Category Archives: Four Star

‘Bolder: Making the Most of our Longer Lives’ by Carl Honoré

“Aging is not lost youth, but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” Betty Friedan

Upbeat, encouraging, and sensible, Carl Honoré, the author of In Praise of Slow, explores the advantages and disadvantages of growing older. And with a few caveats (like good health and opportunity), the tick marks on the positive side are clearly in the majority. Honoré quickly debunks prevalent myths about aging and warns that agism is really the problem. Criticising ‘age silos’, the author argues in favour of mingling with other age groups as much as possible and realising that although age and poorer health may detract from quality of life, older people also often experience a boost of creativity and vigour in their later years. Experience and perspective can actually be as useful as youthful stamina.

The important thing is a good attitude and of course maintaining all of the things that keep us all looking and feeling better–exercise for body and brain, sense of humour, stress avoidance, healthy food and drink, socialising with friends and family, etc. If you are over sixty, when you look in the mirror don’t hope to see someone who looks younger, hope to see someone who looks heathy and at their best. As Anne Lamott said, “we contain all the ages we have ever been.”  Own those wrinkles–each one tells a story and shows where the smiles have been!

Here is the author in a TED talk on this topic. It’s worth a view if you want a 12 minute summary of the main points of the book:

‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett

The Vignes sisters, light skinned black twins, will always be identical but their lives take very different turns because of the choices they make. They live in a small southern black community until at a young age, and after a devastating trauma,  the sisters run away together to New Orleans.

Ten years later, one sister, Desiree, lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape, and the other, Stella,  secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. She also has a daughter. With the next generation, the cousins–one black, one white–look nothing alike, yet are inextricably linked.

This story is an exploration of racism and the American history of ‘passing’ which I must admit I knew very little about. The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins. A unique story of family, relationships, and identity, this would be a great book club read. Not surprisingly, there is an HBO series in the works.

I struggled with my feelings while reading this book. Was the story breaking any kind of anti-racist ground or was it just reinforcing stereotypes? I was reading it right after all of the anti-racist protesting worldwide and watching the series Little Fires Everywhere (performances by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington enhance the reading of Celeste Ng’s novel). As I was researching, I ran across this enlightening piece by Lila Shapiro. It was profoundly helpful and I found that it articulated exactly what I was feeling conflicted about. For the full article click here:

“In the most famous stories about passing, Bennett points out, the protagonists ultimately face society’s reckoning. But Stella is never found out. Instead, she suffers from something more subtle and enduring — the hollowing out of the self. Bennett was interested in passing because of how it both exposes and strengthens the artifice of race. “On the one hand, if you can perform whiteness, then what does it mean to be white? If you can move between these categories because you decide that you will, what does it actually mean that we have systems that are built on reinforcing those categories?” she asks. ‘On the other hand, these characters who pass usually end up reinforcing the hierarchies that they are potentially destabilizing. The tension within passing stories is between this idea of destabilizing race and then reaffirming race at the same time.'”

 

‘A Trick of the Light’ by Louise Penny (Inspector Gamache, Three Pines Mystery # 7)

“While every artist wakes up believing this is the day his genius will be discovered, every dealer wakes up believing this is the day he’ll discover genius.”

As I get deeper into this series, reading them in order, I can clearly see development in Penny’s writing. It’s getting better and better. The police detectives, the residents of Three Pines, and Gamache himself are pleasantly familiar, but never stagnant or stuck in their ways. There are delicious mysteries surrounding each of them and in every instalment Penny teases out more of their personal journeys in addition to the murder mystery at hand.

The dead body of a woman is discovered in a back garden in Three Pines after a party celebrating Clara Morrow’s first art exhibition. “There is strong shadow where there is much light.” Penny’s beautiful writing is layered with themes of light and dark, things hidden and revealed…or is it just a trick of the light? The images refer to artistic talent in a fickle art world, but also of course, to humanity. Penny has a sense of humour. An important piece of evidence at the crime scene is an AA sobriety chip/disc with both the serenity prayer and a figure of a camel engraved upon it. Why a camel? Well, perhaps if a camel can go for 24 hours without a drink, so can you? And I loved the classic Agatha Christie ending, also deliciously tongue-in-cheek–all of the suspects gathered in the same room during a thunder storm, with the lights threatening to flicker out at any moment, while Gamache reveals the murderer…  🙂

Some people call this a ‘cozy’ mystery series, with little graphic violence or offensiveness, with the exception of a potty mouth senior in the village called Ruth. This quote by Patrick Anderson in Washington Post review says it all, “If you’re looking for a well-written mystery that highlights an amusing village, takes a nasty look at the art world and doesn’t contain any cannibalism, beheadings or sexual perversion, you could do a lot worse than Penny’s ‘A Trick of the Light.'”

‘Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself’ by Wendell Berry

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out–perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

The really, really good books will always still be around when we finally get to them. But sometimes we wonder why it had to take so long? I’m embarrassed to say how long ago I borrowed this book from my sister-in-law Ina. She’s an avid reader of really good books and a very patient person. Why did it take so long? Well the usuals–new books blinking at me, the sheer volume of things that demand to be read on shelf, kindle, and library book pile. But I am finally reading some books on my own shelf during the pandemic, and that feels good. Wendell Berry strikes me as a patient person so I think it’s ok. His writing reminds me of other authors like Marilynne Robinson, Kent Haruf, Mary Lawson, William Kent Krueger, and David Rhodes. Berry writes with heart, soul, humour, and wisdom at a slow, gentle thoughtful pace that paints a picture rather than taking the reader for a thrilling ride.

Jayber Crow is a fine novel beautifully written. It’s a slow, gentle story that richly imagines ordinary people in a small rural town and grapples with humanity–love and loss, joy and despair, death and life, judgement and grace, as well as alienation and community. For some odd reason I have never figured out, I have a hard time remembering endings of books, but this one was so poignant I will never forget it.

Berry is a farmer, poet, activist and academic which is an interesting combination. Berry understands the connection that people have with place and cares about stewardship of the earth. From the symbolism of the river to the rootlessness of his orphaned wanderings, to the exploration of a hard-won faith, Berry is giving us variations on some themes of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. His love from a distance hints at Dante’s love for Beatrice. And yet it celebrates the simple and ordinary things in life that give us pleasure and keep us going. Jayber Crow, a seminary drop-out, humble barber, church janitor, and grave digger is telling his story on his own terms, and it just feels right.

‘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!

‘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.

‘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.

‘The Language of Flowers’ by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

“It wasn’t as if the flowers themselves had within them the ability to bring an abstract definition into physical reality. Instead, it seemed that Earl, and then Bethany, walked home with a bouquet of flowers expecting change, and the very belief in the possibility instigated a transformation.”

Who knew that flowers had meanings? I suppose I always knew that roses meant love and trilliums and snowdrops are a sign of spring, but a dictionary of flower language? Some of the meanings are surprising and I wonder how they were determined at all, but apparently it is an ancient art called Floriography and was widely popular in Victorian England.  Click here: Victoria’s Dictionary of Flowers

Victoria, the troubled main character in this novel, helps people by making flower arrangements according the meanings of the flowers. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realises she has a gift. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness. Victoria’s story is beautifully and elegantly told but is painfully sad and at times hard to read, albeit real. There is redemption in the end, but it is hard won.

I’m taking my own advice and discovering novels on my shelf that I never read, now that the libraries are closed. This is a book that I’ve had for ages and will now pass on to a neighbour who LOVES flowers and knows a lot about them…but does she know that Lavender signals ‘Mistrust’ and ‘Scarlet Geraniums’ hint at ‘Stupidity?’ 🙂 She’s a friend who is a ‘Constant’ help and solace to many, so it makes sense that she brought me a Hyacinth (which means ‘Constancy’) along with my groceries while I’m in pandemic quarantine!!! Thanks Nel (and Bill)!! Hope you both enjoy the book, and here’s a virtual bouquet of ‘Freesias’ for you as well! 🙂