ANTHONY DOERR, CLOUD CUCKOO LAND


Review of Anthony Doerr’s CLOUD CUCKOO LAND

This novel defies classification. At times it is a dystopic tale; at other times, the story fits historical fiction, and different sections will please aficionados of the classics. It is a challenging novel for those who like a straight-up story with the main plot and possibly some subplots. This is not that novel.

Doerr has written a novel that encompasses the history of the world as narrated in the storylines of a cast of characters, each living in a different area of the world and in a different time, including the future. The various settings of those times are painted with confidence. 

Unlike Doerr’s bestseller All The Light We Cannot See, in which the two main protagonists live in different settings (Germany and France) but simultaneously, the characters of Cloud Cuckoo Land live in vastly different times, and their stories seem unrelated. 

We meet Konstance, born in a spaceship, the Argos. There is Zeno, a brown child. In childhood, he first got acquainted with the Greek classics; he endured the Korean war as a young man in 1951. He has become an octogenarian when things are nearing a crisis in current times. Seymour is a differently-abled ultrasensitive child who needs sound-blocking headphones to function in Lakeport, Idaho, in modern times. Anna is an orphan, an enslaved child-embroideress in 1452 Constantinople: Christian territory until the Saracens invade and name it Istanbul. Omeir is a boy with a hare lip, the cause of his family’s ostracization to the hills, 200 miles from Constantinople. 

Doerr performs the same high-wire act in both novels. In the agonizingly-slow, spellbinding process of weaving an overall narrative and connecting the experiences of each character, regardless of the different geography and eras, Doerr provides the overarching rationale of the novel in the last chapters.

I was so frustrated reading at times that I wanted to tear up the book in its separate chapters of each character to combine those and read that individual’s narrative and avoid the brainwork of remembering what I just read about another. Good thing the book is a hardcover and too expensive to just tear apart.

So, what did I think about the book? It was a challenge for me, but true to my persistent nature, I kept reading because the writing is beautiful and never bores. Doerr painted the different worlds—all disastrous for the inhabitants—in enchanting ways that reminded me of the Brothers Grimm’s work, a collection of ancient and sometimes gory folk tales intending to promote proper conduct. 

Although the individuals inhabiting Cloud Cuckoo Land are all children when their subplots begin, the novel is by no means a children’s book, just like All The Light really wasn’t. It is simply too complicated to read for children (and many adults, I suspect).

The theme that especially resonated with me as a resident of British Columbia—the scene of unprecedented environmental disasters all year—was the unrelenting destruction by humans of their world. Like unthinking marauders, the adults are killing and burning their way across the world or are the victims to end up with an unliveable planet. 

Like Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s folk tales, in this book, Doerr used the world’s stories, in love with literature, world history, and religions. We can only guess his underlying message, but I am sure most readers will find the warning that we, humans, must change our ways including stopping the power of AI companies, or there will be no inhabitable world left.

Posted in Author circles, book review, Children, Creative fiction, cultural differences, environment, Global immigration, Publishing, Uncategorized, world issues | 2 Comments

A WALK THROUGH OLD-WEST AMSTERDAM


A WALK THROUGH AMSTERDAM

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In my sister’s neighbourhood, things change all the time. I notice the difference between my visits to Amsterdam every two years, when my family gets together around the birthdate of my mother, who passed away more than a decade ago. I used to live in the Kinkerstraat, not too far away from de Witte de Withstraat, where my sister eventually settled on her repatriation to The Netherlands from the USA. Since my own departure to Canada, the neighbourhood underwent many changes over time.

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The area I am describing lies between the outermost canal surrounding the centre of old town, the Singelgracht, and the Admiralengracht, the canal ending at the border of the first tram zone, direction Old-West Amsterdam. It became the settlement area for immigrants from the Mediterranean—Morocco, and Turkey in particular. Shops changed into typical small food and clothing shops where Muslims could buy what they needed. Halal shops sprang up everywhere offering lamb and cow meat products, butchered according to the prescription of the Koran. The neighbourhood day-market at the Ten Cate Street became a mixed market as many merchant stalls changed hands, as its customers changed who needed a variety of different products. I would estimate this development period lasted two to three decades.

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A new restaurant in a corner property. Across from it the old mosque.

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I loved that development and the new changes, although I wondered to which area of the city the Muslim residents were moving to in this latest trend of the last few years. During the eighties, because the original Dutch citizens (autochthones) moved into the newer housing projects further out into Suburbia, the streetscape altered drastically, as the traditionally dressed Arab pedestrians replaced the original Dutch—allochthones. This created the feeling that I had made a trip to Morocco without having had to board a plane. A nice bonus. Now that is changing again.

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The women’s entrance of the little mosque with a bread basket, for those who don’t have any.

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Moving day, Amsterdam style. In this case, the house is under renovation.

 

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Most of the old, residential neighbourhoods in Amsterdam contain subsidized rental housing in mostly pre-war blocks of four-story apartments with moving hooks on gable in the attic. Renting is the preferred method for housing, as real estate is expensive. The various housing co-ops are by law obliged to restore and maintain their properties, so the modern rebuilds or renovated neighbourhoods look especially beautiful, as maintaining style is a must! A beautiful, large Mosque and blocks of matching new construction, designed by a Canadian architect, arose in my sister’s backyard several years ago and are now complete and inhabited.

At the same time, a brand-new hotel was constructed that is accessible from both sides of the block. It accommodates the more adventurous travelers, mostly young people. It is called Hotel Not Hotel. All rooms have some quaint characteristic, such as an actual train compartment. It has a bar and restaurant. The lounge seating extends into the street onto the sidewalk.

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In the millennium, the trend to share or sublet housing (AirBnB, etc.) became widely acceptable, as young professionals and youth, who began living independently, cannot afford to rent houses on their own, so are sharing housing. So also happened in Amsterdam. The Kinkerstaat and Oud-West changed from a barren, working-class neighbourhood into a sloppy little Morocco, then in the last two years, it again changed: into yuppy streets, well-maintained and clean: a gentrified part of Amsterdam catering to low-income students and young families, mostly Caucasian. I am attaching photos of this neighbourhood.

 

Above: the little mosque in de Witte de With straat, in use prior to, and after the construction of the large, brand new mosque.

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The new mosque along the canal.

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The cafe/restaurant across the mosque with the new apartment buildings, to buy, not rent.

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My sister did wisely to just stay put. Her renovated third-floor two-bedroom home with a large sit/eating area across the width of the building and French doors with a view to the inner courtyard of green space leading to the balcony, is only a bike ride away from everywhere, and a five minute walk to the trams that will take you downtown, Schiphol, or anywhere in the city. Wonderful!

Any mobility issues of residents with the steep stairs in 4 story apartment buildings are solved with chairlifts, or with a move to a ground-floor apartment on request of the renter. The housing co-ops are in charge of the buildings and the renovations and are comparable to the Canadian situation of strata developments.

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My sister and I had dinner on the balcony when it was still about 32 degrees—a hot summer.

The whole of the country is interspersed with canals, and the Dutch are still a nation of boaters. All waterways connect and are under the control of the government water control body, specifically established for that purpose in The Netherlands. As roughly a third of the country is situated below sea level, this is the most crucially existential institute in the country.

Old harbours and ship-building wharves around Amsterdam are renovated/rebuilt for additional housing or for recreation. This year I only visited for two weeks, but it was worth it.

Churches are also repurposed, and tear-downs are the last option, only when no use can be found or the structure is unsound. As the subsoil is permeated with water, all buildings are sitting on foundations of piles, so are expensive to build.

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The renovated presbytery of the adjacent church that is now a hotel.

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The church is converted to a neighbourhood social centre.

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The leaded glass church windows are maintained, as beautiful works of art.

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Church-hotel.

IMG_1556An old-fashioned bike that reminded me of how I sat in front of my dad as a child. We never had a car and I never had a car either as an adult—didn’t need one. M older sister could sit on the back carrier.

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Nowadays, the modern, one-child family, or even families with more than one child, have this Cadillac among the bikes, hogging the roads and bike paths.  Still, better than a car.

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One street over is a canal, and if you had a boat, you could park it here and go to work by boat.

 

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DEPORTATION TO A LABOUR CAMP


In honour of HOLOCAST REMEMBRANCE DAY, I am posting a chapter of my novel BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE, released by Histria Books last November (2021).

Many policemen were collaborating freely with the Nazi SD and SS in picking up Dutch Jews from their homes and putting them on transport to the various labour and concentration camps. Particularly in the city of Amsterdam and in the west, this was the practice. In the eastern part there was more resistance among police personnel. The protagonost Jacob resists.

Chapter 31

As the government news radio, the ANP (Public Dutch Press) had become the mouthpiece for the German governor and colloquially known as Adolf’s Newest Parrot. Nazi SS boss Rauter used it to lay down the new rules for Jewish citizens’ segregation. Among them was one incredibly obnoxious order: Jews were to wear a gold star on their outer clothing in public. Department head Den Toom sent Jacob additional directives for instating a separate unit for the political suspects. Jacob dealt with those instructions in his weekly staff briefing.

“Our brigade is just too small, and even just a dedicated officer won’t have enough work. My position remains that the German SD is the designated body to deal with anything of that nature. Better brace yourselves for the future: Den Toom might not agree with me. You are under no circumstances to start acting on your own in those cases. Talk to me if you run into a problem with a political suspect.” 

The crew accepted his instructions without comment this time. With the Germans next door and only half the formalized authority he used to have, he was now grateful for his crew’s compliance.

At the end of the day, Wehrmacht boss Fritz Heusden called Jacob out of the blue and requested police assistance with a particular assignment. Jacob tried to get more information about the nature of this job, but Heusden was hell-bent on keeping it a secret. 

“Just show up at the Wehrmacht headquarters with all the men you can spare.” Heusden’s secrecy made him feel uneasy. Before leaving the brigade, Jacob made sure he had his M25 in its holster and told the men assigned to accompany him to carry their weapons. Jacob arrived at the hotel-annex-HQ with Peters, Dijk, and Leversma, and his righthand man, Van Houten. 

Heusden rubbed his chin incessantly. He looked at Jacob, although clearly meaning to address all the men gathered in the lobby of his HQ when he said: “Von Norden, this job falls under Oberst Rauter’s decree for police assistance. I have nine political suspects on my list for immediate arrest, and we’ll put them on the train. Your men will assist with guarding them. Tell me how you want to do it. Then let’s go and arrest those criminals.” 

A big knot settled in Jacob’s stomach, which made him speak with extreme care. He didn’t take his eyes off the chunky man in front of him. “May I please know their names and what their alleged crimes are, Captain?”

Heusden seemed amenable to his question. 

Ja, sicher. These men engaged in activities considered hostile to the German state. They are getting a chance for retribution providing labor for das Reich. They will rehabilitate themselves at the labor camp at Saint Johannesga. After paying their debt to the German State, they may be released. So, let’s proceed.”

“Their names, bitte?”

“You will learn in time.”

Just before dark, as most families had dinner at home, the group entered the street. Four German soldiers with their commander and four Dutch Marechaussee policemen plus their chief marched in formation through Overdam. At the first address, Heusden and another Wehrmacht soldier went in to arrest the man named on the list, according to plan. 

As the man walked down the path with Wehrmacht on each side of him, Jacob and his men saw the Star of David on his coat’s lapel. Goddamn. They were arresting the Jewish males in town, as he already had suspected. With the evidence in front of him, Jacob called out to Heusden. 

“Stop! Halt! Excuse me, Commander Heusden.” 

Heusden hurried from the door towards Jacob in the street and growled: “What’s your problem?”

Haughty with righteousness, his hands on his hips, Jacob demanded: “These men on your list — are they all Jewish? Why didn’t you tell me?” 

Heusden put up his hand up to stop Jacob and snapped, (remove “)“Damn you. You don’t have to touch the Jews. My men will arrest them. Your job is to only to accompany the prisoners to the train and make sure they get on. What difference would it make for you to know? You’re to collaborate. Wasn’t it made clear to you?” 

All men watched the scene with great interest.

Jacob’s right hand had crept up to his holster and rested on the leather, his elbow bent. As soon as he had touched his weapon, he saw his men tensing up from the corner of his eyes. He kept his hand where it was on the gun. He cleared his throat. With a firm voice and extra beats in his heart, he declared his position.

“No. We cannot help you. It’s against regulations for Dutch police to arrest any politicals. Besides, Governor Seyss-Inquart promised the Jewish Dutch were not going to be touched. May I ask who gave this order?” 

The Wehrmacht commander’s face was beet-red, and his voice rose to a screeching pitch.

“Don’t you get it, Käsekopf [cheese-head]? All rules are off. We’re at war and you’re under occupation. We do this job on order of my superior, Commander Schwier. His boss gave the command to start dealing with the Dutch Jews. You really want to fight SS-boss Rauter? Stand down, man.” 

He contravened Heusden’s command. “Nee [no]. I’m so sorry, Heusden, I apologize. You’ll have to ask your Security Services SD or the SS, or wait till your own Ordnungspolizei are back. I cannot comply. Nee.” He turned to Peters, who was loosely holding the just-arrested man by his upper arm. “Let the man go. We’re leaving now.”

With a face distorted from anger, Heusden took a step forward as he got his gun from its holster. With his arm stretched, he aimed it at Jacob’s heart and screamed: “Stop the nonsense, damn you!” The Nazi soldier looked like a raving madman, eyes wide and mouth wide open, his cap shoved to the back of his head, his big head about to explode.

Jacob also stepped forward, his heart beating twice as fast, as it pumped adrenaline through his system. The two of them stood a hand-width apart from each other, Heusden’s gun touching his chest, his arm bent at the elbow. In one smooth movement, Jacob drew his M25 and pushed it hard against Heusden’s ribs. 

Heusden yelled, his face a couple of inches from Jacob’s, his pistol pressing hard against Jacob’s chest. “Lower your weapon, you fool, you’re under arrest.” 

With his knees shaking under him, Jacob spoke in a soft and patient voice. 

“You know I can’t take direct commands from a German authority. I will not arrest Jewish citizens without a criminal offence. At least let me authorize the job with my department head, before I do anything else, just to be sure. Please, Heusden, lower your gun.” 

He heard noises from his crew members and Heusden’s crew, noises he recognized as shuffling feet. They were closing in, but he didn’t look — he focused on Heusden.

Jacob’s calm speech seemed to have relaxed Heusden a tad, who now looked around him. When he saw the other policemen with their guns aimed at him, Heusden slowly backed off several paces, his gun still aimed at Jacob’s chest. 

Jacob’s gun was still aimed at the German’s ribcage, but he raised his weapon and aimed it at the Captain’s head. He was calm, and he almost dared the man to shoot him. If he killed Heusden now, that would be that — the end of all misery, for himself as well. 

Heusden’s men had positioned themselves beside their boss with their machine guns raised, aiming at the police officers. Jacob’s own men had taken several steps forward and stood next to Jacob, guns in hand but with firepower clearly inferior to the Germans.

“I bloody well can give you an order,” Heusden spat.

Jacob felt a drop of his spittle on his face as Heusden growled, “I’ll have you arrested for refusing to follow an order.” The smell of the foreigner’s sweat reached his nose. 

Everybody clearly noticed that the army commandant humiliated himself with his threats: if the guns didn’t impress Jacob, the words surely wouldn’t either. He was aware of it, and it boosted his resolve.

The stand-off suddenly ended when Heusden lowered his gun with a groan. 

Jacob lowered his weapon and barely controlled the urge to hit the soldier’s face hard with his pistol before he put it back in its holster. He tasted bile in his mouth and stepped back a few more steps.

Heusden growled, his voice low and angry: “I will not forget this.”

The four police officers had followed Jacob’s example, but the Wehrmacht soldiers didn’t lower their Mausers. 

Calm and self-assured, Jacob replied. “You drew your gun first. I was defending myself. So, that’s it then. My apologies, Commander, but you’re on your own with this lousy job.” He turned away, soaked through with sweat. 

“Let’s go.” His crew followed him. Jacob was ready for another nasty reply, or a shot in the back, the hairs in his neck raised, but instead of the crack of a gun, he heard Heusden yell: 

“By God! Ja, I didn’t sign up for this either. I’m just a soldier. Verdammt noch mal.” 

Nobody had observed the Jewish captive slipping away into the shadows ten minutes earlier. 

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POLITICS IN THE USA AND CANADA


POLITICS IN THE USA AND CANADA

POLITICS

Definitions:

  • the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area,
  • especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.
  • the activities of governments concerning the political relations between countries.
  • the academic study of government and the state.
  • the opinions that someone has about what should be done by governmentsa person’s political thoughts and opinions

I always have considered politics to be the activities related to people in governments, or candidates of political parties, or those discussing those activities, like journalists. Politics can also mean to indicate the actual strategies those politicians use to get to their goals. 

Yes, it’s confusing, but language is very imprecise in how we use it to express our thoughts.

Recently, I hear more often the negative tone when people dismiss a decision made by a legitimate decision-maker, such as a company board or a minister, with the comment: it’s all politics

It seems that the whole business of politics has gotten a negative connotation as if politicians, government officials, and other decision-makers are unreliable and what they say means nothing or is a lie. 

Like the comment today from a bystander who clearly regretted that the tennis star Djokovic was evicted from Australia: a lot of politics. He clearly meant that the reasons given for the decision were not real reasons, or fair. 

That trend is clearly the case in the USA—the country whose politics I follow closely beside my own. The USA struggles with the purpose and goals of governing. 

Its Congress is not governing anymore as it should, due to unreconcilable differences between the two parties. I hope that trend doesn’t travel to Canada, although some of the nastiest characteristics of our neighbour country have permeated Canada as well, such as conspiracy theories and anti-vaxxers. 

I am compelled to dig deeper and try to find out what is happening with politics. 

The keyword in politics—I mean the business of governing—in my mind is the goal. What are the goals of certain parties or candidates? What is the goal of a Congress or in Canadian terms, a parliament? What are the preliminary conditions for governing? Who has the right to govern?

Politically “literate” people are those who were educated on the basics of government economy and political science. They know how to interpret all that they see in the videos and news clips from debated and inquiry committees. Others glaze over when it sounds all like abracadabra to them or interpret it in a completely different manner from those in the know. 

I suspect those uneducated use the phrase it’s all politics as a negative, but the educated may use the same phrase as an explanatory comment, meaning: is it is all strategic

One assumes those who end up in national or state/provincial government have had a proper education in political science or in the matter of governing, in one way or another, whether through university, college, or previous work experience. 

Unfortunately, that is not always so. No academic qualifications are required to become an elected Member of Parliament MP, the Legislative Assembly MLA, or of the House of Representatives. So there you go: any moron with a way with words could get in

That is often quite noticeable to the insiders, but hey, when the know-nots are elected in, they get paid. I won’t mention any names, but you know a few. 

How do they get in? The use of certain code words owned by certain political parties (or groups) might get those uneducated members elected. They may indeed “play” at politics, especially when they do not have an ethical base from which to adhere to the goals of government. They may not work for the common good of all, but just to please one powerful person, or for acquiring an income. The term “serve for the people” seems to be lost on those individuals.

Everybody can guess the purpose of government, whether it’s a company board or a country: to make sure that it (the company, the country) survives, does well, and that the best decisions are made to make that happen. It is self-evident that the voting privileges on policies are part of the elected body of government, and not necessarily extended to all in the company or the country. That is the business of government. Other government bodies may have only appointed members, who by some established rule get a position as a privilege, due to knowledge, past service, or what have you. (Senate in Canada).

I would add that the goal of the government of a country should be to make the country and life better for the greatest numbers of citizens, and not just a few, such as the rich, or the party members (Nazi Germany, Russia). Therefore, most counties have a rule that all citizens are entitled to cast their vote to elect their representatives for the government. 

(In most communist nations with different rules, the government is an authoritarian or delegated body.)

Some of the issues in the USA came to the forefront (uneducated House Representatives; chaotic or disputed elections, and its problems).

What is really important for voters is to understand what the main parties or political streams stand for in your country to make a good, effective choice. 

The USA has only two parties: big tents, each one with a broad variety of opinions within the particular party: Democrats or Republicans. 

In Canada, the variety of opinions is possible and each major opinion or view of the world has found a home in a particular party. It is easier to pick the club you feel most at home, Liberal, Conservative, Social-Democratic, Green, and Bloc Quebecois. A former Conservative party member tried to establish a populist anti-immigration anti-vax party. He didn’t get enough votes to obtain party status.

The problem with a two-party system is to have much overlap in many ways between the parties. It is far from clear to the electorate what the party stands for, what the platform is and its goals. 

For instance, a Democrat who is conservative in his thinking may be elected in an overwhelmingly conservative state. A Republican could be elected in an overwhelmingly libertarian state. 

A majority is needed to pass a decision or law in Congress. The two-party Congress presents here its major flaw. When there is little collaboration between the two parties, that system stops working, as we saw happen in the last decade. 

When the House is evenly split that can result in a stalemate, where nothing happens because the votes are simply not there to pass a law, let alone passing it on to the Senate for a vote.

Another flaw is that apparently, there is hardly any party discipline to make the members of a party vote for that party’s law proposals. Conservative Democrats may not want to vote with the Democrats, and liberal Republicans may not want to vote with their party for fear they will lose their job (“the will of their constituency” they say) and be not re-elected, and lose their job. The so-called Independents are merely people who stepped out of their party and hang on for another election cycle.

The general assumption is that one way to prevent an “accidental” vote is to make clear that the voters in the general public know who is who. They make it seem as if they are very different from each other. We all see the division and mayhem that vilifies the other party as bad, ungodly, socialist, capitalist, etc.

In Canada, the party platforms of each party stay year after year close to what those party philosophies stand for (Liberal, Conservative, Social-Democratic, Green, and Bloc Quebecois). I am not going to elaborate. You can look that up if needed. 

In the last Canadian election, the exception was the Conservative party leader, who borrowed left-wing/liberal items as his party’s promises to get elected. It failed and only made his party members angry for betraying the Conservative party principles.

Each party elects their leader inside their caucus meetings. The goals of each party are quite clear to the voters in Canada. In spite of it, voters do not always elect the party that would work in their interest. An example is low-income or middle-income voters casting a vote for the Conservatives, hoping that once they cross the income barrier, they will benefit from the conservative agenda, such as the decrease of social benefits for low-income citizens, low taxes for the rich, etc.  

The elections in Canada are quick and clean and do not raise the hackles among the voters, like in the USA. With only 30 days allowed to campaign and strict limits on how much funds can be spent on a campaign with strict fundraising conditions, elections are not that painful. Within no time at all, the new cabinet and the parliament can go back to work. 

No midterm elections exist either in Canada. That would be too disruptive and we consider a term of 4 years adequate. Certain ridings may have a by-election when somebody leaves or dies. 

The party who wins the most votes generally gets its leader appointed as the Prime Minister if the Queen’s representative approved: the Governor-General. The current GG is the first Indigenous member, her Excellency, the Right Honourable Mary Simon.

Contrary to the USA, elections in Canada do no longer result in a majority government. The winner will need to govern with the support of another party to carry the will of the people. There are informal agreements between parties to govern. The day will come for coalition governments, just like in many European countries, in which the cabinet will contain ministers from several parties. 

In the last two elections, the incumbent Liberals hoped to get a majority, but it didn’t work out. I must conclude that Canadians apparently do not want to give one party the sceptre and the power. Canadians like it better when parties must collaborate with each other. The will of the people is better executed that way.

Therefore, Canada will never end up in the conundrum that the American two-party system has thrown the USA: a stalemate.

Beyond federal elections, provincial elections are held as well and are a mirror image of the federal elections. As well, these are low profile, sedate events. Regional differences and interests play a part more so in provincial elections than in the national federal elections.

In the USA, when one party gets the majority in the House of Representatives, the other minority party can block all efforts to change or make new laws. Meanwhile, the previous measures or laws introduced by the previous government are turned back, thrown out. To advance the processing of new laws, they have a rule that the minority party can block discussion and debate (filibuster). This one and other minority rules have contributed to the ungovernability of the House.

There is also a powerful Senate in the USA, often not of the same party in the majority as The House. Their function is (like in Canada) to provide a second sober thought on all law proposals. However, when the Senate has a majority from the other, opposing party, nothing passes. (The House and the Senate together are called Congress.)

In Canada, senators are federally appointed people who do their jobs and do not necessarily strongly identify with one of the five main parties.

Another difference with Canada is that the American President is elected in separate, direct elections, and has his/her own power to make law by Executive Actions. 

To an outsider, it looks like the USA is always involved in elections of some kind. To watch it is already exhausting. 

These three bodies of government in the USA often collide with each other and this stifles proper and effective government. The American system of government is at an impasse and seems unlikely to untangle itself any time soon. 

At the state level, other problems exist. The state governments have too much power and can undermine the federal government. 

States have the power of redesigning the boundaries of electoral districts (ridings) for the purpose of effective elections—called gerrymandering. Republican states are aggressively doing that in preparation for the next midterm elections, making their own re-election more likely.

Republican state governments are also passing laws to change the election conditions and diminish access to voting, which they call making sure that no election fraud happens. The Democrats are thought to attract voters of minorities and ethnic groups, a segment of the population that may have difficulties getting out to vote. 

So, as we cruise along in Canada and fight our small battles, the USA exhausts itself with the current government controversies and the upcoming midterm elections. 

I think the major social difference between the two countries is that the sense of communal responsibility still exists in Canada with its bigger social safety net. 

In the USA, the extreme individualism and focus on income in a nation with big gaps in income make its citizenry more aggressive and frustrated. 

For more information on politics see Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_spectrum

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GROUNDED


GROUNDED.

Estancia was happy to sit cross-legged on the mattress placed on the landing of her home’s roof as she watched the lake in the distance with the phone in her hand. I imagined she waited for her friend to answer. I had seen the girl, sitting on the roof of her family’s two-story home from my perch on my second-story balcony across the alley, separating the houses. 

She intrigued me, as well as the weird collection of items next to her, cluttering the flat rooftop. Never having met in person on the ground, I didn’t know her name but gave her the big name of Estancia, a common name in Mexico. I suspect such a name would probably be shortened to Esi or something similar. 

The collection of items beside Esi on the roof consisted of sun-bleached boards, the large lid of a septic tank, fallen trees reduced to sturdy poles, a pile of boxes and plastic bins, a tailor’s moulded torso, a playpen, and a pile of old bicycles. I contemplated how that eye-catching random collection of artifacts on the roof had grown from humble beginnings and what it was meant for.

It was shortly before dusk, and the birds zigzagged around us to catch their last flying insects of the day. If only her little brother wouldn’t cry so much. She was supposed to look after him while her mother was busy with house cleanups on the ground floor with Abuela—grandmother. She sighed, and put down her mobile phone to pick up the baby from his playpen next to her. He stopped his crying abruptly. I named him Coco.

Esi picked up her phone and continued chatting with her friend while baby Coco slumped against her, falling asleep on her lap. This usually was a lovely time of the day when the chores were done, all cooking and eating behind them, and her younger siblings—a brother I called Pepe and a sister, Rosi—playing in the alley with their friends. 

Her father was probably snoozing in front of the TV together with the grandparents on the ground floor. Later, Esi’s mom would come up to the roof with Pepe and Rosi to play some games, or just chat until the stars twinkled after dark. I had seen them there most nights and observed the routine developing. I used to enjoy my evening meal at that time with a glass of wine on my balcony overlooking the neighbourhood, with the lake in the distance.

I imagined Papi had told his children not to be on the roof without an adult because I never saw them by themselves. Except for Esi, who had grown into a responsible young woman. Papi had apparently decided to let her use the roof as is. I had waved to her when we first spotted each other, and she waved back with a half-hearted wave.

Like in most child-rich families, she was put to work mothering her younger siblings. It started at age seven when Mami asked her to hold baby Pepe while she had to run out to buy milk in the tienda—the tiny convenience store across the road. Money was always tight, so Mami shopped as the need arose: the item that was most needed in that moment. Such was life.

The town council had cancelled all cultural events in 2020 to prevent the spread of the Covid19 virus, and tourism slowed down to a trickle. Many restaurants closed. Like so many other locals, Papi lost his job and no money was left for rent so they moved in with relatives. In her grandparents’ house, the cramped rooms now had to shelter all eight of them. That’s when the roof became a refuge—much-needed extra space. 

Esi’s granddad, Abuelo, was the gardener for a wealthy Mexican family that visited their lakeside village on weekends. I had seen the elderly man come home with his old chainsaw slung across his back and a rake attached to his bicycle. Most days, Esi’s Papi left in the morning to work on the estate together with Abuelo. That large estate must have provided him with some of the discarded items of the roof collection. 

Esi’s Papi must have construction skills, judging from the two-brick-high ledge he had already cemented around the roof’s edge, and the solid landing, visible at the end of brick stairs going down. Papi or Abuela surely planned to build a proper third-floor mirador—a roof terrace—like so may do, here in Mexico. Sometimes, when a family is growing, another floor with proper brick walls might appear. That happened all around me. Building a family home is a matter of saving up extra money for Mexicans. It may take years to finish it.

Indeed, not long after my arrival in December, Papi started building something. From across the alley, I had a full view of the north and west sides of their casa. Intrigued by what was going on. With my Canadian sensibilities, I feared for all those people’s lives on that roof without railings. What were they thinking? I realized I didn’t know the emergency number and contemplated if I should get it, in case someone fell from the roof. 

With the collected items, Papi went to work as his family watched, and I took my meal on my balcony. Papi first erected four corner pillars, somehow managing to attach the wooden poles to each corner of the cemented roof and the brick walls below. Next, he braced the two vertical poles on the east side with a horizontal pole on top and tied another top pole between the west side’s corner poles. It was clear he was going to install a canopy, possibly covered by palm leaves—a palapa—as is common in this area. 

He covered half of the north side by hanging a canvas vertically from the top pole. Papi finished the remainder of that side by vertically lining up the planks of various widths and lengths, and pieces of particleboard, hammering those together. 

The west wall, closest to me, was another piece of art. Papi hung three bicycle frames next to each other from the overhead pole. Underneath the frames, he installed the playpen and filled it for added weight with the white body of Mami’s dressmaking mannequin, old magazines, and other things in the boxes. The iron bike frames and the packed playpen solidly blocked people from ever falling over the rim, but only for half of that side. 

There still was the opening of the staircase that ran along that wall. Esi’s Papi hung an old bed quilt off the horizontal top poles, to protect the stairs to the floor below from the elements. Anybody on the last treads would already stand below any roof rim and be relatively safe from falling but was still exposed to the view and the rain. Papi finished off that side by hanging a blue vinyl solar blanket. 

To top it all off, he somehow got hold of some asphalt roof panels. As I held my breath, he maneuvered those two panels horizontally across the two sets of poles for a canopy. Esi’s Mami couldn’t wait to string many clotheslines between the poles and took possession of the mirador for her daily laundry. The family now had a roof-size closed-in private space. Although my initial idea of their attempts to erect a mirador turned out correct, it wasn’t what I expected.

Damn, they had stolen my unobstructed views of the lake and the town below. Papi had replaced mine with this unimaginable eyesore while their lake view stayed unobstructed. Intrigued as it went up, I now could cry. What could I do? I tried to formulate Spanish sentences to object with the family. Could I complain to the municipality? There are laws against a builder obstructing a neighbouring property’s views. The laws may not apply in this case as the construction was all temporary.

Since then, I only saw glimpses of the family members through gaps in the boards and tarps. The best thing for the family with a whole extra floor added was most likely having less grumpy grandparents. That chagrin had settled itself in me. I stopped having my evening meal on the balcony.

I didn’t tell you about their roof dog, a Dachshund who barks his head off when the family is having their meal on the ground floor. He thinks he has to warn them of all movements down in the alley. I sometimes talk to him to calm him down and the odd time it helps.

~

With the Canadian planes grounded due to the pandemic, I hadn’t booked a return flight. It had been six months since, and the end of my tourist visa loomed. Before I left for my winter home last fall, I had tried but failed to get to the Mexican consulate in Vancouver last fall to apply for resident status. Ironically, temporary workers returning to Mexico bumped me from my stand-by seat as I waited by the gate. So, when the vaccines arrived in Mexico, I was excluded when my resident friends here got their shots. 

I had not mingled with my neighbours much because of the pandemic. People in our barrio seldom wore face masks when visiting with each other in the street. Many neighbours are related, or see each other daily in the narrow alleys in this densely populated section beside my home. The convenience store owner across from my casa however demanded masks be worn, so her customers did. As soon as I leave my front door to shop in town, I wear my mask.

So do the boys ringing my doorbell, panhandling their mother’s pan (bread). The three boys wore masks on their weekly trek through the street offering the fresh and still-warm buns in a basket. The eldest, not older than nine, deftly grabbed the buns I wanted with his hand in a plastic baggie. I later heard from the convenience store owner’s son that the eldest boy actually bakes the bread, so good for him. 

After weeks of grieving the loss of my view, I decided not to be a self-centred gringo and leave my hut-dwelling neighbours alone. Much could change between now and my return in six months. I’ve never seen as many funerals and wakes in the streets as this year. I don’t want to add to the stress my neighbours already suffer from job losses and illness. Their roof might be a place to sit out a quarantine period. 

The beach hut wasn’t the only disappointment. The son of another of my neighbours is building his second-story home on the previously empty lot adjacent to my house. His east wall was already built right up against my west wall when I arrived in the fall. I introduced myself to him. I’ll call him Juan. His mother, Maria, a widow with a horse ranch out of town lives a couple of doors down. 

From inside my bedroom, I hear the banging of hammers and the loud conversations between Juan and his American brother-in-law with the other buddies. When I see them from my patio or deck working there up high, we greet one another. Fortunately, the crew stops working by ten at night. One day Juan told me he planned to build a mirador on top of the second floor.

Immediately, I realized the family will have a full view of my pool and patio area. Gone is my privacy. No more skinny-dipping. Damn. I impulsively responded that in that case, I will have to move. Shocked he ended the conversation.

 ~

After processing this blow to my peace of mind, I realized Juan’s views also will be blocked by the beach hut. I had met Juan’s sister, who spoke American-English like a native. They must know the hut-mirador looks horrible. By the time I’ll be back in the winter of 2021-2022, Juan may have had some conversations with Esi’s family. Could I hope they came to a solution of some kind? Would that be too much to hope for? Or will they, in Mexican fashion decide to live and let live? 

Living in a truly Mexican barrio was all I expected it to be, these last five years. As long as I could live in my ivory tower, it was okay. The night-long festivities in other people’s yards and the street were distanced enough, and I could sleep through it with my earplugs. To be fair, only one party in the street happened since I arrived. As long as only a horse occasionally lived in the walled vacant lot next to me, I had peace and quiet. 

The new realities of my casa are crowding in on me nevertheless. Maybe it’s time for me to pack up and go. Looking out from my bedroom and balcony, only a small strip of lake view is left. I imagine the family living next to me, and I know some of my peace and quiet will be gone. I have enjoyed my years in this house, but all good things come to an end, as they say.

The sale of my casa may not be easy under these changed circumstances. Although strong domestic growth and a rise in minimum wage elevated many Mexicans to the middle class (now half of all Mexicans), my casa’s price is likely out of reach for Mexicans. Mortgage rates are high for them, between nearly 9% and 17%. I would need Americans or Canadians who like an authentic experience to fall in love with my casa. And since mortgages are not available to non-citizens, the purchase must be a cash sale. Not located in the restricted zone, it will be a straight property transfer.

One million Americans live in Mexico; half of them own homes here. When I checked how Covid19 has affected the real estate sale in Mexico in general, I read good news. Many Americans tried to escape to Mexico to first weather the Trump years, and then the uncontrolled spread of the virus with its associated lockdowns. The prices of real estate have gone up and homes are selling. (For details: https://www.globalpropertyguide.com/Latin-America/Mexico/Price-History).

Many asked me if living in Mexico is safe, referring to the cartels and the drug trade. Violence is indeed present in the locations where turf wars between criminal cartels take place for control of the trade routes for fentanyl and cocaine.If you like specifics, here are the numbers from the research of BBVA. 

In 2020, Mexico registered 36,579 homicides. This rate stood at 27.8 deaths per 100,000 people last year—the ninth highest in the world. Compare this to the USA: the states with highest homicide rates (from CDC, 2019) where in Louisiana at 12.8, Alaska (10.8), Mississippi (15.4), Missouri (10.8), Alabama (18.8), and Maryland (10.0).

The cities most affected are the border cities with the USA, where the drug trade to the USA has its criminal fall-out: Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, and the city of Ciudad Obregon in the state of Sonora. Also, smaller towns like Celaya and Irapuato in the state of Guanajuato in Central Mexico have climbed in the rankings. The deadliest place is the town of Uruapan in the state of Michoacán.

Gun laws in Mexico are strict: no civilians can own any. The cartels obviously find ways around it. They trade or buy massive amounts of fire power illegally from the USA. Seventeen of the world’s most-violent countries were in Latin America, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia. Venezuela topped the list. 

Despite this, I can confirm the research from BBVA that in Mexico this violence has only a limited effect on domestic housing sales because the violence is very regionally concentrated. Not very present in this tourist town by the lake full of old folks, the cartels have never been a factor in my decision-making.

~

So, all in all, I am mentally preparing myself to put my casa up for sale, as I spend the summer and fall in my Canadian home. This time away offered me the distance to weigh any decisions. One of the reasons I bought my casa was to secure a safe space for my cat behind a walled patio. She died recently, another loss in this year of grief. Recovering from an illness this summer, I realize I am nearing an age when I must decide whether travel in my remaining years remains an option. As well, would owning a home abroad still beat renting a space? 

You might say that telling the world my story with its personal disappointments maybe not be the smartest thing to do. On the other hand, full disclosure is required in real estate by law. I believe that honesty is the best strategy anyway. 

If you haven’t known my neighbourhood or my casa until now, you may not get hung up on the view from a bedroom when you see the level of beauty of the other rooms, and the patio with the pool. You may appreciate the new developments in the street, the fill-in of empty lots previously filled with junk, the many renovations to upgrade existing homes, and the neat, new homes recently constructed. The true beauty of it is that these properties are owned by middle-class Mexicans, so the barrio’s identity is preserved. 

Walking through my street is a pleasure; the residents will readily respond to your greeting with a friendly Buenos Dias, or Buenas Noches. I found the kind owner of the concession store across from my casa to be a big help with my beginner’s Spanish. The elderly couple across the alley from me are kind, and ready for a chat when we’re out in the street at the same time. We exchanged small gifts of things we didn’t need ourselves, such as surplus bedsheets or a papaya.

The barrio has many children, joyfully playing in the street and ready for a little chat with the gringa lady. At the bottom of property in the alley are stables, managed by three brothers who live there. Don’t be surprised when you feel the vibrations of a few horses trotting up through the alley and turning into the cobblestone street with suddenly-clattering hoofs. One small child, dwarfed by the horse might suddenly appear bareback in the alley, hardly able to control the beast. That’s how Mexican children learn.

Angel Flores is also the street of the passion play with its colourful display of actors and pilgrims, passing through on their way to the Mount for the crucifixion. Of course, the street is well decorated for the event each year. 

It was great living here. I will miss it.

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CULTURAL DIFFERENCES IN THE GARDEN


CULTURAL DIFFERENCES IN THE GARDEN

If you ever had a plot in a communal garden, you must have noticed the different styles and levels of maintenance of those gardens within a few weeks of the season’s start. Many gardeners used straight sowing lines, and the vegetables came up like little green soldiers in a row. Others plant without symmetry according to the available space in the plot on that day, like an English cottage garden. Some of those variations in style are due to the experience of the gardeners, and due to personal taste. The first-timers are trying their hand at a new hobby. Old hands are doing it as they have always done it. 

Gardening veggies is a healthy and relatively economical way of supplementing a healthy diet. I find maintaining a garden plot rewarding and enjoyable, and so do others they assured me.

Ethnicity shouldn’t make a difference, as every plot is individual and personal, or so I assumed. The membership rules stipulate each is responsible for one’s own garden. We are not to interfere with others’ plots in any way, unless specifically asked to do something. What could go wrong? 

For the first time, my garden was in an ethnically diverse community garden, when moving into a condo with a brand-new community garden next-door. Members pay a rental fee and sign the rules sheet. The city provided the organic garden soil and composted soil enhancer, and tools are purchased from the rental fees. The members can only add biodegradable organic matter to their gardens, and no eggshells or above-ground composting are allowed to discourage rats and other animals. 

I learned to garden from my dad, long time ago in The Netherlands by doing small jobs for him for a quarter, like weeding. He rented space for a large garden on the edge of the forest across our home. He had placed a bench close to the trees, where he enjoyed the view together with my mom. They sat there after dinner for some quiet time, weather permitting, and listened to the birds sing. 

It’s in my nature to enthusiastically take on new challenges, and getting a community project like the garden made me happy. You can take me out of the country but the Dutch mentality is still in me as an immigrant (coming up 40-year anniversary). I took on extra jobs in the garden without being asked, such as cleaning the gardening tools, sweeping the shed clean, pulling weeds, and so on: I can see what needs done. 

I have no access to the garden’s membership list but I can see and hear that other gardeners are also from immigrant communities. There are European immigrants, although the majority of gardeners are white and Canadian-born. I am not sure if any Indigenous gardeners joined. There are Asians from China. The majority of visible minority gardeners originated in the Philippines to judge from the language, Tagalog. I assume that just like me other gardeners are not shedding their cultural identity after moving to Kelowna. I had an inkling about how different the backgrounds are of our gardeners. Since I am a curious person, I went online to investigate.

In Kelowna, just over 2% of the population are part of a “visible minority.” We live in an overwhelmingly white enclave. The website did not include the Canadian Indigenous living in Kelowna, and here, once again, they are excluded in the tally. For the sake of accuracy: Stats Canada lists in 2016, that 11,370 Aboriginal people live in Kelowna, making up 6.0% of the population. So, if we include Indigenous as a visible minority, the actual rate in Kelowna would be 8%.

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s population lives in Asia, where whites would be a visible minority. Think about that.

It seems that in our community garden the ratio is a bit higher than the quoted 2%. Saddened by the recently increased anti-Asian assaults by white supremacists, I feel for them and am extra friendly as a fellow immigrant. 

(https://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/kelowna-population)

South Asian (1.8%) which is a very diverse group of nations including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri-Lanka, and sometimes Afghanistan is included, although located in Central Asia. 

Chinese (1.2%) 

Japanese (0.8%), 

Southeast Asian (0.6%) from Indochina with the nations Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Malaysian Peninsula, Thailand, Vietnam, the Malay Archipelago with Andaman and Nicobar, Brunei, East Malaysia, East Timor, Indonesia, and Singapore. (The Philippines are located in S-E Asia, but Filipino presence in Kelowna is mentioned separately on this website). 

Filipino (0.4%) 

Black (0.5%): the only racialized group specified by the colour of their skin in the western world. In other parts of the world Indigenous blacks do not identify as “black”, but by ethnic or geographic origin. This very diverse “group” in the USA is often in a political sense identified by hyphenating, e.g. African-American, whether accurate or not. Many blacks originate not from Africa but the Caribbean or (Australian-Indigenous) Oceania.  

Latin American (0.4%). This group consists of a multitude of peoples and nations, descendants from Spanish conquerors, black slaves, and Indigenous tribes, and later European colonists and immigrants living in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico.

How are we, immigrant gardeners, different from each other and from the mainstream? 

In the Netherlands where I was raised during the postwar fifties and sixties, communal responsibility was the buzzword. Everybody was rebuilding in many ways after the disaster of the Second World War. Assuming one’s duties as citizens in all aspects of society is still a highly desirable behavior. In this social-democratic nation, access to information is guaranteed. An example: in the last election of 2017, the electorate’s participation rate was 82%. Voters can choose between 23 different federal parties. Consequently, the Dutch have coalition governments. It could be said that in general, the Dutch population has a high level of trust in how governments are formed, their own efficacy to determine their vote, and what government can and should do for voters. Religion does not figure much in everyday life.

The Netherlands are much like other European nations, just with a bit more freedom and less restrictions on experimental behaviour than most other European nations and a long history of not enforcing the drug laws on the books for small quantities, with drug use categorized as a health issue, nor a criminal issue.

We know that the People’s Republic of China is a centrally administered dictatorshipaiming to build communism: a unitary, one-party socialist republic. It is currently suppressing Hong Kong’s independence. China’s army—the biggest—occupied other nations, like Tibet. There are no democratic freedoms per se for individuals. The party tells you what to believe and how to behave. One of the major religions is Buddhism, a religion where all life (including of animals) matters and must be respected. Citizens and the central administration are focused on corporatism: it has the highest number of new billionaires in the world, a vastly growing middleclass, but also with vast income inequities with the poorest. The level of trust in the government might be unquestioned, as questioning it may bring you jailtime. Access to factual information might be tenuous. What you really think must be a secret as negative consequences may follow for dissidents. Many Chinese with the means for leaving have arrived in Canada recently.  

In the Philippines—a former American colony—previous governments including the current president have been brutal, and disastrous for the population, with much poverty: a dictatorship

 Many citizens are seeking jobs outside the nation. Filipino workers are known all over the world as the people who take care of other people: health care workers, industrial workcamps’ housekeeping staff, elderly care, and so on, while they send money to the family living back home. 

The Duterte administration’s assault on human rights and freedoms discouraged citizens’ democratic behaviour, such as exercising their rights, and closure of major mainstream news platform ABS-CBN on May 5 in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. As an example of that regime’s brutality: the police killed on Duterte’s orders 10,000 drug addicts in the streets in his first year in power. Some estimate at least 29,000 have been killed in Duterte’s so-called drug war.Anti-vaxxer conspiracies around dengue fever and measles vaccinations have caused recent outbreaks of both diseases in the Philippines. And yet Duterte’s officials have spread misinformation, claiming people can rely on fictional “Filipino antibodies” to fight Covid19. ( https://theconversation.com/philippines-rodrigo-dutertes-dictatorship-sinks-to-new-depths-with-closure-of-main-broadcaster-138025).

So, in general, Filipinos may not trust government officials; their self-efficacy in the political process consequently low. Involving the authorities is not the first avenue they’d chose for dealing with a problem. Filipinos who are not part of the elite just work hard and keep their heads down. It may explain Filipino immigrants’ reluctance to take the government-delivered vaccines.

How do these differences in attitudes and self-efficacy become a potential issue in gardening, for goodness sakes? We are a happy bunch who like to get our hands dirty and enjoy being in the outdoors, each in their own way. Leave us alone, and all will be well. 

Unfortunately, with the start of the Covid19 pandemic, the different attitudes toward governments, self-protection, and the BC government health measures were exposed. Some people did not wear masks in the garden against the Health Authority’s advice, but remained at a distance from others. In the outside air that was no issue, right? 

When it comes to taking the vaccine, leniency becomes a different issue, at least in my mind, as the non-vaccinated gardeners potentially expose their fellow citizens to a serious health danger. 

Vaccination rates improved much overall, but a core of “hesitants” remain. I know about garden members who “do not believe” in the Covid19 as a real problem, and profess to not getting vaccinated, ever. But it’s impossible to predict who will and who won’t take the vaccine. We cannot know who doesn’t not trust the BC government’s action to get vaccinated. Personal opinions about vaccines remain a secret. Not wearing a mask doesn’t mean that person is fully vaccinated. 

I found this out when I asked someone without a facemask about their vaccination before getting closer to have a chat. I happily shared that I had my first vaccine shot. Turns out she is an anti-vaxxer. I stepped back and kept my distance. I see others also avoid social contact with each other and quickly leave the garden after watering.

We have an assigned “authority” in our garden, the coordinator, who represents the board of the community gardening society. She is a very busy person with more gardens to look after, but who is available by email for questions or comments about the garden—a handy avenue to quickly get in touch. As a retired person with lots of time on my hands I keep in touch with her about garden matters, such as water hoses deteriorating and broken spray nozzles, vandalism, and weeds overtaking.  

On one occasion, the coordinator asked me in an email to pull the weeds from one particularly neglected garden, as the renter had moved to another town, and would not return. The day I did just that, other gardeners approached me and asked what I was doing in somebody else’s garden. I clarified the coordinator’s delegation to me on this garden, and on another garden, quoting the number. That garden turned out to be a neat and well-kept oasis with two cutesy garden decorations. I commented this cannot be correct information. Never-the-less, the two bystanders harvested the garden decorations. Once at home, I sent an email to double-check the information with the coordinator. 

The next morning, the renter of that neat, non-abandoned garden showed up and I shared what the coordinator had said. He confirmed the mistake: he was not moving. One of the “bystanders, fessed up and returned the object taken to its proprietor. 

The story apparently went through the garden’s immigrant community like a wildfire, and reached a Filipino gardener. The next morning, I went to water my garden. This Filipino woman screamed at me accusing me of taking authority I didn’t have, of illegally interfering in other people’s gardens, and a whole lot of other accusations that revealed her anger about me taking on these voluntary tasks, deeply suspicious of me and my connection to the leadership. She made me feel like a covert CSIS agent whose aim was to spy on the gardeners. 

Her anger was loud and out of proportion with what had happened, giving me the feeling that she was triggered from some other trauma. Her screaming tirade went on for at least fifteen minutes as I watered my garden, throwing in a few words here and there as she took a breath without getting through. Until the next door’s resident-caretaker of the home for women and children-in-need appeared on his patio and told the screaming woman to shut up already. This was at 8 am on a Sunday; people were still sleeping. The woman quieted down and I finally got a chance to speak: I recommend she’d take up her concerns with the coordinator. 

At the sound of my voice, she started up another tirade, but I told her to stop being such a bitch, and left the garden. At home, I concluded that to her, I as a white immigrant from a liberal social democracy must represent some danger to her that I couldn’t grasp. The angry woman didn’t seem to recognize my voluntary extra work beyond my own plot for the benefit of the community. Instead, she saw me as the undercover agent, ratting others out to the “authority.” I chalked the unwarranted response up to cultural differences, and possibly, a mental health issue coming to the forefront. It was a lesson for me to assume nothing and not measure people from my own perspective.  

According the mental health professionals, Canadians reportedly had more depression, due to experiencing illness and death around us, which was aggravated by social isolation. I saw proof of that this weekend. For some, paranoia set in after a year-long of stress, ascribing malicious intent to innocent behaviors of others around them. Other slipped into suicidal ideation. The rate of ODs increased significantly since the pandemic. 

How does a significant conflict like this if based on cultural differences, get solved? Talking did not work: she was not able to hear. The following day, one of the bystanders, also an Asian immigrant, told me in tears how she fell victim to the same person in the same manner, who demanded to know why she was replanting the herb she had taken from the allegedly abandoned garden. The distraught target is a kind and gentle soul, raised as a Buddhist, who had no means of responding to the fellow-gardener’s anger, and certainly did not deserve any of it. It had been an honest mistake. She was devastated. I suggested she’d send the coordinator an email about it. 

Yes, the leadership of any organization needs to be aware how conflicts arise in diverse communities, and how to solve those. Just telling the parties to solve the problems between them does not necessarily work. 

The “authority” is a real and often scary powerful person in some countries of origin, such as the Philippines and China—to be avoided at all costs. Immigrants from dictatorships and oppressive regimes may not have the will and the experience to assert themselves with good results. Their previous experiences may have traumatized them. Their mental health may be tenuous already. In their view, the leadership, the supervisor, or the director may be in cahoots with the unreliable government. 

I believe that any immigrant who feels not heard, not taken seriously, and whose stress rises, may need a hand up to face the difficult interactions in a strange society with norms different from their own. The leadership of organizations with diverse employees must be aware and have the skills and knowledge about these valid concerns based on the immigrant’s history. 

BC Health refused to mandate vaccines for health care workers partly for that reason and preferred the slow-route of building trust with the vaccine-hesitant. Their most important work to educate is not on the front lines anymore. BC Health uses “influencers”—trusted members of the community—to meet the reluctant where they are, in their neighbourhoods and places of worship to help convince the diverse communities to get vaccinated. 

Since health care providers are often from immigrant communities, patience and understanding are required to dismantle myths about the pandemic and the vaccine to allay the fears. In the meantime, it is advisable to only have vaccinated health care workers on the front lines. The drawback is that many nursing professionals are already leaving the profession, overworked and burnt out. Health care institutions cannot afford to lose more staff.

When the Covid19 pandemic started, many elderly residents died in care homes, due to poor measures to contain the virus and ignorance about its spread. Canada was not prepared for a pandemic, and lagged in PPI inventory and equipment to an embarrassing degree. 

Another factor was Trump calling Covid19 the “China virus”, which seemed to ignite anti-Asian incidents further and alienated white, mainstream citizens from brown people, “Asians.” This man did a lot of damage to North-American societies.

In Canada, we need all the immigrants we can get to run our sparsely populated country, and that need will not lessen in the foreseeable future. Overcoming the cultural differences, integration into the mainstream, and making a transition to the host society’s values is not a quick process for immigrants. If we require only vaccinated workers to work on the front lines in health care in a next pandemic, we will face more shortages of staff, and the closure of nursing homes and hospital beds. BC Health might as well begin hiring fully vaccinated applicants and training new staff now.

As to community garden: I hope that our board will adjust to the realities of our diverse membership and wake up to assume a more effective role—face to face, hands-on, kindly but firmly insisting on appropriate behaviors, protecting all gardeners.

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THE HANDMAID’S TALE – CRAVE TV, Fourth Season


Review of The Handmaid’s Tale. TV series. Season 4

I watched this series later than everybody else, as from where I spent the last six months, I couldn’t receive the TV station broadcasting the show in Canada. I heard from friends it was “bleak.” I like bleak, or in other words, the dark places in the human psyche where stories take the readers or watchers. I am the daughter born in the years following the Second World War in Europe. I spent a good part of my life trying to figure out how my parents’ experiences of war (and consequently, us, children) were affected by this extremely stressful and damaging time. As an adult, the many jobs I had in my time took me to disadvantaged and hurting families, so yes, I am interested in the human darkness and what happens in the underbelly of societies. I was intrigued. 

This fourth series of The Handmaid narrates the horror of the occupation of society and the oppression perpetrated by people of the same tribe, who assumed supremacy and enslaved their brethren. It is a war story in which the torture and exploitation of women is the theme, not of certain ethnic groups or races as in WW2. As a necessary reaction to oppression anywhere, the oppressed do not take it eventually, and also in Gilead—the story’s offshoot of the former USA—the women revolt. 

The protagonist in this series is June Osborn, AKA OfFred, or OfJoseph, whose two daughters are kidnapped and handed over to the righteous women of the ruling class. Unlike many other TV series, this one doesn’t hide from the jumble of extreme emotions. In the well-executed intense, and horrific scenes, we live through what June feels as she follows her instincts and harnesses her own and others’ courage in her quest to have her children back.

Interestingly, the two currently rather enmeshed nations, the USA and Canada, figure as the two neighbouring countries with opposing political systems and at war in the series. They have the largest undefended border in the world. 

Margaret Atwood was only involved as the consultant in this season as the series’ writers embroider on her initial novel. 

What I really appreciated was how the show’s disclosure of the cruel and hypocritical nature of fundamentalist religions and the abuse of religious mantras by its leaders to justify criminality and torture, as the perpetrators subjugated the women in an attempt to control their power to procreate. Isn’t that what all religion is about in our patriarchic and our misogynistic society? The men in power even use other, unusable women as guards, and instruments of torture, such as Aunt Lydia. “You people hide behind God every time it serves you,” says June to the former Aunt who escaped to Canada.

In the context of the recent unveiling of the successive Canadian Governments’ horrific intentional and unintentional genocidal practices against Indigenous Nations over the centuries, this series gives new meaning to the abduction of children from their culture and their parents, showing us how it’s done. It shows how schools and so-called treatments exerted control over women and how the non-compliant were abandoned and exiled to “the Colonies.”

One fact that struck me was that in storied Canada, there is no Bible to swear on in the International Criminal court: the person’s word is enough. This is not factually true in Canadian courts; a witness is always asked whether they wish to confirm or swear on the bible, to tell the truth, but in essence it is true. In Canada, the state and church are strictly separated and our leaders do not usually reference God in their political addresses.

Elizabeth Moss is a marvel of expression and can portray a wide range of emotions most people may not ever have felt: an unsettling show. She also is a co-director. This fourth season is built on her, and her capacity, and is truly a tour de force. I breathlessly binge-watched. It is an incredible show taking the watcher to deep emotions, usually nicely packed away.

People with trauma themselves may have been triggered into reliving their traumas, watching how June goes through her anger, grief, hatred, and a need for violence and revenge after tremendous losses. The last scene is a revelation. 

The show should come with a warning: Be careful if you haven’t dealt with your own traumas. 

Men might need their own warning: drop your male ego and sensitivity about it first before watching. I challenge all men to watch this show. 

This series is a treasure trove of emotions, both in its characters and what it shakes loose in its the viewers. It is probably unusual and a challenge to those in the habit of watching innocent, easy-watching family entertainment shows. This is not that show.  

As a feminist, I endorse the sentiment expressed by June and her anger. In her therapy group in Canada before her testimony in ICC to face her former Commander-rapist in court, the indomitable June says: “No, I am NOT nervous, worried, or scared. I can’t fucking wait!”  

In private, she comments to the therapist about her group members: “Why aren’t they more angry?”

Of course, this is only a TV show and not reality. The Canada of the show is not the real, current country. The USA has fended off the danger of becoming an autocracy and losing its democracy—for now. The series attempts to display the ideological differences between liberal social democracy and an autocratic misogynistic dictatorship (run by men, as the Trump cabinet was: all men jockeying for power without restraint). 

The Handmaid’s Tale is a warning, in line with the warning tales the travelling raconteurs did in the early days in Europe before printing was available to the common folk. Margaret Atwood went to dystopian literature and allegory to warn us. We better heed the call and look closely at our society to assess if we want this, and if not: do something about it.

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BOOK REVIEW: WILBUR SMITH, MONSOON


BOOK REVIEW: WILBUR SMITH – MONSOON

Wilbur Smith – Monsoon

St. Martin’s paperback, April 2000, 822 pages.

First published in Great Britain by Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 

ISBN 0-312-97154-0

I began reading this bestseller as I ran out of other books to read from my bookshelves during the Covid19 isolation time. It was called an adventure novel; its readers, I suspect, would be predominantly male. I got that from the description on the back cover and the front cover illustration of a threatening sky over part of a sail, partially seen through the ship’s porthole. The style also might be called historical fiction, but that classification might turn off the men and appeal more to a female readership. The publisher calls Smith an adventure writer.

And an adventure it was, right from the first pages, starting with a young girl offering herself up to Tom and Guy, sons of the gentry, for a sexual encounter in exchange for a sixpence. The portrayal of the girl and how the boys responded to her were in itself revealing. The omniscient narrator tells the story from the POV of three of the characters: Tom, Hal, and Dorian. The first protagonist, the reader meets on the pages, is Tom, son of Hal (Henry) Courtney and his second wife Margaret. 

Hal is the owner of fifteen thousand acres in Devon, Britain, a legacy obtained as the descendant of his knighted grandfather Sir Charles, a sea captain gifted with the title and lands as reward for his service against the Spanish King Philip, defeated by Calais under Vice-Admiral Drake. Hal’s father, Francis, was also a seafarer, who died away from home in a faraway land.

Tom and his twin brother Guy were born on April 30, 1677; three days later their mother died. Hal fought the Dutch and the hordes of Islam in the Order of St. George and the order of the Templars. Hal married the first time when he brought an Ethiopian princess from his endeavors in Africa, who gave him a son, William, AKA Black Billy. Margaret, the second wife, died in childbirth. The third wife, Elizabeth, mother of Dorian, was meant to replace the twins’ mother. She drowned in a rip tide when the cutter she was on overturned in the bay. Dorian was five, and a redhead.

It may be the novel’s time period and setting in 17th century Britain, but right of the bat I resented the view of women as chattel and the disrespectful, even brutal treatment by these men in the narrative—the masters—exercising their power over the inhabitants, considered no more than slaves, and the women portrayed as treacherous temptresses or pitiful wrecks. However, the women the men fell in love with were beautiful and perfect and threw themselves at the men, in awe of the strength and intelligence of these hunky chosen lovers.

Given the brutal times and the boys’ birth order, relentless and violent competition between these sons of different mothers is unavoidable. The first twenty pages were all about that. 

I was tempted to stop reading right then. Most readers do not enjoy reading about sadistic powerplays and physical assaults on women unless you are a sadist, or a masochistic woman. 

Wilbur Smith is a prolific writer of “bestsellers”, but I am afraid his books are meant for a typical male readership, who might enjoy the fantasy of exerting power over women and torturing people. Nevertheless, I continued reading to find out more and discover redeeming qualities of the novel, if any. 

Sir Henry Courtney, Hal for short, is introduced as he saves his youngest son, Dorian, from his eldest, William, before the latter succeeds in strangling the boy. Hal taught William all who knows to take over the estate from his father but excuses “Black Billy’s” brutality against the younger sons.

The underlying racism is expressed as white supremacy, prevalent in that time, as the narrator called Africa The Dark Continent for is hidden mysteries, unfamiliar flora, and fauna—that is to say, to European colonials, first arriving to the continent. William is the son of an Ethiopian princess, but is still black and despised by many, not just because of his cruelty.

As well, how the Arabs are portrayed as the natural enemy of Christians is not acceptable in the current global wave of Islamophobia, recently intensified by the Muslim border ban in the USA. To the characters in the novel, it may be acceptable, as their grandfather fought to keep Europe for the Christians with the Knights Templar, and their father a member of the order.

Leaving William in charge of the estate, Hal takes his other three sons away from the estate and William’s assaults to London, on a mission to meet the King’s delegates. His sons have no claim on their father’s property, as the first-born son inherits everything by law. They’ll have to seek a living elsewhere, in the army, the navy, or the church. They might as well start looking now.

At the end of the next twenty pages, the English East India Company comes to the rescue. In a private audience with Lord Childs, King William III’s Chancellor, Hal hears about his new adventure that involves protecting the company of which he, and Lord Childs, and the others present at the meeting are major shareholders; the largest shareholder is the Crown itself. They seek to protect their assets from the pirates robbing their ships and the company blind. Hal accepts the job with the generous reward of half of all recovered goods and a title of Baron to boot on completion of a successful commission.

Here, the author caught my attention, elaborating on the King and world of the time, the English King—William III. This prince was also the Stadthouder of the Netherlands as the representative of the wealthy Dutch cities and their powerful company men, who put William III in charge of the Dutch republic by invite. It was interesting to me, as a Dutchie by birth, to read the history and views of the characters from the English POV. Smith portrays the Dutch as crueler and less scrupulous than the English, so a good customer to sell captives to as slaves.

A few years ago, I attended the SAIL event in Amsterdam, when the many tall ships arrived worldwide, demonstrating their prowess and beauty over days after they arrived in the harbor. I admired the skill and agility of the crews, elevating the joyful spectacle of the event for the many thousands of visitors, sharing good food and drinks as the ships opened up for visitors. This experience ultimately brought the novel to life for me, which largely plays out at sea and in harbors on tall ships. As well, I was familiar up close with the antique tall ships after a visit to a dry dock in the Netherlands, where a crew built a tall ship according to the traditional craft. Thus, I could envision what the ships in the novel looked like. 

The adventures take off in earnest when Hal and his sons leave for Africa, and the many near-misses and disasters, bloody battles, and the robbing, rapes, and destruction of enemies unfold. Of course, if the robbing and killing are perpetrated by the English side, it’s okay, but it is evil when the Arabs do it. The words infidel and pagans are used freely. So, don’t expect an ethical story. 

Do not expect the women in this story to be well-defined or interesting beyond serving as the underlay or an illustration of the boys’ coming of age, or their prowess as lovers, as this adventure novel lacks those balanced views or any sense of reality. These type of escapist stories are, after all, meant for a readership of men, or should I say: eternal boys? The book could not reach me on an emotional level other than disgust reading certain chapters, except one scene where Dorian’s camel succumbed in a battle.

To be fair, the novel was well-written, and it helped me through the quarantine period at my hotel on my return to Kelowna BC, with a note that the author should check his use of Dutch, as the sloppy spelling mistakes were evident to a Dutch person. For instance, the famous Admiral Michiel de Ruyter’s name (info readily accessible on the Net) was butchered, whose brilliant naval victories in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch wars enabled the United Provinces of the Netherlands to maintain a balance of power with England.  

Smith did his research and I enjoyed the historical bits. Another interesting subject to me was how ill-informed the doctors were and that the hygiene to prevent illness and infections was unknown. My toes curled at times, reading their practices. 

Finally, the heroes in the novel were members of the well-to-do British upper-crust, and the narrative made it clear that the common men were just cannon fodder and used to it. No rebels, here. Indeed, Monsoon is historical fiction but also a fantasy novel. 

In the end, the whole endeavor was all about the money—the primary motivator behind the adventures—and the novel shows the reader the early beginnings of capitalism. The English and the Dutch East India Companies collected vast wealth by exploiting the East Indies spice islands and Africa, including inventing the massive world of slavery, which still distorts society in North America and is the cause of ongoing racism in the world. If you keep this in mind while reading the novel, you may get educated.

After this analysis early in my read, I kept reading as the relationships between the sons and the father intrigued me. Will Dorry be saved? Will William finally defeat Tom? Will Hal keep his sons in line? Alas, the story about family got lost soon in the adventures and only occasionally returns as a structure devise.

Towards the end of this book, I almost threw it in the garbage, when the hunt on elephants is described as one of Tom’s major adventures, undertaken just for the sake of the trading value of ivory tusks. In this age, hunting of these highly evolved creatures is considered criminal. The section was hard to read, especially now we know so much more about the intelligence and family structures of elephants. I resented Tom’s ecstasy after bringing down a magnificent animal. The scene reminded me of the media reports and photos of big game hunting by the Trump sons. The very last chapters were even harder to read when the elephant hunters met the slave hunters. The small mercy of the author for readers was that Smith at least had Tom draw the line at hunting black Africans for the slave trade. Oops, spoke too early. In the last pages, his brother Dorian was indeed involved in the slave trade. Oh boy.

Well, I finished the book but would not ever pick up another Wilbur Smith book.

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WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION


WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION

Writing Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction is a popular genre of books, not in the least because of Diane Gabaldon and her series The Outlander, hefty tomes written in Scottish-accented language with numerous unfamiliar words—not the easiest, quick reads. The lusciously-filmed series made her a household name.

I did not know about the series. Only through the appearance of videos and the talk of friends did I finally bump into these historical novels. 

I already had written two novels of a more immediate past. My first self-published book-in-stories (On Thin Ice) dealt with my own life experiences. My second novel (Guardians’ Betrayal) was inspired by my work experiences, which I turned into a fictional story about two adopted children. Just for fun, I wrote a murder mystery next, motivated by a three-day novel writing contest, to keep going on the job of writing. 

In the meantime, I had become curious about the history of my parents during the war. As the youngest of five and born after the war, I knew nothing, although my eldest siblings knew a bit from their own memories. None of us had been able to coax more details out of our parents. The only document left behind was a spiral-bound book of coloured pages printed on rough paper with reports from the Resistance group’s various members, including one by my dad. The proof was a couple of sketches of him, portrayed in between other people. 

My parents raised small children as my dad continued in his job as a rural police unit commander under the Nazis. How did they survive five years of Nazi occupation—an experience never far from Dutch memory—and at what costs? I was born four years after the end of the war on the forefront of the second generation. Even for us, the whole experience of an invasion by a foreign enemy will never be excised from our memory during our lifetime.

To explore how it affected my parents, and in turn, to find out its effects on me, raised by traumatized parents, I started researching their lives of that time—until that point, a closed book. My parents never wanted to talk about those years. My dad would wave questions away with that’s so long agowater under the bridge.

As I researched, an unexpected trove of information opened up for me. I contacted a historian, the editor of a publication from the Historical Society in the village where it all happened. He shared a veiled suggestion that my father might have been involved in matters of foul play. It didn’t stop me from opening that Pandora’s box. 

Through an online search of the publicly available Dutch war archives, I found files with my dad’s name. Since my dad was deceased, I qualified to access his files in the National Archives in The Hague—unseen for 70-plus years. On my next trip to Dutch relatives in the Netherlands, the historian and I arranged to meet and research the files together. We read the original notes and carbon copies of letters, affidavits, interview reports, charges filed, all evidence collected for the trial under the Special Court for Public Servants. It became the story.

I wanted to avoid making the obvious mistakes of so many books about the Second World War, for my story to be dismissed as fanciful and not likely to have happened, so the research was essential. I wrote it to honour the many people who have lost their lives during the Second World War and to honour my parents, who never wanted to burden their children with the knowledge of what they went through. 

Of course, this novel is fictional. I wasn’t there. I didn’t witness a thing but used all the information I obtained and added fictional elements. My goal for the novel was to make this a story that reads as authentic and reflects the time. I have no idea who my parents were in those days, so all the dialogue and events were made up where the historical documentation and my siblings’ reports left gaps.

When the first few drafts were completed, I searched for people who wanted to read it and give me their feedback. Not as easy as it sounds. Unless somebody is also in a writing course or is a writer, the feedback one can expect is somewhat unfocused. I used several writing professionals to guide me along. Nine drafts followed, as well as a Dutch translation, finished by my sister. 

I queried agents and publishers directly (some will consider un-agented queries) and waited. 

Writers’ chat rooms and instructors of writing courses spend much time on warnings about sending in too early before the manuscript is polished and finished. Editing is paramount for acceptance. I indeed made precisely that mistake and got many rejections: almost 100. Live and learn. Even my last manuscript version was judged flawed by a Kirkus reviewer because of too many distracting editing errors. I am still working on polishing the manuscript with the publisher before its actual release on November 30, 2021. I will repost here when it is ready for pre-ordering.

What else did I learn along the way?

  1. My relative is NOT a character. I needed to go beyond the person I based my story on and thought I knew. Make them characters and use your imagination, unshackle them, make them suffer, raise the stakes, so the reader will be intrigued and follow.
  2. Research the facts, make a timeline of actual historical events and set the story in the correct time frame. I kept checking the facts as I proceeded through drafts and often found significant time mistakes in a scene.
  3. Instead of reciting facts, I had to make the characters live the times, see through their eyes, experience what they feel. The reader doesn’t want to read a history lecture.
  4. The old adage: show, don’t tell, at best is only part of good advice. The narrator (or your character) needs to “tell” how that character feels and interprets events. I took “show” to mean describing the character’s behavioural reactions, and I described the physical states as indicators of emotions. But that is not enough. I didn’t “tell” why s/he felt that way and how s/he interpreted what just happened in the scene. I left that too much open to reader’s guesswork. When the story unfolded differently than the reader had guessed, the reader got confused and lost interest.
  5. After an editor completed the job, I changed the manuscript again; the mistakes slipped in. Know what type of edit the document needs. I contracted an editor before the work was developmentally ready for it. After the very last edit by a line (or copy) editor, nothing should change before going to press.
  6. My nature is to do things ass-backwards in life. This may be due to my overconfidence combined with ignorance. Self-publishing is different than the process of publishing a novel with an established company. My first books were published quickly, and I now see why suspicions of lower quality exist in the industry.

I hope this was an interesting post, helpful for writers or to those who think about writing historical fiction.

Posted in Agents, Author circles, Babyboomer, Blog Hop, book review, Canadian publishers, Creative fiction, E Books, eBook, Germans, Hitler, Publishing, Retirement, Short story, the Netherlands, Uncategorized, war and resistance | 2 Comments

BOOK REVIEW: WE ARE WATER by Wally Lamb


WE ARE WATER by WALLY LAMB

Book review

This novel was published by Harper Perennial, hard cover edition and first published in 2013. It has a prologue. I was advised in my writing classes to not use a prologue or epilogue to tell the story I want to tell, but preferably integrate the material in the story itself. In this novel the prologue could have easily be a chapter, whether at the start or somewhere in the middle. The narrator is Gualteriero Agnello, the director of the Stadler Museum in Three Rivers, Connecticut, a character in the novel, who is interviewed for an article in the Connecticut Magazine. 

Agnello provides the connection between two characters in the story: Josephus Jones, a black artist of primitive paintings, and the artist Annie O’Day, a contemporary creator. Josephus Jones won unexpectedly the price of Best of Show in an exhibition organized by the museum, of which Agnello was the curator, long ago.

The story takes place for most part in the town of Three Rivers in Connecticut from the points of view of a long lineup of characters, almost too many if you ask me, over a period of close to thirty years. All characters are white middle class or working-class characters, except the character of Josephus Jones, a black working-class man and amateur painter. There is the danger of whiplash, as the characters are so very different. The reader gets into the mood and the world of one personality, and then it is over. On to the next one. I was beginning to feel a little schizophrenic as I read, trying to figure out all these players and how they were related.

The author specifically mentioned the ethnic backgrounds of the characters, apparently an important aspect of these American characters, although they were all born in the USA. To me, when I first started reading the novel, it was an oddity to specifically mention these ethnicities, as it could promote stereotyping. As a Canadian immigrant and a Dutch-born person, I assume it does not matter where people’s parents or grandparents come from. Our prejudice is still under the surface in Canada and open discrimination is frowned on: you have to dig quite deep before it is revealed. Later in the book, I got the reason Lamb is using these ethnicities: to highlight the intergenerational traumas of the various characters.  

There is the main character, Annie O’Day of Irish heritage, in her early fifties, who at the start of the novel is about to get married to Viveca, three years after Annie’s divorce from Orion Oh after a 27 year marriage. 

Vivica is the New York gallery owner of Greek heritage, who first signed on Annie as an artist and made her famous. She is searching for more works of Josephus Jones.

There is ex-husband Orion Oh of mixed Italian and Chinese heritage, a psychologist who works in a group home and is on his way to Viveca’s beach home, to allow Annie and the children (twins Andrew and Ariane, and Marissa) to stay there the night before Annie’s second wedding, taking place at a nearby hotel, where Vivica will stay the night.

Part I Sets the stage of the book and is all about Orion and Annie, who think back and relive their lives narrated in their respective POVs in interchanging chapters. 

Part II is called Mercy. The narrator is a woman, Ruth Fletcher, a neighbour of Annie’s parents. This charming character, married to Claude, thinks back on her life and her husband’s funeral, taking place at the same funeral home at the same time as the funeral of Annie’s mother and little sister takes place. Annie’s baby sister and her mother, Sunny, both drowned in a flash flood when a dam broke, when Annie was five. Claude had a daughter from a previous marriage, Belinda Jean, who is obese. Ruth likes to think Clade married her because Belinda Jean needed a mother. This is all told in a flash-back of many years earlier.

Claude Fletcher had a temper, and was a KKK member; he harassed Josephus (Joe) Jones and his brother, Rufus, stone masons, who both lived in the cottage behind the big house for which they constructed the mantel and fireplace. The big house was later purchased by Annie and Orion and they raised their family there. Rufus and Joe Jones lived with a white woman in the cottage, and Ruth suspects Claude had killed Joe, found dead head-first in the five-foot-deep well after Belinda Jean had become friends with Joe Jones.

Part III The Family. 

This is the story, told in interchanging chapters of the three children of Orion and Annie. Andrew (in the army, works at the ward for ill soldiers), and Ariane—the twins, and Marissa. Andrew is engaged to Casey-Lee, both are devoted to their Christian evangelical convictions. Ariane, heart-broken from a recent break-up, is the do-gooder of the family and manages a soup kitchen. Marissa tries to break into the acting business and has a hard time with that abusive environment, the novel written before the Me Too movement and Harvey Weinstein. They tell their stories about growing up, and their struggles in their lives as adults. Annie and Orion’s deteriorating marriage is highlighted from all angles and from everyone’s POV. 

Later chapters are also from the POV of the secondary characters in addition to the primaries.

Annie’s mother, Sunny, was married to Chick. They had an older son, Donald, and then Annie. Sunny’s nephew, Kent, would rather spend his time with his cousins Donald and Annie at Sunny and Chick’s. After Sunny and baby Emma drowned, Kent came to live at Chick’s to help out the family and babysit Annie, as Chick went off the rails from grief and guilt. 

There is the chapter of narrator Kent Kelly, fatherless since his dad, the brother of Sunny, had runoff with another woman with a son, the cause of Kent’s intense hatred of that little boy, Peter, who attended the same school. His story of pedophilia is told from his POV, as well of from the POV of his victim, a five-year-old girl. There are many other characters, too many to highlight in this review. 

Any subject one can think of, including believing in God versus agnosticism, is getting a treatment: its causes, and the consequences of the players’ deeds are narrated, using their stories in the voices of the various characters. The novel is well-written and interesting. Lamb sure knows his way around humanity and the psychology of human failure. It may be a book for those who already are okay with the shocking facts of life, but people of certain convictions may take offence. They are hereby warned. This book contains enough material for at least five books, which justifies its 560 pages. Of all the characters, I could identify most readily with Orion, and not at all with others, for instance Annie. I am not sure if that was because she is a woman but very unlike me, or because I couldn’t buy into her character and it was the writing. You be the judge.

Posted in alcohol abuse, Author circles, Blog Hop, book review, Children and child protection, Creative fiction, Diversity issues, Parenting, Publishing, religion, sexual politics, Uncategorized, victims, White male privilege, women's issues; torture of women | Leave a comment

STAYING CONNECTED IN THE COVID19 WORLD OF ISOLATION.


My publisher asked me for media people, educational institutions, and reviewers of literary magazines who might be interested in my novel, to be released at the end of November. Still a long way from now, but the work of preparation happens way ahead of that day. Labouring over the questionnaire, I realized that the mandatory isolation and the cancellation of literary events put a big dent in my ability to connect with those important people. I miss the writers’ group, which meets on Zoom. I miss the genealogy society meetings (on Zoom) and the meetings at the library research table a lot. I cannot attend the writers’ conferences—cancelled. I had sunk into a prison-like state of mind. Having to fill out the list for the publisher shook me awake.

My excuse for this isolation? 

  • I tried Zoom meetings but found that a headache-producing undertaking. The tiny pictures of people make it hard to see who is actually speaking and the difficulty breaking into the conversation myself reduced me to a watcher. There are more enticing things to watch on screens. 
  • I had another novel on the go. This was a bonus in a way, as I had begun writing it before the actual onset of the pandemic in March 2020, and I was glad I could focus on this work. Writing is a solitary business, so I felt blessed.
  • In November, I escaped my small condo in cold Kelowna to a different Mexico with fewer distractions, as all the fiestas were cancelled. On my patio, the conditions for writing were perfect. Surrounded by five-meter-high walls, and the sun, shining only on part of it, I could spend my days writing. When I got tired, I could take a nap on my lounger, in or outside the sunshine. Indeed, the novel progressed well. My editor seemed to have the time and occasion to finish his work within two weeks in January. My break from writing was short, and I started a new draft—the fourth.

I am just about at the point of querying this novel. The question arises: do I send it to the same publisher as my previous novel? Or should I first see how the novel to be released in November fares? Can I afford the luxury of waiting and working longer on the manuscript? Both novels have the Second World War as setting, although the first novel takes place exclusively during the five years of German occupation in the Netherlands. The second novel, still in development, has a broader timespan (from 1890-1970) with the two world wars as the background of the protagonist’s story.

I think I am going to focus for a while on approaching reviewers to generate some traction on the novel, soonto be released (November). If you feel like reading this story and writing a review on a website for books and readers, in a magazine, a newspaper, a blog, or a publication for military personnel, please, contact me. I just sent off the list with the people and magazines I came up with to my publisher, so I will collect any responses and pass those on to the publicist with HISTRIA BOOKS. I can be reached at johanna.vanzanten074@gmail.com

So, how to connect in isolation? 

  1. I have signed on with the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference and will watch a video life presentation with Diane Gabaldon for the conference today at 6 pm. The ticket price is reasonable. I do not have to peer into a ZOOM screen, and not do I have to travel. Three years ago and the year after that I attended the conference in person and have good memories. The workshops were delightful, the presentations inspiring and enlightening, and the ambiance unparalleled. I intend to resume visits when the Covid19 is defeated next year. There may be other conferences that offer their gifts in ways that suits your modem of communication. Diane Gabaldon is an effortless writer and the historical setting is right up my alley. There are other writers whose presentations were taped and you can access those, e.g. margaret Atwood, our wonderful Canadian celebrity author.
  • I have signed on with a number of relevant blogs and Facebook pages to become more familiar with what’s going on in the world of writers and books, and to interact in a less hectic pace of conversation, compared to a ZOOM meeting. I might be able to offer some useful information as well. The nature of the particular site and the kind of books is important. My blogs/FB pages are for Historical Fiction and Second World War, relevant to my new novels.
  • I have reached out to former instructors of creative writing programs, and editors of magazines that may be interested in my novel for a free ARC (advance reading copy). We will see what happens.
  • I will write articles related to the content of my novel and post it, send it to relevant papers and magazines, and contact the local media for additional exposure.
  • To all writers I recommend to use the isolation to your advantage and keep writing, but not to forget connecting with your tribe.
  • Happy Writing!
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