Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McAll Smith

tears of the giraffe

Like the first in this series, this book is lovely.  It is the story of Mma Ramotse, who has established her No 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana, who now happens to be engaged to be married.  Here in Book 2, her life undergoes some vast changes, but she greets them with a calm acceptance as she pursues the cases that continue to be the focus of her life.  These cases continue to be ones that are sometimes complex and sometimes straightforward, but always with a very human and ethical twist.  There is a hint of danger and a hint of suspense, but always a great deal of heart.

What I love about the main character is that she is a beautiful feminist of the quietest and most subtle kind.  She supports other women in their pursuit of their careers (as she does in promoting her own secretary) and she sticks it to men in a discrete but very direct way to get her message across.  There are many times when feminists must beat the drums and rally the marches – I am not against that at all – but it is in these quiet moments, behind closed doors when one can really change the minds and hearts of the men who might be most resistant.  There are moments in this book that demonstrate that quite poignantly.

I think I have to move on from this series, but I will definitely return to it at some point.  It definitely gives me peace.

 

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The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

ladies detective agency

This is a book where writing is beautiful in its simplicity.  Mma Ramotswe is the first lady detective in Botswana, fulfilling both hers and her father’s dream of owning her own business successfully.  Although she is off to a precarious start, and has to take on occasionally less desirable cases (involving dogs, for example), she always uses her wise intuition and her cunning instincts to outsmart even the shadiest of characters.  And as we hear her cases unfold, we also get a taste of Africa, which is as rich an experience as the stories themselves.

Between the twists and turns of the story lines, the beautiful and colorful characters and the rich landscape in which the events unfold, this book is absolutely delightful.  I have seen it advertised for so many years and have not known what I’ve been missing all this time!  I now find myself wanting to read the other sequels to this to see what other adventures await.

I highly recommend this to all of you as well.  In this time of political distress, and when the news is so oppressively sad, this is a beautiful distraction.

 

The Book that Matters Most by Ann Hood

book that matters most

Ava is still feeling raw, even a year after her husband has left her for a woman who is famous for “yarning” statues and signs.  Thank goodness for her new book club, which has let her join for the new year.  Unfortunately, in her yearning to be accepted, she has sworn that she’d procure the author of her book to appear at their meeting at the end of the year – and it just might take the whole year to find this obscure author!

At first glance, this book appears to be a somewhat superficial novel – but it very quickly delves beneath the surface, plunging into Ava’s traumatic childhood, and focusing also on her daughter, Maggie, who is lost and has lost herself in Paris.  While there is not much discussion about feelings, there is much that is clearly felt, and the awkward moments are palpable in this book.  Maggie’s character, in particular, is extremely poignant and sympathetic, and I felt very drawn to her.  The change in voice from Ava’s to Maggie’s also helps to deepen the complexity of the plot and help move the story line along as well.  It is quite suspenseful in some parts, especially when it comes to Maggie, as she engages in some very dangerous behaviors.

Spoiler alert:  Don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want to know my opinion about the ending…

Because my opinion is that the very ending is unfortunate.  The book is actually quite good.  I am not sure, however, why authors feel compelled to wrap their productions in such neat packages.  Life isn’t like that so why do stories have to be?  Even if the book had been as it is right up until the second to last page, it would have been ok.  But literally the last 2 pages undid the book for me – just sent it right down the path to cheesy.  Such a disappointment…

But overall, I’d still recommend this book – it’s a solid read and very engaging.  And I personally enjoyed the location – as most of it took place in my original home town of Providence, RI – which does not happen very often!

 

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

faithful

After a devastating accident leaves Shelby with an onerous survivor’s guilt, she wilts into a depression and essentially withdraws from her life.  People around her — particularly her mother — try very hard to pull her out, but it is only when she begins to discover her drive to save mistreated animals that she finds a purpose in her life and a reason for her to actually connect with other people as well.

This story actually starts off so simply and slowly that it seems almost too simplistic.  But it builds insidiously and the characters develop a charm and sweetness that work their way into your heart even before you know it.  Even while Shelby is being rude and harsh, you can only feel sadness for her because of her tragic brokenness.

The writing here is remarkable as well.  It is written in the present tense, which I usually find annoying.  (I can’t even say why that is so.)  However, in this case, I actually think it works.  But Shelby can only live in the moment, in the here and now and has trouble thinking about a future; therefore a present tense is a logical way to express her story.  There is also an intentional stiffness to the writing in general – to the description as well as the dialogue.  It is very effective in relaying how awkwardly Shelby relates to others.  There is only a comfort or warmth that shines through with very few people, and that becomes obvious as time goes on.

This is a heart-wrenching story but very moving and well-written.  Another winner by Alice Hoffman!

 

Choke by Sian Beilock

choke

Why would an accomplished, experienced athlete competing for a spot in the Olympics suddenly flub an event?  Why would an A student who has aced all the practice SAT tests get a mediocre score when it really mattered?  That is, why do people choke?  This is what Dr. Beilock examines in the course of this fascinating summary of psychological research done by herself and others on this subject.

The book reviews what is happening when a person “chokes” both behaviorally and neurologically.  It appears that overthinking a situation can actually interfere with the automatic responses that training leads the body to perfect.  Once your attention is drawn to the specific mechanics of a behavior (kicking a soccer ball, playing a piano concerto), what would be done automatically very smoothly is now pulled apart and diverted by the brain’s other areas becoming involved.  Gradually, the book builds into suggesting what can be done to offset the possible risks of choking or remedies for people who have choked and need to get back onto a path of success.  Not surprisingly, these can include focusing on the goal, meditation, writing down one’s anxieties and worries just before a performance/test, and practicing (although this is a gross over-simplification of her findings).

What makes this book readable is the inclusion of many anecdotes.  Dr. Beilock uses both famous legends from sports history and stories from her own personal experiences from people she’s met through her work to enhance the narrative of the book.  This both engages and clarifies and makes the reading fun.  I found the psychological experiments remarkable and often surprising as well.

And for those of you who might be going on interviews sometime soon – well, there are tips for you, too.  And they are really not what you would expect!

A very interesting read for anyone interested in psychology or sports or really being successful when it counts!

 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

little life

This is one of those books that becomes insinuated into your DNA as you read it.  You find yourself thinking about the characters even when you’ve put the book down.  You find yourself worrying about what has been or what will be with them even at the oddest moments.

It is the story of 4 roommates and best friends at Yale who have stayed extremely close throughout the years after.  And while the author gives backstory to each of them, there is greatest focus on the most mysterious of them, Jude.  Even the others, JB, Malcolm and Willem do not know what Jude’s story is.  They know he does not have parents, and they know he does not wear short sleeves, and they know he does not want to speak about himself – but they respect his privacy and he loves them for not pushing him about this.  As the characters grow together, the reader cannot help but cry with them, laugh with them and really love each of them as if they are real.

As you can tell, I did love this book.  It should, however, come with a disclaimer – it is extremely disturbing in many parts.  Jude’s history is extraordinarily dark, and what he’s endured is horrific – and while details have been spared, the imaginings are quite vivid.  What you see, tragically, is the devastation that child abuse has on self esteem and self worth – and Jude’s whole life exemplifies this.

This is a very sad (and very long!) book, but, at least in my opinion, one worth reading.  The characters are beautiful and engaging, and when it ended I felt I almost had to say goodbye to new friends.

The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs

bright hour

Wow, this is a book you definitely have to prepare yourself for.   Written by an actual descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson, this memoir is a beautiful, almost poetic reflection on dying.   Not only does the author contend with the death of her mother from multiple myeloma (a form of cancer), but then she has to face her own impending mortality, as she battles her own aggressive form of metastatic breast cancer.  As we follow her through her musings and her fears, we glimpse into her very heart — sometimes full of self-deprecating humor, sometimes of abject sadness, and sometimes of sheer tranquility.

There is, of course, a lot of sadness here.  You cannot escape that when you’re talking about cancer.  But there is a lot of sweetness and humor as well.  Nina did not have a polyannish view of life at all – on the contrary, she was fairly sarcastic – but she did keep a faith and a hope for her future that was positive while still being realistic.  Her discussions with her 2 boys are honest and yet often comical, maintaining the innocence that young boys deserve.  She includes some details of her pain and suffering without dwelling on these.  She chooses to appreciate the days she has rather than lament those she has not.  This is something I think we can all learn from!

So while your heart will inevitably break from this book, it will also be touched in important ways, if you choose to read this one.