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

Groundwood Logos Spine

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.

9781554981380_2

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).

9781554981380_1

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

 

 

 

Updating the Concept of the ‘Immigrant Experience’|Review of “Soucouyant” by David Chariandy (2007) Arsenal Pulp Press

David Chariandy will be participating at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street Festival

9781551522265

For many of us who descend from immigrant backgrounds, we had to deal with a lot more baggage than the label of “multiculturalism” can truly define our families. We had to deal with: racism, ethnic traditions and stereotypes, untold stories and whispers of events that our elders may not what us to know about, etc. etc. Those hardships become more acute as our parents become older and depend on our care for their well-being. And it is that element of the human condition that David Chariandy documents in his novel Soucouyant.

Page 9

I stay with Mother, though I haven’t truly been invited to stay. On that first evening of my return, Mother walks suddenly out of the kitchen and up the stairs to her bedroom on the second floor. I hear the low grate of a deadbolt. later, i make my way up to the other bedroom on the second floor. The bunk bed that I once shared with my brother is still made, though the sheets and pillows smell of dampness.

My bedroom window looks out over the weathered edge of the bluffs to a great lake touched by the dying light of the city. Below, some forty feet down, a few trees lean about on a shore of sand and waterlogged litter. Dancing leaves and the tumble of an empty potato chip bag. Despite the view and the fact that many consider the surrounding neighbourhood ‘a good part of Scarborough,’ our place is difficult to boast of. We are alone in a cul-de-sac once used as a dump for real-estate developers. The house is old and bracing now for the final assaults of erosion. Even in summer, all windows facing south are kept shut. Because of the railway track, scarcely ten feet away.

Chariandy has written an insightful bit of literature here. Readers glide into the thoughts of a son who returns after a two-year absence to his Caribbean-born mother suffering from dementia. Upon his arrival at his childhood home, he not only finds the easily-confused individual who is his mother but also a young woman who also occupies the house. As the son continues his stay at the home, he is forced to confront memories and hidden secrets of his mother and his family.

Pages 47-48

Please, Mother. Please.

There are the ironies, of course. Mother can string together a litany of names and places from the distant past. She can remember the countless varieties of a fruit that doesn’t even grow in this land, but she can’t accomplish the most everyday of tasks. She can’t dress herself or remember to turn off taps and lights. Increasingly, she can’t even remember the meaning of the word ‘on,’ or the function of a toothbrush, or the simple fact that a waste-paper basket isn’t a toilet.

‘It happen . . .’ she tries again. ‘It happen on fore-day morning when the sun just a stain on the sky. When the moon not under as yet. Me, I was a young girl running . . .’

‘I know, Mother. It doesn’t matter. You’re here now.’

‘You’re here now . . .?’

‘You arrived, Mother. You told me the story, remember? There were lights . . .’

She had trouble arriving. The plane banked around the airport for almost an hour and the pilot had announced that an ice storm was hitting the city and the ground crews were clearing the runway. An ice storm, she thought. What on earth could that be like? What fearsome beauty, falling jewels of ice? When the plane banked a last time for the approach, she looked out of the wind to see the city once more. No buildings at all, only countless dazzling lights. A land of lights.

She came here as a domestic, through a scheme that offered landed status to single women from the Caribbean after a year of household work. This was in the early sixties, before the complexion of the cities and suburbs of this land looked anything like it does today. The administrators of the domestic scheme set her up in a small apartment above a building housing a butcher’s shop and a Negro hair-cutting salon, hope that she would feel at home., realizing that no other person would be willing to put her up. It was smelly and the cockroaches ran and ran when the overhead bulb was turned on, but she didn’t mind. Everything seemed wonderful to her, even the scraggly trees and slushy sidewalks. The snow-accented trees.

The snow.

While the details that Chariandy documents in the story are unique to immigrants from the Caribbean region, the experiences his Canadian-born and residing protagonist endures are universal to any descendant of any immigrant of any background. The attempts of trying to fit into the mainstream society, the questions of past experiences of one’s parents, the embarrassment of old mores and customs from an old culture that no longer fit in our modern society. And Chariandy documents the situation of a child trying to deal with an elderly parent whose actions are not proper in any situation.

Page 83

Later in the evening, I stumble upon her in the kitchen spilling sugar from a large sack over wedges of lemon and then eating away, rind and all. There’s a grainy stickiness all over the linoleum and white streaks on the rug leading out of the kitchen. Mother winces with each of her mouthfuls. ‘Like eating lightning,’ she says. She looks at the leaking bag of sugar and explains it is broken would some please call the  . . . electrician. She insists that the whole house deserves a good sweeping, and starts calling for the girl to give her a bath.

‘I can bathe you.’

You can . . .?’

‘I can do it too. I’m your son.’

She nods warily at this. I accept the bag of sugar from her and guide her upstairs to the bathroom. I make sure the water in the tub is just right, and I add the salts. I help her out of her clothes, her hands balancing on my shoulders while I slip her underwear off. Her private skin so pale and unwrinkled, even childlike. Her elbows pressed tight against her sides.

‘Don’t get my head wet,’ she says.

David Chariandy has documented an important and delicate element about the human condition in his novel Soucouyant. The book is lyrically and well-crafted and is certainly a great read. One worthy of any serious reader’s time and thoughts.

*****

Link to Arsenal Pulp Press’ website for Soucouyant

Link to a page on Wikipedia about David Chariandy

Link to Penguin/Random House Canada’s website for Brother –  David Chariandy’s newest book – to be released on Sept. 26, 2017.

 

 

Thrilling the Mind out of its Slumber | Review of “The Substitute” by Nicole Lundrigan (2017) House of Anansi

A big thank you to Anne Logan at “I’ve Read This.” for bringing this book to my attention.

I purchased this book at Ben McNally Books in Toronto. A great bookstore!

substitute

There is something about an excellent psychological thriller in the way it awakens the mind out of a state of slumber. A reader is forced to consider plot twists of a story plus become enveloped in the moral dilemmas of the characters. Then the reader of the story seems to become obsessed with finishing the story at all costs. Nicole Lundrigan is an expert in writing great fiction, and her book The Substitute is a perfect example of how great she is in her craft.

Pages 1-2

Though I am not afflicted by it, I wonder about guilt. When I was a child, I would crouch on the cement floor of our basement, building elaborate contraptions, and thinking, Which piece of this system is culpable? Sometimes a slender knife would fly forward and mar the wallpaper, or a needle would lift and destroy a balloon. Once I even built a system where the sharpened legs of a scissors closed on photographs of my father. Straight through his skinny neck. As the grainy image of his face drifted left, and his suited body drifted right, I questioned what part of my machine was responsible for that destruction. The systems were nomore than a mess of inanimate objects: croquet balls, yardsticks, greasy springs, plastic bowls, and bent spoons. If each one followed the simple rules of cause and effect, could the steel bearing be accused if it never came in contact with the flying paint? Would the rubber band be guilty when it had no choice but to stretch and snap? I imagined the liability lay somewhere within them all. Guilt trapped inside the weighty potential of the machine. Never in the tip of my finger. Never in the bend of my wrist. Never cupped in the palm of my hand.

I have adored Lundrigan previous writings (Link to my review of The Widow Tree) and this book is just as thought-provoking as her previous works. Here we are vaulted into the life of poor Warren Botts. He is in the process of attempting to teach middle-school science and having a rough time of it. In the thick of the his attempts is thirteen-year old Amanda – soft-spoken and introverted – who is in desperate search of acceptance and guidance. When Amanda is found dead, hanging in Botts’ backyard. Botts becomes somewhat confused and unglued and is unable to give the police proper explanations for what had happened. Suspicions mount from both the police and his neighbours and Botts becomes even more frayed. Meanwhile another voice appears in the story – unknown whom it is to us – giving us chilling details and showing strong emotional detachment to the events swirling around the story.

Page 23

My father looked peaceful in the casket at the funeral home. They had his hair combed straight down to disguise the wreck of his forehead. Thick beige makeup was substantial, and while there was too much pink in the cheek, my swollen mother had insisted on extra. “He doesn’t look well,” she tearfully told the director. “His colour is off.” No joke.

His hands were folded together across his chest. Nails trimmed, four fingers resting upon four fingers. When I stood near the box, I reached out, touched his cool skin. I could almost detect a hint of warmth still lingering there, and I entertained the thought he would wake up once weighted under the soil.

Glancing behind me, I noticed funeral-goers were granting me some time alone. A tender moment to say goodbye. I ran my hand over his, then gripped his middle finger, his “swearing finger,” as I had heard kids say at school, and I squeezed it. “Oh Dad,” I whispered, “Where are you now?” With another quick look over my shoulder, I cranked his finger backward, pressed down, felt dead ligaments tearing a distinct and pleasant pop.

When I stepped aside, his finger remained displaced. My mother waddled up for a subsequent pass, and noticed. Cheeks flushing the same natural colour as her husband’s, she tried to reposition it, tried to slip it underneath his index finger. Tried to bend it the other way. No luck. It rose up again. Telling the world what he thought of them. I noticed the other mourners smirking, nodding. I hope the bastard stayed like that forever.

There are some deep thoughts that run through this book. I found myself reading and rereading some of the passages over and over again just to simply regain some of the  emotions that Lundrigan has so brilliantly conceived with her wording. A carefully patient reader with this book can’t help but gain empathy for certain characters, even if their actions are questionable or even horrid.

Page 233

“Yes. Overwhelmed.” For a moment, he closed his eyes, imagined the cube-shaped room flipping outward, and instead of being on the inside of the die, he was standing on one of the faces. All he had to do was shuffle backward, and he would tip over an edge. Detective Reed would stay on the six, and he would slip ninety degrees onto the four. No longer facing each other, a right angle between them.

“Botts?” She continued to crunch, pulverizing the sugar in her mouth. “You got my attention.”

The Substitute by Nicole Lundrigan was certainly one of the boldest reads I came across in 2017 and will be, no doubt, one of my favourites of this year. It is a thriller that kept me thinking and reviewing. And certainly a great piece of literature.

******

Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Substitute

Link to Nicole Lundrigan’s website

A Great Piece of Literature Showing the Importance of a Great Piece of Literature | Review of “Jane, the Fox and Me” by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault (2013) Groundwood Books

JaneCover

Fanny Britt will be appearing at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street Festival

The beauty of getting involved with a piece of literature is the ability is has to sweep us away from our existence. We can forget the hardships of our world and absorb the reality of somebody else for a while. And perhaps in doing so, we can take the lessons of their reality and improve our own lives. It is that aspect of literature that is brilliantly documented in the graphic novel Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault. (Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou)

jane1.jpg
Scanned image of page 18 from Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault. (2013 Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press)

There is something extremely heartbreaking about the life surrounding the life of protagonist Hélène – and something truly universal. She is being bullied at school to the point of having no friends. Her mother is overworked and exhausted for caring for her and her little brothers, that she has no time to help with Hélène’s emotional issues. And to top everything else off, Hélène – like a lot of other teenage girls her age – is totally convinced that she is overweight. But the one thing that seems to give Hélène a bit of colour in her life is her copy of Jane Eyre.

Page 28-29

Because she grew up to be clever, slender and wise, no one calls Jane Eyre a liar, a thief or and ugly duckling again. She tutors a young girl, Adèle, who loves her, even though all she has to her name are three plain dresses. Adèle thinks Jane Eyre’s smart and always tells her so.

Even Mr. Rochester agrees.

He’s the master of the house. slightly older and mysterious and with his feverish eyebrows. He’s always asking Jane to come and talk to him in the evenings, by the fire. Because she grew up to be clever, slender and wise, Jane Eyre isn’t even all that taken aback to find out she isn’t a monster after all.

There is a beauty in the way this graphic novel moves forward with the story of Hélène in both the images and the words. They are both frank and direct, yet the complexities of Hélène’s issues come through. This book is a pleasure to read and contemplate, no matter what the gender or the age of the reader is.

jane2

 

Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault is certainly a unique graphic novel. The plot moves in a frank manner via both the words and the images. Definitely a great piece of literature showing the importance of a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to a Wikipedia page about Fanny Britt

Link to Isabelle Arsenault’s website

Link to Groundwood Books website for Jane, the Fox and Me.

Link to the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street website

 

 

 

Reflecting on the Ties We Bind | Review of “Little Sister” by Barbara Gowdy (2017) Patrick Crean Editions

y648

There always seems to be a magical and unexplainable bond between people at times. Be it friends, family members or even total strangers, we seem attracted to certain people so much that we are able to sense their thoughts and emotions without even saying a word out loud. And it is that sense of connectivity with certain individuals that Barbara Gowdy has her characters explore in her book Little Sister.

Page 6

Her nose bled.

She overreached the Kleenex and had to steer her hand back. An aftermath of misery clung to her, and she let herself cry a bit. She must have fallen asleep, except the precise, mundane details, not just the spider and the skirt but also her cold fingers, her childish grip on the pen, the background noises – that whole ordinary, filled-in world and its myriad sensations –  had felt as real as this, only (she looked around) in much clearer focus.

Harriet? Who was Harriet? Rose had never before dreamed that she was someone else. Or inside someone else. Yes, inside more accurately described the feeling of visiting, as opposed to having, the woman’s body. She sniffed her empty coffee cup and thought of their new employee, Lloyd, the former drug dealer.

Gowdy has given us readers something profound and unique to ponder over with her protagonist Rose Bowan. Every time a thunderstorm hits, Rose loses consciousness and has visions inhabiting another woman’s body. And while inside that body, Rose witnesses actions and emotions of ‘Harriet’, a professional woman who’s life is about upended by a pregnancy due to a affair with a married co-worker. And while Rose is encased by Harriet’s life and emotions, she begins to ponder her own relationships – a boyfriend, a mother with dementia, a sister who mysterious passed away years ago. It is through Rose’s eyes and thoughts, readers are given ground to carefully consider their own relationships in their lives.

Page 143-144

Ava’s papier-mâché parrot, Tobikumu, gazed sightlessly toward the window. He had been a Christmas present from a great-uncle who had lived for several years in Tokyo. Rose had gotten Kazuyuki, a delicate papier-mâché cellist with elongated fingers resting on fine strings that might have been dental floss. One day she had taken him to the house of a new Japanese friend, and there, within five minutes, the friend’s poodle had town him to confetti.

Under Ava’s care, Tobikumu, the parrot, stayed perfect. Under Rose’s he lost his glass eyes. She put him on her bedside table so that before falling asleep she could look at his sockets and recover the guilt she’d shed during the day, in those moments when she’d been lighthearted or animated or – the most bewildering offence – pleased with herself. She thought of the guilt as survivor’s guilt, and of survivor’s guilt as a guilt necessary for survival. Tobikumu was her victim and accuser both. She counted on him to get her to cry herself to sleep.

She cried secretly, in near silence. Still, her parents saw her misery and sent her to a child psychologist, an old woman who was half deaf and therefore needed to sit next to Rose on the sofa. Rose didn’t mind. Dr. Grewal’s baked-bread grandmotherly smell and her cracked brown face like dried mud were unthreatening and a little heartbreaking. She spoke in a soft, accented voice. She had a tendency to repeat Rose’s answers, for both their sakes, Rose understood, in order that Rose might hear them said back to her, and that Dr. Grewal might verify she’d heard them correctly. Rose never mentioned Tobikumu, and when the subject came around to Ava, she said what any normal girl getting better would say: Yes, I’m still sad. No, not as sad as I was. Yes, I understand it wasn’t my fault. Mostly the dwelt on Rose’s present circumstance, her friends and school, her shyness. To distract Dr. Grewal from asking about Ava, Rose mad her shyness sound like a more serious problem than it was. Year after year, as Dr. Grewal’s deafness worsened and she sat ever closer, Rose offed up the minor troubles and triumphs of her week.

Gowdy’s writing style has a direct feel to it. The story is not filled with excess descriptions or extra phrases. Readers are thrust into Rose’s train of thoughts or paths of actions without being given any room for second guessing or looking back. Readers are stuck following Rose’s life like poor Rose is stuck observing Harriet’s life during one of her trances.

Page 152

She would never love him, but she wanted him to love her. The man you were with was supposed to love you. Besides, he had loved his wife and often told her so.

Then one morning she stopped caring whether he loved her or not. She went to sleep caring and woke up asking herself, what am I doing? Apart from the strain of listening to his countless specific and indefinite resentments, there was the fact that he preferred to see her mid-morning, during those hours when, normally, she would be having breakfast and doing household chores. But how do you break up with a lonely, recent-immigrant widower?

Barbara Gowdy has certainly given us readers some considerations in regards to our relationships as we read Little Sister. The plot is matter-of-fact and direct, and  it is certainly one that is worthy of reflecting on.

*****

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s website for Little Sister

Link to Barbara Gowdy’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.

neanderthal

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

A Unique and Emotional Novel from a Talented Writer | Review of “Quarry” by Catherine Graham (2017) Two Wolves Press

Quarry Cover from Natalie jpeg

There is something about becoming absorbed with a well-crafted, coming-of-age novel. Not only do we learn we are not alone with the pains and sufferings that we all endured during that fundamental time of our lives but we gain a better understanding of the types of confusions that other people endured while growing up. And that is exactly what we get when one reads Catherine Graham’s brilliant novel Quarry.

Pages 9-10 Nobody

I didn’t know what a quarry was until I saw the one that would belong to us. A pit carved for mining. Dig what you need – the dynamite gap –  leave a hole for evidence. Don’t think about air filling it up. Air fills up everything. Water makes the quarry more than it is; the blue we were drawn to. On the dock, looking out. My mother on one side. My father, the other. The big shoulders pressing me in.

It was our first summer living beside a lake that wasn’t a lake, with wind tents of blue moving in the jewelled sunlight, up and gone and up again. the limestone, cut into jagged rock, layered with the weight of dead animals, ancient sea animals, imprints. Lush green trees, they surrounded as a forest. Dad had found the place by chance after spotting the For Sale sign outside a white gate that led to a long gravel driveway, a bend that led to a mini-lake, the house of Mom’s dreams.

We made up dives that summer, me and Cindy. The Watermelon Dive – legs in a V. The About-to-Die Dive – a rambling, dramatic shotgun death off the dock. The Scissor Kick Dive – a flutter of pointed legs in the air. And the Drowning Dive – rise to the surface and float like the dead fish that smacked against the limestone rock, oozing decay’s stink. With a two-year advantage, I gave my nine-year-old cousin a three-second head start whenever we raced off the dock to reach the floating raft. Sometimes a hit of the giggles cut through my determination – a memory of something we’d laughed about while in the dark, tucked in single beds, or while eating Rice Krispies, opening up our food-filled mouths to shout: see-food diet!

Catherine Graham has lyrically told the story of Caitlin Maharg here. Living beside a quarry presents an idyllic childhood of exploration and excitement for the young girl, but all that is shattered when her mother becomes terminally ill. Through the course of the illness  – and the growth of Caitlin –  a series of embarrassing family secrets emerge that require the young girl to attempt to;  understand, deal with, and heal. And the journey requires the young girl to mature a bit too fast at times.

Pages 51-52 Lifeguard

They were bored now that the keg they’d stolen from Cherry Hill Golf Club was empty, the silver carcass found by Chuck. He doesn’t have proof. He doesn’t know it was us. They all said this. But I knew Chuck knew by that look in his eye, that high-beam gaze.

Pac-Man and pinball were no substitution. Darren spent less time in the Games Room, more time in the back field where the keg used to be. I didn’t see him through the pool’s chain-link fence anymore. The stone in my hand, my only comfort.

“What do you guys do back there?” He was walking me to the Malibu like he always did after the end of my shift, but I couldn’t see his face. The plan was for me to come back later with Brenda. “Why are you walking so fast?”

He stopped. And when he turned, the late sunlight hit him; his eyes were glazed with red squiggles.

“Why are your eyes so red?”

He laughed, and when he tilted his neck, I could see how thick the glaze was.

“It’s not right,” I said. I thought of the druggies at school, their long scraggly hair and rocker T-shirts. Skipping school. Failing tests. Losers.

“What do you know?” His eyes narrowed. “Ever try it?”

I froze.

“Caitlin,” he said. “If you don’t want me to, I’ll stop.”

His eyes softened. Too soft, liquid rushing down a drain.

“Don’t you wanna know what I got ya?” He pulled a necklace from his pocket – an arrow on a silver chain – and swung it back and forth.

I stared at the swaying arrow. “Are you trying to hypnotize me?”

“Here. It’s special.” He clasped it around my neck. “Like you.”

Cold on the hollow of my throat.

It is truly amazing how well this story flows. And the plot is memorable. Graham’s previous work in poetry has built a foundation in writing novels that are unique and well-crafted. This is a great piece of literature which explores the range of human emotions of a young girl in some truly stressful situations.

Page 103-104 Three in a Room

She died Christmas Day. I knew she would. A voice had told me. A voice that wasn’t mine but must’ve been. None of this made sense. But sometimes it did, when I tried not to think about it. Like the way you see a star by looking to the left, just a little.

The quarry was cold when she went into the hospital for the last time, but not cold enough to form a skin. It received the snow and turned the snow to water. Eventually, it would scab over, cap the quarry of life. The fish would anchor rock bottom, dormant in their crypt.

Mom said strange things those last few days while I sat by her bedside in her private room, flipping through old magazines. She seemed anxious about someone. The name Geordie passed through her morphined mouth, followed by: don’t . . . stop it.

I touched her arm. “Who’s Geordie, Mom?”

She muttered more nonsense.

Still, I thought, she’ll come through. She always did. I thought of the time (two years ago? three?) when she spat out blood. I’d never seen such vile red. Even that time she’d come through.

I never knew you could lose so much in one day. And on the biggest day of giving, the day set aside to open gifts with loved ones. I should’ve gone to the hospital; I’d heard the voice by then: She’ll die on Christmas Day. But Dad’s shift was first, and his Caddy was already gone by the time I woke up.

I was watching an old episode of Little House on the Prairie in the family room. The horse-drawn covered wagon was trundling across the television screen when I heard the side door open. He came straight through without taking off his boots. He stood in the middle of the family room for what seemed like a long time. Long enough for the snow to slide off and form a blurry puddle.

“She’s gone.”

“I know.”

Round and round. And then the world stopped.

Quarry is a unique and emotional coming-of-age novel from talented writer Catherine Graham. It is lyrical and memorable hence a great piece of literature. One of my favourite reads of 2017 and hopefully not the last novel from this writer.

******

Link to the Blogspot page of Two Wolves Press

Link to Catherine Graham’s website

Link to my Q&A with Catherine Graham about Quarry – (T)he novel is about a young woman who learns to draw on inner strength she didn’t know she had to overcome dramatic challenges on her journey to adulthood.

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

9781459735750

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.

polish-restaurant-cover-front-cover-copy

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

9781554989294

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.

9781554989294_1

 

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.

9781554989294_2

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.”