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  • Title: Lean Out
  • Author: Tara Henley
  • Genre: Biography/Memoirs
  • Publisher: Appetite by Random House
  • Pages: 336

This is, I must admit, a bizarre time to be reading a book whose subtitle promises “a meditation on the madness of modern living,” because, well, being alive right now feels mad in a particular, unprecedented way.

The strangeness of our time, however, might actually make this the ideal moment to take up this memoir’s invitation: to use this abrupt cessation of daily life as we know it to pause, and question, and lean in, as it were, into the uninvited quiet. (I mean, if you’re going to pick an abyss to stare into, this one’s infinitely better than Twitter.)

Because if anyone knows about having your life go from 60 to zero almost overnight, it’s Tara Henley. A few years ago, the Canadian journalist lived a life many of us would recognize: Working too hard at a thankless job, paying too much in rent, connected to thousands but feeling utterly alone. She might have continued living like that, but then the chest pains came, crushing waves that assaulted her body in the middle of the newsroom where she worked. Fearing for her health – and her sanity – Henley collapsed off the hamster wheel, moved back to her hometown of Vancouver and began looking for a better way to live.

Lean Out is the story of that continuing journey. It is not, thankfully, a gimmicky, frothy “My Year of Living Mindfully” that trials a trend a month, Self-Actualization achieved in 12 months of zany experimentation and kale smoothies. It’s not that Henley doesn’t give all the various remedies for breakdown a whirl. It’s just that she very quickly finds that meditation, clean eating, digital detoxes and all the other solutions prescribed by our individualistic, self-help obsessed society are woefully inadequate remedies for a problem that is bigger than one woman’s burnout.

This is where Henley runs into a bit of trouble. This is a book that straddles two genres – part-memoir, part-sociological investigation – and does it with mixed results. Henley’s work to survey the entire landscape of thought on the modern condition is interesting, readable and clever. (The chapters on loneliness and the breakdown of community are particularly eye-opening.) Equally, the passages devoted to her own journey are vividly written, earnest without being self-indulgent and replete with moments where she encapsulated a familiar feeling so well that I dog-eared the page in the middle of reading the thought. (A particular favourite, drawn from evaluating her less than ideal financial situation at 40 years old? “It’s difficult to articulate how shocking this realization was … I had done everything right, had followed every one of society’s rules to the letter. And I had still come up short.”). Where this read runs into rocky ground – and it really does feel that disruptive – is when these two streams try to co-exist on the same page. If Henley’s personal prose was the meditation, the interviews, facts, and figures she frequently inserted were the interruptions from the outside that killed the flow. Stylistically, it’s also a tale of two Henleys: There’s a poetry to her writing when she’s talking about her own life that disappears when she’s summarizing a conversation with an expert or parsing data from this think tank or the other (this is when she falls back into the less graceful prose of a journalist on deadline).

But for every strangely shoe-horned source, there is a paragraph of genuine loveliness, and Henley does an admirable job of making something new out of well-trodden ground. Case in point: The title, a play on Sheryl Sandberg’s much-critiqued call for women to “lean in” more in the workplace. Initially, I sighed inwardly, thinking I had read everything that could possibly be said on the topic. Henley, however, surprised me with how she advanced everyone else’s arguments, closing out the book with a spirited, articulate attack on the twisted attitude to work in the 21st century. “We work as if we are changing the world,” she writes, “But leave the actual work of changing the world untouched.”

Pin that to your cubicle wall – at your own risk.

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