Blue Monday – Some Reading Suggestions

blue---monday

Blue Monday. Through many media outlets, it is being reported that today is the most depressing day of the year. While this claim is often questioned, winter can be challenging for many people. Some people are vulnerable to a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. For them, the shortening days of late autumn are the beginning of a type of clinical depression that can last until spring. This condition is called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. So, whether today is the bluest day of the year or not, I thought a list of ‘nice’ books could help boost some spirits.

Literary fiction is great at showing us challenges. If you are a ‘serious’ reader, often your reading may be tough or deal with bleak subject matter. Happy endings, so expected in children’s stories, can be rare in adult literature.  But, every now and then, even serious readers want something lighter – a book with heart, a ‘nice’ read, a story that leaves you feeling hopeful.

Here is where I hope I can help! Over the years, I have often closed a book and said “Well, that was just a nice story!” Here, then, a list of books which may lighten your mood and leave you feeling good. Or, at least, better for a little while.

  • The Accidental Tourist, by Anne Tyler – a curmudgeonly, lonely travel writer meets a peculiar dog trainer.
  • The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver – a rootless young woman ends up caring for a young child.
  • The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry – another curmudgeon, another parentless child, an awesome bookstore.
  • Delicious!, by Ruth Reichl – food, New York City, mystery letters, and the possibility of love.
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce – a contemplative walk results in a touching story.
  • The Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant – family, friendship, and the changing 20th century.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows – a warm epistolary story about connecting and friendship.
  • Emma, by Jane Austen – imperfect, interfering Emma learns about relationships.
  • The Princess Bride, by William Goldman – true love, friendships, pirates! Fairy tales for grown-ups sometimes work wonders!
  • Straight Man, by Richard Russo – humourous look at a English professor having a bit of a mid-life crisis.
  • The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion – screwball romance about an awkward genetics professor, and the woman who is totally wrong for him.
  • Come, Thou Tortoise, by Jessica Grant – an offbeat story that features an opinionated tortoise and an IQ-challenged narrator.
  • The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert – a lush, sweeping novel of desire, ambition, and the thirst for knowledge.
  • Someday, Someday, Maybe, by Lauren Graham (aka Lorelai Gilmore) – charming debut novel about a struggling young actress.
  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan – an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave.
  • The Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles – entertaining debut novel about an irresistible young woman with an uncommon sense of purpose.
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson – a retired Englishman pursues happiness in the face of culture and tradition.
  • Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh – memoir about depression that is touching, absurd, and very funny.
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson – memoir; a poignant and hysterical look at the dark, disturbing, yet wonderful moments of our lives.
  • Belonging, by Isabel Huggan – entertaining, beautifully written, laced with gentle humour and perceptive insights.
  • The Truth About Luck, by Iain Reid – told with subtlety, humour, and heart, this delightful comic memoir reflects on family connections.

9780345452009 ]the-bean-trees    9780449016503  9780385677707_0  boston-girl-9781439199350_lg  9780385341004  9780141439587_0 21787  9780099376217  9781443422666 9780307373922_0  9780143125846_0 9780345532763 15939672 9780670022694M 9780812981223  17571564 9780425261019M  9780676975383 9781770892415_1024x1024

 

I hope you will find some (many!!) of these recommendations of interest.  I would love to hear about the ‘nice’ books you have discovered in your own reading – please share your suggestions in the comments.

 

Happy reading – I hope your day isn’t too blue!

My Favourite Reads of 2013

 

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

~ T.S. Eliot, (from: Little Gidding)

While I am definitely thinking about all of the great reading ahead in 2014, I very much wanted to share with you my favourite reads from 2013. Lists are always subjective…I recognize this, but I read some truly wonderful books last year and I wanted to record these stand-outs. Maybe this list will help you discover some new reads, or prompt some interesting conversations; I hope it will do both!

I have broken out my list into four categories (but the books are not listed in any particular order):

  • Literary Fiction Published in 2013;
  • Contemporary Literature.;
  • Classic Literature; and
  • Nonfiction.

I. Literary Fiction Published in 2013:

1. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler. This is a wonderful novel of historical fiction. It is well-researched and Fowler has beautifully imagined (and, maybe, at moments recreated certain aspects of) the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, beyond just the wife of the famous/infamous F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fowler show Zelda forging her own identity while fighting her own personal demons and Scott’s, too? With brilliant insight and imagination, Therese Anne Fowler brings us Zelda’s irresistible story as she herself might have told it.

2. Kicking the Sky, by Anthony De Sa. I read this book in October, 2013, and shared my thoughts at that time. Three months later, I still find myself thinking about this story and wowed by De Sa’s talent.

3. The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. This was my first time reading Kushner, and she blew my mind. I loved everything about this novel – it was tough, edgy and sensitive.

4. The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan.  This novel ticked all the boxes for me: ballet, belle époque Paris, Degas, Zola, La Figaro.  While fictional, I loved the way Buchanan wove the history of the real events throughout this story. I read the book quickly – two very late-night reading sessions that kept me up way, waaaay past bedtime. The subsequent daytime sleepiness was well worth it though.

5. The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta. The Crooked Maid is many things – historical fiction, mystery, literary fiction, homage. Vyleta’s doing a lot with this novel, which could be a worry – but it’s very good, and Vyleta can really write. His ability with description is pretty stellar.

6. The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. The only word that keeps rolling around in my brain, concerning Gilbert’s new novel, is: LUSH – this book is so lush and enveloping. It was pretty delightful from start to finish. And if you know me, you know I don’t really use the word ‘delightful’! This novel may have been my most surprising read this year.

II. Contemporary Literature:

1. Indian Horse (2012), by Richard Wagamese. I managed a 5 word review, after I read this novel in February, 2013: “Stunning. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Required reading.” Wagamese’s book affected me very deeply. For all its heartbreak, it was also very much a hopeful story. This is a book that can, and should, be read by everyone.

2. The Wreckage (2005), by Michael Crummey. My love for Michael Crummey’s writing runs fairly deep – I think he is brilliant. He wowed me again with The Wreckage. Reading this novel made me want to spend some time in Crummey’s brain…or, at the very least, take a writing class with him.

3. Sweetness in the Belly (2005), by Camilla Gibb. I read this book for the third time in 2013, and man, it’s great!  Gibb is a fantastic storyteller and through her prose I could truly see, hear, smell and touch the places she created in this book – Lilly’s life in Harare, and her life in London were both so vivid.

4. A Complicated Kindness,(2004) by Miriam Toews.  Another third reading. (2013 was unusual in that regard, I don’t generally re-read much at all.) I LOVE THIS NOVEL SO HARD!  I think this books gets better with each reading. The way Toews captures the voice of 16-year-old Nomi is incredible. Sure she’s wise and precocious, but she’s also still a kid and Toews gets her voice so right.

5. The Round House, (2012) by Louise Erdrich. What a great novel! It’s evocative and hard but using a 13-year-old boy as the protagonist adds a layer of nuance that would be missing in an older main character (I think – given the arc of Joe’s story.) I really loved Erdrich’s perspective on family, love and justice. The supporting characters are all very interesting and well developed, and served to make this a very tightly woven novel.

6. Arcadia (2011), by Lauren Groff. I loved Arcadia a lot. i viscerally responded to the settings and people Groff created here, and i am kinda floored by Groff’s talent. I was totally caught up in Bit’s life. I loved the timeline and following him along life’s path.

7. The Snow Child (2012), by Eowyn Ivey. What a fantastic debut novel! It’s a magical and sometimes heartbreaking story, perfectly set for a wonderful winter read.

8. The Savage Detectives (1998), by Roberto Bolaño.

bolañover

bow-lah-nyoh-verr;  noun

1. weird physical and emotional effects caused by reading the works of Roberto Bolaño. symptoms may include: confusion; anger; awe; dry eyes; headache; idolatry; exhaustion; the strong desire for alcohol, drugs or both; feelings of filthiness and the need to shower to remove the grit; wonder; sadness; curiosity; the unexplained urge to pimp out a 1970s impala. symptoms may ease with time or they may worsen.

2. a thing that has survived from the past.

III. Classic Literature:

1. Two Solitudes (1945), by Hugh MacLennan. What a dense, wonderful important novel. This was a re-read for me, but I had lost so many details over the years it was like a new experience. Following the strands of story arcs concerning ‘two solitudes’, through this novel was amazing. MacLennan wrote about so many important issues and brought heart and humanity to the telling. Certainly a canadian classic, and a book that should continue to resonate for generations to come.

2. Persuasion (1818), by Jane Austen. Late in the book there is this quote:

“Minutiae which, even with every advantage of taste and delicacy which good Mrs. Musgrove could not give, could be properly interesting only to the principals.”

And when I read that line it made me think of the details in Austen’s writing and how, in fact, the minutiae present with her manner of storytelling sucks me right in every time. But…with Persuasion I feel this is very much a novel of Anne’s restraint and resolve, as much as it is a tale of different persuasions. So given Anne’s nature, though we aren’t privy to her inner workings in great detail, I was seeing everything through her eyes and completely immersed in her world.

3. The Grapes of Wrath (1939), by John Steinbeck. Oh for the love of humanity — is there any family as hard done by as the Joads??? The Joads’ humanity and hope, in the face of utter hopelessness, is incredible. And the way Steinbeck conveyed this balance throughout the novel is brilliant. The man was a genius. But i don’t really know what I could possibly say here that hasn’t been said earlier, and better, by others? Read it! Do it!

4. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee. I made it all the way to page 317 without crying…even though I felt like I could a couple of times earlier on. But page 317 did me in, the bastard! Heh. (I am not really a person who cries while reading – though Grapes of Wrath last week (see above) and this book tonight are turning me into a liarface on this front.) Now, I am all teary and soppy, and I ugly-cried and I got the hiccups and I have to try and write something here that conveys how brilliant this book is to me. So how about this: Harper Lee is so freaking amazing she will make you ugly-cry!  Yeah? Cool!

5. Twelfth Night (1602), by William Shakespeare. A re-read (again with the re-reads!!) after many years, and still as great as I remember it to be. Shakespeare can be lots of fun.

IV. Nonfiction:

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), by Susan Cain. I am an introvert. But I am not shy. So I have been trying to explain the difference to people for years. Instead, I should just carry around copies of Cain’s great, great book. Being an introvert and having a good and thoughtful understanding of what this means, I still learned a lot from Quiet. Cain’s research seems very well done (and so interesting), and her style is very engaging. I think this is one of those books that everyone should read as it will likely help open some eyes and minds, and allow people to better understand and respect one another.

2. The Truth About Luck (2013), by Iain Reid. Sometimes you read a book and it becomes something you connect with so personally and deeply that it becomes nearly impossible to detach from it to assess or review it constructively. That happened with this amazing book by Iain Reid. But, I  thought about it for quite a while, and i think – my personal attachment aside – the strength of Reid’s writing, the flow of the story, and his ability to make us care about what he and his grandma are up to make this book totally worth its 5-star rating. (I wrote about the book in more detail, in March, 2013.)

3. Belonging: Home Away From Home (2003), by Isabel Huggan. This book is wonderful – and was my #1 favourite read for 2013! The majority of the book is a memoir of place – the search for home. Not just the physical: the location and the structure, but also the feeling. Feeling one is home is a big deal. At least it is to me, anyway. And it’s something I have been hoping to find my whole life.  Huggan gives voice to this search, this sensation, and does it so beautifully and naturally. There’s a lot of excavation of memory that goes on in the telling, and it felt very much like I was just listening to Huggan in conversation. Also contained in the story are small snippets of Huggan’s writing life, something I really appreciated.

4. The Arctic Grail (1988), by Pierre Berton. What a great book!!! Pierre Berton is an excellent storyteller and, it would seem, he is also an impeccable researcher. But that’s not really a surprise!! Shamefully, this is the first time I have read a Berton book. OOPS!! He definitely came up during my time in elementary and secondary school, but we were never actually given any of his books to read/study. Weird, right?? I was so amazed by the overwhelming lack of preparedness with which the majority of the expeditions undertook their quests. The British expeditions were stubbornly and fatally wrong-headed in not learning from their inuit contacts, and judging the Inuit, while useful to them, ‘savages’ and ‘unintelligent’.

5. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), by David Foster Wallace.  Each essay in this collection has its own strength (and each is fairly brilliant), but overwhelmingly evident, when taken as a whole, is DFW’s ability to assess and read people, and analyze a situation or instance in the context of a bigger picture. It’s uncanny, really.

6. My Ideal Bookshelf (2013), by Jane Mount & Thessaly La Force. Or, as I like to call it, porn for book lovers! This is just a beautiful book to look at, and it also gives great satisfaction on the ‘snooping the bookshelves’ front.

7. Bottomfeeder (2007), by Taras Grescoe.  LOVE THIS BOOK!! Seriously; it’s fantastic. It should be required reading for everyone. Grescoe has a wonderful ability with delivering the facts and science in a very engaging and approachable way. The structure of the book is fantastic: each chapter is like a little case study. A species is examined – the supply, the demand, the problems and the science – and explained. Grescoe travelled the world while researching this book and is clearly very passionate about the seafood industry, and about the choices he makes for his diet.

***************

So, there you have it – all of the absolute stand out books I had the pleasure of reading in 2013.  Altogether, I read 121 books last year. This was definitely not usual. Generally, I average somewhere between 60 and 70 books per year. I am not really clear on what happened in 2013 to cause my pace to double, but it was quite the adventure and I will look back fondly on ‘that one crazy reading year’.

A few stats:

  • Total books read: 121
  • Total pages read: 41,839
  • 71 female writers
  • 49 male writers
  • And 1 collection featuring male and female writers
  • 12 works in translation

You can view my full reading list on Goodreads.

Thank you for visiting Literal Life, and continuing to be interested in the books I am reading and talking about.

As always – please feel free to share your favourite reads with me – I would love to hear about them

Happy reading!

The Truth About Luck – Iain Reid

I have been eager to get a copy of Iain Reid’s new book so when I received a review edition from House of Anansi – a surprise, and a great one at that – I was ecstatic and did not wait to jump into the story. Reid’s previous book, One Bird’s Choice was one of my favourite reads of 2010 and my expectations were sky-high for The Truth About Luck. It rocks! Hard!

From the book’s description:

9781770892415_1024x1024 In The Truth about Luck, Iain Reid, author of the highly popular coming-of-age memoir One Bird’s Choice, accompanies his grandmother on a five-day vacation — which turns out to be a “staycation” at his basement apartment in Kingston. While the twenty-eight-year-old writer is at the beginning of his adult life, his ninety-two-year-old grandmother is nearing the end of hers. Between escorting his grandma to local attractions and restaurants, the two exchange memories and she begins to reveal details of her inspiring life story.
Told with subtlety, humour, and heart, this delightful comic memoir reflects on family connections; how we experience adversity, the passage of time, and aging; and most importantly what it truly means to feel lucky.

 

Sometimes you read a book and it is something you connect with so personally and deeply it can become nearly impossible to detach from it to assess or review in a constructive way. That happened with this amazing book. But, I have been thinking about it for a few days now and I feel – my personal attachment wrestled off to the side – the strength of Reid’s writing – the flow of the story and his ability to make us curious and really care about what he and his grandma are up to – make this book totally worth its 5-star rating.

Web_Reid_slideshow_01Along with some eerie similarities between Reid and I (hello worry, anxiety and writerly lifestyle you crazy trifecta, you), our grandmothers are very similar women. Both were born in the U.K. (his in Scotland, mine in England (in 1917) but with her family she moved to Scotland very early on in her life). Both women lived through two World Wars and the depression and both ladies worked hard for most of their lives. As well, they are very smart and funny people. So, in reading Reid’s book, it was like having my grandma here with me again. (Sadly, grandma died in the summer of 2009, at the age of 92.) There were moments in the book that had me laughing so hard, tears streamed down my face and my stomach hurt. In one particularly hilarious scene, Reid’s grandmother somehow becomes entangled in her seatbelt. This quickly brought to mind an outing my grandma and I had together many years ago. It was a very hot summer day and we were going out for lunch. My car at that time was nicknamed ‘Oven Car’ – it was a notoriously bad place to be on hot, unrelentingly sunny days. I helped grandma into the car and as I got settled into my own seat, she suddenly lurched forward, grabbing the dashboard while shouting “My Ass is on fire!” But the dashboard was really hot too. “My hands are on fire!”, she then yelled. “How do you live like this?”, she wondered out loud while simultaneously trying to get undone from the seatbelt in some failed attempt at escape and fumbling with the interior controls, searching for the non-existent air-conditioning. It was so hot. But it was so hilarious and quickly became a funny story we liked to re-tell.

There were other, quieter moments, in The Truth About Luck that were beautiful and heartfelt. I am glad Reid – encouraged by his brother Jimmy – went with the idea of giving his grandmother time together as a birthday gift. They spent five days at Reid’s home in Kingston, Ontario talking, eating, seeing some local sites and learning things about one another they hadn’t previously known.

I have, unintentionally, been on this trend lately of reading books with older people featuring as main characters – here, Reid’s grandma is 92; last week I read Terry Fallis’ newest novel, Up and Down. It features a 71-year-old protagonist. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, which I read a few months ago, was a completely endearing hoot. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and Helen Simonson‘s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand also feature characters of retirement age. Given our demographic trend towards an aging population, perhaps this is the new thing in publishing? If it is — I am a big fan. I can think of quite a few more books I have read and enjoyed in recent years that feature mature characters with interesting stories — I bet you can come ups with some great books too, if you think about it for a moment. As individuals, we have a lot to learn. Within developed societies, we take a lot for granted. Hearing about the experiences, challenges and triumphs of older generations should smarten us up and help us realize that older does not mean already dead. Older does not mean no longer worth our time. On the contrary, our respect, gratitude and time should be used to honour and value those who have come before us.

Helen Edna

Helen Edna

I remember talking with my own grandma about the idea that when people get old they often get forgotten. She used to tell me how lucky she felt to have her family around her and I would feel really sad thinking about those who either had no one or had people who choose to stay away. My grandmother always had more energy and more of a social life than I ever seem(ed) to muster and I really hope to live as excellent a life as she did. So, I thank Reid for his wonderful book but also for the fact that through his book I was able to spend some precious, dedicated time remembering my own grandmother and the shenanigans we got up to together. That is a great gift to a reader indeed!

This is a much more personal review than I usually write. But I suspect this is happening to a lot of people reading The Truth About Luck. I feel that most people will find it a challenge to read this book in a detached manner. Reid’s style invites you in to a comfortable, relatable story that opens you up for reminiscence. Oh, and in a totally weird yet even more personal aside:  I really need to get in touch with Reid’s mum to find out about her use of plain yogourt to help her diabetic cat. My wonderful dog recently developed insulin-dependent diabetes and he’s had a very rough go these past few months. He’s a bit more stable now, thanks goodness, and I am researching ways to help him further. Reading that yogourt could be some sort of miracle supplement to help my dog’s coat and general health, well — I need to know more!

Edited to add: Reid recently spoke with the 49th Shelf about The Truth About Luck. It’s a great article!

One Bird’s Choice ~ Iain Reid

From the jacket description:

Meet Iain Reid: an overeducated, underemployed twenty-something, living in the big city in a bug-filled basement apartment and struggling to make ends meet. When Iain lands a job at a radio station near his childhood home, he decides to take it. But the work is only part time, so he is forced to move back in with his lovable but eccentric parents on their hobby farm. What starts out as a temporary arrangement turns into a year-long extended stay, in which Iain finds himself fighting with the farm fowl, taking fashion advice from the elderly, fattening up on a gluttonous fare of home-cooked food, and ultimately easing (perhaps a little too comfortably) into the semiretired lifestyle.

A hilarious and heartwarming comic memoir about food, family, and finally growing up, One Bird’s Choice marks the arrival of a funny, original, and fresh new voice.

The subtitle, for this work of non-fiction is: A Year in the Life of an Overeducated, Underemployed Twenty-Something Who Moves Back Home. From this, I think, people are going to jump one of two ways in assessing a book by its cover. People might think “Oh great! Another indulged kid, under thirty, likely with an arts degree can’t get it together in the real world so runs home to mommy and daddy!” Some of this is true. He does have an arts degree (Queen’s University) and he is indulged, by his parents. If indulged means a good relationship, love and support of the moral variety. But he kind of does have it together. It might not be in a more traditional manner, but his mom and dad were happy to share the family home with their grown son, and Reid was working part-time for the CBC, in Ottawa, during his reprieve, so who are we to judge, really? Besides, a terrific book emerged from his time living back with his parents. The second path for those who judge a book by its cover could think. “Ha! This Reid is a funny guy!”, and he is. He can be self-deprecating, at times, and he has a great gift of observation. The humour is most evident during the scenes featuring his parents. Their conversations are lively and their eccentricities are endearing. That much page space is given to food and the animals on the family’s hobby farm makes this book even more irresistible. While reading this memoir, I kept thinking: a) I want to have lunch with the Reids and become friends with them; and b) I should talk the husband into moving to a hobby farm (which actually wouldn’t be that hard to do).

I hope you will read this book. For me, it was un-put-down-able.