26 December 2016

Yiddish for Pirates - Gary Barwin

I picked up this book after seeing some good reviews of it; plus it was one of the Giller shortlisted books this year, and I was looking forward to reading it.  I came away from it with mixed feelings.

I loved the language.  The author plays with words and language in a way that was a delight for a language nerd like me to read.  Some examples:

On the destruction of books during the Inquisition:  "'Libricide, lexicution, biblioclasm.  To save our Catholic Spain,' he'd said, 'we must first destroy heresy.'" (p. 87)

On Hebrew vowels:  "You know they exist, they're just not there.  Like God to the troubled faithful." (p. 145)

On speaking Yiddish on a pirate ship:  "The perfect language for pirates, its words raggletag plundered and refitted from other times and tongues.  As the Pirate Bey says, 'Words belong to those who use them only till someone else steals them.'" (p. 247)

On a life of piracy:  "I wish that we, too, could leave this meiskeit-ugly bloodletting.  That we, too, could silently row out of this story and find another one, a story where more blood stayed in the body." (p. 303)

I also enjoyed the story - at least for most of the book.  Moishe is a Jewish boy who runs away from home in the late 1400s, during one of the periods of history with intense persecution of Jewish people.  It is the story of his persecution and how he continually escapes it.  The trick or catch in the story is that it is narrated by his parrot, an African Grey.

Unfortunately, both the continual language play and the plot grew tired before the end of the book.  Once Moishe ends up as a pirate in the Caribbean (he sails from Spain with Columbus), I lost track of what boat he was on, and with whom.  I confess that I was skimming the last 50 pages or so, just wanting to get to the conclusion to find out what would happen (not quite what I was predicting, but still a satisfactory conclusion).

(This was book 9/13 for me in the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by the Book Mine Set)

16 December 2016

Angel Catbird - Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas, Tamra Bonvillain

I was disappointed in this book.  I like Margaret Atwood.  I generally like graphic novels.  But this book didn't live up to my expectations.

Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer, and the premise behind this book was interesting - a gene-splicing formula spills, combining the DNA of a human, a cat, and an owl.  But beyond that, the plot spilled over into cliches with stilted dialogue.

I can't figure out who the target of this book is intended to be.  Maybe adults with nostalgia for the superhero comics of their childhood?  The plot and execution didn't appeal to my adult self, but the "cat facts" at the bottom of several pages definitely aren't geared towards children.

I did enjoy the artwork for the most part, but again, I found it very cliched.

I won't be reading the rest of the series as it is released.

(book 8/13 in the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set)

11 December 2016

Secret Path - Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire

This is another re-telling of the story of Chanie Wenjack.  I was curious about why this album / graphic novel combination was released so close to Joseph Boyden's book telling the same story.  It turns out that it isn't coincidental - Joseph Boyden wrote an article for MacLeans explaining how Gord Downie's brother came across an article about the death of Chanie Wenjack written when he had died, and several artists decided to release works about the story this fall, corresponding with the 50th anniversary of Chanie's death.  They decided that the impact of multiple works released at the same time would be more significant than releasing them individually.

Secret Path, as a book, contains very few words.  Chanie Wenjack's story is outlined in a few short paragraphs on the back of the book, but the book itself contains only the lyrics of the 10 songs on Gord Downie's album of the same name, poignantly illustrated by Jeff Lemire.  The book comes with a code so that the album can be downloaded and listened to along with the book.

The illustrations are beautiful and heart-breaking.  I am a fan of Jeff Lemire's work (see my review of Essex County), and his style of illustration is well-matched to the story being told.  The pictures tell the story - they convey the cold and the loneliness and the longing for home without the need for words beyond the song lyrics.  My one quibble with the illustrations is minor - Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School that Chanie attended was run by the Presbyterian Church, yet Chanie is depicted as interacting with nuns.  I know that is minor, and if I hadn't lived in Kenora for a bit, I probably wouldn't have known to notice; and I will grant the illustrator artistic licence, since all of the major denominations did run residential schools in Canada.

I was talking to one of my professors on Friday about the story of Chanie Wenjack, and he mentioned that it is a story about attachment.  That comes across clearly in both this book and in Boyden's Wenjack.  In this book, it is the visual portrayal of Chanie's father appearing throughout the pages, drawing him homeward; while in Wenjack, it is Chanie holding on to his language, and continually recalling his family members.

The endings of the story are different.  In my review of Wenjack, I spoke of the starkness of the ending and the only hope coming from the public inquiry that came out of his death.  This book shows Chanie being re-united with his family after his death, and it came as a bit of a let-down since I read it after Wenjack.  There is nothing beautiful about the death of an 11-year old boy from exposure as he is trying to return home, and I felt a bit betrayed by the attempt to give Chanie a happy ending.  I can see why they chose to do it this way, but the ending of Wenjack was more powerful and thought-provoking.

The two books together, Wenjack and Secret Path, make good companion books.  One story, with two different perspectives.  As I said before, this is a story that Canada needs to know, and the more different ways the story can be told, the better.

I've downloaded the album, and will spend some time over the holidays listening to this third telling of the story.

(Book 7/13 for the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set)

8 December 2016

Wenjack - Joseph Boyden

This is a heart-breaking little book.  I started reading it last night and finished it in one sitting (though the fact that I didn't start reading it until after midnight is evidence of my membership in the BadDecisionsBookClub™).  Once I started, I couldn't put it down.

The 97 pages of this book tell the story of Charlie/Chanie Wenjack, an 11-year-old boy who ran away from his residential school to try and walk 600km home through the north-western Ontario bush in 1966.  Unsurprisingly, he doesn't make it very far before he dies from exposure beside the train tracks that he was following.  Two years after he was forcibly taken away from his family, his body was returned to them in a casket.

The story was even more poignant because the school that Chanie was sent to was Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School that was located in Kenora.  When I lived in Kenora for 8 months, I used to drive by the site where it was located.  The bush that Chanie was travelling through is the same bush where I would go hiking and canoeing.  As he was struggling along in the cold and wind and sleet and snow, Boyden's word painting combined with my own time spent in that same area led to a harrowing experience for my imagination.

The story of the residential schools in Canada is an important story to be told.  I have been privileged to be entrusted with stories from people who survived these schools in my career as a physiotherapist.  While Boyden doesn't describe the experience directly, Chanie's memories of the school and the abuse that he was subjected to haunt him as he walks along.

The book won't take you long to read, but if you are Canadian (or if you are interested in the history of Canada), this is an important book to read.

This isn't a happy book, and it left me feeling bereft.  In the hours since I finished reading it, I've been trying to think if there is anything redeeming that can come out of the story of this abandoned little boy. The only thing that I can think of comes not in Chanie's story, but in the Author's Note at the end where he writes that Chanie Wenjack's death led to the first public inquiry into the residential school system, and even though it took another 30 years, the system in Canada did finally end.

Next up I'm going to read Jeff Lemire and Gord Downie's take on the same story.

(This is book 6/13 for me in the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set.)

18 November 2016


Here's another poem from my recent school assignment - a short one this time.  Apparently this one made my professor laugh out loud. Details of the assignment and the first poem can be found here.


The teacher,
                        answering none of my questions
unfolds for me

a whole new world of questions.

11 November 2016

The Flame

Eight-and-a-half years ago, as I was driving around in my car listening to one of my CDs, I thought to myself, "If there is one person that I would like to see in concert more than any other musician, it is Leonard Cohen.  But that isn't going to happen because he is old and he doesn't tour."  When I got home that day and turned on my computer, a headline popped up that said, "Leonard Cohen Announces World Tour."

I had the opportunity to see him twice in concert - 2008 in Toronto and 2013 in Winnipeg; both memorable evenings.  Then yesterday evening, the news reached the world that Leonard Cohen had died.  I am thankful for everything that I have learned from Leonard Cohen.

This poem wasn't the next one I was planning to share; but in response to the events of the world this week - the US election results, the death of Leonard Cohen, and the death of one of my friends - here is my response.

(Information about the class assignment that this poem comes from can be found here.)

The Flame

Before the beginning, there was darkness
Then God said, “Let there be light.”
            And there was light.
A tiny flame
            flickering in the darkness
            flickering in the chaos
            flickering in the fear.
Shadows dancing.
What is hiding in those shadows?

The bard sings,
            “Magnified, sanctified / Be thy holy name.”
The bard sings,
            “Vilified, crucified / In the human frame.”
The bard sings,
            “We kill the flame.”[1]

Can we kill the flame?
Can our fear
        our chaos
        our darkness
                        overwhelm the light?

The light shines in the darkness
            and the darkness does not overcome it.

[1] Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker,” in You Want it Darker (Sony Music Entertainment, 2016), compact disc.

7 November 2016

The Invitation

I spent the weekend writing an essay about the Eucharist, so I thought that I would share this poem today.
(Information about the class assignment that this poem comes from can be found here.)

The Invitation

Nailed to the tree
arms stretched wide
“This is my body, broken for you.”

Blood and water mingle
from wounded side
“This is my blood, poured out for you.”

Face contorted in pain
love was crucified
“Eat this bread and live forever.”

Embracing the world
arms stretched wide
“It is finished.”

3 November 2016


Here's another poem from my recent class assignment.
(Information about the assignment as a whole, along with the first poem can be found here.)


The highway winds
            through northern Ontario bush
the hills still snow-covered
the lakes still frozen
the March landscape
            bearing scars of winter past.
Too soon for songbirds
too soon for flowers
too soon for unfurling leaves.
And yet.
And yet off on the distant hillside
the tree branches are thickening
            swelling in the sun’s new-found warmth
            engorged with life-giving sap

            proclaiming the resurrection to come.

2 November 2016


One of my classes this term had an artistic component - we had to engage the question that Jesus asks of Peter in the gospels, "Who do you say that I am?" using whatever artistic medium we wanted.  I handed in a short collection of poetry presenting a variety of images for Jesus Christ, and came to the conclusion that "Jesus Christ is more than the sum of the metaphors."

I will be sharing some of these short poems on this blog over the next little bit.  Here is one of my favourites:


How many nights now?
How long has it been since you slept?
            since I slept?
This red-faced screaming ball of humanity
            who has taken over my home
                                            my heart
                                            my life.
Why won’t you stop crying?
You aren’t hungry.
You aren’t wet.
You aren’t in pain.
Why can’t I soothe you?
I don’t know what I’m doing.
Where is your Owner’s Operating Manual?
Those angels and shepherds and magi,
            they were so eager to visit you
                        when you were born.
            Where are they now?
                        now that there are diapers to change.
                        now that there is laundry to do.
                        now that there are mouths to feed.
They sang of Peace on Earth.
How can there be Peace on Earth
            when there can’t even be
                        peace in this home?
Your tears are never going to end.
Let me just
            collapse in this chair
                        and share

                                    in your tears.