Like many of you, I’ve spent hours with my nose in a book during these plague months; witness the picture. Sadly, I did not keep notes as I read. I just stacked the books in order of reading with the intent to make comment later. Not quite good enough, methinks. Hence, as one moves down the page, the comments become rather sparse. A disclaimer here—four books, Happily Ever Older, Tamarind Sky, WhyBirds Sing, and Afterlife Crisis came to me as ARCs from their respective publishers. Two of these were e-books (Tamarind Sky, and Happily Ever Older) and because of that they are not captured in the photo.
When Luciana Ricciutelli asked me to blurb Thelma Wheatley’s latest book, Tamarind Sky, I was honored. I became a fan of Thelma’s writing with her book And Neither Have I Wings To Fly. Tamarind Sky is a master class in the social history of forgotten yet recent times. In a tale that centres on family love and the immigrant experience, Wheatley has skillfully captured the searing ugliness of racism in Ontario (1967-1989) and Ceylon (1947-1956). Her portrayals of time and place on each continent are riveting. Tamarind Sky is a compelling read about colonialism, its aftermath, and the human spirit’s will to survive and overcome. (Note the book mark on which my blurb is quoted. Some of you may recall, that I only believed I was a ‘real’ author, when I had my book Autumn’s Grace AND the book mark in hand. I confessed that level of neediness to my editor, Luciana, at the Toronto launch, and she laughed. Luciana died this past December; Thelma’s bookmark feels like it was a departing gift—delivered with a wink.)
Happily Ever Older is essential reading for anyone who hopes to grow old and to do so with dignity. Instead of seniors’ housing that resembles warehouses for storage, think greenhouses for growth. It’s a fundamental paradigm shift that Moira Welsh depicts through innovative housing models that have launched across North America and in the Netherlands. Each of them defeats the three plagues of old age: loneliness, boredom, and helplessness. But as a society, we will succumb if we don’t act now. Between 2019 and 2050, the cost of long term care housing will triple. To combat that future, we need healthier models and better government policies with a laser focus: supporting seniors’ independence. Only then might we live happily ever older. (Moira Welsh is an investigative reporter with the Toronto Star. )
Why Birds Sing is a delightful novel that seamlessly blends commentary about opera, architecture, avian husbandry, health care, and whistling. It’s an unlikely tale of friendship, hope, and love that begins when a flamed-out opera singer, her ailing brother-in-law, and his African Gray parrot meet up with a clutch of siffleurs who call themselves the Warblers. I enjoyed it.
Afterlife Crisis by Randal Graham is a madcap and frenetic romp through an everchanging fantasy of future Detroit. Our guide for this adventure is Rhinnick Feynman, a character who maintains his equilibrium through a series of misadventures. He has been gifted with remembering how things once were while everyone around him is subject to forgetting. His quest is to determine why this is so.
It’s not often that a book makes me laugh aloud, but this one did, many times. I imagined Feynman navigating his strange world with a GoPro strapped to his forehead while a chip embedded in his brain recorded his thought processes. And with that chip, he gives us access to the literature, science, mythology, and history that underpins his world view. Feynman sprinkles clichés as liberally as one would salt potatoes and uses arcane words to entertaining effect. And his parallels are—unparalleled. Here’s a sample of the ones that made me snort with surprise and delight: “sensory gumbo,” the pace of “a unionized snail,” and “a pack of wild piranha meeting up with an unsuspecting knot of bathers.” Afterlife Crisis is unadulterated fun; its author is a master of comedy.
Becoming by Michelle Obama was loaned to me back in the winter of 2020. It sat on my bureau in that category of ‘not likely to read because it’s a celebrity memoir, but I don’t want to be rude to the loaner, so I’ll return it in six months or so.’ All I can say is that it’s a good thing I held on to it. I began reading it to my eighty-seven-year-old friend who lives in a seniors’ residence. We haven’t been able to visit in-person because of various COVID-19 restrictions, so we began our own private book club in November. Every day we read for an hour over FaceTime. Becoming gave us insights into race, poverty and the US political system that astonished us. Our current selection is The Audacity of Hope. It’s giving us each a deep appreciation of a fine former president.
Nora Ephron’s essays were the books that started my eighty-seven-year-old friend and me on our private book club venture. We laughed a lot. I can identify with Ephron’s neuroses.
Famous Last Words is a book I’ve read five or six times. It always amazes me. Timothy Findley ranks as my all-time favourite Canadian author. (I’ve re-read Pilgrim and Not Wanted on the Voyage at least twice.)
Stories About Storytellers by Douglas Gibson was a delight. Doug worked with authors whose books line my library shelves. As a result I’ll be re-reading Monro, Macleod, and McLennan.
The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro is a book that I missed when it came out in 2006. Reading it felt like visiting with an old friend. Munro writes about a community and way of life that I know well; my mother’s family came from nearby Bruce County.
The Divine Economy of Salvation by Priscilla Uppal is extraordinary. This past fall, on a hike with some fellow authors, I described it as luminescent, only to find as I sought the URL that other reviewers had used the same descriptor. We lost Ms. Uppal to cancer in 2018. I learned that sad fact when midway through the book, I went looking for her other works. The knowledge of her death made the remaining chapters all the more poignant.
The Pull Of The Stars by Emma Donoghue immersed me in a make-shift maternity ward during the 1918 flu pandemic. My sleeves were figuratively rolled up prepared to help with deliveries. Her descriptions of Dublin under a pandemic siege made me grateful to have been born decades later.
Girl, Woman, Other won the Booker prize in 2019. It’s a superb book about the web of relationships in women’s lives, and how they come to be shaped through sexuality, community, race and history. I loved the complexity and the minutiae of this book. The Testaments was a co-winner of the 2019 prize. It too is excellent—very different from Girl, Woman, Other. I read it in 2019, so it didn’t qualify for the attached photo.
Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World is a masterpiece of imaginative storytelling. It begins as the protagonist’s body has just been dumped in a rubbish bin just outside Istanbul. And as her brain begins to shut down, she begins to weave the story of her life. It’s a fascinating tale that had me gripped from beginning to end. The Forty Rules of Love is equally imaginative and could not be more different. It’s a tale imbued with Sufi wisdom that spans two cultures, over seven centuries. Both of these books are on my ‘to re-read’ list. I will happily read any new novel that Shafak produces.
It’s hard for me to believe, but it’s true; I hadn’t read Toni Morrison until I read A Mercy. My only excuse is that she was not Canadian. Why then, you might ask, would I have read Shafak, a Turkish-British author? And the simple answer is that 10 minutes and 38 seconds was a gift. But I went looking for Toni Morrison. References to her kept popping up at a seminar I attended in San Miguel last winter. In A Mercy, Morrison has made the tensions of seventeenth-century colonial America —race, religion and class—come to life as she explores the plight of a little black girl sold into the household of an Anglo-Dutch trader. This book, too, will be on my ‘to re-read’ list.
I have now started on what will become a new stack of books. I’ve just finished The Dutch House and am reading The Jane Austen Society. I’m looking forward to The Glass Hotel, Constant Nobody, and Nothing The Same, Everything Haunted. And my commitment to readers of this blog is that I will take notes as I go along —not wait until months later.
Happy reading while we wait to be vaccinated!