The Things We Keep by Sally Hepworth
(St. Martin’s Press, 2016, 338 pages)
Even though The Things We Keep is a fiction novel, there are a lot of truths to it. There are parts that are uplifting and made me smile but for me this was not a cozy “feel good” story. There is a lot of heartbreak but I still thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I thought that it had a great story line and the characters were developed so beautifully. It was as though Hepworth had spent a lot of time at a nursing home with the residents along with a few of the employees and decided to write a story about them, which maybe she did.
This book struck on a personal level for me because my grandmother is suffering from Alzheimer’s and it was very easy for me to relate with some of the characters. Hepworth focuses on the extreme challenges of everyday life for people who suffer from Alzheimer’s and the tough decisions that their caregivers must make for them while trying to keep their loved one’s best interests in mind. I would highly recommend this book, especially to anyone who has been affected by Alzheimer’s in some way because truly, love never forgets…
“Anna Forster, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease at only thirty-eight years old, knows that her family is doing what they believe to be best when they take her to Rosalind House, an assisted living facility. She also knows there’s just one other resident her age, Luke. What she does not expect is thelove that blossoms between her and Luke even as she resists her new life at Rosalind House. As her disease steals more and more of her memory, Anna fights to hold on to what she knows, including her relationship with Luke. When Eve Bennett is suddenly thrust into the role of single mother she finds herself putting her culinary training to use at Rosalind house. When she meets Anna and Luke she is moved by the bond the pair has forged. But when a tragic incident leads Anna’s and Luke’s families to separate them, Eve finds herself questioning what she is willing to risk to help them.”
– publisher description
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness
by Sy Montgomery
(Atria Books, 2015, 261 pages)
I have been simultaneously fascinated and terrified of octopuses (nope, it’s not “octopi” as most of us might have thought) for years. Montgomery’s book, The Soul of an Octopus, was one I had to resist hoarding after we purchased it for our library collection. I finally made the time to read it and, if anything, I’m more intrigued than I was before I started.
Montgomery did an amazing job recounting her experiences with these incredibly intelligent creatures. The more time she spent with them the more she wanted to learn about them. She had amazing access to a few select octopuses thanks to connections she made at the New England Aquarium and it was fascinating to hear about how the animals interacted with her and how clearly their personalities came across.
There was an excellent bibliography at the end that I will certainly be referencing in the near future. If you have an interest in octopuses you’ll enjoy this book. If you simply are an animal-lover or appreciate good non-fiction this would be a good title for you to pick up.
Ashes to Ashes by Harold Pinter
(Grove Press, 1996, 85 pages)
This one act play by Harold Pinter is sparse and startling. It drops us into the middle of a disturbing conversation between Devlin and Rebecca (presumably husband and wife) in the living room of a country home. It begins as an angry interrogation of Rebecca about a former lover. Rebecca describes violently abusive encounters. As Devlin pushes for more information, the conversation takes strange and dark turns. Devlin does not get the answers he wants, and, as a reader, I could feel his frustration as I tried to make sense of Rebecca’s non sequitur responses.
The play was published in 1996, and the title page says that the time is “Now.” However, the traumas that Rebecca relives in their conversation begin to sound like the stories of a Holocaust survivor. This brings up all kinds of questions: Is Rebecca sane? Is the mysterious figure she describes real? Is there something more going on here than a recounting of personal history? The play is a strange mix of deeply personal themes and broader themes that appear to speak to the traumas of European history.
The play could be performed in under an hour, and it can be read in less. That said, it isn’t an easy read. The drama and tension of the relationship between these two characters is immediately gripping – but trying to figure out just what this drama consists of is far from simple.
Finding McLuhan: The Mind/The Man/The Message
edited by Jaqueline McLeod Rogers, Tracy Whalen, and Catherine G. Taylor
(University of Regina Press, 2015, 304 pages)
Marshall McLuhan was the first person to really investigate and theorize about the effects of electronic media like radio and television. This very interesting collection of essays looks at new issues of digital media and culture through the lens of McLuhan’s basic insights about technology. It includes interviews with people who knew McLuhan, including his two sons, as well as an interview with Douglas Coupland, McLuhan’s most recent biographer. I particularly enjoyed the essay by Karen Brown and Mary Pat Fallon, which applies McLuhan’s understanding of media environments to the issue of library space, as well as the essay on McLuhan’s religious thought by David Charles Gore and David Beard.
You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith
(Brazos Press, 2016, 224 pages)
This book is a popular summary of James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project (which includes the books Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom). As the subtitle indicates, the book could be viewed as a sort of theological take on Charles Duhigg’s popular The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
The book explores the ways that the Christian liturgical tradition trains and habituates human beings into a particular vision of the good. Smith argues that our loves are ordered and directed by the things that we worship. He shows how liturgies – both secular and religious – train us to love particular things and habituate us to particular social orders. The habits that we learn, either through the liturgies implicit in the shopping and consumption of consumerism or through the traditional liturgies of the Christian tradition, make us who we are.
Smith’s work is always peppered with illustrations from films, music, and literature. While I always appreciate this aspect of his books, it is also a bit of a double-edged sword. He often finds just the right literary or cinematic example to make his point come alive. However, there are times when trendier references date the work in unnecessary ways. That quibble aside, Smith’s book is an excellent and accessible summary of his more academic work on the topic.
Flirting with Disaster by Victoria Dahl
(HQN Books, 2015, 384 pages)
Victoria Dahl is definitely one of my favorite contemporary romance authors (when I’m looking for a romance I typically turn to her work). I needed a “light” read and I grabbed Flirting with Disaster from the library – it didn’t disappoint.
Isabelle lives in a pretty secluded area of Wyoming. She picked a secluded spot for a reason; she’s effectively been on the run for over a decade having assumed a new identity and keeping a low profile. Her circumstances understandably have kept her from getting too close to too many people, but when Tom, a hot U.S. marshal, comes knocking at her door she finds herself wanting to run while simultaneously being drawn to him.
Tom seems to know that Isabelle has something she’s trying to hide and he’s determined to figure out what it is. As he tries to get her to open up he can’t deny the spark of attraction. Soon they’re both more deeply involved with one another than they’d planned to be and it’s inevitable that one of them will find out what the other has been hiding…
If you’re looking for a good romance novel that has an entertaining story line AND steam, Dahl is definitely an author you should check out.
Untethered by Julie Lawson Timmer
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016, 335 pages)
Char Hawthorn is a college professor who gave up teaching when she fell for Bradley, the man of her dreams. She became a devoted wife and loving step-mother to Allie. Since Allie primarily lives with Bradley and Char, she and Char have formed a strong relationship.
Char and Allie’s life was suddenly turned upside down when Bradley was killed in a car accident. Char does not have legal rights to Allie but she continues to love and care for her. She is struggling with trying to help Allie cope with her father’s death. Allie has given up soccer, her favorite sport. She has abandoned her closest friend to run around with the wrong crowd. The only thing that she continued to be committed to was tutoring a ten-year-old girl named Morgan whom she has a special bond with.
Lindy, Allie’s biological mother, is a self-absorbed woman living in California. The only time she saw Allie was when Allie would travel to see her on short visits. Lindy must now decide if she wants Allie to move back with her for good or allow her to live with Char until she graduates from high school. Char, trying to deal with the heartbreak of losing her husband, must now face the fact that she might lose Allie as well.
Julie Lawson Timmer sends the reader on an emotional journey. As with a lot of fiction, there are some far-stretched occurrences in Untethered, but as a whole I thought this book was a good read. She draws together what it means to be a family and in this case, a blended family. The characters work on issues in their relationships and the complexities of parenting. It is a very compelling story that had me in tears.
Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country: Traveling Through the Land of My Ancestors
by Louise Erdrich
(Harper Perennial, 2014, 160 pages)
“I can’t imagine home without an overflow of books. The point of books is to have way too many but to always feel you never have enough…” (7)
Louise Erdrich is one of my favorite writers and I don’t know how I hadn’t heard of this book. I’m pretty sure I put in a request for it as soon as I learned it existed. This memoir focuses on a road trip that Erdrich takes with her youngest daughter, Kiizhikok, into Ojibwe Country in northern Minnesota and Canada. A big part of the Ojibwe lands are islands interspersed throughout the region. These islands are sacred to the Ojibwe people for a number of reasons, one of which is the rock paintings contained on many of them.
As Erdrich takes us along on this journey we see how important her heritage is to her and also the value she places on books and the role they play in her life. There were so many good quotes that I pulled from this text because I related to so many of the things that she said. Like John Irving, Erdrich is one of those writers I just want to sit and talk with for hours… or just sit and read next to her. Either way, I’d be happy.
Anyway, if you’re an Erdrich fan I certainly recommend this. If you’re a bibliophile, I also recommend this – you’ll be reading along with a kindred spirit.
Garth Williams, American Illustrator: A Life
by Elizabeth K. Wallace and James D. Wallace
(Beaufort Books, 2016, 250 pages)
Garth Williams, American Illustrator: A Life written by Elizabeth K. Wallace and James D. Wallace is a biography of the famous children’s book illustrator, Garth Williams. Garth Williams was born in New York City in 1912, but moved to England with his mother during his school years. His father was an artist, but was not around during most of his younger years. Garth Williams is an interesting man. Over the course of his life he had 4 wives, 6 children, and moved several times with his final stop being Guanajuato, Mexico.
At the beginning of his career, Garth Williams thought that he would illustrate children’s books to earn enough income to become a serious artist. Those children’s book illustrations not only provided an income, but made him internationally famous. Williams illustrated such famous classics as Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, The Cricket in Times Square, and The Little House on the Prairie series.
At the beginning of the book, the authors explain that it would be difficult to cover Williams’ life in chronological order. The book does some jumping back and forth and is a little repetitious. I found it a little distracting. However, the life and works of Garth Williams is interesting and worth a read.
Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth
(Bloomsbury Press, 2014, 532 pages)
I love Philip Larkin’s poetry, and I’ve been anxious to read Booth’s biography. Larkin is a profound but accessible poet. Many of his poems deal with failure, disappointment, and death, so he has the reputation of being something of a pessimist and a grump. However, his humor and his emotional articulacy have made him one of England’s most beloved poets.
Larkin’s reputation has suffered since the publication of his selected letters and of Andrew Motion’s major biography in the 1990s. These painted an unflattering portrait of Larkin that included significant doses of casual racism and misogyny. However, Booth, who is the literary advisor to the Philip Larkin Society and was a colleague of Larkin’s at the University of Hull, seeks to correct this impression. He does not shy away from the uglier statements found in Larkin’s correspondence, but neither does he offer a very convincing apology for them. Booth refers to Larkin’s “flashes of performative racism,” suggesting that these comments are more satire than conviction. He tries to counter Larkin’s reputation for right wing nationalism with a younger Larkin’s expressions of his liberal political leanings. Despite Booth’s attempts at portraying a more sympathetic Larkin, the picture that actually emerges is one of a writer whose prejudices grew and became entrenched as he aged.
Despite this particular failure, the book is still immensely valuable. Booth strikes a good balance of biographical detail and literary analysis. He thoroughly details the manuscript history of Larkin’s poems, using these details to give a picture of the poet’s writing habits and emotional life. As the title suggests, Larkin’s love life is a major subject of the book. Larkin never married, and many of his poems and letters deal with the indecision and potential selfishness surrounding this topic. However, Larkin’s broken engagement with Ruth Bowman, his long term relationship with Monica Jones, and several affairs with colleagues and employees at Hull University’s library (where Larkin served as the University Librarian for thirty years) provide plenty of biographical interest.
Booth’s deep understanding and analysis of Larkin’s poetry is the strength of the book, but his interviews with people who knew Larkin also contribute to the portrait. Though he doesn’t succeed in reversing the perception of Larkin’s more objectionable statements, Booth does show that his poetry – skeptical and gloomy as it often is – is inspired by and infused with a sense of the beauty of life in the world. Sometimes these contradictions must just be left alone.