Monday, 28 December 2015

"Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson

   Christmas is a good time to read about others who are less fortunate.                                                               
  "Just Mercy" is about the American prison system.
Bryan Stevenson graduated from Harvard Law School and began working with the Southern Centre for Human Rights, representing death-row inmates throughout the southern United States.
"We make terrible mistakes.  Scores of innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death and nearly executed.  Hundreds more have been released after being proved innocent of noncapital crimes through DNA testing.  Presumptions of guilt, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison."

Children have been a particular concern for Bryan.  U.S is the only country that sends children (some as young as twelve) to prison for life.  Often the  child has only known violence and abuse in the home.  And when he is put into adult prison, he experiences abuse there.  The other choice is solitary confinement.  There is a story about a 14-year-old who went to the electric chair.

Bryan started a non-profit organization called "Equal Justice Initiative" to work with prisoners on death row.  He began with no office and one co-worker and now has 48 lawyers working for this human rights group.
When Bryan is unsuccessful in getting the death sentence revoked, the prisoner often asks Bryan to attend the execution.  He tells about the cloud of regret and remorse that seems to envelop everyone.  Quote: "The prison officials had pumped themselves up to carry out the execution with determination and resolve, but even they revealed extreme discomfort and some measure of shame.  Maybe I was imagining it but it seemed that everyone recognized what was taking place was wrong.  Abstractions about capital punishment were one thing, but the details of systematically killing someone who is not a threat are completely different."
The book is filled with statistics and individual cases.  I was surprised to discover that, in many states, the judge can overrule the verdict. When that is done, the judge makes the sentence tougher than the jury did, in order to look "tough on crime".

There was more detail of cases than I needed but I certainly learned a lot about the American justice system and how one person can make a difference.

Bryan looks into each case and spends time getting to know each individual.  He sees their 'humanity' and tries to bring justice and mercy.

Friday, 25 December 2015

More Dickens

"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens.

I have been fascinated by Charles Dickens.  Such a brilliant writer, but also a scoundrel.  But let's leave his personal life for a moment.
"A Christmas Carol" was first published in 1843 and was an instant success.  It had only taken six weeks to write, but the story has lasted all these years and is still popular.
I had the opportunity of listening to a reading at a local church.  I was reminded that Dickens had presented public readings all over Britain, in Paris and in the United States.  He had very receptive audiences of up to three thousand people, who were enthralled.  I have read that he was very 'histrionic' in his readings- overly theatrical and dramatic.  Wouldn't that be fascinating to see?  His first public reading took three hours, but he reduced it to about 80 minutes.  That was about the time frame of the public reading that I attended.

Just think of all the movies and stage productions of this small novel.  The earliest movie that I can find was made in 1908 with Thomas Ricketts as Scrooge.  But perhaps you remember the 1951 version with Alastair Sim- or the 2009 version with Jim Carey?

I'm sure everyone knows the story of Scrooge refusing to donate to charity on Christmas Eve and being generally cranky about everything relating to Christmas.  His dead partner comes as a ghost and shows him, through three spirits- the past, present and future, what will happen if he does not change his ways.
A very simple plot with a profound moral.

The reading that I attended did not have a great attendance, and, of course, those present were mostly older.  But the readers did a great job and I was delighted to see that people are still interested in oral reading.

This book is worth reading every year!

Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens

Charley was 21 when his mother was sent away and he was the only child that insisted on moving with her.  Charley's education was paid for by a benefactor.  He tried being a merchant- first in the tea business, then in a paper mill.  Both failed.  He finally went to work with his father on his magazine "All the Year Round".  Also he wrote two books.  Charley eventually inherited the magazine but struggled to keep it going.  He had 7 daughters and one son. The son was disowned because he married a bar maid.  Many of the girls did not marry and ended up appealing to the public for financial help after their father died at age 59.

Mamie was independent and loved to spend time with friends.  She never married and continued to live with her aunt after her father's death but struggled financially.  This is a theme with all the children.  Although it seems that Dickens must have had a lot of money, it had to be divided in many places.  He supported his wife in London and his mistress (who had been a movie star and gave up acting for him), as well as his sister-in-law who ran the Dickens household.  Also, he only lived to be 58 and, although some of his books sold well for the time, he did not amass a fortune.  Mamie got involved with a minister and his wife who were supposedly working for charity, but the public was very wary of them.  Mamie died at 58, on the day that Charley was buried.

Katy had a long life but many problems and many serious illnesses.  She was probably manic with OCD.  She went to art school for five years.  After her father sent her mother away, he was like a madman and Katy couldn't stand living at home, so she married an artist friend whom she did not love.  When he died of cancer after 15 years, she married a man that she did love.  She was happy with him but lost her only child at 7 months.  Her second husband died and she received an annuity and also had an admirer.  However, she continued to have mood swings and feared death, so slept in a chair or wandered the house.  She died at 89.

Walter began to be educated for the military at age 8.  At 16, he sailed for India.  He amassed debts and became sick.  He died in India (aneurism of the aorta) at age 22.

Frank had a stammer.   He was sent to Germany at 14 to prepare to be a doctor.  Soon he returned home and tried many different things.  At 19, he was sent to India with the Bengal Mounted Police.  His brother, living in India,  had died before Frank got there, but news had not reached him.  After 7 years in India, he returned to England for a 6 month leave but never returned.  His father had died and he had an inheritance which he quickly lost.  At 30, he joined the North-West Mounted Police in Canada.  He resigned at 44 and died that year in Moline, Illinois from heart disease.

Alfred  was happy and good tempered.  He was sent to France to perfect his French as most of the boys were.  He failed the entrance exam for the army, but went to Australia at 19 and managed a sheep station.  He married and had a good life, with 2 daughters,  when  his wife died in an accident.  He married a younger woman.  When his business failed, he returned to England at 65, where he gave lectures and readings, then he moved to Boston.  He died in New York at age 67.

Sydney was a breech birth and died of heart disease at 25.  He had been sent to France and then to naval school at age 12.  At age 14, he sailed for the U.S.  He was small and well-liked, but irresponsible with money as the other children were also.  He was buried at sea.

Henry  was the most successful and the happiest.  He was jolly and comical.  At 9, he went to school in France, where his two brothers were living.Then he was sent to Cambridge University where he won a scholarship and achieved a law degree at 23.  He fared better with his money, married at 27,  had 7 children and did well in his career.  He retired at 83 and died the next year.

Dora's birth had been difficult for Catherine, so she went to a famous spa to recuperate.  While she was there, the baby died.  Baby Dora had been left with Charles and a nurse.

Plorn, real name Edward, was shy.  He went to agricultural college and was sent to Australia at 15.  He became the manager of a sheep station and married at 27.  He became involved in politics and was mildly successful.  But he failed as a businessman.  He died childless and in debt at 50.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Charles Dickens

  While attending a book retreat in Banff, the group was discussing "A Tale of Two Cities".  One of the ladies attending the retreat said that she did not read that book because Charles Dickens was not a good man and she would not read his novels.
He does look a little rough here.  
But in his youth, he was quite dashing.
The biography that I am reading states  "his sexual needs were urgent".  
Quote: "As Catherine grew stouter and more exhausted- those dozen or so pregnancies in fifteen years, plus severe post-partum depressions- and to his mind, duller, his flirtations with and attentions to other women grew more active."
   When Dickens was 45, he moved his wife, Catherine, to London and kept the ten children living with him, with Catherine's sister running his house and caring for his children.  Then he set up his mistress, Ellen Turnan, in another location.

I was delighted when I found this book because I had always known that Dickens had many children and I wondered about their life.
Because Dickens was a prolific writer, not only in novels, but also in letters to friends, we know a lot about his relationships.  And his relationship with his children was conflicted.  He played with them when they were young and they adored him.  He always found time for them when they had problems or they were sick.  He would sit with them for hours. And so, he was loving, generous and involved.  But he was also demanding and harsh, especially as they grew older. 
  But let's look at Charles Dickens' childhood. 
  When Charles was 11, his father was in debtors' prison and Charles, at that young age, had to work in a factory to support the family.  He was not successful in keeping the bills paid, and the whole family, except Charles, joined their father in debtors' prison.  Charles wandered the streets and fended for himself.  But he was very successful at improving his life little by little until he became an instant success as a writer.  He became the best known person in England- next to the Queen.
  What a tremendous effect this childhood had on his fathering.  Since he had been able to care for himself and make a success of his life, he had "GREAT EXPECTATIONS'" for his children.  And when they didn't show that drive and ambition that Charles had, he was disappointed and let them know.
Format of the book:
  After an interesting introduction, the author wrote a chapter on each child's life up to the father's death.  I didn't enjoy the way he wrote about the children, mostly using  excerpts from letters.  It seemed disjointed.
  The last section was, once again, a chapter on each child after their father's death.
  Charles Dickens was certainly a strange man.  His children all adored him, even though they realized that he had treated their mother terribly.  The household was filled with interesting activities- play acting, story writing.  But it was difficult to be a child of Charles Dickens!

Monday, 14 December 2015

Requiem (continued)

   Did you know that there were POW camps in Ontario?  Wikipedia tells me that there were 13 POW camps in Ontario.
  After reading "Requiem", I wanted to learn about the camp that was mentioned in that book- Angler, Ontario.  It was not the camp where the protagonist of the novel lived, but it was mentioned with a list of other camps.
   I discovered that Angler is near Neys Provincial Park on the north shore of Lake Superior.  In the summer of 1942, there were 650 people of Japanese descent living there, purely because they had Japanese blood.
   The camp was actually built for German prisoners of war.  And my research showed that some of the German POW's planned an escape.
   Actually, this escape was before the Japanese arrived, but I still found it interesting.
  The prisoners dug a tunnel 150 feet long that reached outside the wall, with side tunnels entering some of the barracks.  Because the ground was very sandy, they had to reinforce the tunnels with wood beams.  However, after three days of rain, the tunnel began to fill with water.  By noon on April 18, 1941, the day of the planned  escape, the tunnels had 12 inches of water.  That night, 80 prisoners attempted the escape.  28 made it outside the walls before the guards heard a noise and interrupted the escape.
    Most of the escapees were either shot or arrested, but two made it as far as Medicine Hat, Alberta by hopping on a train, before they were captured and returned to Angler camp.  They were sent back to Germany after the war with the other POW's, but later one of them returned to Canada, where he got a job, settled and raised a family.

Friday, 11 December 2015

"Requiem" by Frances Itani

  Requiem is a form of 'rest' or 'repose' in Latin.  It is the beginning of the mass for the dead- "Grant them eternal rest, O Lord".  The word also means an act of remembrance.
  What an appropriate title.
  Isn't it great when the title really does reflect what is in the novel? 
  And, this cover is fabulous!

   Bin Okuma, an artist, is mourning the death of his wife and decides to drive across Canada with his dog- from Ottawa to British Columbia where he had been in an internment camp from 1941-1946.
  There are two storylines- the building of the camp in 1941, and Bin's cross-country journey in 1997.  Also there are retrospective descriptions of living with his wife, Lena, and raising his son, Greg.

  This author is brilliant and her sentences are well-crafted.  There is much description of nature, especially rivers and mountains.

  I was most interested in the story of the internment.  After the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Canadian government moved all people of Japanese descent away from the west coast.  They were considered "enemy aliens".  Bin Okuma, the protagonist of the novel, was about four, with an older sister and brother. The move took several stages, each with terrible conditions.  Eventually, they settled in an internment camp- in fact, they were dropped off in central B.C. where they built simple shacks.  While living there, Bin was given to another man to be his son.  Since Bin's father had two sons, he gave his youngest son to a man who was alone. It was a permanent move, including changing Bin's last name. Bin called this man his Second Father.  Second Father was a very educated and interesting man who was patient and kind to Bin.  But Bin never resolved the anger at being given away by his First Father.
   Second Father had been a musician and without any outlet for his musical passion, he used a piece of wood for a keyboard, painting on the white and black keys.  He played Beethoven by memory and Bin learned the different sonatas even though he only heard taps on a piece of wood. I really enjoyed that part of the novel. 
   The other storyline was Bin's journey west with his dog.  Bin's wife had died and his son was away at college.  He had to face the past and heal the memories.
    He arrived at the land where the internment camp had been and found that all the buildings were gone.  It had been 51 years since the camp closed.  He still had many unresolved emotions.  "I stand still and try to gather memory.  I open a mental map and unfold it carefully, square by square".
  Bin's first father discovered that Bin was headed to the camp and he drove there with his brother.  Bin had not seen his father in all of those 51 years.  But Bin is now ready to face the past and face the father who gave him away. 
  The ending is so perfect: "I move towards him.  Both of his arms pulling me in.  A son, after all.  Again.  A father, a son." 

Frances Itani did a great deal of research to develop this fictional story from actual historic events.
I also enjoyed her novel "Deafening", about a deaf girl in World War One.  Once again, I learned a lot about history in an effective way.
Her book "Remembering the Bones" did not interest me as much, as it was an 80-year-old lady reviewing her life as she laid in a ditch waiting for help after a car accident.
Frances Itani does her best work when she is bringing history to life.

Monday, 7 December 2015

book club choices

old picture
Boy!  Are we organized! Every fall, we choose books for the following year.
Each person pitches one classic and one contemporary novel.
Then we vote on those suggestions.
You would think we would run out of classics after 18 years.  
But we still came up with some great ideas.
new picture
Our choices show how eclectic we are.  Everything from Shakespeare to Grimm's fairy tales.  We plan to learn a lot about the original Grimm fairy tales and see how they have changed to make them more suitable for children.

Here is our classic list for 2016:
Hamlet (Shakespeare)
Rebecca (Du Maurier)
The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
Around the World in 80 Days (Verne)
Grimm's Fairy Tales
The Jungle Book (Kipling)

Our contemporary novels look interesting also:
Girl in Translation (Jean Kwok)
A House in the Sky (Amanda Lindhout)
The Sandcastle Girls (Chris Bohjalian)
The Illegal (Lawrence Hill)
The Room (Emma Donoghue)
Orphan Train (Christina Baker Kline)

Friday, 4 December 2015

Anne of Green Gables

   We have toured P.E.I. and checked out all the Anne of Green Gables tourist locations.
  We also attended the play in Charlottetown.
   So, recently we took the opportunity to see the musical production at the Dunfield theatre.

While reading the program, we discovered what we had not realized before.  It was written by Don Harron!
  Mostly everyone knows and loves the stories of Anne, written by the author Lucy Maud Montgomery, but we were surprised to learn that Don Harron had written the musical.  
  Do you remember Don Harron?  
He was an actor who performed everything from Shakespeare to T.V. shows such as "The Man From U.N.C.L.E".
  We loved him when he did his comedy routines as Charlie Farquharson.  While we were in P.E.I. in 2003, we stopped at the Comedy Barn in Stanley Bridge, where we were very entertained by a show put on by Don Harron and his wife Catherine McKinnon. 
  Actually, he had four wives.  Catherine McKinnon was his second wife.  She was a singer and the show was filled  with great music and fabulous comedy.  The Charlie Farquharson routine was like no other comedy routine that we have seen.  We loved it!
  Don Harron was very talented, writing 17 books and winning many awards- from the order of Canada to the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.
Don Harron died in January, 2015 at age 90.
Great to remember this talented man!