Monthly Archives: November 2005

Currently Reading…

Walk Through DarknessWalk Through Darkness, by David Anthony Durham.

I was somewhat reluctant to start this novel. Somber stories, stories of deep hopelessness do not generally appeal to me, and how could a story about slavery on the eve of the Civil War be not hopeless?

The story is dark, but ends on a note of joy, a celebration of life, a vision, and that is what makes it beautiful and fascinating, instead of simply a good story. We follow William, an escaped Chesapeake slave who wants to reunite with his wife in Pensylvania and Morrison, his tracker, who wants to find William for reasons of his own. Throughout the book, we are confronted with the dehumanizing force of slavery, a force that made monsters out of white men. Monsters who used the Bible to rationalize their behaviors and superiority.

The prose is simple yet elegant, and emotion permeates every page. Surprisingly though, they are only the characters’ emotions. Whatever passion the author felt about his subject does not intrude. This is not a moralizing tale –although it does put morality into question– there is no underlying bitterness in the telling. Durham does not use his characters to accuse or revile. He only tells the story, and it is through it that we feel the full impact of a despicable time. That is, as far as I’m concerned, the mark of a great talent.

A great book, well worth the read.

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Common errors in English

Its and It’s. Backward and backwards. Dessert and desert. Gamut and Gauntlet. The English language, in all its glory, is incredibly difficult to learn and use well (as someone whose mother tongue is French, I’m one to know), for all sorts of reasons.

One of the least obvious to the native English speaker is the use of prepositions or adverb to change the meaning of a verb. There are ten which are used with the most common verbs (61 in total): to, up, in, out, down, on, over, from, about, and with. So, if I use the verb “come” it goes like this:

  • come to
  • come up
  • come in
  • come out
  • come down
  • come on
  • come from
  • come about
  • come with

Each of these word combination has a different meaning. Then there’s come aboard, come about, come across, come after, come against, come ahead, come along, come apart, come around, come at, come away, come back, come before, come between, come by, come down, come forth, come from, come into, come off, come round, come through, come to.

That’s hard enough to learn, but then there are all these words that look alike or have subtly different meanings, like the ones I began this commentary with. I found this cool website, Common Errors in English, that can help with that. Some of them relate to English usage:

Able to: People are able to do things, but things are not able to be done: you should not say, “the budget shortfall was able to be solved by selling brownies.”

Some relate to the confusion in using one word over the other:

Its/It’s: The exception to the general rule that one should use an apostrophe to indicate possession is in possessive pronouns. Some of them are not a problem. “Mine” has no misleading “s” at the end to invite an apostrophe. And few people are tempted to write “hi’s,” though the equally erroneous “her’s” is fairly common, as are “our’s” and “their’s—all wrong, wrong, wrong. The problem with avoiding “it’s” as a possessive is that this spelling is perfectly correct as a contraction meaning “it is.” Just remember two points and you’ll never make this mistake again. (1) “it’s” always means “it is” or “it has” and nothing else. (2) Try changing the “its” in your sentence to “his” and if it doesn’t make sense, then go with “it’s.”

That site has earned a bookmark in my reference section. As a writer, it is a precious tool that will help me perfect my English, an endless task, since the language has unplumbed depths.

This is why I’m always so amazed at those writers who not only use the language as a tool, but also to create a work of art. I’ll never pretend to be able to do what they do, but I can appreciate the deftness of these artists.

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Snapshots… Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain

Snapshots

An interview with Eva Kende

When, at the age of 15 ½ Eva Kende snuck out of communist Hungary in 1957 with her mother and other refugees, she entered a very different world than what she had known throughout her childhood. She admits an abiding love for her adopting country, Canada, while still steeped deeply in her Hungarian culture. Almost fifty years after her emigration to Canada, Eva has decided to share the experiences of her childhood with us.

Q.: Eva, what decided you to write Snapshots?

A: This is a hard question to answer. Several factors converged. First with the communications tool of the internet, I made an effort and united the members of my father’s family spread around the world. We started to reminisce. Our frequent trips to Hungary in recent years gave me the opportunity to revisit scenes and friends of my childhood which tweaked my memory. I joined a Hungarian discussion group where we often recalled the past. A number of friends questioned me about the past and last but not least Noah, my older grandson, proved to me that he can recall, in detail, events of his life before he turned two. I started to write down some of my stories. Couple of them appeared in anthologies, another is a favourite Christmas story published on the web, and all were very well received. Especially Tale of One Refugee that appeared in Looking in…Portraits of the Canadian Soul , brought a lot of feed back. Someone even used it as resource material in a social studies curriculum.

Q: When did you start writing Snapshots?

A: I started to try to organize all this material about five years ago. It’s been a long journey to get it to the point of publication. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the revolution, so it’s an appropriate time to publish this material.

Q: Some of these memories must be painful for you. Why did you feel it necessary to put these memories to paper?

A: Those of us who escaped after the 1956 revolution call ourselves ’56-ers to distinguish ourselves from the various immigration waves of Hungarians to North America that came before us and some that came later.

Talking to a number of descendants of ’56-ers, I felt that there was a need to talk about the details of everyday life as we lived it. Many of the ’56-ers either don’t want to talk about their past or do not have the communications skills to express what they have lived through, so their children don’t even know what to ask. I hope that this book will open a dialogue in a lot of homes and bring the generations closer.

Watching the orders rolling in, I am pleased to find that a lot of non-’56-ers and non-Hungarians are very interested in this subject. I think with recent political events, freedom and its meaning is on a lot of people’s mind. They want to better understand what people in other political systems experienced.

Q: Tell us a bit about your life in Canada since you arrived in 1957.

A: At first I was put into a mixed school, grades 5 to 12 to learn rudimentary English. From there they placed me into grade 6 in a regular school, but in the fall of 1957, I took my rightful place in grade ten. My mother remarried in 1957. Thanks to my new family, considerate teachers and a lot of sensitive school chums, I integrated into Canadian society rapidly.

With all that help, I was accepted into Science at the University of Manitoba and earned my degree in 1963. During the summers I was a research assistant in Botany and worked in research at the Geological Survey in Ottawa in the summer break of 1962. After graduation I moved to Toronto, working as a research assistant in hospitals and at the University. I met and married my husband, also a ’56-er, in Toronto. His career moves took us back to Winnipeg for a while, where my son Leslie was born and where I worked as a research assistant at the University of Manitoba Medical School. Our next move was to Edmonton, then to Calgary. I continued doing research.

In 1984, I wrote and published Eva’s Hungarian Kitchen, a cookbook that still has a dedicated following. When my son graduated from High School and went to Queen’s in 1986, I retired to Canmore in the Alberta Rocky Mountains. In 1998 I completed another cookbook, Eva’s Kitchen Confidence, to help beginners be flexible in their kitchen art. It was published by DiskUs Publishing.

I am always busy with community work, tole painting, crocheting, genealogy and travel. We want to see as much of the world as possible before we become too crotchety to enjoy it.

Q: What do you think of the political situation in Hungary today?

A: Hungary and its people are having a hard time. To go from a state-controlled economy (ownership, health care, pensions and price control) to a market-driven one with all its insecurities in 15 short years is difficult, especially for the older people. Exercising the right to democratic process with multi-party elections has to be learned from experience. The learning curve is steep.

Q: You say that many of your father’s family are still in Hungary. How have they fared since you left?

A: I have only one cousin and his family living in Hungary. The others escaped in 1956. One lives in Vienna and one in Chicago. Our eldest cousin passed away a few years ago, but we keep in touch with her daughter in Los Angeles. The cousin in Budapest is doing well. He seemed to have moved easily from the government-controlled publishing industry to private enterprise. He is well respected as editor of the complex website news magazine of the main Internet provider and is the proud grandfather of two lovely boys. I drew on his experience in layout and cover art in preparing Snapshots for printing. His daughter and son-in-law are both teachers, experiencing the frustrations of financial restraints that most young people have to face anywhere.

Q: What is your favourite memory of Hungary?

A: It’s difficult to choose one of the many peppered thoughout Snapshots. The summers in Miscolc-Tapolca, theatre productions and of course that Sunday in Szentendre, stand out.

Q: What do you see in your future? Any other similar writing?

A: I want to take some time off, but everyone who knows me laughs when I say that. I have several short pieces in various stages of completion, mostly about my grandchildren. I should polish them and submit them to an appropriate magazine.

Q: Where can we buy Snapshots?

A: For the time being it can be ordered through my website for direct shipping. Soon I will also make the ebook version available too. I am just beginning to approach independent bookstores and one of them promised to put it on Amazon as well.

Thanks, Eva. I hope many Hungarian friends and expatriates, as well as their children, will find answers in your book, and that those interested in history, regardless of their nationalities, enjoy Snapshots: Growing up behind the Iron Curtain.

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Currently Reading…

PlainsongPlainsong, by Kent Haruf.

Like its title, Kent Haruf’s prose seems simple at first glance, but has the elegance of the many-voice harmonies. The story is slow to start, but it put me in mind of the crosstitch I love to do. First I must chose my canvas or material, then select a pattern, colors, needles. The first stitch only looks like a small cross, but one added to another and another ends up forming a beautiful picture.

This is about the interaction of seven people (a father and his two pre-teen sons, two old bachelor brothers, a pregnant sixteen-year-old and the female teacher who takes her in), how they bear, see, realize life. It’s about change and comprehension, about redemption and getting to know your place in the world.

Haruf gives us a glimpse of western farming life in a small town south of Denver. To an easterner like me, the setting is more exotic than Europe or South America. We understand that the west is more than just a place, but values, a deep-rooted culture, a way of life. Haruf brilliantly describes it without making it obvious: it threads through the lives of the seven people in the story.

Coincidentally, Kent Haruf was a great influence on Mark Spragg (The Fruit of Stone) and I now understand why. Both authors have the harmony of words down to a refined art.

Plainsong may be uncaccompanied music, but it’s beautiful and resonant.

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Browser Frustrations

Get Firefox!
Those of you who visit my blog might observe I’ve changed templates several times. This is not a caprice, but a necessity, since most WordPress templates (the good looking ones, anyway) do not work in Internet Explorer. I happened to notice it only by happenstance, since I don’t use IE at all. I hate IE. It has bugs, it’s extremely sensitive to bugs and viruses, and Windows technicians can’t seem to be able to fix their own code.

For several years now I’ve been using Firefox, from Mozilla. It’s free, Opensource, and works like a charm. It has a choice of cool themes, you can tab sites, bookmarks are super easy to manage. It also features Pop up blocking, search options (Google, Yahoo and others), and smart downloading. Over 100 million of people are now using Firefox.

So, stop using a mediocre browser. Get Firefox. While you’re at it, “reclaim your Inbox” and get Mozilla’s companion emailer, Thunderbird.

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