Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver previously wrote the marvellous The Poisonwood Bible. Her new book has two story lines, about people who live in the same house in New Jersey: one family in 1874 and a contemporary family in 2012. Both stories involve dealing with hardships. In 2012, the issue is economic instability and insecurity (making me think of some classic Lionel Shriver books). In 1874, a biology teacher is conflicted by the controversy about Darwin versus traditional religion. The way Kingsolver links the alternating family stories is masterful and her knowledge of biology is exceptional. This is a very interesting worthwhile read.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted – Robert Hillman

Perhaps predictably, this library book was chosen from the new releases bookshelf entirely based on the brilliant title. The story takes place in rural Australia in the 1960s, with two vivid characters: Tom, a farmer, has been abandoned by his wife,
Rand Hannah, an Auschwitz survivor who has a dream of operating a bookshop in a small town. Theirs is an unlikely romance, a complicated relationship to be sure. The combination of complex issues in a wonderful setting is intoxicating.

The Waiting Hours – Shandi Mitchell

Simply put, this is a fantastic read. The place is contemporary Halifax with three main characters: an ER nurse, a policeman, and a 911 dispatcher. Their lives intersect but obliquely, in a fashion that is never contrived. The backstory lives are complicated, of course, but realistically so. The best part of the book is the feeling of the stories – stress exacerbated by heat and overwork.  By the way, the title refers to the overnight hours of 3-6am when emergency activities are temporarily quiet. Just excellent story-telling.

The Mere Wife – Maria Dahvana Headley

The Mere Wife - Maria Dahvana HeadleyA strange story set in a dystopian future. A feminist story for sure – all the strong characters are women. And thus it is a book about motherhood but in a completely novel and somewhat bizarre fashion: two mothers in an American suburb fight to protect those that they love, so a modern retelling of the literary classic Beowulf with suburban monsters. Sorry to offer such cryptic comments but this is a hard book to categorize and characterize, but excellent speculative fiction.

The Library Book – Susan Orlean

The Library Book - Susan OrleanMs. Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has written some great fiction (The Orchid Thief). This is a non-fiction book about the Los Angeles Pubic library, written by someone who loves libraries. A particular focus is a devastating fire in the Central Library location in 1986 that destroyed and damaged a large number of books. But the book follows a non-linear path covering the library origins in 1872 to the post-fire restoration and recovery to an intelligent and passionate description of the modern role for libraries in a world that demands access to information and knowledge. The vivid descriptions of the idiosyncrasies of many Head Librarians are delightful, with all the gender politics over the ages. Here is a quote from Althea Warren, the Head Librarian in 1935: “librarians should read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training but because they’d rather read than do anything else in the world” (page 198). Highly recommended for all enthusiastic readers!

Priestdaddy – Patricia Lockwood

Priestdaddy - Patricia LockwoodThe author leaves her Mid-Western home at age 19 to be married but after 12 years, financial constraints forces her and her husband to return to the parental home. This gives her the opportunity to remember an unconventional upbringing: a flamboyant and charismatic guitar-playing father usually (un)dressed in only his underwear, who, by the way, is a Catholic Priest with a wife and 5 children (how can that be, you may ask?); and a long-suffering over-protective mother. There are some eye-popping childhood experiences like attending an anti-abortion rally at a very young age. Ms. Lockwood also takes this opportunity for reflection, producing a memoir that is often comic but also poignant. And for a published poet, her writing is wonderful such as this description of a church space: “The ceiling is low and the lights flicker fluorescently and emit an insect whine. The whole place smells like where coffee goes to die”. Highly recommended; thanks to Sarah’s friend Elizabeth for this recommendation.

The Woo Woo – Lindsay Wong

The Woo Woo - Lindsay WongCanada Reads contender. This is an extraordinary memoir about a Chinese-Canadian family in a Vancouver suburb. The Wong family is remarkably dysfunctional; Lindsay regularly received the following comments as a child: “you are fat, lazy and retarded”! She describes her upbringing with candour and does not flinch from castigating her own poor behaviour. Her mother is consumed by fears of demonic possession by malevolent ghosts, the woo-woo. This fear means that mental illness is treated as a woo-woo possession and thus is not treated except with ineffective exorcism attempts. And unfortunately there is a clear family history of untreated mental illness: a paranoid schizophrenic grandmother, a mother and aunt who may be bipolar. When Lindsay is afflicted by a rare medical condition (migraine-associated vestibulopathy), her woo-woo fears reappear. This is a disturbing story with harrowing details of abnormal psychology, interspersed with some splendid examples of comic relief. How does someone overcome such an upbringing? A challenging book, an uncomfortable read but worthwhile.