Category Archives: Music

Music = love.

“Do Not Say We Have Nothing”: importance of storytelling

I kept seeing Madeline Thien’s book Do Not Say We Have Nothing seemingly everywhere I went (well, where I went online), so I felt that I had to read it. It was shortlisted for the Ban Booker Prize, and it won the Governor General’s Literary Award. It has to be good!


This novel is an epic saga. It looks at the lives of generations of a family during the cultural revolution in China. In high school, I did one of my major research projects in one of my History classes on the Chinese revolution and Chairman Mao. It fascinated me that a single idea could change the lives of millions of people in such a short amount of time. Also, that protecting culture and banning the influence of others, especially the West, was carried out. I knew the dates and names of the campaigns and leaders, but Thien’s novel made that time period come alive through the tragic stories of families torn apart, and innocent people’s lives being destroyed by judgmental neighbours. It’s one thing to read a textbook with facts, but it’s another thing to see how those facts influence people.

I read this book on a trip up to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. I carried this library book with me to the coffee shops in town, up to the Bush Pilot’s Monument, and to the picnic tables at Frame Lake. I was caught-up in the stories of Thien’s characters. I wanted to know what would happen to them and if they would reunite. I wanted to know if they would survive the re-education camps and the daring protests. At the same time, I was also caught-up in Yellowknife culture. Here is a place where communities and cultures live together and support one another. The Dene community, the Inuit community, the Metis community, the Filipino community, the mining community, the construction community, the crafting community. What a difference in culture! People fighting to stay alive and be seen to tow the party line, and that contrasted with a city that actively tries to bring cultures together to celebrate differences.


Truthfully, I feel like this book was a little too ambitious. There was a lot going on, yet Thien does well at connecting it all together. But sometimes the details were a bit overwhelming (and exhausting). It’s clear that either Thien is a musician or is interested in music because the characters in her novel love music. Several are composers, music professors, or performers. Like a good Canadian (and fan of Bach), she writes a lot about Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach. In fact, Gould’s name shows up throughout the novel, not just once or twice. I’m curious as to why she chose this eccentric Canadian performer. Bach’s music is so structured, which is why I think Gould loves Bach. One of my cousins loves Gould and often sends me YouTube videos of Gould. These are a few of my favourites:
The Chair
Piano skills

Overall I enjoyed Thien’s novel. I was on vacation and was able to linger on the story and find time to read it. And the stunning views helped for sure.

Thien reminds us of the importance of hearing stories. Not just facts, but stories. I think stories are the success behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada. And I hope that the stories of families and friends makes the inquiry into Canada’s murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls just as healing. We need to listen to each others’ stories in order to find justice, healing, and a way forward. In the novel, the characters find each other through a novel written chapter-by-chapter and through the story in music. There is power in a story. May we have the patience and the heart to hear.



“The Back of the Turtle”: gentle reminder

Thomas King is a brilliant storyteller.  I wished for two things reading this novel: one, that he was telling it to me over a course of meetings over coffee or a meal, and two, that it wouldn’t end.  The world and characters he created were so life-like and curious that I was slowing down near the end of the book to make it last longer.



In the novel, a First Nation on the West Coast is completely destroyed by a newly created bacterium, GreenSweep.  Not used properly, GreenSweep kills everything and everyone in its path in the hopes of clearing brush to lay a pipeline. The irony is that the man who helped to create GreenSweep is Indigenous and knew people in the Reserve that was completely destroyed.  How do you seek forgiveness?  How do you make up for life’s biggest mistakes?

This novel is grounded in the Earth.  It shows the importance of the relationship between people and Earth and what happens when that relationship is taken for granted or exploited?

In the beginning of Barkskins by Anne Proulx, she includes this quotation:

In Anitquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence.  Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated.  By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in the mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects. (Lynn White, Jr.)

After years of reading Canadian Indigenous literature, I am still amazed by the generous humour that they employ.  The humour is gracious because the atrocities that have occurred in Indigenous communities is horrible, yet often times authors approach their message with humour, which engages all readers.  We know that satire is one of the most powerful means of bringing about new thoughts and change, yet this story is a gentle humour that is embraces and brings in readers to the story.  The story is then heard by more and thought of more.  Yet, I believe it comes from a generous spirit.

One of the most heartwarming moments for me was the surprise appearance of some Alberta Elders: Narcisse Blood and Leroy Little Bear (pg 119).  I first ‘met’ Narcisse Blood through Elder in the Making, an amazing film that documents Treaty 7 and the people of Southern Alberta. In “Episode 5: A Broken Treaty,” Narcisse Blood talks about his experience in Indian Residential School.  He took an old school and turned it into Red Crow Community College.  The moment that stands out that he says he is a “person that wants to learn.  A persona that respects myself so that I can respect others.  If I can become a human then I can relate to the land better.”  In “Episode 6: Death and Renewal” Narcisse Blood speaks again.  “The land is like our mother…  We don’t take for granted that the sun is going to come up every morning.  We greet the sun because we woke up.  So we wake up and that gives life.  Our non-human relations have rights to be here.  The folly is when we think that man is it.”  The teachings of Narcisse Blood are beautiful and reminded me as I read The Back of the Turtle that as humans we have lost of connection.  In the episode, Narcisse Blood says that our folly is a kind way of saying stupidity.  As humans, we need to reestablish our relationship with our non-human relations.  In Blackfoot culture, they often say the phrase “All my Relations.”  They acknowledge all of creation and honour creation by saying this phrase.



Leroy Little Bear is such an important person in Alberta.  He is a Blackfoot scholar is striving to teach us about the connection between humans and the land.  He is also an advocate for justice and works with prisoners and those without means to find justice to work in the system. I know I don’t have permission to say this to make make this judgement, but to me he is a modern day warrior.  He is tenacious, wise, and generous. In a lecture at Congress 2016 in Calgary.  His lecture compares Western metaphysics to Blackfoot metaphysics:”Big Thinking and Rethink Blackfoot Metaphysics: ‘waiting in the wings’.” He talks about the difference between Western and Blackfoot ways of knowing.  In Western culture, we value reason and work around the idea that God’s creation is good and therefore stagnant.  In our thinking, we categorize and run experiments.  We value the objective facts and like creating and finding order out of chaos.  In Blackfoot culture, they think differently and so see the world differently.  As Little Bear says everything is in flux and motion, and the Earth is never stagnant.  People are made of energy waves, and once they die the waves stop but are not gone.  Blackfoot culture sees more in observation and processes.  Blackfoot draws from the idea that chaos is a constant, and ceremonies seek to bring order.  So when a Blackfoot person says “All my relations” they are talking about non-human relations because they see all of Creation as animate.  For Blackfoot people, renewal is essential.  Ceremonies are all about renewal that use the same songs, prayers, stories, and ceremonies to bring order to the chaos.  An essential way of thinking is sustainability.  Little Bear says that Native Science is grounded in sustainability and our work is to engage in the process and action of renewal.  Even the languages show this difference: in English we like nouns and naming things, yet in Blackfoot it’s all about process and actions, movement.  So when we learn, we need to renew, collect, and see the connections, not divide and create dichotomies and cause and effects.  Within the novel, King shows the difference between different creation stories and different ways of working with the Earth.  Little Bear in his lecture talks about how Western thought likes to create prophets, people who can predict what will happen.  That is shown in King’s book how Dorian tries to control and predict how to manage environmental disasters caused by his company.  Yet in the end, it is Creation itself and the chaos she creates that brings the characters together, even strangers, as they seek to push a boat off of the beach.



Later in the novel, King references another large personality: “The Donald.”  His character Dorian is the CEO of the company that created GreenSweep and it is his job to try to make the devastation of the use of GreenSweep, and later a tailings pond spill in Northern Alberta near Fort McMurray to go away. As he is looking for a place to eat, he is referred to The Stock restaurant in the Trump Tower on Bay Street.  As he describes his decision, he says this about Trump: “The man was extravagant and arrogant.  A loud-mouthed egotist who gave wealthy people a bad name.  Trump might have been nicer, Dorian speculated, if he had made his fortune on his own rather than having it handed to him by his parents” (Pg 367).  King shows the lack of connect to land.  He shows what happens when people manage nature instead of exist and work with nature.  The thinking is different.  Trying to predict, manipulate, and exploit seemingly stagnant resources shows the complete disconnect to Creation and the different way of seeing it: not as chaotic, but as something ordered and reasonable to gain from.

What happens to communities, people and places, when environmental disasters happen?  Gabriel, the man who created GreenSweep, comes back to his community and becomes part of the people who bring the community back to life.  It’s different, yet they are in it together and connected to the land and the place.  In the end, King offers hope and a way forward.  Nature recovers and is strong, and people are the same, if we just stop to observe.



“Birdie”: power of prayer

I’m not quite sure how to write about this novel.  It took me over a month to read it.  I had to set it down to read a book for work and then a book for book club.  But I think that was for the best.  Birdie, by Tracey Lindberg, isn’t a novel you can rush.  The main character, Birdie, is in a state of rest and otherwordliness through the novel and I think to rush this novel is to brush it off, just as people would brush of Birdie’s inner journey.



Throughout the book Lindberg shows the devastating effects of broken, abusive families and how at times inner strength isn’t enough.  Birdie grew up with some nasty uncles and that shapes her life.  She ends up on the streets of Edmonton from the small Reserve.  Mostly, Birdie likes the city because of the anonymity.  She doesn’t have a past or a present in the city.  She can just be Birdie.  Yet this life allows her to avoid confronting her teen years, and eventually she slips into another world.  She is from a line of shapeshifters; her Grandma was also a shapeshifter at a time when this ability was seen in the community as significant.  For Birdie, she ends up in a psychiatric hospital, living within herself.

Yet I’m not sure if Birdie’s experience is the true story.  Once Birdie leaves the psychiatric hospital, she ends up in Gibsons, BC where she finds work and an apartment at a bakery.  This is where I think the story requires time.

Birdie retreats into herself for healing and the women around her–her boss, her aunt, and her cousin–do everything possible to make sure that Birdie stays alive.  They visit her, they talk with her, they change her, they make food for her, they take on her job at the bakery.  And that’s just it; this book is about Birdie, yes, but it’s also about the need for community, especially for female community.  How do you rush that?  Birdie is in ceremony within herself, seeking answers and healing from another world.

While reading this, I couldn’t help but think of all of the amazing Water Warriors who have created community at Standing Rock.  Women are protectors of water and they have been awakened to their role and are making a stand for their people, and all of North America.  The camp is all about prayer.  These women have created a prayer community to demonstrate and show the sacredness of water.  Prayers can’t be rushed.



The positive outcome for those Water Warriors is a testament to the power of prayer.  The media focused on the protesting and the government’s response, yet this protest was about prayer.  One of the local photographers I have meet along the way in my teaching is Joey Podlubny.  This man has chosen to tell the story of some of Alberta’s First Nations through photography.  A couple of weeks ago I was excited to see an email from Joey in my inbox with a link to his latest project: a photo essay about prayer at Standing Rock.  The essay starts with these words: “If you plan on going to standing rock, the main course of action is to pray.  That is the wish of the elders circle. ‘The greatest action you can take is prayer’.”

So as I think about Birdie, I feel that I need to read it again, this time with the mindset of prayer.  Healing through community with other women and prayer.



“At night you can hear prayers, singing and drumming in between the frequent helicopters and planes  that the hired police fly low over the camp” (Joey Podlubny).

“Sometimes when you see something every day you forget its mystery” (Tracey Lindberg).



“Half-Blood Blues”: music will save the world

I just finished reading Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan and I understand now why it was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Governor General’s Award.  At first I was concerned that the style of the voice might get in the way of the story, but it didn’t.  This book is beautifully written!



As a teenager I found learning about the World Wars worked best for me through story, through fiction.  For my final ISU (Independent Study Unit) in Grade 13, I chose to compares And No Birds Sang by Farley Mowat and The Wars by Timothy Findley.  I was fascinated by the real, human experiences of war and the different points of view.  Reading fiction helped me to better understand the effects and the consequences of the facts I was learning in class.  I truly wish that Esi Edugyan had written her novel Half-Blood Blues 14 years ago!

I love jazz and I love the blues.  I remember in while I was in high school I wouldn’t let my Dad listen to the smooth jazz station because I told him it was imitations, weak imitations, or something real.  Instead, I made him listen to the crackly jazz station from Toronto that played REAL jazz.  I also loved the blues.  I ended up taking a guitar class my last year of high school to fill some open credits.  For the class, we had to research a famous guitarist and I chose Eric Clapton, Slowhand.  To this day, I still love listening to jazz and blues and any band that throws back to these classic styles I enjoy as well.



Throughout the novel, Edugyan moves slow.  The narrative is smooth, yet there are moments that shock you and pull you back into the slow unwinding of the story.  Sid, Chip, and Hiero are jazz musicians during World War II and somehow they end of playing together in Europe.  Other members of the band disappear because they are Jewish or forced to stay in Germany while these three flee to Paris with the help of Louis Armstrong.  It seems surreal, yet Edugyan shows the pain and the suffering, the uncertainty and the fear through not only their interactions with each other, but also through their music.  As we learn more about these characters, we start to understand more of this period of history from a different angle: Hiero’s father is an African soldier brought up to Germany, and so he is a mixed-race German.  Sid and Chip are Americans, over in Europe touring and happen to get caught up in the war, yet are paranoid that they will disappear next because of their skin colour.



Edugyan is able to share some insights into Europe at the outbreak of World War II from a different angle and I truly enjoyed her style.  She took something horrific, and brought it into the world of jazz, much like America was doing to protest against the Jim Crow Laws and extreme racism.  At one point in the novel, Louis Armstrong wants the guys to play a German song as a show of defiance.  Armstrong feels that it is necessary, and something that he can do to protest and bring attention to horrors of what was happening in Germany.  Like in every generation, it is the artists who stand up and bring truth to the public.  It is the artists who risk everything to share what is right.  As I reflect on the US election and the pain and division in most of the Western world, I can’t help but believe that it will be the artists who bring us back to our humanity.



“I guess mercy is a muscle like any other. You got to exercise it, or it just cramp right up.” (Esi Edugyan)

“Do no be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:21)




“Undermajordomo Minor”: bending the rules

The job of the undermajordomo is to help and assist the majordomo.  Lucy Minor is up to the challenge! From there, I can’t really explain more because you won’t believe me.  This is a book that you need to read yourself (especially if you were a fan of Patrick deWitt’s previous novel The Sisters Brothers).



What genre is this novel?  What genre is Napoleon Dynamite?  The Princess Bride?  Moonrise Kingdom?  Breaking the genre barrier = suspension of disbelief in a new way.  Yes, deWitt employs humour and fairy-tale/ morality tale-like qualities, yet it doesn’t feel like I’ve read this before.  Just as with Napoleon Dynamite, I’ve seen teen/ high school dramas before, but this one bends the mould.



I think the reason I loved the novel and the afore mentioned films is that they take the boundaries/ the lines, and they play within them in sure a new and creative way that I can’t help but fall in love with the genre or type all over again.

This is also true with music.  For example, here are some songs that play just enough to be hard to categorize, yet stay true:

Feist, “The Bad in Each Other“: they syncopation causes you to stop and truly listen, because it’s unexpected.

Metallica, “Nothing Else Matters“: they play with a symphony.  Heavy metal with classical instruments and singing.

Alt J, “Left Hand Free“:  Blues?  Rockabilly?  Pop?

Beirut, “Gibraltar“: A scaled-down acoustic song?  Live performers or machines?

I love bending the rules and working within the parameters to create something creative, which is why I appreciate the genius of others who are capable to creating something so intriguing and captivating.  This is how I felt reading deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor.  I was constantly surprised at the twist of events and reactions.



It’s authors like deWitt who renew my love and joy of reading.  So, thank you Patrick deWitt for your witty books!!




“I don’t necessarily want to make people stomp and clap. I simply want to engage people.” (Patrick deWitt)




“The Massey Murder”: time of change

This year in my Gr 7 Humanities class, several girls did their final research project of Women’s Suffrage/ The Famous Five.  I was so inspired and felt like our future is in good hands by the way these young women looked at the rights of women and how equality is still something we are working on.  All of this happened while, during Silent Reading, I was reading The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master, and the Trial that Shocked a Country by Charlotte Gray.  In our daily Say Something circles about our books, I was happy to share with my students that I was learning about Canada’s history, especially when it came to Canada’s working class and women.



The story of a young maid who shot her male master from a prominent Canadian family shocked Toronto, and not just because a Massey was involved.  Throughout the trial, women were pushing for more rights and more representation.  Women were entering the workforce because the men were gone fighting in the war in Europe.   Women were seeking the right to vote.  Women were becoming a bigger part of public life, like never before in European-Settler culture.  So when Carrie Davies was found not guilty of point-blank shooting her unarmed employer, people paid attention.  Carrie was made out to be a young, innocent English girl who had a sweetheart in the war and who sent money to her poor widowed mother back in England.  Self defence?  Fear of assault?  It was different times, yet Gray highlights how the murder case of Carrie Davies shows the shift in sympathy: Toronto did have rich elites, yet the working class was the catalyst for the push to free Carrie.



Although Carrie Davies disappeared from the public eye after her trial, Gray uses her trial to show how much Canada was desperate for change.  Through describing Canada’s efforts in the war and how that lead to Canada being its own signatory at the end of the war, Grey is able to demonstrate how the shift in power was coming from the grass roots, up through the government.  This was the time of women’s suffrage, of the Winnipeg General Strike, of  the disappearance of the influence of the old Family Compact left over from pre-Confederation politics.  This was also a time when women were beginning to break the ideas of women as house angels and were asserting their rights.



The trial of Carrie Davies hung on the fact that she was a young, innocent virgin was so afraid of being defiled and ruined that she shot her employer after he tried to seduce her.  As Gray states in her book, the court (Judge and Jury) were more sympathetic towards an ideal of what women should be and less sympathetic to the fact that she killed an unarmed man.  Gray explains that the times were different and that Carrie was in a vulnerable position, yet the concept of the ideal woman allowed her to walk away from the noose and live her life away from her past.  In fact, at the end, Gray writes that her own children and family had no idea that she had killed Charles Massey.  In an interview with both Gray and Frank Jones, the author of Master and Maid (a story written about Carrie years previous), Jones describes how he found Carrie’s daughter and gave a bit of a happy ending to the story: Carrie devoted her life to helping young women in trouble, even to the point of running a home for girls.  From her powerless position as an underpaid house maid, she was able to see the possibilities for others in similar situations.

One of the biggest contributors to fueling the controversy was the press: the newspapers at the time made Carrie’s case headline news.  Rival papers were telling different sides of the stories, reporters were finding interviews with family members, and one paper even started a legal fund for Carrie.  In that respect, Toronto in 1915 was similar to today: media plays a huge role in how we see our own society.  In fact, media loved Rob Ford and often fought over if he was a hero or villain.



Overall, I truly enjoyed Gray’s book.  It was about politics, a shift in societal attitudes, class wars, newspaper wars, actual wars.  I am grateful that I am a woman who has a job I like with enough money to provide for myself and that I don’t have to worry about work place harassment (and if it does happen, there are laws protecting me as a human, not as an innocent or disreputable woman).

2013_02_09_TorontoStarFebruary9-1915_640 copy


“As the country developed, so Canada’s laws, lawyers, and citizens adapted to its shifting values.” (Pg 285)



“Fried Green Tomatoes”: love, love, love

I’m not really a fan of American fiction, yet I find myself teaching it in my classes. It’s interesting how tradition can sometimes stretch our boundaries. Some of my Gr. 11 students are reading Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg for their novel study and I felt I needed to read the book in order to engage them in conversation.


I know that it would be an anachronism and complete out of geographical place, but I couldn’t help but think as I was reading that the theme song for this novel should be “All You Need Is Love” by The Bealtles. Love. This was a novel about love.


Smokey Lonesome, a wandering man, loves Ruth the second he sees her wearing a polkadot dress in the Whistle Stop Cafe.
Idgie, a firecracker in Whistle Stop, loves Ruth and throws the world’s most amazing tantrum when Ruth moves back to her parents’ house after a summer of romance.
Sipsey, a black woman who works at the Whistle Stop Cafe, loves Ruth and would do anything (ANYTHING) to keep Ruth safe, even if it means bringing death.

Romance, friendship, passion, loyalty, and protection. Throughout the novel, the various characters demonstrate the power of love and how it transcends the binaries and rules of society.

I will admit that I was surprised to learn that this book was so popular, and taught in school, considering that it delves into concepts of racism, homosexuality, and sexual violence. Yet I suppose that is exactly why it is so popular: the people of Whistle Stop support and love each other, no matter what. For the residents of Whistle Stop Cafe, people are people.

I have to say, as much as American literature is not my favourite, I did enjoy this novel. Fannie Flagg writes some fantastic lines in her novel:
-“You never know what’s in a person’s heart until they’re tested, do you?”
-“Are you a politician or does lying just run in your family?”
-“The ones that hurt the most always say the least.”
-“It’s funny, when you’re a child you think time will never go by, but when you hit about twenty, time passes like you’re on the fast train to Memphis. I guess life just slips up on everybody. It sure did on me.”
-“You know, a heart can be broken, but it still keeps a-beating just the same.”
-“Remember if people talk behind your back, it only means you are two steps ahead.”
-“I wonder how many people don’t get the one they want, but end up with the one they’re supposed to be with.”

For a bunch of teenage girls (or at least the ones in my class), what an inspiring novel! To know that life twists and turns and plans don’t work out is important, yet it is even more important to know that the important things in life aren’t things. I can’t help but think of Michel Franti’s song “I’ll Be Waiting” because one of his lines says “The best things in life aren’t things, they’re living, they’re breathing.”


I am walking away from the novel with a sense that love is love. Restrictions, rules, parameters, and restrictions don’t count when it’s love. Love is love.

That being said, there’s one last song that fits with the novel: “I’m Alive.” “Life sounds like, I’m alive!” Life is a celebration, quiet or noisy, of the love we share and the love we see around us.


“I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. And mark that you do this with humility and discipline—not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.” (Ephesians 4:2)

“I think that people that are not sensitive, who seem to bang through life, do survive, but I don’t think they get the really soaring feelings that people who are more artistically bent can get.” (Fannie Flagg)