Category Archives: Autobiography

Book Review: I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

ad036bc6e452ea33f4d6331c0b6da8e3I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban

by Malala Yousafzai, with Christina Lamb
ISBN 9780316322409
Little, Brown and Company, 2013

If one man, Fazlullah, can destroy everything, why can’t one girl change it?” —Malala Yousafzai

In her adolescent, compassionate voice, Malala tells a story of ripe, harsh brutality. Her book answers the question, “Who is Malala?”—the challenge shouted on October 9, 2012 by the gun man who shot her in a targeted attack on her school bus.

Who is Malala?

Malala is a teenager like any other and a teenager worlds apart. Like a typical teen, she leaves her clothes all over the floor; unlike most teenagers, she daydreams about terrorists shooting her at the door of her house. Like a typical teen, she reads Twilight books; unlike most teenagers, she speaks in front of the UN and receives the Nobel Peace Prize.

She is a Pashtun girl born into a culture that prompted her to wonder “how free a daughter could ever be.” Parents grant privileges to sons over daughters. Segregation, child marriage, honour killings still happen. Malala is lucky though, because she is the daughter of a father who celebrated, instead of mourned, the birth of a daughter, and a father who believes strongly in education for all.

Malala is a girl watched Taliban influence over others grow and distort. The Taliban quash music and dancing. They destroy ancient Buddhist temples and statues. They limit the public appearances of women and insist on the burqa. Murders, beheadings, and public floggings become common occurrences. Malala’s tale shadows that of 1994 Rwanda: a similar frenzy of hatred fanned by radio propaganda, and slaughter fueled by radical group madness.

“Wearing a burqa is like walking inside big, fabric shuttlecock with only a grille to see through and on hot days it’s like an oven.”

Malala is a girl who sets aside fear and summons courage to continue to fight for education for all. She writes: “I think that if someone kills your brother, you shouldn’t kill them or their brother, you should teach them instead.”

This book is all the more powerful because it is a young, hopeful voice that outlines the horrific, soul-crushing events. Her story informs, enlightens and challenges readers.


“To all the girls who have faced injustice and been silenced.
Together we will be heard.”
—Epigraph from I Am Malala



Book Review: Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of a Creative Mind by Biz Stone

bb3a7cea653cc2f44dbf94d197d3415dThings a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of a Creative Mind 

by Biz Stone
ISBN-13: 9781455528738
Grand Central Publishing, 2014

Few people know what it is like to create something that reaches out to almost every part of the world. Few people know what it is like to go from being couch-cushion-scrapingly poor to stutteringly rich almost instantly. Few people know what it is like to devise and survive that kind of technological, psychological, and financial journey. Biz Stone is one of the few, and that is what makes this book a worthy read. (It’s also worth it just to read his account of a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg at the Facebook offices.)

“. . . if opportunity is just a set of circumstances, why are we waiting around for the stars to align? Rather than waiting and pouncing with a high degree of failure, you might as well go ahead and create the set of circumstances on your own.” —Biz Stone

The creative mind of Biz Stone sparked and expanded and imagined Twitter—the internet app that virtually every cognizant person in the developed world knows about, at the very least, if not uses. He and his partners took a chance with the fledgling app (What comes first, the Twitter or the egg?) and nurtured it so it transformed from an unpredictable conference communication tool into a worldwide phenomenon. Even Stone didn’t foresee the multitude of ways in which Twitter would affect us, and we would affect it. In a freakish kind of Darwinian computer natural selection, Twitter evolved according to the ways that users chose to use it, and Stone and his partners kept up with the demand (at least, most of the time).

I wasn’t surprised by Stone’s entrepreneurial bent, and I wasn’t surprised that he was a nerd in high school, but I was surprised that he spent a shocking amount of time begin poor, even when Twitter was already successful, and I was surprised by his warm, authentic humanity and his care for the future of our world. 

New employees to Twitter receive a list of “Assumptions for Twitter Employees” of the kind that make me want to work there. New employees are encouraged: not to assume an outcome, to know there are plenty of smart people outside the organization ready and available to help, to do right for the users, to seek win-win deals, to expect and look for the good intentions of co-workers, and, finally, to believe that “We can build a business, change the world, and have fun.”

It is in Biz Stone’s nature to make things happen, and, luckily for us, it is in his nature to make good things happen. He dedicates a significant portion of this book outlining his efforts to keep Twitter neutral, his passion for charitable works, and his drive to inspire the rest of us to step up too.

“We all define financial success differently, but I can tell you that for almost anyone at any income, being rich exists only in the future. Waiting to give is a mistake.” —Biz Stone

I am not a computer whiz, so Stone’s references to hackathons and technological problems—or anything related to computers in just about any way, actually—were lost on me, but that didn’t matter. This is more than an internet app story; it’s a human story, and it’s a story that carries a hint of warning about the power one person can have to affect the world on a grand scale. 

We had all better hope that, like Biz Stone, such people want to make good things happen. 

Book Review: Orr: My Story by Bobby Orr

9780670066971HOrr: My Story

by Bobby Orr
ISBN 9780670066971
Penguin Group, 2013

With a Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadians National Hockey League (NHL) playoff round on the horizon, why not read Bobby Orr’s book now? His book offers a fitting backdrop to their fierce rivalry.

I was born at the right time for full Bobby Orr fan appreciation. I was eight years old in 1970 when he scored the goal captured forever in the famous photograph on the cover of his book. In the years that followed I cheered for him and Boston against my least favourite team at the time—those Montreal Canadians.

My memories of that time and the similarities in our small-town Ontario upbringing meant I settled into Orr’s book with a comfortable sense of nostalgia. His recollections of his childhood carried me right back in time to my youth. I smiled thinking about skating—in hand-me-down skates—outside for hours and hours until my toes ached in the cold. I remembered the free-spirited play of children at the time. “In those days,” Orr wrote, “we rarely waited for an adult to organize our social time or sports experiences. We took that upon ourselves. We were the ones who decided which game to play, where to play it, when to assemble, and who would be on whose team.

“I can remember my absolute joy when I received my very first pair of new skates.” up to that point – hand-me-down or bought second hand. Yes, one of the greatest learned on used skates.”

If you’re looking for shocking new insights, late-life confessions or gossip about former teammates, you won’t find it in this book. Even Alan Eagleson gets a fairer shake than he deserved. I admit that Bobby Orr has a challenge in finding something new from his well-documented life to share with an audience, but I think he could have revealed himself to readers a little more. He writes: “I’m no different than anyone else—there are things I did at certain times during my career that I am not particularly proud of. Some of those things happened on the ice, some off it.” That’s like a friend whispering to you that they have a secret, but then refusing to tell it. What weren’t you proud of, Bobby Orr? We want to know.

So, no skulduggery, just a life story told with charming simplicity. He writes of his family life in Parry Sound and his first jobs: picking dew worms for bait, selling men’s wear and doing custodial work at an elementary school. He describes his early hockey years in Oshawa and his NHL career where he played the game with the puck on his stick as often as possible.

He offers advice to young players contemplating a career in professional hockey: “Any skill or skill set is the result of a combination of a couple of things. First, you must have an ability to do it, and second, you must have a willingness to pay the price to perfect it.

He counsels the parents of those players to not try to live their lives through the child’s success  because it never works: “I was shaped by my own passion.”

He offers his insights into the game, past and present. He remembers a time when coaches “acted like gentlemen as they were leading the team, and they encouraged players to act appropriately, both on and off the ice.

Orr received some writing support from Vern Stenlund, but Stenlund says: “The words and thoughts in this book are all Bobby’s, from start to finish.” It’s Bobby’s voice all right, and Stenlund drew out stories and memories from him, but  in some cases the story telling could have been stronger. Several times Orr describes occasions as “. . . a very special evening indeed” without detail or explanations about what made it special. What made it special, Bobby Orr? We want to know.

Bobby Orr’s shy, humble personality shines through his story and solidifies my respect for him as a person and a player. He is a naturally gifted athlete who believes that “. . . sports are not there for the gifted. They’re there for everyone.” He’s an NHL all-time-great who learned to skate on used skates and played baseball in the summer. He’s a human being who trusted and got burnt and who picked himself up and carried on.

“The important things in life don’t change when your luck turns against you, and those things are no different for celebrities than they are for anyone else. No one is going to succeed without taking their lumps. No one is going to succeed on their own either—what sometimes looks like an individual accomplishment is always the result of a team effort. And when you get knocked down, there really is only one thing to do.”

(For more on Bobby Orr, please read Searching for Bobby Orr by Stephen Brunt. Or anything by Stephen Brunt, for that matter.)






Book Review: 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

9780143125419H12 Years a Slave

by Solomon Northup
ISBN 9780143125419
Penguin Books, 2013

You won’t find this story anywhere else: a story about African-American slavery written by a man who was both free and a slave; a story of slave owners, both kind-hearted and cruel; and a story about how depravity as a societal norm affects the generations.

You won’t find this story anywhere else, so read this book.

Solomon Northup was born a free man. Educated and hard-working, he thrived, married and had children in the free state of New York. In 1841, two men lured him to Washington, D.C., drugged him and psychologically terrorized him with beatings, and sold him into slavery.

The beatings the men inflicted on Northup worked. Terrified of revealing his true identity and his status as a free man, he spent twelve years in Louisiana as a slave on cotton plantations. Driven to find a way to return home but with few options or resources available to him, he laboured, endured punishments, inflicted punishments, and bore witness to the trap that is slavery.

Northup published his account of life in slavery to inform 19th Century Americans about all aspects of the practice. He emphasized several themes:

  • He discouraged anyone from believing that slaves didn’t understand or desire freedom. Too many people at the time said that slaves had food and a roof over their head, so they neither needed nor desired anything else. Northup made it clear that this was not so. “They do not fail to observe the difference between their own condition and the meanest of white man’s, and to realize the injustice of the laws which place it in his power . . .”
  • He wrote about the de-humanizing impact of the cruelty of slave-owners. The repeated beatings and whippings caused men to behave more “like savages than civilized and enlightened beings.” “The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature.” Immune to the suffering of others, the violence begat more violence in a horrific cycle.
  • He described his helpless feeling when forced to play his own part in the brutality. Slaves beating slaves was part of the psychological torment.
  • Northup observed sadly the passing on of prejudice from one generation to the next. Sons, daughters, and wives learned how to treat their slaves cruelly by observing the owners and overseers. The slave owners not only taught family members to beat and whip slaves, they encouraged such behaviour. “The effect of these exhibitions of brutality on the household of the slave-holder, is apparent. Epps’ [a slave owner] oldest son is an intelligent lad of ten or twelve years of age. It is pitiable, sometimes, to see him chastising, for instance, the venerable Uncle Abram. He will call the old man to account, and if in his childish judgment it is necessary, sentence him to a certain number of lashes, which he proceeds to inflict . . . he often rides into the field with his whip playing the overseer, much to his father’s delight.”

In 1853, Northup regained his freedom (with the help of a Canadian, I’m proud to say), and more than a century and a half later, Northup’s concerns still need addressing. The passing on of racist attitudes from generation to generation means that African-Americans still face discrimination today. Slavery isn’t an accepted part of the economic order in North American anymore, but slavery and human trafficking still exist. The perpetrators still behave “more like savages than enlightened human beings.” Sadly, Northup’s book is just as necessary today as it was in 1853.

Read it, not because it’s timeless, authentic and eloquent, but because its narrator will charm you, his objective fairness will impress you, and his truths still need to be told.

Book Review: Anchorboy by Jay Onrait

9781443429474Anchorboy: True Tales from the World of Sportscasting 

by Jay Onrait
ISBN: 9781443429474
Collins, 2013

I wish he had waited about ten years before writing a book.

Ten years from now, Jay Onrait would be able to give us the view from States side. Ten years from now, he would have more stories in his arsenal, so he could include fewer stories about his bodily fluids. Ten years from now he might have learned to look less in the mirror and more outside of himself.

I believe when Jay Onrait was writing this book, he didn’t envision 51-year-old suburban moms as his potential audience. I believe that because the best audience for this book is: (1) male, and (2) younger than I am.

That’s fair; he is a sportscaster, after all.

In my household though, I rival other family members in the sports fanaticism department. There’s a time in May when French Open tennis, NHL hockey, ML baseball AND curling all happen at the same time; I barely leave my couch. Before Jay Onrait, Dan O’Toole and Producer Tim moved to the States, my son and I watched the re-play of their version of SportCentre on TSN every morning.  We watched because we wanted the highlights, and they entertained us with their comedic delivery. (And I could look at Dan O’Toole’s face all day long.) When I heard that Jay Onrait had a book, it went on my Christmas list. Mine, not my husband’s or my son’s. Jay Onrait was stuck with a 51-year-old suburban mom as his audience.

As I read, I had the same reaction I had to Kelly Oxford’s book, Everything Is Perfect When You’re a Liar. It’s not a bad book. I can’t give it a negative review. It’s just not the right book for me. (I wasn’t surprised to see her mentioned in the Afterword. I knew they were connected somehow.)

I started out with plenty of hope. Onrait was a Gary Carter and Montreal Expos fan, so we had that in common. We share an appreciation for the glory years of the Edmonton Oilers, so that was good, too. And he is, after all, “Canadian!” But why, oh why, do people feel their “I got so wasted” stories are in any way unique and interesting? They are neither. Even when the story is “I got so wasted at the Olympics,” it’s still not unique or interesting. Especially when the wastee is too (a) drunk, (b) lacking in common sense, and (c) busy riding on the coattails of the network to take personal responsibility for his actions. Disappointing.

I experienced minor heart palpitations when Onrait revealed his complete ignorance about Craig Kielburger. To be fair, sports and humour are Onrait’s business not humanitarian work, but Kielburger is one of my personal heroes and an exceptional Canadian. It disappointed me that sentences involving bodily fluids outnumbered those about Kielburger by about 1276 to 8. (And the first number doesn’t include images conjured by the activities behind Hooker Harvey’s.)

I have to disagree with Onrait on one other very important point: Felching is not funny. Nope. Not under any circumstances. Never. Yuck. (Look it up.)

On page 11, Onrait writes: “I’m kind of an asshole.” He proves this point from time to time through his stories, but his human decency does shine through the cracks of asshole-ishness. He has potential for something better. 

In about ten years, Jay Onrait will be able to tell us how he survived “successful-Canadian guilt” after his move to the United States. In about ten years, he’ll have more stories to tell, so we won’t have to know about his bodily functions. In about ten years, he will have met a humanitarian or two, so we’ll see more of the decent, non-asshole “Canadian!” that hides beneath the Jay Onrait public persona.

In about ten years, if Jay Onrait writes another book, I hope he pictures 51-year-old suburban moms reading it. It would be a better book.

Book Review: Beyond Belief by Josh Hamilton

5f454fee7d985d67b1b6fc87d3d40cf6Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back

by Josh Hamilton with Tim Keown
ISBN: 9781599951607
FaithWords, 2010

Every once in a while it’s good to re-live “The Dream.” Every once while it’s good to read a story that raises goosebumps. Every once in a while it’s good to reflect on Josh Hamilton’s life to learn something about how to live ours.

It’s Beyond Belief that at the age of 6 Josh Hamilton already showed such outstanding baseball skills that he played with his eleven-year-old brother’s Little League team. It’s Beyond Belief that the first player chosen in the first round of the 1999 baseball draft would end up selling his wife’s wedding ring to buy crack cocaine. It’s Beyond Belief what happened at the 2008 Major League Baseball All-Star Game:

Josh Hamilton stepped up to the Yankee Stadium home plate. He took a few practice swings, settled into the relaxed bounce of his batting stance and waited for his pitches. An awestruck crowd watched his mesmerizing performance as he blasted 28 home runs in the first round. No one took eyes off his performance. If they had to pee, they held it. If they wanted a snack, they waited. Swing after swing, he launched balls into the stands, many of them 500 feet or farther. Only one other player in all-star history even came close to this number of home runs in one round. (Bobby Abreu, with 24.) His fellow players looked on and asked, “How do you follow that?”

Not bad for a reformed drug addict and alcoholic who was suspended from baseball for three years for drug use.

In the winter of 2005-2006 Josh Hamilton found faith, pulled himself out of a haze of drugs and alcohol and got clean. That same winter he had a dream. He dreamed that he would take part in a home run derby in Yankee Stadium and he foresaw himself being interviewed by a female television reporter. At the time, he was still under suspension. At the time the All-Star game had still not been awarded to Yankee Stadium. It made no sense.

In July 2008 he lived the dream—and how. In interviews with ESPN following his performance his voice cracked as he thanked God for getting him to that point. An ESPN commentator summarized the spectacle:

“It’s a lousy night to be an atheist.”

Josh Hamilton’s life is noteworthy for its extremes.

As a baseball player he was (and is) so very good, so exceptionally good, so head-turningly good. As a drug addict he was so very destructive, so body-ravagingly destructive, so head-shakingly destructive. As a comeback player he was so very miraculous, so odds-defyingly miraculous, so head-tiltingly miraculous.

With such a roller-coaster life, no wonder Josh Hamilton wants Jesus beside him for the ride.

Hamilton speaks openly about the role of his Christian faith in his life, but he doesn’t impose his views on his audience. He can’t tell his story without sharing his faith, though, for without it his story would have a different, sadder end. In the bedroom of his grandmother’s house, with the smell of crack cocaine still lingering in the air, he read James 4:7: “Humble yourself before God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” The Bible words became the foundation for his new life. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, Josh Hamilton repeated the mantra and rebuilt his body, his marriage, his family relationships and his career. The power of those words proved more powerful than the craving for drugs. The power of those words led to “The Dream” fulfilled and gave baseball fans the gift of watching Josh Hamilton play.

Josh Hamilton was born to play baseball, but that’s not all. “This is about so much more than baseball,” he says. Faith, addiction and outreach loom large in the arc of his life story. That’s why, every once in a while it’s good to re-live “The Dream” of Josh Hamilton’s baseball life. Every once in a while it’s good to feel those goosebumps when reading about faith winning out over the ravages of addiction. Every once in a while it’s good to reflect on Josh Hamilton’s life to learn something about how to take life’s hard lessons learned and use them to help others.

“. . . I believe if it could happen to me it could happen to anybody. I believe I am a good person who made bad choices. I believe I am living testimony to the power of addiction. I’m the cautionary tale. I accept that.” —Josh Hamilton


Read about the Josh and Katie Hamilton FourTwelve Foundation here:

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