Category Archives: Bonnie Way

Ruzesky treks for beauty, obsession

In Antarctica: An Amundsen Pilgrimage

By Jay Ruzesky

Nightwood Editions

239 pp, $24.95

Reviewed by Bonnie Way

“A map reveals through silence and quiet white space; monsters fill the places that have never been seen. When the earth was a plate there were gorgeous waterfalls at the edges and serpents all around. In the Antarctic, the empty landscape on maps is not snow or lack of geographical character. Those thousands of square kilometers are blank because they have still never been visited.”

In Antarctica: An Amundsen Pilgrimage captures Jay Ruzesky’s fascination with Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911. In 2011, Ruzesky set out on his own expedition to Antarctica, wanting to see and experience just a bit of what Amundsen had seen and experienced a century earlier.  The story moves between Ruzesky’s contemporary voyage from Vancouver, BC, down through South America to Antarctica and Amundsen’s historic expedition from Christiana (Oslo), Norway, down the globe to the South Pole. Ruzesky brings alive the historical men (and dogs) who made up Amundsen’s expedition and contrasts travel in 1911 with travel in 2011.

Ruzesky can be forgiven for his obsession with Amundsen, who is one of his ancestors. His experience in Antarctica is deeply emotional and his poetic language enlivens the beauty of this far-away place. He says of his trip, “What I am looking for is not icebergs and penguins and humpback whales; I am looking to travel through a myth that is my own, a story of ice that is mine to dream and to know.”

That desire to make the story our own is, I believe, what each of us seeks as we pick up a book. As I read, I found myself comparing this story to that of Ernest Shackleton, another Antarctica explorer whose journey has been told in books and IMAX movies. I also thought of my own trip to Glacier Bay, Alaska, a place of ice and rock and cold and water that only hints at the vast beauty contained in Antarctica.

Ruzesky extols the beauty of Antarctica but also comments on what this hard-to-reach place means to our modern world: “Much in the way Christmas reminds us to want to be our best selves, the Antarctic reminds us to want to change our lives. Here is the world before we messed it up. No cigarette butts on the beaches, no graffiti carved into the glaciers. Pristine is a word I keep hearing.”

In Antarctica is a beautiful melding of the personal and the public, the past and the present, research and emotion. Ruzesky presents the facts of Amundsen’s life and work, yet also captures Amundsen’s dreams and despairs. Just as Amundsen was foiled in his goal of being the first man to reach the North Pole and had to change plans, so Ruzesky also failed follow exactly in Amundsen’s footsteps and reach the Pole. Both men adapted, doing what they were able to do, and creating compelling stories in the process.

Bonnie Way has a BA in English (2006) and a BA in Creative Writing (2014). She blogs as The Koala Bear Writer.

“Canadian roots” captures island history

The Maquinna Line: A Family Saga

By Norma MacMillan

Touchwood Editions

288 pp., $19.95

Reviewed by Bonnie Way

One wouldn’t expect Caspar the Friendly Ghost to have anything in common with Canadian literary fiction, but he does.  Norma Macmillan is the woman who voiced Caspar and who, with her posthumously published novel The Maquinna Line: A Family Saga, makes her mark in Canadian fiction.  Already recognized in Vancouver’s Starwalk for her work in Canadian theatre, Macmillan was an accomplished actress as well as a playwright.  The Maquinna Line is a generational tale that the author worked on for decades before her death; it was discovered in a closet by her husband and revived with the help of a family friend.

The Maquinna Line opens in 1778 with the meeting between Captain James Cook and Moachat chieftain Maquinna on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island.  In a few brief pages, Macmillan captures this meeting between equals that would lead to the subjugation of B.C.’s Aboriginal peoples.  Maquinna helps Cook refurbish his boat and looks forward to more becoming wealthy by trade with the white men, but is watched by Raven, who seems to have “some knowledge of the future that was different from his.”

We then skip ahead to Victoria in 1910 and our first meeting with Julia Godolphin at a garden party.  I found these next chapters a bit hard to read, as we skipped between characters—all of whom were interesting, but I wasn’t yet connected with any.  Soon the story settles upon Julia’s brother Stanley, a shy, confused young boy who commits an unforgiveable crime and is banished from Victoria.  Then we meet Sveinn Arnason, the Icelandic immigrant who made his fortune in the Comox Valley and gives Stanley a place to work.

The story meanders forward, touching upon the lives of various families in Victoria until 1947. Macmillan’s theatre background is evident in the way that, with just a few quick sentences, she brings a character alive on the page.  Her familiarity with Vancouver Island and its history was also evident.  As a recent “immigrant” to Victoria myself, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about places I’ve visited or seen, such as the Empress Hotel, Ross Cemetery and St. Ann’s School.

In the foreword, actress and author Alison Arngrim talks about watching her mother go away to write the book and says of reading the manuscript, “My mother’s book … was not simple, and it was not, to put it mildly, a lighthearted satirical romp as I imagined her plays to be.  It was sometimes darkly comic, but often simply dark.  To be honest, I found sections of it downright disturbing.”  Macmillan wasn’t afraid to tackle sexual scandals, mental illness, disability, or death in her novel, yet there is also beauty in each relationship, in the twists and turns of the story, in the way that each family faces their struggles.

Arngrim calls her mother’s novel the “Canadian Roots” and indeed Macmillan does take us on a tour of Vancouver Island through several generations of its early families. She captures the character of the island and its varied inhabitants.  This novel is sure to delight Island-dweller as well as those who’ve never seen it.

Bonnie Way blogs as The Koala Bear Writer.  She has three daughters and is completing her BA in Writing at the University of Victoria while working on a novel.




Book on English hilariously informative

The Rude Story of English

By Tom Howell

Published by McClelland & Stewart

300 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Bonnie Way

English is a patchwork quilt of a language, with words borrowed from other languages and “rules” applied arbitrarily.  We probably all memorized the “I before E except after C” rule in school and have seen the meme going around on Facebook that shows the exceptions to that rule.  In his debut book The Rude Story of English, Tom Howell attempts to trace the paths of English through time and place and find out how some of the words evolved—or didn’t.

Howell is a graduate of the University of Victoria who wrote definitions for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and thesaurus entries for the Canadian Oxford Thesaurus—an excellent background for this book.  He’s also worked for CBC Radio as in-house word nerd and poetry correspondent.  He is originally from London, England, and now lives in Toronto, Ontario, and has thus experienced firsthand the changes wrought in a language over time and place.

Howell begins his history of English by creating a hero—a personification of the English language whom we can follow and cheer for (or groan in disgust at).  To find his hero, he goes back to another word nerd: J. R. R. Tolkien, who also worked for Oxford’s dictionary department.  Tolkien also understood English’s need for a hero and chose Hengest, an “ancient warrior who had somehow gained a reputation for discovering Britain on behalf of the Angles, a tribe in northern Germany, thereby inventing the English language.”

From the opening pages of The Rude Story of English, Howell had me laughing out loud.  He sprinkles just enough research and fact through his story to make it believable, yet most of it is “asterisked” as he fills in the gaps of our knowledge.  The story is rude, irreverent, and hilarious, with penis jokes sprinkled among word jokes.  Howell lopes through the centuries, showing how English grew up as a language and mentioning key figures in its evolution, such as Beowulf,  Chaucer and Roger Williams.

Howell includes samples of poetry in Old English with his own translations.  In regards to various anonymous works of poetry and prose that have survived from English’s early days, he says, “I know several male poets.  The idea that they would contribute anything of significance without pasting their real names (including, often as not, their middle names) all over the material strikes me as implausible.  If Anon’s true identity was lost to the ignorance and carelessness of time, I bet she was an Anonyma, a woman who chose the pseudonym to dodge the biases of critics.”

The Rude Story of English is a book for lovers of words, puns, history, language and humour.  If you want a good dose of humour with a bit of learning thrown in, I heartily recommend it.  As Howell himself says:  “I’m often struck by how tenuously I know my own language, which is why I like to look words up in dictionaries—for the sense of reassurance that somebody out there has been keeping track of it all.”

Bonnie Way has a B.A. in English and History and is completing a second B.A. in Writing.