‘Becoming Mrs. Lewis’ by Patti Callahan

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is a moving love and loss story for fans of C.S.Lewis. It is an historical fiction based on the later life of Joy Davidman, and an intimate view into the private lives of two famous and remarkable individuals.

C.S. Lewis was a British writer, scholar, poet, imaginative genius, and lay theologian, best known for his insightful non-fiction works on the mysteries of faith, grief, and love, but also his fictions: The Screwtape Letters (a masterful satire about resistance to temptation) and The Chronicles of Narnia (a series of seven fantasy novels for children).

Joy Davidman was a brave and outspoken American award winning poet and novelist, a Jewish New York divorcee, a former atheist and ex-Communist–perhaps an unlikely choice for an author known for his writings on the Christian faith. But Lewis came to faith in God in a mysterious way, not unlike Joy’s own journey. They shared a love for reading and writing, debate and conversation, indeed their relationship started through letters.

Patti Callahan does a beautiful job of this biographical fiction, exploring their relationship but also delving into the challenges of their time. I was truly swept away by Callahan’s storytelling.

This book makes me want to disappear down the rabbit hole and reread C.S. Lewis’ books and find more books by Callahan. Coincidentally, she has just published another book called Once Upon a Wardrobe which attempts to answer the question “Where did the ideas for Narnia come from?”

I’m also interested to read a book by Joy’s son Douglas Gresham called Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis, in which he tells his side of the story as Joy’s son and Jack’s step-son. I’ve also just purchased a delightfully illustrated book of recipes of the foods featured in The Chronicles of Narnia series, entitled The Official Narnia Cookbook.

Ok, so if I disappear for awhile, I’ll either be in the wardrobe or in the kitchen…:) This short introduction by the author is worth viewing.

‘Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow’ by Elizabeth Lesser

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Change is really the only constant in our lives. In a beautifully crafted blend of personal stories, humorous insights, and practical guidance, Elizabeth Lesser offers down-to-earth tools that can help us cope with inevitable change, grief, suffering, anxiety, and loss.

During times of transition, amid everyday stress, and even when facing seemingly insurmountable adversity, life offers a choice: to turn away from change or to embrace it; to shut down or to be broken open and transformed.

Recent times have been significant for all of us. As I slowly digested this book, one chapter at a time, as the pandemic months became years, I was stretched, challenged, comforted, and blessed. The perspective in this book was so helpful–I found it a book to savour, dog-ear, underline, and scribble in, so that I can re-read. There are not many books I return to, but this will be one of them. It will sit on my very small re-read shelf, alongside What’s So Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

Lesser speaks often of soul and spirituality but I need to say that in this book she is careful not to recommend any particular spiritual path, but leaves it open. I respect her for that.

‘Blue Sky Kingdom: An Epic Family Journey to the Heart of the Himalaya’ by Bruce Kirkby

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This uplifting travelogue about a young Canadian family caught my fancy. It came out during the pandemic but of course the travel had happened before. In that way it felt like time-travelling back to an earlier era in two ways–a time when we could choose to discover other parts of the world and a time when the world was still ruled by ancient wisdom and simpler ways.

One morning at breakfast, while scrolling through unimportant stuff on his phone, Bruce Kirkby was totally distracted and barely heard his boys Bodi (7) and Taj (3) chatting to him while they ate their Cheerios. “Dad! Did you hear a single word I just said?” Bruce realized he needed to unplug from the modern world, and the way to do that was to get out–way out.

A bit of an overreaction perhaps, but Bruce and his wife Christine decided the time was right to embark on a unique trip halfway around the world to a thousand-year old Buddhist monastery in the remote Zanskar valley, one of the last places where Tibetan Buddhism is still practised freely in its original setting. They travelled over land and sea by cargo ship, river boat, bus, horse, and on foot (intentionally avoiding airplanes)–clearly the journey was not going to just be about getting there, but about what could be learned along the way. An additional component of the trip for Bruce and Christine, was coming to terms with their son Bodi’s recent autism diagnosis.

Bruce’s writing is funny, moving and honest. I loved reading about their courage to forge into the unknown and their willingness to accept challenges, as well as the many little bumps and bruises along the way. I related to the rewards they received by taking themselves and their children out of comfort zones and into intercultural friendships and self-discovery. And living for months in a place where there was nowhere to plug in the iPad! Even though I’ve never been to Tibet, parts of the book had a familiar feel because we actually lived remotely and cross-culturally with our children for many years, and I resonated with joys and struggles in their experiences that were similar to ours.

The adventure was filmed and funded by an Australian travel reality series which seems a bit incongruous. Even though the family of four only had two duffel bags stuffed with essentials, there was a whole crew of people and equipment alongside them that cluttered things up. Bruce is honest about not loving that aspect of it, but it was necessary to make it happen. And it did make entertaining footage possible, see the trailer below! The show was called Big Crazy Family Adventure.

‘Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout’ (Amgash # 3)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Elizabeth Strout animates the ordinary. On the surface there’s not much happening in this book, but the author is mining the depths and mysteries of relationship.

Lucy Barton is from Amgash, Illinois. She doesn’t talk about her childhood much, because it’s quite painful. Like breadcrumbs, there are clues left along the way in My Name is Lucy Barton (Amgash # 1) and Anything is Possible (Amgash # 2), but not everything is spelled out, even now in the third Amgash companion volume. That is typical of this author–the prose is minimalist and never overwritten. She lets the reader fill in the gaps. If you are a Strout fan, you will recognize a few characters from other books. Her characters, like Olive Kitteridge and Lucy Barton, are unforgettable.

William is Lucy’s ex-husband and though they have remained friends after the divorce, he remains a hard man to read. Surprisingly, or maybe not, William invites Lucy to accompany him on a trip to help him look up someone from his past. On the way, they end up exploring how they got to where they are now and wonder about what they’ve left behind. How well can we ever really know another person?

This book is thoughtful and reflective and ponders questions of how much of our past influences who we are today and to what extent those things contribute to the ways in which we connect with others now. It’s the nature vs. nurture debate.

This little interview is mostly about her Olive Kitteridge books, but also contains some interesting information about Elizabeth Strout–her background, home, and writing process.

‘Apples Never Fall’ by Liane Moriarty

Rating: 1 out of 5.

From the flyleaf: “If your mother was missing, would you tell the police? Even if the most obvious suspect was your father? This is the dilemma facing the four grown Delaney siblings. A novel that looks at marriage, sibling rivalry, and the lies we tell others and ourselves.”

In theory I should have enjoyed this suburban mystery saga about a professional tennis family with a missing mother. Moriarty’s trademark sense of humour and plot twists were there, but this one fell far short of the author’s usual mark.

Australian Moriarty has always been one of my favourite authors. I thoroughly enjoyed her earlier novels and promoted them, but the last two I have been disappointed with. This one in particular dragged on and had way too much backstory. The characters, though well developed through all of the flashbacks, were shallow and hard for me to connect with. There was a major piece of the prologue that was never explained, and the ending was strange, weak, and unsatisfying.

Some of her books have been picked up for adaptation to the screen in recent years. Nicole Kidman stars in two of them (Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers). I can see how the story line in this book might also make a good movie in the hands of a talented screen writer, starring high profile actors. So I wonder if, after finding success on Netflix, Moriarty’s strength has been focused more on devising compelling new story concept, rather than developing good novels. Just a hunch.

‘The Nature of the Beast’ by Louise Penny (Inspector Gamache, Three Pines Mystery # 11)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“There’s been weapons since there’s been man,” said Delorme. “Neanderthals had them. It’s the nature of the beast.”

Back to reading this series in order! Skipping to The Madness of Crowds (# 17) was fun, but now I’m back on track. I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t skipped around a bit in this series, but in general it’s a good idea to read in order, to track the development of the main characters.

Hardly a day goes by when nine year old Laurent Lepage doesn’t cry wolf. From alien invasions, to walking trees, to winged beasts in the woods, to dinosaurs spotted in the village of Three Pines, his tales are so extraordinary no one can possibly believe him. Including Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache, who now live in the little Quebec village. But when the boy disappears the villagers are faced with the possibility that one of his tall tales might have been true. Armand Gamache, the former head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, must face the possibility that, in not believing the boy, he himself played a terrible part in what happens next. Based loosely on historical fact, this instalment features a real Canadian engineer who developed long-range artillery.

‘What is God Like’ by Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner, illustrated by Ying Hui Tan

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This gorgeous picture book, co-authored by Matthew Paul Turner and illustrated by Ying Hui Tan, tries to answer the question What is God Like? That’s a tough one for any of us, but Evans’ message for children (and adults) in this picture book, is reflective of Rachel’s heart for people, her love of words, and the solace she discovered in the unknown. I love how she provides many answers but also challenges readers to search, wonder, and learn about the mystery of God themselves. She also uses various pronouns for God throughout: he, she, and they.

Rachel Held Evans died much too young. It was an indescribable loss for her children Henry and Harper and husband Dan, but also for a Christian community that needed to hear her inspired perspective on faith, doubt, and life. She was known for her honesty, humour, inclusivity, openness to evolving beliefs and dedication to diversity. Evans was best known for her popular blog and best-selling books, including New York Times best-seller A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Searching for Sunday and, most recently, Inspired. She also served on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

‘Caste: The Origins of our Discontents’ by Isabel Wilkerson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pulitzer prize winner Isabel Wilkerson draws parallels between America, India and Nazi Germany in her unsettling history of racial hierarchies. This Oprah’s book club and award winning pick, is a well researched, brilliantly argued reframing of what we commonly think of as racism in America. Caste as a system is something found in many locations in the world and parts of society. Caste, as a hierarchy of human divisions, holds each group in their place and it is an operating system of dehumanisation that ranks human value. She argues that there is not a race problem in America, there’s a caste problem. She tracks historical reasons for her premise and uses many stories to recount examples of dehumanisation, which are hard to read. Caste is a sobering book, but an important one, hugely interesting and thought provoking.

Though reviews of this book are mixed, I found it brought a new and different understanding to racism, and shed light on how insidious systemic racism is. What our world needs is to see people as different, but not less than. She highlights the importance of radical empathy in finding a way to equality. Her insights point forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity. “A world without caste would set everyone free.”

‘Transcendent Kingdom’ by Yaa Gyasi

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Gifty is a neuroscientist at Stanford, working on research about the neural circuits in the brain responsible for reward-seeking behaviour. As a scientist, she is interested in finding answers to questions about the complexity of the brain. But her personal life as a sister and a daughter, has her looking for answers to questions about the mysteries of the brain. In both cases, so little is known, but she longs to discover the key to why her immigrant family has had to be ravaged by depression, addiction, and grief. “…could this science work on the people who need it the most? Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?” This is a moving novel of faith, science, religion, and love–a quest for meaning.

Gyasi writes so beautifully. This is her second book and is quite a bit different from her first called Homegoing. That novel was a compelling series of stories within a brilliant structure, an examination of the effects of African, British and American slavery on one Ghanaian family over three centuries. This one was more philosophical and reflective, and less linear. Gyasi clearly has a unique talent and maturity in her writing beyond her years. In addition to a BA from Stanford, she has an MA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop–always an indication of a gifted writer.

‘Three Things About Elsie’ by Joanna Cannon

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There are three things you should know about Elsie. The first thing is that she’s my best friend. The second is that she always knows what to say to make me feel better. And the third thing…might take a bit more explaining.

When I read The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, I wanted to read more books by this author. In addition to this one, she has a non-fiction book called Breaking and Mending: A Doctor’s Story of Burnout and Recovery. Joanna Cannon is British and worked as a hospital doctor before specialising in psychiatry.

Eighty-four year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be rescued, Florence wonders if a terrible secret from the past is about to come to light. If the charming new resident is who he claims to be, why does he look exactly like a man who died sixty years ago? Solving a mystery is extra challenging when memory loss is an issue, but Florence (and Elsie) and Jack are up to the task and fearlessly begin to figure out the strange and unexplained events at Cherry Tree after Gabriel Price moved in.

Compassionate, funny, and beautifully written, this is a rich portrait of friendship and growing old. It reminded me a lot of Elizabeth is Missing and Olive, Again.

Cannon captures, with respect and sensitivity, the struggle of dealing with losses of freedom and memory that often accompany old age. But she also demonstrates the difference that small acts of kindness can make. Cannon’s sense of humour keeps this poignant and wise novel feeling lighthearted, and there are plenty of intriguing twists and turns.

On the flyleaf it says: This book will teach you many things, but here are three of them:
1. The fine threads of humanity will connect us all forever.
2. There is so very much more to anyone than the worst thing they have ever done.
3. Even the smallest life can leave the loudest echo.