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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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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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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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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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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Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One DayMe Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

What could someone possibly have against rainbow flags? They’re colourful. Cheerful. A sign of openness and acceptance. But that’s not enough for David Sedaris. He lists them under his relationship deal breakers, along with eating anything labelled “lite,” owning cowboy boots, and using the word “freebie.” And yet somehow he spends the entire second part of the book at his boyfriend’s house in France! Mainly going to movie theaters, but still. His adventures introduce us to the cruelest French teacher ever, a rodeo where the clowns are recruited from the audience, and the dubious perks of being a diplomat’s child growing up in Africa. The first part of the book revolves around his childhood, family, and the odd jobs he held before he found fame and fortune as a writer. I won’t lie to you, I thought the first portion was very dull. The writing is pretty basic overall, and while some of the events or characters are comical there is little that stands out as exceptionally interesting. It’s possible I enjoyed the second chunk merely because I like France better than the States, and not out of any greater creative merit. There were two other chapters I especially appreciated: A Shiner Like A Diamond, about his sister Amy, and I’ll Eat What He’s Wearing, which reads like a chapter from Ruth Reichl’s phenomenal Tender at the Bone. Readers with delicate stomachs may need to skip that chapter. It’s not gruesome, just moldy. And since it turns out to be the last chapter, somewhat discombobulating. Typically a memoir like this has a closing section to wrap up the vignettes. Sedaris just drops us off of the final paragraph as if we’re ticks he’s pulled out. No, “thanks for joining me on my amble down memory lane.” None of this, “I’ve learned so much in my life and I’m grateful to get to share it with you” nonsense. From my reading, he clacked out the last sentence, pulled the sheet out of the typewriter, stuffed the manuscript into an envelope and sent it off. It’s odd. Like if I were to end my review here, because I still have to load the dishwasher and it’s getting late.

See what I mean? It just feels wrong.

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Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with MarriageCommitted: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Originally published on August 12th, 2012
Maybe not a book to read if you are nervous about your impending nuptials. I had been married for several years when I read this book and learning the recent history of marital laws (as recently as the mid-80’s) in the states freaked me right out; in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I kind of way. I knew that marriage had changed throughout history, but how recent some of the changes were surprised me. But, if you are thinking about getting married (in the near or distant future), then I definitely recommend this book. It’s always good to go into something well prepared and with your eyes wide open, and this book has good advice.

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

Pilgrim at Tinker CreekPilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Originally published on November 20th, 2012
So different from what I was expecting that I don’t know what to think. I feel as if I have stumbled across something magical, but I don’t know how it works. So all I can do is hold it in my hands and shake it, and listen to the sounds it makes. All the while being sure there is so much more.

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