Canada’s Nuclear Connections – Bloom by Michael Lista & They Never Told Us These Things by Julie Salverson

Louis Slotin's Los Alamos badge mugshot, taken...
Louis Slotin

I don’t normally read poetry but I recently got the opportunity to read Bloom by Michael Lista and I’m very glad I did.

Lista’s poems are  powerful, striking, sometimes scathing but not without compassion for the persons involved in the tragedy of the death of Canadian physicist Louis Slotin who worked on the Manhattan Project.

From the publisher House of Anansi:

On May 21, 1946, the day of a lunar eclipse, a Canadian physicist named Louis Slotin was training his replacement on the Manhattan Project, which prepared the bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Slotin decided to forego the standard safety procedures, and there was an accident: the plutonium went critical, a phenomenon scientists call a “bloom.” Nine days later Slotin died.

Michael Lista, a thrilling and wildly engaging new voice in poetry, reimagines this fateful day in a long poem that draws upon the still-mysterious events of May 21, 1946; the connection to Slotin’s ancient predecessor Odysseus, creator of the Trojan Horse, the first weapon of mass destruction; and the link to Slotin’s literary mirror, the cuckolded Leopold Bloom in Joyces Ulysses. Bloom brilliantly draws these stories, themes, and images together, and moves us toward the untranslatable moment of human novelty and creativity, the eclipse — the moment of the “bloom.”

Each poem tells a story, enhancing the tension and building up to the accident that killed Slotin.

A few of my favourites from the book:

“Louis Slotin as Pigeon Feeder”, “Do. But Do” and the goosebumps-inducing “Louis Slotin Improvises.”

Coincidentally, a week after reading Bloom, I read an excellent piece in Maisonneuve Magazine that explored another Canadian connection to the Manhattan Project. In “They Never Told Us These Things”, Julie Salverson writes about a mine in Port Radium in the Northwest Territories that supplied uranium to the Manhattan Project. The townsfolk didn’t know that the substance they were mining and transporting was harmful and it was only until the 1990s that it was confirmed that the uranium extracted in Port Radium was used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. I’m not surprised at Canada’s involvement in the Manhattan Project but I was distressed to learn about the government’s mishandling of the situation in Port Radium. After researching the health impact of the mine, the Canada-Deline Uranium Table reported that there was not sufficient evidence to link the rise in cancer deaths in Port Radium to the uranium mine.

House of Anansi. Won copy through a Twitter contest offered by The Walrus
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Book Review: Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

Harper Collins Canada. Purchased at Chapters Indigo.

I picked up Lullabies for Little Criminals because it’s on the reading list of a class on Montreal authors that I’m hoping to take at Concordia University.  In the story, Baby is a bright, intelligent twelve-year-old who is motherless and lives with her heroin-addicted father in a rough area in downtown Montreal. She’s surrounded by poverty, violence, drugs, prostitution but with her childlike wonder she’s still able to see beauty in her squalid surroundings.

I was struck by the sordidness of the story’s setting. I’ve lived in Montreal close to two years now so I’m familiar with the area where the story takes place but it was hard to picture a child growing up in those surroundings. A very naïve attitude on my part because I know that children are often forced to live in horrible conditions. The “lucky” ones like Baby manage to salvage part of their childhood and keep a measure of hope for their future despite the obstacles in their way.

The reversal of the parent-child roles is also very present in the story.  In many instances, it’s Baby who seems to have the role of caretaker in the relationship with her father Jules. Jules is impulsive, immature and selfish. He cares for Baby but he’s unable to offer the stability she needs. Later in the story when Jules’s abuse and inattention pushes Baby into the arms of the pimp Alphonse, I felt her complete vulnerability and helplessness at her inability to control her circumstances.

Lullabies for Little Criminals is wonderful but heartbreaking. I felt the book got harder and harder to read but the effort was definitely worth it. It’s a harsh story but it’s not without beauty and hope.

Book Review: Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner

Received ARC from Penguin Canada

Zsuszi Gartner’ s delivers a sharp collection of short-stories  filled with dark humour and snark. At first I thought the stories were just bizarre but then I found myself chuckling at some of Gartner’s outlandish metaphors or agreeing with the strange reasoning of her characters.I was sucked in and I decided to surrender to the wonderful weirdness of  the stories.

A few of my favourites:

“Once, We Were Swedes”  – a journalist who’s now teaching at a college is drifting apart from her spouse. She reminisces about the early stages of their relationship when they used to talk IKEA to each other. Loved the glossary at the end of the story.

“Floating Like a Goat”  – a young mother writes a letter to her daughter’s grade one art teacher. A wonderful rant about stifled creativity and lost dreams.

We Come In Peace”  – angels are sent to inhabit the bodies of  five teenagers to experience the earthly senses. Divinity is no match for teenage hormones and high school drama.

This collection is not filled with happy endings and we wouldn’t all agree with the characters’ thoughts and actions (at least not in public) but that’s what makes these short-stories a must-read, the opportunity to explore different, not-so-traditional views in a fun, entertaining way. If you are looking for the unusual, pick-up this collection.

For a taste, visit: http://www.zsuzsigartner.com/

Book Review: The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

Unfortunately, I’m pretty disappointed with this book.  After the Giller Prize and all the surrounding hype, I was expecting something different. The premise of the book, an adult woman finally getting to know her father and learning of his horrific experience in the Vietnam, is interesting but I think Ms. Skibsrud failed in the delivery.  I almost gave up on the book after a few pages because I started to get frustrated with the long sentences overdosed with commas. I finished the book but I can’t help feeling that a lot of words were used but not much was said. I just got the feeling that the author was trying too hard.

Book Review: Shadow Song by Lorina Stephens

Received review copy from Five Rivers Publishing

In this haunting tale, Lorina Stephens tells the story of Danielle Michelle Fleming. Danielle, orphaned at a young age, is sent to the wilds of Upper Canada to live with her uncle who is the cause of her family’s misfortune. She meets Shadow Song, a shaman or medicine man, who helps her escape from her uncle. With Shadow Song, Danielle learns to connect and embrace the world of dreams and spirits she was always told to fear. Danielle and Shadow Song make a life together but they are a forever trying to evade Danielle’s uncle and others seeking revenge.

The book is beautifully written and it evokes the wonderful scenery and harsh conditions that native Canadians and European settlers lived in. I found the ending heartbreaking. Danielle feared her dreams (nightmares) because they became real and I wondered if her acceptance of her tragic ending meant that she knew what was coming.

Book Review: A Subtle Thing by Alicia Hendley

Received review copy from Five Rivers Publishing

August 12th, 2010. A Subtle Thing tells the story of a woman suffering from severe depression and how she copes with her self-destructive behaviour, her constant negative thoughts, an unplanned pregnancy and the broken relationships in her life. With help and support from a few friends, certain family members and her doctors, she achieves the balance she needs to start working on the underlying causes of her depression. She’s able to mend a few relationships and she finally lets herself believe that she deserves happiness in her life.

I started the book yesterday on my way to work and finished it in the evening before going to bed. The author aptly describes the feelings of despair, hopelessness and anxiety that accompany a depression. For a person who is familiar with these feelings, reading this description can be hard but at the same time it’s a blessing because it puts into words what many people feel on a day-to-day basis. I enjoyed this book because it shows that help is available for those suffering from mental health problems. With care and a supportive environment a person CAN thrive and live a fulfilling life despite suffering from depression. You can look at the story of Beth’s life and see where she went wrong but you can also sense her determination in living fully without letting her depression be the only thing that characterizes her.

Book Review: Case Against Owen Williams by Allan Donaldson

I greatly enjoyed Mr. Donaldson’s book about the defence of a young soldier who may have been wrongly accused of murdering a local girl in a small rural town in New Brunswick. The story transports you to 1944. Private Williams is a conscripted soldier who refuses to serve overseas and he’s the last person to be seen with Sarah Coile who turns up dead a few days later.The story shows us how public opinion can be manipulated as Private Williams is already considered to be guilty as charged despite most evidence against him being circumstantial. Lieutenant Dorkin, a lawyer from Saint John, deals with small town politics and uncovers some nasty secrets on his quest to prove Private Williams’ innocence. I found the book fast-paced and I enjoyed the descriptions of the different characters and surroundings.