12.31.2010

CITY OF GLASS - Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland has an unparalleled knack for seeing the familiar world around him with the eyes of a stranger. He is able to pick out parts of what we, in our common part of the world, see as “normal” and make them fascinating. In 1994 he made an entire book out of his observations of Vancouver, his hometown.
The west coast of Canada has a unique culture that is formed as much by the landscape as by the trademark, laid-back Canadian temperament. Existing as it does in a teeming metropolis that is bordered by mountain and sea, in Vancouver you are as likely to see a high-powered businessman or businesswoman wearing outdoor gear as fashion brands. We are a multicultural city that has embraced the provenance of its residents by forming districts dedicated to various ethnicities as well as sprouting up as many sushi restaurants as McDonald’s.
But in addition to these obvious elements of west coast living, Coupland explores some of the lesser-known, distasteful, strange and just plain ordinary elements of living here. Reading the book was like taking a walk through my own life and looking at my surroundings properly for the first time. It created a sense of nostalgia for the Vancouver I have known throughout my life, and for the parts of it that have changed. It’s like a homecoming without ever leaving, and evokes a sense of belonging for anyone who has ever called Vancouver home.
On the cover of the book, Coupland describes the book as deriving from “both love and laziness: love, because I spent my twenties scouring the globe thinking there had to be a better city out there, until it dawned on me that Vancouver is the best one going; and laziness, because I thought I was going to go mental explaining dim sum, the sulphur pits and Kitsilano for the umpteen-hundredth time.”
This is a sentiment many of us can relate to. Vancouver is, in many ways, indescribable. However, if there is anyone who stands a chance of doing so, it is Douglas Coupland. This book is a long-time favourite of mine, and I’m pleased to see that it has been expanded and updated. It’s also great timing: with the Olympics just ended, the world is looking to the 2010 Olympic City and seeing all the fancy new venues and bright lights that have been televised over the past month. This book is the one to read if you want to see the real Vancouver – not only the not-so-pretty parts, but also some of the wonderful yet understated elements of what makes all of us who live here proud Vancouverites.

12.14.2010

JULIET, NAKED - Nick Hornby

At some point in our lives most of us (if not all of us) have become infatuated with someone famous. We have collected all their albums or every movie they’ve ever been in – even the ones that weren’t very good. We’ve spent hours daydreaming about what it would be like to meet them and imagining what their life is like. We’ve followed their every move through the media and speculated as to whether their current relationship is true love or just a passing fancy. For most of us this happens during adolescence, and it passes as we grow up and realize that they’re all just people behind all the photoshopped media images and hyped up social engagements. For some of us, however, this fascination becomes an obsession that becomes a part of who we are. This book is the story of just such an obsession.
Tucker Crowe was a pretty famous musician in the mid-80s. Famous enough to go to parties with movie stars and to date (and occasionally marry) beautiful models. Then one fateful night during the tour for his popular new album, Juliet, he went to the bathroom in a bar in Minneapolis and when he came out everything had changed. No one quite knows what befell him in that bathroom (rumours include walking in on his girlfriend with another man and having an epiphany after a near-overdose), but when he came back out he cancelled the rest of the tour for Juliet and disappeared.
Twenty years later, with Tucker still M.I.A., an obsessed fan by the name of Duncan drags his girlfriend Annie on a tour of notable Tucker Crowe locations in America. Duncan and Annie are from the small British seaside town of Gooleness, a town that is notable for its lack of pretention and little else and is about as charming as its name would lead you to expect. Duncan is one of the world’s foremost “Crowologists,” a group of die-never fans of Tucker Crowe who are geographically scattered throughout the world but have been brought together by the world-shrinking power of the internet. Annie is the curator of a small local museum and has vicariously become something of an expert on Tucker Crowe due to nearly two decades of her partner’s obsession. But she is finally starting to run out of patience with not only Duncan’s obsession, but with Duncan himself.
Shortly after their return to Gooleness after their three week pilgrimage, a package arrives in the mail. In this package is an advance copy of Juliet, Naked, a collection of demo versions of every song on Juliet. Duncan heralds it as a work of sheer genius. Annie thinks it’s Juliet but not as good. For Duncan, Annie’s failure to see the obvious superiority of the album leads him to question her taste and feel a sense of betrayal and disappointment. For Annie, Duncan’s staunch defence of a clearly inferior album is just proof of his stubbornness and inability to step back and take in a larger view of reality. This small disagreement proves to be the catalyst for a chain of events so unexpected that it will render their lives unrecognizable.
The characters in Juliet, Naked brought to mind some of the characters in Nick Hornby’s earlier novels in a pleasing and friendly way. These are real people; people you meet every day, have a beer with after work, possibly even see when you look in the mirror. They are unassuming (even the famous rock star among them) and as lovely and damaged as the rest of us. The story is a pile-up of unlikely coincidences, but somehow it all rings true. Through these coincidences the characters are gently prodded into examination of their own lives and the things they value. It is a story of how we learn to accept the disappointments in our lives when we are no longer young, and what we do with the messes we’ve made. Juliet, Naked is a whimsical, charming book that has the perfect balance of nostalgia and witty dialogue to make it a thoroughly enjoyable read.

11.24.2010

MARSHALL MCLUHAN - Douglas Coupland


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.

11.07.2010

THE MAN WHO LOVED BOOKS TOO MUCH: THE TRUE STORY OF A THIEF, A DETECTIVE, AND A WORLD OF LITERARY OBSESSION - Allison Hoover Bartlett

Anyone who is a bibliophile (and let’s face it, most of us who review books are) will be able to relate to the subject matter of Allison Hoover Bartlett’s book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. As someone who collects books as much for their aesthetic appeal as for their content, I can understand the desire to own leather-bound volumes of Dickens’ works or first editions of modern classics. If I won the lottery, books are probably the first things I would buy – well maybe after more bookshelves, anyway. This book is the story of what happens when an appreciation for the fine works of literature turns into an obsession.
Hoover Bartlett was drawn into the world of literary antiquity by chance when she agreed to take responsibility for returning a very old, and rare book on botany to a college library from whence it was accidentally purloined by the late sister of a friend. She becomes interested in discovering the provenance and value of the book and proceeds to take it to a rare book dealer and to have passages translated from the German by a friend. As she learns more about the book, she becomes curious to discover how such a rare and valuable book could go missing from an educational institution without any seeming attempts being made to recover the missing item. When she contacts the library she discovers that not only are they not actively searching for the volume, but they have no records of it ever having belonged to the library in the first place.
So begins a foray into the world of literary theft – a world, Hoover Bartlett is soon to discover, that is much larger than she ever imagined. As she begins to contact rare book sellers and collect stories of literary theft, she comes across John Gilkey, a notorious thief who had stolen books from many different rare book dealers in the United States using a variety of scams involving bad cheques and stolen credit card numbers. Gilkey, she discovers, steals not for profit, but out of a sense of entitlement and a desire to own books that he sees as symbols of the cultured and learned. Hoover Bartlett subsequently begins interviewing Gilkey during one of his incarcerations and learns how he carried out some of his scams, accompanies him to a bookstore (an uncomfortable experience since he had previously stolen from that store and the owner recognized him), and visits his mother and sisters.
Hoover Bartlett approaches her newfound interest as any good collector does, and interweaves Gilkey’s story with little anecdotes about other book collectors and thieves throughout history that she learns from the rare book dealers she comes to know quite well. The character of Gilkey isn’t very likeable, though he probably isn’t meant to be. The author doesn’t share much of herself with the reader aside from brief references to books she loves and seems increasingly uncomfortable with her research subject. Any booklover will find this book to be an interesting read. Overall it is a charming light read to pass an afternoon with, and an introduction not only to the world of book theft, but also to the world of rare book collecting.

10.28.2010

FALL - Colin McAdam


“We were boys who wore suits, monkeys with manners. We didn’t have parents but were treated like babies. We were left on our own but had hundreds of rules to abide.”
Fall is one of this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize finalists. It is the coming of age story of two young men in their last year of high school and the girl they both revolve around: the beautiful and popular Fall. They attend St. Ebury’s, an exclusive boarding school in Ontario, Canada. The school caters to the children of diplomats and provides an elite education intended to send them off into the world well-equipped for the academic rigours of an Ivy League school, hopefully to follow in their parents’ footsteps. But despite the list of famous alumni and the distinguished careers of their parents, the students of St. Ebury are as much the victims of hierarchy as at any other high school. The hierarchy is based on relative wealth, appearance and social skills. In this hierarchy these two boys are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The story is told from their perspectives.
Julius, the handsome son of the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, is wealthy and popular and has the sort of magnetic personality that draws both male and female peers to him. Noel is an awkward loner whose father is a Canadian diplomat posted in Australia. He is intelligent, enjoys reading the classics of literature and philosophy, and is introverted and organized. He also has a lazy eye and an odd demeanour that causes people to be somewhat wary of him. The two boys are brought together by accident when, in their senior year, Julius’ friends all assume the popular student already has a roommate, so he ends up in the unlikely company of Noel.
Perhaps because Noel’s narrative is written from a distance of more than two decades, it is fluid and introspective, full of the small details that make him appear aloof from the events as they unfold. The sections narrated by Julius, on the other hand, are written in a stream of consciousness format that speaks to the vibrancy and energy of youth. Though his view of the world is not as perceptive or detailed as Noel’s, his mind doesn’t chase him into such dark corners.
Colin McAdam is a master of small, evocative details. He manages to sift through all the minutiae of daily boarding school life and weave these details into the story so adeptly that they create a true feeling of what it is to be a boarding school student. Having attended boarding school myself, I remember what it felt like to arrive the week before classes started, to learn a new rhythm of life and become acquainted with the roommates and fellow boarders who would, for the duration of the school year, become a makeshift family of sorts. There is a subtle adjustment that takes place from living close to parental figures but with access to the wide world to the tiny, self-contained and over-regulated world of boarding school that is far from any sense of home and protected from the outside world as if under a bubble.
Fall is not a comfortable book. It is a story of love and hate; a story of obsession. Adolescence is fraught with desires and emotions we can neither suppress nor ignore, and the pressure applied by a boarding school environment simultaneously exaggerates and stifles them. Fall is an accurate account of what it’s like to teeter on the brink of adulthood while still restricted by an abundance of supervision and strict discipline. For those who enjoy character development over fast-paced plots, this book will be an engrossing read.

10.13.2010

SUBWAY ART - Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant

Subway Art is to graffiti books what Wild Style is to graffiti movies. It documents not only the genesis of a new art form, but also a period of urban history and the birth of hip hop culture. Originally published in 1984, it was the first book to take graffiti seriously as an art form, rather than just writing it off as an act of youthful vandalism by kids with too much time on their hands and too little discipline at home.

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.

10.02.2010

OUTLAW JOURNALIST: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HUNTER S. THOMPSON - William McKeen




"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

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).

In his book, Outlaw Journalist, William McKeen sets about the daunting task of not only choosing a manageable selection from the many Hunter stories collected from friends, family and innocent bystanders, but putting them in chronological order. McKeen manages to string together one daring exploit after another to create a biography that is at once minutely detailed and that reads like an engrossing, fast-paced work of fiction. His book is meticulously researched and includes selections from interviews and observations from various sources, along with some of Hunter’s own. The result is a book that is detailed and thorough, taking you seamlessly through Hunter's life, from his young boyhood days in Louisville, Kentucky to his struggles to become a viable free-lance writer, his rise to notoriety and subsequent struggle with fame.

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.

9.27.2010

TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT - Graham Greene


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.

9.15.2010

WHAT IS AMERICA?: A SHORT HISTORY OF THE NEW WORLD ORDER - Ronald Wright

What is America: A Short History of the New World Order is Ronald Wright's third historical text, following in the footsteps of Stolen Continents, a historical account of the conquest of the Americas and A Short History of Progress, the book based on Wright's 2005 Massey Lectures series. Both of these texts have been not only widely acclaimed, but used as textbooks for university courses on anthropology and political science. Wright's newest endeavour seems destined to attain similar academic and popular acclaim.

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.

8.20.2010

THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY: MURDER, MAGIC, AND MADNESS AT THE FAIR THAT CHANGED AMERICA - Erik Larson

I was on my way home from Chicago a few years ago and had a stop over in Sea-Tac. With time to kill, I wandered into one of the only open stores and started browsing through the books and magazines on display. For some reason I picked up this book and impulsively bought it. It was after dark and I was barreling along the highway on a greyhound bus listening to some of my favourite music when I cracked it open.

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.

7.11.2010

NERVE: THE FIRST TEN YEARS - Editors of Nerve.com


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.

5.18.2010

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE - Dodie Smith

Dodie Smith is best known for her children's book, 101 Dalmations, but I Capture the Castle is by far my favourite of the two. I first read this book when I was about 14 years old. I remember abandoning reality and diving into it every afternoon after school for as long as I could make it last. I have since re-read it countless times and I never tire of it. Hollywood finally took my lead a couple of years ago and made a film out of it, though of course I much prefer the version I see in my head when I'm reading.

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?

5.04.2010

THE SEVENTH OCTAVE - Saul Williams (For James)


I'm going to let this one speak for itself:

Excerpt from "Amethyst Rocks"

i be one with rain and stars and things
with dancing feet and watermelon wings
i bring the sunshine and the moon
and the wind blows my tune
...meanwhile
i spoon powdered drum beats into plastic bags
sellin' kilos of kente scag
takin' drags off of collards and cornbread
free-basing through saxophones and flutes like mad

the high notes make me space float
i be exhalin' in rings that circle Saturn
leavin' stains in my veins in astrological patterns

yeah, i'm sirius B
Dogon' niggas plotted shit, lovely
but the Feds are also plottin' me
they're tryin' to imprison my astrology
to put my stars behind bars
my stars in stripes
using blood splattered banners
as nationalist kites
but i control the wind
that's why the call it the hawk
i am horus
son of isis
son of osiris
worshiped as jesus
resurrected like lazarus
but you can call me lazzie
lazy
yeah i'm lazy
cause i'd rather sit and build
than work and plow a field
worshipping a daily yield of cash green crops

your evolution stopped
with the evolution of your technology
a society of automatic tellers
and money machines
nigga what?
my culture is lima beans

3.29.2010

ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE: A YEAR OF FOOD LIFE - Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the amazingly talented author Barbara Kingsolver takes on a new realm: the economy of food life. The idea for the book was born in her family’s move from the arid climate of Arizona to the temperate climate of southern Appalachia. Part of the motivation for this move was a desire to live in a way that was at once more sustainable and healthier, both for her family and her world.

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.

3.10.2010

STUPID AND CONTAGIOUS - Caprice Crane

This book surprised me. I picked it up at my favourite local used book store one afternoon, and thought it would be one of those chicklit books I guiltily read and then dispose of in the hopes that I'll never have to admit to having read them, nevermind having bought them. Instead it turned out to be more like a Nick Hornby novel.

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.

3.01.2010

ALL FAMILIES ARE PSYCHOTIC - Douglas Coupland

I have often wondered what would happen if you took every sort of mishap and cliche you could dream up, created a cast of characters and threw the mishaps at them like rotten tomatoes at a stage show. This book is the answer to that query. It features a thalidomide baby, AIDS, a kidnapping, divorce, an astronaut, a trophy wife, intra-familial extramarital affairs, a suicidal brother, a girl with no vowels, a night in jail, drugs, born-again Christians, black market trade and a shooting - along with some other stuff I can't tell you about because I don't want to wreck the story. It's like a sign for a three-headed gila monster at the side of the road - you just have to stop and check it out.

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.

2.23.2010

FIERCE INVALIDS HOME FROM HOT CLIMATES - Tom Robbins

If I had to pick one book to take to a desert island with me, this would be it. I don't know how many times I have passed a rainy weekend lost in the rich scenery and amusing characters of this book. Normally the term "magical realism" applies to the works of Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but this is one of my favourite examples. If you, like myself, are a visual reader who sees a book as a movie in your mind as you read, this will be full of bright colours and incongruous images. Unlike Canadian writers whose backdrop is all muted hues of blue, grey, green and brown with a dark sky and constant drizzle, Fierce Invalids is full of yellow, red, bright shades of green and blue and, of course, orange. The cover doesn't lie, folks.

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.

1.05.2010

TRANSMETROPOLITAN - Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson


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.

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