Category Archives: Five Star

‘The Aunts Come Marching’ by Bill Richardson and Cynthia Nugent


(Preschool – 3) Thanks to Jessica for putting me onto this fabulous musical counting book with a catchy marching tune. Road tested with our new grandchild, this slightly wacky but delightful book is already a favourite both with children and adults (always my benchmark with picture books)! The illustrations are such fun, the repetitions irresistible, and in case the tune  is unfamiliar, there is a helpful musical score included. What a great introduction to various instruments as well! The eccentric aunts (not ants) come marching one by one, two by two, etc., all playing loud instruments and bound on staying for awhile. Oh help!! Dad would like to be marching (or swinging) to a slightly less frenetic drumbeat…in his hammock!

‘The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit’ by Michael Finkel

If voluntary withdrawal from all human contact were an extreme sport, Christopher Knight could be the best in the world. On a whim he disappeared one day and lived alone in the woods in all seasons for 27 years. In all that time he interacted with another person only once–he said ‘Hi’ to someone on a trail. He never built a fire, not even in winter, for fear of being sighted, using a cookstove instead. Although he felt guilty about it, part of his ability to survive depended on breaking into nearby unoccupied camps and cabins to steal food, books, batteries, and other supplies. Because he never stole much of great value, the regular thefts were something that puzzled and terrorized the cottage dwellers and local law enforcement officers. His decades long sojourn came to an end when he was finally caught and charged for more than 1000 break-ins. When he was captured he was clean shaven and nicely dressed.

Michael Finkel, a journalist for the New York Times was the only personal Knight would tell his extraordinary story to and even that took some doing. His ability to get the details from Knight is as amazing as the account itself. It took Finkel three years of full time work to write these 191 pages. He was dedicated to getting it right and making it as accurate and compelling as possible.

I couldn’t put this remarkable book down and found it haunting and thought provoking. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone.

‘Ragged Company’ by Richard Wagamese


“When hands on the street are held out, it isn’t always alms that are beggared; it’s life, contact, touch, generosity of spirit…”

Ragged Company is about a group of homeless people who win the lottery (13.5 million) but can’t collect because they don’t have a fixed address! It’s been on my to-read pile for ages but I bumped it to the top after the recent passing of this great Canadian author Richard Wagamese. Like Medicine Walk, this book is a real, elegant, earthy, funny, and gentle story well told.  Parts of it are delicious reflective prose and though it isn’t a quick read, I did fly through it and couldn’t put it down. It is deeply compelling and healing as a human reflection on the meaning of ‘home’ but also is intriguing to see what happens to people when they suddenly have an unlimited source of money and go from getting enough for each day to having enough for each day. Wagamese explores the development of the inner lives of four homeless people, as well as the lonely jaded journalist who befriends them and the lawyer who helps them. They become a rather odd ragged company, but isn’t that what all of us are in the end?

What does it mean to belong, to be needed, to be free, and to be in community? After reading this book I feel even more strongly that when giving to the homeless it should always include a gesture of  human connection as well…get a name, have a brief conversation, give a blessing–do not allow them to be invisible. Do not make assumptions about them or consider them all alike–they each have a unique past and a story, as do we all. Wagamese turns our conventional ideas upside down and makes us think in new ways about winners and losers, rich and poor, bondage and freedom, love and friendship, value and worthlessness, support and community, faithfulness and rejection…all through a powerful story. Rest in peace Richard Wagamese. You have taught us that we are story and we are grateful.

The New York Times Obituary

‘A Man Called Ove’ by Fredrik Backman

a-man-called-ovestarstarstarstarstarFull marks for this translation from Sweden. It’s a hilarious life affirming and heartbreaking story much like Olive Kitteridge or The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It seems that Ove (rhymes with groove with a ‘uh’ sound afterwards [oo-vuh]–see pronunciation video below) is a nasty, grumpy old man but he also has a great capacity for love. People are not always what they seem and if they behave in a certain way, there may well be a very good reason for that. This does not excuse bad behaviour but it does remind us to show grace and not make assumptions about people too quickly. Ove-rarching themes in the novel (sorry, couldn’t resist) are that love and loss are the stuff of life and community is key. Looking forward to more by this author! There is a film adaptation in Swedish with English subtitles, which I haven’t seen, but hope to find.

‘Ish’ by Peter H. Reynolds

Ishstarstarstarstarstar
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.

‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Airstarstarstarstarstar“Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I’m still living.”

Paul Kalanithi, like any medical student, spent countless hours in the hospital, working gruellingly long shifts as a neurosurgeon. So when his back began to ache and he was fatigued, he was not unduly alarmed. However, when he began to lose a lot of weight and the pain grew worse, tests revealed that this promising young physician was about to become a patient himself.

Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Paul and his wife Lucy embarked on a journey that was more about living than dying. They decided to go ahead and start a family and their daughter Cady was Paul’s pride and joy, born just months before he died. The early chapters of the book outline the kind of person Paul was–a brave, thoughtful student of literature and philosophy as well as of neuroscience. Even before his illness, he was often occupied with questions about the meaning of life because as a neurosurgeon he was used to making life and death decisions for and with his patients. In addition to becoming a surgeon, he also wanted to write, and he got that opportunity with this book. His poetic prose show what a talent he has. I use the present tense purposefully here, because as novelist Abraham Verghese says in the Foreword to this book, it’s as if Paul is still with us, his hopeful voice still seems to linger in our hearts and minds.

This dying doctor’s gripping memoir is a natural, honest, and unflinching account of his journey. Paul’s willingness to reflect and share and not avert his eyes from death, will undoubtedly inspire and comfort others who are ill or who experience loss. The final paragraph is directed towards his infant daughter and it is breathtakingly beautiful. The Epilogue is written by Paul’s wife, because Paul did die before he could finish the book. Lucy’s voice rounds out the story. I loved hearing from her as well.

I fully agree with novelist Ann Patchett who called this book a “universal donor,” one to recommend to anyone and everyone.

‘Stellaluna’ by Janell Cannon

StellalunastarstarstarstarstarThis is a gorgeous children’s picture book from the 90’s. I’m not sure how it never came across my radar before. Thanks for the heads up Kathy (via K & M)!

It is a tender story of family, friendship, and love but far from schmalzy. A fruit bat is separated from her mother and ends up living with a bird family. There is hilarious humour around the fact that birds and bats are very different creatures indeed! But there are also powerful messages about how to appreciate and value difference in yourself and in others. The illustrations are luminously deep and capture remarkable moments in the story.

Enjoy the story and pictures here, beautifully read by Pamela Reed.