Books : ‘The Midnight Library’, Worth Staying Up Late For

One of everyone’s favorite Christmas movies is It’s A Wonderful Life. Yet if movie-maker Frank Capra and leading man Jimmy Stewart weren’t already stars when it came out back in the 1940’s, they might not have thought life was so wonderful. Initially, the movie flopped. Decades later of course it was resurrected and became a holiday staple and a film that’s sold tons of DVDs and moreover, influenced many people in a positive manner. You never know.

Which is the underlying theme to the latest book I read, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. The novel is currently sitting at #12 on the New York Times best-sellers list, and noteworthily is the oldest, the only one of the top dozen to have come out in 2020. Rightly so. The book has staying power, because it is, first and foremost a good story. Haig managed to take a tablespoon each of It’s A Wonderful Life and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, added in a pinch of a positive mental health info and served it up in a modern-day, social media obsessed setting. The result was tastier than one might imagine.

The Midnight Library, in capsule summary involves the life, and nearly the death, of a 35 year-old woman named Nora. She lives in a run-down British city and feels like her life is worthless, and furthermore, that she’s squandered a number of chances to have the BIG life, the IMPACT life. She could have been an Olympian. Could have been a rock star. And so on. Instead, she’s lonely and unemployed. Through magic, God or some combination of those factors and others beyond explanation, she has a chance to see how her life could have come out… and finds a way into her best possible life. That’s the short description, I’ll put a somewhat more in-depth look at it at the end for those not scared off by “spoilers.”

Although Nora at first seems almost insufferable in her morose nature and self-pity, there is a part of her that I can relate to. A part that I think all of us can. The part that wonders “what if?” She quickly goes through a wide range of personal growths to learn – to really take to heart – that what matters most isn’t what you have done…it’s what you are going to do now. To quote the band Talk Talk, “Life’s What You Make It.”

After a slightly slow start, as we get to know the depressed lass in the depressed city, the book really picks up and turns into a page-turner. As well as a philosophical contemplation deeper than many so-called “self-help” books.

The Midnight Library. Pick it up some afternoon, and you might just find yourself still reading it at midnight. I give it 4 Dewey Decimal Card Catalogs out of 5. PS – this is a book just ripe for a Hollywood take.

More detailed overview with spoilers:

Nora Seed seems like a loser. That seems harsh, but is reality too. Because Nora seemed like the girl who could have it all. One of the best swimmers in the country. Smart. Curious. A great songwriter and musician. Concerned about the environment. If not centerfold material, plenty pretty enough to turn many a man’s head. Yet we find her depressed and depressing, just fired from her mediocre job in a failing store, with a cat which meets its demise on the road, and one real close friend who lives half a world away. Her brother seems to hate her for breaking up a band they both had been in and she periodically receives texts from the seemingly fine man she dumped days before they were to get married. She’s down enough to consider killing herself, but even her suicide attempt is half-hearted at best.

What it does though, is take her to a mystical place – the Midnight Library. A sort of never-ending library, with only one other person present – the old school librarian she used to play chess with years ago. The books are books of her life. Lives, actually. Each gives her a chance to see how her life would be had she done things differently. Not only see, in fact, but walk into those lives. Suddenly she is married to the man, who runs a charming country pub with her now. Or she studied a bit harder and is now a serious environmental scientist studying melting glaciers in the Arctic. Or she stayed in the band, which has become U2-big…she’s about to step onto stage in front of tens of thousands of Brazilian fans. Or she put her all into swimming and went to the Olympics. Or maybe she’s married to the nice young man down the road who was a bit shy, but also is a hugely successful surgeon whom she has a little daughter with.

But, need we remind you, besides all the glamor and appeal, each life has its own issues and problems anew. Pubs offer pub-keepers chances to spiral up their drinking and catch the eye of many passing women. Arctic research brings you in contact with more polar bears than fine dining establishments. Being a rock star offers temptations all too enchanting, yet deadly, for many. The grass isn’t always quite as green as it seems on the other side of the fence.

It turns out there’s only one real book for Nora to find a life she’ll find worthwhile and not be full of regrets. The question is will she open it before the library closes?

Thankful Thursday XLI – Thanksgiving

Well, I missed Thankful Thursday last week, not because I lacked things to be thankful for but rather because as with many of you, its been a very busy time for me lately, with the holidays coming besides other things. So this week seems a good time to come back and be thankful for … Thanksgiving.

As a Canadian, it still seems a bit strange to me to be celebrating Thanksgiving so late in the season, so close to Christmas. But it’s a moot point, and the important thing is whether Thanksgiving for you falls in October or the end of November, the sentiment is the same. A time to hopefully slow down a bit, get together with family and take note of all the good things we have in life.

For me, it will be one of the rare days when everyone in the house and the family has a day off. I’ll be going with my sweetie and the kiddo to my step-son and his wife’s place for a turkey dinner; a bit of a collaborative affair with us doing some side-dishes, my mother-in-law adding some more and a variety of desserts from all of us. I’m not a huge fan of turkey, but I was still delighted to be able to buy one last month and freeze it; we’d heard reports they might be rare or hard to find this season. Of course, two weeks after that the store coolers were laden with them for about half what I’d paid, but we had the peace of mind of not having to go out and fret at the grocery store this week, so it was a price worth paying. Of the holiday foods here, green bean casserole is probably my favorite, and a fine southern specialty. Or so it seems to me. We ate green beans up north, and mushrooms and mushroom soup, and onions… but not all in a single tasty dish! But I’d be fine with a meal of sandwiches or pizza. It’s the feel of the day and the togetherness which makes it special, and above all the realization of all the things we have to be thankful for in our lives.

For nearly a year, I’ve been writing a bit about some of the things that make me thankful, from the big – like being in pretty good health, something we all have come to see the value of in this past year or two – to the trivial, like watching a flock of songbirds or a well-written novel to read. I could go on similarly for years, but with other projects always present and popping up, both here and in “real” life, I’m going to take this point to wrap up the project. However, I will still be posting columns here, book, movie reviews and who knows what else, plus things on my mind, whether it’s something I’m thankful for or not … and I fully encourage you to start your own list of “thankfuls”. After awhile, it becomes a lot easier to let the problems and annoyances of life wash over you when you know how much good is overshadowing them. Or at least so I find.

So, wishing all of you a very happy Thanksgiving, a good dinner, good company and a day where you become aware of at least one more thing to give thanks for.

Thankful Thursday XL – Fish Wrappers

This Thankful Thur…, err Friday, I’m thankful for newspapers, an important anachronism in this day and age.

I grew up in a house that had newspapers. We subscribed to a daily big city paper (the Toronto Star) and were in a suburb that had a couple of weekly or semi-weekly local ones delivered automatically. I might have been nerdy as a child, but I loved them. By the time I could read well, I’d always look at it; perhaps even more than my parents did a lot of the time. I got to know what was going on in the world as well as the weather and keep track of the baseball scores and stats in that era that long preceded the internet and real-time updates. And of course, being a kid after all, I looked forward to the comics every day… Peanuts was my favorite back then. The local papers were thinner and didn’t have as much of interest, but being local, they were great at informing us of minor events in town and once in awhile, you’d see people you knew in the photos.

As I grew up and went out on my own, the papers stayed a big part of my life. Much of the time I subscribed to the Star, like my parents (my dad did right up until his death, even though he was having a fair bit of difficulty seeing it well enough to read in his last year or two) and quite often I’d buy the rival Toronto Sun as well. The Star was a big, broadsheet, but was surprisingly liberal in stance; the Sun was a tabloid that was more conservative … the opposite of what most would expect. Both had their pros and cons. The Star was better for in-depth national and world news and usually had better comics (yep, still liked them as I got older though by my 20s I was a fan of things like The Far Side). The Sun was better for local news and sports. Plus its smaller size made it ideal for reading on the bus or at a coffee shop table, making it all the better to take to work. Both offered thought-provoking editorials and by reading both, I’d get two sides to the same story quite often. It helped me think better and be better-informed.

Since I relocated, newspapers aren’t as much a part of my life. For a couple of years we did subscribe to the daily in our city here. It was a disappointment compared to the ones I was used to – much thinner, with more limited national and international news, drawn almost exclusively from wire services, less actual coverage of local events – but it was still something. I’d get the big stories of the day, and at least baseball boxscores for early games the night before. But it kept getting smaller and its price went up so when we moved, we decided to forego it. And with it now costing $2 a copy at the stores, I rarely buy one on a whim.

It’s a theme repeated across the globe. It’s a downward spiral and one of the worst side-effects of the Online Age. Fewer people have time to read a whole newspaper, and most of the things they want to see in one are found online anyway. Classified ads are a dinosaur, so ad revenue drops for the newspapers, circulation drops, so they cut back to try to save money. Which in turn makes the paper less interesting… less original content, smaller staffs, fewer photos, less expensive syndicated columnists or features…and sales drop more. One by one, city newspapers across the country shut down shop.

It’s a shame, and a socially dangerous trend. One only has to see All the President’s Men or know a bit about American political history to see the importance of a widely-read newspaper with good journalists. Or more recently, Spotlight chronicling the Boston Globe‘s role in exposing child abuse and the church cover-up to try to avoid blame. At their best, they not only report the news, they find it.

The only security of all is in a free press,” Thomas Jefferson once said. So yesterday I decided it was time to do my part, and subscribe to the local one again. I’m thankful there still is one and that we live in a land where they’re free to print, and we’re free to read them.

A Steinbeckian Tale For The Tinder Age

Diary of a young-going-on-middle-aged, recently single guy looking for love – could be a little tedious to read. Diary of a young-going-on-middle-aged, recently single guy looking for love and traveling all across the country …that’s something more memorable. And so we have my most recently-read book, Leave Only Footprints, by Conor Knighton.

Knighton managed to blend two parts of latter-day Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and one part male Bridget Jones Diary with quite compelling results. A TV news correspondent called upon sporadically by his network, he found himself dumped by his fiancee. Heartbroken, bored and tired of seeing all the places they used to go to in Phoenix, he decided to take a year off and travel. His plan – visit everyone of the national parks in the country. There are over 50, from Atlantic to Pacific, Maine to California, plus ones above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, and out in the lonely ocean in Samoa and the Virgin Islands. Cleverly, he sold his network on the idea of having him do it as a regular segment for their morning or news shows, so as to get a bit of an expense account to cover the thousands of miles by road, air and sea.

He begins the year wanting to see the first sunrise of the year before anyone else, so he visits Acadia National Park, just off the Maine coast on a frigid New Year’s morning. 364 days later he finishes up watching the sun set into the Pacific at the Point Reyes National Seashore (technically not a national park) in California. Along the way he developed a profound and newfound love of his country and its nature, as well as the people who’ve worked to preserve it. He describes all the parks he went to, and adds a little history, but the book moves along swiftly, as he had to himself, not lingering too long on any one site or sight, and introducing us to a range of interesting personnel at the parks. In an unusual but effective writing twist, he avoids making it a chronological recounting of the year, and lumps parks together by “theme.” Crater Lake and Congaree were “mysteries” as I mentioned in the previous blog. Big Bend, on the Tex-mex boundary, and American Samoa, in the middle of the ocean were “borders.” Joshua Tree and Sequoia were among the ones he labeled “trees” for obvious reason. He comes to some great insights, like how many of the people who worked hardest to set up and protect the scenic national parks came from Kansas and other similarly geographically unremarkable places. “If Dorothy had grown up in New York City rather than on the Prairie, Oz may not have looked as spectacular,” he points out. The non-linear approach worked well, keeping us a little off-balance and wondering what would be his next category.

As for love, we never really know if he found it. He used the modern apps to find dates in many cities and described one promising relationship cooked up in the fogs of Washington’s Cascades, but it never seemed to entirely take off. Then there was the nice gal who helped him when his car skidded off the road in Wyoming; he sought her out only to find she was engaged. He does a lot of self-evaluation and personal growing through the year and his recollection of his failed engagement that led to the journey. In one or two places, this side-story became a little distracting and slowing, but all in all, it helped us see him as a human on the road to somewhere… just not somewhere he had mapped out quite yet.

All in all, an interesting and at times endearing look at the United States. I give it 3.5 Smokeys out of 5.

Thankful Thursday XXXIX – Sasquatch, And Other Things We Don’t Know

This Thankful Thursday (or Saturday) I’m thankful to not be a Know-it-all…although some who’ve known me might dispute that assertion! I’m actually glad no one’s a “know-it-all”. I’m glad there are still things we, as a species, haven’t figured out yet. thankful for mystery. After all, who doesn’t love a good Agatha Christie story? I’m glad there are things that are like that for all of us, and that unlike her books, haven’t yet been wrapped up neatly with a “that solves that” answer.

I thought of that this week while reading a book about American parks. The author categorized a couple of national parks – Congaree and Crater Lake as “mystery.” Fair enough. Neither gets a lot of traffic and both have an air of mystery around them. Crater Lake is said to be the deepest lake in the U.S., but sits hidden in the mountains. It took decades to be found, even after the Oregon Territory had been settled and rumors of its existence abounded. Furthermore, there’s a huge log that floats around it sticking upright for totally unexplained reasons. Congaree is a deep, floodplain swamp, ancient cypress trees growing out of the murky water. Bugs, Water Moccasins and alligators abound, and trails are few so not surprisingly, so too are casual day-tripping sightseers. Adding to the mystery of the place are occasional reports suggesting that maybe, just maybe, two of the rarest types of birds in the Americas still live there – the fabled Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the diminutive Bachman’s Warbler. Both have always been, by most accounts rare and hard to find, preferring just the inhospitable flooded forests that Congaree offers. The tiny warbler, a bright yellow little songbird that eats bugs, hasn’t been seen for decades. The woodpecker, on the other hand, is large, showy…but wary of humans at best. It was last heard from in 2005 when some blurry video in an Arkansas swamp seemed to show one fly by, backed up by disputed eye-witness sightings there. If either still exists is debatable, but nature-lovers like myself live in hope that they are…perhaps in Congaree’s dark recesses.

They’re mysteries not too unlike the “great” American one – Sasquatch. The famed Bigfoot has been reported since Europeans began to settle the Pacific coast forests…and long before by the local Natives who had various names for it including “Sasquatch”. For over a hundred years people have wondered if they exist, and gone out searching for them, with little to show so far. A few videos which might have been faked, suggestively huge footprints in mud, weird unearthly screaming sounds in the forest. One wonders why, with the settlers love of guns, someone along the way hasn’t shot one, inethical as that might be, or hit one with a car. Likewise though, one wonders how there could be so many similar stories through the pre-internet decades of big, unknown ape-like creatures from Montana to B.C. if something we don’t yet know is out there. It’s a mystery.

UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, what’s out on the outer limits of the universe… no one really knows yet. That’s exciting to the scientific part of me…and comforting to the spiritual part that likes to think that no matter how smart people are, we’re still dwarfed by something bigger than all of us…something that has the answers but will only share them when we’re ready. Til then, if we want to know, all we can do is load up on bugspray and head out into the forest primeval.

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