A House In The Sky

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A House In The Sky (Photo: Simon & Schuster)I’ve been waiting to read Amanda Lindhout’s memoir A House In The Sky for a while now. Friends started raving about it in the fall, and then my mom read it around the holidays and said she knew I would be fascinated by it. But I also knew it would be a heavy read, so I wanted to leave it until I had a little bit of spare time to process it.

Enter my new job. Now that my semester (and my student teaching placement) is over, I’m working with a temp agency for the summer – and for the next few days, I’m manning the reception desk at an office that is basically empty. This means lots of time spent reading, and it’s even OK with the boss! So today, I took advantage of the fancy office coffee maker and a handful of Mini Eggs, sat down with A House In The Sky, and read it all in one sitting.

It is a riveting read and a fascinating story. I hesitate to use the word good because nothing that happens to Lindhout is good. As a reckless aspiring journalist with no training, credentials or real experience to speak of, she quickly finds herself in over her head – first working for an unscrupulous network whose values she doesn’t share, and then travelling to Somalia on a too-good-to-be-true assignment. I have a degree in journalism, and I wouldn’t go anywhere near the assignments Lindhout chose to take on. Other reporters (both in the book and a real-life family acquaintance who works in television) have remarked that her choices were irresponsible and reckless. Lindhout herself admits as much. But in her mid-20s, with an adventurous spirit and a dream of a career bigger than waitressing, it must have sort of seemed like a good idea at the time.

Her recollection of her harrowing year in captivity is upsetting in the same way that A Stolen Life was upsetting – this is the story of a real young woman whose every freedom, including control over her own body, has been taken away from her. Lindhout is only a few years older than me, and hails from Alberta. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to put myself in her shoes while I was reading, and I know that will stay with me for a few days.

Oddly, because this seems to be a recurring theme in the seemingly disparate book choices I’ve been making in the past few weeks, Lindhout also makes very specific references to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, and it’s evident that the lessons of mindful thinking and self-awareness served her well in her darkest times. It’s a fascinating parallel, especially when contrasted with 10% Happier and my own limited experience as a reluctant explorer of Tolle’s theory.

There are many lessons to be learned from A House In The Sky. It’s a tale of growing up, physical and mental willpower, positive thinking, survival, forgiveness and redemption. I may not sleep soundly tonight, but it has left me with lots to chew on.

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10% Happier

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10% Happier (Photo: HarperCollins Canada)I picked up Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier on a whim a few weeks ago. A copy of it was displayed on a table of self help-style books at the bookstore where I work part-time. I picked it up and read this sentence: “Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem, largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment.” I was hooked.

You see, I actually rather like self help books. And for all that I mock Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now (which was given to me as an audiobook by a casual acquaintance – my esthetician, no less – in Sydney in early 2012), I actually think it has some good stuff in it. Let go of the past. Live in the present. Don’t dwell in worry about the future. Easier said than done, of course, but isn’t that a good message? And yet we lose it in the ridiculousness that goes along with the self help genre. We have Tolle’s faintly German-tinged English and his nonsensical turns of phrase, we have Deepak Chopra’s cult of celebrity. And now, we have Dan Harris to navigate us through all of the perpetual panflute accompaniment and make a sound, logical, no-nonsense case for the benefits of meditation.

Harris, a television reporter with ABC News and the co-anchor of Nightline, makes no bones about the fact that he was a meditation skeptic prior to a very public panic attack on live television. What followed was an inadvertent spiritual quest, spanning several years. As a trained journalist with some TV experience, and who has spent lots of time in high-pressure deadline-driven media environments, I empathize wholeheartedly with Harris’s experience. Like him, I found that a combination of yoga, Eckhart Tolle (in extremely small doses), self help exploration and bubble baths (my idea, not Harris’s) helped a lot in managing the stress of my media job, and of being so far from home.

I identify a lot with Harris, and I like what he has to say. Like me, he’s a skeptic of anything that sounds too good to be true, or of the meditation principles (like Tolle’s earnest pleas to live in the now with little regard for things like setting professional goals or making plans for the future) that have zero grounding in reality. Like me, he sees value in exploring a lot of spiritual options, then picking and choosing the ones that work best for his life, attitude and present situation.

I like him. And I like his message. Greater self-awareness won’t change our lives completely, but it does bring a sense of balance, and of happiness. 10% extra happiness, to borrow Harris’s phrasing. I think everybody could benefit from being 10% happier.

 

The Humans

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The Humans (Photo- HarperCollins Canada)Happy Easter, everyone! This long weekend is especially exciting for me – I wrapped up three weeks of student teaching last week, which means I’m halfway though my teacher training. Even more exciting for the short-term is that I have some free time to read again!

First up on my summer reading plan is The Humans by Matt Haig, which was a loan from my friend and fellow future teacher Angelo. It’s a bit The Rosie Project-meets-Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, and it was exactly what I felt like reading as a hectic few weeks of lesson planning, student teaching high school and presentations drew to a close.

The Humans is narrated by an unnamed alien, a Vonnadorian, who is sent to Earth in the form of Andrew Martin, a British math professor. The real Andrew Martin has been killed by the Vonnadorians, and our narrator’s mission is to live among human beings and eliminate anyone who knows that the Riemann hypothesis has been proved.

Humans, according to the narrator are barbaric and primitive. But as he spends time getting to know Martin’s wife and son – and inadvertently picking up the pieces of the professor’s messy personal life – he starts to believe that life on Earth might be more beautiful, peaceful, hopeful and happy than he had ever imagined.

On the surface, this book seems like it might be crazy, but it’s sweet and sharply observed (imagine trying to teach yourself English armed with a British Cosmopolitan magazine at a Texaco gas station). I thought it was the perfect kick-start to a summer of great reading.