Thursday, October 30, 2008

Three Cups of Tea

One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.

Quickie Recap: Greg Mortenson, an American climber, fails to get to the summit of K2, but succeeds in doing more good for the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan than the rest of his country combined.

Quickie Review: I'm not going to comment much on how it's written except to say that Relin is more than competent. The real crux here is that Mortenson is an incredible person with an extraordinary story. He's a regular guy who has selflessly given himself to a cause that seemed to go against what the rest of his country was doing at the time. But Mortenson fights for peace by building schools - educating girls, and giving all children the option of a traditional but non-extremist education. Perhaps an even bigger achievement is that he's been able to earn the trust and respect of people who have plenty of reasons to hate Americans, and his success is a great example that rebuilding a country and regaining peace is not about utilities or train tracks, but about relationships.

Quickie Recommendation: Is this endorsement ringing yet? Mortenson seems destined for the history books, and for a much-deserved Nobel Prize for peace, and we should all be inspired and moved by this remarkable man and the quiet way he's gone about changing the world. I'm glad to have found a cause I can feel so good about right before the holiday season and I'm sure that you'll feel the same way too.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


a graphic novel written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Dave Gibbons.

Quickie Recap: Tensions are high as the U.S. edges closer to war with Russia. When a government-sponsored superhero is murdered, one of his colleagues, Rorschach, smells conspiracy and warns the others that a costumed-hero killer seems to be on the loose, but what he actually uncovers is much worse: one of his own has devised a plan for avoiding war but does so by sacrificing the lives of millions...

Quickie Review: This book will challenge your notions of what heroism consists of, what acceptable losses are, and ultimately asks: who watches the watchmen? Visually, the novel is stunning. I read the first page, and getting to the last panel, I realized I need to go back to the first and start over. Each panel is constructed to punch you in the gut and is bursting with symbolism, the extent of which would probably require several readings to fully know. Although sympathetic to the plight of the superhero, having placed them in a contemporary context, Moore seems to be asking: why do we trust these guys, and are we sure we should leave the fate of the world in their hands?

Quickie Recommendation: Some of the most gripping stuff I've read in a long time.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Brain Fuel

199 Mind-Expanding Inquiries into the Science of Everyday Life, by Joe Schwarcz.

Quickie Recap:Schwarcz presents little-known food for thought, such as "What is liberty cabbage?", "What is the link between Neil Armstrong and coloured mouthpieces for trumpets?" and "What is the military use of silly string?"

Quickie Review: Friends don't let friends drink and drive; editors don't let writers use bad puns. Or at least they shouldn't. This book was rife with them, and with atrocious writing, both of which may have been forgiven if Schwarcz had lived up to his end of the bargain and provided any measure of mind expansion but in truth, I was beyond bored by this book. I had a whole stack of seemingly promising reads but I was on a high from other good non-fiction reads, so I picked this one up and was utterly disappointed. The content just wasn't there. Even as a book of general trivia it fails because it never asks questions that I really cared to hear answered. The book failed repeatedly to pique my curiosity and I found it a chore to get through.

Quickie Recommendation: Try 13 Things that Don't Make Sense instead.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Retreat

Quickie Recap: Norma and Lewis take their family to a small commune-style retreat in British Columbia because Norma's grasp is slipping again and Lewis will do anything to keep his family together. Neither parent, though, is able to keep tabs on the children, who rely mostly on the elder sister, though she has lessons to learn herself. Her teachers are many, but most prominent among them is Raymond, a Native man with secrets and struggles of his own.

Quickie Review: There is a balance in all of us, between hope and utter despair, and it's jarring to see it so clearly etched in these characters. It's heartbreaking how hard they try, and frustrating how little they try, and every ounce of this book keeps poking at you, makes you stare at their failings and feel their anguish.

Quickie Recommendation: Nice book.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell.

Quickie Recap: We all know that in a matter of seconds, we can decide whether we like someone, whether we approve of something, whether we're afraid of a situation. Most of us will try to justify these snap decisions, but the truth is, the real reasons are largely unconscious, but Gladwell tells us we can actually learn to control those quick reactions.

Quickie Review: I liked this book, though I feel a bit wary admitting that since Gladwell openly admits that we can be primed to like something, and I have no doubt that he's savvy enough to prime his own readers! But he's got a really energizing concept coupled with some excellent examples that will make your brain tingle in all the right places. Have I learned when to think and when to blink? Ask me really quick and I guess we'll find out!

Quickie Recommendation: Surprisingly thoughtful.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Red Dog, Red Dog

Quickie Recap: Two brothers living out in the prairies are the products of their pasts. The family history is rife with secrets, some kept, others not, which leads to a series of poor choices and the spiralling of consequences.

Quickie Review: I don't want to write this review because I feel pretty strongly that the problem was with me, and not the book. Because I saw the poetry in the words, the ache in the characters, the familiarity in the situations....but in the end, I just didn't have any feelings for this book. I've enjoyed Lane's work before, and lots of people agree that this is one of his best - nominated for the Giller, no less. So why did I feel so disconnected? Maybe that was the whole point - after all, this story is about isolation. Maybe the reader is meant to feel as they do, alone and largely uninvolved.

Quickie Recommendation: Sorry, I'm still feeling ambivalent about this one. I think I'll leave it on the back-burner and give it a re-read with fresh eyes somewhere down the road.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

by David Sedaris.

Quickie Recap: Sedaris once again tells us the charming stories that make his life so gosh darned readable: the useless things he learned in Japan, the inappropriate artistic leanings of his parents, and accidentally making friends with pedophiles.

Quickie Review: I secretly think that he's written better (Me Talk Pretty One Day, for example), but I also think that mediocre Sedaris is still a goddamn treat. The man is a genius and there isn't a word he's ever written that I wouldn't wet my panties over.

Quickie Recommendation: Oh yes.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Quickie Recap: Tomas, knowledgeable surgeon and lover of women takes a wife, Teresa, because he finds in himself that he must. But he can't stop himself from visiting his various lovers, like usual, and this tears Teresa up. Thinking about the series of events that have made up his life, Tomas, and other characters reach the same conclusion: that life is unbearably light.

Quickie Review: This novel is post-modern, in that the author takes time away from the plot to speak directly to the reader: Here is my idea, he says, and I have made up this little story to illustrate it, but it's not real, I just made the characters up. The central idea is: we each have but one life to live, and the events in our lives quite easily may never have happened. Therefore, every decision that we think is so important is actually insignificant. If you spend too much time thinking about this, your head will hurt, and indeed, the characters who think this way are in pain. It startles each one of them, and life never looks the same after this conclusion is reached.

Quickie Recommendation: I'm not a big fan of post-modernism. I like the idea, like the challenge of reading something with so concretely a central theme, but I can't say that I overly enjoyed this on in particular.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Necessary Illusions

Thought Control in Democratic Societies, by Noam Chomsky.
Quickie Recap: This book probably defies quickie anything, but generally, it's the published version of several of his lectures, including 'Democracy and the Media' and 'Adjuncts of Government'.
Quickie Review: Going to the beach? Drawing yourself a bubble bath? Climbing under the duvet? Read something else. The best adjective I know of to describe this book is "dense" which is not to say it's bad. It has some really good ideas, but man, you have to be mentally prepared to plough through them. Basically, this book is about politicians maintaining a culture of confusion by using propaganda to distract us from what's really going on. Of course this smacks of the past 8 years of George W, but this book was prescient I guess, having been written in 1989. The edition that I read had the added bonus of being twice as long as the original, thanks to a series of appendices that address the criticism of the book's contents. If you think Chomsky is normally a little....scathing, well, you should see him with his hackles up!
Quickie Recommendation: Oooh, tough one. I can't really imagine gifting anyone with this book, which is usually what I go by. Sorry, Noam.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness, by Pete Earley.

Quickie Recap: When Earley's adult son suffers a breakdown and is arrested after a bizarre incident committed under the haze of mental illness, he is astounded by the inability of the health system or the justice system to deal with his son, let alone get him the help he needs.

Quickie Review: This book should serve as a wake-up call: something isn't working. Earley makes an excellent advocate. He goes looking for answers even when he can't get anyone to listen to his questions. He has the instincts of a journalist but in this work, he is tempered by having been touched personally by the subject. It makes him more sensitive, more probing, more concerned. It gives him fire.

Quickie Recommendation: It should be lighting fires in all of us.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Crossing California

Quickie Recap: It's Chicago, 1979-1981. Some of the kids live on the right side of California Ave, some of them live on the wrong side of it. But they're all trying to get by, trying to navigate the world as it passes them by, trying to claim some piece of it for themselves.

Quickie Review: Adults, teenagers, and children all share narration responsibilities in this novel, which gives the story an interesting pace and an ever-changing perspective. It's the kind of book that, for the first half, makes you wish you could have been born in a different time and place, and for the second half pokes holes in the illusions created. So, it's not really re-hashing the glory days: it's about the election, the hostage crisis, the drug use, the sexuality. It keeps surprisingly well-focused, and is unrelenting in showing how useless and irrelevant authority (parents, school, government) had become and how a narcissistic generation was born.

Quickie Recommendation: Vigorous, acerbic, and good. But not wholesome.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A People's History of the United States

1492-Present, by Howard Zinn.

Quickie Recap: Does America really need an introduction?

Quickie Review: I was gutted by the first page, the first fucking page, when Christopher Columbus gets off his boat, is touched by the generosity of the "native" Americans and remarks what "fine servants" they would make..."With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want." What a sickeningly cynical way to give birth to a nation, and yet there it is, on the very first page....and it made me wonder what kind of people would go on to celebrate this man, even name a national holiday for him...but not to worry: there were still 700 pages to go.
Luc lent me this book, called it his bible. And I totally get how you might come to hold a belief system based on this book, because I felt stirred while reading it. I felt restless and touched and small. Zinn is critical of his government every step of the way, and by all accounts, there is much to be critical of. However, this is the people's history, and it is clear that Zinn feels that it's the people who have made his country a great one, in spite of its government, in spite of the oppressive class who relied on slavery to give birth to a nation and now relies on poverty to keep it going. People fought...and I can't help but feel complacent in comparison, and this has me a little worried for the future.
Quickie Recommendation: Arm yourself.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Complicated Kindness

by Miriam Toews

Quickie Recap: A teenage girl named Nomi watches her family be pulled apart by the Mennonite community they live in and the choices they are forced to make between church and each other.

Quickie Review: I am painfully late reading this book, everyone and their pet rock already read it 3 years ago, so this review is just for me and I'm okay with that. I'm glad I didn't read this book before this because it heartens me to know that such things exist: that there are still beautiful words waiting on a shelf for me somewhere, if only I can discover them. This book does not fall short of brilliant. It aches with mundanity at times, pulses with a yearning that is surprisingly relatable to someone who did not grow up in a cult. Of course kindness is complicated. This book makes me really question whether anything has ever been simple.

Quickie Recommendation: Keep this one nearby, self, as you'll want to read it again.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

No Way to Treat a First Lady

by Christopher Buckley.

Quickie Recap: When she wakes up in bed next to the body of her dead philandering husband, Beth isn't just under suspicious for murder, but for the high crime of assassination - because that's what they call it when your husband's the president. Not to worry though - America's most pompous and sensational trial lawyer just happens to be her know, the one she dumped to marry the president. Yeah.

Quickie Review: Oh woe is me - can it already have been a year since I last read Buckley? I read this book in a span of 24 hours - in the bath, on the bus, at work, at the gym. I couldn't help myself! His books are like those little boxes of very expensive chocolates. You tell yourself you'll be good and just have one, maybe two. But they're so velvety on the tongue that before you know it you've gobbled them all up and all you've got left is a box full of empty wrappers. Okay, I took that metaphor too far. But Buckley is an insanely sharp writer and he reduces me to gushy fandom in the space of a paragraph.

Quickie Recommendation: Get into Buckley, he is soooo money!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Kane & Abel

Quickie Recap: In the early days of the 20th century, two babies are born, worlds and classes apart, but destined to play a part in each other's lives. Each man is fuelled by ambition, and by hatred for the other - and each will stop at nothing to see the other lose everything.

Quickie Review: More Romeo & Juliet than the biblical title implies, this story is nonetheless epic and engrossing. I surprised myself by developing a small addiction to these characters.
Quickie Recommendation: You'll basically know what's coming, but you still won't be able to wait for it to get there.