canadian

The Bone Mother | David Demchuk

Boy Eating

The Bone Mother is the first novel I’m reading for the project I’m currently working on: reading the nominees for the Shirley Jackson Award. The Bone Mother has already hit a very good spot with me and I enjoyed it immensely. I think in many ways it’s like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for adults, and has a resemblance to Lore. As I mentioned before I’m from Romania, but I have been educated and raised in Canada. This book is written by Canadian author David Demchuk and it draws its inspiration from photographs made by Romanian photographer Costică Acsinte between 1935-1945, and Eastern European folklore, so in many ways it felt very familiar and close to home. This novel was also long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is very impressive as it is his debut novel.

This ‘novel’ isn’t quite a novel in the traditional sense. It is a series of stories, each prefaced by a black and white photograph from Acsinte’s collection, with a new name in the title. The names are both Romanian and Ukrainian/Russian. The tales focus on three villages on the border of Ukraine and Romania, neighbouring “The Thimble Factory.” Images of thimbles are present throughout the book, and we quickly learn that those who inhabit these villages must work five years at the thimble factory. There are narratives surrounding those working in the thimble factory which are more snippets of daily life, interspersed with fables and folkloric anecdotes featuring the supernatural like Strigoi (Romanian myth, troubled spirits of the dead rising from the grave, sometimes similar to vampire folklore) and Rusalkas (Russian myth, water spirit). At the center of it all is the fear of the Night Police who take people in the dead of night, and the  most frightening figure at the center of the forest, not belonging to any village: the Bone Mother—she cooks and eats people who fail the tasks she gives them.

There are some phenomenal features to this work. The first is its juxtaposition of ‘regular’ folk next to these ‘supernatural’ beings as co-existing in the same spaces, while narrating it in a simplified, casual tone. The Bone Mother is never trying to scare you, but presents some narratives side by side of a history that may or may not have been. The way Demchuk also incorporates queer narratives gives the reader the impression that he is trying to look at various angles on the story of marginalized groups contrasting historical superstitions with contemporary oppression. There is also the juxtaposition of post-industrialism influence: the thimble factory, existing as a machine in the garden of folklore. The Bone Mother reminded me very much of a branch of literary theory contrasting naturalism with technology in literature. A work that comes to mind is the academic book by Leo Marx called The Machine in the Garden which explores the ways North America started out with such promise on untouched land with possibility, yet entered it with full industrial, assembly-line force, and how this is reflected in literature when the pastoral ideal clashes with technological advance. The way Demchuk presents these ideas in fiction is subtle but ever-present. Overall The Bone Mother very well written and had an innovative take on Eastern European folklore.

My only “problem” with this novel is that it’s not a novel. I thought the stories would combine as one, or that we would be introduced to some characters and then it would merge in novel-form. It maintained its short anecdote format, separated by images, that it was a little frustrating at times not knowing if it will merge or not. The short story format worked for what it is, however I’m wondering how it will rank against the other four nominees, and if this format would hold it back. What helped me a lot with this was getting the audiobook from Audible and following along in the text because they had different voice actors for each character and it brought them to life as diverse voices, with heavy Eastern European accents. Considering this is also a debut work, I think we can look forward to more from Demchuk and the book has done quite well so far making it on the list of two literary prizes already. This was a strong start!

Toronto Revealed | Library Exhibit

I often check the Toronto Reference Library’s Exhibit Room because they have some of the most wonderful exhibits. Often they are in collaboration with other libraries and collections, and I can’t help myself from taking pictures of my experience. This exhibit showcased paintings, drawings and prints of post-war Toronto from the library’s Canadian Documentary Art Collection, demonstrating the fast-paced changes in our city in the mid-late Twentieth Century. More information HERE.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I really enjoyed the sense of community this project inspired, particularly in the way they requested that people share their best pictures of Toronto and added them to the collection.

The Winnowing by Vikki VanSickle

35167806This year I decided to keep up with the Red Maple awards (hosted by the Ontario Library Association) and I thought I’d read at least one of this year’s nominees. The book that intrigued me most from the list was written by Vikki VanSickle and published by Scholastic Canada Ltd. I must admit I read this in one sitting. On a personal level, this novel brought back memories of my middle-grade years where we had to read books like The Giver, and after class or during library reading time we would purposely spook ourselves out with the Goosebumps series.

The Winnowing follows protagonist Marivic Stone who lives in a small town. There’s an eeriness about the setting reminiscent of Night Vale or Stranger Things, maybe even The Twilight Zone. The general narrative is certainly contemporary and realistic, but there are strange occurrences bordering the supernatural which makes this book hard to classify. VanSickle imagines a past where post-World War II there had been an outbreak of infertility rather than a baby-boom, and in this society the medical centers tried to reverse the crisis. The ‘boomers’ born out of this procedure all have this side-effect known as the ACES which is something a teenager starts developing and must be treated for. The treatment is also known as ‘winnowing.’ If one is not ‘winnowed’ the powers from the ACES can be destructive to the individual and the community. That is all I can say without spoiling too much. Like all good novels however, The Winnowing is about much more than its speculative premise. VanSickle focuses a lot of her writing on creating the bond between Marivic and her best friend Saren, Marivic’s understanding of the past and how it fits into her present situation—particularly the actions of her own mother—and how the young of any generation must carry the burdens resulting from the mistakes done by the older generations. This burden is beyond medical, as these young children have not only been robbed of natural development and must live in perpetual fear, but they have also been robbed of the innocence and playfulness that comes with childhood.

That said, I must discuss my favourite character in this book: Gumps! Gumps is Marivic’s grandfather who is a person I wish I could hang out with all the time. He is on his own a lot, but he’s so innovative and caring. We are told in the early pages that “Gumps was a retired repairman…he still liked to keep his skills sharp by practicing on old appliances that people at the side of the road for pickup or, worse, that he had scavenged from the scrapyard.” I don’t know why but I’ve always been so drawn to people who can fix and repair, or make something out of scraps, like an old-school inventor. We need more people like this in a world where everything is treated like it’s disposable. From the get-go I was completely fascinated by Gumps and on the lookout on what he had to say, and what he was doing. I think VanSickle wrote his character so well, because she doesn’t reveal too much about him that he isn’t mysterious, but she gives us just enough to keep him very interesting. He also tackles difficult situations with humour, which is just perfect. I kept on reading just for more moments with Gumps.

This is definitely a great bonding novel and ideal for a teacher, or librarian to read to a class, or for a book club. I certainly enjoyed it, and I hope there’s more to follow. Go read it!

Starlings by Jo Walton | Review

35909363Jo Walton is a Welsh-Canadian fantasy and science fiction author. She is the winner of the John W. Cambell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, The World Fantasy award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004, and most famously known for her Nebula and Hugo award winning novel Among Others (2011). Most recently, the Thessaly trilogy has been completed and published as an omnibus containing The Just City, The Philosopher Kings, and Necessity: A Novel.  Starlings is the first collection of Walton’s shorter works and it will be published by Tachyon Publications.

In the introduction to Starlings Jo Walton writes:

“For the longest time I didn’t know how to write short stories…I had published nine novels before I figured out short stories…so that career advice for writers isn’t necessarily the way it has to work. Funny that…Writers are different and write in different ways and there is no off-the-peg writing advice that works for everyone.”

Walton knows her craft so well that even on works she says she “never found easy,” or “recently figured out,” she still manages to amaze and inspire.

Starlings is a mix of short stories, poetry, and even a play. This work is an accumulation of all the side projects Walton has been working on for seventeen years. I am a big fan of seeing an author in different moods, and at different skill levels across several years within the covers of the same book. This work is playful and experimental. Each short story, play, or section is followed by an afterword by Walton where one often encounters the words “experiment,” “exercise,” or “challenge.” Reading this collection felt like watching a wizard at the cauldron having fun with new spells.

At several points short stories are really just “poems in disguise” as Walton puts it. Her use of language is highly atmospheric. There are imagined letters between Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra, an encounter with an alien told from the perspective on an 89 year-old woman whose memories are slipping, as well as poems containing myths, legends, and familiar characters. My absolute favourite short story in this collection is “On the Wall.” This story was previously published for Strange Horizons back in 2001 and it’s a retelling of Snow White, pre-Snow White (character) told from the point of view of the magic mirror. In this tale we come to know how the magic mirror came into existence, gained consciousness, and how it came to the possession of who we now know as the Evil Queen. The mirror’s voice stayed with me several days after reading this short story:

“I do not know how long it was before I learned to reflect people. People move so fast, and must always be doing…I learned not merely to reflect them but to see them and to understand their words and commands…what I liked best was hour upon hour of contemplation, truly taking in and understanding something.”

Even the mirror, with all its abilities and magical power, feels inadequate and incomplete.

“I am a failure. I can only see what is never what is to come”

I recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys fantasy, Jo Walton’s previous works, or wants to try shorter works before committing to longer ones. Many thanks to Tachyon for sending me a copy for review.

 

September Wrap-up

sept

Books I read for Early Review

Literary Titans Revisited ed. Anne Urbancic

32841205This work is a transcript of sixteen interviews conducted in the late 1960s by Earle Toppings with great Canadian literary figures. I received a copy for review from the editor and I think this is a great new primary source upon which to rely when conducting research in Canadian literature. Full review HERE.

 

The Biophilia Effect by Clemens G. Arvay 

51RnoLAew9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This book is a beautifully written work about humans’ connection to nature and the effect nature has on our body and our chemistry. Arvay follows medical studies showing how significant it is to live among trees and to be as close to nature as possible. This book will be coming out in January 2018. Full Review HERE.

 

Books I read for myself

 

15811570Odd Type Writers by Celia Blue Johnson

This book covers the quirks of famous authors. It covers anything from the time of day they wrote, their word counts, or the colour of ink they preferred to use. I enjoyed it a lot and I thought it deserved a longer explanation immediately after I read it, so I wrote a review, even if it was a book I read for myself. Full review HERE.

 

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron 

615570.jpg

This book was really not for me. I was surprised to see Martin Scorsese give a blurb on the back, so I picked it up. A trend on YouTube for lifestyle vloggers is to promote “morning pages” where you should brain-dump words on three pages each morning to clear your head and make space for creativity. This book is where the idea came from and then just spread online. Other than that, I didn’t find many other useful tips. A lot of the things here are journal starter sentences like “when I was a kid I missed out on…” and you’re supposed to treat it like a self-help/therapy workshop to journal your ideas. A lot of the pages here were either the author talking about her extravagant and adventurous life, or lists and lists of affirmations for yourself along the lines of “creativity is God’s gift to us.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and I think many of the ideas could have been easily summarized and made into a pamphlet (and that includes the affirmations). This book is 231 pages of the repetition (in different ways) of the three essential points I mentioned above. To be fair though, she does title the book “The Artist’s Way…a SPIRITUAL PATH to higher creativity” so I guess that one’s on me.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope 

359586I never had the chance to study Trollope in undergrad so I thought I’d give the Barchester Series a try. The series is six books long and begins with The Warden. I read the first twenty pages and realized how lost I was because I didn’t understand Anglican terminology. I put together this Anglican Terminology PDF and printed it out (attached it to the book) and resumed reading. For the most part it’s a bunch of English men who are part of the parish discussing wages and minutiae around their roles, as a young doctor moves into town and decides to open a hospital. The text is mostly heated debate in town over where finances should go. Reading it I didn’t feel ‘entertained’ or even that into it, but as I put it down over the course of the month I kept thinking of that transition stage where those same Anglican terms I had to look up were dominant, and those were the main jobs that would be paid in society. There was a shift that occurred when medicine as we know it today started to be incorporated into actual health-care facilities, and a lot of these jobs were threatened and over time disappeared or became a lot less paid. I think I’ll give book two of the Barchester Chronicles a try because I’ve been told it’s much better but if it doesn’t hold up I think I will stop with Trollope there.

To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck

763798This book is about a man named Joseph whose father passes away and who begins to have a connection with land. So much so, that he strongly believes a tree up on a hill overlooking his newly-acquired land IS his father. There are fleshly desires, discord among brothers, and a character named Juanito who is from Mexico and not only is a worker-friend of Joseph’s but he does certain things in this novel that push the plot forward. Yes, “California,” “Bible Themes,” and “Saucy relationships” are the plot of A Steinbeck novel, but this one felt different than his other works. I read online that he spent longer writing this novel than any of his other larger works, and I think that struggle shows because it didn’t flow. I had most issues with the character of Juanito and I think they were accentuated by the current political situation between the things being said by the ‘leader’ of the United States towards and about Mexican citizens. His portrayal, way of talking, and overall presence felt like a caricature. I wanted to see more of the connection to nature, I wanted more from the presence of the tree. The tree was alluded to and discussed the same way we see the green flashing light in The Great Gatsby, but here it was such an important part of the plot that I wanted more from it. It’s evident how Steinbeck wanted to illustrate roots and the inability to leave a piece of land as if it was a person. That theme and the tree, as well as allusions to Biblical Joseph were all executed nicely, but the conversation and character development were truly lacking. The exchanges made between Juanito and Joseph almost put me to sleep, the conversation in general was so lacking and not believable…I don’t think people would ever talk that way. I thought about it, and I’m willing to forgive Steinbeck simply because it’s his third work. His first two works flopped when they came out and I think he was still working on his craft at this point. This is my second Steinbeck this year, and I will certainly keep going.

This Victorian Life by Sarah A. Chrisman 

25159463This is a work of non-fiction and a sort of experiment. Sarah A. Chrisman and her husband decided to adopt a Victorian lifestyle all the way down to the details. They both had advanced degrees and a life in this world, but decided to take things slowly, step away from technology and start living like Victorians with all the details. I said ‘details’ a lot but that is what is mostly discussed. The minutiae of corsets and other clothing articles, the stationary for letter writing and creating the draft of this book, the cooking methods…absolutely every little thing was slowly changed in their household to mimic a Victorian household. Chrisman kept writing how liberating it was so have things slow down and not be so caught up in this modern world of constant distraction and instant gratification.

I  read this book in preparation for Victober and I think it’s nice in a Walden-type experiment kind of way. The whole time though I kept thinking about ‘choice’ and ‘consent’ because I think that was vastly overlooked when Chrisman wrote this. The whole time she would say “I didn’t realize how great this was,” or “how hard it would be to thaw the frozen toilet water” etc. but it makes a HUGE difference that she knows she has a choice. Not just over herself as a woman, but having the knowledge she has autonomy over her own body, that she can say ‘no’ to certain marital pressures, that she has rights as a citizen…but also knowing that should she get sick she would go to a good sanitary hospital where she won’t die of consumption, she won’t die in childbirth, that there are methods to prevent that….I think all the difficulties, the REAL difficulties of the Victorian period weren’t captured. What made those novels dark or that time period different was largely highlighted by the frustrations women like Jane Eyre would have for lacking status, money, autonomy, (or in Bertha Mason’s case good healthcare). I couldn’t bring myself to care of Chrisman’s experiments with stationary, Thanksgiving recipes, and bicycles when she kept repeating “I was trying to live exactly like a Victorian” and “it’s all down to the details” when the reality is far from it. I am not trying to be harsh here because I did enjoy reading this very much, but that thought was at the back of my mind the whole time. Being aware that at times she reminds readers that she has a B.A, and her husband has a Masters degree in Library Science, that she typed the manuscript of this book for publishers, and other details as such, I remembered what she said in the introduction and that was: this is an experiment. The reason I mentioned Walden before is because Thoreau is often criticized for not being too far away from the town when at Walden Pond, and being pampered by the Emersons, so people read his ‘experiment’ with a grain of salt. I think in that same way I’ve been reading This Victorian Life. It certainly is a fun read so I recommend it. I can see how for two people who love something like the Victorian period together this could be fun a fun project, but again: knowing that they can at any point CHOOSE something different and the idea of having a choice in the first place…skips over all the real life anxieties of a true Victorian.

Other Reading

I also re-read Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. Perhaps one day I’ll write a proper analysis of it, but since it is not a first impression I don’t think I’ll critique it much right now. I am currently reading Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. I have been neglecting Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings since July and it’s not because I don’t love it, I actually can’t stop thinking about it, but for some reason I got caught up in other books. I think I need to give it the attention it deserves very soon. I also read some of the essays by Ursula K. Le Guin from The Wave in the Mind but I don’t have a strong opinion on any individual essay just yet. All I can say is that Le Guin is one of the most advanced and progressively-thinking writers out there.

Literary Titans Revisited | Review

“Their writing explores themes in our society…the plight of the marginalized, the environment, the difficulties of finding one’s self and place, the anxiety of getting it all wrong, the longing for love, the search for justice.” —Anne Urbancic

32841205Professor Anne Urbancic (at Victoria College, University of Toronto) assigns her first-year students to explore in depth a library’s archive, write a detailed essay, and present it to the class. One of her students, Griffin Kelly, discovered in her search a series of compact discs in the Victoria University Archive at the E.J. Pratt Library. What she found were 16 interviews conducted by Earle Toppings with some of Canada’s top novelists and poets who were leading figures in the emergence of Canadian identity in literature. Kelly brought Mr. Earle Topping—an editor turned radio host who still resided in Toronto at the time—to speak to the class. Thus began the project that has now been turned into the book Literary Titans Revisited. Urbancic called upon four students, including Griffin Kelly herself, Geoff Baillie, Amy Kalbun, Vpasha Shaik, and the E.J. Pratt Library’s leading Reader Services librarians Agatha Barc, and Colin Deinhardt to collaborate on transcribing the interviews.

Urbancic notes in the introduction that:

“While Canada prides itself on its many excellent and exceptional authors and poets… they had not often appeared on the world’s literary stages until the second half of the twentieth century.”

The topic of Canadian identity in literature is still relatively new compared to its English and American fellows, and resources on Canlit authors are still being pieced together. What Urbancic created with Literary Titans Revisited is an excellent primary source for future Canlit students. Each writer’s interview with Earle Topping is preceded by a brief introduction including biographical material, a portrait, relevant and major contributions, as well as a brief analysis of their overall influence on Canadian literature and culture. The first section ‘Prose’ includes interviews with six novelists including Margaret Laurence, Morley Callaghan, Hugh Garner, Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler, and Sinclair Ross. The second section ‘Poetry’ contains the remaining ten interviews—among which are Al Purdy, Dorothy Livesay, and Irving Layton—to name a few. Lastly, the seventeenth chapter contains an interview with Earle Toppings who discloses his interviewing process, the composition of his questions, and the experience of interviewing the sixteen authors. Finding how he came up with the project and the recording devices he used at the time is an inspiring reminder of how much one can do with minimal resources.

IMG_7685

Statue of Al Purdy in Queen’s Park (unveiled in 2008).

The authors shared personal anecdotes, life struggles, and their creative process. Some poets read aloud to Toppings some of their newly composed poems which are not necessarily the ones that later on appeared in print. When it comes to transcribing the poems, this collection stays true to the recordings rather than what was finalized in print. What I found particularly interesting was how at the moment Canadian writers were asked how some of their life experiences connect to their artwork, they began by discussing either a British or American author as an example of how that can happen. Morley Callaghann speaks of Conrad and Joyce, Hugh Garner of Fitzgerald, Hugh Maclennan of Hemingway, and Mordecai Richler of several authors like George Orwell, and Norman Mailer. While trying to find the Canadian voice, these Canadian authors were still using American and British identities as a crutch even in the late sixties.  These interviews are a clear depiction of the search for a unique voice. Simultaneously, some keep in perspective the problematic consequences of Canadian history. Urbancic emphasizes that Al Purdy for instance:

“points out in his poignantly metaphorical verses about broken indigenous art pieces that represent the plight of Canada’s First Nations.”

This book has been published by Dundurn Press and is currently available for purchase (click here) and at your public library (click here). I would recommend this work to anyone who is interested in Canadian Literature, wants to be in the presence of Canadian literary titans, and interested in aspects of the creative process. Lastly, I would hope that all libraries will have this book in their collection. This collaborative project supplemented with the editorial work of Anne Urbancic is a new excellent primary source in Canadian scholarship.

My Top 5 Librarians in History

library_book_cart

I thought it would be fun to write a post of my top favourite and most inspiring librarians in history (and a bonus one). There are many others I have left out, but these are the ones whose works I have had the pleasure of reading. It will become apparent shortly as to why they are so inspirational:

  1. Jacob Grimm

grimm-jacob-imageJacob Grimm is by far my favourite librarian. This man, like most librarians on this list, was multi-talented. First, he’s one of the two ‘Brothers Grimm’ which is what he’s most famously known for. The two brothers (Jacob and Wilhelm) collected fairy tales and wrote them down (and refined them). Jacob though, was also a prominent linguist and he contributed greatly by creating “Grimm’s Law” which was very useful when studying Old English. Jacob Grimm also worked as a librarian in Kasel, after graduating with a law degree. His work on language, and fairy tales has had a huge impact on my life and career trajectory, which is why he gets the #1 spot.

18191205_10158481509440304_226290615_n9781435114890_p3_v1_s192x300

  1. Lillian H. Smith

IMG_20170425_164640Lillian H. Smith was the first head of the children’s services at the Toronto Public Library in the earlier days of the public library (starting with the 1920s). She created many programs for children like story time and founded the Girls’ and Boys’ House. The reading clubs that she hosted expanded in all aspects of storytelling like puppet shows, literary discussion/debate, and historical subjects. She was a firm believer that a librarian’s job was to deliver “the right book, to the right child, at the right time.” Her published work The Unreluctant Years: A Critical Approach to Children’s Literature (1953) includes the choices of literature she deemed appropriate as well as her new classification system specific to children’s literature. Her services for children and philosophy spread worldwide and she was a highly influential woman. Her name is currently used as the name for one branch of the Toronto Public Library.

  1. Jorge Luis Borges

jorge-luis-borgesJorge Luis Borges was an Argentinian writer who made significant contributions to literature in the 20th century and nominated many times for the Nobel Prize in literature but alas did not win. He lost his sight completely in his later years. He was a municipal librarian from 1939-1946 in Argentina, before getting fired by the Peron regime. One of his most famous short stories, “The Library of Babel,” depicts the universe as a huge library and is one of my favourite stories of all time. His poetry, essays, and reflections on literature, as well as his own major contributions have made him a prominent author—and often his librarian role is discussed as an extra.

  1. Eratosthenes

Eratosthene.01Eratosthenes the chief librarian at the Great Library of Alexandria. In addition to pretty much running the world’s greatest wonder, Eratosthenes discovered the system of latitude and longitude and made significant contributions to astronomy. He calculated the circumference of the earth without ever leaving Egypt, and has been nicknamed “the father of geography.” His work Constellation Myths: with Aratus’s Phaenomena was recently reprinted by Oxford Classics.

  1. Lewis Carroll

300hCarroll is known for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland but his main career was in mathematics. After graduating from Oxford with a B.A. in mathematics, he became a sub-librarian at Christ Church there. He left that position in 1857 to become a Mathematical Lecturer. In addition to this, my favourite fun fact about him was that he was a stickler for near writing. He would often get great ideas for writing after he had already gone to bed but didn’t want to wake up and light the lamp, and he also didn’t want to have messy writing under any circumstance.

Lewis-Carroll-Nyctograph

A recreation of the Nyctograph and the alphabet Carroll created for it

So he created this rectangular device called the nyctograph, where he would have his own “alphabet” and write in code at night, so it looks neat in the morning. Recently someone printed a copy of Alice completely in nyctograph from, and that’s just awesome. Carroll’s bibliography is vast and I don’t have to convince you that he was amazing. The key thing here is that he was also a librarian which makes him extra amazing.

Bonus Librarian: Benjamin Franklin

BenFranklinDuplessisBenjamin Franklin founded America’s first lending library the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731. He served as librarian there for three months (Dec.1733-Mar.1734). He was a huge fan of John Baskerville’s printing work back in England and is responsible for bringing back to America the font of John Baskerville. Franklin also started the first medical library in Pennsylvania. I can’t list in a paragraph all the incredible things Franklin did in his lifetime. He was an inventor, a printer, an intellectual in every sense of the word, a newspaperman, a library founder, politician, mathematician, oceanographer, and scientist. I think sometimes his other works are so incredible that they overshadow the fact that he was a librarian and founded many of America’s firsts special and lending libraries—which is pretty amazing.