Monthly Archives: December 2010

Book Review: Room

RoomRoom by Emma Donoghue

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In learning that Emma Donoghue had be shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, I had a feeling her book might be a difficult one to read, one that you have to work at in order to get through it. I was completely wrong.

The story is grim, desperate, yet it is a testament to the love that exists between a mother and child and how freedom as a concept and freedom as a reality are two very different things. The story is told entirely from the point of view of Jack, a five-year-old, who was born in “Room,” the space where his mother has been held captive for the past seven years. What he knows as real is what is in Room. Everything else is in Outer Space or in TV. When Jack’s safety is threatened by his mother’s captor, “Ma” conceives a plan for them to escape that hinges on the courage of her young son.

It is a testament to Donoghue’s deft and clever writing that she is able to address complex concept in Jack’s entirely believable voice. She does that by using a child’s ability to ape without understanding, but also by using a child’s often much clearer understanding of the world, because it is so much simpler for them.

Once started, it is impossible to put down Room. Jack’s escape scene is particularly harrowing and emotionally difficult to read, but the “side effects” of freedom are equally fascinating and startling.

Here is the blurb from Goodreads:

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, ROOM is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

All in all, Room deserved to be nominated. Highly recommended.

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Cranky Christmas

In the news last night, there was a social piece about Christmas cards. They were wondering if the electronic card–usually free–would eventually replace the paper card. The consensus, biased as it was, was no.

I don’t mind receiving an ecard. We send paper cards every year, but it’s a matter of choice. I’m as pleased to get an ecard as I am of receiving a paper one, although the ecard is more difficult to display on the mantle. What I really, really hate, is to receive a plain email with wishes. As I mentioned, many ecards sites offer free cards, so obviously it’s not the cost that came into play. I received three emails this year, and from family to boot. What, you were too lazy to pick a free card? You felt obligated to send me something because I sent you a card, but you don’t really care? Well, please, don’t bother.

It’s the same for off-the-cuff, ridiculously wrapped gift. For the past three years, a friend I’ve known for over twenty years has been giving me what I’d call afterthought gifts. Something she’s had in her house, wrapped loosely in torn tissue paper, and shoved in a wine bottle bag. Another, with the same kind of wrapping, gave me a Costco plastic salt shaker and a mushroom brush. For Christmas.  It was obvious she’d gone through her house to find something she could give me because we were coming to visit. If I went by the type of presents to determine how much these friends value me, I’d be depressed.

Instead, I blame it on how friendships and relationships have become superficial. With Twitter and Facebook, we live “social moments” with hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, often on the run or while doing something else. We talk at people and don’t get responses–and we don’t necessarily want them. There’s not as much time left to sit down and talk, families are often dispersed across one or more continents, and there’s a sense of alienation that lodges itself into the way we interact with people. Today, it’s all about numbers rather than quality. We value ourselves by the number of “friends” we have but could never have a conversation with half of them.

I’m not saying that Twitter and Facebook, or any other social network,  are bad. In fact, none of the people I talked about above use a social network. What I’ve been observing, rather, is the pervasiveness of isolation we seem to surround ourselves with, and this translates into a casual attitude to interacting, and to giving. It’s especially glaring in times like Christmas, because of the messages of love and giving we get battered with.

So, this Christmas, make an effort. If you decide to reach to someone, do it with heart and meaning and sincerity. Otherwise, don’t bother.

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Book Review: La Isla Bajo el Mar

La isla bajo el marLa isla bajo el mar by Isabel Allende

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The poignant story of Zarité, a black slave in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and later in New Orleans in the 18th Century.

I have read this book in the original language (Spanish), and Allende’s prose is simple and elegant, yet extremely vivid. The book is a mix of fairly detailed historical fiction and the slave Zarité’s voice, which brings an element of immediacy to the events. When she speaks for Zarité, Allende can shock us with the casual way the slave speaks of her treatment (e.g., her master extinguishing his cigar on her), and so gives us the utter helplessness of the slave.

But Allende shows us also the cost of becoming free–a fact that Haiti, in a way, has never recovered from–and, despite the inescapable disgust of slavery she creates in the reader, she also succeeds in making us see the slave owners’ point of view, in all its callousness, insensitivity, greed, and ignorance.

If I have one criticism it’s the slow pace of the book, maybe due to the detailed historical events she uses as parentheses to the story. It was sometimes a bit plodding, although it opened my eyes to the plight of the slaves at the inception of the slave trade.

Well worth the read.

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Stop it, Hollywood!

Recently Hollywood has tried to add new life to the traditional zombie movie. I imagine the zombies are all for this but they should not have a say.

Zombies shamble. They do NOT run, jump or climb, they shamble.

And that’s as it should be since running, jumping and climbing are not healthy activities for the undead. They are brittle creatures. Their skin doesn’t even stay on well. I expect that’s a result of their high protein diet since all they eat is living humans—when they can catch them.

Of course that’s Hollywood’s quandary. Back in the day when zombies were black and white and had people trapped in drafty old farmhouses survival was pretty much a fifty-fifty proposition. If you were a zombie you and your friends would try to get into the farmhouse and do lunch without getting your heads blown off by a shotgun. As we all know the zombie’s head is its control room. Blow the head off and the undead becomes a real dead. On the other side, if you were a living person inside that farmhouse you’d wield your double-barrel—The Decapitator—to repel unwanted guests and avoid having your throat ripped out by the jaws of a zombie. A little aside here: Alligators are credited with having the most powerful bite of any living creature. The zombie’s bite is even more powerful but isn’t credited due to its life status.

I digress, though that’s what asides are for. In the years since black and white farmhouses, Hollywood has given living celluloid humans all sorts of flight-or-fight technology—automatic rifles, hand grenades, flame throwers, crotch rocket motorcycles, muscle cars, mountain bikes…yes, even a pedalled bicycle can easily outdistance a shambling zombie. Thus the Hollywood dilemma: advantage, living human. Imagine you’re a member of the walking dead looking for a snack, you shamble up behind an unsuspecting farmer, desperate to stifle that moaning groaning noise your kind can’t help, you lurch toward his neck and the bleepin’ guy leaps on a tractor and trundles away to the south forty. On a tractor. That does maybe 10 mph wide open. You’d want to flop down on a rock and quit.

Movie makers recently have tried to even the score by creating zombies that are able to run…ok, they aren’t Olympic sprinters, but still…and not only run but climb fences and ladders and jump down from modest elevations. Here’s where I say “Stop it, Hollywood.” If you’re going to have running jumping zombies you’re going to have to improve their diets with some citrus, bananas, greens, whole grains—see the food pyramid. Otherwise you still have the traditional fragile zombie, let’s say a female—she attempts to run, the impact of foot upon ground drives the tibia through the skin of her lower leg and mobility is lost. She can still drag herself along the ground by her fingers, destroying her nails, but that’s really just a form of shamble. Imagine trying to climb a chain link fence and your own weight pulls your fingers off. Or you jump down from a large shipping crate and the blow of the landing drives your thigh bones up and into your control center to render you for real dead. Better off shambling.

So here’s the message, film makers: if you want us to continue to believe that zombies are real, and that we should leave a night light on, either stick to the shamble or come up with a semi-healthy creature—the partly dead, the walking half-dead, the 35% dead, whatever–something that eats right and is only partly dead and therefore able to chase us and climb our fire escapes. Please keep the involuntary moaning and groaning though.

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Southern Georgian Bay

Southern Georgian Bay (Ontario, Canada) usually brings to mind the tourist area surrounding Wasaga Beach, the longest freshwater beach in the world. It is situated at the southernmost tip of Georgian Bay, a couple of hours drive north of Toronto. Wasaga Beach has stunning vistas, even at the end of October when the wind and waves are attacking the shore and only the hardiest are willing to walk the shores.

Just 20 minutes west of Wasaga Beach is Collingwood. Skiers will associate the area with the Crazy Canucks who trained on the hills at Blue Mountain. Hikers know its extensive trails with year-round access, allowing a leisurely stroll along the banks of a river or a strenuous workout up the side of a mountain.

We took several day trips during our visit. One in particular was a drive from Collingwood to Tobermory which is at the north end of Bruce Peninsula. It’s an easy drive straight up the middle of the peninsula on Highway 6. Note that there is no water view unless you take side roads to the coast, e.g. to see one of the many lighthouses. We stopped at the following towns and villages as we travelled:

Thornbury – one of the many farms along the highway is raising miniature horses; their feed station was identified as a mini saloon;

Meaford – everywhere we turned there were scarecrows hanging from sign posts and buildings; there’s an outlet mall which is set up like a junky garage sale but has some good deals on furniture and tools;

Owen Sound – this is a very pleasant town half-way up the peninsula; it’s the winter home of Chi-Cheemaun, the car ferry that travels from Tobermory to Manitoulin Island;

Tobermory – situated at the tip of the peninsula separating Georgian Bay from Lake Huron, this is the starting point for the car ferry; it operates from the long weekend of May to the week after Thanksgiving; unfortunately, we arrived two days late;

Sauble Beach – we stopped here on the return trip when we took a side road to the Lake Huron side; the waves were even higher than at Wasaga Beach; the wind was strong enough to make us stagger as we walked;

Southampton – also on the Lake Huron side, this is a tiny version of its predecessor in England; there were many sail- and fishing boats but no yachts or cruise ships as we saw in England.

Suggestion: Visit the area from mid-September to mid-October when the tourist attractions are all open. Otherwise, go in the winter for ski season.

Tourist info: www.visitgeorgianbay.com

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