Help Me by Marianne Power

*Thank you to HarperCollins Canada for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

It is truly a great feeling when a book surprises you in the best of ways. “Help Me” by Marianne Power is one of those books for me. This is a true story of one woman’s quest to build the life she desperately wants through self-help books. This book will make you laugh but it will also make you reflect on the big questions asked by the author. It is equally hysterical and thought provoking. In short, it was one hell of a ride that made me laugh out loud in public (I suspect onlookers were confused as to how I was laughing so much while reading a book titled “Help Me”)

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Synopsis:

“There comes a point in every woman’s life when she realizes that things cannot carry on the way they are” – Marianne Power.

On the surface, Marianne’s life seems great. She’s a thirty-six year old freelance journalist living in London. She has supportive group of family and friends. She wears designer clothes and travels often. However, deep down Marianne feels unfulfilled, lost and behind in life. As Marianne is nursing a bad hangover one Sunday morning, she comes to a realization that things need to change. She decides to turn to the world of self-help books to help her become a perfect person, with the perfect weight, living in a perfect home with a perfect life partner. The problem with this plan: there is no such thing as perfect.

Marianne embarks on a twelve-month journey in which she will read one self-help book per month. She decides that she will not only read self-help, she will DO self-help. She will follow the advice given in these books, no matter how scary it is. What follows is a year filled with uncomfortable challenges, facing fears and questioning damaging subconscious thoughts.

Does Self-Help Really Help?

“The dangerous expectation that can be created by self-help books is that if you’re not walking around like a cross between Mary Poppins, Buddha and Jesus every day you’re doing it wrong. You must try harder.” – Marianne Power

Marianne starts her self-help journey with the book “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway” by Susan Jeffers. This book inspires her to do things that she is afraid of, and so she writes up a list of scary things she would never imagine doing. She finds herself becoming a nude model for an art class, chatting up a random man on public transport, doing stand up comedy, and skydiving. I loved reading this chapter specifically because you could really feel her fear through her writing. I know there were times when I was cringing and feeling proud of her at the same time.

Perhaps my favorite part of the book was the chapter on rejection therapy, a game created by Jason Comely in which the goal is to seek out rejection in order to overcome the fear of rejection. It was an absolute riot reading the scenes where Marianne asked for free coffee, a discount in store and asked to join strangers at cafes. Her inner dialogue is gold! This chapter was not only funny, but eye opening as well. It turns out that even when Marianne was searching for rejection, she would not always get it. People would surprise her with their kindness and openness, leaving Marianne to realize that she had gone out of her way to avoid rejection her whole life and barely lived as a result.

The Downside to Self-Help:

As her journey progresses, Marianne explores more self-help books like “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey and attended a Tony Robbins seminar called “Unleash the Power Within”. What starts as an inspirational journey becomes overwhelming and Marianne soon becomes burnt out from all the self-helping. She finds herself alone with all the voices of the authors in her head leaving her feeling even more emotionally exhausted. I really think this portion of the book is important as it shows what happens when you go too far with these books. A self-help plan can be equal parts self-growth and alienating if not done right.

As Marianne realizes her friends and family are starting to worry and pulling away, she presses pause and reexamines her commitment to reading self-help. Perhaps this is the most important part of her self-growth as she looks into her own behavior and realizes she does not have do all this on her own. That asking for help from actual people and reconnecting with the people she loves can be just as empowering. It is with this realization that she takes a giant leap forward and continues with reading what turn out to be the three books that leave the biggest impact: “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle, “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown and “You Can Heal Your Life” by Louise Hay. I believe the reason why these books made the greatest impact was because she realized a journey towards self-development does not have to be taken alone.

My Thoughts:

This book was unlike any other nonfiction book I have read before. It is deeply personal, vulnerable and hilarious. At times, it felt like I was reading a novel, mainly because of the hilarious dialogue between Marianne and her mother. The mother’s advice, skepticism and genuine concern were both hysterical and endearing.

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I found myself laughing, gasping, feeling sad and rooting for the author every step of the way. The chapters are broken down according to the self-help book the author was reading. Marianne manages to capture the biggest lessons from every book she reads. If you enjoy nonfiction books that are funny and inspiring, then this book is for you. In fact, I think this book can be for anyone. You do not have to like or even appreciate self-help books to enjoy this deeply personal story.

Happy reading!

Shazia.

 

 

 

 

 

The Gown by Jennifer Robson

It truly takes a gifted author to write a historical fiction that not only pulls at your heartstrings but also makes you feel like you are back in that time living it through the characters. The Gown by Jennifer Robson is truly a gift that I enjoyed immensely.

This book is about survival.

While there are many themes that the author expertly covers, survival was the one that stuck with me till the very last page.

There are many books that are written about the war or during the war, but The Gown focuses on the aftermath. It focuses on how people pick up the pieces of their lives and rebuild brick by brick. It is about friendship, love, creation, PTSD and a person’s legacy. The Gown takes us on this journey as each of the main characters experience life altering events that take them to places they would have never imagined.

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Synopsis:

“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel.”—Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding

London 1947: A brutal winter, rationing of resources and tragic memories leaves many people feeling the harsh aftermath of World War II. Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin are embroiderers working for Norman Hartell, the famous designer who has been chosen to make the wedding gown for Princess Elizabeth. Ann and Miriam, each weighed down by memories of their past, set to work on the gown for the royal wedding. They become closer, forging a friendship that will help them both during their darkest times.

Toronto 2016: Heather Mackenzie is mourning the death of her grandmother. While helping her mother go through her Nan’s things, she discovers a box with her name on it containing embroidered flowers that resemble the flowers on Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown. Heather knows very little about her Nan’s past, but with some digging she discovers a clue that leads her to believe that her Nan once helped create the Queen’s dress. Heather boards a plane to London in search of the answers to her questions.

Themes:

I always wondered how the people living during this time were able to rebuild their lives after the brutality of WWII. How difficult it must have been for the survivors to carry the knowledge that their loved ones had died in concentration camps? How did the world heal? The Gown shows us that friendship can be the foundation of survival and moving on. The author takes us through what post-war London would have looked like through the eyes of fictional characters Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin. We read about their long workdays as they stitched and embroidered the gown for the royal wedding. As we read along, we see a beautiful friendship developing between these two strong women.

The theme of survival guilt is also explored in this story as we are shown how the survivors feel guilt about roaming free in the new world while their families were brutalized and murdered. This kind of guilt is portrayed expertly in the story and it shows how breaking down the walls people put up to protect themselves and letting someone in can be the first step into acceptance of the past and moving forward.

 “It was hard, at times to ignore the disquieting voices that told her she was fooling herself, that she would empty herself into this misguided project, and when she finished, it would be to find that no one was interested. That no one on earth, apart from her, cared to know what had happened to those she loved” – Jennifer Robson

Another theme that is beautifully depicted is how art and creation have their own healing powers, not just for the creators but also for those viewing the art. The royal wedding was held during a time of despair, as if to give a spark of light to the nation that was shrouded in darkness for far too long. The Gown would become a piece of art that captures the interest of the onlookers, but also provided it’s own kind of therapy to Miriam and Ann as they worked tirelessly on it.

Overall Thoughts:

The Gown was a truly breathtaking book to read. Everything was so descriptive that it felt like I could see the scenes in my head. I could almost see Ann and Miriam hunched over their frames in their coveralls stitching the elaborate flower star designs onto the gown. I could feel the emotions they were feeling. I could feel Ann’s heartbreak, Miriam’s guilt and Heather’s loss. I also enjoyed the way the story jumped from past to present and how we learn details of Ann and Miriam’s lives through Heather’s search for answers. This book had a lot of heart and it pulled many tears from me.

In many ways, this book reminds us that when elaborate gowns are made, so much of the credit goes to the designer and hardly any goes towards the ones who worked on the embroidery. I have a newfound appreciation for all those dedicated souls who put all their time and love into the delicate details that are what makes a dress beautiful. Now if you will excuse me, I’m going to Google images of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown to admire the embroidery.

Check out The Gown at Chapters Indigo.

Happy reading!

Shazia.

Book Review: Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

Publisher: HarperCollins

I would like to thank HarperCollins Canada for sending me a copy of Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig in exchange for an honest review.

This was an inspiring and thought-provoking book to read. It is truly refreshing when an author shares his or her personal journey with readers. To feel an author’s vulnerability in their writing is a beautiful thing and to reflect on your own life afterwards is where the magic happens.

Matt Haig is one of those authors that takes you along on his personal journey and helps you understand the lessons he learned along the way. This book explores the link between anxiety, stress and our modern world. It is not just meant for the Millennials or the Generation Y group. This book is aimed for all humans who live on this nervous planet.

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Notes on a Nervous Planet

We have come a long way when it comes to discussing mental health. However, in this book Matt points out an interesting thing that we do when people discuss their mental health issues. He discusses how people continue to say things like “You are so brave for sharing your story”. As pointed out in the book, it should not be thought of as being brave for someone to have shared his or her struggles. It should be considered normal.

I paused when I read this and thought back to all the times I used a similar phrase when reading or listening to someone’s story. It’s a completely valid point that I thought should be shared. While there were many themes in this book, I would like to discuss the three big ones that stood out for me: Technology overload, loss of connection and life overload.

Technology Overload:

We live in a chaotic, overly stimulating and faced paced world. More than ever before we are being bombarded with notifications from the overwhelming amount of apps we have on our phones. We have to comb through text messages, whatsapp messages, emails, tweets, direct messages and Facebook messenger messages. Matt describes how this can be anxiety provoking. He describes the feeling of being on high alert while waiting for text messages or when receiving new notifications. We are constantly plugged in and being distracted.

Matt acknowledges how hard it can be to distance yourself from your phone and he shares his own struggles. However, he provides useful tips on how to control social media time rather than letting it control you. He recognizes the struggles with advancing technology, but also acknowledges the positives. This book does not bash technology and blame it all for our unhappiness. On the contrary, it presents the problems we may face and provides us with advice on how to create a space to foster peace and shape the life we want.

Loss of Connection:

Matt describes how the rise of the Internet and social media makes us more connected but also physically draws us further apart. An interesting point is made about how many things that pulled us out of our homes in the past are now available on the Internet. It is also so much easier to communicate with friends and family via Skype and Facetime rather than putting all that effort into getting out into the world to meet them. Loneliness seems to be one of the side effects of social media. I loved how Matt offers readers tips on how to remain human in a world that has become addicted to cell phones. It resonated with me as I sometimes find myself scanning the the people on the bus and counting how many of them have their cell phones in their hands, myself included.

Life Overload:

Matt refers to our world as a global nervous system. We are connected in more ways than ever thanks to technology like the Internet and the telephone. I think one of the most interesting points of this book was that because we have become so globally connected, we might feel emotions collectively through this large nervous system. We feel the group’s emotions and these emotions become our own. We get reminded of a time when we got our news with the morning newspaper and the evening news. That’s it. Just twice a day.

These days, news coverage goes beyond the newspaper and CNN. It is also present in the trending topics of Facebook, discussed on Twitter, shared on Instagram and Google news offers us a plethora of news articles to comb through. There is definitely an information overload, especially when the news being presented revolves around topics that sadden or frighten us. This book explains how it can be anxiety provoking, leading us to stress more and become anxious over the impending doom that may befall on us.

My Thoughts:

This was such an enjoyable book to read. I really can’t say that there is anything that I disliked about this book. It was broken down into sections that are quick and easy to read. There are many themes that are explored through funny anecdotes, lists and short discussions. It was an honest and insightful account about how to live your best life possible in a modern world that is designed to make you feel anxious. It is about creating a space of peace for yourself, to unplug and live in the moment. I think we could all benefit from Matt Haig’s reminders and advice. Highly recommended!

Happy reading,

Shazia.

Educated by Tara Westover

How incredible is it when you randomly pick up a book at a bookstore, reading nothing but the excerpt and that very book leaves a profound impact on you? I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I picked up this book. “Educated” by Tara Westover is one of the most thought-provoking and beautifully written memoirs I have read in a long time.

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Summary:

“All my life those instincts had been instructing me in this single doctrine: that the odds were better if you rely only on yourself”.

Tara was born into a survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho. She lived in a home with five siblings and a mother and father who did not believe in formal education or medicine. Eventually, her father’s Mormon beliefs became extreme, as did his paranoia about the government coming after them. Her father worked in a junkyard and planned for the “end of days” by hoarding food and guns. Her mother became a midwife and cured many of the their ailments with herbalism. Tara recounts a childhood full of injuries that did not receive any medical attention. Her father believed the medical profession was the work of satan and trusted his wife’s herbalism, which he called “God’s pharmacy”. She watched as her family members suffered severe burns from gasoline explosions and traumatic brain injuries from car accidents. Her mother treated these injuries with herbalism in their home. In later years, Tara recounts how many of the injuries left a few of their family members with altered personalities due to brain damage, something none of them considered at the time.

Between living with her father’s paranoia and one of her brother’s escalating violence, Tara decides to pursue an education. She teaches herself algebra and trigonometry in preparation for a university admissions test. She manages to escape the violent outbursts of her brother, but she carries the memories of each violent act with her as she attends university. She also carries with her the knowledge that her father condones her pursuit of an education. Tara furthers her education and eventually finds herself in Cambridge. Her world begins to shift as her professors try to make her see her own potential. However, Tara’s guilt about going against her father’s wishes and losing ties to her family get a hold on her and threaten to hold her back or revert to her old ways time and time again.

Education:

“You are not fool’s gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold. And returning to BYU, or even to that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself—even gold appears dull in some lighting—but that is the illusion. And it always was.” 

My favorite part of this book was when Tara found herself in a classroom for the first time in seventeen years. We read about her experiences as she learns about the Holocaust and the true horrors of slavery. We are taken through her emotions and how she processes all the gruesome details as she reads the history books. Perhaps the most profound moment is when she learns about Bipolar Disorder and as the professor is listing the symptoms, her father comes to her mind. She continues on the path of realization as she is taught the symptoms of brain injury and thinks about her mother and how she was never the same after their car accident. Through this education, she understands her family better and starts understanding where her father’s paranoia and episodes of grandeur and persecution come from.

Her journey was not easy as she pursued her education. It is truly inspiring to read about how she overcame her feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt and insecurity over the lack of previous education.

Physical and emotional abuse:

“He said positive liberty is self-mastery—the rule of the self, by the self. To have positive liberty, he explained, is to take control of one’s own mind; to be liberated from irrational fears and beliefs, from addictions, superstitions and all other forms of self-coercion.” 

Reading about the emotional and physical abuse at the hands of Tara’s brother was very hard to read, but it was also one of the most important parts of the book. It was even harder to read about how her family denied any of the abuse actually happening, and how her mother turned a blind eye to it rather than face the brutal reality. Her brother’s violence escalates as she gets older and instead of seeking help she learns to laugh it off or tell herself he had reason. It takes a while for her to realize how dangerous her brother was becoming, and by then a lot of the damage was already done. The really interesting part of this portion of the book is how her personal perspective of what happened during these violent moments do not match with the narrative her parents feed her. She resorts to going back to her journals and really asking herself if these violent incidents happened the way she remembers them. It was fascinating to read about how she learns to trust her memory and protect herself.

Family:

“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.” 

Family is really at the heart of Tara’s story. At times it was painful to read about how much she loved her family but how hard she tried to keep those ties from breaking. From her older brother Tyler she found the strength to pursue her education and from him she found a pillar of support when her family was turning their backs on her. Her father believed she was “taken by Lucifer” and tried time and time again to bring her back to her previous life on the mountain. Many times he succeeded but he was never able to stop her from getting her education. Tara struggled with loyalties and sense of duty, but she also recognized her family environment for what it had become: toxic. Though you get a glimpse of a father and mother’s love for their daughter, you also see how sometimes that is not enough. I loved the relationship Tara had with her brother Tyler and how sometimes a simple nudge from a family member you look up to can be life changing.

Final thoughts:

This story is not about Mormonism and Tara makes that perfectly clear from the beginning. It is about reconstructing yourself, dealing with the loss of family and how education can change you. It is about believing in yourself, overcoming your struggles and learning how to shed the weight of your past. There is so much you can learn from this book. It is almost impossible to list all the themes. Educated is not an easy book to read. It is punches you in the gut and takes you along someone’s personal journey. It is like reading a diary and peering into the household of a family in the Idaho Mountains.