A Theatre Buff Comments on MAGGIE: A New Musical. It Hits The Mark.

In a slow year, my husband and I attend over twenty-five theatrical productions, but we generally avoid musicals because many shows should not have been set to music. MAGGIE, A New Musical, with its world premiere at Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius, is an exception.

We saw MAGGIE on April 20th, one night before its opening; a guest from Victoria was visiting, and we wanted her to see it before she left town. I, however, was in the midst of treatment for pneumonia, with little energy for anything other than lying on the couch. That night, MAGGIE was a tonic. The next day, on Facebook, I posted the following note: If you loved Come From Away and The Last Ship, then MAGGIE is the hat-trick. Community. Family. Motherhood. Sons. Girlfriends. This play has it all. I laughed, I cheered, and I cried. The score is evocative, the lyrics advance the plot, and the actors have powerful lungs. For all my FB friends in Toronto and points around, It’s worth the drive to Hamilton.

So, it was with surprise, nay dismay, that I read Kelly Nestruck’s review in the Globe and Mail on April 29th. Please read it to appreciate my notes which follow.

I could agree with Mr. Nestruck on only one point: Uncle Charles’s busted lip should have been addressed earlier in the scene. (I volunteer with makeup and costumes in school theatrical productions and understand the challenges of quick changes and makeup mishaps.)

On many other points, I beg to differ. Mr. Nestruck suggested that we, the audience, “barely knew Jimmy.” I suspect every woman who saw the play remembers Jimmy. He was the husband who serenaded his heavily pregnant wife before heading to the mine. And when he looked wistfully and lustfully at her, I suspect most women knew that before he left with his hard hat and lunchpail, the young couple stopped by the bedroom. Feeling loved and beautiful when one is terminally pregnant is precious beyond measure. The man was a keeper. But, that evening, as Maggie waited for Jimmy’s return, I didn’t find it strange that the miners walked past Maggie and didn’t tell her that her husband had died. Their single-file procession was ominous. Either they didn’t yet know of Jimmy’s death, or it wasn’t their news to share: It was above their pay grade. Or a last thought, they behaved as many people do in tragic situations: They were in shock and didn’t have the words to express their grief and the terror that they could be next.

Mr. Nestruck notes that Maggie is a “busy but not active protagonist.” Yes, her paid work is visible to us. She scrubs floors, probably until her knuckles are raw, but it’s her invisible work, everything she does to keep home and hearth together, that shines: three well-fed sons with aspirations beyond Lanark, the relationship between and among her boys, and their respect for her. She survives (is “unbreakable”) because she has no choice; a coal miner’s widow in the 1950s would have had little, or no pension.

Mr. Nestruck also expressed concern about the time jumps and suggested that a narrator could have handled them better. I’ve lived through that same stretch and found the time jumps to be both visible and audible. Hairstyles and clothing for both men and women changed with each era. As for the “jokey … cliché about women’s history,” I didn’t hear jokes or clichés. I heard women with little formal education coming into their own, claiming their space. They were beginning to understand that a penis didn’t make someone better, smarter, or more worthy.

And finally, it is the women who were memorable to me. I celebrated their endurance, their friendships, their humour, and their collective decision to finally stand up to a man who abused his wife.

Until this review, I have welcomed Mr. Nestruck’s observations. In 2015, his critique of Sweet Charity made me realize I wanted to comment on theatrical productions; I fully agreed with his negative assessment of that show. His review gave me courage; I did grasp the complexity and nuance of what I was seeing on stage. From there a blog was born. I adore the theatre and hoped my blog could help put bums in seats. Had I read his review before I booked tickets, I might never have made the trip to NOTL, and I would not have started this blog. Since 2015, I’ve commented on the productions I’ve enjoyed, and when I find one lacking, I stay quiet. Why? I haven’t the theatrical chops to speak with confidence. Can you really trust someone who has to look up the meaning of hagiography? But, more importantly, I have no wish to cause heartache: I know how much effort goes into moving characters and settings from the page to the stage.

Theatre critics have a responsibility to be critical; Mr. Nestruck is doing his job and he does it well. I will count on the writers and Mary Francis Moore to do theirs as they sift through his comments and make revisions that will have this outstanding show soar.

MAGGIE leaves Hamiton for Charlottetown after the May 7th performance. I wish it Godspeed and trust that all my friends on the east coast will find MAGGIE their reason to visit the Charlottetown Festival.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

The Hours That Remain

Keith Barker, the playwright of The Hours That Remain, has taken on a challenging project as he explores the aftermath of a loved one’s disappearance. He has executed it with elements that I would describe as shape-shifting and magical realism. (I’ll not say more because this play is essentially a mystery wrapped inside a series of mysteries.)

The play spans a five-year period during which Denise (Cheri Maracle) searches for her sister Michelle (Cherish Violet Blood) while Denise’s husband, Daniel (Ryan Cunningham), waits for her to return home after her searching escapades. Michelle had disappeared after her shift as a waitress near British Columbia’s infamous Highway 16, and Denise is ‘haunted’ by regular sightings of her sister. The situation becomes more curious when we learn that Denise’s husband cannot see Michelle. As the sightings increase, the marital frustration mounts; the ending is as close to heart-breaking as I can imagine.

Much happens on this small set. Ostensibly, it’s the interior of a home, but with the sound and lighting effects, the actors are frequently placed at the side of a highway.

There have been only a few plays in my theatre-going years when I’ve been compelled to purchase the script. This play was one of them. I appreciated how Mary Francis Moore envisioned Barker’s words on the page to honour the missing and the murdered. The Hours That Remain shines a light into the dark corners of news coverage, police investigations and our justice system. I will be curious to see how the next director stages it.

The Hours That Remain is playing at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton until May 7th, 2022.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of the novel Autumn’s Grace, a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices.

©2022, Bonnie L. Lendrum.

Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl The Cowboy

Through the years, there are books I have wanted to reread but haven’t yet. However, two new launches this spring, Constant Nobody and Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted, made me snap to attention. These were books to be reread immediately. They’re both historical fiction, and each one had me sitting bolt upright in bed.

Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl The Cowboy, by Gary Barwin, could be the whimsical tale of a middle-aged wanna-be-cowboy who has lost his testicles, but it’s not. And while there is more than a dash of caprice to the story, the backdrop is horror exercised over decades.

Motl, our gunslinging hero who has spent more time with his nose in Westerns than in paid livelihood, finds his métier when the Nazis invade his Lithuanian village. He leaves town with his ‘hoss’ hitched to a wagon and his mother sitting by his side. In time, he loses both, but he gains Esther. She too has lost her family to the Nazis. Their escape becomes a quest to find his testicles, leave Europe and begin a family.  

Between hair-raising adventures and near encounters with gun-toting, sharp-shooting Nazis, Barwin’s use of humour evoked spontaneous laughter from this reader. Shock and guilt followed because what can be funny about Nazis hunting and slaughtering Jews? The humour, however, is like a trail of crumbs. It leads the reader through a landscape fraught with uncertainty and danger, and it offers hope.

The title, Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted, is apt. It’s the feeling I’ve had touring the German countryside, strolling Buenos Aires’ Avenida de Mayo, and standing on the plaza at Tiananmen Square.  The ghosts remain. Their stories need to be told.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

Constant Nobody – A Tale of Espionage and Love

There are books in my library that I have reread several times since their first publication. Among them are Timothy Findleys’s Famous Last Words and Pilgrim, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale,  Alistair Macleod’s And Birds Call Forth The Sun and The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and Carol Shields’ Unless. But until Michelle Butler Hallett’s Constant Nobody, I have never reread the same book within a month. It was even better the second time around.

Constant Nobody transports the reader to Moscow, Russia, in 1937. It is an immersive sensory experience. There were moments when it felt like I was in the front row of an intimate theatrical performance. I’d catch a whiff of perfume, feel my heart race as characters were awakened by knocks on doors, shiver when the shower water in a Moscow apartment switched from lukewarm to ice-cold, or breathe a sigh of relief after an injection of morphine dulled intractable pain. 

Constant Nobody is a love story caught up in the espionage intrigue of Moscow, 1937. And as I write that sentence, I fear it trivializes Constant Nobody to historical romantic fiction which it most certainly is not. However, it is historical fiction that deftly depicts another time and place by attention to detail. And Constant Nobody is a love story that captures the depth of feeling between men, physician and patient, a man and a woman.  But Constant Nobody is also an exploration of humanity. Throughout this novel, there’s an underlying question: How does one navigate a life that seems destined by chance? The answer might be “by free will and twice as much by compulsion.”

Constant Nobody, like Butler Hallett’s earlier novel This Marlowe left me in respectful awe of this formidable Canadian author.  

Fine Books for a Plague Year

Like many of you, I’ve spent hours with my nose in a book during these plague months; witness the picture. Sadly, I did not keep notes as I read. I just stacked the books in order of reading with the intent to make comment later. Not quite good enough, methinks. Hence, as one moves down the page, the comments become rather sparse. A disclaimer here—four books, Happily Ever Older, Tamarind Sky, WhyBirds Sing, and Afterlife Crisis came to me as ARCs from their respective publishers. Two of these were e-books (Tamarind Sky, and Happily Ever Older) and because of that they are not captured in the photo.

When Luciana Ricciutelli asked me to blurb Thelma Wheatley’s latest book, Tamarind Sky, I was honored. I became a fan of Thelma’s writing with her book And Neither Have I Wings To Fly. Tamarind Sky is a master class in the social history of forgotten yet recent times. In a tale that centres on family love and the immigrant experience, Wheatley has skillfully captured the searing ugliness of racism in Ontario (1967-1989) and Ceylon (1947-1956). Her portrayals of time and place on each continent are riveting. Tamarind Sky is a compelling read about colonialism, its aftermath, and the human spirit’s will to survive and overcome. (Note the book mark on which my blurb is quoted. Some of you may recall, that I only believed I was a ‘real’ author, when I had my book Autumn’s Grace AND the book mark in hand. I confessed that level of neediness to my editor, Luciana, at the Toronto launch, and she laughed. Luciana died this past December; Thelma’s bookmark feels like it was a departing gift—delivered with a wink.)

Happily Ever Older is essential reading for anyone who hopes to grow old and to do so with dignity. Instead of seniors’ housing that resembles warehouses for storage, think greenhouses for growth. It’s a fundamental paradigm shift that Moira Welsh depicts through innovative housing models that have launched across North America and in the Netherlands.  Each of them defeats the three plagues of old age: loneliness, boredom, and helplessness. But as a society, we will succumb if we don’t act now. Between 2019 and 2050, the cost of long term care housing will triple. To combat that future, we need healthier models and better government policies with a laser focus: supporting seniors’ independence. Only then might we live happily ever older. (Moira Welsh is an investigative reporter with the Toronto Star. )

Why Birds Sing is a delightful novel that seamlessly blends commentary about opera, architecture, avian husbandry, health care, and whistling. It’s an unlikely tale of friendship, hope, and love that begins when a flamed-out opera singer, her ailing brother-in-law, and his African Gray parrot meet up with a clutch of siffleurs who call themselves the Warblers. I enjoyed it.

Afterlife Crisis by Randal Graham is a madcap and frenetic romp through an everchanging fantasy of future Detroit. Our guide for this adventure is Rhinnick Feynman, a character who maintains his equilibrium through a series of misadventures. He has been gifted with remembering how things once were while everyone around him is subject to forgetting. His quest is to determine why this is so.

It’s not often that a book makes me laugh aloud, but this one did, many times. I imagined Feynman navigating his strange world with a GoPro strapped to his forehead while a chip embedded in his brain recorded his thought processes. And with that chip, he gives us access to the literature, science, mythology, and history that underpins his world view. Feynman sprinkles clichés as liberally as one would salt potatoes and uses arcane words to entertaining effect.  And his parallels are—unparalleled. Here’s a sample of the ones that made me snort with surprise and delight: “sensory gumbo,” the pace of “a unionized snail,” and “a pack of wild piranha meeting up with an unsuspecting knot of bathers.” Afterlife Crisis is unadulterated fun; its author is a master of comedy.

Becoming by Michelle Obama was loaned to me back in the winter of 2020. It sat on my bureau in that category of  ‘not likely to read because it’s a celebrity memoir, but I don’t want to be rude to the loaner, so I’ll return it in six months or so.’ All I can say is that it’s a good thing I held on to it. I began reading it to my eighty-seven-year-old friend who lives in a seniors’ residence. We haven’t been able to visit in-person because of various COVID-19 restrictions, so we began our own private book club in November. Every day we read for an hour over FaceTime. Becoming gave us insights into race, poverty and the US political system that astonished us. Our current selection is The Audacity of Hope. It’s giving us each a deep appreciation of a fine former president.

Nora Ephron’s essays were the books that started my eighty-seven-year-old friend and me on our private book club venture. We laughed a lot. I can identify with Ephron’s neuroses.

Famous Last Words is a book I’ve read five or six times. It always amazes me. Timothy Findley ranks as my all-time favourite Canadian author. (I’ve re-read Pilgrim and Not Wanted on the Voyage at least twice.)

Stories About Storytellers by Douglas Gibson was a delight. Doug worked with authors whose books line my library shelves. As a result I’ll be re-reading Monro, Macleod, and McLennan.

The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro is a book that I missed when it came out in 2006. Reading it felt like visiting with an old friend. Munro writes about a community and way of life that I know well; my mother’s family came from nearby Bruce County.

The Divine Economy of Salvation by Priscilla Uppal is extraordinary. This past fall, on a hike with some fellow authors, I described it as luminescent, only to find as I sought the URL that other reviewers had used the same descriptor. We lost Ms. Uppal to cancer in 2018. I learned that sad fact when midway through the book, I went looking for her other works. The knowledge of her death made the remaining chapters all the more poignant.

The Pull Of The Stars by Emma Donoghue immersed me in a make-shift maternity ward during the 1918 flu pandemic. My sleeves were figuratively rolled up prepared to help with deliveries. Her descriptions of Dublin under a pandemic siege made me grateful to have been born decades later.

Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker prize in 2019. It’s a superb book about the web of relationships in women’s lives, and how they come to be shaped through sexuality, community, race and history. I loved the complexity and the minutiae of this book. The Testaments was a co-winner of the 2019 prize. It too is excellent—very different from Girl, Woman, Other. I read it in 2019, so it didn’t qualify for the attached photo.

Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World is a masterpiece of imaginative storytelling.  It begins as the protagonist’s body has just been dumped in a rubbish bin just outside Istanbul. And as her brain begins to shut down, she begins to weave the story of her life. It’s a fascinating tale that had me gripped from beginning to end. The Forty Rules of Love is equally imaginative and could not be more different. It’s a tale imbued with Sufi wisdom that spans two cultures, over seven centuries. Both of these books are on my ‘to re-read’ list.  I will happily read any new novel that Shafak produces.

It’s hard for me to believe, but it’s true; I hadn’t read Toni Morrison until I read A Mercy. My only excuse is that she was not Canadian. Why then, you might ask, would I have read Shafak, a Turkish-British author? And the simple answer is that 10 minutes and 38 seconds was a gift. But I went looking for Toni Morrison. References to her kept popping up at a seminar I attended in San Miguel last winter. In A Mercy, Morrison has made the tensions of seventeenth-century colonial America —race, religion and class—come to life as she explores the plight of a little black girl sold into the household of an Anglo-Dutch trader.  This book, too, will be on my ‘to re-read’ list.

I have now started on what will become a new stack of books. I’ve just finished The Dutch House and am reading The Jane Austen Society. I’m looking forward to The Glass Hotel, Constant Nobody, and Nothing The Same, Everything Haunted. And my commitment to readers of this blog is that I will take notes as I go along —not wait until months later.

Happy reading while we wait to be vaccinated!

Foreplay and Summer Theatre

One of my favourite summer activities is theatre, not just the performance, but the stretch of time before the show. Some years ago, we decided to fill that space with picnics rather than prix fixe dinners. We set a picnic table with a checked tablecloth and coordinating plates and then feast on hors d’oeuvres and large salads. There’s wine, of course, discreetly poured into glassware.

In Stratford we nosh by the Avon River, watching the swans drift, and the scullers pull. In Niagara-on-the-Lake, the scene is different: The Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario, so our view is that of sailboats tacking their courses in the distance and kayakers paddling closer to shore. During COVID, I missed our pre-theatre picnics as much as I missed theatre. Picnics set the mood for a romantic date with my favourite guy. Al fresco dinners feel spacious, languid, and intimate; they were and still are the foreplay to the main event.

And let me say that this summer’s theatrical offerings are luscious. The ensembles and the artistic companies at both Stratford and Shaw are talent powerhouses. Each production brings together the skills and creativity of set, costume and lighting designers to support the performers and their telling of stories.

Our first play of the season was Cyrano de Bergerac, a poignant and compassionate portrayal of unrequited love; Tom Rooney played the lovelorn, self-effacing Cyrano to Deborah Hay’s self-absorbed, ingénue Roxanne. I’ve seen Cyrano before, but this performance by Rooney made it the best ever. The set changes were remarkable: a theatre, courtyard, army camp, and convent. Sadly for you, dear reader, we saw the last performance on May 8th, but there are many more superb plays to see this season.

Damn Yankees was one of them, but it was not as we expected. Because some cast members had been injured or fallen ill, we were to see a ‘concert performance,’ a phrase I’d not heard before. What it means is no set and minimal costume changes. As we took our seats, my less than generous thoughts went something like this: Hmmm. We drove for 90 minutes to see the actors sitting on the stage? My expectations were low; the cast roles for the evening had been vigorously shaken and stirred (see inset). But it’s in situations like this where ensembles excel. Yes, the actors were arrayed in a semi-circle of chairs at the outset. But, they did sing, act, and did so with vigour. It wasn’t evident that several actors who had been plucked out of their assigned roles and plunged into their understudy roles, might have experienced tachycardia for the duration. A measure of the performance was that the audience gave the cast and crew a standing ovation. I, too, was on my feet, and that was unusual; I’m not a fan of musicals or baseball.

Everybody is the penultimate expression of ensemble excellence. If you were to attend every production of it this season, it’s unlikely you would see the exact same play. That’s because the role of Somebody is fourteen different roles which are played by six actors on a lottery basis each night. That’s right. Early in the show, a raffle drum is produced, and the six actors choose their roles for the evening. The play is about Death, its capriciousness, and how it ultimately comes for the good and the bad, ready or not. It’s funny and serious and absolutely life-affirming.

Chitra – Shaw Festival Theatre is a Bengalese play that addresses a tale as old as time: How to marry the ecstasy of sexual desire with a serene, mature spiritual love? When this theme is blended with women’s empowerment in a repressive society, it becomes more layered. Chitra has an astonishingly simple yet effective set. I want to say that the actors danced, but they didn’t; they moved poetically across the stage and up and down the set. Chitra is a lunchtime performance. If you book it, you will have time to play nine holes at a local golf course and still make time for dinner and an evening performance. We did precisely that and purchased a new Tilley hat at Beau Chapeau. It was the perfect summer’s day.

That evening’s performance was Gaslight. I first heard the term gaslighting as I listened to an NPR production decades ago on a long car trip. The story was so vivid, and the theme so sinister that I had the sense of seeing it as I drove. This production at Shaw does a similar job of creating menace and foreboding. It reminded me of another play I saw years ago at Theatre Aquarius, Wait Until Midnight. The evening I saw that performance was one where I returned to our home in the country…by myself. Kenn was on a business trip; I slept with a knife under my pillow. Without giving anything away, Gaslight works anxieties equally well but does let one have a good night’s sleep.

Summer Books and Where We Read Them

Where in the world does one find the time and space to read a book from cover to cover in under forty-eight hours? For me, that place is Lake Temagami, specifically Sharp Rock Inlet, an hour’s boat ride from anything that resembles civilization. The urgent distractions are modest: Have we boiled enough drinking water to get through the day? Do we have enough kindling to light the morning’s fire? Should we tie up the canoes for the night or flip them on shore?

Cabin- Lake Temagami

But getting there is a challenge. The shopping and organization to prepare for a week (or two) without access to stores would make the heart of any Six Sigma practitioner skip a beat. If it’s not on the water taxi when we leave the dock at the end of the mining road, we do without. (Forget about borrowing from a neighbour; the closest one is twenty-minutes away by canoe.) The possibility of deprivation focuses the mind.

Once the menu has been planned and the grocery list constructed, the next hurdle is selecting the books. Space is always at a premium in both the car and the water taxi; I need enough books, but not too many. The message in my mind is “Choose well, or else!”

Pen and Water Colour by Gary Allsopp, 2022

Once I’ve arrived and settled in, the reading takes place in mid-century modern chairs. (See image). When they were hauled to Temagami by my parents, it was because they were no longer fashionable. They were just old and saggy. Twenty years ago, my sister, nieces, and I rectified the dippy seats with cushions we fashioned from foam and homemade slipcovers. If you hold your head just right and squint, you might think Martha Stewart dropped by to tart up a fishing cabin, just enough to make the women happy and not so much to make the men cranky. When the windows are flung open, and the breezes blow straight through the cabin, you would be hard-pressed to find a more comfortable, cooler spot to read. Factor in the scent of pine resin and the sound of waves lapping at the rocky shoreline, and it’s sublime. Time and space expand.

But back to books.

This year I selected three. I could not have been more pleased. The first to be consumed was The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (1987). It had been on my bookshelf for years, but not for thirty-five years! My copy has come from a second-hand bookstore (Pickwick Books in Waterdown? Books and Company in Picton?). I discovered this when I realized the loose endpaper had been cut away. (If it was a gift, the previous owner and its giver will remain a mystery.) Bonfire was an incredible dive into the heart of New York. I couldn’t help but wonder if Wolfe had his finger in the air testing the winds that would blow two decades later. He captured populism, racism, capitalism, entitlement, and disadvantage, skewering each in the process. I was enthralled. The characters and the plot were strong. And yes, just like my copy, there was an element of mystery.

The next book was The Town That Forgot How to Breathe by Kenneth Harvey (2003). The version I have is autographed, and it was given to me in Newfoundland in 2005 when we attended a Screech-In. But who gave it to me? The book has been on my shelf for seventeen years, waiting for the right time to be read. This year was it. I was immediately drawn into the mesmerizing world of Bareneed, on the northwest shore of Conception Bay, Newfoundland. Sure, there are physical similarities between Temagami and Bareneed; we pump water, light the hearth, read by gas light, and always have an eye to the wind and waves, but the similarities end there. Harvey weaves a tight tale of Newfoundland lore that he spins into the current time, and he does it through a strong narrative with more than a dash of magical realism. I marvelled at his ability to keep a complex plot clean and clear. I’ll be searching out his other books over the next while.

The third book was one I had opened before we departed for the wilderness, This is Your Mind On Plants, and I had finished the Opium section. As we waited for the Loon Lodge water taxi to collect us from the island, I started Caffeine. Next up is Mescaline. Michael Pollan never fails to engage me. However, unlike The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which led me to small food producers, I suspect the only behaviour change might be an attempt to grow poppies for their colour, not for their sap.

That’s almost it for my summer reading. The next book up is Amor Towles A Gentleman in Moscow. I’m re-reading it for a book club and enjoying it again. But a chapter a night is not the same experience as a novel a day. Another book by Towles that I’d recommend is Rules of Civility. It, too, is a pleasure.

And now, dear reader, I want to know what was on your summer reading list. And where in the world is your favourite spot to read a novel in a day or two? Do tell!

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

Summer Books

I’m coming to this blog with a feeling of guilt. I had intended to comment on many more books. But one day in an effort to create order on my desk and space in my head, I shelved every single book in the growing tower. Then I started a new pile.

Writing time has been compromised since Autumn 2021. It seems that “Urgent/Important” activities have taken precedence over “Not Urgent/Important” creative writing. (If you need a refresher on Stephen Covey’s time management quadrants, here’s a link: Stephen Covey Time Management Quadrant – Bing images ). However, I’m pleased to report that I managed to send my second manuscript to four different publishers since January. It should be a simple process, but it’s not. The submission requirements vary ever so slightly, and then I obsess over phrasing. One publisher requested a chapter-by-chapter synopsis; it was more work than I had expected. However, I was pleased to see that I did have a narrative arc. (Twenty years go, I had no idea what that phrase meant.) But enough about me. Let’s talk books

If I followed my own advice and made notes as I read or wrote a summary immediately after reading, my comments would be fuller. I apologize for the brevity, which is why I’ve re-titled the blog from An Avid Reader Reviews to An Avid Reader Comments.

Paper Demon by Rosaleen Bertolino

I met Rosaleen Bertolino at the San Miguel Writers Conference in 2019, and we re-connected the following year; we had enrolled in the same week-long seminar course. During this second encounter, I was given a peek into the vivid imagination of this quiet-spoken, thoughtful author when she read a draft story about a raccoon and a woman living in a barren landscape. Let me say some images will be stuck in my mind forever.

 In late 2021, Rosaleen published a short story collection: Paper Demon. The title is apt. Demons are “forceful, fierce, or skillful performer[s], and that describes Rosaleen’s writing. Her stories push boundaries in relationships between partners, siblings and parents, and professionals; she provides an alternate take on disability culture and homelessness and a likely too true take on first-world-third-world encounters. If that were not enough, she confidently writes in magical realism and speculative fiction.

Rosaleen is a skilled disruptor of the ordinary. After each story, I set the book down and marvelled at her creativity and intellect. I look forward to her next collection, which I hope will contain the raccoon story. In the meantime, I will satisfy myself with re-readings of Paper Demon.

Fight Night by Miriam Toews

Fight Night is a story of hardship, heartache, resilience and hope, and it’s told from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl as she writes letters to her absent father. Her life is more than a tad chaotic: she has been expelled from school; her mother and grandmother’s relationship is fraught; family finances are tenuous, and she is anxiously awaiting the birth of her sibling. The span of the story is about four months. The ending is happy and unexpected.

I loved this book and will be re-reading it.

Night Swimming by Janet Turpin-Myers

I’ve come to Nightwimming (2013) belatedly. My only explanation is that I started reading Janet’s work with her next novel, The Last Year of Confusion, published in 2015.

I met Janet in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 2014, at my first Writer’s Union conference. Actually, it was my husband who met her first. He said, “You must meet Janet Turpin-Myers. She’s a bundle of energy, and she lives close to us.” I, however, was a shrinking violet; my anxiety was at a fever pitch. To paraphrase Alice Munro, “Who did I think I was?” to be attending a conference of REAL writers. I came from a nursing career where I wrote book chapters in management texts, conference presentations and scientific papers. That was technical writing, not REAL writing, and one novel didn’t make me feel like a full member of The Writers’ Union of Canada.

Since then, Janet and I have become friends, and yes, she still talks more than I do, but I think that’s because she thinks about writing all the time and wants to share her observations. (Have I said that she’s a REAL writer?)

Enough about me/us.

Night Swimming captured my imagination. It’s a story that can sweep the reader into the lazy, endless days of early teenage years spent with best friends at a summer cottage. It’s both a coming-of-age novel and a retrospective that explores friendships, romances, regrets, the hippie culture of the 60s and the moon landing. The writing is superb, poetic at times, and there is wordplay, i.e. to celebrate the moon landing, two spinster twins make “macamoons,” aka macaroons.

The structure of the book interested me, and as I came to each chapter, I would silently question what the author was doing with the chapter headings. All became clear at the end. And that’s why I have to re-read this book.

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles

This book came to me as a book club reading. I couldn’t obtain a copy in time for that meeting but was so absorbed by the discussion that I made a point of catching up. I’m so glad I did.

All That She Carried is a scholarly recreation of a cotton sack passed down through generations of a Black family. The author has woven history, economics, geography, religion, and culture into an account that reads like a novel, but it’s not one. Charleston, North Carolina, in the 1800s, and its society financed by slavery, is vividly portrayed as the author methodically traces the origin of the embroidered sack. Its journey started when Ashley’s mother, Rose, handed her the unadorned sack containing three handfuls of pecans, a tattered dress and a braid of Rose’s hair. As Rose gave Ashley the sack, she told her daughter that it was filled with love. Ashley, a nine-year-old girl, was on the auction block that day awaiting sale. The sack was ultimately embroidered by Rose’s great-granddaughter.

Imagine the anguish of seeing your nine-year-old daughter at a slave auction. The colonial behaviour that led to Black families being ripped apart by such auctions was the same mindset that tore First Nations children away from their homes (The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada). Family disruption in both instances was a strategic manoeuvre; it effectively destroyed any sense of cultural identity wherever it happened. Both books document what was tantamount to a system designed to brutalize bodies, destroy egos, and shred relationships

All That She Carried is a book that I hope has led me to greater compassion and wisdom. I’ll be recommending it to another book club of which I’m a member. And, yes, I will re-read it. (I borrowed this book, and because I forgot to photograph it before I returned it, I have no image to share.)

The two books that I’m currently juggling are Michael Pollan’s book, This Is Your Mind on Plants, and Alexander MacLeod’s Animal Person. I’m enjoying both. They’re fine writers.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

©2022, Bonnie L. Lendrum, All rights reserved.

Richard III

If you enjoy Shakespearean plays, you will be interested in Richard III at Stratford Theatre this season. It’s an extraordinary production on several levels. It moves seamlessly between current day and the 1400s; the set is minimalist and effective; the costumes for Richard depict his scoliosis. And while I appreciate that it takes a cast of fine actors to put on this play, Colm Feore’s portrayal of Richard III is exceptional. There wasn’t a moment that I didn’t savour, and that included the intermission: Richard III is performed in the new Tom Patterson Theatre. The envelope surrounding the actual theatre is architecturally stunning, light-filled and spacious.

On a personal note, I enjoyed seeing André Sills in role as the Duke of Buckingham. I’ve been following this fine actor since 2016 when I first saw him at the Shaw in Master Harold and the Boys and then again in Octoroon. There have been several plays since then, both at Shaw and Stratford. and I make a point of booking any play that he is cast in. It was also a pleasure to see Christo Graham in the role of the Duke of Norfolk. Christo came to my attention as the young and brazen Jerry Lee Lewis in The Million Dollar Quartet at Theatre Aquarius. I’m pleased to see him at Stratford and look forward to watching his career develop.

The first play I attended at the old Tom Patterson theatre was about the last monarch of the House of Tudor, Elizabeth Rex by Timothy Findley, so it seemed fitting that my first play in the new theatre was about another monarch, the last one from the House of York. The space in between these two productions was well-filled. I look forward to many more evenings at the Tom Patterson Theatre.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

Photo by David Hou. Colm Feore (centre) as Richard III with André Sills as Duke of Buckingham and members of the company in Richard III.

©2022, Bonnie L. Lendrum, All rights reserved.

Autumn’s Grace – Nine Years Later

To my surprise and pleasure, Autumn’s Grace is still attracting readers.

Last November, when I was invited to do a reading at The Tamahaac Club in Ancaster, my first thought was, “Yikes! What will I say?” The book was published in 2013; the last time I read it was when I had proofed the galleys. What to do? The best readings I’ve attended have been conversations, so I decided to do a work-around modelled on one of my favourite podcasts: Writers and Company. Since I’m not yet on Eleanor Wachtel’s radar, I asked a friend and fellow writer, Janet Turpin-Myers, to interview me, and that meant we both had to re-read the book! The event was re-scheduled at least once over the winter because of COVID concerns; we finally met on June 2nd, 2022.

It’s always a privilege to meet with readers. I’ve come to believe that anyone who picks up Autumn’s Grace is courageous. It’s an engaging and entertaining read, but it’s also challenging. Medical-surgical procedures and palliative care are not on most individuals’ must-read lists. However, anyone who has supported someone they love through diagnostic processes or provided care and support at the end-of-life is courageous. And these people appear to be my readers. They want validation that their experience was not unique; they want confirmation that the gaps they experienced were not personal, and they want assurance that their conflicted feelings were normal. As a writer, I derive enormous satisfaction when I hear readers say they felt relieved that someone finally understood their experience. For me, it means that I managed to touch upon some universal truths.

The questions and comments during the session and the post-event chats reminded me that the palliative care system is in need of repair. Serious work needs to be done. It begins with the education of our future clinicians; it means writing health policy to support integrated care; it means re-allocating funds to provide that care and to support the development of expert clinical practitioners. It also means making more hospice beds available. I’m always distressed to hear when a patient has died within twenty-four hours of being admitted into hospice.

Patients, their families and the clinicians who provide the care all deserve a system that can answer yes to these questions:

  • Is the care safe?
  • Is the care effective?
  • Is the care patient-centred?
  • Is the care timely?
  • Is the care efficient?
  • Is the care equitable?

Nine years after the publication of Autumn’s Grace, I cannot answer ‘yes’ to even half of these questions.

When I started to write in 2003, I hoped that the novel would lead to the development of better policies, more funding and best practices. It hasn’t happened yet. So I’ve revised my hope, and it’s this: that readers begin talking with family and friends about palliative care and their dreams for better end-of-life support. As these conversations multiply, a ground swell of questions will arise, and families will begin to say to each other, to their providers, and to politicians, “We must do better.” And they will expect better. That’s how change happens.

As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 

If you’d like to be part of that ground swell, here’s where you can obtain a copy of the novel: Where to Find Autumn’s Grace – Bonnie Lendrum

Review: Flush – A Dog’s Life

This week, we basked in the pleasure of our first in-house theatrical production in over a year and a half. The play was Flush, a one-act ‘biography’ of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel of the same name. It was an unexpected delight. I hadn’t read production notes, didn’t remember which play I was about to attend, and had forgotten that it had been written by Virginia Woolf. (It has been busy here as we prepare for a backyard wedding.) The writing sparkled, and the tone was light-hearted. Anthropomorphism was largely held in check, but Flush’s observations about the comings and goings of his mistress’ home on London’s Wimpole Street and later in Florence, Italy, allowed for keen observations of class, wealth, privilege, and the plight of women intellectuals.

Flush. Photo by Lauren Garbutt.

Flush’s observations come by way of his olfactory and taste receptors, not a surprise because dogs have over 300 million olfactory receptors compared to human’s six million, and the part of their brains dedicated to scent is proportionally forty times greater than human’s1.. Anyone who has been blessed with a dog will have observed the power of the nose to glean information. To his credit, Flush’s puppeteer brought the dog ‘to life’ as a confidant, observer, protector,  and bon vivant. The play was narrated in Woolf’s ‘voice’ by four actors who also assumed other roles: Julie Lumsden (Elizabeth Barrett Browning),  Drew Plummer (puppeteer), Jonathan Tan (Robert Browning, Barrett’s father) and Jacqueline Thair (the Barrett’s maid). The set within a set created a pantomime-like cloistered experience for the Wimpole Street period. The actors’ faces were hidden from view, and their interactions with Flush were silent. The result was that Flush was front and centre. By contrast, the set for the period in Florence was open and expansive, a metaphor perhaps for the social and intellectual differences between the two countries. Freedom was the operative word for both Flush and his mistress.

Covid-19 has played havoc with theatre for over a year and a half. For our part, my husband and I felt comfortable with the precautions taken by staff. We were well distanced from other attendees, and we all wore masks except when we took sips of wine. My only regret is that the constraints on numbers mean that fewer people will be able to see the festival’s excellent productions this summer and fall.

  1. Dogs’ Dazzling Sense of Smell | NOVA | PBS

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of the novel, Autumn’s Grace, a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices.

©2021, Bonnie L. Lendrum.