Category Archives: Non-Fiction

‘Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know’ by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell has written many books that pose fascinating questions (Blink, Outliers, Tipping Point, David & Goliath). He researches answers to certain questions and comes up with some surprising conclusions. Some find his books too anecdotal and not scientific enough, while others think his writing is quite approachable and instructive. Either way, it’s usually quite interesting! These are some of the questions in this one: How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn’t true?

What do these questions all have in common? The tools we use to make sense of people we don’t know are perhaps not as reliable as we think. We default to trust and truth and generally believe what people say, perhaps more than we should. Gladwell narrates the audio version of the book himself and when he revisits the arrest of Sandra Bland, the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath, you hear directly from many of the players in these real-life tragedies. Just be warned that some of Gladwell’s dramatic descriptions relating to sexual violence and suicide might be disturbing or triggering for some.

‘I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death’ by Maggie O’Farrell

“The best way out is always through.” Robert Frost

But O’Farrell says, oh well, if you can’t go through you can always go around! 🙂 I’ve read one novel by this author, now I want to read more. There were things in her life that she would clearly have gone around, but had to go through and now they have been revealed.

What a unique memoir. It is so astonishing, so elegant and beautifully described, and yet so terrible all at once.  Somehow she makes these seventeen stories chilling and eloquent at the same time. In the audio version, Daisy Donovan captures and conveys the vulnerability and strength of the author. O’Farrell knows how to tell a story and Donovan knows how to read it. I hesitate giving this five stars, only because some of it may be triggering for those who have experienced similar trauma. People will need to talk about this after reading it, so it’s perfect for book clubs.

We are never closer to life than when we brush up against the possibility of death.  There was the childhood illness that left her bedridden for a year, from which she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. An encounter with a disturbed man on a remote path. Her heartbreaking struggle with fertility and miscarriage. Scary near accidents. And, most terrifying of all, an ongoing, daily struggle to protect her daughter — for whom this book was written — from a condition that leaves her unimaginably vulnerable to life’s myriad dangers. Seventeen discrete encounters with Maggie at different ages, in different locations, reveal a whole life in a series of tense, visceral snapshots. The message is simple. Life is precious.

Here’s an excellent review in the Guardian: “I’ve revealed the secrets I’ve spent my life hiding.”

‘Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living” by Shauna Niequist

Brené Brown wrote beautifully about perfectionism in her book
The Gifts of Imperfection. So it is not surprising that she would write the Foreword for this book by Shauna Niequist. The message of this book is right in the title–it’s not about being perfect, it’s about being present to those around us, instead of running around with a massive to-do list and trying to do way too much in a sort of frantic frenzy. It’s a good message but might be hard for some to relate to.

Shauna talks with honesty about her struggles and failures and shares her learnings about choices. But I did read many reviews by people like single Moms living paycheck to paycheck feeling ragged because in their life there is nothing they can say no to and there is no choice but to be exhausted and overwhelmed–there is nothing in the book that addresses this. Some don’t have the privilege of making choices and this book would be hard and unhelpful for someone like that to read.

However, Niequist speaks from a place of vulnerability from her own experience (it’s really more of a memoir than a self-help book) about the dangers of over-commitment and keeping busy just to prove your worth. I found her message a bit repetitive but I did appreciate her chapter on ministry burn-out. Christians and others who are committed to a higher purpose tend to think that achieving great things for the cause (to the point of denying your own health) will be a necessary sacrifice. But if you are tired, and burned out, and negative, and critical, and envious of those who seem to have more peace, then that is not what God has intended for you.

My favourite book of hers is still Bread and Wine which focuses on the importance of gathering around dinner tables to share food and conversation. It comes complete with wisdom, some great stories and thoughts about hospitality, and recipes that have become some of my favourites!

‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama

“Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”

This memoir about Michelle Obama is deeply personal and refreshingly honest and forthright. She talks about her roots, her time in the White House, her role as a daughter, mother, and wife, and about what she was able to accomplish as a professional and during the years she was First Lady. It’s a lengthy book but listening to the audio, narrated by Michelle herself, didn’t feel long at all. I appreciated her candidness, her good humour, and her ability to relate. I respected her dedication to striving to being the best possible person she could be, in all areas of her life, despite the changes that rocked her world.

“As First Lady of the United States of America—the first African American to serve in that role—she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.”

Her descriptions and stories are compelling. She gives insight into how to cope and survive while living an unexpected life. The Obamas were a class act in the White House and this book underscores how they were dedicated to doing good and promoting decent values with dignity.  Their vision of the United States included a celebration of diversity and a seeking to promote unity and prosperity for all, in a time with increasing polarisation and partisanship. Speculation continues to circulate about whether she might herself run for president one day–she answers that question very definitively at the end of this memoir, and gives some sound reasons why. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it!

‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, How We Can Learn to Fulfill our Potential’ by Carol Dweck

Darwin said it’s not the smartest or the strongest that survive, it’s the ones who adapt and are the most responsive to change.

This book has a crummy title but an important message. Having the word ‘success’ in the title is completely misleading because it’s not about that at all. With what I know now about the author’s message, it’s surprising she could give her book this title (let’s blame it on the publisher). It’s an older book, I’m apparently a bit late to the party, but I think it’s a good reminder even if you know about this.

The main idea is very simple and is explained well. Perhaps too well since many reviews complain about the repetition in this book. But that’s because the main point is so simple; it has to get repeated over and over in different contexts. The audio version was exceedingly annoying in this regard. However, the message was great and has value for everyone at any age or stage! So my advice for the book would be to read the beginning to pick up the main idea, and then skip to other chapters of interest that deal with work relationships, school situations, friendship issues, etc. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on marriage, the workplace, parenting, and teaching. So let’s get to the point. It’s all about mindset.

Fixed mindset vs. Growth mindset
People with a fixed mindset — those who believe that abilities are fixed — are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset — those who believe that abilities can be developed. People with a fixed mindset believe talent is everything and failure is to be avoided at all costs. Having a growth mindset is all about having a healthy attitude towards challenge and being willing to fail if it means learning something in the process. It’s about learning from mistakes and growing from them instead of judging yourself to be either super smart or a hopeless case. It’s about using the right language when you talk to your kids and not setting yourself up for failure in your marriage because your fixed mindset says that because you love each other there will never be any struggle. What went wrong and how can I do better next time? What did you learn today? What mistakes did you make that taught you something? I’m really proud that you picked a difficult subject for your project, you are going to learn so much (instead of advising the easy way out so that they can get top marks). They’ll be more willing to take on bigger challenges with a growth mindset.

 

‘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.