Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

Fifty Years Ago Today…

Happy Czechs in 1963

Yesterday was an important anniversary but today is an even more important one for me personally.  Fifty years ago today, my mother began her journey to Canada.

It began with a small journey, but my grandmother was distracted and terrified.  Her country, which had been so wonderful in her youth, had been occupied for the second time in her life.  Instead of Germans, Russians had now rolled into the streets of Prague.  Everything she had hoped and planned for her life had come to nothing.  But she had two daughters and she wanted better for them – and for herself.

She was a forty-seven-year old widow who had spent a few months taking English lessons, trying to recall a language she’d learned thirty years before and never had need to use.  She and her twenty-year old daughter were breaking the law – not just by leaving but by “kidnapping” a minor (my mother).  She had the visas for Canada, and a letter for the Czechoslovak border guards about going there to attend her brother’s wedding, and a lot of nerve.  With one suitcase a piece (after all, who would flee the country with so few belongings?), they set out.

They were lucky.  The border guards were – even months after the Soviet occupation began – miraculously still Czech and no one asked too many questions.  They made it through to Austria.

Which is when my mother, who had been stewing silently, reminded my grandmother of the one thing she had forgotten that day.

Her youngest daughter’s 14th birthday.

Eventually, she was forgiven.  My mother acknowledged that her birthday probably wasn’t the highest priority of the day – but, mind you, I think this took a while.  Possibly years.  Young teenage girls aren’t known for their emotional generosity, particularly ones who are already distraught about leaving their beloved homeland.

My grandmother felt guilty all her life for that slip, but she shouldn’t have.  She gave my mother a wonderful present that day: a future where she was able to live freely, conquer first school and then the business world based on her own (considerable) merit, travel widely, and dream of a big, bright future.  For all three women, it was a journey with a very happy ending.

But it’s been a good reminder to us all never to forget my mother’s birthday.

Happy Canadians in 1981


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After months of anticipation, a very great event occurred last Sunday: I became an aunt.  Arguably, that was the least of the changes: my brother and sister-in-law became parents, two sets of existing parents became grandparents, and a small and rather wonderful girl came into being.

But as I am unable to comment on any of their mindsets with confidence, let us focus on me.

I am rather adrift as to what it means to be an aunt.  Literature provides few useful guides.  If I wanted to be a terrifyingly despotic aunt, or a meek spinster aunt, or an emotionally withholding aunt, I am overwhelmed with bookish inspiration.  Children’s literature runneth over with aunts you would never want to expose your children to.  But what about the kindly aunts?

Eva Ibbotson offers a few: the aunts in Magic Flutes are wonderful, as are the equally supportive aunts in The Dragonfly Pool, but they are a bit timid.  Perhaps more suitable inspiration lies with the suffragette aunts in A Song for Summer, who love their niece even if they can’t understand why she would throw away an education to work at an eccentric boarding school.  That sounds much more like me.

But Ibbotson also offers up some joyfully awful aunts in A Company of Swans and in some of her children’s books.  She was, she admitted, a fan of using aunts in her books and deployed them in all their various facets.

And, of course, P.G. Wodehouse created aunts so terrifying I run from them as quickly as their lily-livered nieces and nephews ever did.  There are some nice ones mixed in but who remembers them?

Jane Austen certainly had a flurry of memorable aunts floating around in her books, from the very, very bad (Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park or Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice) to the very good (Mrs Gardiner, an excellent source of motherly counsel for Elizabeth Bennet) to the undefinable (Miss Bates – doubtlessly a good woman but who doesn’t pity Jane Fairfax for having to deal with her tiresome fussings and rather vocal timidity?).

But that does put me in mind of Fay Weldon’s excellent Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.  If I could be the kind of aunt who dispenses sensible, non-binding advice while discoursing on Jane Austen I think I should be very happy indeed.  We may need to wait a few years for that though.  Until then, I will be content with cooing over her and buying obscene numbers of children’s books and looking forward to the day we can read them together.

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via here

via here

While browsing at my favourite local bookshop this afternoon, a woman came in and started talking with the salesperson.  She was looking for a book for her twenty-seven year old son.  Her parameters were vague but historical fiction was preferred.  Something set in Asia would be nice.  And if it involved armies and war, even better.

It was at this point I had to step in.

It’s not that I don’t trust trained sales people to do their jobs.  I do, especially at this particular store where the selection seems very carefully curated to consist 90% of books that appeal to me personally.  I just happened to be uniquely qualified to make this particular sale.

After all, there was a copy of Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay directly in front of me.  It not only matched her particulars, it also happens to be one of my favourite books (confirmed when I reread it last year).

I plucked it from the shelf, passed it to the woman, and told her it was everything she was looking for.  The saleswoman had never heard of Kay (though thankfully she stocks his books) and certainly did not have my trump card – the last person I recommended it to was also a twenty-seven year old male and he loved it.

I am delighted to say I made the sale.  It is in fact the second time this year I have been able to hand-sell that particular book.  Book sellers of Vancouver, beware!  I am roaming the streets, ready to pounce on your customers and make passionate recommendations.


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Listening In

woman-listening-to-a-radioI seem to have come through my reading drought and am now happily reaching the end of Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie.  However, when I was feeling so unsettled with every single other book I tried to read, sometimes I just gave up, closed my eyes, and let someone else read me a story instead.  And it was wonderful.

While I have a few favourite podcasts (CBC’s Vinyl Cafe, BBC’s Home Front, and Rachel and Simon’s Tea or Books), I generally stick to audiobooks.  I listen to audiobooks regularly and find them a wonderful companion when I’m out walking, when podcasts can go by far too quickly.

Lately though I’ve been exploring the many, many programs available through the BBC Radio website and I’ve had many happy hours of listening as a result.  What to?  Well, here’s a brief list of some of the intriguing programs currently available (some of which I’ve listened to but most of which are still on my “to listen” list):

There is still plenty to listen to, as you can see!

I’m always looking for recommendations so please let me know what some of your favourite radio programmes and podcasts are.


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Happy Boxing Day

P1100625 (600x800)Happy Boxing Day everyone!  I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and are enjoying a suitably lazy aftermath.  We do our celebrating on Christmas Eve, which was lovely, and had a very low key Christmas Day.  We ate Christmas cookies for breakfast, went on a beautiful long walk, and then made Indian food for dinner.  I finally finished reading Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans (nowhere near as good as her recent novel, Crooked Heart) and, with no work until Tuesday, am looking forward to lots more reading between now and then.  And maybe, just maybe, even finding the time to write a book review or two.

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Weekend Rant

The Bedroom at Auppegard, France, Girl Reading by Ethel Sands

The Bedroom at Auppegard, France, Girl Reading by Ethel Sands

I am having a bit of a “woe is me” weekend.  The stress of this ridiculously unlucky year has been catching up with me over the last month or two and my naturally cheery self is nowhere to be found.  This is very poor timing since I should be extra industrious this month, studying hard for my upcoming exam.  Except I barely have the mental capacity to write a grocery list, never mind cramming tax rules and investment theories into my overwhelmed little brain, after a full day at work.  This is my third exam of the year but by far the largest.  I keep telling myself I need to buckle down and work hard for just a few more weeks and then I can relax and take a few months off of studying before starting on the next set of courses.  This is very true and very sound advice.  I just need to act on it.

Saturday was not an impressive day in the life of Claire.  It started well enough but quickly went off the rails.  My computer died a quick and entirely unexpected death.  If you were ever hoping for a review of the Sylvia Townsend Warner letters I keep mentioning, I apologize.  My notes are lost forever.  Also, I have now spent 24 hours looking for my Microsoft Office installation CD and it is nowhere to be found.  A small thing – at least I have the internet up and working again – but enough to drive me batty in my current mood.  My favourite sweater bled in the wash.  I forgot to buy key ingredients for dinner but of course didn’t realise until I was halfway through cooking it.  My hairdresser worried that I might have a serious health issue because of a recent change she’s noticed in my hair.  This of course led to deeply distressing internet searches.  For a nice distraction, I thought I’d go see the new James Bond film at my local theatre.  I got there 40 minutes ahead of showtime and it was sold out.

Usually, I am up to this level of chaos.  I am resilient and cheerful.  I am generally considered to be charming and optimistic.  I take things in my stride and move forward.  Yesterday, I just wanted to hit something.  Very hard.  Or take up drinking.  Instead, I had a hot bath, finished reading A.D. Scott’s A Double Death on the Black Isle (not as good as the first book in the series – or was is that just my cross mood colouring my view of it?) and went to bed early.

Today, I tried to calm myself.  I did yard work.  I bought flowers for myself.  I went for a lovely walk in the woods.  I attended a concert of Mozart’s Requiem.  But I still feel frazzled and exhausted.  And tomorrow, another work week starts.

The Mozart concert today was held at a church and before the music started, there was a reading.  It was Ecclesiastes 3 – a passage even heathens like me are familiar with:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

This last year has been a trying season of my life and in the lives of those around me.  I keep telling myself things will get easier after X is done.  But we’ve been through five or six X events now and it’s not getting any easier.  It’s not getting worse, though.  There is that.  I am still hopeful that once I get through this exam at the end of the month, I’ll be able to relax properly for the first time since last November.  Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, I keep reading more novels than I should.  Definitely more historical novels than I should in my current mood (damn you Mr. Trollope and Ms. Heyer for being so irresistible).  There is nothing so alluring to me right now as a heroine who only needs to worry about her family and her romantic life.  How simple that sounds!  How much easier than having to balance that with full-time work and further career ambitions!  If you know of any gentleman of means looking for a sensible, financially-savvy wife to serve as chatelaine of his profitable estate, please send him my way.  Immediately.

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VignoniI am back after a wonderful two weeks in Italy.  I strolled through vineyards, forests, and countless hill-towns in Tuscany, admired palm trees, snow-capped mountains and German tourists on Lake Garda, and found unexpected quiet on Venice’s twisting, charming streets and canals.

To be frank, I am not particularly excited to be home.  I would much rather be sitting somewhere in the Veneto with a glass of prosecco or visiting a spa in Merano or maybe discovering the ancient glories of Rome.  Instead, I am back at home where it is cold and wet and I am expected to work for a living for another thirty or forty years.  Most unsatisfactory.

the-road-to-little-dribbling-115989452My wanderlust is something I live with the whole year round, though my vacations are limited to three weeks a year.  I am already plotting where to go next year.  Italy again?  My beloved Germany, perhaps?  Croatia, finally?  Dare I pluck up the courage for India?  I thought I had it narrowed down but then yesterday I read Bill Bryson’s newest book, The Road to Little Dribbling, and now, of course, I am desperate to go back to the UK.  One of the delights of the UK, as Bryson never tires of pointing out, is how crammed full it is of fascinating people, places and history.  London alone has more cultural sights than many countries but there are thoughtful, original museums and galleries scattered across the rest of the nation with infuriating frequency.  I am ready to go NOW and spend three or four weeks (months?) roaming about, visiting museums and galleries, walking the South Downs and the Yorkshire Dales.

What I shall actually do is stay here, work, study for a demanding upcoming professional exam, and, perhaps, occasionally remember to update this blog.  I do miss regular blogging but have been so busy this year that I’ve barely had time to read, never mind reflect on my reading.  It is something I miss and I hope in the coming months I’ll be able to make blogging part of my regular schedule again.

Though I didn’t read much, and certainly not deeply, I did come across some excellent books this summer.  Girl at War by Sara Nović, about the impact of the Serbo-Croatian war on a young girl, was excellent; Uprooted, a light, undemanding fantasy novel from Naomi Novik, was a fun distraction from my other concerns; and Man Overboard by Monica Dickens was a nice, light romance about an unemployed naval officer that reminded me of how well Dickens writes from the male perspective and had unmistakable similarities to the writing of my dear Nevil Shute.

Sofia Khan is Not ObligedBut the most delightful surprise of this summer was Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik (of which Kate has already written an excellent and far more detailed review).  Sometimes, books appear that so perfectly match my dream book wish list that I can barely believe they are real.  This was one of those books.  Sofia Khan is a young British Muslim woman, working in the publishing industry in London (much like her creator).  Like many young women, she is looking for love but not prepared to compromise too much.  She wants someone who shares her faith, is close to his family (though not too close – living with the in-laws is a step too far for Sofia), and believes in her feminist values.  If he happens to be gorgeous and brings the banter, so much the better.

Through Sofia and her friends, Malik looks with humour and sympathy at the way young, educated, devout, modern Muslim women approach romance.  One friend is in love with married man and, as the novel begins, considering becoming a second wife.  Another is in a relationship with a black man, something her family and community would certainly not approve of.  Sofia isn’t quite sure who she wants but she knows she wants love and marriage and a family of her own.

As someone who has never been able to connect with alcohol- and regretful hook-up-driven Chick Lit novels (or television shows, like Sex and the City), Sofia Khan is Not Obliged was a welcome change.  It offered a cheeky, intelligent, fallible heroine who, although I may not share her faith or culture, I could identify with more easily than most of the other protagonists in the genre.  Once I started reading, I could not put the book down – it’s the only thing I’ve read this year that kept me up past midnight (on a weekday, no less).  I read it thanks to NetGalley and can’t wait for the paperback to come out in January (it is available now as an e-book).

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