Monthly Archives: June 2017

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

Quarry Cover from Natalie jpeg

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

9781554989294

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.”