Tag Archives: Penguin Random House Canada

A Novel that Gives Readers Definitions to Complex Social Ills | Review of “Brother” by David Chariandy (2017) McClelland & Stewart

Brother

There are terms that social scientists and politicians throw around to describe our society and it’s illnesses. But those terms are meaningless if one cannot understand what those terms truly mean. A good piece of literature should create empathy to a social situation with it’s readers and create a better consciousness about our society. And that is what David Chariandy has done with his novel Brother.

Page 1

Once he showed me his place in the sky. That hydro pole in a parking lot all weed-broke and abandoned. Looking up, you’d see the dangers of the climb. The feeder lines on insulators, the wired bucket called a pole-pig, the footholds rusted bad and going way into a sky cut hard by live cables. You’d hear the electricity as you moved higher, he warned me. Feel it shivering your teeth and lighting a whole city of hear inside your head. But if you made it to the top, he said, you were good. All that free air and seeing. The streets below suddenly patterns you could read.

A great lookout, my brother told me. One of the best in the neighbourhood, but step badly on a line, touch your hand to the wrong metal part while you’re brushing up against another, and you’d burn. Hang scarecrow-stiff and smoking in the air, dead black sight for all. “You want to go out like that?” he asked. So when you climbed, he said, you had to go careful. You had to watch your older brother and follow close his moves. You had to think back on every step before you took it. Remembering hard the whole way up.

He taught me that, my older brother. Memory’s got nothing to do with the old and grey and faraway gone. Memory’s the muscle sting of now. A kid reaching brave in the skull hum of power.

“And if you can’t memory right,” he said, “you lose.”

This has been a notable book on a number of lists now – being nominated and winning numerous awards and the book that the London (Ontario) Public Library is encouraging its members to read right now. (Link to the One Book, One London webpage hosted by the London Public Library). This is a book that gives one pause to consider urban angst and poverty in ways most people may not understand. Readers are vaulted into the lives of Michael and his older brother Francis. They are both trying to come to terms with their Trinidadian heritage while living on the outskirts of a major urban centre. They deal with a barrage of prejudices and “low expectations” because of who they are and the colour of their skin.

Pages 46-47

“A girl,” said Mother, as if to herself, “A sleeping child.”

Since witnessing Anton get shot, Francis had been a zombie, his eyes glazed and evasive. But Mother’s words appeared to shake him awake. For a second he met my eyes, but then dropped his. Mother was now staring at him.

The cops reassured her that we were not under investigation. Already there were leads on the names and whereabouts of the suspects, but since we had been in the vicinity of the shooting, they might want to interview us as the case developed. They voiced concerns about Francis’s connections to some of the suspects. Mother nodded and said twice that her boys would cooperate fully. The cops encouraged her, also, to get in touch if she felt she could offer any relevant information. It would all be anonymous, they insisted. Our identities would be protected.

“We will cooperate,” said Mother again. “We promise. Thank you, officers.”

She continued thanking them as they walked away. And then she held the door open for Francis and me to go inside. She shut the door very carefully behind us and took her time letting go of the handle. She seemed to muster all of the energy in her body just to face us.

“You will . . . tell me . . . everything,” she said.

Chariandy has a direct style here but the book gives a vivid description of a life of a young urban man trying to find his place in a cruel world.  It is a small volume of a book but deserves complete attention by any serious reader. The settings he describes alone are so true and feel so alone. This is a must read for any person who believes in the power of literary empathy.

Pages 90-91

Jelly must sense my wariness towards him, because shortly after the tea, he leaves without a word. Through the window, I see him pass Mrs. Henry, who stops to stare before shaking her head and muttering something disapproving to the invisible congregation of souls forever accompanying her. If Jelly can hear the rebuke, he very wisely doesn’t respond and continues walking down the avenue. He’s taken his backpack, and for a moment I wonder if he’s left for good. Should we have tried to talk? Ten years and not a single word between us. Should I at least have said goodbye? I feel more relief than guilt. But in a couple of hours he returns with his backpack full, as well as two plastic bags of groceries in his hands. And there’s another surprise.

He can cook.

He moves fluently through the inexpensive ingredients he’s bought, bags of vegetables as well as dried peas, rice little containers of seasonings he produces from his backpack. He chops like a chef, the sharp steel edge loud and quick upon the wood. Soon he’s got the edge loud and quick upon the wood. Soon he’s got the entire kitchen in chaos, no free space on the counters, all stove elements on. Mother has begun to pitch in too, and she sorts dried peas at the kitchen table, dropping them into a ceramic bowl with the sound of small pebbles. Even Aisha is participating, fetching pots and pans, washing vegetables in a big colander at the sink.

Brother by David Chariandy is a novel that gives definitions to many of the social ills we hear about. It is not only a book that should be read or pondered over but discussed in great detail. In any case a great piece of literature worthy of it’s many accolades.

*****

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for Brother

Link to the London (Ontario, Canada) Public Library’s website for the One Book One London project

Link to my review of David Chariandy’s previous book Soucouyant

 

The Enjoyment of a Complex Read | Review of “The Rule of Stephens” by Timothy Taylor (2018) Doubleday Canada

Stephens

We all try to plan our lives out in some order. But those plans are interrupted violently at times by some sort of external force and we are shocked into making new plans for our goals. That transition can be confusing –  and even heartbreaking –   for many of us. That transitional stage is the element of the human condition that Timothy Taylor documents in his book The Rule of Stephens.

Page 13 DIYagnosis

Catherine Bach was thirty-five years old when AF801 went down. In the year prior, she had managed to take a single week off, a poorly considered trip to Cabo San Lucas with a man she’d only been out with a couple of times. Liam. They shared a room, had sex once but wet to sleep in separate beds. He hated the food. They broke up on the plane home, amicably enough, and she hadn’t heard from him since. Other than that, life was work. It had been a single frantic year since Catherine had stopped her practice at the clinic to plow all her still-meagre savings into DIYagnosis Personal Health Systems, a next-generation health-tracking wearable that monitored user vital signs and that would – assuming they succeeded in building and testing the various prototypes – feed back to the user a whole range of vital stats, from blood pressure to respiration rates, BMI, T-cell counts, liver enzymes.

Know your body. Change your world.

This book is a complex read but it is an intriguing one.  The main character is Catherine Bach. Although Bach is a founder of  a start-up biotech firm, she is frustrated that everybody around her focuses their attention that she one of a few survivors of a horrific jetliner accident a few years before. As she deals with both the trauma of the event and the frustrations of rolling out the new product, she finds that her life is guided by events that can be attributed to the works of two archetypal Stephens  – the complex and ordered world of Stephen Hawking or the “paranormal aberrations” of Stephen King.

Pages 7-8

Catherine didn’t like thinking this way. Luck, fate,  destiny. There were conceits, offensive to rational thought and logic. The universe, like the human body, was complex and on occasion surprising. But it remained an ordered and structured thing. The Rule of Stephens, she’d lectured her sister, Valerie, as far back as when they were still in high school. That would be Stephen Hawking or Stephen King. There were the laws of physics and then there was everything else. You had to choose which set of rules explained life best.

Valerie, three years younger and an aspiring stage actress in her teen years, had always seemed faintly dissatisfied with natural explanations. She was then, in Catherine, who shared the same strawberry ginger hair inherited from their mother, the same fine, fair features and intense green eyes. Catherine remembered the lunches she and her sister had shared in an empty chem lab, half an hour over salads they made together before school. Half an hour before Valerie’s friends came to find her and Catherine herself turned to whatever homework needed her attention, whatever book was on the go. She recalled one occasion, running late, a mid-term afternoon in April or May. She’d rushed in flustered and talking already about her English teacher’s marking scheme: so subjective, so lacking in rigour. And there was Valerie wiping away rear, trying to cover up the horoscope that she’d been reading.

Friends can be deceiving. And as Saturn squares with Venus, beware the one friend who . . .

Valerie distraught. Catherine instantly furious. Saturn said no more about Valerie’s chances in love or friendship than it did about Catherine’s English grades. There was this matter of physical causality, Catherine ranted. And since she was also carrying around a copy of A Brief History of Time that year, in the cause of sisterly, protective love she resorted to it. That really was her up at the chalkboard drawing cones that me at their points, trying to explain how the speed of light quite tightly proscribed what could affect a given moment, just as it limited how a given moment could affect the future. Catherine with chalk in her hand, drawing pictures, trying to explain Hawking’s “hypersurface of the present” just as the lab door burst open and Valerie’s drama club friends poured in.

Taylor is one of those rare writers who documents elements of the human condition that are just outside of our perception. Careful readers will note the points he is making through the telling of the story of Catherine Bach in their own lives yet may have never noted the situations of emotions until reading this book. Certainly this is a unique book told by a unique and talented writer.

Pages 92-93

Catherine felt sick, like she’d been punched in the stomach. Oxygen deficiency and a spreading numbness within.

Phil took a big breath. Then he leaned forward and brought his face quite clos to hers. Voice almost a whisper now.

I would never knowingly deceive you,” he said. “I think you know me well enough to believe that. And I’m going to go one step further. I I thin you also know that the time has come to walk away. I know you can do it. You’re the kind of person who can. I knew you before the accident, Cate. And I’ve seen you struggle since. May Morris turns DIY into his billion-dollar unicorn, rides the whole thing to some huge exit. But honestly? Probably a hundred things. In the meantime his offer is a good one and would allow you to step back and think about yourself for a while. Yourself. Your health. Your future.”

Phil the eminently reasonable. Phil who actually cared about her as a person. Phil who, it wasn’t hard to see, under different circumstances for both of them might well have been something more.

Catherine was nodding to herself now. But for all his understanding, Phil still wasn’t getting it. He wasn’t getting what it felt like to have someone swivel their attentions on you, decide that what you had built, what you had cared for, what you had now within your grasp might very conceivably be their own.

“So I sign,” Catherine said. “Your best advice.”

Timothy Taylor has constructed a complex yet enlightening read with his novel The Rule of Stephens. It is definitely not a light read nor is it one that should be rush through. But, like all of Taylor’s other book, it shines a light on a spot of the human condition. In short, a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for The Rule of Stephens

Link to Timothy Taylor’s website

“One big inspiration (of the book) was a fantasy of the good life and how to find it, which involved having good friends you’d live close to and share life with as well as access to art and fewer cars and concerns” |Q&A with author Liz Harmer on her new book “The Amateurs”

 

amateurs

It is always a thrill to see a new work come available for us readers to enjoy. Liz Harmer has been in my social-media network for a while now and her novel “The Amateurs” is being published on April 24, 2018by Knopf Canada. Liz was kind enough to answer a few questions about her novel and provide some insights into her writing style.

****

1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of “The Amateurs?”

At the centre of The Amateurs is “port”, a product released by a tech company called PINA, which proves to be nearly irresistible. People buy it, use it, and soon the world depopulates. The novel focuses on two groups living after this kind of rapturing apocalypse—a few dozen people living in Hamilton-like former steeltown, and nearly a thousand holing up on the PINA campus in California—who are grieving everything and everyone they’ve lost, afraid of and desperately curious about the ports, and trying to figure out what’s next. The novel moves from the steeltown group to California and back.

 

2) How long did it take you to write the book? Was there anyone or anything that inspired you to write it?

 

One big inspiration was a fantasy of the good life and how to find it, which involved having good friends you’d live close to and share life with as well as access to art and fewer cars and concerns. I had a picture of an economy somehow happily collapsed by technology. This mutated, of course, and I ended up thinking a lot about hinge moments in life in which I might have, for example, completely screwed up my marriage—just the sort of fantasies one has around time travel and do-overs. I thought the idea that portals promising a good life might create one inadvertently was funny. My husband Adam was finishing his PhD in Philosophy around the writing of the novel, and we share an interest in the paradoxes of time travel (among other paradoxes), which was another spur.

 

From the first attempted pages, the book took around fifteen months to write, but I had been writing character sketches of Marie and Jason for much longer than that. Then the editing and revising took another year or two. It’s hard to find the boundaries around that kind of timeline.

 

3) “The Amateurs” has been listed as part of Knopf New Face of Fiction program. How did the novel get chosen for that program?

 

I don’t know how that happened—but I am so thrilled to be on that list and to be publishing with Knopf.

 

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

 

I love Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, and I’m also very enthusiastic about Zadie Smith, Rachel Cusk, Heather O’Neill, and Elena Ferrante. Ottessa Mosfegh’s stories and her novel Eileen were some recent favorites. I’m currently reading Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson—it’s excellent—and I’m just starting Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.

 

5) Your website states you also write essays and short pieces of fiction. Do you find any differences between the two forms of writing? Is there one form you prefer over the other?

 

Yes, and I’ve also been recently trying to write poetry. Each form provides something different, though I have a lot of trouble knowing for myself what that difference is. My nonfiction tends to be memoir, and I like all my work to be exploratory and open-ended as I’m very uncomfortable with definitive statements, at least in my writing. I tend to prefer whatever I’ve been working on—right now, I prefer fiction and feel most comfortable within it—I like to create a voice and get to know a character.

 

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

 

Yes—many new things, actually. Partly because I am very busy with young kids and too many responsibilities, and partly because my personality likes novelty, I’m always working on lots of projects at once. I’m several drafts into one new novel (a realist novel about commitment to marriage and to religious belief) and part way into a first draft of another; I’m working on a bunch of short stories; and I’ve been working on and researching a long nonfiction project to do with mental illness in my family.

 

7) You seem to be active on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using those sites? Are you planning to use those applications to connect with fans of your writing?

 

Definitely. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and I’m trying to figure out how best to use them. I used to really love blogging, which I think led me to write more nonfiction, and I want to figure out how to enjoy social media that much.

 

8) Are you done any public readings of you work? If yes, is it something you enjoy to do? Are you planning a book tour with the release of “The Amateurs?”

 

I have done a few readings over the past few years, of stories and essays and parts of The Amateurs. I think it’s a skill I’m getting better at, especially with some practice I’ve had reading poetry aloud. I enjoy it and tend to like events—I like going to readings also. My tour will take me to Southern Ontario in May, to start with, with more events to follow.

 

9) Your biographies have you listed as having moved from Hamilton, Ontario to California. How do you like living there now? Do you get back to Canada much?

 

I do get back to Canada fairly frequently, both with and without my family. We moved because of my husband’s academic job, which we were extremely lucky to get, but I suffer from a lot of homesickness. I miss the changing seasons—even the grey skies of the endless Southern Ontario winters—and it was hard to leave friends and family behind, especially when our kids were so young. But we have made wonderful friends here, and pomegranate trees and blue skies can be nice. I was writing The Amateurs during the move—had finished the first part during my last summer in Hamilton and started the second part before we even had an internet connection here—and my mentor with the U of T, Charles Foran, joked with me that I was going through a kind of portal while I wrote my portal novel.

*****

Link to Liz Harmer’s website

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for “The Amateurs”

A Novel Which Crafts Elements of the Human Condition | Review of “Bellevue Square” (2017 Doubleday Canada) by Michael Redhill

Bellevue

We have all viewed people with mental illnesses of some sort. And we all have had that little voice inside of us that have wondered about our own state of mind. Yet do we ever really considered mental health in regards to the human condition at all? Michael Redhill has certainly given us all something to think about with his novel Bellevue Square.

Page 32

We  all know that bad things are coming. Advice: don’t get too comfortable. Read short books, don’t see your doctor too often. Example of this: on one of my visits to my old GP, Gary Pass, I learned the name for the bony protrusions that had started to poke out of my skull. They were aneurysmal bone cysts, benign. (1997) Then Pass pronounced I had polyps. They flourished in such places as my armpits (2001, 2006, 2010). my cervix (2007), and my rectum (2012). It’s no small thing to have a half-dozen growths fried off your cervix, but I would take that over two in the fundament. Paula, my sister, called the second operation “Fire Below.” She’s been allowed, since 2007, to make fun of my aches and pains because she has a case of the brain tumours. Paula used to live in Phoenix with her husband, Chase, but now she and chase are quits and she lives alone in Phoenix, convalescing or dying. Mine years after diagnosis, the tumour has doubled in size, but she lives on. It’s inoperable. We keep our Skypes on and I have a huge data plan on my phone, which means I can talk to her while I walk down the street if I want. I’m all she has now. Our deadbeat father dies last year, and our mother alternates between Toronto and Key West, where she cures herself to kid leather six months out of the year. Once in a while she’ll go see Paula, but my mother has a life. She says you shouldn’t have to take care of your kids past their eighteenth birthdays.

Redhill has crafted a unique journey for us readers as we follow protagonist Jean Mason in her search for her doppelganger. Her unknown identical twin haunts her thoughts and she begins an obsession to find more about this person. Jean’s journey takes her through a downtown Toronto market and into a park (known as Bellevue Square) where she gets to know the regulars in order to find out more about this mysterious double.

Page 65

Pee, Dog turds, and decomposing mice are only some of the fragrances of Bellevue Square in the springtime. I’d long ago stopped noticing these undertones to the market’s stinky chiaroscuro, but it can be a challenge for first-timers, and when we walked into the park, Ian pulled his head back, as if he could save his nose from going in. “That’s  . . . fucking foul,” he said

Miriam greeted us as we entered.

“Friend of yours?” Ian asked.

“A local,” I said.

“That makes you . . . ?”

“I told you, I got to know a few people over the weeks-”

Months”

“-that I’ve been coming here.” I told him Miriam was a Turkish lady who’d  worked her corner since 1995. I told him how she was the market wet nurse. Ritt wasn’t around from what I could see, and now Cullen had been missing for the better part of a month. The last few things Cullen had talked about before he vanished had unsettled me. He claimed to have invented a drug that allowed him to upload his thoughts into a computer.

This is the first of a “triptych” of novels that Redhill is writing as part of his Modern Ghosts series. And with it he has captured an element of the human condition that; exists, is somewhat undefinable and takes on twists and turns we all at times witness yet do not discuss. This is certainly one of those reads I recommend that should be pondered over and not rushed through in order to appreciate it’s depth.

Page 156

The society of the mad contains primarily other sick people, as well as doctors and nurses. Some family if you’re lucky. I’ve learned that many people here have been here before and will return again. Out in the world they’re burning fuses, a danger sometimes to themselves or others. In here, they shamble, their legs confused on anti-seizure drugs; they wince at their thoughts; their lot in life is revealed to them over and over. They are poor and sick and shabby and hungry.

Michael Redhill has certainly crafted an element of the human condition in his novel Bellevue Square. It is a bold read and one that should be pondered over. In short, a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for Bellevue Square

 

On the Quest for a bit of Alone Time. | Review of Michael Harris’ “Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World” (2017) Doubleday Canada

soli

Since starting my little reading blog here, I have noted that many of my followers crave some quiet down time to read and even think a bit. Yet getting that down time to put their feet up is limited. Well dear followers, here is one more book I have read for you and note for your consideration while you go through your hurly-burly day. And that book is:  Michael Harris’ Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World.

Pages 17-18

Aristotle defined humans as social animals and he was only too right. Making sure other people have positive impressions of us is one of our central motivations. And when we use screen-based social media instead of face-to-face interactions to groom each other, we’re able to be more strategic about that self-presentation. For example, when confronted with a Facebook post about someone’s new job, my lovely but nervous friend Jocelyn may write and rewrite her comment for several minutes before finally landing on the tapioca-scale inoffensiveness of “So happy for you!!!” (If she’s feeling crazy, Jocelyn may add a martini glass emoji.) Unsurprisingly, a 2015 study found that, of the roughly 1.5 billion regular Facebook users, usage spikes among those with social anxiety – in particular, those who have a high need for social assurance. The technology becomes a salve, a way to calm our worries about fitting in or belonging. And with astonishing speed, the compulsion to groom online has been absorbed into our idea of the natural: Only 8 per cent of adults in the United States used social networking sites in 2005. Meanwhile, nearly half of Americans now sleep with their phones on their bedside tables, using them as surrogate teddy bears. To be human is to be social; to be human in the age of screens is to be massively social.

And yet . . . In the same way that many people are forced to engineer healthy diets for themselves in a world overflowing with the salts and sugars and fats we’re designed to hoard, it’s possible that we’re such compulsive social groomers that we must keep ourselves from gobbling the fast-food equivalent. Has social media made us socially obese – gorged on constant connection but never properly nourished?

Has the neocortex – the very thing that made us human, the thing that kickstarted our cities and our politics, our religions and our art – been hijacked one to many times?

I have been reluctant to use the term Zeitgeist for a while but Harris has indeed documented what many of us feel is the “spirit of the times” with this non-fiction book.  Our modern lifestyle demands we be tuned-in to a multitude of devices and online platforms, and if we miss one tweet or post, we will be the social pariah at the conversation around the water cooler or dinner party. So what would happen if we were to totally tune out not only our toys but all of our friends and just be alone with ourselves and our thoughts. Many of us have been tempted to do so but Harris gives the notion some serious and well-researched thought.

Pages 53-54

Physicists like Einstein and Newton are among our most fundamental thinkers, and they were particularly aware of what solitude brings to serious thought. Felicity Mellor, a researcher at Imperial College London, criticizes the new generation of advanced study institutes for emphasizing collaboration and social atmospheres at the expenses of such solitary contemplation. The institutions Mellor studies exhibit what she calls a “near exclusive focus” on communication between scholars and, in their own words, call for “international engagement” and “collaborative research projects.” The Francis Crick Institute, in London, which opened in 2016, is a paradigmatic example: it’s designed with open-plan labs and glass walls to ensure collaboration. The institute’s strategy documents cheers how “how scientists will be drawn together at interaction and collaboration facilities located at the centre of each floor.”

“The need for periods of withdrawal and solitude,” Mellor writes, “are no longer acknowledged as a means of facilitating intellectual advances.” Although every fundamental shift in physics has required a good dose of solitude, “reticence and silence seem to have no place in the modern research agenda.” Peter Higgs, the Nobel Prize-winning godfather of the Hadron Collider, backs Mellor up, saying his trailblazing work would be impossible today because the peace and solitude he enjoyed in the 1960s has vanished. We can only imagine how premature sharing could deflate a unified field theory or mangle an explanation for the origination of gamma rays bursts.

What is true for institutions is also true for individuals. We all have daily proof that moments of aloneness allow for the drifting, unfocused mind to be inspired. Like others, I`m hit by my better ideas firs thing in the morning, even lying in bed, before the world has poured any noise or hassle onto me. A novel thought might strike me in the shower, or while I’m drinking my coffee and fuzzily apprehending the patterns of birds outside. Almost all my writer friends swear by early-morning writing. And the psychiatrist Anthony Storr found the same, sayin that “by far the greater number of new ideas occur during a state of reverie, intermediate between waking and sleeping.” It’s as though the brain is allowed to have its genius moment before our lumbering, bureaucratic ide of thinking puts on a tie and gets in the way.

This is a unique read. It is one I would recommend that a person buys a print-edition of it,  sits down and ponders over it. Harris certainly took time out to research and reflect on the subject on how our interconnectedness is influencing our minds. He not only talked with a myriad of experts on the subject, but brings a wealth of knowledge to the discussion. And then in the final chapter, he documents his attempt at what many of us desire –  some solitude and alone-time.

Pages 215-216 The Cabin in the Woods

By the time I finish this tuna sandwich, I’ll have been alone – completely alone – for longer than I’ve ever been before.

It’s a startling thought. But, sitting here on this rotting deck, and looking out over both the ocean and the last thirty-six years, I find it’s true. Weirdly true. I have never, in my life, been completely alone for longer than twenty-four hours. Always, there was some quiet interaction with the guy making my Americano, at least. Or, if I was stuck in my apartment with the flu, there’d be an email exchange while curled in the nest of my duvet. But there was always some connection, some comfort.

From infancy onward, I have been perpetually witnessed, judged, hugged, chatted-up . . . .

But that changes now.  I’ve taken the ferry from Vancouver to Pender Island, about two hours off the coast of British Columbia. From the docks, I hiked another two hours to my family’s cabin. An old A-frame, built by my grandparents in the days when a parcel of land on an island’s waterfront wasn’t so impossible a thing to purchase. There’s a rope swing from when I was five; it dangles noose-like from one of the trees. A set of rotten steps leads me, muddy and skidding, down to the pebble beach where my brothers and I used to build rafts out of driftwood. We tied logs together with ropes of bull kelp.

The cabin door shunts open and there’s the smell of cedar planks, wet dog, ashes. I tug provisions from my pack: one week’s worth of oatmeal, raisins, tuna fish, canned chili. A paper bag of apples, one for each day.

I’ve come here for a week with myself. I plan not just doubling or tripling my solitude record but stretching it to point where I’m talking to myself.

Michael Harris has both brilliantly documented and done what we all have desperately crave with his book Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World. This is truly a work that must reflected and pondered over. In short, a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s webpage for Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World

Link to Michael Harris` website

A Real Lesson about the Human Condition | Review of “The Last Neanderthal” by Claire Cameron (2017) Doubleday Canada

A big thank you to Luanne at A Bookworm’s World for bringing this book to my attention.

neanderthal

I think the term “human condition” has come up with many people in my circles who read fiction. It usually is in reference to a theme in a book that documents or highlights some element of our daily life that we may not have considered before. But to look at our species in relation to other species (both living or dead) is a unique concept in literature. Claire Cameron’s work has come up in conversations with other book fans, so I decided to check out her latest work The Last Neanderthal, and I was truly impressed and enlightened.

Page 3 Prologue

They didn’t think as much about what was different.

There was good reason for this as they lived in small family groups. Every day was spent among people who were similar to them. The bodies that sat around the fire shared the same kind of cowlick at the backs of their heads, or the same laugh, or teeth that were equally crooked. Every time a head turned to look, a body could find one part of itself in another.

It’s because of their similarities to us that I can speak for them when I say that much of what you’ve heard isn’t true.

I love the interplay between the two characters of this book. On one hand we have, we have “Girl” who in some forty thousand years in the past was the oldest daughter of the last family of Neanderthals. In the other hand, we have Rosamund Gale, who in the modern day, is a archaeologist racing to uncover Neanderthal artifacts while dealing with a multitude of professional and personal issues. Even though there are thousands of years apart from the two and a mass of evolutionary changers, we can see similarities between the two characters in how they deal with their day-to-day issues and crisis.

Page 39-40

Girl tucked her spear into the groove in her armpit. To hunt was to wait. The family had worked the hunting grounds for as far as their shadow stories went back, but the site wasn’t theirs alone. All beasts on the land either hunted here or crossed the river here. It was a good place to drink and play, but it was also a dangerous place. Where there was food and fresh water, there was danger.

Then: Snap. A sound. Where? Girl curled her top lip up to feel the breeze on the sensitive patch on her gums. She felt a small ripple, a heated current in the air. What? She twitched her head to the right to listen. The tremor from the snap was like a sharp prick to the back of her neck.

This was the land where she was born and she knew it like she knew her own body. It was the only place she had lived. Because she came from Big Mother, her mind held the memories of all the hunts the old woman had been on too, and her mother before as well. And Girl also had the stories that came to her in dreams from the other members of the family. Every bump, dip, and curve of the land lay in the grooves of her mind, but they weren’t only there. Her body held the memories too. There was a dent in her shin, like a dip in a path, from when she had fallen. there was the scar on her finger, a ridge that held the same curve as the cliff, from a sharp rock. When the hair on her arms stood up, it was like part of the grassy meadow where the bison grazed. Her body took shape from the land.

This book is a great exploration of needs, thoughts and desires. Cameron has a frank writing style here that is easy to read and follow. And the plot stays in one’s mind, giving a reader something to ponder and reflect on after the book is finished. Definitely a unique read and one that is worthy of one’s serious leisure time.

Page 130

How had I become so pregnant overnight? I stuffed my sausage legs into my work trousers and tugged on the elastic that I used to secure the rivet on the fly. I had rigged the band to bring the two sides as close together as possible. As I stood to pull the pants closed, the elastic band snapped against my fingers and flew off. I looked around for another band but couldn’t find one. The fly of my trousers gaped open.

I had made a decision long ago that I would never cry at work. While tears are a natural reaction to adversity, I believed crying played into negative assumptions about a woman’s ability to cope with difficult situations. Through all the trials and tribulations that came with an academic career, I had not shed a tear. Not when I was at a site in Turkey and a large pallet slipped from a truck and broke my foot. Not when one of the outside examiners on my dissertation tried to set me back two years by refusing to accept new dating methods. Not when I was publicly mocked at a big conference by a prominent academic. (“You sound like you would like to get up close and personal with one of your Neanderthals,” he had remarked during the Q&A session), and not when the room had erupted with nervous laughter and the comment achieved its intended effect of discrediting everything I had said. I took it all on the chin.

I did not cry at work until I was unable to find a second elastic band to fasten my trousers. That triggered the silent sobs. I managed to bite my lip and not wake Simon, and I hoped the tears would go unnoticed, but then I heard footsteps outside.

Claire Cameron’s The Last Neanderthal is a book that truly gives insight to the human condition by looking at our past ancestors. An enlightening read and one that is worthy to be part of any bookshelf.

*****

Link to Penguin/Random House Canada website for The Last Neanderthal

Link to Claire Cameron’s website

Losing that One Person in Our Lives | Review of “So Much Love” by Rebecca Rosenblum (2017) McClelland & Stewart

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There is that one person in our daily lives that is important to us. It could be somebody very close to us or just somebody that we see on a day-to-day basis yet never give a second thought too. But remove that one person from our lives and our something in our psyche is vaulted into a state of shock. That is the theme Rebecca Rosenblum brilliantly explores in her novel So Much Love.

Page 3

Just before the winter semester wrapped up at the end of March, one of my Canadian Poetry students disappeared – not just from my class but also maybe from the earth. Catherine Reindeer left the restaurant where she worked at the end of a day shift, but she didn’t come home that night, or any night since. They found her purse in the parking lot the next morning. She was a good student, good enough that she didn’t need me to review her essay topics or suggest background readings. But she was chatty and didn’t seem to have friends in the class, so sometimes I was the recipient of her thoughts on Gwendolyn MacEwan, Michael Ondaatje, Julianna Ohlin. She spent a lot of time reading the biographical notes at the backs of books, always interested in discussing whose marriage had been happy, who worked a day job in addition to writing. She was – is? – a pretty girl, confident, a bit older that the rest. She had a husband, the newspapers said, unusual for an undergrad. I don’t remember a ring. I liked talking to her, but I didn’t know her well. Now that’s she’s gone, I think of her constantly.

Rosenblum has given readers an important element of the human condition to consider over in this book. The main focus of the plot deals with the disappearance of Catherine Reindeer. Readers witness the internal thoughts and struggles of many people that Catherine touched in their lives –  from people who were close to her to people who merely worked with her – and we get true look at how interconnected humans are and fragile the human psyche can be.

Pages 118-119

Heading home at the end of the day, I get that familiar homesickness just before I arrive. After a tough day – and now that I’m in my forties, I’m starting to feel like they’re mainly tough days – I still want to just spill it all out to Gretta and see if she can tell it back to me like a bedtime story. This desire has been growing all summer and fall, maybe since the beginning of spring when Catherine Reindeer first vanished, or since we each realized the other was devastated by the loss of this stranger. Or near-stranger. Maybe that was just one agony too many; we are kinder to each other now than we’ve been in years. We still don’t talk much, but her face when she’s genuinely listening to me is a comfort I could fall into. I don’t need advice, or any kind of commentary – after fifteen years, I know what she would say almost as well as what I would. This far into paying off the martial mortgage of intimacy, niceties like “How are you?” have become irrelevant – I know how she’s doing by the way she swallows her first mouthful of coffee in the morning, the rhythm of her stride on the stairs. In the evenings, we sit on opposite side of the living room, the rasp of pages from our respective books the faintest of communications. It is a kind of love, and a kind of loss too. I remember when we would have at least told each other what the books were about.

Rosenblum does a great job with this book of breaking down complex thoughts and emotions of the human psyche and gives those of us who want a careful and conscience read something to ponder over. The different sections of the book have single plot lines, yet the descriptions are vivid and memorable. Definitely a book that should not be rushed through while reading.

Page 181-182

The search went on for three freezing hours before they were given one last round of tea and Timbits and told to go home. No one found anything useful, or not that Kyla heard about. It was hard to tell exactly what was going on with everyone spread out in the trees and dark like that.

In Dermott’s truck on the way home, he hummed a few bars of “Amazing Grace,” but when she didn’t join in, he quit and tapped her knee with his big hand.

“It’ll be okay, Ky. Our heavenly Father is watching.”

She pictured God lying on his couch, watching all their suffering on a flat-screen TV, and didn’t understand why that was suppose to make her feel better.

After the night of the search party, Kyla cam home right after school the rest of the week. It didn’t feel safe to be out alone. Everyone was tense, darting eyes and locked car doors all over Iria. Even if she walked to Starbucks at lunch with Britt, they moved quickly, didn’t linger out front with the other kids, and checked over their shoulders.

So Kyla stayed home, read Ivan Ilych over again, and took notes while Jaycee practised her awful piano downstairs. The picture on the front of the skinny book was of an old man, some artist’s idea of how Ivan looked. Ivan, at the end of his life, seemed sad and exhausted, but that wasn’t the interesting part of the book or the character to Kyla. She thought about poor Ivan as basically a decent person who worked hard but didn’t really know what was important in life or how to find out. The scary part was that he could live his whole life and not even be interested in love or being loved, and die that way.

So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum will certainly be one of the most profound and in-depth reads I experienced so far in 2017. She has captured an element of the human condition and documented well here, certainly making me reflect and discuss this book on numerous occasions. Truly a gifted piece of literature.

*****

Link to Penguin/Random House Canada’s website for So Much Love

Link to Rebecca Rosenblum’s website

Link to my Q&A with Rebecca Rosenblum – “(W)e have the privilege of listening to the worst crimes on the news for twenty minutes, then shutting it off and thinking about getting new shoes or what to make for dinner for the next hour. But shouldn’t fiction go deeper, explore the hard parts?”

 

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

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

Page 3

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

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

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

Pages 30-31

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

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

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

Page 68

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Link to Emily Schultz’s website

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

“(W)e have the privilege of listening to the worst crimes on the news for twenty minutes, then shutting it off and thinking about getting new shoes or what to make for dinner for the next hour. But shouldn’t fiction go deeper, explore the hard parts?” | Q&A with author Rebecca Rosenblum on her new novel So Much Love

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Image linked from the author’s website

It is always a thrill for me to talk about a writer who has honed their craft through a collection of short stories who finally releases a complete novel. And Rebecca Rosenblum is such a writer. She brilliantly documented elements of human condition in her short story collections such as The Big Dream (Link to my review) and Once (Review coming shortly). Now her first complete novel So Much Love is out and should be a stunning read as well. Rosenblum took some time out from a busy book tour to answer a few questions for me.

*****

First off, could you give a bit of an overview of So Much Love?

The main story in So Much Love is about a young woman named Catherine Reindeer who goes missing and, first, what those who knew her go through in her absence also what happens to Catherine herself. But there’s also a thread woven through about a poet Catherine admires, Julianna Ohlin, dead many years, and what her life amounted to, or how Catherine imagines her. That’s a lot of different stories, because the people who miss Catherine each get their own voices and experiences and so does Julianna and the people in her world. That is how I like to experience the world—lots of different viewpoints, as a way to piecing together my own. In the end, with careful editing, I think Catherine’s powerful conclusion.

2) Was there anything specific that inspired you to write this book? Is there anything you are hoping to accomplish with So Much Love?

I was interested in the way that, first, female artists are often conflated with their biographies. This happens to men too, of course, but it seems much stronger with women. Even in an academic context, a woman’s art is indivisible from her life, her suffering, her love affairs in a way that I don’t think would be conceive able for a man. I was also interested in the way that there’s a kind of style or genre of fiction where a crime forms that backdrop, and much more mundane dramas form the main action. In truth, that is the way many of us live our lives, and thank goodness—we have the privilege of listening to the worst crimes on the news for twenty minutes, then shutting it off and thinking about getting new shoes or what to make for dinner for the next hour. But shouldn’t fiction go deeper, explore the hard parts?

3) According to your website, your previous books have been collections of short stories. Was it a major difference to now write a complete narrative for one book? How long did it take to write So Much Love?

Yes, I found it very challenging, and I had a lot of help. I took earlier runs at writing this novel—one starting in 2000 and one in 2004, but I just didn’t yet have the writing chops to make it through this complicated and challenging story. Then after graduate school in creative writing and two collections, working with an excellent editor (the rightly revered John Metcalf), I started again in 2011 and was able to get all the way through, after a fashion, though at that point the book was linked short stories. When McClelland & Stewart bought the book, my editor Anita Chong asked me if I was willing to edit it into a novel and I said yes—that was what I had wanted all along, I just couldn’t make it work. It took more than two years and I lot of blood, sweat and tears from both of us—along with over 30 000 added words—but we did it!

4) Are you planning any public readings of So Much Love? If yes, are there any dates/events you are excited to be participating in?

I’m actually typing this in Vancouver, and will be reading tonight at the Vancouver Public Library as part of the Incite series presented by the Vancouver Writers Festival. But by the time this gets posted I’ll probably be looking forward to my reading at Pivot at the Steady April 19 (Link here), which is going to be super fun, and then on April 22 I’ll be reading at the Making Room launch party in Toronto for an anthology that celebrates 40 years of Room magazine (Facebook link here)

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

When I finally signed off on the last version of So Much Love, I did get started on a new project that I’ve been thinking about for a while—a father-daughter novel that takes place over many years. I enjoyed working on it, as the book is more light-hearted than So Much Love but still with some darker themes, but I had to put it aside first for some personal problems and then for the promotional work on So Much Love. I’m really looking forward to getting back to it when the excitement dies down, though.

6) You seem to have an active profile on Facebook. Many of my followers always want to know what is the best way to keep up to date with their favourite writers (New works, events, etc.) . Are you using Facebook for that regard? Do you have any plans to expand your social-media presence to something like Twitter or Google Plus?

I think the best way to find out about new work, events, and publications from me would probably be my twitter account, (Link to her Twitter account here) or my website/blog, www.rebeccarosenblum.com My Facebook and Instagram accounts both have a lot of personal stuff mixed in—unless you care a lot about cats, things I ate, and pictures of my husband, those would be less of interest. I never made the leap to Google Plus and now I hear it is shutting down so I guess I never will.

7) Your biography has you listed as living in Toronto. How do you like living there? Are there any specific cultural institutions or events there that inspire you as a writer?

It took me while but now I love Toronto so much I can’t imagine ever leaving. A lot of that has to do with people, though—my friends, my family, some of my in-laws, and a lot of the literary community that I know are there. But there is also so much good stuff—from the Jays to Allan Gardens to the ROM to Bluffs—that I adore in Toronto. I love just walking down the street and looking at stores, and I know so many people I pretty often run into someone I know. I have lived there 15 years and despite the challenges, I feel truly at home there. I did my masters in creative writing at University of Toronto and that is just a gorgeous campus. I loved getting my degree there but I know others have legit complaints; however, no one could dispute the loveliness of the St. George campus. I’m still happy to hang out at Hart House or one of the libraries if I have a writing day and feel like getting out of the house.

******

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for So Much Love

Understanding Ourselves a bit better | Review of “All That Man Is” by David Szalay (2016) McClelland & Stewart

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The beauty of a good piece of literature is that – if it is read and reflected upon carefully  – it can cause us to ponder and reflect on our own actions and existence. Through the consideration of a protagonist in a story we open ourselves up to consider our own lifestyle and maybe even improve ourselves just a bit. And such considerations can clearly happen to someone when they have carefully pondered the book All That Man Is by David Szalay.

Page 8

He has no idea, throwing the name out like some mundane object that his friend frequently dreams about Karen Fielding – dreams in which they might speak, or exchange looks, or in which their hands might momentarily touch, and from which he wakes, still seeming to feel the touch of her hand, to a single moment of overwhelming joy. He transcribes these dreams to his diary, very earnestly, along with pages and pages on what they might mean, and on the nature of the dreaming process itself.

In the waking world, he and Karen Fielding have hardly spoken to each other, and she is unaware of how he feels – unless she has noticed the way his eyes follow her as she moves with her tray around the dining hall, or tramps back from lacrosse in her muddy kit. Practically the only thing he knows about her is that her family live in Didcot – he overheard her telling someone else – and from that moment the word ‘Didcot’ started to live in his mind with a special, mysterious promise. Like her name, it seems almost too potent to put down in writing in a youth hostel in Warsaw, one evening, while Ferdinand was showering, he wrote, and it made his heart quicken: It seems pointless to travel Europe when the only where I want to be is humble, suburban English

His pen hovered.

Then he did it, he wrote the word.

Didcot.

Her name, more potent still, he has never summoned the nerve to form.

The books deals with nine different stories, nine different men at different stages of their lives and with nine different social standings. Szalay has each of the men set in various locations in Europe. Each story is ripe with vivid introspection that breeds a type of sense of empathy with the character and a certain level of understanding of the psyche of men – be they good or bad people – if the book is savored while read.

Page 81-82

They swim together, later. The ladies, still in their billowing dresses, letting the water lift them, and Bérnard moving more vigorously, doing little displays of front crawl, and then lolling on his back in the water, letting the sun dazzle his chlorine-stung eyes. Sandra encourages him to do a handstand in the shallow end. Not totally sober, he obliges her. He surfaces to ask how it was, and she shouts at him to keep his legs straight next time, while Charmian, still bobbing about nearby, staying where she can find the cool blue tiles with her toes looks on. He does another handstand, unsteady in his long wet trunks. The ladies applaud. Triumphant, he dives again, into watery silence, blue world, losing all vertical aplomb as his big hand strive for the tiles. His legs thrash to drive him down. His lungs keep lifting his splayed hands from the tiles. His face feels full of blood. Streams of bubbles pass over him, upwards from his nostrils. And then he is in air again, squatting shoulder deep in the tepid water, the water sharp and bright with chemicals streaming from orange slicks of hair that hang over his eyes. He feels queasy for a moment. All those Keo lagers . . . He fears, just for a moment, that he is going to throw up.

Then he notices a lifeguard looming over them, his shadow on the water. He is talking to Sandra. He has just finished up saying something and he moves away, and takes his seat again, up a sloping ladder, like a tennis umpire.

‘We’ve been told off,’ Sandra says, hanging languidly in the water only her sunburnt head, with its mannish jawline and feathery blonde pudding-bowl, above the surface.

Bérnard isn’t sure what’s going on. He still feels light-headed, vaguely unwell. ‘What?’

‘We’ve been told off,’ Sandra says again.

Bérnard, from his crouch in the water, which feels chilly now that he has stopped moving, just stares at her. His body is bony. Individual vertebrae show on his white back. Sandra is still saying something to him. Her voice sounds muffled. ‘… told to stop being so immature …’ he hears it say.

She has started to swim away from him – her head moving away on a very slow, lazy breaststroke.

The surface of the pool, which had been all discomposed by his antics, is smoothing itself out again, is slapping the sides with diminishing vigour.

There is also wit in this book. Not so much a outside laugh wit but more of a quiet realization ‘I-have-done-that’ or ‘have-almost-done-that’ humour followed by a moment of pondering. Again more self-reflection of one’s own soul or a contemplation of someone we know, which is that hallmark of a good piece of literature.

Page 389

He thinks about death quite a lot now. It is hard not to think about it. Obviously, he doesn’t have that much time left. Ten years? In ten years he will be eighty-three. More than that? Well, probably not. So about ten years. Seen in one way, that is frightening little. It is terrible, how little it seems, sometimes. Waking at five a.m. on a December morning, for instance, in the large damp bedroom of the house near Argenta, the turquoise walls still hidden in darkness. The quiet ticking of the clock on the table next to the bed. It is terrible how little it seems. And since the operation two months ago he has understood that even ten years might be optimistic. He has had, since the operation, this strange permanent awareness of his heart and what it is doing, and this fear that it will suddenly stop doing it. He lies there, unpleasantly aware of its working, and of the fact that one day it will stop. He feels no more prepared to face death, though, than he ever has.

It is starting to get light in the large turquoise bedroom.

He has been lying there, awake for two hours, thinking.

All That Man Is by David Szalay is a deep and thought-provoking piece of literature that enlightens readers about the male psyche. It should be savoured and pondered by any reader who seeks enlightenment either about themselves or their friends.

*****

Link to a biography of David Szalay on the United Agents literary agents website

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s webpage for All That Man Is