Monthly Archives: July 2017

A Look into the Traditional Algonquin Way of Life | Review of “I am Algonquin” by Rick Revelle (2013) Dundurn Press

Rick Revelle will be participating at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street Festival.

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There has been some discussions in my circles lately about wanting to know more about Indigenous culture and history. We realize that much of what have learned in our school days was flawed or  important details were omitted for whatever reasons. Literature can help us in a better understanding of Indigenous peoples and Rick Revelle’s I am Algonquin is one such read.

(Introduction)

My name is Mahingan, which means wolf in my language, and In am Omàmiwinini (Algonquin) from the Kitcisìpiriniwak tribe (People of the Great River), one of the eight Algonquin tribes of the Ottawa Valley.

I was born right after the warming period that my ancestors had lived through, mild winters, and warm summers. When I was birthed, it was the start of the great cooling period of colder winters and cooler summers. I was born in the year 1305, and this is my story . . . the story of an Algonquin warrior and a forefather of the Great Chief Tessouat.

While I found this book in the “teen” section, it certainly could easily be included in any adult’s reading list. The story deals with Mahingan raising his family in the early 14th century in what is now Ontario. Through the story, a reader can learn about how the Algonquin people lived. We are given details about: hunting, family life, living conditions, and much more. Revelle uses great details and gives great insight by telling the story through Mahingan’s eyes and thoughts.

Pages 51-52 Happiness And Sorrow

Our shelters were oval wàginogàns (lodges) made out of birch bark and held together by saplings intertwined on the inside. On the outside we used slabs of cedar to hold the birch bark down, tying them to the frame. The birch bark was overlapped so as not to leak. The saplings on the inside were not tied end to end but were joined side to side to avoid poking holes in the birch bark. The young trees were bent in a curve and fastened together with spruce roots.

What caught us by surprise was that no one was on guard and that we could only see smoke coming out of seven of the wàginogàns.

“Wàgosh, announce our homecoming.”
“E-ya-ya-ya-ya,” Wàgosh sang. “The hunters have arrived with food and tales of adventure.”

Then Wàgosh sang a death song announcing the death of Makwa. With that his wife and our sister See-Bee-Pee-Nay-Sheese (River Bird) came out of her home, wailing and crying. I took my sister in my arms and told her that Makwa died a warrior’s death, and he would enter the afterlife with great honour.

See-Bee-Pee-Nay-Sheese would enter her home and douse her fire. She wold mourn face-down on her mat for six days covered by her robes and receive only cold food for nourishment. The families would give her gifts to comfort her. She would not be allowed to marry again until our mother gave her permission.

When an Algonquin warrior marries, he always lived with the wife’s family and helped hunt and protect the family unit.

Revelle has filled this book with descriptive detail. (Including a Glossary and a Algonquin Pronunciation Guide in the back.) And that includes his descriptions of actions too. Be it a canoe ride or a battle scene, Revelle scenes are written out to certainly enlighten and inform. This book is not an easy read, for sure, but it is one that educates if a reader takes the time to properly ponder the scenarios.

Page 122 – 123

When we awoke the next morning, there was a misty rain. Today would bring us to the end of our journey, but there was still one more set of rapids to take.

“Minowez-I, we will have to keep the canoe well spaced when we go through the last set of rapids. We do not want any of the boats bumping into each other and you and your son can send the others at intervals. We will land on the west shore and when you send the next one they will land on the eastern shore. That way if anyone overturns, there will be someone on either shore to help them. ”

“Okay Mahingan. My son and I will control things from here. Don’t worry about us.”

Mitigomij, Ishkodewan and I started on our descent through the rapids. The misty rain moistened our faces and the roar of the fast moving water made my heart race. As we looked toward the white water, the movement made it look like the river was waving us on to make the journey. Taking this as a good omen, we started our descent down the river. We could feel the power of the river beneath our boat. The only sound besides the river was my wolf cub growling and snapping at the water as it washed over the canoe, soaking all in the boat. With the helpful skills of my brother, we rode the rapids and arrived safely but wet on the shore.

I am Algonquin by Rick Revelle certain answer a call for anybody looking for insight in Indigenous culture and history. It is an interesting and enlightening read. As the first in a series of books, Revelle certainly has begun a great story-line for readers to continue on with.

******

Link to Dundurn Press’ website for I am Algonquin

 

Gaining Enlightenment about the Northern Night | Review of “Once Upon a Northern Night” by Jean E. Pendziwol and Isabelle Arsenault (2013) Groundwood Books

Jean E. Pendziwol will be appearing at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street Festival

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I am always amazed by the amount of enlightenment and enjoyment a simple picture can give off to me as an adult. The book may include a small amount of pages but the details that are given into both the drawings and the words on those pages is worthy of any reader of any age. And that is certainly true of the book Once Upon a Northern Night written by Jean E. Pendziwol and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault.

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There is a beauty in the way the words and the colours of the images blend together to comfortably explain the night of the northern sky. The words flow together with a careful ease, while the images seem muted with a carefully chosen highlight here and there to beautifully illustrate a point.

(Excerpt)

Once upon a northern night

a small,

small mouse

with big,

big ears

scurried along the deck,

searching.

Across the table,

mounded with snowy white

like vanilla ice cream,

he ran,

tunneling beneath the drifts

to a midnight feast of seeds

that lay scattered

beneath the bird feeder.

One has to admire the complexity of this simple book. Both Pendziwol and Arsenault have detailed work here yet the story is easy to understand and grasp. It has all the details that readers prefer to peruse at the end of a busy day, yet simple enough to engage a young mind to want to read this book (and many more like it).

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Once Upon a Northern Night, written by Jean E. Pendziwol and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, is a wonderfully simple book with complex details. The story flows well through both the images and the words, giving a strong sense what a northern night is truly like. A great read for anybody of any age.

*****

Link to House of Anansi’s website for Once Upon a Northern Night

Link to Jean E. Pendziwol’s website

Link to Isabelle Arsenault’s website

 

 

 

Updating the Concept of the ‘Immigrant Experience’|Review of “Soucouyant” by David Chariandy (2007) Arsenal Pulp Press

David Chariandy will be participating at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street Festival

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For many of us who descend from immigrant backgrounds, we had to deal with a lot more baggage than the label of “multiculturalism” can truly define our families. We had to deal with: racism, ethnic traditions and stereotypes, untold stories and whispers of events that our elders may not what us to know about, etc. etc. Those hardships become more acute as our parents become older and depend on our care for their well-being. And it is that element of the human condition that David Chariandy documents in his novel Soucouyant.

Page 9

I stay with Mother, though I haven’t truly been invited to stay. On that first evening of my return, Mother walks suddenly out of the kitchen and up the stairs to her bedroom on the second floor. I hear the low grate of a deadbolt. later, i make my way up to the other bedroom on the second floor. The bunk bed that I once shared with my brother is still made, though the sheets and pillows smell of dampness.

My bedroom window looks out over the weathered edge of the bluffs to a great lake touched by the dying light of the city. Below, some forty feet down, a few trees lean about on a shore of sand and waterlogged litter. Dancing leaves and the tumble of an empty potato chip bag. Despite the view and the fact that many consider the surrounding neighbourhood ‘a good part of Scarborough,’ our place is difficult to boast of. We are alone in a cul-de-sac once used as a dump for real-estate developers. The house is old and bracing now for the final assaults of erosion. Even in summer, all windows facing south are kept shut. Because of the railway track, scarcely ten feet away.

Chariandy has written an insightful bit of literature here. Readers glide into the thoughts of a son who returns after a two-year absence to his Caribbean-born mother suffering from dementia. Upon his arrival at his childhood home, he not only finds the easily-confused individual who is his mother but also a young woman who also occupies the house. As the son continues his stay at the home, he is forced to confront memories and hidden secrets of his mother and his family.

Pages 47-48

Please, Mother. Please.

There are the ironies, of course. Mother can string together a litany of names and places from the distant past. She can remember the countless varieties of a fruit that doesn’t even grow in this land, but she can’t accomplish the most everyday of tasks. She can’t dress herself or remember to turn off taps and lights. Increasingly, she can’t even remember the meaning of the word ‘on,’ or the function of a toothbrush, or the simple fact that a waste-paper basket isn’t a toilet.

‘It happen . . .’ she tries again. ‘It happen on fore-day morning when the sun just a stain on the sky. When the moon not under as yet. Me, I was a young girl running . . .’

‘I know, Mother. It doesn’t matter. You’re here now.’

‘You’re here now . . .?’

‘You arrived, Mother. You told me the story, remember? There were lights . . .’

She had trouble arriving. The plane banked around the airport for almost an hour and the pilot had announced that an ice storm was hitting the city and the ground crews were clearing the runway. An ice storm, she thought. What on earth could that be like? What fearsome beauty, falling jewels of ice? When the plane banked a last time for the approach, she looked out of the wind to see the city once more. No buildings at all, only countless dazzling lights. A land of lights.

She came here as a domestic, through a scheme that offered landed status to single women from the Caribbean after a year of household work. This was in the early sixties, before the complexion of the cities and suburbs of this land looked anything like it does today. The administrators of the domestic scheme set her up in a small apartment above a building housing a butcher’s shop and a Negro hair-cutting salon, hope that she would feel at home., realizing that no other person would be willing to put her up. It was smelly and the cockroaches ran and ran when the overhead bulb was turned on, but she didn’t mind. Everything seemed wonderful to her, even the scraggly trees and slushy sidewalks. The snow-accented trees.

The snow.

While the details that Chariandy documents in the story are unique to immigrants from the Caribbean region, the experiences his Canadian-born and residing protagonist endures are universal to any descendant of any immigrant of any background. The attempts of trying to fit into the mainstream society, the questions of past experiences of one’s parents, the embarrassment of old mores and customs from an old culture that no longer fit in our modern society. And Chariandy documents the situation of a child trying to deal with an elderly parent whose actions are not proper in any situation.

Page 83

Later in the evening, I stumble upon her in the kitchen spilling sugar from a large sack over wedges of lemon and then eating away, rind and all. There’s a grainy stickiness all over the linoleum and white streaks on the rug leading out of the kitchen. Mother winces with each of her mouthfuls. ‘Like eating lightning,’ she says. She looks at the leaking bag of sugar and explains it is broken would some please call the  . . . electrician. She insists that the whole house deserves a good sweeping, and starts calling for the girl to give her a bath.

‘I can bathe you.’

You can . . .?’

‘I can do it too. I’m your son.’

She nods warily at this. I accept the bag of sugar from her and guide her upstairs to the bathroom. I make sure the water in the tub is just right, and I add the salts. I help her out of her clothes, her hands balancing on my shoulders while I slip her underwear off. Her private skin so pale and unwrinkled, even childlike. Her elbows pressed tight against her sides.

‘Don’t get my head wet,’ she says.

David Chariandy has documented an important and delicate element about the human condition in his novel Soucouyant. The book is lyrically and well-crafted and is certainly a great read. One worthy of any serious reader’s time and thoughts.

*****

Link to Arsenal Pulp Press’ website for Soucouyant

Link to a page on Wikipedia about David Chariandy

Link to Penguin/Random House Canada’s website for Brother –  David Chariandy’s newest book – to be released on Sept. 26, 2017.

 

 

Thrilling the Mind out of its Slumber | Review of “The Substitute” by Nicole Lundrigan (2017) House of Anansi

A big thank you to Anne Logan at “I’ve Read This.” for bringing this book to my attention.

I purchased this book at Ben McNally Books in Toronto. A great bookstore!

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There is something about an excellent psychological thriller in the way it awakens the mind out of a state of slumber. A reader is forced to consider plot twists of a story plus become enveloped in the moral dilemmas of the characters. Then the reader of the story seems to become obsessed with finishing the story at all costs. Nicole Lundrigan is an expert in writing great fiction, and her book The Substitute is a perfect example of how great she is in her craft.

Pages 1-2

Though I am not afflicted by it, I wonder about guilt. When I was a child, I would crouch on the cement floor of our basement, building elaborate contraptions, and thinking, Which piece of this system is culpable? Sometimes a slender knife would fly forward and mar the wallpaper, or a needle would lift and destroy a balloon. Once I even built a system where the sharpened legs of a scissors closed on photographs of my father. Straight through his skinny neck. As the grainy image of his face drifted left, and his suited body drifted right, I questioned what part of my machine was responsible for that destruction. The systems were nomore than a mess of inanimate objects: croquet balls, yardsticks, greasy springs, plastic bowls, and bent spoons. If each one followed the simple rules of cause and effect, could the steel bearing be accused if it never came in contact with the flying paint? Would the rubber band be guilty when it had no choice but to stretch and snap? I imagined the liability lay somewhere within them all. Guilt trapped inside the weighty potential of the machine. Never in the tip of my finger. Never in the bend of my wrist. Never cupped in the palm of my hand.

I have adored Lundrigan previous writings (Link to my review of The Widow Tree) and this book is just as thought-provoking as her previous works. Here we are vaulted into the life of poor Warren Botts. He is in the process of attempting to teach middle-school science and having a rough time of it. In the thick of the his attempts is thirteen-year old Amanda – soft-spoken and introverted – who is in desperate search of acceptance and guidance. When Amanda is found dead, hanging in Botts’ backyard. Botts becomes somewhat confused and unglued and is unable to give the police proper explanations for what had happened. Suspicions mount from both the police and his neighbours and Botts becomes even more frayed. Meanwhile another voice appears in the story – unknown whom it is to us – giving us chilling details and showing strong emotional detachment to the events swirling around the story.

Page 23

My father looked peaceful in the casket at the funeral home. They had his hair combed straight down to disguise the wreck of his forehead. Thick beige makeup was substantial, and while there was too much pink in the cheek, my swollen mother had insisted on extra. “He doesn’t look well,” she tearfully told the director. “His colour is off.” No joke.

His hands were folded together across his chest. Nails trimmed, four fingers resting upon four fingers. When I stood near the box, I reached out, touched his cool skin. I could almost detect a hint of warmth still lingering there, and I entertained the thought he would wake up once weighted under the soil.

Glancing behind me, I noticed funeral-goers were granting me some time alone. A tender moment to say goodbye. I ran my hand over his, then gripped his middle finger, his “swearing finger,” as I had heard kids say at school, and I squeezed it. “Oh Dad,” I whispered, “Where are you now?” With another quick look over my shoulder, I cranked his finger backward, pressed down, felt dead ligaments tearing a distinct and pleasant pop.

When I stepped aside, his finger remained displaced. My mother waddled up for a subsequent pass, and noticed. Cheeks flushing the same natural colour as her husband’s, she tried to reposition it, tried to slip it underneath his index finger. Tried to bend it the other way. No luck. It rose up again. Telling the world what he thought of them. I noticed the other mourners smirking, nodding. I hope the bastard stayed like that forever.

There are some deep thoughts that run through this book. I found myself reading and rereading some of the passages over and over again just to simply regain some of the  emotions that Lundrigan has so brilliantly conceived with her wording. A carefully patient reader with this book can’t help but gain empathy for certain characters, even if their actions are questionable or even horrid.

Page 233

“Yes. Overwhelmed.” For a moment, he closed his eyes, imagined the cube-shaped room flipping outward, and instead of being on the inside of the die, he was standing on one of the faces. All he had to do was shuffle backward, and he would tip over an edge. Detective Reed would stay on the six, and he would slip ninety degrees onto the four. No longer facing each other, a right angle between them.

“Botts?” She continued to crunch, pulverizing the sugar in her mouth. “You got my attention.”

The Substitute by Nicole Lundrigan was certainly one of the boldest reads I came across in 2017 and will be, no doubt, one of my favourites of this year. It is a thriller that kept me thinking and reviewing. And certainly a great piece of literature.

******

Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Substitute

Link to Nicole Lundrigan’s website

A Great Piece of Literature Showing the Importance of a Great Piece of Literature | Review of “Jane, the Fox and Me” by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault (2013) Groundwood Books

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Fanny Britt will be appearing at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street Festival

The beauty of getting involved with a piece of literature is the ability is has to sweep us away from our existence. We can forget the hardships of our world and absorb the reality of somebody else for a while. And perhaps in doing so, we can take the lessons of their reality and improve our own lives. It is that aspect of literature that is brilliantly documented in the graphic novel Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault. (Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou)

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Scanned image of page 18 from Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault. (2013 Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press)

There is something extremely heartbreaking about the life surrounding the life of protagonist Hélène – and something truly universal. She is being bullied at school to the point of having no friends. Her mother is overworked and exhausted for caring for her and her little brothers, that she has no time to help with Hélène’s emotional issues. And to top everything else off, Hélène – like a lot of other teenage girls her age – is totally convinced that she is overweight. But the one thing that seems to give Hélène a bit of colour in her life is her copy of Jane Eyre.

Page 28-29

Because she grew up to be clever, slender and wise, no one calls Jane Eyre a liar, a thief or and ugly duckling again. She tutors a young girl, Adèle, who loves her, even though all she has to her name are three plain dresses. Adèle thinks Jane Eyre’s smart and always tells her so.

Even Mr. Rochester agrees.

He’s the master of the house. slightly older and mysterious and with his feverish eyebrows. He’s always asking Jane to come and talk to him in the evenings, by the fire. Because she grew up to be clever, slender and wise, Jane Eyre isn’t even all that taken aback to find out she isn’t a monster after all.

There is a beauty in the way this graphic novel moves forward with the story of Hélène in both the images and the words. They are both frank and direct, yet the complexities of Hélène’s issues come through. This book is a pleasure to read and contemplate, no matter what the gender or the age of the reader is.

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Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault is certainly a unique graphic novel. The plot moves in a frank manner via both the words and the images. Definitely a great piece of literature showing the importance of a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to a Wikipedia page about Fanny Britt

Link to Isabelle Arsenault’s website

Link to Groundwood Books website for Jane, the Fox and Me.

Link to the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street website

 

 

 

Reflecting on the Ties We Bind | Review of “Little Sister” by Barbara Gowdy (2017) Patrick Crean Editions

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There always seems to be a magical and unexplainable bond between people at times. Be it friends, family members or even total strangers, we seem attracted to certain people so much that we are able to sense their thoughts and emotions without even saying a word out loud. And it is that sense of connectivity with certain individuals that Barbara Gowdy has her characters explore in her book Little Sister.

Page 6

Her nose bled.

She overreached the Kleenex and had to steer her hand back. An aftermath of misery clung to her, and she let herself cry a bit. She must have fallen asleep, except the precise, mundane details, not just the spider and the skirt but also her cold fingers, her childish grip on the pen, the background noises – that whole ordinary, filled-in world and its myriad sensations –  had felt as real as this, only (she looked around) in much clearer focus.

Harriet? Who was Harriet? Rose had never before dreamed that she was someone else. Or inside someone else. Yes, inside more accurately described the feeling of visiting, as opposed to having, the woman’s body. She sniffed her empty coffee cup and thought of their new employee, Lloyd, the former drug dealer.

Gowdy has given us readers something profound and unique to ponder over with her protagonist Rose Bowan. Every time a thunderstorm hits, Rose loses consciousness and has visions inhabiting another woman’s body. And while inside that body, Rose witnesses actions and emotions of ‘Harriet’, a professional woman who’s life is about upended by a pregnancy due to a affair with a married co-worker. And while Rose is encased by Harriet’s life and emotions, she begins to ponder her own relationships – a boyfriend, a mother with dementia, a sister who mysterious passed away years ago. It is through Rose’s eyes and thoughts, readers are given ground to carefully consider their own relationships in their lives.

Page 143-144

Ava’s papier-mâché parrot, Tobikumu, gazed sightlessly toward the window. He had been a Christmas present from a great-uncle who had lived for several years in Tokyo. Rose had gotten Kazuyuki, a delicate papier-mâché cellist with elongated fingers resting on fine strings that might have been dental floss. One day she had taken him to the house of a new Japanese friend, and there, within five minutes, the friend’s poodle had town him to confetti.

Under Ava’s care, Tobikumu, the parrot, stayed perfect. Under Rose’s he lost his glass eyes. She put him on her bedside table so that before falling asleep she could look at his sockets and recover the guilt she’d shed during the day, in those moments when she’d been lighthearted or animated or – the most bewildering offence – pleased with herself. She thought of the guilt as survivor’s guilt, and of survivor’s guilt as a guilt necessary for survival. Tobikumu was her victim and accuser both. She counted on him to get her to cry herself to sleep.

She cried secretly, in near silence. Still, her parents saw her misery and sent her to a child psychologist, an old woman who was half deaf and therefore needed to sit next to Rose on the sofa. Rose didn’t mind. Dr. Grewal’s baked-bread grandmotherly smell and her cracked brown face like dried mud were unthreatening and a little heartbreaking. She spoke in a soft, accented voice. She had a tendency to repeat Rose’s answers, for both their sakes, Rose understood, in order that Rose might hear them said back to her, and that Dr. Grewal might verify she’d heard them correctly. Rose never mentioned Tobikumu, and when the subject came around to Ava, she said what any normal girl getting better would say: Yes, I’m still sad. No, not as sad as I was. Yes, I understand it wasn’t my fault. Mostly the dwelt on Rose’s present circumstance, her friends and school, her shyness. To distract Dr. Grewal from asking about Ava, Rose mad her shyness sound like a more serious problem than it was. Year after year, as Dr. Grewal’s deafness worsened and she sat ever closer, Rose offed up the minor troubles and triumphs of her week.

Gowdy’s writing style has a direct feel to it. The story is not filled with excess descriptions or extra phrases. Readers are thrust into Rose’s train of thoughts or paths of actions without being given any room for second guessing or looking back. Readers are stuck following Rose’s life like poor Rose is stuck observing Harriet’s life during one of her trances.

Page 152

She would never love him, but she wanted him to love her. The man you were with was supposed to love you. Besides, he had loved his wife and often told her so.

Then one morning she stopped caring whether he loved her or not. She went to sleep caring and woke up asking herself, what am I doing? Apart from the strain of listening to his countless specific and indefinite resentments, there was the fact that he preferred to see her mid-morning, during those hours when, normally, she would be having breakfast and doing household chores. But how do you break up with a lonely, recent-immigrant widower?

Barbara Gowdy has certainly given us readers some considerations in regards to our relationships as we read Little Sister. The plot is matter-of-fact and direct, and  it is certainly one that is worthy of reflecting on.

*****

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s website for Little Sister

Link to Barbara Gowdy’s website