Archive for December, 2011

The Diamond Jubilee: The Life and Times of Queen Elizabeth II. A guest post from Mrs. KfC.

December 31, 2011

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

February 6th, 2012 marks the 60th anniversary of the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne of England. With the exception of her ancestor, Queen Victoria, no other monarch has served as long on the throne of the British Empire.

While Queen Victoria occupied the throne for 63 years, she really only reigned for twenty, because as soon as her consort Prince Albert died, she went to ground and spent the rest of her life, fully 40 years, as a pampered and self-indulgent recluse, neglecting her duties as Queen and flaming the always nascent republican sentiment in the land. She was a dour, joyless woman whose only contributions were the naming of an era and populating the thrones of Europe with her progeny. Not a lot of return for the vast amounts of wealth she and her large brood took from the British treasury over her lifetime.

Her great-great grand-daughter is a very different story. Queen Elizabeth was not born to succession and, had history played out differently, she would have been a mere member of the royal family, an interesting cousin to the King, perhaps, and could have chosen her own path in life. When her uncle Edward the Eighth abdicated to marry the twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson, Elizabeth’s father was thrust on to the throne with no preparation or training. He ruled for only sixteen difficult years, including all of World War II, before succumbing to cancer at just 57. His daughter has now been Queen for longer than he was alive.

The story of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign is the story of modern Great Britain. A study of her reign is a study of the evolution of society as expressed through politics, morality, the class system in the UK, and an institution which has always had to adapt or die. While many of the adaptations the monarchy has had to make have been painful, this Queen has been masterful in understanding what needed to be done, and implementing change with care and sensitivity, ensuring that the institution stays relevant as the world inevitably changes.

Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith is a very readable narrative description of the life of Queen Elizabeth. It details her reign from the beginning to now and is really the story of her “job” and her life as told though the events in her life between 1952 and the present day. Because Bedell Smith is an American, she spends much time discussing the Queen’s interactions with various American diplomats, presidents, and luminaries. The author relies heavily on other published works as well as interviews and, while there is nothing new or startling in this book, it will be appealing to American readers who are interested in the quotidian details of the work of the monarch, and her family, and the devotion to duty which is embedded in Queen Elizabeth’s DNA.

Purchased at

Both Ben Pimlott and Sarah Bradford published biographies of the Queen to commemorate her seventieth birthday in 1996, and unlike Bedell Smith’s approach, they both wrote of the life and times of the the Queen. Pimlott’s work is The Queen: A biography of Elizabeth II and Bradford’s is Elizabeth. Each has provide historical and constitutional context for the events surrounding the life of the Monarch and, as both authors have intimate knowledge of the English aristocracy, they provide both insight and color (read gossip) in to the rather arcane world inhabited by the hereditary ruling class, and the implications of their dynastic worldviews. They have both chosen to locate the monarchy within the broader context of the Commonwealth and the world, which is very instructive in understanding the role of this Queen as a global leader, albeit a quiet one. As the monarchy is at the intersection of the military, the political and the aristocratic life of the country, understanding those elements is key to understanding the brilliance of the reign of this Queen.

While both these books are excellent, and highly recommended, there is little to choose between them, as each is organized chronologically, is very well researched and unfailingly interesting.

Purchased at Book Depository

While each of the three biographies above dwells on the important role of Prince Philip, the royal Consort, the recently published Young Prince Philip: His Turbulent Early Years by Philip Eade helps provide insight into this complex and remarkable man who has been at the Queen’s right hand for 64 years. While he started out as a dashing but impoverished Greek emigre with connection to the House of Windsor, he became one of the most influential but unsung men of the last century. His path to this pinnacle was often painful, but he is truly a man of steel, facing adversity head-on, keeping calm and carrying on, and speaking his mind as plainly as you like (much more plainly than many of the courtiers like, actually).

To fully understand and appreciate this remarkable Diamond Jubilee, it is necessary to understand the role Prince Philip has played, and Eade’s book is a look into the circumstances and decisions that shaped the man.


Why Rock The Boat, by William Weintraub

December 26, 2011

Used copy purchased from

As 2011 draws to a close, KfC is going to indulge in some blogging selfishness with this review.

Regular visitors here will know that I am a fan of the newspaper/journalist novel, since that was my wage-earning trade. On a completely different front, reading Clark Blaise’s exceptional story collection, The Meagre Tarmac, earlier this year reminded me how much I have enjoyed the Montreal-based writers of the 1950s and 60s in my reading career. Mordecai Richler is a favorite on this blog (my reviews of Duddy Kravitz and Barney’s Version rank first and sixth respectively on the all-time hits list as this blog approaches its third anniversary). Back in the 1970s, when I had a weekly book column in the Calgary Herald, my favorite author was Hugh Hood — I’ll be revisiting some of his works in 2012. Mavis Gallant, Brian Moore and John Metcalf were all part of that Montreal gang as well; Canadian book publishing was in its infancy, but Montreal had a group of authorial stars that ranked with London and New York.

All of which made chasing down a copy of William Weintraub’s Why Rock The Boat a worthwhile objective. I did not realize until the physical book arrived that 2011 marks the half-centenary of its first publication in 1961. The book is long out of print (allthough Kobo, Sony and Kindle all have an e-version for only $3.99) but a little bit of chasing around the web will produce some reasonably-priced used print copies (and some outrageously-priced ones as well). Weintraub hung out with the group cited above, was a reporter at the Montreal Gazette and Weekend Magazine before getting into book writing and KfC’s memory said Why Rock The Boat was one of the funniest “journo” books that I had ever read. My first reading came before I started my own journalism career in 1968 — would the novel hold up in a reread almost 50 years later?

Yes, it does — although it has to be admitted that the journalistic set pieces (which are what I remember) fare quite a bit better than the central “love story” line. Actually, a fairer assessment would be that the love story line is there only to create an opportunity for the set pieces, so we’ll concentrate on them here.

Harry Barnes is a 19-year-old cub reporter at the Montreal Daily Witness and we meet him on the chilly steps of a Gothic Montreal church, taking down the names of those who are attending the funeral of a local worthy to be published as an addendum to the story on the funeral itself — yes, we were still doing that when I started in the business, since lists of names assured readership not only from those named, but many of their relatives and friends.

It’s no use, you can’t write with gloves on. Putting the notebook and pencil into his mouth, Harry Barnes pulled off the gloves and once again the snowstorm bit into his hands like a salted cat-o’-nine tails. Shuddering, he stuffed the gloves into his overcoat pocket and waited for the two men coming up the steps.

“Your names, please?” he asked.

“H.R. Tapscott,” said one of the men.

“Gordon Enright,” said the other.

It was dangerous, it was cold — but it was exciting. To be only nineteen years old and to actually speak to the great H.R. Tapscott! And who would be next? Eagerly he peered down to the curb, where the big limousines were debouching their passengers and vanishing down the windy whiteness of the street.

Harry figures he will be on the funeral beat long enough that cutting the finger tips out of his gloves so he can keep them on as his compiles his names is a good idea. Already, however, he has promotion in mind — perhaps he can graduate to the “hotel” beat where you tour the hotels to interview prominent guests who are visiting the city (yes, the young KfC did that as well in his early newspaper career). That is, if he doesn’t get laid off first — the Witness is in serious financial trouble and “there was talk of a drastic staff reduction coming up, a bloodbath of an economy wave. Heads were going to roll and right now they were selecting the heads.” That, too, is a very contemporary sentiment — there is not a newsroom in the English-speaking world right now where the Internet, social media and shrinking paid readership are not producing entirely legitimate fears that yet more layoffs (and there have already been many) are inevitable.

Our next assignment with Harry is a luncheon meeting of The Bellringers, named for the massive bell that the president smashes with a silver mallet each time there is a “violation” of the club code by a member that demands a fifty-cent contribution to the Kiddie Kamp Fund. There is much competition among reporters about covering these service club meetings, not because they involve great content but rather they produce a free meal. Every junior reporter could rank the city’s clubs on the basis of meal quality and volume, the free lunch being a perk that significantly extends the meagre salary. (For the record, the Calgary Herald favorite when I started there was the Knights of the Round Table — no bell, no charity, indeed no service, just good leftish talk and even better food.)

The heavy emphasis on service club meetings was in keeping with the principle that what people are most interested in reading about is what they already know. Thus each service club member would want to read the account of the speech he had heard the day before, even though no one else in his right mind would. In this way circulation was built, slowly and laboriously — sixty Bellringers, ninety charity donors, thirty Auxiliary ladies. It all mounted up.

The other Montreal papers occasionally ran stories that were quite absorbing, but the Witness was beyond that. And Witnessmen were proud of the massive boredom their paper was able to achieve; there was a certain grandeur about it that only professionals could fully appreciate.

The exact form might be anachronistic today, but that business strategy has evolved into a modern version. The next time you visit a newspaper website, check out the comments on one of the “lifestyle” stories (or the host of picture “galleries” for reader-submitted photos) — do you really think anybody looks at these, except for the people who submit them for their own brief moment of “fame”?

Why Rock The Boat has a host of set pieces like this (a hotel fire at a nudist convention, the annual journo ski weekend/drunk in the Laurentians, phoney “practice” stories featuring the managing editor in embarrassing circumstances that find their way into print) but I’ll offer just one more. One of Harry’s practice stories (the “corned, loaded and pissed” managing editor has been sentenced for drunk and disorderly conduct) has found its way into the paper. Harry has not been caught — Fred Sullivan, recently demoted to the Religion beat after twenty years on Police, has been deemed the culprit and given his Rockefeller, the Witness newsroom label for severance cheque.

Old Sullivan, Harry realized, would by lying in state at Krasco’s. Lying in state was the term used to describe the traditional three- or four-day drinking marathon staged by Witnessmen to celebrate being fired. It lasted until the Rockefeller was spent and, while it was on, fellow journalists would drop by to commiserate with the bereaved, to suggest new employment possibilities, and to discuss the character of Philip L. Butcher [the managing editor who takes great pleasure in determining the victim/Rockefeller recipients]. Like most civilized mourning customs, lying in state assuaged grief in a sensible way.

(Digression: For visitors here who know Brian Moore’s The Luck of Ginger Coffey, another newspaper novel, those who know the Montreal author community of the time say that the Montreal Gazette’s H.J. Larkin was the model for both Moore and Weintraub’s fictional newspaper editors. Weintraub’s memoir, Getting Started: A Memoir of the 1950s — which I have not read — features a description of Larkin, who actually did fire Weintraub, as well as interviews with most of the Montreal authors mentioned at the start of this review.)

I’ve managed to complete this review without reference to the plot thread that supplies its central theme — a young woman reporter from a rival paper walks into that all-male Bellringer lunch and young Harry falls instantly into infatuation. Okay, it is a very, very slender theme, but, hey, you need some interior structure to create the opportunity for the set pieces.

The newspaper business has certainly mutated over the last 50 years, but if there is one overwhelming impression that this re-read left it is how little has really changed. The nature of the rituals may have evolved, but there are more similarities than differences in what exists today. And I laughed just as hard this time around as I did when I first read Why Rock The Boat before beginning my own newspaper career, a 27-year journey that involved almost every aspect of the editorial side of the business. If you have any fondness at all for newspaper novels, Why Rock The Boat is worth tracking down.

2011 — KfC’s 10 best

December 19, 2011

The 2011 year may have a few days to go yet, but just in case you are looking for a last-minute book to put on your list (or to buy for a friend) or some volumes to purchase with the book tokens or gift cards you know will be under the tree, here’s the top 10 from my reading year.

Unlike many readers who have a comprehensive plan for their reading year, I rarely know more than two or three books ahead what I will be reading, so this annual exercise is always a revelation even to me about what my 12 months of books ended up being. A few observations now that I have made my choices:

— KfC’s 2011 list features far fewer unread or reread classics or older books than normal (eight of the 10 were published in 2011). I hold Adam Mars-Jones at least partially responsible for that (read on to find out why). It was also an unusual year in that it featured the publication of a number of very promising titles early in the year which is normally when a dearth of contemporary titles sends me back into the stacks to pull out some overlooked volumes from previous decades or centuries.

— I had the feeling as the year unfolded that it was an exceptional year for Canadian fiction and this list confirms that. Four titles here are new books by Canadian authors and those four don’t even include the Giller winner, the two Canadian titles that made the Booker shortlist and a number of other Canadian titles from the Giller longlist that were also on the KfC longlist (and all of those are worthy volumes). I have been reading Canadian fiction for almost a half-century now and I can’t recall a year that had so many high quality novels and collections.

— an indication of how dreadful this year’s Booker jury was is that four of my 10 selections were Booker eligible (and that doesn’t even include the eligible titles from Canadian authors) and only one of those four (the eventual winner) made their longlist. It was an exceptional year for U.K. fiction as well — and a very bad year for the Prize to have such a dreadful jury.

— three of my 10 are debut novels, another good sign for readers. I don’t consciously try to read first novels but neither do I avoid them so the fact that three are included is an indication we have much to look forward to in the future.

The list is arranged alphabetically by author; there is no way I would attempt to rank the top 10 because I allow myself the serendipity of putting books on the list based solely on “liking” them and I “like” books for a whole bunch of different reasons, as you will discover. I’ve tried to indicate my “why” with each book — rest assured, I heartily recommend all 10.

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. In a reading year characterized by such a disastrous Booker jury, it is almost embarrassing to see their winner first on my list — but put that down to Barnes’ early appearance in the alphabet. There is no way that this exceptional, 150-page novel could be left off. Tony Webster is in his early 60s, retired from a working career where stablity and security were much more important to him than conventional notions of achievement, and entering the period of contemplating a life lived. The short novel opens with scenes from his school days but picks up dramatic pace when he receives notice of a £500 bequest which also promises the copy of a diary from an old school friend. One of the things that Tony is already thinking about is the difference between shame, guilt and remorse — and the strange bequest sends him off on a search that will bring that difference to life. If you check the comments in my post, you will find that some readers are perplexed by the unresolved confusion of some key elements in the novel: my explanation would be that while some (not all) younger readers may find that troubling, those of us who are of Tony’s age are only too aware of the uncertainty that comes with memory, even memories of important events in our own life. The Sense of an Ending should be regarded as at least a 300-page novel (and maybe 450) — you will want to read it more than once.

The Free World, by David Bezmozgis. The Free World may be David Bezmozgis’ first novel but it is not his first book — indeed, it could be characterized as a prequel to his 2004 story collection, Natasha, which made the Giller shortlist (and which I read pre-blog, so alas no review here). We meet the Krasnansky family on a railroad platform in Vienna in 1978, Jewish refugees on their way from Latvia to Rome, which will be a holding station for some months before they move on to a new life in the United States or Australia or (as was the case with the author’s parents) Canada. The storyline about the uncertainty of the months in Rome is good but the most powerful themes of the book are the memories of what the previous life was like. The grandfather was a Soviet hero, even if his recent time there has soured him on the whole experience, and not at all sure about this emigration. Polina, the wife of one of the Krasnansky sons, has even more conflict in her memories. The Free World is an impressive debut novel (and equally outstanding second book) — I look forward to reading more Bezmozgis in the future.

The Meagre Tarmac by Clark Blaise. My only criticism of the 2011 Real Giller jury is that they left this short-story collection off the shortlist (the link will take you to a guest review as well as my own). Blaise is a veteran master of the form and these 11 stories are an outstanding example of another Canadian fiction phenomenon: the “immigrant” novel. Okay, it is a story collection not a novel and they are set in the U.S. but still…the author is Canadian. The index page says they are meant to be read in order: in fact, the collection tells the stories of five Indian immigrants in two and three story sets. Blaise’s characters are not refugees or even middle-class: they have been very successful in their North American experience but all of them are trying to cope with emotions that draw them back to the land where they were born and still have strong family ties. The theme is powerful, the prose even more so. Blaise deserves to be ranked with Canadian masters of the short story such as Alice Munro and Carol Shields (it is a genre we are very good at) — this rewarding collection is ample indication of his talent.

We Had It So Good, by Linda Grant. When I read this book in January, there is no way that I thought it would make my year-end top 10 list — it is a testimony to Linda Grant’s novel, that it grew consistently better in memory as the year went on. The central character, Stephen, was born in 1946 which makes him one of the first baby-boomers, and is now on the verge of becoming a senior citizen (not unlike Barnes’ Tony Webster) looking back on his life. Born and raised of mixed ethnic parentage in California, the defining event of his life was winning a Rhodes scholarship — he met his wife during the turbulent 1960s at Oxford and has been in the U.K. ever since. The title of Grant’s novel captures her over-riding theme: those of us born in the post-war 1940s (KfC was born in 1948) really did have it “so good” and only now are coming to the realization that we wasted the opportunity to make a difference. Given the real-world events of the last few years, it is no wonder that We Had It So Good became more impressive as 2011 wore on.

Ripley Under Ground, by Patricia Highsmith. This selection probably qualifies more as a Lifetime Achievement award (and I have only read the first two of five Ripley novels and none of the rest of Highsmith’s extensive catalogue) but that is no reason to leave it off the 2011 list. If you don’t know Tom Ripley, he is one of fiction’s most interesting evil characters — and if you only know him from the excellent Ripley movies, rest assured the original books are even better because they contain so much more than can be captured in even the best of movies. As for other Highsmith fiction, let’s just say Hitchcock was a major fan. The link will take you to reviews of both this book and The Talented Mr. Ripley — make sure you read the comments, because many visitors here have read and recommend far more Highsmith than KfC has got to so far. She will be making at least one appearance on this blog in 2012.

Cedilla, by Adam Mars-Jones. As noted above, I am blaming Adam Mars-Jones for the lack of classics on this year’s top-10 list. Cedilla (733 pages) is volume two in his multi-volume chronicle of the life of John Cromer — I knew it was due out in March and had not yet read volume one, Pilcrow (525 pages), so a lot of first-quarter reading time which is when I normally return to the classics was devoted to Mars-Jones. It is hard to believe that 1,250 pages (the link connects to reviews of both books) could be described as a “quick” read but the author succeeds in making Cromer interesting on every page. Cromer has Still’s disease and is confined to a wheelchair — Pilcrow takes him to the end of adolesence, Cedilla is mainly about his days at Cambridge, with a fascinating global sidetrap. Cromer is not only an interesting character, Mars-Jones uses the setting of his confined life to offer some perceptive observations on the England of the mid-twentieth century. At least one more volume is promised — I assure you taking on the trilogy (or tetralogy if that is what it turns into) is worth the time and effort.

The Spoiler, by Annalena McAfee. This is a highly self-indulgent pick but I hope to convince at least a few people to try it: I love newspaper novels and this is an excellent contemporary example. Honor Tait is “an old-school journalistic heroine” with a raft of achievements (e.g. interviewing Franco during the Spanish Civil War, Madame Chang Kai-Shek some years later) and awards to her credit. Honor spent her money as she earned it and is now reduced to recycling old news stories in book collections to finance her lifestyle. At her publisher’s urging, she reluctantly agrees to a promotional interview with a quality tabloid — which bring Tamara Sim, a “regular casual” at The Monitor, into the story. Sim spots an opportunity for scandal, lucrative from her young, ambitious perspective. McAfee has impressive journalistic credits from the quality English broadsheets — she is married to author Ian McEwan, so she also has experience on the “celebrity scandal subject” side. If you are interested at all in what produced the current Murdoch fiasco (the novel is set in 1997 London), you will find this debut book more than worthwhile — and have some very good chuckles along the way.

A Good Man, by Guy Vanderhaeghe. There is a fair amount of self-indulgence in this pick as well — A Good Man is book three in the author’s loose Western trilogy (The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing are the first two) and I have been an enthusiastic supporter for years. While the first two books were grounded in the conflict between invading white exploiters and settlers and the First Nations peoples, that conflict is in a “mop-up” stage in this book. The central character, Wesley Case, comes from a powerful Ottawa family and is a failed North-West Mounted Police member as the book opens — he buys a farm in Montana but runs messages between American and Canadian forces to help out with funds for the set-up. The direct wars with aboriginal tribes may be over — the white men have already found lots of grounds on which they can plot and fight with each other. A Good Man is another excellent example of Vanderhaeghe’s ability to capture Western North American historical fiction (you don’t have to read the trilogy in order, incidentally).

Montana 1948, by Larry Watson. Watson is my “discovery of the year” in terms of productive authors whom I have not previously read and I owe that to Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes whose enthusiastic review of this novel moved me to buy it a few years ago. The story of Montana 1948 is told by 52-year-old David Hayden who looks back on a sequence of events that took place in Bentrock, Montana 40 years earlier — the 12-year-old didn’t really understand what was happening with his sheriff father and family then, but the wisdom of age brings the dreadful experience into focus. Watson impressed me enough with this book that the preceeding post on this blog is a review of White Crosses, another novel featuring another Bentrock sheriff.

Touch, by Alexi Zentner. The fourth novel here from the 2011 Giller longlist and third first novel on this list, Touch is a fitting, closing example of the highpoints of KfC’s reading year: a new Canadian author with much promise for the future. The narrator of the novel is an Anglican priest who has just returned to the British Columbia gold rush town of Sawgamet (“founded” decades ago by his grandfather) to attend to his dying mother. The narrative moves between the three generations and is proof positive that the Canadian “frontier” novel is still alive: it features both native and Christian spirits, backbreaking physical survival and a 30-foot snowfall. The Canadian cover would be on my shortlist of “Covers of the Year” as well.

On to 2012. I hope you found 2011 as rewarding in reading as I did — and that the next year might be even better.

White Crosses, by Larry Watson

December 16, 2011

Purchased at

Anyone who has driven the rural highways of Prairie Canada or the United States has experienced the phenomenon: the white crosses, often with a bunch of very weathered plastic flowers tied to them, by the side of the road to mark and commemorate the site of a fatal accident. They supply the title for Larry Watson’s novel and come to Bentrock, Montana Sheriff Jack Nevelsen’s mind as he is heading out of town to a fatal accident in response to a call from his deputy:

Whenever a fatality occurred in a highway accident, a white cross was planted at the site, one cross for each death. Cautioning other travelers was the idea, to tell them that someone had died here, because of speed or carelessness or hazardous road conditions or simply bad luck. No doubt it made sense and had an effect — you approached that railroad crossing and saw five crosses bristling up from the weeds alongside the tracks and perhaps you looked carefully before proceeding. But were those five crosses from five separate accidents, indicating that here was a crossing where trains came out of nowhere, or were all the crosses from only one accident, from the night five teenagers heard the Empire Builder’s whistle and saw its light but still thought they could beat it to the crossing? What if you drove a highway only once, and by the time you noticed that single cross in the ditch you were already past it — what lesson could you take from that? Jack had seen bouquets of those crosses in places so dangerous they made you nod your head and say silently, yes, no question but that a heedless driver could meet his death here. But he had also seen crosses in places that brought nothing but puzzlement, that left you scratching your head and wondering what the hell a driver must have done to get himself killed along this ribbon-straight stretch of road.

Now two more crosses were going to be stuck in the soil of Mercer County.

(Digression: When I include quotes in reviews here, I hope that they offer visitors a capsule indication of what to expect from the author’s style and that very long one above is certainly meant to do that. One of Larry Watson’s distinctive characteristics is the tangential paragraph that delves into some detail what lies behind a seemingly mundane observation, like white crosses at the side of a rural road. Some readers may find it distracting — for this one, it adds a richness and depth that I very much appreciate.)

Sheriff Jack’s thoughts on the white crosses are a deliberate distraction for him because he wants to avoid thinking about the fatal accident before he gets there. It is graduation night in Bentrock, which means parties and drinking for the students — those who drink regularly, drink even more on grad night; those who don’t, often choose that night to start. The northeast Montana prairie town has been lucky so far, with no grad night fatalities, but that clean record seems to have come to a close.

When Jack arrives at the scene of the double fatality, he is not surprised. It is a dangerous 90-degree bend: “If you missed the curve, you were off the road in an instant and sailing toward a slough”. He knows the accident will mean doing something that he hates in his job, delivering the news to next of kin and that sparks memories of various previous bad experiences doing just that.

Matters quickly get worse for Jack, however. While the bodies have already been removed, his deputy supplies the news that will form the backbone for the remainder of White Crosses. Yes, one of the students was a graduand, Junie Moss. The other, the driver, was Leo Bauer:

Leo Bauer — a man who reminded Jack of himself in certain ways. Leo was about Jack’s age, tall, soft-spoken, a veteran. Leo had thinning hair combed straight back over his large head. A serious man. Jack had pictured him in the clothes he always wore — black Wellingtons, dress slacks, a short-sleeved white shirt, and a narrow dark tie. This was Leo’s uniform. He was the principal of Horace Mann School in Bentrock, grades one through eight, but even off the job — at a barbecue or at a town council meeting or at a high school basketball game — he was likely to be dressed the same way, perhaps without the tie. Oh, yes, Jack could see Leo Bauer clearly. And he could see Leo’s wife and son.

It takes the stumbling deputy a while to get to it, but he eventually informs Jack that there were three suitcases in the car: two of Junie’s and one with Leo’s clothes, although the name tag on the bag was that of Leo’s own graduating son, Richard. Still, the obvious conclusion has to be that the tight-laced elementary school principal was running off with a high school grad.

Jack arrives at another conclusion almost immediately: Bentrock cannot accept this scandal. In a review of Edith Wharton’s Sanctuary which I posted just a week ago, I highlighted a quote that included this observation: “…the fair surface of life was honeycombed by a vast system of moral sewage. Every respectable household had its special arrangements for the private disposal of family scandals….” Wharton used that to explain the way that high society New York preserved some of its dirty secrets. The rural Montana of Larry Watson shares exactly the same approach to keeping disturbing events discreetly buried — and Sheriff Jack decides it needs to be applied to deal with this dreadful accident.

So he creates another version of the story — the tangled web of deceit is put fully in place early in the novel and I am not spoiling it for any potential reader with what I have said so far. The bulk of the book concerns how the seemingly compact web of lies turns into a cat’s cradle where a pull on the string off to one side affects the whole structure. And at the middle of that complex web of lies — the only one who knows the real story — is Jack Nevelsen.

Regular visitors here will no recall how impressed I was with my first Larry Watson novel, Montana 1948, a few months back — it gives nothing away to say you will be reading about that novel again when I post my list of 10 best books for 2011 in a few days. That novel also is centred on the way that Bentrock goes about preserving secrets and also involves a sheriff. The “honeycomb of moral sewage” in the small town Prairie west is of every bit as much interest to Larry Watson as New York City’s is to Edith Wharton. And both of them are excellent at exploring their fascination with the power of the phenomenon.

Is White Crosses as good as Montana 1948? For this reader, no it’s not, but don’t let that dissuade you from reading this novel — the latter ranks close to 10 out of 10, this one rates more like 8.5 or 9, which still makes it excellent in my eyes. Montana 1948 (published in 1993) has a powerful spareness in its 169 pages that brings a sharpness to Watson’s portrayal of smalltown life that I have found in very few books. White Crosses was published five years later and its 371 pages have many more of the kinds of thoughtful musings that are illlustrated in the first paragraph that I quoted — they certainly add value, but they dull some of the razor-like perceptions that are Watson’s greatest strength. However you rate the two that I have read, I can only conclude that Larry Watson deserves to be mentioned with the best of the authors who portray the North American West.

Hamlet and Ophelia, an interview with author John Marsden

December 13, 2011

KfC was pleased to sponsor the Read, Write, Review! program as part of Calgary’s writers festival, with five authors involved in presentations at Lord Beaverbrook High School. As part of that, the blog is featuring student-written interviews with each of the authors — this one was done by Samantha Vu.

On October 13th, 2011 I had the honor to interview the incredible author of over 40 novels – including his latest Hamlet and Ophelia (a modern, highly readable, adaptation of the Shakespeare play) – John Marsden. Lord Beaverbrook High School and Calgary International Wordfest 2011 provided the opportunity for John Marsden to give a speech to the students of the school as a part of his tour. On the theatre stage right before his presentation, my accompanying teacher introduced me to Mr. Marsden. After we said our “Hi, nice to meet you,” I knew in the next hour I was in for a treat. I enjoy talks; hence, I watch so many of those TED talks. But when I got to experience the speaker in real life, let me tell you, it is even better. As the classes filed in there were some grade 12 students that sat behind me a couple rows back, the exact words they said upon sitting down were “I’m just going to sleep right through this.” Let me just say that was not the case. As soon as Mr. Marsden started, these kids were the ones clapping, laughing and commenting all throughout the performance. Hearing his speech was really remarkable; his life and the events he shared with us were interesting; and the stories that we were told will definitely stick with me for a long time. He taught us the beauty of words, the abstract use of language, and how to turn a dreaded F into a decent B – in less than three minutes. If you were there you would have laughed along with us and left with a smiling face. Afterwards, I sat down with Mr. Marsden and asked him a few questions about his life and career.

Samantha: What inspired you to start writing?

John: I started to write mostly for the love of stories, the love for language, and I especially like how I can express myself through my work. Without a doubt I am musical too, and my love for that plays a part as well.

Samantha: When did this passion start?

John: It really started in my grade 4 elementary class in Australia. I realized my love for writing as I wrote for my school’s newspaper. I received a lot of positive feedback from my friends and it helped support me and kept me motivated.

Samantha: What was your high school experience like?

John: I didn’t have a pleasant high school experience. Honestly, I was bored out of my mind most of the time. What I had to learn was so traditional and stupid.

Samantha: Did you know you were going to write books when you were in high school?

John: You never really know, it just turns out how it does and I’m glad it turned out like this.

Samantha: How did your first book come about?

John: Before being an author, I was a teacher and, in a school that I was teaching at, I went into the library and looking for new books for my students. Nothing I saw really sparked an interest or demanded my attention, so I decided to take a leap of faith and write my own. My goal was to get my students to read more and enjoy it, and they did, because it is cool to read a novel written by your teacher. The first book I published was in 1987 and called So Much To Tell You. This book won many awards at the time, but I kept writing.

Samantha: How did it feel when your first book got published?

John: It felt bizarre, like a dream, like all my dreams had come true.

Samantha: What do you want to write about most?

John: My novels are mostly about people overcoming their own difficulties. One of my goals is to never have a boring sentence in any of my books. I want a complete stranger to flip to a random page and be able say, “Wow that is one great sentence!” I also enjoy writing about tragedies and reading about them as well, some of my favorites are from Shakespeare.

Samantha: How long does each book take to write?

John: I’d say it takes 4-8 months, approximately. My latest novel Hamlet and Ophelia took only 12-14 weeks. I can’t work in areas like Starbucks or other coffee shops. Most of my work is done in quiet, boring, secluded places — hotel rooms are a good example. Nothing very productive can be done in a hotel room alone, aside from watching television and eating, so it’s the perfect conditions for a good writing environment.

Samantha: What is the hardest aspect in writing you stories?

John: Motivation, without a doubt, the beginning is great, you are all motivated and exited about starting a new story, expressing yourself etcetera, etcetera. But then as you reach the middle portion the excitement has slowed down and the only driving factor to get you through is the thought of completing a new book. Be careful to not make writing a chore or something you have to do, make it something you want to do, so when it is finally done, you want it to feel like it has been worth your time.

Samantha: What is your advice to students who want to pursue writing as a career?

John: Just go for it, live your life and if it happens it happens. All the true writers will emerge no matter what, their passion, their love, will never stop them and even if they get rejected a few times they will bounce back and continue to write just for the heck of it. If you are serious about pursuing writing then always keep in mind that if you don’t care for the fame and money, and care for the writing content instead, then you will always make it farther.

Overall, I have to say that this is one of those days worth remembering — from the presentation to the interview — I am so glad I was given the chance to meet John Marsden. He was extremely kind and talking to him was made so easy, plus who knew that you could learn so much in such a short time with someone. It was a pleasure to meet an author who is as smart as Mr. Marsden. Plus, he was even kind enough to sign a copy of my own Hamlet and Ophelia. I can see myself in the future reading more of Mr. Marsden’s books, and I don’t want him to ever stop writing because he is such a great writer and such a great person.

I want to close by saying (directly to Mr. Marsden): Thank you for coming to our country and our school, and taking time out of your life and away from your family, to talk to us at Beaverbrook. Also, you made a difference in my life, and I am inspired to keep writing.

Sanctuary, by Edith Wharton

December 12, 2011

Purchased at

As Part One of Edith Wharton’s novella, Sanctuary, is drawing to a close, young Kate Orme has just confirmed her fear that her fiance, Denis Peyton, has told her a devestating, and all too convenient, lie. It has shaken her deeply and she asks her father about it — he finds nothing wrong, indeed he feels Denis’ behavior has been quite appropriate:

Long after Mr Orme had left the topic, Kate remained lost in its contemplation. She had begun to perceive that the fair surface of life was honeycombed by a vast system of moral sewage. Every respectable household had its special arrangements for the private disposal of family scandals; it was only among the reckless and improvident that such hygienic precautions were neglected. Who was she to pass judgment on the merits of such a system? The social health must be preserved: the means devised were the result of long experience and the collective instinct of self-preservation. She had meant to tell her father that evening that her marriage had been put off, but she now abstained from doing so, not from any doubt of Mr. Orme’s acquiescence — he could always be made to feel the force of conventional scruples — but because the whole question sank into insignificance beside the larger issue that his words had raised.

Edith Newbold Jones grew up in that high society world and knew firsthand the perceived value of keeping those social secrets — the reference may be inaccurate but it is said her family is the source of the phrase “keeping up with Joneses”. Her unhappy marriage to a Boston Brahmin, Edward Wharton, took her even further into it. She spent most of the last four decades of her life portraying aspects of it in her fiction.

Sanctuary was published in 1903 — only her third published fictional work, after The Touchstone (another novella) and The Valley of Decision. But if you have read any Wharton at all, the paragraph quoted above could serve as a synopsis of a condition that will feature in almost all her famous works — it is an apt description of the world of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country and a whole cast of characters in The Age of Innocence. Great artists often do detailed sketches to prepare for their larger canvases — Sanctuary is only 94 pages, but it is a distinctive sketch of the world that Wharton will explore in much more intricate detail in the future.

Like many of Wharton’s heroines, Kate Orme is a hopeless romantic who, when we first meet her, has experienced life as a bird living in a gilded cage:

Kate Orme was engaged in one of those rapid mental excursions that were forever sweeping her from the straight path of the actual into uncharted regions of conjecture. Her survey of life had always been marked by the tendency to seek out ultimate relations, to extend her researches to the limit of her imaginative experience. But hitherto she had been like some young captive brought up in a windowless palace whose painted walls she takes for the actual world. Now the palace had been shaken to its base, and through a cleft in the walls she looked out upon life. For the first moment all was indistinguishable blackness; then she began to detect vague shapes and confused gestures in the depths. There were people below there, men like Denis, girls like herself — for under the unlikeness she felt the strange affinity — all struggling in that awful coil of moral darkness, with agonised hands reaching up for rescue.

Until her discovery of what she perceives as a moral outrage, Denis has a “happy literalness” — an easy, overall acceptance of the world as it is — that served to offset Kate’s “visualizing habit”. Now, in a circumstance that will be reflected by future Wharton heroines, she finds herself isolated, unguided and searching for a compass.

And, in another trait that will occur in future works, Kate opts not to engage with the world to deal with her distress but to internalize it completely and arrive at her own self-centred (and inherently selfish) resolution. I won’t spoil by revealing exactly how she resolves her dilemma, but it gives nothing away to say that the marriage to Denis goes ahead.

Part Two of Sanctuary takes place more than 25 years later. Denis died eight years into the marriage, but not before it produced a son, Dick. Kate has devoted her life, in a not-totally-healthy fashion, to her son, including accompanying him to Paris where he studied as an architect. When Part Two opens, Dick Peyton is busily engaged in preparing drawings for a competition to design a museum extension that he believes he must win to “make” his career. His best friend from Paris, Darrow, is preparing for the same competition — even Dick knows that Darrow has more talent and he regards his friend as his only competition.

And, to complete the Wharton pattern that will show up in future work, Dick also has a prospective mate, Clemence Verney, an early example of the kind of delightful, intriguing secondary characters who add so much to Wharton’s overall work — Clemence too has a “happy literalness” although in her case it is leavened by an unshakable determination to do whatever is required to get ahead.

Part Two features another moral dilemma and, again, Kate responds with complete internalizaton of the consequences even though in this case she is not directly involved. As much as we might want to love her, Kate has a destructive selfishness that rises to the surface whenever reality threatens.

Edith Wharton is on my shortlist of “best authors ever” and Sanctuary joins my list of worthwhile works that she has written, even if it does come from very early in her career (she had just started The House of Mirth when this was published — in some ways, it reads as though she was “purging” herself of some external characteristics or circumstances that she did not want Lily Birt to have). If you know Wharton’s work, I think that, like myself, you will find it a fascinating indication of what is yet to come. If you don’t know her work, it is a quick read with which to start getting acquainted — but remember it is only a “sketch” of what Wharton will eventually produce.

Indeed, I can come up with no better critical assessment than that which William Fiennes supplies in the Hesperus Press edition that I read:

Later, in A Backward Glance, Wharton describes her friendship with a judge named Walter Berry, who would read her manuscripts with forensic attention. ‘With each book,’ Wharton writes, ‘he exacted a higher standard in economy of expression, in purity of language, in the avoidance of the hackneyed and the precious.’ Sanctuary doesn’t always meet the Berry standard. The opening paragraphs, with their surfeit of abstract nouns (happiness, beatitude, peace, joy, confusion, harmony) and imprecisions (seemed, a certain, somehow), are some way from the shimmering specificity of The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence. Those novels contain some of the most thrilling prose of the twentieth century. Sanctuary is a flexing of wings.

Infrared, by Nancy Huston

December 7, 2011

Purchased at

Author Nancy Huston occupies, I think, a unique place in fiction. Born and raised in 1953 in my hometown, Calgary, her family moved to the U.S. when she was 15 — she headed to Paris as a student in 1973 and has been there ever since. Her catalogue now includes 45 titles, 25 of which are fiction. With only one exception (Plainsong), she writes originally in French with an English, self-translated version usually appearing a few years later. Huston is a regular on both French and English prize lists, with a Prix Femina, Governor-General’s award and Orange Prize short-listing to her credit.

I have followed her career with some interest and appreciation for years, influenced I must admit by her birthplace — let’s face it, we don’t have a lot of Calgary-born writers publishing in French. My high-school French is not up to reading her in the original, but I have found the English translations to be of consistent worth — Fault Lines would rank as my favorite.

So I was looking forward to her latest, Infrared (published in 2010 in French and this fall in English), with some anticipation. The broad description of the book held promise that Huston was again venturing into unconventional literary territory: Rena Goldblatt is a successful photographer, whose speciality is infrared images — the negative-like pictures emphasizing temperature patterns rather than conventional forms. The setting for the novel is a seven-day trip to Tuscany with her 70-year-old father and her stepmother — an excursion which turns out to be one of those ideas that are much better in the planning than in the actual experience.

Huston uses this structure to produce a literary version of the “infrared” photograph. There is enough conventional narrative that the reader is aware of what is happening as the week unfolds — but bubbling beneath that surface are “hot spots” from both more recent history and Rena’s childhood past that come to dominate the story.

Let’s deal with the conventional story line first. Rena’s father, Simon, is an unsuccessful academic, an acolyte of Timothy Leary (Rena took her first LSD trip at a very early age) who never quite acquired the focus and discipline to really achieve anything, despite grand ambitions. Her stepmother, Ingrid, is much more conventional and, on this trip, very much a stumbling Canadian tourist, not up to the grandeur of historical Florence. Here’s the opening to the trio’s experience of San Lorenzo:

‘Designed by Brunelleschi, the great Renaissance architect,’ Rena hastens to proclaim, having leafed through the Guide bleu on her flight this morning. ‘Look how the sun’s rays light up every square inch of space …’

She can tell Ingrid is disappointed. To her eyes, the church is empty. There’s really nothing to look at — not even any stained-glass windows. Even the Amersterdam Cathedral is more lavishly decorated than this. Yes, thinks Rena, but you don’t understand. Here, instead of being dazzled by ostentation, overwhelmed by fancy ornament or intimidated by dark shadows, man himself is writ large.

Anyone who has taken the Italian grand tour has seen a version of these multi-generational family excursions — while there is an incredible amount to see (too much, actually), the real preoccupation is where they can stop for the next meal, coffee or even just a pleasant bench and some rest. It is not a particularly dramatic story line, but Huston captures it with a touching compassion.

It is during these “rest” periods for the older pair that the hot spots of memory rise in Rena’s mind. One set concerns her relationships, both present and past. She has had four husbands and lovers too numerous to count. Her current lover, Aziz, is an Algerian-born activist and fellow photographer in Paris:

‘Tell me, Aziz,’ I crooned to my sweetheart one evening as he went about covering my face with droll little kisses and gently rolling my clitoris between his fingers as he’s learned to do so well, ‘faithful Muslims who die as martyrs are supposed to be rewarded with ninety-two virgins when they get to heaven…But what do women get? What’s heaven like for Muslim women?’ ‘When a woman gets to heaven,’ Aziz murmured between kisses, ‘she can’t see her husbands other wives anymore. That’s it — no more jealousy.’ ‘Oh, I see. That’s a woman’s paradise: no more jealousy. You mean she can’t even see the ninety-two virgins?’ ‘Especially not them.’ That made me laugh so hard I was unable to come.

As it happens, the Greenblatt family excursion to Italy coincides with the Muslim riots and supression in Paris — not only Aziz, but Rena’s magazine employer, want her back in the city to document the events with her particular kind of photography. Yet again, as they have in the past, family responsibilities, but even more important memories, are imposing on and altering Rena’s present.

All this brings up even deeper memories. Rena’s older brother, Rowan, was a sexual abuser who first attacked her before she was 10 — the abuse continued into her early teens and resulted in a sexually-deformed woman (which we already know from the more recent memories of her relationships). Accompanying her aging and declining father and a stepmother she really does not know well around the spectacles of Italy brings these childhood experiences and their result into an “infrared” focus.

Infrared has its moments and I very much wanted Huston to succeed in delivering on an ambitious premise — I am afraid in the final analysis, at least for this reader, she does not. Rena’s sexual memories became oppressive rather than illustrative and I came to welcome when those sections would finally end and we could get back to observing a couple of elderly Canadians struggling with their attempts to appreciate Italy’s cultural history. As much as I wanted Rena to come to life as a character, she never did.

Do not take that as a rejection of Huston, or even this novel. She is an interesting author who deserves to be read, but if you don’t know her work I’d recommend starting with Fault Lines, Instruments of Darkness (probably her most famous and most-awarded) or The Mark of an Angel instead. Infrared continues her pattern of exploring different forms of the novel; while her journeys have usually worked for me, this one fell short.

Karma, by Cathy Ostlere

December 5, 2011

The KevinfromCanada blog was delighted to sponsor the Read, Write, Review! program at Calgary’s Lord Beaverbrook High School as part of this year’s WordFest program. Five authors were involved in presentations to students there — as part of KfC’s involvement, I asked students to conduct an interview with each author for posting here. This is the fourth, conducted and written by Ella Haggis. Thank you, Ella!

During the Calgary International “WordFest”, I was given the opportunity to sit down with Cathy Ostlere. She’s currently promoting Karma, her new novel about a girl who travels to India for the first time with her father only to be separated from him by the chaos of the Sikh massacre of 1984. She presented a passage from the book and answered questions to about 100 students from Lord Beaverbrook High School. Once she began her presentation to a daunting theatre full of teenagers, I was surprised that this same calm, pleasant woman kept me glued to her emotionally-charged writing. Not everyone is lucky enough to ask an author about the details of their book, so I was anxious to dive right in and talk with her.

Ella: If you could find one inspiration, your initial inspiration, that made you sit down and dedicate your time to writing the book Karma, what would it be?

Cathy: The initial inspiration for doing it, I think, was probably, when I found a (computer) file and started reading all this very raw emotional material I had. I realized how much this country, (India), had affected me. It really changed me. And then what had happened to the Sikh people was unbelievable. I think it never left me, and so I think somehow I thought by writing this story I would honour the Sikh people and honour India.

Ella: What other feedback have you received from writing Karma?

Cathy: I’ve had great feedback. Interesting feedback… One from a young man who said he loved the book, but he did not understand why the cover was pink. And another woman yesterday on her blog wrote she loved the book and she said, “but what were the publishers thinking, did they think a guy wouldn’t want to read this book? By putting pink on the cover you’ve just held off all these guys who might read it.” She thought it was a really strong story for young men because one of the characters was a young man.

Ella: Well the cover’s pink, but if you took off the cover it’s yellow…

Cathy: It is yellow!

Ella: People say yellow’s a gender neutral colour, so essentially… Okay, if you want to give the gift of Karma to a (male) friend just take off the front cover.

Cathy: Yeah. I should’ve asked the guys in the audience what they thought of the pink… I’ve had lots of emails from people who said they did not know about the Sikh massacre in ’84, so this is a piece of history that they didn’t know about, and they felt they needed to know about, so that was good. I’ve had emails from people who’ve said they didn’t want to read it because it said ‘verse’ on the cover, and they were like, “I’m not reading a book of poetry” but for whatever reason they did, and then they just loved it, but the verse threw them off. So in fact for the paperback edition I asked the publisher to drop ‘a novel in verse’ off of the cover. I said, “Why turn people off before they’ve opened the page?”

Ella: Yeah, it’s interesting, some people might be drawn to that, seeing ‘a novel in verse’ but some people might also see it like, “Oh, poetry…”

Cathy: “No! Poetry! High School!” But I mean even that audience, I think really only one young girl said that she’d read a verse novel. It’s just not in our consciousness here, so people say, “Well I don’t know what that is”.

Ella: Why did you determine that it was a passion of yours to write in verse as opposed to just saying, “Okay well these ideas are cool but I’ll just write normally”?

Cathy: I think it’s a great teaching thing as well, writing in verse. You take away rules so you take away line rules and paragraph, punctuation, capitalization… Spelling still matters, but you take all the other stuff away. But don’t call it poetry, because people again say, “I can’t read or write poetry!” Right? So if you take it all away and just say, well we’re just gonna’ write, and when you want a line break, just make a line break. I think if you write like that, it’s possible for the imagination to expand as well. So if the writing is easier—because you’ve got fewer restrictions–then your mind may go places that it might not have not gone. So, I think that it’s a really good thing.

Ella: I was fascinated by the switch from the characters. You originally started with Maya’s diary entries and then it goes to Sandeep’s diary entries and then back to Maya’s. Did you find it at all difficult switching characters or switching voices?

Cathy: I didn’t. It was a bit of a relief. That first part of Maya’s diary is really intense. I mean it was like, “Oh my god. This girl’s going through so much”. I didn’t plot out this story either. I didn’t really know what was going to happen. Maya just came. So when Maya went mute, I went, “Oh. Now what?” I tried different things, I thought, even if you’re mute you can still write a diary. But I thought do I want her really mute, because she’s put so much energy into this diary so far. It matters to her, so then to completely close down in every way, I thought I wanted her to be now inaccessible to the reader. She’s so alive and the readers will think, “Where is she?” Some readers had difficulty switching to Sandeep because they thought, “We want Maya back,” but I thought this is the point. The point is she has shut down. So Sandeep showed up, but, see, I really liked Sandeep. He was just quirky and funny and a little goofy and I just liked his personality, so it was a bit of a relief to write him. The biggest danger of that section though was Akbar. In fact, in the original draft he really took over and we had to cut Akbar way back, ’cause Akbar just wanted to run with that part of the book. He was a very strong character and we had to cut him back. But no, I felt Sandeep, no, not that hard. You know, he’s a male, but I have a son. I don’t know, I just thought…

Ella: It was more fun to write than challenging?

Cathy: He was more fun to write than challenging!

Ella: You mentioned how it would be great for, if you’re writing in a diary, to take away the form and try free verse. If people really want to pursue writing, what can young writers do for themselves to get better and other ways they can challenge themselves to become better writers?

Cathy: Well I guess keep a journal. I think the problem with journals though is you end up writing about yourself. You dump all your feelings. I’ve never really been great at keeping a journal because I tend to dump all my feelings out and it’s like, “Blah. This isn’t writing. This is just the inside of my head, who wants to read that?” So, I do carry a notebook with me. If you carry a little notebook even with you, listen all the time. Listen for a phrase, a word, a character, and when you see it or hear it, just write it down. So you have this little book filled with, literally, jumping off points to write with. So if you have a book and say one day you actually have some time, you want to sit down, you just want to write, you get your little book out and maybe there’s a sentence, an odd sentence, that some guy on the bus said that was so incongruent to his surroundings and then you might be able to jump from there into some writing.

Ella: Also, for people who would really like to pursue writing as a career, I was interested to hear… What did you do for post secondary? How did you pursue writing?

Cathy: Yeah I really didn’t start writing until my thirties. I was traveling a lot and I was writing a lot. I owned a tabloid here in Calgary and I was doing that kind of writing but my idea was always more creative writing. It’s just a thing that calls to you all the time. So I didn’t really start until I was in my thirties and then when my brother went missing I put all my energy into that book… Honestly, I don’t know. People do go through post-secondary, they get graduate degrees, and they end up teaching. Maybe that’s a good thing, I don’t know. For sure, I do think a degree is important. I’m not sure how many are important, but going to university is great. It’s something everybody should probably do. You had the chance of meeting someone who might change your life, and you might find it in a faculty you didn’t expect. But really, if you want to be a writer, go live your life, and live it fast and hard. Travel. Think. Read. Talk to people. Go around the world. Read things. Really, take unusual jobs… So I would say less school and more life. More life.

Ella: “Less school and more life”. I’ll explain that to my parents.

Cathy: I do think you should go to school. I think everybody should try it. Because I’ve had friends who didn’t, and they still think, “Gee did I miss out on something?” It’s not bad to have a couple initials after your name at some point. And you do meet people. If you go to school away from your city, better. Two of my kids did that, and they loved it.

Ella: So, once you’ve got all of your inspiration, how do you really start making a living as a writer? Where can you start talking to people, and try to publish a book?

Cathy: Well, you know, it’s sort of like the rest of the world, often it’s who you know. So as a writer like any career you want to make connections, and that sounds too crass, so, you make friendships. You make a community for yourself and what happened to me is I had a community of writers that watched me suffer through writing my first book, Lost, and finally one of them said to me, “Listen, I know this agent in Toronto, do you want me to ask him if he’ll look at your book?” And I was like “Oh whatever, I don’t even care anymore,” I was so done with it, and so I said “Okay” and he agreed. So I sent him three chapters and then I sent him the whole manuscript, and then he agreed to take it on. That was just luck, but you can send your manuscript to an agency and they may or may not look at it. But really what you want to do it is make a community, publish as much as you can in small journals, radio, whatever you can get. You want a resume. The moment you have a certain amount on your resume you can apply for grants, and that’s what I did. I’ve had Canada Council grants, AFA grants, ACDI grants, I even have a travel grant right now to promote Karma. So there’s money out there, so you got to go for it. But you have to have something published so they can know that you’re serious. And you help other writers as best you can. If I can get my agent to read someone’s work, I’ll try to do that… So write, get published in smaller journals, literary journals… That’s what I did. Write. Send it out, send it out, send it out, send it out, and get rejected, and get rejected and make friends who are writers.

Ella: After the success of Lost, why did you decide you would direct this book Karma towards teenage readers?

Cathy: Well, here’s my big confession. This took about nine years. After Lost (2008) I wanted to keep writing because I was afraid if I stopped I wouldn’t get back into it, so I thought I need to do something right away but I thought another adult novel was going to be like another nine years. So I naïvely thought, “Well a young adult, how hard can that be?” I thought, “Gee they’re not as… whatever.” And I don’t know why I say that, I mean, I had three kids but I really thought I could write something in six months and I would just keep writing. So when I found the ‘India’ file, and I saw all this stuff, I thought, “Oh, cool. Okay. A two hundred page verse novel. That’s what I’ll do.” And I started it, but the problem was that Maya was such a strong character and the story just kept growing and growing and Sandeep entered and it grew and grew and I sold it when it was halfway through and I kept saying to the editors, “Oh I’m up to 350 (pages). I’m up to 400, 450, 500…” They said, “Doesn’t matter, keep going, we don’t mind big thick books.” So it ended up being almost three times what I intended it to be. The story became epic. It became political. It became all these things I had no intention of doing, and then on top of all that, I realized how stupid it was to think that somehow if you’re writing for young adults you don’t need to write as well, or it doesn’t need to be as layered, and I realized I was insulting. It was an insulting thing to think. Then I flipped and I realized that the writing of this was more important than the writing of (Lost), because this is the future reader, the future thinker, the future student. Whoever reads this, it possibly might change their life towards what they think about genocide. That really matters, and I had some responsibility towards what I had to say about the world. What I had to say about Hindus and Sikhs, and religion, and forgiveness. It was a lot about forgiveness. That was a huge responsibility. This, (pointing at Lost), was simply, when I look back on it, my personal story, “Here’s what happened, like it or leave it”. This, (pointing at Karma), became a statement to the world and my reader who I assumed would be younger (though that hasn’t been the case, really), I had to give them a lot of faith that they might run with some of these ideas.

Ella: What I thought was really cool was reading things that affected Canada. Like there’s all of the politics in India and as young readers growing up it’s important to know the history of what’s going on outside your country, but I also was really interested in the intolerance that it hinted on. Like how Maya [in Canada] has people talking behind her back about her sari and things like that, so do you think that that same intolerance that you had in the book is accurate today?

Cathy: I think there’s probably less of it, certainly. But I suspect it’s still there. I mean, has bullying gone away? Even though we have “Stop Bullying” signs in the hallway? I don’t know, I’m not in the school system. The difference, I suppose, is a lot of kids whose parents may have been immigrants but they weren’t, they were born here. Or maybe their parents were born here and then they were born here. I mean, I meet young Indian girls who don’t speak Hindi. They don’t speak Punjabi. All they speak is English, and I don’t know what it’s like for them. But in this case, because this is ’84, Maya’s the only one in the whole school. When I went to school in elementary there was only one Indian family. In high school there was one black student, that was it. So it’s different now. It is different, and I suspect it’s much better… But I did have a girl in my class, and her name was Jeevit. When I was ten I was friends with her, and I went to visit her house. I remember having to take off my shoes, and I remember how beautiful the house was. There were these silk carpets, so it was different than my house. The mother wore a sari and the father wore a turban… I didn’t realize it until far into the book when I remembered Jeevit. I went, “Oh my god, she must be coming up through this story.” So that’s what I was thinking about. Our personal lives show up in our fiction.

Ella: Well thank you very much.

Cathy: Oh thank you, Ella.

Ella: This has been really great, and I hope more Beaverbrook students read it, Although it has a pink cover, I will just tell the guys, “Don’t be daunted by the pink cover, it’s really a great novel, so thank you.”

The paperback edition of Karma comes out this January. I recommend this book very highly to other teens. As epic a story as Karma is, it still finds its own way to relate to teenagers through the essential questions that Maya and Sandeep must ask themselves. The novel’s “verse” style adds to its eloquence and complexity, but was not difficult to read. My thanks to Cathy Ostlere for taking time to visit Lord Beaverbrook High School.

%d bloggers like this: