Category Archives: Non-fiction

Book Review: The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth

12870068The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language

by Mark Forsyth
ISBN13: 9781848313071
Penguin Books Canada, 2011

Don’t think this is a dry book written by a crusty, judgmental Englishman. English, he is, but crusty and judgmental? Most definitely not.

Mark Forsyth takes us on a highly entertaining circular stroll through the history of our ever-evolving language. He makes surprising connections—the Latin for witness is testis from which we get both testicles and the Old Testament—and he sets aright some unfortunate changes in meaning. Angry protesters spouting angry opposition against an event or activity might feel better if they remember that protest means to bear witness for something.

“Every weakness of human nature comes out in the history of etymology.”

We see our frailties and failings reflected in our language. Soon was the Anglo-Saxon word for now; our procrastination led to the erosion of that meaning. The Roman word probabilis meant something could be proved by experiment, but people tend to be more certain of things than they should be. As Forsyth points out, “. . . absolutely any sane Roman would tell you that it was probabilis that the Sun went round the Earth.” By the time probably made its way to English, “. . . it was already a poor, exhausted word whose best days were behind it, and only meant likely.

From protest, soon and probably, we can see that we are complaining procrastinators who obstinately believe in shaky truths.

Forsyth is funny too, in the subtle British way.

“The Latin word for sausage was botulus, from which English gets two words. One of them is the lovely botuliform, which means sausage-shaped and is a more useful word than you might think. The other word is botulism.

He tells us why black can mean white and white can mean black, and why down sometimes means up. He reassures us that being an idiot might not be as bad a thing as we thought. And, he lets us in on the secret of what John the Baptist and The Sound of Music have in common.

If you read the book, you will find out all that, and more. And the next time you enjoy a cappuccino in Starbucks, you can ponder both Moby Dick and barefoot monks, and it will all make sense to you.


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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.


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: The Secret Female Hormone

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


9781401943011The Secret Female Hormone: How Testosterone Replacement Can Change Your Life

by Kathy Maupin, M.D., Brett Newcomb, M.A., L.P.C.
ISBN 978-1-4019-4301-1
Hay House, 2014

Put a room full of menopausal and perimenopausal women together and ask them to raise their hands if they experience any of these symptoms: loss of libido, weight gain, insomnia, fatigue, depression, sore joints, dry eyes, migraines, or loss of stamina. After running through the full list, few women would sit without raised a hand.

Middle-aged women face these symptoms, and a confusing array of scientific evidence about what to do about it. Many women don’t want to mess around with nature, so they choose to ride out the sleepless nights, the fatigue, and the strain on their relationship due to their lack of interest in sex. Many women fear hormone replacement therapy (HRT) because of studies that suggested that HRT comes with medical risks. And testosterone? Many women would not even consider adding what they perceive to be a male hormone into their lives. They worry about side effects like facial hair, aggression and a lowered voice pitch.

Kathy Maupin and Brett Newcomb want to open the conversation about the “secret” female hormone. They say:

“Testosterone is not just important to women’s hormonal balance, it is essential.”

Maupin opens the book with her personal experience with Testosterone Deficiency Syndrome (TDS). After suffering the symptoms, and after futile searches in other areas for solutions to the problems, she found relief through bio-medical testosterone pellets. She then used the treatment on her patients and boasts a 95% success rate. Her patients enjoy increased energy, better sleep, loss of fat, improved memory, a re-activated sex drive, balanced mood, and less muscle and joint pain

Maupin and Newcomb don’t suggest that HRT is for everyone. They outline the roles that estrogen, progesterone and testosterone play in women’s lives and the risks and benefits of replacement therapies. They include charts with the symptoms, risks and benefits clearly laid out so readers and place check marks to determine if therapy is something they should consider. But Maupin and Newcomb don’t accept that women these days need to “tough it out” through menopausal and perimenopausal symptoms that are adversely affecting their lives.

“Women still experience the loss of testosterone at the same age they did 50,000 years ago.”

One of the results of our improved health care, sanitation and nutrition is that women’s life spans now extend beyond the time they can reproduce. Women used to die before or not long after they ceased to be able to procreate, so in centuries past women didn’t need testosterone in later life. Now they might. And if a person lives with a long-term testosterone deficiency, serious diseases can result, including chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, heart disease, memory loss, dementia.

This is an American publication, and I am Canadian. I don’t know what the regulations in this country are for testosterone. No matter which country you live in, hormone therapy starts with a conversation with your medical doctor. Maupin and Newcomb wrote this book to arm you with information you can take to your doctor to start that conversation.


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


Book Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

9780385669757The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business 

by Charles Duhigg
ISBN 9780385669757
Doubleday Canada, 2012

We have habits. Some habits, like a morning jog, serve us well. Others, like a weekly visit to the casino that turns into a daily drain on the bank account, lead to our ruin. If we understand our habits—how they work, how they’re formed, how they serve us and how to change them—we can use that knowledge to shape our days in the most positive way.

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg breaks down the three-step loop: Cue, Routine, Reward. A habit is triggered by an external cue (a particular location, a time of day, a certain mood, other people, or an activity), the external cue sets a routine in motion, and at the end, we receive a reward. For example, an alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m., a person puts on jogging clothes and goes for a run, and then enjoys the runner’s high and a strawberry smoothie. Or, at 3:00 p.m. every workday, a person, bored and restless, leaves the desk and visits the vending machine for an afternoon chocolate bar boost.

Many of our habits serve to sustain us as we navigate daily life. Putting on our clothes, making our toast, or driving our cars requires a series of habits. The first time we do any of these, we think through each step. Cued by a feeling of cold, a hunger, or a need to get from one place to another, we work through every step of managing buttons, setting the right toast preferences and backing out of the garage. Eventually these routines become automatic “habits,” so our brain doesn’t need to think about them anymore. In other words, we need habits or our brains would be overwhelmed. “Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.”

Because habits are so necessary, and because our brains are constantly seeking to create new ones, habits have a powerful influence over our lives. And once a habit takes root, it doesn’t disappear. Duhigg writes: “. . . unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”


You Can’t Extinguish a Bad Habit, You Can Only Change It”

Duhigg describes how habits, willpower and belief play out in the lives of brain-damaged individuals, gambling addicts, football players, Starbucks employees, and shoppers. 

What it means for us? We can examine our daily lives, identify our habits, figure out which ones serve us well and which ones could bear re-routing. To make a change, we start by figuring out what your habit “cue” is by asking these questions:

  1. Where are you?
  2. What time is it?
  3. What’s your emotional state?
  4. Who else is around?
  5. What action preceded the urge?

When you figure out what it is that sets you on an undesirable path, you can choose to respond to that cue differently, and you can choose how to reward yourself for doing so.

Find the cue, choose the positive action, select a meaningful reward.

At times I found myself wondering while reading Duhigg’s stories: “What does this have to do with habit again?” But even when I was wondering that, I was absorbed in the material. It’s darned interesting.

Since reading his book, I have been taking note of my cues, routines and rewards, and I’ve made some changes. I think that’s the point.

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.

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