this is not a review: ‘when we were alone’, by david a. robertson (pics, julie flett)

 
A little girl and her grandmother tend a garden and as they do the girl asks simple questions about the beautiful clothing the grandmother wears, the luxurious style of her hair, the language she whispers as she feeds a bird…

The grandmother tells what life was like when she was the child’s age and still lived at home, in her “community”. She talks about friends and traditions and then refers to the school she went to, described only as being “far away from home” where things were very different. The child asks why they cut her hair, why Cree was a forbidden language and each time the grandmother offers a gentle sliver of truth, ending with some version of: “They wanted us to be like everybody else.”

The title is a reference to the instinct for their sense (and survival) of ‘self’, the small pleasures they found in things like the colour of leaves and braiding grass into their shorn hair.

I love this book for its story of courage and strength, but also for its structure, the rhythm of the questions and answers, the repetition of certain lines, especially the reference to a school that was “far away from home”… (which surely begs the question from any young reader/listener as to why  it was so far away). I love the beautiful illustrations by Julie Flett (the colour palette, all rich earth tones and vivid brights alternating with the institutional monotones of muted greys and brown). But mostly I love this book because it invites children who know nothing about the history of residential schools to ask questions of their own, and so maybe, and gently, we can begin a conversation long overdue.

When We Were Alone  can be purchased on-line from Blue Heron Books and Hunter Street Books, which I only mention because they’re two of my faves.

Support indies!

this is not a review: ‘mitzi bytes’, by kerry clare

 
Whether reading her blog Pickle Me This, her essays or short fiction, The M Word  or trash writing... I’m never disappointed with Kerry Clare’s style… that kind of literary voice that feels conversational, as if what you’re reading is something you could also be hearing over lunch with a friend.

Mitzi Bytes  is no exception. You lean forward into the pages, waiting for the next thing, the next laugh (Oh my god, the No Angle tatoo!), the yes yes, I get that!,  or the next bit of outrage and when it comes you lean back, take a breath and wonder how you’ll figure it out, this problem, this mess of a situation, whatever it happens to be, because by this point you are totally signed on.

Pass the bread.

Order some wine.

Keep talking.

Clare excels at writing about the ordinary, which happens to be one of my favourite subjects. She draws the reader in with wide open, honest emotions and isn’t afraid to say this is the truth as I see it  in exactly the way you hope the best of your friends will always say things.

In Mitzi Bytes  she writes about blogging, which is really about noticing.

Sarah Lundy is someone who notices. She’s the person behind a popular blog called Mitzi Bytes. She’s also the author of some very successful books, compilations of her “domestic tales”. But it’s the blog where her notoriety lives, along with her candid, often bitchy posts, which she writes anonymously and which mostly centre around the people in her life, none of whom, including her husband, have any idea that Sarah and Mitzi are one and the same.

Until a comment comes through the site saying she’s been found out.

This is where we meet Sarah, on the verge of her world imploding. She has no idea who would want to do such a vile thing… no idea mainly because the options are many. After all, she’s made a career, literally, of mocking and judging others. (But to be fair, she has also mocked and judged herself in the process.) The *who* of this threat is only one part of the mystery the book sets out to solve. The other is how Sarah’s world became this vulnerable to attack in the first place… not to mention what, exactly, she’s hiding, protecting, and afraid of losing.

But, really, it’s about so much more. It’s about living online, the need to share every thought through a keyboard, the way of virtual friendship and the reality of remaining angry, afraid and alone IRL.

It’s about children and marriage and the effort of not losing oneself (or one’s melon baller). It’s about the history of blogging and the way history is recorded.

“She was thinking of the mother of the baby in the bathtub… Of all the men in towers supposing they were conducting the business of the world, imagining themselves to be the foundation civilization was resting upon–financial markets, circuit boards, and machine guns. Systems to which libraries of multi-volume encyclopedias had been devoted…. while women’s real lives, the stuff of life itself–blood, milk, sweat, tears, and the burn of fevered foreheads–was deemed inconsequential, or even worse, these stories weren’t acknowledged, weren’t even written down, let alone read, reviewed, history continuing on as it had ever been, delivered by the pens of men.”

And it’s about the kind of insecurity society breeds and the way the internet is a place to pretend we’re someone other than we are. Sarah Lundy represents all of us in a way, the part of us that’s just trying to clunk its way through life. What Clare does so well is show us this process in a way that we see Sarah and also see ourselves in  Sarah. We recognize the insecurity in her railing, know that it’s the frustration of powerlessness. The question then becomes: why do we give our power away?

A lovely read. And so discussable. Book club or lunch, you choose.

Mitzi Bytes is available online

at Blue Heron Books and at Hunter Street Books.

Two of my favourites. (Support indies!)

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘why shouldn’t i drop litter’? by mj knight

 
I’ve recently set out on a quest for trashy reading and have been happily led to what appears to be not only a most wonderful book on the subject of litter but to a whole line of (very smart) books being published by Smart Apple Media, primarily for schools as far as I can make out, but they’re such excellent things it would be a shame not to flaunt them more broadly.

Formatted as one of those hardcover, mini encyclopedia for kids, Why Shouldn’t I Drop Litter?  opens with a colour photo of autumn leaves on the ground and the reminder that this, too, is called ‘litter’, leaf litter.  The difference being that “Nature has ways of dealing with things that are no longer wanted…”

And with that perfectly passive aggressive irony, we enter the book by addressing a few facts about ourselves and how much we throw away every year (about five pounds per person  EVERY DAY). That *you*, personally, don’t throw that much away doesn’t matter. It’s not a problem that’s searching for someone to blame. It’s a problem that requires everyone to take responsibility. At least everyone who lives on the planet.

The pages, 32 of them, are beautifully laid out and not crowded with information in the way this style of book can sometimes be. Nor is its intention to scold or even shock. Rather, it seems only to want to remind us of the consequences of litter, that something which seems so trivial and innocuous has all kinds of horrible consequences.

Hedgehogs, for example, tend to get stuck in yoghurt containers because their quills make it impossible to back out.

Used or tangled fishing lines are often cut and left in the water (because we’re such geniuses). And if you can’t understand how this is dangerous for birds, fish, turtles, dolphins, etc…. google fishing lines/wildlife  sometime. Meanwhile, here’s a two minute story with a happy ending.

And those plastic holders that six-packs come in? If you haven’t yet heard, all kinds of birds and animals, fish too, get them wrapped around their beaks, bodies or necks and die that way. If you see one laying around, please pick it up. You may save a life, and you won’t die of cooties.

Oh, but if it’s germs you’re worried about, consider the gum that’s all over pavement everywhere. It costs between $2 and $3.50  PER PIECE to scrape off. Apparently no one has yet figured out a better way to remove it. Probably because all the money and brainpower is working on how to inhabit Mars (which will only remain gum free until we get there).

One of the biggest problems in the matter of waste is that which comes from fast food restaurants. Our convenience is apparently nature’s problem. It’s no small potatoes what we choose to support with our dollars. When we give all the money and power to fast food places we shouldn’t be asking ourselves why standards are slipping everywhere we look.

(Of note: interesting how people will throw money at the burger joint that happily pollutes the world for profit, but the same person resents paying a few extra bucks to keep a community well supplied with garbage cans.)

The problem is always us.

The solutions too.

It’s about the choices we make.

Anyway, the book is part of Smart Apple Media’s ‘One Small Step’  imprint, which seems designed to inspire engagement in our individual slivers of the world, to encourage us to understand that problems like litter are not someone else’s problem, but something we can work together to improve.

I think it would make dandy reading for families that give a hoot.

~

Also, if you come across books that deal effectively with the subject of litter, garbage, recycling, you get the idea… please let me know. I’m compiling a list for The Litter I See Project.

A million thanks.

 

this is not a review: ‘the year of living danishly’, by helen russell

 
I shot through this on the weekend. A delightful read that had me google searching the author, Helen Russell, for more Helen Russell pov. Turns out she writes for The Guardian and, according to her website, has a new book coming out in December, also a sort of how to find happiness  type 9781848318120-289x450thing. It’s a genre I don’t read a lot because I’m already pretty jolly most of the time. The book was mentioned in an article about hygge, the Danish word for coziness or comfort, although it’s more than that… it’s a state of mind, a state of being, a lifestyle, a homestyle, an all-encompassing thing  that has no equivalent word in English.

I wanted to know more.

Hygge  sounded awfully appealing.

Enter The Year of Living Danishly  which is written in a very breezy, but not too annoyingly (although it gets a little close at times) conversational tone, in monthly chapters that cover the year the author lives in rural Denmark. She decides to use the time to write a book on what makes this supposedly happiest country in the world tick. To that end she talks to people in various fields and presents some stats. As well, she asks people to rate their happiness out of ten. Turns out no one she spoke with is less than eight. Pretty much every agrees the secret is  equality, that everyone is equally  well off.

Equality is big in Denmark. And it appears to be the key to finding hygge…. and happiness. Everyone is equal, regardless of age, status, job. There is no hierarchy. Jante’s Law is gospel.

For instance, everyone earns a fair wage and a doctor or lawyer or banker is not seen as a higher status job or more important than a grocery clerk or garbage collector or teacher. Especially not a teacher. There is apparently such an extraordinary focus on learning that it makes your eyes water to think how brilliant schools can be when people take it seriously.

And it starts from the get-go. And the children learn more than finger-painting. They are, apparently, encouraged to think, to question authority even. A tendency that may have its roots in the German occupation of Denmark in WWII, after which it was seen as essential to teach children to go against authority if they didn’t agree with what they were being told.

…We wanted citizens who were democratic and could have their own ideas, so self-development is a big part of learning in Denmark.”

Almost 90 percent of packaging is recycled and people take recycling very seriously to the point of neighbours knocking on a newcomer’s door to explain if they’re not separating things correctly.

There is extraordinary healthcare and assistance in caring for children.

There is a refreshing absence of blue for boys and pink for girls. Russell cites advertising that shows boys playing with Barbies and girls with tractors and suggests it’s not a nation of girly girls and tiaras on toddlers. Independent thinking is valued not feared.

Sex education begins early and is matter-of-factly inclusive of all manner of sexually relevant subjects. Gender in all its forms is not a hot button topic or reason for shock or under-the-breath muttering, judgments or bullying. She points out Denmark was the first European country to allow changes of gender without sterilisation.

Private schools aren’t popular as it goes against the idea of equality.

Danish pastry is as good as rumour makes out.

Unemployment is low.

As with all northern latitudes, the winters are dark with some months averaging an hour and a half of daylight. This leads to a high number of SAD cases, as well as depression, and suicide.

Taxes are high but apparently put to good use to equalize earnings so that all are well compensated. Russell does not mention striking sanitation workers, teachers or nurses. Instead we see an absence of class system, or at least the social inequities are small and because everyone has what they need, resentments and judgments are fewer. Back to equality, which might be the simple math of happiness.

Also, Russell says, there is trust. And this is huge, an essential value to Danish life. People trust one another.  They have faith in their government and their administrative bodies. Things work…  Because it’s easier that way, for everyone. And everyone knows that the good of all is pretty much the collective mantra of all. There is an absence of one-upmanship culture; to have more than someone else doesn’t sit right with Danes.

Back to Jante’s Law. Which basically means that no one is better than another, and which was referred to in almost every interview the author conducted.

Equality and trust.

Imagine!

Russell writes with humour and for the most part it’s welcome, though a little less would also have been good. On missing the noise of London, she notes:
“I now hear birdsong, tractors or, worse, nothing. The place is so still and silent that the soundtrack to my day is often the ringing of long-forgotten tinnitus…”

She does not mention senior care, nor does she indicate how diverse the population is, except to say that diversity is increasing.

Ultimately, she and her husband fall in love with the place and decide to stay on a second year.

“…it’s no wonder Danes are so happy. They have an obscenely good quality of life. Yes, it’s expensive here. But it’s Denmark – it’s worth it. I don’t mind paying more for a coffee here because I know that it means the person serving me doesn’t a) hate me or b) have a crappy life. Everyone is paid a decent wage, everyone is looked after, and everyone pays their taxes, just as I pay mine. And if we all have marginally less money to buy more stuff that we don’t really need anyway as a result, well I’m starting to think it’s a deal worth making”

At the end of the book she summarizes in ten elements How to Live Danishly, which is a little gimicky, but makes its point nonetheless. The greatest interest in the book, for me, was knowing that it’s possible for a country to put happiness right up there on the agenda, in seriously practical ways.

And to better understand the magical powers of hygge.

It’s the kind of book I’d like to send to a few world leaders…

**

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘what milly did’, by elise moser

 
Milly Zantow falls into the category of People You’ve Never Heard of Who Have Changed the World. In this case, the world of recycling. Because Milly Zantow is the person who created a tiny thing called the global recycling standard for plastic,  more commonly known as the-numbers-inside-those-little-triangles-on-your-water-bottles-and-stuff.

It’s what made plastic recycling possible.

But it’s the HOW this all came about that’s jaw dropping. What Milly Did  (a childrens’ book for all ages, including adults in my opinion) by Elise Moser, is an extraordinary story about a woman who, at age sixty or so, decides to do something about the growing problem of plastic in landfills.

9781554988938_1024x1024Turns out that plastic wasn’t recycled because no one thought it could be done.

Enter Milly, an ordinary woman, raised on a farm, who has no experience in anything even remotely related to anything to do with recycling but who just really believes that something can be done.

So she says pfffft  to the naysayers and starts reading about plastic; she studies it, takes courses, learns everything she can then cashes in her life insurance policy, buys a gigantic grinding machine and opens a company called E-Z Recycling where she and a few others do much of the grunt work by hand, seven days a week.

“She called the Borden Dairy Company in Milwaukee and asked them how they manufactured their plastic milk jugs. What did they do when they made a mistake? she asked. They told her they just melted the deformed jug down and reblew it. That was an ‘Aha!’ moment for Milly.”

Moser captures Milly’s spirit as a woman who is in no way ego driven. Nor is becoming rich her motivation; she simply wants to make sense of trash and to that end she does whatever she can to help people recycle, including establishing programs in nearby towns.

Eventually her vision catches on. Various community groups form, tipping fees for landfill sites are established and in 1988 her system for grading plastic is adopted by the Society of Plastics Industry, which means a standardized recycling practice across North America.

The story, of course, isn’t quite that simple. There are many hurdles along the way, people who laugh, who say that what she’s proposing is impossible, and then there are the times themselves, the 1970’s and early 80’s, which aren’t overly receptive, or even friendly, to the idea of recycling. Moser has done an excellent job of telling Milly’s story against this back drop of time and place.

A clever addition to the story are sidebars throughout the book, telling about bridges and boats made of plastic bottles, stats on current plastic usage and where it all goes, yo-yo trivia!, the ABCs of modern recycling, innovations in biodegradable plastic… all bite-sized, very readable for any age, and all to the accompaniment of sweet b&w illustrations by Scott Ritchie.

That this is such an unknown story is mind-boggling. I’m grateful to Elise Moser for telling it. It needs to be shared. I hope the book will find its ways to schools and to homes, not only as an eye-opener to an important piece of history, but to open at least two kinds of conversation… One,  about the problem of a planet full of garbage and, two, the power we have as individuals  to make the world better.

Finally, what maybe I love most about this story is what Milly didn’t  do… she didn’t complain, blame, whinge or whine or suggest that this problem to solve was someone else’s job… 

Or that the difficulties she faced were someone else’s fault.

She just got on with it.

The world could use more Milly.

this is not a review: ‘five roses’, by alice zorn

 
So much of how life feels lies in the phrasing,
in the way a thought starts, then turns back upon itself
until its question hangs unanswered in the breeze.”
— from ‘North Point North’, by John Koethe

When I read these lines in Koethe’s poem I immediately thought of Alice Zorn. It’s such a perfect description of how her new novel, Five Roses, is written… all rhythms and patterns, loops, questions and connections that satisfy in surprising ways while leaving us with yet another question we’re only too happy to contemplate until the loops and connections bring us to the next answer. And so on.

It’s a delightful ride.

The story is set in Montreal, in the working class neighbourhood of Pointe-Ste-Charles where Zorn has lived for close to fifteen years. (In the spirit of disclosure may I say that I have the pleasure of calling Alice Zorn a friend, which allows me to confirm that she knows well, and loves, this part of the world. And her humour is delicious.)

“The women in tight skirts standing at the corner of Wellington, leering at the traffic, weren’t waiting for the bus.”

Not only is the story set on her home turf, but this funky ‘hood is pretty much one of the characters—a neglected and, in many ways, unknown part of town. Apparently bus service didn’t even arrive until 1992. A place of historic but crumbling townhouses once home to the workers that built the Lachine Canal, Pointe-Ste-Charles has only in recent years been ‘discovered’ and is still being gentrified. But Zorn has not written about the now. Her interest is in that sliver of time between the 1970’s when the hippies were still there, to the early 2000’s, when life in these increasingly derelict houses just trundled along, when police avoided the area and “People… knew to ignore what didn’t concern them.”9781459734241

And the people are as richly drawn as the ‘character’ of place. One man “…chewed gum with his front teeth.”  In another case “A comma of shaving foam hung from one earlobe.”

In a tiny but telling scene, a woman rides her bike to a corner shop, outside of which sits an eccentric old man in a battered kitchen chair. “She said hello so he would know she knew he was there and expected him to watch her bike, which she leaned against the storefront.”

No words are exchanged yet the moment says so much about the community that exists here and the importance of knowing how to navigate it.

Of course not everyone knows the rules of navigation and part of the happy trip of reading Five Roses  is being privy to the learning process, watching the naifs and the newbies try to ‘get it’.

Fara and her husband are two such newbies. They’ve purchased their first home, thrilled with the bargain price. The catch is that a former resident hung himself in the front room. Not a detail easy for anyone to overlook but, for Fara, it serves as a constant reminder that her sister also killed herself several years before, something she has yet to come to terms with, the guilt of the survivor. “… it wasn’t ghosts that haunted people. It was memories.”

There is Maddy, who we first meet in the 70’s when, as a naïve teenager, she finds herself living with hippies in a Pointe-Ste-Charles flophouse where “…They weren’t homes but steps toward homelessness.”  The hippies ultimately leave but Maddy stays, eventually owning the house and working as a *baker at the nearby Atwater Market. It all sounds nice enough but survival, unlike so much in The Pointe, doesn’t come cheaply and she’s made some hard choices over the years.

Last, is Rose. Named for the iconic Farine Five Roses sign. A young woman raised in a cabin in the woods north of Montreal. (Who even imagines woods north of Montreal?) She comes to the city, a complete innocent, totally unfamiliar with ‘society’, hardly able to converse; her greatest comfort being time spent weaving on a loom back at the cabin (a loom she eventually moves to an empty factory she uses as a studio; squatting is big here). One of my favourite lines, a playful adaptation of Woolf: “A loom needs a room of its own.” (And there is a stunningly beautiful description of weaving that I can not now find… but will add when I do.)

The women well represent the burden of secrets and private lives that each of us carries. Meanwhile the neighbourhood, The Pointe, where it’s assumed there are secrets (what’s life without secrets?) is a mecca of mash ups and messed up lives within which a unique community is formed. Both the women and the neighbourhood share a history of harshness, yet there’s forgiveness at the same time. Whatever you call it, there’s comfort there once you accept it, and it accepts you.

The book reminds me that every kind of neighbourhood, no matter how unassuming, has its own vibe and perhaps even draws a certain kind of person to it for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s so the person can give something to that particular place, other times it’s because they need to receive something that could come from nowhere else.

I like walking around neighbourhoods, seeing how they’re laid out, where do people buy bread, how far is it to the library? I like getting a glimpse of life through the windows and wondering who lives there and who lived there before. It’s less the way a place looks that strikes me as how it feels. And this is what Alice Zorn does she takes the reader by the hand and says see this house, this street? Let me tell you the story of it. And it’s not a story you hear or even read so much as feel.

You know an author has done her job when you close the book and for a while you continue to wonder what the characters are getting up to, you miss them a little, that guy in the kitchen chair (is he still watching bikes?)…

So, yes, if there’s ever a Five Roses  walking tour, sign me up.

 

Not incidental that before moving to Montreal, Zorn worked at a Toronto bakery where, among other things, she learned to make creampuffs. In a  promotional postcard for the book she shares a recipe that must not be missed. (I don’t even bake and they were flawless.)

 

Support Indies!

Five Roses  can be ordered on-line from Blue Heron Books.

this is not a review: ‘this is not my life’, by diane schoemperlen

 
I confess I pretty much enjoy everything Diane Schoemperlen writes. I’m fond of structure and she plays with it like nobody’s business but never in a way that sacrifices story. I can’t figure out if her approach is egg or chicken first but, either way, she manages to create the perfect stage for each book, each story, each telling, so that you cannot imagine each book or story being told another way. (Is she post modern in a way that isn’t post modern at all?
I haven’t a clue what post modern is so I wouldn’t know… but possibly.)

This is Not My Life,  is told more or less chronologically about the years between 2006 and 2012 when she met and fell in love with a man serving a life sentence for second degree murder. So deeply personal is this story that very often I’d stop reading and actually think: good lord, how is she able to share this and this and this??

“How long did it take me to understand that he thought it was perfectly okay to come into my formerly peaceful home and turn it into a battleground? How much longer did it take me to understand that he was proud of himself for having won the contest, torn away my dignity and self-respect, reduced me to the lowest common denominator, and driven me into a violent rage?”

It’s a wild ride and the honesty of her self-analysis touches a lot of nerves.

The extraordinary thing is that all that sharing, that exposing of private ‘self’ isn’t in the least gratuitous. She tells us what we need to know in order to understand how and why she fell for a murderer. This is, after all, a big question, one she is asked repeatedly by friends, and continues to ask herself. I’m guessing the need to find an answer was a strong motivation in writing the book.

And this is precisely what the best kind of memoir does: it excavates rather than simply reveals.This-is-Not-My-Life-low-res

Schoemperlen avoids the icky places so many memoirists go when they talk too much about themselves (I was born on a dark and stormy night…) which usually amounts to a lot of nothing, more interesting to the author than the reader. Who cares if you were born in the crawl space at the Taj Mahal and your mother was a unicorn if it has zip to do with the story you’re telling? For the record, Schoemperlen was born in Thunder Bay. She tells us this because it’s important we know the vulnerability she felt coming from a small town and a family where thinking too highly of yourself was not encouraged.

Remember: she’s trying to work out why she’s dating a murderer.

And so are we, the readers. We’re trying to understand it too; we’re working it out together because, really, the book speaks to anyone who has ever fallen for the ‘wrong person’. (So, yes, her guy was in for murder. A questionable choice of beau perhaps. But only one version of questionable.)

“Who would we be without the pain we so desperately cling to?”

In every scene, Schoemperlen shares the process of walking the road of this ‘choice’ while teasing out the why  of it. Why has she chosen to spend ‘dates’ in penitentiary visiting rooms and conjugal visits in locked-from-the-outside trailers? (The insider’s view of how prisons work is, by the way, a whole other brilliant element of the book. Short story: it’s insane. For instance, she had to wash her drivers license every time she went because it was scanned and might set off the drug detector if she’d touched it after touching an Aspirin, or something. However, those conjugal visit trailers? They were equipped with kitchens and carving knives.)  An irony to the whole thing is that these ‘prison days’ were the best days of their relationship. Once her chap is released on day passes, then weekends, then moves into her house, things become progressively unmanageable. This is, after all, a guy who’s been inside since he was twenty-something, and prisons aren’t big on teaching you how to function on the outside. The insight she shares in these chapters is heartbreaking.

“This was when I had to go into the bathroom several times a day and look at myself in the mirror, checking to see if I was still me, if the extent to which I felt diminished and demoralized showed in my face. It did.”

Though we know from the beginning the relationship ends, it’s still an edge of your seat ride trying to work out the how and the when, and what will be damaged in the process.

“He’d said often enough in the early days that we would fall in love and become one. By ‘one’, I knew now, he meant him.”

I kept expecting the mushy middle of the story to present itself but there isn’t one. It’s a solid read from start to finish. (I read it over a weekend, taking it everywhere, sometimes reading as I walked from one room to another.)

In a nutshell: This is Not My Life  is Schoemperlen looking back, finally out of the forest, and seeing the madness in a way that was impossible at the time.

“That night I understood that for all those years, I’d been in love with the story—0not the reality—of my life joined to Shane’s. The story of myself as the one who could lead him out of the darkness, the one who could make him whole, healthy, happy. The story of myself as the one who could save him.”

The best memoirs are not a list of who, what, when and where, but are, instead, a study of human nature from the inside out. They tell us about the author while making us think about ourselves as we ask what would we  do in this or that situation…

This is one of the best.