by Kim Thuy, July 10, 2013

I read this book slowly, partly because I was reading a French novel for the first time in many years, but also because it is so beautifully written. So I took my time, savouring the eloquent but very accessible French narrative that wove a story of a young Vietnamese refugee.

Through a series of poetic vignettes that flow back and forth in time we get to know An as a young refugee in Québec and a younger girl in Viet Nam before fleeing to Canada with her family, as well as a present-day mother with two sons. Each snapshot is triggered by something in the previous entry, so they are connected, but not at all linear. I found the structure of the book interesting as it mimics how our minds flit from one thing to another, but I have seldom read a book in that format.

The style of the book gives the story an air of gentleness, despite some of the harsh episodes Thuy relates. The memoir format has a very personal feeling to it, as though we are reading someone’s diary. I was hooked immediately, although I did enjoy the earlier part of the book with An as a young girl, more than the later part when she is an adult.

Although it would be understandable if An’s world view were bleak, I found her voice to be very positive. Rather than dwell on the horrendous hardships that she endured and witnessed, she focuses instead on the supportive community that surrounds her in Québec, and her strong family ties. Her relationships with her mother, cousin, sons, and uncle, are all very different, but her extensive writing about them makes it clear how important each one is to her.

Humour also adds to the positive feeling. One hilarious example is when a young inspector is cataloguing their possessions after the communists come to Saigon. When he comes to a chest of drawers filled to the brim with brassieres he seems reluctant to write down the contents. An wonders if he is embarrassed by the idea of all those young girls and their round breasts. But no—later she overhears a conversation among the inspectors that explains the problem—he had simply never seen a brassiere before! To him they looked like the coffee filters that his mother used. But he can’t understand why they would need so many, and why they were in pairs?!

She depicts the soldiers with humanity, outlining their poor background, and describing how they learn to love music (in secret of course, since this was strictly forbidden). Later they are forced to burn all cultural symbols, and the burning of books, music, films, etc. fills the sky with smoke.

Thuy ends the book with a lovely acknowledgement to those who have gone before her and how they illustrated the possibility of renewal. She has followed in their footsteps as in a dream "où le rouge profond d'une feuille d'érable à l'automne n'est plus une couleure mais une grâce ; où un pays n'est plus un lieu, mais une berceuse." (where the deep red of a fall maple leaf is no longer a colour but a blessing; where a country is no longer a place but a lullaby. — I can’t do justice to the French but you get the idea!) A book filled with hope that I highly recommend.


When my mother-in-law passed away a few years ago, I inherited her wedding rings. They sat in a jewellery box for quite awhile as I considered what to do with them. They seemed so personal and so completely hers, not mine. Then a lovely conversation with a friend made me realize what a gift I had. She had several pieces of jewellery, including rings, that she had inherited from different relatives. As she pointed to each of the pieces she was wearing, she told me who she had received it from, and gave a mini-bio of the donor. Each one was a memento of someone whom she had cared about and served as a daily reminder of the role that person had played in her life. She was proud to wear them and to remember the people she had loved.

That conversation spurred me to consider my mother-in-law’s rings again. I had always been a bit in awe of her. She was bold and experimental with her cooking and her painting and she created beauty in her home and her amazing garden. She was a nurse and was very active as a volunteer in the community. I admired her greatly and grew to love her very much.

So I took the box out again and put her sweet old-fashioned wedding band on my ring finger with my rings and it has stayed there ever since. Then I studied her engagement ring: it was a simple gold band with three diamonds. Very beautiful and classy. I still didn’t want to wear it and it didn’t fit with my rings, so I took it to a wonderful jeweller who had made me an anniversary ring many years earlier and asked him to use her ring as the basis for a bracelet. (Mourguet, for the Toronto readers. He’s on Queen St. E. in the Beaches and he is fantastic!) After a bit of a discussion with him and a few sketches on either side, he came up with a fabulous design. I picked it up two days ago and I am thrilled with what he made. It is so completely perfect and beautiful and simple, and I’m sure my mother-in-law would have loved it too! If you look closely, you can see a line of gold on each silver band, and that’s the gold from her ring. So he used the whole ring in making this bangle and I couldn’t be more pleased with the result:

I would be interested to hear if anyone else has stories about wearing jewellery or clothing that you’ve inherited. Now that I’ve done this I can’t wait to wear it at every opportunity!

Milosz (3)

Back in November I wrote about being chosen for the FictionKNITsta cross-Canada book tour. Several women authors were paired with a knitter who would read the author’s book, then create a wearable item or accessory for the author, based on a theme or idea from the book. I was thrilled to be included in this venture, and delighted to be assigned to read Milosz, by Cordelia Strube.

I loved Milosz. Filled with colourful, appealing characters, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next, so I raced through it and was sorry when it was over. Happily, when I reread it in order to gain more ideas and insight and to find clues to help me figure out what to make for Cordelia, I enjoyed it all over again.

Autism, family ties, language and communication are intertwined with love, growth, rebirth, trust and commitment in Cordelia’s capable hands. Serious themes expressed with great humour and heart. It is a joy to read about these people who seem so real and whose outcome you care about.

How to interpret any of these themes through knitting?

I picked a scarf as the item to make because a scarf left behind by Milo’s girlfriend is so evocative: “Zosia left a silk scarf behind. In moments of howling woefulness Milo lies with it draped over his face … picturing her smoky, weary eyes … He lifts her scarf a few inches off his face then lets it drift back down … “ (pp. 14 & 24) It is as though he is breathing in her essence.

The pattern I chose is called Ballet Lace Scarf and I picked it for several reasons. It has a very specific repeated pattern and this was important to me because of Robertson, Milo’s young next-door neighbour who finds comfort in order and pattern. At one point in the book, Robertson and Gus, Milo’s father, connect on a level that is different from anyone else’s. Neither can speak the other’s language, but the two of them spend many happy hours together laying stones for a patio—making something with an ordered pattern, and building trust in a way that nobody else has been able to do.

I also liked this pattern because it looks a bit like vines climbing a trellis, and this reflects the idea of growth, plants and gardening. I picked a lovely pale apple green for the same reason, and because I thought it would look fantastic on Cordelia. The yarn is made from sugar cane, again reflecting the plant element.
Since Cordelia is tall I made the scarf super-long to wind around her neck several times or simply wear very, very long. Since it is a plant fibre, it is very soft and drapes beautifully.

The bonus in all this was to actually meet Cordelia, so we got together for coffee last month and I presented her with the scarf. It was lovely to meet her and the scarf suited her perfectly.

Toronto’s FictionKNITsta event is this Saturday, June 1, 2 p.m. at Ben McNally Books. I’m looking forward to meeting some of the other authors and see what they are wearing and hope to get some good shots of Cordelia sporting the scarf. It has been a very fun experience for me, combining two activities I love, reading and knitting. Now if only I could do both at the same time!

P.S. Fantastic reading at Ben McNally Books in Toronto this afternoon with Dora Dueck, Stella Harvey and Ailsa Kay, and Cordelia Hosting. Intriguing, thoughtful questions from the audience as well. Here's a shot of all four, with Cordelia on the left, then Stella, Dora and Ailsa, displaying the gorgeous knitwear. The audience was impressed with the knitting as well as the reading. Great event.


by Lisa Moore

In February of 1982, the gigantic oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off the coast of Newfoundland. All 84 men on board drowned. Overnight, Helen O’Mara, happily married mother of three (and pregnant with her fourth) becomes a widow. Helen must contend with the sudden loss of her husband and find the strength to carry on and raise her children by herself.

Moore brilliantly conveys Helen’s loneliness after Cal’s death and her struggle to be a decent mother. She and Cal had been young sweethearts and very much in love when they married. Her memories and thoughts of Cal evoke a strong, tender relationship. 
Somehow Helen had picked up the idea that there was such a thing as love, and she had invested fully in it. She had summoned everything she was, every little tiny scrap of herself, and she’d handed it over to Cal and said: This is yours.” (p. 49) 

Devastated when that is taken from her, Helen seems to be in shock for awhile and feels cut off from everyone else, that she is "outside" or "banished". But she doesn't want the children to know what has happened to her. At all costs they must think that everything is all right, that she is all right and that she will continue to look after them, and so she does homework with them, does her chores and housework … 
Helen folded laundry. Matching socks was an act that looked very much like matching socks. She looked exactly as though she were in the world … And when she was done there would be an actual pile of socks.” (p. 21)

Of course, the more she pretends and the longer this goes on, the better she gets at it. But her children also become more sophisticated and harder to fool, so she has to do more and more, eventually working, sewing, taking up yoga, fixing the house… All of this leads her back to being in the world and not “outside” any more.

Through Helen’s personal struggle we also gain some understanding of the devastating effect the accident had on the community. Cal’s death leaves Helen, their children and his own parents, bereft and abandoned. When Helen’s father-in-law calls to tell her about identifying Cal’s body, we feel their sorrow as they talk or don’t talk on the telephone. The silences between them are as eloquent as their speech. But 84 men died that night and each one — husband, son, father, uncle or friend — left a hole in the lives of those left behind.

Moore’s description of the men’s drowning is harrowing. Although this is a fictionalized version of the events of that night, her account tallies with the reported facts. Lack of adequate training in handling emergencies and in evacuation of the rig, led inevitably to the final, drastic conclusion. When the rig finally went down, at least some of the men got into the lifeboats, and rescue boats arrived from other rigs in the vicinity. But the violence of the storm, and the extreme cold, prevented any rescue attempts from succeeding. They were unable to pull anyone out of the water. They simply had to watch as the men died, and there was nothing they could do. It is hard to read these passages without weeping.

The men on the Seaforth Highlander saw the men in the water…The ropes are frozen, the men on board the Highlander were telling the men in the water. The men on the Highlander were compelled to narrate all their efforts so that the dying men would know unequivocally that they had not been abandoned…And there must have come a moment, Helen thinks, when all this shouting back and forth was no longer about turning the event around, because everybody on both sides knew there would be no turning it around. The men in the water knew they would die and the men on board knew the men in the water would die. But they kept on trying anyway.

And then all the shouting was just for company. Because who wants to watch a man being swallowed by a raging ocean without yelling out to him. They had shouted to the men in the water. They had tried to reach the men with grappling hooks. They saw them and then they did not see them. It was as simple as that. (pp. 272-274)

Moore's success with this book is attributable to her beautiful, heartfelt writing. We get drawn into the story from the first page and relive the tragedy of the accident through Helen’s recollections. We feel a connection with her as we get swept up in her own story. Whether we see her in the present, or as she thinks about the past, we always know what she is thinking and we understand her feelings. Her struggle to get on with life and deal with loneliness and hardship are things we can all relate to and Moore’s realistic portrayal makes Helen come alive. As we leave her behind we see some hope for the future, and for that I am glad.

Bookish Delights of 2012

I love having a birthday in early January. As the numbers for the calendar year change, along with my age, it feels like the right time to look back at the year just past. And what a wonderful year it was for bookish adventures.

The books I read were fun, challenging, intriguing, and covered more genres than ever before. I read poetry, non-fiction, biographies, mysteries, YA, short stories and literary fiction, with themes that included sports, mental illness, history, exploration, relationships and coming of age. Of course there were some disappointments but there were also some absolute gems. I laughed out loud to Jess Walter’s Financial Lives of the Poets, and fell a little bit more in love with Commissario Guido Brunetti each time I read one of Donna Leon’s wonderful Venetian mysteries. Chad Harbach charmed me with The Art of Fielding, as did Anne Giardini and her Advice to Italian Boys; both are tender stories told with insight and humour. I enjoyed Annabel Lyon’s depiction of Aristotle in The Golden Mean and finished up the year with the wonderful The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder. But I think my overall favourite for the year was Mr. Roger and Me by Marie-Renée Lavoie. How could you not love Hélène/Joe with her sense of adventure, love of family and salty tongue?

In addition to the reading, several book-related things happened to make this year one of the most memorable for me. First of all was the Twitter phenomenon/movement called #todayspoem, which began right at the end of 2011. This is how it all started: The basic idea is to begin your day with a poem (or end it, or just take a poetry break at some point during the day) and tweet a line or a link to it on Twitter, to share with fellow poetry lovers. The idea spread gradually, and now includes something like 240 contributors. When you search for #todayspoem you are presented with a stream of poetry tweets from a wide range of styles, in several languages, sometimes with audio or video. They are beautiful, amusing, evocative, graphic, and arresting. I’ve read more poetry this year than ever before in my life, and it is a constant delight. Some of my favourite poetry books were Richard Sommers’ Cancer Songs, Runaway Dreams by Richard Wagamese and Hologram by P. K. Page.

Something else that grew out of Twitter was meeting other women who enjoy both knitting and reading, especially Canadian Literature. How lovely to find kindred spirits. After some discussion, it seemed that the most obvious thing to do was to form a book club. Thus, the unique CanLitKnit was born! We meet at a pub, bring along our knitting and discuss the latest book on the agenda. So far we have picked short stories (Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro and Sleeping Funny by Miranda Hill) all written by Canadian women but all so very different. It is a fun, lively way to spend the afternoon and I feel privileged and grateful to be part of this group with so much energy and enthusiasm for reading and for creating beautiful hand-made items.

Reading and knitting also came together when Coteau books sent out a call for readers who liked to knit. They wanted to match up a knitter with each author on their spring book tour, with the knitter creating a garment or accessory for the author to wear on the tour, inspired by elements from their book. Of course I applied immediately and was thrilled to be picked for the FictionKNITsta Tour, along with two others from the CanLitKnit group! I was assigned to Cordelia Strube. After reading her book Milosz (which I adored) and browsing through many patterns, I settled on a scarf that synthesizes some of the book’s themes and will look great on Cordelia. (She has a vague idea of what I am doing but there will also be an element of surprise for her.) I can’t wait for the May tour to meet all the participants and see the authors wearing their fabulous garments.

Partway through the year I discovered a book called The Anatomy of Edouard Beaupré, by Sarah Kathryn York, a work of fiction based on the life of the Willow Bunch Giant. It really touched me and I am still pondering how to put my ideas and feelings down on paper. I grew up knowing about the Giant, as my parents came from Willow Bunch and Beaupré was my Uncle Ovila’s uncle. Beaupré lived a short, troubled life. He died at the age of 23 on July 3, 1904, while performing at the World’s Fair in St. Louis. His parents could not afford to bring him back to Willow Bunch for burial because of his size, and eventually his body ended up at the University of Montreal where it was used in teaching anatomy. My uncle Ovila discovered this by accident in the 70s and it took another 20 years of negotiations with the university before he was able to bring Beaupré’s remains back to Willow Bunch for proper burial. Reading this book brought back  memories of summer visits to Willow Bunch, but also made me think about what life must have been like for The Giant, so different and yet the same as all of us. A very powerful little volume. (In the meantime, I have come across another writer intrigued by Beaupré’s story, this time a poet. Her book of poems about him is currently under review with a publisher—fingers crossed.)

Last but not least, I started participating in the reading program Paws4Stories which I wrote about in my last post. My dog, Charlie, spreads happiness wherever he goes, and the fact that he is encouraging new, young readers to discover the joys of reading makes my heart swell.

The past year was wonderful and the new one has begun with David Bergen’s Age of Hope, one of the books in contention for Canada Reads. With such a great start I have high hopes for 2013.