Thursday, April 9, 2009

Book Review - The Notebook by Agota Kristof

Mortifying Honesty

When reading a book, I have this habit/obsession where I have to add any books mentioned in said book to my ‘To-Be-Read’ list. This started as an interesting way to build my list and expand my range, but has turned into a 2,000 book TBR list comprised mostly of books that I have absolutely no interest in reading. In light of the fact that there are thousands of awesome books out there that I would actually like to read, I think I will be stopping this compulsive practice. However, without having adhered to this exercise, I doubt I would ever have stumbled upon this remarkably moving book.

The Notebook made its way on to my list as per it being on the favourites list of Heather O’Neill, as mentioned in the back of her novel Lullabies for Little Criminals. Once I realized that this wasn’t the book that the movie with Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams was based upon, but was actually an epistolary novel written by a Hungarian woman and translated from the French language, I was intrigued and ordered it from the library.

I feel that I should start with a disclaimer when discussing the content of this book, since these are some of the creepiest and most distressing stories that I’ve read to date. So, there, consider yourself forewarned. Within its few pages we are met with barbaric scenes of bestiality, paedophilia, and gang rape, but to name a few of the atrocities. The abysmal misery that shrouds these pathetic characters is as inconceivable as it is indicative of wartime suffering.

The Notebook is the story of young twin brothers who after being abandoned by their mother, to live with their grandmother in a tiny house on the frontlines of battle, must learn to survive under the gravest of circumstances. With a boorish and insatiable old woman that the neighbours call ‘the witch’ as their slave-driving guardian, the boys quickly learn that they must protect each other or be defeated.

Through self-imposed exercises of fasting, self-mutilation and immobilization, this fearless pair conditions themselves to withstand any torture that befalls them. With their newly fashioned armour of apathy, these savages methodically collect food and earn money, while becoming the most feared of all the town folk. They even avenge the honour of their pathetic neighbour, ‘Harelip,’ and her deaf and dumb mother, this all before the loss of their milk teeth.

By the end of this short novel I was thankful for it to be over, as I was completely exhausted by its viciousness, and was in need of a break. It’s ghastly to think of the monstrous behaviour that shell-shock, starvation and hysteria can cause in the desperate.

Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t provide for much closure since this is book one of a trilogy. I dare say that I might have to search for the other two books because of my curiosity being piqued and what I can only refer to as my morbid fascination with train wrecks needing to be assuaged. As for recommending this book, I'd be apprehensive. Only those with a strong stomach and a hardened heart would make it through, and even they would not be unscathed. In conclusion, read at your own risk.

4.5/5 Snakes

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Book Review - Easy Way for Women to Stop Smoking by Allen Carr

Yippee, I'm freeee!!!!!

If you are or ever have been a smoker, I’m sure by now you’ve heard of Allen Carr and his apparent ‘Easy Way’ to quit smoking. He has written several editions of his book outlining his philosophies relating to quitting the evil nicotine, and has helped thousands of smokers worldwide to quit the nasty habit for good. With his astonishing success rate in mind, and a desperate need to quit this disgusting habit that I’ve had for over seventeen years, I decided to pick up Carr’s Easy Way for Women to Stop Smoking.

Carr’s basic premise is that the addiction that we have to smoking is comprised of very little outside of the brainwashing sustained at the hands of the major tobacco companies. He feels that the actual physical addiction to nicotine, what he refers to as the “little monster,” is minor, remaining no more than three or four days upon quitting. The lasting but still beatable combatant would be what he calls the “big monster,” the brainwashing by the tobacco companies, mentioned above. Carr insists that considering smoking a habit, feeling that you enjoy some cigarettes more than others (i.e. after a meal), and believing that smoking relaxes you, cures boredom or relieves stress is all part and parcel of the brainwashing ploy that we’ve fallen victim to for over a century. He believes that reversing this brainwashing and seeing the truth in all of the lies is the key to rid yourself of smoking, as opposed to the sure-to-fail willpower method that so many of us have faltered on.

I must admit that the book did provide for a profound change on how I view my addiction to this filthy, cancer-causing imprisonment that I’ve been bound to for so many years. I immediately felt compelled to smoke my last cigarette and move on to a healthier, happier and free existence as a non-smoker. With nothing but good intentions I followed his plan and bid it farewell. I lasted about 18 hours, and then buckled to a half-smoked butt that my fiancé had left in our balcony ashtray. Determined not to be defeated, I did not let myself succumb to the feelings of failure that were lurking in my mind, and with a little brainwashing of my own I was appropriately convinced that everyone is entitled to a slipup. I got back on the wagon with the notion that tomorrow is a new day.

It has been six days now, and aside from the first couple of days where I had a few drags to calm the “little monster,” I have eliminated smoking from my daily routine. Yippee! I will not pretend that this happened without a heavy dose of willpower on my part, because I was most definitely white-knuckling it through the first couple of days. In this respect, as well as his downplaying of the physical withdrawal symptoms experienced, I feel that Carr slightly misrepresents the ease of quitting smoking. Unless of course, I am just an unlucky person who went through an extraordinary difficulty in quitting, but I doubt that very much, especially since I was down to approximately 15 cigarettes a day when I finally cut them out.

That being said, I am thankful to Carr’s book for pointing out my error in buying in to society and its brainwashing surrounding smoking, I just find it hard to believe that willpower doesn’t come into play when quitting anything that there is a physical addiction to, no matter how minor. I truly believe that I have rid myself of the mind-games that have kept me picking up a cigarette when I’m stressed-out or bored, because I now realize that the only reason smoking addresses these things is because of the underlying physical addiction that leaves me feeling insecure and in need of something. I understand that once this “little monster” is put to death I will actually be able to deal with stress and boredom better, without a craving for nicotine getting in the way. It is because of these important realizations that I am truly thankful to have read Allen Carr’s book and would recommend it to anyone that is seriously ready to save their lives and quit this disastrous habit.

4/5 Snakes

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Book Review - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Francie Nolan is a role model for the ages

When I first heard about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I wondered if I would be able to relate to the story of a young girl growing up in the early 1900s. In keeping with my memoir fascination, once I found out that the story was possibly influenced by the real life of Betty Smith, and that she shared the same birthday as the story’s heroine, Francie Nolan, I became more intrigued. In the back of the copy I have there is an article written by Smith’s daughter, about her mother, where she says,

“She was always altering incidents to make them into stories. She often said about ‘Tree’ that she didn’t write it the way it was, but the way it should have been.”
Early 1900s or not, I had no problem relating to Francie, an avid reader of a book a day, who grew up in a household where her mother favoured her brother, and her father was a falling-down drunk. There were a few times where I stumbled on some of the fashion references, like a shoe accessory named ‘Spats,’ and a false shirt called a ‘dickey,’ but with a quick Google search I was in the know and felt as though I had learned something new for the day.

The most important character of the novel, in my opinion, is Mary Rommely, Francie’s maternal grandmother. Mary believes in the importance of an active imagination, and feels that every child needs a place they can go to in their mind when life becomes difficult. Mary asserts her convictions to Francie’s mother, Katie, near the beginning of the novel, and informs her that she must read to her children everyday, and allow them to believe in fantasy worlds such as fairy tales and Kris Kringle. She also assures Katie that through education the cycle of poverty can be broken, as more opportunities will avail themselves to the children with the more knowledge they acquire. It is clear that but for the influence of this insightful woman, Francie may never have become the ambitious and creative dreamer we know her to be.

Part of Francie’s innovative nature could also be attributed to her day dreaming father who forever lived with his head in the clouds. Torn between her father’s romantic world and the hard cold reality as seen through the eyes of her mother, Francie shapes herself into a fine balance of the two. Fortunately she acquires the strength that is common to the women in her family, and this combined with her intelligence and creativity proves to be unstoppable.

You may find this classic in the young-adult section of your bookstore, but I can assure you it is not exclusive to this age group, as there are an abundance of life’s truths, beneficial to all, found throughout. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is inspiring, well written and honest in it’s descriptions of the good and evil that can be found in humanity. The circumstances with which Francie Nolan finds herself are timeless in their portrayal of family, survival and the loss of innocence, and this is one important novel that should be on every bookshelf.

4.5/5 Snakes

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Book Review - Baby by Patricia Maclachlan

Patricia Maclachlan's character development in so few pages is nothing short of awesome

What would you do if a baby was left at your doorstep with a note from her mother saying she would be back some day? Could you care for that baby, even come to love her, knowing she could be taken from you at any time? I don’t know that I could be that selfless, deal with that loss. In Baby we bear witness to the quirky, loving and ill-fated family that must deal with such sadness.

Patricia MacLachlan proves to be a master of the metaphor in this beautifully written story that, at its core, is about the importance of words; learning them, sharing them, avoiding them, and most importantly, hearing them.

Although some aspects of this story are mournful, what we take away from Baby is a family’s ability to put the pieces back together after a profound loss. Anyone having gone through a similar tragedy would draw inspiration and strength from this family, just as they did from the baby on their doorstep.

3.5/5 Snakes

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book Review - The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

**Spoiler Alert

A divine marriage of contemporary and historical fiction

The robust intensity and graphic imagery with which The Gargoyle began was so powerful that it incited corporeal revulsions of nausea and regurgitation. Determined not to give in to my weakness, I continued reading, though I had to continually remind myself that the terrifying scene playing out was the creation of an obviously brilliant imagination, as opposed to something that the author had actually experienced.

We begin with a loveless orphan, who in his attempts to survive in the world alone, created a mini-empire in the pornography industry, on the back of the only thing that he could rely on; his beauty. In the first few pages we learn how his reckless life falls apart… or does it?

After surviving a near-fatal car crash, due to hallucinations induced by drugs and alcohol, this unnamed anti-hero spends his days monstrously marred and permanently disfigured in the burn ward of the hospital, battling the ‘painsnake’ inhabiting his spine, and fantasizing over his eventual planned suicide. He is biding his time and calculating the most effective way to end it all, when his reality is turned upside down by a visit from a schizophrenic patient that has ventured out of the psychiatry wing.

It was through this eccentric storyteller, Marianne Engel, that I became mystified by Davidson’s creativity. What at first seemed to be ridiculous delusions from an unstable woman soon became the interconnected tales that transport us to Germany in the 1300s, where the love affair between these diametrically opposing characters was said to have first began.

As impossible as it is for our healing anti-hero to believe such fantastic stories, the genuine love and affection for Marianne, that he finds filling the void that has been his loveless existence, is enough to inspire a will to live that was once unimaginable. A lifetime spent using and seducing women, and a livelihood based on superficial beauty and degradation of the flesh was all but forgotten with his awakening to a life with true love.

“What an unexpected reversal of fate: only after my skin was burned away did I finally become able to feel. Only after I was born into physical repulsiveness did I come to glimpse the possibilities of the heart: I accepted this atrocious face and abominable body because they were forcing me to overcome the limitations of who I am, while my previous body allowed me to hide them.”

Love, religion, death and redemption are the predominant themes throughout the novel, not only through the main story, but also in the sub-stories of those that would eventually become our anti-hero’s protectors in his withdrawal journey through hell; the Japanese Buddhist, the Viking, the Italian ironworker, and the lady on the hill.

My one wish is that I would have read Dante’s Inferno before reading this novel, because much of the latter part of the story draws parallels to this historical work of poetry. Although prior exposure to Inferno is not necessary for the comprehension of The Gargoyle, I fear that I may have missed out on some of the references or implicit meanings Davidson included, without having read it first.

4/5 Snakes

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Book Review - Forever ... by Judy Blume

Can't say I'm impressed with this one

Judy Blume brings nothing but fond memories when I think back to reading Are You There God, Its Me Margaret, or Blubber. I know I’m not alone when I credit her for keeping reading interesting at nine years old. It turns out I missed another of her books that she wrote in the ‘seventies, that was targeted at an older audience. The main character is seventeen, so I can only assume that is was aimed at older teens … I hope so anyway. Of course the book I’m referring to is Forever, a story of first love and consequently, teenage sex.

Now, granted, safe sex and protection is a main theme of the book, and whether it is slightly outdated or not, it still feels like an after school special. However, I was rather confused with this books ultimate agenda, because even though the content is extremely graphic and comes off as a soft porn, how-to guide for sex, the basic writing style and lack of intellectual prose makes it appear to be aimed at a younger audience of possibly thirteen or fourteen.

Now, I may be old fashioned, but I certainly don’t want my thirteen year old reading a manual on how to give it up to her teenage boyfriend because she thinks she’s in love. Although, my thirteen year old won’t have that opportunity, I’m sure there are plenty out there that will, and I think this story is far too laissez-faire with its message. I can completely understand why this book was banned by many, especially in the time period that it was written.

If the intended messages were about being responsible, and not throwing your dreams away by getting too serious too quickly, I think they could have been portrayed in a much more tactful way.

1/5 Snakes

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Book Review - Holes by Louis Sachar

Grab a copy and dig in!

Calling all reluctant readers, Holes is exactly the type of story that grasps a young reader in its clutches and doesn’t let go. What more would a child ask for than a tall tale passed down through generations, defenceless criminals being held captive by evil and slave-driving authorities, the search for a missing treasure, and the heroic underdogs that save the day?

Whilst enjoying the fast pace of this novel, kids will be taught about finding pride in their accomplishments, the importance of being accountable for their actions, and their intrinsic ability to adapt to any situation. Not only an intricately woven tale with sub-plots that lead to a magical end, Holes is heavy in social commentary, as it tackles such issues as racism, poverty and bullying. Based on the exploration of these issues, as well as some violent and even fatal scenes arising from them, it’s now apparent to me why this book has been critically acclaimed.

I would recommend that a parent read this story alongside their child so that they can encourage discussion and include an experienced, adult point of view. That being said, the mere broaching of these subjects to a young audience is exactly what it’s going to take to create awareness and better help our youth to conquer these problems in their adult lives.

4/5 Snakes

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Book Review - Chew on This by Eric Schlosser

It might be hard to swallow

I recently picked up Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser to become better versed in the horrors of fast food, so that when I was preaching to my niece about the ill effects of this garbage, I would sound credible. To my amazement I came across an abridged version that was targeted at kids: Chew on This. After reading a couple chapters of Fast Food Nation I decided to put it on hold and dig into the tween version so that I could pass it along to my niece when I was done. I must say, increasing font size, adding some pictures, and putting the word poop in some subtitles, does not a children’s book make. While I found the book interesting and informative, I’m not sure how Schlosser’s direct and unimaginative reporting style would fair with young minds, especially those addicted and in denial.

There were some pretty affecting findings in the book, none the less, as Schlosser points out that the fast food industry is feeding and feeding off of children. Not only is the majority of the marketing targeted at the youth, but children’s foods are manufactured to taste sweeter and less bitter than adult foods, often altering a child’s future tolerance to normal flavoured foods, consequently keeping them hooked on the junk food. We are also taught about the chemical labs that have the omnipotent power of flavouring foods with additives, as well as making their odours more appetizing … since we probably wouldn’t want to eat them in their unaltered state.

Schlosser enlightens us on the horrifying process by which cattle and chicken are mass produced and inhumanely treated in feedlots, for their short lives, and how the millions of pounds of waste they create can affect neighbouring water bodies and soil. Of course the common family farm doesn’t usually factor into this equation because most of them have been put out of business by approximately four huge meat packing companies that are cornering the market. Now, they aren’t the only ones that have had to close up shop, as Mom ‘n Pop restaurants all across North America have been shut down by the low prices and ‘Speedee Service System’ (Originally created by the McDonald’s brothers) of the fast food chains.

As unfortunate as all of this is, the part that strikes a chord the most with me is the slave labour that fast food creates. With ‘McJobs’ now a part of the English language, basically meaning a low-paying job that will lead to nowhere, there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight. Our teenagers are working until the wee hours of the morning on a school night to dish out burgers, and overseas children and teenagers are working 16 hours a day, for sometimes as little as .20 cents an hour, to make the crappy toy in a happy meal. And for what … so that we can feed the corporate monster and make ourselves, and our children sick? For Shame.

3/5 Snakes

Monday, March 16, 2009

Book Review - The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Must be re-read as an adult to experience the full joy from its genius!

For Milo, life was void of excitement, mystery and fun. As he plodded on through the motions of school and everyday life, he found himself always in a hurry to be someplace else, unfortunately to no avail, as he could not find interest in anywhere he ended up. That all changed when he happened upon a tollbooth in his bedroom upon returning from school one day.

And so began his wild adventure to the Lands Beyond. With the help of a ticking watchdog named Tock and a clumsy Humbug, Milo commences a journey to return the sorely missed princesses Rhyme and Reason to the City of Wisdom. Although it first appears that Milo is there to help the characters in this faraway land, it is soon apparent that he will also be the recipient of much guidance and important knowledge that he has been lacking in his own life.

Milo is reminded of the importance of slowing down to appreciate the beauty that life has to offer, the necessity of unpleasant experiences in order to properly appreciate the good times, and that everything we learn is necessary and has a reason or a purpose, even if we’re not aware of it at the time. He encounters such demons as Procrastination, Habit, Insincerity and Fear in The Mountains of Ignorance, and must draw on his newly acquired knowledge in his efforts to prevail.

Not only has Norton Juster created a timeless adventure, he has creatively infused all the necessary elements of life’s important lessons, making The Phantom Tollbooth beloved by both children and parents alike.

5/5 Snakes

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Book Review - The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

I'm still anxiously waiting for the library to get the movie in

Doon and Lina have just graduated from their final year of school at the age of 12, and consequently experience the right of passage bestowed upon all the people of Ember at this stage; Assignment Day. They receive their jobs from the mayor and set out to do their civic duties as many others before them, but when Lina stumbles across a message that appears to be from ‘the Builders,’ creators of the City of Ember, it is clear that theirs is a much more burdened fate.

The City of Ember is a fascinating tale of a dystopian society, where a young boy and girl in all of their bravery and desperation, work together to try and save their beloved people from a looming eternal darkness. This being the first Book of Ember in a series that currently consists of four, all questions were not answered by its completion, but I look forward to moving on to the second book and unravelling more of the saga.

4/5 Snakes

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Book Review - The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay

A glimpse of Quebecor culture in the 1940s

The budding of spring, a time for enlightenment and new beginnings, casts the mood for this beautiful and haunting tale told through magical realism, and reverent love for family, a place and a time. Michel Tremblay’s passion for his beginnings is shared with us through a day in the life of the residents of la rue Fabre in the heart of Montreal in the ‘40s, with the fat lady next door paying homage to his beloved mother.

The mystical sisters, Rose, Violette and Mauve, have sat in their rocking chairs knitting booties for generations of the past, and persevere for seven babies soon to be, the magical triple clicking of their needles a necessity for continuum. Helplessly driven by a predetermined pattern, they are merely observers to the struggles of their tormented neighbours, as they sit with instruments in their hands and compassion in their hearts.

The eccentric and opposing personalities Tremblay presents us with intermingle through the pages amidst their willful ignorance, blinding judgements, and suffocating shame. These transgressions, perpetuated by the shadow of a stifling religion, a begrudged war, combined with a lack of imagination, serve to disquiet them as they struggle to find their footing on the soft ground of the changing season.

The Fat Women Next Door is Pregnant although brimming with delicious prose, did prove to be a difficult read at times. The compilation of 22 distinctly different, three-dimensional characters – a supercilious cat, a matriarchal witch, the she-wolf of Ottawa – and a writing style with no regard to paragraphs or a properly referenced dialogue, left my head swirling on more than one occasion. Seemingly each and every character begged to have their depth explored and their connection with the reader furthered, and as such, I think the story would have been better served as an elaborate, 800-page epic.

Aside from this, I came away from the novel with the feeling that ‘family’ is the true essence of our being, as through all of the chaos and ridicule that can be found on these pages, the love that emits from this clan is a fortress of undeniable strength and authenticity. By the end of the story you’re sure to have a fondness in your heart for the fat woman next door.

4/5 Snakes

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Book Review - Losing It and Gaining My Life Back One Pound at a Time by Valerie Bertinelli

Valerie Bertinelli is a bright light of inspiration

In the interest of finding motivation wherever I could get it, I decided to read Losing It – And Gaining My Life Back One Pound At A Time. The book is not so much a weight loss success story as it is an honest account of Valerie Bertinelli’s struggle with food as she tried to juggle an unhappy marriage and self-image.

Interestingly enough, it appears as though she employed the “laws of attraction” or “The Secret” to start her journey into weight loss, although never coming out and labeling her techniques as such. Things really started to change when for a second or third time she was accosted by Jenny Craig to be a spokes person, and finally decided to give it a shot.

Although she was a beloved TV actress from the 70’s through to the 90’s, she couldn’t be anymore down to earth as she dishes the dirt on her past mistakes and recent growth as a wife, mother and individual. It is apparent that she was vain, naïve and insecure, for most of her life, but her willingness to share these flaws publicly, in the hopes of finally being able to break free, be herself and face her demons, shows her true character and strength.

All-in-all a fluff read, and whether it will motivate me to make the necessary changes in my life in order to slim down, remains to be seen.

2.5/5 Snakes

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Book Review - Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Yossarian Lives!

Catch-22 is an existential, anti-war satire told through asininity and disjointed logic, often running on bureaucracy and “military intelligence,” or a lack there of.

Heller uses a non-chronological narrative which can be hard to follow at times, but eventually results in an affective lead-up to the novels important conclusions. We are presented with a military wrought with corruption and greed, whereby the senior officers pose more of a threat to the men then the actual enemy.

This classic is a reminder that in a world of distorted values, where success measures worth, we must question whose definition of success we will find validity in and ultimately find our individuality. We are left with the message that to be true to ones self is the only goal worth pursuing, and that often the only way for that to come to pass is to stand up against the masses and face adversity. But when all is said and done, as evidenced even today, weakness, greed and corruption prevail, and the soldiers march on.

Yours truly, Washington Irving

5/5 Snakes

Monday, March 9, 2009

Book Review - Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

A different bird, that Alex Supertramp

Into the Wild is a true account of Christopher McCandless’s foolhardy pilgrimage to his death in the wilderness of Alaska. Although he was clearly suffering from hubris, this passionate idealist was on a mission to understand himself and his connection to nature, in his solo journey under the alias Alex Supertramp.

There is no shortage of irony in this tragedy, as this young man who once had a dream of putting an end to world hunger, and even donated all of his savings to this cause, died of starvation. It should also be noted that for McCandless, his trip into the wild was an exercise in freedom, a sort of protest of society in a world full of rules and boundaries, only to come to his end “... trapped in the wild.”

There are many critics who accuse him of willful ignorance and arrogance in underestimating the fierceness of the Alaskan bush, and his ability to handle it with his limited experience. Although partly true, how many of us could say that we would survive even half of the experiences that he courageously conquered, all in the interest of pursuing his dreams?

In the end, along with countless others that he encountered in his travels, I am inspired by his story, and I will take with me his final realization after months of solitude, that "Happiness isn’t real unless it’s shared."

2.5/5 Snakes

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Book Review - Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

Three cheers and an A-men for Maniac Magee!

Maniac Magee is like a story told through an imaginative child on the playground at recess, where exaggeration and fantasy are just as important as any truths. Spinelli’s clever, funny and creative approach to dealing with such staggering issues as death, homelessness and racism, is to be applauded. The clear message is that ignorance breeds hate, and if we could just get to know one another and put aside our fears, things could be very different in our world divided.

It is through the talented, compassionate and fearless Jeffrey ‘Maniac’ Magee that the gap between the East and West ends of the city of Two Mills, finally comes together. Maniac unwittingly spends most of his time teaching people from both sides about one another, thus helping to break down the fear of the unknown. This orphan also has the fortune of coming across many kind-hearted people in his travels, from both neighbourhoods, and it is through them that he learns about love and what it means to be a part of a family.

It is such witty creations as a tricycle biker gang named ‘Heck’s Angels’, and a young girl who takes all of her books with her to school in a suitcase every day, so her younger siblings won’t crayon all their pages, that make this a rather entertaining read.

3.5/5 Snakes

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Book Review - Spanking Shakespeare by Jake Wizner

I'm expecting big things from Wizner after this smash hit for mature teens.

Think coming-of-age story for the 21st century. Think Diary of a Wimpy Kid for the mature teen. Think self-deprecating humour by a misfit, that has developed a cult following. Add these all up and you’ve got this hilarious, laugh-out-loud, quick witted novel, Spanking Shakespeare.

Shakespeare has the terrible misfortune of having a father who drinks too much, a nagging mother who is constantly pushing him towards a therapist’s couch, and a brother named Gandhi with a propensity to be malicious. Sound like the end of the world? Well, it’s not, and deep down inside he knows it’s not. But being a teenager full of angst, it is Shakespeare’s dutiful responsibility to wallow in his own self-pity and blame anyone and everyone for the continuous catastrophes that make up his life. In this regard Wizner does an outstanding job of capturing the essence of the teenage psyche. Shakespeare is the downtrodden victim representing all 17 year old boys and their dilemmas with popularity, prom, girlfriends, sexual frustration, et cetera, et cetera.

My only contention with this story is its blatant disrespect of religion, as its sacrilege in the last few chapters was a little unsettling, and even seemed unnecessary. My best guess is that Wizner has some pent-up anger resulting from the circumcision of his member, and has been viciously seeking revenge against God and the covenant as a result. Once I got passed that, I could admit that this was quite an enjoyable book overall, and it’s sure to be appreciated by any teen 16 and up, boy or girl.

3/5 Snakes

Friday, March 6, 2009

Book Review - I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

A true gem for any age

The intimacy of a first-person narrative often has me missing the characters of a novel by its end, and I Capture the Castle is no exception. Cassandra is an insightful, considerate and engaging aspiring writer, who is at the mercy of poverty and her high maintenance family. Her enchanting journal entries are descriptively vivid and poetic, written with a 1930s English style and taking place in a castle.
Religion is a reoccurring theme, as we learn about old-world Pagan customs, as well as Cassandra’s questioning of her devotion to Christian beliefs. One memorable quote being “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity,” as Cassandra had deducted per the vicar assuring her not to feel guilty for only praying in bad times.

At its heart this novel is about love in all of its beautiful and pathetic forms; innocent, unconditional, authentic versus opportune, forbidden and unrequited. Set in a different time, it feels slightly misogynistic at one moment and then completely liberating and ahead of its time at the next. This is one book where I will not watch the movie, for fear of spoiling its subtle and artistic beauty. I highly recommend this entrancing story for any teen or adult alike.

4.5/5 Snakes

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Book Review - Fruit by Brian Francis

Ten Minutes after writing this review I found out that Mercy Among the Children had been the first to get voted off the table. What an upset!

In the interest of broadening my literary range and exposing myself to more Canadian talent, I decided to read the selections from CBC’s Canada Reads 2009. After thoroughly enjoying Mercy Among the Children, I was anxious and excited to move on to the next book, to see if there was any chance that David Adams Richards could be defeated. Unless Canadians have collectively lost their marbles, there is certainly no danger of this happening with Fruit.

Life can be difficult at thirteen, and for Peter Paddington there is no exception. In fact things are worse for him as he is more than fifty pounds overweight, struggling with his sexuality, and – this is the real kicker – wakes up one morning to find that his nipples have transformed in to what look like maraschino cherries, that, to make matters worse, spontaneously start talking to him. That’s right, you didn’t read that wrong, talking nipples. The inclusion of this bizarre aspect to the story was the point of no return for my attention span, I’m afraid. Since the conversations his nipples would instigate were of an antagonizing nature, I can only assume that this was meant to signify his body’s betrayal of him, a feeling common to many people struggling with their weight. Clever, I suppose, but a little too bizarre in my opinion.

There were some redeeming qualities to the story though, as Peter was often extremely creative and witty. His habits of asserting himself through mental telepathy, worshiping the Virgin Mary through his closet door frame, and concocting homo-erotic bedtime stories to help lull him to sleep at night, had me giggling. On the flipside, Fruit is riddled with cliché, and most of the characters are the epitome of common stereotypes. There’s the Italian family… with the kitchen in their basement, who own a restaurant, with a daughter that works at said restaurant whilst tending to the household chores and minding the ripening tomatoes, and while she does all this, her Camaro driving brother is given free reign to do whatever he pleases, as he is the apple of his non-English speaking parent’s eyes. The clichés continued with fervor in the overbearing, menopausal mother with the Protestant inferiority complex, and all of the school cliques; goody-goodies, (head) bangers, athletic group, slutty girls group, et cetera, et cetera. It soon becomes apparent that this typecasting must be part of the author’s shtick, his way of exposing the conventions of everyday existence, I’m guessing.

Before reading Fruit I had heard from quite a few people that they had enjoyed it, so I suppose I could be missing something. From what I gather, it’s a story about becoming an active member in your own life, and that, to me, is an important message. However, Brian Francis’ lack of capture and the endless cliché left a lot to be desired.

Now it’s on to The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay!

2/5 Snakes

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Book Review - Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Funny, informative and a genuinely nice story to boot!

My ten year old niece had read Bud, Not Buddy, recently, at school, and as I’m always interested to know what it is she’s being taught, I decided to pick it up. At first I was discouraged by the book as it seemed to deal with a rather depressing story of a young orphan during the depression era, who was acting out revenge upon a foster family that had mistreated him. While making a mental note to explain to her the errors of vengeful retribution, I continued on and was soon pleasantly surprised by the novel’s turn.

Christopher Paul Curtis has created a beautiful piece of historical fiction that teaches a young reader about some of the issues that were plaguing the American population of the 30s, as well as telling a heartwarming story about a young boys will and determination to find his estranged father. Along the way Curtis is able to share with us the trials and tribulations of racism, homelessness and labour-union disputes, whilst keeping the tone of the book light, with a witty dialogue that often had me chuckling.

Not to say that it was all roses, though, because there is really no way to sugar coat families forced to live in Hooverville tenements at the side of the railroad tracks, especially in a day and age when tent cities are erecting all over North America due to the recent recession and mortgage crisis. The fact of the matter is these struggles were happening in the 30s just as they are happening now. It is important that we can share these realities with our children in such a way that they become interested, and through compassion, help to make changes in our world so that these mistakes won’t happen again in the future.

4.5/5 Snakes

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Book Review - The Landing by John Ibbitson

Charming and inspiring

The first thing about The Landing that caught my attention was its pricing. This is the only book that I’ve noticed costs the same in US dollars as it does in Canadian. Whether this is due to my not paying enough attention to the pricing of previous reads, or if this is just something obscure, I don’t know, but it was definitely cause for a little shock.

My introduction to this young-adult novel was through The Toronto Star, announcing that it had won the 2008 Governor General's Award for children's literature. I was often reminded about it at work, as it was included on one of our showcase tables for some months, but I hadn’t had the occasion to hear any personal reviews for it. None the less, as I am a fan of all things Canadian, I put a hold on it at the library, and picked it up.

The first quarter of the book, I must admit, did seem a little slow to start, and I found myself wondering how it could possibly keep a teenager interested, if I was struggling. As it continued I started to become a victim of its charms, and grew fond of the young Ben and his determination towards learning the violin. As I often do, I played all of the referenced music on my computer whilst reading the passages, to try and obtain the true essence of the character's situation. This proved to be helpful in determing the tone of various scenes, and I would recommend other readers do the same if they have that option.

Set in the years following the depression, Ibbitson descriptively illustrates the hardships associated with those harsh times. The relationship that Ben forges with a neighbouring socialite is both painful and inspiring, as he dreams of one day leaving The Landing in Muskoka. As is often the case with growing up in a rural area, he is torn between his obligation to his struggling family and persuring his dreams.

The last few chapters will have you on the edge of your seat, as the novel takes an unexpected turn at its climax. Slow start and all, I am hopeful that Ibbitson will have a vision for a sequel.

4/5 Snakes

Book Review - Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

A little bit of a sleeper at times, imho.

Hatchet is a story of lone survival in the wilderness. When a young boy off to visit his father in Northern Canada, is stranded off-course when the pilot of the small bush plane taking him there has a heart attack, he is forced to perform a crash landing.

While the boy fashions himself a shelter and works on taking care of the necessary amenities of life, he starts to become a different person. With a new found appreciation of nature and beauty, a carefully learned patience and a dedicated persistence and drive, he notices the marked difference in his thoughts and feelings.

Author Gary Paulsen infuses divorce and infidelity as part of the story line, and repeatedly has the boy, Brian, flashback to stressful images and thoughts related to his parents failed relationship. Although this inclusion seems slightly contrived and sometimes unnecessary, it’s interesting to note how the old Brian was eager to inform his father of ‘the secret,’ while the newly enlightened Brian decided better of it.

2.5/5 Snakes

Book Review - Acceleration by Graham McNamee

Home-grown talent

Acceleration is a surprisingly entertaining and fast-paced teen thriller, set in Toronto. The majority of the story plays out on the property of the Toronto Transit Commission, which makes the story that much closer to home for someone like me, who has been a TTC rider for over two decades.

Although a quick read, the content was notably substantive and lacked any plot holes. The character development for such a short novel was highly detailed, and I was impressed by McNamee’s insight into the mind of a deranged psychopath.

Due to violent content, although not outlandish, I wouldn’t suggest this novel be read by anyone under 13. It wouldn’t hurt to read the story with your teen so that you can give the “Don’t try this at home message,” and besides that, you’ll probably enjoy it.

4/5 Snakes

Monday, March 2, 2009

Book Review - Saturday by Ian McEwan

The pursuit of morality in a Post-9/11 Britain

The beginning of Saturday was an exercise in sounding out medical vernacular, causing me to envision a prodigal episode of Sesame Street, whilst with the help of my Oxford, piecing together sentences with grave patience. This incidentally helped little with my inability to comprehend the complicated neurological procedures being described, but it did make for a quickened response time in my dictionary drilling skills.

Although the beginning was toilsome, I soon found myself captivated and carried away by McEwan’s infectious prose. His adept understanding of people and the inner-workings of casual - or painstaking - everyday happenings, and further to that, the feelings and thoughts associated with such occurrences, is like none other I’ve experienced. There were times in the novel when I felt myself blush at the brutally honest confessions that his protagonist was making to himself about his responses to some of life’s challenging situations, things that I might not even be inclined to admit to myself, let alone publish for the world’s perusal.

Through this one day in the life of Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon in his late forties, we observe him teetering on the brink of midlife crisis, as he reflects on the anomaly that he imagines himself to be. We are privy to his onslaught of contradictory convictions relating to his car, his choice of careers, and to a quickly emerging and terrorizing international conflict with the Middle East. Through his ruminations, personal relationship with an Iraqi, and heated discussions with his daughter regarding the implications of an imposing war with Iraq, juxtaposed by the anti-war rally that is taking place on the neighbouring streets of London on this very day, we are met with a rhetorically balanced assessment of the issues surrounding this historical tragedy.

Steadily relevant to the last decade, reoccurring themes relating to violence, terror and invasion, would have made this novel hot topic for the water cooler, when it made its debut back in 2005. During these keen observations of Saturday, February 15th, 2003, McEwan, has led us on a journey that dares us to awaken ourselves to our consciousness, to be honest with ourselves, and to question our ability to take action, feel compassion and forgive.

This was my first encounter with McEwan, but now that I’m aware of his extraordinary command of the written word and his expert insight, I look forward to poring over everything he has to offer. I think my next selection shall be Atonement.

4.5/5 Snakes

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Book Review - A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle

An important novel that teaches us about ourselves.

No other young adult fiction that I’ve come across has been as spiritually themed as A Wrinkle in Time, a story that is intrinsically pure in its message of faith, hope and belief in goodness. For some, this is precisely the reason they turn away from it, but for me, it is just another reason to embrace it.

The fight between good and evil is left in the hands of three children; Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and their friend, Calvin. As they voyage through space and time using the fifth dimension and the assistance of three bewildering ‘ladies,’ they must penetrate the shadowing 'Black Thing,' and confront its brain, the evil and poisonous ' IT.' For Meg and Charles Wallace, the significance of their journey is tenfold as they bear the responsibility of trying to locate and free their father from this unknown dimension and its demonic clutches.

Madeleine E’ngle has created a world where we can acknowledge and appreciate that humans are flawed, that pride and arrogance defeat us and that sometimes only a willing suspension of disbelief can keep us from losing our way. We become vigilantly aware that it is the ignorance and fear of the different or unknown that plagues humanity, and that patience, sacrifice and love are all necessary shields that need bear in the face of conflict.

I look forward to sharing this extraordinary story with any and everyone I can.

5/5 Snakes

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Book Review - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

A tad overrated, but still worth the read.

What a dismal and depressing state of affairs The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time turns out to be. Heavy-heartedness for the obvious struggles and emotional deficits of the main character, and narrator, suffering from Asperger Syndrome, were a harsh enlightenment. Then to add the lamentable fact that his parents would never feel emotion from their only son was crushing. But truly the most distressing aspect was that in a system where young Christopher had been brainwashed to believe in the horrors of ‘Stranger Danger,’ not unlike most kids in today’s society, it was only too obvious that it was the people closest to him that offered the most clear and present danger, and that instead it was a stranger that afforded him safety.

Though Haddon had an interesting and fresh concept in this one, I did find it a little slow at times, especially with the detailing of math equations. That being said, it was obviously affective and gave a better understanding and depth into our protagonist and his obsessive and genius-like behaviours.

By the anti-climactic end I realized that the story reminded me of Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, and how I had the same feelings of perpetual melancholy when I watched that many moons ago. My heart goes out to all families dealing with any form of autism, because God knows it takes super-human strength to deal with it at all, never mind well.

3/5 Snakes

Friday, February 27, 2009

Book Review - Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

Evil is as evil does

Having picked up far too many books at the library on my last visit, I thought I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to finish Mercy Among the Children before its due date, but I made it a priority once hearing it was a Canada Reads 2009 selection. I will happily pay the late fees when entertained with such thought provoking and affecting storytelling as this.

Our narrator, Lyle Henderson, has the misfortune of being a descendent of a father and grand-father who have been outcasts in their small New Brunswick town for decades. Poverty, alcohol and condemnation have all been sources of ridicule and embarrassment that these men have had to endure. Lyle’s father, Sydney, a compassionate, stoic and righteous man, lives his life under the “turn the other cheek,” philosophy, and has faith in the fact that those who attempt to hurt him or his family, will eventually hurt themselves. This is a tough pill to swallow for Lyle, who sees his dad’s inability to protect or stand up for the family as pacifism, and ultimately neglect. His eventual recourse is to become a renegade, as he starts to detest all the propriety and weakness that his father seems governed by.

I would often find myself in a tizzy after reading the incessant small-town gossip and lies that run rampant throughout, and in disgust would throw the book down and pace my living room shouting obscenities at the ruthless and diabolical nature of the characters Richards has expertly presented us with. I would ferociously plead for Saint-Sydney to grow a spine and reject the false accusations made of him. As another one of his philosophies is never to beg the truth of anyone that wouldn’t understand it, for him justice was something that could only be obtained through patience, and waiting for others to self-destruct, not participating in injurious revenge. It was these instilled moral convictions versus a teenagers need be accepted and feel safe within the morally corrupt society around him, that ignited the internal battle between good and evil that Lyle found himself struggling with throughout this complex, tragic, and tightly woven tale.

Although you won’t find any perfectly ‘happy endings’ here, there are ponderous messages relating to spirituality, the essence of bravery, the possibility of redemption in spite of affliction, and the importance of truth, that leave me feeling challenged and inspired, no matter how lamentable the outcomes. I look forward to reading more of David Adams Richards’ work.

5/5 Snakes

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Book Review - Generation X by Douglas Coupland

Phew, I'm glad that's over!

Upon finishing what appears to be the last chapter of Generation X, if not including the statistics section entitled Numbers, I am only slightly surprised by my loud and spontaneous outpouring of the chorus to All You Need Is Love.

I’m not sure how I feel about this writer, Douglas Coupland, and his first novel, as I have never read anything else that he has written, and thereby have nothing to compare it to, nor do I have any knowledge of any personal growth that he might have had as a writer since. I know that it took me a full week to get through it, and being that it is less than 200 pages, this cannot be a good sign, and probably speaks for itself.

I can appreciate the messages relating to social responsibility for our environment, consumption and consumerism, as I’m often one to amplify the same thoughts. I can get down with the existential reflections of those on a mission to find themselves and their place in this gargantuan world. And I can even say that for many years I subscribed to the ‘terminal wanderlust’ as experienced by the main characters in this novel. What I can’t get onboard with is the bitter and resentful attitude characters like Dag emit towards their parents and their ‘easy’ lives, “...with no worries of futurelessness.” Those same parents were able to provide a life for Dag, through hard work and stability, whereby he had the choice to either be a stuffed shirt in a cubicle or to traipse around Palm Springs finding his purpose, and they did this all, never knowing what the future held. Coming from an upbringing where the aforementioned parenting was not a given, I suppose I just find this kind of spoiled-brat whining annoying and offensive to my sensibilities. Be mad at the corporate monster, give up all your worldly possessions if it helps you to sleep at night, but always be thankful for what you have, because others who don’t-have are struggling because of it.

Ultimately, I believe that the angst shown by the generation X’ers of this novel differs none from any generation that looks to the one before them. Everyone thinks their generation has it the worst, life has gotten harder, and that nobody understands their plight; just one of the many writes of passage to maturity.

A couple of Neo-logisms from the novel, that I favoured:
Emotional Ketchup Burst: The bottling up of opinions and emotions inside oneself so that they explosively burst forth all at once, shocking and confusing employers and friends, most of whom thought things were fine.

Option Paralysis: The tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none.

Terminal Wanderlust: A condition common to people of transient middle-class upbringings, unable to feel rooted in any one environment, they move continually in the hopes of finding an idealized sense of community in the next location.

2/5 Snakes

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Book Review - Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill

Not for the squeamish or faint of heart.

On the seedy streets of the red-light district in Montreal we are observers to the lonely and depressing existence of Baby, our twelve-year-old heroin. Heroin serves to identify more than just the lead, heroic character in this story, as it also is the drug of choice for Baby’s young and irresponsible father, Jules. With her mother long since dead, and no real ties to their remaining family members, Baby and Jules must fight the mean streets defenceless and alone, their foremost challenge always basic survival.

Lullabies for Little Criminals is a coming of age story, for the downtrodden, misfortunate and abandoned. By the end of the novel Baby is only thirteen years old, yet she seems to have lived a lifetime, as she transforms from a child to adolescent to adult, all within the span of two years. Desperate to find love and feel like she belongs to something or even someone, Baby is constantly changing and moulding herself to what she feels others want or need from her. She soon realizes that she is desired by some, and although they happen to be a pimp, perverted paedophiles or other wayward children, this attention is better than being alone. As she bounces from foster home to detention centre to the sketchy one-bedrooms that her father temporarily provides, a solid identity is the least of her worries.

Heather O’Neill’s tumultuous upbringing in Montreal, after being abandoned by her mentally ill mother, obviously served her well when writing this gravely accurate depiction of growing up on the streets. Her descriptions of how drugs and alcohol can instantly provide a physical and emotional comfort, where there usually were none, are spot on. The portrayal of the street hierarchy, with the most neglected and down-and-out kids reigning as the supreme leaders, and how they wear their hunger and abandonment as a badge of honour, is appalling but irrefutable.

Lullabies tragically flawed and pathetic characters serve as a reminder to many that destitution can be found blocks away from our cushy and privileged lives, and that the cycle of addiction and poverty is as common and unfaltering as the cycle of life. If you can stomach it, open up your eyes to a parallel reality and read this devastating work of ‘fiction.’

3.5/5 Snakes

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Book Review - Darkness Visible by William Styron

A literary memoir on madness

William Styron was a soldier in his internal war with melancholia, who after rising up from the depths of its temporary madness decided to share his fashioned armour and learned defences with the afflicted masses, via Darkness Visible.

This literary memoir details one mans descent into paralyzing inertia, discontent and hopelessness, while never once causing the reader to follow suit. Styron seemingly attempts to dispel some of the myths surrounding hospitalization, and the efficacy of pharmacology, while informally poo-pooing ‘group’ and ‘art’ therapies, asserting that they may be helpful to others, irrespective of their inability to assist him. In an effort to explain and understand the root of depression and its piercing clutches, Styron subscribes to the theory of an “incomplete mourning” of profound loss in childhood, as one of its driving instigations. The insinuation is also made that it is a disease that commonly affects artistic types - especially poets - and women, to higher degrees.

What I take away with me at the end of this short glimpse into the malady of a literary giant, are some profoundly affecting and, possibly, life saving observations that have surely helped countless people find their way out of the desolate labyrinth that is depression.

“Even those for whom any kind of therapy is a futile exercise can look forward to the eventual passing of the storm. If they survive the storm itself, its fury almost always fades and then disappears. Mysterious in its coming, mysterious in its going, the affliction runs its course, and one finds peace.”

3/5 Snakes

Monday, February 23, 2009

Book Review - The Art of the Steal - Frank Abagnale

Watch your wallets!

What a ride! I’m shocked and appalled at the incidence of thievery and deception out there, and it is utterly amazing how easily it can all take place. Frank Abagnale is the author of The Art of the Steal, and you may remember him as the person Catch Me If You Can was based upon. What else should an expert conman do after turning straight? Why, provide information on how to catch guys like him of course.

Clearly, Abagnale is a very crafty and intelligent man for all of the shenanigans that he was able to pull off in his past, and now, marketing himself and his abilities after the fact. Between his books and his lectures, he most certainly must be comfortable. He has created this valuable collection of warnings teaching how to minimize your vulnerability and risk of being taken advantage of, and only briefly goes over his past deceit. That information can all be obtained in one of his other books, so I was happy with just short outlines.

I chose to listen to an audio book for this one and I’m really glad I did, as there are short sections that you can easily leave and come back to. Also, the narrator has great timing and a calm way about him when reading, which makes it relaxing, even though the content might have your stomach in a knot. It’s ghastly and terrorizing to think of the lives that have been lost to medications and airplane parts that are being counterfeited, or the identity theft that can take place from a simple obituary.

Although I’m sure this will help many people in their attempts to protect themselves, I shudder to think how many crooks are polishing up on their skills with this information.

3/5 Snakes

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Book Review - Rhymes With Useless - Terence Young

I defy you not to relate with at least one of Young's genuine characters!

I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of short stories, as I often feel inadequate in my comprehension of what it is the author is really trying to convey. On more than a few occasions I've finished a story and thought, “Did I miss something?” This is not a question that I enjoy asking, nor does it help with my literary confidence. I then will take a step back and process the details, making sure to point out that writing is art, and it can be interpreted in a million different ways by a million different people. In the end I try to convince myself that I am just a person who requires a lot of information and character development to actually get it.

Rhymes with Useless was a little less harsh on my ego, but there were still a few moments where I felt I’d missed the boat. None the less, Terence Young has compiled 13 stories that accent honest characters, living day-to-day, with real issues. From a child’s perspective of her parents’ failing relationship, to a teenager’s first experience with love, to a young couple settling into the doldrums of a marriage, to a middle aged woman’s struggle with her faith, and to an elderly man’s evaluation of his years, the whole spectrum of individuals was represented. Amidst the feelings of remorse and regret, the thoughts of revenge, the hidden desires, as well as the sometimes revolting truths that surfaced as a result of people just honestly being people, it is apparent that Young has an astounding sense of the common man and his/her idiosyncrasies. Those who favour short stories will surely not be disappointed by this Canadian talent.

3/5 Snakes

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Book Review - Me Talk Pretty One Day: Stories - David Sedaris

Getting to know David Sedaris

David Sedaris doesn’t pull any punches while introducing us to his eclectic family, and observing the entertaining and often ridiculous idiosyncrasies of common Americans, as well as the French. Me Talk Pretty One Day is laugh-out-loud funny as Sedaris has the ability to expose and turn any seemingly ordinary situation into hilarity, by picking it apart and applying a healthy dose of sarcasm and a honed wit.

To think that the foundation of his extended vocabulary in elementary school was due to using a thesaurus to find s-free alternatives in order to escape his pronounced lisp and keep the loathsome school appointed speech therapist, or as he referred to her, ‘articulation coach,’ off his back.

Although it is hard to pick a favourite from these 27 insightful and animated recollections, I find myself partial to the stories detailing his family and their quirky personalities. I think it would be quite the event to be a fly on the wall at one of their traditional Greek Orthodox Easter dinners. I look forward to reading more of Sedaris’ comedic moxie.

4/5 Snakes

Friday, February 20, 2009

Book Review - An Audience of Chairs - Joan Clark

An empathetic and well-written account of manic-depression.

I had selected An Audience of Chairs from the bargain section, as filler to reach the free shipping mark, during one of my many online book-buying sprees last year, and accordingly did not expect much from it. It sat patiently waiting and collecting dust on my bookshelf, in hopes that I would one day give it the attention that it so rightfully deserved. In an effort to finally make a dent in the copious amount of unread books that are taking up the diminishing space on my oversized shelves, I finally picked up this Canadian piece of fiction, and am I ever glad I did.

And so began my love affair with Moranna MacKenzie, the proud, self-absorbed, impetuous and free-spirited heroin of Joan Clark’s imagination. I am left with an impression of melancholy and bewilderment, now that her story has been told and she is no longer a part of my existence, as I have spent the last two days completely enthralled in hers. On more than a few occasions I found myself breathless, anxiously awaiting her next unbridled move that would only further her unfortunate descent into madness.

Although those closest to Moranna were quick to blame her mental illness for all that befell her, it was quickly apparent to me that it was also those accusers that needed to shoulder some of the blame. Her father failed her by keeping her mother’s illness a secret, as she might have found help for herself before having children, thus avoiding many of the hardships she was faced with. Secondly, the real tragedy of Moranna’s story is not her abandonment of her children, but her husbands abandonment of her, as she was sick and in need of help, while he was of sound mind and had vowed to be there for her in sickness and in health. Alas, it may be that her forced independence is what led her to a place of contentment, as her anger and will helped her to eventually weather the storm.

That being said, one of the most telling parts of the story, for me, was Moranna’s aversion to the story of the crucifixion of Christ, and his dying whilst taking responsibility for our sins. This cherished Easter story proved too much for her to bear, as she, in true form with her illness, was never able to take responsibility for any of the adversity or mistakes arising from her instability.

In the end, it is the unyielding empathy that Joan Clark affords this tragic character, and that I, as the audience filling one of those chairs, feels for her, that makes this story such an amazing and affecting journey into the complex, isolating and misunderstood abyss that is Manic-Depression.

4.5/5 Snakes

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Book Review - The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway

In short, a story on the effects of war and its castrating abilities.

The Sun Also Rises at first appears to be a story based upon Robert Cohn, a shy and awkward ex-boxer, who is insecure, yet disciplined in his struggle to rise up and out of the shadows. Quickly we realize that Cohn is little more than a weak and tormented scapegoat for the narrator and the other expatriates of the novel to debase and mock, all in efforts to ignore their own self-loathing and disgruntled lives.

Cohn, a self-conscious writer lacking any true connection with others, whilst shouldering emasculating abuse from women as a constant, is a clear and vicious reminder of all of the traits that Jake Barnes, our narrator, despises about himself. Since the feminizing war, Jake is not unlike many other men who had returned from combat broken and lost, choosing to pay no mind to their servitude and how it had changed them. Theirs is a life impaired by an arrested development, devoid of any meaning, direction or significance. They stay numb with drink and forever search for the next form of entertainment to keep their minds occupied. Some trivial, like getting ‘tight’ at the bars, some poetic, like the destructive and metaphorical bull-fights.

At the contrast of the weak men, we are presented with few women in The Sun Also Rises, all of which are strong, dominating and controlling, and, frankly, come off as bitchy whores. Lady Ashley, our femme fatale, is quite possibly the most tragic and damaged of all the flawed personalities we encounter. It is interesting to note that although she was not part of the war, she did lose her true love to it, leaving her part of the lost generation indirectly, as a consequence. Although you would be hard pressed to find any very likeable men or women in this cast of characters, I did finish the novel with an aftertaste of misogyny in my mouth, and I’m interested to see what the female roles of Hemingway’s other works amount to.

Hemingway’s clean and precise writing style, lacks in rhetoric or pretentiousness, yet this is not meant to imply that his work is simple or commonplace, as The Sun Also Rises is like a pungent onion, that you slowly peal-back layer by layer, always respectfully aware of its strength and savouring its dissolve.

4/5 Snakes

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Book Review - Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

I've finally read it, and I'm content in my discomfort.

Good Ford! I sit here exhausted after finishing Brave New World, and the first thought to enter my mind is that I am grateful to my High School English Department for not including it in our studies, as I’m sure it would have sent me into a fast and furious depression. Alas, I feel that a gramme of soma may be my only recourse. haha

Huxley’s didactic and political satire has sent me into a spiral of whirling emotions, as I draw far too many comparisons from his dystopian society to our modern day. A revolutionary of his time, Huxley’s oppressive World State is not a far cry from the western world, as he conjures up images of the lower-caste members as “… a long caterpillar of men and women travelling home on the monorail.” (Wasn’t I a part of that caterpillar in my trek home on the TTC yesterday, minus the doses of soma to keep things civil?)

How about the nine-years war, which created a state of fear and panic, forcing the government to take charge and control all measures of the World State in pedantic form, in order to stabilize society and provide uniform happiness? However, to me, enforced happiness seems just as ridiculous and unattainable as enforced democracy. Of course one could argue that both of these things are illusions, in and of themselves anyway.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this ‘fictional’ world is the use of a structured class system, derived by embryo manipulation, sleep hypnosis, and the numbing soma, to create a population of slaves who happily carry out the dirty work for the upper-caste members of society. This of course being the most powerful parallel to western civilization, as the capitalist machine oppressively ensures that immigrants and children of low-income families get stuck in the cycle of low-paying, dead-end jobs, unable to afford an education that could possibly enhance their opportunity for personal growth. How would consumerism continue at this accelerated rate if everyone were educated? Who would take on the monotonous task of flipping the burgers, or working the assembly lines? In the end, theirs is a sacrifice for the greater good of the collective. (I can’t help but be reminded of the Borg.) And if they complain, just write them a prescription for the latest anti-depressant or anti-psychotic that the ravenous pharmaceutical monster is peddling.

All in all, the World State is a mirror of our world wrought with consumerism, sexual liberation and sedation through government-issue medication, simply exaggerated. In this state of disillusionment and contentment through instant gratification, the truth of our existence is lost. Without our passion for each other, artistic expression, scientific exploration or dogma, what is the purpose of our time here on earth

4/5 Snakes

Book Review - Blindness - Jose Saramago


Blindness was my first encounter with Jose Saramago, and between being beaten over the head with his allegorical commentary, struggling through the lack of punctuation and quotations, and experiencing some of the most horrifying and disturbing scenes I’ve ever read, I am almost at a loss for words. I can only assume that some of the story was lost in translation, or at least I hope so, because even upon reading and re-reading page-long paragraphs, I still didn’t have a clear picture of some of the finer nuances within this daunting narrative.

As I gather, this is a statement on the fragility of society, and the weakness of the human condition. It points an accusatory finger at government and authority, and its inability to provide for its citizens in a time of crisis. This of course is brutally honest when considering the disastrous outcome of tragedies like Hurricane Katrina. Its nameless characters are reduced to animal instinct, and as such, spend every waking hour in survival mode, forging for food and water, seeking shelter and protecting their precious lives from others, also just looking to survive, all of this while completely blind. In this regard, Saramago shows us that we are just one small step away from complete and utter chaos, in a world where we rely so heavily on technology and the systems which it has created. Although the main cast of characters are rather one dimensional, they do provide hope that humans can remain civil and loving, even in the most desperate of situations, at least in small groups.

Overall, this wasn’t a bad novel, and you do eventually get used to the style in which it was written, but I definitely expected more from it, and find that it was slightly overrated. The plot was gripping, and Saramago’s mind is quite creative, but in the end I just found myself wishing that someone with a different style had produced it

3/5 Snakes

Monday, February 16, 2009

Book Review - Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal - Eric Schlosser

Sex, Drugs and Slaughterhouses

Whoa! If there weren’t enough reasons I was aware of for me to continue to avoid fast food, I have just added fifty more. Let’s put the obvious health risks involved aside and just focus on the oppressive and exploitive nature of these major corporations that are brainwashing, feeding and devouring our children, and that should be enough to have you on a soap box at Dundas Square.

Would it surprise you to know that for over two decades the right wing of the U.S. Republican Party has worked closely with the fast food industry and the meat packing industry to oppose food safety laws, worker safety laws and increases in the minimum wage? If corporations in bed with the government weren’t bad enough, we learn about the ties to the mafia and how they were used as enforcements to keep labour unions out of the slaughterhouses. Or what about the methamphetamines supplied to migrant workers to keep them awake for endless shifts in these deplorable and often fatally dangerous workplaces? How about the sexual harassment bestowed upon female workers in order to be moved to a better department, or even to just keep their horrendous jobs? Sex, Drugs and Slaughterhouses might have been a better title for this eye opening account of the dangers of mass production. The shock and awe doesn’t stop there, as Schlosser informs us that until the Clinton administration stepped in, the government purchased the cheapest ground beef available, from suppliers with repeated infractions of E. coli and Salmonella contamination, to sell in their school lunch programs.

At the end of this book I am left feeling ill, but not ill-informed, as there is a plethora of outstanding information to be absorbed. Although sometimes the writing lacked a certain flow, jumping back and forth between points, only to repeat the same information, and sometimes the same sentences. Regardless, everyone should be made to read Fast Food Nation and learn about the atrocities involved in making food fast, and corporations rich even faster. Part of me is wishing and hoping that things aren’t as bad here in Canada, but alas I am left with the feeling that greed is an international and human flaw, and that corruption knows no borders.

3.5/5 Snakes

Book Review - The Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank

Inspiring and Courageous!

I recently picked up this book because my ten year old niece expressed interest in reading it, and I wanted to make sure that the content wasn't too graphic for her quickly diminishing innocence. I’ve come to the conclusion that Anne’s story would undoubtedly teach appreciation for the small things in life, a strong work ethic and the importance of a positive mental attitude. However, because this is a diary recording the thoughts of a young teenage girl, it also covers Anne’s discovery of her sexuality, her adversity towards her parents, mixed in with some spoiled-brat whining, these of course all being areas where a ten year old needs no help with advancement. I will be sure to pass the book on to her when she is about thirteen, when I’m sure she will better relate with Anne’s plight.

Ultimately, Anne was insightful, self-aware and very driven, and it is amazing to notice her continuing transformation into a mature young adult as the entries progress. I found her determination to be a writer very inspiring, and even though Anne’s young life was cut short due to the horrors of the Nazi party, her dream was still realized after her death through her diary.

3.5/5 Snakes