A Love Story About Spain

What do you know about Spain? Before I went there, I knew nothing. I never thought Spanish people ate a lot of burritos or other Mexican stereotypes that many people I knew as a teenager and young adult rigorously applied to Spain. Still, I wasn’t well informed. Where Spain is on the map was only a blank space waiting to be filled in my mind. The only European geography we learned in school was memorising the names of the countries in German class and I still think of Austria as Österreich. Otherwise the extent of our European history revolves around immigration to Canada and the World Wars. Which by the way fit very nicely into our narrative of Canada being  a wonderful free cultural  mosaic, a sort of patriotism that makes little sense when First Nations people face daily prejudice and inequality and, like in other countries, Canadians are becoming increasingly hostile towards immigrants. But I digress, as Canada never had a large wave of Spanish immigrants and they were not a major player in the World Wars we learned nothing about Spain. While I can fault the school system for a number of things, this isn’t one of them. It’s not feasible to learn extensively the history of every country in the world and it would be a bit European Centric to demand we learn about Spain in lieu of any other country.

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So when I travelled to Spain the first time I found the blank space where “spanien” was filled with colour and life. With palm trees and that certain glow in the sky. With tiny bars with metal tables where you can eat the best toast with tomatoes, olive oil and salt. With arguing with waiters. With long beach days with the usual variety of people. A scholarly looking woman with just a towel and a book, fellow tourists liberated  and sunbathing topless.  Families that always come with nearly a houseful of stuff. People selling bottles of water and corn cobs cooked over coals. At sunset, older couples hauling out their card tables to sit on the promenade and us wondering how they got them there. Teenagers hanging out.  One of the differences between European and Canadian life is the presence of children and teenagers in every day life. My husband pointed this out to me a while ago, saying when he went to Canada he wondered where all the teenagers were and it’s true. I was a teenager in Canada and even I can’t answer that, I don’t know where we went. But in all the European countries I’ve visited children and teenagers are a part of every day life, in the pub or hanging out in clusters doing, well, normal people things. In Spain, much to the befuddlement of myself and all my other foreign colleagues, teenagers are allowed to sleep over at their boyfriend or girlfriends house at young ages.  For better or for worse they are treated as adults much younger than, say, we were in Canada.  But what I love most is the rhythm of life. The sense that everyone is doing everything at the same time. That there is a correct time to eat and that any food not consumed at the ordained time will be rejected by the body. There is a time to go to the nightclub or bar and a time to shop in the sales and a time to go the beach and a time to eat rice (not in the evening). And that even with these rules life has a certain easy flow, that unless you have a set  dinner at 10:00, the day or night could take you anywhere. Of course someone might say that that lifestyle is stifling and I wouldn’t disagree because it’s not my place , but for me, someone living there, who had friends but no family it was infinitely freeing.

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Malaga four.JPGBut whatever my perception or non-perception of Spain was, here in Europe there is a very clear image of Spain as a place where people retire who never learn Spanish and even say “hola” in that strange stilted way of English speakers. Or where hoards of young English speaking men and women on stag and hen parties get obscenely drunk and then plunge headfirst from their balconies, occasionally killing themselves. So when my husband and I went to Malaga in January, that combination of images was mingling in my mind. But as we strolled the streets and walked along the blustery wintery beach, the massive waves crashing against each other, I remembered all the things about Spain that intrigued me and the affection I have for the country.  We ate a paella on the beach in the afternoon, and sat outside chatting and drinking beer, husband becoming ever more worried about the quantity of tapas we were being brought and the financial situation of the establishment if it could afford such tapas for free. We got up early on Sunday to walk the streets and found them empty as ever you do in Spain, later watching them fill up with families and couples, wandering in and out of shops or sitting down for a snack. We wandered into a bar where a drunken Irish woman came over and asked if we were on a tinder date. When we said we were married she looked unnecessarily embarrassed and fell off her seat. That has nothing to do with Spain it was just a funny story. Or maybe it does have something to do with Spain, I have been asked a few strange things by English speakers in bars in Spain. Hmm.

When I was in high school I didn’t particularly enjoy poetry, Shakespeare or a lot of other works that we studied. However, when I went to University, I discovered something. The fact was that we weren’t given a particularly nuanced understanding of poetry movements or the history and context of a lot of works. Again this isn’t necessarily a fault of the school system, in general teachers have prescribed works that they have to get through in the year and so on. But when I took a Shakespeare class in University the first module discussed critiquing his works and that indeed some of them were imperfect and even sexist. I realised that understanding and being able to dislike or criticise something was critical to liking, even loving something.  When I began to learn Spanish, I went all in. I spent hours a week listening to Spanish music, watching Spanish films and soap operas, and then I moved there. Through learning and experiencing I developed an affection for Spain. Of course, I don’t know all there is to know about Spain but  I’m happy to keep learning.

 

 

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Have Yourself A Minimalist Little Holiday

A few weeks ago I was waiting to meet my husband and I was standing in the street with my shopping bags in hand, in which I had a cinnamon scented candle and a baguette, among other things of course.  Man cannot live from cinnamon candles and French bread alone. There was a brisk wind blowing and I thought, ah I am so  European winter, this is what it is all about, carb loading and scented candles.black heart

Happy holidays everyone, I was working on some serious topics for the blog, but like many I feel overwhelmed by the world at the moment and I think we all need a bit of a mental break, so I thought I would write about my holiday plans this year. The holidays can feel like an overwhelming time. The idea that we are spending beyond our means to buy presents that we don’t need, the pressure to entertain, the extension of Christmas all the way back to Halloween, the erasure or main-stream minimization of other important holidays that take place around this time, these are real problems. Still, I think we can make the holidays into a time to spread love, to do good and to come out the other side feeling refreshed and renewed. If we include others, give generously to those in need, put thought into our actions and bring our values to the holiday table, we can make it through, guilt free and uplifted. I went through a little phase where I pretended to not like Christmas but in reality it is  my favourite time of year. I love the cheesy music, the food, the warmth of sitting by a fire, I love buying presents and yes, I love getting presents. I love spending time with family and I enjoy and need the time spent doing absolutely nothing, spending a day or two in pyjamas and not worrying what anyone thinks. I love Christmas dinner and Christmas breakfast. I love it all.christmas three

Honestly, I get caught up in all of it.  Just this morning I read about ten articles about festive entertaining, despite the fact that I am not doing anything this year.  But despite all of this, I’ve made an effort to lighten up the load. I had a good laugh the other days as I was browsing for last minute Christmas presents on Amazon. I had Amazon UK in one tab and Amazon Canada in the other, both open to the “last minute gifts page”. To my shock Amazon Canada mainly listed toys and electronics and Amazon UK had… alcohol and condoms. I guess they celebrate a bit differently over here. This will be our first Christmas together in Ireland and in our own place so I’ve tried to make it a bit special. However, we are also looking for a new place in January and are trying to save money, so while we’ve spent enough on Christmas presents we also been somewhat frugal (not totally, we aren’t saints) on decorations and that sort of thing.  For our tree I knit a few bows out of leftover yarn and we got some vintage decorations from my in-laws that look perfect n our home. I also went foraging around our house for pine branches, pine cones and berries and have put them in small glass containers all around our house. I mean all around, no room has been spared.  They look beautiful and our house smells festive. I also made a pom-pom garland which looks very instagrammable lovely atop our bookshelf. We are big take-away eaters but in the past weeks have cut back and for our last order each got a meal instead of starters, soup and a load of other things that we always end up eating half of. I’ve also taken some time in the weeks before Christmas to eat healthy, work on some courses I’ve been taking, exercise and meditate. Don’t get me wrong, I plan to eat all around me over the holidays but wanted to feel a bit better before I do that. There’s also something calming and invigorating about going for a Christmas walk. Even though, for this Canadian, it’s  bit bewildering going for a walk a mere few days before Christmas when everything is still green. Well kind of brown actually, even the Emerald Isle isn’t Emerald all the time.

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However you celebrate, or don’t, this holiday season let’s take time to sit down with a cup of tea, go for a walk, take a minute to ourselves, to create something and to be generous with our time and money and to have compassion for ourselves and those around us. Let’s dress up (if that’s your thing), dance the night away, light candles, curl up for a movie night, watch the new Star Wars, listen to sad songs, call loved ones who are far away  and enjoy the moment. Happy Holidays everyone.

 

 

 

 

Everyone Has Something I Don’t Have

I have a few rituals for when I get discouraged with myself. One is I buy or download a book that could be called pretentious so that I can casually drop into conversation that I am “just reading Ulysses”. Or I listen to new age podcasts. It’s not that I particularly agree with everything in them but I just love the idea that I can meditate my way to a better life. For the record, I do believe in meditation and some of the other parts of it, but I think there is room for doubt in any belief system. In any case you would think that after many new age podcasts and “build your self a life you don’t need a holiday from” affirmations that I wouldn’t experience jealousy. But you would be wrong! I am not, as previously disclosed, what you might call a positive person. In fact, I am the opposite. Where others my see the unknown as something beautiful to embrace I live in constant terror of what bad thing might befall me around the next corner. And I’m jealous, but I’m not just jealous of one thing (ie: other people’s travels).  No, I am jealous of everything even when I can rationalise why I don’t have or even want something. Someone has a cleaner? I am jealous of that even though the longest I’ve lived in one apartment at a time has been two years, the last two years in fact. A European friend gets to go on a long haul break and I am stuck doing city breaks? Of course that makes sense I’m from Canada and if I want to go home once a year than that costs as much as their long trips. Someone just has that pregnancy glow? I’m jealous of that too, even as a childless-by-choice woman. Earlier I was feeling down because “I hadn’t gone anywhere this year” and this despite a weeklong road trip around Ireland, a city break in Belfast, a music festival and a week in Prague. Does this all sound ridiculous? That’s because it is.

Now I would like to offer you a solution, but I don’t have one. The truth is that there are people who have things I don’t have. There are people who are better at not buying a take away on the weekend and have more money for bigger things they want.  There are people who pursued their careers and didn’t do the “free spirit” thing. There are people who come from wealthier backgrounds. Those are all true and being thankful for what I have (which I am) doesn’t magically make them untrue. Personally I don’t find that I can improve my mood by reminding myself of the things I have, because again, I can rationalise them all away. The fact is that I’ve always had an image in my mind of who I was and wanted to be. In my mind I was the world traveller who was always wearing floaty caftans and “just dropping by” before jetting off somewhere else. I never seemed to have a job but yet had stylish clothes and an extensive wine knowledge. I was well read and had heated arguments on the phone in another language. I could easily discuss current affairs around the world while also being able to casually drop some reason that someone should or shouldn’t do something based on their numerology. And friends. That’s who I am now. Well, more or less. I need a few caftans and my knowledge of wine is not so much extensive as it is “I have tried a lot of different bottles of wine to excess”. But even being the person I wanted to be doesn’t stop me from seeing what other people have and sometimes being envious. This is why I balk at the “build a life you don’t need a vacation from” nonsense.  You can build the exact life you want and still wonder what it would be like to have that other thing. There’s that cheesy saying about one door opening when the other door closes but the truth is that when we choose one door another one closes. Every choice we make excludes another choice, or excludes it for now.

So what to do about that human emotion of jealously? I think, as I’ve learnt from the many meditation podcasts I’ve listened too, the only thing to do is experience it and then let it go. To say to ourselves, “I feel jealous of that” and then to not shame ourselves. We try to make ourselves relentlessly happy and feel guilty when we aren’t, we already have so much we tell ourselves. In the travel community we say that if we just change our destination then we can be happy. That endless travel is the solution. But it’s not. Happiness is an elusive and ever-changing thing and trying to make ourselves happy doesn’t work. Next time we feel jealous let’s forgive ourselves for being human and then just keep doing our thing. Instead of trying to be relentlessly happy let’s relentlessly be ourselves.

 

How To Have A Very European Autumn

From my extensive studies (ie: looking at instagram and pinterest all day) it seems that Autumn is a universally loved season.I’m not going to discuss the nuances of the pumpkin spice latte debate, although readers should know I fall heavily on the side of “go ahead and enjoy those overpriced seasonal drinks however I’m more of an eggnog latte type of woman”. I think I understand why everyone loves autumn, especially in the age of social media. Bear with me here. Summertime has always been about doing stuff whether that means backpacking trips, heading to the pool, backyard barbecues, camping, music festivals or any of the other things that we should be doing in the summer. And hey, those are good things but combine what with the constant barrage of the cool things our friends are doing on social media and  it can feel like a lot of pressure. Then autumn comes and we get back to routine, we make our homes cosy because we’ll be spending more time in them, boozy nights of dancing can be traded for a quiet drink in the pub beside the fire.  There’s a change of pace that means less pressure, it’s easier to say no to events when it’s rainy or snowy and cold. There’s a it more room to breathe. To focus on our loved ones, to take ourselves out of the race of being the coolest and best.

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Canadian autumns are unlike anything else, the leaves turn a million beautiful colours and everything has that truly autumnal feeling (except we call it fall, but I’m tired of being made fun of for saying fall so ahah! I have the last laugh (ish)). But there’s something special about European autumns that I’ve come to love. It’s not as cold or as leafy but it’s peaceful . The cities take on an different beauty in the gloomy and overcast skies, Christmas markets pop up. In Valencia the streets are filled with people selling roast hazelnuts or corn on the cob. Even if it still feels strange to me to see Christmas decorations go up when there are still green leaves on the trees, there’s something I find enchanting about it.

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Belfast 

If you’re planning a weekend (or longer) getaway in Europe  I prefer to wait until September or later. August in many European countries, especially in the Southern/Mediterranean European countries is a vacation month which means the cities are basically empty as most people go to the sea/their village/abroad. These places become very touristy which is good (I like being a tourist) but it also means that not as many places are open and you don’t get the same feel of the city, the hustle and bustle as it were.

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Whether you’re going abroad or staying in your own country don’t put too much pressure on yourself to see all the sights, if it’s cold out, find a cosy corner and read a book or have a long lunch.  Have something to look forward to and plan. Head to an art gallery, museum, a talk or just simply go somewhere new. These things make me, for one,  feel more confident, like I have something to contribute to conversations, like I’ve learned something new and am better for it.  Find comfortable accommodation because you might not leave it and pack an extra large scarf and coat. You want to see the city after all but it’s just too rainy/snowy! C’est la vie! Download educational podcasts or audio books and then debate everyone with your newfound knowledge.  Cook a late lunch and curl up in front of an old movie. Call or text a friend or family member and spend the afternoon catching up. Consult your horoscope to see if you should go out or stay in this weekend and then invite friends over with the intention of going out but stay in instead. After all you have a frozen pizza and a bottle of wine. Sit on a bench or in a cafe and contemplate life. Wander in and out of shops with the purpose of buying loads but in the end only purchasing a bracelet. Go with the flow rather than trying to organise a trip that accomplishes everything at once.

I often say and have heard people say that you are more tired after a vacation than before and it makes perfect sense. We feel pressure to do as many things as possible and see everything, we want to be busy but autumn is the perfect time to put those notions aside and embrace friendship and family life, to not worry about being perfect and to see where life takes us.

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Go Ahead, Be a Tourist

If you’ve gone on 0 trips or 7000 you know that you don’t want to be a “tourist” you want to be a “traveller” and you want to seek out “authentic experiences” you want to see “the real ____________”. I’ve heard that everywhere I’ve lived and travelled too. “Dublin’s not really Ireland” or “Rome is a typical destination for a North American” (still don’t know what that means, it’s the capital and a historic city so probably lots of people go there not just North Americans??). I am here to say bullshit. Look the truth is, yes if you live somewhere for a while it will feel different then stopping by for a week or two, and the longer you live there the more your perspective will change. Yes if you learn the language you will have a deeper experience. These things are true. But if you’re travelling somewhere, even if you’re living there, stop looking for authentic experiences. You are having an authentic experience right now. Even if you eschew all the traditional tourist things, you’re still a tourist. At least that’s how I see it. In my years of trying to be an “authentic traveller”  I have yet to have someone come up to me and say “wow Stephanie, good job, you’re a traveller and not a tourist”. What’s more I’ve spent a lot of time trying to please other travellers and impress them with the tales of m authentic travels and you know what? That certain type of person is never happy because there’s always someone who’s been somewhere more “interesting” or done something more adventurous, or been too more countries or whatever the case may be. And you know what that’s true. Because whatever you do there will someone who has done something different.

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Seeking so-called “authentic” experiences often means that one, particularly a Westerner, is attempting to be an arbitrator of another culture and what defines their culture. If  Spain, for instance, and I’m just using this as an example, decides to ban bull fighting or the running of the bulls in the near future it is not the job of  me, or anyone else to say that they should keep the tradition because it’s, well, a tradition. What’s more, what’s often described as the “real __________” is the countryside, the rural places that have remained more homogeneous (or have been seen to remain homogeneous, in reality these places are disappearing fast as well) . It implies that the more multi-cultural cities, the thriving multi-ethnic places don’t really represent a certain country. That things should stay a certain way or else lose their charm. It treats people and cultures as museum pieces that can be preserved for you and your entertainment. It doesn’t allow countries or communities to change as they see fit. Many times on my travels I’ve hear ” oh there’s a Starbucks/McDonalds/ other American corporation that can be used to describe everything that’s wrong with the world in every city” and that’s more or less true. I’m not here to say Starbucks or McDonalds are good or should be everywhere but I mean, I like Starbucks festive drinks and sometimes you just need a Big Mac but I digress. I would argue, and will readily admit if I’m wrong, that cultures are strong enough to survive a McDonalds popping up on the corner. I’m not here defending McDonalds and there are real conversations to be had about gentrification and the harm it does, just to say that maybe a lot of handwringing when we see someone from another country enjoying a 6 euro coffee is out of place. Look, I’m not immune. There was a little cafe in Valencia that was what I would describe as a typical Valencian old man bar/cafe. The kind where everything is kind of orange and brown, there’s probably a fan in the corner and a cigarette machine from the 18th century or so, they give you a coffee for a euro and they seem angry when they do it. If you’ve been to Spain you know what I’m talking about. Last time I went to Valencia it had turned into a brightly coloured, stylish looking place. I felt kind of sad. But guess what? I don’t live there anymore and I don’t own that business. If that makes them more money, or makes them happier or caters to tourists then hey, that’s their choice.

All of this is a long winded way to say, let’s get rid of this elusive idea of a “traveller” because who even knows what that means?When I’m travelling from now on I’m going to be a tourist.  So let’s embrace it (respectfully of course), enjoy the Eiffel Tower it’s iconic and pretty damn cool. See Big Ben or the many churches around Europe. Take some cheesy pictures, stop worrying what everyone thinks of you.  You have the privilege of being able to travel to a new place, enjoy it, without wondering if it’s good enough, real enough, true enough. Readers will know that I’m concerned with travelling ethically and that stands, I think we need to be informed about where we go and what we do when we’re there. But if you’ve done that then just enjoy yourself, do your trip your way and enjoy yourself. You get to travel!

Disagree? Let me know in the comments.

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It’s Okay To Be Sad About The London Terror Attacks

This week’s terror attacks in London were scary and sad. Four people died, leaving behind family members and friends and colleagues who now have a massive hole in their lives. For the rest of us it’s frightening to think that cities like London or Paris, European capitals with large police presences, cities many of us  have visited, could be dangerous. Now I’m not necessarily extolling large police presences or saying that as Western nations we are somehow blameless victims of the current political climate. Furthermore there are people being radicalised on all sides and that’s scary too. But this isn’t a post about that. If you spend a lot of time on social media, as I do, you know the cycle. First shock and outrage and then criticism for not being as outraged about the other injustices in the world and then pleas that we remember that most people are good. In the travel community it goes like this: everytime there’s a terrorist attack, or a backpacker is murdered or dies accidentally or some other tragedy occurs the travel community has barely uttered words of condolences to the family before they start extolling the virtues of backpacking and couchsurfing, of the beauty of whatever country the attack/accident took place in, of the virtues of travel in general and of course the pleas to everyone to “keep travelling”, “conquer your fears”, “don’t let the bad guys win” and blah blah blah and I’m here to say bullshit to all of that. First of all it’s a bit trite and a bit silly to tell people to not “let the terrorists win” by telling them they can still go on their  beach holiday/ 2 week Eurotrip. Secondly while anger, unity, and bravery are all valid and good emotional responses to such events sadness and fear are also valid and good. We can’t dwell in these emotions forever but experiencing them momentarily doesn’t make us weak or bad.  Thirdly it seems useless to me to pretend that there is no danger anywhere in the world  and we should live as if there wasn’t. Of course bad things can and do happen anywhere but, for example, is it  inherently more dangerous to stay with strangers from couchsurfing than a hotel with all the security that that entails? Of course. Does that mean that no one should ever stay with someone from Couchsurfing? Of course not. But can we really make a better, safer travel community without addressing actual issue? I would argue that we cannot . Lastly there is a kind of travel we do need to do but it isn’t one that necessarily involve a physical travel. Rather we need to seek out people and cultures that are different from ours, to learn about the struggles that, particularly marginalized people, face. We need to find ways to make the world safer and more equal for everyone.

Personally I don’t believe that travel has an intrinsic value, it can be good or bad, moral or amoral or meaningful or meaningless depending on how and why you do it . I intend to keep travelling myself. But let’s allow ourselves to feel sad and even scared by certain events, we owe that to survivors and victims of violence around the world. Let’s travel whether it’s to work or to a new country with the goal of learning something and meeting people that challenge us to be better, to be more loving, to be more understanding.

On Saturday night my boyfriend and I were exhausted and turned on the TV and were too lazy to find something to watch so we ended up watching Evan Almighty. Now this is as weird for me to write as it is for you to read but I found something useful in that film. Morgan Freeman’s God character tells Evan (Steve Carell) that he can change the world by doing small acts of kindness everyday. As simplified as it sounds I do believe we can change the world by being kind. Of course there is a time for more action and I’m not suggesting that violence can be solved by bringing someone coffee or something like that. But radical kindness, trying to see the other side of a story, a quest for truth and compassion, a dedication to doing good in all areas of our lives, fighting for justice and empowering people, I believe these things can change the world.

Me Before You-Book Review

picture of me before you in a review of the book

****Mild Spoilers Ahead****

The problem with Me Before You by Jojo Moyes is that what it intends to deliver and what it does deliver are two very different things.What it presents is a story about a young, working class woman who ends up in a job as a carer for a quadriplegic and they both end up learning more about themselves and what it means to live life fully. What it actually is is a story about a young working class woman who ends up in a job as a carer for a wealthy, vapid quadriplegic which allows her to live a life she would never have been able to before. The poor/average woman who finds a wealthy man who jets her around the world and buys her luxury clothing items which she had previously  mentioned in passing is a tale as old as time in the “chick-lit” genre. Those stories, though, don’t pretend to have a moral.

When Louisa Clark loses her job in a cafe she has to quickly secure another one to support her family, for which she is the sole earner. The job she finds is as a care giver for Will Traynor, a young and handsome quadriplegic with a bad attitude. Of course, she softens him up and when she learns that he wishes to end his life she attempts to change his mind by taking him on various adventures funded by his insanely wealthy parents. Okay. Even if we take out the extremely problematic idea that people are better off dead than handicapped this book still leaves us with a lot of problems. First of all the idea is that the characters change each other but this isn’t true. Will changes Louisa but absolutely refuses to learn anything from her. Secondly, there was a bit in the middle where I thought that the book was going to make an interesting statement about classism and ableism but then it…didn’t. Louisa is thrilled to be making £9 an hour which she uses to support her sister, nephew, parents and grandparents so when Will suggests she needs to live a fuller life it is actually mind boggling that we are supposed to nod in agreement with him. Certainly someone who is supporting their family and living in a council estate isn’t going to jet off on African safaris, attend classical music concerts, enjoy fancy restaurants every weekend or take up sky diving and yet we are supposed to accept Will’s criticism of Louisa for not “living fully”. Secondly, we are told of a traumatic bit of Louisa’s past that has hindered her from being more adventurous but instead of encouraging her to seek help, both Will and the book suggest she should just get over it. Those problems aside, the writing I found to be hit and miss. There were parts that I thought were genuinely good, excellent even. If this book had just been about the life of Louisa and her family I would give it five out of five and read all of it’s sequels. However, for no clear reason at all Will refers to Louisa as “Clark” like an old-timey business man and Louisa refers to Will by his full name. Some bits were filled with absolutely useless facts (Louisa uses hand sanitizer!) But the thing that really annoyed me was the fact that while most of the book is told from the perspective of  Louisa some chapters were from the perspective of other characters. This gimmick not only didn’t reveal new information but made the characters seem like completely different people altogether.

In conclusion: this book seemed like it wanted to teach us something, but that something seems to be that dying is better than being handicapped and poor people should feel bad for not “living more fully”.