Saturday, January 31, 2009

To Whom It May Concern

a novel by Priscila Uppal.

Quickie Recap: After a long struggle, Hardev, a quadriplegic relying on the help of home care workers, is losing his home to the bank. His eldest daughter is soon to be married and he fights to keep his secret under wraps until then. However, as the story unfolds, we see that the whole family is keeping secrets from each other, failing to communicate, failing to be that perfect nuclear family.

Quickie Review: I was thinking that maybe it ended a bit abruptly for my taste, but the truth is, I think I just got so involved that I was a little devastated to see it end. There are so many great stories going on, so many layers, so many things to think about, and then, learning something new, you reevaluate, change your mind a dozen times, and it's never enough. Every character has a distinct voice and they switch back and forth, and every single time one ended and a new one began I could never decide if I was more sad at the letting go or happy at the new exploration. It keeps you on your toes, this book, and you can take it as it is and enjoy it immensely, or interpret it as a retelling of King Lear and really sink your teeth into something meaty.

Quickie Recommendation: This review does not do justice to what I've just read. I didn't know Uppal before, but I think she's now officially on my list of authors to look up. This book really impressed me.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

We Bought A Zoo

The amazing true story of a young family, a broken down zoo, and the 200 wild animals that change their lives forever, by Benjamin Mee.

Quickie Recap: His father dies and his wife is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and for Benjamin Mee, the obvious response is to sell his dream home and relocate the family to a failing zoo with absolutely no experience and no real idea of what he's getting himself into.

Quickie Review: Well. This book quietly exceeded my expectations. Going in, it was easy to anticipate some syrupy sentiment, an overwhelming feeling of inspiration, an uplifting theme, etc, etc, and so when Mee describes his young wife's death in the fancy chair he'd bought her just the week before in the middle of the zoo she never lived to see opened to the public, the tragedy hits you even more because of how low-key he is. Low-key is probably the wrong word. In fact, I know it is. It was obviously a devastating blow, but he's not asking for sympathy. He's simply saying: this is what I did, what my family did. And although you should never trust a book cover, it really is an amazing story, but not necessarily because he bought a zoo. Really it's how he lives his life, believing and persevering, and being sometimes quite selfless without acknowledging it. Mee tells a good story, and has a good story to tell. I'm so glad he shared it with me , and I hope you'll let him share it with you too.

Quickie recommendation: Have kleenex on stand-by.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


by Lee Gowan.

Quickie Recap: As a young boy, Dwight overhears his father confess to a friend that God talked to him, and warned him that his son (Dwight) would one day kill him. And one day, he does. He kills him in, of all things, a modern-day duel to avenge his mother's death. But then the coroner explains that his mother's death was accidental and Dwight has to do some serious thinking about what he did and why he did it.

Quickie Review: Have you ever bought a book, taken it home, not read it right away, and pretty much forgotten why you got it in the first place? That's me, like 85% of the time, and I have a policy of not reading the flaps so that I might be 'surprised'. And surprised I was. First off, the narrative voice here is really compelling. Dwight is not always a sympathetic character but I was drawn to him, to this prophecy. And the strange thing is, it should be unsettling to a reader when a man's death is predicted, but in this case you almost feel like it's...deserved. But then when the mother's death is ruled an accident, the father is vindicated and it's the son who is guilty. But we can never say that the father is truly innocent. So there's this play between these two extremes that the author exploits subtly. Religion plays a part as well, inevitably, but it too does not go unchecked. I really think that Gowan has a good thing going in this book, and I foresee myself giving it a second reading sometime soon because I bet there are nuances that only a second reading can do justice.

Quickie Recommendation: Yup.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors

by (? are dictionaries "by" someone?) Bill Bryson.

Quickie Recap: Well, this is how a dictionary works: words are listed, usually alphabetically for easy references, and you can look them up to check their spelling or their meaning. Neat eh?

Quickie Review: Yes, I read a dictionary. Back off. It's Bryson. And it's not every word, just the ones I'm most likely to fuck up, you know, the icky plurals, tricky hyphens, kooky foreign stuff, that kind of thing.

Quickie Recommendation: At the risk of forever brandishing myself an incorrigible nerd, yes.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Shakespeare Wrote For Money

Two years of reading begat by more reading, presented in easily digestible, utterly hysterical monthly installments, by Nick Hornby.

Quickie Recap: Nick Hornby wrote a column for Believer called Stuff I'm Reading where he discussed - you guessed it! - the stuff he was reading, or not reading, whichever was the case.

Quickie Review: Nick Hornby is a funny guy, even when he's lazy and he eschews books in favour of World Cup action. As I'm always yammering on about my own 'reading begat by more reading' it is both refreshing to find that I am not the only poor soul who reads extensively and yet never seems to make headway on The List, and also maddening, because Hornby's recommendations just contribute to even more additions to The List.

Quickie Recommendation: Oh. Yes. Was it even a question?

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Well-Dressed Ape

A Natural History of Myself, by Hannah Holmes.

Quickie Recap: Holmes attempts to describe homo sapiens the way an encyclopedia describes any other animal - where it lives, what it eats, how it reproduces, what it senses. Humans generally hold themselves above such scrutiny but Holmes is putting is back where we belong.

Quickie Review: This is a unique way at looking at ourselves and just the change in perspective alone, putting us in the context of other animals, really lets you think about how and why we are. Holmes juxtaposes human description with comparisons to other animals, so we are constantly checked and put in our evolutionary place. She is funny and thoughtful and unafraid to remind us that she too is an example of the homo sapiens, and not always a prime one at that. Her microscope allows us to more dispassionately look at our own selves and evaluate what we truly see - the fur, the tools, the adaptations.

Quickie Recommendation: Cool book, I'd say.

Friday, January 16, 2009

God's Mercies

Rivalry, Betrayal, and the Dream of Discovery by Douglas Hunter.

Quickie Recap: Samuel de Champlain and Henry Hudson were a couple of 17th century rock star explorers who raced to be the first and best explorer of a lot of my favourite haunts.

Quickie Review: Confession time. After months of trying to get through this, I have decided that if God is indeed merciful, he will forgive me for abandoning a book partway through on occasion. I haven't abandoned a book that I've started since 2004, when I gave up on I, Claudius after just a couple of pages. In this case, I made it to page 130 and that should count for something, right? Wrong, I know. I'm pathetic. And just like I, Claudius, I know the problem was me, and not the book. Sometimes something just doesn't gel and you can't find sufficient motivation to prod yourself on. And to be honest, I just have too many books that I am excited about sitting unread on my night stand to keep plodding through something that doesn't hold my interest. So I apologize to de Champlain, and to Hudson, and mostly to Hunter. Many minds brighter than mine found this to be "first rate adventure" and worthy of accolades. I admit defeat.

Quickie Recommendation: I'm sadly unable to say, but I invite anyone who has read this book to let me know what a numb skull I am and how quickly I need to pick this back up and give it a second go.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Demonic Comedy

Some Detours in the Baghdad of Saddam Hussein, by Paul William Roberts.

Quickie Recap: Is there humour to be found in the situation in Iraq? Yes. Well, no, not really. Not really at all. But if there is, I'd trust Roberts to find it. He goes there before the war, during, and after, and finds a lot of things that he's not actually supposed to find. His "interpreters" and "guides" show him the glossy, wonderful world that he's supposed to be writing about but aching sadness is never far off.

Quickie Review: Roberts magically is able to write with perspective and humour that I suspect were not only a struggle to achieve, but also a bit of a defense mechanism for coping with what must have been some very difficult realities. There are bits that had me laughing out loud, and there are bits that had me reaching for the kleenex, and I think that ability to show the complexity without beating us over the head with it is the definition of this book's genius. I really enjoyed it, as much as anyone can "enjoy" reading about atrocities and the attempt to cover them up, deny them, or exploit them. Frustration and impotence are palpable undercurrents in this book and if you can find the stomach for them, then I suggest that this is one of the most tempered books on the subject available. Roberts finds equal scorn for all politicians and the only side he takes is that of the ordinary, suffering, every day Iraqi.

Quickie Recommendation: Yes. But you might want to arm yourself with a little guilty pleasure on the side. Don't say I didn't warn you. But yes, yes.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Almost Archer Sisters

by Lisa Gabriele.

Quickie Recap: Peachy is a "stayer" and Beth is a "leaver". Beth left the family home (a farm in rural Ontario) as soon as she could, and fled to a life of glamour in New York City. Peachy stayed behind, dropping out of school to marry and have a family. Years later, Peachy's life is comfortable and Beth's is beginning to fray but - guess what!? - all that's about to change!!

Quickie Review: So I was thinking to myself that I needed a serious injection of fiction, stat, so I reached for a strong injection of the guilty pleasure, forgivable\unforgivable sort. This is exactly the kind of book I read when I'm alone at night because I'd be too embarrassed to be caught with it. But then it surprised me. It was actually a bit meatier than I expected. Okay, it's not a feat of literature or anything, but it was its moments. It definitely went down easily and I have to say, when it's sandwiched between an exploration of a failing auto plant and the glory days of Saddam Hussein, it was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Quickie Recommendation: I can see this appealing to a wider audience that the book I reviewed before this, and after this. Is that a good thing? Bad thing? I don't know. I do know that I enjoyed it, and that Gabriele has a place in this world, and that when my brow was furrowed with too much information, her words have soothed me and made it possible for me to read on.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Life On The Line

One Woman's Tale of Work, Sweat, and Survival, by Solange De Santis.

Quickie Recap: A journalist and all around white-collar woman decides it will be interesting to live the life of a labourer to see what it's "really like" so she goes to work at a GM auto plant and describes not only the physical work involved, but the people she befriends, the management she doesn't, and the union that baffles everyone.

Quickie Review: I'm a little wary of anyone who wants to see what life is "really like" for others because they so often do an insulting half-assed exploration that leaves me frustrated as a reader and embarrassed as a human being, but I grudgingly admit that De Santis does some justice here. She manages to tell her story without being condescending to her fellow workers. She writes more compellingly about snobbery without realizing it than most authors who set out with that purpose. Of course there's a smidge of self-righteousness within the pages, but maybe that's inevitable when you put a soft person into hard circumstances. There's a certain grit and grime to this that's unmistakable, but to her credit, it is overshadowed by the dignity with which she writes, perhaps not closing the gab between white and blue collar worlds, but at least shedding some light on it.

Quickie Recommendation: Certainly one of the better of its kind.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Lost Continent

Travels in Small Town America, by Bill Bryson.

Quickie Recap: After a decade of living in England, Bryson returned to the US, got in his car (well, his mum's car anyway) and drove in search of the warm fuzzy places he remembered from family trips of his youth.

Quickie Review: Well, he never found those warm fuzzy places. They all seem to have been replaced by nearly identical towns of stripmalls, gas stations, and fast food joints. Bryson is a genius of course, and he manages to paint this bleak picture with his characteristic dark humour. It's a bit sad too though, because he drives 14000 miles in search of something that doesn't really exist anymore, and you get a double sense of loss: on the one hand a personal loss, that of a youthful image of a mythical small town that keeps luring him on but remains elusive, and on the other hand a more generalized loss for the rest of us as we discover that the postcard perfection is not just elusive but extinct.

Quickie Recommendation: I read The Geography of Hope and was inspired to read Drive, which in turn inspired me to read The Lost Continent. For me, this was a pretty organic selection process and I'm happy with the outcome. Bryson is a pretty sure bet, and I might even give him the edge in an otherwise pretty stellar trilogy.

Friday, January 2, 2009


A Road Trip Through our Complicated Affair with the Automobile, by Tim Falconer.

Quickie Recap: Falconer goes for a drive to think about how driving is killing the planet.

Quickie Review: Forget that the content of the book completely contradicts the thesis - this was one of the most enjoyable road trips I've ever taken. It seemed a natural progression from The Geography of Hope, allowing further exploration of "car culture" and the need for a fundamental challenge to our attachment to wheels (to conquer the inconvenient truth, it seems that cars must be sacrificed). Sure I had qualms about Falconer's delivery - driving 15000km makes him part of the very problem he's describing - but it's still an interesting read. Interesting, but I suppose ultimately unsuccessful, since he admits that he himself remains unconvinced. He is unwilling to make the sacrifice he knows is necessary.

Quickie Recommendation: I realize I just called it a failure, but I still really liked it.