- All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
Elfrieda and Yolandi, two misfit sisters from an ultra-conservative Mennonite town outside of Winnipeg are at the centre of this critically acclaimed novel by Canadian writer, Miriam Toews. At 17 years old, Elfrieda travels to Europe to pursue her dream of becoming a concert pianist. A protective, Italian agent that opens a world of opportunity, fame and culture embraces her. She spends decades travelling the world, playing the piano with such affection and magnetism that she ensnares the hearts of men and women alike. Her author-sister Yoli, transplanted to Toronto via two husbands and two children, flies home to Winnipeg to be at her sister’s side after Elf’s latest suicide attempt. Toews explores the complexities of suicide, depression, and relationships and the gamut of emotions that entangle when Elf begs Yoli to help her die. The writing feels anything by contrived, and the widely fluctuating feelings that Yoli expresses cut deep. Toews has been honest that writing this book proved to be cathartic in helping her to heal following the suicides of her father and sister.
I was ready for some levity following the intensity of All My Puny Sorrows and it came in the form of Professor Don Tillman. Don utilizes his keen scientific prowess to develop a survey to effectively weed-out unsuitable potential wives through a series of charming dating scenarios. Did I mention that he has Asperger’s? Eventually, Don does find his ideal wife in Rosie and together they move to New York (book 2) but all goes predictably haywire when Rosie finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. The plot is expected and the characters fairly flat but sometimes a laugh and an escape is all you’re after. If that’s the case, these books do the trick nicely.
- Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life by Sophia Loren
I enjoy reading autobiographies and often find myself gleaning inspiration from those who’ve achieved their hard-won accomplishments. After a string of politicians, I have returned to the entertainment industry with Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. Sophia Loren is incredibly humble recounting her glamorous life. She begins by describing the atrocities she witnessed as a child growing-up in war-torn Italy and moves on to describe her ascent to fame and fortune as a leading lady of Italian cinema and eventually Hollywood. Throughout her recollections she is quick to acknowledge the team of talented individuals supporting her successful career and handful of loyal, passionate friends and family members who helped her to climb the ranks of the Hollywood elite. Despite opportunities to salaciously gossip about golden age celebrities, Loren chooses to be gracious and kind. Maybe her contemporary “Ms. Lollo” could take a lesson or two.
A Double Sorrow by Lavinia Greenlaw
I read this one twice. A Double Sorrow is Greenlaw’s retelling of Chaucer’s Troilus & Criseyde. It’s hauntingly beautiful, and the images from her poems lingered with me long after I had finished it. Of Criseyde, she writes, “She leads a winter life.” So stark, so rich in its brevity. Her Troilus is less in love with Criseyde than he is with the idea of the stories that will be told of his love for her; he’s after fame.
If he ever fears he might not win her
He falls into some inward place of trees
Refusing any path that does not make of itself
The right answer. Hope will emerge
Like a gentle green creature drawn from green shadows
To steady his gaze.
A fawn, soft in the wild,
Followed only by more of its kind.
After I had read the book, I wanted to read Chaucer’s original. It was late on a Saturday night, and I asked my husband to stop at the bookstore on our way home from dinner out. I climbed back into the car and laughed that I never, in all my life, would have expected to be doing a late night run for Chaucer. He looked at me and said, “Oh, honey. It’s really not as much of a stretch as you might think.” Well, I still haven’t finished Chaucer’s telling, having grown very quickly irritated with all of the endless drama of courtly love. Greenlaw’s telling, though, had me wanting so much more.
Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce is one of my all-time favourite characters. She’s a sleuthing eleven year old, and she solves many of her cases with chemistry, at which she is extremely talented. Precocious, fearless, grounded and not a little naive, she’s thoroughly endearing. This installment of her sleuthing adventures brings her to Canada, which added a wonderful touch to these very Anglophilic country house murders. If you have not yet met Flavia, begin at the beginning (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie) and revel in the joy to come! There are eight books in the series, and I have loved every one.
The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science
This beautiful book is published by Chronicle, and the idea was to pair an illustrator with a scientific question, and to enrich information with illustration. I really loved the combination of quick hits of science paired with illustrations that brought out aspects of the topic that the words did not always touch upon, and found myself making note of all kinds of trivia:
- Humans have more in common with ants than with any other species (division of labour, roles in society, high level of social dependency).
- The size of a squirrel’s brain increases during caching season.
- The number of “dees” in a chickadee’s call describes the size of a predator.
- Scientists recently discovered a spore that was about 250 million years old within a salt crystal; the bacterium was revived. Immortality is theoretically possible.
- Fingerprints help us grip wet things, which is why our fingers shrivel and make deeper channels when they are soaked in water.
- Yawning is only contagious in humans capable of empathy; contagious yawning is not observed in children under five.
- When we are deprived of sleep, proteins begin to lose their structural integrity, and they unfold, building up in the cells and becoming toxic. You can die from sleep deprivation because you are essentially being poisoned. During sleep, special “cleanup molecules” (their imprecise words, not mine!) help to reverse the unfolded protein response.
- The DNA in our cells does not age. The human species has maximized its chances to pass on traits, but only as a species, not as individuals. Individual aging is irrelevant to the continuation of our species.
I can be a bit of a sucker when it comes to self-help books, but The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyurbomirsky does boast a difference: this book is written by a research psychologist and professor who takes a scientific approach in analyzing data on what makes people happy. The result is a research-based understanding of what happiness is, and what practices help us achieve it. Lyurbomirsky asserts that if happiness were a pie, 50% of it is determined by a genetic set-point (some of us are born perkier than others), 10% is influenced by circumstance (rich or poor, healthy or ill), and a whopping 40% is based on our intentional activities, ie. within our control!. How so? Based on her research, she identifies the various ways in which people have increased their happiness – ranging from living in the present, to practicing gratitude and positive thinking, to investing in social relationships, to committing to your goals, and much more. She also provides readers with guidance on how to choose which of these practices to pursue themselves for the greatest happiness impact. I recognize myself in some of these practices, and feel inspired by others, and am thoroughly enjoying this read.