Monday 24 September 2012

Strangest Online Buying Experience Ever

For Christmas last year, my mother-in-law, gave my husband and I a gift certificate for  Given how much we love Scotland and everything Scottish, she was on to a winner.  Like so many gift vouchers, I had put it that safe place which meant it was in a place I would never ever find again until the day after it expired. 

But, no, I tell you, these people were so kind and generous that they wisely did not put an expiration date on the voucher and last week I was ecstatic to find the safe place whilst under taking some autumn cleaning and there was the voucher.  I thought I could find us some tasty goodies for the autumn.

I promptly sat down and set to do some serious shopping.  Alas, this wasn't exactly an easy thing to do.  Keeping in mind that I am somewhat of an expect in website usability, I recognised immediately that the site broke every rule.  The website is difficult to read and long lists make shopping somewhat of a treasure hunt.  Most annoying I had to specify an exact date for delivery but had no guidelines of possibilities.  For example, I didn't know if I could specify tomorrow and next month.  I picked a day and went with it crossing my fingers this would work.

Not to be easily dissuaded, I persevered and managed to get my hamper with all those delicious contents ordered.  Lo and behold, when it came time to check out, the website simply accepted the gift voucher.  Mmmmm, I thought, that's a little strange because with shipping and handling added on, I exceeded the value of the voucher by £4.06.  At the end of the order process I was asked to give a rating out of 4 of the website.  There was text next to each rating and 4 was identified as dismal.  I chose dismal as I honestly felt that this website experience was not up to the standard that it should be.  They asked for my feedback.  I provided it.  And I carried on

Buried within the text of the email order confirmation I received was a number here to ring to pay the balance.  Being that it was late in the evening I wasn't going to be able to ring that number and put it in a safe place.  Needless to say, I forgot to ring them straightaway.

This morning I received a voicemail on my mobile indicating they wanted their exact £4.  Fair enough.  I rang them back.

I was told that the woman on the phone was on the other line and could she ring me back.  Of course, she could.  I understand how small, family-owned businesses work.

10 minutes later I received a phone call, apparently, I was later to discover, from the owner himself, to enquire that if I found the website "dismal" and had taken the pain to enter that word myself perhaps I didn't actually want to purchase any products from them and they would refund my "mother's" money. 

I was confused.  I still wanted the products.  I was only providing an honest opinion to a question they had asked me in their own words.  I hadn't used the word dismal.  They had.  And just because their website is pants doesn't mean their products are.

I tried to explain this to the man but he hung up on me.  Without taking payment for the excess charges.

Are you kidding me?  No, really.  Are you kidding me?

I was speechless.  And I had no idea if I was going to receive my Scottish Gift Hamper or not.

I did what I always do in these situations.  I called my husband.  I explained the chain of events.  He couldn't believe it.  So he rang the owner, who this time did admit that he hadn't realised that wording was on the website.  My husband took pains to ensure payment of our £4.06 was made and I think we are going to get our hamper.  But I'm not sure.

If you are a website designer, or even if you are not, go check out

Or send an email with feedback to

I was merely trying to help.  That'll teach me.

Sunday 23 September 2012

The Evolution of Inanimate Objects by Harry Karinsky

My preference for fiction over non-fiction is well documented.  I dare you to try to find a review of non-fiction on this blog.  Good luck with that.

I mean why muddy up a really good story with a whole bunch of factual details and all the associated footnote and bibliography references and indices?  Facts quite frankly get in my way of my reading.  And my imagination.
Despite an author’s descriptions of a fictional character’s physical traits, we all see that character differently in our mind’s eye whereas with a factual, real life person, you typically have a photograph, usually several throughout their lifetime, so you know precisely what they look like.  Unless they are very historical, like Genghis Khan. Or Julius Caesar.  Even then, there are a few drawings or coins from which a physical depiction can be influenced.

Whereas, with a fictional character, I am allowed to wander a bit more.  One of my pet peeves is when the cover of a book has a picture, or worse a photograph, of the main character.  The mortal sin is books which have a cover of a photograph from the film which has subsequently been made.  I am all excited that the author of the original publication got a book deal but it spoils the fun for me.  If I haven’t read the book by the time the film comes out, I won’t read the book.  Unless I have to under threat.  Of death.

For me, a photo or drawing is someone else’s mind taking over from mine and that defeats the purpose of fiction.

I will concede I have read a few biographies and enjoyed them.  The most recent biographies I have read include the following:

1.       The biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson was fantastic, sometimes brutal, sometimes adoring; not unlike how those around Steve Jobs probably felt in his presence.   This biography was imminently readable and despite its heft, I breezed through it to the expense of my children and housework.
2.       Rob Lowe’s biography was full of name dropping stories and inconsequential, barely entertaining anecdotes.  Well, honestly what did I expect?  Let’s face it; I just bought it for the photograph on the dust jacket.
3.       I found Helen Rappaport’s biography of Queen Victoria’s year before and years after Prince Albert’s death, Magnificent Obsession, to be fascinating but dense with details.  I had to give myself regular breaks in between chapters with other reading material to sustain myself.
4.       I was less impressed with Hugo Vickers biography of the last days of Wallis Simpson, Behind Closed Doors.  I think I just found it all a bit too sad and dirty with the two sides of the story so wildly different and little third party objective substantiation.  I enjoyed Mr. Vickers’ own personal brushes with Mrs. Simpson but tired quickly.
5.       Elizabeth The Queen Mother, also by Hugo Vickers was thoroughly enjoyable but again very dense with thousands of references to thousands of archived documents.  I found myself dipping in and out just to clear my head occasionally.

So, I tend to head towards fiction:  crime, thrillers, historical, with a bit of chick lit lightly peppered about.
But what about a blend of the non-fiction and fiction category to really through me off the scent?  Now this sounds like a bit of fun!

The Evolution of Inanimate Objects by Harry Karinsky is just that:  a whole bunch of fun.  A family firmly planted in the roots of British history, the Darwin family includes not only the esteemed Charles, but his father, brothers, sons who all made significant contributions to all different fields of study and society.

The novel focuses on the premise that Charles and Emma Darwin had not 10 but 11 children, the last being Thomas.  Of course, Thomas doesn’t really exist and every correspondence is truly the work of the author’s mind.  However, I had to keep multiple sources to make sure.

This isn’t a long book and would be quite easy to read in a single sitting except that the fusion of fiction and non-fiction draws you into the dark world of Wikipedia.  I found myself learning all about the intricacies of Charles Darwin’s life and research methods, his personality and notably the history of mental illness in his family of genius.

The Darwin-Wedgewood (Darwin’s wife, Emma, was his first cousin from the pottery family) family was rife with eccentricities but very accomplished and were most certainly thought leaders of their day.  However, they had more than a predisposition towards mental instability.  Charles Darwin’s repeated illnesses had roots in hypochondria which could have easily been brought on by depression.  The detail to which Darwin’s research was conducted and documented could easily be classified as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

When Thomas’ research applies the same level of rigour to cutlery as his father applied to animal species, one starts to laugh at the absurdity but then begins to feel pity at a young man trying to live up to the monumental expectations of a father like Charles Darwin.  What else was left for Thomas to discover?

The explanation of the evolution of a dessert fork to a pastry fork and the accompanying drawing is a hysterical and satirical companion to the drawings Darwin made during his voyage on the Beagle.  The painfully accurate detailed observations and measurements of the fork tine widths were not dissimilar to those made by his father to prove the uniqueness of species.  The wholly melancholy point is that for Thomas the differences were inconsequential, whereas for his father, they defined a system of scientific categorisation still used today.

Thomas’s inability to live up to what he felt were his father’s expectations and his inability to distinguish himself and gain the scientific community’s respect led to his detainment in a mental institution in Canada to where Thomas had fled the pressures of academic Cambridge.  There his short, tortured life is brought to an end by tuberculosis.

The book is an extraordinary feat of originality.  It takes what could have been a dense, dull biography of Charles Darwin and encourages the reader to do their own research.  I was lost for days in the search for the fact within the tale of the fiction.  Rather than teach me, this book has allowed be to learn.  But not just about the Darwin family and scientific classification methods.  I have learned about the pain of seeking a parent’s approval and how difficult it can be for a child to establish an identity.

A highly recommended read!

Sunday 16 September 2012

Books for Depression sufferers and the people who love them

For over 14 months now I've been suffering from severe reactive depression.  There I've said it.  Out loud, so to speak. 

I've written about so much here but I've never written about my depression.  I still find it very difficult to talk about.  Not because I'm embarrassed about it.  Well, at least not any more.

It's just I haven't been able to find the words to write about it.  If you have ever suffered from depression you will know exactly what I am talking about.  If you haven't suffered from depression and you know me, then you can only imagine the depth of the illness for it to have the power to take away my words.

It hasn't just removed my words from my head. It has removed my memory, my concentration, my sense of adventure, and my fearlessness.  It has replaced it with anxiety and paralyzing fear.  I find myself cowering in corners, shaking, with my heart racing, unable to breath or move.  Every now and then, I, or someone I love, will see a glimmer of my former self and hope erupts.  But just a quickly as it emerged, it disappears. The worse times were when I couldn't find myself at all.  Time disappeared.  I couldn't get out of bed.  I would sit for hours unable to speak just staring at the air.  I didn't shower for days, weeks.  It was just too painful to be a part of life.  Several times I wanted to die.

One of the most devastating symptoms of my illness has been the inability to read.  I mean I can still read but not like I used to.  I could devour 5-6 books a month.  And that was a slow month.  I was a machine.  I didn't sleep more than 4-5 hours/night.  Once I took 12 books on a 2week camping holiday.  I had to resort to the raiding the campground's library at the end of the second week.  I got my first taste of Mills & Boon from that naughty little library.

In the fog of depression, it takes me ages to read but mostly it takes me ages to understand and make sense of anything I read.  So it seems a bit odd of me to be recommending a list of books for people suffering with depression but I know that despite the time it took me to read them, I found comfort, understanding, empathy and hope in them when I could not find it anywhere else.

1.  Depressive Illness:  The Curse of the Strong by Dr Tim Cantopher
This book is the first book I read.  It was recommended to me by my GP.  It is like Depression 101 for beginners.  The tears poured down my face as I tried to read this book.  Firstly, because reading had become so damn difficult and before trying to read this I hadn't understood that this difficulty was a symptom of the illness.  And secondly, I hadn't even realised that depression was an illness, not an imaginary, just snap out of it, kinda blue day.  I had thought I was weak and feeble.  I thought I was to blame.  Reading this book helped me to understand I had an illness.  A very real illness.  Reading this book saved my life.

Also, this book talks about taking antidepressants and recognising that you wouldn't advise a diabetic not to take insulin and therefore you should decide not to take antidepressants. 

Every health professional recommended this book when I first saw them.  Even the depressives I've met in and out of psychiatric clinics recommend this book as the first port of call.  Most of us can recite large portions of it from memory.

2. Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
This isn't really a book about depression.  This is a book to read whilst you are depressed and coming to terms with your illness.  It is a book about being and how to just be.  It is a book to quiet and still your mind and body which in the early days of depression is really all you need to do.

The book is broken down into small chapters with an exercise in each chapter making it easy to read for those with short attention spans.  I felt woefully silly during some of the exercises but some of the others stilled and soothed my racing mind and heart.  In the early days of depression who can hope for more than this.

3.  The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris
When your medication has stabilised and you feel that you can function on some human level, this is the book to pick up to start some of the work to turn around the negative thoughts that have so altered your brain chemicals.  The exercises based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which is a lot like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). 

I liked this book because if focused on an individual's struggles for a perfect life and encouraged mindfulness, a contentment with who we are, where we are, and what we are and have.  This book made me feel like I was doing SOMETHING, ANYTHING to combat my daily funk.  It is very action oriented although the action tends to be cerebral.  The important point for me was that I didn't feel like I was sitting around talking to people and listening to them talk.  I felt like I was making a vital contribution to my recovery.

4. Shoot the Damn Dog by Sally Brampton
 There are times when people ask about my depression.  I have no words.  Or perhaps I have words but they don't make any sense and even come close to conveying the sheer sense of despair I felt when I was at my worst.  There are plenty of words in this book which convey the depth of the darkness.  Also, I remember getting so frustrated with the questions surrounding my recovery.  Would I ever get better?  Everyone was very convinced that I would but I never felt that.  Some days, I still don't.  The doctors would assure me that recovery takes a long time.  For a children 1 day is an eternity.  For me, being depressed for 6 months felt like an eternity.  The truth is, no one really knows how long it takes a person to recover from depression.  Reading this book made that very clear to me.  Sally Brampton, a journalist in the UK suffers from treatment resistant severe depression.  The book chronicles her 3 year struggle just to get back to a place where she could function.

There are some parts of the book which were irrelevant to my situation.  I don't have the drama of an unreliable partner or failed marriages.  In fact, one of the things that has helped me tremendously is the stalwart support of an amazing husband and children who have learnt about the illness along with me.  I also don't struggle with the alcohol addiction (not any other substance addiction) that Sally does although many depressives do.  Substance addiction is common as the substance provides a refuge from the pain of depression.

These have been the most helpful books to me.  There are many more.  I've started others and set them aside as they just didn't speak to me at that point in my recovery.  I keep them.  I might pick them up later.  They might help you.

If you are struggling with a depressive illness, I hope this helps.  The important thing to remember is this is not your fault.  Tomorrow is a new day.  Every day is a new day which offers us the opportunity to have a better day.  Take your medication as prescribed, even if you don't want to or think you might be better.  Don't make any changes to your medication without the support of a psychiatrist.  You are a unique individual.  There is no one else in the whole wide world like you.  What works for some, doesn't work for others.  Speak to your psychologist.  For hours and hours and hours.  That is what they are there for.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

9/11 Memorial

During my planning of our summer holiday to New York City I had decided to include a visit to the 9/11 Memorial.  Initially I hesitated.  Who wants to spend a happy, carefree summer day in a place that is shrouded in so much agony, pain, grief and suffering?

When we drove into the city from JFK airport it became clear to me that we would.

The skyline of Manhattan is one of the most AWESOME sites in the world.  No matter how many times I see it, I am inspired and mesmerised.  It doesn’t matter if it is day or night, cloudy or crystal clear blue.  The sheer enormity of it quite simply takes my breath away.
Before this summer, my last visit to NYC was a business trip in September 2000.  My husband was in Princeton, New Jersey for a business trip as well so we overlapped the weekend and a couple days either side and partied like we partied in 1999.  Both on expenses accounts, we ate at the best restaurants, drank cocktails and champagne, and saw a few tourist trail highlights.  Mostly, we shopped til we dropped, literally.  We could do that back then:  loads of disposable income for a figure not yet ravaged by the demands of pregnancy and the lethargy of age.

After suitably exhausting our credit cards in the shops on the ground floor of the World Trade Centre, my husband suggested we go to the top floor and enjoy the view.  Being the expert of all things New York, I informed him that a better view was to be from the top of the Empire State Building.  I’d been to the top of the World Trade Centre before during my 35th birthday celebrations and preferred the less crowded view from midtown.  He reluctantly took my expert opinion and we left.  I promised we would come back some other time.  We never made it back and my promise was broken.
I remember standing outside and looking back up at the buildings and being amazed by their sheer size.  They weren’t beautiful buildings but, holy moly, they were big.   They had a buzz about them.  they looked like they would last forever.
Life took over.  We discovered I was pregnant in October 2000 which put an end to my gallivanting about the globe.  Our next trip was to introduce our newborn son to my family in Texas, Colorado and Missouri in late August/early September 2001.  We were exhausted by the end of the trip and eager to get home.  But fate had other ideas.
Flying out of Kansas City on 9 September, we were delayed due to bad weather in Chicago.  There’s always something going wrong in Chicago.  Don’t fly through there if you can avoid it.  Don’t get me wrong:  I love the city of Chicago but as a hub for flights, it sucks.  Big time.
We eventually arrived in Chicago and raced through the airport just in time to see the door to our boarding gate being closed.  I begged.  I pleaded. I cried.  I made Sebastian cry.  Marc yelled.  But United Airlines would not allow us to board that plane  I whipped out my platinum frequent flyer card (this was back when it meant something) and gave them one of my evil eye looks.  It worked.  Sort of.
The airline staff were very apologetic but they kept going on and on about security requirements and our baggage and blah blah blah.  At one point, they had to pull the airplane back into the gate and remove one piece of luggage because the passenger associated with it had never boarded the plane.  But would they let us on the plane?  Nooooooooo!
We were given vouchers for a hotel at the airport and dinner.  We were even given some nappies for Sebastian.  We made the best of a bad situation and went to the hotel and enjoyed a romantic dinner for 2 (pretending that Sebastian wasn’t sound asleep in his car seat hidden under the table).
On September 10 we boarded the plane with the airlines every assurance that our baggage was on the same flight that we were and would arrive at Heathrow at the same time that we did.  This was a very important point as Marc was scheduled to fly back to Princeton, New Jersey in just a couple days.  His days of gallivanting around the globe hadn’t ended.  We needed his suitcase and most of the contents in them to make the return journey with him.
We landed at London’s Heathrow airport on September 11, 2001 at 6:30 in the morning Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).  At 9:30 am we finally gave up arguing with the airlines about our lost baggage.  United Airlines had absolutely no idea where our luggage was.  We had been assured that they were on the same airplane as we were.  Then we were told they were still on the ground in Chicago.  As the last flights had left Chicago for the day we were promised that our bags would be delivered to our home the next day from the first flight out of Chicago
Defeated we headed home.  We had a doctor’s appointment to get Sebastian his second set of immunizations.  As we parked the car outside the doctor’s surgery, we fleetingly heard on the car radio that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Centre buildings.  As we waited in the queue, I joked with Marc that some flight controller was going to lose his job and we discussed how those buildings had been designed to withstand an airplane collision.  The immediate anxiety associated with my child being jabbed by a large needle took over and we forgot about it.
Upon leaving the doctor’s surgery we heard that another plane had crashed into the other World Trade Centre building.  And this wasn’t some light aircraft.  These were passenger jets.
When we arrived home, I ran inside and left Marc to get Sebastian out of the car.  I turned on CNN and could see both towers before me with smoke coming out of them.  I turned to Marc and said “We’ll never get our luggage back. And you certainly won’t be going to the US tomorrow.
Over the next few hours we watched horrified as people jumped from the burning buildings.  We watched the firefighters rush to and enter the towers.  It was difficult to believe that we weren’t watching a film.  I kept hoping that Bruce Willis would appear or that the broadcast would be interrupted with someone telling us this had all been a mistake and Hollywood’s next blockbuster had accidentally been premiered simultaneously, on every news channel in the world
I kept trying to ring my family.  All the circuits were busy.  No one from the UK could ring the USA.
And then, as if it couldn’t get any worse, the South Tower collapsed in on itself.  I fell to the floor of our living room.  It seemed to happen in slow motion.  There was a knock at our front door.  Our neighbor, Karen, had arrived to just say how sorry she was.  Marc let her in and she wept with me on the floor.
Then the North Tower collapsed. And then the smoke and the debris filled all the cameras and we could see no more.  There was no more to see.  It was all gone.  All of it.  All of them.
Another plane was reported to have flown into the Pentagon and mysteriously another plane had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.  No one knew how many planes had been hijacked and it took a long time to discover the heroic actions of the passengers on that flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. 
At 5 pm (GMT) there was another knock on our door.  A man in a taxi was delivering out luggage.  No one knows where our luggage had been.  And at that moment, I really didn't care.
The airspace over the USA was closed.  Planes all over the world were grounded.  The world to stopped.  The world cried.
Hospitals in New York prepared to treat thousands of injured people but they found so few that the hospital emergency staff was stood down.  Donors of blood were sent home.  The dead do not need blood.
Thousands were reported missing.  Thousands were never found.  In all nearly 3,000 people died in the towers.
I felt helpless.  I felt hopeless.  I wanted to come home.  and I wanted to run away.

I still can’t watch footage of the planes flying into the buildings, or the people jumping out of the wreckage, or the buildings collapsing to the ground without crying.  I can feel my heart race as I recall the terror of those moments and the disbelief of what I was seeing.
There was a part of me that needed to see it to believe it.  As I approached the area where those giants of buildings used to stand I could not only see their absence.  I could feel it.  I could feel the sadness.  I could feel the pain.  It still feels and looks like a bomb site.  I suppose it always will.  I suppose it always should.
As I stood at the fountains and read the names, my tears started to flow.
When I tried to explain to my children what had happened here, my daughter looked up at me and with disbelief she asked, “But, mummy, why would anyone fly airplanes into buildings on purpose?”
Why, indeed?  How do you ever explain that level of hatred to a child?  I still struggle to understand the hatred of a terrorist. 
When we read the names, I tried to explain, that many of them were firefighters who had selflessly entered these burning buildings to save other people.  “Why would anyone go into a burning building to save other people when they might get hurt themselves?” 
Why, indeed?  I struggled then to explain the heroism and the sacrifice of the people who tried to help the helpless. 
When I explained that there were new buildings being built here, she asked me, “Won’t someone just fly more airplanes into them?” 
And then I struggled to explain hope.  For without hope, there can be nothing else.

Monday 10 September 2012

Day 1 NYC

Our first morning in New York City started earlier than most.  I find with the jet lag you might as well rock with it and get started.  No sense trying to hang about in bed when there is a whole city just waiting for you.

We had to go from midtown all the way down to Tribeca for breakfast.  I know, I know, this sounds like lunacy.  Well, yes, it is.  But it is also the place you go for the best meal in town at just about anytime of the day. 

I first discovered Balthazar's way back in 1998.  My friend, Kerry, and I decided to stop off in New York for a long 4 day weekend before I went on to Denver for my sister's baby shower and she went on to Florida for, well, whatever you do in Florida.  Besides, it was my 35th birthday and where else do wild and crazy single girls go to let their hair down and celebrate? 

My birthday dinner started off by us being seated in a corner table right next to the windows with members of the Kennedy family sitting to our left and Cher across the room.  Steven Spielberg was also in the house but he didn't have as good as a table as we did.  I ran into Madonna when I went to use the loo.  But most importantly, and this is an important point, this place introduced me to a life long passion for white burgundy.  I think Kerry and I drank the place dry.

This morning the children were promised the breakfast of a lifetime and no one was disappointed.

The youngens ordered waffles with berries and maple syrup. The husband had a ham and cheese croissant and I had Eggs Florentine made with spinach and artichoke.  Given that it was our first morning of the holiday we decided to start as we meant to go on and ordered a couple mimosas to set the tone for the remainder of the day.

The fly in the ointment was we didn't seem to get our mimosas with our breakfast.  About halfway through I started looking round for my drink and the owner of the restaurant caught my eye.  He rushed over and asked if he could help.  I explained our wee little problem and he immediately delivered the 2 most perfect mimosas ever made,  Even more perfect as he decided they would be on the house.  Now I ask you, could this day get any better?

Suitably carb loaded, we headed further downtown.  A leisurely walk across one of the most under appreciated parks in the city, Battery Park, we headed for the ferry port to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. 

As we rounded a corner, there she stood, so majestic, regal, composed, elegant, and unwavering in the promise she has made to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of immigrants since 4 July 1876.  Abigail was so excited she was shaking and jumping up and down.  She couldn't speak except to say almost in a whisper, "There she is, Mummy."  I thought, I wonder how many other small children have hung on to their mothers hand with that excitement running through their bodies and said those exact same words.

The queue looked worse than it was although the sun was beating down and we had been warned that it might rain.  There was no sign of rain.  Nor was there any sign of our sunblock.  At the price of the tickets ($18 adult, $12/child), I had hoped they would throw in the sunblock.  But no.  Luckily, the ferry came equipped with just about everything a person could need, including sunblock.

We took up prime position on the bow of the boat and doing our best Titanic impression took endless photos and video.  With all four of us running various devices I reckon there was no angle of Lady Liberty that we didn't capture.  Trust me though, she looks great as a result of exceptional lighting and that bone structure, I say!

The park rangers were running a scavenger hunt which the children participated in and even got a badge to prove it.  We grabbed a cool drink and the requisite souvenirs (T-shirts, mugs, key rings, hats, etc) and headed for the ferry to Ellis Island.

I'd been to Ellis Island the first time I was here and was so impressed with the quality of the museum I could hardly wait to share my enthusiasm with the children.  They were struggling with it.  But we persevered.  I was less impressed with the museum this time.  It seemed difficult to navigate and was not clearly marked.  But standing in the Registry Hall, we all shared a moment.

I asked Sebastian if he could imagine the people that made a decision like those immigrants did; a decision to come to a foreign land with nothing but what they could carry in a trunk, speaking only a foreign language and having very little money.  Never knowing if they would ever see their families again, if they would die on the journey.  He said they must have been brave.  I recalled the words of the Star Bangled Banner:"...home of the brave..." and thought, yep, they must have been.

This was a unique opportunity to teach my English/American children about the history of the United States of America.  Let's face it, they don't learn much of it in the English educational system, not that I'm complaining.  There's a lot of history to learn and America teaches very little English history.

Once we got our feet back on Manhattan we headed for some lunch and picked Adrienne's Pizzabar on the pedestrianised Stone Street.  You gotta try this place, if you haven't before.  Wow, Amazing pizza!

We then headed to Wall Street.  I was thrown for a loop when Sebastian asked me to explain what purpose of the stock exchange.  I mumbled something about gambling and carried on walking.  It was a wholly inadequate answer but I'm not sure I have a better one.

Next, we headed to the 9/11 Memorial.  I knew this was going to be tough.......

Wednesday 5 September 2012

The Last Kestrel by Jill McGivering

I remember watching the liberation of Kuwait during the first Gulf War on television when I was finishing university.  I was mesmerised by the footage of Christine Amanpour as she reported front the ever-changing frontline of the battlefields of Bosnia.  I have recently been shocked by the courage of the reporters from the uprisings across the Middle East over the last year.  I have seen footage of the reporters embedded with troops in the Vietnam conflict.  Reporters give us what we hope are the facts as the destruction of bombs and bullets unfolds before our eyes.
The notion of reporters embedded with troops isn’t a new idea.  Newspapers have sent reporters to cover wars since the time of the Crimea.  But what the reporters sent back wasn’t always aligned with the reality of the devastation.  They went where the military wanted them to go and they reported the message that the government wanted them to report.  Often the copy written represented very little of the actual blood and guts that is real armed conflict.  Civilian casualties were all too often erased from the words.

All too often, we take these reports for granted.  This book makes you live the war.

Jill McGivering, a respected, veteran BBC correspondent has covered more than her fair share of wars.  She is the currently the Asian correspondent and spend most of her time in dangerous places which aren’t really topping the top 10 places to go on holiday.  That’s because these aren’t the types of places you go for a nice, relaxing, hang out by the pool kind of holiday.

No, there is no hanging about when life is a fragile set of circumstances.  McGivering has taken these experiences, but more importantly, the people she has met, and written her first novel, The Last Kestrel.  Published in 2010, this book has only just made it to the top of my To Read pile.  I wish I had read it sooner.

The Last Kestrel tells the story of a journalist, Ellen Thomas, trying to unravel the puzzling events of her translator’s death, whilst assuring her publisher in the UK that a story will soon be submitted.  Ellen isn’t entirely certain what the actual story is.  Readers are invited to bear tragic witness to the story of Hasina, a native peasant woman, trying to save the life of her only son, who may or may not be responsible for a suicide bombing and the brutal realities of the unpleasant choices faced by the military caught up in the nightmare of today’s Afghanistan.

Undoubtedly, McGivering’s journalistic experiences have coloured the people and events and the book sometimes read like a newspaper report:  very factual, very straightforward, sometimes harsh, a little bit simple.  But then a surprisingly intimate and compassionate insight into the pain of Hasina, the mother of a martyr, will suddenly break your heart and remind you that you are a mother and everyone was once a foolish, impressionable teenager with ideals and convictions of right and wrong.

McGivering is also an obvious expert on the subject matter.  I was mesmerised by her descriptions of the social rituals and customs of eating food and being offered drinks in a home of a “local” Afghan.

This is a gritty book; it is not easy to read but it is not easy to put down either.  I suspect readers who loved The Kite Runner will love this.

McGivering has written a second novel, this one set in Pakistan.  The journalist, Ellen Thomas is featured again so I am betting a series is in the making.  I am happy to read them all if they are as good as The Last Kestrel.

Saturday 1 September 2012

End of Summer

I love autumn.  I love the colours of the leaves.  I love their crunch under my feet when I walk.  I love the crispness of the morning.  I love the way the air fills with smell of the earth.  I love the harvest celebrations.  Oh, I just love autumn.

Except for one niggly little thing:  for autumn to begin, summer must end and I hate the end of summer.

This summer has flown by.  It seems like just yesterday that I was sitting at my window watching the rain fall all through the months of May and June (literally).  I kept consoling myself with promises that the sun would come out tomorrow.  It never did.

And then July rushed in and before I knew what hit me, the children were out of school and I was racing around like a headless chicken packing suitcases and catching taxis to airports.

When I originally planned this summer's holidays, I thought 3 weeks in America would be plenty.  I thought my sister would be kicking us to the curb happy to see our backs out the door careful not to let it hit our backsides. 

Instead, just like every other time, there wasn't enough time to do all the things we wanted to do or see all the things or people we wanted to see.  Our summer holiday was packed with more adventures than you can shake a stick at.  We made memories that will last a lifetime.  We caught up with old friends and made some new ones.  I cried like a baby when we drove away from my sister's house and headed back to the UK.

The summer Olympics have come and gone for another 4 years.  I've eaten my last ice cream cone by the seaside.  I've walked by last beach in my bare feet.  I've seen only one live baseball game.  The nights have turned cold and we are contemplating turning the hearting on in the house.  I've unpacked my winter jumpers and put away my shorts, summer dresses, and sandals.  I've thrown that old swimming costume in the rubbish bin.  I'm thinking I might make chili for supper next week.  The nights are getting longer.  The days are getting shorter.  Soon the clocks will fall back and we will get up before the sun, if it ever even bothers to shine at all.  Grey, cold, damp and dreary nights will haunt us.

Before you know it, Christmas will be upon us, snow will be threatening havoc on our roads and the pile of boots, mittens, scarves, and hats will spill all over the kitchen floor.

But no, not just yet.....please mother nature, give me one more day.  Give me one more day of unadulterated sunshine on my face.  Just one more day of summer.......