Monthly Archives: June 2015

‘Our Souls at Night’ by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at NightstarstarstarstarstarKent Haruf is one of my all-time favourite authors. Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction are all spare yet quietly gripping. The power of ordinary lives speaks volumes. There’s nothing extra, nothing unnecessary in his writing–it is a beautiful simplicity that sings. A slim novel, Our Souls at Night, is Haruf’s last. He finished it literally just months before he died. Indeed it feels like a coda, a postscript, a last conversation late at night before dropping off to sleep.

Louis and Addie live down the street from each other. They were never close when they had spouses and families, but they knew of each other. But now alone, with their children gone and the nights feeling so lonely, they embark on a brave endeavour that brings both pleasure and difficulty to their lives. A moving story about love and growing old with grace and how the elderly can often be misunderstood and their needs dismissed by the younger generation.

This book is one of Chapters Indigo’s ‘Heather’s Picks‘ which is a list that I pay attention to because they are often my favourites too. Heather Reisman’s synopsis of Kent Haruf so perfectly captures everything I love about this author’s writing, that I will quote her here and leave nothing more to add:

“We sometimes need to be reminded that a little hope is a seed that can grow in unexpected, powerful ways, that shared stories are what make us human, and that it’s never too late to start a new chapter – a new adventure – no matter where we are in our lives. Our Souls at Night is the last novel from the late Kent Haruf – a beautiful, aching reminder of these essential truths, and a poignant end to a literary life spent exploring private heartaches and small tragedies in the fictional town of Holt Colorado. I’ve rarely read a book that can be heartbreaking and hopeful in the same moment, but that is the genius of Kent Haruf.”

‘The Farm’ by Tom Rob Smith

The FarmstarstarHyped in reviews and the media as one of the best thrillers ever, I settled in with what I thought would be a hugely entertaining and chilling read. But now I’m finished with it and feeling very conflicted. On the one hand I happily turned the pages and enjoyed the writing, the storyline, and the intriguing premise. On the other hand I was disappointed that the brilliant ending I had hoped for did not materialize. The book  just didn’t really go anywhere at all. Sure, there were answers to questions that were built up in the book, but in my opinion it was just not worth it. It feels like a lost opportunity of what could have been a great story in a beautiful setting: rural Sweden.

The narrator lives in London and receives urgent messages around the same time from both of his parents. From his Dad he hears: “Your mother…She’s not well…She’s been imagining things–terrible, terrible things.” But his Mum says, “Everything that man has told you is a lie. I’m not mad…I need the police…” The narrator has secrets himself, things he never told his parents about his private life after they left the UK to live on the farm in Sweden.

Even though I enjoyed the author’s writing style, as a reader I felt cheated that I had spent most of the book just listening carefully to his Mum’s narrative, only to have it sort of fizzle at the end. There was lots of set-up, with only a few hasty answers arriving after 300 pages when the son goes to Sweden himself to settle the matter. It all felt a bit ‘too little, too late’. And although it was scary to think about how it would feel to be at the centre of a conspiracy where no one believes you and you get set up for failure, it just all took too long and I began to care less and less about the outcome. Scandi crime is popular these days and I was really hoping I could recommend this one, but unfortunately I just can’t.

Looking at this trailer though, I think that movie makers might be able to do something amazing with it!

‘The Road to Character’ by David Brooks

The Road to Characterstarstarstar


Guest Post: Dirk Booy

In David Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character, he argues that we all have two natures: our external nature and our internal nature. He calls these ‘Adam 1’ and ‘Adam 2’ respectively, based on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s book Lonely Man of Faith. ‘Adam 1’ focuses on career, money, status, fame, satisfaction etc., while ‘Adam 2′  on internal character, being good, honest, loving and gracious. Brooks’ reason for writing the book was, “to save my own soul” and to “follow the road to character”, or at least to study those who have ‘trodden it’ already.

The book is a series of chapter length stories of characters ranging from Saint Augustine to Doris Day or from General Marshall to Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot). In all these stories, we find that in spite of flaws and weaknesses each were able to demonstrate a high degree of moral character. Brooks, a NY Times columnist, uses each of these examples to communicate the need to confront what truly matters in the world and for each of us to ‘chart our own unique path’ to building character.

Although the book is full of religious undertones (we are ultimately saved by grace), Brooks leaves the path open to a ‘beautiful life’. It is more the journey from ‘defeat to recognition to redemption’ that ultimately leads to joy. The Road to Character is inspirational but in some sense unfulfilling. It is clearly a statement on western culture but fails to bring home the solution. The almost 300 p. book only spends 6 pages on 15 propositions towards a humility code. The reader is left feeling good about oneself but not yet done – perhaps that is why it is called the ‘road’ to character.

‘Dear Life’ by Alice Munro

Dear LifestarstarstarThis is likely Alice Munro’s last book of short stories. It includes a Finale of autobiographical memories. I haven’t read much Munro, not being much of a short story fan, but I’m sure I’ve read at least one other of her collections. I’m trying to read more short story because I want to appreciate it more, and the endeavour has been instructive. I love using short story as a “palette cleanser” between novels. I always read each story twice in a row and then search online for others’ comments about it, that way I learn more and realize things I’ve missed. (Goodreads is a good source to see what others have said–sort of like the “blind men and the elephant tale”–everyone describes something different so all together a range of truth and ideas is provided).

Compared to a novel, a short story is a nugget, a bullet, with all of the parts of a longer work condensed into a complete unit that packs a powerful punch. Though not my favourite, I can see the beauty and skill displayed by a short story writer like Munro. What I liked most about Dear Life was the ‘Finale’ where she talks more about her own life. The writing is looser reflections, less complete, and not quite so self-contained–a rare glimpse into Munro’s own childhood, but is it so rare? I think her personal life has already been hinted at through the themes in her short stories.

Blind Men and ElephantMunro is known worldwide for her brilliance as a writer of short stories. She has won, among many other awards, a Nobel Prize in Literature. And yet she tells everyday stories of people living everyday lives. I do like that about her writing, it is very approachable. Her characters are flawed and human and she loves to explore how one event can be the fulcrum around which someone’s life can turn on a dime. From her stories we discover that she is highly critical of men, often characterizing them as thoughtless, selfish, and unpredictable. The women are capable of great love, but are often powerless and weak. I suppose these may have been things she grew up with, or perhaps typical of her parents’ generation in small town Ontario. There really doesn’t need to be an answer. Like the blind men, we can all take away from the stories whatever we like, and enjoy our own observations and interpretations.

Are you a short story fan? Do you have any advice for short story reluctant readers like me? Do you have a favourite Alice Munro collection?

‘Ordinary Grace’ by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Gracestarstarstarstarstar“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

What an excellent novel, I loved it. It is a well written page turner with the best but toughest stuff of life mixed in…tragedy, grace, hope, wisdom, love, and redemption in full measures. I couldn’t put it down until I finished and then I put it down with great satisfaction. This is one not to miss.

The story is set in 1961, small town Minnesota, an unremarkable and typical mid-West kind of place you’d find anywhere–a river runs through it. It reminded me of a prairie town I once lived in. Two little boys who happen to be brothers as well as best friends, are no strangers to mischief, but are shocked by the death of a classmate. He was hit by a train, no one knows how it happened. The boys are thrust that summer, into a world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal and forced to grow up fast. As they try to understand a world that seems to be falling apart, they discover the terrible price of wisdom and the enduring grace of God.

William Kent Krueger is a new author for me (thanks for the recommendation Ina!) and I will certainly read more of his books. The writing style is thoughtfully structured, simple, calm, and strong. The logic of the plot is easy to follow and the characters are well drawn. Although I guessed the ending early on, it did not detract from the reading. Krueger has a mystery/crime series as well as one other stand-alone novel: here is a list.
Other Books by William Kent Krueger

‘Ru’ by Kim Thuy

RustarstarstarWinner of Canada Reads 2015 and the Governor General’s Literary Award, Ru is a short lyrical novel that reads like poetic prose. It is a novel, but is undoubtedly autobiographical, with Kim Thuy (pronounced “twee”) herself coming to Canada from Vietnam as one of the “boat people.” This is not so much a story from beginning to end, but a series of evocative memories. It is a slim novel, but an interesting snapshot; a graceful and positive glimpse into the immigrant experience, despite all of the adjustments to fleeing as a refugee and living in a new land. I read most of it on a bus trip from Toronto to Kitchener!

Ru, originally published in French, means lullaby and in French it is a small stream, but also signifies a flow of some kind like of tears, blood, or money. There is a flow in this book of emotion and feelings about very different cultures. Even though it says that it is a novel right on the cover, I first thought I was reading straight memoir, and then rather jarringly realized that it must be fiction. I found this a bit disruptive and I wonder why the author chose to write it that way. Perhaps fiction gave her greater license to add the experiences of others as well.

‘The Red Notebook’ by Antoine Laurain

The Red Notebookstarstarstarstar“He was about to commit a forbidden act. A transgression. For a man should never go through a woman’s handbag.”

Owner of “Le Cahier Rouge” bookstore, Laurent Letellier comes across an abandoned handbag on a street in Paris. He feels compelled to take it home to see if he can somehow return it to its owner. Of course the wallet is missing and the bag contains no phone or contact information, it was probably ditched by the thief who stole it.

Laurent is forced to make deductions from the things he finds in the handbag, including a small red notebook with handwritten thoughts and jottings that he reads for clues. This reveals a person that Laurent would very much like to meet, but without even a name to go on, how is he going to find one woman in a city of millions?

As original and charming as The President’s Hat, Antoine Laurain is an excellent storyteller. This is a short book, I finished it in two evenings. But it is rich with Parisian flavour and full of delicious literary whimsy. A very well written and satisfying little gem.

‘The Righteous Mind’ by Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous MindstarstarstarstarJonathan Haidt (pronounced ‘height’) is a social psychologist and ethics professor. He tackles the very interesting relationship between intuition and reasoning. The Righteous Mind is a little heavy going at times, as one might expect of moral psychology, but well worth the effort if you are at all interested in why people are so divided about politics and religion. He explores why good and smart people come to very different conclusions and why they get so righteous about it.

Drawing on twenty-five years of groundbreaking research, Haidt shows how moral judgements arise not from reason but from intuition, and why we evolved to be this way. Realizing that morality binds people together but also blinds them to other’s reasoning, is helpful in understanding friends, enemies, colleagues, and fellow citizens as never before. After reading the book, I’m already listening differently to political rhetoric and have a better understanding of why attack ads are so annoyingly effective. The author does try to make the book as readable and approachable as possible, using intriguing analogies like these: “The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” and “Human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee,” (chimps being selfish and bees being self-less).

Elephant and RiderHaidt’s main observation is that we are more intuitive than we know. Reasoning is simply something we do to justify a position we already hold. Reasoning seldom persuades unless our intuition can be changed.  In politics, how many people meticulously sift through policies or platforms? Probably most rely on a gut feeling about the person they are voting for. In an interview, despite the stellar resume before us, if our gut tells us that the person before us is not right for the job, we are not likely to hire them. Often it’s difficult for us to explain exactly why we think something is right or wrong or be able to come up with an articulate argument about it. People are not easily persuaded by reasoning, but if you walk a mile in another man’s moccasins, well, that can make a difference.

Haidt says, “Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.” The author’s goal is to drain some of the anger and divisiveness out of these topics, and replace them with wonder and curiosity so that it will help people to get along. The hope is to make conversations about morality, politics, and religion more common, more civil, and much more fun.

‘The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician’s First Year’ by Matt McCarthy

The Real Doctor Will See You ShortlystarstarstarThere are a lot of professions where the real learning happens after we graduate and we begin to field test our education on the job. However, when we think about human error, there are some professions in which we do not want to entertain the thought of any mistakes being made at all. Jobs that come to mind are pilots and air traffic controllers, and of course doctors.

The year of residency or internship for an almost-doctor must be an odd one because technically you are an MD already, but you are still under the care of another physician, thus the title of this book. Matt McCarthy has made himself quite vulnerable, revealing just how much he did learn in his first year of being a physician, while still under the tutelage of others. His story is a unique insight into the medical profession and an interesting inside view into how hospitals are run. It may increase your empathy or scare a stool sample out of you.

This memoir is one man’s view. He tells it with compassion and a sense of humour, and I really enjoyed reading it. It would be interesting for doctors and patients alike. I do wonder whether ‘real doctors’ agree with his portrayal and can resonate with it. And what do you patients think? The medical profession and health care systems seem to be highly criticized everywhere, probably because so much is at stake. But how does that make the health care professionals feel, who labour day and night, often to the detriment of their own health and family life. We circle back to the fact that we are human and every profession is as much an art as it is a science.

‘Us’ by David Nicholls

UsstarstarstarOne day, after 20 years of marriage, Connie tells Douglas that she thinks the marriage is over. Their son is leaving the nest and it’s time to make a change. Unfortunately, (or fortunately as the hopeful Douglas thinks) they have just booked a Grand Tour of Europe. All the tickets have been bought and the hotels are booked. Perhaps the trip will change things. What could possible go wrong?

This is a simple poignant tale that is completely narrated by Douglas and is the kind of book that you will either love or hate. Either you will enjoy the rather blind devotion that this rather sad soulful grey man has towards his glamorous and creative wife, or you will be ready to throw him off the train. To be honest I was a bit annoyed by how wrong Douglas was always made to feel by everyone around him. Even if he is very Britishly unassuming and apologetic in his narration, it still  seemed unfair that he should always be the one at fault. It’s a humorous book with some laugh-out-loud moments, which does give it a lighthearted feel. And if you have been in cities like Paris, Amsterdam, and Venice, you will recognize the atmosphere of each place so well.

Because the  book has gotten very high praise and lots of good reviews, and because I really did enjoy reading it,  I would recommend that you give it a go, especially if you liked his previous best-seller One Day, but don’t go out and buy it, pick it up from the library just in case.