“Set Europe ablaze”

February 4th, 2015

Hello, friends. This week’s blog post is a spine-tingling sample of the women and men of the Special Operations Executive, England’s diverse group of volunteer spies that operated on nearly every front of the Second World War.

Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944). Image via wikipedia

Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944). Image via wikipedia

It’s up now at the History Girls. Hope you enjoy it!

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An excess of the sublime

January 28th, 2015

Hello, friends. This past week, our small bit of Lake Ontario achieved perfect lake-skating conditions: the ice was clear and dark, at least 4 inches thick (much thicker in parts), and incredibly smooth, with no snow on top. We saw hundreds of people – and quite a few dogs – out there, skating and walking along kilometres of frozen water. The World Ice-Boat Championships took place, too.

I’ve always been a bit nervous about skating on the lake – it seems like such an obvious way to “win” a Darwin Award – but this year, we were confident about the conditions. We went on Saturday and loved it so much that we were back again on Sunday morning, despite the snow that had fallen overnight.


Stepping out from the beach is exciting but not at all frightening: the water is so shallow that if the ice were to break, you’d end up in knee-high water. It would be unpleasant but no big deal. Further out, it got really cool: we could see through several inches of ice down to the bottom of the lake. We even spotted a couple of shipwrecks that, usually, only divers get to see. The light on Saturday was softly luminous, idealizing everything it touched. On Sunday, the sunshine was so intense that the whole world looked glittering and supercharged, even through sunglasses.

Our neighbours were out there, the kids passed around a hockey puck, and even our three-year-old, who normally goes on strike when confronted with winter, stomped and danced around on the ice. It was profoundly exhilarating – a degree of emotional intensity that had less to do with the joy of skating in gorgeous weather and much more to do with the constant awareness that we were standing on water deep enough to drown us. All that separated us from hypothermia and drowning was a few inches of ice.

This, according to philosopher Edmund Burke, is the sublime. In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Burke argued that experience of the sublime “excite[s] the ideas of pain, and danger… [it] operates in a manner analogous to terror… it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling”. (In contrast to the sublime, beauty is small, smooth, delicate and light – that is, pleasant and easily contained.) Burke’s theory had a huge impact on eighteenth-century literature, and also on luxury tourism. By the second half of the eighteenth century, privileged young Englishmen making their Grand Tours of Europe sought out the extreme peaks of the Swiss Alps, and revelled in remote locations during wild storms.

The sublime inspires, terrifies, and reveals the puniness of human endeavour in extreme contrast to the natural world. This week, I discovered that it also lodges deep in your subconscious and haunts you long after the encounter is past. I don’t think of myself as a particularly anxious person, and I enjoyed our lake expeditions. The shiver of the sublime is, after all, a pleasurable one. But on Sunday night, after two consecutive days of sublimity on the lake, I had a fierce series of nightmares about skating into open water, falling through holes in the ice, and much worse.

In the early hours of Monday morning, I decided that I need a new strategy for dealing with the reality of lake-skating. It might be entirely too sublime for me.

What about you, readers? Have you had a nose-to-nose encounter with the sublime?

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Hello, bandwagon.

January 21st, 2015

Is this where I get on? I’m talking generally about January-organizational-shiny-new-year-resolutiony stuff, and specifically about bullet journals. When I first saw the words “bullet journal”, I reflexively bristled; I thought it was a product, and I did not want to buy it. But when I realized that it was a concept – no purchase involved – I had my “Eureka!” moment.

It began when I read Stephanie Burgis’s blog post, Planner Love, in which she combines her day-planner with her to-do list and – this is the revolutionary part for me – her weekly goals. Yes! From there, I found Anindita’s link to her own blog post, Systems, which offered a refinement I love: she reflects on each past week and month and documents the things, large and small, for which she’s grateful – something else I want to include. From there, I hopped over to Kate Messner’s blog post about her bullet journal, and all was revealed. (I chose that link because I bought Messner’s picture book, Over and Under the Snow, for my three-year-old this past Christmas and it’s been such a hit.)

For many years now, I’ve kept a minimal calendar or desk diary – basically, appointments and social events – and a small haystack of to-do lists. The to-do lists are usually scribbled on the backs of envelopes or torn from the margins of other pieces of paper. This one’s unusual because it’s quite neat, and also because it’s alone:


The slips of paper float all over the house and drive Nick crazy. And I knew they were getting out of hand when my six-year-old waved one at me and asked, “Mama, is this one current or should I recycle it?” The final nudge came from Jessica Spotswood, who posted a photo of her bullet journal’s January spread on Facebook. So neat! So orderly! While I am only sometimes neat and orderly, I aspire to the brain of a librarian.

So this past week, I opened up the blank journal that my brother-and-sister-in-law gave me for my birthday. Isn’t it sweet?


And I set up my first month in a bullet journal. I started this on January 18 but, as the official Bullet Journal page points out, this is also a way of keeping a diary, so I filled in some activities for the first half of January. I imagine I’ll adapt the basic format, over time, to suit me. On the left-hand page, I’ve added an ongoing list of what I’m reading. (I’ve also smudged some names and phone numbers, for privacy reasons.)


I suspect my list of goals (right-hand page) is overly ambitious, but this is a great way of verifying that. In the past, all I had was a fistful of partially completed to-do lists and a sense of ongoing slippage. With this journal, I hope to be able to analyze on why certain goals weren’t met, and figure out how to change that in the coming month.

Keeping the journal is even spurring me to be more efficient. Now, when I have a few moments of down time, I go to the journal and see what three-minute task I could accomplish. It’s so much more satisfying than checking my email yet again, or reading the first two pages of a magazine article.

I’m writing this in the first flush of love for my bullet journal. I hope it will endure, and I’ll post about my experiences with it after the first six months. As for you, friends, are you busy organizing and goal-setting? Feeling laissez-faire? Watching things fall perfectly into place?

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I’m on TV!

January 14th, 2015

Last week, as I was leaving Novel Idea, our local indie bookstore, its owner Oscar Malan called out, “Oh, Ying: CKWS (the local TV station) is coming in to ask me about what sold well in 2014. They’d also like to interview someone with a book coming out soon. You wanna?” Which is how I found myself, yesterday, claiming my unspecified number of minutes of fame.

Here’s how the thing went down. I showed up promptly at noon, fairly spaced out because I’d been working on The Next Book. I was hungry because breakfast was five hours ago. I had tuque-head, because it was -24C outside, with the wind chill. And I couldn’t find my lip balm. On the bright side, I managed to eschew the stereotypical black turtleneck. Yes, indeed: my turtleneck was dark brown.

CKWS anchor Bill Hall was much better prepared than I and he couldn’t have been kinder. While his videographer was setting up, he chatted with me about the Agency – just a nice normal conversation about books. And when they were ready, he smiled and said, “We’ll probably just have that conversation again.” And so we did: one take, about three or four minutes long. I’m sure I talked too fast; I know I stumbled verbally a couple of times. I definitely failed to work in a couple of shout-outs that I’d planned (I’m sorry, Ann-Maureen! I’m sorry, Mary Alice! I imagined there would be more general questions.) On the bright side, I didn’t drool on myself and didn’t say anything terribly offensive. I think.

Anyway, it’s up now. I’m afraid you have to watch an ad before getting to the content. Oscar goes first, offering some excellent reading recommendations with his famous deadpan wit. And if you skip to about 4.55, you get me.

How about you, friends? Have you ever triumphed or failed on camera?


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Bikes, Bars and Bloomers

January 7th, 2015

Hello, friends. This week’s blog post is about the first bold women to ride bicycles, in the late 1880s.

A late-Victorian cyclist in shocking and radical athletic wear. Image via britishnewspaperarchive.

A late-Victorian cyclist in shocking and radical athletic wear. Image via britishnewspaperarchive.

Juicy stuff! It’s up now at the History Girls.

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The Haul

December 31st, 2014

Hello, friends. I hope you’re having beautiful, restful, joyful holidays!

This week, I want to gloat over my recent haul of books. My birthday falls soon after Christmas and while this is sometimes a disadvantage (after all the December festivities, nobody ever wants to go out for my birthday), it’s delightful to look at the stack of fantastic books I’ve accumulated in just a few days. This year, I was especially thrilled to receive these:


From the top:

A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. Ekirch argues that nighttime, far from being an uneventful pause for sleep (or tossing and turning), used to have “a distinct culture, with many of its own customs and rituals”. As an intermittent insomniac, I expect to find this inspiring!

Jo Shapcott, Of Mutability. I’ve long loved Shapcott’s poetry. This collection is haunted by illness, aging, and the spectre of death. The title poem begins, “Too many of the best cells in my body/are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw/in this spring chill. It’s two thousand and four/and I don’t know a soul who doesn’t feel small/among the numbers. Razor small.”

Ali Smith, How to Be Both. I’m not-so-secretly intimidated by this one, which starts like a roared poem. I’ll need to be fully awake to keep up.

Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl. I love Caitlin Moran but this is a PG blog. You may google it for yourselves.

Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest. Who else would dare to write a satirical novel about the Holocaust?

A. N. Wilson, Victoria: A Life. The jacket flap describes her as “one of the most passionate, expressive, humorous and unconventional women who ever lived”. I imagine that Wilson would strongly disapprove of my borrowing of Queen Victoria in The Traitor in the Tunnel, but I’m not interested in his approval. Bring it!

How about you, readers? What books did you give or receive? Oh, and Happy New Year! I’ll see you back here next week, in 2015.

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Inventing tradition

December 24th, 2014

Merry Christmas, to those who celebrate it! Right now, I am frantically wrapping presents and mumbling nasty things about my to-do list, so here’s a re-post from December 2009, about Victorian Christmas inventions. Hope you enjoy it, and have a wonderful holiday!

Quick: name three Christmas symbols.

If you’re like me, the first things you picture are Christmas trees, a red-suited Santa Claus (or in England, Father Christmas) and the now-endangered paper Christmas card. Did you know that all three are, in many ways, Victorian inventions or mashups of older traditions? If we were transported back to England, 1840, we’d be celebrating without any of these icons!

Take, for example, Christmas trees – the visual centrepiece of English-speaking living rooms. But the Christmas tree is actually a German tradition made popular in 1840s England by the royal family, who were of German origin. (Queen Victoria’s first language was German and her husband, Prince Albert, moved to England on his marriage at age 20). Victoria and Albert loved celebrating Christmas, and it was their enthusiasm that made the tree (Tannenbaum) popular in England. Oh, and those first Christmas trees were small, potted affairs placed on a table with the gifts beneath – like so (image from the BBC’s Ten Ages of Christmas):

Victoria & Albert's Christmas tree

Victoria & Albert’s Christmas tree

Santa Claus and Father Christmas are part of a tangled tradition, too. St Nicholas was a 4th-century Christian bishop much admired for his generosity – far from an elf! We get “Santa Claus” from the Dutch name for St Nicholas. Santa’s red suit is a recent revision, too: until the 1880s, he generally wore a long, green cloak. The most popular images of Santa Claus in a red suit were done for a Coca Cola ad campaign in the 1930s, and they’re what we think of now, automatically. Even so… any bets on how long that red suit will endure?

What else would Santa drink?

What else would Santa drink?

And oh, the Christmas card: all that paper is harder to justify each year, but e-cards are so soulless. Yet paper Christmas cards are themselves an invention of convenience – a commercial product without much tradition behind it apart from not wanting to write a long letter. Sir Henry Cole commissioned this next image in 1843 and used it to print the first commercial Christmas card. Note the lack of Christian imagery, here – it’s a family drinking wine together – and even the kids are imbibing:

Henry Cole's first commercial Christmas card

Henry Cole’s first commercial Christmas card

Although we tend to think of Christmas as something solid, something that all Christian-influenced cultures have always celebrated, our modern Christmas is pretty new indeed. I find the flexibility and brash (relative) newness of these traditions exciting. For me, it means that Christmas is for adapting, for inventing, for personalizing for my family. How about you? And if you celebrate another holiday – Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Eid, Diwali – how have your traditions evolved?

Either way, I hope your holidays are splendid.

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Gratitude jars

December 17th, 2014

Hi again, friends, and sorry this post is a little late. Among other things, I was wrapping up these gratitude jars. I’ll explain.

gratitude jars

Gratitude jars. Sorry about the photography – I always seem to take photos late at night under incandescent light.

Our three-year-old attends preschool at the Mulberry Waldorf School. It’s an amazing program staffed by gifted teachers who really pour their souls into their work with the children. Our preschool teachers, Holly and Janie, are wise and patient, serene and nurturing, creative and consistent. They are two of the best people with whom our daughter could begin her education, and they inspire us to be better parents. Near the holidays, the question arises: how can we begin to thank our teachers appropriately?

Early childhood education is woefully undervalued in our culture. ECE workers are paid little and command less respect than even elementary and high-school teachers. While we (as a society) are happy to bang on about the importance of the formative years, we don’t put our money where our mouths are. We seem content with our cognitive dissonance.

Obviously, there’s no teacher gift that can right these wrongs. But I always want to do something more meaningful than buying a mug or a gift certificate. A couple of years ago, my friend Jillian Murphy came up with a much better suggestion: gratitude jars. For each teacher, class parents write a little something – a sentence or two of appreciation – on a slip of paper. We slide them into jars and present the jars as a class gift.

I love this gift for so many reasons: it costs no money and little time, so that every family can participate. It’s a gift that endures. And, hopefully, it’s a tangible reminder for our teachers of how profoundly we appreciate them, and how critical their work is.

Later this morning, Holly and Janie and 12 three-year-olds will host a holiday tea party for their families, and we parents will get a small chance to say “thank you”. It’s not enough. Not by a long way. But it’s a start.

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Holiday lag

December 17th, 2014

Hello, friends. Things are a little a lot crazy around here right now. For this week only, my regular post will go up on Thursday (when I’ve had a chance to write it). See you tomorrow!

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My Year of Non-Fiction

December 10th, 2014

Hello, friends! ‘Tis the season for guest-blogging, apparently. My weekly post is up today at the Booksmugglers, where I’m talking about 2014 as My Year of Non-Fiction.

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie (c. 1797)

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie (c. 1797)

If you read my History Girls post about Freddy Spencer Chapman last week, some of this will be familiar but you might hang want to in there for a little about Fanny Wollstonecraft/Godwin/Imlay, the firstborn daughter of the original hyena in petticoats, Mary Wollstonecraft.

What are your most memorable books or reading threads of 2014? And what are you looking forward to in the coming year?

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