Monthly Archives: November 2014

‘The Etiquette of Illness: What to say when you can’t find the words’ by Susan Halpern

The Etiquette of IllnessstarstarstarstarstarFinding the right words to say when we learn that someone has been diagnosed with a serious illness or is grieving the loss of a loved one, can feel so tricky and awkward. But even though we are afraid to say the wrong thing, it is more hurtful to do nothing at all. Susan Halpern has written a very helpful and compassionate little guide which can equip you for hard times. Drawing on years of experience, she strikes a good balance between practical suggestions and not being too precise or formulaic, since all people and relationships are unique and ‘one size’ does not fit all. She also brings the duel perspective of both the caregiver and the person being taken care of. The person who is living with illness, while grateful for the assistance and attention, may still need to establish boundaries around the help that is being offered.

Halpern has included lots of stories and examples of ways to handle visits, suggested wording for written cards, and even just tweaking common questions so that they better meet the needs of emotionally challenged people. Instead of “How are you?” it might be better to say “Do you mind if I ask you how you are doing?” Of course it’s not all about words and sometimes just crying with someone, holding their hand, or dropping off a meal is plenty. It is not a “how-to” book but helps you to think about what is most helpful or appropriate in your own caregiving,  and how to let loved ones know what you need if your are sick.  The context of your relationship and the situation will guide you as much as this book will, but Halpern’s wise and comforting handling of a difficult subject can empower those who feel inadequate in reaching out to others. There is even a chapter on how to communicate better with health care workers and how to talk to children about death and illness.

This is a book that I wish I’d had years ago.  When I think back to earlier experiences that I know I handled poorly, I regret some of the things I did and mostly many of the things I didn’t do or say because I was unsure and inexperienced. This would have been an outstanding reference. I learned about this book because it was mentioned in Will Schwalbe’s book The End of Your Life Book Club, also a great read.

‘Leaving Time’ by Jodi Picoult

Leaving TimestarstarstarJenna knows that her mother disappeared years ago from an elephant sanctuary where her parents both worked. One of the employees was trampled to death by an elephant one night, and her mother was found unconscious nearby. She was brought to hospital but checked herself out and was gone before morning. No one knew what had happened that fateful night, or why her mother left without taking her or telling anyone where she went.

Picoult’s popular bestsellers are well researched, engagingly plotted, a bit formulaic and cliché, but always entertaining. This time she has done something different. Her usual formula is to take an issue and explore all of the various angles of it through the eyes of different characters. Only this time it’s not an issue, it’s a mystery. And the research and information is all about elephants, so if you are not into pachyderms, you might want to take a pass. One of the characters is a psychic so the element of communicating with the dead is added to the story as well. This makes for a pairing of two unlikely subjects (paranormal activity and elephant behaviour), but Picoult pulls it off. The book has numerous twists and turns and will keep you guessing to the very end.

B0000014I must admit to having a soft spot for elephants. We were blessed by living in close proximity to them for years in Tanzania and had many opportunities to observe them and many stories to tell of encounters with them. One weekend get-away destination for our family was a tented camp where elephants would often graze around our tents or visit us by the poolside. Once while lounging on a sunbed,  I heard our youngest who was a toddler then, utter a new word for her: “tembo” (Swahili for elephant). When I looked up, sure enough, there she stood gazing at the magnificent animal before her.
The paranormal and elephant behaviour are not normally subjects paired together, but oddly they did coincide for  me once before, and it makes for a very funny story I cannot resist to tell. My sister, who was at that time working for a parapsychology institute in Holland, had found me a homeopath to consult since I was struggling with a health issue. This healer wanted to determine what my “spirit animal” was, so that I could think about that and get well from the understanding it would give me. Well, from the consultation I learned that my spirit animal was a matriarchal elephant which was hilarious considering my health issue was chronic sinusitis!

B0000033Picoult is passionate about the plight of elephant populations worldwide. Elephants are in danger of extinction because of the value of ivory in the marketplace. She is hoping that the support of books such as hers and protection organizations that she endorses, will make a difference.

‘An Altar in the World: Finding the Sacred Beneath our Feet’ by Barbara Brown Taylor

An Altar in the WorldstarstarstarstarstarBarbara Brown Taylor is an episcopal priest, author, teacher, and theologian. Despite making Time’s 100 most influential people in the world list, she is one of the most honest, humble, and down-to-earth preachers ever. The American subtitle for the book is ‘A Geography of Faith’ but I’ve included the UK subtitle because it best describes the book and underscores her main message: God can be found as we walk, rest, play and work in the world, not just in church on Sunday. In fact, as important as community and communion with other Christians is, church and religion may even get in the way of the spiritual for some. Faith is a way of life and it can be recovered in the grit, grind and glory of God’s presence in the world.  If you like Anne Lamott and Annie Dillard, you’ll love Barbara Brown Taylor.

Taylor says this, “In a world of too much information about almost everything, bodily practices can provide great relief. To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger–these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet these are the same activities that change lives.”

With chapter headings that choose everyday practices rather than doctrine (“waking up to God,” “paying attention,” “wearing skin,” “walking on the earth,” “getting lost,” “encountering others,” “living with purpose,” “saying No,” “carrying water,” “feeling pain,” “pronouncing blessing”), Brown articulates a perspective that I found refreshing and wise.  Matter matters to God and finding Him in the physical world is designed to help us experience the spiritual one. “God has no hands but ours, no bread but the bread we bake, no prayers but the ones we make.”

There are not many books on my re-read list, but this one will take its place  alongside What’s So Amazing About Grace and Man’s Search for Meaning. Taylor has a new book out this year (Learning to Walk in the Dark) which has some surprising things to say about darkness. The short excerpt I read of that one has me hooked already.

Here’s a short sermon from earlier this year entitled Sacred Downtime (25 min) which is worth listening to, perhaps while ironing or doing the dishes! 🙂

‘The Children Act’ by Ian McEwan

The Children ActstarstarstarstarFiona Maye is a High Court judge. She presides in family court with a fierce loyalty and intelligence. She is an accomplished pianist. Her life has been filled with hard work and a passion for her job and she now finds herself at a middle aged crossroads. She has a lingering regret about the reasons for her own childlessness and now her marriage of thirty years is falling apart.

At this time she is called on to try an urgent life-or-death case. A 17 year old boy needs a blood transfusion to live, but his religion and his devout parents are against it. Time is running out. Should the court overrule? In her dedication she goes to visit the boy, to make sure he understands what is going on. Her judgement turns out to have momentous consequences for them both.

In order to avoid spoilers I cannot reveal the verdict or the unexpected twist her decision has on the case, except to say that the story is really much more about the judge’s personal life than the case itself. But that’s what I found interesting. It wasn’t just about the one case, albeit it pivotal, but a view into several interesting cases and a glimpse into the world of a High Court judge.

For McEwan fans, this is once again a beautifully mastered work. Not everyone appreciates his writing style, but I have tremendous respect for how this author captures nuance in relationships and how his writing is at once compelling and exquisite. With relatively few words he deftly deals with the complexity of issues while creating empathy for the characters.

Different from his master work Atonement and the comic Solar, ‘The Children Act’ reminded me of Saturday and On Chesil Beach. Even though it is rather short, more like a novella, it covers a lot of ground. The next McEwan I want to read is the espionage novel Sweet Tooth which I somehow missed last year.

‘The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business’ by Erin Meyer

The Culture Mapstarstarstarstarstar
“What sews nicely in one culture may cut in another.”

In our international world, there are ever increasing opportunities for cross-cultural interactions. Global organizations  and international business ventures regularly have staff from around the world collaborating with each other and trying to get things done. Is it reasonable to expect  people from starkly differing backgrounds to work together harmoniously? Erin Meyer’s insightful, approachable, and often amusing book ‘The Culture Map’ is a smart field-tested guide which tells us “Yes, we can!” Meyer brings to life a wealth of issues and good advice for anyone seeking to navigate cross-cultural communication and decode foreign cultures.

The author focuses on eight areas: communication, giving feedback, persuading, leading, making decisions, gaining trust, disagreeing, and scheduling events. The strategies that she suggests are practical and helpful. She gives many anecdotal examples which help to illustrate her points. “It is only when you start to identify what makes your culture different from others that you can begin to open a dialogue of sharing, learning, and ultimately understanding.” Highly recommended for professionals in the international workplace and anyone who wants to be more effective and aware in cross-cultural interactions.

‘Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party’ by Alexander McCall Smith

Fatty O'Leary's Dinner PartystarstarstarstarLast night I managed to gobble up this new little book in one sitting! It’s described as a literary “amuse-bouche” –  a single bite-sized hors d’oeurve. A tasty little treat, perfect for stuffing – a stocking not a turkey, that is!

Cornelius and Betty O’Leary take a trip of a lifetime to Ireland, the land of their roots. But as so often is the case, the trip becomes very different from what they had imagined. The nostalgia soon begins to fade when the luggage gets lost and it doesn’t stop there, calamity and mayhem ensue in proportion to Fatty’s size. McCall Smith’s priceless sense of humour is pitched just right in this little volume. But he also grapples with an aspect of the immigrant experience. Going back often doesn’t match the dear memories of the ‘old country’ or live up to the family folklore.

Recently I heard this author speak at Daunt Books in London, which is happily now becoming a yearly event for me! When he reads from his books and talks about his characters, with tears running down his cheeks (and all of ours) from laughing, you realize how much he loves his writing. This book is not part of any series and joins his other ‘stand alone’ books. Incidentally, another recent book of his, is a modern day rewrite of Jane Austen’s Emma.
Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

‘The Rosie Effect’ by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie EffectstarstarIn ‘The Rosie Project’, Don Tillman decides that it is time for him to find a wife and so he creates a detailed survey which he thinks will assist him in finding the type of person who he will be most compatible with. Of course at that point in time he meets Rosie, who is nothing at all like the ideal person the survey results would indicate, and yet is everything he needs and wants.

Now in this sequel to ‘The Rosie Project’, Don Tillman has survived ten months and ten days of marriage and has a new project to launch: The Baby Project! Because even though Don reminds Rosie that it is incorrect to say so, she says, “We’re pregnant!” Is Don Tillman ready to become a father and will the ensuing chaos of another challenge to his previously ordered life going to risk the already precarious relationship that he and Rosie have?

‘The Rosie Project’ was brilliant and I loved it, but in ‘The Rosie Effect’ the magic of the original story is lost. I would not bother with this tedious instalment, for it has sadly not delivered at the same level as the first. There are some funny bits, but it is just not worth the slog through 400 pages to find them. As the Guardian reviewer astutely quipped, this sequel (as with many) is twice as long and half as good.