A Tale of Two Mysteries

     One hundred years later, Agatha Christie remains the most famous of mystery writers, with a prolific output of 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, six fiction novels under a pseudonym and the theater’s longest running play, The Mousetrap.  One of the highest selling authors of all time (2 billion copies) her books are still in print and movie versions abound even today.  I recently saw Crooked House on Netflix (mixed opinion on that one) and Death on the Nile is on my to-see list.  

   As I’ve only read a couple of her books, Murder on the Orient Express, and And Then There Were None, I can’t say that I’m a big fan.  The flaw I find in her writing is the sheer number of characters in some of them, it’s hard to keep them all straight, especially when she gives such a small amount of description and background about them.  In my opinion, we never really get to know the people in her books, except perhaps for the recurring ones, like Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot and I’ve always disliked that ridiculous mustache.

    The same with the movie adaptations, on both Crooked House and the 2017 version of The Orient Express, there were so many actors with similar appearance – the same tall dark looks (the men) and thin with bobbed hair (the women) that it was hard to keep them all straight.  In Crooked House, the filming was so dark and the camera so distant that we seldom got enough of a close-up of a face to be able to distinguish between them.  This is perhaps a problem with casting and scripts however, not the books.  

     I know only the barest outline of her life – her first marriage to a husband who left her for another woman, and who, it was reputed, never bothered to read any of her books after the first, (good riddance to him), her second marriage to a younger archaeologist, her stints as an apothecary’s assistant during both world wars, which resulted in her extensive knowledge of poisons.  (I can’t say I share that expertise despite my forty years experience, but medication was mainly compounded from scratch back in the day.)  But one thing has always puzzled people – her disappearance for eleven days in 1926.   While all of England searched for her, she was holed up in a hotel, registered under the name of her husband’s mistress.  Her mother had died earlier in the year and rumors abounded that her husband had asked for a divorce. Had she suffered a nervous breakdown, or perhaps intended to embarrass him? There was even speculation it might have been a publicity stunt.  Once found, they got back together again, but she eventually left him and he married his mistress.

So it was with interest that I read the new release, The Christie Affair, by Nina de Gramont – a fictionalized account of her mysterious disappearance. The reviews were great, and it did not disappoint.  I would consider this one of the best books I’ve read this year, deserving of being a Reese Book Club selection, which is not always the case.

The writing was excellent and suspenseful, and I am in awe of how the author spun the various stories together, with a very satisfactory ending, and of course there was a crime to solve, although it wasn’t the main focus.  I can’t say too much because of spoilers, but I do wonder how they got this book past the Christie estate because of that one pivotal detail. It’s all pure fiction of course, but masterfully done.  In short, it’s difficult to summarize this book, it’s historical fiction, it’s a suspense novel, but it’s mainly it’s just a very good story.

I’m not familiar with the author, but she has five other books I will check into. This book has also inspired me to read more about Agatha Christie’s life.  She never discussed the disappearance the rest of her life, only mentioning it briefly in her autobiography as “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it.”

Contrast this to my experience a week later reading Lucy Foley’s latest – The Paris Apartment – a modern day locked room mystery. 

Goodreads Publisher’s Blurb: Jess needs a fresh start. She’s broke and alone, and she’s just left her job under less than ideal circumstances. Her half-brother Ben didn’t sound thrilled when she asked if she could crash with him for a bit, but he didn’t say no, and surely everything will look better from Paris. Only when she shows up – to find a very nice apartment, could Ben really have afforded this? – he’s not there. The longer Ben stays missing, the more Jess starts to dig into her brother’s situation, and the more questions she has. Ben’s neighbors are an eclectic bunch, and not particularly friendly. Jess may have come to Paris to escape her past, but it’s starting to look like it’s Ben’s future that’s in question. The socialite – The nice guy – The alcoholic – The girl on the verge – The concierge. Everyone’s a neighbor. Everyone’s a suspect. And everyone knows something they’re not telling.

Reading this book a week after The Christie Affair, I couldn’t help but compare the two.  Lucy Foley also wrote the previous locked room mysteries, The Guest List (destination wedding on an island off the coast of Ireland) and The Hunting Lodge (a Scottish lodge during a snow storm).  Now I have to admit I’m not the demographic the author is writing for (young, lots of beverage imbibing and bad language, some of it in French) but in my opinion any book which starts with an offensive opening sentence has nowhere to go but more of the same. Where were the editors?  Is there anything wrong with a simple “Ben, answer your phone – I’m freezing out here.”  No, but in a modern day mystery, it seems we must use explicit adjectives, and maybe that is the way young people talk, but I almost closed the book after the first page.  I was discussing this with the librarian when I returned it, and she argued that the author was trying to establish that the protagonist was from a disadvantaged background. I suppose there’s that….but she’s also unlikable.  It seems to be the fashion now to have an unlikable protagonist, but really, none of the characters were likable.  Which made me think – do I really want to spend 300 pages with these people? Still, I persisted….because I know Lucy Foley can spin a good tale.

It’s not a bad book, suspenseful, more character development than what Agatha Christie was prone too, but that is to be expected today.  We must have multiple motives, and in order to have motives you must reveal something about your characters, disagreeable or not.  I’m a sucker for any book with Paris in the title, but it’s like the author threw everything stereo-typically French – thin chic women afraid to eat, lots of wine, extramarital affairs and a rather sleazy descent into the seedier side of Moulin Rouge – into a pot and this is the plot she came up with.  There isn’t really even that much about Paris in it, it could be an apartment building anywhere, as that is where the majority of the story is set, although I think she ate a croissant, despite her dwindling cash reserves? I can see it being a Hollywood movie – lots of passion and sizzle, a rather thin plot, but a suspenseful ending.   It was somewhat better the last hundred pages, and was certainly a fast paced read for a book where nothing much happens, but will it stand the test of time?  That remains to be seen.   

Both were good books, in their own way, but my preference was for The Christie Affair – tell me an interesting story along with my dose of suspense.  

Which begs the question, does every mystery author eventually succumb to being dated?  Have you read any good mysteries lately?

The Maid – The Literary Salon

     One of the pleasures of staying in a hotel room is someone else cleans up, but do we ever really think about that person?  We may see them moving their trolleys up and down the hallway, and hopefully we leave them a tip, but it’s a job a lot of people take for granted.  It’s hard work, plus, you’d have to like cleaning.   

     Thankfully, Molly, the protagonist in the new bestseller, The Maid, loves her job and takes great pride and enjoyment in returning the rooms at the Regency Hotel to “a state of perfection” as their training program emphasizes. When she happens to clean away some murder evidence which along with her unusual behavior makes her a prime suspect, that provides an interesting premise for a murder mystery.    

Reading is better than spring cleaning…

Here’s the Publisher’s Blurb:

Molly Gray is not like everyone else. She struggles with social skills and misreads the intentions of others. Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by.

Since Gran died a few months ago, twenty-five-year-old Molly has been navigating life’s complexities all by herself. No matter—she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid. Her unique character, along with her obsessive love of cleaning and proper etiquette, make her an ideal fit for the job. She delights in donning her crisp uniform each morning, stocking her cart with miniature soaps and bottles, and returning guest rooms at the Regency Grand Hotel to a state of perfection.

But Molly’s orderly life is upended the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and Mr. Black himself dead in his bed. Before she knows what’s happening, Molly’s unusual demeanor has the police targeting her as their lead suspect. She quickly finds herself caught in a web of deception, one she has no idea how to untangle. Fortunately for Molly, friends she never knew she had unite with her in a search for clues to what really happened to Mr. Black—but will they be able to find the real killer before it’s too late?

A Clue-like, locked-room mystery and a heartwarming journey of the spirit, The Maid explores what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different—and reveals that all mysteries can be solved through connection to the human heart.

About the Author: 

Nita Prose is a longtime editor, serving many bestselling authors and their books. She lives in Toronto, Canada, in a house that is only moderately clean.

 As an longtime editor, Nita Prose obviously had publishing connections, but this book is so good and so unique I’m sure it would have been found a home anyway.  I suspect the hotel in the book is based on The Royal York in Toronto, where I have stayed on occasion when work was footing the bill, (it’s handy to Union train station, but when I have to pay, I stay at the pleasant but cheaper Marriott) or it could be any one of those grand old dames with an impressive lobby which pride themselves on style and service.   

Discussion:    I loved everything about this book – the protagonist, the plot-line, the descriptions, the dialogue – it’s just a charming story.  I was already casting it in my head, when I read on Amazon that it is in development as a major motion picture produced by and starring Florence Pugh. I don’t know enough about this English actress to say whether she would suit the role or not, but it’s the kind of quirky movie the British do best.  Hollywood would probably Hollywoodize it, with sexy uniforms and lots of bed-hopping.

One thing to note, this murder mystery has nothing to do with the Netflix series of the same name, which is a totally different story. I haven’t watched it, but believe it deals with the struggles of a single mother working a minimum wage job. I don’t know what the pay is for hotel maids but personal maid services here charge $35/hr with $25 going to the maid, and even home care agencies charge $25 for light housekeeping, but the bigger hotel chains may be closer to minimum wage $15 as they are often staffed by people whose English is a second language. This is addressed in the book, as one of the employees does not have the proper immigration papers and Molly herself has difficulty making her big city rent. (These rates may even have gone up given the low unemployment rate and difficulty in attracting employees.)

Molly is such a memorable character that you can’t help but root for her.  Alone in the world after her grandmother’s death, she is unable to understand or read social cues, and takes everything at face value. The book is written in first person, which I often find annoying, but which works here as we are seeing the world from the point of view of someone whose thinking and behavior would be considered outside of normal. Although the author is very careful not to label her, she is probably somewhere on the spectrum, possibly Asperger’s Syndrome with a good dose of OCD thrown in.  She seems literally clueless when it comes to interpreting other people’s words and actions which leads her into trouble.  (I wonder if people who fall prey to obvious financial scams might be struggling with the same perceptive difficulties.)      

The dialogue is clever, (hence the movie), and the descriptions creative – her nest egg which was stolen is her “Faberge”, her restaurant date was “the Tour of Italy”( which made me want to eat at an Olive Garden, if only we had one here).

The plot was fast-paced, although but I had a small problem with the ending, but understand why it had to happen that way.  Overall, the book was a brilliant debut and also a gentle reminder that there are many “invisible” people in society, whose perceptions of the world may be somewhat different than our own.  

PS.  I use a maid service for my mother’s house, and also occasionally for myself for bigger jobs like windows, as I simply don’t have the energy to keep up two houses.  What I like about them is they send two, occasionally three, people so they are in and out in a couple of hours, so you’re not in their way all afternoon. They do an excellent job, but cleaning houses all day is hard work, so many of them don’t last long, although the head cleaner is always the same. She told me she loves to clean, as did the Molly Maid franchise owner I used before. I’m grateful that some people do…now if I could only find someone who loves ironing. Vacuuming is my second hated task, but give me something to organize and I’m happy.  While I used to enjoy the feeling of satisfaction after cleaning my house from top to bottom, now that I’m older I prefer that someone else return my house to “a state of perfection.”  If only it would stay that way.     

PS. Cleanliness in a hospital is a priority, so I would like to add a note of thanks to the hospital cleaners who have to deal with the COVID-units. I remember the floors in my rural hospital being so clean and shiny you could eat off them.

Do you enjoy cleaning? Any hated household tasks?

The Betrayal of Anne Frank – A Cold Case Investigation

     Imagine being stuck inside, in a small space, for two years, where going out meant risking your life.  No, it’s not the pandemic – it’s WW2, and the people in hiding are Jewish. 

   Like many teenage girls of my generation, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, written by a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl in Amsterdam, when I was in grade school.   So when I saw The Betrayal of Anne Frank – a Cold Case Investigation by Rosemary Sullivan – on the new releases list, I knew I had to read it, and having read it, I knew I needed to blog about it.  The book is a captivating read, and a cautionary one.  It’s a timely topic, as with so much political turmoil in the world today, and so much divisiveness and hatred, it seems like history is repeating itself.          

Goodreads Publishers Blurb:

Using new technology, recently discovered documents and sophisticated investigative techniques, an international team—led by an obsessed former FBI agent—has finally solved the mystery that has haunted generations since World War II: Who betrayed Anne Frank and her family? And why?

Over thirty million people have read The Diary of a Young Girl, the journal teen-aged Anne Frank kept while living in an attic with her family in Amsterdam during World War II, until the Nazis arrested them and sent Anne to her death in a concentration camp. But despite the many works—journalism, books, plays and novels—devoted to Anne’s story, none has ever conclusively explained how the Franks and four other people managed to live in hiding undetected for over two years—and who or what finally brought the Nazis to their door.

With painstaking care, former FBI agent Vincent Pankoke and a team of indefatigable investigators pored over tens of thousands of pages of documents—some never-before-seen—and interviewed scores of descendants of people involved, both Nazi sympathizers and resisters, familiar with the Franks. Utilizing methods developed by the FBI, the Cold Case Team painstakingly pieced together the months leading to the  Franks’ arrest—and came to a shocking conclusion. 

The Betrayal of Anne Frank is their riveting story. Rosemary Sullivan introduces us to the investigators, explains the behavior of both the captives and their captors and profiles a group of suspects. All the while, she vividly brings to life wartime Amsterdam: a place where no matter how wealthy, educated, or careful you were, you never knew whom you could trust.

The Author: Rosemary Sullivan is the author of fifteen books, many of which are biographies, and the recipient of many international awards. She is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and has lectured worldwide.

Discussion:

     I found this book to be a fascinating but disturbing read. Cold cases are always interesting, but a famous cold case which is part of history, even more so, and trying to solve one seventy-five years later when all of the suspects are dead, almost impossible.

     Part One, the first hundred or so pages, deals with the background story.  For those unfamiliar, Anne Frank and her parents and older sister, along with another Jewish couple and their teenage son, and a local dentist – eight people in total – were hidden for two years in the upper annex of her father’s spice business, with the assistance of four of Otto Frank’s employees who brought them food and supplies.  The annex was at the back of the building facing a courtyard with a tree, Anne’s only glimpse of the outdoors for two years.  Based on an anonymous tip, the address was raided a few weeks before the liberation of Amsterdam, by a German Gestapo agent and three Dutch policemen.  They were all sent to concentration camps, and only her father Otto Frank survived, and later went on to publish Anne’s diary.    

     Part one introduces us to Anne’s world, and the complex politics of Amsterdam at the time, including the collaborators and the resistance movement.  It’s a fascinating look at just how quickly a normal life can deteriorate into one of treachery and survival.  It describes the political environment and the raid in detail, and the background and history of the people involved, including the policemen.         

        Part Two deals with the investigation of who had betrayed them.  The investigative team of thirty people, led by the retired FBI detective, narrowed thirty possibilities down to twelve scenarios, and then a further four, until they reached their final theory, based on a random note found in the archives, (no spoilers here) and note it is a theory, as there is no absolute proof which they made clear.

     Like any cold case, they looked at three factors – Knowledge, Motive and Opportunity.  Knowledge could come from rumors, observations, or resistance people being tortured. Motive could have been for money (there was a bounty of $7.50 guilders or $47 US for each Jew turned in), hatred or self-preservation, trying to stay on the good side of evil.  (Which begs the ethical question, could you turn someone else in to save yourself or your own family?)  Opportunity was having knowledge and access to the Germans or SD police.     

     Some suspects could be eliminated as they weren’t in the area at the time.  The team systemically went over lists of known collaborators and addresses from extensive war archives, reconstructing a  detailed map of the area.  They also designed a computer program to handle the masses of data.  There was so many archives to wade through that solving the case took several years.     

     Vince Pankoke, the lead detective said “there was no aha moment to end the investigation – the emergence of the betrayer was a slow coming together of evidence and motive, a jigsaw piece that suddenly undeniably fit.  He remarked that there was a weight of great sadness after the case was solved which has stayed with him since.” 

Additional Points of Interest:

     Originally born in Germany, Otto Frank had served in WW1 but had fled Germany in 1933 and set up a business in Amsterdam, a city known for its tolerance.  Yet the Netherlands transported more Jews to their deaths in concentration camps than any other country in Western Europe.  Of the 140,000 Jews living there, 107,00 were deported and only 5500 returned. There were an estimated 25,000 in hiding, one third of whom would eventually be betrayed.  

    We have the greed of the Gestapo agent to thank for the survival of Anne’s diary.  During the raid, Anne picked up her father’s briefcase which contained the diary to take with them.  The German police officer threw her diary with it’s checkered cover on the floor and filled the briefcase with the valuables and money that Otto and the others had managed to hold onto.  Had she taken it with her to the camp, it would have been destroyed.  After the raid, the two female employees rescued it and tucked it away for Anne’s return.  

      It was interesting to note how some of the interviewee’s memories (and their descendants), changed over the years.  Sometimes how people remembered things, did not jive with the documented reality, particularly after Anne’s fame grew.    

      In a particularly poignant section, Otto Frank describes Anne drinking in the natural world that had been denied her for so long, on the last train to Auschwitz.  It was summertime and she reveled in the fresh air and sunshine.   

     In one of the last pages of her diary, Anne writes, “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impossible.  Yet I keep clinging to them, because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” 

     It’s something to remember, that feeling of hope, especially at a time when the world seems to be tilting towards intolerance, that things can always be made right again.

     One final thought, you don’t have to like someone to help them.  My grandmother grew up in a southern rural area of Holland, and I remember her saying that her family had helped refugees during WW1.  (The Netherlands remained neutral during WW1 and attracted a flood of refugees.) They were from Turkey, and I also remember her saying that they were not nice people, but they helped them anyway.   My grandmother would have been 16 and it is debatable what would constitute not being nice at that age – being made to give up her bed, possibly being leered at, or the fact that they were gypsies, I believe was the word used.  Her parents were gone by WW2, although she had many brothers and sisters back home, but I never asked her, to my great regret, for any stories of those years.

PS.   You can visit the Anne Frank House and Museum in Amsterdam, (see online website for a one hour history and virtual tour of the annex) but anyone I know who has gone there has not been able to see it because of the long lineups. The Annex was accessed via a secret bookcase, (link to a 2 minute tour) and was fairly small to have housed eight people.  Here’s a youtube link to the only known video of Anne Frank on a balcony watching a wedding party. 

PS. One of my readers has mentioned that there has since been dissension about the research and conclusion of the book, to the extent that the Dutch and German publishers have suspended publication until they do a further review. Considering their end theory was a shocking revelation, and that Otto Frank (and his secretary) knew who had betrayed them for years and kept silent, and that the Switzerland foundation he set up in her name refused to cooperate in the research, it is not entirely unexpected for the book to be controversial. Readers wishing further information may google for more details.

Wintering

If wintering is a verb then we all need to learn to winter – to rest and recharge, especially in difficult times.  Wintering can be a season to survive, a respite from the busyness of the rest of the year, or a state of mind such as a feeling sad or depressed. 

Winter is often a time for retreat – never more so than this year.  Usually I don’t mind the month of January, and enjoy the excuse to stay home when the weather turns nasty, but this year it just seems like more of the same.  So it was with interest that I saw a review on someone’s blog of a non-fiction book called Wintering, by Katherine May.   As I sometimes enjoy a light philosophical read, I ordered it from the library, but found it so interesting and well written that it might go on my purchase list.  (I usually only buy books I intend to re-read.)

The crazy quilt behind the book is perfect for winter slumbering

Here’s the Publishers Blurb:  Sometimes you slip through the cracks: unforeseen circumstances like an abrupt illness, the death of a loved one, a break-up, or a job loss can derail a life. These periods of dislocation can be lonely and unexpected. For May, her husband fell ill, her son stopped attending school, and her own medical issues led her to leave a demanding job. Wintering explores how she not only endured this painful time, but embraced the singular opportunities it offered.

A moving personal narrative shot through with lessons from literature, mythology, and the natural world, May’s story offers instruction on the transformative power of rest and retreat. Illumination emerges from many sources: solstice celebrations and dormice hibernation, C.S. Lewis and Sylvia Plath, swimming in icy waters and sailing arctic seas.

Ultimately Wintering invites us to change how we relate to our own fallow times. May models an active acceptance of sadness and finds nourishment in deep retreat, joy in the hushed beauty of winter, and encouragement in understanding life as cyclical, not linear. A secular mystic, May forms a guiding philosophy for transforming the hardships that arise before the ushering in of a new season.

About the Author:

Katherine May is a freelance writer of both fiction and nonfiction, and previous creative writing teacher.  Her journalism and essays have appeared in a number of publications, including The Times, Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan.  In the book she reveals she has Asperger’s Syndrome.  “I learned to winter young. As one of the many girls of my age whose autism went undiagnosed, I spent a childhood permanently out in the cold.” (page 11)

Discussion: 

As we’ve just passed the winter solstice, this is a book to curl up with and enjoy in the deep dark depths of January.

The book is a series of personal essays, divided into chapters, from September to March, with further sub-titles such as Slumber, Light, Midwinter, Snow, Cold Water, and Thaw.

I especially enjoyed the chapters on hibernation, (who knew dormice and bees could be so interesting), slumber (isn’t it always easier to sleep in the winter), and light (seeking out the northern lights in Norway).  As the author lives by the sea in England, and has not experienced the full force of a brutal snow-filled winter, she journeyed north to seek the cold and snow and to view the Northern Lights.         

Northern Lights over the Farm

She also visited Stonehenge during the Winter Solstice. There’s a chapter on light (the festival of St. Lucia), on cold water (taking the polar bear plunge) and snow (winter walks in nature are much easier on a British beach than trudging through snowdrifts).

Our beach in winter (December) before the snow.

Here’s a Goodreads link to some quotes from the book for a sample of her writing. The prose is so lovely, I would recommend it for that reason alone, even if you weren’t interested in the topic.   No wonder Elizabeth Gilbert praised it as “a truly beautiful book.”

She also mentions a poem by Syliva Path titled “Wintering” which I was not familiar with, but I imagine inspired the title of the book.   

It’s difficult to sum up what this book is actually about, it’s not advice, or self-help, but more meditative reflections on a season we all must go through. 

Winter! Bah Humbug!

A Food Memoir and Some Music

My regular readers may have noticed my lack of baking blogs lately. That’s because I had my cholesterol tested last June and it was borderline. Borderline is worse than bad, as borderline means you should watch it, whereas bad means you absolutely must, but either way you feel guilty when you don’t.

But there’s nothing to say that you can’t read about food. I absolutely devoured this month’s Literary Salon selection – Stanley Tucci’s bestseller, Taste: My Life Through Food. (goodreads link) This is a book for both foodies and non-foodies alike.

I must admit, I didn’t even know who Stanley Tucci was, other than that guy who ate his way through Italy last spring on those CNN TV specials – Searching For Italy, where he would visit a different city each week and explore their food culture, of which I only caught the episodes on Florence and Milan. (It’s been renewed for season two next year) He was sort of a replacement for the late Anthony Bourdain, but they must have known he had the book coming out. (His wife is a literary agent in London.) So when I saw the reviews were unanimously positive, I put it on reserve. As well as being an author, he has starred in 70 movies, although the only ones I can recall are Julie and Julia (where he played Paul Child) and The Devil Wears Prada, and also The Hunger Games. He’s the kind of nondescript actor you can easily overlook, but his book is one of those interesting reads you can’t put down.

Growing up Italian, food was always important to him, especially pasta. There are a few recipes scattered throughout the chapters, but maybe you have to be a pasta-lover to fully appreciate them. It may be blasphemous, but to me all pasta tastes the same. Yes, I know, the different textures help pick up the various sauces and fillings, but to me it’s all just pasta. But I do have a mild allergy to garlic, so I might not be the best judge.

I had many Italian friends growing up as I attended a Catholic high school. Their food was different than the meat-potato-veg fare we ate at home. Their desserts were different too – I remember in particular a cake so liquor-soaked you could get drunk on it. While Stanley Tucci came from Italian roots, he grew up in the suburbs of New York. I had to laugh when he wrote about his class-mates wanting to trade their peanut butter or baloney sandwiches for whatever tasty leftovers his mother had put in his lunchbox, scoring some extra Twinkies in the process. (My favorite was always those chocolate Hostess cupcakes with the cream filling in the centre, which we did not get very often.)

As Stanley Tucci has just turned sixty, the first few chapters are about growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. When he was thirteen his father took the family to Florence for a sabbatical year, (in the TV episode he took his parents, now in their eighties back to revisit the city), so the first time he ever ate in a restaurant was in Rome. They did not eat out very often in Florence, as a high school art teacher’s salary did not extend to dining in restaurants, but his mother cooked wonderful meals at home.

It’s hard to imagine not eating out in restaurants, but if you grew up in that era, most people didn’t, other than MacDonalds or a diner or burger joint. I was 19 before I ate Chinese food, let alone experience any other culture. My mother’s nod to pasta was spaghetti with Campbell’s tomato soup as the sauce. Ragu was a big improvement. By high school my Italian had stretched to pizza.

There’s a chapter about the food and catering on movie sets (I haven’t quite forgiven him for eating puffin in Iceland, even if there are 8 million of them), and a chapter on cooking during the pandemic while at home with his wife and children – he has two young kids and four over 18. He lost his first wife to breast cancer in 2009. He met his second wife at her sister’s (Emily Blunt) wedding (they bonded over their shared love of food) at “a venue that could be George Clooney’s villa” – there’s some name dropping, but in a fun jesting way. “A man who resembles Colin Firth” was very helpful in taking him to ER when he was nauseated after his chemo treatments. And Ryan Reynolds, what a kind soul to lend him his New York apartment while he was undergoing radiation treatment.

On the tv episodes I often wondered how he stayed so slim? He says he has always had a fast metabolism, but the last chapter of the book deals with his 2017 bout with tongue cancer. For a person so devoted to food, to have such a diagnosis must have been devastating, especially having been through cancer with his first wife, and now having a young family with a two year old and a baby on the way. After surgery, chemo and radiation, he endured 6 months of tube feeding, and then two years of not being able to taste food, and a heightened sensitivity to hot and cold. But he came through it, being all the more appreciative of surviving, and being able to taste once more.

This is an entertaining read, as well as a revealing personal memoir. The descriptions are witty and funny and it’s just lovely writing. One small complaint, which spoiled it for me a bit, was the number of swear words. It seems to be a fad these days, but to me it’s just not literary, and if that is the only adjective you can come up with to describe a dish or restaurant, then you must be channeling Anthony Bourdain. So for that I subtract one star….and maybe another half-star for the lack of any reference to gelato.

And now for the music part – I saw Billy Joel sing this in concert when I was a poor student in the 70’s – back when Italian food was a plate of homemade lasagna and a bottle of Mateus.

“A bottle of white, a bottle of red
Perhaps a bottle of rose instead
We’ll get a table near the street
In our old familiar place
You and I -face to face

A bottle of red, a bottle of white
It all depends upon your appetite
I’ll meet you any time you want
In our Italian Restaurant”

The Journals of L.M. Montgomery – Author of Anne of Green Gables

L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables (see Part One for the Original Manuscript) kept journals for most of her adult life, starting in 1889 when she was just fifteen until shortly before her death in 1942. She willed them to her younger son Stuart with the express wish that after a suitable time had elapsed, they be published, in accordance with his judgement. Before his death in 1982, he turned over the handwritten journals and a much abridged version which she had typed, as well as her scrapbooks, photographs, and other papers to the University of Guelph. The journals span ten large legal-size volumes of approximately 500 pages each and almost 2 million words.

An often quoted journal entry from a younger Maud….

When Professors of English at the University of Guelph, Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, first read the journals in the 1980’s, they were surprised by what they found.

But First a Short Biography of Maud’s Life:

Lucy Maud Montgomery was born on Nov. 30 1874 in Clifton, Prince Edward Island.  Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was 2 years old and her father was unable to care for her, so she continued to live with her maternal grandparents in Cavendish, who had been looking after her during her mother’s illness.   Despite a large network of relatives and cousins, she spent much of her childhood alone and resorted to creating imaginary friends to cope with her loneliness.   When she was sixteen, she spent a year out west with her father (they were “chums”) and step-mother (who resented her) but things did not work out so she returned to the island.  During that year she made her father proud by publishing her first poem in a Charlottetown newspaper.  

When she returned to the island, she obtained her teacher’s certificate and taught in Bideford for a year.  Her first story was published in Ladies Journal in July 1895.  She attended Dalhousie College in Halifax for a year (all she could afford), then returned to PEI and did two more teaching stints, until her grandfather MacNeil passed away in 1898 and she felt it her duty to return to Cavendish to care for her grandmother.   During all those years she published many more stories and poems.  Anne of Green Gables was written in 1905, accepted in 1907 and published in 1908.

In 1911 her grandmother died, and Maud, who had been engaged for five years to the Reverend Ewan MacDonald, was married that June.  After a wedding trip to England and Scotland, they moved to Leaksdale Ontario for fifteen years, where her husband was the minister at a church.   In 1926 they moved to a different ministry in Norval Ontario, until they retired to Toronto in 1936.  Maud died in 1942.  

These are the facts of her life, but the journals reveal the stories between the lines.

The Journals:

The two professors had been invited by Dr. Stuart MacDonald, LLM’s youngest son, to edit and publish the journals, which they did in four volumes over the subsequent decade. They were astonished by the dichotomy between the cheerful Anne stories and the troubled and often unhappy life of this famous author.

Maud considered them her “grumble books” and was often quite blunt in her opinions of people, hence the forty year publishing delay ensured no one mentioned in them would still be alive.

Recognizing their historical significance, Maud began to recopy the earlier diaries into legal-sized ledgers in 1919. Of note the page recording her first impression of her future husband was cut out and replaced, and it’s difficult to tell how many other entries were altered from the original. Still they read as honest and real.  As well they stand as a record of what life was like for women in the early half of the century, a century which saw enormous social and technological change, (from horse and buggy to motor cars), a Depression and two world wars.    

It was interesting to see the changes in women’s fashions over the years….

When you read through the journals, especially the first volume from 1889 to 1910, shortly after Anne was published, you can see the seeds of Maud’s stories, in her schooldays and her teaching career.  Although Maud always said Anne was not modeled after a real person, including herself, there is a similarity between their “orphan” status, vivid imagination, love of beauty and “purple prose,” and highly sensitive nature.     

There are many photos in the journals – young Maud reminds me of Anne.

Maud proclaimed Cavendish her favorite place in the world, and it always puzzled me how someone who loved the island so much could stand to leave it?  Could her minister husband not have obtained a placement there, or were his mental problems already apparent?  Perhaps after her grandmother’s death, there were too many ghosts, and she looked forward to a fresh start in a different province?  Although she came back in the summers to visit her cousins it wasn’t the same.

Volume Two – early married life

After her grandmother’s death her uncle inherited the farm, (there is a hint of family politics in one entry where she records that her uncle had not spoken to her grandmother in five years) and then a nine month gap in the journals while Maud is grieving her death and the loss of the only home she has ever known.   When she does resume, the record is a particularly anguish filled one.   With no home left, Maud stayed with her cousins in Park Corner and was married from there in June of 1911 to a minister, Ewan McDonald, to whom she had been engaged for five years, and whom she was ambivalent about marrying. They seemed to have little in common, she was by far the more intelligent, and he did not share her love of literature or nature.

Maud had had several past love interests, including a broken engagement to a distant cousin, but as she writes she wanted companionship and children.  The man she had fallen in love with years earlier, a farm hand she met while she was boarding during one of her teacher placements, was of lower station and education and so she ended the relationship.  He died a few years later of the flu and she was grief-stricken.     

To marry or not to marry – that is the question…..

Even self-supporting authors were expected to marry back then (Maud made $500 off her writing in 1903, a decent amount for the time), but if you describe your wedding day as “I sat at that gay bridal feast, in my white veil and orange blossoms, beside the man I had married and was as unhappy as ever I had been in my life…..the mood passed. By the time I was ready for going away, it had vanished completely and I was again my contented self.” – well there’s really nowhere to go but down.

The marriage was not a happy one.  Ewan suffered from some sort of “religious persecution or melancholia”, where he felt he was dammed to hell, as well as his wife and children.  Frequently he was not well enough to preach, and suffered from “nervous breakdowns.”   At one point he was so severely depressed he signed himself into a mental sanatorium in Guelph.  Several nerve specialists were consulted over the years – although sometimes he had remissions and could appear quite well, at other times he was almost catatonic. It surprised me that “manic-depressive insanity” which was contemplated as a diagnosis by one of the psychiatrists, was known back then.  He also had attacks where he heard voices, had delusions and raved obsessively, so there may have been a schizophrenic component.  As a minister’s wife, it must have been a burden for Maud to act the ever-cheerful minister’s wife, arranging church suppers and socials, and trying to hide his acute mental health problems, as well as deal with her own issues.  She wrote that she regretted marrying him, but divorce would have been scandalous back then and she felt it was her duty as a Christian woman to make her marriage work.    

Maud herself struggled with depression and bouts of anxiety during her life, much of which is made evident in her journals, especially the later volumes.  There were numerous entries of her pacing the floor at night dealing with insomnia over named and unnamed worries.   As a medical person I found the medications prescribed for both of them of historical interest – barbiturates and choral hydrate were still around when I first graduated forty years ago, although fallen out of favor. Perhaps the flip side of having an active imagination, is always imaging the worst, but she often seemed to be in the “depths of despair” as Anne put it.  

There was so little understanding of mental illness then and less to treat it with….
Volume Three

Note: I read these back when they were first published,and although I bought the first three, the latter volumes were so depressing that I borrowed the fourth from the library.

Ewan’s mental problems worsened to the extent they had to change parishes, he was sued in a car accident (cars were in their infancy and he was a reckless driver), he refused to assist with raising the children or the household chores, and her son Chester was causing her much grief.  As an older mother (she was 36 when she married), she had three sons – Chester, Hugh (stillborn) and Stuart, her “good son” who became a respected doctor. Chester was described as a never-do-well, who lied, stole and manipulated. He failed law school several times and got a young girl pregnant whom he hastily married, but could not support their children. It may have been the flapper era but this was scandalous stuff for a minister’s wife.  Maud wrote later that her oldest son had made a mess of his life, and his wife had left him.

Maud was under a lot of pressure and stress, so the cheery Anne sequels, and other novels like Emily of New Moon, must have provided a needed distraction from her everyday life. To shut herself up in her parlor and write for a few hours each day must have been a blessed escape.   Although even there was stress, including several legal disputes with her initial publisher Page and Company, whom she had left for McClelland and Stewart in 1917 when she discovered he was cheating her. (She received seven cents off each copy instead of the 19 cents she was entitled to). Page boasted that he had made millions from the Anne books (including the movie rights in 1919), while she made $100,000, a tidy sum but “it’s a pity it doesn’t buy happiness.” She stood her ground and eventually won her court case in 1928.   

One wonders how she even found time to write, with her motherhood, household and church duties. She also read extensively and there were committee meetings and public speaking engagements, but Maud was good at multi-tasking and had tremendous work ethic and discipline. During her lifetime she wrote 20 novels, (seven with Anne as the central character), 530 short stories, 500 poems, 30 essays, a book of poetry and a short autobiography. In her later years she had tired of writing about Anne and wanted to try something different, not what the publishers and readers expected – she felt “she had never achieved her one ‘great’ book.” I disagree, although it is a juvenile book, Anne of Green Gables is as close to perfection as can be.

Her declining years were plagued by poor health and mental anguish. In a handwritten journal entry dated July 8, 1941, she wrote “Oh, God, such an end to life. Such suffering and wretchedness.” Then on March 23, 1942, she wrote her final entry “since then [July 8, 1941] my life has been hell, hell, hell. My mind is gone — everything in the world I lived for has gone — the world has gone mad. I shall be driven to end my life. Oh God, forgive me. Nobody dreams what my awful position is.” (quoted from The Gift of Wings – 2008 biography written by Mary Rubio, the definitive biography of LMM). (Note: the comment re the world has gone mad could pertain to her political concerns about WW2 and conscription as she had two young sons.)

On April 24 1942 Maud was found dead in her bed, at the age of 67. The primary cause recorded on the death certificate was coronary thrombosis. However in 2008 her granddaughter Kate revealed in a Globe and Mail article that Maud might possibly have taken her own life through a drug overdose. She had become addicted to barbiturates by then having been given them by doctors to treat her depression. A note was found on her bedside table which read,

“This copy is unfinished and never will be. It is in a terrible state because I made it when I had begun to suffer my terrible breakdown of 1940. It must end here. If any publishers wish to publish extracts from it under the terms of my will they must stop here. The tenth volume can never be copied and must not be made public during my lifetime. Parts of it are too terrible and would hurt people. I have lost my mind by spells and I do not dare think what I may do in those spells. May God forgive me and I hope everyone else will forgive me even if they cannot understand. My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.”

An alternative suggestion, presented by Professor Mary Rubio in her 2008 biography, is that Maud may have intended it as an entry in part of a journal now lost, rather than a suicide note. There were typed versions of the journals as explained in this article, Accident or Suicide, posted by the L.M. Montgomery Literary Society. (link)

Rubio believes that the number “176,” written at the top of the note, indicates that it was page 176 in a handwritten journal, which Montgomery would have intended to transcribe by typewriter, as was her custom. The missing 175 pages, which have never been found, may have been taken by Montgomery’s eldest son, Chester Macdonald, who was living in the basement of their Riverdale house, and whose dependency and cruelty reportedly exacerbated his mother’s poor mental health. Or perhaps they were destroyed by her husband? Dr. Stuart MacDonald said that in her last few years she had burned quantities of letters and papers she considered unimportant, and others mysteriously disappeared before he was able to have them removed from the house.

I think I prefer Rubio’s version, that the note serves as instruction regarding the journals, and perhaps forgiveness for hurting people with some of the entries. It jibes with my recollection of the latter entries in the fourth volume which were gloomy and sporadic as she knew her life and her mind were waning. Whatever the cause, she was certainly in poor health and troubled by family problems, and her once bright mind was clouded by medication.

No autopsy was performed, and her son who was a medical intern at the time and her family physician disposed of any evidence. The note was handed to Professor Mary Rubio decades later by her son Stuart Macdonald, who died in 1982 and she did not ask for particulars about it at that time. Ewan MacDonald died a year later. They were both buried in Cavendish, P.E.I. Whatever happened, whether it was an accidental or intentional overdose or death from natural causes, it was a sad ending to a life once so full of hope and joy.

L. M. Montgomery tombstone

I found Maud to be a fascinating person. She was extremely intelligent and articulate, and possessed of an extraordinary imagination and memory, but behind the smiling cheerful face she presented to the world, was an anxious tormented soul.

It would be wrong to assess a life solely from journals, but they do provide a window into the soul.  As she had no close confidante, they became a refuge of sorts, a place to air her unhappiness and grievances, but certainly she had more than her fair share of life’s troubles.  In addition, there were two world wars to be gotten through, and other deaths including that of her beloved cousin Frede from the Spanish flu.   Although there are happier entries, including those of her seeking solace in nature and when her children were young, predominantly I remember the journals overall as having a dark tone.  Success doesn’t always guarantee happiness, and she must have looked back on her younger years on the island as the happiest time of her life.    

Prince Edward Island:

In the 1980’s I visited the east coast of Canada, but only spent a couple of days in P.E.I. including an afternoon visiting the Green Gables Heritage Place in Cavendish. I have surprisingly few photos.  Film was 24 per roll and you rationed it as I recall.

Cavendish is to a large extent the Avonlea of the books. Maud’s grandparent’s house was torn down in 1920 by her uncle as he was tired of people traipsing by to see it. The Green Gables of the book was drawn from the old MacNeil/Webb place, “not so much the house itself as the situation and scenery, and the truth of the description of it is attested by the fact that everybody has recognized it,” Maud recorded.

The home’s period furnishings reflect the novel’s late 1800’s setting. Visitors can stroll the grounds, including Lover’s Lane and the Haunted Woods.      

The entrance to the Haunted Woods…..

I was disappointed in the area, as while pretty it just looked like ordinary farmland to me, albeit with red earth and the sea shore nearby.  The Haunted Woods did not exactly look spooky on a bright summer afternoon.  The Lake of Shining Waters looked like a big flat pond.  I did not get a chance to stroll along Lover’s Lane, as it was farther away. Even the remnants of the apple orchard and the famous Snow Queen just looked like gnarled old trees.

Descendants of the Snow Queen?

I’m not sure what I was expecting – the vivid descriptions from the book?  Perhaps that is the difference between books and reality – what you imagine or envision in your mind, very seldom ever matches real life.  Maybe the same can be said of success.  Still it was a nice place to visit if only for a few hours.

PS.  I’ve often wondered that about other famous authors, the more tragic figures like Sylvia Path, the Brontes and Jane Austen. If they could have happiness or lasting fame – which would they choose?  And why does it so often seem that people can’t have both?

The Literary Salon – The Listening Path – by Julia Cameron

When was the last time you had a really good sit-down soul-satisfying conversation with somebody? Notwithstanding the pandemic, it’s surely a given in today’s society that we have become a nation of non-listeners. We have a tendency to interrupt with our own opinion, or maybe we’re not really listening at all but thinking about what our reply will be. I blame this general lack of attention on the instantaneous nature of the internet. We have become so accustomed to conducting everything at high speed, that we’ve lost the fine art of conversation….in person….not by text or tweet. It takes time to have a conversation, and two people who are willing to truly listen to each other’s words. Someone may say they are fine, but you can tell from the tone of their voice or facial expressions that they’re not, and so you ask questions, and then listen carefully. Listening better was one my goals this year, so it was with great anticipation that I ordered Julia Cameron’s latest release, The Listening Path – The Creative Art of Attention.

Publisher’s Blurb from Goodreads:

The newest book from beloved author Julia Cameron, The Listening Path is a transformational journey to deeper, more profound listening and creativity. Over six weeks, readers will be given the tools to become better listeners—to their environment, the people around them, and themselves. The reward for learning to truly listen is immense. As we learn to listen, our attention is heightened and we gain healing, insight, clarity. But above all, listening creates connections and ignites a creativity that will resonate through every aspect of our lives.

Julia Cameron is the author of the explosively successful book The Artist’s Way, which has transformed the creative lives of millions of readers since it was first published. Incorporating tools from The Artist’s Way, The Listening Path offers a new method of creative and personal transformation.

Each week, readers will be challenged to expand their ability to listen in a new way, beginning by listening to their environment and culminating in learning to listen to silence. These weekly practices open up a new world of connection and fulfillment. In a culture of bustle and constant sound, The Listening Path is a deeply necessary reminder of the power of truly hearing. 

Why I Liked It: I didn’t. I don’t even know how it got published. Normally I wouldn’t review a bad book, because I would have quit reading it, but I finished this one out of respect for the author, the creativity expert and author of 40 books most of them truly inspiring, including her first, The Artist’s Way.

I read The Artist’s Way back when it was first published in 1992, and enjoyed it, although I’d have to say I found the Morning Pages a bit OCD. I even tried them once during a week’s vacation, but who has a spare hour in the morning to write out three long hand pages of stream of consciousness stuff. (This was in the days before computers, but she still requires they be hand written, and never in the evening!) Unless you were seeking clarity or trying to solve a problem, and even then wouldn’t you get sick of whining about it day after day, I just couldn’t see the point. For many people those early morning hours are often the most productive of the day, and for some, the only time they get any writing done at all. The Artist’s Dates and Meditative Walks were fun and helpful suggestions though. It was a twelve week program for discovering your creative self, which grew out of a writer’s workshop she taught, although the art can be any genre – writing, painting, music, etc. A best-seller at the time, the book has never been out of print and a few years ago they re-issued a 25th anniversary edition, but it can be found at book discount places, as can many of her other popular books on creativity. I own several of her earlier works and found them uplifting, especially for people who may not have anyone who encourages their writing, or even understands it. She’s revered as the Cheerleader of Creativity.

But back to The Listening Path:

The Publisher’s blurb sounded good, but this book was a disappointing read on so many levels.  It’s a slim 180 page volume, with a long 40 page introduction, which is basically a recap of The Artist’s Way, and six chapters, Listening to the Environment, Others, Our Higher Self, Beyond the Veil, Silence and Our Heroes, with the chapters getting progressively shorter, so that towards the end they were only 4 or 5 pages. The pages themselves had a weird format of very narrow columns (4 inches), designed to make the book appear longer.

The Beyond the Veil chapter (where she connects with the world beyond and her spirit friend Jane tells her not to second-guess herself, the book is going well), reminded me of a seance.  (Jane, if you’re listening, it was bad advice).  The listening to others chapter, which should have been the gist of the book, consisted of interviews with her artist friends and acquaintances, who may be perfectly nice people but are not experts in the field and had nothing interesting to offer other than their personal opinions. (I could just as well interview my friends about listening but then medical people like jargon and brevity. I inadvertently offended a newly minted colleague once when I said cut to the chase.)

There were lots of walks with her dog Lily (a cute but yappy little Westie terrier) in the Santa Fe area where she lives, constant weather reports on storms and hail, feeding the dog salmon, and something called gravlax to stop her from barking and annoying the neighbors.  “Lily! Salmon! Treat!” was repeated so many times, (pages 44, 45, 47, 56, 97 and whenever there was a thunderstorm), it got to be annoying.  She has a bad connection on her landline, (several pages on that including dialogue), feels “bludgeoned” by a friend’s dietary advice that she eat more protein, (ditto….sister you don’t know what a bad day is), worries about whether she can afford a house (yes her accountant says she can, and a maid too)….basically it was a whole lot of repetitive personal trivia, zero research and nothing much at all to do with the topic of listening. Unless you’re writing a personal blog, sharing anecdotes for a reason, and/or lead an interesting life, this kind of stream of consciousness stuff might better be left to Morning Pages, not published in a hardcover format for $50 Cdn ($36.99 US).

Her one and only novel, Mozart’s Ghost was like that too – I swear the protagonist lived in the laundry room, but after 43 rejections (page 19) what would you expect? Not that you can’t branch out and try something new, but sometimes an author can be good at one genre, but not others.  (I loved Frances Mayes series of Under The Tuscan Sun travel books, but her attempt at a chick-lit novel was painful).   If you like an author, you expect only good things from them, and are doubly disappointed when they don’t deliver.     

The Listening Path was written pre-pandemic, and while many people have been lonely during this past year, with no company and their only social outlet walking the dog, if you read between the lines this book spoke volumes about how solitary a writer’s life can be.  She needs to ditch the desert, move back to New York and re-read her own books for inspiration.

I didn’t sense too much joy in the creation- more of a pounding out the pages to meet a deadline. There was a lot of self-doubt which I don’t remember from her earlier works.   Was her stuff out of date (yes, Morning Pages)? There was much angst about teaching a course in London she has taught for decades – how can someone with 40 books be so lacking in self-confidence and so insecure.  I perked up at the mention of London though, it sounded much more interesting than walking in Santa Fe.

I even wondered if she was well, maybe even depressed? I read her 2006 memoir, Floor Sample, many years ago, and what struck me was what an unhappy life she had lead, because the memoir was such a direct contrast to her positive encouraging books.  She was married at one time to director Martin Scorsese (a man she declares she still loves – page 114), has a daughter and a grandchild and is a decades long recovered alcoholic.  I suspect AA inspired her writer’s workshops, hence the 12 week programs.   

Normally if I’m struggling with a book, I’ll hop on Goodreads and if enough people share my opinion, then I quit. (Too many DNF’s mean it’s not me, it’s you dear author, keeping in mind of course that some of those glowing reviewers may be receiving free copies).  But I soldiered on….it was readable, but barely, in a train wreck sort of way.

All in all, it was a timely topic which just didn’t translate, and I was left with a sense of disappointment, but you’ll be relieved to know there was a happy ending, as Lily got one of those anti-bark “citronella spray” dog collars. I didn’t even know such a thing existed, but apparently dogs hate the smell of citronella. Yes, that was how the book ended, with a short section entitled, “The Neighbors Rejoice.” I may pass that tip along to my neighbors.

This brings up the question – what does a publisher do when a best-selling author turns in a sub-standard manuscript? A good editor will hand it back to be fixed, or they may just publish it, take the money and run. It might be better to abandon it though and save the author’s reputation. Julia Cameron is 73 now, aren’t writers allowed to retire? (Another recent example of this is Jodi Picout’s latest, The Book of Two Ways, a four hundred page disaster which defies description, although I’ll try in a future blog). Same with the author – it’s hard to be objective especially when you’ve put so much work into something, and it’s also hard to admit when something just isn’t working. Books are subjective, but if the general consensus/feedback isn’t good, then you know there’s a problem.

If you want to read a good book by Julia Cameron, I would highly recommend this one.

Publishers Blurb:
 
Julia Cameron has inspired millions with her bestseller on creativity, The Artist’s Way. In It’s Never Too Late To Begin Again, she turns her eye to a segment of the population that, ironically, while they have more time to be creative, are often reluctant or intimidated by the creative process. Cameron shows readers that retirement can, in fact, be the most rich, fulfilling, and creative time of their lives.

When someone retires, the newfound freedom can be quite exciting, but also daunting. The life that someone had has changed, and the life to come is yet to be defined. In this book, Cameron shows readers how cultivating their creative selves can help them navigate this new terrain. She tells the inspiring stories of retirees who discovered new artistic pursuits and passions that more than filled their days—they nurtured their souls.  
A twelve-week course aimed at defining—and creating—the life you want to have as you redefine—and re-create—yourself, this book includes simple tools that will guide and inspire you to make the most of this time in your life:

–  Memoir writing offers an opportunity to reflect on—and honor—past experience. This book guides you through the daunting task of writing an entire memoir, breaking it down into manageable pieces. 
–  Morning Pages—private, stream-of-consciousness writing done daily—allow you to express wishes, fears, delights, resentments, and joys, which in turn, provide focus and clarity for the day at hand.
–  Artist Dates encourage fun and spontaneity.
–  Solo Walks quell anxiety and clear the mind.

This fun, gentle, step-by-step process will help you explore your creative dreams, wishes, and desires—and help you quickly find that it’s never too late to begin again. 

This book is geared more for middle-aged folks like me facing their second acts…..those reluctant souls who maybe always wanted to do something creative but lacked the courage to try. I read it back in 2016 and it was a big factor in starting my blog, although it was a whole year before I actually wrote anything on it, and another three months before I made it public. (My creative soul was a bit rusty). This book was an inspiring read, which truly delivered.

PS. Two out of three isn’t bad, and goes to show that even the best of writers have their duds. Do you think it is better to abandon a book which just isn’t working and move on to something else, or stick with it and carry on?

PS. I’ll be exploring more on the dichotomy between a writer’s books and their life, in a future blog about L.M. Montgomery, of the Anne of Green Gables series.

The Literary Salon: Lean Out – A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life

One potential benefit of the pandemic is that many people are finding their lives are less busy and less stressed.  Without the daily commute to work and the rush of getting the kids to their various after-school activities, there is suddenly more time to make supper, relax, or binge-watch your favorite TV shows.   For some this new work-life balance might become a permanent way of life, although I’ve heard some complaints that working remotely means even longer hours as there is no longer any distinction between office and home.

If the key to happiness is the perfect work-life balance, then what happens when that balance is way out of whack and how do we realign it? This month’s Literary Salon pick, Lean Out – A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life by Tara Henley, addresses that issue.

Here’s the Publishers Blurb from Goodreads:

“In 2016, journalist Tara Henley was at the top of her game working in Canadian media. She had traveled the world, from Soweto to Bangkok and Borneo to Brooklyn, interviewing authors and community leaders, politicians and Hollywood celebrities. But when she started getting chest pains at her desk in the newsroom, none of that seemed to matter.

The health crisis–not cardiac, it turned out, but anxiety–forced her to step off the media treadmill and examine her life and the stressful twenty-first century world around her. Henley was not alone; North America was facing an epidemic of lifestyle-related health problems. And yet, the culture was continually celebrating the elite few who thrived in the always-on work world, those who perpetually leaned in. Henley realized that if we wanted innovative solutions to the wave of burnout and stress-related illness, it was time to talk to those who had leaned out.

Part memoir, part travelogue, and part investigation, Lean Out tracks Henley’s journey from the heart of the connected city to the fringe communities that surround it. From early retirement enthusiasts in urban British Columbia to moneyless men in rural Ireland, Henley uncovers a parallel track in which everyday citizens are quietly dropping out of the mainstream and reclaiming their lives from overwork. Underlying these disparate movements is a rejection of consumerism, a growing appetite for social contribution, and a quest for meaningful connection in this era of extreme isolation and loneliness.

As she connects the dots between anxiety and overwork, Henley confronts the biggest issues of our time.” 

Discussion: (or why I liked it)

When I first started working in the early 1980’s, 9-5 actually meant 9-5, with lunch and coffee breaks too.  At my first job the majority of the work was done in the morning and afternoons were devoted to staff meetings etc. We would often have cake at these meetings, (it was always somebody’s birthday) and after a small pre-closing rush, be out the door at 5pm.   (Does it say something about me that what I remember most about my first job is the cake? It was chocolate with the most divine icing, from a bakery in town and someone would run down on their lunch hour and pick it up.)  Nobody stayed late, although someone was on (paid) call for the rare emergency.

When I ended my career forty years later, long hours and unpaid overtime were the norm and the expectation. We were so chronically understaffed that many nights I would arrive home still in overdrive and not be able to decompress for hours.  There were no meal breaks, except a scarfed down sandwich when your blood sugar got too low to function, lots of cold coffee, and few washroom breaks. (The dilemma in health care is if you don’t get the work done, it’s the patient who suffers.)

The sad thing about the workplace, is that my experience has become the new normal, no matter what your job.  If you’re caught up in the work/eat/sleep cycle, doing more with less, and with impossible quotas or targets to meet, you may feel you’re lucky enough to have a job, especially in these perilous economic times, and not be in a position to complain.   

While I enjoyed my work and was never bored, it was the working conditions which were the problem, and eventually I was just too burnt-out to continue. After a bout of stress-related chest pain, I opted for early retirement. Although retirement was an adjustment, living on less, I’m a happier person now and more relaxed.  My former colleagues tell me I look better, younger – I get more sleep.

 So I could really relate to Tara Henley’s story – right down to the chest pain.   (Tara did eventually go back to work in media as she is the CBC producer who contacted me about the radio interview for my mother’s art exhibit. I discovered this book when I googled her name).   Several years ago at the age of 40, she started having chest pains at her desk and decided to take a time-out to seek a better life-work balance, a journey she researched and documented in her book, Lean Out.

She wrote the book partially in response to the book Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. I did not read Lean In when it was published a few years ago as I was no longer working and not interested in any book about how to achieve success in the workplace, but I recall hearing lots of backlash about it – mainly that the author, a white woman of privilege, had a tendency to unfairly blame women for not achieving more success in the workplace. Women were advised to lean in…..as opposed to opt-out of their careers.  Easy to say if you can afford child-care and domestic help as you climb the corporate ladder – the majority of working women I know are just plain exhausted.

I suppose it depends on what stage in your career you are at, but even if you absolutely love your job, it can become like a blood-sucking vampire, draining the life out of you if you don’t take sufficient time away from it. Time away renews your soul and gives you a fresh perspective. I grew up in the baby-boomer age of dedicated employees with work ethic, but companies today can’t expect loyal employees if they treat them poorly or don’t value them at all. How many young people today have full time jobs with benefits and guaranteed pensions?

Being older also gives you a different perspective on work. No one ever said on their deathbed that they wished they has worked more – in fact, most people say the exact opposite. They wish they had worked less and lived more. Mostly I’m mad at myself for putting up with such bad working conditions.

Lean Out was released in the spring of 2020, just before the pandemic hit, but in a premonition of what was to come, it has much to say about our current situation.   In many ways COVID has forced people to reassess their work-life balances.  Can we live on less?  Cook at home more?  Will we ever go back to the old ways – working in office buildings and rushing here and there.  Do we want to?  

I really wish I had read this book when I was still working, as I could relate to so much of the material, (except for the hip-hop – I’m way too old for that. Tara got her start in journalism by writing music reviews). It’s so profound and full of common-sense wisdom, and so well written.  Here’s an excerpt from page 152.

“What gave me joy, it turned out, was pretty simple.  Waking up every day without an alarm.  Reading all the books on my nightstand.  Eating when I was hungry, resting when I was tired, staying at home when I was under the weather.  Moving my body every day.  Being outside.  Cooking for people I cared about. 

The key to contentment, I realized, was time.  And the more time I had, the less money I needed.  I didn’t need treats to boost my spirits during a rough week, because my week was never particularly rough.  I didn’t need lavish vacations, as Your Money or Your Life put it, my daily life was not something I needed to vacate.  When my true needs were met, I did not need to compensate with stuff.”

There are chapters on unplugging from the internet, seeking solace in nature, loneliness and finding your tribe (40% of young people living in big cities are single dwellers who often don’t have a social support network and can’t afford the rent let alone save for the future), the meaning of home, and living on less – well documented with research, interviews and personal anecdotes.

This book is not a simplistic how to manual, but a beautifully written blueprint for a realistic way to live a happier and saner life.   I wish I had “leaned out” sooner.

Extra Time

Many of us have extra time on our hands these days, especially if you’re currently in lock-down and no longer have that daily commute to work – extra time to read, start a hobby, or attack that long list of things you always wanted to do. For some people staying home more has been a difficult adjustment, for others it’s a prelude to what retirement might be like someday and an opportunity to think about how you might like to spend your golden years.

This month’s Literary Salon pick, is Extra Time – Ten Lessons for An Aging World, a non-fiction book by Camilla Cavendish.

Publishers Blurb: (from Goodreads)

“From award-winning British journalist, Camilla Cavendish, comes a profound analysis of one of the biggest challenges facing the human population today.

The world is undergoing a dramatic demographic shift. By 2020, for the first time in history, the number of people aged 65 and over will outnumber children aged five and under. But our systems are lagging woefully behind this new reality. In Extra Time, Camilla Cavendish embarks on a journey to understand how different countries are responding to these unprecedented challenges.

Travelling across the world in a carefully researched and deeply human investigation, Cavendish contests many of the taboos around ageing. Interviewing leading scientists about breakthroughs that could soon transform the quality and extent of life, she sparks a debate about how governments, businesses, doctors, the media and each one of us should handle the second half of life. She argues that if we take a more positive approach, we should be able to reap the benefits of a prolonged life. But that will mean changing our attitudes and using technology, community, even anti-ageing pills, to bring about a revolution.”

Discussion:

With average life expectancy reaching into the mid-80’s now and people retiring early, we may have another 20 or 30 years of extra time. This thought-provoking book takes a look at the culture surrounding ageing in our society, and changes to the way we view ageing now. While not everyone agrees that 60 is the new 40, it’s true that many more of the “young-old” are enjoying active healthy lifestyles much longer than before. I remember thinking my parents were middle-aged at 40, and now people that age are going back to school, having babies, taking up sky-diving.

It’s no secret I like a good non-fiction book, especially one with a well-researched basis. This book delves into how different countries are handling the ageing epidemic without producing a strain on their economies or health-care systems, by exploring different ways of caring for the elderly or “very old.” Certainly the number of COVID deaths in nursing and retirement homes is telling us our current system is not working, and calls for government reform are ineffective if standards are never enforced. Many homes are understaffed and underfunded, as we have found out during the pandemic. Here in Canada they had to call in the military reserves to help feed and care for patients in particularly hard hit homes in Quebec and Ontario, a national disgrace, especially as many of them were privately-owned-for-profit places. I wonder how much cognitive decline ensues when residents are locked in their rooms every day without the stimulation of activities or even company at mealtimes.

There is a chapter on research into anti-aging strategies and one on implementing programs to give seniors a purpose in life and a meaningful way to give back. Think of how many healthy seniors there are whose talents are wasted as they are considered too old to work or contribute. Certainly it helps to have a purpose in life or a passionate pursuit of some kind, like my mother with her art – taking up painting at the age of 87 when she stopped driving. Of course my mother is fortunate to have her health and with all her relatives living well into their 90’s, a good dose of genetic luck. In a recent interview about her late-in-life art career, the radio host remarked, in her introductory comments, “Many people have second acts in their lives, but few well into their 90’s…..”

What would you like your second act to be? For those who dread old age, I found this book to be a positive, hopeful and uplifting read.

PS. Of course, the most tragic disease of old-age is Alzheimer’s. Just as I was posting this, I received an email about a new book by neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta. As I find his COVID advice to be both realistic and scientific, I’ll add this one to my future-to-read list. Keep Sharp – Build a Better Brain at any Age – by Sanjay Gupta.

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The Jane Austen Society

This month’s literary salon pick, The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner, is a novel set in post-WW2 England about a group of villagers determined to maintain the legacy of Jane Austen by opening a museum at Chawton House, the cottage where Jane spent the last eight years of her life and the most productive period of her writing career.  

Who would have predicted that Jane Austen would still be so popular 200 years later, with her face on the ten pound note, dozens of biographies in print, and entire museums devoted to her fame, not to mention the whole tourist trade to places she visited, lived, or described in her novels.  

It’s a further testament to her continuing popularity that An Interview with Jane Austen remains my most read post, at 150 some views, from every country in the world, with several more added weekly.  Yes, some frivolous little piece I dashed off for Valentine’s Day two years ago is more popular than any post I’ve slaved over for days.  But to give credit to Jane, other than the interviewers questions, most of the words are hers, famous quotes from a book I received for Christmas that year, The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen.   The post itself was inspired by a question – which dead person you would most like to interview?  I can’t imagine my small blog of 300 readers is high up on any google search list, so I can only surmise that it must have been shared by a Janeite on one of the many Jane Austen websites.

     I would not describe myself as a Janeite, having only ever read Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and watched the movie versions, the dashing Mr. Darcy/Colin Firth, and the petulant Gwyneth Paltrow who forever spoiled Emma for me, and the classic Sense and Sensibility with Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant.   Other than Pride and Prejudice I find her life more interesting than her books.  

        JA was born in 1775 and lived most of her young life with her large family of siblings at the rectory in Steventon, where her father was a clergyman.   Upon his retirement, they sold everything (including a thousand books, for hers was a well-read family) and Jane moved to Bath with her parents and sister Cassandra.   Bath was a very social place and it’s widely assumed this change in residence was partially intended to find marriage partners for the daughters, but that was not to be, for despite rumors of several failed romances Jane never married.   After the death of their father and the rental of diminished living quarters, her wealthy brother Edward, who had been adopted by a childless couple in need of an inheritor, eventually offered his widowed mother and sisters the use of the steward’s cottage on his large estate and so they moved to Chawton House in 1809.

The cottage was a large L-shaped building, quite near the street and a busy crossroads, so the thundering of coaches passing by offered little privacy,

but there was a large private garden at the back and they were grateful to finally have a permanent residence of their own.   

Although she had written earlier drafts of her novels, this was the scene of the final revisions and the long hoped for dreams of publication, starting first with Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously with the seventh and last, Sanditon, left unfinished.  (Although never published, PBS filmed a horrible adaptation of Sanditon last January which was universally condemned. Jane would certainly never have approved of the unhappy ending.)

Jane Austen’s writing desk

She wrote at this small desk, still a fixture of the museum today, placed by the window for maximum lighting as she wore spectacles, and was known to cover up her manuscript if there was an unexpected visitor at the door. From her niece’s recollections we have an image of Jane sitting by the fireplace and laughing, as a sudden thought occurred to her and she leapt up to write it down. Much of her early writing originated as a means to amuse herself, and her family, as there are only so many samplers you can embroider before you die of boredom.    

   After her untimely death in 1817 at the age of 41 (of Addison’s Disease), her mother and sister lived on in the cottage, with Cassandra dying in 1845. Although Jane lived long enough to enjoy some initial publishing success and literary fame, it was after the publication of a biography by her nephew in 1850, that her literary reputation was revived, and it has remained steady to this day.   

      Today Chawton House is the site of the Jane Austen Museum. (link to a virtual tour of the house). As well as original clothing and furnishings of the period, several of her letters are on display, as well as some jewelry (two topaz crosses) given to the sisters by their naval brother. The nearby great house houses a JA library with first editions of all of her books. Jane memorabilia is in such high demand that one of her handwritten letters was recently auctioned off for $200,000, a four page missile to Cassandra, dealing with fashion trends and family news. It saddens me to think of a future with no such memorabilia, only emails and texts which we blithely delete. I’ve never been to England but Chawton House would be high on my list of historical sites to visit. Although thousands of tourists frequent Bath every year in search of Jane, I’d prefer to see where she wrote, not where she went bathroom dancing.

Now back to our book club selection. 

Here’s the publishers blurb: “Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable. One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people―a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others―could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.”

About the author:   “Natalie Jenner was born in England and emigrated to Canada as a young child. She obtained her B.A. and her LL.B. from the University of Toronto, where she was the 1990 Gold Medalist in English Literature at St. Michael’s College, and was Called to the Bar of Ontario in 1995. In addition to a brief career as a corporate lawyer, Natalie has worked as a recruiter, career coach, and consultant to leading law firms in Canada for over two decades. Most recently Natalie founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. A lifelong devotee of all things Jane Austen, “The Jane Austen Society” is her first published novel.” (Goodreads profile)

Quite a distinguished resume, but what’s so interesting about Natalie Jenner is that in her 30’s she wrote five unpublished books – Five. Unpublished. Books.   There’s a lot of tenacity there.   After her husband developed a serious illness, she turned to re-reading her favorite novels for solace, including the JA novels.  Later, when he had recovered, she was contemplating writing a novel set in a great house similar to Downton Abbey but decided to change it to a fictional novel about how the JA museum came to be.  For research she took a bucket list trip to a Jane Austen Festival in Bath, (yes there are many of these conventions) as well as the village of Chawton, in order to immerse herself in the world of all things Jane.  

Discussion:

This was an enjoyable read, even if you aren’t particularly a JA fan, in much the same genre as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and the Chilbury Ladies Choir.   I’m sure the movie rights have already been sold.   In true Jane Austen style, the author manages to pair off most of the characters, some more successfully than others and some in a politically correct way, although I had difficulty getting a sense of the two characters who were mirrored after Emma and Mr. Knightley.   A minor point, but there’s one graphic scene (me too/movie starlet on the casting couch) which seemed out of place. This was noted in a a Goodreads review, and it’s like when someone points out a flaw, you can’t un-see it.   The reviewer said she quit reading after that, saying that such a jarring scene had no place in a Jane Austen-like book.  I wouldn’t abandon the book over that but subtle allusion might have been more appropriate, or perhaps some gentle editorial guidance.  

This book debuted on the bestseller list, as any book with JA in the title is bound to attract attention due to the sheer number of her fans worldwide.    (I wonder if I changed my website to The Jane Austen Homeplace, if I might attract a few more followers?)

Jane Austen must have had a strong belief in herself, and a premonition that her works would live on, as she left the bulk of her estate (400 pounds, the proceedings from her books), to her sister Cassandra, with the unusual request that 90 pounds, a considerable sum back then, be set aside for a burial at the prestigious Winchester Cathedral, instead of the local churchyard where her family could visit.  Her brothers made no mention of her literary life on the tombstone, perhaps deeming her novels too inconsequential to note, but thousands of tourists flock to her grave-site every year to pay homage to her literary greatness.      

The extraordinary endowments of her mind!