Review | Peace by Chocolate, by Jon Trattie

PeaceByChocolateCoverIt feels churlish to admit that I struggled to get through this book. (Full disclosure: I started this in December, and I’m tapping out for now in March, at approx 69%. I likely will finish it some time, just because it feels even more curmudgeonly not to finish it at all.)

Peace by Chocolate tells the inspiring story of the Hadhad family’s journey from Syria to Canada. Family patriarch Isam used to run a chocolate-making factory in Damascus until war in Syria broke out, the factory was destroyed, and Isam, his son Tareq, and their family were forced to flee the country. They lived as refugees in Lebanon for a while, before finding a permanent home in Nova Scotia. Thanks in part to a loan from Canadian friends, they were able to re-start Isam’s chocolate-making business in Canada, and their chocolate company, Peace by Chocolate, is now really successful. It’s a wonderful, inspiring story, and a welcome touch of joy and hope in often dark pandemic times.

The Hadhad family’s journey is well documented. Trattie includes wonderful details about their journey that make their experiences come alive, and, at least for this immigrant, make their stories resonate. For example, when the family is asked by immigration officials if they want to move to Canada, they burst into laughter, which confuses the immigration officials until the family says that of course, they want to move, and it’s hilarious that it even has to be asked.

I also love another part where Batoul, who is fluent in English, is the only one in her class who didn’t laugh at a joke. Even though the class tried to explain, the need for explanation diminished the humour. Later in that chapter, the author writes,

The English [Batoul] had studied in Syria and Lebanon was slow and clear. Now she felt herself in the midst of a torrential river of words. And her English teachers back home had been Arabic speakers; she hadn’t had the additional challenge of understanding a Canadian accent. [p. 122]

That detail was very relatable, and I like how it was highlighted in the book.

However, the writing overall fell flat for me. The narrative felt almost too glossy, so geared towards inspiration that it fails to actually make the details come alive. The super-inspirational tone somewhat reminds me of the musical Come From Away, except without the music or comedy. (For the record, I love Come From Away. The tone translates better on-stage than in a 200+ page book.)

An example:

Tareq pictured his family reunited in Canada, his children and grandchildren growing up safe. He saw himself as an old man, describing how the Hadhad family escaped death in Syria for a new life in Canada. Then he saw himself alone, a man with no family and no country, no past and no future. He turned to his father.

“You will become Canadian even before me,” Tareq promise, his eyes shining with tears. “You will follow me and our family will be fine. I will settle in and prepare everything for your arrival: a nice house and a good community. We lost our family of sixty. I promise you I will build a family of six hundred in Canada. When you arrive, you will feel at home.”

The taxi arrived. Isam embraced his eldest son. As Isam watched Tareq walk away, he felt all his fears vanish and his heart fill with hope. [pp 68-69]

The passage is lovely and heartwarming, and given the heartfelt moment between father and son, it feels wrong to call the passage saccharine. But when so much of the book takes this tone, it becomes a bit of a slog to keep reading through. I think this book functions well as a family memento — the Hadhads have gone through a lot and have accomplished incredible things, and I love the idea that this book exists to show future generations how far they’ve come. But personally, I found the book too long, and would have enjoyed it more as an article.

Some readers may enjoy this book; I would personally recommend checking out one of their media interviews instead, since according to the book, they did a bunch of them for outlets like CBC. If their story resonates with you, you may also buy your next batch of chocolates at Peace by Chocolate.

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Thank you to the publisher for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.

Review | How to Ikigai, by Tim Tamashiro

howtoikigaicoverYou know how sometimes, a book enters your life at just the perfect moment, and tells you exactly what you needed to hear at that particular time? I’ve previously had this experience twice: first in 2016 with Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes, and then in 2018 with Rachel Hollis’ Girl, Stop Apologizing. And now I’ve got a third title to add to the list: Tim Tamashiro’s How to Ikigai: Lessons for Finding Happiness and Living Your Life’s Purpose. I borrowed the audiobook from the library, and it’s been my bedtime reading since January 1st.

The Okinawan concept of ikigai is deceptively simple. Ikigai, or your life’s purpose, can be found in the intersection between four factors: what you love to do, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you will be rewarded for. Pretty obvious, eh? But ask yourself: how much time do you actually spend contemplating what makes you happy, and how much effort do you actually put into incorporating it into your every day? The author also has a TED talk on the subject.

There were three things in particular in this book that resonated with me:

First, the Karate Kid example.

In The Karate Kid, when Daniel complains about painting the fence, Mr Miyagi shows him how the chore actually builds muscle memory for karate moves. Daniel is impressed and asks “What now?” to which Mr Miyagi responds, “Karate today, come back tomorrow.” Similarly, Tamashiro says, practicing ikigai is like practicing karate, and emphasizes the principle of “Ikigai today, come back tomorrow.”

I love this. First it’s a mantra that’s easy to remember. More importantly, it frames ikigai as a practice. Repeating karate drills and kata make them easier to perform over time, and it also opens up opportunities for doing more complex drills and katas, and for having a deeper understanding of the karate moves themselves. Perhaps because I trained in karate myself for years, this analogy struck home for me. It makes so much sense that contemplating and pursuing my life’s purpose is a skill I need to hone every day, rather than a far-in-the-future goal I can only dream about.

Second, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Self-actualization is at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s pyramid acknowledges that we first need our basic needs to be met — basically, four layers of his hierarchy, which includes food and shelter, respect, etc — before we can find self-actualization. In Maslow’s pyramid, the lower-level needs are requirements for every day, whereas the higher level ones, including self-actualization, are nice to have after the lower-level needs are already met. Tamashiro posits that self-actualization, or ikigai, is actually just as essential an everyday need, and recommends mindfulness and meditation as a means to figure out your ikigai and incorporate it into your everyday.

I’m a big fan of Maslow’s hierarchy. In fact, one of the snags in this book for me is the (to me false) dichotomy Tamashiro seems to set up between pursuing one’s ikigai and unwillingness to give up creature comforts. For example, Tamashiro recommends taking an ‘iki-gap year’ to figure out your purpose, and says you may need to make sacrifices, but you can’t wait till after retirement to pursue your ikigai. He gives the example of quitting his cushy but unfulfilling CBC job at 51, and relying on savings and his wife’s salary. To his credit, he and his wife did agree that since he was the one who quit his job, he’d also be the one to drastically cut back on spending, so she wouldn’t have to sacrifice much of her current lifestyle.

But while I agree that living your ikigai shouldn’t be put off, taking an ‘iki-gap year’ is a privilege that isn’t possible for many. Even if I give up takeout and Starbucks completely, and move to a cheaper place, my reality is that I can’t afford to give up a full year of work. And for people who have dependants, the ‘iki-gap’ option is even less realistic. 

That being said, the idea that your ikigai should be incorporated into your everyday does resonate with me. Tamashiro’s examples of ikigai (to delight others, to care for others, to help others) are broad enough to apply to a wide range of situations, and certainly, living my ikigai would add meaning and worth even amidst the daily grind.

And finally, the story about the dragon slayer. 

Spoilers about the ending to the story, which is found in the penultimate chapter.

In this story, a woman is orphaned by a dragon attack, and makes it her life’s mission to slay that dragon and protect the other people in her hometown. The story begins after the dragon is slain. The woman, living comfortably among the rich rewards from her king, is feeling restless. She decides to slay another dragon, except there are no more dragons around. Soon, she encounters an old wise man, who tells her of a dragon hiding in a cave atop a mountain. He sends her on a quest to find that dragon, with two conditions: she takes a little orphan boy with her, and she reflects on her ikigai along the journey. When she gets to the mountain, she realizes there’s no dragon after all. But the journey has made her care for the boy, because they’re both orphans looking for family, and this makes her realize that her ikigai isn’t about slaying dragons, but about caring for others. 

I love this, because it’s so easy to imagine that our ikigai is a particular task or set of tasks. I was skeptical at first about how vague Tamashiro’s examples of ikigai tended to be, because obviously, who wouldn’t want to delight others or make others happy? But the story of the dragon slayer made it make sense for me. So often, the tasks that fulfill us and give us meaning are rooted in something deeper. And reflecting on what that something deeper could be opens up possibilities about the things we could do to live out our life’s fulfillment. This also makes it easier to incorporate ikigai into various aspects of our lives, even aspects that may not always excite us. And best of all, we don’t need an ‘iki-gap year’ to make it happen.

Review | Sisters, by Michelle Frances

SistersCoverI love books about sisters. Bring on the sibling rivalry, the family drama, the very complex bonds that connect them through life no matter what circumstances throw at them! As a thriller, and as a book about sisters, Sisters brings all the expected elements to the fore, and provides us with a fast-paced, entertaining read.

First, we have the pair of sisters who are polar opposites. Older sister Abby is super ambitious and Type A. She lives on a much more frugal budget than necessary, eschews her vacation days for extra pay, and works a high-power corporate job that allows her to retire at age 36. Younger sister Ellie has never done well at school, and has always felt the weight of her sister’s academic and athletic achievements. Having missed out on various activities due to being a sickly child, Ellie lives for the moment, using up all her vacation days as a teaching assistant to explore the world. Her credit cards are maxed out, and she doubts she’ll ever have enough money to retire as Abby has.

We also have the sibling rivalry. Due in large part of Ellie’s childhood illnesses, their mom Susanna has always favoured Ellie. Susanna often ignored Abby’s achievements to care for her younger daughter, and even when both sisters are adults, Susanna and Ellie share a bond that Abby can’t hope to penetrate.

Then Abby invites Ellie and Susanna over to her home in the beautiful Italian island of Elba. She shares a devastating secret about their childhood, a horrific accident occurs, and soon the sisters are on the run across Europe. And while on the run, Ellie learns something that makes her doubt Abby’s account, and raises the question of what the truth actually is.

Sisters is a fun novel. There are twists and turns throughout, and I wasn’t sure who or what to believe until maybe about halfway into the book. I loved the tension between the sisters — the little judgey comments from Ellie whenever Abby counted costs to the penny, the judgeyness on Abby’s part at Ellie’s flirting with a cyclist. The novel slowly reveals to us the sources of tension throughout their childhood, so that we gradually understand better why they have such a hard time getting along.

Despite the basic premise of them not getting along, there isn’t a lot of outright fighting between them. Rather, the tension often simmered below the surface, and came out in facial expressions and passive aggressive asides. I appreciated this, because I thought it felt true to the reality of their situation, which required them to work together, and also because I feel like many family tensions do manifest in these subtler ways. I also like how moments of tenderness came through at unexpected moments, such as one involving a blue dress, as these demonstrated how the sisters cared for each other, despite everything.

The only snag for me was that at some points, the twists, turns, and red herrings just tipped over the edge to silly. For example, around the halfway point, the grandmother shows up and makes a startling, super dramatic revelation. I’m not sure what that revelation was meant to do, as I don’t think it really added anything to an already dramatic storyline. But circumstances related to that revelation made me roll my eyes. It required too much a suspension of disbelief, and so removed quite a bit of the uncertainty I’d been feeling around plot elements.

There was also a running plot thread about a friend whom Abby kept trying to call, that seemed to serve no function other than adding a bit of tension. That plot thread never went anywhere, which I found disappointing considering how often this friend was mentioned in the first half of the book.

And finally, I’m not sure how I felt about the ending. On one hand, it was satisfying in the sense that justice was served. But on the other hand, I felt like it still left a lot of questions in the air, about character motivations and emotions. Those topics were touched upon in detached, clinical terms at other points in the novel, but we never actually hear the characters themselves process them. Given the complexity of these motivations, having the ending not even having the characters delve into these themselves felt like truncated catharsis, and left me needing more.

Beyond that, Sisters was a fun read, and a great book for an entertaining weekend.

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Thank you to Publishers Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.