Category Archives: Non-Fiction

‘Almost Everything: Notes on Hope’ by Anne Lamott

“Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” Wendell Berry

Another great book by Anne Lamott, although not everyone enjoys her meandering style. I listened to the audio book available on Overdrive from the library. She narrates it herself; I find her voice very down-to-earth and soothing.

Her thoughts on life and love and God are refreshing, funny, ecumenical, and universal. She is honest about her personal struggles and has a realistic view of self-help: she says simply “be kind to yourself and try to do a little bit better everyday.” It’s a crazy world and putting unrealistic pressure on yourself to improve, isn’t going to help. Her message of hope is wise, accessible, approachable, and helpful without being bossy. She may not deliver many answers in her message, but for me she has the power to gently coax me out of some dark thoughts and into the light, in other words, to find some hope.

Here Anne answers questions from fans while she signs books with her fiancé Neil. It’s a delightful impromptu interview:

‘The White Darkness’ by David Grann

Henry Worsley was a man obsessed with trekking the South Pole. He idolised Ernest Shackleton, the nineteenth-century polar explorer, who tried to become the first person to reach the South Pole, and later sought to cross Antarctica on foot. Shackleton never completed his journeys, but he repeatedly rescued his men from certain death, and emerged as one of the greatest leaders in history.

Worsley felt an overpowering connection to those expeditions. He was related to one of Shackleton’s men, Frank Worsley, and spent a fortune collecting artefacts from their epic treks across the continent. He modelled his military command on Shackleton’s legendary leadership skills and was determined to measure his own powers of endurance against them. He would succeed where Shackleton had failed, in the most brutal landscape in the world. In 2008, Worsley set out across Antarctica with two other descendants of Shackleton’s crew, battling the freezing, desolate landscape, life-threatening physical exhaustion, and hidden crevasses.

In compelling narrative non-fiction, David Grann tells Worsley’s remarkable story with intensity and power, enhanced by breathtaking photographs. The White Darkness is both a gorgeous keepsake volume and a spellbinding story of courage, love, and a man pushing himself to the extremes of human capacity.

Ernest Shackleton’s journey is chronicled beautifully in a children’s book by William Grill:  Shackleton’s Journey.

‘Feeding my Mother: Comfort and Laughter in the Kitchen as My Mom Lives with Memory Loss’ by Jann Arden

“You are not supposed to get it right out of the gate. My favourite people in the world, my dearest friends, all rattle when you give them a shake. They have little pieces that have broken off inside of them that are a constant reminder to them, and me, of how far they’ve come and how much they’ve learned and what they have survived.”

Canadian singer/songwriter Jann Arden has written a heartfelt book about walking along side her mother through Alzheimer’s. It was surprisingly good and I appreciated her honesty and wisdom as she shares this diary-style journey of caring for both of her parents in their twilight years. Although I’ve listened to Jann Arden’s music, and even met her once in Tanzania, I didn’t know much about her and didn’t expect to find her writing so inspirational. I ended up jotting down a lot of quotes and really appreciating her perspective. A quote that will stick with me: “My Mom says tears are God’s lubricant to get you through the tight spots.” And I always love books with easy tasty recipes! Jann says, “There is something about feeding people you care about that is extremely comforting for both of you.”

From the publisher: “When beloved singer and songwriter Jann Arden’s parents built a house just across the way from her, she thought they would be her refuge from the demands of her career. And for a time that was how it worked. But then her dad fell ill and died, and just days after his funeral, her mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In Feeding My Mother, Jann shares what it is like for a daughter to become her mother’s caregiver–in her own frank and funny words, and in recipes she invented to tempt her mom. Full of heartbreak, but also full of love and wonder.”

‘Esther the Wonder Pig’ by Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter with Caprice Crane

“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.” Paul Farmer

Warning: you may never eat fragrant bacon or a succulent pork chop again, after reading this book, or at the very least, you might begin thinking about going to a more plant based diet! 🙂

One day Steve Jenkins came home with a gift to surprise his partner Derek. Since they already had a couple of dogs and cats, he thought he would get an interesting boutique pet–a micro pig. Well, don’t believe everything you read on online. It turns out that the seller of this cute little piglet did not tell the truth and Esther the mini-pig would grow into a 650 pound farm animal and would change her owners’ lives forever! By the time they figured it out, it was too late. They had already fallen in love with Esther.

Living in Georgetown, Ontario they were terrified because of zoning laws, that Esther would be removed from their home, as well as the impracticality of having a massive pet in the house was becoming increasingly evident. The solution they eventually came to was genius. They bought a farm and started a sanctuary that rescues and rehabilitates abandoned and abused farm animals. According to the Hog Blog, they now have 64 residents: pigs, cows, birds, goats, a donkey, a horse, sheep, rabbits, and of course their own dogs and cats. There is a huge team of volunteers and donors who help to keep the place running and the Ontario farm is open for visitors if you’d like to go and see for yourself!

The sequel Happily Ever Esther carries on seamlessly from the first book, focussing on how these sanctuary owners and accidental animal activists managed in the first four years. I listened to the audio book which is narrated by Steve himself. Anyone who has ever moved, knows that adjustment doesn’t happen overnight. In this case it wasn’t just living in a new place, but also learning about how to run a farm. Even though Steve is a real estate agent, his eagerness had blinded him to the serious amount of work it was going to take to get the farm, house, and barn up to the standards necessary. But the couple met their new challenges with the same resilience, grace, and love it took to learn how to live in a residential home with a 650 pound farm animal. In addition to rescuing animals, their aim is also to win hearts to a vegan lifestyle through example, positivity, humour, and kindness–no judgement here, just guidance and open conversation. Their website is worth a visit: Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary.

‘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.

 

‘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?