Category Archives: Four Star

‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ by Anne Tyler

Before anything else I must speak of awards. I’m so excited because my favourite book award, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, announced its 2020 winner last night and it was the only book from the shortlist that I had read and I loved it: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. For my recent review of this beautiful book, click here. It was up against some heavyweights like Hilary Mantel’s third instalment in her Thomas Cromwell series (the first two in the series were Booker winners and the third is on the long-list this year too, sheesh!)

Now when we look at the Booker Prize 2020 long-list (shortlist to be chosen next week) we see Hilary Mantel’s brick of a historical novel, but we also see beside it this quirky slim new novel by Anne Tyler. She is one of my favourite authors but I never expected to see her among the award selections until A Spool of Blue Thread made it onto the Booker long-list in 2015, and now Redhead by the Side of the Road in 2020. Tyler is one of my favourite authors and I appreciate her unpretentious style, but are her novels award material? She did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for Breathing Lessons and to be honest, I am always complaining that award winners are so literary focused that they become unreadable. So yes! Tyler deserves a seat at the table and I will cheer her on for writing approachable novels that have depth and capture humanity. She has a way of making the ordinary come alive…sort of subtle extraordinary, really.

I did love this book, it felt like an undemanding comfort read during this challenging season on the planet. The dialogue is fresh and the main character’s simple lifestyle well described. It’s also surprisingly short (less than 200 pages) and almost reads like a novella. Here is the premise, and even though it may seem at first glance to be like The Rosie Project, it is very different–more profound and realistic.

“Micah Mortimer is a creature of habit. A self-employed tech expert, superintendent of his Baltimore apartment building, cautious to a fault behind the steering wheel, he seems content leading a steady, circumscribed life. But one day his routines are blown apart when his woman friend (he refuses to call anyone in her late thirties a “girlfriend”) tells him she’s facing eviction, and a teenager shows up at Micah’s door claiming to be his son. These surprises, and the ways they throw Micah’s meticulously organised life off-kilter, risk changing him forever. An intimate look into the heart and mind of a man who finds those around him just out of reach, and a funny, joyful, deeply compassionate story about seeing the world through new eyes.”

‘Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed’ by Lori Gottlieb

“We grow in connection with others.”

Lori Gottlieb is an American psychotherapist who writes the weekly ‘Dear Therapist’ column for The Atlantic magazine and has been a TV screen writer. I’ve never read a memoir quite like this. It’s very personal about the author of course, but also opens the door to therapy sessions which are usually private and confidential so it felt like being a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ but also I felt like I learned something about how people gain self-understanding. I don’t have much experience with this myself but the few sessions I have had with a naturopath who utilised talk therapy, I was amazed at her skills of perception and intuitiveness in a relatively short amount of conversation time.

The first half of the book hooked me in with Gottlieb’s self-deprecating humour. She is honest and funny and refreshingly unafraid to doubt or question herself. The fact that she needs therapy herself gives the book a ‘real’ feel. Towards the middle I was wondering where all of the seemingly random stories about her clients/patients were going, but hang in there. The second half of the book is where the magic happens, the wisdom and understanding arrives, and there are satisfying outcomes, even in difficult and tragic circumstances. I guess in that way the book mimics a real therapy session. She highlights Viktor Frankl’s emphasis on finding meaning and quotes from his book Man’s Search for Meaning which is a lifetime favourite of mine. She also talks about how love wins. Here’s an excellent interview with Gottlieb which captures her perspective on therapy: click here.

Apparently this kind of view into ‘both sides of the couch’ is also TV material, ABC is already developing a series based on this book.

Here is the author in a TED talk with the title: How changing your story can change your life.

‘The Lying Room’ by Nicci French

Neve Connelly has become frustrated and bored with her life and enters a relationship with a man from work. One morning he texts her to come over, and to her dismay, when she arrives at his apartment, she finds him dead on the floor. Afraid that her husband will learn of the affair if she calls emergency services, she proceeds to clear the apartment of all evidence that she was ever there, but accidentally leaves a bangle behind on the kitchen counter. When she remembers the bangle, it is half a day later and when she returns to retrieve it, the body is still there but now the bangle and the murder weapon are missing! When the Detective Chief Inspector comes calling and lying ensues, the darkness of betrayal becomes a heavy burden indeed for Neve and the guilt of all of the indiscretions threaten to undo her. Neve knows one thing, she is not the killer. But who is and is it someone close to her and is she now in danger too?

Fast-paced, addictive,  and farcical, this crime thriller kept me entertained and on the edge of my seat with humour, delicious twists and turns, and characters that I really cared about. They were all so hopelessly and loveably flawed and so very, very British. Will definitely read more of this husband and wife writing team, who also both write separately as well (Nicci Gerrard and Sean French). Together they have a series about a detective named Frieda Klein, but also several stand-alone novels.

‘Hamnet and Judith’ by Maggie O’Farrell

Very, very little is known about Shakespeare. It seems odd that someone so famous, whose writings have been so revered, would be such a mystery to us. This of course, has opened the door to a myriad of works of fiction about the man, to try to fill in the gaps. It’s the kind of thing that drives you to Wikipedia to find out where the lines between fact and fiction have been drawn or embroidered upon. O’Farrell doesn’t embroider though, she enhances. Hamnet and Judith feels like a book in slow motion. For that reason, it won’t be for everyone, but even though I usually prefer faster pacing, in this case I didn’t want it to speed up.

This book is really not about Shakespeare but about family and marriage.  In the capable hands of Maggie O’Farrell (author of a compelling autobiography I Am, I Am, I Am and many fine novels), it is in one way a simple and ordinary story of domestic life, but at the same time emotionally stirring and textured. I’ve always wondered how people say they were moved to tears by a book because I never have been. But in this one I came close. The depth of her research is quite obvious and the writing is beautifully poetic. BTW, ‘Hamnet’ and ‘Hamnet and Judith’ (Canadian title) are the same book by different publishers. Hamnet is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction Award 2020, the winner will be announced in September.

Here’s what we know: Shakespeare married Anne (Agnes) Hathaway and had three children. Susanna, and twins Hamnet and Judith. Tragically, Hamnet died at the age of 11. Four years or so later, Shakespeare wrote a play entitled Hamlet, widely considered to be his greatest work. In those days, the name Hamlet was a version of Hamnet, basically the same name.

‘The Sun Sister’ by Lucinda Riley (The Seven Sisters # 6)

Finally got to the latest instalment in the addictive The Seven Sisters series about the youngest sister Electra. She is a super model and in the fast lane to destruction because of drink and drugs. Unlike the five sisters whose birth stories and histories are discovered in earlier books, Electra really has no interest in her past. She has lost the precious letter left to her by her adoptive father Pa Salt and doesn’t want anything to do with her family. She is too famous, too busy, too angry, and too preoccupied with chasing a happiness she can’t seem to find.

Alternating between New York City and colonial Kenya, the backstory gets underway after the sudden appearance of Electra’s maternal grandmother. As usual, Riley offers a page turning historical fiction that captures the imagination. Now there is only one book left in the series which Lucinda Riley is still writing. It has a title…The Story of the Missing Sister. The constellation after which the girls were named has seven stars but there are only 6 adopted sisters. What happened to the seventh? Who actually is Pa Salt and is he really gone? All mysteries, cultivated in little glimpses throughout the series, will be revealed in the final book. It’s going to be hard to wait.

If you are unfamiliar with this series it is good to read them in order, starting with the title The Seven Sisters. On her website, the author outlines the real histories and characters she writes about in the books and includes pictures of her research visits as well as interesting Q & A interviews. Definitely worth a visit. Lucinda Riley’s website: click here.

 

‘The Pull of the Stars’ by Emma Donoghue

Three days, three women, one impossible task: the Great Flu.

Set in a hospital Maternity/Fever ward during the 1918 pandemic, in poverty stricken war torn Ireland, right after the devastation of the First World War, this story is not surprisingly quite dark and dismal, and yet is also full of life, light, and hope. Nurse Julia Powers works in a small three bed ward of patients who are both pregnant and fighting the flu. She is helped by a a spunky volunteer named Bridie Sweeney who becomes both a valuable assistant and a special friend as together they minister to those in need without much supply or support. Emma Donoghue has once again created a compulsively readable novel set with only a few characters who are trapped together in a very small space, as she did with Room and The Wonder and Akin.

It is a happy coincidence that this, her latest book, was published exactly during another pandemic, and I was almost reluctant at first to read it because of that. But reading a book on a pandemic during a pandemic was not nearly as difficult as it might seem, given Donoghue’s deft writing skills, and was actually interesting to compare. There was a lot of commonality with challenging public health leadership and health care workers being both at risk and short-staffed. “The human race settles on terms with every plague in the end, the doctor told her. Or a stalemate at least. We somehow muddle along, sharing the earth with each new form of life…a creature with no malign intention, only a craving to reproduce itself, much like our own.”

‘How to be an Anti-Racist’ by Ibram X. Kendi and ‘White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism’ by Robin DiAngelo

It’s been a time for reflection and reading about racism. I would like to highlight these two books which I’ve found helpful, one written by a black man and the other by a white woman. Both books support some of the same issues but from different angles. Both underline the idea that anti-racism is the correct term because no one can claim to be non-racist or colour blind.

The most helpful thing I’ve learned recently from Ibram Kendi is that the opposite of racist is not not racist, but antiracist. “One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist.” Everyone has racial bias and prejudice, it’s not just ‘those other bad people’ who are the problem. “To claim non-racism is to be wearing a mask for racism, everyone is racist, it is not a pejorative slur, it is descriptive, and we have to work against it to identify, describe, and dismantle it.” In the same way that we are products of systems and social constructs that have embedded racism into them, we now need to contribute to the formation of a truly just and equitable society. We can’t leave this up to anyone else, it starts with you and me: these books have helped me think about how to embrace the awkwardness and find the courage to strive to actively interrupt racism and humbly learn how to be an antiracist.

Kendi’s  concept of antiracism reenergises and reshapes the conversation about racial justice in American and points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. He asks us to think about what an antiracist society might look like, and how we can play an active role in building it. In this book, Kendi weaves an electrifying combination of ethics, history, law, and science, bringing it all together with an engaging personal narrative of his own awakening to antiracism.

 

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo explains why white people have a hard time thinking of themselves as racist or even prejudiced and why they get super defensive about it. DiAngelo illuminates the phenomenon of white fragility, an expression she coined in 2011. This term refers to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially. It is characterised by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviours including argumentation and silence. These behaviours, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. Even though this book has had mixed critical reviews, I found it helpful to know how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, how people put up barriers and use avoidance without even realising it, and what we can do to engage more constructively with the issues and with each other.

‘Boundary Waters’ by William Kent Krueger (Cork O’Connor # 2)

Set in the wilderness of northern Minnesota near the Canadian border, this was the perfect book to read while camping in northern Ontario. The rocky shore lakes, loons, and fir forests were the perfect backdrop to a gripping good mystery out in the wild. This one reminded me of Peter Heller’s The River. It is the second in a mystery series by the gifted author of Ordinary Grace and This Tender Land.

Cork O’Connor is a very flawed but likeable character and if I wasn’t completely hooked with the first instalment in the series, I sure am now! It’s probably a good idea to read them in order, to see how things develop with the recurring characters. The first in the series is called Iron Lake and there are seventeen in all. Yikes, I have some serious catching up to do but I’m looking forward to it! Krueger is such a good story teller. He had me on the edge of my campfire chair the whole way! 🙂

‘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.'”