Keeping the Grass Green; making sure the sun shines on beautiful books

 

In the process of culling a lot of other possessions to make for a less cluttered home, I eventually ended up at the bookcases. Some years back, it seemed like sacrilege—me, professing to be a disciple of words and story—to discard books. Pass along so others can enjoy them, donate to book sales, pack away in boxes to be reconsidered “at another time.”  Among my treasures, though, were lovely hard cover editions of the likes of Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, To the Lighthouse, The Prophet, The Velveteen Rabbit—you know the ones that are on a special shelf, and in my house, for the most part, gathering dust. Surely there were people to whom I could gift these treasures. When I opened them and turned the pages, they gave off the undeniable scent of “old”; musty dry pages, occasionally a crumbling flower pressed between them, cracked spines. Beloved stories all, but beloved editions? It’s a short walk to the blue bin in the back alley. I put all the musty old books—there were many paperbacks in that condition as well—into a large paper bag because I couldn’t bear to hear the thud of each one going in.

I was left with books acquired post-1960s. Fortunately, this wasn’t the first clean-out I’d done, and passing years have made me more frugal, more practical where books are concerned. I read a lot; on the average, twenty books a month. I buy the books written by friends and favourite authors—often both apply. I have kept almost all the books signed by good friends, and others that I’ve bought that are simply so good that they’re keepers. My strategy, though, when I hear about a book that intrigues or someone recommends, is to head first for the library. After all, we do know about public lending rights. If I read a book and love it, know that I will want to re-read, or that I feel certain family and friends must read, then a trip to one of our local indie bookstores.

In this latest culling, in the signed copies, I’ve found books that I hold in my hand and ponder. These are fine books, deserving of a place on the shelf, books that I want to bring to other people who may never have seen or heard of the title or the author. Books that had their season and then quietly—to quote the lovely Jean McKay who I met Sage Hill—“have gone to grass,” the title of one of her slim treasures that is on my shelf along with The page-turner’s sister, and The Dragonfly Fling. I have a collection of special books by other fine authors I’ve met at Sage Hill or The Banff Centre or in writing classes, or simply through our great Alberta community of writers. At the risk of missing many names, they include: Dave Margoshes, David Elias, Leona Theis, Rod Schumacher, Allison Kydd, Myrna Garanis, Audrey Whitson, Astrid Blodgett, David Carpenter, Lori Hahnel, Barb Howard, Lee Kvern, Bruce Hunter, Cecelia Frey, Bob Stallworthy and the rest of you who must surely know who you are. Some of you are among those Susan Toy is showcasing in her recent promotions of books and authors we should know.

Looking at all of these books from seasons past, I felt compelled to hold my own books in my hand, and contemplate the number of their seasons. Apart from The Boy which has a life all its own that astonishes me, they all seem like yesterday’s news. This is not something on which I dwell, lose sleep, or feel bitter. It just is the world of books and publishing.

Every year, marvellous new books, shortlists for awards from which to choose.

I met Susan Toy in 2009 when I was doing a reading from my latest book at the time, Delivery. Big smile on her face, she marched up to me, extended her hand, and said, “Hi. I’m Susan Toy, your book rep.”  I had a book rep? Oh my, did I ever.

Most of Susan’s life’s work has involved books; bookseller, sales representative, literacy teacher, and promoter of fellow author and their books through her company, Alberta Books Canada. Meeting Susan was serendipitous; I’d been mulling over, shying away from, the very thought of promoting my own books. Modesty? Laziness? Expectations that my publisher would do the work? On that night at Pages when I met Susan, I knew after five short minutes of conversation that I’d just found the help I needed.

For almost five years, Susan promoted my books all over the province; arranged readings and speaking engagements in libraries and bookstores and at conferences. She was a constant source of affirmation and encouragement. Her enthusiasm and faith and commitment to what she was doing, and her many other skills and projects—she’s a marvellous cook! —have made her a special friend.

I have missed Susan in the years since she returned to Bequia and established a part-time home in Ontario, but was delighted that she turned her attention to her own writing and established her own press, Island Editions, to which I looked for advice on electronic publication of my first book, Running Toward Home.  The advice led to the publication of the ebook by Island Editions, a good decision and one I will consider for future publications.

I set out to write this blog post to shine a light on Susan’s recent promotions, spotlighting both authors she represented while she was in Alberta and authors she has since published through Island Editions, but got lost in my contemplation of the few books that rise to the top of the pile of hundreds  published in that same year. How to keep the also-rans alive.

I have felt some guilt, particularly because I believe so fervently that it is to authors to promote authors, for not sharing each of Susan’s promotional posts, but have chosen instead to celebrate Susan’s work, and to direct you to the Authors-Readers International list on her website, and encourage you to accept Susan’s invitation to meet all of these writers and their work. https://islandeditions.wordpress.com/authors-readers-international-list-of-authors/

If there is a way to dust off of a book, bring it back into the consciousness of readers, this is a good place to begin. I suspect as well, that your own bookcases could yield many books that deserve more than a short season.

Thank you, Susan. In what I know has not been an easy time, you’ve made a huge effort to send us back to the books that should not/need not be relegated to the has-been remainders bins.

Say Their Names

We need to say the names, to light candles, to remember

Some years ago, I was at the Banff Centre on December 6th.  During breakfast, women in different corners of the dining room, artists in residence, began to stand one by one and say the names.  It was the twentieth anniversary  of the Montreal massacre. Today, December 6, 2019 is the thirtieth anniversary of the Montreal massacre.

Recently someone told me that “the shoes on the cover” had drawn her in, kept her turning pages. She was talking about The Boy which was written out of an obsession with a long ago murder that is infamous in central Alberta– the Robert Raymond Cook case. Why the photo of the shoes rather than a photo of “the boy” or “the house”?  Infamy gives the name of the perpetrator a place in history. It was the victims of the crime I wanted to lift up out of the story.  Daisy, Gerry, Patty, Chrissy, Linda, Cathy, and Ray.  On one of my trips to Stettler to dig deeper into story of the Cook family murders, I was affirmed in my decision to finish the book.  I would light the candles by remembering their names and making the photo of the empty shoes the cover art for the book.

 

It was still rush hour at 9:00 AM, and traffic on the Deerfoot Trail came to a full stop so many times I was able to pour coffee and glance through my notes. Finally, beyond Airdrie the highway opened up. As the landscape flattened, a stiff wind whipped up from the ditches and threw a veil of white over the icy stretches. After a few miles, I relaxed. I am a good driver, and I enjoy the road.

            I began to pay attention to the radio, to Shelagh Rogers on “Sounds Like Canada.”  It was the eve of the eighteenth anniversary of the Montreal massacre of fourteen young women at the École Polytechnic. Shelagh was interviewing two women involved in establishing monuments to the slain students in their respective cities. Both of them had faced fierce opposition and even personal threats. Ironic, considering their efforts were meant to honour the lives of women lost to violence. So much attention had been paid to Marc LePine, the man with the gun who’d killed himself in the end, one of the women said, that eighteen years later, everyone knew his name. But the names of the victims were lost. I turned off the radio.

Victims.  Robert Raymond Cook’s name was part of Alberta lore, and his father’s by association, but many of the people I’d interviewed had forgotten Daisy’s name and no one but the man who’d been Gerry Cook’s best friend remembered those of the children.”

— from The Boy (Oolichan Books 2011)   The Boy cover image

 

Dispensing stories

The Calgary Public Library has joined many other sites internationally in dispensing short stories, quick reads.  This marvelous use of technology offers authors and readers a whole new venue for sharing story:  https://dispenser.short-edition.com/#section7

I am delighted to have one my own short stories, “Party Favours” available as a 5 minute read at the beautiful main branch of the Calgary Public Library.

If you’re not close enough to stop by and get your own copy, you can also find it online here:  https://calgary.short-edition.com/story/5m/party-favours

Innovative, accessible, inspirational.  Technology I can applaud.

The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning

I keep saying that I don’t review books, but what a pleasure it is to read and join the chorus of characters in praise of a book whose author I know well.

I have just finished Audrey Whitson’s new novel, The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning (NeWest Press 2019).  In fact, I finished the book in one day, which is rare for me.

When I entered Annie Gallagher’s community, Majestic, a drought-stricken prairie town in Alberta, a town whose citizens have seen hard times and miseries, I didnt’t expect to stay in the story through the whole of a miserably grey day. I was in need of a book that would make me laugh, lift me up, and take me away from the hard scrabble lives of the world.

I know Audrey Whitson and her writing. People and place are exquisitely drawn; alive and real and haunting. The story of laying Annie to rest is told from the alternating points of view of eight (and I apologize to any of  the citizens of Majestic and surrounding district if I’ve neglected to count them in) with Annie herself chiming in to reflect back on her life. Once their characters made it clear that they would sit with Annie through a wake, the night following the wake and and up to the funeral the next day, I wanted to be there with them. It’s tricky business, allowing so many voices to create the narrative in a story, but Audrey Whitson has linked these people together not only as people who loved Annie, but as community. Relationships with Annie emerge, and so too do the intimate details of the lives of her neighbours.

There are so many moments in this novel when I’m struck by the ways in which Annie’s death are redemptive and magical. In a drought ridden community where crops are failing, Annie is witching for water for roses. The Roman Catholic church is on the verge of closing. The hope for Majestic is that it will live on through an influx of city folk. The church will become their living spaces – lofts. The business deal is underway, the deconsecrating of the church is scheduled. But Annie’s funeral gets in the way.

Oh, what a funeral. When the aged Bishop arrives, I find my “favourite” character.

 “I can tell some want to jump out of their pews, out of their places, want to hold her last witching branch in their hands and join the old bishop in dancing the water.”

The ending to this book is one of the most beautiful and astonishing I have read in a very long time.

 

 

The Work of Justice

Jack Pecover died today, and I feel a deep sense of loss. Although we only met in person perhaps ten times over the years, we carried on a long epistolary conversation.   A letter from Jack was a time to sit down, get my wits about me, smile, laugh and hear his voice in my mind spinning his tales.

Jack and I shared an obsession, although his began long before my own. Both of us dealt with our obsession with the Cook family murders in Stettler in 1959 by putting pen to page and writing a book.  Jack’s Book, The Work of Justice, The Trials of Robert Raymond Cook was published in 1996 by Wolf Willow Press.  My book, The Boy,was published by Oolichan Books in 2011.

To share just a smattering of biography and the story of my making the acquaintance of this remarkable man, some excerpts from The Boy:

“The photo on the cover of The Work of Justice, The Trials of Robert Raymond Cook is of a young man in suit jacket and tie, hair combed straight back, looking as though he could have been on his way to a school dance, or a first job interview. This was Robert Raymond Cook, dressed for his trial in the murders of his father, stepmother, and the five young children of Ray and Daisy Cook.”

The book by Jack Pecover is four hundred and forty-nine pages, with two epigraphs:

“Who shall put his finger on the work of justice and say, ‘It is there.’ Justice is

like the kingdom of God; it is not without us as a fact; it is within us as a great yearning.”                         —  George Elliott

 

“The whole case agianst me consists of suspision and if theres any justice in this world something will be done. However I am beginning to have serious doubts as to weither or not there is any such thing as justice.”   

— “Letter from the death cell”  Robert Raymond Cook

“There is a foreword by Sheila Watson, author of The Double Hook, a novel which, I remembered with a jolt, opens with a man killing his mother. Even in the ten minutes I spent at a table in the library, skim reading, I found myself reaching for my pencil and the pad of post-it notes I carried in my bag. I put the pencil away. I would find my own copy for marking and defacing. Mr. Pecover, I decided, had a lot to tell me. The back cover said only: Jack Pecover is a retired lawyer and an alumni member of the Canadian Rodeo Cowboys Association. What I knew from the heft of this book was that Jack Pecover had spent a long time and a huge amount of energy examining the trials of Robert Raymond Cook.”

So I set out to find the man.

I arranged to meet Jack Pecover at a bookstore on the far south end of the city …

“He was easy to spot, a tall slim man in a trench coat, his face familiar from the photos. We sat at a small table crowded into the coffee shop corner of the store, and I found myself babbling nervously about my interest in the Cook case. I did not need to explain my fascination to the man who had written a 449 page book on the trials of Robert Raymond Cook.

Jack Pecover was still in law school when Robert Raymond Cook was executed. He become engrossed in the case, and one day, about a year after Cook’s death, he was walking in downtown Edmonton and found himself outside the office of Giffard Main. On a whim, he went up the stairs, asked to speak with the famous lawyer and to his surprise was escorted into Main’s office. He wanted to write a book about the Cook case, he told Main, and to his even greater surprise, the man agreed—on the condition that he, Giffard Main, would write the first and last chapters of the book. Jack Pecover said that at that point, he would have agreed to any condition to be given Main’s blessing. Main helped carry the files related to the case down to the car, and Pecover drove away with the pieces of a story that would take almost twenty years to emerge as a book, and even then would remain an unfinished puzzle.”

From my acknowledgements at the back of The Boy:

“To Jack Pecover, whose book, The Work of Justice, The Trials of Robert Raymond Cook, became my well-thumbed reference, I am indebted for a wealth of information, the acuity of his analysis, and his understanding of my obsession with finding the family buried in this infamous case. I am grateful to Jack as well for reminding me of the pleasures of old-fashioned correspondence, of opening an envelope and holding a real letter in hand.”

What a gift it was to know this man who so generously shared his intellect, insight, deep sense of irony and sharp wit.  I know that I will continue to watch my mailbox for an envelope with that familiar script. But I will have to be content to re-read Jack’s past letters.

I know there are many who played significant roles in Jack’s life and that they will blessed with memories and stories. So very many stories.

 

 

The names that become infamous; the names forgotten

Today is the anniversary of the 1989 massacre of fourteen women at  École Polytechnique, an engineering school affiliated with the Université de Montréal.  Marc Lepine’s name is indelibly written in this tragic piece of history. Today is the day to remember the names of the victims.

While I was doing research toward writing The Boy, driving toward Stettler on a snowy day with the CBC for company, I gained insight into why it become so important to me to write this book, but in a way that shifted the focus from Robert Raymond Cook to the victims in this crime; a father, stepmother, and five young children.

I remembered these words almost verbatim, before I went back to the book to find this excerpt:

“It was still rush hour at 9:00 AM, and traffic on the Deerfoot Trail came to a full stop so many times I was able to pour coffee and glance through my notes. Finally, beyond Airdrie the highway opened up. As the landscape flattened, a stiff wind whipped up from the ditches and threw a veil of white over the icy stretches. After a few miles, I relaxed. I am a good driver, and I enjoy the road.

 I began to pay attention to the radio, to Shelagh Rogers on “Sounds Like Canada.”  It was the eve of the eighteenth anniversary of the Montreal massacre of fourteen young women at the Ecole Polytechnic. Shelagh was interviewing two women involved in establishing monuments to the slain students in their respective cities. Both of them had faced fierce opposition and even personal threats. Ironic, considering their efforts were meant to honour the lives of women lost to violence. So much attention had been paid to Marc LePine, the man with the gun who’d killed himself in the end, one of the women said, that eighteen years later, everyone knew his name. But the names of the victims were lost. I turned off the radio.

Victims.  Robert Raymond Cook’s name was part of Alberta lore, and his father’s by association, but many of the people I’d interviewed had forgotten Daisy’s name and no one but the man who’d been Gerry Cook’s best friend remembered those of the children.”

— from The Boy (Oolichan Books 2011)

Writing Alberta

I read a review of Writing Alberta; Building on a Literary Landscape, edited by George Melnyk and Donna Coates ( U of C Press 2017) in AlbertaViews quite recently and it has been on my “to read” list. Essays by or about Alberta authors and their work are always of interest.

Yesterday, I discovered in the Member News in our latest “Westword,” the WGA magazine, that George Melnyk lists some of the authors included.  To my great surprise, in a list of authors who I hold in high esteem –Robert Kroetsch, Alice Major, Bernice Halfe, Chris Turner and others– my own name appears.

I have just borrowed a copy of the book from the Calgary Public Library and what an outstanding contribution it is to the Canlit canon as  “an overview of Alberta historiography of the past century.”

The authors referenced go as far back as Elsie Park Gowan and Sheila Watson. This book would be on my shelf even if it did not include: “Strategies for Storying the Terrible Truth in John Estacio’s and John Murrell’s Filumena and Betty Jane Hegerat’s The Boy”, by Tamara Palmer Seiler. To say I’m honoured to have my work included in Writing Alberta is understatement and to say I am in awe of Tamara Palmer Seiler’s description of The Boy as “a work of creative non-fiction that draws heavily on metafictional strategies” is  understated admiration for the fine critical analysis in this essay.

This is not intended to be a promotion of my work, but rather a statement of my gratitude at having been included in the collection, and also my strong recommendation that you read this book for the landscape of literary identity it provides.

Thank you George Melnyk and Donna Coates as well as the fine essayists and University of Calgary Press for publishing this work. https://press.ucalgary.ca/books/9781552388907