Friday, August 18, 2017

Book Review of The Defiant Mind: Living Inside a Stroke by Ron Smith

This is a superbly-written book about the experience of a stroke, a "carpet bombing of the brain", and its psychological, physical and emotional aftermath, including early warning symptoms, the hospital experience, and returning to home life. It is such a remarkable contribution to our understanding of many things in this world, hence my tagging of it with "wisdom" as well as psychology and stroke recovery. The author typed the manuscript using the index finger of his left (non-dominant) hand, which, at over 300 pages is a testament to his determination, lucidity, and the rock-solid love and support of his wife in particular.

The only other book I've read about being trapped "inside" a stroke is the devastating "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who dictated his slim masterpiece by blinking one eye while his editorial assistant showed him letters of the alphabet. Imagine that. Take your time. Ron Smith (full disclosure) edited one of my novels in 2010 during his busy life as a publisher, editor, and university English professor. He is also the author of books of poems, short stories and a major biography. His work has been translated and he has served as a visiting professor of English in several other countries. Which is to say, his fine mind, before and after the "brain attack", and his love of reading and books propelled him through the rubble of the ischemic stroke, the attack on his brain stem. Writing this book, claiming his memories especially, became a necessary part of his therapy, as vital as learning how to roll over in bed, to walk after learning how to wheel a chair, to sort out the tangle of his thick, disobedient tongue and sagging mouth muscles to speak to his beloved family.

There is humour here too, alongside its earthly cousin, despair, amid the analyses of how stroke survivors are treated. The essential point is: all strokes are different and all are experienced differently and furthermore, each survivor needs to be heard. Most of the therapists, doctors, nurses and hospital staff, including a perfectly lovely man who cleaned the wards, are generously portrayed as skilled, empathetic, and very caring but of course, there are always a few negative-thinking individuals who have chosen the wrong occupation. We learn about an older man in his eighties who could not speak after his stroke but who tapped the side of his hospital bed with his able hand. He seemed frustrated when family and staff treated his tapping as some sort of uncontrollable spasm until finally somebody realized he had used Morse code in WW2 and he was using it again, trying to communicate with them. The quest to communicate is so intense with locked-in afflictions of all kinds because the loneliness and depression is just as intense of course. We are privy to this subjective experience, rarely explored, thanks to this book.

Highly recommended to anyone who works in any capacity in hospitals, rehabilitative medicine, community nursing, and to families where a member has been felled by a stroke. But also, like Jean-Dominque Bauby's book, this brilliant book deserves a wide international audience because it is so beautifully written, so compelling and so hopeful, ultimately, about new medical techniques and the wonders we are still discovering about how the brain heals and creates new pathways. It's also a book about the importance of love and emotional support, about a healing connection to nature and the serendipity of the right healers coming into his life at just the right time. Ron Smith is a lucky man, despite the stroke, and his strength of character and sheer determination to communicate has contributed an outstanding book.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Interview with Joseph Planta for The Commentary

This is one of the most laid-back and genuine radio interviews I've ever been lucky enough to have! It was supposed to be 15 minutes but turned out to be 27 minutes plus. Thank you, Joseph!

Monday, March 13, 2017

Interview with Sean Arthur Joyce from Chameleon Fire & Valley Voice

Caroline Woodward re-releases Alaska Highway Two-Step

It’s not often these days a novel gets a second chance at life. Author Caroline Woodward’s first novel, Alaska Highway Two-Step, will get just that, with a new edition being released this month by Harbour Publishing.
Woodward’s novel tells the story of a freelance journalist, a young woman living in the Kootenays, who accepts an assignment to write a series of articles about life along the Alaska Highway. To those of us who know Caroline it’s clear her main character, Mercy Brown, is based at least partly on her own personality. But with a twist: Brown has the uncanny gift of precognition, the ability to foresee real life events in dreams. The novel weaves three narrative strands into the plot: Brown’s road trip north, her disturbing premonitions, and excerpts from journals she inherited from a deceased aunt – a ballet dancer and choreographer in the early decades of the 20th century. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of the lives of two different generations of professional women. Expect to be surprised: this story focuses more on grain and texture than on following the plot points of a typical mystery novel. Caroline agreed to be interviewed about the new edition of her novel.
The beautiful new cover for Alaska Highway Two-Step from Harbour Publishing.
Is the new edition substantially different than the original novel? Did you decide to do any rewriting or major editing? If so, why? It is relatively unchanged except for a few deft nips and tucks in the main character’s sea and road journey. A good part of the road trip takes place on the Alaska Highway, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2017. The most significant change I made was to rename the ill-fated Queen of the North ferry. In my book it is now the Queen of Hartley Bay, to honour the First Nations villagers who got into their large and small fishing boats and did a Dunkirk flotilla style of rescue of all but two of the passengers and crew when it sank in the middle of the night. They deserved to have a B.C. ferry named in their honour and one of the great things about writing fiction is that I get to make it so.
I don’t recall the book being promoted as a mystery when it originally came out in 1993. What genre description best fits the book for you? It is indeed a mystery novel for adults and was nominated by the Crime Writers of Canada for the Arthur Ellis (Canada’s last hangman) Best First Mystery Novel Award. Margaret Cannon, who still writes a weekly mystery reviews column for the Globe & Mail and does regular broadcasts for CBC Radio, picked it for the Globe & Mail Editor’s Pick of Top 100 Books in 1993. I was also invited to the 1994 Bouchercon International Mystery Convention in Seattle in 1994 to be part of a panel and to give a reading. It’s just not a typical blood and gore formula murder mystery.
How much of the novel is based on your own experience? We know you are a northern BC gal and have family ties to the Peace River region so how did that inform the writing of the novel? Absolutely none of this novel is based on my own experience except for the idyllic cottage at Five Mile on Kootenay Lake and my dear, departed dog, Sadie Brown whose ashes are now in an urn beneath my writing desk. Certainly my upbringing in the north Peace region, going to school and living in a dormitory for ‘bush kids’ in Fort St. John and later, as an adult, working with First Nations teens informs this novel. The havoc wreaked on the remote village of Fort Ware when Williston Lake, created by the first dam on the Peace River in the 1960s, flooded much of their village and other eyewitness accounts of the drowning of wild animals and nesting birds, and the suicides of trappers and others who lived in the flooded valley are real events and I have included some of them. I invented the Canadian Bureau of Premonitions, as I explain in the Foreword, and made my main character a reluctant psychic. I incorporated the practice of lucid, or more like focused, dreaming, before a crucial hunting trip and other life challenges, including dying, as practiced by people regarded as prophets among the Dane-Zaa people in the Peace and studied by anthropologist Dr. Robin Ridington, author of at least three major books on this subject, his life’s work.
Caroline Woodward
Why did you include the subplot of the aunt who was a dancer? When I had a precious full month with a studio at Banff while writing the first version of Alaska Highway Two-Step back in 1992, I discovered a book by American dancer Ruth St. Denis, a contemporary of Isadora Duncan and I wondered who might an unknown Canadian choreographer and dancer be when audiences for classical ballets were shocked by modern dancers in bare feet and others bringing monkeys and elephants onto the stage, rather like forerunners to Cirque de Soleil. That’s how Ginger Brown came to life and so I had great fun writing her ‘diaries’ and eventually I had to send her up to entertain the troops building the Alaska Highway. Ditto for dreaming up a way to stop the environmental and financial boondoggle that is the Site C Dam, which we with Peace River roots have had to fight against four separate times over the last 50 years.
If there’s a novelist whose work you most admire, who would it be? (Can be more than one of course!) And why? Are there ways you find yourself absorbing that (or those) novelist’s techniques? I admire, and read, so many novelists that I honestly cannot pick just one so a random off-the-top list would include Louise Erdrich, Michael Ondaatje, Anne DeGrace, Bodil Bredsdorff, Patrick DeWitt and Anthony Doerr. But Paulette Jiles came to mind immediately, author of novels like Enemy Women, The Colour of Lightning, Lighthouse Island and the most recent gem, News of the World, a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016. Paulette’s advice to me early in my career, which I freely pass on to students and writer friends wherever I go, was: Write how you talk. Do not write like a Victorian governess unless you are one. I interpreted this further to mean: listen well to how other people talk. Absorb their rhythms and hesitations, their choice of vocabulary, the words they say and their silences.
What method did you develop to achieve this realism of voice in your stories? Nearly ten years before I met Paulette at David Thompson University Centre in Nelson where I earned a diploma in Creative Writing, I earned my B.A. and Teacher’s Certificate at UBC. For several fourth year courses, I began tape-recording pioneers in the Peace River country: a Red Cross Outpost Hospital nurse, river freighter, immigrant farmers, radio operator in Watson Lake, school teachers, war brides on homesteads and small town radio founders. These tapes are now held in the Royal BC Museum in Victoria and in the North Peace Museum in Fort St. John but they resonated with me when I did the recordings, older people sharing some of the most profound moments of their lives with me and I heard some of those voices when I wrote poetry and again when I heard Paulette’s sage advice. So don’t imitate other writers. Read them to love their stories, their voices, but learn to write in your own authentic voice. It also helps me to have worked in theatre and to have written for radio and stage pieces as that’s all about voice, about someone on a stage or a disembodied voice from the radio or from within a book, a voice calling out to you all by yourself, late at night saying, get comfy, I have a really good story I have to tell you.
Alaska Highway Two-Step will be available through all the usual outlets.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

On hope, despair, Remembrance, Cohen, Kishkan...on November 11, 2016

Dear Friends,
Do not despair on this dark day. Instead, read this wonderful essay by Theresa Kishkan, whose novella, Winter Wren, is one of the finest books I've read lately. She blogs daily from her forest home on the B.C. coast and this one is particularly elevating and magnificent re: Leonard Cohen and the US election.
So do not let any bullies, those larger than life on our TV screens, lurking in packs in our schoolyards or smearing hatred on the internet as anonymous arbiters of taste, get us down. Nasty, mean people are deeply insecure humourless cowards. This is my less poetic and final response to this election.

Be even kinder, more welcoming, and helpful to the vulnerable, in word and deed. Defy hateful ignorance of all kinds. Speak up and name it for what it is. Rise above the crass, the petty and the corrupt and take the high road always. Be as fine a human being as you can be and do not succumb to despair. Transform ugly reality with your art, your daily work, and your love no matter what. Shock wears off, anger is self-destructive and denial is a self-induced state of limbo. I vow I will not obsess about the Ugly American whose "values" are utterly deplorable. That gives away my own power, my peace of mind, and severs my own brain and heart from my higher self. Desiderata and all that.

Today, instead, I remember my funny, smart, outspoken Dad who served in an Edmonton regiment for five long years of his youth in WW2 and who met my half-starved beautiful Mom in a celebratory street dance in Schiedam, Holland. Today I remember the incomparable Leonard Cohen who rose above the usual nay-sayers to offer his wisdom to the world, a world which actually heard him, Hallelujah!, and celebrated those words of wisdom, Bonus! Long live Leonard Cohen!

Understanding=empathy=peace. That is my mathematical equation for today. Numbers have never been my forte especially when merged with any attempt at analysis of the popular vote vs electoral seat results or in Canada, federal and provincial riding boundaries. Let's take heart in victories, small and great, like the very recent fourteen (14!!) year court challenge by the BC Teachers Federation vs the provincial government which finally ruled that teachers deserved the smaller classroom sizes they asked for and which the court back-dated to 2002. This was, of course,  when they first challenged the numbers due to extremely difficult working conditions, especially in cities and also in small K-12 schools I've worked in, schools populated by many first languages other than English and students with extremely varied intellectual and physical capabilities. A better quality public education means more children helped to reach their potential by less stressed-out teachers, which leads to deeper understanding. And learning in an environment where many diverse children are able to contribute fully, and are heard by peers and teachers and support staff, where bullying is called out promptly, where art and music classes are not the first to be scrapped, teaches empathy and non-violent expression which leads to tolerance which leads to peaceful, productive, talented and altogether fine human beings, of that there is little doubt.

So take heart, respect your own sacrifices and those of others and go forth willingly into the fray! Or the ocean spray in my case, all the very best, Caroline

Saturday, July 9, 2016

DeCluttering Out At The Lighthouse

There comes a time between the intensive labour of spring planting and the fulsome garlic harvest of mid-July. Sure, the berries must be picked daily or else the birds will get them and then there is the daily onslaught of English cukes from the greenhouse since late June and soon, zucchinis will spill forth from their old wheelbarrow and halved oyster barrel containers where their rampant enthusiasms are more or less contained. 

That time is when the deep freezer is scrutinized for containers and plastic bags of blackberries labelled July 2014, strawberries and raspberries hailing from June of 2015 and blueberries from a bulk purchase of unknown origins. Rhubarb, carefully sliced and somehow missed underneath all the other berries, but definitely elderly now. A bag of last year's frozen cherry tomatoes and a few late heritage varieties as well comes to over three pounds and yes, it takes up a lot of room as well. It's eat 'em up or compost, get creative or dine glumly on freezer-burned produce which really should be enjoyed no later than six months after harvesting and freezing.

Then there is the refrigerator, with about five pounds of apples, all with bruises and other signs of wear and tear, stored since May. My sourdough starter or biga is near the end of its natural life and the covered dish I keep it in takes up a lot of room on the fridge shelf. 

The grocery tender (our jargon for a Coast Guard helicopter on the once-monthly grocery delivery run) is scheduled for this week but fog, drizzle, rain and gale force winds have all conspired to delay it several days running. Still, chances look better for Friday, with a forecast for showers and not this relentless soft rain and fog. I need to clear out the refrigerator shelves for new perishables and to clean out the freezer for a big order of frozen specials from Thrifty's and for a half year's worth of an incoming meat order from the Tofino Ucluelet Culinary Guild. Also, Jeff went out on a rare calm early morning this week and caught a black rock cod, an orange rockfish and an 18 lb blue ling cod, and I am encouraging him to pay for our new/used boat by catching lots and lots of fish for us! Some salmon and halibut in particular... but we clean and filet and freeze most of the catch, saving some for a Mexican pescados tacos meal from scratch. Yum, yum.

Rain. Welcome, welcome rain in July. We've been conserving water since mid-May but now all three household cisterns are filling up and so is the big one holding 20,000 gallons (estimated), built in 1904. Rain also means we cannot paint and mow or do other outside chores. Rain provides a good excuse to stay inside and tackle inside jobs.....

So, in we plunged. Jeff heated up the ancient blackberries and put them through our berry sieve and began gelato production for our Donvier ice-cream/frozen yoghurt appliance. I made applesauce out of the bruised and cut apples and then launched into oatmeal applesauce cookies. I made bumbleberry compote from old rhubarb, old blackberries and a few more apples to cut the acidity. Jeff then made one of his amazing fruit crisps out of the bumbleberry sauce.

I made a big batch of sourdough breads and carved off two pizza doughs to freeze for later use. Then I blanched the frozen tomatoes, the last of the greenhouse crop of 2015 and slipped off their skins for Jeff's Moosewood tomato sauce. We had a lovely vegetarian pasta dinner last night and toasted our hard work. We had bare shelves and spare compartments in the fridge and freezer. The grocery chopper arrived on Friday and our fridge, freezer and pantry shelves were filled again. The cisterns are filled with water too. It looks like a bumper crop in the garden this summer judging by our early results.

All is well on the Lennard Island Lightstation.

Monday, June 6, 2016

My Convocation Address to the Graduates of Northern Lights College 2016


Thank you, Northern Lights College, for this great personal and professional honour today where we have primarily gathered to commend and applaud the hard work and sacrifices of the graduates and their families.  Thank you for the generosity and enduring patience of the Treaty 8 First Nations and the Kelly Lake Cree Nation on whose territory the beautiful buildings, the classrooms, labs and workshops of this College are built in the key cities of the North and South Peace region.

When I attended the two-and later three-room Transpine School in Cecil Lake, I did not read about our own rivers, lakes or our own wide sky or about the First Nations who have lived here for at least ten thousand years or the European immigrants, like my parents from Holland and Wales, who toiled as homesteaders on this northern prairie. I devoured the books that came in the Bookmobile two or three times a year with pioneer librarian Howard Overend at the wheel of what was to me, a truly Magic Bus, a bus that Mr. Overend named Parnassus, for the sacred mountain peak in Greece, the mythical home of poetry and literature.

I knew in my child's heart and mind that our rural lives were every bit as interesting, and as important to read about as the stories of children in England and America and, somewhere along the line, as I wrote songs and plays for my school friends and I to perform, I resolved to write books about our forgotten lives in this often-overlooked part of the world, then proudly claimed as Canada’s most northerly agricultural breadbasket and now treated as some industrial sacrifice zone for the rest of this province.

When I was a high school student and wrote a weekly news column for the Alaska Highway News for two years, I learned the three golden rules of journalism: spell everyone's name correctly, get the facts straight from the original source, find a second source with expertise in the subject to corroborate if my BS radar is waggling wildly, and always be inclusive and generous because every individual, every club and team and every issue of concern in the community matters deeply to someone and people deserve a fair and even-handed account. I learned to apply more nuance, more depth, and more edges too when faced with wily subjects and when writing in other forms than the “just the facts, ma’am” reportage bashed out on a typewriter in the Office Practices classroom every Wednesday by this Girl Reporter on the Loose. Later still, at the University of British Columbia far from home where I went for my post-secondary education long before these first-class facilities were built in the Peace, I learned not to be afraid to question Authority or anyone else. And to back up my curiosity with solid research, in other words, do my homework and consult with others because as the brilliant Canadian Joni Mitchell sings, Two Heads Are Better Than One, and I’d add that six are even better than two. The truth is out there, after all, and it lives inside our own hearts and minds too. Add solitude and wilderness to your lives as often as possible, to stay inspired. And never forget where clean water and healthy food comes from and where your waste materials go either, to stay grounded.

Writing as an occupation is as hard or worse than farming as our products are both subject to the vagaries of markets and mere opinions beyond our control, of urban trends and technological change that is inexorable wherein what may have worked once will not work as well ever again, so we must be humble and alert to the signs and change our ways. Adapt. Albert Einstein said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” (Just sayin') Einstein didn't say that. I did but his honest statement excites and drives forward the innovators among us in all fields! What if? Let’s try this! Great science and great art spring from experiment, from trying the so-called impossible. His wise words can also be interpreted to mean: Listen, observe, ask questions, be open-minded and tolerant of other points of view en route to creating a better world together.

If we choose to work at what we love, we will love our work for the rest of our lives with no regrets, learning from our mistakes, accepting them, working smarter, moving forward. That’s my strategy and I’m sticking to it. This is not to say that I don’t wish all of you a steady and substantial income for your talents rather than the minor feast and famine situation I’ve gotten myself into, don’t get me wrong! But if you have to leave your heart at home to earn cold, hard cash in a workplace where you feel unsafe and devalued, where you are paid to do work you find ethically reprehensible, find a way to work with others to organize change for the better, not just for yourself but for everyone else too, especially those more vulnerable than you are. Be open to the possibilities and the choices you have in every situation, always.

Becoming a writer, after trying out a good number of white, pink and blue collar jobs, has allowed me to ask questions and ponder answers, large and small, to research history, psychology, oceanography and countless other subjects, to wonder Why Not? and to imagine What If? Writing for me is an act of synthesis and of empathy, of imaginatively putting myself into another person’s shoes and walking their walk, in order to attempt to understand what motivates or torments or heals them. Writing is about reaching in and handing out what I’ve arrived at in understanding or gained as insight about this human condition thing we all struggle with. It’s why I write. It’s why I read.

No matter whether we choose, or are born to be, absolutely original artists like Ben Heppner or Brian Jungen or Roy Forbes, to cite three great ones whose company as honourees of Northern Lights College I must now strive to stand alongside, or if we offer the world our talents as administrators of ground-breaking social or medical programs to benefit humanity, as inventors of better technology to clean industrial waste water, as explorers, entertainers or veterinarians, it is really about becoming more evolved human beings, about being as kind and non-judgmental to each other as possible for we are all, despite outward appearances, carrying burdens in our hearts or minds or bodies. This is the inevitable truth of the human condition. We may start out “invincible, infertile and immortal” but we soon learn, unless we are chronically oblivious to cues from the real world, in which case learning is delayed -but still inevitable- that we are “fallible, frail and often foolish” in the Life decision-making department. In other words, we are each and everyone of us flawed yet potentially fabulous human beings, fodder for every writer and actor. To quote Marilyn Monroe, “we are all of us stars, and we deserve to twinkle”. I see a lot of twinkling from the seats here today and so you should. Gleam away all you grads, you proud families and yes, the instructors and professors who pushed and inspired the grads to get here today, too!

Finally, no matter where I've lived and worked in this world since first leaving to attend university, this landscape, this climate, the wild and the domestic realities of survival here in the Peace still resonate the most with me. I think we bond like ducks, to the earth and the water and the voices of the people we were surrounded by when we were very young and all the world was new. So spread your wings, fly high and wide, be of good cheer, it does get better, always do your best, be courageous and be kind. Don’t forget to call home, or your mothers will worry, and carry the Peace in your hearts forever. Thank you and congratulations to us all!

Caroline Woodward for Northern Lights College Commencement Address June 3, 2016, Dawson Creek where an Honorary Associate of Arts Degree was conferred upon yours truly for my "contributions to Peace River, Canadian and international literature."
Feel free to share freely but please do not quote or reproduce in part or entirely without acknowledging or asking permission from the source, i.e., Caroline Woodward, as I have done with quotes from Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe and Joni Mitchell.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Discovering Carlos Ruiz Zafon: review of The Prisoner of Heaven

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón


During a holiday to Isla Mujeres, Mexico in February, 2015, a jewellery shop manager and I started chatting about books while my husband browsed for a birthday present for his sister. Henry recommended Carlos Ruiz Zafon, a Spanish writer, in particular his trilogy called 'The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.' I loved that title. I'm also pushover for books in which bookstores play a major role, well beyond the 'backdrop denoting some nerdy intelligence' role allotted to bookstores by most of the movie industry.

My non-pushy, book-loving, jewellery store friend Henry had not read any Canadian writers because not many of us are translated into Spanish and he prefers 'epics', plural, which I took to mean a series of books which are connected, going by his description of Zafon's work. Henry's English was ten times better than my Spanish. I think I recommended Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Lawrence Hill and I hope I remembered to write down Fred Stenson and Miriam Toews as well. Honestly, I could easily have recommended about fifty Canadian authors if I'd had the time and a large enough notepad. But back to the point, which is the discovery of a wonderful new-to-me writer, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who divides his time between Barcelona and Los Angeles.

As it happened, the remote library service which we lightkeepers use sent me Book #3 first, but somewhere on the book jacket maybe?, I read that the books can be read in any order. Certainly I felt that there was a Book #4 waiting when I finished this one. It is set in fascist Spain in the 30's and 40's, mostly, with well-paced fast-forwards to the 70's I think (the book has been returned so I'm going from memory here) and much of the action which isn't in and around the bookstore takes place in a hideous prison where unspeakable things are done by the sadist in charge to the usual threats to fascism: artists, novelists, union organizers, doctors, in short, the suspiciously literate and skilled who are possibly left-leaning socialists or rabid Communists to boot. No character is a stock 2-D persona, not even the sadist in charge who longs to be adored for his deathless prose and poetry and whose ability to social climb and to seek ways and means to self-aggrandizement sets a new high (or low) for bureaucrats with literary pretensions world-wide. Truly, a priceless character if he weren't so devoid of soul, heart, brain or basic humanity, of course.

A very famous novelist is in this medieval fortress of a prison and at first, the narrator (one of the bookstore employees) thinks he has gone barking mad but after prolonged study from a neighbouring cell, he arrives at the conclusion that this could be a most effective smoke-screen on the part of the novelist. The writing/translation is impeccable, the plot moves the reader along like a raft on a beautiful, treacherous river (this book kept me up until two a.m. several nights) and the characters are simply unforgettable. I now await the arrival of Book #1, The Shadow of the Wind and #2, The Rose of Fire and hope for a Book #4.