Category Archives: Books

Book Review: One Day We’ll Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

One Day We'll Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Khoul

One Day We’ll Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

Despite the title’s grimness, Scaachi Koul’s memoir is not as morose as one would assume. And that’s probably why the title is actually a clever visual trick. It cheekily tells you that Koul might seem like a typical apathetic Millennial writer, but she has real feelings and they’re deeply rooted in legacy and the places where we come from.

In her stories,  we learn about her Indian roots, from the lessons of her parents to the grueling process of a typical Indian wedding. I have to confess, I’m one of those lily-white idiots who’s casually articulated more than once that she’d love to go to an Indian wedding, having no idea how long the ceremony is (days) or how difficult it is for the bride (very).

I would categorize Koul’s writing as “hashtag life goals”. She’s just so good at turning a phrase. She’s funny and cavalier, but never annoying, which is a place many writers end up when they’re trying to be funny and cavalier. See Jian Ghomeshi’s “1982”. Or don’t. I couldn’t get past the first chapter.

Although Koul’s life experience is not the same as mine – she grew up in Calgary in an Indian family, while I grew up in Toronto and Hamilton in a Polish family, there are echoes of my own that makes it relatable. We both went to post-secondary in Toronto; her memories of the Dance Cave are mirror images of my own. And we are both the products of immigration, although every immigrant story is different.

One of the most poignant features of her book are the email exchanges with her father that bookend each chapter. It reminded me to look up my correspondence with my own father. Koul is lucky to still have her parents – and she worries about the day when she will no longer have them. As someone who has already experienced that tragedy (and I can honestly tell you that there is no experience that can hurt you as much as the death of a parent), it made me like Koul even more for including these imperfect exchanges with someone who’s influenced your life so much.

My father and I mostly emailed about our life updates and most, sadly, were written after he was diagnosed and in the process of fighting cancer. Before then we would often exchange a few sentences over the phone. I didn’t know how much I would come to wish more written exchanges with him until his memorial service when my sister read from her own emails with Tata.

This came from one of our few conversations. It was written before he was sick, when my parents were settling into their new life in Perth, Ontario. Tata was training to get his truck driver’s license (at the age of sixty!) It perfectly encapsulates my dad’s way of embellishing and building a phrase that so many people loved.

Here, in the woods, everything looks serene, I am in the middle of heavy truck combat training, will end and hopefully graduate on Sep. 8th. Yesterday I had an interview for lone ranger position in Scouts Canada camp on south side of Lake Christie. It went soooooo well, that today, I’ve got a phone call, with invitation for second interview. It may end with job offer, who knows?

For the record, he got the job. The Scout Camp was so good to my father, even after he was diagnosed shortly after taking the job. They supported him through his medical leave and my mother after his passing.

Both Koul and I admit that we owe a lot to our fathers. One day this will matter is the truth. Simple things like an email back and forth between you may not mean a lot now, but one day it may mean the world.

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Book Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

born a crime trevor noahTrevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle. –-penguinrandomhouse.com

I have to keep reminding myself that this memoir is written by someone the same age as me. Born in 1984, Trevor Noah’s only a year older than me. I’ve never read a memoir written by contemporary before. I guess I’d better get used to it because now is the time when these things start happening. We’re all old enough now to have a few stories under our belt.

Hell, I’ve filled the Punnery with enough stories now that I’m beginning to revisit them, picking through them to see what I can elaborate on, turn into bigger and better things. Much like this memoir. Many of the stories in Born a Crime started off as jokes in Trevor’s stand-up act, like recounting the tail of feeling like “a bag of weed” whenever his parents walked past police because his father would cross the street and his mother would drop his hand.

Trevor and I were listening to Montel Jordan at the same time together. I, too, wanted to wear a ankle-length leather duster like Neo from The Matrix. We were both set free by the Internet. He sold bootleg CDs. I learned how to build websites so I could write whatever, where ever, I wanted.

While he was running through the streets of Johannesburg, I was living in Toronto with my family, completely unaware of what life might be like in post-apartheid South Africa. I knew it existed, but had no idea what it was.

In 1998, when I was about twelve years old, Nelson Mandela visited Toronto. My class went to the Skydome to hear him speak. I don’t remember a single thing about that trip, other than I know I was there.

I didn’t know what the hell apartheid really was as twelve year old sitting in the nosebleed section of the Skydome, watching a golf cart inch through the crowds on the astroturf below. Much like the end of Communism it was messy and confusing and it left a vaccuum in its wake that created chaos. That’s what Trevor Noah lived in, while I lived in Canada. While I was in Canada, watching Nelson Mandela speak on a Jumbotron, my family in Poland was dealing with the economic fall-out of post-Communist life in Poland.

I’ve already mentioned this part of the book:

“People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing.”

I often wonder what would have happened if my family stayed in Poland. My father’s love of language likely would have still been passed on to me and my sister and my curiousity for the world would have likely led me to move to England, like thousands of other Poles my generation. Brexit would have a bigger impact in my life. Instead I am here in Canada. Would I have received the same fishing poles in that life? Impossible to tell because that life doesn’t exist. And as someone quite recently told me, our souls learn things in the time that they are given to us. We can’t speculate on what could have been done differently, because it’s all been done as it should have been done. And I value the fishing poles I’ve already been given in my life.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning about life in South Africa post-apartheid, in the nineties and early oughts.

Time

Time heals. Time takes forever. Time requires patience, a virtue I’ve only just begun to build a relationship with, so maybe that requires time, too.

Not too long ago I remembered that the Wayback Machine has archives of all sorts. It’s recorded Internet time since, well… a long time ago. You know, relatively speaking. The Internet isn’t that old, after all.

So I went back in time to see what kind of a person I was five, ten years ago. Turns out I was an impatient person. But not the kind of impatient person who would do something. No, I just mostly complained. And then glossed over some of the biggest moments in my life. Like meeting my first boyfriend… Or breaking up with him. Or moving into my first apartment solo (shortly after the breaking up part.) Or adopting an orange tabby cat and subsequently naming him Trotsky because I studied a lot of twentieth century European history and wanted to give him a name with Historical Importance. Is it a coincidence he lives in exile now?

How about learning to sing? That’s been documented here a few times. I think I’d categorize those moments as the beginning of my relationship with patience. Although when Patience and I first met, it was a rocky relationship. I couldn’t wait to do things; Patience liked to check me a lot.

Most of the things I wrote back then are now of such little importance now. Most are meaningless in my life. Why didn’t I mention any of the Big Things? Why were they only hinted at?

Am I doing the same with this blog post? Perhaps.

I’ve only written a few things this year. Most of them are pretty meaningless.

I’ve never mentioned that I took a course in early Spring called the Neighbourhood Leadership Institute. The NLI is a leadership and skillbuilding program with three different streams, resident, professional, and youth. Because you needed a partner to participate, I contacted the NLI and was connected with a wonderful partner. Through the NLI you incubate a community project. My partner Sheila’s idea is a self-directed learning group called Partners in Learning Hamilton.

PIL is a weekly meetup group, mainly meant for senior citizens who’d like to socialize through meaningful conversation. We held our first pilot session in July, and we’re working on putting together the first five week session around the theme of Wellness, starting in late-September.

The idea of Partners in Learning Hamilton came from the original Partners in Learning group, of which Sheila was a member, in Grand Bend, ON.

The NLI was a unique experience. I met a lot of people from different parts of the city. I got to explore areas of Hamilton I’d never been to before, including the McQuesten Urban Farm, and Honouring the Circle, the Native Women’s Centre tucked away on the Mountain Brow.

Honouring the Circle Native Women's Centre

Honouring the Circle Native Women’s Centre

Prior to the NLI, I participated in the Women’s March here in Hamilton. The night before the march, a few of us gathered together at a friend’s place and we made signs and masks. The next day we gathered in front of City Hall to stand together and chant, sing, and be together. According to French sociologist Émile Durkheim when humans gather in a crowd, it creates a “collective effervescence,” a “glowy, giddy feeling where your sense of self slackens, yielding to a connection with your fellow, synchronized humans.”

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Women’s March protestors or the world’s best girl group?

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Cynthia looking pensive in the crowd. Photo: John Rennison/The Hamilton Spectator

You can see the effervescence on my face here:

olga-and-naomi-at-womens-march-2017

You can see the effervescence on both mine and N’s face here!

Or how about the fact that I got a new car this year? Haven’t mentioned that at all, have I?

blue-the-wonder-focus

Her name is Joni. Because Joni Mitchell wrote “Blue,” one of my favourite songs.

I’m reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime right now. It’s the first time I’m reading a memoir written by a contemporary. I have to keep reminding myself that his stories of life in South Africa happened the same time I was growing up here in Canada. Our realities are a stark difference. In one story he recounts how his life changed after his friend Andrew gifts him a CD writer. At this point, he’s already running a flourishing bootleg CD business, but when Andrew gives him a CD writer, his whole life changes because he has the means to go further and he recognizes that without it, his life could have been stuck much like a lot of his friends who remain in South Africa.

He’s better able to explain it but essentially it amounts to this: that old adage that you can give a man a fish and he’ll eat for one day, but if you teach a man to fish he’ll eat for the rest of his life is all well and good. But how about giving the man a fishing rod, too? That’s the essential difference for some people, especially South African blacks. So many of them already know how to fish, but they haven’t got a fishing rod. It took a friend to give Trevor his first “fishing rod”.

All this to say, I would not have this car without the assistance of a friend. And maybe it’s too soon to tell what this car can do for me, other than haul my butt from my office to the home (for now.) Actually I think it’s definitely too soon to tell what this car can do for me, but I know that it will help me in my life. Maybe it’s my fishing rod?

It’s hard, you know. Hard to tell what you’re looking at when it comes to time. Because so often we’ve got our noses pressed so hard to the glass that everything just looks blurry. All you’re seeing are shades of colours rather than anything fully formed. And maybe that’s why I’ve written so little about what now look like bigger things in my life now that they’ve come and gone. Even so, as the years continue to stretch out and I get a clearer idea of the picture my life is turning into, they could just be minor blips in the bigger picture.

But at least I’m noting them down. And maybe the Wayback Machine will one day spit out this blog post to remind me that these things happened and I’ll be grateful for the reminder.

2015 Bookshelf Review

2015-year-in-books

Another year is nearly over and it’s time to reflect on the books I have read this year.

It’s incredible to me that I have been doing this for the last three years. 2014, 20132012 are still online. In that time I read 76 books. This year I surpassed all three years’ previous reading counts with a total of 44 books!

Reading has always been a refuge for me in times when life is rocky and this year was no exception. Having weathered the storm of ending a relationship, I retreated into my imaginary worlds a little more than usual. But! My interest in non-fiction continued this year with the addition of Oliver Sacks, Farley Mowat, Thich Nhất Hạnh, Jean Vanier, Bill Bryson, and Maya Angelou.

This year’s fiction forays steered towards mystery more and more, but I still love my historical fiction.

A particular favourite of this year’s was the German writer Oliver Pötzsch whose series of historical mysteries called The Hangman’s Daughter has been on my TBR pile for over a year. My new library branch in Dundas happened to have the whole series just sitting on the shelf, waiting for me to read, and I eagerly ate up the whole series, plus a stand-alone novel called The Ludwig Consipracy. I learned a lot about 17th century medicine and Bavarian culture from Mr. Pötzsch’s books. He’s an excellent writer and his translators also do top-notch work. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the Hangman’s Daughter series when it gets to the library.

There were several other authors that I finally got an opportunity to finally read after having wanted to read them for some time. The first was Maya Angelou’s first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which took me into a world of Southern black culture that brought to mind Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, which I read several years ago.

I also picked up my first Edith Wharton, a collection of short stories, which aren’t her most famous work, but did well to introduce me to the time period and language of Victorian America. It conjured images of nineteenth century New York City, trolley buses, crinoline and pinafores, horse-drawn carts, and vintage maps of city streets I’ve walked.

A few other things that I got to do this year in my reading was get acquainted with Chuck Wendig’s fiction. I have been reading his blog Terrible Minds, which offers a lot of good advise for writers, but have never had occasion to give his books a try. Dundas came through again with a copy of The Blue Blazes. If I could describe it in one word it would be hard-boiled. Is that two words? Who cares? It was a fun read.

I gave graphic novels another opportunity this year as well, diving into some fun ones recently, such as Vincent by Barbara Stok, a quick, thought-provoking glimpse into the life of Vincent Van Gogh, and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s non-Scott Pilgrim book, Seconds. Great story-telling in that one. I have yet to read the Scott Pilgrim series, but I think that might change in 2016.

Reading Goals for 2016

  • I would like to read more female writers. I feel like I was pretty male-heavy this year, mostly because I got sucked into Oliver Pötzsch’s and Farley Mowat’s worlds.
  • I’d also like to read more poetry. Poetry is like cake. It has to be savored.
  • I’d like to continue mining the classics, such as Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens.
  • I’d like to read more musical biographies/autobiographies.
  • I’d like to read 50 books, surpassing my 44 of this year.

Reading in Polish

I began reading in Polish once I finished the English books I brought. Half the books I brought were actually already read by the time I got here. I read them inordinately fast, as though I wanted to be done them as quickly as possible. The first time I saw a secondhand bookstore in Wroclaw I couldn’t stop staring at all the undiscovered (to me) writers in the window. Names that I had never heard. Titles I had never read. All the mystery lay before me like a cave of treasure.

daffy

Eyeing my aunt’s collection once my books were done, I landed upon an old familiar title. I’ve read Eat, Pray, Love already. I even watched the movie on cable a few years ago. I knew this would be a good introduction. A familiar story in different words is a perfect transition to a new language. I’m over a hundred pages in and the task of reading in Polish is no longer such a task. The words flow freely most of the time. There are still hiccups when I come across unfamiliar words or phrases. Polish isn’t exactly the easiest language to read. There are a lot of S’s and Z’s. But, like all things that start out hard and build with momentum, my ability to read is improving.

It’s a lesson that will serve me well in life. Sure things start off hard when they’re unfamiliar. Sometimes you need to give it a try more than once. This is not the first book I have attempted to read in Polish.

Sometimes you need more than one try at something. But once it clicks, the horizon looks bright and beautiful.

How Not to Ask for Help

Part of my job as a freelance digital marketer is to scour the internet looking for work. Hustlas gotta hustle.

And basically that amounts to me being on Craiglist several times an hour/day/week/month. It can be a bit undignified at times. There’s no shortage of shitty job postings. You have to wade through the scores of ads looking for adult models, actors and private massages. Plus all of the commission-based sales gigs. You get pretty good at reading between the lines to determine whether something is legitimate or complete bullshit.

And sometimes, occasionally, you get to see real gems too.

This week I, and the majority of Toronto’s literary scene, came across this post and had a good LOLZ about it:

CL-post-Idea

I’m not sure what’s worse — the fact that this poster wants someone else to think of an idea for him, or that he gets angry towards the end of the post at the very people who he’s seeking to get help from.

It’s no secret that being a writer pays you peanuts. If you’re going on pure royalties alone, and your book happens to defy the odds to become a bestseller, you’re likely to make around $6k, according to one source. So yeah, even if you’re a bestselling author, chances are you’re still going to look for extra work.

So why you gotta hate, hater? One individual on Facebook posted it with this in mind:

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Whether it’s true or not, you have to wonder what kind of an individual has the balls to post such an offending affront to anyone struggling to be creative and original in a world that is rife with cultural misappropriation, hodge-podge homages and blatant plagiarism.

On the plus side, it’s given Canada a little boost of Internet popularity. Yay?

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Chuck Wendig is highly influential on the Internet writing scene. I relish the response this post will get now that it’s hit viral status.

What do you think? Is this blatant trolling or a genuine request? I almost wonder if it was created by someone we all know testing out the lit scene’s ability to handle “humour”.

Books of 2014!

Sometimes I wish I could read everything under the sun. It’s just too impossible. There are millions of books out there. But the stuff you read can influence you in the future and I like the idea of being thoughtful, mindful even, of what I read. There’s just not enough time in the world to read garbage, so why waste it? Okay, sometimes I like garbage too. Smutty, dirty, sweaty garbage. Somehow I managed to read quality stuff this year.

brain that heals itself norma doidgeI started the year off with Dr. Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself, a ground-breaking work on neuroplasticity—the brain’s capability to reroute and “fix” itself. The doctor likened my experience of acute depression to a heart attack inside my brain. Reading Dr. Doidge’s work gave me hope that I can overcome my diagnosis and live a normal life. This year Dr. Doidge is releasing The Brain’s Way of Healing. It’s definitely on my TBR pile.

I also picked up Mind Over Mood. If you have never heard of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy you should look into it. Many of us will experience a mental illness in our lifetime. And those who don’t will know someone affected by it. CBT is a method of self-help that teaches you to re-examine your thoughts. When you’re depressed your habits tend to veer towards black and white thinking, catastrophizing situations, creating worst-case scenarios in your mind. Then your mind begins to panic and you’re left feeling hopeless. It’s a vicious cycle that kicks a mean piece of ass when you’re stuck in it. Mind Over Mood teaches you to pick these thoughts apart to give yourself breathing room. Practicing it regularly can definitely help. I wish I could say that I’m always practicing this, but it can be hard when you get stuck in a cycle of depression and anxiety. Life—it’s a work in progress.

my life in france julia childOn the other side of the nonfic spectrum, I read Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France. Talk about a woman with passion and joie de vivre! She and her husband Paul lived a very blessed life in France. I truly admire Julia’s passion for learning as well. I picked up a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in Paris’s Shakespeare and Co. book shop in 2010 and I love cooking from it. Creating the perfect roast chicken is akin to finding nirvana and I love, love, love when it comes out right. French cooking may be simple but it’s demand for good ingredients truly sets the bar for everything else.

I also read my fair share of fiction. I read Dickens, Austen, Herman Melville, Richard Aldington, and my first Dean Koontz novel (not memorable.) The Dickens and Austen were exceptional, though. I read two Dickens this year – A Tale of Two Cities at the beginning of the year and Hard Times this fall. Both were full of his wonderful wit and charm. It’s the mark of a great writer that you can read his work over a century after publication and the words stand the test of time.

jane austen persuasionI also learned that Austen is more than Pride and Prejudice! I picked up Emma and Persuasion. By far my favourite of the two was Persuasion. Emma was nice, but well, Emma’s a bit of a twit and I can’t abide girls like her. I’m more of a straight shooter, like Anne Elliot. Her character resonated with my soul on a familiar level.

Herman Melville. God almighty did I ever give up on Moby Dick. The fiction was wonderful. The extensive history of the whaling industry killed me dead. The language was dense, but readable until I got to the pages and pages of explanations of 19th century whaling practices. Forgive me, but ain’t nobody got time for that.

what makes olga run bruce griersonLast but not least, I read What Makes Olga Run? by Bruce Grierson. Yes, I read it because my name is Olga. I’m not ashamed of that. But I also read it because Olga is a 94 year old international track star and I wanted to know what insight she has on what the body can do. Turns out she’s just the sort of person who puts her mind to something and keeps working at it. Yes, there are genes involved and I have no misconceptions about my own longevity. None of my grandparents lived to see ninety, but a good number of them did see 80 so, if I play my cards right, I think I’ve got a good chance of getting up there. I was curious to know what to expect at that age and it turns out that, as long as you do the things you love, you’ll live quite happily. So here I am, doing what I love—writing–and I’ll continue to do the things I love until I can’t no more.

Thus concludes another year of books. This isn’t the comprehensive list of all twenty that I read. If you’re curious about that list, you can follow me on Goodreads. I post all of the books I read on there. I don’t really know what else Goodreads is for, but I’m sure I’ll figure something to do with it. If you have an account I’d love to know how you use your account. Leave a comment, tweet at me, or leave it on my Facebook wall.