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Canadian author investigates the dark side

feathersSupporting Canadian authors is easy when given books such as Black Feathers to read. I first heard about this book by Robert J. Weirsema when he was interviewed by Shelagh Rogers on CBC Radio. The central character is a sixteen-year-old runaway named Cassandra Weathers who turns up in downtown Victoria on Vancouver Island and is quickly absorbed into the street scene. She is befriended by Skylark who helps Cassie learn where to panhandle most effectively, where to sleep, where to get a shower and where to find a community of friends.

Throughout the book we are offered glimpses of Cassie’s earlier life but the truth is withheld in the interests of suspense. There are many memories of a happy family life along with unspoken trauma which resulted in mental health issues and treatment.  When a serial killer threatens their community of damaged street people, a police officer called Harrison, who has a daughter of his own, recognizes her vulnerability and takes a particular interest in Cassie.

lullabiesThe author paints a vivid picture of street life during a Canadian winter (albeit Victoria) and his characters are so well drawn we are able to get inside the mind of a killer. Black Feathers is not an uplifting book but it is satisfying in the end. As I was reading it I was reminded of another excellent book with a similar theme, Lullabies For Little Criminals written by the very talented Canadian Heather O’Neill. Well-written and a page-turner, Black Feathers uncovers a side of life most of us will never see or experience. It’s a mystery, an observation of the complexities of mental illness and a story of justice. For anyone who has been to Victoria, you’ll recognize the landmarks and street names which helps your mind’s eye wander around the downtown area. All in all, an interesting read. And, it will make you want to be more sympathetic to street people and toss some Toonies into their hat.

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Big Magic encourages our passions in a beautiful way

magic1Anyone in need of some morale boosting or an injection of self-confidence and motivation should immediately pick up and read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, Creative Living Beyond Fear. The fact I enjoyed this book so much is made more significant by the fact I hated her earlier Eat, Pray, Love which I found to be elitist and rather boring. I never even finished it. She really struck a chord in this book, however, with her words of encouragement, relevant anecdotes and sound advice. My own personal passion is blogging, despite the fact I get little to no feedback from my readers and at times I’m tempted to pack it in. But as Gilbert reminded me, it’s what I like to do whether anyone else likes my blog or not and that’s what keeps me going.

Gilbert shares the wisdom she picked up through working at various odd jobs to support her writing and her final success as a writer. While the message is aimed at creative types, the philosophy is easily transferable. Reading through Big Magic I came away with some solid advice worth sharing:

Do not be discouraged or give up if no one else appreciates your work as long as you enjoy producing it.
Don’t allow a lack of recognition or external support to discourage you from creating what you love.
  1. Do not expect to make a living at doing something you love. If it happens, you’re one of the lucky ones. Most of us have to maintain “day jobs” to support our passion.
  2. Rejection of your creation (writing, art, music, crafts, whatever) by others does not mean your work is not valid and meaningful. The fact that you loved doing it is what is important.
  3. Perseverance is not just a cliché. Remember all the rejection letters famous writers like J.K.Rowling got before being recognized. No one will advocate for your work better than you. And persevere in practising your craft. That’s how we get better.
  4. While we all need some idle time to clear our minds and recharge our batteries, prolonged idleness is a recipe for negative behaviours.

blogger5There’s so much more great advice in this book with many personal anecdotes to explain how Gilbert acquired this wisdom. She acknowledges that it’s a myth to believe, “All you need to do is to follow your passion, and everything will be fine.” That’s naive and misleading. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be happy following your passion. Just don’t bet the farm on making a living at it. Enjoy it for what it fulfills in you and appreciate that. The book was a bit slow at the beginning but it soon gained traction and my multiple book marks attest to its merit. I highly recommend “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert. You’ll feel uplifted and encouraged and that’s enough to make any book worthwhile reading.

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The Paris Librarian meets his Waterloo in mysterious circumstances

librarian1Any book with the word Paris in the title automatically goes on my “To Read” list. This has resulted in my venturing into murder mysteries which is not my normal choice for reading material and The Paris Librarian by Mark Pryor was a nice little break. American Embassy security agent Hugo Marston enlists the help of his librarian friend Paul Rogers at the American Library in Paris, to source rare and affordable books for his collection. When he learns Rogers is curating the papers of Isabelle Severin, a famous ex-pat actress who has lived in Paris since the days of Josephine Baker, he is caught up in a swirl of intrigue about her alleged spying activities during the Second World War. Did she really murder a senior Gestapo officer with a dagger? Where is the dagger now? Will her secrets be revealed in her papers after she dies?

Paul Rogers is then found dead of questionable causes in his basement library writing room. Soon the murders are piling up and we’re wondering how all these people died, who killed them, why and what does this have to do with the mysterious Isabelle Severin who is suffering dementia in a French retirement home.

I didn’t realize this is part of a series of Hugo Marston mystery books and perhaps it would have been more enjoyable if I’d known the main character a little better. The plot was a bit slow and I was disappointed that it didn’t focus more on the nefarious actions of Isabelle Severin during the war instead of on other characters with their own secrets. Nevertheless, as noted above, anything about Paris always has something worthwhile reading about. I enjoyed the characters’ activities centred mainly in the sixth and seventh arondissement near the Eiffel Tower. Having stayed in that area once on a trip, I was able to mentally picture the streets and local landmarks described in The Paris Librarian. It was a fast and easy read. The fact I think it could have been better is more a result of my greater interest in historical fiction than contemporary murder mystery.

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Love is challenged during the early war years

braveChris Cleave wrote Everyone Brave is Forgiven after finding his grandfather’s letters to his grandmother written during World War II. Cleave’s grandfather was stationed in Malta with Randolph Churchill, son of Winston Churchill during the siege that left the forces starving and without support. While the story is fictional, it is based on events spanning from the start of the war until June 1942.

Mary North is the energetic eighteen-year-old daughter of a Member of Parliament when war breaks out in 1939. She immediately signs up for volunteer duty and is assigned to teach disadvantaged inner-city London children who for various reasons were not suitable for evacuation to the country. Both Mary and her best friend Hilda are swept up in early war adventures involving love affairs, bombing raids and food shortages, and when they both become ambulance attendants, death and destruction.

The book seemed a bit trite in the beginning and I half expected Mary to utter the words “fiddle-dee-dee”. The dialogue is typically British and at times reads like an old black and white movie script but it soon turns real and the reader is presented with interesting characters, excellent writing and wonderful metaphors. The best bits are the brilliant repartee between Alistair and his senior officer Simonson when they are starving and under constant enemy bombardment while stationed in Malta. The humour is a relief from their grim circumstances.

Fictional accounts of life in England during both World Wars is always a favourite subject of reading material for me and Everyone Brave is Forgiven satisfies this interest completely. Once you get into it, the book is a page-turner which is all most readers want from a book. The story reminds us of the permanent physical and emotional damage inflicted on everyone who lived through it and ultimately the futility of war.

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Live life in the present perfect

retired1
We’ve earned it!

Jane Fonda chronicled her life in three acts in her best-selling autobiography Prime Time, with her current stage of life being Act Three.  We each have different ways of remembering, analysing and categorizing our lives to make sense of our journey. Retirement has also been broken down into three stages. The first, where many early Boomers are now, is when we have the resources to do what we’ve waited our entire lives for. This may include traveling, playing lots of golf or tennis, ladies white wine lunches or simply relaxing on the patio, in your LaZGirl chair or on the dock with a good book.

During the second stage of retirement we slow down a bit. The inconvenience of travel has diminished its lustre, we’ve seen most of the places on our bucket list and we really prefer to sleep in our own beds at night. Our energy levels are compromised and we’re starting to get a bit creaky which requires more visits to the doctor with its associated blood tests and various hard-to-pronounce scans. Our spending is reduced and we’re content in smaller, more efficient single-level accommodation close to friends, family and services. Our lives centre around comfortable routines and rituals like a daily walk, regular meal times, watching the news or playing cards with friends.

We'll need to be creative about how we spend our retirement years.
We need to be creative about how we spend our retirement years.

The third stage of retirement is the most difficult and least rewarding. Some of us may be fit and able enough to still live in our own homes or apartments but the majority of us will require some level of care. Then our expenses will rise again as assisted living and chronic care facilities are not cheap. Depending on where you live and the level of service you require, costs can range from $2,000.00 to $5,000.00 per month, per person. We’ll be eating through our nest eggs pretty fast at those rates. I expect Boomers will be getting creative about our living arrangements by then (à la Golden Girls). Many of us are already discussing communal or clustered living with friends and hiring a cook, driver, cleaner, gardener or whatever support services we need to keep us rockin’ and out of the “home”.

christiane1The number of years associated with each of these three stages of retirement is fluid depending on the individual. I see my own life as now being in the first trimester of my third trimester. Then, I happened to see Dr. Christiane Northrup (the definitive authority on women’s health issues and menopause) on PBS the other day that has me rethinking the cycle. She was promoting Goddesses Never Age and her other books and DVDs, but her message is always solid and dependable.

We tend to think of our journey through life as a linear progression from baby to old age, then death. It can also be viewed as a circle in which we rotate from being fed, diapered and cared for as dependent babies to being fed, diapered and cared for as dependent seniors. When I first moved to Toronto at the age of seventeen to start work, I moved into Willard Hall, a girls boarding residence. My life’s possessions were contained in one suitcase and a train case and I shared a spartan dormitory room with another girl. How long will it be before I repeat that experience when I move into an assisted living or chronic care facility with one suitcase filled with nightgowns, slippers, track pants, toiletries and contraband bottles of Pinot Grigio, coming full circle over a lifetime.

life2Dr. Northrup suggested another way of looking at our lives that has a less negative connotation. Instead of perceiving of our journey as a linear progression with diminishing returns, consider the possibility that we are simply occupying space not time. That concept is reminiscent of Ekhart Tolle’s philosphy of living life in the moment. We are what we are, where we are in current time only. I rather like that concept. Occupying an abstract chunk of space in the universe sounds much more appealing than following a finite timeline that is running out.

A major bonus of embracing our lives as abstract chunks of space is that as Baby Boomers, it’s very likely we’re in the best space now that we’ve ever been in before; we’re more financially comfortable than we have ever been now that the mortgage is paid off or we’re living in an affordable rental space that we like; the kids are launched, literally and financially (we hope); we don’t have to get up and endure the stress of rush-hour traffic in snow storms to get to work on time and be lashed to our work stations until the clock says it’s time go to home; we’re as healthy as we’ll ever be (Boomers are the healthiest generation in history) and we can still do whatever we want. We get seniors’ discounts on movies, public transit, certain retail purchases and we’re finally our own boss. I’d say the present is a pretty perfect time to be who we are in the circle of life.

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Want to get inside Lucy Barton’s head?

lucyAfter waiting many weeks to download My Name is Lucy Barton by Pulitzer prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout, I finally received the book from the library the other day—and read it in an afternoon. At less than two hundred pages it was a quick read but most of the context involved reading between the lines. Written in the first person, Lucy describes a lengthy hospital stay in New York City resulting from complications during a routine operation for appendicitis. Her two young daughters are taken care of at home by their father who has an aversion to hospitals and summons Lucy’s estranged mother to sit by her bedside.

As Lucy describes her mother’s arrival and stoical stay sitting in a chair for five days, eschewing offers of a cot by hospital staff, the two women reach an understanding of their relationship through reminiscences of old neighbours, friends and acquaintances. Missing her own daughters terribly, Lucy attempts to recreate with her own mother the type of affection and intimacy she shares with her little girls. While her mother concedes some emotional ground begrudgingly, their relationship is forever coloured and affected by unspoken and undescribed forms of child abuse Lucy and her siblings endured as children. Their father, a veteran of World War II and the Battle of the Bulge is forever damaged and this in some way permits the children a level of forgiveness for their troubled childhood. The abuse perpetrated by the parents is referred to in vague references but not fully explained and is left to the imagination of the reader. If you enjoy well-written stories of introspection by women about mother-daughter relationships, you’ll find My Name is Lucy Barton to be a worthwhile read.

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