Monthly Archives: August 2016

‘What We Keep’ by Elizabeth Berg

What We KeepstarstarstarTwo sisters meet up with their mother who they have not seen or spoken with in 35 years. As Ginny Young crosses the country for a reluctant reunion, flashbacks of her youth bring up feelings long buried, exposing raw nerves. The tension for the reader mounts, wondering about what happened so long ago and how it might affect the sisters and their mother now.

Berg is a master at capturing a young girl’s view of the world, especially in her older novels and in the Durable Goods series. She writes very honestly, recognizably, and intimately about ordinary family relationships. Over the years, I’ve read almost all of her two dozen novels, picking up one every once in awhile for a nice comfort read. She has keen insight and her novels are so readable, yet not sentimental or predictable. In my opinion, her best ones are the short story collections (especially: The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted and Open House), and in general I’ve liked her older works better than the most recent. Although they are very different writers, both Elizabeth Berg and Alice Munro write about ordinary life and relationships, but it does occur to me that I find Berg much more approachable and uplifting than Munro.

‘Smoke’ by Dan Vyleta

SmokestarOverhyped by the book world, I had high hopes for this atmospheric Victorian Dickensian novel. Imagine that whenever people sin, they let off a cloud of smoke that is visible to everyone! Imagine a city of sin, in this case London, thick and gritty with soot in every nook and cranny. Now imagine that this is a conspiracy where the aristocracy has found a way to control their smoke, leaving the impoverished masses in a huge filthy mess. Compelling no? Unfortunately…no.

The originality of the story and possible themes around sin and oppression should have been enough of a premise for a cracking great novel, and the first hundred pages at the boys’ school were promising, but it bottlenecks in the middle and ends up going nowhere.  The characters were interesting enough, and were themselves interested in Smoke and how it works, but there was never a progression towards any answers to the mystery or any reason to continue turning pages. From an interview with the author, I learned that he did not want to have any identifiable themes in order to leave it all open to interpretation by the reader, but in my opinion it resulted in a random novel with not much to say. It made me appreciate more old fashioned structure with clear themes and compelling plotting and pacing.

True confessions…I stuck with it, in the hopes that it would improve and I could still pick up a thread, but gave up with a quarter left and do admit to skimming through the rest, just to be done with it.

‘The Nest’ Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The NeststarstarCostco buyer beware! This inviting looking novel with glowing book jacket endorsements by Amy Poehler and Elizabeth Gilbert which I picked up at the warehouse superstore, was a disappointment and did nothing for me. I really tried to like it but I found the plot un-compelling, the characters shallow and uninteresting, and the writing quite poor. I found myself unable to make any emotional connection with the Plumbs and their many problems and addictions. It’s funny how we can be drawn to stories of dysfunctional families, as much as the real thing strikes fear in our hearts. So reading the premise in the flyleaf about a family just brimming with juicy financial and relational woes seemed like it would be a lovely summer read! 🙂 Maybe it serves me right!

‘Ish’ by Peter H. Reynolds

Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.
Henry van Dyke

Following directly on from my last post, this is an amazing yet simply illustrated children’s picture book about enjoying creativity wherever it takes you. Even children can judge themselves too harshly and not pursue a creative endeavour because they feel they are not ‘good enough’ at whatever it is they enjoy doing. Be it drawing, or instrument playing, or writing, or sewing, or dancing, or inventing, or whatever… Give yourself and your children and grandchildren the gift of abandoning perfection and enjoying the abandon of creative expression. Dare to live life as recommended in this picture book, “ishly ever after.”

Ramon loves drawing, anytime, anything, anywhere. But after a careless remark, all that changes. Ramon’s sister Marisol comes to the rescue, ‘framing’ things for him in a way that opens his perspective to what is way more valuable than ‘getting it right.’

Ish completes a trilogy by Reynolds called Creatrilogy, with two books of similar theme The Dot and Sky Color. Ish is my favourite of the three.

‘Rising Strong’ by Brené Brown

Rising StrongstarstarstarBrené Brown’s perspective on human interaction and how to live wholeheartedly in relationship with others is so encouraging. She is a master at framing things like failure, shame, regret, and feelings of not being ‘enough’ in a way that is honest and healthy. These are natural feelings but can be harmful unless we reckon with them and are curious about why they happen and why we react the way we do sometimes. To love is to be vulnerable. Sometimes the hardest one to love is yourself. Rising strong from times when we feel we have failed is critical in forging a healthy self-concept. Perfection is an unrealistic bar set way too high.

Brown is both scientist and social scientist, highly professional and well researched. She offers much more than self-help formula. In her books she combines research and storytelling to share useful knowledge about human behaviour based on real life examples and experiences. To be honest, I found Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection to be more helpful than this one, but I soundly recommend this author and her many wonderful TED talks as well. Here are a few to get you started.