Mrs. Mike

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Mrs MikeMrs. Mike is one of those books that I love to re-read every couple of years. This time, I dug it out because my neighbour Elizabeth, who is 18 and in grade 12, has never read it and I feel like it’s the kind of book that every high school girl should read.

My mom gave me my first-ever copy of Mrs. Mike (and the one I still have) when I had to do an individual report on a Canadian book for Grade 11 English in 2001. I’m sure Mr. Liffiton thought I was mildly insane when I teared up during my presentation (I kept it all together, don’t worry), because Mrs. Mike is one of the most moving, sad, funny, heartwarming, lovely books in the world. And best of all, it takes place right here in Canada.

It’s certainly not a new book. My mom remembers reading it as a kid and my old, tattered copy says it was originally published in 1947. It tells the true story of Katherine Mary O’Fallon, a city girl from Boston who travelled to Alberta in 1907 at age 16 to recover from pleurisy. (I had to Google pleurisy. I’m pretty sure that 2001 Kaitlyn had to look it up in an actual dictionary. At any rate, it is an inflammation of the lungs. I’m not sure how an Alberta winter would have helped with that, but I am very glad that Katherine Mary came to Canada, because otherwise, we wouldn’t have this beautiful book.)

Anyway, Katherine meets Sgt. Mike Flannigan of the RCMP, falls head over heels in love with him, and before she knows it, she’s a teenage wife living in one of the harshest and most remote places on earth. It’s a story of survival, bravery, luck and true love, and I love it every single time I read it. I also kind of fall in love with Sgt. Mike a little bit each time I read it too. Just make sure you have a box of Kleenex with you when you do, because it’s a tearjerker.

Some Girls

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Some Girls (Photo: Penguin US)Some Girls: My Life in a Harem got a lot of press when it first came out three-ish years ago, and I remember at the time thinking that I should reserve it at the library.

But then, as with many things, it just sort of slipped my mind and I completely forgot about it until I was leafing through the magazines at Shopper’s Drug Mart last weekend and happened to come across it on a book rack. I read the back and it piqued my interest again, but I didn’t really want to walk around with a book that said ‘harem’ on the front cover. So I did the modern girl cop-out. I went home and bought it on my Kindle.

I’m a firm believer in the power of the memoir because if you happen to be a smart, capable and open-minded reader, you can live vicariously through the experiences of others and learn from them without ever having to leave your living room. With this in mind, thank goodness for Jillian Lauren, whose beautifully-crafted story is full of lessons.

It would be easy to boil the summary of these lessons down to ‘don’t go to Brunei to join the sultan’s harem’ or ‘maybe Patti Smith isn’t the best guardian angel for you to imagine for yourself’ or something similar. But there’s much more to Some Girls than this. It is the story of a young woman’s quest to find herself.

Sure, her methods are unorthodox and her adventures are extreme. Would I have made the same choices as Jillian Lauren? Absolutely not. I don’t think I’m brave enough, or foolish enough, to make the decisions she made (and yes, I think she is both of these things, probably in equal measure in total, though different levels of bravery and foolishness shine out at different points of the story). But the thing I thought was interesting is that Jillian Lauren started out as a kid in the suburbs, too. Our paths didn’t go in the same direction, thank goodness, but this sort of experience gives you the thought that it could have happened to you if you were dealt a different hand of cards in life. It could have been me. It could have been any of us.

What I value most in nonfiction writing is honesty, and this she brings to the table in spades.I think that she acknowledges her recklessness really bravely (check out this really frank interview she did for Smith magazine¬†back in 2010, or the five-question interview she did for She Writes around the same time). I don’t envy Jillian Lauren her experiences, but I am thankful she has shared them. This was a fascinating read.

Canadian Pie

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Canadian Pie (Photo: Penguin)When it comes to sharp, observant essays and travel writing with a heavy dollop of humour, Bill Bryson stands head and shoulders above the pack – but if I had to pick a second place contender, Will Ferguson would definitely be the guy for the job.

I first encountered Ferguson when I was gifted a copy of Beyond Belfast for Christmas a few years ago (thanks Mom!). It’s also worth a read. It’s about hiking the Ulster Way in Northern Ireland and is brilliant and funny – and I was living in the UK at the time, so I especially appreciated it. The Globe & Mail did a great review when it first came out, which you can read here.

While I was knees-deep in Canadiana at the public library researching a pretty major history paper I have to write on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside for one of my courses, I came across this guy. And of course, in the interest of paper procrastination, I just had to read it.

I’m so very glad I did. If you could put The Morningside World of Stuart McLean and whatever the Canadian equivalent of Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Big Country (released in the US as I’m A Stranger Here Myself) into some sort of combination machine and blend them together, the result would probably come close to Canadian Pie. Chatelaine calls it a “laugh-out-loud travel read” and I’d have to agree.

When you go away from a place for awhile, like I did (I lived outside of Canada for over six years), it’s impossible not to return and see it through the lens of an outsider a little bit. Ferguson totally nails this feeling – and the result is a keenly observant, often very funny look at Canadian culture and what makes us tick. He gets stalked by cougars on Vancouver Island, muses on Canadians’ obsession with creating “big-ass objects by the highway” and generally appears to be having a very good time. I had a very good time reading it, too.

Rilla of Ingleside

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Rilla of Ingleside (Photo: Penguin)Did you know that Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in the Anne of Green Gables series, is the only Canadian novel written about WWI during the actual war from the viewpoint of the women who stayed at home while their sons, brothers, boyfriends and husbands went off to fight?

I sure didn’t when I first read Rilla of Ingleside as a kid – I was way too preoccupied with hoping that her handsome boyfriend Ken Ford would make it home safely from the front. But for my 20th century Canadian History class (a prerequisite for the Bachelor of Education I hope to start in September), we had to write an essay on the historical impact of a piece of Canadian fiction. When I saw Rilla of Ingleside on the list, I knew I had to re-read it.

As it turns out, re-reading a beloved childhood classic as an adult is a lot of fun. There were lots of parts about Rilla that I remembered, and other parts that I either forgot about or just didn’t register when I first read it, which must have been when I was about 11 or 12 (I got the entire Anne of Green Gables box set for Christmas the year I was in grade five, though my mom and I had read Anne together years earlier).

I didn’t know (before I had to write my paper and spent hours poring over this stuff) that diary entries made by Rilla on specific key dates during the war were closely linked to diary entries made by LM Montgomery herself as the battles in France raged on. I also wasn’t mature enough to figure out the similarties between Walter’s (Anne’s second-oldest son, and Rilla’s favourite brother) poem The Piper and John MacRae’s In Flander’s Fields, or to catch the portrayal of Rilla as a symbol of Canada worth dying for. But it’s all there in this moving book, which I enjoyed even more the second time around.

Rilla of Ingleside contains very little of the lightness of the early Anne books – in fact, it’s rather deep and dark, and possibly works better as a standalone piece of fiction than the end of an iconic series. But it’s worth a read for its historical significance alone. I’ve never had so much fun writing a school paper before.

Persuasion

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Persuasion (Photo: HarperCollins)Of all the Dragons on the Canadian version of Dragon’s Den, Arlene is my favourite. So when I saw a copy of her book Persuasion: A New Approach to Changing Minds in paperback and on sale, I snapped it up.

I’m quite fond of business books, even though I don’t really have business-y designs (or even management designs right now – after more than six years as a writer and just under five in management roles, I’m quite happy to take a sharp career shift into something that’s a bit more¬†me. Never say never though. I’m learning not to rule anything out). I think they have important lessons to teach us about leadership, human interaction, smart decisionmaking and the ability to critically evaluate our successes and setbacks.

I find Arlene really inspiring. At 31, as a divorced single mom without a high school diploma, her prospects didn’t look good. But flash-forward a decade and she’s a major marketing CEO. How can you not get inspired by that? Arlene made me feel – at a time where I was scared and doubting my decision to career change and head back to school – like all the risks might just be worth the reward after all.

In particular, I liked her chapters on avoiding the trap of talking ourselves out of success (who hasn’t had that ‘I’m not good enough’ voice pop into their head from time to time? I know I have) and on the qualities of honesty, authenticity and listening.

There’s not a lot of newness in this book – and to be perfectly fair, a lot of Arlene’s concepts involve a relatively common-sense approach to thinking and problem-solving – but it’s delivered in a frank, accessible and inspiring way with plenty of personal anecdotes. I found that this was a case of reading the right book at the right time. I’m so glad I picked it up.