Night

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Night

Matt lent me Night back in November when he was teaching it to his grade 12 class. But with a stack of final papers to write in my last couple of weeks of the term, onto the shelf it went until I had more time to read. This one isn’t exactly a light undertaking.

Then, the high school student I tutor mentioned that she might like to write about Night for her final exam in English and wondered if we could go over it together. Presto! Motivation to read, and read quickly. So last night, I came home and read it all in one sitting.

Night isn’t a long book (it’s just over 100 pages), but it’s a very, very powerful first-person account of life in concentration camps – including Auschwitz – in 1944-45 when Elie Wiesel was just 15 years old. I’m glad they teach it in high schools, because it works really well around Remembrance Day time. Like all Holocaust books, it’s by no means an easy read. It’s really tough going, actually, because the prose is so distilled and the events are so horrific that you have to keep reading right until the end. It was probably a mistake to start it at 10:30 PM the night before the first day of a new semester, because I just had to stay up to finish it. And then, of course, I couldn’t sleep.

But while it’s not a bedtime read, I think books like Night (which won the Nobel Peace Prize) are really important, especially for young people. It is a story of terror and hopelessness, and also of bravery and perseverance. This story is not comfortable, or happy or safe. But it is true, and I have always believed in the value of truth-telling.  There are important lessons to be learned from the past. And it offers up a much-needed reminder of the way all of us should treat each other in the present – with love, respect, tolerance and kindness.

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.

One Summer: America, 1927

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One Summer (Photo: BillBryson.co.uk)Bill Bryson is probably my favourite contemporary nonfiction writer. I think I have read every single thing he’s written (even his books on spelling and grammar, which I loved). I think he’s brilliant and hilarious – and he’s got that rare ability to write across genres (memoir, travel writing, history, biography, science) without losing any of his charm in the process.

The first Bill Bryson book I ever bought was as an exchange student in the UK in early 2006. I got a gift voucher for 20 pounds at Waterstone’s for participating in a photo shoot at Bournemouth University (you can see me in the 2006-07 prospectus) and spent it on a copy of the 1995 travel book Notes from a Small Island. I think that because I was just discovering Britain for the first time myself, and Bryson’s dry, witty observations so closely mirrored my own, it resonated particularly strongly with me (There’s one part where he has trouble finding the ferry at Calais – I had similar trouble at Calais with the Eurostar and ended up in a farmers’ field.). It kind of felt like it was written for me, and at the age of 20, I was hooked on Bill Bryson.

I actually started One Summer: America, 1927 back in October, but it had to take a backseat to my practicum and a few assignment-heavy weeks at school. I wanted to give Bill Bryson the attention he deserved, so I picked it back up over the winter break. It travelled with me up to Donnelly to visit Matt in mid-December and I finally polished it off the day before Christmas.

One Summer is divided into five sections, each representing a different month in America during the summer of 1927 beginning in May and ending in September. Bryson covers Charles Lindbergh’s groundbreaking trans-Atlantic flight, a spectacular summer of baseball for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, a sensational murder trial, Prohibition, the beginning of construction on Mount Rushmore, the lead-up to the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression, the advent of talking motion pictures, the premiere of the musical Show Boat (one of my favourites, coincidentally) and a host of other events, both big and small.

What I love most about Bill Bryson is that he never dwells for so long on one thing. He turns history into little entertaining stories (which, in my opinion, is the best way to read history anyway) and his keen observations – especially when it comes to odd or humorous details – make for a great read. Like this review in the New York Times notes, Bryson has a great gift for bringing characters to life.

For example, did you know that US president Calvin Coolidge was presented with a cowboy outfit during the summer of 1927 and sometimes wore it just for fun when his workday was over? Or that the governor of the Bank of England, Sir Montagu Norman “always travelled in disguise, even when there was no plausible reason for doing so?” And then there’s this sentence, which I just loved. “Of all the figures who rose to prominence in the 1920s in America, none had a more pugnacious manner, finer head of hair, or more memorable name than Kenesaw Mountain Landis.” Isn’t that great?

(The New York Times review in the link above also claims that some of Bryson’s facts are wild exaggerations. I’m not enough of a 1920s history buff to know one way or another about this, but I will say that One Summer appears to have a very extensive bibliography and reference notes that are broken down by chapter at the end of the book.)

History is almost never a light read, and I did have to wait for a time where my schedule was a little less intense to read One Summer, but it was well worth it. This would be a great gift for history buffs, social studies teachers and my dad, who gets to borrow my copy now that I’m done with it. Like all of Bill Bryson’s books, I loved it.

The Witness Wore Red

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The Witness Wore Red (Photo: Hachette Book Group)I’ve been eyeing The Witness Wore Red for a few months now, and last night/this morning I thought I would finally bite the bullet, sit down and read it. It was a huge mistake – not because it’s not great, because it really is – but because it’s so compelling that all the stuff I was going to do today before work (like go to the pool, do all my laundry and organize the rest of my Christmas presents), just got thrown right out the window.

A weird thing that you should probably know about me is that I find the whole issue of the FLDS – the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints – completely fascinating. I’m not entirely sure why, though I know that it started right around the time that I read my dad’s copy of Under The Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer in 2003, right before university. If you haven’t read this, you really should. I’ve read it about four times and it’s a brilliantly-researched, smart and intriguing look into the spin-off sects and subcultures that are rooted in early Mormonism (but have absolutely nothing to do with modern Mormon faith – this is a really, really important distinction).

From there, I read Carolyn Jessop’s Escape and Elissa Wall’s A Stolen Life – both stories of courageous young FLDS women who fled their plural marriages at great personal risk. Both were inspiring for different reasons – Jessop’s because she blazed a trail for other young women to follow (and because she managed to escape the FLDS with all of her children) and Wall’s because I was shocked to discover that Elissa Wall is actually one year younger than me. It’s actually mind-blowingly awful to believe that in modern North America, when I was getting As in English, worrying about my lack of basketball skills and getting ready to go to grade nine dances for lots of sweaty hand-holding, a grade eight girl just a day’s drive from me was being promised in marriage to her own cousin. Why don’t more people know this is going on? Why wasn’t anybody doing anything? I wondered. My heart broke for Elissa.

I also read Jessop’s moving follow-up book Triumph: Life After The Cult while I lived in Sydney – and of course, I’m a huge, huge fan of the HBO show Big Love (Roman and Alby Grant are loosely based on Rulon and Warren Jeffs, and there’s even a scene where Roman Grant watches news footage of Warren Jeffs’ arrest). And I was completely riveted by the 2008 news coverage of the raids on the Yearning for Zion ranch, as well as Warren Jeffs’ 2011 trial. I’m fully aware that this is a really odd thing to be very well read about (in part, I blame my journalism degree). It’s just so interesting and terrible and…well…it just doesn’t seem possible that it continues to happen in post-2000 USA.

If you think all of these other books are great reads – or if you’ve never read anything about the FLDS before – The Witness Wore Red is one of the best first-hand accounts of this culture I’ve come across. Rebecca Musser (who is the sister of Elissa Wall, who I had been wondering about since I read Stolen Innocence) is articulate, resilient and independent – and her keen eye for detail makes for a comprehensive portrait of life in the sect for young women, particularly when she becomes the 19th wife of ‘prophet’ Rulon Jeffs at age 19 (he was in his mid-80s).

For seven years, she faced unspeakable emotional, sexual and physical abuse until her husband died – at which time, the expectation was that she would then marry his son, Warren Jeffs. With nowhere to go and nobody to turn to, she made what might possibly have been the bravest and scariest decision ever – she hopped the fence and escaped, knowing she had no money, resources, education or skills and that she was turning her back on her entire family and the only life she had ever known.

She writes about her experiences immediately after she leaves the FLDS. Rebecca can’t even make a single decision about who she should be, what food she should order on a menu or even what her hair should look like on her own.

But she finds her voice. And what a voice! Rebecca ended up being a key witness when Warren Jeffs and other FLDS leaders finally went to trial over the crimes they had committed against women and children while in positions of power.  She also consulted heavily with the Texas Rangers during the Yearning for Zion raids. It cost her a lot of money, several years of court cases and in the end, even her marriage, but her courageous fight for trapped young women who don’t know that they have voices of their own is a truly inspiring story. Now, she’s an international motivational speaker, and an advocate for human trafficking victims. You should spend some time checking out her website.

The Witness Wore Red is truthful, courageous and hopeful – and a great read. Check out the trailer here:

A Great Op-Ed and ‘The Hungry Games’

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I’ve been quiet this week because it’s the last stretch of final projects before the fall semester breaks up, and unfortunately, school > blog. But to tide you over for a couple of days until I can post for real, I encourage you to check out a couple of Hunger Games-related things as I come down from my Catching Fire euphoria from last weekend.

The first is a brilliant and insightful op-ed from the November 25 edition of the LA Times, which highlights the fact that the latest Hunger Games tie-in products do more to harm the agenda of the trilogy than help it. I thought it was poignant and smart and well-articulated – the Capitol Couture line really bothers me because it’s so anti-Katniss – and completely goes against the anti-classist message hammered home in all three Hunger Games novels.

On a much lighter note, please also check out this amazing Catching Fire parody they did on Sesame Street – The Hungry Games: Catching Fur. The pita gets me every time.