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Enjoy, laugh, rage, disagree or simply empathize with those who lived life in THE sixties and are now rockin' life in THEIR sixties+.


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Hillbilly Elegy is a quite simply a must read


There’s a reason Hillbilly Elegy, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance has been on the New York Times’ best seller list for several weeks. It’s an amazing book. If you enjoyed The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, you’ll love Hillbilly Elegy for the same reason. Some might consider Vance a bit young (he’s only in his mid-thirties) to be producing a memoir, but many people including Walls and Catherine Gildiner who was the author of the wonderful trilogy about her early years, have lived young lives truly worthy of sharing. Memoirs by people who have risen above challenging beginnings to succeed in life have always fascinated me and we have so much to learn from them.

J.D. Vance was born into a poor, uneducated, unstable Appalachian family surrounded by a larger community of similarly dysfunctional people. His mother was pregnant at sixteen and although his father didn’t stick around he was never completely estranged. Vance was born into a life anchored by an alcoholic and ultimately drug-addicted mother with an endless stream of boyfriends and husbands, some good but most bad, an assortment of half-siblings and dismal prospects for a better life. The only stable element in his ever-changing life was the presence of an older half-sister and his gun-toting, cussing, mean maternal grandmother who truly loved him. His grandfather, although ultimately living apart from his grandmother was equally loving and loved by Vance and provided a kind moral compass for the boy. He moved back and forth between Kentucky and Ohio depending on his evolving family situation with all its domestic strife, his ever-changing sets of siblings and even changing last names.

Many of the social problems experienced by hillbillies are attributable to their own poor choices in life.

When children are born into a community of people who are always fighting and are disinclined to hold regular jobs or even have ambitions of doing better, they grow up without incentive, without hope and without direction. Those who are lucky enough to find someone in this quagmire of humanity who can see beyond their obvious limits is truly fortunate. Vance possessed a level of intelligence that allowed him to at least finish high school despite poor grades and poor attendance in the midst of his family’s turmoil. Despite their own lack of education, his grandparents encouraged and promoted education helping him by providing a safe home when he needed it, moral direction when he strayed and were successful in regularly putting him back on track. When a cousin suggested the only way Vance would be able to get a college education which was the key to a better life, he opted to pledge four years of his life to the Marine Corps to subsidize his later college education. He ultimately parlayed this into a law degree from prestigious Yale University and through Hillbilly Elegy shares the experience of his journey with others who might benefit from what he learned along the way.

Vance’s enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps was step two in bettering his life after step one which was completing high school.

Vance discovered a world entirely different from what he had always known when he enlisted in the Marines and to a greater extent afterward when he went to university and law school. “When I joined the Marine Corps,, I did so in part because I wasn’t ready for adulthood. I didn’t know how to balance a checkbook” he said. The Marine Corps assumes zero knowledge on the part of its recruits and even accompanied him to open his first bank account. He had received no early guidance in nutrition, fitness/wellness or personal pride during his growing up years and describes himself as a cultural alien. He came to learn and understand the value of interpersonal skills and what he refers to as social capital to help smooth the way through networking. New relationships with friends and fellow students introduced him to a completely new set of social behaviours that were not aligned with his temper and hillbilly upbringing. Most people acknowledge that not all education is gained in the classroom but Vance had no experience with such everyday basics as table manners, how to dress appropriately, how to handle conflict or even how to give and receive love. Interestingly, one of his valued law school mentors at Yale was Amy Chua, author of Tiger Mom.

While he’s circumspect about suggesting solutions to the economic and social problems that are rampant in the rust belt of America, the author provides a rare glimpse into the lives of those people who live hopelessly grim and depressing lives. He knows better than most how they reached this point and why it is so self-perpetuating. Poor life choices, poor role models and social problems breed generations of people with no hope for betterment.  His observations are informed, articulately presented and blunt. What I found particularly revealing was his perspective on how entire generations of rust belt people turned against the Democratic party and put their hopes in the Republicans. Vance explains the misconceptions and clever rhetoric that guide their votes and destroys any hope of a better future. They are told “premature parenthood, drugs, incarceration . . . what separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: ‘It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault’.” Untrue and unproductive.

I can’t recommend Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance strongly enough. I learned so much reading this book and only wish the people of Kentucky and Ohio who are described in its pages would also earn from the wisdom he dispenses. I’d give it 10 out of 10.

To order a copy of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance from Amazon, click here.

To order The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls from Amazon, click here.

To order the third book in Catherine Gildiner’s trilogy, Coming Ashore, click here.

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Why do some people soar under adversity and others stumble?


It’s been several years since I read The Glass Castle an autobiography by New York journalist and author Jeannette Walls and it still ranks as one of my favourite books. Walls grew up in a creative but highly dysfunctional family. Her mother was an artist and her father, quite simply, a dreamer who kept promising his family he was going to build a marvelous home for them out of glass and spent an inordinate amount of time working on the plans for his unrealistic scheme. Both parents were intelligent people but totally unequipped and unsuited to raising four children. As a result, Walls and her siblings frequently went hungry, lived an itinerant, unstable existence and were forced to parent themselves. Surprisingly, they all survived and surpassed their parents in making a success of themselves. How that happens and why some people rise above their beginnings while others fail is a subject of endless fascination to me.

Jeannette Walls’s personal story has now been made into a movie of the same title as the book starring Woody Harrelson as her alcoholic father Rex, Naomi Watts as her misguided mother Rosemary and Brie Larson playing the adult Jeannette. The movie is true to the book. Unfortunately two hours is not enough time to cover all the details of her complicated and erratic life but it still does an excellent job. Anyone who has lived with alcoholism in the family will understand the pain and uncertainty that accompanies loving a family member with an addiction. The story also serves as inspiration for those who are trapped in a difficult family dynamic. Jeannette Walls learned that her only escape lay in getting an education and extricating herself from her family. In a pact with her siblings, they agreed to support each other and build a better life for themselves. Which they did. Go see the movie and you’ll understand why I recommend it.

P.S. As if I didn’t get my fill of child neglect for one day, I doubled-down and because there was nothing else on television that night I watched Angela’s Ashes. The true story by Frank McCourt of his neglectful and abysmal childhood growing up in Ireland is eerily similar to that of Jeannette Walls, in a different decade in a different country. No money. Poor parenting. Alcoholic father. Vulnerable siblings. Blessed are the children.

Click here to read my original review of the book The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

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The Chicago Exposition still thrills more than a hundred years later


With its classically designed white buildings illuminated at night by brilliant electric lights, the lagoons, canals, innovative landscaping and a 264 ft. Ferris Wheel, the Chicago Exposition of 1893 managed to eclipse its Paris predecessor.

I first heard about The Devil In The White City on a trip to Chicago a couple of years ago with a busload of seniors, a.k.a. baby boomers. The tour guide recommended the best-selling book by Erik Larson and the title came up again in conversation with other book lovers since then. It’s the true story of Chicago’s efforts to win approval for the construction and staging of a world-class exposition that locals hoped would eclipse the Paris exposition famous for its Eiffel Tower. In the late nineteenth century Chicago was known primarily as hog town. Its slaughter houses were the premier tourist attraction and the city was a cesspool of dirty streets, unclean drinking water, raw sewage, poverty and disease. City fathers and local businessmen envisioned literally turning their city from a sow’s ear into a silk purse admired by the world.

After a great deal of early lobbying, the contract for design of the site and its buildings was awarded to Burnham and Root, an up and coming Chicago firm of creative architects and engineers with a few local buildings to their credit and a strong vision for the event. As a result of the inevitable political back and forth discord and slow approvals, the project start was delayed until a mere twenty-two months before the scheduled opening in May 1893. The design and construction team had less than two years to deliver a complex that would cost billions in today’s dollars. The challenges of unstable soil conditions, constant power struggles among team members combined with designing untried and untested structures in unpredictable and uncooperative weather conditions created an environment that seemed destined for failure.

Dr. Holmes’s innocuous-looking pharmacy and hotel/office building was the scene of a number of gruesome murders and became known as the Murder Castle.

In the midst of the drama of designing and building the great Chicago Exposition of 1893, another drama was unfolding a few blocks away. Unknown and undetected, an obscure Chicago doctor by the name of  Herman Webster Mudgett known primarily by one of his aliases H.H. Holmes was selectively murdering young women who flocked to the city in search of jobs and to enjoy the magic of the world’s fair. It was a crime even beyond the scope of Jack The Ripper. The city and its police force were so preoccupied with events surrounding the exposition they had neither the resources nor the interest in pursuing the dozens of cases of missing young women.

The Devil In The White City is a mesmerizing true story and I couldn’t put it down. The White City refers to the stretch of classically designed white buildings comprising the exhibition framed by the blue waters of Lake Michigan. As someone who worked most of my life in the construction industry, I found the challenges experienced by the designers and builders of the facilities particularly fascinating. Even though it happened more than one hundred years ago, the business problems weren’t that different from today. And back then, the builders didn’t have the modern equipment and methods of communication and technology that we possess today. The fact they completed most of the work in less than two years is a miracle.

The Chicago Exposition of 1893 managed to surpass its Paris rival with such innovations as the Ferris Wheel rising an astonishing 265 feet above ground, electric lights which for the first time completely illuminated an urban landscape at night, voice transmissions over long distance, the zipper (a Canadian invention) and Cracker Jacks™. The research carried out by Erik Larson in writing this book is detailed and fascinating. And be sure to read the extensive Epilogue which follows the main characters’ lives after the close of the fair. The combination of the challenges of building the exposition, overlaid with the true story of an undetected serial killer is just too juicy not to enjoy. I sure did.

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Martin Amis provides a brutal look inside a Russian gulag


I seem to have a peculiar attraction to novels about Russia. House of Meetings by British author Martin Amis is a fictional story of two brothers sentenced to ten years of hard labour in a Russian gulag during the Stalin years after the Second World War. They are sent to the same camp in northeastern Siberia at the sixty-ninth parallel and subjected to unspeakable horrors which they amazingly survived. I’ve always wanted to read something by British author Martin Amis and the fact I chose this book means I was probably exposed to a somewhat tempered version of his writing. But it was still extremely intense. And, with his extensive vocabulary, I should have had a dictionary beside me as I read.

Narrated by the unnamed older brother who was a handsome, decorated officer in the Russian army that conquered Germany at the end of the war, it is written as a memoir and letter to his American stepdaughter. The narrator attempts to validate his choices and experiences in life, describing them in brutal detail. The seemingly weaker, unattractive younger brother Lev succeeded in marrying the only woman his older brother loved and the effects of the strange love triangle that unfolded spanned several decades. The book’s title House of Meetings refers to a cabin at the labour camp that was used for rare conjugal visits by spouses of the prisoners. Lev’s one meeting with his wife Zoya is a source of fascination for his brother for the rest of his life.

The narrator revisits the gulag when he’s in his eighties to make peace with his memories and his life. Many intellectuals were imprisoned during the Stalin years for no reason other than to meet his insane quotas. Exploring the psychological impact of the experience on poets, doctors, teachers and others is difficult to imagine but Amis digs deep. He researched records, diaries and personal accounts of former prisoners and presents a complex picture of what it took for them to survive. It’s not an easy read but it is fascinating and I think Amis could have written the story as a fictional memoir without the encumbrance of the stepdaughter. I’d give House of Meetings nine out of ten.

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I gobbled up The Edible Woman


I still have my original paperback copy.

It was probably the popularity of the television series The Handmaid’s Tale based on the book written by Margaret Atwood that reignited my interest in her writing. I must confess though that I did not like the book when I read it thirty years ago. Just too weird for my taste, but I absolutely loved the television series and can’t wait for season two. Perhaps I’ve evolved and I finally get it. In discussing the series with a friend who also disliked the book, I suggested she read The Edible Woman, a wonderful book written by Atwood in the late 1960s. So, the other day I unearthed my old, yellowed paperback copy of The Edible Woman to lend her. Although I’ve already read it two or three times since it was first published in 1969, I couldn’t resist the urge to take a quick peak inside. Then I couldn’t stop reading. It’s a time capsule of life in Toronto when there were still typewriters on our desks at work, girdles in our dresser drawers and hi-fi’s in our apartments. The sixties vernacular came crashing back through familiar-sounding descriptions of the clothing, social attitudes and physical surroundings. I was reminded of the difference in our moral standards. Back then gays were still referred to as queer, unmarried couples could not share a hotel room and young women often quit work when they married.

Parts I and III of the book are written in the first person, narrated by Marian, a recent university graduate. The reason Part II is written in second person becomes evident at the end of the book. She works for Seymour Surveys finessing the language in market research questionnaires for such products as beer, sanitary pads and canned rice pudding. Marian has an uninspired relationship with an articling law student named Peter whom she plans to marry and shares a flat with Ainsley who reminded me of the selfish roommate Meredith in Georgy Girl, played by Charlotte Rampling. Various other characters move through her daily life causing her to question herself and her choices. She has a secret friend Duncan who has a thing for laundromats and the life of her married friend Clara represents everything abhorrent to her. Marian’s life as a twenty-something will sound so familiar to those of us who were never quite totally happy or unhappy at that stage in our lives. There’s an overlying veil of dissatisfaction reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

Toronto, as it looked when Marian worked downtown for Seymour Surveys.

Toronto in the late sixties looked very different from today with about one-third the current population and Atwood’s detailed descriptions took me back more than fifty years. She doesn’t specify street names or neighbourhoods and I had fun figuring out where things took place from my memories of Toronto at that time. I could visualize the flat shared by Marian and Ainsley being located in the Annex district just northwest of The University of Toronto. I once shared a flat in the Roncesvalles area with two other girls, that was amazingly similar to theirs. There was no privacy door between our flat and the Polish landlady who lived with her daughters on the main floor so our activities were under her constant scrutiny. Banging her broom handle on her kitchen ceiling to warn us to keep the noise down and being subjected to her constant scrutiny was a part of daily life. Marian’s friend Len also had an apartment that sounded identical to one I once occupied on Vaughan Road.

Nostalgia abounds. When Marion describes her boyfriend Peter’s new apartment in a huge new development complex south of Bloor Street I could picture it in St. James Town. Like Peter, a friend of mine moved in while the building was still was under construction and the elevators didn’t work. Back then it was still considered a hip address comparable to today’s Liberty District south of King Street. The sixties clothing worn by Marian and Ainsley is so familiar, right down to the circular virgin pin worn on the dress of one of her co-workers. Atwood’s characters meet for a drink one evening in a lounge atop the Park Plaza Hotel at Yonge and Bloor Streets, a scene I could picture so vividly having visited the same spot in 1967 with a date and stood on the same terrace looking south toward Queen’s Park.

Yorkville Village in the sixties before it was gentrified.

Before the acceptance of such taken-for-granted rights as gender equality, young women were expected to marry before having children and there was still a degree of reverence for ‘saving yourself’ until marriage. We wrote letters home; we took our bag of dirty laundry on the bus to the laundromat when we ran out of clean clothes and we had to be twenty-one to drink legally. Our spartan apartments were furnished with junk and hand-me-downs. We were subject to the tyranny of landlords and we had jobs not careers.

The message or moral of the story (which you will have to read the book to understand) will ring true for so many women who came into womanhood in the heady days of the sixties. In fact I blogged about the issue for Valentines Day three years ago. This early book by Margaret Atwood turned me into a fan of her writing. If you’re a boomer and feel like burying yourself in a delicious blanket of nostalgia, read or re-read The Edible Woman, still one of my favourites. The message is universal and something today’s millenials can learn from. I had so much fun time-traveling back to life in downtown Toronto during the late sixties. We’ve come a long way baby.

Click here to order The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood from Amazon.com

Click here to read I love you but I love me too

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A woman’s view of World War II from behind German lines


Whenever I finish a good book I’m often left feeling somewhat bereft. After being emotionally involved in the lives of the characters over a few days or whatever time it takes to read the book, it’s hard to just “close the book”. Even though The Women in the Castle, a New York Times best seller by Jessica Shattuck had a good ending, I still hated to finish. The fictional story about the lives of three disparate German women, Marianne, Benita and Ania is a look at World War II from the other side and in particular, a female perspective.

The topic has been covered in thousands of books but this one focuses on the wives of three women whose husbands were part of the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. The primary character, Marianne is married to a member of the German aristocracy who is the inheritor of a centuries-old castle that becomes an integral part of the plot. Polish Ania has a mysterious background that isn’t revealed until near the end of the story but that’s part of what keeps us reading. Benita is married to a childhood friend of Marianne’s and appears to be the only character that seems out of her depth. I’m not sure why Shattuck characterized her the way she did as an intellectually challenged misfit amongst strong anti-Nazis except perhaps simply for variety.

I’m always frustrated by books that jump around in time, generally preferring things proceed in chronological order. When the author finally lands in the 1950s and stays there, however, I’m disappointed that there wasn’t more of the women’s actual war experiences. But I’m not the author and a best-selling New York Times author to boot, so perhaps I should just say it’s a great book. I really enjoyed it and you probably will too.

To order a copy of The Women in the Castle from Amazon.com, click here.

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In order to be truly proud, Canada still has work to do


The Canada Day 150 celebrations over the weekend prompted me to briefly relax my television news embargo. Hoping to see a lot of feel-good immigrant success stories (which I did), national coverage of patriotic local events (which there were) and a healthy dose of congratulatory video vignettes (tick that one off too), I tuned in. What I saw also reminded me of why I keep taking regular news sabbaticals.

The one issue that refuses to go away and deeply disturbs me is our government’s treatment of our indigenous people. Watching the mix-up around the installation of a teepee on Parliament Hill was unsettling. That was followed by a story about a group of bullying idiots throwing live fireworks into a group of indigenous women who had set up a peaceful camp to protest the industrial pollution of their source of drinking water. Another story highlighted the tragedy of forgotten murdered and abused indigenous women whose perpetrators were never caught and many of the women never found.

Surely, as a nation we can do better.

What is it going to take to sort out the problems with our native Canadians? The government has a tragic history of mismanaging the issue and there are struggles within the indigenous community itself. Let’s accept there is fault on both sides but the problems remain. Last year I read a moving book entitled “Invisible North” written by Alexandra Shimo, a young female journalist who moved into a northern native community. It paints a grim picture of life on a remote reserve. Basics such as clean drinking water and a supply of healthy food including fresh fruit and vegetables were scarce to non-existent and prohibitively expense in a community where most of the people are unemployed. Various make-work and entrepreneurial initiatives presented by local bands had been rejected by government authorities. Many communities have no local fire department which means over-crowded, small pre-fab bungalows quickly burn to the ground when there is a fire.

Prime Minister Trudeau seems to lend a sympathetic ear but what happens when he walks away from meetings with local bands? I suspect the government continues to drop the ball since the problems are compounding. Solutions are complicated but is asking for progress too much to ask? Is there not someone who can take this bull by the horns and start unraveling the problems and bring employment opportunities to these remote communities? Coal miners in Virginia are being trained to write and program computer code. Can this not be done for our indigenous Canadians? If call centres can be operated from places like India and the Philippines, why not on remote reserves? Norway has managed to build and operate successful greenhouses to grow local produce in Arctic climates. Can we not do the same?

I strongly recommend reading Invisible North. I honestly do not know what each of us as individuals can do to make the situation better but we do need to keep pressure on our government to stop dithering and start doing. Sympathetic handshakes and listening circles do not provide infrastructure for clean drinking water, health and safety services and access to decent food.  As Canadians, that’s the minimum we should expect from our elected leaders.

Click here to read earlier blog:  Better understanding the challenges of Native Canadians on reserves

To order Invisible North, The Search For Answers on a Troubled Reserve by Alexandra Shimo from Amazon, click here.

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