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.

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.

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.