Saturday, March 22, 2008

Shakespeare: The World as Stage - Bill Bryson

The Basics: Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson, 2007, 208 pages, hard cover

How I found it: This book was on a bunch of bestseller lists for a while. I'm not a huge Shakespeare fan, but I did study his works a whole bunch. As well, I've read most of Bryson's work and enjoyed it.

What's it about?: This is a biography of Shakespeare for the lay person, written in Bryson's joking style. The book exposes how little is actually know about Shakespeare's life, and at times is a bit more about life in London in Shakespeare's time than about the man himself. The book also briefly delves into the controversy surrounding whether or not Shakespeare actually wrote some or all of his works.

Did I like it?: I found this book to be a quick and easy read. I learned a lot about what we know and don't know about Shakespeare's life, and about the wild speculation a lot of scholars have engaged in over the years. However, I wasn't that into this book, despite how easy it was to read since I just didn't find the content that interesting. I did find Bryson's argument about what might and might not be true about Shakespeare's life to be quite convincing, however.

Will you like it?: I think this is a must read for casual fans of Shakespeare, especially if you don't know anything about the man behind the literature. However, if you're not into Shakespeare, perhaps you won't find this book that interesting.

But don't take my word for it: The usual product info and reader reviews from Amazon, a review from the UK's The Telegraph, a review from the blog ShakespeareGeek, another one from another blog (ricklibrarian), and finally one from the Times Online.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Model Summer - Paulina Porizkova

The Basics: A Model Summer, Paulina Porizkova, 2007, 324 pages, hardcover

How I found it: As regular readers of this blog may know, one of my guilty pleasures is the crap-tastic America's Next Top Model. This season 80s supermodel Paulina Porizkova is a judge. She has recently written a novel about being a teenage model in the 80s, and it sounded intriguing.

What's it about?: This novel is about 15 year old Jirina, a Swede of Czech origin (like Paulina) who travels to Paris for the summer following the lure of a modeling career. She has to grow up fast and overcome her naivete as she is faced with issues she has never dealt with before, including abortion, drugs, and sex. Of course, she also deals with the everyday aspects of modeling, such as go-sees (auditions/castings), photo shoots, and squabbles with other models.

Did I like it?: Like Top Model, this book is a guilty pleasure. The writing isn't spectacular, but it is capable. From what I know of the modeling industry, Jirina's experience is fairly typical. The plot was fairly predictable, but for me, that didn't make it any less enjoyable.

Will you like it?: I would recommend this book as a beach book or vacation book, or some other light reading. However, I don't know if I would advise spending money on it - borrow it from the library then try not to drop it in the pool.

But don't take my word for it: The usual publishers blurbs from Amazon, a review from the blog Memphis Reads, one from the New York Times, and another from the blog Impatient Reader.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's - John Elder Robison

The Basics: Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's, John Elder Robison, 2007, 288 pages, hardcover

How I found it: I don't remember how I heard about this book (maybe a bestseller list?) but I know I wanted to read it because I am interested in people with Asperger's Syndrome having known a few of them growing up, and having spent a lot of time with people who work as computer programmers.

What's it about?: This book is a memoir about Robison's life. He is the brother of Augusten Burroghs, who wrote his own memoir, Running with Scissors (which I haven't read), which mentions Robison. Both kids had exceptionally bad childhoods, and Robison does touch on that. However, most of the book focuses on Robison describing what it is like to have Asperger's Syndrome (a type of high functioning Austism spectrum disorder). He does a great job of logically explaining how his thought process is different than that of the average person while reflecting, with great hindsight, on how his alternative way of thinking has affected his life and interactions with others. All of this would make for an interesting book, but in addition to being different, Robison has led a rather spectacular life. He toured with Kiss while working on their stage effects, and for a time worked as an electronic toy designer.

Did I like it?: I really enjoyed this book and couldn't put it down. It was fascinating to read about how people with Asperger's think and as I said, Roision has had a rather interesting life. People often assume that those with Asperger's are robotic and don't really have feelings. Robison dispels this myth, and then some, by giving various anecdotes about his life and how these events have affected him.

Will you like it?: I found this book to be a great read. It will appeal to readers of both fiction and non-fiction since it has a plot-like structure. I think its also a great book to read to better understand people with autism spectrum disorder since most of us have no idea what life is like for them.

But don't take my word for it: The usual blurbs and reader reviews (all of which are positive 5 start reviews - highly unusual) from Amazon, a review from Entertainment Weekly, one from the blog Framed and Booked, another from The A.V. Club, one from the Times Online, and finally, the author's website.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Girls of Riyadh - Rajaa Alsanea

The Basics: Girls of Riyadh, Rajaa Alsanea, 2007, 304 pages, hardcover

How I found it: I believe it was on a list of new and noteworthy fiction at my local public library.

What's it about?: This novel tells the story of four female friends coming of age, attending university, and attempting to find love in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The woman are part of Riyadh's 'velvet class' and live privileged lives. Although they live in a Muslim country, the girls have progressive ideas of love, dating and the role of women in society. However, for the most part, these girls still strive to live with their religion as their guide. This book is a bit like a watered-down Muslim Sex in the City: four friends who are quite different, living 'liberated' lives, dating various men, including one man who is the Saudi equivalent of "Mr. Big". The book was originally written in Arabic, but obviously, I read the English translation.

Did I like it?: This book is in no way 'literature', however it is a good pulpy read. I enjoyed reading it and actually learned a lot about the lives of women living under Muslim law (although I guess I only learned about the lives of rich women). The women themselves are quite likable, although to me their lives seem a bit far fetched and they seem a bit spoiled. It's a bit like the premise of Gossip Girl - that we want to read about the rich privileged people we wish we could be. The idea of attempting to date in a country that has religious police, where women must keep their faces partially hidden, and where dating takes place in secret, and only the phone, was completely foreign to me, and actually quite fascinating. Apparently this book was a bit controversial in the Middle East for its frank discussions of sex and dating, and the fact that its author is a 25 year old female university student. It was even banned in Saudi Arabia and that seems to add to its allure.

Will you like it?: If you liked Sex in the City, you'll like this book. It's a slightly more intelligent beach book and might actually teach you things about the lives of women in the Muslim world that you won't hear on North American television. However, don't expect great literature or any deep thoughts about politics or other hard topics, as this book is pure fluff, and good fluff at that.

But don't take my word for it: The usual publisher-approved blurbs from Amazon, a review from the website Arab View, another review from Homan, Iran's gay and lesbian resource site, one from the UK's Independent, an article from Forbes (cheekily entitled "Saudi Girls Gone Wild") and a summary from the author's web page.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Almost Moon - Alice Sebold

The Basics: The Almost Moon, Alice Sebold, 2007, 291 pages, hardcover

How I found it: I believe this was on some bestseller lists last year. I also read Sebold's previous book, The Lovely Bones, a few years ago. I didn't love it, but since it was okay I thought I would read her next one.

What's it about?: This novel is about a woman who kills her elderly mother rather than send her to a 'home'. She spends the rest of the book trying to cover up the murder and reliving her terrible childhood and her relationship with her mother.

Did I like it?: I hated this book. While it was competently written, the plot was not engaging. Instead it was just grim and tiresome. The protagonist was not likable, despite the fact that Sebold obviously wanted the reader to sympathize with her. Although the book itself is not scary, I found myself having nightmares while I was reading it, which is never a good sign. I couldn't wait to finish reading this so I didn't have to think about its deplorable characters anymore.

Will you like it?: I suppose it is obvious that I don't recommend this book. Unless you enjoy morbidity and relate to people who murder their parents, stay away. Sebold's The Lovely Bones was also a bit morbid, so perhaps stay away from Sebold altogether.

But don't take my word for it: The usual blurbs (one of which actually calls the book disappointing) and reader reviews (which are almost all negative) from Amazon, a review from Mostly Fiction, a more positive one from the San Fransisco Chronicle, one from New York's The Village Voice, another from The New York Times, and one from

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Turtle Valley - Gail Anderson-Dargatz

The Basics: Turtle Valley, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, 2007, 292 pages, hardcover

How I found it: I can't really remember how I read about it, but I know I must have been interested in reading it because it is by a female Canadian author, and it is about a region I am familiar with

What's it about?: This novel tells the story of a woman who must return to her aging parents rural home to help them pack up in the face of a looming forest fire. The home is located in Turtle Valley, which is near Salmon Arm, BC in the Shuswap Lake area. The protagonist, Kat, is reminded through the events of the story, of her complicated past, and the difficulties that are to come, such as her parents declining health and the aftermath of her young husband's stroke. Kat also discovers things about her parents and grandparents, who lived in their historic farmhouse, as she packs up the house in anticipation of its destruction at the hands of the fire. It's a complicated story about family, happiness, and self-discovery.

Did I like it?: I really enjoyed this book, and I actually couldn't put it down. I've never read a book by Anderson-Dargatz before, and I have no idea why. I don't think I had even heard of her before this, which is surprising. She writes beautifully and has a very engaging style. Her characters are likable and well-developed. The plot of this novel is also quite well developed, which several story-lines that all weave together well and are brought together in the lives of the family.

Will you like it?: I highly recommend this book. It's a great story and is well-written. I couldn't put it down and you probably won't want to either. My only disclaimer is that like most things I like, it's a bit of a woman's book and probably great for bookclubs.

But don't take my word for it: The usual publisher-approved blurbs from Amazon, a review from Vancouver's alternative weekly The Georgia Straight, one from January Magazine, info about the book from the author's website, and an excerpt of the book printed in Canadian Living Magazine,

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Lawyers Gone Bad: Money, Sex and Madness in Canada's Legal Profession - Philip Slayton

The Basics: Lawyers Gone Bad: Money, Sex and Madness in Canada's Legal Profession, Philip Slayton, 2007, 294 pages, hardcover

How I found it: This book was in the Canadian news a lot in the summer of 2007 when it came out. Most notably, it inspired a Maclean's Magazine cover story entitled "Lawyers are Rats" that inflamed the Canadian legal community (see here for a summary). In the fall, I went (out of curiosity) to a talk that Slayton gave about his opinions on the reform of regulation of the legal profession. As a result, I was curious to see what all the fuss was about.

What's it about?: Each of this book's chapters details the crimes and indiscretions of a particular lawyer gone bad. The wrongs committed by these people include money laundering, stealing money, sex with clients, and all kinds of other dirty dealings. Slayton asserts that these cases are special because they often were committed by lawyers who were otherwise successful in the profession. At the end of the book, Slatyon closes with a few pages containing his thoughts on how the legal profession might be reformed, including the problems with the self-governance system.

Did I like it?: This book was interesting in the same way Jerry Springer or a highway car wreck is interesting: other people's problems are on full display in all their sensationalistic glory. Overall, I didn't really like the book that much. Slayton was mostly into criticizing the people he profiled for how they had royally screwed up. However, the real problem with the legal profession, in my opinion, is that lawyers don't screw up royally very often - instead they just pad their billings here and there, fail to report things to the law society - minor stuff. When I saw Slayton speak he emphasized these little screw ups as the real problem, and spoke at length about how he left the self-governing provincial bar societies were at the root of the problem. However, that argument is barely a footnote in his book, probably because if it were more prominent, he never would have got the media coverage he did.

Will you like it?: If you are truly looking for some sensational stories about 'lawyers gone bad' then you might find this book entertaining as you make yourself feel better by reading about someone who really screwed up. However, if you just read this book to see what all the hype was about, you might be a bit disappointed. And if you are involved in the legal profession, it is likely that you are boycotting this book altogether due to the media backlash against lawyers that it generated.

But don't take my word for it: The usual publisher-approved blurbs from Amazon, a review from Vancouver's alternative weekly newspaper, The Georgia Strait, one from The Toronto Star, and a collection of positive reviews from the author's web page.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto - Michael Pollan

The Basics: In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, Michael Pollan, 2008, 244 pages, hardcover

How I found it: I read Pollan's last book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, a few years ago and loved it. In fact, I even named it best non-fiction of 2006. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan explores where our food comes from, but he doesn't really comment on what we should eat. I wanted to read In Defense of Food since it was promoted as commenting on what we should eat.

What's it about?: The sub-tile of this book is "An Eater's Manifesto", and this book really is a manifesto. Pollan attempts to convince us of his argument, then urges us to lead a quiet revolution through our food choices. The mantra for the book is "Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants". Pollan begins by explaining that by "food" he means unprocessed natural foods, not the overly-processed, additive-addled pseudo foods that dominate our grocery stores, and that our grandparents likely would not have recognized as food. He examines the declining nutritional value of our food and challenges the science behind modern notions of what is nutritional. Overall, he advocates a return to whole, unprocessed foods that are better for us, and taste better.

Did I like it?: I enjoyed this book a bit because to some degree, I agree with Pollan: I'd like to eat more whole, unprocessed foods. I have a variety of minor stomach ailments, and find that I feel better when I eat unprocessed foods and cook from scratch. It was nice to see a pseudo-scientific and definitely logical explanation for why those unprocessed foods make me feel better. Some people may take issue with Pollan's condemnation of nutritional science, but I found it quite convincing.

Will you like it?: If you have read The Omnivores Dilemma, this is a good follow-up book. As well, if like many people, you are becoming interested in local eating and whole foods, this is a great book to read. As well, if you are the kind of person that has read a bunch of diet books, or tried a variety of diets, you might find the nutrition section of the book interesting since it debunks (or attempts to) a lot of the traditional diet literature.

But don't take my word for it: The usual publishers blurbs and reader reviews from Amazon, a review from the International Herald Tribune, one from the Wise Bread website, another from the London Times, and one from the LA Times.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Divisadero - Michael Ondaatje

The Basics: Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje, 2007, 273 pages, hardcover, winner of the 2007 Governor General's Literary Award, nominated for the Giller in 2007

How I found it: I have read much of Ondaatje's work since he is one of the quintessential contemporary Canadian authors. This is his first book in seven years and was critically acclaimed so I thought I would give it a read.

What's it about?: This book is less of a novel and more like three interconnected novellas. The novel begins with the introduction of the characters that appear in each of the novellas: Anna Claire and Cooper. None of them are related by blood, but they have been raised as siblings on a Northern California ranch. Anna narrates the opening chapter will memories of their idyllic childhood and the startling events that ripped their family apart. The siblings drift apart and the remainder of the novel tells the stories of their disparate lives. Anna becomes a writer and historian studying a little known French poet. She travels to France to stay in the chateau that was once his, and the novel begins to explore the lives of the poet and his contemporaries in the chateau.

Did I like it?: This book was beautifully written, and as usual Ondaatje proved his chameleon-like quality to take on any perspective convincingly. However, I didn't really like this book very much. The inter-related quality of the storylines meant that the reader never really gets to hear the full story for some of the characters. As well, the inter-relatedness is not always immediately apparent: you turn the page and are suddenly introduced to a whole new set of characters who you only realize 20 pages later are meant to be related to the original characters in some way.

Will you like it?: Divisdero is really "literature" - casual readers may not enjoy it. I can see why it won all sorts of awards since it is a very well crafted work. However, from a pure reading enjoyment perspective, it wasn't very interesting and was not that pleasant to read. I recommend some of Ondaatje's other works over this one, unless you are really into literature.,

But don't take my word for it: The usual publisher's blurbs and reader reviews from Amazon, a review from Quill and Quire, one from the book blog So Misguided, another from the International Herald Tribune, and another review from another book blogger, The Dewey Divas and the Dudes.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Wind Tails - Anne De Grace

The Basics: Wind Tails, Anne Degrace, 2007, 302 pages, hardcover

How I Found it: I was given Degrace's previous book, Treading Water, as a gift the Christmas before last and absolutely loved it. When I saw that she was releasing a new novel I immediately put myself on the waiting list at the library.

What's it about?: The lives of several people from different walks of life all serendipitiously come together at an out of the way roadside diner one day in 1977. The premise is that the wind has blown these people towards the diner. The book is more a study in characters than a novel. Some characters, such the young and troubled Jo, are recurring, while others drift into the cafe, tell their vignette, and leave.

Did I like it?: This was an enjoyable read, but I didn't love it. I think Degrace is a great writer and I really like her style. However, I found this book a little disjointed since there were so many characters to keep track of. Eventually it became clear which characters were recurring and therefore important, and which ones I could forget about. I don't give it away, but I thought the ending was both obvious and contrived. It's also worth mentioning that like Treading Water, Wind Tails has a fabulous cover.

Will you like it?: If you are looking for under-appreciated Canadian authors, I think Degrace would be a great one to read. However, I think you should start with Treading Water, rather than this book. Wind Tails is enjoyable, it's just that there are quite a few contemporary Canadian novels that are a bit better.

But don't take my word for it: The usual publisher's blurbs and reader reviews from Amazon, a collection of reviews on the author's website, and an in-progress review from the blog In Over My Head.