Book review Tuesday: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

I never thought I was a historical fiction lover until I discovered Hilary Mantel. She is a master at resurrecting worlds from the past, breathing life into them, and making well-told stories compelling in new ways.

Wolf Hall is the first in a series of historical novels by Mantel focusing on Thomas Cromwell, who was an advisor to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and then, once Wolsey had died, an advisor to King Henry VIII during that exciting period when the King was having some — issues, shall we say — with his wives, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn — and Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleaves and, well, the list goes on. The second book in the series, which I’m currently tearing through, is Bring Up the Bodies. The third book has not yet been published, but if it follows in the footsteps of the first two, it will undoubtedly win the Man Booker Prize immediately upon its release. That’s right, both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies won the Man Booker Prize – Wolf Hall in 2009, Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. Impressive, huh?

wolf hall

I had heard some talk about Mantel’s books over the past year but wasn’t compelled to read any of them until I read this fascinating (and beautifully written) piece in the New Yorker about Mantel and her work. I dare you to read that piece and not want to devour all of Mantel’s books immediately. So, I bought Wolf Hall, and, once I had finished the long line of books ahead of it in my Kindle queue, I read it in a few days. It did not disappoint.

I won’t try to sum up the plot of the book – it begins in 1500 when Thomas Cromwell is still a child, growing up in fear of his abusive father, skips ahead twenty-seven years to when Cromwell is advising Wolsey, and ends in July 1535, with the execution of Thomas More. A lot of stuff happens: political dealings, divorce, torture, infidelity, love, betrayal. At the center of the story is Cromwell, a brilliant political actor who you can’t help but root for. And as Mantel traces Cromwell’s rise to power, she tells, through very human characters, a story about the changing face of England: its religious life, its politics, its monarchs, its populace. The sense of place in this novel is so palpable, I feel that I understand England better now for having read it. One of my favorite parts was the opening of the chapter entitled An Occult History of Britain, 1521-1529:

Once, in the days of time immemorial, there was a king of Greece who had thirty-three daughters. Each of these daughters rose up in revolt and murdered her husband. Perplexed as to how he had bred such rebels, but not wanting to kill his own flesh and blood, their princely father exiled them and set them adrift on a rudderless ship.

Their ship was provisioned for six months. By the end of this period, the winds and tides had carried them to the edge of the known earth. They landed on an island shrouded in mist. As it had no name, the eldest of the killers gave it hers: Albina.

When they hit shore, they were hungry and avid for male flesh. But there were no men to be found. The island was home only to demons.

The thirty-three princesses mated with the demons and gave birth to a race of giants, who in turn mated with their mothers and produced more of their own kind. These giants spread over the whole landmass of Britain. There were no priests, no churches and no laws. There was also no way of telling the time.

After eight centuries of rule, they were overthrown by Trojan Brutus.

The story goes on: the Trojans defeated the giants, “led by Gogmagog,” who was thrown into the sea, and later, the Tudors, descendants of Brutus, entered the picture. “Beneath every history, another history.”

The most impressive facet of Mantel’s writing, to me, is how she humanizes historical figures, giving them complex motives and desires, making us rethink who is sympathetic and who is unsympathetic. For instance, one of the prominent characters in Wolf Hall is Thomas More, the man who refused to accept Henry as head of the Church in England after he sought to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Near my hometown, there is a church named for More, who was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1935, making him St. Thomas More, but I didn’t know much about him before reading this book. As Mantel portrays him, More was a petty man, and a bit of a sadist who delighted in torturing heretics. He was also rather a coward, but he embraced his death as a martyr out of stubbornness and a twisted sort of self-interest. In Wolf Hall, Thomas More is in many ways Thomas Cromwell’s foil. Although they are both lawyers, men who study texts, Cromwell is a questioner, someone whose views evolve as he ages, whereas More is rigid, determined to hew to the rules of the Church. I loved this passage describing Cromwell’s thoughts about More, who he thinks of as “some sort of failed priest, a frustrated preacher:”

He never sees More – a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod – without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off of the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

I love that passage because it’s a perfect crystallization of the conflict between two common worldviews. The book is full of these sharp observations of life and human interaction and memory. And yet, nonetheless, the plotting is perfect and the book moves at a brisk clip.

In short, Mantel’s novels are breathtaking and wonderful. Even if you’re not a historical fiction fan, these books might change your mind.



I mentioned a few weeks ago that Al and I did a month-long booze detox, which also included elements of abstention from other temptations, including candy (for Al) and fried food/dessert/cheese (for me). I loosened up the cheese prohibition at the end because, come on, what am I, Ghandi? But I’ve stayed away from the rest, except for a few bites of an incredible mint chocolate chip Magnum ice cream bar that Al bought after a particularly taxing hike we did on Saturday – but that’s another story. Anyway, we ended the Great Detox last Wednesday and the results have been really interesting.


On Wednesday, after four full weeks of not letting one single drop of booze pass our lips, we decided to open a bottle of 2010 Catherine Marshall Pinot Noir, a gift from our friend Ali. We paired our oh-so classy wine with salmon steaks, quinoa beet pilaf, and Super Troopers, which my husband had somehow never seen (!!??!!), a situation which obviously needed immediate remedying. As we drank the wine, we ooh-ed and aah-ed about how delicious it was and how we had missed drinking, and so on. “Oh, wine,” we cooed, stroking the bottle, “we missed you so much. We’ll never leave you again, we promise.” Okay, we didn’t actually say that out loud, but we thought it.

And then, the next morning, I woke up and felt awwwwful: hungover, sick, tired, the works. “Damn you, wine,” I snarled, glaring at the empty bottle through slitted eyes. “A curse upon your house!!!” Okay, I didn’t say that, either. And I realize that cursing a wine bottle’s house doesn’t make sense. But I was upset!

The next day was a holiday (“Human Rights Day”) and we attended a long-scheduled celebratory lunch with Al’s boss and colleagues to mark the end of a challenging project at work. Champagne was popped, and the waiter refilled everyone’s glasses several times. And, again, to my surprise, I felt like total crap after drinking. My energy was sapped, I was vaguely nauseated, and I regretted drinking any bubbly at all. This was sad for me, because I used to love a good day drink. But I was starting to realize that things might have changed for me.

Continuing my experiment, the next night, we went to dinner with a friend and then to Cirque du Soleil. I had two glasses of red wine and felt okay the next day. On Saturday night, we went to a comedy show and I had one glass of red wine, and I felt perfectly fine the next day. Are you starting to see a pattern here? Let me spell it out for you: when I drink less, I feel better.

This was a revelation.

Al and I concluded that our month of sobriety had essentially reset our livers, such that now we can tolerate much less booze than before — and this is probably a good thing. I don’t know why this never occurred to me before, but I think one to two glasses of wine for a night out is probably enough for me. Who’d’a thunk?? I guess li’l Stephanie is growing up.  Don’t get me wrong, Al and I will never be teetotalers – we love and appreciate wine too much – but I think from now on we’ll be consuming booze less frequently and in smaller amounts — and savoring it.

So, we’ll see what happens. But for now, in the spirit of appreciating alcohol, please enjoy this clip from Father Ted, our favorite priest-focused Irish comedy, about when Father Jack goes to AA by mistake.


Sound advice Thursday: To Long Distance or Not to Long Distance?

Dear Steph,

I’ve been dating a great guy for about six weeks. However, he is about to leave town for about a year, traveling around the country for his job. We really like each other, and he keeps telling me about his plans to come visit, and has requested that we keep talking, emailing, and texting — but with no labels or commitments — just keeping in close touch. I do want to keep in touch with him, but I’m worried that making these plans to visit and talking all the time will make it harder for me to move on. What would you do in my situation?


Long Distance Dilemma

This distance actually seems doable.

Dear LDD,

Oh, the trauma of the modern dating world: everyone’s so gosh darn mobile these days, aren’t they? In the underrated 2010 movie Going the Distance, Drew Barrymore and Justin Long play a couple facing a similar dilemma to yours: they have been dating for six weeks (!) and have really fallen for each other, but for Drew’s career, she has to move across the country. They make the choice to try to hack it as a long distance couple, and – surprise! – it’s incredibly difficult. Given that it’s a romantic comedy, there’s eventually a happy ending. But in reality, long distance relationships (LDRs) often fail. My golden rule is that LDRs only work if and only if: 1) both people are really committed; and 2) there’s an end point in sight.

What your beau is suggesting is not, in fact, a long distance relationship; rather, it’s long distance torture. He wants to keep talking – so that he’ll be perpetually on your mind, even though you can’t see him – but not make any commitment to each other. I can’t think of a worse idea, frankly. What, I ask, is the point of staying in touch with someone you really like when you’re not in a relationship with that person? It sounds heartbreaking, frustrating, crazy-making!

I’m of the strict school on this, I’m afraid: I think you need to cut it off and save yourself a lot of heartache, my dear. If your romance with this chap is meant to be, when he ends up in the same place as you, then you can date and live happily ever after. But for now, if you’re not going to commit to each other, you both need to have the freedom to meet other people, which means not constantly speaking to one another and getting in one another’s bizniss. Think about it: if you meet another guy you like – someone who lives in your town – you might not even realize you like him if you’re still talking to the first guy. And how will you explain to the second guy that you’re in close correspondence with a dude you dated for six weeks but are not involved with anymore? Messy, messy. Keep it clean, and break things off.

I’ll leave you with the words of the ever-wise Wayne Campbell: “I say hurl. If you blow chunks and she comes back, she’s yours. But if you spew and she bolts, then it was never meant to be.” Okay, maybe that advice is not dead-on, but you get the idea. Be strong, my friend!

Best of luck,


Book review Tuesday: Detroit, An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff

I grew up eight miles north of Detroit – eight miles north of Eight Mile Road, the dividing line between the city and the suburbs – in a comfortable, cute, safe, suburban city called Birmingham. Our little city’s neat streets were lined with trees, kids played outside, and everyone drove an American car. Birmingham was well-off: in our downtown, we had an Anthropologie, a fancy movie theater, and a number of boutique coffee shops. It was nice. And it was a far cry from Detroit, a city that was sinking into post-industrial decay even when I was a child in the 1990s. Detroit was where most people’s parents worked – my dad worked at the famous – and once quite grand – Renaissance Center for years – but the city wasn’t somewhere we went often, except for the occasional hockey game or show or dinner in Greektown. Mostly, Detroit was a place we avoided. And by the time my parents moved out of Michigan in 2002, when I was a sophomore in college, the city had really gone to hell – or so we thought. Then the financial meltdown of 2008 happened, the auto industry tanked, and Detroit reached yet another low. And today, Detroit and its people are still struggling, and very little seems to be improving.

detroit an american autopsy

Charlie LeDuff is a journalist who worked for the New York Times before quitting and rediscovering his roots in Detroit, where he began working at the Detroit News in 2008. The guy’s a bit of a wild card. In his book, he doesn’t try to hide his “demons,” and in a way, his instability reflects his surroundings: a structure on the verge of crumbling once and for all. In Detroit: An American Autopsy, LeDuff gives an unsparing run-down of what’s ailing Detroit, and there’s a long list. This is not a book for Detroit optimists. This is a book for Detroit realists, who fear for the people of Detroit, people who have been abandoned by their local, state, and federal governments, their industries, and their leaders, and have been left to fend for themselves with no resources.

In the beginning of the book, LeDuff explains Detroit’s significance in the national imagination, despite its current state of decay:

And it is awful here, there is no other way to say it. But I believe Detroit is America’s city. It was the vanguard of our way up, just as it is the vanguard of our way down. And one hopes the vanguard of our way up again. Detroit is Pax Americana. The birthplace of mass production, the automobile, the cement road, the refrigerator, frozen pears, high-paid blue-collar jobs, home ownership and credit on a mass scale. America’s way of life was built here… Today, the boomtown is bust. It is an eerie and angry place of deserted factories and homes and forgotten people. Detroit, which once led the nation in home ownership, is now a foreclosure capital. Its downtown is a museum of ghost skyscrapers. Trees and switchgrass and wild animals have come back to reclaim their rightful places. Coyotes are here. The pigeons have left in droves. A city the size of San Francisco and Manhattan could neatly fit into Detroit’s vacant lots, I am told… At the end of the day, the Detroiter may be the most important American there is because no one knows better than he that we’re all standing at the edge of the shaft.

A house in Detroit
A house in Detroit

LeDuff examines the causes for Detroit’s downfall, noting that “Detroit’s slide was long and inexorable,” and considers a number of possible culprits: “white racism and legal mortgage covenants that barred blacks from living anywhere but the most squalid ghettos;” “postwar industrial policies that sent the factories” out of the cities; the 1967 race riots and the subsequent “white flight” to the suburbs; the policies of Mayor Coleman Young, the city’s first black mayor, “and his culture of corruption and cronyism;” the “gas shocks of the 1970s, which opened the door to foreign car competition;” Clinton-era trade agreements that “allowed American manufacturers to leave the country by the back door;” and the greed and mismanagement of the UAW (the auto-workers’ union).

He also looks closely at the consequences of this spiral downwards: a city riddled by violence and left without basic resources for public services. The firehouse he visits has no fire poles and no engine; children are told to bring toilet paper with them to school; and the police don’t have patrol cars. Compounding all of this is the outrageous corruption at the highest levels of local government. LeDuff discusses in depth Kwame Kilpatrick, the self-styled “hip-hop mayor” of Detroit who, just last week, was found guilty in federal court of “a raft of charges, including racketeering, fraud and extortion.” This was not Kwame’s first brush with the law. In 2008, the Detroit Free Press uncovered, as LeDuff explains, “a cache of text messages showing that [Kilpatrick] was a criminal and a pimp.” LeDuff lays out the situation succinctly:

Kilpatrick had denied in a court of law that he had fired the police department’s chief of internal affairs because he was getting too close to an alleged sex party at the mayor’s mansion – where rumor had it that a stripper named “Strawberry” was beaten silly with a high heel by the mayor’s wife. 

Strawberry – real name Tamara Greene – later turned up murdered.

Kilpatrick had also denied in court that he had an adulterous affair with his chief of staff, an old girlfriend from high school. The text messages, however, confirmed that not only was Kilpatrick carrying on with his chief of staff, he was a crook who was looting the city and a letch who bagged more tail than a deer hunter.

Worse still, the texts revealed that Kilpatrick secretly spent $10 million of the people of Detroit’s money to make the internal affairs whistleblower go away.


Yeah. This is the person who was elected as mayor twice by the people of Detroit. For a good rundown of Kwame’s antics, check out this extensive Wikipedia entry. I found it interesting that after Kwame was convicted, finally, last week, some of the jurors commented that they had, in fact, voted for him. The New York Times states: “Another juror said she had voted for Mr. Kilpatrick twice in elections. ‘I was disappointed having done that,’ she said. ‘Sitting on this trial for the last six months, I really, really saw a lot that turned my stomach.'”


LeDuff doesn’t just spend time examining corrupt government officials and greedy auto execs, he also delves into the lives of the individual people trapped in the Detroit quagmire, many of them sucked into endless cycles of violence against their will. It is heart-wrenching and terrible, and the book leaves you wondering what might be done. LeDuff doesn’t know, either, it seems:

Detroit, I am sure, will continue to be. Just as Rome does. What it will be and who will be here, I cannot say. The unnecessary human beings will have to find some other place to go and something else to do. The Great Remigration south, maybe.

So, we’ll see what happens. I hope Detroit can slash and burn and cleanse itself of the corruption that has plagued it for the last several decades. I hope it can start afresh. But…we’ll see. In the meantime, I recommend LeDuff’s book for anyone who is curious about what is actually happening in Detroit today. It’s a fascinating – and deeply depressing – read.

An adventure in the Free State

Yesterday, Al and I and two of his work friends, Ash and Sarah, spent the day in the Free State, one of the provinces bordering Gauteng, where we live. Free State is a province that’s known in South Africa for being pretty boring and solidly Afrikaans, even though white Afrikaans people make up only 10% of the population there. However, I had read online about the Vredefort Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage Center right in the heart of Free State and only an hour and a half drive from Joburg: how could we resist?

The Vredefort Dome is actually the remains of huge crater caused by a meteor. According to the Vredefort Dome website, “The Vredefort Structure can be considered to be a gigantic scar that was left behind when a huge meteor (estimated size 10 km diameter) collided with the earth about 2023 million years ago.” Whoa. Apparently this ginormous meteor caused a crater that was “in the order of 100 km and some odd tens of kilometers deep,” but the crater was eroded away over millions of years. Bummer. But now there are cool hiking trails with waterfalls and birdwatching, so we decided to go and check it out.

Ash picked us up at 9 am and we all bundled excitedly into his car wearing our hiking gear. I brought my spiffy new hiking hydration backpack, which I am so obsessed with, I want to wear it ALL THE TIME, even to sleep, and we chowed down on biltong as we drove to the Free State, anticipating hours of challenging climbs and stunning vistas. Ninety minutes later, we arrived at the gate to the Vredefort Dome UNESCO World Heritage Site Interpretive Center (huh?) and – you guessed it! – it was closed. Cuz this is Africa. We considered jumping the fence but, this being Free State, decided that the risk of being shot with a rifle for trespassing was a tad higher than we were comfortable with, so we decided to keep driving and see if we could find another entrance to the park or a trailhead for one of the many hikes we had read about. Two hours later, we hadn’t found anything, so we took a break, parked in the little town of Parys and ate at one of Parys’s “best” restaurants, O’s Restaurant.

Koi pond
Koi pond

O, what to say about O’s? Well, it was pretty. I’ll give it that. There was a cool koi pond and a river (which smelled only a little funky) and the place was positively bustling. The parking guard outside told us proudly that it was the “one of the best restaurants in Parys.” We had high hopes. The food, though, hovered somewhere between mediocre and crap, and the service was glacial. About thirty minutes after we finally paid and left, one of our party started to feel ill from the ill-advised calamari platter he had ordered and we had to make an emergency pit stop. Not awesome, O’s.

Eventually, 3:30 rolled around. We had been driving/being slowly poisoned at O’s for six and a half hours and we had not done one step of hiking. My hydration backpack was going to complete and utter waste. So we pulled off at a place called Suikerbos (Sugarbush), which promised hiking trails. While Suikerbos technically did have hiking trails, they were all approximately 300 meters long and ended abruptly in barbed wire fences, so we just sort of walked in a circle for an hour and then called it a day. We did see some cool flora and fauna, though. We think this thing is an actual sugarbush flower:


And we saw this guy crossing the street/lying motionless in the street. He may or may not have been dead. Jury’s out.


In any case, he was scary.

At a quarter to five, we packed it in and went back to Joburg. We might not have accomplished what we set out to do – e.g., hike Vredefort Dome, see an awesome crater scar, not get food poisoning – but we still had a good day. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since moving here, it’s not to expect things to go as planned – ever. Rolling with the punches, cuz this is Africa.

Rediscovering knitting

The latest news from these parts: I’ve finished my novel and I am now officially a knitting addict. Yes, that’s right, I sent my novel off to a few agents this week (huzzah!), and although I have a few other projects going on at the moment, I suddenly have WAY more time than I used to, and knitting is filling that gap quite nicely. Quite nicely, indeed.

I learned how to knit as a kid from my mom, who is a very accomplished knitter, and who learned at the feet of a Knitter Extraordinaire, my grandmother. My grandmother is seriously the best knitter in the world, you guys. I think part of it is being Irish – it’s in their blood to cook a mean potato and knit a mean sweater – but she’s also just talented. She knits little clothes for teddy bears and tiny little Christmas stocking earrings, she felts purses, and she can knit up a cardigan while drinking a cup of tea, doing a crossword puzzle, having a conversation, and watching TV. I aspire to this, but I am not there yet. For now, I can knit while watching — okay, listening to — TV, and sometimes while having a conversation, but if the pattern gets complicated, I have to stop and stare really hard at the pattern and then stare really hard at the knitting, and swear a little bit, and this tends to derail the conversation. Luckily, Al doesn’t mind.

My motivation for picking up knitting again was that I needed something to do that was creative but not creative in the same way that writing is. With knitting, you are creating something with your hands, in the sense that you are bringing something into being, but you’re not inventing the pattern (at least, I’m not!) so it’s not taxing in the same way that writing is. When I write, I have to dredge things up from the depths of my brain, examine them, perhaps throw them back, dredge again, put the remains on paper, and then shape and perfect them until they are presentable. When I knit, I just have to follow a pattern and try not to eff it up.

I decided to relearn the knitting basics by doing a lot of sample swatches out of a book called Fearless Knitting Workbook. I highly recommend the book for the patterns but not necessarily for its instruction; I think the author has a super confusing way of explaining the basics. For clear instructions on technique, I recommend Vogue Knitting: The Ultimate Knitting Book (unbeatable) and the excellent Stitch ‘n bitch, The Knitter’s Handbook. Anyway, I worked my way through some of the swatch projects in Fearless Knitting to refresh myself on some techniques (stitches, decreases, increases, reading a pattern, binding off, etc.). I also relied on YouTube, which is a veritable smorgasbord of knitting videos. Overall, I was pretty happy with my learning curve.

My precious(es)
My precious(es)

In the photo above, the swatch in the upper right was my first effort, and it was, as one would expect, meh. The one in the upper left was my second attempt, which was better. The one in the bottom left was my third swatch – a proud Canadian maple leaf with some mistakes, but the pattern was crazy, give me a break – and the one on the bottom right is a dishtowel I made by knitting on the diagonal, if that makes sense. After doing these four swatches, I felt ready for the big time, so I decided to start on a pattern for a cowl. This is what my project looks like so far:

IMG_2596 IMG_2598First of all, let’s all agree right now that this yarn is the bomb. It’s from Japan, it’s called Noro, and I’m so obsessed with it, I want to marry it. Second of all, the cowl is going well – I learned how to slip stitches and do a cable cast-on, as well as some other schmancy techniques, but guess what? Turns out as I was knitting away on my circular needles, feeling like a boss, my cowl was becoming twisted on the needles and I didn’t notice. So when it’s done, it’s going to be what Al refers to as a “mobius scarf.” Sigh. Oh, well. This is all for the sake of learning, you see.

My next projects will be a beret for me and a cool knit beanie for Al. I can hardly wait to go to my local knitting store tomorrow. It’s called Arthur Bales and it’s adorable. Here’s a picture I took of the outside:



Precious! I also love that all of the employees are grandmas who know their way around a ball of yarn. It’s everything I want a knitting store to be: a little bit old-fashioned, a little bit disorganized, and filled with old ladies and yarn. What more do you want?

Anyway, if you can’t tell, I am Jessie-Spano-levels-of-jazzed about knitting these days. I look forward to it, it brings me joy, and I think it’s something I am going to be doing for the rest of my life. Beware friends and family: you are all receiving things made out of yarn this year for Christmas.


Sound advice Thursday: Where should we live?

Dear Steph,

I live with my fiancee in a city where I am not happy but we both have jobs. I have been offered a job in another city where I previously lived and was much happier; however, it would be fairly difficult for my fiancee to find a job there. I’m fine with supporting her because I love her, but I worry that she will be unfulfilled in this new city without a job. Even though my career will be better and I will be happier, I worry that we will be weaker as a couple because she’ll be unhappy, resentful, etc. Obviously, this is a complex issue with a lot of considerations, but based on what I’ve written, what do you suggest?


Rock vs. Hard Place

"Rock, Hard Place" Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.

Dear RVHP,

This is a toughie. I don’t know your situation beyond the slim paragraph that you’ve written me, but here are the basic facts as I see them:

1. Right now you both have jobs but one of you is unhappy;

2. If you move, only one of you will have a job and one of you may be unhappy.

Based on these barest of facts, it seems that your current situation might be better than the future situation — but then again, it might not. The problem is that so much is unknowable here. Will your fiancee be able to get a job in the new city? If not, will she definitely be unhappy? How long will you live in the new city? Will you definitely be happier there? What if your job there falls through?

Given all the uncertainties, it’s impossible to predict what the final result will be. So, since I can’t tell you what to do based on predictions about the future, I’ll just suggest some factors to consider as you think things over.

1. Jobs are hard to get. Right now you both have jobs, but if you move, only one of you will have guaranteed employment. Can both of you survive comfortably on one salary? Do you want to? Does she want to?

2. Jobs are important. Some people thrive on a fast-paced career. Others (ahem, me) are fine with leaving prestige behind but still need to have satisfying, fulfilling work. But pretty much everyone needs to feel that their days have value. It may seem fun now for your fiancee to be a stay-at-home-lady, with no job and no responsibilities, but I suspect the fun of that will wear off quickly and she will want to find something – a job or volunteer work or a project – to occupy her time and make her feel like she has a purpose. Consider how long an arrangement in which you work and she sits around the house, bored, will be sustainable, and what types of opportunities are available to her in the new city.

This probably won't be your fiancee's life.
This will get old.

3. Relationships are a two-way street. Despite what ABC’s The Bachelor would have us believe, in actual relationships, both parties have an equal say in where the couple will live and work. In the Bachelor, the lead always picks his fiancee based on whether or not she’s willing to drop everything and move to his hometown and “fit into his life,” as if she were a lamp or a duvet cover. Turns out, real relationships don’t work this way, and thus, you and your fiancee need to talk – a lot – and figure out an arrangement that will work for both of you. It’s the truth that committed relationships involve compromise; in fact, I wrote here about the balancing act my husband and I achieved when we decided to come to South Africa for his job. As it turns out, before we moved here, we were both afraid that I’d be unhappy, isolated in a city with a bad reputation. As it turns out, though, my husband is the one who has struggled more here. As I said before, you just don’t know how these things are going to turn out before they happen, which is why it’s important to talk and understand one another’s needs.

4. Flexibility is key. It’s important for your fiancee to know that she — not the job or the city — is your first priority and that if things are horrible for her in the new city, you’ll listen to her and figure out together a way to make things better, whether that means moving back to the old city, or commuting, or living apart, or whatever works for both of you. This is how you will prevent resentment from creeping in to your relationship: by listening, compromising, and realizing that human relationships are The Most Important Thing in life, period, and that sometimes, other things might need to fall by the wayside to make those relationships work.

I realize this advice might sound a bit vague, but hopefully you can use it to spark a conversation with your fiancee about what you both want, and to feel your way toward a workable compromise.

Good luck!

~ Steph

Book review Tuesday: Philida, by Andre Brink

In my effort not to be a complete ignoramus about the country I’m living in, I’ve been trying to read some South African literature and journalistic non-fiction. Being me, I’m doing much better with the fiction than the non-fiction. Whereas I haven’t been able to pick up Country of My Skull – a harrowing account of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – for weeks now, I finished Andre Brink’s novel Philida easily. Philida was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, but I actually decided to read it because an American friend of mine, Jon, told me he had just torn through one of Brink’s other books, A Dry White Season, and that I had to read it. I went to my local bookstore to look for it but they didn’t have it – but they did have Philida.

138.Andre Brink-Philida

Philida is the story of a slave woman living in the Cape in the 1830s. The book opens with Philida lodging a complaint with the Office of the Slave Protector against her owner, Cornelis Brink, and his son, Francois Brink. Francois, Philida explains, is the father of her four children, and he promised to set her free. Now, he has reneged on his promise and is selling Philida – and their children – upcountry so he can marry a rich white woman.

The novel traces Philida’s struggle to gain her freedom, and illuminates complex relationships between owners and slaves. Secrets about the Brink family come to light and one begins to understand, bit by bit, why the slave-owner dynamics are so very tricky in this particular family. Philida is set in the 1830s, just before slaves were emancipated in South Africa in 1834 (via the Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery throughout the British empire). The knowledge, shared by owners and slaves alike, that the slaves will soon be set free, complicates matters even further.

The plot has a few twists and turns but, in general, is slow-paced. Much of Philida’s journey happens on foot, with meandering descriptions of the landscape and her thoughts. Even if long-winded, the story still manages to be gripping, and the diversions weren’t enough to make me lose interest. Plus, Brink’s writing is so unique, it was hard to get bored.

When reading Philida, it is difficult not to be impressed by the ability of Brink – a white South African man – to write from the perspective of Philida, a black (or perhaps coloured) South African female slave. Brink explained in an interview with NPR that the story was based on historical records and one of the main characters, Francois Brink, was an actual ancestor of his. Philida’s voice is absorbing; it is easy to forget that she was brought to life by a white man. Brink also tells parts of the story from the perspective of Francois and Cornelis, but it is Philida we are rooting for and whose voice dominates the narrative.

In the end, Philida gets a kind of deliverance, although this is not what one would call a “feel good” book. Still, if you’re looking to read well-crafted historical fiction about one piece of South Africa’s complicated past, Philida is a good place to start.

Revising. Again.

I am back at revising my novel, hopefully for the final time. Exciting! It has been a long and challenging process, but I think I see the light at the end of the tunnel. This week should hopefully be The Week that I send the damned thing off to agents. Finally.

So, in order to focus, I won’t be blogging today. But I’ll be back with new and fascinating things to say later this week.

For now, I’ll leave you with this article in the New York Times about writers, including Junot Diaz and Michael Chabon, and the temptations of the internet. (See? This is why I have to sign off now.)


I’m sure I’m way late to this party, since I am, as we’ve established on many occasions, old, but I just discovered the iPhone app iMadeFace and it is SO FUN, you guys. It’s an app that lets you make portraits of people, real or imaginary, by choosing from an array of facial features, hair styles and colors, and backgrounds. I am sure this will be the next DrawSomething, in that I’ll be so sick of it I’ll want to throw it across the room in approximately one week, but for now, I am into it.

Being a narcissist, I first attempted a self-portrait, which did not turn out looking anything like me. I tried different noses, different hairstyles, different eyes, but it turns out iMadeFace does not contain my unique blend of features (go figure!) so I came out looking like a generic (but pretty) white lady. Which is great, except I don’t look like that. My iMadeFace portrait is much cuter than I am, and that bugs me. Can I get plastic surgery to look more like her? Except with a neck?me

Photo on 2010-11-27 at  15.16

I had much better luck creating my husband.



NAILED IT. (Note: he always takes off his glasses for photos but wears them in real life, so I’m gonna go ahead and say that the portrait I made actually looks MORE like him than a photo. There, I said it.)

Next, I turned to making portraits of all of the main characters from my novel, which I justified as being a “visualization exercise,” rather than a complete waste of time. This was so much fun. Since 99.9% of you haven’t read my manuscript, these portraits will probably be meaningless, but I want to share them anyway, because they are fun.


Don’t you want to read my novel now?

Anyway. I am done for the day; it’s 6 pm and I’ve had a hard day of making iMadeFace portraits, so I am going to sign off. Everyone go download iMadeFace and send me your best self-portrait!