Saturday, February 24, 2018

Back to blogging

I don't remember taking this photo and I don't know where it was taken other than somewhere in the Lower Mainland (could be Burnaby or New West, I guess, but I just don't recognize the background). The notes on the original flickr post indicate I stole the sweet peas somewhere and my focus for the shot was what looks like an air bubble in the glass (despite the fact that this glass does not have an air bubble).

So I dunno.

But it's nice to have figured out how to rescue the blog that got lost when I neglected to renew my domain name but left it pointed at the domain name I no longer own for four years.

So - back to blogging, it seems. I've been working on several other projects, including one I call the #badpoetryproject. It's not that I'm setting out to write bad poetry. It just seems inevitable, so it's a pre-emptive hashtag.

Friday, January 02, 2015

2014 reading

Just a list for now - 50 54 in total (I'm surprised at how little I've read when it seems I spent a huge chunk of every day doing precisely that). Of those 50 54,  three four were rereads (although again I thought I'd reread more this year than usual). Confusion reigns. I got rid of so many books when I left Alberta. I'm not missing them at all, although they were certainly difficult to part with (that makes sense if you know me). But there will always be books.

I gave up competitive reading last year or the year before. By competitive reading I mean staying on top of at least the Booker, Giller and Governor General's award short lists reading, and ensuring I'd read all the year's Big New Books in a timely fashion. It was stressing me out - I felt like my reading was being directed by malevolent algorithms designed by publishers and colluded with by librarian hold requests. In other words, I was driving myself nuts and for what - a leisure activity?

Luminous this year: Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, which I wanted never to end; Miriam Toews' All My Puny Sorrows; and Ben H. Winters' dystopian trilogy beginning with The Last Policeman. I have a real aversion to those dystopian tales so it's a huge compliment to Winters' writing and his characterization that I read all three in the series.

(Just added: Robinson and MacLeod  plus two more of the Ian Hamilton Ava Lee series - January 4, 2015. N.B. There are two 'started but not finished titles that should be included - Susan Delacourt's Shopping for Votes and Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan's Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada's Failing Democracy.)

Housekeeping - Marilynne Robinson

No Great Mischief - Alistair MacLeod (reread on the news of his death)

The Scottish Banker of Surabaya - Ian Hamilton

The Two Sisters of Borneo - Ian Hamilton

Back When We Were Grownups - Anne Tyler (reread)

The Wild Beasts of Wuhan - Ian Hamilton

Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life - Trevor Cole

Boy, Snow, Bird - Helen Oyeyemi

Just One Evil Act - Elizabeth George

Small g - Patricia Highsmith

The Wildfire Season - Andrew Pyper

Emancipation Day - Wayne Grady

Fault Lines - Nancy Huston

The Lady Elizabeth - Alison Weir

When Will There Be Good News? - Kate Atkinson

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag - Alan Bradley

Let Me Be Frank with You - Richard Ford

Benediction - Kent Haruf

The Emperor's Children - Claire Massud

The Last Life - Claire Messud

Digging to America - Anne Tyler

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson

The Orenda - Joseph Boyden

The Burgess Boys - Elizabeth Strout

The Shadow Girls - Henning Mankell

Bedtime Story - Robert J. Wiersma (reread)

Medicine Walk - Richard Wagamese

The Bear - Claire Cameron

The Land of Dreams - Vidar Sundstol

The Beautiful Mystery - Louise Penny

The Last Policeman - Ben H. Winters

Evergreen - Rebecca Rasmussen

Hell Going - Lynn Coady

Countdown City - Ben H. Winters

World of Trouble - Ben H. Winters

Corduroy Mansions - Alexander McCall Smith

All My Puny Sorrows - Miriam Toews

Dead Politician Society - Robin Spano

Death Plays Poker - Robin Spano

The Second Deadly Sin - Asa Larsson

Until Thy Wrath Be Past - Asa Larsson

A Treacherous Paradise - Henning Mankell

A Fatal Grace - Louise Penny

The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith

Standing in Another Man's Grave - Ian Rankin

Trespass - Rose Tremain

Mount Pleasant - Don Gillmor

The Child's Child - Barbara Vine

All That Is - James Salter

Hotel du Lac - Anita Brookner (reread)

The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt (reread)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman

Helpless - Barbara Gowdy

One Good Turn - Kate Atkinson

The Betrayers - David Bezmozgis

Photo: You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm. - Colette

No idea where I got this ornament, but I laughed when I read the quote. As long as I do them with enthusiasm, then.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Unsuspected Poet

Going through some my parents' stuff (which I was quite sure I'd gone through several times before, but apparently not thoroughly), I came across an undated and untitled poem written by my father. I had no idea he'd ever written one, and the funny thing is that it looks like a first draft as there are only two cross-outs. This one is 100 per cent autobiographical (and untitled).

In 19-74 promotion came our way.
Away from Ottawa, friends and French
We travelled east to Scotia shores
For a year or more we worked like hell
And lived in Dartmouth like a snail in a shell.
With pioneer heart we packed our bags -- our books with bricks for shelves were moved
To Shubie and the Sutherland place.
A deal was struck, a fee arranged.
We then fell prey to a knave so foul --
our prized possessions proceeded to fly
As fast as a mouse in the jaws of an owl

I'd love to know when it was written and why he never sent me a copy of it - I know I used to send him my poetry until he offered me money to stop doing so (hasn't stopped me writing 'em, Dad, and thanks for the cash - it was a more than fair rate given what most poets earn). It's an odd rhyme scheme: A, B, C, D, D, E, F, G, H, G. But then he always was an original.

A few notes of explanation:

Away from French: he means away from the torture that was a year-long French immersion course, not away from Francophones. Some of his best friends were Francophones. Although he was so distraught when his department moved to Hull (out of temporary quarters in Ottawa's west end that were thrown up just after World War II and were well past their 'best buy' date) that he started car pooling. Because, as he claimed, 'All Quebec drivers are crazy.' (Sorry. But you have to admit, the Montreal driving style does differ from that of other cities. And at the time, Quebec roads were inferior to Ontario's. Of course that statement was broad enough to include all Anglophone drivers resident in the province as well.) This explains why, on trips from Ottawa to New Brunswick, we had to travel through the US, crossing the border into upstate New York and safely crossing back at Calais, Maine.

Becoming officially bilingual was necessary to his chances for promotion in the federal government and key to his retaining the job he had. The move to Nova Scotia was prompted by the fact that there was a unilingual English position available in Halifax and it was closer to his family in New Brunswick. After 25 years of willing conscription into my mother's family's matriarchy, he wanted to reconnect with some of his own family.

My father had a scientific mind rather than a literary one, although he was an avid reader of Westerns (how I wish he'd had a chance to read Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers - he would have loved it) and had what I thought were rather surprising enthusiasms for W.D. Valgardson's and Gloria Steinem's work (in fact I seem to recall he 'borrowed' Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions and I had to buy myself another copy). He'd hated Latin so much in high school he deliberately scored 2% on his exam, knowing they would conclude he was a hopeless case and not make him take it again. My mother and I spent two weeks trying to figure out a phrase he didn't understand, only to realize it was 'chapeau de paille.' Important to know how to say 'straw hat' in French when you're working for the Inland Waters Directorate of Department of the Environment. Personally I would have worked on vocabulary like 'salt water intrusion' and 'glaciers' but hey - far be it from me to second-guess language instruction.

Oddly, after two cerebral hemorrhages, we had taken him to the Montreal Neurological Institute for a second opinion on what was causing the strokes, while we stayed in Ottawa, visiting when we could. On one of my visits, I was amazed to hear him speaking perfectly fluent, totally grammatical French to another patient in the sunroom. "I have a wife and daughter in Ottawa - they're coming to visit me soon," he said. The disinhibition of right brain damage isn't always a bad thing, as those of us who've discovered we're much more fluent in our second or third languages when drinking know. If only they'd served beer for breakfast at the French immersion classes!

When they first moved to Nova Scotia my parents rented a two-bedroom apartment in a high rise. Not only was it on an ambulance route, but they were frequently awakened by the woman upstairs dropping one of her high heels on the floor. They would wait in vain for the other shoe to drop - and apparently it never did. They lost a lot of sleep during that year, between the ambulances and the neighbours. And they just found the concept of paying rent bizarre after more than 15 years of home ownership.

So they started looking for a house in the country with some land, and ended up buying an unrenovated Victorian house in "Shubie" (Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia). Full of antiques, some in excellent condition and others not so, the deal was they would buy not only the house but all its furnishings as well. You can guess the rest - the best pieces had mysteriously vanished when they went to take possession of the house. Not sure who the knave was, but presumably a friend or relative of Mrs. Sutherland who arranged the removal of the furniture on her behalf. But the supreme irony is that the name of the village of Shubenacadie is commonly believed to be a corruption of "Je suis bien en Acadie." Oh Canada.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

It's almost over - and I can't wait to see the backend of this year


I've always preferred odd-numbered years to even-numbered ones but after living through 2013, I think that's about to change. This week I spoke to a good - although not close - friend who had her world implode over the course of this year. It's ironic that our birthdays are the same day (although she's 16 years my junior) and has had the same kind of year as I have, although in different ways.

Where to begin? An overseas client who's owed me money (although I generously discounted my time on that particular invoice and was billing him for only 10 hours when I had actually - at his insistence - worked 16) for more than a year jerked me around yet again, promising to pay 'in a couple of months.' I let those couple of months lapse and followed up. I gather it's a jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, never jam today scenario. It's not just that he owes me money for work done - it's not just that we had a retainer deal that fell through as well as the promise of more work - it's not just that I have no recourse (other than blogging and tweeting about it, which I won't do). It's that when you're a solopreneur, a single client not paying can sink you because you've set aside time to work on that project and you've neglected marketing to others because you didn't think you had to.

I was determined not to spend another winter in Lethbridge and Southern Alberta, so I worked towards getting the condo listed by July 1. The condo market in Lethbridge is lousy at the best of times (100 condos listed every month, only nine sell). The first crushing blow was being told I should list the condo for almost $5k less than I paid for it, despite having invested $40k in renovations. New doors, new windows, new furnace, new hot water tank, four out of five new - and top end - appliances, new carpeting, new flooring, a new bathroom, and every room professionally painted since I bought in 2009. That doesn't include all the hard - and unappreciated - and absolutely necessary volunteer work I did on the board to ensure needed repairs and regular maintenance actually got done.

I consulted five real estate agents all told, however, and they all said the same thing. So rather than jeopardize the prospect of a sale by listing too high (which is a no-no in this particular odd market, where people don't believe in negotiating and just vote with their feet when they think the price is too high), and listed at the ridiculously low figure. Everyone who saw the condo loved it - and loved what I'd done with it. I even got compliments on how clean it was (me! the world's least secret slob! I'm still looking for things I threw into cupboards prior to every viewing).

My real estate agent was wonderful. But the only offer I almost got was conditional on the sale of another condo in a bedroom community just east of Lethbridge. Since there are few amenities in that community and people retire from there to Lethbridge, half the market for condos (those downsizing) just wasn't present in that community - only the first-time, 'getting into the market' buyers. So it could have been a year before the potential buyer's condo sold, leaving me in limbo for that entire time. So - no thanks.

Just as I was in the final stages of getting the condo ready to list, I sent a tweet about the Globe and Mail redeeming itself with its investigative reporting on Doug Ford's past, citing numerous sources that would lead one to conclude he had indeed been involved in drug dealing in the 1980s in Etobicoke. This tweet caught the attention of a guy I had been friends with - and very briefly dated - when I was 18. Not counting Roger in kindergarten, he was the first man who ever proposed to me. Heartbroken over someone else and coming way too early in our relationship, the proposal totally freaked me out at the time. But it was a long time ago and I thought it was cute that he was getting in touch with me again, was pleased that he remembered me fondly (as I remembered him). I'll spare you the details, but he avidly pursued me, to the point of announcing he would move to Lethbridge. And then, without telling me what was going on, he started to lie to me (or had been lying to me all along, who knows?), about the fact he'd changed his mind about having a relationship with me (which would have been fine had he been honest about what was going on), and refused to discuss the situation with me. His lies took a particularly sinister form: by claiming he had decided not to come to Alberta because of serious health issues, I was frantic with worry about a man I had fallen in love with in addition to being hurt by his changing his mind.

Additional fall out from this whole escapade was realizing that a close female friend was actually one of those 'mean girls' I never encountered in high school. I really started to wonder when she started saying things to me like, 'You're remarkably self confident about seeing a man you haven't seen in 40 years.' Because of course, he must be Dorian Gray and I'm the only one who's aged? This of course was on a par with her telling me repeatedly 'your skin tones change after menopause' (um no, they don't - one's hair colour tends to change, but one's skin tones are one's skin tones - you don't suddenly go from being fair-skinned to olive-skinned) and 'it's almost impossible to lose weight after age 40' (tell that to my scales - I've lost more than 40 pounds in the last four years without dieting, counting calories obsessively or significantly increasing my exercise level). The icing on the cake was when she suggested that I wasn't really hurt by the particular person who'd lied to me and jilted me but because I wanted 'a' relationship, not specifically a relationship with him. I'm glad that when she last texted to say she'd call me soon, I responded by telling her that we had a lot to discuss - including the volume and tone of her unwanted, unasked for, and almost invariably bad advice and prognostications. Friends like that one does not need. And for the record, saying that I hate living and working alone does not mean the solution to the problem is a relationship - a job is every bit as good a fix as a relationship would be. Sharing space with a roommate is another fix. The last two are probably better.

While I have concluded my ex is mentally ill, the real damage is not that someone rejected me. What has taken a hit is not my ego - I am as attractive and as lovable as I was before this incident, no more and no less - but my ability to trust people in general and men in particular is at an all-time low. Which doesn't augur well for ever having another relationship. I am now leaning to the 'don't do it' side of the equation rather than the 'if it happens it happens and if it doesn't it doesn't' now.

I also discovered - finally going for a physical for the first time in far too many years - that I need to have my gall bladder removed. It was my real bladder I was worried about (it's fine), but thanks to advances in medical diagnostics, the ultrasound revealed a problem of which I was blissfully unaware. My GP has been wonderful throughout this whole thing, and while I can't say I'm looking forward to the surgery, I have learned to appreciate my doctor for the rare and wonderful creature she is. It's a relief to let my doctor be my patient advocate - I've become used to doing that work myself, and it's nice to not have to do someone else's job for a change! We won't know whether my gall stones are cholesterol- or pigment-stones till the surgery is done. I suppose it doesn't really matter. Getting this dealt with has delayed my departure from Alberta. But I need to leave. Frankly I think Alberta needs to secede from Canada. This is the fourth Canadian province in which I've lived. It's the only one in which I've felt like a rudderless alien.

Shortly after the condo listing expired, my fridge caught fire. I must call the repair shop to get the results of the autopsy they conducted. The service repairman said in 35 years of repairing fridges he had never seen anything like it. He was very clear on the fact the fire had started in the bottom freezer compartment and was due to some sort of electrical fault. I knew there was something wrong when all the fridge's light bulbs went out at the same time and then the replacement bulbs burned out within 24 hours of being installed. And in fact I had called the repair shop twice about it, only to be told, basically, 'run along, little girl.' I was surprisingly calm throughout this whole incident and GE seemed very anxious to make things right, replacing the fridge even though it was a year past its one-year warranty and covering the costs of pick up of the old fridge and delivery of the new. So the only thing I was out was the cost of the ruined food, which wasn't too bad as I had been deliberately not buying in bulk while the condo was on the market.

Of the good things that happened in 2013 (and there weren't a whole lot of them):

My only surviving full cousin on my mother's side tracked me down on Facebook and we are now having the relationship I wish we could always have had. Better late than never. When we talk on the phone he calls me 'love' and it is so gratifying to discover it is possible to not just pick up where you left off more than 40 years ago, but that our mentally ill, evil sibling parents (his father, my mother) did not succeed in destroying our ability to connect and our desire to be family. I love it when he calls me to test drive his new web site on the mobile devices I have that he doesn't. And it is tremendously healing to know that he has survived the same kind of invidious, malicious emotional abuse I experienced, has lived to tell the tale, and has found both peace and love. It is also a relief to be believed. My mother was an amazing con artist, and trying to explain to members of my family who were snowed by her and who don't understand how relentlessly she tried to destroy me emotionally has led to fractured relationships. As I said to another cousin this year, "If you have fond memories of my mother, treasure them but keep them to yourself. But if you want to have a relationship with me you will stop arguing with me about how she 'wasn't that bad' and you will stop taking her side, because she's dead, I'm not, and I am done with listening to her lies, whether they come out of her mouth or out of yours.'

My friend Mark stayed with me for the month of September, with his two sons spending the weekends. This was tremendously healing for me and a good lesson for me about how sharing life with and helping others can help you help yourself. Riley-who-is-four and I spent two Sunday afternoons 'reading' illustrated dessert cookbooks. He'd look at the pictures and then show me the page so I could tell him what the dessert was called (a lot of fanciful names go into naming desserts - we were intrigued by the 'Queen of Puddings' that appeared in both cookbooks) and we could discuss the difficulty to make, ingredients required, and how yummy it would be. I made my first rhubarb galette with rhubarb from Mark's father's garden. Riley of course had a special, age-appropriate job in the creation of the confection: I got him to use my meat-tenderizing hammer to pound the brown sugar cubes the recipe called for into crumbs. And he attacked that chore with gusto. I had to ask both the boys to stand back a little so I could actually roll out the dough, so fascinated were they by the whole process of making something from scratch. Riley might well turn out to be a pastry chef. But if he doesn't, that's fine. I learned something about how to get children excited about reading and something about not talking down to them. Mark was in stitches watching us sit on the deck in our matching lawn chairs having our seriously sweet conversations. Plus Mark turned me on to Modern Family, one of the world's few tolerable sitcoms since Murphy Brown.

David and Danielle have been wonderful to me. Whether it's showing up at my door with two apple pies and four apple crisps, helping me get the condo ready to list, or resolving my car's battery problems by installing a trickle charger, they are love, friendship, and faith in action. I am blessed to have friends like them. My friend Jeff also showed me his version of love in action, checking in with me by phone and email as often as he could when I was in the most devastating phase of grieving the relationship that was not to be and always making me laugh. When I told him the former mayor had snubbed me twice during a single meet and greet during the election campaign, it was impossible not to laugh when he asked me, 'Are you going for three?' And I am much closer to my friend Danica, who is struggling but has never lost her ability to laugh. I was particularly amused when we were talking one night and she said (she's a psychologist), 'You're analyzing me - keep going - I love it!' In my next life (although I don't believe in reincarnation), I will have a different mother - one who doesn't disparage my gifts while simultaneously insisting that I achieve, achieve, achieve. I would have been a great psychologist.

Finally, I got to work the local municipal election as campaign manager for a non-incumbent councillor. It was the first time in a very long time I had an extended period of doing work that challenged me (and Wade can be a very challenging person, although in a good way most of the time. The rest of the time I've learned to just agree to disagree.). I learned a lot; my self confidence was restored; and I was reminded of the joy of working.

So - on to 2014. It can't - and won't - be a repeat of this year. That's why I've reused this photo of blackberries I picked in Port Coquitlam, BC. I call it 'Plenty.'

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Both my world and literary views were, I will confess, warped by reading The Great Gatsby far too early in life. Fitzgerald's 'spoiled priest' rush to judgment, the notion that one must always remember not everyone has had the same advantages in life, and the obviously untrue concept that life offers 're-dos' have had a profound effect on my life. Luckily I'm open-minded enough to admit when I'm wrong, accept that a re-do at least leads to closure and may be necessary for that reason alone, and have realized that having an opinion is not quite the same thing as being judgmental.

So for many years I have accepted the notion that Zelda was a mistake for F. Scott Fitzgerald, that their marriage contributed mightily to his financial woes and his lack of productivity, and as one of the world's biggest fans of The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon, wished he'd married someone else.

I was, therefore (having read the Nancy Mitford bio of Zelda as well as Zelda's own novel, Save Me the Waltz, many years ago), reluctant to read a novel about Zelda. Luckily for me, the Twitter community of readers convinced me to give Z a try, and I'm grateful.

Update: after posting this review, I got a lovely email from Esther Bochner, senior publicist at Macmillan Audio, asking if I'd like to post an audio clip of Z to my review. I said I'd be delighted - and here it is.

Therese Anne Fowler has made me rethink my attitude to Zelda, and to come to some radically different conclusions about F. Scott Fitzgerald's struggles - and about his ambitions. I had never thought about Zelda in the context of her own era - a time when women had so few options and when smart women were no longer content merely to stand by their men, defer to their opinions and be content to be the 'little woman' or 'the woman behind the man.' Zelda's refusal to be overshadowed by Scott takes on a whole different complexion when viewed in this context, as does her desire to achieve. We'll never have the definitive answer to who was more competitive with whom, but in reading Z I was having stomach-roiling flashbacks to a lot of the lines in Gatsby about being able to redo and rewrite the past, as well as some uncomfortable challenges to my own intellectual status quo.

Among the questions Fowler poses in Z are these: why was it F. Scott Fitzgerald was so very willing to promote Ernest Hemingway's work to his agent, editor and publisher, and yet persistently ensured that the most his wife ever got on her own work was a joint byline? Why wasn't he content to be the best writer he could possibly be rather than acknowledged as the best living American novelist? And why did he persist  in emulating the filthy rich to the point of almost-bankruptcy over and over again, while simultaneously despising them and condemning them morally bankrupt? Why didn't these contradictions occur to him? More important for Zelda, why did he insist the women in his life be content with being nothing but decorative appendages whose sense of self-worth derived solely from that of the men to whom they'd attached themselves?

The genius of this novel is not that it's an unflattering portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but rather that it's finally a fair portrayal of Zelda, a woman caught between a rock and a hard place: her father's social standing (and societal expectations of women in the 1920s) and her husband's overweening ambition. There was little room for Zelda to flourish in that small space. And the fact that she didn't do so isn't really so surprising when you think about it. 

Two by Henning Mankell: The Man Who Smiled and Before the Frost

I'm on a Henning Mankell/Kurt Wallander kick these days but am reading the series in no particular order. I did try to read a non-Wallander Mankell recently and failed in the attempt - it was Depths and I couldn't get past the first five pages. I had similar issues with Before the Frost, but to nowhere near the same degree (more on that subject later).

The Man Who Smiled, first published in 1994 and first translated into English in 2005, is classic Wallander. After shooting a suspect and taking a year-long leave of absence, Wallander has decided to leave the police force entirely. In his time off he's done a lot of brooding, a little travelling (with embarrassing results as a result of his drinking), and finally come to grips with his drinking. Fitter and more stable than he's ever been, he still feels like he's floundering. But returning to police work doesn't seem like the solution, and he's actually in his boss's office, about to sign his retirement paperwork, when he suddenly changes his mind and decides to return to work, convinced that the deaths of a father-son lawyer team are both murders and connected, although the father's death has initially been ruled an accident.

Once again, Wallander's attention to detail and his creative approach to crime and problem-solving makes him the man you want for the job. A visit to the scene of the accident and the discovery of a chair leg by Wallander turns out to be just the clue that cracks the case and leads to Wallander's successfully wiping the smile off the face of The Man Who Smiled. To say more would be giving too much away, unfortunately. But part of what makes Wallander such a richly developed character is his angst, and there's lots of angst here, as he continues to attempt to be a good son, a good father, and to have a life as well as a career. While a minor character, Wallander's father is never dull, and the predicament he gets himself into in The Man Who Smiled is rather comical. So much of Wallander pere's character is revealed when he gets arrested for getting into a fist fight at the liquor store (he took a number, didn't notice when his number was called, tried to jump the queue and insist it was his turn, and punched out both the next person in line and the clerk - oh and failed to pay the taxi driver for the trip to the liquor store as well). All while claiming he had every right to defend himself. It's these moments of black comedy that make Mankell such a compelling writer and Wallander such a fascinating character - because who hasn't had to deal with parental-generated embarrassment at one point or another? And why does it always come at a time when work is at its most frantic and demanding?

Sadly, Before the Frost, published in 2002 and translated in 2004, is far less satisfying. The angry, confused, unstable and much-worried-about Linda Wallander has decided as she approaches 30 to join the police force and has just finished her training at the police academy. She's waiting to join the Ystad police force when her friend Anna disappears. She's staying temporarily at her father's apartment, and, having always been an elusive and shadowy character both to her father and in the other Wallander mysteries, I was excited to find out more about her. Unfortunately, this one doesn't really work, because Linda just isn't a developed or empathetic character. She persists in intruding her concern about her missing friend into her father's current investigation, and while it turns out she's not wrong to do so, there are some really implausible scenes in this novel (the one where she throws an ashtray at her father's head and the willingness of the Ystad police force to let her trail along and insert herself into their interviews is also a little hard to swallow). Sadly we get little of Kurt's perspective on the investigation, and as a result the examination of cult mentality and behaviour suffers as a result.

Luckily I can circle back and read some of the others in the Wallander series I haven't got to yet, because while Linda Wallander is definitely her father's daughter, she just doesn't work as a character. In trying to figure out why, I've concluded it's not because Mankell's trying to write from a female point of view, it's because what makes Kurt Wallander work as a character can't be superimposed onto a woman half his age who hasn't experienced the societal and criminal sea change her father has. The impatience and weariness works for Kurt, who's continuing to push himself while trying to cope with the fatigue of middle age. In Linda this manifests as brattiness, an unwillingness to listen and learn. And while that might augur well for character development in future books, I can't foresee it happening. While all the curiously about Linda that's built up over the course of the Kurt Wallander novels is satisfied in Before the Frost, I ended up regretting having been curious. And that's never a good thing when novel-induced.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Helen Humphreys' Nocturne: On the Life and Death of My Brother

A beautiful book with a beautiful cover, I think I will always be grateful to Helen Humphreys for writing Nocturne.

It's fascinating on a number of levels, and as usual there is an odd synchronicity in my reading. I'd just finished Therese Ann Fowler's novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and was reflecting on how unfair I've always been to Zelda, blinded by my fangirl reaction to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Z, while fiction, makes a strong case for Fitzgerald's struggle to finish Tender Is the Night being not the need to support Zelda and Scottie, but for his own alcoholism and lack of self-discipline, his desire to party with and pretend to be one of the independently wealthy, as the reason he struggled with his novels.

To my surprise, Humphreys' elegy to and ongoing conversation with her brother Martin, who died at age 45 of pancreatic cancer, is a meditation not just on grief and loss, but also on the sacrifices inherent in choosing the artist's life. If you've read Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Tillie Olsen's Silences, you'll already know how hard it is to be a woman and a writer - particularly a married woman and a writer. (Add children to the mix and it's amazing there are any female writers.) One of the things that makes Nocturne provocative is that Humphreys takes this idea one step further, renders it non-gender specific, and explains what is required (at least for her):

' write well, to write fully, to really get inside a novel, I have to leave the world I actually live in. I can't have distractions from the story, which means living alone, and creating an environment of calm and routine - wearing the same clothes day after day, eating the same food - so that nothing from the real world interferes with the creation of the fictional one.

Over the years this has worn me down and created a kind of loneliness that is hard to live with, and surprisingly hard to leave....

My being is enmeshed with what I do. And this is why, in spite of my desire to give up writing, I am writing to you one last time. Writing is what I have, and it's how I make sense of experience.'

Martin Humphreys was a concert pianist, composer, music teacher, son, brother, friend, boyfriend. You can still hear some of his recordings on his MySpace page, and I am listening to him play Leos Janacek's "Our Evenings" as I write this review. And I am close to tears, not because of the music but because of the sad truths of Nocturne:  "Increasingly I would rather live a perfect day than write about one...."

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Priority None: Mel Lastman's looking smarter every day

I was living in Toronto during the storm of 1999, and I remember it well - buses sliding backwards down hills, switches on the subway freezing, and the hoots and catcalls from the rest of the country after Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman called in the army to help with snow removal. As someone who grew up in Ottawa, it was a little hard to understand why Toronto was so ill-equipped to handle the snow, and word at the time was that Mel and the rest of Toronto City Council hadn't yet signed the contract for snow plowing and removal and that's why the city was brought to its knees by this early-season storm. Oops. Ottawa used to get at least two blizzards a year - nowhere near as many as Montreal. But I remember snow piles that were at least five feet high.

Little did I think, however, that I'd end up living in a place where it snows (a lot) and yet the city's snow removal strategy was 'wait till it melts.' [Update November 15, 2012: from the minutes of the Lethbridge City Council meeting held November 13, 2012. When the Deputy Mayor and another member of Council (who had read my blog post) raised the issue of snow removal and snow plowing at this meeting (thank you!), the City's Director of Infrastructure Services indicated 'Priority 4 roads. (local streets) are not plowed or sanded even in an extreme event.  Intersections may get sanded when icy conditions are identified as a hazard.' [emphasis added] So despite the fact Lethbridge's public transit system is inadequate and you may not be able to get to a bus, that's pretty much it - you're on your own.]

Welcome to Lethbridge, AB, and chinook country.