‘They Left Us EVERYTHING’, by Plum Johnson

“…thinking about all the things we’ve inherited, all the carefully saved fragments from another time…each generation preserving them in turn, wanting future generations to know of this long, braided chain of genes, habits, and attitudes that binds us together as a family: our history and stories.” 

This is a memoir about a woman who takes on the task of clearing out her parents’ house after they have passed on. When we die we don’t take anything with us, and everyone else gets to go through what we have left behind! Johnson grew up in this house in Oakville, Ontario, and as she handles objects from the past, she reflects on her life, her relationship with her parents and siblings, and the life her parents had before they moved into this house. She had a disciplined British father, an exuberant Southern mother, and four siblings, all living together in this 23-room house. Johnson has a warmly candid writing style that is at once funny and poignant, but also delves into serious issues of managing loss and grief.

What I didn’t notice about the title when I first came into contact with this book was that the word EVERYTHING in the title is capitalized. Yes, the house was FULL of STUFF and for anyone who has done it, removing it all and making decisions about what to throw and what to keep, is a colossal task that does take one on an emotional journey. I’m glad Johnson shares hers. She also raises some interesting questions about whether it’s better to clear out your own mess before you die, if possible, or if it’s somehow therapeutic for your children to do it. Despite the fact that it can be frustrating if story-less objects are left without the ability to ask questions about them, there is value in reliving the memories and there may even be some surprises!

‘The Alice Network’ by Kate Quinn

In the chaotic aftermath of WW 2, Charlie finds herself unmarried and pregnant, and on the verge of being thrown out by her very proper family. Her mother wants her to go to Switzerland to take care of her Little Problem. Instead Charlie runs away to London where she begins a search for her beloved cousin Rose who has not been heard from since the war. Joining her in the quest, is an unlikely partner. Eve was a spy in WW 1, and though heroic, was also broken in body and spirit. She has her own reasons for being on this quest with Charlie and they are far more sinister. The book alternates between Eve and Charlie’s stories, both riveting, until the stories inevitably converge. It is an enthralling historical fiction that is gripping and features two strong female protagonists. This was a great story about courage and resilience in unbelievably hard times but also had some measures of humour and romance thrown in. I liked that it combined both world wars in the same novel. The espionage aspects reminded me of Code Name Verity which was also a great read. I will be recommending this one widely!

‘Goodnight, Manger’ by Laura Sassi and Jane Chapman

Here is an excellent choice if you are looking for a Christmas picture book for a tiny in your life! One of the most common challenges for parents of new babies is getting them to sleep. This delightful children’s Christmas picture book deals with that theme, giving the classic Christmas story a unique and human twist…I always prefer the familiar Christmas carol to be of this version: “the little Lord Jesus, some crying he makes.” Mary and Joseph are having a difficult time getting baby Jesus to sleep in the busy and noisy stable!

Chapman’s illustrations are done in warm colours and uncommon motifs. I particularly love how the angels are portrayed–men and women in colourful garb. Yes, they are flying around in the air, but they are not white females with wings!

Note: Here’s a great tip I read in a review of this book: put 24 Christmas books in a basket and read one each day for advent until Christmas day!

‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry

Now in her hundredth year, Rose McNulty, once the most beautiful girl in County Sligo, Ireland, has spent a lifetime locked up in a mental asylum for reasons which gradually become clear as she tells her story. She has a secret diary and she is interviewed by Dr. Grene who suspects that she was incarcerated for social reasons rather than medical. Rose was an innocent victim of religious and political hatreds during the Irish civil war. It is a tense novel of survival and an epic story of love and betrayal.

This is a magnificent novel for the serious reader. Barry’s writing is beautifully elegant but also energetic and well crafted, suspenseful and historical. There is a movie made from this book by the same name which came out in 2015 with Vanessa Redgrave. I think because Barry’s poetic prose softened the darkness of the subject matter, I found the movie more difficult to watch and even more emotionally devastating. Oddly, in the book I felt the surprise ending was a bit far-fetched but in the movie it was so movingly perfect, that it made me cry.

‘Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End’ by Atul Gawande

The old saying goes that once you have faced death, you can truly live. Trite but true. Of course we spend much of our lives taking very good care to see that we remain as healthy as possible for as long as possible, but the reality is still that we are going to die.

Atul Gawande, a medical doctor himself,  wrestles profoundly but personally with the dilemma of submitting ourselves to medical systems and mindsets that have been geared to prolonging life at all costs (a great strategy that has us living longer than ever before) but also coming to grips with the fact that at some point the inventions and interventions will no longer work and may actually increase suffering. In this pivotal moment, the important thing to remember is that we are mortal and the choices we make at the end of life need to be more around the quality of life remaining, even if those choices shorten life and involve refusing treatments that are available. The goal should not be a good death, but a good life to the very end. And that will look very different in each unique person, family, and situation. Gawande doesn’t offer solutions, just discusses the issues in a very accessible format.

Gawande talks about nursing homes where the focus on safety can prevent a full and dignified assistance of individual needs. He points out the high value in hospice care as an alternative to further treatment, if that is available and appropriate. Unfortunately hospice is sometimes seen as a giving up or as a failure or weakness once everything else has been tried, rather than a positive alternative to being cared for in the final chapter that leads to fullness of life till the end. Useful and engaging, the stories he tells in the book give a dignified view of those who are in the process of giving up their independence to old age or illness. His models of care focus on living a meaningful life.

Through gently storytelling, the book is also very useful in walking the reader through difficult conversations, accepting hard truths, whether patient or carer.  The final chapter of our lives may have a fullness and a richness we could never have imagined, if the right choices are made. That chapter might include sharing memories, passing on wisdom and keepsakes, settling relationships, establishing legacies, making peace with God, and ensuring that those left behind will be ok. “As people become aware of the finitude of their life, they do not ask for much. They do not seek more riches. They do not seek more power. They ask only to be permitted, insofar as possible, to keep shaping the story of their life in the world–to make choices and sustain connection to others according to their own priorities.”

 

‘Dead Cold’ by Louise Penny (Three Pines Mystery #2)

Louise Penny’s mystery series set in the tiny Quebec village of Three Pines, features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. This is the second instalment and though it is not essential to read the books in order, I am doing that, because it has been recommended. The characters do develop throughout the series and being able to follow that is as entertaining as solving the murder mysteries. I enjoyed this one more that the first (Still Life), only because I was returning to this village and to these characters and that familiarity added pleasure to the reading for me. Penny’s website is very beautifully done, has some interesting information about the inspiration for the village and the inspector, and even has a FAQ section. Maybe you love FAQ sections as much as I do!

It’s early days for me with this series. I’m looking forward to more. I’ve heard the series just gets better and better and has met with huge worldwide success. I will share this quote from the author because it demonstrates how her mysteries are a literary cut above in my opinion. As she says herself in the candid interview I’ve included below with CBCs Wendy Mesley, the books are not about murder, they have murder in them.

“My books are about terror. That brooding terror curled deep down inside us. But more than that, more than murder, more than all the rancid emotions and actions, my books are about goodness. And kindness. About choice. About friendship and belonging. And love. Enduring love. If you take only one thing away form any of my books I’d like it to be this: Goodness exists.”

‘No and Me’ by Delphine de Vigan

Parisian teenager Lou has an IQ of 160, OCD tendencies, and a mother who has suffered from depression for years. But Lou is about to change her life–and that of her parents–all because of a school project about homeless teens. While doing research, Lou meets No (short for Nolwenn), a teenage girl living on the streets. As their friendship grows, Lou bravely asks her parents if No can live with them, and is astonished when they agree. No’s presence forces Lou’s family to come to terms with a secret tragedy. But can this shaky, newfound family continue to live together when No’s own past comes back to haunt her?

Translated from French, this young adult novel grew on me. It’s definitely a ‘cross-over’ novel, appealing to adults as well as teens. Though it has a bit of a slow start, it has beautiful and important themes about homelessness, adolescence, friendship, and motherlessness. There are only a few characters but that spareness is what makes it great. Most striking is the juxtaposition between the simplicity of the language and the depth of ideas in the novel. There would be a lot to discuss if a book club read this together. It would be a great book for high schools to use in French class (No et Moi)…easy and engaging for teens to read,  but well written and academic enough.

The effects of Lou’s kindness and bravery in inviting No to come and stay is remarkable and has far reaching effects on her family. Along with classmate Lucas, Lou tries to help No build a life away from the streets. However, No’s emotional scars run deep and she pushes Lou’s friendship and trust to the limits. Without revealing the ending, I feel I want to say that I found it sad that No never realized what a huge impact she had on all of the members of Lou’s family, by coming to stay with them. Isn’t it often the case that those who reach out to help are the ones who end up being blessed?