Hunter S. Thompson – The Rum Diary (1998)

TheRumDiaryHaving previously read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as well as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, I came into this book familiar with Hunter S. Thompson. I liked this book way more than the previous ones.

I don’t even really know why; it’s similar to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but the Caribbean setting just makes it better for some reason, and I found I liked all the characters better too. This book is exactly what you’d expect from Hunter S. Thompson, a semi-autobiographical rum-soaked account of working as a journalist in the Puerto Rico. The story is about the journalists who work at a ill-fated magazine and their tangled love triangles, jealousy, and drunken shenanigans and violent outbursts.

While it feels like it was written by a older man reminiscing, Thompson was only 22 when he penned this narrative, something I did not know until doing a bit of research. It’s surreal in a way, the experience that 22 year old Thompson had in Puerto Rico. It’s a fun read and a great introduction to Hunter S. Thompson for those unfamiliar with his hilarity, absurdity, and genius.

Mary Doria Russell – The Sparrow (1996)

51tOtm+GblLGrowing up in a Catholic household, I was raised, especially by my Grandmother, to believe that the Jesuits could do no wrong. Obviously as I grew up and became disillusioned with the Church I turned more cynical and didn’t necessarily subscribe to her views. Still, in Catholic School, and then University, learning about the Jesuits always fascinated me because of their predisposition towards exploration. Reading and translating the Jesuit Diaries for an undergraduate class was an amazing experience, and despite how problematic the diaries are, I loved reading them.

In her novel, Mary Doria Russell imagines what it would be like if Jesuits were the first group of people to make contact with an alien species. I’ve heard a lot of amazing things about this book, and while I liked it, it didn’t blow me away. There is no denying that it is beautifully written, but I had a hard time visualizing things at time. Russell jumps back and forth in time starting with introducing us to Emilio Sandoz, the lone survivor of the mission who has returned to earth physically and mentally damaged. Throughout the novel you learn more about Sandoz and the other cast of characters who end up involved in the mission. You find out how they made contact, and finally what went wrong.

The novel is much more of a character study than it is a work of science fiction in its classic sense, which was fine with me. The characters are all compelling in their own sense especially as they grapple with issues of religion and faith. There just wasn’t a moment in the book that completely wowed me, but maybe I had my expectation driven up too high by all the things I’ve heard about the book. It was still a great concept and a good read, especially for those who enjoy character driven stories.

Alice Hoffman – Museum of Extraordinary Things (2014)

MuseumofExtraordinaryThingsI’d heard of Alice Hoffman, author of The Dovekeepers, but never took the time to read anything she’d written. I fell in love with this book quite fast, and not only because it deals with some of my favourite subjects, (freakshows, immigrants living on the Lower East Side, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire), but because Alice Hoffman is an incredibly talented and beautiful writer.

Through her novel Hoffman traces the stories of two characters, Coralie, a young girl who spends her days serving her cruel father, Professor Sardie, and serving as one of his living wonders at The Museum of Extraordinary things, and Eddie Cohen, a Jewish boy who turned his back on his faith and makes a living as a photographer. The two lives intersect in various ways as they both attempt to help the other escape.

Hoffman is such an amazing writer, telling a story in such vivid detail. It’s been a while since I found myself completely lost within a book, but it was quite easy to do with this one. The characters are flawed and relatable and there is the perfect mix of intrigue and whimsy. Set against the backdrop of the Coney Island boardwalk and the Lower East Side Tenements, this book was a fantastic snapshot of New York City at a particular moment in time.

Myra MacPherson – The Scarlet Sisters (2014)

18170162Throughout my years studying American history Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin were names that appeared in the literature but often only in connection to the men they were associated with. In fact it’s often only Victoria who is mentioned due to criticism of the minister Henry Ward Beecher and his affair with Elizabeth Tilton. Victoria and Tennie are also mentioned in passing discussions surrounding the suffragist movement but because the two sister led such scandalous lives, often times their role is downplayed. In this account, Myra MacPherson gives the sisters the full attention they deserve.

For starters I had no idea that Victoria and Tennie were the first women to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street and were quite successful at it. In addition to being outspoken supporters of the suffragist movement, both sisters were also advocates of free love and legalizing prostitution, both of which were not popular views to be held by women at the time. For all their progressive thought however, both sisters were still opposed to abortion and in favour of eugenics falling in line with mainstream opinions on both those social issues.

MacPherson in her account traces the sisters’ lives from childhood and their involvement with the spiritualism movement, through their ventures as stock brokers, their work towards women’s rights and Victoria’s Presidential campaign, to both of their deaths and legacy. The book was entertaining and informative but it’s true strength lies in the epilogue where MacPherson ties what Tennie and Victoria were attempting to accomplish to the current “War on Women.” I will end with this quote from the author:

“In the end, we come full circle, back to 1870 when the sisters argued that the vote alone was not enough; women need to be elected and in positions of power.” With the United States coming up to an election year, it will be interesting to see what happens. 

Recommended Listening

Two podcast episodes about Victoria Woodhull’s Campaign for President. One from Radio Diaries and one from Stuff You Missed in History Class

Lev Grossman – The Magician’s Land (2014)

The_Magiciain's_LandThis is third and final installment of Grossman’s trilogy, and frankly I was a bit disappointed in it. As with the other two books, this was about the futility of essentially everything, and it felt like Grossman got a bit lazy. Also there was definitely not enough of Julia who had very quickly become my favourite character in the previous book. There are spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t read this, stop now.

While Quentin is a bit older now, he’s still pretty mopey as he works as a Brakebills professor for a short spell before inevitably being fired due to some illegitimate use of magic. We meet Plum, a spunky young student who also gets expelled, but out of all the characters in this series she was probably my least favourite. I liked all the parts in Fillory with Janet and Elliot, even Josh and Poppy are ok, but I couldn’t stand Quentin and Plum in the real world.

Essentially Quentin decided to try and create his own world as Fillory is dying and in the process brings Alice back. I’m still unsure how I feel about this decision as, while I liked Alice, I had kind of made my peace with her being gone. Bringing her back also seemed out of line with what Grossman was trying to do. That and of course there’s a happy ending with Quentin saving the day. For all his harping on other Fantasy series, Grossman ends his the exact same way as the others, Fillory is saved, Quentin and Alice get to live happily ever after, and Julia continues livinge her existence as a demi-God (But really, where was she the rest of the book!)

Overall I enjoyed the trilogy, and while I guess the happy ending works, i never thought I’d be rooting against everything working out. It would have been nice if Grossman had just had Fillory die and everyone forced to adapt, although I guess maybe then it would have been too expected.

In lieu of a “further reading” section, I leave you with two of my favourite quotes from the book.

“It was funny about magic, how messy and imperfect it was. When people said something worked like magic they meant that it cost nothing and did exactly what you wanted it to. But there were lots of things magic couldn’t do. It couldn’t raise the dead. It couldn’t make you happy. It couldn’t make you good looking. And even with the things it could do, it didn’t always do them right. And it always, always cost something.”
“And it was inefficient. The system was ever airtight, it always leaked. Magic was always throwing off extra energy, wasting it in the form of sound, and heat, and light, and wind. It was always buzzing and singing and glowing and sparking to no particular purpose. Magic was decidedly imperfect. But the really funny thing, she thought, was that if it were perfect, it wouldn’t be so beautiful.”

Anya Von Bremzen – Mastering The Art of Soviet Cooking (2013)

51M7OxYdMNL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_In this book, part memoir, part cookbook, Anya Von Bremzen traces her family’s history living in Russia (then the Soviet Union) by discussing the type of food they ate. She starts with her maternal grandparents living in Russia in the 1920s but jumps back and forth in time and space between her homeland and 1980s Philadelphia where she and her mother immigrated to. At the end of each chapter Von Bremzen depicts a dinner party her mother is hosting in the present day, where she and Anya are attempting to cook through the history of Soviet food.

Unsurprisingly there is a lot of hardship throughout the book, especially when Anya is discussing life in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. In addition to the food rations, Von Bremzen also discusses the indoctrination of Soviet youth and how her mother was once a proud Soviet citizen before becoming disillusioned with the system. The depictions of the meals are vivid, although I could have definitely used a glossary; I had a hard time keeping all the Russian terms straight and knowing what was what.

At the end of the book Von Bremzen has included a number of recipes discussed in the book and I am looking forward to trying my hand at at least one of them. I had been familiar with Russian cuisine from its imperial age (Thanks Anna Karenina), but know less about Soviet cooking. I love food and think that cooking another culture’s cuisine is the perfect way to get to know them.

Recommended Listening:

This podcast from The Table Set that discusses hosting a Russian themed dinner party. 

Recipe To Try:

An adaptation of Anya Von Bremen’s pirozhki recipe from the tasting table.

A video showing the AV Club sampling Soviet Sodas.

 

Frank Abagnale – Catch Me If You Can (1980)

51AQbpQquRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It’s quite surprising given that Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks are my two favourite actors, that I hadn’t seen Catch Me If You Can. I saw it on Netflix, gave it a try, and loved it. Obviously. The next step was to read the book, which was equally as entertaining especially since I didn’t realize that Frank Abagnale was a real person who did pose as a Pan-Am pilot among other things.

There are some striking differences between Abagnale’s memoir and the movie, most notably Tom Hank’s character doesn’t actually chase Abagnale around the world and all of his mishaps don’t really happen. Abagnale is able to avoid capture by law enforcement in multiple countries but the Detective is much smarter than the bumbling Tom Hanks.

Overall the book is a great companion to the movie. Abagnale goes to great length detailing exactly how he accomplished his multiple cons including posing as a doctor, a lawyer, and most famously a Pan-Am pilot. A con like his would be impossible to pull off in today’s internet driven world, but it’s still fun to think about and quite unbelievable what Abagnale was able to actually get away with. This was a great read and well worth it.

Recommended Reading: This article in which Frank Abagnale talks about the demise of the con artist amid the rose of cybercrime.

Recommended Watching: The Movie!