Thursday, February 19, 2015

1000 Voices Speak For Compassion (#1000Speak)

Brilliant, right?!
This post is part of the amazing initiative 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion. On February 20, around the world humanity is pulling together to flood the blogosphere, twitter, and facebook with kindness and compassion. If you're stopping by on the 20th and want to take part or even just read more #1000Speak posts, here is the link up, but in all honesty, today and everyday, let's just all be kind!

Here are my thoughts for UN World Day of Social Justice:

In a group therapy session a few months ago, the leader asked all of the members to introduce themselves and to include the thing(s) that were most to us. My "simple" answer was family, but my "more complicated" answer was social justice and equality. Life gets a little complicated when those two things collide. I have family members who are openly racist toward Muslims despite the fact that many of my friends practice Islam. I have other family members who think it's funny to make racist jokes about First Nations people despite the fact that I recently married a Syilx man. It's simple to disassociate with friends and delete contacts on facebook who feel the need to post hateful messages, but with family that's just not an option for me. So, I've decided what I need to do is take a lesson from the Quba Islamic Institute and come up with creative responses to hate. We are so quick to respond to hate with hate and it gets us nowhere. In fact, it moves us further away from any sort of conceivable utopia. Consider what the world would look like if acceptance was received on the sole fact that we are all human, if we could escape stereotypes and labels and put ourselves in the positions of others before we pass judgement.

When I watched this video, taken in downtown Toronto, Canada, I cried. I'll say they were tears of joy because they were, but a part of that joy still comes from the sorrow that drives this man's actions in the first place. Why are we more shocked by the strangers that stop to hug him than we are by the fact that he is standing there with these signs in the first place? Imagine if every person who saw this man hugged him and then imagine if this situation never had to exist in the first place! Regardless of whether you are Muslim or not would you be brave enough to do this in the city where you live? Would you stage a similar action with signs identifying yourself as Transgender (or any other non-heteronormative gender), or Schizophrenic (or any other mental illness), or any number of labels that would place you within a stigmatised group of people that exists outside the social "norm"? I like to think I am, but I don't know if that's really the truth.  

I dream of a day when media headlines more often include words like "kindness" and "peace" than "hatred" and "war". We can all do our part to ensure that dream comes true. I've been a RAKtivist for some time now and I challenge everyone who reads this to become one too. RAK stands for Random Act of Kindness and over the past few years I've made a conscious effort to be kinder. Sometimes opportunities to be kind just present themselves and sometimes they take a little more planning. In 2012 I spent one hundred days doing a RAK each day and keeping track of what I did. In 2013, I turned 29 on January 29 and performed 29 RAKs throughout that day. I challenged others to perform their own randomly kind acts and the result was nothing short of magical. Fifty-one people in seven countries on five continents performed seventy Random Acts of Kindness! It was the best birthday I've ever had! 

In 2016 I am launching an even bigger project in the hopes of inspiring as many people as possible to change the world with kindness. B(e) Kind 366 has been in the planning stages for a few months now and will have the finishing touches put on it throughout 2015. I hope I can entice you all to join in the fun and perhaps even create a kindness challenge of your own. 
Kindness and compassion can and will change the world, we just have to put forth the effort!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Before I write anything about this book I have to thank Carolyn from Riedel Fascination for creating the Ethereal 2015 reading challenge. I don't know if I ever would have picked up A Discovery of Witches if it wasn't for the theme of this challenge. The genre is not what I typically spend much time with. The last novel I read for the challenge featured unicorns (a creature I'm fascinated by) and this time I chose witches (another ethereal interest). What I didn't know when I picked up A Discovery of Witches is that I would be reading about not only witches, but vampires, deamons, ghosts, and a house that is more than haunted, but, rather, alive.

In the first book of her All Souls Trilogy, Harkness gives readers a story of forbidden love reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Juliet a.k.a. Diana is a witch descendant from Bridget Bishop, the first person executed in the Salem witch trials. She has suppressed her powers for her entire life and much of her story involves her journey to acceptance and mastery of those powers. Romeo a.k.a. Matthew is a 1500 year-old vampire. Both exist naturally and blend into human society, coming together in Oxford's Bodleian Library over an ancient, bewitched manuscript Ashmole 782 and initially despise each other. After all, vampires and witches are sworn enemies. The mystery behind Ashmole 782 is the driving catalyst for the entire plot, bringing other vampires, witches, and demons into the story as they all seek the manuscript. As the only one able to access the spellbound book, Diana soon becomes the target of each of these dangerous creatures. Matthew's increasing desire to protect Diana is inevitably what brings the two closer. 

A Discovery of Witches is an intelligent collection of history, academic intrigue, and myth. Harkness creates beautiful descriptions such as her explanation of Ashmole 782 as a palimpsest with once washed off ink reappearing under new text as if it were a textual ghost. The palimpsest image then occurs again, 350 pages later, in an image-evoking description of Matthew's body: "its bright surface obscuring the tale of him hinted at by all those scars." The most unique aspect of the novel has to be the house belonging to Diana's Aunt's Sarah and Emily (both also witches). It is not only haunted by a number of deceased relatives that come and go depending on the situation that arises within the walls, but the house has a mind of its very own. It closes, opens, and locks doors; creates new rooms for visiting guests; hides precious objects until they are needed; and any number of other strange and fascinating activities. 

If I am to provide some criticism it would be that A Discovery of Witches is basically Romeo and Juliet meets Twilight meets Fifty Shades of Grey. (In Harkness' defense, though, the last title in that list was published after A Discovery of Witches.) Despite the fact that Diana is a strong and independent female character, Matthew still takes on the protector or knight-in-shining-armour role that is so typical of love stories. It was rather disappointing when it became clear that Diana would inevitably take on the role of damsel-in-distress. Near the end of the novel, there is a subtle jab at Shakespeare that doesn't sit quite right, suggesting that the famous playwright was a magpie collecting other writer's stories. Demeaning the most famous playwright in history is a bit harsh coming from an author who has just written a contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet herself. 

What is wonderful about A Discovery of Witches and places it outside the confines of being labelled "just another forbidden love story" is that it asks for acceptance, but not just acceptance for the two lovers, an all-encompassing acceptance of all species (or races) by all others. The novel is a page-turner no doubt and as Diana and Matthew timewalk back to the 1590s for Harkness' second novel of the trilogy, Shadow of Night, the historical-fiction lover in me is definitely intrigued. I'm also curious to see how Shakespeare will fare through Harkness' eyes during his own time period. 

Overall, A Discovery of Witches is getting 4 stars and a glowing (of the witch variety) recommendation!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Coming Soon: B(e) Kind 366

It's been about a year since I posted on a regular basis. I've been on hiatus and I still am (sort of). While I complete my Master of Arts degree, blogging is one of the things that has to be put on the back burner so to speak. Most of the posts you'll see if you stop by will likely be book reviews. My New Year's resolution of sorts was to read for pleasure more often. To keep up with that promise to myself I signed up for a few 2015 Reading Challenges. Every now and again, though, you'll find a post like this. I've had a plan in the making for some time inspired by A few years ago I started and finished 100 Days of Kindness. Then on my 29th birthday (January 29th) I performed 29 Random Acts of Kindness that day and asked others to perform RAKs as well. The results were incredible with 51 people in 7 countries across 5 continents performing 70+ acts of kindness!

In 2016 I plan to launch B(e) Kind 366

I'll do a RAK (Random Act of Kindness) every day of the year. At the same time I'll be raising money for the WUSC (World University Service of Canada) SRP (Student Refugee Program), an organisation and program that I have been involved in for over a decade and one that has changed my life! Every month I'll have a different theme for my RAKs and different surprises for everyone who contributes to my fundraising efforts. It'll all be part of a perpetual kindness cycle and I hope you'll be a part of it!

2016 is going to be a fantastic year; I can just feel it and as part of the build up I'm going to try my best to write an anticipatory post like this at least once a month in an attempt to build my blog following. In 2016 I plan to update my blog daily as a record for B(e) Kind 366 and I'd like as many people to follow along and take part as possible! So, if you stopped by this post, please stop by again and tell all of your blogger friends. Leave a comment and I'll be sure to visit you too!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Into the Land of the Unicorns by Bruce Coville

I think I've owned Into the Land of the Unicorns for close to twenty-five years. I'm venturing to say that I ordered it from a Scholastic book order in elementary school. It's young adult fiction, but I was reading well above my age level as a youngster so I'm thinking Mom would have bought this for me before I was ten. I dug this out of my youth-book-box when I found out about Riedel Fascination's Ethereal 2015 Reading Challenge. If I had to choose a favourite ethereal being it would be the unicorn; in fact I often tell people it's my spirit animal!

Coming back to visit this book after so many years was a lot of fun. I don't have a lot of interest in YA literature and, to be honest, this book didn't help to build that interest. It is a lovely read, though, and once I got into it, the story did captivate me enough to read the last fifty pages non-stop. Into the Land of the Unicorns is a magical book filled with vibrant detail like this description of the ethereal creatures themselves: "In shape, he was much like a horse, though somewhat smaller and more finely built. His hooves were cloven, like a goat's, rather than solid like those of a horse. Mane and flowing tail seemed spun of silver cloud and moonlight. From between his enormous dark eyes thrust a spiraled horn, three feet long at the least, that glowed as if lit from within." Beautiful!

The story follows a young girl, Cara, from the human world to Luster, the land of the unicorns, where she along with a group of unlikely companions treks through dangerous country to return a powerful amulet to the Queen. Of course, they hit some bumps along the way. What fun would a fantasy be if good did not have to conquer evil?

By far, my favourite character is the Squijum, a rambunctious cross between a monkey and a squirrel who says things like: "Now now shake butts move feet hotcha get going." As a book lover, my favourite scene in the book occurs when the group reaches the home of Grimwold, keeper of the Unicorn Chronicles. He has a room called the Story Room described as follows: "Books, scrolls, stacks of paper, notebooks, pens, and pots of ink seemed to cover every available surface - of which there were many, since the room held five long, low tables. The dark wooden walls were lined with with maps, pictures, and intricately woven tapestries." I would love few things more than to live forever in that room. Wouldn't you?!

I'm really glad I revisited this book and I actually wouldn't mind reading the other three books in the series. Since YA fiction isn't really my forte, though, I'm giving this book a three star rating.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

What Makes Olga Run? by Bruce Grierson

What Makes Olga Run? was my first book purchase of 2015. I can't go into a bookstore without buying a book so I used The Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge as an excuse. I saw this on a table donning a sign that said something along the lines of "Motivational Reading" (I can't remember exactly what it said). I immediately thought of Challenge 24: A self-improvement book (can be traditionally or non-traditionally considered "self-improvement"). I'd say What Makes Olga Run? straddles the line between traditional and non-traditional.

Like the book cover says, Olga Kotelko is a 90-something track star. She competes in eleven track and field events as a Masters Class athlete around the world. She holds twenty plus world records and over six hundred gold medals. Olga laughs in the face of old age. I adored her and her story for those reasons, but also because she is Ukrainian and grew up a rural Canadian prairie girl. I, too, grew up a rural Canadian prairie girl, have Ukrainian ancestry, and I like to run! We were a match meant to be.

The book is basically Bruce Grierson following Olga through a few years of her life. Olga agreed to it, of course, but she also agreed to much more for the sake of the book. Medical doctors and research specialists throughout Canada and the United States run a barrage of tests on Olga in an attempt to figure out how she has defied old age. They all hope that Olga is their ticket to determining a formula to produce the fountain of youth. The book gets a little bogged down with names of doctors and specialists, their accreditation and the institutes or facilities they work for, and the medical terminology that comes along with a study of the body. All of that makes for a bit of dry reading at times, but I can understand the need to give credit where credit is due.

To answer the book's title question, what makes Olga run?, Grierson records expert analyses of genetics, lifestyle, attitude, personality, training methods, habits, and motivation. All of the findings are incredibly indepth, but at the same time speculative because Olga is only one person. The doctors and specialists involved all come to the same conclusion; they need more people of Olga's age and agility to test before anything concrete can be known for sure.

The overall message that the book offers, though, is also the answer to why Olga has lived so long: exercise. Grierson includes the results of a study done by Harvard epidemiologist, Ralph Paffenbarger: "Every hour of exercise we do amounts to two hours tacked onto our lifespan" (64). Olga's message to readers is similar: "rise up off your butts, people, and you will feel better and live longer" (217). That seems like a simple message, and I suppose it is. What Makes Olga Run?, however is far from being a simple book. Grierson does a thorough job of documenting the research, but also of recording Olga's life as a Masters Class athlete. The book is both scientific and personal and I'll give four bright stars as a rating of Grierson's efforts to combine the two.

Both Grierson and Olga are Canadian so I'm also crossing off the "A Work of Non-Fiction by a Canadian Author" square on the Reading Bingo Challenge.