Monthly Archives: April 2015

Helen Simonsen – Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (2010)

MajorPettigrewThis novel was such a pleasant surprise. I picked it up for about three dollars at the BMV and read it based on a recommendation from my grandmother. While it wasn’t one of those books that sucked me in from the get go, the slow build led to some fantastic characters, events and conclusions.

Essentially the novel focuses on Major Earnest Pettigrew, a British widower living in the English countryside obsessed with tradition and gaining ownership of his father’s guns (there are two; one which went to Major Pettigrew and one to his brother). As traditional and upright as Major Pettigrew is, he is not nearly as stuffy as some of his fellow residents living in Edgecombe County.

The novels plays out through Major Pettigrew’s interactions with his neighbours, his Yuppie son who he can’t seem to figure out, and with Ms. Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper who is also widowed. In then end Major Pettigrew must decide what he values more and if a relationship with Ms. Ali is worth turning the village on its head for.

I liked this novel because it was fresh and humorous, in a very dry and very British way. The scene where the Golf and Country Club Major Pettigrew is a member of throws a charity dinner with a Moghul theme is completely absurd but so vividly described that you can actually picture the event and feel the reactions of both the British Society Ladies and the Pakistani women who are in attendance. Simonson spends a lot of time exploring rifts in culture, between British and the Pakistani Community, as well as generational; between Major Pettigrew and his son Roger, or Ms. Ali and her nephew Abdul Wahib.

The book was a light and fun read and anyone who’s a fan of movies like The Quiet Man, or Saving Grace, is sure to love this book as well.

Tilar J. Mazzeo – The Hotel on the Place Vendome (2014)

HotelOnPlaceVendomeIn general, if a book is written about Paris during the Second World War, there is a very good chance that I am going to love it. With this book however, I started out loving it, then I didn’t like it, then I liked it, then I didn’t again, before finally deciding that I couldn’t decide if I liked it or hated it.

This is mostly because Mazzeo tries to present a history of the Ritz during the Second World War without actually talking about the Ritz during the Second World War. She starts off with the founding of the Ritz, then the German invasion of Paris, before jumping immediately to D-day in the third chapter. I assumed that maybe she wasn’t going in chronological order, which turned out to be only half true. The events going on at the Ritz are alluded to, but are not explored fully, which is crazy because you had high ranking German officers living in the same hotel that became a hub for clandestine activities for the French resistance.

Where Mazzeo does exel in in her profiles of the rich and famous people who lived at the Ritz either before or during the war including, but not limited to Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich, and her favourite, Coco Chanel. Because her focus is on these personalities, she writes at length about the press battle that waged with covering D-Day and the Allied invasions. I’ve seen all the famous photographs, but never really stopped to think about the process reporters, like Ernest Hemingway and Robert Capa, went through to get them. I also learned that Ho Chi Mihn worked in the kitchens at the Ritz, and interesting factoid that Mazzeo threw in during the last chapter.

It was interesting, and I liked parts of it, I just wish that Mazzeo had done more on the events that took place at the Ritz during the war, especially regarding the resistance movement that so many of the staff were involved in. She captures the spirit of the Ritz during the war, the eternal glamour that the hotel sought to maintain, but I wanted more regarding life “behind the scenes.”

This seems to be a period of time that is of interest to Tilar J. Mazzeo and she has written another book solely on Coco Chanel’s dubious life during the war. Because the chapter regarding Coco Chanel was one of my favourites, I think I will add it to my TBR list.

Jamaica Kincaid – Lucy (1990)

LucyThis novel is short, only 160 pages or so, and I devoured every word so fast that when I finished I needed to take a step back and digest. The premise is relatively simple but Jamaica Kincaid is such a vivid story teller that gradually all the layers of the story peel away an you’re reading to reveal a complex web of emotions.

Lucy is a 19-year old immigrant to America from the West Indies working as an au pair to a couple, Mariah and Lewis, and their four daughters. The story is told from Lucy’s point of view and throughout the novel you begin to understand her, her relationship to her employer Mariah and how she straddles the line between friend and employee, as well as her unresolved feelings towards her mother, who acts as a shadow on Lucy’s life throughout the novel. Despite only being 19, Lucy is cynical and mature beyond her years as she struggles to make friends in her new surroundings and watches the marriage of her employers deteriorate.

It’s a very introspective read, but also very compelling. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read any of Kincaid’s other works but after reading Lucy, I’m definitely going to start.

Lena Dunham – Not That Kind of Girl (2014)

NotThatKindofGirlI respect Lena Dunham, I admire her work, but unfortunately I just don’t relate to her. In most memoirs that I read I can find some chapter, or passage, or even the most passing reference that I can relate to. This was not the case. Lena Dunham has led such a different life and has experience so many different and unfamiliar things that I just couldn’t relate to anything she wrote about.

That being said, Lena is a fantastic writer; her book is written with an eloquence and grace that I was not quite expecting. She writes about traumatic experiences from her childhood with humour that can only be possessed by someone with the benefit od hindsight While I could not personally relate to her experiences with OCD, sleep disorders, therapy, and loneliness, they were written in a way that inspires understanding.

While Dunham does not write explicitly about her TV show Girls, one of the more fascinating parts of her book was seeing where the inspiration for certain story arcs and characters come from. Lena Dunham’s parents are both artists so she grew up with the New York art scene that Marnie is so separately trying to break in to. She spends one chapter writing about the antics that her and her two best friends caused while working at an upscale children’s boutique, Peaches and Babke. Her scenes translate directly to the episode(s) in Girls, which feature Jessa working as a sales clerk in an upscale children’s boutique, avoiding work at all costs. There are many other allusions to the show throughout her book and it was interesting to see where Lena has drawn her inspiration.

While I didn’t find Lena Dunham relatable, she writes with her own voice, in a very elegant and inspired way. There were certain parts of the book that I didn’t like, but overall Not that Kind of Girl, left a good impression.

Suzy Witten – The Afflicted Girls (2009)

AfflictedGirlsLike most people who have studied early American history, the Salem Witch Trials, are series of events that I find incredibly interesting. I was excited to read this novel, (it is a fictional account of the trails), but ended up having mixed feelings at the end.

Reading non-fiction accounts of the trials is often difficult and confusing. There are so many names and so much confusion in general that, as I have noted before, it is really difficult to make sense of it all. In writing her novel, Witten chooses to focus on a select group, the most “popular” of the afflicted girls and the accused; Abigail Williams, The Reverend Parris, his wife and daughter Betty, Thomas, Ann, and Lucy Putnam, Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop, Sarah Good, Sarah Osbourne, Mercy Lewis, Tituba and her husband John Indian. Other prominent characters in the trails make appearances throughout. I liked that she chose to focus on a small handful and it made the story more compelling and moved it forward.

Witten also does a good job with her depictions of New England society at the time. She contrasts how many inhabitants were Puritan Christians, but still held superstitions, and certain practices were not seen in conflict with the Church. It wasn’t until the accusations of witchcraft started flying that harmless things like fortune telling and tea leaf reading began to be viewed in a much more sinister light.

One of my qualms with the book is how historically inaccurate it is. Obviously as a novel, things like the thoughts and actions of the characters are left to the author’s interpretation, as is her right. The author writes that she read about teenage girl experimenting with Jimson weed from Barbados during this time and noted how the symptoms matched those described and she decides to use Jimson weed as an explanation for the girls’ behavior. I do not have a problem with her premise nor do I have a problem with her using Abigail Williams as more of a villain and Mercy Lewis as a sympathetic character. (Abigail Williams is seen as a villain in more than one adaptation of the Salem Witch Trails although there is no hard evidence for this).

What I did have a problem with was Witten’s rewriting of other parts, For example, Abigail Williams did move in with the Parris family, but the Reverend’s wife had died and Betty had an older brother and younger sister. In the book, Betty is an only child and Ann Putnam, the Reverend’s wife serves as a foil to Abigail’s romantic aspirations with her uncle. Also in the book, only three women, and one man hang, while the rest are set free by an unknown saviour. In real life 19 women were hanged and one man was pressed to death. Witten also changes the futures of her characters with Abigail becoming a prostitute, and Tituba escaping to Quebec. In reality, Abigail disappears from the historic record, and Tituba confessed to being a witch and repented and was later released from prison after someone paid her bail.

Changing these details is not a huge deal, but Witten needs to be clearer about what she is doing. I still enjoyed the book, and liked Witten’s premise surrounding Jimson weed as an explanation. The book was also surprisingly sexual at some unexpected times but overall it was a good read.

Amy Poehler – Yes Please (2014)

YesPleaseFirst, I love Amy Poehler, I cannot stress that fact enough. I love her so much, and I wanted to love this book so much but I just couldn’t. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good book; funny and well-written, but it was just missing that certain something that makes a book like this amazing. Her stories and anecdotes fell flat for me, and there were times where I knew she was trying to be funny, but I just didn’t find it funny.

She spends a majority of her book complaining about how hard it is to write a book, or mentioning her divorce. Still, there are some shining moments and the stories she tells about being in drugs (Amy Poehler smoked a lot of weed), about Parks and Rec, and about her children were simply wonderful.

I was talking to some friends about my mixed feelings towards this book, and they all mentioned hearing that the audio book got rave reviews. I was intrigued, and even though I know Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are both immensely talented in everything they do; in my head Tina strikes me as more of a writer and Amy a performer. So I bought my first ever audio book with an itunes gift card from three Christmases ago.

The audiobook does make the story come alive. You get Amy, as well as a host of guest stars reading her book and getting off track with other conversations. I would highly recommend the audiobook for Amy I would highly recommend the audiobook for Yes Please, but also be warned that you do miss out on the pictures/doodles/art that are included within the pages of the physical book.

David Sax – The Tastemakers (2014)

TastemakersI have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with food writing. I love to eat, and I love to read so for me, books like this are really the best of both worlds. I loved this book, not just because it was informative, well written, and so interesting to read, but because David Sax is from Toronto (Shout out to Amaya for trying to rise above the notion that Indian Food is only good for cheap-take out). It’s always fun to read about places that you actually recognize, especially in a book about food trends where a majority of the focus might be on places like New York and LA.

Sax takes the reader on a journey through the life of food trends, how they are born, why some catch on more than others, the factors involved with making a food trend, the money, the politics, and eventually the death of trends. He interviews people who predict trends, food writes, chefs, and heads of corporations like Whole Foods to gain a better understanding of how food trends work.

He starts by introducing us to cupcakes, and the rise of “cupcakeries,” which everyone will be familiar with. Taking off after 9/11 he mentions that the cupcake boom was due to the American search for comfort and safety after the attacks on New York, and what could possibly be safer than a cupcake? Cupcakes also became tied to a certain type of lifestyle after “Magnolia” appeared in an episode of Sex and the City. He talks to a cultivator of exotic Black Rice and a family growing Red Prince Apples in Ontario discussing the risks involved with trying to start an agricultural trend, (an entire species can be wiped out due to mother nature). He also profiles the popularity of chia seeds and how health fads come and go.

When looking at how food trends break out, Sax takes us to the Fancy Food show, a trade show that I would love to attend, and sits in on focus group meetings for marketing and naming new products. (Canola oil was originally called Rapeseed oil before everyone realized that it would never sell with a name like that). He then looks at the importance of food trends such as how food trends have the power to open people’s minds to different cultures, affect legislative change, and of course money, using the popularity of Bacon as an example for how that food trend has entirely reshaped the market for pork bellies.

All through Sax’s writing it becomes clear that food trends are a relatively new phenomenon simply due to the media. We have an entire network devoted to food where chefs compete in T.V shows to be the most creative, and shows like Eat St. and Diners Drive-Ins and Dives help propel food trends. Would cupcakes have become a major trend if it wasn’t so easy to take an instagram photo of a perfectly iced cupcake and upload it for the world? Maybe, but we won’t know for sure.

Sax points out that while there are down-sides to food trends, such as the constant one-upmanship and desire to be as outrageous as possible, (You need only visit the CNE to understand, in fact Sax uses the Cronut burger fiasco of 2013 to illustrate just how fragile food trends can be) food trends are also an expression of the creativity and democracy associated with North America. He writes that the Cronut never would have taken off in Paris, nor would the Ramen Burger have become popular in Japan. It is in North America that we allow food trends to grow and thrive be it for better, or for worse.

Rating 5/5

Susan Jane Gilman – The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street (2014)

IceCreamQueenEvery once and a while a book comes along that catches you off guard with how good it is. This book was like that for me. Unfortunatley, as many others have already stated, the book suffers from “chick-lit cover syndrome,” that is many are unlikely to pick it us since it features a pair of yellow high heels and an ice cream cone.

The book focuses on Lillian Dunkle from her youth as a Jewish immigrant living in a New York tenement up to her life as a successful ice cream magnate. Lillian is run over by a horse as a girl and taken in by an Italian family where she learns to make ice cream. Through will and determination Lillian makes a name for herself and shows herself to be a shrewd, and sometimes merciless businesswoman. This is a classic rags-to-riches story but it focuses on a woman, and the world that she had to survive in to reach the top.

I loved the character of Lillian. Even though she is a crippled at a young age, she’s not a sympathetic character. Nor is she incredibly likeable. She is not described as pretty or kind in any way, and contains none of the traits found in your typical female protagonist. Instead she is clever and smart, knowing her weaknesses which she plays to her advantage. There is something inherent in Lillian however, that you can’t help admire, even if you don’t particularly like her. I especially loved that fact that she married Bert, a good looking, kind hearted man who many see as “way out of her league,” without having to justify it. I was worried that the author was going to do something like make Bert gay, and have Lillian act as his beard, but he genuinely loved his wife and found in her the characteristics that we as readers also fell in love with.

This story is the history of so-many things. It’s the history of the immigrant experience in America, it is the history of the New York’s Lower East Side, it is a history of America itself starting driving through both World Wars, the Depression, Communist witch-hunts, the nuclear families of the fifties, the psychedelic sixties and seventies, and all the trends that accompanied it. It is also a history of ice cream providing interesting pieces of information peppered throughout. I absolutely loved this book, but be warned, reading will make you want to eat ice cream.

Rating 4.5/5