Tag Archives: Canadian Literature

” I think novelists get a bit squirrelly when reality starts to become stranger than fiction” | Q&A with Writer Mark Sampson on his Novel “All The Animals on Earth”

We are no doubt being cursed by living in interesting times. Many of us readers are looking for something “interesting” to read and pass the time with. And some of us are picking up old projects to bring interesting things to the world. Mark Sampson has been a favourite writer in my library for a while. I was thrilled when I found he has a new novel coming out and he was willing to answer a few questions for me.

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1) First off, could you give a bit of an overview of All The Animals on Earth?


I describe the story as a parody of a post-apocalyptic or dystopian novel. Whereas most of these tales start out with a fully populated world that sees its numbers wiped out by a plague or war or some kind of bureaucratic mismanagement, mine is the opposite. It starts out with a depopulated world, because in this reality most people just don’t feel like having kids anymore. The cratering birth rates cause all manner of social and economic calamity, and so scientists and the government come up with a process, called “pullulation,” that allows them to transform certain species of birds and mammals into humanoid form. But there is, naturally, a terrible accident that causes pullulation to spread across the globe and basically quadrupling our population overnight.  Suddenly there are too many people on Earth, not too few. 
These new humanoids, nicknamed “blomers,” start taking over, bringing with them very strange and unsettling rituals. These include a rather liberal approach to public sex, and a violence against a particular subset of their own kind. Through it all, my button-down protagonist, an HR manager for a mid-size insurance company named Hector Thompson, grapples with the massive change that the blomers’ existence brings to his job, marriage, friendships and the rest. 


2) Was there something specific in reality that made you want to write this book? And is there a real-life inspiration for your protagonist Hector Thompson?

I got the idea for the story on my wedding day, actually. My wife (novelist and short story writer Rebecca Rosenblum) and I married at a relatively late age – I was 37; she was 34 – and I remember coming to a stark realization that day: everyone in our wedding party, bridesmaids and groomsmen – were all in their 30s and nobody (as yet) had any children. Either they had chosen to have no kids at all, or they were putting off procreating for as long as they could. This struck me as a particular trend of our generation, and so different from what came before, at least in my family. (My paternal grandmother, for example, had five kids by the time she was 27. My own mom had me at 25).  And so I began to imagine what would happen if this trend just got more and more extreme as the generations went on, and the dire consequences it might bring, and how the world might try to solve those problems – and then the whole absurdist narrative began to unfold from there.


As for Hector, no, there is no real-life inspiration for him. But when I was working as a journalist in Australia 15 years ago, I did have, as my “beat,”  the topic of human resources, industrial relations, and occupational health and safety. So I spent a lot of time interviewing HR managers back then, talking to them about hiring, firing, talent retention, benefits and compensation, plus awkward conversations they often need to have with staff about wardrobe choices and personal hygiene, etc. And so a lot of those conversations ended up helping to shape both Hector’s professional life and his personality.  


3) Considering the current situation of the health of humanity, how do you feel about this book?


It’s weird. These are strange times, and it’s stranger still to be releasing a post-apocalyptic book during a global pandemic. A lot of people, especially here in the so-called “West,” are dealing with things they’ve never had to deal with before – not being able to go wherever they want, facing empty supermarket shelves, living with fear for their safety on a daily basis. (Others, obviously, have experienced these things every moment of their lives.) So maybe my weird little book about a rapidly transformed world will resonate on that level.  Having said that, I think novelists get a bit squirrelly when reality starts to become stranger than fiction. I know I felt that way on 9/11 and when Donald Trump got elected US president, and again now, during COVID-19. Writers like Stephen King and Don DeLillo are probably thinking, “Buzz off reality. Stop stealing my moves!”  


4) Normally I would be asking about a book tour at this point, but I am assuming that anything like that is on hold right now. Are you planning to increase your presence on your social media platforms now to interact with fans? If no, why not?

Yeah, no, I have nothing booked as of yet for this novel. No readings, no appearances, no events. I may try to do something online in the interim, but I’m taking a wait and see approach for now. The priority is to stay safe and do what health officials are recommending.


5) We have talked about how your writing has evolved over time. Do you sense any differences with this book compared to your previous works? Do you have any regrets or disappointments  with your earlier works that you notice now?


All the Animals on Earth is much different territory for me. It’s certainly the weirdest thing I’ve ever written, and it really took me out of my comfort zone creativelye. But it’s odd how there are also some alignments with the themes in my other works. I’m very obsessed with people’s working lives. I’m very interested in how people’s inner views of themselves don’t align with how they’re perceived by others, and these themes continue to crop up even in this strange, off-kilter work. I don’t have any regrets per se about previous books, but plenty of disappointments. Like a lot of writers, I’m sad my backlist hasn’t done better, hasn’t sold more or won awards or attracted more attention. But whatever. I just keep on keeping on, trying to build a body of work I can be proud of. Mine is a small but generous readership, and I’m grateful for what I have. 


6) You mentioned in a previous Q&A that you exchange thoughts and ideas with your wife, the writer Rebecca Rosenblum. Did she play a part in the creation of this book? 


Yes, Rebecca read an early draft and, as usual, provided lots of wise and wonderful feedback on the manuscript. Letting her see work once I’ve gotten it to a certain point has become just another part of my process. I do pretty much the same for her, too.


7) No doubt you are working on your next work. Are there details you care to tell your fans about this next work?


After finishing a working draft of All the Animals on Earth, I switched gears and spent about 16 months working on a collection of interconnected short stories that sort of went bust. I got about five or six pieces in and realized they were all structure and no story, nothing there to hold them together, and so last fall I made the difficult decision to set the project aside. Then, almost immediately, I began work on another novel, and I’ve been having a blast with it ever since, working on it like a madman. I’m closing in on finishing a rough first draft, despite having only started it back in October. I can’t say much about it, other than it’s a horror novel set on my native Prince Edward Island. 

*****

Link to Wolsak & Wynn website for “All the Animals on Earth.”

Link to Mark Sampson’s blog “Free Range Reading”

When Our Perceptions Are Forced To Change – Repeatedly | Review of “Akin” by Emma Donoghue (2019) HarperCollins Publishers

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We are all creatures of habit. Our thoughts and beliefs force us into realms of convenience that make us believe our lives are perfect for us. Yet we find ourselves being thrust into situations that force us to change not only our lifestyles but our personal beliefs and understandings. Emma Donoghue has given us a touching example of this example in her touching novel Akin.

Page 4

Was that five pairs of socks or six? He counted them again.

For the past nine years, on his own, Noah had kept himself too busy for vacations. There’d been hints that he should retire, of course; barbed remarks from colleagues, cost-cutting ones from the dean, benevolent ones from women friends, to the effect that Noah should learn to kick back, live a little, join a choir or take up tai chi in Central Park. His little sister, Fernande, was the only one who’d never suggested it, even though she’d retired from her receptionist job with relief at sixty-five. She must have guessed that her widowed brother needed to stay tethered to the surface of the earth. Having classes to teach – the hard slog of preparation and performance and marking – had reassured him of that much.

Donaghue gives us Noah as a protagonist. We meet this ‘still seventy-nine’ as he is packing his bags for a long-overdue vacation to his child hometown of Nice, France. In that opening we engage his thoughts learning that he had a long career in scientific research and academia He is recently widowed yet still has conversations with his wife in his head. His life was settled and contemplative when all of the sudden the phone rings and a social worker begs him to take care of an eleven-year-old great nephew in desperate need of care.

Pages 12-13

“Sorry not to be of more use, Ms. Figueroa” -no trouble remembering the name the crook had given, now, if he took a split second to get the vowels in the correct sequence – “but I’ve got to go now.”

“Please.”

It wasn’t the word but Rosa Figueroa’s tone that made Noah pause, receiver halfway to the cradle. She did should like a real person, and so weary. “It’s just that I don’t see how I can be of any practical help,” he told her. Certainly not in the immediate . . . I’m off to France next week, as it happens. Maybe after I get back we could speak again.”

“This can’t wait. I met Michael for the first time myself this morning. There’s nobody at all to look after him.”

It wasn’t subtle, how she was playing on Noah’s sympathies. He wanted a cigarette.

“Could you come and meet his mother with me, tomorrow morning?”

“But – “

“Let’s all just sit down and put our heads together, all right to see what can be done for this child?”

Noah sighed.

While this an adorable and humorous story, Donoghue has documented truths about the human condition. Not only do readers witness clashes between young and old but we see contrasts between; European and American values, crashes of the actions of the past looked through the lens of modern history, and even gender politics come into play here. This is a book that is enjoyable to read but, if mindfully done, can be an enlightening read as well.

Page 130

“You were asleep forever,” Michael complained.

“It was only a nap. How did you pass the time?”

The boy held up his phone. “Thirty-one kills.”

“Lovely.”

Noah’s generation had gotten more fresh air, he decided, but also probably more fractures, playing such perennial favorites as Johnny-on-the-Pony (in which one team leaped on the backs of the other until the whole human pile crashed to the ground). He wondered now how a gamer like Michael had broken his collarbone.

Emma Donoghue has given readers not only a touching novel with Akin but one that is quietly enlightening about the human condition as well. In short, a good read but one that is thought-provoking if it is carefully done.

*****

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s website for Akin

Link to Emma Donoghue’s website

When Emotions Impair Good Judgement | Review of “Bad Ideas” by Missy Marston (2019) ECW Press

We all have looked back at decisions in our lives with regret. Why did we do “x” when “y” was the smarter choice at the time. Yet our emotions and our desires guide our decisions at times that push us into scenarios we cannot escape from. Missy Marston has documented such situations in her novel Bad Ideas in a brilliant and at times humorous means that is enlightening to read.

Page 9 Because they had no right

It was April 1978. Mercy was only four years old and it seemed like the whole town had turned grey. The grey river washed against the grey shore. The grey trees stood against the grey sky, biding their time, refusing to bloom. Trudy and Mercy were sitting in a booth at the back of the Jubilee, and Mercy was peeling the cheese off her slice of pizza and cramming it into her mouth, her little hands covered in sauce. Trudy was smoking, staring past Mercy out the front window of the restaurant, when the door opened and the bells jingled. Two men came in, laughing so hard that they staggered and bumped against each other as they made their way past the front counter.

Both tall. Both lean.

The story deals with a collection of people in a small town along the St. Lawrence River who are trying to etch out an existence while trying to deal with love and the loss of love. We witness Trudy and her mother Claire. They both look after Mercy, the four-year-old daughter of Trudy’s sister, who has faded from the scene. In this muddle milieu, there are some hard looks at relationships and the heartache they create. Everyone seems set in their mindsets until a crazy daredevil shows up in town in a rocket car, preparing to jump the huge river. And Trudy – who is dead set against anything romantic – falls irrationally for the stunt driver.

Page 138

Today was a crying day.

There she was when Trudy got home, collapsed in a lawn chair by the back door, head in hands, crying her heart out. It mad Trudy feel tired to see her there. It sucked the life out of her. She squeezed her mother’s shoulder as she walked past her and into her house. Mercy was kneeling on the couch, a Barbie doll in each fist. She had the dolls facing each other, balanced on the tiptoes on the arm of the couch. She shook them a bit so their hair swung around.

“Grandma’s crying again.”

“I saw that.”

Bad Ideas by Missy Marston is a unique work of fiction that documents a complex reality of human emotions. The writing is simple and direct, making a read that is reflective to many people. In short, a great read.

****

Coming to Terms with Trauma and Hardship | Review of “Trail of Crumbs” by Lisa J. Lawrence (2019) Orca Book Publishers

Thanks to Lisa J. Lawrence and Kennedy Cullen of Orca Book Publishers for sending me a copy of this book.

Image linked from the publisher’s website

We all have those moments of shock after dealing with a traumatic situation. Somehow we are forced into stillness as our mind tries to deal with the pain and bruises – both real and emotional. This isn’t easy process for a younger person to go through. Not only do they have to deal with those pains, they may not have the network of support to help them deal with the issues they have occurring within themselves. And Lisa J. Lawrence has documented one such young woman’s journey in her novel Trail of Crumbs.

Page 2

During Patty’s flurry of cursing, Greta let herself out the front door, climbing the steps of the concrete stairwell cave. Across the street their neighbor vacuumed the interior of his yellow Volvo, both doors hanging open. He straightened and waved to Greta. He was tall and pale with a nest of ginger hair. Slightly buggy eyes and an open face. Greta recognized him from Ash’s English class. He watched her as if she might stop and talk. She walked faster, checking over her shoulder to make sure he hadn’t followed her.

Greta circled the block a few times, crunching the brittle ice of unshoveled walks. Snow heaped in knee-high dunes on either side. Bleak January afternoon, like the sun never fully rose. Before going back inside, she listened at the bottom of the steps. All quiet.

No one in the living room. Greta tapped on her brother’s door – technically the storage room – and opened it when her didn’t answer.

He lay on a rumpled single mattress, staring at a bare bulb dangling from a wire. The back wall was covered with wide, rough shelves – the kind you’d put boxes or canned goods on. Ash had piled few books there, but the shelves sat mostly empty. No windows. She sat on the bed next to him.

“Why did Dad marry her?” she asked, not really expecting an answer.

Lawrence has created a complex individual in her character of Greta. She is typical of younger adults who have become apathetic towards their education. And with good reason. Her circle of friends have turned mean-spirited and dangerous. Her family life is equally ugly and hateful. And her twin brother Ash is moody and rebellious in his own right. Yet as whatever support units exist to aid her in her life completely fall apart, she finds herself in a day-to-day existence that forces her to seriously consider her future.

Pages 59-60

On Wednesday Greta came home fro her English final to find Ash in a kitchen chair and Nate standing behind him with clippers. Ash’s long brown wisps had fallen in a mesh of hair on the pocked hardwood.

“What are you guys doing?” she asked, peering over Ash’s scalp.

Ash turned proudly in each direction so she could inspect it. Nate had shaved along the sides and back, leaving a longer section down the center.

“What’d you do that for?”

“All the cool kids are doing it,” Ash said.

“Shut up.” Greta flicked the back of his head.

Nate turned on the clippers and touched up an uneven spot.

“Don’t you think it might hurt your chances of getting a job?” she asked.

I’m pretty sure it won’t hamper my ability to lower fries into a deep fryer.”

“Touche”

Ash had applied for three jobs already that week, at two fast-food places and a snow-removal company. Nothing yet. Greta had applied as a cashier at the only supermarket in busing distance and at a place that made cinnamon buns in the mall. The bun place had told her she was underqualified. To bake pre-made cinnamon buns and make basic change. In the post-Christmas retail slump, few Help Wanted signs hung in store windows.

Now that she and Ash had no money, everything was about money. Greta had rationed their last few tomatoes, only to find one spotted with gray mold. She’d waited too long. She felt sick, dropping it in the garbage can.

 

Lawrence has done something interesting here. She has documented the life of Greta well and given young adults a source of empathy to compared themselves to but she has also documented an element of the human condition here. A young adult trying to to come to grips with both growing up and dealing with heavy traumas and abuses. This is a book that is a good piece of literature and a great resource for young adults.

Pages 96

“Why do you care?”

Priya sighed. “Look, I know it’s none of my business. About a year ago, Rachel screwed me over big-time. I know what they can be like I kind of wondered if the same thing had happened to you.”

Greta looked away from Priya. They probably just wanted to see what she would say behind their backs.

“And Dylan” – Priya paused – “I know him too.” Greta snapped back to Priya’s face. “We were together for a few weeks last year. Let’s just say I wasn’t willing to do certain things on, like the first or second date” >I<Things you were willing to do. Slut.>/I< “He didn’t want to wait.”

That shame – waiting in the wings since social studies – crept out of hiding and oozed through her body. She swallowed, her stomach queasy. Like on the morning at the cabin, after the party.

Trail of Crumbs by Lisa J. Lawrence is a brilliant and easy read. She has documented an important element of the human condition of this age year that is well-written and easy to gain empathy from its pages. An interesting read.

*****

Link to Orca Book Publishers Canada’s website for Trail of Crumbs

When a Great Read Makes us Ponder | Review of “Dream Sequence” by Adam Foulds (2019) Biblioasis

Image linked from the publisher’s website

We all find ourselves wanting and craving more out of life at times. We sit by the window at times looking out and wondering – if not hoping for more – and taking action to change our lives. Adams Foulds does a great job of looking at two people who crave that change in his novel Dream Sequence.

Pages 13 (Opening paragraph)

The beautiful house was empty. Kristen watch from the front window as her sister climbed into her snow-spattered car and drove away, shuttling from one set of worries – Kristen – to another – the noisy, complicated, enviably involving struggles of her family life.

This is one of those reads that should be read in print and savoured in quiet moments where reflection is possible. Foulds explores two lives in this book which are in transition. One life is Kristen, a confused and emotional individual who finds herself alone and wanting more. She adores Henry, ( whom is the other life explored in the book) a popular television actor who is about to make his film debut, and obsesses about him. In the sections that deal with Henry, readers learn about his fears, desires and obsessions as he begins to obsess about a role he desires and craves for an upcoming film.

Pages 69-70

Henry was too tired to pull the levers of the cross-trainer or haul the stacks of weights. Over time, the hunger had distilled a kind of blackness inside Henry, not a blankness but a positive blackness that throbbed with its own wattage. It stayed behind or at the edge of his vision. It was and was not the same thing as the headaches he suffered. He went to the pool in the basement. Small, dimly lit, it was more of a spa facility than a pool for swimming lengths. The atmosphere was of exclusive calm. The rectangle of water looked plump, like a comfortable mattress, and when Henry got in it lisped over the sides and was recycled back in through some hidden channels. While he was alone, he lay face down, listening to the thick silence. The crest of his spine touched the air above. His arms and legs hung down into the water. He thought that Garcia’s yes had fallen like a sword across his life. Cut off from everything else and still with no filming date confirmed, Henry had nowhere to go but into himself. He felt his body rock upwards when somebody else got into the pool. Embarrassed, Henry started swimming but only towards the small silver ladder. He climbed out and walked back to the change room.

Foulds is both knowledgeable about the English language and quite aware of the human condition, which makes this book a great read. The prose is unique yet easy to follow. Like I mentioned above, this is a book worth taking one’s time to read. For those of us who understand empathy and learn from literature, Foulds has given us much to ponder by giving us this story and presenting the lives of Henry and Kristen side-by-side.

Page 116

“I need to . . . I’m sorry . . .” He wandered off on his own, looking upwards, stumbling softly until he felt he was alone. He fell down backwards onto the cold grip of the ground and looked up at the packed lights in the sky. He could see the long luminous cloud of the Milky Way, the whole entire galaxy he lived in, stars so may and so far that hey were a veil of light. He could see stars behind stars. He’d never seen the night sky look three-dimensional before. There all the time. All the time. There all the time behind everything. Lying still, intoxicated, he felt the earth sway, the surface of the earth moving. The stars slid in his vision. He had to keep looking back at a certain point to reset them. The brilliant white fires. The endless space. It was awesome. His mind quailed. He was tired and sad and exhilarated. He felt a kind of exaltation in which happiness and despair were in distinguishable. Cliched thoughts arrived – how big the universe is, how tiny he was, how alone – were unavoidable. Tiny and struggling. How nice it would be not to have to try, not to be a person, not to be himself at all.

Virginia called for him. “Hey, you! Where’d you go? We’re waiting for you.”

Adams Foulds has given readers a brilliant read with Dream Sequence. I cannot repeat enough this is a read that should be savoured and reflected upon. The results will be enlightening to any book lover.

*****

Link to Biblioasis.com ‘s profile page about Adam Foulds

Adam Foulds will be participating in the 2019 Toronto Word on the Street Festival

As I Return to Blogging about Books . . . | Review of “Who Needs Books? Reading in the Digital Age” (2016) University of Alberta Press

Image linked from the CLC website

I know I haven’t been blogging for a while. I was asked if I had given up on reading and had become focused on other things. That isn’t true. It was just there was a weariness to all things digital for me and I used the computer for things that I needed to do and then turned “the stupid thing off” and read. And as the 2019 Word on the Street Festival began to post their lineup of writers, people were asking me if I had read this-or-that writer involved in the event. And it was researching writers for that wonderful festival that I came across Lynn Coady’s brilliant essay Who Needs Books?: Reading in the Digital Age that I understood why I still read printed material during the digital era.

Page 36

The degree to which the internet can feel like an unwelcome and nefarious intrusion into our lives depends in large part on the way we use it – and, more importantly, the way it’s used against us (deliberately or not) by the people in charge. In a 2008 essay called “Is Google Making us Stupid,” Nicholas Carr compares the internet’s reshaping of our lives and cognitive functions to the way the invention of the clock habituated us to think and function according to the dictates of its hands. (Citation) This, he suggests, paved the way for the dehumanizing strictures of the industrial age and the eventual treatment of human workers as automatons. Of course, the clock itself didn’t actually do that. The industrial age was the result of business and factory owners rejoicing in a technology they understood would allow them to measure and exploit worker efficiency down to the very second.

. . .

Page 38

My point is, let’s keep our eye on the ball here. If you have all the free time in the world and you spend it on Facebook, ok, that’s a problem – Mark Zuckerberg has clearly worked his dark mojo on you. But if you spend every spare moment frantically fielding tweets, texts, and emails because your employer requires nothing less, that’s another. Think about who, and what exactly, in either of these scenarios, is stopping you from picking up a book.

 

I had the pleasure of meeting Lynn Coady a few years ago. It was at a guest lecture at Western University in London, Ontario. She gave an impressive talk at that time how she was balancing both her writing for television and fiction. (Afterwards, she mentioned she was impressed that I had a hard-cover copy of her book The Antagonists for her to sign. ) Coady talked about many of her views then. to which this book – a copy of the speech she gave to the Canadian Literature Centre’s Kreseil Lecture Series at the University of Alberta in April, 2015) This book does a brilliant job of looking at the printed word as the digital age blinks blindly at us all in the face. Coady mixes a perfect narrative with philosophy, modern cultural references and humour to make some excellent points.

Pages 42-43

(Twitter participants in a survey about reading) described a craving for the sense of immersion that reading gives them. Some people spoke of it as a kind of psychological privacy, no matter where they happen to be. More than one person use the word “escape.” Here, I believe, is where the book truly does have the advantage over the internet. The internet gives us a sense of communication, as does the book. And similar to the book, it offers up a means of “checking out” from time to time – a warm bath of a narrative to immerse ourselves. But what it doesn’t and can never offer really is a sense of complete and total privacy. Of psychic escape. When you hear about people announcing that they need to “unplug” for a weekend or conduct a “social media cleanse” or take a “Facebook break,” we understand what they are fleeing – the cacophony, the very connectedness that makes the internet such a revolutionary and seductive phenomenon.

So, yes, I am blogging again. And I am still reading books. If anybody truly cares about my weariness about things digital, they merely need to read Lynn Coady’s Who Needs Books?: Reading in the Digital Age. I know I am not alone in my love of books and being left alone. And I will be seeing her presentation at the 2019 Word on the Street Festival in Toronto.

Link to Lynn Coady’s website

Link to the Henry Kreisel Lecture Series website

The Joy of Reading that Goes Beyond the Text | Review of “English is Not a Magic Language” by Jacques Poulin/Translated by Sheila Fischman (2016) Esplanade Books/Véhicule Press

Book cover image linked from the publisher’s website

For those of us who enjoy to read, we know the pleasure of discovering a reality of the world when we read someone’s else description in print. ‘Yes,” we exclaim. “We know what you are talking about,” we silently shout to the writer as we reread that passage. But when we share that reality with someone else who craves to know that reality as well, there is an added joy to our pastime that our mind celebrates. Jacques Poulin explores that theme well in his book English is Not a Magic Language to which Sheila Fischman has brilliantly translated in to English.

Pages 25-26

I was reading her The Red Pony by Monsieur John Steinbeck. The book told the story of a little boy, shy and polite, called Jody, who lived with his parents on a ranch in California. His father had given him a pony as a gift. Jody was trying now to break him, with the help of Billy Buck, a stable hand.

I was the one who had chosen that novel, because Limoilou hadn’t expressed a preference. My choice rested on the fact that she enjoyed the company of horses. I’d had a chance to note that on my first visit. That day, showing me around, the girls had led me onto a winding path strewn with big stones that started behind the chalet and allowed you to down the cliff. At the bottom, we came out onto several fields separated by rows of loosestrife. One field, surrounded by an electric fence, served as grazing land for a group of old racehorses. Limoilou slipped in between the two wires. She stroked the muzzles of the horses, gave them berries to eat from her hand. According to Marine, she spent time telling them about the miserable years she had survived during her brief existence.

Poulin has crafted a unique story into this small volume. He has captured the essence of what the enjoyment of reading is for us all. The story deals with Francis, who is a reader for hire. Outside the complexities of his family life, we witness his adventures as he receives calls for his services and he jumps into his Mini Cooper and drives to read for his clients. And seeing the enjoyment that Francis gets when he sees his clients relate to a work of literature is a joy for any honest reader of literature.

Page 43

Now and then I raised my head to see if my tardiness had them worried. I was making prgress in my reading. I’d underlined several paragraphs and was quite proud of myself. All at once Jack and Marine came out of the house without looking at me. My brother had a dark blue sleeping bag under his arm. With old Chaloupe in the lead, they came down the narrow path lined with flowers surrounding the pond.

I was about to start reading again when I noticed that Limoilou was watching me behind the screen door in the solarium porch.

She was waiting for me.

I closed the book with my finger on the page I intended to start with. The first thing I noticed in the chalet was the map of Louisiana that my brother had put up near the door next to the kitchen. It was impressive.

When we were settled comfortably, she in her chaise lounge and me in my rocker, I waited a few moments to respect our ritual: meditation eyes closed, black cat on her belly. This time though, she declared in a determined voice:

“I’m ready!”

Enunciating carefully, I read the beginning of the journals . . .

There is something intellectually optimistic and serene at times in this book when Poulin describes the actions of Francis while doing his job. Francis is helping bringing enlightenment to the weary world and he knows it. It is an endearing feat and it brings a huge pleasure that he and us readers appreciate

Pages 67-68

At the last reading session I had left Clark all alone on a small island in the Missouri. The members of the expedition were resting from the first day of their journey. they had been warned that they would have to “cross a country held by savage peoples, many in number, powerful and warlike, fierce, treacherous, and cruel and in particular, enemies of the white man.”

While the lovely Irish lass was carting her dictionaries into the kitchen, Limoilou settled int her chaise lounge. She closed her eyes and I began reading. Because of the ordeals she had lived through, traces of which could still be seen around her eyes and on her wrists, she impressed me as much as ever. I was becoming bolder and at times I followed on her face the emotions that words provoked in her.

English is Not a Magic Language by Jacques Poulin and translated by Sheila Fischman may be a short read but it is a brilliant one. It documents well the enjoyment we readers all have from the enlightenment of the written craft.

Link to Vehicule Press’ website for English is Not a Magic Language

A True Collection of Ponderings | Mention of “Best Canadian Stories 2018,” Edited by Russell Smith. (To be Released October, 2018) Biblioasis

I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book from the publisher

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Literature is important  for many of us who seek discourse and dialog about the human condition. We turn to it to gain a better understanding not only about the world but ourselves and our actions. And for those of  us who turn off our electronic gizmos at the end of the day in frustration and turn to literature to calmly and carefully reflect on the state of the world around us,  Russell Smith with the publishing team at Biblioasis has given us a brilliant collection to ponder the state of existence in with Best Canadian Stories 2018.

Noted writer and author Russell Smith has opened this book with a brilliant opening argument about fiction. It not only reflects on the collection well, but gives insight to what many of us feel today. I know I am not suppose to quote from unchecked materials but I lovet his comment and I hope the final copy of the book keeps it in:

Page 9 – Introduction

We all read, now, dozens of news stories, personal stories, arguments and anecdotes every day on our screens, and whether they be Facebook updates or essays, they all claim to be true stories. Fiction has always been good at seeming like a true story too. Often it is. These things are hard to separate.

Autobiographical fiction has always been written. Whole university courses teach “creative non-fiction” that encourage reporters to explore the novelist’s bag of tricks. “Autofiction,” a variant of memoir that takes the form of a novel and does not promise exact truth as a memoir would, has further confused our definitions.

In light of these borrowings, many enlightened people claim that further taxonomy would be useless and unproductive. It absolutely doesn’t matter if a piece is true or not: it should be judged by the same esthetic or moral standards.

. . . When an entire intellectual culture is immersed in the didactic, it loses its ability to see which is not didactic. Art has a role that polemic does not. there is a value to being removed from one’s ideological position for a moment of escape into the nearly-real.

These pieces in this collection are from a combination of new and established writers yet they document a series of emotions and situations that we all have been in one way or another yet may have not been considered or reflected on by us readers. These are not stories that should be rushed through or perused, but admired for the craft, skill and thought that were put into their creation.

So, the collection of Best Canadian Stories 2018, edited by Russell Smith, is a brilliant collection of works for those of us who quietly seek a better understanding of the world around us. It is a must-read coming out of the Fall 2018 publishing season.

 

*****

Link to Biblioasis’ website for Best Canadian Stories 2018

Link to Russell Smith’s website

 

Life, Love and the ‘Hood You Live in | Review of “That Time I Loved You” by Carrianne Leung (2018) HarperCollins Publishers

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Image linked from the publisher’s website

Where we live is suppose to be a perfectly tranquil area where kids are suppose enjoy normal childhood lives. Yet we all perfectly know that in anybody’s life there are a series of angst, fears, hardships, and rage that darken our days. Carrianne Leung looks at one seemingly perfectly constructed neighbourhood explores some of the issues that exists behind their doors in her book That Time I Loved You.

Pages 4-5 Grass

That summer, as they watered their front lawns, the adults leaned across their fences and spoke in hushed voices, flooding their grass with their now forgotten hoses. Us kids gathered in the street with our road hockey gear and baseballs to share whatever intel we’d acquired and trade in gory details. Mr. Finley’s brain was supposedly splattered in a million bits across his basement. My friend  Darren said you couldn’t clean brain completely out- that stuff sticks. Darren knew a lot about brains because he was into comic books and his mother was a nurse, so we took whatever he said as fact. As for Mrs. Da Silva, everybody knew she wasn’t right in the head. We often saw her walking around in her housecoat talking and laughing to herself.

Nothing like this had ever happened in our quiet suburban neighbourhood before. No one had ever died before Mr. Finley. In downtown Toronto, where the dangerous people lived, at least according to my dad, it probably happened all the time. Dad said downtown was no place for kids because it was dirty and full of fast cars and shady characters, while out here in the suburbs, we were free to play on the street, leave our front doors unlocked and generally not worry about such things. Granted, there was a neighbourhood thief sneaking around, but only small, mostly worthless things were taken – forgotten gardening gloves on the lawn, chipped coffee mugs left on the porch, a rusty screwdriver in a garage. People assumed it was some weird kid’s idea of fun. I had my own opinion on who it was, and it was not kid. But no one listened to me anyway.

Leung has done something truly clever with this book. The opening story deals with a troubled kid realizing that there something wrong with her neighbourhood. A series of suicides in the perfectly-designed residential area has sent the adults into a quiet tither yet none are openly discussing the situations out load. But the rest of the stories look into the domestics situations and – more importantly – the thoughts of the residents of the neighbourhood. Leung has documented the zeitgeist of a suburban neighbourhood and given a complex view of the human condition where no other writer has gone before.

Pages 21-22 Flowers

On that day, the last day, the primroses were especially pretty. There red petals opened to kiss the summer sun. Mrs. Da Silva’s first thought upon waking that morning was to water them. She had tossed and turned all night in a restless sleep and woke up already tired. There had been no rain for days. In her faded cotton house dress, she pulled the garden hose from its long coil attached to the concrete wall of the house. She liked the ease of the garden hose, its coil, its simple tap, its reach. Everything was easy here, compared with Portugal. You had a house with a tap attached to the side wall. You turned it on and water came from the hose. After twenty years in this country, Mrs. D was still amazed. Spraying the water across the patch of grass and on the petals of the primroses was among her favourite things. Each blade of grass and small flower shook and shivered under the mist raining down. When she turned, the flowers whispered two words in Portuguese behind her back that sounded like a sigh: The letter.

Her finger released the lever of the nozzle on her hose. She stood silently in the glistening grass, her toes getting wet through her slippers. She waited to her more, but the flowers went silent. Mrs. D wondered how the flowers knew about the letter, but then she remembered that they knew everything about her, as if there were an invisible thread that ran between them. The letter had arrived two days earlier, and she had read it, memorized its contents, but the news didn’t seem real, more like a ghostly whisper from far away. Only when thing flowers uttered the words in their familiar accent, as if they too had come from her fishing village in São Miguel, did the letter feel true. There were facts in the letter. The flowers confirmed it. Her mãe, her beautiful mother, was dead.

The beauty of this book is that it documents complex situations in a simple, almost every-day language. It is easy to read yet the concepts are familiar and universal. We all have sensed the frustrations and fears of the characters involved yet may have not truly considered them or discussed them out loud. Leung’s book forces many of us to come to realize many things about the world around us that we may not have considered before.

Pages 112 Kiss

It was clear how much Uncle Bill adored Louisa by the way he held her hand when they went for walks around the neighbourhood on Louisa’s good days, or by the gentle voice he used when he asked her if she was hungry. Josie had never seen a man take care of a woman before. Although her mother worked the same long hours as her father, it was still up to Josie, her mother and her sister to do all the cooking and cleaning.

Aunt Louisa and Uncle Bill lived a fifteen-minute walk away, outside the enclave of the sister streets. Instead of hanging out with June and the other kids on Winifred after lunch in the August heat, Josie would head over to her aunt and uncle’s house to start dinner. When school began that fall, she didn’t even wait to walk home with June and dashed to their place right after the bell.

Even though her aunt was sick, they had a lot of fun together. Aunt Louisa would keep her company from a chair in the corner of the kitchen while Josie chopped vegetables or swept. Aunt Louisa, already thin, would sit with her feet on another chair, propped up with pillows and wearing a big scarf around her head. She looked to Josie like a fragile egg, her skin so pale it was almost translucent. Despite the rapid changes to her appearance, Aunt Louisa still like to talk and asked her about school and her friends in a way her mother never did.

Carrianne Leung has given readers something serious and emotional to consider in her book That Time I Loved You.  Her story lines are unique and insightful which makes this book a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s website for That Time I Loved You

Link to Carrianne Leung’s website

 

When Memories Truly Become History | Review of “The Water Beetles” by Michael Kaan (2017) Goose Lane Editions

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Image linked from the publisher’s website

We all have had family members who have enthralled us with stories of their childhood. But for those of us whose ancestors endured the horrors of conflict and war, that enthrallment becomes a stunned silence when we become aware of the hardships and traumas they went through. Michael Kaan has taken the memories of his father growing up in Hong Kong during the Second World War and crafted a unique novel called The Water Beetles.

Pages 10-11

We’re stopped because it’s another hot day, and even the Japanese solders forcing us to march agree we should rest. We’ve stopped by a dense bamboo grove. Despite the soldiers’ warnings to stay visible, I want to be alone, so I’m lying close to the grove’s edge. If I lie on my back and look up, I can see only a small patch of sky, the bamboo stalks are so dense. I can also see the two beetles climbing up a stalk. The little green-and yellow one that is me, with the one leg hooked into the crook of the stem, doesn’t seem to care that he’s being followed.

The greenery reminds me of our grounds back home, of the beds and potted plants that the gardener used to touch so carefully with his tools. It reminds me of the gardens at school and in the city parks, and other things that I worry are gone or I may never see again. At the moment I’m surrounded by plants, the wild and farmed exploding next to each other in the light. There’s nothing gentle about cultivated plants – they dig and drink, and push upward as hard as the wild ones. But I prefer my memories to what is happening now. We have a garden on the roof of our house where my brother and I used to play a lot, before it became unsafe to be up there. It has a chicken coop and a vegetable plot, or at least it did when I left.

This is one of these books that takes a element from the history pages and gives readers a much more in-depth understanding of the events that occurred. Kaan has crafted the memories of his father into the story of Chung-Man Leung, who is coming of age in December 1941. Chung-Man’s life is comfortable and he is curious about the world around him but the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong throws his existence into turmoil as he and his family are faced with a trove of violence and repression.

Pages 65-66

Despite the caution of the adults around me, I caught bits of their conversations and fragments of radio broadcasts, and throughout December I pieced together what had happened to Hong Kong. On December 8, the Japanese Imperial Army, who had invaded northeastern China several weeks earlier and were working their way south, crossed the Shenzhen River that separated the British colony from the mainland. This left them only about thirty miles north of the mainland portion of Hong Kong, and so about forty miles from where we lived on Hong Kong Island. The Allied forces that had assembled there either succumbed or pulled back from the onslaught, and eventually the Japanese penetrated the New Territories into Hong Kong itself. Even as the Japanese moved inward on land, they had already bombed Kai Tak  Airport on the eight, weakening the British. The blasts we heard at my school that morning were the sound of the airport being shelled, the sound of a fatal blow.

I’m recounting this quickly, as if I were reading from a history book, but at the time I knew even less, and the adults around me didn’t know much more. We no idea where the fighting was or what progress the Japanese made each day. We only heard of it as one hears of a change in the weather, that a hurricane or typhoon is coming.

The truth is that one never know enough. Looking back into the past is a lonely game of self-delusion, watching people and events move with an inevitability that never was. the history books tell everything with such certainty. But at the time, nothing seemed inevitable to me. Somethings were impossible or unlikely, something expected, but most of all, beyond the routine of daily life, the world was a mystery. We knew little until it happened.

What makes this book truly memorable is that is a perfect mixture of fact, description and lyricism. That combination makes this narrative that will certain be reflected and pondered upon months after the book is read by many readers. The prose also seems to flow from one section to the next, only changing suddenly when something dramatic occurs. It is a read worthy to reflect and ponder over.

Pages 222-223

A harsh metallic clang woke me the next morning. I ran out of the house wearing only my underwear. A man was running through the streets striking a gong and shouting at everyone to get up. Many people were already out, and I ran back to the house to wake Leuk, Wei-Ming, and Yee-Lin. A half dozen planes flew overhead.

The Japanese had been spotted on the road just before dawn by a civil defence volunteer. The townspeople were unprepared and panic erupted. A man from the neighbouring house said he would fight and shook an old rifle in the air to the cheers of other men.

Yee-Lin was already up and packing our belongings. I got dressed, found my belt, and made sure Leuk had his too. Only Yee-Lin knew about the gold we carried , and we never talked about it. Wei-Ming would be certain to say something if she knew.

“Chung-Man, get Kei and Ming and tell them to come with us,” said Yee-Lin.

“Where to?”

“I don’t know. Into the woods. To a river if we can find a boat. There must be a way out. They may know how.

I went to the kitchen and found them already up and strangely calm.

“It’s the Japanese, isn’t it? said Kei. What should we do?”

“Run. We’re going to try to make it out. Come with use and tell us where to go. Is there a place to hide in the woods, or a boat?”

Michael Kaan has crafted a unique and enlightening piece of literature with The Water Beetles. He has taken his father’s memories and created a story worthy for all us readers to ponder and reflect on. It is a must read for sure.

*****

Link to Goose Lane’s website for The Water Beetles