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“Place plays an important role in most of my work and I like to bring my readers here, to my home, through my words.”| Q&A with writer Jean E. Pendziwol.

Writers who are versatile to write for different audiences usually impress me. But writers who can craft books for different audiences about the settings around themselves impress me even more. Jean E. Pendziwol has done both those things. Writing about the Northwestern Ontario region that she grew up and lives in for both adults and children, she is becoming a writer who works should be read and savored. Pendziwol was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

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1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of “The Lightkeeper’s Daughters?”

“The Lightkeeper’s Daughters” is an atmospheric story of Lake Superior and lighthouses, about love and loss, about isolation and belonging, and what it means to be family. Though Elizabeth’s mind is still sharp, her bones have aged and her eyes have failed. No longer able to linger over her beloved books or gaze at the paintings that move her spirit, she fills her days at the retirement home with music and with memories of her family, especially of her beloved twin sister, Emily. When her late father’s journals are discovered after a tragic accident, she seizes the opportunity to piece together the mysteries of her childhood. With the help of Morgan, a delinquent teenager performing community service at the home, Elizabeth delves into the diaries—a journey through time that brings the two women closer together. Each entry draws these unlikely friends deep into a world far removed—to Porphyry Island on Lake Superior, where Elizabeth’s father served as lighthouse keeper and raised his young family in the years before and during World War II. As a complex web of secrets unravels, Elizabeth and Morgan realize that their fates are connected to each other and to the isolated island in ways that are at once heartbreaking and healing.

2) You have also just released “Me and You and the Red Canoe.” Could you give an outline of that book?

A celebration of the simple gifts of life, “Me and You and the Red Canoe” begins at dawn when two siblings leave their campsite with fishing rods, tackle and bait, and push a red canoe into the lake. A perfect morning on the water unfolds, with glimpses of wildlife along the way. Trailing a lure through the blue-green depths, the siblings paddle around a point, spotting a moose in the shallows, a beaver swimming towards its home and an eagle returning to its nest. Suddenly there is a sharp tug and the rod bends to meet the water. A few heart-stopping moments later, the pair pull a silvery trout from the water, then paddle back to the campsite to fry up a delicious breakfast.

 

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3) So now you have written for both adults and children. Do you find any notable differences in writing for the two audience groups? If yes, how so?

While there are some differences writing for the two audiences, most notably the complexity of language, themes, plot, and characters, what strikes me most are the similarities. Even though most of my work for children is in the picture book format — where the text is usually less than 1000 words — writing for children is not simple nor simplistic. The craft requires the same respect for the reader, the same careful choice of words, the same commitment to story. To me, choosing to write for adults doesn’t mean I have “graduated” or even switched from writing for children, I am still challenged by the picture book format, I love the concept of co-creation combining text and illustration and I love, love, love connecting with young readers.

4) How have you found the reactions to your published works? Are there any memorable comments or actions to your works you care to share?

The most memorable reaction to The Lightkeeper’s Daughters was from Francis McKay whose husband served as lightkeeper at Porphyry Island for several decades, and who herself spent many years assisting with the functions of the light station and living on the island during shipping season.  After she read an early draft of the manuscript, she told me that the story made her feel like she was right back on the island again and that it brought back so many wonderful memories of her time there. A writer could receive no greater praise. 

5) You are scheduled to appear at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street festival. Do you participate in many public events/discussions of your work? Outside of WOTS, are there any other events you are looking forward to attending?

Yes – I will be at WOTS in the TD Children’s Literature tent with my latest picture book Me and You and the Red Canoe (Groundwood Books). (Link to the WOTS website here) I will also be participating in the Heartland Fall Forum in Chicago October 13, (Link here) and the International Festival of Authors in Toronto and Thunder Bay towards the end of October. (Link here)

6) You seem to have an have an active presence on some social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using those applications in relation to your work?

Social media can be distracting, but it’s also a great way for me to connect with readers. (Link to Jean E. Pendziwol’s Facebook page) (Link to Jean E. Pendziwol’s Twitter account) I’m a visual person, so I like Instagram, although I’m not quite sure I’ve figured it out yet. Between pictures of books, I’ll also post snapshots of my chickens (I have five layers), images of Lake Superior (my muse) and some of the crazy activities my kiddos drag me into (among other things, they had me climbing a frozen waterfall this winter.) (Link to Jean E. Pendziwol’s Instagram account)

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

I have a few projects on the go, but nothing I can tease you with yet. 😉

8) Your books seem to be set in and near the Northwestern Ontario region to which your website states you were born and raised. Is that where you are living right now? Are there any specific elements to that area that inspire you to write?

I was born and raised in Northwestern Ontario and still live in Thunder Bay on the shore of Lake Superior. I find that I’m very much inspired by where I live; by my time spent sailing as a child with my family on the temperamental but beautiful Lake, snowshoeing or skiing in the boreal forest, climbing and hiking in the Nor’Westers with my family, or paddling the many lakes and rivers. Place plays an important role in most of my work and I like to bring my readers here, to my home, through my words.
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Exploring the Confusing Emotions Around Young Friendships | Review of “Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell” by Liane Shaw (2016) Second Story Press

Liane Shaw will be participating at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street Festival.

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It is hard to understand people sometimes. It may be the way a person thinks or just a way a group of people act. Trust is a difficult thing to give  sometimes, but we give it – rightly or wrongly – to certain people and we don’t want to loose that trust when others give it to us. Those are the types of issues that Liane Shaw explores in a brilliant fashion in her novel Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell.

Pages 3-4

“Frederick! Please focus. You need to talk to the officer!”

The loud voice startles me right out of math class, and I look up at my mother’s face. She isn’t looking at me, though. She’s looking at a man. Not just a man. A police officer.

I’m at the police station because my mother said that the police wanted to speak with me. That’s what she said when she came into my room this morning without knocking, which was a direct infringement on our room privacy agreement.

“Frederick! You have to get dressed and come with me now. The police want to talk to you!” Her voice shrieks through my door, high and shrill like a chipmunk yelling at you to stay away from his tree. The thought makes me smile a little, and she sees it because she comes in without an invitation.

“Why are you smiling? This isn’t funny. The police called here and want me to take you down to the station. What is this about? What could they want with you?” She’s not looking at me when she asks the questions, so I don’t answer. She’s always told me that you have to look directly at someone you want to have a conversation with.

Her rule.

Answer me, Frederick. What do the police want with you? Did you see something or do something?

I still don’t answer because I’m not sure what she’s asking. I see and do lots of somethings every day. She’s leaving words out of her sentences because she’s upset for some reason, and now she doesn’t make sense.

“Frederick! Are you listening to me? We have to go and see the police!”

It’s interesting the way people say “the police” as if you are going to see all of them. Or as if there is only one of them.

“Frederick. Pay attention to me. Please.”

A reader can’t help but feel sorry for poor Frederick. His odd behavior at school has made him an easy target some of the different cliques there, but he’s gotten use to eating lunch alone in the ‘Reject Room.’ However, Angel has taken a bit of shine to Frederick as well. Now in her sixth school, she has had a hard time making and keeping friends. But she finds Frederick interesting – he’s annoyingly smart and refreshingly honest and she decides to teach him all her rules of friendship. Yet when Angel disappears, Frederick is torn by telling the police where she has gone or break one of those rules of friendship. The decision may even lead Frederick into danger himself.

Page 90

I have emotions. Lots of them. Everyone does. Most people wear them on their faces and in their voices for the whole world to see and hear. I think emotions are private and should be worn on the inside where they’re safe.

“Oh. I didn’t think of that.”

“Well, think about it now. Would you wonder or worry and any other W words if I suddenly disappeared without telling you first?

Would I wonder or worry if I came to school, and Angel wasn’t sitting in the Reject Room at lunch time, ready to fill my ears with words that I only half listen to? Up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t even know there was an Angel. If she wasn’t there anymore would I feel different?

She isn’t going to be there anymore. I’m going to be eating alone again. Quietly. I hadn’t thought of that before. Now one will smile at me and tell me I’m funny, even when I’m not trying to be. No one will talk to me except Robert, sometimes, and Peter Murphy the rest of the time.

No one will ask me to the movies, even though we never actually went.

I was scared at the idea of going to the movie with her, and now I don’t have to do it. I guess I should feel relieved. But I’m not sure that’s what I’m feeling.

Shaw has certainly documented the confusion and the ambiguity of emotions that surround friendships for young people. Her words are clear and concise as she gives us insights to the thoughts of Frederick as he considers his actions in his dealings with his friend Angel and her disappearance. This is a story told from a unique perspective and documents some interesting elements of the human condition.

Page 122

I thought this would all happen a whole lot faster than it seems to be happening. I don’t know why I thought that. I’m pretty sure it isn’t logical to think that. I have a very logical mind about most things. But I have no experience with this sort of thing. Is this a sort of thing? Is there a precedent for someone taking a bus to a strange city to find someone who seems to be missing even though she had a foolproof plan?

If I don’t get back in time for school tomorrow, my mother will find out what I’m doing, and she will be angry with me.

I don’t like anger. I try not to feel it because it’s an uncomfortable and out of control feeling, as if my insides are turning red and molten with heat that burns my common sense until it melts and drips out of my mouth with words that I shouldn’t say. When people are angry they say hurtful things. My mother’s angry words always burn me, and it takes a long time for the scars to go away. I don’t like to make her angry.

Liane Shaw has given readers some unique thoughts and perspectives with her novel Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell. A clearly written book which documents some important elements of the human condition. Truly a great read and one for starting some great discussions.

*****

Link to Second Story Press’ website for Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell

Link to Liane Shaw’s website

 

“The earliest seeds of the story can probably be traced back to our childhoods. Our dad has always had a great love of trees, nature, and bonsai, having grown up in the Taiwanese countryside. I think living in Toronto he missed that, and compensated for the cold Canadian winters by filling our house with trees and plants. | Q&A with Eric Fan, Co-Illustrator of “The Night Gardener”

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There is something enjoyable about book illustration that I find somewhat unrecognized by many adults who read. The skill in creating and honing images for a publication takes an immense time and energy to which the final product is just as enlightening as words on a page. Eric Fan, who along with his brother Terry, have created some wonderful illustrations for some stunning books over the past little while and show no sign of stopping any time soon. Eric recently answered a few questions for me in which he shows us a little insight to the world of book illustration.

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1) So I have been getting some multitudes of comments over my review of “The Night Gardener.” How long did it take for you and your brother to create that book. Was there any personal inspiration or ideas that aided in the creation of that book?

Since it was our first book, we had the luxury of a pretty long lead time. We worked on it for almost a year, but that included doing multiple rough dummies we did before starting the final art. By the time we got to the finals we had a pretty clear idea of how we wanted the spreads to look. Here are a couple of examples from the original dummy to give you an idea of what I mean. The dummy ultimately went through about three drafts until we were happy enough with the pacing, and the overall design.
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The earliest seeds of the story can probably be traced back to our childhoods. Our dad has always had a great love of trees, nature, and bonsai, having grown up in the Taiwanese countryside. I think living in Toronto he missed that, and compensated for the cold Canadian winters by filling our house with trees and plants. We have many memories of him carefully pruning the trees, and sculpting his bonsai. He was also a parrot breeder, so there were parrots (and a hummingbird named Woodstock) flying free in the house. It was a little like growing up in an indoor jungle. When Terry and I were doing t-shirt designs many years later, we collaborated on a design for Threadless called The Night Gardener, which depicted a man sculpting a tree into an owl (our dad also loves owls). When we first got our agent, Kirsten Hall, she asked us if we had any ideas for stories, and that image came back to us, along with memories about our dad. We always felt there was a story we could build from that standalone image. So that’s basically how The Night Gardener got its start. 
I actually found our original design submission for Threadless:
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And here was the printed shirt:
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2) How has the reaction to “The Night Gardener” been? Has there been any memorable comments or reactions to the book you care to share?

It got a wonderful reaction, which was a nice surprise for us. We really didn’t know what to expect, or how it would be received. I think the first time we were able to breath a sigh of relief was when it got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, and then Kirkus. Some of the most memorable reactions came from book sellers who saw the book early on, sometimes only in its F&G form. We even became friends with some of them, like Sarah Ramsey, who manages one of the Book City stores in Toronto. She really loved the book from the first time she saw it, and hand-sold it to many of her customers. The other memorable reactions came from readers, and kids inspired by the book. Some of them created their own topiaries out of paper, or made video reviews on Youtube. There was even a school in the U.K. that did an entire Night Gardener student art show, which was beyond amazing.

3) What is it like to work with your brother Terry on a regular basis? Is there any sibling rivalry between the two of you while you work?

I think a little rivalry can be a good thing, since it continually pushes you to do your best work. It’s great to have a fellow collaborator, because you always have someone to bounce ideas off when you get stuck. Making a book can be a daunting project sometimes, so it’s nice to have someone to share that workload with. When one of us falls down or falters, hopefully the other one is there to save the day. That’s happened on numerous occasions.

4) You both worked and published a book with Astronaut Chris Hatfield called “The Darkest Dark.” What was like to work with him on that book?

It was incredible. How often do you get to work with an actual astronaut? The story of The Darkest Dark is semi-autobiographical – how Chris was inspired to pursue his dream of becoming an astronaut as a child. For that reason, it was important to us to remain true to that and have a degree of verisimilitude. Chris was gracious enough to invite us up to his childhood cottage on Stag Island where the story actually took place. It was an incredible inspiration, since we got to see his childhood bedroom and the neighbouring cottage where he watched the moon landing in 1969. 
He also took us flying in a four-seat Cirrus, which was a thrill. I even got to pilot the airplane for ten minutes, which was both incredible and terrifying. At one point Chris looked back at Terry, who was in the back seat, and shouted “your brother’s flying the plane!” I think Terry almost had a heart attack. One of the best parts of the project was just getting to know Chris better, and his wife Helene (and their pug Albert). They’re both such wonderful, inspiring people, and we’ve remained friends with them to this day.
Since I think it’s fun for people to see the process of the book, I’ll share another dummy rough, this time from The Darkest Dark:
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5) You both have a new book coming out called “The Antlered Ship.” Could you give a bit of an overview of that book?

“The Antlered Ship” is written by Dashka Slater (link to her website), and it’s a lovely, imaginative text. The first time I read it I could immediately see certain images pop into my mind, which is always a good sign when you’re illustrating a book. The story centres on a curious fox named Marco who is full of questions. He sets out to find the answers to those questions by joining the crew of the antlered ship (comprised of three deer and a flock of pigeons). On their adventures they encounter stormy seas, pirates, and a threatening maze of rocks, all in the hopes of reaching “Sweet Tree Island” where Marco thinks he might find other foxes to answer his questions. The story is ultimately about friendship, and finding what you’re looking for even if it turns out to be right under your nose. The writing is wise, gently humorous, and philosophical and we had a wonderful time living in that world for a while. (Link to Simon & Schuster Canada’s website for “The Antlered Ship)

6) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

Right now we’re just finishing up on our next book that Terry and I wrote together, which is called “Ocean Meets Sky.” The story centers on the magical spot between sky and sea, and a magical journey to reach it, but I won’t say too much more about it until it’s closer to its release date, which should be in early 2018. We also just started working on the dummy for a book called The Scarecrow, written by Beth Ferry. (Link to her website) It’s scheduled to be published by HarperCollins in 2019, so it’s a little ways down the road, but it’s a very beautiful and poignant text. 
The other exciting project we’re illustrating is called “The Lifters,” written by the amazing Dave Eggers – his first foray into middle grade books. (Link to Penguin/Random House Canada’s website for “The Lifters”) I can’t really describe the book better than Dave Eggers himself, so I’ll just use his quote: “The Lifters has been on my mind for almost ten years. That’s when I had the idea that a simple cupboard handle could open a hillside to a warren of kid-sized tunnels under a town — and that it would be up these kids to keep everyone living aboveground upright and safe. My goal was to write the book I would have wanted to read when I was a middle-grader, with enough adventure and jokes and mystery to keep even an antsy reader engaged.”
Here is the cover we did, which they just released to the press:
Lifters

7) You and Terry are scheduled to attending the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street festival. Do you participate in public events for your work often? If yes, do you enjoy meeting the public to discuss your work?

We really love meeting fans of the book and always appreciate meeting book sellers and librarians as well. We don’t do a huge amount of public events, or speaking engagements, partly because we’re quite busy, and partly because were both a little intimidated by public speaking. I think a lot of artists pursue art because they’re somewhat introverted, so public speaking can be a bit emotionally taxing. That said, we really loved going to the Forest of Reading festival in Toronto. There was so much positive energy, and genuine enthusiasm from the kids. 

8) You seem to be an active participant on social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using those tools in relation to your work. Do your fans actively seek you out and chat with you about your books?

I’ve had a few people approach me to chat through social media. I think Facebook (Link to the Eric Fan Illustration page on Facebook), Instagram, (Link to the Eric Fan Art page on Instagram) and Twitter (Link to Eric Fan’s Twitter Account)are all great platforms to connect with readers, fans, and friends. Working from home, I have to be a little wary about how I parse out my time. It’s very easy to get sucked into Facebook or Twitter and fritter away hours that would be better spent working on art. That said, it’s a balance, and you want to be present and visible and direct a certain amount of energy towards social media and promotion. 
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Eric and Terry Fan will be participating at 2017 Toronto Word on the Street Festival

“With this 2017 novel, I went in a different direction, writing many scenes in the early 1900s and including a fantastical element, something I’ve never before experimented with.” | Q&A with novelist Angie Abdou on her new book “In Case I Go.”

Angie Abdou is one of the most popular writers on the Canadian literary scene right now. Since being a finalist for the Canada Reads series a few years ago, her works seem to reflect a reality that is consistent with many readers in their day-to-day lives. Now with her latest work, Abdou digs a bit into the past a bit. Abdou was kind enough to answer a few questions not only her upcoming work In Case I Go, but also a few of her upcoming projects as well for me.

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1) First off, could you give an outline of “In Case I Go” ?

Eli’s parents (Lucy and Nicholas) have reached a rough spot in their marriage and decide to leave the hectic city in an attempt to find peace in a small tourist, mining town in the mountains. They move into a little miner shack originally owned by Eli’s great-great grandfather and namesake, Elijah Mountain. While Lucy and Nicholas deal with their own adult problems, Eli befriends the next door neighbours, a Ktunaxa man named Sam and his troubled niece named Mary.  Gradually it becomes clear that Eli must make amends to Mary. They’re haunted by the mistakes of their ancestors, and are challenged to find a way to reconcile.

2)  Was there any research involved in writing this book? Is there anything you are hoping to accomplish with it?

 
Yes, I did a lot of research. First, I read theoretical texts about history and haunting. I didn’t intend to write a historical novel but, of course, I kept getting pulled that way. Initially, I resisted scenes set in the far past, but eventually I had to give up that resistance. The characters are, after all, haunted by … the past. Once I realized the book had to go there, the Fernie Museum Director Ron Ullrich proved tremendously useful – with details on everything from what kitchen clocks would look like to what women’s bathing suits would look like to what men would have stayed home from the war to how much one might pay for a prostitute.  What do I hope to accomplish? My main hope is that readers will be entertained and compelled to finish the book, enthusiastically even. After that, what each reader takes away from the book is up to that reader. But I’m very curious. I’m ready to hear from readers.

3) There is some confusion over official release dates of the book – Can you confirm the official date of its release? Are you planning a reading/book tour in connection for it? If yes, are there any particular dates/events that you are looking forward to attending?

The book will launch September 14th in Fernie BC. The launch is co-hosted by the Fernie Heritage Library (as the first BOOKED! event of the season) (Link to BOOKED! event page) and the Fernie Museum (as the opening event for the fall Chautauqua). (Link to the Fernie Museum website)
 

4) You mentioned in our last Q&A “I learn things with each book I write, and apply those lessons to the next.” Now that you have written another book, do you still feel that is true?

Lately, I’ve heard myself saying that each book is a reaction against the last book.  My 2014 novel BETWEEN was very contemporary and rooted in realism. With this 2017 novel, I went in a different direction, writing many scenes in the early 1900s and including a fantastical element, something I’ve never before experimented with.  With this 2017 novel, my biggest challenge was the Ktunaxa element, what stories I could tell, whose voices I could depict, and how to do so as carefully and respectfully as possible. With my 2018 book, I’m reacting against that challenge and telling a story that is entirely my own: the memoir of a hockey mom.

5) Your fan page on Facebook mentions that your hockey memoir “HOME ICE: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom” will be published next year. Am I right in assuming this is your first non-fiction book that has been published? How did you like writing this book as opposed to your fiction work?

I have this delusion around writing. The last book I wrote was always “super fun” to write and the next book I write will be “super easy.” The book I”m currently writing is always torture.  I”m currently writing HOME ICE.

6) You also mention on Facebook that you have a collection of essays on sports literature being published. Could you give a bit of a description about that work? How did you get involved with that?

My day job is university professor, and I often teach sport literature courses. These types of courses are increasing in popularity in Canada and US, and as author of a swimming-wrestling novel (THE BONE CAGE), I frequently get invited to speak to students of sport lit. During these visits, professors have complained about a lack of secondary sources, essays to which they might direct their students as samples or use as material to write lectures. Jamie Dopp and I put together this collection in response to that complaint. There are ten essays on the Canadian sport lit books taught most frequently, novels like King Leary, The Good Body, and Shoeless Joe.

7) (So here is the dreaded question I ask writers but I get yelled at by my followers of my blog if I don’t ask it.) Are you working on any new fiction right now? If yes, are there any details you can share?

My attention right now is focused on the hockey-mom memoir. But there are some fiction ideas simmering – nothing I could articulate yet.

8) As I talk to a lot of writers right now, they are getting a little fatigued with social media. Yet, many fans of their writings use social media to connect with their favourite writers. Are you still comfortable with social media as a means to connect with your fan base?

Finding a balance with social media and not letting it take up time that could be directed to more real activities is always a challenge. However, for now, I do think I need to be there. I appreciate the way it keeps me connected to writing and reading communities throughout the country. It allows me to live remotely without feeling isolated or disconnected.

9) Is Fernie still an idyllic place for you to live in and write? How is your family reacting to your writing career?

My husband tolerates my writing career, barely.  I travel a lot with writing commitments and when I am home I’m often stressed about deadlines. He’s not a writer, or even much of a reader, so he tires of both those things – the absence and the anxiety. My kids love books, though, and they’re proud that I’m a writer, though they talk as if “Angie Abdou, the writer” is someone different than “Mom.”  “Mom” is far less interesting.
In 2015, I moved to Alberta for work – I’m a professor at Athabasca University – but I still own a place in Fernie and am actively involved in the arts community there, helping run a writers’ series called BOOK!.  Yes, it is idyllic.
*****

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

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

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

(Introduction)

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

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

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

Pages 51-52 Happiness And Sorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page 122 – 123

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

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

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

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

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

******

Link to Dundurn Press’ website for I am Algonquin

 

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

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

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

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

(Excerpt)

Once upon a northern night

a small,

small mouse

with big,

big ears

scurried along the deck,

searching.

Across the table,

mounded with snowy white

like vanilla ice cream,

he ran,

tunneling beneath the drifts

to a midnight feast of seeds

that lay scattered

beneath the bird feeder.

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

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

*****

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

Link to Jean E. Pendziwol’s website

Link to Isabelle Arsenault’s website

 

 

 

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.”