North of Normal

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North of Normal (Photo: HarperCollins Canada)You know what’s great about a vacation? Reading time.

Right now, Matt and I are spending a few days at his parents’ cottage in Nova Scotia. We’re actually car-less for a couple of days, and we’re kilometres away from anything, so unless I’m out for a run, we’re BBQing or napping off the jet lag and the after-effects of our red-eye flight, we’re out on the beach reading.

I wasn’t sure about North of Normal at first. It’s been out for a little while, and it always seems to be a popular pick at the bookstore. There was a time in May/June where we could hardly keep it in stock. I think what turned me off was the whole wilderness-girl-turned-supermodel angle. Unique, to be sure, but I wasn’t sure it was me.

This is why the Kindle is so great. I stocked up on a couple of books before leaving home (I wasn’t sure about the Wi-Fi capabilities at a cottage, although it’s been quite reliable, and I prefer to travel with my Kindle because it’s so light and easy), and the Kindle edition of North of Normal is pretty reasonable – certainly cheaper than the physical book. So all of a sudden, a book I was kind of on the fence about became a book I was really excited to read.

Person’s memory of her earliest years is vivid, striking, and graphically shocking. I wouldn’t recommend this book to people who are bothered by profanity, sex or drugs – although this is part of Person’s message. Her unconventional childhood – growing up in the Canadian wilderness in British Columbia and Alberta in a tipi with her free-love hippie grandparents, her teenage mother and a series of unstable aunts and uncles – doesn’t make for familiar or light reading.

But the story Person tells – of perseverance, survival and drive – is an important story to tell. As she grows up and begins to learn how to overcome her upbringing and move beyond her self-professed “crazy” family, she realizes that she has the skills and tools she needs to survive in an adult world at just 13 years old.

I enjoyed reading North of Normal more than I thought I would. I especially liked the local connections to Calgary and Morley. And most of all, I enjoyed reading this book in two sittings right here:

Who wouldn't enjoy reading with a view like this?

Who wouldn’t enjoy reading with a view like this?

A Long Way Home

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A Long Way Home (Photo: Penguin)When I first saw Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home on a table at the bookstore, I knew it was a story that I needed to read.

This book has been getting a lot of great buzz since it came out (most recently, a film deal off the back of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Looks like the movie will be called Lion and production will begin in August). All you need to do is skim the back to know that it’s a captivating story.

Saroo had become lost on a train in India at the age of five. Not knowing the name of his family or where he was from, he survived for weeks on the streets of Kolkata, before being taken into an orphanage and adopted by a couple in Australia.

Despite being happy in his new family, Saroo always wondered about his origins. He spent hours staring at the map of India on his bedroom wall. When he was a young man the advent of Google Earth led him to pore over satellite images of the country for landmarks he recognised. And one day, after years of searching, he miraculously found what he was looking for.

How can you pass this kind of story up?

I think what drew me in – aside from the fact that Brierley’s circumstances and story are extraordinary – is that we’re nearly the same age. I’m 29, Brierley is in his early 30s. We grew up (mostly) with the same sense of Western privilege, the same access to technology. But I can’t even imagine what it would be like to lose my family, to not know where I came from.

This is a really quick read, and I would recommend it to anyone. I polished it off on a single flight to Nova Scotia (Matt and I are spending a couple of weeks on the east coast of Canada, visiting his family, catching up with friends and getting my Anne of Green Gables fix on Prince Edward Island), and I was struck by Brierley’s self-awareness, resourcefulness and tenacity.

Anyone who has a fascination with technology – especially Google – survival stories, resilience and the ‘smallness’ of our very big world needs to read A Long Way Home. I’m so glad I did.

Drama High

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Drama High (Photo: Penguin Group US)Full disclosure. I didn’t buy Drama High for myself. I picked it up for Matt, who is directing a spring play, a couple of weeks ago as a Valentine’s Day present. It’s a fascinating portrait of one of America’s best drama teachers, Lou Volpe, who has been asked to pilot high school versions of big-ticket Broadway shows (Rent, Les Miserables and Spring Awakening, to name some of the more controversial ones) from his unassuming school auditorium in Levittown, Pennsylvania during his 40 years on staff.

But of course, I got curious (I’m a huge musical theatre junkie) and started reading. I read all but 70 pages, and then it was Valentine’s Day, so I stopped reading, wrapped it up, gave it to Matt and then promptly asked for it right back so I could finish it (I also got him some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, so that did soften the blow of me stealing his present just a little bit).

I think maybe it’s partly because I feel like I’m in a much calmer headspace about my career shift than I was last semester when I was still figuring the ins and outs of returning to university as an adult, but I find myself gravitating to a lot of ‘teacher’ books right now (case in point: Tony Danza’s I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had. I’m still talking about it to anyone who will listen). It’s not conscious, but it’s something I’m noticing about myself right now. I guess maybe I’m looking for a little bit of inspiration.

Luckily, Lou Volpe has inspiration in spades. Michael Sokolove is a former student of Volpe’s from his earliest years of teaching, and he’s managed to paint a sensitive, respectful and compelling portrait of a beloved educator. Drama High follows Volpe’s class at Harry S Truman High School during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years with sharp observations. “Confidence is a funny thing in high school. Almost everyone has it in the wrong measure – either too little or too much,” Sokolove writes. Unassuming Volpe has the gift of bringing out the best in his students, which is one of the things that makes him a great teacher.

The New York Times did a really nice review of Drama High when the book first came out. It points out that Sokolove’s personal connection to the story is another reason why it’s such an excellent read. He’s not only a former pupil of Volpe’s, but his kids are also high school-age, which means he has a vested interest in arts education and the impact of heroic teachers.

“What Volpe’s students gain from him is a passion and sense of self unrelated to anything having to do with money, power or status, Sokolove continues. “Nothing matters except what they do together.” Isn’t that what every person, regardless of their profession, should want to achieve in their work? I hope so.

A Stolen Life

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I’ve been completely captivated/disturbed by the Cleveland kidnapping stories this week. My parents get a lot of American news channels, and this story is so sensational anyway, that it seems to be on TV all the time. It’s horrifying. Those girls are around my age and it just completely breaks my heart how much freedom was taken away from them.

One thought I keep coming back to is that the girls in Cleveland must be made of pretty tough stuff. This reminded me of Jaycee Dugard – she’s made of pretty tough stuff too. Against my better judgement, I bought A Stolen Life on my Kindle. And then, in a move that displays supremely terrible decision-making, I decided to read it before bed.

While this was a very bad idea if, like me, you are a person who values peaceful sleep without nightmares, this little book is a powerful and moving read. It is graphic, and there are many recollections that are very, very upsetting. Like I said, I didn’t sleep very much last night, and I cried buckets while I read it. But as I’ve said before, good books don’t have to be happy. The best books stay with you. And this one certainly does.

That’s not to say that there aren’t flaws with A Stolen Life. There are lengthy sections taken from young teenage Dugard’s diary in which she expresses her heartfelt love for a kitten, for example. And the book focuses heavily on her earlier years in captivity, at the expense of her later experiences as a mother. Because she seems to draw on her motherhood as a source of strength and resilience, it would have been interesting to see more about this part of her life. But this is Dugard’s story told in Dugard’s voice, so who am I to say what is important to reveal?

A Stolen Life isn’t a light read, although it is short. I finished the whole thing in just a couple of hours. But it will stay with me for days.