A Real Lesson about the Human Condition | Review of “The Last Neanderthal” by Claire Cameron (2017) Doubleday Canada

A big thank you to Luanne at A Bookworm’s World for bringing this book to my attention.

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I think the term “human condition” has come up with many people in my circles who read fiction. It usually is in reference to a theme in a book that documents or highlights some element of our daily life that we may not have considered before. But to look at our species in relation to other species (both living or dead) is a unique concept in literature. Claire Cameron’s work has come up in conversations with other book fans, so I decided to check out her latest work The Last Neanderthal, and I was truly impressed and enlightened.

Page 3 Prologue

They didn’t think as much about what was different.

There was good reason for this as they lived in small family groups. Every day was spent among people who were similar to them. The bodies that sat around the fire shared the same kind of cowlick at the backs of their heads, or the same laugh, or teeth that were equally crooked. Every time a head turned to look, a body could find one part of itself in another.

It’s because of their similarities to us that I can speak for them when I say that much of what you’ve heard isn’t true.

I love the interplay between the two characters of this book. On one hand we have, we have “Girl” who in some forty thousand years in the past was the oldest daughter of the last family of Neanderthals. In the other hand, we have Rosamund Gale, who in the modern day, is a archaeologist racing to uncover Neanderthal artifacts while dealing with a multitude of professional and personal issues. Even though there are thousands of years apart from the two and a mass of evolutionary changers, we can see similarities between the two characters in how they deal with their day-to-day issues and crisis.

Page 39-40

Girl tucked her spear into the groove in her armpit. To hunt was to wait. The family had worked the hunting grounds for as far as their shadow stories went back, but the site wasn’t theirs alone. All beasts on the land either hunted here or crossed the river here. It was a good place to drink and play, but it was also a dangerous place. Where there was food and fresh water, there was danger.

Then: Snap. A sound. Where? Girl curled her top lip up to feel the breeze on the sensitive patch on her gums. She felt a small ripple, a heated current in the air. What? She twitched her head to the right to listen. The tremor from the snap was like a sharp prick to the back of her neck.

This was the land where she was born and she knew it like she knew her own body. It was the only place she had lived. Because she came from Big Mother, her mind held the memories of all the hunts the old woman had been on too, and her mother before as well. And Girl also had the stories that came to her in dreams from the other members of the family. Every bump, dip, and curve of the land lay in the grooves of her mind, but they weren’t only there. Her body held the memories too. There was a dent in her shin, like a dip in a path, from when she had fallen. there was the scar on her finger, a ridge that held the same curve as the cliff, from a sharp rock. When the hair on her arms stood up, it was like part of the grassy meadow where the bison grazed. Her body took shape from the land.

This book is a great exploration of needs, thoughts and desires. Cameron has a frank writing style here that is easy to read and follow. And the plot stays in one’s mind, giving a reader something to ponder and reflect on after the book is finished. Definitely a unique read and one that is worthy of one’s serious leisure time.

Page 130

How had I become so pregnant overnight? I stuffed my sausage legs into my work trousers and tugged on the elastic that I used to secure the rivet on the fly. I had rigged the band to bring the two sides as close together as possible. As I stood to pull the pants closed, the elastic band snapped against my fingers and flew off. I looked around for another band but couldn’t find one. The fly of my trousers gaped open.

I had made a decision long ago that I would never cry at work. While tears are a natural reaction to adversity, I believed crying played into negative assumptions about a woman’s ability to cope with difficult situations. Through all the trials and tribulations that came with an academic career, I had not shed a tear. Not when I was at a site in Turkey and a large pallet slipped from a truck and broke my foot. Not when one of the outside examiners on my dissertation tried to set me back two years by refusing to accept new dating methods. Not when I was publicly mocked at a big conference by a prominent academic. (“You sound like you would like to get up close and personal with one of your Neanderthals,” he had remarked during the Q&A session), and not when the room had erupted with nervous laughter and the comment achieved its intended effect of discrediting everything I had said. I took it all on the chin.

I did not cry at work until I was unable to find a second elastic band to fasten my trousers. That triggered the silent sobs. I managed to bite my lip and not wake Simon, and I hoped the tears would go unnoticed, but then I heard footsteps outside.

Claire Cameron’s The Last Neanderthal is a book that truly gives insight to the human condition by looking at our past ancestors. An enlightening read and one that is worthy to be part of any bookshelf.

*****

Link to Penguin/Random House Canada website for The Last Neanderthal

Link to Claire Cameron’s website

A Unique and Emotional Novel from a Talented Writer | Review of “Quarry” by Catherine Graham (2017) Two Wolves Press

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There is something about becoming absorbed with a well-crafted, coming-of-age novel. Not only do we learn we are not alone with the pains and sufferings that we all endured during that fundamental time of our lives but we gain a better understanding of the types of confusions that other people endured while growing up. And that is exactly what we get when one reads Catherine Graham’s brilliant novel Quarry.

Pages 9-10 Nobody

I didn’t know what a quarry was until I saw the one that would belong to us. A pit carved for mining. Dig what you need – the dynamite gap –  leave a hole for evidence. Don’t think about air filling it up. Air fills up everything. Water makes the quarry more than it is; the blue we were drawn to. On the dock, looking out. My mother on one side. My father, the other. The big shoulders pressing me in.

It was our first summer living beside a lake that wasn’t a lake, with wind tents of blue moving in the jewelled sunlight, up and gone and up again. the limestone, cut into jagged rock, layered with the weight of dead animals, ancient sea animals, imprints. Lush green trees, they surrounded as a forest. Dad had found the place by chance after spotting the For Sale sign outside a white gate that led to a long gravel driveway, a bend that led to a mini-lake, the house of Mom’s dreams.

We made up dives that summer, me and Cindy. The Watermelon Dive – legs in a V. The About-to-Die Dive – a rambling, dramatic shotgun death off the dock. The Scissor Kick Dive – a flutter of pointed legs in the air. And the Drowning Dive – rise to the surface and float like the dead fish that smacked against the limestone rock, oozing decay’s stink. With a two-year advantage, I gave my nine-year-old cousin a three-second head start whenever we raced off the dock to reach the floating raft. Sometimes a hit of the giggles cut through my determination – a memory of something we’d laughed about while in the dark, tucked in single beds, or while eating Rice Krispies, opening up our food-filled mouths to shout: see-food diet!

Catherine Graham has lyrically told the story of Caitlin Maharg here. Living beside a quarry presents an idyllic childhood of exploration and excitement for the young girl, but all that is shattered when her mother becomes terminally ill. Through the course of the illness  – and the growth of Caitlin –  a series of embarrassing family secrets emerge that require the young girl to attempt to;  understand, deal with, and heal. And the journey requires the young girl to mature a bit too fast at times.

Pages 51-52 Lifeguard

They were bored now that the keg they’d stolen from Cherry Hill Golf Club was empty, the silver carcass found by Chuck. He doesn’t have proof. He doesn’t know it was us. They all said this. But I knew Chuck knew by that look in his eye, that high-beam gaze.

Pac-Man and pinball were no substitution. Darren spent less time in the Games Room, more time in the back field where the keg used to be. I didn’t see him through the pool’s chain-link fence anymore. The stone in my hand, my only comfort.

“What do you guys do back there?” He was walking me to the Malibu like he always did after the end of my shift, but I couldn’t see his face. The plan was for me to come back later with Brenda. “Why are you walking so fast?”

He stopped. And when he turned, the late sunlight hit him; his eyes were glazed with red squiggles.

“Why are your eyes so red?”

He laughed, and when he tilted his neck, I could see how thick the glaze was.

“It’s not right,” I said. I thought of the druggies at school, their long scraggly hair and rocker T-shirts. Skipping school. Failing tests. Losers.

“What do you know?” His eyes narrowed. “Ever try it?”

I froze.

“Caitlin,” he said. “If you don’t want me to, I’ll stop.”

His eyes softened. Too soft, liquid rushing down a drain.

“Don’t you wanna know what I got ya?” He pulled a necklace from his pocket – an arrow on a silver chain – and swung it back and forth.

I stared at the swaying arrow. “Are you trying to hypnotize me?”

“Here. It’s special.” He clasped it around my neck. “Like you.”

Cold on the hollow of my throat.

It is truly amazing how well this story flows. And the plot is memorable. Graham’s previous work in poetry has built a foundation in writing novels that are unique and well-crafted. This is a great piece of literature which explores the range of human emotions of a young girl in some truly stressful situations.

Page 103-104 Three in a Room

She died Christmas Day. I knew she would. A voice had told me. A voice that wasn’t mine but must’ve been. None of this made sense. But sometimes it did, when I tried not to think about it. Like the way you see a star by looking to the left, just a little.

The quarry was cold when she went into the hospital for the last time, but not cold enough to form a skin. It received the snow and turned the snow to water. Eventually, it would scab over, cap the quarry of life. The fish would anchor rock bottom, dormant in their crypt.

Mom said strange things those last few days while I sat by her bedside in her private room, flipping through old magazines. She seemed anxious about someone. The name Geordie passed through her morphined mouth, followed by: don’t . . . stop it.

I touched her arm. “Who’s Geordie, Mom?”

She muttered more nonsense.

Still, I thought, she’ll come through. She always did. I thought of the time (two years ago? three?) when she spat out blood. I’d never seen such vile red. Even that time she’d come through.

I never knew you could lose so much in one day. And on the biggest day of giving, the day set aside to open gifts with loved ones. I should’ve gone to the hospital; I’d heard the voice by then: She’ll die on Christmas Day. But Dad’s shift was first, and his Caddy was already gone by the time I woke up.

I was watching an old episode of Little House on the Prairie in the family room. The horse-drawn covered wagon was trundling across the television screen when I heard the side door open. He came straight through without taking off his boots. He stood in the middle of the family room for what seemed like a long time. Long enough for the snow to slide off and form a blurry puddle.

“She’s gone.”

“I know.”

Round and round. And then the world stopped.

Quarry is a unique and emotional coming-of-age novel from talented writer Catherine Graham. It is lyrical and memorable hence a great piece of literature. One of my favourite reads of 2017 and hopefully not the last novel from this writer.

******

Link to the Blogspot page of Two Wolves Press

Link to Catherine Graham’s website

Link to my Q&A with Catherine Graham about Quarry – (T)he novel is about a young woman who learns to draw on inner strength she didn’t know she had to overcome dramatic challenges on her journey to adulthood.

The Pitfalls of Life in Our Fast-Paced World | Review of “The Slip” by Mark Sampson (2017) Dundurn Press

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There is a feeling among many that our society is moving too fast. The sense that nuances in the general discourses in our everyday life seem to be lost with the rapid speed that our technologies brings us information is common and causing concern. So it would be natural that a work of literature would document that fear present in the human condition. And that is what noted author Mark Sampson has done with his book The Slip, along with a dash of humour.

Page 33

Back in the CBC studio during the commercial break I was tremulous. As a stagehand came by to re-powder my brow – I was tacky with sweat by this point – my imagination began to corkscrew out of control over how my gaffe might be reverberating around the country. My heart raced as I looked over at Sal and Cheryl, who sat cool as breezes at the other end of the desk. Their poppies hovered over the breasts like beacons of respectability, while mine was probably fluttering somewhere among the eaves or gutters of Parliament Street.

I gestured to Sal to lean back in his chair with me, and spoke to him sotto voce when he did, even though Cheryl was sitting right between us. “Look, when we come back, can I have a chance to clarify what I just said?”

“Sorry, buddy,” he replied, “but that segment went way over. We only have about five minutes left, and I have several other points I want to cover.”

He sat back up and I reluctantly followed. The three of us waited in silence for the commercial break to run its course. Cheryl’s face held a patina of diplomacy, but I knew what she was thinking: that she had bested me, that by hijacking Sal’s role as interviewer she was able to cast me as the extremist and herself as the voice of moderation. With less than five minutes left, I would need all of my intellectual heft to turn things around. I the seconds before we came back , I looked up once more at Raj standing in the booth. His head was now bowed over his phone, his brow furrowed. Oh God – he was probably on Facebook or Twitter right then , watching the obloquy and snark over my blunder flood in. Was Grace there, too, gingerly defending my moment of indiscretion? Or was she still steaming over my fecklessness as a father (Phillip, your daughter scalded herself), or, worst of all, my complete ineptitude at keeping track of our social calendar? Oh, Jesus, why couldn’t I remember what we’re doing on Sunday?

Sampson is a talented writer who knows his craft well. There some serious reflections on our society in this at-times humorous story of Dr. Philip Sharpe, as readers follow his blundering attempts to salvage his reputation after a brutal slip of the tongue during a live television broadcast. But more importantly we see the profound academic realize the more important aspect of his life is not his career or his reputation but his family and as he tries to mend those broken relationships that are so important to him.

Page 175

Let us speak of weekend rituals. I will marvel, as you no doubt will, at the way children can sleep like Tut in his tomb all week long, ignoring the beseeches of parents pleading against the clock, only to swarm from their chambers on Saturday morning and fill an ungodly hour with frenetic clatter. But I’m up. I’m up and I’m there to provide assistance at the toilet, to find a lost Dora, to pour cereal and locate cartoons on TV. I’m there in bathrobe, in eye crust, in fuzzy slippers. I am there with spatula in hand, hunched over sizzling skillet, cooking my wife a hot, proper breakfast. I’m there on the porch, hauling in fat weekend papers (though not as fat as they used to be), which I will divvy up like a whale carcass after a hunt. To Grace go sections like Style and Living and Weekend. To me go sections like Focus and Argument. The kids get the funnies. We each have our perennial favourites: Grace got straight to Globe Style, which oddly, contains recipes: I, meanwhile, grouse over and increasingly etiolated Globe Books and then dive-bomb the Star’s op-ed section. And if things are good, if things are humming, my wife and I will speak to each in the idioglossia of our marriage, a nonsensical lexicon of love and domesticity. If things are good, we will cheer or heckle or debate what we read, aloud to each other our fingers gone black with newsprint ink.

But on this Saturday, things were not good. Not good at all. Four Metcalfe Street seemed full of gloom. I had brought the papers in but not bothered to divide them up; they sat in a segmented pile on the kitchen table, portending more column inches about my unconscionable gaffe from Monday. As for breakfast, I couldn’t bring myself to do much more than a couple of toasted bagels for Grace and me. The Bloody Joseph I mixed for myself tasted flat. The autumn light through our kitchen window held a faint grimness. Grace came downstairs, a Medusa of bed-head and frayed kimono, sat at the kitchen table, picked briefly at the papers, stared out the window. I sat across from her, slowly smearing my bagel with cream cheese.  We said nothing. We said nothing.

For the longest time, I have been looking for a book – a printed book – worthy of explaining my joy in reading at the moment. It was a joy for me to take a break from the hustle of the day, ( to turn off the computer and the television) and to quietly ponder the exploits of Philip Sharpe. And in those quiet moments that I forced myself to take, I pondered my own existence while followed the downward and at times funny-because-I-have-done-that-too exploits of Sharpe as he blindly attempts to redeem his purpose in life.

Page 212

How much are you interested, dear reader, in what transpired next? in one sense, it was a fairly typical domestic row, a bile-spewing stichomythia that orated the inanities of our marriage. On the other hand, you should probably know that Grace and I once again ignored the true catalyst of our fissure – that abominable slip of mine from Monday. One again we didn’t mention it, and ergo mentioned pretty much everything else.

Mark Sampson has given readers something truly to enjoy and think about in The Slip. He has documented the fears we all have in our too-fast, media-rich society and given us some good chuckles in the process as well. A great read and a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Dundurn Press’ website for The Slip

Link to Mark Sampson’s blog  – Free Range Reading

Link to my Q&A with Mark Sampson – “As I grew more and more aware of the way social media can really amplify public gaffes, I began to see a comic story emerge about how a situation could really put this marriage on the ropes”

An Honest Look at the Who We Are and Where We Come From | Review of “The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo” by William Kowalski

It was an honour to receive an advance copy of this book from the author.

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Many of us in North America descend from people who came from Europe. We have had to learn to accept some of the traditions of the ‘old country’ while trying to figure out what are superstitions and prejudices which have no bearing on our own lives in the ‘new world.’ The physical,  mental and emotional  struggles of immigrants and their descendants are important ones to note when pondering the human condition in literature. And that what William Kowalski has given us in his well-crafted book The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo.

Page 15

Of, course, darkness brought its own terrors, as any girl in this world of men knew all too well. They stayed together at all times, each one constantly checking to make sure the others were close by. They slept in shifts to ensure that no male dared try anything while they were asleep. they continued their prayers to St. Christopher, and they added added new ones to St. Jude, the saint of lost causes, for by now they had begun to understand that their entire way of life was lost to them, and the odds against them surviving this journey were very great indeed.

The strangest thing of all about this ship was that everyone was mixed together: Poles, Jews, Ruthenians, Bulgarians, Slovenians, Slovakians, Hungarians, Romaninas, Russians, Bohemians, Bavarians. They huddled together in tribes, dividing themselves naturally according to language and culture, glaring at each other with suspicion. Aniela had not known such a melange of humanity existed, nor that all these languages existed, either. It was proof that the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel was true. Some of these people she had never even heard of.

She had seen Jews before, but she had never been this close to one, let alone whole families of them; she found herself observing them curiously, wondering if all the horrible things the priest had said about them were true. He had lied about practically everything else, after all, including his own divinity. These Jews appeared to be serious grim people. They kept to themselves, and they regarded everyone around them with mistrust. But then, so did everyone else. All in all, despite their funny locks of hair that curled down from the men’s ears, and the strange clothing styles of the women, they did not seem so different.

Kowalski’s previous works are noted novels about the human condition, but this book for him is a deeply personal project from beginning to end. (See my Q&A with him about the launch of his crowdfunding project to get this book published last year.) This book brilliantly shows the life of his great-grandmother Amelia (and her legacy) while trying to build a life in America. But this is no rags-to-riches, and they-all-lived-happily-ever-after immigrant story that are so commonplace. Kowalski honestly documents how immigrants continually win and loose during their lives in North America. Yet even if the losses seem overwhelming and their traditions fade, the resilience of immigrants like Amelia continues, and continues to inspire.

Page 23

It was the ruination of their American dream Iggy was staring at now.

Iggy had heart the American Dream lecture so many times as a kid that back then it was all he thought about. Anyone could make it in America if they just worked hard, everyone said – his parents, his uncles, his cousins, his grandparents, every his great-grandmother herself, who had lived to be ninety-eight years old. He had known her well, although he could barely understand her, since he didn’t speak Polish and had never had more than a passing acquaintance with the English language.

If you didn’t make it in America, there was something seriously wrong with you. You just weren’t trying. You didn’t appreciate the sacrifice your ancestors had made on your behalf, leaving behind everything they held dear.

Nope. If you didn’t make it, you were a failure – not just in business, but as a person, and in the eyes of all those who had come before you.

Iggy sighed and looked at the time on his cell phone. It was nearly time to start prepping for dinner.

While Kowalski may have borrowed story lines from his family and his Polish-American background, he has honestly documented many occurrences that are common for many descendants of European stock in America and brought them to the public domain. He has given certainly many of his fans some thoughts and discussions because of his plot about their own lives. This book is not only a great addition to literature but a glowing tribute to his family.

Page 38

But what Zofia didn’t know was that Aniela planned on remaining unmarried and childless. In fact, she planned on having nothing to do with men whatsoever. The Prussian teacher had been only half right. It wasn’t just Plish men who were pigs. It was all men, everywhere. This had been her experience with just about every man she’d ever met. She would have liked to have been proven wrong, but so far it hadn’t happened. Her father was cruel to her mother. Her brothers were cruel to their sisters. Even the priest got so drunk on vodka sometimes that his hands seemed not to know what they were doing, and this was a man of God. All the girls in the village knew to stay far away from him when he was on one of his benders, or they might get invited back to his cottage for a private confession.

Aniela shook her head. She had to remember to leave these old thoughts behind. That priest, that teacher, her father, her brothers, hadn’t followed her to Ameryka, after all. She was safe from them now. And maybe the men of Ameryka would be different.

Besides, there were new challenges to deal with. It was all well and good to speak Polish in the streets of Black Rock, but eventually this business of English would have to be dealt with, or she would never succeed here – not unless she wanted to be an ignorant washerwoman all her life.

It was a true pleasure to dine upon The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo by William Kowalski. The many thoughts and experiences that Kowalski documents in the book are universal for any person of any European background living in North America yet never have been truly mention before. A great and unique piece of literature and a great tribute to Kowalski’s family.

*****

Link to the official website for The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo

Link to William Kowalski’s website

Learning from the Life Lessons of Uncle Holland | Review of “Uncle Holland” by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Natalie Nelson (2017) Groundwood Books

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We have all made mistakes in our past, and we all have had to make difficult decisions because of those mistakes. But in many cases, those decisions can lead us to uplifting and interesting paths in our lives and define us in better ways. That is the story JonArno Lawson tells in his book Uncle Holland and with the illustrations by Natalie Nelson, the book is a delightful and unique exploration of an important aspect of the human condition.

Palmer and Ella had three sons – Holland, Jimmy and Ivan. Jimmy and Ivan were good boys, but Holland, who was the eldest, was always getting into trouble.

Holland sometimes stole things. He like stuff that was pretty, and sometimes he couldn’t help stuffing that pretty stuff into his pockets.

One day, when the police had caught Holland for the thirty-seventh time, they said, “Holland Lawson, either you go to jail or you join the army. It’s up to you.”

JonArno Lawson has a magical way of incorporating whimsy into his words. And this story is no different except that it includes a story moral lesson in it. JonArno has taken the story of his Uncle Holland and shared it with us readers, giving us  – no matter what age group we belong to – a unique lesson to learn.

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Natalie Nelson’s illustrations for this book are stark and bold. They truly not only visually tell the story of Uncle Holland but also help create empathy for Uncle Holland’s family members. Nelson use’s colours just at the right moment for emphasis, giving the story the ‘right punch’ when it was needed.

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Uncle Holland by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Natalie Nelson is certainly a unique story filled with whimsy and an important life lesson. Stark illustrations that punctuate the story with perfect colours at the right moment add to the plot and make this book an enjoyable read.

*****

Link to House of Anansi/Groundwood Books webpage for Uncle Holland

Link to Natalie Nelson’s website

Link to my Q&A with JonArno Lawson about Uncle Holland –  “I hope the story conveys that it’s possible to find new and unexpected ways of moving forward, even under the most constraining circumstances.”

 

 

Losing that One Person in Our Lives | Review of “So Much Love” by Rebecca Rosenblum (2017) McClelland & Stewart

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There is that one person in our daily lives that is important to us. It could be somebody very close to us or just somebody that we see on a day-to-day basis yet never give a second thought too. But remove that one person from our lives and our something in our psyche is vaulted into a state of shock. That is the theme Rebecca Rosenblum brilliantly explores in her novel So Much Love.

Page 3

Just before the winter semester wrapped up at the end of March, one of my Canadian Poetry students disappeared – not just from my class but also maybe from the earth. Catherine Reindeer left the restaurant where she worked at the end of a day shift, but she didn’t come home that night, or any night since. They found her purse in the parking lot the next morning. She was a good student, good enough that she didn’t need me to review her essay topics or suggest background readings. But she was chatty and didn’t seem to have friends in the class, so sometimes I was the recipient of her thoughts on Gwendolyn MacEwan, Michael Ondaatje, Julianna Ohlin. She spent a lot of time reading the biographical notes at the backs of books, always interested in discussing whose marriage had been happy, who worked a day job in addition to writing. She was – is? – a pretty girl, confident, a bit older that the rest. She had a husband, the newspapers said, unusual for an undergrad. I don’t remember a ring. I liked talking to her, but I didn’t know her well. Now that’s she’s gone, I think of her constantly.

Rosenblum has given readers an important element of the human condition to consider over in this book. The main focus of the plot deals with the disappearance of Catherine Reindeer. Readers witness the internal thoughts and struggles of many people that Catherine touched in their lives –  from people who were close to her to people who merely worked with her – and we get true look at how interconnected humans are and fragile the human psyche can be.

Pages 118-119

Heading home at the end of the day, I get that familiar homesickness just before I arrive. After a tough day – and now that I’m in my forties, I’m starting to feel like they’re mainly tough days – I still want to just spill it all out to Gretta and see if she can tell it back to me like a bedtime story. This desire has been growing all summer and fall, maybe since the beginning of spring when Catherine Reindeer first vanished, or since we each realized the other was devastated by the loss of this stranger. Or near-stranger. Maybe that was just one agony too many; we are kinder to each other now than we’ve been in years. We still don’t talk much, but her face when she’s genuinely listening to me is a comfort I could fall into. I don’t need advice, or any kind of commentary – after fifteen years, I know what she would say almost as well as what I would. This far into paying off the martial mortgage of intimacy, niceties like “How are you?” have become irrelevant – I know how she’s doing by the way she swallows her first mouthful of coffee in the morning, the rhythm of her stride on the stairs. In the evenings, we sit on opposite side of the living room, the rasp of pages from our respective books the faintest of communications. It is a kind of love, and a kind of loss too. I remember when we would have at least told each other what the books were about.

Rosenblum does a great job with this book of breaking down complex thoughts and emotions of the human psyche and gives those of us who want a careful and conscience read something to ponder over. The different sections of the book have single plot lines, yet the descriptions are vivid and memorable. Definitely a book that should not be rushed through while reading.

Page 181-182

The search went on for three freezing hours before they were given one last round of tea and Timbits and told to go home. No one found anything useful, or not that Kyla heard about. It was hard to tell exactly what was going on with everyone spread out in the trees and dark like that.

In Dermott’s truck on the way home, he hummed a few bars of “Amazing Grace,” but when she didn’t join in, he quit and tapped her knee with his big hand.

“It’ll be okay, Ky. Our heavenly Father is watching.”

She pictured God lying on his couch, watching all their suffering on a flat-screen TV, and didn’t understand why that was suppose to make her feel better.

After the night of the search party, Kyla cam home right after school the rest of the week. It didn’t feel safe to be out alone. Everyone was tense, darting eyes and locked car doors all over Iria. Even if she walked to Starbucks at lunch with Britt, they moved quickly, didn’t linger out front with the other kids, and checked over their shoulders.

So Kyla stayed home, read Ivan Ilych over again, and took notes while Jaycee practised her awful piano downstairs. The picture on the front of the skinny book was of an old man, some artist’s idea of how Ivan looked. Ivan, at the end of his life, seemed sad and exhausted, but that wasn’t the interesting part of the book or the character to Kyla. She thought about poor Ivan as basically a decent person who worked hard but didn’t really know what was important in life or how to find out. The scary part was that he could live his whole life and not even be interested in love or being loved, and die that way.

So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum will certainly be one of the most profound and in-depth reads I experienced so far in 2017. She has captured an element of the human condition and documented well here, certainly making me reflect and discuss this book on numerous occasions. Truly a gifted piece of literature.

*****

Link to Penguin/Random House Canada’s website for So Much Love

Link to Rebecca Rosenblum’s website

Link to my Q&A with Rebecca Rosenblum – “(W)e have the privilege of listening to the worst crimes on the news for twenty minutes, then shutting it off and thinking about getting new shoes or what to make for dinner for the next hour. But shouldn’t fiction go deeper, explore the hard parts?”

 

(T)he novel is about a young woman who learns to draw on inner strength she didn’t know she had to overcome dramatic challenges on her journey to adulthood. | Q&A with author Catherine Graham on her first novel “Quarry.”

Quarry Cover from Natalie jpeg

 

Catherine Graham’s poetry has won numerous awards and garnished huge praises from all sorts. Now Graham has turned her skilled craft towards a novel, something many people have been eagerly talking about in many of my circles. Graham was kind enough to answer a few questions about her first novel “Quarry.”

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1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of “Quarry.”

It’s a fictional account of what an introverted young woman discovers about herself on a journey that starts with an idyllic upbringing with her parents in a house beside a water-filled limestone quarry and moves through tragic loss, love and the family secrets that emerge.

2) This is your first published novel. Was there much of a ‘jump’ for you from writing poetry to writing a novel?

Yes and no. The imagery that powers my poetry is still present in the novel, but writing prose has so many more opportunities for detail and well, completeness. Some readers of early novel drafts were also fans of my poetry and I wasn’t sure how they’d like the book. Thankfully the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. I think I was able to find the right balance between the lyricism of poetry and the narrative form demanded by long prose.

3) Was there something specific that inspired you to write this novel?

Ultimately, the novel is about a young woman who learns to draw on inner strength she didn’t know she had to overcome dramatic challenges on her journey to adulthood. Those who know me will see parallels with my own life, but Caitlin Maharg’s story is not mine, nor is mine hers. So I guess you could say the inspiration for the novel has been with me forever.

4) “Two Wolves Press” seems like a unique publishing house. How did you get involved with them?

Alexandra Leggat is a fellow instructor at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. She started Two Wolves Press with a fiercely independent desire to publish a few carefully curated books each year that would bring fresh voices to the Canadian literary scene. Having Two Wolves pick up Quarry for publication was a match made in heaven. I loved Two Wolves’ approach to publishing and thankfully, Alexandra loved Quarry. (Link to Two Wolves Press Blogspot site)

5) Are you planning any public readings/discussions of “Quarry?” If yes, any specific dates that you are excited to be partaking in?

The novel launches June 1 at The Tranzac Club in Toronto.  IFOA and Two Wolves Press have partnered up for the event as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series (Link to the event’s website here). After a short reading, Mary Lou Finlay, radio and television journalist, will interview me on stage. There will also be music from the soundtrack of the novel and other special features. Then on June 4, I’ll be doing a Q & A at the Calgary Memorial Library as part of Spur Festival Calgary. (Link to event’s website here)

I’m thrilled to be partaking in both events and all are welcome to attend. I’m also looking forward to reading in the UK this August as part of The Shaken and the Stirred group—readings in London, Manchester, Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Link here), Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Belfast’s Linen Hall Library and Bangor’s Open House Festival.

6) You mentioned in a past Q&A a few years ago that you just signed on to Twitter. And you have an active role on Facebook. How do you like using social media in relation to your writing?

It’s interesting you should ask. Social media was a bit of a foreign landscape to me at first, but it’s actually more fun than I thought it would be. To that end, I’ll be making some exciting changes to my social media presence in the near future, so stay tuned to the website (www.catherinegraham.com), Twitter (@catgrahmpoet) and Instagram (catgrahampoet) to see what’s cooking.

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

Right now, I’m focused on making sure people enjoy the novel launch and know where they can get a copy of the book (Ben McNally’s Bookstore in Toronto (Link here) and Shopify (Link here).

But regardless of how busy I am, scribbled ideas always seem to be appearing in my notebook, so in a way, you could say I’m already at work on the next novel. Or poetry collection. Or something. Speaking of poetry, my seventh collection, The Celery Forest, will appear this fall with Wolsak & Wynn. (Link to their website)

Author Bio:
Catherine Graham is the author of five acclaimed poetry collections. Her most recent collection, Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects, was a finalist for the Raymond Souster Award and CAA Poetry Award. Winner of the IFOA’s Poetry NOW competition, she teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto where she won an Excellence in Teaching Award. Her work is anthologized in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol IV & V, The White Page/An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets and has appeared in The Malahat Review, Gutter Magazine (Scotland), Poetry Daily (USA), The Glasgow Review of Books, Poetry Ireland Review, The Ulster Tatler, The Fiddlehead, LRC, Southword Journal (Ireland), CBC Books and elsewhere. International reading venues include Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016 and 2017, University of Westminster, Bowery Poetry Club NYC, International Anthony Burgess Foundation (Manchester), 4th International Congress of Language and Literature Linares (Mexico), Seamus Heaney HomePlace (Northern Ireland) and the Thessaloniki International Book Fair (Greece). She publishes two books in 2017, her sixth poetry collection, The Celery Forest, and her debut novel, Quarry. Visit her at www.catherinegraham.com.

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Link to Catherine Graham’s website

Link to Two Wolves Press Blogspot site

‘What I do now will cause . . .?’ | Review of “Me (And) Me” by Alice Kuipers (2017) HarperCollins Canada

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(I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book. I will add pull-quotes to this review once I get my hands on a true printed copy.)

It is never easy of any person to make a decision, let alone one that needs to be made at the spur of the moment. Consequences need to be considered to words said or actions  made which may  have long lasting results. And for  an adolescent, those decisions  can be heart-wrenching, especially if their young minds are already guilt-ridden  from past traumas.  That is  one of the major themes Alice Kuipers brilliantly explores  in her book Me (and) Me.

The story of the book deals with Lark, a young girl who is just in the process of celebrating her seventeenth birthday. She has mixed feelings about the day, since it brings back memories of her mother’s passing a few years ago. Readers witness Lark’s day  starting off in a well-enough manner; The sky is clear. She has just finished writing a ‘kick-ass’ song for the band and she has a date with the gorgeous and Alec out by the lake. Alas, things  take a turn for the worse when a neighbourhood girl begins to drown and Alec gets himself into trouble as well trying to save little Annabelle. Lark is in a quandary as she tries to decide which one of the two to save.

Kuipers uses the concept of parallel universes in this book in a brilliant fashion to explore the roles of cause/effect. Reader’s witness the two Larks – one where she save little Annabelle from the depth of a lake and suffering from a long-lasting coma AND the other where she saves Alec from the same fate. Both Larks are guilt-ridden by their decisions and their guilt becomes overpowering that they both act out in different manners.

Alice Kuipers’ Me (And) Me is truly a unique read. The book does an excellent job in exploring cause/effect roles in the actions of human beings. A great read and an enlightening one for the younger set.

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Link  to HarperCollins Canada’s website for Me (And) Me

Link to Alice Kuipers’ website

Link to my Q&A with Alice Kuipers about Me (And) Me – (M)y books often explore how writing and creativity give my characters tools to deal with the world

 

 

 

“As I grew more and more aware of the way social media can really amplify public gaffes, I began to see a comic story emerge about how a situation could really put this marriage on the ropes” | Q&A with writer Mark Sampson on his new novel “The Slip”

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I don’t think I am alone in stating that the world that is now enveloping us feels a bit too fast-paced and artificial. So it may be time to take a step back and look what that realm is truly like. Writer Mark Sampson has given us a starting point for us readers for pondering and discussing our actions in the era of super-hyped-up mass media in his latest novel The Slip. Sampson was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about the new book.

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1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of The Slip?

Sure. The novel is about a fictitious University of Toronto philosophy professor and public intellectual named Philip Sharpe who appears in a nationally televised debate with one of his fiercest rivals, a right-wing newspaper columnist named Cheryl Sneed. In the heat of the debate, Philip ends us saying something wildly inappropriate to her as a woman, which gets captured on live TV. His “slip” quickly goes viral on social media, and the fallout becomes a kind of catalyst to expose all the cracks and problems in Philip’s marriage to his much younger, stay-at-home feminist wife, Grace.

There is a somewhat off-kilter constraint on the story that complicates Philip’s situation. He actually says two inappropriate things during the TV debate – the sexist dig at Sneed, but also an earlier comment that is philosophically inconsistent with the beliefs and ideas which Philip has built his entire reputation on as an intellectual. Ever the “absent-minded professor,” Philip spends a large chunk of the novel thinking that the world is in a rage at him over the earlier remarks rather than his misogynous comment at Sneed. It’s a 200+-page obliviousness that is (at least I hope) played for comic effect; but I hope it also points to some heavier ideas about how our words can sometimes cause harm without us realizing it.    

2) Am I correct in assuming that this book is a bit of departure from your previous writing? If yes, how so? Was there anything specific that made you write this book?

It’s a departure insofar that The Slip is a straight-up comic novel in the tradition of, say, P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis. It doesn’t have the darker, heavier tones of my previous novel, Sad Peninsula, which was about (among other things) the legacy of sexual violence enacted against Korean girls and young women during World War Two. Still, I think The Slip does touch on some serious matters. It’s about gender dynamics; it’s about the division of labour in a modern-day marriage; it’s about the double-edged sword of social media; it’s a gentle ribbing of academic culture and media culture and Sunday brunch culture of well-off urban yuppies. I like to think that the novel casts a fairly wide satirical net.   

 

3) I know we have talked about The Slip in our last Q&A but how long did it take to write this book? Is there anything you are hoping this book will accomplish?

The characters of Philip and Grace, and their problematic marriage, have been rattling around in my head since at least 2007 or 2008. As I grew more and more aware of the way social media can really amplify public gaffes, I began to see a comic story emerge about how a situation could really put this marriage on the ropes. Once I committed to actually nutting out what happens and sitting down to write it, the book took about two years to complete.  

4) Is there a book/reading tour scheduled for The Slip? If yes, are there any events you are looking forward to participating?

 

Still very much (To Be Discussed) at this point. I do have the Toronto launch booked for the evening of May 31 at Ben McNally Books (come on out, Torontonians, if you’re reading this (Link to the Facebook page for this event)) and one other event planned for my hometown of Charlottetown. Hopefully other events will materialize in the near future.

5) Are you working on any new writing right now or are you taking a break for a bit?

 

Yes, I just finished a very rough first draft of a new book, a kind of a parody of a post-apocalyptic novel. It’s about overpopulation, set in an alternate version of Toronto where the subways are always packed and everyone lives in tiny, overpriced condos. Horrifying, terrifying stuff. I’ve also been working on a new poetry manuscript, as well as a lot of literary criticism. I don’t tend to take too many breaks from writing. I have so many ideas and a finite number of years to get them all out.

 

6) Many of the followers of my blog mention to me that they enjoy interacting with writers over social media. You hinted in the last Q&A you did with me that “The Slip” deals a bit with the darker side of social media but you also mentioned that things like Facebook and Twitter play only a small part in your writing. Do you still believe that?

 

Yes, absolutely – probably more so. There is no doubt that social media has its dark side, with the capacity to bring out the very worst in some people. Can we deny that this is the case, here in this Trumpian age?

7) I am curious about the dynamic that you and writer Rebecca Rosenblum have? I see that you both often post reviews/interviews of each other’s work on social media, but do you both read/discuss/critique each other’s work as well?

 

Indeed. For your readers who don’t know, Rebecca Rosenblum is my wife. (Link to my Q&A with Rebecca Rosenblum  –“(W)e have the privilege of listening to the worst crimes on the news for twenty minutes, then shutting it off and thinking about getting new shoes or what to make for dinner for the next hour. But shouldn’t fiction go deeper, explore the hard parts?” We do take a lot of pride in sharing around each other’s good news on various social media channels. We do read a lot of each other’s work in draft and offer feedback and support whenever we can. It’s pretty great, actually, to have a smart, talented fellow writer living under the same roof to offer a critique on something I’m writing. Sometimes what we can offer each other is a thorough, engaging edit on a story. And sometimes what we can offer is simply the most important thing any author can hear during the writing process: Keep going!    

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Link to Dundurn Press’ website for “The Slip”

Link to Mark Sampson’s Blogger site “Free Range Reading”

“Mom was a single parent in the 1950s — easily the bravest, strongest, most resourceful person I’ve ever met — and her unconditional love for me inspired the bond between Granny and Zoe” | Q&A with Author Allan Stratton on his new book ‘The Way Back Home’

It is almost a sin to muddle my thoughts with the words of Allan Stratton. He is truly a writer that crafts his work about the human condition, and his latest book is certainly one that deals with a reality that many of us are familiar with. Allan was kind enough to enlighten me about his new work The Way Back Home by answering a few questions for me here. The book is being released on May 9, 2017.

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1) First off, could you give me a bit of an outline for “The Way Back Home” and news about its release?

THE WAY BACK HOME is about Zoe Bird, a troubled girl whose one true friend is her Granny, now suffering from Alzheimers’. When Zoe’s parents place Granny in a nursing home against her will, Zoe springs her and together they set off on a road trip to find Zoe’s missing uncle —  an uncle whom Zoe had thought was dead, but who is alive and Granny’s last hope.

It’s out the first of May in Canada and the UK. New year it’ll be out in translation in Italy, Poland and France, with a separate French translation for Quebec. Arrangements in other countries are in the works.

2) How long did it take you to write “The Way Back Home?”

The first draft took nine months, which is appropriate as I consider my books my ‘brain babies.’ It went through a couple of significant draft revisions over eight months. That’s longer than usual but I was distracted by a lot of travel for foreign editions of “The Dogs”: Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, Rimini, Mantua, Krakow, Prague, New York and San Francisco. I wish all my problems were so much fun.

3) Was there anything specific that inspired you want to write this book?

Yes. My mom. She had Alzheimer’s and is very much the inspiration for Granny. Mom was a single parent in the 1950s — easily the bravest, strongest, most resourceful person I’ve ever met — and her unconditional love for me inspired the bond between Granny and Zoe.

This précis of Mom’s life may give you some idea of her achievements. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, she broke a lot of glass ceilings for women: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/thestar/obituary.aspx?n=dorothy-annabelle-stratton-mcphedran-avis&pid=155313009

4) No doubt you are busy with the release of this book, but I would be severely “chewed out” by my followers and your fans if I didn’t ask you if you are doing any public readings or events of any of your works. If yes, are there any specific dates you are looking forward to attending?

I’m doing the “Junction Reads” reading series in Toronto end of April (Link Here) and will be in Saskatchewan in May. In September, I’m going to be at the Thin Air Festival in Winnipeg. (Link Here) I’ll know if there are other fall festivals in the next few weeks. School and library visits come up as they come up. These days, blogs like yours, social media and Skype visits are the major way to get the word out.

5) So I think I have miscounted so I will ask you directly – How many novels have you had published now? Has your writing changed with “The Way Back Home” since your first novel? If yes, how so?

I’ve written ten novels, two of which were specifically for adults, two specifically for ages 9 – 13, and the others, like this “The Way Back Home”, from Middle Grade through adult. In the 1980s I wrote plays; that’s what I was originally known for; one of them, “Nurse Jane Goes to Hawaii” has been running in rep in Warsaw, Poland for just over a year now. I also wrote two stage adaptations and a couple of one-act radio plays.

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“My only time in a tux, imagining myself in a Cole Porter musical”  – Allan Stratton

 

6) Many of my followers always look for a way to interact with the authors they read. You have launched a new website and have an active presence on Facebook. Is interacting on the internet with fans something you enjoy?

Absolutely. I make it a point to answer every email I get. Anyone can reach me at http://www.allanstratton.com

7) You seem to be an avid traveler and your fans seem to enjoy hearing about your journeys. Are you planning any new and exciting personal trips in the near future?

I am an avid traveler. You can see a slideshow of shots of some of my travels at my website, under “About Allan”, but this year I’m planning to stay in Canada, aside from a couple of trips this winter to favourite haunts in Cuba (Sol Cayo Largo for being Robinson Crusoe-esque – you can walk the shore for hours without seeing anyone — and Paradisus de Oro for its terrific from-shore snorkel reefs).

The reason for staying is that my husband and I bought a cottage in northern Quebec which we renovated last summer. I never thought I’d be into that, but hey. We’ll be there for five months: loons swim by the deck; there are rabbits and bears; Northern Lights; and moose mating calls in the fall.

For readers interested in travel tips beyond Europe and the Caribbean: In South America, I’d suggest Argentina (Iguazu Falls, Buenos Aires and Salta especially) and Chile (from the Andes through the lake district and down to the penguins in Patagonia). Peru has some obvious highlights (Machu Picchu and Colca Canyon), but I’d see it after those.

Of the five countries I’ve visited in subSahara, I’d recommend Botswana hands down. It’s by far the safest and Chobe and Linyata National Parks are astonishing.

In Asia, I’d recommend China over Vietnam or Thailand, but Cambodia’s Siem Reap area over all of them: Angor Watt is truly out of this world.

I loved travelling in north Africa and the Middle East (Jordan’s Petra is up there with Angor Watt, and snorkeling in the Red Sea at Aqaba is a must). I also loved loved loved Egypt, but I don’t think I’d go now. Jerusalem is wonderful for the richness of its history, but it has a hard, unfriendly feel – Tel Aviv, on the other hand, is totally relaxed and welcoming.

One country I haven’t spent any time in is Portugal. So I want to get there and also back to southern Spain. I would have loved to go to St. Petersburg, but with Russia’s leadership in global anti-LGBTQ attacks, there’s just no way.

Gosh, I could go on and on, but… yes, travel is a passion.

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Allan Stratton signing copies of “Chanda’s Secrets” at the Vietnam Book Fair in Ho Chi Minh City

Hey, thanks for the interview! It’s been fun.

Thanks for answering these questions Allan!

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Link to Scholastic Canada’s website for “The Way Back Home”

Link to Allan Stratton’s website