‘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.

‘Mr Doubler Begins Again’ by Seni Glaister

This book is about potatoes, gin, and friendship…Seldom have I rooted so enthusiastically for a character in a book. Doubler is a potato farmer extraordinaire, happy enough going about his routines on Mirth Farm and sharing his lunch everyday with his housekeeper Mrs Millwood, until she is taken seriously ill, and his neighbour threatens to take his land. Despite suffering betrayals very close to home, he is spurred by loneliness and self-preservation to gain new confidence as he steps far into uncharted and uncomfortable territory.

An amusing and charming old-fashioned tale full of surprises, quirky characters, and fresh dialogue, it reminded me of The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, so if you liked that, you’ll love this. Though a little slow at times, if you are a patient reader who enjoys sinking into a gentle and charming story that is well-told, this is a book for you.

‘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:

 

‘The Mother-in-Law’ by Sally Hepworth

When you choose a life partner, the other members of the family come along as free gifts! 🙂 Of course the ‘mother-in-law’ is the classic fraught relationship so it’s no surprise that in this entertaining little whodunit it is she who ends up dead!

Playing on family dynamics, and full of twists and turns, this is a clever summer beach read with a surprisingly perfect and ‘more-profound-than-I expected’ ending which I did not see coming.

‘The Colors of All the Cattle’ by Alexander McCall Smith

By the 19th instalment, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency crew is well known to fans of the series. But I must say Sandy Smith is a master at giving background for possible new readers without making it boring for the regulars. I also noticed how certain characters are changing and growing–Charlie, who now works for both Mr. JLB Matekoni as well as Mma Ramotswe, is growing and maturing into a fine young man, which is something Mma Makutsi sure never expected!

A magazine article sparks a discussion about personal responsibility and social change and Mma Ramotswe is compelled to accept a challenge to run for city council, even though she has no desire or inclination towards a political position. Charlie is in love with a totally unsuitable woman, and not for the reasons you might think, and that old nemesis of Mma Makutsi’s (Violet Sephoto) shows up in a very likely and predictable spot!

Oh no! Just as I thought I was all caught up with this series, now I discover the 20th instalment on his website! The title is To the Land of Long Lost Friends and my library already has it on order. I do believe this author continues to write books faster than I can read them…

‘A Place for Us’ by Fatima Farheen Mirza

“A stunning novel about love, compassion, cruelty, and forgiveness–the very things that make families what they are.”

A Place for Us unfolds the lives of an Indian-American Muslim family, gathered together in their Californian hometown to celebrate the eldest daughter, Hadia’s, wedding – a match of love rather than tradition. It is here, on this momentous day, that Amar, the youngest of the siblings, reunites with his family for the first time in three years. Rafiq and Layla must now contend with the choices and betrayals that led to their son’s estrangement – the reckoning of parents who strove to pass on their cultures and traditions to their children; and of children who in turn struggle to balance authenticity in themselves with loyalty to the home they came from.”

As much as a I love a twisting page-turner, this book reminded me that it’s also nice to read a thoughtful compelling family mystery at a more relaxed pace. As the narrative switches back and forth between various voices, depth of character and insight into relationship are achieved in a beautiful way. Transplanted culture can be difficult and complicated and I found the latter part of the novel very poignant when the father honestly shares his perspective on how things might have been different. The smallest decisions can lead to the deepest betrayals. Mirza deals deftly, hopefully, and gracefully with delicate subjects like guilt, misunderstanding, regret, and loss.

Mirza is a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop which is a common denominator in many of the authors that I have enjoyed and was championed by Sarah Jessica Parker, another one of the celebrities who are endorsing books (others include Reese Witherspoon and of course Oprah). This book does have a slower pace and may not be for everyone, but I found it held my interest, was definitely moving, and was a joy to read. Here is an interview with the author that highlights the author’s maturity beyond her years: