Monthly Archives: September 2018

When Memories Truly Become History | Review of “The Water Beetles” by Michael Kaan (2017) Goose Lane Editions

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Image linked from the publisher’s website

We all have had family members who have enthralled us with stories of their childhood. But for those of us whose ancestors endured the horrors of conflict and war, that enthrallment becomes a stunned silence when we become aware of the hardships and traumas they went through. Michael Kaan has taken the memories of his father growing up in Hong Kong during the Second World War and crafted a unique novel called The Water Beetles.

Pages 10-11

We’re stopped because it’s another hot day, and even the Japanese solders forcing us to march agree we should rest. We’ve stopped by a dense bamboo grove. Despite the soldiers’ warnings to stay visible, I want to be alone, so I’m lying close to the grove’s edge. If I lie on my back and look up, I can see only a small patch of sky, the bamboo stalks are so dense. I can also see the two beetles climbing up a stalk. The little green-and yellow one that is me, with the one leg hooked into the crook of the stem, doesn’t seem to care that he’s being followed.

The greenery reminds me of our grounds back home, of the beds and potted plants that the gardener used to touch so carefully with his tools. It reminds me of the gardens at school and in the city parks, and other things that I worry are gone or I may never see again. At the moment I’m surrounded by plants, the wild and farmed exploding next to each other in the light. There’s nothing gentle about cultivated plants – they dig and drink, and push upward as hard as the wild ones. But I prefer my memories to what is happening now. We have a garden on the roof of our house where my brother and I used to play a lot, before it became unsafe to be up there. It has a chicken coop and a vegetable plot, or at least it did when I left.

This is one of these books that takes a element from the history pages and gives readers a much more in-depth understanding of the events that occurred. Kaan has crafted the memories of his father into the story of Chung-Man Leung, who is coming of age in December 1941. Chung-Man’s life is comfortable and he is curious about the world around him but the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong throws his existence into turmoil as he and his family are faced with a trove of violence and repression.

Pages 65-66

Despite the caution of the adults around me, I caught bits of their conversations and fragments of radio broadcasts, and throughout December I pieced together what had happened to Hong Kong. On December 8, the Japanese Imperial Army, who had invaded northeastern China several weeks earlier and were working their way south, crossed the Shenzhen River that separated the British colony from the mainland. This left them only about thirty miles north of the mainland portion of Hong Kong, and so about forty miles from where we lived on Hong Kong Island. The Allied forces that had assembled there either succumbed or pulled back from the onslaught, and eventually the Japanese penetrated the New Territories into Hong Kong itself. Even as the Japanese moved inward on land, they had already bombed Kai Tak  Airport on the eight, weakening the British. The blasts we heard at my school that morning were the sound of the airport being shelled, the sound of a fatal blow.

I’m recounting this quickly, as if I were reading from a history book, but at the time I knew even less, and the adults around me didn’t know much more. We no idea where the fighting was or what progress the Japanese made each day. We only heard of it as one hears of a change in the weather, that a hurricane or typhoon is coming.

The truth is that one never know enough. Looking back into the past is a lonely game of self-delusion, watching people and events move with an inevitability that never was. the history books tell everything with such certainty. But at the time, nothing seemed inevitable to me. Somethings were impossible or unlikely, something expected, but most of all, beyond the routine of daily life, the world was a mystery. We knew little until it happened.

What makes this book truly memorable is that is a perfect mixture of fact, description and lyricism. That combination makes this narrative that will certain be reflected and pondered upon months after the book is read by many readers. The prose also seems to flow from one section to the next, only changing suddenly when something dramatic occurs. It is a read worthy to reflect and ponder over.

Pages 222-223

A harsh metallic clang woke me the next morning. I ran out of the house wearing only my underwear. A man was running through the streets striking a gong and shouting at everyone to get up. Many people were already out, and I ran back to the house to wake Leuk, Wei-Ming, and Yee-Lin. A half dozen planes flew overhead.

The Japanese had been spotted on the road just before dawn by a civil defence volunteer. The townspeople were unprepared and panic erupted. A man from the neighbouring house said he would fight and shook an old rifle in the air to the cheers of other men.

Yee-Lin was already up and packing our belongings. I got dressed, found my belt, and made sure Leuk had his too. Only Yee-Lin knew about the gold we carried , and we never talked about it. Wei-Ming would be certain to say something if she knew.

“Chung-Man, get Kei and Ming and tell them to come with us,” said Yee-Lin.

“Where to?”

“I don’t know. Into the woods. To a river if we can find a boat. There must be a way out. They may know how.

I went to the kitchen and found them already up and strangely calm.

“It’s the Japanese, isn’t it? said Kei. What should we do?”

“Run. We’re going to try to make it out. Come with use and tell us where to go. Is there a place to hide in the woods, or a boat?”

Michael Kaan has crafted a unique and enlightening piece of literature with The Water Beetles. He has taken his father’s memories and created a story worthy for all us readers to ponder and reflect on. It is a must read for sure.

*****

Link to Goose Lane’s website for The Water Beetles

A Brilliant Mix of Personal Emotion and Fact That Is a Great Read | Review of “Home Ice: Reflections Of A Reluctant Hockey Mom (2018) ECW Press

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Image linked from the publisher’s website

Fiction always helps us understand the human condition in a lyrical fashion. But when a writer crafts a non-fiction work about an important element of our society, we readers are granted an wonderful and personal insight to our lives around us. As the Fall 2018 new releases come along, and the winter sport season is beckoning our engagement, noted fiction writer Angie Abdou has documented her thoughts and emotions as her young son begins to play amateur hockey.  And her new work – Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom – gives brilliant insight to the role of athletics and youth in this day in age.

Pages 1-2 Prologue: “Have Fun! Try Hard!” Reflections of a Hockey Mom

“Have fun! Try hard!” That was the coach’s rallying cry for every pre-Novice hockey game during my son’s first year in the sport. “Have fun! Try hard!” I love it. The slogan applies to so much in life – work, writing, marriage. If you have fun and try hard, the rest often sorts itself out.

I wrote the slogan in red crayon on a torn piece of paper and taped it to the laptop where I spend my days either teaching creative writing students online or pounding out my own stories. the slogan stands as a reminder that, sure, okay, I will likely never make the writer’s equivalent of the NHL and, yes, I know, I cannot expect a pot of gold at the end of the novelist’s rainbow. I can though, enjoy the process. I can take pride in my work. I can always push myself to do better. I can find meaning in the challenge. And those things – in and of themselves – can be enough They have to be.

If hockey began and ended with that “Have fun! Try hard!” philosophy. I would have no reservations about my son’s participation in the sport.

Abdou has explored in detail some serious points in our understanding of sport in our society. I know for myself, when I was younger, I never was comfortable with athletics. The goal of my fellow classmates and their coaches was always to win or score big, never the concept of sportsmanship, camaraderie or achieving a personal best. Abdou has documented here a multitude of angsts, frustrations, fatigues and an occasional joy as she spent a year being a hockey mom to her young yet determined son Ollie has begun to play a popular and demanding sport.

Pages 88-89 Chapter Four: Kids In The Colosseum

(G)ood thing Ollie is not in charge. He’d have them all hitting at eight years old. Like other kids born late in the year, he was eight for most of his first year Atom. As absurd as this idea sounds – as much as full contact for eight-year-olds is the brain-storm of a roughhousing boy with no understanding of long-term consequences – hockey leagues have allowed kids as young as eight to hit.

Hockey is a different game with the hitting than without the hitting. I’ve seen that even with Ollie’s young age group. Some star kids back right down and become invisible as soon as play turns rough. Sometimes they go straight to the bench, not interested in engaging at all in the body contact. Other kids, the ones less agile but stronger, suddenly shine. Since body checking is part of the sport at elite and professional levels, kids who aspire to that level want to learn how to do it right. They want to play the real game. They don’t want to work hard until fifteen or sixteen or seventeen and then find out they’re the kind of player who disappears when on-ice play gets physical. I get it. Through the eyes of Mark and his boys, I can understand why some argue for the inclusion of hitting as young as Pee Wee.

But when I hear a young player’s body crack hard into the boards? When I see a kid motionless on the ice? I have to agree with the doctors.

For those of us who just watch sports for leisure and enjoyment, we rarely think about the punishment and abuse that athletes have endure or consider the stress, cost and anxiety that the family members of those athletes face. Abdou documents both these facts in through both in citing professional studies and through personal anecdotes. The result is a book that is both insightful and lyrical.

Pages 114-115  Chapter Six: Until Hockey Doth Us Part

“Mom.” Ollie’s voice comes quiet, tentatively, from the backseat. “Why do you and dad sometimes seem like you hate each other?”

“I’m sorry, Ollie.” I will not cry. I have 250 kilometers of winter driving and a weekend at the rink. If I start crying now, I don’t know how I will stop. “We don’t hate each other. We’re just tired.”

“Well, why don’t you take a rest?” That’s Ollie – always thinking of a solution, always trying to help. Other people’s pain hurts him more than it should. I know Ollie more than anyone, and I should behave better than I do. But, god, I’m exhausted. I feel the fatigue as an ache in my bones. I’m so tired my face hurts.

Would a rest even help me and Marty at this point? We’re so sick of each other.

(. . .)

Hockey works to dived couples in this way, almost always. The children on Ollie’s team all have one parent in the stands, the other busy elsewhere with the remaining demands of family life.

Much ink has been devoted to instruction spouses how to co-parent a hockey player after a divorce, how to divide the financial obligations and time commitments, as well as how to create a situation in which the athlete can thrive rather than being affected by negotiations around the marital collapse. However, there is no research that suggests the blame for these divorces might, in part, be our society’s overcommitment to organized sport for children and the many ways that commitment creates stress and drains energy that could other wise be directed to fostering healthy familial relationships.

Angie Abdou has given us another excellent cultural artifact with her non-fiction book Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom. Abdou has mixed fact and bits of her personal life to give us readers a unique insight into athletics and our society. Definitely an insightful piece of literature.

*****

Link to ECW Press’ website for Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom

Link to Angie Abdou’s website

A Survival Tale But Also One Of Pride | Review of “Moon Of The Crusted Snow” by Waubgeshig Rice (To Be Released Oct. 2018) ECW Press

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Image linked from the publisher’s website

I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book from the publisher.

What if the world as we know ended not with a bang or even the proverbial whimper but with dead silence? All our communication devices fall dead, no goods or services would come in for needs and no health or emergency services would be available. Would we be able to cope and continue? That is the realm that Waubgeshig Rice explores in his new novel Moon of the Crusted Snow.

The book brilliantly opens with the protagonist Evan Whitesky hunting a moose. The winter season is almost upon him and his northern Anishinaabe community and food stocks from the south are expensive. He is grateful that his culture has taught him how to respectfully hunt and appreciate the wilderness around him. As he hurries to finish slaughtering the moose he has captured, he notes that his cell phone has no service. He finds that fact odd but doesn’t give it a second thought. Little does he realize that the outside world has changed, and he, his family and his community are about to be challenged for their survival.

Rice has written a great book about trust, family and survival here but his book gives insight into Anishnaab society and culture. He shows the pride of ways of the people and their beliefs. Rice has written book here covering some important elements of the human condition, that should be considered and pondered upon among serious readers of literature no matter what their background or origins may be.

Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice is a brilliant read and a unique one. It has a in-depth narrative but also shows a pride in the ways of a culture that is complex and unique. In short, it is a great addition to the 2018 fall collection of new books.

*****

Link to ECW Press’ website for Moon Of The Crusted Snow

Link to Waubgeshig Rice’s website

Learning The Value of Actions | Review of “Net Worth” by Kenneth Radu (2018) DC Books

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It is consider crass to talk about money yet it is important in our society to maintain our comfort and our dignity.  So it plays an important role in the human condition where it comes into play how we attempt to gain a better financial position or loose our status in society. And those are the themes that Kenneth Radu brilliantly explores in his collection of short stories entitled Net Worth.

Pages 2-3 Lottery

Unlike the television ads about lottery winners, Annie did not leap like a drug-addled rabbit, or immediately dream of travel to first class hotels, or buying real estate in Italy or a pied-à-terre in Paris. She slumped on her chair in front of the monitor in her bedroom where she kept her desktop computer, and heard the beating of her heart. All the numbers matched. Then she rose, forcing herself to walk. Trembling as if someone had broken into her apartment, she opened the kitchen drawer where she kept the knives. To collect the money she would have to present ticket herself to the lottery commission who, according to the terms of purchase, had the right to publicize the win and publish photos of the winner.

Her picture would be in the papers, on the lottery website, possibly YouTube for all she knew; she might even have to appear on Tout le Monde en Parle, a show watched by millions, and everyone in the country would know how chance had affected her life. How could she keep herself safe? The trembling came not just from fear, somewhat easing because she knew that no malefactor had broken into the apartment, but more from anxiety about the inevitable public glare focused on her unassuming person, about journalists repeating invasive and stupid questions to a woman who rarely spoke in public, questions about how she felt and her plans for the money, and, and, and . . .

Radu is an expert in recognizing the complexities of human nature, and writing about them in a simple and enlightening fashion. And that is what he has done with this book. The emotions and thoughts around money are deep and complicated. This collection of stories explores those constructs and the actions they bring forth. And for those of us readers who are quietly curious about human nature, this book is a treat for us to ponder and reflect upon while reading it.

Page 15 Millionaire

People didn’t want to work these days the way he did. Nina, too, had worked. Hard work paid off; no one could tell him otherwise. If Nina had found him interesting enough to marry, her well-off parents just had to swallow their pride or lose their beloved daughter for good. So maybe she did have a leg up on the ladder of success, that extra push that family wealth always gave, but together they’d built what she now left him. They’d agreed on most things, as far as he could remember, aside from favouring her daughters in ways he’d disliked. Hadn’t argued about the lack of money except over how much she should give the kids as an allowance, and how much to charity, and to less fortunate members of the family. But what the hell? Look at him now, basking in prosperity on the June day, anticipating the memorial where everyone would agree that, if money were a backyard pool, he’d be swimming in it.

Radu has mixed the perfect combination of observation and intellectual thought in these stories. The language is simple, direct and even blunt at times,  yet to a thoughtful reader, the message that Radu reflects about money and finances is enlightening and thought-provoking. These stories are truly a unique read that shouldn’t be rushed through.

Page 39 Trust Fund

The woman dragged her two children on a toboggan through the graveyard. It had been in the family for years, a long wooden toboggan no longer common, and displaced by plastic substitutes and cartoon character snowboards in the stores. When she was a child, she had sped down a bumpy hill, sometimes with friends, often alone, rarely with her father. Her mother hated the winter and stayed indoors to make soup, hot chocolate, bread, cookies and all sorts of good things. She had tried making them herself to give her boy and girl a sense of what real food tasted like, especially since Marc’s death in September, six moths ago almost to the day: not that she planned on pulling Mathieu and Grace to his headstone. Both of the kids had been old enough to cry over their father’s death and look woeful at the funeral, but young enough to recover from the loss, she hoped, without growing up permanently traumatized or otherwise deranged from grief like psychotic kids in movies acting out their rage over daddy’s death. No, they were good, of that she was sure. Mathieu had wrapped his arms around his younger sister so she wouldn’t slide off the toboggan. Grace was still a wriggler.

“Mom, Mom, you’re going right by it!”

Net Worth by Kenneth Radu is certainly one of the most unique reads I have come across in the 2018 publishing season. The language is simple yet the concepts it brings forward are thought-provoking and enlightening. In short, this book is a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to DC Books’ website for Net Worth