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Caitlin Moran celebrates feminism

Moran's bravado has made me feel more comfortable with my own "smiley face".
Moran’s bravado has made me feel more comfortable with my own “smiley face”.

Ya’ gotta love a woman who is so self-possessed, during an interview in front of hundreds of people in a packed auditorium, whips up her shirt and grabs her loose belly fat to make a smiley face, complete with eyes drawn on her bra. In the course of reading her book Moranthology (written five years ago) I viewed a couple of interviews on YouTube and Caitlin Moran did just that. One interview I watched was at our own Bluma Appel Theatre here in Toronto and the other was in Denmark.

British author, columnist, feminist and married mother of two daughters, Caitlin Moran is totally without guile and her strong views on feminism have me rethinking some of my own opinions. Growing up in a three-bedroom council house in Wolverhampton, England, Moran is the eldest of eight children of a disabled father and stay-at-home mother living on social assistance. In her family’s unique interpretation of home schooling, the children were banished to the local library twice a day to read and learn whatever they fancied. “I spent days running in and out of other worlds like a time bandit, or a spy. I was as excited as I’ve ever been in my life, in that library: scoring new books the minute they came in; ordering books I’d heard of—then waiting, fevered, for them to arrive, like they were the word ‘Christmas'”, she writes. Her experience alone is a strong justification for never reducing funding or closing local libraries, particularly in underprivileged neighbourhoods.  Fortunately for Moran, what her education lacked in the basics, she compensated for in a love of reading, learning and personal growth.

caitlin2Through a series of serendipitous events, Moran landed a job as a journalist at a very young age. You can read more on her fascinating story in her other books How To Build A Girl and How To Be A Woman. Moranthology outlines her philosophy of life. Her coarse, no-holds-barred delivery is not for everyone but she is totally honest and sincere and I admire her for that. She is committed to the greater good, particularly for women and minorities.

I’ve always been opposed to quotas in hiring of women and minorities as being a form of reverse discrimination but Moran’s argument has me rethinking my position. She writes, “But Cate—if you insist fifty percent of your workforce is women, and force employers to hire them, that means you’re gonna get women who are wildly ill-qualified desk-meat . . . . That can’t be right! . . . Well, it’s not right. It is, however, totally normal. After all, in an office that’s seventy percent men, at least twenty percent of them are going to be wildly ill-qualified desk meat . . .  People who are anti-positive-discrimination are ignoring the fact that we’ve been giving jobs to MILLIONS of stupid, unqualified people for millenia: men.” Boom! I never thought of it that way and as someone who has witnessed many unqualified men over the years being promoted to positions senior to me in business and making a lot more money, Moran definitely has a point. It was more common when Boomers were building careers than it is now to watch men being promoted to Office Manager, Bank Manager, Principal, Supervisor, Vice-President or even President when there were more qualified, capable women sitting in the wings and being bypassed.

caitlin3Moran also challenges young women who claim to not be feminists and casually dismiss the subject. She reminds them that unless they work in a sweat shop for barely subsistence pay, have been denied the right to marry whomever they choose regardless of gender, unless they are not allowed to vote or drive a car, or are denied birth control or the right to a legal abortion, then they should be thanking the feminists who worked on their behalf before them and therefore they are feminists. I share her frustration. There’s more work to be done in raising women’s salaries to equal that of men and changing the current laws that punish women who have been sexually assaulted or otherwise abused by men, along with a host of other issues.

One of the most fascinating aspects of reading Moran’s book for me, however, is how some women rise above circumstances that ordinarily would be considered dead-end or at the very least challenging to become successful beyond their social and economic origins. Moran likens the yoke of poverty to being “passed down like a drizzle, or a blindness . . . if kids from a poor background achieve something, it’s while dragging this weight behind them . . .  it takes ten times the effort to get anywhere from a bad postcode.” One of my favourite authors, psychologist Catherine Gildiner (author of Too Close To The Falls, After The Falls and Coming Ashore) is currently researching this subject for an upcoming book she is writing. Jeannette Walls author of The Glass Castle is another example of such a woman. None of Moran’s siblings achieved the level of accomplishment she has despite being raised in the same home, in the same circumstances by the same parents. It’s a fascinating subject and Moran is a fascinating woman.

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Grand slam with Tom Rob Smith

While channel surfing a couple of weeks ago, I came across The Graham Norton Show on BBC Canada, a talk-show from the UK which I really enjoy. Among the guests was Noomi Repace promoting her new movie Child 44 based on the book by British author Tom Rob Smith. I’d never heard of the book, the movie or the author but the subject sounded interesting so I downloaded the book from the library.

child44Child 44 is loosely based on the true story of a serial killer of children in Russia in the 1950’s. A public relations problem is created by the fact that in the perfect Communist society of Stalinist Russia, the authorities claim there is no murder. Crime and murders are solely the product of decadent western capitalist living. When war hero and respected MGB agent Leo Demidov is assigned to confirm the case is an accident, he uncovers a series of other murders which appear to be carried out by the same person using the same peculiar methods. What he uncovers about the cases and himself in the process is unnerving. It’s a great murder/mystery and I enjoyed it so much I immediately downloaded another book by the same author.

farm1The Farm, also by Tom Rob Smith reminded me of a lite version of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series of books. A psychological thriller, the plot follows a retired couple, Chris and his Swedish-born wife, Tilde when they retire to a remote farm in Sweden to pursue a back-to-the-land lifestyle. Having arrived at retirement without sufficient funds to remain in England, they plan to immerse themselves in Swedish rural life and farming, perhaps opening a Bed & Breakfast in their farmhouse to supplement their income. When their son Daniel receives an unexpected and panicked phone-call from his father claiming that his wife Tilde has suffered a mental breakdown with associated delusions, Daniel struggles with what to do since he has his own secrets. Suddenly, his mother returns to England with bizarre stories of horror, murder and intrigue. Daniel is forced to choose between believing his mother or his father in their differing versions of events. Events described in the book are drawn from Smith’s own life.

speech1Then, I discovered that Child 44 was the second part of a trilogy, so I immediately downloaded the second book, The Secret Speech.  This next phase of the story follows Leo through his second career as a police detective responsible for investigating crimes. Russia is thrown into turmoil when Stalin dies and Nikita Khruschev issues a massive denouncement of Stalin’s regime in a speech that is highly critical of Stalin’s abuses of power. The repercussions of the speech include confusion, disbelief, distrust of fellow comrades and chaos.

These books are a departure from what I normally like to read but I found all three intensely engaging. The fact that I read them back to back says a lot and I plan to read more by Tom Rob Smith. His writing will keep you turning the pages to get to the truth, you’ll gain exceptional insights into mid-twentieth century Russia, and you’ll have fun along the way.

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An Irish perspective on French resistance

tree1If you’re a lover of historical fiction like I am, then you’ll enjoy the story of an Irishman serving the French Resistance during World War II in A Country Road, a Tree by Jo Baker. When real-life Irish writer and former secretary to James Joyce Samuel Beckett experiences writers’ block while living in his native Ireland, he returns to Paris in 1939 at a crucial time in world history. The Nazis’ invasion of France brings an abrupt halt to ordinary life for Parisiennes and all ex-pats who have been caught in the net. Passing on the opportunity to return to the relative safety of Ireland, he stays in France.

With his French lover, Suzanne, Beckett flees Paris to a village in the southern so-called free zone where they both live in constant fear of betrayal or discovery by the Gestapo for their previous clandestine resistance efforts. Suzanne loses her appetite for subterfuge and Beckett’s quiet insistence on continuing his efforts to thwart the Nazis causes tension in their relationship. While trying to survive they are witnesses to the arrests and disappearance of close friends and are powerless to help.

What I particularly liked about this account is the insight into the daily lives of ordinary people who worked for freedom. Even small acts of sabotage or resistance could have resulted in death but simple people carried out simple acts on a daily basis for the greater cause. The tensions between Sam and Suzanne escalate as the story develops and we are carried along in their struggles to not only survive but to prevail. There are no dominant acts of heroism, just everyday efforts by ordinary people which is something we can relate to as ordinary people.

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Me Before You presents another perspective on the challenges of love

jojo1I had some concerns about reading Me Before You by Jojo Moyes because the subject matter didn’t sound like something I would really enjoy. The story is mainly told in the voice of Louise Clark, a British waitress who is single, twenty-six years old and still living in her village with her parents because they need the additional income to support the family, which includes her single-mother sister. When Louise suddenly loses her job at the Buttered Bun Café, the financial pressure on the family forces her into accepting the unlikely position of employment as assistant care-giver to a quadriplegic in his mid-thirties, Will Traynor.

Prior to being paralysed when he was struck by a motorbike, Traynor was a wealthy  financial deal-maker, adventurer and bon vivant who lived life in a world completely foreign to Louise Clark, despite being born in the same village. Louise lacked ambition and curiosity and was content to serve coffee and buns in the village café. When she applies for the job as assistant care-giver to Will Traynor the challenges of his personality and circumstances stretch her boundaries and expand her potential to become a stronger, more focussed individual.

jojo2Me Before You is a love story about Louise and Will with significant and informed insights into the challenges faced by quadriplegics and those who love them. While I found the story a bit sappy at times, the writing is easy to read and the plot line kept me engaged most of the time. I did lose interest about three-quarters of the way through the book when the ending seemed predictable but I’m glad I finished it as I really didn’t want to leave the lives of the characters dangling without knowing for sure how it ended. The book addresses assisted suicide objectively and intelligently which is relevant since a law about the issue is currently before the Canadian parliament.

Overall, I enjoyed the book but I hardly think the content warrants a movie so I doubt I’ll go see it. I don’t like to read third-party reviews of a book until I’ve clearly drawn my own conclusions. Upon checking existing reviews of Me Before You the line seems to be drawn down the middle with some clearly hating the book and others loving it. I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m not a fan of romance novels and I found the fact that the Will Traynor character was rich and handsome to be rather gratuitous. There would have been no story if he’d been pudgy and poor. And therein lies its weakness. But millions of readers don’t agree with me.

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Heather Reisman . . . you go girl!

Heather Reisman, my secret BFF.
Heather Reisman, my secret new BFF.

Yesterday I had a near-brush with celebrity. Actually it was just a sighting but we won’t nit-pick. While browsing the newly opened Chapters Indigo Bookstore in Toronto’s Sherway Mall (they’ve moved across the road from their former stand-alone location on the north side of The Queensway at Highway 427) I witnessed owner Heather Reisman being photographed for publicity shots in the store. In my world of book-lovers, that qualifies as an event. It was all I could do to restrain myself from running over, giving her a big hug and shouting “You go girl!”.

Print books have been loved the world over for centuries and now that e-books are chipping away at the market, book-sellers like Canada’s Indigo have to work harder at creating buying incentives. The downside of the proliferation of these so-called big box stores has been the demise of small, neighbourhood bookstores but book lovers still have a vested interest in keeping bookstores in any form alive and thriving.

Literally, the best.
Literally, the best.

Indigo’s new Sherway Mall store is somewhat different in design from traditional existing retail locations. Instead of giftware and miscellaneous seasonal items being collectively displayed in one area apart from the books, they’re now integrated with the relevant books. Merchandising of jewelry, stationery, cottage hostess gifts and accoutrements to the pleasures of reading are artfully arranged in little room-like settings that make browsing even more delicious. In the section featuring scarves, jewelry and accessories, there’s a wall of books related to fashion and design. Candles, tea cups and soft throws are flanked by shelves of books on mindfulness, personal growth and spirituality. Toys and children’s books are merchandised together.

I’m always drawn to the displays of “Heather’s Picks” as we seem to have the same taste in reading material. Glancing across the titles displayed my mind ticks off “read it, read it, read it”, moving on to something I haven’t read and putting it on my list. The store also offers a tantalizing calendar of in-store author and reading events.

The new Sherway store is bursting with sales assistants which may be coincidental because the store just opened but there was friendly help available at every turn. (Hudson’s Bay’s second floor ladies clothing department could benefit from the example here, but that’s another story.) Shopping at the new Sherway Indigo is about more than just leafing through wonderful inky-smelling glossy new books; it’s a highly sensual experience. Caressing the soft throws, inhaling the delicate fragrances of the candles, feeling the lovely stationery offerings or even tasting (after purchase, of course) the teas, spices and delicious gourmet accoutrements in seasonal displays offers experiences beyond reading alone.

Is there any place you'd rather be?
Is there any place you’d rather be?

And the amazing part? I haven’t even taken the escalator upstairs yet. What den of delights awaits me there? OMG! I totally missed the magazine section. For this magazine junkie that alone warrants a couple of hours of browsing for my favourite Brit mags like Red, Tatler, British Vogue. No one else offers such an amazing selection of international publications. It’s an orgasmic experience for lovers of reading. I can feel my Plum Rewards Card vibrating in my purse. Heather, girlfriend, your new concept in merchandising rocks! Keep up the good work.

Note: This is absolutely not a paid endorsement of any kind.

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Breaking the rules in Russia could be fatal

If you have a few hours, I'd be happy to share titles of my favourite books.
If you have a few hours, I’d be happy to share titles of my favourite books. Or you can check the “Book Reviews” tab at the top of my blog posting.

Recommendations for good reading often come from unexpected sources. A few years ago I went to a bookstore for an evening of discussion about Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a book I hated and found trite but was curious to see why it appealed to other people. Only two people turned up—me and one other lady. Even the speaker was AWOL. The evening was salvaged however when the other attendee and I had a cup of tea together and traded titles of great books we’d enjoyed recently. She wanted the names of some Canadian authors, which I was happy to provide, and one of the books she recommended to me was Wild Swans by Jung Chang which I absolutely loved. It’s the story of three generations of women living three very different lives in twentieth century China.

A couple of weeks ago while sitting with foils on my hair at the hairdresser, the lady in the next chair started chatting to me about books and before you could say, “have you read?. . .” we were madly exchanging titles. When I mentioned I like historical fiction and really enjoy stories about Russia, she recommended The Charm School by Nelson DeMille. And, boy was she right. I couldn’t put it down.

charmThe story is set in 1988 Russia while the Cold War was still flourishing. An American tourist gets lost in an isolated, restricted forest area outside Moscow and is confronted by a rogue American who claims to be one of hundreds of American prisoners of war kidnapped at the end of the war in Vietnam and traded by the North Vietnamese to Russia in exchange for missiles.

The plot follows American Embassy staffers Colonel Sam Hollis, Lisa Rhodes and other agents as they attempt to verify the escapee’s story that the POWs have been imprisoned for more than two decades at a special high-security facility affectionately referred by the prisoners as Mrs. Ivanoff’s Charm School. The American captives are forced to train Soviet agents in how to become American in their speech, dress, demeanor and social habits. When the Russians are fully trained to be indistinguishable from real Americans, they are deployed to the United States as agents assigned to infiltrate and assimilate into sensitive areas of American business, the military and government where they will relay intelligence back to Moscow. This book was written pre-911 and its message is eerily prophetic.

The Charm School is fast-moving, never dull and follows the efforts of the embassy team to verify the story, locate the school and perhaps finally free the captive American POWs, who are now middle-aged. Espionage is always clouded by an overlaying lack of trust of anyone within the circle of characters. This is further complicated by the everyday difficulties associated with simply speaking, traveling, socializing or trying to work under the watchful and paranoid eye of the KGB. This book will appeal to men and women alike, and as I said, I couldn’t put it down. But, if you’re ever in Russia, don’t go off-roading.

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