Monthly Archives: November 2017

Exploring the Mysteries of the Arctic | Review of “Minds of Winter” by Ed O’Loughlin (2017) House of Anansi

9781487002343_hr

There is a certain mystery to the human condition. Time and place draws upon our psyche making us act in strange ways. And asking ourselves why we do what we do and why has a certain introspective beauty to it as well. And that is certainly the simple truth that Ed O’Loughlin documents in his complex novel Minds of Winter.

Page 4 North West Territories

They were driving on the sea ice a mile from the shore when a little brown creature ran out in front of them. It was heading out to sea, but the headlights confused it and it dithered in their beam. Nelson stood on the brakes and the car lurched to a stop, throwing Fay against her seat belt.

‘What is it?’ she said. And Nelson, who found he wanted to impress her, got out of the car and stood over the little animal. I had tied to hide under a tongue of drift snow but they could both see it plainly, the size of a hamster, its fur turned grey by the veneer of snow.

Nelson put on his gloves and picked it up.

‘What is it?’ she said again, and he turned and held it up to her.

‘It’s a lemming. They live under the snow.’

She joined him in the funnel of the lights. I’m standing on the open sea, she thought. It’s the Arctic winter, a month of night, and I’m standing on a frozen ocean, and that man is holding a lemming.

The little rodent stopped struggling and sat quiet in Nelson’s palm, its nose twitching, staring at her with tiny black eyes. She reached out her hand then quickly withdrew it.

​’What`s it doing out here on the ice?’

‘I don’t know.’ He turned a full circle, studying the problem. A mile to the south the North American mainland came to its end, a low snow-covered hump on the snow-covered sea. A timber fishing cabin, shuttered for the winter, sat on its edge, the only visible detail. To the north the sea ice stretched off to infinity, its snow carved by wind into motionless ripples. But there was no wind today, just a tremendous cold, silent apart from their idling engine.

I keep forgetting my own rule that good books should be read in quiet, reflective moments and they should be pondered over. As award season came upon us readers, I rushed out to buy this book and began to read it. But as I rushed through the second chapter, I began to have my doubts that book was worth my time. I threw it in my back thinking I would try it later. My week became even more busy and this 474-page volume always was popping up in my way – in my book bag, on my desk, in my bed – and I finally decided to find a quiet few moments and read this book. I am glad that I finally took the time to properly read and admire it.

Pages 66-67 Lancaster Sound 1848

This private letter is intended only for you eyes, and for our friends in Room 38, so I shall not trouble here with any detailed account of the ruin of the North West Passage Expedition. You will find all you need on this point in the papers of Erebus and Terror, which I ordered Captain FitzJames to inter in the cairn at Point Victory after we gave up our ships. I also include with this letter some surplus instruments that I took from the ships and that I believe might be useful to Room 38. It is to be hoped that my whimsical cairn, built of food tins and gravel, will preserve them intact from the cold and the damp. I have little doubt, James, that you will be the first to come and search for us, and thus the first to open my cairn on Beechey Island. Perhaps you are already near, leading the search for your old friends and shipmates. I wish that I could wait for you, but an opportunity is afforded to me to make a great journey, and if I do not seize it now it will not come again.

To explain myself I must begin with a singular event that occurred in April of this year, but of which you will find no mention in the logs of either ship: I was careful to omit it from my own records, and by that time Captain FitzJames, having become as disordered as most of the men, had ceased keeping his own. We had just passed our second winter beset in the ice off King William Land, stores were running low, game could not be found for hunting, and the crews despaired of the ice ever breaking. The men were near mutiny, and disease and scurvy had reduced our numbers to only one hundred. Our ships no longer kept naval watch, except for a few good men who could still be trusted to stay on deck to keep a look-out. thus my boatswain was alone on deck on the evening of April 18th when I heard him hail me as I worked below on my magnetic records.

There are several different narratives that occur in this book but the beauty of the story is the draw of the Arctic to people. There is a lure of exploring the tundra in the cold winter darkness that is almost undefinable. Is there something in our nature that calls to us for the solitude and emptiness of the north? And is that draw fatalistic for us? O’Loughlin’s well-crafted words explore that mysterious concept in rapt detail in several of the stories.

Page 367 Fort McPherson, North West Territories, July 1931

His sisters had made him paddle to bring on his first long canoe trip. He dipped it in the water a few strokes at a time, aping the motions of his mother in the prow. The swarming black flies had driven them from the slack water under the bank and his mother strained against the strong current mid-stream. From time to time, switching sides with her paddle, she would glance back at her son, sat up on their bundle of furs. His efforts with the paddle threw off her rhythm, dripped water on their cargo, but she never complained. This was how he would learn.

It was just past noon and the day was hot. The canoe came around a wooded bend and there at last was Fort McPherson, a few tin and shingle roofs on a ridge above the Peel.  His mother, who had never been this far south before, rested her paddle, looking for a gap in the alders which grew on the riverbank under the ridge.

The sun smoked off the water, and as the canoe turned broadside to the current the child glimpsed a shape in the heat-haze. It might have been a waterbird holding its wings out to dry, or a sail boat with only its upper sails spread, but as his mother started paddling again the shape turned into a raft made of logs lashed with willows. On it stood a man with a long-handled paddle. He was a white man – his blond-brown hair showed this from tow hundred yards away – but he was travelling light; the boy could see a burlap sack tied to his back but there was no gear on the raft, ono pack or rifle, not even an axe.

Ed O`Loughlin has certainly crafted a great piece of literature with Minds of Winter. Readers should not race through this hefty book but appreciate the tones and the mysteries of the human condition that he documents in it. In short a worthy read done in a few reflective moments.

*****

Link to House of Anansi`s website for Minds of Winter

Link to Ed O’Loughlin’s website

A ‘No-Holds Barred’ Reality | Review of “In The Cage” by Kevin Hardcastle (2017) Biblioasis

BIB01 In the Ring PRINT.indd

There is always this attempt to categorize writing. “This book is meant for men” or “this book is ‘hillbilly’ fiction”are common phrases that litter certain descriptions of types of books which in turn, spook a type of reader away from reading a specific novel. Kevin Hardcastle has dipped deeply into a realm of gritty reality to write In The Cage, and it deserves to be noted as a great piece of literature.

Pages 11-12

At a backwater clinic outside of Medicine Hat a nurse`s assistant with long red hair stitched his eyebrow and then put seventeen stiches through a cut on his shin. She asked him what he was doing with his life and he asked her the same. She was twenty-one years old and her family was American but she had been born on the Canadian side of the forty-ninth parallel under circumstances she didn’t know or wouldn’t tell. She had spent a few years in British Columbia with her older sister until that sister went home to tend to their sick father. She told Daniel that she had come to Alberta for the work, like everybody else, like him. He’d shied from the first stich and she wouldn’t let him get away with it. A man who got punched in the face for a pittance but didn’t like needles. He had no fights in Medicine Hat again but he pulled his stitches and went back and then he started inventing new injuries and fantastical post-operative complaints. Before the first snowfall of that year he had fought twice more and they were married when the cold and bitter winter came and laid that country barren but for houselights burning in the black prairie night over wasted fields and empty roads.

They had a red-haired daughter in that bleak season. Over eight pounds and she kicked and wailed. if he thought he knew what love was, he was wrong. To be love just for being alive. To be loved to the point of desperation for the little space that you took up. That was how he loved the girl and sometimes he could barely look at her because he didn’t know what to do with it.

Hardcastle has a way of documenting the gritty side of the human condition in bold yet lyrical fashion. And this story is so true of his ability.  Readers easily gain empathy for the main character of Daniel, a once-great Mixed Martial Arts fighter who is desperately trying to maintain an existence doing straight jobs in his rural hometown. But as the desperation builds, he turns to a childhood friend for work doing “muscle” to claim unpaid debts. As much as Daniel tries to keep life quiet and normal, desperation pushes him back into violence and anger – a reality for many people on the fringes of society.

Page 169-170

The cruiser came toward the house at a creep. Dust trailing in the dry, spring air. Daniel sat in a wooden chair on the lawn with three cans of beer bound by the plastic tether, the other three rings empty. He sat in cargo shorts and a T-shirt and he wore no shoes. the sun had been out and lately left and now heavy black cloud rode across the northeastern sky. Warm winds across the fields. Daniel waited. The cruiser slowed and went on again. He made out the cop’s face from far away while the cop was still squinting out at him over the steering wheel. The cruiser sidled up to the road’s edge on the far side of the driveway. The constable got out and walked the length of the gravel drive while Daniel worked another can out of the plastics.

“Dan,” the cop said.

“Constable Smith,” Daniel said.

Daniel pitched the beer at him underhand. The cop caught it and looked at it. Still walking. He smirked and pitched the can back. Daniel caught it in his left hand and cracked it and drank before the foam spilled over the lip.

The constable stopped at the edge of the lawn and put his hands on his hips. the man stood about six-foot-three and he’d an athlete’s build just beginning to go to seed under his blues. Square jaw that he’d not shaven in a few days by the loo of it. The cop had played semi-pro hockey as a young man but he’d been a cop longer than any of that now. He looked up at the sky. Both skies.

“Was a nice day, wasn’t it?”

“It was,” Daniel said.

The cop looked at Daniel. At the house.

“Sarah home? Your girl?’

“Just me,” Daniel said. “Am I in trouble or somethin’?”

“If you have anything you’d like to confess to, I’m all ears”

Daniel took a drink.

“No,” he said. “Fuck. I don’t have the time or the means to get in trouble no more.”

The cop nodded.

“You find out what assholes stole my rig?” Daniel said.

“Not yet,” Smith said.

“Well, I won’t hold my breath on that.”

This is one of those books that I would recommend to many teenagers to read because it faces a reality that is so true, yet many a high-school English teacher wouldn’t approve of it because of it’s frank language and scenes. It is a bold book. And it is direct with “no-holds-barred” approach.  Hardcastle has a way of tired and vulgar scenes and make them almost sing. He deserves kudos on his writing style and imagination.

Pages 108-109

He had the truck idling in the roadside gravel, parked so that he could see clear across a small patch of stony field to where the house stood. Modest two-storey building in one of the town’s older neighbourhoods. He observed changes made to the structure, an extension to the garage. A boat on a trailer out front, in its covers. They’d lately built an above ground pool and it took up most of the back yard. There’d been a pool there that they must have had filled.

That had been his father’s house for forty-seven years and then it was Daniels for just five more before he had to sell it so that he didn’t loose it outright. They’d gone bankrupt not long after Daniel had to quit fighting and they only had the house because it had been left to them. Two years of piss-poor welding job that came and went and paid almost nothing had them remortgaging the place and another worse year had them on a second mortgage from the bank. When they sold the house they had credit cards and a line of credit and they were upside down on the mortgage and couldn’t cover it all. They’d paid the bank but were still paying the other creditors, month by month. Daniel had even borrowed from Clayton the once but swore he’d never again, long as it took for him to work that through that debt with his hands before he could start to earn.

He waited awhile longer until he couldn’t stand to look at the place. As he was putting the truck into gear, somebody came out onto the back deck and looked toward him. Shielded their eyes with the flat of their hand. Daniel wound the window down and stuck his fist out, gave them the middle finger. The man on the deck kept looking. Then he waved. Daniel pulled out from the fringe and drove off.

In The Cage by Kevin Hardcastle is a bold and daring book that is one of the memorable ones I read in 2017. He has documented a reality that is rarely spoken about in detail, making this a great piece of literature. Hopefully Hardcastle will continue his writing career with even more works like this.

*****

Link to Biblioasis` website for In The Cage

Link to Kevin Hardcastle’s website

 

 

On the Quest for a bit of Alone Time. | Review of Michael Harris’ “Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World” (2017) Doubleday Canada

soli

Since starting my little reading blog here, I have noted that many of my followers crave some quiet down time to read and even think a bit. Yet getting that down time to put their feet up is limited. Well dear followers, here is one more book I have read for you and note for your consideration while you go through your hurly-burly day. And that book is:  Michael Harris’ Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World.

Pages 17-18

Aristotle defined humans as social animals and he was only too right. Making sure other people have positive impressions of us is one of our central motivations. And when we use screen-based social media instead of face-to-face interactions to groom each other, we’re able to be more strategic about that self-presentation. For example, when confronted with a Facebook post about someone’s new job, my lovely but nervous friend Jocelyn may write and rewrite her comment for several minutes before finally landing on the tapioca-scale inoffensiveness of “So happy for you!!!” (If she’s feeling crazy, Jocelyn may add a martini glass emoji.) Unsurprisingly, a 2015 study found that, of the roughly 1.5 billion regular Facebook users, usage spikes among those with social anxiety – in particular, those who have a high need for social assurance. The technology becomes a salve, a way to calm our worries about fitting in or belonging. And with astonishing speed, the compulsion to groom online has been absorbed into our idea of the natural: Only 8 per cent of adults in the United States used social networking sites in 2005. Meanwhile, nearly half of Americans now sleep with their phones on their bedside tables, using them as surrogate teddy bears. To be human is to be social; to be human in the age of screens is to be massively social.

And yet . . . In the same way that many people are forced to engineer healthy diets for themselves in a world overflowing with the salts and sugars and fats we’re designed to hoard, it’s possible that we’re such compulsive social groomers that we must keep ourselves from gobbling the fast-food equivalent. Has social media made us socially obese – gorged on constant connection but never properly nourished?

Has the neocortex – the very thing that made us human, the thing that kickstarted our cities and our politics, our religions and our art – been hijacked one to many times?

I have been reluctant to use the term Zeitgeist for a while but Harris has indeed documented what many of us feel is the “spirit of the times” with this non-fiction book.  Our modern lifestyle demands we be tuned-in to a multitude of devices and online platforms, and if we miss one tweet or post, we will be the social pariah at the conversation around the water cooler or dinner party. So what would happen if we were to totally tune out not only our toys but all of our friends and just be alone with ourselves and our thoughts. Many of us have been tempted to do so but Harris gives the notion some serious and well-researched thought.

Pages 53-54

Physicists like Einstein and Newton are among our most fundamental thinkers, and they were particularly aware of what solitude brings to serious thought. Felicity Mellor, a researcher at Imperial College London, criticizes the new generation of advanced study institutes for emphasizing collaboration and social atmospheres at the expenses of such solitary contemplation. The institutions Mellor studies exhibit what she calls a “near exclusive focus” on communication between scholars and, in their own words, call for “international engagement” and “collaborative research projects.” The Francis Crick Institute, in London, which opened in 2016, is a paradigmatic example: it’s designed with open-plan labs and glass walls to ensure collaboration. The institute’s strategy documents cheers how “how scientists will be drawn together at interaction and collaboration facilities located at the centre of each floor.”

“The need for periods of withdrawal and solitude,” Mellor writes, “are no longer acknowledged as a means of facilitating intellectual advances.” Although every fundamental shift in physics has required a good dose of solitude, “reticence and silence seem to have no place in the modern research agenda.” Peter Higgs, the Nobel Prize-winning godfather of the Hadron Collider, backs Mellor up, saying his trailblazing work would be impossible today because the peace and solitude he enjoyed in the 1960s has vanished. We can only imagine how premature sharing could deflate a unified field theory or mangle an explanation for the origination of gamma rays bursts.

What is true for institutions is also true for individuals. We all have daily proof that moments of aloneness allow for the drifting, unfocused mind to be inspired. Like others, I`m hit by my better ideas firs thing in the morning, even lying in bed, before the world has poured any noise or hassle onto me. A novel thought might strike me in the shower, or while I’m drinking my coffee and fuzzily apprehending the patterns of birds outside. Almost all my writer friends swear by early-morning writing. And the psychiatrist Anthony Storr found the same, sayin that “by far the greater number of new ideas occur during a state of reverie, intermediate between waking and sleeping.” It’s as though the brain is allowed to have its genius moment before our lumbering, bureaucratic ide of thinking puts on a tie and gets in the way.

This is a unique read. It is one I would recommend that a person buys a print-edition of it,  sits down and ponders over it. Harris certainly took time out to research and reflect on the subject on how our interconnectedness is influencing our minds. He not only talked with a myriad of experts on the subject, but brings a wealth of knowledge to the discussion. And then in the final chapter, he documents his attempt at what many of us desire –  some solitude and alone-time.

Pages 215-216 The Cabin in the Woods

By the time I finish this tuna sandwich, I’ll have been alone – completely alone – for longer than I’ve ever been before.

It’s a startling thought. But, sitting here on this rotting deck, and looking out over both the ocean and the last thirty-six years, I find it’s true. Weirdly true. I have never, in my life, been completely alone for longer than twenty-four hours. Always, there was some quiet interaction with the guy making my Americano, at least. Or, if I was stuck in my apartment with the flu, there’d be an email exchange while curled in the nest of my duvet. But there was always some connection, some comfort.

From infancy onward, I have been perpetually witnessed, judged, hugged, chatted-up . . . .

But that changes now.  I’ve taken the ferry from Vancouver to Pender Island, about two hours off the coast of British Columbia. From the docks, I hiked another two hours to my family’s cabin. An old A-frame, built by my grandparents in the days when a parcel of land on an island’s waterfront wasn’t so impossible a thing to purchase. There’s a rope swing from when I was five; it dangles noose-like from one of the trees. A set of rotten steps leads me, muddy and skidding, down to the pebble beach where my brothers and I used to build rafts out of driftwood. We tied logs together with ropes of bull kelp.

The cabin door shunts open and there’s the smell of cedar planks, wet dog, ashes. I tug provisions from my pack: one week’s worth of oatmeal, raisins, tuna fish, canned chili. A paper bag of apples, one for each day.

I’ve come here for a week with myself. I plan not just doubling or tripling my solitude record but stretching it to point where I’m talking to myself.

Michael Harris has both brilliantly documented and done what we all have desperately crave with his book Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World. This is truly a work that must reflected and pondered over. In short, a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s webpage for Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World

Link to Michael Harris` website

A Look at my Collection of Books and What I Read.

How I choose what I read and blog about? That is a question that I am often asked about. When I first started blogging, I use to rely on Advance Reading Copies (ARC) that publishers sent me to review books, and I still do on occasion. But the last little while, I have found myself getting more and more first editions books to add to my library. (Yes, there is a library that exists to “The Library of Pacific Tranquility.”)

b

 

It took Anne Logan’s blog post on her collection of ARCs (who was following Evelina’s lead at Avalinah’s Books) to finally make me sit down and sort through my “to read list.”  Oddly enough, there use to be a huge collection of ARCs in that pile but this month’s selection does not include one. There are items in that mess, that I always mean to sit down and read (Ian Hamilton`s collection seems to be always in there >sigh<) There is always a few items in there from past book festivals that I pick up and read eventually (Rick Revelle deserves some attention from me soon. >sigh<) And there is a few favourite writers that I will make time for soon. (Annie Proulx has been there for a little while though >sigh<)

Do note that Kevin Hardcastle’s In The Cage is on top with a bookmark in it. It is my next review for certain. In the side are items I have reviewed but I am eagerly awaiting for signatures to add to my library. Angie Abdou has put a lot of her heart and soul into her last book In Case I Go. And I am eagerly waiting for her reading and signing in few weeks. William Kowalski is a another writer I admire for dealing with the human condition and his self-published The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo is eagerly awaiting a note from his hand. As is Mark Sampson’s The Slip (perhaps awaiting time we meet again over a Bloody Joseph) and his partner Rebecca Rosenblum’s In Case I Go (she keeps bypassing towns and events that I am attending.) JonArno Lawson’s wit is also awaiting his signature (along with his talented illustrator Alec Demptser) in The Hobo’s Crowbar.

d

And here is a snapshot of some of my library’s autographed works. There have been many a friend who has wished to peruse this collection but I tend to guard them VERY CAREFULLY.

a

Finally, here is a snapshot of the big mess that is sitting beside my chair. There are items I have collected over the years. They have been sorted and pilfered through on too numerous occasions. So are items that are too, waiting to be signed and moved over to the better shelf. Just not today. >sigh<

I should also mention the two items that are in production. In a back issue of Canadian Notes and Queries, I found a review of Stanley J. Slote’s Weeding Library Collections. I am eagerly awaiting a copy of that book from a dealer in Ohio. Also in production is Brick Literary Magazine’s 100 edition which the noted literary team has been working on for a while.

Well that is it for this blog piece. While it has been an obligatory piece that other bloggers have been writing about, it has certainly been a good mind exercise for me.