Review | Smile at Strangers, Susan Schorn

I remember the first time I tried karate. I have never been athletic, and admittedly, one of the appeals of karate class was the rather low-key way the teacher introduced me to the drills. I may not be able to do a jumping, spinning, flying back kick, but even unathletic, uncoordinated me is still perfectly capable of forming a fist and throwing a punch. And the kiai? I thought I could at least mask the wobbliness of my kicks with a karate yell loud enough to rattle windows.

Here’s the thing about karate: you stick at it long enough, you work at it hard enough, and you eventually realize that your body is actually beginning to change. And I don’t mean just getting fitter. Your moves actually get sharper — and more importantly, you’re aware of just how sharp they are and just how much sharper they ought to be. You become in tune with your body, aware of the slightest movements and aware of the slightest shifts in balance. There’s a line in Susan Schorn’s Smile at Strangers where she talks about a black belt’s unconscious grace. I don’t think I ever quite achieved that grace (alas, my natural klutziness has no cure), but I did have a taste of what she meant. And even now, when I see karateka perform, I marvel at the fluidity of movement, the sharpness of force, as beautiful as it can be deadly.

9780547774336Susan Schorn’s Smile at Strangers is a personal memoir of her life in karate. More than just a retelling of stories however, she organizes her book into kowa, Zen proverbs. Fall down seven times, get up eight. If you want to feel safe, be prepared to feel uncomfortable. You’re doing it all wrong, and that’s perfect. The best part about karate isn’t the physicality, but rather the mental preparedness the training instills. Schorn writes about her experiences in the dojo, but primarily to support what she has learned for life outside karate.

In the beginning of the book, Schorn wonders about the math behind “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” If you fall down only seven times, how can you be down an eighth in order to get up again? She eventually interprets it as an added emphasis on defiance. No matter what crap life throws at her, she is going to leap up fighting — and leap up fighting one extra time just for good measure. Later on, however, something happens that makes her realize that, while she was prepared for a battle in her own backyard, the real danger happened elsewhere, far beyond her control, and she was left to wonder what, exactly, she was readying herself to battle for.

As Schorn writes about her karate journey, and how karate classes have helped her deal with personal challenges, we see her progression, from a frightened, outwardly defiant person to a calmer, more confident one much more useful for battle. This isn’t to say that karate transformed her completely — as with my natural klutziness, Schorn still cannot escape certain fears and insecurities. But she does learn a lot, and she takes us on this journey with her.

I read this book from the perspective of someone who has learned quite a bit about karate. So when Schorn writes about how karate has better equipped her to deal with life, I completely understood. Her karate experience differed greatly from mine — she studied Kyokushin (a close fighting, full contact style) and at a women’s only dojo with a focus on self-defence. I started with Shotokan (long-range, point sparring), which is probably the furthest from Kyokushin stylistically, and even though I eventually ended up with a more mid-range style, it was still very different from Kyokushin. So I loved reading about her school’s approach to teaching karate.

Will this book resonate as much with someone who has never studied karate? I don’t know. But there is an especially striking scene that I think most of us, even non-karateka, can relate to. As part of their self-defence training, Schorn and her classmates were paired off, and one had to make a series of requests while the other could only say “No.”

“No,” I told her. “No. No. No. No. No. No.”

This would have been boring if the embarrassment weren’t so agonizing. “I hate this,” I thought; “I hate it so much I can feel it physically.” The sensation of saying “no” to another person’s face made me writhe internally, and it took all my energy not to squirm…

It occurred to me, somewhere around my twentieth “no,” that I had probably said the word more times in the preceding half-minute than I had in the preceding month. I thought back over all the times I could have said “no” and didn’t…

Repeated over and over, without explanation, without placating gestures, without apology, it formed an unassailable verbal wall made of just one brick, one tiny word: no. [pp 15 – 16]

How often have you wanted to say no but then acquiesced to be polite? We’re ingrained to want to please people, and there are people who take advantage. The mere training then, of developing the confidence to say “no,” is something I think many of us will find useful. And you don’t need a black belt to learn it.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Joy of X, Steven Strogatz

13356649I’m a nerd. The idea that math can be used to explain everything, including (from the book jacket) whether or not O.J. Simpson did it, or how many people it is optimal to date before settling down, appeals to me. I love patterns, and I love the idea that numbers can be applied in the most esoteric situations in real life.

So Steven Strogatz’s The Joy of X instantly appealed to me. Life, the universe and everything… How can math play a role in understanding all that? And while I’m sure mathematicians can give me various answers, I looked forward to reading about it as written for a layperson’s perspective, and to understanding just a bit of the wonder that math can present.

Unfortunately, this book made the joy of X even more of a mystery to me. Strogatz begins with fairly basic arithmetic, and uses images like rocks and dots to explain addition and subtraction. He writes: “This side of arithmetic is important, practical, and–for many people–joyless. The playful side of arithmetic is a lot less familiar, unless you were trained in the ways of advanced mathematics.” I presume then, that the Tetris-style patterns with rocks represents this more playful side, which appears to be minor tricks with basic functions.

On one hand, I see what he’s trying to do — by presenting even the most basic arithmetic functions in new ways, he’s prepping us for the way he’ll present the (presumably) more fun, more advanced mathematics, such as how to calculate O.J.’s guilt, later on. The problem is, even the first few chapters gave me a headache. The four basic functions are math we as adults are already familiar with, and quite frankly, the struggle to see it from Strogatz’s new, supposedly more playful, perspective, just doesn’t seem worth it.

The book began as a series of columns, and possibly because of this, each chapter is a minor topic in itself, barely leading on to the next one. The result is a fairly shallow overview of various math concepts, and Strogatz seems to try too hard to make the math interesting. He explains the concepts well enough, though I personally think he either overcomplicates or underexplains his topics, yet never quite answers the question: so what? And when each chapter is its own topic, and each chapter begins a new attempt to present an aspect of math in a new light, the repeated sense of “so what?” becomes frustrating.

I remember starting Brian Greene’s The Hidden Realityabout parallel universes. I still haven’t finished it, mostly because it started getting really complicated, and honestly I think I need to start from the beginning to make sense of it all again. But unlike Strogatz’s book, Hidden Reality shows a progression — Greene begins with a really simple, accessible example of parallel universes, then slowly delves deeper into the subject, and explores further into scientific concepts. It’s not an easy read, but the payoff will be worth it — Greene tackles a complex subject and gently takes the reader deeper and deeper into it.

In contrast, Strogatz sounds like the high school teacher desperately trying to convince his bored students that math is fun (cue big grin and exclamation point). I’m not saying that the math he covers is simple — on the contrary, I’m sure most of it, particularly in the later part of the book, is over my head. But I do want to understand, and I feel Strogatz’s approach keeps one firmly in the elementary level of understanding. I’m sure this wasn’t the author’s intention, but I generally found his tone condescending — no way we readers could understand these concepts, so here’s a funny little story to convince you that it’s F-U-N!

I didn’t finish the book, so I don’t know whether or not math says O.J. did it. I did see the chapter about how many people one should date before settling down. It all boils down to a formula, and despite Strogatz beginning with a concrete example, it still ends up being really abstract. By the end of the chapter, I have a general idea of the solution (spoiler alert: it’s nothing you couldn’t have guessed without math), and still no idea of how to calculate it or why I should even bother.

A mostly joyless, shallow exercise, this book is hardly worth the effort.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Butler Speaks, Charles MacPherson

coverI often wish I had a butler. Blame it on P.G. Wodehouse — who wouldn’t want a lovely man like Jeeves around to fix all the random scrapes you get yourself into? Take a look at Smithers from the Archie comics, or Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey. One of my favourite books of all time is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the DayButlers have always seemed almost otherworldly, mostly unseen and unheard, but somehow always around to keep things running smoothly.

In real life, of course, a butler is slightly beyond my budget. In real life, I open my own door and hang my guests’ coats. Which is probably why I end up rarely entertaining guests at all. After all, what if I forget the sugar bowl when setting out the tea tray? Or worse, introduce people to each other in the wrong way? Fortunately for the etiquette-clueless like myself, Charles MacPherson has written The Butler Speaks, a handy, comprehensive guide to etiquette and housekeeping.

In all seriousness, it can be rather intimidating to enter a fancy restaurant and have no clue how to act. I grew up in a private all girls school where one of our home ec classes featured a lesson on proper table setting, and which piece of cutlery goes with which dish. The idea was that as daughters of politicians, CEOs and the like, and as future powerhouses ourselves someday (an alumna of my school went on to become President of the Philippines), we may be placed in situations where we’d have to choose from a dozen spoons and forks, some important dignitary across the table from us, and we must know how to comport ourselves. (Pro tip: Start from the outside in.)

MacPherson’s book is full of good tips. Even if, like me, you’re more likely to have beer and nachos in a pub than caviar at a state dinner, it’s always good to know how to introduce your boss to a potential important stakeholder. At the very least, it’s a lovely treat to set out proper afternoon tea for your friends, and really create an experience of luxury. MacPherson even includes some historical information on the roles of servants within a household, which is fascinating to a Downton Abbey fan like myself.

Then of course, even more applicable since most of us don’t have servants at all, the book contains tips on vacuuming, doing laundry, cleaning floors, and other such household chores. All drudge work I doubt any of us cares for, but seriously, doing them to the standards of a proper butler is a fun exercise in the imagination — not only are they useful tips, but we can also use them to imagine ourselves into a Downton Abbey sort of life. We may be on Team Servant within the Downton Abbey set, but it’s still a bit more of an adventure than simply cleaning the house in between work days.

Just as a proper butler always appears presentable, the book itself is lovely. Simple illustrations and an understated gold and cream colour scheme reflect the elegance of MacPherson’s theme, and make this a butler of a book.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Inward Journey: The Life of Lawren Harris, James King

9781771022064Lawren Harris is my favourite Group of Seven artist. When I first moved to Canada, the three things I wanted to know were: what is Canadian food, what is Canadian literature, and what is Canadian art? I still remember the blank looks I’d get at the question about Canadian (not American!) food. Some blank stares as well with my other two questions, but inevitably, questions about Canadian art led to the Group of Seven. And while looking through images of Group of Seven works, I found myself always drawn to the works of Lawren Harris.

Later on, I would learn that he believed in theosophy, that he deliberately used light to direct one’s eye toward the divine. At the time, however, I just knew that I loved the cleanness of his lines and the starkness of his colours. His images were bold, graphic, compelling, and when I decided to buy a piece of art to hang on my wall, a framed poster of Lawren Harris’ Mt. Lefroy was the first thing I bought.

So when I learned that Thomas Allen was publishing a biography of Harris, the title went right on my TBR list. Inward Journey by James King is  an extensively researched, utterly comprehensive overview of Harris’ life. On one hand, it’s almost too comprehensive — in the author’s attempt to write the definitive text on the artist, the biography sometimes gets bogged down with details, and the narration seems more about providing information than about hooking the reader in.

On the other hand, while not a page-turner, at least for this reader, Inward Journey is a great resource for anyone wanting to find out about Harris’ life. King writes in an objective, journalistic style, presenting the facts of Harris’ life, his marital problems, his personality flaws and his fascination with theosophy, and withholding judgement. As well, King talks not just about Harris as an individual, but rather about the artist’s role within the context of the Group of Seven and the history of Canadian art. There’s a wealth of fascinating information in the book, and certainly, it’s great to see the extent of Harris’ influence on history.

The book itself as well is just a beautiful addition to the collection of any Lawren Harris fan. Printed on glossy paper with full colour reproductions of Harris’ paintings and other artworks throughout, Inward Journey is just a beautiful book, an invitation to flip through time and again, and just appreciate the works.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter, Alison Wearing

coverWhen a former boyfriend meets her father for the first time, “his hands flittering around in the air like manic butterflies,” Alison Wearing smiles proudly and says, “That’s not a stereotype. That’s my dad.” [p. 9] Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter: Growing up with a Gay Dad
is a heartfelt, honest memoir about a young girl dealing with the discovery that her father is gay. LGBTQ rights still have quite an uphill battle these days, but Alison Wearing’s father had an even more difficult time of it. Among the most fascinating chapters in the book deal with the Toronto gay scene in the 1980s, including the horrific story of brutal police raids of gay bath houses. “What have the police got against cleanliness?” Margaret Atwood quips. [p. 106] While more about a family’s personal struggle than the wider social context, Wearing’s memoir has some sharp insights into gay life in Toronto, particularly from her father.

“If I’d been born ten years earlier, it’s very possible that I would never have come out at all,” he said in response to something I had asked about the timing of it, his being in the vanguard of the gay revolution. “And if I’d been born ten years later, most probably I would never have married.” [p. 162]

Wearing’s father has had a long time to think about his sexuality, and his tentative forays into accepting it wholly, even with a wife and children back home, are portrayed with sensitivity. On one hand, you can’t help but cheer him on, as he meets other gay fathers and realizes he isn’t the only man who married a woman in order to conform to social norms. Wearing writes about how gay fathers were ostracized even within the gay community, as if their marriage to women were a betrayal of the gay movement. Her father’s struggle to accept himself and his ultimate decision to live openly as a gay man are both courageous decisions, particularly in the politically charged atmosphere of the eighties, and it’s painful to read how he is rejected even by some of his closest family members.

On the other hand, and Wearing’s sensitivity to multiple points of view aids in this, her father’s decision to come out of the closet affected not just him, but his family as well. In some ways, Wearing is lucky because both her parents are very loving and have always taken care of her and her siblings. As a schoolfriend whose parents are constantly fighting points out, “So your father’s a faggot, big whoop. At least he’s not a lying, cheating, son-of-a-bitch, drunken asshole.” [p. 100] Still, Wearing’s father’s homosexuality does cause the end of his marriage, and Wearing writes with great sensitivity about her experience as the daughter of divorced parents.

It never occurred to me to hate Dad for being gay […] What I did hate was the Greyhound bus, that long sprint on the dog’s back to and from Toronto. […] I hated the shame my mother wore in her eyes […] But more than anything else, I hated all the stories I needed to invent about my life, the dancing pink elephant in the room that I spent my adolescence trying to conceal. [p. 118 – 119]

A few chapters later, Wearing says that the gay part is incidental; it is the parenting part that is important. And in some ways, her experience is touchingly similar to other kids whose parents have separated for other reasons. The elephant she tries to conceal may be dancing and pink, but many families have their own elephants to hide. In this way, Wearing takes what at first seems like a very difficult experience to imagine — how would it feel to have a gay father? — and makes it familiar and relatable. When she wonders why her father “can’t keep being normal during the week and just go to Toronto to be gay on the weekends” [p. 86], it’s a poignant appeal to at least the appearance of normal family life, while still allowing her father (partial) freedom to be happy.

Possibly the most compelling figure in this story is Wearing’s mother, and to the author’s credit, she gives her mother’s less glamourous, less politically charged, story its due. Wearing even includes a few chapters with her mother’s point of view — sadly, it isn’t quite as extensive as Wearing’s own account or her father’s, but that is due more to the mother’s desire for privacy than anything. While Wearing’s father grappled with his sexuality, her mother was left to be the anchor for the children. Thus, when Wearing’s mother started dating another man, Wearing was furious: “Terrified, actually. Convinced she was going to disappear too.” [p. 124]

Wearing’s mother was the source of stability for her children, giving them something to cling on to even when their father spent a lot of time away from home. To Wearing’s credit, she is aware of the unfairness of her behaviour towards her mother.

It wouldn’t have dawned on me to create such drama over one of my dad’s departures. He had come and gone for so long, I never imagined I had any control over his whereabouts. And he had always had a social life outside the house. But if the double standard drove my mother “round the bend,” she never pointed it out to me. [p. 125 – 126]

This, too, is a form of heroism, much quieter than the courage displayed by Wearing’s father in coming out, but no less important. I only wish I got to hear more of the story from Wearing’s mother’s perspective.

Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter is a tender, often amusing memoir. Wearing’s affection for her parents, and her desire to understand them, shine through and add emotional weight to their stories. I can’t even begin to comprehend the struggles gay individuals face today, never mind in the 1980s when homosexuality was just starting to fight for acceptance. But in Wearing’s book at least, love seems to go quite a long way.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Ascent of Women, Sally Armstrong

coverSally Armstrong’s Ascent of Women is an unflinching look at the brutality experienced by women around the world, and yet still manages to maintain an optimistic outlook. Armstrong’s primary thesis is that through education and the free exchange of information, women are changing the world at the grassroots level, and that this change will just keep happening.

Rather than stats and figures, Armstrong tells stories, personalizing for the reader horrific acts of violence and giving faces not only to victims but also to women around the world who are making change happen. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and feminist icon Gloria Steinem are mentioned, but for the most part, Armstrong focuses on lesser known individuals, unsung heroines whose stories may not have been heard.

In a disturbing, yet probably all too common, account, Armstrong relates the story of Muslim women gang-raped by Serbian soldiers in Sarajevo. Since she worked for a magazine at the time, and wouldn’t be able to publish the story herself for another three months, she took her information to an editor of a newspaper. To her dismay, the story took almost two months to see publication, and was relegated to a four line blurb in Newsweek magazine. She confronted the editor, who admitted he forgot about it.

I was astounded. I said, “More than twenty thousand women were gang-raped, some of them eight years old, some of them eighty years old — and you forgot?” [p. 38]

This outrage, and this unwavering conviction in the importance of making sure that such stories are heard, fuels the rest of the book. In some ways, Armstrong says nothing new — many of us are already aware of the horrible injustices women face around the world, and whether or not we believe the current level of change is enough reason to be optimistic, we will likely not be convinced otherwise by Armstrong’s book. As well, Armstrong makes some assertions that aren’t sufficiently proven, in particular the argument that if women ruled the world, poverty and war will be alleviated. This seems rather simplistic, and reliant on stereotypes regarding female pacifism.

That being said, the strength of Armstrong’s book isn’t in her arguments but rather in her examples. These are tales that have been suppressed or, worse, ignored or forgotten, and Armstrong reports them in brutal, memorable detail. Take for example a school in Saudi Arabia where hundreds of young girls died in a fire because they weren’t allowed to escape without traditional head covering. Girls who somehow succeeded in getting out were forced back in because their heads were bare. There’s also a story about a woman who was raped and urinated upon by six men. Armstrong is unflinching in her portrayals, and we readers flinch in response. These accounts aren’t easy to read, but they reveal a reality many women face, and they should make us uncomfortable.

Armstrong does hold out a ray of hope that change is happening, with the assistance of education. She writes about a town in Africa where child marriage was legal and accepted — until a man took his 11-year-old niece out of class to marry her off. The niece’s school friends and teachers banded together to protest, and the town outlawed child marriages, making 16 the minimum age to give informed consent. Armstrong also writes about female circumcision in some villages in Africa — it was a widely accepted practice for years until a group of women held information sessions that exposed the horrific effects of this practice. Male villagers professed to being unaware of just how horrible the effects are, and while I find their claim of innocence suspect, the sessions worked, and female circumcision was outlawed in many of the villages.

Ascent of Women is a powerful read. Change is happening, one step at a time, and thanks to Armstrong’s book, we are a tad more aware of it.

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Thanks to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Truth About Luck, Iain Reid

978-1-77089-241-5_lIain Reid has a gift for getting right into his readers’ hearts. In One Bird’s Choice, he made us fall in love with his quirky, hilarious parents, as well as with a certain bird named Lucius. These characters make an appearance The Truth About Luck as well, but Reid’s second memoir shifts the author’s focus to his adorable, utterly loveable 92-year-old grandmother.

The premise of the book is practically guaranteed to make anyone with a grandmother go “Awww…” When Reid’s brother reneges for the first time on a joint birthday gift for Grandma, Reid decides to take his grandmother on a week-long road trip, gifting her with something far sweeter than a quirky portrait: his time. Unfortunately, for reasons that are unclear to me (finances? lack of planning?), the much-anticipated road trip turns instead into a staycation in Kingston. I do wish I understood better why Reid opted for a staycation instead, especially since the original plan had allowed for the possibility of the grandmother paying for the trip. As it is, I felt bad for Grandma, who’d looked forward to a road trip for months, and had possibly even brought her swimsuit. Worse, Reid admits he had no idea how to entertain his grandmother for a week — a cringe-worthy admission, though admittedly, we’ve all been there.

Reid is endearingly self-aware, unflinching in his portrayal of himself and unafraid to make fun of his own quirks. At times, he tries a bit too hard at self-deprecation — people likely aren’t paying as much attention to his treatment of Grandma as he imagines — but this as well is rather sweet, a heightened concern for his grandmother’s well-being. A wonderfully wry passage near the beginning of the book sums up Reid’s self-deprecating humour pretty well:

I called a friend to see if he had any ideas for me, tips on how to inject some carefree mirth into the trip. He reminded me that I wasn’t really the fun or adventurous one in our group. […] When pushed for which one in the group I was, he used the word egghead and asked what the opposite of an adrenaline junkie was. I wonder if I can offer Grandma a sherry first thing tomorrow morning? [p. 60]

Fortunately for Reid, his grandmother is such a sweet, gracious woman that she genuinely seems as excited over a week in Kingston as she originally was over a road trip. Grandma is the heart of this book, and Reid’s prose is a lovely, loving tribute. The staycation offers him the chance to listen to his grandmother’s stories about her past, a rare opportunity with a woman more accustomed to asking about her grandchildren’s lives than speaking about herself. In a coffee shop, as his grandmother speaks about her life during World War II, Reid notices the other customers busy with their books, laptops and mobile phones, and feels the urge to command them all to listen. Grandma’s life is far too interesting to ignore.

My own 89-year-old grandmother, who has always been a feisty, chatty woman, has recently begun exhibiting signs of dementia. She has difficulty remembering events and recognizing people, and is most comfortable speaking in Chinese, her first language and, unfortunately, one I don’t speak myself. Reid’s book makes me think of all the stories I may now never have the chance to hear, and makes me wish I’d paid closer attention all those times my own grandmother spoke about her past. I remember our trip to China, and my grandmother’s attempts to teach me Chinese, and wish I could remember more of what she taught.

This book then, perhaps more than any road trip, may just be the best, most precious gift Reid could have given his grandmother. Not only will he forever be able to remind himself of her stories, but he has also immortalized her past for people who have never even met her. Time and again, his grandmother frets that she is boring him with her stories. Time and again, Reid assures her that he is fascinated. And thanks to Reid’s masterful prose, so are we.

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Thank you to House of Anansi for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.