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Issue Two of The Humber Literary Review is Coming Soon!

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Talking to Krista Foss About Her First Novel, Smoke River

Read the full interview here, at The Humber Literary Review.

I met with Krista Foss on an overcast day in early May 2014 at one of her favourite spots to write, the Mulberry Street Coffee House in downtown Hamilton. Over cappuccinos and date muffins, we discussed her forthcoming first novel, Smoke River, the importance of story in the struggle for identity, what she’s reading, and her plans for what comes next.

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HLR: The story in Smoke River closely resembles the Grand River land dispute in Caledonia that erupted in 2006. What made you decide to tell the story of this ongoing dispute?

KF: While the novel is inspired by conflicts such as Caledonia, it’s not a re-telling of those stories; it’s fictionalized account of a land dispute. Many things drew me to the subject matter. To start with, I have a grandfather who is part Native. He never spoke about his roots because he internalized the racism of the time, and was actually in great fear of that part of his heritage being discovered. My mom was proud of this ancestry. She would tell us five kids, who all ended up looking like my dad – a six foot, cheese-eating, skiing, sweater-wearing immigrant from Norway– that it was part of our heritage, too, though there was very little she could tell us. So there was a disconnect for us.

Thematically, that fascinated me. Experientially, I haven’t lived through marginalization, isolation or racism, but I have some understanding of an identity denied, of a history denied, and as a writer I find this compelling. I knew that that struggle for identity would inform the characters in the book.

I was also influenced by my experiences as a reporter based in Winnipeg covering stories Manitoba and Saskatchewan. A few years after I moved back to Hamilton from Winnipeg, the Caledonia conflict began and it reminded me of what happened at Oka and Kanehsatake which I’d followed because my brother was sent there as part of CBC’s TV crew. I remember Alanis Obomsawin’s film, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, as revelatory in terms of seeing the story from the other side of a barricade. So I drew upon actual conflicts and experiences, merged them, compressed timelines, and created a fictional story that explores land, memory and identity.

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Posted in Book News and Views, Ideas and Opinions, Writers and Publishers.


A Sister’s Sorrow

allmypunysorrows-cover-200One of my most recent reviews for Quill & Quire was of Miriam Toews’ illuminated novel, All My Puny Sorrows. Like her previous books, this one deals with mental illness, suicide, and the bonds of familial love. Toews tells the story of two sisters, much like in A Complicated Kindness, who hail from a Mennonite community. Yoli is a writer living in Toronto and struggling to define herself and her right work; Elf is a world-class pianist with a seemingly charmed existence. The truth is much darker. Elf is inexplicably desperate to die and wants Yoli to help her do it.

Anyone familiar with Toews’ biography knows that she lost her own sister Marjorie in 2010 to unassisted suicide. Marjorie had also asked the unthinkable of Miriam, so All My Puny Sorrows is deeply concerned, in a remarkably nonjudgmental way, with how a devoted sibling responds to such a request, torn between wanting her sister to live and understanding why she can’t. All My Puny Sorrows does not have the quirky humour of A Complicated Kindness; it reads as a sadder but wiser grown-up version of the story of Nomi and Tash.

All My Puny Sorrows is deservedly receiving an abundance of critical attention and accolades (Jared Bland’s review for The Globe and Mail is especially lovely), and no doubt will continue to garner such positive reader response. A few hundred words is just not enough to convey the magnitude of Toews’ accomplishment with this novel, but here is my offering:

The choice to die and the shame associated with suicide are at the thematic heart of Miriam Toews’s stunning sixth novel. This is not unexpected, given that the author herself has been touched by suicide (Toews’s father and sister both took their own lives), and that she has written several books involving characters in the Mennonite community struggling with mental illness.

All My Puny Sorrows focuses on Yoli, a writer who travels from Toronto to the Winnipeg bedside of her older sister, Elf, who has attempted, not for the first time, to kill herself. Yoli is dealing with an impending divorce, a faltering career, a tendency toward promiscuity, and the lingering self-loathing brought on by her Mennonite upbringing. Elf’s life, by contrast, is seemingly ideal. She is a famous and respected concert pianist, with a beautiful home and an upcoming tour. Behind the facade, however, lies a fathomless and inconsolable sadness, similar to that which gripped the sisters’ father and pushed him to end his life.

Continue reading here

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Posted in Book News and Views, Reviews, Writers and Publishers.


Interviewing Emma Donoghue

Thanks to my friend, Ian Elliot, owner of A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ontario, I am very privileged to be interviewing Emma Donoghue at the book shop on Wednesday April 23, 7 p.m. We’ll be discussing her new novel, Frog Music, published in March of this year.

Donoghue event poster

 

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Posted in Book News and Views, Writers and Publishers.


A Master Storyteller – Corin Raymond’s Bookworm

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Posted in Fun Stuff, Videos.


An Unorthodox Love Story

 

krank-332x500Krank: Love in the New Dark Times

Sarah Sheard

978-1-927079-07-2

September 2012, Seraphim Editions

Gestalt therapist Ainsley Giddings just wants a sabbatical year free of entanglements to write her book. The protagonist of Toronto writer Sarah Sheard’s fourth novel – her first in over a decade – has recently left a difficult and draining all-but-legal ten-year marriage to Dan, “A man in search of compensation for some unmentionable past grievance, a man who fell into bed each night, disappointed with the day.” As a therapist, Ainsley recognizes, if not quite understands, her own troublesome need to rescue and nurture broken men and frequently berates herself for having allowed the demands of her relationship with Dan to override her own activities and projects for years.

Now alone, and having leased a cottage on Toronto’s Ward’s Island for a year to write, Ainsley is attempting to explicate for her readers, from a more contemporary perspective, the practice of Gestalt therapy, developed in the 1940s. Of particular and ultimately personal significance to Ainsley is determining how to explain founder Fritz Perls’s belief that, “The idea of Gestalt therapy is to change paper people into real people.” What does it mean to be a paper person? How does one become real? Ainsley will soon find out.

Continue reading at Brecht Resurrected in Toronto: Sarah Sheard’s Krank.

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A Secret Bookshop

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Keeping Calm Among The Books

 

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Book Art

 

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Saving the Books

popes-bookbinderMy review of David Mason’s The Pope’s Bookbinder published in the September 2013 issue of the Literary Review of Canada:

As many university students majoring in English literature do, I worked in bookstores for a number of years, first at the chains and later in an exceptional and still-thriving independent shop in Burlington, Ontario. Despite the fact that David Mason, one of Canada’s foremost antiquarian booksellers and now author of The Pope’s Bookbinder has declared that “antiquarian booksellers do not really consider new booksellers to be booksellers at all,” but rather “only retailers selling whatever the publishers provide,” my experiences in the new book business put me in contact with many an eccentric bookseller, collector, and reader of the kind Mason describes vividly and in abundance in his thoroughly enjoyable memoir.

Bookmen, as Mason calls them, are a distinct breed with a noble imperative:

I have come to believe that, more important than my or my colleague’s petty concerns or our personal ambitions, the true significance of our work is social, and our main contribution is the salvaging and retention of important artifacts of our civilization.

Dedicated to this notion of the bookseller as preserver of cultural memory, Mason is dismayed by the apparently small number of memoirs written by booksellers – a paucity he laments in a review of Anthony Rota’s 2002 memoir, Books in the Blood: Memoirs of a Fourth Generation Bookseller:

I have always found great irony in this melancholy fact: that in a trade whose raison d’être is focused on the rescue and preservation of the past, significant members have not seen fit to record the anecdotal history of their own personal past.

It is with this lofty vision of the crusading bookseller that Mason has, in effect, taken up his own challenge to provide the world with just such an anecdotal history of his apprenticeship and early years in the book trade, his successes and failures as his business expanded, and the many relationships he has formed over forty years, both positive and not, with fellow booksellers, scouts, customers, librarians, employees, scholars, and institutions. The result is an illuminating account of one man’s admirable efforts to create something in his life that is meaningful, beautiful, and lasting, and to explain his decisions and actions to those –most poignantly his deceased father – who have doubted him. Indeed, at heart this book reads as a son’s attempt to justify to his disapproving father, a banker, his choice of an admittedly not-very-profitable vocation: “My father was a good man; he meant well; he just didn’t understand.”

The memoir’s title, intriguing though it is, relates only to a small aspect of the book and to a brief period in Mason’s early life when he trained and worked as a bookbinder in Spain, eventually assisting in the fulfillment of a commission from the Vatican. While an amusing anecdote, the story of the work he did for the Pope highlights a more important point: bookbinding provided an entry point for Mason to the book trade, first as a seller of new books and then used and rare. At the age of almost thirty with no formal education or serious work experience, and having spent most of his twenties hitch-hiking around parts of Europe, dirt-poor and aimless, Mason had finally found an occupation that captured his interest and challenged his intelligence. That he wasn’t making a lot of money was irrelevant given what he viewed as his tremendous fortune at discovering bookselling as a genuine vocation, and not just a job.

Among several philosophical digressions in The Pope’s Bookbinder (including his debatable assertion that one can’t be successful in any book-related enterprise if one is not a committed collector of books), perhaps one of the most sincere is Mason’s determination to resist conformity, to not be distracted from his true calling by the “inducements and temptations which seem to offer high rewards.” Having witnessed acquaintances in the book world succumb to the rewards of more money, authority, security, or prestige, Mason declares, “A man with a true vocation must guard the integrity of that vocation with the same zeal that he affords to his family or his country. There can be no compromises of one’s truth, just as one can’t be a sometime patriot.”

Not one to mince words, Mason clearly has little patience for anyone who does not live up to his high bookmen standards, as evidenced by his description of the fallout he had with Steven Temple, a longtime friend and fellow Toronto bookseller. According to Mason, Temple violated “one of the strongest unwritten rules of the book trade” when he attempted to profit on an exclusive agreement between Mason and the National Library of Canada to supply the library with Canadian editions of books by foreign authors – Mason’s specialty.

Temple’s betrayal was compounded by the response of the library officials claiming that there had never been an exclusive agreement; Mason takes the opportunity in this example to illustrate his extreme distaste for government bureaucrats who do not understand or care about books, and excoriates the dubious actions of the National Library:

They lost my respect and they also lost the moral loyalty I have adopted towards all my clients. Now collectors and other libraries get first shot at the important rarities I scout out – the National Library comes last. Not that it matters much now, for what is now merged into one huge bureaucratic morass called Library and Archives Canada buys nothing. They are collectively denying the moral imperative all sovereign nations have to preserve the written and oral record of their history. They are dissembling in the manner of all shadowy bureaucrats everywhere, and they are apparently engaged in sinister plots to ignore their mandate.

Mason’s mandate, he makes clear, is to ensure the preservation of the past for the future by educating younger booksellers, just as his own beloved mentor Jerry Sherlock of Joseph Patrick Books did. In some of the more instructive chapters of the memoir, Mason offers advice to those in the trade on such matters as the art of scouting for books, appraising collections, and successfully bidding at auctions. “Buy what you like,” he offers, and “Follow your own instincts.” In one amusingly self-congratulatory yet edifying instance, he describes how he outsmarted and outbid a distant cousin of L.M. Montgomery at an auction for a rare edition of her book of poems, The Watchman.

The Pope’s Bookbinder is a rich testament to Mason’s deep love of books and abiding respect for those who share his life’s passion. Immensely appealing to anyone who has warm childhood memories of favourite books and librarians, has worked for minimum wage in bookstores spending most of each paycheque on books, and finds no greater pleasure on a Saturday morning than browsing the shelves of a regular haunt and selecting a new volume, this memoir won’t disappoint. Mason’s sometimes supercilious tone and moments of false modesty can be forgiven in one so devoted to his mission – to worship and spread the good word of the book: “I realize I have worshipped a worthy God all these years, and I am exalted.” Books, “the most perfect invention man has ever created,” saved Mason, as they have many of us, from lives of aimless wandering and self-destructive behavior. Mason, in turn, deserves our respect and appreciation for saving the books.

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Copyright © 2016, Dana Hansen. All rights reserved.