Friday, January 19, 2018

Janus Reading

Great readings last night (january 18 2018) at the Mary J. Black Library. First up was Donna White who read a moving excerpt from her book Arrows, Bones and Stones: The Shadow of a Child Soldier. This is the second book in her Stone Triology. (Available at Chapters, Amazon etc)

Donna, a world traveller, told us about meeting Ugandan child soldiers who had escaped captivity. Many suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome. They experienced nightmares and sometimes day visions which stopped them in their tracks.

Sixty thousand children were abducted by the war lord and subjected to terrible suffering. She read about a short ceremony that one woman used to help a little boy whose trauma overwhelmed him.  A very moving experience for those of us in the audience.

This was followed by three powerful poems by Annette Pateman. The first was called Women Left Behind. In many developing countries the men have to go abroad to look for work. Promises are made. He will send for you. But for some women the summons never comes. They see others get the promised letter and "gyrate with joy" but for them-- nothing.

Marion Agnew, well known local writer, is working on a novel titled Making Up the God. She read a short selection, very peppy, about a family and especially one little boy and his aunt Simka. The excellent dialogue from both the aunt and the child gave the work interest and  energy.

The final reader was Debbie Metzler who read a story called Ping. An unpopular and bullied little boy dreams of super heroes, makes drawings of super heroes and then, finds a super hero. A heart breaking and heart mending story.

I always enjoy these readings and I could see the audience did too. We have so much talent in Thunder Bay.  Many thanks to NOWW, Mary J. Black library and the readers themselves.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Workshop on Sonnets

Sonnets ...

Presenter: Holly Haggarty
Date: January 25, 2018         
Time:  7:00 pm
Venue: Waverley Library Auditorium

Admission:  Free for all participants

As Holly says: Why do I offer a workshop on the sonnet, that 'little song" of poetry that began eight centuries ago in Italy?

Sonnets are a realm unto themselves, with transferable skills such as focusing an idea, playing in and out of rhythm, developing skill in the use of form, appreciating poetic tradition, and cultivating connoisseurship.

 I'm not interested in teaching how to write a sonnet; rather with the experience of writing a sonnet teaches.  

I think poets should be well versed (haha) in all forms.
If you think so too, then roll up your sleeves, ink your quill, and join your fellow poets

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Book Review by Simon Hoad

 The Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff
Book Review by Simon Hoad.
Miriam bought an audio version of Fire & Fury and I amused myself at the Sunshine cabin, listening to it on the tablet for ten hours spaced over two days. 
Oh-My!! We knew at the time through the squeaker election and then the ongoing Trump presidency, the broad outlines of each political pratfall and executive over-reach. What is so damning and so delicious is the sheer number of details about the personalities caroming around. The corporate and political arm-wrestling between the Javanka duo and Bannon, has tied the White House in knots. 
The key dynamic was the relative favour or temporary ascendency of one camp versus another in Trump's eyes which gave the zig-zag quality to official pronouncements. 
Meanwhile The Donald is bored, frustrated, enraged, petulant and back to bored, waiting for another golf day.  Or for his 6:30 evening bed time, PJs on and cellphone at hand to call rich buddies to kvetch. Cue Fox TV for the tweet scripts.
Is this a good book? (Literary meaning) It's not particularly well written. It's first draft political writing, not history.  Apparently critics have flagged a few (minor) factual errors - blow it off - it's all the critics have. The story’s sources speak for themselves.  Once Wolff made the successful transition in his book to a West Wing couch he became a wallpaper fixture, a ready sympatric ear.  Everyone was eager to diss everyone else as the senior staff staggered through their daily train-wreck mop-up duties. 
PS - Bannon is not a nice guy, yet his focus & longer term political goals make him stand out.  He is singular in the White House - at least in his own mind, as he bends Wolff's ear yet again.  (Become head of the American Tea Party anyone? - followed by even higher aspirations. Trump is just a stepping-stone). The key to resistance to Bannon by others is to taint him so  badly that whack-job rich people don't give him money for his delusions and plots.
PS - Who will write-up Year Two??
Note: North America is sold out of hard cover books. I got mine on line for the iPad. ($15.99) And a determined Miriam went for the audio book.
Michael Wolff

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Atwood Wows Thunder Bay

I don't think I have ever seen so many people in Chapters. The centre area of the store, which usually contains book-laden tables, was jammed with chairs but the crowd overflowed into the displays on both sides and back to the doors. I estimate about 150 people came to hear the famous author. Many brought their personal copies of The Handmaid's Tale for her to sign and many others purchased a copy on site.

Atwood talked about the her book, emphasizing that the mysogynistic incidents in the story are all based on women's historical experiences. She said that for a long time, she felt that life for women was improving and would continue to do so. She does not believe this any more. Cathy Alex of CBC conducted the interview and at the end, called on several women in the audience to ask questions.

How did this event happen? Seems that the Chapter chain set up a competition among its many stores as to who should host Atwood. Member of Parliament Patti Hadju wrote a letter urging that the Thunder Bay store be awarded the honour. She also sent a video. The sales staff threw themselves into the fray with a video as well. Happily for the local literature lovers, Thunder Bay won. Bravo, Chapters.

I believe this is the first time Chapters has hosted a well known writer.  Judging from the turn out tonight, it should be done more often.

Friday, January 5, 2018


Thursday January 18th @ 7:00 pm at the Mary J.L. Black Public Library on Edward Street. Readers are: Marion Agnew, Donna White, Debbie Metzler.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Favourite Books of 2017

I did not read as many books this year,  only eighty-five rather than the usual hundred. I read a few classics, books I had missed when I was on my classic binge in the 70’s. (I never read classics when I was younger aside from those assigned at school. Instead, I read widely into the genres: cozy mysteries and historical potboilers). In the 70’s my Kaministiquia friends introduced me to Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Lawrence plus, heaven help me, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Kafka and Camus. This year, once again, I tried Dickens but, for some reason, the humour grates on me. As usual I read many short story compilations: Chekov, Mavis Gallant, William Trevor, John Pringle, Colette Maitland, Lucia Berlin. I also reread my all-time favourite story, The Dead by James Joyce.

The following list is in no particular order.


News of the World by Paulette Jiles. Top notch story taking place in 1870 in Texas after the civil war. When a travelling newsreader is paid to return a child, an Indian captive, to her relatives, he agrees and then the trouble starts. Jiles is one of my favourite fiction writers.

Silences, A Novel of the 1918 Finnish Civil War by Roy Blomstrom. This is a two part book. In January 1918, the brutal but short-lived Finnish civil war broke out between the Reds and the Whites. Blomstrom creates memorable characters who are caught up in the fighting and the carnage.  In 1955, the survivors have settled in Port Arthur. The war remains a secret thing, locked in silence, never mentioned. The silence is broken by a series of strange events. This is an adventure novel with deep roots of human interest. A must read.

The Leopard by Guiseppi Lampadusa
A beautifully written Italian classic that I enjoyed very much. A Sicilian prince, at the time of Garibaldi, sees his aristocratic world changed by Garibaldi and the new order of capitalists who take over. This theme appears in Chekov, Joseph Roth’s Radetzsky March and Gone With the Wind with its depictions of the crude, rude carpetbaggers. The newcomers do not dress properly, have poor manners and do not know the rules as lived by the aristos. The author, through the mouth of the prince, states that the average Sicilian is too proud to change their ways and much too lazy. This view conflicts with the changes happening all around. It is the typical aristo/conservative cry. You give them a hospital and they won’t use it etc. The prince tries his best to save his property from the pushy newcomers. He assents to marriage between a family member and the daughter of a rich low-born local. He tries to fit in. The last chapter tells it all.

Transit by Rachel Cusk. A terrific book, a long meditation connected to stories about living in London, about modern life. The protagonist is alone a lot, meandering around talking to people. Neither class, nor race, nor politics of the day come into the conversations. Love is there but mainly the picture is about how tough it is just to get by without being a target.

Autumn by Ali Smith. A bouncy book, all over the place but the reader can follow. A friendship between an old man and a young girl continues to the death of the man. The man might be a Brexit symbol, the death of the old Britain, civil, interested, cultured, kindly, neighbourly. He is contrasted to the new post Brexit Britain where the haters now feel vindicated and empowered. Easily the best fiction I read this year. The second book in the series, “Winter”, will be available soon.

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebold. In a deserted landscape, windy, dreary, under a heavy sky our narrator trudges on from one historical account to the next, his memory prompted by dreams, chance meetings, half deserted towns, threatening seas and so on. He describes the burning of the great houses in Ireland in 1922; the horrible enslavement of the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium; the connection between the sugar trade, British prosperity and slavery; the life of Joseph Conrad; Swinburne; the Chinese empress Tzu His; the opium trade; the natural history of herring and all this from his wanderings on the coast of East Anglia. Mesmerizing stuff, melancholy and hypnotic.

Justine by Lawrence Durrell.  Another classic. Justine was written in 1959, the first novel in the Alexandria Quartet. The writing is so grand that it makes my teeth ache. Such swift and pointed turns of phrase. I want to copy them all. The plot, such as it is, is about a love affair and every love affair, Durrell once said, involves four people. Justine, cold, beautiful, and mysterious does not grab me as a character but then none of the characters do, not even the narrator, Darley. Nasty events in Justine’s past, abuse when a child and later the kidnapping of her six year old daughter, have made her perpetually unhappy. The real character is the city of Alexandria, more a labyrinth than a city. I read this book when I was a teen and remember nothing about it. I wonder if I even understood it as far as it can be understood. In those days I read for plot. Durrell’s skill in setting out certain moods, ideas, past happenings, in just a few choice words is marvelous. His writing has beautiful segues, descriptions of people, places. His turns of phrase are delicious. His metaphors are good too. In my opinion, the best of the four books in the series.

The Loxleys and Confederation by Mark Zuehlke, Clade St. Aubin, Alexander Finbow, Nigaanwidam Sinclair. A graphic novel about a fictional family at the time of Confederation but touches on the US Civil War, the War of 1812, a Fenian Raid, Reciprocity and its repeal and the Aboriginal situation plus child labour. I have become a fan of graphic historicals. This year I read graphics about the lives of Suzanna Moodie, Zora Neale Hurston, John James Audubon and Emma Goldman.  Good stuff.

The Lightkeeper’s Daughter by Jean Pendziwol A best seller by Thunder Bay writer Jean Pendziwol. An elderly woman and a young girl meet in a nursing home. With the aid of a recovered journal the woman recalls her life living in a lighthouse on Lake Superior. A decade’s old mystery is revealed This book sends us on a journey as wild and changeable as Lake Superior itself.

Harrow Road by Margie Taylor. In 1897, Annie Taylor and her three children enter the dreaded workhouse with all its Dickensian horrors. Margie Taylor’s moving historical novel takes you there while giving you some background on Annie’s life. Fabulous history, a good plot and interesting characters make for a fine read.

 Non Fiction
At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being. and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell.  A well-written book about interesting people, the major Existential philosophers of France and Germany (plus Camus) from 1920 to their deaths. Sartre is the most changeable and extreme who often switched directions while de Beauvoir is the most relevant today, according to the author. Each person’s take on existentialism is explained, for the most part clearly, and their intertwined lives become part of their philosophy. I loved this book.

The Life Crimes and Hard Times of Ricky Atkinson Leader of the Dirty Tricks Gang. A memoir by Richard Atkinson with Joe Fiorito. He grew up as a young black kid near Kensington Market. He learned about racism early and it made him mad and bad. His dad was brutal to him. Both parents struggled to survive. He set up his first gang when he was still in elementary school. He had lots of friends, family, people who cared for him but to no avail. He started in on crime and then jail. As an adult, he remembers every insult from police and other authorities and hints this is the reason he continued. The thread of self-pity, braggadocio, and blaming others slips through. Fiorito's clear, firm writing carries the story well.

The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes, A startling book that leaves me with many questions. The 80s and 90s saw the rise of obesity, diabetes and also the increased consumption of sugar and fructose corn syrup. Various forms of sugar are added to so many food products. Today, at the supermarket, I found sugar in pasta and chicken broth. According to Taubes, excess sugar causes obesity and diabetes. Obesity does not cause diabetes as the Diabetic Society claimed. Nor does fat cause obesity. Sugar (glucose and fructose, sucrose cane and ditto the corn stuff), the excessive use of sugar, causes it. The sugar in fruits and some veg is natural glucose/fructose but it is eaten in small quantities with fibre etc and does little damage. Honey and maple syrup also. Even though I have become an obsessive label reader, added sugar is often disguised in many ways and under various names. It is hard to know what is natural and what is not. For sure sugar is not natural to chicken broth and pasta.
I have since read that Big Sugar, the mouthpiece of the sugar industry, hates Gary Taubes. They spend a lot of money convincing you that sugar is fine.

The Vanquished by Robert Gerwath: Why the First World War Failed to End. By revolution, peasant uprisings, attempts to take back lost territory, civil war, invasions and counter invasions, the countries of eastern Europe threw off their czars and kings and attempted to set up democratic states but all failed except Finland. A brutal book which shows Middle Europe plagued by fascism, revanchism, anti-Semitism, aristocratic privilege, violent hatred of outsiders, Communism and excess of all kinds which left the countries soaked in blood and easy pickings for Hitler and his thugs.

The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carre A memoir by the great writer. LeCarre was in the secret service and the diplomatic corps. He has a lot of scathing things to say about the spy game. The final chapter deals with Ronnie, his con man father. His writing methods are interesting. He travelled far to find the perfect setting for his novels. He based his characters on real people, friends or work mates and used their appearance and their psychology but not their actions. He had contacts and connections which helped him. In short he had to find real places and real people before he could turn them into fiction. I found this fascinating.

Ghosts by Hillary Mantel. A memoir from one of the greatest historical novelists today depicts an overly sensitive child who sees ghosts, lives mainly in her head and exists in a constant state of anxiety. Her parents split up when she was 11. She never saw her dad again. Her stepfather was controlling in many small and sneaky ways. Her portrait of him is superb. Her life was plagued by an undiagnosed illness, endometriosis, which caused her unending pain. I got up in the night to finish this book. I was amazed at the amount of pain she suffered.

Short Stories
Hellgoing by Lynn Cody. Short stories, provocative, well written, which immediately suck in the reader. However, the endings of these stories come as a surprise since nothing is resolved or even explained.  Cody is one of our best short story writers.

Spirals by John Pringle. Northern Mallards is the story I loved the most. It is a layered story about a boy and his dad who go to shoot duck but almost drown when their canoe goes over. The boy tries to imitate his dad’s toughness. A third theme deals with the likelihood that the boy’s parents might split up. Three themes and all so well done. This year, Pringle released Dandelions which also contains many excellent short stories including several that are fall-off-your-chair hilarious.
Twenty Years on Snowshoes: Winning Stories from North Western Ontario Writers Workshop. What a cornucopia of fiction and memoir from some of Thunder Bay’s best writers! Sue Blott is there with her touching story, Roundabout. Jane Crossman takes us to Ireland in Coney Island. Susan Rogers dazzles us with her creative approach in Confessions in the Time of Social Media. Jack Shedden’s Tommy’s Dream with its crisp dialogue lures you to read more. I could go on and on. Every story in this collection is terrific without exception

Canadian Shorts A 2017 Canada wide best seller, this collection of Canadian themed stories was chosen after a country-wide competition. Two local writers, Marion Agnew and I, found ourselves included. The editor, Brenda Fisk of Mischievous Books of Calgary created a good looking book and publicized it well. She donated all the proceeds to the Canadian Council for Refugees.  I was interested to learn later that the judges used a template to appraise the stories, a process which helped their evaluation. Highly recommended. (photo of me flogging the book at Chapters).

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. Gritty stories well told. A CD book which I listened to in the car. Berlin was a remarkable writer whose stories often dealt with Mexican Americans relations in the context of working class lives. Even though she had a small devoted following, Berlin was not well known in her lifetime.  A Manual for Cleaning Women was published eleven years after her death and became a best seller. I also read So Long: Stories 1987 – 1992. Her stuff is as unsparing and honest as the hot desert sun.