We need to talk about Charlie

I just have to say a few words about my dog Charlie, the incredible therapy dog.

As I’ve written before, Charlie and I are volunteers with St. John Ambulance. We’ve been visiting at a local retirement home for the last two years and a special needs class in a senior public school for the past year. Charlie is always excited to pay a visit; he loves the attention, he makes everyone laugh, he gets belly rubs, and his tail never stops wagging. Pure doggie bliss.

We also participate in a popular reading program with the Mississauga Library System, called “Paws4Stories.” Here’s how it works. Kids who are having a hard time with reading aloud, for whatever reason, can sign up for the program at their library. They come to the Children’s Department and read aloud to a dog, who sits or lies beside them or near them or in their lap, while they read a story of their choosing (usually dog-related of course!) It is a completely supportive, non-interfering, non-judgemental environment for the child, and heaven for the dog. 

The first time we did this was very exciting. We went to the Erin Meadows Library which is in a busy community centre. We had to walk through hordes of people waiting to get into the pool, or on their way to other activities in the building. By the time we got to the library, Charlie was already very stimulated, and then the library itself… (Have you been to a local library lately, and in particular a Children’s Department? It’s bright and open, filled with active kids, and it is very noisy!) We were shown to a beautiful little area filled with colourful toys and bean bag chairs, with many, many windows. (Nice and low of course, just right for short people and dogs). Charlie enjoyed himself exploring, but then we had to sit down and try to ignore the world around us while a sweet little girl read us a Scooby-Doo book. He didn’t do too badly, but I did have to help him “refocus” several times!

By November, our third time around, Charlie was an old hand. He was very happy to be there, but seemed relatively calm. A lovely young girl came and sat with us and she and Charlie clicked immediately. He snuggled up beside her and didn’t stir once while she read. She gently stroked his side and belly with her left hand while she held the book with her right. The two of them were off in their own world and I simply sat and listened, entranced by her voice and the sight of her and Charlie so connected. She must have read for almost half an hour but the time flew by and Charlie didn’t move until it was time to stop. Wonderful.

I enjoy all the visiting with Charlie and believe that he does a lot of good, with his goofiness, his friendliness, his curiosity, and his indiscriminate affection. I love visiting the older people at the retirement home and the young students with special needs, and Charlie seems to enjoy it too. If he can make a difference in someone’s life by interacting with them, I’m glad to be part of that. And if he can help an early reader start to realize all the joy of reading that is waiting, then I am ecstatic.

If you have a dog and have considered volunteering, think about the Therapy Dogs Program. What better way to volunteer than with your own lovable dog? It simply can’t be beat. 

Oh, and one last thing. Charlie was just awarded a certificate for completing over 75 visits. Pretty good work for someone who’s only four years old!

Milosz, FictionKNITsta update

Over the weekend I made a few decisions about the FictionKNITsta project. 
After having read the book and thinking about it for a few weeks, I decided a scarf would be the most appropriate thing to knit. Several times in the book, Milosz is found lying down with a scarf on his face; the scarf was left behind by his ex-girlfriend and he lies there with it on his face, as though he is trying to breathe her in. He lifts it up and lets it float back down onto him again, and it is such an evocative image. He misses her terribly but has no clue what to do to bring her back into his life.
So, the item will be a scarf. But what about the colour, the style, the yarn? I chose green because of the many references to growth, plants and gardening, and picked a plant-based yarn for the same reason. Cordelia loves scarves and she is very tall so this will be a super-long scarf to wind around her neck several times or wear very, very long. Since it is a plant fibre, it is very soft and will drape beautifully.
I chose this http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/thayer for the pattern. It is very lacy and open and light, perfect for the Spring tour. It looks complicated but is actually a four-row repeat so should actually be relatively simple to reproduce.(In theory! We'll see—as I've never knitted lace before, this could be interesting!) But I wanted something with a regular pattern because of Robertson, Milo's neighbour who is autistic and needs to see order and patterns in his life.
So, I have the pattern and the yarn. What next? Now to do some swatches with this yarn that I wound last night. It is VERY soft, so I think it will be a challenge to knit with. So, swatch with the good yarn, test the pattern with some scrap yarn, and start the scarf! Wish me luck and I'll keep you posted!


By Cordelia Strube
I am totally thrilled to have been chosen for the FictionKNITsta tour! When I saw the first tweet by Coteau books announcing the Cross-Canada author tour and putting out a call for knitters, I wondered if I would qualify and thought it was worth a shot, as I’ve been knitting for ages and read whenever I can. Also, a bunch of us twitter gals who love knitting and Canadian literature had already discovered the joys of combining these two passions and had recently formed a knitting book club (appropriately called #canlitknit) where we meet at a pub, drink beer, chat books and knit. What a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon! Three of us were chosen to participate and now we are all busily reading and contemplating amazing garments or accessories, inspired by our books.
When I was assigned Cordelia Strube’s book I couldn’t have been happier, as I loved Lemon when I read it last year and was sure I would love Milosz as well. I was right! Although the books are completely different in terms of protagonist and story line, they are both humourous, despite some of the serious themes, and are peopled with interesting, appealing characters. In the current book, many of them actually live in Milosz’s house! There is Wallace, a junk remover, with his very British mother, Vera, and Pablo, who, without ever having spoken Polish before in his life, learns how to communicate with Milosz’s father Gus, who can speak nothing but Polish; and of course, there is Robertson, the boy next door, who is autistic, and who tugs at Milosz’s heart and protective instincts. I enjoyed getting to know Milosz and his eccentric friends and acquaintances, while contemplating the more serious aspects of the book as well.
I will write a review later, but right now I must figure out something to knit for the author to wear on tour, inspired by something in the book, whether a theme, an item of clothing or even the colours of the cover. This will be a fun challenge and I only have a few weeks to come up with a fantastic idea, so I’m off to do some serious creative thinking!

Mr. Roger and Me

By Marie-Renée Lavoie

From the first sentence of Marie-Renée Lavoie’s debut novel, Mister Roger and Me, we are drawn into the lively world of the feisty eight-year-old Hélène, otherwise known as Joe. Growing up in the 80s with her parents and three sisters, Joe finds life somewhat humdrum, compared with that of her heroine, a TV cartoon character named Lady Oscar. Oscar, disguising herself as a man, is captain of the palace guards in the court of Marie Antoinette, leading a life of dangerous deeds and heroism. Hélène admires Oscar’s strength and bravery and, wanting to be more like her, searches for adventure, hardship and sacrifice in her own life.
In her first attempt at this, she takes on a paper route, pretending to be ten to get the job. Rising very early all alone, carrying the heavy load of papers and delivering them on time in the early morning hours, she has pride in the knowledge that she is doing something hard and having to sacrifice a few hours of sleep in order to do the job properly. This gives her great satisfaction (as well as cash) and helps prepare her for later exploits.
Although her surroundings seem commonplace to her, Joe’s neighbourhood has some very interesting characters wandering around in it, including several psychiatric patients, and a few neighbours who entertain the others on hot summer evenings with their loud carrying-on on the balcony. It’s as good as a movie! Into this mix, Mr. Roger arrives, adding his own brand of local colour with his salty language dispensed from his armchair on the front lawn, where he smokes cigarettes and drinks beer. Ready for the end of life as Joe is beginning hers, the two have some prickly encounters, each side trading insults with equal ability and enthusiasm. They settle into a relationship of tolerance on one side and protectiveness on the other, eventually forming a deep and solid bond, with which both are content.
This book was a delight to read. First encounters between Joe and Mr. Roger are hilarious, and the advice that Hélène’s mother bestows on those not as adept as she at handling their children had me laughing out loud. There are also some genuinely touching moments, particularly between Hélène and her sad father, and of course when Mr. Roger nears the end. But Lavoie depicts these scenes as adeptly as the humorous ones; we feel sympathy and compassion, but it is never overdone or sentimental.
But the main attraction of the book is Hélène/Joe herself. I loved her spunk and determination, her tenderness towards her two younger sisters, and her willingness to help, sometimes anonymously. As the book progresses we see a young girl growing up who never loses her early goals, or her spirit and sense of humour. She is just as appealing as a young woman named Hélène as she was as the girl called Joe.
Lavoie’s wonderful book was translated by Wayne Grady and he does it beautifully. While it never feels like a translation, there is enough French here and there to evoke a colourful and inviting French-Canadian community.
Thanks to House of Anansi for supplying me with the Advance Reading Copy.

The Essential Tom Marshall

The Essential Tom Marshall

This is the ninth in the Essential Poets series published by The Porcupine’s Quill celebrating Canadian poets. David Helwig and Michael Ondaatje—friends of Marshall’s and fellow poets—edited the book and selected the material, giving us a sample of Marshall’s work from a career spanning three decades. Their purpose, as stated in the foreword: “to bring Tom back as a living voice.”

And what a beautiful format with which they have done that. This is a lovely little book. The cover art¹ is a plant motif, in rich tones of green, gold and burgundy, fitting for the fall launch at the end of September. It is luscious and organic, reflecting many of the themes and imagery to be discovered inside. The poems are printed on heavy cream paper with a slight texture; it is a book that you enjoy holding while you savour the poems it contains.

As a newcomer to Marshall’s poetry, I was immediately drawn to his vibrant images from nature which are found throughout his poetry. He seems particularly drawn to leaves and trees, gardens, sunlight, movement of some kind, particularly the wind. Some poems seem to be simply a list of various images, creating a mood or a whole picture, as in The Return, where he expresses his delight at being back in Canada:

            … Trees, clouds, blades
            of grass…
            … Waves lift

            and ripen in the crackling
            air. The brown
            pools untouched by wind

            in the hollows of large
            protruding roots shine
            secretly in the park.

Calm happiness is quite obvious.

The opposite is true in The Mother where imagery from nature help to express deeply felt conflicting emotions:

            Her soft lies are misted forsythia
            she cannot see through.

            But then, alone, she cries
            feeling the full wind
            sharply in her bones.

            The fall sumacs flame at her.
            There is no pity

That final vivid picture leaves no doubt about the true feelings of the narrator.

I was also intrigued by the wordplay in some of Marshall’s poems. In Words in Exile, and Field Syllabics, he selects certain phrases from the first part of the poem, and re-uses them, placing them in different contexts in the final stanza. Juxtaposing these lines creates a concluding paragraph, a rounding-up of the earlier ideas, but with a new way of looking at them and thinking about them.

In the final poem (       ) he not only plays with words but with punctuation as well, using the (  ) to express his thoughts about the difficulty of capturing and “fixing” an idea accurately:

I suppose I could …

… make you
immortal (in a manner of speaking)

fix you in some line formulation
(e.g., eyes: rain; hair: misted forsythia)

except, except you wriggle better in reality
than in that artifice

I enjoyed reading these poems very much and am grateful to The Porcupine’s Quill for sending me this lovely volume introducing me to this poet. I look forward to rereading his poems many more times and discovering new elements to appreciate and savour.

¹ The cover art is after a stipple engraving by Pierre-Joseph Redouté that first appeared in Les liliacées, Paris 1805, according to the back cover information.

Call for help from #todayspoem

As a volunteer with Saint John Ambulance, I visit a retirement home with my dog Charlie, where we cause a bit of excitement and much entertainment for the lucky people in the lounge area. I also see people in their rooms and in those cases I usually have a longer visit and a chance to get to know these elderly men and women a bit better, as the focus gradually moves from petting Charlie to a cosy visit and chat. I have gotten to know many lovely people and some of them are very lonely despite family and friends. There are many reasons for this, but one that I have observed is that of being unable to read anymore, whether because of failing eyesight, increasing dementia, or simply being too weak. Losing the ability to read leaves them with so much time with nothing to do, leading to a combination of ever-increasing boredom and depression. Yes, they could listen to audiobooks, if they could remember how to run the machine, or have a long enough attention span to listen and comprehend, or remembered that they had an audiobook to listen to... I don't usually see family members so I have no idea what they are doing for their loved ones; I just see what I see when I visit with Charlie.

I do have one small idea that I am working on and would like some help with. I'd like to compile some poems that would be suitable to read to them, either by me or a friend or relative. They would have to be on the short side and they would have to be relatively easy to understand. Rhyming would be helpful but not mandatory, but given the age group, that is what they would be used to for the most part. Something longer might work for some, especially if it tells a story (ie. Casey at the Bat, The Shooting of Dan McGrew…). Oh, and preferably upbeat!

So, what do you think? Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Send me names of poets or titles of poems that you think might work and leave your ideas in the comments. I’m sure the #todayspoem gang could come up with some wonderfully entertaining poems that would add a little pleasure to the lives of these wonderful people. 

Cancer Songs

On my way to an appointment one day this spring, I caught part of an interview with the poet Richard Sommer on CBC Radio. He read from his latest book, Cancer Songs, and I was captivated by his poetry and his frankness in discussing his struggle with prostate cancer. After the interview I was devastated to learn that Sommer had died in February. Since I’d missed the first part of the program, I hadn’t realized that the interview I’d just heard had taken place in December when David Gutnick visited Sommer at home. As I was absorbing this information, and pulling into the parking lot, Sommer’s wife, artist Vicki Tansey, read a final poem of Sommer’s, entitled “Postcript.” Fortunately, I had arrived for my appointment early, as it was some time before I was able to pull myself out of the car and make my way to the appointment.

I was very moved by the program and ordered a copy of Sommer’s book immediately. It is a beautiful book, a journal written in the form of poems, relating his life as he faced the diagnosis of prostate cancer and the treatments he had to undergo for it. He demonstrates his attitude towards his circumstance in his Foreword: Difficult Celebrations:

In the course of my illness, courage to persist & see life out seemed to come to me out of the air, out of sunlight & rain, the affections & generosity of people & animals around me. If these poems can help anyone with cancer draw on this kind of courage, they will have been worth writing.

Written over a number of years, his first poem, “Dreaming,” seems to question how he’s been living his life up to this point. He asks "Where have I been, / what have I been thinking / while all this has been going on?"

What is important to him and how he will live from now on is illustrated a few months later in Real Life:
this vivid new ecstasy of danger
announces the beginning of my end,
& in the deeps of each moment now
real life begins.

Chickadees & finches at the feeder
fluttering & nudging & poking after seed,
so lovely, my teachers!

He talks of birds and animals, of beauty, and the wonder of small everyday pleasures, like the taste of a perfect raspberry. He shares his joy and pain and his empathy for others going through similar pain. He writes of the comfort his dog gives him. As most of us know someone, whether friend, family, or colleague, who has had cancer, sometimes surviving, sometimes not, these poems will call to many. They are written in a very straightforward, matter-of-fact style, as if he is saying, here, let me tell you what is happening to me right now, and how I am reacting to it. There is not too much hidden meaning, as he lays everything out for us to see.

Anticipating the start of his radiotherapy treatment for example, he reveals his fear of what is in store for him, while still capturing his appreciation of everyday beauty:

Just now, the white cat Luna
crossed a lawn …

Watching her saunter across
new grass & old leaves,
I watch a billion years

of still evolving grace.
My eyes take her in.
I won’t see her again

for five days anyway,
time for me to hunger after grace,
all kinds of grace.

These poems reveal a remarkable spirit, a man who, only two months before his death, could talk with such candour and openness that you wish you could have known him. How fortunate that we have his poems to help us come to know him a little.

He ends the book with Awe:

Thunderstorm last night,
even now the sky's bruised blue
& all beneath it
waiting for the next one-two,

white flash fading to violet,
bright roar of all that's true.

This is a book of poems filled with joy and pain, fear and wonder, that will surely move you as you travel with Sommer on his journey.

Cancer Songs, Richard Sommer, c2011, Signature Editions

Please listen to the interview and reading with Richard Sommer and then to the wonderful interview and reading by his wife. It is worth listening to the end of her interview to hear her read “Postcript.”

Reading has gone to the dogs!

I just want to say a few words about my dog, Charlie. He is a three-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and just over a year ago I had him evaluated to be a therapy dog with Saint John Ambulance. Ever since then we have been visiting regularly at a local retirement home.
Of course Charlie was already a therapy dog long before his official assessment. When we walk down the street, people always smile, and whenever someone comes to visit, the women always want to take him home in their bag! Now when we visit at the retirement home, the instant we walk through the doors, people whistle or call out to him from the lounge, and he starts whining and pulling to get over and see his regulars as quickly as possible. He loves to jump into their laps (only with permission of course!) and kiss them and give them a good scrub. You never know, someone might have missed a spot when they washed their hands after lunch. Then he has to check out the rug and under the chairs for the miniscule crumbs that might be hiding, and try to climb onto the huge round coffee-table in case there’s a bite there that someone forgot. Everyone smiles and laughs when Charlie comes to visit, and the energy level in the room rises as he provides his own unique style of therapy.
Visiting at the retirement home has been incredibly rewarding. Charlie does so much good and brings so much joy that some days it is almost indescribable.The cuddling, the touching, the affection that is given and received with no strings attached—it is wonderful to see. There are a few people who seem to benefit from Charlie’s visits even more than others do, so I try my best to see them each week if I can. One woman has no family and never had a dog but has made such a connection with Charlie that if we don’t see her, he looks at me as if to ask, Where is she? Another woman misses her dog dreadfully and when Charlie settles down in her lap and she strokes him, she almost goes into a reverie as she talks and croons to him. She is so very grateful for this short, sweet visit. With some people we talk about books, or knitting, or they tell me about their family or the dogs they once loved and still miss. Sometimes Charlie is a catalyst and sometimes he is the whole focus. Whether he is in a playful mood or wanting a quiet cuddle, giving kisses or getting into mischief, Charlie raises the spirits of the people we meet, simply by being himself. He loves everyone and his tail does not stop wagging for a second. His obvious happiness and contentment touches everyone in his orbit.
We love visiting at the retirement home and will continue there, but there is another part to the therapy dogs program that I’ve wanted to try and that is working with children. St. John Ambulance volunteers help children with special needs and they also participate in a reading program. Children with reading difficulties choose a story to read aloud to the dog. The supportive, nonjudgmental environment helps to boost their confidence; after all, the dog isn’t going to ask them to repeat something or correct their pronunciation! As an avid reader, freelance editor and former librarian, books and reading have always been important to me and the idea of helping a child discover the joy in reading, with Charlie’s assistance, is very appealing.
So, once Charlie had proven that he was quite accomplished at comforting and entertaining the elderly, we signed up to have him evaluated to work with children. Since there are no little ones running around my house, I often taken Charlie to the park where children are playing, running, throwing things and generally making noise. I let them pet him and pull his hair and tail (gently of course) but right from the start I wanted him to get used to children, with their high voices and sudden movements. Charlie usually lies down or stands with his tail wagging, or tries to kiss them, so I was pretty sure he’d be a prime candidate for working with little ones.
Charlie and I were first on the list for the assessment and as we waited to see what was going to happen, Charlie watched the children, and eyed all the toys on the floor, tail wagging in anticipation of something fun in store. We were put through our paces with various activities to test his tolerance for noise and active play, listening to me, not hogging the toys, and greeting each child in a friendly manner.
Then came the final test, the one I was dying to do. Charlie and I sat down on a mat and a tiny little eight-year-old girl joined us and read Charlie a story. We listened to her sweet, high voice tell a tale about dogs (of course), of all colours and stripes, who were trying on hats. They constantly asked each other’s opinion and were very honest if something didn’t suit! We were entranced. Unfortunately, she had to stop before she could finish the book, so we never got to hear the ending!
No surprise, Charlie passed everything with flying colours and we have a couple of new assignments. We will continue at the retirement home, but we will also start visiting regularly at a middle school to help a class of children with special needs, and occasionally participate in the reading program at the local library. I can’t wait to see how Charlie and the children interact, and of course I’m looking forward to hearing some more fantastic stories, picked out specially for Charlie.
If you have any inclination towards volunteering, I encourage you to consider the SJA therapy dogs program. Seeing what joy your dog can bring into other people’s lives, with so little effort, is a very great reward.

Canada Reads 2012; Final Answer

Canada Reads took quite a beating last week as it was hit by some of the harshest criticism ever in its 11-year lifespan. First of all, there was much controversy over the ill-judged comments of one of the panellists. People were unhappy, and expressed their outrage in print and electronically. Never have there been so many articles, blogs and tweets written about Canada Reads.

But there were other types of criticism as well. Some thought the scope of the program was too broad, others too narrow; there should be more thought put into the choice of panellists; there should be an author or two on the panel, the way there used to be; it’s a ridiculous, condescending idea—how can there be one book that every Canadian “should” read?

Any change is bound to provoke reaction and criticism and Canada Reads has certainly evolved over the years, with changes in format, makeup of the panel, type of books discussed, and viewer participation. For the first time since its inception, this year, nonfiction books were chosen instead of fiction, and it was quite a diverse selection. Here’s a very brief synopsis of the books, in the order they were voted out:

The Prisoner of Tehran, by Marina Nemat. This is a memoir of a young girl in Iran during the time of Khomeini, who, at the age of 16, speaks out against the government and is imprisoned and tortured in the infamous Evin Prison.

The Tiger, by John Vaillant. Vaillant takes us on a hunt for a man-eating tiger in Eastern Russia; suspenseful, informative, thought-provoking, with an important message about the fragile balance of nature and our effects on it.

On a Cold Road, by Dave Bidini. We travel with Bidini on a colourful cross-country tour and see Canada from the unique perspective of a young rock band, The Rheostatics, with anecdotal snapshots from other Canadian rock musicians.

The Game, by Ken Dryden. Dryden was goalie for the Montreal Canadiens for eight years and won six Stanley Cups! This is a thoughtful account of his last season with them in 1979.

Something Fierce, by Carmen Aguirre. This is a brave, passionate story, told from the point of view of a young woman in South America in the 80s, involved in the resistance movement to oust Pinochet from Chile.

Widening the scope to include nonfiction broadened the range of discussion dramatically, because for the first time (I think), much of the debate dealt with what constitutes a truly Canadian book. Is it important for the book to be set in Canada for it to resonate with the Canadian public, or is it enough that it be written by a Canadian and is a well-written story with an important message? The final vote, between The Game and Something Fierce, underlined that debate, with two such different stories and perspectives. In the end, Something Fierce came out on top, Mme. Goldwater having been persuaded, over the course of the debates, that this was an important book to read, regardless of one’s own political perspective. I found that singular accomplishment extremely heartening, and hope that the debates had similar effects on listeners, giving them reasons to try something they might not have considered before the program.

The panellists were probably as diverse as the celebrity parameter will allow. It is not a literary panel and does not claim to be so. This is a group of Canadian personalities who like to read and are willing to defend a book that they believe in, on air and in front of a studio audience. This year’s panel included a singer, an actor, a model, a lawyer, and a businessperson. While none of them write literary nonfiction, four of the five panellists do write: one has written a book; one writes song lyrics; one writes comedy; one writes legal arguments. All five are used to being in the public eye and “perform” in one way or another; at least two have to be quick on their feet to assess a situation, respond to it, and persuade others to their point of view. All love to read and had obviously read and thought about the books, and some had done outside reading to back up their position or refute the others. They all understand the power and importance of words, and took the role of defending their book quite seriously.

As Canada Reads evolves, each year brings something new, with aspirations of broadening its scope and increasing its audience. But changes that some find interesting will be problematic for others. Nevertheless, along with all the controversy and complaints this year, there was also very high praise. Some claimed that it was the best Canada Reads ever; many had ambitions of reading at least some, if not all, of the books from this year’s debates, not just the winner. A clear victory for Canada Reads.

Overall, Canada Reads 2012 was a definite success. Whether laudatory or disparaging, there have been many conversations about Canadian nonfiction. Great! Let’s count on many, many more such discussions. I am confident that Canada Reads will continue to try new things, to grow and improve, to be controversial, to garner both praise and criticism, and to keep people talking about Canadian books.

We’re half-way through Canada Reads 2012 and how do things stand?

After two days of intense (fiery?) discussion, a few things are apparent. Three of the panellists are thoughtful and articulate and have done their homework (and one of them is very funny--I’m looking at you Alan Thicke!) But the other two should probably not be there. One is ill-prepared or too nervous to answer the questions properly and the second prefers inflammatory statements over intelligent discussion. Much has been written about the controversy surrounding day one, so I won’t repeat what everyone else is saying. Suffice to say that I’m disappointed, both at the disrespectful comments and the fact that my favourite book got voted off first!

Given the combination of solid story and defender, I was convinced my book would get to the final round, and I was shocked when it was knocked out on the first day. Of course, I’m talking about Prisoner of Tehran, by Marina Nemat, defended passionately and articulately by Arlene Dickinson.

Marina Nemat was imprisoned for two years during the time of Khomeini. In 1982, when she was 16, she was arrested for speaking out against government propaganda in school, taken to Evin prison, tortured, and sentenced to death. She was saved at the last minute by Ali, one of her interrogators, who had her sentence reduced to life in prison. In return, in the face of threats to her family, Marina was forced to convert to Islam and marry Ali. Her story is horrifying and heartbreaking, and although she eventually rejoined her family, married the man she loved and found a new life in Canada, she was haunted by the memories of that time, and of all the people she knew who had died unnecessarily. After more than 20 years, Nemat had to tell her story, to let others know something about what was happening in Iran during that time, and still continues today. Told in a straightforward, almost matter-of-fact manner, it’s a book that we should all read, and serves as a reminder that the human rights we take for granted here are not universal and we need to pay attention.

That left four books still in contention on Day 2, with four defenders and a wild card. Which book would be the next to go? The Tuesday debate was more engaging and collegial than Monday’s, more focussed on the quality of the writing, not just the content or the characters. The Tiger got several votes for excellent writing, and both The Game and Something Fierce earned points for engaging their audience. Not as much was said about On a Cold Road, although most people enjoyed it. But after the vote, The Tiger had to wave goodbye.

The Tiger is the story of a hunt for a man-eating tiger in Eastern Russia in the late 1990s. But in order to understand this story, we need to know some of the history of Eastern Russia and the Amur Tiger, as well as current conditions in that region. The history is fascinating, but it’s shocking to learn about the extreme poverty that still exists there and the very primitive way of life that many people still endure. Some of the scenes could have been from a century ago. But the amount of information was sometimes distracting from the flow of the narrative and although it was important, there were times when I just wanted him to get on with the story itself. But I raced through the last part when I got hooked again. It was quite suspenseful and I had a lot of sympathy for all the players, both man and beast. I enjoyed the book overall, and felt that Vaillant had an important message for us about the fragile balance of nature and our effect on it.

So, what can we expect tomorrow on Day 3?

Fun? Altercations? Thoughtful debate about the merits of the books in a calm, collegial, light-hearted atmosphere?

Three books remain: a hockey memoir written by one of the best goalies to play for the NHL; the story of a young girl coming of age and becoming a resistance fighter in Chile during the time of Pinochet; and a tour across Canada with a rock band. One of them will get the thumbs down. Let’s hope it is given and accepted in a spirit of goodwill and respect.

Playing with poems in January

Reading adventures for 2012 have started off with a bang. In late December a few twitter friends had a wonderful idea that seems to have started a whole new movement. I will let @bookgaga give you the scoop on that: http://bookgaga.posterous.com/todayspoem-the-solace-and-delight-of-contempl but the basic idea is to start your day by reading a poem, and then sharing that poem on Twitter using the hashtag #todayspoem. Quote a line or two, or simply tell us the title and author, or give us a link to the poem or a reading… Whatever you want as long as you use the hashtag. Simple.

The repercussions from this idea have been amazing and so much fun. On a personal level, I’ve read more poems over the last month than I have over the last few years! I have revisited old favourites, like T.S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, Wordsworth, Housman and Robert Frost; I have read Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, Pablo Neruda, Rilke, Robert Burns, Dionne Brand, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Charles Swinburne, Shakespeare … I’ve read poems about dogs, cooking, the wind, anger, money, the rain, digging potatoes, marriage, writing, snow, language, a sow, a scarf, dying, loving, knitting, dancing, crying …

I’ve heard Alan Rickman recite Shakespeare. I watched a video made by a young family playing in the snow while reciting “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens. I’ve listened to rap, watched performance art, seen people on the street recite poetry. I learned about ekphrastic poetry, which is written in reaction to another form of art, such as a painting, sculpture, dance… (Check out the AGO website for some intriguing modern examples of this, or read “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats.)

Todayspoem has brought together people from all over the world, all with a love of poetry, and thankfully, many different tastes. Every day provides a fascinating variety of discoveries mixed with some oldies. I don’t like every single poem and some I don’t understand, but I usually save them to look at again later, because often what appeals to you or connects with you depends on your mood. Some days unearth absolute gems. Imagine a day devoted to cooking for friends and coming across this:



How easily happiness begins by

dicing onions. A lump of sweet butter

slithers and swirls across the floor

of the sauté pan, especially if its

errant path crosses a tiny slick

of olive oil. Then a tumble of onions.

This could mean soup or risotto

or chutney (from the Sanskrit

chatni, to lick). Slowly the onions

go limp and then nacreous

and then what cookbooks call clear,

though if they were eyes you could see

clearly the cataracts in them.

It’s true it can make you weep

to peel them, to unfurl and to tease

from the taut ball first the brittle,

caramel-colored and decrepit

papery outside layer, the least

recent the reticent onion

wrapped around its growing body,

for there’s nothing to an onion

but skin, and it’s true you can go on

weeping as you go on in, through

the moist middle skins, the sweetest

and thickest, and you can go on

in to the core, to the bud-like,

acrid, fibrous skins densely

clustered there, stalky and in-

complete, and these are the most

pungent, like the nuggets of nightmare

and rage and murmury animal

comfort that infant humans secrete.

This is the best domestic perfume.

You sit down to eat with a rumor

of onions still on your twice-washed

hands and lift to your mouth a hint

of a story about loam and usual

endurance. It’s there when you clean up

and rinse the wine glasses and make

a joke, and you leave the minutest

whiff of it on the light switch,

later, when you climb the stairs.

What a delight and so perfectly suited to the day! That evening, one of our friends brought up the topic of poetry, wondering if people even read poetry anymore. I told them all about the #todayspoem movement on Twitter and they were surprised and intrigued; my husband shared our experience last year when we went to the Griffin Poetry Prize readings and how moving they were. They couldn’t believe that 1200 people turned out for a poetry reading, and were quite taken aback at my description of people elbowing each other to keep their place in line to buy poetry books! I told them how “Onions” started, and because they all love to cook, their reaction was similar to the poem’s itself; oh, you can make anything you want when you start with sautéing onions—soup, risotto, stew, pasta sauce… They loved it.

I have enjoyed this past month’s poetry fervour more than I can say. I had already started to read a bit more poetry over the past year but with the advent of #todayspoem, I am reading more than I ever anticipated. It is so satisfying to be able to share that enjoyment with likeminded people. I hope this happy movement continues to grow and gather new players. Anyone out there who hasn’t joined the fun yet, jump in anytime. Or if you just want to read and savour on your own, do that. Dig out an old anthology, or start searching on the internet. Find some poems you like, read, and enjoy! Here are some last words on the subject of poetry from the wonderful Billy Collins:

Introduction to Poetry


I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.