Tag Archives: Knopf Canada

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

Lost

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

Pages 64-65

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

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

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

“Please?”

“Okay, shoot.”

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

“Forget about what other people burnt.”

“I never burnt anyone on purpose.”

“Okay.”

“Did I? Not directly . . .”

“You burnt people indirectly?”

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

“Weren’t you?”

“The enemy were the barbaric fiends”

“Which enemy?”

The answer to this is always hard to remember.

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

Page 147-148

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page 174-175

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

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

***

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

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

*****

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

Link to Kathleen Winter’s LiveJournal site

“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

Enlightenment on the Simple Yellow Bus | Review of “Precious Cargo: My Year of Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077” (2016) Knopf Canada

Cargo

True readers of books – people who take the time to sit in a quiet corner and ponder a writer’s carefully crafted words – appreciate a unique perspective on the human condition. They like a writer’s observations on how other humans interact, even if the situation seems mundane or desperate. Craig Davidson may have been in need of funds when he took the job as school-bus driver but that year he drove that bus gave him a ton of observations and insights. And he crafted that ton into his memoir Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077.

Page 1-2

I trudged across a field against a late-September wind that flattened my jacket against my chest. The moon was still visible in the early morning sky. The odd vehicle wended down the road bordering the field, pickups mostly. The western foothills rode the earth’s curve like the backs of breaching whales. Weak ripples of sunlight washed over the hills touch blades of wet grass, and in that instant I felt as if I was walking through a field lit up in flame.

The wind died down by the time I reached my bus. My key slid crisply into the lock. I grabbed the Maglite from the cup holder and popped the hood release. Outside, I swept the flashlight beam through the engine compartment. Everything looked tickety-boo.

I shut the hood and stepped inside the bus. The motion-sensor alarm sounded, a staccato beep-beep-beep. I keyed the ignition and waited  for the glow plugs to warm. The engine fired, coughed, coughed, then caught.

I silenced alarm. Flicked on the CB radio. Checked my gauges. Got the heaters pumping even though the engine was stone cold. Those small tasks accomplished. I walked between the bench seats with my head tucked so it didn’t hit the roof – I’d made the mistake of walking upright my first week on the job, only to have a loose rivet on the roof tear a nifty little groove in my scalp. I pulled the security pin from the rear emergency door and moved back up the aisle, slapping the seatbacks to make sure they were secure. My fingertips brushed against a hardened wad of Windex-coloured  gum – the stuff Oliver had been chewing yesterday. We’d be having a little heart-to-heart about gum on the bus, young Master Oliver and I.

Davidson quickly realized the important responsibility he had in dealing with his passengers. Not only was he assigned the task of ferrying the kids from home to school and back again each day but he realized there was an emotional need that his passengers seemed to crave from him. He was more than a driver. He was a friend, a mentor, a defender, a comedian and a philosopher. In short of anything, he was a familiar face to those kids at the start and end of their days as they made through another long school year.

Page 126-127

Some drivers ran their buses the way feudal lords ruled their fiefdoms, with an iron fist. Nothing made them happier than to glance at the riot mirror and see row upon row of tight-lipped students with their hands folded neatly in their laps. They relished tomb-like silence, as if they were delivering mannequins to a department store. I substituted on a few routes like that. It was eerie, that quiet. And the kids were ridiculously happy to get the slightest leeway.

“Wait,” one kid said, “You mean I can drink my juice box on the bus?”

“Sure, go ahead. Just throw it out when you’re done.”

The kid beamed. “You are so cool!”

You’re darn right I’m cool, kid! Drink that juice box, and hey – if you’re feeling peckish, eat a granola bar too!

The rules on my own bus were more lax. If Oliver were to let a curse word slip every so often? Eh. The odd gum wrapper not thrown into the trash box at the back of the bus? Let it slide. But I made it known I was granting privileges, not according rights. In my previous roles as camp counsellor, classroom aide, librarian – I’d worked with kids a lot over the years –  my objective had always been to treat those under my wing with respect; I’d allow minor infractions, hoping my charges would self-correct with gentle encouragement. Sometimes this backfired, but it was the method that worked best for me. Of course, it also reflected my distaste for being in charge.  I didn’t want to be the wet blanket. The scold. Better to be the laconic, laid-back, chill dude. Do what the rhythms of of the earth and sea tell you to do, dudes and dudettes. Consult the I Ching. Gather the karmic threads of the universe and don’t let me harsh mellow. All of this to say that I was a terrible boss – or the best boss in the whole world, depending on your outlook.

I also didn’t want to be driving a mausoleum; I wanted the kids to feel free to engage with each other and with me. And as they got used to me over time, those kids really did talk. About movies and sports and television and friendship and love and families and a million other topics. Mainly, though, the kids told stories. Their imaginations were astonishingly unbridled. And their stories were instructive – a window into their worlds and dreams. Every so often they broke my heart.

Davidson has done something here that is important in a good piece of literature but hard to do in our modern, technological, fast-paced world – to realize that we are all interdependent on each other and that our needs can only be filled from other human beings. He put heart into driving that bus every day and the stories that came out of that bus are endearing and enlightening not only for readers but for him as well. And that lesson he learned he has well-crafted into this book.

Page 270-271

It was a great year. String together fifteen or twenty years like that and you could call it a pretty terrific life. At some point, driving you went from being a job to a joy. I would have done it for free. You became a needful constant in my life. If I was broken, the the bus fixed me. You guys fixed me. Deep inside I know that’s not fair – it’s a hell of a lot ask that anyone redeem you  – and yet I feel it no less keenly. The physical truth is that I drove you. The deeper truth is that you drove me. Drove me to step out of my own sickened skin, to stop feeling sorry for myself and to see the world for its beauties more than its agonies. Ultimately you drove me back to my computer with a renewed sense of purpose. For most of that year I didn’t write a thing. I wasn’t creatively blocked – I simply didn’t think that I was any good. I could write things down, but why bother? Then, somewhere along the line, I began to feel better about myself. I was convinced I could write some of those ideas down and they wouldn’t be terrible. I gained confidence; but even then I could have stumbled – I was like a day-old foal trying to stand for the first time. I thought about the stories you told on the bus, each of you spinning your own tale. So I sat down and spun my own. I wrotea book about  . . . well, us.

Craig Davidson’s memoir Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077 is a great piece of literature. It reminds us about the importance of the human interdependence in even the smallest and mundane situations. A great read and an endearing read. 

*****

Link to Craig Davidson’s website

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077

Link to my Q&A with Craig Davidson “(I)t was just a matter of that year feeling very profound to me—so much so that I was moved to write about it”

 

 

An Honest and Enlightening Look at the Human Condition | Review of “all my puny sorrows” by Miriam Toews (2014) Knopf Canada

sorrowsThe concept of literature to explore the issues around the human condition is an enlightening one. We are surrounded by issues like depression, suicide, dysfunctional families, et cetera, it feels like we are alone in dealing with these problems. But we are not. And when a writer like Miriam Toews writes a book like all my puny sorrows, we are graced with the wisdom that our fights are not in vain.

Page 10

Elfrieda has a fresh cut just above her left eyebrow. There are seven stitches holding her forehead together. The stiches are black and stiff and the ends poke out of her head like little antennae. I asked her how she got that cut and she told me that she fell in the washroom. Who knows if that’s true or false. We are women in our forties now. Much has happened and not happened. Elf said that in order for her to open her packages of pills – the ones given to her by the nurses – she would need a pair of scissors. Fat lie. I told her that I knew she wasn’t interested in taking the pills anyway, unless they were of such a volume that their combined effect would make her heart seize, so why would she need a pair of scissor to open the package? Also, she could use her hands to tear it open. But she won’t risk injuring her hands.

The story deals with two sisters – Yolandi and Elfrieda – as they reach middle age. “Elf” has a wonderful life as a world-renowned pianist. “Yoli” is divorced, broke and desperately trying to find true love. Yet it is Elf who has the strong desire to die and her family is shocked as she tries to kill herself. And it is Yoli that must keep everything together as much as possible.  

Page 74-75

I left the room and wandered around the hallways and nodded at the nurses at the nurses’ station and walked into a linen closet by accident thinking it was a bathroom and out again, knocking over mops and cleaning products and muttering apologies, and back into Elf’s room, fresh smile, tears rubbed away, my face by now a lurid mess of colours and grime, and I’m trying to comfort myself. I’m singing, not really singing, the Boss (because he’s authoritative). “Thunder Road” . . . The anthemic tune that lit a fire in our plain girls hearts back in the eighties – serenading our own reflections with hairbrush microphones or belting it into the wind from the backs of half-ton trucks or the tops of towering hay bales – and that I’m calling on to give me hope once again.

Toews has a frank and simple style here that does more to illuminate societal issues than 100 daytime talk shows and news articles can ever attempt to do. This book is well-crafted and carefully thought out and deserves not be named a “must-read” but also should be nominated for several awards.

Page 212

My mom was sitting outside Elf’s room, on a chair near the nurses’ desk, mustering up her courage to be cheerful, an ambassador of hoe, and catching her breath. I went in and sat down beside Elf on her bed and said hey, I’m here. There was nothing in this room but two single beds, one empty, and two small desks with small chairs. There was a small, high window with a cage on it and Jesus dying on a small cross over the door. Elf was motionless in her bed, also small, silent, her face to the wall. I put my hand on her bony hip like a lover in the night. She murmured hi but didn’t turn to look at me. Is that you, Swivelhead? she said. I told he that Nic had left for Spain that morning although she already knew that, that mom was sitting outside catching her breath, that Aunt Tina’s condition had worsened a bit an now she needed surgery. I asked her how she was feeling. She didn’t answer. I have some fan mail for you, I said. I put the pile of papers on her empty desk. She didn’t answer.

all my puny sorrows by Miriam Toews is a brilliant novel dealing family and social issues we all face. Again it is a “must-read” and deserves high praise.

Link to Random House Canada’s page for all my puny sorrows.