The Boy Who Couldn't Smile

The Boy Who Couldn't Smile
memoir by Dr. Brian Spare

Cover of Ma-nee Chakaby's upcoming memoir

Cover of Ma-nee Chakaby's upcoming memoir

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Summer Reading

1.     Summer reading should be light, some say. The listers recommend flimsy stuff but I believe summer reading should be engrossing, so when, every once in a while, you look up and see the beach or the camp or the lake or the rainy windows on an inside day, you can breathe in the wonder of the northern Ontario summer, sigh with pleasure and drift back into the book.

Here are my picks for engrossing enjoyable summer reads. Some are old and some are not.

1.     This One Summer by brilliant Canadian graphic novelists Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, the creators of Skim, another fine book. A young girl meets up with her friend at the cottage community but the two discover a secret. A coming of age, beautifully drawn, tenderly written.

2.     Wild by Cheryl Strayed. She walked the Pacific Trail and then wrote about it. This book charmed me.  I admired Strayed’s guts, her winning fight against fear, her ability to endure pain and her attitude to her poverty. I also liked her candour when she spoke about her sexual desires and her sexual life. She had little money to use on the trail and mailed forward boxes with a 20$ bill in them, all she could afford.  I missed her once the book was done.

3.     A Room with a View by E.M. Forster. I saw the movie many years ago but the book took my heart. It’s 1912, and young Lucy Honeychurch teeters between dull respectability and authentic living. She is drawn to conventionality but then, in Italy, she meets George Emerson and his iconoclastic father. The characters of her fiancé, Cecil Vyse (deadly dull) and Aunt Charlotte Bartlett (ditto) are marvelous comic inventions. I found so much humour in the writing, almost Jane Austen like, that was omitted from the movie, proving once again that the book is always better.  

4.     Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. In the small Colorado prairie town of Holt, an elderly widow visits her neighbour, also elderly, also alone, and suggests he come over sometimes so they can sleep together. A simple book of love and caring carries you along by the clear and simple language, the descriptions of the natural world, the depth of the characters. Anything by Haruf is worth reading. This was his last novel. He died of cancer soon after it was published.

5.     The King’s Curse by Phillipa Gregory.  For the lover of historicals who will not spurn another visit to the court of Henry VIII. Gregory, an historical master, introduces Margaret Pole, a woman with unfortunate family connections. Henry wants to divorce Queen Katherine in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Margaret Pole is a friend of the queen. The king is portrayed as childish, spoiled, conceited, arrogant and above all lazy, a slacker king who loves to play and party. He would have done well in the 21st century.

6.     Euphoria by Lily King. In the steamy New Guinea jungle, anthropologists Nell Stone (based on Margaret Mead) and her unpleasant husband meet a fellow anthropologist, a lonely and depressed young man (based on Gregory Bateson). It is 1933 and things get steamier as Nell’s brilliant mind and her passionate concern for the local people add up to a multi-layered story of intellectual and physical desire.

7.     Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. A Japanese classic. Written in haiku-like language the story describes a rich, married, and rather feckless man who, from time to time, travels to the mountains to meet the geisha who works at a mountain spa in the snow country. From the start, both the reader and the two lovers know their romance can go nowhere, a fact that gives the book its strange, delicate feeling of sadness.

8.     A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. George’s long time partner has died and George, a professor in LA, is bereft. Over the course of a single day, we meet his neighbours, his students, including the teasing Kenny, a strange young man attracted to George but whether sexually or just as a needy student is not entirely clear, a woman friend in a hospital, a drunken very needy woman friend (based on the poet Iris Tree) who he treats with patient kindness and then a chance meeting with Kenny in a bar which leads to the great swimming scene when he and Kenny go swimming in the ocean. During the single day, Isherwood tracks George’s mood fluctuations, his hatred of the homophobia around him and the difficulties of living in a society saturated with it. George is an alienated man, lonely and lost, but still retains a kindly stance towards the people he encounters.  I have never read Isherwood before but now I am drawn to him.

9.     Rust is a Form of Fire by Joe Fiorito. Standing on the corner, watching all the world go by. That was Joe Fiorito who spend many hours on a busy Toronto street corner observing—just observing. His collection of short observations hypnotized me. You might have to search around for this book which was published this year. Try on line. You won’t regret it.

10.  The Fixer by Joseph Finder. In the summer, many people turn to mystery novels. Joseph Finder is always a good choice. After Rick Hoffman lost both his high paying job and his fiancé, he is reduced to living in the abandoned and dilapidated house belonging to his father who is left speechless after a stroke and who is confined to a nursing home. But why are there three million bucks hidden in the walls of the old place? And why did the father, a lawyer, consort with seedy characters linked to municipal corruption? And what about this gang of thugs who follow him around with murderous intent?

Friday, June 26, 2015

"The Poets Hang On" - Margaret Atwood

The poets hang on.
It’s hard to get rid of them,
though lord knows it’s been tried.
We pass them on the road
standing there with their begging bowls,
an ancient custom.
Nothing in those now
but dried flies and bad pennies.
They stare straight ahead.
Are they dead, or what?
Yet they have the irritating look
of those who know more than we do.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The "Modern Girl" creates quite the discussion

Jane Nicholas reads from her book: The Modern Girl: Feminine Modernities, the Body, and Commodities, in the 1920's. Maybe our grandmothers and great grand mothers were standing by to hear how they changed society by getting jobs, moving to the cities and asserting their independence. They ran into opposition from conservative feminists, the churches, society at large not to mention horrified parents. As author historian Jane Nickolas put it: "with her short skirt, her bobbed hair, her penchant for smoking, drinking, dancing and jazz, the "modern girl" was a fixture of the 1920's consumer culture. She appeared in art, film, fashion and advertising as well as on the streets of the towns from coast to coast."  Nicholas argues that this feminine image was central to the creation of what it meant to be modern and female in Canada.

A lively Q&A followed the reading, with many in the audience at the Northern Womanb's Bookstore recalling stories of their foremothers.  We toasted her in tea, coffee and goodies, before heading out with the book.

Margaret Phillips of the Norther Woman's Bookstore with historian Jane Nicholas.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Amy Jones Novel Picked Up by M&S

Thunder Bay resident Amy Jones' novel, We're All in This Together, will be published at McClelland & Stewart. Amy is a dynamite short story writer and her book of short fiction, What Boys Like, is a great read. Recently Amy has also served as the e-writer in residence in Thunder Bay. Congratulations Amy.

CBC Literary Award winner Amy Jones’s debut novel, We’re All in This Together, has been acquired by Anita Chong at McClelland & Stewart. The two-book deal was arranged by Chris Bucci. The novel is pitched as being in the tradition of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang, and Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You, about a dysfunctional family forced to start acting like a real one when their matriarch survives plummeting over a waterfall in a barrel, a feat captured on a video that goes viral.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Tia Lunn, poet, and winner of Young Adult Writing Competition at the Pride Literary Evening

You and Us and Them

Award winning poem by Tia Lunn. Tia is a grade 11 student at Westgate High School.

You speak like April's wind promises July's.
With your unpredictable hair and star-glazed eyes
I've never met anyone more honest in their idealizations
You've got me believing more unbelievable stories each minute.
Your heart is so big that sometimes I get lost in it
And I hope you don't mind that I've stayed,
Even if sometimes I get cut with the scalpel blade when
They start to dissect you into different parts.
Easier syllables they can swallow through hollow teeth,
Shape your name to fit better in their nervous hearts
Call you "phase" call you "experiment" call you anything but you what you are,
Hoping to sear a scar for when we're older but
I cannot stand anyone trying to melt you into any other mold
No other shape could do justice to your gold.
We're beyond anything that they ever could have thought,
And sweetheart you are so much more than anything you're not.
You are more than sugar and spice and everything nice,
You are crop tops and skirts and button down shirts,
Black boots and eyeliner that matches the colour of my smile
When I tell my friends you can play any instrument,
And you're quick to shout out that's not true,
And it could be I'm wrong
But I swear that you do,
From the sound of the song that you orchestrate in my chest
On the days when I feel like an empty theatre,
You are a million piece band,
The baseline in my pulse moving through me when you take my hand,
And I know you're and artist so I hope you understand,
When I paint my red lips across your face
Let them see the stain, know I'm saving my place.

Amber Dawn at Literary Pride

it's Pride Week in Thunder Bay. Literary Evening tonight and Amber Dawn read us poetry and a selection from her powerful memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Death of a Great Writer

Kent Haruf has died. I believe he was one of the greatest writers or our time.  Haruf wrote about a small town in Colorado called Holt and gave his townspeople such sharp, realistic lives they cannot easily be forgotten. He surrounded his townspeople with the great turns of the seasons, detailing the vast western plains that were central to their inner lives.

It took him twenty years of writing before he was published.

 “If I had learned anything over those years of work and persistence, it was that you had to believe in yourself even when no one else did. And later I often said something like that to my graduate students. You have to believe in yourself despite the evidence. I felt as though I had a little flame of talent, not a big talent, but a little pilot-light-sized flame of talent, and I had to tend to it regularly, religiously, with care and discipline, like a kind of monk or acolyte, and not to ever let the little flame go out,” he wrote.

His final novel, Our Souls at Night, written when he knew he was dying, explores the theme of happiness.  One comment on the Guardian obituary gives good advice to readers just coming to Haruf. Start with the novel Plainsong, and carry on from there. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Making of the Raven's Wing. Kim Erickson talks about creating a CD.

Kim Erickson .

On Saturday, June 13th at 7:30pm in the Unitarian Hall, I will be unveiling my newest cd release, 'The Raven's Wing'.  There will be an opportunity to listen to the project, hear a few words about the songs and the album, and buy a copy to take home. And while you are there, you can support two worthy causes if you like - Stoves for Humla, Nepal and The Underground Gym.  Admission to the event is free and all are welcome. 

This will be my first launch activity for the project, and the first Canadian launch event.  'The Raven's Wing' was already released in the EU on May 11th by my record label for this album, Route 61 Music, who are based in Rome, Italy.  Route 61 will work with me and for me to distribute the cd worldwide.  The project has its wings. 

'The Raven's Wing' is a previously unpublished collection of my own songs - with the exception of Pete Seeger's setting of Ariel's Song from The Tempest, "Full Fathom Five".  A couple of the songs are traditional folk lyrics that I gave fresh musical settings to.  There is a decidedly cohesive flavour to the songs and their treatment in the studio.  And the songs take the listener on a journey of "10,000 Miles", across oceans and landscapes, and into the deep interior of the human heart.  The album is a nod to my mother's North Sea Scottish roots, and is a taking stock and a looking forward to "the time the will come to be."  And that brings me to one of my greatest joys, which is the addition of a backing vocal on one song by my daughters Roisin and Lesya Roberts.

Atwood contributes book to be published in 100 years.

LONDON — The author Margaret Atwood — perhaps best known for her dystopian-future-set novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” — made a further contribution to the fictional future today, handing over a secret manuscript to Oslo’s public library to be published in 2114.
The handoff is the first phase of the Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s “Future Library” project. For the next century one author a year will contribute a new written work to the project. They will be sealed in secrecy by the library until being published 100 years from now on paper made from trees planted in a local forest.
The day’s events began with a public walk from a local train station to the wood near the northern edges of Oslo whose trees were planted for the project. There, Ms. Atwood gave a reading (not from her new work). She handed the secret manuscript to Ms. Paterson who then gave it to a representative of the library. A similar ritual is to take place every year for the next 99 years.
Ms. Atwood announced that her manuscript is named “Scribbler Moon,” but revealed no other details. “She won’t tell anything at all,” Anne Beate Hovind, a project manager for the Future Library project, said in a phone interview. “She’s very, very strict on this. She won’t even talk about the process of writing. No content, no process, no nothing. Nada.”
Ms. Paterson will announce the name of the author who is to contribute next year on Wednesday.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Winner of 2015 International Man Booker Price

László Krasznahorkai, a Hungarian who is often called a "visionary writer," is this year's Winner of the Man Booker International Prize. The prize honours a body of work either written in English or available in English  translation.

His translator George Szirtes has called his prose  a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.”

Chair of Judges, Marina Warner, spoke about Krasznahorkai's novels. “The Melancholy of Resistance, Satantango and Seiobo There Below are magnificent works of deep imagination and complex passions, in which the human comedy verges painfully on transcendence,” said Warner.
“He has two different periods, the earlier one, from the 80s, when he wrote apocalyptic, dark, brooding novels about small towns, small people being destroyed. Then he moved into a luminously beautiful phase, from which we’ve got Seiobo in English. It’s really an extraordinary book.”
Warner called Krasznahorkai’s prose “absolutely stunning”, and a “thrilling” experience to read. “This extraordinary style he has, which people sometimes object to – if you think of it like music, the piece begins, and at first you don’t know where you are, it’s unfamiliar, and then it begins to feel natural, the rhythm keeps puling you along,” she said. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pics from NOWW Awards Party

Jim Foulds Congratualtes  playwright Roy Blomstrom, on his play "Beaches" and actor Norman McDougall.  On right,  writer Marion Agnew.

Sue Blott, triple winner, receives certificate from Deborah deBakker  

Member of Parliament Bruce Hyer (standing) with wife Margaret Wanlin,  Jim Foulds, and poets Doug Livingston and Mary Frost

Cathi Grandfield announces winners of writing contest. Richard Wagamese and Dr. Paul deBakker, in background.

Sharon Irvine, double winner, receives award from Deb deBakker.

Northern Women's Bookstore Table. 

Award winning Writer Susan Rogers with Deb deBakker.

Richard Wagamese signs books with NOWW president, Jane Crossman.

Writer John Pringle, Catherine Anness and Jack Shedden

The Emcee Joan M. Baril

(all photos by Rob Lem. Many thanks)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Short Fiction "Still Life with Baby," Finds a Place after 21 Submissions.

I wrote the story in 2008 and immediately sent it out to “The New Quarterly” Back came a very nice rejection.

A nicely resonant title and story. The tensions are understated but you still feel that the stakes run high in this story. Written with assurance and restraint, it ends with a moment of decision and leaves the reader to play out the consequences. In this case, that’s a strength.

This rejection gave me confidence in the story. Maybe too much confidence, Over the next seven years I sent the story out exactly twenty times, and it was always rejected, sometimes with complimentary notes like the one above. My three writing groups liked it but, alas, no one else did, or not enough.

Meanwhile I kept sending it out. I did so because I thought it was a good story. In fact it was my favourite story. I hoped somewhere, some time, some one would “get it.”  And, at last, on my twenty-first attempt, someone did. 

Here is the note from Paul Carlucci, the judge for the NOWW fiction competition.

Loneliness has its layers. A military spouse in her basement apartment, snow building up against the windows, blocking out the day, and she looks forward to the sounds of the passing ploughs, their flashing lights, and the programs that start on TV in the afternoon, those little connections she gave up when she gave birth.

This bitter-sweet plight of motherhood she has in common with an Englishwoman upstairs, also a military wife, but a braggart, obnoxious, like her destructive twin boys, whose visits are more like invasions.

Still Life studies our increasingly nagging social selves, the compromises we make in the name of isolation, and the surprising exchanges of tenderness we find when we do.

The language is calm, but busy, and the setting is richly drawn, creating an ideal stage for the author to nudge her characters from universal to unique.

On May 7, many years after I wrote the story, “Still Life with Baby” took  first place in fiction in the NOWW contest.  I was overwhelmed.  Whelmed right over.  It will be published in the NOWW magazine.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

What a Party it Was!

Sue Blott, triple winner

Last night at the Prince Arthur, the 17th Annual Northwestern Ontario Writers' Workshop Awards Party rocked with applause for guest speaker and Kouhi Award winner, Richard Wagamese, the players of a ten-minute winning play called Beaches, and the winners of the annual writing contest. 

Congratulations to all the winners. They are:
1. On An Otherwise Ordinary Day, Sue Blott, Thunder Bay
2. The Cruelty of Nearness, Tristan Khan, Toronto
3. Shirts on the Clothesline, Sharon Irvine, Thunder Bay

Young Adult Fiction
1. Roundabout, Sue Blott, Thunder Bay
2. Fashion Show, Roy Blomstrom, Thunder Bay
3. Best Friends Forever, Sue Blott, Thunder Bay

Creative Non-fiction
1. Confession in the Time of Social Media, Susan Rogers, Thunder Bay
2. Out to Lunch, Sharon Irvine, Thunder Bay
3. Ringo, Cindy Matthews, Chesley, ON.

1. Still Life with Baby, Joan Baril, Thunder Bay
2. Connections, John Pringle, Atikokan
3.The Boy Who Wasn't There, Heather L. Dickson, Thunder Bay.

Cathi Grandfield, one of the contest organizers, announced the names of the winners and read short selections from work of first prize winners. 

Stay tuned for more photos, interviews etc.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Joseph Boyden and Richard Wagamese Talk Mental Health

Richard Wagamese and Joseph Boyden at the Victoria Inn May 6.

They talked, laughed, joked, and talked some more. They told us straight what they had suffered, what they had learned.  I was taking notes as fast as I could but often I had to stop because the honesty and wisdom pouring from that stage was carrying me into my own journey.  I think the 400 people in the audience felt it too. 

Wagamese: For years he thought he was crazy, Despite his writing success the emotions were overwhelming. He called it a “tsunami of emotion” and he “would disappear down the rabbit hole.”  He used alcohol to kill the episodes of darkness. Many times he was drunk, unreliable, mean. He had only two feelings, anger and silence.  He was afraid that others would see into him, “see the truth that I thought was me."

But in 2003 his therapist gave his a diagnosis. He learned he had PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome) and this diagnosis really helped him.

Wagamese was born north of Kenora into “a family who were survivors of the residential school system.” It was a “fractured community.” He was taken away  at 18 months old before he could speak and so he had no language to describe the experience, only sights and sounds. He was placed in three foster homes and the last was the worst. He suffered physical, sexual and psychological abuse. For years he was unable to make eye contact with anyone because he believed they would see the shame in his eyes.

When he left that place, he lived on the street. At 24 years old, he was “a mess,” but he could not explain it. The Ojibway elders called him a “disappeared one.” He had no traditional skills and he felt he did not fit in with others. But the elders told him that he was a story teller and helped him learn what that means. The traditional ceremonies helped him too and gave him strength as did therapy.

 He learned to deal with the discomfort, telling himself, “I can deal with this discomfort. I can move beyond it.” He stated that a person is never completely healed and something might hit you even after many good years. “A bit of brokenness can come and snap at you.” 

 Now Richard takes walks and talks out loud to the Creator. Now he writes wonderful novels and now he tells us what he learned. 

Boyden grew up in a large family. He was a withdrawn quiet child who loved to read. He suffered from depression and tried to commit suicide several times.  He worried about ridicule, but he stressed it is important to admit that you are damaged and broken. He even became depressed after winning the Giller Prize. His success was a burden.  He feared he could not continue to write. Now he tries to find youth who may be in danger of suicide and if possible help them. He hopes that his words will touch even one person. Boyden dislikes labels and says that so often, Aboriginal people have been labeled. He spoke about the stigma of talking about your mental health issues. You have to admit you are not perfect, you are not a whole man and parts of you are weak. 

Boyden's story touched me deeply. Like many women, I once suffered from depression. It was almost impossible to admit to it at the time. It took a long time to understand it. I had a tough time taking notes because I was being drawn back into my memories. 

The two writers gave the us, the audience, a wonderful gift of clarity and honesty. Thank you.