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.