On Starting Again and Reading “After You” by Jojo Moyes

“Only one person can give you a purpose” ~ (After You, Jojo Moyes, p.300)


Witpoortjie waterfall , Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens (Joburg, Sept 2015)

Witpoortjie Waterfall, Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens (Joburg, Sept 2015)

On a long distance flight a few years ago, I started and finished “Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes, a story about Louisa Clark, age 26, who takes a job as a carer for Will Traynor, age 35, who is a quadriplegic. Louisa has lived in the same town her whole life, has few friends, and she has done and experienced very little. Before his accident, Will lived a full life with work and friends and adventure and passion, and when Louisa meets him, he is an angry and difficult patient. They come from different worlds, but they help each other discover life. In particular, Will helps expand Louisa’s horizons. He introduces her to new experiences, widens her ambitions, and helps her to heal after traumatic events in her past. He teaches her to expect more of herself and of her life.

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On Learning Through Stories and Reading “Us” by David Nicholls

V & A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

Thinking about the distance to Canada, V & A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

Seriously Planning has always been a reflection of my life and experiences. Over the past few years the blog has helped me think through questions of identity, faith, urbanism and personal growth as I’ve lived in both Toronto and Vancouver for graduate school, work opportunities, and to be closer to my family. Recently I’ve been thinking about/have been curious about how the blog will change over the next year, because in late April 2015 I got married (and moved) to Joburg, the city of my best friend. We’re both Canadian, but my husband is South African as well, and our beautiful, multi-day wedding with family, friends, prayer, laughter, food and gratitude are days and moments of memories that I will hold in my heart for a long time to come.

As we’ve joined our lives together in the weeks and days since the wedding, I’ve been reading a book that I picked up in London on my way to Joburg called “Us” by David Nicholls. It’s a wonderful, touching, tender, moving book, with complex characters, humour, suspense and just so much heart, and it’s been the perfect backdrop to the beginning of our shared path. We’ve both been thinking a lot about what it means to partner, to move across the world to another country, city, culture and community, to transition and to blend our individual histories, backgrounds and experiences together to God willing, make a culture of our own, and reading this book has been a wonderful way for me to process my own thoughts. Continue reading

We Dismantle Stereotypes through Stories

The beauty of (local) cultural production. (The Met, NYC, Oct 2014)

The beauty of (local) cultural production. (The Met, NYC, Oct 2014)

I love discovering cities and places through stories, and I’d like to learn more about places outside North America through my film and reading choices this year. A dear friend gifted me Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck last week, yesterday I watched Riaad Moosa’s film Material (the subject of today’s audio story) set in Joburg, South Africa, and in the months to come, I’m hoping to tackle some of the books on this list by The Guardian of the Ten Best City Books of 2014.

What are your favourite books and films that have helped you discover new (or old) places? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

On Reading North and South & travelling to 1850s England

I read Elizabeth Gaskell’s book North and South this week, and between the richly detailed, sensitive characters, the dry wit, and the beauty of the novel, it was a read that was well worth the investment in time. But the book is also a testament to the social and economic structure of the world in the 1850s. Above, my audio reflections on the read.

Would love to have a broader conversation about the book, and so for those who have read it, please do share your thoughts!

The Love Between Cities and People

What a joy it is to come across beautiful writing.  Everything about Instructions for a Heatwave is exquisite. The sentence structure, the lack of superfluous words, the  stunning detailed descriptions, it is all part of a beauty that leaves your heart hurting and your eyes a bit teary without quite knowing why. Below, a description from the book about the love that can exist between a person and a city.

She misses London. She misses it the way she missed Joe. A strange, cramped pain that leaves her almost unable to speak. She has never lived anywhere else until now. She hadn’t really known that people lived anywhere else, or would want to. There are days when she can hardly bear it, when she walks across the landing of the house, again and again, her arms crossed over her middle, her mind overfilled with images of descending an escalator into the Piccadily Line on a wet, darkened evening, everyone’s umbrellas slicked with rain, of the ten-minute walk between her old flat and her mother’s house, of Highbury Fields on a misty day, of the view over the city from Primrose Hill. Homesick: she’s found that it really does make you feel sick, ill, maddened by longing.

Maggie O’Farrell, Instructions for a Heatwave, p.116-117.

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (Review/Reflection)

Singapore, 2012.

I saw an outstanding film called English Vinglish this weekend. Though the entire film is memorable, one of my favourite moments was a scene where the protagonist arrives in America visibly nervous about how she’ll manage with her limited English skills, and her seatmate on the flight wishes her well on her stay, and says, “Don’t worry about anything. It’s now time for them to be scared/worried about us“.

He is smiling and confident because of India’s rising economic strength, and in the film’s treatment of a woman altered understanding of herself and her changing relationship with her family, a larger tale of changing economic and cultural rules on a global scale is told.

Through a different story and different characters, the theme of the rise of “non-Western world” and the decline of America is also addressed in Dave Eggers’ new book A Hologram for the King. If you haven’t read it already, I recommend the read for the following five reasons:

1) The World is Changing

The book centers around the story of Alan, an American who comes to Saudi Arabia to bid for an IT contract for KAEC (the King Abdullah Economic City) on behalf of the company he works for called Reliant. KAEC is meant to be a massive project, and Alan desperately needs the commission from the contract to resolve his personal economic failures and limited career prospects. In telling his story, Eggers tells a larger story of America’s shifting financial power and the decline of its manufacturing sector. Against the “real-life” backdrop of an election that has focused so much on domestic jobs and restoring America’s economic strength, it is a timely read.

2) Urban Planning is Changing

The book argues that the most exciting and innovative planning work is not happening in North America anymore. In my own graduate work, I attended lectures where planners such as Larry Beasley praised the vision and resources of cities like Abu Dhabi while exhorting domestic planners to embrace the challenges of Canadian cities with creativity, not blind “rule-following”. In this book, the main character’s experience with municipal planning is facing obstacles/penalties when attempting to build a simple three foot wall; in KSA he is desperate that the King should follow through on his dream of an entire city. This book also suggests that  city building can act as a battlefield where war and hostile relations between nations can be addressed.

3) This book is beautifully constructed

Eggers describes KSA and Alan’s struggle with Saudi Arabia well.  He desperately needs the IT contract, but he is also fearful and incredulous of the place, and the combination leaves him weak. In one scene in particular, he passes by a playground and sees women in “charcoal black burqas” with their children. The sight of “their hands stretched forth” to play with their kids strikes fear in his heart. In another scene, he sees “young women in abayas, glittering abayas on their forearms, groups of young men hungrily inspecting them (p.220), and he judges what he sees.

As a result of this cognitive dissonance, he is incapable of performing anything successfully. He imagines tumours, he is unable to catch the hotel shuttle, and he cannot write successfully to his daughter, meet the KIng, or be with a woman. And his own powerlessness and tense waiting is carried throughout the book by sentences that are lean and efficient. Each sentence is carefully crafted. Each word has to fight for its survival.

4) Timely

The topic of the decline of America’s manufacturing sector is timely against the backdrop of the current US election, but throughout the book there are references to recent events that we should continue to think about. The events in Gaza. The BP spill. In these references, and Alan’s discomfort when thinking about them, there is an opening to think about our own understanding and responses to these events.

6) Thoughtful.

This book has some wonderful passages. Below are two of my favourites.

a) “Kit you know the key to relating to your parents now? It’s mercy. Children, when they become teenagers and then young adults grow unforgiving. Anything but perfection is pathos. Children are judgemental on an Old Testament level. All errors are unforgivable, as if a contract of perfection has been broken. But what if one’s parents are granted the same mercy, the same empathy as other humans? Children need more Jesus in them” (p.104)

b) “The Earth is an animal that shakes off its fleas when they dig too deep, bite too hard. It shifts and our cities fall; it sighs and the coasts are overtaken. We really shouldn’t be here at all.” (p.102)

The Privilege of Travelling

When I was away in Bandung I kept thinking of the essay “The Ugly Tourist” by Jamaica Kincaid. I just found my copy while unpacking books, and though the entire essay is well worth a read (it’s about 2 and a half pages), the last paragraph (below) is an important reminder about travelling and visiting places, and a critical check on intentions. (That essay and Alain de Botton’s book “The Art of Travel) should be mandatory reading).

That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives–most natives in the world–cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go–so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.

~Jamaica Kincaid, The Ugly Tourist, The Norton Reader, Tenth Edition.