Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Short History of Nearly Everything!

by le fabuleux Bill Bryson.

Quickie Recap: First, let me confess that the exclamation mark up there is my own addition. I think Bryson should consider adding it for his next edition. To recap this book would be ridiculous, as it is indeed a history of nearly everything - the origins of the universe, human ancestry, and everything before, since, and in between.

Quickie Review that's maybe not so quick: When I first read this book, I was blown away. Sorry if I've ever used that expression here before: if I have, I take it back, I take them all back and reserve it solely for this one. This was nearly life-changing, I kid you not. It was brilliant. I felt exhilarated - this guy was not mistaking me for an idiot, just a curious person who would like to be reminded of the things I probably learned in grade school. And then he expands. He digs around. He presents the awesome, interesting facts, and I just ate it right up. I couldn't believe my luck - here was this great, entertaining book that I kept putting down to share tidbits with others, that also had me learning new things and remembering old things and making me thirsty to know more. What a combination! It's the very thing that authors strive for all the time and yet hardly ever achieve. Is there anything this guy can't do (except return my phone calls?)

Now, the Short History of Nearly Everything is short in terms of how much history there is, but in terms of books, it's still pretty long. However, a most marvellous thing has come along - A Really Short History of Nearly Everything! (again, italics and excitement are my own.) This is the condensed (and illustrated!) version, and it appealed to me immediately. Only once I was in the middle of it did I think that perhaps its intended audience was children. But I refuse to feel childish reading this wonderful thing. It's just way too awesome! I learned how to become a fossil (it's harder than you think!) and that it's fun to cough on things just to make gross science.

Quickie Review: This book is in my top ever reads without a doubt. This is a book for other books to look up to. Once again, Bill Bryson has gotten it exactly right.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Enchantress of Florence

by Salman Rushdie

Quickie Recap: This dude shows up to the king's court and basically claims that he's a long-lost relative, and he has this intricately winding story to prove his authenticity. Turns out, it's so crazy it might actually be true, but this guy is a story teller, and a known liar, and the king struggles between not trusting him and being completely charmed by him, and ultimately, enjoying the story so much that he wants it to be true.

Quickie Review: Oh, Salman Rushdie. When your name is on a cover, I feel as though I have to like it. I feel the pressure, although admittedly sometimes I wonder if you're really that good, or if people mistake talent with controversy. Ahem. I didn't say that. And I know it's not your fault that I'm dyslexic, but for the past 5 days, I believed I was reading The Enchanted Forest. Maybe you could look into that? So, okay, I read Midnight's Children, and fine, kudos to you. I get it. It was good. But The Satanic Verses? Do you know how many hours I've sunk into that one, just trying to make heads or tails of it? So along comes this newest one, and for me, it started out pretty okay. I was like hey, look at me understanding a Salman Rushdie on my first try! But then, thunk. I hit a rough patch, and I'm inclined to blame you. I think you do it on purpose: when you continually refer to your characters by different names, and transpose them in different nations, you make it a little hard for the reader to keep track, no? So after enthusiastically diving right in, I spent the next 200 pages just trying to swim toward the light. I had to reread, and it was better going the second time around. It's not impossible to navigate, but it helps if you keep detailed notes. Is it worth it? Well, it is good, I'll give you that. You're a story teller, you're not afraid to meander with it a bit, to tease it out. You reveal things in your own good time, and I can respect that. Yes, I think I can respect this novel.

Quickie Recommendation: Word. But seriously, you can stop trying to impress us now. We get it. You're a smart guy. How about being a little more reader-friendly? Or even just reader-non-hostile.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife

One of the best novels I've ever read, by Audrey Niffenegger.

Quickie Recap: This is the story of Henry, an honest-to-god time traveller, and Clare, the wife he meets when she's just 6 years old and his travelling has him plopping out of the sky, nude and disoriented, in a field by her family home. Their mind-boggling courtship takes place over all kinds of time and space, and for all the complexities they face, this is also just the story of a boy and a girl and how they fall in love.

Quickie Review: Sigh. I asked for this book for Christmas, and my mother wondered why I would need it since she knew for a fact that I'd already read it (and lent it to her so she could read it too). Having misplaced my last copy, I was desperate not to be without it for long. I told her this: I first read this book at least 5 years ago, and to this day, I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I finished it. Hint: completely devastated, I emptied an entire box of kleenex and actually woke someone up with my weeping. My mother nodded, and proceeded to tell me exactly when and where she was when she finished it too, and this is a woman who has to ask the librarian to warn her if she's checking out a book she's already read, and the librarian squeamishly admits that she is attempting to check out at least 2 that she just read last week. The point is, this book is not just memorable but achingly so. It's funny how you can take this incredible situation and boil it down to the struggles of marriage, any marriage, really. But I think the real reason why this book is brilliant is that it's not about the time traveller, it's about his wife. That's where the heart is. Sure time travelling is this crazy, messed up, misunderstood thing, but it's the woman who loves him anyway, loves him knowing and not knowing, loves him the best she can through the most impossible of situations, through her childhood and old age, loves him when he's there and when he's not that really breaks your heart. It breaks mine every time I read it, and that's why you need a copy for your own shelf, because every once in a while, you just want it to take you back.

Quickie Recommendation: Um, I think that's rather obvious.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Shadow On The Household

One Enslaved Family's Incredible Struggle for Freedom, by Bryan Prince.

Quickie Recap: John Weems, a former slave himself, watches helplessly as his enslaved wife and 7 children are sold away from him and from each other when their owner suddenly dies and his heirs decide on sale and separation. The Weemses seek liberation by any means possible.

Quickie Review: This book is incredibly well-researched and so nuanced that at times I had to remind myself that it was fact, not fiction. The family is brought to life by the tragedy of their situation, which is highlighted by the presence of both heroes and villains in the truest sense of words.

Quickie Recommendation: Enlightening.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Apologize, Apologize!

A novel about a family that puts the personality in disorder, by Elizabeth Kelly.

Quickie Recap: Collie is the only sane member of his family, but he can't keep their strange ways from affecting his life too, so he struggles against them to find his own way without becoming like them.

Quickie Review: Collie is not surrounded by characters, but by caricatures. They're bigger versions of every family's crazy archetypes - the beloved younger son, philandering-charmer father, neurotic mother, overbearing grandfather, etc, etc. But it all serves to call attention to the fact that "normal" or not, Collie is still trying to find himself, and navigate his way through life, and he still needs a family's support, even if his leaves something to be desired.

Quickie Recommendation: One of the most memorable books I've read in a while.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Little Bee

by Chris Cleave.

Quickie Recap: A couple goes on vacation to Nigeria to try to save their marriage, but instead they find themselves in the middle of an unofficial war and are asked to make a decision that will save or take lives.

Quickie Review: A few pages in, I wasn't feeling this book. Little Bee, as the girl is known, is just coming out of a detention centre, and I wasn't enjoying her narration. Thank goodness I stuck with it. Not only does her story improve, but it becomes intertwined with that of the couple that she accidentally met on a beach on a very fateful day in her home country of Nigeria. This book refers to an "incident" that is initially not known to the reader. I was nearly preparing myself to get annoyed by the omission when the author lets us in on the secret, and it's a big secret. It's the kind of scene that haunts. Everything else kind of unfolds as a result of that one incident, and it's gross and sad and frustrating and a really good read.

Quickie Recommendation: Don't be a bonehead like me. Give it a proper chance and it will dazzle you.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

His Illegal Self

A novel by Peter Carey.

Quickie Recap: A little boy named Che waits at his grandma's house for the day when his radical parents will come back to claim him. But when contact is initiated it all goes wrong as it must and he ends up hiding out in Australia with people who either are or are not his family. Sound convoluted enough for you? Sorry - it plays better in the 272 page version.

Quickie Review: I really liked Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, which this book is nothing like other than its inherent goodness and interestingness. Che is a confused little boy, and as he tries to work things out in his head, the reader is trying to do just the same thing. What is the right thing? Are you sure? Are you really sure?

Quickie Recommendation: Everyone deserves to question everything every once in a while.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

An Accidental Light

by Elizabeth Diamond.

Quickie Recap: A little girl dies in an accident and two families break apart: the little girl's family, of course, but also the family of the man who caused the accident. The accident sends both families spiralling down different paths that eventually collide in unexpected ways.

Quickie Review: Wow!! Another really great read. Finished in under 12 hours, I could hardly put it down for work. I was hypnotized by Diamond's intimate knowledge of grief, and how it triggers past pain. This was very real, very tender, very wise. When I finished the book, I flipped to the author's photograph on the back flap, because I felt like this woman had really accomplished something, had said something significant through fiction. This is her first novel, and it blew me away.

Quickie Recommendation: I would go so far as to call this a do-not-miss.