Popular

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Popular (Photo: Penguin UK)I recently spent a week house-sitting for my parents while they enjoyed Easter break in Arizona. We all had dinner together when they came back last weekend, and my mom couldn’t wait to tell me about a new book she had read about in their hotel’s USA Today.

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek was written by Maya van Wagenen, who is being described by book reviewers everywhere as a “breakout” teenage author. Maya is, to put it mildly, spectacular. The summer before her eighth grade year, she finds an old book in a closet in her home: the 1958 bestseller Betty Cornell’s Glamour Guide For Teens. Encouraged by her eccentric family, Maya decides to follow the book’s advice to the letter over the course of one school year to see if rag curls, girdles and 1950s fashion can help improve her standing on the vicious eighth grade social ladder.

Of course, as a former braces-wearing, acne-riddled grade eight student with aspirations of becoming a writer, I identified wholeheartedly with Maya. But never in a million years would my 14-year-old self have had the poise and gumption to follow through on her social experiment for an entire year.

Grade eight was hard enough at a small school in a close-knit semi-rural community in Alberta, Canada. We were, on the whole, genuinely nice kids and school certainly felt like a safe space. Even though I was an ugly duckling (with photographic proof) going into my grade eight year, I always had lots of friends. (Getting my braces off at 13, a course of Accutane at age 14, learning how to use makeup properly at 15 and the discovery of a magical device known as a hair straightener at age 17 meant that things got a lot better, eventually. I was also smart, which wouldn’t have helped at every school, but it did at mine.) But isn’t it funny how there’s always a piece of you – a little tiny piece – that remembers exactly what it is like to be an awkward grade eight kid? It never really goes away, does it? Maybe that’s why I identified so much with my younger high school students when I was student teaching last month.

But in another setting, like Maya’s school (located in Texas close to the USA-Mexico border and home to gang members, pregnant seventh-graders, drug dealers, frequent lockdowns and more violence on a single Friday afternoon than I probably saw in 12 years of public education combined), I might not have fared so well. Maya and I probably would have been friends, though. She would have been my really brave, creative, well-spoken, story-writing friend. And I identified completely with her.

Maya is frank, honest, charming, funny and – best of all – insightful. As an adult, and as an almost-teacher, she probably would be one of my favourite and most memorable students. I think she’s at her best when she comments on her ongoing definition of what it means to be popular – and I think it is interesting how this definition changes over the course of her school year. Everyone who was ever an awkward grade eight girl, or who knows any junior high-age kids, should read this book. It’s absolutely perfect.

 

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.

Crazy Town

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Crazy Town (Photo: Penguin Canada)I was so, so excited to learn in the fall that Robyn Doolittle was writing a book on Toronto’s Rob Ford saga.

Some context: Robyn started one year ahead of me in the Bachelor of Journalism program at Ryerson University (she began in 2002 and I arrived in 2003), and while she wouldn’t know me if we bumped into each other in the street, I would certainly know her. I would have known her even before this whole #Crackgate scandal blew up. I wouldn’t say we ran in the same circles – it was more like a Venn diagram. She was the editor-in-chief of The Eyeopener, one of Ryerson’s two weekly student newspapers. She was kind of a big deal on campus. I specialized in television and radio reporting and spent a semester overseas. I was less of a big deal on campus. But we have a number of mutual friends and acquaintances, and I remain a loyal Toronto Star reader, in spite of the fact that I left the city in 2007. In my opinion, it’s one of the best newspapers in the world. Plus, the world of Canadian journalism is pretty small, and it’s fun to see what the people I went to school with are up to. Ryerson grads can be found at pretty much every major news outlet in the country.

I really started paying attention to Robyn’s work when some friends started tweeting about an article she and her colleague Kevin Donovan wrote for the Toronto Star about Ford’s conduct at the Garrison Ball last March. I already had my eyes on Ford after that whole May 2012 fiasco with Daniel Dale outside the mayor’s property, which I followed from Sydney, Australia. But the Garrison Ball story was strange and sad, and I thought the reporters were fair and sensitive in their work.

I knew – and I would wager a guess that my fellow Ryerson alumni knew too – that from the second Robyn said that she had seen a video of the Toronto mayor smoking crack cocaine, it had to be true. Canadian newspapers don’t publish allegations like that unless they are certain of their information – and added on top of that is the fact that I know that like me, Robyn had to adhere to a strict policy known as Truth Telling: An Iron Rule for the Ryerson School of Journalism while she was an undergraduate. The reporting professors present it to students on their first day of classes in their first year. Fabrication, inaccurate and unverifiable facts, plagiarism and violations of the reporter-source relationship would result in zeros at best, and expulsion at worst. It is taken very, very seriously by faculty and students. To be perfectly frank, it terrified the heck out of me as a first-year student, even though I’m not prone to fabrication or inaccuracies. There’s no way you’d make anything up after you agreed to it. The stakes are too high, and it’s scary, especially when you’re 18 and in a brand new – and very big – city.

As for the book, Crazy Town is a great read. It sheds a lot of light on the fascinating and troubled Ford family, and details Robyn’s experiences covering his time in office. There are a lot of sleepless nights, midnight stakeouts, anonymous sources and all the things that make for a great journalism tale. Robyn only had a few months to complete her manuscript, but because she’s been reporting on the mayor since before he even took office, she draws on her extensive insider knowledge of the city, the man and the three-ring circus that has made Toronto a fixture of international headlines for the better part of the last year.

I don’t know about other Ryerson grads, but when I read about all the Rob Ford coverage, I think less about the mayor and more about Robyn. You’ll hear her say in interviews that it was never her intention to become part of this story. City Hall is a pretty standard beat for a young reporter, and – in my opinion, anyway – probably a pretty boring one in most cities. But most cities aren’t Toronto, most mayors are not Rob Ford and most reporters aren’t Robyn Doolittle. In the past year, she’s had to keep a heck of a secret (as her book reveals, it is agonizingly lonely to have seen a video of your city’s mayor smoking crack cocaine and not be allowed to tell anyone) and face intense public and media scrutiny – first as everyone tried to ascertain whether or not she was telling the truth, and then as a key player in the revelations and aftermath of the crack video scandal.

I’m no Toronto City Hall reporter, but when I explained to my mom about Robyn’s role in the whole situation, she told me that she was very thankful that it wasn’t me. I’m thankful it wasn’t me, too! For starters, I’d be a terrible City Hall reporter, but I also know I’d crumble under all the pressure Robyn has been under. We have similar training, but I wouldn’t be brave enough to ask the questions that Robyn asks. I would NEVER have gotten into a car with a stranger in the dead of night (and no purse!) to chase a story. And all of the aftermath?I’d be headed straight for a nervous breakdown.

Robyn Doolittle is made of strong stuff. She’s handled the whole situation with tremendous grace and dignity, and an unwavering commitment to the truth (her interview with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC’s Q is well worth checking out, if you have a spare 30 minutes – and did you catch her on The Daily Show too?). I found out via a former professor, Jagg Carr-Locke, on Facebook today that Robyn spent most of this morning with journalism students on the Ryerson campus, which was really, really cool of her.

Torontonians are lucky to have her, and she’s an inspiration to journalists everywhere. She’s certainly an inspiration to me.

 

I Am Malala

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I Am Malala (Photo Credit: Hachette Media Group)I Am Malala has been in the headlines a lot this week after promotional events to launch the book at Peshawar University were scrapped in late January. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know about any of this until today, when I finished the book and did a bit of Googling to find out more abut this fascinating and well-spoken young woman.

I didn’t read I Am Malala because of the news headlines this week. Back in the fall, my educational psychology instructor played the Jon Stewart interview with Malala Yousafzai for my class as an end-of-year wrap-up and I added it to my reading list for the holidays. Then, Matt picked up a copy of I Am Malala over the Christmas break and left it with me. I’ve actually been reading it on and off for the better part of the last month. It’s not a difficult read in terms of language, but the subject matter is heavy – after all, she did get shot by the Taliban. I tried to read it before bed a couple of times, but it left me feeling restless and unable to sleep. I guess that’s kind of the point.

What can I say about this incredible, incredible book? At 16, Malala has experienced more than most people will go through in their whole lives, and she has handled incomprehensible adversity with grace, intelligence, confidence and plenty of brains. At 16, I could have written my entire life on a the front and back of a piece of lined looseleaf and there wouldn’t have been very much to say. Malala has enough for an entire book and then some.

At many points, I was moved to tears. “We human beings don’t realize how great God is,” Malala writes. “He has given us an extraordinary brain and a sensitive loving heart. He has blessed us with two lips to talk and express our feelings, two eyes with which to see a world of colours and beauty, two feet which walk on the road of life, two hands to work for us, a nose  which smells the beauty of fragrance, and two ears to hear the words of love.” What an incredible young lady. You can read more about her girls’ education charity, the Malala Fund, here.

In my opinion, there are also two ‘other heroes’ of this story. One is Ziaddin, her dad, who is a passionate advocate for education for girls in a culture where this is definitely not the norm. Malala tells the story of her family – and the history of Pakistan (which I’ll freely admit to being mostly in the dark about before I read this book) – with a graceful matter-of-fact approach and a little bit of sharp, observant humour.

The second ‘other hero’ here is Dr. Fiona Reynolds, who happened to be in Pakistan at the time Malala was shot and risked her own personal safety to travel to Peshawar because she wanted to help an advocate for women’s education. Later, Dr. Reynolds acted as Malala’s legal guardian when she was airlifted to Birmingham for further medical treatment. Around the time I Am Malala first arrived in bookstores, the Huffington Post ran this article on Dr. Reynolds, which I think is a testament to her bravery, quick thinking and huge heart.

The writing in I Am Malala is very raw. You can feel the fear that the Taliban instilled in Malala and her family – and the loneliness of her new life in Britain. That was the thing that struck me the most about this book. Even though Malala is the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, and addressed the United Nations on her 16th birthday (I was too chicken to try for my driver’s license on my 16th birthday, although I did have dinner on a restaurant patio with my friends sans parents, which seemed very grown-up. And very insignificant when compared with all this), really, she’s just a lonely 16-year-old kid who wants to go home and can’t. My heart would break for her, but Malala knows exactly what she is destined to do – inspire people all over the world to take up the cause of education.

“So let us wage our global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism,” she told the United Nations in July last year. “Let us pick up – let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” Malala’s message is too important to be kept quiet. I encourage everyone to read this beautiful book.

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had

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Tony Danza (Photo Credit:  Crown Publishing)I don’t know what kind of rock I’ve been living under for the past few years (oh yeah, a big, Australia-shaped rock), but I completely missed that in the fall of 2010, A&E aired a short reality/documentary series called Teach: Tony Danza, which followed Tony Danza as he taught grade 10 English in inner-city Philadelphia for a school year. It’s the kind of thing that’s just random enough, and just awesome enough, that I would have absolutely loved to watch it when it was on.

So when I discovered at work a few months ago that Danza had written a book on his experiences in the classroom, I added it to my mental list of things to read when I got a spare second. And then I promptly forgot about it until Sunday.

I was perusing through the audiobooks when I found a copy of I’d Like To Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had at a markdown price. With my employee discount, it rang in at under $12 – the perfect gamble to take on six hours of entertainment to see me through my road trip to and from Edmonton to visit Matt, who is doing some work there this week.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not always sold on audiobooks. Usually, I can read a lot faster than I can listen – and in the case of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, which was my road trip pick back in November, I sometimes feel my attention begin to wander. But Tony Danza is different. I actually think this story works better as an audiobook than a real book because you can feel his passion and emotion come through more clearly. I’d wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who is a teacher, is (like me) studying to become a teacher or who has ever wondered what teachers get up to all day. There’s a great review from the New York Daily News and you can also read an excerpt here if pages, rather than audiobooks, are your preference.

The basic premise is this: In 2009, with a cancelled talk show, a marriage on the rocks and pushing 60, Tony Danza (who has a degree in history, which I didn’t know) decides to become a qualified teacher. Through Teach For America (which I don’t entirely understand but appears to be some sort of summer camp-style program where skilled and qualified professionals do their teacher training), Danza gets the credentials you need to teach in Philadelphia, and then makes his way to Northeast High – one of the city’s largest and most diverse inner-city schools.

I have to give Danza a lot of credit. He is very clear from the outset that even though a reality show is being made about his experience, he is taking his year of teaching very seriously. He’s up at the crack of dawn, coaching football, organizing talent shows, taking his kids on field trips, planning Shakespeare lessons and grading papers. He starts a lunchtime mentorship group, the Half-Sandwich Club, and helps kids with everything from homework to planning birthday parties. And when the reality show is deemed to be ‘not interesting’ enough, Danza refuses to compromise by scripting scenes or manufacturing drama. While the show is cancelled and the camera crew is gone before Christmas, he remains with his class all year, showing staff and students that he’s committed to the experience – and to them.

I spent six hours in the car with this audiobook over the past couple of days and I think it was exactly what I needed. Sometimes, the prospect of becoming a first-year teacher (which, next year, will be reality for me) is really exciting, and other times, it’s scary – especially when, as Danza describes it, it’s a ‘second-act’ career. I’m going into a ‘second-act’ career too and even though I’m pretty young, it’s daunting to start fresh from the beginning again.

I found him really reassuring for a number of reasons, not least of which because he cries a LOT in his year of teaching. I anticipate some tears of my own as I spend more time in classrooms. It’s nice to know that’s sort of normal and that even Tony Danza cries sometimes. It’s also nice to see him use experiences from his first-act careers (as a boxer and an actor) as lessons for his students. I know I’m not pushing 60, but I’m not fresh out of university either and it’s really good to know that the years I spent working really hard, travelling the world, and figuring out which careers worked and didn’t work for me might contain lessons that benefit someone else as much as they have benefitted me. I know that this inspiring and moving book will now start slowly making the rounds – first to Matt and my mom, who are both teachers, and then to my Bachelor of Education friends.

This book also really made me want to go track down the seven episodes of Teach: Tony Danza. Check out the preview below. Doesn’t this look awesome?!