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A Real Lesson about the Human Condition | Review of “The Last Neanderthal” by Claire Cameron (2017) Doubleday Canada

A big thank you to Luanne at A Bookworm’s World for bringing this book to my attention.

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I think the term “human condition” has come up with many people in my circles who read fiction. It usually is in reference to a theme in a book that documents or highlights some element of our daily life that we may not have considered before. But to look at our species in relation to other species (both living or dead) is a unique concept in literature. Claire Cameron’s work has come up in conversations with other book fans, so I decided to check out her latest work The Last Neanderthal, and I was truly impressed and enlightened.

Page 3 Prologue

They didn’t think as much about what was different.

There was good reason for this as they lived in small family groups. Every day was spent among people who were similar to them. The bodies that sat around the fire shared the same kind of cowlick at the backs of their heads, or the same laugh, or teeth that were equally crooked. Every time a head turned to look, a body could find one part of itself in another.

It’s because of their similarities to us that I can speak for them when I say that much of what you’ve heard isn’t true.

I love the interplay between the two characters of this book. On one hand we have, we have “Girl” who in some forty thousand years in the past was the oldest daughter of the last family of Neanderthals. In the other hand, we have Rosamund Gale, who in the modern day, is a archaeologist racing to uncover Neanderthal artifacts while dealing with a multitude of professional and personal issues. Even though there are thousands of years apart from the two and a mass of evolutionary changers, we can see similarities between the two characters in how they deal with their day-to-day issues and crisis.

Page 39-40

Girl tucked her spear into the groove in her armpit. To hunt was to wait. The family had worked the hunting grounds for as far as their shadow stories went back, but the site wasn’t theirs alone. All beasts on the land either hunted here or crossed the river here. It was a good place to drink and play, but it was also a dangerous place. Where there was food and fresh water, there was danger.

Then: Snap. A sound. Where? Girl curled her top lip up to feel the breeze on the sensitive patch on her gums. She felt a small ripple, a heated current in the air. What? She twitched her head to the right to listen. The tremor from the snap was like a sharp prick to the back of her neck.

This was the land where she was born and she knew it like she knew her own body. It was the only place she had lived. Because she came from Big Mother, her mind held the memories of all the hunts the old woman had been on too, and her mother before as well. And Girl also had the stories that came to her in dreams from the other members of the family. Every bump, dip, and curve of the land lay in the grooves of her mind, but they weren’t only there. Her body held the memories too. There was a dent in her shin, like a dip in a path, from when she had fallen. there was the scar on her finger, a ridge that held the same curve as the cliff, from a sharp rock. When the hair on her arms stood up, it was like part of the grassy meadow where the bison grazed. Her body took shape from the land.

This book is a great exploration of needs, thoughts and desires. Cameron has a frank writing style here that is easy to read and follow. And the plot stays in one’s mind, giving a reader something to ponder and reflect on after the book is finished. Definitely a unique read and one that is worthy of one’s serious leisure time.

Page 130

How had I become so pregnant overnight? I stuffed my sausage legs into my work trousers and tugged on the elastic that I used to secure the rivet on the fly. I had rigged the band to bring the two sides as close together as possible. As I stood to pull the pants closed, the elastic band snapped against my fingers and flew off. I looked around for another band but couldn’t find one. The fly of my trousers gaped open.

I had made a decision long ago that I would never cry at work. While tears are a natural reaction to adversity, I believed crying played into negative assumptions about a woman’s ability to cope with difficult situations. Through all the trials and tribulations that came with an academic career, I had not shed a tear. Not when I was at a site in Turkey and a large pallet slipped from a truck and broke my foot. Not when one of the outside examiners on my dissertation tried to set me back two years by refusing to accept new dating methods. Not when I was publicly mocked at a big conference by a prominent academic. (“You sound like you would like to get up close and personal with one of your Neanderthals,” he had remarked during the Q&A session), and not when the room had erupted with nervous laughter and the comment achieved its intended effect of discrediting everything I had said. I took it all on the chin.

I did not cry at work until I was unable to find a second elastic band to fasten my trousers. That triggered the silent sobs. I managed to bite my lip and not wake Simon, and I hoped the tears would go unnoticed, but then I heard footsteps outside.

Claire Cameron’s The Last Neanderthal is a book that truly gives insight to the human condition by looking at our past ancestors. An enlightening read and one that is worthy to be part of any bookshelf.

*****

Link to Penguin/Random House Canada website for The Last Neanderthal

Link to Claire Cameron’s website

The Pitfalls of Life in Our Fast-Paced World | Review of “The Slip” by Mark Sampson (2017) Dundurn Press

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There is a feeling among many that our society is moving too fast. The sense that nuances in the general discourses in our everyday life seem to be lost with the rapid speed that our technologies brings us information is common and causing concern. So it would be natural that a work of literature would document that fear present in the human condition. And that is what noted author Mark Sampson has done with his book The Slip, along with a dash of humour.

Page 33

Back in the CBC studio during the commercial break I was tremulous. As a stagehand came by to re-powder my brow – I was tacky with sweat by this point – my imagination began to corkscrew out of control over how my gaffe might be reverberating around the country. My heart raced as I looked over at Sal and Cheryl, who sat cool as breezes at the other end of the desk. Their poppies hovered over the breasts like beacons of respectability, while mine was probably fluttering somewhere among the eaves or gutters of Parliament Street.

I gestured to Sal to lean back in his chair with me, and spoke to him sotto voce when he did, even though Cheryl was sitting right between us. “Look, when we come back, can I have a chance to clarify what I just said?”

“Sorry, buddy,” he replied, “but that segment went way over. We only have about five minutes left, and I have several other points I want to cover.”

He sat back up and I reluctantly followed. The three of us waited in silence for the commercial break to run its course. Cheryl’s face held a patina of diplomacy, but I knew what she was thinking: that she had bested me, that by hijacking Sal’s role as interviewer she was able to cast me as the extremist and herself as the voice of moderation. With less than five minutes left, I would need all of my intellectual heft to turn things around. I the seconds before we came back , I looked up once more at Raj standing in the booth. His head was now bowed over his phone, his brow furrowed. Oh God – he was probably on Facebook or Twitter right then , watching the obloquy and snark over my blunder flood in. Was Grace there, too, gingerly defending my moment of indiscretion? Or was she still steaming over my fecklessness as a father (Phillip, your daughter scalded herself), or, worst of all, my complete ineptitude at keeping track of our social calendar? Oh, Jesus, why couldn’t I remember what we’re doing on Sunday?

Sampson is a talented writer who knows his craft well. There some serious reflections on our society in this at-times humorous story of Dr. Philip Sharpe, as readers follow his blundering attempts to salvage his reputation after a brutal slip of the tongue during a live television broadcast. But more importantly we see the profound academic realize the more important aspect of his life is not his career or his reputation but his family and as he tries to mend those broken relationships that are so important to him.

Page 175

Let us speak of weekend rituals. I will marvel, as you no doubt will, at the way children can sleep like Tut in his tomb all week long, ignoring the beseeches of parents pleading against the clock, only to swarm from their chambers on Saturday morning and fill an ungodly hour with frenetic clatter. But I’m up. I’m up and I’m there to provide assistance at the toilet, to find a lost Dora, to pour cereal and locate cartoons on TV. I’m there in bathrobe, in eye crust, in fuzzy slippers. I am there with spatula in hand, hunched over sizzling skillet, cooking my wife a hot, proper breakfast. I’m there on the porch, hauling in fat weekend papers (though not as fat as they used to be), which I will divvy up like a whale carcass after a hunt. To Grace go sections like Style and Living and Weekend. To me go sections like Focus and Argument. The kids get the funnies. We each have our perennial favourites: Grace got straight to Globe Style, which oddly, contains recipes: I, meanwhile, grouse over and increasingly etiolated Globe Books and then dive-bomb the Star’s op-ed section. And if things are good, if things are humming, my wife and I will speak to each in the idioglossia of our marriage, a nonsensical lexicon of love and domesticity. If things are good, we will cheer or heckle or debate what we read, aloud to each other our fingers gone black with newsprint ink.

But on this Saturday, things were not good. Not good at all. Four Metcalfe Street seemed full of gloom. I had brought the papers in but not bothered to divide them up; they sat in a segmented pile on the kitchen table, portending more column inches about my unconscionable gaffe from Monday. As for breakfast, I couldn’t bring myself to do much more than a couple of toasted bagels for Grace and me. The Bloody Joseph I mixed for myself tasted flat. The autumn light through our kitchen window held a faint grimness. Grace came downstairs, a Medusa of bed-head and frayed kimono, sat at the kitchen table, picked briefly at the papers, stared out the window. I sat across from her, slowly smearing my bagel with cream cheese.  We said nothing. We said nothing.

For the longest time, I have been looking for a book – a printed book – worthy of explaining my joy in reading at the moment. It was a joy for me to take a break from the hustle of the day, ( to turn off the computer and the television) and to quietly ponder the exploits of Philip Sharpe. And in those quiet moments that I forced myself to take, I pondered my own existence while followed the downward and at times funny-because-I-have-done-that-too exploits of Sharpe as he blindly attempts to redeem his purpose in life.

Page 212

How much are you interested, dear reader, in what transpired next? in one sense, it was a fairly typical domestic row, a bile-spewing stichomythia that orated the inanities of our marriage. On the other hand, you should probably know that Grace and I once again ignored the true catalyst of our fissure – that abominable slip of mine from Monday. One again we didn’t mention it, and ergo mentioned pretty much everything else.

Mark Sampson has given readers something truly to enjoy and think about in The Slip. He has documented the fears we all have in our too-fast, media-rich society and given us some good chuckles in the process as well. A great read and a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Dundurn Press’ website for The Slip

Link to Mark Sampson’s blog  – Free Range Reading

Link to my Q&A with Mark Sampson – “As I grew more and more aware of the way social media can really amplify public gaffes, I began to see a comic story emerge about how a situation could really put this marriage on the ropes”

An Honest Look at the Who We Are and Where We Come From | Review of “The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo” by William Kowalski

It was an honour to receive an advance copy of this book from the author.

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Many of us in North America descend from people who came from Europe. We have had to learn to accept some of the traditions of the ‘old country’ while trying to figure out what are superstitions and prejudices which have no bearing on our own lives in the ‘new world.’ The physical,  mental and emotional  struggles of immigrants and their descendants are important ones to note when pondering the human condition in literature. And that what William Kowalski has given us in his well-crafted book The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo.

Page 15

Of, course, darkness brought its own terrors, as any girl in this world of men knew all too well. They stayed together at all times, each one constantly checking to make sure the others were close by. They slept in shifts to ensure that no male dared try anything while they were asleep. they continued their prayers to St. Christopher, and they added added new ones to St. Jude, the saint of lost causes, for by now they had begun to understand that their entire way of life was lost to them, and the odds against them surviving this journey were very great indeed.

The strangest thing of all about this ship was that everyone was mixed together: Poles, Jews, Ruthenians, Bulgarians, Slovenians, Slovakians, Hungarians, Romaninas, Russians, Bohemians, Bavarians. They huddled together in tribes, dividing themselves naturally according to language and culture, glaring at each other with suspicion. Aniela had not known such a melange of humanity existed, nor that all these languages existed, either. It was proof that the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel was true. Some of these people she had never even heard of.

She had seen Jews before, but she had never been this close to one, let alone whole families of them; she found herself observing them curiously, wondering if all the horrible things the priest had said about them were true. He had lied about practically everything else, after all, including his own divinity. These Jews appeared to be serious grim people. They kept to themselves, and they regarded everyone around them with mistrust. But then, so did everyone else. All in all, despite their funny locks of hair that curled down from the men’s ears, and the strange clothing styles of the women, they did not seem so different.

Kowalski’s previous works are noted novels about the human condition, but this book for him is a deeply personal project from beginning to end. (See my Q&A with him about the launch of his crowdfunding project to get this book published last year.) This book brilliantly shows the life of his great-grandmother Amelia (and her legacy) while trying to build a life in America. But this is no rags-to-riches, and they-all-lived-happily-ever-after immigrant story that are so commonplace. Kowalski honestly documents how immigrants continually win and loose during their lives in North America. Yet even if the losses seem overwhelming and their traditions fade, the resilience of immigrants like Amelia continues, and continues to inspire.

Page 23

It was the ruination of their American dream Iggy was staring at now.

Iggy had heart the American Dream lecture so many times as a kid that back then it was all he thought about. Anyone could make it in America if they just worked hard, everyone said – his parents, his uncles, his cousins, his grandparents, every his great-grandmother herself, who had lived to be ninety-eight years old. He had known her well, although he could barely understand her, since he didn’t speak Polish and had never had more than a passing acquaintance with the English language.

If you didn’t make it in America, there was something seriously wrong with you. You just weren’t trying. You didn’t appreciate the sacrifice your ancestors had made on your behalf, leaving behind everything they held dear.

Nope. If you didn’t make it, you were a failure – not just in business, but as a person, and in the eyes of all those who had come before you.

Iggy sighed and looked at the time on his cell phone. It was nearly time to start prepping for dinner.

While Kowalski may have borrowed story lines from his family and his Polish-American background, he has honestly documented many occurrences that are common for many descendants of European stock in America and brought them to the public domain. He has given certainly many of his fans some thoughts and discussions because of his plot about their own lives. This book is not only a great addition to literature but a glowing tribute to his family.

Page 38

But what Zofia didn’t know was that Aniela planned on remaining unmarried and childless. In fact, she planned on having nothing to do with men whatsoever. The Prussian teacher had been only half right. It wasn’t just Plish men who were pigs. It was all men, everywhere. This had been her experience with just about every man she’d ever met. She would have liked to have been proven wrong, but so far it hadn’t happened. Her father was cruel to her mother. Her brothers were cruel to their sisters. Even the priest got so drunk on vodka sometimes that his hands seemed not to know what they were doing, and this was a man of God. All the girls in the village knew to stay far away from him when he was on one of his benders, or they might get invited back to his cottage for a private confession.

Aniela shook her head. She had to remember to leave these old thoughts behind. That priest, that teacher, her father, her brothers, hadn’t followed her to Ameryka, after all. She was safe from them now. And maybe the men of Ameryka would be different.

Besides, there were new challenges to deal with. It was all well and good to speak Polish in the streets of Black Rock, but eventually this business of English would have to be dealt with, or she would never succeed here – not unless she wanted to be an ignorant washerwoman all her life.

It was a true pleasure to dine upon The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo by William Kowalski. The many thoughts and experiences that Kowalski documents in the book are universal for any person of any European background living in North America yet never have been truly mention before. A great and unique piece of literature and a great tribute to Kowalski’s family.

*****

Link to the official website for The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo

Link to William Kowalski’s website

Learning from the Life Lessons of Uncle Holland | Review of “Uncle Holland” by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Natalie Nelson (2017) Groundwood Books

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We have all made mistakes in our past, and we all have had to make difficult decisions because of those mistakes. But in many cases, those decisions can lead us to uplifting and interesting paths in our lives and define us in better ways. That is the story JonArno Lawson tells in his book Uncle Holland and with the illustrations by Natalie Nelson, the book is a delightful and unique exploration of an important aspect of the human condition.

Palmer and Ella had three sons – Holland, Jimmy and Ivan. Jimmy and Ivan were good boys, but Holland, who was the eldest, was always getting into trouble.

Holland sometimes stole things. He like stuff that was pretty, and sometimes he couldn’t help stuffing that pretty stuff into his pockets.

One day, when the police had caught Holland for the thirty-seventh time, they said, “Holland Lawson, either you go to jail or you join the army. It’s up to you.”

JonArno Lawson has a magical way of incorporating whimsy into his words. And this story is no different except that it includes a story moral lesson in it. JonArno has taken the story of his Uncle Holland and shared it with us readers, giving us  – no matter what age group we belong to – a unique lesson to learn.

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Natalie Nelson’s illustrations for this book are stark and bold. They truly not only visually tell the story of Uncle Holland but also help create empathy for Uncle Holland’s family members. Nelson use’s colours just at the right moment for emphasis, giving the story the ‘right punch’ when it was needed.

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Uncle Holland by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Natalie Nelson is certainly a unique story filled with whimsy and an important life lesson. Stark illustrations that punctuate the story with perfect colours at the right moment add to the plot and make this book an enjoyable read.

*****

Link to House of Anansi/Groundwood Books webpage for Uncle Holland

Link to Natalie Nelson’s website

Link to my Q&A with JonArno Lawson about Uncle Holland –  “I hope the story conveys that it’s possible to find new and unexpected ways of moving forward, even under the most constraining circumstances.”

 

 

“Mom was a single parent in the 1950s — easily the bravest, strongest, most resourceful person I’ve ever met — and her unconditional love for me inspired the bond between Granny and Zoe” | Q&A with Author Allan Stratton on his new book ‘The Way Back Home’

It is almost a sin to muddle my thoughts with the words of Allan Stratton. He is truly a writer that crafts his work about the human condition, and his latest book is certainly one that deals with a reality that many of us are familiar with. Allan was kind enough to enlighten me about his new work The Way Back Home by answering a few questions for me here. The book is being released on May 9, 2017.

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1) First off, could you give me a bit of an outline for “The Way Back Home” and news about its release?

THE WAY BACK HOME is about Zoe Bird, a troubled girl whose one true friend is her Granny, now suffering from Alzheimers’. When Zoe’s parents place Granny in a nursing home against her will, Zoe springs her and together they set off on a road trip to find Zoe’s missing uncle —  an uncle whom Zoe had thought was dead, but who is alive and Granny’s last hope.

It’s out the first of May in Canada and the UK. New year it’ll be out in translation in Italy, Poland and France, with a separate French translation for Quebec. Arrangements in other countries are in the works.

2) How long did it take you to write “The Way Back Home?”

The first draft took nine months, which is appropriate as I consider my books my ‘brain babies.’ It went through a couple of significant draft revisions over eight months. That’s longer than usual but I was distracted by a lot of travel for foreign editions of “The Dogs”: Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, Rimini, Mantua, Krakow, Prague, New York and San Francisco. I wish all my problems were so much fun.

3) Was there anything specific that inspired you want to write this book?

Yes. My mom. She had Alzheimer’s and is very much the inspiration for Granny. Mom was a single parent in the 1950s — easily the bravest, strongest, most resourceful person I’ve ever met — and her unconditional love for me inspired the bond between Granny and Zoe.

This précis of Mom’s life may give you some idea of her achievements. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, she broke a lot of glass ceilings for women: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/thestar/obituary.aspx?n=dorothy-annabelle-stratton-mcphedran-avis&pid=155313009

4) No doubt you are busy with the release of this book, but I would be severely “chewed out” by my followers and your fans if I didn’t ask you if you are doing any public readings or events of any of your works. If yes, are there any specific dates you are looking forward to attending?

I’m doing the “Junction Reads” reading series in Toronto end of April (Link Here) and will be in Saskatchewan in May. In September, I’m going to be at the Thin Air Festival in Winnipeg. (Link Here) I’ll know if there are other fall festivals in the next few weeks. School and library visits come up as they come up. These days, blogs like yours, social media and Skype visits are the major way to get the word out.

5) So I think I have miscounted so I will ask you directly – How many novels have you had published now? Has your writing changed with “The Way Back Home” since your first novel? If yes, how so?

I’ve written ten novels, two of which were specifically for adults, two specifically for ages 9 – 13, and the others, like this “The Way Back Home”, from Middle Grade through adult. In the 1980s I wrote plays; that’s what I was originally known for; one of them, “Nurse Jane Goes to Hawaii” has been running in rep in Warsaw, Poland for just over a year now. I also wrote two stage adaptations and a couple of one-act radio plays.

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“My only time in a tux, imagining myself in a Cole Porter musical”  – Allan Stratton

 

6) Many of my followers always look for a way to interact with the authors they read. You have launched a new website and have an active presence on Facebook. Is interacting on the internet with fans something you enjoy?

Absolutely. I make it a point to answer every email I get. Anyone can reach me at http://www.allanstratton.com

7) You seem to be an avid traveler and your fans seem to enjoy hearing about your journeys. Are you planning any new and exciting personal trips in the near future?

I am an avid traveler. You can see a slideshow of shots of some of my travels at my website, under “About Allan”, but this year I’m planning to stay in Canada, aside from a couple of trips this winter to favourite haunts in Cuba (Sol Cayo Largo for being Robinson Crusoe-esque – you can walk the shore for hours without seeing anyone — and Paradisus de Oro for its terrific from-shore snorkel reefs).

The reason for staying is that my husband and I bought a cottage in northern Quebec which we renovated last summer. I never thought I’d be into that, but hey. We’ll be there for five months: loons swim by the deck; there are rabbits and bears; Northern Lights; and moose mating calls in the fall.

For readers interested in travel tips beyond Europe and the Caribbean: In South America, I’d suggest Argentina (Iguazu Falls, Buenos Aires and Salta especially) and Chile (from the Andes through the lake district and down to the penguins in Patagonia). Peru has some obvious highlights (Machu Picchu and Colca Canyon), but I’d see it after those.

Of the five countries I’ve visited in subSahara, I’d recommend Botswana hands down. It’s by far the safest and Chobe and Linyata National Parks are astonishing.

In Asia, I’d recommend China over Vietnam or Thailand, but Cambodia’s Siem Reap area over all of them: Angor Watt is truly out of this world.

I loved travelling in north Africa and the Middle East (Jordan’s Petra is up there with Angor Watt, and snorkeling in the Red Sea at Aqaba is a must). I also loved loved loved Egypt, but I don’t think I’d go now. Jerusalem is wonderful for the richness of its history, but it has a hard, unfriendly feel – Tel Aviv, on the other hand, is totally relaxed and welcoming.

One country I haven’t spent any time in is Portugal. So I want to get there and also back to southern Spain. I would have loved to go to St. Petersburg, but with Russia’s leadership in global anti-LGBTQ attacks, there’s just no way.

Gosh, I could go on and on, but… yes, travel is a passion.

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Allan Stratton signing copies of “Chanda’s Secrets” at the Vietnam Book Fair in Ho Chi Minh City

Hey, thanks for the interview! It’s been fun.

Thanks for answering these questions Allan!

*****

Link to Scholastic Canada’s website for “The Way Back Home”

Link to Allan Stratton’s website

Going Beyond Reading about Reading | Review of “Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: Paper, Pixels and the Lasting Impression of Books” by Merilyn Simonds (2017) ECW Press

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We have all ponder over the fact that the way we read has changed in the past number of years. The arguments ranging from the “feel of the printed pages” to “the speed of which content comes to me digitally” has bombarded numerous discourses for the last little while causing more confusion among us. But it has taken a writer like Merilyn Simonds to thoughtfully and personally investigate the way books are published and consumed to give us readers some personal points into the craft to help us understand better the activity many of us enjoy so much. Hence, Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: Paper, Pixels and the Lasting Impression of Books is one of those reads that is worth not only reading but pondering over.

A Paper World Pages 17, 18

My sons and I belong to the last two generations to grow up in an entirely paper world. The first words we read were pressed into paper. By the time I was thirty, I was writing on a computer; by the time my sons were adolescents, most of what they read was onscreen. But our first books, both theirs and mine, were printed much as Johannes Gutenburg printed books six centuries before.

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We’re caught in a paradigm shift. Words are the constant, with paper on one shore, pixels on the other. My sons and I stand in the middle, a foot balanced on either side. My parents would never have believed that a world without paper was possible. My grandchildren will never fully grasp the extent to which paper served us all we wanted and needed to know. I have walled every room in my house with books; my granddaughter can hold more books than that in just one hand.

Simonds has mixed a perfect book together here no matter what format a reader uses to absorb this work. In it, she talks about the process of producing one of her works in both print format (in collaboration with Kingston, Canada printer Hugh Barclay) and a digital edition (with her son Erik). This book documents not only her honest observations with working with both people on this book but also adds historical facts on the history of reading habits and publishing.

A Puzzling of Pixels Page 57-58

I wonder if the intangibility of onscreen text plays a role, too in the paper/pixel preference game. I’ve suffered enough computer crises to know that digital storage is not to be trusted. I now keep backups of my backups. Paper may be fragile, subject to tearing and rot and spilled coffee, but printing words on paper is like carving them in stone compared to the ephemeral world of pixels, where words can disappear from epaper as if written in invisible ink.

For whatever reason, after almost fifty years of digital innovation, physical paper remains the gold standard. Engineers, designers, and user-interface experts are engaged not in invention but in technological mimicry, working hard to make reading on an ereader or tablet as close to reading on paper as possible. The Kindle screen looks like a page in a paperback. iBooks includes fairly realistic page-turning. Both of thew will seem like square wheels if South Korea’s KAIST Institute of Information Technology Convergence perfects its interface that will allow a reader to see already-read pages on the left and unread pages on the right, exactly like a paper book.

But the question remains: why are scientists working so hard to make plastic screens exactly like paper? Can’t we have both – eat our cake and pie, too? Paper is lovely to touch; screens are workhorses at scrolling and searching and ferrying volumes across oceans and continents.

I want both.

Simonds’ thoughts here go off into wonderful tangents at times, which truly reflect the thoughts and wants of true book fans. This book is a reflection of what many of us think and want from our reading materials right now without being too scientific or deeply philosophical.

Into The Hellbox pages 147-148

I set a few more lines, but I am too slow for Hugh. He fires me, which is a relief. I can spend hours at the computer happily inserting a comma and taking it out, but to pick out the letters physically, whether for practical reasons of spacing or because Stupid Merilyn has been at it again, drives me to distraction.

Hugh carries on until all four chases are locked up, or down, I forget which. Every so often he sends me an email, complaining that I use too many commas, or have such an affection for H’s that he has been forced to buy more.

“What happens next?” I ask when I see the four chases lined up neatly on the glass. The studio has always struck me as dirty and disorganized, but the better I get to know Hugh, and the closer I look, the more I see a different kind of order, measured and controlled, exerted by the process itself.

“Now I print,” says Hugh. “I don’t have enough type to set more pages.”

Merilyn Simonds has truly given a collection of  thoughts to ponder over in her book Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: Paper, Pixels and the Last Impression of Books. This is one of those books I sincerely encourage readers to take their time with and reflect over while perusing the pages.

*****

Link to Merilyn Simonds’ website

Link to ECW Press’ website for Gutenberg’s Fingerprint

(I had the pleasure of purchasing this book at Ben McNally’s Books in Toronto recently)

“A lot of black people are living in circumstances that middle-class and upper-class whites can’t imagine. So, I wrote this book partly to help illuminate that fact.” | Q&A with author William Kowalski about his new book JUMPED IN

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Image linked from the publisher’s website

For many of us readers, we understand the power of the gaining enlightenment through the written word. But for those of us who deal with individuals who are just becoming aware of the power that engaging in the act has, the thrill of sharing the joy of reading can be equally thrilling. Novelist William Kowalski is gifted in documenting the human condition through his books, but his love of his craft and his understanding of the power of his final product shines through his work with Orca Books’ Rapid Reads series. As his latest item for Rapid Reads is about to come out, he answers a few questions for me about his book, JUMPED IN, and he explains the power of the written word has for all of us. JUMPED IN will be released April 18, 2017.

*****

1) First off, could you give an outline of JUMPED IN?

JUMPED IN is part of my Rapid Reads series, which is written for adults who are new to reading.
>p<
It’s the story of a 16-year-old named Rasheed, who lives in a bad neighborhood in a large city. His school is so dangerous that he’s dropped out. His sister was the victim of a drive-by shooting when she was a little girl and is now paralyzed. His mother has become addicted to her daughter’s painkillers. His father’s whereabouts are unknown. His neighborhood is ruled by a gang called the E Street Locals, who are constantly trying to get him to join. Rasheed seeks to escape all this by hanging out on a nearby university campus. Here he meets a campus cop who eventually takes him under his wing and helps him realize that his strong desire to make his world safe for his family again can be translated into a career in law enforcement, rather than always rebelling against authority. The Locals jump him in, but he’s able to escape from them, and we get the sense that he has a real chance to start over.
 

2) Was there anything specifically that caused you to write this book? Is there anything you hope readers will gain from JUMPED IN?

I was motivated partly by the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer. It sprang up in the U.S. as a response to several police shooting of unarmed black men. I was really disgusted by some of the responses of my white friends to the whole thing. They didn’t seem to understand or care that being black in the U.S. is a whole different experience, and that people do not have the same opportunities just because they are Americans. A lot of black people are living in circumstances that middle-class and upper-class whites can’t imagine. So, I wrote this book partly to help illuminate that fact. 
>P<
Like all Rapid Reads book, I also wrote it to address a specific audience. I wanted to create a character that my readers could identify with. These books are written for teens and adults who are interested in becoming better readers. A lot of them are locked up. We know that a disproportionate number of people of color go to jail in our society. This book is for them, too. Not only does it show them that someone out there understands them, but it helps them see there’s a way out, too.
 

3) The Rapid Reads website has this listed as your seventh book with them. Has your writing changed at all since your first book with this series? 

I think it’s become clearer and simpler, a little more so with every book. Writing this way is good for me. I have to practice my basic techniques over and over. I think it keeps me fresh.
 

4) Have you had any contact with any readers of your books from the Rapid Reads series? If yes, what was their reaction to your books?

I get lots of letters from people who read these books. Often, their adult education instructors will forward them to me. They seem to really like them. For many of them, it’s the first book they’ve ever read. That’s a big deal. You never forget your first book. They’re proud of themselves for having finished. They let me know what they liked and didn’t like about the story, and they are always curious to know if I will write more. I always write back.
 

5) Do you think you will be doing any future books for Rapid Reads?

I hope to continue to write a book a year for the Orca people! We have a great relationship, and it’s working well for both of us.
*****

“It’s funny how families sometimes repress their best tales. From there, I began to spin a yarn about a rumrunner.” | Q&A with author Emily Schultz on her book “Men Walking on Water.”

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There is something about a story based on family history, especially when that story has a bit of intrigue and vice involved. Author Emily Schultz has given us readers a story like that  with her novel Men Walking on Water. And if this book is like any of Schultz’s previous works, it will be a gripping read.

*****

1) First off, could you give an outline of Men Walking on Water?

It’s about a gang of rumrunners and what happens to their operation when one of them disappears into the night with a bag of cash. The others believe him to be dead—crashed through the ice in an old Ford used for driving whiskey across the Detroit River. The head of the operation is a corrupt reverend who’s keeping the abstinence movement going with donations from socialites while stockpiling his church basement with Canadian whiskey.

2) Was there any in particular that inspired you to write this book? It does seem like a book that may have required to a bit of research with it – Was that the case? If yes, what kinds of research was involved?

My grandfather was a rumrunner in Detroit. He dropped out of school and started moving booze between Canada and the U.S. at age 14. It was like getting into the family business, and so many regular citizens were doing it. His brother—my great Uncle Alfred—drowned in the river when his car crashed through weak ice. Because I went to university in Windsor, I looked at the river every day for years, but never heard this story until much later. It’s funny how families sometimes repress their best tales. From there, I began to spin a yarn about a rumrunner.

Research began mostly with photo books, images of 1920s Detroit. You can fall into a photo and feel it, and as a fiction writer, that can open up any number of possibilities. From there, I began reading about Prohibition, Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang, the Pullman Porter Union which plays into this story in an interesting way, and of course fashion and music. A curator at the Henry Ford museum gave me a tour of their private collections, and their archives also provided plenty of local tidbits, like how much a ferry ride to Canada cost in the ’20s — a quarter!

3) You have included on your website a book trailer, where you are listed at the Scenarist. How did that come into being? What has the reaction to the trailer (if any) been?

Brian J. Davis put this trailer together for me from silent films that are in the public domain now. As my husband and first reader, he was familiar with the novel and its plot and good at matching up scenes and characters from real films to my story. He wanted to call me the “scenarist” to be true to the ’20s and ’30s. People thought it was a lot of fun. I happen to live with a filmmaker so that made it easy.

Link to the video on Vimeo.com

4) I know these next two questions are ones that most authors hate to answer. But my followers seem to enjoy seeing it answered – Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?

We’re hesitant to commit because we use books for inspiration, but that’s not the same as just enjoying a book.

5) So you have a listing of dates that you have on your website for public events in relation to Men Walking on Water. Are public events something you enjoy doing in relation for your books? Are there any upcoming events that you are excited to be partaking in?

I have eight or nine readings in as many days with events from Windsor to Toronto to Montreal. Good thing I do enjoy it!  (Check my schedule here: www.emilyschultz.com/events)

6) You seem to have an active role on social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter? How do you like using these means of communication in relation to your writing? Have you had much contact with fans/haters of your work?

I love social media as a way to stay connected with friends, readers, and other writers—but I do have to limit my use of it sometimes. When I’m deep in the writing of a novel, I put a blocker on it so I only have access to it for ten minutes or so per day.

7) Are you working on anything new right now in relation to your writing? If, yes, are there details you care to share?

I’m putting together a short fiction collection. I’m also working on adapting The Blondes for TV series. I’m working on a new novel as well, but I want to keep it close to me for now.

*****

Link to to Penguin Random House Canada website for Men Walking on Water

Link to Emily Schultz’s website

“I hope the story conveys that it’s possible to find new and unexpected ways of moving forward, even under the most constraining circumstances.” | Q&A with writer JonArno Lawson on his new book “Uncle Holland”

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Cover image linked from the publisher’s website
I don’t think there is a more versatile writer right now than JonArno Lawson. And certainly not one as dedicated to his craft. His new book children’s book  – Uncle Holland – is coming out April 1 from Groundwood Books. And he is probably one of the most productive writers I know of this year . His listing of new titles is impressive. Lawson took some time out from his writing and editing to answer a few questions for me.
*****

1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of Uncle Holland?

In Uncle Holland, a young man who’s constantly getting into trouble with the law – he steals things – is finally given a choice between jail and the army. He chooses the army, and finds an unlikely way to make something positive out of his new environment.
 

2) In reading the descriptions that Groundwood Books has for Uncle Holland, I gather that you have a personal connection with this story. Is that the case? What are you hoping – if anything – that Uncle Holland will accomplish?

 

Uncle Holland is based on my actual Uncle Holland, who died before I was born. In real life, he did get into a lot of trouble – and he really did start out in the army, but he became a jeweler afterwards. I was only guessing that he joined the army (in the 1930s) because of legal problems, but in the fall I asked his big sister, my Aunt Jean (who turns 100 this year!) why Holland joined up and she said “I don’t know – he was in some kind of trouble, but I can’t remember what”.  So it was a good guess!

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Image linked from the publisher’s website
 
I hope the story conveys that it’s possible to find new and unexpected ways of moving forward, even under the most constraining circumstances. The Army might represent any kind of problem – in a way, school is like the army for children – you’re forced to go and you have to struggle all the time with pressures to conform.
 

3) How long did it take to write Uncle Holland? Was it an easy or difficult book to write?

 
I wrote Uncle Holland almost ten years ago – I wrote and illustrated the first version in one morning, as a self-challenge, at my favourite coffee shop (which no longer exists – it was called ToGo, at Yonge Street and Shaftesbury Avenue in Toronto – I still miss it) . My daughter’s kindergarten teacher wanted every parent to come in and read a book to the class at some point during the year, so when it was my day I thought – I’m supposed to be a children’s book writer – why don’t I see if I can come up with a story and pictures all at once on the day I’m supposed to present?  So I did – it was very exciting – it created a lot of pressure. I used my Uncle Holland as the main character, and a few details of his life, to save myself the trouble of inventing everything on the spot.
 
The story went over well with my daughter’s class, but I never really thought about publishing it. For fun, I showed it to Sheila Barry, who was my editor at Kids Can Press in those days. I wasn’t submitting it, just showing it to her because I liked the way my parrots came out – and she thought it was funny, but again, we never talked about it as a book. Then a few years ago she said she was still thinking about the story and wanted to look at it again.  It needed a little editing, there were a few inconsistencies, and odd phrasings, but it pretty much stayed as it was. 
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Image linked from the publisher’s website

 

 

4) The illustrator Natalie Nelson has agreed to do a Q&A for me but I was curious to hear how you two connected?

 
Sheila was working with Natalie on a book to do with Flannery O’Connor by Acree Macam. I love Flannery O’Connor’s work too – so that was immediately interesting to me. Sheila showed me Natalie’s pictures and said she thought she’d be perfect for Uncle Holland, and I agreed, completely!
 

4)   I know you are busy with other books right now but are you planning any discussions/signings/etc. in relation with Uncle Holland?

 
There aren’t any plans for it at the moment. I wish Natalie and I could meet up to do some kind of event together – she and Sheila and I had an interesting exchange about how to talk about army life (and the point of armies) in the classroom, because that question had already come up for Natalie in a presentation.
 
My father was in the army too, and so was one of my Aunts – a fair number of my cousins have been as well – so it’s something I’ve thought a lot about.
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Image linked from the publisher’s website
 

5)   Many of my followers use social media to track events that their favourite writers/illustrators may be involved with. You posted on your Facebook profile that you won’t be on FB for the “next long while.” Any idea how long that will be?

 
I’m not sure. . .I’m just checking in once a week or so now (that’s what I’ve done over the past few weeks). Some people seem to be good at using social media in a thoughtful, responsible way, but I find I just keep getting sucked in, and not using it productively at all. So I had my daughter change my Facebook password (I don’t know what it is anymore), which means that now I can only go in by request. I’ve felt much, much happier since. Not only were the posts distracting and often upsetting to me, but the sense of badly used time made me feel doubly awful.  Spending five or ten minutes on it once a week seems the best solution for me.
 

6)   In your last Q&A with me, you listed a number of projects that you are working on for this year. What is the next item you will be releasing for publication?

 I regret everything came out two weeks ago with espresso books. (Link to their website) That was exciting for me – they did a lovely job with it. The next one to come out is a non-fiction book with Wolsak & Wynn publishers, about playing cross-culturally with children. The title (as of now) is But it’s so silly: a cross-cultural collage of nonsense, play, and poetry. That should be out in August. And after that is Leap!, in the fall, a picture book with a poem as its text, with Kids Can Press, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon. So a busy year ahead. . .
  *****
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the new book, Steven! I appreciate it.

Thanks for answering these questions JonArno! I know my followers appreciate your time and your writing!

*****

Link to House of Anansi/Groundwood Books website for Uncle Holland

Not Only a Smooth and Lyrical Read but an Enlightening One as well | Review of “Dragon Springs Road” by Janie Chang (2017) HarperAvenue

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Many of us who read appreciate a story line that is smooth and lyrical. We enjoy slipping into a narrative that seems to float us away from our reality to another world. And it takes a certain type of writer who has that skill. Fans of Janie Chang realized she had that ability to do that with her first novel, and they eagerly awaited her second book. Now Dragon Springs Road has been released, and book readers have the ability to slide into another great story.

Chapter 1 – November 1908, Year of the Monkey – (Pages 1-2)

The morning my mother went away, she burned incense in front of the Fox altar.

The emperor Guangxu and the dowager empress had both died that week. My mother told me our new emperor was a little boy of almost three called Pui. A child less than half my age now ruled China and she was praying for him. And for us.

My mother knelt, eyes shut, rocking back and forth with clasped hands. I couldn’t hear the prayers she murmured and did my best to imitate her, but I couldn’t help lifting my eyes to steal glances at the picture pasted on the brick wall, a colorful print of a woman dressed in flowing silks, her face sweetly bland, one hand in blessing. A large red fox sat by her feet. A Fox spirit, pictured in her human and animal forms.

The altar was just a low table placed against the back wall of the kitchen. Its cracked wooden surface held an earthenware jar filled with sand. My mother had let me poke our last handful of incense sticks into the sand even let me strike a match ot light them. We had no food to offer that morning except a few withered plums.

The Fox gazed down at me with its painted smile.

After we prayed, my mother dressed me in my new winter tunic.

“Stay here, Jailing,” she said, pushing the last knot button through its loop. “Be quiet and don’t let anyone know you’re here. Stay inside the Western Residence until Mama comes back.”

But three days passed and she didn’t come back.

The story deals with Jialing – a seven years old girl whose her mother abandons her in a courtyard on Dragon Springs Road near Shanghai, China  in 1908. Jialing is a mixed race child – Eurasian – and faces contempt from both Chinese and Europeans alike. While she settles into a life of a bond servant to a family who cares for her in turn, she suffers extreme prejudices and hardships. She finds limited comfort with Anjuin – the eldest daughter of the family she serves – and Fox – an animal spirit who has lived for centuries.

Page 121-122

As the date of Anjuin’s wedding drew near, I worried about the promises we had made to each other. I knew I owed the Yangs much, but I longed to be free of my dependence on them. to be free of them all except Anjuin, even though the prospect of being a maid, even one in a house where Anjuin was mistress, didn’t comfort me the way it had when we were children. I didn’t know what a life outside Dragon Springs Road might be like, but between school and Fox, my horizons had stretched wider than I had ever imagined possible.

As for my childish hopes of finding my mother – how was I ever to accomplish that if my fate was tied to the Yangs? Now I understood it would take money because neither fate nor Fox were about to help me Fox had know me for years and had never mentioned my mother.

My grades were passable, my English scores very good. I wouldn’t be able to attend missionary college since I didn’t qualify for a scholarship. I needed a livelihood. At school, one of the teachers had passed around a newspaper article about the Shanghai Women’s Commercial and Savings Bank. The bank’s new general manager was a woman.

“Perhaps I could find work there as a bank teller,” I whispered to Leah.

“I wouldn’t count on any job that put you in front of customers,” she replied in her blunt way. “They don’t want our kind waiting on them.”

Chang has crafted – note the word crafted –  a complex story here filled with facts, emotions and mysticism. A reader can easily get absorbed in the book and find oneself not only enlightened but educated about life in Shanghai, China in the early 1900s. In bringing the story of Jialing to life, Chang has given us thought about the plight of Eurasians in that time period.

Page 194-`195

In the weeks before graduation I spent my lunch hours in the library poring over newspapers for job listings. I wrote application letters in careful brushstrokes if in Chinese or took my turn on the old school typewriter if the job was advertised in one of Shanghai’s English-language papers.

Clerical or secretarial, tutorial or child care, I replied to them all. All this effort, even though I knew it was futile. There were just too many people in Shanghai, too many with more skills than I could offer. There were people willing to work for almost nothing. There were few enough ways a woman could earn a livelihood, and the decent work went first to young women whose family had guanxi, connections, women whose families could afford red envelopes of cash to ease an introduction. Families whose daughters weren’t tainted with foreign blood.

The Shanghai Women’s Commercial and Savings Bank advertised for a filing clerk. A position suitable for the secondary school graduate. Must be tidy in dress and grooming, with clear handwriting. It was the first bank founded by women, a fine place to begin a career, place where I could use my English skills. I wanted this job very badly and was thrilled to receive a reply to my application.

“This is just a small bank, Miss Zhu,” the manager said. Her hair was pulled back in a large bun, the only ornament on her black tunic a small pearl brooch. “We prefer girls with family connections, girls who can bring us more clients. I didn’t notice you had graduated from a mission school. That was my mistake.”

Her words were pleasant enough, but disdain clung to the corners of her lips. It was another, typically brief interview, the sort that was over as soon as I entered the door. I had let my self hope, a mistake.

Janie Chang has created not only a lyrical novel with Dragon Springs Road but also one that enlightens as well. With a well-crafted plot and story, it is definitely a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Janie Chang’s website

Link to Harper Collins Canada’s website for Dragon Springs Road

Link to my Q&A with Janie Chang “(T)here are many, many details that made their way from family history and into DRAGON SPRINGS ROAD – so yes, I’m still drawing from family history. These small incidents and anecdotes breathe life into the setting, because they’re accounts of real events.”

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