Posts Tagged With: Still Alice

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

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):

Charla Nash’s story on Good Morning America:

Rona Maynard’s review on Still Alice:

Trailer for The Single Man:



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

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