Monthly Archives: April 2020

‘The Glass Hotel’ by Emily St. John Mandel

Here is the long awaited next novel from the award winning author of Station Eleven and it is very different. Station Eleven met with huge success in 2014, as a dystopian novel about the situation after 99% of humanity was wiped out by a flu pandemic. Sound familiar? I’m glad I read that novel then, because I think it might hit a bit too close to home now!! Actually if you haven’t read it, it does strike me now how prophetic it really was!

The Glass Hotel is described as, “a captivating novel of money, beauty, white-collar crime, ghosts and moral compromise in which a woman disappears from a container ship off the coast of Mauritania and a massive Ponzi scheme implodes in New York, dragging countless fortunes with it.”

The image of a glass hotel is both triumphant and fragile–a good metaphor for a Ponzi scheme. The book is loosely based on the idea of the Bernie Madoff story. Jonathan Alkaitis is a likeable guy who draws people into investing their money into a deal which of course ends up ruining many lives, including his own. Vincent is a young woman who gets drawn into many different worlds in the course of her lifetime and explores the different paths that people might choose (a bit like “Choose Your Own Adventure” or that old movie “Sliding Doors”). I found her character most fascinating. Vincent loves liminal spaces which I found currently relevant because the lockdown we are experiencing is a liminal space as well–a humbling, teachable, vulnerable time that is a bit suspended between worlds.

Even though it is not action packed, the simple elegant prose builds the story by flitting around in a non-linear fashion. One reviewer likened it to piecing a jigsaw puzzle without the box. Now I know why I liked this novel so much! 🙂 There are even some ghosts that make cameo appearances at critical moments, visions of people who have been wronged.  I really do enjoy Mandel’s writing. She thoughtfully explores themes and beautifully tracks all sorts of people involved in the scheme…those whose lives were ruined, those who knew, those who worked for it but didn’t know, those who should have known better but were swept away by trust or greed, and those who knew perfectly well and saw the end coming…

It is my practise with a literary novel such as this, to read reviews halfway through in order to discover the themes so that my reading is enhanced. There are some excellent reviews of this one (without spoilers) which helped me so I’ll share them in case you want to do the same. There is one from the New Yorker: click here, and one from the Globe and Mail: click here.

This Ron Charles video is such a hoot, I just had to include it:

‘Iron Lake’ by William Kent Krueger (Cork O’Connor #1)

Well, this post is really good news for Louise Penny fans! It’s the classic scenario, “If you liked this, then you’ll love that!”

William Kent Krueger, gifted author of Ordinary Grace and This Tender Land, has a mystery series set in Minnesota that is every bit as good as Penny’s Three Pines. Parallels are many. Both series feature excellent writing, depth of character, insightful portrayal of small town life, tangible descriptions of the beauty and cruelty of nature, sensitive handling of indigenous peoples, and yes, page-turning suspense. Cork O’Connor is a very likeable protagonist, probably because he’s flawed.

Part Irish, part Anishinaabe, Corcoran “Cork” O’Connor is the former sheriff of Aurora, Minnesota. Embittered by his “former” status, and the marital meltdown that has separated him from his children, Cork gets by on heavy doses of caffeine, nicotine, and guilt. Once a cop on Chicago’s South Side, there’s not much that can shock him. But when the town’s judge is brutally murdered, and a young Eagle Scout is reported missing, Cork takes on a mind-jolting case of conspiracy, corruption, and scandal. The book is a bit slow in the beginning which is not unusual, given introduction to the characters and the town, but the second half flies.

Lots of mysteries coming up for me! I haven’t yet finished all of the Louise Penny’s series (which I’m reading in order because I came late to the party), but now I can alternate with this series which I will definitely be going through as well. The next instalment in the Cork O’Connor series is called Boundary Waters. In a season where we are feeling a bit distracted and looking for comfort reads, a series is certainly a good choice!

‘Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life’ by Tish Harrison Warren

Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes”

I’ve always been a lover of the quotidian in life, the humble daily routines and regular chores–they are comforting even if they drive me crazy sometimes–with their “daily-ness.” But if we pay attention, we might see that a whole bunch of ordinary can suddenly result in extraordinary, and a whole bunch of seemingly everyday sorts of days can add up to a remarkable life!

“When suffering is sharp and profound, I expect and believe that God will meet me in its midst. But in the struggles of my average day I somehow feel I have a right to be annoyed.”

Jesus always used everyday examples and objects to teach about spiritual things, and that is what this book does, with chapter headings on things like making the bed, brushing teeth, eating leftovers, and losing keys. I loved how the author turns our eyes to the fact that everyday life can be seen as sacred practice.

This practical theology is perfect for people raising young children who simply don’t have the energy or time to carve out a ‘quiet time.’ Everyday chores and routines can be moments to reflect and remind. It is absolutely vital for everyone, but especially for parents with small children, to see all tasks as worship to God–a God who sees them, and loves them all the time.

‘Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity’ by Peggy Orenstein

Although I did not read Peggy Orenstein’s bestselling book Girls & Sex, about women’s right to pleasure and agency in sexual encounters, I did find this book fascinating. In a media soaked culture and post #MeToo, raising good men may be as hard or harder than protecting young girls. Orenstein believes that most boys want to be good men but there is so much harm in what they encounter in ‘boy culture’ and the media, they receive little guidance.

Even though everyone knows a parent would rather stick a fork in their eye than discuss sex with their children, many parents will have conversations with their girls before their boys. The author covers a broad range of issues (sexual ethics, consent, LGBTQ, racism, dating, the harmful effects of porn, social behaviour around hookups, desire for emotional intimacy, etc.). She includes practical tips for parents about what and how to discuss with their children.

This book also includes never-before collected research because Orenstein made a point of not just talking about boys, but hearing from them. She bears witness to their efforts to free themselves from the trap that culture sets for them. And boys are often also victims of sexual violence and are in need of protection, and more in need of emotional intimacy than some might think. Boy culture and toxic masculinity can be brutal and society doesn’t often give boys much permission or space to discuss their interior lives.

The conversation is frank and candid in this book, because it needs to be, but if you listen to the audio version, you might not want your younger kids in the car with you. This is an important book and contrary to what some parents believe about teens and sex, giving them information and being prepared to open up dialogue about sex, does not cause them to engage in it earlier or more. In fact, studies have proven that equipping teens, keeps them safer and less likely to be involved sooner.


‘The Lavender Garden’ by Lucinda Riley

Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series captivated me, and I’ve been patiently waiting for the 6th instalment in the series which is just coming out. It’s called The Sun Sister.

But in the meantime my daughter, who also read the series, raced through all of Riley’s other novels (all stand alone) while waiting, and said they were really good as well. I’m finally getting to one and I agree with you Miriam! I’m going to read more as well. Riley has a signature style without being formulaic. Every novel is slightly different but includes a present reality and a historical flashback. The narratives do alternate, but in longer stretches which is less disruptive than some novelists who yo-yo back and forth after every chapter. And there are interesting parallels between the stories right from the beginning. This one also includes a character from one of her other novels–Venetia, who was also in The Orchid House.

In The Lavender Garden, Emilie is overwhelmed by the inheritance of the family mansion and estate in France. Being the last in her family line, she is left alone to cope when her world turns upside down. Flashback to Paris in 1944, British office clerk, Connie Caruthers’ world is also upended when she is sent for a special resistance assignment during WW2 to France.

Riley’s novels are a lovely escape because she effortlessly hooks us into the stories and makes us care about the characters and what happens to them. She is a gifted storyteller, builds suspense well, and offers an enthralling reading experience with a bit of romance and historical insight thrown in. It’s true that unlocking the past can be the key to the future, and Riley makes it so. Here is a link to an interesting Q & A with the author about the book: click here.

Note: In the UK, this book is published under the title The Light Behind the Window.

‘BrenĂ© on Comparative Suffering, the 50/50 Myth, and Settling the Ball’

So this is a podcast, not a book, but listening to this was so hugely helpful for coping during the pandemic, that I felt compelled to share it. It’s worth 25 minutes of your time. She identifies tools and strategies for use when experiencing exhaustion and difficult emotions. Sound familiar?

From BrenĂ©: “We have collectively hit weary. This is especially true for the brave folks on the front lines of this pandemic and for the people who love and support them. And, it’s also true for all of us. In this episode, I talk about strategies for falling apart, staying connected and kind, and giving ourselves permission to feel hard things.”

On your favourite podcast app, subscribe to Unlocking Us by BrenĂ© Brown, and go to the episode for March 27 entitled: “BrenĂ© on Comparative Suffering, the 50/50 Myth, and Settling the Ball.” Subscribing to podcasts is free.

‘Yum and Yummer’ by Greta Podleski

Pandemic positivity–against all the odds, we are trying to find the good things in the midst of a frustrating tragic crisis, trying to be thankful, and calling attention to kindness–we ask ourselves, what are perhaps some small good things that will come of all this?

One thing that comes immediately to my mind, is a resurgence in home cooking and baking. I’ve never understood when people say, “I never cook” because I wonder what they eat? But now that we are restricted in eating out, relying on basic grocery store items, and trying to keep ourselves and our kids busy, I believe that many people are rediscovering the joy of cooking simple meals at home with their families, and that is a good thing!

Years ago I posted on a hugely successful cookbook by two Canadian sisters called Looneyspoons. It is still one of my all time favourites because the recipes are easy, uncomplicated, reliable and nutritious. A couple of years ago I got the next book, this time by only one of the sisters, Greta (only because her sister was busy with other things). Yum and Yummer is every bit as good as Looneyspoons and also includes more plant based and gluten-free recipes, if those are your thing, but not exclusively so–there’s something for everyone in these cookbooks! Happy cooking and eating!

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you have a smart phone, there is a bar code on every page of this recipe book that will connect you with further online resources, videos, and even more recipes that you might like!!

‘Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age’ by Mary Pipher

“To be happy at this junction, we cannot just settle for being a diminished version of our younger selves. We must change the ways we think and behave. This book focuses on the attitudes and skills we need in order to let go of the past, embrace the new, cope with loss, and experience wisdom, authenticity, and bliss.”

Author, scholar, and cultural therapist Mary Pipher has written 10 books on a variety of topics, all very successful and well respected. I read some of her books years ago, and am so happy to have found this, her latest. As a cultural anthropologist and clinical psychologist who specialises in developmental psychology and trauma, one of her most notable books was Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls in 1994 which was fantastic. Growing older is not for sissies we sometimes quip, because it can be a stage that is marked by ill health or loss. But Pipher looks positively at a stage in life where we can flourish and expand on the life identity we have already built.

It’s a hopeful, helpful book, and in her foreword she says men have enjoyed it as well (even jokingly suggesting to her that she should write another entitled Men Going South). 🙂 Her conclusion, after exploring every imaginable issue at this juncture, is to experience bliss (however simple), embrace everything (no matter how small or seemingly insignificant), and sense how big life is–intense, joyful, playful, complicated, and beautiful. She quotes Joan Baez who said, “Action is the antidote to despair.” Pipher adds, “It may or may not help the world, but it always helps us.”

Informal polls of my peeps reveal that actually we like ourselves and know ourselves better now than when we did in our 20’s and 30’s. At this stage in the river we have more freedom, we tend to be less hard on ourselves, and more able to let things go. It feels really good, as long as health and loss issues do not tip the canoe (or a pandemic throws a monkey wrench into everything). This book seeks to help navigate the inevitable swerves and rapids with wisdom, joy, and grace. The first part of the book considers the challenges of aging (ageism, lookism, caregiving, loss, loneliness). The second part looks at understanding ourselves (skillful choices, community building, managing narratives, gratitude). The third part focuses on the importance of relationships.