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Bookends: Reaching Back into Jack’s Past March 10, 2017

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Bookends: Reaching Back into Jack’s Past

By Dan Davidson

Night SchoolJanuary 23, 2017

– 843 words –

 

Night School: A Jack Reacher Novel

By Lee Child

Delacorte Press

385 pages

$15.99

 

“In the morning they gave Reacher a medal and in the afternoon they sent him back to school.”

It was a Legion of Merit – his second. It was nice, “But he figured the real reason he was getting it was the same reason he had gotten it before. It was a transaction. A contractual token. Take the bauble and keep your mouth shut about what we asked you to do for it.”

What they had asked him to do was kill a couple of bad men, not exactly the sort of detail you expect to be handed to a Military MP. It wasn’t a chase and capture scenario, but a very clinical execution.

We get a précis of this operation later in the book, during one of several intimate interludes with Dr. Marian Sinclair, who is technically Reacher’s superior in the current operation.

You see, Major Reacher has not been sent to school, but to a very high level assignment involving interagency cooperation between the military, the FBI and the CIA.

Wait a minute, you say. Where’s the former MP who travels with nothing but a bankcard and a toothbrush?

Well, Child has been giving us the Reacher saga in no particular order ever since Killing Floor. It’s rare that one novel follows right after another, though there was a pair of them a few books ago. There have also been short stories dating back to his army days, and even some from when he was an army brat, living in various exotic locales around the world.

In this book it’s 1996, just about three years since that first group of terrorists tried to blow up the World Trade Centre with some bombs in the parking garage, and Reacher is still a Major.

The Reacher books also swing back and forth between first and third person narratives, depending on the needs of the story. In this one Child decided we needed to hear some of the interplay among the bad guys, so it’s a third person story, with interludes away from Reacher’s central viewpoint.

In Hamburg, Germany, the CIA have a mole planted in the group of unfriendly Arabs, and from that mole they have learned this: there is an American, probably a service man, who is willing to sell something to a bunch of potential jihadists. More importantly, he wants $100 million for whatever it is.

What the McGuffin (an object or device in a movie or a book that serves as a trigger for the plot) might be, no one has any idea. This is also pre-internet and e-mail time, and the jihadists are using the old school method of human couriers who have nothing written down. All transactions are oral, and all the folks at code name Night School know is that the communications all come back to Hamburg eventually. After a few false starts most of the action moves there.

Hamburg also seems to be home to a group of extreme German nationalists, who occupy a number of positions of power, have some intelligence expertise of their own, and very much want whatever the weapons or information might be to further their own goals with regards to the recently reunified Fatherland.

Most of the fight scenes (because this is a Reacher novel) involve Reacher versus these skinheads and neo-Natzis.

Each of the three agencies bring their own teams to work on the case. Reacher’s picks come from the MP group that he used to head up back in the States. One of them, Sgt. Frances Neagley, is a woman we first met later in the series (confusing, isn’t it?) Several others also arrive to play their parts.

The American, who remains nameless for much of the book until the police procedural sort of work ferrets out his name, has been planning his operation for some time, and has been taking care to leave very few clues. However, part of his leaving no tracks involves the murder of a sex-trade worker, who happens to be a favorite of a Hamburg Chief of Detectives named Griezman. This means that Griezman, who is a good homicide policeman in spite of that little indiscretion, has a personal and professional stake in pursuing this case. When Reacher suggests a connection with his own assignment, Griezman becomes a valuable asset.

There are quite a few twists and turns in this case, and once they finally determine who the American is and what he is willing to sell, the pace picks up dramatically. Where there had been a little too much “talking heads” exposition, things suddenly get very active. For me it was the last third of the book that really made it feel more like a Reacher story.

I enjoy these adventures and, in spite of Tom Cruise, I am looking forward to the second Reacher movie. He’s too short, but he plays the part well.

 

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Bookends: An Upstairs, Downstairs Kind of Murder March 10, 2017

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Bookends: An Upstairs, Downstairs Kind of Murder

The Massey MurderBy Dan Davidson

January 18, 2017

– 812 words –

 

The Massey Murder
By Charlotte Gray

Harper Collins

307 pages

$22.99

 

On the evening of Monday, February 8, 1915, Charles Albert Massey was on his way home from work. He was the not quite so well to do scion of the very well to do Massey family, a family which had grown wealthy and powerful making and selling agricultural equipment. It was a family that would go on to produce a Governor General and a world famous actor.

At 34 years of age, Bert, as he was generally known, cut quite a swath in Toronto’s social circle. It was true that he was less well off than others of the clan, that the house he and his family lived in was not nearly so grand. He was a high end car saleman in a new industry, and the family was living about his income.They had but one domestic servant, a mousy, quiet 18 year old import from Great Britain named Carrie Davis.

Bert liked her, and had crossed a line a day earlier (while his American born wife was visiting family in Bridgeport. Connecticut) by making several aggressive moves on the girl, which she successfully evaded. Even so, he was surprised, we assume, when she met him at the front door carrying his own .32 calibre Savage automatic pistol, and proceeded to shoot him twice, killing him almost immediately.

Those facts were never in doubt, having been witnessed by several people, and never actually denied by Carrie herself, although she was initially uncertain that she had killed him.

There were larger questions in play in almost no time at all. How quickly could the Massey family get this dealt with in a polite way (the girl was obviously deranged and Bert’s behavior had nothing to do with it) without besmirching the family name?

Then there was the question of public opinion, and what it might due to stimulate the sales of the two big rival newspapers in the city, not to mention the smaller ones.

Then there was the question of Carrie’s defense, and how it might put a feather in the cap of any potential lawyer willing to take it on.

Not much of this had any bearing on whether or not she had killed the man – because she had. Was it a planned event, a spur of the moment decision? Was the girl merely protecting her honour (her virginity, as it were) against a further assault?

Hartley Dewart, KC, had the daunting task of presenting a Carrie that was tried beyond her young endurance, forced to defend herself, and driven to the killing of her employer on the spur of the moment.

The city, already excited by the anxiety brought on by the war in Europe, which had begun the previous August, was somewhat diverted by this drama on the home front, and all sorts of people adopted all sorts of opinions as to what had happened and what ought to happen next.

This book is a kind of forensic examination, but it is not one about the facts of the case, which were mostly available to Gray through the newspaper coverage during the 19 days between the act and the verdict.

It is rather an examination of the time, place and society within which the events transpired. It is a portrait of Toronto during that month in 1915, in the midst of the war. As background and context we are offered the rise and fortunes of the Massey family, some of the history of the city’s newspaper wars, and a good look at the tactics that were used to both prosecute and defend Carrie Davis.

One of the reasons the book goes in this direction is that there is very little about the case preserved in the official record. It was a case where assumptions about character and motive trumped the cold facts of the killing.

Gray is the first to admit that the newspaper coverage was pretty cut-throat, and there are often competing accounts of the same speeches and descriptions, but that does help to make the book interesting.

Carrie Davis was a virgin, a major fact in her favour. She had a young suitor who was fighting the Hun in Europe. She seemed even younger than 18 much of the time, and utterly disconsolate at the state in which she found herself. The jury took pity on her.

Gray unfolds the narrative in four parts: The Story, The Law, The Trial and the Aftermath. Chapter 17 finishes off the war story that is interwoven with the trial for the month, and chapter 18 tells us something of what happened to Carrie Davis during the rest of her life. All told, it’s an engrossing story.

Charlotte Gray was Berton House writer-in-residence in 2008.

 

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Bookends: Murder is a matter of decision and action March 10, 2017

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Bookends: Murder is a matter of decision and action

By Dan Davidson

January 11, 2017

– 779 words –

Black River Road 

Black River Road: An Unthinkable Crime, an Unlikely Suspect, and the Question of Character

By Debra Komar

Goose Lane Editions

224 pages

$17.93

also available in e-book format.

Debra Komar is the author of three previous books that have used her forensic investigative skills to reexamine real life historical crimes that have taken place somewhere in Canada.

In The Bastard of Fort Stikine, she took on a case from 1842, in which a miscarriage of justice in northern British Columbia was hushed up by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The death of John McLoughlin Jr. may have been a justifiable homicide, but Komar gave it the hearing it never got at the time.

In The Lynching of Peter Wheeler she looked at the evidence in the case of a coloured man who was hanged on the assumption that he has murdered a white girl. In 1896, forensic detective work was in its infancy and Komar concludes that several competing narratives were permitted to overcome the facts of the case

In The Ballad of Jacob Peck, Komar examined an even earlier case, from 1805, in which Amos Babcock was found guilty of killing his sister, under the influence of a religious mania. That he did the deed is not in doubt in her view, but how he came to do the deed, how he was inspired and by whom, become clear during Komar’s narrative.

Her method is to visit the archives, pull out the available material on cases which are somewhat shady, and see what a full “cold-case” examination of the existing records will reveal.

Each book so far deals with a particular manner in which the facts of a case may be distorted. Her most recent book, Black River Road: An Unthinkable Crime, an Unlikely Suspect, and the Question of Character, provides its theme in the title.

What is, or should be, the role of an accused person’s character in determining his or her guilt or innocence? The murders of Maggie Vail and her child are particularly instructive in examining this premise, for this 1869 case, taking place in St. John. New Brunswick, is seen to be the first in which the social standing and reputation of the accused, respected architect John Munoe, were used as the main argument in his defense by his trial lawyer.

“His lawyer’s strategy was as simple as it was revolutionary,” for that time and place, she writes.

“Munroe’s wealth, education and exemplary character made him incapable of murder.”

These things had not rendered him incapable of having an extramarital affair with Maggie, or of fathering a child with her. That he was connected to her in a number of ways and could be traced to the area where, some months latter, a group of teenaged berry pickers stumbled across the badly decomposed bodies, were facts dismissed by his lawyer as incongruent with his character.

Komar prefaces the elegantly told story of Munroe’s life with an essay titled “The Dahmer Effect” in which she shows how the case of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer led forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz to develop his theory of universal lethality. In short, under the right circumstances, anyone can make the decision to become a killer; it’s the ability to decide and the will to act that make the difference.
Dietz wrote, “I think people are born with the inherent ability to be cruel and harmful and destructive and selfish and acquisitive. It’s the function of many of the institutions of society to train us out of that.”

To some this would seem to contradict the notion that people are naturally good and that crimes such as murder are committed by deviants. To others this might well put a new spin on the older notion of original sin, divorcing it from any connection the sexual act.

In the courts of the post-Dahmer days, character, and its adjunct, motive, matter less than decisions and actions, and it is this point that Komar uses the Maggie Vail case to illustrate.

She does so in a prose style that deliberately echoes 19th century writing and is supported by useful maps, photographs, memorabilia from the high profile trial and a very thorugh listing of footnotes and references.

Debra Komar was the fall to early winter writer-in-residence at Berton House, having turned to writing non-fiction crime books after 23 years as a practicing forensic anthropologist. She has testified as an expert witness at The Hague and throughout North America and is the author of many scholarly articles and a textbook, Forensic Anthropology: Contemporary Theory and Practice.

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Bookends: Spenser does a favour for an old friend March 10, 2017

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WonderlandBookends: Spenser does a favour for an old friend

By Dan Davidson

January 4, 2017

– 830 words –

 

Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland

By Ace Atkins

Unabridged audiobook

Narrated by Joe Mantegna

7 hours and 2 minutes

Random House Audio

$17.99

 

This is book 41 of the Spenser series, the second written by successor writer Ace Atkins following the death of series creator Robert B. Parker. The first of these was Lullaby, which I reviewed as being decent enough, but longer than normal (by about 30 minutes longer than this one in the audio version) and quite a bit more profane in its use of language.

There was a pattern to Parker’s books. There would be a certain amount of cooking, some running, some Boston travelogue, some Susan and a bit of violence. Atkins hit all those notes, but it seemed like he was trying too hard.

He hits them again in Wonderland, but seems to be less forced. He is still more long winded. The last Parker novel was about a 5 ½ hour read and the Atkins’ books I’ve listened to so far clock in at 7 hours plus. In this case, the length is justified by a more complicated plot. At about the point where it seemed the main plot of the story was wrapping up, an unexpected murder sets it off in a new direction.

Susan Silverman is less present in this book than in most of the later Parkers, being on assignment teaching at a university in another city. She drops by Boston on the weekends.

Hawk is entirely absent from this story, being on some sort of personal assignment in Florida.

Atkins has apparently decided to flesh out some characters that are part of the canon, but haven’t been used too much. Zebulon Sixkill, a American Indian former college football player who had fallen on hard times, was introduced in the last of Parker’s novels (Sixkill). In this one he has been taken on as Spenser’s protégé. Z, as he is usually known, suffers from a bit of physical arrogance and had been a budding alcoholic when we met him. He still has that problem, especially when he finds himself physically overmatched by some of the bad guys in this book. So a good part of the story is about Spenser working with Z and Z learning the ropes.

Henry Cimoli owns the gym and training facility, which has been a feature in this series since almost the beginning, but in this book Henry is given a key role and provided with a lot of backstory with which we are not overly familiar.

Someone is trying to force Henry and the other elder residents of the condo where he lives to sell out and move on. The offer is pretty good, but awfully mysterious. Some residents like the proposed deal. Those who don’t, Henry chief among them, have been experiencing a series of increasingly annoying “accidents”. In fact, Spenser and Z enter the picture at about the time when things look to be getting personal and violent. Henry is set upon by a trio of thugs who are scared off by our heroes.

Since no one knows exactly who the interested buyer is, Spenser starts there and soon his poking around, as it often does, causes a series of reactions by the bad guys. Z, who has been tasked with watching over Henry, is set upon and injured by two of the same thugs they met before. He is hurt physically, but also psychologically, and his emotional recovery is one of the subplots in this adventure.

It turns out that the condo is the last piece of property needed to cement a deal for the creation of a casino in the area of the old Wonderland (hence the book’s title) dog racing park. Two parties are competing. One seems marginally more honest than the other, and, just as the deal is brokered with that group, with Spenser acting as mediator, one of the two front men is murdered and the affair takes a whole new turn.

There have been a number of readers in this series over the years, and while all have been interesting for the time of Spenser’s life, Joe Mantegna is one of the best for the most recent stories. Mantegna played the lead role in three made for TV Spenser movies and, to my mind, was better in the part than the late Robert Urich, who starred in the Spenser – For Hire TV series.

His bio includes the tidbit that he was a bass player as a young man in the 1960s, and was a member of the rock/jazz group that eventually morphed into the Chicago Transit Authority, which became just Chicago after that first double album.

He has, of course, been a regular cast member on Criminal Minds since he signed on in 2007 and has provided the voice of Fat Tony on the Simpsons since 1991.

 

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Bookends: Tales from Along the Highways February 18, 2017

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Bookends: Tales from Along the Highways

By Dan Davidson

December 19, 2016

– 684 words –alaska-or-bust

 

Alaska or Bust & Other Stories

By Erma Odrach

Crimson Cloak Publishing

379 pages

$25.50 in hardcover

also available in paperback and e-book formats

 

It’s almost a truism that anyone with even a smattering of literary DNA in t

heir genes will probably end up writing about the Yukon if they’ve lived here for a while and then moved away. That’s why there are so many memoirs about the Gold Rush. That’s why Service and London and Berton all wrote about the place throughout their entire careers even when they were in other places, even, as in the case of the first two writers, when they never came back.

So we come to Erma Odrach, who is mining her memories of a three or four year residence in the north. She sent me this book some months back and we struck up a little bit of a correspondence as a result. She was here from 1979-82, living in Whitehorse and a few places along the Alaska Highway, travelling in the territory and in Alaska, living part of the time in a Squatter’s Row cabin, and ending her stay while holding down a job, fittingly enough, at Mac’s Fireweed.

There’s a generational angle as well, sine her daughter apparently lived in Dawson in the summer of 2015 (if have that right) and volunteered at the Dawson City Music Festival.

The thing about Yukon memories, after 30 years or so, is they suffer a little bit of factual drift. Just how much it’s never easy to say, but all those people who met Jack Lon
on here after he was gone, and all those who travelled over the Chilkoot with Robert Service in 1898 are proof of the type of drift I mean.

So there may be things in the 25 stories that make up this collection that don’t sound quite right, but most of them feel pretty good as far as I can tell. Oh, you can’t drive from Skagway to Haines without doubling back through Haines Junction, (see “Chuck Goes to Haines, Alaska, on the Fourth of July”) but that’s a small problem, a
nd one that won’t exist in subsequent printings of the book, or in the email editions.

The stories range all over the areas that can be reached by the major highways in the territory and the state. Some of them overlap a bit in terms of characters, or refer to events in other unconnected stories. There’s an amusing trilogy about the Three French Guys, and “The Runaways” (about kids in a foster home) has a sort of sequel in “Bush Baby Gets Married”. Quite a few of the stories are quite humorous, but there are also a number that deal with abuse, creeping insanity and hard times.

I’ve been reading this book on and off since October. The stories were good for when I just had a short time to sit and I found them quite satisfactory.

 

Train

trainCreated by Mike Vago
Illustrated Matt Rockefeller

Workman

14 pages

$32.95

 

This is an interesting concept book. It is constructed so that the attached small train can be driven around the landscape o each double page spread (seacoast, d
esert, prairie, mountains, small town, large city, and station). The edge of each segment allows you to drive the train around the edge and into the next landscape until you reach the spot at the back of the book that allows you to shut it again. Or, you can drive the train through the tunnel that take you back to the front of the book to do it all again

Should the train slip out of the grooves that are its track, it’s easy to put it back and carry on.

The book seems sturdy enough, It’s hardcover with a cloth backing inside the spine holding the double page signatures in place. There are directions for proper use on the back cover. Even so, it looks like something that you would to keep an eye on while young reader were playing with/reading it.

 

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Bookends – Getting Ready for Another National Birthday Celebration February 17, 2017

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Bookends – Getting Ready for Another National Birthday Celebration

By Dan Davidson

November 30, 2016canada-history

– 815 words –

 

Canada – An Illustrated History

By Derek Hayes

Douglas and McIntyre

296 pages

$36.95

 

With Canada’s 150th birthday coming up, it might just be a good time to dip into this highly readable short history of our nation. This is a “revised and expanded” edition of a work that originally came out in hardbound copy in 2004. Apparently the final chapter, “The Third Millennium”, contains the bulk of the new material. The publisher indicates there weren’t that many more changes, and the increased page count seems to fit with that addition.

The book is a lovely package, a well-bound paperback with over 450 illustrations, ranging from photographs to historical paintings and maps, as well as posters, stamps, cartoons, stained glass and tapestries. In the section on Louisbourg one of the paintings was a wall mural that I saw on display there last summer. There is full colour throughout and not a single page without some type of illustration – though there are some pages that have no words.

The publishers’ notes indicate: “The book covers the events, the newsmakers, and the ordinary folk that shaped the Canadian experience. Here are tales of the famous, the infamous, the popular, and the unknown: the natives, the nation-builders, the separatists, and the statesmen; the soldiers, the settlers, the rebels, and the refugees; the artists, the astronauts, the invaders, and the inventors; the motorists, the mail carriers, the fur traders, and the photographers—a myriad of individuals who shaped our country.”

Don’t let that generic list or the table of contents fool you. While they read like a standard history of Canada, marching on from First Nations habitation through the Vikings, French, English, wars, rebellions, Confederation, and on to the present day, there are a lot of sidebars on specific issues or trends that stand out from the main text by having a different background colour and a different type of content. Some are single page segments, but most are two page spreads.

These are the pages where the book gets away from the military and political themes that used to dominate historical writing and begins to deal with social issues. There are sections on the plague ships that led to quarantine islands, the 19th century’s discovery of oil, the Underground Railway, the development of the railway, the evolution of law and punishment, the development of the telephone and Standard Time, photography, fire fighting, bicycles, the Klondike Gold Rush, catalogue shopping, the postal service, and many other topics. The one problem I have with it relates to the glossy paper and the 91/2 by 113/4 inch size. It’s a somewhat cumbersome book and it’s hard to find a position where light isn’t reflecting off the pages. It turned out that it was easiest to read while sitting at the kitchen table.

Derek Hayes , a geographer by training, has a passion for old maps and what they can reveal about the past. He is the author of the bestselling Historical Atlas Series, which includes the Historical Atlas of Canada , Historical Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley , Historical Atlas of the Arctic, Historical Atlas of Toronto and Historical Atlas of the United States . His website lists 15 books on a variety of geographical and historical topics.

The book provides a lot of material for trivial pursuit fans. For instance, did you know that:

  • Germans landed in Canada during the Second World War
  • Canada was valued at a billion dollars in 1872
  • a new boat was demonstrated in Toronto in 1897 that rolled over the
  • waves
  • up to 1930, Norway claimed a vast territory in Canada’s North
  • the first automobile crossed the Canadian Rockies in 1904 – by driving
  • on the rails of the Canadian Pacific
  • Canada once issued a 25 cent bill – and a $50,000 bill
  • Canada nearly had a flag with three maple leaves, not one
  • it was not until 1949 that all of Canada drove on the right
  • a major Canadian bridge collapsed not once but twice
  • the first transatlantic phone call was made in 1927 by radio
  • the first Canadian railway began running in 1836
  • the original “Red Indians” lived in Newfoundland
  • during the War of 1812 a cannon made in 1657 was used to defend
  • Toronto against the Americans
  • it took only a hour for French Canada to fall to the British
  • Canada’s first newspaper was the Halifax Gazette, published in 1752. It
  • was a single sheet of paper
  • one of the principal French forts is today a traffic island
  • France imported women into Canada, and then passed a law requiring men to marry them
  • Samuel de Champlain expected to find China at the western end of the Great Lakes
  • part of Canada is named after a brand of gin, and another after a beer

 

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Bookends: Advice on Writing from a Master February 17, 2017

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Bookends: Advice on Writing from a Master

By Dan Davidson

November 16, 2016

– 730 words –

 

Startle and Illuminate: startle-and-illuminate on Writing

Edited by Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini

Random House Canada

204 pages

$29.95

 

“I’ve never been able to separate my reading and my writing life.” Carol Shields wrote in an essay entitled “Writers are Readers First”. I think that’s something that has been true of every writer I’ve had the opportunity to interview over the last 35 years or so. Over 70 scribblers of various genres and disciplines have passed through Berton House since it opened, and there have been 120 or so as part of my long association with the Department of Education’s annual Young Authors Conference.

One thing always comes up. You can’t write if you don’t read.

I met Carol Shields on the printed page rather than in person, joining the conversation that one has with the author of any piece of writing during her last three or four novels.

Some authors do make an attempt to write about the process, maybe in fiction or in essay form, in much the same way as bands seem to inevitably write songs about performance or about life on the road.

Pierre Berton wrote a book on writing late in his career, dissecting the process by which he had produced volume after volume of entertaining historical writing.

Stephen King tackled the issue in a couple or three novels about the lives of writers, but also in a valuable memoir on the craft.

This compilation by Carol Shields, collected together by her daughter and her grandson, is not quite that kind of book, and is perhaps not something that she had intended to issue herself, though the essays and letters of which it is comprised work the same way.

The concept was Anne’s, but much of the legwork, the digging into the material in the archived papers, was done by Nicholas, who notes that he learned a lot about the woman he had previously related to mostly as “grandmother” along the way.

With Anne it was a little different. She was also a novelist and she and Carol had traded ideas back and forth and given each other bits of advice over the years, This was part of how Anne was sure that there was a treasure trove of material out there, if it could just be pulled together.

Shields was a teacher of writing as well as a writer, and the last chapter of the book is taken directly from snippets of letters that she wrote to critique and advise students on what they were doing right or wrong with their submissions to her. These are kind of repetitive, comments about tightening up or expanding certain passages, getting the pacing of scenes right, what to say outright and what to imply, and an often repeated comment that “writing lives and dies at the sentence level.”

In one of the complete essays, the one I quoted at the beginning, she also notes of herself, “I saw that I could become a writer is I paid attention, if I was careful, if I observed the rules, and then, just as carefully, broke them.”

The 14 complete essays that make up the bulk of this book each concentrate on a particular area of writing. There is some overlap, as there is bound to be, but Shields spends time dismissing the myths that keep people from writing, the myths (as she sees them) about writing, talks about organizational structures to help move the work along, advises about raiding the work of others or of one’s own life, for ideas, discusses about what personal things need to be protected, and what may be exposed safely.

Each chapter is followed by a point form summary of its main points, as an “in brief” section, and sometimes as a list of writing assignments.

This is not a quick read. Both of the books I mentioned earlier had a degree of narrative flow to them that made them easy to follow. This is a more academic sounding work, good in a different way. I read it over a period of a few weeks, a chapter at a sitting, with some time in between to reflect on what she had to say. It was very worthwhile, but it did require one to pay attention.

 

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Bookends – Another kind of Remembrance is also important February 17, 2017

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Bookends – Another kind of Remembrance is also important

By Dan Davidson

November 8, 2016

– 640 words –

 

the-holocaustThe Holocaust: The Origins, Events and Remarkable Tales of Survival
By Philip Steele

Scholastic Books

96 pages

$15.00 in paperback edition

 

The Holocaust, the deliberate murder of six million Jews and some five million Slavic people, as well as Roma (Gypsies), is the Nazi policy that justifies the role of the Allied Nations in the carnage that was World War II.

There isn’t really a passable excuse for the extended family feud that was World War I, but the Second World War does have a palpable evil that needed to be fought against, stopped, and defeated. Nothing demonstrates that better than a close look at the Holocaust.

Philip Steele’s book provides just that in a version that has something to say to all ages, though it is primarily aimed at younger readers.

The book is set up a bit like a museum between covers. There are hundreds of images, maps and documents, each of them identified with descriptions and explanations, set in a variety of typefaces, that look like museum cards and tags.

An introductory section provides a framework within which to understand what the message of the book will be.

The Coming Storm provides a history of the Jewish people in Europe, from the time of the initial diaspora from the original homeland. It shows how these people became embedded in countries all over Europe, and the long history of anti-Semitism, running through the Middle Ages and up to the 20th century.

It also chronicles the contributions the Jews made in the realms of philosophy, science and culture.

There is a brief section on the First World War, and then Steele develops the post-war background that leads to the growth of the Nazi party in Germany as a result of the Treaty of Versailles and failure of the Weimar Republic. There are large panorama shots of Nazi rallies and the images showing the beginnings of the propaganda that created the national will to accept the obvious persecution of an entire race of people.

Just how much the general public in Germany knew about the euphemistically termed Final Solution has never been entirely certain, but there were certainly thousands of soldiers and SS members who were involved in the process and who knew exactly what they were doing.

The book chronicles the ways in which many Jews were enabled to escape Germany before the worst came, though those who only managed to escape to countries that were overrun by the German armies after 1939 were often scooped up later.

To the immense shame of much of the rest of the world, relatively little was done to help these people flee Europe entirely, though one two-page spread is dedicated to those who, like Oskar Schindler, did what they could.

Part II: From War to Genocide, goes into detail about life in the camps and the procedures that were carried out there: the dehumanizing daily routines, the forced labour, death by starvation, overwork and gas chambers.

Part III: Freedom and Remembrance, covers the end of the war, the problem of displaced persons, the trials at Nuremberg and the founding of the state of Israel. It concludes with a section about the various memorials and special events by which the Holocaust is remembered. This is not because people want to wallow in miserable memories, but because it is too easy in this world for such things to happen again if the memory grows too dim.

There is so much evidence in just this one slim volume that it is incredible to thing that there is an underground industry of Holocaust deniers who would have us believe that none of this ever happened. It is because of such people that books like this are very important.

 

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Bookends: Kids’ books used to teach lessons February 17, 2017

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Bookends: Kids’ books used to teach lessons

By Dan Davidson123

November 2, 2016

– 620 words –

 

A,B.C Animals

1,2,3 Sea Creatures

illustrated by Yoko Hosoya

Flowerpot Press

36 pages
each

$21.99

abc
Alphabet and number books are popular items for the very young. It’s no too often that two such books by the same creator are published in a matched set at the same time, but the work of this artist – a combination of drawing and collage – is quite appealing.

The A,B,C book is the simplest of the two, with a selection of animals to go with the letters of the alphabet. The creatures are drawn, while the letters and backgrounds appear to be clipped from various fabrics or printed papers. The animals are simply named. There are some story possibilities, like, why is that raccoon holding a trumpet?, or why is the turtle carrying a pocket watch? but it’s basically straightforward.

The 1,2,3 book is more complicated. The art uses the same eye catching approach, but there’s a more extended caption for each of the sea creatures, and the actual number is connected to something they are wearing or holding. The swordfish has three donuts speared on its sword, for instance.

The book gets considerably more complex after the number 10, jumping to counting by tens up to 100, having several pages where the reader is challenged to find a up to five creatures they have seen earlier, counting 1 to 30 and naming all the creatures that have been used in the book.

Each of the two books comes with a colourful poster which could either stay in the pocket at the back of the book, or be taken out to become a wall decoration.

do-not-open

Do Not Open the Box

By Timothy Young

Schiffer Publishing

32 pages

$16.99

 

It’s kind of unusual for books for really young readers to be written in the first person singular, or to switch viewpoints, but that is the case with this book.

Benny finds a big cardboard box in the middle of what we assume is a room. We have to assume it, because all the pages of this book have the same “paper bag brown” textured background colour. This sort of matches the box, while only cartoon style Benny is at all colourful.

The box has a label taped to it that says “DO NOT OPEN” in capital letters. For adult readers this is the classic Pandora set-up, and we all know how that turned out.

For Benny, it’s an opportunity to ponder what might in the box, and what he should do about it.

Is it full of his father’s paperwork, cookies that his mother has baked, a big robot for his coming birthday, a bunch of puppies that he really ought to let out of there, or snakes, or dangerous wild animals, or a slimy monster?

Maybe it’s the portal to another world that might suck him in if he were to take off the lid.

Whatever it might be, it would probably be very hard to get it all back into the box if he let it out –and then everyone would know he’d ignored the sign.

So, after all that wild imagining, he decides not to open it, much to the disappointment of his sister, who was waiting inside to scare him when he lifted the lid.

This is a clever little book. The artistic choice not to use backgrounds works very well in this case, encouraging a reader to imagine the rest and focus on Benny and the fantastic contents of the box. In the end, Benny probably has more fun not breaking the rules than he would have had if he’d opened the box.

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Bookends: Fascinating Stories about Canadian Writers February 17, 2017

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Bookends: Fascinating Stories about Canadian Writers

By Dan Davidson

October 19, 2016

– 833 words –

 

 

storytellersStories about Storytellers

By Douglas Gibson

ECW Press

435 pages

$19.95

 

Douglas Gibson visited Dawson and Whitehorse last January, and his one man show, Stories About Storytellers: An Evening with Doug Gibson and Many Famous Canadian Authors, made a very favourable impression on me, so I picked up the book on which the 90 minute presentation was based the next time I had an opportunity.

It’s a browser of a book, and can be read in short bursts, so it has lived for most of the last six months or so in my bathroom, fairly often making it as far as the bed when I just couldn’t find a good place to leave the bookmark.

To recap Gibson’s career as an editor at Doubleday Canada (now owned by German media giant, Bertelsmann) , and eventually publisher at both Macmillan of Canada (which no longer exists) and McClelland & Stewart (also now owned by Bertelsmann), would take up most of the rest of the space I have here.

A life in books was a natural progression for a man who was moved to immigrate to Canada from Scotland after falling madly in literary love with the work of Stephen Leacock when he was a wee lad.

He never got to meet the great Canadian humorist, but did have the joy of editing what he considers to have been the definitive biography of the man written by David Legate.

Now, this book begins with Gibson’s reflections on Leacock, but quickly proves to be just as informative an article about Legate and the process of putting the book together. Gibson worked with hundreds of writers during his career, and when one of them has an opinion about the subject of a particular chapter, it is rare that he will not take a side trip to give us that, as well.

The subjects of this book begin with Leacock and then move on to Hugh MacLennan, R.D. Symons, Harold Horwood, Barry Broadfoot, Morley Callaghan, W.O. Mitchell, Robertson Davies, Jack Hodgins, James Houston, Charles Ritchie, Pierre Trudeau, Mavis Gallant, Peter C. Newman, Brian Mulroney, Robert Hunter, Alistair MacLeod, Paul Martin, Peter Gzowski, Val Ross, Terry Fallis and Alice Munro.

Typically, the chapters relate how he became involved with the author in question, and relate some serious and some humorous anecdotes about the publisher/editor – author interaction. As noted, he doesn’t always stick to the subject, although the digressions are of interest.

The chapter on Jack Hodgins, for example, contains diverting tales about Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Ken Dryden, Margaret Atwood, Don Harron, Farley Mowat, John Irving, and L.R Wright, all inspired by Hodgins’ dislike of promotional tours.

His chapter on Pierre Trudeau veers off into accounts of his work with the various other people who wrote biographies of the man. He refers to this activity as being part of “The Trudeau Industry”.

Gibson appears to have been fond of most of his clients and authors, spending time visiting them, attending them during illnesses and at their funerals (because several of them have passed on), shepherding them through the publication process and sometimes (as with Trudeau, and Mitchell) prodding them to do better work than what they had written at first.

Mitchell, a noted procrastinator, actually turned in a poor final chapter to one book just to shut Gibson up, and ended up rewriting it when he got caught out. Trudeau was persuaded to change the format and order of his narrative. MacLeod, who was notoriously slow to finish things, had to be bullied into completing his only novel. Each of these events is related with good humour and a sense of real affection.

I think it’s fair to say that he admired Peter C. Newman’s work ethic but did not like the man and found some of his other ethics questionable. He takes some delight in telling the story of how Newman’ trademark Greek fisherman’s hat caught on fire during a dinner at the Royal York Hotel.

He is immensely fond of Alice Munro, and has not a single harsh word in that chapter. In fact, as he is the editor who persuaded her to forget about writing novels, he says he is sure that convincing her to stick to writing short stories was probably the one thing in his life that would guarantee his entry into Heaven.

The main portion of the book concludes with a hilarious essay “What Happens After My Book is Published?” which is guaranteed to keep any writer from getting too full of him or her self. There follows a ten page section of thank yous and acknowledgements (which is worth reading for a change), and then, in this edition, a 40 page readers’ discussion guide to five of the major works touched upon in the main text. Whether the invitation to take up the questions and send off your responses to his website still stands, I could not say.

 

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