Category Archives: Non-Fiction

‘The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit’ by Michael Finkel

If voluntary withdrawal from all human contact were an extreme sport, Christopher Knight could be the best in the world. On a whim he disappeared one day and lived alone in the woods in all seasons for 27 years. In all that time he interacted with another person only once–he said ‘Hi’ to someone on a trail. He never built a fire, not even in winter, for fear of being sighted, using a cookstove instead. Although he felt guilty about it, part of his ability to survive depended on breaking into nearby unoccupied camps and cabins to steal food, books, batteries, and other supplies. Because he never stole much of great value, the regular thefts were something that puzzled and terrorized the cottage dwellers and local law enforcement officers. His decades long sojourn came to an end when he was finally caught and charged for more than 1000 break-ins. When he was captured he was clean shaven and nicely dressed.

Michael Finkel, a journalist for the New York Times was the only personal Knight would tell his extraordinary story to and even that took some doing. His ability to get the details from Knight is as amazing as the account itself. It took Finkel three years of full time work to write these 191 pages. He was dedicated to getting it right and making it as accurate and compelling as possible.

I couldn’t put this remarkable book down and found it haunting and thought provoking. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone.

‘Where the Wind Leads: A Refugee Family’s Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue, and Redemption’ by Vinh Chung with Tim Downs

“I am a refugee. My family went to sleep in one world and woke up in another, and more than anyone in my family I was trapped between those worlds. I was born in Vietnam, but I was not Vietnamese; I was raised in America. I grew up Asian in character but American in culture, a citizen but always a refugee. I had no lessons from the past to guide me, no right way to do things in the present, and no path to follow to the future.”

This is the incredible personal account of a refugee who fled from certain death and found flourishing life. It is a real-life rescue story, a poignant family drama, and a telling of recent world history. Many North Americans will remember the “boat people” who became thankful recipients of resettlement to a new life in a new land through resilience, determination, and many helping hands along the way. But what was it like for a young boy in a large family, suddenly separated from all he’d ever known, thrust into a different culture? Why was his Dad, who used to be a wealthy manager, now working a menial job? How would he be affected by this survival and redemption? How does a refugee see himself differently from an immigrant who chooses to leave?

Vinh Chung, originally from China, was born in South Vietnam, just eight months after it fell to the communists in 1975. His family was wealthy, controlling a rice-milling empire worth millions; but within months of the communist takeover, the Chungs lost everything and were reduced to abject poverty and forced to leave. They had no choice but to take their chances in a boat on the pirate infested waters of the South China Sea.

Rescued by a World Vision mercy ship, Chung went on to become a Fulbright Scholar, Harvard graduate, successful surgeon, and philanthropist. Chung is now a WV US board member.  The book includes some history of the early days of that organization under Stan Mooneyham and operation Seasweep. There’s a wonderful collection of photos included in the back of the book.

‘The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life’ by Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher is a columnist for The American Conservative, author of several books, and blogger about topics like religion, politics, film, and culture. He was brought to his knees by the death of his little sister Ruthie. When she was diagnosed at the age of forty with a hugely aggressive cancer, Rod returned to the small town where he grew up but had left behind in his youth. When he returned, he was surprised and humbled by the great love he witnessed in the community. His relationship with this town was fraught and his ties to family sometimes misunderstood and thin. Through a hard won lesson, Dreher learned that living in a small town did not mean living a small life. Rod wrote this memoir as a tribute to his sister, being brutally honest about loss and love, faith and family, struggle and sacrifice. He tells this true story well and honestly, discovering even things about himself along the way that he did not know. What he did know in the end, was that his sister’s death taught him how to live.

I once heard American writer Rhoda Janzen speak about memoir at a writer’s conference. She said memoir should be more than the story of a life, it should point to something beyond, some further resolve or purpose. She did this beautifully in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress as does Dreher in this book.  The books are very different stories but come to very similar conclusions. Both authors, in an unsentimental and thought provoking manner, rediscover their roots and humbly realize the warmth and joy of coming home.

NPR Interview with the author:
A Grieving Brother Finds Solace in his Sister’s ‘Small Town’

‘Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work’ by Liz Wiseman

rookie-smartsstarstarstarstarBe a perpetual rookie, always ready to learn and take on new challenges with a rookie mindset–curious, humble, and fun loving.

Can old dogs be taught new tricks? Is it still possible, even after decades of experience, to recapture the enthusiasm, curiosity, and fearlessness of youth and take on new challenges? It might take remembering the agility and resilience of a puppy!

Leaders will enjoy this book as they think about encouraging and challenging their employees to stay fresh and innovative. While experience provides a distinct advantage in a stable field—bridge building, ballet, concert piano performance—it can actually impede progress in an unstable to rapidly evolving arena. Studies have shown that novices can, in certain circumstances, outdo veterans. Expertise can blind us to new ideas. Like a rookie, people are often at their best when they are new to an undertaking and doing something for the first time because they are on a steep learning curve. Constant learning is sometimes more valuable than mastery. Even seasoned veterans can make their work feel fresh again. The key is being willing to learn. People who are willing to leave their veteran’s comfort zone and rediscover what it was like to be the new kid on the block, will find a renewed and engaging creative energy for their work!

‘Grunt’ by Mary Roach

gruntstarstarstar“Heroism doesn’t always happen in a burst of glory. Sometimes small triumphs and large hearts change the course of history. Sometimes a chicken can save a man’s life.”

Mary Roach writes the most interesting and entertaining non-fiction. She’s my favourite science gal geek. When our son was in medical school, I gave him her book called Stiff, subtitled “The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.” She has other fascinating, funny, and informative titles like: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Bonk: The Curious Couple of Science and Sex, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, and Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (that’s the digestive system, I had to look it up). Her books are well researched, never boring, short and to the point, and will have you chuckling no matter how grim or grimy or gruesome the content.

Grunt is about the battles that soldiers face, but not the usual kind of battles you may immediately imagine. There is nothing about military strategy, history of war, or weaponry in this book. Instead Roach deals with the least considered but equally critical adversaries such as heat exhaustion, cataclysmic noise, panic, bacteria, shock, clothing construction, tank and submarine design, and ill-timed gastrointestinal urgency. After reading this book I will look upon the entire military venture with fresh eyes. I have gained an appreciation for all of the hard work that goes into keeping soldiers safe, comfortable and alive. There is a lot of science that goes into this topic and it covers much more than a well proportioned flak jacket! Like hearing loss, the less visible injuries of war can be the hardest kind to have and Roach does an important job of communicating the everyday sorts of challenges that the military faces.

‘Expecting Adam’ by Martha Beck

expecting-adamstarstarstarstarMartha Beck tells the wondrous story of when she was pregnant with her second child, Adam. Martha had severe illness with all of her pregnancies so that part was not wondrous at all, plagued with nausea for 8 months while enduring a stressful work situation. Martha and her husband, while fully immersed in the prestigious, controlling, high-achieving, and competitive atmosphere of Harvard, find out that the child she is carrying is Down Syndrome. Some people in their community tell them to abort this ‘less than perfect’ fetus, while a few others are supportive and compassionate. But something, some surprising unaccountable force, keeps telling them that they should keep him. Though both Martha and John are down to earth and not exceptionally religious, it is as if some surge of destiny is compelling them to believe in a miracle that everything will be ok. Whether you believe it or not, is not at issue. It is her story and she tells it well.

Martha’s memoir is heart-felt and laugh-out-loud funny but mostly, drives home a powerful message of unconditional love. Who in this world can ever claim to be perfect? And since when do good things come from perfection? Our lives are messy and in the midst of the mess, extraordinary love can happen.

martha-and-adamThis book captivated me so completely that I couldn’t put it down. Martha’s witty style is so real, affirming, and uplifting except for her unfortunate use of the R-word, which I found jarring. The book was written in 1999, so perhaps it was still ok to use the term then. Other than that, I found it quite relevant 17 years later and utterly spot on.

‘Rising Strong’ by Brené Brown

Rising StrongstarstarstarBrené Brown’s perspective on human interaction and how to live wholeheartedly in relationship with others is so encouraging. She is a master at framing things like failure, shame, regret, and feelings of not being ‘enough’ in a way that is honest and healthy. These are natural feelings but can be harmful unless we reckon with them and are curious about why they happen and why we react the way we do sometimes. To love is to be vulnerable. Sometimes the hardest one to love is yourself. Rising strong from times when we feel we have failed is critical in forging a healthy self-concept. Perfection is an unrealistic bar set way too high.

Brown is both scientist and social scientist, highly professional and well researched. She offers much more than self-help formula. In her books she combines research and storytelling to share useful knowledge about human behaviour based on real life examples and experiences. To be honest, I found Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection to be more helpful than this one, but I soundly recommend this author and her many wonderful TED talks as well. Here are a few to get you started.