Katherena Vermette (FOLD Festival)

fullsizeoutput_785cThe Break was the one book that I think all Canadians should read (yet unfortunately, the sheer power of this book led it to being voted off first in the 2017 Canada Reads Debates).  It is not only artfully written but it touches on so many important issues – sexual violence, physical violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, possible postpartum depression, racism, spousal abuse, child abuse – and yet balances the story with strength, resilience, love, kindness and caring.  It is a story of strong women looking after and loving each other through good times and through hardship.  It delves into issues that might be difficult but are important for us as Canadians, as individuals, as parents, as siblings, as grandparents, as humans to think about.  It is a call to action to consider how we can support others and understand the impact of our words, our actions and of the racism that still exists in our communities.

Katherena was introduced as Metis author and film maker from treaty 1 in Winnipeg.  She acknowledged that when she visits somewhere new, she researches how the land is being shared and taken care of.  She laughed noting that everywhere is Toronto to her, even though we were sitting in Brampton.  She admitted that she had forgotten her reading copy of The Break and had borrowed the moderator’s copy to read from the beginning of her novel.

When asked if she was worried about the book being received as a dark book, she noted that’s her fear yet “as much as it was talking about gritty things, there is some healing in there”.  While difficult things happen to people, the book expresses the importance of recovering from these things.  She laughed that her book can be treated as a choose your own adventure story (I loved these as a pre-teen) and that for a less gritty version, readers could ignore the parts told by Stella and the last chapter by Emily.  By avoiding these parts, the reader will delve into a family dealing with loss and grief while helping each other.

Katherena said she had fun writing about the casual racism.  She was asked about sharing context of colonization and said that you “can’t give a history lesson when you write a character” but hopes that people will do research on their own.  She added that it is important to learn all the facts but that empathy is a “tool for the resolution”.  The media only provides a tiny glimpse into situations but individuals “need to realize that we are all the same” to gain empathy and understanding.  She writes for other indigenous women and hopes “that they see themselves in what i do” since she writes “messy characters” who have lived with trauma and identity issues.

Her own experience as a bi-racial, Metis woman has led her to thinking a lot about her identity, where she fits and where her daughters fit.  She said that it feels like “you are never enough but you are too much at the same time”.  She explored these feelings through the character of Tommy and shared that “even coloured people buy into the idea that white is better”.  Katherena tries to incorporate her heritage and self-care including smudging and tobacco ties in her home but admits that she does not get out to sweat lodges often and laughed that it is wood tick season.

When speaking about her experience on Canada Reads, she noted that it was great to have two indigenous authors represented but stated that they were “both torn to shreds because we were not Canadian enough”.  As an active participant of Canada Reads, listening each day and attending the final day, I have to disagree with this sentiment.  I felt that The Break should have been the winner but can understand why the strongest competitor was knocked out first in this book debate.  As for The Right to Be Cold, it is the one book that I have not been able to finish.  The great work and her story was lost in the endless details, acronyms and acknowledgement making it very hard for the reader to keep track of all the organizations and people she worked with.

Overall it was a great morning.  Those who also attended will note that I have not commented on the moderation by Hayden King.  I have to say that as a Canadian (I guess he would call me white), I felt unwelcome with his comments at the FOLD Festival (The Festival of Literary Diversity).  I understand that there is a dreadful history with indigenous peoples including residential schools and the horrible attempts at assimilation but I have not been part of this and want to be part of the solution.  I have empathy for the terrible abuses, loss of culture and enduring racism and have learned so much through literature (since unfortunately, my education was lacking even though I live in a community near Six Nations).  I appreciate that his experience has led to these feelings but hope that he can have empathy and openness towards everyone which will be essential in the work towards reconciliation.

If you haven’t read The Break, pick it up, read it and pass it on.  If you live nearby, there is a copy of this book (not my newly signed copy of course) in the Franklin Street Little Free Library.  The book will open conversations, cause reflection and hopefully educate Canadians about the experience of some indigenous families, their strength and their resilience!  I look forward to Katherena Vermette’s next novel!

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36. The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah)

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 9.54.04 PM.pngThe Nightingale is a compelling audiobook which is well-narrated and a detailed depiction of a horrendous part of world history.  The story follows the experience of two French sisters, Isabelle and Vianne, fighting to survive during World War II.  Their strength, resilience and bravery is a remarkable tribute to the soldiers and citizens who fought for our freedom.

The sisters were abandoned by their father who suffered from his experience in the Great War and the subsequent loss of his beloved wife.  Vianne married young and started a family.  She struggled to care for her younger sister and Isabelle was enrolled and then kicked out of a series of finishing schools.  Vianne’s husband became a prisoner of war leaving her to care for their young daughter, struggling to find food, keep warm and stay safe from the Nazi soldiers billeted in her home.

Isabelle could not sit back and survive, she needed to fight back and joined the resistance and travelled between France and Spain as the Nazi’s searched for the Nightingale.  As the war advanced, the French police became complicit in the German plan to exterminate the Jewish citizens, sending men, women and children to concentrations camps and to their deaths.

Generally, I restrict my listening to my commutes but I could not wait until the weekend was over to hear the end and I read the last few chapters to learn what happened to the sisters.  This is a terrific book and one that everyone should read.  It tells the devastating history of France during WWII which may not be as well shared in history books.  It certainly makes the reader appreciate the difference that individuals made to save children, soldiers and care for each other during devastation.

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Jamie Tennant: Author Event

IMG_4184 2Different Drummer books in collaboration with East Plains Church, in Burlington, hosted a trio of authors on Tuesday evening.  Many eager readers enjoyed the presentations of three authors with diverse books.  Jamie Tennant, author of The Captain of Kinnoull Hill, presented first.  He is also the program director of the McMaster University Radio and a journalist who is responsible for the program called Get Lit.

It was interesting to learn that this story idea had been gestating within him since he was a pre-teen.  He was inspired by a photograph of Kinnoull Hill,  a beautiful place that had been his father’s home in Scotland.  After his father passed away, he visited his birthplace, climbed the hill and took many pictures.  He knew the setting well and it became real, a central feature of the book.  He started to write blindly but stopped when he only had a vague idea where to go.  Years later, he pulled pieces from this project to write this book.

He described his book as the redemption story of Dennis who was “not the world’s nicest guy” and was in the midst of a divorce.  His one passion was music, leading to many musical references as he discusses music with his friend Paul, a “music nerd” who was interested in very diverse music.  He ends up in Scotland where he takes a job as a watchman on Kinnoull Hill.  While investigating some vandalism he ends up involved with a Red Cap, which is was known as a murderous mythical creature.  This Red Cap was was eating rabbits instead of killing people and led Dennis to having heightened senses as he tries to change himself.

When asked about the hardest thing about writing his novel, he admitted that it was finding the time.  He had started writing this book by taking a half hour, every day, during his lunch hour to write.  He shared that he is in the process of writing a new model which is from the perspective of a female character and laughed that he will be getting some advice from his wife.

Jamie kept the audience interested and I will be downloading the podcasts for his program, Get Lit on CFMU radio.

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35. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (Heather O’Neill)

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 8.41.03 AMThe Girl Who Was Saturday Night tells the bleak stories of twins, Nicholas and Nousckha, who had spent their childhood being paraded on television programs by their famous father, Etienne.  They had grown up in the spotlight of his folksinging but without much supervision or guidance.  They were well known by the French Canadian community.

The twins had been abandoned by their teenage mother.  Their father was too busy to care for them and their elderly grandfather did the best that he could to care for the twins.  The book began when the twins were 19 years old and Etienne was washed up yet pathetically tried to stay in the spotlight.

The twins were extremely close and co-dependent.  Their family was followed by the media who benefited from their mistakes and family drama which was rampant.  Even between drunken evenings, sexual encounters, crime and poor decisions the bonds of the siblings leave the reader with hope that the twins will survive their circumstances together.  Like Lullabies for Little Criminals the twins managed day by day with the resilience and tenacity to manage their circumstances.

After meeting the soft-spoken Heather O’Neill last week, I am glad that she will be working on her own memoirs and am curious to learn more about her own resilience and childhood experiences.  In the article Bringing up Baby which appeared in Quill and Quire, O’Neill shared that she was “abandoned by a mother who continues to live an itinerant life, and about being raised by an emotionally unpredictable father who these days would be described as “working poor.”  I will be interested to see how her own childhood has framed and inspired these bleak stories which remain hopeful.

Overall, the book is compelling and the prose is smooth and engaging.  The challenges of Nicholas and Nousckha are a stark departure from my last read, the heartwarming stories of Home from the Vinyl Cafe by the late Stuart McLean.  It is important for readers to understand the challenges that some Canadian children face and see the “magic inside them” as O’Neill said last week!

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34. Home From the Vinyl Cafe: A Year of Stories (Stuart McLean)

Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 10.59.17 PMLast year, our book club experienced challenges as we tried to find a “happy” book to share.  If only we had thought of reading a book from the Vinyl Cafe collection of short stories, we would have had a fun discussion!  The stories are ‘laugh out loud’ funny and tell the stories of Dave, Morley and their children, Stephanie and Sam.  These heartwarming tales and descriptions of every day antics leave the reader smiling and reflecting on their own family situations.

Many CBC listeners will have listened to Dave tell the stories on the radio but they can also be enjoyed in a series of books.  Home from the Vinyl Cafe:  A Year of Stories starts in the Winter with the story of Dave’s challenges cooking the Christmas turkey and ends the following winter with Dave’s escapades as accidentally mixed up the adult and the children’s punch bowls of egg nog!  My favourite was The Birthday Party which took place in the spring when Dave was left in charge of his son’s birthday party.  The story began with an incident at the liquor store when Dave left in a huff.  When he realized that he had left his credit card behind, he didn’t want to face the clerk so he cancelled his card rather than returning.  This started an avalanche of issues – the vegetarian boy ate meat pies, the partygoers watched a scary zombie movie and there was a lumpy cake baked by Dave.  The sleepover culminated with all but one of the kids being picked up in the middle of the night which is a situation that many parents could identify with!

As a cat lover and parent, I could certainly relate to the Road Trip story when the cat accidentally ended up in the car.  I was literally laughing out loud reading A Day Off when the couple played hooky from their jobs only to have Dave’s mother in law arrive to take care of them.  These every day stories promote laughter and pleasant reflection.

Unfortunately, Stuart McLean passed away this past February at the age of 68.  He died of melanoma but his stories will be enjoyed by Canadians for years to come.  He had told his tales at the Sanderson Theatre in Brantford a few years ago and I will always regret missing this opportunity.  If you are looking for a quick pick me up, add a Stuart McLean book to your collection and experience his short stories one day at a time!

I am looking forward to discussing Home from the Vinyl Cafe and Vinyl Cafe turns the Page at tomorrow night’s book club.  It will be fun to see which books and stories are discussed as we share our favourites!

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Heather O’Neill: Hotel Dallavalle Author Series

IMG_3642 3“No child is a tale of abuse, they still have all this magic inside them”

Niagara-on-the-Lake was a beautiful setting to meet Heather O’Neill at the Hotel Dallavalle Author Series.  Heather is the author of Lullabies for Little Criminals which was published in 2006 and won the 2007 Canada Reads.  May and I were thrilled to meet the author who also wrote The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (which I am almost finished reading), Daydreams of Angels Stories (which I recently found at the BSO book sale) and her newest book The Lonely Hearts Hotel.

The evening began with a book signing (which was being filmed for a Cogeco program) and the author graciously signed my pile of books as we waited for the activities of the evening to begin.  The group was treated to cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, followed by an interpretive dance IMG_0462 3performance by two local, young dancers who represented the story through the art of dance.

The group retired to a quiet room to hear Heather speak about The Lonely Hearts Hotel which was set during the 1930s in Montreal.  It was a time of criminals running the city, of brothels and of pay offs to city officials.  She shared that the novel had been inspired by her late father who had grown up, youngest of 9 boys, during the depression.  Although he worked as a janitor, he had expressed regret of giving up the chance to live a life of crime like his brothers.   Heather had grown up with nostalgic stories of the lives of IMG_1483 2gangsters.

At the age of 22, Heather wrote a 5 page story about gangsters including Rose and Pierrot (who both were “always popping up below the surface”, Pierrot appearing in The Girl Who was Saturday night and Rose appearing in a short story).   Inspired by a boarded up building on Rene Levesque boulevard which had been a home for unwed mothers, Heather began to develop the characters of Rose and Pierrot, children who had grown up in an orphanage in a time when adoptions were uncommon.  Both children had extraordinary talents, Pierrot was a piano prodigy and Rose excelled in the art of pantomime.

Heather shared that she wrote the story like a theatrical play as Rose and Pierrot,

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May and Heather

who were separated tried desperately to find each other.  They surfaced in the escape routes of the Red Light district of Montreal reminiscent of clowning techniques when they were close to finding each other but remained apart.  Heather noted that she tried to give the story the staccato feel of a black and white movie reminiscent of her research of 1930s pornography.

The story features the subversion of gender roles with Rose attempting to seduce the master of the house where she was employed as a governess and becoming the violent character.  Like her other writing, this story has a theme of child abuse since the author is “interested, in all my books, how children survive abuse” adding that the abused must “accept that abuse changes you” and “accept the abused self”.  The abuse is a “source of melancholia” for Pierrot who does not share his tales of abuse until he finds Rose which was the most difficult part of the novel for Heather to write.

“I was a book addict as a kid”

It was interesting to learn more about Heather’s own childhood.  She became interested in 1930s porn as a child since her neighbour left pornographic books on the stairs.  She noted that he had been a book hoarder, even propping his mattress on a pile of books – eventually he died in an apartment fire as predicted by her father who would always say “he’s going to burn the f…ng building down”.  She loved books and started to write at age 8 after her uncle gave her a journal.  She laughed that her dad “thought I would use them against him” and had destroyed the journals as she completed them.

I was able to ask about her writing process.  She explained that she tends to have a vague outline, a sketch of the characters and the setting as she begins.  She shared the analogy of a painter completing sketches to decide on the colour and style and she does the same with words, creating rough sketches to see how her ideas look on the page.  She tends to write the ending first.  She admits that it is difficult for her to find the story and that “a lot of it ends up in the garbage” in a time of “trial and error”.

IMG_8439 3Before retiring to the dining room, the audience was happy to learn that Heather is working on her next book.  In a later conversation with her, May and I learned that a future project is to write her memoir which will give insight into her own childhood experiences.

Colleen at Hotel Dallavalle did a fabulous job ensuring that the audience was well entertained and  engaged by an award winning author from Montreal.  It was certainly worth the drive and the evening was topped off with a wonderful 6 course meal as outlined in the menu and pictured below.

Although it would be difficult to attend the summer author series that takes place on weekdays due to the busy tourist season in NOTL, I will be watching for their fall author events.  Joseph Boyden is being booked in the winter of 2018 after his newest book is released and I am looking forward to this!

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Guest Post with Lisa Hood: Will Ferguson

Thanks to Lisa Hood for taking the time to write a guest post about her experience meeting Will Ferguson.  Lisa is a busy mom to the adorable Patrick, works full time and still finds time for volunteering…. and some reading!  I first met Lisa during our residence week at the University of Guelph and appreciate her energy and enthusiasm.  
I will be adding Why I Hate Canadians to my growing “to be read” pile and need hear about the “naked Shelagh Rogers” story!  Thanks Lisa!
Screen Shot 2017-04-29 at 10.31.39 AMCarving out time to read has become especially precious to me, as I adjust to life as a working mom but the opportunity to hear from my favourite author, Will Ferguson, warranted actually booking a day off to accommodate the event. The Volunteer Centre of Guelph Wellington’s annual Time to Give breakfast was themed this year in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, and who better to speak to our patriotic pride than the author of Why I Hate Canadians?

Will shared the story of how his career path, and consequently, his life path changed all in an effort to escape a highschool chemistry class. He had been accepted into U of A law school and was tying up all his final credits (hence, chemistry) when he used an info session on the Katimavik program to get out of class. Once there, he was intrigued by the opportunity to travel so when his application was accepted, he deferred law school.

After the Katimavik experience he joined Canada World Youth, an exchange program where a group of 12 students are selected to represent the demographics of Canada (ethnicity, home province, language, etc) and sent on exchange to volunteer in another country. He shared funny stories of his time in Ecuador, including one about improvising a sort of square dance to represent Canada.

He took the audience on a journey, sharing his travel stories and career moves along the way in his always humorous style. The crowd ate it up, encouraging him to squeeze in a “naked Shelagh Rogers” story at the end that didn’t disappoint.

Among his best known nonfiction is Why I Hate Canadians, followed by How to be a Canadian (the concept of which was originally suggested to Will by Margaret Atwood). Co-written with his brother, Ian Ferguson, he shared a valuable tip for co-authoring: divide by word count, not chapter (or not – if you want to stick it to your co-author). Ian wrote the chapter “Sports and/or Recreation” (p 87-101) and Will wrote “How the Canadiana Gov’t Works” (two words on page 187).

In various press, author bios and interviews in other countries, Will shared that the title Why I Hate Canadians has been altered because the editors seem unable to wrap their heads around hating Canadians. The Japanese assumed it must have been called Why I Hate Comedians while the Aussies referenced it as Why I Don’t Like Canadians; Will says it may as well be called Why I Hate Bambi’s Mother!

Aside from the copious side-splitting laughs of the morning, he offered some excellent observations about what makes our country so special, and how volunteerism fits into that. Indeed, in all his travels he’s found that volunteerism appears to be an international value: people want to help people.

Following the talk, we had the chance to meet and he’s equally funny one-on-one. He Screen Shot 2017-04-29 at 10.31.58 AMshared that 419 (the 2012 Giller Prize winner) was originally intended to be a funny story about a Nigerian Prince who couldn’t give away his money, but after reading police reports of the scams, he realized it was too dark a topic to go that route.

Will Ferguson is a brilliant Canadian author, who has a special view of our country and its people. His nonfiction and fiction alike are beautifully written, with both funny and poignant moments. Readers should keep an eye out for a new book coming this summer.

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33. The Two-Family House (Lynda Cohen Loigman)

Screen Shot 2017-04-26 at 10.02.24 PMIt was a snowy night in 1947, Brooklyn.  Sister-in-law’s, Helen and Rose, are home alone with their children while their husbands are stranded on a business trip, due to the storm.  The two expectant mothers go into early labour and as they cannot travel to deliver in hospital are lucky to be cared for by a local midwife.  Two babies are born that night – a boy and a girl – and the family drama intensifies.

This audio book tells the tale of two families who share the same home.  The sister-in-law’s were close.  They helped each other, spent time together and cared for their children together until that night…

After the babies were born, the dynamics changed.  Helen and Rose shared a secret which should have bonded them yet tore them apart as they raised their families.  The business expanded, the children grew older, finished school and married yet the women struggled with their relationship.

The book was entertaining during my commutes.  Although the secret was not a big surprise, the struggles of this family kept the reader engaged.  It was a light and easy read, perfect for the audio format.

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Novel Questions: Terry Fallis

IMG_5163If any of you have seen me driving alone and laughing out loud, I might have been listening to the podcasts of the award winning novelist, Terry Fallis.  Although I have enjoyed reading his books, they are also so fun to listen to via podcast.  The satire and his great narration make the kilometres pass quickly and are a great way to end a busy day at the office!

I have had the privilege to meet Terry Fallis twice at author events.  The first time was at the 2015 One Book One Brant event, discussing No Relation which I especially enjoyed since I am friends with both Kim Mitchell (who incidentally takes most of the author event photos on this blog) and Michael Bolton (who does not have long, curly hair or sing – at least publicly)!  I also met Terry at the wonderful Grimsby Author Series event as he read from Poles Apart.  Both events kept the audience laughing as he shared his own life experiences and discussed his novels!

In agreement with Terry, I think my favourite has been The Best Laid Plans (with its sequel called The High Road) although I sure wish this blog would take off like the blog in Poles Apart!  Unfortunately, I don’t think that CanLit gets quite the attention it deserves!

Thanks to Terry for taking the time to answer my novel questions!!  I look forward to reading/listening to his latest book:  One Brother Shy!

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What is your favourite childhood book?  Why?

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I’d have to say Pilot Jack Knight. It’s the true story of a pilot in the early part of the last century. I loved the strong sense of adventure. As well, it was probably the first book I’d read on my own that made me cry. I read it over and over and still remember the entire story.

 

Did you always want to be a writer?

When it became clear that I would never play in the National Hockey League or make it big as a singer/songwriter, becoming a novelist was next on my list.  Actually, I came to writing later in life. I wrote my first novel,. The Best Laid Plans, when I was 45 years old. Clearly it took me a while to reach the starting line. But I’ve always loved language, writing, and books, so attempting to write a novel seemed almost inevitable.

Where is your favourite place to write and why?

Unless I’m traveling, you’ll find me writing in the library we built on the this floor of our home. Being in that room just makes me want to write. Follow this link for a peek.

We renovated our house in 2008 and we now have a library on our third floor where I write. The photos aren’t great but you get the idea and probably understand why I spend a lot of time in this

What work are you most proud of and why?

Now that’s a tough question bordering on cruel and unusual punishment. It’s kind of like asking which of my children I love more. Of course I love all my novels, but I have a very soft spot in my heart for my first, The Best Laid Plans. The response to it changed my life as a writer. Having said that, I’m also very fond of my third novel, Up and Down.

What is the last book that you read and why would you recommend it… or not?

I’ve just finished Bill Deverell’s upcoming novel, Whippedand I loved it. He mixes crime, politics, satire, and lots of laughs along the way and writes in a way that keeps you turning those pages. The book will be released soon and I highly recommend it.

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Happy Canada Book Day!!!

Screen Shot 2017-04-22 at 10.29.33 AMCanada Book Day is a fabulous way to celebrate Canadian literature!

Pick up an old favourite like Anne of Green Gables, reread a Canadian Classic like Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale or revisit a book that you read in highschool like Fifth Business!

Discover a new favourite mystery like Still Mine by Amy Stuart or a 2017 Canada Reads pick like The Break or this year’s winner Fifteen Dogs.  Celebrate books written by the late author’s Richard Wagamese or enjoy laughing along to the short stories of the late Stuart McLean!

If you have little ones, enjoy a story together.  Some of our families’ favourites are the Paper Bag Princess, Murmel Murmel or I Have to Go Pee by Robert Munsch.  Read Adrift at Sea by local author’s s Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch to learn more about the experience of immigrating to Canada or Best Friends Through Eternity by Sylvia McNicoll.

It is a special day to promote reading and celebrate books written by Canadian authors that make this country proud so pick up a book and enjoy!!!

What Canadian authors are your favourite?  What books are you reading?  Add your comments below!!

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