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?

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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.

 

Sin Eater

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There are a lot of nice things about being in a book club. For starters, because my book club is small (there are only three of us, and we’ve known each other since we were 15), it’s a great opportunity for us to have a good catch-up on each others’ lives every few weeks. In the past year, we’ve celebrated family milestones (Courtney’s daughter’s first trip to Disneyland), new relationships (me) and a baby-to-be (Monique). It’s great to see how far we’ve come and so exciting to look forward to everything that’s going to happen next!

The other great thing about being in a book club is that because we take it in turns to pick our next read, we’re often exposed to titles that we may not have chosen for ourselves. It’s because of my book club that I’ve not only found the spectacular young adult novel Eleanor & Park, but also Daughter of Smoke & Bone and Divergent.

This month, however, we decided to do something completely different. Courtney’s mom Dee Van Dyk is a writer, and so we agreed to give the manuscript of her teen-horror novel Sin Eater (a working title) a try. This is the first time I’ve ever been involved with a book that hasn’t been published yet – and the first time I’ve ever been asked for feedback – so it was a pretty cool experience.

I popped the PDF manuscript onto my Kindle and polished it off in a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning reading extravaganza so it would be fresh in my mind for book club. I wouldn’t say that horror is a genre that I’m naturally drawn to, and there’s no denying that Dee’s subject matter is a little darker than I would normally choose for myself, but I had such a great experience reading Sin Eater. It was a really pleasant surprise! Dee’s clearly done her research when it comes to mythology and she’s managed to weave together a compelling tale that explores the themes of good and evil in both present-day and historic settings.

There’s a reporter who plays a crucial part in the plot of Sin Eater and I happen to have some experience in this area, so my main feedback points for Dee were suggestions about how to develop him more fully. I think it would be really cool to insert some more of his ‘voice’ into the story by including some of his newspaper articles, which would also provide additional context for some of the other events that take place as the plot moves forward.

I don’t want to say much more, because this is a work in progress, but I’m so thrilled that Courtney and Dee felt comfortable sharing this book with our group (I know both of you read this blog – thank you). Book club is going to take a short hiatus for a few months while Monique enjoys being a new mama, but rest assured, we’ll be back. And in the meantime, I’m not going anywhere!

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.