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.