Halifax Wrecked

“Halifax Wrecked” was the newspaper headline screaming off the page on the morning of December 7, 1917. The day before, at 9:04 a.m., an enormous explosion in the Halifax Harbour wiped out a large section of the North End of the city, killing almost 2000 people and blinding many thousands more. Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of that event, an event that has become part of who we Haligonians are.

Two ships trying to navigate the harbour ended up in the same shipping lane and one, The Imo, trying to maneuver, strafed the hull of the other, the SS Mont Blanc. The Mont Blanc was a floating bomb, loaded with explosives for the war effort but not flying a warning flag because that would only invite a German attack. The ship caught fire and exploded. There’s a pretty good interactive recreation on this site if you want to know a bit more about the details.

The day after the explosion there was a winter storm. The army set up tents to help house the newly homeless. Schools and churches were converted into hospitals and morgues. The City of Boston loaded up a train and sent aid with supplies and medical personal almost as soon as they heard the news. Halifax sends Boston their city’s Christmas tree in thanks and has done since the 1970s.

The event is part of our history and there have been a number of books written about it, as well as novels that use the event as a backdrop.

Pretty much the most definitive of the non-fiction books are:

Janet F. Kitz – Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery – contains many first person accounts of the survivors. (1989)
Laura Macdonald – Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917
Michael J. Bird – The Town the Died (1962)

There are also three new books just released:

Katie Ingram – Breaking Disaster: Newspaper stores of the Halifax Explosion from newspaper coverage point of view which sounds pretty interesting. (Read an article about Katie and the book in the Chronicle Herald here)

Ken Cuthbertson – The Halifax Explosion: Canada’s Worst Disaster
John U. Bacon – The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism
(Read a review of these books here at the Globe and Mail)

For the novels, I’ve read a few  and can recommend these:

Robert MacNeil – Burden of Desire from 1992. This Goodreads member review is quite good.
Genevieve Graham – Tides of Honour from 2015. I read this last year. Here’s my review.
Hugh MacLennan – Barometer Rising written in 1941 which I read recently. Review here.

An aside: Awhile back I wrote here about Project Bookmark, a project to focus on books written about various areas of Canada, a way you could “Read across Canada”. The 19th bookmark is going to be placed at the Halifax Citadel this afternoon and will honour Mr. MacLennan’s Barometer Rising.

Goodreads has a list of novels with the Explosion as a backdrop here.

A cannon from the SS Mont Blanc, found thrown several miles away from the harbour by the explosion near Albro Lake in Dartmouth

You can probably guess this has been a topic that has always fascinated me. None of my family were living here when it happened though my father grew up in the area that was rebuilt, on a dead end street leading to Fort Needham where the memorial now stands, overlooking the blast site below. I live around the corner from where one of the guns from the Mont Blanc was thrown, about 3 miles from the harbour. It’s mounted and there are a couple of information signs installed. They have a small ceremony there on the 6th every year though the main remembrance ceremony is at the larger memorial at Fort Needham.

To finish, a couple of interesting websites. The Nova Scotia Archives maintains the Book of Remembrance, a list of everyone that died, where they lived and how old they were. Another new site is 100 Years 100 Stories.

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It Does Not Compute


My mother arrived at our apartment yesterday and when she came in, she was looking a bit confused. She had just had a conversation wtih someone outside the building and she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. When she explained, I understood.

There was a man standing there, one of the building’s tennants, out in the sunshine having a smoke. If he’s the person I think he is, he’s about her age or her generation anyway. He doesn’t smoke in his apartment. In the course of the short conversation, she suggested that it was a good day to settle down with a good book. He replied “I’m tired of reading” in a tone of voice that implied he didn’t read at all anymore, that he was fed up with the hobby. That’s how she took it, not that he had been reading for hours and needed a break. That’s what I might mean had I said it though I can’t imagine saying it. We both agreed, how can you tire of reading in that sense? My reaction reminds me of a “tag line” that one of the characters on the Canadian sitcom, Schitt’s Creek” would often say. He’d get a blank look on his face and utter “I don’t know what that means”.

It does not compute, Will Robinson.

All of my family are lifelong readers and we are unsettled if we don’t have a book to read. Magazines are ok, but not quite as satisfying. They’ll do in a desperate pinch but work much better as a “plug in”, an addition to the reading roster where books are the main event. I always have at least three books on the go at any given time, usually e-books with perhaps a physical book as well and almost always, I have an ebook loaded on my phone. I’ve got all the bases covered, I think. Sometimes I save the physical book for bedtime. The ereader is very convenient for bus commuting. My mom likes the ereader/tablet for reading in bed because it’s lighter than a book.

Tired of reading. That’s still bouncing off my brain. If I have been reading for hours, I might need a break, that’s true enough but if I’m tired of reading, I can also just switch to another book! Problem solved!

“I don’t have time to read.”

Another incomprehensible statement. I thank the reading gods and goddesses that my life is not so horrendously busy that I can’t take 20 or 30 minutes out to read. I read on my commute to and from work, about 20-30 minutes each way. I read at lunch, 40 minutes or so. I read in bed before I turn out the light, 60-90 minutes. Waiting in the doctor or dentist’s office? 10 – 60 minutes depending. (Yes, my doctor is always late!) Sometimes on weekend days or other days off, I might find a quiet hour or two in the middle of the day and read as well. 2.5 – 3 hours each weekday, 3 – 5 hours weekends. I can easily read 15 – 20 hours a week, give or take.

Reading takes me away to interesting places, with interesting people to meet. Some I like, some I don’t. Reading teaches me things, entertains me and relaxes me. If I ever say that I’m tired of reading, someone give me a good shake and sit me down with a book, ok?

It’s Giller Award Season

The Scotiabank Giller literary award is given each year to a book of fiction or short stories in English, or translated to English by a Canadian author. It was founded in 1994 by Jack Rabinovitch as a memorial to his late wife, Doris Giller who was a literary journalist with the Montreal Gazette for many years and later with the Toronto Sun. The foundation teamed with Scotiabank in 2005 to ensure the legacy and prize money would endure. The yearly long list and subsequent shortlist are highly anticipated by CanLit fans. The books that are nominated yearly are the best of Canadian Literature. The prize is awarded in November.

The current prize is $100,000 for the winning book, with $10,000 for the other books on the short list. What I really like is that if the book is translated to English, the prizes are split 70/30 with the translator. Translating books into another language and being able to give the book the same feeling and atmosphere, the “page turning” tension, the humour, the sparkling dialogue, and all the other attributes that make a novel great in its original language is a huge talent and a skill with language almost above and beyond and certainly equal to the actual author’s dexterity to the written word.

The jury has to pare down the submissions to a maximum of 12 titles for the long list and then to a maximum of 5 for the short list. What a tough job that has to be! But then again, a jury member gets to read all those great books!

The books are new works published by Canadian authors even if they live outside the country. They don’t accept posthumous submissions, nor are Young Adult, graphic novels or self published novels accepted. The publishers of the long and short list books end up having to put out funding for advertising etc. but they would likely reap rewards with increased sales.

Are you still with me?

This year’s Short List: (click through the link to find out more about the books and authors)

Rachel Cusk – Transit
Ed O’Loughlin – Minds of Winter
Michael Redhill – Bellevue Square
Eden Robinson – Son of a Trickster
Michelle Winters – I Am A Truck

The Long List, chosen out of over 100 books is here.

The great thing about the Giller prize is the list of potentially wonderful books you can find, perhaps find a new author to read as well. Last year I read 3 of the long list nominated books and I’ve bought a 4th but haven’t read it yet. The winner, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien was very good and very worthy of the win. Everyone’s taste in books is different. I look at the lists every year and I know there will always be a lot of the books that won’t appeal to me but there are always a few. I just had a scan through the history of the long and short lists over the years and a number of books I’ve read have turned up on those older lists, though I didn’t read them back during the years they were published/nominated. This year I’ve bought Minds of Winter, Bellevue Square and I Am A Truck and plan to read them over the next month or so, in time for the Giller prize announcement on November 20 if I can.

There are some very talented Canadian writers beyond the names you normally hear. Check out your local library and dip into works by Kathleen Winter, Michael Crummey, Wayne Johnston, Linden McIntyre, Zoe WhittallHeather O’Neill, Richard Wagamese, Elizabeth Hay, Frances Itani and Miriam Toews

Happy Birthday, Canada

Tomorrow is Canada’s 150th birthday as a country. While the Indigenous peoples have been here for millenia, officially, Canada has been settled by the Europeans for over 400 years, originally by the French with settlements near Quebec and in what is now Nova Scotia (Port Royal, 1605). But did you know there was a Viking settlement at the top tip of Newfoundland 1000 years ago? And John Cabot, an Italian explorer (Giovanni Caboto), is believed to have touched down in Newfoundland in the late 15th century.

Canada is one of the world’s best countries, all the polls say so! (but I’m not very objective) I feel privileged to live here where we have such a fantastic mix of cultures, beautiful scenery from mountains to sea to prairie, lakes and rivers, cities and villages. Are we perfect? Of course not. But Canada is respected and I’m proud that we are ahead of the game on issues like LGBTQ rights, gender equality, education and health care. We still have a long way to go in many areas but we’re getting there.

And talent, boy do we have talent. Gold medal winning athletes, some of the funniest comedians in the world, award winning performers from all areas of the arts, and writers…. we have some stupendous writers whose works have had an impact on our own culture as well as world wide fame.

A century ago or more, a woman from rural Prince Edward Island wrote a story about a funny looking, red-headed orphan girl called Anne Shirley (don’t forget the E on her name!) Lucy Maud Montgomery gave young readers and adults alike a character that has earned a place in many hearts. Anne of Green Gables and all the sequels and other books about the Islanders have been best sellers ever since. One culture in particular, the Japanese, have become particularly huge fans of Anne and tourists from Japan flock to Prince Edward Island to visit the recreated Green Gables farm.

From the innocence of Anne to the horror of dystopia, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has chilled us for 30 years. Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s most respected writers, giving us poetry, short stories, novels (historic fiction, regular fiction, science fiction and dystopian, is there anything she can’t do?). Followers will know that I’ve written a lot about The Handmaid’s Tale recently with the airing of the new television series that’s just ended. I’ve only read a handful of her works so far but I’m determined to make my way through the novels at the very lease.

I wouldn’t have the time or space to write about the whole history of Canadian writers but there have been published novels here since the mid-19th century when Susanna Moodie wrote Roughing It in the Bush about the hardship of surviving in the wilds of Canada, trying to eke out a living on a farm.  She wrote several books on the same theme.  W. O. Mitchell’s “Who Has Seen the Wind” has similar themes to Anne of Green Gables, focusing on a young boy on the Prairies. There is a good list of classic Canadian books here from the earliest days to present day. And another list here as well, from the early days to 2010.  I’ve read 10 on that list (so far!) Interestingly, Anne of Green Gables isn’t on that list and I think it should be!

And there have been other contributions to the literary arts. Another person from Canada that has contributed to pop culture in a huge way is Joe Shuster. Joe Shuster was born in Toronto though moved to Cleveland with his family where he grew up and became an artist.  He and a friend got involved with comics and they created a strip featuring a character that has endured ever since the 1933s. Superman! Yep, Superman was created by a Canadian-born lad. Where would the comic superhero world be without Superman? I’m sure lots of kids have learned to read thanks to comics.

Some of the more classic Canadian writers include Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies, Morley Callaghan, Hugh MacLennan, Alice Munro, and Timothy Findley. We’re still giving the world amazing new talent. While some of these writers have been producing for quite awhile, these are some I’ve discovered over the past few years: Miriam Toews, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Frances Itani, Gil Adamson, Richard Wagamese, Linden McIntyre, Guy Gavriel Kay (scifi), Michael Ondaatje, David Adams Richards, Wayne Johnston, Lesley Crewe, Jane Urquhart, Heather O’Neill, Jocelyn Saucier, Emma Donoghue, Elizabeth Hay, Madeline Ashby, Katherine Vermette, Jo Walton, Donna Morrissey, Madeleine Thien, Ami McKay, Linwood Barclay, Zoe Whittall, Stephen Price, Kathleen Winter…. oh gosh, somebody stop me! You won’t go wrong with these but there are so many more.

I don’t read exclusively Canadian authors but over the past 4 or 5 years, I’ve discovered many of the above and am trying to support Canadian writers more often. I find that my second most popular country for writers is the United Kingdom and then America. I’ve also found that I really like some of the Scandiavian crime writers after I read the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Millenium series, Jo Nesbo in particular.

On the eve of Canada’s birthday, I urge Canadians to read more, try to choose some of our talented writers, poets and graphic artists. There are works from all genres. Support and explore the wonderful Indigenous writers. Read books written in French or translated from French. Read books written by immigrants who made Canada their home, writers we proudly claim as ours now.  Pick up a biography or autobiography about/by some of our stand out citizens (celebrities, politicians, activists, athletes, artists) Try some classic authors and give some brand new talent the chance to entrance you and take you to another place. You’ll be glad you did.

Bob’s Your Uncle

“Books enable you to try on a different life, one very different from your own, that you have no other way of living.”
Pamela Paul (New York Times Book Review Editor)

I was perusing some links this morning and came across one to an interview in The Atlantic with the woman that is the editor of the NYT Book Review. Her name is Pamela Paula and she’s a voracious reader. She’s made a journal of a list of every single book she’s read since she was 17, nearly 30 years. Just a list. No reviews, no ratings. Hand written.  Colour me impressed. I would find it difficult to do without adding a rating or a quick review.

She is still using the same journal, too, which has grown quite ragged around the edges and has written a book about her life in relation to reading and the journal, which she calls “Bob” for “Book of books”.  Many entries in her Book of Books bring back memories of her life at the time she was reading those particular books. This is the basis for her memoir, My Life with Bob. (amazon.ca, Amazon.com here)

This passage from the article will feel familiar to all of us who can’t imagine life without reading:

Paul describes her reading habit like a hunger than can’t be satiated, that grows, instead, with each new morsel she devours. The book seems haunted by this realization, the plain fact that no one can read it all—no matter how many built-in shelves she hammers up, no matter how their shelves sag with weight. As Paul puts it: “The more you read, the more you realize you haven’t read; the more you yearn to read more, the more you understand that you have, in fact, read nothing.”

In the interview, she describes the memory of a journey to China when she was reading entry number 351. It’s quite a detailed memory and reading through her journal brings back similar stories which she decided to write about, connecting books she’s read to periods and events in her life.  She also talks a bit about her job as editor of the NYT Book Review and how she always found it difficult to cover all the books that deserved publicity and reviews, only to come to the realization that it just isn’t possible. There are too many good books out there but she can try to bring a good cross section to the readers of the Book Review as a starting point.

I found it interesting to read her ideas on what you should and should not put in a good book review. I write reviews of all or most of the books I read though it’s primarily for my own records. I do try to get across what the book’s about and what I liked or disliked about it but when I read professional reviews, I realize I’m not really that good at it. The New York Times wouldn’t look at my reviews  twice! That’s ok. My reviews aren’t awful, and they’re fine for the average person I hope and for me. Some come out better than others.

My mother, of course, and many friends and family think my reviews and travelogues are good enough to get published. I know better. I read a lot of travel magazines and my travelogues of my journeys are nowhere in that same stratosphere but I write the travelogues, and now the reviews, so that I can revisit both the journey and the book.

Do read the whole of the interview with Pamela Paul. It’s very interesting and as a fellow book addict, I can identify with a lot of what she had to say. I think the book will definitely be added to my ever-growing To Be Read list!

My travel journal on WordPress.

My own website with all my travelogues

Graphic Novels – Yes or No?

I read comic books as a child. I read MAD magazine as a teen. These never translated into an appreciation for the graphic novel as an adult.

Graphic novels have been around a long time, depending on your definition of the term. There have been books collecting strips of cartoons or anthologies and roughly related stories as cartoon strips, often first serialized and  published in newspapers since the late 19th century though, for me, that’s not really a novel or a continuing story. The definition is a bit subjective.  There’s a pretty good overall history of the graphic novel here. 

Graphic versions of classic novels were published in the 1940s, aimed at children. That’s closer to the mark, I’d say. There were a few other full length illustrated stories and books published around that time as well including this gem as described by Wikipedia:

In 1950, St. John Publications produced the digest-sized, adult-oriented “picture novel” It Rhymes with Lust, a film noir-influenced slice of steeltown life starring a scheming, manipulative redhead named Rust. Touted as “an original full-length novel” on its cover, the 128-page digest by pseudonymous writer “Drake Waller” (Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller), penciler Matt Baker and inker Ray Osrin proved successful enough to lead to an unrelated second picture novel, The Case of the Winking Buddha by pulp novelist Manning Lee Stokes and illustrator Charles Raab.

It Rhymes with Lust.  That’s just all kinds of awesome, a novel about a gutsy, red headed woman. Fantastic! Through the 1960s, there were other publications but it wasn’t a growing industry yet although monthly comic books were highly popular.

Blackmark by Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin, published in 1971, is the first to be termed a “graphic novel”  in retrospect and is a sci fi/fantasy adventure. The first books to actually call themselves graphic novels, however, happened in the mid 70s and a genre was born. It isn’t just an American phenomenon, either,  though in Europe and other countries, the term was not used as such, not at first. The product was the same or similar, though.  I’ve noticed that they have become hugely popular in the last 10 or 15 years but it’s not a genre I’ve really taken to on the whole.

I have read a handful of them, but it’s only reinforced my view that it’s not really for me, though I can see I may continue to pick one up now and then depending on the author or subject. The first one I read was written by my favourite author, Diana Gabaldon. It was based on the first Outlander book that introduced Jamie and Claire Fraser to the world but was told from Jamie’s point of view and was called The Exile. I own it but for the life of me, I can’t find it anywhere.  I can recommend The Exile for Gabaldon fans as a companion to the Outlander series.

Last year, for a reading Bingo challenge square, I read the autobiography of Stan Lee who was instrumental in founding Marvel comics. It’s called Excelsior: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee. I had bought it for my husband for Christmas a few years ago and decided that would do for the Bingo Square.  I enjoyed The Exile more, I would have to say but reading about his life this way gave me the highlights if not the detail.

I guess that’s the thing about graphic novels that I don’t like. I read a lot and I like to read thick books which generally have lots of detail. Reading a graphic novel is something you might read in one sitting, giving you the bare bones or highlights of a story but not as much depth as I prefer. The Exile was a nice complement to the rest of the big, chunky books that Ms. Gabaldon writes and I knew the detail and story behind it albeit from the point of view of Claire rather than Jamie, so I could fill in the detail myself.  I’ve not been one to read comics as an adult and a graphic novel by its very nature is just a longer comic book. I know people love them for the artwork as much as the story and some of them do have beautiful illustrations which I can appreciate. You can read Ms. Gabaldon’s own version of the history of how she came to write it here on her website.

The most recent graphic novel I read because it was by another of my favourite authors, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. It’s called Angel Catbird and is a fantasy about a scientist whose DNA gets mixed with an owl and a cat and finds that there is a secret group of animal/humans in his world. I believe it’s going to have further volumes though I may not continue the series. I was curious as to what she’d do with it and it was pretty good, I have to say. She found a good artist to go along with her concept.  I can recommend this as well, for Atwood fans and for fantasy fans. It’s quirky and fun with a good introduction by Atwood as well.

There’s apparently a very good Canadian graphic novel called Essex County by Jeff Lemire who is going to be appearing at our local library one night in June. Essex County is a trilogy of books set in semi-rural Ontario and is highly recommended apparently. The trilogy is quite a large book from what I remember seeing in the bookstore. It’s not something I would purchase but perhaps someday I might borrow it from the library.  Although a few of the co-members of one of my Goodreads groups did not rate it highly, seeming to have a similar opinion to mine about the genre in general, it does get very good ratings and was included in a Canada Reads contest . The stories are apparently emotional and somewhat bleak but that might make it more interesting. Lemire is quite prolific, he’s got a number of series of graphic novels out .

Graphic novels have become a popular source for movies and television, too. That has brought a new legitimacy to the genre, I think and given it a little nudge into the mainstream. I have seen several movies based on graphic novels including Sin City, V for Vendetta, 300, Snowpiercer, (I didn’t realize that was based on a graphic novel), Ghost World (great movie!), R.I.P.D. ,  and the dire Cowboys and Aliens  which I wouldn’t recommend. Awful. Let’s not forget The Walking Dead which is based on graphic novels and is one of the most popular tv series out there though not my thing at all. There are dozens of comics that have been adapted and will be adapted for the big and small screens (let’s not even get started on the phenomenon that is Japanese anime!) Personally, I’m waiting for another big screen TinTin adventure!

People that love graphic novels and comics/anime are passionate about them. They’ve come a long way since they were published as collections of daily comic strips. The artwork is a showcase for talented artists and these days, big name non-graphic authors are trying their hand at them. That brings a lot of new readers to the genre even if only to have a taste of their favourite author but some of those readers might branch out and explore a bit more. I don’t think I’ll be one of them as such but I won’t reject the genre out of hand, either.

 

 

 

World Book Day

April 23 is World Book Day. It’s been organized by UNESCO to promote literacy and publishing. The date traces back to Spain in 1923, where they wanted to honour author Miguel Cervantes who died on this date. Also, it’s the birth and death date of William Shakespeare. Wikipedia has an odd trivia fact about these two authors who died on the same date in 1616. Cervantes actually died 10 days earlier because Spain did not use the same calendar that England did (Gregorian Vs Julian). Not every country celebrates it on the same date but many countries do mark a date for it.

So today, read a book to or with your kids. Visit a library. Or why not read a classic book? I’ve got Rockbound by Canadian author Frank Parker Day on the go (stay tuned for review when I’m done). That was written in 1928 and takes place in a small fishing village on a tiny island off the coast of Nova Scotia, a kind of David vs Goliath story, Goliath being either the antagonist of the story or the force of the sea. Or both. I like to try to read a few classics ever year, either Canadian classics or others.

There is this list from CBC on the 100 Novels that make you proud to be a Canadian. There are a lot of great books on there, both by authors that are Canadian literature royalty and new, exciting authors. My favourites from the list are: Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald which I’m planning to reread this year, Annabel by Kathleen Winter, Galore by Michael Crummey (or anything by him), The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, The Outlander by Gill Adamson, and oh gosh, there really are a lot of good books on that list, and I’ve only read about a third of them.

There really are some great authors producing books of all types and genres. That’s the best thing about reading, there is bound to be something that interests you, be it fiction, non-fiction, graphic novel, audio book, magazines that will cover pretty much every topic under the sun. Reading improves your vocabulary, your imagination, your intelligence. You can learn from any kind of reading and you’ll never be bored if you have something to read.