Book Review: 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do by Amy Morin

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Developing mental strength isn’t about having to be the best of everything. It also isn’t about earning the most money or achieving the biggest accomplishments. Instead, developing mental strength means knowing that you’ll be okay no matter what happens. – Amy Morin, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do

In 2015, psychotherapist and Northeastern University lecturer Amy Morin did a TedxOcala talk called The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong. The talk was a success, garnering over 11.7 million views on YouTube in the last four years. On a personal note, it also happens to be one of the most impactful Ted Talks I’ve ever listened to. To think I almost skipped her speech the first time I heard it! But there was something about Amy Morin’s voice that compelled me to stop and pay attention.

Perhaps it was the curious, tremulous quality of her voice that piqued my interest. After all, the vulnerability her voice betrayed seemed to contrast starkly with the talk’s subject matter. (Of course, this was before I learned that showing vulnerability is a sign of mental strength.) But as her speech went on, and she began talking about her own experiences of grief—having tragically and unexpectedly lost three of her loved ones in a span of a few years—I realized that this was a person who had lived through what she was teaching.

Her work as a psychotherapist may have given her theoretical knowledge on how to deal with grief, but she had more than just her expertise to back her recommendations, she had experience. During the talk, Morin shared a condensed list of the hard lessons she learned during those difficult years. In her book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, she expands the list and expounds on each lesson.

Now, for copyright reasons, I’m not going to go through the entire list of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. If you want the full list, you can view it here on the author’s website. But as a backgrounder for the review, Amy Morin’s list does include the following items:

  1. They Don’t Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves;
  2. They Don’t Shy Away from Change;
  3. They Don’t Worry About Pleasing Everyone;
  4. They Don’t Resent Other People’s Success; and
  5. They Don’t Feel the World Owes Them Anything.

Now, if you read a lot of self-help books, you may have already encountered some of the ideas discussed in 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. You may even think, “Well, that’s all just common sense.” But as the old saying goes, “Common sense isn’t always common practice,” and what’s great about Morin’s book is that it gives its readers a chance to bridge that gap between knowledge (common or otherwise) and practice.

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Written in simple and accessible prose, 13 Things is a very easy and helpful read. It’s packed to the brim with relatable anecdotes from both the everyman, (usually the author’s patients), and key figures in history. Morin uses their stories to underscore the importance of each lesson and to illustrate how we can apply these learnings in our own lives.

Another thing I really like about 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do is how each chapter is structured to maximize the reader’s takeaway and to improve recall of the book’s key points. This is particularly important because as Morin stresses at the start of the book, developing mental strength requires practice. You don’t just read a book and become instantly better. The process of betterment is an ongoing one that requires consistent recalibration and reflection. And the fact that each chapter includes a checklist of “symptoms,” a list of benefits, and separate sections on What’s Helpful and What’s Not Helpful, makes it easier and quicker to review the most important ideas in the text.

Yes, but does it work?

I suppose that’s the big question isn’t it? Is the book effective? Does it work? Well, in my experience, I started reading the book at a time when I really needed some guidance. I had been feeling the blues for a while and was experiencing serious self-doubt over whether or not I could make something out of my life. I was teeming with insecurities, resentments, and self-loathing. So, you can say that the timing was right. Like any other self-help book out there, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do is only as effective as you want it to be. As Lao Tzu puts it, “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.”

And I sincerely believe that Amy Morin’s book has a lot to teach us. That is, if we’re willing and ready to listen. So, though not terribly “original” in terms of ideas, 13 Things does deliver as an efficient and potentially practicable self-help book. At the very least, it provides readers with the tools they need to apply change in their lives. All in all, this is a pretty solid self-help book. I’d say right in the region of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.”

Rating: A-

Book Review: I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

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It was a shooting that inspired outrage throughout the globe. On October 9, 2012, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was on her way home from school when her school bus was stopped just a few hundred meters from a checkpoint in Swat Valley. A young man boarded the van and asked a single question, “Who is Malala?”

Though none of her schoolmates had answered, some of the girls had looked over at her. The man aimed at her and fired three shots, one of which hit Malala square in the left eye socket. The Taliban bullet was intended to silence the young woman forever, but instead, it only served to make Malala’s voice louder—and this time the whole world was listening. Almost overnight, Malala Yousafzai became the face and the voice of all Pakistani girls who were struggling to get an education at a time when the Taliban was blowing up their schools and demanding purdah or risk violence or even death.

In I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai (with the help of Christine Lamb) bravely tells her story. She talks about how it was like growing up in the beautiful Swat Valley, the Switzerland of Pakistan, and how the Taliban had tried to eradicate all that was wonderful in her homeland—their culture, their history, their art, architecture and music, and the Pashtun way of life.

A Name Fit for a Hero

“I was a girl in a land where rifles are fired in celebration of a son, while daughters are hidden away behind a curtain, their role in life simply to prepare food and give birth to children.” – p.13

When Malala was born on July 12, 1997 in Mingora, Pakistan, her father, Ziauddin, and her mother, Toor Pekai, were over the moon. While most Pashtuns considered the birth of a daughter as a “gloomy” event, her parents saw to it that her birth was properly celebrated. Her father asked the community to throw coins, candies, and dried fruits into her cradle—a custom typically reserved for newborn sons. Ziauddin even insisted on adding Malala to the Yousafzai family tree, which prior to that moment only included the names of male relatives.

He also named her after a revered Afghan heroine—Malalai of Maiwand. Legend has it that when the war against the British broke out, Malalai’s fiancée was among the thousands of Afghans who fought against the invading forces. Like the rest of her village’s women, Malalai took to the battleground to bring aid and water to their troops. When the flagbearer fell, Malalai bravely took his place. She could see that her countrymen were losing hope. So, the young woman took off her white veil, raised it overhead, and began marching with the troops. She cried out, “Young love, if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand then, by God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame.” She died fighting for what she believed in.

That Malala had been named after one of the most courageous women in history is incredibly fitting. She is, after all, a hero in her own right. But the choice of her name also reflects her parents’ incredibly progressive views, especially that of Ziauddin’s. Even as a young man, Malala’s father had believed in the importance of education—not just for the boys of the village, but for the girls as well. His dream—a dream that was realized in the early 2000s—was to open a school that all the village’s children could attend. In I am Malala, we actually see Ziauddin’s struggle to keep his school open and afloat.

Ziauddin’s eloquence, high morals, and commitment to education for all made him a popular member of their community. It also made him a target for the ultra-conservative members of the town. One mullah* (Muslim scholar) in particular, Mufti Ghulamullah, tried multiple times to close down Ziauddin’s school. He claimed, “Ziauddin is running a haram* (forbidden by Islamic law) school in your building and bringing shame to the mahalla* (neighborhood).”

Despite the mullah’s many protests, Malala’s father kept his school open. Time and again, Ziauddin argued and won his case in front of the village elders. But what the family didn’t expect was that bigger trouble was just beyond the horizon. Within a few short years after issues began for the Khushal school, the Taliban hit their valley.

The Rise of the Taliban: Children Caught in the Crossfire

“Though we loved school, we hadn’t realized how important education was until the Taliban tried to stop us. Going to school, reading, doing our homework wasn’t just a way of passing time it was our future.” – p.136

When Malala was just ten years old, news broke out about trouble in other parts of Pakistan. Religious extremists had begun banning and destroying DVD and CD shops, attacking cinemas, and harassing men dressed in Western-style clothing. The women were also being forced into purdah—the practice of keeping Muslim and Hindu women covered up and in seclusion. But for the people of Swat Valley, life went on as usual. That is, until the rise of Radio Mullah.

The rise of the Taliban in Swat Valley started out innocuous enough. Maulana Fazlullah, a 28-year-old former pulley operator, began a radio program called Mullah FM. He used his program to voice his very traditional views about everything; from haircuts to vaccination, beard length to the ‘proper way of dressing.’ But as Fazlullah gained a large following, his prescriptions to his listeners became more and more extreme. He began speaking out against the education of women and the need for purdah. He turned tyrannical, urging violence against anyone who disobeyed Taliban laws or dared to speak out against him.

Music, movies, board games, television, and all radio stations apart from Radio Mullah were banned. Dancing was banned. And then the Taliban began blowing up schools and cultural sights. They strong-armed their way into Swat Valley, destroying homes, killing offenders and detractors and dumping their bodies in the town square. They tried to scare everyone into compliance, but Ziauddin and his family would not be silenced.

How One Girls’ Voice Landed Her in Trouble with the Taliban

“If one man, Fazlullah, can destroy everything, why can’t one girl change it?” – p.131

At every turn, Ziauddin spoke out against Fazlullah. He organized peace marches, met up with various village leaders, and created a group that was designed to protect the rights of the community, including the right of all children to an education. He also convinced some of his female students to speak out about how the growing militancy in the area was forcing many of them to drop out of school. Malala, of course, was the most outspoken of the girls.

She was determined to let the rest of the world know how the Taliban was destroying her hometown. Like Ziauddin, Malala placed tremendous importance on the education of girls. Her dream was for every girl in Swat to be free to go to school regardless of their financial situation. So, she spoke out. At first, she did so ‘anonymously’ by writing an online journal for BBC Urdu where she talked about life under Taliban rule. To protect her identity, she opted to write under the pseudonym Gul Makai. But her anonymity was short-lived.

Pretty soon, Malala was speaking out against the extremist group freely and openly. She gave interviews to various local and international news agencies. The awards and the prizes began rolling in. And yet, despite the recognition she received, Malala knew that none of it would amount to anything if her dream wasn’t realized.

“I began to see the awards and recognition just like that. They were little jewels without much meaning. I needed to concentrate on winning the war… We decided to spend the rest of the money on people who needed help. I wanted to start an education fund.” – p.201

And just as quickly as the awards came, so did the threats against her family. Now, what makes Malala’s case especially commendable is how she didn’t go into it blindly. In the book, she talks about how she prayed for strength every day and how she’d check the gates and doors at night to make sure they were locked. Malala’s actions exhibited true courage. As the Nelson Mandela quote goes: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

From Peshawar to Birmingham: The Fight Continues

The day Malala Yousafzai was shot was a day of chaos for the people in Swat Valley. To protect her against further attacks, the gravity of her injuries was kept secret even from her family. She spent the first two days in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Peshawar before being airlifted to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology in Rawalpindi, where doctors and nurses worked round-the-clock to save her.

The hospital was put into lockdown. Snipers were positioned on the hospital roof and soldiers were posted all over the area. The Pakistani government was determined to find her shooter, even offering 10 million rupees for any information regarding the gunman.

Although Malala was expected to survive, a sudden swelling in her brain forced doctors to perform a risky emergency procedure that included the removal of a part of her skull. The surgery was successful and the swelling went down, but there was still the question of rehabilitation which was bound to take months. The security risk was too great to keep her where she was.

After much weighing of political ramifications and logistics, the government decided to send Malala to the Queen Elizabeth Medical Center in Birmingham—a hospital that specialized in emergency care and rehabilitation. After a few weeks, her family was allowed to follow her in England, where they have since remained.

It took almost three months before Malala could join her family in their temporary lodgings in the West Midlands. A month later, she underwent another surgery to restore her hearing and help reconstruct her skull. Since her successful recovery, Malala has become the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (2014) and has continued her activist work for girls’ education in Pakistan. And though the book may have concluded with her recovery, her fight continues today.

Not a Quick or Easy Read but an Incredibly Important One

At just 310 pages, I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban is a pretty slim volume. It’s certainly one of the shortest autobiographies I’ve read thus far. And yet, despite just being over 300 pages long, with a good few pages dedicated to pictures of Malala and her family, it still took me several days spread out in the course of three months to finish the book.

To be clear, it’s a very well-written book, and a definite page-turner from a quarter in onwards. But it did take a while for me to get used to the writing style. Part-history lesson and part-narrative, I am Malala is a highly informative book that intersperses the history of Pakistan’s politics with Malala’s own experiences. The book provides multiple heavy but eminently necessary backgrounders on the changing sociopolitical climate of the country. The shift in tone can be a little hard to read or jarring the first few times you encounter it, but the deeper you go (and the more you understand about her homeland and their culture) the more gripping the book becomes.

It’s a heavy book to be sure, but it’s one that should be read by as many readers as possible.  Malala’s story is one that must be told again and again until it generates the force needed to create positive change.

Rating: A

Book Review: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

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A quick snap of the book on my way out. Pardon the lack of artistry in the image. I promise the book is better than the photo.

When it comes to the horror genre, few writers can hold a candle to Stephen King. There’s a reason why both fans and critics alike refer to King as the undisputed King of Horror or the Grand Master of Horror Fiction. He’s just that good. For many of us horror fans who grew up in the 90s, Stephen King has managed to instill in us both a fear of clowns and a love for terrifying reads that will have us begging our parents for a night light or to check under our beds for imaginary monsters that reside solely and spectacularly in our heads.

There’s something to be said about how well Stephen King manages to turn the creature comforts and the reality of small-town living into something sinister and nightmarish. Birthday clowns and balloons? Here’s a creepy killer clown with a red balloon. Family vacation in a hotel? Madness, mayhem, and murder, or rather bloody Redrum. Man’s best friend? How about a friendly nip from Cujo? And as if high school bullying and getting your period for the first time weren’t horrible enough, King had to up the ante with Carrie’s murderous rampage. I still can’t look at tampons in the grocery store without imagining a gaggle of teenage girls screaming, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”

In Mr. Mercedes, King does it again. This time with a psychopathic killer computer repairman/ice cream truck driver. Except, there’s a twist. There’s nothing paranormal about Mr. Mercedes. No, this isn’t another one of King’s horror bestsellers, though I assure you that it’s just as terrifying as his scariest books. In this 2014 starter of the Bill Hodges trilogy, King ventures into the territory of mystery and hard-boiled detective fiction. And man, it’s definitely a nail-biter.

***Possible spoilers ahead***

The book starts out in the parking lot of a sports stadium in the Midwest, where thousands of desperate jobseekers are expected to line up for a chance at a job—any job will do. It’s 2009 and the recession has hit the United States really hard. The early birds camp out before dawn, squeezing themselves into the spiraling queue, trying desperately to keep warm on that chilly spring day. As cars begin to fill up the stadium’s massive parking lot, one vehicle stands out. It emerges from the mist in all its shining grey glory—a Mercedes SL 500. The lights of its headlamps cut through the morning fog before the car revs up and goes straight for the crowd, killing eight people and injuring over a dozen more. It’s a terrible image but an effective one. It’s one heck of a potent symbol for the inequality experienced by the working class, often under the hands of their rich employers.

In the next chapter, King fast-forwards to months after the crime. Here, we meet Bill Hodges, the book’s protagonist. As far as crime fiction clichés go, this book carries some big ones. Hodges is a retired and divorced lead detective who is profoundly unhappy with his newfound ‘freedom.’ He sits in front of the telly, day-in and day-out, occasionally contemplating suicide. One fateful afternoon, Hodges gets a letter from the stadium killer who calls himself, Mr. Mercedes. The letter is heavy-handed and an obvious taunt for Hodges to kill himself—after all, the Det. Ret. did fail to solve the biggest case of his career. Of course, it does just the opposite for Hodges. It fires him up, and we all know that a desperate man is always a dangerous one.

Now, because this isn’t a whodunnit ala Agatha Christie, King discloses the identity of the killer early on. It’s 28-year old Brady Hartsfield—the bland and forgettable computer repairman and ice cream truck driver with mommy issues and a dark, dark past. Months after successfully evading the cops, Hartfield is feeling restless for his next kill. He could have gotten off scot-free, but instead, he makes the mistake of targeting Bill Hodges. It’s game on between the detective and Mr. Mercedes.

Throw in a few more clichés—a beautiful love interest, (Janey Patterson), who inspires Hodges to fight harder, an unlikely duo as his crime-fighting partners, (teenage tech master Jeremy Robinson and anxiety-riddled genius Holly Gibney)—and you might think it’s going to be a predictable story. Except you’d be forgetting one thing: It’s Stephen King. Fresh and terrible twists are his forte. Just when you think you know where Mr. Mercedes is headed, the book careens off the usual path, starting you down on the fast lane and keeping you on the edge of your seat the entire ride.

Mr. Mercedes is a fast-paced cat-and-mouse chase that has a plethora of strong and well-written characters. While the book may not delve too deep into their backgrounds—barring Brady Hartsfield, of course, who might be evil to the core but knowable through his trauma and childhood experiences—we still get a good feel of why each character is the way he/she is. Personally, I really like the character development of Holly Gibney. We see a lot of growth in her character without compromising too much of her personality. As for the inevitable and trademark Stephen King scares, well, let’s just say that there’s enough unsettling and stomach-turning imagery to satisfy the most gore-loving of readers—this one included.

All in all, Mr. Mercedes is one heck of a page-turner and one that I’d recommend to all fellow Stephen King, horror, and crime fiction fans.

Rating: A

Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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“The caged bird sings

With a fearful trill

Of things unknown

But longed for still

And his tune is heard

On the distant hill

For the caged bird

Sings of freedom.”

  • From the poem, Caged Bird by Maya Angelou (1983)

 

THE caged bird has long been the symbol of man’s struggle against the shackles of oppression. In his 1899 poem, Sympathy, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, wrote about knowing how the caged bird feels. How it grieves for its loss of freedom, and “beats his wings till its blood is red on the cruel bars.” This image of the caged bird crying and clamoring for freedom is one that made an indelible mark on Maya Angelou’s young mind.

In her masterful 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, (the first volume of a seven-part series), Angelou herself is the caged bird trying to break out of a world rife with racism, sexism, and strife. Detailing her early years to her adolescence, this poignant autobiography shows us Maya Angelou’s transformation from a withdrawn and self-conscious child to a confident trailblazer whose works would eventually influence, give voice to, and elevate an entire nation.

(SPOILERS BELOW)

The Unwanted Child: An Attempt at Normalcy in Stamps, Arkansas

“Stamps, Arkansas, was Chitlin’ Switch, Georgia; Hang ‘Em High, Alabama; Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi; or any other name just as descriptive. People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days, he had to be satisfied with chocolate.  (p. 49)

Picture this: Two small children onboard a train—a three-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy. They sit on the edge of their seats, clasping each other’s hands so tightly their knuckles turn white. They’re traveling from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, and don’t seem to have anyone else with them. A journey of over 1,500 miles with no one to watch over them. Their tickets are pinned to the boy’s coat pocket, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find tags on their wrists addressed to the porter. The tags read: “To whom it may concern…”

Nowadays, such an occurrence is hard to imagine. Nobody in their right mind would send two preschoolers on a cross-country train trip without adult supervision. And if someone ever did, it’s the type of event that would cause an uproar. The children’s parents would likely be sued for neglect. But times were very different in the 1930s. While it was always heartbreaking for train passengers to see these children frightened and alone, it happened often enough that the children’s parents never really got into much trouble.

The example above is by no means a pretty picture, but it is an accurate one. This was how Maya Angelou and her brother, Bailey, came to live with their grandmother, Momma, and Uncle Willie in the heavily segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. Their parents had just put an end to their “calamitous marriage,” and likely thought that it was the best arrangement for their children.

After all, Momma was a strong, resourceful, and successful businesswoman. She was the proud owner of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store—the Store that provided for the everyday needs of the town’s entire Black community. And true enough, Momma did a great job raising Maya and Bailey. She gave the kids as much love, care, and discipline as any great mother could give. But while their home life provided the children the stability they needed during those early years, it still proved impossible for Momma to completely shelter them from the hardships that came with living in the racist south.

At a young age, Maya and her brother became privy to the dangers and difficulties that came with discrimination. During the cotton-picking season, Black workers from town would enter the store, thrumming with optimism over the promise of an abundant harvest. By nightfall, they would return, deflated and bone-weary. Their hands sore from an entire day of picking prickly cotton, their hearts heavy and their pockets still near empty.

There was also the looming threat of the KKK riding in at any time, looking for an excuse to punish a Black man for one crime or another. Any man with dark skin would do. It was punishment by proxy. The segregation also meant that medical services were hard to come by; as nearby white doctors and dentists refused to treat anyone with ‘colored’ skin. As Maya later observed, equality only came in the event of a national crisis.

 “It was when the owners of cotton fields dropped the payment of ten cents for a pound of cotton to eight, seven, and finally five that the Negro community realized that the Depression, at least, did not discriminate.” (p.50)

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Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Author: Margaret Atwood

First Published: 1985, McClelland and Stewart

Genre: Fiction, Dystopian, Speculative Fiction

“And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children or else I die.

And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of thy womb?

And she said, Behold my maid Billah, go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” – Genesis 30:1-3

Last September 17, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale made history when it became the first show from a streaming site to win a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. The critically acclaimed television series went on to win eight other highly coveted awards, including Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Elisabeth Moss), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Ann Dowd), Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series, (Reed Morano for Offred), and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Bruce Miller).

Now, one of the amazing effects of the show’s unprecedented success is how it brought a resurgence of interest in Margaret Atwood’s chilling literary masterpiece. Thirty-two years after its initial publication, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to resonate with and strike fear into the hearts of its readers. The book is eerily timely with its surfeit of warnings on how absolute power and fanaticism can swiftly and radically eradicate the seemingly small but ultimately significant freedoms that we enjoy today.

With the current global political climate being rife with fear and skittish unrest, the book gives us a preview of a possible worst-case scenario. It acts as a cautionary tale that spreads ice-cold dread deep into the marrow of its readers. It offers us a glimpse of a fate that is worse than death. After all, mere continued existence may be a condition of living, but it’s certainly a poor substitute to feeling alive, right?

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Book Review: Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith

“Beware the White Wraith and be careful where you tread, lest your next step be your last!” – from Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith

Title: Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith

Author: Shaun Hume

Genre: Fiction; Fantasy, Adventure, Young Adult

First Published: 2013, Popcorn & Rice Publishing

Synopsis (from Amazon): “Ewan Pendle was weird. Really weird. At least, that’s what everyone told him. Then again, being able to see monsters that no one else could wasn’t exactly normal.

Thinking he had been moved off to live with his eleventh foster family, Ewan is instead told he is a Lenitnes, one of an ancient race of people who can alone see the real Creatures which inhabit the earth. He is taken in by Enola, the mysterious, sword-carrying Grand Master of Firedrake Lyceum, a labyrinth of halls and rooms in the middle of London where other children, just like Ewan, go to learn the ways of the Creatures.”

 

The Bad Bread Review:

What makes for a truly fantastic and memorable children’s novel? Well, monsters, magic, mayhem, princesses, unlikely heroes and heroines, and good triumphing over evil all seem to be excellent elements of an exciting children’s read. But for this humble reader, the mark of a truly stellar piece of children’s literature is the book’s ability to open up a world of possibility and a sense of belongingness to its reader at a time when these reassurances are most needed.

Now, the search for one’s identity is a lifelong, and oftentimes never-ending process—that’s true. But it is a process with its pillars quietly founded in childhood. As the Pulitzer-winning American journalist Katherine Anne Porter once said, “Childhood is the fiery furnace in which we are melted down to essentials and that essential shaped for good.” For the bookish child, some of life’s greatest lessons are learned, not through interactions in the classroom or the playground, but rather through the adventures of the various heroes in their favorite novels.

And as cliché as it sounds, children need literary heroes that they can look up to and emulate. They need characters that can understand them at the fundamental level. Protagonists that face the same struggles they deal with day in and day out. Everyday struggles like difficulties fitting in, dealing with bullies, and being taken seriously in a world run by adults that are adamant that they always know better than the child. Cue that famous scene in the movie adaptation of Matilda when Harry Wormwood tells the little girl, “Listen you little wiseacre: I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

This brings us to Shaun Hume’s wonderful first novel, Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith. What I loved most about Ewan Pendle was that it readily met all my aforementioned criteria for a stellar children’s book. There was magic, yes. Mayhem was present in abundance. There were things that went bump in the night—and more than just shadows, these were monsters—or rather Creatures—that were all very real and all very frightening. There was a queen that needed saving. But most importantly, there were characters like Ewan Pendle, Mathilde Rue, and Enid Ilkin—three inspiring, brave, and somewhat ‘unlikely’ heroes that bookish children can point to and say, “that’s me!” or “that’s who I’d like to be!”

Ewan Pendle is weird and different by Lubber (non-Lentines) standards. He sees magical creatures that adults and other children cannot see. At the start of the book, he is shunned and ridiculed for his ‘overactive imagination,’ as if imagination in children was something to be cured and curbed rather than cultivated. Never mind that imagination is an integral part of innovation and creation. Never mind that one of the greatest minds of all time, Albert Einstein, firmly believed in the power of imagination. In his words, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

Ewan is made to face rejection after rejection from his foster families and classmates because of this quirk in his character. But as is often the case in the real world, what other people considered an affliction—this overactive imagination—turned out to be a very special gift. The very quality that made Ewan Pendle a ‘weirdo’ was also what made him a formidable hero. And therein lies the true beauty of this book. Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith teaches children that “different” doesn’t mean “bad,” and “weird” doesn’t equate to “wrong.” On the contrary, weird can be absolutely wonderful.

As for “different,” well, it’s all matter of perspective, isn’t it? A fact that Ewan quickly learns while on a train to London. Thinking he was about to meet his nth foster family at the end of the trip, he instead meets his new guardian, Enola Whitewood—and she is just as wonderfully weird and different as him! Enola informs Ewan that in lieu of a foster family, he’s actually gaining entry into an entirely different world than what he’s used to. He was the newest cadet of the Firedrake Lyceum, where other gifted children like him were learning to develop their special talents.

Of course, like any great children’s book, Ewan’s personal struggles to fit in and do well in Firedrake Lyceum doesn’t end in a chapter. This is his personal journey, after all. But he does learn more about himself and everything that he’s capable of. He learns more about his past—about his real parents and the world they lived in. But more importantly, he learns more about his place in the world. And that is the best lesson of all. Add an assassination plot against the queen and an almost indestructible Creature, the White Wraith, into the mix, and what you have is a rollercoaster of an adventure that will surely keep any reader at the edge of his or her seat.

Written as an homage to some of the greatest YA literature in existence, like Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket, Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith offers older readers an array of literary winks and nudges—tiny inside jokes that make reading EP feel a bit like coming home. Ultimately, Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith is a book that I would recommend to any reader looking for a spot of adventure. This is a solid first effort from its talented author, Shaun Hume—and I, for one, can’t wait for his next EP offering.

Quotes and Lessons from Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions

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Celebrated astrophysicist, cosmologist, astronomer, astrobiologist, Pulitzer-winning writer, and world-renowned scientific genius Carl Sagan was a man that wore a multitude of hats. And boy, how he wore each hat so well! Beyond being a highly lauded scientist, he was a pop culture icon that brought the most complex of scientific ideas into the everyday consciousness of the everyman.

In Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, Sagan condenses a plethora of scientific learnings and juxtaposes them with his views on humanity’s role in preserving the Earth and all its lifeforms. To quote the great scientist,

“We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves…”

He teaches this essential lesson through a series of essays (and transcribed speeches) dealing with various and seemingly disparate topics. Some of the topics tackled in his essays include the power of exponential notation and growth, man’s quick but ultimately limited progress in exploring the mysteries of the universe, the importance of morality, the great debate on abortion, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, how man is destroying the world through global warming, and the razor-sharp and double-edged sword that comes with technological growth.

Now, if that last sentence reads like a mouthful, that’s only because the book itself is overflowing with information that spans, not just the scientific plane, but the moral, the political, and the philosophical arenas of thought as well. Mind-blowing is one of the quickest terms that come to mind when I think of Billions and Billions, but it is a word that still feels greatly lacking. I’ve been awestruck by truly great text before, by works like A Room of One’s Own, An Unquiet Mind, and Existentialism is a Humanism. But this is the first time I’ve been both awestruck and struck dumb by one book.

Carl Sagan was truly a man that was larger than life, and much of his learnings (both personal and academic) have been poured out into the essays in Billions and Billions. I feel that any attempt from my end to come up with a standard review for this book will only come out clumsy and wanting. So, in lieu of an actual review, let me instead present to you a list of my favorite quotes and lessons from Billions and Billions. (Sagan’s quotes are in italics.)

Read and enjoy.

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