Category Archives: Non-Fiction

‘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.

‘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 fiancé 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.”