Tag Archives: Alfred A Knopf

Making Us Think about History Again | Review of “Lost In September” (2017) Alfred A. Knopf Canada

Lost

Amidst the celebrations around surrounding Canada’s 150th year since Confederation, there was some serious soul-searching about some of the ‘treasured’ events many of us were told were important historical dates in relation to our country. Were many of those dates really just as important and even positive events as our history teachers wanted us to believe? Talented novelist Kathleen Winter has taken a look at one such event and built a narrative around it (making many of us readers ponder history a bit more carefully) in her latest work Lost In September.

Pages 64-65

“Sophie, I need to talk about today. . . . I was thinking on the bus. . . .”

“Hang on!” She’s lit Facebook-blue. this is far from the kind of listening my mother provided, but it’s all I have.

I can’t always recall what happened in combat at Dettingen or in Culloden or at Quebec or anywhere else. Events have become entangled: all my wars now transpire in a single battlefield during one timeless period – darkness cut with spears of flame in whose light any instant of my soldiering might have played out. Sophie is supposed to help me disentangle the years. That has been our arrangement, from our first September to this one.

“Please?”

“Okay, shoot.”

“On the busy today I remembered flames, fire, all the times I made things burn, or made people burn, or when other people burnt things. . . . ~

“Forget about what other people burnt.”

“I never burnt anyone on purpose.”

“Okay.”

“Did I? Not directly . . .”

“You burnt people indirectly?”

“I see them scream and burn – but – I was not barbaric.”

“Weren’t you?”

“The enemy were the barbaric fiends”

“Which enemy?”

The answer to this is always hard to remember.

We all have heard some variation on the line `that ​those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.` But what if we muddle our history. We were all exposed to that infamous painting of General James Wolfe dying on the Plains of Abraham after defeating the French troops. But when we saw that painting in our history textbooks, did we read the story surrounding that battle with consideration or were we good little students and turn the page without giving the incident a second thought? Winter has done something unique here by bringing a version of “General Wolfe” to the streets of present-day Montreal and allowed his thoughts run amok by what he sees and what he thinks.

Page 147-148

I met a rugby coach on the train during my failed attempt to reach Quebec City last autumn, and he said, “I have a riddle for you: What’s worse than losing the championship game?”

“Winning the game,” I said, “is far more injurious to the soul.”

He looked at me anew, taking in my facsimile coat and hat. “Aye,” he said, “I guess a soldier would know.” He proceeded to recount to me the mountains of dolour and grief from which he had to dig his rugby players each season they were victorious. “They get depressed,” he said. “They get to asking what it’s all for. Some of the best hang their cleats up for good and I can’t stop ’em. It’s all I can do not to pack it all in myself and go on the beer.”

“My favourite poem is about that very thing,” I said.

“Favourite what?” He looked the way some people’s faces turn at the mention of coriander, or asafoetida, or even excrement.

I hauled from my pocket the page of my beloved poem, torn from a library copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. He found it incomprehensible. He was a lout, really. He completely failed to understand . I found the man so dispiriting I bailed out the TroisRivières station and caught a Greyhound back to Montreal where Sophie sent to the Mission, having rented my spot to a Cirque du Soleil trapeze artist who’d injured a meniscus.

There is something unique in the story line that Winter has created here. Our concept of history is muddled and confusing and that is what she has shown us here with this narrative. Would our forbearers -many of whom died for their ideals  – be truly impressed with the world around us today? Winter has given us something to ponder over as we read this book.

Page 174-175

A rack near the door has yesterday’s paper languishing on its bottom shelf. I sift through it as I eat, looking to see if anything of importance has happened in the world, but someone has torn half the pages out. Still, what remains is hardly inspiring.

If I had to name my greatest disappointment regarding New French Britain, I might have to say it’s the inconsequential drivel I read in papers purportedly published by the country`s learned set.

***

It’s the same with what I overhear in the streets. I eavesdrop on Montreal hoping I might hear its civilians discuss the latest findings in astronomy, or new perspectives on ancient philosophy, but they bleat the same small-talk I could neither abide nor understand in London of 1752: sports, weather, insipid flotsam sent on the wind by the latest political scandal – details petty and trivial and numerous as Sophie’s froth-flecks on her painted walrus’s sea, ephemeral. You’d think it all the most weighted precious stones, the way people bleat on. this fills me with chagrin and always has done.

Kathleen Winter has certainly made readers ponder over history just a bit with her book Lost in September. It is certainly a unique read and thoughtful book, but definitely a good piece of literature.

*****

Link to Penguin-Random House Canada’s website for Lost in September

Link to Kathleen Winter’s LiveJournal site

When Embellishment becomes Enlightenment | Review of “Men Walking on Water” by Emily Schultz (2017) Alfred A. Knopf Canada

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‘Embellishment’ is not totally the nasty term that it is stereotypically made out to be. When a talented writer adds bits and pieces to historical facts in a well-crafted fashion, a great story is born. Then, if that writer adds a few interesting characters and some perfect dialog, that story turns into a great read. That is what proper ’embellishment’ does and that is exactly what Emily Schultz has done with her book Men Walking on Water.

Page 3

The man who connected them wasn’t a man anymore, but a body, hidden deep beneath the green ice of the Detroit River. The group of rumrunners huddled on the shore, consulting on what had just happened. All knew the doors of the old Ford had been removed for ease of exit in exactly this circumstance, yet apparently Alfred Moss still sat inside. The Doctor claimed to have seen the car go under and no one had seen the driver since.

Moss was dead: to begin with. “There is no doubt whatever about that,” the Doctor said.

For many of us who grew up in either Michigan or Ontario, we have heard certain long tales over and over agin. Yes, there was a prohibition of sale of alcohol at one point and the there was a flurry of all sorts of colourful characters who dealt in the distribution and selling of ‘booze.’ But Schultz has added a bit of flavour to those stories here. We start out with the story of a man and a loaded car filled with illegal whiskey and money crashing through the ice of a river. Out of that incident, a cast of characters emerge that are drastically affected by incident.

Pages 30-31

There was a light on in the back, and although the drive was empty, a blue Packard parked on the street two doors over let Ernest Krim know what he would find: Elsie Moss was awake, but not alone. Moss had intimated as much – several times, in colorful language – but Krim hated to believe the worst of anyone, especially, a woman.

It was nearly three thirty. He approached the house slowly. The first lie had been harder than Krim had imagined. All eyes had been on him – Bunterbart’s and Zuckerwitz’s and Samuel’s and Bob Murphy’s as well as the others’. They all took it more personally than he’d anticipated, but especially the boy, Willie Lynch, who looked as though someone had put a shot right through his gut. Krim couldn’t recall the last time he’d lied – maybe during the war to his officer, or to his mother – but he hadn’t remembered it being so damn hard. The words had felt like little stones on his tongue. Three thousand, Moss had promised him, and he’d wire it. the idea of money moving like electricity made it seem hot and unreal, something only a fool would touch. Krim realized he should have asked for cash, that a part of him had hoped to find Moss at the train station for that reason. He ought to have haggled for five, or even the full ten Moss said he was taking. But he was a friend.

This book is an epic written in 1920s jargon. We slide in and out of characters’ thoughts and emotions while witnessing their actions with ease. Schultz does a great job of showing the duality of the nature of the character at times. We get a true understanding of a character’s intent even if their spoken words and actions appear sincere.

Page 68

“He must like you, reverend,” Elsie said, her tone more defeated than pleased, though she straightened up inside her coat and held the baby out to show a certain amount of pride.

It had been a long time since they’d seen each other. Prangley noticed Elsie’s face growing pink. Her hand inched up to check her hair and push the gold curls around. The reverend smiled, the divot in his upper lip pressing in, deepening into a flat gray dime shape. He could see she was recalling how she’d thrown herself at him, years ago. A floozy who’d turned afraid at the last minute – he couldn’t think of a worse type. She would do fine without her husband; he’d wager hard cash on the fact that she would find another within the year. Prangley reached out and poked at the baby’s blankets, feigning interest. the tiny boy caught his finger in its fist.

“What’s his name? Are you here to arrange the christening?” Prangley knew better than to glance at Elsie. Lies were easy to discern in a gaze but difficult to catch from the tone of voice. “Yeeesss, yeeesss,” he cooed at the homely thing. Its face was wrinkled and red as coral. “You’re a strong boy, aren’t you? Nice and strong.”

Emily Schultz has embellished strong elements into a history lesson with her book Men Walking on Water. Not only do readers get true understanding of the period but an glimpse into the natures of people. A true work of literature.

*****

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

Link to Emily Schultz’s website

Link to my Q&A with Emily Schultz – “It’s funny how families sometimes repress their best tales. From there, I began to spin a yarn about a rumrunner.”

The Trail from a Book to The Screen | Review of “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed (2012) Alfred A. Knopf

Wild

We have all had the desire to walk away from things in our lives at times. A death or a lost love thrusts us into questioning who we are and the need to just to get away for a while a figure things out comes upon. Cheryl Strayed found herself in such a quandary. And in turn she walked the Pacific Crest Trail through the rugged hinterlands of California, Oregon and Washington states. She documented her journey into a book called: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. And that book has now meandered it’s way to the movie screen.

Page 9

My solo three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings. There was the first, flip decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually do it, and then the long third beginning, composed of weeks of shopping and packing and preparing to do it. There was the quitting my job as a waitress and finalizing my divorce and selling almost everything I owned and saying goodbye to my friends and visiting my mother’s grave one last time. There was the driving across the country from Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon, and a few days later, catching a flight to Los Angeles and a ride to the town of Mojave and another ride to the place where the PCT crossed a highway.

At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, quickly followed by the grim realization of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because doing it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected doing it would be and I was profoundly unprepared to do it.

And then there was the real live truly doing it.

Strayed has documented her journey up to and along the PCT in a lyrical yet simple fashion here. It is easy for the mind’s eye of the reader to envision the sights she describes and to feel the pains she had endured. Strayed has overcome difficult challenges in her life but her journey documents a moment of change for her which should be a guide for many people.

Page 68

I walked the rest of the afternoon with my eyes fixed on the trail immediately in front of me, afraid I’d lose my footing again and fall. It was then that I spotted what I’d searched for days before: mountain lion tracks. It had walked along the trail not long before me in the same direction as I was walking – its paw prints clearly legible in the dirt for a quarter mile. I stopped every few minutes to look around. Aside from small patches of green, the landscape was mostly a range of blonds and browns, the same colors as a mountain lion. I walked on, thinking about the newspaper article I’d recently come across about three women in California – each one had been killed by a mountain lion on separate occasions over the past year – and about all those nature shows I’d watched as a kid in which the predators go after the one they judge to be the weakest in the pack. There was no question that was me: the one mostly likely to be ripped limb from limb. I sang aloud the little songs that came into my head – “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” – hoping that my terrified voice would scare the lion away, while at the same time fearing it would alert her to my presence, as if the blood crusted on my leg and the days-old stench of my body weren’t enough to lure her.

It is no surprise that this book was made into a movie. (Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, screenplay by Nick Hornby and starring Reese Witherspoon) Strayed has crafted a considerate and heart-tugging book filled with emotions here. It is an easy read but one that one thinks about after one is finished with it.

Page 135

I reached for a washcloth on the shelf near the tub and scrubbed myself with it, though I was already clean. I scrubbed my face and my neck and my throat and my chest and my belly and my back and my rump and my arms and my legs and my feet.

“The first thing I did when each of you was born was kiss every part of you,” my mother used to say to my siblings and me. “I’d count every finger and toe and eyelash,” she’d say. “I’d trace the lines on your hands.”

I didn’t remember it, and yet I’d never forgotten it. It was as much a part of me as my father saying he’d throw me out the window. More.

I lay back and closed my eyes and let my head sink into the water until it covered my face. I got the feeling I used to get as a child when I’d done this very thing: as if the known world of the bathroom had disappeared and become, through the simple act of submersion, a foreign and mysterious place. Its ordinary sounds and sensations turned muted, distant, abstract, while other sounds and sensations not normally heard or registered emerged.

I had only just begun. I was three weeks into my hike, but everything in me felt altered. I lay in water as long as I could without breathing, alone in a strange new land, while the actual world all around me hummed on.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed is a lyrical and remarkable read that has meandered its way to the movie screen. The book may have one person’s feelings in it but it touches on thoughts and emotions we all have encountered.

****

Link to Cheryl Strayed’s website

Link to Alfred A. Knopf’s page for Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Carefully considering who we are and who we follow | Review of “Once We Had A Country” by Robert McGill (2013) Alfred A. Knopf

A good piece of literature makes us look at our friends and our ideals and question them. Just who we are and what we believe should be looked at by ourselves once in a while. And that is what Robert McGill has done through his protagonists in his novel Once We Had A Country. It is a stunning and complex book that boldly reflects the human condition.

Page 20-21

“Get your old man a beer?” he says.

Without a word , she jumps down runs for the fridge.  Today, as she received Communion, she was made to understand that something had changed forever. It seems this ritual will remain, though Maggie bringing him beer and changing the channel when he asks. Sometimes she would prefer a book, but her father never reads. He says books only tell you about the past; it’s TV that keeps you up to date. Side by side each evening he and Maggie sit before the set, eating their dinners from foil compartments on trays. When they visit Gran next door, she makes wry comments about scurvy and the Children’s aid, and then Maggie’s father buys apples or grapes that sit on the counter gathering dust until the house grows lousy with fruit flies. There are times when Maggie herself wishes for some kind of change in their routine – a friend to stay over, dinner at a restaurant – but her father appears content, though he has no hobbies and doesn’t travel, hardly leaves the Syracuse city limits. He never complains about clerking at the Public Works Department. It seems he wants nothing beyond the silent hours of Maggie’s company in the living room, and the worst way in which she could betray him would be to ask more herself. Sitting with him in his easy chair, she puts the veil back on and flips it side to side, watching the television grow clear and shrouded by turns.

It wasn’t until her childhood was over that she realized she’d been desperate to get out. Her father must have sensed it sooner, the way he turned against her once she got to college. Then she spent half her money on long-distance calls from Boston, close to tears, trying to make him understand without saying it outright that he didn’t want the same things he did. Except now he’s in Laos, and what the hell does she know about what he wants? Maybe if she understood his desire she wouldn’t be so angry with him.

The story starts in the summer of 1972. A group of young disillusioned people move from the political turbulent United States to start a cherry-orchard operation in Canada. But all is not ideal within the new commune. Friendships fray, ideals are questioned while the trees need attention. Maybe starting anew wasn’t such a good idea.

Page 148-149

Maggie thinks of telling Fletcher about her encounter with Wale in the playroom but decides he already has enough to manage. Each day seems to bring him into conflict with people on the farm. Those on the payroll begrudge the chores he assigns them, while those who aren’t being paid don’t bother with his labour schemes at all and entice the others to movie matinees in St. Catharines or the beach at Port Dalhousie. In bed he complains to her that Dimitri’s the main culprit, setting a bad example with his truant walks in search of (pet cat). Fletcher complains about the garbage everywhere, the mud on the floors, the noise from the record players and car stereos, the shouting and laughing downstairs that make it hard to sleep, until he and Maggie end up arguing over which of them should go tell people to be quiet. In the mornings, there are often bodies asleep in the hall, and many residents of the barracks don’t get up until noon. Fletcher starts going out to the building before breakfast, rapping on the doors and hollering hellos, poking people awake.

His shortwave radio goes missing, then his welding torch. She tells him not to take it personally, but it’s no good. At meetings, he battles with Dimitri, who hasn’t lost interest in debating. While fletcher sits with pens and sheaves of notes laid out on the coffee table like weapons, Dimitri take equine strides around the room and sweeps the hair from his forehead. He wants a credit system to apportion the work more fairly. Fletcher wants to ban drugs and set a nightly curfew. The number of Fletcher’s supporters shrinks with each meeting, and half-jokingly Dimitri takes to calling him Captain Morgan. Brid, whose vote cannot be depended upon by either man, rolls her eyes a lot. It makes for compelling film but is hard on Fletcher’s nerves. He vents his anger watching TV coverage of the Republican convention. One night Maggie catches him before the bathroom mirror speaking to invisible assailants.

“Get lost,” he says. “Why can’t you leave me alone?”

While it is a complex story, Once We Had A Country by Robert McGill is a brilliant book. Not one to be taken lightly but should be critically thought through while read.

Link to Robert McGill’s website

Link to Random House Canada’s page for Once We Had A Country