Man in the Shadows Sheds Light on History

March 24, 2016 10:30 am
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Former journalist and filmmaker Gordon Henderson’s first novel Man in the Shadows is a tremendously engaging historic novel about the assassination of D’Arcy McGee on April 7th, 1868.

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Photo of Gordon courtesy of Jason van Bruggen.

To Canadian history buffs, the backstory is legendary: in 1867, three British colonies became the four provinces of the new Dominion of Canada. Among the Fathers of Confederation was D’Arcy McGee: a former Irish nationalist and a friend of Sir John A. McDonald. As the new country was forming, the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish republican organization, advocated a forcible takeover of Canada by the United States, and threatened its security.

In Man in the Shadows, Henderson imagines a cross-border plot to assassinate key Canadian political figures in order to destabilize the new country. The book follows the fictional Conor O’Dea, a young Irish-Catholic man with political aspirations, who is also McGee’s assistant. O’Dea becomes romantically involved with a young Protestant woman, which then provokes violence. When someone who is believed to be a Fenian sympathizer tragically assassinates McGee, the young O’Dea takes matters into his own hands. O’Dea seeks to discover just who the real assassin is, and how he can prevent the Prime Minister from becoming the next victim.

A historical whodunit, Man in the Shadows will have you turning pages as you learn about an incredibly interesting time in Canadian history.

Book Review: Missing Children by Gerald Lynch

March 23, 2016 3:12 pm
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As tethered to the rest of the world as it is, Ottawa often feels like a small, even private, city. That’s why it can be so jarring to open a local book and find a character stepping into a park or market where you’ve spent countless hours or even just recognize the name of. In Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, there’s a scene where one character almost dies in a bike crash on Sussex and Rideau. When I read that scene, instead of being alarmed, all I could think was ‘hey, I bike down that street all the time. Awesome!’

Gerald Lynch’s third novel set in the fictional Ottawa neighbourhood of Troutstream, Missing Children, is filled with great local references. Early on, the aging protagonist Dr. Lorne Thorpe takes his daughter to the Museum of Science and Technology, references to the Ottawa Citizen and CBC abound, and beneath it all lurks the murderous ‘Market Slasher.’ You can probably guess what area of the city he’s named after.

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Gerald Lynch, author of ‘Missing Children.’ Photo courtesy of Maura Lynch.

Dr. Thorpe’s adventure begins during a September heat wave with a morning visit to the Science and Tech museum. The visit is supposed to give him a chance to bond with his 10-year-old daughter Shawn.  But the plan backfires horrifically when the girl goes missing while Thorpe stares into the chicken incubator, lost in the miracle of life.

This tragedy shatters Thorpe’s sleepy life and the plot barrels forward from there. When sharp and ambitious detective Kevin Beldon determines that the case is a kidnapping – part of a sudden string of child disappearances – Thorpe is drawn into a mystery that can’t be solved by his reliable array of sarcastic comments and dad jokes.

In Missing Children, Lynch has taken a calculated risk by putting such an unlikeable character at the helm of his story. Dr. Thorpe is easy to hate. He’s mean, offensive and incapable of taking most things seriously. Fortunately, Lynch surrounds Thorpe with more likeable characters, including his saintly wife and a detective who seems more dedicated to Shawn’s case than Thorpe. Their frustration with the protagonist reflected mine, and made Dr. Thorpe feel like a realistic portrayal of a deeply flawed, but still good, man.

Keeping the main character interesting is one of Missing Children’s greatest strengths. Although the characters are all consumed by the disappearances, Thorpe’s march towards old-age is a persistent and engaging subplot. Before Shawn is literally taken from him, both of Thorpe’s children are metaphorically drifting away as they become their own people. He gets tired more easily, and his job weighs on him more heavily. The theme of aging is front and centre from Missing Children’s opening line:  “No matter a Saturday night, for a long time already we’d been going to bed earlier.”

Related: Book Review, The Gospel Truth

Thorpe’s brief reflections on growing older are some of the book’s most beautiful and human moments. However, if you have more of taste for mystery than literature, the kidnapping and sudden reappearances of Troutstream’s children should keep you hooked.

Missing Children was my first outing to Troutstream, which by this third book Lynch has built into a fascinating community. The town is populated by interesting characters who had me intrigued every time their stories crossed with Dr. Thorpe’s. I couldn’t help but wonder if these people are the central figures in the other books, dealing with their own problems as they walk past Dr. Thorpe washing his beloved Cadillac. These stolen glimpses of other stories breathe life into Lynch’s fictional setting, and Troutstream is a convincingly idyllic town set between a prison and sewage treatment plant. I think I’ll have to visit again soon.

You can find Missing Children in local stores or on Amazon.

Black in America

February 23, 2016 1:55 pm
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Between the World and Me

By: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Reviewed by Don MacLean

In the October 6, 2014 issue of the New Yorker Jennifer Gonnerman tells the remarkably tragic story of Kalief Browder, a Black 16 year old male living in the Bronx. On a Saturday evening in May 2010 Kalief was walking home with a friend. They had been at a party. Seemingly out of nowhere New York City police cruisers surrounded the two young men. An officer informed them they were being charged with robbery. Another young man’s backpack had been stolen, they were told. The boys informed the police they had the wrong guys. They pointed out the obvious: they had no backpack in their possession, stolen or otherwise. The officer’s response was to tell them the robbery had happened weeks earlier. They were arrested and taken to a nearby precinct.

Although his friend was eventually released, Kalief experienced no such luck. As Gonnerman reveals, he never made it home and within days was sent to Rikers Island, New York’s notoriously violent jail complex. The initial absurdity of his arrest was now entering the much darker phase of tragedy. At Rikers he would be subject to arbitrary violence on a regular basis. Forced to defend himself, Kalief repeatedly landed in solitary confinement, often for extended stretches of time. He clung to his innocence like a starving man clings to his last loaf of bread. His innocence made no difference. Days at Rikers turned into months. Months turned into years. “Plead guilty,” he was repeatedly told, “and you’ll be released for time served.” Kalief had been violated and ruthlessly, shamelessly stripped of his rights. He wasn’t about to stripped of his dignity too. He refused to plead guilty even though it meant risking years more in the hell hole into which he had been pushed. Finally, after more than three years spent at Rikers he was released. The prosecution never had any evidence against Kalief and so dropped the case. They had succeeded, however, in destroying him. More than three formative years in the young man’s life had been stolen. The violence and torture to which he had been subject could not so easily be shrugged aside. After struggling to adjust to life on the outside, Kalief committed suicide.

rencontre-avec-l-ecrivain-americain-ta-nehisi-coates,M301944This particular miscarriage of justice committed against a young black man in America is not written about in Ta-Nehisi Coate’s timely book, Between the World and Me. It could have been. The book is written as a letter to Coates’ son, Samori. It’s a letter inspired by love but firmly rooted in the experience of being black in America. That experience, for Coates, is shaped in part by the seemingly endless string of examples of black men and women being killed – often, although by no means always, at the hands of police. The fact of their deaths is tragic enough; the tragedy is compounded, however, by the lack of sanction of those guilty of killing. Trayvon Martin was killed while walking back to his parent’s home. He was unarmed. Trayvon was followed and  aggressively confronted by his armed killer. Yet his killer was acquitted on the basis that he had to have been acting in “self defence.” Eric Garner’s alleged crime was selling knock off cigarettes. For this he was surrounded by officers before being choked to death. His last desperate cries – “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” – made no difference to the officer applying the deadly choke.

Coates’ anger about these types of tragic episodes is visceral. They serve as proof that Black lives still do not matter in America. Part of his aim in writing the book is to channel that anger into a deeper understanding of the historical roots of such violence towards Blacks. He then draws a direct line between those roots and the present. Establishing this sort of connection is among the various reasons why Between the World and Me is such an important book. For there is still no doubt a tendency towards historical amnesia, particularly among a certain segment of whites in America. They don’t necessarily see any connection between America’s long history of slavery and Jim Crow laws and a black teenager being arrested and locked away for years for an obscenely petty crime that he didn’t even commit or for an unarmed black man being shot multiple times in the back as he tried to flee a white police officer after a routine traffic stop. Don’t see that such examples of brutality are merely the latest manifestations of a dominant culture that believes in its inherent right to exercise control over and commit violence towards black bodies. This problem of historical amnesia is compounded, according to Coates, by the twin myths of American ‘exceptionalism’ and democratic virtue.

Between the World and Me is difficult to classify. The book has a stirring, polemical quality about it; it is designed to pull back the curtain, to debunk myths and expose harsh truths about the nature of the black experience in America. The book’s other chief strength is the quality of the writing. Indeed Coates’ elegant prose almost acts as a counter point to the anger invested in the book. It’s the combination of the two – Coates’ searing indictment of a country where Blacks are still treated as inferior and the beautiful prose with which he makes his case – that largely accounts for the critical acclaim the book has received. Such acclaim is well deserved.

Black in America imageCoates’ personal journey is interwoven with his analysis. He grew up in Baltimore. From a very young age he was aware – first dimly and then acutely – of the role of street culture in the lives of black youths. He attended Howard University as a young man. There he discovered a joy of learning even when he was learning about the tortured past of his ancestors. Great Black writers – Frederick Douglass, C.L.R James, W.E.B Du Bois, Malcolm X, among many others – left deep impressions. Not only did they help to forge a sense of identity, they fuelled his desire to write. It’s the combination of his awareness of street culture and and his academic learning that leaves him so well positioned to speak about the Black experience in America.

Coates is deeply suspicious of false promises of so many various kinds. Racial harmony? Hardly! Even in the age of Obama, such a promise strikes him as absurd. There can be no harmony so long as Blacks can be killed with impunity. No harmony so long as prisons are really profit machines fuelled by the mass incarceration of Blacks. Cosmic justice for all the millions who lived and died as slaves? Impossible! To suggest so is to demean the suffering of Black ancestors who were born in chains and died in chains. Besides, as Coates repeatedly references, he doesn’t have any belief in a God or any organized faith that would facilitate any such hope.

Coates’ relentless skepticism will no doubt fuel the impression among some readers that the book is ‘hopeless.’ If not in the promise of racial harmony or religious salvation, then where does hope lie? His atheism calls to mind one source of the divide between believers and non-believers. Believers insist a godless universe would render their own lives meaningless. Atheists will tell you that, on the contrary, it’s precisely the finite nature of existence that renders our lives precious. Moreover, it means that the future is open even if that future doesn’t stretch on through infinity. These sorts of epiphanies can be exhilarating. This is the sort of hope invested in Between the World and Me.

It’s also the sort of hope Coates endeavours to pass on to Samori. The weight of History – slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, poverty and urban ghettoes – has hardly been lifted. Blacks in America are still too often treated as inferior, their lives devalued. The risk of arbitrary violence without any sort of real protection by the law remains distressingly real. Fear, anger and wariness are understandable. The struggle to resist remains a necessary fact of Black life. Yet, as Coates insists to Samori, there is beauty and value in the struggle. The ability to study and understand are their own reward. Discovering new places beyond America’s borders is a measure of freedom, no matter how tenuous that freedom can sometimes seem. To see beauty in the Black body is at once a vital act of resistance and affirmation. So too is to love oneself. Worthy lessons all for a young Black person living in America.

Thriving in a 24-7 World

January 29, 2016 9:53 am
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We all know what it’s like to live in a 24-7 world. The portability of our cellphones and laptops allow us to communicate at any time, anywhere. What we aren’t taught is how to handle this constant pressure technology puts on us when we are demanded to stay constantly up to date. That’s where speaker, author, and sports psychologist Peter Jensen comes in.

Jensen’s resume, in a word, is impressive. He has attended eight Olympic games as a trainer for the Canadian Olympic team, is currently a instructor at the Queen’s Smith School of Business, the founder of Performance Coaching Inc., and has written three books, including his newest: Thriving in a 24-7 World.

Video: Peter Jensen talks about his roots

Jensen believes that somewhere in the late 1980s and early 1990s, folks really started getting busy, and a 24-7 world began.

Jensen begins his explanation about a 24-7 world by using the research of language specialist Dr. Ann Burnett. While thinking about how language determines our world, Burnett began to notice speech patterns in holiday letters she would receive around Christmas one year. She noticed than many of the letters discussed being strapped for time, or used terms like ‘time starved’ or ‘time famine.’ Burnett started asking coworkers and friends to send her their redacted holiday letters. As word spread of her collection, Burnett received letters by the thousands, some dating back to the 1960s.

Peter_jensen“They were like an archive of the rise of busyness,” Jensen says. “She (found in the letters) an astonishing frequency of words like ‘hectic’ and ‘consumed.’ She (began) realizing that some writers were boasting about their busyness. (…) It’s like a badge of honor for some people. This ‘busier-than-thou’ attitude is pertinent now. Busyness became not just a way of life, but glamorous.”

Jensen believes that younger people are becoming more pressured to exist in a 24-7 world, due to the obvious: technology. Jensen saw this first hand while working with young athletes from Team Canada, and was surprised to hear that the athletes updated their software on their tablets and cell phones every month.

“When you look at the stats of how frequently people look at their devices, it’s shocking. The point I make to the athletes is that your devices have had so many upgrades, but what about the user? Have we ever thought about upgrading the user?”

Jensen is passionate about helping people learn how to manage their energy in a world with fast approaching deadlines and increasing workloads. “You can manage your time,” he explains. “But there’s still only 24 hours in a day. You’ve really got to take a look at what things you can do to better manage your energy.”

Jensen suggests picturing yourself and your energy as a thermostat rather than a thermometer. Rather than reacting to the environment like a thermometer, be a thermostat; you decide things like what you want to be, or where you need to be. In order to acquire energy, Jensen says that we can only use what we have. Sleep, good nutrition and great fitness levels are all factors that determine the pool of energy that is given to us to use. It is also important to look for times when you are being negative, critical, or hard on yourself. Those factors are clear energy drains.

Being in the ‘now’ is another important factor to thriving in a 24-7 world. However, having an impulse to immediately ‘share’ our experiences is a negative source of energy.

“When I’m working with the Olympic teams, I’m always saying to the kids ‘put your cell phones down and walk into the stadium. Just experience the moment,’ he tells me. “We’re not very good at that.”Thriving_book_cover[1]

Jensen explains that athletes are constantly shown different ways to deal with pressure. He feels that there is a lack of resources to help the stressed, on-the-go public.

“(Workers who are stressed) are going to have to become more resilient performers,” Jensen advises. “This person needs to turn stress and pressure into growth. The game is not going to change, and it’s faster pace. This is an in-your-face-world, and there’s so much more information to deal with. I don’t think we’ve adapted to it. Change is much more rapid than we could possibly, naturally, adapt to. We need to upgrade our software. We’ve upgraded our devices, now we need to upgrade ourselves.”

Jensen will be bringing his #thriving247 message across Canada in partnership with the Queen’s Smith School of Business. You can catch him here in Ottawa at the Westin Hotel on February 2nd.

Review: A Neurosurgeon’s Challenge

December 16, 2015 10:11 am
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Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery

Henry Marsh
St Martin’s Press, New York, 2014.
Reviewed By Don MacLean

Consider, if you will, the delicate surgical task of removing a pineocytoma, which is defined as “an uncommon, slow growing tumour of the pineal gland.” The patient is a young man who initially believed his pounding headaches were stress induced. His doctor instead gave him the grim news that he was suffering from a tumour which, if left untreated, would eventually kill him. Among the first surgical priorities is cutting through the meninges – the lining beneath the skull that secures the brain and the spinal cord. Once accessed, the surgeon will employ a microscope to search the exceedingly small gap separating the upper and lower levels of the brain for the tumour in question.

The surgeon must be at once supremely cautious but confident. For he finds himself in the immediate vicinity of parts of the brain which cannot be damaged. There are veins whose role is to transport blood away from the brain. There is the brain stem itself as well as the “posterior arteries which supply the parts of the brain responsible for vision.” He must thus navigate through this narrow space making sure to remove the tumour without doing harm to any of the surrounding tissues. Having successfully removed a portion of the tumour, the surgeon and his team anxiously await the results of the necessary biopsy to determine if it’s benign or malignant. The news is good: the tumour is benign. So the surgeon resumes the task of removing the remainder of it. The patient can expect to make a full recovery.

Neurosurgeon2This is but one of many stories that makes up the heart of Henry Marsh’s wonderful medical memoir Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. The story of the young man with the pineocytoma tumour illuminates both the profound mystery and the terrible challenges at the heart of neurosurgery. On the one hand, as Marsh describes, when performing a brain operation the neurosurgeon must regard the brain as any other vital organ; it’s the soft, jelly like substance located underneath the skull.  On the other, the surgeon is also acutely aware that when operating on the brain he or she is cutting through the source of that person’s thoughts, feelings and memories, her sense of self and ability to navigate through the world, both mentally and physically.  It’s precisely this awe inspiring notion, according to Marsh, that gives rise to a corresponding sense of burden. Accidentally cut the brain stem or cut too deeply a minutely sized blood vessel and the results can be catastrophic. Depending on the mistake, the patient might bleed to death, suffer paralysis or a stroke or both, might slip into a coma from which she will never emerge or suffer permanent brain damage. The stakes, it goes without saying, are enormously high.

Do No Harm unfolds as a series of stories, most but not all of which revolve around patients and the various types of tumours requiring surgery. The book’s layout affords many advantages for the reader, chief among which is the little bit of insight it gives into the exceedingly complex and challenging world of tumours and neurosurgery. We learn about many of the different tumours with which people can be afflicted. The ependymoma, for example, is  “a cerebral tumour derived from the non-nervous cells lining the cavities of the ventricles of the brain.” More crucially, we learn something about the intricate and delicate interconnections between tumours and other internal, life sustaining processes. Indeed, in many cases it’s not so much the tumour that causes the damage but rather the way the tumour compromises, obstructs and interferes. The pineocytoma, for instance, prevents the regular circulation of cerebro spinal fluid around the brain. The blockage creates enormous pressure on the head. Severe headaches might be the first sign that something is amiss.

Some of the stories take the reader in unanticipated directions. The chapters in which Marsh recalls his time in the Ukrainian capital Kiev are cases in point. The reader’s initial impression might be that he is straying too far from the world of medicine and tumours. In the end their effect is to give the book added depth. In one chapter Marsh skillfully and beautifully describes Ukraine’s bleak post Soviet landscape: the derelict buildings, the relentlessly grey cityscapes, the ubiquity of prostitutes. In this and in other ways the country was an unfortunate revelation for Marsh. He was invited to go with the assurance that Ukraine’s neurosurgery practices were every bit as advanced – if not more so – than was true in London and the west more generally. That assurance, he discovered, was part of a more pervasive illusion of progress peddled for so many decades by the former Soviet Union. The illusion disappeared like the morning mist shortly after he was introduced to the hospital where those suffering from tumours and other brain disorders were treated. There he discovered antiquated equipment and procedures. Doctors were ill informed. Patients suffered horribly and often needlessly. So began a life long commitment to working with Ukrainian neurosurgeons and their patients.

If Marsh has an overriding aim, however, it’s to trace the arc of his shifting approach to his craft. Now retired, the reader senses his need to take stock of his career. He recalls his initial motivation in choosing neurosurgery. There was mystery, beauty, challenge and the ability to help cure ailing patients. “What could be finer,” he recalls asking himself, “then to be a neurosurgeon?” Experience, however, severely tests his initially lofty thoughts and hopes. Over the years Marsh becomes somewhat jaded, and keenly and often painfully aware of his own limitations as a neurosurgeon. Those limitations are bound up with those of medicine itself. Not every brain can be healed, not every tumour successfully removed or otherwise treated. Part of a good neurosurgeon’s hard earned wisdom is knowing when surgery is appropriate – or not.

Henry Marsh3But Marsh’s sense of limitations is also a function of his mistakes – grave mistakes that sometimes destroyed the lives of his suffering patients. Marsh’s frank assessment of his errors is part of what gives the book a peculiar power. He recalls an incorrect diagnosis made over the phone after successfully operating on the patient in question. He was too quick to diagnose what struck him as a simple case of post operative inflammation. The patient, as it turned out, was suffering from a type of streptococcal infection. If treated quickly the infection could be tamed without causing permanent damage. That it wasn’t initially caught meant the patient would live but only after being rendered nearly completely paralyzed. Such are the risks associated with brain surgery: when mistakes happen in most other fields of medicine they can often be rectified. When they happen in neurosurgery the results are more likely devastating and irreversible. Although Marsh is reconciled to his errors, they retain their power to not only haunt but to teach. As the title of the book suggests, they facilitate a necessary humility and modesty. By the end of his career, Do no harmwas Marsh’s over riding priority.

This sort of arc to a career in medicine is perhaps not all that surprising. The path from brash and supremely confident to humble and modest is well traveled among doctors. Marsh’s voice and style is unique in so far as he seems to ceaselessly move between these and other competing poles. Thus, he is compassionate and generous but combative and irritable as well. He can be humble but still openly declare an arrogant disdain for hospital managers. A similar sort of tension makes its way into the operating theatres. Unanticipated problems raise his blood pressure at precisely the moment requiring calm, deliberate focus. Otherwise the problem will not be contained and further disaster will follow. Marsh’s ability to convey these alternating and competing sentiments – those rooted in the noble desire to help suffering patients and those rooted in the pressures and frustrations associated with his craft – is ultimately what makes Do No Harm such a revealing book.

Book Review: The Gospel Truth

November 5, 2015 12:05 pm
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In the opening chapter of Caroline Pignat’s latest Governor General’s Award Winner, The Gospel Truth, 16 year-old Phoebe steals a half-dead yellow bird from the jaws of her plantation’s predatory cat, Rufus. Phoebe locks the bird up, and although she feels bad for containing a creature that was meant to fly, she looks down at the cat and thinks “sometimes the safest place to be is in a cage.”

A bird in a cage surrounded by prowling cats is about as good a metaphor for the institution of slavery as you’ll find, but as Phoebe quickly discovers, that cage contains monsters of its own.

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Caroline Pignat.

In the book’s opening chapters, Phoebe, a house-slave who carries a deep connection with birds, holds a relatively safe position at the aptly named Whitehaven Plantation. Things become more complicated when a wealthy white birdwatcher visits the tobacco farm. The plantation master hopes to set his daughter up with this Dr. Bergman, but Phoebe quickly realizes that the doctor has his eyes on her.   

As you can imagine, The Gospel Truth builds and maintains an incredible amount of tension. The book presents slave life from multiple perspectives, but each enslaved character goes about their days like they’re walking on broken glass and one slip can lead to a grievous injury. This really captures the danger that followed slaves every moment of their lives and by the book’s halfway point the suspense is huge. You know there’s going to be a disaster, you just don’t know where it’s coming from.

Pignat’s writing reads like poetry, and a dedicated reader could easily breeze through the entire book of dramatic free verse in a weekend. Each character has their own distinct voice, but each voice is immensely readable. To capture the slaves’ voices, Pignat researched their unique colloquialisms in the Library of Congress’s massive collection of recorded interviews with former slaves.

One of Pignat’s great successes in The Gospel Truth is using her many characters to show all the different ways a slave can view life in bondage. Phoebe is resigned to it, because as the cage metaphor suggests, she sees the world outside Whitehaven’s fences as more dangerous than the one inside. Her best friend, a boy named Shad, believes that if he does everything right the master’s rewards will make up for his lack of freedom. After all, how can you miss something you’ve never tasted? Finally there’s Shad’s brother Will, who is hell-bent on escaping Whitehaven even if that means his death.

The Gospel Truth is a perfect book for  young adults who want to approach the history of American slavery more critically. I won’t recommend it over actual slaves’ narratives, but if you have a reader who is too young to appreciate Frederick Douglass or too squeamish for Harriet Jacobs, you won’t find a better introduction to the subject than Caroline Pignat’s.  


Pignat lives and writes in Ottawa.
The Gospel Truth is her second Governor General’s Literary Award winner and is also a finalist for the Ottawa Book Award.

Family Ties

July 6, 2015 12:30 pm
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A review of Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart

Family trees are all the rage. Part of their appeal is surely the element of surprise. The deeper one digs, the more likely a discovery that the tree’s roots twist and shoot in unanticipated directions. When tracing one’s lineage, in other words, expect the unexpected. For as long as people have migrated from place to place there have been both forced and forbidden unions and the equally taboo offspring such unions often produced. In the golden age of discovery, for example, Europeans didn’t simply colonize and subjugate much of the world. They sexualized their subjects, too. Thus female slaves may have been considered heathens but Europeans still often found them irresistibly attractive. Slaves had little defence in the face of a white master’s predatory advances. Children were often the predictable – if unwanted – outcome. The world, from this perspective, has been a melting pot for far longer than America’s embrace of that term.

The three themes of family history, migration and slavery are at the heart of Andrea Stuart’s marvellous family memoir, Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire. Stuart’s ancestry is indeed conducive to a compelling story. Although Stuart is black, her earliest known ancestor is George Ashby, a white Englishman who migrated from England to Barbados as a teenage blacksmith in the 1630s. His arrival initiated a long line of Ashbys in the former British colony. Like so many white English settlers, the Ashbys were slave owners who slowly accumulated wealth and property. By the standards of white Islanders, they were reasonably well to do. The Ashby family’s trajectory then changed in 1794 when Robert Ashby married into a wealthy family and subsequently fathered a child with one of his female slaves.

Stuart’s challenge in telling her ancestors’ stories is not unlike the challenge of telling an individual slave’s story. Slaves were so violently subjugated, their freedom so ruthlessly quashed and their time so thoroughly stolen, that writing was effectively impossible. There is thus a paucity of slave narratives from which to draw. Similarly, George Ashby did not leave first-hand accounts of his experience on the ship that took him from England to Barbados, no account of his life on an island so thoroughly different than the island from which he came. Much of what Stuart says about him is thus speculative or conjecture: based on the prevailing conditions and sentiments, this is what he likely would have experienced, what he likely would have thought.

Fortunately Sugar in the Blood is as much a history of slavery in Barbados as it is a family memoir. It is on this level that the book works best. Stuart lays bare slavery’s economic underpinnings. Those leaving England for Barbados were not simply in search of a ‘better life.’ Most were rough and, as time would soon tell, ruthless in their determination to tame the land and in their pursuit of money. Their road to riches was eventually paved with sugar cane. But the cost of producing the sweet stuff was prohibitive, the work involved brutally tedious and harsh. Islanders had indentured servants but not nearly enough to satisfy the needs of the island’s burgeoning sugar cane industry. Slaves solved the industry’s two most pressing needs: a cheap and steady supply of people to do the work whites were not prepared to do. Thus as sugar cane’s importance grew exponentially, so too did the market for slaves. There was a symbiotic connection between the two.

Any book worth reading on slavery must focus on the combination of inhumanity and violence at the heart of this most horrible of institutions. For Stuart the challenge of doing so was heightened by her white ancestors’ complicity in sustaining it. Nevertheless, she does not abstain from describing the unimaginably harrowing migrations – the Middle Passage – slaves were forced to endure. They were enslaved in Africa and then sold at slave markets, usually located somewhere near shore lines. Once sold, they were forced onto ships destined for, among other places, Barbados, Jamaica and North America. Slaves would be relegated to the ship’s dungeon, where they were typically chain bound to one another. Those who did not survive the fearsome, tortuous journey across the Atlantic were left lying next to their living companions. Rapes were routine. Nor was it uncommon for the physically weak or the disobedient to be thrown overboard, regarded as nothing more than dispensable cargo. Others sometimes chose this fate themselves: better to die at sea than to live condemned as a slave. Whites often didn’t even have It in them to allow their black captives to make this one achingly difficult choice. Rather in many cases those who jumped overboard would be caught, forced back on to the ship and, in front of others, whipped or subject to other forms of torture, indignities.

After the perilous journey across the Atlantic, slaves could then expect to spend the rest of their days confined to a plantation. As Stuart skillfully makes clear, the vast majority of their waking hours were spent engaged in cane cutting, a task that is at once arduous, monotonous and often horribly debilitating. Obedience was sustained through tortuous violence: whippings and worse were common to life on the plantation.

What is perhaps most striking about Barbadian society in the 17th and 18th centuries was the tension between forces of change and the ongoing efforts of white islanders to impose a sense of permanency through slavery. Europe and North America by this time were tumults of revolt. England promised liberty for those slaves who fought on their side in the American Revolution. English abolitionists like Granville Sharpe changed people’s hearts and minds by exposing the inhumanity and barbarity of slavery. The French Revolution, with its promise of liberty, equality and fraternity, inspired slave rebellions in Saint Domingue. For those with any sort of vision, such developments would have exposed the grotesque absurdity of an ideology that condemned so much of humanity to a life of violence, captivity and back breaking toil. It’s time would surely pass. Yet for centuries white Barbadians refused to countenance an island without slavery.

It was in a sense the sordid privileges of white planters that served to slowly undermine the illusion of a permanently fixed social order and racial hierarchy. This is where Stuart’s family tree profoundly intersects with the region’s broader history. White males – particularly those at the heads of households – routinely had sexual relations with women slaves. Children were born. Their arrival into the world fuelled questions, the answers to which would slowly but inexorably erode the sort of thinking that rationalized slavery. What was a white man to make of his own black children? Did he regard them as inherently inferior? Were they to remain slaves? The answers, of course, varied. Many white men thought no differently about their black offspring. Such children would have suffered the same bleak fate as other black children. Other whites, such as Robert Cooper Ashby, could not ignore all sense of responsibility. His black son–John Stephens–was granted privileges, if not freedoms. The first decades of John’s life were thus lived in servitude, but he was allowed to develop skills as a tradesman and was not forced to engage in the same sort of ceaseless drudgery as his fellow slaves. Eventually he was allowed to charge for his services off the plantation – a small but vital step that allowed him to live in a still precarious space located somewhere between slavery and freedom. One likes to imagine that as John Stephen’s world opened, he knew the brutal world of slavery was drawing to a close.

The Rhythms of Life

June 10, 2015 1:00 pm
Alice Munro 2 (1)

Family Furnishings:

Selected Short Stories 1995 – 2014 Alice Munro

Reviewed by Don MacLean

May 2015

The short story can sometimes seem in jeopardy of being forgotten if not dismissed. This danger is not at all due to a dearth of this particular form of storytelling. Countless are written and many gems are to be found, but most are to be discovered in magazines or literary anthologies and not on book store display tables. Next to a great novel, the short story can seem inadequate, like a promising seed that doesn’t quite fully bloom. Alice Munro, perhaps more than any other writer living today, has restored the short story to its rightful place as an art form every bit of worthy as a novel of our praise and devotion. She was awarded the Nobel Prize last year as a way of marking a lifetime of this sort of literary achievement. The prize
was given just as Munro appears to be quietly retiring from the writing life. The recent publication of Family Furnishings: Selected Stories 1995 – 2014 thus seems particularly fitting. Taken together, the stories constitute a wonderful sampling of Munro’s remarkable range as a storyteller.

Part of Munro’s genius is her ability to mine beautifully but without sentimentality the sudden, unexpected and sometimes violent up ending of life’s rhythms. Many (but not all) Munro stories take place in the past and her characters almost invariably lead ordinary lives, sometimes in urban centres but more often in small Canadian places like Ottawa Valley or Huntsville, Ontario. The effect is to evoke times and places that may seem increasingly remote. Yet her characters’ experiences will resonate with readers with a modern sensibility. A chance encounter precipitates unanticipated yearnings. A seemingly innocuous mishap initiates a lives shattering chain of events. A sudden loss yields deeper insight into the nature of the human experience. A marriage proposal is retracted at the last possible moment. The lives of characters are irrevocably changed or damaged by these sorts of unforeseen developments. But out of the carnage and emotional upheaval emerges another rhythm.

“The Love of a Good Woman” begins with the sort of dramatic discovery we don’t necessarily associate with a Munro story. Three young boys come across a dead body in the river, that of Mr. Willen. HAlice Munro 3e’s in his vehicle, submerged in the water. We don’t know how he arrived at this most unfortunate end, but we trust all will be revealed in good time. Even though Munro is the master of the short story, she still demands patience of the reader. The story’s main character is Enid, an unmarried woman heading toward middle age. She ends up caring for a woman – Mrs. Quinn – in her final days. Shortly before she dies, Mrs. Quinn makes a grave admission. In addition to being an optometrist, Mr. Willen was something of a pervert. When checking her eye sight during a house call he would make unwanted advances. On one such occasion her husband finds Mr. Willen with his hand up his wife’s skirt. This is a moment when life’s rhythm is violently overturned by a sudden wave of rage. The husband lets loose on Mr. Willen; after the wave has passed Mr. Willen is dead.

What is Enid to make of this unexpected revelation? She’s initially persuaded that the husband must be horribly conflicted. You cannot live in the world with such a burden. You will not be able to stand your life. She imagines confronting him with this knowledge. She hopes it will bring him relief, but understands too that it could spur him to another round of violence. The tension rises. But in a Munro short story, life has a way of imposing its rhythm and in so doing dissolving any such tension. Enid begins to imagine that Mrs. Quinn’s story was all “lies.” It’s possible, but convenient too. For it allows another idea to spring to life inside Enid’s mind.

The different possibility was coming closer to her and all she had to do was keep quiet and let it come. Through her silence….what benefits could bloom. For others and for herself. This is how to keep the world habitable.

There are larger social forces at work in a Munro story – war, immigration, disease – but they are almost always in the background. Munro is more interested in the subtle developments that shape a life or change its direction. One exception to this admittedly loose rule is the haunting “The View From Castle Rock.” In it Munro tells the story of an extended family’s crossing of the Atlantic to begin their new life in Canada in the early stages of the nineteenth century. There is the patriarch – Old James, as he’s called. He’s crossing with his sons Andrew and Walter and Andrew’s wife Agnes and their 2 year old son James – Young James, as he’s called. Mary is James’ childless daughter who looks after Young James while on the ship.

Munro is a master at capturing – often in a line or two – the competing spirits of the time in which a story takes place. Across the Atlantic, Old James declares to his sons after too much to drink, is America, a land so abundant that even the ‘beggars are rich.’ This distorted sense of abundance and possibility is tempered by the family’s immediate challenges and their powerlessness in the face of cruel realities. Conditions on the ship are cramped and uncomfortable. Lives are often short and demanding. Indeed many children arriving in Ontario or Quebec, the reader discovers, won’t reach adolescence, let alone adulthood. They will instead be:

Dead of some mishap in the busy streets of York, or of a fever, or dysentery — of any of the ailments, the accidents that were the common destroyers of little children in his time.

In different ways, the story anticipates other transitions. Agnes doesn’t so much lament as resign herself to the same sort of fate she would have lived had they stayed in Edinburgh. She’ll have babies and help her husband maintain a farm. Choices for women will be longer in coming. But old James’ sons will start to entertain other possibilities. Walter writes of the family’s passage while on board the ship. His efforts are meant to document the experience, but they also constitute an unanticipated discovery. Walter learns to love the written word. On board the ship he seeks out spaces away from his family and in so doing comes close to a young woman making a similar journey with her father.

Yet the story is not without those more subtle moments that shape a character’s life that are Munro’s stock in trade. At one point Young James goes missing on the ship while under the care of Mary. Fearing the worst, Mary has a haunting epiphany.

Everything in an instant is overturned. The nature of the world is altered…

This is what Mary plainly sees, in those moments of anguish – that the world which has turned into a horror for her is still the same ordinary world for all these other people and will remain so even if James has truly vanished.

Mary, in this moment of stark clarity, not only sees how a life can without warning be so arbitrarily and tragically upended. She understands why that experience is often so lonely and alienating. Just as quickly as Mary is drowning in this dread, however, the moment passes. Young James is found, safe and unharmed. Life’s rhythm reasserts itself.

Occasionally hardship leads to self revelation, as it did for the young protagonist in “Hired Girl” or the narrator’s father in “Working For a Living.”

One night somebody asked, when is the best time in a man’s life?…
My father spoke up and said, “Now. I think maybe now.”
They asked him why.
He said because you weren’t old yet, with one thing or another collapsing on you, but old enough that you could see that a lot of things you might have wanted out of life you would never get. It was hard to explain how you could be happy in such a situation, but sometimes he thought you were.

In a Munro story such moments of self awareness or happiness are hard earned but often felt in an ambiguous sort of way. They also tend to be fleeting. For once experienced they’re submerged in the larger rhythms of life.

Summer Reading Guide

May 21, 2015 2:20 pm
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The summer sun is shining and that means it’s time to relax! Why not grab a book and a blanket and head to the nearest park to enjoy some outdoor reading? OLM has the best reads for you and the family! From food and romance to astronomy and zombies, there is something for everyone to enjoy on a sunny day!

9781612433554.01The Farm to Table French Phrasebook
By Victoria Mas, Illustrated by Meera Lee Patel, Ulysses Press
If you’ve ever sunk your teeth into a buttery croissant or a delicate macaron, you know France exports some of the best foodie indulgences. In The Farm to Table French Phrasebook, you will get an education in French cuisine you can’t find in any classroom or textbook. French culinary phrases, foodie terms, cultural tips and delicious recipes come together in this ultimate food-lovers guide. Whether you’re spending time abroad, dining at a local bistro or mastering French culinary art in your own kitchen, this must-read opens you up to the bountiful world of French cuisine.
Available here.

Cover-Canadian-Whisky-paperback-669x1024Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert
By Davin de Kergommeaux, McClelland & Stuart
Ever wish you could show up to a bar and have all the answers to questions you have about Canada’s finest drink: whisky? That reality isn’t far off with the handy bar bible Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert . Discover the history of some of your favourite Canadian whiskies, learn of the diversity able and read through tasting notes that will make your whisky drinking experience much more enjoyable.
Available here.

 

ColvilleColville
By Andrew Hunter, Goose Lane
You know the images of Canadian painter and printmaker Alex Colville well. Now experience them like never before with over 100 of Colville’s paintings and studies assembled in Colville, written and edited by the AGO’s Frederik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art. View the art that imbues a deep sense of danger and showcases elusive tension on the pages and then in person at the National Gallery of Canada this summer.
Available here.

 

Getting Over YonderGetting Over Yonder
By Obi Simic, Outskirts Press
Learn to pursue in the midst of tragedy as you follow the journey of Olivia, a young Black Canadian looking for herself. She gives up at nothing, including revealed secrets, prejudice and ignorance. You will learn to hold onto what is truly important and Olivia overcomes obstacles with her strong desire to live.
Available here.

 


Astronomy Bible_coverThe Astronomy Bible
By Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest, Octopus
There is no better time to sit back and look at the starry sky than summer. The Astronomy Bible has everything you need to understand just what lies beyond our planet. Learn about the history of astronomy, the sun and the moon, asteroids, comets and meteors, constellations and more as you flip through the pages of this illustrated guide.
Available here.

 

 

HomeBeforeDarkHome Before Dark: Ottawa Diaries, 1998-2002
By Rosemary Sexton, Self-Published
Many Canadians will recognize author Rosemary Sexton as the Globe and Mail’s society columnist from 1988 to 1993. As Canada’s most well known society columnist and gossip-writer, Sexton unraveled the scandals of high society. In Home Before Dark: Ottawa Diaries, 1998-2002, she has transcribed five years of personal diary entries. She writes about the pleasures and perils of living life in Canada’s capital city as a judge’s wife. In Home Before Dark, Sexton gives readers a peak behind closed doors with lively writing and candid reveals.
Available here.

 

AngelsAreCryingCover300Angels Are Crying
By Mohammed Rehman, Smith Publicity
Come learn how Reham believes violence and terrorism have tainted the Islam religion. As you turn the pages, you will explore what Islam originally was, what it meant and how it has become what it means today. Angels Are Crying delivers a first-hand account of how Rehman sees the Muslim faith in 50 countries. Explore the history and politics of these Islamic countries while analyzing the true intent of the Quran.
Available here.

 

peasandhambonePeas and Hambone Versus Flesh-Eating Zombie Gorillas
By Todd Nichols, Secret, Secret Squirrel Books
We can’t forget the kids in our reading guide! In Peas and Hambone Versus Flesh-Eating Zombie Gorillas, a boy and his dog face off against a pack of zombie gorillas. Peter, or “Peas,” is an 10-year-old kid with a dog, Hambone, who has the ability to walk and talk. Hambone is determined to get even with a gorilla, so he and Peter break into the zoo. As they try to determine which gorilla is Hambone’s nemesis, they stumble upon an evil plot, leading them down a pathway of exciting twists and turns bound to entertain thrill-seeking kiddos!
Available here.

HatredHatred: Islam’s War on Christianity
By Michael Coren
Dive into one of the most interesting cultural conflicts in the modern world. In Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity, Michael Coren explores the history, reasoning, theology and politics behind the great genocidal phenomenon of modern times: the Islamist war on Christianity.
Available here.

 


Olbrys.Cover.9-11-14.RGBThe Adventures of Blue Ocean Bob – A Challenging Job
By Brooks Olbrys
In Brooks Olbrys latest book, The Adventures of Blue Ocean Bob – A Challenging Job, young readers will swim right along with an inspirational cast of characters, including a courageous island boy who vows to help defend, protect, and teach about life on the shores, and a slew of wise and fun sea creatures including Doc the turtle, Earl the clam and Wallace the walrus. Vividly illustrated, kids will catch Blue Ocean Bob’s contagious spirit and passion for the planet.
Available here.

 

cuttingroomThe Cutting Room
By Stewart Dudley, Self-Published
Jeff Whittaker has been a trusted communications advisor at the highest levels of government for decades. Now, no one wants his advice. Unemployed at 55, Whittaker volunteers at a film festival where greater value is placed upon his clean driving record than his public relations expertise. He is assigned to chauffer one of the festival’s biggest draws, Margaret “Terror” Torrance, a Hollywood star. Despite differing backgrounds, Whittaker and Torrance share the scars inflicted by personal and professional wounds and form a relationship that will keep you turning the pages of Dudley’s debut novel.
Available here.

Must Read: The Thin Black Line by Simon Gervais

April 9, 2015 10:03 am
The Thin Black Line-feat

Prepare for a whirlwind of a read.

Simon Gervais’ newly released debut novel The Thin Black Line, is a must-read thriller based right here in Canada’s capital city.

PicSim15A first time novelist, Gervais delivers a heart-pumping, nerve-racking story with a climactic ending you won’t see coming.

In The Thin Black Line, Mike Walton has experienced terrorism from every angle. As a covert field operations officer, he thought he’d seen it all. But that was before terrorism struck him at home. Suffering devastating injuries and unthinkable personal loss, Mike knew he had to fight back.

Mike and his wife Lisa, a fellow counter-terrorism expert, are recruited by the International Market Stabilization Institute, a privately funded organization operating outside official channels to protect North America’s financial interests.

The strikes that destroyed Mike and Lisa’s household, the work of Sheik Al-Assad, are bringing the Western economy to its knees. If the Sheik succeeds, life as they knew it will never be the same. Mike and Lisa must lead a hastily assembled team to Europe to stop the madness before time runs out.

Gervais, who was born in Montréal and currently resides in Ottawa, brings first-hand experience to his debut novel.

While the book is fiction, much of its contents were inspired by his own experiences.

Gervais’ career has taken him in a number of interesting directions. Originally joining the Canadian military as an infantry officer, Gervais has served as a member of some of the RCMP’s most secretive units, including its air marshal program and VIP counter-surveillance team. As you can imagine, he has some stories to tell.

The Thin Black Line takes a fascinating look into Canada’s covert operations, complemented by loveable and heroic characters you will find yourself rooting for.

For a thrilling spring read, check out The Thin Black Line!

Visit simongervaisbooks.com for more information.

Learning How to Die – Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

December 4, 2014 9:59 am
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In his latest thoughtful, moving book Being Mortal: Medicine And What Matters in the End the doctor and writer Atul Gawande tells the achingly sad story of Sara. In the prime of life and while pregnant with her first child, Sara was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Doctors induced labour and, to everyone’s relief, the baby was born healthy. Sara could now focus all of her considerable energies on confronting her dire diagnosis and prognosis. She started chemotherapy. When one drug failed she would insist on trying another drug, no matter how slim the chances of success. She underwent painful procedures to drain her lung of built up fluids. The initial diagnosis was given in June. By December the cancer had spread like a fire racing through a parched forest. It was now through out both her lungs, as well as her liver and spine. All the chemo and the associated pain and suffering had done nothing to stem the disease’s relentless advance. But Sara and her family remained determine to fight on. Her doctors, meanwhile, understood that she would succumb to her illness and that any further interventions would likely fail to prolong her life by even a single day. Yet there was a reluctance to make so definitive a declaration. As Gawande suggests, who were they to insist Sara’s will to survive would do nothing to extend her life? It’s a quandary no doubt familiar to most doctors.

Sara’s story goes to the heart of Being Mortal. Just as the title suggests, the book is about coming to grips with our mortality. Gawande is not simply talking about individuals coming to terms with the inescapable; he’s talking about the institution of medicine as well. It’s the intersection where medicine and dying meet that most intrigues and concerns him. What is the role of medicine in the life of a terminally ill patient? What is the role of medicine for an elderly patient at the end of her life? The answers might appear self evident. Every doctor’s solemn oath is to “do no harm.” Medicine’s role is to help people who are sick due to illness or injury. At its heart, medicine is a life sustaining enterprise. It can seem as simple as that.

Alas it isn’t quite so simple. As Gawande explains, until recently death typically arrived quickly following an injury or the onset of illness. By contrast, life’s final stages are now often protracted affairs. Death is still inevitable, but it’s arrival is often preceded by long durations of horrible physical pain, mental deterioration, and the loss of bodily functions. Experiencing various forms of indignities is not uncommon among those who are nearing the end of life. Such scenarios raise what can be heart wrenching, difficult decisions, not only for patients but for their families as well. Is it worth extending life if that additional time will only mean a continuation of unbearable pain or the ongoing experience of various indignities? How should life’s final stage be experienced? There are no simple answers to such questions. Nevertheless medicine, according to Gawande, does a poor job of helping patients navigate end of life transitions in ways conducive to comfort and peace of mind.

In all of his books, Gawande documents his search for improvements in the field of medicine. For a doctor so familiar with human suffering, this is where hope lies. Being Mortal is a challenging book about one of the most challenging topics of all, death. The patients he writes about often suffered through painful, debilitating illness before finally passing. Yet the book is not without moments of hope: they act like small beacons of light in an otherwise dark night. Such moments have nothing to do with therapeutic breakthroughs in, for example, cancer treatments. Instead Gawande focuses on the value of improved communication and eliminating the need to make difficult choices for those nearing the end. Among the most important innovations in palliative care, for example, is better communication between doctors and nurses and their patients. Conversations with the terminally ill should not simply be about treatment options. That will do little to assuage a patient’s fear and anxiety. Care givers must also focus on a patient’s priorities for their remaining days. They must be prepared to invest time in these sorts of conversations. They must also be skilled listeners. Gawande also highlights the decision among American insurance companies to eliminate the choice terminally ill patients once had to make between therapeutic interventions and hospice care. Once patients were not forced to make that sort of choice hospice care admissions among the terminally ill increased. As Gawande suggests, this was not unusual. Other outcomes, however, were unanticipated. To begin with, there was a decrease in admissions to the ICU and Emergency departments. There were fewer people exercising the choice to use therapies that offered little hope of prolonging life but were sure to cause increased pain and suffering. Most remarkable of all, according to Gawande, these patients survived longer on average than their terminally ill counterparts who did not choose hospice care. Accepting death’s inevitability, in other words, had the unexpected benefit of prolonging life.

Gawande follows a formula when writing about medicine. In wonderfully accessibly prose, he tells patients’ stories. The stories, however, are always interrupted by analysis of the bigger medical or social questions they raise. The respective experiences of his now deceased Indian grandfather and his wife’s grandmother, for example, are used as vehicles to explore the theme of contrasting attitudes to the elderly. Occasionally the reader might feel as though he’s gone off on one too many tangents. More often than not, however, he effectively weaves together story telling and analysis. The result are chapters that are at once deeply poignant and highly thought provoking and informative. It’s Gawande’s skill at addressing both the head and the heart that makes him such a good writer and Being Mortal such an important book.

The book’s value also stems from Gawande’s take on the most sensitive medical issue related to the theme of our mortality: the right to physician assisted suicide. He expresses his own deeply felt ambivalence. He agrees that it’s necessary in some cases but fears its potential insidious effects on a society’s approach to the terminally ill. Yet so much of what Gawande writes highlights what is often lost in the debate. Doctors and patients, when navigating these sorts of treacherous waters, often make choices that expedite the process of dying. They do so because the alternatives are more fearsome. Terminally ill cancer patients often choose not to subject themselves to further rounds of chemotherapy when the likelihood that it will do any good is negligible. More importantly, they feel that doing so would compromise the quality of the short time they have left. Most patients don’t want to subject themselves to severe pain if they sense that it’s pointless. They may not want to undergo more medical interventions if it means they can’t spend their remaining days at home and in the constant presence of loved ones. That sort of setting, many patients conclude, is conducive to a more peaceful death.

Similarly, the very elderly facing an array of illnesses will often forego further medical interventions if it means a severely compromised quality of life. This is especially true of elderly patients who are navigating that achingly difficult transition from being sound of mind to being something much less. They may want to firmly establish what sort of interventions are permissible while they are still able to think clearly about such questions. Doing so involves summoning one’s courage and insisting on retaining one’s dignity. It may also require the assistance of a physician. Who is anyone to deny people the right to exercise a little bit of control over life’s final stage? In this, as in so many other sensitive issues involving medicine and patients, Gawande reveals his wisdom and deep humanity.

Nevertheless, there was at least one recurring question for me as I read the book. Is Gawande laying too much of a burden at the feet of medicine and medical professionals? To be sure, implementing enlightened protocols in palliative care units and insurance companies acting responsibly are important. But even highly trained medical professionals do not necessarily have the emotional intelligence required to engage with dying patients in the way Gawande advocates. He himself strikes the reader as not only wise and humane, but as someone who is himself perpetually striving to improve. It’s easy though to imagine doctors who lack that sort of sensitivity or the drive to be better. Doctors and nurses, moreover, must strike a delicate balance. On the one hand, they need to constantly assess a dying patient’s medical needs. On the other, they have to remain sufficiently detached. The results are not always optimal. Doctors can give a clinically accurate prognosis that does nothing to address a dying patient’s emotional needs. Alternatively, in a bid to address those needs, doctors may overestimate the length of time a dying patient has left. In so doing they risk giving dying patients false hope.

Indeed Gawande confesses that he was guilty of just this with Sara. He admits he would more readily talk to her about experimental therapies than the stark reality of her condition. He did not want to be the one to say Sara’s hope and determination would not help her overcome her cancer. But eventually he and the other doctors caring for her would have no alternative but to be be absolutely forthright. Sara was rushed to the hospital in February the following year with pneumonia. She was given morphine to dull her pain and improve her breathing. Tests indicated the cancer was now in the brain. Still she might have survived this latest episode of severe illness, but to what end? She would only continue to deteriorate and experience more pain and suffering. Her family doctor thought it imperative that this be communicated to Sara’s husband and parents. Only then did Sara’s family insist that nurses and doctors not intervene. The time had come. They wanted her to be able to pass as painlessly and peacefully as possible. With her husband next to her Sara died the next day.

Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead

November 10, 2014 2:59 pm
intotheblizzard

In October 1914, 537 young men from Newfoundland boarded the Florizel, the ship that would sail them across the Atlantic and towards the battle shores of Europe. The Great War had started in August of that year and Newfoundland’s governor had offered England this small contingent of soldiers. As a British Dominion – Newfoundland was still decades away from joining Confederation–this sort of contribution was expected. After ten days at sea the Newfoundland and Canadian regiments with whom they travelled would dock at Devenport, England. Other contingents of Newfoundland soldiers would eventually follow. Their first and for a time only experience of war was of the tediousness and often severe loneliness of training. That would change when they were called to fight in what would become some of the war’s great theatres of battle, Gallipoli, the Somme and Beaumont-Hamel, among others. By the war’s end in 1918, approximately 1300 young Newfoundlanders would lose their lives in the fighting. That number would be unexpectedly, devastatingly high.

Indeed, as Michael Winter discovers in his moving book, Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead, one of the most striking features of the Great War was the disconnect between everyone’s expectations and the war’s grim, horrific realities. Young men from Newfoundland enlisted seemingly in the spirit of fun and adventure and with every expectation that the whole enterprise would be short in duration. They would be home soon. No one had any inkling what lay in store for them. Parents of soldiers apparently thought no different. Families gathering at ports to see their sons off did so more in a mood of jubilation than foreboding. Only slowly did the horror of what was to come alter the community’s perception of war. Winter describes how one mother sent her son a parcel of socks, as though cold feet was the most dire hardship the young man would experience. When told that the son in question was dead, she asked that the socks be then given to her other son in the army. The mother’s response had both naivety and stoicism in equal measure.

Winter sets out to better understand the experience of Newfoundland’s young soldiers. He does so by flying to Europe and then traversing some of the same territory in which Newfoundland’s Royal Regiment found themselves. He bicycles to Beaumont-Hamel, Auchonvillers and Les Galets. He attends ceremonies honouring the soldiers of the Great War. He seeks out cemeteries containing the fallen. The result is a book that’s hard to classify. It’s at once a sort of memorial to all the Newfoundland men and women who fought in the Great War and a meditation on war itself. It’s also something of a personal traveling memoir.

There is a deep ambivalence running through Into the Blizzard. The ambivalence is expressed not so much in the questions Winter asks but in the thoughtful, searching answers he gives. How should those Newfoundlanders who enlisted and fought be remembered? How should they be memorialized? How should we understand the relationship between this chapter of Newfoundland’s past and the present?

Tracing the territory Newfoundland soldiers traversed and the places where the fiercest battles were waged and the greatest losses of human life occurred is, of course, meant as an act of memorial. The decision to walk through former theatres of war is also what gives rise to the book’s chief strengths. Winter is most effective when he finds himself in say, Salisbury, and casts his mind back to 1916. He employs seemingly the most innocuous type of activities as portals to go back in time. Kicking a soccer ball on the fields of Salisbury reminds him that Newfoundland soldiers in training likely engaged in the same sort of fun. Writing post cards to his wife and kids allows him to picture soldiers doing precisely the same thing.

More importantly, it allows him to imagine the nightmare in which those young men just beginning their lives were thrust. The lush fields of Gallipoli in which Winter himself stood were fields of slaughter and unbearable suffering during the war. The juxtaposition is meant to be jarring. For here in 1916 is where soldiers were introduced to trench warfare and the many hazards it wrought. Trench foot, dysentery, flooding: all were experienced by the soldiers living and dying in the trenches. Here in Gallipoli and the places of subsequent battles–at the Somme, for example – is where soldiers were forced to walk into a ‘blizzard’ of bullets and artillery. Nearly entire regiments could be mowed down in a matter of minutes, as was the case in Beaumont-Hamel. Winter honours their courage but laments the obscene waste of so much life.

The suffering soldiers endured, moreover, was not always inflicted by the Germans or the Turks. Winter tells the story of John Roberts, a 20-year-old soldier who in 1916 walked away from his regiment while stationed in France. When he was found a few months later he was charged with desertion. His punishment was to be blindfolded and then executed by a firing squad. Robert’s sorry end speaks to the tragic absurdity of the conditions into which all of these young men were unwittingly pushed and hopelessly unprepared. As Winter suggests, he was not simply afraid; Roberts was likely suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. But the army did not understand, let alone tolerate, any such afflictions. They were treated as signs of personal weakness that, left unchecked, would threaten the entire regiment and by extension the entire war effort. Winter uses Robert’s story as an important antidote to the sort of jingoism he takes pains to avoid. In honouring Newfoundland’s fallen, Winter is also insisting that war constitutes a type of madness that destroys and deforms the men sent to fight. Although hardly novel, this remains a vital insight in a world that remains so rife with conflict. Think Syria and Iraq.

The connections between the past and the present is never far from mind for Winter. One problem, however, is that those connections are not always evident, particularly when Winter refers to his own experiences. In one instance he talks about his family’s purchase of their new home in Toronto and the decision to renovate. The reader is left scratching his head. For there is no connection between the author’s home improvements and the book’s larger theme. On the contrary, that sort of discussion is too far removed from the idea of tracing the steps of Newfoundland soldiers fighting in the Great War–and is perilously close to self indulgent. There are other such moments in the book. Into the Blizzard , for this reason, works beautifully as a meditation on Newfoundland’s experience in the Great War but not very well as a memoir.

All of the young Newfoundlanders who fought in the Great War are now gone. Hundreds were buried under the ground that a century later Winter himself walked on in preparation to write this book. So much of what he writes is meant to evoke their memory and shed light on their respective legacies. To great effect, he recalls individual soldiers’ particular stories. We learn of Alexander Parsons, a soldier who was sent to Quebec in 1916 after contracting pleurisy and then returned to Europe’s battlefields in 1917. He survived and, in 1921, returned to Newfoundland and opened a family cabinetmaking business.

Other legacies are perhaps harder to discern, but no less profound. Winter shares Cyril Gardner’s story, a soldier responsible for capturing seventy Germans, but who was later killed at the Battle of Arras in the spring of 1917. When the German prisoners were handed over to the British he made sure all their lives were spared. If any Germans were killed, he declared, those responsible would be killed themselves. The Germans awarded him the Iron Cross. Gardner’s legacy is the memory of he retaining his humanity amidst so much carnage. Like thousands of his fellows soldiers, he did Newfoundland proud.

Whip Smart: Lola Montez Conquers the Spaniards

October 22, 2014 11:35 am
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Whip Smart: Lola Montez Conquers the Spaniards, the first of the Whip Smart series by Montreal-based Kit Brennan, is an exciting page-turner transporting readers back to the Victorian era of 1842.

Loosely based on the real-life adventures of Lola Montez, a notorious bad-girl of the era, Brennan fills in the gaps of the mysterious lost year during which London’s Eliza Rosanna Gilbert became the fiery Spanish dancer Lola Montez.

Lola is a rule-breaker from the start. With dreams of fame and eager to leave behind the failed marriage and impending divorce trial in London that would shame her for years to come, she seeks an escape from the life she has come to know. Taking advantage of her smouldering and magnetic good looks, she attracts the alluring offer of a paid-for trip to Spain to spy on the Spanish royalty.

She is thrilled to find out upon her arrival in Spain that her dreams of fame will be realized, as she will play a role in a musical as a cover. But, as so many of us can relate, love gets in the way. She embarks in a passionate and scandalous love affair with General Diego de Léon. From there, an array of exhilarating and nail-biting plot twists ensue. From risky border crossings and dangerous schemes to sexy rendezvous with her Spanish lover, readers will be captivated until the final page.

Brennan’s use of language reflects her meticulous attention to historical detail with the backdrop of Spanish and English society in the midst of the Carlist Wars. She brings to life the realities of survival for an ambitious, beautiful and sometimes reckless young woman of this time. Lola is an entertaining protagonist with a passionate spirit you cannot help but root for. We can all relate to the desire to escape from problems we face in our lives and admire her courageous choice to do something about it, despite dangerous circumstances.

Told from a flashback perspective, Brennan modernizes an age-old mystery by blending historical accuracy with fun, fictional storytelling. Connecting readers to an era long-forgotten, Brennan divulges the adventure, passion and romance that define notorious icon Lola Montez.

Whip Smart: Lola Montez Conquers the Spaniards is a must-read for anyone looking for a thrilling and provocative page-turner!

Need to get your hands on a copy ASAP? Click here or here to purchase.

Also be sure to check out the sequel, Whip Smart: Lola Montez and the Poisoned Nom de Plume.

The upcoming third installment of Brennan’s Whip Smart series, Whip Smart: Lola Montez Starts a Revolution, will be released on November 7th. If you simply can’t wait that long to find out what happens next, the ebook will be available on October 14th.

Click here for more information about Astor + Blue Editions.

Enjoy, Ottawa Lifers!

Food Frenzy in the Capital

October 16, 2014 11:59 am
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When the average Canadian thinks of Ottawa, they think of the national hub of power and politics. However, our great city is more than just that.

Don Chow and Jennifer Lim’s new book Ottawa Food: A Hungry Capital is a feast for your eyes. In it, they explore all things food in Ottawa. The result will leave your taste buds tingling and stomach growling.

Chow and Lim found their beginnings on foodiePrints, which Chow founded. He intended it to be a recipe collection, but it grew to be so much more. FoodiePrints has evolved into a collection of stories and restaurant reviews. Chow and Lim now use the website to document and share their food findings with readers.

Chow and Lim’s interest in food stems from their parents. Chow’s parents familiarized their children with “earth-to-table eating.” For Lim, it was exposure to a culture of food and cooking from her mother and father.

This heavy familial influence gives reason and sentimentality to Chow and Lim’s dedication in their book: “to our parents, who instilled in us a love for food, gardening, cooking and the importance of sitting down for a family meal each day.”

The core of their book explores the “vibrant food scene” in Ottawa and the wide variety of places to fill your appetite in the nation’s capital.

For example, Chow and Lim believe there is a culture developing in Ottawa that is “infatuated with craft beer, street food and eating and buying local.” This book speaks to that culture, with entire chapters devoted to each topic.

The duo believe “Ottawans are developing a love for good food and drink.” How could you not with so many delectable, unique and scrumptious options surrounding you!

Ottawa Food is available wherever books are sold and also online through The History Press.

Fall Reading List

October 15, 2014 2:04 pm
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It is hard to beat a cool fall afternoon spent cozying up on the couch with a hot tea and a must-read. That is why OLM is bringing you its fall reading list. Choose from a variety of sci-fi to romance, or challenge yourself to read them all (more time on the couch!). Let us know your favourite fall reads!

PaddlenorthPaddlenorth
Adventure, Resilience, and Renewal in the Arctic Wild
By Jennifer Kingsley, Greystone Books LTD
Take a ride on Back River with Jennifer Kingsley as she paddles for 54 days in the northern wilderness of the Arctic. Through raging winds, rapids and ice, Kingsley and five others test their physical endurance in an exploration unlike any before. Join the journey and visualize the Arctic landscape as you learn what beauty nature and wilderness have to offer.

 

In Times WantingIn Times Wanting
By Kevin Morris, General Store Publishing House
In search of a new beginning, Berrin and Eileen meet up in Ottawa after a decade of being apart. Having faced near execution and emotional breakdown, the two create a new story. Berrin is faced with challenges that force him to transcend trauma and ultimately, find hope. With Canada and Mexico as a backdrop, and a spark for discussion on international development, In Times Wanting sheds new light on youth and community engagement in today’s times.

 

The Future and Why We Should Avoid ItThe Future and Why We Should Avoid It:
Killer Robots, the Apocalypse and Other Topics of Mild Concern
By Scott Feschuk, Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.
Finally a book to help us navigate through the ever changing, technology ridden world. This part how-to manual, part product guide, part apocalypse analysis and part sardonic observation shares what the future may hold—and what we have to look forward to. Feschuk, a columnist for Maclean’s, infuses humour and mockery into his idea of what the fate of humanity holds. Buckle down and get ready for satirical look at our modern day world.

 

Love and Forgetting_webLove and Forgetting
A Husband and Wife’s Journey Through Dementia
By Ken Sobol and Julie Macfie Sobol, Second Story Press
This husband and wife duo take pen to paper to express themselves as they face one of the hardest challenges of getting older—the loss of control, health and self that comes from dementia. Ken was diagnosed with Lewy Body Disease in 2007 and this novel shares his stories as his condition slowly worsens. Julie opens her heart, sharing her own sadness and frustration of trying to help her husband. You will surely be touched by the openness of this love story and find condolence if anyone you know is touched by the disease.

TomesofTerrorTomes of Terror
Haunted Bookstores and Libraries
By Mark Leslie, Dundurn
Ready for a fright? Tomes of Terror takes you to the places where supernatural stories lurk—the local libraries, bookshops and art galleries of a city near you. With first-person accounts of ghostly encounters, Leslie aims to spook with the unexplainable presence lurking around what seems to be every corner.

 

blondeclubThe Blonde Club
By Garth Morris
Hasn’t the idea of making it big run across each of our minds at least once? Follow the journey of four young teenagers and their lives in an attempt to make it big-time in Hollywood. Between the rat packs, the brat packs and the blonde club, it will soon be revealed that Beverly Hills is tough place to figure out. Through love, family and finding what is truly important, The Blonde Club will teach the realism of life and how all that glitters in not always gold.

 

AfterlifeofStarsThe Afterlife of Stars
By Joseph Kertes, Penguin Group Canada
Sibling rivalry, family secrets and incalculable loss are not the only things you will run across when you take a read of The Afterlife of Stars. Transport yourself to 1956 with Robert and Attila Beck as they flee from Russia to Paris in search for a cultural identity often lost in the chaos and confusion of adolescence and war. Join the boys on their journey and feel the uncertainty and displacement running through their minds as they search for what they thought they had lost: home.

 

My OctoberMy October
By Claire Holden Rothman, Penguin Group Canada
Follow the private struggles of the Levesque family—husband, wife and son—as they learn today’s Montreal is plagued with the weight of its past. The story weaves real-life figures and facts into a tantalizing tale examining issues of history, language and cultural identity. Rothman explores the barriers to ethnic and linguistic diversity through the actions of the Levesque family.

 

 

WhipSmartWhip Smart
Lola Montez Conquers the Spaniards
By Kit Brennan, Astor + Blue Editions
Based on the real-life adventures of Lola Montez, Brennan takes you away to 1842 in London to meet the gorgeous young lady who is in trouble and needs an escape. She gets one in the form of a paid trip to Spain. But nothing in life is free and Lola soon finds herself fulfilling tasks for a theatre impresario and government agent. Love, heartbreak and disaster take Lola on a wild adventure of hot pursuit.

 

Canadians at WarCanadians at War Vol. 2
A Guide to the Battlefields and Memorials of World War ll
By Susan Evans Shaw, Goose Lane Editions
Feel the power of World War II as you take a tour through the battlefields and memorials where Canadians fought and died for their country. Seventy-five years after the announcement from King George VI that started it all, this guidebook will have you join the journey of the Canadian troops from Hong Kong to Dieppe, through Italy and Holland. With maps and photographs to help your experience come alive, Canadians at War Vol. 2 gives a glimpse into our history.

 

TSOW-en-3D-205x200 copyThe Secret of Weight
By Florence Delorme
With all of the conflicting advice out there, it comes as no surprise that weight loss can be a bit of a mystery! Luckily, The Secret of Weight by Florence Delorme lays out a simple and easy method for managing weight. Forget fad diets, this method relies on basic nutritional principles that anyone can incorporate into their lives. Delorme is revealing her secrets to the masses in this cheerful guide that has already transformed the physical and emotional well being of thousands of people.

Music Meets Medicine: Allison’s Brain

October 14, 2014 2:47 pm
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Robert McMechan and his wife Allison Woyiwada recently released Allison’s Brain, a book they wrote together. It is the story of Allison’s medical journey, from diagnosis to recovery.

Woyiwada was diagnosed with a large brain aneurysm in 2011. In a surgery that followed, the aneurysm was clipped. After the procedure, Woyiwada experienced severe physical and cognitive problems.

Before her diagnosis Woyiwada was a music teacher at Hopewell Elementary School. Upon her retirement, a wing of the school was dedicated to her continuing legacy. The Allison Woyiwada Music Award was established and is now given to students at Hopewell School annually.

Although she was unable to stay musically active due to her debilitating medical condition, Woyiwada’s love for music remained near and dear to her.

Years later, Woyiwada has made an astonishing recovery. She regained physical and cognitive strength and function to the extent that she was able to sing with the Ottawa Brahms Choir in December 2013. In April 2014, she also staged a children’s musical she wrote.

McMechan and Woyiwada hosted a breakout session at the Brain Injury Association of Canada’s 11th annual conference, held in Gatineau, QC. The husband and wife duo shared more about the book and Woyiwada’s story with attendees of the conference.

A book launch for Allison’s Brain was also held at the conference. The event celebrated the release of the book, but more importantly, Allison’s tremendous medical progress.

The book is available for purchase online through Friesen Press in hardcover, paperback and e-book format.

To read more about Allison’s medical journey, you can visit her blog.

OLM Book Review: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

May 15, 2014 1:51 pm
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Author Esi Edugyan’s eloquent prose pays a worthy homage to the blues, as it is often considered the simplest yet most difficult music to play.

The beginning of World War Two has The Hot Time Swingers on the run. This Blues band, along with their prodigy trumpet player, Hieronymus Falk flee to France to escape racial persecution and to track down the great Louis Armstrong.

Deep but also reader friendly, the story of Half Blood Blues unfolds in large chunks from two time periods.

In the 1940s the band, a mix of black-American and black-German musicians, split their time between playing in smoky bars and recovering from the rot (a hangover).

“The unfair distribution of talent”, as protagonist Sid Griffiths puts it, has him at odds between his ego and his morals. The dialog in Half Blood Blues is sharp, honest, and one would guess, accurate of the dialect heard in the nineteen-forties blues scene:

“I admit it, he got genius, he got genius in spades. Cut him in half, he still worth three of me,” Griffiths laments about his friend and love rival Falk.

Driven by jealously Griffith betrays Falk in a move that changes the course of blues music forever.

Fast forward to the 1990s and Griffith doesn’t play bass anymore but the blues still haunts him.

Reconnecting with his former band mate, the now famous Chip Jones has Griffith revisiting his past where he has long been carrying the burden of guilt.

Griffith and Jones return to Berlin as old men to attend a screening for a documentary about the now legendary Falk. It is at this time that Griffith is forced to either come clean or to carry his guilt to the grave.

Half Blood Blues is a story about the struggle and sadness in lives lived to create something as sweet and soulful as the blues.

Ma Rainy, one of the earliest known American Blues singers is famous for saying: “White folks hear the blues come out, but they don’t know how it got there.” Half Blood Blues is one story about how the blues got there, and it will have you hearing it like you never have before.

Half Blood Blues was the 2011 winner of the Scotia Bank Giller Prize and is published by Harper Collins.

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