Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Only a Novel"

While doing some research on Jane Austen and her works for my review of P.D. James's new mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley, I came across this quote from Austen's novel, Northanger Abbey. Novelists should commit it to heart.

"Only a novel"... in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world, in the best chosen language."

From Northanger Abbey, Chapter 5 (1818)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Old Love and the New Love

Yesterday I received a Christmas present, a gift to myself, actually. The bound proof of my new novel, The Old Love and the New Love, arrived at Baico Publishing Company, 294 Albert St. Suite 103, Ottawa K1P 6E6, and I picked them up. A bound proof is the trial print-out of a book, a single copy complete with cover, a prototype - and the author's last opportunity to make corrections. Little glitches tend to creep in, no matter how conscientiously you copy-edit.

The Old Love and the New Love gets its title from a phrase in an Irish ballad, "The Hand that Shakes the Barley". The idea of writing an action/adventure/romance came to me several years ago when I was teaching a class called "Start a Novel" and found that among my students were three bright individuals committed to writing genre fiction; that is, category fiction rather than "literary" general interest fiction.

I decided to try my hand at writing something with more action and adventure than my earlier novels (although my four mysteries include suspense and tension.) I used as a starting point an exercise to stimulate the imagination that I have given my students. The exercise goes like this:

"A couple is having a pleasant evening meal at home when there is a knock at the door. On the doorstep is someone with whom one of the partners used to be romantically involved."

The aspiring writer who takes up the challenge must find a reason for the person to show up on the doorstep, and must consider how the partners will react, and from there, build a plot.

Obviously this work is not autobiographical, but is a work of the imagination.

I won't tell you the plot of The Old Love and the New Love, as I want you to buy the book and discover it for yourself, but I will share the back cover blurb.

"When Cleo's old lover, Leo Phelan, whom she hasn't seen in a decade, turns up on her doorstep, she is flustered, not flattered. Should she invite him to join her and her husband, Andy, for dinner? Will he be the serpent in their Eden? Little does she know that Leo poses a different sort of threat. Gradually, she realizes how tangled she is in the ties that once bound them."

The Old Love and the New Love will be published early in 2012.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

John Donne's Christmas Sermon excerpt

I wish you a Merry Christmas with this excerpt from John Donne's Christmas Sermon, December 25, 1624:

"...God made Sun and Moon to distinguish seasons, and day and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons: But God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies. In paradise the fruits were ripe the first minute, and in heaven it is alwaies Autumne; His mercies are ever in their maturity. We ask Panem Quotidianum, our daily bread, and God never says, you should have come yesterday; he never sayes you must againe tomorrow, but today if you will heare His voice, today he will heare you.

If some King of the earth have so large an extent of Dominion, in North and South, as that he hath Winter and Summer together in his Dominions, much more hath God mercy and judgment together; He brought light out of darknesse, not out of a lesser light; He can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the wayes of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now - wintred and frozen, clouded and eclypsed, damped and benummed, smothered and stupefied till now - now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the Spring, but as the Sun at noon, to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in the harvest, to fill all penuries. All occasions invite His mercies, and all times are His seasons."

From Sermon Number LXXX (2) given at St. Paul's Christmas Day in the Evening, 1624.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

An excellent article about creativity

I recommend the article "Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking," by Michael Michalko, in Psychology Today,

Sunday, November 13, 2011

review of Ivan Desabrais' novel, Phoenix Initiative

An Outstanding Initiative

Phoenix Initiative, by Ivan Desabrais, starts dramatically when a beautiful woman in her twenties, wearing a long, grey coat to conceal her body armor, pulls a gun on an executive in the elevator of an office tower. When he pleads with her not to kill him, she says, "I should, you pig!"

This powerful woman is Lasalle, the protagonist, key player in a secret international organization which exists to eliminate evil exploiters of children.

Phoenix Initiative is a well-plotted action/adventure novel. In this genre, plot must be paramount, yet there is always the danger of characters being one-dimensional puppets, subservient to the story's twists and turns. This never happens in Desabrais' novel. His main characters are multi-faceted. In creating Lasalle, a realistic blend of intelligence, courage and vulnerability, he shows respect for, and admiration of women.

The short, well-signalled flashbacks to Lasalleas a teenager, with her rescuer/recruiter/mentor Caldwell, add considerable depth, and never slow the pace. The scenes of tension and violence are balanced by sensuous ones in which well-chosen words gleam like jewels.

Let's hope this remarkable first novel is the start of a series centring on the intriguing Lasalle.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Least Expected Heroes of the Holocaust, by Vera Gara

A friend of mine is about to publish a unique book.

Vera Gara's memoir, Least Expected Heroes of the Holocaust: a personal memoir, (Ottawa, 2011, ISBN 978-0-9877789-0-1, soft cover, $15, will be available by November 2011 from

An Ottawa grandmother, Vera (Pick) Gara has authored an extraordinary memoir about heroic people who showed their humanity in terrible times. Mrs. Gara, R.N., a Canadian citizen and Ottawa resident for almost forty years, had her childhood interrupted by the rise of the Nazis and World War Two.

In her book, Least Expected Heroes of the Holocaust: a personal memoir, Mrs. Gara pays tribute to the everyday people who put themselves at risk to try to help her and her parents, first in 1938 when Hitler annexed Austria, and then in 1944-5, when the Jews of Hungary were rounded up by the Nazis.

Gara, who devotes herself to volunteer work and public education about the Holocaust, was instrumental in the establishment of Raoul Wallenberg Park in Ottawa (Nepean) and, as a result, was awarded membership in the Order of the Polar Star, the highest order that the Swedish government bestows upon foreigners. Wallenberg was a Swedish businessman and diplomat who saved the lives of many Hungarian Jews in 1944-5.

"Thinking about my wartime experiences and Wallenberg's heroic deeds, I became convinced that I must do something to honour the people who were not ambassadors or of other high rank, but who tried to help me and my parents during our awful journey in 1944-5," writes Gara. "People in ordinary walks of life showed themselves to be extraordinary by taking risks and acting like decent human beings during those dark days. I cannot honour them all with parks and monuments, though I would if I could. Instead, I have written about some whose lives touched mine, to convey my gratitude."

One outstanding example of such a fine person was the family chauffeur, who tried, in 1938, to save some family furnishings when the Pick meat packing plant and home were ransacked by the Nazis, forcing Vera's mother to flee with her young daughter to Hungary, while Mr. Pick was imprisoned.

Later, Vera's father was released and joined the family in Hungary, but worse was yet to come. Vera and her parents were among the Jews of Hungary whom the Nazis began rounding up for deportation and death in 1944-5.

The Picks were transported, first, to a forestry work camp in Loitzendorf, an Austrian village, and eventually to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. At the forestry camp, Vera's mother went into the village to buy food, and was befriended by an Austrian farm wife, Frau Lagler. Her twelve year old daughter, Mitzl, provided the prisoners with goats' milk (cows' milk being designated for the army). When Herr Lagler was questioned by the authorities as to whether his family was helping Jews, he replied that he was at work in his fields from sun-up to sun-down and knew nothing.

Unfortunately, the adult prisoners in the forestry camp were unable to do the required work, and the Picks, with the others, were moved again. On their sad journey, which ultimately led to Bergen-Belsen where Vera's father died, they were aided in small but important ways by several other good human beings who went out on a limb to be of help. Under the circumstances, the deeds of these "least expected heroes" were remarkable, says Mrs. Gara.

Mrs. Gara continues her story post-war, showing the longterm impact of the Nazi regime on her own and other families, including that of her husband, George Gara. Life in Hungary under communism brought more oppression. Formerly discriminated against as Jews, Mrs. Pick and Vera were now under suspicion as "capitalists." Finally, mother and daughter were able to return to Vienna. Vera studied nursing in London, England, and later, with George and their children, moved to Canada.

Reading Vera Gara's memoir takes you on an emotional roller-coaster ride. Her entire story is remarkable. Her surprisingly positive attitude shines through in every chapter. Though subjected to the worst oppression inflicted by totalitarian regimes, she has emerged as a vibrant person determined to live her life to the fullest, and to tell about past evil so that people will not repeat it.

The most touching part of Mrs. Gara's book is her recent rekindling of her friendship with Mitzl (Lagler) Reithmayer and her family, and with other Austrians who tried to help during the terrible past.

"People like Mizl and her family think it is normal to be good and helpful, and that is why we [George and I] value our friendship with them," says Vera Gara. "Always bear in mind: what may seem like a small act at the time may be the factor that keeps someone alive."

Least Expected Heroes of the Holocaust: a personal memoir, (ISBN 978-0-9877789-0-1) is available from Vera Gara, for $15.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thought-provoking article in Harpers Magazine, November 1911

I was drawn to the article, "Broken Britain: Nothing is left of the family silver" in the November 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine, because of my interest in England. Not only did my late father come to Canada from England as a child, but also my education has involved reading a lot of English literature and works on English history (including social history). This article, by leading journalist Ed Vulliamy (senior correspondent for Britain's Observer and Guardian newspapers) is a troubling tale with implications for Canada.

"Criminality" was the explanation given by both Conservative and Labour Party leaders in response to the August 2011 riots in Britain. Vulliamy contends that the "moral collapse", a phrase used by Prime Minister Cameron, started at the top of society. He notes scandals in which prominent Conservatives and Labour politicians have been implicated. Vulliamy describes his country as "greedy, obsessed with commercialism at the expense of any other value or norm, xenophobic, belligerent and hubristic."

Vulliamy blames Britain's "decomposition" on the devastation of manufacturing under Margaret Thatcher's administration, in parallel with drastic privatization of infrastructure, utilities and services. Traditional industries were replaced by retail and service ones, especially financial services "so that the economy came to rest on the whims and needs of supranational banking." Prosperity didn't "trickle-down" to the public; rather, taxpayers' money went to bail out the "very institutions that have looted our economy."

Vulliamy says that dependence on the financial sector has "changed the geography of opportunity." In the past, there were apprenticeships and opportunities all over Britain, but now, he says, "the only real money is in London", and the "ethos of London" governs the way the country thinks.

Although Vulliamy blames Thatcher for "selling off the nation's collective assets", he says that Blair proved to be her "natural successor." The title comes from a 1985 speech by former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, in which he compared privatization to selling the family silver.

Vulliamy mourns the loss of publicly run and owned industries and services like the now-defunct National Coal Board, British Rail, the Gas Board, etc., saying that they were run by people who "knew what they were doing and provided what they promised." In 2006-7 ,Vulliamy's aged father endured a winter without heat, due to a snafu to do with privatization and outsourcing. The family took up the matter, which was not solved until the end of March 2007, the day before his father died.

Privatization, says Vulliamy, has led to increased consumer prices, rewards to civil servants who were "selling off the silver", and loss of jobs. He notes a number of indicators that all is not well in Britain. It rates low among nations when the well-being of children and economic equality are measured and compared. There has been a marked increase in fatal accidents since British rail was privatized, and the new privatized company is still government subsidized. Authoritarianism is on the rise; Britain has more closed circuit TV camera surveillance than any other country in the world.

Canadians who are concerned about our Wheat Board, the spending on the G-8/ G-20 conferences, the suppression of the protests against them, and the growing gap in Canada between rich and poor will find food for thought in Vulliamy's article.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

a writing exercise from this past summer

This past summer, when all the gardens were gorgeous, a writer friend and I issued each other a poetry challenge. We were to try to write a poem, any style, comparing our friends to flowers, and to do it within twenty minutes. We both produced poems, but she felt that hers fell below her standards and decided not to add it to her computer files. (We were writing in longhand at the time.)

My poem fell below my standards, too, but since so many of mine do, what's one more? Here is the poem:

How like a flower garden are my friends.
The poppies and sunflowers stretch so tall.
Impatiens loves the shade. So much depends
upon their natures. I enjoy them all.

A pale wallflower, and a belle, so blue
should dally with the spikes of lavender,
or black-eyed Susan with her gaze so true
will make eye-contact, bending them to her.

Nasturtiums nourish, other blooms surprise,
like purple asters with their orange smell.
Forget-me-nots rate highly in my eyes,
though dazzled by the scarlet pimpernel.

Most flowers bloom and fade; it's what they do.
The pearly everlasting one is you.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Catching up on literary magazines

Once a month or so, Roger and I visit the public library to catch up on all the periodicals that we enjoy reading. To subscribe to them all would cost too much; as well, our house has too many books and magazines already.

While there the other day I read the Summer 2011 New Quarterly because it included an interview with Alice Munro about her novella, "Too Much Happiness" in the book by the same name. She was talking about the influence of Freud, not only on the characters in her novella, but also on women in the 1950s when she was a young wife, mother and aspiring writer.

She said, in answer to one question: "..[W]hen I was a young married woman I learned that educated women wanted desperately to follow and give help to a man. It was not the uneducated women who wanted this. It was the girls who read Freud...In the writing community it was that way too. It was was women who were difficult for me to deal with. They didn't approve of me because they sensed I wanted something of my own... When I got to live in the suburbs I found out, and it was a total surprise to me, that female achievement was so out of style... People accept fashions very readily and intellectual women or men are not immune to this either. The '60s was when I finally began to feel alive..."

I also read the October 2011 Writer's Digest, which includes an article by Les Egerton called "The Four Goals Your Beginning Must Meet." A novel or short story, he writes, must start with a "story-worthy problem." There must be trouble of the sort that alters the protagonist's internal psychological profoundly.

The other rules have to do with the hook, the establishment of your particular story's rules, and forecasting the ending. Read the article for more information.

I also came home with the new Lisa See novel set in China in 1957-8. All in all, it was a useful trip to the library

Monday, October 3, 2011

article about me in Ottawa This Week

This past Friday Ottawa This Week (West Edition) included an article about me by Kristy Wallace. The website is

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A friend sent me a poem

My old friend and editor, Valerie Simmons, sent me this poem, which was read at the funeral of her cousin's wife.

Death is Nothing at All

by Canon Henry Scott-Holland, 1847-1918

Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still.
Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we always enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effort,
Without the ghost of a shadow in it.

Life means all that it ever meant,
It is the same as it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
What is death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you for an interval
Somewhere very near
Just around the corner.

All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tips on Writing Fiction

Recently, while browsing for writers' markets, I came upon a two part article in The Guardian entitled "Ten Rules for Writing Fiction" See The authors/compilers asked fourteen established authors, including Canada's Margaret Atwood, to provide ten tips (commandments?) for aspiring novelists.

Among the gems were:
"Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip." (Elmore Leonard);
"Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones." (Roddy Doyle);
"Have more than one idea on the go at any time." (Geoff Dyer). Dyer also says to beware of cliches "of response as well as expression... There are cliches of observation and of thought - even of conception. Many novels... are cliches of form which conform to cliches of expectation."

(My apologies for not knowing how to put the accent on the e in cliche.)

Other bits of advice I liked:

"Marry someone you love and who thinks your being a writer is a good idea. Don't have children." (Richard Ford).

I didn't agree with "always write in the third person", but all of the advice is worth mulling over.

The only tips I might add are:

. Be selective when it comes to showing your works in progress to other people.

. Learn to work on your own. Avoid other writers and writers' organizations if you sense that they are picking your brain, sucking up your time and disparaging your work in the guise of constructive criticism.

. Learn from reading fiction that is like yours only better. Sample books on the craft of writing.

Monday, September 5, 2011

a fan letter I can't write

When I can't sleep, I often get up and read short stories by a famous Canadian author. An hour later I have put aside whatever concern had prevented sleep and go back to bed feeling that all is right with the world.

Sometimes I think I should write to the author and tell her how much her work means to me, but so far I've rejected the impulse.

"Dear Famous Author: I can't tell you how much your books mean to me. When I can't sleep I read one of your stories and soon I can't keep my eyes open and am ready for dreamland."

Now, that's hardly flattering. It's true yet it isn't. It creates the wrong impression, because the author's work is fascinating. I see myself in many of her characters and read to see how the character comes to terms with a situation/ predicament/issue, or rethinks it, endures it, lets time solve it, or triumphs over it. I'm left with the feeling that my own dilemmas are normal, typical, solvable, not always my fault, and best of all, interesting. I go back to bed feeling affirmed.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Walt Whitman said it well

Like many Canadians, I watched Jack Layton's funeral this past Saturday, and the words that were spoken and sung certainly resonated with me.

Yes, the funeral was a celebration of life, but in spite of the uplifting songs and brilliant eulogies I wept all through the telecast.

I kept thinking about two poems written by the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), whom I studies in American literature classes. Both are about the death of Abraham Lincoln. One is "Captain, my Captain." The other, longer one is called "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed." Whitman lived and worked in Washington D.C. during the American Civil War and frequently saw Lincoln coming and going in the course of his duties. He loved Lincoln, and although perhaps his poems are a bit over the top by present-day standards, I will quote a section from
"When Lilacs..." that reminds me of this past week:

"..... with the silent sea of faces and the unbard heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn...
"Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Humid Day for a Poet

Humid Day for a Poet

(c) Ruth Latta, 2010, 2011

I picture Pablo Neruda in several settings.

First, in bed with a woman
in a room overlooking the sea.
Filmy curtains billow in the windows
as the waves crash
and the tides ebb and flow
and he says her skin is as pink
as dawn in Santiago.

I picture Pablo at a picnic,
perhaps at the Arboretum,
with embroidered cloths spread on the grass,
where pot-luck provides a loaves and fishes miracle
and people sprawl under the trees
and the notes of a guitar
inspire him to write another ode.

I see him at a podium in Sweden
accepting the noblest prize of all.
You can Google the photo.

No one wants to picture a poet
growing grey, with flesh like jello,
perspiring at her dining room table,
tuning out the twinges of conscience and arthritis.

Should she turn on the air-conditioner
or, for the sake of the environment,

Blue lines from the paper smear her hands,
paper sticks to her fingers
and a hot affectionate long-haired cat
tries to take her pen,
as she yearns to be the woman by the sea
or a poet like Pablo.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

I Love "Paris"

I loved the new Woody Allen movie, "Midnight in Paris."

A California screenwriter gets the opportunity to go to Paris with his fiancee and his inlaws-to-be, who are Tea Party enthusiasts travelling on business. The screenwriter, played by Owen Wilson, is a would-be novelist with a work in progress, and is thrilled to see the city where great expatriate American writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and more, lived in the 1920s. Unfortunately, his visit starts out disappointingly. At a restaurant his girlfriend spots a couple she knows. The husband is an old boyfriend of hers, and also a tiresome know-it-all. The fiancee prefers spending time with this couple to being alone with her fiance/screenwriter/novelist.

Late one night she goes dancing with her friends. The screenwriter, who doesn't want to come along, gets lost walking back to their hotel. He sits on some steps to rest, bells ring twelve times, and a vintage car comes around the corner. The door opens, and... you really ought to see the movie.

"Midnight in Paris" deserves an Oscar but probably won't get one. There are several factors against it. Many of the jokes are subtle - but not the barb about generic, bland Hollywood romantic comedies. America's love-hate relationship with France may stand in the movie's way. As well, the nostalgic elements may not go over in a society where everyone prizes the new. Also, the references to literature, art and music may not appeal.

Owen Wilson is excellent in the type of role that Woody Allen used to play in his own movies when he was younger. Alison Pill looks like the photos of Zelda Fitzgerald from that era; Kathy Bates is a wonderful Gertrude Stein, and Corly Stoll is a funny caricature of Hemingway.

Fiction writers will be delighted with the way Woody Allen takes the elements involved in writing a work of the imagination and pushes them to an extreme. What are these elements? Well, authors enter the imaginary worlds that they are creating and are caught up in them. In some instances they seem as real as ordinary life. In the imaginary milieu, characters grapple with the author's concerns, reshaped, reframed and transformed. Often, within the world of the imagination, an author may become aware of buried issues in his own life and may figure out a new course of action, not only for the characters, but for himself. Serious writers of fiction admire great writers who have gone before, but, while the styles and themes of these "greats" may influence them, they strive to create something new.

In "Midnight in Paris," Woody Allen conveys a moral: that each historical epoch has its own problems, and that, in whatever time and place you are living, you should be true to yourself and pursue your dreams.

Monday, July 18, 2011

"Happy Go Lucky" - the movie

Thanks to the Ottawa Public Library I've finally seen the Mike Leigh movie, Happy Go Lucky, released in 2008. Better late than never.

The two main roles are played by Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsen, who were in Leigh's film Vera Drake,2004. Sally Hawkins starred in the more recent, Made in Dagenham. Happy Go Lucky, set in London in the recent past, centres on a pretty young woman named Poppy who dresses like Carrie Bradshaw and friends in the early episodes of Sex in the City. At first, Poppy seems charmingly flaky but unfocused. In an early scene she wastes her time trying to charm a sullen book store clerk. Next we see her out dancing at a club with her roommate, younger sister and two other girls, and continuing the party at her flat. In the next scenes, when I saw her and her roommate making brown paper bags into chicken masks, I was reminded of the crafts I used to do in my teaching years long ago, and sure enough, Poppy and Zoe are elementary school teachers preparing an art lesson. While school teachers are generally overworked, under-respected and underpaid, their work is highly important to society and requires sensitivity and responsibility.

Poppy is just the kind of colourful, upbeat teacher that young children like. Early on, her jokes and friendliness brighten up a glum colleague who has been nagged by rude relatives about her single status. As in Another Year, Leigh's characters fall into two groups - cheerful people who shrug off adversity and make the most of life, and troubled ones who range from the grumpy to the mentally ill. The happy characters include Poppy, her roommate Zoe, her school principal and the social worker who is consulted about an angry little boy. The elementary school seems a happy, well-run, non-hierarchical environment; the headmistress invites Poppy to her flamenco class and they go out for a drink afterwards, and both teachers and social worker are gentle and respectful in drawing out the troubled child.

The troubled people, in descending order, are the bookstore clerk, Poppy's youngest sister, the flamenco instructor (who has a melt-down), Poppy's pregnant married sister, the child, Poppy's driving instructor, and a psychotic tramp which Poppy meets while walking home and with whom she establishes a rapport.

Poppy is always ready to defuse a situation or ease tension with a joke. After a meal, Poppy's her pregnant sister demands of the other women, all single and unattached, "Doesn't my having a baby make you feel broody?" They politely say no. She persists, asking Poppy, "Wouldn't you like a baby?" Poppy replies,"No thanks, I just had a kebab."

Poppy tries to joke with Scott, her driving instructor, but her cheery banter only antagonizes him. He sets the tone on first meeting her when he refuses to shake her hand, and scowls at the remarks that are part of her patter, like: "Here we go, gigolo." Scott, who is rigid in his approach to instruction, eventually shows himself to be a racist and a conspiracy theorist. He cries, "Lock your doors!" when two black teens ride by on bicycles, and shouts at another driver, "You're not driving a camel!"

"It's not easy being you, is it?" Poppy says.

Rather than spoil the climax, I'll simply say that we see Poppy at her most assertive, and realize that she is effective in a crisis. Though the ending is less than a feel-good one, the final lines suggest that Poppy's warm-hearted ways are appreciated by someone special.

Mike Leigh encourages improvisation and spontaneity in his actors, and works individually with them to develop the characters they are playing, creating each character's back story. It's like the work a novelist does on her own in creating characters. Eventually each actor knows his or her character inside out. When developing the character Scott, Eddie Marsen believed he was making a serious movie about a troubled man. To his surprise, and eventual delight, he was put together with Sally's Poppy and their interaction makes sparks fly in this film, a thoughtful comedy.

Friday, July 15, 2011

a good article on characterization

In the month since I last posted anything, I have encountered a lot of interesting personalities, most recently the individual who damaged my car while it was in its parking space. But as a writer I must go beyond observing personalities and look for techniques to create convincing characters in fiction. In the July/August 2011 issue of Writers' Digest is a worthwhile article on this subject by Stephen James, entitled "Raise Your Characters Above the Status Quo."

I will not spoil this article by telling all that is in it, except to say that it suggests ways in which a writer can depict interactions between two individuals in which each is striving for the upper hand. James mentions specific behaviours and descriptive words that demonstrate the power and status (or lack of power and status) of a given character. For instance, if a character "stomps" and "struts" is indicates lower status than if he "strides." I recommend this article.

Monday, June 13, 2011

a guide to writers in the 21st century

Book Life, by Jeff Vandermere (San Francisco, Tachyon, ISBN 1-892391-90-2), subtitled "Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century," is well worthwhile for any writer. It is neither a how-to-write book nor an inspirational work of the Julia Cameron variety. Rather, it advises writers as to how to conduct themselves when using the new media, and how to plan for the long haul.

Vander Meer believes in setting goals in writing, assessing ones strengths and weaknesses, and formulating a five year plan, a one year plan, and monthly and weekly task lists. To operate from a to-do list made daily is to think tactically rather than strategically, he says.

"Be yourself" is another key piece of advice. Choose the type of internet presence that feels right for you, and consider the kinds of information you are willing to share with the world. When it comes to publicizing your books, "define your level of effort", he advises, and don't feel that you have to follow a certain course just because others are doing it.

His statement that "it requires effort to re-brand yourself" struck a chord with me. Earlier in my writing life I taught courses on memoir-writing, and although I have been publishing fiction for many years now and have won awards for my fiction, people still ask me to teach courses in life writing.

Vander Meer tells new writers that "there is not always a link between improved technology and greater efficiency" and that "new media breed a sense of swift entitlement and accomplishment." This is definitely food for thought, as is the remark, which he quotes from Nathan Ballingrud, that "What will stunt your writing is a lack of emotional and cultural experience.'

The items I have quoted or paraphrased above are only a small sample of the helpful information in Book Life. Read it for yourself.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Tom and Gerri

If you enjoyed the movies Vera Drake and Secrets and Lies, you will enjoy Mike Leigh's latest film, Another Year. This movie about aging centres on a year in the life of Tom and Gerri, a married couple in their early sixties We see them working enthusiastically in their allotment garden, an oasis in the city of London, and later sharing a cup of tea in their garden hut during a shower. At home together they always have much to talk about. He is a geologist, she a mental health counsellor at a medical clinic. In one scene we show her employing all her skills to draw out a sullen uncommunicative older woman, who rates herself a "1" out of 10 when it comes to happiness, but will say little else other than that she wants sleeping pills.

The relevance of this scene is revealed later in the movie when we meet Gerri's co-worker, Mary, a pretty vivacious woman somewhere between forty and fifty. As it turns out, Tom and Gerri have two relatives and two friends who are clearly not as happy as they are, and Mary is the troubled friend who is the chief drain on their energy. When Gerri and Tom invite her for dinner she gets drunk and weepy over a long-ago divorce and subsequent affair with a married man. She wishes she were as happy as Tom and Gerri are, but the conversation reveals that while she could pursue some of the small satisfying projects in life, like cooking and gardening, that they enjoy, she doesn't. Watching, I wondered if Mary would make a play for Tom in a harebrained attempt to become part of their happy family, but I was mistaken as to the focus of her attentions.

Mary's counterpart is Ken, a boyhood friend of Tom and his brother, Ronnie. Ken, divorced, eats and drinks too much, longs for the good old days when he was young and part of a crowd of football fans, and clings to his job because he doesn't know what he would do in retirement.
The aging friends and relatives who are troubled appear to be the sort of people who, in their youth, alaways latched onto the easiest option.

Some reviewers have suggested that Tom and Gerri befriend unfulfilled people in order to feel superior and successful, but I did not find this so. First of all, their circle includes at least one friend and one relative who are happy and busy. As for their troubled friends and relatives, Gerri treats them like full adults, never criticizing or giving them advice, even when they sorely need it, and showing them simple kindness. Tom, while very kind, tends to be more direct than Gerri, who simly says, "Life isn't always kind." Only when her goodness has been pushed to the limit does she tell a friend to "take responsibility" for actions and to "seek professional help."

As the film continues, we learn that Tom came from humble beginnings, that both he and Gerri put in years of study, then endured a long separation when the first job he could get was out of the country. Some reviewers say that the movie tells us that some lives are fulfilled and others aren't, and that there's nothing to be done, but Gerri wouldn't agree. Her behaviour reveals her belief that, with help and willingness to change, despair can be turned into garden variety unhappiness, and maybe something better.

The fragility of Tom and Gerri's happiness is shown by a funeral in the "winter" part of the movie. One imagines, however, that when death separates them, the widowed partner will continue reaching out to friends and pursuing worthwhile interests and projects.

I wish Tom and Gerri were real people and would invite us to their house for dinner. We don't get drunk and whine.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Joan Levy Earle's latest book

I was pleased to meet Joan Levy Earle in person at the Writers' Union's conference in Ottawa in June 2010 , as I had met her earlier in print. At that time she had written and published two autobiographical books: Jack's Farm and Train Ride to Destiny. Earle, whose roots are in Cornwall, ON, and who now lives in Toronto, wrote about marriage, widowhood, and finding love again.

Since then, she has written The Road Home: A journey of faith (Box 489, Station U, Toronto M8Z 5X8 1-800-663-6279, ISBN 978-0-9865343-1-7. Her cover blurb says, in part: "Recounting her own experiences and quoting passages from some favourite spiritual writers, Joan has included topics of interest for all believers." Joan, a former Anglican of Jewish ancestry, has been a devout Roman Catholic for many years, and has an "ecumenical spirit". She wrote The Road Home for those "looking for spiritual depth and balance in their lives."

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if all the wisdom we acquired as we experienced life from fifty to sixty could be given to us at thirty?" she asks in her book. Although I'm not from the same Christian tradition as Earle, I am in the same age group, and could easily relate to her chapters on "Changing Times" and on living within one's means.

Earle is to be commended for using her writing talents to help others and for her willingness to share her personal experiences and insights.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sally Chivers' Silvering Screen

Those of us who aren't getting any younger and who believe that movies influence us, ought to read Sally Chivers' book, The Silvering Screen, (University of Toronto Press, 2011) It is a study of old age and disability as represented in cinema. Chivers is chair of and associate professor in the Canadian Studies Department of Trent University.

Although recent years have brought us more movies about aging, and more roles for older actors, Chivers does not see much to cheer about, for most movies "reflect an ongoing pathologization of changes associated with age." In other words, they treat aging as if it were a disease. In the movies, senior characters have to look youthful and be active. Looking old is equated with being ill. In the movies and in society in general, youth is seen as the norm and "healthy aging" is an imitation of youth.

"The idea that an old person has value that exceeds the value attached to young appearance is not what we see on the silvering screen," writes Chivers. She quotes film scholar Martine Beugnet who wrote, "In the context of late capitalist culture, old age is a disease, equivalent to the categories of low consumer value and low productivity, a social stigma..."

In Chivers' view, the elderly and the disabled face some of the same concerns. The "social positioning" of both categories is low. Both age and disability are treated as medical problems. The field of Disability Studies, which has focused on younger people with disabilities, rather than older ones, has found that being differently-abled can give a person a valuable alternative perspective on society. Chivers wishes that healthy and successful aging were defined as a "transformation of self and world", and included disabilities.

Chivers' perspectives on certain films interested me keenly. She liked Pauline and Paulette (Belgium, 2001) because the mentally handicapped character had an "indomitable spirit" and because her aging caregiver/sister, who wanted to retire away from her, missed her when she was not around.

Chivers liked the film, Away from Her (Canada, 2006, directed by Sarah Polley) because Fiona, the character with Alzheimer's Disease, (played by Julie Christie) was in a power position, rather than being acted upon. After she is admitted to a care facility, her husband, Grant, dismayed at her affection for another resident, has to find strategies to win her back. At times, to him, her dementia seems just an enhancement on her lifelong eccentric personality. As well, Away from Her shows that if one partner in a marriage needs special care, and the other does not, there is probably no way they can continue to live together as a couple in the care facilities that exist now.

I agreed with Chivers' praise for The Straight Story (U.S, 1999) starring Richard Farnsworth. He played Alvin Straight, who, in his old age, no longer having a drivers' licence, travelled by riding lawn mower and trailer across several midwestern U.S. states to visit his brother. Chivers points out that most people he met on his way underestimated Alvin, and that many wanted to feed and shelter him, but that he declined their offers politely, saying that he wanted to complete his journey his own way. Again, the elderly person thought and acted for himself instead of being acted upon - a rare thing in films involving the old.

I liked Nobody's Fool (U.S., 1944) and About Schmidt (U.S, 2002) more than Chivers did, and for that reason I read her analysis with great interest. Based on my observations of life, I thought that the roles played by Jessica Tandy and Melanie Griffiths in Nobody's Fool were realistic enough. Regarding of About Schmidt, I saw it not so much as a movie about aging as about a seemingly successful but essentially mis-spent life. It was made pretty clear in the movie that Schmidt's perceptions and conclusions were flawed.

In general, I share Chivers' thoughts on movies in which aging male actors are cast in bad boy roles similar to those they played in their prime.

Sally Chivers would like movies to address the real issues that face us as we age. She mentions, as an example, the "internecine struggle for employment", with younger people blaming boomers for holding down the good jobs and refusing to retire, not realizing that many of the next generation's jobs have gone offshore.

I highly recommend The Silvering Screen, and hope that someday, being old will be deemed a valid way to be, both in the movies and off screen.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

More Money than Brains, by Laura Penny

Laura Penny's new book, More Money Than Brains, (Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, ISBN 978-0-7710-7049-5, $19,99 pb) is both educative and entertaining. Penny, an English professor at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, is tired of the anti-intellectualism so pervasive in our society. She meets many students who are at university to gain credentials for an "awesome", highly paid career, but don't want to do the reading, writing and thinking required to achieve this goal. In a society in which the love of money dominates, is it any wonder that they value only those courses that seem to point directly to lucrative jobs?

While much concern is expressed about education, Penny knows that the public is not worrying that North American youth are "less well read" than students elsewhere in the world; rather, there is concern that North America is being outstripped in science and technology and will lose more highly paid jobs. The skill of reasoning, says Penny, has been replaced in our culture by lesser mental skills like wishing (encouraged by reality TV) and counting. "We encourage students to mistake low cunning for intellect and skill," she writes.

Penny finds ironic our respect for business, technology, and the free market system, given that, in the past thirty years, there have been three recessions and one global market meltdown. Treating money as an end in itself sanctions the kind of excesses that crashed the stock market and damaged the economy, she says.

There has always been a strain of anti-intellectualism in North American, Penny finds, but never stronger than nowadays, when it is widely believed that any person's opinion is just as worthy as anybody else's, never mind someone's proven expertise in a given field. Anti-intellectualism may have intensified because, in living our lives, we are increasingly dependent on experts in various fields, and our dependence frightens us. Politicians of the right, posing as "just plain folks" with "common sense" rather than knowledge and expertise, disparage those with specialized knowledge. The result is a "duh" in "democracy."

Penny is convinced that an education in the humanities discourages overweening pride and arrogance, and works against dogmatism and demagoguery. She agrees that the public school system needs to be improved, not by more testing, but by emphasizing the ability to read, write and think. Too often she meets students with only a "feral" ability in grammar and a total ignorance of history. Those who know nothing of the past are trapped in the "goldfish bowl" of their own "cultural moment" and have nothing with which to compare it. Too many elementary school teachers love children when they should also love their subjects; that is, have a broad and deep knowledge of the material they teach. Those who rely on the "answer key" in the back of the book are unable to encourage much thought and reasoning.

If Penny had her way, she would exclude schools of business from university campuses, and relocate them on the campuses of community colleges. In her view, those who want to learn skills and techniques and make a lot of money, whether in business or in a skilled trade, have more in common with each other than those in the liberal arts and humanities.

University budget cuts in the humanities are a capitulation to anti-intellectualism, she contends. Why should disciplines that have endured for thousands of years have to justify themselves? The most enduring things that our ancestors have left us, she concludes, are their books, their music and their ideas.

More Money than Brains is readable, funny and thought-provoking. I recommend it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Chill Mortal

My poem, "Chill Mortal", won honourable mention in the Ottawa Canadian Authors' Association 2011 poetry contest last night, and I thought I would share it with you.

by Ruth Latta

I've thought of giving up my wintry friend
to fly to some warm southland of the heart,
for frozen needles are enough to send
the hardiest to seek a warmer start,
away from stinging pellets, rain turned shards
and icy blasts that make one huddle down
in self-embracing solitude. It's hard
to greet the snow with calm and not a frown.

But winter cold is natural to us,
a part of life that comes when day's near done.
We're stoic; we endure without a fuss,
give thanks for bright clear days with glowing sun
and pristine waves in fields with shadows blue,
so perfect, my old friend, I think of you.

(c) Ruth Latta, 2010, 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

Thank you speech at Northern Lit Awards ceremony

This is the speech I gave at the Northern Lit Awards ceremony in Sudbury on May 4, 2011:

I am honoured and thrilled to receive this award and want to take a moment to praise librarians and libraries, not only for their support to Canadian culture, but also for their contribution to clients' happiness and good mental health.

Growing up in Northeastern Ontario in the 1950s and '60s, I felt a distinct lack of books and library resources. When I was a young child, relatives gave me little books from the five and ten cent store, but as I became an older and better reader, it was a struggle to find new material. At the time, there were no book stores anywhere near. In any case, we were not a well-off family and the basics like food, clothing and shelter took priority.

My mother, who taught elementary school, was my main early source of encouragement in reading and writing. Our school didn't have much money, though, so the "library" consisted of two bookcases in each classroom. I soon read the books available and also went rapidly through my aunt's collection of Ladies Home Journals and Readers' Digest Condensed Books.

When I complained to my mother about having nothing to read, she remembered that the Women's Institute had a cupboard in the cloakroom of the community hall, where they kept a collection of books, mostly by minor Victorian writers, under lock and key. My mother, who was an Institute member, asked the local president if she would unlock the cupboard and let me look at the books.

The president was frankly puzzled, and said, "What does Ruth want the books for?"

In that day and age, children, especially girls, were often told to "Get your nose out of that book and do something useful."

The nearest town was about thirteen miles from where we lived and it had a public library, one room in a municipal building, so when I started high school I inquired about borrowing from it. As a non-resident I paid a fee, but it was worth it to have access to a wider choice of books. One book I read at that time, which I thought of on election night, was George Bernard Shaw's "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism."

Now, that town has a new self-contained library on one of the two main streets, staffed professionally and associated with a regional library system through which borrowers can order pretty much anything they need.

I remain a persistent, curious and addicted reader, and frequently use the libraries in Ottawa, where I live now. Today, libraries are almost like community centres in offering all manner of activities and services including author events and readings.

When I was growing up in Northeastern Ontario there was just one writer in the community and he was regarded as an eccentric, so it's a pleasure to be in an environment where writers are numerous, commonplace and treated by librarians as associates in the encouragement of reading.

I'm glad that younger generations growing up in Northern Ontario are receiving nourishment for their minds and imaginations through well -organized public library systems and qualified librarians. My nieces, who grew up in Northeastern Ontario as I did, had this advantage. Both girls graduated from Laurentian University and when we attended the younger girl's graduation, I was struck by her class motto, which was: "Dream it, live it, be it."

To be able to dream of what you can be and imagine what constitutes a good life, you need people and facilities to support and encourage your imagination and curiosity, and that's what librarians and libraries do.

Thank you so much.

Some photographs

These pictures were taken in Sudbury on May 4, 2011 at the "Northern Lit" award banquet.

Winter Moon won

The Ontario Library Service North presents annual awards awards to recognize the outstanding contribution that Northern Ontario authors make to Northern culture, and this year I was one of the lucky recipients. My collection of short stories, Winter Moon (Ottawa, Baico, 2011) was chosen as the winner of the "Northern Lit Award - English fiction."

I lived for twenty-three years in Northern Ontario, so a number of the short stories in Winter Moon have a northern setting. I enjoyed revisiting Sudbury, where, long ago, as a young teacher, I took summer courses at Laurentian University. Everyone was warm and welcoming, and paid me wonderful compliments about Winter Moon.

Thank you, OLSN, especially the eight librarians who read Winter Moon and thought it good.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

NDP response to The Writers' Union questions

Dear Members,

The NDP has responded to the Union’s election questions. The response is posted to the website at as well as being attached and inserted below.

Valerie Laws

Office Administrator

The Writers' Union of Canada

200 - 90 Richmond Street East

Toronto ON M5C 1P1

416-703-8982 x 224

April 22, 2011

Kelly Duffin

Executive Director

The Writers Union of Canada

90 Richmond Street East, Suite200

Toronto, Ontario, M5C 1P1.

Dear Ms. Duffin,

Thank you for the opportunity to highlight the New Democratic Party of Canada’s position on issues and concerns you have raised in your questionnaire.

We appreciate your efforts to help voters make an informed decision on voting day.


Jack Layton,

Leader, Canada’s New Democrats

2011 Federal Election Questionnaire

Response from Canada’s New Democrats

Fair Copyright

 Would your party propose a Bill to modernize copyright that is founded on creators being compensated for the use of their works? Specifically, would you remove the over-broad exceptions that appeared in Bill C-32 (such as “fair dealing for education”) which would result in the sanctioned expropriation of writers’ property and income?


 How would you ensure that the Copyright Act protects creators’ existing and future revenue streams in the digital economy?

If elected, New Democrats will seek to introduce new copyright legislation that will ensure that Canada complies with its international treaty obligations (such as the WIPO Internet treaties, among others) – while balancing consumers’ and creators’ rights.

By consulting widely with stakeholder groups, New Democrats will develop legislation that is technology-neutral, balanced and flexible enough to ensure its adaptability to new platforms and technologies in the years to come; and address issues like Technological Protections – TPMs, or digital locks, statutory damages, private copying and reproduction for private purposes, collective licensing, broadcast mechanical licensing and fair dealing, among others.

We do not support the creation of powerful anti-circumvention rights as contained in the government’s copyright bill – C-32, the Copyright Modernization Act. In fact, we believe they pose a very real danger that consumers will be prohibited from using content for which they have already paid. We believe these new powers override not only consumers’ rights, but also creators’ and artists’ rights.

In our consultations, New Democrats will consider all sensible proposals to update or develop mechanisms to provide fair compensation for creators. We believe that, in collaboration with stakeholders, we can strike a balance between fair remuneration for creators and reasonable access for consumers.

Jack Layton and the New Democrat team value collaboration with stakeholders and concerned Canadians. A hallmark of our work in the House of Commons has been our willingness to collaborate with Members of Parliament of all political stripes on a wide range of issues – to bring about tangible results for Canadians. Our approach to developing new copyright policies and legislation will be marked by that same openness to consider varying viewpoints and interests.

Fair Taxation for Artists

 Would your party introduce a Copyright-Income Deduction for creators, modeled on that used in the province of Quebec? If so, when?

Jack Layton and the New Democrat team have committed to make efforts to address income variance among creators and ensure more stable incomes over time, and we are open to exploring prudent proposals to make this possible, including the introduction of a Copyright Income Deduction similar to the measure that already exists in Quebec.

As you are certainly aware, the deduction already in place in Quebec encompasses creators in a variety of fields, and applies to any copyrighted work that generates income. We believe such a measure would likely have a minimal effect on government revenues, and a far greater effect on creators’ revenues.

New Democrats believe that in light of the significant contribution made by the arts, culture and heritage sector to Canada’s economy – and to the cultural wealth of Canada – the federal government has a responsibility to give creators the tools and the opportunity to enjoy a stable livelihood. This is particularly important in light of vanishing revenue streams for creators.

Aside from the case of Quebec, the federal government already provides a number of tax deductions through the Canada Revenue Agency that can serve as a model for the implementation of such a deduction.

Furthermore, our party has long been committed to providing economic relief for Canadians, with specific measures targeted to small businesses and the self-employed – many of whom work in the arts, culture and heritage sector – including reducing the small business tax rate from 11 percent to 9 percent. We believe this initiative will offer concrete support to a sector of our economy that creates nearly half of all new jobs in Canada. Additionally, New Democrats will offer a Job Tax

Credit that will provide up to $4,500 per new hire (including a $1,000 non-refundable tax credit for worker retention).

 Would your party exempt from taxation subsistence grants for creators administered by the Canada Council for the Arts? If so, when?

New Democrats are open to examining the feasibility of this measure at the earliest possible opportunity. We have also committed to make tax averaging available for artists and workers in cultural and knowledge industries.

Investment in the Arts

 Would you invest in the not-for-profit arts sector by increasing the allocation to the Canada Council for the Arts and the department of Canadian Heritage, among others? If so, by how much and in what timeframe?

Our party has long been a keen supporter of the valuable work of the Canada Council for the Arts and as such, we have committed to increase the budget of the Council by $30 million in 2011-2012, $60 million in 2012-2013, and $90 million per year in both 2013-2014 and 2014-2015.

Jack Layton and the New Democrat team believe Canada’s thriving arts community should be able to rely on stable, long-term core funding from the federal government. Our commitment to fund the Council will place the organization on firm footing and enable it to maintain and expand its activities, which we believe are essential to Canada’s cultural heritage.

 Would your party return funding to the PromArt program? If so, when? If not, what would your party propose to do for the development of foreign markets for Canadian cultural products?

The New Democratic Party recognizes the significance of developing new markets for Canadian artists and their works abroad, as well as providing support including market research, assisting creators in finalizing export plans and helping them to bring their products to market.

We opposed the Harper government’s decision to abruptly shutter two key cultural funding programs that facilitated the promotion of Canadian art and culture outside of Canada – Trade Routes and PromArt – and we have made a commitment to explore the reinstatement of those programs to resume the competitive export of Canadian cultural products.

 Would your party return the Public Lending Right Commission’s hit rate to the original $40 and commit to indexing it to inflation going forward? Would you push for PLR compensation to cover e-books as well as print books?

New Democrats recognize that the time has come to re-examine this issue and we are open to explore an adjustment of the so-called hit rate and the possibility of extending it to cover e-books.

 What investments does your party propose to make in art and culture as a component of a National Strategy for the Knowledge/Digital Economy?

Jack Layton and the New Democrat team will:

§ Refocus the mandate of the CRTC to promote and protect Canadian cultural industries; we will also ensure it better reflects Quebec’s cultural and linguistic reality and that of Canada’s francophone communities;

§ Strengthen public broadcasting with long-term stable funding for CBC, Radio-Canada and other public broadcasters, including the capacity to deliver superior regional production and Internet services;

§ Provide sustained funding for the Canada Media Fund and Telefilm Canada, enhancing federal film incentives and developing a targeted strategy for the promotion of domestic films and online content in Canada; and

§ Develop a digital online culture service to broaden access to Canadian content.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A great book about old age

Throughout the Canadian federal election campaign we have been seeing all parties trying to get the seniors' vote. In my view, the promises we have heard have all been piecemeal, each idea good as far as it goes - which isn't far enough.

Last winter I read an excellent book on aging, entitled Contesting Aging and Loss, and reviewed it for Forever Young Magazine in my book report column. I thought of it a few days ago when musing about some medical adventures I have had recently. I admire the book for its spirit of respect for older adults. I entitled the review, "Not a Disease" and have posted it below. It should be compulsory reading for anyone in a health care related occupation and anyone running for public office.


by Ruth Latta

Is aging all about loss? No, say Janice Graham and Peter H. Stephenson. That's the wrong way to look at growing old. Graham, a bio-ethicist, and Stephenson, an anthropologist, are specialists in gerontology. The idea that growing old is like a disease should be contested, they say - thus the title of their book, Contesting Aging and Loss, University of Toronto Press, 2010, ISBN 978-1-44260-100-0,
"A linear model of 'losses', leading eventually to the loss of life, that is so common to studies in biomedicine and some areas of gerontology, is soundly contested by the rich and varied experiences that people live through their life," writes Stephenson. Aging is highly variable, and depends on factors like nutrition and genetic heritage.
Because North American culture values the new over the old, older people are marginalized as irrelevant, or worse, "seen as a dangerous demographic surplus." Successful aging is defined in our culture as being outgoing rather than introspective, living independently and looking young. The authors consider wisdom to be the hallmark of successful and healthy aging, not retention of youthful characteristics.
Certainly there are losses associated with aging, but growing old also includes "fulfilments, gains" - such as wisdom - and ongoing efforts. "Growing old without being destroyed by the losses one may have had to endure is an achievement that many people may fail to recognize," the authors write.
One of the essays in Contesting Aging and Loss is a study of a group of Netherlanders, over eighty years old, who define successful aging as keeping up a social network of friends and relatives. Like many of their North American counterparts, these seniors practise "impression management"; that is, they made an effort not to complain about their situations, to keep up their own spirits and to be good company. The desire to enjoy their social contacts was their reason for keeping active physically and mentally.
But what of Alzheimers Disease? Isn't it the biggest loss of all? According to Janice Graham and Pia Kontos, who have written the chapters on this subject, the prevailing view that dementia leads to loss of self is a dangerous way of looking at the condition. "Assumptions about the diminishing humanness of individuals with Alzheimers Disease foster interactions that depersonalize the sufferer," writes Graham. One must remember that Alzheimers sufferers are not objects, but people.
In Chai Village, an Jewish long term-care facility located in Ontario, and the subject of Kontos's study, the emphasis is on what Alzheimers residents can do, not on what they can't. Efforts are made to enhance the residents' expressions of personality. They show their unique selves in their clothing choices, their food preferences, their greetings and responses to staff and fellow residents, their sudden surprising flashes of memory, and their acts of kindness to each other. During activities, staff members take the attitude: "You don't need to know how to do this, but we'd like you to try", and the results are often surprisingly good.
Christina Holmes and Peter Stephenson studied seniors' experiences in hospital. Their findings are troubling. Merely getting to and from hospital is fraught with difficulty and needs to be addressed. "While many seniors felt the need to stick up for themselves when hospitalized, they also did not want to be perceived as difficult patients and consequently they were silenced," the authors found. Psychological stress, the authors remind us, has a negative effect on healing.
The authors refer to the "aging industry" in which the old are targets of commerce and clients of a "vast system of health care practises." Policy makers, say the authors, should listen to older adults, not special interests engaged in marketing. Graham and Stephenson believe that the situation of the elderly would be improved by more and better basic health care and community social services, including more home care, and on training front-line caregiving staff to be empathetic. Most of all, Stephenson and Graham would like experts and the general public to quit thinking of aging as a malaise.
Contesting Aging and Loss is constructive yet disturbing. My only wish is that the authors had chosen a clearer, catchier title that would attract more readers.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cicero, on Old Age

Our copy of the CCPA Monitor arrived in the mail yesterday. Among the many worthwhile articles was a quote from Cicero on Old Age. I am including it here without fear of violating copyright, for Marcus Tullus Cicero, great orator of the Roman Republic, lived from 106 B.C. to 43 B.C.

In this excerpt on Old Age, Cicero refers to "old men", and uses the pronoun "he" throughout. It would be inaccurate to say, in this instance, that "men" implies the inclusion of women and that Cicero is really writing about "human beings", since women in the Roman Republic had no civil rights.

We in the 20th century, however, can take his positive comments about old men and think "old people."

"Those who say that old men can do nothing useful completely miss the point - for all the world like those who think the pilot has no part in the sailing of the ship. For he sits quietly in the stern, merely holding the tiller, while other men are climbing the masts, running about the gangways or manning the pumps. He may not be doing the work of the young men, but what he does is more important. The big things are not done by muscle or speed or physical dexterity but by careful thought, force of character and sound judgment. In thse qualities old age is usually not only not lacking but even better equipped.

"Old men retain their mental faculties provided their interest and application continue, and this is true not only of men in exalted public stations, but also of those in the quiet of private life. I can point out to you Roman farmers in the Sabine country,friends and neighbours of my own, who are hardly ever absent from the fields when the farming operations are going on, such as sowing, reaping and harvesting the crops. Although their interest in the annual crops is less remarkable, for no one is so old as to think he cannot live one more year - yet these same men labour at things which they know will never bring any profit to them.

"Life's course is fixed. Nature has but one simple path and that path is run but once. To every part of life is given that which is fitting, and thus the weakness of the little child, the untamed courage of the young man, the seriousness of middle age, and the maturity of old age, all bear some of Nature's fruit, which must be garnered in its own season."

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A good movie is hard to find

A good movie is hard to find, but recently we found one we liked. Made in Dagenham is about a 1968 strike of Ford seamsters - no, not Teamsters - that led to pay equity legislation in Great Britain. The women machinists, who sewed the upholstery for automobiles, were classified as "unskilled" workers. These women fought a double battle, against both management and male officials and leaders in the trade union movement who were as much against equal pay for work of equal value as Ford (then) was.

This well-written, well-acted movie educates viewers gently while making them laugh. (I had a little trouble with their accent at first, oddly enough, because I had no difficulty with the Yorkshire accent in The Full Monty.) The fashions and music of the late 1960s took me back to my youth. The central character, Rita O'Grady, is fictional, not based on a real person. (Norma Rae, the lead character of a similar movie also well worth seeing, was based on an actual American textile factory worker.) Rita O'Grady, played by Sally Hawkins, is a composite character.

Bob Hoskins plays a union representative in the factory. It is touching to hear him tell Rita that he supports her and the other women because of personal experience. His mother was the sole support of her family in a factory job where she got half what men earned for the same work.

Barbara Castle, the minister of labour in Harold Wilson's administration, is amusingly portrayed by Miranda Richardson. Her meeting with the strike leaders is one of the best parts.

Also amusing is the bit where a union leader, opposed to pay equity, quotes something that Marx said about "Man..." Marx was a product of his time, as we all are, and, writing in the 19th century, used "man" as a synonym for "person", but the union leader took the term literally to mean man but not woman. (Inclusive language does matter!) The Bob Hoskins character quotes Marx right back at him, to the effect that the progress of a society can be measured by the progress of its women.

The movie doesn't make light of the short term sacrifices involved in winning long term objectives. It excels in showing how ordinary people without much self-confidence can take on a challenge and grow into effective leaders.

It's a treat to find a movie that is about something.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Foul weather friends

The other day I visited a friend who has just completed the first draft of a book length work. It's her first manuscript, and she's excited about it, but also disappointed at a lack of enthusiasm, encouragement and praise from some of her friends.

I said, in effect: "Join the club." I have been writing for publication and pay over the past thirty-odd years (some of them very odd) and can count on the fingers of one hand my women "friends" who have respected my chosen work. (Two elderly father-figures used to, but they're dead now.)

Mulling over the matter, I remembered something Naomi Wolf wrote quite a few years ago in Fight Fire With Fire.

"Sisterhood is problematic," Wolf wrote. Girls bond as intimate friends who share thoughts and feelings, rather than as members of a team. The sisterhood model, she contends, "gives women little practice in accepting the notion that someone has legitimately won a leadership postion through her own merits and that the prize is open to all. Men's organizations, Wolf wrote, are not necessarily "relentless, one-on-one competitions" but can be very "collaborative and supportive", while women's groups can be "rife with veiled aggression and competitiveness."

Now, neither my writing amigo nor I would claim to be in "leadership" positions as writers or anything else. We're just pleased at having created something.

Recently I read the novel, Le Divorce, by Diane Johnson, in which one of the women characters sympathizes with our gender because she understands our "historical circumstances...centuries of oppression." It's hard to be openhearted and generous when you've been brought up in circumstances of scarcity - especially scarcity of opportunity.

Both my writing pal and I are women of a certain age. I'm hoping that younger women are free from envy and rejoice in each other's achievements.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

There is no thrill...

Many years ago, in one of my classes on how to write your memoirs, an elderly man,who wrote for his community paper, explained to other class members why he sought publication. "Next to sex," he said, "there is no thrill like seeing your work in print." His response amused the other participants.

Among my circle of friends back then was an older woman poet. When I told her this incident, she said, "Yes, and in my experience, getting published is sometimes more thrilling."

This week, I had the thrill of seeing two items of mind in print. My usual Book Report column appears in FYI:Forever Young, and this month I review Roseanne Cash's recent memoir, Composed. As well, the online magazine Canadian Materials published my review of a young adult novel, Broken Trail. My reviews appear in CM on an average of once a month.

As for other thrills? No comment.

I found Cash's memoir much more than the typical celebrity autobiography. I frequently review memoirs in my Book Report column if I feel they have a special spark.

I used to teach courses in "Writing Your Memoirs" through Continuing Ed with Ottawa area school boards, but at some point declined to teach this course any more, and offered courses on fiction. Writing fiction was my real area of interest. When I started teaching "Writing your Memoirs" I was far too young to even think of writing about my own short uneventful life. I was interested in the memoir as a genre in relation to historical writing. It seemed to be regarded by historians as a shady poor relation. I found that personal experience accounts were often more vivid than official history, and brought to light ordinary people's feelings and experiences that were important in a full understanding of an event or epoch.

Teaching classes on memoir writing to the general public was fun at first but eventually became less rewarding. Mind, you, I got good results from some participants. While writing this blog I am aware of two old friends who have excellent memoirs on the verge of being published. Many in my classes wrote book length works, not for publication, but for family and friends.

But the classes became a drain. In each one there was someone who thought we were doing "show and tell" as in kindergarten. Too many participants were just there to brag, not write. I attracted a number of retired public servants who had come to Ottawa to do good, had stayed to do well, and wanted to tell the world about it. I also encountered people who didn't care about the skills involved in writing, but merely wanted to slap their story onto the page "any which way they can." Try as I might to persuade aspiring memoirists to hit the highlights; that is, to identify their most important experiences and write about those, rather than bogging the reader in trivia, too many people were sure that every little thing that had ever happened to them would be of interest to posterity.

The real reason I quit memoir-teaching, though, was that I was becoming type-cast. I shivered when as a guest speaker at a writers' group I was introduced as the "Mistress of the Memoir". People tended to assume that all my fiction was autobiographical. Since I was teaching memoir-writing, how could I possibly create anything out of my imagination? I dropped out of a local writers' organization partly because the program convener kept nagging me to appear as a speaker on memoir-writing at a time when I was trying to publicize one of my novels.

Other writers in Ottawa are teaching courses on memoir writing these days, and I wish them joy in it.

I was interested in the article by Neil Genzlinger, "The Problem with Memoirs", which appeared in the New York Times on January 28, 2011.

Reviewing four memoirs published by major companies, Genzlinger begins his article by saying, "There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment."

These says, says Genzlinger, we are in a "age of oversharing", and, in his view, the flood of memoirs has to stop. "We don't have that many trees left."

I maintain that it's good for anyone and everyone to practise the art and skill of writing. Sometimes a beginner turns out to be a brilliant writer. I approve of older adults writing life-based works for friends, family and descendants. Stories that bored me when I heard them in class may very well delight grandchildren. If I did not believe in everyday people expressing themselves, I wouldn't be writing this blog.

Still, Genzlinger provides food for thought.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Two poems

The poem below is an homage (not a parody) to "Pied Beauty", a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which begins, "Glory be to God for dappled things." I have had "Tried Beauty" published somewhere - can't remember which periodical, now - and am posting it here today in honour of all my elderly friends, particularly one who is seriously ill,

by Ruth Latta

Glory be to God for dappled friends,
whose hands show age spots like a Holstein cow.
Praise wrinkled faces, salt and pepper hair,
and shaky voices saying, "It depends",
their words of insight that can show me how
to face life's challenges without despair.

Fragmented memories, half-forgotten dreams -
those bits of information aid me now.
Among the jumbled paste I find a gem.
Like autumn leaves, friends fall so fast, it seems,
Praise them.
(c) Ruth Latta, 2011

The poem below is a parody, written in fun. Many of us know the Emily Dickinson poem that begins, "There is no frigate like a book...." I wrote "There is no Torture" for a friend who tended to be oppressive in recommending books to me. Education is a lifelong process, but one of the pleasures of being out of school is that you can choose your own reading material. It is always fun to imitate a style as distinctive as Dickinson's:

by Ruth Latta

There is no torture like a book
that we're required to read.
I'd rather skip a second look
but credits - I'm in need.

O'er many a turgid work I'd pore
to pass a tough exam.
I studied classics I abhor -
for marks. I gave a damn.

I never cared for Faulkner's work;
his style - my enemy.
In spite of that, I didn't shirk.
I wanted my degree.

Oh, Riverrun in Finnigan,
go run where e'er you please.
No honours must I win again.
These days I take my ease.

I've grappled with the experts' views
and sampled from the best,
and now - pulp fiction if I choose,
for it's my time to rest.

(c) Ruth Latta, 2011

Sunday, February 27, 2011

a quote from George Eliot

I came upon this quote from an 1970 letter by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) to a woman friend. It is quoted in A.S. Byatt's Passions of the Mind:Selected Essays (NY, Random, 1992)

"We women are always in danger of living too exclusively in the affections, and although our affections are perhaps the best gift we have, we ought also to have our share of the more independent life - some joy in things for their own sake. It is piteous to see the helplessness of sweet women when their affections have been disappointed, because all their teaching has been that they can only delight in study of any kind for the sake of personal love. They have never contemplated an independent delight in ideas as an experience which they could confess without being laughed at. Yet surely women need this sort of defence against passionate affectation even more than men."

Eliot then quoted Margaret Fuller on the "petty power" of the "ignorance and childish vanity" of uneducated women.

Friday, February 18, 2011

What not to say.

Here we are more than halfway through February and I haven't had time to blog. Work (writing projects of my own and for others) have kept me busy. As well, a dear friend and mentor is receiving palliative care. Naturally I feel very sad. Emotion is tiring. Also, I like to visit her as often as possible.

Evidently in our society we're not supposed to say that we feel sad at the prospect of parting from someone, even a person who has played a huge role for good in our lives. Apparently we are expected to get on with things and to maintain a cheerful exterior.

Recently when I was extricating myself from a commitment, and mentioned this friend's situation, someone informed me that "Death is a part of life." This isn't the first time I've heard that pearl of wisdom. Hearing it made me feel the way I did when my mother died and someone told me that I "had to let her go."

What do these cliches mean? That I am not supposed to grieve? That I shouldn't take any time out for myself to come to terms with what's happening, but should keep busy dancing to someone else's tune?

Of course death is a part of life. Someone my age knows that. It doesn't make it any easier.

I have other good friends, and hope to make more in years to come, but none of them will every take the place of this one. She is unique.

"Death is a part of life" and "You have to let her go" are unhelpful remarks. They should go on the list of "things not to say" at a time of death.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

a review of The Angira Legacy and the Catalyst, a new book by Ottawa author Kevin Dooley


a review of Keven Dooley's novels, The Angira Legacy and the Catalyst.

by Ruth Latta

Too often, the public assumes that older writers cannot draw upon their imaginations, but can write memoirs only. That stereotype is dispelled by Ottawa author Kevin Dooley's latest work of fiction. The Irish-born author, formerly a machinist and marine engineer, has just published The Angira Legacy and The Catalyst (Ottawa, Baico, 2010, $22.95, ISBN 978-1-926596-80-8) These novellas, published in one book, are the last two parts of his Angira Trilogy. These are works of speculative fiction reminiscent of the Da Vinci Code in that they show international machinations affecting the lives of ordinary individuals.

Dooley's first work of fiction was By the Hob (2005). The Other Man (2007), the first book in the Angira Trilogy, centred on two main characters. Colm Dunne, a returned soldier in rehabilitation for a head injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, attends a military dinner and notices a picture on the wall of a man who looks like him. This man was Marteen Reade, an Irish-Canadian veteran of North American frontier wars, the Boer War, and the First World War. The manuscript Reade left behind recounted his experiences and his knowledge of the larger elements at the root of these wars.

Many of us watch the news and speculate as to which countries and economic systems will rise to world power. In The Angira Legacy, Dooley depicts a future world in which the United States of America has lost its supremacy. The ascendant power is the USE, the "United States of Europe", a political as well as economic union in which the former imperial power, "Britannia", plays a key role. "Kanata", a northern country in North America acts as go-between with regard to the USA and the USE. The USE needs a new safe banking haven and a secret military base/strategic centre.

As The Angira Legacy begins, a Montrealer, Patrick McKee, newly back from the Caribbean, inherits a legacy from his great grandmother on the completion of his Ph.D. in Psychology, specializing in post traumatic stress disorder. The late Rosaleen McKee, a business woman who came of age during the Great War, left a letter asking the descendant who fulfilled the terms of her will to erect a memorial to her and to Patrick and Marteen Reade on Angira, an island off the coast of "Hibernia."

Angira, rich in mineral resources, has underground tunnels. Most of its inhabitants adhere to a woman-centred secret earth religion. Its distinctive culture and gene pool have earned it the status of a world heritage site. In a novel full of troubled, driven, duplicitous characters, the people who are easiest to warm to are the inhabitants of Angira. But a fabulously wealthy man from "Britannia", who travels around in his own ship with secret rooms, is bent on getting Angira's heritage status removed and using the island for his own purposes.

Colm Dunne, drawn to "Hibernia" in the hope of reuniting with his wife and children, unites with Patrick McKee and others in the struggle to control Angira's future. In the process he learns the connection between Marteen Reade and himself. Early on, readers may think that McKee was in the Caribbean for a holiday, and that Reuben, whom he met there, is just a friend, but it is not that simple.

The Catalyst, the third part of this futuristic volume, is a first person narrative which flows well. A ship's purser working for a "Britannia" based shipping line takes us to South Africa during the apartheid era and eventually links with the Angira plot.

Kevin Dooley's biography should inspire budding writers of any age. His formal education ended at age 15. His career as a marine engineer, while it took him all over the world and provided him with a wealth of experience, was nevertheless technical in nature, quite different from the craft of writing. Dooley's personal story shows that extensive reading, a gift for language, and determination can produce a writer.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ice Block - a poem

by Ruth Latta

This week's the coldest that we've had so far.
The chill seeps in past doors and windowsills
and knots my muscles, keeps us where we are,
curled up in heavy clothes against the chills.

The brilliant days turn sunset; then comes dark
and evening brings the question, "What got done?"
The basics, only. Each electric spark
was static, did not fuel creative fun.

A waste of life, these hibernation days!
Where are the calories to push my pen?
My mind's suspended, in exhaust-fume haze.
I ought to write, for, if not now, then when?

This creaking engine takes a while to warm,
but when it does, some crystal thoughts may form.

(c) Ruth Latta, January 2011

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Encouraging Feedback about Winter Moon

It's always a pleasant surprise to receive positive feedback about one's writing. Two people had encouraging things to say about Winter Moon (Ottawa, Baico, 2010, $18.95

A member of a round robin writers' group to which I belong wrote me the following email:
With all the preparations for Christmas I didn't have time to look at your book, but this week I finally was able to pick it up. I certainly did enjoy every story. You have such a good variety of story lines. They are down to earth but they make one think. I marvel at writers who come up with so many good story ideas."

And a cousin wrote: "I really liked "Snake in the House" (one of the stories in Winter Moon) I have been reading R [husband] stories at bedtime and have only about five stories left to read."

I also received some other good news. My short story, "Momma Tried" will appear in the January 19th issue of The Wrap, published by the Ottawa Citizen.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

True Grit

During the holidays, Roger and I went to see the Coen brothers' version of True Grit, starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Having read the novel (1968) by Charles Portis some years ago, I am reading it again.

We were glued to the screen throughout the entire movie.

I was impressed by Portis's evocation of a bygone time by means of language use, allusions and presentation of social customs. Like Portis, the Coen brothers are grittily realistic in showing a violent culture in which life is cheap. Presenting the story through fourteen year old Mattie Ross allows irony. Mattie takes for granted such facts of life as public hangings and dead bodies. At the same time, she is a typical fourteen year old, a mixture of childish notions (comparing the hunt for an outlaw to a raccoon hunt) and adult behaviour, as when she bargains with a horse trader.

Some reviewers, admiring this extraordinary character played to perfection by Hailee Steinfeld, have compared Mattie to that other famous child-protagonist in American fiction, Huck Finn. But Mattie is not a social rebel. She doesn't aspire to "light out for the territory" in search of freedom; instead, she wants someone to go with her there to pursue her father's murderer and bring him to justice. Mattie's ideal is a peaceful, orderly, well-governed society.

Watching the fourteen year old protagonist portrayed on the screen, I tried to remember myself at that age. I was as bossy and sharp-tongued as Mattie, but not as persistent. Also, I was timid, and a bundle of emotions. Mattie is very self-controlled. She sheds no tears on viewing her father's body; the only time she cries is when her horse, Little Blackie, has to be shot. Her lack of emotional display may be explained by her religion or the stoicism of the era (compared to ours).

Some commentators say that the character of Mattie is unrealistically drawn; that no young person could bargain so tenaciously, be so frugal and so determined to get value for money. One must put her behaviour in context. The novel is set during the administration of U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, first elected in 1877, a period of rapid industrial expansion and a big gap between rich and poor. Mattie would have been born during the Civil War (1861-5) and would have grown up in the defeated South. Although her father owned a lot of acreage, his fortunes would have declined dramatically with the defeat of the Confederacy. This was a pre-"social-safety-net" society. Money was important.

Mattie's family configuration suggests reasons for her extraordinary toughness and high self-esteem. Her brother and sister are much younger than she is. In an era where women often had a new baby every eighteen months, a family of only three children, with wide age gaps, suggests ill-health, malnutrition and infant mortality. Mattie was probably the apple of her father's eye because for a while she would have been the only child. Her mother, Mattie says, could hardly spell "cat", and had no skill with figures, so it must have been her father who educated her and made her his "little book-keeper". Her resolve in pursuing justice on her father's behalf (or seeking revenge for his murder) must have come from having been treated with kindness and respect.

In this movie, Mattie is the character with true grit. The two principal male characters are eccentric and funny, but look like risky companions for her quest. Marshall Cogburn is out of shape and drinks. On the trail, he tells Mattie that he had a wife once but that she went back to her first husband, taking his boy with her. "He didn't like me anyhow," he says - and we realize he means his son! "I guess I did speak awful rough to him but I didn't mean anything by it." The Texas ranger, LaBoeuf, initially comes across as a dandy, a braggart and a bully. He has been on Chaney's trail to catch him for crimes in Texas, but has missed two opportunities to apprehend him.

We readers/viewers are familiar with the "hero's journey" plot in which the protagonists are changed for the better by the challenges they encounter on their quest. In this story, both men redeem themselves. At first there seems a big discepancy between LaBoeuf's claims and his actual achievements, but the Ranger subsequently proves himself in crises. Cogburn behaved heroically.

Usually in "hero's journey" scripts, the change is positive; the main characters blossom into their best selves. Accordingly, we readers/viewers find the change in Mattie a surprise, to say the least. Several commentators have criticized the Coens for giving the movie a "sad ending". In fact, the movie ends more or less the way the novel does. In gaining her objective, Mattie pays a serious price. When the older Mattie (the narrator of the novel) appears at the end of the film, she is not quite how we would have expected her to turn out.

To me, the ending is realistic and even positive. So as not to spoil the plot, I'll tell you what DOESN'T happen to Mattie.

1) She doesn't die in childbirth like so many women in the 19th century.
2) She doesn't live in poverty in her old age.
3) She doesn't end up dependent on one of the wild, self-destructive men in the film.
4) She doesn't forget those who helped her.

As the movie faded out and the credits came on, I was transfixed by the voice of country singer Iris Dement singing a hymn written in the 19th century: "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." My mother used to sing it. Its lyrics are hopeful and confident.