Thursday, October 18, 2018

On Gratitude: a Thanksgiving blog

Dahlias, Lennard Island Lightstation, October 2018. Truth & Beauty...
Seamus Woodward-George explains a finer point of physics to mystified parents
Molly Brown, sea-dog and CEO of Lennard Island Lightstation
Jeff George, photographer and principal lightkeeper documenting the Big Storm of 2018 which tossed logs onto our helipad

A wonderful collaboration with artist Carol Evans resulted in this book, published by the great folks at Harbour Publishing, September 2018
Carol Evans and I,  aka long-lost sisters, enjoy morning coffee in Salt Spring Island mugs! Photo by the good-natured Bryn King, book tour driver, feedback provider, all-round roadie, computer whiz and paparazzi!
On Gratitude                                                                                        By Caroline Woodward

When your doctor beams at you before saying a word and you know she is relieved not to be the bearer of bad news. And that my world will not be turned upside down. Some day it will be but today will not be that day. I feel every healthy cell instantly flooded with some internal bath of sweet relief. My always reliable blood pressure is even better than usual. More kudos, more mutual smiles. I float down the clinic hallway and rejoin the colour and noise and glowing lights of the world outside, stepping lightly off a low-lying cloud, a suspended fogbound world of my most dire imaginings.

Gratitude, a word derived from the French, first used in written English in the 15th century, meaning thankfulness and a warm sense of appreciation for kindness received and a desire to do something in return. OED

I am also proud, happy and grateful for perseverance all around when our child, who is no longer a boy but a grown man and a genuinely good soul, flies to a Norwegian island near the Arctic Circle for a physics course. It’s an eight day blitz but Map Boy aka Mister 3-D is flying with this rare opportunity. He’s like us and loves to travel. Unlike his math-challenged parents, he is also keen on robots which he designs with a team of brilliant students at the University of Saskatchewan and this year as well, they will be making a small satellite to fulfill a Canada Space Agency contract, one of five awarded to Canadian universities. If you’d asked me twenty years ago what this little boy might create, might become, I cannot imagine what I’d have said. A carpenter or a chef maybe? Even before he went to kindergarten, he loved making things, from stirring big batches of muffins with me to inventing elaborate castles and moats with sand and water with his dad. Entirely on his own, he enjoyed making series of vertical tunnels using empty toilet paper rolls which he’d tape to my office door. Then he’d climb up on a chair and send a ping pong ball accurately zig-zagging from the top to the bottom of the door through all his ‘tunnels’ and out onto the carpet. He was three and a half years old then, I think. But I would have hoped he’d still be a good person most of all, no matter what, a good and kind person, and despite the usual, and more than usual, life challenges he’s faced. So I have intense gratitude for all our patience and perseverance and what Buddhists call metha or loving kindness as both parents and child problem-solved and supported each other in our best efforts. My gratitude also goes out to the teachers who understood and whose helpful awareness and professional skills made all the difference.

Our thoughtful son gave me a Tim Horton’s card with a $25 credit at the start of a book tour in 2010. I still had a car then and drove hundred of kilometres to the Kootenays and the Shuswap/Okanagan, Vancouver, Victoria and Vancouver Island giving public readings and signing my books in bookstores. I had not had a trade book published since 1993 and this was the re-start of my stalled writing career with a novel I’d laboured over for the better part of twelve years in-between motherhood, renovating a circa 1900 building, opening and operating The Motherlode with my husband, a village book and toy store, busily serving on local and provincial boards and councils, teaching creative writing classes and workshops, and singing in a wonderful choir. I loved all the things I was learning and working with all sorts of bright and talented people but I despaired of ever having enough time and focus to complete the novel satisfactorily.

On tour, I live on coffee and water and apples and almonds in my car, in-between actual meals once I reach my destination. I still have that Timmy’s card my son gave me and before every book tour I make sure I have it with me, topped up and ready to pay for my large double/singles to go. Other book tour rituals pertain as well. I am grateful for the cheerful nature, lively conversation and amazing hair styling skills of Jessica Taylor at Salty Dolls in Tofino who transforms my shaggy mop into a chic hairdo before I head out to meet the public, feeling much more well-groomed and therefore, perky! I used to buy new shoes whenever I published a new book but I’ve let that ritual celebration go by the wayside. My thriftier self advises me to wait until I actually earn royalties worth spending on nifty boots or red shoes. If I ever win a real prize (nine nominations and no joy yet but who’s counting?) I’ll buy extravagant flannelette sheets AND fabulous boots and shoes, guilt-free.

But here’s the wonderful part of getting a book published after years of rewriting and coming up with fictional characters and plots and all the rest of it: meeting old friends and new readers who come out to wish me well. Some of them bring flowers or home-grown tomatoes or home-made preserves. My favourite people in this world all have that twinkle, that sense of fun and Jessica possesses that twinkle. She plays banjo, sings harmony and writes songs for her bluegrass band, Little Saturday, among other adventures in music and travel.

It may sound odd, but it won’t to many readers who work at building all kinds of things, from organizations to buildings to books, but when a project is completed, nobody is more relieved and grateful than the builder. We feel we have earned hard-won integrity in our own eyes at last by actually finishing the project (our close relatives and those patient souls who share a life with us are mightily relieved as well) and we may even allow ourselves a rest after completing this complex and challenging task. But no, rest comes later because we have to hit the road to promote the project in the case of a book or keep scheduling meetings and including bright minds and energetic do-ers, if we are building an organization to improve lives in our communities like my good friend, writer Rita Moir does with her group, building beautiful homes for seniors in rural British Columbia.

The other wonderful thing that happens when a book goes out into the world is hearing from readers, those lovely people who send me emails thanks to finding me on Facebook or finding my website, designed by Doug Cook, web wizard at Digicom. I am a reader first, a writer second and I have written less than five letters to authors to say what I liked about their books and how they were important to me in some way. Every single author responded warmly as do I when I receive a personal letter. This is not to say there aren’t the usual trolls and poison pens out there but they are immature cowards who rely on anonymity or some form of protective camouflage to spew their toxic envy. As another friend says, if the haters are out to get you, you must be doing something right. So I’m grateful to have a few of those sad sacks waddling around as well to remind me of that fact!

Finally, since this is a Thanksgiving-inspired blog, I am thankful for my family, far away in Australia, Europe and the UK, and our son on Andoya, an island near the Arctic Circle in Norway and especially my husband, and our dog. Mustn’t forget the dog, who adores us on a daily basis, … and anyone else who arrives on our island as well, let’s be honest! My 93 year old mother is, thanks largely to my sister’s ongoing work, settled in a beautiful assisted living home now after a fairly hectic move but the outcome was worth all the bother and hard labour. I am also blessed with friends from all over the world and the only way to keep them is to communicate so I am grateful, hugely grateful, for the internet which allows me to stay in touch with them and to work with editors and send out my book reviews to BC Bookworld and articles to Harrowsmith and other publications. This was truly the deal-breaker for a modern lighthouse keeper and thanks to my clever and persistent husband, we have installed a satellite dish on this green rock in the North Pacific which allows me to work, to share what I think and hope and dream in print.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Book Review of Sustenance: Writers From BC and Beyond on the Subject of Food

A version of this review first appeared in the spring 2018 issue of the quarterly magazine, BC Bookworld and is reprinted here with permission. A great book to browse, graze or devour!

Book Review of Sustenance: Writers from BC and Beyond on the Subject of Food
Edited and with a Foreword by Rachel Rose
Published by Anvil Press
978-1-77214-101-6   $25 large trade paperback
Image result for "Sustenance Rachel Rose"
Let me begin by putting on my bookseller’s hat and asking the key question: who will reach for this book?

Gardeners who sigh happily over the new batch of seed catalogues arriving in late January, cooks who read cookbooks like other people immerse themselves in books of short stories, amateur and professional chefs, readers and writers of compressed, powerful poetry and prose, those who appreciate photography and will discover Derek Fu’s gorgeous work…and that’s just for starters.

There are 151 tidbits to savour from writers who live in Vancouver, where Poet Laureate Rachel Rose envisioned this highly collaborative book, and from elsewhere around the world. There are contributions from nationally renowned poets like Lorna Crozier, John Pass and Susan Musgrave, nearly-anonymous librarians who write like angels, celebrated chefs like Karen Barnaby, Meeru Dhalwala, Vikram Vij and Frank Pabst, thoughtful children and wise elders, some speaking Arabic and Cree. There are farmers, beekeepers, fishers and backyard gardeners, First Nations, Metis, refugees and members of their welcome committees.

As Poet Laureate for the City of Vancouver from 2014-2017, Rachel Rose wanted a community project which offered another world view than the muttering and braying about walls to keep out the Other, meaning Muslims, Mexicans, and desperate refugees the world over. Rose had already spent years volunteering with Burmese families in Surrey, shopping for food, shampooing hair, attending graduations, weddings and funerals. Her genuine Canadian hospitality imbues this book project too because the money raised by sales, as well as every single writer’s honorarium, is donated to the BC Farmer’s Market Nutrition Coupon Program so that low-income families will have access to fresh, locally-grown food.

So as well as bringing so many wonderful writers together at the ‘table’ of Sustenance,  the book itself is a gift that keeps on giving, the Poet Laureate’s inspired “love letter to the city.”

The selected writings, as you’d expect from an editor and writer of her stature with award-winning work published internationally and an abiding focus on human rights, is unfailingly eloquent. This is not a book written by or for people scampering off to find the trending mustard de jour. As well as thoughtful, we have hilarious (Jane Silcott’s ‘Cooking Class & Marriage Lessons’ and Karen Barnaby’s ‘Blackberry Fever’), heart-breaking (Sophia Karasouli-Milobar’s ‘Fava Bean Stew’ and Elizabeth Ross’ ‘Milky Way’), sensual (Jeff Steudel’s ‘Recipe’), life-affirming (Brian Brett’s ‘I Want to Serve Food to Strangers’) and carnivorous, although I would also cross-file it under hilarious (kjmunro’s ‘hungry in Tofino’).

The voices are as diverse as the forms— interviews, memoirs, recipes, both literal and figurative, prose and poems of all kinds, some as paeans to moose meat, bees, bread, beer, tomatoes, rice, beloved grandmothers, salmon, maple syrup, elk heart and fresh berries. The writers tackle subjects as difficult as anorexia, obesity, starvation, sugar, animal deaths, and allergies, real and possibly, imposed (see the delightful, plaintive essay, ‘Check the Ingredients!’ by Charles Dickens Grade 6 student, Ayla Maxwell).

What makes this book important and substantial to me begins with the obvious, universal fact: we all must eat to survive. Secondly, food is served on a platter of emotional connections to people, place and experience, the things that really matter to each of us therefore,  the writing packs a visceral wallop. To sum up, food, sustenance, is intensely personal as well as political (read Billeh Nickerson’s smart, incisive poem ‘A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Vancouver Food (In)Securities’).

The final words, amid the cornucopia of offerings at this banquet for humanity, goes to ten year old collaborators, Bodhi Cutler and Gus Jackson, who both attend Charles Dickens Elementary School in Vancouver. ‘Every Dish is Unique’ is their short, sweet and perfectly apt essay which sums up Sustenance.

‘Every dish is unique because every Vancouverite makes it a tiny bit different. We all have our styles and our ingredients, our suppliers and our equipment. There are restaurants who will probably make great pasta with the best calamari. Your mom can make a great homemade meal she invented herself. No two meals taste the same because they are like humans, unique and great.’


Saturday, February 24, 2018

An Appreciation of Ursula K. Le Guin & Lorna Obermayr

By sheer coincidence, I read Le Guin's last novel, Lavinia, in January, inspired by all things Etruscan and Roman after a long-overdue return trip to Italy in the fall of 2017. Then I read her amazing book of tips for writers, from beginners to tired old writers with many books under our figurative belts, Steering the Craft, which is also wise and brilliant. I was building up to writing a fan letter, which I've only done about three times in my long'ish life, when Ursula K. Le Guin passed away a few weeks ago. I was bereft, somehow, and filled with regret.

All that humming and hawing and thinking about the right thing to write to such a great writer and then boom, the moment is lost forever. Well, one more book arrived from within our green linen remote library services bag of books last week and I devoured it and felt, just a little, forgiven in absentia for my dithering. No Time To Spare is a book of Le Guin's blogs, edited with loving care and with an introduction by writer Karen Joy Fowler, a delight to read itself.

Blogs were a discovery for Le Guin, who came across Nobel Prize-winning Jose Saramago's blogs and as a fan of his, she was inspired to become a blogger, which her impish sense of humour had fun with first, as a word nerd will appreciate. The book tackles many subjects-from not having enough time left in her life to write, to the antics of her cat and the views and wildlife she appreciated from a desert cabin retreat. This book was just awarded the PEN/Diamonstein-Speilvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. She writes about anger, diminishing physical stamina, children, music concerts, letters from children and from adults, American politics, and a declawed and defanged lynx in a conservation rescue facility. It is the kind of book aging writers will comprehend most keenly, I think. I remember an artist friend of mine, Lorna Obermayr, exhorting me to do as much work as I could while I was young and strong because the fire in the belly simmers down for some and the physical stamina to stand and paint or to sit and write wanes as we age. Good, sound advice. Thank you, Lorna, gone far too soon. At least I managed to write a short eulogy which another friend read at the celebration of your life.

There are people I meet in this life whom I want, essentially, to live forever or at least, selfishly, as long as me. I adore them, plain and simple. They are brilliant at what they do so they are a source of inspiration just because they are who they are, they work hard and rarely whine about anything, they have integrity, they are big-hearted and they usually have a wicked sense of humour as well. Lorna Obermayr was such a force and so, I sense from her literary legacy and especially this book of essays, her blogs, was Ursula K. Le Guin.

May Ursula Le Guin's fangs and claws last for the rest of the earth's existence! Long live Le Guin! Thank the stars we have writers like her to make us sit up straight, to make us dream, to observe more closely, to think more critically, to love the humans and creatures, wild and domestic, we share the planet with. Thank you, Ursula K. Le Guin.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Book Review of The Talking Spade, Laughter in the Shadows & The Power of Pulses

The Talking Spade: Garden Lore from North Slocan Elders by Anne Champagne 978-0-9950700-0-4 (Healthy Community Society of the North Slocan Valley, New Denver, B.C.) 2016

Laughter in the Shadows: Stories of Courage from 11 Zambian Women by Marianne Stamm 978-0-9867821-5-2 (Marerob Press, Calgary/Switzerland) 2015
                                          Laughter in the Shadows: Stories of Courage from 11 Zambian Women
  The Power of Pulses by Dan Jason, Hilary Malone and Alison Malone Eathorne 978-1-77162-102-1(Douglas & McIntyre (2013) Ltd., Madeira Park, B.C.) 2016
                                           Image result for "The Power of Pulses Jason"                                      

November. Sigh. Possibly the grimmest month of the year, predominantly grey and dull brown with a skimpy bit of snow if you’re lucky. Nothing for gardeners to do except finish cleaning up soggy leaves and other debris and sharpening and oiling tools, or waiting, in my case, for a West Coast cold snap to dash out and prune the David Austen rose outside my kitchen window so the poor thing will not lose any more bark-skin being thrashed around by the storms coming at us.

January. Yay! The garden catalogues begin to show up in our mailboxes. Life! Greenery! Glorious colour! Hope!

Meanwhile, what to do with November and December? Hang on to your dreams by reading interesting and beautiful books about gardening, is what I’d advise. From the early spring greenhouse starts of old faithfuls and new plant adventures to late fall harvests, I tend to head directly to my garden problem-solving, bugs and mildew I.D. sorts of books but to get me through the gloom prior to those extra minutes of sunlight commencing with the December Solstice, I need the wisdom, truth and beauty of good garden books like these three. What a treat, each and every one of them, and they underline how deeply ingrained the word ‘culture’ is in agriculture, whether it is practiced by elders from diverse backgrounds in a green mountain valley in British Columbia’s southeastern corner, by stalwart no-nonsense women in Zambia, Africa, or by a pioneering heritage seed company founder from Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, ably assisted by two fabulous young foodie sisters.

The Talking Spade began with one inspired teacher and an enthusiastic parent aka project manager, shepherding a combined class of Grade 4, 5 & 6 students from New Denver’s K-12 Lucerne Elementary Secondary School. New Denver is a village of less than six hundred souls but it has a community school, a hospital and extended care facility on the shores of Slocan Lake, lovely public garden spaces including the Japanese-inspired aesthetics of the Kohan Friendship Garden beside the sweet little village campground and much, much more. It is one of those magical places in the West Kootenay region which is, as long-time resident and writer Anne Champagne describes, “known for its profusion of artists, self-sufficient progressives, organic growers and yes, colourful personalities.”

The children went out to learn about gardening from twenty-nine elders, to ask questions during and after their tours of compost tea barrels and bins which exemplify “Gardener’s alchemy: turning dross into  gold”. They examined a range of endeavours during two years, from companion planting to backyard chicken flocks to harvesting wild plants. They swooned over lilacs and dozens of rose varieties, wandered into root cellars and around greenhouses, admired stupendous vegetable patches and sampled luscious fruit from vines, shrubs and trees.

There is an abundance of choice garden advice and philosophy throughout which applies to gardeners anywhere in the world as well as stunningly beautiful and inspiring photographs by Valley-born and raised artist Chillia Zoll, with several guest contributions, on every page, and a simply gorgeous book design by Theresa Tremaine. Saving seeds, savoury, sour and sweet recipes, paying daily attention to what is going on with plants, watering methods and devices, seasonal tips for planting, not to mention planting for climate change, and dancing with deer…all this in an eloquent tribute to the sharing between old and new cultures (Doukhobor, Japanese, European, Canadian and American back-to-the-landers) and between the generations. It is truly an eloquent and lovely gem of garden lore and a primer for other energetic teachers and involved parents to emulate in schools elsewhere. Most of all, it is beautifully written in a self-effacing manner so that the personalities of each of the gardeners shines through in their own speech patterns with lovingly portrayed descriptions of the lined faces and hands of the elders. The gentle humour is absolutely charming, as with the scene of the children returning from a garden visit who “parade up main street with massive leaves (of rhubarb) bobbing overhead like umbrellas”.

This book is available in New Denver at Raven’s Nest (, 250 358-2178), the Valley Voice office (, 250 358-7218), and through Anne Champagne (, and in Nakusp at Spiritwood (, 250-265-0083). It costs $25 plus shipping.

Another take on agriculture ten thousand miles away from the north Slocan Valley is provided by Marianne Stamm, herself the daughter of Swiss homesteaders in northern B.C., and, with her husband, agricultural specialists in Zambia. Marianne’s first book, Laughter in the Shadows, came to being after eight years of work, volunteering and friendship with eleven amazing women. 85% of Zambians work in some form of agriculture and the rest are directly or indirectly involved in copper mining.

As a mzungu, or white foreigner, she had misgivings about writing about something as overwhelming as Africa but her friends themselves asked her to tell their stories so other women in Zambia as well as women in Europe and North America would know the truth of their struggles and the rewards of their knowledge and hard work. This the author has done in a respectful, open-minded yet intimate way and likewise, there are pensive, sombre or joyful photographic portraits of each woman featured which add immense appeal to the book.

In a country where the relatives of a recently-deceased husband can and do descend on his household to strip it of every pot and pan and table-cloth, leaving the wife or wives, destitute along with their children, this is no small thing, to bravely speak up. But these are stories of women with great courage and hard-won wisdom.  One woman wants her story to help others who are HIV-positive. Yet another wants to share the information about agriculture she is learning with others, to help improve their lives as well. Another is very interested in learning more about nutrition and keeps trying new crops, like soybeans. Bonus, unlike the tall stalks of maize (corn), thieves cannot hide in the short bean crop and steal from it. Most of the women want food security and better educations for their children, to be able to provide enough food to survive no matter what befalls them. The advice of one wise woman is always to start small. “Plant a small amount of something new. Do it well. Then increase the acreage only when you know you can manage.” 3000 tomato plants later she has a thriving market business.

One widow worked full-time as a nurse, which does not pay well but which comes with a small house. She travelled on the jam-packed public buses after her work shift to buy beans near the Tanzania border, where they were cheaper, and brought them back to the market at home to sell them there. She cultivated a large garden and raised chickens, bringing them into the house every night so they would not be stolen. Another walks miles to a separate plot to cultivate food crops to sell. The sheer amount of tenacity and labour and extra hours these determined women work is staggering.

The kindness and helpfulness of Marianne is rarely in the forefront but it is obvious to me that she is beloved and trusted for her support and friendship as she manoeuvred through bureaucracies in order to send women to an agriculture course, for example. Her lively descriptions are as vivid as the head scarves and smiles in the portraits and we feel, much like the author, invited into the living rooms to listen to the life stories of these remarkable women. The perfect gift for that special young or retired person in your family who wants to put their own education and life experience to good use in the bigger world where the need is greatest. That too, takes courage and this well-written book will inspire them.

A handy glossary of African and agricultural words and cultural terms is provided. This book is available on Kindle ($9.99 approx) and online at Amazon and in Canada at the Cecil Lake Store in BC (250-785-4001)  and in select Alberta locations as well as by contacting the author at for more information.

If you want to try growing food to cope with rising costs and climate change, you would do well to consult The Power of Pulses: Saving the World with Peas, Beans, Chickpeas, Favas & Lentils. This is another gorgeous full-colour book to savour in November and to earmark garden beds and begin seed ordering in January too. This book has it all from veteran seed grower Dan Jason, and by all I mean, information on why pulses are better for our own and the planet’s health (high protein, low carbon footprint, heart healthy for starters), growing your own and harvesting, fresh or dried. To top it all off, there are fifty scrumptious recipes for breakfast, appetizers, spreads, pickles, salads, main and side dishes and desserts from Hilary Malone and Alison Malone Eathorne who have already won me over with their superb cookbook, Sea Salt: Recipes from the West Coast Galley.

Here are some pertinent facts:
-Canada is the world’s largest exporter of dried peas and beans et al, known as pulses, but we consume less than 10% of them at home
-pulses are gluten-free, high in Vitamin B and fibre and very low on the glycemic index for those with diabetes or heart disease
-pulses use half the non-renewable (fossil fuel) energy of other crops like grains to cultivate and are so, so easy to grow, even for amateur gardeners
-pulses need no refrigeration, can be bought in bulk and are easy to grow organically unlike soybeans which are grown in mono-crops and with heavy pesticides unless you seek out organic beans
-lentils and other bulk beans grown in Canada are not expensive to buy
-the delicious recipes in this beautifully designed book will inspire you to go far beyond Meatless Monday. Another tip from me, check out Saskatchewan lentil and pulse growers where you might also enjoy subscribing to their free online newsletter for extra motivation to incorporate pulses into your family menus by visiting and signing up at and .

Did I mention that this book is beautiful to look at as well with amazing photographs of things like pea flowers and dishes like Crispy Chickpea Power Bowl with Tahini Dressing? It’s enough to make me charge out into the rain and plant something. Or head for the kitchen to make a better lunch than usual!

The book is available in paperback in the US and Canada ($24.95) from full service bookstores and from the usual suspects online where it is also available as an e-book. A terrific gift for the keen gardener with more than a roof-top or a balcony to work with and for the home cook who wants to jazz up a healthy menu.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Book Review of Code Blue by Marissa Slaven

Review of Code Blue by Marissa Slaven
Published by Moon Willow Press
Distributed by Ingram

Reviewed from an advance galley (manuscript-in-progress).  Code Blue will be available as an e-book and in trade paperback format in early 2018 at Amazon, Barnes & Noble & elsewhere online and on shelves where good books are sold. Remember— surprising numbers of readers still don’t know this— if your favourite independent bookstore does not carry it as a paperback, you can place a special-order request for it at no extra cost or in this case, an advance order so you can get it hot off the proverbial press. When we operated the Motherlode Bookstore in New Denver, B.C. for seven years, at least 1/4 of our sales were special orders because like other bookstores, large or small, we could not physically carry every book in the world in our wee shoppe along with the toys, board games, kites, wind chimes and funny cards… and we delighted in finding our customers their books as fast as possible.

About five years ago, the prevailing wisdom of some in the publishing industry held that dystopian fiction was done, the trend was over and The Hunger Games had cleaned up on the shelves. But the shelves kept overflowing with the Matched trilogy, Divergent trilogy, Southern Reach trilogy, Silo trilogy, Maddaddam trilogy (there’s Atwood again) and Chaos Walking trilogy, and a large and fervent readership ensued as well. Still the publishing insiders declared writers should move on to something new, whatever that might be, but preferably highly saleable.

But steadily rising above well-worn plot and character cliches were these well-written speculative fiction books  in such sub-genres of fantasy or science fiction as steampunk, solar punk, dystopian, and neo-utopian which attracted many new readers. The ‘evergreen’ trend may have had much to do with the wildfires in Tasmania, Australia, the U.S.A. and Canada as well as the news on the night of the U.S. presidential election in 2016 and ever since. The U.S. reneging on the Paris Climate Accord and the sabre-rattling of nuclear weapons between North Korea and the U.S. is the kind of irresponsible puerile behaviour that makes most fiction writers throw up their hands and say ‘we can’t make this stuff up.’

If all else fails, blame the spookily prescient and super-smart Margaret Atwood, who wrote Payback just before the economic crash of 2008 and whose classic 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, reinvented as a mini-series during this golden age of TV, keeps gathering awards and viewers the world over. Never mind that the handmaids were up against A.I. cowboys in the American science fiction Western thriller, Westwood, first conceived by novelist Michael Crichton in 1973 as a film, and which, with a stellar cast in the reinvented television series beginning in 2016, is yet another huge success for HBO, setting records for viewership. Among readers and viewers, there is an undeniable taste for ‘futuristic’ tales which are well-researched and plausible if not firmly based in present-day facts.

This reviewer maintains that when the intrinsic quality of the writing and the intellectual scope and vitality of the storytelling keeps engaging us, readers who do not deny we are living in frightening, challenging times, will reach for books like Station 11, Ship Breakers, The Pesthouse, The Road, The Dead Lands, Lighthouse Island and Code Blue.

Intended for a young adult audience, this novel begins at the edge of New England where the former coastline has been obliterated by the rising ocean, a familiar trope but it’s based, as much of the book is, on scientific fact. The descriptions of flooded malls far out to sea are very intriguing and believable. The teen characters—Tic, Lee, Tatum, Asker, Phish—are likeable and easy to relate to as characters, all suffering the stigma of being ‘the smart one’, ‘the weird brain’ or in one case, also belonging to a super-rich family and rebelling against it and its ill-gotten gains. Families of all descriptions are convincingly portrayed here, which is another relief for those of us fed-up with ineffectual fathers being one I.Q. point removed from Homer Simpson and chilly corporate mothers being slaves to the job and the gym.

The structure of the novel is ingenious, with each chapter heading consisting of an entrance exam question for those applying to the Academy, the place where all the smart ones finally have a peer group. This question, beginning with the first chapter’s How Long is the United States coastline? is deftly integrated into the following content so that the world-building is ongoing. It is not a dead-end. This is, I believe, important for this genre of writing, even when there is no paradise to lose.  Holding out hope for humanity is especially important for books meant for this readership. The condition of the world in Code Blue, as you would imagine if you know your hospital codes or have gleaned well from Grey’s Anatomy, is dire as in critical cardiac arrest but, an important but, it is not a terminal diagnosis.  This then is the state of Tic’s world, independent, stubborn, resourceful and bright young woman that she is.

The momentum of the plot pulls the reader along inexorably and the author, a palliative (hospice) care doctor and mother, as well as a talented writer, does not pull punches in this deeply imagined and well-crafted novel. There are corporate capitalists aligned to make big money off the spoils caused by climate change. There are religious zealots who welcome The End because they believe they are the Chosen Few so… bring it on. There are also embedded history lessons, which I applaud, about people like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber who killed 168 people, 19 of them children. A home-grown terrorist, born and raised, lest we forget. The final discovery, which I will not spoil, at first seemed to strain plausibility but given current events, it just may turn out to be prophetic and entirely credible. It certainly served the plot well. There’s just enough realistic romance and physical danger to keep readers flapping the pages as well, as all good storytelling seems to do. There is a small amount of salty street language but it is not gratuitously applied. Only an untrained puritanical librarian would have a hissy fit. Never mind, I would advise, you can't begin to buy publicity like a clumsy attempt at censorship will arouse! 

Best of all, I, for one, want to know more about this world and these people so hope the author is hard at work on a Code Orange or Grey… or Aqua… Highly recommended for ages 14-18 and adults who enjoy a well-written and intriguing story set in a future that seems eerily familiar.

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!