‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama

“Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”

This memoir about Michelle Obama is deeply personal and refreshingly honest and forthright. She talks about her roots, her time in the White House, her role as a daughter, mother, and wife, and about what she was able to accomplish as a professional and during the years she was First Lady. It’s a lengthy book but listening to the audio, narrated by Michelle herself, didn’t feel long at all. I appreciated her candidness, her good humour, and her ability to relate. I respected her dedication to striving to being the best possible person she could be, in all areas of her life, despite the changes that rocked her world.

“As First Lady of the United States of America—the first African American to serve in that role—she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.”

Her descriptions and stories are compelling. She gives insight into how to cope and survive while living an unexpected life. The Obamas were a class act in the White House and this book underscores how they were dedicated to doing good and promoting decent values with dignity.  Their vision of the United States included a celebration of diversity and a seeking to promote unity and prosperity for all, in a time with increasing polarisation and partisanship. Speculation continues to circulate about whether she might herself run for president one day–she answers that question very definitively at the end of this memoir, and gives some sound reasons why. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it!

‘The Dutch House’ by Ann Patchett

Being a devout library user, rarely do I ever buy a book. This time I made an exception because it was by a favourite author and I was charmed by both the title and the lovely cover. But if I wouldn’t have bought it, I don’t think I would have finished it. As with Commonwealth (which I also oddly bought on a whim and was disappointed in), I am realising that I liked Patchett’s earlier works like Bel Canto, State of Wonder, and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage much better. I must be an outlier in this, since reviews for both of Patchett’s recent novels have been glowing. Incidentally, in case you plan to read it by listening to the audio, it is narrated by Tom Hanks.

This book is a classic example of an inanimate object taking its place as a character in the novel. I connected fully with the house and feel I could recognise it if I saw it, but sadly connected less fully with any of the people or the story line. Not much happens in this novel and I found it rather boring, to be honest, despite the flyleaf promises of suspense and a ‘tour de force.’

Danny and Maeve are exiled by their stepmother but for years and years to come they continue to park outside of the house just to stare and remember and reflect. They go on with their lives, but the obsessive stalking clearly weighs them down. The story explores relationships tainted by loss, longing, and a sense of displacement. In the end there is a bit of redemption, but for me it was too little too late.

‘Jewelweed’ by David Rhodes

This sequel to Driftless, carried on seamlessly with many of the same characters in Words, Wisconsin. I loved the kids in this instalment. They get themselves into some very unique adventures. I worried about Blake who is out of prison but risks re-entry because all of the odds are against him, and very few people are willing to help. There is a budding secret romance and a pastor with a crisis of faith. There is a family not coping with the constant care of two seniors and a very ill child, who enlist the help of a spunky young woman with burdens of her own. The writing is filled with empathy and wonder. As with Driftless, this is not a quick read but the time spent is well worth it.

‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, How We Can Learn to Fulfill our Potential’ by Carol Dweck

Darwin said it’s not the smartest or the strongest that survive, it’s the ones who adapt and are the most responsive to change.

This book has a crummy title but an important message. Having the word ‘success’ in the title is completely misleading because it’s not about that at all. With what I know now about the author’s message, it’s surprising she could give her book this title (let’s blame it on the publisher). It’s an older book, I’m apparently a bit late to the party, but I think it’s a good reminder even if you know about this.

The main idea is very simple and is explained well. Perhaps too well since many reviews complain about the repetition in this book. But that’s because the main point is so simple; it has to get repeated over and over in different contexts. The audio version was exceedingly annoying in this regard. However, the message was great and has value for everyone at any age or stage! So my advice for the book would be to read the beginning to pick up the main idea, and then skip to other chapters of interest that deal with work relationships, school situations, friendship issues, etc. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on marriage, the workplace, parenting, and teaching. So let’s get to the point. It’s all about mindset.

Fixed mindset vs. Growth mindset
People with a fixed mindset — those who believe that abilities are fixed — are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset — those who believe that abilities can be developed. People with a fixed mindset believe talent is everything and failure is to be avoided at all costs. Having a growth mindset is all about having a healthy attitude towards challenge and being willing to fail if it means learning something in the process. It’s about learning from mistakes and growing from them instead of judging yourself to be either super smart or a hopeless case. It’s about using the right language when you talk to your kids and not setting yourself up for failure in your marriage because your fixed mindset says that because you love each other there will never be any struggle. What went wrong and how can I do better next time? What did you learn today? What mistakes did you make that taught you something? I’m really proud that you picked a difficult subject for your project, you are going to learn so much (instead of advising the easy way out so that they can get top marks). They’ll be more willing to take on bigger challenges with a growth mindset.

 

‘Driftless’ by David Rhodes

Driving through rural America while reading this book was so perfect. Rhodes makes the characters come alive with the way he describes them…flawed, salt of the earth people just trying to cope with life and living. As we drove along cornfields, swept over soft green hillsides, and crept through tired and deflated little towns, it was possible to picture who might be living there. Rhodes’ writing is so generous and insightful without even a hint of cliché. This is slow reading that brings quiet understanding, so it won’t be for everyone, but it is a wonderful story to sink into for those who love authors who can speak to the wisdom of the soul and turn the mundane into profound reflections on life and humanity. Although having said that, shocking things do happen and at times the pace is fast-moving enough. Other authors who are similar in style are Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge), William Kent Kruger (Ordinary Grace), Mary Lawson (Crow Lake), and Marilynne Robinson (Gilead).

As a young man David Rhodes worked in fields, hospitals and factories across Iowa. After receiving an MFA degree from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (always pay attention to writers who have studied here, they are the best!) he published three novels from 1972-75. In 1977 a motorcycle accident left him paralysed from the chest down. After ten years he published again, with this sequel to his earlier novel Rock Island Line and prequel to Jewelweed which I am eager to read next. Rhodes lives with his wife, Edna, in rural Wisconsin.

In ten words or less this book is about a bunch of people muddling through in small town Wisconsin. But it is so much more than that. There is connection to the land, to place, and to community. There is mistrust of big business and industrialisation–things that are a threat to a simple way of life. There is a fidelity to good values, hard work, and something to believe in. Here’s what Goodreads says, “The setting is Words, Wisconsin, an anonymous town of only a few hundred people. But under its sleepy surface, life rages. Cora and Grahm guard their dairy farm, and family, from the wicked schemes of their milk co-op. Lifelong paraplegic Olivia suddenly starts to walk, only to find herself crippled by her fury toward her sister and caretaker, Violet. Recently retired Rusty finds a cougar living in his haymow, dredging up haunting childhood memories. Winifred becomes pastor of the Friends church and stumbles on enlightenment in a very unlikely place. Driftless finds the author’s powers undiminished in this unforgettable story that evokes a small-town America previously unmapped, and the damaged denizens who must make their way through it.”

 

‘The Huntress’ by Kate Quinn

There are number of ‘women in war’ books that I’ve enjoyed: Code Name Verity, The Nightingale, and this author’s other book The Alice Network to name just a few. The Huntress is about war heroes, war criminals, and Nazi hunters. It’s also about journalists and photographers who were crucial participants in the war effort.

I found the book was longer than it needed to be but in the end I think it was well done and I’m glad I stuck with it. It’s not a quick read (until the last 100 pages), but still worth it both as background to the characters in the novel, as well as for historical content. I did learn a lot of new things about WW 2 which is amazing considering how many novels about that time period I’ve read. So kudos to the author for that!

Three narrators take turns telling the story: a battle-haunted British journalist, a feisty female Russian fighter pilot, and a young woman photographer in America who has a very mysterious step-mother who may well be a monster. I don’t consider that a spoiler because with a title like “The Huntress,” a reader would have to be quite dim not to see what was going on early in the novel and that’s ok. With that knowledge the tension builds in the present at the same time as the backstories converge to a thrilling climax.

‘The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson

Alan Karlsson is a Forest Gump-like character who stumbles his way into some fantastic situations. There are two parallel story lines. In the first one, Alan is reluctant about attending his 100th birthday party in the senior’s home, so he jumps out of his window, into the flowerbed, in his slippers, and walks away. Embarking on a very unlikely adventure for a centenarian, this story line was my favourite.

The other storyline are flashbacks to various stages of this 100-year-old man’s life which prove to be hugely interesting because he blunders into situations that are larger-than-life, and accidentally makes some very famous acquaintances. It’s all fiction of course, but his unassuming manner (like Forest Gump) makes it very funny and quirky. And his connections from the past, uncannily get him out of trouble in the present.

Unfortunately the historical and political backstories can be a little tedious, but hang in there because he unwittingly manages to get out of some unbelievable binds because of who and what he knows. Feel free to skim those sections a little, but don’t miss the punchline. What improved my experience with this book was listening to the audio book version, which is read beautifully by acclaimed narrator Steven Crossley (and I could daydream a little through the boring bits without losing the thread). Judging by the reviews, people either really love this farce, or couldn’t even get through it.

What this book did for me, was make me poignantly realise that when I see old folks in a nursing home, there’s so much more there than a frail person pushing a walker–there’s a whole interesting life with amazing stories that will soon be lost. Ask questions, find out more! They’ll be blessed by your interest and you’ll be enriched by their unique perspective.

There is already a movie out with the same name which I look forward to seeing soon.  It was originally written in Swedish and was translated by Rod Bradbury.