Tag Archives: Canadian Literature

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the video on Vimeo.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Link to Emily Schultz’s website

Detailing the Angst of the Workplace | Review of “The Big Dream” by Rebecca Rosenblum (2011) Biblioasis

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The beauty of a good book is that it captures the complexities of real life that we readers endure in a simple manner. We want to see our world told through the eyes of others in order to better understand ourselves. We all endure the complex dynamics of a workplace – the interactions of co-workers, the placements of our desks, the failings of equipment, etc – yet we feel alone in our frustrations.  But, alas, we aren’t. Rebecca Rosenblum has given our workplace angst some references points in her book The Big Dream.

Page 9 – Dream Big

The cafeteria was closed for renovations and the temporary lunchroom was in the basement. In fact, the temporary lunchroom was actually a meeting room with tables, folding chairs, a microwave, four vending machines, and no windows. Many employees chose to eat at their desks, but some made use of the room.

Clint peeled the plastic off his Crackerz’n’chese.

Cheze does not look like an English word.” said Anna. She was eating unstirred fruit-at-the-bottom yoghurt.

“Still delicious.” Luddock was eating a mustard-soaked sandwich. The sheer yellow bread revealed the pink of bologna.

“Of course.” Anna reached the fruit layer and beamed into her plastic cup.

“Listen -” Clint leaned forward “Remember, last Tuesday -?”

“No!” Luddock waved his sandwich. Bread flapped away from meat. “I download all previous-week memories to the main server at midnight on Saturdays. Frees up disc space for current work.”

“Luddock, no!” Anna squawked, mouth full of pureed berries. “This is not a Tech Support situation. Do not make Tech jokes.

“Actually, only Tech is sitting at this table.”

“Lunch is our own time. We could be sitting with another department, people who don’t even work  here. We shouldn’t make this a closed conversation.”

This was one of those books that I just couldn’t put down. It felt like Rosenblum has captured a slice of my life in it. (And no doubt many of these experiences in this book must have come from real-life experience.) The book centres around the company Dream Inc. a somewhat tired and broken publishing firm. Rosenblum has exacted a series of stories around people who work in this company to show how the dynamic of this firm exists. And in doing so has reflected a true reality that many of us endure.

Page 132-133 Research

When Research got off the bus at 8:45 the next morning, there was a silver-blue airplane high above her head. It had a fish painted vertically on the tail, as if it was diving. the fish was blue, too, brighter than the plane. Brightest blue of all was the sky.

Indoors was mainly grey but the blue beamed in through the enormous window, which someone somehow had washed, inside and out.

She looked into the exact definition of teal, the blogs of MuchMusic VJs that her sons liked, the calorie content of chili, the average woman’s desired amount of oral sex versus experienced. She sent these facts to various editors at Dream Fashion, Dream Teen, Dream Woman. She stared out the window, The sky was a medium blue-green, more blue than green: teal.

She walked through the vast empty space between her desk and the window – even the other researchers’ desks had been removed now. She had always threaded through them like a rope through a grommet, and now there was too much space. She had liked her colleagues; everyone boiled extra water in case someone else wanted tea. She had no way of finding them now, out there in their real lives.

Back at her desk, Research found an enthusiastic email from Dream Woman regarding her facts about oral pleasure, requesting further research. The editor did not mention the chili information (surprisingly low fat).

Googling “techniques+cunnilingus” brought many suggestions, but they repeated from website to website, or even within one – “light feathery kisses to the inner thigh” seemed much the same as “light feathery kisses up and down the leg.” She wondered how else to reteach this, eyed the framed photo of her husband in his canoe, and sent off her report.

She boiled a single cup of water for tea. She ate her yoghurt early. She looked out the window at a helicopter rising, possibly carrying the executive team from an internet start-up with a bold innovation for something. She wanted to research using reality, not the Internet. She wanted to be good at her job and interesting to her family. She wanted to be someone who found job in more than just what her husband got up to with his tongue.

Rosenblum’s language is simple and frank which makes these stories so realistic and believable. There are terms which are well-known trademarks which gives the reader the true impression that they are witnessing something out of a real workplace. And Rosenblum’s explorations of thoughts and emotions are direct and true. Nothing here is held back or questioned. These stories truly feel like a slice of real life.

Page 144 – Loneliness

Theirs was a flirtation of short emails and patchy cellphone calls. Once, a birthday card curled into a FedEx tube. Once – and nervously – lunch alone together in the employee cafeteria. Cheese cannelloni and diet Coke for both. Except for that first surreptitious caress of a thigh, several too-lingering arm-squeezes, and once when he held her coat for her and she, reaching backwards, missed entirely and stroked her palm down the flat expanse of his belly – except for these moments, there had been no physical contact at all.

Privately, they cursed themselves for teenaged fantasies that could, doubtless lead only down alleys of frustration and masturbation. Desire only increases loneliness.

There had been moments of opportunity unrealized, when they were both perhaps stunned to realize their own limits. Both had attended a two-day trade show, sitting together at a particle-board demonstration, at a Kitchen of the Future demonstration, at an Ikea demonstration. They had sat together in the bar, and talked of the pets they had as children, animals now dead. They talked of their parents who were dead now, too, and how lonely it felt to walk the earth knowing their parents were dead. They talked about, or at least each somehow managed to mention, what their hotel room numbers were.

Rebecca Rosenblum has created a brilliant piece of literature with The Big Dream. This collection of insights into a workplace is bluntly honest and true. A great read and one that will create reflections and considerations.

*****

Link to Biblioasis’ website for The Big Dream

Link to Rebecca Rosenblum’s website

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Gritty and Enlightening Read | Review of “The Break” by Katherena Vermette (2016) House of Anansi

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For many of us, literature is a means of understanding a way of life of people different from us. In reading a book, we learn the hardships and difficulties of others whom we may or may not have contact in our day-to-day lives. There has been an interest with a lot of people in my circles  trying to gain a better understanding of Indigenous people in our society.Katherena Vermette’s novel The Break gives us readers insights and something to start conversations to improve life for all peoples.

Page 4

In the sixties, Indians started moving in, once Status Indians could leave reserves and many moved to the city. That was when the Europeans slowly started creeping out of the neighbourhood like a man sneaking away from a sleeping woman in the dark. Now there are so many Indians here, big families, good people, but also gangs, hookers, drug houses, and all these big, beautiful houses somehow sagging and tired like the old people who still live in them.

The area around the Break is slightly less poor than the rest, more working class, just enough to make the hard-working people who live there think that they are out of the core and free of that drama. There are more cars in driveways than on the other side of McPhillips. It’s a good neighbourhood but you can still see it, if you know what to look for. If you can see the houses with never-opened bed sheet covered windows. If you can see the cars that come late at night. park right in the middle of the Break, far away from any house, and stay only ten minutes or so before driving away again. My Stella can see it. I thought her how to look and be aware all the time. I don’t know if that was right or wrong, but she’s still alive so there has to be some good in it.

Vermette has given a detailed book here using a complex set of characters trying to deal with a violent and desperate situation. One evening, Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window and sees a violent attack on the Break (a field on an isolated strip of land  outside her house.)  She calls the police and a chain of events – which include thoughts, emotions, actions and frustrations – are documented through the book.

Page 24-25

Phoenix falls up the snow-packed front stoop and jerks open the screen door. She knew it would be unlocked, but thought, in her last steps that it might not be, just this once. That would just be her luck, wouldn’t it? But nah, it’s open, so she can stumble into the warmth. Thank fuck.

Her uncle’s house smells like smokes, dope, and old food, but it’s great to her. And warm. Phoenix takes he hands out of her jacket sleeves, and rubs them together, blowing on them to help get the feeling back. They’re raw and red, but she keeps rubbing at them anyway.

Some skinny girl is passed out on the couch, and another is on the armchair. They look like they fell over in the middle of talking and no one bothered to move them or cover them up. One of them snores lightly, her face against her bare arm, drool dripping over an awful rose tattoo and track marks. Fuck. Phoenix can smell the booze from her, that ugly day-after stench. They look pretty rough, even passed out. Most people look so peaceful when they’re sleeping, but these girls just look a little less used up.

No one else is in sight. The house feels asleep. Phoenix hears music coming quietly from her uncle’s room so she knows he’s there. He can’t sleep without music playing, usually old school rock stuff. Aerosmith and AC/DC. Classics, he’ll say with a smack across the head if anyone ever tries to say no one listens to that shit anymore. Phoenix has always liked the music. It reminds her of him, of back when she was small and he was a good kid, before all these other people started hanging around him and he had to get hard.

She’s so fucking glad to be here.

The language Vermette is frank, bold and gritty at times. But it reflects the reality the story is set in. The language can also be tender and sad. Again reflecting the scene or an emotion. And while the whole narrative is somewhat complex, it is a great story illuminating an element of the human condition we may or may not be aware and creating empathy.

Page 290-291

“PHOENIX ANNE STRANGER . . .”

Scott turns his radio down again, rubs his eyes, and tries to concentrate. He needs to get to sleep. He needs to text Hannah and tell her he’s still working. No, he just needs to get an actual good night’s sleep.

Christie looks straight ahead as they drive. Tommy can tell he’s annoyed and want to ge this over with. Tommy’s been leading him around for days. The sergeant was no help. He didn’t see anything linking this Monias guy to the assault. The numbered company turned out to be in the name of Angie Dumas, the skinny girl, Monias’s girlfriend and no one was home at her residence so Christie suggested the sister.

“What was her name? Settler?”

“Settee,” Tommy had said and looked up the address in his written notes. Pritchard Avenue.

They are going there now. But it is all starting to feel like a circle.

After they talked to the sergeant, Sunday night had descended on the northside as predicted. Tired drunk people fell out of tired drunk houses. There were only two domestics as if everyone was too tired to fight too hard. As if they were only going through the motions, passionless. Tommy had just pulled a large, handcuffed man into the squad car and looked back at the women left behind, standing impassively.

He shivers and wants a coffee. If he doesn’t find anything soon, they’ll just have to leave the case unresolved, and the words will become numbers. Emily will become Case 002-121869, never to be opened again. He thinks of the other girl, Zegwan. It means spring. He thinks of his language teacher again. His face was always  on the veryge of a smile, a light smirk as Tommy tried to make his tongue wrap around the strange words.

“Zeeg-wahn.”

Katherena Vermette has given the literary world a great bit of insight with her novel The Break. It is an emotional, gritty and complex novel but one that builds empathy and enlightenment about Indigenous people in our time. A great read and a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Break

Link to Katherena Vermette’s website

 

 

“While the story itself is fun and light, it addresses some serious issues” | Q&A with writer Danika Stone on her upcoming novel “Internet Famous”

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Cover image linked from Danika Stone’s website

Although Danika Stone is quite a busy writer,  her talent does shine through in her works. As 2017 starts to produce a new batch of books, fans of Danika’s are no doubt eager to read her new work Internet Famous. Danika answered a few questions for me, giving some insight to her new book, due out in June.

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1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline for Internet Famous?

Absolutely! Internet Famous tells the story of a successful teen blogger, Madi Nakama, whose internet fame from her pop-culture blog attracts the unwanted attention of a troll. Much like any thriller, Internet Famous lets readers play ‘whodunnit’ with the various characters, as Madi and her friends track down her harasser. While the story itself is fun and light, it addresses some serious issues. It also has an interesting text and multi-media narrative that readers of All the Feels will appreciate.

2) How long did it take you to write the book? What inspired you (if anything) to write it?

Most my YA books take me about six months, start to finish, to complete. Broken down that’s about two months for the rough draft, then a couple months of editing back and forth, followed by a couple more of copy-edits. I’m really lucky in that the rough draft process down pat. It saves so much time!
My inspiration for Internet Famous came from two sources. The first was MarkDoesStuff, a truly fantastic pop-culture blogger. (Link to his website.) I remember watching some of the backlash after one of his posts hit a few readers the wrong way. Another source of inspiration was my RL (Real Life) friend ‘M’, who is truly one of the most positive and outgoing people I know. Her personality became the cornerstone of the fictional Madi.

3) I know the book is being released this June, but are there details on any book tour yet? If yes, are there dates/events you are looking forward to?

I have a number of online blog tours set up. They’ll kick off as we near the June release date, so check my Danika_Stone Twitter for details! (Link to Danika Stone’s profile page on Twitter)

As for in-person tours, it’s still early days, but I do have a few solid dates. I’ll be promoting in Alberta (Canada) at the (Southern Alberta Library Conference)  on March 3rd, 2017 (Link here) , in Atlanta at RT Convention May 4th through the 7th, 2017 (Link here), and (hopefully!) at Comic-Con in San Diego, July 20th through the 23rd, 2017. (I’m still waiting for my CC badge.) (Link here) I also have an as-yet undated interview with CBC Daybreak, with Russell Bowers, arranged for later this spring. (Link to the show’s website here) Truthfully, I’m looking forward to ALL of them!

4) It has been a little while since All The Feels came out. How did you find the reaction to it? Was there any memorable reactions to it you care to share?

I was overwhelmed by the positivity that fans showed the book. When I went to Dragon Con last summer, All the Feels had been out for only a month, and yet there were people waiting for me in the signing room. It was an amazing feeling to realize that the book had connected to them this much!
I was also honored when All the Feels was nominated for the CYBILS Award (Link to the Childrens and Young Adults Bloggers Literary Awards website here), and for YALSA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers.  (Link to the Young Adult Library Service Association’s website here) While it didn’t win either category, it was great to be nominated. I hope Internet Famous gets as warm a reception!

5) You mentioned in a previous Q&A that you are always writing. Is that still true? If yes, are you working on a new book?

It’s absolutely true! I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t writing. In the time since we last talked, I wrote a sequel to my contemporary Canadian thriller, Edge of Wild. This new book, The Dark Divide, is now in the editing phase. And my most recent WIP (Work in Progress) is another as-yet-untitled YA, that I’ve been working on for Swoon Reads. Check in with me next year and at least one of those should be on shelves!

6) Have you read any books in the last little while that you enjoyed? What are you reading right now?

I always have a pile of books next to my bed, and I tend to be reading two or three of them at a time. My favorite YA in the last few months was These Vicious Masks, by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas. It’s such an incredibly inventive Victorian Superhero story. (Yes! Those elements CAN go together!) I keep forcing everyone to read it.
My most recent poetry collection is The Princess Saves Herself in this One by Amanda Lovelace. I read an early version last year just prior to its debut, and I knew I needed a hard copy. It’s just as lovely as I remembered.
As to contemporary fiction, I always get “into the mood” with thrillers when I’m revising my own mysteries. I loved The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. I’m nervously waiting to see what direction the movie version of it takes.

7) Are you still living in Alberta? How do you like living there as a writer? Do you do a bit of traveling with your publisher being so far away?

Yes, I’m happily settled in Alberta. I really love it! First off, my family is here. Secondly, it’s a beautiful, relatively-untouched part of Canada. The mountains are an hour away, and there are unblemished prairie landscapes preserved just minutes from my door. In fact, the only challenge I’ve ever encountered is that I have to make a concerted effort to actually get out to conventions and do book tours. I am lucky enough, however, that travelling is an option and I love it! It leaves me with the best of both worlds.

Thank you so much for having me on your blog again, Steven. I enjoyed talking to you!

The pleasure is mine! My followers are eager to know about your work!

Danika’s Biography

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Image provided by Danika Stone.

Danika Stone is an author, artist, and educator who discovered a passion for writing fiction while in the throes of her Masters thesis. A self-declared bibliophile, Danika now writes novels for both adults (Edge of Wild, The Intaglio Series and Ctrl Z) and teens (Internet Famous, All the Feels and Icarus). When not writing, Danika can be found hiking in the Rockies, planning grand adventures, and spending far too much time online. She lives with her husband, three sons, and a houseful of imaginary characters in a windy corner of Alberta, Canada.
Ms. Stone is represented by Morty Mint of Mint Literary Agency. (Link to their website)

*****

Link to Swoon Reads’ website for Internet Famous

Link to Danika Stone’s website

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Reading and Seeing the Souls that Create Great Works | Review of “Portraits of Canadian Writers” by Bruce Meyer (2016) Porcupine’s Quill

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I have dabbled in both the printed word and photography. Both forms seem to have a certain appeal to different sections of the mind. A carefully crafted phrase seems to enlighten a part of the human psyche while an image tends to bring a certain pleasure to the same spirit, somehow making the whole reading experience complete. Bruce Meyer has been documenting Canada’s literary scene in both written word and in photos for over 30 years, and his efforts have come together in a charming manner in Portraits of Canadian Writers.

Introduction pages 19-20

This collection of photographs and accompanying essays is by no means a complete catalogue of the most important Canadian authors of the past thirty years – though many of them are here – but a small measure of the voices who have contributed to the cultural dialogue Canadian literature has grown into during that period. There are so many I wish I could have met and included – Margaret Laurence, Farley Mowat, Morley Callaghan and many more. I met them or corresponded with them, but I never thought to bring a camera along when I was with them in a restaurant or at a reading. It would have seemed awkward and artificial at the time, and perhaps, something in me thought that those I held as personal icons would live forever.

Our literature is still a very young, very immature literature – we are just now making tentative forays into those literary expressions that signal a certainty and a maturity in a national canon, and chief among those expressions is tragedy. We have, as readers and as makers of literary culture, steadfastly refused to entertain tragedy. This is partially because the idea of hope is so very central to our sense of who we are, and partially because our sense of poetic justice is ingrained in our political and social institutions. We cannot accept the destruction of a protagonist as a viable outcome for imaginations. We seek resolution. We still seek a just society. Perhaps we are too comfortable, too content with our own situations to accept the discomfort of tragedy.

It seems almost cheap to ‘blog’ this well-crafted book here but I get Meyer’s joy of enlightening fellow readers to a new work or a new thought in regards to a favourite author. I have been doing that for a short while here now while Meyer has been both interviewing, writing and photographing authors for decades. That is the joy of this book for us fans of literature. That element of enlightenment about writing we gleam from both the words and the pictures, printed on the quality stock that Porcupine’s Quill always uses for the books.

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Scanned image of “Leonard Cohen” (pages 52-53) from Bruce Meyer’s Portraits of Canadian Writers (2016). Published by Porcupine’s Quill.

I took my time looking at this book, sometimes putting it down for a few days and then reviewing sections I had already read. In short I savoured the enlightenment it gave me from both the well-crafted words and the accompanying images. And I have no doubt I will refer this book about writers and their books again in a few months time. There are subtle details and references here that would pique a book-lover’s interest therefore they should not be missed by a “rushed” reading.

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Scanned image of “Catherine Graham” (Pages 86-87) from Bruce Meyer’s Portraits of Canadian Writers (2016). Published by Porcupine’s Quill.

Yes, this is a book that should be in every Canadian library for reference but it is also a book that should be read and discussed. Not in a critical way but one that starts thought process and spawns reflections and considerations. It is a gifted read. And charming one at times.

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Scanned image of “Allan Straton” (Page 180-181) from Bruce Meyer’s Portraits of Canadian Writers (2016) Porcupine’s Quill.

Bruce Meyer has given us readers a serious bit of enlightenment for our minds with his Portraits of Canadian Writers. The combination of writing and images engage any reader’s complete psyche and give insight to some of Canada’s greatest wordsmiths.

*****

Link to The Porcupine’s Quill’s website for Portraits of Canadian Writers

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When That One Person Appears to Fail Us | Review of “The Best Kind of People” by Zoe Whittall (2016) House of Anansi

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We all rely on that one person. Be it a family member or a trained professional or even a politician. We need them to be strong people who support and care for us. Yet when that one person even gives the appearance of faltering or failing us, our whole world falls apart and we are sometimes too stunned to move. That element of the human condition is what Zoe Whittall brilliantly documents in her novel The Best Kind of People.

Page 20-21

Sadie felt a brief moment of birthday excitement, and then the house seemed to shake with a pounding on the front door, followed by an insistent baritone call: “We’re looking for George Alistair Woodbury!”

“What’s going on?” Sadie said, peering through the kitchen entrance and down the hall to the foyer. Red and blue flashed through the open windows, a light show for the symphony of cicadas. She approached the door tentatively. George sat back down at the table, staring into his glass of wine.

“Sadie, don’t. I’ll get it,” Joan said as she approached the door, peering through the peephole cautiously. She opened it slowly to find two plainclothes detectives and several uniformed officers.

“Hello, ma’am, is your husband home?”

They made it only a few feet down the front hall before spotting him through the living room, still at the kitchen table. He stood, knocking over his glass. It pooled, then slowly dripped onto the kitchen floor.

For months Joan would replay this moment, trying to decipher the look on her husband’s face. Was it guilt? Confusion? Indignation? Stoicism? Acting? But nothing, not even a revolving camera of omniscience, a floating momentary opportunity to narrate, would allow anyone to truly understand the truth about George. He became a hard statue, an obstacle, a symbol.

The father and the husband, from that moment, had been transformed.

The brilliance of this novel is that the main character is rarely allowed to make an appearance or speak. We have George Woodbury – teacher, husband and father – whisked away and arrested for sexual impropriety at the local school. Each member of his family must endure the community’s scorn while dealing with their own questions of his guilt or innocence. A whole wash of thoughts and emotions are dealt with as we read through the book.

Page 202-203

The next afternoon, she drove thirty-six miles to the Woodbridge health clinic that hosted the support group for women with partners in prison. She arrived half an hour early, sat in the car, and watched women park their cars and go in through the side door. It was windy, and she put her hat in the glove compartment lest it blow away but then didn’t get out of the car. More women arrived, some in minivans, others in compact cars; a few walked from the busy stop. She felt the same way she had felt when she was young and travelled to different countries: surprised that the world still looked familiar. The parks in Sweden and Morocco looked like regular parks she’d seen at home. The women who parked their cars and walked into the centre looked like anyone. It’s not as though she expected them to be wearing neon signs that said Married to a Pervert, but she had expected to see something that would give away their status, an indication however subtle, some sort of obvious physical sign of weakness. She looked at her phone, turned it to silent, and applied some Carmex to her lips. They were dry and flaking, no matter how much water she drank. The stress showed on her face. Every step felt heavy as she made her way inside.

Joan lingered outside in the basement hallway in front of a display of health pamphlets. She pretended to be interested in the details of diabetes treatment, as though she couldn’t have written the entire pamphlet herself from memory. She waited so long to actually enter that she was a few minutes late, and walked in while a woman was speaking.

“The way I see it, he’s sick. It’s a sickness. You can’t control what you’re born with, right? My one kid’s got the Down’s syndrome. He can’t help that neither. Now he’s been found out and he can get help and he wants to get help. Who am I to leave now? I believe in second chances.”

The woman who was talking resembled a pug dog; she had one of those smooshed-up faces. Joan took one of the two empty seats around the circle and couldn’t stop herself from thinking that if the woman didn’t hang on to this guy, she’d probably have a hard time finding some other man to replace him. then she felt awful for thinking that.

Whittall does an excellent job of going through the thoughts of a wide-range characters and describing their range of emotions. The prose she uses in a everyday kind of language, making the book easy to understand. But make no mistake, this isn’t a type of book that should be rushed through either. There is well-crafted detail and thought put in here and any reader should ponder the well-chosen words carefully.

Page 146

“Thanks,” Andrew said, watching Stuart take another paranoid scan. “I’m sorry for snapping. It’s happened really quickly and I’ve been buried in legal documents and I don’t really have perspective, you. My dad and I, we were starting to get close again. It’s so fuckin’ weird.

“Yeah . . .”

Andrew started back towards the door. Stuart called after him.

“I just wanted you to know that you really were my true love . . . ”

Andrew turned. Stuart was standing close to him now. He could smell hours of beer on his breath and was slightly revolted, yet at the same time he felt a familiar wave of nostalgic attraction. Stuart leaned in to kiss Andrew, holding his hands at the waist like they were kids at a school dance. The kiss was gentle, and Andrew pulled back before it got sloppy, or before he tried to draw him into a hug. the smell of Stuart’s cologne and cigarettes was enough to make Andrew feel as though he could fall over from the associated emotions.

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall is a brilliant, modern novel dealing with important elements of the human condition. It is well-thought out and well written. In short a great read to ponder over.

*****

Link to Zoe Whittall’s website

Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Best Kind of People

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Enlightening Readers About Residential Schools | Review of “I Am Not A Number” written by Jenny Kay Dupuis & Kathy Kacer – Illustrated by Gillian Newland (2016) Second Story Press

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Cover image linked from the publisher’s website

Indigenous issues have certainly come into the forefront of Canadian publishing in the last little while – especially the tragic situation of the residential school system upon the First Nations communities. Yet, as I documented some of those works here, I have been finding that there is international interest in some of those works as well. So it seems fitting that I mention here children’s book I Am Not A Number written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer. Illustrated by Gillian Newland.

From I Am Not A Number

The dark figure, backlit by the sun filled the doorway of our home on Nipissing Reserve Number 10.

“I’m here for the children,” the shadowy giant said, point a long finger at me. “You! How old?’

I shrank behind my mother. Here for the Children?

“How old?” he repeated.

“Eight.” The whisper floated from my mouth.

The Indian agent marched into our house and approached my father. “You knew I would come, Ernest,” he said. “The children are going with me to the residential school. They are wards of the government, now They belong to us.”

“Not Irene! She needs to be with her family.” My mother wrapped her arms around me. “I won’t let you take her.”

The man shrugged. “Give me all three or you’ll be fine or sent to jail.”

“We have no choice, Mary Ann,” my father replied, sounding defeated. “It was only a matter of time before they came for the children.”

Fear rose inside me, filling my throat. My brothers George and Ephraim stood with their heads bowed low. Are they as scared as I am? I wondered. My other brothers and sisters, those too old and too young to be taken, huddled together, watching.

The brutal actions of the residential  schools and the effects they had on Canada’s Indigenous population is for many people just coming to light now. This book does a great job in telling the story of how children were taken away from their parents and forced to endure severe institutional conditions all in the name of ‘betterment.’

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Scanned image from I Am Not A Number. Illustration by Gillian Newland

The illustrations in the book are bold and daring. They are muted when the protagonist’s mood is saddened and brightened when she is surrounded by the clutches of her family. Those changes help any reader of any age build empathy with the situation and gain understanding of the tragic events of the residential school system.

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Scanned image from I Am Not A Number. Illustration by Gillian Newland.

The story is vivid and honest. A reader can sense the emotions of the protagonist with its use of simple, clear terms. No doubt this book should be included in the list of books that are bringing awareness to the issues of Indigenous peoples.

Afterword by Jenny Kay Dupuis

I Am Not a Number is based on the true story of my granny, Irene Couchie Dupuis, an Anishinaabe woman who was born into a First Nation community that stretched along the shores of Lake Nipissing in Northern Ontario. Granny’s father was chief of the community, and her mother looked after their fourteen children. The Couchie house was modest, with no electricity or running water. Everyone helped with daily chores. They didn’t have a lot of material goods, but they valued family, and that was more important than almost anything else.

In 1928, when Irene was still a young girl, she and her two brothers were taken from their community of Nipissing First Nation to live at Spanish Indian Residential School. While she was a student there, Irene suffered neglect and abuse. She and the others were regularly strapped or shamed for not following the many harsh school rules. The children were not permitted any regular contact with their parents. Their names were replaced by numbers. My granny’s number was 759.

I Am Not A Number  – written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer/illustrated by Gillian Newland – is a bold book that is enlightening readers about the situation that that Indigenous People of Canada endured in the Residential School System. A great read for people of all ages who view it.

*****

Link to Second Story Press’ website for I Am Not A Number

Link to Jenny Kay Dupuis’ website

Link to Kathy Kacer’s website

Link to Gillian Newland’s (Illustration) website

 

 

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On the Path to a New Awareness | Review of “Secret Path” by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire (2016) Simon & Schuster

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Cover of Secret Path by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire. Image linked from the Secret Path website

The beauty of a well-crafted book is in the detail that goes into the enlightenment that a reader receives into an element about the human condition. The right combination of words plus the perfect shades of light and dark colours of an illustration can bring light an injustice that occurred in the world. Readers can ponder carefully over those details of that book and slowly become aware of the injustice and  – in turn –  start dialogs with other individuals about that sad element. And that complex process is what Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire have done with their graphic novel Secret Path.

The Stranger (Excerpt)

I am the Stranger

You can’t see me

I am the Stranger

Do you know what I mean?

I navigate the mud

I walk above the path

Jumping to the right

And I jump to the left

On the Secret Path

The one that nobody knows

And I’m moving fast

On the path that nobody knows

And what I’m feeling

Is anyone’s guess

What is in my head

And what’s in my chest

I’m not gonna stop

I’m just catching my breath

They’re not gonna stop

Please, just let me catch my breath

I am the Stranger

You can’t see me

I am the Stranger

Do you know what I mean?

 Downie and Lemire have done something brilliant here by bringing the story of Chanie Wenjack and the residential school system to light for the reading public. Wenjack died a young man trying to get back to his First-Nations community after experiencing brutal institutional care at a residential school. He attempted a 400-mile trek along a railway line to get home, yet the journey proved to be too much for him.

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Illustration from Secret Path by Jeff Lemire. Image linked from the Secret Path website

Lemire has described Wenjack’s story with his illustrations in a bold fashion. The frames that show Wenjack’s memories of his home have a warm rose feeling to them while the cells that show his experiences at the residential school and on his attempted journey home at cold, dark with a tinge of blue. A reader clearly senses the range of emotions that Wenjack felt as they follow the story of his trek home.

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Scanned image from Secret Path. Illustration by Jeff Lemire

Gord Downie has not only proven himself here as a classic wordsmith but also a great storyteller. While many of his fans know him as the front man for the musical group The Tragically Hip, it is bringing this story of Wenjack to life for us readers that shows his consciousness and the depth of his soul. He has carefully crafted a few brilliant phrases into our memories about Wenjack, breeding empathy in our minds for the tragic wanderer and causing us to discuss him to our peers and our leaders.

 

 

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Scanned image of “Son” by Gord Downie. From Secret Path (2016) Simon & Shuster

This book does exactly what great literature does. It brings to light an important element of the human condition that may of been overlooked through other means and creates thought, discussion and discourse among readers. It is a brilliant book and one that should be pondered over.

Quote from the back cover of Secret Path:

Chanie Wenjack haunts us. His story is Canada’s story. We are not the country we think we are. History will be re-written. All of the Residential Schools will be pulled apart and studied. The next hundred years are going to be painful and unsettling as we meet Chanie Wenjack and thousands like him – as we find out about ourselves, about all of us – and when we do, we can truly call ourselves “Canada.”

Secret Path by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire is a brilliant book which should be held in prominence on any bookshelf. It breeds empathy and creates thought and discuss which, no doubt, will lead to action on improving an injustice to the human condition.

*****

Link to the Secret Path website

Link to Gord Downie’s website

Link to Jeff Lemire’s blog

“I love that the title resonated with him. I could see it in his face. It helps remind me of poetry’s potential to reach humans-at-large, not just writers and their friends.” | Q&A with Poet Kilby Smith-McGregor

Kilby Smith-McGregor has had a busy time since her book Kids In Triage came out last May. But being busy for her may not be a bad thing for somebody as insightful and talented as her. In the Q&A listed below, she talks about the book, other projects and her upcoming schedule. No doubt we will be hearing a lot more about her soon.

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1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of Kids In Triage? Was there something specific that occurred that made you want to write the book?

Late last winter I was visiting my uncle’s family farm near Fordwich, Ontario; he knew I had a book coming out and asked me what it was called. I said Kids In Triage and he took a moment’s pause and replied, “I guess that’s…a whole generation…more than one.” He’s a brilliant guy, a geologist, but not a ‘lit-culture’ guy. I love that the title resonated with him. I could see it in his face. It helps remind me of poetry’s potential to reach humans-at-large, not just writers and their friends. The most amazing part of publishing a book so far has been hearing from readers, real people, who bring their own context and perspective to the work.

 

The word triage is a medical and military term for classifying and prioritizing injuries in a mass casualty situation. In this collection of poems, I wanted to explore how we identify and deal with emergencies, both public and private. The contemporary world is a mess; the 24-hour news feed is on fire; so, where do we put our energy, where will our care and intervention make a difference? The book is also very much meditation on the body, on gender, violence, and the dynamics of families. These are abiding personal and philosophical obsessions for me, so it doesn’t completely surprise me that the material I eventually shaped into my first book circles around these questions.

2) Your website lists you as both a writer and a graphic artist. Is there one occupation you prefer over the other or are they both compatible in enjoyment for you?

Writing can be a near-transcendent vocation, but it is an absolutely terrible profession. I can think of maybe two or three writers in this country who make a living from literary writing alone. Many teach or work as editors and copywriters, and that can siphon off a lot of your literary juice, depending on your temperament. What I love about being a commercial graphic artist is that it’s creative, but in a completely different way. Even when I act as my own art director, my graphic design projects are in service of someone else’s vision or message, and I like collaborating with clients on that, using my skills and experience to help them represent themselves aesthetically.

 3) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?

The major touchstone writers of my literary coming-of-age—for different reasons—are likely JM Coetzee, David Foster Wallace, Marilynne Robinson, and Canadian novelist Michael Helm. Until recently, even my work in poetry has been primarily influenced by prose writers. These are amazing writers, but also not culturally or linguistically representative of the full scope of brilliant stuff that’s available out there. I’ve been diving into the work of contemporary Canadian writers who are relatively new to me this summer: Cherie Dimaline’s story collection, A Gentle Habit (Kegedonce, 2015), and Vivek Shraya’s novel She of the Mountains (Arsenal Pulp, 2014); in addition to Madhur Anand’s Index for Predicting Catastrophes (M&S, 2015), and Soraya Peerbaye’s Tell: poems for a girlhood (Pedlar, 2015), on the poetry front. Then there are recent works by American poets Ocean Vuong, and Jericho Brown, as well as the stunning lyric memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place (Graywolf, 2011), by Binyawanga Wainaina. Wainaina’s book follows his coming-of-age in Kenya, and I had the chance to read it while travelling in Kenya in August—a real treat. I have a lot to learn and discover as a reader and I’m always eager for recommendations.

4) Is there much of a book/reading tour being planned for Kids In Triage? If yes, are there any specific events that you are looking forward?

I’m thrilled to be reading with poet Roxanna Bennet at knife | fork | book, a new Toronto series, on November 3rd [event link: https://knifeforkbook.com/2016/09/11/poets-meet-november-3rd/]. k|f|b is hosted by ever-dynamic reader and curator Jeff Kirby, who has launched a poetry-and-small-press-only bookshop at Rick’s Cafe in Kensington market. You can check out his amazing blog, pictures of the shop, and info about in-store readings on his blog [link: https://knifeforkbook.com/]. I’ll also be in Hamilton, Ontario, at the Lit Live Reading Series [link: http://litlive.blogspot.ca] on December 4th, with friend and fellow Wolsak & Wynn poet, James Lindsay, as well as some other interesting writers across genres.

In the new year I’ll be visiting the Queen’s University undergraduate creative writing program, run by poet Carolyn Smart, and then Carolyn and I will travel from Kingston to Montreal to read together at the Resonance Reading Series [series link: http://www.resonancereadingseries.com] on February 7th. I’m thrilled to be touring with Carolyn; she’s a remarkable poet for her unflinching treatment of violence—as exemplified the brilliant, dark monologues of Hooked, and her new collection Careen, which undercuts the Hollywood treatment of Bonnie & Clyde. The trip is also significant to me because she’s the founder of the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, which I received in 2010, and has continued to be a kind supporter of my work from afar. I’m looking forward to the chance to spend some time together talking about poetry, prose, and Bronwen.

New events are updated regularly on my website: kilbysm.com

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

I’m a spectacularly slow prose writer, but in the wake of publishing the poetry collection, I’ve doggedly returned to work on my short story manuscript, All Swimmers. I’m hoping to finish a full draft in the spring. The story collection shares many points of intersection with the poetry, so I hope it will be of interest to readers of Kids in Triage when it eventually comes out.

6) You seem to be an active participant on Twitter. How do you feel about the use of social media in relation to promoting your work? Will you be expanding your presence onto Facebook and other social media platforms?

I joined Twitter in the fall of 2015 and I thought I would hate it. But the access to interesting links and current conversations in the community won me over. I’m not sure it’s a very reliable way to promote your own work if you’re not engaged with it at a professional level (i.e. curating regular ‘branded’ content and using platforms like Hootsuite to manage your activity)—but I do think it’s nice to have a record of things you’re interested in, if people want to know more about you. It’s also a quick, friendly way to give a shout out of support and amplify the voices of others. I have no plans to join Facebook, though the pressure from my family is unrelenting.

7) Your bios have you listed as spending a lot of time in the Guelph-Toronto area? Is that where you currently reside? And is there a lot in the way of cultural activities in that area that keep you engaged?

I lived in Guelph for some of my childhood, and I also taught fiction at the University there as part of the Open Learning Program, but Toronto is my home these days. Toronto offers an embarrassment of riches in terms of cultural and literary events. Not-going-out can prove more difficult than going out, but I find it’s important to take time to curl up with my dog and just read or watch TV some evenings. Some of my favourite ongoing lit events happen here, though. I’m a huge fan of the HIJ House Reading Series [link: http://bookthug.ca/hij-house-reading-series/ ] graciously hosted by BookThug publishers Jay and Hazel Millar in their family home. Hazel bakes homemade pie for each installment, which is a pretty amazing feat—so come for the readings and stay for the pie! I also love the Pivot Reading Series [link: https://pivotreadings.ca], which has been run by Sachiko Murakami, and most recently Jake McArthur Mooney, and will be transitioning to a new host in the coming months; it has a great legacy and has showcased writers of all different stripes from across Canada and beyond.

*****

Link to Wolsak and Wynn’s website for Kids In Triage