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.

 

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.

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.