Friday, August 18, 2017

Book Review of The Defiant Mind: Living Inside a Stroke by Ron Smith

This is a superbly-written book about the experience of a stroke, a "carpet bombing of the brain", and its psychological, physical and emotional aftermath, including early warning symptoms, the hospital experience, and returning to home life. It is such a remarkable contribution to our understanding of many things in this world, hence my tagging of it with "wisdom" as well as psychology and stroke recovery. The author typed the manuscript using the index finger of his left (non-dominant) hand, which, at over 300 pages is a testament to his determination, lucidity, and the rock-solid love and support of his wife in particular.

The only other book I've read about being trapped "inside" a stroke is the devastating "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who dictated his slim masterpiece by blinking one eye while his editorial assistant showed him letters of the alphabet. Imagine that. Take your time. Ron Smith (full disclosure) edited one of my novels in 2010 during his busy life as a publisher, editor, and university English professor. He is also the author of books of poems, short stories and a major biography. His work has been translated and he has served as a visiting professor of English in several other countries. Which is to say, his fine mind, before and after the "brain attack", and his love of reading and books propelled him through the rubble of the ischemic stroke, the attack on his brain stem. Writing this book, claiming his memories especially, became a necessary part of his therapy, as vital as learning how to roll over in bed, to walk after learning how to wheel a chair, to sort out the tangle of his thick, disobedient tongue and sagging mouth muscles to speak to his beloved family.

There is humour here too, alongside its earthly cousin, despair, amid the analyses of how stroke survivors are treated. The essential point is: all strokes are different and all are experienced differently and furthermore, each survivor needs to be heard. Most of the therapists, doctors, nurses and hospital staff, including a perfectly lovely man who cleaned the wards, are generously portrayed as skilled, empathetic, and very caring but of course, there are always a few negative-thinking individuals who have chosen the wrong occupation. We learn about an older man in his eighties who could not speak after his stroke but who tapped the side of his hospital bed with his able hand. He seemed frustrated when family and staff treated his tapping as some sort of uncontrollable spasm until finally somebody realized he had used Morse code in WW2 and he was using it again, trying to communicate with them. The quest to communicate is so intense with locked-in afflictions of all kinds because the loneliness and depression is just as intense of course. We are privy to this subjective experience, rarely explored, thanks to this book.

Highly recommended to anyone who works in any capacity in hospitals, rehabilitative medicine, community nursing, and to families where a member has been felled by a stroke. But also, like Jean-Dominque Bauby's book, this brilliant book deserves a wide international audience because it is so beautifully written, so compelling and so hopeful, ultimately, about new medical techniques and the wonders we are still discovering about how the brain heals and creates new pathways. It's also a book about the importance of love and emotional support, about a healing connection to nature and the serendipity of the right healers coming into his life at just the right time. Ron Smith is a lucky man, despite the stroke, and his strength of character and sheer determination to communicate has contributed an outstanding book.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Interview with Joseph Planta for The Commentary

http://thecommentary.ca/ontheline/1480-caroline-woodward/

This is one of the most laid-back and genuine radio interviews I've ever been lucky enough to have! It was supposed to be 15 minutes but turned out to be 27 minutes plus. Thank you, Joseph!

Monday, March 13, 2017

Interview with Sean Arthur Joyce from Chameleon Fire & Valley Voice

Caroline Woodward re-releases Alaska Highway Two-Step

It’s not often these days a novel gets a second chance at life. Author Caroline Woodward’s first novel, Alaska Highway Two-Step, will get just that, with a new edition being released this month by Harbour Publishing.
Woodward’s novel tells the story of a freelance journalist, a young woman living in the Kootenays, who accepts an assignment to write a series of articles about life along the Alaska Highway. To those of us who know Caroline it’s clear her main character, Mercy Brown, is based at least partly on her own personality. But with a twist: Brown has the uncanny gift of precognition, the ability to foresee real life events in dreams. The novel weaves three narrative strands into the plot: Brown’s road trip north, her disturbing premonitions, and excerpts from journals she inherited from a deceased aunt – a ballet dancer and choreographer in the early decades of the 20th century. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of the lives of two different generations of professional women. Expect to be surprised: this story focuses more on grain and texture than on following the plot points of a typical mystery novel. Caroline agreed to be interviewed about the new edition of her novel.
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The beautiful new cover for Alaska Highway Two-Step from Harbour Publishing.
Is the new edition substantially different than the original novel? Did you decide to do any rewriting or major editing? If so, why? It is relatively unchanged except for a few deft nips and tucks in the main character’s sea and road journey. A good part of the road trip takes place on the Alaska Highway, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2017. The most significant change I made was to rename the ill-fated Queen of the North ferry. In my book it is now the Queen of Hartley Bay, to honour the First Nations villagers who got into their large and small fishing boats and did a Dunkirk flotilla style of rescue of all but two of the passengers and crew when it sank in the middle of the night. They deserved to have a B.C. ferry named in their honour and one of the great things about writing fiction is that I get to make it so.
I don’t recall the book being promoted as a mystery when it originally came out in 1993. What genre description best fits the book for you? It is indeed a mystery novel for adults and was nominated by the Crime Writers of Canada for the Arthur Ellis (Canada’s last hangman) Best First Mystery Novel Award. Margaret Cannon, who still writes a weekly mystery reviews column for the Globe & Mail and does regular broadcasts for CBC Radio, picked it for the Globe & Mail Editor’s Pick of Top 100 Books in 1993. I was also invited to the 1994 Bouchercon International Mystery Convention in Seattle in 1994 to be part of a panel and to give a reading. It’s just not a typical blood and gore formula murder mystery.
How much of the novel is based on your own experience? We know you are a northern BC gal and have family ties to the Peace River region so how did that inform the writing of the novel? Absolutely none of this novel is based on my own experience except for the idyllic cottage at Five Mile on Kootenay Lake and my dear, departed dog, Sadie Brown whose ashes are now in an urn beneath my writing desk. Certainly my upbringing in the north Peace region, going to school and living in a dormitory for ‘bush kids’ in Fort St. John and later, as an adult, working with First Nations teens informs this novel. The havoc wreaked on the remote village of Fort Ware when Williston Lake, created by the first dam on the Peace River in the 1960s, flooded much of their village and other eyewitness accounts of the drowning of wild animals and nesting birds, and the suicides of trappers and others who lived in the flooded valley are real events and I have included some of them. I invented the Canadian Bureau of Premonitions, as I explain in the Foreword, and made my main character a reluctant psychic. I incorporated the practice of lucid, or more like focused, dreaming, before a crucial hunting trip and other life challenges, including dying, as practiced by people regarded as prophets among the Dane-Zaa people in the Peace and studied by anthropologist Dr. Robin Ridington, author of at least three major books on this subject, his life’s work.
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Caroline Woodward
Why did you include the subplot of the aunt who was a dancer? When I had a precious full month with a studio at Banff while writing the first version of Alaska Highway Two-Step back in 1992, I discovered a book by American dancer Ruth St. Denis, a contemporary of Isadora Duncan and I wondered who might an unknown Canadian choreographer and dancer be when audiences for classical ballets were shocked by modern dancers in bare feet and others bringing monkeys and elephants onto the stage, rather like forerunners to Cirque de Soleil. That’s how Ginger Brown came to life and so I had great fun writing her ‘diaries’ and eventually I had to send her up to entertain the troops building the Alaska Highway. Ditto for dreaming up a way to stop the environmental and financial boondoggle that is the Site C Dam, which we with Peace River roots have had to fight against four separate times over the last 50 years.
If there’s a novelist whose work you most admire, who would it be? (Can be more than one of course!) And why? Are there ways you find yourself absorbing that (or those) novelist’s techniques? I admire, and read, so many novelists that I honestly cannot pick just one so a random off-the-top list would include Louise Erdrich, Michael Ondaatje, Anne DeGrace, Bodil Bredsdorff, Patrick DeWitt and Anthony Doerr. But Paulette Jiles came to mind immediately, author of novels like Enemy Women, The Colour of Lightning, Lighthouse Island and the most recent gem, News of the World, a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016. Paulette’s advice to me early in my career, which I freely pass on to students and writer friends wherever I go, was: Write how you talk. Do not write like a Victorian governess unless you are one. I interpreted this further to mean: listen well to how other people talk. Absorb their rhythms and hesitations, their choice of vocabulary, the words they say and their silences.
What method did you develop to achieve this realism of voice in your stories? Nearly ten years before I met Paulette at David Thompson University Centre in Nelson where I earned a diploma in Creative Writing, I earned my B.A. and Teacher’s Certificate at UBC. For several fourth year courses, I began tape-recording pioneers in the Peace River country: a Red Cross Outpost Hospital nurse, river freighter, immigrant farmers, radio operator in Watson Lake, school teachers, war brides on homesteads and small town radio founders. These tapes are now held in the Royal BC Museum in Victoria and in the North Peace Museum in Fort St. John but they resonated with me when I did the recordings, older people sharing some of the most profound moments of their lives with me and I heard some of those voices when I wrote poetry and again when I heard Paulette’s sage advice. So don’t imitate other writers. Read them to love their stories, their voices, but learn to write in your own authentic voice. It also helps me to have worked in theatre and to have written for radio and stage pieces as that’s all about voice, about someone on a stage or a disembodied voice from the radio or from within a book, a voice calling out to you all by yourself, late at night saying, get comfy, I have a really good story I have to tell you.
Alaska Highway Two-Step will be available through all the usual outlets.