‘Anxious People’ by Fredrik Backman

Here is the latest book by the author of A Man Called Ove and Bear Town, both of which I loved! And I have to give full marks to this one as well. It’s a very different novel than either one of those. One thing I can say about Backman–his books are in no way formulaic!

An apartment real estate open house turns into a hostage situation when a failed bank robber comes in waving around a gun. This is a story about a crime that never took place, a would-be bank robber who disappears, and eight very anxious strangers who find out they have way more in common than they ever imagined!

Anxious People is delightfully (laugh-out-loud) funny but also very unsentimentally poignant, insightful, and wise. The set-up is hilarious, the characters likeable, the structure of the novel original, and there are some surprising twists and turns. I also found it stereotype-busting and bursting with kind generosity for human quirks and foibles. In the hands of a less skilful author this might have just been ridiculous, but Backman elevates a silly story into something entertaining and life affirming.

‘Quilts and Health’ by Marsha MacDowell, Clare Luz, and Beth Donaldson

“I make my quilts thick to keep my family warm. I make them beautiful to keep my heart from breaking.”
Prairie Woman, 1870

My friend Nandy is an artist, not a quilter like I am, but when she noticed this book somewhere, she very kindly sent me one! It was a wonderful gift. This incredible book speaks to the healing power of quilts and quilt making and to the deep connection that exists between art and health. I’ve taken time to read it slowly and carefully, admiring the many beautiful photos of quilts and descriptions of amazing quilt projects. If there is a quilter in your life, take note.

This book is a compilation of pictures and stories and presents evidence and many varied poignant testimonies to the fact that having and giving and making and using and just being around quilts is healing. Quilting involves creativity and math and puzzles and precision and clever use of colour and pattern, but also involves patience with many countless hours of sewing and handwork. Quilters do find all of that therapeutic. There are many types of quilts and endless techniques that quilters learn and use. But this is not a how-to-quilt book. It researches and celebrates the connection between quilts and health. Name an illness, medical condition, or disease and you will find quilt making associated with it.

The book covers charity quilting, the joy of quilting in groups, quilting for specific causes, the healing power of sewing that quilters experience after or during treatment for an illness, but also the tremendous comfort in receiving a quilt as a gift and feeling the love that went into each and every stitch. “Those who sleep under a quilt, sleep under a blanket of love.”

I was delighted when my friend Alice sent me this picture of a quilt hanging on the wall which she noticed on a walk-about at Toronto General Hospital. I wasn’t delighted that she had to be admitted there, and she is fine now, but it was a great example of how quilts are often found in places of healing and medical care. The inscription reads, “Thank you to the wonderful nurses of 6B West, Head and Neck Unit, TGH.”

“Common themes–or threads if you will–throughout this book have been the critical role that beauty, creative expression, and a sense of worth, belonging, purpose and community can play in achieving optimal health and quality of life.”

‘The Bookshop of Yesterdays’ by Amy Meyerson

Today I did something that I love but haven’t been able to do for some time. Our public library reopened after the lockdown and it was so nice to just browse around the stacks and be in the midst of a whole bunch of books again. Bookshelves have always fascinated me and I miss being in people’s houses and secretly (or not so secretly) perusing shelves to see what their reading tastes might be. This is especially fun in homes (like Air B & Bs) where you don’t know the people and the books and decor are really your only clues to who these people are. Pandemic zoom meetings have actually also offered coveted glimpses into people’s private lives if you can squint and decipher what’s lurking on the shelf behind the person whose face is on the screen! Zoom celebrity stalking is actually a thing:

It goes without saying that readers love bookshops of any kind and thus novels about them. This debut novel has an amazing premise but the writing felt flat to me–Miranda unexpectedly inherits a bookstore complete with scavenger hunt from a beloved eccentric uncle, who she hasn’t seen since his disappearance years ago. In the process of uncovering the mystery, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery with revelations that will change her life! It is reviewed and marketed as a poignant story about family, forgiveness and the joys of reading but I had a hard time connecting with any of it. It was ok to finish, but I didn’t like it as much as other bookshop books like  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. Here’s a list of 20 books about bookstores if you are really interested in more: click here.

‘Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’ by J.D. Vance

Narrated by the author this memoir is a heartfelt journey of a man through the labyrinth of his own life and culture. It reminded me a little of Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. What a child grows up with is intrinsic and woven through their personality and psyche. To the child it just is. But when as an adult that person gains a curiosity to look back and step back far enough to gain an objective understanding of the effects those growing years had on them, it is powerful indeed. Vance grew up as a “hillbilly”: a poor white person from the American south. But I loved what he says about that moniker: “Americans call them ‘hillbillies, white trash, rednecks’ but I call them ‘neighbours, friends, family.'”

Vance very poignantly and honestly tells his own story of growing up in white working class culture in the Appalachia region, and in so doing, describes a culture marked by economic decay, poor self-esteem, and lack of agency. He loves his family deeply, but was also scarred in many ways by them and had to wake up to this reality to begin to understand his own tendencies and motivations. He had good people in his life who fiercely protected him and loved him, like his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw– very vivid and colourful characters! Would I ever have loved to meet them! “If you harm that boy you will answer to the barrel of my gun!” says Mamaw to her own daughter about her grandson J.D. It made me think of the sitcom we grew up with called Beverly Hillbillies.

Vance doesn’t criticise, he analyses. Hard working Scots/Irish immigrants came for the American dream which became overshadowed by abuse, alcoholism, poverty and trauma. How that happened is complicated, and Vance very ably articulates his chaotic family story with humour and insight.

I’m getting to this book a bit late, but when it came out it was hugely instructive in understanding the populism of Donald Trump and his supporters, which sped it to the top of the bestseller list at the time. I do recommend listening to the audiobook version, narrated by the author himself. Ron Howard has created a movie adaptation with a star-studded cast, coming out soon on Netflix.

‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ by Anne Tyler

Before anything else I must speak of awards. I’m so excited because my favourite book award, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, announced its 2020 winner last night and it was the only book from the shortlist that I had read and I loved it: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. For my recent review of this beautiful book, click here. It was up against some heavyweights like Hilary Mantel’s third instalment in her Thomas Cromwell series (the first two in the series were Booker winners and the third is on the long-list this year too, sheesh!)

Now when we look at the Booker Prize 2020 long-list (shortlist to be chosen next week) we see Hilary Mantel’s brick of a historical novel, but we also see beside it this quirky slim new novel by Anne Tyler. She is one of my favourite authors but I never expected to see her among the award selections until A Spool of Blue Thread made it onto the Booker long-list in 2015, and now Redhead by the Side of the Road in 2020. Tyler is one of my favourite authors and I appreciate her unpretentious style, but are her novels award material? She did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for Breathing Lessons and to be honest, I am always complaining that award winners are so literary focused that they become unreadable. So yes! Tyler deserves a seat at the table and I will cheer her on for writing approachable novels that have depth and capture humanity. She has a way of making the ordinary come alive…sort of subtle extraordinary, really.

I did love this book, it felt like an undemanding comfort read during this challenging season on the planet. The dialogue is fresh and the main character’s simple lifestyle well described. It’s also surprisingly short (less than 200 pages) and almost reads like a novella. Here is the premise, and even though it may seem at first glance to be like The Rosie Project, it is very different–more profound and realistic.

“Micah Mortimer is a creature of habit. A self-employed tech expert, superintendent of his Baltimore apartment building, cautious to a fault behind the steering wheel, he seems content leading a steady, circumscribed life. But one day his routines are blown apart when his woman friend (he refuses to call anyone in her late thirties a “girlfriend”) tells him she’s facing eviction, and a teenager shows up at Micah’s door claiming to be his son. These surprises, and the ways they throw Micah’s meticulously organised life off-kilter, risk changing him forever. An intimate look into the heart and mind of a man who finds those around him just out of reach, and a funny, joyful, deeply compassionate story about seeing the world through new eyes.”

‘Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed’ by Lori Gottlieb

“We grow in connection with others.”

Lori Gottlieb is an American psychotherapist who writes the weekly ‘Dear Therapist’ column for The Atlantic magazine and has been a TV screen writer. I’ve never read a memoir quite like this. It’s very personal about the author of course, but also opens the door to therapy sessions which are usually private and confidential so it felt like being a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ but also I felt like I learned something about how people gain self-understanding. I don’t have much experience with this myself but the few sessions I have had with a naturopath who utilised talk therapy, I was amazed at her skills of perception and intuitiveness in a relatively short amount of conversation time.

The first half of the book hooked me in with Gottlieb’s self-deprecating humour. She is honest and funny and refreshingly unafraid to doubt or question herself. The fact that she needs therapy herself gives the book a ‘real’ feel. Towards the middle I was wondering where all of the seemingly random stories about her clients/patients were going, but hang in there. The second half of the book is where the magic happens, the wisdom and understanding arrives, and there are satisfying outcomes, even in difficult and tragic circumstances. I guess in that way the book mimics a real therapy session. She highlights Viktor Frankl’s emphasis on finding meaning and quotes from his book Man’s Search for Meaning which is a lifetime favourite of mine. She also talks about how love wins. Here’s an excellent interview with Gottlieb which captures her perspective on therapy: click here.

Apparently this kind of view into ‘both sides of the couch’ is also TV material, ABC is already developing a series based on this book.

Here is the author in a TED talk with the title: How changing your story can change your life.

‘The Secret Keeper’ by Kate Morton

Kate Morton has been on my bucket list (and bookshelf) for a very long time and I finally got there. As the title suggests, this is a family saga full of secrets, set in England. There is a shocking and very violent crime at the start of the novel, which sets up the mystery central to the novel’s suspense. Laurel Nicolson, eldest daughter and now an acclaimed actress in London, witnessed something years ago, that has always haunted her. When she returns to her childhood home to take care of her dying mother, she becomes ever more determined to find out what really happened.

In the beginning I was wondering whether this would be formulaic and maybe not worth wading through. Morton’s writing can feel a tad overwritten. However, I persevered, and I’m so glad I did. The story had more twists and turns than I thought it would, and the ending was totally surprising and very clever. It was the kind of revelation that makes you rethink the whole book. For the unhurried reader, this can be a delicious novel to sink into, so it won’t be for everyone, but I really did enjoy it and found it better than expected. It reminded me of those endlessly entertaining Susan Howatch novels I would disappear into for days. Does anyone remember those?

‘The Lying Room’ by Nicci French

Neve Connelly has become frustrated and bored with her life and enters a relationship with a man from work. One morning he texts her to come over, and to her dismay, when she arrives at his apartment, she finds him dead on the floor. Afraid that her husband will learn of the affair if she calls emergency services, she proceeds to clear the apartment of all evidence that she was ever there, but accidentally leaves a bangle behind on the kitchen counter. When she remembers the bangle, it is half a day later and when she returns to retrieve it, the body is still there but now the bangle and the murder weapon are missing! When the Detective Chief Inspector comes calling and lying ensues, the darkness of betrayal becomes a heavy burden indeed for Neve and the guilt of all of the indiscretions threaten to undo her. Neve knows one thing, she is not the killer. But who is and is it someone close to her and is she now in danger too?

Fast-paced, addictive,  and farcical, this crime thriller kept me entertained and on the edge of my seat with humour, delicious twists and turns, and characters that I really cared about. They were all so hopelessly and loveably flawed and so very, very British. Will definitely read more of this husband and wife writing team, who also both write separately as well (Nicci Gerrard and Sean French). Together they have a series about a detective named Frieda Klein, but also several stand-alone novels.

‘Hamnet and Judith’ by Maggie O’Farrell

Very, very little is known about Shakespeare. It seems odd that someone so famous, whose writings have been so revered, would be such a mystery to us. This of course, has opened the door to a myriad of works of fiction about the man, to try to fill in the gaps. It’s the kind of thing that drives you to Wikipedia to find out where the lines between fact and fiction have been drawn or embroidered upon. O’Farrell doesn’t embroider though, she enhances. Hamnet and Judith feels like a book in slow motion. For that reason, it won’t be for everyone, but even though I usually prefer faster pacing, in this case I didn’t want it to speed up.

This book is really not about Shakespeare but about family and marriage.  In the capable hands of Maggie O’Farrell (author of a compelling autobiography I Am, I Am, I Am and many fine novels), it is in one way a simple and ordinary story of domestic life, but at the same time emotionally stirring and textured. I’ve always wondered how people say they were moved to tears by a book because I never have been. But in this one I came close. The depth of her research is quite obvious and the writing is beautifully poetic. BTW, ‘Hamnet’ and ‘Hamnet and Judith’ (Canadian title) are the same book by different publishers. Hamnet is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction Award 2020, the winner will be announced in September.

Here’s what we know: Shakespeare married Anne (Agnes) Hathaway and had three children. Susanna, and twins Hamnet and Judith. Tragically, Hamnet died at the age of 11. Four years or so later, Shakespeare wrote a play entitled Hamlet, widely considered to be his greatest work. In those days, the name Hamlet was a version of Hamnet, basically the same name.

‘Break No Bones’ by Kathy Reichs ( Temperance Brennan # 9)

This series written by North America’s leading forensic anthropologist has always been one of my favourites. I usually try to read one per year but I see that it’s been 6 years since Cross Bones (#8). Oops. No matter, it made me come in fresh again and realise what I like about the character of Temperance Brennan and Reichs’ writing.

This one focuses around a mysterious series of bodies that were all killed in the same and unusual way but the link between them remains unclear. Brennan examines bones of long decomposed bodies when it’s too late for autopsies or pathology. Forensic anthropology applies skeletal analysis and techniques in archaeology to solve criminal cases. It’s fascinating science. Reichs bases her novels on real cases in her work, both in the US and Canada. She explains that when she started her job, her field was not a very popular thing, but forensic science crime drama series on TV like CSI have changed all that, and Reichs even got her own series Bones, based on her books.

Aside from the mystery and crime drama, I love the humour and quick witty dialogue that is a hallmark of her writing style. In this one Tempe finds herself stuck on assignment in a house with her former husband and current squeeze which creates some additional tension and the banter is priceless. Hilarity aside, underneath there is real struggle as she is distracted by her own feelings for both men, especially when one of them is hurt during the investigation.

But what I like best about Reichs is her personal philosophical reason for doing what she does–she wants to honour the dead by finding out who they were and what killed them. She says that when bones are found it is the anonymity that is the ultimate insult. Her passion is to reunite the victim with the integrity of their name and cause of death and offer some kind of closure. The motivation for her devotion to her vocation and the fact that her writing is so real because it is extracted from her work, is why I keep coming back for more. But where she found the time to write so many books while advancing a crazy busy career is a mystery I will probably never be able to solve. Check out her website: click here.