Category Archives: Reviews

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.

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!

Barbara Tuchman – Guns of August (1962)

51FgcC7xc8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Lauded as one of the most important works dealing with the First World War, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August takes an in depth look at at the earliest stages of WWI from the decisions made to the moment when the Franco-British offensive stopped the German advance.

Tuchman beings at the funeral of Edward VII of the UK which drew the presence of Kings from around the country including Kaiser Wilhelm the II of Germany. Through this, Tuchman introduces the key players and personalities in the lead up to the First World War before moving on to a discussion of military planning and finally the outbreak. The bulk of the book, (12 chapters) is a detailed account of specific military campaigns and battles.

I love reading military history, but found that Tuchman focused way more on strategies and military campaigns in her book than I was expecting. There’s nothing wrong with this at all, it’s just not really my cup of tea. I’m must more interested in big picture and the international events that occurred during the lead up to the war, which Tuchman does touch upon in her narrative. Overall however her book was just a bit too nitty gritty with military details for me. Fans of military history and strategy will love this, while other may find it hard not to get lost in the details.

 

Recommended Listening:
If you’re a fan of the intricacies of military history, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast (Specifically the Blueprint for Armageddon series) would be a good listen. Be warned these episodes are LONG! 

Recommended Reading:
For anyone needing a refresher on WWI this timeline provides key events and easy to digest content about the lead up to war.

I loved this news article from a couple of years back because it showed how the outbreak of war was announced in the papers. 

Alternate Reading:
Those interested in a more socio-political look at the outbreak of war might appreciate Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace

Kate Bolick – Spinster (2015)

Spinster“Spinster” is one of those terms that is not as commonly used as it once was. Having used to refer to a woman who remained unmarried whether a conscious decision or not, the term has fallen into disuse, or when used conjures up images of severe middle-aged “spinster librarian” types. (A stereotype that, as a librarian, I dislike). In her book, titled Spinster, Kate Bolick explores what it means to be single and seeks to reclaim the term.

In this book (an outgrowth of a 2011 Atlantic Article, “All the Single Ladies”) Bolick traces the lives of five great female writers (all of whom never married) and interlaces their lives with stories from her own personal journey. I’ve never read anything quite like this before, that blends memoir/autobiography with non-fiction. I was unsure at first, but as I kept reading I really began to like Bolick and drew my own inspiration from her.

Unlike Bolick’s article in the Atlantic, which was much more “fun” featuring one-night-stands and whirlwind romances, Spinster, is full of contemplative ponderings and the joys of solitude. I bought this book at a time when I too was trying to find joy in being alone after a tumultuous relationship and maybe that’s why it spoke to me so much. If anything it made me realize that I was going to be ok, and being alone, as much as I disliked it at the time did not make me a failure.

I feel like this book will split readers down the middle with some loving it and other hating it. It’s interesting and I fall on the side of those who loved it. Spinster is above all a product of Bolick’s long-term goal; a rejection of the traditional female role for something that she finds more fulfilling. Agree or disagree with Bolick, it is still an insightful and interesting read.

Recommended Reading: How to Be Alone from Thought Catalog. This is an older article but is still in my bookmarks, and I revisit it often.

Recommended Listening: A podacst episode on Self Care produced by Bitch Media for Valentine’s Day.