Monthly Archives: January 2019

‘The Next Person You Meet in Heaven’ by Mitch Albom

“Finally, my deepest thanks to my readers, who continue to surprise, inspire me, motivate me, and bless me. For now, heaven may be a prayer and a guess. But I know, thanks to you, I have experienced some of it already.”

With that acknowledgement comes a personal note of thanks to his fans (of which there are many) from Mitch Albom, the author of the beloved Tuesdays with Morrie. He has just published his first sequel to his other most famous book  The Five People You Meet in Heaven.

Albom’s Uncle Eddie originally had an image of the afterlife which Albom has captured quite captivatingly in both books. This book continues with the story of Annie whom Eddie Maintenance saves in the first book. This is not meant to be a theological study on what to expect when we die–suspend disbelief (or belief) and just enjoy the bits of wisdom floating around in the narrative. As with all of his books, he has a journalist’s jaunty writing style which is easy to read, thoughtful, uplifting, and entertaining.

Of course not everyone is a fan, and when I was researching I came across this review which was just too funny to not include… Apologies to Mitch though, I really do love your books…

‘My Sister, the Serial Killer’ by Oyinkan Braithwaite

What a weird little crime novel this is, oddly compelling, but I wouldn’t highly recommend it. It’s set in Lagos, Nigeria and is actually less of a thriller than an essay on sibling rivalry and loyalty. It’s meant to be a darkly funny satire, but to me it didn’t quite achieve that and felt too lighthearted and even flippant, given the gruesome and violent subject matter. It’s in a completely different league from another Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie–hers are great literary achievements. But I must say, Braithwaite’s book was a fun little read.

Korede, the narrator of the story, is a highly efficient and responsible nurse who is falling in love with one of her doctor colleagues. Unfortunately, her little sister Ayoola has the inconvenient habit of killing off her boyfriends and calling her older sister to help her out of the mess. And to make matters worse, she has just met the doctor who Korede has a crush on! Braithwaite is a graduate of Creative Writing and Law from Kingston University. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

“The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

A socially awkward boy interviews a 104 year old woman named Ona Vitkus, a Lithuanian immigrant, about her life. She ends up telling him things she’s never told anyone else. The boy has a thing for world records and likes counting and collecting things that add up to the number 10. Wouldn’t it be great if Ona could live long enough to be the oldest woman in the world? The boy (oddly, we never learn his name) and the old woman develop a unique relationship that acts as a catalyst for all that happens after. It’s a lovely story, written well, and keenly observed. Even though the middle dragged on a bit for me, I loved the writing and atmosphere of the book and I liked the ending.

Author Feature: Anne Lamott

“I try to write the books I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives, human hearts, spiritual transformation, families, secrets, wonder, craziness—and that can make me laugh. When I am reading a book like this, I feel rich and profoundly relieved to be in the presence of someone who will share the truth with me, and throw the lights on a little, and I try to write these kinds of books. Books, for me, are medicine.”

Over the years I’ve read many of this author’s books. She has written both fiction and non-fiction. She is a progressive political activist, public speaker, and writing teacher. Lamott lives in California and much of her writing includes stuff from her own life. With self-deprecating humour she tackles tough subjects such as alcoholism, single parenting, motherhood, depression, and Christianity–all of which she has experienced first hand. She is not your run-of-the-mill Christian. Her ‘come-to-Jesus’ prayer was in a public toilet cubicle and included the ‘f’ word. She also refers to God as mother, not father. She is real and sometimes asks more questions than provides answers, but her musings make her relatable and communicate a quirky wisdom about life and how to navigate hard times.

There was a great article about her in the New York Times at the end of last year entitled: Anne Lamott, Lefty Guru of Optimism. Most recently I read this slim little volume about prayer called Help, Thanks, Wow.  And her book about the writing process called Bird by Bird, which has helpful hints about writing, but also about life in general. In these books, as with her others, I appreciate her honest, simple insights, and how in her funny, gentle way she brings perspective to life, love, and despair. Life is messy and her message is one of comfort, hope, and motivation.

Here is Anne in a TED Talk called “12 truths I learned from life and writing.” It’s hilarious and wonderful.

‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan

“There could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere; a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows.”

It is no small feat for an author to win the Canadian Giller prize twice (only three have ever done so, and one of those was Margaret Atwood) and be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2018. Award winners are not always readable, but this one certainly is. An epic tale of a boy on the run, I have never read a slavery story quite like it. And I was so curious to find out why there was an octopus on the cover! This literary page turner is full of beautiful writing, delightful characters, interesting quests, and thoughtful reflections on humanity and the meaning of freedom.

When Washington Black, an eleven year old field slave is falsely implicated in a the murder of someone on the plantation, he must flee. His good fortune is having been recently chosen as a manservant to the owner’s eccentric brother, a naturalist, explorer, and abolitionist. Together the unlikely pair travel to the Arctic and beyond in search of adventure and invention.

‘I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey’ by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish

“If I knew that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then I would accept their loss.”

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish is one of the many residents of the Middle East who have lost loved ones to the conflict there. This medical doctor’s house was shelled and in one terrible blow, three of his daughters and a niece were killed. He has suffered and has every reason to hate and seek revenge but he doesn’t, believing that will not change anything.

His unique perspective on peace and how to achieve it comes out of his medical profession. Born in a Palestinian refugee camp, people were often surprised or even shocked to learn that for many years he worked in a hospital in Israel, treating Jewish patients, but for him this illustrated his point about peace. In order to keep hate in check, he chose to focus on one person at a time, rather than make sweeping generalizations. If an Israeli checkpoint soldier was rude to him, he would be angry and frustrated at that particular person, not at all border crossing officials. Hate the actions of others, not hate the others.

As a doctor, he was a helper and healer for every person he treated, no matter who they were. People were treated according to their medical condition, not their origin. This bridges a gap. His advice is for people on each side of the divide to get to know one another and gain empathy and respect for the other’s situation. When you get to know the enemy and fear each other less and see individuals, it helps fight tribalism and hatred of the other. Don’t judge people by the frustrations you may have about their government. He says, “not all Americans are arrogant, not all Palestinians are troublemakers, not all Israelis are occupiers.”

Of course the Middle East situation is complex and there are no easy answers. Many have tried and failed to find solutions. But revenge and counter revenge is obviously not working–something must change. He promotes building bridges, not walls and also says empowering women in the peace process would help, suspecting that men are more likely to favour war. Avoid segregation and mix people up so they can get to know each other. This is a simple message of radical love, respect, and equality presented in story, and stories matter. Dr. Abuelaish now lives in Canada and teaches public health at the University of Toronto.

‘The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism’ by Ken Becker

“The answers are in the journey, every step and mis-step. As it happened. No punches pulled.” 

Ken Becker often started stories with a quote, so I thought it fitting to do the same. How did a young man who couldn’t type and couldn’t spell become a journalist? How did a college dropout become a college teacher? Reading this book appealed to me for a number of reasons. First, the title intrigued me because I am married to an international aid worker, and I have also been an expat for most of my adult years (US, UK, Tanzania, and Sierra Leone). Second, the topic was interesting to me because in addition to being a teacher librarian, I am also a writer. I’ve never made much money at it, but I love it. Third, and finally, with full disclosure, Ken is my neighbour and who doesn’t want to know more about their neighbours? When Ken kindly put an offer of Life Story writing in our mailboxes one summer years ago, I kept the paper which included his website and blog link (thebeckerfiles). When I recently went back to check them out, I discovered he’d written a book, which I found out was available at the Mississauga public library (and also on Amazon). I couldn’t resist, and put a hold on it right away.

Becker, a rugged non-conformist New Yorker, pulls no punches as he recounts his rocky road in life and journalism in this readable memoir. I appreciated his honesty, humour, and short snappy writing style. I’ve always found journalists to make good authors, because they know how to be compelling and avoid boggy writing. Becker was indeed, always striving to cut through the  b*llsh*t to get to what really mattered. Unfortunately, with his acerbic wit he may have p*ssed off some people in his life, burned some bridges, perhaps not realizing that his manner could be off putting. Or else he was just being recklessly forthright, in an effort to be true to himself. Either way, he also made a lot of friends, and it is evident from the book, that he is clearly devoted to his craft and to his family. He’s always been a pleasant neighbour, even though our dogs don’t get along.

His craft is writing, and he has written about an impressively wide variety of subjects: crime, travel, sports, politics, entertainment, etc. There are all kinds of interesting stories about famous people he has interviewed and private anecdotes that never made it to press. The inside scoop is why we love memoirs so much. A good memoir should also point to something beyond the individual, and this one does that as well. It gives a veteran’s view of journalism over the last 50 years. Being a journalist requires curiosity, grit, determination, hard work but also vulnerability. Putting your hard won well-crafted words ‘out there’ can be scary. I’ll end with another quote from Ken because it speaks to the value of memoir and passing on our stories. “While most people make arrangements to pass on accumulated riches, whether substantial or meager, many fail to recognize the value and uniqueness of their life stories.” Thanks for your contribution Ken! It’s inspiring.