9.09.2011

TRAVELS - Michael Crichton

You might not think so to see his books gracing the illustrious wire racks of grocery stores and newsagents, but Michael Crichton is an amazingly talented writer. I will argue this point with anyone who dares contradict me. He had me cowering under my blanket as a teenager when I was reading Jurassic Park because his book was so well written as to convince me that the wind in the trees outside my bedroom window was a velociraptor casing the joint and waiting for the light to go out before making its move. I'm a practical person. I might have an over-active imagination when it comes to reading about real life horrors like serial killers who could be hiding in my closet, but I know there aren't any dinosaurs stalking me. I know there aren't any dinosaurs full stop. But Crichton's talent is such that I was utterly convinced, for the duration of the midnight hour at any rate, that the dinosaurs were out to get me.

Travels is by far my favourite of his books. Though his fiction is inspired and The Great Train Robbery was highly entertaining, this is the book I recommend. I am a fan of travel literature because I enjoy vicarious globe-trotting, so this book was a treat. Each chapter is a new place or a new adventure. Crichton shares with us the experiences of shark-diving, communing with a cactus, observing the majestic Silverback Gorilla in its natural habitat and climbing Kilimanjaro. The book also features a section on his days as a medical student, at once grotesque, educational and entertaining. I mean who doesn't love a book that starts with the sentence: "It is not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw"?

7.24.2011

SEXUALLY, I'M MORE OF A SWITZERLAND: MORE PERSONAL ADS FROM THE LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS - David Rose

I must admit, this book’s title is what grabbed my attention. And how could it not? Turns out, the inside of the book is just as interesting.
We all (or at least most of us) know what it’s like to be single and wonder if we’re ever going to find someone we can be happy with. We also know from our own and our friends’ dating experiences – both humorous and otherwise – that everyone has their little quirks, habits and oddities. Though these days sex is hardly a taboo in western society, it still isn’t a topic we discuss as openly and easily as the weather. As such, many of us are curious about what other people’s experiences and interests are, and don’t have much opportunity to find out. Personal ads, due to their context and anonymity, are one of the few places where you can have a good old voyeuristic nose around other people’s private lives guilt-free. And the results are always interesting, sometimes odd, and occasionally very funny.
Rose’s book is a collection of the best ads printed in the London Review of Books. According to Rose’s introduction, what makes these ads stand apart from the personals that can be found in any print publication or on any dating website is that they are not cookie-cutter. They don’t present the same image, they aren’t coached by the editor and they aren’t essentially the same ad over and over again. They are individual and honest. They are written by people who spend time figuring out a few words to describe who they are, either humorously or seriously, and as such they represent a treasure-trove of personality.
Because the ads are from the London Review of Books, they are often written with dry, sarcastic British humour and feature references to typically British cultural knowledge. Rose makes sure that none of this will be lost on any audience by providing interesting and thorough footnotes. At first, the irreverent and sometimes plain raunchy humour expressed in many of the ads comes as a surprise, but after the first ten pages it becomes wonderfully engaging and ends up feeling like a poignant representation of humanity.
This is the second book of compiled personal ads David Rose has compiled, the first being They Call Me Naughty Lola. I’ve always liked books that allow you to dip in for some well-needed humour without committing overly large amounts of time. I’ve enjoyed picking this up, reading a page or two, having a giggle, and then going on about my day. It’s an excellent book to leave lying about on a coffee table for guests who may have a minute or two to spare.

5.20.2011

EVERY DAY IN TUSCANY: SEASONS OF AN ITALIAN LIFE - Frances Mayes

When I was in high school my mother left her copy of Under the Tuscan Sun lying around the house. On a whim one Saturday afternoon, I picked it up and started reading. The next thing I knew, I was immersed in Italian culture, fascinated to discover with Mayes the joys (and many frustrations) of making a home out of a house in another country. Under the Tuscan Sun was the first travel memoir I read, and it led to a lifelong love affair with armchair tourism.
Her story is one I have returned to many times over the years (in both Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany), and that first book is now one of the most tattered and well-loved on my shelves. So it was with great excitement that I re-entered her sunny, tasty, and humorous Italian home, Bramasole, in her new book, Every Day in Tuscany.
Unlike Under the Tuscan Sun, Mayes’ new book does not have a cohesive central story. Rather, it is a series of glimpses of a season in Italy, rather like a set of vignettes rather than a linear journal. Each chapter or section is like a snapshot of an event, a location, or a relationship, and is written with a poetic and nostalgic - almost wistful - feeling.
While reading Every Day in Tuscany, you will discover the joys of becoming part of an expatriate community, the wonders of learning how to navigate another culture, and, of course, how to cook the Italian way. Like Under the Tuscan Sun, Every Day in Tuscany features many mouth-watering recipes accompanied by stories that will make you want to move in next door to Mayes, just to smell the cooking scents wafting through her kitchen windows.
Overall, I found this book to be a lovely escape from my own day-to-day life. Mayes’ poetic attention to detail paints a vivid picture that will draw the reader in to walk alongside her through the Italian countryside that has become her home. The wide-eyed wonderment of the foreigner that is so poignant in her first book has given way to a sense of belonging, of being part of the landscape and the people of her Italian home. That, more than anything, is the main sentiment this book evokes: a sense of home.

3.17.2011

BOWIE: A BIOGRAPHY - Marc Spitz

David Bowie is much more than a famous musician – he is a cultural icon. His approach to showmanship, song writing, performance – even fashion – have inspired his own and every subsequent generation. Not only that, but he is an articulate, intelligent man whose appeal and charisma extend well beyond his musical talent, which in itself is unparalleled. It is impossible to listen to his music or watch him perform without being utterly captivated.
Though he has become one of the most recognizable musical personas of the 20th century (and now 21st), he endured a rocky early career while his peers - many of whom are generally considered to possess much less talent, and some of whom I’ve never heard of - hurtled to the top of the charts. Even once he had “made it,” so to speak, his constant search for inspiration, new experiences (both in life and artistically) and innovation led to endeavours that were widely criticized and less than successful in commercial terms at the time – though many of these went on to be greatly appreciated in later years.
His rise to fame and critical and artistic success did not bring an easy or simple life, but Bowie is one of those rare artists whose every experience has somehow been channelled into his work, making it all the more powerful and lasting. Despite pressure from managers, record companies and fans, he followed his own creative path (which led him to make some decisions which, according to Spitz, were misguided, but even these were carried out with a panache only Bowie is capable of), wherever it led him.
The author of the book, Marc Spitz, is a well-known music journalist who has worked at Spin and Rolling Stone. His experience and passion for music show through in this detailed, thorough biography. Though he is obviously a fan of Bowie, this unauthorized biography does not pander to tabloid speculation, as many do. Instead, Spitz drew on what he does know: the music. It doesn’t matter which rumours are true. The music speaks for itself. Though the book is loaded with factual information about Bowie’s life, as I progressed through the book what set it apart from other biographies is that it is not a biography of Bowie the man; it is a biography of Bowie’s music. Every new era of Bowie’s life that Spitz includes in the book is intricately tied into the impact it had on Bowie’s work. His song writing technique, the instruments he composed on, the feel of each song, the order in which they appear on the album... all of this is covered in minute detail.
Reading Bowie is like standing at a distance, watching the legend’s life through a window. You’re not drawn into his world intimately, but you still get a damn good view. Of course, for a driven, dedicated artist like Bowie, in many ways this is a truer portrayal of who he is than any other form of biographical account could possibly be – as far as his audience is concerned, the man is his music. And no one makes that more clear than Spitz.

3.02.2011

THE WAYFINDERS: WHY ANCIENT WISDOM MATTERS IN THE MODERN WORLD - Wade Davis


“...[R]emember the central revelation of anthropology: the idea that the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set of intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular cultural lineage made, however successfully, many generations ago.”
A friend of mine introduced me to Wade Davis’ writing with the excellent recommendation that Davis' book, One River, was the reason he decided on an academic pursuit of anthropology in the first place. For anyone considering anthropology as an educational/career path, or anyone who simply wants to know what it’s all about, this book is a great place to start.
As with most Massey Lectures publications, The Wayfinders is incredibly well presented, taking some of the most interesting and important information from the discipline of anthropology and putting it forth in a format that is both readable and comprehensive. The first chapter is an overview of the history of human culture, from the agricultural revolution right through to the present day. In subsequent chapters, Davis introduces the cultures, accomplishments and belief systems of Polynesia, the Amazon, the First Nations of British Columbia (Canada), and the Sahara, among others.
One of the attractions of anthropology is the way in which examining cultures that exist at an extreme remove from one’s own often becomes a way of looking at your own through the lens of that culture. It’s easy, particularly in the pervasiveness of western society, to feel as if our own way of life is somehow “normal” and others exist on some spectrum of strangeness stretching away from our own.
Though these overviews serve as fascinating windows into the cultural beliefs and practices underpinning a handful of cultures around the world, the book has a larger message. Taken in context, the overall message is that no matter how different a culture is from our own or from any other in the world, each and every one will have points that you can relate to – and something to teach you.
Davis is a gifted storyteller, one who has the rare ability to take nearly any topic and find a way to draw the reader into it, as with the finest novel. His obvious passion for the subject matter is apparent, as is his lifelong pursuit of cultural knowledge. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about anthropology, but also to anyone who finds themselves wondering, from time to time, what it would be like to live without the trappings of modern life. The Wayfinders will leave you in awe of the accomplishments the human species is capable of, even without any “modern” gadgets and expertise.

2.16.2011

PARIS TIMES EIGHT: FINDING MYSELF IN THE CITY OF DREAMS - Deirdre Kelly

Paris is probably the only city in the world that is dreamed about by such a wide variety of people – romantics, historians, artists, fashionistas and jet-setters alike. It is a city that is famous not only for notorious home-grown figures like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Victor Hugo, but also for the ex-pats who have been lured there, like Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Fyodorovich Stravinsky. It is not surprising, then, that this is the city to which Dierdre Kelly, an aspiring writer, was drawn.
Paris Times Eight: Finding Myself in the City of Dreams is the story of eight separate visits Deirdre made to the iconic city at different stages in her life. The first immediately followed her graduation from high school, when she was given the opportunity to accompany a local family, for whom she had often babysat, as an au pair. The trip came at an age when she was still searching for a sense of herself, an age when she was easily impressed by perceived glamour and sophistication.
Her subsequent visits take place under a variety of circumstances, but it seems that most of her visits are instigated by some sort of upheaval or major life event. When life becomes challenging or difficult, or when she feels that she is on the verge of beginning a new path, she is inevitably drawn to the city that she has yearned to call home.
The book proved to be less travel memoir and more personal memoir. As the author goes through different phases of her life, Paris seems to change along with her. Each time she visits the increasingly familiar city, she sees a different place. Sometimes it is a place of wonder, while at others it seems cold and unyielding. Paris seems to act as a mirror, intensifying the feelings she has about herself and her life at each point in time. Like the relationship we each have with ourselves, the one she has with her beloved city lasts a lifetime and evolves even as she does.
Most of us have a dream that we are reluctant to let go of – whether it is a career, a partner, a family, an experience. For Deirdre, this dream is Paris.

1.24.2011

TRAUMA FARM: A REBEL HISTORY OF RURAL LIFE - Brian Brett

Trauma Farm is a book about some of the biggest issues facing us in a world of increasing globalization and corporatization. Written by a poet, who also happens to be a rural farmer, it discusses the struggles that are being faced by small-scale, non-corporate farmers throughout North America as they see their livelihoods threatened by the corporate behemoths with whom they simply cannot compete. It also discusses the frustration Brett feels at the regulations that are being instituted by governments that favour agri-business while making things increasingly more difficult for small-scale farmers. Aside from the subsistence issues, agri-business means worse living environments for animals, more chemicals in our food, and the loss of valuable local knowledge that has historically been passed on from one generation to the next.
For many of us who live in the city, it’s easy to forget that for every meal we eat, there are people out there who have toiled in fields, under hot sun or in the rain to bring us the fresh fruit, vegetables and even meat that we consume. We have seen an increasing awareness in recent years of the need to consider the impact that we, as consumers, have on the economic environment, and in turn on the environment and the livelihoods of smaller farms. People have even come up with a name for those who make the effort to support smaller farmers in their own geographical areas: locavores.
This book takes this issue down to the level of one household and humanizes it in a way that the news rarely does. Brett’s farm, affectionately dubbed “Trauma Farm,” is on a small island just off the west coast of British Columbia called Salt Spring Island. This also happens to be where I grew up. It is an idyllic place in many ways. It has a population of around 10,000 people, but when you live there it feels like you know everyone. It is a haven for artists, musicians and others with a creative bent, as well as for those who enjoy living a quieter, slower pace of life closer to the land. You will rarely find a more varied, more socially conscientious, more informed or interesting community.
Every Saturday during the summer the town heads en masse to the downtown artisan’s market where you can purchase everything from fresh produce to one-of-a-kind pieces of artwork to clothing and handmade cosmetics. My parents moved us there when I was five years old to escape the pressures and fast-paced life of the city, and growing up in such a small community provided a sense of safety and serenity that I still miss, even though I’ve been living in the city for over a decade.
Brett talks of the experience he and his family went through when they were establishing the farm and of the difficulties they’ve had to face. He himself has dealt with serious health complications for much of his life that have made it difficult for him to function at times. But he also provides a peek into island life as I knew it. His book is full of amusing anecdotes, delicious food, eccentric and interesting folks and a sense of joy that comes from knowing his place in the world. My favourite story involves a midnight walk in nothing but galoshes and an encounter with a none-too-friendly cougar.
I love reading travel books and disappearing into an adventure or a place that feels entirely different from how my own stressful city existence and day-to-day grind can feel. This book provides that sense of escape and serenity, but in a different way, since it’s not a foreign country; it’s right in our own backyard. I’d recommend spending a weekend wandering through Brett’s world if you’re feeling like city life is getting you down. It might also provoke some serious consideration of how our consumer habits affect people like Brett. Who knows, if you’re in the neighbourhood, you might even head over to Salt Spring and check it out for yourself.

1.15.2011

INCONTINENT ON THE CONTINENT: MY MOTHER, HER WALKER, AND OUR GRAND TOUR OF ITALY - Jane Christmas


I love reading travel memoirs. As a student I can’t afford to gallivant, fancy-free about the world experiencing new cultures and gathering exciting and amusing anecdotes. So I like to read the stories of those who do. Some of my favourite books involve travels in France and Italy – for some reason the cultures of those two countries draw me in and make me long to be there.
Jane Christmas’s book, Incontinent on the Continent, is a little bit different from the travel books I am usually drawn to. Rather than being the story of a journey to a foreign land, this is the story of a daughter trying to reconnect with her aging mother and repair the mother-daughter bond the only way she knows how - by taking her mother on a long-awaited journey to Italy.
The book describes the cities and towns they travel through, but it focuses on how the country becomes a vehicle through which the pair can see one another in a way they never have. They begin to learn about one another’s interests, memories, views on life and dreams. Jane begins to see how her mother has changed over the years and how her medical conditions have transformed her from an energetic, active, capable woman into someone who is fragile and delicate. This is a transformation we all experience as first our grandparents and then our parents get older, and one that we all try to deny for as long as we can. Sooner or later, however, it simply can’t be ignored. For Jane, the pivotal moment comes when she realizes that her mother seems to be spilling more of her pills on the floor and down the sink than she is managing to take. It’s a moment of realizing that the mother who took care of her as a child is perhaps no longer able to fully care for herself.
Of course, despite the bonding that the two experience and the concern Jane experiences for her mother’s health, taking a mother-daughter team who have never gotten along very well and placing them in new surroundings doesn’t magically remove all the reasons they didn’t get along in the first place. There are plenty of amusing anecdotes about Jane’s mother creating drama at the airport, complaining about pretty much everything and constantly commenting on hairstyles that she thinks would be much better for Jane than the one she’s got.
These disparate elements in the book combine to create a picture of the relationships many of us experience with family members over the course of our lives. You can’t pick your family, but you love them anyway. Navigating relationships with people who you love dearly but at times simply can’t stand can be one of the most emotionally draining experiences of adult life. But in the end we find a way to love them in spite of (and occasionally because of) all the idiosyncrasies and irritating habits. That’s what makes them who they are. It’s also what makes us who we are.
I enjoyed this book. It’s entertaining, amusing, insightful and evocative. Christmas has a knack for describing the physical and emotional scenery of her journey and drawing the reader into her experiences and her relationship and bringing you along on the trip with her. Reading about her own struggles to create a meaningful bond with her mother before it’s too late will make readers pause to examine their own familial relationships, and perhaps take the time to reconnect with their own families.

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