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Ammonites & Leaping Fish by Penelope Lively

As Lively writes in the Preface, “This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.”

“And a view of old age itself, this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise – ambushed, or so it can seem. The view from eighty, for me. One of the few advantages of age is that you can report on it with a certain authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here. That, and the backwards glance – the identifying freight of a lifetime.”

Only the author’s words do justice to this book because it is a very personal commentary and reflection upon a long life, much of which has already been documented in her work. It is also much more in that it teaches about memory, it offers comfort and it provides help for those concerned about their possessions or “the accretions of a lifetime”. In Reading and Writing, it provides much food for thought about one’s own reading and encouragement regarding the value of that experience.

More from the Preface:

“Towards the end of my own stint I find myself thinking less about what has happened to me butAmmonites & Leaping Fish interested in this lifetime context, in the times of my life. I have the great sustaining ballast of memory; we all do, and hope to hang on to it. I am interested in the way that memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does with us. And when I look around my cluttered house – more ballast, material ballast – I can see myself oddly identified and defined by what is in it: my life charted out on the bookshelves, my concerns illuminated by a range of objects.”

“These, then, are the prompts for this book: age, memory, time, and this curious physical evidence I find all around me as to what I have been up to – how reading has fed into writing, how ways of thinking have been nailed.”

“And my own context – the context of anyone my age. The accompanying roar of the historical process. I want to remember what those events felt like at the time, those by which I felt most fingered – the Suez crisis, the Cold War, the seismic change in altitudes of the late twentieth century – and see how they are judged today, with the wisdom of historical hindsight.”

On old age itself: “We have to get used to being the person we are, the person we have always been, but encumbered now with various indignities and disabilities, shoved as it were into some new incarnation.  We feel much the same, but clearly are not. We have entered an unexpected dimension; dealing with this is the new challenge.” …There is this interesting accretion – the varieties of ourselves – and the puzzling thing in old age is to find yourself out there as the culmination of all these, knowing that they are you, but that you are also now this someone else.”

And this: “Consider those figures, (in 1961, there were 592 people over 100 years old in this country (England I assume) and by 2060 there will be 455,000) and gasp. Old people were of interest in the past simply because there weren’t that many of them – the sage is a pejorative term suggesting that old age necessarily implies wisdom. That view may have changed radically towards the end of the twenty-first century, I’d guess, when the western world is awash with centenarians. Goodness knows what that will do for attitudes towards the elderly; I’m glad I shan’t be around to find out. I am concerned with here and now, when I can take stock and bear witness.”

On Reading: “Reading in old age is doing for me what it has always done – it frees me from the closet of my own mind. Reading fiction, I see through the prism of another person’s understanding; reading everything else, I am travelling – I am travelling in the way that I still can: new sights, new experiences. I am reminded sometimes of the intensity of childhood reading, that absolute absorption when the very ability to read was a heady new gain, the gateway to a different place, to a parallel universe you hadn’t known was there. The one entirely benign mind-altering drug. …So I have my drug, perfectly legal and I don’t need a prescription.”

There is a fascinating section on memory which defines procedural memory, semantic memory and episodic or autobiographical memory. She describes the latter as “random, non-sequential, capricious, and without it we are undone.” I found this section particularly helpful.

The most interesting section for me was that entitled Reading and Writing in which the author states: “What we read makes us what we are – quite as much as what we have experienced and where we have been and who we have known. To read is to experience.”

The last section of the book is called Six Things and it addresses the matter of “the accretions of a lifetime”. It too, is very helpful as well as comforting. Those readers out there who might be trying to reduce those “accretions of a lifetime” will find this a useful reflection that might be put towards one’s own personal decisions. Lively writes here of being an “agnostic who relishes the equipment of Christianity: its mythologies, its buildings, its ceremonies, its music, the whole edifice without which ours would be a diminished world. I would like to attend a service. I am a church-visiting addict, with cathedrals the ultimate indulgence.” There is also a wonderful piece about her Gayer-Anderson cat which is well worth reading by itself.

She sums up the book and her accretion of things in this way:

“To have the leaping fish sherd on my mantelpiece – and all those other sherds in the cake-tin – expands my concept of time. There is a further dimension to memory; it is not just a private asset, but something vast, collective, resonant. And all because fragments of detritus survive, and I can consider them.”

A rare treat and a comfort to read and read again.

 

Tell by Frances Itani

In this novel, set in Deseronto, Frances Itani returns (same time period as in Deafening) to the period following World War One, with a story of told and untold secrets.

TellThe story opens in Toronto in November of 1920 in a room with “oak floor, oak desk” and shelves stuffed with black binders. There are four women in the room, a man and a six week old baby. Mrs. Davis oversees some neatly arranged papers. “A low rumble from the street railway outside seems far off”. “There had been no advertisement (outside) for the office used by adoption officials, only a number beside the door at street level, which matches the number of the room where everyone is now tensed, waiting for the proceedings to end.” One woman holds the sleeping baby and manifests considerable stress as she leans forward to sign the papers. Once she has signed she hands the baby to the young couple who, after embracing the woman, exit the room with the baby. After a few moments, Mrs. Davis wishes the mother a safe journey to Oswego and speaks the words “somehow, we manage to survive.”

Then the story goes back one year to November 1919 and the author proceeds to tell us what happened, what brought those four women and one man to that office on November 1, 1920.

Items from the local Deseronto Post are used to enhance the setting and familiarize the reader with the community. One of these early items informs us that plans are being made “to set up a scholarship to commemorate students of Deseronto High School and other young men of the vicinity who took part in the “World’s Great Struggle” just brought to a close, and especially those who made the SUPREME SACRIFICE in said war.” The same issue of the Post reported a runaway horse on Mill Street Tuesday afternoon. And there was an ad for Windsor Salt “on sale in the local stores.”

And so the stage is set for the reader to meet Kenan Oak who was born in Deseronto and came back from the war wounded and had not left the house “since the day he’d returned and set foot in it.” He has lost the sight in one eye, his face is disfigured and his left arm useless. His experience in the trenches has marked him in other ways as well. He “wondered why one of his own eyes had been spared, the events of the carnage having been so random, so finite. There was no explaining who walked away, who returned home, who vanished into a landscape of mud roiling with bodies, dead and alive.” Kenan “did not go out into the town, because it was safer to stay indoors.” “He did not have to look at people, and no one had to look at him.”

Kenan is married to Tress: they had both grown up in Deseronto and were best friends throughout their childhood years. Kenan and Tress are both trying to adjust to the people they had become. “War changed everything. Including what went on in the bedroom.”

Tress had a younger sister who became deaf at age five. She was able to help Kenan “to recover the language inside himself, the language of words he had been unable to utter after he had come home.” Grania had helped him immensely but she had moved away when her own husband had returned from the war.

Tress worked at the restaurant her parents owned and Kenan worked at a job the veterans association had found for him at home. Tress often worked late and Kenan missed her because he had so few other contacts with people because he didn’t go out of the house. He was an orphan who had been raised by his uncle and this seemed to add to his solitariness. He and Tress were once soul mates but things had changed since the war and “there hadn’t been much laughter” although it was once a part of their lives together.

The house they were living in had been rented from the postmaster when Tress received the telegram from the War Office telling her that Kenan was coming home.He had been in hospital in England and the war was still going on when he was sent home. He was ambushed when he first entered the house: “Gates and doorways of countless billets in France had risen before him.”

The memories  of “dwellings where soldiers slept like tinned smelt on rubber sheets laid over salvaged boards, or on sandbags layered together, or on kitchen floors that were nothing more than hard-packed earth.”And other places where “the stench had made it difficult to go down into that cellar, but men were to be billeted in that place, so Kenan descended and then went outside to dig a grave behind one of the outbuildings” so that a body found in the cellar would not disturb what rest the men might be able to get. “The buildings where men slept could receive a direct hit and they’d all be killed anyway.” So, going into this new house brought back memories of his wartime experiences and how he himself used to disobey orders frequently and sleep outside in the open air where he felt safer. In his head he saw men marching by “hundreds, hundreds of thousands” “into oblivion”. He sometimes felt as though he had dropped off the edge of the world.

Eventually he dares to leave the house. He knew the town well and stays away from areas where he might meet people going instead to a farm he knows which has an abandoned barn. He squeezed “between loose boards” and ducked into a dark space which “smelled of old manure, of dust and packed earth and sweet, rotting hay.” He could see to a lighted window of the farmhouse kitchen where he saw a woman moving about. Tress had told him about her and he recalled what she had told him.

“He relaxed, leaned against the boards of the old barn and closed his good eye. His right handTell made a sound, a word. (Grania had taught him sign language.) A finger to his lips and back to his chest. Tell, it seemed to be saying, but the word was directed at himself. It was his private communication: Tell.

What was he to tell and to whom? While he was out someone had seen him from the clock tower above the third-floor apartment in the post office building. The watcher had seen Kenan grow up: he was one of the few permitted to visit after Kenan returned from the war. Could he help Kenan? Would Kenan tell him what needed to be told? What would the consequences be? How will it be connected to the four women and one man in that office? Was Kenan the man? Whose baby was it?

Much to ponder here about secrets and their impact and the significance of communication particularly in primary relationships when pain gets locked behind walls so strong they cannot be breached.

 

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill

“I was heading along Rue Sainte-Catherine to sign up for night school. There was a cat outside a Girl Who Was Saturday Night - Copystrip joint going in a circle. I guessed it had learned that behaviour from a stripper. I picked it up in my arms, “What’s new, pussycat,” I said.”

And so begins this story in which there are many cats, including one little black cat in silhouette at the beginning of each chapter.  Here are some that you will meet:

“A cat that was annoyed by all the commotion leapt up onto the bureau and slipped into the mirror and disappeared.”

“A beige cat came down the stairs like caramel seeping out of a Caramilk bar.”

“A cat was in the corner, yawning. It looked like an insomniac in striped pyjamas.”

“A cat peeked out from behind the curtain like an emcee wondering if now was the right time to begin the show.”

Right to the very last page the cats are there – when the little black silhouette exits stage right after the narrator makes this profound observation: “You have to know that the life you have is completely yours.”

There are even more amazing and quirky insights in this book than there are cats appearing and disappearing as they do in all our lives if we are watching. The insights usually come from the narrator, Nouschka Tremblay. Nouschka has a twin brother, Nicolas, and they are the children of Étienne Tremblay and a woman named Noëlle Renaud who was fourteen years old when they were born.  They have grown up with a grandfather named LouLou and resemble what many of us might think of as “wild” children. When it came time to possibly meet their mother, Nouschka is terrified that this will change everything: “I did not want our world turned upside down. I did not want to have any actual information about our mother.”

“Étienne Tremblay had been a pretty famous Québécois folk singer in the early seventies. A  chansonnier. He recorded two albums that were everywhere. Back in the day, he could come home from a show with a paper bag filled with women’s underwear. Outside of Québec nobody had even heard of him, naturally. Québec needed stars badly. The more they had, the better argument they had for having their own culture and separating from Canada.”

Nouschka has a clear understanding of who her father was and is: “To say that Étienne’s fame had gone to his head would be an understatement.He really believed that he had a higher calling. I think he ranked himself up there with Jesus, and I’m not even exaggerating.

Oh and, how could I forget, in the middle of all this he had two kids who became famous too because Étienne always brought them on stage and on talk shows with him. He would make us come out and wave wildly at the audience and blow kisses and say adorable things that he’d written for us to the hosts. We were known to everyone as Petite Nouschka and Petit Nicolas.”

Here are some of the thoughts that Nouschka has when she first meets her mother (Nouschka is almost twenty at the time): “She had loved us on television. The same way that everyone had loved us, which was the same thing as not loving us at all. We had had enough of that type of affection. What we needed was a love that was able to shine a light on who exactly we were, so that we could be people offstage. Then we would be able to be real. Then we would be able to grow up. Then we wouldn’t be joined at the hip. This woman only knew what everybody knew about us. Of course she loved our persona. It was designed to be loved.

I wanted her to be proud of the things that nobody but a mother could be proud of. I had wanted her to be proud of a story that I had written about a swan. I had wanted her to be thrilled when I dived off the high diving board. She should have been there to cheer when I learned my multiplication table. And I had wanted to be commended for giving the flea-ridden cat a bath all by myself.  Those were the things that actually built character. They taught you that ordinary life was meaningful and made sense.”

Other insights;

from Étienne via Nouschka – “He thought family gatherings were destructive to the soul.”

Nouschka on girls from the corps de ballet – “They thought fame would make them happy. They wouldn’t have to feel bad about having been teased in Grade One.”

Nouschka on herself –  “…I was capable of things that Raphaël and Nicolas were not. They were too committed to the personas they had created when they were fourteen years old.”

Nouschka on her father – “How lovely to be in a production of your life instead of being in your life itself.” And this – “It must be nice sometimes to have an all-consuming philosophy that includes not really caring about anyone other than yourself.”

Nouschka on living downtown – “If you lived a certain way downtown you could get away without having one of your own thoughts for weeks.”

Nouschka on writing –  “One of the reasons that I wanted to study literature was because it exposed everything. Writers looked for secrets that had never been mined. Every writer has to invent their own magical language, in order to describe the indescribable. They might seem to be writing in French, English or Spanish, but really they are writing in the language of butterflies, crows and hanged men.”

Nouschka Tremblay will get into your head: you won’t want to be completely without her even when the book ends as it must.  She is sad and funny; hysterically happy and completely dejected in turn; she loves and hates passionately; she is young and she is old simultaneously.  She speaks in the  ” language of butterflies, crows and hanged men.”

 

My Journey by Olivia Chow Plus Political Footnotes

 

My JourneyMy Journey: A Memoir, was, for me, the most inspiring non-fiction work that I have read in many months. It is not that I demand inspiration from my reading but, when it comes as part of the package, it is a rare gift. This book provided that many times over. It is way beyond “political”: it addresses grief, philosophy, relational wisdom, immigration issues, community, effective government, poverty etc. etc. etc.

For Canadians, as stated in the Prologue, it poses the question: “how can we come together to form a government that reflects our values? How can we persuade government to invest in children and public transit and to help generate good jobs so that no one is left behind?”

Because the book is a memoir, it includes Olivia Chow’s meeting, marriage and political partnership with Jack Layton and it includes his death and the devastating effect it had upon this woman whose life was so entwined with that of her soul mate. It is a thoughtful and reflective memoir in this regard and provides much hope and help for anyone open to hearing its message.

The Prologue closes with the following: “My first language is Cantonese, and in Chinese languages there is no past or future tense, just a sort of infinite tense. Jack (Layton) is now part of that infinite tense. But I live in the present tense, and the stories in this book are my stories. Stories from the journey that has brought me here today. My journey, so far.”

In the first chapter one learns about Olivia’s childhood: her first home was in” Hong Kong, on Blue Pool Road in the community of Happy Valley” which name she likens to something magical out of a children’s book. Her father was a highly respected school superintendent and her mother was an elementary school teacher. They lived comfortably and had a live-in housekeeper. Olivia’s mother’s history is particularly interesting and would fill a book itself. Families are always much more complicated than they appear on the surface.Olivia says she was “naughty, spoiled, rebellious and lazy…a terrible student. I actually managed to fail Grade 3.” It was then that she was sent to Convent School in the community she then lived in but her troubles continued there and she became “the hellion of the school.” Upheavals and bombings in Hong Kong in 1967 resulted in an exodus from Hong Kong and the Chow family came to Canada at that time.

They arrived in 1970 when Olivia was 13. They chose to come to Canada and Toronto because of the large numbers of Chinese located there. They lived first in the Annex on the third floor of a converted Victorian home. Not too long after the family moved to St. James Town south of Rosedale where nineteen high-rise apartment buildings had been constructed on 32 acres. Both of Olivia’s parents “suffered a perilous decline in both income and status.” Her mother became a seamstress and then a maid and a laundry worker in a hotel near city hall. Her mother’s experience taught Olivia the importance of a good pension in later years. Her father never did find fulfilling work, doing stints of delivery and taxi driving and manual labour.

Olivia is forthright about the details of her schooling and her family life which was sometimes painful. She explains her acceptance of her experiences this way: “It took me that long (until she was in her late thirties early forties) to forgive him (her father). It took me that long to discover what state of grace is – it’s achieving the peace and freedom of living in the moment, and not allowing past wrongs to colour the present.”

When she was sixteen, she went north as a junior forest ranger. She journeyed eleven hours by bus to Wawa at the end of Lake Superior and then inland to a wilderness camp. She says this experience was a turning point in her life and it saddened her that the forest ranger program started in 1944 was closed down in 2013. She attended other camps in later summers and these experiences provided an enduring connection “with the divine” and gave her “a sense of Canada – of being a Canadian.” There is more about her high school experiences and much about her reading background which I particularly enjoyed and more about her university experiences as well. Then her sculpting Honours BA from the University of Guelph.

This is an inspirational memoir which reads more like a shared conversation with a friend one hasn’t seen in a long time and who is filling you in on what has happened to her and for her. And I haven’t even touched on her political life. If you have an interest in survivors who have accomplished impressive things and done it very quietly and co-operatively, you will find this well worth your time.

I have been watching some of the current “debates” between the mayoral candidates in the city of Toronto this fall(2014). You may know that Olivia Chow is one of those candidates. Her resume is most impressive! Having read it and listened to what several of the other candidates have had to say, I would have no trouble deciding which candidate would be best for that city and for Torontonians. I do hope some of them have looked into this excellent resource.

If you live in the Toronto area and/or have access to the Toronto Star newspaper, you might want to check the Wednesday, October 8th edition for the article on page A17 by author andTransforming Power feminist activist, Judy Rebick. The article is titled “John Tory not an option for feminist voters”. I would wish it might have been put on the front page. The article closes as follows: “Olivia Chow has a platform and a track record on fighting inequality. She keeps her word and knows how to work with people and to make decisions.

Why would we settle for less? Don’t vote cynically (reference to voting for Tory because he is not Doug Ford), vote passionately.” Judy Rebick is the author of Imagining Democracy and Transforming Power and other titles.

Shopping for VotesAnother book which I have just become aware of is Shopping for Votes by Susan Delacourt who points out that after “twenty years  covering federal politics in Canada” she had “run out of ways to tell readers how political life resembled the world outside the Ottawa “bubble”.” She had begun to “recognize the creep of shopping language into the political marketplace” and wanted to “see what price we were paying for mixing consumerism with democracy.”

Do you understand what is motivating you as a voter? Are you able to separate the consumer life style from your responsibilities as a citizen? Are you a Tim Hortons voter? Delacourt lists some “sobering statistics” that support the claim that “over the past fifty years or so, Canadians have checked out of the political process.”

 

And last, but not least, speaking of Canadian women who are speaking out and who deserve your time and attention as readers and as citizens, I have just begun to delve into Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. This book will inform you about what you need to know to be a responsible citizen at a very challenging time in our history and in the history of the world/planet. Highly recommended but not for sissies!This Changes Everything

 

Little Bastards in Springtime by Katja Rudolph

When the leaders speak of peace,
The common folk know
That war is coming.
When the leaders curse war
The mobilization order is already written out.      -Bertolt Brecht, War Primer

Little Bastards inThe duty of youth is to challenge corruption.
-Kurt Cobain                                                                     

“The children will all be ruined by war, that’s the truth of it,” the commissar announces, not to her but to the table in general. “Yet some will rise arduously from the ruin to change the world for the better.” No one is listening to him. “And when the next war breaks out, the same will happen,” he continues. “When this cycle has occurred enough times, the ruined children of war will have changed the world sufficiently to eradicate the benefit of war to any man, venture, nation, or empire and there will be no more wars. You see, progress!” -Katja Rudolph’s character, the commissar

In the words of the book jacket, this is “the unflinching story of a boy who survives the siege of Sarajevo and immigrates to Toronto bearing the scars of war.”

That boy is Jevrem (pronounced Yevrem) Andric and when the story opens he is eleven years old. His mother is a concert pianist and teaches at the conservatory; his brother Dušan is “sixteen and goes wherever he wants”; his eight year old twin sisters Aisha and Berina are inseparable, Aisha being the stronger, more confident of the two; his father, Lazar, is a journalist.

In the first scene of the story (not the Prologue which takes place in 1941 and which involves Jevrem’s grandmother whom he calls Baka), the family is walking down a street alongside a protest in the spring of 1992 and Lazar tells his family: “This is the real Yugoslavia, the true Sarajevo. Artists, writers, professors, journalists mixed in with everyone else. All nationalities, no nationalities. Demos triumphing over ethos.” Lazar puts Jevrem on his shoulders and asks him to read out some of the signs he sees: “Our-nation-is-Yugoslavia. We-are-one-people…Resist fascism.”

At their apartment Jevrem’s Baka, a partisan under Tito’s leadership, declares that in her time “It was death to fascism, freedom to the people!”  His uncle, Ujak Luka, “mimics Baka behind her back”and talks to Jevrem about his dreams and tells him “Everyone should dream” and that he dreams of getting away, “far from this nightmare”. Ujak Luka’s voice is the voice of sanity but Jevrem is too young to know this: he has been told often that Luka is “wild”.

The situation in Sarajevo changes quickly. As Lazar puts it: “The war’s started…fifty-one years to the month since the Nazis invaded, forty-seven years to the month since we kicked them out, sacrificing  whole generation in the process. And for what?”

Jevrem has conversations with his grandmother about Ujak Luka’s departure from Sarajevo and she expresses her disapproval: “What if every able-bodied man picked up and left?”

“I (Jevrem) think about this for a minute. “There’d be no war,” I say.

“But one has to defend against the enemy,” Baka says.

“I mean if no man wanted to fight, even the enemy men.”

“But you have to be prepared to fight in case the enemy wants to fight.”

“But, let’s say no man on the whole planet ever stayed around to fight when the politicians told them to.” To me it’s just a matter of logic.

“That’s not how the world works, Jevrem,” Baka says. “There are always men who want to fight. They think they can conquer the world. They get frustrated and angry about their little lives and need to create mayhem, jut to feel like men. This happens when things aren’t going well in the economy — that’s the most dangerous time for any society.”

The discussion continues and Jevrem begins his journey towards adulthood and finding his place in the world. He will leave Sarajevo and go to Toronto (his school experience there I found particularly interesting – what does anyone really know about the effects of wartime violence upon children) and then even farther. It will be a long journey and the story is a powerful one. It would be an excellent companion read with The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.

Other quotations of interest:

“We call ourselves The Bastards of Yugoslavia, as a joke. We like the word bastard. It’s got a ring to it, and has a lot of different meanings. It’s what the nationalists who took over our country called us, the offspring of women in mixed marriages. They meant it as an insult, but we feel proud.  …They didn’t want us back home, not really, in all their new separate little cleaned-up countries, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia. And Bosnia, split completely in half, Croats and Muslims on one side, Serbs on the other. Where were we beautiful mongrels meant to fit?”

“I see how the whole world works, this circle of violence and pain and violence, on and on, down through the generations, that old saying, you reap what you sow.”

“War is a criminal failure of fathering, plain and simple, if you ask me, all the fathers, the presidents, generals, foreign ministers, peace negotiators, men mostly, who make decisions that put their and other people’s children in the line of fire, because there’s always another way, you know that, no matter what anyone tells you. ”

“Twentieth-century war is waged against civilians, all of it, siege or no siege. There is no ethical and unethical war anymore, it’s all a massacre.”

This is a solid, compelling read!  The irresistible combination of entertainment and thought-provoking information.