The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling

The old saw, you can`t judge a book by its cover, is proved by The Casual Vacancy. The cover is a garish red and yellow, the title, white script with a big X in the middle. The only thing going for it is J. K. Rowling. I was so put off I didn`t pick the book up until now. It was published in 2012 so it`s been out for six years.

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Pagford, England is the setting for J. K. Rowling`s first novel for adults. There is an ancient abbey, an idyllic park, and a nearby river. It is a place for people of means and of aspirations, a British microcosm. Pagford looks peaceful and attractive but under that facade, a cauldron of racial tension, suspicion, and class arrogance roils. It comes to a head when Barry Fairweather, beloved member of the Parish Council, dies suddenly of an undiagnosed aneurysm. His seat is vacant, the casual vacancy, and the local political rivalry is set in motion. Wives are set against husbands, teenagers experiment with danger, and it doesn`t end well.

There is intrigue and deceit everywhere. Characters from all walks of life play a role…

I`m sorry I waited so long to read The Casual Vacancy; it`s a good read, a bit of a page turner. I think J. K.`s publishers dropped the ball (to use a cliche) when they designed the cover. They owe her an apology…

Fiction Friday

I have always liked to write and I thought my blog must entertain some people. My daughter suggested adding fiction to the offerings.”Why don’t you write some poetry or short stories and post them?” So, here is a flash fiction piece.

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 Geoff punched at the GPS with his finger but it remained stubbornly mute.  Beside him, Heather slept on, her mouth slightly agape and head turned toward him.  He smiled. For a spitfire, she looked deceptively sweet with a mop of blond curls she hated.  They resisted her best styling efforts.  She had that pink complexion that you sometimes saw on redheads and if her eyes opened they were an innocent blue.  Looks are deceiving.

In some ways, he was glad she wasn’t awake.  He could only imagine the fuss when she woke up and discovered they were lost.  It wasn’t his fault the GPS crapped.  Or that they were out in the north woods somewhere without cell service.  It wasn’t even his fault that his uncle was an eccentric near-survivalist –type hermit.  Or that he was a crazy rich weirdo.  Geoff had cleared everything so he could accept Uncle Bob’s invitation to his place in the bush.  Yeah, so Bob’s your uncle, all right.

Geoff glanced at the dash.  The fuel light blinked merrily. “Shit,” he swore, aloud.  When had that come on?

Beside him Heather shifted and sat straighter.

“Where are we?” she asked peering into the spruce trees that dissolved into blackness at the edge of the road.  “How much farther?  What time is it?”

Heather never eased into wakefulness.  One minute she’d be asleep and the next peppering him with questions like she was now.

“It’s 8:13,” he said, quickly.  It was the only one of her questions he had an answer to and he didn’t want her checking the dash.

“Where are we?” she repeated, her voice rising.  Heather was a city girl and though she’d never admit it found solitude un-nerving.

It was solitary here, though.  It had been over an hour since there’d been another vehicle on the road and there hadn’t been any welcoming lights from acreages or farms, either.

Geoff sighed.  “I don’t know where we are.  There’s no cell service, the GPS crapped and the fuel light is on.”

There was a shocked silence.  “Goddamn it, Geoff.  What are we going to do?” Heather demanded.

Geoff shrugged and when he glanced over to Heather, her face was twisted in annoyance and in the light of the dash, looked almost ugly.  He did not need this.  Did she imagine he wanted to be lost, out of gas and beyond reach of communication? That old bugger Bob better make this trip worth his while.

They drove on in a silence that grew more hostile as their gas burned away.  Heather saw it first.

“There, up ahead.  It’s a service station.  We can get gas there.”

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As soon as Heather spoke, Geoff could see the light, too.  The heavy darkness smothered it but it was there.  Off to the right, a lone building occupied a gap had been cleared out of the forest.  It flashed gray and weathered in their headlights and the asphalt in front of it was cracked and potholed.  Geoff steered them carefully into the reddish glow that fell from the light on the single old-fashioned gas pump and turned the engine off.

The service station looked deserted except for the shimmer of the red letters in the cracked front window.   Sputtering red neon spelled OPEN.  The hand-lettered sign over the front door was faded and he could just make out the business name.  Last Chance.  Last Chance was right.  He snorted.

Still, if he could get gas, he could buy new filters or whatever the gas out of this antique pump plugged up.  Surely it would get them as far as Uncle Bob’s.

“Geoff, I don’t like it.”  Heather’s voice quavered a little.  He looked at her sharply.  It wasn’t like Heather to go all scaredy-cat.  Her eyes were wide and her skin had lost colour.  It looked ashen in the dim light.  She was staring at the Last Chance.  “Let’s just go.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Geoff snapped.  He was uneasy himself.   It wasn’t like the owners hadn’t heard them drive up.  The only other sounds out here would be owls hooting and -the hair rose on the back of his neck, wolves howling.  These weren’t thoughts he planned on sharing with Heather.

“We can’t drive off.  We’re all but out of gas.  We can get gas here or we can sleep in the car in the middle of nowhere.  No one knows where we are.  It’s take a couple of days for them to look for us.”

Immediately, Geoff regretted his hasty words.  Heather seemed to curl back into her seat and he could hear her sniffle.  Unaccountably, he felt annoyed again.

“You stay here,” he said.  “I’ll go and rustle up someone to serve us.”

“Don’t be long.  This place creeps me out.”

Geoff didn’t want to admit it but the service station wasn’t sending warm vibes his way either.  The shadows were too dark, the building too dilapidated.  Crusted dirt and cobwebs decorated its cracks and crannies.  Old oil stains darkened the pavement and when he stepped outside the air had a close acrid smell.  How much spilled gas had seeped into the asphalt?  A dry wind scraped across the road, driving a crumpled plastic bag against the base of the pump.

Geoff took a breath and leaned back into the car to say, “Lock the doors behind me.  I’ll be right out.”  The quick snap of the locks was lost in the whining wind.

Four steps to the door.  Geoff knocked tentatively and nothing happened.  Silence.  Then he knocked again.  Still nothing.  No sound except the lonely moan of the wind.   The sign said, OPEN, so he tried the door.  The old-fashioned handle moved easily at his gentle pressure.  The door wasn’t locked.  Geoff called, “Anyone home?” and stepped into the dim interior of the service station.

Heather watched through the passenger window.   She saw Geoff knock and then try the door.  Then he disappeared into the blackness of the service station’s interior.  “Geoff,” she whimpered and sank further back in her seat.

The wind picked up tiny bits of gravel and drove them against the car.  The light over the gas pump flickered and faded.  It was getting hard to make out the gas station door.  How long had it been?  Geoff had said he’d be right out; he’d promised.  Heather grabbed her phone and got the same message.  No service.  Where in god-forsaken hell were they?  No GPS, no cell service, no gas.

Heather waited a bit longer.  Where was Geoff?  She peered out at the filthy, fractured glass of the main window.  The neon glow was the only thing she could see.  Why hadn’t a light come on?  This was crazy.

BANG!  A wicked gust of wind picked up the Last Chance sign and flung it against the storefront.  One hinge tore loose and the signboard twisted crazily.  Still no Geoff.

Heather turned and looked in all directions.  Nothing but the wind and the night.  The sign was the final straw.  She was not sitting in the car and waiting for…for who knew what demented thing to come for her.  Geoff was going to get a piece of her mind.  She gripped the car’s door handle.  A quick yank and it was open.  Heather nearly fell onto the asphalt.

God!  It reeked out here.  Spilled diesel, gas, old oil.  The wind drove dust into her cheeks and lifted her hair wildly.  Heather ran to the service station door.  It opened quietly and with a banshee howl the wind blew her in.  The door slammed shut.

Dead calm descended.  The car settled and one tire fell flat.  Dust collected on the windshield and over the gas pump, the light popped and blew out.  In the streaked window, the neon sign crackled.   A faint light smoldered behind it.  The red of neon flared a last time and died away.  Silence reigned.

A ghostly hand appeared in the window.  It unhooked and removed the OPEN sign.  A moment later the same pale hand lifted a printed placard into place.  Opening Soon, it read.

 

 

 

The Triangle Factory Fire Project

Nothing is quite as engaging as live theatre, even bad live theatre has something about it that grabs you in a way film cannot. It is immediate and real- no need for artificial 3D,1.Triangle.showcard-300x300 (1)

yet it allows  the imagination to play a part. Friday, I had the chance to see The Triangle Factory Fire Project. The story is true and horrifying. In 1911, a fire broke out on the 8th and 9th floors of The Triangle Factory in New York where immigrant and poor women laboured over sewing machines to produce shirtwaists, the latest fashion craze. They were paid a pittance and could be fired at the whim of the managers.

On March 25, 1911, 146 women died because of the fire. Some of them perished in the flames, others leaped to their deaths on the sidewalk below. They had been trapped. The elevator didn’t work, and one door to the staircases was locked. In the ensuing panic, some of the women didn’t get to the second door to escape.

 

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This picture shows how many women were crowded into a sewing floor…

The Walterdale production of the The Triangle Factory Fire Project, a play first produced off-Broadway, was professional in every way and the theatre itself  provides an intimate venue for its presentation. In act one, it introduces the facts of the fire through headlines and characters announcing them. Then the scene switches to a re-enactment of the fire which captures the chaos and terror of the 27 moments of the blaze.

Act Two features the trial of Max Blanck and Issac Harris, factory owners. It is 1911, women can’t vote, have few rights, and the jury is all male. The defense lawyer is arrogant; he sneers as he bullies and questions the female witnesses and the fire chief. Blanck and Harris are acquitted, even though they had ordered one of two doors locked so women had to leave by a single route and their purses could be searched for stolen shirtwaists.

Three years after the fire, on March 11, 1914, twenty-three individual civil suits against the owner of the Asch Building, where the Triangle Factory was located,  were settled. The average recovery was $75 per life lost. The owner received $475/per woman from insurance.

The Triangle Factory Fire Project brings this dramatic story to life. The 146 lost lives did energize the suffragette and labour movements. Women got the vote in 1920 and the tragic deaths of the Triangle women had aided in the struggle to achieve the franchise. The strengthening unions also made advances in safety guarantees for workers and helped increase their pay because of this evil and preventable tragedy.

Live theatre, whether is be community theatre or a production by a professional group gives you great value for your entertainment dollar.

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The ruins after the fire had burned itself out.

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Educated by Tara Westover

Educated is Tara Westover`s memoir of family control and ignorance and an awakening as she seeks answers and knowledge. This was a book recommended to me by a friend and neither the title or the recommendation suggested the kind of horror and abuse that Tara Westover and her family suffered.

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The Westovers are a Mormon family whose fanatic father has re-tooled the religion into his private cult. He selects snippets from the Bible or the Book of Mormon and dictates to his family how they will act and what contact with the outside world they can make. His twisted beliefs come from feelings of deep paranoia. He is sure that the government, educational institutions, and health care are in a conspiracy to harm him and his family.

In her memoir, Tara Westover, tries to patch together a childhood of fear and abuse and fierce love. Her memories are confused and like all of us, some recollections might have planted themselves as memories because other family members have recounted them so often. Nonetheless, her life story is compelling and appalling.

The rules her father makes have no logic. Dairy products are taboo, a year`s supply of food they preserve themselves, must be stockpiled so when some government Armageddon descends, they can hide in the Idaho hills and survive until the crisis passes. To this end, Tara`s father insists his wife become a midwife and healer. It makes them more self-reliant. Tara is her mother`s assistant when she isn`t helping with the family scrap business. Her father and brothers work at this except when they are trucking. The work is dangerous, hard, and performed without concern for even minimal safety standards.

Horrific injuries have to be endured and her mother struggles to provide healing. Burns, brain injuries, deep wounds seldom receive medical attention and if they do, the patient is taken home long before a proper recovery is realized.

From this chaotic, illogical environment, Tara Westover, a young woman with no formal schooling, no birth certificate, and a strange mixture of fears and beliefs, studies for and gets the marks on the ACT exam which assesses students on high school curriculum and their readiness for college. Tara is admitted to Brigham Young University of the strength of her results; she has never heard of the Holocaust, of the American Civil Rights Movement, yet somehow her hard work and quick brain make up for these omissions. She is invited to Harvard and to Cambridge in England.

Tara Westover`s story makes compelling reading. You are drawn along with the kind of urgency that a thriller or horror novel might demand. The best part of this memoir, is that there is a resolution of sorts and that against all odds, Tara has prevailed.

October- Library Month in Canada

Years and years ago, my mother would take us to the library on our weekly visits to town. We lived on a farm and got into town on a Saturday.

The library was in the old Prospect School House which had been purchased in 1951 and in 1953 opened for the express purpose of housing the library. No heating or insulation. Volunteers handed out books in gloved hands and the lack of windows, insulation, etc. were eventually looked after by money raised from bake sales and local fund raising.

Kudos to those long gone volunteers. The building may have been dingy, stale, and dark but to me it was magic. With your library card, you could wander up and down the narrow alleys between the high shelves and find a treasure to read. The Black Stallion Series, The Black Panther Series, Tarzan and John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Mark of Zorro and so  many others that I can’t remember. This was an era without tv, one where electricity had only recently reached our farm, and the internet wasn’t even a fantasy. There was no need; the books were there and free.

Even if money had been no object, there was no bookstore in my small town. I can’t remember when I first visited a retail book shop; for a while I did buy a lot of books. When I realized I wasn’t re-reading them, I depended more and more on our local library, now part of a library system which affords me more and more choices.

Libraries have evolved. They provide many services other than the magic I found. They still provide books, magazines, e-books, newspapers (mostly on line). There is the use of computers for no charge, exam invigilation, a quiet place to study or read, a meeting place, a supplier of programs for toddlers, kids, teens, adults and seniors; all of these services are free or reasonably priced. The library is a community treasure.

Today funding comes from provincial grants, our local town council, and the municipality. Although, they are as generous as they can be, the library can always use funds. Many things are done to close the gap between the funding that keeps the library services intact (barely) and the fund-raising that tries to make budgeting slightly easier.

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This picture is typical of library supporters. They dress up, they apply for local grants, they try different schemes to fund raise.

Libraries are one of our most important resources and Canadian Library Month recognizes this.

Visit your local library! You’ll be surprised at what is on offer.

Canadian Thanksgiving

Indigenous People always observed the coming of fall with feasts to celebrate the harvest. Sir Martin Frobisher with his crew marked their safe arrival in Newfoundland with a Thanksgiving in 1587. On the menu? Salt Beef, biscuits, and mushy peas. That’s a long way from the traditional turkey.

In 1606, Samuel de Champlain initiated a series of rotating feasts in an attempt to stave off scurvy. The first such feast was November 14 in Port Royal and is a Thanksgiving as well. This is 17 years prior to the American version with the Pilgrims. Canada led the way.

1957 was the year that Canadian Thanksgiving was made an annual observance on the second Monday of each October.

With Thanksgiving coming up in a week, I reflected on all I have to be grateful for. It would take way more than a little blog post like this but first and always on my list is family, and friends. This year my son is making the celebratory meal for the family. He is divorced but stresses family to his kids; the meal will be great and I’m going to bring dessert. That isn’t really what it’s about. It’s to get together and have a family event. We’ll play a password game that was my husband’s mother’s favourite. We’ll play some card games and we’ll visit. There will be three dogs as well as the humans and they’ll get their share of the special day.

Before that I’m stopping to think about friends as  well. There is nothing like the shared laughter, the shoulder to cry on, the sympathetic response to a rant. A common interest leads to friends. I met very good friends through a local writing group and now we are much more than that interest in writing. Friends enjoy your quirky humour and put up with your flaws. Thank you, friends.

On a much wider scale, I am so grateful to live in Canada. With all its faults, I enjoy freedoms, self-expression, religious choice, and opportunities afforded by no other country. I live, by Canadian standards, a modest life. By world standards, I am rich beyond compare. My son and daughter have university educations. My grandchildren will have that chance, too, if that is what they want.

I have so much to be thankful for and I am.

 

October Arrives

Today is the first day of October. It is the month often associated with fall but this year, fall arrived in September. We’ve already had snow and hard frosts.IMG_3748 (2).jpg

I took this picture of the Battle River Valley when I thought the leaves were at their most colourful. Now there are stands of aspen which have lost their leaves. When you drive through the countryside, the colours are there but they are not as spectacular as they were.

This morning on my dog walk, the geese filled the air. They were flying south east from where they had fed earlier. Their honking and calling reverberated. It is eerie to hear and humbling to think how they cooperate in the flight and how they are getting ready for their migration south.

In our yard, all kinds of birds have come to gorge at the feeder. They are battling the colder temperatures and getting ready for winter. There have been chick-a-dees, sparrows, two kinds of native sparrows, nuthatches, warblers, juncos, and a small downy woodpecker. The blue jays are the bold birds that screech at my husband to bring out the peanuts.

We’re still on daylight saving time and sunrise is getting later and later. The twilight lingers but not for long. The shadows are somehow thinner and more slanted. The wind bears traces of ice.

October days can be bright and crisp. The water in ponds has a cobalt blue not seen in other months. The clouds no longer gather and expand at the horizon but instead move in carrying the promise of precipitation. The land settles in, getting ready for the coming winter.

Welcome, October. I hope for sunny autumn days that carry a hint of the summer gone by.

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