Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - Fiction

The author, Margaret Atwood describes this novel as fiction based on reality. It is a story about Grace Marks who was convicted of murder in the mid 1800s in Toronto and was sent to the Kingston Penitentiary for almost three decades. 

The novel is set in Toronto and Richmond Hill where Grace Marks is a servant in these two households of well-to-do families. The author describes the lifestyle of being a servant within a household. Grace and her servant colleagues become friends, and treat each other in a typical manner in a work environment—sometimes with deep affection while other times with spite and animosity.

The novel commences with Grace’s parents moving to Canada from England for a better life. Tragedy unfolds while at sea but the family starts a new life in Canada. Through further mishaps, Grace leaves her family and works as a servant for a family in Toronto. Further tragedy occurs while in this household and eventually Graces settles with a family in Richmond Hill.  Mr. Thomas Kinnear the master of the household is murdered as well as his mistress, Nancy Montgomery who is also the head servant of this household.  Grace and her servant colleague James McDermott are accused of these murders.

The story unfolds with detailed descriptive settings of these two households and the personalities involved in the story which makes it a tedious read. The story is told from Grace’s perspective and during her time in the penitentiary. It has a happy ending of sorts. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence: Non-fiction

Ben Rawlence in City of Thorns portrays the lives of nine refugees living in the largest UN refugee camp in Dadaab in the northern part of Kenya. Rawlence describes how these individuals escaped from mainly war-torn Somalia and Sudan to seek safety and security. 

Once in Dadaab, they are assessed and accordingly provided with the appropriate shelter in make-shift tents and are provided with food ration cards by the UN staff. There are markets and a variety of shops operating at a very basic level and health care is provided to those who need it. There is a police force as well as security guards to watch over the rows and rows of the housing complex It is meagre living under deplorable conditions. But on the surface it appears to be better than what they left behind. Over time, some return to their homeland but others continue living in Dadaab. Rawlence describes the relationships among the refugees; love and marriage, separation and divorce, mixed religious marriages and the taboo that ensues in these marriages. Watching soccer on the TV provides some sort of relief from the chaos of no sense of belonging anywhere.

Rawlence exposes the deficiencies of the UN and the Kenya Government. Children have been born in this camp and are now adults. The resilience of the human spirit is well documented through the eyes of the author. At times there is gang violence and episodes of Somali captors seeking Somalis who escaped their homeland. It is a troubled way of living in Dadaab.

City of Thorns is a heart-breaking rendition of nine lives in the largest refugee camp in the world.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving - Fiction

Review by Waddleforth:

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY is a fascinating book, but it won’t be for everyone. Irving has indeed created an odd couple of characters: Owen Meany, the dwarfish youth with high-pitched voice of stunning self-importance that wavers between arrogance one moment and self-sacrificial lamb of God the next, and his sidekick Johnny Wheelwright, illegitimate child of a striking, freespirited woman soon killed off by a baseball Owen accidentally slams across the baseball field during a Little League game to hit its killing blow against her temple. Not that this would destroy the odd friendship of these two.  Indeed, it bonds them for life.

As for Owen, he doesn’t believe in accidents, especially not this one. What transpires through the remainder of the story, tracing the lives of these two from children into adulthood, is a complex weave of seeming circumstance into eventual climactic conclusion that rather neatly ties many loose threads together into a tight knot.  Owen has foreseen his own death by a visionary dream, and he never doubts, at least not until the final days of his life, that this dream is the beacon guiding him home (home being, for Owen, heaven for those who would enter through the gates of martyrdom).

In the process of these two strange lives, topics of destiny and fate, religion, American politics and foreign policy, various rites of passage from childhood into adulthood, and other miscellaneous lighter and deeper issues are undertaken. These, too, all come together into the neat knot at the book’s end.

Added comments from Maria Lynch: This was a book with many twists and turns that were disturbing and difficult to comprehend. As Waddleforth states above “…it won’t be for everyone.” I agree it was not for me.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Day Trip - County of Northumberland, Ontario

Burnham Family Farm Market
On Wednesday, June 15, 2016 I boarded the bus for a day trip to discover the history, sights and tastes of Northumberland County that is located about an hour away from Toronto.  We arrived in Cobourg to taste the Royal Winter Fair award winning butter tarts from Betty’s Pies and Tarts bake shop; they were sweet and delightful. From there we checked out the Burnham Family Farm Market sampling the different jams, jellies and pickles along with purchasing some produce. We walked along the main street of Cobourg dropping into the bakeries, a chocolate factory and a shortbread bake shop; all very yummy.

But it was most memorable to see and learn about the history of the County of Northumberland.  In 2001 the Provincial Government of the day turned Cobourg, Warkworth and Campbellford to one amalgamated Trent Hills as did many other parts of Ontario including the mighty City of Toronto.

Woodlawn Inn
Cobourg boasts famous Canadians. Ebenezer Perry (September 29, 1788 – May 1, 1876) was a politician and a merchant. He fulfilled his duties as a militia man during the War of 1812.  He became a resident of Cobourg in 1815 where he settled down by building a grist mill and throughout his time he became involved in a variety of investment projects.  In 1835 he built an elegant residence known as Woodlawn that has survived the test of time and is now refurbished to house an elegant hotel and restaurant. We paused there for a sumptuous lunch.

Egerton Ryerson (March 24, 1803 – February 19, 1882) has his roots in Cobourg. As a Methodist minister and educator he founded Victoria College which is now part of the University of Toronto. Also in the City of Toronto the Ryerson Polytechnic Institute became Ryerson University.

Sir Sandford Fleming, (January 7, 1827 – July 22, 1915) an immigrant from Scotland settled in Cobourg. He was known as an inventor—part of being an engineer.  He designed the first Canadian postage stamp and left an an indelible mark on surveying and map making along with playing a prominent part in engineering the railway from the east to the west of Canada. Sir Sandford Fleming College of Arts and Technology has a campus in Cobourg, Peterborough, Haliburton and Lindsay—all within the broader area of this part of Ontario.

Our trip took us through the fields of corn, hay and canola with a peek at the Communications tower of the Warkworth Institution that is a medium-security prison, and a drive through Campbellford where the local residents of the area shop and mingle. We spotted the residence of Brian Townsend, the artist who created the portrait of the polar bear on one side of the toonie—our Canadian two-dollar coin.

We glimpsed the Trent Water Canal system, were driven over bridges that eventually brought us onto the highway towards home.

I returned that evening with a sense of pride and belonging to a country that has its rich history scattered in the towns, villages and cities from coast to coast to coast.  

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Book Review: A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay

Elizabeth Hay in her novel A Student of Weather focuses on a family living on a farm in Saskatchewan. They are a family of three—two daughters, Lucinda and Norma Joyce and the father, Ernest. They interact with Maurice Dove who is on a research study in Saskatchewan. Eventually the reader learns that the mother died and so did a brother.

Lucinda is attracted to Maurice and so is Norma Joyce who is only nine years at the time. The reader is exposed to the interactions among the family. Then comes Maurice who brings some excitement to this family. He is from Ottawa and is sent on a research study to Saskatchewan.

It is a tale that is sometimes difficult to follow as it is written in a style that encompasses a monologue and repetitive descriptions of what is evident in the scenes deftly created by the author. The reader is introduced to the flatlands of the Prairies, its weather patterns which has an enormous impact on the lifestyles of the farmers like Ernest. On completion of his study Maurice returns to Ottawa. During his time in Saskatchewan he becomes a regular feature in the lifestyle of Ernest and his two daughters.

Hay then moves the setting to Ottawa as Ernest has inherited a property from his brother living in Ottawa. There is a re-connection with Maurice Dove in a strange but intriguing manner. Norma Joyce is fallen deeply in love with Maurice that leads the reader to figure out this relationship. Maurice moves to New York City on a work assignment.  Norma Joyce runs away from her family in Ottawa and lives in New York City. She wants to become part of Maurice’s life. Once again the reader is treated to life in New York City during the 1930s. Eventually Norma Joyce returns to Ottawa to stay. There are changes within her family.

Throughout the novel, Hay creates sentences that are profound and sometimes lighthearted. As a reader, it gave me pause even though I was confused with some of the scenes and could not easily follow the stream of consciousness style of writing adopted by Elizabeth Hay.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Writing Historical Fiction

My first historical fiction
For me writing historical fiction facilitated the creation of a migrant’s story that covered historical events and facts of an era gone by. Research provided a voluminous amount of information to sift through and then there were the interviews and recollections of the people who lived through the era I was writing about. I was faced with a curious imagination of how to shape the different characters within that time frame. A series of back stories were created to sort through the data that allowed me to decide what would be obvious to the readers.

I was energized by the stack of information that I reviewed with care and thoroughness. Some of the back stories were clearly evident in the story while others remained invisible to the readers as I let my story develop from a street-level viewpoint of the protagonist who was a tradesman. The interactions through dialogue illustrated the authenticity of the era and the setting of the story as did the physical movement of the characters from one place to another. It was a gradual introduction of modes of transportation as they progressed in that era. The historical facts and events had a direct impact on the lives of the characters. It gave rise to conflict and angry disagreements that portrayed a lack of a sense of belonging to a troubled yet beloved country. But there was happiness, marriage, love, success and tragedy. I constructed the twists and turns within the story. I described the acceptance of the status quo by the characters and the effect of the unfolding history on the lives of ordinary people. There was political turmoil stemming from the decisions made by political leaders who did not appear to be cognizant of how their decisions adversely affected the people.

It was a challenge to sort through the interviews and recollections as it appeared that the same incident or event was recounted differently. Hence I chose the information that would suit the characters for the story I created keeping intact the historical framework. I became inquisitive when the social justice issues surfaced along with the impact of a close-knit community. I incorporated these nuances that caused frustration and deep disappointment within the story.

Writing historical fiction was an inspiring experience. I created a story with a historical backdrop that embodied pertinent issues that inform the readers who may not be aware of that time in history in a faraway land.