or a reality that we are familiar with yet is rarely covered in ‘standard’ books. And that is what Cherie Dimaline has boldly done in her collection of short stories called A Gentle Habit.

Page 2 The Bead Fairy

By 1983, the year I was eight, Sault Ste. Marie was a greying place for steelworkers and their offspring, a fine town to raise a family, far from the dangerous multiculturalism of the city. I was a quiet kid with a mushroom  cut and front teeth two times the size of the baby teeth around them. I lived with my parents, my older brother, and my maternal grandmother in a bungalow in what was known as the Halfbreed Projects, the neighbourhood that crept outward from the hockey arena like a brick scab around a high sticking wound.

For the most part, my life was routine. I took the bus into school where I got good grades, played road hockey with my brother and our friends and was madly in love with a boy. But not just any boy, Hugh McIvoy.

There is a frankness in the language of this collection of stories that would have frightened a lot of teachers back in my high-school days but is refreshing to see here. Dimaline has capture elements of the human condition not often documented. She explores feelings and emotions in a few simple, direct words that are vivid to anybody’s imagination.

 Page 59 36 Holes

Mike was bored. His boredom was like a well-guarded itch on the bottom of a foot tucked into an intricately tied boot, rendered unreachable by lacings and latchings that would make a dominatrix weep with joy. It was a juvenile and sadistic boredom; a pinching, wriggling brat of a feeling that elbowed its way around. The other feelings he had – about his kids, his wife, his strained waistbands – they slide easily and in concert, like keys on a player piano, churning out the unremarkable tunes of “going to work” or ” picking up groceries.” But the boredom slammed its fists on the tinkling keys, spat in the mechanism, picked its nose and wiped the finding under the piano bench. In short, his boredom was fucking shit up.

While the writing may be direct here, it is certainly not a book to be considered a quick read. There are concepts and serious emotions at work here. Some of the stories leave a reader puzzled and asking why, and that is a good thing. Why is this protagonist upset or angry or disturbed? That empathy translates into our everyday thoughts about the people around us.

Page 112 The Memory of Bones

Mother seemed devastated by Grandma’s passing. So sudden and as undignified as it was, being found two days later on the toilet by a cleaning lady; so unlike Regina at all, who would never even admit to having a bowel movements. After receiving word, Mother spent two days in black gowns, draped on the furniture like an injured crow until the day of her transatlantic flight. She took three matched suitcases packed full of the most elegant clothes she owned.

And just like that, I was alone. My father was still there of course, bumbling about in the den and drinking beer in front of the TV Mother had stashed away in the rec room when she decided it was ‘unseemly. Mother’s sideshow troupe came by regularly to check in and take notes-Adelaide and Father Carol bringing dishes of food and Mrs. Grue and Marty eating them-but still, I was alone. For the first time, the only voice in my head was my own.

There may be gritty and harsh elements to Cherie Dimaline’s A Gentle Habit but it reflects some certain truths in our society in it. A brilliant read and a bold piece of literature.

*****

Link to Cherie Dimaline’s blogspot site

Link to Kegedonce Press’ website for A Gentle Habit

“The readers who have contacted me love Harriet almost possessively, and take a few days to forgive me for what I put her through.” | Q&A with writer Cordelia Strube

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Culture is suppose to deal with the ‘human condition’ – to take note of an element in our society and bring it forth for us to consider and discuss. But that rarely seems to happen anymore. We are bombarded with more and more items that seem to be ‘marketed’ to us and our pocket books. So when we come across an item where a person carefully crafts an item to show something about the ‘human condition’ many of us still do take time to ponder that item. And we try to share our thoughts about that item with others.

Cordelia Strube states she is a private person. In being that private person she quietly observes the world around her and then crafts her observations into works for us to consider. Her novel “On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light” certainly became a topic of conversation for my many circles these past few months.  So it not only a thrill but a bit of chance to gain some enlightenment when Strube agreed to answer a few select questions for me.

*****

1) You seem to have put quite a bit of thought into “On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light”. Was there anything specific that inspired you to write it? How long did it take to write?

I was sitting in a Tim Horton’s, people-watching through the window, and noticed a small boy with an over-sized head. He was gripping his mother’s hand as they walked, both of them ignoring the stares of passersby.  In the mother’s expression I recognized a look all too familiar to mothers a.k.a. if you hurt my child, I will kill you.  There was a grace and nobility about these two seemingly frail people, pushing courageously through their daily grind despite disability.  Once home I googled causes for skull enlargement in children and, shazam, Irwin was born.  Then I started what if-ing, which I do constantly while writing novels.  What if the sick child has a well sibling?  What love and tenderness is left for the well sibling who will always, in the eyes of the mother devoted to the sick child, get better?  How do the well and sick children feel about one another?  I wanted to reveal this complex sibling connection from both points of view, which resulted in two protagonists in a two part novel.

2) A lot of fellow readers in my circle seem to feel a certain empathy for the protagonist, Harriet, or they are very confused by her. How have you found readers’ reaction to her and her family? Are there any reactions to the book that you care to share?

The readers who have contacted me love Harriet almost possessively, and take a few days to forgive me for what I put her through.  I did not set out to write a lovable 11 year-old.  She is prickly, fierce, stubborn, determined and, in her own estimation, unlovable. This devotion from readers surprises and cheers me.  Maybe it’s because Harriet is a rebel and there’s a bit of rebel in us all.

3) Your website lists both books you have written and stage/radio plays you have produced. How do you contrast the two forms of writing (if at all). Is there one form you prefer over the other?

I love all narrative forms.  Radio plays are the toughest because you reveal everything through sound effects and dialogue.  I avoid the the voice-over device to reveal exposition, and never plug dialogue with expository writing, preferring sparse speech.  I put each line through a sieve repeatedly.  Few people talk in huge chunks, and if they do, they’re usually boring.  So it’s just me, the actors and the sound effects crew building worlds and people in listeners’ minds.
Stage plays have actors, sets, lighting and sound effects.  Many choices that are limited only by budgets.   Often the most intriguing stage plays make much from very little.
With film, a primarily visual medium, you have the added bonus of close-ups to reveal subtext.  My screenplays have considerably fewer spoken words than my radio or stage plays.
Novels know no limits.  You can build worlds, civilizations, multiple galaxies.  You can jump in and out of thoughts, introduce characters in one scene then ditch them in the next, straddle continents and time zones in a sentence. Novel writing means absolute artistic freedom.  And you have the added bonus of the reader’s unbridled imagination.  They will envision and feel things you didn’t know you were writing.  Many times readers have mentioned elements in my novels I didn’t realize were there.  Readers come to the narrative with their own histories which add colour and dimension.

4) You have a complex list of literary events in which you are partaking over the next few months. Many writers that I talk to seem to have a level of fatigue that comes over them when they do public events. Are public readings and discussions of your work something you enjoy doing? 

It depends on the crowd.  If they get it, I’m buzzed.  If they don’t, I feel crummy and regret showing up.  With On The Shores Of Darkness, There Is Light, my 10th novel, I decided to only do events that pay some form of honorarium.  I’ve never understood why authors are expected to offer their time and services for free.  This request narrows invites down and slows the pace.  Q and A is more interesting for me than readings because I get to ask questions of readers.  I never stop learning from them.  But yes, you need stamina, both mental and physical, when you’re promoting a book.  Everybody’s a critic and you better be able to suck it up.

5) This is a question I am really eager to ask you. Many writers I talk to about their presence on the internet seem to make a comment about it being something they ‘need’ to do. The only presence I can tell you have as a writer is through your website. (And your comment on your siteIn a world overrun by technology and advertising designed to make us hunger for material gain, the value of human connections cannot be measured” is very reflective of many people’s thoughts around me.) What are your thoughts in relation to the use of the internet with regard to promoting your writing? Do you get many people commenting about your books through your website? Are you avoiding social-media platforms (like Facebook and Twitter) on purpose?

 
I’m a private person.  I don’t like having my picture taken.  It takes me a long time to compose a sentence.  I don’t enjoy staring into screens of any size; don’t have a cell or a TV.  These are not social media-friendly qualities.  I have two laptops, one connected to the internet, the other remains a disconnected island for my fiction.  Briefly, when traveling, I tried a tablet and found myself checking my email accounts frequently because it was so easy.  The checking became compulsive and interfered with my thoughts, and fiction–for me–is all about allowing thoughts to wander.  
 
I’m more comfortable socializing one on one in real life, in real time, with all kinds of people in all kinds of real circumstances.  But even the word real has become unreal, hasn’t it?  Which is why I called the reality show about people who think they’re on reality shows in my novel Milosz “Reality Check”. 
 
 I want people vulnerable around me, not playing a shiny, scratch-proof role they’ve devised for themselves online. Twitter etc works wonderfully for writers who think it’s wonderful.  I’m available to readers via my website and when they take the time to contact me, I always respond, have even made real friends that way.
*****

Working Through Our Thoughts | Review of “All The Things We Leave Behind” by Riel Nason (2016) Goose Lane Editions

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Thought. It is the bane of our existence at times. We dwell at times with things like: memories, obsessions, fears, emotions, sentiment and so forth. We know we need to get over things at times yet  thoughts sometimes freeze us into a place that we can barely move. We need to work through those thoughts even though they may take us into an odd or uncomfortable place. And that is one of the many messages that one can pick in Riel Nason’s exquisite novel All The Things We Leave Behind.

Page 13

There’s a little sign above the front door of our family business that says “Charles J. Davis and Son Antiques” in a fancy old-fashioned script, but no one seems to notice it and everybody calls the place The Purple Barn. It’s just as well. The son, my brother Bliss, is missing, and Charlie J. and my mother are of searching, trying to find the path he took. I was left here alone and in charge. I’m not sure that promoting me to running the whole show was among Dad’s best ideas ever, but my parents already have enough on their minds that they don’t need anything except business-as-usual updates from me. I’ll head inside soon and see how it goes. My parents left yesterday.

Fans of Nason have been eagerly waiting for this book since her first novel The Town That Drowned came out and won international awards and acclaims a few years ago. And the wait has been worthwhile. Nason has crafted a story here about 17-year-old Violet who has been left alone to manage her parents’ antique store while they are in search for her older, restless brother. We read through Violet’s thoughts and emotions as she tries hard to deal with the day-to-day running of a business in a small town and trying to cope with the disappearance of her brother.

Page 104

Really, so many of the objects I’m surrounded by every day, the items in the store, ended up here because of a death. It’s true that you can’t take it with you, and something has to be done with all the things we leave behind. Families keep what they want from an estate, but there is often more left over. Our stock is what remains.

At least the things in our store usually come from the estates of old people. But just because you’re old doesn’t mean your death isn’t a tragedy. I don’t think anyone plans on dying the day they die, so essentially everyone’s life is cut short. Does anyone leave their house clean every time they go out in case they die of an aneurysm, the same way they never wear underwear with holes in case they’re in an accident? Does anyone ask themselves: If you died today, would you be ready to have your house rummaged through? Where are your Playboy magazines? Your hair dye? Your Ex-Lax? That holey underwear? Your pills? Your wig? Your everything. Every thing. All your stuff, your secrets.

What would you want people to have? Do you think they could every guess right? Everything we own has a reason for being with us. We bought it, it was a Christmas gift, we found it, we made it, we inherited it, someone left it at our place. But even we can forget where the things we have came, and their meaning changes in time.

Like The Town That Drowned, Nason may have thought she was writing a book for young adults but this novel has universal appeal. She has taken what is usually a muddle of thoughts, emotions, despairs and desires for any person to deal with and has laid them out in a linear and concise fashion. And in that act, any reader – of any age –  can ponder and learn from this tale.

Page 159-160

I slip off my sandals, move from my chair and sit on a rock at the very edge of the stream. I dunk my feet in the cool water, rest them on submerged green moss. It feels good to squish my toes, knead them, against the spongy surface. A bit of dirt stirs and I can see moss pieces begin to lift and lat. I use my toenails to dig and loosen the green edges. More fragments of moss detach and move down stream. Soon enough I feel something more solid. It’s small and flat –  metal I think. I reach down beneath my big toe and lift out an old brown penny that had been hidden under the moss. It must be one that Bliss and I threw in years ago. We used to have so much fun back here. We’d spend hours and hours. Playing, talking, laughing. I turn the coin over and over in my hand. Then I flick it high in the air, let it flip and spin before it splashes in the water.

I make a wish. But I’m not saying what for. Even though I know it’s impossible to spoil a wish for something that can’t come true anyway.

Riel Nason has crafted an exquisite novel in All The Things We Leave Behind. She has taken of flurry of thoughts and emotions and laid them out in a simple and linear fashion that gives any reader something to ponder and reflect on. In short, a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Riel Nason’s website

Link to Goose Lane’s website for All The Things We Leave Behind

Link to my Q&A with Riel Nason – “It’s hard to say how long it actually took to write. It is something I worked on a bit at a time for years. Sometimes I went months and months without working on it”

“I wanted to write about a world where animals as different as the peacock, monkey, elephant, tiger, and snake would find themselves gathered around a banyan tree. Maya’s story emerged from that dream.” | Q&A with author Mahak Jain

maya

My exploration into children’s books has found a whole new set of authors for me to explore. One of those new authors is Mahak Jain. Her book Maya was certainly well-crafted and lyrical. (See my review The Well-Crafted World of Maya) but in researching and communicating with  Jain, I was able to see she is a writer worth following. Jain was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about her work.

*****

1) How long did it take you to write Maya? Was there something specific that inspired you to write the book?

It’s a tough thing to quantify. I wrote the first draft fairly quickly, in a few hours, but then I set it aside, for almost two years. But I probably learned things in those two years that I needed to learn to help reshape the draft. As for inspiration, I wanted to write about a world where animals as different as the peacock, monkey, elephant, tiger, and snake would find themselves gathered around a banyan tree. Maya’s story emerged from that dream.

2) How has the reaction been to Maya? Have there been any memorable reactions or comments to the book you care to share?

The reaction has been so positive, but (Illustrator Elly MacKay’s) response, which was among the very first, still stands out. She said that when she reached the end of the story, she teared up, and that’s why she decided to illustrate the book. I am very lucky to have worked with an artist as tremendous as Elly who connected with the story so deeply.

3) Your biography lists you having published short stories and poetry. Was writing Maya much of stretch for your writing ability? Would you write another picture book?

I actually wrote Maya first. Maya was the first time I wrote a complete story that worked, and I learned a lot from writing and revising it. It’s for sure informed the short stories I’ve written since. I am definitely interested in working on another picture book, when the right idea comes along.

4) Your short story “The Origin of Jaanvi” will be published in the forthcoming in The Journey Prize Stories 28. Could you give an outline of the story? How do you feel about having the story selected for that collection?

“The Origin of Jaanvi” is about a scientist whose relationship with his wife fractures while they wait to find out if their unborn child will inherit his blood disorder. But it’s also about internalized racism, arranged marriages, and the tension between science and religion. And it’s an amazing thing to have a story selected for the anthology, alongside such incredible writers and by such incredible writers. I am thrilled.

5) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?

Toni Morrison, J. K. Rowling, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kazuo Ishiguro, Junot Diaz, Charlotte Bronte, Zadie Smith, Jane Austen, Robin McKinley, Maggie Stiefvater, Kyo Maclear, and so, so many more. Right now I’m reading the young adult novel Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor. I’ve just started it, but it’s absolutely wondrous.

6) You seem to have an active presence on social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using those apps in relation to your writings?

I don’t think of Facebook or Twitter as related to my writing. I find them handy for staying in touch with people and sharing articles and news. Because so much of my life revolves around writing, that’s what I end up sharing, but for me the platforms are social tools, ways of connecting, the way e-mail or texting are.

7) You are scheduled to speak at the 2016 Word on the Street Festival in Toronto. Do you participate in many public events for your writing? Is appearing in public for your writing something you enjoy?

I actually do enjoy it. I am a solitary person and most definitely an introvert, but I like participating in literary events and gatherings. I love meeting and talking to people, especially in a setting that’s centred around what I love most—stories and language.

8) Your biography lists you as having been born in Delhi and having lived in numerous locations around the world before settling now in Toronto. How do you like living in Toronto? Are there any cultural institutions in the city that you specifically enjoy and inspire your imagination?

I love Toronto. I feel very much at home here. But because I’ve moved so much, I enjoy the simple things. The owners of the corner store know and recognize me, for example. And so does the owner of my local coffee shop and the servers at the restaurant where I eat most often. I didn’t have that kind of familiarity before I moved to Toronto and decided to stay put, so I really appreciate it.

9) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

Yes—right now, I am working on a novel about a teenage girl who trains mythical warbirds. 

*****

Link to Mahak Jain’s website

Link to Owlkids Book website for Maya

Link to Mahak Jain’s profile page for the 2016 Toronto Word on the Street festival

The Well-Crafted World of Maya | Review of “Maya” by Mahak Jain/Illustrated by Elly MacKay (2016) OwlKids Books

A book that is well thought-out and crafted – no matter how small or short it is  – is a pleasure to spend time with and carefully ponder. To appreciate the fine details that encourage a reader to loose themselves in a plot of a story seem almost enlightening to anyone’s mind. And there is plenty to ponder over in the detailed efforts of Mahak Jain and Elly MacKay in Maya.

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There is a lyrical way the prose of the story flows here, written by Mahak Jain. We follow Maya who is fearful because the lights have gone out and her father isn’t around to light the candles to soothe her like he usually does. Maya’s mother tell a tale of how the first monsoon came to be creating the first banyan tree. But soon the tale takes on a life of it’s  own as Maya begins to imagine herself among the beings in that tree.

Excerpt:

“The first monsoon was a long time ago,” Mumma said. “The earth filled with rivers, and water seeped into the ground. Everyone was scared that the heavy rain would wash away their homes and destroy their crops.

“One little girl was especially afraid. What if the waters washed her away while she slept?”

Maya clasped her mother’s hand. “This doesn’t sound like a happy story.”

“By the bank of a new river,” Mumma continued, “Rested a banyan tree. Just a sapling, it drank and drank. The monsoon rains flowed through its roots. They fed its thirty leaves and swelled its young trunk, and soon the sapling was a small tree.

“As the tree grew, so did the branches. They grew wider, until they could bear the weight of a tiger. They grew longer, until a peacock could strut in their shade. And then the branches sprouted roots that dropped like ropes, until a monkey could swing through them in play.”

Jain has definitely used her skills from her short story and poetry experiences into this story. The plot seem to sing off the page and into the reader’s mind, almost staying in place. And the story within the story of the plot has a magical feel to it, enchanting the reader to go forward with the book.

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The images that MacKay has crafted for this book are brilliant and illuminating (not just on there own but they illuminate the plot of the story as well.) A reader could get lost in the images alone for hours on end for the detail they show and the feelings they give off.

*****

Mahak Jain and Elly MacKay have crafted a truly gifted book with Maya. The words sing off the page and the illustrations literally enrich the story. And with that right combination of elements, the book is a pleasure to ponder over.

*****

Link to OwlKids books website for Maya

Great video on Youtube showcasing how Maya came together

Link to Mahak Jain’s website

Link to Elly MacKay’s website

Link to Mahak Jain’s page for Toronto’s Word on the Street Festival for Sept. 25, 2016

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Learning Along with Prue | Review of “Freight” by Kathryn Mockler (2015) Found Press Media

Freight

There is this difficult notion in society that families are suppose to be this perfect unit that provides us comfort and nurturing. Yet the truth is that families are made up of individuals whose personalities are impossible to deal with. When we try to deal with those people as children, the impression they leave on us can be damaging on us for the rest of our lives. But we need to openly reflect on those people in our adult lives to deal with those traumas they caused us. And reading literature helps us reflect on our own families and our upbringings instead of repressing angers and pains. And Kathryn Mockler’s ebook Freight is a great example of such a story.

Page 5

My grandmother is the type of woman that always remembers to stand up straight and to tell others to do the same. On our yearly visits to Peterborough, I try to avoid my grandmother as much as possible. She doesn’t think I’m very bright. She doesn’t think my mother works enough with me, and so, in the week we spend there, she is determined to make me smarter. She brings out flash cards and makes me do spelling bees for money.

-Look, Vera, look at that. She can’t add, my grandmother says. -Prue, don’t count on your fingers.

I give mother “the look” until she finally says, -Leave her alone. She gets enough of that at school.

We are dropped into Prue’s life just as she is becoming self-aware and questioning the world around her. And there is something wrong with the world around her or at least with the people who should be caring for her in this world. But what is it? As we follow through Prue’s visit with her grandparents, we read as she begins to realize perhaps no one is perfect.

Page 10

My mother gets herself another beer from the cooler. I watch my mother watch Dermot puts his arm absentmindedly around Margaret’s shoulder.

-She drives me crazy too, I say.

My mother laughs. -It doesn’t really affect you because she’s not your mother. You’re just lucky I tried so hard not to be like her.

I don’t know when I noticed my mother getting drunk. Maybe it was when she started talking to that man, a friend of Dermot’s. It seemed like one moment she was fine and the next she was slurring her words. It’s the slurring that bothers me the most because then everyone else knows how drunk she is.

There is a complex therapy that seemed to happen when reading this simple coming-of-age story. We build an empathy with Prue but we also ponder our own lives when we back in Prue’s age. We carefully consider our upbringing and the people around us at that time. And we then look at ourselves now. Do we act better? Do we behave better to the youngster around us now?

Page 12

I feel a bit sorry for my grandmother. She probably has hurt feelings. When my mother leaves the room to get ready, I don’t follow her. I’m glad my mother is going out. I don’t even want to look at her.

I think my grandmother has sensed that something is wrong because she doesn’t bother  me all night. No flash cards or spelling bees. We have a light supper and watch TV.

Kathryn Mockler has a great way of making readers seriously consider their world around themselves with her words and that is exactly what she has done with Freight. Not only do we build empathy with the character but we ponder our own existence on several levels. In short, doing what any piece of literature should do.

*****

Link to Kathryn Mockler’s website

Link to Found Press Media’s website for Freight

 

“I wanted to write a Canadian book that dealt with violence, small scale, but very real violence we often ignore or don’t read about. It’s a currency we trade with each other.” | Q&A with author Andrew F. Sullivan

Waste

I was totally thrilled a few weeks ago when I discovered Andrew F. Sullivan collection of short stories All We Want Is Everything. (Link to my review) The book seemed to cover a certain reality that I am aware of yet is very rarely discussed. But then the book seemed to do something for me what any good cultural artifact is suppose to do but rarely does these days: become a topic of conversation. Online, offline, in emails and over coffees, the book kept creeping into my conversations and people seemed eager to hear about it. So I was thrilled this week when Sullivan agreed to answer a few questions. No doubt his thoughts will pique an further interest in his works for us readers.

*****

1) Your latest novel is entitled WASTE. Could you give an outline of it?

WASTE is about bad people making bad decisions because they believe it is the fastest way to deal with a problem. It’s about the collapse of a small Ontario city during the post-industrial decline that swept a lot of blue collar communities in the province. It is a surreal, nightmare version of these cities over the course of one December weekend. The plot kicks off with a wannabe skinhead and a part-time butcher accidentally running over the local drug kingpin’s pet lion and everything that follows circles back to this event. It’s a bit madcap and vicious. It’s a book about dread, about failing to measure up, and about trying to do the right thing when everyone else has already surrendered to their demons. And I hope it’s funny too, but that’s not up to me.

2) What inspired you to write WASTE (if anything?) How long did it take to write?

 
A lot of things, but primarily all the bullshit lies guys on the afternoon shift would tell each other when I worked in a liquor warehouse. I wanted to create a world where the things they said were actually true (and a lot of them were, in one way or another). I wanted to write a Canadian book that dealt with violence, small scale, but very real violence we often ignore or don’t read about. It’s a currency we trade with each other. It behooves the people who ignore it to continue ignoring it, to claim it isn’t there. But it is and it’s real and it’s coming.
Ontario’s fairly loose zoo laws also played a factor.

3) It has been a few years now since ‘All We Want is Everything.’ It has been noted on a few fronts as being a great book, but how are you finding the public’s reaction to it?

It’s a short story collection, so no matter what, the audience will be small. However, they are great readers and I am incredibly lucky to have this book end up in so many wise readers’ hands, readers who really interrogate the work they consume and respond to the stories I try to tell. I think the short story is a great form, but it does have limited appeal. To see this book still going three years later with new readers really does bring me a lot of happiness. It’s good to find stories that can last.
There is an assumption that everything in AWWIE is true or real, but a lot of the stories are very surreal and strange, including “Mutations“, “Towers“, and “Cloud.” I try to approach the surreal with a very upfront approach, so that may be why readers are willing to go along with the uncomfortable, unreal parts of my work. And I truly appreciate that. I think sometimes the uncanny gives us an opportunity to reexamine our assumptions and approach narrative with fresh eyes.
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4) There has been a few discussions in my circles about the cover photo of “All We Want Is Everything?” Did you choose the image for the cover of the book. Do the two dogs in that image symbolize anything for you?

I did choose the photo. I was incredibly lucky to work with a small publisher that valued my input. John K. Samson (of The Weakerthans) was my editor and he really put in the effort to track down the photographer, Leigh Ledare. Leigh was extremely generous and kind to allow us to use the photo, which I had found five years earlier in an issue of VICE when it was still primarily a print magazine. I actually had a print out of it attached to the inside of my closet door at my parents’ place, which is still hanging there.
Yes, I do believe the dogs are symbolic for this book. They are circling one another, on the cusp of the fight, and that tension is something I try to work into my own fiction. I am interested in the build-up and the aftermath, the moment before the release and everything that follows. I think it captures a moment of intention. I think it captures a moment of dread, and I think dread might be my biggest obsession.
 

5) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?

 
That’s always a big question and it is always changing. I will say I am a big fan of Richard Price and Richard Yates, I think they both tap into unique strains of desperate and angry America. With Price, its good to start with CLOCKERS and with Yates, I will have to say THE EASTER PARADE.
Toni Morrison’s THE BLUEST EYE was also a huge, huge influence on WASTE and I think about that book often. She has an incredible ability to plant a seed of dread in you and watch it grow. I’m also a fan of Harry Crews, if only for the audacity of his work and his drive to continue writing his own madcap tales. A FEAST OF SNAKES is a favourite from him.
Recently, I’ve been enjoying the works of Yuri Herrera, a Mexican author, whose short novels SIGNS PRECEDING THE END OF THE WORLD and THE TRANSMIGRATION OF BODIES offer up allegories for the unsettling, uncanny world of the border and the complications of violence and blood in modern Mexico. I’m also enjoying the strange, beautiful short stories of Amelia Gray’s GUTSHOT this week.

6) You will be speaking at Toronto’s Word on the Street festival on Sept. 25. Are you looking forward to it?  Are public-speaking events something you enjoy doing?

 
Yes, I look forward to almost all my readings or chances to do public events because it offers a chance to actually meet readers and engage with people who may otherwise never here of your book. Thousands upon thousands of books are published every year and so few of them are read by a wide audience, so these opportunities are very important for any writer. And what self-involved person doesn’t love to be the centre of attention for 7 brief minutes during a reading. No, a lot of writers occasionally abhor readings and I’ve been to plenty of bad ones myself, but a good reading or a good public speaker can really make a story sing. It’s up to the author to make it a performance and to choose a piece that reads well aloud, not just on the page.

7) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

 
I’ve got another novel that’s just come to a close about a man who believes he’s immortal and human trafficking in Canada, but we’ll see what happens. I’ve also got a collection of stranger, creepier short stories that I’ve been sitting on for a bit. We’ll see where they end up.

8) You seem to be active on the social-media app Twitter. How do you like using social media in relation to promoting your work? Are you on any other social media sites?

 
I don’t think social media is a great place to seriously promote your work, but it is a really great place to find other writers, publishers and artists who you enjoy and to express your enjoyment. If those people enjoy the work you post or your online presence, then maybe they’ll buy your book, but I think a lot of online social media promotion ends up causing more cringing than sales. It is useful to announce your publications and readings, but a daily push of your book might turn off more people than it brings into the fold. I use other social media like most people in my generation, but I’m not too invested in it beyond making jokes on Twitter.

9) You biography states how you grew up in Oshawa and now live in Toronto. How do you like living in Toronto right now? Are there any cultural institutions in T.O. that you truly enjoy and gain enlightenment from?

 
I like Toronto a lot, it’s a great cultural hub and it allows me to meet and support a lot of other young writers. Ontario itself has a lot of small towns where you can end up isolated. For now, this is where I want to be. I still have a lot of love for my hometown, but Toronto is where the jobs are for me currently.
If we’re talking cultural institutions, I am forever thankful that we have the TIFF Lightbox here. The programming they run year round is incredible, the audiences are usually great and some of the guests they bring in for Q+A or lecture series often lead to some incredibly unique and treasured experiences. I will never forget Guillermo Del Toro breaking down the history of the Gothic romance before we all watched Hitchcock’s Rebecca. No movies outside your regular blockbusters ever came to my hometown, so it’s pretty great to live in a city that will run a Brian De Palma retrospective and an Andrzej Żuławski retrospective at the same time.
*****

The Crafting of a Good Book Without Words | Review of “Skunk On A String” by Thao Lam (2016) Owlkids Books

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There was a kind of synergy created when we were younger and learning to read. Teachers, TV hosts and even our parents somehow combined creating arts and crafts with reading. But then we grew up and somehow art and reading became separate items. Yet there is a joy to be had in a young-at-heart souls when we discover a book that combines the two items again for us. And while Skunk On A String may be a book for the younger set, the collages Thao Lam has created to illustrate this book, should appeal to anybody.

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The book has a certain type of whimsy to it but it is a well-crafted form of whimsy. There is a story about a skunk who is trapped by a string on a balloon. And yes, we follow that skunk past all sorts of surprised beings who are too surprised and scared to help that poor skunk out. Yet it is when we look at Thao Lam’s biography we can truly appreciate the skill that went into this book.

Excerpt from the description on the back flap

Thao Lam fled from Vietnam to Canada with her family as a child. Learning English was difficult, and it was picture books that helped her understand this new world and ignited her passion for visual storytelling. She has an insatiable love for colored and textured papers, which she uses to create her exuberant collages.

Skunk On A String by Thao Lam may be a picture book created for the young but it also has appeal for us that are young at heart. Lam’s collages made of different types of paper bring a well-crafted zeal to the book that anybody can appreciate.

*****

Link to Thao Lam’s website

Link to Owlkids Publishing website for Skunk On A String

Link to Toronto’s Word On The Street festival’s website hosting Thao Lam’s appearance on Sept. 25, 2016

 

An Insightful Look at the Fringes of our Society | Review of “All We Want Is Everything” by Andrew F. Sullivan (2013) ARP Books (Arbeiter Ring)

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Literature is a great way of understanding how different people live. There are people in the fringes of society; desperate, hurting, anxious, that are marginalized for many reasons. So how did they end up they way they did? What do they do with there time? What are their inner thoughts and emotions? These and much more deeper explorations are brilliantly documented in Andrew F. Sullivan’s book All We Want Is Everything.

Page 16-17 Good King

The ambulance that took Big Red to the hospital decided to stop at every red light along the way. He stared at the four metal prongs glowing like alien bones in his flesh. The same yellow-fingered doctor from the night before asked him how did this and was he the same one who made him eat all those vitamins last night? This was a Christmas when Children’s Aid asked Big Red a series of questions in the hospital bed while his mother stood outside the room, running her hand through the doctor’s hair, ignoring the missing molar, the yellow fingers and the high pitched laugh because she had a mortgage three months in arrears. A wide lady with too much makeup quizzed Big red about his father and about his school and about the time his grandfather left him at a Tim Horton’s in Sault Ste. Marie after a fishing trip and his mother had called the police.

A Christmas when Big Red forgot his Ghostbusters in a snow bank and his father got arrested for the third time in as many years. The following June his Dad would plead out to institutional observation for a period of no less than three months. Around the same week Dwayne “Pearl” Washington would finally receive his release from the Miami Heat after fifty-four games, never to play in the NBA again. This was a Christmas when Big Red finally got his report card from Mrs. Vanderlooten. He had been answering all the math questions with drawings of animals – a lot of ducks and pandas. She said she was concerned, very concerned with his performance. This was a Christmas when Big Red realized “concerned’ didn’t mean much at all as a nurse eased the fork out of his hand.

Sullivan here has written a slice of reality of our society here that everybody claims to know about yet nobody has truly considered. He vividly describes scenes of desperation, of lost hopes, and even the rise of apathy that is so apparent in many peoples lives today. There is a sense of sense of something deep and personal with each exploration in each of the stories yet the characters seem to be almost detached, alone and apathetic to their status in life. There is some well-thought out and crafted lines in these stories even if the words are simple and concise.

Page 22-23 Crows Eat Well

Toby and I walk toward the fields. The sun is directly above us. There are no shadows following us out here. I kick at the gopher holes and try to avoid ants swarming around my feet.

“So they let him go, eh? And he didn’t even bring a boyfriend.”

Dad’s teeth are bright yellow. He’s got a cigarette tucked in one corner of his mouth, but it doesn’t seem to obstruct his words. There’s a red ball cap on his head covered in salt rings. Toby starts plucking at ears of dead corn, dropping kernels onto the ground. On closer inspection, all the plants in here are just like the sunflowers. Something in the soil has accelerated all this growth; everything is overripe and slowly bursting.

“You know you could have called me first, son.  And Toby, I don’t wanna hear nothing about your Mom. She can deal with that mess on her own. I didn’t even say much to the papers anyway. It’ll all blow over eventually. She still sends me black cards on Valentine’s.”

“You’re like children,” I start to say. “Like the world is a sandbox or some shit to you.”

I can feel sweat running down my spine. I remember Dad in the courtroom, explaining how much the ‘dozer was worth, how it was totalled. Detailing my past substance abuse issues, as he called them, my learning problems as a child and my mother’s overprotective nature. I heard him yelling at Kali outside the courtroom, mocking the way her voice slurred in stressful moments. He asked if she charged men by the hour. I was convicted of attempted robbery and resisting arrest. The bulldozer was a dangerous weapon.

Sullivan’s language is frank and bold, but it works in describing the realities he explores in each of the stories. There is no sugar-coating personalities or ‘happy-ever-after’ endings to his stories here. Blunt, up-front situations and lives are documented here.

Page 60 God Is A Place

Caleb’s hands are red in the cold and he worries they will draw out wandering eyes. They are glowing and he can barely feel them. The baby is quiet; maybe it is freezing too. The cold is not an enemy. It is a warm embrace that articulates each breath you take. Caleb stops to lean against a tree to whisper something about St. Peter choking on a stone. All your idols are crumbling, he warns the baby and the baby cries because it knows Caleb is right and so Caleb says you weren’t born from me. And the baby cries again.

Caleb fell off the top shelf of the pasta aisle at the grocery store a year ago. Twink was working cash and she took him to the hospital and field the workman’s comp and got them both kicked out of her Mom’s place once the baby bump could not be hidden anymore. She said it was Caleb’s, but Caleb can’t remember getting hard, not after his knee blew out so he says okay, but it really isn’t okay. He remembers another boy and another bottle and not drinking. He doesn’t want the new apartment with the ducts and pipes filtering fluids and air through their bedroom, the stove rattling every time the bus stops in front of the house. He doesn’t want the feet shuffling above him or the loud screams of raccoons mating in the attic. Fighting, mating, all the same things; all flesh on flesh and the baby is just flesh, that’s it.

All We Want Is Everything by Andrew F. Sullivan is a great exploration of lives being lived on the edges of our society. The language is bold and frank yet memorable. In short, it is a great piece of literature and Sullivan is a writer who is well worth reading.

*****

Link to Andrew F. Sullivan’s website

Link to ARP Books website for ALL WE WANT IS EVERYTHING

Link to Toronto’s Word on the Street Festival page for Andrew Sullivan, where he will be participating on Sept. 25, 2016

 

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