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!

The Library Book

 This months literary salon pick is a non-fiction book titled, The Library Book, penned by Susan Orlean, a long time staff writer for The New Yorker.   With those credentials you know it will be good, and I must say this was one of my favorite reads this summer.   But then the library has always been one of my favorite places, especially during the COVID crisis when their curbside pickup has been a real lifesaver – transporting me to another world for awhile.   

Jane Austen quote re libraries 2 (2)

(Quote by Jane Austen)

While I do not have my own library at home, just random bookshelves, I’ve been a proud library patron since the age of seven when we took a class trip to our newly opened village library.  Although small in size with just two rooms, a children’s section and the adults side, I thought it the most marvelous place and was excited to have my own library card.   I could already read by then, having started with the Dick/Sally/Jane books, but here were shelf after shelf of books, each with a different story just waiting to be told.      

Jane Austen quote re library 2(4)

(quote Jane Austen)

As a quiet middle child I could always be found somewhere with my nose in a book.   My mother would take me and my younger brother to the library every Saturday (after his hockey game and penny candy treats), and I would stock up on books for the following week.   The library was one of the few buildings in town with A/C and I can still recall the blast of cool air which hit you when you entered the vestibule, plus the distinctive musty smell of books.   The librarian, an older woman named Mrs. Sekritis sat behind a tall circular desk, and she would often comment on my choices as I grew older.  While our little library stocked picture books for children and adult fiction for grown-ups, the selection for Young Adults (if that genre even existed back then) was limited – perhaps only L.M. Montgomery (I read the whole Anne series) and Louisa May Alcott (like many girls Jo was my heroine).   And so I read the classics way too young, Dickens, the Brontes, whatever sounded interesting on the book jacket.  Occasionally, when I would come across a YA book, I would find it fascinating reading about kids my own age, so different from my rather isolated life growing up on a farm. 

I still get the majority of my books from the library, as I read so much it would be too expensive to buy them all, and our small local  library is excellent at ordering in anything you might request, plus the librarians there are all such wonderful people.   I seldom visit the larger downtown branch where the service is impersonal and the reserve lists long, except to browse the large print books (easier for reading outside with my aging eyes) of which they have a better selection.   But whichever branch I visit, I still consider the library a sacred place.       

But back to The Library Book.

The Library Book - Susan Orlean

Goodreads/Publishers Blurb:

On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?       
 
Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.
 
In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.
 
Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.
 
Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.   
 
Discussion:   
 
As mentioned on the cover blurb, this 2018 book is a little bit of everything – true crime, history, biography and first rate journalism.   The story of who lit the fire is fascinating and interwoven among the various chapters.  She delves into the history of library fires over the years from ancient Egypt to the famous book burning of the Nazis in WW2, plus the destruction of thousands of books in wars including recent ones like the Gulf war – a list of the lost libraries of the world, so many words destroyed forever.  She covers biographies of  librarians, a different breed who must love people as much as they love books and the future and expanded role of libraries in our communities as beacons for the homeless and social services centers, as well as branching into art, music and technical programs such as maker spaces.   (Even our small branch has a technical support person on staff but I’m not sure I could listen to that annoying 3D printer all day).   I was aware of the history of the Carnegie libraries, but not the reason behind it.   As a young boy Andrew Carnegie couldn’t afford the $2 fee for the local lending library, so he spent the last third of his life giving money away, funding a legacy of 1700 libraries for future generations of readers.   In much the same way that Bill Gates spent a decade funding literacy in third world countries.   If you want to change the world, books can help, one mind at a time.   Introducing your child to the pleasure of books and reading is even more important now in this time of COVID, when education seems so perilous. 
 
And lastly I loved this book for it’s perfect prose, here’s a sample from page 309. 
 
“The library is a whispering post.  You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.   It was that affirmation that always amazed me.  Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage – the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read.   I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them.  It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come.  I realized that this entire time, learning about the library, I had been convincing myself that my hope to tell a long-lasting story, to create something that endured, to be alive somehow as long, as someone would read my books, was what drove me on, story after story:  it was my lifeline, my passion, my way to understand who I was.  I thought about my mother, who died when I was halfway done with this book, and I knew how pleased she would have been to see me in the library, and I was able to use that thought to transport myself for a split second to a time when I was young and she was in the moment, alert and tender, with years ahead of her, and she was beaming at me as I toddled to the checkout counter with an armload of books.  I knew that if we had come here together, to this enchanted place of stucco and statuary and all the stories in the world for us to have, she would have reminded me just about now that if she could have chosen any profession in the world, she would have been a librarian.” 
 
and another excerpt from pg 93 
 
 “In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone has died is to say his or her library has burned.   When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect.  Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by out experiences and emotions; each individuals consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve catalogued and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.   It is something that no one else can share, one that burns down and disappears when we died.  But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it – with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited – it takes on a life of its own.”
 
And so we read on…..
 
Postscript:  I was moved recently by this video which fellow blogger Annie (AnnieAsksYou) posted, so I’m going to share it here.   It’s a short clip of congressman John Lewis, who died recently at the age of 80, accepting the 2016 National Book Award for young people’s literature for March, his story of the civil rights movement.  As a young black teenager in 1956 he was denied the privilege of a library card as the library was for whites only, but he had a teacher who encouraged him to “read my child, read.”     
 

Baked Alaska and a Book

Recipe for A Perfect Wife

         This month’s recipe was inspired by a book.   Recipe for a Perfect Wife, by Karma Brown, is a quirky look at the lives of two newly married women living in the same suburban house sixty years apart – Nellie, a typical 50’s housewife, who is trying to get pregnant, and Alice, a reluctantly transplanted New York City writer, who is trying not to.    Told in alternating voices, Nellie 1956 and Alice 2018, with quotes of outdated advice at the beginning of each chapter and lots of 50’s recipes, it’s an interesting look at marriage, then and now.     

Link to the publishers/GoodReads review.   

       This book appealed to me because of it’s unique format, plus I thought it would nice to read about what life was like for my mother’s generation – my mother had 4 children under the age of 7 by 1960.  (It’s exhausting just thinking about that.)   The book was immensely readable, but not quite the light fluffy read I had expected.   While it started out okay, it soon took a dark turn and ended up with a strange ending.   I didn’t really like any of the characters, dishonesty seemed to be a common trait – hard to base a marriage on that, even  back then when people often didn’t know each other well before becoming engaged.    Of course the author was trying to make a point, and it would make an excellent choice for a book club discussion.   You could even make some of the 50’s recipes like Baked Alaska.   I always like it when the book club dessert matches the book club selection.   

       My recent Hermit Cookies blog, sparked a discussion about family cookbooks, Betty Crocker and Fannie Farmer being old favorites, although my mother’s bible was the Purity Flour Cookbook.   Growing up on a farm in the 60’s, my family meals were invariably our own home-grown vegetables and meat, and of course no meal was complete without a potato.    No rice or noodle casserole dishes for us, and spaghetti was simply pasta doused with a can of Campbell’s tomato soup.   My mother did not experiment with recipes like Tuna Noodle Casserole or Chicken A La King because my dad and brothers would simply not have eaten them, and I myself was a picky eater, although she did make a good meatloaf and macaroni and cheese with bread crumbs on top. 

Tuna Noodle Casserole

garnish with a layer of potato chips?

For many modern housewives that era saw the ushering in of convenience foods, instead of made from scratch.   Although we had boxed cake and brownie mixes, my mother made enough homemade pies and tarts to feed a threshing crew and just once that glorious Sixties Desert – Baked Alaska. 

Perhaps I remember this momentous event because of it’s rarity.   It was not for a special occasion, but simply on a summer evening, a couple of hours after supper to ensure that no one was too full for dessert.   If you go to all that trouble, you want to make sure your masterpiece is appreciated.

     For those of you unfamiliar, Baked Alaska is basically a mold of frozen ice cream and cake, smothered with a layer of toasted meringue.

Baked Alaska

Baked Alaska

   Although both my (2009 reissued) Purity cookbook recipe and the one in the book, call for white sponge cake and strawberry ice cream, my mothers version was reminiscent of this Martha Stewart creation, with chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream.   

Baked Alaska

It was a marvelous sight to behold, with the meringue all puffy and peaked, and who would believe you could put ice cream in the oven!   Perhaps I also remember it as chocolate cake was always my birthday choice growing up.   

      Baked Alaska can be complicated, if you want to mold it into a perfect dome shape, or use tea cups to make individual portions as in this Martha Steward recipe which calls for strawberry and vanilla gelato and of course, being Martha, she’s making the cake from scratch.   What exactly do you do with all those separated egg yolks? 

Baked Alaska

But it can also be easy if you just cut your cake and ice cream in a slab, layer it up, freeze it hard, and then smother it with meringue, as per this recipe in my mother’s 1965 version of the Purity cookbook.  

Baked Alaska

Maybe not as fancy as the dome-like creation, but wouldn’t it be the same thing?   I even wondered about using a carton of liquid egg whites but some sources said the heat from the pasteurization process would negatively affect the egg proteins.   (Cream of tartar is included as an acidic stabilizer to keep the proteins in the egg whites from sticking together thus enabling a smoother stiffer consistency.   Alternatives are lemon juice or white vinegar.)  

So, I did a grocery run yesterday and bought a carton of liquid egg whites, and decided to experiment last night, and they whipped up just fine.   I used lemon juice as I couldn’t find any Cream of Tartar at the store.

I forgot to buy cake, so I used two portions of Mug Cake mix from the pantry, not the best idea as the shape was not ideal and there wasn’t enough cake.

Baked Alaska

I froze two portions of vanilla ice cream in teacups (a la Martha above), and assembled them over the cake, and then added the meringue. 

It wasn’t bad, but plenty sweet.   I made the mistake of putting the assembled product including the meringue in the freezer for about ten minutes (as it said you could), while I cleaned up the mess, but I wouldn’t do that again, as it made the meringue hard and cold, and then it took too long to brown and by the time I took it out the ice cream was melting.   Better to just put it in the oven as soon as it’s assembled.   Of course I also stopped to take a few pictures, so that didn’t help.  

If I was to make it again for a crowd, I’d do the slab cake, and maybe strawberry and chocolate gelato, which isn’t as sweet.   Maybe when I can have people over again and hold a book club under the trees.   It’s so brutally hot here this week, 35 C (95 F) and 42 (106 F) with the Humidex, that any ice cream served outside would melt lickety-split.  

 Despite my love of all things vintage, especially fashion, I don’t think I would have wanted to live in the fifties –  it seemed very much a man’s world.   I posed that question to my mother, and she said – it seemed okay at the time.  Like many things, some decades are best viewed through a veil of nostalgia.     I’ll leave you with some marriage advice quotes from the book – relics from the past….    

Vintage 50's Marriage Advice

Vintage 50's Marriage Advice

Vintage 50's Marriage Advice

Vintage 50's Marriage Advice

 

Postscript:   Have you ever made Baked Alaska?

The Literary Salon: Secondhand – To Have and Have Not

Cleaning out – that’s what many of us have been doing, making productive use of our time during our COVID staycations.   No matter that there’s nowhere to take the stuff now that the dump, Goodwill and thrift stores are all closed and the whole idea of holding a garage sale is frankly horrifying.  Somehow the idea of pawing through someone else’s junk/germs is not very appealing, when even the library is quarantining returned books for 72 hours before disinfecting them for re-circulation.  I did my annual house purge back in  snowy January and the stuff is still sitting in the basement and the gardening items are still in the garage, set aside for the spring horticultural sale, long cancelled. 

    So, I wasn’t much interested, when in my first curbside pickup of library books, there was one I had ordered eons ago – Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale – by Adam Minter.     But after I had read it, I thought – where were you last winter when I needed you!      

Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage SaleSecondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Publishers Blurb:

Decluttering. A parent’s death. Sooner or later, all of us are faced with things we no longer need or want. But when we drop our old clothes and other items off at a local donation center, where do they go? Sometimes across the country-or even halfway across the world-to people and places who find value in what we leave behind.

In Secondhand, journalist Adam Minter takes us on an unexpected adventure into the often-hidden, multibillion-dollar industry of reuse: thrift stores in the American Southwest to vintage shops in Tokyo, flea markets in Southeast Asia to used-goods enterprises in Ghana, and more. Along the way, Minter meets the fascinating people who handle-and profit from-our rising tide of discarded stuff, and asks a pressing question: In a world that craves shiny and new, is there room for it all?

Secondhand offers hopeful answers and hard truths. A history of the stuff we’ve used and a contemplation of why we keep buying more, it also reveals the marketing practices, design failures, and racial prejudices that push used items into landfills instead of new homes. Secondhand shows us that it doesn’t have to be this way, and what really needs to change to build a sustainable future free of excess stuff.

 Why I Liked it:   

This is not one of those how to declutter/reorganize/change your life  manuals, but rather it’s an eye-opening look at what really happens to the unwanted stuff you donate.   It certainly motivated me to rethink my “possession of things” in ways that those other books did not.   Maybe it’s the current COVID crises and morbid thoughts of sudden death, but really in the end, it’s all just stuff and you can’t take it with you.   So keep what you use and enjoy and get rid of the rest, and try not to buy as much in the future!

    The author, Adam Minter, has done a great deal of research into the global secondhand industry, and being himself the descendant of junkyard owners,  is well qualified to tell the tale.  He also wrote Junkyard Planet-Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, a 2013 bestseller. 

    Much of the book involves his travel in places like Mexico, Southeast Asia and Africa – countries where the secondhand economy thrives, and where the stuff which doesn’t sell here is often destined.   That old saying, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, is true.   While there’s a widely circulated theory that by sending our clothes and electronic waste to third world countries we are harming their homegrown economies, the author debunks that myth.   While undeniably some of it does end up in the dump, much of it is recycled and repaired to be resold to people who would otherwise have nothing.   The author follows a container of discarded computers, cell phones and tube TVs to Africa and it’s thriving electronic repair shops – shops who would much rather have older recycled goods than new cheaper ones because they last longer and are made better.   In one story, Greenpeace installed a GPS tracking device on a discarded TV in a shipment bound from England to Africa and then send a reporter to reclaim it at the other end, thus proving, according to their report, that it was destined for a digital dump.  But it wasn’t – it would have been brought to a repair shop and then resold to someone who had nothing.  

     There’s a chapter on emptying the nest (professional estate cleaning  crews), secondhand clothes, wiping rags (a whole separate industry), and why appliances don’t last, (remind me to buy a Speed Queen if my thirty year old Maytag washer/dryer ever wears out).   Simple fixes such as making manufacturers release repair manuals for older models would do a lot to keep older electronics out of the dump.          

     I once donated an old 80’s radio/cassette player to the St. Vincent de Paul and the clerk thanked me as there were some seasonal workers in the store who were looking for a radio.   They were Mexican, here to help with the pepper harvest.  We smiled at each other.  I was pleased too, as when we drop things off at the thrift shop, we hope they will be reused and appreciated by someone else – if not here than perhaps in some other country.   In this world of have and have not, it’s comforting to know that sometimes happens.   

PS.   I’ve been thinking about my garage sale stuff and wondering – if things continue in recovery mode here and we don’t get a second fall wave – if I could just put some of the stuff out at the end of the driveway on a table some Saturday afternoon with a sign, Free for a Small Donation to COVID relief fund?   That way it won’t sit in my basement until next year.   A lot of what I have is winter stuff, Christmas decorations, wreaths, sweaters, etc.   I only had a garage sale once, (advertised) and I remember people coming really early, like before I was awake!    

Vintage Casablanca poster

Vintage movie posters

French Press Coffee Maker

French Press coffee maker…used once…$35 price sticker still on…coffee not hot enough and too much hassle to clean out the grounds.

red plaid housecoat

Flannel bathrobe with fleece lining…never worn……not suitable for menopausal women….

fake flowers

from my fake flower/wreath making days…

Sparkly Christmas wreaths

Many sparkly Christmas in July things…

     

 

    

 

The Literary Salon – On Edge

On Edge - book - Andrea Petersen

We’re all on edge these days.   We live in anxious times and the new worries associated with COVID-19 have made things much worse in a very short period of time.   It seems only yesterday that life was normal and going to a store or restaurant wasn’t a dangerous activity which could cost you your life.   I drafted this blog a month ago before the current crisis exploded, but perhaps it is even more timely today.   This months’ literary pick is by Andrea Petersen, a Wall Street Journal reporter, who has lived with chronic anxiety her entire life.  

On Edge: A Journey Through AnxietyOn Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety by Andrea Petersen

 

 

 

The Publisher’s Blurb:

A celebrated science and health reporter offers a wry, honest account of living with anxiety.

A racing heart. Difficulty breathing. Overwhelming dread. Andrea Petersen was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at the age of twenty, but she later realized that she had been experiencing panic attacks since childhood. With time her symptoms multiplied. She agonized over every odd physical sensation. She developed fears of driving on highways, going to movie theaters, even licking envelopes. Although having a name for her condition was an enormous relief, it was only the beginning of a journey to understand and master it—one that took her from psychiatrists’ offices to yoga retreats to the Appalachian Trail.

Woven into Petersen’s personal story is a fascinating look at the biology of anxiety and the groundbreaking research that might point the way to new treatments. She compares psychoactive drugs to non-drug treatments, including biofeedback and exposure therapy. And she explores the role that genetics and the environment play in mental illness, visiting top neuro-scientists and tracing her family history—from her grandmother, who, plagued by paranoia, once tried to burn down her own house, to her young daughter, in whom Petersen sees shades of herself.

Brave and empowering, this is essential reading for anyone who knows what it means to live on edge.

About the Author:    Andrea Petersen is a contributing writer at The Wall Street Journal, where she reports on psychology, health and travel.  During her 18 years as a staff reporter and editor at the Journal, Andrea has covered a wide variety of beats including telecommunications, pharmaceuticals and aging.    On Edge – A Journey Through Anxiety is her first book.

Why I Liked It:

This was one of my bookoutlet bargains, an online site where you can spend hours just browsing, and in this case I was trying to get my basket to $100 so I could get $40 off.   Certainly I’ve known and counselled many patients about the benefits and side effects of the drugs which are often prescribed in the treatment of anxiety, but I’ve never read a memoir about what it’s like to live with it day after day, so I found this book to be an interesting read. 

While most of us think of anxiety as a sporadic or episodic condition associated with a specific event, (like COVID-19), this book delves into what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety disorder.  Patients with.generalized anxiety disorder worry even if there isn’t anything concrete to worry about, as the mind of a patient struggling with GAD can always find something to catastrophize about!   Despite her many low points, the author has led a very successful life,  although her boss at the Wall Street Journal was unaware of her struggles until the book was about to be published.  Worriers can often excel at masking their condition.  She was also fortunate in having a supportive family and friends who understood her condition.   I liked how the author’s history was woven into the various chapters on drugs, cognitive behavioral therapy, research and genetics, so it was a personal story and not just a recounting of scientific research. 

The fight or flight heightened response is an evolutionary adaptation for survival, left over from the caveman days, when our worries were of sabre-toothed tigers and where to find the next meal.   While we in modern times may have new and different things to worry about, like is it safe to go to the grocery store, it’s amazing how adaptable the human mind can be to the new normal, and how it can rise above a current catastrophe and find a way forward.    Something to remember in these, the worst of times.   

PS.   There are many non-drug coping mechanisms that can help soothe an anxious mind and stop the cycle, number one of which is distraction.    Keeping your mind occupied with something creative can be a wonderful distraction, and if you can’t shut your mind off at night, then I find getting up and reading to be a good activity, preferably a non-fiction book.    Basically, any mindless activity such as gardening, painting or reorganizing something is also wonderfully blissful.  What is your coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety in these crazy times?       

The Literary Salon – The Great Influenza

In view of the current fears about the spread of coronavirus COVD-19 this month’s literary salon will feature a New York times bestseller first published in 2014, The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry.   The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 was first recorded in army training camps in the US in the spring of 1918, spread to Europe with the mobilization of the troops and eventually infected about one-third of the world’s population, killing an estimated 17-50 million people worldwide (mortality rate 2-3%), more than the number who died in the war.    While most patients will likely get a mild version of COVID-19 and recover quickly, when you think about the 2-3% mortality rate, the implications are staggering considering how many more people there are in the world today.   For more about the 1918 pandemic see Wikipedia link and CDC link. 

 The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in HistoryThe Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest P andemic in History by John M. Barry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Publisher’s Blurb:

At the height of WWI, history’s most lethal influenza virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then exploded, killing as many as 100 million people worldwide. It killed more people in twenty-four months than AIDS killed in twenty-four years, more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. But this was not the Middle Ages, and 1918 marked the first collision of science and epidemic disease. Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research and now revised to reflect the growing danger of the avian flu, The Great Influenza is ultimately a tale of triumph amid tragedy, which provides us with a precise and sobering model as we confront the epidemics looming on our own horizon. John M. Barry has written a new afterword for this edition that brings us up to speed on the terrible threat of the avian flu and suggest ways in which we might head off another flu pandemic.
About the Author:
John M. Barry is a prize-winning and bestselling author and noted historian with such an extensive C.V. that I scarcely know how to summarize it.    Here’s a link to his website –link.
Observations:
My interest in reading this book in 2014 was sparked by the 100th anniversary of WW1.   I was preparing some information for a museum display of the Great War and came across this postcard of a hospital among my great uncle’s war memorabilia.     
WW1 Uncle Charlie hospital
This eventually led to a blog where I traced his journey from Canada to Britain, France and Germany and back again.   Uncle Charlie had caught the Spanish flu in 1919 and was six months recuperating in a British convalescent home before he was well enough to be sent home.   His prolonged illness was most likely complicated by being gassed in the war, as those with bad lungs always seem to suffer the most with influenza once it enters the respiratory phase.  

Family Portrait

John and Ellen Family Portrait – 1912

As well I had a great aunt, Jenny, (the girl in the middle front row beside her father), who died of the Spanish flu, leaving behind two young children and a grieving husband so angry at God he never darkened the door of a church again.   Jenny’s name is engraved on the bell of the parish church as she was one of the young girls who helped to raise the most money for it’s installation.  
Having been stricken with the H1N1/swine flu myself in the fall of 2009, one week before the vaccine was available, I am grateful to be retired now.  Certainly it was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life, for the longest.   Two weeks of misery, off work, followed by four weeks of weakness, while working, although never in any danger of dying despite some SOB, and I do remember exactly the middle aged woman who coughed all over me, as she was wearing flannel PJ’s.   I worked one block from a busy ER so we saw a steady stream of patients in for the antiviral Tamiflu,which was provided free by the government, and when the drug company ran out of the suspension for kids we made it from scratch just like in the old days.   It annoyed me greatly that I, the Queen of Hand Sanitizers, was the only person in my workplace who came down with it, me and one ER doctor, but H1N1, like the 1918 flu, seemed to strike younger healthy people and could in a perfect cytokine storm (inflammatory overreaction of the immune system) sometimes lead to multi-organ failure.    Of course we had antibiotics and ventilators to treat the respiratory complications unlike in 1918.   And then there was SARS in 2004, with all of those unnecessary deaths in Toronto as the health care system did not even know what they were dealing with until it was too late.      
While I don’t remember the specifics of this book, as it was six long years and many books ago, I do remember it was a fascinating read, but then I’m always up for a good non-fiction book.   Of course I may be biased, but you don’t have to have a medical background to enjoy it as it was written for the average lay person.   It was evident the author was a noted historian as the book was meticulously researched and presented.   It won the National Academies of Science award for the year’s outstanding book on science or medicine and is a highly recommended read, whatever your reasons for wanting to know more about pandemics.   
At any rate it might be something interesting to read from a historical point of view, while we are all encouraged to shelter in place.    (As all the libraries are now closed here for three weeks, I note that both Amazon (book and kindle version) and the bookoutlet site have it for half price).   
I remember thinking at the time well if we do have another pandemic, we’ll be better prepared….and of course we are in some ways, but here we are again, a hundred years later, the best of modern medicine facing off against another smart wily little virus.  May science and cool heads prevail.   Stay in and stay safe! 
Coronavirus   COVID-19