On My Bookshelf

the books you need to dog-ear and re-gift

Top 10 Books For Not Just Summer, But Life in General

003“The most important experiences in your life are the ones that change how you look at the world.”

~ Jimmy Chin, alpinist and filmmaker

Books change our world too-even those innocently read ones, coveted under childhood blankets with flashlights illuminating far away worlds. Pilgrimages to the local library were a Saturday staple–and we always left with arms nearly out of their sockets carrying our marvelous cartel to the Pinto.
I’ve said this before here, and I probably will again, because, it’s probably the most important thing that was ever said. “Just be interesting.” My parents didn’t force-feed us academia or insist on Tiger Mom pursuits in law, teaching or doctorates. Though, Dax did get the fancy credentials, and Dr. Dax was in that scholastic vein early on.
Though I appreciated the curricula of the registered massage therapy program I enrolled in four score and seventeen years ago, I couldn’t wait to resume my recreational reading habit. The text books were shelved and I was able to submerge back into the sublime–creating my own life curricula via books.


“Only boring people get bored,” was another mantra of my mother’s. And, if you are a reader by default, then, it’s difficult to get to a bored state unless you are bookless in Seattle. When I was in highschool I remember my mom asking me to have my hyper-intelligent English teacher create a list of her favourite books. Joan was in the know and a culturally literate wundermind. Surely, given the way she spoke (she was the one who introduced me to such 25 cent words as “surreptitious” and told me my writing was like a white-water rafting adventure instead of a smooth paddle on a calm lake), many books were behind her insights, and her undiluted passion left me spellbound. Joan laboured over the list, though, I know a hundred titles came easily to her mind, and handed it to me a few days later. (*Mom, do you still have that list?)
I too am constantly asking reliable sources for their favourites. You can easily identify your reading soulmates after a few shared titles. I drift all over the genres but always gravitate towards quirky, memoirs, travel junkets and anything Africa.
Which led me to this. A book curriculum for life, in general. The books that you should read as a human. I’m not listing Shakespeare (snore) or those imagery lessons like The Great Gatsby or any of the others that we’re pushed upon us in highschool. No, this is my bespoke list, and, if you are a friend of mine, clearly we share some love and common ground.
I do believe in responsible reading, sometimes–you know, those important books that shaped a time. I’m talking about Love in the Time of Cholera, Keruoac’s Dharma Bums, Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, Theroux’s Mosquito Coast and stuff about urban gurus like Jane Jacobs and bike-pushers like David Byrne.
Books that have found media fame like Eat, Pray, Love completely annoyed me. I never did finish The Celestine Prophecy. And, I’m definitely not going to read 50 Shades of Grey.
My bookshelf is mood-obvious and decade-indicative. Like a walk through the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. Van Gogh’s shift in spirit and palette between the decades (from cheery sunflowers to utter gloom and miserable skies) is so evident.

Yes, I have beach-y, cotton candy mindless reads that sit beside soul sandwiches like Siddartha, Leo Buscaglia and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Those searching books–those were the Vancouver years of 18-23. Living with a bohemian lot of artists, writers and activists, my book choices eclipsed that time period: Salinger, Tom Robbins, everything Douglas Coupland, How to Live on Nothing and a cannonball into the gay world. I found Sappho, Ruby Fruit Jungle and the world of Jane Rule.
The Virgo in me reflexively makes lists, for everything–especially books to read and books that have been read. I have the years well-chronicled. I could probably list my entire bookshelf as each title has been critical at a particular time for growth, inspiration or (ugh, loathe the world), closure.
My brother reads depressing books as they always make him feel better about his own life (*note, he is not depressed, he just likes how books can consistently do that). I like the sob-inducing ones more out of writerly respect. If an author can make you break down with words–that’s a powerful skill. I’ve cried over so many dying dogs in books (Emily Carr’s sheepdog, Marley & Me), and had to take a crying jag break from Jane Goodall’s account of her favourite chimp, David Greybeard, dying of polio and his inability to climb up trees as the disease strangled him.
*Note: do not read the last 50 pages of Marley & Me in a public space. I made this error on a Westjet flight. Read it in the safety of your own home, preferably with cucumbers and Visine at the ready. And gin, probably.
So, this is my list–and, of course, it will be never-ending and constantly evolving with every book I read. However, as of this very moment, at age 39, these are the books I think everyone should read to build a foundation of gratitude, inspiration, awe and fuel fireside conversation and intimate and intelligent dinner talk.


1. A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout.

I was disappointed when Oprah described Lindhout’s terrifying memoir as “juicy.” Being kidnapped and held captive by Islamic militants for 15 months is nowhere near juicy. But, the account of her time in Somalia and her inherent will to survive will shake up how you live your life. A life free from the nightmares and stronghold that such an experience must have on a person. It’s raw, agonizing and a remarkable display of resilience.

2. The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein.

I initially thought the book would be too Disney, too schmaltzy. Afterall, it’s narrated by a dog. And, worse, the dog is dying. I remember standing in Indigo on Bay, already hot-eyed and swallowing hard a few paragraphs in. The dog, Enzo, is aware that he is on his last legs–but he’s okay with this. He is beyond eager to come back to earth as a human. He has been carefully observing his human for communication skills to navigate his next life. Enzo’s insights are comical, heartrendering and beautiful. If you’ve ever loved a dog, you’ll squeeze them even harder after this one.

*Also, do not read the last chapters of this book in public.

3. Still Alice, Lisa Genova.

When Alice, a Harvard professor learns that she is experiencing symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s, the awareness and slow ride into the grips of the disease is nearly unbearable to read. Life’s fragility is evident in being witness to a seemingly perfect life suddenly shook-up by the diagnosis. The only comfort I found in this book was learning that, at some point, you don’t remember that you are losing your mind. There is a period of time when you are aware, but, as the words and memories slip, so does the awareness. For those surrounding Alice, it’s like watching a living death but the family rallies to keep the grace and spirit of Alice present.

4. The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls.

I read a very yellowed,mothbally copy of this in Entebbe, Uganda. It was one of few books on the shelf at the Jane Goodall Institute that was in English. Pages fell out as I turned them–and now I know why. This is a memoir, not some fantasy childhood of eccentricities. The anchor of poverty and mentally unstable conditions that she and her siblings endured is shocking. It’s a reminder of the turbulent past that so many are trying to resurrect themselves from.

5. The Chimps of Fauna, Andrew Westoll.

Well, as a chimp crusader, this choice is a no-brainer. But, even if your only knowledge of chimps is that chimp lady, Jane Goodall (or even if you still mix chimps and gorillas and monkeys up), Westoll’s memoir shares an intimate experience–his time at a retirement facility for chimps rescued from biomedical facilities. The abuse and neglect is unnerving–and your blood will boil repeatedly–but hang on for the touching encounters and relationships that develop in this rescued family. The dynamics and personalities of a severely wounded bunch and their recovery is a shining promise of hope.

6. Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer.

I’ve read this book a few times and still get sucked in like quicksand. Christopher McCandless was a well-groomed academic–all his stars were in line for a promising career in law. Instead, he donated his entire bank account ($24,000 to Oxfam), ditched his Datsun pick-up and, walked “into the wild.” Eager to live off the land and escape the poisons of society, he left the conveniences and familiarity of life as he knew it with a bag of rice, a rifle and a few books on plant identification. If you’ve seen the movie (directed by Sean Penn–bravo), there’s no spoiler in learning that he dies only 100 days into his dream. What he etches into the table of the makeshift bus shelter he calls home is an affirmation of why we are here.

7. Falling Backwards, Jann Arden.

Memoirs are a natural source of inspiration, and, a deep behind-the-scenes look at lives we are curious about. The genesis of Arden’s career wasn’t all lollipops, sunshine and unicorns. But, her grace, her insightful way of being—and that inherent humour, makes for a riot of a read. The hot dog in the thermos is a passage you will want to read out loud to whoever is near you. Even if it’s a stranger–do it. Her honesty and what she shares of her life in Falling Backwards adds such a dimension to her lyrics. You will laugh like there is a laughing gas leak in the room— and cheerlead for her beating heart and continued, deserved success.

8. The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom.

It’s a natural reflex when you hear the title of this book to think of your five. Mine are all dogs, but…who you think you will meet could be entirely unexpected. Albom really spins the idea of heaven on its side–and, religious or not, you’ll find yourself re-examining your life and all the lives you’ve crossed and uncrossed. As his book explains, you may have changed a complete stranger’s life in a way that you will never know about. Until, maybe, heaven.

7. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver.

I read this on my way to Africa–and as the plane descended it was like landing in those very pages. Though the book is set in 1950s Congo, not a lot has changed over the decades in regards to tribal tensions, wayward ministers trying to “tame the natives” and a population continually struggling for independence and survival. This is quintessential Africa, and the story of a shiny, white family plunked down in the jungles of the Belgian Congo. It’s hairy, frustrating (ugh, the father!) and delightful (young Ruth’s narrative is pure charm). If you want a glimpse into why Africa gets in your bones after just one visit, you’ll see why in the Poisonwood Bible.

8. Land of a Thousand Hills, Rosamond Carr.

My sister found this book on the shelf of a store on our way to Lake Louise. She said, “Have you heard of this woman? She was a friend of Dian Fossey?” I was hooked–who knew Dian Fossey even had any friends (that weren’t gorillas). Carr’s determination to stay and make a life out of her circumstances (a failed marriage to a big game hunter), is proof of an indominable spirit in the harshest climate and unforgiving world of farming. Her attempts to maintain a flower plantation in Rwanda against stampeding elephants and bankruptcy is a far cry from her world as a fashion illustrator in New York in 1949. And what she does with her plantation after the bloodbath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 is a beautiful transition. Hers was a life lived large and unselfishly.

9. Bridget Jones Diary, Helen Fielding.

I love the reckless and feckless life of Bridget Jones. Though the latest, Mad About the Boy, was a bit of a lunchbag let-down, Bridget Jones is still brassy, fiesty and a fine example of what not to do. But, her character (probably not far from fiction) is reassurance that someone else out there is smoking 158 cigarettes a day while packing back 18 croissants and 3 bottles of vino. And that true love does conquer all–once you land the true love and pin them down.

10. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold.

The first chapter made me want to throw up. It was so graphic and terrifying that I didn’t know if I had the steel guts to continue. But, Sebold takes the unsettling event of Susie Salmon’s kidnapping and murder by a neighbour in 1973 Pennsylvania and braids it into a supernatural-laced novel of coping, understanding and possibility.

Okay, that’s 10 off the top. I didn’t even get around to Chuck Thompson, Farley Mowat or Douglas Coupland’s biography on Terry Fox. Then there’s the Sand County Almanac, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the unbridled adrenalin of Colin Angus. Oh, and anything Anne Lamott, David Sedaris or Burroughs and the clever Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. And, I really, really loved Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. And, if you’ve lived at more than 10 addresses in your life, you’ll really lean into Isabel Huggans Belonging.

See? It’s a run-away list. But, I promise the ten books I listed will change your life is some unexpected way. You’ll see. Let me know–and please, share your favourite with me. Like I said, I’m a Virgo, and I like lists.

Categories: On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Drinking Beer in the Library and Other Confessions (like burying overdue books)

If you’ve tuned in to my blog before, you might recall a confession that involved me burying library books in elementary school. The books were well overdue and I was mildly terrified of the librarian and my only rational option was to bury the books by the pond behind our house. I remember two of the three distinctly: The Legend of Bigfoot and a NHL scrapbook of some sort.

Upon reflection, digging a hole and hiding the overdue books wasn’t the best solution. My pre-teen mind believed that if I made the books truly disappear, the librarian might have to admit that the books in question had been returned and become MIA on the shelves. One of the student volunteers probably screwed up the Dewey Decimal system and had shelved them with the Funk & Wagnall encyclopedias. Or, that’s what I hoped would happen. I can’t even remember the fall out of that one. Maybe my parents had to pony up some money. Maybe they threatened to hold my year-end report card ransom. I’ll never know.

Flash forward to high school. Library guilt coursed through my generally responsible veins. I applied for a summer job placement, in the library. I was successfully hired, but, gently removed from the front desk as I was prone to practical jokes and setting off the unchecked book alarm when certain friends left the library with checked items. Oh, what a gas! After less than five attempts at library hijinks, I was repurposed and became rather intimate with Dewey Decimal. Shelving duty, full-time. I’m not sure if I actually made it to the end of my “term” but I do remember being kicked out of the library for a) Watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in a private seminar room b) For becoming stuck inside a recycling box when wrestling with Paula Faragher in the middle of the day.

Back in 2010(ish), Toronto Life magazine featured rocker and Rough Trade heart-throb Carole Pope in The List, a Top 10 can’t-live-without profile of local movers and shakers. Writer Amy Verner wrote that “the post-punk queen of raunch” named her Schwinn faux-mountain bike, a vintage Vivienne Westwood raincoat, a Fender Mustang guitar, breakfast at The Senator on Victoria Street and her late mother’s art deco ring in her Top 10. Better yet? Carole Pope can’t live without her library cards from L.A., New York and Toronto.

The library was the beacon of our childhood weekend. I’d max out the allowable books on every subject. Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary were my faithful babysitters. And, to give my mother a voice on this blog, because I know she is shaking her head in memory—yes, I lost a hardcover book on teddy bears for six months. It was truly lost because it was stuck in the side pocket of our canvas tent which we slept (barely) in one night, terrified out of our minds with every falling pinecone and hiccuping frog. The tent was packed up after that very night, with the library book tucked in the pocket, not to be discovered again until the next July camp-out set-up.

My mother paid some exorbitant amount for replacement of the book to the Brantford Public Library. I would like to point out that the book was critical to my career plans at that time (age 10). I fancied myself a fashion designer for teddy bears. Yeah. We’ll leave that at that.

Also, yes, we scratched a Foreigner record in our childhood rambunctiousness, and, after my parents paid out another replacement fee to the library for that, Cold As Ice, my sibs and I were no longer allowed to take out albums from the library. Oh, the angst and agony.

We found quick refuge at my grandmother’s house just up the road. Imagine, over 30 sets of encyclopedias and the entire National Geographic magazine since, oh, 1920 or whatever. Every elementary and high school project had a bibliography attached to her library. It had a pair of western-saloon style doors where we re-enacted Yosemite Sam scenes. Pistols blaring, of course. Plus, the library came with a panting and doting resident dog, Sally, my grandparents’ Great Pyrenees.

I’ve had a long love affair with the library and agree with Carole Pope and her public display of library card affection. When we moved to Galt in January, I was only nervous about where I might feed my indie movie rental habit. Living in the Annex in Toronto, I had become a daily fixture at Queen Video, and before that, at 7-24 on Church when I lived in Cabbagetown. With the flunk out of Rogers and Blockbuster Video, where was I going to rent movies? (I know, I know, Netflix. Ugh. But I still want the tangible and physical stealth search and reward element!)

As I poked around my new library branch at Queen’s Square in Galt, with my newly minted library card, I found the treasure chest on the second floor! The library’s motto is “Ideas Unlimited”—and they cater to that very notion with 4,803 DVDs. I had never considered renting movies from the library! And, I can’t even begin to fathom the dollars I could have saved over the years!

Of course, the books are the first draw—but, the Cambridge library has over 250 magazines on its subscription list. I have also damaged my dowry with random grocery store line magazine purchases over the years too. I’m a sucker for Toronto Life, Bon Appetit, Outside, Esquire, Men’s Health, Dwell, House & Home and Cottage Life. And, I have the ability to tear through them at record speed. A latte + a mag = one hour minimum wage. Okay, I can justify that.

But, back to the free stuff at the library. The Queen’s Square location has a gallery space too—Ian Johnston’s “Sometimes Things Are Exactly As They Appear” art installation is on display until June 15th, 2013. Kim and I went to the opening night to see his reconstitution of a felled cherry tree—while enjoying a beer, IN THE LIBRARY! That same night, library staff were on hand, eager to solicit submissions to a 30th anniversary project, gathering client feedback and memories on their best library experience over the years. I looked at Kim, and, clearly, it was “drinking beer in a library!”

Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria, Egypt

Point is, libraries are adapting to the surge in social media (faster than I am). There has been an obvious shift from the traditional library definition as the public embraces kindles and kobos. There is no reason for the library to continue to house hardcopy collections (but, I’m thankful they do). Daily newspapers are still available to read too (from the Ayr News to the Calgary Herald to USA Today)—another endangered species. To visit the modern library you will see the shift to a civic space—one that is tapped into our needs and wants—DVDs, scanners, internet access and CDs. You can even download music legally from Sony Canada’s catalogue of artists at Freegal.

The library will even pimp you out with a Book Club Kit—eight copies of the same book and a discussion guide.
Whether you are working your way through the Booker Shortlist, Giller Shortlist or Charles Taylor prizewinners, the library will satisfy all your whims. Pick up a copy of the Great Lakes Swimmers New Wild Everywhere CD, an intense memoir (Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika), an audio book to fuel road trips (Kim gives Saab thumbs up to Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea—the 2008 bestseller by Chelsea Handler), some design mags for Sunday morning coffee and flapjacks and a stellar flick like Sarah Polley’s Away From Her or the high octane doc, Untouchable Girls.

Whatever you do though, don’t bury your library materials by the pond.

Categories: Flicks and Muzak, On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

#Trending In My Life This Week

Sometimes there are a lot of things and thoughts that collide at once, that all deserve their space, but are more suitable for a bar stool conversation. Semi-related, but not really, this week is a bright spot: an awesome movie find, the close of an exceptional book, a new downtown patio to drink upon and the ongoing obsession of finding a house to call ours.

In no particular order, this is what has been trending in my week.

#Jeff, Who Lives At Home

Any film with Susan Sarandon listed in the credits is a shoo-in for me.  Jeff (Jason Segel) is an authentic  30-year-old slacker inspired by the movie Signs. Consumed by finding and following the semi-obvious “signs” that appear to him in his mother’s (Sarandon’s) basement, Jeff is certain that he is within reach of his destiny.  His brother, Pat (Ed Helms), opposite in all possible ways, is a twitchy paint store manager blow-hard who thinks a new Porsche will cure his tanking marriage. The brothers ram heads like rutting elk and can find little common ground outside of a blood tie. Their lives tangle into a fisherman’s knot when they witness Pat’s wife obviously in the throes of an illicit affair.

While the boys duke it out, Jeff’s awareness and perception—often lost in the haze of his chronic pot smoking, begins to make sense to Pat. What happens next unfolds without a sign for the audience. The emotional impact of the final scene is wholly unexpected and will leave even the steeliest of hearts feeling like they’ve swallowed knives instead of popcorn. Yes, you will cry. Like a child with a skinned knee. You will ache for Sharon’s (Sarandon) lonely existence, longing for attention and affection despite her brave exterior and I’m-just-fine-on-my-own stance.

The writers weave in surprising twists and earn kudos for a tight and realistic script. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is an honest portrayal of how easily relationships can dissolve—whether it be with a spouse, brother or mother. And the signs, well, they’re everywhere. You’ll see.

#One Bird’s Choice

On my list of (probably) 138 books To Read, One Bird’s Choice by Iain Reid was chosen primarily for its portability. I have finally caved to the sensibilities of my right shoulder.  I am a firm believer in “fashion hurts,” and I insist on carrying my oh-so-cool shoulder bag from Amsterdam because it is oh-so-cool. What I refuse to carry now is hard-copy books. I can’t. Unless I skimp on the weight of my lunch, I just can’t tote hardcovers anymore in my sub-5K walking commute.

So, One Bird’s Choice was the likely choice due to its featherweight category designation—in addition to the rave reviews and firework displays it received for his porcupine quill-sharp writing.  I packed the book for our getaway to The Pinery Provincial Park. I read the entire book (nearly) to Kim, out loud on the beach.

Apparently I’ve got a trending theme of slackerness this week. One Bird’s Choice chronicles Reid’s decision (and aftermath) to move back in with his goofball parents on their serene “Lilac Hill” hobby farm in Ottawa.

As the seasons shift from the winter of Reid’s discontent to a spring fever of renewal and gratitude, life with his parents is a quiet riot. There are generous doses of melancholy, comic encounters with the resident guinea fowl Lucius and a gentle meditation associated with life on the farm. His initial resistance to admitting to his permanent covert accommodations eventually twists into what life should be. Time spent wholly engaged in conversation, petting cats, drinking coffee, musing, napping, observing, Hockey Night in Canada, digging the shit out of sheep barns, eating mom’s lemon loaves (and cookies and apple walnut cake) and just being. And, lucky us! We get to eavesdrop on all those conversations and cheer the emergence of a wayward urban refugee writer finding solace.

#Poetry Jazz Cafe

As much as I adore the beer taps and smart handle of the place, Thirsty & Miserable in Kensington Market smells like a dog that has swum in brackish water. The wet dogness doesn’t dissipate, even after 3-4 pints. I know, I’ve tried. However, just south of the great-named-bar-that-smells-like-the-fish-market-next-door, there’s Poetry. Dark as a carnival haunted house, it has groovy by the neck. Kim and I feel our way to the back to where we’re meeting my friend Keph. Earlier in the day I had read online about their intimate patio. From here we can still here the jazzy beats, but at a level that still permits conversation. Weathered mill carts, makeshift benches, Adirondack chairs and bistro tables fill the tidy pea-gravelled space that is bigger than any Toronto backyard. The tall boys (Guinness , Stiegl, Strongbow), and the pints of Steam Whistle, Keith’s and Hoptical Illusion (Flying Monkey’s Brewery) fuel an easy night of chatter. We chatter even longer when a bowl of super-salty popcorn arrives by surprise. Which, in turn, encourages another pint.

The patio fills before dusk. Unpretentious and as relaxed as hanging out in your own leafy space, this place is going to be a future soupy night go-to for Friday night flat-lining.


#Banh Mi Boys, 392 Queen West (at Spadina)

Their lemongrass pork sub stuffed with daikon, pickled carrot, cuke, mayo and cilantro gets kicked-up a few infernos with three different hot sauces. Bahn mi subs from this joint (the 5 spice pork belly with pickled relish is love in a bun) make me want to wear only sweat pants, watch thirtysomething re-runs and eat only these. For breakfast even. Less than $5 bucks a pop and paired with a blood orange San Pellegrino, they push Subway to the curb.


Boo to the Highway 6 traffic that took this Morriston gem out of the running.I think Kim and I have looked at over 548 MLS listings. I “drive” around Guelph in circles (I could find a quick job as a cabbie with my new found directional sense of the city), waiting for the dream house listing to FINALLY appear. We have moved our initial search out of Dundas, Waterdown and south Burlington. We want a place with personality that bleeds charm right out of its brickwork. We’d be smitten with anything that ticks off 97% of this checklist:

No pool (due to previous experience and severe novelty worn-off-ness)

Absolutely no hot tub (due to previous nightmares)

No finished basement (we are both basement-haters)

Pedestrian-friendly location: just far-enough from the traffic hum but close enough to find a pint or Americano

Preferably old hardwood, exposed brick, wainscoting

A backyard suitable for bonfires and plein air dining

Kim would like a furnace that doesn’t tick

I would like a fridge that doesn’t operate at the decibel level of a Mack Truck

NO TENANTS (especially the type that re-enact Jurassic Park scenes from above)

No white-fluffy, ribbon-wearing, below knee-level barking dogs in a 100 foot radius

A Wolf stove would be really nice

A workshop space so Kim can be all handy and build remarkable things with her tools and saws that every man envies

Front balcony for morning coffee-drinking and nosey-neighbour-type spying

Barn board, exposed timber beams—bonus: attic space for writing the Next Great Novel

Century home or raw loft space WITH balcony (no concessions)

A scalding hot shower with endless water pressure unlike my parents (the equivalent of being pissed on by a horse). Clawfoot tub separate. No wrestling two shower curtains around claw foot. Been there.

Gas fireplace for wintry nights and wintry wine-drinking. One in the bedroom too, best yet.

Kim’s request: “no messy trees” (i.e. wind-weary willows or berry-bearing trees that attract birds that shit purple bombs on her highly-polished black Saab

That je ne sais quoi. The kinda place you walk into, close the door, breathe deep and contemplate never leaving.


What’s trending in your life?



Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Flicks and Muzak, Home Sweet Home, On My Bookshelf, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Your Summer Homework: 5 Must-Reads

Summer. Ahhhhhh + sigh x 10,000. It’s a collectively sacred time of unruly humidex, an inflated drinks-on-the-patio expense account and mass recreational reading under the sensational sun. There’s less guilt in slacking off, and wonderfully, everything smells like coconuts and burgers on the grill.

If you are dangerously “without book” (gasp), here are five titles that are still lingering in the recesses of my mind. They pair best with beach access and flip flops, cottage docks or, if all else fails, sticky TTC rides and midday coffee shop escapes.

Falling Backwards by Jann Arden

The thrill of a memoir is that it’s like tiptoeing into your kid sister’s bedroom and rifling through the greatest bits of her diary except, you’re allowed in on the open conversation! Eavesdropping on Jann Arden’s coming-of-age expose, you’ll find quintessential Jann—just as your heart feels too heavy for your rib cage, she will have you reading passages about bloated wieners in thermoses out loud between snorts to whoever is nearby. Her raw and unfiltered portrayal of the lonely and turbulent (but rewarding) road to rocker fame illuminates all that those in the spotlight sacrifice in pursuit of “making it.” Her Prairie childhood, at times idyllic under the great Albertan skies, is revisited with the sage wisdom of an evolved Jann. At fifty, her pithy insights on life, health and family ties are gently framed in her gratitude, humour and vulnerability.

My total dissection of Falling Backwards can be read here.

This Is How by Augusten Burroughs

If you read (or cheated and watched the movie) Running With Scissors, you will have a solid grasp on the quirky kaleidoscope vision Burroughs has when examining life. This is How is the anti-self-help book that will undoubtedly leave you with highlighter in hand, dog-earing chapters for affected friends. You will find familiarity in every page—either in yourself, a loved one or a friend.  Burroughs reflects on his own addictions and tragic periods of mourning dying partners with a clarity that is encouraging and realistic. He refuses to paint any situation pretty, and takes a cannonball into the deep end of the pool. His survival techniques will find naysayers, but he is quick to point out that he is not a maxima cum laude therapist. Burroughs has become an unfortunate expert due to a series of debilitating circumstances compounded by self-doubt, suicidal tendencies and profound loss. His matter-of-fact bar stool philosopher approach wins. You will find yourself nodding your head in agreement, and blush at recognition of yourself and your actions. This is How is a gritty tell-all: this is how to be thin, fat, say goodbye to a lover, ride an elevator and stop drinking. His simplicity and rare analysis of the human condition is outstanding.

More? Here’s the rave review I did for the sun on his sassy, brassy, no-guff, shut-up and listen solutions for life.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

I thought it sounded so schmaltzy. I was standing in the New Releases section of Indigo at Bay & Bloor, scoffing at the Disney-fied idea of reading a book narrated by a dog. I skimmed the back cover and thought I’d read the first few pages. There was a dull roar about this book, and I hate to miss out on the dull roars. By paragraph five, I couldn’t even read the text because the tears in my eyes were at the threshold of doing the cheek-roll in public. I took a few deep breaths in the Travel section and proceeded to buy the book to read in the privacy of my own home. And oh, how I cried. Right from the get-go. Anyone who has loved a dog will feel a resounding connection with Enzo. There is no spoiler here, it’s clear that Enzo is dying. He says so, right at the beginning (cue tears). However, due to his extensive TV-watching, Enzo had learned via a National Geographic documentary that in Mongolia, when a dog dies, their reincarnated soul can return as a human. Enzo has been studiously observing human dialogue for this very moment. As a member of the Swift family, he has been painstakingly diligent in learning as much as he can about human communication and interaction for his next life. He is okay with dying because he can return as a human, which is his dream.  Enzo’s observations showcase the absurd and inexplicable life of humans. It’s a weeper. You’ll move from moments of rage to bottomless sadness for Enzo’s eagerness to be the best dog he can be for his beloved owner. Note: Definitely read at home. If you lost it during Marley & Me, this is the equivalent.

Why be happy when you can be normal? By Jeanette Winterson

I borrowed this book from my friend Keph, and had to do a pressure-read before she went to the UK. But, this was easy enough to accomplish, unlike The Winter Vault and Love in the Time of Cholera which I had to force-feed myself in the Congo. Winterson’s memoir unexpectedly made me drink more wine and seemed to drag me into a grey skies field of clotted thinking. Which, is powerful for a writer to do. What impressed me the most was that she survived! Winterson digs into a childhood that is not all lollipops and sunshine. If you read Jeannette Walls The Glass Castle you will draw a similar comparison in survival. What propelled Winterson to bother go on living at all under such oppression and fatiguing family misery is a mystery. Her writing is smooth and punchy with dialogue that pokes that “just-one-more-page” obsession.  Adopted by over-the-top Pentecostal parents in a non-descript industrial American town, Winterson’s attempt to be happy, and maybe normal, but very gay, is harrowing and nearly defeating under the disapproving gaze of the fiercely damaging Mrs. Winterson. The eventual search for her birth mother is an emotional quagmire. In the end, Jeanette Winterson’s writing is her stronghold, and we are lucky as readers to be privy to that.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Yes, this is an oldie (2002), but, I resisted reading it for a decade apparently. The initial pages are a nightmare. Growing up in southwestern Ontario when Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy went missing, stories of kidnappings make me uncomfortable to the point of being ill. In grade 12 I remember playing soccer in St. Catharines, Ontario, and the home team gathering in a circle to say a prayer for Kristen before the game. The Lovely Bones begins with 14-year-old Susie Salmon being violently raped and murdered. It’s horrific and disturbing, but Sebold’s writing is powerful enough to engage us in the complex afterlife she has designed for Susie. Choosing Susie as the narrator we are shown the flipside of mourning and her disjointed loss. We are comforted when Susie meets Frannie, her spiritual guide and then moved to extreme rage when George Harvey, her murderer, is overlooked as a suspect, again. Sebold tackles an upsetting plot with a surreal and gentle touch that outlines how precious life is, and how an ordinary day can split the matrix of a family forever.

Up next?

I’m reading Marnie McBean’s The Power of More which I’ll be reviewing pre-Olympic fever for The Vancouver Sun in August. Stay tuned! Sneak preview: It’s like verbal Red Bull. If you’re feeling lacklustre in your job, relationship, sport and/or life, an instant energy infusion can be found here.

Other summer reads on my list:

Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller (I’m a sucker for anything Africa, especially a memoir. Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go To the Dog’s Tonight was a stand-out).

The Red House by Mark Haddon (loved A Spot of Bother AND The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in equal amounts): A week in the English countryside with an estranged sister, a willful stepdaughter, remarriage and what I can only imagine to be an impressive display of family fireworks!

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson: The hook? The book jacket talks about Lawson’s zany father, a taxidermist, and how she grew up with a freezer full of dead animals. I felt immediately connected. My mother had similar aspirations. How many times did my sister open the plastic tub of what was once rocky road ice cream only to find a very dead cardinal? This one’s going to be good.

And you? What are you reading? What’s on your summer hit list?

Categories: On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Becoming a Laptop Dancer: How to Quit Your Job to Freelance

Those in the know know that I’m taking a travel writing course through Matador U, a new online social media school for starry-eyed writers and photographers. This week’s assignment posed a simple task: “Imagine you’re about to quit your job to become a freelance travel writer. Map out your expenses for the past month. What can you cut out to reduce costs?” Part two involved researching payment information for publications that I deemed as accessible income sources.

I already collect receipts like a magpie gathers shiny objects. I’ve been an independent contractor for a dozen years and have every bloody receipt from hot air balloon rides to a single banana for .26 cents from the fruit market on Front street. I am my very own spending app.

Determining my monthly expenses was something I already had documented, and this is a sample October (coincidentally this October)–


Rent: $1,180 for posh Annex pad, plus $38 apartment insurance

Utilities: Included (thank god, because I do love to keep Florida-type temperatures with my gas fireplace).

Phone/WiFi:  Old-school home phone with long distance plan $39.33/month, WiFi included in rent.

Food/Booze: $180.43 for groceries, $152.50 for red wine cellar stocking, import beer sampling and a bottle of champagne, just because.

Restos/Bars: $166.21 (includes swishy, boozy dinner at Byzantium to celebrate brother’s PhD, take-out pad Thai & green mango salad, spring rolls for two, a chicken, swiss & bacon panini from La Prep, bacon and cheddar stuffed waffles with baked beans at The Starving Artist and two egg salad sandwiches with two cold tall boys at the club house of my dad’s golf course)

Entertainment: $68.59 includes movie rentals (High Cost of Living, Tree of Life), Jann Arden’s memoir Falling Backwards and new CD Uncover Me 2 and nine new iTunes purchases

Travel costs:  $82 for lazy and/or late-night subway rides, and four roundtrip GO train tickets to visit gorgeous suburban girlfriend

Health:   $200.50 for broken dental retainer replacement, even with generous discount from dentist friend

Coffee-to-go:  $34.73 (which equates 11 medium drips at Jimmy’s , four orange zest & sea salt or date citrus bran muffins and a Le Gourmand chocolate chip walnut cookie at $2.36 each).

Extras:  Massage Registration Renewal: $560, Matador U tuition: $315 US, tanning bed package: $85.88


Whopping October Expenses Total: $3,103.17

So, if I quit my semi-lucrative job as a massage therapist right now I, hold on, can’t breathe, having panic attack! Deep breath. One more deep breath. Yeah, it’s not realistic.

I’ve written a few book reviews for The Vancouver Sun and know that they pay out $150 for 700-word reviews. Could I do 20 book reviews in a month?

If I won the ROOM annual fiction contest, that would give me a quick $500. And if I could turn around and win the Writers’ Union Writing For Children Competition, I could net another $1,500 (and I would still have to do seven book reviews).

Other sources of income? The Matador Network pays $30-50 an article. So, if I wrote 100 posts a month, I’d almost break even. Canadian Running pays out $100 for 600-800 words.  I could do 90 hours of ad copy for the spa I worked at on the west coast, charging $35/hour, which would cover all their ad copy needs for the next 50 years. Erotica anthologies offer $50 a story and two copies of the book. Which I could then in turn, review for the Sun.  Surely I could come up with 62 unique sizzling sex plots!

Which leads me to thinking that a wiser solution to all this would be to commit a small crime, serve some jail time and lose all my expenses for a few months and write a book in a jail cell. If I was extremely diligent with my time, I could possibly complete a degree too, in between learning the art of tattooing and bench pressing, and come out way ahead after my sentence.

However, I love my girlfriend too-co-dependently-much to live in prison. So, if I crunch the numbers again and estimate earning $25 minimum per post, I would need to write 124 articles a month. Which makes me throw up in my mouth a little until I use the division sign on the calculator and realize that 124 articles a month means 31 articles a week, which equals an output of 6 articles a day.

Can it be done? Probably. I might have to design new business cards promoting my new handle: Laptop Dancer. But the suffering, the strife? (Insert dramatic moaning here).

Or, I cut the fat: Import beer at $13/6-pack, smoked gouda cheese $8 (for a mousetrap amount), Terra Chips for $4.99 a bag, those fancy pants Leslie Stowe Rain Coast Crisp crackers at $6.99, no more bottles of red over $10 (boo), no more choice deli meats (goodbye rosemary ham and prosciutto, hello bologna). Instead of the $2 coffee reprieve I find on my spa breaks at Jimmy’s, I could drink water, bite my nails and stare at my co-workers. I could give up $10 gourmet hot dogs at Fusia Dog, carrot cake whoopee cookies, pulled pork sandwiches, movie rentals and gently used books. Instead I could make my own flour biscuits like a pioneer, pirate movies on my laptop, write my own book while sleeping and use my library card (which I won’t have time for anyway because I’ll be reading 20 books a month for my meagre income).

To save more money, I could stop saving money and hope for a philanthropist to step into my life so I wouldn’t have to rely on my RSP account. Instead of tanning I could mix Kraft Dinner cheese powder with a little water and apply that to my skin during the winter months. I’d have to give up Aveeno for sure, because the soothing oat essence and shea butter are like covering my body in beluga caviar on a daily basis.

Instead of drinking red wine or beer and enjoying myself with loved ones on a Friday night, we could sip on apple juice and play simple card games, discuss our feelings in a sober, grown-up way and make tiny origami birds out of newspaper.

I could eat Mr.Noodles, heads of iceberg lettuce and radishes, because they are relatively cheap. Instead of my premium trail mix with cashews and Smarties in it, I could raid bird feeders in the Annex for free sunflower seeds and peanuts.

Better yet, while procuring trail mix from bird feeders, I could look for missing cockatiels and budgies for owners offering huge reward money to supplement my 20 monthly book reviews.

Yes, it is possible! Who knew it was so simple to be a freelance writer! Why didn’t I quit my job before?

Categories: On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Travel Writer? Try Shopping At These Top 10 Markets

Pyramids via camel. Check.

Gorilla trek in Bwindi Impenetrable Park. Check.

Sunrise hot air balloon over The Valley of the Kings. Check.

Blue footed boobies eating my fries. Check.

Getting published in National Geographic….(insert pause here)

Now what? Doing the “do” is easy. Writing about it all is even easier. Beyond the blog posts where we hold our friends and family members captive, and a few coincidental visitors from Google search term matches, there’s a larger audience out there. But those drinking Cristal with feet dangling off a private Bora Bora cabana aren’t necessarily interested in bed bug horror stories  and features on how to survive on gallo pinto (rice and black beans) for a month in Costa Rica. And travelers with lean bank accounts and Hostel International cards aren’t so keen on five diamond Trump International Hotel reviews about suites being painted shades of champagne and caviar.

Just like the editors of such magazines. So, get the vibe. Prowl the sites and pages of where you think you want to be published. When you begin writing about what you know best, that authentic voice finds an audience.


Here are 10 blogs and mags that jive with my style of travel and voice.


1. Tripadvisor.ca “The World’s Most Trusted Travel Advice”


$$$$: Although Tripadvisor doesn’t pay for reviews, I feel like it’s a way of giving back, for all the insider info I’ve grabbed from their site in the past.

Vibe: Dishes out the guts and glory of hotels, holiday rentals, attractions and restaurants. The site allows researching travelers to interact with review writers.

Bonus: Tripadvisor rewards reviewers who earn “Helpful Votes” (from readers)and post frequent reviews with special promotions like free Shutterfly photo books.

Deal: No quoted material is allowed and trips must have occurred within a year of submission (within 2 years for vacation rentals).  

Here’s a review I did of the Gately Inn in Jinja, Uganda: http://www.tripadvisor.ca/ShowUserReviews-g480250-d618965-r34932918-Gately_on_the_Nile-Jinja.html#UR34932918


2. In Transit Blog, The New York Times “A Guide to Intelligent Travel”


Who? Monica Drake, Deputy Travel Editor (modrak@nytimes.com)

$$$$: $50/300 words

Vibe: breaking travel industry news and trends, focus on events, festivals, shows and exhibitions happening in major cities

Deal: Proposing three clear ideas instead of one in query letter, include resume and a timeline of how quickly you can produce your proposed story. Writers are encouraged to follow up once or twice.


3.The Huffington Post, Travel Vertical


$$$$: None. Just pride and bragging rights.

Who?:  Kate Auletta, Travel Editor

Vibe: Huffpost-ish. Smart writing with Caribbean Sea clarity.

Deal: “Have people shoot me an email to travel@huffingtonpost.com with what they write about and where they have traveled, their writing experience, etc. and we can go from there.” (Source: blogger Chris Around the World’s Q&A with Kate: http://caroundtheworld.com/2010/07/20/q-and-a-with-huffington-posts-new-travel-editor-kate-auletta/)


4. Toronto Star Travel Section


Who?: Jim Byers, Editor Phone: 416-869-4877 Fax: 416-865-3635 Email: travel@thestar.ca

Vibe: Weekend coffee-shop drinking material for vicarious armchair-wishers and attainable travel for families and couples seeking thrills with reliable comforts. Cruising, skiing, weekend getaways, spa

$$$$: Ask Jim!

Deal: Pitch all over the map as the travel section hits all types of travelers from cruising the Danube, all-inclusive stays, “Getting the Country Groove On in Nashville” to a southern Ontario getaway in Stratford.


5. FIDO Friendly


Who?: Susan Sims, Publisher

$$$$:  Pays $0.10/word

Vibe: Have dog, will travel?FIDO Friendly is a niche publication and the only magazine dedicated to the Travel & Lifestyle of man’s best friend. Each bimonthly issue includes hotel and destination reviews along with health & wellness topics, pet training advice and the latest fashion trends for Fido.”

Deal: 90% freelance. Welcomes new writers. Circulation 45K. Bimonthly. Pays on publication. Period between acceptance and publication varies. Buys first rights. Accepts reprints. Responds 1-2 weeks.


6. The Expeditioner


Who?: Matt Stabile matt.stabile@theexpeditioner.com

$$$$: Compensation is commensurate upon experience

Vibe: “It’s important to make sure the pitch/submission fits the site. There are a number of topics that we either make fun of or absolutely will never write about on the site, and we’re not going to publish a story on them no matter how good the pitch/submission is. These include, in no particular order: Cruises, Samantha Brown, Luxury Hotels, Cancun, Travel Insurance, Money Belts, Indianapolis, Family Destinations, and anything that includes the word “Disney.””

Deal: 1,000-1,300 word first-person narratives. Be interesting, informative and inspiring. Send manuscripts on spec.


7. Travelers’ Tales


$$$$: $100 honorarium for non-exclusive world rights (you can sell it again wherever and whenever you want)

Vibe: Anthology. “We’re looking for personal, nonfiction stories and anecdotes-funny, illuminating, adventurous, frightening, or grim. Stories should reflect that unique alchemy that occurs when you enter unfamiliar territory and begin to see the world differently as a result. Please include a few sentences about yourself, something quirky and fun in addition to the usual list of accomplishments. Length: Whatever it takes without being self-indulgent-anything from a paragraph to fifteen pages. Shorter stories have a better chance of being accepted. Be sure to paginate your stories.

*We no longer accept submissions via email or regular mail. All submissions must be made through our submissions intake site: travelerstalesstories.com

Deal: In the spirit of our women’s humor books we’re calling for submissions for Leave the Iguana, Take the Mascara: Funny travel stories and strange packing tips to be published in 2012. Send us your best wacky stories and join in the fun. Deadline for submission: OPEN Est. Release Date: 2012

What Color Is Your Jockstrap? got lots of laughs, so we’re seeking funny stories for another volume. The book will include stories from both women and men. No length restrictions but for humor, shorter is usually better. Deadline for submission: OPEN Est. Release Date: TBA


8. Best Travel Writing Solas Awards


Who?: Sponsored by Travelers’ Tales

$$$$: $1,000 first prize, $750 second, $500 third

Deal: Got the best travel story of the year? Entry fee of $20 for the first two optional categories, $5 for each additional category for the same story. All stories are automatically submitted for the Grand Prize at no additional charge (thus, when you choose your two “optional categories” you will be entered in three, your two choices and the Grand Prize category). If we choose to publish a story in one of our Travelers’ Tales books, we will pay our usual honorarium of $100 for non-exclusive world rights.

*The current competition runs from September 22, 2011 to September 21, 2012


9. blogTO


$$$$: Pride and gushing. Smiling mom.

Vibe: Do you live, swirl, sip, snack and tread Toronto sidewalks? This is the “hyper-local”resource for locals and non, wanting to find out where the best of all that is ours is at. Events, museums, muzak, festivals, hot dogs, sneak previews. Whatever makes Toronto hum is hinted at here.

Deal: “Write a review. Have a great or terrible dining or shopping experience lately? Let us know about it by sending us a review. Aim for between 250-500 words and include good quality original photos (sized to 590 pixels wide). No photos? Unfortunately we won’t be able to post it as a review, but that shouldn’t stop you from adding it as a comment on the site.”


10. XTRA! Toronto, Canada’s Gay & Lesbian News


$$$$: not posted

Who: Brandon Matheson, Publisher & Editor-in-chief

Vibe: It’s gay, baby! Travel tips for gay travelers, coupled and singles, bears to nudists. Gay-positive destinations, circuit parties,gay family cruises, Pride festivals, world gay film fests and the like.

Deal: Accepts book excerpts, essays, interview/profile, opinion, personal experience, travel


Whew. See, writing is the easiest part. It’s the market research that should earn us honorary degrees! Let me know if this cheat sheet helped. Networking is a writer’s skeleton.

Categories: On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jann’s Frank Diary: A Review of Falling Backwards

Only Jann Arden can get away with repeatedly mentioning “vagina” and “retarded.”  Her just released memoir, Falling Backwards, is quintessentially Jann in 3D. Like her songs, it’s not all sunshine and cotton candy. Her book will seat readers on a see-saw that dips up and down between hyena-like laughter and the insidious penetration of bone-deep melancholy.

Red Smith said, “Writing is easy, you just open a vein and bleed.” This is precisely what Arden has done, and it’s also what fans have come to expect from her brooding lyrics, pensive Facebook posts and pithy radio show commentary.

It appears as though God gifted her with humour as a coping mechanism for the turbulence she has endured in life’s landscape. Falling Backwards doesn’t gloss over the anxiousness of a child with a father on the periphery of alcoholism. Her brother Duray’s tangled teenage years with the police and eventual incarceration for murder are also openly dissected. Always the observer, Arden has culled all her triumphs and battles into an engaging read, always questioning her surroundings and how they’ve shaped her. Her memoir doesn’t swerve away from the uncomfortable, gritty bits. No, instead we are led headlong into the emotional quagmire to see that this is also a story of survival, ambition and forgiveness.

Her writing is like that of a celebrity nose-to-tail chef’s cooking style. Beyond all the choice cuts, the carcass is appropriately used too. Arden pulls in all our senses with her wit-licked descriptions of Brussels sprouts “tasting like dog farts and copper pennies.” She laments on Wagon Wheels: “they tasted like used sport socks.” The amusing account of her botched home perm was instantly communicated in the perm solution that “smelled like someone had thrown a cat on a fire.” And a visit to the pig barn down the road? “(Pigs) sound like babies being thrown down a well.”

Her bull’s eye description of a perfectly executed silent treatment? When you are able “to hear heartbeats and mice walking on snow.” When she is in elementary school, trying to hold an HB pencil “with walnut-sized hands” readers are immediately transported back to that relatable childhood, “through panes of glass, sunlit and clear.”

This is where Arden shines like a just-buffed hardwood floor. She brings together universal elements that any human can tangibly identify. Like sitting on heat vents on brisk winter mornings (okay, maybe only Canadians can identify with that). Or that kid in school who could turn their eyelids inside out (there’s always a token one!). Whether she’s looking for ditch strawberries, playing Yahtzee with Grandma Richards or stealing ‘good wood’ from her dad, it’s all familiar.

Her recollection of school lunches and discovering a bloated wiener in her Thermos has been the part I’ve read out loud to numerous friends. My mother tried the exact same trick, but shoved the bun in there too. The bun absorbed all the moisture and was like wet dough around a lukewarm wiener by noon. I won’t spoil Jann’s experience that involves a pencil (insert laugh reel here).

As a songwriter, Arden is skilled at trusting the economy of words. Songwriters can weave decade-long stories in three minutes, and her memoir achieves the same, moving at an escalating pace to just before she turns 30. In Falling Backwards, we trail behind her as she evolves from an accidental contortionist to a small-time arson. Should I mention her attempt to put gophers on Canada’s extinction list? I’m sure a few PETA supporters will be cross-armed and huffy reading this section, forgetting the innocence of kids and the great thrill of an archery set. That’s what you do as a snotty-nosed child. You kill things smaller than you, you poke out fish eyes with sticks, and you ride around on your bike on the hottest day of the year with a small turtle in your pocket. This is all normal and familiar kid fare.

There are bum worms removed with Scotch tape blended with saccharine tales of riding Snoopy the horse down to the river, and into the river. Or, in Jann-speak, when the horse is nowhere to be found, “following Snoopy’s nuggets, like Hansel and Gretel, but much more disgusting.”

Between “youth and its boundless, heartless atrocities” and the “horrible things that stick to the inside of your eyeballs,” we learn about her not-so-glamorous road to fame that forks and dead ends and U-turns when one least expects it. From babysitting for free beer  to salmon fishing for much needed cash and clarity, to siphoning gas from her mom’s car so  she can get her Pinto into town to make her first demo tape, there is great vulnerability and innocence in her path. When she gets slugged in the face while busking on a soggy day in Gastown, the punch is palpable.  How she found the drive to persevere is admirable.

Her pilgrimage to Vancouver, scratching out an existence in a crappy apartment (that was so hot “it could double as a Bikram yoga studio”) and boozing too much while trying to decipher life and its inertia becomes a career catalyst. All the hours spent surreptitiously playing her mom’s guitar, squirreled away in the basement, suddenly gain momentum.  She’s gonna make it.

Falling Backwards is not a how-I-became-a-rock-star memoir. It’s a beautiful glimpse into a Prairie childhood and emergence, viewed by anecdotal snapshots that begin with sitting on the toilet with the Readers’ Digest Expanding Your Word Power. With a mom who keeps the toilets so clean you could make Jell-o in them.

Falling Backwards is a memoir that genuinely showcases the heart, guts and bones of a remarkable woman with a contagious, inspiring spirit. What might normally be a fireside or barstool confession, is plainly spilled out into her pages. It’s not sensationalism. It’s raw human emotion. It’s about an era. It’s about a ‘job’ not defining your being. She introduces us to a family that could have easily unravelled, but held fast, and knit themselves closer together. It’s about awkward youth, mistakes and acceptance. Her words provide solace and gratitude for life’s journey.

And it’s bloody funny. It’s Jann as we expect her.

For more Jann: https://julestorti.wordpress.com/2009/09/30/jann-arden-attacks-the-architecture-of-the-human-heart/

Categories: On My Bookshelf | Tags: , | 3 Comments

Do Something Dangerously Memorable

When you buy a purebred dog from a breeder, the puppy undergoes a battery of reactionary tests to determine its placement suitability. An umbrella is suddenly opened to see if the pup is easily startled. A shaken jar of coins simulates noisy outbursts and challenges the dog’s confidence or potential anxiety. Lastly, the pup gets its ear pinched, enough that the pinch elicits a yelp. It’s a sneaky love/trust test. Most pups will sulk for a mere moment, and then rebound with seemingly apologetic licks for their behaviour.

I’d like to try this test on women. First date, ear pinch. If they respond with affection in less than 10 seconds, they are keepers. More than 10 seconds? I would safely gather that the relationship will be based on resentment.

But then there is that love as deep as the Baltic, and there is no test for that. You are instantly submerged and it’s paralyzing, sucking any iota of previous independence out of you in a cosmic flash.

I went to see Tom Ford’s The Single Man on Saturday night. Given the title and trailers, there is no spoiler in saying that Colin Firth plays the single man, devastated by a love that no longer exists. He keeps the company of a ghost and wobbles through life with a greater memory of loss than anything else.

The human condition is rather tragic. We spend most of our time trying to forget people, places and things—only to remember them will incredible clarity. The powers of forgetting seem to lend to increasing the memory.  And then we reach an age where we are desperately clinging to any bit of nostalgia and faded memory that we can: How our grandmother’s hands looked, how the dog’s feet smelled like corn chips, how sweet cotton candy tasted on a July day with grubby fingers and grass-stained knees. That first kiss with so-and-so and the awkward, sweaty slow dance to “Stairway to Heaven.”

Earlier in the year, prompted by the strong urging of Rona Maynard (some people have personal shoppers, I like to think of her as my personal librarian), I read Still Alice by Lisa Genova. I am still uncomfortably disturbed by that book, but in a way that makes me cling to life a little closer. In Still Alice, Alice, a Harvard professor, learns that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s. Watching her life and memory unravel was like reading a verbal nightmare.

Alice tries to re-read all her favourite classics only to realize that it’s all too late.  She can’t even remember what cream cheese is called anymore and can only compare it to “white butter.” She realizes she has to urinate, but can’t find the bathroom in her own house. Finding reassurance and grounding on her daily runs, Alice soon loses her way on the route she has jogged for years. Everything that was at once familiar and comforting collapses like a house of cards. Alice becomes a ghost of herself.

Lisa Genova, author and neuroscientist, accurately traces Alice’s path to the inevitable point of her not remembering that she doesn’t remember. I found some solace in this—at least there is saving grace, the Alzheimer’s completely consumes Alice’s vulnerable mind and takes that terrifying awareness away. She was still Alice to everyone in her life, but herself.

In The Single Man the human memory is equally cruel in gripping Colin Firth so tightly to his deceased partner. He leans into the car of a stranger who has a terrier like his partner had. He inhales the scent of the dog and in that familiar “buttered toast smell,” he is taken back to the arms of his love.

Robert Frost said, “The height of happiness makes up for its length.” Does it?

As I ran down Carlton this afternoon, I saw an elderly woman slouched over her motorized scooter, bumping along the sidewalk at a fair clip. Her dog was a small, mixed breed, sodden from the rain. He had one of those ridiculous post-surgery lampshades on his head and kept his focus on his owner while he cantered along beside her.  I wondered what she was trying to remember. What did she want to forget?

I found myself in Indigo Books in the evening, as I so often do. I leafed through Wallpaper and Vanity Fair and eventually picked up Oprah’s O. The December issue is gushing about happiness and where to find it, or what products, shiny boots and pearly clutches may channel it. The back page described Oprah’s latest Aha! moment and a mini-confessional  about how she hadn’t achieved a lot of what she had hoped to this year. She failed to exercise every day. She didn’t take enough time for herself. She got sloppy, as we all do, finding comfort in avoidance, laziness and chocolate.

That is, until Oprah talked with Charla Nash about her days since the tragic accident that robbed her of life as she knew it. Charla Nash was savagely attacked by a chimpanzee in February of this year and found by paramedics who couldn’t even distinguish that they were looking at someone’s head.  Her hands looked like they had been forced through meat grinders.  Her eyes, nose and ‘face’ were essentially gone. To this day, Carla has no eyes and is so scarred that she wears a veil to protect others from seeing her “monster face.” She doesn’t know how disfigured she is, but she is painfully aware that it is awful and disturbing. A face that would haunt you forever.

Oprah was surprised at how quickly she adjusted to Charla’s appearance during the interview, realizing that there was a brave woman inside that scarred (and scared) body who was dealing with more than the guilt of eating an entire chocolate bar after midnight. Or not going to the gym at lunch and ordering in greasy pad Thai instead. Life for Charla Nash will never be parallel to the worries we consume ourselves with.

Reading that article, I was reminded of a man my siblings and I often saw in West Brant when we were young. Of course we grimaced and buried our faces into our dad’s legs when he walked by, because to us, he was a monster. He had no lower mandible and scarlet scar tissue from a severe burn marbled up his chest to his neck. My father told us each and every time that “he was in the war, he fought for our freedom,” but it did nothing to settle our naive child response. I later learned that he had stepped on a land mine and had most of his face splintered into something that could no longer be recognized as human.

But he still had the courage to walk in daylight, despite the train-wreck stares and dropped jaws that met his rheumy eyes.

Running down Gloucester, picking my way along the sidewalk and hardened ice remains, I saw Victoria for the first time today. In the gay village, she is a familiar face. Victoria looks like she is about 156 years old and is often heard before she is seen. “Doooooooooo youuuuuuuuuuu haaave a ciiiiigaaaareeeeeeeeeeettte?” The first time she asked me, about seven years ago, she was 100 feet away from me, and startled me in the darkness from her now-familiar perch on the curb. She has to start her cigarette request early, as she can drag out that sentence to a full minute. She lives in a halfway house on Gloucester, and is often in a frumpy man’s suit, clomping along in shoes that are clearly five sizes too big for her. Victoria is as wrinkled as a Shar-pei, but she is alive and is remembering and forgetting too, just like you.  And me.

And there is a common thread here, between Charla Nash, Victoria, Colin Firth and Alice. And I realized the link when I read a recent post on Owning Pink’s blog that featured Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.”

The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Will you have the strength of Charla Nash to still enjoy the warmth of the sun on your shoulders? Will you love someone with all your might, to the depth that you can never resurface if you lose that love? Will you make sure you remember and share your life while you can before Alzheimer’s strips you of your stories and self?

Will you kneel in the grass, be idle and blessed and stroll through the fields and feel accomplishment in achieving that?

As for Victoria and the woman in the scooter with the lampshade dog, they’re connected in my mind too. We’ve all sat on Santa’s knee, put a squirmy worm on a hook and cried ourselves to sleep. We’ve laid on our backs and pointed out clouds that resemble charging elephants and turkey necks. Doesn’t everyone have a scar from accidentally sliding down a pine tree due to a poorly estimated reach for a higher branch? These women have stories too.

We all know the sun’s warmth, and if Charla Nash has the guts to get out of bed and feel it on her skin, there are no excuses for the rest of us. She still thinks life is precious.

And Alice, even with her fleeting mind, she always remembered love. Colin Firth held on to a love that left too soon, and this makes me think of the woman in the motorized scooter. Maybe her life has become a ghost too. But she has a dog with a lampshade to make her feel like she belongs and is still needed in this world.

Just be nice to someone today, for crying out loud. Something that you may forget by day’s end might be remembered by somebody else forever.

Do something dangerously memorable with your one wild and precious life.

Owning Pink’s blog (by OB/GYN, author and artist Lissa Rankin): http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/2ZBmnE/www.owningpink.com/2009/12/12/your-one-wild-and-precious-life//r:t

Charla Nash’s story on Good Morning America: http://www.mefeedia.com/video/25516591

Rona Maynard’s review on Still Alice: http://www.ronamaynard.com/index.php?what-remains-when-the-intellect-is-gone

Trailer for The Single Man: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tCxRO67gyk



Categories: Flicks and Muzak, On My Bookshelf, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Have a Little Faith

Indigo_2009_094When I started Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven, I had already convinced myself that the book was going to be as flaky as baklava. I was certain that it would be a tacky spin-off of Michael Landon’s Highway to Heaven with the sap content of Touched by an Angel.

By God, I loved the book and the essential concept that we are constantly crossing silent intersections with people who may be directly influencing our life’s path. When I read that Mitch Albom was launching his first non-fiction book since Tuesdays With Morrie at Indigo tonight, I knew I had to be there.

Two weeks ago I sprinted from work with a stitch in my side to see Jane Goodall promoting her latest: Hope For the Animals. I was cursing my last hairy-backed client because I arrived 15 minutes before she graced the stage and the lower level of Indigo was like a Boxing Day sale. I had to choose between a pole obstruction or a Jolly Green Giant obstruction. Why is it that the 6 foot + set like to be in the very front? For most of the interview with Jane I saw only her left eye sandwiched between a woman with hair that was as high as it was wide, and a shifty guy who kept scratching something weeping on the back of his neck. Then there was the teeny bopper directly in front of me who proceeded to stand on her tiptoes every few minutes and adjust her ponytail in front of my face.

I wanted priority seating. I wanted there to be skill-testing questions on Jane Goodall that would earn true fans better seats. At the same time, I was thrilled that so many people had made it a priority to see and hear what Queen Jane had to say about chimps, the Earth and the hope that she sees in it all. She drew a crowd like free ice cream bars would at Yonge and Dundas square.

So, this time I was smart. I arrived an hour and a half early for Mitch Albom with a tall skim African Red Bush Tea Misto in hand. I even brought my glasses for high definition (not necessary with the previous pole and people obstructions with Jane). I assessed the crowd of New Age nerds, seniors with snow white hair and Werther’s candies and a large contingent of the over-40, Mr. Rogers cardigan-wearing set. The seats were soon filled, but the place wasn’t like the zoo it became with Jane Goodall in the house.

Albom’s visit to Indigo was a Canadian exclusive, and I was surprised that more hadn’t flocked to see the Oprah-approved writer promote his latest, Have a Little Faith. Given my faith in Albom and his ability to write books that make one think, I was eager to hear the behind-the-scenes snippets of his newest work.

Albom began by sharing the inspiration for the story, and explained how an 82-year-old rabbi from his hometown asked him to write his eulogy. He had known the rabbi for a long time, but not well enough to know his essence. Eight years later (the rabbi lived to be 90), Albom had a solid grip on the rabbi, and an intense education on the life of a man of God. Still, he was amazed that the rabbi wore Bermuda shorts and sandals with socks, and answered his own doorbell.

And then he introduced another vital character: the pastor at a scruffy church in Detroit with a hole in the roof that let  God and the rain in–in equal amounts. The pastor had promised God his life after robbing his own drug dealer and praying to survive behind a trash can with a shotgun. He lived, and fulfilled his promise with a self-imposed detox and gratitude for a second chance after a shaky as a Polaroid beginning. The pastor grew up impoverished, in a home where they left rice out for the mice so the vermin wouldn`t bite them while they slept. At 18, the pastor was charged with manslaughter (wrongfully) and imprisoned. When he was released from prison, he found solace in drugs, and in as  sketched out state and desperate for a fix, he robbed the most lucrative source he knew, his dealer. That was the night he was introduced to God and submitted his resume for immediate employment in the House of God.

Have a Little Faith was written to emphasize that we all need to find something bigger than ourselves to believe in. And although the Detroit pastor and 82-year-old rabbi had more differences than commonalities, they had both found comfort in faith.

This is when the book launch turned into a sermon and I started reading the quote on my Starbucks cup so I wouldn`t get sucked into the cult. Mitch Albom pointed out that we were all children of God and dictated his polished story of how babies enter the world with closed fists. He spoke in that therapeutic voice designed to stay with you and shape your life without you being aware. He told us of the rabbi in his dying days, and how the rabbi realized that babies come into this world not knowing what to expect. They have clenched fists, holding everything because they think they deserve it and are entitled to it. The ailing rabbi opened his hands before Albom and showed him how he would die—with open hands. Because you can`t take anything with you.  The crowd laughed in unison like Woody Woodpecker when he pointed out that a nice car won`t help you get to the afterlife, but faith will.

I was beginning to get distracted at this point. Maybe because after seeing Africa, I believed even more strongly  that there couldn`t  be a God. There`s even a documentary narrated by Nicole Kidman about the Lost Boys of Sudan called God Grew Tired Of Us. That`s how the Sudanese feel, like God grew tired of them and abandoned Africa altogether. But, they pray with such conviction and hope, with a trust that is unmatched.

Albom pulled the threads together by closing with his thoughts on the interconnectedness of faith and happiness.  This is where I might have started my obvious sneering. I do think many find great comfort in this combination, but I think happiness can also be a stand alone, without faith.

I wandered off, choosing not to buy the book (I`ll give it a go when it becomes available in paperback), and ended up in the Well Being section, because I was indeed feeling well after a shiatsu treatment and Chinese steamed pork buns. I found Julia Cameron`s The Artist`s Way on display and leafed through it for the twentieth time. My friend Heidi is contemplating it as well, but we are both hesitant on exposure to the supposedly life-altering words inside.

I picked up Oprah`s latest, because, confession here—sometimes I like to buy her glossy magazine and read all that gut-grilling stuff.  DREAM BIG!  O`s Guide To Discovering Your Best Life held more potential for me than Have a Little Faith. (Editor`s Note: If it was have a little Faith Hill, yes, sign me up!)

I flipped to O`s section on Five Things Happy People Do by Gabrielle LeBlanc (just to see if church was one of them). This is what I found, and will share with you so you can be happy as well.

1. Realize one`s golden self through eudaimonic well-being. Eudaimonia, for those not fluent in Oprah-speak, is striving toward excellence based on one`s unique talents and potential. Meaning: take on new challenges and follow one`s sense of purpose.

2. Design your life to bring joy in. Whether it be a relationship or a career, it`s difficult to abandon dreams even when they turn sour. Make deliberate changes, NOW. A study conducted out of the University of California San Diego had 900 women write down everything they did the day before. They had to evaluate how they felt at each point with each activity. Many of them cried realizing how much of their day was spent being unhappy.

3. Avoid If only…. fantasies. If only I were skinnier, if only I had more money, if only I had finished my degree…We misjudge contentment by zeroing in on one single aspect of life and are fooled by the focusing illusion. In a study where participants were asked how happy they were with their life in general, and how many dates they`d had in the last month, the answers were dramatically different according to the order of the questions. When asked about dating first, thoughts of their romantic life influenced the overall happiness response more negatively.

By keeping our life full of novelty, the pressure is alleviated from unrealistic expectations from partners or work, to solely fulfill happiness.

4. Put best friends first. More joy is derived from spending longer quality time with close friends than chatting with acquaintances. (Obviously the author of this entry doesn`t Twitter or Facebook.)

5. Allow yourself to be happy. Even the Dalai Lama says it`s cool in his books. We can`t save the polar bears and poor Africans all at once. Dalai says it`s okay to pursue personal happiness and help others simultaneously. Whew.

Basically, everything you own should have value. Either because it`s functional, beautiful, or you just love it.

And that`s happy in five easy steps. Just like making Kraft Dinner. If you need and want faith to get you there, fine. If pumpkin pie for breakfast is the critical omission to this checklist, go, be happy with your pie and morning paper.

Find your own brand of faith and indulge. Make your very own Happy Meal.


If you have more faith than I do, check out– http://mitchalbom.com/books/node/5515

And for more on Jane Goodall`s latest– http://www.janegoodall.org/product/hope-animals-and-their-world#

O`s DREAM BIG! Link– http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/books/Dream-Big-Os-Guide-Discovering-The-O-Editors-of-O/9780848732837-item.html

Categories: On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

An Unexpected Life

When a local game ranger brought a malnourished and sickly chimpanzee to Shelia Siddle in Zambia in 1983, she never anticipated that one day her cattle ranch would become the largest chimp sanctuary in the world.

With only a copy of Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man to refer to, Shelia and her husband Dave committed to the daunting task of nursing “Pal” back to health, following parenting instincts more than anything else.  After Pal came Liza Do Little, Girly, Junior and Charley, each with their own troubling story of abuse. When Shelia’s book In My Family Tree—A Life With Chimpanzees was published in 2002, her Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage had welcomed over 85 injured and abused chimps, dozens of monkeys, baboons, African grey parrots, bushbucks and a hippo named Billy.

For Shelia, who was ready to embrace a golden retirement on the Kafue River, Pal and those who followed forever changed the path of her life. Shelia had moved to Africa in 1947 with her wanderlust-driven parents and became a race-car driver, contrary to what her generation accepted as a traditional female role. She had five children and a cattle ranch, and never dreamed that her life would be dedicated to chimps.

Mac at Ngamba Island, Uganda

Chimps arrived at Chimfunshi addicted to cigarettes and beer from young lives spent as circus performers in local bars. Some chimpanzees didn’t recognize their own kind after being raised in human households. Others struggled for dominance, or sometimes just acceptance amongst the motley crew. Wide-eyed in their new territory, some of the youngsters had to watch the older chimps for lessons on how to build nests. The Siddles had built large enclosures so the chimps could sleep in the cages at night, or, in the open acreage in trees as they would in the wild.

Rita preferred the company of humans, and their shoes. She would remove the laces of every guest’s shoes, then carefully attempt to relace them, missing a few eyes, but would attempt to tie them up again. An artistic soul, Rita also used American scientist Mark Wright’s notepad and pen to draw. When other chimps were around though, they would annoy Rita by stealing her artwork. Eventually, Mark would wait until the other chimps were napping before he passed Rita the notepad. She would sometimes sit and draw for half an hour or more.

Pal was more concerned with Shelia’s complexion than doodling. Chimps love to groom one another, but Pal became consumed with the hairs on Shelia’s face. He would use his lips and teeth to pull out offending hairs and even squeeze pimples between his fingers!

The antics of Sandy had me laughing out loud. His natural reaction was to throw anything he could get his hands on at whoever might be in range. Oranges became perfect weapons, and Shelia finally realized she was perpetuating his behavior by returning the thrown objects back to him. When she held on to the thrown orange longer than usual, Sandy became sharply aware of the consequences. Shelia eventually returned the orange which Sandy immediately ate—quickly throwing the wadded-up orange peel at Shelia as she walked away.

Sunday at Ngamba Island

When the Siddles began offering sugarcane to the chimps to eat, Sandy found a dual purpose. He took great pleasure in thwacking unsuspecting chimps in the back of the head with the sugarcane stalks, creating instant chaos.

“It wasn’t long before mealtimes became a regular battlefield with Sandy around, as bits of fruits and vegetables filled the skies like V-2 rockets. Sandy eventually became a connoisseur of throwable food, preferring more solid bits like apple cores or apricot pits, or fruits that had peels that he could was into a tight ball. He clearly eschewed leafy foods like lettuce and cabbage though. The few times Sandy threw those, the leaves just fluttered harmlessly to the ground, and he trudged away disgusted.”

Sandy eventually found a partner in crime, Tara. The sanctuary was open to the public, and Sandy and Tara were known to pounce on visitors from their hiding spots on low branches. Other times they would pull back saplings like catapults and release them in perfect time to slap an unsuspecting visitor. Sandy also liked to race ahead and then quietly double back from which point he would dive on to the shoulders and heads of somebody. Many guests returned from the bush walks with bruises and torn clothing, but always full of smiles and stories.

Sandy was also dramatic—nearly convincing Shelia that he was near death one day.  He had refused his morning milk and was incredibly mopey. He appeared too weak to stand and “spent the entire day on the verge of death.” The following morning Sandy showed Shelia the source of his moping– his tooth had fallen out and he showed her by pulling back his lips with his fingers.

Rita was known for her nursing sense. When she couldn’t remove a splinter from Tara’s foot, she thrust Tara’s foot through the bars of the cage to show Shelia. When Donna had a thorn in her foot, Rita was first on the scene, placing her hand on Donna for reassurance as she prodded the tender area.

In 1990, Jane Goodall contacted the Siddles, asking if they could take another chimp. Milla had been a barroom attraction at an Arusha hotel in Tanzania. They arrived in a single-engine plane with a UK vet. Jane and the vet rode in the back of the truck on a pile of sugarcane , wrapping blankets around Milla’s cage to keep her warm. Milla “went one better: She pulled the blankets through the bars and wrapped herself in them.”

Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary

Milla was discovered in a meat market in Cameroon when she was a very tiny baby, tethered alongside the body of her dead mother, and was bought by a very generous British couple, who brought Milla to Kenya and looked after her as their own child until she was about five years old. When the Brit couple had to leave the country, they left Milla with caretakers in Arusha, where she was introduced to the bar lifestyle, smoking and drinking.

Shelia’s description of Millla’s adjustment to Chimfunshi is tremendously emotional—she eventually  integrates, retaining her curious habits of walking upright on two legs, and carrying her blanket with her everywhere. Milla found several uses for her blanket—once flicking it through the bars of the cage to hit a dog who had his nose in the chimps’ food. She would also flick peacocks or geese if they were out of reach. Once she filled her blanket with six sweet potatoes, two guavas and an orange. She neatly folded the corners up and made the blanket into a small parcel so she could pick up her meal and find a quiet place to eat away from the other chimps.

When Billy the hippo arrived, Shelia could no longer be surprised at the evolution of her life and purpose.  Local hunters had killed the mother, and at 10 days old, survival in the wild would have been impossible. The crowd that had gathered has inflicted several wounds and severe gashes on the baby with sharp sticks. With little guidance on how to care for a hippo, Shelia and Dave bravely attempted to help her thrive. In three months she weighed 330 pounds and followed Shelia around like a dog, wagging her stubby tail. Most of the older chimps were terrified of Billy, but she grew incredibly fond of The Infants—Trixie, Diana, Doc, Zsabu and Violet. Billy adopted the chimps as her own and nap beside them or  would be found “gazing happily at them through the wire mesh.” The chimps would slap her hide playfully, pull her ears, and jump down from the trees onto her back.

Billy also became attached to the dogs at the sanctuary. She would mimic their behavior and grab automobile tires like chew toys, flinging it around as the dogs did with their smaller toys. Her closest companion was Gretchen, a Rottweiler who she slept with at night. When Gretchen died in her sleep Billy was inconsolable. She kept nudging Shelia, begging her to do something to revive her friend, Gretchen. For two days Billy refused to eat or take milk and “kept a silent vigil near the kennel.” In her lonesome state, Billy broke into Shelia and Dave’s house three times looking for comfort.

Then there was Ole, a tiny barred owl who had fallen from his nest. For two months he’d swoop tentatively around the livingroom of Shelia’s house, test-driving his new found wings. Ole soon learned how to dive bomb their dinner plates as well, grabbing fried eggs and currant bread to eat from the safety of his curtain rod perch. Eager that he return to the wild, Shelia left all the house windows open, and Ole took short flights to neighbouring trees, always returning to the safety of the house. His longest sojourn was three nights, and then the days between his visits stretched even further with only rare appearances around their house.

Billy eventually discovered his wild instincts too, and when Shelia finally successfully coaxed him into the Kafue River she was like a porpoise. Shelia lured her further into the water while she sat in a boat (nervous of crocodiles, otherwise she would have been in the river herself). Billy soon established a pattern of roaming, joining other hippos in the Kafue, feeding and courting with them as she should.

Not all of the animals that arrived at Chimfunshi survived, and the stories of abuse are tragic. More often though, hope is renewed in chimps like Leben and Choco who arrived from the Tel Aviv Zoo. When they first arrived they were both sullen and unresponsive and “clung to each other like magnets. Only when a visitor from Israel spoke to them in Hebrew several months later did they spring to life and begin hugging one another and laughing out loud. It turned out that they spoke Hebrew, not English.”

In 1995, Sheila and Dave bought a neighbouring farm , a 13,000 acre property. The thick jungle, fruit groves and open grassland would allow the chimps to establish territory, and roam as they would in the wild. It would be the largest area ever set aside for captive primates. “It wasn’t freedom—we knew that—but in a world where chimpanzees are hunted for meat and forests are decimated daily, it was probably as close to freedom as any of our chimps might ever get.”

When it came time to release the chimps into the acreage, Sheila was only able to focus on one chimp, Pal.  Nobody thought Pal would survive, and his scars and droopy lip reminded her of how he arrived 18 years before, desperate, with his face split open and broken teeth.

“My heart was in my throat as I placed a hand on the sliding metal door and peered into Pal’s cage. I leaned in close. “I promised you this,” I whispered. “Now off you go.”

Before Pal rushed off with the others, Tobar and Spencer, he turned to look back at Shelia. He was “staring straight into my eyes. And maybe it was my imagination, but for just that magical second, I believe he was thanking me.”

In My Family Tree is a remarkable book that reminds us of how moments that seem accidental can change the course of our lives. Thank you to the Shelia and Dave Siddle for their unswerving determination to provide a safe haven for orphaned and abused chimps (and even a darling hippo) to frolic and thrive.

David Siddle died  in June 2006, at age 78. “We shall miss David terribly, of course, perhaps no one more than I,” said Sheila Siddle. “But we must keep working for the chimps. We must make sure they are well cared for. That’s what David would have wanted.”

More about Chimfunshi: http://www.chimfunshi.org.za/

Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary: http://www.ngambaisland.org/

Where I’ll be in July (J.A.C.K., Congo):


And, for more info about the woman who introduced the world to the plight of the chimpanzees: http://www.janegoodall.ca/

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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