Books I Read and Loved in 2017

Here are the Top 10 books I read and loved in 2017! It was a wonderful year for reading, with lots of memorable stories, twists and turns, and inspiring prose.

1. The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin – I initially chose this book for my Toronto book club, long before it became a bestseller. I was intrigued after reading the first few pages at Chapters; at the time I thought that it was some type of dramatic romance novel. When I eventually got further into it, I was amazed to discover that it was actually about reincarnation and past lives. The three main characters, Janie, her son Noah, and psychiatrist Dr. Jerome Anderson are on a journey to uncover what is haunting young Noah, and to help prove the truth about reincarnation. The story is a page-turner, and makes you think about your own beliefs and encounters with the paranormal. I read this book mostly on my phone, nestled in my bed late at night.

2. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – This startling memoir describes a man’s end of life journey with terminal lung cancer. I first read an excerpt from Paul’s book in a famous article, which included a poignant letter to his daughter. My friends got me this book as part of a care package before I moved to Ottawa. Reading about Paul’s gruelling days while his body was wracked with pain is astounding – I have no idea how he did it, other than that he was so immersed in his work that he literally forgot himself. Kalinithi writes: Every morning at 5:30, as the alarm clock goes off, and my dead body awakes, my wife asleep next to me, I think again to myself: ‘I can’t go on.’ And a minute later, I am in my scrubs, heading to the operating room, alive: ‘I’ll go on.’ I read this book mostly on my phone, while travelling with my Mom to a wedding in Boston. It’s a story that will stay with me for a long time.

3. The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami  This is a really beautiful book. It’s written as if the author is an artist painting a beautiful landscape. It’s about a man named Sripathi Rao, who undergoes a huge life shift when he discovers that his eldest daughter has been killed in a car accident, and him and his wife must care for their granddaughter Nandana, who arrives from Vancouver to Sripathi’s home in Toturpram, India, shy and scared. The characters in this book are memorable – Sripathi himself, his cantankerous mother, his loyal yet fed-up wife, and his son, who is a source of disappointment in his life. I first heard of this book when I attended the taping of Canada Reads at the CBC studios in Toronto, and watched in awe as actor Vinay Virmani defended it (it ended up losing out to Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal).

4. A Space Between by Ranjita Ghosh  Oh my ghosh this book was good. Haha, see what I did there. It’s not every day that you get a read a book written by a friend. This amazing book is a tale of romance, conflict, and the impacts of breaking societal norms, with a shocking twist. Daniel falls for Aahna, an Indian girl who works as a cleaner at his company in India. They fall in love but it is forbidden by society and their families. I read this book mostly at the kitchen table at home in Kanata, while having tea or eating breakfast. Being rebellious by nature myself, I found myself getting irritated every time that Daniel and Aahna ‘couldn’t’ do something because it was forbidden, and also very impressed by their courage to risk everything for true love. The twist made my jaw drop, and added to the depth of the story – it’s at this point that the story became a real page-turner for me; I couldn’t wait to find out how it ended! I was inspired not only by the story itself, but also how Ranjita found the time to write it, given her busy schedule! Definitely a sign that anything is possible.

5. The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh – This is a book for all of us math geeks and nerds, especially those that are fans of the Simpsons. Did you know that all the writers on the Simpsons are mathematical geniuses? Many of them chose a career of comedy writing over a path of academia. It’s because of this you will find hidden references to mathematics throughout episodes of the Simpsons, from Bart’s calculus equation in his first class at a private school, to Maggie’s blocks spelling out E = mc². I learned so many cool math tidbits in this book, many of which I shared with my students. The author, Simon Singh, manages to take us on an intriguing mathematical journey, with humour, insight, and creativity. You definitely don’t need to be a math whiz to enjoy this book.

6. The Buddha in Brooklyn by Martha Sherrill  I discovered this book in the Religion section of the Toronto Reference Library (a place that brings me great peace). I sunk into it immediately. It’s written as part journalism and part biography. Martha Sherrill follows the unlikely path of Jetsunma, a Jewish-Italian woman from Brooklyn who becomes a Bodhisattva after a high-ranking lama sees divinity and great leadership potential in her. In what begins as a journey to document the building of a stupa, Martha discovers shocking secrets about Jetsunma and how she treats those that believe in her. This book is well-written, informative, and provides an in-depth portrait of a complex person who in desperately seeking perfection, which paradoxically heightens her flaws.

7. I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh  I read this book for my Ottawa book club. It is written by Clare Mackintosh, a former police officer who was greatly moved by a case in England where a child was killed in a hit-and-run accident. She used that incident as a basis for this fictional novel. The main character, Jenna Gray, is harbouring an awful secret, and hopes to rebuild her life anew in another town. Yet the memories of the accident cannot stop playing through her mind. I want to fix an image of him in my head, but all I can see when I close my eyes is his body, still and lifeless in my arms. I let him go, and I will never forgive myself for that”. Meanwhile, two police officers are investigating the case, and will stop at nothing to uncover the person responsible. The book touches on themes of mystery, betrayal, domestic abuse, and the quest to uncover the truth. Highly recommended.

8. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce  It’s a good thing I don’t list these books in order because this one might’ve been my favourite. Harold Fry is on a journey to save his friend Queenie, and he is going to do it by walking from his home in Queensbridge to her hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. I read this in the summertime, mostly at home and outside near the Beaver Pond. One afternoon, I sat on a bench at a park and a man walking his dog saw me reading and said “that’s something I always want to do but I never get a chance to. Enjoy.” Another lady smiled and said “Good for you”. So friendly and nice!! Harold’s journey starts out as a one-man show, but eventually it becomes much larger than he anticipated. It is up to him to remember why he started and not get carried away by all the fanfare. One of the best parts of this book is Harold’s relationship with his wife, and how they both discover how much they mean to one another.

9. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh  I read this book in the fall, and it lingers with me still. It is about Victoria, a broken girl in the foster care system, who is trying to find purpose in her life through her love of flowers. Sometimes the flowers say things that are trapped inside of her, and at other times the flowers allow her to communicate with others, and say more than she could ever say in words. The book could be frustrating at times, because, as one reviewer put it, you continually find yourself wanting to shake Victoria and say, “Why can’t you just let yourself be happy?”  Time and again, she lets love slip because she feels unworthy. The book is extremely well-written, emotional, and beautiful.

10. The Girl With Seven Names by Hyenseo Lee – This book was selected as the November read for my Ottawa book club. I literally could not put it down. It’s a book about a girl who escapes North Korea and goes on a long, arduous path to reunite with her family and find her identity in a new country. We had a lively book club discussion about this book, and wondered how one person could possibly endure so much, and if she feels as though the pain was all worth it in the end. I posted a picture of all of us from the book club, and it was so cool when Hyenseo herself came across the photo on Instagram and liked my picture! (yep I am easily excited). Hyenseo Lee (her seventh name) is now a human rights advocate and has given one of the most-watched TED talks of all time. This book shook me to my core. It was equal parts inspiring, tormenting, and riveting. I highly recommend it.

Notable Mentions

  • Ruling Your World – Sakyong Mipham
  • Brain Rules – John Medina
  • Save Me – Kristyn Kusek Lewis
  • Proof of Heaven – Eben Alexander
  • The Path of the Dreamhealer – Adam McLeod
  • Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff

Books I Read and Loved in 2016

Well this post is incredibly late, but better late than never. Here are the Top 10 books I read and loved in 2016!

1. Kiss The Joy As It Flies – This book by Sheree Fitch was a pleasure to read. I bought it for $1 from the used book store at the Toronto Reference Library, and to my delight, discovered that it was signed by the author. The title of the book is from the William Blake poem “Eternity” – But he who kisses the joy as it flies, Lives in eternity’s sun rise. It’s about a woman named Mercy who could use a little mercy herself. She is diagnosed with cancer with not long to live, yet finds such joy in life and her journey. In the face of turmoil, Mercy clings to what gives her meaning – she creates a bucket list of things to do before she dies, and tries to repair relationships and uncover secrets of the past. She is charming and humorous, and hates taking advice from others on how to live her life. I read this on the TTC, in bed, and on my way to visit my friend Emily while she was renovating a home in the east end of Toronto.

2. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – I read this as part of my book club. It’s about a woman named Francis who lives in an old town in England and is enamoured with her renter (which they called the ‘paying guests’ at that time because it sounded more dignified). Francis falls in love with Lilian, a beautiful woman who is married to a man named Leonard. Leonard and Lilian seem to be a happy couple but underneath the façade, Lilian isn’t very happy and feels unsettled. She and Francis spend more and more time together and fall in love. But then what to do about Leonard? Well something happens that takes care of him for good. Yes the book is twisted, but also beautifully written. The girls in my book club thought it was just ok, but I absolutely loved it because it drew me in and made me forget about time. I read this book mostly at Starbucks. Sarah Waters is a gifted story-teller who takes you deep into the psyches of the characters and the motivations behind their actions. She knows how to describe love, betrayal, anxiety, and that conflicted feeling where there is a turn in the road, and the decision you make right at that moment determines the rest of your life.

3. The Girls by Lori Lansens – This book is about two conjoined twins who go through life, well, joined together and experience all the highs and lows of life together. I really liked the structure of the book and how it alternates between Ruby’s diary entries and the actual story. The girls are very close to their Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash, and this relationship shapes their characters and journey. Lori Lansens is an amazing writer… I hope to write as well as her one day. Her writing makes you reflect on what it means to share your life with someone in the most intimate way – and to experience some of your most private moments with another person. I finished this book in the summer in Ottawa, and then brought it to England to lend to my aunt. She enjoyed it just as much as I did, and had such wonderful insights to share about it.

4. Broken Open: How Difficult Times Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser – I appreciated this book so much. I read it in England when I was going through a really difficult time, at my aunt’s house, and also in the car ride to North Wales. From the back of the book: Will we be broken down and defeated, or broken open and transformed? Elizabeth shares her own story and those of others that were transformed by their pain. I loved the beginning of the book when she talks about her visit to a psychic and how the psychic tells her that there is a significant man named “Tom” in her life, and it turns out that she had dated three Toms recently! The psychic says that this last Tom was important in her life but she wasn’t meant to be with him – she says that he has his own soul journey to go on. I highly recommend this book, especially if you are going through a difficult period in your life and are looking for some inspiration.

5. Veiled Threat by Sally Armstrong – This is one of those books that my parents don’t think I should be reading. It is written by journalist, feminist, and human rights advocate Sally Armstrong. She takes us into the Taliban regime and the way that women were treated during that time as well as the amazing work that was done by women around the world that reached out to their sisters in Afghanistan at the time. We meet the amazing Dr. Sima Samar among others. This book was written in the 90’s at the time when no one was reporting on women’s rights issues. Sally Armstrong was one of the first to report on women’s rights issues and the amazing thing is that she is still at it. I went to see her speak at an event downtown and she spoke about how she is encouraged by how girls and women are joining forces to stand up for themselves, and how social media is playing an important role in activism and effecting change.

6. The Color of Grace by Bethany Haley – This was one the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. I picked it up at Book Ends, the small used bookstore at the Toronto Reference Library. It called out to me one Saturday afternoon as I sipped my Balzac’s tea and browsed through the store. Initially I was a little turned off by all the God references (and this is even after I have turned towards God myself), but actually I could not think of a person more fully surrendered to love, duty, and God than this young woman. She goes to Africa to help child soldiers and children who are victims of war crimes, and she witnesses the worst suffering known to man. The children are beautifully resilient, and even in the worst of it all, they are able to smile and be joyful. It is truly inspirational. They heal through art, therapy, open communication, play & sport, and gentle loving care. This book will stay with me always.

7. The Self Illusion by Bruce Hood – This is an analytical, research-based book that looks at human behaviour and why we do the things we do (one of my favourite genres). I loved this book for a few reasons. It was fascinating in its analysis of the human mind and our motivations, and also because I read it on a beautiful summer day when I was doing Walk In Her Shoes. I remember lying on the grass underneath a tree at Osgoode Hall and reading for hours. Even though this is far from a spiritual book, it is interesting to see that the data he collects shows that most people identify their sense of self to physically be located between the eyebrows (also known as “the third eye” in yogic lore). His explorations of free will vs. destiny are also quite fascinating. Be careful reading this book – too much self reflection will make you rethink your own existence!

8. The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall – This haunting, intense read was another book club read. I remember reading this so vividly because it was the first time I read an entire book on my phone. I read it during the months where I was crashing on my brother’s couch, late at night before going to bed. It was a real page turner for me, simply based on the interesting plot – a family torn apart by the father/husband being accused of rape. I really related to the character of Joan and how she was torn between standing by her man versus protecting herself – not knowing what to believe, enraged by her lack of control, humiliated, and struggling to be a good mother to her children who were clearly suffering just as much as she is. The book has many twists and turns that keep you on your toes, and is also incredibly well written.

9. True to Life by Beth Kaplan – This book was written by Beth Kaplan, who was the instructor of a memoir writing class that I took last year at U of T.  Every book about writing has a special place in my heart because I appreciate how hard it is to get words on paper, that imperfect messiness that is the first draft, that you want to delete from existence so that there’s no chance anyone will ever read it. Luckily Beth has lots of good advice on how to overcome those nasty negative voices and to get something down that is honest and authentic. I read this book one chapter at a time, sitting at Aroma in Liberty Village, at Tacos 101 on Dundas after volunteering, and during my trip to England. I would recommend this book to anyone that has a story to tell – and that’s everyone.

10. Falling Up by Dana Liesegang – This amazing autobiography tells the story of a woman’s “wild ride from victim to kick-ass victory.”  Dana is a feisty, independent woman who goes through a horrific assault that leaves her paralyzed, and has to pick up the pieces of her life in order to survive. I was so inspired by this book that I would stop and re-read parts over and over. I appreciated the candor with which she wrote, and her imperfect journey in finding the right treatments, people, and path that would lead to her recovery. Along the way, she meets many amazing people, including Tipper Gore and the late Dr. Wayne Dyer, who are blown away by the power of this small person who has overcome so much. I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for a courage-booster and also for an enjoyable read (Dana has a wonderful sense of humour!).

Notable Mentions

  • Buddhist Scriptures – Edward Conze
  • The Cavendon Women – Barbara Taylor Bradford
  • The Vintage Book of Canadian Memoirs
  • The Secrets of Mariko – Elizabeth Bumiller
  • Shopaholic Gets Married – Sophie Kinsella
  • Count Me In – Emily White


Something Fierce

This evening I went to see Carmen Aguirre speak at the reference library. Earlier in the day, I’d read a Globe and Mail article about her journey, and I was transfixed by what she had experienced in her life. I was curious to see what kind of woman she was, what her experiences had meant for her. She had that twinkle in her eye, of a person who had been through a lot, and seen the light through the darkness.

She talked about PTSD, and how the childhood rape had never left her. I couldn’t believe how she was able to talk about such trauma with a sort of detachment. In fact, she was able to address most of the tough questions very evenly, even while the people asking the questions were breaking down in tears. One woman spoke at length in Spanish about how her mother had joined the resistance in Chile, and to this day, she has been unable to find her, but lately she has been having dreams about her mother and she feels as though her dreams are a sign that she should seek her out. Carmen advised her on human rights organizations to follow up with – although she said that most people who join the resistance change their names (she had), and it would be almost impossible to track someone down.

The rape occurred when she was only 13 years old, by a man who had been wanted by the police for years, known as the Paper Bag rapist, because of the way he would cover the victims eyes with a paper bag. He later went on to be convicted of more than 14 sexual assaults, even though it is suspected that he was responsible for hundreds. She describes how during the rape, she escapes her body and becomes an eagle that soars overhead. It is a stunningly beautiful depiction of her spirit, and how she experiences something that is at the depths of evil, the absence of love, light, and anything good. It is so beautiful the way she describes it, and you can picture that eagle, flying high above her little 13-year-old body, that is being forever altered by this one man.

Thirty-three years after she was raped, she faces her rapist in prison, with another woman, Laura who was also a victim. It’s hard to understand the compassion that she has for this man, and I could see people in the audience shuddering as she talks about their encounter (“It’s nice to meet you again” he says). She said something to the effect of “I am him”, recognizing that she was part of him and he was part of her. I wish I remembered her exact words because they were perfect. She has genuine compassion for this man, who most of us would hate with every cell of our being. It reminded me of a quote that I read in Aphrodite’s Daughters, in an essay about sexuality and evil. “Even if we never have done and never will do an evil deed, we would be fools to ignore the potential for evil that lies within us all”, the author says. She references the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known Buddhist monk, as he reflects upon an incident that he witnessed during the Vietnam war.

I am the 12-year-old girl, refugee
on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after
being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving

Carmen talks about her childhood as part of the Chilean resistance in her first book, Something Fierce: Memoirs of A Revolutionary Daughter. This new memoir, which flashes back to the rape that altered her life is called Mexican Hooker #1. She is a fierce woman who has led a revolutionary life in both senses of the word.