I recently read The Given Day, Dennis Lehane’s novel about 1919 Boston, especially the Boston police strike, and the widescale rioting that followed.
The book is an engaging hybrid of historical fiction and noir crime thriller. It deals with labour history, racial bigotry in both Jim Crow states and Boston, radical political organizing, and the United States during World War I and on the eve of Prohibition. It’s also full of great characters, plot twists, and suspense. If you enjoy historical fiction, I do recommend this book. However, I’m writing about it to highlight something that bothered me, (Read more…)
Nadine Gordimer was a great writer, and a steadfast voice for justice.
Gordimer, a white South African, was a member of the African National Congress when the organization itself was illegal. Several of her novels, which explored the affects of apartheid on those who lived it, were similarly banned.
Gordimer was a courageous woman, an outspoken intellectual, and a writer for whom art and politics became inseparable. She lived life on her own terms, and died at the old age of 90. Despite that, her passing feels like a great loss to the world.
Nadine Gordimer’s obituary in The Guardian (Read more…)
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures by Anne Fadiman contains dozens of passages that I’d like to share. My library copy is shamefully dog-eared, and I intend to buy a copy of the book for my bookshelf. But I’ll restrain myself and will share only a single anecdote, related in the early pages, which drew me in. In an intermediate French class at Merced College a few years ago, the students were assigned a five-minute oral report, to be delivered in French. The second student to (Read more…)
Dark Age Ahead, by the late Jane Jacobs, contains some important insights about the state of North American society. For me, however, the book is more notable for what it doesn’t contain.
Picking up where Jared Diamond left off in Guns, Germs, and Steel (which Jacobs references several times in her introduction) and Collapse, Jacobs identifies five pillars of society that she believes are in decay: community and family, higher education, the effective practice of science and science-based technology, taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities, and self-policing by the learned professions.
To readers (Read more…)
I’m reading Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs’ 2004 strong caution to North American society. I’ll blog about the book in general at a later date, but wanted to share some thoughts that keep coming up as I’m reading.
This is the first time I’m reading Jacobs since living in a suburb, the kind of area Jacobs reviled, rather than living in a dense urban environment, the kind she revered. And now, when I read Jacobs’ shorthand descriptions of suburbs, I wonder if she truly understood them.
Two of the charges levelled against suburbs – and if you’ve read Jacobs (Read more…)
Ruth Graham, writing in Slate, says, “You should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” How sad. If anyone should feel embarrassed, it’s Graham. She apparently writes this commentary without realizing how narrow-minded, outdated, and ignorant it makes her appear.
Then again, what can we expect from a person who describes a love scene by saying a young man “deflowers” his girlfriend? Perhaps Graham hasn’t noticed, but in the 21st Century, women are not passive objects; their first sexual experience is not imagined as a loss of innocence and delicacy. Hazel, the hero of The (Read more…)
I’m sure many of you have read The Book Thief, Markus Zusak’s youth novel about a German girl and her (non-biological) family during World War II. If you haven’t yet read it, I recommend it.
I had little interest in reading this book. I picked it up for professional reasons: it has been one of the most popular youth novels since its publication in 2005, and I intended to skim it, to get the gist. This book didn’t care what I had in mind. The opening was so intriguing that I kept reading, and before long I was completely (Read more…)
John Homans’ What’s a Dog For? The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend is my kind of dog book. I don’t care for memoirs of heartwarming doggie hijinks or heartbreaking rescue odysseys. I’ve lived those stories myself, and books of that sort don’t advance my knowledge of the species I’ve shared most of my life with. I am endlessly fascinated by canine behaviour – by what we know, and don’t know, about dogs. So is John Homans. Homans is the executive editor of New York magazine, and before he adopted his lab-mix Stella, was a relative (Read more…)
You won’t catch me implying that Stephen Harper and his corrupt, anti-democratic, anti-human government is moderate. But there’s always room to move even further to the right, and that space is called Jason Kenney.
Marci McDonald, author of The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, has written a lengthy exposé of Kenney in The Walrus. (I’ve had the print edition for a couple of weeks, and have been waiting for it to post online so I could share it. The “and you thought Harper was right-wing?” tagline is from the print edition.) It’s very (Read more…)
I thought readers’ advisory was the best part of my job, but that was before I began running our library’s teen book club.
Once a month, I spend an evening with a group of teens who choose to spend their evening at the library, talking about books. We hang out, eat snacks, talk about books, talk about life. Although I’ve never had an interest in book clubs for myself, facilitating these young people’s enjoyment of reading is a joy and a privilege.
The teens themselves come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Most are the first generation of their family born (Read more…)
If you enjoy youth novels of the realistic (non-fantasy) variety, Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell, is just about as good as it gets.
Who else might enjoy Eleanor & Park? Readers who like beautifully drawn, believable, yet quirky and unique characters. Readers who are teens. Readers who have ever been teens. People who have fallen in love. People who dream of falling in love. People who like to read.
Eleanor & Park is about two people who don’t fit in slowly and tenderly finding their way to each other. It’s about the horrors that ordinary young people endure, (Read more…)
Cover of 1943 Random Houseedition with woodcut illustrations
Emily Brontë published Wuthering Heights in 1847, under a pseudonym. Brontë died the following year, at age 30. It was the only book she would ever publish.
How did an isolated young woman, a parson’s daughter from a remote area of Yorkshire, who never married, rarely left home, and hated travel, come to create this story of ferocious passion and violent revenge that would shock her contemporaries, and enthral audiences into its second century?
The existence of Wuthering Heights is one of the great arguments against that wrongheaded advice to writers: “write what (Read more…)
It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself.
That’s the first line of Ned Vizzini’s excellent 2006 youth novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story. By the time I read the book this year, the author was already dead. Vizzini committed suicide last December; he was only 32 years old.
Those facts alone are tragic. But now that I’ve read this book, I find Vizzini’s death even sadder. On some level, I chide myself for that: every person’s life is of equal value, and every early death is a loss. But we feel the way we feel, (Read more…)
Allan came home from one of his used-book sale sprees with copies of both Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics. I had read so many excerpts from, and reviews of, these books over the years, and their appearance was a reminder to actually read them myself.
You’re probably familiar with the general premise of Freakonomics. Steven D. Levitt is an economics professor at the University of Chicago, and Stephen J. Dubner is a well-known writer and editor. The two teamed up to write an unusual mix of story, statistics, and surprises for a popular audience, using research and statistics to draw unusual (Read more…)
Flight is a thought-provoking short novel by one of my favourite youth writers, Sherman Alexie.
The main character in Flight, a Native American boy who goes by the derisive nickname Zits, is a troubled soul with a long history of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. He seems to be on the brink of a major transition, either going off the deep end or beginning the long climb back.
I don’t know how to write about this book without spoiling it. So if you’re like me, and you don’t like to know anything about a book before you begin, and you (Read more…)
Today I break one of my own rules, and write about a book I didn’t enjoy. Not only that, but I trash the author, too. But perhaps author is the wrong word. Maybe I should call him the factory boss.
I know something about how difficult it is to write a book, and I feel solidarity with all writers. When it comes to blogging about books, I usually employ the old saw, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it”. So when I didn’t like I Am Number Four, I wasn’t going to write about it. (Read more…)
Don’t you love it when everything comes together? It’s Let Them Stay Week 2014, I’m thinking about the US war resisters in Canada, and about war resistance in general. And I’m reading a terrific youth novel, Flight, by Sherman Alexie, both fast-paced and rich with insight and meaning. And I come upon this passage. And if this doesn’t qualify as a Revolutionary Thought of the Day, I don’t know what does. Without stopping, the white soldier reaches down and picks up Bow Boy. Cradles the child in one arm. And the white soldier keeps running. He’s running towards the (Read more…)
Just Kids is a memoir by the artist and musician Patti Smith, about her life and relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The book is a memoir of both Smith’s and Mapplethorpe’s coming of age as artists, and of the path of their relationships, both with each other and with other people who were formative in their young lives. Just Kids is also a memoir of New York City in the 1970s, especially of certain slices of the art and music scenes.
Although Smith met and hung out with many famous musicians, artists, and writers during the time she writes about, (Read more…)
I’ve just finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I’m sure many of you have read it, but if you have not, please run to your local library or bookstore or website and borrow, purchase, or download a copy immediately. This book is literary nonfiction of the highest order, a melding of social, cultural, and science history, and a a triumph of research and writing.
Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman, a poor tobacco farmer who lived near and in Baltimore. Henrietta died of cancer in 1951, at the age of 31. She left behind five (Read more…)
Revolutionary thought of the day: …something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.
Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay
Looking for Alaska, John Green (2005)
Some months back I blogged about The Fault in our Stars, by John Green. I absolutely loved this book. I went in search of everything else the author has written, and with another title down, I have not been disappointed. Green’s 2005 debut novel Looking for Alaska was about as good a youth novel as I’ve ever read.
It’s almost impossible to write about this book without spoiling a major plot reveal. I loved the way the author managed this – it damn near took my breath away – and I don’t (Read more…)
In a New York Times op-ed, I’ve learned that BuzzFeed has announced the hiring of its first book editor, and will start publishing book reviews. But it will not run negative book reviews. Isaac Fitzgerald (formerly of The Rumpus and McSweeney’s) said: BuzzFeed will do book reviews, Fitzgerald said, but he hasn’t figured out yet what form they’ll take. It won’t do negative reviews: “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he said. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.” Fitzgerald said people in the online books community “understand that about (Read more…)
If you haven’t read anything by Zadie Smith, I highly recommend finding White Teeth, her debut novel, and diving in. Smith wrote White Teeth while still attending university, and it was published to great acclaim when she was only 25 years old. It’s a wonderfully sprawling novel, by turns wry, satirical, and poignant, crammed full of vibrant characters, multiple themes and threads, and brilliant, surprising language. It deals with the cultural clashes and changes of immigration, generations, and class differences.
If you read White Teeth and didn’t like it, stop right there; you’re not going to like anything else (Read more…)
For Canadians who fear and distrust the steadily growing militarism suffusing the culture of our country, two recent books are indispensable: What We Talk About When We Talk About War, by Noah Richler, and Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift.
Richler’s book focuses on the re-writing and re-framing the distant past. And as the title (with its homage to Raymond Carver) suggests, Richler focuses on language. He analyzes how Canada’s image of itself, in relation to war-making and the military, has been radically altered, bit by incremental bit.
The book (Read more…)
From Noah Richler’s What We Talk About When We Talk About War: We have a duty to be honest and rigorous, with ourselves and with others, and to be able to brook contradiction and argument in our discussions of past wars and the present one in Afghanistan. But instead, in today’s Canada, we have arrived at a point where the use of any language that is not euphemistic is greeted as an assault on the work of soldiers, on a singular view of our past, and therefore on the character of the nation itself. Ideology thrives. History hardly comes into (Read more…)