Remembering Alistair MacLeod

November 11, 2014

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I do enjoy the melodic musings of the CBC’s Michael Enright and was particularly captivated by the personal tone of a recent broadcast. Something in his voice caused me to stop my splashing in the dishwater to listen more carefully. Here is the text of his speech and a link to listen as well.

“Alistair MacLeod had a red moon face, twinkling eyes and the smile of a young boy. He spoke so softly you almost had to lean forward to hear him.

He always wore a cap, usually tweed. Now any middle-aged man wearing a tweed cap can look very dorky – I know first hand – or elegantly countrified. On Alistair, a tweed cap was as natural as a purring cat.

He was the gentlest of men. He always had time for people, especially young readers. This may have sprung from his decades as a university professor, but I also think it had something to do with his Celtic upbringing in the highlands of Cape Breton.

He was not a prolific writer. He published only one novel and 20 short stories. It took him ten years to write his masterpiece, No Great Mischief. He wrote in longhand on yellow legal pads. His great friend and editor, Douglas Gibson, called him “a stone carver, chipping out each perfect word with loving care.” His work is unique, unlike any other writer I can think of. It has the clarity of dialogue of Flannery O’Connor and the diagnostic precision and descriptive powers of Alice Munro.

Alistair died last April. He was 77 and had suffered a serious stroke. The mass was celebrated in St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church in Broad Cove, Cape Breton. I miss him terribly.

His last work is called Remembrance; and this month, it has been re-issued in a splendid little book by McClelland and Stewart. Remembrance tells the story of three men, three Cape Bretoners, all called David MacDonald. The elder, knowing it will be his last Remembrance Day ceremony, waits for his son and grandson. His mind wanders back to the day he joined up in 1942 when he was 21 and newly married.

The story weaves his experiences of war and its aftermath together in a startling way. It’s a story that makes you sit up straight and take notice; it’s not maudlin or sentimental. And although Alistair says none of the MacDonald characters is based on his father, there are similarities. “My father went to war when he was 17,” he told a reporter, “and he wasn’t full of patriotic zeal, he was just kind of starving.” The book is only 47 pages long but it is a small, brightly polished gem. It is published to coincide with Remembrance Day.

The last time I talked to Alistair was in Moncton a couple of years ago. After our public appearance together, we repaired to his hotel room, along with his son Alexander, also a wonderful teacher and short story writer. We broke open a bottle of single malt, probably Talisker. We talked of many things, of art and writing and death and Irish wakes and the tunes of glory and the songs of the Island. It was for me, a magic couple of hours.

I don’t usually wear a poppy in November. I throw some money into the vet’s tin can but I am uncomfortable with the outward demonstration of remembrance. I’m not keen seeing everybody on television wearing one, for instance. Don’t know why. Perhaps because the First World War destroyed the lives of three of my uncles. I also think the membrane between remembrance and glorification is very thin.

But on Tuesday, I think I will wear a poppy. For the two soldiers murdered in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu last month.

For all the soldiers killed anywhere, any time.

And for Alistair.”

Listen to the recording here and to read more about the story, Remembrance, click on the cover image shown above.

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As did many Canadians today, I attended a Remembrance Day service during which prayers, poems, and poignant stories were shared in honour of those who’d served and sacrificed. This Thomas Hardy poem was recited and keenly captures the wry reality of conflict.

 

The Man He Killed by Thomas Hardy

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because—
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like—just as I—
Was out of work—had sold his traps—
No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.

- See more at: http://allpoetry.com/The-Man-He-Killed#sthash.RMnyGtbD.dpuf

Three to Bookmark

September 24, 2014

Three favourite authors are set to release new books and I am taking note. Looking out at the first truly rainy day in some time, it seems like a perfect time to sink into a cozy chair and settle in with some of the great Fall releases hitting the shelves. Let us know what you’re looking forward to reading!

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I enjoyed this one ….                       so am looking forward to this one.

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I enjoyed this one ….                     so am looking forward to this one.

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I enjoyed this one ….                       so am looking forward to this one.

Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code

September 14, 2014

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In a week with headlines dominated by misbehaviour and wavering values, it seemed like a good time to think back on some solid sense. Gene Autry would be celebrating his 107th birthday in a week’s time but I think his code is still relevant today.

 

 

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I’ve rarely been accused of being a trend setter but I feel I’ve sniffed a whiff of one recently. Back-to-School season, wherein we all crave a new pack o’ pencils, seems the most appropriate time to roll it out to you.

Beginning in France, and moving swiftly to the UK, has been news of a super solution to stress. It strikes me as a bit of an old-school fix but I like it! Colouring. Yes, colouring. Not the kiddie version, something a bit more intricate and therefore consuming, keeping one’s attention focused and settled into a peaceful, calm state. Remember Doodle Art? This is Doodle Art on steroids. Sales of amped up colouring books are moving from shelves rapidly now that “Anti-Stress” and “Therapeutic” have been added to a number of the covers, in some cases beginning to out-sell cook books.

(Here is a link to an interesting background article in The Telegraph.)

One of the most lovely colouring books on the market, and intended for adults, is created by Brit, Johanna Basford. She calls herself an illustrator and “ink evangelist”. Her work is absolutely wonderful and indeed inspires one to seek out his or her favourite colours and set to colouring between the lines. Her “Inky Treasure Hunt” titled Secret Garden is a trove of detailed images just pleading for your penmanship.

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This looks like such a lovely way to pass the time, and more importantly in my opinion, a great way to escape our technological ties. Tackle tweeters in this garden with a magic marker rather than a keyboard. Here’s a sample page from within and click here to see a gallery of pages shared by proud pencilers.

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Wouldn’t you love to perch upon one of these literarily-themed benches? If you’re visiting London, England this summer you can indeed take a seat.  In fact, you’ll have a choice from among fifty benches positioned throughout the city. The benches will be auctioned off for the benefit of the National Literacy Trust in October 2014. This special event was planned to “celebrate reading for enjoyment” and, in so doing, also show off some of the wonderful artistic talent and strong literary heritage of the city. To read more about this endeavour and to get a glimpse of all the benches, click here. I think visiting the benches in person or even just pictorially will inspire us all to pick up an old, favourite read. Have you been able to guess the titles represented above?

Four different Books About Town Book Bench trails have been established: The Bloomsbury, The City, Greenwich, and Riverside. Relevant literary works in bench form have been positioned along each path. If you would like to vicariously travel a route, then visit one of the map pages.

Souvenir posters are also available for purchase through the travel map and bookstore, Stanford’s:

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Zoot and Sandy

July 10, 2014

I always love making a special discovery and then being able to share it with all of you. I am particularly charmed by this find and hope you will be too. Zoot and Sandy are the lovely critters you see perched so amiably next to one another in the image below. Their creator, one Bobby Stevenson, writes beautifully evocative prose and poetry in a creative writing forum called ReadWave (another new discovery!)

And so, allow me to introduce to you, Zoot and Sandy and The Universe.

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Sandy the elephant and Zoot the dog were, without doubt, the best of pals in the whole wide world. They loved to sit by the river and watch time floating passed (sic) their little seat.

“Looks like another great day,” said Zoot.

“It’s always a great day,” agreed Sandy. “Tell me something pal, what do you see when you look in the mirror?” Asked the elephant.

“Usually I notice that the paint in the wall behind me needs painting, that’s what I see. To be honest it annoys me,” said the dog.

“Anything else?” Asked Sandy in a real curious manner as elephants tended to do.

“Well I see me.”

“Aha!” Shouted Sandy.

“What? What have I said?” Questioned the dog, feeling as if he must have put his paw in it once again.

“You see what you think is yourself. What your brain tells you to see.”

“So you’re saying, that I ain’t a dog?” Asked Zoot.

“Of course you’re a dog, Zoot and if you don’t mind me saying, the best dog I’ve ever met. But you don’t see what I see.”

“Cause you see an elephant when you look in your mirror,” said Zoot smugly.

“I grant you that point, but when I look at you, I see you through an elephant’s brain and it won’t be what you see through a dog’s brain.”

“Is there a point to all of this?” Asked a perplexed Zoot.

“I’m just saying that we judge folks on what we see, and we sometimes think that they are wrong when all the time it’s just the way our brain is warping everything that makes us see them differently.”

“So we don’t really stand a chance at being fair, is that what you’re saying Sandy?”

“I’m just saying that you have to make allowances. I make allowances for you being a dog, just as you make allowances for me being perfect,” said Sandy with the biggest elephant grin.

“Oh I make allowances for you, that’s for sure,” said Zoot.

“Meaning what?” Asked a curious elephant.

“Meaning that you are much bigger than me and sometimes when you sit on the bench real hard, I shoot up several feet. Twice I’ve landed in the sea.”

“And I make allowances for you, Zoot when you get in to one of those ‘chasing your tail’ things.”

“I do it because it’s fun, Sandy.”

“Exactly Zoot. You see a wild thing that needs to be chased and I just see a dog’s tail. Beautiful as it is. No one sees the universe the same. Some people look at those birds and wonder where they’re headed. Some look at them and wonder what they’d taste like with some potatoes and some just look at them in wonder.”

“So what do we do, Sandy?”

“We make allowances for everyone and everything.”

And with that Zoot and Sandy just stared at the universe and saw different things.”

~ Written by Bobby Stevenson

If you want to spend a little more time with these pals you can read about Zoot and Sandy discussing Happiness here.

 

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“I love that Canadians love books, and that we boast a disproportionate number of outstanding authors. I’ve had the privilege of hosting CBC’s Canada Reads for the past seven years. It’s a celebration and discovery of homegrown lit. Last year, an American observer wrote, “Let me get this straight: In Canada they have a hit reality show … and it’s about books?! Wow.” I loved reading that. Pride. “ – Jian Ghomeshi, Broadcaster. Quoted in Canadian Living magazine, July 2014

Have you ever tuned into the above mentioned Canada Reads show on CBC Radio? I’ve followed along in the last few years and enjoy the lively format of a notable Canadian devotedly defending his or her literary favourite with a panel of fellow debaters. The discussions among panel members are often funny, even feisty, and always entertaining. It’s been proven that the final selections and the winning choice enjoy an enormous surge in sales following the show. The past seasons’ winners are listed on the website and it is worth a perusal if you’re new to the program. Tune in to Jian Ghomeshi on Q on CBC in early September to learn how the 2015 season will unfold.

Sticking with a CBC/Canada theme … CBC Radio has compiled a Canada Day themed list:  “100 Novels That Make You Proud to Be Canadian” I found myself impressed by the list itself – such a great collection of books – but, even more impressive, is the fact that all the authors are Canadian. Click on the red banner below to be taken to the page showing all 100 novels. I’ve included a few of the titles I’ve read below as a little teaser … How many have you read?

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book-u6-a183-b207-r423 419 by Will Ferguson Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards The Birth House by Ami McKay Annabel by Kathleen Winterfallonyuorknees-books100latenightsonair-Books100cellistofsarajevo-books100secretdaughter-books100lifeofpi-books100room-books100thebestlaidplans-books100

Happy Canada Day and Happy Reading Canadian!

Sarah Jio is a writer from the Seattle area who is enjoying considerable success with her novels: The Violets of March, Blackberry Winter, The Bungalow, The Last Camellia, and Morning Glory to date and more on the way. Book clubs seem to be particularly fond of her creative, multi-generational story lines, often set in the Pacific Northwest. I have read Morning Glory which takes place in a floating home community and look forward to making my way through her other tales.

In her recently released Goodnight June, Sarah has explored generational connections through a beloved classic children’s book and it’s sure to be a favourite of book and bookshop lovers. The back cover blurb states: “June Andersen is professionally successful, but her personal life is marred by unhappiness. Unexpectedly, she is called to settle her great-aunt Ruby’s estate and determine the fate of Bluebird Books, the children’s bookstore Ruby founded in the 1940s. Amidst the store’s papers, June stumbles upon letters between her great-aunt and the late Margaret Wise Brown — and steps into the pages of American literature.”

I’ve only read the Author’s Note and I’ve already learned all sorts of intriguing trivia. So if you feel like a nostalgic trip to the Green Room and an imaginary visit into the world of books, writers, letters, and bookshops, this may be your next cozy read. I know I’m looking forward to it!

goodnight-june-cover-final Goodnightmoon

Summer Reading

May 31, 2014

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In my opinion, the best reading list, summer or otherwise, offers up a good variety of themes and places to visit, intriguing characters with whom to visit, and challenges to the imagination. An opportunity to come away from the experience having learned something new or having enjoyed a few belly laughs along the way is certainly a bonus.  And so, with these parameters in mind, here is a list of books I think are worthy of accompanying you on your summer adventures. I will be choosing from among these titles as I toodle to the deck chair or beach blanket or ferry line. Most are paperback though a few exceptionally well-reviewed new hard covers have made the cut. (Click on above covers for links)

The Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee

Have had this on my shelf for a while. Summer seems the best time to tuck into its pages as its description reads: “a young woman in turn-of-the-century England finds love and independence at a seashore resort.” Light perhaps but engaging view of the times.

The Storied LIfe of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

An enormously popular book with all reviewers. Features a grumpy book shop owner and his emergence into a fresh new approach to life motivated by the arrival of a mysterious package. A charming community of characters and a devotion to books are at play. Count me in!

I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crossley

Released in 2008, this has been on my list to explore for a while. A book of short humorous essays seems like a good choice during the summer and these promise to be entertaining.

The Ghost Horse: A True Story of Love, Death, and Redemption by Joe Layden

This might not be for everyone but I’m already loading the beach bag with tissues in anticipation of this true tale of an underdog filly and her trainer/owner. You’ll find the book in the Sports section under Horse-racing but it is a love story too as the trainer finds a connection with his beloved late wife through time spent with the horse.

Studio Saint Ex by Ania Szado

We’ve talked before about the delicious genre of historical fiction and the fictionalized memoir. Loving Frank by Nancy Horan about Frank Lloyd Wright is perhaps one of the most popular in recent times. Studio Saint Ex is a novel that brings to life Le Petit Prince/The Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Writer Lawrence Hill (The Book of Negroes) sums up perfectly: “Studio Saint-Ex is an unputdownable novel about twentieth century fashion, French expatriates in Manhattan during World War II, the miracle of creative genius and the lives of the great writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery and the women he loved.”

The List of My Desires by Gregoire Delacourt (also titled My Wish List)

Translated from a very well loved French edition … just a wee book to sneak in between the long ones. Have you ever played the “If I Won the Lottery …” game? This heartwarming novel takes the dream to a new level in one simple woman’s life with thought provoking results.

North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both by Cea Sunrise Person

A memoir of an entirely unique upbringing and how it influenced a young woman’s choices in her adult life. Cea Sunrise Person grew up in remote Northern Alberta with her hippy family devoted to escaping civilization. Her life was unorthodox and highlighted as even more so when Cea became a model at the age of 13. Quite a ride and quite a tale.

Love, Nina – A Nanny Writes Home by Nina Stibbe

If you love London, British humour, and a dash of Brit Lit gossip … I read the review in the NYT and knew it would have to be on the list. Nina Stibbe heads to London to serve as a Nanny and finds herself working for a prominent literary figure and her family. During her time there she writes to her sister of her adventures and the real-life characters who spend time with the household, many of them well-known. Her letters are hysterically funny and were only shared with the family and friends much later on at a party. They were such a hit that, with the family’s blessing, they have become this cheeky book.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

A modern take on things … Recommended to me by BTB blog reader AM who warned this story makes one think twice about the way we use social media. Prolific writer Dave Eggers writes of an optimistic young woman who gives up her private life to work at a company called the Circle. Promises to be a bit provocative.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

The one book which appears on almost every single Summer/Beach Reading list this season. Opening the cool as a cucumber cover (still in hardback) reveals an account of a family heading on vacation to Mallorca, Spain. They’re bringing lots of baggage, if you catch my drift , and with apparent heartwarming humour sort through the drama over the course of the holiday. Leading best seller lists everywhere.

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

Newly in paperback, this novel seems to rest comfortably on the fluffy chick-lit shelf (not that that’s a bad thing) however, I’m quite intrigued by the real life source of the story. J. Courtney Sullivan has researched the life of  Mary Frances Gerety, the copywriter responsible for creating the advertising tag-line “a diamond is forever” for De Beers in the 1940s. Using Mary Frances as inspiration this story explores the lives of a number of women through various decades and social and personal challenges during the twentieth century. A diamond engagement ring links the characters and each plot strand together.

I am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum

A good stream of humour apparently flows through this novel about an artist and his desire to re-ignite his marriage following his wife’s discovery of his wayward ways. Almost every review of this book comments on the humour and the poignancy of this tale and, of particular note, declares this author one to keep an eye on.

 

So there it is. Let us know what selections you make this summer and be sure to share any others you’re reading and loving. A special hello to Janice who when I met her recently for the first time, (You’re the Blog lady!) told me of her commitment to reading every book on last year’s Summer list. Impressive!

Happy reading, one and all!

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