Book Review – Reality Boy by A.S. King

Reality Boy is not a book I would have read if I hadn’t been given a copy. This is a young adult novel about a teenage boy. I’m not exactly the target audience. However, I thought the premise of Reality Boy was fascinating.

Gerald is almost 17. When he was five, his family was featured on a reality show called Network Nanny. Gerald was portrayed as the problem child, violent and reactive. Twelve years later, that reputation haunts him and his family.

We live in a world where children are growing up not just with reality TV, but on reality TV. What does it do to a child to be observed and criticized publicly? To be turned into entertainment for thousands to watch?

Unfortunately, Reality Boy doesn’t go very deep. Within the first few pages, I found myself thinking, “Show, don’t tell,” as Gerald explains his life to us. But that doesn’t change and the novel mostly tells us why Gerald’s life sucks without giving us much evidence to back that up.An example of this is Gerald’s sister, Tasha. Gerald refers to her as his number one trigger and the conclusion of the novel revolves around the revelation that Tasha is a sociopath. Except that we haven’t been convincingly shown that Tasha is a sociopath. Yes, she’s violent but so is Gerald. We see Gerald over and over again barely able to hold himself back from hitting people. He confesses to the reader that he once bit a hole in a classmate’s cheek because he didn’t like being called a certain name. Tasha’s behaviour isn’t excusable but neither is Gerald’s and neither seems worse than the other.

We only hear the story – past and present – from Gerald’s perspective and Gerald is pretty clearly unstable. Maybe he’s meant to be an unreliable narrator but I honestly don’t feel that this novel is that sophisticated.

As Gerald deals with his admittedly messed-up family, he falls in love with his co-worker and they begin a relationship. Maybe the unhealthiest relationship I’ve read about since Romeo and Juliet. Hannah has a screwed-up family too although we don’t ever get to see them. The reveal she offers near the end of the novel – her family secret, if you will – still didn’t explain the interactions with her parents we are privy too. I honestly thought her secret was that her parents are learning disabled but instead it turns out her brother is. Which explains almost nothing about Hannah’s life.

Gerald and Hannah are emotionally and verbally abusive toward each other. When Hannah expresses fear that Gerald could be violent toward – an entirely justifiable fear based on his past behaviour – Gerald gets angry and Hannah is painted as the one out of line. I don’t generally route for couples to fail but I couldn’t envision a happy ending with these two still together.

And yet that’s what King tries to give us. Really, the conclusion is far too simple to actually solve Gerald’s myriad of problems. Here we have a young man who is very seriously damaged and the novel wants us to think getting a girlfriend and living apart from his sister will solve those issues. Instead, what I was left with was the impression that the author did not realise what a flawed and unlikeable character they had created.

There are lots of well-written young adult novels dealing with big issues out there. Reality Boy isn’t one of them.

The Light of the World is Here

There is a magic that exists in the form of a snowy day. In that first moment after you wake up and you look out the window to see a world transformed. A world fresh and cleansed.

Our deck before sunrise.

Our deck before sunrise.

Looking in through our front windows.

Looking in through our front windows.

Neither Peter nor I actually had a snow day but we enjoyed our snowy day nonetheless. The schools were closed, the roads quiet, and downtown Sechelt was a space of soft sounds and few people.

Peter shovelled our driveway and we drove slowly from our home, thankful for a truck with 4WD.

Our front yard.

Our front yard.

Driving into town and red wool mittens.

Driving into town and red wool mittens.

The highway was pretty clear but we went slow, taking our time to marvel at the winter wonderland we drove through.

Passing Trout Lake.

Passing Trout Lake.

The lake was almost entirely frozen over.

Once in town, I had a few minutes to head down to the beach and take some shots.

Snicket Park in Sechelt

Snicket Park in Sechelt

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Two days later, the snow is almost all gone. Our power has mostly stayed on and today we are back to our usual rainy weather. But today the days start getting longer, the light returns. And on Wednesday we celebrate the arrival of light amongst us. The birth of our Lord and our salvation.

“God is not dead, nor does He sleep,

For Christ is here; His spirit near

Brings peace on Earth, good will to men.”

-Longfellow

Book Review – This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

For a book lover, there are few greater things than finding an author you love who is still alive. The thrill of falling in love with a new book is only made greater when you learn that its author is a contemporary who is still writing.

At least, that’s how I always feel about Ann Patchett. Thank goodness that Ann Patchett is alive and still writing.

Needless to say, I was excited to learn that Patchett had a new book coming out and I snatched it up as soon as I saw it in my local bookstore. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a little bit different than the books Patchett is known for. (Primarily she’s known for being the author of Bel Canto.) Novels are what’s made Ann Patchett famous but, as she explains in the introduction, non-fiction was how she made her money for a long time. And so here, she collects for her reader, some of her short, non-fiction pieces.

“My short stories and novels have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was. But part of what I love about both novels and dogs is that they are so beautifully oblivious to economic concerns. We serve them, and in return they thrive.”

In this collection, Patchett delves into the topics of writing, marriage, nuns, dogs, Tennessee, and more. The title essay tells the story of her marriage with her current husband but, really, the title could apply to the melding of these various topics, these various aspects of who Ann Patchett is. Or it could apply to the marriage of non-fiction and fiction, co-existing as they do in this one writer. Or the marriage of the solitary life of writing, mixed in with all the other parts of life that we live.

My favourite piece in this collection was undoubtedly Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life. In school and out of it, I’ve read a lot of articles and books about writing. (It’s a great way to procrastinate from actually writing.) Some of them are helpful, many of them are frustrating, several are annoying. It may surprise you to know that my favourite full-lenth book on writing is Stephen King’s, titled On Writing. Patchett doesn’t provide much advice (though the advice she does offer is solid) but instead tells us what she did. And it feels like sitting down with a friend who sheepishly tells you, “Well, this works for me,” while inviting you to share what works for you. One of the points she makes that stood out to me was that writers essentially tell one story. We each have a single story that we want to tell and so we tell it over and over again in a myriad of ways. Upon reflection, Patchett’s novels do indeed share a theme – one story which they each tell. The brilliant bit, is that I never noticed until she pointed it out to me.

Another great essay is The Bookstore Strikes Back, where Patchett details her journey to becoming a part-owner of an independent bookstore in Nashville. If you love your local bookstore, or you need a reminder of why you should love your local bookstore, read this one.

“…my luck has made me believe that changing the course of the corporate world is possible. Amazon doesn’t get to make all the decisions; the people can make them by how and where they spend their money. If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read a book. This is how we change the world: we grab hold of it. We change ourselves.”

 

Telling the Truth in Fiction

I used to work in a bookstore. One day, an older gentleman came in looking for our non-fiction section. This question becomes something of a joke to anyone who works in a bookstore; every part of the store that isn’t fiction is non-fiction, after all. I didn’t question the man though, merely told him where Fiction was and explained our various other sections. I didn’t ask for an explanation but he offered one. He didn’t read fiction, you see. You never know who was writing fiction. Fiction is a bunch of lies. It could be written by someone in prison and you wouldn’t even know! I don’t remember quite how I responded but I was polite and didn’t point out that a great deal of non-fiction is written in prison too, from Pilgrim’s Progress to Mein Kampf. Or that you usually can find out whether or not an author is in prison.

About 90% of the reading I do is fiction, so obviously I don’t agree with that man. I know that fiction consists of made-up stories. Yet, I don’t think that means fiction is made up lies.

It was Tim O’Brien in his novel, The Things They Carried, that defined the idea of truth in fiction for me. In this novel about the war Vietnam, O’Brien tells a story that concludes, “That’s a true story that never happened.” (I’m paraphrasing from memory because I don’t have the book in front of me but that’s the gist of it.) O’Brien’s books frequently address this conundrum of fiction. “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth,” he says.

One of my favourite regular customers at the bookstore was an older Australian fellow. He was tall and jovial and always ready with a smile. I recommended The Things They Carried to him and he bought it. The next time he came in I asked him eagerly what he thought of it. “Be careful what you recommend to a vet,” he told me softly. “It made me cry.” That novel made him cry because it was fiction about truth and he knew it. It was fiction but it mirrored his real life experiences. For him, those so-called lies spoke truth.

I’m fascinated by this idea of truth in fiction. By the power fiction has to share truth that we might not ordinarily say.

In his introduction to Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card writes this:

“Why else do we read fiction, anyway? Not to be impressed by somebody’s dazzling language – or at least I hope that’s not our reason. I think that most of us, anyway, read these stories that we know are not “true” because we’re hungry for another kind of truth: The mythic truth about human nature in general, the particular truth about those life-communities that define our own identity, and the most specific truth of all: our own self-story. Fiction, because it is not about somebody who actually lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about ourself.”

This is it, isn’t it? This is why we read fiction. This is why we write fiction. When the truth may be too real, too raw, too painful, we can speak it in fiction. What we can’t say for ourselves, we can put in the mouths of a made-up person. Writers whisper it on the pages of novels and short stories and we, the reader, know it to be truth.

In a preface to The Fault in Our Stars, John Green writes:

“Neither novels or their their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.”

I thought this was very interesting. I understand Green’s thought here – as an author, it is often downright unhelpful when readers want to insert your own life into a fictional story. I agree with Green that fictional stories have their own power and they do not need to be shored-up by real life. They are real life, albeit the real life of people who don’t exist.

Yet, at the same time, I understand the human desire to connect fiction to a real person. When we read a story that resonates with us, we want to know whether it’s true. So we look to the author’s own life to see how much of it is “true” and how much of it is “made up”. But the thing is, the truth of it is the resonance we felt. That is a true feeling. And no matter how talented a writer may be, they can only share that emotion with us because they’ve felt it themselves. Maybe not in the same circumstances as their character but at some point, they’ve known it. The emotion expressed is true, even if the circumstances and story around it are not.

Some writers walk this line more precariously than others. In Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel, The Cat’s Table, he writes a story about a young boy named Michael who travels by ship from Sri Lanka to England in the 1950s. It doesn’t take an ace detective to learn that Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka and moved to England in 1954. Although Ondaatje makes it clear that the novel is a work of fiction, it was obviously a deliberate choice to give his main character his own name. It provides a layer to the novel which would not have been present had the narrator been called Robbie or Steve.

In The Four Loves C.S. Lewis writes:

“Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too?” I thought I was the only one.” “

I believe this to be a beautiful and true thing that also applies to the written word. When we read a book and we fall in love with it, we are also forming a friendship with the author. With the author who expresses something we knew to be true about ourselves. “What?” we say, “I thought I was the only one.”

Fiction tells us the profound truth that we are not the only ones. Fiction tells us that we are not alone. That is the truth.

Check back here tomorrow for a non-fiction Book Review.

Europe Trip 2013 – Part Twelve: Bad Segeberg, Germany

This summer Peter and I went on an adventure to Europe. With the help of a stellar memory and my obsessive journalling, I’m sharing those adventures with you.

Part One: Duisburg, Germany

Part Two: Fritzlar, Germany

Part Three: Bern, Switzerland

Part Four: Lake Como, Italy

Part Five: Venice, Italy

Part Six: Florence, Italy

Part Seven: Rome, Italy

Part Eight: Vatican City, Italy

Part Nine: Cinque Terre, Italy

Part Ten: Cannes, France

Part Eleven: Paris, France

From Paris we caught a night train back to Germany. This was our longest train trip but, in many ways, our most fun. From Paris to Hamburg was about 15 hours on an overnight train. I was not looking forward to this trip, expecting it to be similar to our overnight trip from Duisburg to Bern – sitting up, uncomfortable, listening to strangers snore. So we were pleasantly surprised to find that we had bunks on this train.

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We were in a berth with four other people – six bunks in total. Peter and I had the top two, across from each other. The bunk is supplied with a sheet, a pillow, and a blanket and you make it up yourself. The sheet was very German and confusing but the bed was decently comfortable. More so for me than for Peter, who is over six feet tall.

Since there wasn’t much room to sit up in our bunks, we headed out to the dining car to get a beer. There we found that the only cash we had on us was a 50 euro note. European vendors tend to prefer as close to exact change as possible so we weren’t sure if we’d be able to get anything. But we asked the bartender politely. He was a burly, tattooed German with good English.

“Okay,” he said to Peter, “As long as I get a smile from your wife.”

I gave him my prettiest smile and a thank you and we got our beers.

The dining car was crowded and so we headed all the way to the back of the train (the caboose, if you will) which was a luggage car but held only a couple of bikes. A few people were hanging out back there already. Peter and I started in on our beer. One of the men sneezed.

“Gesundheit,” said Peter. The man began to explain, in French, that he didn’t speak German and then we tried to explain that we spoke neither French nor German. The French man and his wife motioned to our beers, portraying that a drink was a good idea. They left the car, only to return in a moment with 2 small bottles of wine. They lifted their bottles to us and we lifted ours in return. Along with the other man in the car, a German speaker, we each offered a “cheers” in our own language and then tried out each others’ languages amidst laughter. It was an entirely wonderful moment of international communication.

Our view from the caboose.

Our view from the caboose.

Two more quick trains from Hamburg and we reached Bad Segeberg. This is a small city in northern Germany and we were visiting friends there before we ended our European Adventure and headed home. I hadn’t met these friends yet but they are a family that Peter’s known for a long time. It was great to meet these people I’d heard so much about and who had influenced my husband in his younger days.

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We spent a day in nearby Lubeck, a port town with a lot of history to it.

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Because of its location on the water, Lubeck was traditionally very wealthy. They traded in exotic things like almonds. To make the almonds last longer the people of Lubeck invented a little something called marzipan.

This is all made of marzipan. Seriously.

This is all made of marzipan. Seriously.

A person who likes marzipan could have a field day in Lubeck. Looking at marzipan, tasting marzipan, buying marzipan. If you’re like me and you don’t like almond-flavoured things, you can eat ice cream and still be happy.

Lubeck

Lubeck

Our German friends also introduced us to an Italian treat called “spaghetti ice”. So while my marzipan-loving husband might have been happier, I did okay.

We also learned that Germans will not allow you to order pancakes for breakfast because that is clearly a dessert item.

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Before we headed home we got to dip our toes in another sea – this time the Baltic. Literally, all I did was dip my toes. It was cold. But my brave husband went swimming.

And then…a few more trains and back to Frankfurt and on a warm Friday afternoon we found our way back to Vancouver and the Coast.

Already, Peter and I hope to travel in Europe again. It may not happen in the near future but that continent has not seen the last of us.

Thanks for coming along on our adventures!

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The Great Christmas Tree Hunt 2013

As a kid, I generally believed that everyone celebrated Christmas the way my family did. Obviously, this was not exactly true and became evident the older I got and the more Christmases I spent with people who I wasn’t related to. Part of the fun of getting married is learning to combine the separate and similar traditions Peter and I grew up in.

One of my favourite traditions from Peter’s family is going out to cut down a tree. This year, Peter and I got to cut down a tree for our own little home. In our four married Christmases, this is only the second Christmas tree we’ve had so I was pretty excited.

Where we live, you’re allowed to cut down one tree under 5 metres, located on Crown land, for your personal use. We printed off our free permit and off we went up the hill near our house. With just two of us, it didn’t take long to agree on a Christmas tree and Peter got to work with the saw.

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We loaded it up in the back of our truck.

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If you’re the type of person who loves full and plush Christmas trees, finding a wild Christmas tree is not for you. These are real trees and they are far from “perfect”. But we’re pretty fond of ours.

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A few lights, a smattering of decorations that we’ve collected over the years, Christmas carols playing, and it’s definitely looking a lot like Christmas around here.

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Peter finished Christmas cards while I started wrapping presents and, all in all, it was a pretty great afternoon.

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(I bought glitter wrapping paper because it looks pretty but there was so.much.glitter. I think it’s still in my hair three days later and there’s definitely still a pile of it on our floor.)

 

Unrelated item:

If you glanced out your sliding glass door and saw this:

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…you’d think, at least for a second, that it was a coyote, right? Right?

Book Review – The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

I’m a few years behind on this train but let me be the most recent person to tell you this: The Golden Mean (Random House Canada, 2009) by Annabel Lyon is a great book.

Lyon brings an extraordinary amount of humanity and relevance to the historical story of Aristotle in Macedon. While the action of the novel takes place before Christ walked the Earth, the characters, their thoughts, and their personalities, seem entirely current and human.

We join Aristotle as he arrives in Macedon for a short stay before he continues on to Athens. Instead, his old friend the king, requests that Aristotle stay to tutor his young son. A king like Philip is a difficult man to refuse and so Aristotle remains in the city of Pella for years, tutoring the young man we know today as Alexander the Great.

The beauty of this novel is that Lyon takes larger-than-life historical figures like Aristotle and Alexander and makes them human. No matter how much or little you know about these men, they are familiar names in the English lexicon and each of us has preconceived notions about them. Lyon strips that down to the story of a teacher and a student.

At the same time, in Aristotle, she creates a character who is more than a teacher or a philosopher. We get to know Aristotle as a son, a brother, a husband, and a father. We see him as a friend to Philip, as a scholar who doesn’t quite fit in a warrior culture. As a book lover in a time when books were truly invaluable.

In fact, in one scene where Aristotle expresses his concern over lending out books, I had to remind myself how rare a bound book would have been in that time. The book felt so current and the characters so similar to people I know, that it was easy to forget the ancient setting.

Alexander, too, gets the human treatment. He isn’t Alexander the Great here. He’s a teenage boy who is gifted in some ways but not all and who may be king one day. If all goes well for him. We learn to care for him as Aristotle cares for him, but Lyon does well at keeping Alexander’s fate always in the reader’s mind. The life of a scholar will not be Alexander’s and so as we watch him learn, we’re reminded that this is a brief interlude in his brief life.

It’s a pleasure to read that interlude captured on paper by a talented writer.

Europe Trip 2013 – Part Eleven: Paris, France

This summer Peter and I went on an adventure to Europe. With the help of a stellar memory and my obsessive journalling, I’m sharing those adventures with you.

Part One: Duisburg, Germany

Part Two: Fritzlar, Germany

Part Three: Bern, Switzerland

Part Four: Lake Como, Italy

Part Five: Venice, Italy

Part Six: Florence, Italy

Part Seven: Rome, Italy

Part Eight: Vatican City, Italy

Part Nine: Cinque Terre, Italy

Part Ten: Cannes, France

Our time in Paris got off to an inauspicious start as we spent an hour trying to find our hotel. We arrived at Gare de Lyon with an incomplete map, a screen shot on the iPhone, and Peter’s (really good) sense of direction.

Gare de Lyon

Gare de Lyon

Turns out, streets in Paris change their names almost every block. It was a tense walk, over an hour of lugging our backpacks, searching out better maps, and me thinking, “Who says Paris is romantic?” The story has a happy ending though. We found our hotel and we still like each other.

We stayed in the 9th Arondissement and after check-in and a quick dinner we set out to really explore Paris. Not far from us were two incredibly fancy department stores – Printemps and Lafayette. Now, I’m a West Coast girl who thinks the newly renovated Bay in downtown Vancouver is very fancy. These stores had designers I’d only read about in Vogue. Walking past rows and rows of shoes that cost more than my rent, I was conscious of my beat-up TOMs and my thrifted dress. It’s not just an expensive department store, it’s an insanely fancy one with gold trim, stained glass, and a dome. A temple to shopping, really.

And my TOMs took me to the highest point in Rome, through the trails of Halfmoon Bay, and hiking along the Cinque Terre, so their beat-up nature is like a trophy for my feet.

Arc de Triomphe

Arc de Triomphe

From there we headed to L’Arc de Triomphe, walking down the long and crowded Champs d’Elysee (which we began to suspect was famous only because it kept its name for more than two blocks). It was just getting dark and we watched the sun set as we reached the Arch. L’Arc is surrounded by busy lanes of traffic and we had almost decided that the only way to reach it was by darting through the oncoming cars when we discovered the underground tunnel that would take us there. (Note: That tunnel was surprisingly claustrophobic.)

Arc de triomphe

Arc de triomphe

It’s strange and sad to recall the battles fought in and for Paris and that as you walk the streets, you are walking through once-occupied territory. It made parts of history come alive in a new way for me.

The next morning we were up and wandering again, starting our day with espresso, standing at the counter of a corner cafe, putting my mediocre French to the test.

More than any other place we visited this summer, people asked how we dealt with people and language in Paris. I took French in school from grades 4 through 12 and while I did okay (not great but decent) then, I have barely spoken the language in the past ten years. I found that while I still understand a lot of written French, I struggled to keep up with the spoken. And most of the time, my mind froze when it came to responding. I just couldn’t think in French fast enough. As well, the accent is definitely very different than the Quebecois style I was taught in school.

Overall though, we didn’t find it very difficult to be non-French speakers in Paris. In other countries, locals would switch to English quickly when speaking to us. The French didn’t do this. They were never rude and they never acted like they had trouble understanding my French. But they would only switch to English when it was clear we really didn’t understand. Sometimes not even then. And, seeing as we were in their country, I really don’t have a problem with that. I have nothing negative to say about Parisians or their treatment of Peter and I as tourists in their city.

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We made our way to the Eiffel Tower, walking through the park. Until we reached the tower we weren’t sure whether or not we would go up. But the lines were short so we got into the stairs-only line and had about a ten minute wait (including the fairly strict security you have to go through). The very highest level was closed due to wind (did you know the top of the Eiffel Tower can move up to 10cm?) but what we saw was definitely worth the stair climb.

Looking up from inside the Eiffel Tower

Peter in front of the Eiffel Tower

Looking up from inside the Tower

Looking up from inside the Tower

Before arriving in Paris, Peter and I agreed that we felt museum-ed out and we made the decision not to go to the Louvre. While I hope to visit it one day, I’m so glad we made that choice. Instead, we went that same afternoon to the Musee d’Orsay. From the Eiffel Tower we walked along the river, catching our first glimpse of Notre Dame.

That's me! And the Eiffel Tower!

That’s me! And the Eiffel Tower!

My friend Katie had mentioned the Musee d’Orsay as an alternative museum. We chose it because it’s smaller than the enormous Louvre but also focuses more on modern painters and Impressionists. Lots of Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Van Gogh. It was a great change after the Renaissance art of Italy. We were able to view quite a lot of paintings we had only seen in photos, which was an amazing experience.

We viewed Monet’s famous Saint-Lazare Station, and then went to look at the actual Saint-Lazare Station. Amazing.

Saint-Lazare Station

Saint-Lazare Station

Saturday morning, we headed to “des Puces”. Literally meaning “fleas”. It’s as far north as the metro line goes and it’s the largest flea market in the world. It’s been there in various forms for over a hundred years.

We’d done a little research before hand (I found this website quite helpful) and were excited to do something slightly off the beaten track.

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des Puces

This market is huge. From furniture to jewellery to clothing to art, it has everything you could imagine. Vintage, antique, rundown, all fascinating. Lots of different price points too and most vendors were open to a little bargaining. We didn’t buy much but had a great time wandering the streets and looking at everything.

A personal highlight: When we stopped for coffee, the man behind the counter told Peter, “You must be a very rich man.” Peter laughed, looked down at his t-shirt and shorts, and said, “Yeah, sure.” The man pointed at me and nodded, “A very rich man,” he repeated.

That evening we headed out for a real French dining experience. Previously, we had seen a line-up of people outside a restaurant near our hotel and so we decided that so many people couldn’t be wrong and we got into that line.

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The restaurant was large, noisy, and crowded but that only seemed to add to its unique, chaotic charm. Our waiter greeted us in rapid-fire French and then saw our confused smiles.

“Where are you from?” he asked in English.

“Canada,” we told him.

He nodded, seemed to consider this and then offered a small smile. “You are welcome.”

The menu was completely in French and so ordering was a bit of guesswork. To me, this type of thing is part of the fun of travelling. We opted to do the full course meal and as a starter I ordered “tarte de campagne”, which I translated as “country tart”. That sounds nice and innocuous, right?

I still have no idea what I ate. My best guess is cold liver in pastry.

Peter ordered boeuf tartare. “Boeuf” is beef, we knew that. We weren’t sure about tartare though. My mind went to tartar sauce. Maybe it was a steak that came with tartar sauce? Either way, Peter likes beef so he ordered it. As soon as his entree arrived at the table, we realised where we’d gone wrong.

French food

French food

In English we call this “steak tartare”. Probably should have figured that one out. Either way, it was surprisingly delicious. You might have noticed that I went with the safer option of “poulet et frites.” Also delicious.

An attempt to order a single glass of wine brought a whole bottle to our table but I didn’t mind that so much either.

When we ordered dessert, I ordered something with apricots. Peter was, I think, going to order something chocolate but encountered some confusion when the waiter asked if he wanted to do a cheese course.

“You order cheese?” our waiter asked.

“I have to order cheese?” Peter responded.

“Sure, sure.”

So while I enjoyed a warm apricot pie, Peter ate a small, hard round of goat cheese.

When planning our time in Paris before we arrived, I had two goals. One involved drinking wine (quickly accomplished), the other was to visit Shakespeare & Co.

Shakespeare & Co is a famous English bookstore on the Left Bank in Paris. It’s been around since 1919 and was a hub of the expat literary community that included Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and many others.

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It’s a gorgeous little shop with an antique book room, an area for new books and an upstairs full of corners to sit and read, typewriters to work at, a piano, and a lending library. A definite highlight for me.

While we were in the neighbourhood, of course we had to visit Notre Dame.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral

You can’t read Victor Hugo and not want to visit Notre Dame!

Gargoyles at Notre Dame

Gargoyles at Notre Dame

Candles at Notre Dame

Candles at Notre Dame

Although we didn’t go inside the Louvre, we couldn’t miss viewing its iconic exterior. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition of glass and stone, old and new.

Peter at the Louvre

Peter at the Louvre

The crowds of people around the museum didn’t make me regret our decision not to go inside. Instead we relaxed in the park and wandered through the nearby carnival and ate churros.

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Fine French dining

Fine French diningq

Parks and green spaces were something I loved about Paris. Of all the cities we visited on this trip, it was the only one that had real parks. At least, in this Canadian’s opinion. We loved being able to sit outdoors, surrounded by trees, enjoying a quiet moment in the midst of touristing.

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In that vein, Luxembourg Gardens were another highlight. Lots of open space and lots of people enjoying that green space. Also, very competitive bocce games.

Now, when I’ve played bocce, it tends to take up a lot of space. You might play in a park and end up moving all around the park, throwing those balls across walkways, water hazards, and other people’s picnics. That’s not how the French do it. They play in tight formations, going back and forth in straight lines. And they take it seriously. Crowds (small crowds but crowds nonetheless) gather to watch the games. The extra serious player have magnets on strings so they can pick up their balls without having to bend over. (It’s a game, not a strenuous sport, right?)

Bocce at Luxembourg Gardens. That guy on the right was the star player.

Bocce at Luxembourg Gardens. That guy on the right was the star player.

It was definitely fun to watch.

Less up-my-alley outdoors-wise was something called “Paris Plages”. We heard about this before we arrived in Paris but it was still strange to see. It appears that in the summer, sand is trucked into Paris and they create an artificial beach along the river. Not that people swim in the river. It’s simply an area to lay out in the sun. While people walk by and tourists look at you from bridges above. Not appealing to me at all.

Paris Plages

Paris Plages

Leaving Paris, we took an overnight train, so we had one final day to spend. From our hotel we walked to the neighbourhood of Montmartre. I’ve heard purists say that tourists have ruined this little area of Paris but, since I have nothing to compare it to and I was a tourist, I rather enjoyed the neighbourhood.

For us, the main focal point was the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. One of the more unique-looking churches we visited. Also, one of the strictest regarding dress code. (Fortunately it was a cooler day and we were already pretty covered up.)

Sacred Heart

Sacred Heart

The church was crowded and still clearly in use as an actual church, which is always nice to see. We spent time wandering the streets of Montmartre, looking in shops, and avoiding teenagers with fake petitions. A well-dressed, older French man sitting with his sketchbook outside a cafe beckoned us over and insisted that he draw me.

“She has a face that must be drawn, not only photographed,” he told Peter.

Flattering, but we knew he only wanted to sell me a drawing of myself so we thanked him and moved on. We encountered more scams in Paris than anywhere else on our travels but a little forewarning kept us on our toes and we never got into trouble.

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In the end, we thoroughly enjoyed Paris. There’s a lot of hype about this city – and much of it is deserved – a lot of rich history and fascinating corners. But the best part of really being there was seeing how much it’s simply a city. A place where people live and eat and go to work. I hope to be back.

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It’s Coming…The Bachelor 2014

That’s right, we are only weeks away from the newest season of The Bachelor. Hope you can handle your excitement. I didn’t watch the last season of The Bachelorette (Desiree’s) so I actually know almost nothing about our latest bachelor. His name is Juan Pablo, he’s from somewhere in South America, and I think he has a kid. This January, we’ll get to watch 20+ women vie for a stranger’s affections!

The bios of these women have now been released. What kind of a woman goes on a show like this? Let’s find out.

Ages range from 21 to 32. Average age = 24. Juan Pablo is 31.

2 of the ladies list “Home Alone 2” as their favourite movie.

Cassandra’s job is “Former NBA Dancer”. What? Does that mean she’s unemployed now? Do NBA dancers make so much money that she’s now retired?

Chelsie is a “science educator”. Why does this sound suspect to me? If she’s a science teacher, why doesn’t she say that? My guess is that she runs a meth lab.

Kelly lists her occupation as “Dog Lover”. Can I list my job as “Macaroni and Cheese Lover”? I mean, I don’t get paid to love Mac & Cheese, but I’m pretty sure you don’t get paid to love dogs either. You might get paid to groom dogs or to walk dogs, Kelly, is that what you do?

Lacy owns a nursing home. I find that genuinely interesting. I’d never thought about who owns nursing homes before.

Lucy’s occupation is “Free Spirit”. Again, not a job. Seriously, you would actually sound better if you answered honestly and said that you’re unemployed.

Highlights:

Amy J. likes the 4th of July because it’s “so romantic”. Americans, help me out, is it? I certainly would never think of Canada Day as a romantic holiday but maybe our countries celebrate nationhood differently.

Chantel thinks Miami is the most romantic city in the U.S. because that’s where her family lives. Does “romantic” mean something different in America?

Speaking of family, Lacy admires her parents for “loving 11 of us kids”. I’m sure she means that she has 10 siblings and her parents love them all but it definitely sounds like maybe there are 13 kids and her parents only love 11 of them.

Elise is 27 and lists her longest relationship as lasting 8 years. So she’s likely been in a relationship her entire adult life and is now going on a reality dating show. That seems healthy.

Cassandra’s phobia is that she is “slightly afraid of heights”. So we’ve learned that Cassandra doesn’t know what a phobia is.

Christy takes precisely 1 hour and 20 minutes to get ready for a big night.

Elise is from a town called Forty Fort and that made me laugh.

When asked if she’s a city or a country person, Lucy answers, “Neither. I’m an ocean person.” Like a mermaid?

When Maggie is asked the same question she replies, “American by birth, Southern by the grace of God.” So she clearly didn’t understand that question. Bless her heart.

Lucy wins the title of Most Likely to Annoy by stating that she believes she deserves to be the centre of attention.

Nikki’s favourite type of dancing is “drunk dancing”. Keep it classy, Nikki.

Sharleen is our token Canadian and I swear I’m not just being biased when I say that, based on her bio, she seems like the smartest contestant.

Then again, how smart can you really be if you’re a contestant on The Bachelor?

Book Review – The Blondes by Emily Schultz

Since I first heard the premise of Emily Schultz’s novel, The Blondes (Doubleday Canada, 2012), I’ve been eager to read it. Set in a world much like ours, but one in which a virus has begun to spread. Its victims become disoriented, clumsy, and then savage, reacting violently to everything around them until they kill themselves or whoever they’re closest to.

The unique factor: all the victims of this virus are blonde women.

Our protagonist and narrator is Hazel Hayes, a twenty-something recent arrival to New York, working on her Master’s thesis. Her thesis topic is women, the way they look, and the way women think they look. Hazel has also just discovered that she is pregnant.

The story is told by Hazel, speaking to her unborn daughter, in the late stages of her pregnancy. At this point she is holed up in a cabin in Ontario with an unexpected partner. We go back and forth between New York and this cabin as Hazel fills the baby, and us, in on the details.

The idea of the virus is fascinating. I can’t at all speak to the scientific truth of anything offered in the novel but the fear and panic and irrationality that begins to afflict those around Hazel feels genuine. You have only to recall the anthrax scares of 2001 or the more recent H1N1 virus or the stories of SARS among hospital workers to feel like Schultz’ fiction could happen. There is much about the virus within the world of the novel that is left unanswered. It only affects blonde women but this includes women who have dyed their hair. Hazel, a natural redhead, remains unsure if she is susceptible. The virus may be spread by fleas or animals. It appears to be transmitted by blood, similar to rabies. What we aren’t told reflects the uncertainty that exists in the reality of the novel. No one really knows and that’s where much of the fear comes from.

Blonde women have held a certain type of power for the last hundred years. They are lauded, coveted, fetishized, and hated. The Blondes gives these women a completely different kind of power, something they fear and have no control over, but is changing the face of the world.

Along these lines the details that surround Hazel in this world of blonde fury are great. Advertisements, stories, and even her own thesis point out to us the power of the blonde, something that doesn’t diminish even when those same blondes are brutally killing people.

My main issue with the novel was Hazel herself. Hazel never does anything. Things happen to Hazel. Much of the action of the novel revolves around Hazel’s attempt to make it across the Canada/U.S. border and return to Toronto. She’s pregnant and doesn’t want to be and procurring an abortion during this blonde panic turns out to be harder than she thought. Hazel makes very few decisions, she simply reacts to those around her – whether that’s a blonde woman gone mad or the wife of her child’s father. She’s neither hugely likeable or unlikeable. That is, until close to the end when she performs one great act of betrayal that is never explained. While she expresses some regret, it seems disingenuous, as though she quickly has more important things to think about.

Even the ending of the novel comes about through no action of Hazel’s own. While she remains in the cabin, speaking to an unborn baby, her salvation appears. It felt like a classic deus ex machina and at that point, I didn’t much care what happened to her.

With a better, more engaged protagonist, I think The Blondes could have really had something to it. As it is, it’s more of a glorified zombie novel. And we have lots of those already.