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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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DUNKIRK . . . was it good for you?


We watched Dunkirk on opening day in an IMAX theatre where the sound system vibrates your seat and unless you’re sitting in the back three rows it’s difficult to take in the entire panorama. The only thing missing was the sprays of water like you get in the Pirates of the Caribbean theatre in Disney World. In retrospect I wish I’d watched it in a regular movie theatre as my head kept bobbing around trying to take everything in and the volume level gave me a headache. According to the reviews it’s a great movie. While I enjoyed it, I didn’t love it. And a couple of friends who also saw it on opening day shared my reaction. We really didn’t think it measured up to the hype.

The movie focuses on the activities of a small number of soldiers and civilians who played a role in the Dunkirk evacuation in early June 1940 at the beginning of the war, before America was involved. When allied troops were defeated and driven to the western shores of France, the navy commissioned every type of civilian owned fishing and pleasure craft to cross the English Channel and retrieve 300,000 allied troops from the shallow beaches, not accessible by military ships. It was a massive civilian effort and allowed the allies to bring the men home to regroup and rebuild to again face the enemy. The action centres on a hospital ship, a few battle ships, three Spitfires and their pilots, the crew of a civilian pleasure boat used in the rescue and half a dozen ground troops who were trying to escape France. The story is filmed from three perspectives, the shore troops, the Spitfire pilots and one civilian rescue boat. The actors playing the ground troops were all good-looking young men with dark hair and I had trouble telling them apart. Despite the use of a title screen showing which day it was, I was confused by the switching from day to night and back to day again. I’m a proponent of chronological order.

What they left behind.

The threats, challenges and dangers were accurately and brutally depicted. The tension was high and the action seemed real but personally, I found the focus too narrow. Considering the availability of employing extensive special effects to recreate the horror and scale of the evacuation, the movie makes the Dunkirk evacuation look smaller than it really was. The allies abandoned thousands of vehicles and tonnes of military equipment in the chaos, which was not depicted in the movie. Filmed on location at Dunkirk, the beaches are pristine with long lines of quiet soldiers standing in the water awaiting rescue. I would have liked a few real-life old newsreel shots of the actual evacuation thrown in at the end of the movie to tie everything together. Perhaps my judgement is unduly harsh and I have a feeling my impression may not represent the majority of movie goers. There will be a great deal of esoteric analysis of the film by Christopher Nolan. Was it moving? Was it representative? Did we get the meaning? When you see the movie, let me know what you think. I was rather underwhelmed.

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A tip of the toque to our good ol’ CBC


Our very own CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for my non-Canadian readers) has finally come up with some excellent television programs that I’ve been recommending to friends. Is it because the government has cut their funding and they’re becoming more resourceful or did we just get lucky? Whatever the cause, we’re the beneficiaries. I’ve been sending friends weekly reminders to watch three shows in particular that I love and thought Boomerbroadcast readers might enjoy them too.  I’ve always been a big fan of our particular brand of Canadian humour. It’s smarter than American humour and borrows heavily from dry British humour. Newfoundlanders like Mary Walsh, Rick Mercer, Shaun Majumder and Cathy Jones are brilliant interpreters of our peculiarities. Many of our comedy geniuses including Mike Myers and Jim Carrey migrated south but we still have our own  at-home stash. Feminist humour has a different edge and two new shows featuring Canadian comediennes are definitely worth watching.

On Tuesday nights at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. depending on your time zone, check out Baroness von Sketch on your local CBC channel. Starring Aurora Brown, Meredith MacNeill, Carolyn Taylor and Jennifer Whalen, it’s a series of comedy sketches covering everyday issues women can relate to. And the fact that the main characters are all so relatable and normal looking —no giant fake boobs, giant fake lips, giant fake hair or obvious plastic surgery—makes them even more appealing. (Have you noticed how all the American shows feature genetically perfect female specimens playing detectives, doctors, politicians and even neighbours? Normal-looking human females need not bother auditioning.) It’s shot in Toronto and if you live here the locations will look familiar. This week’s show opened with a group of girlfriends gathering at a friend’s cottage for a weekend of trash talking and all the therapeutic soul-sharing we love about girls’ weekends. You know what I mean. The hostess kicks things off by listing all the onerous rules and special procedures associated with a weekend at the cottage—everything from don’t flush for number one to don’t eat snacks inside the cottage for fear of attracting rodents. Her exhaustive list of complicated decrees induces her guests to immediately pack up and head home. One way to discourage weekend guests at the cottage.

Workin’ Moms is a satire on the challenges faced by young working mothers in a world that puts them in a moral vice between helicopter parenting and juggling an I can do it all career. The show stars Catherine Reitman, Dani Kind, Juno Rinaldi and Jessalyn Wanlim who are excellent in their roles. While boomers may not relate to the subject matter, they can certainly identify with the issues as mothers of offspring who are experiencing these challenges. It’s not a comedy per se but has hilarious moments that even our generation can identify with. One of the women who has returned to work after mat leave is trying to regain her foothold in the corporate rat race by proving she is up to any challenge her male counterparts can handle. It’s hard to be taken seriously at work when sitting in a boardroom meeting with a dozen men and you’re leaking breast milk through your corporate silk blouse. Long hours at the office and having a baby at home are not always compatible, even when you have a stay-at-home dad, as one character does. And I’ve just heard that Jann Arden will be playing the role of mother to one of the Workin’ Moms next season. That’s reason enough to start watching the series which follows directly after Baroness von Sketch on CBC on Tuesday nights.

Gotta love Dick and Angel’s spirit.

The third show I absolutely love airs on Wednesday evenings at 8:00 p.m. also on CBC. Escape to the Chateau is a must-see for anyone who dreams of living in France and enjoyed reading Peter Mayles’s My Life in Provence books. The series stars a real-life British couple, Angel, who’s a colourful, somewhat eccentric designer and her partner Dick Strawbridge, a professional engineer and retired colonel from the British military. Accompanied by two toddlers and her retired parents, they purchase a 45-room abandoned Chateau in southwestern France for the price of a small flat in England. The once-grand chateau, located on twelve acres that includes an orangerie, several outbuildings and a moat had been abandoned for about fifty years. Dick and Angel envision restoring it on a tight budget by doing much of the work themselves, and turning it into a tourist wedding destination, starting with their own wedding. Dick is one of those husbands we would love to have (except maybe minus the moustache). He can turn his hand to anything and despite some initial minor grumbling, he generally carries out Angel’s fantasy plans for the chateau. They both love what they’re doing and I love watching them.

Tuesday and Wednesday nights on CBC.

It’s gratifying to see some of our tax dollars actually doing some good. CBC has traditionally not been known for being the most efficiently run public broadcasting organization, but it’s still all we have that focuses on Canadian talent. Considering these three shows, two out of three ain’t bad and the third is a close relative. Give them a watch. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Click here for Baroness von Sketch

Click here for Workin’ Moms

Click here for Escape To The Chateau

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10 Reasons I’m glad I’m Canadian


Canadian3In celebration of Canada Day I’m re-posting a piece I wrote in July 2014 about why I’m proud to be Canadian.

Watching the scary goings-on in the United States, the Middle East and other parts of the globe, it’s obvious the world is, never has been and probably never will be a peaceful place. There’s always an egocentric dictator or political group trying to make history by making trouble. These events constantly serve to remind me that we won the lottery being born in Canada. Here are just 10 of the reasons I’m so happy to be Canadian:

  1. Seasons. We have four of them and I love all of them, although winter, not so much. In the spring we watch nature come alive again when the snow and icespring2 disappear.  Trees explode in fragrant green leaves. Flowers appear through the wet soil and bloom until the snow falls at the end of the year. Summers are hot but serve to remind us how crappy and long Canadian winters can be if you’re not a skier. We boat, camp, swim in our lakes and rivers and soak up the warm sunshine in outdoor cafés in three of our seasons. And autumn smells like crunchy fallen leaves with unbelievably beautiful landscapes and crisp mornings. Then we dig out a whole new wardrobe of soft knits, saucy little jackets and sexy not-for-snow-boots.
  2. Democracy. Our government is not perfect but it’s far better than most places in the world. We have the right to criticize and should probably be more vocal in our criticisms but as Canadians we’re rather apathetic and polite. We get who we voted for and fortunately most of our leaders are reasonably decent.
  3. Manners. Canadians are known for our politeness and we generally treat each other with respect and kindness. We are a country of tolerant, considerate, law-abiding people.
  4. Tim Horton’s. Need I say more. Witness the unending lineups at any Tim Horton’s across the country. We love their coffee, their steeped tea, their drive-thru’s, canadian1their maple donuts and an atmosphere that welcomes seniors for early morning coffee talk, hockey teams for warm-up hot chocolate after a game, affordable lunches for workers on the run or just a nice place to sit and read the paper by yourself  or catch up on e-mails.
  5. Red Rose Tea. Their commercials used to say “only in Canada” and while I have seen it on American grocery shelves I don’t trust the exported blend. I’m pretty fussy about my tea and take a little Ziplok baggie of it with me when I travel. health1
  6. Universal health care. Thank you Tommy Douglas for getting the ball rolling on this one. Canadians do not have to mortgage their home or cash in retirement funds to get a hip replacement. Again, our system is not perfect, but we are all taken care of when we need medical attention. We believe in taking care of our fellow human beings.
  7. Multi-culturalism. As I look at the intolerance around the world, I’m so happy that I live in a country that embraces our differences. My multiculturalcity, Toronto has enjoyed so many benefits thanks to immigrants from other countries. Not only have these people fortified our workforce, they bring wonderful new foods, customs and colours to our society. We are multi-lingual and we admire our fellow Canadians’ command of different languages.
  8. Human Rights. Regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnic backgrounds or religious preferences, Canadians are tolerant and accepting of alternative lifestyles, as long as they are law-abiding and polite. We’re infinitely more tolerant than our American neighbours.
  9. Gun sensibility.  Most guns in Canada are handled only by law enforcement, hunters and collectors. The fact that a few bad guys have gunsthem too is a problem we’re working on. Thank heaven we have no “Second Amendment”.
  10. Good neighbours. We’re right next door to the United States who shares most of our values (except gun control and universal Canada ushealthcare). We’re good neighbours and get along well with each other ever since their failed attempt to invade and annex us in 1814 when we burned down The White House and the Capitol building. I’m pretty sure they’re probably not going to mess with our borders again.

Perhaps you have reasons of your own you’d like to add. One thing’s for sure, we definitely won the lottery, eh!

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Don’t get sick or hurt traveling outside of Canada


Boomers are taking out-of-country vacations in unprecedented numbers.

Now that baby boomers are reaching the age of retirement, many are choosing to escape Canada’s crappy winters and migrate to Florida, Arizona and other sunny climates for a few weeks or months each year. We’re taking boat cruises, visiting Europe and doing all the things we didn’t have the time or money for during our working years. Notwithstanding “pre-existing conditions”, we buy our out-of-country health insurance and off we go. Buyer beware. What happens when we’re in a car accident, develop intestinal problems or suffer a stroke or heart attack? That’s when we learn that insurance companies are in the business of making money for themselves, not serving the needs of policy holders. This realization should come as no surprise but it can make for some frustrating and inconvenient experiences. Not to mention the obstacles presented by health care provided in foreign countries.

Illness is one thing, but car accidents are another matter altogether when you’re travelling, In Florida and many other places, it’s still legal to use hand-held cell phones while driving, and dangerous texting drivers are commonplace. Compounding the bad driver issue is the age of so many of the drivers in the sunshine states as well as the preponderance of impaired drivers. I know more than one person who was run over when someone backed out of a parking spot without looking behind. That reinforces the argument that it’s always safer to back into a parking spot rather than backing out where it’s difficult to see obstacles.

Even minor issues can quickly rack up tens of thousands of dollars in medical costs.

The bottom line is out-of-country insurance is a must but be aware of the hazards inherent in insurance coverage. I once went to “Emergency” on Christmas day in Florida to remove the rubber tip from my hearing device that had become lodged deep inside my ear canal. I couldn’t fish it out. A trip to the hospital involved several hours of waiting before being seen by a doctor (after being triaged by a series of admin staffers). The procedure took five seconds using special forceps and because I had failed to notify my insurance company in advance and get their recommendation for a facility to do the procedure, I was out of pocket $1,750.00. Ouch. After that experience, I found the perfect forceps on Amazon for $25.00 and now take of the problem myself when it happens.

Be well, but more importantly, beware.

Friends were rear-ended in a car accident when they went for a coffee one evening in Florida. A trip to the hospital involving six hours of tests and treatment resulted in a total bill of $37,000.00 as well as a truckload of paperwork and legal followup after they returned to Canada. Fortunately their insurance covered it. Another friend had intestinal issues and a couple of quick trips to Emergency for tests and prescriptions cost $18,000.00. He’s worried this will affect his future insurability and premiums. Someone else had heart issues in Greece and was treated in a hospital that provided no towels or hot water no drinking water to take pills, no toilet paper and minimal care. After moving to a private clinic, he was presented with a bill for thousands of dollars when he checked out two days later. The clinic demanded immediate cash or bank transfer in payment. The clinic would absolutely not deal with the Canadian insurance provider and finally agreed to accept a Visa card payment. Then, he faced a fight with his insurance company for reimbursement when he returned home.

The bottom line is beware, be healthy and bee-line it home to Canada if you can. Even paying for an air ambulance trip at thirty or forty thousand dollars could be cheaper and safer than out-of-country medical care. Call your insurance company before seeking treatment. If possible, get your ass home immediately. The Canadian health care system may not be perfect, but it is relatively hassle-free and we don’t have to mortgage the mobile home to receive care like our American neighbours do. In the meantime, drive very defensively in the United States, assuming, under Trump you qualify for entry. But that’s another subject for another time.

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Help! My scarves are choking me.


The inscription on my tombstone will be simple: 

She finally quit complaining about her hair.

She was organized.

As a young girl and even later as a teenager, I never had a messy bedroom. My bed was made every morning. My single bottle of Evening in Paris and two bottles of Cutex nail polish were neatly lined up on my “roxatoned” dresser. My spartan wardrobe was carefully organized on hooks behind my bedroom door (the house was built in the 1880s and had no closets). In the late sixties when I got my first apartment without a roommate, a bachelor unit in an old walk-up building on Vaughan Road in Toronto, I was immensely household. Furnished carefully with whatever I could carry up the street from the S.S. Kresge store on St. Clair Avenue, my belongings were arranged in an orderly and efficient fashion. I’ve always taken pride in being organized. Still do. Some friends would say, a little too organized.

Walking into a store like Solutions or The Container Store makes me weak-kneed with the pleasure. I could spend hours browsing the cutlery trays, shoe bags, garbage containers and cupboard organizers. My heart skips a beat just thinking about it. My bathroom linen closet contains little plastic baskets labelled Hair Products, Makeup, Meds, Dental, and so on. Those bins are further subdivided with labelled Ziplok baggies containing my overflow items such as Skincare, Eye makeup, Blushers and Lipsticks.  My kitchen pantry is arranged by food group (isn’t everyone’s?). You get the picture. While I’m not compulsive; I definitely like things to be orderly.

So, here some of my organizing tricks that you might help you in your everyday life:

Men’s tie racks (from Solutions) make great necklace holders. They’re visible and don’t get tangled.

Open-ended Umbra paper towels racks mounted on the wall are perfect for managing all your bracelets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Too many pair of black pants? These little round metal tags (from Staples) on pant hangers tell me whether the black pants (which are hard to distinguish on the hangers) are leggings, dress pants, jeans, knit, etc. and indicate the size, depending on how fat I am on a particular day.                                                      

These Skubb shoe boxes are a deal at IKEA and only $12.99 for a four-pack.

 

But I do need help in one area

Sadly, one thing that has consistently alluded me and escaped my control is management of my scarves. I’ve tried those special hangers with all the loops, a hanging circular laundry dryer with scarfs draped from its tiny clothes pegs, scarves folded over pant racks and wadded up in a drawer. None of these solutions was satisfactory. If anyone has any ideas on how to remove this last menace from my organized life, I’d be grateful. There could be a reward.

This looped hanger system for scarves should work but unfortunately it doesn’t. I have several of these hangers; they get all bunched up and I have to pull them all out of the closet to find what I’m looking for. And don’t even suggest I get rid of some. That’s not negotiable.

Do you have any organizational tricks you’d like to share in the Comments section?

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Maud Lewis respectfully recognized in superb Canadian film


I find it impossible to look at a painting by Maud Lewis and not feel uplifted.

Art is subjective and very personal. Sometimes it leaves us cold; other times it touches us deeply. I’m certainly not an expert but over the years I’ve discovered that the work of certain artists draws me in, makes me feel connected and engaged when I view their work. French Impressionist Augusto Renoir and Quebec artist Marc-Aurèle Fortin both have that effect on me. And, so does Nova Scotia primitive folk artist Maud Lewis. Simply looking at one of her paintings of a spring scene with bursting, colourful flowers, blue skies and puffy white clouds, happy cows grazing in bright green fields bisected by a meandering country road fills me with joy. It’s easy to disparage her work as it resembles the happy, brushwork of a young child. That’s the secret of its enchanting beauty.

Her world was small but her reach expansive.

Like so many artists, Maud Lewis didn’t gain a lot of notoriety and respect until after her death in 1970.  Born in 1903 with multiple birth defects Maud faced challenges right from the beginning, leaving school in the fifth grade. Her protective parents died when she was a young woman and her older brother refused to accept responsibility for her care and support. Destitute at the age of thirty-four, Maud responded to an ad in a local store by 44-year-old bachelor Everett Lewis who was looking for a live-in housekeeper. Maud presented herself at the door of his 12 ft. by 12 ft. cabin and never left. And now there’s a movie about their life called Maudie.

The movie stars Sally Hawkins as Maude and Ethan Hawke as her husband Everett. Before I saw him in the role, I couldn’t imagine handsome Ethan Hawke playing Maud’s contrary, awkward husband, but he was amazing. Sally Hawkins’s portrayal of Maude’s common sense, inner strength and sense of humour was exceptional. Maudie accurately depicts the life of Maud Lewis from early womanhood in Digby, Nova Scotia until her death in 1970. There were credits attributed to several Canadian organizations and it was gratifying to see the woman and her work represented in such a sensitive, respectful movie. There are so few films that the Boomer generation can enjoy (unless you’re into endless sci-fi special effects fantasies) and Maudie nailed it. I loved the movie. The girlfriends who went with me also loved it and if you go see it, I’m sure you will too.

Footnote: A few years ago I visited a Maud Lewis art show of her original work at a small gallery in Yorkville in Toronto. I was totally captivated and would have loved to buy a piece but the most affordable one was $16,000.00. Considering certain pieces now sell for upwards of $100,000+, I should have sold some RRSPs and bought it. Although it might have been a better investment, I probably wouldn’t have been able to part with it. I’ve also visited her tiny cabin which was dismantled and reinstalled in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. If you’re ever there, don’t miss it.

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