The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North AmericaThe Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book should never have been written. There should never have been this story of griefs to record. There should never have been these atrocities against peoples whose only “crime” was being different from the Europeans who moved into their homes. Having happened, it should never have been swept under the proverbial rug by historians, politicians, journalists, activists, and law makers so we as Canadians could sing the praises of our tolerance internationally. It should never have been left out of our social studies classes, glossed over and summarized by one or two broken treaties as though the kindnesses of the white rulers far surpassed any minor betrayals. But here we are. King has written the most emotionally challenging, grief inducing book I have read this year. Also the most important. Ten chapters of complete ignorance of our own past, of horrific racism and destructive social policies and every promise broken almost immediately. Somehow King manages to stave off bitterness and rage over the endless injustices. I’m going to avoid closing my review with nebulous hopes for a better future. After this book, that seems naive and disingenuous. It’s not enough just to hope the future will be better. We (whites) have a lot of work ahead of us to make this right. Let’s hope we are finally ready to learn from our mistakes.

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Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris

Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk RoadLands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road by Kate Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was phenomenal. Filled with imagery that transports you across continents and historical knowledge that flings you through time, Harris’ delightful – if saddle sore – journey through Asia’s ancient Silk Road will make you swear to take your own trip. And swear off it on the next page. Freezing weather, rain, snow, terrifying traffic, washboard roads (when there were roads at all), an eternity of living on instant noodles, instant coffee, and instant oatmeal. Harris manages to communicate her deep joy and gratitude for this experience, for every bleak vista she cycles by, while not holding back her about exhaustion, aching muscles, illnesses, and fear of detention travelling through countries with restrictive and byzantine tourism policies. In every line her brilliant writing and lyrical imagery shines through, carrying you along with her on the back of her bicycle. I feel truly privileged to have gotten a chance to read this book pre-release, having won it in a draw, and I highly recommend it to any fans of travel writing looking for new lands to explore. Coming to a bookstore near you in January 2018.

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The Perilous Adventure of Lewis Sweet by OJ Laylander

The Perilous Adventure of Lewis SweetThe Perilous Adventure of Lewis Sweet by O. J. Laylander
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At a mere 50 pages, The Perilous Adventure of Lewis Sweet is the shortest book I’ve read this year. It’s purported to be a partial biography of Mr Sweet; caught in a January blizzard while fishing on Lake Michigan and stranded overnight on an ice flow before walking several miles back to civilization. His bravery under these dire conditions so impressed Laylander that when Sweet asked Laylander “put his story into more or less readable form,” Laylander agreed forthwith, sending a batch of published brochures to Sweet so that he could procure himself some little income, to offset the loss of his livelihood, his injuries being such that he can no longer work. The book ends with Sweet at home with his wife and children, grateful to be alive. If you’re truly interested in reading this you may wish to comb antique stores. I’m pretty sure it’s been out of print since the 1930s.

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Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

Labyrinths:  Selected Stories and Other WritingsLabyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Were it not for the parables, I would have wound up hating this book. The section of short stories is followed by a relatively small group of non-fiction essays, through which I had to force myself with my pace slowing more each pasing day. A combination of quantum physics and philosophical discussions, they very nearly killed my enjoyment of Labyrinths. Only the final segment of short, questioning parables saved me from throwing the book down in frustration. What would have become of it had the publisher chosen to end with the essays I dare not speculate.
I can summarize the style and feeling of this book for you in one sentence: “At the end of the thirteenth century, Raymond Lully (Raimundo Lulio) was prepared to solve all arcana by means of an apparatus of concentric, revolving discs of different sizes, subdivided into sectors with Latin words; John Stuart Mill, at the beginning of the nineteenth, feared that some day the number of musical combinations would be exhausted and there would be no place in the future for indefinite Webers and Mozarts; Kurd Lasswitz, at the end of the nineteenth, toyed with the staggering fantasy of a universal library which would register all the variations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols, in other words, all that it is given to express in all languages.” (p213) While this behemoth opens the essay A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw it could just as easily be the beginning of one of the fictions. If this language and the ideas Borges expresses intrigues you then I wholeheartedly recommend this book. (Here, take my copy. I’m done with it.) If discussions of physics and philosophy make you drool like Pavlov’s dog, and complicated mish-mashes wedding reality with fiction have your rapt attention then Borges has written the book for you. If not? Well, read some of the Fictions, some of the Parables, and maybe try an essay. I’d recommend The House of Asterion, The Library of Babel, The Lottery of Babylon, The Zahir, and The God’s Script, for your fictions, Ragnarok and The Witness especially for your Parables, and Kafka and His Precursors as a not-too-long essay to tackle. Brush up on Zeno’s paradox first though. At least that essay by the time you’ve flipped the first page you can see the ending. Others not so much. A New Refutation of Time is not for the faint of heart. Or faint of physics. Borges wows with his turn of phrase and one-of-a-kind plots, and I think if I had let myself skip the essays when I found myself avoiding picking Labyrinths up, it’s possible it would now be one of my favourite books. Don’t make the mistakes I did. Life is short. If you hate the story, skip to the next one.

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What the Mouth Wants by Monica Meneghetti

What the Mouth WantsWhat the Mouth Wants by Monica Meneghetti
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A luscious, succulent memoir filled with sex and food that will have you craving fresh pasta, grieving lost loves, and probably wishing you were Italian. Meneghetti shares her memories, her family history, and some of her favourite recipes in this complex and layered piece. The layout reminded me of Like Water for Chocolate; most chapters were molded around a specific recipe or ingredient. Both books have abusive parents. In Like Water for Chocolate it is the matriarch, but in What the Mouth Wants the father is the toxic one. Meneghetti struggles against his restrictions. His hostility and judgement whenever she bypasses conventional social norms. She also touches on learning to accept her identity as a queer woman. Growing up in a small town in the era before gay marriage was legalized adds another layer of difficulty to the process of self-discovery we all do as we age, and Meneghetti traces her revelations bravely here. Her writing drifts gently between straightforward recounting and more poetic, almost dream-like sequences. She muses on the nature of memory and recollection the same way she muses on the qualities of the perfect risotto. It’s all very delicate. Almost baroque. If you’re in the mood for something rich and complex, this could be the book for you.

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Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest DisasterInto Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bad luck is a feature of existence. Not that luck is necessarily a real thing, but the random nature of being is such that every once in a while the wheel lines up and crushes you. I’ve heard it helps to look on the bright side. Should you be feeling down and in need of some positivity, you may wish to remind yourself, “this may look bad, but at least I am not on Everest in a hurricane.” Like Jon Krakauer. In the spring of ’96 he and numerous other mountaineers, after paying mostly exorbitant fees to various guiding groups, began a month-long trek to reach the summit of the tallest mountain in the world. Some of them even achieved it. But it’s a mountaineering truism that “getting to the summit is the easy part; it’s getting back down that’s hard.” (290) Krakauer’s expedition alone lost five people, and though you wouldn’t think enough people would want to climb Everest that there would be multiple concurrent expeditions, there were and many of those expeditions lost several people. Bad luck, bad decisions, and worse weather combined in a perfect storm of tragedy. While Krakauer honestly describes the circumstances and individual choices that likely contributed to the egregious death toll, his own actions included, he is also sure to include praise where praise is due. People were heroes. In some cases it was enough. Other cases it wasn’t. His vivid descriptions, honest portrayal, and ability to refrain from condemnation won my admiration and made this book one of my favourites for the year. I highly recommend it. Unless someone you love is a mountaineer. In that case I would bypass this book entirely.

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Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an incredible piece of writing this book is. Noah has filled Born a Crime with stories which are almost surreal (to a white first-worlder). As if that wasn’t enough, he lards his writing with insightful observations on racism, poverty, classism, sexism, and human nature. As if it wasn’t enough of a miracle that he exists, he rises above the circumstances of his poverty-stricken childhood to become an intelligent, well-known, and (hopefully) wealthy television personality. He stomped that cycle into the ground.

Noah gives credit where credit is due, however. He didn’t achieve all this by his own will. His mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is a powerhouse of a woman who refuses to let anything stop her from achieving what she wants. She molds Trevor into a decent human being out of willpower and…well, beatings. Noah explains and excuses it, and has a wonderful relationship with his mother, but child abuse is a thing in this story. As is spousal abuse, gun violence, sexism, and the consistent abuse of power by the police. Apartheid is so much more horrifying than I could have guessed, and it left a legacy that influenced every person in the country. Noah keeps the book upbeat even while relating stories of being arrested, hustling pirated CDs, and navigating the discriminatory culture he was being raised in. Until the end of the book. The third segment gets progressively darker, chronicling his time in jail and his stepfather’s abuse of Noah’s mother, until it will be a wonder if you are not in tears. There’s a happy ending, but trust me when I say you’ve got to walk across some hot coals to get to it. In my humble opinion, it was worth it. I’m glad I read this book.

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Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

Sh*t My Dad SaysSh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Definitely not a book I would have expected my devout, church-going mother to hand me. But that’s what happened, and now you’ve got a book review to read. Life is full of surprises.
As you might expect from the title this book is chock full of cursing. At least on any page where the elder Mr. Halpern speaks. Which is most pages. If pressed I could go back and probably pick out the one or two f-bomb free sentences. Really the only thing about the cursing that phased me was knowing he was talking to his young children this way. But by chapter two, the surprisingly compassionate, no-nonsense life advice he imparts to those impressionable tots handily outshines the swearing. I was not expecting this to be a parenting primer. Now I want to give it as a shower gift to all my pregnant friends. This is a great read when you want something light and funny to brighten your day. It’s short, sweet, and simple.

You may wish to do some censoring if you read it aloud, though. Just a suggestion.

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The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

The Princess DiaristThe Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really wanted to like this book. I really did. Carrie Fisher, reminiscing about filming Star Wars and being Princess Leia in general? What’s not to love? Well, the writing, to start with. The sentences are so convoluted I had a very hard time following them. The bizarre sentence structure really didn’t mesh with the tone of the book. The Princess Diarist purported to be Fisher’s diary; kept while filming A New Hope. It actually contains very little diary. Most of what it does have is a lovesick teen’s bad poetry. Once I realized the whole book wasn’t the diary that was fine, but it was disconcerting to read page after page of writing set in the present day wondering when the past were going to show up. And then they did show up and I couldn’t wait for them to be gone! Those hoping to read insights about what it was like filming A New Hope are going to be disappointed. Fisher was a teenager in those days. She had no expectation of becoming famous and wasn’t writing for posterity. Just to get down her emotions and insecurities. Mainly insecurities. It was kind of depressing reading this. Fisher didn’t discuss a lot of personal growth. So it seems in this book that the issues she struggled with as a teenager were still there, into her forties. She had a complicated relationship with being famous. There’s quotes from conversations had with unnamed fans. Mostly showcasing the crushing stupidity Fisher had to deal with every time she did a “lap-dance.” Her phrase for an autograph signing. It’s hard to tell how she actually feels about these. She talks about loving her fans and appreciating them. But the tone disagrees. This incongruity continues throughout her memoir, making it hard to know what to believe. If you’re looking for hilarious reminiscences from Fisher’s Star Wars filming days, or tales of what she was doing while writing this book, you won’t find it here.

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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Larson’s exhaustive recounting of the planning, building and execution of the 1893 World’s Fair is a deeply problematic book. It opens with Larson talking about two unnamed men; praising their unmatched skills in their chosen activities. One, naturally, is Burnham, the architect who choreographed the great dance that was the creation of the World’s Fair. The other is serial killer H H Holmes. It takes a special kind of person to praise the abilities of a murderer. Things do not improve from there. Chapters are florid with details. When Larson is writing about the fair, it’s not a problem. However. Each alternating chapter covers Holmes’ cruel machinations in extensive detail. Excessively gruesome detail. I can’t put enough warnings in here about how graphic it is. Worse is the way Larson writes about it. He seems to revel in the violence. The plotting. As though he idolizes Holmes more than the people who built this remarkable Fair in the face of well-nigh insurmountable odds. And on top of all that – as if that wasn’t bad enough – the language Larson chooses tends to dehumanize and objectify Holmes’ victims. It’s not clear whether this is a misguided attempt to present Holmes’ state of mind, or Larson just isn’t aware of how his choice of language is representing the dead. The numerous dead. Holmes gets included in this story in the first place because Larson contends that he uses the Fair to lure people to their deaths, but had the Fair not taken place Holmes would have been killing anyways. The Fair and Holmes were both in Chicago at the same time, but that is all they share, and I was deeply troubled by Larson’s attempts to represent Holmes’ heartless activities as on par with the incredible achievements of the architects and engineers who created a truly unparalleled exhibition of beauty and technological advancement. The Devil in the White City would have been a much stronger work without those parts.

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