This year was a difficult one, and I found solace in some very beautiful books. Here are a few of my favourites:

1. The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – I had been waiting for this book for quite some time, ever since the author revealed her plans to write it years ago. Similar to The Palace of Illusions, this book tells the story of the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana, from the perspective of its fiery heroine, Sita. Sita throughout the ages hasn’t been particularly known for her fire – although she is known for walking through an actual fire and emerging pure and unscathed – a testament to her stainless character. But in this book, a different Sita emerges – one that can be cunning, sexy, and demanding. The author expertly weaves in the perspective of Sita’s husband, Lord Rama, through Sita’s dreams, where she has visions of what he is experiencing while she is held captive by the evil Ravana – and she is able to see her husband’s inner battles, grief, and fierce determination to find her. The book is filled with memorable characters and adventures – the army of monkeys as they traverse across Lanka, flying birds, the demon king and his ten heads, and of course the enchanting forest with its emerald deer that captivates and leads even the most intelligent astray. How can fate be so cruel? And what purpose does this story serve for future generations? Because as long as the mountains graze the sky and the sun bestows its glory upon the earth, the story of Rama and Sita will be told. At times, Sita’s anger at her situation gets the best of her, and she repeats this mantra silently to herself three times.

For the sake of love, I give up my anger
For the sake of love, I give up my anger
For the sake of love, I give up my anger

sita, the forest of enchantments

No matter how many times I read this story in all its different forms, I still want more of it – every rendition makes it even more interesting and causes you to examine your own understanding of life in relation to it.

2. Miracles from Heaven by Christy Beam – I read this book in Ottawa, in just a few days since I wanted to return it to a friend before going back to TO. It’s a tiny but powerful book, about a young girl Annabel who is extremely ill with a rare intestinal disorder and is in constant pain, much more than her tiny body can endure. Her parents do everything they can to get her the best medical care, and at one point she is on ten different medications, and she just seems to get sicker. She says to her mother, “I just want to die and go to Heaven and be with Jesus where there’s no pain.” One day while playing with her two sisters, she falls into a hole in a tree that was created when one of the dead branches fell off. Stuck in the hole for hours, she speaks to Jesus, who tells her that when she comes out of the hole, she will be healed. And she is healed, wholly and completely. This book revives your faith and makes you believe in miracles.

3. Will by Will Smith – I was planning to grab a copy of Will Smith’s memoir from Indigo, but then my brother told me that I had to listen to the audiobook instead, and I’m so glad that I did. Will relates his life story so naturally, with his unforgettable impressions (Nelson Mandela’s was my favourite), humour, and music. He is funny, passionate, and it really does feel like he’s there with you in your living room, relating his life stories with the most utmost charm, self-deprecation, and courageously delving into past regrets – some of which are cringeworthy, but cause you to reflect and learn from his mistakes. This is a unique story-telling experience in that he intertwines his music throughout – listening to Gettin’ Jiggy with it, Just the Two of Us, Men in Black, tribute song Will, and many others takes you back to your own life at that time. He takes you on a journey through his childhood, life as the Fresh Prince, rise to movie stardom, great loves and romantic failures, spiritual journey and times of great introspection (he does a 10-day silent vipassana meditation), and brings you along to his ayahuasca adventure in Peru. I’ve heard Will in the past describe his work ethic and striving in life as ‘excruciating’ – the battle between trying to please everyone versus being true to yourself and being the perfect family man yet giving it all to your work. It is a pleasure to witness the strong, spiritual, and passionate man that emerges from the battlefield. 

4. Year Book by Seth Rogan – A hilarious fun read that was exactly what I needed. I read this while living in Riverside, on the streetcar, laughing out loud through my mask. Seth takes us through his early days of comedy (he started when he was just a teenager!), jokes about his quirky grandparents, tells lots and lots of stories about drugs, celebrity run-ins, and expresses his serious side too. I adored the love story with his wife, Lauren Miller, who he is just so enamoured with. He is quite a sensitive soul, and talks about the impact of criticism and rejection, and how tough it is to just put yourself out there. He talks about his movie, The Interview, in which his character is tasked to assassinate Kim Jong Un, and how it is globally banned (since it “almost starts a war”) and he has to get a personal security guard for protection. There is also a tiger involved that the film gets from Toronto, from a stripper. A great light-hearted read guaranteed to make you laugh.

5. My Daughter Rehtaeh Parsons by Glen Canning – I saw this book at Indigo as a ‘staff pick’ and it called out to me. It’s the story of teenager Rehtaeh Parsons (named “Heather” spelled backwards by her mother), who is introspective, loves science, wonders at the beauty of the universe, and is longing to fit in and find her place among her peers. One night at a party, she is abused and then exploited by her peers. Our entire system fails this young girl. The entire community in this small Nova Scotian town fails her. She can’t escape the taunts, isn’t protected by the police, her peers, or the justice system. On April 4, 2013, Rehtaeh Parsons attempts suicide and dies three days later. The book is an expression of her father’s love, grief, and immense pain as he continues to live through unimaginable circumstances, and his own journey of revelation and healing. This is the second book on the list where there is a transformative experience induced by a herbal concoction – Glen goes to Costa Rica for a ‘therapeutic deep dive’ with psychedelic mushroom therapy and his experience helps to heal him. This book, co-written with Susan McClelland, is written so beautifully, and while you will most definitely shed many tears, you will also be amazed at the strength of her parents and be inspired to do all you can to ensure that this never happens to any child again.

6. The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd – What if Jesus had a wife? In this story, Ana, a compassionate and rebellious girl, leaves the confines of the life that society, family, and convention has decided for, and finds herself adrift, and encounters the greatest love of all. Ana’s unexpressed longings find an outlet – her longing for love, release, and the truth. She is patient as she waits for Jesus amidst his spiritual quests, to fight for his principles and for the people of the land. Ana fights for the women who have been cruelly mistreated for standing up for themselves, and is continuously defiant in the face of danger. She is one of my favourite heroines of all time.

All my life, longings lived inside me, rising up like nocturnes to wail and sing through the night. That my husband bent his heart to mine on our thin straw mat and listened was the kindness I most loved in him. What he heard was my longing to be born.

ANA, THE BOOK OF LONGINGS

7. What it Takes: To Live & Lead with Purpose by Zahra Al-Harazi – This transformative memoir by author and entrepreneur Zahra Al-harazi was recommended to me by my friend Hetal, who met her at a Women Against MS conference where she was a keynote speaker. Zahra’s story takes place in Uganda, Yemen, India, the U.S. and Canada, as she discovers her personal talents and finds her way through depression and a difficult relationship. The book includes tips on how to embody your highest purpose, and causes you to reflect on what may be holding you back. I admired her courage in sharing her failures, and really enjoyed her sense of humour as I listened to her audio book. There is a hilarious incident when she ventures into the world of retail, and quits when one of her colleagues gets a cold sore. This was my book club pick, and before our virtual meeting, I messaged Zahra and asked if she would like to join, and she responded saying she would be happy to! It was such a pleasure to have her join us from her home in Calgary, and she looked radiant after her run. She talked to us about her writing process, things that she left out of the book, as well as her tips on how to handle things that you can’t do anything about… “I put it in Pandora’s box” she said. She theorizes that our habits will change for the better because of the pandemic… we are more becoming more conscious of what we buy and how we spend our time, and recognizing the value of in-person face time and mentoring. She even hinted at a sequel – I can’t wait to read it!

8. The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates – In this book, Melinda Gates bravely tells her own story, along with the stories of women she meets in developing countries. She is able to bring her compassion and strong presence of mind to some of the world’s toughest problems. She talks about a woman who dies during child birth – something that should be completely preventable. “Every year, millions of newborns die within a matter of days or weeks, and hundreds of thousands of women die in childbirth,” said Gates. “The death toll is so huge, and has persisted for so long, it’s easy to think we’re powerless to do much about it.” I really appreciated her anecdotes as an employee, and how she would feel very insecure before meetings – to the point where she would memorize what she was going to say, and come off feeling scripted and not spontaneous, unable to freely respond in the moment. I have definitely experienced that same feeling, and it was reassuring to hear that even a leader like her feels the same thing. The moment of lift is the moment when an airplane takes off and leaves the ground. It is also a moment of inspiration and of grace.

9. Letting Go with Love: The Grieving Process by Nancy O’ConnorThis book has helped me to cope with my friend Gosia’s passing in June 2021. It is still a really difficult reality to process, and many times I just hope that it isn’t true. I think only time, love, and acceptance will heal. And I know that I’m so very lucky to have known her and have spent so much time with her. The book validates a lot of the emotions and experiences you’re feeling when going through loss – memory lapses, worry, feeling helpless, and also gives solutions on how to navigate through it all. Above all, it is necessary to process your emotions rather than avoid them. “Because grieving is a process, you will naturally move forward and progress if you just relax and go with it. On the other hand, if you resist and fight the work of grief, you will eventually break down physically, mentally or, in time, both ways.” I find that the author gives a lot of tough love throughout the book, which is necessary in order to guide the path to your healing.

10. Goodnight Ganesha by Nadia Solomon – I was wandering through Queen Books in Leslieville, and this gorgeous children’s book caught my eye.

Bed time! Goodnight Ganesha. :-)

It’s about a brother and sister who have a nighttime ritual and say goodnight to Lord Ganesha, while getting warm tea, tickles on their feet, and lots of cuddles from their mom and dad. The words are lyrical, and have the effect of lulling you to bed as you read them. Since I collect children’s books, I was a little reluctant to part with this one – especially given my niece’s past history of tearing out pages!! (it means the book is her favourite I’m told). But so far the book remains intact. She loves this book so much, and would eagerly say, “Goodnight Ganesha” when asked what book she wanted me to read. She would fill in the blanks too – “tickles on feet” – “Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma”, and was amazed by the patterns, colours, and vibrant illustrations.

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