Monthly Archives: April 2014

‘One Thousand Gifts’ by Ann Voskamp

One Thousand GiftsstarstarstarstarThe author, Ann Voskamp (About Ann), is a farmer’s wife with six children. She sees beauty all around her and is a bit of a philosopher, using language and photography as mediums for her message about the power of gratitude and how to connect with God. Her life is messy and chaotic (she actually home schools all of those kids) but somehow, she finds the time to bless others with her writing. As Jesus did with the parables, she simply uses what is at hand in everyday sorts of things, to teach about faith and the practise of giving thanks. She believes an attitude of gratitude is the key to living more fully, having a stronger faith, dealing with suffering, and finding joy and grace. Holy. Ordinary. Amazing Grace.

‘One Thousand Gifts’ is not a daily devotional but can be used as one. I read it in bits and bites over time to let it all digest. Although her examples are down to earth, her lyrical prose is so reflective that at times it becomes difficult to follow, and then wham! she suddenly offers a simple sentence that is so profound it takes my breath away. So if you don’t get parts of it, just keep reading – there are treasures ahead! There’s a reason it was on the New York Times bestseller list for 60 weeks! If you like this book, you can sign up for her blog called ‘A Holy Experience’.

‘We Are Water’ by Wally Lamb

We Are WaterstarstarstarI must confess that I am an avid Wally Lamb fan. I have read almost everything he’s written and especially liked I Know This Much is True. If you’ve never read Lamb, start with that one. For me, I was excited to pick up his latest to read on vacation – one of those great 600 pagers to sink into when you have a bit of time.  I am a lover of big fat books and his usually are, but his editor should have stepped in with The Hour I First Believed because that one turned out to be rather unnecessarily bloated, even though it started out well. This one didn’t really drag on but I felt it fell a bit flat. I almost enjoyed it and really tried to. The narratives from different members of the family enriched the perspective and created a well rounded story. But his writing has turned a bit cliché which is disappointing. I don’t remember that from his earlier novels.

Lamb has a distinctive voice – caustic, breezy and sarcastic, but at the same time reflective. The main theme in all of his books, is this: “Life is messy, violent, confusing, and hopeful.” Water is fluid and shifting, as are our lives, Lamb seems to be saying. Especially when there are dark undercurrents at work.

“Anna Oh, mother of three and successful artist, is picking out her wedding dress for the second time in her life. In the pretty, rustic town of Three Rivers Connecticut, where she raised her kids, Anna is preparing to marry Viveca, who is the opposite of her ex-husband in almost every way. But the wedding provokes very mixed reactions, opening a Pandora’s Box of toxic secrets – dark and painful truths which will change the family dynamic forever.”

The thread that runs through the whole book is actually the power of art. Lamb celebrates the best kind of art, a subversive type which shakes complacency and causes a stir. Another thread is that of the “sins of the Fathers, visited upon the children”. What we experience in life helps to shape who we are but does not absolve us of responsibility for our actions. Lamb brings up an old saying that goes, “Destiny shuffles the cards, but we are the ones who must play the game.”

‘Poppy Shakespeare’ by Clare Allan

Poppy ShakespearestarstarstarThe beauty of a book club assignment is that I end up reading something I would not normally have chosen. I didn’t think I would like this one much, but it actually is a unique novel — a bit of a cross between Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, full of dark humour and absurdity, but also quite moving. The author spent 10 years in a mental health institution herself which lends authenticity to her observations.

Set in a London mental hospital called Dorothy Fish, ‘N’ is the narrator (speaking in a North London accent) and tells us all about life inside this institution where she has been a patient for thirteen years. N fears being declared well and being discharged because Dorothy Fish is all she’s ever known. Enter Poppy Shakespeare. Poppy is very sure that she is not mentally ill and has no need to be there. N agrees to help her “work the system”. But in this world things begin to seem upside down indeed. Who is sane and who is not? N and Poppy embark on a quest with devastating consequences.

The novel brilliantly explores the medical, social, financial, legal, and stigma issues facing the mentally ill in the 1990’s, putting the whole system under the microscope. The mental health system seems a bit mad itself! Let’s hope it has improved since then!  I think our book club will have a very good discussion! Here is a short interview with the author:

The book reminded me of an old Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise movie called Rain Man. Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic savant who inherits his father’s multi-million dollar estate, much to the chagrin of his abrasive and selfish brother, Tom Cruise. Charlie didn’t even know he had a brother! As Charlie gets to know his autistic brother (purely for greed), he gains not only a brother, but a whole new view of the world and relationships that is vastly different from the high-flying high-speed one he has known so far. Again, the viewer is left pondering ‘who is the challenged one’ here?

‘The Lives of Stella Bain’ by Anita Shreve

The Lives of Stella BainstarstarstarA woman wakes up in a gangrenous WW1 field hospital with no memory of who she is or how she got there. There is shrapnel in her feet and she is wearing a British medical uniform, but her accent is American. She remembers driving an ambulance for the war effort, she knows she can draw, and she thinks her name is Stella Bain. As Stella embarks on a journey to figure out her present, she encounters her past as well as her future. Issues of PTSD and how the human spirit can rally in the face of trauma is central to the novel. This is the weakest of the novels I have read by her. I found it lacking in her usual ability to create atmosphere. Some of the story developments seemed contrived and the ending was all too predictable.

Anita Shreve (one of those authors whose name is larger on the cover of the book than the title) has written almost 20 novels. I’ve read almost a dozen of them including Light on Snow. She’s a good storyteller and her novels are usually deliciously dark with many of the same themes running through all of them. Her website is very helpful in that regard, with information nicely given about characters and themes in case you didn’t catch something. (Anita Shreve Website)

  • A moment in life that can change everything.
  • An unconventional woman who finds a reserve of previously untapped strength.
  • Loss and grief, being pushed to the edge.
  • A description of a home becoming a reflection of the characters.
  • Water as both dangerous and comforting.

The Shreve books I’ve enjoyed the most are The Pilot’s Wife, The Weight of Water, and Fortune’s Rocks. This one is actually a loose sequel to All He Ever Wanted, which I have not read but might pick up now as a flashback.

‘Weed your Library’

Overstuffed BookshelfSpring often brings with it that urge to clean and clear out. This applies to books as well! Even though we regard books as “our friends” we cannot keep them all, especially if we are also prone to impulse buys. It’s the same with clothing. First rule of thumb  –  don’t ever be tempted to buy a new wardrobe or add a new bookshelf unless it’s to complement your decor. If the space is no longer adequate, then weeding needs to happen!

With the ease of online shopping and the allure of used bookstores, most of us have lots of books we had the opportunity to buy, but never actually took the time to read. This can leave us feeling overwhelmed and weighed down. And that also goes for the nightstand and the booklist. Be sure to weed those as well!

So how to weed. First of all, remove those impulse buys that you regret ever acquiring. It’s ok. Forgive yourself and clear them out. Look at each book you haven’t read and ask yourself if you really do still want to read it.  If not, out it goes. If you want them again they will be somewhere in a bookstore or a library. Unless you are a re-reader (and very few of us really are) get rid of the ones you have read unless they belong in one of the following categories:

Organized BookshelfKeep the books you absolutely love or definitely still want to read. Bookshelves do reflect who we are and what we are interested in. Also keep books that are beautiful as objects (like out of print first editions or arty coffee table ones), books that you have underlined and are likely to return to for edification, books that you want to keep for your children, and books that you might want to pass on to a friend or a guest. My rule for clothing and household goods is similar – keep only what is regularly useful or dearly loved.

What to do with the books? Pass them on to charities or bazaars. Leave them in community centres. Find a book exchange or a used book store. And if you are embarrassed to be seen with a particular item, assume no one else will want it either. By all means, recycle it or dump it in the trash.

If you need a reward for your efforts when you are done, why not indulge in the purchase of a new book you really wanted to read, but had no space or time for. Purging is cathartic and culling raises the value of the things that we choose to keep. It opens us up to new energy and possibility. Hurrah for spring!

‘A Street Cat Named Bob’ by James Bowen

A Street Cat Named Bobstarstarstarstar

 

Here is a feel-good story that I found in a display of “mood boosting” books at the library. If your mood needs even more encouragement or this is your favourite type of read, there are even people who produce lists for such things, so these should keep you going!

Mood Boosting Books 2013

Mood Boosting Books 2014

Streetcat and Bob‘A Street Cat Named Bob’ is the true story of a cat who saves the life of a homeless drug addict in London, UK. It speaks to the power of pet love and the power of being needed. We all need meaning in our lives and unless we feel connected and useful, it is easy to become discouraged and make poor decisions. Here is a very good short documentary that will not detract from the reading of the book.

When James Bowen was earning his living on the streets and just barely scraping by, he found an injured ginger street cat. Two lost souls found each other and created a partnership that turned both their lives around. What I liked about the book is that it gives a human face to the homeless. These are people with stories and worth. They have fallen on hard times but perhaps a bit of kindness could turn things around and make a difference. I’ve always given to buskers because I appreciate the mood boosting music they provide in a dingy subway tunnel, but now I shall give even more generously and gleefully.

The best part about this heartwarming story is that the animal does not die at the end of the book!  In fact there is a sequel as well with more adventures. I haven’t read it yet, but The World According to Bob has firmly established James Bowen and Bob as celebrities who sign copies together at bookstores! From busking to bookstore attraction! What’s not to love?