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.