"Living Oprah"

Living Oprah by Robyn Okrant

I never would have thought I’d be found reading a book with Oprah’s name in the title. I tend to avoid even the Oprah book club selections, not because I have anything personally against her, but because it doesn't seem right that anyone should have as much influence over people’s lives as she has now. I don’t think we should give that much control to anybody so I’ve shied away from getting too involved. Also, like a lot of other people, book hype pushes me away from a book rather than toward it and let’s face it, any book with her name in the title is going to get hype. However, I have a friend whose reading tastes are very similar to mine and she thought I’d enjoy it as a light read, so I agreed to try it.

The author decided that for a period of one year, Jan 1-Dec 31, she would watch the Oprah show daily and follow every suggestion Oprah gave. It was a sort of sociological experiment to see why people are so devoted to the megastar/media mogul. She bought the clothes Oprah said everyone “must” have, used her decorating ideas, exercised and ate as Oprah said she should (signing a contract along with millions of other followers to be her “best self”) and conducted relationships with her friends and her husband according to Oprah’s suggestions. She tried the recipes and products the show promoted and followed her ideas for keeping a clean house (aware of the irony that Oprah probably hasn’t done her own housework in a long time). I was exhausted at the end of her year and I just read about it; I can only imagine how she felt.

I was afraid when I began the book that it would be a gushing testimonial to how amazing and wonderful Oprah is, but it wasn’t that at all. The author was honest about what worked and what didn’t.  Some of her experiments changed her life for the good, others not so much. At times the project put a strain on her marriage and on their finances but on the whole her husband supported her. What I found interesting was that when the year was over and Jan 1 rolled around again, she had difficulty stopping. She had let Oprah do so much of her thinking for her and make so many of her decisions that it was hard to cut the cord and be her own person again. That, to me, was rather alarming and just increased my uneasiness about the whole Oprah-mania thing.   

All in all it was an interesting experiment to read about. The author writes well and is able to keep the reader interested from start to finish. Any frustration I felt was more with Oprah than with the author’s experience. It surprises me that Oprah, who I believe is a very intelligent woman, still considers herself a credible source of wisdom and advice for the ordinary American woman who struggles to make ends meet while holding down a job, raising kids, keeping a marriage healthy and a house clean and organized. Maybe she did begin to see the growing gulf that separated her from other women and maybe that’s partly why she stopped doing the show, who knows?

I want to be clear that though I'm not an Oprah fan, I'm also not an Oprah-basher. She built a fabulous life and career for herself from very humble beginnings and I admire that. Also her philanthropy is well known and commendable; there's no question she has done a lot of good. Whether you’re a fan or not, this book makes for interesting reading so I do recommend it.

"Love and Summer"

Love and Summer by William Trevor

At first I thought the title was weak, even silly, but having read the book I see now how perfect it is. It is a story about summer and love, though not of the romance genre that is currently so popular. This story has depth and the characters are realistically flawed. The tone of the book reminded me of Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome" and Richard Blackmore's "Lorna Doone", unsentimental love stories that don't pretend lovers all live happily ever after.

Ellie Dillahan is married to a farmer who lost his first wife and child in a farm accident. She had been hired as housekeeper after their deaths, then one day the farmer said they might as well marry, and so they did. One summer day a stranger shows up in town taking pictures of people at a funeral Ellie is attending. They meet and a relationship develops. For one of them it's love, for the other it's a pleasant summer pastime. The histories of both will influence how their relationship moves forward.

This is my second William Trevor book and I think my favourite thing about his writing is how well he captures on paper the lilt in the Irish way of speaking. Putting the subject and verb at the end of a sentence rather than the beginning gives it a musical feel that keeps me re-reading certain lines just for the rhythm. I would love to go to Ireland one day and immerse myself in it.

I recommend this book to any reader who likes realism in relationships stories or anyone who is charmed by Ireland and her people. I can't go so far as to agree with some of the blurbs on the back cover that call it "heart-stopping" and "as close to perfection as may be possible", but it is a good story and very well written.

"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry"

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Harold and Maureen Fry are a couple we recognize immediately. They are neighbours from down the street or maybe an aunt and uncle in our own family. They are settled, unremarkable people, as most of us are when looked at from a distance, but up close the picture looks different. The passive facade thinly covers years of living with unspeakable pain.

When Harold receives word that an old friend is dying, he writes back with all the usual expressions of concern and sets out on the short walk to the mailbox. Something in him is unsatisfied with the inadequacy of his note, so he walks past the first mailbox thinking he'll drop it in the next one. He passes that one too, and after several more, decides he will walk the length of England and deliver the note by hand.

Maureen at first doesn't know why he hasn't come home, and after he calls, doesn't understand. Angry, afraid and humiliated, she tells their curious neighbour that Harold is in bed with a twisted ankle. As the days pass, the truth comes out, becomes public, and Harold's pilgrimage stirs the imagination of the nation. As always, what the press portrays is nothing at all like what is really going on in the lives of Harold and Maureen.

I was drawn to this book by the word "Pilgrimage" in the title - I love a tale about somebody walking somewhere - but came to love it for it's insight into human frailty and our capacity to carry on in the most difficult circumstances. Many times while I was reading I would come across a well-worded thought and think "Yes! That's exactly the way it is." I think most people will find something of themselves - their own fears, disappointments, hopes - in this couple.

I enjoyed the writing. The dialogue is good and the sentences uncluttered. It has that compact, British wording I like so much. British authors seem able to say things in fewer words than the rest of us, and to state them simply without wringing all possible emotion out of them. Look at these lines where Harold turns down the offer of a cold beer: "Alcohol has brought unhappiness in the past, he said, both to himself and those close to him. For many years he had chosen to avoid it." I can't help but think that any author other than British would have taken advantage of the opportunity and used far more dramatic language than "has brought unhappiness in the past". I like that there was no emotionally manipulative side story to wade through. Another aspect of the writing I liked was the author's vivid, but never wordy, descriptions, like this one: "The moon shone high, and cast a trembling copy of itself over the deep water." 

 I enjoyed reading this one and highly recommend it.

"While The World Watched"

While The World Watched by Carolyn Maull McKinstry

Carolyn Maull was 14 years old when a bomb exploded in a washroom of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama, where she and her family were attending Sunday morning service. She had just spoken with four of her girlfriends in that washroom before heading upstairs. Her four friends were killed in the blast.

It's always good to hear the personal stories of people who lived through events that we know mainly as history. I was 11 years old in September, 1963, when this act of racial terrorism took place and I had only a slight idea what racial prejudice looked like. A few years earlier, in first grade, there had been one little black girl in my school and she was my friend. I hated the way some of the children taunted and frightened her, chasing her home after school in tears. I had no idea at the time why they were doing it. I went home with her after school one day and I've always remembered the look on her parents' faces. They looked tired, defeated. And scared. I remember wondering why they were so sad. I didn't realize then that people must be treating them as badly, and probably far worse, than my little friend was being treated. Of course this was just a tiny glimpse of what was happening on a much larger scale in the southern U.S., and when the Birmingham bombing happened, it wasn't even on my 11 year old radar.  

Learning the personal stories of people who lived through it is important; we can get the facts from history books, but to gain an understanding of what really happened and how it affected people's lives we have to hear if from them. McKinstry's story of growing up in Alabama in the 1960's is eye-opening and heart- wrenching. It's sickening what people were made to suffer simply because of the colour of their skin. It's also sickening to realize these horrors were committed not hundreds of years ago, but in our own recent past. Some of the "Jim Crow" laws are listed in the book and if you are not already familiar with them you will be shocked and disgusted.

Though I'm very glad I read this story, I didn't enjoy the writing. It was repetitive and didn't flow well. There were touches of melodrama that seemed superfluous. In this story there is more actual drama than anyone would ever want in a lifetime, so adding it as a literary technique seems like too much. I think the book would have benefited from more editing.

In spite of the weaknesses in the writing, I do recommend the book because it provides an up-close and personal look at a part of human history we must never forget. And it serves as a reminder that though some battles have been won, the fight for equality continues for many negro people, for native North Americans, for women, for the lower castes in India, and for countless others all over the world. The fight is far from over.