Sashenka by Simon Montefiore

Sashenka by Simon Montefiore is the best book I've read this year. It starts in St. Petersburg in 1916 and ends in Moscow in 1994. So it covers the time from pre-revolution Russia to post-communism. About a lifetime. What a story. What a heroine. This book is full of history, heavy with sensuality, and page-turning plot.

The reader gets glimpses of Rasputin, of Lenin, Stalin, and various other heavyweights from the communist era. While it skips over the 1917 revolution itself, the 1937 Great Terror, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, it shows how these events affected the lives of a single family.

The book begins and ends in the archives. The Soviet archives are a most incredible place. Bureaucrats kept track of interrogations, imprisonments, and causes of death. I found my own grandfather's signature in a former KGB archive. Arrested in June, 1937, after a hot summer of imprisonment, he was ready to confess to being a counter-revolutionary spy (the much-used Article 58) and sentenced to death. Death was a shot to the back of the head - in September of '37. Was he quilty? Of course not. None of those people were guilty. And the Sashenka of Montefiore's novel wasn't guilty either. I can't give anything away - don't want to spoil anyone's enjoyment. Just read the book!

Oh, and because I loved the writing style so very much, here's a short sentence: "The sun and moon watched each other suspiciously across a milky sky." The smells are rich and the love scenes, both adult and parent/child are richly drawn. The suspense is always there. Every reader knows that with Stalin in the picture, no one was safe.

This is Simon Montefiore's first novel.
Click here to listen to Montefiore talk about his book. Visit his website for a list of his past nonfiction books and new works.

My Town Monday - Assiniboine Park

Every city must have its green space. New York City has its Central Park (that I got to explore this past May!), and Winnipeg has its pride and joy, Assiniboine Park. Last night, Buddy (the dog) and me, pretended we were tourists and meandered through the 1100 acre park. Of course, we couldn't explore the whole place, and we were thoroughly wiped by the time we found the car again. Even Buddy was happy to rest.

Assiniboine Park was established back in 1904. On the north edge there's the Assiniboine River and on the south edge, there's the Assiniboine Forest. The park is home to a Conservatory - filled with tropical plants and flowers all year long, and a great restaurant (which we can go to if you're ever in town); a Zoo - which is seriously underfunded and a source of debate; a cricket field; an eye-catching pavillion with an art gallery, a duck pond, a sculpture garden, an English flower garden, and an outdoor stage which last night was playing some great jazz. The dog, however, was mostly interested in the other dogs playing frisbee on the vast green spaces and the forest trails, although he did peer over the foot bridge to check out the Assiniboine River. Later, he got to taste that river, too.

But a city isn't a noun, so much as it's a verb. And everything I see (or don't see - like the dandelions and mosquitoes) is a much discussed issue in our city. Beautiful green spaces like Assiniboine Park don't just happen. It takes a lot of money, political will, and planning to provide the public with a free place of beauty like a park. (No we don't need condos in the park!) Let's hope that all cities will continue to give its citizens (their families and
their pets) such pieces of Paradise to enjoy. And may we never take them for granted.

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Uncle Leo

It had to happen. I offended a relative with one of the characters of my book - and explaining the difference between fiction and non-fiction didn't help.On the cover of my book it says, 'based on a true story." It doesn't say 'a true story.' Historical fiction is a creative re-telling of the past. I had to put words into the mouths of my characters.

The character most strongly fictionalized is 'Uncle Leo.' I made him up. In real life, there was instead a good-hearted half-brother. He was seventeen years older and shared a father with Olga and her siblings, but had a different mother. (I presume the first wife of my grandfather died in childbirth - a much too common occurrence in those years.) So the 'real' savior of the younger children in Siberian exile was not a communist supporter.

As a novelist, however, I make no apologies for creating 'Uncle Leo.' I wanted to show how nobody could be trusted in those years. Bad guys are so much fun to create - and a book full of victims could become uninteresting. Also, as someone recently pointed out, Stalin can't be blamed for all the deaths in the Soviet Union. He couldn't have done it without help - and there were plenty of people like my fictionalized 'Uncle Leo' who were only too happy to improve their lot at the expense of others. This is true in every society. The exploited become the exploiters.

What remains true, though, is that millions of kulak families lost their homes, many their lives, and all suffered untold hardships, when the Soviet Union switched to collective farming in their first Five Year Plan.

My Town Monday and the Assiniboia Downs

The word ‘Assiniboia’ is used a lot in Winnipeg. The people of the Assiniboia First Nation were the original bearers of the name. Since then we’ve named a river, a zoo, a municipality, numerous businesses, and a racetrack after them.

Fast Facts about Horse Racing for the total Know-Not-All:

I’ve never paid it much attention, but now that one of my kids has a part time job there, I’m suddenly curious. I’ve even attended my first horse race this past weekend and lost three whole dollars!

Usually, in the mornings when I drive past the track on my way to work, I’ll see horses prancing around in circles like they’re part of a merry-go-round. Sometimes there’s a smoky fire nearby, to keep the mosquitoes away. I’ve now learned that the carousel devices are called ‘hot walkers.’ Four to six horses can exercise at the same time for about half an hour.

Track Facts:

The racetrack opened in 1958. Before that, races were held at Polo Park (which for all of my lifetime, has been the name of our biggest shopping mall).

The Assiniboia Downs racetrack is six and a half furlongs long. (To put this in perspective, the track for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is 10 furlongs). There are 8 furlongs in a mile.

Live thoroughbred racing happens only during the summer – on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. What is a thoroughbred, you ask? Somehow, they can all trace back their lineage back to three specific horses that were bred in England. Thoroughbreds come in a variety of colors, and sizes – measuring from 15 to 17 hands. (A hand = 4 inches.)

Other Horse facts:

Filly – female three years or younger

Mare – female over three years old

Entire – male stallion

Gelding – a male horse that’s been castrated

Non-horse person that I am, what I find most fascinating about the whole sport is naming of the horses. Here’s a sample of some recent Assiniboia Downs competitors: Ally Scatter, Gentle Rain, Black Iris, Awaytobelieve, Fine Feline, and Oh Holy Moley. These names must rival the names chosen by rock bands. It's not a good idea to place bets according to names, though. I lost my three bucks betting on Gentle Rain.

Perhaps this is a good place to stop. I haven’t touched on the jockeys, the actual racing, or the betting procedures. But I do want to recommend a young adult book I read awhile ago. It’s written by Annie Wedekind, called A Horse of Her Own. Great story about the horse/human relationship and some insight into the complicated horse world.

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Die Frauen von Janowka (The Women of Janowka)

Just read a book that I had to order from Germany - therefore the cost of delivery was more than the book itself. But the price was well worth it. Die Frauen von Janowka (The Women of Janowka) by Helmut Exner drew me in quickly and kept me turning pages until the end. While it's a 'roman' or novel, it's more of a family memoir and is filled with photographs, maps, and brief lifelines of the individuals, to help the reader along. I found myself constantly go back and forth, checking the photos and maps to review the who's and where's. I found this immensely helpful.

One of the main characters is the author's grandmother, Serafine, and her parts of the book were my favorite. The Russian part of the story happens before my own mother is born. It's about the exile of thousands of Germans to remote parts of Siberia during WWI.

This book is dear to my heart because it's also my family's story. Like the author, I too have family spread all over the world - family that shared beginnings in Volhynia. What really brought this story close to me was not just the beginning, but the ending - specifically, the last photograph in the book. It's of the Brokenhead River by Beausejour. Next weekend I plan to drive out there - it should be a less than two hour drive. The family that started off by a river in Volhynia (once in Russia, later in the USSR, now in Ukraine), now has some of that family farming in my own province.

One of the book's strengths was the humorous banter between the couples - led by the Exner men - and passed on through the generations. The author did a great job in giving life to his deceased family members. An excellent read, all around. (Also, considering my German isn't as strong as it used to be - the language flowed and was quite accessible.)

My Town Monday and the Winnipeg Folk Festival

I’ve spent twenty summers going to the Winnipeg Folk Festival. This summer I’m not there – physically – but I can still feel its vibes, and I’d like to share some of those with you. Here are twenty facts about this most amazing musical, spiritual, and community experience.

1. The Winnipeg Folk Festival always happens on the second weekend of July. (The weekend starts on a Wednesday.)

2. The Winnipeg Folk Festival site is at Birds Hill Provincial Park – about half an hour northeast of Winnipeg.

3. The Festival began as a one time event back in 1974 by Mitch Podolak and Colin Gorrie. That’s 37 years ago!

4. In an effort to provide a quality experience, 2010 is the first time that attendance will be capped at 14, 000 per day. (No more waiting to see what the weather will be like.) It’s sold out this year.

5. Only 6000 campers are allowed. Sites are unserviced.

6. The Festival generally avoids the big names in music – but some star attractions have included Blue Rodeo, Elvis Costello, Bare Naked Ladies, Great Big Sea and Bruce Cockburn.

7. The ‘morning tarp run’ is a chaotic scene where thousands of people are let through the gate to place their tarp in front of the mainstage. Scary!

8. Small venue workshops start at 11:30 a.m. and offer an intimate setting for your favorite (and soon to be favorite) acts.

9. Handmade Village offers unique items from soaps to walking sticks to clothes, ear rings and bracelets.

10. Whale’s Tails are an annual must at the Food Village. So are the fantastic fruit shakes.

11. No glass, alcohol or other ‘stuff’ is allowed into the festival area.

12. 2200 volunteers make the festival work. It’s amazing how it’s all organized. I volunteered for a few years as ‘site security’. It was a super experience. And the food? Wow. The volunteers and the performers get exceptional food.

13. There are two campgrounds at the Festival site. ‘Festival’ and ‘quiet’. My family has only camped at the ‘quiet’ site. We learned quickly to choose a camping spot with some shade.

14. There’s poison ivy out there, so stay on the trails. (Our family learned this the hard way.)

15. Wristbands define your status as a camper, weekender, or daily visitor.

16. Family Area is for kids. Big sand dune, crafts, and kid-friendly music. Our family spent many hours over the years in this area.

17. Young Performers Stage is a way for budding artists to perform and be mentored by older, more experienced musicians.

18. The average age at the folk festival? Every age. From newborn to 93.

19. My favorite memory? Watching my three kids wiggle their little bums to the music.

20. Second favorite memory? Seeing a most awesome rainbow while being surrounded by swaying people as beautiful music pulses through the air. (After we'd all been soaked by the rain!)

Twenty summers with my kids. Good vibes!

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My Town Monday and the Burton Cummings Theatre

Winnipeg has a downtown establishment called The Burton Cummings Theatre. (I got to watch Leonard Cohen there a few years ago.) The venue was originally called the Walker Theatre when it was built back in 1906. Then in 1991 it was re-furbished and re-named after one of our famous sons, Burton Cummings. Burton was the lead singer of the internationally acclaimed band from the seventies known as The Guess Who. Here's a chance to listen to their song, Share the Land.

Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg-Theatre-Walker, Image 9/N13272.

The reason I'm sharing Burton's theatre now is because he's been in the news lately. You see, Burton was a high school dropout. But this past June, he (and my youngest daughter) both received their high school diplomas - only not at the same school. His school was St. John's High in the North End - which even back in the 70s was notorious for its rough edge.

My question is this. Does someone who has not fulfilled the requirements of a high school diploma, deserve one? Of course, Burton Cummings moved on to become successful without finishing school. But what message is that sending to young people graduating today? I'm not sure.

Whatever the answer is, I still want to send huge CONGRATULATIONS to all the Class of 2010! The world is yours!

And to anyone who's interested, here's a listing of upcoming Burton Cumming's Theatre Events.

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gardening and writing

Here's some more writing insights I've learned from gardening. I don't go for the formal, defined garden, but even a casual, informal garden takes a lot of work. While I love color and blossoms, I also love shade trees and lots of green. The two don't always mix. In my writing I lean towards the dark side of life - which doesn't mean it has to be dreary - I just have to remember to have pockets of sunlight - surprise hugs of warmth. Contrast keeps writing and gardens interesting.

Gardening, like writing, is more successful when there's anticipation. And a garden with plants that promise future blooms, rather than a constant sameness of color, keeps the garden visitor coming back for more. Each morning I walk through my garden and indulge in the growth that makes for constant change. In books, I want a character and a plot that surprises me and that makes me want to re-visit the character and see what's developing in that imaginary world.

I've also learned that pruning and weeding are ruthless, but necessary parts of gardening. To do this properly, I've had to learn to identify the difference between a weed and a promising flower. It's taken me a while, but I'm learning. In the same way, some words I write are simply weeds. But it's only by getting in there and writing that I can gain the confidence to distinguish strong writing from weedy trash.

And the greatest thing about gardening and writing, is that you can always re-plant and re-write. And then there's that great recycling place called the compost pile. Nothing is ever wasted. All it takes is time and a little bit of getting dirty.

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