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My Bookshelf 14 - From real life to historical fiction to criminal capers, there's something for everything

I'm a little slow at getting out my last half dozen, with a couple of great travel adventures taking up time in the past few months. But there was some pretty good reading during the winter (the thankfully mild winter) here on the prairies; and if you missed these books, you might like them for the spring thaw as you wait for the grass to turn green. There's something for everyone here.

In the order they were read:

Wellness - Wellness is a lot of book, so to speak. It's an in-depth written social study that I'm declaring one of the best I read in 2023. Wellness is about how relationships change and about the many trends or fads in society that influence our thinking, our emotions, and our behaviour, be it exercise, diet, medication, yoga, technology, or sex that people quickly adopt to try to feel 'good'. And it's also about the huge part that technology plays in forming our thinking. Jack and Elizabeth meet each other as college students in the 1990’s in Chicago. Both come from families with differing degrees of dysfunction and could not be more different, Jack from a poor, religious, emotionless family and Elizabeth from a wealthy (not always legal) family who is comfortable with perfection, success, greed, and prestige. In Chicago, they are drawn to each other as they both try to define themselves outside of their parents’ expectations and boundaries. The story follows them through mid-adulthood, careers, and parenthood - and they realize that the person they are with now is not the same person they were when they first met. There are so many themes to this book: our parents’ influence, figuring out life, the search for contentment, how we delude ourselves, how something might be beneficial simply if we believe in it hard enough, the influence of modern fads and especially the computer age and algorithms,  why we choose who we choose as a partner, guilt and grief, trying to decipher what is important versus what is not important, the lifecycle of a relationship,  being bombarded by the fast pace of today’s society, striving to be perfect – the list goes on and on; and it’s how all these pursuits can really make one question their sanity. This book is, indeed, serious but it’s also funny and sentimental. Hanker down for a long, slow read. Rating 5/5

The Jazz Club Spy - In January of 1920 in Ukraine, five year old Giddy is hiding from an attack by the Cossacks who are terrorizing her Jewish village, part of the pogroms, or attempt to control and exterminate the Jewish group. In 1939 Midtown Manhattan, where Giddy and her family had immigrated, Giddy is working as a cigarette girl in a somewhat questionable jazz nightclub. She prides herself on being able to 'read' people and gather information while she quietly sells cigarettes and mints. One night on the tram after work, she sees a man she believes to be one of the Cossack aggressors from 1920. It becomes her obsession to find him and have him answer to some of the misdeeds from her childhood. She becomes an unofficial spy for Carter VanderZalm from the Immigration Department, but she soon finds that other people are also interested in finding the Cossack. She also finds herself embroiled in a plot that might bring war to America. Giddy is a smart, strong woman with wits and looks. It's a fast, easy, and somewhat predictable read. There is also some revenge, intrigue, history, some trauma, and a few graphic scenes. You might want to check out the book club discussion questions and maybe research a few great topics as suggested at the back of the book. Rating: 3.5/5

The Unsettled - This book is gritty and it’s sad. The prologue introduces Toussaint, an adolescent boy who is now on his way to live with his grandmother Dutchess in the black community of Bonaparte, Alabama. The story then starts in Philadelphia in the 1980’s where Toussant and  his mother, Ava, are in the Glenn Avenue Family Shelter after Ava leaves a volatile, abusive relationship. The Shelter is less than ideal with stringent rules and nonchalant staff. The situation is worsened by  Ava’s poor mental health. Toussant cannot remember Cass, his biological father. But when Cass re-enters their lives at a highly-charged community meeting with an enigmatic speaker rallying the black audience, Ava is again drawn into his charms, and Toussant is eager to form a relationship with him. In 1986, they join Cass in the 'Ark', a house with a group of like-minded individuals in Philadelphia with the aim of individual freedom apart from the oppression of white society.  Cass is clearly the charismatic leader. Interspersed amongst the story are chapters from the perspective of grandmother Dutchess.  Bonaparte was once an oasis of black freedom but has fallen under the clutches of white power which is taking over Bonaparte and any hope for the future.   Dutchess is fighting her own battle to save Bonaparte and keep it’s independence. It’s from Duchess that we learn of generations of rural black life in the south. This book has many themes: white privilege, prejudice, poor mental health, violence, self-perpetuating cycles, intergenerational trauma, poverty,  domestic abuse, emotional control, good intentions poorly carried out, and how it is easy to make one bad decision after another when these factors all come into play. Hidden in there is also some love and resilience. The ending is really fitting for the title. Rating: 3.5/5

Counting Lost Stars - Counting Lost Stars is told in alternating chapters in the first person of  Rita Klein in 1960 New York and in the third person of Cornelia Vogel in the Netherlands in the early 1940’s. Rita is an unwed college student who is pressured to leave college due to her pregnancy and to give up her baby for adoption. But she has acquired skills in  the new field of computer programming and finds employment using Hollerith punch-card computers. She meets, and forms a relationship with, Jacob Nassy who is a kind man from the Netherlands but who is seeking answers about his traumatizing past from the Holocaust. Her work with Hollerith computers puts Rita on the quest to help him find those answers. Cornelia is working as a punch-card operator in the Hague Netherlands for the Ministry of Information in 1941.  The Ministry acquires an American-made Hollerith computer, and Cornelia’s job is to translate its instructions from English to Dutch, information relating to a census  ordered by the Germans to identify the Jewish population. She befriends her Jewish neighbour, Leah Blom, to assist her in her English skills but ends up risking her own life to help Leah escape persecution. This book paints a picture of  Jewish persecution, the moral dilemmas faced by employees and regular citizens, the horrible conditions of life in transit camps, and the harshness of decisions as to who are exterminated and who are allowed to live (but suffer).  There are romances (both lesbian and heterosexual) woven throughout this book,  the history of computers that we now take for granted,  some commentary about the role of women, and a reminder to always persevere.   Rating: 4.0/5

The Little Old Lady Strikes Back - The Little Old Lady Strikes Back is refreshing, light, fast, and whimsical reading – while still addressing some real-life problems. Martha is  the gang-leader of the League of Pensioners, a group of five older seniors who can be described as modern-day Robin Hoods, committing crimes to help the disadvantaged. When the heat is on them in Stockholm, Sweden, after a jewel heist, they relocate to a small village in the countryside for anonymity.  They find the village decaying in all ways – the population is dwindling, businesses are closing, farms are shutting down, police have few resources, medical care is lacking, big business is taking over (some of the same issues that many of us face in North America today). So, they set out in their own fashion to rejuvenate the tiny town of Hemmavid - and Sweden’s rural areas - using all of their wits and tactics, some not at all legal, some unethical, and many of them unbelieveable, from cow patty bingo to kidnapping politicians and many antics in-between. But there are some good lessons for healthy senior living: work together, live together, support each other, respect each other, focus on relationships and fitness and health and fresh air and creativity and helping. There are some helpful lessons  that can be used in a legal and ethical way to initiate and carry out social action -  involve everyone, don’t be bossy, draw prominent citizens on board,  help people to see the benefit to themselves, use individual strengths, mingle the generations, give people power, make them feel good about themselves, have fun with change, think outside the box, be the best you can be, never give up, always have solutions, don’t be intimidated by power. It's a fast read with chuckles. Rating: 3.5/5

Yellowface - Finally, from a best selling author . . . June Hayward is a struggling young white author who is in a questionable friendship with a young Asian  author, Athena Liu, who has become a star in the publishing world.   When Athena dies suddenly by accident, June steals her unfinished book about  Chinese labourers during World War I and edits it before passing it off as her own work. In the process, she adopts a new name and even a new photograph, both which blur the ethnic lines.  But the truth of her deceit gradually comes out, and June can’t escape Athena’s clutches. Although the author describes Yellowface as "a horror story about loneliness in a fiercely competitive industry", I didn’t find it scary in the traditional horror story sense. Cloaked in that theme of loneliness is  jealousy, envy, greed, competitiveness, ethnicity, racism, friendship, cultural appropriation, family dysfunction, plagiarism, desperation, entitlement, the negative power of social media, mind games, mental health, and the harsh world of book publishing – and it might just be a bit autobiographical. This is a somewhat divisive book that raises some uncomfortable issues. Reviews are varied, and some are in-depth, offering good evaluation of these themes. They are worth some research. You can certainly read Yellowface rather quickly  for a simple, entertaining, and clever read (but you might not like any of the characters). Or you can read it and ponder some of the deeper issues that might raise your emotions and opinions and which are certainly at play in our society today. The title also holds some meaning. Rating: 4/5

My rankings by favourite (it's all about personal choice): 1) Wellness; 2) Counting Lost Stars; tied for 3) Yellowface and The Unsettled 5) The Jazz Club Spy and 6) The Little Old Lady Strikes Back

And that wraps up my last half dozen. Off to the book shop I go to find my spring reading.

"Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope." - Kofi Anan


































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