Saturday, November 27, 2010

Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman

We're into winter now - first week and who knows how many more to go. It's all pretty to look at, but when you trudge through it for four to six hours a day, you know that snow is more than a color. It's a texture, too. Lucky for us, we here in Winnipeg usually have a dry cold and that gives us lighter, fluffier white stuff. Don't get me wrong, I love winter - and have loved it more than ever since I've become a 'walker' by profession. But, it makes me think of those poor victims of Soviet oppression who had to trudge through snow day after day, mile after mile, year after year. It's hard to fathom. Yesterday, I forgot my lunch - and oh how I lmissed that thick sliced dark bread and cheese. But then I thought of those who never got that hole in their stomach satisfied.

The book I've been reading this past week, while I recharge after walking for hours in the snow, is called Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman. On the cover is a photo by Tomasz Kizny. It's of prisoners crossing Vaygach Island in Russia in the 1930s. This book wasn't released in Russia until the late 1980s. (I'm reading a translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler/Anna Aslanyan.) It was finished just before the author died in 1964. An amazing book.

Now try to imagine this. Walking through the deep snow, trying to step into the step of the person ahead of you. The wind is whipping you from the northwest. Your boots - if you're lucky enough to have some (me, I got a brand new pair - waterproof, too) have gaping holes. If your boots were stolen while you slept (very likely if they're any good), you have wrapped rags around your feet. Anyway, you walk, like a frozen zombie. Your stomach is just a tight knot of pain. Your fingers are without feeling. Your eyes are frosted shut. Your lips cracked. But the body is an amazing little furnace. As long as you keep moving, you stay warm.

It's the only way to survive the cold. Keep moving.

The most powerful sentence from the book: "And hope, which until then had always oppressed her heart with its living weight, now died." (Chapter 13).

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Local, Universal and Diverse

No doubt you've heard of the 'eat local' movement. Well, here's a twist. I did a 'read local' experiment for the last three months. What an exotic, nutritional, and satisfying diet, it's been.

Back in September I did a group signing with local members of the Writers' Union of Canada. It was great to meet local authors and to learn about their past, present, and future projects. I've been engrossed in reading their wide-ranging works ever since. Having just finished five of their books, it's time for a breather.

It is just so much fun to read books set locally. Empowering, too. And while the streets, retail, geography, etc. might be places familiar to me, it's the characters and their experiences that are so universal. Reading these books has made me feel like Winnipeg really is the centre of the universe.

And then there's the authors. The talent is incredible. Of course, that's not surprising. I mean why shouldn't Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada have some of the best writers in the world? We've got all the proper ingredients - diversity of people, long winters, local publishers, active writing associations, and so many untold stories.

Here's my five great (local) reads.
An Ordinary Decent Criminal by Michael Van Rooy - funny and poignant. An adult crime novel
set in...Winnipeg...and why not! Lots of good stuff happening in Michael's career. Well deserved, too.
Out of the Fire by Deborah Froese This is serious stuff aimed at a YA audience. The book kept getting better. It's about being burned in a fire and about heavy stuff like guilt and moving on.
Driving Blind by Steven Benstead This adult character novel, again set in Winnipeg, twists and turns and always surprises.
The Salvation of Yasch Siemens by Armin Wiebe Speaking of surprises, this book was such a delight. Funny - like FUNNY! It was nominated for a Stephen Leacock Award, back in 1984 when the book first came out. He uses 'flat German' aka Mennonite low German speech patterns in the writing. Setting is rural Manitoba.
Five Years and Counting by Cendrine Marrouat This book of poetry had made me slow right down. I can't read more than a poem or two at a time - it's kind of like drinking wine. There's a lot of intensity here and I continue to sip and savour.

There is something so wonderful about reading books. I think it has something to do with the focus it requires. When you're in the middle of a good book - there's only silence and the power of someone else's imagination.







Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembering Day

Growing up, Remembrance Day was always a day of great shame for me. After all, my dad had fought on Hitler's side. The poppies on Flander's field brought tears to my young eyes - the poem still does that to me - but they weren't just tears of sadness - they were also tears of deep embarrassment. How could my dad - who was such a warm, kind, funny guy, a parent who understood me so much more than my other parent did - how could he have been a pilot in the Luftwaffe? He should have known better, I'd think to myself. He should have suspected Hitler's crimes. He should have been smart enough to get out of the country while there was a chance.

The other part that confused me about Remembering Day was the dead. There were so many dead in my parents' families. But they all deserved to die, right? I look at the photo of my dad and two uncles. One in the Infantry, dead. The other, an UBoot soldier, dead. Then my father, the pilot, badly injured and five years in a Soviet POW camp. My mother's side...family scattered or dead - with not even a photo left to remember them by.

Good guys, bad guys, all guys who were young and who had no choice but to fight for their country. What sadness. Today I'll bake a streusel kuchen for the birthday boy - Albert - who came to visit my mom one last time on November 11th 1944 - for his 22nd birthday and was killed soon after. He, too, fought on the bad side - against the Soviets - that country that had taken his mother, his father, his childhood and his home.

I might be politically incorrect, but on Remembrance Day I will remember the cruelty of war and the wasted lives of both the good guys and the bad guys. And I'll even think of Omar Khadr.