Monthly Archives: March 2019

‘Braving the Wilderness: the Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone’ by Brené Brown

“We are complex beings who wake up every day and fight against being labeled and diminished with stereotypes and characterisations that don’t reflect our fullness. Yet when we don’t risk standing on our own and speaking out, when the options laid before us force us into the very categories we resist, we perpetuate our own disconnection and loneliness. When we are willing to risk venturing into the wilderness, and even becoming our own wilderness, we feel the deepest connection to our true self and to what matters the most.”

What Brené Brown says matters. Her research, storytelling, and honesty are hallmarks of her writing. In some of her other books she has spoken profoundly about how vulnerability, authenticity, and imperfection can be life changing in our interaction with others and how we see and conduct ourselves. In Braving the Wilderness, she delves into cultivating true belonging in our communities, organisations, and culture. In an age of increasing polarisation, belonging can be harmful as well as beneficial. It’s easy to stay quiet, hide in our ideological bunkers, or just try to fit in, rather than show up as our true selves and brave the wilderness of uncertainty and criticism. Sometimes we need to have the courage to stand alone and disagree or speak the truth in love. Personally I didn’t connect with this book as much as I did Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection, but I think it is an important work and very current.

This youtube of the author encapsulates what all of her books say in one way or another and it is powerful. Watch the whole interview or skip to the best nugget at minute 32:40.


‘A Spark of Light’ by Jodi Picoult

This was vintage Picoult with a bit of a twist, although not in the tale, but in the structure. Picoult always takes on a big controversial issue and extensively examines it, but never taking sides. Her characters are clearly on opposing sides, but sometimes they gain empathy for each other and find in their own stance something that might be questionable, thus maturing in their own understanding. Seeing something from someone else’s point of view is something that sadly seems to have gone missing in our world today.

In this case the issue is abortion and the novel begins with a shooting/hostage-taking at an abortion clinic. The author describes the event and then backs up an hour in time every chapter after that, leaving the epilogue to explain a few things, not even all, (which is kind of a cheap trick in this case because the novel is going back in time the reader has no choice but to hang in there, or skip to the end). It’s a different sort of structure for Picoult, perhaps she was trying to break out of a formulaic box. At any rate, in this case, I found the reverse timeline made the book drag on because all of the action had taken place at the beginning and the rest was backstory. Interesting, but not very compelling, and I felt that it resulted in too much dwelling on and rehashing of the tragic attack which made the book unnecessarily traumatic. Picoult is known also for a breathtaking twist, but again, in this one the only twist was small and predictable. However, the ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the book was excellent, where in essay form, she discusses abortion in the US and the wider world. Clearly her research was thorough as usual, but it didn’t translate into an amazing story for me this time.

‘Carolina Heirlooms Collection’ by Lisa Wingate

Lisa Wingate was a new author discovery for me last year. I posted already on the very first novella in this Carolina Heirlooms Series, as well as another stand-alone novel called Before We Were Yours.

Wingate’s books, (and she has many besides this series), are easy-to-read contemporary women’s fiction with a historical fiction element. I like the pacing and the characters in her books, even though the endings are usually predictable and the novels a bit forgettable. She obviously does her research well and comes up with some interesting storylines, settings, and historical truth. This series takes place mostly in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Outer Banks, a thin circle of islands and sand dunes extending in an arc out from the US east coast. Before this series I never knew the Outer Banks existed. I also learned about the Lost Colony of Roanoke and the Federal Writer’s Project.

The Carolina Heirlooms Collection is comprised of 3 novels with 3 novellas as prequel and interspersed between the main books. I read them in order, but I don’t think that was entirely necessary. There are characters that keep reappearing but there is not really an important chronology. Here is the list:

#.5  The Sea Glass Sisters
#1.0  The Prayer Box
# 1.5  The Tidewater Sisters
#2.0  The Story Keeper
#2.5  The Sandcastle Sister
#3.0  The Sea Keeper’s Daughters

‘Suzanne’ by Anais Barbeau-Lavalette

Anais Barbeau-Lavalette never knew her grandmother Suzanne, an artist who abandoned her husband and children to find her freedom. Originally published in French (La Femme qui fuit), and translated by Rhonda Mullins, this is an imagined story based on historical clues. This is how Canada Reads 2019 describes it:
“Suzanne, winner of the Prix des libraires du Québec and a bestseller in French, is a fictionalised account of Suzanne’s life over 85 years, from Montreal to New York to Brussels, from lover to lover, through an abortion, alcoholism, Buddhism and an asylum. It takes readers through the Great Depression, Québec’s Quiet Revolution, women’s liberation and the American civil rights movement, offering a portrait of a volatile, fascinating woman on the margins of history. And it’s a granddaughter’s search for a past for herself, for understanding and forgiveness.”

The family had always seen the grandmother negatively as the rebel who abandoned her children. So the author wrote this book to gain a more sympathetic view of Suzanne, to discover why she did what she did. Unfortunately, though lyrically written and epic in scope considering what it all covers in a small novel, the book just didn’t work for me. In fact, it achieved the opposite. To me Suzanne came across as selfish and self-indulgent, blindly seeking happiness and satisfaction and never achieving it because of a lingering guilt about the loss and the cost of leaving. It was telling to me, that Suzanne never seemed to settle down after she left, but meandered from lover to lover, and cause to cause. There was no redemption in the end, which made it all feel rather empty. Books like Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls have similar themes, but somehow were able to create more empathy in me.

Yanic Truesdale, Michel from Gilmour Girls, will be defending the book in the debate. Here is Yanic in an interview with the author.

‘Homes: A Refugee Story’ by Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung

“That’s how it was in Syria; when we heard an explosion, we ran towards the chaos. Often the police and ambulances were late arriving, if they arrived at all, so we took care  of each other.”

This is an important memoir written by Iraqi teenager Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah (pronounced: Abu ba-CAR al Rah-Bee-ah) with the help of his teacher Winnie Yeung. It is a book that I think every Canadian would benefit from reading and I think it deserves to win Canada Reads 2019.

Whenever we see news footage of Syria, with all the broken buildings, bombed out neighbourhoods, and hear about the random violence that the place has suffered from for so long, it seems impossible to imagine how it was for people to be living there in the midst of a civil war. Bakr has done just that. He has told the story very honestly and vividly. “We all gained skills that we could not have imagined. Knowledge that we never really wanted to know filtered into our lives. Our ears could pick out the differences between mortars, grad rockets, and car bombs. We could tell the high notes of the metallic smell of fresh blood on the streets from the low reek of a corpse waiting for days to be found in the rubble.”

Wise beyond his years because of his circumstance, Bakr also speaks simply as a normal teenager about going to play video games with his cousins and soccer with his friends. He was just 10 when the conflict began and his memories are childlike, yet riveting because his days were marked by the juxtaposition of living the life of a normal teenager in the middle of a war zone.

What I like most about the book is his honest perspective about how it was when he came to Canada as a refugee. When he was living in constant danger he dreamt of a life where he could safely live and move and go about daily activities. But when a new home in Canada became a reality, it was far from easy, albeit safe. He speaks of homesickness and a host of unexpected and different fears to deal with like fitting in, learning language, and building a new life in a foreign culture. Though totally understandable, these emotions also made him feel ashamed and ungrateful for the opportunity he had been given to begin a new life in safety. Homes features a remarkable young man and a compassionate teacher who have given Canadians a window to understanding the refugee experience.

‘By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz’ by Max Eisen

“If you survive, you must tell the world what happened here. Now go.”

These were the very last words that Tibor “Max” Eisen ever heard his father speak, and he spent the rest of his life fulfilling that promise. At the age of fifteen, Eisen entered Auschwitz and lost everyone he loved in a matter of months. Now at the age of 86, he says his heart is full again. Retired from business, Eisen works harder than ever as a Holocaust educator in schools and other institutions throughout the country. He also accompanies groups to Poland, all to ensure that the collective suffering of so many will never be forgotten.

For those of us who have European roots and family members who themselves went through WW2, this will be a hard one to read. His story is undeniably compelling, but for those of us already familiar with the atrocities, it may be difficult to face again in such detail. However, for young people who have never encountered war or for whom the Holocaust is unfamiliar, it is an important book to keep historical memory alive.

Eisen believes strongly that putting his story out there goes beyond historical education. Learning about the Holocaust for young people is crucial because it “puts their own struggles in perspective, encourages the protection of a democratic society, and helps them speak out when they see injustice.” Though Eisen has been speaking about his survival for many years, this book is the permanent contribution to that cause. He includes a number of pictures that personalise and enhance the story he tells. Will this one win Canada Reads 2019?