Tag Archives: Penguin Random House Canada

“(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

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 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


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.


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



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


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”



“(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” | Q&A with writer Craig Davidson


Craig Davidson certainly enthralled us a few years ago with his book Cataract City. By writing it he certainly had us pondering our upbringings and wondering about the world we have around us for those we are raising in it. So a memoir by him describing a year he spent driving a school bus should be as equally enthralling. Hence Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077 should be equally enthralling.


1) First off, could you give an outline of Precious Cargo?

Well, it’s pretty much a memoir about my year driving a school bus. An account of that year, the students I met onboard the bus, and the stories we shared with each other.

2) What was your motivation to write Precious Cargo? Is there anything you hope writing it will do?

I guess it was just a matter of that year feeling very profound to me—so much so that I was moved to write about it, which has never happened to me before. I don’t think I harbour any hopes beyond the hope that I did a good job, treated the subject matter and those kids and their families respectfully and lovingly, and gave a true and honest account of that year and what it meant to me.

3) Are there any common themes between Cataract City and Precious Cargo? Both books seem to deal quite a bit with youth and upbringing.

I’m not sure there are. You could probably find some if you really tried, bent your mind to the task, but there wasn’t any specific linkage I was going for or that seemed to jump out to me now, thinking about it. They’re both really important books to me, one an account—in some ways—of my own childhood, and this new book a real-life account of a slice of some other people’s childhoods. So there’s that element, I guess.

4) Are you planning a book tour with Precious Cargo? If yes, are there dates you are excited to partake in. Are book tours and public readings something you enjoy doing?

I’m in the midst of a small tour right now, but it’s primarily a press tour, as I guess you’d call it. Just radio shows and newspaper interviews, not a lot of readings. They’re something I enjoy doing to a degree, yes, but also there’s a worry—perhaps a small one, or perhaps one that will become more profound depending on how things go with this book—that I might be looked upon as some kind of an expert or advocate on a subject that I would never claim an expertise in. The book was written from a position of ignorance of a lot of things, including special needs and what that means and how society looks at adults or children who have some of the conditions presented in the children I drove. So while I’m happy to speak on what I learned, and hold opinions, they are not ironclad and are constantly shifting because it is a topic that seems to me so vast, and so nuanced, that I often feel helpless in trying to talk about it, thinking that I’m not finding the right words or expressing myself in the way that is truest and more importantly, respectful towards those kids. So … ask me again a year from now. We’ll see how I’m feeling.

5) Who are your favourite writers? What are your reading right now?

Oh, all over the map. Stephen King. Thom Jones. Atwood. Didion. Goes on and on. I’m reading a lot of Robert R. McCammon right now. He rocks my socks off.

6) Has your writing changed much since you first started? If yes, how so?

I’m not sure it has. Or maybe. Probably unavoidably, yes. I’m not sure I can say how. I was disciplined from the start, in terms of putting myself on the grindstone and just, yeah, grinding out work. A kind of work ethic. If anything, that obsessional quality has slackened with having a wife and a child—can’t go squirreling myself away for days-long writing sessions with a family. Not the key to family harmony.

7) Is there much difference between the writing styles of Nick Cutter and Craig Davidson. If yes, how so?

I would say much. I’d say I’m a little more unhinged writing as Cutter, but that’s more a function of the subject matter and the flights of fancy one can occasionally take when writing horror. I bring the same discipline and focus no matter what hat I’m wearing.

8) You seem to have an active role on social-media apps like Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using those programs?

Well, I’m glad you think so. I thing real Twitter-ers and Facebookers can see that I’m kinda just plopping stuff up on those apps just to be like, “Hey, I’m here! I’m Twittering, just like a real, socially-engaged writer!” I think it’s a skill, to be really funny and wise and interesting and prolific on those platforms. It’s not really my bag. But I struggle along.

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

I’ve got a new collection of stories coming out next year, maybe, or whenever the publisher feels like publishing them. And a new Cutter book, Little Heaven, slated for Jan 2017.
10) Your bios. have you listed living in Toronto right now. How do you like living there? Does the city’s cultural scene help you with your writing at all?
Yeah, I’m in Toronto. I’m a bit of a hermit. I play basketball with a few writers, poker with a few writers, go to the odd event. I think there’s certainly a vibrancy to the scene, but I’m feeling more and more like one of those mid-career writers and the scene, as it is, seems to belong (as it should) to the young. I’m happy fogey it up on my own.

11) Any good advice for starting out or wannbe writers?

Butt in chair. Advice as old as time. Don’t wait on the muse. She’s got better things to do.

Using Poetry to go beyond the History Books | Review of “Settler Education” by Laurie D. Graham (2016) McClelland & Stewart

It was a rush that was typical of our modern life the day I went to pick up this book. I walked through a maze of hallways at a college campus filled with bodies trying find their own ways around me. I walked into a office, talked to a receptionist who picked up a phone and announced me. And with a rush of quick smiles and handshakes I was back out with this slim volume in my hand trying to make my way through another confused mass of bodies. I found a cafeteria and grab a lukewarm cup of coffee and sat down. There is still a confused chunk of humanity around me as I open to the first page.

And within reading the first well-crafted words, I was absorbed into Laurie D. Graham’s Settler Education.

Number One Canadian (Excerpt) Page 1

Stutter-stepping. The last fumes out

of Ontario. Beds and sliding doors and dining cars tunnelling

through the forest, its genealogy

of clear-cut, its firework trees new and hot.

We show them our ghost stations. We show them

tea at the window as birch die tangled

in power lines, birch hauling lines

down to the level of marsh, and marsh rising

to meet electricity.

Page 2

This is the line.

A propane tank every fifty clicks,

wall-eyed shoots and utility corridors,

gift-buying hours in the recreation car and hints

of lake and woodsmoke if you’re looking for them.

No Oh My Nation, No God Save Our Queen,

no colonial  imperative except in our being here, in what it means

to shower on a moving train, track rolling under the drainhole,

the luxurious pillows, my last minute discount.

This is what they starved a people for.

Page 3

Through tree scenes, tableaux in the dome car,

the soldiers, the settlers, the track laid, the way made.

Making goods of them. Servants, subjects, comrades, always

more, and the trees smoulder, the trace smoke in the camera’s vision

that comes of passing too fleetly. We pause at vistas and wildlife,

coniferous worming at the periphery.

A train car neat with men and their rifles.

Outside, thread of campsmoke obscured by clouds, by trees.

Notes Page 107

“NUMBER ONE CANADIAN” is the name of the train that runs from Toronto to Vancouver. When the train returns east, they call it the Number Two.

Graham has woven a complex tapestry here where many historians and other academics have failed for us. The book tells the story of the Plains Cree uprising at Frog Lake and the settlement of the Prairies. Graham’s poetry here weaves through time, places, impressions, journal entries, letters and so forth to brilliantly give the mind’s eye of any reader a clear impression of the places and the events.

Among the Buffalo Page 17

we were told that in a day or two we would reach the buffalo country

might expect to see considerable herds

day after day no signs

we became skeptical

Saint, hell. Riel’s a criminal.

He brought law out here, one good thing to

                                       come out of

                         his treason

I found several of the party quietly reading

to one of them I asked  have you seen the buffalo

he started as if he received a shock from a battery

You’re gonna get the redneck view from this

                                  end of the table

each bend of the river brought us in view of new herds

on both sides        not in dense masses

as when migrating    but scattered bands from ten to one hundred

sometimes close to the bank

they went at a lumbering gallop as the steamer approached

Next you’ll say I got no right to be here,

            been farming this same plot for a full century.

the appearance of the steward with a rifle on his arm

and all was excitement

Graham has gone beyond using just words here. She using layout and typeface to set different moods here that vault the reader from one emotion to another. This is a complex read yet one that is worth savoring.

Frog Lake (Excerpt) Page 21

Ditchweed, fuchsia. The first thing grows after fire.

Chased here by weather, rain then clearing sky,

Wandering Spirit, Iron Body, Miserable Man,

Round the Sky, Little Bear, Bad Arrow.

A grave, once unmarked, months from here.

Brome grass in all the places the earth’s been turned.

Settler Education by Laurie D. Graham may be a collection of poetry but it goes where history books have failed us. Graham gives detailed descriptions of emotions, thoughts and actions which causes readers to actually feel and care about the scenes. A great piece of literature.

Link to Laurie D. Graham’s blog

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s webpage for Settler Education

What Roads will the Needs of the Human Condition Lead us Down? | Review of “The Heart Goes Last” by Margaret Atwood (2015) McClelland & Stewart/Penguin Random House Canada


Margaret Atwood has long been trusted as a writer who knows how to document the human condition. Her novels have been read with zeal by her fans for that reason and they are the centre of discussions and debates long after they have been published. And, no doubt, her latest novel The Heart Goes Last continues her well-earned reputation.

Page 3 Cramped

Sleeping in the car is cramped. Being a third-hand Honda, it’s no palace with begin with. If it was a van they’d have more room, but fat chance of affording one of those, even back when they thought they had money. Stan says they’re lucky to have any kind of a car at all, which is true, but their luckiness doesn’t make the car any bigger.

Charmaine feels that Stan ought to sleep in the back because he needs more space – it would only be fair, he larger  – but he has to be in the front in order to drive them away fast in an emergency. He doesn’t trust Charmaine’s ability to function under those circumstances: he says she’d be too busy screaming to drive. So Charmaine can have the more spacious back, though even so she has to curl-up like a snail because she can’t exactly stretch out.

They keep the windows mostly closed because of the mosquitoes and the gangs and the solitary vandals. The solitaries don’t usually have guns or knives – if they have those kinds of weapons you have to get out of there triple fast – but they’re more likely to be bat-shit crazy, and a crazy person with a piece of metal or a rock or even a high-heeled shoe can do a lot of damage. They’ll think you’re a demon or the undead or a vampire whore, and no kind of reasonable thing you might do to calm them down will cancel out that opinion. The best thing with crazy people, Grandma Win used to say – the only thing, really – is to be somewhere else.

There are a collection of writers that many of my English teachers wanted me to read, and Atwood was one of them. But they would have scolded me bitterly if I had brought the term ‘bat-shit crazy’ from out of the reality of my circle of friends and family and into their realm of formal teaching. It would be interesting to know if they recommend this Atwood novel based on the frank language of the book. Or do they bristle at it like other people I discussed the book with who deny that families are forced to sleep in their cars these days.

The story deals married couple Stan and Charmaine. They are desperate to survive the economic and social collapse of the world around them and the concept of moving to the town of Consilience has strong appeal to them. The closed-off community holds the fabled “Positron Project” where residents all have a job and a clean home to reside in for six months. On the alternating six months, Stan and Charmaine must enter the town’s prison and serve a six-month sentence. After the sentence, they can return to a civilian life. The concept has appeal to the desperate couple, they don’t hesitate to sign up.

Page 41 Haircut

“Have a good month outside?” asks the barber, whose name is Clint. Clint has a big T on his front because he’s playing the part of a Trusty. He’s not one of the original criminals, the ones who were still in here when the Project began: you’d never let a dangerous offender anywhere near those scissors and razors. Outside, when he’s a civilian, Clint does tree pruning. Before he signed on to the Project he’d been an actuary, but he’d lost that job when his company moved west.

It’s a familiar story, though nobody talks much about what they were before: backward glances are not encouraged. Stan himself doesn’t dwell on his Dimple Robotics interlude, back when he’d thought the future was like a sidewalk and all you had to do was make it from one block to the next; nor does he dwell on what came after, when he had no job. He hates to think of himself the way he was then: grimy, morose, with the air being sucked out of his chest by the sense of futility that was everywhere like a fog.

Atwood not only has captured a physical reality here but also an emotional reality as well. The protagonists are desperate for change and that reality is recognized by any outside organization. They sign up and – at first – all seems well. But then things change again and the couple is in an even more desperate situation than before.  Atwood uses words that are frank and vernacular which makes the story easy for many readers to grasp.

Page 136 White Ceiling

Charmaine hardly slept a wink all night. Maybe it was the screams; or they might have been laughs – that would be nicer; though if they were laughs they were loud, high and hysterical. She’d like to ask some of the other women if they heard anything too, but that’s probably not a good idea.

Or maybe her sleeplessness came from overexcitement, because really she’s super excited. She’s so excited she can only peck at her lunch, because this afternoon she gets to resume her real job. After putting in her morning session of towel-folding, she got to throw away the shameful Laundry Room nametag and replace it with her rightful one: Chief Medications Administrator. It feels blissful, as if that nametag has been lost and not it’s been found; like when you misplace your scooter keys or your phone and then they turn up and you get a rush of luckiness, as if the stars or fate or something has singled you out for a win. That’s how happy her rightful nametag makes her feel.

The other women in her section have noticed that nametag: they’re treating her with new respect. They’re looking at her directly instead of letting their eyes slide past her like she was furniture; they’re asking her sociable questions such as how did she sleep, and isn’t this an awesome lunch? They’re handing her small, chatty praises, like what a good job she’s doing with the blue teddy bears, even though she’s such a crappy knitter. And they’re smiling at her, not half-smiles either, but full-on total-face smiles that are only partly fake.

Margaret Atwood has earned her reputation as a writer who can document the human condition well with her novel The Heart Goes Last. Her language is frank and contemporary which makes this book a great piece of literature. A must-read for sure.

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s page for The Heart Goes Last

Link to Margaret Atwood’s website

A Personal Look at Life and Oil | Review of “Long Change” by Don Gillmor (2015) Random House Canada


There are many items in our modern lives that we just can’t do without. No doubt oil is one of those items that literary ‘drives’ our society. So it is no doubt that a literary look at the world of oil would be enlightening to us in many ways. Hence Don Gillmor’s book Long Change enlightens the lamps of our minds.

Page 24-25 Medicine Hat – July 1952

Lying on his bed in the Corona Hotel, sweating in the oppressive July heat, Ritt stared at the stained ceiling and examined his options. He had saved some money. That was the bright side. He was sixteen, and in his cowboy boots – the closest he’d found to the Justins that his  father had thrown onto the fire – he stood six foot four. He was filling out. He could fool a great deal of the world as to his age, though sometimes he felt like he was operating a giant machine that belonged to someone else. During the day, he could hold his aloneness at bay, but in those moments when sleep wouldn’t arrive, a quiet panic crept into him. His dismal room seemed to expand in four directions until there were miles of prairie on all sides and he lay on the small bed in the centre.

The sweat snaked down his chest even though he wasn’t moving a muscle.

He was coming to understand that oil was a living thing, it breathed and moved and gathered like a lynch mob, and to find it took a combination of science and voodoo. A geologist had come out to the rig to take core samples and while he was examining those cylinders of marbled rock, Ritt had asked what he saw there. Everything, the man said. You learn how to listen, rocks will tell you every damn thing. It occurred to Ritt that the oil game had two sides: on the surface there was unreliable machinery, drunken roughnecks and decent wages. But the real story was below.

Bobby would work the rigs forever. But Ritt decided he wanted to be one of the people who went down there and found that oil.

Geology is the story the earth tells itself, the geologist had said.

People tell stories.

The difference is, the earth can’t lie. Every story is true.

Gillmor brilliantly tells the story of oil production through the life of Ritt Devlin. We witness Ritt’s early life in Texas in the 1950s where he is first introduced to the oil industry. Then we see his “escape” to Alberta and his rise in field, first as a rigger then on to study geology and then starting his own company. Not only do we witness Ritt’s passion for the industry but his personal passions – his three loves of his life and there endings. There is a great mix of a personal drama and the history of an industry in this book.

Page 82-83

Oda had been sweating heavily in the night and was tired and her stomach hurt and she assumed this was all part of being pregnant. She was so ill on Christmas Day Ritt took her to the hospital, the emergency ward quiet, draped in red paper streamers and cut-out Santa heads. A few people huddled, nursing sprains and cuts and broken fingers.

“It might not be anything serious,” she said.

“It better not be.”

Both of them knew it was serious. They sat with their accumulating fear until a nurse led Oda away. Ritt waited where he was for a while, then got up and paced, the inquired at the desk, then paced some more. He was afraid to form any concrete thoughts. Oda finally emerged from the pale green door, her face drawn.

“They did some tests,” she said. “We’ll know in a week. Let’s go home.”

There are simple and direct descriptions here that make this book an interesting read. The plot flows through in a smooth manner which not only entertains but enlightens the reader about what life inside the oil industry is like. Gillmor has done a great deal of research and engaged a brilliant imagination to tell this story.

Page 182-183

Ritt left the restaurant, walking through the glum downtown. He stopped and noted the subtle swirls on the sandstone of the Knox United Church. Likely quarried from the Porcupine Hills formation. The distant footprints an overconfident Triceratops staggering through the last of the Creataceous, leaving an imprint in the silt and san that was distributed during the Laramide orogeny. Tectonic plates shuddering, the Rocky Mountains coming to life. Ritt looked closely at the stone. There was the illusion of uniformity but the individual grains actually varied in size and colour. Even stone failed to be monolithic  – it was a collection of individuals pressed into a society by forces they didn’t understand. Stone was equated with stability and it was stable, but only compared to other materials. Measured by geologic time, it was fickle and unreliable. There was rock that was easily fatigued and rock that was incompetent. It rose and fell and crumbled.

He thought, melodramatically, The city has turned against me. Though he knew this was simply ego. Who was the city for?

Long Change by Don Gillmor is an enlightening read into the oil industry. Well researched and brilliantly written, it is a book that is worth the time to read.

Link to Don Gillmor’s website

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s page for Long Change

The Dangerous Allure of Happiness |Review of “Happiness™” by Will Ferguson (2002) Penguin Books


I have been suffering from a malaise in my reading lately which is why I haven’t posted much on here recently. I first attributed that feeling to the warm summer months and a busy work schedule but then as I pulled out Will Ferguson’s Happiness™ from my ever growing pile of must-reads that looms on my night table, I realized that I am not alone in my cynicism of the saccharin that is plaguing culture this days. In short, I found a new hero in the protagonist Edwin de Valu.

Page 4

Edwin is a thin, officious young man with a tall, scarecrow walk and dry straw hair that refuses to hold a part. Even when dressed in a designer overcoat and polished turtle-cut Dicanni shoes, Edwin de Valu has a singular lack of presence. A lack of substance. He is a lightweight, in every sense of the word, and the morning’s commute almost sweeps him under. In the urban Darwinism of rush hour, Edwin has to fight just to keep afloat, has to strain just to keep his head about the deluge. No one – least of all Edwin himself – could ever have suspected that the entire fate of the Western World would soon rest upon his narrow shoulders.

Edwin is a very bitter individual who works at a major publishing firm. He is over worked, underpaid, perpetually drinking and smoking and has deadlines set for him that are unreasonable. One day a self-help manuscript lands on his desk in which promises to help readers lose weight, stop smoking, have great sex and find inner peace. Edwin dismisses the book to be hogwash, but in order to make one of those unreasonable deadlines set against him, he allows it out to be published. But instead of What I learned on the Mountain becoming a sad, unknown little failure, it becomes hugely popular, sending Edwin in a tailspin of ugly and unwanted successes.

Page 149-150

“Seriously, May. I’m not kidding. I have a bad feeling about this. We didn’t spend any money on promoting What I Learned on the Mountain. Not a penny. We didn’t send out a single review copy, and in turn we didn’t get a single book review. And yet, within weeks, it just took off. How do you explain that, May?”

“Edwin, you know as well as I do that the greatest sales tool we have is word of mouth. It sells more books than anything else. You can have the biggest, slickest marketing plan available, but poor word of mouth will still kill the best-laid plans of mice and publishers. That what happened here, only the other way around. It’s like The Celestine Prophecy. Remember that? the author couldn’t find a publisher for love nor money, so he ended up publishing it himself, hawking it out of the trunk of his car, going from bookstore to bookstore -”

“And that took years, May. Years of persistence. What happened with What I Learned on the Mountain took only a matter of weeks. And no one was driving around with copies of it in the trunk of his car. This was purely word of mouth. And you know what? Paul down in marketing did a reader survey when sales first started to soar, trying to figure out what was going on – you know how reactive marketing is; always trying to catch up to the latest trend and then take credit for it. Well anyway, Paul tested reader satisfaction with What I Learned on the Mountain, and do you what he came up with? One hundred percent satisfaction. That’s right, 100 percent, May.”


“So what, Edwin? so people are happy with the book. I don’t know why that bothers you so much. What is the worst that could possibly happen? People feel good about themselves. They feel happy. Where’s the harm?”

“That, I don’t know,” said Edwin. “But I tell you, it just isn’t right. It isn’t normal.”

While Edwin may be a deeply cynical and mixed up individual (and has a serious abusive streak to his wife’s cat Mr. Muggins), Ferguson has developed a character that teaches us that it is necessary to be cynical to what trends exist in our society. Edwin is a bitter fool, but he is right in his thoughts and ways to the world around him. And the world would be a very canned and boring place if it wasn’t for heroes like Edwin.

Page 188

It turns out Edwin was a gambling man after all. He just wasn’t a very astute gambling man. Evidence of this lay in the way he pinned his every hop on what the people in marketing were saying. Indeed, he was betting his very life on the wisdom emanating from marketing, which only underlines just how desperate he had become. (In terms of reliability, marketing is only slightly above the study of chicken entrails. ) Edwin had one week to live, unless he could convince Mr. Mead to pull the book. Which he couldn’t. It was too late for that. Panderic had already licensed more than a dozen spinoff titles and copycat projects. (Mr. Soiree, oddly enough, showed a distinct and to Edwin’s mind suspicious, lack of interest in writing any more of the books himself. “Oh, goodness no. Let the radiant words of other journey-questers fill the great vision. Let other authors carry the crusade forward. I’ll still be getting 15 percent on sales, right? And that’s list price gross revenue, correct?”)

Will Ferguson may have made his protagonist in Happiness™ a cynical and bitter fool but there is are real-life lessons to be gained from Edwin de Valu. Questioning not only the daily trends and fashion of our day but our lives in general is a thing worthwhile at times. Therefore Happiness™ is not just a good novel but a great piece of literature.

Link to Will Ferguson’s website

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s page for Happiness™

Mindful of our Minds | Review of “The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness” by Jeff Warren (2007) Random House Canada


I doubt very much that I am alone in being concerned about how my mind works. I worry about days that I find myself depressed or the nights I cannot sleep and so forth. Yes, there is mountains of books and philosophies and >gulp< medications that can help me try to deal with those issues. But Jeff Warren’s exploration of his own issues in The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness seems to have enlightened me the most in my personal journey of better awareness of my mental health.

Author’s Note – Page 1

The book you are holding is not a typical book on consciousness. It’s not about the qualia, or the language instinct, or what it feels like to be a bat.

Nor is it a typical brain book – describing how fear works, or the uses of the cerebellum, or what happens when you electrocute your amygdala.

While all these subjects are fascinating, they are philosophical and neurological discussions that are occurring elsewhere. And yet, both these kinds of books have contributed to this one, for occasionally as I have leafed through them, the consciousness – the feeling of time slowing down, perhaps, or the strange body twitches that happen at sleep onset – and I would nod, and look up, and think, “Yeah, that’s happened to me!”

Well, this books is in part an encyclopedia of “that’s happened to me” moments, organized by adventures through various familiar and less familiar states of consciousness. For this reason, this book is also about you, because you have these moments too. And I’ll say this outright: you won’t believe where you’ve been, and where your capable of going.

And Warren did surprise me with ‘that’s-happened-to-me’ moments. The book’s jacket states his research for documentaries on sleep and dreaming lead to this fantastic volume being created. And it is a fantastic read. Warren mixes personal observations, facts, and interviews into the book to give us more than one “thats-happened-to-me-moments.”

Page 20

When I was a kid I used to lie in bed and wait for sleep. I did not wait patiently; I was vigilant. I wanted to catch the exact moment that sleep set in, I wanted to pinpoint it – there it is. Now I am asleep.

Except it never worked. I would pop one eye open and wonder, “is this it? Am I asleep now?” An hour would pass like this. And then suddenly it would be morning, and my mission would be forgotten. Util that evening, when I’d take up the challenge again with new resolve.

The thing is, there really is an exact point at which you fall asleep: you can see it on your sleep-recording chart, or “polysomnography.” Philippe Stenstrom showed me mine. “Right there, that yellow line is where we marked sleep onset. You can see the change in your brain waves . . . they flat line. Alpha disappears. This characteristic of someone falling asleep.

Stenstrom is a graduate student in psychology at the University of Montreal. He works for a pioneering sleep researcher named Tore Nielsen, who runs the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory at Montreal’s Sacre-Coeur Hospital. Phil is friendly, and passionate about his subject. When I met him at Nielsen’s sleep lab, he looked slim in his dapper white lab coat, but he had the hollow-eyed, slightly gaunt look that I have come to associate with researchers who stay up all night staring at polysomnographs.

This is a very detailed book. And I have to admit that I skimmed over parts of it I felt that were a bit overwhelming. But in most part, this was an enlightening read. And one I will be re-reading again in the future.

Page 326

It bears repeating: We can learn to direct our own states of consciousness. Lucid dreaming, hypnosis, neurofeedback, and meditation all point toward the ability to self-regulate consciousness. This is no one-off special effect; the latest advances in neuroplasticity show how the brain is radically shaped by experience, and that thinking and experiencing in all guises – at night and during the day – are a kind of doing. Any action repeated in the brain is more likely to reoccur; thus the potential is there to customize our own mental processes, to create healthier, suppler, wider-ranging minds.

This is an astonishing capability. It suggests that our minds are still evolving, but no longer under the sole direction of natural selection; rather, we’ve jumped to a faster mechanism of change: culture. Our ability as a species to customize new environments is feeding back into our brains and changing the way we think, the way we are conscious. This is both supremely hopeful and utterly depressing, since it means that in nurturing, enlighten environments we may be able to cultivate whole new standards of mental health, but in violent, regressive environments we risk spawning awful new permutations of mental affliction. Technology – that great, on rushing field within which our minds are shaped – compounds all of this, for better or worse.

The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness by Jeff Warren was a book that awoke me about my thought patterns and consciousness. An enlightening read and one I will be rereading again soon.


Link to Jeff Warren’s website

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s page for The Head Trip

Getting to Know Yourself through the Thoughts of Others | Review of “Daddy Lenin and Other Stories” by Guy Vanderhaeghe (2015) McClelland & Stewart


The beauty of a good piece of literature is the ability to empathize with the plight of the characters. A good writer can make a reader relate to the people he is talking about in a few simple words. Guy Vanderhaeghe is one such writer with that skill and he brings that skill forward repeatedly in his latest collection called Daddy Lenin And Other Stories.

Tick Tock Page 14

Charley Brewster’s hands hadn’t given him a moment’s grief for nearly forty years, had behaved themselves, and then, after the young couple moved into the apartment next door, they began to torment him relentlessly.

Not to say that Vanderhaeghe’s writing is not without some lyrical quality here. The stories flow, the characters ebb with the flow of the story and the reader’s mind rides along with each story to absorbing each element into their own mind. This is a great read for a quiet moment to ponder and reflect on.

Koenig & Company Pages 56-57

The prospect of another dining experience at the Koenigs’ kept me on edge all the next afternoon. Around four o’clock I heard a knock at the door. This was surprising, my family never had visitors. I parted the curtains, looked out, and saw Sabrina Koenig on the step, visible to anyone who might be passing by, a brown paper bag clutched to her chest. I rushed to the door, wrenched it open, and barked, “What!” straight into her face.

She didn’t flinch; she grinned. “Hello, Billy Dowd, today’s your lucky day,” she said.

“Get in here.” The instant she crossed the threshold, I slammed the door, panicked somebody might see me and her together.

“Where’s the kitchen?”

I pointed. i didn’t know what else to do. She set off in her halting, wincing stride. after a few moments of bewildered indecision, I followed, found her unpacking canned goods, fresh vegetables, and a package of meat.

I asked her what she thought she was doing.

“Making a trial run.”

“Trial run of what?”

Sabrina toyed with the groceries, shifting them about on the countertop as if she were trying to arrange them in a pattern that matched the logic of her thoughts. “I thought I’d cook for you tonight. You like your supper, then we can work out a deal. Maybe.”

“What kind of deal?”

Vanderhaeghe has brought forward interesting situations in the human condition that may initially seem odd but do occur in our lives. We do often wonder what has happened to the spurned lover or that overly-teased classmate as we get older. Here, Vanderhaeghe gives us a few scenarios where a protagonist finds out what has happened to Person X who may have had a certain greyish impact on the protagonist’s life.

Anything Page 178-179

Tony opened his eyes, ran his hands over the sheets and his eyes around the room. He called “Susan?” several times, but there was no answer. She was gone. He would have liked it if she had stayed; her presence, any presence, would have been welcome after the dream he had just awoken from. In it, he and his wife were waiting to board a flight in a vast airport reminiscent of Heathrow. When Betty told him she was going to take a quick look around the duty-free shop, he merely nodded. She disappeared into the crowd of travellers, and as she did, he glanced at his watch and was astonished to see that they had lost track of the time. It was only a few minutes before their gate would close. He stood up to call her back, but before a word left his mouth he suddenly found himself in the Qu’Appelle Valley on a fiercely windy day, whitecaps breaking on the beach.

Each time the waves slapped the sand, he grew more and more uneasy, sure that there was something he had forgotten to do, something besides keeping an eye on their departure time, something of the utmost importance. but for the life of him he couldn’t think what it was. He sensed it hovering behind him, back where Betty’s beloved cottage stood. But he couldn’t bring himself to turn and face it because if he did that, he would have to acknowledge the neglected presence.

Tony eased himself out of bed and wet to his laptop. Staring at the screen, he tried out and tested various phrases in his mind. Then he tapped out an email.

Daddy Lenin and Other Stories by Guy Vanderhaeghe is a brilliant piece of literature. Here, we are given a selection of elements important to the human condition which we otherwise wouldn’t consider. A brilliant and insightful read.

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s page for Daddy Lenin and Other Stories