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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Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote

Tomboy Survival GuideTomboy Survival Guide by Ivan E. Coyote
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Coyote grew up in Yukon Territory through the 1970s and 1980s, in a small, unnamed town. Their survival guide is full of intriguing diagrams wherein the parts are labelled but the machines are not, and it occurred to me perhaps these mysterious items are allegories for Coyote and other transgender individuals, for how this book describes their lives. To anyone who already knows what these machines are, everything in the diagrams is obvious. What it is. What it does. But because the machines aren’t always named, you can study the picture and learn all the names for the components and still not know what the item itself is supposed to do. You can learn everything there is to know about someone, about a transgender individual; read all the little labels telling you all the little details, and still not understand what their lives are like because you haven’t walked around in their skin and lived it, and how well can we ever really know another person?

But maybe I’m reading too much in to it. Maybe a diagram is just a diagram. Maybe they’re just there because this is a book for tomboys, and equipment is a manly man thing.

Tomboy Survival Guide balances tales of growing up in a rural Northern community with a more cosmopolitan adulthood, and splits both of those with the hardship of being transgender. There are original song lyrics (with chords; I didn’t try playing anything), poems, copies of letters they receive from people all over the continent asking how they can bring themselves to write about these personal, painful memories and how do the writers relate to their transgender relative and how do the writers survive their very un-trans-friendly high school? Coyote writes back. Eventually. Sometimes it takes a few months to come up with the right words to say. They are as helpful and hopeful as possible, but frequently the letters are sad. And Coyote’s own stories are often painful. There’s discrimination, hatred, ignorance, the endless bathroom debate (can we just have gender neutral bathrooms already? Like we do in houses? Or for families? Or for disabled people?), rampant sexism, threats, and sexual assault. There are many happy stories too. I actually wanted more memories and fewer poems and songs. The personal anecdotes are engaging, hilarious, and eye opening. Whereas I found the poems and other tidbits didn’t resonate with anywhere near the same intensity. I even liked the equipment diagrams better. But the songs did serve to break up reminiscences from disparate time periods and add some levity between bleaker stories, so I can see why they may have been included. And hey, if you want more of Coyote’s stories, they’ve got more books.

*edited to reflect Coyote’s use of they/their pronouns, with thanks to the individual who corrected me.

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King Kwong: Larry Kwong, the China Clipper Who Broke the NHL Colour Barrier by Paula Johanson

King Kwong: Larry Kwong, the China Clipper who Broke the NHL colour BarrierKing Kwong: Larry Kwong, the China Clipper who Broke the NHL colour Barrier by Paula Johanson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I received this free ebook in exchange for a review.

One minute. That’s how long Larry Kwong was physically on the ice in that earth shattering hockey game all those years ago. Sixty seconds of the third period. Kwong and another teammate, Ronnie Rowe, were called up from the New York Ranger’s farm team – the New York Rovers – to substitute for a couple of regular players who were out with injuries. Rowe played nearly the entire game. By all accounts, Kwong was the better player. He played on many teams throughout his life and consistently led in points scored per game. Such was his sportsmanship that he rarely got a penalty. Kwong spent over a decade in Europe, helping develop the Swiss Hockey League. He taught sports at a Catholic girls’ school in Lausanne, ran a restaurant in Quebec and a grocery chain in Alberta, survived two triple-bypasses and losing both legs to diabetes. Kwong was married twice and outlived both wives. In spite of constant discrimination he forged a career playing hockey professionally. One of the first things he did with the money was to build his mother the house he had always promised her. That’s not even the whole biography! Just some highlights. I can’t believe I had never heard of Larry Kwong before.

As a whole, this biography is pretty straightforward. A few spots where the timeline seemed muddled or jumped too quickly forwards; Kwong goes from being a 66 year old tennis and hockey player to an 80 year old losing his legs to diabetes with hardly a blink. There are a couple of places where the editing leaves something to be desired. Missing letters, erratic punctuation, changing tenses, the lost end of a sentence, that sort of thing. Johanson sets down a good baseline of the political climate in Canada during Kwong’s lifetime. There were some horribly racist laws well into his adulthood that dramatically influenced his hockey career. And many other areas of his life. Again, most people are familiar with some of the laws (the head tax, for one), but there were many more. While this is a wonderful book and an uplifting story, the constant discrimination makes some parts hard to read. I have no idea how Kwong was able to constantly be the bigger person in the face of these attitudes. According to the friends and team mates interviewed throughout this book, he “handled each and every situation with class and dignity.” (61) It takes a special kind of person to be able to do that. Kwong is that kind of person.

“Superstar is not enough to describe Kwong.” – Baz Shaw, The Longest Shot. Truer words may have never been spoken.

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Prime Ministers of Canada: Pierre Elliot Trudeau by Paula Johanson

Prime Ministers of Canada: Pierre Elliott TrudeauPrime Ministers of Canada: Pierre Elliott Trudeau by Paula Johanson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I received this ebook for free in exchange for a review.
A little background for my non-Canadian readers: Canada’s government is headed by an elected Prime Minister who can be from one of several political parties. Canada has elections every four years, but doesn’t have term limits, so a politician can run as often as they wish and serve for as long as they are elected. Trudeau was elected to office several times; in 1968 when he served multiple consecutive terms until 1979, and again in 1980 when he served until his retirement in 1984. In 79 the Liberals lost a vote of confidence and Trudeau took a brief retirement after deciding not to be the leader of the Official Opposition. Apparently he couldn’t stay away though, because when the Conservative party lost power in the early 1980s he stepped back in as leader of the Liberal party and was re-elected as Prime Minister…almost immediately, it sounds like. (I picture him strutting onto the Parliamentary floor on his first day back to the tune of Flo Rida’s “My House”. Despite that song not existing for several more decades.) He was involved in the Constitutional amendments in the 80s, and fought hard to have all the provinces sign and ratify it. There’s a lot I didn’t know about Trudeau that Johanson’s biography taught me. For instance, he expanded and revamped Canada’s national park system with several new parks and a focus on preservation rather than recreation or cautious resource development. He canoed, hiked, skied, and hitchhiked constantly. Much to the chagrin of his security detail, who often had to follow him on his river excursions. As Johanson said, it took a special kind of patience to be on Trudeau’s security detail. You could wind up underwater.

One of the things I did know about Trudeau was how charismatic he was. Extremely. Evidently it was something everyone he ever met commented on. Johanson drills this heavily into every chapter. It winds up being just this side of excessive. However, I never met him. Perhaps I would only nod in agreement if I had.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick, easy read that still covers the salient details of the life of Canada’s 15th Prime Minister, Joseph Philippe Pierre Yves Elliot Trudeau. To use his full name. I’ve a quibble here and there over some editing issues; missing words and the like. Spots where the timeline seemed muddled. Upon reading a chapter sub-heading of “Losing Maple One” (Trudeau’s code name) I assumed it was talking about Trudeau’s death. To my surprise it was another of his infamous canoe trips; his agents’ vehicles became mired in mud after seeing he and his friends off. They arrived at the rendezvous late, Trudeau nowhere to be seen. Pouring rain. Imagine their relief when the phone rings (vehicle phone, pre-cell days) and it is Trudeau! Security had gone to the wrong bridge. Trudeau, two of his sons, and a few friends had taken refuge in a cottage and called from there. It was the kind of comical story you see in slapstick routine. Not what you’d expect from a country’s leader. But hey, we’re all human. Even the charismatic, magnetic, multi-term, multi-year, many-named leader of a friendly first world nation.

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The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong

The Spiral StaircaseThe Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Upon starting this book I flipped through the preface and the list of books Armstrong had already published. For some reason I assumed that list would only be a book or two long. It wasn’t. She’s published 14 books, not counting this one. Three autobiographies, and all the rest revolve around religion: religious history, religious figures, religious thought. Although since Armstrong was educated in a convent and joined one herself when she turned seventeen, it’s fair to say that her memoir revolves around religion as well.

Armstrong starts us off in the preface with background information on the British society of her childhood, and catches up new readers with the pertinent details from Through the Narrow Gate. Her discussion of the shifting mores of 1960s Britain, and 1960s Catholicism, is insightful and perceptive. She finds similarities between hippies and nuns, people whom you wouldn’t think could be more different. And she has compassion for everyone. That’s the most impressive part, considering what convent life put her through.

That part of the book is horrific. There are frequent times where the nuns’ disciplinary tactics verge on psychological abuse. Medical neglect and gaslighting were rampant. Issues that we recognize today as health problems (epilepsy, anyone?) were seen as moral failings, willfulness, or being “too sensitive”. Armstrong left the convent on the cusp of a major revamping of the nuns’ training programs, and I can only hope that these literally evil behaviors were completely eradicated. They were supposed to subdue the self and destroy the ego that separated woman and god, but based on the behaviors of the superiors all it did was turn them into spiteful, angry monsters. And yet, Armstrong doesn’t blame them. She empathizes with them all. It’s clear that her years of studying the world’s religions has paid off handsomely in the form of a considerable ability to put herself in another’s shoes. Hashing out her anger in some of her earlier books probably helped too, but it seems to me that her healing has gone far beyond burning out a store of anger. Her stories detail a search for transcendence and transformation, and by the end of The Spiral Staircase we can see how much Armstrong herself has been transformed. After leaving the convent, she defaults to a secular lifestyle but still feels out of place and empty. Her history means she eschews traditional religious practice, but she still finds herself longing for something more in her life and being fascinated by theology of all kinds. This draws her through a strange path from student of English literature, to high school teacher, guest speaker, tv series host, to author. Each change was unexpected and painful, and yet still turned out for the best. Thanks in no small part to Armstrong’s refusal to give up, and, eventually, a peaceful acceptance of the numerous things she couldn’t control. While readers of a more traditional religious bent may find portions of this book offensive, overall it offers humble, honest guide through the doctrinal quagmire many find themselves in. I don’t think I’ll be able to read Through the Narrow Gate, if the passages from Armstrong’s convent years are anything to go on, but I’m very interested in her other books on theology and important religious figures. Buddah, Muhammed, Saint Paul, the intersection of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and a book about the Crusades. Armstrong wrote a biography of Muhammed not long after Salman Rushdie published his Satanic Verses. Not to expose an important prophet as a mere mortal, but to try to build bridges between Western society and the Islamic religion. She hoped that if people understood more about what Islam sprung from, the fighting springing up throughout the world would be replaced with empathy and compassion. At a time when many people were lashing out in fear she held out a hand in peace. Our world needs more people like Karen Armstrong.

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