Ten titles (7 nonfiction + 3 fiction) that I’ve recently read to end 2022 and begin 2023. One title will absolutely be at the top of my favourite list for 2023.
BRAIDING SWEETGRASS: For young adults: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer; adapted by Monique Gray Smith; illus. Nicole Neidhart (nonfiction)
NOTE: although this title been adapted for Young Adult Audiences, this edition and/or the original is a an astonishing book. Here, I am reproducing the blurb that I posted in YA recommendations. There is no doubt that this is a powerful piece of nonfiction for grown-ups.
(From the book jacket cover): “As a botanist Robin Wall Kimerer is trained to use the tools of science to ask questions about nature. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces plants and animals as our oldest teachers… Adapted by Monique Gray Smith with illustrations from Nicole Neidhardt Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults highlights how acknowledging and celebrating our reciprocal relationship with: the earth results in a wider, more complete understanding of our place and purpose.”
What a rich, remarkable, detailed book that presents adolescent readers with an encyclopedic document of the plant world which at the same time informs them of the journey of Indigenous ancestors to understand the generosity of the earth and our part in being grateful for the gifts and giving gifts in return. The layout and text features of this book os wonderful: Chapter organization (Meeting Sweetgrass, Planting Sweetgrass, Tending Sweetgrass, Picking Sweetgrass, Braiding Sweetgrass, Burning Sweetgrass) evocative black and white illustrations spread throughout; the green (Sweetgrass green) to highlight titles and definitions; black and white photographs; Text boxes that define terms (e.g., circumnutation; poultice; windthrow); Questions to inspire the reader that inspire reflection (e.g.,’What happens to our perception, engagement, and connection to the world when we feel the natural world communicating with us?” ; “What would it be like to live with a heightened sensitivity to the lives given for ours?”) I particularly admired the frequent use of text boxes that highlighted statements from the text. In fact, these excerpts are framed, not in boxes, but in circular borders designed as braided sweetgrass. (e.g., “How in our modern world, can we find a way to understand the earth as a gift again?”‘ “To be heard , you must speak the language of the one you want to listen.”) Of special note are the stories and legends of that help to explain Indigenous relationship with the natural world (e.g., Nanabozho’s Journey, The Wendigo, Three Sisters). This is an astonishing book.
FINALE: Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim by D. T. Max
D.T. Max, a staff writer for New Yorker Magazine began working on a profile of celebrated composer, Stephen. Sondheim. Due to the pandemic, to Sondheim’s hesitancy and ultimately his death in November 2021, the project never came to fruition, until this book. The author has taken transcripts from four major conversations and presents them in revealing talks with Sondheim, who didn’t seem to be all that fond of spotlight recognition. Talk about his work, his family, life in New York and aging provide further evidence of the wisdom of this brilliant composer. I, as a Stephen Sondheim fan, was very pleased to have this candid portrait of the artist in his twilight years.
I’M GLAD MY MOM DIED by Jennette McCurdy
I wasn’t familiar with celebrity Jennette McCurdy (I never watched the TV show iCarly) but there’s been lots of buzz around this book and the title sure is captivating. The book recount her entry into stardom under the mighty force of her mother, who makes Mama Rose in the musical Gypsy seem like Mary Poppins. Her mother had dream to make her daughter a tar, no matter the cost (i.e., harassing her for her calorie restricted diets, taking showers with her even when she was a teenager). No wonder McCurdy is glad her mom died (of cancer). But in part two of the book, we read more about the anxiety, shame and self-loathing. She embarks on eating disorders (bulimia) and unhealthy relationships. This was a heartbreaking, tough read (told with humour at times about dealing with the past and embarking on a journey to grow out of being a celebrity, having a tormented youth and moving forward. Fascinating!
HOUSE ARREST by Alan Bennett
A slim volume (49 pages) of dramatist Alan Bennett’s experiences during the pandemic. Readers experience Bennett’s life in lockdown through excerpts of diary entries written during the pandemic. I’m sure there is an abundance of rich stories if we were to read his complete day to day diaries. but having chosen excerpts provides us with glimpses into thoughts of Boris Johnson, of filming Talking Heads, of Donald Trump, of getting a haircut, junk shops and book stories, and fishing (a passage of going fishing with his family when in his childhood is the longest passage at 5 pages). Literary references, glimpses of life in England, reflections on ailing health as a senior make this another fine Alan Bennett read.
“14 September: One phone call today, a woman enquiring if I’ve made arrangements for my funeral yet. At least it isn’t a recorded voice. “
PAUL NEWMAN: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man: A memoir
In 1986, Paul Newman and his close friend Stewart Stern, embarked on a project to compile an oral history about the famous actor’s life. Throughout the book, transcripts of anecdotes from family and friends provide an additional perspective of how he lived his life. This book is an honest account of a five year project documenting Newman’s early family life, his initiation into the theatre world and his rise to fame as a Hollywood actor (e.g., Hud, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Verdict). He had two main loves in his life, but it is his marriage to actress Joanne Woodward was a deep relationship that lasted until his death in 2008 at the age of 83. Reading about his traumatic childhood, the many jobs he had, his insecurities, his rise to stardom, his drinking and his passion for race car driving is candid and enlightening. Particularly poignant his the way he describes his relationship with his six children. This is a fascinating and revelatory memoir of a sexy, talented, driven celebrity – and philanthropist.
SHY: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green
Mary Rodgers was the daughter of the celebrated songwriter, Richard Rogers. She was also the daughter of a domineering mother. Father and mother were not forthcoming in their love for their daughter. Talented in her own right, Mary worked hard to move out of the shadow of her father’s talents and decided to become a composer herself. Her musical Once Upon a Mattress, starring Carol Burnett as the ‘shy’ princess in a musical based on the story The Princess and the Pea. Although she is acknowledged for her unique talents as a woman composer, she never (could never) achieve the success that her father had., particularly with his work with Oscar Hammerstein (i.e., Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, The Sound of Music.). Mary Rodgers never gave up and would embark on whatever projects came her way. Fame did come when she authored the children’s book Freaky Friday. in this memoir, Mary Rodgers works alongside theatre critic, Jesse Green and pours out stories of family, fame, philanthropy, failed relationships and motherhood. Shy is a fascinating report of the golden age of musical theatre. It is a dynamo account of a dynamo figure respected by many from New York’s entertainment world. (including Stephen Sondheim). Stories are funny, wise, gossipy, candid and delicious making for a remarkable read from “the alarmingly outspoken”, Mary Rodgers.
RUN TOWARDS THE DANGER: Confrontations with a Body of Memory by Sarah Polley (essays)
Let me start by quoting Margaret Atwood who reviewed this book by writing “Fascinating, harrowing, courageous, and deeply felt.” “Absolutely”, says I. Run Towards The Danger is a collection of six essays written by the oh-so-talented actor, screenwriter and director, Sarah Polley. Polley digs into her past and bravely attempts to capture memories and their meanings of those relationships as they appeared in the past and helped to frame the person she has become. The first story of stage fright while playing Alice in Wonderland at the Stratford Festival was a punch in the gut. Other stories of sexual assault, a troubled childbirth, of being. child actor working under a domineering director, of the aftermath of concussion each punch the gut and hit the heart. When dealing with her traumatic injury, Sarah Polley was advised by a specialist to ‘run towards the danger’. “In order for my brain to recover from a traumatic injury, I had to retain it to strength by charging towards the very activities that triggered my symptoms. This was a paradigm shift for me – to greet and welcome the things I had previously voided.” (page 2)
WOW! WOW! WOW! This astonishing book is certain to be at the top of my year end list of favourites. This is a special read. Thank you, Ms. Polley for your storytelling, bravery and courage. ‘Harrowing and courageous’ indeed.
THE MARRIAGE PORTRAIT by Maggie O’Farrell
The draw for this read was the author, Maggie O’Farrell who’s Hamnet was a wow read. The novel was inspired by the poem “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning. The setting of this novel is 16th century Italy and centres on the young adolescent Lucrezia di Cosimo deMedici who was thrust into a marriage with the Duke of Ferrera. Her husband, Alfonso, a megalomaniac, is at times passionate and attentive, at times ruthless and political. Lucrezia has one duty – to provide the heir for the Ferrarese dynasty. Lucrezia does not get pregnant and she is certain that Alfonso is determined to kill her. The Duchess spends days of luxury living in the palazzo, but longs for days when she can be free of being smothered by Alfonso, where she can dedicate herself to her talent as an artist, and for the possibility of heading back to Florence to be reunited with her family. Then novel plods along languishes and only seems to get more inspiring with the painting of the marriage portrait in the later part of the story.Only the final part seems to hold adventure and suspense. But O’Farrell’s writing is exquisite in detail and description. She is a perceptive – perhaps too perceptive – wordsmith. Sentences are masterful portraits of the sights and sounds of all that is going on in Lucrezia’s life… and of words that illuminate the feelings of this observant, resilient character. Research of aristocratic life and culture of the Renaissance is staggering.
“He leads her up a spiral staircase slippery with moisture and moss. She must cling to his hand so her shoes don’t skid, so she doesn’t stumble on the hem of her gown. It is only by the candle’s wear yellow penumbra that she can see where she is, the walls and corridors of this place.” (p. 56)
“Let the ghouls that hover in the corners of the room see what they are dealing with: she is the fifth child of the ruler of Tuscany; she has touched the fur of a tigress; she has scaled a mountain range to be here. Take that, Darkness. (p. 128)
SELF-MADE BOYS by Anna-Marie McLemore
When the author first read The Great Gatsby as a teen, they were certain that Nick Carraway was in love with Jay Gatsby and that ‘the story wasn’t done for me’. This title is a remix of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic work. . Jay Gatsby is now a transgender young man, Daisy is a Latina lesbian debutante and Nick Carraway is a Mexican American transgender boy intent to making a better life for himself. McLemore is a transgender who aspired to present the American dream myth through a new lens. From the author’s note: The term Self-Made men, according to Frederick Douglass “implies an individual independence of the past and present which can never exist.realized ” Award-winning transgender author, Anne-Marie McLemore, has realized their dream by writing about Nick and Jay who couldn’t make themselves as boys and men without each other and without their communities of East Egg and West Egg. Self-Made Boys is a fresh, honest well-written novel for teenagers who may or not be familiar with the classic novel on which it is based.
THE SLEEPING CAR PORTER by Suzette Mayr
The year is 1929. Even though he has strong aspirations to become a dentist, Baxter, a Black queer man considers himself lucky to hold a position as a sleeping car porter aboard a train that crisscrosses Canada, a job that will help him to earn money to pay for his dreams. He puts on a smile for the white passengers hoping not to receive any demerit points for bad behaviour. Mayr presents a cast of unruly passengers aboard the train and it is their stories – and Baxter’s servitude to them – make this novel come alive. Winner of the 100K Scotia Bank Giller Prize 2022.