Tuesday 20 September 2016

Book Review: Daisy's Gift by Claire Guest

Claire Guest was walking her dogs when Daisy, a fox red Labrador, nudged her breast insistently and stared up into her face with her big brown eyes. Sensing something was wrong, Claire visited her GP and soon found out she had a very deep – and difficult to diagnose – form of breast cancer. Daisy had saved her life, simply by smelling her cancer.

With her scientific background and deep love of dogs, Claire intuited that Daisy and her canine pals could save many more lives, and set up the charity Medical Detection Dogs. Though faced with many challenges, Claire and her dogs have proven to be a remarkable asset to cancer detection, and have changed the lives of many seriously ill people and their families.

I read Daisy's Gift as part of the Nonfiction Reading Challenge. I was drawn to this book because of my love of dogs, and I was intrigued by the idea of dogs being used to detect and help in the diagnosis of cancer.

Daisy's Gift is a fascinating read. I found Claire's enthusiasm for her work to be very inspiring. Claire has always had an affinity with all animals, but her passion for dogs and their unique abilities has influenced the trajectory of her life and career. Claire is one of those people who certainly have a destiny here on Earth; as she tells her story in Daisy's Gift, it is obvious Claire's life has brought her exactly where she needs to be - helping change the world with her charity Medical Detection Dogs.

It was no surprise to me to read that dogs have the ability to tune into their owners - I've witnessed in my own dog her special way of reading my emotions. But taking this idea a step further, Claire and her team are able to harness a dog's strong sense of smell - every disease has an odour - to train the dog to alert their owner to physiological changes. Claire not only trains dogs to detect cancer, but she also trains medical assistance dogs to live with those suffering from diabetes and other diseases. This work has allowed many people to live relatively normal lives, knowing that their constant dog companion is on guard at all times to help them manage their disease.

I admire Claire Guest. She has dedicated her life to helping develop the pioneering work of bio detection dogs. Her passion for her work is evident on every page of Daisy's Gift. It is clear Claire believes strongly in dogs and their abilities. Reading Claire's book has made me fall in love with dogs even more. They really are phenomenal animals, with a lot to teach us. With Claire and others like her working worldwide to train these dogs to use their innate capabilities, the human race is able to benefit even further from our close relationship to dogs. Not only is a dog a pet and companion, they can also save your life.    

Monday 5 September 2016

Book Review: The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless

The story of Chris McCandless, who gave away his savings, hitchhiked to Alaska, walked into the wilderness alone, and starved to death in 1992, fascinated not just New York Times bestselling author Jon Krakauer, but the rest of the nation too. Krakauer’s book and a Sean Penn film skyrocketed Chris McCandless to worldwide fame, but the real story of his life and his journey has not yet been told – until now.

Carine McCandless, Chris’s sister, featured in both the book and film, was the person with whom he had the closest bond, and who witnessed firsthand the dysfunctional and violent family dynamic that made Chris willing to embrace the harsh wilderness of Alaska. Growing up in the same troubled and volatile household that sent Chris on his fatal journey into the wild, Carine finally reveals the broader and deeper reality about life in the McCandless family.

I read The Wild Truth as part of the Nonfiction Reading Challenge 

I've always been drawn to the story of Chris McCandless. I admit to feeling conflicted about what he did - going into the wild without a map is such an idiotic and naive thing to do, but at the same time I can understand his sense of adventure and the desire to challenge himself. I've always felt annoyed by his story though - his death was so avoidable (if only he had a map!! He could have found another way out!) and unnecessary. And yet, because he died as he did, his life has become much larger than it may ever have had he survived the Alaskan wilderness. Chris has become an icon, a legend in his own right. Most people know his story and whether or not they agree or disagree with his actions, he has become a symbol of the wanderer spirit, the human desire to experience life to the full, to be present, away from the noise of modern society.

His sister Carine's book The Wild Truth is hard to read because you can feel her grief in every page. Yes she has, after more than twenty years, found peace with her brother's death, but it's also very obvious that he continues to be a presence in her life and her thoughts. I find Carine to be very courageous. To tell her story, to tell the absolute truth, the dirty truth, of her relationship with her parents - the violence, the manipulation, the emotional abuse - is so brave. I don't believe she owes them any protection. Her story is hers to tell. They have done some despicable things to her and all her siblings over the years - it's no wonder Chris 'divorced' himself from them. I don't blame him! So in my opinion, Carine is right to tell the story, to bring the truth to light. Truth was Chris's guiding force and I understand Carine's intention to honour him by revealing the real story of their childhood. She can't speak for Chris (nor does she want to), but this book is her way of explaining his actions, as much as anyone beside Chris ever can.

It's heartbreaking reading more of the McCandless story. Carine has had an often depressing life, aside from her brother's death. But it's obvious in her book that Carine strives to overcome hardships and to maintain her determination to succeed as a kind human being. If anything, Carine's kindness held her back for too long - if only she'd disconnected herself from her parents years ago, perhaps she'd have saved herself some heartache. But her longing to hear an apology from them, to see their behaviour change, to have them accept responsibility for the fractures in their family, kept her going back for more.

The Wild Truth is very well-written. Although it says it's the truth about what sent Chris into the wild, I found this book to be Carine's story. Chris is there of course, but Carine's intention to not speak for her late brother means that he is only a supporting character in her memoir. I feel Carine wrote this book as a cathartic way to release the guilt for holding back the truth when Jon Krakauer wrote Into The Wild. Carine says the way people misunderstood Chris has always been on her mind. She wanted to set the record straight, and I believe she has done so. 


Friday 19 August 2016

Book Review: Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

Helen and Ellie are identical twins - like two peas in a pod, everyone says. The girls know this isn't true, though: Helen is the leader and Ellie the follower.

Until they decide to swap places: just for fun, and just for one day.

But Ellie refuses to swap back...

And so begins a nightmare from which Helen cannot wake up. Her toys, her clothes, her friends, her glowing record at school, the favour of her mother and the future she had dreamed of are all gone to a sister who blossoms in the approval that used to belong to Helen. And as the years pass, she loses not only her memory of that day but also herself - until eventually only 'Smudge' is left.

Twenty-five years later, Smudge receives a call from out of the blue. It threatens to pull her back into her sister's dangerous orbit, but if this is her only chance to face the past, how can she resist?

I read Beside Myself as part of the Eclectic Reader Challenge, which asked for a debut author in 2016.  I was drawn to this book by its intriguing premise - a twin essentially takes over her sister's identity. I wondered what would happen to the lives of these twin sisters, and just how far Ellie would go to keep the truth from coming out.

I expected Beside Myself to be an intense thriller, perhaps one full of violence. Instead, it is far more a book about mental illness and Smudge's descent into madness. Don't get me wrong, I certainly enjoyed reading this story; it just wasn't what I expected going in.

Ann Morgan managed to capture the behaviour of someone who is losing their grip on reality, someone who is cut off from their emotions and unable to move forward in life. At times Smudge's narrative is scattered and hard to follow, her thoughts rushing from one extreme to the other. As a reader, this was a challenge to keep up with. But I admire Morgan's ability to get the truth of mental illness onto the page; while reading I felt myself growing confused and unsure, mimicking Ellie's own feelings and disorientation - telling the story in that fumbling way is clever writing by Morgan.

The main theme in Beside Myself is a question of identity - who are we really and how can our circumstances change us? The novel explores an interesting idea - that who we are can be a product of how we are treated by others. At the beginning, Helen is the happy, confident one, who is adored by all. But as soon as the twins switch and Helen is treated with annoyance, as Ellie always was, she retreats into her shell and becomes Ellie. Likewise, shy Ellie is suddenly treated with affection so she steps out of her shell and basks in the attention; she becomes Helen. This made me wonder - are our child personalities so malleable that we can be forever altered by the attitudes of others? I think we can. Often, as children, we're told certain things about who we are. Some might be true, but sometimes they're the false observations of well-meaning adults. Either way, they can influence how we see ourselves, and the personality we go on to present to the outside world.  

Beside Myself is a complex novel. It was hard to read at times, but I believe that was the point. Morgan gave us an insight into mental illness, as well as the havoc a big lie can wreak on an innocent mind. While I did find parts of the novel quite predictable, and the character of 'Mother' to be too far-fetched in her behaviour, I enjoyed reading the book and got very caught up in the story. I'll be keeping an eye out for Morgan's next novel.   

Tuesday 7 June 2016

Book Review: Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

When Wayne and Kelly Maines adopted identical twin boys, they thought their lives were complete. But it wasn't long before they noticed a marked difference between Jonas and his brother, Wyatt. Jonas preferred sports and trucks and many of the things little boys were 'supposed' to like; but Wyatt liked princess dolls and dressing up and playing Little Mermaid. By the time the twins were toddlers, confusion over Wyatt's insistence that he was female began to tear the family apart.

Becoming Nicole is the heart-wrenching story of a mother whose instincts told her that her child needed love and not disapproval; of a conservative, army-veteran father who overcame his deepest fears to embrace his new daughter; of a loving brother who never gave up supporting his twin sister; and of a town forced to confront its own prejudices. More than that, however, Becoming Nicole is the story of an extraordinary girl who fought for the right to be herself.

I read Becoming Nicole as part of the Nonfiction Reading Challenge. Cheryl Strayed recommended this book on her Facebook page and I was immediately drawn to the subject matter. I've always respected the transgender community and I hold a strong belief that everybody on this planet deserves to live as their authentic self. But I'm not ashamed to admit that I knew very little about what it means to be transgender. That's why I decided to read this book - to learn.

Amy Ellis Nutt's book tells of the fight the Maines family had to pursue after Nicole was bullied at school for being transgender. As a result of prejudice and fear, Nicole was not allowed to use the female restroom, even though it is the gender to which she identifies. Reading about this fight, I was struck by just how brave Nicole is. She was only a young girl when the bullying started, too young to fully understand why adults were making her face humiliation every day at school - a place where she'd always felt safe and accepted. But through it all Nicole kept her head held high. She knew she'd done nothing wrong. She was simply stuck in the wrong body. Nicole continued to be herself, unapologetically. Such courage is very inspiring. And it just goes to show that a lot of the time children are more enlightened than adults!

While I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Maines' story, the most intriguing part of the book for me was learning all about gender identity. It is actually a process that happens in the brain during development in the womb. Brains have certain structures that differ in size depending on whether it is a male or female brain. A person's gender identity is the product of prenatal hormones, genetics, and environmental effects. Separate to this, the growth of the genitals is a physical process resulting from the presence of male or female hormones. Usually the two align, but for a transgender person their gender identity and their genitals are opposite.

Understanding how a transgender person finds themselves stuck in the wrong body has only increased my respect and admiration for the trans community, and for Nicole Maines. While Nicole has faced some prejudice in her life, Becoming Nicole is full of many who support and love Nicole just as she is. Nicole and her family are committed to helping to dispel myths surrounding transgender people, and to fight for trans equality. They encourage others to learn about gender identity in the hope of ridding the world of ignorance, hatred and fear. I feel blessed to have read Nicole's story, to have opened my mind to new knowledge, and to have witnessed on the page how powerful it can be when a family stands up for what they believe in to show the world what love really means.       

Wednesday 25 May 2016

Book Review: The Pursuit of Happiness: And Why It's Making Us Anxious by Ruth Whippman

As your average cynical Brit, when Ruth Whippman moves to California, it seems to her that the American obsession with finding happiness is driving everyone crazy.

But soon she starts to get sucked in. She meditates and tries 'mindful dishwashing'. She attends a self-help course that promises total transformation (and learns that all her problems are her own fault). She visits a strange Nevada happiness dystopia (with one of the highest suicide rates in America), delves into the darker truths behind the influential 'science of happiness', and even ventures to Utah, where she learns God's personal secret to eternal bliss.

Ultimately she stumbles upon a more effective, less self-involved, less anxiety-inducing way to find contentment.

Fantastically fresh, funny and honest, this is an eye-opening look at what happiness really means.

I read The Pursuit of Happiness as part of my two reading challenges - the Nonfiction Reading Challenge and the Eclectic Reader Challenge, which asked for a 'psychology' book. In The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman asks the question - Is the happiness/self-help industry actually creating anxiety? This idea intrigued me as I've had an interest in self-help for many years now. At certain times of my life, it has brought me a lot of comfort. But I know that a deeper happiness can not come from meditation or positive thinking alone.

Whippman suggests that positive thinking, affirmations and the like can actually make us more unhappy, as we strive to be perfect and happy and not a slave to our emotions. All of this can have an adverse effect - we're trying to find our happiness by putting pressure on ourselves to be happy. Ignoring negative emotions and aiming to be happy all the time ends up creating anxiety as we attempt to be our 'perfect' selves. But all emotions are a necessary part of life. As Whippman says - we need to "develop a discourse of happiness that engages with people's problems rather than dismisses them."

In the book Whippman talks a lot about our internet-obsessed society and the fact that Facebook and other social media platforms are filtered versions of us, showing the positive only. This breeds discontent as we come to compare our lives to those of our friends, who always seem to be sunning themselves on a tropical island etc. Being envious of others leads us further away from our own happiness and makes us question our own 'life satisfaction'.

In researching this book Whippman stayed with a Mormon family to find out if a simple life is just what we need, she visited Google HQ to learn about work-life integration, she questioned hyper-parenting and the pressure we put on our children to provide us with purpose and joy. Whippman studied the positive psychology movement and the billion-dollar self-help industry to see where our society is going wrong. After all, if happiness really is to be found in the seemingly infinite number of self-help options now available to us, surely we'd be a world overflowing with joy. But that is not the case.

Whippman comes to believe that in our search for happiness we seem to have lost our way. We're all spending far too much time alone and staring at our screens. Socialising and interpersonal relationships are good for us, good for the soul and can make us happy. Society believes the myth that happiness is an individual responsibility, that it's our duty to go out and find our happiness, be it through yoga, meditation, religion, work, parenting etc. But giving most of our free time to self-absorbed pursuits can be counter-productive. It's often better to make time for family and friends, to share life and create joy together.

Ultimately, society needs to remember that happiness can be fleeting. But what we all really need is a deeper joy, a sense of 'life satisfaction' that will carry us through tough times. Seeking a picture-perfect happiness, full of endless smiles and positivity, is unrealistic. Sometimes life is hard and negative emotions are bound to pop up from time to time. Embracing the full spectrum of human experience can help us step closer to that deeper joy.   

Thursday 21 April 2016

Book Review: My Story by Elizabeth Smart

On June 5, 2002, fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart, the daughter of a close-knit Mormon family, was taken from her home in the middle of the night by religious fanatic, Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee. She was kept chained, dressed in disguise, repeatedly raped, and told she and her family would be killed if she tried to escape. After her rescue on March 12, 2003, she rejoined her family and worked to pick up the pieces of her life.

Now for the first time, in her memoir, My Story, she tells of the constant fear she endured every hour, her courageous determination to maintain hope, and how she devised a plan to manipulate her captors and convinced them to return to Utah, where she was rescued minutes after arriving. Smart explains how her faith helped her stay sane in the midst of a nightmare and how she found the strength to confront her captors at their trial and see that justice was served.

I read My Story as part of the Nonfiction Reading Challenge. I remember reading about Elizabeth's abduction in the news all those years ago and being horrifed that a young girl could be snatched from the safety of her own bedroom. I was happy when Elizabeth was rescued, but her story eventually faded from my mind. I wasn't aware she'd written a memoir. As soon as I came across My Story while searching online for nonfiction books for this challenge, I knew I had to read it.  

Elizabeth is an inspirational woman. I'm fascinated by the way in which Elizabeth has overcome her abduction and gone on to live a happy and productive life. Her faith in God has helped her of course, but she also talks about being grateful for everything and acknowledging that even when things are bad there are still many things in life to be thankful for. She also says she knows things could always be worse, so make the most of your life. That's very brave; I'm sure a lot of us would want to drown in the sorrow instead.

What struck me the most while reading this memoir, was just how ridiculous Mitchell's reasoning was for having abducted Elizabeth. The Smart family are a good Christian family who offered to help a homeless Mitchell by giving him odd jobs to do at their house. That's how he came to know where Elizabeth's bedroom was and how he could get in to the house to kidnap her. I found it awful that good people who see their faith as important, who want to help their fellow man, were subjected to such a betrayal of trust. To take a young girl from her home, to rape and torture her for months is as evil an act as there ever was. Such an ungodly thing to do. And Mitchell did it all in the name of religion! This makes me so angry on behalf of the Smart family, and reminds me again what a phenomenal woman Elizabeth is that she has been able to move past this horrific tragedy with her faith still intact.

Reading My Story, it was clear to me from the outset just how much courage Elizabeth possessed. At only fourteen years old she recognised that she needed to get along with her captors, to make them think she wasn't going to fight them, or try to escape. She knew to try to get them to like her, so they might come to trust her. That's a heroic mindset to have under such harrowing circumstances and it's an incredibly brave thing to decide - to attempt to be nice to your rapist so you might eventually find a way to manipulate them. Elizabeth silently fought her way to freedom.   

As hard as it is to read about everything Elizabeth had to endure, I found this book to be overall a positive one. This memoir is life-affirming because even through months of torture Elizabeth kept her strength, kept hoping, and in the end she was rescued. She knows how miraculous that is, and that it's something to be thankful for. She talks about it being only nine months of her life that were awful - she's had plenty more months that have been filled with joy and love. What a courageous woman she is!

Elizabeth has allowed her experience to empower her. She uses her knowledge of being an abductee to help others. This is a significant and brave thing to do - to use your tragedy to help others, to change the world, to turn an horrific negative into a positive force in the world. That's remarkable.    

Thursday 31 March 2016

Book Review: How To Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis

On a pilgrimage to Wuthering Heights, Samantha Ellis found herself arguing with her best friend about which heroine was best: Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. She was all for wild, passionate Cathy; but her friend found Cathy silly, a snob, while courageous Jane makes her own way.

And that’s when Samantha realised that all her life she’d been trying to be Cathy when she should have been trying to be Jane. So she decided to look again at her heroines – the girls, women, books that had shaped her ideas of the world and how to live.

How To Be A Heroine is Samantha’s funny, touching, inspiring exploration of the role of heroines, and our favourite books, in all our lives – and how they change over time, for better or worse, just as we do.

I read How To Be A Heroine as part of my two reading challenges - the Nonfiction Reading Challenge and the Eclectic Reader Challenge, which asked for a 'book about books'. Being an avid reader I was drawn to the premise of Ellis' book; I think it's a fascinating idea to go back and re-read novels you enjoyed in your youth to see if you view the characters differently with adult eyes. And I can certainly relate to the idea that characters in novels become as important to you as your real-life friends, especially when you read books as an adolescent. That's the beauty of fiction - authors create characters that can come alive on the page and readers get to use their imagination to give these characters form.

Ellis' book is well-written. It was interesting reading about characters and novels that I haven't thought about in years. It was fun to think back on my own first reading of Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Gone with the Wind etc, remembering how much those books meant to me. I especially liked how Ellis re-read fairy tales from a feminist perspective. It's always good to be reminded of the absurdity of these stories- eg: the Little Mermaid gives up her legs and her voice, all for a man. Ridiculous!

I must admit, however, that I ended up skipping a few chapters in this book. Some of these were because I hadn't read the novel Ellis was discussing so her reflections meant very little to me. But it wasn't just those chapters; I found myself growing bored. For some reason this book failed to hold my attention. It definitely has little to do with the quality of the book, because that is excellent - Ellis is a great writer. And while I could relate to some of Ellis' life decisions, I came to view it as monotonous and unrealistic that Ellis would be so enamored with fictional characters that they would guide her life so significantly.

For Ellis, it seems, books are her world, her passion, her life. Of course that's fine. I respect that. And I do relate to it - that's why I chose to read her book in the first place. But unfortunately, I didn't fall in love with How To Be A Heroine. I wish I could have, because the premise was so intriguing to me.