Book Reviews

Some of the books I have read recently months (July 2019) and a one-paragraph review for each of them. I hope to write a longer review later. But so many books and so little time.

1. Refuge: a novel by Merilyn Simonds

The fact that the two essential questions from the novel stayed with me and came up in my conscience often is a sign that the story has left a mark in my psyche.  The questions: To whom do we offer refuge and why? Cassandra MacCallum, a 96-year old feisty woman has retired and is living out the last chapter of her life. Her peaceful and tranquil being was abruptly upended by a surprise young visitor, who may have a connection with her long lost son.  This is a complex story about memories, loyalties, regrets, and charities. Oh, everyone needs a friend like Helen.

2.  The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution by Peter Hessler

I flew to New York City for a reading by Hessler and loved every minute of it.   I have read every book written by Hessler and this one is great too. As usual, his perceptive observations, meticulous research, detailed reportage, genuine friendships with the locals, and subtle humor made this a page-turner for me. His interactions with the Sayyid, his garbage collector, Manu, his translator, and Rifaat, the Arabic language teacher, not only allow us to have a glimpse of ordinary life during the Arab Spring but also some insights from their perspectives. If you know little about Egypt or the Arab Spring but want to learn more, this book is for you.  Highly recommended.

3.  Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West by Peter Hessler

A great collection of narrative nonfiction by Hessler and most of them were originally published in The New Yorker.  Most of them are set in China.  One of them described a well-known scam whereby shopkeepers invite you into their shop to browse.  Unexpectedly, a fragile and costly article would break near you. So, you have ‘purchased’ it and would need to pay before you could leave.  Escaping would not be easy because several strong men who would be guarding the exit.   A more recent piece on the pharmacist from Colorado is very enjoyable. It captures a slice of life of middle America.  In his usual insightful yet deadpan humor style, Hessler is quite a storyteller.

4.  The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Starting with the history of the fire of  LA Central Library in 1986, the book expands to cover other library-related topics. Some fascinating characters: Mary Jones (fired by a library board so they could hire a man instead), Charles Lummis (controversial librarian), and Dr. C. K. Jones (a paid human encyclopedia).  A must-read for bibliophiles.

“In the library, time is dammed up – not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”  

5.  Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga

A heart wrenching but important read. Canada is often portrayed as a peaceful, progressive, and multicultural country.  Unfortunately, the historic and relationship between Canadians and the First Nations People remains a bad stain that many Canadians want to ignore.  Talaga gave voices to the fallen feathers (each feather represents a life lost) and their families. Their deaths should never be forgotten.  

A great tip from the book: start with Chanie Wenjack.  Although not one of the fallen feathers, start with Chanie if you want to learn and appreciate why the failed relationship with the First Nations People must be addressed.

6.  Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewell by Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer is my favorite author and I have read every book he has written.  I am also fortunate enough to have met him in person spanning three countries. In fact, it was almost two months ago that I travelled to New York City to have a chance to listen to his golden voice again.   I read his first book, Video Night In Kathmandu, almost thirty years ago.  Since then, I read each subsequent offering as if checking in with a friend.  I love his writing because his prose has a calming rhythm and his positivity is so infectious.  The world may be full of suffering and nastiness, Iyer reminds me again and again, there is still much goodness to be appreciated and enjoyed.   So, reading his thirteen book for me is like meeting an old friend, sitting on the veranda, sipping some mint tea, and reminiscing where all the years have gone.  When I turned the very last page of the book, I did feel a sense of pensive reflection because it is a book about farewell, about memory, about family, about loss, about aging, and ultimately, about life.   And I am glad my ‘friend’ shares it with me.

“Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying.  How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.”

“…the river’s always the same, as they say round here, even though the water’s always in motion.”

“… even a perfect memory may be glad of some correction.”

7.  What the Dog Saw And Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell

This book is a collection of 18 articles that have been published in the New Yorker.  Gladwell said they are his favourite and I can understand why. Typically to his smart, persuasive and smooth story-telling style, Gladwell managed to make very convincing arguments over a wide range of topics.  Some of the articles he dealt with are topics I happen to have read or thought about such as the Enron Crisis (how capitalism failed us in plain sight), Criminal Profiling (they are not that useful), Joining the dots after the fact (creeping determinism), and Plagiarism (the narcissism of small differences).  The concept of creeping determinism is particularly intriguing because I felt I too could follow into that trap when I follow his arguments. It is certainly the kind of book that made me think, and think again. As the Gladwell said himself: Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head—even if in the end you conclude that someone else’s head is not a place you’d really like to be.” 

8.  Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande  

An important book and helps me understand and appreciate the complexity of providing for the seniors.  One of the unintended consequences of modernity, especially in western society, is how we ‘care’ for the aging now.  Our busyness and modern lifestyle mean we often outsource the caring of the seniors to social agency or professional caregivers because we no longer live as a big family or with a clan. However, is our rigid programs and check-list approach the best way to serve the seniors? We sometimes have a romantic notion of what tending for the seniors is like. One important lesson I learned from this book is that we tend to be risk-averse when we are caring for the seniors when they often prefer to maintain some degree of self-reliance even though it may mean riskier behaviour.   

“A few conclusions become clear when we understand this: that our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.” 

9.  On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

This book a part memoir and part instructional and both parts are fabulous. For the memoir part, I appreciated King’s openness in sharing his life, particularly the struggle of a young author.   The instructional part is direct and practical. As an amateur and writer-want-to-be, reading this book encourages me to read more and write more.

“In the end, [writing] is about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.” 

10.  Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek

If you are familiar with and enjoy TED Talk, Sinek’s book is a must-read.  This book is about leadership: instead of focusing on how, Sinek argues we need to keep asking the question why.  Because it is by articulating the ‘why’ that inspire people. Martin Luther King Jr. said he had a dream, not he had a plan.  Because of his dream, people are inspired to follow him. As a teacher, looking back to my long career, I regret spending most of my early teaching years focus solely on the ‘how’ and not much on the ‘why’.  

“Leading is not the same as being the leader. Being the leader means you hold the highest rank, either by earning it, good fortune or navigating internal politics. Leading, however, means that others willingly follow you—not because they have to, not because they are paid to, but because they want to.”

“You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.”