I’m a huge fan of Douglas Coupland’s writing, and as a communications student, I’ve heard the name “Marshall McLuhan” more times in the past few years that I can count. So this book was doubly appealing. Despite my passing familiarity with Marshall McLuhan, as I sat down to read this book, I realized that I didn’t actually know very much about the man who is credited with beginning the academic study of communication and the media
He is often equated with two of his more widely-known concepts. The first is his famous quote, “the medium is the message,” meaning that the technology that is used to communicate a message is more important than the message being conveyed. His second famous concept is the idea of the global village – technology making instantaneous communication with people in many other parts of the world possible, creating a global community not governed by geographical distance. However, these two concepts alone are only two of a wide range of ideas he pumped into the world over the course of his life.
Because he was the pioneer of media criticism, he is often equated with technological advancement, which is a misconception. Though he did examine media and technological development it was from a critical perspective. McLuhan’s original area of study was 16th century literature, and his study of the history of human communication is the basis from which he was able to recognize the patterns of communication and technological impact on society that he used to forsee the future of modern media.
That he was able to, in many ways, predict the future of media did not mean that he approved of where it was going. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Coupland’s biography draws a picture of an earnest scholar, in some ways almost a fuddy-duddy. He converted to Catholicism at a relatively young age and was completely engrossed in his research. He had a voracious appetite for the written word and astounding mental faculties that allowed him to consume vast quantities of reading materials and digest the contents very quickly, a skill that served him well in his first teaching job, as he had to teach subjects outside his own area of expertise and had such a heavy workload that he often read the lesson material directly before entering class to teach it.
Coupland’s portrait shows both the brilliance and eccentricities that added up to McLuhan’s legend. His obvious fascination with his subject matter lends itself to an engaging biography that does not become dull or tedious. He balances out exploration of McLuhan the man with McLuhan the great mind to give the reader an excellent view into his life and work simultaneously. I found it to be very readable and yet informative.
I hope that this book will be used as a resource for future communications students so that they can learn a bit more about McLuhan than I did. Had I read this before entering into my studies, I think I would have found reading his work to be more enjoyable. It is part of the Extraordinary Canadians series, which includes biographies of many of Canada’s most notorious and celebrated personalities, written by some of Canada’s best writers. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in communications, McLuhan, historic Canadians or who simply loves Coupland’s writing. It will not disappoint on any of these counts.
THE MAN WHO LOVED BOOKS TOO MUCH: THE TRUE STORY OF A THIEF, A DETECTIVE, AND A WORLD OF LITERARY OBSESSION - Allison Hoover Bartlett
Heralded on the cover of the original printing of the book as "America's newest folk art," graffiti is not for the faint of heart; it's a dangerous art form. It's illegal and involves trespassing, so there's always the risk of being chased and apprehended by a security guard or police officer. There is also an added risk of injury - even death - for those whose chosen canvas is the sides of commuter trains. But despite (and in some part because of) these risks, graffiti has been described as more of a calling than a pastime for its creators. Even though it is buffed off trains, bridges, and buildings as fast as it is put on them, young artists take huge risks to create these ephemeral works for the sheer joy of glimpsing a train riding the rails with their piece coating it from end to end, for all to see. It can be an addiction, and those who create it love their work.
The book's authors have impressive credentials: Martha Cooper is a photojournalist specializing in Art and Anthropology with a diploma in Ethnology from Oxford University, and Henry Chalfant studied classical Greek at Stanford University and is a renowned stone sculptor as well as a well-known photographer. Cooper's photos have appeared in National Geographic, Audubon and Art News while Chalfant's photos and sculptures have been exhibited in both the United States and Europe. After moving to New York in the 1970s (early for Chalfant, late for Cooper), each individually developed a fascination with graffiti. They were the only two photographers seriously seeking out graffiti at that time, so they were destined to come across each other. Their relationship began with a showcase of their photographs, which led to a friendly competition to see who could get the most impressive photos. And so the project that led to this book was born.
The book is a stunning array of photography that showcases some of the greatest works of graffiti of the time. It contains the work of Dondi White, Lady Pink, Futura, Seen and Blade, among others. It also features photographs of some of these legends at work, rare images given the illegality and nocturnal nature of the work and its relative obscurity. The resulting images are mesmerizing for anyone who loves graffiti. The book has little text, instead allowing the images speak for themselves.
The new edition of the book is hard-cover rather than the original soft-cover version. I was expecting it to be pretty much the same size as the original, but it is also much larger. The original was about the size of a magazine and not much thicker, the new version is over a foot high, hard-cover, and packs some weight to it. As a result the images (of which there are over 70 more than in the original) are much larger and printed on better quality paper, so they are a true joy to look at. Even if you've already got the 1984 version (as I do), I'd recommend picking up this anniversary edition - it's well worth the upgrade. Just make sure you've got a sturdy coffee table to keep this sucker on, because there's no way it's going to fit on your bookshelves.
Hunter S. Thompson is best known for his public image as a drug-crazed madman who flouted authority, despised monotony and had pretty much every adventure you could imagine - and some you couldn’t. Thompson lived his life at full throttle, a mile a minute thrill ride that others were lucky to jump on and off of with their skins and minds relatively intact. The fact that he managed to keep up the pace for as long as he did truly seems to be a miracle; he was a man whose guardian angel must have taken up drinking to deal with job stress. His work was always done at manic warp speed with deadlines looming and real or imaginary beasts threatening to break down the door at any moment.
As with his work, it's hard to tell where fact and fiction collide in the story of Hunter's life. It would be difficult to make up any stories wilder than his reality, which inclines the reader to consider any story about him to be true. His most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is a loosely autobiographical account of one of his freelance writing assignments that turned into a crazy voyage. It was also the source of his alter-ego, Raoul Duke, the character who would dog his steps in the form of a Doonesbury cartoon caricature, "Uncle Duke," portraying him as an exaggerated version of who he was. The book was later adapted to film and made into a movie starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro, which has since become a cult classic. As a journalist, Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone magazine and is credited with inventing Gonzo Journalism (a style of writing whereby the author places himself at the centre of the story).
McKeen's portrayal of Dr. Thompson makes a human being out of the idol while leaving the legend intact. He portrays sides of Hunter that many of his fans have probably never seen - the sensitive and anxious creative force who, despite much proof to the contrary, sweated under deadlines and the pressure of his public image. Hunter is shown to be an idealist who suffered from his discovery that the American Dream (whatever that may mean) was, if not dead, missing in action. He found in the political climate of the late 1960s and 1970s a perfect outlet for his intensity. He embarked upon one adventure after another with a bottle of Wild Turkey in one hand and his trademark cigarette (complete with cigarette holder) in the other. By the end of the book you'll want to quit your job and go on an adventure with a pharmacy in the trunk and the cops hot on your trail, willing to brave the bats and fight the fear in pursuit of your own Dream. For anyone who's ever been curious about the man behind the legend, this book is an illuminating and inspiring romp. Engaging and accessible, it will grip you from the first page to the last.
My parents, thus proving how cool they are, read this book to me when I was a child. I can't remember exactly how old I was, but since I was still young enough to be read to, I'm guessing I was barely into double digits. So reading this book always makes me feel as if I am back in my flannel pyjamas, drinking hot cocoa in front of the fireplace.
Travels with My Aunt is the highly amusing story of a retired bank manager, Henry Pulling, whose greatest joy in life is tending to his dahlias. His life takes a sudden turn towards excitement, however, when he encounters his Aunt Augusta at his mother's funeral. Aunt Augusta is something of a black sheep in the family, and Henry has never had much chance to get to know her. But when she uses his mother's urn as a hiding place for drugs, he gets unwittingly drawn into her world of excitement and adventure. He is coerced into traveling with her, first to Brighton but eventually further and further afield. He discovers that although she may be in her seventies, Aunt Augusta has a rich history full of love, shady characters and globe-trotting that bleeds into her present in surprising and often frankly alarming ways.
Henry eventually extricates himself from her, only to find that the quiet life he had been longing for no longer holds the same appeal as it once did. When he receives a letter from his aunt he doesn't have to think twice. He abandons his boring life once and for all and takes off to Latin America where he..... well you'll just have to read it yourself to find out.
With his trademark ability to take an overwhelming amount of historical data and draw out the most salient and entertaining passages, Wright takes us chronologically through the "founding" of the Americas, not only from the viewpoint of the new occupants, but also from the perspective of the original occupants (as much as possible given the oral nature of First Nations historical accounts).
In doing so, Wright debunks some stereotypes and myths about Europe's first encounter with the new world and of the people who were already here. One of these myths, that the current North America was populated by unruly savages who were easily tamed by the more civilized European invaders, is thoroughly and unequivocally taken apart and revealed in a very different light. Wright's version of historic events shows the European conquerors to be simply the unwitting agents of a series of unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on how you look at it) accidents. These mainly took the form of European diseases that decimated the populations of the original inhabitants of this continent, thus clearing the way for Europeans to wipe out, enslave or drive off those who remained. Rather than the stoic heroes of primary school social studies books, Wright introduces us to a cast of characters who stumbled upon a new land by chance and proceeded to take advantage of its populace.
If history is doomed to repeat itself and we can't truly understand where we're going until we understand where we've been, Wright's newest book is a primer for the future of the Western world. Impeccably researched and written with Wright's trademark gift for free-flowing narrative, What is America is as readable as it is informative.
It has been said that history is written by the winners. This book shows us what history might have looked like if had it been recorded by the other side. This is a book that everyone should read to fill in the gaps in most social studies curriculums. What most North Americans don't know about their own nation's history could fill a book. This is that book.
THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY: MURDER, MAGIC, AND MADNESS AT THE FAIR THAT CHANGED AMERICA - Erik Larson
In retrospect, this was not perhaps the most appropriate environment in which to embark on a journey into the life and mind of one of the most disturbed psychopaths America has ever hosted. It did, however, heighten the atmospheric effect so superbly created by Larson's masterful writing style.
The book intertwines the lives of two men - an architectural genius hard at work on designs for the 1893 World Fair, and a highly ingelligent, deadly efficient serial killer who used the Fair as his own personal hunting ground. Larson's background is in journalism, and the ability to do impeccable research and weave the detailed elements of his chosen subject into an intricate tapestry served him well in the writing of this book.
Despite the growing sense of horror that I experienced as I delved deeper and deeper into this book and these men's lives, I became equally transfixed. I'm not someone who searches out historical accounts, nor was I interested in true crime at that time. I still don't know what drew me to the book, but what I can tell you is that I devoured this book in a manner usually reserved for page-turning thrillers of the John Grisham or Kathy Reichs ilk. It is as easy to read and as suspenseful as the most masterful fictional crime novel, but has a dark undercurrent that will chill you to the bone. Make sure you've got a purring cat, a warm blanket, a fire or a cup of hot chocolate to hand when you curl up with this one - preferably all of the above.
It has been said that you should never judge a book by its cover, but as soon as I saw this book I fell in love with it. On the cover lounges a mesmerizing woman whose eyes beckon to you through a transparent hot pink vinyl cover with the word "NERVE" etched across it. Then I opened up the book, began to read and it got even better. Go ahead, break that old rule. This book is every bit as good as its cover promises.
For those of you who are Nerve.com neophytes, here's a little bit of background for you. Nerve.com, established in 1997, is an online blog site dedicated to publishing the best in edgy, amusing, enlightening and just plain fun writing and photography on the ever popular topic of sex. Over the years the site has expanded and now includes personals, sexual horoscopes, topic forums and advice.
Apparently the founders identified a niche in dire need of a new representation, because the site has become one of the most well-known and popular of its kind. Aside from online publication, Nerve.com has also forayed into the realm of print publication prior to this release. Nerve.com (and affiliates under the name) have published books on a variety of topics and in a variety of formats ranging from collections of essays and photographs to down to earth and witty sex advice to erotica. One of my personal favourites is a book that covers every aspect of sexual experience and that is aptly titled The Big Bang (highly recommended for anyone interested in reading a book that touches on pretty much everything).
The book is organized chronologically, with a chapter for each year since Nerve’s inception. The written sections cover every imaginable topic related to sexuality, from the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal to the difference between sensualists and sexualists to the experience of being a virgin at the age of twenty-eight (proving that not having sex can be just as interesting and complicated a sexual journey as having it) to how to have a sex life as a Siamese twin. It also includes excerpts from advice columns, famous quotes, interviews with writers and some of the most interesting photography (erotic and otherwise) that I have seen in a long while.
True to form, Nerve.com's newest book isn't your typical ten year retrospective. The book features some of the best and brightest writing by a variety of authors along with stunning pictorials that make it difficult to decide which is more appealing. A perfect anniversary, belated Valentine’s Day or birthday gift for the not-so-hallmark sweetheart, this book will not only fit the colour scheme of romance but the enjoyment it will bring will last well past the special day. Possibly even longer than the average relationship.
It is the diary of Cassandra Mortmain, the daughter of a famous author who, after an unfortunate incident with a cake knife is sent to prison. Upon his release he is as calm and pleasant as can be, but can no longer write. From that point on, what had been a charmed life slowly falls into ruins. He moves his family from a charming house at the seaside and takes out a 40-year lease on a crumbling castle. Some years later Cassandra's mother dies and her father re-marries an eccentric and hauntingly beautiful artist's model called Topaz. Over time he becomes less and less sociable, eventually becoming a recluse. His family subsists on the dwindling royalties from his one infamous book, Jacob Wrestling. But somehow, through Cassandra's eyes, what could be a throughly depressing situation becomes quite charming. At times whimsical, at times humorous, the book is as much the story of her own ascent into adulthood and the disappointment that often accompanies it as it is the story of the day-to-day lives of her family.
As you may have noticed, I am a great believer that if a book has an interesting first line, it bodes well for the rest of it. This book has one of my top ten first lines: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." How could you not be intrigued?
I'm going to let this one speak for itself:
my culture is lima beans
ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE: A YEAR OF FOOD LIFE - Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver
Sustainable food culture is not a new topic for books or in the public sphere. It has been tackled by many authors in recent years and has increasingly been part of political and social discourse. Kingsolver, however, takes the issue out of the realms of academia and politics to plant it firmly in the context of her own family, lifestyle and garden. What is usually painted as a grim doomsday situation is brought into a positive light by Kingsolver and her family, who manage to find creative ways to live within their community and in harmony with the seasons of their own part of the world.
Framed within this context, much of what she discusses seems like good common sense. But unfortunately, in today’s single-minded, profit-driven food economy, much of this good common sense has been replaced by short cuts that prove to be near sighted and counter-productive. Take, for example, the practice of using pesticides and insecticides that eradicate birds like swallows. How does this make sense when swallows are insecticides since insects are their main diet? And what about the practice of shipping vegetables halfway across the world when we could just as easily grow them in our own back yards? Kingsolver brings contradictions to the fore, pointing out that these practices not only damage the environment and ecosystems we inhabit, but also harm our local economies by putting our hard-earned food dollars into the far away bank accounts of a few large corporations.
Though it seems if not impossible, incredibly daunting to purchase only food we can trace back to its source, Kingsolver gently walks the reader through some simple ways of doing so. She then goes on to describe processes (like making cheese) that most of us wouldn’t even have any idea we could do in our own kitchens, let alone in half an hour, and describes them in such simple terms that by the end of the section the reader is left wondering why they’ve never tried them before. The book is also peppered with factual passages on a variety of topics related to worldwide food production by Kingsolver’s husband, Steven L. Hopp, along with essays, recipes and menu suggestions in keeping with the seasonal ingredient list by her elder daughter, Camille.
Even if you’re not about to give up tomatoes in January, this book will provide you with such a range of information and ideas that you can’t help but become more aware of the food that ends up on your table. Whether you decide to visit a local farmer’s market, grow some of your own vegetables in your backyard or a community garden, choose to buy foods marked “local” whenever you see them, or simply have an increased awareness of the true cost of your food, this book will certainly change your relationship to your meals and provide you with options should you choose to pursue them.
It is a story of two people whose lives are in a shambles. They somehow end up living next door to one another. At first they have an incredible distaste for one another. But over time, they come to be friends and even embark on a trip together to market a scheme for cinnamon flavoured milk to the founder of Starbucks.
The surprising element, and that which most strongly brings Nick Hornby to mind, is the undercurrent of musical knowledge that accompanies the plot. It turns out that the title is actually a reference to a Nirvana song! This is one book not to judge by its cover. Though it isn't a great literary work and isn't even on my top ten, I did pass a couple of sunny afternoons on my balcony with it while still on large quantities of pain killers post-surgery. It was the perfect book for the situation and I did enjoy it. It is easy to read, the story progresses at a good speed and the characters are entertaining enough to keep you reading to the end. So, if you're looking for a light read and enjoyed Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, this might appeal to you.
This book isn't generally a favourite amongst Coupland fans, but I harbour fond feelings towards it. Perhaps this is due partially to the fact that it was the first of his books that I read and it was like entering a new literary world (as the discovery of any new favourite author inevitably is), but whatever the reason, it has a firm place on my top books list. Also, the title is one of the most important revelations you will ever have in your lifetime. They are. Every single one.
It is the story of Switters, a CIA agent unexpectedly confined to a wheelchair by a mystical event. The chair does nothing to slow him down, however. He galavants throughout much of the world in search of answers and comes across an oasis of nuns in the middle of a desert, travels to the rainforest to set free his grandmother Maestra's parrot and throughout the whole book has a lecherous email correspondendce with his young step-sister, Suzy. By turns fascinating, magnetic and despicable, Switters is one character who will not cease to entertain and surprise you. Read it. You will love it.
Transmetropolitan is a comic book series written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Darick Robertson. It is the story of a renegade journalist called Spider Jerusalem. Jerusalem is heavily tattooed, foul-mouthed and irreverent. He takes the city by storm, popping a pharmacy's worth of drugs, drinking enough to fell a bar full of lifetime alcoholics, tearing down preconceived notions and exposing the truth (along with some other stuff that would be better left fully clothed) as he goes. He exists on a strict regimen of excess and is kept alive by his Filthy Assistants - Yelena, the neice of his editor and Channon, an ex-stripper, ex-nun bodyguard. He also has a two headed cat who smokes.
Any of this ringing any bells?
If you've got the image of another famous journalist swimming through your mind, bingo. This is a follow up to my review of Outlaw Journalist in a funny sort of way. When I finished reading it I felt sad, as if I had lost the hijinks of an extremely entertaining friend. Then I happened upon the Transmetropolitan series and it filled the void. With a vengeance. This is the most outrageous, disgusting, gritty, perceptive, beautiful, fascinating and repellant series of graphic novels/comic books I have ever read. And every one of those descriptive words was a compliment - just to make sure we're clear. I love how nasty and perverted the characters are, and I love the dingy world in which they terrorize an unsuspecting population.