Category Archives: Non-Fiction

‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean

“A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds of hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.”

An intelligent and well written narrative non-fiction about the investigation into the Los Angeles Public Library fire of 1986. Woven through interesting facts about library history, library systems, and library activity and usage, is the mystery of who may or may not have started the fire in the first place. So even though the book is geared towards one historical event, it is much more than that.

What makes the book endearing to bookish types is the fact that at its core, this is a love letter to the library, in all of the ways that it serves us so well. Even though parts of this book were compelling, and there’s no doubt that Orlean is a gifted writer, I did find myself skimming through some overwritten bits, so I would suggest not buying this book. Better to check it out of the library! 🙂

‘Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir’ by Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl is a beloved food writer with several best-selling memoirs chronicling her relationship with the food industry and her adventures working as a restaurant critic. This one focuses on her tenure as editor in chief of Gourmet magazine during which she spearheaded a revolution in the way we think about food.  At first she didn’t want the job, seeing herself more as a writer, less of a manager, and surely not as a boss! But Reichl had been reading Gourmet since she was eight years old and felt it had inspired her career. How could she say no? In self-deprecating fashion she shares her personal and unlikely journey into the corporate world, coming to terms with being in charge and making a mark, while remaining true to her own passions about how food fits into our lives.

This is the first book of hers that I’ve read and I appreciated the leadership style she demonstrates. She valued people, took risks, kept her goals in mind, fostered community, and knew how to get brilliant work out of her staff. Ruth Reichl is down-to-earth while moving in high and mighty places. It is that quality that changed the magazine and highlighted her unique success. I feel as though I could have invited this editor of Gourmet to my home for a meal without quaking in my boots. That says something. I enjoyed getting to know Ruth, and I love any book that includes recipes, but I feel it should have included glossy photos of the Gourmet magazine covers that she talks about. I was able to google them, but it would have been a convenient and illuminating addition.

‘Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression–and the Unexpected Solutions’ by Johann Hari

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection.”

Bestselling author of Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari offers a radical new way of thinking about depression and anxiety. In recent years, the prevailing way of thinking about these problems was that they were caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. But after years on antidepressants himself, he wondered why they weren’t working and he began to seek a more complex and truthful story about the causes and treatment of depression and anxiety. The answers were not to be found in the pills taken or the substances abused, but in the very pain that was being avoided.

A doctor once told Hari, “You need your nausea. It is a message. It will tell us what is wrong with you.” His research uncovered evidence that was hugely compelling because it pointed to areas of disconnection in people’s lives. In no way does Hari minimise clinical depression as a serious illness that people may need medication for. On the contrary, he looks more deeply into the complexity of what may be going on and comes to see that the definition of antidepressant needs to be expanded beyond a prescription to include lifestyle changes that increase connection with others, with the natural world, and with meaningful work. It’s in the same vein as realising that one of the most effective ways of dealing with loneliness is to help someone else.

This book has something for everyone. Reviews of this book are filled with grateful personal testimonies. Hari’s writing style is easy to read while presenting extensive research findings. He thinks deeply and talks engagingly about complex questions in an approachable manner. He says something profound about the individualistic trends in our society and gives hope for a healthier future. Human connections are key, not only to our social and psychological health, but to our physical health as well.

Here is Johann Hari in a TED talk about addiction, which is what his book Chasing the Scream is about. Well worth 15 min of your time:

 

‘Decluttering at the Speed of Life: Winning Your Never-Ending Battle with Stuff’ by Dana K. White

Even though I am a thrower and live in a comfortably but not excessively cluttered house, I enjoyed listening to this book and came away with some good ideas. Marie Kondo’s book Spark Joy has been very popular of late, and I have always liked her advice which goes something like, “Keep only that which you regularly use or really love.” Kondo’s method includes sifting through stuff and deciding to keep only that which “sparks joy.” But what if there is too much joy (and therefore still too much stuff)? What if all that decision-making feels exhausting? What if it’s all too emotional? What if it’s paralysing because it all takes too long and keeps getting interrupted?

Dana White has some far more quick-and-easy, highly practical strategies in this book for every room in the house, and indeed, for the house itself, that solve the problem of loving too much or seeing too much ‘possibility’ in things we just might need ‘one day.’ She offers less emotional and more objective solutions. I especially liked her “container concept” and her “procrasi-clutter phenonenon.” It’s about living with space limitations and making things fit into the spaces you have, rather than adding more spaces for the things you want to keep.

Her simple strategies really make sense. Her principles are easy to understand, remember, and transfer to any and all situations. Following her method will improve the enjoyment of the spaces you live in, assist in keeping things clean, and help you find things that you need more quickly. She also includes chapters on how to help children, spouses, and downsizing parents with their decluttering, without being bossy or naggy. Highly recommend!

‘Almost Everything: Notes on Hope’ by Anne Lamott

“Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” Wendell Berry

Another great book by Anne Lamott, although not everyone enjoys her meandering style. I listened to the audio book available on Overdrive from the library. She narrates it herself; I find her voice very down-to-earth and soothing.

Her thoughts on life and love and God are refreshing, funny, ecumenical, and universal. She is honest about her personal struggles and has a realistic view of self-help: she says simply “be kind to yourself and try to do a little bit better everyday.” It’s a crazy world and putting unrealistic pressure on yourself to improve, isn’t going to help. Her message of hope is wise, accessible, approachable, and helpful without being bossy. She may not deliver many answers in her message, but for me she has the power to gently coax me out of some dark thoughts and into the light, in other words, to find some hope.

Here Anne answers questions from fans while she signs books with her fiancĂ© Neil. It’s a delightful impromptu interview:

‘The White Darkness’ by David Grann

Henry Worsley was a man obsessed with trekking the South Pole. He idolised Ernest Shackleton, the nineteenth-century polar explorer, who tried to become the first person to reach the South Pole, and later sought to cross Antarctica on foot. Shackleton never completed his journeys, but he repeatedly rescued his men from certain death, and emerged as one of the greatest leaders in history.

Worsley felt an overpowering connection to those expeditions. He was related to one of Shackleton’s men, Frank Worsley, and spent a fortune collecting artefacts from their epic treks across the continent. He modelled his military command on Shackleton’s legendary leadership skills and was determined to measure his own powers of endurance against them. He would succeed where Shackleton had failed, in the most brutal landscape in the world. In 2008, Worsley set out across Antarctica with two other descendants of Shackleton’s crew, battling the freezing, desolate landscape, life-threatening physical exhaustion, and hidden crevasses.

In compelling narrative non-fiction, David Grann tells Worsley’s remarkable story with intensity and power, enhanced by breathtaking photographs. The White Darkness is both a gorgeous keepsake volume and a spellbinding story of courage, love, and a man pushing himself to the extremes of human capacity.

Ernest Shackleton’s journey is chronicled beautifully in a children’s book by William Grill:  Shackleton’s Journey.

‘Feeding my Mother: Comfort and Laughter in the Kitchen as My Mom Lives with Memory Loss’ by Jann Arden

“You are not supposed to get it right out of the gate. My favourite people in the world, my dearest friends, all rattle when you give them a shake. They have little pieces that have broken off inside of them that are a constant reminder to them, and me, of how far they’ve come and how much they’ve learned and what they have survived.”

Canadian singer/songwriter Jann Arden has written a heartfelt book about walking along side her mother through Alzheimer’s. It was surprisingly good and I appreciated her honesty and wisdom as she shares this diary-style journey of caring for both of her parents in their twilight years. Although I’ve listened to Jann Arden’s music, and even met her once in Tanzania, I didn’t know much about her and didn’t expect to find her writing so inspirational. I ended up jotting down a lot of quotes and really appreciating her perspective. A quote that will stick with me: “My Mom says tears are God’s lubricant to get you through the tight spots.” And I always love books with easy tasty recipes! Jann says, “There is something about feeding people you care about that is extremely comforting for both of you.”

From the publisher: “When beloved singer and songwriter Jann Arden’s parents built a house just across the way from her, she thought they would be her refuge from the demands of her career. And for a time that was how it worked. But then her dad fell ill and died, and just days after his funeral, her mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In Feeding My Mother, Jann shares what it is like for a daughter to become her mother’s caregiver–in her own frank and funny words, and in recipes she invented to tempt her mom. Full of heartbreak, but also full of love and wonder.”