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Review of a History of Quebec Comics

BDQ: Essays and Interviews on Quebec Comics
Conundrum Press
Edited by Andy Brown
As editor Andy Brown sets out in the foreword of this collection, BDQ refers to Quebec comics or bande dessinée québécoise, just as manga refers to comics from Japan. Unsurprisingly Quebec is unique in terms of its comics culture, which draws heavily on the Franco-Belgian tradition due to the shared language and is also strongly influenced by North American trends, in particular the US underground comix movement of the 1960s and zines in the 1990s. Brown, also the publisher at Conundrum, acknowledges that the collection is only “a smattering” of what is available on Quebec comics. But obviously the featured artists, images and essays, in his view, reflect important moments in BDQ history. The collection is divided into four time periods with the longest section devoted to The Nineties, evidently an ebullient period for sequential art, particularly in Montreal.

“The Early Years” focuses on Quebec comics that were published in newspapers with little or no text. The strips published between 1904 and 1909 were intended for adults and mirrored the social concerns of the day, such as urbanization, the woes of the working poor and the arrival of new Canadians. There is a particularly interesting essay on the style, technique and influences of Albert Chartier in his well-known strip Onésime.

“The Middle Years” takes us to the 1980s and introduces us to artists who include Réal Godbout, the creator of Red Ketchup, and Jimmy Beaulieu, a principled creator who refuses to turn his back on Quebec comics. One of the most interesting pieces in this section is a never before published letter from Julie Delporte to Sylvie Rancourt about the feminist significance of Rancourt’s Mélody and the sensitive intelligence of her work.

The party really gets started in “The Nineties,” and the two reigning stars of this section are underground superhero Henriette Valium and internationally acclaimed comic artist Julie Doucet. But the BDQ community apparently had its cultural clashes. In response to an article penned by Marc Tessier, “The Montreal Comix Scene,” published in a 2005 special edition of The Comics Journal, a group of people took issue with Tessier’s portrayal and let him know, point by point, in Letters to the Editor of The Comics Journal #274 (February 2006). In a previously unpublished essay on Fish Piss, Andy Brown refers to the zine that ran from 1996 to 2006 as truly bilingual. Its comics, essays, poems and stories were published in French and English without translation since its audience was as bilingual as its editor, Louis Rastelli.

The final section, “Modern Times,” introduces comic artists who have had some recent commercial success. It features interviews with the late Geneviève Castrée, Michel Rabagliati, Zviane, and Diane Obomsawin, in addition to essays on the creator of Mile End, Michel Hellman, and the collaborative work of Zviane and Iris in L’hostie d’chat.

This collection is a great primer for anyone interested in graphic novels or sequential art from Quebec. Among the essays, I preferred those that touched on the artist’s approach to stories and their work methods. Editor Brown also did a commendable job of focusing on comics created by women when the BDQ scene has long been dominated by men.

Personally, I found the interview with Henriette Valium unreadable, but I’m nevertheless interested in seeing more work by this apparent iconoclast. Another unsatisfying read was the Roundtable on 1990s Quebec Comics. Although some interesting points were made, the number of participants made it hard to follow. My final criticism was the collection’s very small print.

As the publisher at Conundrum, Brown has a vested interest in the success of BDQ, but it’s also apparent from this collection that he has made an almost selfless commitment to the vibrancy of this community. Conundrum has translated many high-profile Quebec bédéistes, including Michel Rabagliati and his seminal work The Song of Roland, for the English-speaking world to discover. With support like this, we might soon see comics finally recognized as a true art form in Canada.

The review has been cross-posted at the Montreal Review of Books.
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Review: Baking With Kafka by Tom Gauld

https://www.amazon.ca/Baking-Kafka-Tom-Gauld/dp/1770462961/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1509805343&sr=8-1&keywords=baking+with+kafkaBaking With Kafka
By Tom Gauld
Drawn & Quarterly

British cartoonist and illustrator, Tom Gauld is the author of the graphic novels Goliath, Mooncop and You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack. Baking with Kafka is his recent collection of short comics, many of which have already been published in The Guardian, New Scientist and The New York Times. Gauld’s drawings are simple, yet perfectly executed, without any superfluous detail. His short strips (1 to 8 panels) are usually funny, but above all, they’re smart and insightful.

The high-brow mention of Kafka in the title might seem ironic to more than a few people, particularly when it’s combined with baking, and the fact that only three strips in the collection relate to the Czech author. The Kafka reference may have to do with Gauld’s reliance on absurdity to get a laugh. Just imagine a comic strip in which two books are lamenting about their adaptations. One book confesses that his book was made into a German TV movie starring David Hasselhoff. Not to be outdone, the other book declares that his adaptation is far worse—the film, the review states, is a masterpiece and surpasses the source material.

The dominant theme throughout Baking with Kafka is books, not just the nerve-racking writing process, or a writer’s doomed attempt at creating something truly original, but also what happens once the book has been written. In one strip, Gauld serves up aptly named authors’ cocktails: the Rejected Manuscript, the Meddling Publisher, the Dreadful Review, and finally, the Disappointing Sales Figures. Gauld also reconstructs classics, adding forgotten chapters to Jane Austen’s Emma and unveiling previously unknown final chapters of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There’s also his classic literature with added science: Lady Chatterley’s Lepidopterist, and Sense and Seismology.

Among my favourite strips in this collection are when Gauld combines literary creation with new technology. Consider some of these murder methods for modern mystery writers: run over by a self-driving car, an exploding e-cigarette, strangled with a smartphone charger cable or pushed off a cliff while instagramming. Gauld also delivers a few keyboard shortcuts for novelists that include combinations to find and fill plot holes, remove boring bits, make a protagonist more likeable and add sexual tension. There are also new formats for novels that include a drone book, a holographic information crystal, an odourless glass and a T-shirt.

But Gauld also pokes fun at science, pop culture and the human condition in this collection, bringing to light more than a few uncomfortable truths that will have readers shifting in their seats. In "Revolution!" a rabble-rouser encourages a crowd to smash the system, bring down the government, and march on Parliament demanding change. The crowd, however, wants change but is only willing to sign a petition. "Pass the pen!" Most of us are guilty of signing at least one e-petition on social media for the sake of change. Sadly, there are many more armchair activists than we care to admit.

This collection is one sly, witty, sarcastic comic after another, and the humour is refreshingly British. Brimming with creativity, this book demonstrates how entertaining thinking outside the box can be. The reader might only be cautioned not to read this in public transit, as I did. There are plenty of unexpected laugh-out-loud moments. Minimalist stick men and women may remind us of our elementary school days, but these strips are very much for the thinking adult.

This review has been cross-posted at the Montreal Review of Books.
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A Fall Read: The Memento by Christy Ann Conlin

It's fall and we all want to curl up with something satisfying to read. I have just the book for you: The Memento by Christy Ann Conlin.

The Memento was a great accompaniment to my trip to beautiful Nova Scotia last summer.  As some of you know, I'm a big fan of Conlin's work, and if you enjoy this then I suggest you read her first novel Heave, one of my all-time favourites, especially if you love the recklessness of youth (with an explanation, of course).

Christy Ann was kind enough to answer three of my questions about The Memento. Here's part of our conversation (my question is in bold):

HL: The Memento is your second adult novel since your bestseller Heave (for my review, scroll to the bottom of this page). Although both are set in rural Nova Scotia on the Bay of Fundy, they are very different novels. Heave moves pretty fast, while Memento is more of a slow burn, an old-time novel with plenty of twists and turns, some elements of a ghost story and a suspense novel, but I wouldn’t put it in either category.

At the centre is Fancy Mosher. The reader meets Fancy on her birthday at school, just before summer vacation. The 12-year-old is going to work in service with her friend Art at Petal’s End, a large estate owned by the wealthy Parkers. As a reader, Fancy had all my sympathies. Marilyn arrives unexpectedly at the school in a lamentable state:

“… the rusty door flies open and out she lunges. She’s done up for the weather in a tight summer dress with a black bra hanging out, and she comes strutting over in her high heels with long hair piled fantastically high, dark Mosher eyes all lined, big long lashes, red lips, a line of sunset cutting through her cheeks. Fifty-seven years old. Seeing her from a distance, it does seem that time screeched to a stop for her.”

We caught an earlier glimpse of the Moshers in Heave. I remember a conversation with you a few years ago on social media about your next book, and you said it would centre on Fancy Mosher and the island. That wild island with its crashing waves and ragged cliffs certainly figures prominently in this story. I wanted to know about the genesis of this book. How did it all come together?

Christy Ann Conlin: Ah, yes, the island.  I grew up in a region (and a family) steeped in storytelling, where there are stories for the unexplainable. My family has always had a fascination for historic buildings and antiques.  And we grew up looking out over the legendary Bay of Fundy at a mysterious island which would loom out of the fog. There is no doubt that my creative landscape has been shaped by this.

And yes, The Memento is a book which defies categorization, ha ha. It reads like a historical novel and yet it is not. It is both coming of age story, and a life reckoning story. And it has elements of magic realism. There were a number of factors which drove the creation of the book. First, it was totally character driven, by Fancy Mosher, who appeared in Heave as a minor character. She fascinated me, the youngest of twelve children, growing up in a poor family immersed in an old world tradition which persisted in modern times. There is a scene in Heave where Fancy tells a ghost story that takes place out in the bay on a mysterious island. It was that moment, when I realized Fancy Mosher had a secret. Despite her poverty and tumultuous childhood, she had humour and insight, and an uncanny ability to see the truth.

The other driving element behind the development of the book was working stylistically to create a world, structure and story which embraced the stages of life and memory.  How we create memory when we are young, and how memory changes  and takes on an intensity as we age. And of course, the distortion created in memory with the passage of time, and with the onset of dementia. It’s very much an individual and a collective history, a shared memory colliding with personal memory. And herein arises the element of haunting, when unresolved moments and incidents from the past refuse to fade away, and begin to follow us, trailing behind and demanding acknowledgement and resolution, the past shaping the present, the beginning reaching forward and wrapping its hands around the end…

HL: The Moshers' and the Parkers' lives are intertwined, the extent of which is unknown until the very end. Fancy is at the bottom of the pecking order while she works in service at Petal’s End. She is the recipient of some stinging comments and hurtful actions by both other staff and some of the Parkers. In many ways, she cannot escape the actions of her mother, Marilyn. Yet, Fancy assumes her rung on the social ladder, possibly because she has no choice.

I found your portrayal of class differences in The Memento both subtle and very realistic. I was wondering where you found your source(s) of inspiration for these class differences?

Christy Ann: Both class and gender restrictions/expectations are invincible powers restricting and shaping female lives. Even when you want to flee the abuse, take shelter and find something new, you often find yourself in a labyrinth which just leads you back to where you began.

My early introduction to delineated class society was from reading novels, from English authors like Jane Austen, the Brontes and EM Forster to the society novels of Edith Wharton and the short fiction of Katherine Mansfield. And later watching DVDs of Upstairs Downstairs.
And, of course, my mother took me to visit the grand old Nova Scotia estate museums of Mount Uniacke, Prescott House and Haliburton House. In those museums, we could see where the servants lived, and just how much work was involved to keep the homes running. And of course, back then, without transportation, servants were essentially trapped on the estates.

Fancy is born into a working poor reality. Her family’s past is considered her past. She inherits a low social standing and she also inherits a macabre family ability.
Although she lives in modern times, she’s still bound by poverty and living rurally. The Memento looks at what we are born into and our response to it. It takes a very strong person to question and ultimately overcome a prescribed role.

And it’s not just class, but gender. Fancy has very few opportunities not just because she’s poor, but because she’s a poor female. Poor women have historically had to work, and often in the same jobs that their mothers have worked in.
Jenny Parker, the youngest daughter of the aristocratic Parker family, is also bound by severe class and gender expectations. She is disabled, unattractive and lacks charisma. She’s a throw away person in society. And yet Jenny also subverts the rules and expectations placed on her in a most unexpected way. Pomeline, Jenny’s older, beautiful and privileged sister, is not so lucky. The expectations on her are her undoing.
I grew up in a very rural and economically depressed area. It was also very racist and sexist, traditional and segregated. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in North America was, obviously, very different from living on an English country estate either as a lady or a lady's maid, or a scullery maid, as I no doubt would have been.

But there is an invisible class system at play here, one I only fully began to comprehend when I was in high school.The opportunities for a girl were so much more limited. There was a lot of pressure to do a “pink collar” job – to be a nurse or a teacher or be a secretary, to work with children.

We didn’t have a lot and there were hard times as a result. And when you don’t have a lot, you get a part-time job, if you actually have a way of getting to the job. This is always an issue when you live rurally. It’s too far to bike or walk. I remember being so envious of friends who lived in towns, or who got cars when they were sixteen.

I also did have a few domestic jobs working for some very wealthy people, both in Canada and in Europe. It was amazing how much drama unfolded in front of “the help.”

HL: Your next project, I gather, will be quite different. Rather than the classic slow-burn type of read, this next book will have more suspense. What can you tell us about your upcoming project?

Christy Ann:The book I’m working on now is very distilled. It’s a literary mystery! It explores the friendship, estrangement and reunion between two women who first met many summers ago in a seaside town and uncovered a horrible truth behind a forgotten family death which binds them together in a web of betrayal, beauty and violence.

HL: Can't wait. Could you maybe send me the galley?...

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NYC Flash Fiction: Tree Warriors

In the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, I was given the genre action/adventure, and since the vast majority of stories of this kind feature men, I opted for teenage girls. I had to use a helipad as a location and a fishing net as the object that had to appear in the story. Anyway, I came up with the following 1,000-word action story.

Tree Warriors

It’s early evening and 16-year-old Liza sees nothing from the look-out atop the hospital helipad, part of the only block left standing after the hospital was bombed. “Nothing will happen,” she tells herself, but deep down she wants something to happen to prove herself. Four girls, ranging in ages from 12 to 15, are standing on branches in the dense forest below, watching the entrance of the tunnel to their home, where seven younger girls are sleeping. Liza drags her hand through her black brush-cut pondering all her responsibilities. She became the new head of security after Luna, her predecessor, was killed by a sniper. The four eldest girls are out foraging for food and trading valuables at the night market.

Liza sees movement in the west field. “It might be nothing,” she says to herself. She reaches into the pocket of her hospital blanket cape and pulls out her night-vision goggles. Three men are coming. Long black points bob behind their shoulders—weapons. One man is carrying a bulky sack over his shoulder. Now’s her test. She reaches down and shakes a large leafy branch to warn the other four sentries of intruders.

She quickly rappels down the hospital wall to a thick branch and onto the network of tree branch walkways that the girls have built to see passersby below, usually government soldiers or religious fanatics, both equally as dangerous. Liza knows that the fate of girls is bleak in this holy war. The lucky ones are traded as child brides, while the less fortunate are trafficked.

Liza’s heart pounds as she moves through the trees to the other sentries, telling herself to follow instructions. The thick callouses on her feet help her to approach swiftly and silently. Within a few minutes she establishes eye-contact with the four sentries, their eyes wide with fear. Liza flashes three fingers to show them the number of intruders. She instructs them to pull out their blowguns and tranquilizing darts, made from clay, bits of glass and ground tranquilizers that were found amid the hospital rubble. One of the older girls had killed a man who had attacked her on her way home through the woods with just five quick tranquillizer darts. His silent death provided the group with some cash and a bowie knife, which Liza now carries on her belt.

According to instructions, passersby were not to be attacked unless they discovered the tunnel to their home. Liza waits, her heart in her throat, but ready. She hears the men’s footsteps approaching. She points to the direction they’re coming in. She motions to the other girls to step around so that when the men walk through, the girls will see their backs.

Liza brings her index finger to her lips, an order for silence and stillness. She freezes as the adrenaline pumps in her veins. The men’s voices are deep like a rumbling car. The one carrying the sack is the last one through. He calls to the others, “Hey, I need to rest,” placing the sack on the ground at the foot of the tree below Liza. A high-pitched cry comes from the sack. The man whacks it with his large hand. “Shut it or I’ll shoot you, bitch,” he says. The other two men plod back. A warm pungent smell of filth and perspiration permeates the cool night air.

One man steps close to the tunnel entrance and pulls out a camouflage branch covering the tunnel door. “Hey, what’s this?” he says leaning down. “Check this out,” he says to the others. He bends over and pulls branches out of the cast net used to keep them in place and conceal the tunnel door. “You’re right,” says the other kneeling down and pulling out branches. “Man, I think we’ve found a cache.”

Liza looks around at the sentries and puts three darts in her mouth and points to the man sitting below them, next to the sack. She aims for the back of his neck, and the other girls follow suit. He yelps in pain as he is bombarded with tranquilizer darts. By the time one of his buddies looks over, he is slumped over. “Hey, what’s up with him,” he says stepping over to see his unconscious friend. As he steps out, he hears a rustle in the trees above. He looks up and his eyes meet Liza’s. She blows another fast round of darts. The other girls fire as the man tries to shield his face with his bare arm. He collapses like a folding chair.

Liza spits before she leaps to the ground and hides behind a tree. She’s feeling slightly woozy from swallowing some of the tranquilizer. Bits of glass have cut the inside of her mouth. There’s a metallic taste of blood mixed with fear. She needs to kill the last man standing.

The third man steps away from the tunnel entrance to see what is going on. He looks up and sees the four sentries with their blowguns poised to fire. In a split second, he pulls his rifle into position and aims. Liza takes one, two, three steps, climbs the last man’s back and slits his throat with her bowie knife before he can shoot. He staggers and falls to the ground.

Two hours later when the eldest girls return with food and supplies, Liza is back at the helipad look-out, pacing and replaying the events of the evening over in her mind. The four exhausted sentries are still at their posts. Inside the tunnel, seven-year-old Aida, the little girl being carried in the sack, is curled up asleep with the others after she was reassured that the big, bad men were all dead. Their bodies were dragged to the dump along with the other recent dart fatality. But their belongings, two knives and three rifles, will keep all the girls safe for awhile.

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An Adventure in Frustration

Go on! Step On Me!
In my writing class, we were recently instructed to write for 20 minutes about an emotion to see what we came up with. We were told that we would inevitably come up with a story beginning, middle and end. My husband found my foray into frustration amusing, and for anyone, who has forgotten their wallet after ordering food, you will understand my predicament. Please bear in mind that this experience was also replete with embarrassment, but that was not the subject.

Frustration happens so fast, rising to the surface when your expectations don’t pan out. Depending on the day, that surge of irritation can easily be exacerbated by a little noise, a misplaced word or a thoughtless gesture that any other time might go unnoticed. Anyone who does not give full reign to their frustration, particularly in public, should be commended with a pat on the back, an Atta girl or You showed’em.

I would have appreciated any one of those gestures just a day earlier.

I’d decided to have sushi for lunch, eat in Jarry Park and saunter home 45 minutes later to return to work. I picked up my phone, grabbed my purse, checked for my bank card and keys, and headed out the door. After ordering my sushi, which was made in front of me, I reached for my bank card, but couldn’t find it. I offered a credit card, but no. "Just cash or debit," said the man at the counter in his crisp white apron and hideous hairnet, not the owner who knew me, but his unsmiling cousin.

I rifled through my purse. No money of course. And then decided to go home and look for my card. "Could you hold that for me," I said. "I just have to run home and grab my bank card." Slightly miffed, I pushed the door to leave and was immediately struck by glaring sunlight. I walked home slightly embarrassed, but reminded myself that at least I was getting some fresh air. At home, I searched for the bank card only to find it in my back pocket with my phone. I scratched my head. I had no recollection of putting it there. Then I went to wash my hands. I’d been out the previous evening and had heard numerous stories of bouts of flu, vomiting, and its related aches and pains.

I stepped out the door again heading back, thinking of fresh sushi with a squeeze of lime and a cold glass of mineral water. As the man at the counter handed me my lunch I reached into my purse, but yet again my bank card was not there. To make matters worse, the man at the counter sucked on the toothpick between his teeth as he waited, not once but three times. Each tslll ratcheted my annoyance up to full blown frustration. "Fuck," I said looking through my purse for the second time. Then I heard a snigger from the kitchen worker. As a regular customer, the owner would have said, "Drop by later and pay me" but the cousin with his Ruth Buzzi hairnet was not feeling particularly generous. He just sucked again, tslll. My irritation gathered momentum forcing its way up to my shoulders and immobilizing my jaw. My sushi lunch was not to be.

"I guess I won’t be having it today after all," I offered forcing a smile before running out the door.

I walked home with my face in a knot, but relieved that I didn’t have to hear El Sucko one more fucking time. My bank card was on the counter in the bathroom. I made a salad and told myself that the Interact terminal at the sushi shop was probably crawling with influenza germs multiplying by the second, and fortunately, I hadn’t come into contact with it, saving me and my family from a weekend of misery.

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A Conversation with Author Billie Livingston

Photo of Billie Livingston by Braden Haggerty
As I mentioned in my previous post, here is my interview...er conversation with Billie Livingston. To read my review of her book please click here.

HL: In my opinion, The Crooked Heart of Mercy is your most accomplished novel to date. First of all, I was pleased to see that you didn’t move away from the working class: Ben is a limousine driver and Maggie is a homecare worker for seniors. Tragedy has befallen the couple before the story opens, and in societal terms, it’s one of the worst—the death of a child. The circumstances of the death, the bottle of wine shared by the couple might not raise any eyebrows, but the prescription drug used for a recreational purpose would definitely set the fingers awaggin’. You never shy away from the dark side, and I like that you are always willing to look below the surface. But why did you chose such dark tragedy to be so central to the plot of the story?

BL: Yes, I've definitely heard the swish-swish of fingers wagging. Remarks like: These are despicable people. They deserve their misery. To begin with, the majority of the people have, at one time or another, ingested something "to take the edge off." The Rolling Stones sang about Mother's little helpers because it was and remains so very common. I think people tend to distance themselves from those who make tragic mistakes in order to provide a kind of mental insurance that this outcome could never happen in their own lives. Most people tend to imagine themselves as "good" while only others are "despicable."

The inspiration for this child's death was an event from my own family's history. Before I was born, my father and his first wife had a little boy who, at the age of two, climbed up on the window sill and fell two stories. He died. From what I've heard, his mother had had a couple glasses of wine. I really liked my father's first wife. She was fierce and funny, but I don't think she ever forgave herself. What if she hadn't had any wine? What if she was merely exhausted and closed her eyes for a moment?

In the story, Ben and Maggie are both feeling brow-beaten and exhausted by life.
Like so many of us, they are living hand to mouth and unable to get ahead. They took one of those "little helpers," wishing for a reprieve. They didn't get wildly intoxicated, but still, one wonders after the fact — what if I hadn't had that glass of wine? What if I weren't on these anti-depressants that make me drowsy, what if, what if, what if. The keys to survival for all of us are love, hope and forgiveness. For Ben and Maggie, that one decision is the biggest obstacle to finding these keys.

HL: So much of our construct of grieving is middle class. We see grievance counsellors and maybe take time off work. But these are luxuries that the majority of people don't have, as you’ve pointed out. However, tough Ben who is never without a witty or sarcastic repartee is absolutely shattered by the death of his son and the loss of Maggie. As callous as this may sound, Ben’s experience in the hospital is both heartbreaking and hilarious. For one, he’s not the type of man who, even with a head injury, would ever speak to a psychiatrist or go to group therapy sessions. Ben is in a fugue state and sometimes the reader doesn’t know if he’s talking to himself or if he is talking to those around him. It was brilliantly done. How did you come to the decision of having brain-injured Ben narrate his side of the story? And how did you research what his stay in the hospital might be like?

BL: I wanted Ben to be fierce and funny — and lost, so I'm delighted that he came across that way. Yes, I think we get used to the average middle-class person having a therapist when they're depressed. They go on anti-depressants and do talk therapy. But what about a guy who doesn't have the money, time, or the inclination to pour his guts out to a stranger?

The inspiration for Ben's head injury came from a story in the news about a 17-year-old kid in Florida who shot himself in the head, trying to wake up after he ate too many psychedelic mushrooms.  Fortunately he lived and was able to get to a hospital. But as you can imagine, the doctors thought he had tried to commit suicide and he spent the next while convincing them that he hadn't. I wondered how a person would navigate that situation if he had been in a very dark place prior to this event.

Then I had a conversation with a wildlife veterinarian who told me about vet pharmaceuticals that people have been known to take either recreationally or in hopes of getting themselves out of a bout of insomnia. (I've had terrible insomnia in the past so I'm familiar with the desperation and feeling of madness that comes when you haven't slept in days.) One drug she told me about was Telazol, which can put a person to sleep but also put him into a dissociative state. Taking something like this, when one is already feeling half-nuts from sleep deprivation seemed to have Ben written all over it.

Ben's a good man, he takes his responsibilities seriously. But what happens when an already overwhelmed person is pushed to the brink? Ben has so much shame and grief and anger, he doesn't want to be Ben. So, in a way, he embraces that dissociative state. It's a place to disappear. I found the Ben-voice I started to hear in my head very compelling.

As for research, I've had a couple of family members end up in psych wards and I've seen first hand that strange dissociative state that can happen. I've visited psychiatric facilities and psych wards in general hospitals. And when my husband, Tim, was in the seminary, he did some chaplain work in a psychiatric ward on the American Eastern seaboard. He answered my questions and showed me the notes and transcriptions he wrote -- all names removed, of course.

HL: Maggie works with a senior who asks Maggie to accompany her to the First United Church of Spiritualism, where the person leading the congregation speaks to spirits on the other side. Although Maggie is a lapsed Catholic, she still desperately wants to hear or see a sign from her young son Frankie. Ultimately, The Crooked Heart of Mercy is about where you turn when you’ve suffered an unspeakable tragedy and find yourself completely alone. This story is about faith. What is it that interests you about faith?

BL: I guess I've always been curious about faith. I've been to dozens of different houses of worship — everything from synagogues to churches to a Raëlian meeting. I love the very human desire to experience the divine, to find meaning in a way that goes beyond the flesh of this world. Maggie is a lapsed Catholic and yet, the yearning for spirit, for healing, is deep in her bones. Whether it's superstition or something more profound, she's afraid and she has a craving for some kind of magic. This seems pretty normal to me. Even the staunchest atheist — atheists talk more about God than your average priest!

About 400 years ago, Blaise Pascal wrote about the God-shaped hole and maybe there's something to that. Whether a person calls it The Universe, or My Higher Power, or The Great Spirit — these expressions all point to the same hunger for the divine.
I gave a reading in San Francisco recently and there was a homeless man in the audience. He talked about his experience with death and spirit. He believed he'd seen the dead. A few seats over from him, an old woman leaned on her cane and stared out the window. She suddenly turned to him and said, “This vision you had, you said you’re open to it. I haven’t experienced anything like this and I’m not open to it. I’m not. Why are you? How does it happen?” The anger in her voice, the frustration — it was clear that she wanted so much to believe there was something else, something more. I think it's innate in us. For better or for worse.

HL: Maggie’s brother Francis, a Catholic priest, is also on a self-destructive path, and it is only after he suffers the ultimate humiliation on YouTube that he is forced to face his demons. Francis and Maggie together are hilarious and a reminder that life goes on regardless of tragedy. Despite Francis’s fall from grace, he is very good with people and he loves his work. Besides his obvious role as a mediator, why was it important to have an openly gay priest struggling with sobriety and celibacy in this story?

BL: When my husband and I were first dating, he was in the seminary in Washington, DC. I used to visit him there, and on the weekends I'd be up on the rooftop patio drinking cocktails and bantering with young men who felt they had a vocation but were unsure if they could put their appetites aside. So a lot of Francis came out of meeting these guys and seeing all their fear and grace and that wicked sense of humour. A few were gay and clearly had strong appetites for sex and alcohol. The Catholic church doesn't accept active homosexuality and, although priests in the Eastern Catholic rite can marry, that only applies to the straight ones.

I used to ask— Why? why are you so determined to get ordained when it means spending your life in hiding? Why not become an Anglican/Episcopalian? Then you can get ordained and married.  But I think for a Catholic, the only church is The Church. At any rate, a couple of these guys who eventually got ordained did run into trouble later. One of them ended up in a drunken viral video similar to the one in Francis's situation. But the people in his church still wanted him. They found his presence was very healing and merciful and they gave it right back to him. 

It's not very often that you see clergy in film or in books where they're just human beings. Usually they feel as if they're tiptoeing around being excruciatingly holy. I liked many of those seminarians and priests I met. And it was clear to me in witnessing them as they dealt with people, as they delivered the sacraments, that a person can make lousy decisions in his personal life and still be a great catalyst for love and healing.

HL: I told you in an email that it took me months to digest this book. Initially, it made me feel like I wasn't as tolerant as I thought I was. Maggie and Ben taking a prescription drug the night their two-year-old died was just one of events that stuck in my craw. Not the bottle of wine, which is so acceptable in our society. Or the fact that two-year-olds can take off in a flash from sober, alert parents. Just ask the woman whose three-year-old ended up in a zoo enclosure with a gorilla.

We, myself included, are so quick to judge others. It was quite liberating and refreshing when I realized that the Crooked Heart of Mercy was all about forgiveness. Well done.

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Review: The Crooked Heart of Mercy by Billie Livingston

I have interviewed Billie Livingston, who talks about her inspiration for this novel. Stay tuned for my next post.

The Crooked Heart of Mercy
Billie Livingston
Harper Collins
William Morrow Paperbacks
ISBN: 9780062413772

In The Crooked Heart of Mercy, the sixth novel by award-winning Canadian novelist Billie Livingston, we meet Maggie and Ben, a once happy working-class couple whose world is torn asunder when their two-year-old son scrambles out their apartment window just as the couple has settled in for quiet evening together. If this isn’t bad enough, their date-night involves a bottle of wine and a prescription drug that was not prescribed to either Maggie or Ben.

If you’re wincing right now then that is precisely what Livingston had in mind.  But just as the author takes you down to the unfathomable depths of grief, she will just as quickly whisk you back to hope and optimism, with plenty of gallows humor along the way. Livingston continually challenges her readers to look beyond their own prejudices and to suspend their judgment by showing the vulnerable, soft sides of her characters, who have made mistakes, but haven't we all?

After the tragedy, Maggie is no longer able to face Ben and moves out. Ben not only has to contend with the loss of his son and his wife, the only things he got right in life, but he also has to deal with an ailing father and a wayward younger brother. Unable to cope or sleep, Ben attempts to take his own life.

The story opens with Ben finding himself in a hospital room that is “as white as a scream.” In a dissociative state and unable to answer simple questions, Ben is confused as to who Ben is. In response to his psychiatrist’s question about how he ended up in the psychiatric ward with a bullet in his head, Ben does not answer aloud, but to himself, “Dr. Lambert wants to know about the hole. Ben’s black hole. If he stuck his finger in, surely Lambert could find the answer in there.”

He occasionally answers the question of the other characters in the story, but mostly he answers in a meandering interior monologue, airing his comic disdain for therapy, mental health professionals and privileged individuals, such as fellow patient Greg the attorney, who claims at a group session that he was selected by God and brought in with nails in his hands and feet.

While Ben has a hole in his head, Maggie looks on as claw-fisted diggers are excavating a hole on a building site. Maggie has just left Ben and is grieving the loss of her son. But money is needed, and she is on her way to an interview as a helper-cleaner to Lucy, an 82-year-old self-absorbed senior. One of Maggie’s duties is to accompany Lucy to the Church of Spiritualism to listen to a medium who speaks with the dead. This is a little more than Maggie can bear. As a lapsed Catholic, she claims she doesn’t go in for any “hocus pocus”, but she still listens closely just in case her son sends her a message.

If grieving weren’t enough, Maggie gets a call from the seminary about her gay brother Francis, a Catholic priest who has caused a scandal which involves his drunken rant at the county jail being captured on social media. Francis has to go and stay with his sister in her tiny apartment. In one of the book’s funnier moments, an exasperated Maggie confronts her brother about his choice to become a priest. As a bullied child, Francis confesses that he liked the safety of the church and that close-to-God feeling. He also reveals that he likes helping people and he enjoys being a priest, to which Maggie replies, “Why? Is it the robes? Getting all dressed up in the vestments? Is it like the ultimate drag show or what?”

While Francis lives with Maggie, he goes on a short-lived party-sex binge. Despite his weaknesses, Francis is very good with people. His gift of lending an ear and offering hope makes all the difference in this story.

The Crooked Heart of Mercy is suffused with a compassionate take on spiritualism, both conventional and pagan. But rest assured there is nothing preachy in this book. It serves as a reminder that the religion of our childhood, even after we’ve firmly closed the door on it for myriad reasons, is often where we turn, albeit in a more subdued form, when faced with tragedy, crisis and grief, even in spite of ourselves. But unlike the fairy tale depiction of redemption we’ve seen countless times in mainstream media, the reader sees through Ben that there will always be scars.

This is the most ambitious and complex of Livingston’s novels to date, and without a doubt her finest. Of all the books I have read in recent years, this one gnawed at me for months. I found that it poked holes in my belief system and raised so many new questions. Why did Livingston choose to have the couple take a prescription drug? Why did the plot revolve around such a horrific tragedy? Why did the author make Ben so resistant to seeking psychiatric help? And why did she have Francis go on a party-sex binge?

These are a few of the questions that I have asked Billie Livingston. Please drop by for my interview with her.

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A Virtual Team Trek: 10,000 Steps a Day

All My Walks Take Me to Jarry Park
I am a language professional who has the privilege of working from home. It sounds pretty sweet, doesn't it? No more commute, no more running around making my kids' lunches while trying to figure out what to wear, and no more flying out the door because we are late again. (Okay, we still do this.)

Teleworking or working from home sounds pretty good.... But there's one little problem. All that rushing to get to work and get home at the end of the day does burn a lot of calories. Now add that to the fact that desk jockeys like us are sitting for over seven hours a day. This means that those with the luxury of working from home can put on a lot of weight and develop an unhealthy lifestyle very quickly.

I work with a team of eight language professionals who live across Canada, so I came up with the idea of a virtual walk from one co-worker's place of residence to the next. Aware of the dangers of sitting for long periods of time, my colleagues were more than a little enthusiastic about doing this walk with me.

The original goal was for each of us to walk 25 kilometres (about 15 mi) a week, from Monday to Friday. That would mean walking 5 kilometres (about 3 mi) a day in our respective neighbourhoods across the country. At the end of the week, everyone sent me their tallies of the number of kilometres they had walked that week. I added all their weekly totals together, and using Google maps, I plotted our collective distance on a map and announced how far we had walked.

Week 1 of our Virtual Cross-Country Trek
We started our virtual trek in Barss Corners, Nova Scotia, the hometown of one co-worker. Our destination, some 5,716 km away, is Williams Lake, British Columbia, where another co-worker lives.

We began our virtual journey the week of November 9, 2015. Our first week's collective total was 193 km (120 mi), but by week 17, my team had walked 296 kilometres (184 mi). To date, our virtual trek has taken us through Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, northern Maine, Quebec (to visit me in Montreal), Ontario (to visit five teleworkers in and around Ottawa), northern Minnesota and Manitoba (to visit two teleworkers in Winnipeg). In total, the eight of us have walked 3,638 km (2,261 mi) in 17 weeks.

Our collective trek across Canada has also had the benefit of stimulating conversation about walking, exercise and vacations, and has been a nice team-building experience. Most of my team members have reached 40 km (25 miles)  more than a few times, while another team member has walked 75 kilometres (47 miles) in just one

Originally, I wanted to make our walking goal 10,000 steps a day. This is apparently the distance to walk for good health, but it changes for everyone depending on the length of their stride, among other factors. For me, it means walking about 8 km (5 mi) a day.

Beautiful Jarry Park
By Christmas, I noticed that it was easier to reach 8 kilometres (5 mi) a day if I went out to walk at least three times a day. It was too overwhelming to attempt this distance in just one walk. Using Google maps, I now calculate the walking distance before I leave home and keep my daily and weekly tally on a post-it note on my computer screen.

My New Year's resolution was just once to walk 50 km (31 mi) a week to see how I felt afterwards. As anyone who exercises regularly knows, the benefits of exercise can often be felt a few days later. I managed to walk 50 km in the first week of January, and it felt great. I was afraid that it was too much and that I would be exhausted. Instead, I felt energized. The combination of fresh air, sunlight and exercise has made this a wonderful experience, and I have walked 50 km a week ever since.

But what has made this much easier is knowing that seven other people are doing this walk with me, even if they are hundreds or thousands of miles away.

But it has cut into my blogging.

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Advice on Creating a Graphic Novel

We all grow up with a misconception that some people have innate artistic talent. While it's true that some people are born with some natural talent, succeeding as an artist requires self-discipline and years of practice. I've told my 13-year-old daughter this countless times, but as a mother, my view point sometimes falls on deaf ears.

Better to get that information from an actual artist.

That's why I was so pleased to have some input from Alison McCreesh, the artist and storyteller behind Ramshackle: A Yellowkife Story. Here is  how her experience of living off the grid came to be a graphic memoir/travelogue/diary. (That's her self-portrait below.)`

Enjoy drawing
"I had travelled a fair amount before and had always kept illustrated journals of some kind or another. I didn't give it that much thought. I just liked to draw and also liked to keep some kind of notes about my wanderings."

Draw inspiration from other artists
"It took until about 2008 for me to start discovering more indie and alternative comics and to realize that there was a whole genre of visual storytelling that actually existed and got published. A little while after that, I also started following a bunch of comic blogs and was inspired to start my own."

Set short-term goals
"My plan was to draw a few panels a week - never less than one - to document my travels. I figured that a little accountability to the World Wide Web would keep me motivated. I called the blog 'Alison a fini l'école' and started working on it in earnest when I headed out to do an internship in Halifax to wrap up my undergrad."

Exercise self-discipline
"I was surprisingly disciplined once I started and kept it up for a good three years. I made several panels a week and posted them diligently as I wandered - and as I eventually came to settle in Yellowknife. After a while of being sedentary, and of other creative projects taking up more and more time, the blog eventually fizzled out."

Build on the seed of an idea
"It seemed a shame to have done all that work and for barely anyone to have ever seen it and I always planned to do something with it. It just took me a while to figure out the precise incarnation. It wasn't cohesive enough for me just to stick it all together into a book."

Don't expect everything to be perfect
"The visual style changed over time, the drawings were sometimes sloppy and there was often a lack of context. It was a lot of raw material though!"

Decide on your focus
"In the end, I decided to go back and focus on reworking a section and that's how Ramshackle came to be. The book is directly based on about four months worth of the blog - the four months that span our first summer in Yellowknife."

A sense of humour always helps...in art and in life
"As for humour, I try to be of the school of 'the more aggravating at the time, the better the story later.'  Being under pressure (even self-imposed pressure) to draw weekly comics also did wonders for my attitude: every tiny hardship was potential gag material. Working on the story of that first summer in hindsight was also a plus. In revisiting all the old panels and strips, I mostly saw the funny side. It's easy to laugh at sleepless mosquito infested nights when the bites are long forgotten."

Read a review of Ramshackle here.

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Ramshackle: Living Off The Grid

I found myself at Montreal's Expozine again this year. This time, it was to give my daughter a few ideas for creating comic strips. She likes drawing manga characters and has been after me to come up with a story for her characters, and we've worked on some things together, but it's hard to know what is cool to a 13-year-old.  I thought that she might get some inspiration from the eclectic collection of artists at the Expozine.

While we were there, I ran into a few familiar faces from the days when I used to review a lot of books. At Conundrum Press, I was handed a copy of Ramsmshackle: A Yellowknife Story by Alison McCreesh, just in case I wanted to review it. The author was on hand with a very small baby strapped to her chest. A brave mother, I thought.

McCreesh was signing copies of her graphic novel while chatting with a few people. The St-Enfant Jésus church basement, the Expozine venue, can get really hot. Sweat trickled down my back as I waited, watching McCreesh's tiny baby who began to wiggle with impatience. I wondered how the author was going to handle the situation when the heat made him loud and cranky. In the midst of her conversation she effortlessly opened a flap, a little red face popped out, breathed and then went back to sleep. Very smooth, I thought. The woman is a pro.

McCreesh's infant-toting, book-signing feat was my first clue as to her taste for adventure.
Ramshackle is the story of McCreesh and her boyfriend's drive across Canada in a barely roadworthy minivan and their lives starting out north of 60 in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. This is much more than just camping. Think large mosquitoes and no plumbing for months.

The unfathomably high cost of living and rent in Yellowknife force the 20-something couple to live out of their minivan, duct-taping the vents shut to keep the mosquitoes out. They eventually land dull day jobs and make some friends. Then they become house-sitters, the guardians of residents' pets and plants, while enjoying the modern amenities of a comfortable bed, hot showers and flush toilets, periodically returning to the minivan between gigs.

But their lives begin in earnest when they find their place and later their home in Dragon Shack Woodyard, their alternative, off-the-grid Shangri-La, in a tiny community with other like-minded people, sandwiched between million-dollar homes.
McCreesh and her partner not only like their makeshift existence, honey bucket and all, but they also thrive in the land of the midnight sun.

I loved this story of resilience, a type of antithesis to our consumer culture. I especially liked the idea of introducing a woman into pop culture who forges an untraditional path that she clearly finds rewarding, at a time when most people seem to opt for luxury items, comfort and debt.

The last ten years of the planet's swing to the right has often left me searching for a way out of the rat race, but I don't quite have the same sense of adventure as McCreesh.

Ramshackle left me with a lot of questions about the author's obvious enthusiasm for living off the grid. Where did this enthusiasm come from? What sense of community was there? How was this sense of community created? There was plenty about stocking up on water and maintaining a sawdust toilet, presented in a playful way, but what about heat north of 60? What equipment and clothing were absolutely essential to living off grid?

These questions and a few others will be answered in my interview with Alison McCreesh in my next post.

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