Category Archives: Books I borrowed

Book Review: Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

year-of-yesYear of Yes 

by Shonda Rhimes
ISBN: 9781476777092
Simon & Schuster, 2015

Am going to say yes to anything and everything that scares me. For a whole year. Or until I get scared to death and you have to bury me. Ugh.”

With those words, Shonda Rhimes embarked on a year of stepping out of her comfort zone. Prompted by a sister who mumbled about how Shonda never said yes to anything, she decided to say yes to everything that felt out of character, goofy, scary.

And she didn’t die.

An interesting puzzle for readers is why Shonda Rhimes would need such a challenge in the first place. Why would the creator and head writer of Grey’s Anatomy—a woman living the dream—need to vow to overcome fear? On her road to that kind of success did she not learn to slay the fear dragons?

Apparently not, because in this book she laid bare a soul full of trepidation. She was a woman capable of cultivating a robust garden crop of angst. At the beginning of her Year of Yes she was successful but unhappy. She decided:

  • Saying no has gotten my here.
  • Here sucks.
  • Saying yes might be my way to someplace better.
  • If not a way to someplace better, at least to someplace different.

Public speaking was a problem, so she tackled that. Body image came up, so she learned to say yes to healthy eating and exercise, and she learned how to gracefully accept compliments.

“So when you negate someone’s compliment, you are telling them they are wrong. You’re telling them they wasted their time. You are questioning their taste and judgment. You are insulting them.

She discovered the benefits of letting go of toxic people in her life and the importance of handling difficult conversations. In some cases, the surface of problems suggested the way to deal with them was with a NO, but then she dug deeper and discovered that every challenge had a YES at a root of the problem.

“So, in order to say YES to a problem, I have to find whatever it is inside the problem that challenges me or scares me or makes me just freak outand then I have to say yes to that thing.”

Her book is invigorating and inspiring. I only have one quibble, and it prompts me to do as Jon Stewart would have done on The Daily Show when he invited people to meet him on Camera 3 for “personal” conversations.

Shonda Rhimes, meet me on Camera 3.

You say that being a mother is not a job. ” “I find it offensive to motherhood to call being a mother a job,” you say. “Being a mother isn’t a job. It’s who someone is. It’s who I am. You can quit a job. I can’t quit being a mother. . . . To the naysayers, I growl, do not diminish it by calling it a job.”

I agree that being a mother is not a job. But doing mother work is. Mothers can quit that. They can quit the job of doing the laundry and changing the diapers and go to a different kind of job outside the home. When they do so, they’re trading in one job for another. You’re right—they don’t stop being a mother, but they do choose to delegate doing the jobs that go along with being a mother to someone else, who would unquestionably do those tasks as a job. Jenny McCarthy helps you because it’s her job. 

“One is not better than the other. Both choices are worthy of the same amount of respect.”

Again we agree. Some of the most devoted mothers I know choose to have some help with the tasks. Happy, fulfilled mothers. Happy, fulfilled kids.

But when you say that being a mother is not a job, it stabs me right in the solar plexus. I feel diminished. It makes me feel that the work I did for almost two decades was valueless. I wasn’t paid for it, so it wasn’t a job.

Enough of that. Enough.

Now back to it. Shonda Rhimes writes Year of Yes in a conversational style, likes she’s sitting in a wing chair across from you telling you her story.

Lots of short paragraphs and single-word sentences.


She exposes her vulnerable underbelly, which will make readers feel better about any anxieties they’ve ever had. Most of all, she gives readers plenty to think about—how they deal with fears, bad habits and toxic people.

And I think she’ll change people’s lives for the better.









Book Review: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

13258121A Sudden Light 

by Garth Stein
ISBN13: 9781439187036
Simon & Schuster, 2014

Do you believe in ghosts? Or, if not, are you willing to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy a story?

There be ghosts in A Sudden Light, and they help to tell a story of redemption and faith, a tale of when to take and when to give back.

If you feel you don’t have enough, you hold on to things, he said. But if you feel you have enough, you let go of things. —Grandpa Samuel in A Sudden Light

Trevor Riddell is the fourteen-year-old descendant of a Seattle lumber baron, Elijah Riddell, who took all he could from clear-cut west coast forests and then repented before his death. Elijah willed his descendants to give his land back to nature, but when do children ever listen to their fathers? Family being what it is, several stagnant and acrimonious generations pass. By the time Trevor arrives at the vast wooden mansion of his great-great-grandfather, he must deal with thwarted ghosts and unfulfilled family members—the spiritual and the nonspiritual— in his quest for the truth.

How do we reconcile the differences between what we see and what we know?

Trevor travels to the Riddell estate with his father, Jones, who is returning there for the first time in decades. They are greeted by Jones’ sister, Serena, and his aging father, Grandpa Samuel. Serena is a weak spot in the story, her motivations not perfectly clear and her intentions questionable.

But the grand wooden house itself is an interesting character. Trevor explores the hidden passageways and secret staircases of an estate that seems, magically, to live and breathe.

Perhaps that’s what life is about . . . The search for magic. The search for the inexplicable. Not in order to explain it, or contain it. Simply in order to feel it. Because in that recognition of the sublime, we see for a moment the entire universe in the palm of our hand. And in that moment, we touch the face of God.

And that is what this novel is really all about. Each strange encounter opens Trevor’s mind to new possibilities and an underlying interconnectedness.



Book Review: Road Trip Rwanda by Will Ferguson

Road Trip Rwanda: A Journey into the New Heart of Africa 9780670066421

by Will Ferguson
ISBN 9780670066421
Viking, 2015

I never thought I’d read the words “Will Ferguson” and “book about Rwanda” in the same sentence. When I did, the idea intrigued me. What on earth did Will Ferguson—a three-time winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour—and Rwanda have to do with one another? I wanted to know.

Turns out, Ferguson has a child who played soccer with the child of Jean-Claude Munyezamu, a Rwandan who escaped the genocide. Will and Jean-Claude became friends, and the friendship led to the decision to tell the story of Rwanda reborn.

So, a novelist known for humorous writing and an escapee from genocide go on a road trip.

Does the idea make you feel a little apprehensive? It did me. The horrific events of the 1994 Rwanda genocide defy description and comprehension. How would Ferguson manage to honour those killed and those who survived and still write a novel that touches the light side of our humanity?

“I’d always maintained that a sense of humour can be found in any destination, no matter how bruised, how battered, and that through humour we can find a sense of shared humanity. But Rwanda?”

Ferguson does it. He doesn’t shy away from the horror of one million people being brutally murdered in a mere 100 days—the length of an average university semester. He shares the obvious scars—a car rental agent with a thick machete slash scar from ear to ear—and the hidden scars, evidenced in the many moments when he and Jean-Claude can do nothing more than stand together in silence.

The gifts of this book come Ferguson’s exceptional storytelling ability combined with Jean-Claude’s intimate knowledge of the country, the communities, the events, the people, the recovery, the new leadership, and the damage. Ferguson writes stories that make me want to pull up a chair, lean forward on my knees and take in every nuance, as if he were recounting a tale by the fireside. He is a fine writer who describes scenes vividly, sometimes poetically, and always authentically. No pretentious literary meanderings for him.

“Kigali is draped across a loose federation of hills, and the city’s main thoroughfares often run along high-wire ridges before dropping suddenly into the valleys below. This layout—the dip and drop, the ridges and sloping descents, the whorls and loops—makes driving through the city akin to navigating a fingerprint.”

Jean-Claude and Will venture into the public sites and the private homes of the new Rwanda, a country that has a growing list of optimistic statistics indicating recovery and new growth. They share unspeakably sad moments, of course, but they share humorous moments involving fire ants, Primus beer, gorillas in the wild and a journey to the source of the Nile. (Ferguson is a descendant of David Livingstone, apparently. No, really.)

The two journey around a country dealing with “the consequences of targeting one segment of society, of singling out one specific group of people,” and in the end, find hope in children and a game of soccer in the dusty streets.



Book Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

9781443436069The Book of Strange New Things 

by Michel Faber
ISBN: 9781443436069
HarperCollins, 2014

I had my defences up for the first part of this book. The main character, a Christian minister, travels to the faraway planet of Oasis to live with and teach Christianity to the indigenous alien population.

Oh oh.

Considering the damage done to indigenous populations around the world by Christian missionaries of centuries past, I was not prepared to buy into that as a good idea, at least not initially. But I had to keep reading just to see if Peter Leigh, Christian minister, ended up tortured and murdered by less-than-welcoming aliens.

As I read on, I realized that Peter does not use his considerable knowledge of the Bible to proselytize but to enlighten. He calls the Bible “a storehouse of messages,” and he leaves room for metaphorical appreciation of its stories.

The trouble is, Peter is not the first Christian missionary to have contact with the Oasan beings. Previous missionaries taught the Bible—the Book of Strange New Things—with more fervor and factual flair, and the Oasans are not equipped with the ability to perceive subtleties of meaning or metaphor. When fact-based Oasans baldly quote passages like, “We will have no other God than God our saviour. In Him alone we have hope of life,” it makes Peter uneasy. He begins to see the dark side of his purpose there.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Peter’s wife, Bea, is dealing with apocalyptic-like climatic and economic disasters. The distance between her and Peter and the daunting challenges she must face alone stress their relationship and diminish her faith.

In The Book of Strange New Things, messy, complicated humans seem delightfully fascinating next to the stoic, plodding, straightforward Oasans. Faber’s message could be that we can’t—and shouldn’t—stomp out our human controversies and complexities, much as we might sometimes want to.

In The Book of Strange New Things, Peter’s allegorical, multi-layered interpretation of the Bible seems delightfully reassuring next to the inflexible—and ultimately, unsatisfactory—factual view. Faber’s message could be that there is a time for faith and a time for doubt.

In the end, I liked this book, but I can see how many people would not. I’m a member of a progressive Christian church, and I found the Christian zeal of Peter at the beginning of the book off-putting. I bet atheists would bail early.





Book Review: Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

9780345815767Us Conductors 

by Sean Michaels
ISBN: 9780345815767
Random House, 2014

Odd questions crossed my mind when I was reading Us Conductors. 

How long did Sean Michaels spend coming up with “DZEEEEOOOoo” as the proper translation of the theremin sound? It captures perfectly the eerie sound of the instrument invented by the novel’s main character, Lev Sergeyevich Termen.

Under what circumstances did Michaels receive the inspiration to add Kung Fu to Termen’s list of interests? That one aspect to his character strikes me as . . . out of character.

And why haven’t I heard of the many inventions and exploits of the “Russian Edison”, a man who seemed to be able to invent on demand? We have him to thank for everything from motion-activated lights to a clear picture on our televisions.

The breadth of those questions summarizes my overall impression of this novel.

First, Michaels is not a poetic writer, but he has a knack for encapsulating an image or feeling. The theremin sound is one example, and later in the novel when Termen has to brush off rusty musical skills after a lengthy and harrowing imprisonment in a Siberian gulag, he writes: “I was about to wrench open an overgrown gate.” Perfect.

Second, bits and pieces of the novel perplex me, because they don’t seem to fit. The Kung Fu is curious. And Termen’s first wife is there—and not there—in an inexplicable, and mildly annoying way.

Finally, it enlightened me. I learned so much. This book is fiction, but based on real people and real events from history: Russia at the time of Lenin, New York City in the Jazz Age and later the market crash of 1929, and then the harsh Siberia of Stalin’s time.

Michael’s double-edged epigraph at the beginning of the Giller Prize-winning book is prize-winning in itself: “This book is mostly inventions.” It lets the reader know that the author intends to play fast and loose with facts, which Michaels does, but it also refers to the many brilliant inventions of the main character.

The Lev Sergeyevich Termen of this book is scientifically brilliant and socially inept. Unable to navigate his way to a meaningful loving relationship, unable to leave either Russia or America behind, and unable to manage such banalities as personal finances, the man is the master of his own demise.

This book won’t warm your heart. You won’t come to the end of it, close it with a sigh and hold it close to your chest. Aspects of it might frustrate you. But if you read it, you have the opportunity to admire some insightful writing, and you probably will learn something.




Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

all-the-lightAll the Light We Cannot See 

by Anthony Doerr
ISBN 9781476746586
Scribner, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See is World War II as seen by a German technical genius boy and a French blind girl. Perhaps I should say as “seen, smelled, felt and heard” because the girl’s visual impairment requires Anthony Doerr to tell his story via senses other than sight. As a result, his story is rich in aroma, texture and varied sound vibrations.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc is the blind daughter of the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. The daughter of a man who helps to protect the treasures of France sees her world through her fingertips and hears the events of the world through radio. Werner Pfennig is the orphaned son of a German coal miner. His deft hand with radio technology means they have radio in common, and their common interest in the medium leads to their inevitable meeting.

Doerr creates sympathetic, and not-so-sympathetic, characters on both sides of the world war. We root for his German soldiers, even as they play out their roles in the renowned atrocities of the time. We seethe about the duplicitous actions of French citizens. (The Americans are a tad too glorified and the British a tad too undermined for my Canadian taste, but that’s just me.)

Doerr’s choice to take us back and forth in time disoriented me at first, but I eventually sorted out his pattern. Still, I would have preferred if he had started the book with a tantalizing glimpse ahead to the important events of 1944, then returned to 1934 and carried straight on through from there without repeated visits to 1944.

I also thought Doerr pulled a Quentin Tarentino with this book: one plot development too many. I can’t say much without giving away the ending, but I will say I thought Doerr took me on one too many visits to a little house. Read the book and see if you agree.

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