via rightmove.co.uk

After months of dreaming and planning, it’s almost here: in a few weeks, I leave for New Zealand for two whole months, to be followed by an additional three months in Europe through late spring into summer.

Yes, it’s not just a little trip this year but a full six-month break.  I’ve been able to arrange an unpaid leave of absence from my company so can look forward to returning at the end of my travels (and restocking my bank account). 

I realised early last year that I needed to take some kind of break from work, which had been increasingly stressful through 2020 and 2021.  I work for a wonderful company and love the people I work with, but we are all rather intense.  Life is too short not to take a breath every now and then, something I was reminded of between a few health issues of my own, scary diagnoses for friends and colleagues, and the sudden tragic death of a woman I’d known professionally for a decade, who was killed alongside her husband during a horrible storm.  Her death really shook me as we were roughly the same age and I had rejoiced with her over so many milestones.  Remembering her excitement at overcoming family prejudices to marry her high school sweetheart, planning an epic holiday in Southeast Asia, and then becoming a mother, it was – and is – upsetting to realise she won’t have any more of those moments.  But I can. 

I am healthy, I am relatively rich, I’m independent and there are things I want to do and see while all of that remains true! 

So off I go! As usual, I’d be delighted hear your travel tips. Here’s a quick outline of where I’m headed for the first big leg of the trip – I’ll be back in April with more details about Europe:

New Zealand

  • Russell
  • Taupo
  • Napier
  • Wellington
  • Nelson
  • Abel Tasman (multi-day walk)
  • Marlborough Sounds (multi-day walk)
  • Christchurch
  • Akaroa
  • Mount Cook
  • Wanaka
  • Dunedin
  • Auckland


design credit Pribell & Co.

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

The Reluctant Bride by Lucy Mangan – a reread (after many years).

The Gold of Noon by Essie Summers – I continue to track down as many Essie Summers books as I can – there promises to be a flurry of them next week as the ILL system is rolling again after a lull during the holidays.

This Land I Love by Susan Graham – in preparation for my trip to New Zealand, I have scoured the library catalogue and come up with some very random but appropriately themed picks.  Graham was a Auckland-based newspaper columnist and this book from the early 1960s brings together entertaining vignettes from her travels around the country.

What did you pick up this week?

design credit: Mendelson Group Inc via Desire to Inspire

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Sharlene has the link this week.

Sorry for Your Trouble by Ann Marie Hourihane – a look a how death is handled in modern Ireland.  I started reading this on the bus home from the library and couldn’t put it down.

Cousin Cinderella by Sara Jeannette Duncan – after enjoying Duncan’s An American Girl in London from 1891 (which I hope to manage a review of soon), I’m intrigued to see how this later book from 1908 about a Canadian girl and her brother in London differs.

The Day My Grandfather Was a Hero by Paulus Hochgatterer – a novella set in Austria at the end of WWII, I’ve been wanting to read this for a while but had trouble finding a copy.  University library to the rescue!

Confessions by A.N. Wilson – a memoir focusing on the biographer’s early years.

Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy – an intriguing look at “how a place becomes a home, what makes a family put down roots, and how hatred can tear them out” (from the Guardian review) and the friendship between Ramaswamy and a nonagenarian who came to Britain through the Kindertransport.

The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington – My library has lost its copy of this so I was happy to be able to track it down from the university library.  Recommended by Nancy Pearl: “A graphic designer who has given up on men and a monk who has lost his faith in God meet and fall – most tentatively – in love.”

What did you pick up this week?

design credit: Brandon Schubert (via Desire to Inspire)

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Last Call at the Hotel Imperial by Deborah Cohen – a wonderful-looking group biography of wartime journalists.  I was enticed by excellent reviews from Kirkus and the Financial Times.

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy – I’m very excited about this much-praised novel set in Northern Ireland during the 1970s.

Endurance by Rick Broadbent – I am not the natural audience for sports biographies but every so often one finds its way into my library bag (though none since For the Glory, so it’s been a while).  There were a flurry of books about Zátopek, the Czech runner who won multiple gold medals at the 1952 Olympics, a few years ago and then a biopic more recently so I’m finally catching up.

What did you pick up this week?

Another year done and another list of excellent books to share.  2022 was a wonderful year for me: I returned to Europe after a three year break, my work situation stabilized, and our family grew in as my brother and his wife welcomed another daughter in November.  (For those keeping track, yes, that is four kids in just under five years – almost as regular as these annual lists!)  And I have had so much fun planning what I’m going to do in 2023, which I’ll talk about more in the coming weeks.

My reading continues its shift towards newer books (mainly due to Covid-related delays/closures that impact the inter-library loan system), though other trends remain similar to past years: an average showing for male authors and a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction.  Delightfully, I have my best ever performance by Canadian authors: four of this year’s books are by Canadians.  Here are my ten favourites for the year, ruthlessly ranked as usual:

10. Are We Having Fun Yet? (2021) by Lucy Mangan
I have enjoyed Mangan’s writing for years but this Provincial Lady-inspired diary of modern middle-class middle age had me weeping with laughter so intense it was almost silent.  Anxious Liz’s attempts to corral her two wildly different children, avoid smothering her affectionate but oblivious barrister husband, and manage her work life are exactly the legacy that E.M. Delafield deserves.

9. The Trials of Topsy (1928) by A.P. Herbert
Being introduced to the enthusiastic (if rather illiterate) Lady Topsy Trout was a clear highlight of 2022.  Originally published in Punch, the adventures of the young socialite are recounted faithfully in letters to her friend Trix as Topsy embraces Bohemia, the poor, journalism, and politics, with various adventures and lovestruck swain to enliven daily life amidst these serious pursuits.  An absolute joy to read.

8. Moon Over the Alps (1960) by Essie Summers
Thankfully, there is no requirement for this list to consist of great literature.  I enjoyed discovering Summer’s New Zealand-set romances in 2021 (the closest I could get to travelling there at the time) and read them even more avidly this year.  Moon Over the Alps is one of her earlier titles and, from my reading so far, one of the best.  It has all the usual elements – a hero and heroine who are clearly kindred spirits and are forced to spend lots of time together in a domestic setting while a misunderstanding keeps them from admitting their feelings, lots of outdoor adventures, and epic amounts of home cooking – and I love it all.

7. Desire (1908) by Una L. Silberrad
I loved this Edwardian novel about a young woman who refuses to depend upon others when she is left without an inheritance after her father’s death and instead reinvents herself as a bookkeeper.  The equality in the romance, where a friendship evolves into both a business partnership and love, was especially satisfying.

6. Memory Speaks (2022) by Julie Sedivy
I have always found language fascinating and this look at how the memory processes multiple language gave me lots to think about.  But what made it so very special is how Sedivy blends memoir with science, considering her own experiences as someone who lost her mother tongue (Czech) and then sought to relearn it in adulthood and, with the language, a greater connection to her heritage.

5. All My Rage (2022) by Sabaa Tahir
This YA novel about two Pakistani-American teens in a dead-end Californian town blew me away when I read it last spring.  Both a tragedy and a love story, Tahir tells the story of two bright best friends eager to move beyond the town where neither feel they belong but constrained by family ties and too little money.

4. The Republic of Love (1992) by Carol Shields
A book that came into my life at exactly the right moment.  I started 2022 with this love story about a radio host and a folklorist whose overlapping friends and colleagues make their eventual meeting inevitable in close-knit Winnipeg.  The joy they find, and the ripples it causes among those close to them, felt so true and plausible.  Most importantly, Shields captures the thoughts of her mid-thirties heroine perfectly.

3. Ducks (2022) by Kate Beaton
This graphic memoir has made many “Best of 2022” lists and with good reason. Beaton’s chronicle of her time working in the oil sands of Northern Alberta is clearly told and quietly devastating. The strange unreality of camp life, where people are far from home, women are rare, and everyone is earning huge salaries with few places to spend them, creates a bizarre culture and Beaton captures this with extraordinary clarity and sympathy, even though these are the conditions that resulted in her own sexual assault.

2. The Naked Don’t Fear the Water (2022) by Matthieu Aikins
After spending years reporting from Afghanistan, journalist Aikins set off in 2016 to travel along the refugee route to Europe with an Afghan friend.  The result is an absorbing and detailed look at the mechanics, economics, and emotions of leaving, as well as a consideration of what it means to be able to pass as Afghan (Aikins is half-Asian) while being able to pull out his Canadian passport if things got too dangerous.

1. We Don’t Know Ourselves (2021) by Fintan O’Toole
I love history books but when history is combined with memoir, it’s an unbeatable combination.  Born in 1958, O’Toole looks at how Ireland has changed over his lifetime and the result is a brilliant and personal look at period of extraordinary political and cultural upheaval.

Previous lists can be found here.

How easy is it to forget your native tongue?  It’s a question that has bothered me my entire life.  My mother’s English is entirely unaccented and her Czech now ragged from disuse, but I still worry.  Will I be able to communicate with her as she ages?  Does your mother language push to the fore as other faculties fade?  In a superb blend of science and memoir, Memory Speaks by Julie Sedivy looks at what happens when people lose their native language – and so often their culture – and whether it remains accessible in adulthood.

Like my mother, Sedivy immigrated to Canada from Czechoslovakia after the Russian invasion but, unlike my teenager mother, Sedivy was a small child when she arrived.  Living in Montreal and immersed in both French and English, she and her siblings quickly adopted the languages of their new home, bringing what they learned at school to their conversations at home.  Sedivy notes how consistent this pattern is across immigrant communities; the adoption of the local language is always fast and, within two generations, almost complete – grandchildren rarely speak, never mind fluently, the family’s heritage language.

And when you arrived, as Sedivy’s family did, it was easy to let go of your mother tongue.  Outside of your family home, no one wanted you to speak something else.  Sedivy’s memories are of school in the 1970s but the rules were the same at my school in the 1990s and early 2000s: only the local language could be spoken at school, including on the playground.  From the school’s perspective, it was a way to integrate children faster and prevent cliques from forming.  But there is only so much space in our brains allotted to languages and the existing ones suffer when a new one is learned:

There is no age at which at language, even a native one, is so firmly cemented into the brain that it can’t be dislodged or altered by a new one.  Like a household that welcomes a new child, a single mind can’t admit a new language without some impact on other languages already residing there.  Languages can co-exist, by they tussle, as do siblings, over mental resources and attention.  When a bilingual person tries to articulate a thought in one language, words and grammatical structures from the other language often clamor in the background, jostling for attention.  And if attention is allotted disproportionately to the new language, the older one suffers the consequences.

For Sedivy, this loss – initially – didn’t feel too immense.  Czech is hardly a practical language: it is spoken in one small country, most of whose inhabitants speak at least one other (more common) language.  And for the first few decades that she lived in Canada, it was a hard language to find outside of the home – something that is wildly different for today’s hyper-connected immigrants:

During my formative younger years, Czechoslovakia truly was a remote, impenetrable place.  For reasons of technology and politics, little passed through its borders, either in or out.  Telephone calls overseas were so expensive, there was no possibility of leisurely conversations with relatives back home.  Letters were opened, read, and censored.  There was no question of being able to go back for visits, even if we could have afforded it.  The Communist government did not consider my family’s departure legal, so we would have been subject to prison sentences upon arrival.  I grew up doubting I would ever return to that country in my lifetime.

Nowadays, I witness how some young people who straddle countries and cultures are able to travel with their families to their ancestral country every year or two, and how they can pull up magazines, blogs, movies and YouTube videos on their screens in the privacy of their bedrooms and conduct secret flirtations with someone across the world who speaks their language.

By adulthood and with the passing of her father, Sedivy was eager to relearn her mother tongue.  But how much of the bizarrely complex language remained (when in doubt, decline everything!  Verbs, nouns, pronouns, numerals, everything!) remained to be unlocked and how much would have to be relearned?

The research Sedivy shares is fascinating, if not personally reassuring about my fear of my mother relapsing in old age: native languages can re-emerge after decades without use.  But for those who never mastered them to adulthood, those who switched languages in childhood, the process is harder and there is learning to be done alongside remembering.  But how to learn?  Sedivy calls students like herself “heritage language learners” – people who want to learn their family’s language to better connect with their heritage and culture.  They don’t just need to know how to order a meal or buy a train ticket, they need to learn the etiquette of a language and culture: how do you talk to elders?  How do you express affection?  Is someone trying to be funny, or insulting?  And most schools are not set up to teach this:

Language classes tend to focus on a style of language appropriate with strangers or acquaintances, but heritage speakers may need to learn the language spoken between insiders, or language that is highly socially nuanced and not just grammatically proficient.

And not every language is used to adult learners.  It’s common to find international students of all ages learning English or French, German or Mandarin.  Native speakers are used to visitors testing their language skills and will kindly help them through garbled exchanges.  But in countries where this doesn’t happen, less courtesy is extended.  I had to laugh then when I came across this typical encounter Sedivy and her brother had at one store:

One store clerk in particular appeared to have great difficulty understanding him.  She informed him, as if she were instructing a child, that he was not pronouncing certain words correctly – as though being informed of this fact would somehow remedy the accent. ‘I’m sorry,’ said my brother, ‘My Czech is not very good.’  ‘Yes, I can hear that,’ said the clerk, without the slightest hint of a smile or encouragement.

The Czech government had a public service campaign to remind people to be nice to people who were learning Czech.  Literally, a nation needed to be reminded to put aside its natural tendency towards criticism and embrace the idea that foreigners might actually want to learn their language.  My family has always claimed Czech is too hard to learn outside of the country but I’m also half certain they didn’t want me to be laughed at (and lectured – always a popular choice) in public.

I loved every page of this.  The science of language and memory is absolutely fascinating and I would read a book entirely devoted to that very happily, but Sedivy’s personal experiences made this something very special (The Economist agrees) and memorable.