Monthly Archives: January 2016

Lev Grossman – The Magicians (2009)

TheMagiciansI originally had this book described to me as “Harry Potter meets The Catcher in the Rye.” As a fan of both those things I was intrigued. While Grossman does draw inspiration from Harry Potter, making casual references to the series and subtly mocking it, this book was much more of a dystopian version of the Narnia series.

The book starts off at Brakebills, a special school for young magicians (much like Hogwarts, leading to the comparisons to Harry Potter), but moves much farther past that. The characters in the book are older than Harry and his friends, and as such are much more prone to vice. They drink, do drugs, have sex, and use magic for their own personal gain. While magic is the driving force behind this book, the characters still live in the real world which is much less fantastical than other fantasy series. Magic is something that is hard, and it does not necessarily solve all the problems.

Even when the group of friends travel to Fillory, the magical Narnia-esq realm, magic is still a very dangerous thing. This novel is a very weird, twisted, cynical, and bitter look at the fantasy books that we all read growing up. In Grossman’s world, magic is not some wondrous problem solving thing. With or without magic, people are still people and will make mistakes and be corrupted. Using magic, even for good, changes a person and has the ability to break them.

The only problem I had with this book is that on a number of occasions very strange and random things happen, (like the group is all turned into geese in order to fly to the South Pole), or Grossman will be building up to a major event, which will quickly be resolved by magic but in a very uneventful way. I think Grossman was doing these things on purpose, but they bothered me nonetheless. There are still two more books left in the trilogy and I’m excited to see where those take us.

Frances Hill – A Delusion of Satan (1995)

89522I love reading about the Salem witch trials. Obviously anything to do with witchcraft will seem intriguing and is easily sensationalized, but the trials, because the were so confined to a specific time and place make them so interesting to study. Why Salem? Why 1692? These are questions that have bothered American historians. While many are apt to pass over the witch trials or view them as simply an anomaly in American history, there are a number of scholars who have attempted to give this event a significant amount of attention.

Frances Hill’s book is one of the better accounts that I’ve read. For those unfamiliar with the trials, the historical record is shaky at best, and absolutely impossible to get through at its worst. There are so many families involved, many sharing names and way too many people to keep track of. Factor in the debts owed and the grudges held and wading through the history of the Salem witch trials becomes a giant mess. Hill does a good job however, writing clearly and focusing on the prominent community members so the reader does not get lost.

What was especially interesting was Hill’s ideas about what started the whole paranoia about witches. As most know, the panic started when a number of teenage girls appeared hysterical and claimed to be possessed by other women in the community. Hill blames this on the nature of their existence. Growing up in the Puritan faith would have caused young people a great deal of stress and anxiety. While boys had a physical outlet for these feelings (it was permissible for boys to play outside, fight, etc), girls had no such way of dealing with these emotions. Hill believes the mass hysteria that gripped teenage girls in the community was a result of this. They blamed women who were outcasts in society to begin with and as Hill points out, this episode became one of the first episodes of women-on-women bullying.

It is definitely a feminist perspective on the whole episode in Salem, but seeing as the trials involved a majority of women (only one man was convicted of witchcraft), viewing it through a feminist lense is not off base. Hill does a great job in dealing with this very interesting, but aso muddled subject.

Harper Lee – Go Set A Watchman (2015)

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanThis book has been out for a while now, and the initial uproar that surrounded its publishing has died down. I’ll admit, like most fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, I was skeptical when this sequel was announced and suspicious of the circumstances surrounding it. After reading it, I stand alongside those who believe that it should have never been published in the first place.

It’s not even that the characters seem completely different from their TKAM selves, or that Atticus is now a racist (there have been a number of interesting think pieces written on this, about how Atticus had always been a racist but in Mockingbird, it was a kinder, gentler racism). The whole novel was just kind of confusing. As a continuation/sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, this book is bad, but as a stand alone novel it’s even worse.

It shouldn’t be surprising that this reads like an unfinished manuscript, because that is exactly what it is, and the publisher was very forthcoming about this. Lee switches perspectives multiple times which makes this very confusing. The bright points in this book are definitely the flashbacks and so it’s easy to see why, in 1960 Lee’s publisher told her to write that story instead.

I look at it this way, even though Go Set a Watchman is a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, it was written first. This was the first iteration of Scout and Atticus that Harper Lee envisioned; this was her draft. To Kill a Mockingbird is the final product, and that is the Atticus that we should remember and cherish.

Anthony Bourdain – A Cook’s Tour (2001)

A_Cooks_Tour_bookA Cook’s Tour is Bourdain’s second book, a follow up to his successful Kitchen Confidential, and counterpart to his television show by the same name. In this piece of writing Bourdain tries to maintain his disdain for celebrity chefs and those who he believes to have “sold out,” (he harbours a very specific hatred for Jamie Oliver, which despite liking Jamie Oliver, I totally understand). This holier-than-thou attitude comes off as being a bit disingenuous however, since Bourdain at the time of this book, was a growing celebrity.

Bourdain makes up for this though by establishing a “rogue chef” persona that he has come to be known by today. Bourdain travels everywhere writing extensively about the different cities he’s been to and the local cuisine’s he’s tried. He writes at length about his love for Vietnam and Cambodia and mentions his admiration for both the people and the food. Bourdain has also just reinforced my desire to travel to Spain and Portugal simply to eat. This book is part food writing and part adventure writing. If it doesn’t give you Wanderlust, I’m not sure what will.

Susanna Kearsley – The Firebird (2013)

FirebirdIt wasn’t until after I finished this book that I realized it is part of a series, and is meant to be read after The Winter Sea. (I have both, but grabbed this one first). I friend of mine however assured me that it didn’t really matter as there is no real plot continuity between the two books.

This book follows Nicola, a young woman with a an extraordinary gift that allows here to see glimpses of the past when holding an object. Working with fine art and antiques, this gift comes in handy. Nicola becomes drawn to an object however, a firebird from Russia, which takes her on a whirlwind tour through the Jacobite Revolt to the Imperial Russian Court in search of the young woman she saw when holding the bird, Anna. The story shifts between present day Nicola, and her traveling companion and similarly gifted romantic interest, Rob, and the 1700s where Anna is living.
I found that this was a good work of historical fiction, dealing with a time period that doesn’t get much attention in novels (The Jacobite Risings), but the writing and story didn’t really do anything for me. I know a lot of people, who this kind of story appeals to will disagree with me, but personally I didn’t love this as much as I thought I would. I still enjoyed Kearsley’s work and am still planning on reading The Winter Sea, even though I am not dying to do so.

Lawrence Wright – Going Clear (2013)

going_clearAfter reading all the hype about the recently released documentary, I decided I wanted to the read the book first. Scientology has been a joke in popular culture for a while now, but the treatment it gets in many shows and cartoons, detracts from some of the seriously troubling aspects of this organized religion.

Wright’s book looks at the history of Scientology from its roots to the present day, focusing in on famous figures like R.L Hubbard and his family. Hollywood director, Paul Haggis, a former Scientologist, serves as a key player in this story. It was in fact Haggis’ experience with Scientology that prompted Wright to write this book. It was interesting, informative and shed light on some of the darker sides of Scientology without being too disparaging.

One of the most interesting things was reading the history of R.L Hubbard, and how the idea of Scientology developed alongside other occult-type groups in the early 40s and 50s. It was unsurprising that Hubbard was a science fiction writer given the fact that Scientology sometimes seems like science fiction itself. Wright also takes a look at some of the rumours surrounding the darker sides of Scientology as well as the reasons why celebrities seem so drawn to it.

I have read a number of articles and books written by Wright and know that he is a pretty respectable journalist. He does an amazing job in this book of looking at Scientology in an honest and open way. In the end, Scientology is still technically a system of belief and there are practitioners out there who follow it, and not all of them are bad people. In a way, Wright points out that Scientology is not all that different from other organized religions that all have dark moments in their history (think of the Catholic Church in recent years, or ever really).

While there are still a lot of problems with the top levels of the Church of Scientology (seriously, look up SeaOrg and GoldBase on wikipedia), it does not mean that everyone who decides to follow the religion is automatically a terrible person. This was a balanced and fair read, and I’m interested to see if this translates to the Documentary

Best of 2015

Hi everyone,
After a long, (very long) hiatus due to technical difficulties I’m back with my list of the best books I read this year. I was trying to pick five, but just couldn’t narrow it down so there are 6 books on here. While I was trying to read 100 books in 2015 I only made it to 99 (so frustrating, but oh well), and so here I present to you my 6 favourite books that I read this year.

Jennifer Egan – A Visit From the Goon Squad
This was a great book because while it is a collection of short stories that can all be read individually, they are all still connected. Through her writing, Egan follows the lives of characters involved in the New York music scene from the 1960s to the present day. While exploring the obvious themes of “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll,” Egan also asks the question of what does it mean to be happy? It is a question that is so fundamental to human existence and Egan’s book has the ability to speak to any audience.

David Sax – The Tastemakers
I’ve always been a huge fan of food writing and David Sax’s The Tastemakers did not disappoint. Exploring the world of master chefs and artisans bakeries Sax looks at how a food becomes a “trend” and traces the life cycle of food trends from their inception to their popularity and eventually their demise (RIP Fondue of the 70s). He draws really interesting connections (like connecting the rise of cupcakes 9/11) and writes in an interesting and accessible way. If you love food, I highly recommend this.

Rebecca Solnit – Men Explain Things To Me
As much as I enjoyed Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist and Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of GirlMen Explain Things To Me, just spoke more to me, especially the titular essay. There is no denying that Rebecca Solnit is brilliant, and in her essays she exposes the ways that sexism can manifest itself in subtle ways. This essay gave rise to the term “mansplaining” which has become a part of our vocabulary. This year was a good year for women, but things like the attacks on planned parenthood or all the reports of workplace discrimination remind us how far we have to go. This collection of essays is important and well worth it.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – Americanah 
As another notable feminist, Adiche gained notoriety this year for her TedTalk and subsequent publication Why We Should All Be Feminist. I chose to read this novel because I was unfamiliar with her work and am always a fan of a “fish out of water” story. Americanah follows Ifemelu and Obinze when they are young and in love in Nigeria and follows their respective immigrant experiences. This books was so much more than just an immigrant story, it was a story about love, between two people, between people and their country, and between the people we were and the people we’ve become. Adiche explores important questions about what it means to belong and the ideas we have surrounding identity. This novel made me laugh and cry, it broke my heart and caused me to reexamine my own life. It is powerful and thought provoking and wholly, totally, amazing.

Lev Grossman – The Magicians (Review Forthcoming)
This is kind of cheating because this is a trilogy as opposed to a single book, but I loved the whole thing. It’s fantasy without being fantastic; wondrous without being wonderful. Its a critique on established fantasy (Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings) while also establishing itself as its own fantasy series, worthy of its own upcoming Showcase series. Essentially Grossman wants the reader to realize that not all problems can simply be solved my magic, and sometimes magic creates more problems than it solves. Imagine Harry Potter as an incredibly angsty and bored teenager (a la Holden Caulfield, not book 5 Harry) who gets sucked into a twisted dark version of Narnia and you have The Magicians. 

Aziz Ansari – Modern Romance (Review Forthcoming)
I LOVE Aziz Ansari, and my respect and admiration for him only grew after reading this book. To be completely honest I bought this book knowing nothing about it thinking it was just going to be another bio along the same lines as Bossypants or Yes Please. NOPE! Ansari teamed up with a social psychologist to write a non fiction, but still hilarious book about dating in the modern age. He explores how technology (Tinder, OkC, etc) has affected the way we meet people and fall in love and compares the dating cultures in different cultures. It was funny, smart, so interested, and actually relatable. There’s a lot of overlap between this book and Ansari’s netflix specials (Live at Madison Square Garden as well as Master of None), but it’s not too much so that it gets boring over overdone. Ansari is smart and he’s using his platform as a stand up comedian to talk about issues that he feels are important. The book is great and I can’t recommend it enough.