“The Meaning of Michelle” by Veronica Chambers

This is a quite inspiring book on how the United States’ first Black First Lady has shown the way for Black women all across the country.

The Latina writer, Veronica Chambers, has got 16 other writers (including a chef and a jazz musician) to explain how Michelle Obama has changed their lives. She came to the White House from a background in the poor part of Chicago. Her story is now well-known: her successful law career and marriage to Barack Obama who went on to become President.

Michelle’s quiet determination to open the world to Black women has made a huge difference to how these women see themselves in a country where race still remains a powder keg. In this collection, Veronica Chambers shows how Michelle’s sense of humour and confidence has lifted up other Black women who want to be just as comfortable in their own skin. There is a line of thankfulness that runs through the anthology. She even quotes a famous Black writer, James Baldwin, who  wrote: “your crown has been bought and paid for. All you have to do is wear it.” This book shows how.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben

When Peter Wohlleben began his life as a forester, he knew only what the modern forestry industry needs, i.e. to produce lumber it fells trees and plants new seedlings.

As his career  progressed, he got closer to the life of the trees themselves, discovering that they produce electrical impulses that pass through their roots and in this way communicate with their neighbours. This includes their child-saplings and the fact they can feed them sugar and other nutrients.

Wohlleben has spent some time  at a forest he manages in the Eifel mountains in Germany. In recent years Aachen University began conducting scientific research when it was realized that forests develop differently and more effectively when left to their own devices than when used merely for commercial gain. They need to communicate with each other, one of the most important ways to stay connected is a “wood wide web” of soil fungi that connects vegetation in an intimate network.

Peter Wohlleben spent over twenty years working for the forestry commission in Germany. He now runs an environmentally friendly woodland, working for the return of primeval forests. He has written a number of books about trees. This is an astonishing one and takes the reader into a brand new world.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“The Witches of New York” by Ami McKay

This book is set 200 years after the witch trials in Salem, Mass. Now 1880, this is the story of three modern “witches” as they ply their trade in New York city.

One of them had worked in a circus sideshow, the other was a medical student and “keeper of spells.” They cater to rich women of Manhattan, and specialize in cures, palmistry and potions. They are joined one day by a young woman who came seeking a job. It turns out she sees and hears things no one else can. One day she disappears and the desperate search turns up accusations from the past for all concerned.

It is a startling look at a world not much discussed. Ami McKay is an American, born and raised in Indiana. She now lives in Nova Scotia and has written two best sellers, The Birth House  and The Virgin Cure.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“Shakespeare and Company, Paris” by Krista Halverson

This is a big, heavily-illustrated book about one of the most famous bookstores in the world. Situated in Paris, it was opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach of Princeton, New Jersey, U.S.A. with the purpose of selling English books in France. It gathered all kinds of famous writers who made it their headquarters, i.e. Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Scott Fitzgerald. It was forced to close in 1941 when the war made it too difficult to run.

By 1946, another American, George Whitman of Salem, Mass., had graduated from college and was travelling the world, visiting France in 1946. Intrigued by the success of Shakespeare and Company, in 1951 he took his inheritance money and opened another bookstore with the idea of making a meeting-place for all kinds of writers and book-lovers. He made his home there and gradually added more rooms which made it possible for visitors to sleep over, have the occasional meal. He also encouraged students to give two or three hours work to running the store in exchange for books. There are all kinds of visitors in this book: Allen Ginsberg (the Beat poet), Henry Miller, Nureyev, Jackie Kennedy.

Whitman died in 2011 in his nineties. His daughter, Sylvia and her family have taken over the store. It is a fascinating story.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories” by P.D. James

mistletoemurderP.D. James was the Queen of Crime before her death in 2014 at the age of ninety-four. She had written some 20 novels, many involving her detective hero, Adam Dalgliesh, as well as a few non-fiction, and won prizes across the world.

During this time, she was often commissioned by newspapers and magazines to write a special story for Christmas. Four of the best of these are collected here in a small book called The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories. In a foreword to this book, Val McDermid tells of James’ fascination with the Golden Age that followed the end of the First World War and involved the famous British women crime writers: Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.

In this new book there are traces in James’ work of these early Queens of Crime. The settings are always carefully constructed, and James understands the importance of respectability, as well as wickedness. The collection makes for a very neat small book, suitable for Christmas.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“Precious and Grace” by Alexander McCall Smith

preciousandgraceAlexander McCall Smith was born in Africa in a British Protectorate now known as Zimbabwe. For many years he taught law at the university there. Since then he has lived in Scotland where he is Professor Emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and has served on many international organizations concerned with bioethics.

He has never forgotten his life in Africa, however, and we are the lucky recipients of not one but four series of books that he has written about those days, as well as his later life in Scotland. In The No. l Ladies Detective Agency he writes intimately about Precious Ramotswe and her assistant-director, Grace Makutsi, and how they help a young Canadian woman looking for someone from her past.

Precious is a pioneer in the field of detective work. She is kind and naturally compassionate, but also shrewd. The neighbourhood trusts her and she manages to let most cases solve themselves simply by putting people together and letting them talk things out. The book is filled with the sunshine and warmth of Africa as well as the charm of its inhabitants. It is also a very reassuring read in a world where the subject of ethics is very seldom mentioned.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“The Promise of Canada” by Charlotte Gray

promisecanadaCharlotte Gray is well known for her histories and biographies of Canada – many of them winning prizes.

In The Promise of Canada she cleverly chooses nine Canadians from very different walks of life who have left their mark on how we view our country. Beginning with George-Etienne Cartier, one of the Fathers of Confederation, she shows how this shrewd Montreal lawyer insisted on two levels of government for the new Canada: one at the federal level to handle the whole federation, and a more local government in each province that joined up, thus ensuring that French Canada would run everything essential to the survival of their culture.

She goes on to describe a very tough Mountie, Samuel Benfield Steele and then seven more Canadians, some more famous than others but all of whom have left their mark on the way we live. These include Tommy Douglas (who master-minded health care), Margaret Atwood with her original-minded writing, Elijah Harper speaking up for First Nations.

This is Canada’s 150th Birthday coming up. There will doubtless be much written on how we look and how we got here. This will be one of the most interesting and provocative by a writer, herself an immigrant to Canada who has come to know and love it as her own.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“Mad Enchantment” by Ross King

madenchantmentThis is another intriguing book by Ross King, who brings an artist to life by a skillful blending of biography and art history.

Claude Monet may be France’s most famous painter. Here we see how he was successful very early in his career, particularly at the Paris Salon in 1865. He went on to get higher and higher prices for his works and was now showing with a group of artistic rebels: Pierre-August Renoir, Edgar Degas and Paul Cezanne whom critics called “Impressionists.” Monet had a famously keen eye for light and painted landscapes and interiors in and around Paris. He preferred the country, however, and in 1883 moved to a small picturesque town north of Paris called Giverny. Here, in a large comfortable house, he had servants, a studio and a number of cars. Friends came down from Paris including the Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau.

Monet’s first wife had died young but he remarried, taking on quite a large family. He concentrated on the gardens which came with his Giverny house and enlarged them by building ponds, and put in a Japanese bridge. By 1914 his second wife died, also his own son. Monet almost stopped painting entirely, until he conceived the idea of bringing in exotic water lilies, in different colours and did a whole series of paintings on extra large canvases. They gave him a new lease on life and brought in big prices. This book has excellent photos of Monet’s work and how it developed to peak with the water lilies which made him world-famous.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“The Art of Rivalry” by Sebastian Smee

artrivalrysmeeIt’s always a challenge to describe an artist’s work, whether in painting, music, or poetry. Sebastian Smee is well-recognized for doing this successfully as an art critic. He has been with The Boston Globe since 2008 and in 2011 won the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.

In this book he has devised an original way of looking at eight well-known artists. He pairs them off by country and date, and looks at the effects of both their friendships and rivalries on their work. In the chapter on Manet and Degas he describes the close friendship that developed between the warm, outgoing Manet and the reserved bachelor, Degas. This came to a head in 1868, when Degas had painted a portrait of Manet and his wife Suzanne. Not long after this Degas paid a visit to Manet’s studio and saw that someone had taken a knife to the portrait, which had gone right through Suzanne’s face. The culprit turned out to be Manet himself. Smee says no one has ever discovered an explanation of this. Degas took down the still life Manet had given him and returned it to him.

This friendship apparently recovered. There are interesting chapters as well on the pairs: Freud and Bacon of the UK; Matisse and Picasso in France; and Pollock and De Kooning in the U.S. The book has good illustrations to accompany a very interesting text.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu” by Joshua Hammer

badasslibrariansIn this week’s news in Ottawa there is the story of an Islamic extremist pleading guilty to orchestrating the destruction of 14 of Timbuktu’s mausoleums because they considered them totems of idolatry. The structures housed the tombs of the city’s great thinkers and were on the World Heritage list.

The story is very similar to a book just published called The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. Here we find the story of Timbuktu from early days, in the 12th century, when it had been a big trading centre in Africa. In its Golden Age, many Islamic scholars built an important book trade and Timbuktu was the incubator for the richness of Islam. In this book, which brings the story up 2013,  fifteen Al Qaeda fighters attacked the government library that housed thousands of precious manuscripts by Timbuktu’s greatest savants and scientists, preserved for centuries, and burnt them. A curator who had led the way in building up the collection, built a team of volunteers and in an incredible act of devotion managed to transport the manuscripts by river and road, past hostile jihadi guards, bandits, and attack helicopters, and saved almost all of Timbuktu’s 377,000 manuscripts.

The author, Joshua Hammer, has been a bureau chief for Newsweek and correspondent-at-large on five continents. He knows the countries he is writing about. He has also written three other non-fiction books. This one helps us to understand what the Islamic State is trying to do.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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