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


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David Sedaris’s humour has a raunchy edge


The brilliance of David Sedaris’s writing is his ability to make it look so effortless. Having read most of his books over the past few years, I’m always amazed at how he can take the most seemingly ordinary situation and turn it into something hysterically funny. It’s a skill shared by Jerry Seinfeld—although Sedaris is raunchier. He’s a master of understatement and innocent observation. Growing up in a completely normal North Carolina family that included five siblings (one brother and four sisters) he’s versatile and wonderfully flawed. Sedaris has parlayed his weaknesses and ordinariness (is there such a word?) into a lucrative career as an author and humourist.

In his latest book, Theft By Finding Dairies 1977-2002, David Sedaris edits twenty-five years of entries from his personal diaries into manageable bite-sized excerpts. A large part of his material is drawn from his own experiences doing mundane jobs and his encounters with the peculiar people who pass through his daily life. With a history that includes drug and alcohol abuse, working at a variety of odd jobs including as a painter (not the artistic kind), Santa’s elf at Macy’s in New York, a teacher and part-time cleaning ‘lady’, Sedaris has lived a colourful and varied life. An aficionado of IHOP, he shares numerous stories from years of taking his meals at the famous pancake chain.

Eventually Sedaris met his partner Hugh, got his life together and now owns homes in London, Paris and New York thanks to his successful writing and speaking career. When Hugh bought him his first laptop, it required some adjustment to get used to the modern technology. “On a typewriter, when you run out of things to say, you get up and clean the bathtub. On a computer, you scroll down your list of fonts or make little boxes”. Who among us hasn’t wasted hours playing with useless functions on our laptop or personal devices. It’s those simple observations we can all relate to that make Sedaris’s writing so enjoyable. Fortunately he got the hang of his laptop and provides hours of reading for us to enjoy. I can’t say this is his best book, but it’s certainly fun to read. David Sedaris’s writing is not everyone’s taste but I read everything by him that I can get my hands on. He makes it look so easy and always puts a smile on my face. That’s good enough for me.

To order a book by David Sedaris from Amazon.com, click on book cover below:

 

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Dear Margaret: I was wrong. I’m sorry.


It was a scramble to finish reading the book Alias Grace before the television series aired as I didn’t want to preempt any of the deliciousness of the story line. Written by Margaret Atwood more than twenty years ago, it took me a long time to get to the book because I’d been put off by her later writing, including The Handmaid’s Tale. I disliked The Handmaid’s Tale as I found it too dystopian and weird when I first read it in 1986. Times have changed; the world is becoming scarier and The Handmaid’s Tale is no longer as remote from reality as it once seemed. I’m loving the television series and can’t wait for the next season.

Alias Grace is historical fiction (my favourite reading genre) based on the true story of Grace Marks, a pretty, young Irish immigrant housemaid in Toronto in the mid-1800’s. Put out to work by her alcoholic, abusive father at a young age, Grace secured employment as domestic help in a well-to-do Toronto household where she made friends with Mary Whitney, another young employee of the household. Life was not easy for domestic servants and they were frequently exploited by their employers. When Mary Whitney dies from a botched abortion, Grace is tainted by virtue of her friendship with Mary and is forced to leave and accept a position further north in rural Richmond Hill working for a bachelor ‘gentleman’ Thomas Kinnear. His relationship with his existing housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery soon becomes evident and presents complications for the entire household. Nancy is mercurial, swinging from overly friendly to mean and jealous.

In July 1843, while Kinnear is away from home, Nancy informs Grace and the handyman James McDermott that their services are no longer required and she intends to dismiss them before Kinnear returns. Then the story gets muddy. Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery are murdered but no one is sure who did it; James? Grace? Or both? The resulting murder trial is a major scandal in nineteenth century Upper Canada. McDermott is condemned to death by hanging and because of Grace’s vague testimony that was highly manipulated by her pro-bono lawyer and her young age (she was only fifteen), she receives a life sentence in the harsh federal penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario.

The complex characters of Grace Marks and James McDermott make it difficult to get at the truth.

During her incarceration, a number of well-meaning citizens and professionals attempt to extract the truth from Grace about the day of the murders but without success. Many people feel she is innocent and lobby for her release. Famous novelist Susanna Moodie even took a stab at getting to the truth (sorry for the bad pun) in her book Life in the Clearing but it was generally acknowledged that Moodie’s tendency to exaggeration and belief in spiritualism heavily coloured her account. After fifteen years of incarceration, Atwood introduces a character called Dr. Simon Jordan who specializes in studying mental health issues (such as they were at that time). He undertakes interviewing Grace over a period of months in an attempt to extract the truth once and for all. Although uneducated, Grace is obviously highly intelligent and articulate which makes it difficult to sort out fact from fiction.

Atwood’s story alternates time frames and narration. We’re often presented with the story in Grace’s own words as well as from the perspective of Dr. Jordan and a third party. I’ve never understood why some writers eschew quotation marks when employing dialogue some of the time but not all of the time. I suppose it’s a technical issue beyond my uneducated grasp but it does make for a bit of confusion at times sorting out conversations. Whoever said Canadian history is boring is just plain wrong. Just as I was wrong in discounting Margaret Atwood’s writing after The Edible Woman published in the mid-sixties and still my favourite Atwood novel. Alias Grace is a wonderful read. You’ll find plenty of touchstones you can relate to and the mystery surrounding the double murder will keep you engrossed in the book beyond the last page into the “Afterword” by Atwood. Millions of book buyers can’t be wrong.

To order Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood from Amazon.com, click here.

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Does The Widow know more than she lets on?


Ordinarily I’m not a reader of psychological thrillers. Historical fiction is more my thing. And I had already started reading another book when I received an email from my local library that my copy of The Widow by Fiona Barton was ready to download. I was anxious to dive into The Widow so I put the other book aside. Two days later I was finished. I really enjoyed Barton’s style of writing and this book was a page-turner for sure.

I have mixed feelings about the book though, which opened with the widow’s husband getting killed by a passing bus in a London suburb. Right up front it’s clear she is relieved to be rid of him and what she describes as “his nonsense”. The title’s namesake Jean is a naïve young hairdresser when she meets and marries tall, dark and handsome Glen Taylor. She can’t believe her good fortune. Soon, she becomes slightly uncomfortable with his micromanagement of their marriage and Jean finds it easier to assume the role of Stepford wife to keep their perfect union rolling along. Then, a toddler is kidnapped and her perfect husband is one of the main suspects. She’s shocked and disappointed to discover he’s an on-line troll with a preference for kiddie porn, but true to form, she plays the role of supportive wife throughout a lengthy investigation, judgement and incarceration.

Jean Taylor’s life is no longer what she thought and she finds herself and her husband ostracized by friends and neighbours. The character of the investigating police detective is a bit cliché in his dogged determination to prosecute the offender but we soldier on expecting an eleventh-hour surprise revelation, that never happens. Barton presents the story from three perspectives, beginning as Jean written in the first person, from the point of view of the detective, and through a female journalist who tries to ingratiate herself to Jean in order to get to the truth. It was a fun summer read for a couple of days and kept me away from wasting money at the mall. That’s good enough for me.

To order a copy of The Widow from Amazon.com, click here.

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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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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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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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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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