Canadian author Yasuko Thanh’s personal journey is a contemporary tragedy

Despite the proliferation of helicopter parenting these days, there are still far too many children who are unloved, unwanted, mistreated, and, tragically, abused. Mental illness often plays a major role in the lives of many parents and children who through no fault of their own are unable to negotiate a happy, fulfilling life. Canadian author Yasuko Thanh’s Mistakes to Run With: A Memoir is such a story. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began reading her memoir but as the story unfolded I was alternately appalled and transfixed.

Yasuko Thanh grew into her life as an author after years of living on the streets.

Born in 1971 to a Paris university-educated Vietnamese father who spoke several languages and a German mother, Thanh’s life was difficult from day one. Her parents had immigrated to Victoria, British Columbia and were immediately cast into poverty in their new country. Two years later, a baby brother joined the family and became the preferred child, the golden boy. Despite getting top grades in school and excelling in whatever she undertook, Thanh was never good enough in the eyes of her parents. Coupled with this challenge, as she grew into a teenager, she displayed all the signs of borderline personality disorder. This manifested itself in destructive behaviour, dropping out of school and eventually living on the streets.

Thanh’s description of her life is shocking and graphic. From the age of fifteen, she lived rough, sleeping wherever and with whoever passed through her life on a daily basis. Her friends were bikers, drug addicts, criminals and prostitutes. She sold her body for money and traded her soul for whatever love she tried to extract from friends, pimps and addicts. Always feeling unworthy, she attached herself to a series of bad choices in men, always searching for the words she never heard from her parents: “You are good. You are worthy. You are valuable.”

Living on the streets was a daily challenge to survive. She risked beatings, rape and even death from her “dates” but she turned all her earnings over to her pimp in a vain attempt to earn his love. One particular pimp by the name of Kyle was a coke addict and a part of her life for several years. Before they finally parted ways, he’d blown through more than half a million dollars she’d earned for him.

Reading Mistakes to Run With reminded me of another book I read a few years ago by Montreal writer Heather, O’Neill, Lullaby For Little Criminals”. Thanh’s story is also similar to that of another Vancouver author Evelyn Lau, whose life story was featured many years ago in a television movie starring Sandra Oh. The tragic lives of young girls who fall prey to street life are truly heart-breaking. Very often, all these young girls want is to be loved by someone but they do not have the resources or mental acuity to make better decisions.

After ten years of life on the streets of Victoria and Vancouver, Thanh, who constantly journaled and submitted writing for publication, decided her life would be more fulfilled as a person and a writer if she had a child. She was making enough money from a grow op to provide a living without working the track. Her first baby girl is followed a couple of years later by a second. Then, she discovers how truly difficult life can actually become when all of a sudden she has three people to take care of, not just herself. She naively dreams of a future life with a loving family and home of her own. Naturally, these ambitions are always beyond reach.

Moving from one ill-chosen partner to another, Thanh eventually graduates from life on the street to an unhappy life with a series of dead-beats. Fortunately, there are mental health and medical services available to street people which enabled her to get help when she needed it. She eventually is able to sell some of her writing but as her professional life develops, her personal life takes a series of tragic hits. In her forties, her mental illnesses are finally properly diagnosed and she struggles with assorted treatments that have limited benefit. The book does have a happy ending but it’s a hard-won battle. Her writing is wonderful and despite the frustration of reading about a life-time of failures, the story is gripping. We’re constantly rooting for her, hoping her obvious intelligence will pull her up and out of the depths to which she descends. Be prepared for a tragic story, graphically told. It’s an amazing book and I rate it 9 out 10.

To order Mistakes To Run With by Yasuko Thanh from Amazon, click here.

To order Lullabies For Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill from Amazon, click here.

To orderRunaway: Diary of a Street Kid by Evelyn Lau from Amazon, click here.
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Leader of French network spying on German military installations during WW2 was a beautiful, courageous young woman

When I started reading Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by New York Times’ bestselling author Lynne Olson, I assumed it was a novel of historical fiction—a story built around the experiences of true-life heroes of the French Resistance during World War II. To my surprise and ultimately much more rewarding to read, it turned out to be non-fiction. This book is a history lesson that is long overdue. We’ve read a lot of stories over the years about the bravery and heroic efforts of French citizens who risked their lives and the lives of their families to fight Nazi oppression during World War II from within but most of them pick up at particular points in time during the war and feature male heroes. This book examines the very birth, growth and maturity of the intelligence spying network Alliance, headed by a woman and known by the Gestapo as Noah’s Ark (agents’ had animal code names).

Alliance began with just two people—Georges Loustaunau-Lacau known by the code name Navarre and his second-in-command, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. They met socially at a party also attended by Charles de Gaulle in Paris in 1936. Marie-Madeleine was only twenty-six years old, an attractive blonde mother of two who lived apart from her conservative military husband. The future of France was fragile under a series of weak governments. Hitler’s growing imperialism and the threat of war were foremost in everyone’s mind. Marie-Madeleine’s obvious intelligence, political beliefs and the fact she owned her own car attracted the attention of Navarre and he invited her to act as courier for an intelligence-gathering network he was creating to support a free France.

Marie-Madeleine proved to be extremely adept and capable at her new job. Her duties multiplied and when Navarre was captured by the Germans in 1940, she assumed leadership of their growing network. At the age of only thirty-one she was la patronne, the boss. Alliance was focused solely on gathering military intelligence while other networks handled sabotage, repatriating allied soldiers and other anti-German activities. She tried to maintain a neutral position throughout conflicting power struggles between various political factions within France, focusing on a common goal of liberating France from the Germans.

Members of Alliance formed cells to report to British MI6 on naval and other military installations that were being built in France, particularly along the south and west coasts. As the network grew, it became more difficult to maintain security. Gestapo and French pro-German police became increasingly more sophisticated in ferreting out resistance fighters and their lives were in constant danger. With strong cells in Marseille, the west coast of France, Vichy and Paris, they were able to radio critical intelligence back to MI6 in England.

Alliance recruited agents from across the spectrum of the French population. They included aristocrats, farmers, lorry drivers, policemen, former members of the military, doctors and priests. Their numbers dropped after the many Gestapo raids and had to be rebuilt. Coding systems, security and procedures were constantly being revamped to prevent detection and were not always successful. There were the inevitable traitors who penetrated their ranks and were the most dangerous of all. Love affairs also blossomed under life and death conditions and even Marie-Madeleine herself was not immune. Although captured, she managed to escape and hold her network together.

Feminism in Europe during WWII was unheard of and the fact that this highly effective network was lead by a woman was significant. Both the German and French governments considered women secondary citizens and encouraged them to concentrate on home and children. Restrictions on women included “the death penalty for performing an abortion, made it more difficult to get a divorce, barred married women from working in the public sector, and ordered all female students in high school to take classes in housekeeping.”

Marie-Madeleine Fourcade survived the war and remained active in French political issues.

This book is nothing short of astonishing—a fascinating read. Although non-fiction, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War reads like a novel. The writing is beautiful and easy to follow. Original photographs of the individuals who were major players are included and lend a personal touch to their amazing stories. The narrative proceeds in chronological order (just the way I like a book to unfold) and the amount of research required to bring this story to print is mind-boggling. I absolutely could not put this book down and even as I tore through it I hated to see it end. Those of us who have never lived through war or foreign occupation cannot imagine the hardships faced by everyday citizens under such conditions.

Her gender was kept secret from MI6 in the beginning and even as agents were recruited some were skeptical that a woman could do the job as well as a man. Her agents provided critical information that shaped the allied effort on D-Day and the push toward Berlin. Shockingly, she proved herself to be superior in every way and loyalty was assured when agents quickly became aware of her capability and leadership skills. After the war, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade did not receive the recognition and awards many lesser male counterparts enjoyed, simply because she was a woman. I rate this book 9 out of 10 and guarantee you will not be able to put it down.

To order Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynne Olson from Amazon, click here.

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Story of Lithuanian struggle after the war is a fascinating read

Whever I read a book like Under Ground by Antanas Sileika  I’m reminded that we won the lottery being born in Canada. The rights, freedoms and privileges that we enjoy as Canadians are shared by so few in the world. After World War II, the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were basically abandoned by the Allies and left to be plundered by the Russians. After being pummelled both physically, morally and politically by the Germans during the war and then the Red Army, Lithuania was a country destroyed. Everyone was considered a traitor to one side or the other.

In a heroic effort to save their country, rebel armies of partisans formed in forest camps. Consisting of former soldiers, students, farmers and workers, the partisans lived literally below ground, in small earthen bunkers they dug deep in pine forests to conceal their location from the Red Army and its supporters. If you ever watched the 2008 movie Defiance with Daniel Craig you’ll have an understanding of the primitive conditions under which the partisans lived their lives and fought their counter-offensive. The main difference is these people were not Jews hiding from Nazis; they were mainly Catholics fighting for their lives and for freedom.

Lukas, a student and the son of a farmer, is forced to leave university after the war because both he and his seminary-attending younger brother are at risk of being deported to a Siberian labour camp. They join the forest-dwelling underground partisans. Lukas is a cut above the average with his intelligence and language skills so he soon becomes a communicator as well as fighter. After two years of feral existence, he marries a female partisan, Elena. Love affairs and particularly marriage are discouraged because love weakens partisans and makes them vulnerable to capture.

During a particularly bloody confrontation, Lukas is separated from his wife and she is shot by the Reds. Through partisan channels and his own wits, Lucas escapes to Sweden and eventually lands in France. Desperate to call attention to the plight of the Baltic states, he begins speaking to expats and sympathizers to help raise funds for their cause. He has become a bit of a folk hero, well-known among Lithuanians for his heroic attacks on the Reds but he longs to return to his home and rejoin the fight.

This book is based on a compilation of true stories kept secret behind the iron curtain for decades. Antanas Sileikais is a Canadian-born author of Lithuanian heritage and a graduate of The University of Toronto. The story spans the final years of the war until 1950 and in an interesting twist reveals a Canadian connection at the end. I don’t want to give too much of the story away because it’s a fascinating read that you should enjoy for yourself. As baby boomers, we are a product of the end of that war and reading this book serves to remind us all how lucky we are that we were born when we were and where we were. This is a 9 out of 10. I highly recommend reading Under Ground.

Disclosure: If you order from these Amazon links, you will receive Amazon’s best price and I may receive a teeny, tiny commission.
To order UNDER GROUND from Amazon, click here.
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The Alice Network shines a light on women’s bravery during both wars

It’s natural when we enjoy a book to follow up by reading another book by the same author. After reading Kate Quinn’s The Huntress I couldn’t wait to dig into her earlier book, The Alice Network.

Quinn has a gift for being able to weave real historical events into fictional accounts with characters based on real-life individuals and composites. The story spans a period of several decades with most of the action taking place late in World War I and the years prior to and just after World War II. The plot centers around three women (similar to The Huntress) who never wore military uniforms but were war heroines nonetheless fighting the invisible and dangerous war of spying, sabotoging enemy positions and communicating intelligence to allied forces in England.

The main characters, Evelyn Gardiner from London, England, Charlotte (Charlie) St. Clair, an American and Louise de Bettignies (Lili) a native of France are drawn together in a common mission to take down a French traitor and Nazi opportunist by the name of René Bordelon. Evelyn and Lili first meet in 1916 when Evelyn is sent to Lille on the northern boundry of France to become part of The Alice Network, a highly effective and extensive network of more than one hundred subversive agents directed and coordinated by petite Lili working to undermine enemy actions, .

Multilingual Evelyn is a perfect spy. With a vocal stammer, she appears harmless and possibly even a bit simple. She lands a job waiting tables in the restaurant in Lille owned by René Bordelon who is not aware of her language skills. He tests his employees to make sure they don’t speak or understand German so he can protect the private conversations of his important German military guests. Her access to Bordelon and his German friends is a major tool in the Allies spy network.

At the end of the second world war in the United States, a young college student by the name of Charlie St. Clair finds herself in the family way without a husband. Her French-born mother marches her off to Switzerland to have the “little problem” taken care of, via Southampton, London and Paris. But Charlie goes on the lam in search of her soul-mate French cousin Rose Fournier who disappeared during World War II. The only information Charlie has to go on to find Rose is the name Evelyn Gardiner at an address in London. Evelyn turns out to be a haggard drunk who pulls a gun on her American visitor and threatens to kill her. Then, the plot thickens.

Charlie produces information about her cousin Rose that connects the broken down Evelyn to her former boss from the first war, René Bordelon. Evelyn relies on a misfit Scottish veteran of World War II by the name of Finn Kilgore to help her with daily life, driving her around, making sure she’s safe. The three strike off for France in search of Bordelon who may not just know the fate of Rose but is also the cause of Evelyn’s horrible physical and mental decline over the years. They’re not even sure he’s still alive but they have a score to settle.

The story moves along at a comfortable pace and it was easy to stay engaged. As with her Huntress book, I found the romance to be a bit gratuitous but I suppose it’s all part of good story-telling.  And I’m always annoyed when the timeline jumps around, back and forth between the two wars. I’m a simple person; I prefer plots to unfold in chronological order. The Alice Network takes us on an ambitious romp around northern France. The story ties real historical events and composites of real people together in a compelling tale that kept me reading right up to the end. At times the writing resembled a romantic bodice-ripper but it did the job of keeping me engaged and entertained. I’d give it 7 out of 10.

Disclosure: If you order from Amazon from the link, I may receive a teeny tiny commission. Thanks.
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Chelsea Handler is getting ready for love

Chelsea Handler with her rescue dogs Bert and Bernice.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 affected comedienne, writer and late-night talk show host Chelsea Handler so profoundly she altered her entire life to cope with the implications. If you’ve ever watched her late night show Chelsea Lately, listened to her standup routine or read any of her books, you’ll know Handler is smart, beautiful, opinionated and abrasive. Turning forty and the election of Trump forced her to address an inner turmoil that she’d been ignoring her entire life. She suddenly realized that America and herself in particular were going down a very dangerous road. In her own words, “The news was giving me diarrhea.” I can certainly empathize—the news gives me stomach pains.

She put her career on hold for more than a year to focus on leveraging her celebrity status to get women elected in 2018 and increase the turnout of apathetic voters. This transformation happened with the assistance of an effective therapist whom she credits with finally helping her see life through a different lens. Her new book, Life Will Be The Death Of Me” is a recounting of this journey.

Reading Handler’s book reminded me of the special dynamics inherent in families with many children. Handler is the youngest of six children. Her oldest and favourite brother Chet was killed in a hiking accident when she was nine and she never recovered from that loss. As I read about the Handler family’s experiences I was reminded of the colourful childhood of David Sedaris who also grew up with multiple sisters, a brother and parents trying to cope with a demanding family.

Handler was unhappy with her life, always being on the offensive, sabotaging relationships, both romantic and otherwise, and being generally frustrated with the state of the world. She took great pride in her independence and the fact whatever she had achieved had been done without the benefit of a college education, connections or financial support. She’d worked hard and apologized to no one. After the November 2016 election she was so depressed she felt she had to take some responsibility for the state of things. “How could Americans have turned their back on decency, and why was I so misinformed? How did I not know this outcome was even a possibility?” she says early in the book.

Recognizing herself as a privileged white elitist, one of the entitled one percent who was incapable of managing life’s simple chores by herself (despite her blue collar upbringing), she concluded she was part of the problem and set about remaking herself. “I couldn’t carry on the way I had been carrying on, just coasting and cashing checks for essentially being a loudmouth.”

Previous attempts at therapy had not been successful, mainly because, like so many troubled people, she hadn’t connected with the right therapist. Then, she met Dr. Dan Siegel who patiently introduced her to new possibilities, perceptions and an action plan for moving forward in a more positive way. Through intensive psychotherapy, Handler identified the source of her anger, defensiveness and frustration. What could easily descend into psycho-babble does not. The science is intriguing and it’s worth reading about the process she underwent. It involved a lot of time building trust in her therapist, then slowly uncovering and mitigating the causes of her anger.

Chelsea Handler’s first rescue dog, Chunk, flew first class.

With her typical humour and intelligence, Handler not only walks us through her transformation but throws in many bits about her personal life that were enlightening and funny. Her drug and alcohol problems have been well documented in her earlier books and this time around she is once again frank and honest about her use of cannibus in particular. Like many people without children, she has enthusiastically adopted a series of rescue dogs to satisfy her need for nurturing and love. The stories about her various canine pals are hilarious and she is equally generous in exposing her shortcomings in stories about her relationship with her domestic staff and family members.

This book also describes her handling of the death of both her mother and father but the early death of her oldest brother when she was nine years old was particularly significant. She also recognizes that her failures in romantic relationships are completely the result of her unwillingness to accept other people’s shortcomings while acknowledging no one is perfect. Part of the purpose of this book is to right this wrong and in typical Chelsea Handler fashion she dedicates the book to “My Future Husband”. She prefers older men and in particular has a crush on Robert Mueller.

Matchmaker me

C’mon! You’d be so good together.

If we were real life BFFs, I’d be encouraging a relationship with Bill Maher. I’m a hopeless (and probably the world’s worst) matchmaker. I know how difficult it is to meet “the right person” so I’m always trying (unsuccessfully) to fix people up. I know Handler and Maher have been friends for years and I’m hoping now that she’s done all this work on herself she’ll open her eyes to the possibilities of my suggestion. Just once I’d like my matchmaking to work. She prefers older men and Bill Maher’s about 20 years older than her; they’re both political and very smart; neither wants children and both love dogs; they both are passionate about the environment—and weed. Bill—pick up the phone. I think she’s ready.

I loved this book and read it in less than two days. In my opinion, it’s a 9 out of 10. Let me know what you think.

To order Chelsea Handler’s “Life Will Be the Death of Me . . . and you too  from Amazon, click here.

Disclosure: If you order from the Amazon link shown here you will receive Amazon’s best price and I may receive a teeny tiny commission. Thanks.

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What’s on your summer reading list?

Best-selling author Jennifer Weiner’s recent Op-Ed piece What’s Your Favorite Book? in The New York Times questioned the validity of criticizing other people’s choices in reading material. In particular, she was disappointed that Stephen Colbert made fun of the so-called bodice-ripper books by Georgia politician Stacey Abrams written under the name Selena Montgomery. When asked what book U.S. presidential candidate Mark Buttigieg would take if stranded on a desert island he named James Joyce’s Ulysses. Whether he was sincere or just showing off is moot because according to Weiner whatever we read (and write) should be respected simply because we’re reading. And I couldn’t agree more.

Weiner’s comments got me thinking about what book I would take to a desert island. Would it be humour, historical fiction, biography or perhaps a fictional family saga? One thing I know for sure; it would be fat. I love books of more than a thousand pages that engross me for days or weeks at a time. It’s like savouring a great meal or life experience by making it last as long as possible. Any one of the Ken Follett  Century trilogy (Pillars of the Earth, Fall of Giants, Winter of the World) would be a strong possibility; historical fiction is my favourite genre. And (surprisingly) I also loved the Russian classics like Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Go figure.

To order These Foolish Things from Amazon, click here.

​Some books are just so good they warrant re-reading. I’ve read These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach at least three times. That was the book the movie The New Marigold Hotel was based on and much as I enjoyed the movie, the book was soooo much better. The characters were more eccentric and multi-dimensional. The book was also funnier than the movie. But then, movies never measure up to the joy of reading the original book. Our imaginations are so much better at painting scenes than any movie could ever convey in 90 minutes.

David Sedaris is another author I could and do read over and over. His humour, while not to everyone’s taste, is in my opinion brilliant. Catherine Gildiner’s trilogy (Too Close to The Falls, After the Falls and Coming Ashore) outlining her life story was delicious beyond words for baby boomer readers.

There are just too many books to narrow it down to just one I would take to a desert island. I think the only solution would be to negotiate taking my iPad Mini or Kindle loaded with all my favourites. I’d need a solar charger of course but we could talk about that too. The bottom line is I can’t imagine life without reading; it’s my absolute favourite activity in the world. Just like some people love golf, tennis, running, crafting, football or creating art, my deep love of reading is organic, part of my DNA.

I have a spreadsheet on my laptop summarizing all the books I’ve read and want to read. It’s pages long and organized in columns:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Brief Description
  • Name of person or source who recommended the book
  • Date Read
  • Rating 1-10

Most of them are rated at least 8 because I don’t waste time on something I don’t love. I’ll never get to them all before I die so I may have to take my iPad to the grave with me to catch up. I’m always on the waiting list for at least half a dozen books at the library and sometimes it takes up to six months before I get something I’ve requested. Then, two or three land at the same time and I’m panicked about how I’m going to get through them all in my three-week allotted time frame.

My circle of boomer gal pals generally shares my taste in reading and we trade books (and magazines) back and forth. Not only do we get to enjoy the books while we’re reading them but we get to relive the joy while rehashing the story over lunch. I’ve never had much luck with book clubs because I’m very particular about what I read and I don’t have time to read and discuss a book I’m only luke-warm about.

Fortunately curriculum and teaching styles have vastly improved since boomers fell asleep in English class during the early sixties.

English literature was boring and boringly taught back when boomers fell asleep in English class in the sixties. I must say I’m so glad I studied classics like Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities but I could have lived without Steinbeck’s The Pearl and Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native. Later generations enjoyed J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and other contemporary novels by the likes of Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence. Boomers were doomed to read only the classics in school—which isn’t a bad thing—but some fun books in the mix would have been welcome to inspire and encourage our love of reading.

This summer I plan to reread P.J. O’Rourke’s The Baby Boom. It’s hysterically funny and a must-read for baby boomers—like a trip back in time. I would also like to reread Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FineIt’s a perfect rendering of that understated British sense of dark humour that I enjoy so much. What’s on your summer reading list?

Disclosure: If you order from these links, you will receive Amazon’s best price and I may receive a teeny, tiny commission. Thanks.


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