Sunday, November 14, 2010


It has been a few months since I read Malcolm Gladwell's, Blink, and I decide it was time for his next book. In Outliers, Gladwell poses a provocative question: why do some people succeed, living remarkably productive and impactful lives, while so many more never reach their potential? Challenging our cherished belief of the "self-made man," he makes the democratic assertion that superstars don't arise out of nowhere, propelled by genius and talent: "they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot." Examining the lives of outliers from Mozart to Bill Gates, he builds a convincing case for how successful people rise on a tide of advantages, "some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky."

Outlier is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience. In the summer, in Paris, we expect most days to be somewhere between warm and very hot. But imagine if you had a day in the middle of August where the temperature fell below freezing. That day would be outlier. And while we have a very good understanding of why summer days in Paris are warm or hot, we know a good deal less about why a summer day in Paris might be freezing cold. In this book the focus is on people who are outliers—in men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.

Outliers can be enjoyed for its bits of trivia, like why most pro hockey players were born in January, how many hours of practice it takes to master a skill, why the descendants of Jewish immigrant garment workers became the most powerful lawyers in New York, how a pilots' culture impacts their crash record, how a centuries-old culture of rice farming helps Asian kids master math. But there's more to it than that. Throughout all of these examples--and in more that delve into the social benefits of lighter skin color, and the reasons for school achievement gaps--Gladwell invites conversations about the complex ways privilege manifests in our culture. He leaves us pondering the gifts of our own history, and how the world could benefit if more of our kids were granted the opportunities to fulfill their remarkable potential.

Gladwell’s writing is clear and colloquial throughout, and his chapters are deftly structured, each one introducing new material while simultaneously reiterating and amplifying what came before. He broke down trends like no one else in The Tipping Point, and was single-handedly the most convincing voice for trusting your gut reactions (in an age of numbers, facts, and analysis no less) in Blink; this guy knows how to research, and better yet, put the nuggets of wisdom he's found in psychology and science into terrifically engaging and palatable text. In short, Mr. Gladwell's writing--his earnestness, optimism, and persuasiveness--never ceases to impress me.

As it was with the Tipping Point and Blink, Outliers is another attempt to make us think about the world a little differently. The hope with Tipping Point was it would help the reader understand that real change was possible. With Blink, it was to get people to take the enormous power of their intuition seriously. Outliers is meant to make us understand how much of a group project success is. When outliers become outliers, it is not just because of their own efforts. It's because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances, and that means that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds, and how many of us succeed, than we think. That's an amazingly hopeful and uplifting idea

Little Bee

"... a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must all see scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived."

I think that I am generally a curious person. I like to know what's going on and why, and I dig for answers when I have questions. While browsing in the bookstore this week, I picked up the book Little Bee, written by Chris Cleave. The summary wasn't so much of a summary, as an enticing invitation to curious people like me. It stated "We don' want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it." How could I not read it? Little Bee is a very special book indeed. With one of the most vividly memorable and provocative character, this novel is profound, deeply moving and yet light in touch, it explores the nature of loss, hope, love and identity with atrocity its backdrop. Cleave unfurls a haunting work of human triumph and the perils of globalization where girls like Little Bee are just silhouettes, expendable products in a world that is shifting and changing.

Some 50 years ago, the region near Nigeria’s Atlantic coast provided the setting for Chinua Achebe’s haunting novel of a world torn asunder by the vicissitudes of Anglo-imperial expansion. To capture the tragedy of colonialism in that account, “Things Fall Apart,” Achebe looked to Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” for inspiration: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

The drowning of innocence and the anarchic consequences of the global reach are hardly confined to Achebe’s Nigeria of yesteryear or to the colonial underbelly of Britain’s “civilizing” mission. The story of globalization is a centuries-old account of historical interconnections shaped by exploitation, despair and, at times, moral conscience and optimism. Chris Cleave, a columnist for The Guardian, puts a modern-day spin on Achebe’s concerns with his immensely readable and moving second novel.

While the pretext of Little Bee initially seems contrived — two strangers, a British woman and a Nigerian girl, meet on a lonely African beach and become inextricably bound through the horror imprinted on their encounter — its impact is hardly shallow. Rather than focusing on post-colonial guilt or African angst, Cleave uses his emotionally charged narrative to challenge his readers’ conceptions of civility, of ethical choice.

Sarah O’Rourke might appear to be an insipid character, with her career at a British magazine, her Batman-costumed young son, her uninspiring lover and her gentrified Surrey lifestyle. When juxtaposed with the Nigerian refugee called Little Bee — whom we first meet behind the razor wire of a British immigration center — Sarah is unsympathetic, even tiresome. But that impression changes partway through the novel when a flashback to Africa reveals her fortitude. There, it is Sarah, rather than her husband, Andrew, who gallantly comes to Little Bee’s rescue. Sarah must also pick up the pieces after Andrew’s descent from third-world cowardice into first-world madness.

Yet the character and voice of Little Bee reveal Cleave at his finest. As she navigates the dehumanizing indifference of immigration detention with her self-taught Queen’s English, this young refugee tugs at the reader’s conscience. For two years, she has avoided the “ravenous eyes” of the camp’s men with her purposefully mismatched charity-box clothes, unwashed skin and bound breasts. Eventually, she turns up, illegally, at the O’Rourkes’ home in Kingston-upon-Thames. In the weeks that follow, the lives of Little Bee and Sarah will be woven into a web in which disparate worlds can be connected in the unlikeliest fashion.

The tide of that event carries Little Bee back to their world, which she claims she couldn't explain to the girls from her village because they'd have no context for its abundance and calm. But she shows us the infinite rifts in a globalized world, where any distance can be crossed in a day--with the right papers--and "no one likes each other, but everyone likes U2." Where you have to give up the safety you'd assumed as your birthright if you decide to save the girl gazing at you through razor wire, left to the wolves of a failing state.

London, with its dizzying abundance and multiculturalism, looks like a parallel universe when compared with the impoverished Nigerian village where Little Bee grew up. Surely the locals would chide, “Little miss been-to is making up her tales again,” were she ever to return to what remains of her birthplace. Yet it’s this same village that instilled in her the skills and values needed to help her navigate toward her own scarred survival.

Like Little Bee, Sarah is a survivor. But the lessons of the past are not enough to steer either woman to safety. Instead, in a world full of turpitude and injustice, it is their bold, impulsive choices that challenge the inevitability of despair, transforming a political novel into an affecting story of human triumph.

In the first few pages I fell in love with Cleaves vast narrative and storytelling abilities. The images that he created for me were so detailed and complete. "So, I am a refugee, and I get lonely. Is it my fault if I do not look like an English girl and I do not talk like a Nigerian? well, who says an English girl must have skin as pale as the clouds that flout across her summers? Who says a Nigerian girl must speak in fallen English, as if English had collided with Ibo, high in the upper atmosphere, and rained down into her mouth in a shower that half drowns her and leaves her choking up sweet tales about the bright African colors and the taste of fried plantain? Not like a storyteller, but like a victim rescued from the flood, coughing up the colonial water from her lungs?"

This novels greatest strength is the squeamishly raw candor of its protagonist, Little Bee. Every now and then, you come across a character in a book whose personality is so salient, and whose story carries such devastating emotional force, it’s as if she becomes a fixed part of your consciousness. Besides sharp, witty dialogue, an emotionally charged plot and the vivid characters’ ethical struggles, Little Bee delivers a timely challenge to reinvigorate our notions of civilized decency.

Cleave masterfully veers quickly between humor and horror, a very dark, biting humor to be sure, but usually skating along a thin blade of irony, the kind to make you laugh with a little grimace. "I think my ideal man would speak many languages... He could speak with any person, even the soldiers, and if there was violence in their heart he could change it. He would not have to fight, do you see? Maybe he would not be handsome, but would be beautiful when he spoke. He would be very kind, even if you burned his food because you were laughing and talking with your girlfriends instead of watching the cooking. He would just say, Ah, never mind... Forgive me, but your ideal man, he don't sound very rill-istic." "It was a song called We Are The Champions by a British music band called Queen... One time he showed me a picture of the band... One of the musicians in the picture, he had a lot of hair. It was black with tight curls and it sat on the top of his head like a heavy weight and it went right down the back of his neck to his shoulders. I understands fashion in your language, but this hair did not look like fashion... It looked like a punishment."

Again, I am amazed at the connections between books. "He'd been awake all night writing an opinion piece about the middle east, which was a region he had never visited and had no specialist knowledge of. It was the summer of 2007, and my son was fighting Penguin and the Puffin, and my country was fighting Iraq and Afghanistan, and my Husband was forming public opinion. It was the kind of summer where no one took their costume off." Having read Three Cups of Tea, and Infidel, it's so interesting to see the different views on the same subject, in this case, the war with the Middle East.

Sequined with lustrous turns of phrase, spanning two continents and driven by real-life global concerns, what elevates this novel even further is Cleave’s forceful call for all of us, the floating masses of a globalized, socially isolating modern world, to look after one other.

Three Cups of Tea

This weeks book, Three Cups of Tea, is one that I have noticed for several weeks, but has been continually overlooked for one reason or another. This week, however, when I actually read what it was about, and skimmed through it, it looked too interesting to pass by for another week. written by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea is the inspiring account of one man's campaign to build schools in the most dangerous, remote, and anti-American reaches of Asia. It is captivating and suspenseful, with engrossing accounts of both hostilities and unlikely friendships, and will win many readers' hearts.

In 1993 Greg Mortenson was the exhausted survivor of a failed attempt to ascend K2, an American climbing bum wandering emaciated and lost through Pakistan's Karakoram Himalaya. After he was taken in and nursed back to health by the people of an impoverished Pakistani village, Mortenson promised to return one day and build them a school. From that rash, earnest promise grew one of the most incredible humanitarian campaigns of our time—Greg Mortenson's one-man mission to counteract extremism by building schools, especially for girls, throughout the breeding ground of the Taliban. As it chronicles Mortenson's quest, which has brought him into conflict with both enraged Islamists and uncomprehending Americans, Three Cups of Tea combines adventure with a celebration of the humanitarian spirit.

Award-winning journalist David Oliver Relin has collaborated on this spellbinding account of Mortenson's incredible accomplishments in a region where Americans are often feared and hated. In pursuit of his goal, Mortenson has survived kidnapping, fatwas issued by enraged mullahs, repeated death threats, and wrenching separations from his wife and children. But his success speaks for itself. At last count, his Central Asia Institute had built fifty-five schools. Three Cups of Tea is at once an unforgettable adventure and the inspiring true story of how one man really is changing the world—one school at a time.

Throughout the chapters of Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson describes everything from his climbing experiences, to his relationships with everyone from his wife to village leaders. Although I am interested in mountain climbing, and would one day like to climb one of the worlds great peaks, I found it difficult to become fully engaged when that part of the journey was being discussed. When Mortenson was describing his personal relationships however, I was enthralled. My favorite anecdotes were formed between Mortenson and the Korphe Village Chief, Haji Ali. There was so much wisdom and simplicity passed from Haji Ali to Mortenson, it became hard not to take his words into account in my own life.

"The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share tea, you are family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die." --Haji Ali

Mortenson later reflects on Haji Ali's words. “We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly… Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.” This is such an important and fundamental lesson, that too often gets overlooked.

My favorite word is phantasmagorical, meaning a series of dreamlike images. I discovered it in junior high while using a thesaurus, and it has stuck with me ever since. I have never before seen it in print, until this book. It appeared in the second half, and when I came across it I was so happy that I kept coming back to that page to re-read it. It reminded me of The Book of Awesome, something so small and simple as coming across your favorite word in your book, but it has the power to make your day. That's awesome.


This week I was the mood for another novel. One of my Moms lifelong friends is part of a book club, and I often hear second hand about some of her favorite reads, including Water for Elephants and The Book of Negroes. One afternoon, my Mom came home telling my about this book her friend was reading called Room. It sounded intriguing, and having enjoyed her previous recommendations I picked it up the next day. Written by Emma Donoghue, Room is inspired by the Josef Fritz case, in which an Austrian man locked his daughter in the basement for 24 years. It is gripping, claustrophobic, and fantastically evocative. As a thriller and love story of sorts, Donoghue's novel is a fantastic story, imaginative, unique and beautifully written, and a stunning achievement.

In many ways, Jack is a typical 5-year-old. He likes to read books, watch TV, and play games with his Ma. But Jack is different in a big way, he has lived his entire life in a single room, sharing the tiny space with only his mother and an unnerving nighttime visitor known as Old Nick. For Jack, Room is the only world he knows, but for Ma, it is a prison in which she has tried to craft a normal life for her son. When their insular world suddenly expands beyond the confines of their four walls, the consequences are piercing and extraordinary. Despite its profoundly disturbing premise, Donoghue's Room is rife with moments of hope and beauty, and the dogged determination to live, even in the most desolate circumstances. A stunning and original novel of survival in captivity, readers who enter Room will leave staggered, as though, like Jack, they are seeing the world for the very first time.

I was hooked upon reading the first paragraph, 'Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. "Was I minus numbers?"'

Told in the inventive, funny, and poignant voice of Jack, Room is a powerful story of a mother and son whose love lets them survive the impossible. As a narrator, five-year-old Jack is tremendously enticing as he faces a whole new world of unfamiliarity and fear. Earnest and bright, he is remarkably adaptable, and provides commentary that is lushly intricate. His mother, kidnapped seven years earlier while walking through her college campus at age 19, has created a world for her son that is rich in play and learning, all the while anticipating the day they might make their “great escape.” This environment has provided Jack with an impressive vocabulary, though his advanced learning is juxtaposed with the natural innocence and bewilderment of a small child. The result is a story told through a child’s eyes, but in language that is endearing rather than tiresome.

The character of Ma, while not the main voice, is nevertheless whole. Donoghue employs Jack’s descriptions of her moods, conversations, and thoughts to paint a picture of a woman struggling to keep it together for the sake of her child, while also fighting to become the person she once was and might be again, if circumstances allow.

For the first couple chapters I found the narrative a little hard to read. With Jack as the narrator, it was a little choppy. But like any character, once I got used to the way he talked, the narration became an important part of creating a memorable and emotionally compelling story. This was an incredible novel, and another look into the intricacies of relationships and survival. Donoghue has produced a novel that is sure to stay in the minds of readers for years to come.
"I was gripped by Room as soon as I discerned its startling premise. It is an almost macabre and completely accomplished novel, one that places Emma Donoghue in the company of writers such as Hilary Mantel and Muriel Spark -- writers who address evil in their works without flinching. Room is, however, leavened by one of the most convincing portrayals of love I have come across in literature or in the world outside it. Room deserves a wide readership. It should inspire a dialogue among its readers about how a life -- how all of our lives -- can be redeemed through the telling of stories, and through ingenuity, loyalty, bravery, hope and love."

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Secret Daughter

After my recent move, I made a rare Coscto run to stock up on some of my essentials. Laundry detergent, tea, and hummas, as well as some unnecessary items like cutting boards and popcorn machines. Needing to get a new book, and wanting to save myself a trip, I found myself circling the long and fully stocked book table at Costco. I picked books up, read summaries, continually replacing the ones in my hands with different ones down the line, until I came to this weeks choice, Secret Daughter. First time author, Shilpi Somaya Gowda, brings to life two opposing but heart rending concerns to jump start her novel, infertility for North American women and the disregard for girls in India. This compelling story is an intimate portrait of family, culture, and the importance of understanding your heritage, and it gracefully weaves together the transcending relationships between a mother and her child.

On the eve of the monsoons, in a remote Indian village, Kavita gives birth to Asha. But in a culture that favours sons, the only way for Kavita to save her newborn daughter's life is to give her away. It is a decision that will haunt her and her husband for the rest of their lives, even after the arrival of their cherished son. Halfway around the globe, Somer, an American doctor, decides to adopt a child after making the wrenching discovery that she will never have one of her own. When she and her husband Krishnan see a photo of baby Asha from a Mumbai orphanage, they are overwhelmed with emotion for her. Somer knows life will change with the adoption, but is convinced that the love they already feel will overcome all obstacles. Interweaving the stories of Kavita, Somer, and the child that binds both of their destinies, Secret Daughter poignantly explores issues of culture and belonging. Moving between two worlds and two families, one struggling to survive in the fetid slums of Mumbai, the other grappling to forge a cohesive family despite their diverging cultural identities, this powerful debut novel explores the emotional terrain of motherhood, loss, identity, and love.

On the surface, this is the story of a child born in terrible circumstances, the twist of fate that changes her life, and her adolescent search for self that creates ripples with the people who surround her. Yet there are many more layers to this novel. There is great complexity in the relationships between parent and child, and husband and wife, making them both realistic and heartbreaking. There are the questions of class, education, gender and culture in our globalized society, so beautifully illustrated through two seemingly opposite families. The characters are imperfect, but they all learn and grow through their experiences.

Gowda does a wonderful job of showing the cultural discrepancies of Indian life, its diametrically polar aspects. Indians live either in dire poverty or with great wealth. The slums are vividly drawn, such that you can almost smell, touch and taste the florid poverty, pulling us deep into a culture that most of us have only glimpsed. There is a much larger population of adult men than women in India and the fact that female children are killed at birth or aborted is shown as a routine event in the lives of the poor. Though India is the seat of great advancements in technology, many people live without electricity or basic utilities. Education is valued highly but the poor have little access to it. Children from poor families either work at home in caretaking roles or are on the streets begging. It is rare that a poor Indian child gets to go to school.

This is an intelligent and vibrant novel. With lyrical prose, and clear, precise details, the Two India's are richly portrayed. The emotion of the characters was palpable and thoughtfully crafted, with every emotional reaction garnered from the reader, and the Indian terms sprinkled throughout the pages gave it a feeling of authenticity, without distracting from the story. Gowda's writing is powerful, her prose poetic, and the end result an emotional read.

I always love when you get a deeper insight into yourself, or even better, someone in your life from reading a book or watching a movie. It seems these little revelations arise when you are least expecting them, and the usually come from an unexpected source. My Mom was adopted, and although I have often heard her wonder aloud where she gets her curly hair, or the same nose that I have inherited, I never really understood what it would be like to not know your birth parents, or the emotions that would arise knowing you were given up for adoption. This novel gave me a small glimpse into that alien world I never never been able to understand befor

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pride and Prejudice

This week I decided to read another classic, but I couldn't decide between Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. While walking through the bookstore, both tittles in hand, I was on the phone with my dad, Darcy. We were talking about different authors and books we had read, when I mentioned that I was having a hard time deciding between these two Jane Austin titles. It came down to this, 'which one has Mr. Darcy in it' asked my dad, and so I left the store with Pride and prejudice, and a week filled with wit, humor, and a timeless story of love and relationship.

The carefully controlled movements of polite society often conceal passionate hearts, keen minds, and rebellious wills. Set at the turn of the nineteenth century, the English country comes alive as we are introduced to the wonderfully charming and intelligent heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. As the pages turn, we watch as Elizabeth attempts to stay true to her ideals, while her meddlesome mother schemes to get all five Bennet sisters married in order to secure their family's fate and fortune. The characters are vividly brought to life as they both succeed and fail, in life and in love, bound together with every changing relationship. Pride and Prejudice is not just a love story, it is full of criticism of the society and people who only play before each other and judge by appearances.

I have always wanted to a read Jane Austen Novel. I Don't quite know why. Perhaps because her name has appeared countless times in movies and books over the decades, always with an admirable air to the reference, or maybe because she is one of the most well known female Authors. Either way, I was glad to have finally read one of her timeless stories. Austen, like her heroine Elizabeth, is smart and witty, with a writing style that can easily transcend through generations.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog for Withering Heights, 'To read nothing but the classics would be as foolish as completely ignoring them. The aim is to combine the wisdom of the past with the innovation of the future, as the two are inextricably linked.' I still see the extreme value in this, and can appreciate it even more with each work of classic literature that I consume.

It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.

The Disappeared

A couple of weeks ago I was at the mall with a friend, when we stopped into the bookstore. I needed to pick up a book, and had a certain one in mind, but could not remember the title. So while waiting for the clerk to look up the author for me, I began perusing the shelves and came across The Disappeared. Written by Canadian author, Kim Echlin, this novel is haunting, vivid, and elegiac. It is an unforgettable consideration of language, justice, and memory, 'at once a battle cry and a piercing lament, for truth, for love'. Needless to say, I picked up the book a week later.

Great love stories are inseparable from tragedy. Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Romeo and Juliet: for the iconic lovers in literature, things always end badly. Kim Echlin ups the ante in her third novel by placing her lovers against the backdrop of Pol Pot’s genocidal massacre in Cambodia. Anne Greves is a teenager in Montreal when she first encounters Serey, a Cambodian exile five years her senior, who has lost touch with his family since the borders of his native country were closed. Drawn together by a shared love of the blues, and over the objections of the girl’s father, Anne and Serey begin an affair, with love and death pulsating through the pages, interlaced. When the Vietnamese invade Cambodia and the borders are thrown open, Serey returns home to search for his family and vanishes, prompting Anne to embark on a dangerous journey to Phnom Penh to find him. 'Against the odds the lovers are reunited, and in a country where tranquil rice paddies harbor bones of the massacred', Anne pieces together a new life with Serey. But some wounds love can't heal, and when Serey disappears again, Anne discovers that the journey she must now undertake, may reveal a story she cannot bear.

In Montreal, Serey sang to Anne of love and longing. This novel is Anne’s song to him. This story evokes their tumultuous relationship in a world of colliding values, with twin currents of memory and desire, where these two self-exiled lovers struggle to recreate themselves in a world that rejects their hopes. Woven beautifully into this story of love rediscovered, in language which is both poetic and heartbreaking, are the unspeakable horrors wrought by the now retreated Khmer Rouge.

This is a poignant love story and a memorable journey through a nations past. Of all the tensions Echlin successfully negotiates- loss and recovery, betrayal and forgiveness, eastern and western indifference- the intersection of memory and language is the most nuanced. It's direct and devastating. She finds small acts of grace and dignity amid the suffering, and in this novel, it is these quite gestures that speak the loudest.

Stylistically assured, and entirely captivating, Echlin creates sentences beyond our imagining. She captures the beauty and horror of Cambodia in equal measure. “The smell of the River Bassac,” Anne says, describing her first day in Phnom Penh, “meltwaters from distant mountains tangled into humid air and garlic and night jasmine and cooking oil and male sweat and female wetness. Corruption loves the darkness.” Of the killing fields, she writes: “Depressions in the earth overgrown with grass. Stupas of skulls and bones. The sky.” And later: “We watched two small boys catching frogs in the gullies of the fields, running past paddy and sugar palm and cloth and bone. The grass had done its work.” Most memorable is the lingering stench of death: “People startle at cigarette smoke and rotting garbage and gasoline,” Echlin writes, “surrogate odors of torture and dead bodies and bombs. A bad smell makes them jump.”

Much has been said of the banality of evil. Here we are made to think of the banality of indifference.

I have often noted that I love great historical fiction. The stories can cover a brief moment or grand sweep of time. It is simply that beautiful blending of truth and fiction that always seems to strike a chord. The Disappeared confronts one of the most painful conflicts of our time: the collision between our private, personal desires and the brutal, dehumanizing facts of modern history. This transcending love story manages to penetrate the aching core of the Cambodian tragedy, exposing in terrible detail the consequences for generations living through 'Year Zero".

As those responsible for the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge face trial now, 30 years after 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered, this work of fiction is a reminder of the atrocities suffered through this very real episode of political oppression and genocide.

This book was truly enthralling. I read it in a matter of hours. While curled up on the couch after a long weekend of moving, it was the perfect retreat. This is a story that will embrace you from the first page and stay with you like a cherished memory.

The Glass Castle

This weeks book, The Glass Castle was a spur of the moment purchase. Having seen it in a variety of stores before, I didn't hesitate before choosing it to read this week. Author, Jeannette Walls, has carved a story with precision and grace out of one of the most chaotic, heartbreaking childhoods ever to be set down on the page. This deeply affecting memoir is a triumph in every possible way, and it does what all good books should: it affirms our faith in the human spirit.

Jeannette Walls is one of four children brought up by parents who are totally eccentric and often dangerously neglectful, whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. As Walls explains early in the story: "Mom believed that children shouldn't be burdened with rules and restrictions." In the beginning, the Walls family lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, was a painter who couldn't stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an "excitement addict." Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town, and the family, Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents' betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

While Walls and her siblings aren't abused by their parents in the conventional sense of the word, the constant chaos and upheaval in their everyday lives and the things they had to do to deal with the extreme poverty they faced - rummaging for food in dumpsters was an everyday occurrence - leave the reader wondering how the kids could even begin to survive such ramshackle parenting. Incredibly, three of the four siblings do better than survive. They grow into highly responsible, caring and contributing members of society.

What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

Here is a biography that will quietly take your breath away. The main characters aren't famous, infamous, or doing anything that will remotely change the world. But in every way, and in a beautiful way, this is a story about the very essence of human spirit. It will touch your heart and make you count your blessings, no matter what challenges you face.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison

One of my good friends and I have very similar tastes. We have a lot of the same clothes, our shopping excursions usually leave us with duplicates of the same purses and sweaters, we like the same movies and TV shows, and we even order the same drink at Starbucks, including all the variations: no water, extra hot, seven pumps etc. So when she told me about this book she was interested in reading, Orange is the New Black, I didn't think twice about choosing it to read this week. This is Piper Kerman's candid and reflective memoir of the year she spent in Prison. Devoid of self-pity, and with novelistic flair, this book was a compelling, often hilarious, and unfailingly compassionate portrait of life inside a women’s prison. It offers a unique perspective on the criminal justice system, the reasons we send so many people to prison, and what happens to them when they’re there.

When Piper Kerman was sent to prison for a ten-year-old crime, she barely resembled the reckless young woman she’d been when, shortly after graduating Smith College, she’d committed the misdeeds that would eventually catch up with her. Happily ensconced in a New York City apartment, with a promising career and an attentive boyfriend, she was suddenly forced to reckon with the consequences of her very brief, very careless dalliance in the world of drug trafficking.

Kerman spent thirteen months in prison, eleven of them at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, where she met a surprising and varied community of women living under exceptional circumstances. In Orange Is the New Black, Kerman tells the story of those long months locked up in a place with its own codes of behavior and arbitrary hierarchies, where a practical joke is as common as an unprovoked fight, and where the uneasy relationship between prisoner and jailer is constantly and unpredictably re-calibrated.

Orange is the New Black is a fascinating look down the rabbit hole that is prison. Kerman finds herself submerged in the unique and sometimes overwhelming culture of prison, where kindness can come in the form of sharing toiletries, and an insult in the cafeteria can lead to an enduring enmity. Kerman quickly learns the rules—asking about the length of one’s prison stay is expected, but never ask about the crime that led to it—and carves a niche for herself even as she witnesses the way the prison system fails those who are condemned to it, many of them nonviolent drug offenders. It's a truly absorbing and meditative look at life behind bars.

Kerman neither sentimentalizes nor lectures, but she does discus the restorative justice system, while reflecting on her direct experiences. "But our current criminal justice system has no provision for restorative justice, in which an offender confronts the damage they have done and tries to make it right to the people they have harmed". Many who itch to return to the streets go right back to the drugs that got them locked up. The Bureau of Prisons lacks the basic ability, funding and time to rehabilitate the incarcerated and thus the recidivism to commit the same crimes once released remains real. Some women turn to bad behavior as a coping mechanism against their poverty, lack of family support, abusive spouse and boyfriends and general hopelessness. Kerman also talks candidly about her shock that very little is done for the women who've completed sentences and have no resources for release: reuniting with children and family members, finding housing, and finding employment.

With its expert reporting and humane, clear-eyed storytelling, Orange is the New Black is an authentic, provocative and marvellous book. It transcends the memoir genre's usual self-centeredness, to explore how human beings can always surprise you. You'd expect bad behavior in prison, but I can't stop thinking about the generous and lovely women with whom Piper Kerman served her time. I never expected to pick up a memoir about prison and find myself immersed in a story of grace, of friendship, of loyalty and love.

I loved this book, to a depth and degree that caught me by surprise. Of course it’s a compelling insider’s account of life in a women’s federal prison, and of course it’s a behind-the-scenes look at America’s war on drugs, and of course it’s a story rich with humor, pathos and redemption: all of that was to be expected. What I did not expect from this memoir was the affection, compassion, and even reverence that Piper Kerman demonstrates for all the women she encountered while she was locked away in jail. That was the surprising twist: that behind the bars of women's prisons grow extraordinary friendships, ad hoc families, and delicate communities. In the end, this book is not just a tale of prisons, drugs, crime, or justice; it is, simply put, a beautifully told story about how incredible women can be, and I will never forget it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Birth House

My first week of this little adventure, I read the Book of Negroes, which I picked up from a display surrounded by other noteworthy titles. Included in the display was this weeks book, The Birth House. It caught my attention many weeks ago, but each week seems to be left behind, as a new book catches my eye. So this week I decided it was finally time to give it the attention it deserves, and am so thrilled that I did. Author Ami McKay weaves a compelling story of a woman who fights to preserve the art of midwifery, reminding us of the need, in changing times, for acts of bravery, kindness, and clear-sightedness. This in an authentic historical fiction, compelling and lively, which beautifully conjurs a close-knit community and reminds us that the miracle happens not in birth but in the love that follows.

The Birth House is set against the historical backdrop of 1919, in the small shipbuilding village of Scot's Bay, Nova Scotia. Narrated by Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born in five generations of Rares, we are introduced to a world that has been brought to life. As a child in an isolated village, she is drawn to Miss Babineau, an outspoken Acadian midwife with a gift for healing. Dora becomes Miss B.’s apprentice, and together they help the women of Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labors, breech births, unwanted pregnancies and even unfulfilling sex lives. Filled with details as compelling as they are surprising, The Birth House is an unforgettable tale of the struggles women have faced to have control of their own bodies and to keep the best parts of tradition alive in the world of modern medicine.

"I don't know that I'll ever have her kind of wisdom, or the courage it takes to live like her - to be given such little respect, to be alone. I'm scared of what it means to take a step, any step, that's not in the direction I dreamed I'd go."

Reading McKay’s first novel is like rummaging through a sea-chest found in a Nova Scotian attic. Steeped in lore and landscape, peppered with journal entries, newspaper clippings and advertisements, this marvelous ‘literary scrapbook’ captures the harsh realities of the seacoast community of Scots Bay, Nova Scotia during WWI. McKay is a marvelous storyteller who writes with a haunting and evocative voice. Written with lyrical sway and grace, with meticulous detail and visceral description, she retrieves our social history and lays it out before us in a collage of vivid, compelling detail. The novel offers a world of mystery and wisdom, a world where tradition collides with science, where life and death meet under the moon. With a startling sense of time and place, The Birth House travels through a landscape that is at once deeply tender and exquisitely harsh, relaying a story of individual human tenderness and endurance.

"My house stands at the edge of the earth. Together, the house and I have held strong against the churning tides of Fundy. Two sisters, stubborn in our bones."

As I have expressed many times over in the past weeks, I take joy in learning new things from books. I love reading a book and coming across a word, event, or person that sparks some interest and finding out more on the subject. The Birth House led me to some interesting reading on the Boston Molasses Flood, an event I had no idea even took place. In January 1919, A tank of 2.5 million gallons of molasses exploded. Weighing over 30 million pounds, the molasses flooded the streets of Boston at 35 miles per hour, causing havoc on the streets, killing 21 and injuring 150. Since then, the event has entered local folklore, with residents claiming that on hot summer days, the area still smells of molasses.

The Birth House is an examination of a community of women, their society, and the families they held together through their shared friendships, rivalries, stories, and knitting circles. McKay has assembled a wonderful historical novel full of joy and humanity, that has earned its place among the great books of both Atlantic Canada and the country at large, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Bishop Man

As I am challenging myself this year to read books of many different topics and ideas, I was drawn to this weeks books, This Bishop's Man, for it reveals a topic I am not altogether familiar with. Written by investigative journalist, Linden MacIntyre, and winner of the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize, this is an unforgettable novel, a searing indictment of the Catholic church, and complex character study of a deeply conflicted man at the precipice of his life. Above all, it's a great read – a page-turner which renders existential questions about personal responsibility into fodder fit for a thriller, and which takes language and form seriously.

Father Duncan MacAskill known to fellow priests as the "Exorcist", plays a special and notorious role as clean-up man for the Bishop of Antigonish, as he has a talent for coolly reassigning deviant priests to protect the church's various infallible positions, while ensuring minimal fuss from victims and their families. It has been a lonely vocation, but MacAskill is generally satisfied that his work is a necessary defense of the church. All this changes however, when lawyers and a policeman snoop too close for the bishop's comfort, and MacAskill is assigned a parish in the remote Cape Breton community of Creignish, his hometown, and told to wait it out. While wrestling with his own demons, MacAskill encounters a troubled young man who appears to be the victim of a notorious priest. Finding it hard to disengage as he becomes obsessed with his own chance connections to the tragedy – his role in exiling the priest, his familial ties to the victim and his affiliations with the church – he is determined to help this man, regardless of the consequences for the church, and his subsequent investigation takes him on a sordid and surprising path. As a native Cape Bretoner himself, MacIntyre brings the region and its residents vividly to life, while the book aches with details that are both rational and emotional.

Returning home is a rich theme for fiction and is always somehow more rich when it concerns places such as Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island, where the intricacies of family trees really do matter. MacAskill not only becomes reacquainted with the countryside of his youth, but discovers that he is related to almost everyone there, which makes impartiality towards his parishioners virtually impossible. Throughout the chapters, we learn that MacAskill struggles with many things, including an abusive father, loneliness, his own vicarious liability, and alcoholism. “They say drinking alone is a bad sign. But what if you’re always alone? What if solitude is the norm?” But despite his own celibacy and sobriety issues, MacAskill is the closest thing to a hero within the pages of this novel.

“The future has no substance until it turns the corner into history.”  

The Bishop’s Man is a story told in spirals, as we twist and turn through past and present fluidly, giving us a clearer picture of the events that can become cloudy through space and time. I found this style intriguing, but also confusing at times, as there was nothing as far as change in style or tense to determine exactly what state of time was being narrated. However, by the end of the final pages, all of MacAskill's stories and memories wove to a combined conclusion. I think that overall, the narrative was trying to reproduce someone remembering, and maybe that's why it's not quite in chronological order; certain events stand out more than others or float to the surface faster than others in real memory.

A brave novel, conceived and written with impressive delicacy and understanding. Despite being a work of fiction, The Bishop’s Man has the ring of truth, as MacIntyre writes with great authority. The past few decades have seen a stream of stories about church sex abuse scandals in Canada, the U.S., and Ireland, but instead of writing a novel to showcase those issues, MacIntyre uses those scandals as a springboard to analyze other, perhaps deeper issues. Though the sexual abuse is a central theme, it is not the center of the story, Father MacAskill is. It’s his life we’re looking at, his struggles, his character. The other issues are there, and dealt with with care, but this is not MacIntyre building a prop character in order to sermonize. Father MacAskill, with all of his hope and melancholy, remains ambiguous to us as well as to himself, allowing us to delve into the issues ourselves.

This book does not condemn or blame, it simply acknowledges that ugly things happen and people try to deal with those realities in the best ways they can, not sure if they're right or wrong. Especially when there is no right action. I love that this book just lays it out there so realistically.

It is by way of these happenings that we are presented with brutally honest characters living lives of deceit and despair. These tragically flawed people are human in their beastliness, conflicted, damaged, and eternally struggling to break the vicious cycle of pain and suffering. This book demonstrates the power of subtlety. Nothing is overt, everything is implicit. It's so much more reflective of life -- how often do we name horrors, but instead we speak in code and leave ugliness unspoken, partly as a way of dealing with it?

“The bay is flat, endless pewter beneath the rising moon.” Amidst the madness and injustice, we pause to take in the haunting and beautiful descriptions of small towns, where you can hear the fiddle and smell the sea salt lifting off the page. MacIntyre has proven to be an adoring poet in his love of the East coast and of the Gaelic and English languages. His words are profound and emotive, and I look forward to picking up his other novels in the hopes of more of the same.

Friday, September 3, 2010


Feeling myself slip into the easy trap of devouring great novels, I decided to change courses completely and read Infidel. In this profoundly affecting memoir from the internationally renowned author, Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells her astonishing life story. Narrated in clear, vigorous prose, it is a consistently focused narrative of a spectacularly eventful life launched almost inadvertent into an unparalleled adventure in moral courage. It traces Hirsi Ali's geographical journey from from her traditional Muslim childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya, to her intellectual awakening and activism in the Netherlands, and her current life under armed guard in the West. She is a famously eloquent and consequential revolutionary, and tells her story with the clarity of an electron microscope, depicting every detail, she creates a work of universal resonance in this brave, inspiring, and beautifully written memoir.

One of today's most admired and controversial political figures, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, came to the attention of the wider world in an extraordinary way. In 2004 a Muslim fanatic, after shooting Ali's colleague and filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh dead on an Amsterdam street, pinned a letter to Mr. van Gogh’s chest with a knife. Addressed to Ms. Hirsi Ali, the letter called for holy war against the West and, more specifically, for her death.

Infidel is the eagerly awaited story of the coming of age of this elegant, distinguished, and sometimes reviled, political superstar and champion of free speech. With a gimlet eye and measured, often ironic, voice, Hirsi Ali recounts the evolution of her beliefs, her ironclad will, and her extraordinary resolve to fight injustice done in the name of religion. Raised in a strict Muslim family and extended clan, Hirsi Ali survived civil war, female mutilation, brutal beatings, adolescence as a devout believer during the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and life in four troubled, unstable countries largely ruled by despots. In her early twenties, she escaped from a forced marriage and sought asylum in the Netherlands, where she earned a college degree in political science, tried to help her tragically depressed sister adjust to the West, and fought for the rights of Muslim immigrant women and the reform of Islam as a member of Parliament. Even though she is under constant threat, demonized by reactionary Islamists and politicians, disowned by her father, and expelled from her family and clan, she refuses to be silenced.

Ali describes a journey “from the world of faith to the world of reason,” a long, often bitter struggle to come to terms with her religion and the clan-based traditional society that defined her world and that of millions of Muslims all over. Her family was politically liberal but pious, with one foot in the remote past and the other in the modern world. In Nairobi, her grandmother kept a sheep in the bathtub at night and herded it during the day. Hirsi Ali, at her English-language school, devoured Nancy Drew mysteries and English adventure series, “tales of freedom, adventure, of equality between girls and boys, trust and friendship.” She eventually became a woman very like one of George Eliot’s heroines — earnest, high-minded and ardent, forever chafing at the limits imposed by her religion and her society.

Rebellion came slowly. Hirsi Ali, under the spell of a kindly Islamic evangelist, passed through a deeply religious phase. She describes, quite persuasively, the attractions of fundamentalism and the growing appeal of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in disintegrating societies like Somalia’s. But nagging questions disturbed her faith, especially as she encountered inflexible doctrines on the role of women, and their need to submit to men. “Life on earth is a test, and I was failing it, even though I was trying as hard as I knew how to,” she writes of her anguished, questioning adolescence. “I was failing as a Muslim.”

“Holland was trying to be tolerant for the sake of consensus, but the consensus was empty,” she writes. “The immigrants’ culture was being preserved at the expense of their women and children and to the detriment of the immigrants’ integration into Holland.” Hirsi Ali quickly came to a profound conclusion: that the mistreatment of women is not an incidental problem in the Muslim world, a side issue that can be dealt with once the more important political problems are out of the way. Rather, she believes that the enslavement of women lies at the heart of all of the most fanatical interpretations of Islam, creating "a culture that generates more backwardness with every generation."

Hirsi Ali came to a more controversial conclusion as well: that Islam is in a period of transition, that the religion as it is currently practiced is often incompatible with modernity and democracy and must radically transform itself in order to become so. "We in the West," she writes, "would be wrong to prolong the pain of that transition unnecessarily, by elevating cultures full of bigotry and hatred toward women to the stature of respectable alternative ways of life." That sentiment, when first expressed in Holland, infuriated not only Hirsi Ali's compatriots but also Dutch intellectuals uneasy about criticizing the immigrants in their midst, particularly because both Hirsi Ali and Theo van Gogh went further than the usual criticism of radical, political Islam: Both believed that even "ordinary" forms of Islam, such as those practiced in Hirsi Ali's Somalia, contain elements of discrimination against women that should not be tolerated in the West. Thanks to this belief in female equality, Hirsi Ali now requires permanent bodyguards. But having "moved from the world of faith to the world of reason," Hirsi Ali now says she cannot go back.

Ultimately a celebration of triumph over adversity, Hirsi Ali's delivers a powerful feminist critique of Islam, informed by a genuine understanding of the religion. Telling the story of how a bright little girl evolved out of dutiful obedience to become an outspoken, pioneering freedom fighter. More than simply discovering western libertarian values, Ali shows a deep and critical understanding of her history, how it's shaped the modern world, and shows it's prognosis for dealing with the festering problem of Europe's Islamic subculture. As Western governments struggle to balance democratic ideals with religious pressures, no story could be timelier or more significant.

What makes Hirsi Ali a voice of world historical importance is partly her great art, exhibited here; it is also her shining courage. Simply, in an age where truth is penalized, banned, distorted, Ali Hirsi simply speaks the truth. This is a remarkable woman. She has crossed an impassable divide, and has been able to reach the other side after considerable suffering, work, and tears. Her extraordinary life seems more an ongoing work in progress than a settled iconographic career, for she seems to be fated to say what many do not wish to hear.

How well does anyone in the west understand Islam, and all the things it does to people? Do we really understand female genital mutilation, beaten women, arranged marriages, the compulsive need to hide the feminine, and the complete loss of individual freedom? Many still don't have a clue, but this book makes a very real effort to explain a few things, as it is time the west came to its senses, and faced reality. It is not "one world," all cultures are not equal in value, and the individual matters much more than the collective living in darkness.

This book will grab your imagination like no other, transplant you into a world you have probably never known, and introduce you to the intimate world of a Muslim family swept by circumstance all over Africa, Arabia, and Europe. The complex interaction of tribes, clans, cultures, extended families and nations (and their consequences) isn't dryly analyzed, it is woven into a personal drama with the momentum of a locomotive. The love of family rides perilously over the jarring railbed of refugee life, of ancient and modern Islamic conflicts, all of it recounted with real compassion in beautifully clear English. Hirsi Ali displays what surely must be her greatest gift: the talent for recalling, describing and honestly analyzing the precise state of her feelings at each stage of that journey, and years from now, maybe even centuries from now, her depth and integrity, and the depth and integrity of others like her, will still be having a positive impact on the world.

My tip for this book is simply read and learn about other people. While we learn from our own mistakes, trails, and experiences, we can also learn a great deal from those who have suffered more, experienced more, and fought for more before us. We can chose to let them inspire and motivate us to become stronger people, people who believe wholeheartedly in something, and stand up for it, people who take risks, who help others, and people who never stop growing.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sarah's Key

As I mention in previous weeks, I truly enjoy war time stories, for they are a true testimony to the strength of the human heart. This weeks book, Sarah's Key, written by Tatiana de Rosnay, is an elegiac, imaginative, and extraordinary novel, inspired by actual events during World War II and the Holocaust. Written with eloquence and empathy, de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.

July 1942 marked a dark period in the history of France where thousands of Jewish families were rounded up and forcibly kept in the Velodrome d'Hiver. They were then sent off to transit camps in France such as Drancy, before being packed off to Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp. What is so unnerving about this whole incident is that the rounding up and mobilization of Jews for deportation was done by the French authorities. Haunting and suspenseful, life-affirming and beautiful, crafted with unforgettable imagery and heartbreaking simplicity, this book speaks forcefully to the triumph of the spirit in the face of overwhelming despair.

Based upon this seldom mentioned, little known piece of French history, author Tatiana de Rosnay has crafted a well-written novel that intertwines the past in 1942, and the present. Sarah Starzynski, a ten-year-old Parisian girl born to Jewish parents, is captured in the round-up of June 16, 1942, and imprisoned with almost 10,000 others in an indoor cycling arena, the Vélodrome d'Hiver, awaiting transportation to Auschwitz. When the police arrive, she has just time to hide her younger brother in a concealed closet in their apartment, locking him in and promising to return when it was safe.

Sixty years later, we are introduced to writer Julia Jarmond, a transplanted American married to an arrogant and unfaithful Frenchman. Julia is assigned to cover the 60th anniversary of the Vél' d'Hiv' roundups, and is struck by the fact that the round-up and subsequent disposal was carried out by ordinary French policemen, enabled by a citizenry that for the most part looked the other way. As she digs deeper, she uncovers dark secrets surrounding her husband's family which are connected to the deportations of Jews from France, but defiantly resolves to find out what happened to the former occupants: Wladyslaw and Rywka Starzynski, parents of 10 year old Sarah and four year old Michel. As the truth emerges, the author deftly handles the question of guilt caused by suppressed secrets and how the truth can sometimes not only bring about pain and disrupt the regularity of life, yet also have the ability to heal and move forwards into the future.

"...the end of summer that lingered on, the fading heat, the dust, the stealthy minutes that oozed by with the laziness of molasses." The pages of Sarah's Key were filled with succulent descriptions and profound imagery, making it effortless to form detailed pictures in my mind of the characters and places. The method employed by the author, which alternates between the past and the present is an effective tool, for it ties both periods together and brings the story to a satisfying conclusion. At the half-way point, however, de Rosnay is forced to give up Sarah's direct narrative, telling her story solely through what Julia is able to discover about her. This left me a little disappointed, for I was so intrigued and captivated by Sarah's story, and I longed to know more about her life after the Vél' d'Hiv.

Sarah's story may be merely a variant on the Holocaust narrative often told before, but its child's-eye viewpoint gives it a moving authenticity. Especially touching are the glimpses of individual concern and kindness among the general indifference of the French people; the novel honors those unsung heroes who put aside their fear to help in individual ways.

Told with remarkably unsparing, unsentimental prose, through a lens so personal and intimate, this novel is shocking, profoundly moving and morally challenging story. It beautifully conveys Julia's conflicting loyalties, and makes Sarah's trials so riveting, her innocence so absorbing, that the book is hard to put down.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Book of Awesome

What’s there to be happy about? Simple, snow days, high-fiving babies, finding money in your pocket and so much more. After walking past The Book of Awesome, by Neil Pasricha, several weeks in a row, I decided that it was time to dive in and indulge myself. This book is funny, sweet, and filled with just enough nostalgia-laced goodness to bring out your own inner Pollyanna.

Daily life in the twenty-first century can be overwhelming. Between work, school, kids, payments and, not to mention trying to have a social life, things can become very stressful and bland. Throw into the mix issues of global warming and a strangled economy, and it becomes almost too much to bear. No wonder we seek solace in the tiny triumphs of life: in our own small successes and in the personal interactions, the soothing sights, the tempting tastes, and the sensational smells we find in the world around us. In this adaptation of his blog '1000 Awesome Things', Pasricha celebrates the simple pleasures of everyday living, resulting in an encyclopedia of joy. Focusing on both tangible pleasures and simple experiences, Pasricha provides a contemporary take on everyday inspiration. Some moments are silly, some poignant, some nostalgic-but everything is familiar. Pasricha emerges a committed but inviting optimist, combating life's unending stream of bad news by identifying opportunities to "share a universal high five with humanity."

The Book of Awesome is the kind of book that you can scan through quickly. You can catch the headlines and say "Yes!" to particular ones. Or you can take a single lovely, rainy weekend to devour this volume from cover to cover. Keep it on your bedside or coffee table for a quick pick-me-up. Read passages aloud to a living room full of friends, and your group will come up with even more possibilities. You don't have to agree with all of the entries. Just keep turning pages, and it won't be too long before you find several more Awesome Things that you can relate to. Little things, it turns out, are extremely important to happiness, and The Book of Awesome will remind you of a thousand little things that will make you happier.

As I mentioned, some things in The Book of Awesome didn't really apply to me. Because of where and when I was born, there were many things that were somewhat unfamiliar to me and my experiences. Although I could appreciate them, they did not resonate anything, so it was extra awesome when something came along that I completely understood. Some of my favorite awesome things are: the moment at a concert after the lights go out and before the band comes onstage, bakery air, peeling an orange in one shot (or even better, a grapefruit), using all the different shampoos and soaps in someone else's shower, the smell of rain on a hot sidewalk, and the sound it makes from inside a tent, the moment at a restaurant after you see your food coming out of the kitchen but before it lands on your table, laughing so hard you make no sound at all, bowling celebrations (AKA celebratory dancing), sleeping with one leg in the covers and one leg out, remembering what movie that guy is from, the smell of books, snow falling on Christmas eve, building an amazon couch cushion fort, and last but not least, squeezing through a door as it's shutting without touching it. I have experienced each and everyone of these things, and I'm glad to say that they have all brought a little bit more happiness into my life.

Since finishing The Book of Awesome, I have noticed myself reveling in the small things, and allowing the childlike splendor of them to wash a smile onto my face. Now when I notice myself multi-tasking while brushing my teeth, or hanging my hand out the car window, I really do relish in the small opportunity to enjoy the moment, knowing that is simply awesome.

My tip for this book is to visit Pasricha's website, The book includes only a couple hundred awesome things, but you will playfully discover hundreds more, as well as see readers comments and their shared experiences and memories. And second, I dare you to read this book without compiling your own list of awesome things to add. Maybe take the time to acknowledge something when it makes you smile, or get together with some friends and make a game out of it, but either way, keep the awesome train running, for it will bring little bursts of joy to your day

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Wisdom of Forgivness: Intimate Conversations and Journeys

After reading Eat Pray Love, I was interested in knowing more about meditation and the Buddhist religion. I began talking with my Dad about these two subjects, knowing that he had read a lot of material on both, and asked him for some suggestions on basic reading material to get me started. Shortly after, I received a package for my birthday from him with a few different titles, bringing me to this weeks book, The Wisdom of Forgiveness: Intimate Conversations and Journey, By Victor Chan. This is a surprisingly easy and wholly engaging read, a rich story rather than dense teachings weighted down by abstruse Buddhist terminology. Through the eyes of Chan, friend and confidant of His Holiness, we are invited to become intimately acquainted with the Dalai Lama. We follow the leader of the Tibetan people as he travels extensively, and we join Chan as the proverbial fly on the wall, gaining privileged access into the public and private world of one of the most well known men of our time.

Chan begins by setting up the contrasts between his controlled, unemotional Chinese upbringing in Hong Kong and the "childlike, carefree spontaneity of Tibetans." In a beautiful turn of phrase that he illuminates throughout the book, Chan says the Dalai Lama "wears his soul on his face." And he shares, as he has rarely done, his own spiritual experiences. Chan met the Dalai Lama more than 30 years ago on a serendipitous trip to India, where the holy man was in exile, becoming a frequent visitor and confidante, as well as the first person from China to enter Dalai Lama's inner circle since the Chinese government seized Tibet in 1959. The Wisdom of Forgiveness is the recounting of their long and evolving friendship, as Chan chronicles nearly three decades traveling the world with the Dalai Lama. From war-torn Ireland to Eastern Europe, through India's holy sites and the Dalai Lama's grave illness, Chan had unprecedented access to the holy man's daily routine and private quarters, as well as his visits with bombing victims and dignitaries like Czech president Vaclav Havel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Chan has a gift for observation and description, making this book both an intimate look at his own personal journey, and a thorough portrait of the Dalai Lama.

The book shows admirably, the Dalai Lama's sometimes unpredictable sense of humor, his ability to put people at ease, the unpretentious manner in which he wears his learning and his practice, his serenity, and his devotion. For decades he has been the spiritual and temporal leader of the exiled Tibetan people, as well as the most recognizable symbol of Buddhism in the world. An enigmatic figure, he is a Nobel Peace Laureate with a playful streak and an irresistible laugh. But that's not why he has gained superstar status in the West, or why his public appearances around the globe sell out in minutes. Why is he so revered? Because people are thirsty for his message of compassion and non-violence, a powerful message that crosses barriers of race, religion, and creed. People embrace the Dalai Lama's universal, secular values—qualities like forgiveness and acceptance, or what he calls "the warm heart." As his longtime friend, Chan, describes it: "He and his countrymen practice a very simple religion—they practice being kind to each other."

The Wisdom of Forgiveness is a good starting point to learn about Buddhism, and be introduced to the Dali Lama in a new, and more personal way. Although I'm not fully convinced I received all the information I was hoping to obtain, there were a few key points that I think are very valuable to maintaining happiness in everyday life, including:

"...he exists only because others exist: a person is a person through other persons. When we say you have ubuuntu, we mean you are gentle, you are compassionate, you are hospitable, you want to share, and you care about the welfare of others. This is because my humanity is caught up in your humanity. So when I dehumanize others, whether I like it or not, I dehumanize myself. For we can only be human, we can only be free together. To forgive is actually the best form of self-interest."

"Despite his lack of control over what the Chinese could do to him physically, Tenzin finally understood that the Chinese could not damage his mental health unilaterally. The only way his psychological well-being could suffer was through his own attitude, his own reaction to his dire straits. He knew that if he could develop a neutral-or better yet, a positive-feeling toward his captors, he would be able to sleep at night, and no matter how badly the Chinese tortured him, his mind would always be a safe haven for him to retreat to."

"Compassion is something like a sense of caring, a sense of concern for others difficulties and pain. Not only family and friends, but all other people. Enemies also. Now, if we really analyze our feelings, one thing becomes clear. If we think only of ourselves, forget about other people, then our minds occupy very small area. Inside that small area, even tiny problem appears very big. But the moment you develop a sense of concern for others, you realize that, just like ourselves, they also want happiness; they also want satisfaction. When you have this sense of concern, your mind automatically widens. At this point, your own problems, even big problems, will not be so significant. the result? Big increase in peace of mind. So, if you think only of yourself, only your own happiness, the result is actually less happiness. You get more anxiety, more fear."

This is a great book, if you are looking for a brief overview of the Buddhist religion, however, if you are looking for greater detail and understanding I would suggest some further reading on the subject.