April 2014
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Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

“They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient Testament of Marywith me and with the world. There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood…But I am not being hunted now. Not any more. I am being cared for, and questioned softly, and watched. …They think I do not understand what is slowly growing in the world; they think I do not see the point of their questions and do not notice the cruel shadow of exasperation that comes hooded in their faces or hidden in their voices when I say something pointless or foolish, something which leads us nowhere. …They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs and too dulled by the remnants of a terror we all felt then to have noticed that I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.”

“Of the two men who come, one was there with us until the end…I know that he has written of things that neither he saw nor I saw. I know that he has also given shape to what I lived through and he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to.”

“I remember too much; I am like the air on a calm day as it holds itself still, letting nothing escape. As the world holds its breath, I keep memory in.”

There are those around Mary who want to help her and there are those whom she intuits are a threat and sometimes the line between must seem very thin. “Just as my two friends who visit are looking for my voice, my witness, this man who played dice (for her son’s clothes), and the strangler (a man who had a huge bird in a cage and rabbits in a bag and strangled the rabbits to feed to the bird), or others like them, must be looking for my silence. I will know them if they come and it should hardly matter now, since the days left are few, but I remain, in my waking time, desperately afraid of them.”

To appreciate this account, empathy for a mother who has witnessed her son’s death by extreme violence of a kind that would be defined as cruel torture in contemporary terms is essential. The account is creative fiction, yes, but the likelihood that it happened this way is strong. That she believed her son innocent of a crime punishable by death is also likely and that she was confused about the events that brought about his death is an extremely likely possibility. The publisher’s blurb on the jacket says that “Tóibín’s tour de force of imagination, language, and compassion provides a portrait so vivid and convincing that our image of Mary will be forever transformed.” The latter may happen if the reader can overcome the disinclination to exercise compassion where a story so submerged in our culture by rote repetition of the events  that compassion for Christ’s mother has been leached out of the details over time.

It seems simple but many readers have rejected Tóibín’s interpretation. Perhaps they are not so very different from the men around Mary immediately prior to the crucifixion: “They have no interest in my fear and the fear all those around me felt, the sense that there were men waiting to round us up too when we sought to move away, that there seemed no possibility that we would not be held.”

While waiting for the inevitable, Mary recalls events of her son’s childhood: …”the day our son was lost and how we found him and what was said. I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name. So we call him ‘him’, ‘my son’, ‘our son’,'the one who was here’, ‘your friend’, ‘the one you are interested in’. Maybe before I die I will say the name or manage on one of those nights to whisper it but I do not think so.”

She recalls speaking with him on one occasion over a meal before he left home: “He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young. Not one of you was normal, I said, and I watched him push his plate of half-eaten food towards me as though he were a child in a tantrum. Yes, misfits, I said. My son gathered misfits, although he himself, despite everything, was not a misfit; he could have done anything, he could have been quiet even, he had that capacity also, the one that is the rarest, he could have spent time alone with ease, he could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent. And he used all of it, I said,  so he could lead a group of men who trusted him from place to place. I have no time for misfits, I said, but if you put two of you together you will get not only foolishness and the usual cruelty but you will get a desperate need for something else. Gather together misfits, I said, pushing the plate back towards him, and you will get anything at all – fearlessness, ambition, anything – and before it dissolves or it grows, it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now.”

For me, the above speech appeared entirely realistic and I believe it did succeed in making me think differently about the bible stories I heard and learned as a child. The same is true for the story about Jesus being lost and then found in the temple : the coloured pictures presented in Sunday school of a rosy cheeked Jesus surrounded by the elders of the temple answering questions for them? Imagine a child, even an exceptional child, being so received by the elders of one of today’s religious sects. And yet, I never questioned the likelihood as I sat in a circle every Sunday. How many of us did? What image did we have of Jesus’ mother? These were all images created generations after the actual events and devoid of the dirt and poverty and political turmoil and intrigue of the times. Tóibín’s attempt to provide us with another image of Mary and her son inspired me to revisit some research topics I have not looked at in a long time. It might do the same for you.


Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman

This is a delightful, daring, delicious, diverting and demanding dragon tale! And it has a sequel which I have started into already because I must know what happens next!

Most of what one needs to know is concisely provided in two pages entitled From the Primer Scrolls of Jion Tzu which states:

“No one knows how the first Dragoneyes made their dangerous bargain with the twelve energy dragons of good fortune. The few scrolls and poems that have survived the centuries start the story well after the deal was struck between man and spirit-beast to protect our land. It is rumored however, that a black folio still exists that tells of the violent beginning and predicts a catastrophic end to the ancient alliance.
The dragons are elemental beings, able to manipulate Hua – the natural energy that exists in all things. Each dragon is aligned with one of the heavenly animals in the twelve-year cycle of power…Each dragon is also the guardian of one of the twelve celestial directions, and a keeper of one of the Greater Virtues.”

Every year on New Year’s Day the next animal year begins and the dragon representing Eonthat animal becomes ascendant and his power doubles for the next twelve months. Also for that dragon a new apprentice is chosen and the present apprentice becomes Dragoneye and replaces his master who retires. The Dragoneye has enough power to move monsoons, redirect rivers and stop earthshakes. His bargain includes giving up his Hua to his dragon.

“Only those boys who can see an energy dragon can hope to be a Dragoneye candidate.” The boys go through a rigorous training program. This includes a study of Dragon Magic, based on East Asian astrology and based on the skills of sword-work and magical aptitude. It is understood that “women have no place in the world of the dragon magic.
It is said they can bring corruption to the art and do not have the physical strength or depth of character needed to commune with an energy dragon. It s also thought that the female eye, too practiced in gazing at itself, cannot see the truth of the energy world.”

At the outset we meet Eon at a training session: “I let the tips of both my swords dig into the sandy arena floor. It was the wrong move, but the dragging pain in my gut was pulling me into a crouch. I watched Swordmaster Ranne’s bare feet shuffle forward, rebalancing his weight for a sweep cut. Training with him always made my innards cramp with fear, but this was different. This was the bleeding pain. Had I miscounted the moon days?”

The Swordmaster tells Eon: “You’ll never be ready. You can’t even finish the approach sequence.”

Eon has a comfort that eases the harsh treatment from Ranne: “I was the only candidate who could see all of the dragons at will, not counting the Mirror Dragon, of course, who had been lost long ago. It took all my focus to see the spirit beasts and left me weary, but it was the only thing that had made the last two years of hard training bearable. It was also the only reason why a cripple like me was allowed to stand as a candidate – full dragon sight was rare, although, as Swordmaster Ranne liked to remind me, no guarantee of success.”

Needless to say,there is considerable pressure on the candidates for dragoneye apprenticeship. Eon ‘s friend Dillon was as worried as Eon was about the ceremony. Dillon and Eon “were the weakest candidates. He was of age – twelve, like all the boys in the circle – but as small as an eight year old, and I was lame. In the past, we wouldn’t even have been considered as Dragoneye candidates. Neither of us was expected to be chosen by the Rat Dragon in the ceremony tomorrrow. All the gambling rings have Dillon at a 30:1 chance. I was at 1000:1. The odds might be against us but even the council did not know how a dragon made its choice.”

Tough  odds! and reason to be worried. Lives would change for those who were not successful. “Candidates no longer fought for the honor of approaching the mirrors, but we still had to prove our strength and stamina in the ceremonial sword sequences. At least Dillon could complete the approach sequence, even if it was poorly done. I had never once managed the intricate moves at the Mirror Dragon Third.”

Much was riding on this contest. If the Rat Dragon chose a boy he would “hold status for twenty-four years; first working as apprentice to the existing Dragoneye and then, when he (that Dragoneye) retired, working the energies” himself. He would earn “a mountain of riches, even with the 20 per cent tithe” to his former master. To Eon, it meant that “no one would dare spit at him or make the ward-evil sign or turn their face away in disgust (because he was a cripple).”

If he did not get chosen, he would be lucky to be kept on as a servant in his master’s house likely as a slops boy or be sent back to the salt farm where he used to work.

No wonder Eon was puzzled by his gift to see all eleven dragons and his ability to shift his mind into the energy world and see those huge translucent bodies. He was told by the Armsmaster the day before the ceremony that he was never going to be able to get the Mirror Dragon Third sequence right but that there was a precedent for using a Reverse Horse Dragon Second and that Ranne should have told him about this. He checks with his master when he goes home and learns that what he has been told is correct. This means he has a chance.

Will he become a Dragoneye? How will he manage being a cripple and all? Why has it been made so difficult for him? Who are his friends? Who are his enemies? How will he manage against such odds? A great story that holds and grabs one’s attention to the end and leaves one wanting more, more, more!

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

In the preface to the Vintage edition, the author relays a number of interesting things about this story. He explains that he was a student at St. Thomas’s Hospital and had six weeks of Easter vacation during which he went to Italy with his clothes and twenty pounds in his pocket. His widowed landlady’s daughter was teaching him Italian during part of the day and they were reading the Purgatorio and she told him a story connected to a passage they were translating.

“She told me that Pia was a gentlewoman of Siena whose husband, suspecting her of adultery and afraid on account of her family to put her to death, took her down to his castle in the Maremma the noxious vapors of which he was confident would do the trick; but she took so long to die that he grew impatient and had her thrown out the window…the story for some reason caught my imagination.” He goes on and explains that he forgot the story for a long time and when he did think of it could not “think of a setting in the world of today in which such events could plausibly happen. It was not until I made a long journey in China that I found this.”

Maugham also writes: “I think this is the only novel I have written in which I started from a story rather than from a character. It is difficult to explain the relation between character and plot. You cannot very well think of a character in the void; the moment you think of him, you think of him in some situation, doing something; so that the character and at least his principal action seem to be the result of a simultaneous act of the imagination. But in this case the characters were chosen to fit the story I gradually evolved; they were constructed from persons I had long known in different circumstances.” This is followed by a brief tale of problems naming characters and legal challenges to same: this would be of interest to those doing any writing of their own.

The actual story catches the reader’s interest immediately: “She gave a startled cry.” Painted VeilSomeone has just tried the door of a room and interrupted something. Very cinematic. Do you imagine a room in disarray, clothing scattered about, one shoe here, one there?

It is decided very quickly that the person trying the door and the windows too has to be Walter because the servants never disturb her at this time so it has to be Walter even though he “never does come home in the middle of the day, does he?” This is important because they have already realized that a hat was left downstairs which might give away the presence of another person in the house. They convince themselves it must have been a servant because “only a Chinese would turn a handle in that way.”

They discuss what they think will happen: “What’s to be done if it was Walter? she asked.

“”Perhaps he wouldn’t care.”


Her tone was incredulous.”

The reader, at this point, knows no more about Walter than about the two people discussing Walter. At this point we do not have names for the two people who are so worried about Walter. In the next short chapter we learn that the woman is Kitty, that her lover is Charlie Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary at Hong Kong and his wife is Dorothy Townsend, mother of Charlie’s three sons. Dorothy’s father had been a Colonial Governor. The triangle is complete.

Kitty has been meeting Charlie in the upstairs backroom of a Chinese curio dealer off the Victoria Road in Hong Kong and she found it “dreadfully sordid”. Charles Townsend, however, was everything her husband Walter was not. He told her everything she wanted and needed to hear. “She had never been in love before. It was wonderful. And now that she knew what love was she felt a sudden sympathy for the love that Walter bore her.”

“Her happiness, sometimes almost more than she could bear, renewed her beauty. Just before she married, beginning to lose her first freshness, she had looked tired and drawn.  The uncharitable said that she was going off. But there is all the difference between a girl of twenty-five and a married woman of that age. She was like a rosebud that is beginning to turn yellow at the edges of the petals, and then suddenly she was a rose in full bloom…She looked eighteen once more. She was at the height of her glowing loveliness…She was what Charlie had called her the first time he saw her, a raging beauty.”

“They managed their intrigue with skill. …They could not meet often alone, not half often enough for him, but he had to think of her first, sometimes in the curio shop, now and then after luncheon in her house when no one was about; but she saw him a good deal here and there.”

“She worshipped him. He was splendid …certainly he was the best dancer she had ever danced wth; it was a dream to dance with him. No one would think he was forty. She told him she did not believe it…He laughed. He was well pleased.”

And what of Walter? “Of course it was not certain yet that Walter knew the truth, and if he didn’t it was better perhaps to leave well alone; but if he did, well, in the end it would be the best thing for all of them. …It was not as though any one would suffer very much. She knew exactly what his relations were with his wife. She was a cold woman and there had been no love between them for years. …Walter loved her; but after all, he was absorbed in his work; and a man always had his club; he might be upset at first, but he would get over it; there was no reason why he should not marry someone else. Charlie had told her that he could not make out how she came to throw herself away on Walter Fane.”

Is it ever that simple? If you haven’t read this 1925 classic  you might be pleasantly surprised.  I found it an intriguing read with the exotic setting a major character. If you read it some time go, a reread might be surprisingly enjoyable.


As You Were by Gerry Fostaty

This documentary 2011 Goose Lane publication subtitled The Tragedy at Valcartier is a compelling story which you will wish had not happened. It is nonetheless a story which needs to be read and registered by as many readers as possible, young and old and all those in between.As You Were

There is a summary of the organization and the history of the Royal Canadian Cadet Services here. For those who are not familiar with the organization this might be helpful. I found what it had to say about girls in the cadet forces interesting because I participated in a girls cadet program for five years (1954-1959) in high school in southwestern Ontario. Our corps was under the direction of our French teacher who had been a navel officer during the second world war. A Wikipedia article says the cadet organization changed the word “boys” to “persons” in 1975 so I guess my status  during high school was not official.

Gerry Fostaty tells the reader up front exactly what she/he is going to read: “”one extraordinary and horrible day has stayed with me for more than thirty years” he writes in the Preface. “In 1974, while I was on a cadet summer training assignment at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Valcartier, a live grenade that somehow got mixed in among the teaching aids blew up during an indoor lecture on explosives safety. That day instantly changed me as only something terrible can. This story focuses on that day, although, for context, I touch on the days leading up to the incident and the few weeks that followed.”

Cadet CrestThe year 2004 marked the 125th Anniversary of the Royal Canadian Army Cadets and the Army Cadet League of Canada issued 25,000 + anniversary pins for distribution to Canadian army cadets. Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp honouring  cadets. This information gives us a very rough idea of how many young persons in this country have passed through the programs provided as well as an idea of how many potential readers there are out there for this story. There is additional historical data here.

Fostaty explains in the Preface exactly why he wrote this story: “First, I never seemed to be able to tell the whole story in one go without interruption. It really is the kind of story that raises questions throughout, and the detours one must follow to answer them can assume a life of their own, prompting new questions and additional side trips. …I wanted to recount the story as it unfolded … I set the scene by describing the usual routines that occurred on a normal day of cadet summer training camp before the explosion.”

“The second reason I wrote the book is to tell my family what happened to me in 1974. My sisters and my mother surely had forgotten about it, while my children and my wife needed to know that something had changed my life thirty-four years ago – perhaps more important, I needed to tell them.”

I found all parts of this account equally interesting. I appreciated the straight-forward tone of the writing and the specific detail about camp life including Fostaty’s position as an NCO.  ”There were forty-seven cadets in my platoon. Although they had been here for three weeks, I was still getting to know them. Some were easy to know because of their large personalities or because they were troublemakers…Others, though, were quieter and kept to themselves. My brother, Nick, was a cadet in 10 Platoon. Karl Medvescek’s brother Ingo was a cadet as well. Karl and I had an agreement that, if the need arose, we would handle each other’s sibling issues; that way we hoped to avoid complaints of nepotism or sibling rivalry.” Whether this had been suggested by superiors or not, I found this level of maturity impressive and indicative of the intelligence of these young men. Such decisions also exemplify the qualities of leadership the cadet services fostered in its members.

The chapters about the actual explosion and the hours immediately following it are not a comfortable read. I had to pause before them and prepare myself to continue reading the next day. The emotional force in the simple description is made more powerful I think because the reader knows what it will say.

Fostaty was there when the roll was called in the mess and could see the list the Sergeant was reading from: “There was a circle around his name and beside it was marked, Décedé. I felt my throat tighten and my stomach fall. ” Fostaty had been required to attempt identification of one of the dead cadets (a daunting task for an adult with considerable life experience never mind for an  eighteen year old) and so he knew that the attendance call was part of the process of validating the identification so that parents could be notified.

The details about that night (“Night Watch”) when the company is moved into the chapel and the sections titled “The Days After” and “Investigation” are absolutely compelling. The investigative interview was a harrowing experience for Fostaty: “They started firing questions at me, literally, from left and right. I would no sooner finish answering a question from the officer at one end of the table than the officer at the other end would sharply ask another, causing me to look from side to side as though watching a tennis match. If my answer was not going in the direction they wanted, they would just cut me off with another question. …They seemed to be challenging what I said…I started to feel very uncomfortable with the way I was being questioned…The way they were questioning me was both accusatory and dismissive.” And finally, “Days later, although no one went into any detail about the questions and answers, a few of us joked and laughed about the inquiry. It was an uneasy laughter.”

Valcartier Crest

Another review  can be read at Buried in Print’s website. There is a comment there by Charles Gutta the CSM of the company involved in the Valcartier tragedy and who appears frequently in the book.

This is a story about healing: it has the potential to help anyone who reads it.

In a broader sense, its acknowledgment of the role of cadets in the lives of young Canadians and in our history should not be overlooked.

Natural Order by Brian Francis

“The buzzers keep me awake at night. That’s one thing that hasn’t gone – my hearing. Most everything else has faded. My taste. Vision. Even my voice, which comes out sounding like a scratch in the air.”

“My name is on the wall outside my room next to a straw hat with a yellow ribbon and a couple of glued-on daisies. The hat reminds me of my sister, Helen, although it isn’t hers.”

Ruth Schueller is the name on the other side of the door. She’s my roommate….Ruth is eighty-two. I turned eight-six in July.”

“I suppose, it could be worse. There’s Mae MacKenzie down the hall, trapped with thatNatural Order horrible Dorothy Dawson. Dorothy keeps the divider curtains shut so the room is cut in half. She even safety-pinned the flaps together. She means business.
“She trapped herself in once,” Mae told me. “Kept pawing her way around, trying to find the opening. It was the best entertainment I’ve had here yet.”

Mae says Dorothy is a bitter woman. “Some people get a rough ride in life,” Mae says. “I held my tongue.”

This was only a few pages into this novel but I was convinced it was about life in a retirement home and/or nursing home and it is in many ways. But Brian Francis takes a very different approach, one that manages to tell much more of the story of some of the people living in the home. The stage is set on the opening page with the obituary for a young man (31 years old) in The Balsden Examiner, July 27, 1984.

This is the obituary for John Charles Sparks, son of Joyce who is now living in a retirement home and sharing a room with Ruth. John’s father was Charlie who predeceased Joyce.

As we get to know the eighty-six year old Joyce and journey with her through parts of her life, we gain insights into her psychology. It begins with a new volunteer, Timothy, who is coming in to visit Joyce after dinner. Joyce is nervous about him coming but when he does come she says “I don’t need anything right now…the nurse already came by and filled up my water jug.” She is shocked by his youth and thinks first that he could be her son but then remembers that her son would be in his sixties now. She “suddenly feels self-conscious.” After some brief exchanges she tells Timothy that he must have been misinformed and that she doesn’t need a volunteer. He asks about the picture of her son and she tells him he died a long time ago from cancer. She wants to know why he is asking and accuses him of sticking his nose into her business after she checks the list of people he has been given to visit. Timothy makes a tidy exit.

Then we go back into Joyce’s relationship with Freddy Pender who ran the Dairy Maid concession where Joyce works. “Freddy isn’t like most boys. He’s fun and loves to talk and I’ve never once caught him looking at my chest instead of my eyes.” Freddy was also  a movie buff and he and Joyce went to several movies together. Fun as he was, Joyce had trouble getting Freddy to “see” her. Her sister is going to marry a fellow just because he has asked her and Joyce has a problem with this. She thinks Helen could do better. Helen tells her: “Your life is already mapped out whether you realize it or not. There’s a natural order to things Joyce. You might as well make the best of it.”

Freddy’s mother, Mrs. Pender, was Joyce’s teacher in grade six. Her husband died in an accident. Joyce noticed that Freddy never talked about his father. He actually thought he (Freddy) was going to be a movie star. Joyce overheard her sister Helen tell someone that Freddy was “as fruity as they come” and Joyce got angry with her. She saw Freddy lead a parade when the Queen came. She thought she’d never seen a boy so….she tried on the word “feminine” but it wasn’t right…she chose “garish” and “outrageous”.

Her sister straightens her out about the meaning of “fruity”. But Joyce thought Helen was wrong about Freddy and she only wanted to protect him “She wanted to keep him safe from the crowds.”

But she can’t protect Freddy and she can’t protect John. And the harder she tries to hide from the truth the more damage is done to people she loves. She kept denying what she knew to be the reality.

“My son wasn’t perfect. He had some problems. I knew that. But there wasn’t anything seriously wrong with him.Nothing that  couldn’t be fixed. Growing pains, I told myself. All boys went through stages. He’d thin out. Make new friends. Join a sports team. Sign up for student council. I imagined the phone ringing with invitations to parties and championship games. All that was needed was a fresh start. It would only be a matter of time before I’d be laughing at my foolish worries.
So why couldn’t I shake my fears?”

“I thought I knew best, the way all mothers think they know best, especially when it comes to their children. But they don’t. Mothers know only what’s best for them.”

Whether the above statement is right or wrong or partially right and partially wrong and whether it depends upon circumstances or not, it doesn’t really matter one bit if in the end the betrayal destroys the relationship. An interesting and revealing study of parenting and of facing one’s grievous errors when those who suffered are dead.

Is there any healing to be found? Joyce’s friend and neighbour Mr. Sparrow might have put his finger on it when he told Joyce that some women get stuck in what should be instead of what is.

Sad but realistic with strong characters. Some lighter moments occur when Freddy’s partner visits from Miami. Joyce’s friend Fern also provides some humour as does her  sister Helen. Well worth a careful read for the story itself but also for what it teaches us about ourselves and our families. You will recognize some or all of these people.