County Life: A word on words – Authors’ choices matter

The Hidden Keys

The Hidden Keys along with Fifteen Dogs is part of a five book collection.

Erin’s Editions

I recently had the opportunity to attend a talk by André Alexis, author of the Giller Prize winning Fifteen Dogs. His third and most recent novel is The Hidden Keys, which along with Fifteen Dogs is meant to be part of a group of five books beginning with his novel Pastoral. Alexis explained that each of the five books, the fourth of which is still being written, are all novels in different genres about the same three things – Love, Place, and God. During the talk, Alexis read passages from each novel, all completely different but all clearly talking about those three things.

This made me think about how the words we use can really affect the message we are trying to get across. If André Alexis, in a masterful and calculated way, can make us feel completely different five times over about the same three ideas, imagine what havoc we amateurs wreak when we aren’t careful with how we choose our words. The words we decide on can determine if our message is sincere or strident, condescending or uplifting, and can either enhance or obscure what we’re really trying to say.


So what is the dog eating in the barn?

Fiction, whose duty it is to pull on heart strings or make us check for monsters under the bed, uses how words can make us feel to set the scene and pull us through the story. Think of the question “Is the dog eating in the barn?” and you might think of an old farmer asking where his trusty sheepdog, Flossy, is at while he tucks into his lunch before going back out to tend the sheep. But if I tell you that I have Stephen King’s Cujo open as I write this, you realize that the context of the question makes it much more sinister – while the dog may be eating in the barn, kibble is likely not the main course. We know this because by page 181, King has used his macabre skill with words to get us all freaked out and we know that no good can come of the dog in the next 138 pages.

Non-fiction also uses words to set a scene, and make us feel a certain way about what we’re reading. But “the feels” can get a little sticky when dealing with factual writing. Paraphrasing French physicist Henri Poincaré, a pile of facts is no more the truth than a pile of bricks is a house, and it’s up to the writer and the reader to position those facts in reality. A historical non-fiction author will present the facts of a historical event in a way to make you feel as if you were experiencing it. A writer on climate will provide you with the data around climate change, but will also try and provide the context of what that data means – like rising sea levels and more severe weather – to make clear the real-world ramifications.

There is danger when a writer becomes reliant on inflammatory or sensationalist language to get their point across – which can undermine a truthful message, or obscure an untruthful message by playing to the emotions rather than intellect of the reader. It’s sort of like cluttering up your pile of bricks with banana peels and broken glass – the house becomes that much harder to build. We don’t know if the dog is really Flossy the trusty sheep dog, or the dreaded Cujo – we just know how we feel about it.

When reading fiction or non-fiction, it’s good to try and discern the intent of the writer. With fiction this is usually just a part of the book as it is meant to be experienced – the author knows what emotions they want us to feel and we feel them. Same goes for non-fiction, but because we believe what we’re reading to be true, we need to think a bit more carefully about the intent of the author – Are they being sincere? Are they trying to get a rise out of us? If so, why? It’s not always a bad thing to make your audience feel something, but we need to know if we really need to be scared of the dog, or if poor Flossy is being given a bad rap for no good reason.

*Originally published in County Life.


County Life: Making and Trying

try it logo plainBessie’s Books and Other Things

The Haliburton County Public Library held a “Try it Fair” at the beginning of December.  This is something that bigger library systems have undertaken successfully but we weren’t sure that we could do it.  We ended up attracting twenty seven skills and activities demonstrators and over 250 people attended in a four hour period.

Try it Fairs, or Try it in Ten, or How to, or Skill Share Fairs are becoming popular for libraries to host as they are a way to encourage people to be curious and playful.  Attendees can try or can make something that they may never have tied or made before.  These kinds of fairs are a result of our current learning climate.  Partially attributable to the rapid pace that technology is evolving, formal in classroom learning is no longer keeping up with the pace of change.  People have to be willing to explore on their own and engage in self-guided learning in order to stay current in our ever changing world.  Libraries have always been interested in lifelong learning and human inquisitiveness.  Libraries organizing Try it Fairs is an expansion of this interest in the physical sense.

We held ours in the High School Gymnasium, for the first two hours we limited it to high school students only, and then for the next two we opened it up to the public.  We offered anything from really high-tech skills including trying a 3D printer, horseback riding on simulated horses, hemming pants using an industrial sewing machine, or making a button.

We are still analyzing the feedback but overwhelmingly it appears that we need to do it again.  Try it Fairs are part of the “Maker Movement” which is loosely defined as,  “a resurgence of the desire to create physical objects; it can manifest itself as a technology-based extension of DIY and revels in the creation of new devices as well as tinkering with existing ones. There is a strong focus on using and learning practical skills and applying them to designs.”

To learn more about this topic we have several books at the library that will get you started with your own maker projects and tell you more about the movement itself:

Free to make: how the maker movement is changing our schools, our jobs, and our minds by Dale Dougherty with Ariane Conrad

Maker lab: 28 super cool projects: build, invent, create, discover by Jack Challoner

The big book of maker skills: tools & techniques for building great tech projects by Chris Hackett and the editors of Popular Science.

I find the maker concept exciting because it allows for trial and error.  I think for many of us of a certain age, making mistakes is uncomfortable.  Speaking for myself, I was always worried about wasting materials, wasting time, or simply looking stupid.  Permission to explore and experiment without worry of failure is a completely new way of thinking for some.  We really do plan on holding another Try it Fair.  If you didn’t get a chance to come in December, watch for the next one, where you too can come and be inquisitive.

*Originally published in County Life, February 2017.

County Life: Erin’s Top 3 Reads of 2016

Erin’s Top 3 Reads of 2016
Erin’s Editions

For me, 2016 was a bit of an odd year for reading. There were highly anticipated but unfulfilling sequels, books that were almost amazing but lost it in the last 20 pages, and books that I didn’t think I would enjoy but that I found enthralling. I don’t have a clear top 3, but I do have three very different books that stood out for me in 2016.

the testament of maryI am not a religious or spiritual person, but Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary was riveting from beginning to end. Just as the great masters painted her robes, Tóibín paints a picture with spare prose of Mary as a grieving mother, angry and traumatized at the loss of her son, swept up in a dangerous world of faith, war, and politics. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Meryl Streep. Streep brings the character of Mary to life as she details the events leading up to her son’s execution, and the desperation after to secure his legacy. In this story, Mary is human and flawed – not a blushing virgin but a tragic heroine. In a heartbreaking passage, she is reminded by the two unnamed disciples charged to mind her of her son’s divine lineage; she will have none of it, proclaiming her son’s death to be decidedly “not worth it.” While the book has not been free of controversy, it has been lauded by believers and non-believers alike.

the country of ice cream starGoing from a relatively short treatment of ancient history to an epic 600 page dystopian not-so-distant future, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman is a book that I didn’t think I’d get through but once into it was loathe to put down. The world has been ravaged by an unstoppable disease, and those left are now wandering in the ruins of cities and suburbs. Ice Cream Star and her clan survive by scavenging and maintaining uneasy alliances with other survivors. In this world, people only live until they reach the age of 20, at which point their bodies succumb to the disease that has wiped out humanity, a plight that Ice Cream’s brother is now facing. When Ice Cream finds a Roo, beings thought to kidnap children and use them as slaves, who has grown old enough to have wrinkles around his eyes, she believes there to be a cure for the disease that makes their lives so short and is determined to find it. The Country of Ice Cream Star is written entirely in a made up patois, so is intimidating to start. But the world that Newman builds, using barely recognizable pieces of things we find familiar, and the fiercely tenacious Ice Cream make the story worth the effort.

mycroft holmesMy third book is pretty much pure indulgence, because I’m a longtime fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of Sherlock Holmes stories. Mycroft Holmes written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, you read that right, yes that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) explores the question of what made the corpulent older brother of Sherlock Holmes, ostensibly a quiet midlevel civil servant but often described as being the hidden power behind the British Government, the enigmatic man that he is in stories such as The Greek Interpreter and the Bruce-Partington Plans. In this book Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft is far from the man described as essentially lazy by his younger brother, but up for a bit of adventure with his friend Cyrus Douglas. When Cyrus gets reports of children dying under mysterious circumstances in his homeland of Trinidad, and Mycroft’s fiancée (also with colonial connections to the country) abruptly leaves England, Cyrus and Mycroft are drawn into a dark web of secrets that grows more treacherous with every step they take. Abdul-Jabbar – who is himself a Sherlockian – not only writes a pretty good adventure in the spirit of the Conan Doyle stories, he also takes an opportunity to examine British colonialism and Trinidad’s history.

All of these books are available at the Haliburton County Public Library. Whether you want something inspiring, challenging, or comfortable and familiar, there is always a book out there waiting for you.

*Originally published in County Life, December 29, 2016.

County Life: Bessie’s Top 3 Reads of 2016

Bessie’s Books and Other Things

Great reads seemed a little scarcer than usual in 2016.  I have repeatedly heard from prolific readers that there hadn’t been as much good stuff this year.  When I looked back at what I have read over 2016 I can see that there are fewer high rated titles but still enough to make the pursuit of that perfect book worthwhile.

the-summer-before-the-warMy favourite read of the year was from Helen Simonson who gave us The Summer Before the War. It’s the summer of 1914 and life in the sleepy village of Rye, England is about to take an interesting turn. Agatha Kent, a force for progress, is expecting an unusual candidate to be the school’s Latin teacher: Beatrice Nash, a woman has never taught Latin at this school before. Agatha’s nephews, meanwhile, have come to spend the summer months, as always, both with dreams of their own: Daniel, the poet, to publish a literary journal in Paris, and Hugh, to graduate from medical studies and marry his surgeon’s daughter thus inheriting a lucrative practice. But then Hugh is sent to pick up Beatrice from the train station and life, of course, changes.

what-i-wasI listened to a wonderful young adult book on CD called What I Was by Meg Rosoff, a beautifully crafted and heart-achingly poignant coming-of-age tale that is set mainly in a hut on an isolated strip of land in East Anglia. The narrator is an older man who recounts the story of his most significant friendship with the nearly feral and completely parentless Finn, who lives alone in a hut by the sea. He idolizes Finn and spends as much time with him at the beachside hut as possible, hoping to become self-reliant and free instead of burdened by the boarding school dress code and curfew. But the contrast between their lives becomes ever more painful, until one day the tables turn and everything our hero believes to be true explodes with dire consequences.

HL under the visibleThe Haliburton County Public Library participates in the Evergreen award every year.  With this award ten works of Canadian fiction, non-fiction, and short stories are chosen by a committee of the Ontario Library Association and library patrons have the chance to read them until October when they can vote for their favourite.  One I really enjoyed from this list this year was Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin. Fatherless Katherine carries the stigma of her mixed-race background through an era that is hostile to her and all she represents. It is only through music that she finds the freedom to temporarily escape and dream of a better life for herself. Orphaned Mahsa also grows up in the shadow of loss, sent to relatives in Pakistan after the death of her parents. Struggling to break free, she escapes to Montreal but eventually she finds herself forced into an arranged marriage. For Mahsa, too, music becomes her solace and allows her to escape from her oppressive circumstances. When Katherine and Mahsa meet, they find in each other a kindred spirit as well as a musical equal, and their lives are changed irrevocably.

All three of these books were satisfying reads for different reasons.  Even in a lean reading year there is bound to be something you can find to enjoy, especially if you are willing to venture across genres and format types.  All the books mentioned are available in one way or another at the Haliburton County Public Library.

*Originally published in County Life on December 1, 2016.

County Life: A Question of Identity

woman-565127_1920Erin’s Editions

At the beginning of October, an Italian journalist triumphantly announced that he had unveiled the true identity of Elena Farrente, the author of My Brilliant Friend. The identity of the reclusive Farrente had long been the subject of speculation, with the author insisting on the need to write behind a pseudonym for an anonymity that was crucial to her art and personal privacy. The bizarre lengths to which the journalist went to unveil Farrente, despite she unequivocally expressing her desire to remain anonymous, have raised questions about the right to privacy and to making the artistic choice of writing under a pseudonym.

Many authors write under pseudonyms, or pen names, or noms de plume, and for many different reasons. For some, writing under a pseudonym allows them to break free from previous successes to pursue new creative avenues, such as J.K. Rowling writing under the name Robert Galbraith. Sometimes a pseudonym is used for a multi-author series to provide consistency, such as the use of Carolyn Keene for the Nancy Drew Series, for Frank W. Dixon for the Hardy Boys. Some use a pseudonym as a literary device to integrate the author into the world of the story, such as Lemony Snicket in his Series of Unfortunate Events.

Sometimes the desire to write under a pseudonym goes artistically and personally deeper. A good example of this is Michael Redhill writing under the pseudonym Inger Ash Wolfe. Redhill is a poet and literary novelist who became fascinated with the idea of assuming a new identity. When the story of small town police detective Hazel Micallef began to materialize, Redhill decided to write Hazel as another writer. That writer, Inger Ash Wolfe, grew out of the question of who could write a character like the tenacious and imposing Hazel.

When The Calling was published in 2008, with Wolfe’s only biographical note being that she was a pseudonym of a well-known North American literary writer, speculation was rife. Suspects included Margaret Atwood, Jane Urquhart, and Redhill himself. While Redhill certainly wasn’t keeping his secret to generate publicity, the insatiable desire to solve a mystery had the literary world in its grip. In an interview with CBC’s Shelagh Rogers, Redhill says “I didn’t do this because I wanted to create a circus, but I did create a circus in an ancillary kind of way, which wasn’t that enjoyable to live through.”

the-night-bellAfter the third book, Redhill realized that Inger Ash Wolfe couldn’t remain reclusive anymore. With the changing publishing industry, and then need for authors to become more involved in marketing their work, Wolfe needed someone to speak on her behalf and he was that person. In an essay in the Globe and Mail (July 27, 2012), Redhill revealed the story of Wolfe adding “So here we are, after seven years of carrying on in private. I admit I’m a little sad about it. Inger fulfilled some peculiar longing in me when she was mine alone, but I’m letting go of her now.”

It’s clear that in some cases, a pseudonym is much more than a pseudonym. In the case of Inger Ash Wolfe, and possibly in the case of Elena Farrente, the pseudonym becomes a living character, not just a name to hide behind. While the debate rages on about the ethics of unveiling Farrente, we can take a lesson on that from Inger Ash Wolfe and Michael Redhill.

Michael Redhill will be this year’s guest at the Friends of the Haliburton County Public Library Book Gala on November 13th at the Pinestone. You can purchase tickets for $25 at Master’s Bookstore, or by calling Rozanne at 705-286-1071.

*Originally published in County Life on November 3, 2016.

County Life: Gender and Sports

concussionBessie’s Books and Other Things

The second week-end of September was sporting Nirvana if that is how you are inclined.  The Blue Jays were in a head to head series with the Boston Red Sox and were fighting to keep their place at the front of the American League East.  In football, my team (Buffalo Bills) and my husband Doug’s team (Oakland Raiders) played on Sunday. The U.S. Open held both the women’s and the men’s final on the week-end.  In addition there was golf, pro-soccer MLS and EPL, as well as numerous world cup of hockey exhibition games. Both my children went back to school leaving us for the first time with an empty nest and not a lot of obligations past watching TV and folding the odd basket of laundry, in much reduced quantities I might add.

My daughter has gone back to school to study pro sports, making me hyper aware of the current and historical issues surrounding pro and high level amateur sports.    There is a disturbing pattern with some current and retired football players with a prevalence of brain damage, brain injury, and trauma induced brain diseases including Alzheimer’s.  The movie Concussion starring Will Smith is based on the true story of the accomplished pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players, and the uphill battle he faced in bringing the information to the public.

As more and more hockey and football players suffer health issues from repeated blows to the head, the safety of contact sports is challenged.  With this knowledge, what motivates people to take such a risk with their overall health?  LeBron James, the star forward with the Cleveland Cavaliers, sheds some light on why people would take the risk. “It’s a safety thing.  As a parent you protect your kids as much as possible…I needed a way out,” he said. “My kids don’t need a way out. They’re all right. I needed a way out when I was a kid. I tried to do whatever it took to get out. That’s my excuse.”  In essence, without the pressure of poverty his children are exempt from taking on the high risk behaviours he felt he had to.

The movie Race was shown by Those Other Movies in September, but if you missed it the library does have a copy as well as Concussion.  It tells the incredible true story of Olympic legend Jesse Owens.  In his epic quest to be the greatest athlete in history, Owens chooses to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he must overcome not only elite competition, but also the brutal racial climate of Adolf Hitler’s Germany. To me sports do seem to be a microcosm of real life, the fight for racial integration has been no less complicated in sport than it was in society.

Watching the media coverage of the recent Summer Olympics has brought to the forefront gender inequality when human achievement is being reported. How women are portrayed in the context of sports whether in the media or in movies about sports could fill a whole other article. Whatever your game, you can search for books and movies in our catalogue to broaden your perspective on it and other issues surrounding sports.

*Originally published on County Life, September 2016.

County Life: History vs. Hollywood

Erin’s Editions

I recently watched The Danish Girl starting Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. Based on a fiction book of the same name by David Ebershoff, the story is based on the real life Lili Elbe, a transgender woman who was one of the first identifiable people to undergo sex reassignment surgery in the early 1930’s. Despite being critically acclaimed, the film has also been criticized for a number of reasons, including using a fictionalized account of Lili’s life rather than relying on her posthumously published autobiography as source material. As I was watching the film, and scrolling through what I could find about Lili Elbe online on my phone – some might see this as a horrible habit when viewing a movie, but it is one I enjoy from the comfort of my living room when I’m watching a film based on real people – I started to think about what happens when history and fiction cross paths.

In the historical drama Bridge of Spies starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, we learn about the story of lawyer James B. Donovan and the prisoner exchange of Rudolph Abel for Frances Gary Powers in Berlin during the escalating tensions of the Cold War in 9162. Directed and co-produced by Stephen Spielberg, the film is somewhat based on the book Strangers on a Bridge by James B. Donovan. Again, although the film was critically acclaimed, there were liberties taken with events to amp up the tension in what was otherwise a procedural legal drama. For instance, in the film it shows Donovan witnessing the brutal shooting of civilians attempting to scale the Berlin wall to escape from East to West Germany as he crossed over by train during the negotiations to free Powers and Pryor. However, Donovan never witnessed these shootings, although they did happen months after. While this portrayal of events wasn’t strictly accurate, it did reflect the frightening things happening at the time.

There are some films that use real life characters and events in a fictionalized way, but don’t even pretend to be based on a true story. This is definitely the case in the Joel and Ethan Coen film Hail, Caesar! Centering on the real life Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin), the film both pays homage to and lampoons the tumultuous time in Hollywood when the studio system was in upheaval, the threat of Communism and McCarthyism loomed, and the order of the day for film making was complete escapism. While the events and most of the characters are completely fictional, with Mannix the only real name used, they are reflective of the time period, with many of the characters having an equivalent historical character – a Kirby Grant type character who plays singing cowboys, an Esther Williams type character who does aquatic musicals, a Gene Kelly type triple threat, and feuding gossip columnists the like of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

While historical fiction and non-fiction can both enlighten, when the two dance together they have the potential to either create something beautiful or stumble all over each other. In the case of Hail, Caesar! I felt immersed in the time period that the Coen brothers were illustrating, warts and all. In the case of Bridge of Spies, while the liberties were taken with the events of the time, it created a springboard to learn more about those events. Going back to The Danish Girl, the waters are a little more muddied. While the film does respectfully portray a segment of our population that is under represented in media, the truncated timeline of Lili Elbe’s life may do her a disservice. While it does a beautiful job of portraying Lil’s self-discovery and transition in a world hostile to transgender people, she was certainly much more than the surgery she is famous for having undergone, and I feel like that is a piece of her history missing from the film. Even so, as with Hail, Caesar! and Bridge of Spies, during The Danish Girl I was on the lookout online and in our library catalogue for the true story behind the film and came away learning something that I hadn’t known about before – and perhaps that’s the point.

*Originally published in County Life August 2016.