Saturday, December 29, 2012

Chief Theresa Spence

If you are concerned that Prime Minister Harper has not yet met with Chief Theresa Spence, and if you have not already contacted his office to urge him to meet with her, you might want to send him an email at

For more information on Idle No More you can look at their website,

Thursday, December 27, 2012

My review of "Trapper Boy" in "Canadian Materials"

I reviewed Hugh R. MacDonald's young adult novel, Trapper Boy (Sydney, NS, Cape Breton University Press, 2012, $14.95 ISBN 978-1-897009-73-4  in the Dec. 21, 1012 issue of Canadian Materials (   The review is below:

Trapper Boy covers four months in the life of 14 year old John Wallace Donaldson, known  as "J.W." The year is 1926,and J.W., who lives in Sydney Mines, NS, is graduating from  Grade Eight. He wins two silver dollars for coming first in two subjects, but his friend, Beth, who ties with him for the best marks in English, gets the award he covets, a collection of classic novels.

The beginning, which shows Beth and J.W. preoccupied with typical teenage concerns, foreshadows their future, for it is Beth who continues in the world of books and J.W. who must enter the world of wage earning. Author Hugh. R.MacDonald drops a further hint of what lies in store for J.W. when he and Bth note that they don't see much of their pal, Mickey, any more. Ever since he went into the mine as a trapper boy,  he's always sleeping.

MacDonald tells his story in the third person, mostly from J.W.'s point of view, but occasionally from that of his parents. Through them, readers soon learn that to survive, the household needs two wage earners. The family is resourceful, growing a garden, picking wild berries, fishing and snaring rabbits.

MacDonald uses vivid, carefully selected, symbolic detail in presenting the underground world. On J.W.'s first shift, a rat runs up his leg. He throws it agains the wall, injuring its leg. Almost immediately, he feels sorry,and, in the days to come, he makes sure it gets its share of oats from the pit horses' feed. Although  some of the miners kill rats, J.W. believes they serve a purpose, like canaries in a mine. When they rush out of an area, they warn the miners of danger. J. W. names his pet rat "Tennyson" and eventually sets it free.

In Emile Zola's Germinal, the blint pit ponies whose entire lives are spent underground, symbolize the miners, but in this novel, the symbolism is more cheerful. Tennyson's liberation foreshadows J.W.'s release from work to which he is not suited. The rat sections reminded me of a scene in D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers where the coal miner father tells his young children about his pet mice underground.

Throughout the novel, the author presents the miners as strong, cooperative, capable and daring. He also shows that they are more than just their jobs. Red, the shift boss, is a wise and helpful mentor for new workers; Smitty, from Barbadoes, quotes poetry from memory, and Andrew Donaldson demonstrates skill and precision in his drawings of life underground which explain the mine to his son.

The black and white illustrations, supposedly drawn by the fictitious Andrew Donaldson, are by the real life artist Michael G. MacDonald. They appear singly throughout the novel, then all together in a mosaic, and are crucial to the plot. From looking at them, and from exploring the mine with his friend, Mickey, J.W. knkows of an abandoned tunnel only about three or four feet from Tunnel Seven. Eventually he uses this knowledge in a timely and brave way. Subsequently, he uses his father's drawing in another bold move that improves the family's finances.

Among the great novels abouat coal miners is Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley, in which a strike is central to the plot. Perhaps Hugh R. MacDonald will write another novel which focuses on union activities and labour actions in Cape Breton mines. J.B. McLachlan, a real life famous trade union leader, is mentioned but does not appear in the action of Trapper Boy; however, an internet search suggests that the struggles he led could provide material for several novels.

While reading Trapper Boy, I remembered my father's first cousin, the late William George Bott, of Linton, Staffordshier, England, who went into the mines at age 14,like the fictional J.W., and who had intersting tales to tell when I met him in his old age. Hugh R. MacDonald manages to educate without being didactic, and his upbeat ending has a bittersweet element which makes it realistic. Trapper Boy is excellent literature and ought to win prizes. Congratulations to the author and to Cape Breton University Press for bringing this novel into being.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Prose and poetry for the festive season

Two texts always spring to my mind at Christmas.

The first is a prayer (a grace, actually) written by J.S. Woodsworth, one of the founders of the CCF party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (forerunner of the New Democratic Party.)

"We are thankful for these and all the good things in life. We recognize that they are a part of our common heritage and come to us through the efforts of our brothers and sisters the world over. What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all. To this end, may we take our share in the world's work and the world's struggles."

The second is a poem by Thomas Hardy, written in 1915.  Hardy refers to a folk belief that farm animals kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve. I must admit that, as a child growing up on a farm with cattle, I was always tucked in my bed at midnight so never checked to see if they did.


Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees."
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek, mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen.
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet I feel
If someone said on Christmas Eve
"Come, see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by younder coomb
Our childhood used to know",
I should go with him in the gloom
Hoping it might be so.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My review of TIME WILL TELLl by Donald Grieg

My review of Time Will Tell, by Donald Grieg, published by Thames River Press, appears in Compulsive Reader at


In January/February and April/May 2013, I hope to be teaching my course, START A NOVEL at St. Pius X High School. Whether or not the course runs depends on enrollment.  The information is below:

Start a Novel

Begin a book length work of fiction. Ruth Latta, local author of seven novels, will provide information and exercises to help you "grow a novel". Learn about "The Hero's Journey", Point of View, the novelist's promises to the reader, and more.

Winter 2013
4 weeks, 10 a.m. to 12 noon  $58 plus HST
St. Pius. Saturdays  Starting January 26 (18005)

Spring 2013
4 weeks, 10 a.m. to 12 noon, $58 plus HST
St. Pius, Saturdays, Starting April 20 (28005)

To register, contact Kristie Vanbergen, General Interest Clerk, Continuing and Communithy Education Department, Ottawa Catholic School Board
Tel. 613-224-4455 ext. 2337

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Three jarring moments

Since I'm not a sci-fi/fantasy fan, I don't read the novels of U.S. author, Holly Lisle, but I like her blog, admire her courses and her advice to writers, and enjoy the writing tips that she sends me (and hundreds of other people who have signed up for them). Sometimes Lisle shares questions or comments that she has received if they illustrate a shared concern among writers. Occasionally she shares rude feedback if it pertains to the craft of writing. Usually the comments from such critics say more about them than about Lisle's work or ideas.

Lisle's encounters with difficult people and false ideas about writing  and make me feel in good company, as I muse about three jarring writing-related experiences of the past couple of weeks.

At a lecture by a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature, I was shocked when she repeatedly referred to two well-known memoirs as "novels." The two books were The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein, and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.  Yes, both Stein and Hemingway wrote novels, and yes, a lot of genre-blurring is going on these days, but in these two particular books, the authors are writing about real people by their real names, sharing their memories of the past, and presenting their material as being true and factual.  The books are supposed to be non-fiction, not fiction. A specialist in English literature should be more careful when referring to genres.

Jarring Incident Number Two is really two incidents: two emails from strangers fishing for information about my business arrangements with my publisher. I like to be approachable and helpful to aspiring writers, but even in this reveal-all age, where the concept of privacy is no longer understood, there are some things that are my business and my business only.  As well, I don't have the time to counsel people for free, either on the phone or by email, about the pros and cons of one publishing arrangement versus another. Be a grown-up. Do your own research and come to your own decisions.

The third jarring incident came out of my conversation with an aspiring writer of mature years who wrote as part of his career for many years and would like to try his hand at fiction. He has read widely in his favourite genre and has signed up for a local writing course.

"I've only attended two classes but already I've learned several things I'm doing wrong," he told me.

Hm.  I know the course instructor, and his remark doesn't surprise me.  How about all the things he is doing right?   Too much criticism at an early stage is destructive. A negative, adversarial approach is pedagogically unsound. Anyone who cares about writing enough to enrol in a course must have some talents and assets to bring to the craft, and it's the teacher's job to find them.

Well, enough thinking about the wonderful world of writing. It's time for me to do some.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

In Places Between

Yesterday in the mail I received a copy of In Places Between, 2012, a Calgary publication containing the winners/runners-up, etc. of the Robyn Harrington Memorial Short Story contest. run by the Imaginative Fiction Writers' Association.  I was excited to see my story, "Creature Comfort", in the collection, and to receive thel cheque enclosed. In Places Between is published by IPB Short Story Contest, P.O. Box 31014, Bridgeland P.O., Calgary, AB T2E 0C0

The winners of the Ottawa Book Awards were announced October 24. Like many other Ottawa book authors, I entered but didn't win.  The short list this year was made up, for the most part, of established writers publishing with established traditional publishers. Is it worth entering next year? I'm mulling over that question.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

My reviews in Canadian Materials

My review of Norah McClintock's Sea of Sorrows (a novel for those in their early teens) is in the current issue of Canadian Materials,  a weekly online magazine from the University of Manitoba, edited by Education professor Dave Jenkinson, at

 I have been reviewing books for Canadian Materials for several years now and  have reviewed quite a few novels for young people that an adult would find worth reading. Perhaps my favourite was the award-winning novel, The Landing, by John Ibbitson,set in Depression-era Muskoka.  For fun, my book club decided to add this novel to our list last year, and everybody liked The Landing. We liked the grandmother-figure, a woman "of a certain age", who wasn't your stereotypical cookie-baking, knitting Grandma and who turned out, in the end, not to be a fairy godmother.

Google Canadian Materials to find out about worthwhile books for young people on your holiday gift list.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Another review in "Compulsive Reader"

To read my review of Barbara Forte Abate's novel, Asleep without Dreaming, please visit

Sunday, September 23, 2012

My review in Compulsive Reader

My review of Face of the Enemy, by Dobson and Myers, is now posted on the Compulsive Reader website.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Please and thank you: Lynne Truss's Talk to the Hand

Yesterday while browsing in a used book store, my husband came home with Lynne Truss's Talk to the Hand, her book about increasing rudeness in society. Its publication date is 2005, but it isn't out of date. Indeed, the problem she addresses has intensified since she wrote it.

When did society stop valuing basic courtesy and respect? Talk to the Hand (NY, Penguin, 2005)is not a guide to manners; rather, it is an attempt to define and analyse six areas in which we seem to be getting "more unpleasant and inhuman" in our dealings with each other. One of Truss's culprits is modern communications technology. "These systems force us to navigate ourselves into channels that are plainly for someone else's convenience, not ours...In our encounters with businesses and shops we now half expect to be treated not as customers, but as systems trainees who haven't quite got the hang of it yet." 

She also blames parents who are so determined to build their children's self-esteem  that they protect them from blame or accountability of any sort. In two hilarious paragraphs she depicts such parents setting their kids loose in a relative's home.

"Say Hi to Bob, kids. Yes, darling, this is the man we call Fatty Bob. How clever you are to remember. Now, why don't  you all run off and see how many things beginning with the letter H you can collect for mommy? All right, Freddie, you can use a screwdriver. Take your sticky drinks with you." Later, when the homeowner gets cross, the parent comforts the child, saying: "Fatty Bob is...materialistic, which means he prefers things to people. We prefer people to things, don't we? Fatty Bob shouldn't leave such irreplaceable heirlooms just lying about, should he? Silly Fatty Bob."

Despite the many instances of deteriorating behaviour that Truss describes, she hopes that if enough people demonstrate kindness and good manners they may change society.  I hope so too, but I'm not holding my breath in anticipation.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A great letter in the New Yorker

There is a great letter to the editor in the New Yorker of September 3, 2012, by by Bernice L. Youtz of Tacoma, Washington.  She writes of the days of "truly small government", specifically, 1929, when her father lost his job.  "We can do with a lot less government," she concludes, "but only if we are willing to go backward."  Read the whole letter. It's on Page 3

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Underling, by Ian McKercher

A review of The Underling, by Ian McKercher
Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Some novels bring to life a little known part of history. Others are memorable for their engaging central characters. Others offer humour, intrigue and suspense. Occasionally, a novel like Ian McKercher's
 The Underling, combines all of these features. (The Underling is published by General Store, Renfrew On, 2012, ISBN 978-926962-41-2).

McKercher, retired from Glebe Collegiate's English department, has written a novel that is conventional in form but full of surprises. One surprise is that his protagonist is a seventeen year old girl. As the novel opens in 1934, Frances McFadden, a secretarial student at Ottawa's High School of Commerce, has been asked by Prime Minister Bennett to establish a research bureau/archives of Canadian banking and business information in advance of the establishing of a central bank, so that the governor will have background resources on hand immediately upon his appointment.  Legislation to charter a Bank of Canada is before Parliament. In setting up this preliminary office, Mr. Grace needs an assistant with good skills but no previous work experience to "unlearn."

McKercher, who grew up in London, Ontario, based Frances, to some extent, upon his mother. Her stories about her days as a young employee made it clear that those who head organizations are not always the ones really running the show. An underling, working behind the scenes, often has a great deal of influence and contributes to the success of the enterprise in creative ways.

"The Market crash took [Frances's] family under," writes McKercher, who captures his heroine's circumstances and social status with well-chosen detail. Interiewed by Mr. Grace over lunch at the Chateau Laurier Hotel, Frances encounters an avocado. She has never seen one before but she recognizes it from a picture in a Ladies' Home Journal. Later, to refurbish her wardrobe in advance of starting work, Frances buys knee socks to match her skirts. Soon Mr. Grace gently suggests some new outfits "to make her look older."

While her boss is away on Bank business, Frances sets up their office, with amusing adventures. Later, she accompanies Mr. Grace to Toronto to meet luminaries of the business and finance worlds, to convince them of the need for the Bank of Canada. In response to their fear that a central bank will interfere with a free market economy, Mr. Grace replies, "Who is happy with the way the market is functioning now?"

The Bank of Canada came into being in March 1935. Thanks to the secretarial grapevine, Frances hears before her boss does that its first governor will be Graham Towers. Mr. Towers and other real people mingle with fictional ones in this novel. Fictional Frances has close encounters with two very real prime ministers.

Much of the novel is about getting things accomplished in a system with many fiefdoms and hierarchies. George Orwell, who once said that too few authors write about work, would applaud McKercher for recreating a work environment of the past. One significant difference between the 1930s and the present is shown when a young woman asks if she can keep her job after she gets married. She is permitted to do so - but only for the time it takes to train her replacement.

As 1939 brings the Dirty Thirties to an end, war clouds gather. Can Polish gold reserves be saved from the Nazis? Yes, and Frances plays a pivotal role. She sums up the novel when she says, "This trip has been frightening and exhausting and exhilarating and intriguing, all rolled into one. Pretty heady stuff for a girl from Rochester Street." 

A friend of mine, who died a few years ago in her nineties, started work as a secretary during the Great Depression and went on to a fascinating career with an international organization.  The Underling  implicitly pays tribute to the achievements of women like her.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

poem published

Last week I received a copy of an anthology with one of my poems in it. Getting published is always a good thing, if for no other reason than that you get to mention your latest novel in your bio note. My poem  is a sonnet. While I don't necessarily agree with the illustrious Robert Frost, who said that writing poetry without rhyme and meter was like playing tennis without a net, I do take a certain pleasure in the technical achievement.

The only thing is, I don't think I can brag about this publication. If I tell people my most recent item in print is a poem titled "No" in the anthology, As One One Cradles Pain, I will undoubtedly get some odd reactions.  Will anyone rush out and buy the anthology?  I'm not counting on it.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

An excellent article by Valerie Knowles

Ottawa biographer/historian Valerie Knowles has written an excellent article on the effects upon writers and researches of the recent government cutbacks to institutions like Library and Archives Canada.  "Doors Close on Nation's Memory" appeared in the Toronto Star on June 23, 2012, and may be read on Valerie's website,

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I'll Miss Them

Last night on the news I learned of the death of Maeve Binchy.  In one of my scrapbooks I have a postcard I received from her in response to a fan letter I sent her. In my view, her two best books are Light a Penny Candle and Circle of Friends.  I read somewhere that when she was working as a journalist she used to get up very early in the morning to write fiction before going to the newspaper office. She kept her work in progress, her typewriter and any other materials she might need on a tea trolley tucked away under the stairs. When she wheeled it out before dawn she had everything she needed close at hand and didn't have to waste time getting organized. I also read that she wrote fiction for years without getting published, and got to the point where she could hardly bring herself to lick the stamp to put on the manuscript she was sending out, because it all seemed so futile. Then she got published, and her career blossomed.

She was Irish and universal. In all of her novels one got a sense of her warm humanitarian outlook.

On the news last night she was compared to Jane Austen, and indeed, although her style was quite different from Austen's, they both explored the hearts and minds of women. Both had a sense of what constitutes fairness and decency. Both wrote positive endings.

Then this morning on TV I saw that American novelist Gore Vidal died at 84.  Upstairs in my bookcase are Burr; 1876 and Washington D.C., his  well-known trilogy of American history novels, and also, Lincoln. I admired him for his wit and his use of social history  along with political "official" history.

These two novelists were very different in their themes and styles, but both were good at their craft. In my view, an aspiring writer shouldn't just like one genre, or one author, or "literary" fiction as opposed to "popular" fiction, but should read and see the merits in a lot of different things.  I urge budding writers to sample both Binchy and Vidal.  I will miss both of them. Although I never met either, they were friends, inspirations, and part of my life.  Never ask for whom the bell tolls.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

On Vacation - at work!

Ottawa has been hot and muggy for weeks now, with no end in sight. The daily chores of life seem Herculean labours when the humidex is high. Nevertheless, my husband and I manage to keep on top of things, getting the bills paid on time, fulfilling our commitments and obligations (in my case, getting certain writing assignments in on time) and trying to be good citizens by doing our laundry during the off peak periods of electricity use. We don't want to cause a brown-out.

A lot of people don't seem to be trying as hard as we are.   I'm thinking about people who owe us money and show no signs of paying up. I'm pondering my course of action. But I'm also fed up with people spending their days in air-conditioned environments where they are supposed to be serving the public, and failing to do so - like a library employee at the information desk who was rude when I asked about a program that used to be offered. Turned out I knew more about it than he did.

Then, in another workplace, there's an administrator who supports an instructor who is encroaching upon a certain seniors' program. Who cares about seniors being crowded out?

In another work environment,  a program head  needed me to write an item a.s.a.p. to meet her deadline. She said she'd get back to me with the revised item and more details. That was six weeks ago. Maybe she's on holidays.

In the late spring I snail mailed and emailed five friendly and reasonable  queries/proposals/requests to five different people in authority positions. None has been acknowledged.  Even if the answer is "No", it would be nice to get an email saying so.    If I'd dropped them down a well instead of mailing them, at least I would have heard a splash.

Let's not forget the doctor who didn't feel like taking her turn serving drop-in patients on a Sunday, and who took out her displeasure on a patient who felt so in need of medical attention that he stood outside the clinic on a sore foot for half an hour in the heat so as to be there when the clinic opened. .

And there are a home supply store staff who sit at a desk to be consulted about home improvement matters - but turn out to be unable to measure accurately or to add fractions.

None of these people were working outdoors, risking dehydration and lightheadedness from the heat and humidity. All were comfortable cool indoor environments. All seemed to be on vacation - at work.

Yes, we're all only human and we all have personal problems and concerns which get exacerbated by heat and humidity. I'm probably foolish to try to accomplish anything this summer. After physiotherapy this morning (with a wonderful, kind, capable physiotherapist)  I plan to lie low and work on the novel I'm writing.

But when things cool down, I may write a couple of complaining letters. Some years ago,  I encountered a rude a postal outlet employee who didn't undertand that I needed postage for a "stamped, self-addressed envelope" to go inside the main envelope. I went home and phoned Canada Post. Within a week, someone from Canada Post was there retraining the staff at that outlet. Soon after that, the rude postal worker disappeared.

Monday, July 23, 2012

my review of Elisabeth Badinter's The Conflict

My review of Elisabeth Badinter's latest book, The Conflict, published in May in the CCPA Monitor, may be read at

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

review of Augusten Burroughs' new book: This is How

Augusten Burroughs' latest book, This is How, (NY, St. Martin's Press, 2012, $28.99 Can) is a blend of self-help and autobiography.  The latter genre has made him famous. In Running with Scissors,  he told of his early years with two unstable, violent parents. In his early teens his mother gave him away to be raised in her psychiatrist's bizarre family.  A Wolf at the Table, another of his books that I have read, is about his father, an angry alcoholic with a personality disorder.  Burroughs has also written about getting sober and seeing his partner through a terminal illness.

Having survived all that, and having become an advertising executive and a successful author with no more formal education than elementary school, Burroughs is a remarkable human being with interesting insights.

 This is How goes against the relentless emphasis on being positive that pervades not only pop psychology books but also our daily lives. He advises us to ignore society's obsession with being upbeat and to examine and name our feelings.  "Real optimism is not the pep talk you give yourself," he writes. "It comes through the labor involved in emotional housekeeping."

Burroughs begins with an incident involving an aggressive positivity-monger on an elevator, He goes on to address some of life's challenges,  beginning with the ordinary and ending with the heartbreaking.  In his chapter, "How to Find Love", he points out that on a planet with seven billion people, it's likely there is more than just one soul mate for you.  He urges those searching for mates to get out and meet more people, to increase their odds of finding someone compatible.  When you meet someone who might be "the one", instead of putting your best foot forward,  be yourself and never try to impress anyone. "You cannot make a mistake with the right person for you," says Burroughs.

In "How to be Fat", he points out that, in order to lose weight you have to decide whether the unpleasantness of self-denial is worth it. He notes that people who are a little bit larger are statistically likely to live longer and are insulated against certain diseases. "There's absolutely no shame whatsoever in deciding you'd rather spend your life paying attention to something other than the weight of your physical body," he writes.  Instead, you can figure out how to style and present yourself so as to be "magnificently beautiful" and "sexy as hell".

With regard to smoking and alcoholism, Burrough's advice is, again, to decide whether the unpleasantness of going without the substance is worth the freedom from addiction.  I have no personal experience of smoking or alcholism, but I suspect that supporters of Alcoholics Anonymous will disagree with Burrough's claim that some of AA's concepts "undermine sobriety."  For him, the way to stop drinking was to want sobriety more than alcholol. He never felt powerless over alcohol; for him it was always a choice, so he believes that the "powerlessness" step gives people permission to relapse.  Also, he thinks that talking about alchohol every day when you can't drink it is counter-productive for some people.

For Burroughs, the way to stop drinking was to fill the space that alcohol had once occupied with something more interesting and rewarding. In his case it was writing. He thinks that those who benefit from AA fiill the gap with particpation in the AA community.

 Writing was Burrough's way of getting over his traumatic past. It wasn't so much exorcising his demons that helped, as it was having an absorbing project. If he'd been writing cookbooks, he says, the effect of freeing himself would have been the same.  Too many people, he believes, get addicted to therapy and to the story of their past, rather than focusing on projects in the present.

Burroughs' words are worth our attention because he has triumphed over some terrible things. But what of people who are busily engaged in absorbing and worthwhile projects in the present, and then, out of the blue, are felled by some incident that brings to the surface all the terrible memories?   I suppose his answer comes in his chapter, "How to Remain Unhealed." He calls "Heal" a "television word", and said that there are some things in life from which you do not heal.  Yet the hole in the centre of your life can "narrow" enough for you to rejoice at new good things that come your way.

Tackling the subject of suicide, Burroughs says that if you want to end your life, you don't have to die.  You can exchange the life you have for a better one. At one point, he decided that all he needed to change his life was "a door and a highway."

Although lacking direct experience of most of the big issues  Burroughs addresses, long ago I cared for a spouse who was terminally ill.  Burroughs is right in saying that: "The worst thing you can imagine is not so bad if viewed from inside."  In other words, when you're caught up in the situation,  coping with the present, you can bear things that you would never have imagined." Burrough cautions us not to imagine the worst-case scenario in advance, as it may never happen. When skittish friends ask if there is anything they can do, he suggests that you ask them to cook something and drop it off,  because "no one at your house has the energy to say hi."  And finally, the best way to prepare for a friend's death is by "being alive in the same room" with them.

Some reviewers have called Burroughs' observations and advice "cliched", but I enjoyed the humour of the opening chapters and the ring of authenticity in the latter ones. His conversational style and his reminders that he has "been there" make us feel that, whatever we are facing, we are not alone.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Searching through files

Today I got an email from an interlibrary loan technician at a university library. Someone had requested an article I wrote in 1991, but the actual text of the article seemed to be hard to find, although the article has been cited in bibliographies. Hoping that I would have a copy, the library employee wrote to me.

Instantly I could picture the clipping in my mind's eye. I knew I had it, but where, exactly? In recent years I have been filing my published articles and short stories in presentation binders available from office supply stores. They consist of clear plastic envelopes bound together. I slip the items in as they get published and they're in sequence. Back in 1991, though, I didn't file too carefully. I was awfully busy back then, with many irons in the fire, and tended to throw published items into file folders or stick them in scrapbooks without putting them in chronological order.

I spent an hour going through dusty boxes and scrapbooks, and found the article. I will send a copy  by snail mail as Roger and I don't have a fax.

While searching for the article, I began to feel proud of what I have accomplished. I found poems, articles and stories that I had almost forgotten. If I ever want to publish another short story collection or poetry chapbook I have plenty of published material to consider.  I remembered the thrill of seeing my work in print and the pleasure of being paid for some of it.

A couple of months ago, in a conversation with a new acquaintance, I mentioned that I am a writer.  "It's nice that you have a hobby, " he said. "My mum keeps a journal."   I wasn't  thrilled to be categorized with someone for whom writing is scribbling random thoughts in a notebook, so I changed the subject, feeling very undervalued. "You work for years at your "craft and sullen art" and get no respect," I grumbled to myself.

Digging through my files to find the article tonight reminded me that I am a "real" writer, in the sense of a published, dedicated writer with a long resume. I've been one for many years. I should sort through my clippings more often.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

I'm at the computer, revising...

I've been busy at the computer making corrections to a novel of mine in manuscript form.  Last week my editor/friend returned the edited manuscript to me. It was a pleasure to receive not only her feedback about the big picture, but also her copy-editing. She has a Ph.D in English, teaches that subject at the college level, has read widely, and edits for a small publishing company, so I respect her reactions. We agreed at the outset that she would feel free to find fault with anything that didn't seem right to her.

Although I didn't say so to my friend, I had already sent this novel to the editor of a small publishing company, who rejected it with the opinion that it was about too many things. I had braced myself for my friend to tell me the same thing, but she didn't. She saw how the various parts were connected!  The editor at the publishing house was a young man; my friend is a woman in the same age range as I (which is, incidentally, the age group most likely to buy books and read them.)

I didn't share with her some of my other concerns; for instance, whether the central character's project was boring, whether there were too many trips back in time to formative periods of her past, and whether or not the outcome rang true.  As it turns out, she did not find any problems in these areas.

A writer, being close to her own project, doesn't always recognize areas which require expansion; it takes another pair of eyes and another frame of reference to catch such problems, and I am very glad to have these things pointed out to me.

No writer wants a "yes" person as an editor. Such a person won't save you from looking like a fool in print. On the other hand, a writer in quest of feedback should be selective in whom you ask ask for an opinion. Find someone who has read a great deal and is familiar with various ways of presenting a story.  Long ago, when I belonged to a writers' organization that is now defunct, one of the officers of the group generously offered her skills as a reader to members of the organization.  Several of us, uncomfortable with her choppy style and sensational choice of subject matter, managed to evade her, except when she butchered our bio notes for the group's annual publication.

I feel confident that my novel is now ready to go out into the world and seek its fortune.


Monday, May 21, 2012

Review of The Old Love and the New Love, by Philip Donnelly

The Old Love and the New Love
by Ruth Latta
Baico Publishing Inc., Ottawa, 2012
ISBN 978-1-926945-70-5

The Old Love and the New Love, a novel, is the latest work by one of Ottawa's established writers of short stories, novels, and poetry. Ruth Latta's art of writing stories with surprising twists of plot and nostalgic flavours of town and country life in Ontario was in full flower in Winter Moon, an earlier collection of short stories. Once again, in The Old Love and the New Love, the clues required to solve the mystery are sprinkled throughout the chapters, but the real culprit is likely to escape notice until the end, just as it should be.

The title invites anticipation of romantic conflict, but it is the small-scale terrorism with tangled roots extending back to Irish civil wars and rebellions that disrupts comfortable lives along the Rideau River in suburban Ottawa. When Cleo, the narrator of the story, tells her friend Kate that "many Canadians are uninformed about foreign countries and their politics, but that doesn't mean we're unteachable," she relates her unhapy experiences with Leo to Ireland's fights for independence and sheds a light on how these struggles have often crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Little did Cleo realize, when she was romantically involved ten years earlier in Toronto with Leo Phelan, born in County Donegal, that he would turn up again at her doorstep in Ottawa and cause her to learn more about the workings of the Irish Republican Army than she ever wanted to know.

The Old Love and the New Love is interesting, informative and holds attention from start to finish. The author provides several bibliographic references on the ongoing campaigns for control in the politics of Ireland.


Philip Donnelly was born and educated in Ireland, graduating in 1956 in Civil Engineering at University College, Dublin.  He is now retired from his career as a professional engineer and public servant in the Department of Public Works of Canada. He has travelled extensively worldwide and in Canada. He is the author of The Eyes that Shone:  From Ireland to Canada in the 1950s, (Renfrew, General Store, $29.95, ISBN 978-189-750-867-1), the story of his life.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Kay Parley likes my novel, The Old Love and the New Love

Today I received a letter from Kay Parley, a Saskatchewan author. She said,

"Your book arrived and I read it at once. You've sure done a neat job of working historic fact into a good story. I learned more about "the Troubles" in Ireland than I'd known, and really enjoyed the story as it led me along."

It's always gratifying to have a well-known and accomplished writer praise one's work.

Look for a short story by Kay Parley in the next-to-last issue of Canadian Stories.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Salute to my friends who are not mothers.

It's Mother's Day, a day to honour mothers.  A day for a lot of schmaltz, too. On a church bulletin board I read the slogan, "God could not be everywhere so He invented mothers."  The intentions are good but the sentiment is so bad on so many levels.

I loved my mother, and miss her still, but today I'd like to pay tribute to several women who were/are not mothers but who have had a positive influence upon my life and many others.

I remember my friend Helen, now dead and gone. She was an art teacher in a secondary school, close to retirement age when I met her, working full time while arranging the care for her aged mother.  I will never forget her generosity in befriending one of her colleagues who had serious health problems. Helen was single, and, in her era, single women didn't have children.

Just a few years ago my friend Vivian passed on at the age of  92. I got to know her late her life when she was in my creative writing class at a retirement residence.  After the course was over I continued to visit her, right up until she died, because she was so interesting. Vivian started her working life in her late teens as a secretary for a trade union, and was head-hunted in 1945 to work for the United Nations. She had travelled extensively and had many unusual stories.  She was also the sole support of her aged mother for many years.  She once told me that in her day, you couldn't have a career and a husband too; you had to choose.  Although Vivian sometimes referred in passing to "friends" in her past who were male, I don't think she regretted choosing her career over marriage and motherhood. She had four good friends, younger than she,  who were in contact with her until she died.

I also have several "childfree" women friends and acquaintances who are very much alive. One is a college instructor who went back to school as a mature person to get her Ph.D. in English. She will be reading a manuscript for me next week and I know she is going to give it her full, undistracted attention. Another friend, a writer who is a married woman with no kids, like myself, does careful research for her historical articles, which are so smoothly written that it seems to the casual reader that she pulled them out of thin air.  Another has a professional job in a medical field along with wide-ranging interests which include travel and the theatre. She has a wide circle of friends, including me and my husband (who may be the most boring couple in the western hemisphere, but she likes us anyway.)

I could write several more paragraphs about other women without children whom I like and admire, but might get repetitive, so I'll end by saying, "Congratulations on your lives lived well."

Friday, May 11, 2012

review of Helen Forsey's new book

Writing Eugene Forsey: Canada's Maverick Sage (Dundurn, 2012, ISBN 978-926577-9) was a project that extended over seventeen years for author/activist Helen Forsey. Her father, Senator Eugene Forsey, (1904-1991) is still remembered and quoted as an authority on Canada's constitution, but, as this biography shows, he addressed many other matters of concern to Canadians.  Appointed to the Senate in 1970, he used his office as a platform to address issues ranging from world poverty to aboriginal rights.

Helen Forsey has taken a thematic approach to her father's life because of her conviction that his ideas are relevant today.  She begins, however, with a short, chronological biography. Born into a well-known Newfoundland family, Eugene Forsey came to Ottawa as an infant with his young widowed mother, and grew up in her family's home. Since her father was Chief Clerk of Notes and Proceeding in the House of Commons, young Eugene became aware, early on, of the importance of Parliament.

Educated in Ottawa schools, then at McGill and Oxford Universities, Forsey was brought up with a sense of duty toward those less fortunate. As a lecturer at McGill, he was appalled by the human suffering unleashed by the crisis in capitalism that began with the 1929 stock market crash.  He became involved in a number of progressive organizations working for social change, including the Student Christian Movement, Canadian Forum magazine, and the League for Social Reconstruction. He attended the founding convention of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation Party (the CCF, fore-runner of the New Democratic Party) in Regina.

Subsequently, as head of research with the Canadian Council of Labour in Ottawa, he supported workers' rights while opposing communism in the trade union movement. He became known as a witty, scholarly pundit. In 1956 he spoke out against the St. Laurent government's use of closure in Parliament to force passage of the Trans-Canada Pipeline bill, which involved massive give-aways of Canadian taxpayers' money to American private enterprise. Throughout his life, Forsey was wary of American influence on all aspects of Canadian life.

The 1926 King-Byng constitutional crisis had such an impact on young Eugene Forsey that he wrote his thesis on the subject. In 1926, when Prime Minister King, facing defeat in the House of Commons, asked that an election be called, the Governor General, Lord Byng, decided to let the opposition Conservatives try to form a government, rather than going to the people. King made an issue of the decision, claiming imperial interference in Canadian democracy. The Conservative government that replaced him soon fell, and King won the subsequent election by beating the drum of nationalism. Forsey believed that King should have respected the governor-general's decision, as it was quite within the Parliamentary tradition. In Forsey's view, King had disrespected both the Crown and Parliament.

Respect for Parliamentary democracy and the Crown were interrelated with other themes in Forsey's life and work. He believed that the monarchy is key to the functioning of our Parliamentary system, and is also a non-partisan force that can speak for the citizenry as a whole. Civility, and respect for rules and procedures, were important to him. The need for the public to be well-educated in language use, civics and history tied in with his other themes.

Christianity had taught Forsey that people have an obligation to take care each other in society. He believed that a uniform social safety net, equally accessible to all Canadians, could  best be provided by a strong federal government. Decentralization to the provinces, he belived, would lead to inequalities. He did not subscribe to the "two nations" view of Canada because he felt it privileged Quebec, and was also unhistorical and divisive.

Many of his issues are still current. The frequent use of closure and other limitations on Parliamentary debate would shock Forsey, who was fond of explaining that "Parliament" was derived from the French word, "parlement", meaning "talking". Only through a thorough airing could all the implications of a piece of legislation be explored.  Prime Minister Harper's use of proroguation in 2008, rather than facing an opposition coalition prepared to replace him in office, would have met with Forsey's disapproval. He would have been shocked by a number of  recent instances in which cabinet ministers have demonized people and groups who disagree with them.

The Attawapiscat crisis, and the plight of other First Nations communities,  much in the news in the winter of 2011-2, would probably have moved Eugene Forsey, if he were alive, to speak out  in support of aboriginal rights guaranteed  in treaties with the Crown.  The economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath are sadly reminiscent of the malfunctioning of capitalism which brought about the Great Depression of the 1930s, in which Forsey was radicalized.

Some of Eugene Forsey's views and causes, however, seem unlikely to be revived.  He left the newly formed NDP in 1961 because it espoused the "two nations" view of Canada. One wonders how he would have reacted to the "orange wave" of 2011 in Quebec which swept the New Democratic Party into the role of Her Majesty's Opposition.  There is little active opposition today to the "two nations" concept, except for those who point out, rightly,  that the aboriginal people were here before the French and English and are our "First Nations."  Helen Forsey notes that her father, though fluently bilingual and fond of living in Quebec, never quite grasped the visceral, emotional aspects of Quebec nationalism.

Eugene Forsey's calls for clear writing and thorough research are as timely as ever, but some of his pet ideas about word choice are unlikely to be revived. He liked the phrases "Dominion of Canada" and "Dominion Day", pointing to their Biblical origin.  Unfortunately, in recent years, opponents of the environmental movement have claimed that the Lord gave Man "dominion" over the land and other living creatures, in the sense of "developing" or "exploiting" them. "Dominion" is fraught with negative connotations these days.

Regarding the monarchy, which Forsey strongly supported, a 2012 Angus Reid poll showed theat 37% of Canadians support the idea of an elected head of state.  Certainly, the structure of Parliamentary democracy seems to require a figure like the governor general, but would this head of state have to be a "viceroy" - a representative of the Crown?  For some Canadians, the idea of monarchy harkens back to an archaic, undemocratic system, even though they like the young attractive royals who come to visit us.

It seems pretty clear, too, that, for better or for worse, the prime minister has become our de facto head of state and that our governor general will go along with the prime minister's wishes when it comes to calling elections or proroguing Parliament.

While Senator Forsey's books and other writings are  undoubtedly national treasures, his life experiences also convey interesting lessons.  One is that, when you "cut your losses and move on",  it may hurt.  As Helen Forsey puts it:

"In the business of fighting things out with friends and comrades, anguish and loneliness often seem the only recompense. The questions don't go away: when to challenge and when to concede; how to be simultaneously frank yet caring, open-minded yet firm; and - sometimes most painful of all - when to cut your losses and move on. Time and time again my father experienced all these dilemmas. When core principles were at stake, he did not shrink from battle. But although his anger and determination might mask the depth of his struggle, those close to him knew the anguish these choices cost him."

As an example, Helen Forsey cites her father's connection to the CCF-NDP. After having been a CCF member for over twenty-five years, Eugene quite the newly-formed NDP in 1961, over the "two nations" issue. Aftrer accepting an appointment to Canada's Senate by Prime Minister Trudeau, Forsey sat as a Liberal, although he later said he should have sat as an Independent. Later, when invited to the NDP's fiftieth anniversary celebration, he declined, saying that his presence wouldn't be welcomed.

Over the years, in my own little life, I have quit things on principle; for instance, I took a rest from being a card-carrying NDP member during Bob Rae's premiership of Ontario, and I have quit writers' organizations when I felt they were benefitting the executive more than the membership.  It's a relief to see that a "great person" suffered the same sort of inner turmoil as I did over this kind of decision.

Helen Forsey's account of her parents' long (and, over-all, happy) marriage interested me.  I have always felt that it's awfully hard for a couple to have an egalitarian marriage when everything in society works against it, and the Forseys' example reinforced this impression.

 "Neither he nor my mother was entirely immune to the sex role expectations of the 1940s and '50s,  nor did they escape the practical limitations that those norms imposed," writes Helen Forsey.

Both Harriet and Eugene Forsey were well-educated and mature when they married. Harriet had a Master's Degree and was, like her husband, interested in social issues.  (She too wrote for Canadian Forum, for example.) She remained Eugene Forsey's first editor and critic throughout their years together. In an era of limited modern household conveniences, compared to nowadays, they tried to share housework and child care. Indeed, in a letter to Arthur Meighen, Eugene Forsey wrote that he didn't know when he would ever read a certain book that Meighen had recommended. "Even when I finish my share of the evening's work fairly early, I am usually too exhausted for anything but sleep," he said.

As traditional roles became more entrenched in the 1950s, Harriet Forsey, who excelled at everything she did, threw herself into her domestic role, but found it limiting. Meanwhile, Eugene became increasingly in demand and well-known as a writer and speaker. Helen Forsey mentions her mother broaching the subjecd about returning to university for her Ph.D. During the discussion her mother burst into tears, possibly because there were so many factors against this aspiration.

Raised by strong, achieving women, Eugene Forsey was "puzzled, hurt and defensive" when women began claiming "an identity and perspective different from men," Helen writes. Both Eugene and Harriet Forsey encouraged their two daughters in all of their pursuits, including rugged outdoor sports and non-traditional fields of  study, but  Senator Forsey was, at the same time, "blind to the sexism all around him", in Helen's words. Her account of her parents' domestic life reinforced my feeling that women should never give up the struggle for equality but should never imagine that it will ever be easy.

Helen Forsey shows in this biography how her own views, influenced by her father's, have expanded as a result of her ever-increasing knowledge and life experience.  She has grappled successfully with the task she set herself in undertaking to write about "Canada's maverick sage". 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Seeing your work in print

"Next to sex," said an old man in one of my writing classes years ago, "there is no thrill like seeing your work in print."

Last week I received a copy of Paragon (V, 2012) a literary magazine from Newfoundland, and was thrilled to see my name in the authors' list on the back cover, and my short story (fiction) "Like a Thief in the Night" on Page 37. 

I always knew the story had merit, in spite of it not winning several writing contests. This is my second publication in Paragon. Last year,  my short story, "Most of All"  appeared in Paragon IV.

Some time down the road I will include "Like a Thief in the Night" in a collection of my short stories. "Most of All" is a chapter in a novel with the same title, which I hope to publish sometime, too.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

I was a winner in the 2012 City of Ottawa 55 Plus short story contest

Yesterday the Heron Road Seniors' Centre held an "afternoon of storytelling" for the eight co-winners of the City of Ottawa's 55 Plus short story contest.  I was pleased to be one of eight co-winners.  The contest has been held for fifteen years now. Back when it first started, I was teaching writing courses at Heron Road and well remember a meeting where I advised the organizers how to set up a contest with blind judging, since, as a writer, I have entered so many over the years.  After I stopped teaching at Heron Road in 2000, I resolved that, when I got old enough, I would enter the contest every year.

It is always interesting to see what people are writing and what the judge, a different person each year, chooses as the eight best stories. There are two categories,  "novice" category and  "experienced", so that newcomers don't have to compete against people for whom writing is a career or vocation. The contest is open to fiction and to "true" stories (memoirs).

Although I have always entered works of fiction, I have noticed that one or two heartfelt, spontaneous-sounding memoirs always place among the eight in the "winners' circle".

I enjoyed listening to the stories, and meeting a couple of old friends/former "students" from courses past.  The entry fee has risen from the original $5 per story, but is still reasonable compared to the $25 or more that many Canadian literary magazines charge. I was disappointed only in that the "Honourable Mentions" did not get to read or receive any tangible acknowledgement.  Having judged contests, I know that the top ten stories are usually all pretty good. My husband, Roger Latta, and a friend from a former writing course were present as Honourable Mentions, and got up to take a bow and enjoy some applause, but that was all.  No money for them, not even a certificate, nor one of the mugs  donated in former years by a retirement residence!

"Oh, well," said Roger, "I got a sandwich."  The readings, in the auditorium, were followed by a lunch in the seniors' centre. Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Widow's Story

Earlier this week my book club discussed Joyce Carol Oates' memoir, A Widow's Story, which I reviewed for FYI Forever Young last year. I was impressed by the memoir, which traces the course of Oates' grief after the death of Raymond Smith, her husband of forty-seven years. They were a well-known literary and academic couple. She is a prolific novelist who teaches at Princeton University; he was a professor and publisher of the now defunct Ontario Review. He was in hospital for pneumonia and recovering well when he was swept away in February 2008 by a secondary infection.

The turbulent feelings that Oates experienced struck a chord with me, although she is in her seventies, and when my first husband died in 1976, I was thirty and Ed and I had only been married for eight years. Oates writes about the raw wild feelings characteristic of the first few months of widowhood. I could relate to her feeling that certain situations and places were "sink holes", to be avoided because they stirred up too much emotion

"The first job of a widow is to stay alive," she wrote. Oates kept a journal, and, by using her diary entries as the basis for this memoir, created a sense of immediacy.

I was somewhat surprised by my fellow book club members' reaction. Like one reviewer of Oates' book, they felt that the ending, in which Oates hints that she has found a new love, undercut and negated the entire memoir.

Perhaps they were looking for a "how to" manual on coping with bereavement. Oates remarried thirteen months after her first husband's death. To some of my book club pals, remarriage indicated that she was a dependent person who had given up trying to heal and couldn't cope on her own.

Oates responded to negative reaction in a letter to the New York Review of Books. (see She wrote, in part:

"....[S]ince nothing seems to arouse reproach in reviewers quite so much as the possiblity that the memoirist is less miserable at the time of writing and afterwards than she was at the time of the experience about which she is writing, it is only sensible to include an appendix to remedy this, which I will hope to do."

In a society where half of all marriages end in divorce, many people probably cannot relate to those who are widowed. Readers living on their own after a marriage breakdown probably think that a widowed person should take a course or read a self-help book on "surviving the loss of a love" and should "snap out of it" and learn how to cope without a partner. They assume that splitting up is the same as losing a spouse to death. I disagree.

I remember being at a workshop listening to the coordinator of women's programs at a community college tell her audience that she and her husband had broken up after a "long marriage" - of five years! At the time, Roger and I had been married for about twenty years. Nowadays, maybe the idea of a marriage which lasted happily for forty-seven years boggles the mind and sounds freakish to some people.

When I was a young widow, several people shared their opinions as to what I should do with my life, not realizing that for awhile I was too drained of energy to take action, even if their suggestions had suited me in any way. This sort of thing happened too Oates' too.

I suspect many readers are jealous of Oates for finding love again in her seventies. When I married Roger two years after my first husband's death, several people reacted in interesting ways. One said she didn't know it was possible to get a "second chance" at age 33. (Such a ripe old age - 33!)

Then there was the "friend" who might have befriended me, when I was alone and racked with grief and loneliness, by inviting me over for a coffee or even a meal with her husband and kids. She didn't. When Roger and I got married, however, I was suddenly socially acceptable again. She thought Roger and I and she and her husband were going to be good friends and visit back and forth. That didn't happen.

When I was a teenager, a sixtyish widowed acquaintance of mine was being courted by a gentleman caller. Her sister, who had never married, thought that the very idea of her seeing this man socially was ridiculous, and claimed that she was dishonouring the memory of her first husband (who had died many years earlier.) The widow confided to me that, if one had been happily married once, it was natural to believe that one could find happiness again. To her, remarriage was about happiness, not dependency. She and the man didn't get married, but she enjoyed going out with him.

I still admire A Widow's Story, no matter what the book clubbers said.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Notes on writing

Looking through some old notes, in preparation for reading/judging entries in a contest, I happened upon a list of "Fatal Errors in Mystery Writing:

1) Use of coincidence. If you must use one, put it in at the start of the story and don't make it vital to the solution.

2) You must reveal clues to the reader as the sleuth discovers them.

3) Don't make your readers ask:
Why didn't she just go to the police?
Why did he go alone into the abandoned warehouse (or whatever) to confront the villain?
Why did he stick around?

4) Have only one viewpoint per scene in a novel. Short stories often do best with just one point of view (maintained consistently throughout)

5) Information dumps.

To this list I would add "flat characters."

Another item that provided me with food for thought came from an unexpected source, O Magazine, July 2009. In it I found an article by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours and other novels. The title: "A writer should always feel as if he's in over his head."

Cunningham asks, rhetorically, why writers are such complainers, seeing as they're not the only people who work for limited rewards and little recognition. Then he answers his question by citing a personal experience. Someone came up to him and said he had a great story and would like to work with him. The stranger offered to provide the plot while Cunningham supplied the descriptions, characters, dialogue and settings. He implied that he was asking Cunningham to do the easy stuff.

There is a widespread belief, wrote Cunningham, that anyone can write a novel. Why? Because many authors are so good at their craft that their achievements seem effortless.

As well, many people assume that the characters and events in a work of fiction are to some extent autobiographical, and that all the writer has to do is remember the past and slap the memories down on paper.

Although writers are irritated by the prevailing attitude toward their profession, they are "also happy in unmistakeable ways some of the time," concludes Cunningham

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A few (5) of my (recent) favourite things

A few (5) of my recent favourite things:

. Visiting family on the Easter weekend.

. Giving a talk at the Stittsville Public Library about my new book, The Old Love and the New Love, and participating with those who attended in some amusing writing exercises.

. The March 5, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, for a new story by Alice Munro, entitled "Haven", and for a fascinating review by Adam Gopnik on Elaine Pagels' new book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelations (Viking). Pagels puts the last book of the Bible in historical context: "Far from being meant as a hallucinatory prophecy, [Revelations] is actually a coded account of events that were happening at the time John was writing."

. The March issue of Harper's Magazine for the short story, "The Thief."

. Domino Theatre's entry into the Eastern Ontario Drama League's "Spring Play Festival, 2012" at the Ottawa Little Theatre. The play was Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and it was excellent, particularly the actors playing the four main characters.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Kevin Dooley's review of The Old Love and the New Love

Review of The Old Love and the New Love
a Novel,
by Ruth Latta
Baico - 2011/2012 176 pages/ref/bio 4 pages

Ruth Latta's short novel set in Ottawa has a gracious simplicty to it, but weaving and connecting to an incredible complexity and drama.

Cleo, the main character, lives a very happy, contented and self-contained life with her husband, Andy, in an old-style home in an Ottawa suburb. She is an independent artist and he is a veterinarian. Their lives revolve around each other, their work, and home. But almost everyone has some kind of checkered past. To Cleo, this comes calling when an old lover, Leo Phelan, visits, literally at her door after a decade. He is an older Irish native, a musician/craft teacher now in Ottawa to play a gig. According to his story, his gig was aborted, he is on hard times and is offered temporary accommodation. Cleo must now do a balancing act in her home and married life, and clearly things are not right. She finds a revolver and a large sum of money hidden by Leo. Stories do not add up and now the perplexion is, who, what is Leo?

The past is revealed. Leo's real name is Liam O'Faolain, an Irish emigrant, an "IRA", partially disabled (knee) in a shoot-out, and active in the fundaising support work in the North American Irish diaspora. He has mobility and cover as a musician/craft teacher. Cleo's life with him was short.

Drama and violence visit her and this calm suburb. The long saga of Irish conflict against British colonialism has only but reached a partial solution in the then-Peace Accord (1998). Liam is not about to escape some of the contradictions of this accord. A relative of one of his victims (loyalist) comes seaching, as does a recalcitrant gunman who does not support the accord. Liam is a money/bagman, a target, and all of this is connected right into Cleo's life. The drama soon involves police/CSIS and as it all unfolds, Cleo learns that an old, separated couple, lifelong friends and mentors, are part of the continuing saga of the Irish conflict. They have carried in them life-long memories and trauma, as children, from Ireland itself, and they are long covert IRA supporters and contacts for Liam. They literally bring it all down on Cleo. Liam, who now supports the Peace Accord and wants an end to the military conflict, does intervene.

But the saga unfolds in an unexpected end. The elderly man becomes a suicide bomber in an attempt on a royal on a visit to Ottawa. It is he who carries the trauma to this extent, and does not accept there can be any peaceful way to resolve the Irish conflict.

The flow of the novel is smooth, and shows clearly how such dramas can unfold in any normal, common, ordinary life. Life is made up of the simple and the complex. Ruth Latta shows it well.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ian Desabrais' Norse Adventure

During my brief talk at my book launch last Monday, I mentioned two former participants in my "Start a Novel" course who went on to complete their novels and publish them electronically. One of these is Ian Desabrais, the author of a Norse adventure story entitled Elnore. Recently I reviewed this novel, and below is a copy of what I said about it.


In Elnore: I Will Give You a Good Death, Ian Desabrais takes us back in time to a world which had influenced the one in which we live now. This dramatic historical novel opens by showing us the central character, a Norse smith, warrior and father.

Elnore has left a farm to settle in a community somewhere on the Scandinavian peninsula to "grow old with his wife" and to raise their children. When raiders attack the village, he leads his neighbours into hand-to-hand combat and repulses the enemy, saving many lives, including that of the village chieftain. When villagers are disposing of the dead and find the corpse of young Loklar Lothsson, they are seized with fear. Loklar's father, the powerful warrior chieftain, Loth, will seek revenge.

"Burn this place!" the village chieftain orders. "We leave here now." As the community packs up and travels to the walled settlement of Bulvi, Elnore, recovering from his battle wounds, sets out with his elkhound in pursuit of Loth. His eldest son, the skilled archer Torim, disobeys him by leaving the community en route, and joining him on a winter trek through rough, snow-covered terrain, where they encounter enemy scouts.

Ian Desabrais' extensive knowledge of Norse history never interferes with the pace of the story, but comes through, subtly, in every paragraph. During a battle scene, for instance, we read of one warrior's "circular shield with iron boss in the centre and decorated with a fierce dragon." References to iron mail shirts, too, establish that we are in the Iron Age. Elnore refers to the most brutal of the enemy warriors as "berserkers" and indeed, "berserk" is one of the words that the Norse contributed to the English language. Elnore goes to heal his wounds at a hot spring bath (a sauna) where a woman herbalist/healer uses her skills to treat him.

At the outset, our interest is captured by the action, and by details of a society that seems violent and foreign. Soon, however, the characters' humanity appeals to us. Far from being simple or "primitive", they are complicated human beings, as we are. Elnore is a spiritual person who frequently prays to Thor and Odin. He grieves at the death of his faithful dog, with "happy, loving eyes", who dies fighting one of Loth's scouts. We share his fatherly anguish when he hears Torim's screams during torture, and when he begs the Valkyries to spare his son, who has not yet lived his life. Father and son are not rivals in this novel, but buddies - mentor and student.

Whether arranging for the protection of his younger children, meeting the dark elf, Raal, in the forset, or freeing the watch birds from their cages as he creeps up on the enemy, Elnore evokes the reader's admiration. I was glad to read the question posed to Elnore near the conclusion: "Where are you taking us now?" This query hints of a second novel about Elnore. I look forward to another well-written fascinating adventure which will quietly enrich our knowledge as it entertains us.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bea Fines likes The Old Love and the New Love

I just received an email from one of my writing mentors, Winnipeg author Bea Fines. A few years ago I had the pleasure of reviewing Bea's collection of short stories, Neighbours, for my column in Forever Young.

This is what Bea said about The Old Love and the New Love:

"Well done! I enjoyed the book very much. I have always liked mysteries but never tried writing one. I felt that plotting was not my forte. I am impressed at how you introduce the characters, each one important to the plot, though it doesn't seem so at first. I liked the historical setting. I can remember reading about much of what was going on in Ireland in the daily appears. News then, history now.

"You never confuse the reader with too much or too many characters at one - something I always felt Agatha Christie did. You just give us enought to keep us intrigued. Love the inclusion of song lyrics. The Black Velvet Band keeps going through my head. Here's to a good launch!"

(Bea refers to some folk songs, in the public domain, which I quoted in the novel. It is always nice to be praised by someone whose opinion you respect. Thank you, Bea.)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Old Love and the New Love, my new novel

My new novel, The Old Love and the New Love (Ottawa, Baico, 2012, IBN 978-1-926945-70-5, $18.95 pb)has just been published by Baico Publishing of Ottawa (

The Old Love and the New Love combines humour, romance, history and action in showing how the past comes back to haunt us.

The plot:

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 Leo 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 bound them.

Here is an excerpt from the novel:

"Andy went out the door into the darkness. I pressed the button, heard the peeping start, and dashed over the threshold. Then a dark figure, his face hidden by a balaclava, sprang from behind the dumpster. Andy was hoisting the dog food bag into the box of the Suburban as the assailant caught him from behind in a choke hold.

"I set the cat food bag on the threshold to keep the door from closing, so the alarm would speed up in frequency and intensity. As the men struggled, I bent and grabbed the loose brick that I'd tripped on. I was about to aim it at the attacker's head when I saw that Andy was taking care of himself."...

The Old Love and the New Love is being launched on Monday, March 12, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Emerald Plaza Branch of the Ottawa Public Library (in the Emerald Plaza on Merivale Road) All are welcome. Roger and I hope to see you there.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Iron Lady - a review

A couple of weeks ago, Roger and I went to see The Iron Lady, with Merle Streep starring as former British Prime Minister (1979-1990) Margaret Thatcher. Streep demonstrates her marvellous versatility as an actor, and the movie fascinated me, but it was not a balanced look at Thatcher and her impact.

This blog contains "spoilers", so if you want to be surprised by The Iron Lady, don't read on.

The movie begins with a portrayal of Thatcher in her old age, suffering from dementia, entertaining delusions that her husband, Denis, who died in 2003, is still by her side. The time shifts back and forth from the senility sections to the highlights of Thatcher's career (or the low points, depending on your politics.)

Who wouldn't feel sorry for an enfeebled older person struggling to cope with daily life while aware that she is not in command of her faculties? Showing Thatcher as pathetic in old age evokes the viewer's sympathies, something that the portrayal of Thatcher at the peak of her powers doesn't. I found myself feeling sorry for the sad old woman, even thinking ahead to the day when I may be in a similar situation. Then I remembered the many seniors whose difficulties of old age were intensified by Thatcher's policies.

The massive demonstrations against Thatcher's policies are shown as film clips from the era, and look like amorphous, unfocused mobs because it isn't made clear when they took place and what provoked them. Those of us who remember the era know they were againstprivatization and cutbacks.

Also, I don't think the Brighton hotel bombing incident is historically accurate as presented.

Usually, a film about a controversial figure with a specific political philosophy would include a "corrective"; that is, another character who exemplifies the opposing viewpoint. The only such corrective in The Iron Lady is a brief scene in the House of Commons where the actor playing Michael Foote of the Labour Party speaks. The movie does not include, for example, any scenes of parents crying, "Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher!" when Thatcher was education minister and cut the free school milk program. Nor does it show the plight of any coal miner's family during the miners' strike.

Nevertheless, Thatcher's actions, as presented through Streep, often speak volumes. The prime minister seems drunk on power as she gleefully encourages full tilt war on Argentina in 1982 over the Falkland Islands incident, thereby diverting public attention from her domestic policies and securing her re-election. Several scenes show her bullying attitude toward her cabinet ministers, which resulted in resignations and finally, her ouster as leader.

Early in the film, we see young Margaret raptly listening to her father, the owner of two small grocery stores, as he addresses a local meeting on the virtues of individual effort. Another scene shows teenaged Margaret and her dad joyfully reading her letter of acceptance to Oxford University. Her work worn mother, emerging from the kitchen, is glad, too, but won't touch the letter as her hands are wet with dishwater.

Margaret identifies with the parent who gets out into the wider world. Later, when young Denis proposes, she tells him that she can't be the kind of woman who is always at the kitchen sink, and that she feels it is important to make the best use of her life and her abilities. He agrees. While I can certainly relate to her feelings, I am also aware of many women who have fought their way into public life in order to make things easier for the unsung heroes whose work is ordinary, yet vital to society. Our own Agnes MacPhail, the first Canadian woman Member of Parliament, is just one of many.

Near the end of the film, a very elderly Thatcher summons up her independent spirit and gets on with a task that others have offered to help her with. All by herself, she packs up Denis's clothes, realizing that keeping them isn't helping her state of mind. She appears to seize control of her hallucinations and has a fantasy in which she bids him a fond farewell and lets him go down their front hallway towards the light.

At the end, dressed to go out to an appointment, Lady Thatcher is finishing a cup of tea, and instead of accepting her employee's offer to wash the cup, she takes it to the sink and does it herself. The end seems to suggest that, in extreme old age, Thatcher is applying her iron will to her own plight; also, that she is considerate of those who do the joe jobs. Perhaps old age is the great leveller, a time when people recognize their common humanity.

As a film about old age, The Iron Lady is compelling. As a movie about Thatcher's life and work - her policies and their impact - it is hardly a comprehensiven balanced view. It appeals to the eye, however, has some interesting cinematic/storytelling techniques, and is thought provoking.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Lost in Yonkers at the Ottawa Little Theatre

Lost in Yonkers, by Neil Simon, is playing at the Ottawa Little Theatre from January 10-28, 2012. Last Wednesday evening Roger and I saw the performance and were very impressed.

The director explains in her program notes that this play, which opened on Broadway in 1991, is a "coming of age story in which brothers Jay and Arty are thrust into the stern care of their grandmother." The USA has just entered World War II and the boys' widower father, broke because of medical bills incurred during his late wife's illness, gets a job buying scrap metal, which requires him to travel all over the American south. He leaves his two sons, in their early teens, with his elderly mother who lives above the store she runs in Yonkers, NY. The boys don't know her or their aunts and uncle very well, because their parents decided when they got married to raise their children in a more loving atmosphere than that provided by the grandmother.

The director writes: "We find a story that is wonderfully crafted with laughs at every turn and enraptured with beautiful pathos." The play is a master work and the acting was excellent. The audience particularly liked the teenagers who played Jay (Thomas Nyhuus) and Arty (Ven Djukic); they never got a word or an action wrong, and were thoroughly convincing. The grandmother is the least sympathetic character in the play, but thanks to Charlotte Stewart's acting ability, the grandma came across as a multi-faceted personality. We could understand what had made her what she was.

We were delighted and surprised to find ourselves so well-entertained. Unfortunately, because it was a cold night, there were a lot of empty seats in the theatre. What a shame! People should jump at the chance to see this production of Lost in Yonkers.