Posts Tagged With: Mitch Albom

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

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–

And for more on Jane Goodall`s latest–

O`s DREAM BIG! Link–

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

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