Title: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine Author: Michael Lewis Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company Rating: 4 out of 5 Format: Print
I am not a financial expert. I understand the underpinnings of the financial crisis that started in 2008 well enough, but all of the cogs and gears within that unholy machine – the CDOs, the ratings, the tranches, the hedge bets – are a bunch of mumbo jumbo. One of Michael Lewis’ gifts is bringing the obscure workings of the financial markets into clear (if hideous) focus.
That’s what The Big Short is all about. However, instead of a rote retelling of why things went pear-shaped in 2008, he instead tackles the mirror image of that financial disaster: The story of the small group of Wall Street professionals who saw the mass of subprime mortgages for what it was and decided to bet on the whole house of cards collapsing.
One of Lewis’ greatest strengths is his ability to help us remember who the “good guys” are in the narrative – those who saw the system for what it was, as opposed to those who upheld the status quo and so allowed the financial crisis to happen. Considering the extent to which the financial industry relied on jargon and regulatory laziness to stay afloat, this is no small feat.
My only complaint about The Big Short is that one of the principals in it, Steve Eisman, sounded so different from other traders that I wanted to learn more about how he developed his personal philosophy. Alone among the traders profiled in the book, Eisman realized the social and class implications of the subprime mortgage crisis. His perspective is similar to that of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and I want to know more about how he gradually realized that the actions of the financial industry were hurting those in the lower and middle classes.
Title: Among Others Author: Jo Walton Publisher: Tor Books Rating: 3 out of 5 Format: eBook Note: Nominated for this year’s Hugo award for Best Novel
Most of us feel miserable as teenagers, but we often don’t understand the depth of those feelings until adulthood. This is one of the things that intrigues me most about Jo Walton’s Among Others. Mor is aware that she’s isolated (being a working-class, Welsh, crippled girl in a posh British boarding school will do that to you) but will the depth of her isolation become truly apparent to her later on as an adult? Among Others is all about Mor’s isolation, her roiling thoughts, and her one coping mechanism: Reading a ton of science fiction and fantasy books.
Walton has structured the book in an unusual way. There are no chapters; instead, the book is presented as the diary Mor keeps during her first year of attendance at Arlinghurst, a boarding school in England. What’s more, the catastrophe that has shaped Mor’s circumstances – the castastrophe that tends to take centre stage in the books she so loves to read – is in the past, and due to the diary-like nature of the book is never presented in flashback.
Instead, we learn the following: Mor is the survivor of a pair of twins. Both of them, like their mother, were able to practice magic and converse with the fairies that lived in the ruins and forests surrounding their community in Wales. Her sister, also named Mor (one being short for “Morganna” and the other being short for “Morwenna”), died the previous November in a car accident that left the surviving Mor crippled.
Immediately before the accident, both twins had been involved in a fight against their mother. Mor is vague with the details, and says only that the fight was a magical one done to prevent their mother from turning into a “dark queen” – to quote Lord of the Rings – and gaining even more power. After the accident Mor ran away, and custody over her was not awarded to her extended family in Wales, but instead to her father, a man who abandoned the twins when they were children.
Now she’s been packed off to Arlinghurst by her father’s overbearing older sisters. Her only solace is reading loads of (now classic) science fiction and fantasy books from the late 70s – books by LeGuin, Zelazny, Heinlein, and Vonnegut, for example.
The omnipresence of science fiction and fantasy literature in Among Others accomplishes several things:
It establishes the time period: Mor’s diary takes place from 1979 to 1980.
It makes the narrator’s voice feel natural: Mor’s opinions about the books she reads are the kind of hyperbolic, righteous ones that are endemic to teenagers. I like to imagine that when she’s an adult, she’ll look back on her diary entries and cringe with embarrassment over how amateurish she sounded.
It reinforces one of the key themes in the book: That the magic that Mor reads about in her books is not like the magic she practices.
This last point is the most important. In many ways, Mor is looking for validation in what she reads, but she knows from her own attempts to practice magic – the consequences of which often scare her – that it’s much messier and less systematic in real life than it is in fiction. This also prepares us for the climax, when Mor finally confronts her mother again and manages to subdue her permanently using both her magic and her love of books.
However, the use of the diary format makes the final magical fight less immediate and rather anticlimactic. This is one of my biggest problems with Among Others. While I admire Walton’s consistency – magic in books isn’t like the real magic Mor knows, so why should the final battle read like something that came out of a book? – it’s not psychologically satisfying.
Perhaps this subversion of standard fantasy plots is why the book won the Nebula award for best novel, and why it’s also up for the Hugo award. However, I fear that the major reason for the book’s critical reception is precisely that it praises so many books that are part of the genre’s canon.
As an interesting parallel, think of how many Oscars The Artist won earlier this year. I haven’t seen it myself, but I understand the reservations of others who think the The Artist won because it praised the magic of movies and kept telling Hollywood how beautiful and pure it used to be. A similar strain of “Wasn’t sci-fi and fantasy fiction in the past just grand?” nostalgia threads itself throughout Among Others, and this became extremely grating. In essence, I worry that it’s going to win the Hugo because it gave the genre a hand job.
With all this in mind, did I enjoy Among Others? Yes. But do I think it deserves the Hugo award? As I said with Leviathan Wakes, no. Crafting a protagonist so eminently real as Mor is one thing. But trying to gain access to the Critically Praised Genre Novel Club just by invoking past members of said club is another.
Title: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business Author: Charles Duhigg Publisher: Random House Rating: 3 out of 5 Format: eBook
In many ways, habits define us – the routes we take to work; the things we eat, drink, or inhale; the ways we interact with others. But a bad habit is one of the hardest things to get rid of, no matter how much we may want to change. Thus, Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit promises to appeal to people (like me) who read self-help books, non-fiction, and books about psychology or medicine.
The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges. What’s unique about cues and rewards, however, is how subtle they can be. Neurological studies like the ones in Graybiel’s lab have revealed that some cues span just milliseconds. And rewards can range from the obvious (like the sugar rush that a morning doughnut habit provides) to the infinitesimal (like the barely noticeable — but measurable — sense of relief the brain experiences after successfully navigating the driveway). Most cues and rewards, in fact, happen so quickly and are so slight that we are hardly aware of them at all. But our neural systems notice and use them to build automatic behaviors.
In the book, Duhigg reviews behavioural psychology research and analyzes individuals, corporations, and social networks that have used the principals of habit formation to their own advantage. However, while this approach is fascinating, it does have its flaws.
For one thing, it takes some stretching to fit several of the case studies into the three-step model at the centre of the book. Showing how Target analyzes shopping habits to improve sales and take advantage of buyer psychology is one thing. Arguing that it was Rosa Parks’ social habits – her weak and strong connections across several layers of society – that galvanized Montgomery into organizing such a successful bus boycott is another thing entirely. Social interactions are much harder to boil down into the “habit loop” than the book implies.
The most successful sections deal with personal attempts to change habits, and corporate/institutional attempts to do the same. The chapter on Target – much of which is included in the NYT article above – is possibly the most engrossing yet simultaneously frightening thing I’ve read in a while. Things like Target’s “pregnancy prediction database” make you realize just how thoroughly we’re monitored every day.
Likewise, I appreciated the opening section that talked about Lisa, a woman who overcame multiple bad habits – poor diet, lack of exercise, financial irresponsibility – and turned her life around completely through the simple act of setting one goal for the future.
But it is precisely these two halves of the story that point to The Power of Habit’s biggest flaw. Was Duhigg trying to write a self-help book or a piece of long-form investigative journalism? The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but the chapters are separated out to highlight this division. The prologue with Lisa’s story and the final chapter of the book sound like self-help writing, but the chapters on Target, radio stations, football teams, and Starbucks fit into the mold of other non-fiction books established by writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis.
It’s an interesting read, but it left me feeling strangely unsatisfied. Instead, try going with the New York Times article he wrote – it’s definitely got bang for the buck.
Title: Briarpatch Author: Tim Pratt Publisher: ChiZine Publications Rating: 3 out of 5 Format: Print
Darrin’s life has taken an awful turn: Within the space of one month, he lost his job, his car, and his girlfriend, Bridget, who walked out of his life with no explanation. Six months later while wandering aimlessly around San Francisco, he encounters Bridget for the first time since she left him – only to see her jump to her death off the Golden Gate bridge.
In his search to find out why Bridget killed herself, he gets caught up in the web of connections surrounding the briarpatch, an interdimensional labyrinth that connects all worlds probable and improbable. And it turns out that among the the people who help or hinder his quest – his own traitorous best friend, an immortal man who wields the power of despair, a man with no sense of taste or smell, an earthy psychopath with a taste for chrome shotguns, and a man who drives the world’s most unusual car – Darrin may be most improbable visitor to the briarpatch yet.
Warning: spoilers below.
The best thing about Briarpatch is the worldbuilding. Imagine a bar that serves vampires, or a world of sentient bees that cooperate with beekeepers to produce hallucinogenic honey. That’s the kind of imagery that this book delivers with regularity. There are bridges of moonlight that could lead to paradise, and there are supernatural creatures in the shape of cars that show up just where they need to be. There are immortal people who involuntarily teleport in order to prevent themselves from being killed, and there are insane humans who shape-shift into bears.
The way the briarpatch and its effects on people are described, the more I want to visit it myself. There are moments of love and joy and despair, like the immortal man who wanted to be on the moonlit bridge so much that he nearly starved to death basking in its reflected glory – only to have his body become desperate enough to teleport him away to a riverbed so that he could avoid dying of dehydration.
However, in many cases, the plot has serious problems with exposition. The scheme of the main antagonist, Ismael Plenty, is byzantine at best: Ismael is immortal and wants to die, and feels that the only way he can do so is to enter a distant, hard-to-reach part of the briarpatch that shimmers with the light of Heaven. He is convinced that only Darrin can lead the way, because Darrin – like Ismael – is a pure, spontaneous manifestation of the briarpatch itself. Yet he’s also convinced that the only way Darrin can enter the briarpatch is to feel intense despair – which is why Ismael has orchestrated the collapse of his life. When Darrin reaches the brink of despair, Ismael plans to swoop in and offer entry to the briarpatch as the solution to his problems.
However, this plan flies in the face of Ismael’s interactions with other characters: Before he meets Darrin, he introduces not one, not two, but three of his friends to it, and they all agree, either knowingly or unknowingly, to be part of Ismael’s despair-inducing plan. If it’s so easy for him to convince Darrin’s friends about the importance of the briarpatch, why not approach Darrin himself honestly? I just don’t get it.
On top of that, there was one scene that stopped the action in its tracks, where several of the main characters met up and explained everything they knew to each other. In turn, they described in detail their interactions with Ismael and Darrin, and what Ismael promised each of them for their involvement. I understand that this scene needed to happen, but its placement in the book is disorienting: It’s in the middle, and a similar all-is-revealed scene happens right near the end. Having a climactic scene like that repeated alters the flow of the book and reduces the impact of the second version near the end.
Finally, while several of the characters are relatable or interesting to read about – Bridget, who is always yearning for new experiences; Orville, the aforementioned man without taste or smell; Arturo, who drives a supernatural being in the shape of a car with trance-inducing headlights – Darrin himself is not very memorable. He’s a reasonable, friendly every-man who likes to tool around San Fran taking unusual photographs. Yet he seems too bland and normal – not other-worldly enough – to be taken seriously as an avatar of such a surreal place as the briarpatch.
Title: Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, Book #1) Author: James S.A. Corey (the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) Publisher: Orbit Rating: 3 out of 5 Format: eBook Note: Nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel
Like any well-adjusted nerd, I grew up with Star Wars as a healthy part of my cinematic diet. I didn’t know it then, but Star Wars belonged to the sub-genre of science fiction known as space opera. Despite my exposure to the original trilogy I still haven’t read much in the way of space opera, so Leviathan Wakes was as good an introduction as any. I read it because it was one of this year’s Hugo Award nominees.
From what I gather, Leviathan Wakes uses many of the elements common to space operas: a diaspora of humans spread across several colonies within the solar system, space stations, and asteroid mining. However, it also includes science fiction concerns that are more contemporary, like sociopathic corporations, terrestrial ecological limits, and the proper use of military power.
Please note: this review contains spoilers.
It all starts with Juliette Andromeda Mao, the scion of a lunar corporation who rejected her affluent upbringing to join the Belters – the restless, entrepreneurial, and hardscrabble people who have abandoned life on Earth and Mars to make a go of it in the asteroid belt. Julie’s gone missing, and it’s fallen to Detective Miller – a cop on Ceres – to do a cursory investigation for his employer, a security agency partially owned by Julie’s family.
James Holden, the commanding officer of of an ice freighter, has found an abandoned ship in the middle of space and is captaining a small shuttle to investigate it. However, when his home ship is destroyed by a third party attempting to protect the abandoned vessel from interference, he sends out a distress signal that inadvertently shatters the fragile balance of power between Earth, Mars, and the Belt. Ultimately, Holden’s search for answers and for safe harbour dovetails with Miller’s search for Julie Mao, which leads them both to the discovery of an alien life form that poses a threat to all three factions.
First off, there are several things that Leviathan Wakes does right. In particular, I appreciated the effort that went into imagining what a non-terrestrial form of human society would look like. Corey came up with subtle but effective touches, like imagining the resinous scent of air that’s been scrubbed through machine filters for generations, or how Belters would come up with an exaggerated set of gestures to convey information despite the bulkiness of space suits.
Less successful, but still interesting, was the inbuilt antagonism that Belters had for Earthers. Early in the book, Miller is partnered with Havelock, a detective from Earth. Later on this is revealed as an attempt by his supervisor to isolate both men; since no other Belter detective wants to work with an Earther, she decides to saddle him with Miller, a lonely has-been cop downtrodden by alcoholism and a messy divorce.
Havelock’s presence is meant to highlight the mutual distrust that those from Earth, Mars, and the Belt have for each other, but this fell flat, as all of the animosity was one-way – although Miller’s peers were antagonistic towards Havelock, Havelock didn’t respond in kind. This left me wondering where exactly the focus of class/privilege in the book resided. Did Belters feel naturally superior to Earthers? Did Earthers feel naturally superior to Belters? It makes sense for the latter to be true in context, but all of the Earthers present in the story were either neutral or supportive of Belter politics.
Such is the case with Holden, who gets caught up trying to find his way out of the web of Martian armies, Belter rebels, and corporate interests that he’s gotten himself tangled up in. He’s such an upstanding person, always willing to do what is right, that in the end he’s as distinctive as a slice of bread. This points to one of my biggest problems with the book – the lack of nuanced characterization. Miller’s a depressed alcoholic trying to solve his Big Case so that he can Make Things Right and restore his self-respect. James Holden is an honest man who grew up on a farm/commune, of all places.
However, sad-sack cops and forthright farmboys have nothing on the real villain: a corporation that has discovered an engineered parasite created by another species and wants to reverse-engineer it so that it can genetically modify humans for intergalactic travel.
This is where the space zombies come in.
You heard me right. Space zombies. As in, people infected by said parasite, who die, reanimate, and then dissolve into some sort of fleshy goo that coalesces into a giant sentient hive-mind.
One one level, this is is pretty cool. Zombies have been popular for a while now, and this twist on the genre is gonzo enough to work. But the book already contains enough interesting speculation on intrastellar life and politics that adding mutagenic zombie parasites into the mix seems a tad garish.
Despite this, I still enjoyed the climax, where Miller finally does meet up with Julie – or what’s left of her after she gets infected. Throughout the novel, Miller’s focus on Julie Mao has taken hold of him so thoroughly that his conscience eventually transforms into her likeness. When he finally meets her in person and talks to her, and she understands what he’s saying and asking her to do – when she realizes that she’s become the index case of the infestation she tried to escape, and that she has to sacrifice herself to prevent others from meeting the same fate – it’s a moment of sadness and beauty.
Did I enjoy Leviathan Wakes? Yes. It had some intriguing sociological insights, and some lovely images and events going on, especially at the climax. Would I be interested in reading the sequels when they are released? Sure. However, do I think that this book is worthy of the Hugo Award? No.
I’ll discuss the merits of the Hugo nominees in greater depth later, but suffice it to say that I was looking for a book that made me go “wow” – and this book was not it. It was workman-like and competent, but it didn’t have the radical political commentary of The Disposessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, the intricate thoroughness of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or the sheer holy-crap-this-is-amazing-ness of American Gods. In other words, it broke absolutely no new territory – and if anything, I think the best science fiction or fantasy book of the year should do at least that much.
Title: The Guilty Plea Author: Robert Rotenberg Publisher: Simon & Schuster Rating: 3 out of 5 Format: Print
One of the genres that I’ve often had trouble “getting” is that of the crime/procedural (which was why I had problems with both Zoo City and Empire State). In terms of my reading habits, then, my enjoyment of Robert Rotenberg’s books is an outlier.
Old City Hall was Rotenberg’s debut, and The Guilty Plea picks up right where it left off, with many of the same characters. The premise here is similar to that of the first book: someone has been found murdered, and the various characters work together to push the case through the city’s legal system – the cops gather evidence and the lawyers pore over said evidence to bolster their arguments in the courtroom.
In this case, the victim is Terrance Wyler, the youngest son of a prominent family who owns a successful grocery store chain. When Samantha Wyler – the woman whom he was in the process of divorcing at the time of his death – shows up at her lawyer’s office with the murder weapon wrapped up in a kitchen towel, the case looks all but solved. However, the detectives and lawyers we met in Old City Hall – Greene, Kennicott, Summers, Raglan, and more – aren’t content to sit on their laurels and let the obvious conclusion do all their work for them. Papers still have to be filed, and people still have to be questioned.
This attention to process is a great part of why I like Rotenberg’s books. In essence, they are about more than just The Law or The Case: they are about competent people doing difficult tasks, and doing those tasks well. Rotenberg also delves into the psychology of people who become involved in a criminal case. In the trials, his lawyers analyze how witnesses gain and lose credibility in the courtroom; during the investigations, his cops pick up on subtle cues like people using rhetorical questions to respond to interrogations.
Within The Guilty Plea, specifically, I was impressed by the care which Rotenberg took to reintroduce the reader to characters from the first book, remind us of what they did, and place them in the context of who they interacted with. It served not only as a refresher course for the cast list, but also prepared me for the shifting perspectives across the book. On top of that, expert attention was paid to reintroducing the city of Toronto as a character as well – the streets and highways and neighbourhoods of the city reflect as much upon the plot of Rotenberg’s books as the people do. This focus on the city serves as one heck of an ego boost for a lifelong Torontonian like myself.
Despite these strengths, this book is not perfect. Like Old City Hall, it ended with the person on trial being innocent despite overwhelming evidence against them, with the real killer being suddenly revealed in the final pages. I understand that this is meant to increase the tension, but I don’t think that “whodunit” is the point of Rotenberg’s books.
Instead, I think the point is showing the process behind a criminal investigation, and the psychology behind preparing for trial. I want to hear more about the considerations that come into play when jurors are selected. I want to hear about the small things that affect the credibility of people testifying in court – things like witnesses not knowing where to place their coats, or being engulfed by the sheer size of the witness box. In Rotenberg’s world the courtroom is a psychological tango, and dammit, I want to understand the footwork involved! Last minute revelations of this sort cheapen the reading experience.
On top of that, some of the plot developments were poorly thought out. During the trial, Samantha was revealed to have had an extensive secret correspondence with Terrance’s brother Jason, her brother-in-law. This is the sort of thing upon which trials turn on a dime, but I was incredulous that 1) Samantha would have hidden this information from her own defense lawyer, especially when it could have bolstered her claims of innocence, and 2) so little follow-up research of email transcripts and phone records was done afterwards. Furthermore, although a noticeable portion of the novel was spent explaining what happened to the murder weapon, nowhere was it ever stated (unless I didn’t notice, which would be odd), that the damn thing was dusted for fingerprints. Isn’t that Rule #1 of murder investigations – to thoroughly examine the murder weapon once its location is confirmed? Why didn’t that happen here?
Finally, I wish that Rotenberg would set his books so that they could take place across all of Toronto, and not just the downtown core. Speaking as a frustrated suburbanite, it would be really nice to see a book that actually paid attention to the part of town that I live in, instead of the same litany of major downtown locations and corridors.
The thing about The Guilty Plea is that it follows in the footsteps of its predecessor closely, for good or ill. I hope that in subsequent installments, the strengths (good characters, good psychological insights, detailed settings) will increase and the flaws (downtown-centric focus, convenient revelation near the end of the book that the obvious suspect is not the real murderer) will diminish.
Title: Redemption in Indigo Author: Karen Lord Publisher: Small Beer Press Rating: 5 out of 5 Format: eBook Note: Nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
This was one of several works that I read in preparation for filling in my Hugo Awards ballot. There’s one more novel I need to read before I cast my vote, but this was one of my favourites.
About the book: Paama has a knack for making the best out of bad situations. After returning to her family, she manages to break off her marriage to her gluttonous husband with considerable tact and aplomb. Her actions attract the attention of supernatural beings who think that she is uniquely suited to control something far more dangerous than a fool with a mountainous appetite: the Chaos Stick. However, the original wielder of the power of Chaos wants his rightful property back…
What I liked: Good god. The whole story sounds like you’re hearing a storyteller in a courtyard. There’s a spider-shaped trickster spirit. There’s a prideful demon-spirit with indigo skin and eyes. There’s an order of women who have the ability to control dreams. There’s a poet, true love, secret identities, and magic. There’s a woman who, through the sheer simple force of her dignity and compassion for others, teaches the indigo-skinned demon-spirit about the value of duty. There’s delicious-sounding food. In short, what on earth didn’t I like?
What I disliked: I think this was a problem with my eBook copy, but the introductory chapter to the book was not listed in its table of contents. As such, I didn’t read it, so when some information came to light at the end of the fourth (or is it fifth?) chapter, and the Chaos Stick was mentioned by name, I nearly chucked my Kobo in frustration. Here I was, reading a lovely series of anecdotes about a resourceful woman and her foolish husband, and then the Chaos Stick showed up – an object with such a ridiculously portentous name that it sounded like it was ripped straight from a comic book. How on earth could something as cosmic as that fit in with what I had read of a woman trying to avoid scandal in a small town?
Then, of course, the spirits and magical women and tricksters showed up. This disconnect is part of why I enjoyed the book so much – it didn’t turn into a cheesy comic-book story, like I worried it would. However, I don’t think the title Redemption in Indigo prepares readers for what the story is about. Yes, the villain is a spirit with indigo skin who redeems himself, but compared to the heart of the story, the title is oblique at best.
The verdict: The characters are relatable and human – even the ones who aren’t human. In Redemption in Indigo, pride gives way to humility, and the force that changes the world, that melts the proudest heart and fills it with understanding, is dignity. All talk of morals aside, it’s reassuring to find a book with such a humane message – to have a villain who isn’t evil, but just bitter and tired, and to have a heroine who isn’t brave or plucky, but stable as an oak. The emotional state of each character changes subtly but realistically from chapter to chapter, like a river flowing. It’s wonderful to read something so assured and understanding of the human condition. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Title: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic Author: Alison Bechdel Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Rating: 4 out of 5 Format: Print
I bought my copy of Fun Home at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, a riotous celebration of the comic arts that happens at the Toronto Reference Library every May. This was around the same time that the book’s sequel, Are You My Mother? was published.
About the book: Alison Bechdel’s father Bruce was a high school English teacher, a funeral home operator, and a man who worked tirelessly to restore his Victorian-era home to its original glory. He was a husband and father of three children. On the outside, the Bechdels were a functional nuclear family. However, soon after Bechdel came out to her parents, she learned her father was also gay and that he had sexual relationships with his students.
Months after her announcement, her mother filed for divorce – and two weeks after that, her father got run over by a truck.
Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Bechdel thinks it was the latter, and in Fun Home, she analyzes her memories, books, and family letters in an attempt to understand who Bruce was and why he chose a life that dissatisfied him so deeply.
What I liked: Bechdel’s analysis of her and her father’s lives, and her ability to wed it to distinct visuals, was inventive and involving. I remember one page in particular where she mapped out the places where her father was born, lived, and died, and circumscribed the area within one tidy circle to reveal that all of these important things happened within one mile’s distance of each other. The narrative loops back and forth upon itself, and parcels out new information at a measured pace, showing the readers new facets of the same story as it progresses. I appreciated Bechdel’s depth of focus in both her writing and her visuals – nearly everything is in its right place. I admire how much effort went into writing and drawing something so emotionally painful, and how much more effort went into making it all look seamless.
What I disliked: I don’t know if this trait was also visible in her long-running comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” but Fun Home‘s authorial voice was depressingly distant. The language Bechdel used to describe her family, her thoughts, and her experiences was detached and clinical. I understand that this is supposed to reflect her own experience of growing up within such a singular household – indeed, Bechdel herself is quite aware of how distant she sounds – but it still left me uneasy. On top of that, all of the interwoven references to the canon of Western literature were so dense that without the author’s explanations on how these stories fit into her own life I would have been lost.
The verdict:Fun Home genuinely challenged me in a way unlike nearly any other book I’ve read so far in 2012. Part of me was grateful that my family was never that repressed and dysfunctional. Part of me couldn’t fathom how another person could feel so detached from their father’s death. But another part of me was acutely aware of how little I knew and understood about classical literature. I was intimidated when I read it, because it felt chock full of references both visual and textual that were extremely cultured and beyond my comprehension. This was the first book I read this year where I put it down feeling that I needed to read it over again to truly understand it.
Up next:Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
Correction, July 8th: I originally stated in my review that Alison Bechdel learned her dad was gay only after he died. However, she learned this soon after she came out to her parents, months before his death. The “About the book” section has been updated accordingly.
Title: Salt: A World History Author: Mark Kurlansky Publisher: Knopf Canada Rating: 3 out of 5 Format: Print
Back when I was in university, I read a lot of academic papers about food security, food systems, and cultural norms surrounding food. Margaret Visser’s Much Depends on Dinner is one of my favourite non-fiction works, and it has an entire chapter devoted to the sociological and mythological history of salt. I figured that Salt: A World History would be a similarly savoury read.
About the book: The title pretty much says it all. It’s a non-fiction account of the ways in which our quest for salt – to mine it, refine it, trade it, tax it, and more – has shaped economics, politics, and culture throughout the world.
What I liked: There’s just so much to talk about when it comes to salt. Forget well-worn stuff like the gabelle, France’s much-loathed salt tax. Instead, think about the saltworks in China that invented a percussive drill to reach deep aquifers of brine, and in the process became the first place in the world to use natural gas as a heat source. Think instead of a giant mountain composed of nothing but salt in Cordona, Spain. Stuff like that is the stuff of marvels. In particular I was fascinated by the segment of the book where Kurlansky discussed the intersections between Basque fishermen, the newly-discovered North Atlantic cod fishing grounds, and salt trading. I think this passage is the heart of the book, as Kurlansky has written books of a similar nature about both the Basque peoples and cod – it combines and distills the ideas and events that interest him the most.
What I disliked: For a book that claims to deal with “world” history, there are a lot of geographical regions that Kurlansky doesn’t discuss. There are several chapters devoted to salt production and trade in the context of Europe, North America, and China, and at least one good-sized chapter on Ghandi’s salt march, but not much attention devoted to salt in the context of Africa. Hell, I bet the sections on northern European cod fishing alone outweighed all of what the author wrote about Africa. I can’t even remember at this point if South America and Australia were mentioned, but considering what else I remember from this book, I doubt it. As such, I think the “world history” part of the title is a misnomer.
The verdict: This was a very dry book (puns definitely intended). I could tell that Kurlansky knew a lot about salt, as the connections he drew between different peoples, places, and events were often fascinating. However, I didn’t feel the joy or passion in his writing that I’ve felt when reading other books about food, like Margaret Visser’s Much Depends on Dinner (mentioned above – seriously, you should check it out). In the end, I began to treat Salt like homework the same way I did when reading The Terror: I set myself a quota of reading 50 pages during each commute to and from work. In general, this is not a sign that a book is going well. However, as I hate to leave things half-read, I persevered and finished it.
Title: Half Blood Blues Author: Esi Edugyan Publisher: Thomas Allen Publishers Format: eBook Rating: 4 out of 5
Every year, there are one or two books that get nominated for All The Awards. In 2011, it was Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues. The drama in the book was almost exceeded by the drama surrounding its production, however, as it almost didn’t get published – it was one of the books going through Key Porter’s pipeline when that publishing house declared bankruptcy. Ultimately, Thomas Allen swooped in to save the day.
About the book: Hieronymous Falk was a gifted trumpet player in 1930s Berlin. However, he was also a mischling – a person of mixed German and African descent. Fellow jazz musician Sid Griffiths was the last person to see him alive before he was arrested by German forces in a Paris cafe. Now, more than 50 years later, the arrival of a mysterious letter has forced Sid to re-examine his role in Hiero’s life – and in Hiero’s disappearance.
What I liked: Sometimes, it takes only a small turn of phrase to make me fall in love with a book. Here’s the passage near the book’s opening when I gave in:
See, thing about the kid – he so majestically bony and so damn grave that with his look of a starving child, it felt well nigh impossible to deny him anything. Take Chip. Used to be the kid annoyed him something awful. Now he so protective of him he become like a second mother. So watching the kid slip into his raggedy old tramp’s hat and step out, I thought, What I done got myself into. I supposed to be the older responsible one. But here I was trotting after the kid like a little purse dog. Hell. Delilah was going to cut my head off.
“Majestically bony” was when I gave in and let the book’s voice wash over me. Half Blood Blues is full of similarly deft images, like Sid comparing a theatre building to “a slab of cheddar, that lustrous colour and all them angles.” I was amazed with how Edugyan managed to write in an extremely slangy and “non-standard” way without reducing Sid or his colleagues into caricatures. Her facility with jazz slang and with voice is amazing.
What I disliked: At one point, Louis Armstrong walks up to the main character as he’s sitting on a bench in Paris. The old master consoles Sid by saying that his gift may not necessarily be musical – instead, it is the ability to make others feel like family. While the other musicians he plays with certainly do feel that way about Sid, I remain hard-pressed to explain why: he’s not a likeable person. Throughout the novel, Sid is selfish and displays a considerable inability read other people – but those same people welcome, understand, and trust him, sometimes to their own detriment. While this is a brave choice on Edugyan’s part, it’s also at odds with how the other characters interact with him.
The verdict: It took me a while to sort out how I felt about Half Blood Blues. Initially, Sid was so unpleasant that it interfered with my enjoyment of the book, but, I soon realized that it without a splash of bitterness, it would have had no heart. Ultimately, I found the pacing, characterization, and use of slang to evoke a specific time and place so precise that I respected it in the end.