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The Never-Ending Present

5 Apr

One of the best things I didn’t get in Denver was a copy of this book, The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip by Michael Barclay.

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I was pleased to see that the publisher, ECW Press, a small publishing company out of Toronto, had a booth in the exhibit hall. I made my way over and had a nice conversation with Amy, who told me that she had no ARCs, but could send me one. Yeah!

I received the ARC a few weeks later. I came back with a pile of ARCs, finally finished made it to this one. It was worth the wait!

Publisher’s Summary: In the summer of 2016, more than a third of Canadians tuned in to watch what was likely the Tragically Hip’s final performance, broadcast from their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. Why? Because these five men were always more than just a band. They sold millions of records and defined a generation of Canadian rock music. But they were also a tabula rasa onto which fans could project their own ideas: of performance, of poetry, of history, of Canada itself.

In the first print biography of the Tragically Hip, Michael Barclay talks to dozens of the band’s peers and friends about not just the Hip’s music but about the opening bands, the American albatross, the band’s role in Canadian culture, and Gord Downie’s role in reconciliation with Indigenous people. When Downie announced he had terminal cancer and decided to take the Hip on the road one more time, the tour became another Terry Fox moment; this time, Canadians got to witness an embattled hero reach the finish line.

This is a book not just for fans of the band: it’s for anyone interested in how culture can spark national conversations.

When I first heard about the book, I expected it to be a straightforward band bio. On the page before the Prologue, however,  the author tells readers that the book is a documentary combining a chronological history of the band, thematic reflections on the band’s work and influence, a description of Gord Downie’s work that lead to The Secret Path, and a collection of impressions by friends and fans from The Hip’s early days through the final concert in Kingston. Barclay also tells readers that you can read chapters in isolation or out of order. Although I read the book sequentially, I can see that this is completely possible. It would be a great way to reread the book.

I have to admit that I read much of the book with my computer parked on YouTube, searching up bands and songs from the 80s and 90s. Many names were part of my youth and young adulthood, but I needed reminders of who they were or what songs were on that album. The first half of the book was a wonderful stroll down memory lane.  I am the same age as most of the band members so many of the bands they listened to were ones I heard. And many Canadian artists who began in the music industry at the same time as The Tragically Hip  were on the radio when I was in college and starting my career. For the most part, I loved this. Occasionally, it seemed like there was a lot of name dropping and info about the music business that only real music aficionados would appreciate, but it never lasted long. I could have skipped those chapters ( per the author’s forward) but found something new and interesting, even where I felt the book bogged down for me.

I don’t claim to be a huge fan of The Tragically Hip. I had two cassettes in the 90s (Up to Here and Road Apples) and brought both of them with me when I went to Colombia. Living on the west coast if the US for the last 20 years, I hadn’t paid them much more attention until the news of Downie’s terminal diagnosis became public along with the final tour dates. I watched the concert in Kingston and felt really connected to Canada and Canadian culture.

I found a couple of aspects of the book fascinating. First, although many people connect to the “Canada’s Band” mythos, Barclay brings in many voices that counter that narrative. I actually appreciate that. I grew up in small town Ontario and I know that this is not the experience of many, if not most, Canadians.

Secondly, this wasn’t just an uncritical homage to the band. Barclay, and the people he interviewed for the book (or for articles he’d published previously) are not mere band sycophants. Chapter 15 “A Heart-Warming Moment for Literature”  talks about Gord Downie as a poet. There are voices that argue that Downie is Canada’s greatest poet. There are voices that argue that Downie is no poet at all. It is this sort of discourse, which occurs throughout the book, that gets me so jazzed about the book.

If you are in the GTA, there is a book release party at the Horseshoe Tavern tonight (April 5th) and another in Lindsay on Saturday. Details can be found here.

 

 

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Last book of 2017

31 Dec

You’d think I would end the year with a happy book. I didn’t, but The Marrow Thieves,  by Cherie Dimaline was really good.

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Publisher’s Summary: Humanity has nearly destroyed its world through global warming, but now an even greater evil lurks. The indigenous people of North America are being hunted and harvested for their bone marrow, which carries the key to recovering something the rest of the population has lost: the ability to dream. In this dark world, Frenchie and his companions struggle to survive as they make their way up north to the old lands. For now, survival means staying hidden – but what they don’t know is that one of them holds the secret to defeating the marrow thieves.

That description doesn’t really indicate the power of the writing. Main characters’ back stories are told in “coming to” chapters. Storytelling is woven in. And Dimaline creates a Canadian wilderness impacted by global warming that seems terrifyingly probable.

The book is full of loss and sacrifice, but the beautifully lyrical language of the book makes it worth reading.

The magic of moonlight

17 Dec

I love this time of year – so dark, but lights everywhere and glittering trees in many windows. It all seemed so magical as a kid. As an adult, it warms my heart and makes me nostalgic.

Here is a lovely book that evoked the same feeling.

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Publisher’s Summary:  In this atmospheric story, a group of kids play hockey on a frozen lake by moonlight. At once nostalgic and timely, this is a gorgeous book that will speak to readers young and old.

100 Years Ago Today

6 Dec

One hundred years ago today, Halifax was rocked by a terrible explosion of a munitions ship that was bound for the war in Europe.  You can read this article from the CBC for more details.

Here is a list of some of my favourite Canadian books on the event.

Juvenile Fiction

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No Safe Harbour: The Halifax Explosion Diary of Charlotte Blackburn by Julie Lawson

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Penelope: Terror in the Harbour by Sharon E. MacKay
Juvenile/Teen Nonfiction
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Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917 by Sally M. Walker
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Barometer Rising  by Hugh MacLennan
Adult Nonfiction
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The Halifax Explosion: Canada’s Worst Disaster by Ken Cuthbertson

My Canadian Week

23 Oct

I had a sad moment last week. I was sitting in a conference room with seven other 6th grade teachers and I realized I was the only one who knew, and cared, that Gord Downie, lead singer of the Canadian band The Tragically Hip, had died.

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I don’t feel foreign very often, but I did that day. I felt a little alone in that room.

Later in the week, while reading That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston, I felt like I had insider information.

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Much of the story is set in Muskoka, where my sister has lived for almost 30 years. I laughed out loud at parts that American readers will not see as funny. I felt smugly superior, even though I was home alone. You don’t need a Canadian background to find the book witty and engaging. You simply get to enjoy it at an even deeper level, if you are.

Publisher’s Summary: Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the empire, a direct descendent of Victoria I, the queen who changed the course of history. The imperial tradition of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage. But before she does her duty, she’ll have one summer of freedom and privacy in a far corner of empire. Posing as a commoner in Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir to a powerful shipping firm currently besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and romantic country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an extraordinary bond and maybe a one-in-a-million chance to have what they want and to change the world in the process.

Set in a near-future world where the British Empire was preserved not by the cost of blood and theft but by the effort of repatriation and promises kept, That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a surprising, romantic, and thought-provoking story of love, duty, and the small moments that can change people and the world.

 

Big Mothers

21 Aug

No, not the eclipse. I will write about that tomorrow.

Today is a tale of two books, each with a character named Big Mother, each written by a Canadian woman.

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The Big Mother of Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a singer in pre-revolutionary China is truly named Big Mother Knife. Not a main character, she is the mother and grandmother of two of the main characters, Sparrow and Ai Ming, Sparrow’s daughter.

Publisher’s Summary: Madeleine Thien’s new novel is breathtaking in scope and ambition even as it is hauntingly intimate. With the ease and skill of a master storyteller, Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations–those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in one of the most important political moments of the past century. With exquisite writing sharpened by a surprising vein of wit and sly humour, Thien has crafted unforgettable characters who are by turns flinty and headstrong, dreamy and tender, foolish and wise.
At the centre of this epic tale, as capacious and mysterious as life itself, are enigmatic Sparrow, a genius composer who wishes desperately to create music yet can find truth only in silence; his mother and aunt, Big Mother Knife and Swirl, survivors with captivating singing voices and an unbreakable bond; Sparrow’s ethereal cousin Zhuli, daughter of Swirl and storyteller Wen the Dreamer, who as a child witnesses the denunciation of her parents and as a young woman becomes the target of denunciations herself; and headstrong, talented Kai, best friend of Sparrow and Zhuli, and a determinedly successful musician who is a virtuoso at masking his true self until the day he can hide no longer. Here, too, is Kai’s daughter, the ever-questioning mathematician Marie, who pieces together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking a fragile meaning in the layers of their collective story.
With maturity and sophistication, humour and beauty, a huge heart and impressive understanding, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once beautifully intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of daily life inside China, yet transcendent in its universality.

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The Big Mother of Claire Cameron’s The Last Neanderthal is the matriarch of a failing Neanderthal clan, and the mother of the main character, Girl.

Publisher’s Summary: Forty thousand years in the past, the last family of Neanderthals roams the earth. After a crushingly hard winter, their numbers are low, but Girl, the oldest daughter, is just coming of age and her family is determined to travel to the annual meeting place and find her a mate.

But the unforgiving landscape takes its toll, and Girl is left alone to care for Runt, a foundling of unknown origin. As Girl and Runt face the coming winter storms, Girl realizes she has one final chance to save her people, even if it means sacrificing part of herself.

In the modern day, archaeologist Rosamund Gale works well into her pregnancy, racing to excavate newly found Neanderthal artifacts before her baby comes. Linked across the ages by the shared experience of early motherhood, both stories examine the often taboo corners of women’s lives.

Haunting, suspenseful, and profoundly moving, THE LAST NEANDERTHAL asks us to reconsider all we think we know about what it means to be human.

These were probably the two best adult books I read this summer.

 

Thinking about home

3 Jul

Because July 1st fell on Saturday, today is a statutory holiday for Canadians, giving most a long weekend, the first of summer.

Since today is an extension of Canada Day, I want to talk about my favorite Canadian picture book of 2017.

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Publisher’s Summary: A young boy wakes up to the sound of the sea, visits his grandfather’s grave after lunch and comes home to a simple family dinner with his family, but all the while his mind strays to his father digging for coal deep down under the sea. Stunning illustrations by Sydney Smith, the award-winning illustrator of Sidewalk Flowers, show the striking contrast between a sparkling seaside day and the darkness underground where the miners dig.

With curriculum connections to communities and the history of mining, this beautifully understated and haunting story brings a piece of Canadian history to life. The ever-present ocean and inevitable pattern of life in a Cape Breton mining town will enthrall children and move adult readers.

Why do I love this book?

*Sydney Smith’s beautiful illustrations.

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Good illustrations add a depth to the text and Smith’s do just that. The simplicity and openness of the young narrator’s life is contrasted beautifully with that of his father, a coal miner.

*Joanne Schwartz’s text is spare but evocative. The repetition of  “it goes like this—” invites the reader along for the journey in the life of this boy, this family, this town.

Although young readers’ lives might be very different from the narrator’s, Town Is By The Sea invites its readers to reflect on the pace, rhythm and events of their daily lives.

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