Monday, February 26, 2024

#MicroblogMondays: You never know who's reading your blog...!

Check out the comments on my last post, a review of the latest "Her Majesty the Queen Investigates" novel, "A Death in Diamonds."  ;)  

It's not the first time I've had an author drop into my comments (at least, the author of a book not related to childlessness, loss or infertility! lol) -- check out my reviews of "Columbine" (also here),  "Parkland," and "Mastering the Art of Quitting."  

But this is one of my favourite series at the moment, and hearing from the author was an unexpected delight -- particularly when she was so nice in responding to my criticism! (Thanks again, Sophia!)    

On a somewhat related note:  Does anyone remember, years ago, how Elizabeth Edwards, the (late) wife of the Senator and 2008 presidential candidate John Edwards, left a comment on someone's blog? (I can't remember whose, offhand.)  The Edwards lost their teenaged son Wade in a car accident, and apparently she was quite active in some online bereaved parents/grief forums (she also wrote a book about grief). I was reminded of that last night while watching a CNN program on modern political scandals in (pre-Trump era) Washington (!), focused on John Edwards. (Elizabeth died from breast cancer in 2010 at age 61.)        

You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here

Saturday, February 24, 2024

"A Death in Diamonds" by S.J. Bennett

"A Death in Diamonds" is the fourth book in the delightful mystery series "Her Majesty the Queen Investigates" by S.J. Bennett. Unfortunately, this book is not yet available in North America :(  -- the author has said she doesn't have a publisher for it yet (what??!).  Fortunately, I was able to source a copy from the U.K. And I'm so glad I didn't have to wait!  

The first three books all took place in 2016 (post-Brexit, pre-Megxit, lol), when the Queen was 90.  This volume takes us back in time to 1957, the early years of her, and opens with the 31-year-old monarch in Paris for an official visit.  It's a triumph for the young Queen -- but several incidents before, during and after her Paris visit lead her to believe that someone is trying to sabotage her.  And there's an important visit to Canada and the U.S. coming up soon, too...

Back in London, the city is buzzing about a double murder that was discovered while the Queen was in Paris -- of an Argentine businessman and a prostitute, who was wearing a valuable stolen tiara -- at the rented mews home of the Dean of Bath, no less (!)(a high-ranking Anglican clergyman).  The Queen has her own reasons for taking a keen personal interest in the case... 

Rozie Oshodi, Assistant Private Secretary to the Queen in the first three books, is missed here (she wasn't even born in 1957...!) -- but her predecessor, Joan McGraw, who did intelligence work at Bletchley Park and elsewhere during the war, is a more-than-adequate substitute who works to help Her Majesty identify the saboteur and solve the mystery of who killed "the tart in the tiara" and her client -- while also dealing with the deeply entrenched classist and sexist attitudes of the "Men With Moustaches" who surround her at Buckingham Palace. 

As usual with this series, I enjoyed this book tremendously.  At least, I WAS enjoying it...

...right up until I read a certain sentence in Chapter 55, contrasting the young working mother/Queen with a villainous CHILDLESS couple. I was preparing to give this book a 5-star rating up until that point -- but that particular stereotype, tossed casually into the conversation, was jarring, and made me wince. It took me several pages to re-absorb myself in the story, as it reached its climax.  

So -- not 5 stars, but 4.5, regretfully rounded down to 4. 

There's a fun section of "Afternotes" at the end, explaining what was fact and what was fiction. (It's not mentioned, but I know the Ottawa part of the North American visit was based in historical fact and, as a Canadian, it was fun to read about that.)   

Coming next year from the same author:  #5 in the series, "The Queen Who Came in From the Cold."  :)  (Let's hope for a North American publisher and speedy publication date here, for both #4 and #5, by then...!)  

Links to my reviews of previous books in this series: 

This was Book #6 read to date in 2024 (and Book #2 finished in February), bringing me to 13% of my 2024 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 45 books. I am (for the moment, anyway...!) on track to meet my goal. :)  You can find reviews of all my books read to date in 2024 tagged as "2024 books." 

Monday, February 19, 2024

#MicroblogMondays: What's saving my life right now?

Every year, Modern Mrs. Darcy asks her readers "What's saving your life right now?"  (Or at least keeping your head above water?)  

It was a very timely prompt -- if you've read some of my recent posts, you'll know the winter has been getting to me...!  Without looking at previous years' posts, here are a couple of things I could think of:   

  • Spending time with our great-nephew & great niece.  :)  Admittedly, it doesn't happen often these days, now that Little Great-Nephew is going to school -- but such a day-brightener when it does!   
  • ...and shopping for them. I had lots of fun assembling Valentine's Day goodie bags for them recently (still have to get Little Great-Nephew's to him...), and I've started collecting things for Easter too (bunny ear headbands, anyone??  lol), as well as for Little Great-Niece's upcoming FIRST birthday! (Yikes! -- already??)  (And the fact that I can do these things with only a few grief-y twinges shows how far I've come!)  
  • Getting out of the house once in a while. The pandemic really threw a monkey wrench into our usual routines outside of the house. We're still pretty cautious and try to avoid crowds (which we did even before the pandemic, lol) -- but we've realized there's no reason why we can't go out shopping or to the mall, etc., so long as we're masked -- and so we have been doing that a little more frequently lately.  I think we could even eat out once in a while too, although admittedly I'd feel more comfortable doing that on a patio in good weather, or during off-times when there will be fewer people.  We haven't really done much of that yet (aside from a few early lunches in the food court at the mall), but maybe when the nicer weather comes... 
  • Snow!  (Believe it or not! lol)  We've had very little snow this winter -- or other recent winters -- which is unsettling and upsetting in some ways. Who knew we'd be missing winter, right?  :(  There have been several articles recently about how the consistently warmer temperatures in recent years have been affecting traditional Canadian winter activities -- skating on backyard rinks and the Rideau Canal, skiing, tobogganing, etc. (not to mention moisture levels in the soil, which is critical for the success of crops during growing season) -- how winters are so different today than when we were children, and what's it going to be like for our own kids and grandkids (and nieces and nephews and greats)?  There's been a real sense of grief & loss. So seeing snowflakes in the air and snow covering the ground feels both special and right and NORMAL (even when it disappears a few days later).  (Admittedly, not everyone feels this way...  and it's easier to welcome some snow when you're retired and living in a condo -- i.e., you don't have to shovel it or commute through it to work!  lol) 
  • Blue skies & sunshine.  It's been mostly grey & gloomy outside, which has not been great for my mental health. The occasional days when the sun does shine (even if it means colder temperatures) make a world of difference! 
  • Our humidifier, moisturizer and lots of lip balm. It's very dry in our condo, even with the humidifier running constantly (albeit not at full blast, because it just gets too noisy then, despite Dyson's claims of "quiet" technology...!).  The humidity levels have only cracked 40% a couple of times since we got back from Christmas vacation, and more often hover in the low/mid-30s.  I've always had great skin;  people have always complimented me on it -- but apparently skin often gets drier with age, and it seems I'm not immune:  these days I've got some patches of dryness and rosacea on my cheeks/around my nose. It sucks. :(   My doctor prescribed me a topical gel, and I've been using it since last fall, but it hasn't really helped much.  
    • I recently bought a small jar of Clinique Redness Solutions cream to try, and I've actually seen some small improvements since I started using it last week, which makes me feel slightly better about looking in the mirror...!   
    • My favourite lip balm continues to be the (very pricey -- and the price has gone up by about $8 since I bought my last tube!! WTF??)  Sugar Advanced Therapy Treatment by Fresh.  
    • But I also really like this Smooch lip balm by K'Pure, which a friend introduced me to in recent years. :)   
  • Comfort food.  Lots of soups for lunch (our local supermarket has some good ones at their takeout counter takeout), roast or rotisserie takeout chicken, chicken & dumplings in the crockpot... I pulled out my mother's meatloaf recipe recently, which I hadn't made in years, and made mini-meatloaves in muffin tins, topped with a Dijon mustard/brown sugar glaze (I know most people use ketchup, but I can't have that because of my tomato allergy), served with garlic mashed potatoes. There were leftovers to put in the freezer too. Yum!  
  • Chocolate!  ;)  Dh & I traditionally exchange cards on Valentine's Day, but this year, there was also a small heart-shaped box of Lindor chocolates sitting on my night table when I woke up, along with the card. (He knows me well!)   
  • Books (of course!).  The latest S.J. Bennett novel (in the "Her Majesty the Queen Investigates" series) isn't available in North America yet, but I was able to snag a copy, and (as usual) it's such a pick-me-up.  :)  
  • Pretty new jewelry.  :)  Love me some new bling! (Even if I don't get the chance to show it off in public very often these days...!) 
  • Turning the channel on the TV -- away from the news networks, and onto some music. (Mostly classic rock and 70s channels!) 
  • Zoom chats with distant friends. :) 

Past posts on this subject here

You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Long weekend odds & ends

  • It's the Family Day long weekend here in Ontario (and a couple of other Canadian provinces).  This holiday always sneaks up on me -- I knew there was a long weekend coming up (although long weekends don't mean quite the same thing when you're retired...!) -- but it hadn't really sunk in that it was THAT long weekend until I looked at my email on Friday afternoon and saw a promotional message from a friend's small business:  "Happy Family Day Weekend!"  Ugh. (So far, not TOO much hype. But it's only Saturday...!)  
    • Past rants (ummm, posts) on this subject here
  • Speaking of family:  the son of one of dh's cousins -- six months older than Katie would have been -- is engaged. His mom announced it via our cousins' WhatsApp group this weekend, along with a photo of the happy couple, showing off the ring. Everyone is excited -- "too long since we've had a family wedding!"
    • I'm happy for them. He's a very nice young man, and she seems like a nice girl.  But I couldn't help but think about my own little girl, who would be 25 (!) now -- older than I was when I got married, at 24 (!!) -- who will never grow up. let alone become a bride. :(  
  • Also speaking of family (and on a lighter note) -- BIL called yesterday to tell us that Little Great-Nephew's teacher asked each student to tell the class who they would most like to have dinner with. All the kids were naming celebrities, athletes, etc.  -- but LGN said, "All the people in my heart" (!) -- and then named off everyone in his extended family! -- including me & dh!!  Needless to say, we were both absolutely tickled when we heard this (and yes, I got kind of teary too!).  
  • Something else that gave me a chuckle:  I got an email from on Friday night, promoting their long weekend bargain books. Scrolling through the selections, I started laughing when I found the title "Mayo Clinic Guide to Fertility and Conception" -- in the Science Fiction & Fantasy section!  lol  
  • I'm not sure if this article is behind a subscriber paywall, but it's an interesting read:  "My partner and I want to have a baby, but we can't afford it without leaving Toronto. Is that our fault — or part of a much bigger problem?"  (Subhead:  "You always hear "there's never a perfect time to have kids," but that minimizes major structural inequalities that affect a huge amount of Canadians.") 
    • I feel for this couple (and I get pissed off by politicians whose main solution to reversing declining birth rates seems to be going after abortion and birth control). The expense of having a baby, and the lack of support (no mother or mother-in-law nearby to help me, expensive and limited daycare options, etc.) were certainly among the reasons why we procrastinated on trying to conceive until I was in my mid-30s. (And our rent ranged from $650 a month in 1985, when we moved in, to $975  by the time we bought our house in 1990 and moved out. This was for a small one-bedroom apartment in a charming renovated brownstone building in a  tony midtown neighbourhood near the subway that, when we first moved in, did not allow children. I'm sure that would seem incredibly cheap to renters today, but it was pretty expensive at the time...!)     
  • You MUST read Jody Day's post on her Childless Elderwomen Substack about childless daughters, caregiving and pronatalism ("It's not like she's got anything else to do, is it?")  She absolutely nails it. I'm so grateful she is doing this work and calling some much-needed attention to these issues! 
  • This opinion piece in the Guardian generated quite a bit of discussion in one of the online childless communities I frequent:  "Facebook’s endless back-to-school photos spark complex feelings for childfree people like me – but sadness isn’t one of them."  I'd be curious to know what you think of it!  
    • Personally, I found the writer's tone and wording minimized (perhaps even dismissed?) the very real pain that many childless women feel -- and I worry that readers who have not shared this experience might not understand that she does NOT speak for all of us. (Some of us would LOVE to have friends like hers...!)  
    • Quote:  "In the patriarchal, restricted and desperately sexist world that came before, one can imagine that a woman without children may have been a object of concerned pity..."  Well, we certainly have more opportunities and other fulfilling experiences these days -- but that doesn't mean that the world isn't still full of patriarchy & sexism, or that childless women aren't still objects of pity in some quarters...
    • I also chafe at the idea -- which I've seen a fair bit of recently in various books & articles -- that suggests the childless/free should "[embrace] active roles... in the broad community of family and friends that actually helps people with kids raise their children."  Yes, it's an option -- but it shouldn't feel like an obligation, just because we don't have children of our own to occupy our time & energy.  Some of us are happy to help out, some of us would rather not, some of us don't have any family or friends with young children nearby, and some of us would like to help but (inexplicably) meet resistance from some parents. It's not always that simple.
    • I questioned why a writer/publication would be highlighting back to school photos in the middle of February??  An Australian in the group explained to me that the writer was an Aussie, and the school year there runs from late January/early February through November/December. Oops. I apologized for my northern hemisphere-centricity.  ;) 
  • Also from the Guardian:  Bravo to Carla Dejonghe, a Belgian woman who has persuaded her local municipal council to confront a highly common blind spot, and consider the impact of its policies on single people (including many childless women).  36% of households in Belgium are currently made up of single adults. That number has grown by 30% in just over a decade, and it's likely to keep getting larger in the future. A couple of excerpts (boldfaced emphasis is mine):  
The text of the charter stresses the aim of ensuring that single-income households are treated on an equal footing with others, adding: “It is our interest as policymakers to no longer think from the perspective of the traditional family as the norm, but to strive for measures that are neutral to living arrangements.”

It includes measures that range from encouraging new housing projects to feature communal spaces for more social interaction, to tweaking municipal invitations to specify that guests can bring a “plus one” instead of only a partner...

The charter also commits to championing single-friendly practices within the local hospitality industry, such as communal tables and a wider selection of quality wines by the glass. Workplaces will also be encouraged to reconsider the common practice of relying on people who live alone any time overtime is required.

“These are just simple things,” said Dejonghe. “They don’t cost much money but they’re very logical.”

...Dejonghe, who is also a member of Belgium’s parliament, said she had yet to receive any negative reactions, chalking it up to the care she had taken to emphasise that the charter was in no way aimed at diminishing the importance of traditional families.

“It’s about equality,” she said. “Everyone has to be aware of two things: if it’s good for a person living alone, it will be good for everybody. And second, whether you want to or not, at some point in your life you will be all alone.”

She described the charter as a first step towards tackling this reality. “Our society has evolved but our policies haven’t kept up,” she said. “These are small steps but we have to start somewhere.”

  • Annnnndddd just as I was set to hit "publish" on this post, a message popped into my inbox. From Parents Neighbours Daughter. A photo of the Littlest Princess (all smiles, as usual). Wearing the handknit sweater set that another neighbour (M., long dead now) had made for my Katie, 25+ years ago. (Full story here.)  "It fits!" she wrote. 
    • I brushed away tears as I messaged her back: "M. would have loved that!"  
    • Is this frickin' weekend over yet?  

Monday, February 12, 2024

#Microblog Mondays: Odds & ends & lots of links!

(Another #MM post that's not so micro... but it's what I've got!)  

I haven't posted as much here lately as I often do. I can chalk it up, in part, to the usual mid-winter/February malaise. Aside from a few (too few) glorious days of sunshine & clear blue skies, it's been grey and blah outside lately.  And there just hasn't been a lot going on to write about. I've hardly been out of the house. (Planning a trip to the mall this week to remedy that!)  

I've also been feeling slightly overwhelmed by the volume of stuff coming at me every day. Nothing particularly important or heavy or consequential -- just trying to keep up with all the things I want and need and like to do -- and read. 

I've always been a voracious reader and consumer -- of books, of magazines, of newspapers -- of media generally, from the time I learned to read. Even when I was a kid, my parents and grandparents always got (and read) at least one newspaper daily (the one from the nearest city), sometimes two, when there was a daily local paper (and if there wasn't a daily, there was a weekly) -- plus, we tuned in to the news on TV at lunchtime, suppertime and later in the evening too (in the days before 24-hour news channels existed).  And every morning when I arrived at journalism school, there were stacks of of the local London Free Press and Globe & Mail waiting in our classroom/newsroom for us to read -- with regular news quizzes to ensure we were keeping up with current events. I've kept the habit of reading multiple daily newspapers (along with other reading material, of course) all through my adult life. 

These days, the news tends to come in a digital format. Just getting through my email inbox -- full of newsletters from various newspapers, magazines, Substacks, etc. -- takes forever some days. (I look forward to weekends, when the volume diminishes considerably.)  Plus there are blogs to read and comment on (something I haven't been very good at doing lately...!), social media accounts, message boards and other sites I follow regularly. I've slacked off considerably on keeping up with my Facebook & Instagram accounts -- which I suppose is not a bad thing in some ways (lol) -- but also leaves me with mild cases of both guilt and FOMO.  

Additionally, I've been checking my Ancestry account every morning to see what new DNA cousins have shown up overnight for me, my mom & dh. Checking the daily e-book bargains on Kobo. Juggling reading for the several book clubs & readalongs I belong to, plus squeezing in a few books from my own towering to-read piles now & then. Plus the usual household stuff, etc. 

On the other hand, all this reading lately means I have some really GREAT stuff to share with all of you here!  :)  
I suspect no one had the fertility journey that they thought they would have. There are surprise pregnancies. There are unimaginable losses. Life has no greater talent than that of disrupting our expectations.

In all of these circumstances, it is the women who are “childless by circumstance” that I think of the most. The women like me. There is such pain for those of us who wanted to become mothers yet did not. And there is no recognition of this type of loss in our culture.

We understand and honor the grief of miscarriages, stillborns, and other losses associated with our fertility. But we don’t have a social protocol to help us support a woman who is childless by circumstance. In fact, we don’t even have a cultural understanding of the very important difference between a woman who is childless and one who is childfree — our culture assumes any woman without children got there by choice.

We’re strangely unable to understand that many women struggle with the emotional and physical toll of infertility — that they perhaps wanted a child of their own very badly but could not have one. And apparently, at least so far as I can see, it’s incomprehensible that a fertile woman could end up without a child unless she chose that path.

Western imagination understands the fickle hand of fate when it comes to miscarriages and surprise pregnancies — but not when it comes to a woman who had a plan…a plan that just didn’t work out.

Those who don’t have children aren’t without stories — and equally complex stories, at that. If you have a uterus, you have stories. And someday, when the storyline of our fertility comes to an end, we feel drawn to open those worn pages again, flip through the familiar words and images, and maybe even share them with those around us.
  • This article from the Atlantic by a woman who has had three miscarriages and one full-term loss is gorgeous:  "I Don’t Know If I Can Call Myself a Mom."  (Subhead:  "I’ve had three miscarriages, seven reproductive surgeries, and one infant loss. I still don’t have a child.") Caveat: She & her husband are still trying to conceive. (Gift link.)  Sample passage: 
How do you confirm parenthood without proof? Without spit-up on your clothes, a diaper bag slung over your shoulder, or commiseration with fellow mothers?

But I did mother Lucy. Every decision I made for her—from the positive test to her last breath—was mothering. Not drinking booze or eating raw fish during my pregnancy was mothering. Reading parenting books and touring day cares was mothering. Practicing prenatal yoga and labor positions was mothering. Stroking her face while I held her languid body had to have been mothering.
    The ethics of fertility wellness and spirituality matters to me. You matter, we matter and we deserve ethical sensitivity, criticality and someone to redress the balance. We deserve far far better than being told we’re not breathing properly either and so of course we aren’t fertile.

    There is a particular feeling of futility and self blame that we can be left with alongside our negative pregnancy tests. And it’s never as loud as when we’ve bought into the suggestions, claims and promises that THIS is the thing that will get that positive test - paid for it, tried it and come away empty handed.

    You didn’t do it wrong.

  • I had mixed feelings about this article from the Guardian (so, caveat emptor...):  "‘At 45, I grieved the idea of motherhood. Then, by pure fluke, I was pregnant’." To her credit, the author -- who endured multiple miscarriages and two failed rounds of IVF -- is honest about the mixed feelings & emotions. (And the writing is beautiful.)  A couple of sample passages:  
In many ways it has been a strange tributary in the conversation most women have throughout their lives: why you don’t have children, why you do. Fertility is a part of a woman’s life that exists beyond herself, that is forever subject to public speculation and interrogation. “Questions,” as Rebecca Solnit put it, “that push you into the herd or nip at you for diverging from it.”

It has been stranger still to cross from one side to the other, as if handed, like a baton, between the divergent and the herd. At this stage in my life, I do not seem to fit entirely in either; I have missed the mothering years of my peers, and now I have absconded from my child-free fellowship.

I am wary of the false hope this kind of fertility story might give: woman gives up trying to have a baby, then duly falls pregnant – as if the very act of wanting something is the very thing that might prevent it. I do not want this to seem like a cautionary tale of female desire. Nor was there any great trick – I cannot attribute my pregnancy to a particular vitamin supplement, acupuncturist, health regime. I have no advice. It was luck, pure fluke.

It was also not without complexity. I was of course elated to be pregnant, but I had spent a good two years grieving the idea of motherhood and imagining a different kind of life for myself. Now I was doubling back, revisiting the hopes of my younger self.
  • Not ALI-related (at least, not obviously so...), but...:  I don't know if those of you outside of Canada know who Brittlestar is:  his real name is Stewart Reynolds, and he's a comedian, corporate spokesperson and wry social media commentator/content creator, among other things. He also has a Substack (who doesn't these days, right?), and I thought he made a great point recently, explaining "Here's why some people have gone crazy." 
    • (Personally, I think politics and world events have always had an impact on us all -- it's just that most people don't pay attention or make the connection until it becomes blatantly obvious and too difficult to ignore, as it did during the pandemic -- just as most people will offer up "thoughts and prayers" when a tragedy happens, secure in the knowledge that such a thing would never happen to THEM...)(until it inevitably does, of course...!).   
  • If you've been a reader here for a while, you'll know of my longstanding admiration for the Maynard women -- mother Fredelle, and her daughters Rona and Joyce -- all successful writers. I've followed both Rona & Joyce on social media for years, and Rona is now expanding on her wonderful Facebook posts in a Substack called "Amazement Seeker." You MUST read today's post -- "Voice Lesson from a Literary Warrior" -- if only for that opening paragraph, which left me slack-jawed with envy (oh, to be a fly on the wall of THAT gathering...!).  But I'm betting you'll stick around for the whole thing. ;)  How about this paragraph, which will speak to bloggers everywhere?  
Not every revolution strikes at a foe. For a woman who writes, the first barricade is within. To claim what you know, and tell it in your own voice, is a revolutionary act that not only remaps your emotional world but clears a path for others... If my joys, sorrows and amusements mattered, then so did my reader’s.

  • The CBC had a story this weekend about the declining number of cousins that children today are growing up with, and the important role they can play in families. 
    • This is certainly something I've noticed in my own experience, and in dh's family too. My mom had just one brother and he had just two kids (my first cousins) -- but on my dad's side of the family, I have something like 35?? first cousins & half-cousins. Dh has a similar amount from his mom & dad's families combined. But our nephews have just one (living) cousin (their mom's brother's daughter).  Little Great-Nephew has just one first cousin -- Little Great-Niece -- and it's likely to stay that way.  Little Great-Niece has two other cousins on her mom's side of her family.  
You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here

Monday, February 5, 2024

#MicroblogMondays: Define "regular"...!

There was a long article in the Toronto Star this weekend that raised my childless hackles.  The article itself was rather interesting -- about Toronto's housing crisis, and possible solutions. I'm not sure whether it's behind a paywall (doesn't seem to be a gift link available) -- but it was the headline that had me rolling my eyes, hard, and that I wanted to focus on here:  "Regular families will never again be able to buy a house in Toronto – but we can still fix the housing crisis. Here’s how."

Define "regular families,"  right??! (That's a new one on me...!) I think "typical families" or "average families" is the more usual description, and possibly a better/preferable choice of words -- although I'd still roll my eyes over the focus on "families" -- knowing that, as a childless couple -- a "family of two" -- we wouldn't qualify in the eyes of so many people and institutions...! 

How about "residents" or "citizens" or just plain "people"??  Right??

I ranted about this to dh. He said, "I guess that makes us IRregular??"  

(Which made me think some more:  "regular" also smacks of "normal" -- the opposite of which, of course, would be "abnormal." Right?  :p )  

You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here. 

Friday, February 2, 2024

"Best of Friends" by Kamila Shamsie

"Best of Friends" by Kamila Shamsie is the February choice for our Childless Collective Nomo Book Club, where the focus is NOT on books about pregnancies, mothers and miracle babies.  ;)  

The "best of friends" of the title are Maryam Khan and Zahra Ali, who have known each other since they were 4 years old. When we first meet them, they're 14 years old, living and attending school together in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1988.  The two come from very different backgrounds:  pretty and popular Maryam is the oldest of three daughters from a wealthy family, lives in a large house with armed guards at the gate, and is being groomed by her grandfather to take over his leather goods business after she finishes university -- a future she embraces. Less confident, bookish Zahra is not wealthy, but lives a comfortable life with her mother, a popular school principal, and her father, a well-known journalist and host of a popular television program about cricket. She can't wait to get out of Pakistan and head for London. 

One night, the girls attend a forbidden party at a classmate's house -- and something happens that changes both their lives forever.  

The story abruptly fast-forwards in time to 2019, 30+ years later. Both Zahra and Maryam, now in their 40s, are living and working in London, both enjoying professional success in very different fields. 

And then someone from their shared past re-emerges -- and Zahra and Maryam's long friendship is tested.    

It was interesting to read a book set in an unfamiliar location/culture -- and the first part of the book is the most interesting. I will admit that I don't know a lot about Pakistani culture or politics, but I do remember Benazir Bhutto (who, in the novel, knew Maryam's mother when they were at school together, and is an inspirational figure for both Zahra and Maryam). I'll also admit that my eyes sometimes glazed over when the topic turned to cricket...!  (I know absolutely nothing about cricket -- although I did recognize the name of Imran Khan. Canada seems to be one of the few (perhaps only?) former British colonies where cricket is more or less a non-entity, although it is played in some urban areas, mostly by immigrants from other former British colonies in the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean.) (When we first moved into our house in the early 1990s, we would often see kids playing street hockey in the little bay right in front of our house. Over time, the makeup of the neighbourhood evolved, and not long before we moved, I was amused to see a group of kids in the street outside playing cricket!  Plus ca change...) 

However, the angst of being a teenaged girl seems to be a universal thing...!  and I thought the book did a good job of capturing that -- although, unlike me, Zahra and Maryam also had to cope with the additional pressures of living in a highly patriarchal society undergoing political upheaval. 

The second half/London section of the book is less engaging, and ultimately falls somewhat flat. Neither Zahra nor Maryam, in their adult incarnations anyway, are especially likeable.  The ending is ambiguous, which left me hanging and wondering, "Is that it??"  

It was an interesting read, but I feel like there should have been more to it.  

3 stars on Goodreads.  

This was Book #5 read to date in 2024 (and Book #1 finished in February), bringing me to 11% (!) of my 2024 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 45 books. I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 2 books ahead of schedule. :)  You can find reviews of all my books read to date in 2024 tagged as "2024 books." 

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Reading this book, and about the incident that changes everything for Zahra and Maryam, I couldn't help but think about some of the dumb things I did when I was a teenager/young adult. I particularly remember two incidents from summer 1981, when I turned 20. (Fortunately for me, neither had serious consequences.) 

Story #1:  My sister & I were sharing a tiny basement apartment rental for the summer, in the town where we'd attended junior and senior high school. Our parents had since moved on to another town, but we still knew lots of people there and were both able to secure summer jobs. By day, I worked as a summer relief teller at the local credit union;  in the evenings, I spent a lot of time with a girl we'd both known in high school. Her dad owned -- and let her drive! -- a flashy, bright yellow, relatively new Camaro, and we spent hours cruising up and down the main street, showing off our hot wheels, blasting music.  

One night at the 7-11, we ran into three guys my friend knew (but I didn't), and after chatting for a while, we wound up getting into their car with them. I was in the passenger seat in front beside the driver, my friend in back with two of the guys.  They decided we should drive out to the beach, about 20 miles away.  As we headed out, it dawned on me that driving off in a strange car with a bunch of strange (to me) guys down dark country roads, when nobody knew where I was or who I was with, was probably not the brightest idea I'd ever had. 

Then I started smelling pot smoke from the back seat (and cannabis was strictly illegal back then.) 

Then we ran into a long stretch of fresh roadwork on our side of the road-- so the driver started driving on the other/wrong side of the road to avoid dinging up his car. All I could think was that the cops would have a field day with us if they happened to be out patrolling.  

Fortunately, after several miles of crappy roads, we decided to abandon the beach and drive back into town. Needless to say, I was VERY relieved!  

Story #2:  Same summer, same friend, same car.  I don't remember what we were doing in the city (Winnipeg), but we saw that a local band we liked was playing at a bar that night and decided to go in for a few drinks and listen to some music. The bar was in an older, somewhat shabby hotel, on the edge of a funky/trendy neighbourhood. Neither of us had ever been there before.  The band hadn't started playing yet when we walked into the bar, but the room was already crowded. 

With BIKERS.  Hells Angels types. (Heck, they might have even BEEN Hells Angels -- I don't know.)  Big, burly, tough-looking in leather vests. A couple of them had girlfriends with them, but as women, we were vastly outnumbered. We stood there, surveying the room and then looked at each other and, after a whispered consultation, decided to get the hell out of there. 

Only -- the bouncer -- another big, burly, bearded guy (who looked like he could have been a biker too) stood in the doorway. "What's the matter?"  he said said, menacingly. "Don't you like our bar?"  

I think I deserved an Oscar for fast thinking, if not the performance I put on next.  "We were supposed to meet some friends here, but I think they've jammed out on us,"  I said in a very put-out tone of voice.  "Is there a payphone?" (This was long before the era of cellphones, of course.)  

To my immense relief, the guy actually cracked a smile and his tone softened. "Sure -- it's just down the hall there."  

"THANK you SO much!"  I beamed sweetly at him and batted my eyelashes. We stood at the payphone -- within sight, but not earshot -- while I took a quarter from my wallet, picked up the receiver, pretended to dial and then carried on a brief, one-sided conversation. 

Then we exited out the nearest door. It was not the door we'd come in, and we had to walk around the building to get to where our car was parked.  But outside the door we'd exited was another parking lot we hadn't seen when we arrived. It was completely full of motorcycles.  


Thursday, February 1, 2024

Right now

Right now...* 

*(an occasional (mostly monthly) meme, alternating from time to time with "The Current"). (Explanation of how this started & my inspirations in my first "Right now" post, here. Also my first "The Current" post, here.)

Pandemic diary/update: January was month #46 (soon to be FOUR YEARS...!) since the COVID-19 pandemic began.  The cold I developed during the week between Christmas & New Year's Day lingered well into the month :p -- and then dh got it too. Ugh. Little Great-Nephew also came down with strep throat before the month ended (poor little guy!).  :(  

Nevertheless, we remain covid-free (knocking wood, loudly...), and continue to mask in stores and most other public places, especially where there are a lot of people. Maskers are in the minority these days hereabouts, but I've noticed more of us again over the past two months, with cases way up. I have heard that, in some areas, the latest wave is the second-largest of the entire pandemic to date (yikes!).  

January was a month of adjustment: It took me a good week or two to settle back into our regular routines and feel like I'd caught up on things that had piled up while we were away over Christmas. And after the bright lights & festivities of Christmas with my family, the (mostly) cloudy grey skies and chilly temperatures have been taking their (usual) toll on my emotional well-being...! 

Among other things this month, we: 
  • Flew home from spending Christmas & New Year's Eve with my parents, sister & her partner, on New Year's Day (mid-afternoon, so we didn't have to wake up at the crack of dawn to get to the airport...!). 
  • Went with dh to the supermarket to restock the cupboards & fridge on the morning of Jan. 2nd, and to pick up takeout en route home on Jan. 20th.
  • Went to BIL & SIL's house on Tuesday & Thursday, Jan. 2nd & 4th, to visit and see Little Great-Nephew, who was still on school vacation that week. 
  • Celebrated my (63rd!!) birthday on Friday, Jan. 12th, with trips to the local art gallery and bookstore. 
  • Had dinner with BIL & SIL at Younger Nephew's nearby townhouse on Monday, Jan. 15th (we walked over), with Little Great-Niece providing the entertainment. :)  
  • Got haircuts in our old community on Friday Jan. 19th, and went to the mall there to shop and have an early lunch in the food court.  
  • Had lunch with the nephews and their families at BIL's on Saturday, Jan. 20th, then headed across the city to visit stepMIL & family (for the first time in nearly a year -- erk!).  
  • Went out shopping on Jan. 30th at Staples, Homesense, Dollarama and Sephora (where I picked up my birthday bonus gift!), and to the local mega-bookstore on Jan. 31st. 
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Also right now:  

Reading: I finished 4 books in January (reviewed on this blog, as well as Goodreads & StoryGraph, & tagged "2024 books").  
This brings me to 4 books read so far in 2024, 9% of my 2024 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 45 books.  I am currently 1 book ahead of my goal.  :)

Current read(s): 
Coming up: Most of my book groups have their next reads plotted out for a few months in advance -- and listing them here helps me keep track of what I should be reading next. ;)  
  • For the Notes from Three Pines (Louise Penny mysteries) Readalong: The last discussion was for book #3, "The Cruellest Month," posted June 7th -- no further posts/books since then.  I've continued dipping into the series on my own, between other book club obligations. Book #6, "Bury Your Dead," is on the horizon as one of my next reads...! 
A few recently purchased titles (mostly in digital format, mostly discounted ($5-10 or less) or purchased with points):  
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  • Season 10 of "Finding Your Roots" on PBS. Some great guests so far, including Alanis Morrisette, Valerie Bertinelli, Brendan Fraser, Sammy Hagar and Bob Odenkirk (to name a few). 
  • Figure skating:  Canadian national championships from Calgary on the weekend of Jan. 13th via livestream (mentioned here), and then the U.S. Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, on the weekend of Jan. 26th on NBC (while dh was watching NFL football...!). 

To a couple of podcasts (yay! -- I'm WAY behind!): 
To Heardle Decades: Stats as of  Jan. 31st:   
  • Heardle 60s:  76.7% (371/484, 160 on first guess), down just slightly from the same as last month. Max. streak: 15.
  • Heardle 70s:  82.5% (189/229, 103 on the first guess), up from last month. Max. streak: 18. (I TIED my past streak of 18, two days ago -- but lost out before I could surpass it. Curse you, "Autobahn" by Kraftwerk!  lol)(I've heard the song before, but the opening seconds had me stumped...!) 
  • Heardle 80s: 44.6% (45/101,  19 on the first guess), down from last month. Max. streak: 4. 
  • Heardle 90s: 31.5% (68/216, 14 on the first guess), down from last month. Max. streak: 4. 
Following: The discussions on "War & Peace" in Footnotes & Tangents' Substack Chats. They add so much to the experience & my enjoyment of the book! 

Eating/Drinking:  Since returning home from Christmas holidays, takeout dinners have included our favourite wood oven pizza, pasta, veal & chicken cutlet sandwiches, chicken fingers and fries. 

We had sausages, potatos & peppers (dh's favourite) at Younger Nephew's townhouse, on Jan. 15th. :)  And takeout Portuguese chicken with rice and roasted potatos for lunch at BIL's on Jan. 20th. 

Crockpot chicken and dumplings, which we have year round, but tastes especially good at this time of year...!  (Not sure if I've shared this recipe here before, but I'm sharing it now/again!)  Generally love it, but the first time we tried this, it was WAY too salty, so (recipe instructions to the contrary), we now use reduced-sodium soup & broth, and have cut way back on the added salt. We use a bag of miniature carrots (cut into smaller pieces) and frozen peas for the veggies, and Pillsbury Country Biscuits for the dumplings, chopped into small pieces. (My parents don't use all the biscuits in the can, and bake a couple of them to eat with the meal.)  We use two chicken breasts for dh & me, and usually have lots of leftovers!   

Buying (besides books, lol):  Some paper and ink for my printer from Staples.  Some goodies for Little Great-Nephew and Little Great-Niece for Valentine's Day & Easter, while at the dollar store  :)  and a couple of books for them at the mega-bookstore.  A new kind of lip balm to try (La Neige, grapefruit flavour) from Sephora. And I just ordered a "mystery bag" from my favourite local sterling silver jewelry maker -- four or five pieces of sterling silver jewelry, $250 value for $100. Can't wait to see what I get...! 

Wearing: The more explicitly holiday-themed waffle-weave PJ tops from Old Navy in my collection have been put away, but I'm still wearing some of the more winter-y designs :) (and other long-sleeved T-shirts in my collection). Generally too cool inside for shorter sleeves yet!  

Noticing:  How out of shape I am!! while speedwalking through the bitter cold over to Younger Nephew's townhouse, about 5 minutes away from us, on Jan. 15th. (I know the cold didn't help matters... but... yikes!)

Enjoying: Reading "War and Peace"!!  (See "Reading," above.)(Who would have thought??)    

Trying:  To stay warm, amid chilly temperatures! (Although it hasn't been quite as cold here as it's been out west...! -- and it's turned milder again these past few days...)  

Appreciating:  Since we got back from Christmas, BIL has seemed more like his old self than he has in at least a year.  So long as his doctors approve (and there doesn't seem to be any reason why they wouldn't), he's planning on returning to work soon. He hopes to put in a couple more years before he retires. (Silly boy, lol -- he probably could have stayed on disability and then segued into his pensions when he turned 65 -- but we're so grateful that he feels able to do that!)  

Wanting: To get to a couple more stores in the next little while to take advantage of the birthday offers/discounts I received via email, before they expire.  :)  

Wondering:  What's being planned for Little Great-Niece's FIRST first birthday at the end of February?  (That year went by fast! -- only wish we'd been able to see more of her...!) 

Prioritizing: Not sure -- so many things competing for my attention right now...!  

Hoping: That February will be less grey & dreary (but I doubt it...!).  

Loving:  Any time we can spend with Little Great-Nephew (and now Little Great-Niece too). :)  Feels like we don't see enough of the little guy since he started school last fall. :(  

Feeling:  Tired of winter already (with February still to come...!).  Dreading the coming months, as the U.S. election cycle launches into full swing... :p  (Appreciating our much-shorter Canadian election cycles...!)