Monthly Archives: September 2012

Book Review: Jan Wong’s Out of the Blue

Jan Wong is one of Canada’s most famous journalists and one of my favourite writers of all time. She’s written for The Globe and Mail for something like 20 years. Her books include Red China Blues, Lunch with Jan Wong, Beijing Confidential, and there’s another one but I can’t name it without going to the Internet. Looking in my bookcase isn’t helping because the thing about really great books is that I lend them out and then I never get them back. I keep forgetting to write down Who has What so I can track them down. Ah, Jan Wong’s China.

Anyway – in 2006 there was a shooting at Dawson College in Montreal; Wong was sent to cover the story. In her article she mentioned that the shootings in Quebec were by immigrants and she wondered if there was disenfranchisement occurring in a province where “pure laine” is a valued quality, referring to one’s French-Canadian heritage.

“What many outsiders don’t realize is how alienating the decades-long linguistic struggle has been in the once-cosmopolitan city. It hasn’t just taken a toll on long-time anglophones; it’s affected immigrants, too.

To be sure, the shootings in all three cases were carried out by mentally disturbed individuals. But what is also true is that in all three cases, the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for a “pure” francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial “purity” is repugnant. Not in Quebec.”

(Sounds like a recipe for racism to me, especially when you know how one-note they are about the French thing.)

The backlash was tremendous, a tsunami wave of hatred, racism, sexism, and just about any kind of ignorant mud you can sling at someone. And for some reason The Globe and Mail failed to support her. They even kept publishing abusive letters to the editor that attacked Wong personally. The onslaught of abuse and the lack of support caused Wong to fall into a depression, which is bad enough, but then she had to fight her employer’s denial of her condition. It’s a chilling story. She had to publish it herself as her publisher got frightened by the controversy (and also didn’t want to lose The Globe’s sponsorship of a book fair) and withdrew the contract. She also had to fight gag orders in order to publish at all and tell her story.

Her writing is amazing, and this story is personal, moving, and also a great piece of journalism. Mental health issues are huge and too few employers recognize mental illness as equal to physical illness. Loved it. I’m not even going to go into it further because it really was disturbing and I wanted to march in protest of this injustice. It just made me hopping mad. But I was also tremendously inspired and not a little intimidated by Wong’s spirited determination, even when in the throes of depression. Jan Wong is an incredibly brave, tenacious and principled person and we’re lucky to have her. Keep writing, Jan! You are my hero. And I love that her book is on The Globe and Mail’s bestseller list.  Click here for Jan’s bio.


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Book Reviews: Song of Achilles and The Flight of Gemma Hardy

(I keep meaning to get to my fashion post but haven’t cobbled it together yet. Why writing about shopping should be harder than writing book reviews I don’t know.)

I adore historical fiction, and I’ve just read these two amazing novels that are revamped classic stories. So there’s a theme here today.

Ancient historical fiction stands in a class of its own because there is a lot of scope for creativity. If you’re going to write about the Tudor era you’re dealing with a period that is quite well documented, whereas in a story set in ancient Greece you can go nuts because there are so many blanks to be filled in. We just don’t know that much about the ancient world. I read an amazing book about the Minoans recently and there is a theory that they were wiped out by a tsunami – and conclusions about this were partially drawn from evidence from the 2004 tsunami.  (The Lost Empire of Atlantis by Gavin Menzies, if you’re interested.) So we’re still learning about the ancients.

There are so many thrilling stories by ancient Greek writers like Homer, Aesop, Hesiod (we’re not even absolutely positive it was them, but we think so). But their renditions (I’m talking about the English translations and I know some are better than others) don’t have the depth of characterization and richness of description that modern writers employ when telling the same tales. On the one hand, everyone knows the story so the plot is pretty much laid out already and the reader can anticipate the story. But I always found something lacking in the original tales. I know this is totally subjective, but it seems to me that you have to extrapolate a lot from very little when you’re reading old Homer. On the bright side, you have to use your imagination, and then when these stories are retold there’s a lot of leeway for the writers to get creative.

 The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is one of the best retellings of the Iliad that I have read, and I’ve read every one that I can get my hands on. It’s from the point of view of Patroclus, and is essentially a characterization of Achilles, and a story of the love between Patroclus and Achilles. It’s one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read, and – this isn’t a spoiler because everyone knows already – the grief expressed by Achilles at Patroclus’ death was absolutely real and heart-wrenching. (I got very weepy.) There is also exposition into the reasons for some of the baffling things Achilles did during the Trojan War, from the perspective of his closest friend and lover; very illuminating. I enjoyed Miller’s characterizations of the other characters in the Iliad as well; the scene where Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphegenia in order to coax good sailing winds out of a recalcitrant god is shocking and moving. Overall, as a retelling of the Iliad it’s so convincing that it’s become my new “reality” of Homer’s story. (Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon has become my “reality” of the Arthurian legend. It just makes sense!) It’s beautifully written and wonderful fun to read.

I’m slightly concerned that my kids’ idea of mythology will be ineluctably tainted by their early exposure to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and Jason series. The books are great fun, and Justin’s enjoying them too, but Riordan really takes the original myths by the scruff of the neck and gives them a good shake. Result? Unrecognizable. I liked the myths as they were and would love a Madeline Miller rendition of them, where the plot line is followed but the story is enriched by description and insightful characterization that enhance but do not contradict the original.

I need to rush out and get more Margot Livesey, because I enjoyed The Flight of Gemma Hardy so much. It’s another retelling – the Jane Eyre story, set in the 1950s and 60s in northern Scotland. Yes, you can improve on the original, may the ghost of the Brontës not strike me dead. I actually preferred this to Jane Eyre, yes I did! The original is wonderful but I just love the details, the inner monologues, the characterizations – in Livesey’s hands this story really comes to crackling life. I know Jane Eyre is plenty lively but I have a taste for this kind of writing and I preferred Livesey’s take. I know, I feel rather apostate writing that but it’s just my opinion and Jane is immortal anyway, she doesn’t need my approval. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea was also an interesting take on the Jane Eyre story – from the point of view of Rochester’s first wife. That was pretty lively too.

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I Survived the Aritzia Warehouse Sale 2012

I’m spending the weekend working. It’s totally numbing my brain. I took a break and read some blogs and this post blew my mind. So smart, so thought-provoking but I couldn’t summon up anything intelligent to add as a comment. I was all, “Yeah!” but that was about the extent of it. I wanted to finish my work so I could write up some book reviews but I’m not sure I can manage it. Maybe I can manage a quick note about the Aritzia Warehouse Sale (Aritzia is a local fashion house that is extremely popular here, they have outposts across Canada and one in New York):

Bad pic taken with my iPhone but you get the idea: this is lineup 4  of 4, you can almost see the promised land from here

I went with a friend so it was fun, but there were four lineups to get through and we estimated that they covered about 1 km length total. We just chatted happily in line as we had no expectations. Well, I thought I had no expectations but it turns out I did:

  1. That when people shove by you they would say, “Excuse me.”
  2. That when people knock things off hangers onto the floor they would pick them up.

I was wrong on both counts, silly me, and by the time we had to go I was relieved because I was worried I was going to snap if I saw one more person behave rudely. We commiserated with the staff who were trying to reload racks from all the stuff dumped on the floor. Stuff on the floor would be collected and put into big boxes which were then pushed to the side of the room so that they could be rehung onto racks that could then go back onto the floor. But people were removing clothing from the refilling racks, examining them, then dumping them back onto the ground or into the box, so the half-filled racks would soon be empty again and then the staff would have to reload them for the third time or whatever. If you rehang the same shirt three times within 3 minutes you could get a little tightlipped but these girls were great, just resigned and good-natured about it all. Mind you, it was just midday on the first day of the sale. I shudder thinking of the girls working the last day. Apparently people were lining up at 2am the night before.

I was just amazed by the behaviour. Monkeys at a buffet show more restraint. There were girls with heaps of clothing trying things on round the edges of the room. I would have taken pics because it looked just like a refugee camp but they were literally in their underwear so I didn’t. The changing rooms were communal and there were actual mountains of clothing in them that people were picking through like beggars on the trash heaps of Manila. I heard that if you were not careful with your own clothing in there it could be picked up and taken, especially if it came from Aritzia in the first place.

It reminded me of the time I was in a shoe store and had to take off my big winter socks in order to try on some sandals. I was walking round and looked back to see another customer putting on my socks to try on some boots! It was awful on so many levels. The salesgirl saw too and she and I exchanged looks and giggles. I had to wait until the customer finished trying on about 3 pairs of boots before I could reclaim my socks although by that point I didn’t even want them back.

Fashion warehouse sale = bunfight. And this was a quiet area. I don’t know why they had sizes posted, as though jeans in that size would be found beneath the corresponding sign. I found a pair of size 26 jeans under the “31” sign.

Anyway, I got a few tops, some exercise shorts and a pair of jeans for about 1/3 of the regular price just to justify the trip downtown. My friend found a nice wool winter coat but it was missing its belt. We carried that coat around for 30 minutes trying to find the belt (looking on the floor, mostly) and eventually found it in Accessories (cardboard boxes full of stuff) near the exit. So finally she got to try the coat on but it didn’t look right. I was exhausted and unable to specify why it wasn’t right, I could only make that tooth-sucking noise that the Japanese make when they want to yell, “No!” but can’t because Japanese don’t say No. We were saved by another woman who said, bluntly but kindly, “It doesn’t fit. It’s too big and the length is wrong for you,” and I was like, “Yes! That’s it!” and we all had a big laugh and left the coat neatly but wrongly in Accessories because we just had to escape.

We left the employees cheerfully toiling away and the incoming lineup patiently waiting for the perceived retail heaven inside, god love them, and walked outside in the sunshine, with mussed hair and the expressions of those who have escaped unscathed from some epic disaster.

OK, back to work. I usually like to have movies playing in the background while I work at home because I like to hear the dialogue. “Warrior” just finished and I have no idea what happened, chiefly because it’s about brothers fighting each other in UFC. I think. Also there’s no dialogue to speak of. Fight movies make me ill.  Justin recommended it, but now I think it’s because I made him watch Downton Abbey.


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