Category Archives: Four Star

‘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! 🙂

‘The Giver of Stars’ by Jojo Moyes

“A love letter to the power of books and friendship.”

Escape into the hills of Kentucky and become engrossed in a remarkable story that is rooted in historical fact. From 1935 to 1943 the WPA Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky brought books to more than a hundred thousand rural inhabitants.

 

 

Moyes builds a story around a handful of women who braved the beautiful but mostly rugged and poorest of places on horseback, fighting weather, danger, bigotry, and misogyny, to bring education, reading, literacy, and a better quality of life to so many. In this modern classic, Moyes creates unforgettably courageous characters. Unlikely allies at the start, Alice, a newlywed English rose, and Margery, a fiercely independent loner, pair up against the odds to carry out their mission. And you already thought librarians were a tough bunch–buckle in for a wild ride!

There is controversy swirling around this book because it bears striking similarities to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson which was published first. Although I haven’t read the earlier one–my advice–read either one. It’s an amazing piece of history and they both have good reviews.

‘The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street’ by Karina Yan Glaser (#1 in the series)

Age 8 – 12
A charming and cozy debut novel for tweens, this middle grade story starts off with a major dilemma facing the Vanderbeeker family. The landlord, a seemingly gruff recluse of a man, has decided that the rambunctious family of 7 with a dog, a cat, and a house rabbit, will not be able to renew their lease in the Harlem apartment that they love.  And they will have to move.

Everyone is devastated and determined to change the landlord’s mind. This leads to some hilarious adventures as the 5 children (ranging in age from 4- 12) embark on this most important mission. What I liked about the series was its focus on community, good family values, and humour. You can say a lot of things about this biracial family, but what they are not is: Calm, Tidy, Boring, or Predictable.

The author lives in Harlem herself, and was involved in various educational, literacy and community projects before she started writing books. “Now as a mother, one of her proudest achievements is raising two kids who can’t go anywhere without a book.”

This is the first in a series which follows the antics of the Vanderbeeker family. I will go ahead and read the next two right away. The fourth has not yet been released. It will be available later in 2020.

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden

The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue

‘You are Awesome: How to Navigate Change, Wrestle with Failure, and Live an Intentional Life’ by Neil Pasricha

“You win some, you learn some.”Pasricha is the author of ‘The Book of Awesome‘ which I actually never read, but do remember seeing around a lot when it first came out…I guess I assumed Pasricha’s writing was inspirational fluff, but when I heard him speak on CBC about this next book, I realised I was wrong.

There are a lot of interesting and highly practical suggestions he makes about building resilience and dealing with failure. If you’re the type who dissolves because of a nasty email or judges yourself too harshly because you tried something and it didn’t work out, this book is for you. Pasricha warns against hiding failure or putting too much of a spotlight on it. He says we should actually even plan and budget for failure!

Now I can think of professions where failure-seeking may be rather less acceptable, for say a heart surgeon or an airline pilot, but perhaps the sentiment could be applied to creative endeavours in their leisure time!! And some of his examples were a bit far fetched and not really anything I would try (like one-night-stands) but I forgave him since he makes his points very well in every other regard. He definitely has some great things to say about navigating change and building resilience in a climate where there hasn’t been a lot of struggle or scarcity and oddly people seem to be very stressed. This trailer is really worth watching:

‘The Body: A Guide for Occupants’ by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson started as a travel writer and then moved into writing about science. In this one he travels through the human body. Bryson does an incredible amount of research into complicated things and then casually talks about them as if he’s giving you directions to the corner store. He can be very funny, in a gentle self-deprecating way (a quality that has no doubt flourished by living in the UK) and he makes the facts entertaining.

For me, learning more about our inner workings, system by system, produced amazement and wonder–he does make science understandable. We seldom stop to thing about all of the wonderful things that are going on while we slouch unawares on the couch, munching popcorn, until something goes wrong of course. His chapters on germs, disease, and microbes read like a thriller, and leave you feeling as many aches and pains as a first year medical student! But because this book is  a long one, and not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as some of his other books, I would recommend the audio version, read by the author himself–he has an amusing American accent with a telltale British twang.

I really like Bryson’s books. They are always a pleasant journey that leaves me with greater general knowledge and an appreciation for the topic he has tackled. I have especially liked his travel books about Great Britain and Australia, and his book called At Home which discusses how we as a society became comfortable. His funniest book is A Walk in the Woods about hiking the Appalachian trail with his fat friend, which also became a movie with Robert Redford. A Short History of Nearly Everything is about the universe and ourselves. It is an awesome adventure into the realms of human knowledge. If you read that one, make sure you get the special illustrated edition.

‘Akin’ by Emma Donoghue

Eighty-year old Noah is about to embark on a trip to his birthplace Nice to discover some things about his past, especially about how his family was affected by the war. But he ends up having to pack more baggage than he bargained for. Just before he leaves on the trip to France, Noah is contacted by a social worker who thinks he is the only living relative who can take custody of an 11 year old grand-nephew he has never met, and save him from foster care. Michael needs a guardian for a time until his mother is released from jail. With no options for postponing Michael’s arrival or postponing his trip, Noah decides to take Michael along to Nice, and the adventure begins! Noah is a retired chemistry professor, who has never had children and has lost his wife and Michael is a cocky but vulnerable preteen who has been raised in poor circumstances and has already sustained significant loss in his young life.

Part historical fiction and part comedy, this odd couple set out on a journey which is funny, poignant, and albeit a bit slow, very gently entertaining. The two manage to help each other and irritate each other in oh so many ways, but together they pursue the mystery of what happened to Noah’s mother during the war and forge an unlikely companionship. The story is in no way sentimental or twee, it has a real feel, and in Donoghue’s capable hands is fresh and original.

Donoghue likes to draw from her own experience in her writing, in this case the inspiration for the book came from a couple of years she spent living in Nice with her French speaking partner and their children. Donoghue says she likes to get material for her novels from her children, as she did with Room when her child was 5. Now she has teens and it feels like she took every example of how tweens can be annoying and put them into Michael. 🙂 Although he does redeem himself on more than one occasion, and Noah continually reminds himself that Michael is a good kid, and just needs to be given a chance, considering his upbringing. On the trip they discover that life is full of risk in any generation and every era is marked by love and loss. Here’s a link to a more comprehensive Guardian review: click here.