Merry Christmas!

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When I returned to my hometown of Calgary just over a year ago (after nearly ten years away in Toronto, then England and finally Australia), I wasn’t sure what 2013 would bring. But fortunately, I’ve had the warmest welcome a girl could ask for. I’ve had the chance to reconnect with some old friends, make new ones, pursue some personal and professional goals and spend some much-needed time with my family. I couldn’t have done all of this anywhere else, and 2013 turned out to be one of the best years ever. There really is no place like home.

There will be many more books to blog about in the days ahead, but today I wanted to share Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi’s rendition of Santa Claus is Coming to Calgary. Our fabulous mayor is just one of many reasons that this city is such a great place to live (and isn’t it awesome that he reads?).

Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope your holiday season is happy, peaceful and spent in the company of friends and family.

The Witness Wore Red

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The Witness Wore Red (Photo: Hachette Book Group)I’ve been eyeing The Witness Wore Red for a few months now, and last night/this morning I thought I would finally bite the bullet, sit down and read it. It was a huge mistake – not because it’s not great, because it really is – but because it’s so compelling that all the stuff I was going to do today before work (like go to the pool, do all my laundry and organize the rest of my Christmas presents), just got thrown right out the window.

A weird thing that you should probably know about me is that I find the whole issue of the FLDS – the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints – completely fascinating. I’m not entirely sure why, though I know that it started right around the time that I read my dad’s copy of Under The Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer in 2003, right before university. If you haven’t read this, you really should. I’ve read it about four times and it’s a brilliantly-researched, smart and intriguing look into the spin-off sects and subcultures that are rooted in early Mormonism (but have absolutely nothing to do with modern Mormon faith – this is a really, really important distinction).

From there, I read Carolyn Jessop’s Escape and Elissa Wall’s A Stolen Life – both stories of courageous young FLDS women who fled their plural marriages at great personal risk. Both were inspiring for different reasons – Jessop’s because she blazed a trail for other young women to follow (and because she managed to escape the FLDS with all of her children) and Wall’s because I was shocked to discover that Elissa Wall is actually one year younger than me. It’s actually mind-blowingly awful to believe that in modern North America, when I was getting As in English, worrying about my lack of basketball skills and getting ready to go to grade nine dances for lots of sweaty hand-holding, a grade eight girl just a day’s drive from me was being promised in marriage to her own cousin. Why don’t more people know this is going on? Why wasn’t anybody doing anything? I wondered. My heart broke for Elissa.

I also read Jessop’s moving follow-up book Triumph: Life After The Cult while I lived in Sydney – and of course, I’m a huge, huge fan of the HBO show Big Love (Roman and Alby Grant are loosely based on Rulon and Warren Jeffs, and there’s even a scene where Roman Grant watches news footage of Warren Jeffs’ arrest). And I was completely riveted by the 2008 news coverage of the raids on the Yearning for Zion ranch, as well as Warren Jeffs’ 2011 trial. I’m fully aware that this is a really odd thing to be very well read about (in part, I blame my journalism degree). It’s just so interesting and terrible and…well…it just doesn’t seem possible that it continues to happen in post-2000 USA.

If you think all of these other books are great reads – or if you’ve never read anything about the FLDS before – The Witness Wore Red is one of the best first-hand accounts of this culture I’ve come across. Rebecca Musser (who is the sister of Elissa Wall, who I had been wondering about since I read Stolen Innocence) is articulate, resilient and independent – and her keen eye for detail makes for a comprehensive portrait of life in the sect for young women, particularly when she becomes the 19th wife of ‘prophet’ Rulon Jeffs at age 19 (he was in his mid-80s).

For seven years, she faced unspeakable emotional, sexual and physical abuse until her husband died – at which time, the expectation was that she would then marry his son, Warren Jeffs. With nowhere to go and nobody to turn to, she made what might possibly have been the bravest and scariest decision ever – she hopped the fence and escaped, knowing she had no money, resources, education or skills and that she was turning her back on her entire family and the only life she had ever known.

She writes about her experiences immediately after she leaves the FLDS. Rebecca can’t even make a single decision about who she should be, what food she should order on a menu or even what her hair should look like on her own.

But she finds her voice. And what a voice!¬†Rebecca ended up being a key witness when Warren Jeffs and other FLDS leaders finally went to trial over the crimes they had committed against women and children while in positions of power. ¬†She also consulted heavily with the Texas Rangers during the Yearning for Zion raids. It cost her a lot of money, several years of court cases and in the end, even her marriage, but her courageous fight for trapped young women who don’t know that they have voices of their own is a truly inspiring story. Now, she’s an international motivational speaker, and an advocate for human trafficking victims. You should spend some time checking out her website.

The Witness Wore Red is truthful, courageous and hopeful – and a great read. Check out the trailer here:

Room

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Room (Photo: HarperCollins)I’ve been working my way through two books simultaneously since classes wrapped up on Friday – one fiction and one nonfiction. Both are great reads and I’m enjoying them thoroughly for different reasons (reviews to follow!) but I spotted Room at the bookstore where I work and stopped to read the back and flip through the first couple of pages.

Maybe it’s because I’m still kind of freaked out from reading Jaycee Dugard’s A Stolen Life earlier this year, or maybe it’s because I couldn’t turn away from all the Cleveland kidnapping stories, even though that made me so upset that I actually couldn’t sleep for a few days back in mid-May. But the concept of Room just completely floored me – especially when I noticed it was published in 2011 (that’s post-Elizabeth Smart, Elisabeth Fritzl and Jaycee Dugard, but pre-Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus. Jeez, come to think of it, I read a lot of news about kidnappings. That’s kind of messed up.)

The story is told from the perspective of Jack, a boy who has never known any life other than inside Room, where he lives with Ma, his mother. It is only when Jack turns five and starts inquiring about the other ‘planets’ he sees on TV that the truth comes out – Outside is a very real place and his mother, who has been held captive by a stranger known only as Old Nick in Room for the past 7 years and is now 26, is desperate to escape and return to her old life.

Holy Moses. I started reading this book on my coffee break and got so worked up over whether Jack was going to be OK that I just had to buy it, bring it home and finish it all in one sitting. It was so compelling that I put off doing a couple of hours of freelance work (which means a potentially late night tomorrow, but it was worth it) and just sat in my big dish chair under a blanket and read and read.

It’s similar in some ways to Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend in that the narrator is unconventional and child-like, but the subject matter is even darker. There are elements of the story that are very, very uncomfortable, but the most powerful scenes are hopeful and resilient. Normally, I don’t tend to choose dark books (A Stolen Life was the last really dark thing I read), but this one had me from the first page. What really got me with Room, though, was the creative storytelling. I’ve never read much Emma Donoghue (who lives in London, ON – just like my brother!), but she’s masterfully created a suspenseful, thoughtful, emotional novel that kept me reading all day.

There’s a really cool website for Room, which I recommend you check out (if you click on the TV, you get a sort of video trailer).

On an unrelated note – although I guess it is sort of related, because Room would be a brilliant pick for any book club as there’s so much to talk about – I know my mom passed around a link to this blog at her book club last week. Hello new readers (and a special hi to Rhonda, who I met by chance at the bookstore today)! If you’re interested in subscribing, there’s a little grey plus sign at the bottom right of the main page of the blog – just pop in your email address and you’ll get automatic updates every time there’s a new post.

A Great Op-Ed and ‘The Hungry Games’

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I’ve been quiet this week because it’s the last stretch of final projects before the fall semester breaks up, and unfortunately, school > blog. But to tide you over for a couple of days until I can post for real, I encourage you to check out a couple of Hunger Games-related things as I come down from my Catching Fire euphoria from last weekend.

The first is a brilliant and insightful op-ed from the November 25 edition of the LA Times, which highlights the fact that the latest Hunger Games tie-in products do more to harm the agenda of the trilogy than help it. I thought it was poignant and smart and well-articulated – the Capitol Couture line really bothers me because it’s so anti-Katniss – and completely goes against the anti-classist message hammered home in all three Hunger Games novels.

On a much lighter note, please also check out this amazing Catching Fire parody they did on Sesame Street – The Hungry Games: Catching Fur. The pita gets me every time.