Sunday, October 22, 2006

Greener Than Eden - Michael Kohn

The Basics: Greener Than Eden, Michael Kohn, 2006, 253 pages, paperback.

How I found it: I read an article about this book in the July/Aug 2006 edition of Outpost Magazine and decided to put it on hold at the library.

What's it about?: A novel about a young man trying to escape trouble he has gotten himself into at university by going tree-planting for the summer. Noah is "green" at the job but quickly works his way up to a spot on the coveted "high-baller" crew making the big money. His summer is filled with inner struggle, love, conflict and all that usual good angsty stuff. As well, there is a great cast of characters to round out the mix. Oh yeah, and they plant a helluva lot of trees.

Did I like it?: This is Kohn's first novel, but it doesn't often show. He writes well without being obnoxiously poetic. I didn't really know anything about tree-planting before reading this book, even though I know quite a few people who do it every summer. In that respect the book was quite educational. I found the plot quite interesting, especially the interplay between the characters and Noah's personal struggle. Overall, it was a good fast read without being pulpy and formulaic.

Will you like it?: If you have ever thought about going tree-planting, this is a must read. If you are curious about it, that is another good reason to read Kohn's novel. Kohn is an emerging Canadian writer worth supporting; this is good contemporary fiction so go read it already.

But don't take my word for it: A reader review (and spoilerish plot summary) from an reader, a mixed review from the Globe and Mail, and one from This Magazine.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

jPod - Douglas Coupland

The Basics: jPod, Douglas Coupland, 2006, 516 pages, hardcover.

How I found it: I have followed Douglas Coupland's work since I read Generation X in second year English Literature. I really enjoyed that book and a few of his other ones, including Microserfs, which is a sort of companion book to this one. I though Microserfs was a little weak so I'm not sure why I was drawn to this one. (I really do enjoy his non-fiction stuff though, like Souvenir of Canada, Terry and City of Glass.)

What's it about?: Like Microserfs, jPod follows the lives on young computer programmers. This time in the dot-bomb era we follow video game programmers instead of employees at a startup. Coupland works in all the pop culture cliches he can in a not too thinly veiled parody of EA's Burnaby sweatshop. Along with all the programmer stereotypes, Coupland also includes plot points that tie in all kinds of other contemporary Vancouver archetypes, from biker gangs to Asian human-smugglers to mom and pop shop grow-ops. Coupland also gets all "meta" on us and includes himself as a character is in novel.

Did I like it?: I was willing to give this a book a shot because I had liked Generation X so much. Like every other one of Couplands books, however, this one disappointed me. Plainly put, the man can't tie up a plot to save his life. His plot devices are contrived and poorly thought out. Here, he is striving so hard to be hip and put in all kinds of up to the minute pop culture references that he begins to be annoying. This summer I saw an "art installation" of his at St. John's The Rooms (a museum and gallery complex). The installation consisted of stream of consciousness pop culture musing printed in 72 point font in a circle around the walls of a large room. The sign at the door to the exhibit mentioned that it was not suitable for children - maybe that is why when I looked at it only the dirty words and references to pornography stood out to me. There was also a smaller room with the walls covered in seemingly random numbers. Looking up to the top corner we noticed the sequence began with 3.14... Wow Doug, how unique and innovative! My biggest beef with this book, besides the crappy plot and Coupland's incessant desire to prove how cool and with it he is was the pages and pages of wasted space. In this space Coupland attempts to show in an avant garde way, how overwhelmed by words we are in our society. Therefore he devotes 155 pages (yes I counted, so you don't have to) to such fascinating sections that include a reproduction of a Nigerian scam email, the back of a Doritos bag, pi to 10,000 digits, etc. I'm glad I borrowed this book from the library since I would feel pretty cheated if I had bought the book and spent money on 155 pages of crap that doesn't relate to the book. Perhaps when I become a successful author my publisher will let me do whatever I want and waste money and trees in the name of "art".

Will you like it?: If you are a fan of Coupland's you may like this book. It is not that bad and is on par with some of his other crap, such as Microserfs and Girlfriend in Coma. If you are a computer nerd like so many people I know (and love) this book may be interesting since it attempts (and I think fails) to caricature your world. Otherwise, I warn the general public away from this book. I know Coupland is supposed to be a celebrated Canadian writer... but really the title is rather undeserving. Sorry, Doug.

But don't take my word for it: Some generally positive reader reviews on, a review from BoingBoing (a website that the characters of jPod might actually read), one from the UK's The Guardian, a fairly positive review from the Globe and Mail that calls Coupland a "superb comedian" (WTF?), and an amalgamation of reviews from metacritic, including one zinger from NY's Village Voice that sums up how I feel.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals - Michael Pollan

The Basics: The Omnivores Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan, 2006

How I found it: I was buying Leave No Crumbs on and I needed another book to boost my total high enough to get free shipping. I discovered this in the new non-fiction section and it looked good. Unfortunately due to a backlog of library books, it's been neglected for a few months but I finally got around to reading it.

What's it about?: Pollan follows the path of four very different meals from their very beginning as they are grown to the end of the line where they are eaten. The four different meals are an industrialized agriculture meal, an industrialized organic agricultural meal, a "beyond organic"/sustainable organic meal, and a foraged/hunted meal. Along the way he explains how our culture and way of eating have changed agriculture, etc.

Did I like it?: I love this book. It was fascinating. For example, did you know that most of a processed food meal consists of corn? The meat you eat was fed corn, there is corn meal and corn starch holding it together, the sweetener in your pop is corn syrup... it's all corn! As well, did you know that cows can't actually digest corn properly? It's too acidic for their special stomachs and if they eat it for too long it will eat through the side of their stomach. That's why they are only kept on the feed lot for a limited amount of time. There are all kinds of interesting facts like these in the book, and more besides. The author also does a great job of examining the ethics behind what he eats. The discussion of industrialized organic vs. sustainable organic is really informative and interesting too, especially as it pertains to meat.

Will you like it?: If you care at all about what you put in your body, this is a great book to read. It is much more interesting and informative than Fast Food Nation as it presents a much more balanced view of things. I thought I already knew quite a bit about food production, but this book really opened my eyes to much more.

But don't take my word for it: Readers on seem to like it, the New York Times reviewer liked it (mostly), as did the one from the Washington Post, a review from the environmentalist website and an open letter to Michael Pollan from Whole Foods criticizing his coverage of their industrial organic supermarket model.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

How to Save the World in Your Spare Time - Elizabeth May

The Basics: How to Save the World in Your Spare Time, Elizabeth May, 2006, 207 pages, paperback.

How I Found it: I believe I saw it reviewed in Canadian Geographic, but I might be wrong about that.

What's it about?: This is a how-to manual on how to be an activist or run an activist organization. It includes tips on organization, media handling, public awareness, knowing when to sue, and lots of other stuff. It is written by Canadian Elizabeth May, current leader of the Green Party, former direction of Sierra Club, etc.

Did I like it?: This book was quite informative, but I feel that the title is a bit of a misnomer - it should be Called How to Save the World as Your Part-time Job, because the tactics May uses will consume your life and eat up much more than your spare-time. I found that the book had some good tips that I could even use in the small organizations and clubs I belong to, which is helpful.

Would you like it?: Even if you aren't part of an organization, May gives some good tips on things you can do by yourself, such as letter writing. If you are part of an organization, this is your new bible. May stresses moderation and being careful not to alienate the public or politicians and I think that is a very important message for groups to remember.

But don't take my word for it: a review from the blog, one from Geist Magazine (which is Canadian) and review from the Nature Canada website.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen

The Basics: Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen, 2006, 335 pages, hardcover

How I found it: I had been given a gift certificate to a local bookstore. I went in one day on a 30 minute break from work with the mission of buying a book since the gift certificate was about to expire. I found this one flagged on the shelf as being both Canadian and recommended by staff.

What's it about?: An old man in a seniors centre reflects on his life as a vet with a travelling circus. The story covers a few months in his early 20s when he finds his calling with exotic animals and also finds the two loves of his life, Rosie, an elephant, and Marlena, her trainer. It's a very plot-driven story about love and loss with lots of risks.

Did I like it?: I loved this book. Despite being super-busy, I read it in about three days. It made my cry more than once, which is almost without precedent. Gruen rights well and without pretention. She has done an incredible amount of research for this book and it shows. You are completely drawn inside the world of the circus and the mindset of an elephant. I was quite upset when I finished this book, simply because it was over and I had enjoyed reading it so much.

Will you like it?: I don't know how you could dislike this book. It is a great and touching story and a quick and easy read. This one comes highly recommended.

But don't take my word for it: A review from, a more negative one from, the usual reader reviews from, and one more from