BOOMERBROADcast

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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The voice of Mary Walsh comes through in her writing


Britain may have Dame Judi Dench as their national treasure but we have our own Boomer Broad Mary Walsh as our beacon of everything Canadian. Newfoundland-born Walsh is a writer, comedienne and actor whose decades-long career began in a local maritime comedy troupe and grew to become a regular on national television. Walsh has skewered Prime Ministers and business tycoons as activist Marg, Princess Warrior. She made us laugh as one of the Friday Night Girls on CODCO and later as a regular on CBC’s This Hour Has Twenty-Two Minutes.

Walsh’s new book Crying For The Moon is a good read. It’s the story of Maureen, a young girl growing up in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She fakes her way on to the school choir to score a trip to Expo ’67 in Montreal. That’s the beginning of the unfolding of a different kind of life for Maureen. With a difficult mother she calls ‘the Sarge’ and a distant father who prefers being out on the boats, Maureen experiences all the confusion and angst of growing into a woman without the support and guidance of secure, loving parents. She seeks love in meaningless sex and suffers the consequences of having her illegitimate baby taken from her.

Maureen functions under dark feelings of inadequacy and a lack of self-respect which inevitably lead her into trouble. Like so many teenage girls struggling under similar circumstances, she puts on a tough, defiant face and tries to make the best of her circumstances. Her risky behaviours lead her into an abusive relationship and ultimately she becomes the prime suspect in a murder.

Throughout the book I could hear Mary Walsh’s voice reading to me with her lyrical Newfoundland accent. She paints a vivid picture of Maureen’s environment and she clearly understands the nuances of being an abused woman. It’s a serious problem and for those who have never suffered at the hands of another person, not always understood. “She thought she deserved it. And then, because she was so beaten down, so crumbled into pieces, so beaten into bits that she didn’t know how to gather up all the crumbs of herself to do anything. Plus, she’d been afraid.”. Maureen’s lack of self-esteem and with no support from her family she’s trapped in an untenable domestic situation. Walsh relates Maureen’s dilemma with sensitivity and understanding as we watch her rationalize the horror and then retreat from her circle of friends.  She uses drugs and alcohol to try and cope.

Mary Walsh as Marg, Princess Warrior.

I don’t mean to suggest the book is totally harsh or depressing. Newfoundland humour abounds in the dialogue and in the scenes that play out in the narrative. We’re treated to lovely descriptions of downtown St. John’s in all its colour and idiosyncrasies. Walsh’s depiction of the burden and crush of Catholic dogma enforced on young minds by the teaching nuns is revealing and we sympathize with the feelings of shame and confusion that it generates in Maureen. “She’d stolen so much makeup from Woolworths, she knew that, even if she went to confession, she had no hope of absolution, because the priest would insist that she pay back the store for all the stuff she’d robbed. She would never have that much money, and so she would never get forgiveness.” There are many religious references responsible for Maureen’s feelings of inadequacy and failure.

Eventually Maureen finds a sympathetic friend in a quirky co-worker who helps bring sense to her misguided life. I wasn’t thrilled with the ending but I enjoyed the journey. The story is a snapshot of the life of a misguided young woman trying to make her way in life. It’s packaged in an easy-to-read murder mystery. I’ve always been a huge fan of Mary Walsh so whatever she turns her hand to, I’m there. We have to support other women and Canadian writers—like me, sort of, eh? I give it 7 out of 10.


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Trip into the light fantastic


When I saw that I was number four on the waiting list at the library for Meg Wolitzer’s current best seller The Female Persuasion I decided to try another of her books while I waited for Persuasion to become available. The Uncoupling was written in 2011 and it turned out to be an interesting choice. I had no idea what to expect but it’s sort of a fantasy that wouldn’t normally have been my kind of book, however it turned out to be a really fun read. The plot follows the inhabitants of Stellar Plains, New Jersey as they fall under a spell that is reminiscent of a Greek play being performed by students at the local high school. If someone you know is a teacher, they’ll really enjoy this book.

We are first introduced to Robby and Dory Lang who along with their teenage daughter Willa form a perfect Stepford family. Robby and Dory teach English at Eleanor Roosevelt High School and Wolitzer’s descriptions of the students, teachers and the assorted members of the community is razor sharp. The Spanish teacher is called Señor Mandelbaum; Leanne Bannerjee, the school psychologist is having an affair with Principal McCleary; two of the students wear tee shirts that read SLUT I and SLUT II.

When a new drama teacher, Fran Heller arrives on the scene, the established social order is thrown off balance. As expected of a drama teacher, Heller is unconventional and paints her house in southwestern Arizona colours that are completely incongruent with the northeastern community. Her husband lives far away in Chicago and her precocious son Eli becomes a classmate and BFWB of Willa Lang. The play Fran Heller finally selects for her students to perform in their annual February event is a Greek comedy, Lysistrata, the Aristophanes comedy first performed in 411 B.C. Fed up with their testosterone-loaded men spending all their time killing and fighting in the Peloponnesian War for the past twenty years, the women in the play stage a sex strike to deprive their men of what they want the most in life—SEX—until they stop warring.

Coincidentally, a cold wind blows through various homes in Stellar Plains around the same time and deprives all the local females of their sex drive. They turn away from husbands and lovers creating an atmosphere of confusion, anger and resentment. As you can imagine, this action has grave repercussions. The drama culminates in a keystone cops kind of conclusion during the students’ grand performance of Lysistrata that made me think of a toned-down version of Jack Nicholson’s comeuppance in Witches of Eastwick. Except, there’s a solid moral to this story. Really fun read and I plan to check out more books by Meg Wolitzer.

Thought for the day:

What if American women staged a similar strike until the men got rid of their guns. Imagine . . .

 


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Backroom affairs are old news at The White House


It’s common knowledge that Donald Trump isn’t the first President of the United States who couldn’t keep it zipped. The only difference between then and now is that then it wasn’t talked about in polite company or in the news. JFK was a rogue. Thomas Jefferson* practised equal rights in the bedroom. Franklin D. Roosevelt had a series of mistresses and was forgiven his dalliances. When Eleanor Roosevelt learned of her husband’s love affairs, their marriage became a partnership of shared and mutual responsibility. But until recently little was known about Eleanor Roosevelt’s lusty love life. Propriety in those times and her reputation for good works spared her the criticism and condemnation lobbed at public figures today.

I’ve just finished reading Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert and I loved it. The book is a fictional memoir about the real-life love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and senior Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok. They met in 1928 before FDR was elected President and remained friends until the death of Mrs. Roosevelt in 1962. The author followed the approximate timeline sourced from more than three thousand personal letters written between Mrs. Roosevelt and Ms. Hickok, known then as ‘Hick’. Excerpts from these letters, which were sealed until after the death of both ladies are quoted in the book.

Even though she was in her mid-forties and a grandmother when her affair with Hick began, Mrs. Roosevelt’s bi-sexuality was apparent. She enjoyed both male (usually younger) and female lovers and FDR turned a blind eye, as did she toward his affairs. Hickok was a positive influence in encouraging the “reluctant First Lady” to embrace causes and assume a higher profile in the media with weekly press conferences for women reporters and ultimately a daily newspaper column.

From their first meeting in 1928 until their deaths decades later, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok remained close.

Like many relationships, the romantic one between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok ran its course. Divergent, busy lifestyles and new partners soon intervened. But their friendship endured. They wrote to each other almost daily and Hick was involved in working with the former first lady up until the time of her death in 1962.

Although Loving Eleanor is a work of fiction, its connection to real life is vividly and sensitively portrayed. The experiences the two women shared, including social events, vacations and election campaigns are easily imagined in the context of what we know from documented history. The book is a delightful read and I highly recommend it.

*Jefferson’s Daughters by Katherine Kerrison is another book on my ‘to read’ list.


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The Girl With Seven Names had nine lives


If someone on your Christmas list enjoys books, I have a great recommendation and it’s not too late to have it delivered from Amazon. The Girl With Seven Names is the true story of how a young woman, with no foresight or planning escaped North Korea and became an international advocate for human rights. The book is a beautifully written, first-hand account of life for the average person in North Korea by someone who later came to experience the world beyond the Kim Jong autocracy. During her escape and resettlement, Min-young assumed a series of seven different names as part of the strategy needed to hide her past and create new identities to protect herself and her family still in North Korea. Hyeonseo Lee is the final name she retains.

Min-young was born and grew up in Hyesan, a North Korean town on the northern border with China. Hyesan was separated  from Changbai in China by a narrow river. Locals could wade across the river in waist-deep water or over ice in the winter when border guards on both sides were looking the other way or were sufficiently bribed to look the other way. This arrangement resulted in a brisk black market trade of superior Chinese consumer goods and food items coming across the border that were unavailable to most North Korean citizens. This trade supported Min-young’s family.

As a rebellious teenager of seventeen, Min-young made a decision to cross the river one night to visit the Chinese side, planning to return a few days later. Because of her age and naivety, she gave little thought to the gravity and consequences of her decision. If she had been caught coming or going, she and her entire family would be executed or at the very least deported to a labour camp. A series of decisions resulted in her being unable to return to North Korea. She traveled to visit distant relatives on the Chinese side who provided her with accommodation and help. She was constantly under threat of being exposed as an illegal immigrant which would result in her deportation and execution. An arranged marriage with a Chinese national seemed the only solution but Min-young got cold feet and fled. Over the next few years she assumes various identities and moves across the country trying to stay one step ahead of authorities, criminals and traitors. Through a complicated set of manoeuvres, Min-young eventually manages to escape to South Korea where life is not as she imagined it would be.

Who doesn’t love finding a good book under the tree? For you or a book-lover you know.

Most of us think we live in the best country in the world. Canadians are certainly entitled to feel we won the lottery being born in Canada. Americans have traditionally considered the United States to be the best country in the world, although, in fact, they fall further down the list. Canada consistently ranks as number two and the best is Switzerland, Germany or Denmark, depending on the source of the research. Citizens of North Korea have also been indoctrinated by the Kim-Jong regime to think they’re living in the best country in the world under the benevolent leadership of three generations of the Kim family. Despite famines, starvation and deprivation, North Koreans have no sense of context to compare their lives with the rest of the world. They grow up worshiping their ‘Great Leader’ or ‘Dear Leader’ as a god and their source of life. Those who escape quickly learn that things in the outside world are very different from what they’ve been told.

I absolutely could not put this book down. The author employs a literary J.R. Ewing cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter that further induced me to push on which I often did into the night. Hyeonseo Lee as she is now known has achieved local, national, then international acclaim for her human rights advocacy work, sharing her experiences to help others in similar situations. To be able to view life in North Korea from the perspective of someone who grew up there and compare it with a new life in a once-forbidden world is a rare insight. It’s a harrowing story of injustices suffered by citizens who live in countries without the freedoms we take for granted in Canada—a real eye-opener that will make you further appreciate our Canadian way of life and values. There wasn’t a single page of this book that I didn’t love and in view of the current tensions between the United States and North Korea it’s a timely read.

To order The Girl With Seven Names from Amazon.com click here.

 


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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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The Sense of an Ending ends with a twist


How would you react to receiving a letter or other communication from someone you were intimate with in the swinging sixties or early seventies and lost track of decades ago? And what if that communication required a face-to-face meeting, after all these years? Imagine the emotions that would be ignited. That intriguing premise is the basis for a book by Julian Barnes called The Sense of an Ending. What prompted me to read the book was a review in The New York Times. The reviewer was so impressed with the story that as soon as he finished, he immediately started at the beginning to read it again. I can’t say that was my response but I did enjoy it enormously.

At around two hundred pages, The Sense of an Ending is a quick, easy read. When I first started reading, the main character, Anthony Webster reminded me of Holden Caulfield. The story begins in the early sixties with the friendship of three schoolboys in England whose dynamic is altered by the later introduction of a fourth boy, Adrian. When they go off to different universities, they maintain a tentative friendship but their lives naturally begin to follow divergent paths. We follow Tony Webster’s journey through the changes generated early in the sexual revolution. We observe his struggles and confusion with “the meaning of life” which was a popular concern of boomers. Then, suddenly, he’s in his seventies and receives a solicitor’s letter informing him he’s been named as the beneficiary of a minor settlement in the will of the mother of an old girlfriend from university.

The emotional struggles, the mystery surrounding the endowment and the confrontations that result profoundly affect Tony Webster’s entire philosophy of life. I won’t divulge the plot and its twists as I really think you should experience the book first-hand. Baby boomers will relate to the subtleties of morals, ambitions and social relationships we experienced and will find the book particularly interesting. But it’s also a kind of mystery story with a plot twist that makes the entire book worth reading.

Click here to order The Sense of an Ending from Amazon.com

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