Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World - Steven Johnson

The Basics: The Ghost Map - The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World, Steven Johnson, 2006, 299 pages, hardcover

How I found it: Greg gave me this book for Christmas, likely because I am a big cartography fan. In fact, this map comes up in almost every single cartography text ever written.

What's it about?: An explanation of the history behind the ghost map and how it helped solve a cholera epidemic in 1850s London. Johnson goes into the involvement of Dr. John Snow, who was investigating the disease, and Reverend Henry Whitehead, the head of the parish affected by the outbreak. He also explores the broader social context of city planning and waste disposal that contributed to the epidemic.

Did I like it?: This book is sort of a detective story that is solved by making a map, so I liked that aspect of it. But I'm not an epidemiologist so a lot of the stuff that Johnson discusses was not that interesting to me. In particular, Johnson spends the whole closing section of the book comparing the cholera epidemic to the contemporary threat of terrorism and bio-terrorism, and I found that portion a little irrelevant. Johnson's style of writing is fairly informative, but at times I found it a little dry. The endless discussions of sewer construction, etc. were a bit much. I think this book could have been 50 to 100 pages shorter.

Will you like it?: If you've ever wondered about the origins of the 'Ghost Map' and want the full story, this is a good read. I suppose if you are into epidemiology you might like it as well. Otherwise, it's not that exciting.

But don't take my word for it: The usual collection of reviews and book info from Amazon.ca, a reader review from Amazon, one from abstractdynamics.org, another from kottke.org, and one from treehugger.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Skinny Dip - Carl Hiaasen

The Basics: Skinny Dip, Carl Hiaasen, 2004, 496 pages, paperback

How I found it: Greg gave it to me for Christmas after hearing about the author on one of the tech blogs he visits.

What's it about?: A pulpy revenge story in the vein of The Count of Monte Cristo, except set in crazy South Florida. Chaz throws his wife Joey off a cruise ship in an attempt to murder her. When she survives, she vows vengeance. Wackiness ensues.

Did I like it?: If you know me, you know I'm not a fan of pulp novels. However, this is pulp done right; this is pulp at its best. Apparently Hiaasen is known for his 'environmental thillers' so that aspect of the storyline sucked me right in. Tied up in all the murder, revenge and romance is the endangered ecosystem of the Florida everglades. The author raises awareness of the problems the everglades face while making it part of his plot. And it's a good plot. I couldn't see what was coming a mile away, and the characters, although caricatures at times, were fairly entertaining. Plus, having read The Count of Monte Cristo at age 8, I am always up for a good vengeance novel.

Will you like it?: If you need a lighter read, Carl Hiaasen is your go-to guy for well written pulp. I found this book a quick, easy and entertaining read and you probably will too.

But don't take my word for it: Reviews and info from Amazon.ca, mostly positive reader reviews, one from reviewsofbooks.com, a review from Rambles.net (which actually specializes in Celtic stuff, not South Florida), a roundup of reviews from metacritic, and a link to FAQ for the book on the author's website.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Dictator Style: Lifestyles of the World's Most Colorful Despots - Peter York

The Basics: Dictator Style: Lifestyles of the World's Most Colorful Despots, Peter York, 2006, 119 pages, hardcover

How I found it: I saw it reviewed in the Sept/Oct 2006 issue of Outpost Magazine.

What's it about?: This is a coffee table style book. Each dictator gets a few pages for their homes to be displayed Better Homes and Gardens-style. Running along side the photos is text describing the dictator's life and lifestyle as well as explaining and critiquing the contents of each photo.

Did I like it?: This is the sort of book that I enjoy: pictures of opulence next to cutting comments about the tackiness of said opulence. This is a bit like Go Fug Yourself for dictators homes instead of celebrity outfits. The only thing I didn't like about the book is that the text that accompanies the pictures was written essay style. So while it had nice flow, it often meant that the discussion of the contents of a particular image was not located on the same page as that image. All the flipping between pages drove me crazy.

Will you like it?: This is the sort of book you leaf through, rather than read cover to cover. It's an interesting read/gaze with lots of fun tidbits about the dictators - did you know that after he died many of Ceausescu's 9,000 suits were donated to Europe's last leper colony (located in Romania of course)? It's not something I would rush out to get unless you are fascinated by this topic, but if you happen to run across it, this book is a worth a glance or five.

But don't take my word for it: A brief blurb from New York Magazine, a longer review from The Phoenix (Boston's arts paper), an a few reader reviews from Amazon.com.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Natasha and Other Stories - David Bezmozgis

The Basics: Natasha and Other Stories, David Bezmozgis, 2004, 147 pages, hard cover.

How I found it: This is another Canada Reads book. This one is being defended by Steven Page (of the Barenaked Ladies).

What's it about?: This is a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories about the same family told in a sequential manner so that it resembles a fragmented novel. The family here is a Jewish Russian family that immigrates to Toronto. The stories are told by the family's only son, Mark and they trace his life from the time they arrive in Canada to his early adulthood. In this sense it is also a coming of age book.

Did I like it?: I am a sucker for stories about immigrant children. There is something that is just so quintessentially Canadian about them. Therefore I was bound to like this book for that reason alone. That is not the only reason to like it, however: it is exceptionally well written, it takes you inside the unique culture of Russian Jews, and it seems very genuine. As I read it I really began to believe that the characters were real and that this was a memoir, not a work of fiction.

Will you like it?: So far this is my favourite of the Canada Reads books (though I have yet to read two of them). Bezmozgis has been hailed as the next big thing by a lot of big literary magazines and I believe it. He is a great writer and I flew through this book in under 48 hours. His characters and his prose really sucked me in.

But don't take my word for it: A collection of editorial reviews from Amazon.ca, a couple glowing reader reviews, a more critical review from Pop Matters, and one from Small Spiral Notebook (an alternative literary journal).

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Children of My Heart - Gabrielle Roy

The Basics: Children of My Heart, Gabrielle Roy, 1979 (English translation), 171 pages, hard cover.

How I found it: When the CBC's list for the 2007 Canada Reads event came out, Roy's novel was named as one of the five books debated. It will be defended by Denise Bombardier. I requested all of the Canada Reads books from the library and this one was available first.

What's it about?: The narrator is a school teacher in Depression-era rural Manitoba. The three parts of the book are divided into telling about her experiences at three different schools. The book is a series of vignettes about the children that serves to explain the character development of the teacher protagonist. Apparently the book is a thinly veiled and fictionalized memoir of Roy's real experiences as a teacher.

Did I like it?: To me this was more of a Chicken Soup for the Teacher's Soul than a novel. The stories about the kids were well-written and endearing, but they didn't really drive any sort of plot. The character development of the teacher is present, but it doesn't really seem to go anywhere. As with all books I read in translation, I will try to blame the translation for anything I didn't like about the book. That way I can use the excuse that the author's true meaning wasn't conveyed.

Will you like it?: If you are reading the Canada Reads books this one is not too bad, but I don't think it is the winner. I'm not a Gabrielle Roy fan, but The Tin Flute is a much better read if you must read Roy.

But don't take my word for it: More info about the books from the Canada Reads site and book info and a collection of editorial reviews from Amazon.ca are all that seems to be available.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Final Confession of Mabel Stark - Robert Hough

The Basics: The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, Robert Hough, 2001, 430 pages, hard cover.

How I found it: After I reviewed Water for Elephants, my friend Melinda recommended that I read this book since the subject matter is somewhat similar.

What's it about?: This is a fictionalized account of a real person's life (similar to Wayne Johnston's fictionalized accounts of Joey Smallwood and Robert Peary's lives). Here the real person is Mabel Stark, the world's foremost tiger trainer in the circuses of the 1920s. Her life is far from ordinary involving many different husbands and one very special tiger, among other things.

Did I like it?: I discovered that I really enjoy the fictionalized biography genre when I first read Wayne Johnston's work. It is not a genre that turns up very often, but when it does it had better be well researched or I won't like it. Hough's book seems to be very well researched, although he apparently took license with a few major plot points and embellished here and there. But that is really part of the genre so it is forgivable. Like Water for Elephants, I really enjoyed this book. It was perhaps not as well written, but the plot was quite engaging.

Will you like it?: Mabel Stark's life is a great story and worth reading. There is not a lot of magic in Hough's writing, but the plot carries itself. Stark is a likable female lead and even if her life is far removed from that of most women, I found her easy to relate to. Besides, you have to love a woman who said: "You can't mix tigers and husbands. And anyhow, I prefer the tigers."

But don't take my word for it: A collection of info and editorial reviews from Amazon.ca, mostly positive reader reviews, a review from a blogger at the Lewiston Tribune, one from the Northern Rivers Echo, and one from Citypaper Online that mentions that Mabel Stark's life is being made into a movie starring Kate Winslet.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Changing Heaven - Jane Urquhart

The Basics: Changing Heaven, Jane Urquhart, 1990, 258 pages, hard cover

How I found it: I really can't remember where I heard about this book. I thought I had read (and loved) all of Urquhart's novels, but then realized I hadn't read this one and had to read it right away.

What's it about?: There are two parallel storylines: a conversation between the ghost of Emily Bronte and the ghost of a female balloonist, and a love story about a woman writing a book about Bronte's Wuthering Heights and her art historian lover. There is lots of angst and emotion all around.

Did I like it?: Having been forced to read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre in highschool (and hating the way it portrayed women) I swore off the Bronte sisters forever and haven't read Wuthering Heights. Therefore I didn't really relate to the storyline involving the ghost of Emily Bronte as much as I could have. I did find the book to be a pleasant literary read despite that since the love story was quite powerful and the characters were quite interesting. The way the two storylines wove together was interesting as it unfolded and the characters began to parallel each other more and more.

Will you like it?: You need to appreciate literature to like this book and I suppose it would help if you have read Wuthering Heights. If you're a fan of Urquhart this book won't disappoint because as usual she writes her characters and landscapes astonishingly well. This book is more about character development than plot, but the characters are fascinating.

But don't take my word for it: A collection of editorial reviews from Amazon.ca and favourable reader reviews are all I could find for this novel since it was published pre-internet.