Category Archives: Memoir

Book Review: A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett

house-in-the-sky-9781451645613_lgA House in the Sky

by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett
ISBN 978-1-4516-5148-5
Scribner, 2013

This one will stay with me for a while. 

Since I finished reading, my mind returns again and again to memorable scenes, pivotal moments, and mystical insights.

For most of us, international travel is an occasional money-depleting endeavour undertaken between long stretches of home, but for Amanda Lindhout, home was an occasional money-replenishing pastime undertaken between long stretches of international travel. Lindhout backpacked around the world, ticking off countries on an invisible list, comparing and contrasting the reality of them to National Geographic pages she thumbed through as a child. The National Geographic photos were one of the stable factors in an often turbulent childhood.

The book begins with the stories of this childhood, which, if examined deeply enough, might merit a book of their own. Her memories of this time are both not really relevant and entirely relevant to the core of what this memoir is about: a kidnapping Somalia. For readers to understand how Lindhout ends up in Somalia at one of its most dangerous times in history, she needs to tell us the childhood and teenage events that shaped her, and she needs to delineate her evolution from “carefree young backpacker” to “aspiring war correspondent.” And she needs to let us know how Nigel Brennan ended up along with her on such a horrific journey.

This book takes reader on an up-and-down emotional ride: a downer of violence and alcohol abuse, an exciting ascending stretch of international travel to exotic locations, a gut-clenching plateau of apprehension because we know what lies ahead, a long, slow descent into horror, and finally an upward coast to healing, forgiveness and plans for the future.

Lindhout gives an honest account of her missteps and her self-blame and guilt, especially when it comes to the complicated relationship with Nigel. She shares how she used the power of imagination and gratitude to persevere through months of boredom, and physical hardship.

Lindhout and Corbett write a compelling story that, at the end of it all, is a tribute to the power of compassion and spirit. It stays with you for a while.

 

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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: God Wore Glasses by Thomas G. Papps

God Wore Glassegod-wore-glasses-tom-papps-300pxs: An Inspirational Account of One Man’s Brush with God

by Thomas G. Papps
ISBN: 978-0-9848162-3-1
Kallisti Publishing, 2013

“Is there a God? Is there an afterlife? Are there miracles?” “This is a book that will answer those three questions. More than that, it will answer them in the positive. Even more than that, it will offer proof that there is an afterlife, there is a God, and miracles do indeed happen.”

That’s a lofty claim. Proof of God, an afterlife and miracles? Wow. 

What do you think of that? Do you eagerly look forward to reading yet another story of God’s glorious existence? Do you expect to read a touching story that you will be able to explain away as coincidence? Or do you think it’s a bunch of hokum?

Thomas G. Papps expects you to have one of those three reactions to his story of a brush with God, for that is how readers of his early drafts responded. He found that a large majority (90%) believed something religious happened, a smaller number of people (5%) believed the story to be a true account of a series of coincidences that create the illusion of a religious experience, and an equal number (5%) believed the book to be the work of a charlatan.

In his youth, Papps was an atheist and a critic of organized religion. When he experienced a series of uncanny events that could be described as mystical, he responded in the way an atheistic religious critic would: slowly and analytically.

Papps is a retired trial attorney, and he lays out the story of meeting a God who wore glasses and his subsequent analysis of the event as if he were presenting his case to a jury pool. His approach robs the story of some of its charm. In fact, it’s almost difficult to locate the specifics of the actual experience with God from within the nest of preamble, research and argument.

Papps’ experience of the divine took him from “an atheist to an agnostic to a probable believer.”  (He reserves some room for doubt because he is still “not prepared to believe in most tenets of any religion.”)

In his examination of the event, Papps discusses evolution, sociology and religion.  How you respond to his story will depend on how you respond to the arguments he puts forth. Personally, I didn’t agree with some of his interpretations of Jewish religious history, and while I enjoyed reading his insights into the evolution of angler fish and bombardier beetles, I don’t believe he can quite claim to have proof of the existence of God, the promise of an afterlife or the possibility of miracles—at least not proof that the skeptical 10% would buy into.

If you’re one of the 90% who don’t need proof anyway, you will enjoy a lovely story of a God who wore glasses, and you will find the analysis of the event enlightening. If you are an agnostic or atheist who has had a mystical experience that you can’t explain but can’t forget either, you will find Papps journey from skeptic to believer reassuring. If you think it’s a bunch of hokum, carry on and come back to this someday if you discover a chink in that armour.

________________

I was not financially compensated for this post. I received the book from Kallista Publishing for review purposes. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.

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: An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson

an-unquenchable-thirstAn Unquenchable Thirst

by Mary Johnson
ISBN 978-0-385-52747-7
Random House, 2011

With a sense of trepidation, I began to read this book. I have long admired the work of Mother Teresa, and I did not want my image of her selfless dedication shattered. If Mother Teresa suffered from crises of faith or took occasional misguided actions, I did not want to know. I wanted my untarnished image of her left intact. I wanted to put my hands over my ears and say “I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!” to protect myself from criticism of her.

But then, would that kind of avoidance serve the highest good? Undoubtedly, Mother Teresa positively affected the lives of millions of people, so if we learn about her work and find a way to make it even better, wouldn’t that propel us forward into a brighter future?

So, I forged ahead into Mary Johnson’s detailed (maybe a touch too detailed?) version of events. 

Indeed, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity (MIC) serve the world’s poor in a way few other organizations do. Following the biblical teaching “. . . whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40) the sisters look for Jesus in every person they meet. The sisters find Jesus in the homeless, the ill, the mentally ill, and the poverty-stricken. Their work honours in a beautiful way the true teachings of Jesus: social justice and unconditional love.

But then, the not-so-beautiful side of the story emerges.

Under a vow of chastity, the sisters try to repress their sexuality. It doesn’t work. Out of frustration and loneliness, they seek outlets with priests and other sisters. Guilt over their perfectly natural sexual drive follows. Under the vow of poverty, the sisters seek donations for their work. They allow others to feel good about giving and trust God to provide. They also expend extra energy trying to make ends meet, or leave deserving workers without due recompense. (Even simple things like curtains lead to conflict.) The daily rituals and routines of life with the MIC take precedence over all—even physical and mental health. The sisters pray, meditate and work even when swaying on their feet from illness or exhaustion. The life of a missionary of charity demands separation from family. Severed or strained relations with parents and siblings result. Most worrying of all, the sisters practise “the discipline” by beating themselves with a rough rope.

I wasn’t fully aware of Mother Teresa’s role as something close to a chief executive officer of a global organization. Before reading this book, I envisioned her spending every day walking the streets of Calcutta, bending to touch the hands of people in need. Her life involved much more than that. She travelled extensively and attended boring meetings. In a way that is both understandable, given the demands of her day-to-day life, and sad, given her desire to aid humanity, Mother Teresa sometimes overlooks the suffering of her sisters as they work to ease the suffering of others.

Mary Johnson spent 20 years with the Missionaries of Charity. She believed in the work of the sisters and the help they provided to people in need, but she yearned for intimacy and human contact, and she strained against the unquestioning obedience demanded of her. Seeking a way to fulfill an unquenchable thirst, she left the organization.

After reading Johnson’s book, I’m left to wonder, how much better could it all be? How much greater might the good works inspired by Mother Teresa be if the sisters slept more comfortably and began each day with a full measure of healthful energy? How many more people could be helped if the work was undertaken by people who loved themselves enough not to punish themselves? How refreshed would they be if they were emotionally fulfilled and supported by family? And how much more loving would their work be if they viewed money and resources as loving tools with which to do good, and not something that is “harmful if accumulated”?

I believe that is Johnson’s loving reason for writing this book and for risking her own reputation by trampling on the illusions of people like me. I believe she wrote it to improve the work with the ill and underprivileged—not to harm her fellow sisters or the reputation of Mother Teresa. She sees a world of human beings with “Jesus,” or whatever word you use for the sacred, inside of all of them, in need of nourishment in the most effective way possible.

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