Thoughts and Opinions

Sometimes I share my thoughts and opinions on books, feminism, and history.

My Top 10 Book Recommendations in Historical Fiction

I’ve decided to try my hand at short book reviews today. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately and I’ve decided to share with you some of my favourite historical fiction. History doesn’t have to be boring and if you loved reading To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace in high school, then this post is for you! Historical fiction has been my favourite genre since I read my first book about the holocaust (Number the Stars) and realized that the unbelievable events I was reading about could have actually happened. I love having the emotion, suspense, and character development that makes up a good novel, along with a setting that is based on actual events.

I’ve learned a lot of history through my travels and I’ve come to appreciate the importance of actually understanding history. After I traveled to Croatia, I realized I understood very little about the country and the impact that the not too distant past had had on its people. I discovered it’s important to do research before my travels so that I can better understand the significance of the places I’m visiting and ensure that I’m respectful of the people I meet. While I do some research through the internet, most of my historical knowledge does come from fiction. Without further ado, here are my top 10 favourite novels in the historical fiction genre:

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief has become an increasingly popular novel and was recently made into a movie, so chances are you’ve already heard of it. It’s one of my all time favourite books and easily tops my list of historical fiction (though this list is in no particular order). The Book Thief takes place in the early years of World War II; it is the story of a young German girl named Liesel Meminger who is sent to the sleepy town of Molching to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa Huberman. It’s a simple story about Liesel’s desire to learn to read and her attempt to understand the many changes happening around her as Germany enters into war. The story is actually told from the personified voice of ‘death’ and is written in some of the most haunting prose. It’s about the power of words to move and inspire and Zusak really captures the beauty of the human spirit.

Goodbye Sarajevo – Atka Reid and Hana Schofield

Goodbye SarajevoI discovered this book after my trip to Croatia when I was looking to learn more about Croatian history and the conflict that resulted with the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Goodbye Sarajavo is based on a true story and the narrative switches back and forth between two sisters, Atka and Hana. The story starts in Sarajevo at the beginning of the Bosnian War. Hana is sent off on a bus to Croatia to live as a refugee and Atka remains in Sarajevo to take care of the rest of her siblings and family. Like any other book about war, it is a story of hardships and the struggles of being separated from your family. However, what struck me most about this book is that it’s a story that has taken place within my lifetime. It’s easier to separate yourself from events that happened more than 60 years ago – it’s much harder to read about such a recent conflict, especially one that I knew embarrassingly little about.

The Help – Kathryn Stockwell

The HelpI’m sure you’ve heard of The Help or have seen the movie, which was actually a pretty good adaptation of the book; it’s the story of several young socialites and their relationships with their Negro maids. The story takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 at the height of the civil rights movement in America. The novel is split between three narrators – Abileen and Minny, black maids working for young white families in Jackson, and Skeeter Phalen, an aspiring writer focused more on her career then settling down and finding a husband. The three woman set out together to write a book exposing the relationships between white women and their Negro maids and end up challenging the dated ideas of race and class that exist in Jackson. There’s some speculation that Stockwell may not have been the best person to write this story (seeing as she’s white and two thirds of the book are written from the perspective of black maids), but I believe much of her story is based on her own relationship with her maid growing up and I don’t think anyone should ever be discouraged from telling their story. The Help is a good read and a good film.

Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Septys

Shades of GrayBetween Shades of Gray takes place during World War II, as do several of the books on my list, but it introduced me to a side of the war I knew little to nothing about. It’s the story of two young children and their mother who are forced out of their home in Lithuania by Soviet officers and made to work in labour camps in Russia. They travel from camp to camp, eventually ending up at the cold Arctic Circle in Siberia. It’s the story of the struggles of the Baltics (Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania) that were annexed by the Soviet Union. Many families were displaced from their homes, sent to work camps, and forced to adapt to a new language, culture, and life. As its name suggests, this book examines the idea of good vs. evil and the reality that there is no black and white, just varying shades of gray.

The Queen of Water – Laura Resau

Queen of WaterI read this book just a few weeks ago and it was the first book I’d read about South America. Like ‘Goodbye Sarajevo’, The Queen of Water is based on a true story, the life of Maria Virgina Farinango. Much of Ecuador is broken into two groups, the Mestizos and the Indigenas. The Indigenas are the native people of Ecuador, sometimes referred to as Indians and the Mestizos are of Spanish heritage and traditionally occupy higher positions in society. Virgina is born into as Indigena family in rural Ecuador and as a young girl she is given to a Mestizo family to help around the house. Virgina is mistreated and abused by the family and struggles to discover who she really is and where her identity comes from. The Queen of Water is the story of how Virgina escapes a life of slavery, educates herself, and finally becomes proud of her Indigena roots.

These is my Words – Nancy Turner

These Is My WordsI stumbled upon this book on Goodreads a few years ago and absolutely loved it! The story takes place in the south-western American territories during the late 1800’s and is told from the point of view of young Sarah Agnes Prine. As Sarah travels around the southwest with her poor family, she dreams only of improving her future through educating herself. She faces all kinds of hardships – from robbers and Indians, to the struggles of marriage and motherhood. The book spans a good portion of Sarah’s life and you can’t help but love her character. She can be very stubborn and headstrong, but she’s also intelligent, loving, and tough. Sarah has incredible strength of character and even though her story takes place in a completely different era, she’s someone most girls can relate to. It’s also quite a good love story 😉

Fall of Giants – Ken Follett

Fall of GiantsI just finished reading Fall of Giants, which is about the events surrounding the First World War. The novel spans from 1911 to the early 1920’s and highlights the lives of 5 different families from England, Wales, Germany, Russia, and America. In my opinion, this book covers more history than any other book on my list and it interestingly merges both real and fictional characters within the narrative. Fall of Giants covers the political events leading up to the war and the battles that ensued both on the battlefield and in the fight for woman’s rights and the uprising that lead to the Russian Revolution. This book is hugely political and covers a good deal of history. I could see it being a bit of an overwhelming and heavy read because it goes so in depth about war politics, but I enjoyed being able to look at history through the lens of each character and from the perspective of each nationality. It is a big novel, but it greatly improved my understanding of the events surrounding World War I and the Russian Revolution – I would greatly recommend it to European history buffs.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith

Tree Grows in BrooklynThis is the oldest book on my list and was first published in 1943. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of young Francie Nolan and her family living in the slums of Williamsburg during the early 1900’s. Like Liesel, Sarah, and a lot of the other heroines of my list, Francie loves to read. Growing up in poverty, she dives into her books and her writing in order to distract herself from the financial and emotional suffering of her family. As they struggle to make ends meet, Francie focuses all of her energy into her education, dreaming of making a better life for herself. This is a pretty simple book about growing up and the hardships of life, but it is written so eloquently that Betty Smith somehow manages to take the ugliness of Francie’s life and turn it into something beautiful.

The Book of Negroes – Lawrence Hill

Book of NegroesI read Book of Negroes earlier this year and it completely surprised me. It was very quick paced and had a great female protagonist. Aminata Diallo was abducted from her village in West Africa when she was just 11 years old and forced into a life of slavery. She’s forced to sail across the Atlantic to America and is sold to work on a plantation in South Carolina. Her journey is filled with hardship and she has no freedom or ownership over any part of her life. Over time, Aminata teaches herself to read and is slowly able to elevate her circumstances. She eventually finds some semblance of freedom in New York and later in Nova Scotia, but her life is still full of sorrow and loss. Book of Negroes is an eye-opening and emotionally challenging book to read, but I was inspired by the strength and perseverance of Aminata’s character.

The Guests of War Trilogy – Kit Pearson

Guests of WarI first read this series when I was 12 and I haven’t read it in a long time, but it’s still among some of my favourite historical fiction. It’s a series of three short books written for children, but like many children’s books, accessible to people of all ages. The Guests of War Trilogy is about a young girl, Norah, and her brother Gavin who leave behind their family in England during the Second World War and travel to Canada to live with a host family. England was heavily bombed during the war and many English children were actually sent to live with Canadians for the duration of the war. The first two books are written from Norah’s point of view as she struggles to adapt to a new life while always being overwhelmed with fear for the safety of her family in England. The final book is written from her younger brother Gavin’s perspective. Gavin has grown up in Canada and when the war finally ends, it becomes a difficult for him to return to a life and a family that he no longer remembers.

Upon reflecting on this list, I’ve realized that all of these books feature female protagonists, most of whom strive for knowledge and education above all else. It’s interesting for me to see this theme in my favourite novels, but it doesn’t really surprise me as it reflects many of my own ideals. Either way, I’m glad to see such strong female characters in literature. They have likely contributed to my own development as a woman, activist, and feminist. Happy reading everyone!

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Categories: Thoughts and Opinions | 3 Comments

30 Places to visit before you die

I’m in the mood for a fun, light blog post, so I’m doing this one ‘Buzzfeed’ style. I’ve created a list of the top destinations I’d like to visit, or my “Travel Bucket List”. I have already visited 3 or 4 of them, but I just couldn’t create a list without them! Feel free to share some of the places on your own travel bucket list!

1. Iguazu Falls, Argentina/Brazil

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2. Great Barrier Reef, Australia

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3. The Alps, Austria

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I’m lucky to have recently had the chance to ski the Alps in Austria, but this one has been on my bucket list for a while.

4. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio

5. Angkor Wat, Cambodia

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6. Northern Lights, Canada

2013 © Christopher Martin

7. Great Wall of China, China

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8. Galapagos Island, Ecuador

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This one is mostly for Seth. The bird is a blue-footed booby and somehow he’s managed to sneak this one on to my list.

9. The Pyramids, Egypt

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10. Santorini, Greece

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11. India

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I don’t actually have a specific place I’d like to visit in India, but the country seems so rich in culture and I’d love to one day visit.

12. Bali, Indonesia

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13. Dead Sea, Israel

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14. Rome, Italy

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15. Petra, Jordan

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16. Thyolo, Malawi

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Thyolo made the list because of the four months I spent living there, but Malawi would still have been on my list. One of the first projects I contributed to was based in Malawi and I always wanted to visit. It’s a beautiful country filled with beautiful people!

17. Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

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18. Marrakesh, Morocco

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19. The Himalayas, Nepal

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20. The Shire, New Zealand

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I know the Shire is not actually a real place. But I really just want to go to New Zealand to soak in the scenery and check out some Lord of the Rings filming locations.

21. Geirangerfjord, Norway

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22. Machu Picchu, Peru

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I was lucky enough to get to visit Machu Picchu earlier this year. No list would be complete without it.

23. The Serengeti, Tanzania

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24. Ko Phi Phi Don, Thailand

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25. Pamukkale, Turkey

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26. London, England, UK

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London is easily my favourite city. You can seriously never be bored there!

27. Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA

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28. Canaima National Park, Venezuela

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29. Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam

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30. Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe
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There you have it! I hope I’ve given you all the travel bug! What’s on your list?

Love Maria

Disclaimer: Most photos were taken from Fotopedia, with the exception of personal photos I’ve taken myself.

Categories: Thoughts and Opinions | 8 Comments

Let’s Talk Feminism

Over the past few months I’ve been seeing more articles and blogs pop up about feminism and feminist issues. I’ve considered myself a feminist for a while now, but it’s only over the last few months that I’ve been exploring what the term actually means to me and trying to comprehend what it means to other people around me. There are a lot of questions I’ve been asking myself; what does true equality look like? How are my experiences, opportunities, and privileges different from those of my male counterparts? What is the end goal of the feminist movement? I can’t answer any of these questions of course, I’m no expert on feminism and I don’t have years of reading books or having deep discussions about it to back up my opinions. However, I think discussion and dialogue is incredibly important in the development and understanding of any issue, so I’ve decided to share my exploration in the hope of engaging you in conversation about it!

Feminism means something different to everyone and I’m sure we all have a different idea about what a truly equal society would like. There are many inequalities between the opportunities and privileges accessible to men, verses those that are accessible to women. Some inequalities are glaringly obvious, such as rape, and involve specific actions or consequences, while others are so ingrained into our culture and our way of thinking that they often go completely unnoticed. It can be easy to pass off a joke generalizing women as bad drivers or to ignore a catcall or remark about our appearance. It’s seen as acceptable that a father might work full time while the mother stays home to take of the children, but it would be pretty unconventional if the roles were reversed. We don’t often challenge these behaviours or perceptions and they have simply become a normal, acceptable part of our culture.

If the term “feminism” means something different to everyone, than associating oneself with the term “feminist” certainly does as well. Some people are perfectly happy to consider themselves feminists, while others want absolutely nothing to do with the label. Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of negative connotations associated with the term “feminist” and with people who consider themselves one. Some people view feminists as a group of angry, bra-burning women, while others associate it as something that is just for women and not accessible to men. There’s the view that the feminist movement is a threat to men’s rights or that it somehow makes you less of a man to call yourself a feminist. Finally, some people just don’t like the use of terminology like ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’, and feel that we should focus more on male and female rights together, rather than just on women.

This last opinion is the one that I find myself encountering most often. I know people that personally advocate for women’s rights and against issues such as the pay gap between men and women, yet are not comfortable associating with the term “feminist”. I think many people have a feeling that feminism is not inclusive of men and that as a result, it threatens their rights and liberties; that feminists are essentially sexist against men and that we should focus on promoting equal rights rather than improving women’s rights. I personally don’t agree with this viewpoint. I do want to see a world that provides equal opportunities and respect to both men and women, but in order to get there, I think we need to address the concept of male privilege. To realize that the way to equal rights is by talking about the disparities that exist between men and women and by identifying behaviours and social norms that perpetuate it.

Male privilege is a concept that is relatively new to me and I find it useful in comparing ways in which a man’s experience is likely different than a woman’s. To quote trusty old Wikipedia, “male privilege refers to the social theory which argues that men have unearned social, economic, and political advantages or rights that are granted to them solely on the basis of their sex, and which are usually denied to women.” I don’t really like the words ‘unearned’ and ‘denied’ in this definition because I don’t think this is always the case, but I do think that men often have an advantage over women or are favoured over women. The best thing I’ve read about male privilege is Peggy McIntosh’s “Male Privilege Checklist“, which goes through a list of examples in which a male might have an advantage or privilege a female wouldn’t have, such as the lower likelihood of experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace or the higher likelihood of being promoted to a senior position. You should really read it. You can also find a full discussion about male privilege here.

I find McIntosh’s list helpful in identifying cultural norms that bother me so that I can gain a better picture of what I think equality in the workplace or in the home might actually look like. There are different expectations of men and women and different standards for what is considered acceptable. Decisions and opinions are formed by comparing a woman against her male counterparts rather than on her personal merits. The defining element of male privilege (in my opinion anyways) is summed up by the final point on McIntosh’s checklist, “I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.” Do many people consciously discriminate based on sex? I don’t think that they do. I’m sure that many men are selected for a job based on their competence and the fact that they were the best candidate. But I also can’t be sure that if a man is hired for a job over me, that it’s not because in the back of their mind, my employer is thinking that down the road I’m going to cost him maternity leave or that work is unlikely the be my top priority.

I took a women’s studies course last year in which we talked about how men and women face different issues and problems, making it okay to focus specifically on women’s rights, rather than on both male and female equality. Focusing on women’s rights doesn’t make men’s rights any less important, it just acknowledges that we’re different. For example, we discussed the benefits of having women-only health clinics to address health issues such as birth control, unwanted pregnancy, and abortion. Likewise, there is legislature about abortion and other women’s rights that, while it does affect men, only applies to women. The decision by a woman to get an abortion (or the decision not to) will have an impact on their counterpart, but the law surrounding the right to decide isn’t a law that will ever be exercised by a man. Therefore, when the legislature is formed, women should make up at least half, if not the majority of those that influence the decision. However, since men form the majority of elected roles, it is men who make many of the laws and decisions regarding women’s rights.

I just want to acknowledge that I realize much of my discussion revolves around feminism as it exists in the Western world. I think there is a large portion of people that are pretty indifferent to feminism; that are content with the status quo or oblivious to the divide that exists between men and women. Some see feminism as belonging to the era of women’s suffrage, when women fought for the right to vote, to work, and to earn a salary. Feminism has a very different meaning for me in 2013, but in many other countries, women are still not encouraged or permitted to work outside the home and are expected to fill traditional gender roles of homemaking and child-rearing. The opportunity to shape and influence their own future is not necessarily accessible to them.

Finally, there are those who are happy to associate with the feminist label. I’ve been seeing a lot more articles and posts lately from men who are entering the feminist discussion (see my friend Evan’s wonderful new blog and this article about being an ally to women) and I have to give them props for their sensitivity. I don’t really put that much thought into my opinions or how they are perceived because they are shaped mostly by my experiences growing up and by my experiences as a woman working in a male-dominated industry. Many of the male privileges in McIntosh’s list didn’t occur to me until the last few years and I can understand why they would be a blind spot for many men themselves. I’m sure it’s much harder to enter the feminist-sphere as a male when you don’t have the common female experiences of worrying about your body image, walking home alone at night, or being judged by your wardrobe. Either way, there are both men and women active in the fight against gender norms, I consider myself one of them and I hope you’ll join the discussion too!

Thanks for reading,
Maria

Disclaimer: this blog solely represents my own personal views. I choose to view it as a thought and learning experiment and I welcome your opinions, so long as they’re respectful.

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