Category Archives: Five Star

‘Anxious People’ by Fredrik Backman

Here is the latest book by the author of A Man Called Ove and Bear Town, both of which I loved! And I have to give full marks to this one as well. It’s a very different novel than either one of those. One thing I can say about Backman–his books are in no way formulaic!

An apartment real estate open house turns into a hostage situation when a failed bank robber comes in waving around a gun. This is a story about a crime that never took place, a would-be bank robber who disappears, and eight very anxious strangers who find out they have way more in common than they ever imagined!

Anxious People is delightfully (laugh-out-loud) funny but also very unsentimentally poignant, insightful, and wise. The set-up is hilarious, the characters likeable, the structure of the novel original, and there are some surprising twists and turns. I also found it stereotype-busting and bursting with kind generosity for human quirks and foibles. In the hands of a less skilful author this might have just been ridiculous, but Backman elevates a silly story into something entertaining and life affirming.

‘Quilts and Health’ by Marsha MacDowell, Clare Luz, and Beth Donaldson


“I make my quilts thick to keep my family warm. I make them beautiful to keep my heart from breaking.”
Prairie Woman, 1870

My friend Nandy is an artist, not a quilter like I am, but when she noticed this book somewhere, she very kindly sent me one! It was a wonderful gift. This incredible book speaks to the healing power of quilts and quilt making and to the deep connection that exists between art and health. I’ve taken time to read it slowly and carefully, admiring the many beautiful photos of quilts and descriptions of amazing quilt projects. If there is a quilter in your life, take note.

This book is a compilation of pictures and stories and presents evidence and many varied poignant testimonies to the fact that having and giving and making and using and just being around quilts is healing. Quilting involves creativity and math and puzzles and precision and clever use of colour and pattern, but also involves patience with many countless hours of sewing and handwork. Quilters do find all of that therapeutic. There are many types of quilts and endless techniques that quilters learn and use. But this is not a how-to-quilt book. It researches and celebrates the connection between quilts and health. Name an illness, medical condition, or disease and you will find quilt making associated with it.

The book covers charity quilting, the joy of quilting in groups, quilting for specific causes, the healing power of sewing that quilters experience after or during treatment for an illness, but also the tremendous comfort in receiving a quilt as a gift and feeling the love that went into each and every stitch. “Those who sleep under a quilt, sleep under a blanket of love.”

I was delighted when my friend Alice sent me this picture of a quilt hanging on the wall which she noticed on a walk-about at Toronto General Hospital. I wasn’t delighted that she had to be admitted there, and she is fine now, but it was a great example of how quilts are often found in places of healing and medical care. The inscription reads, “Thank you to the wonderful nurses of 6B West, Head and Neck Unit, TGH.”

“Common themes–or threads if you will–throughout this book have been the critical role that beauty, creative expression, and a sense of worth, belonging, purpose and community can play in achieving optimal health and quality of life.”

‘The Book of Longings’ by Sue Monk Kidd

This is the story of Ana, wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth. There is a long silent period of time in the Biblical account of the life of Jesus. What if Jesus had been married during that time? What would that have been like? What would his wife have been like? This is the fiction of this novel, and it is handled artfully and respectfully, seamlessly weaving in what is known and what the author has imagined. The premise of this novel in the hands of a less than excellent author, might have been a disaster, instead it is masterful and I found it enriching. Sue Monk Kidd, who wrote The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings, among others, has taken a potentially tricky and controversial fictional idea and made it into a beautiful story.

There is not much I can say about this book without spoiling it, because for me part of the intrigue was wondering how it would be handled and how the story would be told. I was a little afraid of what it might do to my own imagining of Jesus’ life on earth and his humanity, and I have to say that I felt completely comfortable with it and it actually enhanced my own understanding.

Really though, the book is more about Ana. At the beginning I found it a bit slow, but the background is essential and the convergence of events in the end was brilliant. This is one of those books that makes Bible times come alive. There are extensive Author’s Notes at the end which are instructive and fascinating. She spent a year researching and almost 5 years writing this novel, and the effort shows. This would be an excellent choice for a book club read. Penguin Random House has a thoughtful Reading Guide which includes a conversation with Sue Monk Kidd and some questions to facilitate further discussion: click here. I must end with the flyleaf description that captures the book so well:

“Grounded in meticulous research and written with a reverential approach to Jesus’s life that focuses on his humanity, The Book of Longings is an inspiring, unforgettable account of one woman’s bold struggle to realise the passion. and potential inside her, while living in a time, place, and culture devised to silence her. It is a triumph of storytelling both timely and timeless, from a masterful writer at the height of her powers.”

‘The War I Finally Won’ by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley


(Age 9+)
This sequel to The War that Saved My Life, seamlessly continues the story of Ada and Jamie and Susan, suffering the shortages, constraints, and dangers of the war. After the frightful abuse Ada suffered as a child, a war within herself also continues to rage even though she has found a new family. Ada must fight to find out who she is so that she can learn to love and trust again, especially when things get complicated and an unwelcome visitor arrives.

These two YA novels are easy to read but also get at some very adult issues in a gentle manner, a quality that is often captured in a book narrated by a child. The child’s perspective softens the things that adults know to be complex and challenging. The warmth of the author and her love for horses is very evident in the books, as well as in this little youtube promo below. She has also written many other books for children and young adults: click here.

BTW, if you are noticing that I’m defaulting to reading series a lot during this pandemic, you would be correct. This is because it takes less energy to focus on a book when I already know some of the characters and the setting. Older books are easier to access with libraries closed and I am enjoying the sense of accomplishment by catching up. I highly recommend this reading strategy for those of you who are struggling with reading focus during this weird and troubling time in the world. Know that you are not alone–many people I know are ironically reading less, even though they may actually have more time!

‘The War that Saved My Life’ by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley


Age 9+

A disabled girl and her brother are evacuated from London to the English countryside during World War II. Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room flat. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

This award winning Young Adult novel is a moving story of triumph against all the odds. Although it is set in WW 2 and deals with child abuse, it is a beautiful historical fiction about love, struggle, loss, belonging, courage, and new beginnings. It is unsentimental, suspenseful, and written in a simple style that is easy to read, yet will appeal to children and adults alike. It made me think of books by one of my favourite authors, Kate DiCamillo, who has a similar style and also writes books for children without ever talking down to them.

For those struggling to focus on reading in this pandemic, cross-over books like this (which are classified YA but are compelling for adults too) are a perfect choice. And there is a sequel called The War I Finally Won.

 

‘A Family is a Family is a Family’ by Sara O’Leary and Qin Leng


“Families are composed of love regardless of how they may be configured.”

When a teacher asks her students to describe their family, one child is worried about what to say because she suspects that her family is different. But as she listens to her classmates talk about who lives with them and loves them (one raised by a grandmother, another has two dads, one has many step-siblings, and another has a new baby in the family) she realises that diversity is a good thing!  This is a warm and whimsical look at many types of families, with soft art and gentle humour.

Some examples of the writing:
“There are lots of kids in our family. Mom and Dad just keep coming home with more.”
“Both my moms are terrible singers. And they both like to sing really loud.”
“I have more grandparents than anybody else I know.”
“One week Mom gets me. The next week Dad does. Fair’s fair.”
“Some of the kids were Dad’s when he met Mom. Some were Mom’s when she met Dad. Now we all belong to each other.”
“One of my dads is tall and one is short. They both give good hugs.”
“Someone asked my foster mother to point our her real children. She replied, ‘Oh, I don’t have any imaginary children, all my children are real!'”

‘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.

‘Brené 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 Brené: “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 Brené Brown, and go to the episode for March 27 entitled: “Brené 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!!

‘American Dirt’ by Jeanine Cummins

Ok I’ll be honest. Reading hasn’t been all that easy for me lately. You’d think that with being stuck in the house and all, I’d be doing nothing but…but it doesn’t seem to work like that. However, American Dirt was the perfect book for such a time as this and I was lucky to get a ‘Skip the Line’ hold through Libby library app to read it because it’s very high profile right now for both good and bad reasons.

American Dirt is a compelling, easy to read story about migrants, (a crisis of another sort all together) so it’s been therapeutic, in a weird sort of way, to sink into the pages and escape into another reality. At its core this book is about good people in hard times with so many twists and turns that it was totally captivating. Lydia and her son Luca find themselves in an unimaginable nightmare of brutality and constant danger as they flee their home in Acapulco and seek to survive. The opening scene of this novel is unforgettable and their journey is harrowing.

Critics have created controversy in social media around the authenticity of the migrant experience in this book, seemingly making those who really enjoyed the book, rethink their experience of it, which seems a shame. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I stand solidly behind my own recommendation of it. I can’t comment on whether this book reflects truth or is the most definitive migrant story, but I do know that I found it compulsively readable and beautifully written. Again this is simply a story of good people in hard times trying to survive. Fiction is truth, even if it is not fact. Stories matter and gaining empathy for another person’s story brings perspective to our own.

What are you reading during this pandemic?