Monthly Archives: March 2017

Engaging the Younger Audience on their own Terms | Review of “The Death of Us” by Alice Kuipers (2014) HarperTrophyCanada

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I am always asked to recommend books for young adults, usually by parents looking to recommend something for their kids to read. It is usually something I am somewhat nervous in doing. I am not sure that I understand the lives that most teenagers have these days. But there are books that are written for that age group that I enjoy. And The Death of Us by Alice Kuipers is certainly one of those books.

Callie Page 5

I get it, I do. The have a baby now and they’ve done their part: what a successful, balanced teenager they’ve created.

I don’t take drugs. Check.

I don’t drink. Check.

I don go to wild parties. Check.

Okay I have a couple extra piercings in my right ear that Mom  hates. And I’ve dyed my hair black, which Dad moans about. And he definitely can’t understand why the dark-blue nail polish, with one green nail on the fourth finger of each hand. I’ve told him there’s nothing to understand.

Still, I keep my room tidy. Check.

I get my homework in on time. Check.

I’ll get into any university I want, probably. Check.

I’m perfectly bone-crushingly normal. Check. Check. Check.

If only I didn’t feel like I do right now around my parents, we could all just get along like we used to.

I originally picked up this book for research into another blog piece but I feel it deserves to be mentioned here. We have three protagonists in this story  who move the plot along by giving their points of view: Callie, Ivy and Kurt. Callie seems to be up for going through an average summer until her old friend Ivy shows up after a three-year unexplained absence. Although somewhat hesitant at first to renew the friendship, Callie is soon going to parties and trying new clothes and much more new activities with Ivy. However when a handsome boy appears on the scene, the friendship grows more than toxic.

Ivy Page 49-50

Kurt beeps the horn outside my house. Mom’s asleep on the couch. She’s gorgeous when she’s sleeping. I spot a text on her phone from Kevin. Dirty words. Gross. I tuck the phone next to her. She stirs, the sour stink of her rising like steam. Screw it, Mom, two days we’ve been back. Don’ you think Kevin’s gonna notice? I take the bottle.

The room is dark, curtains drawn. No one’s watching but I check around anyway. I put the bottle to my lips and hold it there. Then, slowly, I take the bottle away from my mouth. I won’t drink. I’m notlike her – see how easy it is, Mom not to drink? We’re the result of the choices we make every day and this is my choice. I pour the bottle out into the sink, wishing she didn’t always find a way to get more. But I’m not going to waste energy thinking like that. I count one, two, three, four, five.

I’m ready for the boat trip. Summery dress for a sunny, summery day. Kurt beeps the horn again. I’ve made him wait long enough, poor boy. Men are like dogs, they need training, and every dog needs a reward when he’s done good. Kurt has been very patient. I pop my gum in my mouth, step down the porch stairs and slide into the back because there’s another guy in the passenger seat – a thin guy with a beard and glasses, crouched over because he’s so tall . . .

Kuipers has written a narrative here that is honest and frank. The language hasn’t been filtered or corrected by any means, making it an honest read for any young mind to follow. The issues in the story are current for today’s audience. Kuipers drops hints during the story that something massive is going to happen to the trio in the end but does an excellent job in keeping readers in suspense, ensuring readers are enraptured to the end.

Kurt – Pages 119-120

I glance at the black coffee. I can’t drink it. Inertia. I don’t like it about myself, wish I could be more decisive, but when things get tough I blank out. Freeze.

It was the only way to protect myself when I was a little kid. When my mom tore up the world around me. There’s no way to explain to most people, people like Callie or Xander, that life can be so bad sometimes the only way to deal with with it is to pretend none of it’s happening. Or, the opposite. Life can be so good, the possibility of the future so awesome that the only way to protect yourself from ruining it is to sit back. Let the opportunity slide by.

The Death of Us by Alice Kuipers is a unique and enlightening read for  a younger audience. It is a page-turner and a great exploration of thoughts and emotions. In short, a truly exceptional book.

*****

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s website for The Death of Us

Link to Alice Kuipers’ website

“(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?” | Q&A with author Rebecca Rosenblum on her new novel So Much Love

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Image linked from the author’s website

It is always a thrill for me to talk about a writer who has honed their craft through a collection of short stories who finally releases a complete novel. And Rebecca Rosenblum is such a writer. She brilliantly documented elements of human condition in her short story collections such as The Big Dream (Link to my review) and Once (Review coming shortly). Now her first complete novel So Much Love is out and should be a stunning read as well. Rosenblum took some time out from a busy book tour to answer a few questions for me.

*****

First off, could you give a bit of an overview of So Much Love?

The main story in So Much Love is about a young woman named Catherine Reindeer who goes missing and, first, what those who knew her go through in her absence also what happens to Catherine herself. But there’s also a thread woven through about a poet Catherine admires, Julianna Ohlin, dead many years, and what her life amounted to, or how Catherine imagines her. That’s a lot of different stories, because the people who miss Catherine each get their own voices and experiences and so does Julianna and the people in her world. That is how I like to experience the world—lots of different viewpoints, as a way to piecing together my own. In the end, with careful editing, I think Catherine’s powerful conclusion.

2) Was there anything specific that inspired you to write this book? Is there anything you are hoping to accomplish with So Much Love?

I was interested in the way that, first, female artists are often conflated with their biographies. This happens to men too, of course, but it seems much stronger with women. Even in an academic context, a woman’s art is indivisible from her life, her suffering, her love affairs in a way that I don’t think would be conceive able for a man. I was also interested in the way that there’s a kind of style or genre of fiction where a crime forms that backdrop, and much more mundane dramas form the main action. In truth, that is the way many of us live our lives, and thank goodness—we 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?

3) According to your website, your previous books have collections of short stories. Was it a major difference to now write a complete narrative for one book? How long did it take to write So Much Love?

Yes, I found it very challenging, and I had a lot of help. I took earlier runs at writing this novel—one starting in 2000 and one in 2004, but I just didn’t yet have the writing chops to make it through this complicated and challenging story. Then after graduate school in creative writing and two collections, working with an excellent editor (the rightly revered John Metcalf), I started again in 2011 and was able to get all the way through, after a fashion, though at that point the book was linked short stories. When McClelland & Stewart bought the book, my editor Anita Chong asked me if I was willing to edit it into a novel and I said yes—that was what I had wanted all along, I just couldn’t make it work. It took more than two years and I lot of blood, sweat and tears from both of us—along with over 30 000 added words—but we did it!

4) Are you planning any public readings of So Much Love? If yes, are there any dates/events you are excited to be participating in?

I’m actually typing this in Vancouver, and will be reading tonight at the Vancouver Public Library as part of the Incite series presented by the Vancouver Writers Festival. But by the time this gets posted I’ll probably be looking forward to my reading at Pivot at the Steady April 19 (Link here), which is going to be super fun, and then on April 22 I’ll be reading at the Making Room launch party in Toronto for an anthology that celebrates 40 years of Room magazine (Facebook link here)

5) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you can share?

When I finally signed off on the last version of So Much Love, I did get started on a new project that I’ve been thinking about for a while—a father-daughter novel that takes place over many years. I enjoyed working on it, as the book is more light-hearted than So Much Love but still with some darker themes, but I had to put it aside first for some personal problems and then for the promotional work on So Much Love. I’m really looking forward to getting back to it when the excitement dies down, though.

6) You seem to have an active profile on Facebook. Many of my followers always want to know what is the best way to keep up to date with their favourite writers (New works, events, etc.) . Are you using Facebook for that regard? Do you have any plans to expand your social-media presence to something like Twitter or Google Plus?

I think the best way to find out about new work, events, and publications from me would probably be my twitter account, (Link to her Twitter account here) or my website/blog, www.rebeccarosenblum.com My Facebook and Instagram accounts both have a lot of personal stuff mixed in—unless you care a lot about cats, things I ate, and pictures of my husband, those would be less of interest. I never made the leap to Google Plus and now I hear it is shutting down so I guess I never will.

7) Your biography has you listed as living in Toronto. How do you like living there? Are there any specific cultural institutions or events there that inspire you as a writer?

It took me while but now I love Toronto so much I can’t imagine ever leaving. A lot of that has to do with people, though—my friends, my family, some of my in-laws, and a lot of the literary community that I know are there. But there is also so much good stuff—from the Jays to Allan Gardens to the ROM to Bluffs—that I adore in Toronto. I love just walking down the street and looking at stores, and I know so many people I pretty often run into someone I know. I have lived there 15 years and despite the challenges, I feel truly at home there. I did my masters in creative writing at University of Toronto and that is just a gorgeous campus. I loved getting my degree there but I know others have legit complaints; however, no one could dispute the loveliness of the St. George campus. I’m still happy to hang out at Hart House or one of the libraries if I have a writing day and feel like getting out of the house.

******

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

The Universal Complexities of Coming of Age | Review of “Child Wonder” by Roy Jacobsen – Translated by Don Bartlett with Don Shaw (2011) Graywolf Press

Child

I have always found something enlightening about exploring the list of authors that make up the longlist of nominees of Man Booker International Prize. Even if their nominated works are not readily available to me, reading an earlier work from a writer from that list seems to engage my senses in new ways.  The 2017 longlist this year includes Norwegian writer Roy Jacobsen and I am completely enthralled by his coming-of-age book Child Wonder.

(A time when) “men became boys and housewives women

I was glad to see numerous of previous reviewers had loved the phrase quoted above from the book. Jacobsen has set this story in the beginning of the 1960s and that phrase seems to be the continuing theme going through the book as the protagonist Finn and his mother go through life in a suburb of Oslo. The duo are set in their ways until a half-sister that Finn never knew about joins them and Finn attempts to deal with not only the new situation but a flurry of thoughts and emotions that come to rise within him.

Page 26-27

Ten minutes later. Mother is sitting on the new sofa with a cup of Lipton’s tea and I am in the armchair with a bottle of Solo lemonade, even though it is the middle of the week. We are getting on better than we were ten minutes ago. We are on the same wavelength. A new wavelength, for I am still a changed person, I am just a bit more used to the change, it is all tied up with Mother’s new confidentiality, because she has changed too, we are tow strangers speaking sensibly about how to cope with another stranger, a girl of six called Linda, the daughter of a crane driver who also happened to be my father.

I know that it cannot have been an easy decision to make, in her earlier life Mother had not been full of kind words about this widow and her daughter, but now she has clearly been imbued with a sense of direction, solidarity some might well call it, but we are not the highfalutin kind here, we live on credit and we are inscrutable. And in the course of these two weeks Mother has not only calculated the costs, she now tells me, but she has also considered what people would say if we did not take the girl in. And how we would feel. As well as how she would feel being in a children’s home. Besides, and I would come to appreciate this in later life, would it not be preferable to be the widow who managed to do what had to be done rather than the person who threw in the towel and shunned her responsibility because of something as idiotically self-inflicted as drug addiction?

This, I have to admit, smacked of a victory for Mother over the person who had gone off with her crane driver and who was perhaps the indirect cause of him falling to his death, the man whose memory still caused Mother such pain that photographs of him had to be buried in a locked drawer.

Even though this book is set in Norway and some of the phrases are awkward, the feelings and emotions are universal and the read is wonderfully complex. This is definitely not a book to rush through or a book to be given to somebody who doesn’t appreciate reading fiction. It is a book to be pondered over and savored. And certainly a book to be discussed, no matter in what language or location on the planet.

Pages 223-224

The many phases and hues of punishment, I thought I knew them all by heart, the guilt and the abyss, Mother who doesn’t ask as I come indoors, although she can see it on my face, Mother who doesn’t want to know, and me who says nothing, but munches his supper with a different body because she doesn’t want to know  – besides, I don’t understand her.

I go to bed before the others and watch Linda climbing up the little ladder to peer at me from over the edge of the bed.

Oh, the time it takes for it to happen, half of Monday has gone before we are summoned from the classroom and hauled before (the headmaster), where admonitions and grave solemnity hang in a thick smoky fug from cigarettes and radiators on far too high a setting. But the standard procedure has already been upset, perhaps because we don’t look as petrified as we should, even though for once this is serious.

Child Wonder by Roy Jacobsen is  a wonderful coming-of-age novel filled with wonderfully complex thoughts and emotions. An engaging read and a great piece of literature. I am looking forward to reading his Man Booker 2017 nominated read The Unseen.

*****

Link to Graywolf Press’s website for Child Wonder

Link to the long list of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

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“A lot of black people are living in circumstances that middle-class and upper-class whites can’t imagine. So, I wrote this book partly to help illuminate that fact.” | Q&A with author William Kowalski about his new book JUMPED IN

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Image linked from the publisher’s website

For many of us readers, we understand the power of the gaining enlightenment through the written word. But for those of us who deal with individuals who are just becoming aware of the power that engaging in the act has, the thrill of sharing the joy of reading can be equally thrilling. Novelist William Kowalski is gifted in documenting the human condition through his books, but his love of his craft and his understanding of the power of his final product shines through his work with Orca Books’ Rapid Reads series. As his latest item for Rapid Reads is about to come out, he answers a few questions for me about his book, JUMPED IN, and he explains the power of the written word has for all of us. JUMPED IN will be released April 18, 2017.

*****

1) First off, could you give an outline of JUMPED IN?

JUMPED IN is part of my Rapid Reads series, which is written for adults who are new to reading.
>p<
It’s the story of a 16-year-old named Rasheed, who lives in a bad neighborhood in a large city. His school is so dangerous that he’s dropped out. His sister was the victim of a drive-by shooting when she was a little girl and is now paralyzed. His mother has become addicted to her daughter’s painkillers. His father’s whereabouts are unknown. His neighborhood is ruled by a gang called the E Street Locals, who are constantly trying to get him to join. Rasheed seeks to escape all this by hanging out on a nearby university campus. Here he meets a campus cop who eventually takes him under his wing and helps him realize that his strong desire to make his world safe for his family again can be translated into a career in law enforcement, rather than always rebelling against authority. The Locals jump him in, but he’s able to escape from them, and we get the sense that he has a real chance to start over.
 

2) Was there anything specifically that caused you to write this book? Is there anything you hope readers will gain from JUMPED IN?

I was motivated partly by the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer. It sprang up in the U.S. as a response to several police shooting of unarmed black men. I was really disgusted by some of the responses of my white friends to the whole thing. They didn’t seem to understand or care that being black in the U.S. is a whole different experience, and that people do not have the same opportunities just because they are Americans. A lot of black people are living in circumstances that middle-class and upper-class whites can’t imagine. So, I wrote this book partly to help illuminate that fact. 
>P<
Like all Rapid Reads book, I also wrote it to address a specific audience. I wanted to create a character that my readers could identify with. These books are written for teens and adults who are interested in becoming better readers. A lot of them are locked up. We know that a disproportionate number of people of color go to jail in our society. This book is for them, too. Not only does it show them that someone out there understands them, but it helps them see there’s a way out, too.
 

3) The Rapid Reads website has this listed as your seventh book with them. Has your writing changed at all since your first book with this series? 

I think it’s become clearer and simpler, a little more so with every book. Writing this way is good for me. I have to practice my basic techniques over and over. I think it keeps me fresh.
 

4) Have you had any contact with any readers of your books from the Rapid Reads series? If yes, what was their reaction to your books?

I get lots of letters from people who read these books. Often, their adult education instructors will forward them to me. They seem to really like them. For many of them, it’s the first book they’ve ever read. That’s a big deal. You never forget your first book. They’re proud of themselves for having finished. They let me know what they liked and didn’t like about the story, and they are always curious to know if I will write more. I always write back.
 

5) Do you think you will be doing any future books for Rapid Reads?

I hope to continue to write a book a year for the Orca people! We have a great relationship, and it’s working well for both of us.
*****

“It’s funny how families sometimes repress their best tales. From there, I began to spin a yarn about a rumrunner.” | Q&A with author Emily Schultz on her book “Men Walking on Water.”

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There is something about a story based on family history, especially when that story has a bit of intrigue and vice involved. Author Emily Schultz has given us readers a story like that  with her novel Men Walking on Water. And if this book is like any of Schultz’s previous works, it will be a gripping read.

*****

1) First off, could you give an outline of Men Walking on Water?

It’s about a gang of rumrunners and what happens to their operation when one of them disappears into the night with a bag of cash. The others believe him to be dead—crashed through the ice in an old Ford used for driving whiskey across the Detroit River. The head of the operation is a corrupt reverend who’s keeping the abstinence movement going with donations from socialites while stockpiling his church basement with Canadian whiskey.

2) Was there any in particular that inspired you to write this book? It does seem like a book that may have required to a bit of research with it – Was that the case? If yes, what kinds of research was involved?

My grandfather was a rumrunner in Detroit. He dropped out of school and started moving booze between Canada and the U.S. at age 14. It was like getting into the family business, and so many regular citizens were doing it. His brother—my great Uncle Alfred—drowned in the river when his car crashed through weak ice. Because I went to university in Windsor, I looked at the river every day for years, but never heard this story until much later. It’s funny how families sometimes repress their best tales. From there, I began to spin a yarn about a rumrunner.

Research began mostly with photo books, images of 1920s Detroit. You can fall into a photo and feel it, and as a fiction writer, that can open up any number of possibilities. From there, I began reading about Prohibition, Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang, the Pullman Porter Union which plays into this story in an interesting way, and of course fashion and music. A curator at the Henry Ford museum gave me a tour of their private collections, and their archives also provided plenty of local tidbits, like how much a ferry ride to Canada cost in the ’20s — a quarter!

3) You have included on your website a book trailer, where you are listed at the Scenarist. How did that come into being? What has the reaction to the trailer (if any) been?

Brian J. Davis put this trailer together for me from silent films that are in the public domain now. As my husband and first reader, he was familiar with the novel and its plot and good at matching up scenes and characters from real films to my story. He wanted to call me the “scenarist” to be true to the ’20s and ’30s. People thought it was a lot of fun. I happen to live with a filmmaker so that made it easy.

Link to the video on Vimeo.com

4) I know these next two questions are ones that most authors hate to answer. But my followers seem to enjoy seeing it answered – Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?

We’re hesitant to commit because we use books for inspiration, but that’s not the same as just enjoying a book.

5) So you have a listing of dates that you have on your website for public events in relation to Men Walking on Water. Are public events something you enjoy doing in relation for your books? Are there any upcoming events that you are excited to be partaking in?

I have eight or nine readings in as many days with events from Windsor to Toronto to Montreal. Good thing I do enjoy it!  (Check my schedule here: www.emilyschultz.com/events)

6) You seem to have an active role on social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter? How do you like using these means of communication in relation to your writing? Have you had much contact with fans/haters of your work?

I love social media as a way to stay connected with friends, readers, and other writers—but I do have to limit my use of it sometimes. When I’m deep in the writing of a novel, I put a blocker on it so I only have access to it for ten minutes or so per day.

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

I’m putting together a short fiction collection. I’m also working on adapting The Blondes for TV series. I’m working on a new novel as well, but I want to keep it close to me for now.

*****

Link to to Penguin Random House Canada website for Men Walking on Water

Link to Emily Schultz’s website

Detailing the Angst of the Workplace | Review of “The Big Dream” by Rebecca Rosenblum (2011) Biblioasis

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The beauty of a good book is that it captures the complexities of real life that we readers endure in a simple manner. We want to see our world told through the eyes of others in order to better understand ourselves. We all endure the complex dynamics of a workplace – the interactions of co-workers, the placements of our desks, the failings of equipment, etc – yet we feel alone in our frustrations.  But, alas, we aren’t. Rebecca Rosenblum has given our workplace angst some references points in her book The Big Dream.

Page 9 – Dream Big

The cafeteria was closed for renovations and the temporary lunchroom was in the basement. In fact, the temporary lunchroom was actually a meeting room with tables, folding chairs, a microwave, four vending machines, and no windows. Many employees chose to eat at their desks, but some made use of the room.

Clint peeled the plastic off his Crackerz’n’chese.

Cheze does not look like an English word.” said Anna. She was eating unstirred fruit-at-the-bottom yoghurt.

“Still delicious.” Luddock was eating a mustard-soaked sandwich. The sheer yellow bread revealed the pink of bologna.

“Of course.” Anna reached the fruit layer and beamed into her plastic cup.

“Listen -” Clint leaned forward “Remember, last Tuesday -?”

“No!” Luddock waved his sandwich. Bread flapped away from meat. “I download all previous-week memories to the main server at midnight on Saturdays. Frees up disc space for current work.”

“Luddock, no!” Anna squawked, mouth full of pureed berries. “This is not a Tech Support situation. Do not make Tech jokes.

“Actually, only Tech is sitting at this table.”

“Lunch is our own time. We could be sitting with another department, people who don’t even work  here. We shouldn’t make this a closed conversation.”

This was one of those books that I just couldn’t put down. It felt like Rosenblum has captured a slice of my life in it. (And no doubt many of these experiences in this book must have come from real-life experience.) The book centres around the company Dream Inc. a somewhat tired and broken publishing firm. Rosenblum has exacted a series of stories around people who work in this company to show how the dynamic of this firm exists. And in doing so has reflected a true reality that many of us endure.

Page 132-133 Research

When Research got off the bus at 8:45 the next morning, there was a silver-blue airplane high above her head. It had a fish painted vertically on the tail, as if it was diving. the fish was blue, too, brighter than the plane. Brightest blue of all was the sky.

Indoors was mainly grey but the blue beamed in through the enormous window, which someone somehow had washed, inside and out.

She looked into the exact definition of teal, the blogs of MuchMusic VJs that her sons liked, the calorie content of chili, the average woman’s desired amount of oral sex versus experienced. She sent these facts to various editors at Dream Fashion, Dream Teen, Dream Woman. She stared out the window, The sky was a medium blue-green, more blue than green: teal.

She walked through the vast empty space between her desk and the window – even the other researchers’ desks had been removed now. She had always threaded through them like a rope through a grommet, and now there was too much space. She had liked her colleagues; everyone boiled extra water in case someone else wanted tea. She had no way of finding them now, out there in their real lives.

Back at her desk, Research found an enthusiastic email from Dream Woman regarding her facts about oral pleasure, requesting further research. The editor did not mention the chili information (surprisingly low fat).

Googling “techniques+cunnilingus” brought many suggestions, but they repeated from website to website, or even within one – “light feathery kisses to the inner thigh” seemed much the same as “light feathery kisses up and down the leg.” She wondered how else to reteach this, eyed the framed photo of her husband in his canoe, and sent off her report.

She boiled a single cup of water for tea. She ate her yoghurt early. She looked out the window at a helicopter rising, possibly carrying the executive team from an internet start-up with a bold innovation for something. She wanted to research using reality, not the Internet. She wanted to be good at her job and interesting to her family. She wanted to be someone who found job in more than just what her husband got up to with his tongue.

Rosenblum’s language is simple and frank which makes these stories so realistic and believable. There are terms which are well-known trademarks which gives the reader the true impression that they are witnessing something out of a real workplace. And Rosenblum’s explorations of thoughts and emotions are direct and true. Nothing here is held back or questioned. These stories truly feel like a slice of real life.

Page 144 – Loneliness

Theirs was a flirtation of short emails and patchy cellphone calls. Once, a birthday card curled into a FedEx tube. Once – and nervously – lunch alone together in the employee cafeteria. Cheese cannelloni and diet Coke for both. Except for that first surreptitious caress of a thigh, several too-lingering arm-squeezes, and once when he held her coat for her and she, reaching backwards, missed entirely and stroked her palm down the flat expanse of his belly – except for these moments, there had been no physical contact at all.

Privately, they cursed themselves for teenaged fantasies that could, doubtless lead only down alleys of frustration and masturbation. Desire only increases loneliness.

There had been moments of opportunity unrealized, when they were both perhaps stunned to realize their own limits. Both had attended a two-day trade show, sitting together at a particle-board demonstration, at a Kitchen of the Future demonstration, at an Ikea demonstration. They had sat together in the bar, and talked of the pets they had as children, animals now dead. They talked of their parents who were dead now, too, and how lonely it felt to walk the earth knowing their parents were dead. They talked about, or at least each somehow managed to mention, what their hotel room numbers were.

Rebecca Rosenblum has created a brilliant piece of literature with The Big Dream. This collection of insights into a workplace is bluntly honest and true. A great read and one that will create reflections and considerations.

*****

Link to Biblioasis’ website for The Big Dream

Link to Rebecca Rosenblum’s website

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

9781554989294
Cover image linked from the publisher’s website
I don’t think there is a more versatile writer right now than JonArno Lawson. And certainly not one as dedicated to his craft. His new book children’s book  – Uncle Holland – is coming out April 1 from Groundwood Books. And he is probably one of the most productive writers I know of this year . His listing of new titles is impressive. Lawson took some time out from his writing and editing to answer a few questions for me.
*****

1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of Uncle Holland?

In Uncle Holland, a young man who’s constantly getting into trouble with the law – he steals things – is finally given a choice between jail and the army. He chooses the army, and finds an unlikely way to make something positive out of his new environment.
 

2) In reading the descriptions that Groundwood Books has for Uncle Holland, I gather that you have a personal connection with this story. Is that the case? What are you hoping – if anything – that Uncle Holland will accomplish?

 

Uncle Holland is based on my actual Uncle Holland, who died before I was born. In real life, he did get into a lot of trouble – and he really did start out in the army, but he became a jeweler afterwards. I was only guessing that he joined the army (in the 1930s) because of legal problems, but in the fall I asked his big sister, my Aunt Jean (who turns 100 this year!) why Holland joined up and she said “I don’t know – he was in some kind of trouble, but I can’t remember what”.  So it was a good guess!

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Image linked from the publisher’s website
 
I hope the story conveys that it’s possible to find new and unexpected ways of moving forward, even under the most constraining circumstances. The Army might represent any kind of problem – in a way, school is like the army for children – you’re forced to go and you have to struggle all the time with pressures to conform.
 

3) How long did it take to write Uncle Holland? Was it an easy or difficult book to write?

 
I wrote Uncle Holland almost ten years ago – I wrote and illustrated the first version in one morning, as a self-challenge, at my favourite coffee shop (which no longer exists – it was called ToGo, at Yonge Street and Shaftesbury Avenue in Toronto – I still miss it) . My daughter’s kindergarten teacher wanted every parent to come in and read a book to the class at some point during the year, so when it was my day I thought – I’m supposed to be a children’s book writer – why don’t I see if I can come up with a story and pictures all at once on the day I’m supposed to present?  So I did – it was very exciting – it created a lot of pressure. I used my Uncle Holland as the main character, and a few details of his life, to save myself the trouble of inventing everything on the spot.
 
The story went over well with my daughter’s class, but I never really thought about publishing it. For fun, I showed it to Sheila Barry, who was my editor at Kids Can Press in those days. I wasn’t submitting it, just showing it to her because I liked the way my parrots came out – and she thought it was funny, but again, we never talked about it as a book. Then a few years ago she said she was still thinking about the story and wanted to look at it again.  It needed a little editing, there were a few inconsistencies, and odd phrasings, but it pretty much stayed as it was. 
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Image linked from the publisher’s website

 

 

4) The illustrator Natalie Nelson has agreed to do a Q&A for me but I was curious to hear how you two connected?

 
Sheila was working with Natalie on a book to do with Flannery O’Connor by Acree Macam. I love Flannery O’Connor’s work too – so that was immediately interesting to me. Sheila showed me Natalie’s pictures and said she thought she’d be perfect for Uncle Holland, and I agreed, completely!
 

4)   I know you are busy with other books right now but are you planning any discussions/signings/etc. in relation with Uncle Holland?

 
There aren’t any plans for it at the moment. I wish Natalie and I could meet up to do some kind of event together – she and Sheila and I had an interesting exchange about how to talk about army life (and the point of armies) in the classroom, because that question had already come up for Natalie in a presentation.
 
My father was in the army too, and so was one of my Aunts – a fair number of my cousins have been as well – so it’s something I’ve thought a lot about.
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Image linked from the publisher’s website
 

5)   Many of my followers use social media to track events that their favourite writers/illustrators may be involved with. You posted on your Facebook profile that you won’t be on FB for the “next long while.” Any idea how long that will be?

 
I’m not sure. . .I’m just checking in once a week or so now (that’s what I’ve done over the past few weeks). Some people seem to be good at using social media in a thoughtful, responsible way, but I find I just keep getting sucked in, and not using it productively at all. So I had my daughter change my Facebook password (I don’t know what it is anymore), which means that now I can only go in by request. I’ve felt much, much happier since. Not only were the posts distracting and often upsetting to me, but the sense of badly used time made me feel doubly awful.  Spending five or ten minutes on it once a week seems the best solution for me.
 

6)   In your last Q&A with me, you listed a number of projects that you are working on for this year. What is the next item you will be releasing for publication?

 I regret everything came out two weeks ago with espresso books. (Link to their website) That was exciting for me – they did a lovely job with it. The next one to come out is a non-fiction book with Wolsak & Wynn publishers, about playing cross-culturally with children. The title (as of now) is But it’s so silly: a cross-cultural collage of nonsense, play, and poetry. That should be out in August. And after that is Leap!, in the fall, a picture book with a poem as its text, with Kids Can Press, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon. So a busy year ahead. . .
  *****
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the new book, Steven! I appreciate it.

Thanks for answering these questions JonArno! I know my followers appreciate your time and your writing!

*****

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

Not Only a Smooth and Lyrical Read but an Enlightening One as well | Review of “Dragon Springs Road” by Janie Chang (2017) HarperAvenue

dsr

Many of us who read appreciate a story line that is smooth and lyrical. We enjoy slipping into a narrative that seems to float us away from our reality to another world. And it takes a certain type of writer who has that skill. Fans of Janie Chang realized she had that ability to do that with her first novel, and they eagerly awaited her second book. Now Dragon Springs Road has been released, and book readers have the ability to slide into another great story.

Chapter 1 – November 1908, Year of the Monkey – (Pages 1-2)

The morning my mother went away, she burned incense in front of the Fox altar.

The emperor Guangxu and the dowager empress had both died that week. My mother told me our new emperor was a little boy of almost three called Pui. A child less than half my age now ruled China and she was praying for him. And for us.

My mother knelt, eyes shut, rocking back and forth with clasped hands. I couldn’t hear the prayers she murmured and did my best to imitate her, but I couldn’t help lifting my eyes to steal glances at the picture pasted on the brick wall, a colorful print of a woman dressed in flowing silks, her face sweetly bland, one hand in blessing. A large red fox sat by her feet. A Fox spirit, pictured in her human and animal forms.

The altar was just a low table placed against the back wall of the kitchen. Its cracked wooden surface held an earthenware jar filled with sand. My mother had let me poke our last handful of incense sticks into the sand even let me strike a match ot light them. We had no food to offer that morning except a few withered plums.

The Fox gazed down at me with its painted smile.

After we prayed, my mother dressed me in my new winter tunic.

“Stay here, Jailing,” she said, pushing the last knot button through its loop. “Be quiet and don’t let anyone know you’re here. Stay inside the Western Residence until Mama comes back.”

But three days passed and she didn’t come back.

The story deals with Jialing – a seven years old girl whose her mother abandons her in a courtyard on Dragon Springs Road near Shanghai, China  in 1908. Jialing is a mixed race child – Eurasian – and faces contempt from both Chinese and Europeans alike. While she settles into a life of a bond servant to a family who cares for her in turn, she suffers extreme prejudices and hardships. She finds limited comfort with Anjuin – the eldest daughter of the family she serves – and Fox – an animal spirit who has lived for centuries.

Page 121-122

As the date of Anjuin’s wedding drew near, I worried about the promises we had made to each other. I knew I owed the Yangs much, but I longed to be free of my dependence on them. to be free of them all except Anjuin, even though the prospect of being a maid, even one in a house where Anjuin was mistress, didn’t comfort me the way it had when we were children. I didn’t know what a life outside Dragon Springs Road might be like, but between school and Fox, my horizons had stretched wider than I had ever imagined possible.

As for my childish hopes of finding my mother – how was I ever to accomplish that if my fate was tied to the Yangs? Now I understood it would take money because neither fate nor Fox were about to help me Fox had know me for years and had never mentioned my mother.

My grades were passable, my English scores very good. I wouldn’t be able to attend missionary college since I didn’t qualify for a scholarship. I needed a livelihood. At school, one of the teachers had passed around a newspaper article about the Shanghai Women’s Commercial and Savings Bank. The bank’s new general manager was a woman.

“Perhaps I could find work there as a bank teller,” I whispered to Leah.

“I wouldn’t count on any job that put you in front of customers,” she replied in her blunt way. “They don’t want our kind waiting on them.”

Chang has crafted – note the word crafted –  a complex story here filled with facts, emotions and mysticism. A reader can easily get absorbed in the book and find oneself not only enlightened but educated about life in Shanghai, China in the early 1900s. In bringing the story of Jialing to life, Chang has given us thought about the plight of Eurasians in that time period.

Page 194-`195

In the weeks before graduation I spent my lunch hours in the library poring over newspapers for job listings. I wrote application letters in careful brushstrokes if in Chinese or took my turn on the old school typewriter if the job was advertised in one of Shanghai’s English-language papers.

Clerical or secretarial, tutorial or child care, I replied to them all. All this effort, even though I knew it was futile. There were just too many people in Shanghai, too many with more skills than I could offer. There were people willing to work for almost nothing. There were few enough ways a woman could earn a livelihood, and the decent work went first to young women whose family had guanxi, connections, women whose families could afford red envelopes of cash to ease an introduction. Families whose daughters weren’t tainted with foreign blood.

The Shanghai Women’s Commercial and Savings Bank advertised for a filing clerk. A position suitable for the secondary school graduate. Must be tidy in dress and grooming, with clear handwriting. It was the first bank founded by women, a fine place to begin a career, place where I could use my English skills. I wanted this job very badly and was thrilled to receive a reply to my application.

“This is just a small bank, Miss Zhu,” the manager said. Her hair was pulled back in a large bun, the only ornament on her black tunic a small pearl brooch. “We prefer girls with family connections, girls who can bring us more clients. I didn’t notice you had graduated from a mission school. That was my mistake.”

Her words were pleasant enough, but disdain clung to the corners of her lips. It was another, typically brief interview, the sort that was over as soon as I entered the door. I had let my self hope, a mistake.

Janie Chang has created not only a lyrical novel with Dragon Springs Road but also one that enlightens as well. With a well-crafted plot and story, it is definitely a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Janie Chang’s website

Link to Harper Collins Canada’s website for Dragon Springs Road

Link to my Q&A with Janie Chang “(T)here are many, many details that made their way from family history and into DRAGON SPRINGS ROAD – so yes, I’m still drawing from family history. These small incidents and anecdotes breathe life into the setting, because they’re accounts of real events.”

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