Monthly Archives: May 2018

Empathy and Understanding Along Life’s Journey | Review of “After Drowning” by Valerie Mills-Milde (2016) Inanna Publications

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There are always events in our lives that seem to cause us to pause and sputter. We know we should move on or correct our lives because of those events but the shock still seems to cause us to dwell and ponder upon the effects of those events, even though we think we should move on. But eventually we do move on, even if we need to atone for our actions because of those events. And that is the theme that Valerie Mills-Milde documents in her novel After Drowning.

Page 5

On the day Ben Vasco drowns, the lake is graduating shades of greys, browns, iridescent greens. No white caps. the sky is a definite blue, with slow, cheerful clouds pinned above the beach as if to a child’s felt board. A summer sky over a brooding lake, a coarse, sandy beach curled around the rim of the town, beginning at the painted oil tower and ending where the high, wind-eroded bluffs rise abruptly from the lake’s edge.

Pen watches Maddie scamper from the nearby gully, a plastic pink watering can clutched in her hand. She has on a purple two-piece bathing suit and her belly protrudes, round and tanned. She is small for a four-year-old, and still delicious, thinks Pen. A piece of fruit. Maddie has collected an odd assortment of beach objects: a tick, a seagull feather, five stones varying in size and colour, a worn piece of green glass. She has laid them out in a pattern, with the stones making a circle in the centre, and now she waters the strange collection as though watering a row of pansies, for the moment preferring this to wading.

Pen has chosen a thinly populated spot on the beach, close to where the grasses start, and a distance from the waterline where many families plash in the shallows. The beach, she notes remains remarkably unchanged since she grew up in this small fishing town. She makes the calculation: fifteen years of living away.

There is something unique about a story written from somebody who’s career is not just focused on literary endeavours. Valerie Mills-Milde is listed in the biography of this book as clinical social worker. And this story is filled with personal unease that is common among us that  a reader cannot help but feel empathy with the characters. For me, the book was especially vivid seeing it was set in a port town near Lake Erie. I could easily relate to not only the settings but understand well the angst each of the characters feel as they witness the skillset they learned to earn a living become redundant. This was a complex read but definitely a read I could relate to on so many levels.

Pages 95-96

She stops reading. The article bears the hallmarks of a home editorial, just short of a rant. To her left, awkward and improbable and mounted on a pole, is a giant fiberglass model of a sturgeon. It is all spikes and teeth. A dinosaur. Port’s great hope. She looks at the lake, pinned down by a heavy layering of cloud. Port is difficult on days like these, the lake’s moods souring life in the town A septic place to live, and yet people persist.

Rod had persisted. Pen knows how bad off the fishing industry was back then, the lake poisoned by a steady seepage of phosphorous into its tributaries. Dead fish washed up on the beach. And the algae. Wherever the water was caught up in inlets, small coves, not worried by waves and currents, a green sludge formed on its surface. In 1969, before she was born, the waters of the Cuyahoga River, a faithful tributary of the lake, became so choked by petrochemicals it caught fire. The authorities had been embarrassed by the incident, pledging a massive clean-up, but the glory days of the commercial fishery were gone. There was nothing glamorous left in that life particularly here.

The memories of Rod that she carries are of a man who was not defeated or even worn, though she knows he must have been near exhaustion, getting himself out by five in the morning, working in all kinds of weather. When  Rod tucked her in at night she wrapped her arms around his neck, his skin chafing reassuringly against hers. Although she can’t recall everything, she still holds a bone deep certainty that he loved her.

And there are vivid descriptions in this book. Not just of scenes and other visual items but especially of feelings and emotions. This was a book that was easy to sink into a read and develop empathy for the situations that many of the characters were going through. And that is a rare quality in many works of fiction these days.

Page 127

They are comfortable people and completely gracious. Lea leads them into the house and Maddie immediately disappears into her room to change into a suit for a swim. “Hot, hot, hot…” she chants. The men slide out toward the back and Lea sets down two wine glasses on the stone counter, and opens a chilled bottle of Chablis. Pen knows that after she told him to leave, Jeff would have confided in Bill. If asked, Jeff wouldn’t have been able to provide and explanation for why they separated, and Pen feels certain that Lea and Bill believe she initiated it. Although they aren’t people to jump to conclusions about other people’s lives, she has wondered whether they have told Jeff to cut his losses.

Through the large glass doors, Pen can see Jeff and Bill standing over the barbecue, Jeff with a look of intense interest on his face, tossing out a comment to Bill who is nodding his head in agreement. Jeff has opened up two beers for them, taken from the fridge in the garden shed. Bill looks mellow, vaguely patrician, which Jeff is muscled and eager.

Valerie Mills-Milde has written and detailed and honest look at modern life and it’s cause/effect cycles with her novel After Drowning. It is reflective and thought-provoking and certainly a read worth pondering over. In any case a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Inanna Publications’ website for After Drowning

Link to the Writers Union of Canada bio page for Valerie Mills Milde

Link to Inanna Publications website for Valerie Mills-Milde’s latest book The Land’s Long Reach

” I can’t talk to everyone I want to about writing in person, but this way young people and adults who want to write can watch videos or do writing exercises whenever they want to.” | Q&A with author Alice Kuipers on her new chapter book “Polly Diamond and the Magic Book.”

Polly

I think we all fondly remember that experience when we were first introduced to the joys of reading. Somebody carefully took us aside and showed us the magic of those little lines. And that is what talented writer Alice Kuipers is doing with the first of her chapter books about Polly Diamond – trying to encourage younger readers to want to read and write more. It is a real privilege to be part of Kuipers’ blog tour of “Polly Diamond and the Magic Book” and have her answer a few questions for me.

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1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of “Polly Diamond and the Magic Book?”

Polly Diamond receives a book. Everything she writes in it comes true. Polly is lively and creative and she wishes for, well, everything! She turns her house into a palace and her sister into a banana. With beautiful illustrations by Diana Toledano, Polly’s adventure is to figure out how to get exactly what she wants!

2) Polly seems to be a very unique character. How did you come up with her? Was she inspired by a real-life person?

Polly made herself know to me in that strange way that characters have of appearing in the heads of writers. Then as I was re-drafting an early version of the book, I met a girl at my children’s school. The girl seemed to be so much like Polly that I interviewed her to get to know what it was like to be eight-years-old and full of dreams and hopes. The real life girl and Polly have similarities, but they also diverged as the book kept being rewritten. Polly got louder and clearer the more I worked on the book!
Polly Diamond Illlustration by Diana Toledano 2_preview
Illustration from “Polly Diamond and the Magic Book” done by Diana Toledano

 

3) Is there anything you are hoping this book will accomplish? If yes, what exactly is that?

I would love for the book to inspire a young writer. I have made a free online course for kids who want to write, which any of them can find here: https://writingblueprints.com/ p/writing-course-ages-6-10/ –hopefully this course gets young writers inspired to create their own stories. One of my favourite things about being a writer is seeing the work that kids create.

4) You live in Saskatoon while the illustrator  – Diana Toledano – is listed as living in San Francisco. How did the two of you work together on this book. (Travel to meet? Internet?)

This answer may surprise you, but Diana and I have never met. Not even that, we’ve never even spoken! In my experience, the way that illustrated books work when published with a traditional publisher is that the book designer and the editor co-ordinate the images and the text and, certainly for me, the illustrator and the author communicate through the publishing house, rather than through each other. It’s been an amazing process to see Diana’s illustrations come to life, and it has been surprising, fun and thrilling to see her vision for my words.
Polly Diamond Illustration by Diana Toledano 1_preview
Illustration from “Polly Diamond and the Magic Book” done by Diana Toledano

5) Are you planning a book tour with this book? If yes, are there dates/events you are looking forward to attend?

I’m traveling with TD Bookweek though Vancouver Island from May 5th-12th. I love going to schools and spending time with young readers. They make me laugh, make me think, make me want to write–it’s a real honour to be allowed to talk about my writing life with my children. Traveling though Vancouver Island will be a highlight for me as a writer!

6) So you seem to be active online with both social media and your writing courses through your website. Are you hoping to engage young fans through those tools with the creation of this book?

I’m hoping that I can spend a bit more time on my own writing by sharing my ideas online like this. I love to talk about writing and I have lots to say, but I also want there to be a resource on my website for people who want to explore some of my thoughts in their own time. I can’t talk to everyone I want to about writing in person, but this way young people and adults who want to write can watch videos or do writing exercises whenever they want to. Hopefully the courses are engaging and super fun. I have about 800 students taking my Chapter Book Blueprint and my Middle Grade YA Blueprint courses, so the online reach is huge and I think people like being able to write at their own pace.

7) Will there be more adventures for Polly in the future? If yes, when can we expect another book with Polly Diamond in it?

The second Polly Diamond book is already written and illustrated. It is due to come out a year from now–so, while I’ve been sharing this first book with the world, I’ve been copy-editing this second book. I love writing about Polly–she makes me laugh so much! And I love seeing Diana’s illustrations burst the story into life.

8) There seems to be a lot of thought and creativity in this book. How long did it take to bring this book from first notion to publication? Were there any serious roadblocks or hardships you encountered during that process in bringing this book forward?

So, the second Polly Diamond book took a year to write. But the first book took seven years. I wrote the first draft of that first book when I was pregnant with my daughter, who is now nearly seven. I had to redraft that first book many times, think, learn, redraft again. The earlier book was nearly published with another publisher, but in the end that didn’t work out. When Chronicle Press offered to publish, they wanted some rewrites, and so I was back to the desk. It’s always hard to face edits, well, it is for me. But they always push me to make the book stronger. And now the world of Polly and her magic book is established, it’s much easier to write about her, which is why the second book was written so much more quickly.
My daughter read Polly Diamond and the Magic Book to herself. It is the first ever chapter book she has read to herself, so the very long writing process worked out beautifully!

9) In our last Q&A you mentioned a few novels you were working on. Are any coming to be published soon? Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

I have a non-fiction book coming out with Kids Can Press in a year. Currently it is called Always Smile and it is based on the life of Toronto teenager, Carley Allison. There is a film about her on Netflix called Kiss and Cry. It was an honour to interview her family, boyfriend and friends to make this book happen. I’m also working on two YA novels, and another book of non-fiction for teenagers about anxiety disorder, travel and writing. Of course. I’m always writing about writing!

 

*****

Link to Chronicle Books’ website for Polly Diamond and the Magic Book

Link to Alice Kuipers’ website

Link to the free online writing course for children 6-10

 

A Quiet Melancholia to a Profound Pastime. |Review of “Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions by Alberto Manguel (2018) Yale University Press

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A few weeks ago, I witnessed a young twentysomething stand in front of a large shelf of books and comment how she wanted to be photographed on the floor in front of the books wearing a huge, bulky sweater. Her friend, another twentysomething, did not chide her in any way but agreed to photograph her.  They both carefully looked at the spines of the books, debated which ones to place around her on the floor, and then took the photo. They then  both looked at me at one point if they were committing a transgression in our digital age but I merely smiled at their actions. Of course, they are not alone in their desire of reading and reflection in this digital age. But the desire and the action of reading seems melancholy and antisocial in our busy reality. And that is the same feeling I felt as I read Alberto Manguel’s Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions.

Page 13 First Digression

All our plurals are ultimately singular. What is it then that drives us from the fortress of our self to seek the company and conversation of other beings who mirror us endlessly in the strange world in which we live? The Platonic myth about the original humans having a double nature that was later divided in two by the gods explains up to a point our search: we are wistfully looking for our lost half. And yet, handshakes and embraces, academic debates and contact sports are never enough to break through our conviction of individuality. Our bodies are burkas shielding us from the rest of humankind, and there is no need for Simeon Stylites to climb to the top of a column in the desert to feel himself isolated from his fellows. We are condemned to singularity.

Every new technology, however, offers another hope of reunion. Cave murals gathered our ancestors around them to discuss collective memories of mammoth hunts; clay tablets and papyrus rolls allowed them to converse with the distant and the dead. Johannes Gutenberg created the illusion that we are not unique and that every copy of the Quixote is the same as every other (a trick which has never quite convinced most of its readers). Huddled together in front of our television sets, we witnessed Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, and not content with being part that countless contemplative crowd, we dreamt up new devices that collect imaginary friends to whom we confide our most dangerous secrets and for whom we post our most intimate portraits. At no moment of the day or night are we inaccessible: we have made ourselves available to others in our sleep, at mealtimes, during travel, on the toilet, while making love. We have reinvented the all-seeing eye of God. The silent friendship of the moon is no longer ours, as it was Virgil’s, and we have dismissed the sessions of sweet silent thought which Shakespeare enjoyed.

Alberto Manguel has been one of the few non-fiction writers these days that I insist on reading. He captures a love of not only the craft of reading but the solitude that readers require for their habit in a way that encourages those of us who still race home from a long day to read a volume and ponder it’s meaning. His book A History of Reading is a cornerstone in my personal library, and I have given many copies of that book to friends as a must-read and a testament that quiet reason exists in the world. He has written many other enlightening and heart-warming volumes since that book but it was his volume The Library at Night that made me seriously begin to organize my bookshelves.  I shared Manguel love of organizing books in my own fashion as he did for his library in Loire, France. And I lamented lost books as he did as well. (I sadly left a copy of The Library at Night on a table at an ex-girlfriend’s, in hope that she would rekindle her love of books and me but I fear that either she or one of her following loves may have used it’s pages for rolling papers for smoking dope.) But now we come to this book where Manguel must pack up and leave his library in order to take on a new career.

Page 31 Packing My Library

There can be no resignation for me in the act of packing a library. Climbing up and down the ladder to reach the books to be boxed, removing knick-knacks and pictures that stand like votive figures before them, taking each volume off the shelf, tucking it away in tis paper shroud are melancholy, reflective gestures that have something of a long good-bye. The dismantled rows about to disappear, condemned to exist (if they still exist) in the untrustworthy domain of my memory, become phantom clues to a private conundrum. Unpacking the books, I was not much concerned with making sense of the memories or putting them into a coherent order. But packing them, I felt that I had to figure out, as in one of my detective stories, who was responsible for this dismembered corpse, what exactly brought on its death. In Kafka’s The Trail, after Josef K. is placed under arrest for a never-specified crime, his landlady tells him that his ordeal seems to her “like something scholarly which I don’t understand, but which one doesn’t have to understand either.” “Etwas Gelehrtes,” Kafka writes: something scholarly. This was what the inscrutable mechanics behind the loss of my library seemed to me.

Manguel has a gift for documenting something more than books and reading with his writing. He has captured something of the zeitgeist. I know I am not alone in my life surrounded by technology and egoists that I want to come home and ponder one of the many volumes that are on my shelves. Not only do they provide me with quiet enlightenment but act as insulation from busy, intrusive world. Any time I must pack up my shelves, I feel the same melancholia he does, until the items are unpacked and displayed again.

Page 50

The books in my library promised me comfort, and also the possibility of enlightening conversations. They grant me, every time I took one in my hands, the memory of friendships that required no introductions, no conventional politeness, no pretense or concealed emotion. I knew, in that familiar space between the covers, that one evening I’d pull down a volume of Dr. Johnson or Voltaire I had never opened, and I would discover a line that had been waiting for me for centuries.  I was certain, without having to retrace my way through it, that Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday or a volume of Cesare Pavese’s poems would be exactly what I required to put into words what I was feeling on any given morning. Books have always spoken for me, and have taught me many things long before these things cam materially into my life, and the physical volumes have been for me something very much like breathing creatures that share my bed and board. This intimacy, this trust, began early on among readers.

Alberto Manguel has given us readers something unique and quietly profound in his book, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions. While it is somewhat melancholy at times, many of us do not feel alone now with literary wants and desires after reading this book. As I am certain my young friend will too when she wears her bulky sweater and reads this well-crafted volume.

*****

Link to Alberto Manguel’s website

Link to Yale University Press’ website for Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions