Monday, December 31, 2007

Best (and Worst) of 2007

I read 54 books in 2007 - more than one a week apparently, which is not bad. I think the books I read this year are of a higher quality than the ones I read last year since I had a really hard time coming up with books to put on the "worst" lists. As is becoming my custom, here are my picks for best and worst of 2007:

Best Fiction:
The Other Side of the Bridge - Mary Lawson
(Runner-up: Treading Water - Anne DeGrace)

Best Non-Fiction:
The Secret Life of Lobsters - Trevor Corson
(Runner-up: The 100-Mile Diet - Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon)

Worst Fiction:
Gossip Girl - Cecily von Ziegesar
(Runner-up: Strawberry Fields - Marina Lewycka)

Worst Non-Fiction:
Ultimate High: My Everest Odyssey - Goran Kropp
(Runner-up: The Ghost Map - Steven Johnson)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Nervous System - Jan L Jensen

Disclaimer: The author of this book is a friend of mine, and therefore, my review is probably a little biased.

The Basics: Nervous System or Losing My Mind in Literature, Jan Lars Jensen, 2004, 273 pages, paperback

How I found it: As previously mentioned, the author is a friend of mine. I've known him for a few years and I finally got around to reading his book.

What's it about?: This book is a memoir about the author's experience with mental illness. As the publication date for his first book, Shiva 3000, drew nearer, Jensen slipped further and further into an episode of psychosis. He became convinced that the religious undertones of his science fiction novel would set off a chain of events that would result in a major global disaster. He stopped sleeping and became increasingly out of touch with reality. Jensen's psychosis culminated in a suicide attempt that landed him the psych ward of the local hospital. His book chronicles the portion of his life that led up to and followed his time in the hospital. He tells his story in a style that allows the reader to get inside his head and understand what he went through.

Did I like it?: I really enjoyed this book. It was like nothing I have ever read before. When we say that someone is 'crazy' I don't think we really know what that means. After reading Jensen's book I feel as though I have a better understanding. At the same time, now that I have a better understanding, I find the whole idea much more terrifying because I realize how easy it is to slip away from reality. Jensen also writes very well and has structured the book in a manner that is very engaging.

Will you like it?: If you know someone with mental illness (which you probably do), or you are interested in mental illness, I think this is a great book to read. It is well written, and presents a great counter-point to the mostly clinical information on mental illness usually given in the mainstream media because it really humanizes the experience.

But don't take my word for it: The usual collection of publisher-approved reviews and reader reviews from Amazon, a review from The Guardian, and a collection of reviews from the author's website.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Shadow of the Bear: Travels in Vanishing Wilderness - Brian Payton



The Basics: Shadow of the Bear: Travels in Vanishing Wilderness, Brian Payton, 2006, 304 pages, paperback

How I found it: I read an excellent article in the winter 2007 issue of Explore magazine by J.B. MacKinnon (c0-author of The 100-Mile Diet). The article, entitled "To Kill a Bear" mentioned a book by MacKinnon's friend Brian Payton, and it sounded fascinating so I picked it up.

What's it about?: Payton travels around the globe to visit the habitats of the world's eight remaining bear species. He explores the relationship between the bears and the people they live near, the cultural importance of the bears to those people, and the struggles facing each bear species. The book is part travel writing, part investigative journalism, and part bear biology and behaviour manual.

Did I like it?: I really loved this book. I learned a lot - for instance, I had no idea that there were bears in South America (the spectacled bear), India (sloth bears), and South East Asia (sun bears). I also really enjoyed the way Payton presented the book: it was a personal journey for him to learn about these bears and their threatened existence. However, Payton is often self-critical of his opinions and quick to realize that there are no easy solutions. I couldn't put it down, and in some ways wished it was longer.

Will you like it?: If you are at all a fan of non-fiction, I think this is a must-read. Payton writes well and is engaging. The book is divided into neat chapters - one for each bear species, making the book easy to read in chunks when you have time. But you'll probably want to read it all at once!

But don't take my word for it: The usual major media blurbs from Amazon, a review from Green Living Online, one from the Winnipeg Free Press on the Bear Matters BC website, another on Bear Matters BC, this one from the Vancouver Sun, and the author's website.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Swinging Bridge - Ramabai Espinet

The Basics: The Swinging Bridge, Ramabai Espinet, 2003, 305 pages, paperback, Shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean Region)

How I Found it: I really don't remember. I think it might have been recommended on the Halifax library website.

What's it about?: Mona, the protagonist, is a woman of Indian descent, who grew up in the Indian community in Trinidad, then moved to Canada with her family as a teenager. The novel takes place in Mona's 30s as she reflects on her childhood in Trinidad and her relationships with her family. Reconciling the events of the past and discussing them with her family, even though it is difficult, is especially important because her older brother is near death.

Did I like it?: I didn't love this book, but it was good. The author writes very well, and at times is almost poetic. She has a gift for description - she makes the reader feel that she is actually in Trinidad. Before reading this book I didn't really know anything about Trinidad, and the Indian community there, so I learned a lot.

But don't take my word for it: The usual industry and reader reviews from Amazon, a review from Seneca College Quarterly, some info on the author from Literature Alive (a Canadian-Caribbean Literature website), a review from Now Toronto, one from blog alice, and one from Canadian Literature, a quarterly journal.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Gossip Girl - Cecily von Ziegesar

The Basics: Gossip Girl, Cecily von Ziegesar, 2002, 199 pages, paperback

How I Found it: Like many people, I often find myself enjoying crap-tastic nighttime soap operas about people whose lives are far removed from mine (mostly because they live in California apparently). Anyway, the big buzz this fall was that the guy from The O.C. were now doing a Gossip Girl TV show. I liked the show (embarrassing to admit, I know), so I thought I would the original book from the series the show is based on.

What's it about?: For those unfamiliar with the premise, the Gossip Girl series is about a group of super-rich teenagers living on Manhattan's Upper East Side, going to private schools, getting drunk and high and spending their parents money. The plot of the first book in the series roughly covers the events of the first two episodes of the show (with quite a few minor differences). Basically, girl leaves town because she slept with best friend's boyfriend and doesn't want to tell her. Girl returns to town, chaos ensues. Also, boy has loved girl for a long time even though she doesn't know who he is, boy and girl meet, fall in love, live happily ever after (or at least until the next book I guess).

Did I like it?: This is teenage trash at its finest. The writing is clunky, the plot is vaguely ridiculous and the omnipotent narrator, "gossip girl", a blogger, is completely implausible. The book reads as if it is trying desperately to impress you with its sophisticated and rich characters. I was not impressed, however. I find the show much better written and better executed. It's not surprising that the book fees poorly put together - a quick glance at wikipedia reveals that the author published 8 of these books between 2002 and 2005 before having the remainder of the series ghost-written. There has also been criticism of the books because they seem to condone underage drinking, drug-use, and teenage sex. While those issues are all facts of everyday teenage life, I'm not sure that the way they are glamourized and idealized in the novel is right message to be sending young girls. These books are aimed at a teen and tween audience and I don't know if I think that is appropriate. However, other critics have said that they are just happy that kids are reading at all. It's sad I guess.

Will you like it?: Unless you are a 14 year old girl who wants to piss-off their conservative mom by secretly reading this book, I don't think it is worthwhile. However, spending an hour a week vegged out in front of the TV watching the television series is something I do recommend.

But don't take my word for it: Some info (including appropriate age groups) and reader reviews from Amazon (check out the 1 star reviews for some truth), a sugar-coated review from the teen site Girl Posse, and a New York Times article about the affect of books like this on tween fiction.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Voyageur: Across the Rocky Mountains in a Birch Bark Canoe - Robert Twigger

The Basics: Voyageur: Across the Rocky Mountains in a Birch Bark Canoe, Robert Twigger, 2006, 390 pages, hard cover

How I found it: My Dad highly recommended this book so I requested it from the local library.

What's it about?: Twigger is a Brit with limited outdoor experience who attempted to replicate a journey that has not been repeated since Alexander MacKenzie did it in the 1700s: cross the Rocky Mountains by birch bark canoe. He spent a considerable sum having a birch bark canoe made for him in the traditional way and did a bit of paddling about on the small English rivers near his home in Oxford. Otherwise, he didn't do much preparation. His expedition stretched out over 3 consecutive summers, but I won't give away how far he got as it would take away from the experience of reading the book.

Did I like it?: I am not the most seasoned outdoorsperson I know, but I believe I am fairly knowledgeable. Therefore, books like this one get me a little aggravated. Twigger bumbles through the book, seeming to know close to nothing about canoeing (he is inexperienced in white water), trip planning (he agrees to take on trip partners he has just met, and has never camped or canoed with, he buys all of their food for one summer in a mad 30 minute rush in a grocery store in the last big town before the put-in), and even basic camping and survival skills (he brings huge amounts of extremely heavy gear, but has little first aid knowledge). Despite the aggravation, I found this book to be an okay read. A description of a journey of this magnitude could never be boring, and Twigger writes in a straight-forward, honest, and often self-deprecating style that I liked. However, I still feel that Twigger is one of those guys I would never ever want to share a campsite with, despite the fact that he fully owns up to his idiocy.

Would you like it?: If you are a fan of adventure travel literature, this book is one of the few written about trips in Canada, and its not a bad book. It's just not a great book. If you are more of an armchair traveler, than a hands-on one, the idiocy of many of Twigger's decisions may be lost on you, and you might like this book far more than I did.

But don't take my word for it: Some really basic info from Amazon, a review from the travel site Road Junky, a bunch of glowing reader reviews from the British Amazon site, a review from The Spectator, and one from The Guardian.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Strawberry Fields: Marina Lewycka

The Basics: Strawberry Fields, Marina Lewycka, 2007, 291 pages, hard cover

How I found it: I read enjoyed Lewycka's previous novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, so I put myself on the waiting list at the library for this one.

What's it about?: This novel is about a group of strawberry pickers in England. They are migrant workers from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia who are brought in illegally to pick strawberries. The book centres around their lives in the two decrepit trailers they live in near the fields, and the 'adventures' they have after they leave the strawberry fields. The book begins with the narrative shifting between the nine workers and their dog, but by the end of the book, it has come to focus on the two Ukranians, Irina and Andriy. It is a story about being in a strange land where you don't understand what is going on, it is about hardship and about friendship and about 'adventure'. Apparently, it is also supposed to be funny.

Did I like it?: I HATED this book. I have read books that are much worse than this one, but I feel I must give a much harsher critique of the this book because I really enjoyed Lewycka's work in the past, the book has recieved critical acclaim, and she was previously nominated for the Booker. The idea of this book is a good one, but it was so poorly executed I just couldn't believe it. The idea of telling a story from such a wide array of perspectives is interesting, but it obviously was too much work since Lewycka had to keep inventing reasons for some of the characters to leave so that she could focus on less of them. The plot of the book was also terrible. I have watched some nighttime soaps that had better thought out plots. Lewycka seems to think that sending bumbling immigrants careering across England in search of some destination at random would be a recipe for plot success. Perhaps this book is meant to be character-driven and then the plot doesn't matter so much. Except that there is so much filler going on that we don't get to focus on the characters that much, and the flash-back scenes to Andriy and Irina's pasts just seem contrived. The book is also supposed to be funny. Overall, I found it quite sad and depressing and felt sorry for the characters. I think I was supposed to laugh at them, since there wasn't anything to laugh with them about. I didn't feel like laughing at them though, since they were so sad and so stereotyped. All in all, I hated reading this book and couldn't wait for it to be over. (However, I will say that the only redeeming part was that sometimes the dog's narrative was funny when it wasn't completely annoying.)

Will you like it?: This one is not recommended. According to some reviews I've read, apparently British people find this book funny, since they find immigrant stereotypes, particularly the bumbling type, to be hilarious. If you find that hilarious, then by all means read this book. Otherwise, stay well away and pick up Lewycka's other book, also about Ukranian immigrants instead. It is genuinely funny and well written, two qualities this book definitely lacks.

But don't take my word for it: The usual and reader reviews from Amazon, a review from Toronto's Now Magazine, one that says what I was thinking, only in a nicer tone, from the New York Times, another one from the LA Times, and one from the UK's The Guardian (where the book was published as Two Caravans).

Monday, November 19, 2007

Time's Magpie: A Walk in Prague - Myla Goldberg

The Basics: Time's Magpie: A Walk in Prague, Myla Goldberg, 2004, 140 pages

How I found it: This book was featured at my library in the travel section. I spent some time in Prague while backpacking in Central Europe a few years ago, so I picked it up.

What's it about?: This book is a travel book, but it is not your usual travel book - it is not a guidebook or travel writing. Instead it is a series of little essays on the author's reflections as she returns for a visit ten years after she lived there. The essays are descriptions of neighbourhoods, explanations of the history of some areas, and a few anecdotes about her travels there.

Did I like it?: I enjoyed this book but I wasn't blown away by it. As I said, I've spent some time in Prague and like to think that I know a fair amount about it. However, there was almost nothing in Goldberg's book that I knew already: I guess it takes a former resident to really know the city. This book was unlike any I had ever read before, which I enjoyed. Goldberg writes well and in some passages I could clearly picture the sites she was describing.

Will you like it?: If you've been to Prague or want to go, this is a great alternative to a guidebook as it gives you a more interesting history behind the city, and also points out places of interest that are well off the usual tourist trail.

But don't take my word for it: The usual from Amazon, a brief review from another book blogger, and one from the New York Times.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

No Great Mischief - Alistair MacLeod

The Basics: No Great Mischief, Alistair MacLeod, 1999, 283 pages, hard cover

How I found it: I believe this was recommended to me by either Chapters or Amazon on one of those "if you liked _____, you'll also like _____" things. I don't really remember. I do, however, remember that I decided to pick it up since it was about Cape Breton, and because I don't think I've read enough male Canadian authors recently.

What's it about?: This novel is about the men of clan MacDonald on Cape Breton Island. The story is told through the eyes of Alexander MacDonald, somewhat of an outsider to the rest of the men due to his more privileged upbringing and his academic background. Despite being a bit more of a city boy, Alexander knows, as is mentioned throughout the book, that "blood is thicker than water". His last name, his red hair, and his home in Cape Breton all tie him to clan MacDonald and he is there for his kin whenever he is needed. The story follows Alexander's life from being orphaned at age three, to being a middle-aged orthodontist driving into Toronto every weekend to ensure that his alcoholic brother is still alive.

Did I like it?: This is one of the best books by a Canadian male author I have read in a long time. I was familiar with MacLeod's short stories and am surprised I had not read this book, his first novel, a lot sooner. He is a great writer and I really enjoyed this book. Usually I'm not a big fan of books with very few female characters, but I really liked this one. Cape Breton has a bit of mystique and legend about it, with its rugged landscape and Scottish heritage, and No Great Mischief only perpetuates it. Of course all the gaelic in the book helps.

Will you like it?: I know that not too many men read fiction, and even fewer actually make the effort to seek out good contemporary Canadian Literature (with a capital "L"). However, if you know such a man, please recommend this book to him - I guarantee he'll like it. No matter your gender, if you enjoy excellent Canadian lit, this is a must read.

But don't take my word for it: The usual and reader reviews from Amazon, a review from The Guardian, one from January Magazine, and finally one from the almost local Antigonish Review.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude - Ann Vanderhoof

The Basics: An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude, Ann Vanderhoof, 2003, 305 pages, hard cover

How I found it: It was recommended on the lotus reads blog and since I like food and travel writing, it sounded like a good book.

What's it about?: Vanderhoof and her husband were typical Torontoians caught up in the bustle and deadlines of their jobs - in magazine publishing in their case. As amateur sailors, they decided to save up some money and take a couple years off to sail down to the Caribbean. This book chronicles their two year sojourn. Vanderhoof is an unabashed foodie so the book is filled with their culinary adventures in local cuisine, as well as her own recipes for replicating their meals.

Did I like it?: The beauty of this book is that Vanderhoof and her husband are just regular people with regular lives living out a dream that many of us have had. While I don't particularly enjoy boats, the idea of sailing around the Caribbean for a couple years does sound quite enticing. Vanderhoof has experience writing and it shows - what could have otherwise been just another travel book ends up being something a bit out of the ordinary. I enjoyed this book and read it in only a few days.

Will you like it?: If you've ever dreamed of just packing up and sailing away, this is a great book to read since Vanderhoof paints a great picture of the highs and lows of long distance sailing. She also makes a point of exploring and embracing the local culture, especially the food, in the places she visits and this book will tell you a lot about the Caribbean that you won't find in the tourist brochures.

But don't take my word for it: The usual industry blurbs and reader reviews from amazon, a review from Pop Matters, one from the Boston Globe, another from the book blog curled up, and the blog post from lotus reads that led to me to read the book in the first place.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Zen of Fish - Trevor Corson

The Basics: The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi from Samurai to Supermarket, Trevor Corson, 2007, 372 pages, hardcover

How I found it: When I was looking into The Sushi Economy, I discovered this book as well.

What's it about?: Unlike The Sushi Economy, this book is more about the sushi and less about the fish. It is a thorough explanation of how to make different types of nigiri sushi, maki and sashimi, the history behind sushi, and how it became globally popular, especially in California. Corson uses a class of students at the California Sushi Academy as a launching point for each of his sections. As the class learns about making non-traditional rolls, Corson launches into a history of fusion sushi. Within the class, the book primarily follows the hapless Kate, a 20 year old wannabe sushi chef. However, other characters in the class, the teacher, and the master chef are all profiled as well. Corson's book gives a face and a personality to sushi chefs while explaining the clinical precision behind their art.

Did I like it?: I really enjoyed this book. I am a huge sushi fan - it is far and away my favourite food. I thought I knew a lot about sushi and sushi culture, but this book proved me wrong: I have a lot to learn and I learned a lot from this book. Of course, this book also made me incredibly hungry. The descriptions of the food preparation are meticulous while remaining interesting, if a bit gross at times. I also enjoyed the human factor of including the experiences of the student chefs - it brought a human element to the book that I thought was mostly lacking in The Sushi Economy.

Will you like it?: If you have ever eaten sushi this book is a must read. It explains the history and preparation of everything you have eaten, and it does so in a very compelling manner. I couldn't put this book down and it is likely you won't have any trouble getting through it either.

But don't take my word for it: The usual industry blurbs and reader reviews from amazon, a review from the blogger Canuck Librarian, one from Maclean's, another from the UK's Independent, one from the New York Times, one from the fabulous Lotus Reads, and a collection of favourable reviews from Corson's website.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Mouthing the Words - Camilla Gibb

The Basics: Mouthing the Words, Camilla Gibb, 1999, 238 pages, hardcover, winner of the Toronto Book award in 2000

How I found it: I read Gibb's excellent Sweetness in the Belly this summer and loved it, so I wanted to read more of Gibb's work.

What's it about?: Moving the Words is the life story of Thelma, a girl who grows up with in a dysfunctional and sexually abusive home. To help her cope with her difficult life, she has several imaginary friends that stay with her into adulthood. Thelma's story is told from her perspective and the reader gets an inside look into her thought process and the delusions behind her mental illness. As Thelma gets older, she manages to finally escape from her family to some degree and begins to study law. Despite the seriously depressing subject matter, Thelma's story is at times humorous and entertaining.

Did I like it?: Somehow, I loved this book and couldn't put it down. Generally I find that books about sexual abuse and mental illness end up being too depressing or cliched, but that is definitely not the case with this book. Gibb writes beautifully, and at times Thelma's delusional thoughts are almost like poetry. The plot manages to keep things interesting as well. Thelma's experiences and personality are very far removed from my life, or from anyone's that I know, but I still managed to emphasize with her situation.

Will you like it?: I highly recommend this book. It is well written, and is a great read. The dark subject matter could be a turn-off, but I think the black humour found in some parts will more than make up for any depressing bits.

But don't take my word for it: The usual industry blurbs and reader reviews from Amazon, a collection of favourable quotes from reviews on the author's website, and a review from someone named Marty Smith's personal site.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema - Anupama Chopra

The Basics: The King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema, Anupama Chopra, 2007, 250 pages, hardcover

How I found it: This book was mentioned by another book blogger, lotusreads so I thought I'd check it out. I grew up in the multi-cultural city of Vancouver, and often watched Bollywood music videos on TV, so I was already interested in Bollywood in general.

What's it about?: This is part biography of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, and part history of Bollywood from its origins in the '20s to the present. It is written to cater to readers who have no working knowledge of Bollywood and its culture, so I guess it is primarily for a Western audience.

Did I like it?: I didn't particularly enjoy this book. While it wasn't bad, it just wasn't good either. It is written well, and organized well, but I'm not really sure who this book is for. If you are a fan of Shah Rukh, the book is probably too much of an overview and tells you things you already know. If you don't know much about Shah Rukh, as I did, you are presented with only an idealized picture of him. As well, it is unclear how the Bollywood history piece fits into a biography like this one.

Will you like it?: If you are interested in Bollywood, this might be a good read. However, I am sure there must be better books on the history of Indian cinema. If you are interested in learing about Bollywood, renting a film is probably a much more entertaining way to go about it.

But don't take my word for it: The usual industry blurbs from amazon, a review from the New York Times, and one from the Delhi based Hindustan Times.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Other Side of the Bridge - Mary Lawson

The Basics: The Other Side of the Bridge, Mary Lawson, 2006, 359 pages, hardcover

How I found it: I was browsing the new Canadian fiction section at my local library and came across this book. I was given Lawson's first novel, Crow Lake, as a Christmas gift a few years ago. I wasn't enthralled by that book, but I decided to give Lawson another chance to wow me.

What's it about?: This novel takes place in a small town in northern Ontario. The story centers around the lives of Arthur Dunn and Ian Christopherson. Arthur is a generation older than Ian and is a farmer, while Ian is the son of the town doctor. The story revolves around how the two men interact, and their love of the same woman. Their respective family issues also play an important part. Arthur has a difficult relationship with his brother, while Ian has a difficult relationship with his mother. The lives of the two men, which could seem so disparate, are told in a careful parallel.

Did I like it?: I loved this book. I thought the plot was beautifully constructed. The way the lives of Arthur and Ian played off each other was fantastic. The character development was also very well done. Usually when I read a book with male protagonists I don't relate to them very well, but Lawson has done such a good job that I was able to empathize with both Ian and Arthur. I couldn't put this book down and was quite sad when it was over.

Will you like it?: I highly recommend this book. It's a great story with great characters and even a few plot twists to keep in interesting. The parallels between Arthur and Ian, and the title itself would make great discussions for a book group. Although this is a book I got from the library, I will most likely purchase a copy as I know I will want to read it again.

But don't take my word for it: The usual industry review snippets and reader reviews from Amazon, one from The Guardian, another from the Washington Post, one from the book loving website curled up, and finally one from the journal Canadian Literature.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Storm Glass - Jane Urquhart

The Basics: Storm Glass, Jane Urquhart, 1987, 127 pages, hard cover

How I found it: I was desperate for something new to read so I went on a binge reserving books at the library. I searched for a few of my favourite authors (Urquhart being one) to see if there were any of their works that I hadn't read. This was one of them.

What's it about?: This is a collection of short stories. Some of the stories are grouped together in sets with similar themes, such as the five stories under the "Five Wheelchairs" heading, and the seven stories under "Seven Confessions". Overall the stories have nothing to do with each other and take place in different time periods with different characters and tones.

Did I like it?: This is one of Urquhart's earlier work from the time when she was primarily publishing poetry and it shows. Like a lot of Margaret Atwood's early work, it is very angsty and self-consciously arty with confusing plot twists and purposely ungrammatical sentences. As a result, I found it a bit annoying and amateurish compared to her later works and didn't enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed her novels.

Will you like it?: I would only recommend this book to hard core Canadian Lit fans, otherwise, please, please, please go pick up The Whirlpool, The Underpainter, Map of Glass and especially the Stone Carvers. They are all phenomenal and much better that these short stories.

But don't take my word for it: The usual from Amazon and her wikipedia page are all I could find.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Geisha, A Life - Mineko Iwasaki

The Basics: Geisha, A Life, Mineko Iwasaki with Rande Brown, 2002, 297 page, paperback

How I found it: I have been fascinated with Japan and Japanese culture since high school. One of my favourite books is Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, and I also really enjoyed Liza Dalby's Geisha. I did some searching at my local library to see if I could find some real, rather than fictionalized, memoirs of a geisha, and came up with this book.

What's it about?: This is Iwasaki's autobiography. Due to complicated family circumstances, she was adopted into a geisha family as a young child and school in the Japanese fine arts, especially dance. She excelled and as a teenager debuted as one of the top geisha in Japan. She tried to enact reforms in geisha society, but was unsuccessful so she chose to retire at age 29 at the height of her popularity.

Did I like it?: I really enjoyed this book. It is not as sensational as Memoirs of a Geisha, but that's okay since it seems so much more real. Iwasaki has lead a very interesting life. She also spends portions of her book explaining how geisha society works, which was educational. Unlike the protagonist in Memoirs of a Geisha, I didn't really identify with Iwasaki. I found a lot of the decisions she made quite strange. However, she is a strong, independent Japanese woman, which is a rarity and is commendable.

Will you like it?: If you are at all interested in geisha, this is a great book to read as a sort of counterpoint to Memoirs of a Geisha. That book is a better story, but this is real life, and there is something to be said for that.

But don't take my word for it: The usual info and reader reviews from Amazon, a review from the Asian Review of Books, a review from a westerner living in Japan, and one from the UK regional newspaper Echo.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Equations of Love - Ethel Wilson

The Basics: The Equations of Love, Ethel Wilson, 1952, 263 pages, paperback

How I found it: I've read some of Ethel Wilson's other books and enjoyed them. I was in line to check out books at my local public library and happened to see this one on the paperback rack. I had never heard of it, but picked it up on the spur of the moment anyway.

What's it about?: This is really two books in one; it is two novellas. "Tuesday and Wednesday" tells the story of two (important) days in the life of Myrtle and Mort Johnson. "Lilly's Story" follows a young woman who goes to incredible lengths to protect her daughter and give her the life she wished she had had. Both are about love, but in very different ways, which I suppose explains the title of the collection.

Did I like it?: Disappointingly, I didn't like either novella at all. They were well written, as is characteristic of Wilson's work, but they just didn't interest me. In particular, I found the protagonists in both works to be unlikeable and didn't relate to them at all. I found Myrtle to be a despicable person, and Mort to be a sad sack lazy guy. I found Lilly to be delusional to the point of feeling sorry for her. As usual hower, Greater Vancouver plays a part in the story, and Wilson's descriptions of the city and its surroundings in the earlier part of the 19th century were fascinating.

Will you like it?: I'm sad to say that this one is not recommended. I've said before the Ethel Wilson is possible the most underrated Canadian female fiction author, and it's true. However, this is not her finest work. Check out Swamp Angel first.

But don't take my word for it: The usual info from amazon and her wikipedia page are all I could find.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Anonymous Lawyer - Jeremy Blachman

The Basics: Anonymous Lawyer, Jeremy Blachman, 2006, 276 pages, hardcover

How I found it: As a law student, I occasionally read law blogs. The only one I find consistently interesting and funny is the Anonymous Lawyer blog. Thankfully, it's author has turned it into a novel.

What's it about?: A big shot asshole hiring partner at a big law firm decides to start an anonymous blog about life at his firm the way he sees it. He's self-important, arrogant and generally hilarious. He is the ultimate caricature. The book is told in the form of blog entries and emails - how modern. The format works as we are able to see both the public image that anonymous lawyer projects of himself on his blog, and the reality that he shares with those that he is closer to in his private emails.

Did I like it?: The public persona of anonymous lawyer from his blog entries is hilarious and I loved him. He is unabashedly a jerk, and that's what makes him great. I loved those portions of the book. However, when we get to see the private side of anonymous lawyer as Blachman adds a third dimension to the character and makes him a real person, we see that anonymous lawyer is just like the rest of us - he is full of self-doubt and anxious to succeed. For me a lot of the humour and enjoyment went out of the book as soon as the more personal side was revealed. However, it would not be a novel without this personal side - it would just be a collection of blog entries.

Will you like it?: This is a fluff book, and if you have ever had any contact with the legal world, you'll probably find the stereotype of anonymous lawyer to be at least mildly amusing. However, the amusement is at its best when anonymous lawyer is at his worst (so to speak) and he is at his worst on his real blogspot blog. Check him out there before you bother to pick up this book.

But don't take my word for it: The usual info from amazon, a collection of reviews from the official website, a review from USA Today, one from the student blog Three Years of Hell, and another from Pop Matters.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Beyond the Horizon: The Great Race to Finish the First Human-Powered Circumnavigation of the Planet - Colin Angus

The Basics: Beyond the Horizon: The Great Race to Finish the First Human-Powered Circumnavigation of the Planet, Colin Angus, 2007, 374 pages, hardcover

How I found it: In undergrad I was introduced to Colin Angus' short films through a UBC Geography film night. I subsequently read his other books and have been following his progress ever since. Last spring I attended a screening of his film Beyond the Horizon and listened to him and his fiance speak about their journey.

What's it about?: Angus began a human powered attempt to travel from Vancouver to Moscow via foot, bicycle, rowboat, and skis in 2004. His partner, Tim Harvey wrote a series of articles about the trip for The Vancouver Sun. Their plan was to try to get to Moscow, then announce their plan to the world of continuing on back to Vancouver by human power. Unfortunately, Angus and Harvey didn't get along as well as planned, the expedition was under-funded and partially unplanned, and the two eventually parted ways in Siberia. Angus ended up finishing the adventure with his fiance, Julie Wafaei. Throughout his journey, Angus and Harvey engaged in a brutal he-said, he-said in the media.

Did I like it?: I was interested to read this book since Angus came across so poorly in media accounts. I was interested to hear his side of the story and to better understand what went wrong between him and Harvey. Angus has commented many times that it is sad that his achievement has been overshadowed by the battles between Harvey and himself, and its true - I was more interested in the Harvey aspect than anything else when I picked up this book. As well, when I attended Angus' talk and film last spring, he glossed over his problems with Harvey and Harvey's involvement in the journey. At the time I thought it was unfair, given how well Harvey came across in the media - basically, it appeared that Harvey was deeply wronged by the selfish Angus and that Angus didn't care. However, after reading the book and hearing Angus' version of events, I think that Angus was being a gentleman by refusing to get into the horrible things that happened between the two of them; he refused to air their dirty laundry. In the book, Angus comes across as the bigger man, although he still does come across as quite selfish. However, I think that his side of the story makes for a very compelling read - whether you are familiar with his journey's history or not. Don't be fooled into thinking that this book is about reducing carbon-impact or raising awareness though. Angus insisted that was the purpose of his journey, but due to his continued reliance on assistance from fueled forms of transport for logistics, it's clear that is not the case. His goal was simply to be the first to get around the globe on human-power - a worthy objective in any case.

Will you like it?: If you followed Angus and Harvey's journey at all, this is a must read so that you can get both sides of the story and decide who to believe. Otherwise, if you like adventure travel stories, this one is pretty good, and it covers a journey that had never been done before.

But don't take my word for it: The usual product info and reader reviews from Amazon, a review from Geist, one from journalist Joe Wiebe, and the book's official webpage.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean - Trevor Corson

The Basics: The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustaceans, Trevor Corson, 2004, 289 pages, hardcover

How I found it: After I read The Sushi Economy and was looking for reviews of that book, I noticed that many of the reviews mentioned another sushi book called The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson. Since my local library doesn't have The Zen of Fish yet, and I live in the lobstering region of Canada, I decided to read Corson's other book on lobsters.

What's it about?: The book explores scientific research on lobster behaviour. Apparently, up until a few decades ago, scientists had no idea what lobsters were up to underwater, or even where they lived or why. The book also examines the contribution of lobster fishermen to this research. The book could also be called the secret lives of lobstermen since it deals with the struggles lobster fishermen have faced and how they have contributed to the conservation effort.

Did I like it?: I loved this book. I learned so much about lobsters that I didn't even know I wanted to learn. The secret life of lobsters is really an underwater soap opera, and I was fascinated by it. This book is really well written and presents the scientific information in an easy to understand and compelling manner. Like the Sushi Economy, this book also made me really hungry for lobster.

Will you like it?: If you like non-fiction at all, this is a great book to read. You'll learn so much about lobsters and even if you thought you weren't interested in lobsters, you will be by the time you finish the book. I can't recommend this book enough.

But don't take my word for it: The usual product info and reader reviews from Amazon, a review from Maine's The Working Waterfront, one from mostlyfiction.com, another from Pop Matters, one from someone at Brown University, and a selection of reviews from goodreads.com.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Catwatching - Desmond Morris

The Basics: Catwatching, Desmond Morris, 1986, 105 pages, hardcover

How I found it: After repeatedly wondering why exactly my cat was doing something, I went in search of a book on cat behaviour at my local public library. This seemed the most informative option, so I picked it up.

What's it about?: The book is written in question and answer form. Each question asks something that people typically want to know about cats, such as 'Why do cats purr?' Basic cat behaviour is covered, as is mating, fighting, kitten-rearing, and the origins of cat-related phrases, such as 'raining cats and dogs'.

Did I like it?: I had previously spent some time on the internet generally, and on wikipedia, trying to find info about cat behaviour. I hadn't found much. This book answered most of the questions I had about cats. I found it really informative. Though I read the whole book cover-to-cover, it would also be a good resource to have around if you just wanted to know a few particular things about cat behaviour.

Will you like it?: If you own a cat or spend time with cats, this is a must read. If don't care for cats, it might still explain a bit about why they act the way they do.

But don't take my word for it: The usual editorial and reader reviews from Amazon and the author's web page were really all I could find.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The End of East - Jen Sookfong Lee

The Basics: The End of East, Jen Sookfong Lee, 2007, 245 pages, hardcover

How I found it: I remembered reading an interview with Lee in the Tyee this summer, and then picked up her book during some random browsing at Chapters.

What's it about?: The narrator is university-aged Samantha (Sammy) Chan who flees her troubled personal life in Montreal to return home to care for her aging mother after her old sister moves out. The story isn't really that much about Sammy though - it is more about her memories of her parents and grandparents. Sammy's portions of the story are told in first person, but much of the book is focuses on Sammy's parents and grandparents and their early days in Canada after arriving from China. These portions are told in the third person. In general, the plot revolves around the struggles of three generations of Chans: the struggles to make a life in Canada, to have positive relationships with their family members, and to have positive relationships with themselves. All of the Chans say that they feel that Vancouver's Chinatown is a part of them, so much so that they could walk its streets blindfolded after not having visited in years. Similarly, Vancouver's Chinatown is a part of this book - Lee has tried to capture the essence of Chinatown in a novel.

Did I like it?: I really enjoyed this book since Lee is an amazing writer. This is her first novel, and it is a great debut. Previously, Lee was known as a celebrated poet, and it shows in her writing. Her words are carefully chosen, which makes the story flow so well, and really brings it to life for the reader. Lee gives the book an undertone of melancholy and of things left unsaid, which is both beautiful and depressing. The amount of emotion that she is able to coax out of seemingly stoic characters is fabulous. The only thing that bothered me a bit about the book is that we didn't learn enough about Sammy and her journey. Perhaps Lee will have to write several other companion books as Wayson Choy did to tell the rest of the story of this Vancouver Chinatown family.

Will you like it?: This is a great book - good story, excellent writing. It really sucks you in and I was upset when it was over. If you like quality fiction, you'll like this book. Its a great one for bookclubs as well.

But don't take my word for it: Glowing editorial and reader reviews from Amazon, a review from Vancouver alternative weekly The Georgia Straight, one from the blog Lotus Reads, another from January Magazine, and a collection of review links from Vancouver's Toddish McWong of Gung Haggis Fat Choy fame.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy - Sasha Isenberg

The Basics: The Sushi Economy, Sasha Issenberg, 2007, 323 pages, hardcover.

How I found it: Random browsing at Chapters.

What's it about?: This book purports to be about the economy of sushi, but really it is about the economy of sushi grade tuna. Tuna is the quintessential sushi fish, and the rise in popularity of sushi had profound effects on the global tuna fishing (and ranching) industries. Issenberg explains why and how tuna became so popular, and what the global effects of sushi have been on tuna. He uses examples of fishermen, tuna ranchers, sushi chefs, and Japanese fish wholesalers in Tokyo's famous Tsukiji fish market to elaborate various points. However, not much of the book actually talks about sushi. The title implies that you will learn about why and how sushi became popular, but the book doesn't deliver. There are a few pages about this topic, but really, the book is about tuna.

Did I like it?: I found most of this book fairly interesting. As a huge, sushi fan, it was good to learn more about the history of sushi, and how my meal gets to the table. I was disappointed in the focus on tuna. I come from the salmon dominated sushi centre of Vancouver, where tuna is popular, but certainly not the focus. Apparently this is the reverse from everywhere else in the sushi-eating world. In general, the book was largely informative, but sometimes dry.

Will you like it?: If you eat sushi, or even if you just eat fish, this is an interesting book as it explains the complicated logistics of getting fresh fish to you. It also if very telling, as it acknowledges the prof0und changes we have seen in fishing in the last few decades and the globalization of seafood production. Just don't expect this book to talk too much about sushi itself. A nice glossy cookbook with lots of pictures, or a visit to a good sushi restaurant will be far more satisfying to a sushi aficionado than reading this book (although I was constantly hungry while reading it).

But don't take my word for it: A collection of positive reviews from the book's official website, a review from the trend-spotting website martiniboys.com, one from Washington Monthly, another from Christian Science Monitor, one from the Financial Times, a New York Times review that comes it to Trevor Corson's The Zen of Fish (which is on my list of things to read), and finally, another one from a fellow book blogger.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke

The Basics: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke, 2004, 1006 pages, paperback

How I found it: Random browsing in Chapters. I believe I picked it up because it sounded interesting and it was a best seller.

What's it about?: This book is historical fiction (or fictionalized history?) and deals with the return of magic to England in the 1800s. The protagonists are Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, two magicians who go from being unknown and known, to master and pupil, to sworn enemies, to... whatever it is they are the end of the book. The book is fairly long and deals with the minutia of the lives of these magicians. In addition to being about magic, this book deals with the historical events in England at the time, such as the Napoleonic wars. This novel is a bit Austen or Bronte-esque in that it is obsessed with the social engagements and standing of each of its characters.

Did I like it?: This book drove me crazy. It took me a very long time to read it - not only because the book itself is long, but because for great portions of it I was uninterested in it. The book is 1006 pages long and it is the author's first novel. She could have benefited greatly from a better editor. The book could have been perhaps a third of the length and still told the same story. Clarke seemed determined to make the reader feel as if they were reading a historical book so she added numerous and mostly irrelevant footnotes and some "ye olde english" spellings. This just drove me crazy. Large portions of the plot could have been summarized in a chapter or two, but instead they drag on for hundreds of pages. The characters of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are not particularly likable or relatable, and the author's treatment of them leaves the reader wondering who we are supposed to root for - who is the hero and who is the villian? Overall, I was disappointed with this book and did not really enjoy reading it. Above all, I found it annoying on many levels.

Will you like it?: If you are a fan of the fantasy genre (which I am not), you may like this book. However, there are not enough battles or mystical creatures to satisfy a Lord of the Rings fan and there is too much discussion of the types of ball gowns worn and which government official has invited the magicians for tea. Apparently this book is a New York Times bestseller, so there must be lots of people out there who liked it. Sorry to say, I can't figure out who they might possibly be.

But don't take my word for it: The usual editorial and reader reviews from Amazon, a glowing review from the Washington Post, one from SF Site, another from Salon, one from scifi.com, and one from Strange Horizons.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K. Rowling

The Basics: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling, 2007, 607 pages, hardcover

How I found it: Like everyone else, I preordered it from Chapters and waited for my Canada Post special Saturday delivery last weekend (mine arrived at 11am). I have been a fan of the Harry Potter series since the 3rd book came out and I realized it wasn't just for kids.

What's it about?: This is the culmination of the Harry Potter series where he finally faces off against Voldemort. Without giving away too many plot points, the story revolves around Harry, Ron and Hermione travelling around and camping, trying to find clues towards a mysterious quest that Dumbledore gave them at the end of the last book, and trying to avoid Voldemort's Death Eaters. There are several battles, including a grand finale battle at the end.

Did I like it?: As with all the Harry Potter books, I liked this one. However, at 607 pages, I found that it did drag a bit at times, and the plot was slow moving, especially during all the camping scenes. It does have a good ending that was a surprise to me, despite all the rumours flying around about it. I also enjoyed the epilogue as it provided a great parallel to the whole series.

Will you like it?: If you've read the other Harry Potter books, you are pretty much obligated to read this one to find out what the final outcome will be. Plus, it's just as good as most of the other Potter books. The books have grown up with their readers, and this is more teen fiction than children's lit now, which will appeal to the older reader. If you haven't read the Potter books, don't read this one - start at book one, work your way through, and say goodbye to your free time as you get sucked in.

But don't take my word for it: A huge amount of Harry Potter background and some reader reviews (some with plot spoilers) from Amazon.ca, a review from a north London blogger, one from the UK's Telegraph and the Guardian, and the wikipedia entry (with plot spoilers). These are just a few of the thousands of things written about the release of this book. It was a huge media event - do some googling if you need more.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ultimate High: My Everest Odyssey - Goran Kropp

The Basics: Ultimate High: My Everest Odyssey, Goran Kropp with David Lagercrantz, 1999, 227 pages, paperback

How I found it: This book was lying around my parents house. It's likely that it belongs to my dad.

What's it about?: Kropp was a mountaineer from Sweden who decided to climb Everest in a manner that he felt was the "purest" way to do it. This involved biking from Sweden to base camp with all of the gear and food he would need on the climb. He then attempted to climb the mountain using only his own gear, and food, using no fixed ropes or porters, and no bottled oxygen. Kropp climbed in 1996, the famous disaster year chronicled most famously in Krakauer's Into Thin Air, and several other books (I've read pretty much all of them). His climb ended up getting put on hold as the crisis unfolded.

Did I like it?: I've read a lot of mountaineering books and there are really two kinds of mountaineers: the normal ones and the crazy ones. Kropp was a crazy one. His dedication to his training was fanatical. He seems to have been quick tempered. But his journey is an interesting read as he has his own insight into the 1996 Everest season and other general mountaineering topics. In general, this was a fairly average read for a mountaineering book and not particularly great. However, it is by no means bad.

Will you like it?: There are much better mountaineering books, and even much better Everest books than this one. However, the "pure" way in which Kropp chose to climb is vaguely intriguing. Kropp also had aspirations to be a full time adventurer on the scale of Colin Angus. After his trip to Everest and back, he skiied to the north pole and had plans to sail to Antarctica from Sweden, ski to the pole, then sail back. However, Kropp died in a rock climbing accident in 2002 so this book is the only documentation of an adventuring career that never got off the ground.

But don't take my word for it: The usual reader reviews from and publishers blurbs Amazon, a review from the Denver Post, and one from the New York Times are all I could find.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Video Night in Kathmandu and Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East - Pico Iyer

The Basics: Video Night in Kathmandu and Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East, Pico Iyer, 1988, 382 pages, soft cover.

How I found it: Random browsing in the travel writing section of Chapters. Plus, I had already read some of Iyer's work and knew I liked it.

What's it about?: Iyer took a series of trips to Asia in the mid-80s while most countries there were in the middle of becoming more and more Westernized. He writes a chapter on each of the countries he visited, Bali, Tibet, Nepal, China, The Philippines, Burma, Hong Kong, India, Thailand and Japan. For each chapter he focuses on the ways each country and its people are taking on Western influences, and the ways in which they are making them their own.

Did I like it?: Iyer is an excellent travel writer. He includes enough of himself in his writing to make the reader understand who he is and how he feels about the experiences he is having, but he doesn't include so much that his experience overshadows what the place is really about. Iyer also attempts to really engage the locals, understand their view and their life, and tell the reader a bit of their story as well as his own. Iyer's book is also a bit of a time capsule - it was written in the late 80s, almost 20 years ago, and presumably, a lot has changed. The edition I have contains a new afterword which was written in 2000. In the afterward Iyer comments that much has changed in Asia, in terms of the effects of globalization and technology, but that much as remained the same. I think that must be even more true now.

Will you like it?: If you are interested in travel writing, Iyer's is among some of the best and this is a great book to check out. Iyer manages to really personalize Asia, while at the same time illustrating how global culture is becoming. Great writing and some great stories.

But don't take my word for it: The usual collection of publishers blurbs and reader reviews from Amazon, a review from the blog of professional traveler and author Rolf Potts, vagablogging, a recent interview with Iyer, and a not as recent interview.