Category Archives: Non-Fiction

‘Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age’ by Mary Pipher

“To be happy at this junction, we cannot just settle for being a diminished version of our younger selves. We must change the ways we think and behave. This book focuses on the attitudes and skills we need in order to let go of the past, embrace the new, cope with loss, and experience wisdom, authenticity, and bliss.”

Author, scholar, and cultural therapist Mary Pipher has written 10 books on a variety of topics, all very successful and well respected. I read some of her books years ago, and am so happy to have found this, her latest. As a cultural anthropologist and clinical psychologist who specialises in developmental psychology and trauma, one of her most notable books was Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls in 1994 which was fantastic. Growing older is not for sissies we sometimes quip, because it can be a stage that is marked by ill health or loss. But Pipher looks positively at a stage in life where we can flourish and expand on the life identity we have already built.

It’s a hopeful, helpful book, and in her foreword she says men have enjoyed it as well (even jokingly suggesting to her that she should write another entitled Men Going South). 🙂 Her conclusion, after exploring every imaginable issue at this juncture, is to experience bliss (however simple), embrace everything (no matter how small or seemingly insignificant), and sense how big life is–intense, joyful, playful, complicated, and beautiful. She quotes Joan Baez who said, “Action is the antidote to despair.” Pipher adds, “It may or may not help the world, but it always helps us.”

Informal polls of my peeps reveal that actually we like ourselves and know ourselves better now than when we did in our 20’s and 30’s. At this stage in the river we have more freedom, we tend to be less hard on ourselves, and more able to let things go. It feels really good, as long as health and loss issues do not tip the canoe (or a pandemic throws a monkey wrench into everything). This book seeks to help navigate the inevitable swerves and rapids with wisdom, joy, and grace. The first part of the book considers the challenges of aging (ageism, lookism, caregiving, loss, loneliness). The second part looks at understanding ourselves (skillful choices, community building, managing narratives, gratitude). The third part focuses on the importance of relationships.

‘How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood, and Loss’ edited by Jessica Hiemstra and Lisa Martin-Demoor


Guest Post by Miriam Booy

I didn’t know miscarriage was so common until I experienced it, twice within 7 months. I didn’t know infertility was so common until several friends experienced it, and told me their stories. The truth about pain and loss is that we don’t really understand it until we go through it or someone close to us does. Then we start the search for similar stories to us in an attempt to know we are not the only ones or help another person through the same experience.

“How to expect what you’re not expecting” is a collection of personal stories of unexpected loss including miscarriage, stillbirth, infertility, premature delivery and giving up children for adoption. The writers are skilled and share their emotional journeys with poetic liberties that strive to capture the experiences they have been through. When I read I tend to ‘skim for the story’ so it was good for me to slow down and appreciate the beautiful descriptive language.

A common theme in each of the stories is that loss never really leaves you. Instead, you learn to live with it as you find new hope and joy. The last sentence of the book seems to capture it well “We hold because we grieve. We grieve because we love. And we wait in the possibility of love without grief. We wait as best we can.”

Thanks to Lisa Martin-Demoor, my cousin, for her skilled writing, editing and vision for this book and my sister for sending it to me. Lisa writes “It is not only the beauty of the world that saves us. If we let it, something else can save us too–our responsibility for this world, for our pain and each other’s.”

‘Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle’ by Emily and Amelia Nagoski

Top-notch advice from two sisters for women, although I think anyone could benefit from reading this. They explain why women experience stress differently from men. The book is about navigating stress, managing both external stressors as well as the internal effects of stress on the body.

This is a hugely important science-based approach to dealing with stress for women at any age or stage. It gives simple and sensible strategies towards feeling ‘enough’ and finding wellness. I found it refreshing and wise. The sisters even talk about gaslighting which also happens to be a topic in a recently released Dixie Chicks song…(obviously the singers are still not ‘ready to make nice’ but are highlighting and naming another important issue in pop culture. I’d not heard the term before, but encountered it twice in the same week. That’s how these things go.)

What I really liked about this book was the emphasis on the fact that we don’t have to wait for the world to change before we can begin to heal ourselves. And also, needing help and asking for help is normal and necessary, and is NOT a sign of weakness, but of strength.

‘Canada Reads 2020’

Every year in March, Canada’s “battle of the books” makes me proud to be Canadian. To have a week-long radio debate focus the country on Canadian literature is pretty powerful stuff. Five celebrities each champion a book they have chosen which best fits the theme that year– this year’s theme is “Bringing Canada into Focus.”

My daughter and I get tickets to be in the studio audience for one of the debate days, usually the last. I’ve completed reading all five shortlisted books and will give a brief summary here of each, in no particular order. In order to listen to the debate you can tune in to CBC Radio March 16-19. Just google Canada Reads 2020. There are live streaming options, both video and audio, as well as podcasts. Or just turn on CBC Radio One at 11 am ET on those days.

My favourites to win are in a four-way split: From the Ashes, Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, Radicalized, and We Have Always Been Here all deserve to win and are worth reading. Two are memoirs and two are fiction. The one I would not recommend was Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson, even though it is going to be the basis for a TV series that is coming out soon and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2017. Small Game Hunting was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2019.


We Have Always Been Here
by Samra Habib
Defended at Canada Reads 2020 by Amanda Brugel who plays, among other roles, Pastor Nina in Kim’s Convenience.

Samra Habib’s memoir is an exploration of the ways we disguise and minimise ourselves for the sake of survival. As a child, Habib hid her faith from Islamic extremists in Pakistan and later, as a refugee in Canada, endured racist bullying and the threat of an arranged marriage. In travelling the world and exploring art and sexuality, Habib searches for the truth of her identity.

Habib writes honestly about her deeply personal journey to finding her authentic self within her family, her faith, and in her community. I especially liked how she circled back to her faith after coming out, because being a Muslim had always been a huge part of her life and she wasn’t willing to give that up.


Radicalized
by Cory Doctorow
Defended at Canada Reads 2020 by Akil Augustine who is a sports host, producer, and storyteller. 

Four novellas explore the quandaries — social, economic and technological — of contemporary America. Cory Doctorow’s characters deal with issues around immigration, corrupt police forces, dark web uprisings, and protection from a pandemic. These approachable dystopian short stories with tongue-in-cheek humour are set in the future, but feel like they are only one step away from present reality and quite frighteningly currently relevant.
Unauthorized Bread
Being poor is expensive. Being a refugee lucky enough to have been granted a set-aside apartment in a Boston high-rise has all kinds of hidden costs. Such as ‘smart’ kitchen appliances programmed to only work with certain manufacturers’ ingredients. It’s great to teach yourself how to hack those systems. Even greater when you can show your fellow refugee neighbours’ teenage kids how to do the same. Not so great when you realise you’ve just exposed yourself and them to the possibility of decades in prison. Now what? This story is about taking control of the power in faceless technologies, rather than by being controlled by them.
Model Minority
Since his arrival on this planet, the American Eagle has fought for truth, justice, and the American way. Now he’s come face-to-face with the fact that cops routinely beat up innocent people, hide the evidence, and lie about it. He’s determined to use his superpowers to defend these victims. He has no idea how corrupt the system is–and how much worse he’s going to make matters. Radicalized
When Joe and Lacey’s insurance company told them it wouldn’t pay for ‘experimental’ treatments and that it was now time for Lacey to go away and die, something changed inside Joe. He spent more and more time on a dark-net forum with others whose loved ones were going through the same thing. A place where more and more people were saying, “If you’re going to do something drastic, don’t let it go to waste.” Then the bombings began. This story puts the focus on ruthless profit hungry drug companies.
The Masque of the Red Death
Martin’s a smart guy. He knows the big collapse is coming. He’s spent years creating his hidden desert retreat, the one stocked with enough food, guns, and antibiotics for Martin and a bunch of his invited friends. These are the men and women–well, Martin hopes some of them will be women–who intend to ride out the coming catastrophe and emerge to pick up the pieces. Because they’re the smart ones. Nothing about their plan could possibly go wrong. It’s interesting, in light of the recent corona virus outbreak, that of all the dangers inherent in the imaginary apocalypse of this story, the most dangerous of all is disease.


From the Ashes
by Jesse Thistle
Defended at Canada Reads 2020 by George Canyon who is one of Canada’s biggest country music stars.

Jesse Thistle is a MĂ©tis-Cree academic specialising in Indigenous homelessness, addiction, and inter-generational trauma. For Thistle, these issues are more than just subjects on the page. After a difficult childhood, Thistle spent much of his early adulthood struggling with addiction while living on the streets of Toronto. His memoir details how his issues with abandonment and addiction led to homelessness, incarceration, and his eventual redemption through higher education. “Society, I figured, cares more about criminals than they do about the homeless.” Once he actually committed a crime and turned himself in so he could be cared for and get medical help with his leg.


Small Game Hunting at the Local Gun Club
by Megan Gail Coles
Defended by Alayna Fender who is is a cat-loving, Canadian, LGBTQ YouTube content creator who brings her frank and funny perspective to a wide range of topics, with wellness and sexuality being her specialties.

This debut novel revolves around a cast of flawed characters all connected to a trendy St. John’s restaurant, The Hazel. Over the course of a snowy February day, they are implicated in each other’s hopes, dreams and pains as they try to survive harsh economic times in the province. They even talk about “storm chips” at one point, a term that I heard from Newfoundlanders on the radio when they talked about their recent mega-snowstorm. The cover makes me think of a deer frozen in the headlights.

This is a #MeToo story. Not too many books I’ve read, come with a warning, “Warning: Contains scenes of sexual, physical and psychological violence.” It also says at the beginning in the dedication, “I wrote this for myself. And the beautiful vicious island that makes and unmakes us.” Then it says on the next page, “This might hurt a little. Be brave.” Although in the beginning I found this novel hard to connect with and a bit overwritten, it actually grew on me as the story progressed and I ended up finding it very powerful. Because it features abuse of two women, parts of it may be difficult and/or triggering for some to read, although none of the violence in the book is gratuitous–it needs to be there because it is crucial to the story and the author does handle it well.


Son of a Trickster
by Eden Robinson
Defended by Kaniehtiio Horn who is a Canadian actor from Kahnawake, the Mohawk reserve outside of Montreal.

This is a novel about Jared, a compassionate 16-year-old, maker of famous weed cookies, the caretaker of his elderly neighbours, and the son of an unreliable father and an unhinged mother. As Jared ably cares for those around him (in between getting black-out drunk) he shrugs off the magical and strange happenings that follow him around. It is the first book in a trilogy.

This book is supposed to be funny, earthy, and a coming-of-age story where the kid is more ‘real’ than the grown-ups, but it just didn’t work for me and I couldn’t connect with it. I felt confused, like I was missing some critical information. I wish that the author had helped me to understand. I did have some sympathy for Jared, but it all just got too strange and hard to follow and it put me off.

Local shadow pre-debates are no doubt happening across the country like this Canada Reads 2020 event at Clareview Library in Edmonton, Alberta which was attended by my sister-in-laws!  The books were debated last week by several library staff and local authors and it was an entertaining hour of lively discussion, wit, and hilarity. They voted for which book they thought should win; will their choice match the real Canada Reads 2020 winner?

‘The Body: A Guide for Occupants’ by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson started as a travel writer and then moved into writing about science. In this one he travels through the human body. Bryson does an incredible amount of research into complicated things and then casually talks about them as if he’s giving you directions to the corner store. He can be very funny, in a gentle self-deprecating way (a quality that has no doubt flourished by living in the UK) and he makes the facts entertaining.

For me, learning more about our inner workings, system by system, produced amazement and wonder–he does make science understandable. We seldom stop to thing about all of the wonderful things that are going on while we slouch unawares on the couch, munching popcorn, until something goes wrong of course. His chapters on germs, disease, and microbes read like a thriller, and leave you feeling as many aches and pains as a first year medical student! But because this book is  a long one, and not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as some of his other books, I would recommend the audio version, read by the author himself–he has an amusing American accent with a telltale British twang.

I really like Bryson’s books. They are always a pleasant journey that leaves me with greater general knowledge and an appreciation for the topic he has tackled. I have especially liked his travel books about Great Britain and Australia, and his book called At Home which discusses how we as a society became comfortable. His funniest book is A Walk in the Woods about hiking the Appalachian trail with his fat friend, which also became a movie with Robert Redford. A Short History of Nearly Everything is about the universe and ourselves. It is an awesome adventure into the realms of human knowledge. If you read that one, make sure you get the special illustrated edition.

‘Free, Melania: The Unauthorized Biography’ by Kate Bennett

Melania Trump is an enigma. She’s beautiful and so intriguing, perhaps because she is a very private stoic Slovenian, and not an enthusiastic emotive American. We don’t know much about her, and that makes her even more mysterious. Don’t we all wonder how she could be married to someone like Trump? She has spoken out publicly about how toxic social media can be, especially for young people, and yet her husband is the leading bully in that arena. She’s done a number of confusing things that people have wondered about. Why did she wear that jacket to the Mexican border with the phrase, “I don’t care, do you?” stencilled on the back. And what of the ‘pussy bow’ choice for a blouse, after that lewd comment uttered by her husband on a bus hit the press. Was it protest? Is she naive? Does she truly not care? Then there was that speech that was plagiarised almost word for word from Michelle Obama’s speech. And yet she says nothing about any of it.

After thoroughly enjoying Michelle Obama’s top-notch autobiography Becoming, I was curious about this one. There is no comparison. Obama’s memoir is heartwarming and inspirational and shows how the Obamas as a family were a class act in the White House. Obama is a principled, intelligent, self-sacrificing individual, making herself authentically and vulnerably known as she tells her own story. Becoming is a beautiful read. Free, Melania on the other hand, is an unauthorised biography, written by a journalist who covered Melania Trump for CNN. Because it contains information from Bennett’s own experience as well as tidbits gleaned from other reporters and various sources, the book has a gossipy tone and much of it feels like speculation. It offers context, satisfies some curiosity, and perhaps provides a bit of understanding, but is certainly not enlightening or inspirational in any way. The Guardian has an interesting article about her, claiming that no matter what you think of Melania, there has never been a First Lady quite like her: click here. It’s worth a visit, even if you don’t read Free, Melania. And for the record, there’s one more mystery. No one really seems to know what that comma in the title of this book even means. If you have any idea, please let me know.

‘Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know’ by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell has written many books that pose fascinating questions (Blink, Outliers, Tipping Point, David & Goliath). He researches answers to certain questions and comes up with some surprising conclusions. Some find his books too anecdotal and not scientific enough, while others think his writing is quite approachable and instructive. Either way, it’s usually quite interesting! These are some of the questions in this one: How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn’t true?

What do these questions all have in common? The tools we use to make sense of people we don’t know are perhaps not as reliable as we think. We default to trust and truth and generally believe what people say, perhaps more than we should. Gladwell narrates the audio version of the book himself and when he revisits the arrest of Sandra Bland, the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath, you hear directly from many of the players in these real-life tragedies. Just be warned that some of Gladwell’s dramatic descriptions relating to sexual violence and suicide might be disturbing or triggering for some.