Lonely Planet – Ireland

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IMG_4627Apologies, friends. It’s been more than a year (a year!) since we last met, and the fault is entirely mine.

To be fair, it’s been a rather big year. I survived a busy first year of teaching middle school, which is enough to shatter any pleasure reading schedule (yes, I read some great books – just in smaller quantities – and yes, I will tell you about them as soon as I can!). I also did a fair bit of paid writing, which always trumps blog freebies (you can read my recent work in Avenue Calgary and Spur [page 6] magazines, if you are so inclined). I trained for and ran my first half-marathon in June – a goal I have been hoping to cross off my list for a long time. And to top it all off, I got married last month to the Lager Blogger. It has been a wonderful, wild whirlwind of a year.

Now, it’s time to get back to blogging, and what better way to start than with a travel recap? Ireland’s been on my must-see list for the better part of a decade, and my husband (!) and I wanted to have a honeymoon adventure. We’re not sit-on-the-beach people, so on a very cold February afternoon, I contacted Stephanie at Discovering Ireland to see if we could arrange a road trip right after our wedding in July. Once we had the bones of the trip booked booked (a Peugeot 208 and eight nights of accommodation in converted castles and manor houses, followed by four nights in Dublin at an Airbnb that we booked on our own), it was time to start getting excited. It was time to order a travel guide.

I’m a passionate and engaged traveller, and I am fussy about my guidebooks. There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all, although some are more consistently good than others. I’ve always had a deep fondness for the Lonely Planet. I got my first one – Europe on a Shoestring – for Christmas in 2005 before I headed to Bournemouth, UK as an exchange student. In the days before smartphones, it was a lifeline on more than one occasion. I used Europe on a Shoestring to track down hostels in Barcelona and Paris, to learn how to barter with Spanish street vendors and to calm me down in Denmark when I got on the wrong bus and couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. Lonely Planet has accompanied me up and down the east coast of Australia (where, truth be told, the Rough Guide guidebook is actually a better choice if you’re trying to camp. But that’s a story for another day), through New Zealand’s North Island, snowboarding in the Alps and navigating the Cannes Film Festival. Lonely Planet has also been a feature in a lot of other travel-related books I love (Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Around The World in 80 Dates), and it’s always been a not-so-secret dream of mine to be a Lonely Planet writer. Could there be a better job?

Neither of us are huge fans of fixed-itinerary trips. Once the skeleton is mapped out (where we’re sleeping, mode of transport), we like to leave the rest up to our mood, the weather, our budget and a whole host of other factors that require flexibility on the go. As travellers, we’re also impossibly nosy. We want to know whether our hotels are well-reviewed, if they’ve made it into the guidebook. We want to know if the pubs recommended by Discovering Ireland are really the best pubs in Ireland or if there’s something even better off the beaten track. We want to check on things we drive by (what was that monastic ruin back there all about, anyway?). I’m a sucker for facts and trivia, and I like to know a little bit about the history behind the sights we see. I want information in the form of anecdotes from a trusted friend – and I want to build on these anecdotes with stories of my own.

This is why the Lonely Planet is so useful. It’s a little bit of a history primer (perfect for excited we’re-nearly-there-can-you-believe-it? airport reading), a little bit of a geography class and a lot of friendly, digestible recommendations (which pubs serve food and which ones don’t?). I like to add to it with a little bit of writing of my own, too. While I don’t like writing in books as a general rule (and I would never, EVER write in one of my beloved novels), I love to scrawl all over my travel guides. I’m an inconsistent journal writer. I have good intentions, but I can get distracted by the adventure (much like I do with this blog). But it doesn’t take very much energy to scribble a few notes in the margins to record an impression of a place.

We just got home on Monday, and we brought back a book full of the best stories. My Lonely Planet – Ireland doesn’t map out the myriad trips that one could take in Ireland if one was so inclined, or at least it doesn’t anymore. It maps out our trip, our stories. My Lonely Planet tells the story of the beautiful hand-knit sweaters that could only be purchased after a 1.5-hour ferry ride, of rented bicycles with baskets, of “we wish we remembered to pack hiking boots!” It tells the story of wrong turns in Dublin, of new friends, late nights, cozy pubs and hearty food. It tells the story of a pair of newlyweds who love adventure – and each other – very much. You can’t buy that in a travel guide. That’s a story you have to write for yourself.

 

 

 

 

The Power of Kindness

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Power of Kindness (Photo: Penguin)“Kindness,” writes Piero Ferrucci, “is the universal remedy – first, for the individual, for we can be well only if we are able to care for ourselves, to love ourselves. And then for all of us, because if we have better relationships, we feel and do better.”

I found this lovely little book on the shelf in my mom’s home office this past fall and have been dipping in and out of it at bedtime over the past couple of months.

It’s a quick read, but it’s so thoughtful that I preferred to take it in little pieces than devour it in one sitting. It’s written by an Italian transpersonal psychologist (I know, what?) and explores all the little facets that make up kindness. His argument is compelling – by behaving more kindly towards ourselves and others, we will be better equipped to thrive and to help others do the same.

Ferrucci breaks down the various components of kindness by chapter – Honesty, Warmth, Forgiveness, Contact, Sense of Belonging, Trust, Mindfulness, Empathy, Humility, Patience, Generosity, Respect, Flexibility, Memory, Loyalty, Gratitude, Service and Joy. It’s so simple, but at the start of a new year when many people’s thoughts turn to self-improvement, it’s also very important to focus on what it is that makes us better, warmer, brighter, smarter and more empathetic.

Maybe it’s because I’m going to be a teacher, or maybe it’s because I recently went through a period of major transition, but something about this little book really resonated with me. It felt like a cup of tea or a bowl of homemade soup. If everyone took the time to read it – and took it to heart – the world would probably be a much happier, friendlier, safer place.

Geek Girls Unite

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Geek Girls Unite (Photo: HarperCollins)Well, this was a disappointment. Feeling flush with cash after signing on for another month’s worth of steady full-time work for the rest of June/July, I thought I’d head over to Chapters and indulge in a bit of retail therapy. On a display table, I spotted a book with a promising purple cover. What really grabbed me was the whole title, though. Geek Girls Unite: How Fangirls, Bookworms, Indie Chicks, and Other Misfits Are Taking Over the World.

I might not be a fangirl or an indie chick (though I have recently mastered the sock bun and also have spent far too much time this summer trying to style my hair in an ‘inspired by Zooey Deschanel as Jess on New Girl’ look), but bookworm? I think I have that one covered (Hi, welcome to my book blog). Plus, I like Battlestar Galactica. I have opinions on which series of Star Trek I liked best. I went to a sci-fi convention once (OK, twice). I’m developing an appreciation for graphic novels. I have a pile of vinyl albums just waiting to go into frames to decorate my apartment when I move next month. So it’s not too much of a stretch to say that I might be part of the target audience for this book.

What I was expecting, I guess, was stories about how women pursue their passions, about groundbreaking female actors, designers, writers and directors. I was expecting to applaud and be inspired and to finish the book with an overwhelmingly happy sensation that the world is full of what one women’s magazine calls “Fun Fearless Females.” I guess that what I was really looking for was a collection of stories about girls like me.

Instead, what I got was a lot of pigeonholing. Each chapter is helpfully tailored to a specific “type” of geek (Fangirl Geek, Literary Geek and my personal favourite, Miscellaneous Geek – wow! Inclusive!). Within the chapter appears to be a prescribed thing of what each type of geek is expected to wear and like, who our boyfriend should be (there really is a section at the end of every chapter called “Perfect Match” – which is so, so condescending), and the type of people we should be friends (or worse, “frenemies”) with. Not only does it pigeonhole young women into categories based on the particular music they like, books they read or TV shows they watch, but it doesn’t allow for any variety or overlap for these young women to forge out identities of their own. And it promotes active dislike and judgement of others.

For example, according to this book, the type of girl who likes comic books should avoid “athletes” – but why can’t I like both? Can’t I watch Star Wars while I run on the treadmill (I totally have watched Star Wars while I ran on the treadmill)? Why so much hate for Lauren Conrad? Can’t I watch The Hills (I loved The Hills) AND have a book blog? How come it isn’t OK for me to copy looks out of Elle and Vogue because I love clothes and hair and makeup, and also to play Plants vs. Zombies compulsively on my phone for hours? And is it a crime to have nearly as much Flo Rida on my iPod as Iron & Wine? Do any of these things make me a bad person? Or less of a geek? And is it bad that I have diverse interests that lean towards the geeky in some ways, but the mainstream in other ways?

Of course the answer is no, but for a book that is about unifying women who have less-than-mainstream interests (as long as they are straight, funny, marginally attractive but not too attractive, and listen exclusively to indie alt-rock), it’s very judgemental. Actually, it’s beyond judgemental. It’s mean. I hope to high heaven that girls in junior and senior high school don’t read this. Because for a book that bills itself as funny, inclusive and smart, the message is anything but.

I don’t buy a lot of books these days, because I’m watching my cashflow. I wish I had saved the $15, because I still don’t know how fangirls, bookworms, indie chicks and other misfits are taking over the world.

Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?

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Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? (Photo: Hachette Book Group)I first came across Rhoda Janzen when I read her exceptional book Mennonite in a Little Black Dress while on a business trip to New Zealand last October. I was going through a bit of a tough personal time and planning a quiet return to Canada, and a memoir of going home seemed to be exactly what the doctor ordered.

Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? picks up where Mennonite in a Little Black Dress leaves off. Janzen is in a new relationship with a churchgoer and decides to give church a try – not with the Mennonites of her childhood, but with the jazzy, sparkly Pentecostals (where were these guys when I was a kid? Janzen says they have pompoms, which would have made church much more fun). And when she gets a surprise cancer diagnosis, her search for faith and family becomes even more important.

The Amazon blurb describes it like this: “Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? is for people who have a problem with organized religion, but can’t quite dismiss the notion of God, and for those who secretly sing hymns in their cars, but prefer a nice mimosa brunch to church.”  That sort of sounds like me, and I loved reading about Janzen’s exploration (and redefinition) of love, faith and family.

It’s a light, introspective read about some fairly heavy stuff, and I’d recommend this excellent little memoir to anyone who has ever wondered if there couldn’t be more than one way to believe in something bigger.  I genuinely enjoyed it even more than the first book. Check out this little blurb here.

The Single Girl’s Survival Guide

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Single Girl's Survival Guide (Photo: Skyhorse Publishing)This is by far the most embarrassing thing I have ever read. It will probably be the most embarrassing thing I will read in my life. But in the interests of honesty (I read it, therefore it counts and I have to acknowledge it), here we go.

I picked this up from the library because a) it was facing out on a shelf, just waiting for someone having an insecure and lonely moment (hi!) to come along and pick it up b) last week was Valentine’s Day and I’ve been in a little bit of a funk about all the change and upheaval in my life this year and c) the writer is Imogen Lloyd Webber, daughter of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who is responsible for some of my favourite theatre shows.

I don’t know why I thought that this book would help pull me out of my funk. As it turns out, it kind of did, I guess, just probably not the way Imogen Lloyd Webber expected it to. There’s nothing really wrong with it per se, I just don’t actually feel like it told me anything I didn’t already know. It was cute and fun and funny, and maybe if I was five years younger and doing the girl-about-town thing, or if I was the type to frequent wine bars or bat my eyelashes at tables of boys, it would have been more relevant for me.

But everything felt just sort of silly and irrelevant and unnecessary (and why was there a random part about writing a resume?). I know how to get a job! I know how to decorate an apartment (I just need to get an apartment to decorate). I know how to open a bank account, and in theory, I know I should be doing very practical things like setting up a retirement fund and impractical things like treating myself to shoes.

But you see, Imogen, not everyone has access to unlimited funds (I know that Andrew Lloyd Webber famously told his children they would make their own way in the world, but c’mon, the girl’s getting money from somewhere, or else she was a lot luckier/smarter with a lucrative job in her early 20s than I was), or chose the right career path the first time, or has emotional detachment down to such a science that casual dating is a lighthearted thing that they do and then gossip about with their girlfriends afterward. That’s just not me. I think this whole book was just not me.

However, I wasn’t lying when I said it pulled me out of my funk. Much of this book reminded me of who I don’t want to be. I don’t think I can change most of the elements of my personality. I’m always going to take things too seriously and personally, rush in with my heart first and my head second, second-guess my decisions and rely heavily on my family and friends for love, advice and support. I don’t think ‘cheerful airhead’ is in my nature. But I don’t want to be like that. I’ve grown pretty comfortable in my own skin, and that’s a nice realization to come to. To put it bluntly, Imogen – and I’m sorry for this – I don’t think I need you to be a really good version of me.