Bridges, A New Story this Month

Like many Edmontonions, I have a complex, confusing, and often resentful attitude toward the place I live. However, I’m less concerned with resolving these feelings than using them to write fiction.
My friend Tom Wharton posted a piece on his website about setting stories in Edmonton. You can read it here. He always encourages his creative writing students to write about this place in all its bifurcated glory. If you don’t know the city, it’s divided by the North Saskatchewan River, which makes it more two cities than one.
Here’s my latest story about Edmonton that features the High Level Bridge. Bridges appeared this month in Literary Orphans. Thanks to Scott Waldon and the people at the magazine for picking up the story.
If you live in Edmonton, you will understand Bridges in a particular way. If you don’t, I hope you can still appreciate the story.

Tales from the Red Planet

This past winter, I taught a course on Mars. I wasn’t actually on Mars, although that would have been awesome. I taught a course about the literature of the red planet as part of my winter teaching load.
Several years ago, I helped create the course in speculative fiction for our department, but this was the first time I had the chance to teach it. Interestingly enough, the course has quickly become one tailored to the interests of the instructor. Someone taught the course as an exploration of zombies, someone else on artificial intelligence. As I was considering what I would do with the course, I suddenly thought, hey, Mars.
The red planet has fired the imaginations of writers and scientists alike for centuries, and Mars has found its way into virtually every mythology. To the western world, Mars is most recognizable as the God of War, but even Mars, Ares to the Greek world, was an evolving deity. The figure of Mars Silvanus, for example, combined attributes of the God of War with that of a nature deity.
The amount written about the red planet is astonishing: everything from well-known books, such as War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, to lesser known stories, such as “Ministering Angels” by C. S. Lewis. From the literary to the ridiculous, from books and short stories to television and film, you can find just about everything. Have you seen, for example, Santa Clause Conquers the Martians? And who could forget Marvin the Martian.
The students who took the class were interested, engaged, and keen to talk about Mars, representations of the alien, and what the planet has come to represent in the popular imagination. A fabulous group.
Beginning with Greek and Roman mythology, we discussed ways the red planet has entered the literary and cultural imagination—the seat of war and conflict, the home of dead civilizations, and an imminent threat to Earth. We examined the history of the exploration of Mars, as well as sections from the less than scientific Mars and its Canals by Percival Lowell.
Here’s a brief list of books to get you started on your own exploration of the red planet:
War of the Worlds, By H. G. Wells,
John Carter and the Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs,
Out of the Silent Planet, by C. S. Lewis,
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury,
The Sands of Mars, by Arthur C. Clarke,
Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson,
The Martian, by Andy Weir,
Red Planet Blues, by Robert J. Sawyer,
Second Going, by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Bradley Sheldon).
You’ll notice only the last book in this list was written by a woman. Mars remains, unfortunately, largely the territory of male writers. As you read, check out the many images of the red planet on NASA’s website. And most of all, look up into the night sky this summer, find the baleful eye of Mars looking back, and let your imagination play over the possibilities.

Literacy and the Reading Success Story

This June marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I’ll have more to say on that next month. For now, one of the Google alerts I often receive is the story about the kid who didn’t read until picking up a copy of Harry Potter.
Such stories are part of the reading success narrative you will often encounter on social media. Some kid has trouble in school, and who, with the help of a compassionate teacher or librarian, turns his or her life around because of reading. These stories usually focus on a child’s experience of reading fiction for the first time. Fiction changes people’s lives; it changed mine. After losing my sight in a car accident at the age of eleven, I was introduced to books on tape. Reading has been my life and my work ever since.
As much as I want everyone to read the books that changed my life, I also recognize that reading success isn’t limited to fiction—and certainly not to the books I’ve read. Reading, at its most basic, is about literacy. It’s about one’s ability to engage with and understand the world through words and language. New comers to this country, for example, don’t need to read Harry Potter; they need a functional vocabulary in English so they can communicate effectively as they establish their new lives.
It’s also no surprise that exposing children to books at a young age helps develop their literacy early in life. A 2015 study by Dominic Massaro at the University of California suggests that reading out loud to children is actually a more effective means of building literacy than just talking to them.
Those people who identify themselves as readers are invaluable ambassadors of literacy. But here’s the flip-side. Readers can also be reading snobs.
“What! You haven’t read it!”
To my everlasting embarrassment, I’ve said this more times than I care to admit. And I’ve had people say it to me more than I like.
“What! You’re a professor, and you haven’t read it?”
Yes, I’m a professor. I read for a living. And no, I haven’t read it.
There are many paths to literacy—mine is one. Yours is another. Whether it’s Charles Dickens, romance novels, magazines, bird books, or (god help me) Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (I can’t stand these books), reading is the path to greater literacy, engagement, and critical thinking. There are, of course, those people who only read to reinforce their own beliefs or prejudices, but this doesn’t take away from the main point: deliberate and careful reading—whatever that means—makes you a more engaged and compassionate human being. And who cares if you aren’t reading what’s trendy, or new, or any of that. Just read, and encourage others in their own reading.
My early teens was the time in my life I felt most isolated. Reading helped me to understand that worlds existed beyond mine, that others had, at least in part, gone through something similar. And as alone as I felt much of the time, reading always made it easier to bear.
So be a literacy ambassador. Buy a book and give it to someone you care about. It will set you back the price of two lattes—or just go through your shelves and find something you can give away. Literacy is power, so get out there and empower someone.

Reading and the Celebration of Spring

Spring is not only a good time for reading—although what season isn’t—it’s a time of year that features into many of my favourite books. Spring is a time of transition, but more than that, it’s a time the world explodes into new life. If you live, like me, anywhere north of the forty-ninth parallel, you know that we sometimes bypass spring altogether and go straight to summer. Technically speaking, spring begins with the vernal equinox, but sometimes it takes a while to get some traction, especially in a place like Edmonton.
Here are three passages from favourite books that note the interesting, changeable, and verdant nature of spring. Spring is the herald of new life, but sometimes, too, it’s the herald of new adventure. So take care the next time you leave your front door.

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, `Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.
“This is fine!” he said to himself. “This is better than whitewashing!” The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout. Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow till he reached the hedge on the further side.

L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
Spring had come once more to Green Gables the beautiful capricious, reluctant Canadian spring, lingering along through April and May in a succession of sweet, fresh, chilly days, with pink sunsets and miracles of resurrection and growth. The maples in Lover’s Lane were red budded and little curly ferns pushed up around the Dryad’s Bubble. Away up in the barrens, behind Mr. Silas Sloane’s place, the Mayflowers blossomed out, pink and white stars of sweetness under their brown leaves. All the school girls and boys had one golden afternoon gathering them, coming home in the clear, echoing twilight with arms and baskets full of flowery spoil.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Sam sat silent and said no more. He had a good deal to think about. For one thing, there was a lot to do up in the Bag End garden, and he would have a busy day tomorrow, if the weather cleared. The grass was growing fast. But Sam had more on his mind than gardening. After a while he sighed, and got up and went out.
It was early April and the sky was now clearing after heavy rain. The sun was down, and a cool pale evening was quietly fading into night. He walked home under the early stars through Hobbiton and up the Hill, whistling softly and thoughtfully.
It was just at this time that Gandalf reappeared after his long absence. …