Category Archives: Five Star

‘Olive, Again’ by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge is one of my all time favourites, so I was excited to read the sequel Olive, Again. And it did not disappoint. In fact, everything I would say about this second book, was said in my previous post about the first book, so you might as well turn back to that now: click here.

Strout is a genius at capturing many varied moments in one novel: holy, ordinary, heartbreaking, endearing, frustrating, joyous, sensual, horrible, humorous, and awkward. I think she writes ‘awkward’ best, I can’t imagine it’s easy to do. The sequel carries on seamlessly from the first book and holds the same tone and form: loosely connected stories about people in Crosby, Maine but what you can count on is that Olive will show up, and it will be intriguing. This book in particular is poignant and real in describing aging Olive, the way she copes, and what she learns about herself. Olive continues to be a strange and enigmatic woman, brutally candid but also refreshingly honest–I can’t get enough of her.

Most public libraries have the four-part HBO miniseries of Olive Kitteridge in DVD format starring Frances McDormand, or I would think it could be streamed online. It’s very true to the book and is a pleasure to watch.

‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama

“Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”

This memoir about Michelle Obama is deeply personal and refreshingly honest and forthright. She talks about her roots, her time in the White House, her role as a daughter, mother, and wife, and about what she was able to accomplish as a professional and during the years she was First Lady. It’s a lengthy book but listening to the audio, narrated by Michelle herself, didn’t feel long at all. I appreciated her candidness, her good humour, and her ability to relate. I respected her dedication to striving to being the best possible person she could be, in all areas of her life, despite the changes that rocked her world.

“As First Lady of the United States of America—the first African American to serve in that role—she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.”

Her descriptions and stories are compelling. She gives insight into how to cope and survive while living an unexpected life. The Obamas were a class act in the White House and this book underscores how they were dedicated to doing good and promoting decent values with dignity.  Their vision of the United States included a celebration of diversity and a seeking to promote unity and prosperity for all, in a time with increasing polarisation and partisanship. Speculation continues to circulate about whether she might herself run for president one day–she answers that question very definitively at the end of this memoir, and gives some sound reasons why. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it!

‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owens

This tops my list for the best fiction I’ve read this year, and might even make it into my top ten ever.

Kya lives a lonely life near a remote marsh in North Carolina. One by one, everyone in her family has left her to fend for herself which she does with incredible resilience and patient survival.  The very marsh she lives in, with abundant life that she is endlessly curious about and becomes exceptionally knowledgeable in, becomes her emotional and mental sustenance.

Suffering shunning by the townspeople, who label her the “Marsh Girl,” she attends only one day of school in the town, yet lives a life of learning alone in the marsh that she calls home. She is drawn at different times to two young men from town, who are intrigued by her wild beauty, but Kya is terrified of trusting anyone besides herself. When she finally opens up to a new and startling world of relationship–the unthinkable happens–handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, and the locals of Barkley Cove immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl, of murder.

I loved this book because it was so satisfying, well described, and compelling till the very end.  It is tragic yet unsentimental, sensual and mysterious. Kya as a character is one I will never forget. Her strength and resilience are remarkable and her instincts are fascinating.

The author’s early life as a wildlife researcher, and conservationist in Africa, sheds light for me on how she could so well portray the wonder of nature and so effectively capture the sense of isolation one feels in a remote location. She and her husband wrote Cry of the Kalahari and two other books when they were scientists studying and living amongst African wildlife in the Kalahari Desert and later in Zambia. She now lives in Idaho. Where the Crawdads Sing is her first novel. Her life story is hugely interesting: click here.

‘The Wild Robot'(#1) and ‘The Wild Robot Escapes'(#2) by Peter Brown

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Age 7+ but can be read to younger children) This creative story caught my heart and my imagination because it is innovative and heartfelt, but unsentimental. It is such a beautifully written and uniquely illustrated book for young readers; more fable than science fiction. It would be perfect as a ‘read-together’ because it has lots of appeal for adults as well as children. I was riveted myself and wished I was reading it aloud to a grandchild. On a vacation when I finished The Wild Robot, I was so excited when I discovered the sequel was immediately available from Overdrive, so I just kept on reading with The Wild Robot Escapes.

The story opens when Roz, a very special robot, finds herself marooned on a remote island. She is equipped to learn and increase her knowledge (as most AI inventions are), but she finds that in order to survive she will need the help of the animals on the island and that means learning to communicate and live with them in community. It’s a heartwarming and page turning read, full of great values, humour, self-sacrifice, tolerance, love of nature, resilience, and love. This book does not shy away from the realities of painful things in our lives, and indeed the first book ends with a cliff hanger. The sequel picks the story up seamlessly and also introduces another world that Roz needs to adjust to and then figure out how to escape from.

Peter Brown is a nature enthusiast and one day realised that the yearly instinctual activity of animals in the wild had a somewhat robotic aspect. Every year the animals went through the same routines and were almost programmed to do the same activities to survive and thrive. That is what gave him the idea for writing a story about a robot that interacts with animals. There’s a hugely interesting article by the author himself as he talks about the process of writing and illustrating this series: click here.

‘Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression–and the Unexpected Solutions’ by Johann Hari

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection.”

Bestselling author of Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari offers a radical new way of thinking about depression and anxiety. In recent years, the prevailing way of thinking about these problems was that they were caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. But after years on antidepressants himself, he wondered why they weren’t working and he began to seek a more complex and truthful story about the causes and treatment of depression and anxiety. The answers were not to be found in the pills taken or the substances abused, but in the very pain that was being avoided.

A doctor once told Hari, “You need your nausea. It is a message. It will tell us what is wrong with you.” His research uncovered evidence that was hugely compelling because it pointed to areas of disconnection in people’s lives. In no way does Hari minimise clinical depression as a serious illness that people may need medication for. On the contrary, he looks more deeply into the complexity of what may be going on and comes to see that the definition of antidepressant needs to be expanded beyond a prescription to include lifestyle changes that increase connection with others, with the natural world, and with meaningful work. It’s in the same vein as realising that one of the most effective ways of dealing with loneliness is to help someone else.

This book has something for everyone. Reviews of this book are filled with grateful personal testimonies. Hari’s writing style is easy to read while presenting extensive research findings. He thinks deeply and talks engagingly about complex questions in an approachable manner. He says something profound about the individualistic trends in our society and gives hope for a healthier future. Human connections are key, not only to our social and psychological health, but to our physical health as well.

Here is Johann Hari in a TED talk about addiction, which is what his book Chasing the Scream is about. Well worth 15 min of your time:

 

‘The River’ by Peter Heller

This is the kind of gem that I love to discover–a literary suspense novel. It’s a gripping tale of friendship, whitewater, starvation, and brutality. The writing is beautiful and the pace is unrelenting. I couldn’t put the book down and ‘lived’ on the river while I was reading it. It will appeal to a wide range of readers but especially to those who love to canoe and camp!

Wynn and Jack are best friends from college. They are well versed in wilderness survival but they are about to be tested in ways they never could have imagined. What begins as a dream paddle on a remote river in the Canadian north, turns into a nightmare when forest fires threaten and they are overtaken by a sinister mystery. Shrouded by fog in their canoe on the river, the pair overhear a couple on the bank engaged in a heated argument. The next day they see the man alone in the canoe, and there is no sign of the woman.

‘Decluttering at the Speed of Life: Winning Your Never-Ending Battle with Stuff’ by Dana K. White

Even though I am a thrower and live in a comfortably but not excessively cluttered house, I enjoyed listening to this book and came away with some good ideas. Marie Kondo’s book Spark Joy has been very popular of late, and I have always liked her advice which goes something like, “Keep only that which you regularly use or really love.” Kondo’s method includes sifting through stuff and deciding to keep only that which “sparks joy.” But what if there is too much joy (and therefore still too much stuff)? What if all that decision-making feels exhausting? What if it’s all too emotional? What if it’s paralysing because it all takes too long and keeps getting interrupted?

Dana White has some far more quick-and-easy, highly practical strategies in this book for every room in the house, and indeed, for the house itself, that solve the problem of loving too much or seeing too much ‘possibility’ in things we just might need ‘one day.’ She offers less emotional and more objective solutions. I especially liked her “container concept” and her “procrasi-clutter phenonenon.” It’s about living with space limitations and making things fit into the spaces you have, rather than adding more spaces for the things you want to keep.

Her simple strategies really make sense. Her principles are easy to understand, remember, and transfer to any and all situations. Following her method will improve the enjoyment of the spaces you live in, assist in keeping things clean, and help you find things that you need more quickly. She also includes chapters on how to help children, spouses, and downsizing parents with their decluttering, without being bossy or naggy. Highly recommend!