Winning Words – Non-Fiction
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Talking to Orwell about Book Reviewing by Shane Joseph
These days in retirement, I have idle talks with myself, and sometimes with famous literary personalities I wish I had met. This particular conversation was with a colonial and a futurist, someone I would love to have spoken to given our common backgrounds, except that he died six years before I was born: George Orwell. So, I had this imaginary conversation with him about another activity we share: book reviewing.
George: Five books were sent to me in the mail four days ago on diverse subjects that I know nothing about. An 800-page review, one that includes all five books, is due by midday tomorrow.
Shane: Get on with it, then. At least, you get paid. I do book reviews for love. But, I get to choose books I WANT to review. And if I don’t like a book, it’s toast as far as I’m concerned.
George: Lucky beggar! I review a minimum of a 100 books a year, and I would only like to review about 10 of them. The rest is crap.
Shane: A hundred books! You must be rich. I’m averaging 40 per year – gratis. Beyond that, it will feel like WORK!
George: Well, it IS work. For me. I procrastinate until the last minute, then I pile in stock phrases like —“a book that no one should miss,” “something memorable on every page,” “of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc., etc.,”— and the review will end up at exactly the right length and with just about three minutes to spare.
Shane: That’s no better than the “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” or “the mutual admiration society” ethics we have today, where writers write reviews of each other’s work, and every book gets a five-star rating.
George: The great majority of reviews give an inadequate or misleading account of the book that is dealt with. Since the war, publishers have been less able than before to twist the tails of literary editors and evoke a paean of praise for every book that they produce, but on the other hand the standard of reviewing has gone down owing to lack of space and other inconveniences.
Shane: Well, there is no space in the newspapers these days, for there are few paid reviewers like you out there. But there are tons of reviews floating around in cyberspace. There are even review factories that give free books to unproven reviewers and charge publishers for listing their books on their platforms.
George: Is that so? Well, a good deal of reviewing, especially of novels, might well be done by amateurs. Nearly every book is capable of arousing passionate feeling, even if it is a passionate dislike, in some or other reader, whose ideas about it would surely be worth more than those of a bored professional.
Shane: But wait until you piss off one of those amateurs and they launch a fatwa against you. I have seen writers destroyed on these online review forums when a private spat goes viral.
George: It used to be that only writers did that kind of stuff. Remember H.G Wells tearing strips off Henry James for his satirical novel Boon? At any rate, the best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews — 1,000 words is a bare minimum — to the few that seem to matter. Short notes of a line or two on forthcoming books can be useful, but the usual middle-length review of about 600 words is bound to be worthless.”
Shane: Oh, George, stick to your century, man! How times have changed! No one reads a 1000-word review anymore – attention spans don’t last that long. The 600-word review might fare marginally better, and the only hope these days is in the one-liner that we upload to a place called Twitter.
George: Upload? What an earth is that? Twitter?
Shane: Instant publishing, old chap. No more long waits for publishers to respond, for editors to tear your work apart. None of that. Just write and upload, and the whole world gets to read you, if they care to. But there’s one catch – it’s free.
George: Free? How do you guys live?
Shane: That, my dear George, is something we are all trying to figure out.
Note: George Orwell’s dialogue lines were inspired from his essay “Confessions of a Book Reviewer” – 1946.
Waitressing at Marie Dressler Restaurant by Linda Hutsell Manning
This coveted summer job paid $15 for a six day week:11AM to 9PM with two hours off each afternoon. Given I usually made $60 a week in tips, Google says my weekly $75 would be $750 today.
The restaurant owner, Lenah Fisher’s high standards for waitresses included speech, posture and attitude. The restaurant sported white linen table cloths and napkins, elegant antique furniture, table settings and silverware. Delighted I made the grade, I knew how gruelling the job would be, having worked two previous summers waitressing at a respected Cobourg hotel.
I rode my bicycle from home on Brook Rd South to and from work, rain or shine although, if it was raining, I covered my uniform with a plastic dry cleaner bag and carried it on one arm, praying none of it would get water or mud stained on the way.
Each waitress was designated a room. The Music Room with its antique wind-up music box, belonged to the head waitress whom we all resented. As Maitre D, we felt she took the best customers. On her day off, when Lenah was Maitre D, customer distribution seemed more democratic. Second best was the Button Room – its walls adorned with an extensive collection of glass-framed buttons and, lastly, the Little Back Room which none of us wanted.
We were allotted one cotton uniform: a black below the knee dress, a white, tied at the waist apron, a black and white headpiece that required starching and black stockings held up with our garter belt or girdle. We provided black shoes. If the apron became soiled over lunch hour as it often did, I cycled home to wash, hand dry and iron it for the evening shift. We wore these uniforms, according to Lenah, to emulate demure and efficient French maids.
The two-way windowless swinging kitchen door was a nightmare and I remember disasters with loaded trays. We moved as quickly as possible, always trying to give good service in the shortest time. The rule to be quiet and unobtrusive was certainly broken when two waitresses collided resulting in spoiled orders and an infuriated cook.
One of my compatriots who worked the breakfast shift says Lenah insisted waitresses make and butter their own toast, time-consuming and nerve-wracking when a bus load of tourists arrived. I remember making individual salads and desserts and being told to clean up afterward or face the wrath of the cook Marius.
Ah, Marius! According to Lenah, he was from some posh Rivera restaurant in France. Why he was in small town Cobourg in the 1950’s was, of course, something we were not allowed to question. He ruled with despot ferocity, often belittling and admonishing us in his Maurice Chevalier accent. The job description said our weekly pay included suppers but Marius was loathe to give us any of us his French fare. He insisted we wait, even when there was a lull, saying he couldn’t give away his prized creations. Paying guests could arrive at any moment. The result was, of course, we stole – a piece of chicken, a slice of beef. We were hungry having not eaten since breakfast. When he noticed and accused us, we played dumb. “I know I had dix pieces of ‘cheeckin’, he would sputter, “and now there are only neuf”.
We complained and griped but the paycheck plus tips made it worthwhile. Memories have kept the experience alive for me and, I’m sure, for others who worked there in the 1950’s.
Humanity Has Been Here Before! by Sharon Ramsay Curtis
Today as I stood in line practicing physical distancing due to Covid 19, waiting for my turn to go into the grocery store, my thoughts took me to the women of the Second World War. I was born in 1945, just post war, but my formative reading years were greatly taken up with “home front” war stories, Thank you Reader’s Digest!
Even today I love the stories of how the women of those times managed. They stood in line for hours, often not even knowing what they would find! Sometimes they got as little as 5 potatoes. They learned to trade, to make do and get on with life. Their ingenuity with food is legendary: is it possible to make a cake with no eggs or butter? I believe so, if tales are true.
And here is the kicker—this all happened with bombed out houses, absent children and husbands, over a period of 5 years or more!
Just sayin’ folks! Sometimes it helps to get a different perspective!
Travelling in Switzerland Was a Scream by Carolyn Helfenstein
Of all our trips to Switzerland, there was one that topped them all, from some twenty years ago. Let me explain.
While visiting my husband’s Swiss family on this occasion, I remember making the rather selfish comment that I needed some time for just the two of us, despite the fact I had adopted Harry’s family as my own and truly loved them all. Harry, looking into my pleading, cow-like brown eyes that day, had no choice. We did indeed need some time alone together, so we made plans.
Harry swept me away on first class highways that first morning, with blue skies and no word of rain. As we drove up and up through mountain passes, some so narrow that only a wise mountain goat nannie knew she could take her newborn kid on them, I eventually declared I had seen enough of mountain roads.
We found a placid Swiss village at day’s end, at the foot of what had been our most challenging mountain. It seemed the innkeeper was waiting our arrival—we were so warmly received. Our waiter, Swiss of course, a man of perfect demeanor for this classy little inn, brought us our favourite appetizer, complete with the essential touch of lemon rind and one ice cube and a stir stick, followed by the chef’s specialty, amazing wienerschnitzel mitt rosti. I was in heaven and Harry was soaking up this familiar setting he had often enjoyed with his family in times past. Making it a perfect evening, our waiter returned time and time again. He had the incredible ability to make our demi-litre of wine last two hours.
Aware of how content I had become—dining in such an enchanting Swiss hideaway —I did not know until later that he had refrained from mentioning his plans for the following day. And so, we enjoyed every minute of our luscious ‘time alone together’ at the bottom of a mountain.
Harry drove to the train station the next morning alone, purchased our tickets, and found me waiting outside the inn upon his return.
“No long drive for us! This is the way to go!” he whispered in my ear. I wondered what he meant. We were now lined up with others in cars waiting to take the shortcut through a mountain.
It was soon our turn to drive our rental car up a ramp like the other travellers had done. Shocking it was, for me to find that we were to sit in our parked car on one of the bare flatbeds of our railway car, with the emergency brake firmly applied. Furthermore, we now realized there was no arrangement at all for us to move to a passenger car where we could sit and read and enjoy a coffee. As if that was not enough, I realized that these flatbeds provided no proper railings for at least a sense of protection.
Harry sensed my fear.
“We’ll come out the other side of this mountain in 20 minutes. No fear.” He smiled and still had not mentioned the plans and what was to happen next.
The engine chugged into a frantic start, and the entire train approached the mouth of the tunnel—and darkness. The long line of flatbeds was now disappearing one after another into the pitch-black nothingness before them.
It was then out turn!
“Harry!” I screamed. “Where are the lights. We need some light!” My screaming was horribly high-pitched. Yet despite that pitiful scream, truth was— there was no light. I was suffering the knowledge now of being propelled into the very core of a Swiss alp, with no light.
I continued to scream and began beating Harry in the arms. What else could I do? We travelled on, Harry groping around for car lights, all the while trying to hold off my fists.
In utter horror, we suddenly saw huge lights. They were coming at us from down the track, and I knew we would be killed. Harry was just about as frantic, knowing perhaps, if I found the handle to open my door, I would be out!
I was still beating him—but less, and my screaming had become moaning. He was still trying to find the light switch.
“Kiddo, calm down. Please, I can’t find the light. Just wait.
“Here! The door, I can open it!”
He opened his door a sliver and like a miracle, lights turned on.
My screaming ceased, even though I continued to imagine the rock walls of the tunnel could fall in soon, and we would be swallowed up in the mountain forever. But I kept quiet.
Well, we did come out the other side of the mountain, and I did forgive Harry for putting us on a flatbed and he forgave me for beating him in such a terrible manner. We are still married, and now I am a writer.
We have had so many wonderful adventures like this one, and I am forever adding colour to my writing, thanks to them. Probably none was more fun than when I added the trip through a tunnel in my Newfoundland novel. My Newfoundlanders especially Marion Martin, who has always been my favorite character because she is so outspoken, easily spooked, and capable of slipping back into her outport dialect with words that would make a proper Englishman cringe, I had her sitting in a train travelling at the ridiculous speed of 30 mph in 1846. I had her husband, handsome Ted, holding her firmly and lovingly as their rackety little train scurried through Box Tunnel—yes, another tunnel with no lights at all. I allow Marion to scream, she scratched and beat her husband, as I really did in that train in Switzerland.
Readers tell me they love that scene in Rock Solid as Ted attempts to comfort Marion as they go through the pitch-black of Box Tunnel; and Harry reminds me— he still bears the scars earned that day.
The Art of Driving by Cathy Joyce
The drive from Peterborough is long, about a day and a half. We drove around Gaspé, Quebec. The fishing villages that came into view around every bend were quintessential French Canadian. Every home was well-stocked with fire wood for the long cold winters. We drove around Cape Breton, the fiddle capital of Canada. We did stop as often as we could to participate in céilithe. A cèilidh is a traditional Scottish or Irish social gathering. In its most basic form, it simply means a social visit. In contemporary usage, it usually involves dancing and playing Gaelic folk music, either at a house party or a larger concert at a social hall or other community gathering place. We had a favourite drive through the middle of New Brunswick, a logging road with lots of hills and dales to keep us excited. We would stop to take pictures of the bears!
These were the various routes to get to PEI from Ontario.
Then we discovered Presqu’ile – a treasure to be appreciated, just down the road from our home. No more long drives which we had loved but eventually realized the daily visits to the shores of the park and the trails through the forest were more appealing. We did not have to retire in a different province. We retired at our familiar home, with our dreams fulfilled. And we stayed close to family and friends.
Our vacations during the past 30 years have also included annual or bi-annual trips to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, USA. The drive through New York State and the Green Mountains of Vermont to New Hampshire is spectacular. We would stop, on route, to climb any portion or trail of the Adirondack Mountains that appealed to us. One year we picked a new trail straight up approximately 2800 feet. Going up was terrific; going down was more difficult. The next morning my legs were so sore that I could barely stand. The higher backs of my hiking boots had dug into the backs of my ankles leaving me with bruises and extreme pain. It took three days to recover. We decided there and then to throw away our hiking boots (well worn anyway) and get out our hiking sneakers. The trails became easier every year thereafter.
We still love the drive to New Hampshire and the drives through the mountains in the autumn with the colourful changing of the leaves and walking the planned trails but alas our trips have been cancelled for the past few years. And now the borders are closed due to Covid-19.
We would still love to go back some day but in the meantime we have beautiful drives in Ontario. We have Prince Edward County to the east of us. What an uncanny coincidence in the name! Picton is a perfect small town to explore. The shoreline along Lake Ontario, from Kingston to Picton, offers views of the water with many little rest spots to visit. The drive to Peterborough along the Ganaraska Road is beautiful, with a shopping trip to Costco at the end of it!