Category Archives: Books

Book Review: The Signature of All Things

The Signature Of All ThingsI just finished reading The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, and oh my, how much I loved this book! I will preface my blatant love for it by mentioning that Elizabeth Gilbert is probably my favourite author, which is possibly not a popular viewpoint. Eat, Pray, Love is a book that came along at just the right time for me, and changed my life for the better in the wake of the broken engagement that I was going through at the time. Though Committed was not her best work, I gobbled that one up as well, eager to hear more of Elizabeth’s story. Having always been smitten with the author’s gift for beautiful prose and describing the indescribable, I was interested to see how she would do with a historical novel instead of the memoirs I was accustomed to. This book didn’t disappoint.

The Signature of All Things is set in Pennsylvania in the 1800’s. It follows the story of Alma Whittaker, a large and unfortunate-looking woman with a brilliant scientific mind, born to a no-nonsense Dutch mother (Beatrix) and the richest man in Philadelphia, Henry Whittaker, who made his own fortune by funneling his expertise as a botanist into profits in pharmaceuticals. Alma suffers many disappointments in life, and with nowhere else to channel her energies, she successfully becomes a well-respected expert botanist as an adult herself, in a time when most women did not work outside the home.

This book has a colourful cast of complex characters who I came to adore even as they sometimes infuriated me. The relationship between the selfish, egotistical Henry and his daughter Alma was interesting to watch unfold. I loved the dynamic between Alma, her adopted sister Prudence (who was so uptight but whose inner self was slowly revealed over time), and Retta Snow, the fanciful girl who thaws the frosty relationship between the sisters when the trio are together as friends. I wished I could have grown up with my own Hanneke de Groot as my personal nanny. I adored the stark contrast of Alma’s methodical search for facts, truth and answers about the world, set against her love for Ambrose Pike, an ethereal artist concerned with God and angels. There is love, sensuality, disappointments, tragedies, travel tales, philosophical points, and much focus on the cutting-edge science of the day.

One of my favourite parts of the book was how the author was able to weave real historical figures into the fictional story of the Whittakers. Before Alma was born, Henry had travelled on a botanical expedition on board Captain Cook’s third voyage. Charles Darwin was also a figure featured later in the book, to great effect! It was also interesting to read about the ideas of science that would have been considered bold and controversial at the time, knowing all we take for granted about evolution today. And Gilbert has a gift for using the flowery, descriptive language reminiscent of the 1800’s when the book is set, while still being readable in contemporary times.

Alma’s grapples with what’s important, what she wants to make of her life, and her “AHA moments” reminded me of my own and got me thinking about decisions I’ve made as well. It’s a rare novel that can do that.

My only criticism of the book is the portion in Tahiti was a bit of a slog to get through; it was less interesting to me than the rest. It could have been shorter. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book and hope you’ll let me know what you think of it.

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Books I’ve Read Recently

Time for a whirlwind update on what I’ve been reading in 2013 thus far! I’m not what you’d call an avid reader of books… I love them, but find myself spending far more time reading online than in paper form, though I always seem to think this will change. But I’m a Goodreads addict (join me, won’t you? Let’s be book buddies!) and want to share my recent hits and misses.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn:Gone Girl By now, nearly everyone’s had their say about this book. I’m not sure I have much new to add. This was a great thriller novel about a wife who went missing and the process of her husband finding out what happened to her. This story provided gripping insight into a very dysfunctional relationship between a husband and wife and I couldn’t put it down, but I found the ending highly disappointing. Still, a good engrossing read. 4/5 stars

The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker: This is a coming-of-age story set in a dystopian future in which the earth has begun to slow its rotation, thus continually lengthening the days and nights. This impacts the earth and its inhabitants, human and otherwise, in crazy ways and causes rampant uncertainty about the future and polarized views about how The Slowing should be handled. But amid this upheaval, Julia is still dealing with normal day-to-day life… her parents’ fractured relationship, falling in love for the first time, and changing school friendships. It’s such a great premise for a book, but I actually had a hard time feeling really connected to the characters and understanding how Julia’s personal story mattered in the context of The Slowing. 3/5 stars

Code Name VerityCode Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein: Oh, how much I loved this book. This is a YA historical novel set in England & France during the Second World War. Perhaps my obsession with European World War historical novels plays into my love of this book, but the characters and the writing were also exquisite. This is the story of the wartime friendship between Maddie & Julie, and it opens with Julie having been captured and detained by Nazis after the plane that Maddie was flying, in which Julie was a passenger, crashed… killing Maddie. Julie is trying to buy time with her story while mourning for Maddie. The story has so many plot twists, I won’t say anything more, but read this book! 5/5 stars

Light Between OceansThe Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman: I loved this historical novel set in the 1920’s off the coast of Australia. This is the story of a lighthouse keeper and his beloved wife who live alone on and island in the lighthouse, and struggle with multiple miscarriages trying to have a child. Heartbroken, one day they find a wailing newborn baby washed up on shore in a wrecked boat with a dead man. This is the story of the choices made in the wake of this discovery and the lives it irrevocably affects along the way. I had to suspend my disbelief over the actions taken at times, but this is a lovely and thoughtful novel with interesting characters. 4.5/5 stars

The SistersThe Sisters by Nancy Jensen: Another historical novel, this time set in 1920’s Kentucky. With their mother dead, sisters Mabel & Bertie live with their sinister step-father and take comfort in their love for each other. On the proudest day of Bertie’s life, Mabel sets out to improve things for the sisters, but a series of staggering misunderstandings alters the course of both of their lives. The book takes place over the course of several generations of Bertie & Mabel’s families so you truly see the lasting effects of this single day. I found most of the characters relatable and believable, if not likeable. 3.5/5 stars

RequiemRequiem by Lauren Oliver: The third and final book in the Delirium trilogy, so of course I can’t say a damn thing without giving away spoilers from the first two books. But I’ll say this: the trilogy is a dystopian YA series based on the premise that in the USA, love has been classified as a disease called deliria nervosa for which there is now a cure, administered at age 18. After receiving the cure, people don’t feel emotions anymore. They are paired with an appropriate match as their life partner, and live their live as they’re told without stress. But before age 18, teens are susceptible to the deliria and of course there are resisters to the controlling regime who leave society to live in The Wilds, uncured and free to love whomever they choose. These resisters are a threat to the controlled society, as they are “diseased.” It’s such a great premise for a story, and well-written with fantastic characters. Sort of like the next Hunger Games, if you ask me… 4.5/5 stars

RoomRoom by Emma Donoghue: One of the most creatively written novels I’ve read in a long time. Jack is 5 years old. He was born in a small room and has never been outside it in his life. His mother was kidnapped 7 years ago by her captor & rapist Old Nick (who is Jack’s biological father), and she is locked into this room where she lives with Jack. She is desperate to escape back into the world of course, but she’s built a life for Jack within this four walls with games, activities, stories, chores, and lessons. To Jack, Room is the whole world and it’s pretty great. The story is told from Jack’s point of view, in the voice of a child who doesn’t understand that there is life beyond the four walls of his home. It’s incredibly thought-provoking. 5/5 stars

Mindy KalingIs Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling: Yep, the same Mindy who wrote The Office and now has her own show called The Mindy Project. Mindy’s a gifted humour writer, but for me that humour translates better onscreen than on the page. Ehhhh, it was funny. But I definitely didn’t love this book. A good & fluffy beach or airplane read, nothing earth-shattering in here though. 2.5/5 stars

That’s what I’ve been reading lately. I’m currently working away at another light beach read and a non-fiction book for a change. What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Quiet: Insights to my Strengths and Opportunities

Image source: Goodreads

Image source: Goodreads

I’m currently reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain and really enjoying it. I have long described myself as a “social introvert,” sticking that word, “social” in there to dispel assumptions others often jump to when they think of introverts. I’m not particularly shy or quiet. I’m not afraid of public speaking or public performances. I’ve conducted seminars at work and spoken to groups as large as 200, and I’ve acted with lead parts in school plays and excelled in those arenas. I like parties.

However, I do need time to recharge after social events or public speaking by spending time alone with a cup of tea and a book, my laptop or just my thoughts. If I don’t get that time, I am C-R-A-N-K-Y. That’s the biggest telltale of my true colours as an introvert, but there are others. It’s one thing for me to be the centre of attention onstage, where my role is very structured and defined, but I hate it in social settings. I’m fine hanging out in large groups, but I let others drive the discussion while I hang back listening and speak only when I have something important to contribute. I despise small talk and find it very difficult to get to know others who are not open to more meaningful topics right off the bat. (I’m one of those people who, upon meeting you the first time, can talk immediately about the fight you just had with your mother, but if you try to talk about the weather I’ll clam up after a few moments). I’m pretty terrible at persuasion; if my points don’t speak for themselves, I’m not someone who shows enough charisma, outward passion or confidence in my ideas or services to be able to convince someone who has doubts. This has been a career challenge in recent years as there has been a large sales element involved, and I prefer the control of self-employment to working for a company.

Not everything in this book applies to me, but I see a lot of myself in it. I have read a lot about introversion in the past so I wasn’t sure if I would learn much new in this book, but I like Susan’s angle of playing up the strengths of introversion. This is an angle I haven’t seen many places before. Introversion is usually described as a barrier to overcome, an obstacle to your success that you can learn to work with if you tame and mold it, but never is it seen as a shining light to be celebrated and embraced.

This passage’s excerpts (related to a surprising discussion of how Guy Kawasaki outed himself as an introvert on Twitter in 2008) was a particularly interesting insight to me personally:

On August 15, 2008, Pete Cashmore, the founder of Mashable, the online guide to social media, weighed in. “Wouldn’t it be a great irony,” he asked, “if the leading proponents of the ‘it’s about people’ mantra weren’t so enamored with meeting large groups of people in real life? Perhaps social media affords us the control we lack in real life socializing: the screen as a barrier between us and the world.” …

Studies have shown that, indeed, introverts are more likely than extroverts to express intimate facts about themselves online… to say that they can express the “real me” online… The same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of 200 people might blog to 2000 or 2 million, without thinking twice. The same person who finds it difficult to introduce himself to strangers might establish a presence online and then extend these relationships into the real world.

Though I’ve been a very inconsistent blogger who has not, in fact, shared much online in this little space lately, I’m pretty active on Facebook interacting with friends and organizing social events. I have a very active Pinterest page and adore Goodreads for sharing and learning about others’ book choices. I meet potential suitors almost exclusively through online dating, much to my (very extroverted) mother’s  derision, and I’ve never been able to explain why the Internet has been so important for my social life. I never would have pinned it on my introversion! And better yet, I love the implication that the computer/Internet as an intermediary in interpersonal relations provides an opportunity for introverts to thrive in leadership and sales roles where previously they may have floundered.

I wonder how I and fellow intro’s might use this insight to boost their careers. Can we thrive in sales by making a concerted effort with online presence? What changes can be implemented online to bring in new clients? Can we direct clients via a newsletter to a referral system on our website so we don’t need to ask in person? Some food for thought.

May 2013 bring prosperous wealth and personal growth to all, whether you’re introverted or extroverted!

Book Review: Heart of the Matter

Image credit: Goodreads

I’m heading off to my monthly book club meeting this evening to discuss The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman, a book I finished last week that I will review in the future. I really loved that book but found it quite heavy and emotionally draining, so I was craving an easier read to follow it. That’s where this book comes in; for awhile now, Emily Giffin has been my go-to girl for chick lit.

Note: This review contains some spoilers. I’m not giving away the ending, but I want to discuss one of the events from the middle of the book!

Heart of the Matter is a story following three main characters. Tessa Russo is a stay-at-home mother of two children, married to Nick Russo, a pediatric surgeon. She has only just recently quit her career to care for her kids and it’s not going as smoothly as she’d hoped. Then there’s Valerie Anderson, a single mother of a year old boy named Charlie. When Charlie has an accident at a birthday party, he ends up in hospital with Nick as his doctor, and the lives of all these characters intersect.

This was my least favourite book of Emily Giffin’s that I’ve read thus far. And here’s why: (here comes the spoiler!) This was another Giffin book centred around cheating. Now, I don’t have a problem reading a fictional story about an affair, but it’s starting to feel like Giffin is a one-trick pony. Not only that, but her earlier variations on this theme were better, so it was disappointing to read a diluted version of a similar storyline.

I found it difficult to believe that Nick was a fantastic guy who simply made a mistake. He was painted by Tessa and by Valerie as this amazing catch and I think the intention of Giffin was for the readers to agree with this assessment, but I didn’t. I thought he was a cheating git, and I hate the perpetuation of the idea that men (or women, for that matter) simply can’t help themselves when faced with a hot woman. Even if there are real feelings involved, there are a lot of steps in between meeting an attractive woman and boning her, and the guy’s big brain could have vetoed his little brain at any stage of the game. “It was a mistake, it just happened!” I’m sorry, you didn’t just trip, fall and land with your dick inside another woman!

I felt conflicted most of the way through; whereas in the Something series it was clear that I was on the side of Dex & Rachel, I never felt a true allegiance to either Valerie or Tessa. I don’t think this was due to Giffin building nuanced, conflicted, or flawed but fundamentally good characters here; that would imply that her characters were layered, complex and interesting, which they were decidedly not. Rather, while pleasant and easy to relate to, I found Tessa in particular to be a very one-dimensional character. I liked her and didn’t want to see her marriage break down, but never got a satisfactory answer as to why she loved Nick. I understood Valerie better; from the outside, though I felt it was wrong to engage in an affair with a married man, it was easier to understand how a single woman would allow it to happen than the married man who was supposedly in a happy marriage.

Despite my misgivings, I did feel invested in learning the outcome of the story and got what I wanted out of the book: a fun, mindless read. I didn’t hate it but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it either.

Have you read it and if so, what did you think? What’s your favourite chick lit book?