Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Futurist

by James P. Othmer.

Quickie recap: Yates is a futurist - he "predicts" what the next big thing will be, but when he admits to himself and a room full of people that his theories and in fact his life is pretty much bullshit, well, let's just say he's not exactly allowed to quietly retire as he hopes.

Quickie review: I was prepared and expecting to like this book. I was nonetheless surprised at just how much I liked it: wow. Yates is a sweet and heartfelt bumbler, which just saves him from being a total ass, but it's the combination that make him so wickedly funny. I loved the satire, the cynicism, it really doesn't pull any punches, and I admire that and am vastly entertained by it. I think it takes a pretty deft writer to be so thoughtful, even philosophical, amidst some pretty grossly comic (and at times truly terrifying) situations.

Quickie recommendation: A rare book that I won't have trouble recommending to any of my friends - the social commentary alone makes it worthwhile, but it has enough meat to it for any litnut to sink her teeth into.

The God of Animals

by Aryn Kyle.

Quickie recap: Alice is a little girl doing more than her share at the family stables, where she witnesses not just animal life, death, and the atrocities in between, but the complex and confusing world of grownups even as she grows into one under the weight of her responsibilities herself.

Quickie review: More than a book about horses, this is a book about lost love and the lessons learned while growing up. At times sweet and others gritty, you can't help but root for the young girl as she stumbles along without much help or interference. I had a lot of heartache for this character, and felt that Kyle's voice was pleasingly strong and independent.

Quickie recommendation: Very nice; I hope to read more from Kyle in the near future.

The Emperor's Children

by Claire Messud.

Quickie recap: Three 30-something friends see their lives intersect and disconnect as they find out who they are, and who they aren't.

Quickie review: Messud is a good writer. I know this because even the unsavoury characters had a touch of sympathy to them, essential to keeping any story going when narration shifts its focus from one character to another. Even through tragedy and mixed emotion, you can't help but see small glimpses of funny, as if Messud too is rolling her eyes at the very characters she's created.

Quickie recommendation: I thought it was good, not great, but solidly good (I wonder: have authors come to use 9\11 as a crutch?).

Sunday, July 22, 2007


An amateur's adventures as kitchen slave, line cook, pasta-maker, and apprentice to a Dante-quoting butcher in Tuscany, by Bill Buford.

Quickie recap: If you watch the food network or enjoy intense bouts of Iron Chef at 2am, then the name Mario Batali is already familiar to you. Buford, a fan of the superstar chef, becomes his protoge, and spends the next several years of his life dicing carrots and up to his elbows in meat.

Quickie review: It becomes obvious almost immediately that Buford is not in the kitchen simply to research his new book. He is genuinely interested at first, and with time, becomes genuinely obsessed. Luckily for us, obsession makes for extremely compelling reading. In the end, it's not just about cooking, it's about finding room for passion in your life, it's an argument for slowing down life, it's a love letter to every good meal we've ever had and the many more still to come. My belly growled while he learned to make fresh pasta and clenched when he butchered a 300lb pig on his kitchen table. Buford is funny and light-hearted and honest, and even knowing what I now know, I'd still let him cook me a steak.

Quickie recommendation: If you have ever bought food, prepared food, or eaten food, this book is for you.


by Toni Morrison.

Quickie recap: Joe Trace, a polite door to door beauty product salesman, shoots his teenage lover to death, and his wife, Violet, attacks the corpse at the funeral. What follows is quite simply obsession.

Quickie review: I need hardly tell you that Toni Morrison is a venerable master of her craft. The first three pages are Morrison at her best, and while Jazz is no Beloved, every page is readable and every character is knowable, no matter how complex. The shifting tone of the novel is to be absorbed and appreciated like the music after which it is named.

Quickie recommendation: Toni all the way.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Stories of AIDS in Africa, by Stephanie Nolen.

Quickie recap: For the past 10 years, people in affluent, western nations have been living with AIDS. In Africa, they still die of it, thousands per week. Many of them die knowing that drugs that could save them exist, but these drugs remain unattainable because they're too costly, or because a country's infrastructure can't handle the distribution, or, perversely, because too many doctors and nurses have already died of AIDS, and there aren't enough of them left to treat those who otherwise might be saved. 28 brave souls tell their story and ask the question soon to be on all of our tongues – why?

Quickie review: This book deserves so much in the way of applause, it's hard to know where to start. I think when we attempt to tackle such an enormous issue, it's easy to get lost in the facts, in the stats, in the unknown 28 million faces of AIDS, but Nolen has a gift for distilling what's real. Nolen has made it personal: by introducing us to these 28, we can no longer hide behind our disconnect. She skips the sentimentality, but compassion is palpable despite the unflinching inspection of what is wrong with our global community. Stephen Lewis calls it the best book on AIDS that he's ever read, but as a voracious reader myself, I would tend to call it one of the best books I've ever read, period. I gave it my time and my tears because it earned them - rarely, if ever, do information and beautiful prose blend so seamlessly together. But Nolen's most notable achievement is that a book that so easily could have been mired in hopelessness somehow rises above it - far, far above it.

Quickie recommendation: This book has changed me and changed my perspective, and you need to let it change yours as well. Do yourself a favour and read.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Golden Notebook

by Doris Lessing.

Quickie recap: Anna tries to combine all of her life's previous notebooks (on her time in South Africa, her involvement in the Communist party, fiction based on her unsuccessful affairs, her dreams and her emotional life) into one coherent golden notebook.

Quickie review: I wanted to love this book. I'd heard from others that it changed their lives. Me, not so much. The first part started out splendidly, I thought, and Lessing's knack for showing friendship between women, that fine line between jealousy and support, was illuminating, but soon the book disintegrates into Anna's memoirs, and I found the recollection scattered and disengaging.

Quickie recommendation: Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I must report that this book failed to meet them.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Cold Sassy Tree

by Olive Ann Burns.

Quickie recap: Will Tweedy is 14 years old when his grandmother suddenly takes ill and dies. The town, Cold Sassy (circa 1906), and his parents, are scandalized when his grandfather quickly remarries to a young and "fashionable" woman - one who is so brazen as to clean the dead woman's house and wear a black dress to church! But Will adores his grandfather and finds that he can't quite find it in his heart to hate this woman as propriety seems to dictate.

Quickie review: I was bowled over by this book. Although the protagonist is male, Cold Sassy Tree has multi-dimensional, strong, interesting female characters who hold their own even in 1906. The family dynamics are intricate, the human relationships are suitably complex, and the author manages to be both humourous and poignant at the same time with a deft though light touch that is all too rare. Every single turn of the page, for me, was both an occasion for celebration and for mourning - for every word I greedily devoured, I knew I was that much closer to reaching the final one.

Quickie recommendation: Ladies and gentlemen, this is a rave!

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Fortress of Solitude

by Jonathan Lethem.

Quickie recap: Dylan Ebdus is a white dude and Mingus Rude is a black dude, but they grow up together in 1970s Brooklyn. The friendship spans racial tensions, punk rebellion, drugs, prison and college, and eventually puts real superpowers into the hands of two comic book fans...but how will it effect their relationship?

Quickie review: This book was amazing. From the first page, Lethem makes you feel like an insider, one of the neighbours playing stick ball on the street. The story is told with so much tender truthfulness that even when you want to look away, you can't - the story has involved you, you are complicit. I was blown away, again and again by the swift, straight-forward writing and iconic picture Lethem paints for us.

Quickie recommendation: Recommend? Yes yes yes!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Charlotte's Web

by E.B. White.

Quickie recap: Wilbur the pig is going to become Christmas dinner unless his friend Charlotte the spider can save his life.

Quickie review: It seems unfair that White should have more talent in his baby toe than an aspiring writer like myself is likely to ever have in her whole life, but when reading, I am nothing but glad. Sure, it's a book about a pig, but it's also a stirring story about friendship that transcends the barn and the pages of this simply-illustrated book.

Quickie recommendation: I think it's practically a sin to not have a copy of this and Stuart Little on your shelves. Buy both, enjoy both. I still hold that on a rainy Saturday afternoon, there is nothing better than reading these in bed, aloud to your lover.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, by Alison Weir.

Quickie recap: Eleanor's beauty and her inherited wealth apparently made her a desirable woman and a desirable wife - when she demanded an annulment from her first husband (king of France), she quickly found another (who would become king of England) despite the fact that she had not proved she could provide male heirs.

Quickie review: Eleanor actually seems like an interesting historical figure, but you'd never know it after reading this book. It was so dry I had to read it while floating in the pool just so I wouldn't spontaneously combust.

Quickie recommendation: Skip it - a real snooze-fest.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Wonder When You'll Miss Me

by Amanda Davis.

Quickie recap: Faith is 16 when some horrific events lead to a suicide attempt. Having survived it, she spends the next several months in a mental health institution instead of high school, and when she finally gets out, she finds her reception isn't quite what she thought it would be. So, she basically runs away to the circus.

Quickie review: It's a little bit brilliant, actually. Certainly brilliant enough for me to forgive the ending, which I found to be a tad abrupt. But otherwise I really enjoyed it. I thought the characters were clever, and the protagonist was someone I could actually believe in. Even the circus freaks seemed realistic, and bit by bit their world just sucks you in. Perhaps the reason I found the ending too abrupt was simply that I didn't want it to end.

Quickie recommendation: It was a good read.

The American Way of Death

by Jessica Mitford.

Quickie recap: In the 1960s, the exorbitant cost of funerals led many to believe they could not afford to die. The entire funeral establishments seems dishonest at best, and extorts grief for profit. Reading it, you realize that not much has changed...the cost of dying continues to inflate beyond even the cost of living.

Quickie review: The figures in this book are incredibly out of date, but the sentiment, sadly, is exactly the same. The funeral industry is taking advantage, and the lobby bullies anyone who tries to stand up for the millions who just want to bury their dead.

Quickie recommendation: I find death fascinating, so the irrelevance of the stats didn't bother me; it might you.