Category Archives: nonfiction

Review: The Wealthy Barber vs. The Wealthy Barber Returns by David Chilton

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About a year and a half ago, I realized how ignorant I was with regards to money and started to educate myself in matters of personal finance in order to resolve my ignorance. Since then, I have read a number of books and articles, significantly improved my spending, started living below my means, and started saving. As I began my journey to becoming financially literate, one book that I was always recommended was The Wealthy Barber by David Chilton (1989). The book being nearly 3 decades old, I was hesitant to read it since I know financial matters are time sensitive. What I decided to do instead, was read The Wealthy Barber Returns by David Chilton (2011) first, then go back and read Chilton’s first book.

I’ve actually read The Wealthy Barber Returns twice. The first time was in January 2016. The second time was just last month to get a refresher before starting his first book. I credit Wealthy Barber Returns with kicking my butt into gear and getting me to save at least 10% of my income, and opening up a RRSP. The illustration that caused me to do so was the following from this book: twins open up RRSPs. Each of them contributes $4,000 a year at 8% rate of return compounded annually. Hank opens up his RRSP and makes these contributions starting at age 25 for 10 years. Simon contributes starting at age 35 for 30 years. Because of the “magic” of compound interest, at 65, Hank’s RRSP is worth $629,741 and Simon’s $489,383. In spite of the fact that Hank saved for a third less time, he comes out $140k ahead by starting early. After reading this, I knew that even if could only contribute a few hundred dollars a year to start out, it was worth starting in my young 20s to get the compound interest ball rolling.

Besides a 10% fund, I also appreciated the various advice found in The Wealthy Barber Returns. Some of his advice is very simple (If shopping is your weakness and causes you to waste money, avoid the malls) while other advice is more complicated and situational, such as his banter on TFSAs vs. RRSPs and renting vs. owning. Although I agreed with the majority of what Chilton had to say, I did disagree with him on a few points-the main one that sticks out is his dislike of emergency funds (he claims that although great in theory, they don’t work out in practice). Regardless, I still believe The Wealthy Barber Returns is still a good introductory book for finance for Canadians- it certainly helped me better my finances.

Now onto Chilton’s first book- The Wealthy Barber. The first thing that surprised me when I started the book was the fact it was put in story format and didn’t discuss finances until Chapter 4. The narrative format has been praised as helpful to get the average reader engaged in a topic they otherwise wouldn’t have touched, but for me, knowing that the characters are fictional I was bored and ready to get to the heart of the book. I hate to say it, but if the useless banter between fictional characters were removed, the book would have been under 100 pages. However, I did get a refresher on things I already knew and learned a few things as well. The main point of the book is “save 10%- pay yourself first” which is an excellent reminder and cannot be emphasized enough. Chilton also talks about trying to evaluate your possible retirement needs and save in an RRSP, which is so crucial in this day of fewer pensions.

Nonetheless, I have to admit this book is dated. It started with the characters referencing VCRs several times, and more concerning, outdated financial advice. For example, when referring to RRSPs, the characters never mentioned the Home Buyers’ Plan (HBP) which allows you to withdraw up to $25,000 from your RRSPs to buy or build a home. Same with TFSAs- they came about in 2009 (20 years after the publication of this book) and they are a great way for Canadians to save, so someone starting with this publication would miss that valuable info. Also, a few weeks ago the government announced they will be doing away with the Canada Savings Bond program which was mentioned numerous times throughout this book as an option for saving. And when it comes to investing or buying a home, the characters referenced making 13% on a mutual fund annually, buying a home for $57,000 (at an 18% interest rate!), and buying a condo for $80,000. Any Canadian who gets their percentage figures from this book is going to be really surprised when s/he looks online for modern prices.

For all these reasons, I would much rather recommend The Wealthy Barber Returns over Chilton’s original publication. Finances are a time sensitive thing: prices and percentages change, new products are introduced and old products are done away with. Even though The Wealthy Barber is encouraging in some ways, it’s too out of date as a beginner’s guide to personal finance. My recommendation is to stay within the past decade for anything to do with personal finance; possibly less if it’s about a specific product.

 

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Stalin’s Englishman: the lives of Guy Burgess by Andrew Lownie

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The story of the Cambridge Spy Ring, or the Magnifivent Five as they were dubbed by the media, continues to be of interest, long after the Cold War ended. How did this group of young, wealthy, Cambridge University students fall into the clutches of the Soviet Union during the 1930s? The reality is that Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross, all brilliant young men, were very willing recruits because, in the polarised politics of the time, they saw it as a simple choice between Fascism or Communism, and they chose the latter.

Guy Burgess was the most important, complex and fascinating of the Cambridge Spies. An engaging and charming companion to many, an unappealing, utterly ruthless manipulator to others, Burgess rose through academia, the BBC, the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6, gaining access to thousands of highly secret documents which he passed to his Russian handlers. And he did all of this in plain sight while drawing attention to himself via a disolute and promiscuous lifestyle. There was no security vetting in those days. The only entry requirements were that you went to Eton and Oxbridge and came from a ‘good family’. It was all about the connections which tied the ruling class together.

Burgess lost his father at an early age and some have speculated that this may have influenced his later direction in life. He was devoted to his mother and was an outstanding Cambridge undergraduate. He joined the Cambridge University Socialist Society and came into contact with other rich young men who were attracted to Marxism and how it was being implemented in the Soviet Union. His comrades included John Cornford, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War, and James Klugmann, who went on to become a skilled organiser within the Communist Party of Britain.

This is Andrew Lownie’s first full biography and he draws a rich picture of Guy Burgess’s lives, both personal and political. He shows how Burgess’s chaotic personal life of drunken philandering did nothing to stop his penetration of the British Intelligence Service. Even when he was under suspicion, the fabled charm which enabled close personal relationships with numerous influential figures prevented his exposure as a spy for many years. But it was the exposure of Donald Maclean which led to Burgess’s exile in Russia. Maclean was tipped off by Kim Philby and had to be smuggled out of the country. Burgess was instructed to escort Maclean to Europe, where we would be taken care of by his Soviet handlers. Burgess did not realise that he had been given a one way ticket and that he would become a fellow defector with Maclean in Moscow.

Burgess and Maclean left England in 1951 and disappeared for the next five years. Their mystery was solved when Tom Driberg visited them in Moscow and published Guy Burgess: a portrait with background in 1956. Burgess was not happy in Moscow and missed his mother, friends and London life. When he died in 1963 his ashes were sent back to England and placed in the family plot besides those of his father. Guy Burgess had finally had his wish and returned home.

Through interviews with over a hundred people who knew Burgess personally, many of whom have never spoken about him before, and the discovery of hitherto secret files, Stalin’s Englishman brilliantly unravels the many lives of Guy Burgess in all their intriguing, chilling, colourful, tragic-comic reality.

Review by John Pateman -Chief Librarian/CEO Thunder Bay Public Library

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

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The world has changed much in 30 years: today, we have access to more information than we’ll ever need in 100 lifetimes through a device that fits in our pocket. We can communicate face to face to relatives across the world in real time through a screen. These are just a couple of the many differences found in early 21st century society, so one would think that a book written about technology in 1985 would be irrelevant to today’s technology users. Ironically, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman is even more important today than 3 decades ago. To be certain, there are some laughable anecdotes: near the end of the last chapter, Postman claims that computers are “a vastly overrated technology” which couldn’t be farther from the truth today. Nonetheless, so much of what he says in Amusing Ourselves is spot on and even truer today.

Postman compares Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World.  People are always concerned about  a real life “Big Brother”government control, censorship and spying to name a few. While these concerns have been a reality found in recent history, Postman claims North American society is much closer to Brave New World than 1984. Postman claims that there will always be opposition to totalitarian control and censorship as it is very identifiable and a clear infringement on a society’s rights. It is Huxley’s theory of an entertainment culture- one too absorbed to care about oppression- that is the greatest threat to our society. North American society has come to adore their amusing technological oppression.

Postman looks at the print society of the enlightenment years- schooling was few and far between, yet books couldn’t be printed fast enough to satisfy society’s thirst for knowledge. Postman cites the debates Abraham Lincoln had with Stephen A. Douglas: Douglas would first be given an hour to speak, Lincoln an hour and a half, then Douglas again for an hour and a half reply. These debates were shorter than what they were accustomed too, and yet common men and women would attend them as an informing, yet restful event. The attention span of today’s average Joe would not be able to handle such a long, complex activity. As a comparison, Postman especially criticizes television news for this reason: each news story is given minutes (if that) to be presented before it is quickly switched out for the following story. The viewer barely has time to think about what s/he just saw before being pummeled with more information. I recall a few months back watching television news with family (I do not have cable in my own home so this is a rarity for myself) and I was shocked to see things like murders, protests, and other devastating issues being given seconds of screen time vs. the ten minutes a feel-good story about an abstract painter was given. Viewers don’t want to end off on a sad note lest they start thinking of implications for their own lives.

Even though Postman focuses on television culture, these observations and even more true today. Distraction culture is more prominent now with smart phones: individuals can barely make it through an hour without checking their updates, replying to a text or scrolling through the web. When groups of people go out to eat or to other social activities, most of the time is now spent looking at phones instead of conversing. We are more interconnected than ever before, yet lonelier than ever because we have lost the art of meaningful conversation and appreciation for enjoying activities that don’t revolve around a screen.

If Postman were alive today, I would be very interested to hear what he’d say about today’s entertainment culture. I know for myself his book had a profound influence for me and I have begun to examine myself when I am spending excess time on social media or other wasteful forms of entertainment. I have been spending more time doing more meaningful activities that are still restful, and I have been appreciating the fruits that come from that. I recommend everyone to evaluate themselves using Amusing Ourselves, and to make positive changes in their lives.

 

 

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L Cline

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Up until recently, I didn’t really think about where my clothes originated from. I usually bought $5 shirts from Wal-Mart or other similar outlets, always looking for the best deals and not considering the longevity of my clothes. In short, I was your typical consumer. In Overdressed, Elizabeth L. Cline investigates how the current age of “fast fashion”-clothing that is in one week and falls apart the next- and its origins and what that means for the economy.

Cline described herself as being a typical consumer-not knowing much about fashion. She often frequented H&M, Forever 21, and other stores commonly found in North American shopping malls. She found our current state of fast fashion so perplexing it led her to going so far as to visiting China and Bangladesh in order to see just how our duds are made. She found it is quite a shift from two generations ago- in 1950, the average American household made $4237 annually and spent $437 on clothing (and much of it was still homemade). Nowadays, it is cheaper to buy ready-made clothing than to buy the raw materials and make them ourselves-a skill long lost with the boom of fast fashion.

Besides economic impact, Cline also looks at the environmental impact our clothing has. The textile industry is cited as the second most polluting industry in the world, yet it is not one that gets the most publicity. In many cities where fabrics are produced, the water is tinted various colours due to the lack of filtration. Commonly used fabrics like polyester are manufactured from oil, and take hundreds of years to break down in landfills. With the rise of fast-fashion, second hand clothing stores have an influx of clothing that they can barely keep up with, leading many of them to discard clothing that isn’t sold within a number of weeks.

All of these issues with fast fashion pose the question of “What are we as North Americans to do?”. Cline interviews various people and businesses who all have a different answer to that question. Some individuals have decided to make nearly all of their clothing themselves. Some companies have put ethical practices, good wages and sustainable fabrics at the heart of their business model. Whatever the answer is, the fact is the current model of fast-fashion is cannot continue: something must change. Overdressed will certainly make that fact very clear and show a new perspective.

 

Interview with Karen Connelly

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Author picture of Karen ConnellyKaren Connelly is the author of 10 books of bestselling non-fiction, fiction and poetry. She has won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for her poetry, the Governor General’s Award for her non-fiction and Britain’s Orange Broadband Prize for New Fiction for her first novel, The Lizard Cage. Connelly presents her latest collection of poetry, Come Cold River, a searing portrayal of her troubled family. Refracted through different Canadian cities and foreign landscapes, the book expands into an authentic homage to those who are made invisible and silenced. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Connelly is in Thunder Bay tonight for the International Festival of Authors event at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery at 7pm.

Shauna Kosoris: You’ve lived a life full of adventure, having lived in Thailand, Spain, France, Myanmar (Burma) and Greece.  How has living in these other places impacted your writing, beyond the obvious of giving you writing material?’

Karen Connelly: Living in other places has formed me so deeply that it’s actually hard to answer that question. I was apprenticed as a writer abroad, in Thailand and Spain and France; I came of age as a writer a decade later, in Burma and Thailand again; I have spent years in between all that in Greece, which is still my second home.

When I first lived abroad in Thailand, at seventeen, the magic of learning another language fluently got me hooked. Studying independently languages in situ, in the cultures where they were spoken, became my university, my means of simultaneously grappling with the foreign in a physical way and educating myself. This has certainly been a crucial part of my development as a writer and of my experience of the foreign. It has materially influenced some of the ways in which I write, especially the rhythms and complexities (or simplicities) of my use of words. I often hear echoed in my writing lines that I have originally read in Greek or Spanish; I don’t really know how this process works, but what it tells me is that such foreign words are heavily inscribed not just in my mind but in my ear – in my musical understanding of language.

It took me a long time, when I came back to Canada, to figure out how to write “Canada” again. Come Cold River, the last book of poetry, is mostly about Canada, a kind of memoir in poetry of where I grew up in Alberta; and The Change Room is set in Toronto.

Why do you call yourself a reluctant journalist on your website?

Because I’m too much of an artist, too emotional, to be anything but a reluctant journalist. My power as a writer lies in my ability to feel, to enter and experience the world as it comes to me with a profound bias. I love to investigate facts and ideas—but I have to feel. Though I enjoy the hard work of turning ‘true stories’ into art, I lead with my heart. So perhaps I should have written “lousy journalist” instead!

Fair enough!  In another interview, you said “First I write poetry, then I write a nonfiction, then I write a novel.” Why is poetry first for you?

Partly because, as I mentioned above, I am all muscle and sponge, absorbent, lively. Poetry for me is a visceral emotional reaction to the meaningful and sometimes meaningless events of life. Poetry comes from a different area of the brain. Prose and poetry use different techniques, different voices—poetry is like a different musical instrument. When I worked on my last book Come Cold River–despite dealing with truly miserable subject matter—it was like going swimming in almost warm salt water. I floated—moved effortlessly through the language, even when the poems are hard (and, ironically, a number of the poems are about drowning!)

In prose you really have to swim. Prose narrative is all about duty, making sure the reader gets the connections, building the whole scene, the whole world. Poetry is momentary and emotional. Clearly it can and even needs to mean more than one thing. This multiplicity means it is a freer element. Even if it is narrative, as much of my poetry is, very story-ish, it is still more watery, more fluid. And let’s face it, poetry can just jazz up and crash down and stun the reader in a way that prose almost never can. The sharpness and specificity of poetry has much to do with that. While it is the freer element, it also contains, paradoxically, the possibility of driving a stake into the reader’s heart.

What’s great about poetry for me is that no one reads it. Well, maybe a few hundred people. I’ll bring a few secret copies to Thunder Bay, but I don’t have many left. Come Cold River is like a secret, the hard poems I never even wrote. Most poets complain about this but for me it’s a relief. Because of that wonderful obscurity, you can think write say express anything in a poem. There is no censorship, no niceties necessary. At least for me. I do think a lot of other poets do more censoring, more picking and choosing. Or it’s a stylistic consideration—I find there’s a lot of tightness in Canadian poetry these days, a lot of formalism that is neither natural nor emotionally engaging to me. As I get older I am more and more interested in—what? freedom? that’s not exactly it, since I have always had every kind of freedom imaginable. Something else. Not hiding. Telling the truth.

You’ve been writing for many years (your first book of poetry was published over three decades ago) but your first novel, The Lizard Cage, was published just over a decade ago.  Why did you decide to try your hand at writing a novel?

Oh, I’ve always written fiction. I started and ditched maybe half a dozen novels. I have a bunch of really fun short stories embedded in a travel book of mine, One Room in a Castle. And The Lizard Cage took me a decade to write, so really it’s 2 or 3 books.

I’m glad you found your novel even if it took a few tries!  The Lizard Cage is not the first thing you’ve written inspired by your time in Southeast Asia.  Why does this area of the world appeal to you so much?

Probably because I was so young (17) when I first went to live there. It went in—right to my bones. I am so at home in SE Asia. Buddhism has influenced my life too, because I lived in a rural Thai setting as a young person. And that was a real antidote and balm, a relief, after the Christian fundamentalism I’d been raised in.

Your long awaited second novel, The Change Room, is coming out this spring.  What inspired you to write it?

Conversations with women in book clubs, actually. So many of them liked the sexual content in Burmese Lessons—the young woman who is passionately in love with a man who is never around, because he’s an important revolutionary political figure. Burmese Lessons is about many things—the politics of Myanmar in the 1990’s, censorship, violence, the work of witnessing, activism, refugees, being a writer at the edge of war and unrest. But it’s also a book about longing, lust, and sexual fulfilment. Or lack thereof.

Another reason? (there are many!) Well, let’s face it, 50 Shades of Gray was about a sexual nitwit, a completely unsophisticated young woman, a virgin who never used the word ‘clitoris’. Hello! She was annoying! I wanted to write a smart, funny, worldly heroine who is on an intelligent and very transgressive quest for sexual joy.

The Change Room is full of realistic adult sex. It’s very democratic: EVERYONE has realistic adult sex which is sometimes fabulous, but also messy, truncated, and often unfulfilling. My main character has children, and a job, like the rest of us, so she’s having real-life sex. Yet I also wanted to explore the wondrous power and magic of sexuality. It was, needless to say, the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book!

The Change Room features a happily married woman who gets involved with another woman.  Why did you decide to write about this particular relationship?

I wanted to explore the multiplicity and elasticity of female desire. We can be freer to love than men—women often have love built into them by virtue of biology but also because of cultural expectations. We are expected to be nurturers. We take care, we bear children and traditionally have taken care of them more than men. We also take care of men a lot. We do a lot of  unpaid unacknowledged emotional labour. What would happen, I wondered, if Eliza Keenan–my busy, overworked, stressed-out married mother of two–met a lover who could take care of her? Who would be a fabulous lover but also  . . . feed her? What would that look like? Perhaps it’s just another fantasy.

Anyway, to go back to what I was saying earlier, women’s capacity to love is also erotic. I know so many women who identify as bisexual, as I do myself, though I’ve lived much of my life as a heterosexual.

I also thought that a same-sex adulterous affair might engender less anger towards the character than a typical hetero affair. I did a lot of research into adultery for this book: married women having affairs with other men are infinitely more vilified than men who have affairs. Adultery still makes people of both sexes very angry and hurt, even if they are not involved in the affair. The person in heterosexual affairs who is ‘blamed’ and hated the most is—are we really surprised?—the woman. So I was hoping to soften some of those negative emotions by making the lovers women.

With The Change Room set to be published this spring, what are you working on now?

Don’t laugh: the second book in the trilogy of The Change Room. Which a number of my friends jokingly call The Deep End. It might stick, actually. These books are very serious but they are also extremely funny, full of the humour of everyday life, of women and men talking and living and fighting and laughing together.

I also want to collect all my essays and publish them, which I think are some of my best writing.

Good luck with both of those projects. Let’s finish up with some questions about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?

I think it has to be in the present tense. Many writers inspired me and I still need writers to inspire me now. As a teenager, Annie Dillard, the big Canadian poets of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the essays of Camus. Pablo Neruda. Walt Whitman. Lawrence Durrell. And since then, oh, so many writers. James Baldwin—huge. Robin Kelley. I read all the time. I read promiscuously, variously, without a program. Harriet Doerr. Zora Neale Hurston. Elaine Scary’s extraordinary theoretical and political writing. Audre Lorde. Adrienne Riche. Julia Kristeva. The Greek poet Yiorgos Seferis was and still is an enormously important writer for me. Sharon Olds, Stephen Dunn, Lewis Hyde, Susan Griffin. A bunch of Buddhists. And I’m a huge fan of British women novelists: Muriel Spark, Olivia Manning, Dorothy Sayers, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Rachel Cusk. The Irish writer Edna O’Brien.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin. It’s a wonderfully readable book about history, and women, and who creates the narrative of the world as we know it. Zeldin has a great big brain but it’s not a hard book to read—just endlessly fascinating and hopeful. And we have to all of us face the music of what we’re doing to our planet.  The Global Forest by Diana Beresford-Kroeger makes it much easier to do that. She is a treasure, a magical ecologist.

And what are you currently reading?

Mark Winston’s Bee Time. Helen Garner’s The Spare Room (she is a graceful Australian novelist whom I’d never heard of—discovered her on the public library shelves.) Katherena Vermette’s The Break. Sun Mi Hwang’s beautiful book The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly—also a local library find. I  also just finished two of Ian McEwan’s recent novels, Sweet Tooth and The Children Act. They were wonderful—really the best novels by McEwan I’ve read in years. He is getting better and sweeter as he ages, more playful. So there is hope for me.

Come Cold River book cover

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

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Intrigue, moral turmoil and scandal are integral elements to many a great novel. Turns out they are also central to the plot of book thievery. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much dives right into the industry of rare book dealers and the sentiments that drive people to steal from them. It also serves as a biography of sorts for John Gilkey, the man who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in books and rare documents prior to his arrest in 2010. At times it is hard to remember that this book is in fact not a work of fiction but steeped in actual events and real people. In this book Allison Hoover Bartlett allots equal focus to the fascinating justifications constructed by Gilkey in his pursuit of his self proclaimed business transactions and to the impact upon the industry as a whole from the dealers’ perspective. This will be a worthwhile read for fans of true crime, books about books, and biographies. Actually, I would recommend it to anyone in need of a book that they can lose themselves in. It is available through the Thunder Bay Public Library in print, large-print and online via Hoopla – just make sure to bring it back to us when you’re done!

Jesse Roberts – http://www.tbpl.ca

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight

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This is the story of how Phil Knight found his purpose in life, and grew one of the world’s best-known brands around it.  In addition to being the epitome of a successful entrepreneur, Phil Knight is a skilled writer.  I have read many biographies about fascinating people who just don’t have the gift of good writing, so it is a rare treat to get both in one book.

The story starts in the late 1950s when Phil is a fresh college graduate who likes to run.  He weaves a great deal of personal and social history in to the story of his business.  Knight talks about how running wasn’t the common leisure activity it has grown into today.  When he started in the shoe business his market was college, high school and serious track athletes.  He dreamed of a time when people would wear his shoes to the grocery store, or to take their kids to school.  If you own a pair of Nikes you know that dream has come true!

Another key part of the Nike story is Knight’s work networking and working with business people in China and Japan, and how shoe factories evolved. The history of the iconic Nike swoosh is included in this book, as well as the easy to spot bright orange shoe boxes.  One aspect of Knight’s story I found interesting was how he built his core team of trusted colleagues.  His former track coach, who he both admired and feared, was his first business partner.  This man had been tinkering with track shoes his whole life, and was fascinated with the developments that were possible to make his athletes run faster.  Knight engaged others who were keen marketers, savvy negotiators and tireless innovators.

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