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Baby Boomer's social commentary on life in OUR sixties for those who rocked life in THE sixties.


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I gobbled up The Edible Woman

I still have my original paperback copy.

It was probably the popularity of the television series The Handmaid’s Tale based on the book written by Margaret Atwood that reignited my interest in her writing. I must confess though that I did not like the book when I read it thirty years ago. Just too weird for my taste, but I absolutely loved the television series and can’t wait for season two. Perhaps I’ve evolved and I finally get it. In discussing the series with a friend who also disliked the book, I suggested she read The Edible Woman, a wonderful book written by Atwood in the late 1960s. So, the other day I unearthed my old, yellowed paperback copy of The Edible Woman to lend her. Although I’ve already read it two or three times since it was first published in 1969, I couldn’t resist the urge to take a quick peak inside. Then I couldn’t stop reading. It’s a time capsule of life in Toronto when there were still typewriters on our desks at work, girdles in our dresser drawers and hi-fi’s in our apartments. The sixties vernacular came crashing back through familiar-sounding descriptions of the clothing, social attitudes and physical surroundings. I was reminded of the difference in our moral standards. Back then gays were still referred to as queer, unmarried couples could not share a hotel room and young women often quit work when they married.

Parts I and III of the book are written in the first person, narrated by Marian, a recent university graduate. The reason Part II is written in second person becomes evident at the end of the book. She works for Seymour Surveys finessing the language in market research questionnaires for such products as beer, sanitary pads and canned rice pudding. Marian has an uninspired relationship with an articling law student named Peter whom she plans to marry and shares a flat with Ainsley who reminded me of the selfish roommate Meredith in Georgy Girl, played by Charlotte Rampling. Various other characters move through her daily life causing her to question herself and her choices. She has a secret friend Duncan who has a thing for laundromats and the life of her married friend Clara represents everything abhorrent to her. Marian’s life as a twenty-something will sound so familiar to those of us who were never quite totally happy or unhappy at that stage in our lives. There’s an overlying veil of dissatisfaction reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

Toronto, as it looked when Marian worked downtown for Seymour Surveys.

Toronto in the late sixties looked very different from today with about one-third the current population and Atwood’s detailed descriptions took me back more than fifty years. She doesn’t specify street names or neighbourhoods and I had fun figuring out where things took place from my memories of Toronto at that time. I could visualize the flat shared by Marian and Ainsley being located in the Annex district just northwest of The University of Toronto. I once shared a flat in the Roncesvalles area with two other girls, that was amazingly similar to theirs. There was no privacy door between our flat and the Polish landlady who lived with her daughters on the main floor so our activities were under her constant scrutiny. Banging her broom handle on her kitchen ceiling to warn us to keep the noise down and being subjected to her constant scrutiny was a part of daily life. Marian’s friend Len also had an apartment that sounded identical to one I once occupied on Vaughan Road.

Nostalgia abounds. When Marion describes her boyfriend Peter’s new apartment in a huge new development complex south of Bloor Street I could picture it in St. James Town. Like Peter, a friend of mine moved in while the building was still was under construction and the elevators didn’t work. Back then it was still considered a hip address comparable to today’s Liberty District south of King Street. The sixties clothing worn by Marian and Ainsley is so familiar, right down to the circular virgin pin worn on the dress of one of her co-workers. Atwood’s characters meet for a drink one evening in a lounge atop the Park Plaza Hotel at Yonge and Bloor Streets, a scene I could picture so vividly having visited the same spot in 1967 with a date and stood on the same terrace looking south toward Queen’s Park.

Yorkville Village in the sixties before it was gentrified.

Before the acceptance of such taken-for-granted rights as gender equality, young women were expected to marry before having children and there was still a degree of reverence for ‘saving yourself’ until marriage. We wrote letters home; we took our bag of dirty laundry on the bus to the laundromat when we ran out of clean clothes and we had to be twenty-one to drink legally. Our spartan apartments were furnished with junk and hand-me-downs. We were subject to the tyranny of landlords and we had jobs not careers.

The message or moral of the story (which you will have to read the book to understand) will ring true for so many women who came into womanhood in the heady days of the sixties. In fact I blogged about the issue for Valentines Day three years ago. This early book by Margaret Atwood turned me into a fan of her writing. If you’re a boomer and feel like burying yourself in a delicious blanket of nostalgia, read or re-read The Edible Woman, still one of my favourites. The message is universal and something today’s millenials can learn from. I had so much fun time-traveling back to life in downtown Toronto during the late sixties. We’ve come a long way baby.

Click here to order The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood from Amazon.com

Click here to read I love you but I love me too

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A woman’s view of World War II from behind German lines

Whenever I finish a good book I’m often left feeling somewhat bereft. After being emotionally involved in the lives of the characters over a few days or whatever time it takes to read the book, it’s hard to just “close the book”. Even though The Women in the Castle, a New York Times best seller by Jessica Shattuck had a good ending, I still hated to finish. The fictional story about the lives of three disparate German women, Marianne, Benita and Ania is a look at World War II from the other side and in particular, a female perspective.

The topic has been covered in thousands of books but this one focuses on the wives of three women whose husbands were part of the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. The primary character, Marianne is married to a member of the German aristocracy who is the inheritor of a centuries-old castle that becomes an integral part of the plot. Polish Ania has a mysterious background that isn’t revealed until near the end of the story but that’s part of what keeps us reading. Benita is married to a childhood friend of Marianne’s and appears to be the only character that seems out of her depth. I’m not sure why Shattuck characterized her the way she did as an intellectually challenged misfit amongst strong anti-Nazis except perhaps simply for variety.

I’m always frustrated by books that jump around in time, generally preferring things proceed in chronological order. When the author finally lands in the 1950s and stays there, however, I’m disappointed that there wasn’t more of the women’s actual war experiences. But I’m not the author and a best-selling New York Times author to boot, so perhaps I should just say it’s a great book. I really enjoyed it and you probably will too.

To order a copy of The Women in the Castle from Amazon.com, click here.

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In order to be truly proud, Canada still has work to do

The Canada Day 150 celebrations over the weekend prompted me to briefly relax my television news embargo. Hoping to see a lot of feel-good immigrant success stories (which I did), national coverage of patriotic local events (which there were) and a healthy dose of congratulatory video vignettes (tick that one off too), I tuned in. What I saw also reminded me of why I keep taking regular news sabbaticals.

The one issue that refuses to go away and deeply disturbs me is our government’s treatment of our indigenous people. Watching the mix-up around the installation of a teepee on Parliament Hill was unsettling. That was followed by a story about a group of bullying idiots throwing live fireworks into a group of indigenous women who had set up a peaceful camp to protest the industrial pollution of their source of drinking water. Another story highlighted the tragedy of forgotten murdered and abused indigenous women whose perpetrators were never caught and many of the women never found.

Surely, as a nation we can do better.

What is it going to take to sort out the problems with our native Canadians? The government has a tragic history of mismanaging the issue and there are struggles within the indigenous community itself. Let’s accept there is fault on both sides but the problems remain. Last year I read a moving book entitled “Invisible North” written by Alexandra Shimo, a young female journalist who moved into a northern native community. It paints a grim picture of life on a remote reserve. Basics such as clean drinking water and a supply of healthy food including fresh fruit and vegetables were scarce to non-existent and prohibitively expense in a community where most of the people are unemployed. Various make-work and entrepreneurial initiatives presented by local bands had been rejected by government authorities. Many communities have no local fire department which means over-crowded, small pre-fab bungalows quickly burn to the ground when there is a fire.

Prime Minister Trudeau seems to lend a sympathetic ear but what happens when he walks away from meetings with local bands? I suspect the government continues to drop the ball since the problems are compounding. Solutions are complicated but is asking for progress too much to ask? Is there not someone who can take this bull by the horns and start unraveling the problems and bring employment opportunities to these remote communities? Coal miners in Virginia are being trained to write and program computer code. Can this not be done for our indigenous Canadians? If call centres can be operated from places like India and the Philippines, why not on remote reserves? Norway has managed to build and operate successful greenhouses to grow local produce in Arctic climates. Can we not do the same?

I strongly recommend reading Invisible North. I honestly do not know what each of us as individuals can do to make the situation better but we do need to keep pressure on our government to stop dithering and start doing. Sympathetic handshakes and listening circles do not provide infrastructure for clean drinking water, health and safety services and access to decent food.  As Canadians, that’s the minimum we should expect from our elected leaders.

Click here to read earlier blog:  Better understanding the challenges of Native Canadians on reserves

To order Invisible North, The Search For Answers on a Troubled Reserve by Alexandra Shimo from Amazon, click here.

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Paris can be more than a destination on a map

Every so often we come across a book that is a total joy to read, start to finish. That’s what happened when I read Paris Letters by Canadian Janice MacLeod. It’s a true account of her journey after growing up in small town Ontario to living an artist’s life in Paris. Upon finishing university, she embraced the Madmen lifestyle, working in middle management as a direct mail copywriter for a major advertising agency in Los Angeles. After ten years of unfulfilling peddling on the corporate treadmill, she slowed down enough to listen to her inner voice. MacLeod read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (which I also read several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed), tried various hobbies, did some soul-searching and started a process of extricating herself from the corporate rat race and reevaluating society’s definition of success.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and MacLeod is traveling in Europe. First stop, Paris. Sipping café crème while journaling at a sidewalk café, she finds herself attracted to the handsome butcher operating the shop across the street. The inevitable happens and a quick romance ensues. But is it the real thing? She ventures on to Rome, Scotland and England, returning to Paris and her new friend to see how things shake out. A new life takes life.

Janice MacLeod’s decision to change her life reminded me of the saying, “If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting.”

Whatever path we follow, the bottom line is we still need to earn a living to cover the bottom line. MacLeod combines her love of simple water-colour painting and letter writing and creates a personalized subscription service which she markets on Etsy. She creates regular journal-style descriptions of her Paris life accompanied by her watercolour paintings of local street scenes which she sends in illustrated letters to subscribers.

As I turned each page of Paris Letters, I found myself smiling in recognition and empathy. Who hasn’t wondered what it would be like to take her life in a different direction. MacLeod tells us exactly how she engineered her transition including re-evaluating friendships, auditing and culling her physical surroundings, prioritizing her activities and taking control of her financial future. These are all processes we may have undertaken ourselves or would like to.

I clearly recall saving for a trip to Europe during my first two years of working from 1965 to 1967. I made $55.50 per week working for Ma Bell and allowed myself fifty cents a day for lunches in the Bell Cafeteria. That bought me mashed potatoes with gravy and one vegetable with a half-pint of milk. After two years, I’d accrued over three thousand dollars and my trip also became reality. She also refers to the bad dreams she still has about deadlines and projects from her corporate days. I also have those dreams even though I’ve been retired for several years. The stress of corporate life lingers long after we think it’s been banished.

MacLeod recounts an unsatisfactory love life during her early working years in Los Angeles describing it as devoted to becoming whoever her current boyfriend wanted her to be. “If a guy was a granola-eating hippie, so was I. If he was a runner, I was a runner.” Sound familiar? I could so relate to that and even blogged about it (click here to read ‘I love me too’). Oh, the mistakes we make when we’re young and foolish.

I read every page of Paris Letters with a smile on my face. It was an inspiring and uplifting read. I whizzed through it in a couple of days, although I wish it had lasted longer. I intend to read more by Janice MacLeod. Anything that makes me feel that good is good.

To order your own copy of Paris letters from Amazon, click here.

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The Price of Illusion exposes flaws in the life of luxury

A popular song from 1969, Where Do You Go To My Lovely (click here to listen) by Peter Sarstedt played in a steady loop in my brain as I was reading The Price of Illusion, a memoir by Joan Juliet Buck:

“You talk like Marlène Dietrich
And you dance like Zizi Jeanmaire
Your clothes are all made by Balmain
And there’s diamonds and pearls in your hair, yes there are

You live in a fancy apartment
Off the Boulevard Saint-Michel
Where you keep your Rolling Stones records
And a friend of Sacha Distel, yes you do. . . ”

Joan Juliet Buck. Been there; done it; got the Chanel bag.

That song, although written long before Joan Juliet Buck embraced the lifestyle it describes, could have been her life. The Price of Illusion, a memoir by the former editor of Paris Vogue is a fascinating read. The story of her childhood drags a bit in the beginning but picks up when she becomes a young woman and begins her peripatetic transcontinental life. Buck was the silver spoon only child of Hollywood producer Jules Buck who was responsible for such memorable films as Lawrence of Arabia and Goodbye Mr. Chips starring newly discovered Peter O’Toole. She lived a transcontinental lifestyle in Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles, spending much of her childhood in Ireland at the home of her godfather, John Huston. There, she formed a life-long friendship with his daughter Angelica.

Moving in such illustrious circles obviously positions her to name-drop many famous people in the worlds of entertainment, politics and business. At first I found this off-putting but soon I was enjoying the rare first-hand insights into a world of wealth, glamour and superficiality. I learned the high life is not all glamour and glory. While Buck was an enthusiastic participant in all forms of pleasure, her highest highs were achieved while overseeing the rebirth of Paris Vogue from its traditional, staid format to a more edgy, avant garde publication. Under her stewardship in the nineties, the magazine doubled its readership and appeal.

Paris Vogue presented itself as being all things representative of French women.

Buck is an excellent writer and her brutal honesty combine to produce a wonderful read. I was halfway through the book before reaching her Vogue years but it was worth the wait. Being close friends with such icons as Yves St. Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Charlotte Rampling, Lauren Bacall and Angelica Huston, Buck transports us into worlds we would otherwise never be able to access. Like any human being, her life is composed of extreme highs and correspondingly debilitating lows. When she was sabotaged by a business associate at Paris Vogue and sent to rehab on false charges of addiction, her life unravelled. Losing her job along with its corresponding salary and benefits meant she could no longer support her ailing father. No matter how charmed one’s life may seem, no one escapes pain, loss or disappointment, even the privileged.

The Price of Illusion is obviously the story of a woman who lived most of her life in a superficial haze of privilege. As a life-long journal keeper and a keen observer of human nature, Joan Juliet Buck treats us to a view of the glamorous life that undoes many of our misconceptions. Her recollections and challenges along the way make for a fascinating read. As someone retired from the corporate world, I found the business and political challenges she encountered along the way to be particularly interesting, especially since I plan to be a magazine editor in my next life. Although I was unsure I would enjoy the book when I first began reading, I was soon swept up in the excitement of a life lived in realms beyond what any ordinary person would ever experience. And, ultimately, that’s the essence and joy of reading. I escaped into another world and thoroughly enjoyed the adventure.

To order The Price of Illusion by Joan Juliet Buck from Amazon, click here.

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Visit Paris with Jojo Moyes

When I read best-selling Me Before You by British author Jojo Moyes last year, I enjoyed it although I can’t say it was one of my favourite books. I thought it was a bit over-rated. When I came across Paris For One and Other Stories by the same author I couldn’t resist—anything with Paris in the title automatically goes on my ‘to read’ list.

The main character Nell is a twenty-something single Londoner with a lost-cause boyfriend and a boring life. Controlled by an overriding sense of caution about everything in her life, she decides to venture outside her comfort zone. With a bonus she earned at work, she impulsively books two tickets on the Eurostar train for a romantic weekend in Paris for her and her boyfriend. When he stands her up, she finds herself for the first time in her life in the city of light, frightened at the prospect of nothing to do for three days. Tempted to return immediately to London, she decides to confront her fears and steps out on her own. As a reluctant single woman eating alone in a Paris café,  she soon eases into the life of food, wine and new experiences.

The story has a happy ending despite bumps along the way. For anyone who likes to read romantic fiction, this book is a winner. Even the number of pages (188 on my e-reader) conforms with the fictional romance novella formula. To be fair though, I’m not a fan of romantic fiction and I didn’t even finish the “Other Stories”. . I’m just glad I read it from the library and didn’t pay good money for it. However, if you enjoy romantic fiction, you’ll enjoy Paris For One & Other Stories.

To order Paris for One & Other Stories by Jojo Moyes from Amazon.com, click here.

To order Me Before You by Jojo Moyes from Amazon.com, click here.

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Life in Russia is complex beyond words

It’s so satisfying to become engrossed in a big fat book you really enjoy. The Patriots by Russian-born author Sana Krasikov more than satisfied my current passion for historical fiction by Russian authors. The main character Florence Fein is a Jewish intellectual who grew up in Brooklyn, New York in the 1930s. Educated and adventuresome, Florence becomes enamoured with communist philosophy while working for a left-wing organization when she finishes college. After falling in love with a Russian engineer visiting on a state-sponsored mission, she sets sail for Russia in hopes of finding him and building a new life in the land of her naive dreams.

Rejected by her Russian lover, Florence moves on and her language skills allow her to work in her new country. Despite the hardships endured by common working people like Florence during the Stalin years, she embraces her new culture and pursues her ideals. The story moves back and forth between her early years in Russia and the year 2008 when her American son and grandson are confronted with the consequences of her choices.

The story provides an informed look inside the daily lives of ordinary Russian citizens under Stalin. The purges, deprivations and injustices force people to live in a state of constant fear. The slightest infraction or even perceived misinterpretation of ever-changing philosophy could result in imprisonment in a labour camp in Siberia, or more likely death. Florence tries vainly to play by the rules. She marries, has a child and works at whatever job she is given in order to maintain a degree of equilibrium in her life. Despite intermittent spells of homesickness, she remains loyal to the communist ideology, even after the government confiscates her American passport and she becomes an unwilling Soviet citizen.

Like many multi-generational sagas, the story circles from Moscow back to New York where her son and his family choose to immigrate as a result of being denied his doctoral degree because of quotas against Jews. Florence is a complicated woman, made more so by the challenges of trying to stay alive and live a simple life in Russia. It’s difficult for North Americans to imagine living under the pressures and stresses of a society built around intimidation, constant surveillance, corruption and lies (although we’re learning). The plot of the story is fascinating in itself, but the psychological examination of the characters adds an even deeper layer to the narrative. As much as I loved the book, I was sorry to finish and leave behind the characters in whom I’d become so invested. I highly recommend The Patriots. I’d give it a nine out of ten.

To order The Patriots by Sana Krasikov from Amazon, click here.

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