Monday, February 24, 2014

BOY, SNOW, BIRD by Helen Oyeyemi,,9780143187431,00.html

Helen Oyeyemi, named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, was born in Nigeria, but moved to London with her family when she was four. I was born in communist Poland, where I lived for fifteen years. Before I immigrated to Canada, I saw a black person only once or twice in person, and my ideas of racism came from watching Roots on TV, which the communists presented as a proof of evil in capitalist America.

Writing about race and racism is difficult. These issues are political, social, private and public, and often make the prose read like propaganda. However, Helen Oyeyemi, in her fifth book, writes about these subjects in a complex, original, and fantastic way: through alluding to and re-imagining fairy tales.

Once upon a time, actually, in the 1950’s, in a small town in Massahusetts, Boy is a woman who marries a widower, who has a daughter named Snow. Boy later gives birth to a daughter, Bird, who brings a dark family secret to life, forcing Boy to send Snow away.  The three women struggle to define each other and their relationships within their family and community, but apart from the cultural stereotypes represented by tales like Snow White and Cinderella. The story is complicated by two sets of grandparents, an estranged aunt, and a grandfather who really isn’t who he appears to be.

I grew up reading Grimm’s Fairy tales. They are very clear:  the ugly, such as witches, stepmothers, trolls, are ugly on the inside too; the good, such as princesses, orphans, swine-herds and goose-girls, are beautiful. Nothing is so clear in Helen Oyeyemi’s world. Boys are girls, and vice versa. The evil stepmother is not evil; she’s beautiful, and so is her daughter; and so is her stepdaughter. And they don’t hate each other, not really. Mirrors on the wall refuse to reflect appearances. White is black, and so is Snow.

Boy, Snow, Bird is a spell-binding read.
Kasia Jaronczyk was born in Poland and immigrated to Canada in 1992, at 15 years old. She has a Master's in Microbiology.  She lives in Guelph with her husband and two children. She has published poetry and short stories in Room, The Prairie Journal, Carousel Magazine, the Nashwaak Review and Postscripts to Darkness anthology.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Elizabeth Kolbert

Elizabeth Kolbert is a meticulous researcher and a bold writer. However, I doubted that there had been five extinctions here on earth until I read The Sixth Extinction.  After gathering information from a wide range of scholars and experts, she summarizes these five previous extinctions, then moves forward to her proofs that we are both living through, and causing, the sixth extinction. The geological time of the five extinctions, and the number of living families extinguished each time, appear on a chart on page 16 of The Sixth Extinction. The fifth extinction, and most massive to date, was caused by the largest asteroid ever to strike the earth. That impact caused widespread devastation and extinguished much life here, including all dinosaur life. The New York Times published a world map of asteroid impact signatures in 2006. A circular graphic representation of the fifth extinction’s asteroid strike signature is clearly visible in the Yucatan peninsula area HERE.

In her New Yorker articles, New Yorker blog posts, and in her previous book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe (2006), Kolbert has reported on the worldwide effects of climate change. While writing the earlier book, she visited some of the areas on earth most heavily affected by climate change, and talked to scientists who were tracking previously unprecedented changes to various world environments. The reports in that book were all the more alarming because her descriptions were so clear and accurate. Kolbert also blogs regularly at the New Yorker. That magazine has a high pay wall, but her blog posts are not behind that wall—they’re always worth reading. Her last post? “Is it Too Late to Prepare for Climate Change?”

The aerial photograph of Fort McMurray tar sands that accompanied one of her New Yorker articles presents hell on earth, in Alberta. One of the world’s leading climate change scientists, NASA’s James Hansen, said that if oil production at Fort McMurray, came online, “Then the climate problem becomes unsolvable”. In other words, no amount of climate change mitigation will be able to counterbalance the massive global warming impacts from the development of those tar pits. Field Notes also provided a chronology of the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The continuing increase in these harmful levels eventually led to the Kyoto Protocol in 2005, an attempt to work toward the reduction in the rate of increase in dangerous greenhouse gases. Stephen Harper dismissed the Kyoto Protocol as “a socialist scheme.” Following his dismissal of Kyoto, he fired a Canadian federal government scientist, one of the world’s leading climate change scientists, after this scientist scheduled vacation time in order to attend a global conference on climate change mitigation. Previously, Harper had ordered him not to attend the conference as part of his formerly usual and continuing responsibilities.

The subject of Elizabeth Kolbert’s current book is the sixth extinction, which is unfolding around the world, which we are in the process of generating and fumbling through now, often obliviously. The book opens with a chapter on the once prolific golden frogs of Panama. I recall news stories about frog migrations across roads, and until now, assumed that frogs were still plentiful. But things have changed. Kolbert introduces the reader to the golden frogs near the village of El Valle in Panama. They were once so numerous that a small nearby creek was called Thousand Frog Stream. A few years after her first visit to El Valle, she returns to discover that the golden frogs are on the verge of extinction. Other amphibians have disappeared as well. An amphibian researcher who is completing her doctorate, returned to Panama to discover that “she couldn’t find any frogs, or for that matter, amphibians of any kind.” Due to their sensitivity to changes in their environments, amphibians are one of the antennae of the future of life on earth.

The next two chapters, “The Mastodon’s Molars” and “The Original Penguin,” provide a layman’s guide to changes in the scientific understanding of natural selection, evolution, extinction, and paleontology. While considering the extinction of the great auk, Kolbert visits a museum in Reykjavik, where she watches a video that follows the process that led to the disappearance of this great bird. The video presents a continuous loop of a shadowy figure creeping along a rocky shore, until he is close enough to the auk, at which point he pulls out a club and beats it to death. Her response? “I found the video grimly fascinating and watched it play through a half a dozen times. Creep, clobber, squawk. Repeat.” Those four words are a blunt summary of far too many human-induced extinctions.

Chapter 5, “The Luck of the Ammonites,” does not describe how the Ammonites escaped from captivity under the Egyptian Pharaoh. Rather, it looks at the worldwide brouhaha when the Alvarez scholars presented their case that the fifth extinction was caused by an asteroid that hit the Yucatan peninsula. Up until then, many researchers were burrowing away in numerous specialized scholarly fields, and building rock solid careers by footnoting each others’ footnotes in disciplines such as paleontology, herpetology, and astrophysics.

The asteroid was six miles wide, and created the Chicxulub Crater, now buried under half a mile of sediment. In 1980 the Alvarezes’ scholarly asteroid hit worldwide, in a paper titled “Extraterrestrial Cause for the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction.” Researchers in the above-mentioned disciplines, and a journal of clinical psychology, as well as The New York Times, all attacked the Alvarezes for their bad science. Fortunately, good science eventually drives out bad science, and the tide turned slowly, until the Alvarez theory triumphed. Given the adaptability of science, hopefully most of the scholars who attacked the Alvarezes have managed to dig themselves out from under their dusty layers of sedimentary research. When the asteroid extinction dust settles, more scientists will accept the message in the continuing work of Walter Alvarez, who recently said: “We’re seeing right now that a mass extinction can be caused by human beings. So it’s clear that we do not have a general theory of mass extinction.”

As for the ammonites, evidence in the shells of these endemic sea creatures provided one of the proofs in the science changing paper by the Alvarezes. This key chapter in The Sixth Extinction was fascinating, clear, and punctuated by occasional Kolbert humour:

One theory of the ammonites’ demise, popular in the early part of the twentieth century, was that the uncoiled shells of species like Eubaculites carinatus indicated that the group had exhausted its practical possibilities and entered some sort of decadent, Lady Gaga-ish phase.

Okay, most of Kolbert’s jokes are better than that one. And better than the one about the ammonites escaping from the Pharaoh.

Of course, the widespread acceptance of the Alvarez fifth extinction theory necessitated new vocabulary to describe its consequences. After the asteroid’s heat pulse, the world experienced a deadly “impact winter” that wiped out numerous species and lasted for many consecutive seasons. Complex worldwide ocean ecosystems collapsed completely into the newly formed “Strangelove Ocean.” The thorough destruction of great forests and other plant communities were replaced by the wide ranging spread of ferns in a “fern spike.” That spike established conditions that allowed plant life to re-establish itself worldwide. After reading that, I went out and watered the big fern in my kitchen, with a few “thank yous.”

In the chapters that follow, Kolbert crosses the world in order to present the details of extinctions that are either in the offing or now underway. “Welcome to the Anthropocene” examines the controversy surrounding arguments about whether to agree that the Holocene era has been superseded by a catastrophic era, known as the Anthropocene. There are a number of arguments in favour of this change. One of the Nobelists quoted in this book came home and told his wife, “The work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world.”

“The Sea Around Us” and “Dropping Acid” are too lengthy to summarize here, other than to quote scientists who have been observing dramatic changes in seawater acidity or pH: “This led the group to conclude that were such a pH decline to occur globally, the results would be ‘catastrophic’.”

“The Forest and the Trees” provides the good news that some tree species affected by increasing temperatures are seeding higher and cooler mountain slopes in order to escape increasing the higher temperatures now found in lower areas. The bad news is that there’s a “high likelihood that climate change on its own could generate a level of extinction on a par with, or exceeding, the slightly ‘lesser’ extinction events” of the past.

“Islands on Dry Land” examines decline in “the dispersal of biodiversity, the result of which could be “one of the greatest biotic crises of all time. ”The New Pangaea” leads us on a census expedition into one of the large bat caves in New York State. One of the census biologists says in a phone call back to a colleague, “Holy shit, there’s dead bats everywhere.” And they were dead, everywhere in the cave. There had been a massive die off since the last census. A die-off that continues elsewhere.

"The Madness Gene" is not about the failed attempt of the Tea Party to take over the Republican Party, but about something far worse. It examines how we have wiped out our evolutionary cousins over the centuries: Having cut down our sister species—the Neanderthals and the Denisovians—many generations ago, we’re now working on our first and second cousins. By the time we’re done, it’s likely that there will be among the great apes not a single representative left--except, that is, for us.

Elizabeth Kolbert cares deeply about the fate of life and human life on earth. So deeply, that in order to bring the extinction news back to us, she has repeatedly put herself in danger to write this book. Swimming with sharks at the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. Awakened in the night by potentially violent cocaleros transporting cocaine at night through the forests of Peru where she was sleeping.

Although they share similar concerns, The Sixth Extinction and Field Notes from a Catastrophe are very different works. High and low humour punctuate Sixth Extinction, whereas little humour appears in Field Notes, even though the global situation is much worse eight years later. Maybe Kolbert has lightened up, or maybe the marketing department thought more people would buy a necessary book with an occasionally lighter tone. Is there hope now, or is Kolbert now whistling past the global graveyard we are so intent on digging ourselves into? Here’s the concluding sentence of Field Notes (2006): “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that it what we are now in the process of doing.” And here’s the penultimate sentence of Sixth Extinction (2014): “Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.”

There is much more in The Sixth Extinction than I was able to cover here. When I finished this book, I asked myself what I have been doing to reduce climate change. And what more I can do? What am I doing now to reduce my impact on global warming? Reading it is not like being condemned to watch Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in an endless loop. At its best, an accurate picture of a dire situation often generates hope and reasonable action.

Read more from James Reid at

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Book of Jonah

Joshua Max Feldman

Joshua Max Feldman's The Book of Jonah is a novel that revolves around a modern day Jonah figure, a corporate lawyer who begins seeing visions. These eventually lead him to bring something like a divine warning if not to a whole city, at least to one particular woman, an art buyer for a Las Vegas real estate company. The narrative perspective remains largely with the lawyer, but shifts to the art dealer for long sections as well, and the two provide an evocative counterpoint to each other, though the art dealer's story lacks the immediacy of the lawyer's, consisting mostly of a narrated personal history that would become tedious if it was not interspersed with the lawyer's story for relief.

The Book of Jonah is strongest when it is operating in the slightly surreal mode of the lawyer's visions and his struggle to understand them, the mode where he and the biblical Jonah overlap most strongly. One of the challenges of this ready-made interpretive key, however, is that it sometimes overwhelms other elements of the story. The plot and characters at times seem merely to serve the Jonah motif, but never strongly or boldly enough to accomplish the kind of allegorical quality that makes the novels of José Saramago so successful, for example. Instead, Feldman's story remains caught somewhere between realism and allegory, never quite accomplishing either satisfactorily.

"Jonah Calling Nineveh to Repentance" by Gustave Dore

Even so, the story is a compelling one. The lawyer is a strongly realized character, by turns complex and simplistic, sympathetic and repulsive, humorous and grave. He performs admirably as a comment, not just on his immediate culture of corporate law and New York real estate, but also on the broader culture that permits these things, a culture in which the reader is implicated as well. His visions of a crumbling city and a naked humanity are all too easily recognizable, and his decision to follow those visions is filled with a kind of terror that lies closer than most of us would like to admit.

The novel is in this sense a little like the visions that haunt its protagonist or like those that haunted the biblical Jonah in the first place. It shows us a little of what we are, and also of what we could be if we will not take warning.

Jeremy Luke Hill teaches literature, makes jams and preserves, reads continental philosophy, uses open source software, bakes bread, watches documentary film, plays old-man basketball, and writes poetry, among other things. He is the founder of Vocamus Press, an organization that supports reading, writing, and publishing in Guelph. He has a book of poetry, short prose, and photography called Island Pieces. You can read his blog at at, and you can reach him at

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Mother, Mother

Koren Zailckas

Mother, Mother is a literary psychological thriller that reveals the terrors of a dysfunctional family. Josephine Hurst, the matriarch of the Hurst family, is an overbearing mother who believes a family should be raised and presented in a certain way, and works timelessly to ensure this is presented to the public eye, at the cost of her family being miserable and misled. This novel chronicles the Hurst’s family after the disappearance of their eldest daughter, Rose, and the events leading up to her disappearance. The middle child Violet's hatred for her mother leads her to find comfort in substance abuse and various religious beliefs that results in self inflicted starvation and hallucinations; te youngest child, William, is home-schooled by his mother, who claims to be the best teacher possible for his education and uses his autism and epilepsy as an excuse to keep him out of public school. Lastly, the father of the household, Douglas, struggles with his alcohol addiction and the manipulation of his wife, leaving his children without a supportive figure father as they are overcome with their mother’s rules and strong beliefs.

Zalickas' book explores the trust issues between mothers and daughters and the overbearing love that can suffocate a child and lead them into rebellion or loss of freedom. As Rose and William become impersonations of what Josephine expects them to be, Violet rebels and attempts to escape the confinements of her mother's judgments with drug abuse. In the scene that sets off the novel, Violet comes home for dinner far too high and lashes out at her mother, resulting in the apparent assault of her younger brother, sending him to the hospital. This abuse lands Violet in a mental institution at the request of her mother. While Violet is left to deal with her mixed emotions and memories of that night, her mother spreads rumours of her being a compulsive liar. Her father, who was too drunk to remember the events of the night, leaves Violet to fill in not only the blanks of that night, but to piece together her sister's disappearance. Violet gains hope when, on her first day at the mental institution, she receives a letter surprisingly still sealed from her Rose, looking to reconnect, setting off Violet’s search for information about her lost sister's past and present life.

Koren Zailckas
Mother, Mother is filled with mystery, the darknesses of life, shocking twists, and false pretenses of belief created by Josephine to confuse both the reader and her family. It works to reveal the consequences and outcomes of desolation and confinement upon an individual, especially when this overbearing judgment comes from the person they hold dearest as a child, as a center of truth and learning, their mother. At the book's core is an individual's desire to keep someone present even after they are gone, the boundary between right and wrong, and what signifies possession and control over another human being. Just because an individual is birthed by their mother, does that always mean she knows what’s best for you? Zalickas reveals life’s greatest truths as she explores hidden mental health conditions and a mother’s desire to project her children as perfect to the community. 

Josephine Hurst's only concern is acting like the perfect mother, rather than truly loving and caring for her family. The idea of perfection consumes this novel as we are led through the various viewpoints of the Hurst’s family and see how that projection of perfection and smothering attitude leads to various outcomes of the children searching for an escape. 

Sabrina Groomes is in her last year at the University of Guelph, where she will be graduating with an undergraduate degree in English and Art History. She has a passion for writing, reading, and the surprises that come from it, not only from herself, but from other writers too.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Anna Hope

Set in 1920, London, England, this novel takes place over the course of five days, and follows the lives of three women and the men in their lives as they deal with the aftermath of World War I. As London prepares to celebrate the second anniversary of Armistice Day with the burial of the Unknown Soldier, we meet Hettie, a dance Instructress who lives with her mother and shell-shocked brother; Evelyn, who works in the pension exchange where men suffering from wounds or debilitating distress from the war have to come to claim benefits; and we meet Ada, an older woman who sees her son, who was killed in the war, on every street corner and in every service man she meets.

Hope manages to interweave the three women's stories, feelings, hopes and desires in a most believable narrative. It is a different setting than most novels about WWI, but does remind the reader, especially in light of the recent results of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that people involved in war have fought the same demons after each war.  Wake is a timely reminder to us all about how destructive war can be.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and found it difficult to put down. Hope manages to convey a sense of the times and atmosphere of the day to the readers. Sometimes poignant, and sad, Wake is also thought-provoking and happy. It makes one believe in the resilience of the human race and the strength of individuals to continue living in spite of true adversity and profound loss. 

This novel is well written and will appeal to readers from 16 to 116; it is Anna Hope's debut novel and I find I am looking forward to her next book.  

- Catherine McGratton

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Martian

By Andy Weir

I’m no scientist. I also know nothing about relativistic physics or orbital mechanics. This is why the first fifty pages of Andy Weir’s The Martian were a bit worrisome. The story of an astronaut who must find a way to survive after his crewmates mistake him for dead and accidentally strand him on Mars sounds like an enjoyable romp, but for the first little while Weir’s debut novel reads like a NASA geek’s grand thought experiment.

Instead of daring adventure and tense drama we get a lot of scientific jargon and chemical compositions as astronaut Mark Watney goes about growing potatoes and making water in his Martian habitat. Not exactly riveting storytelling. It’s interesting, sure, but do you want to read 367 pages of it?

Thankfully, The Martian eventually adopts a more typical narrative structure, switching between Watney’s log entries and the goings on of the people back on Earth.

It also doesn’t hurt that Watney’s character, though meticulous in his scientific notes, is also a lot of fun when he’s not being so … well, smart. His profane, good-humoured self is often a hoot, and it is with this narrative voice that the novel becomes increasingly fascinating, gripping, and even laugh-out-loud funny.

Don’t let the first fifty pages scare you away. There’s a lot here for us simple folk, too.

While a glass cutter by day, by night Z.S. Roe spends his time writing fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.  His writings have appeared in various publications, including the Cambridge Times, The Silhouette, and The Toronto Sun, among others.  Most recently, his short story “Peeping Tara” appeared in issue 13 of Dark Moon Digest.  You can visit his blog at