By macleans.ca - Friday, June 14, 2013 - 0 Comments
Our latest book reviews:
- Why Hell Stinks Of Sulfur: Mythology And Geology Of The Underworld, by Salomon Kroonenberg, reviewed by Brian Bethune
- Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, reviewed by Richard Warnica
- Chris Eaton, A Biography, by Chris Eaton, reviewed by Martin Patriquin
- And The Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, reviewed by Dafna Izenberg
- Feral: Rewilding The Land, The Sea, And Human Life, by George Monbiot, reviewed by Andrew Stobo Sniderman
- Crime Of Privilege, by Walter Weinman, reviewed by Sarah Weinman
By Brian Bethune - Friday, June 14, 2013 at 7:00 AM - 0 Comments
Why Hell Stinks Of Sulfur: Mythology And Geology Of The Underworld
by Salomon Kroonenberg
A retired professor of geology at the Netherlands’ University of Delft, Kroonenberg seems to be having the time of his life in this beguiling mix of travelogue and geological exposition. There can’t be many geologists who can write with such easy erudition on both halves of his subtitle: Kroonenberg clearly had a fine classical education. In the metaphorical footsteps of Dante and his guide, Virgil, the Dutchman meanders about, answering the mock-outraged question he asks to begin his book: “Why do astronomers get to study heaven and we geologists hell?” Because the Earth is not transparent, most human cultures have always believed it to be the home of the dead, he responds, and have much preferred to speculate rather than investigate. So would-be spacefarers can dream of visiting Mars while what is beneath our feet remains “the most unknown part of our planet, despite the fact that the centre of the Earth is no further away than London is from Chicago.”
So Kroonenberg goes to Jerusalem, which Christians once believed was located over the epicentre of hell—a small fraction, only 1,000 km in diameter, of the literal underworld—and to a place on the northern shore of the Black Sea, once identified as the spot where Odysseus entered the netherworld. The geologist visits the honeycombed ground beneath China’s coalfields and Naples, equally hollow underneath because the subsurface was hewn empty of the soft yellow tuff stone with which the city itself was built.
He gapes in wonder at what’s naturally present and at what human activity has wrought. In the caverns under Naples lie the bones of at least 40,000 people from across the city’s 2,500-year history, all dead from calamities (plague, Vesuvius eruptions) that overwhelmed normal burial procedures or simply too poor for decent interment. Everywhere he goes, he smoothly blends ancient poetic fancy and modern scientific knowledge. By the time Kroonenberg, having fully channelled his inner Dante, claims to be travelling from the Earth’s very centre up to the surface, excitedly describing everything he sees, the reader is perfectly happy to go along for the ride.
By Richard Warnica - Friday, June 14, 2013 at 7:00 AM - 0 Comments
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Every immigrant is an emigrant, too. We forget that sometimes. That’s the irony of telling them to “go back where they belong.” For if an immigrant is never truly at home in their new world, they don’t entirely belong in their old ones either, at least not anymore. Americanah—Nigerian slang for someone who goes abroad and comes back with airs—is a book about immigrants and emigrants, and about the in-between lives they lead. It’s also about the platforms they have to observe the rest of us, stumbling along, comfortable in our singular realities.
Adichie’s third novel, and first in seven years, Americanah is on the surface a fairly conventional love story. Ifemulu meets Obinze while in high school in Nigeria. They fall in love and plan to spend their lives together. Eventually, she leaves for university in the United States. He intends to follow but, after a humiliating setback, she cuts off contact and falls out of his life. After a stint in Britain, Obinze becomes a businessman in Nigeria, Ifemelu, a well-known blogger on the life of a “Non-American Black” in the United States. All the while they circle each other from a distance.
The love story, though, is the least interesting thing about this book. It’s a simple superstructure that hides a work of uncommon depth and incisive observation. Adichi, who splits her time between Nigeria and the United States, is arguing a lot of points here, about race (Ifemelu writes that she was never “black” until she moved to the United States), and class and, maybe most forcefully, about how a good story should be told. You might not always agree with the points Adichie is making. But in Americanah, at the very least, you’ll enjoy the way she makes them.
By Martin Patriquin - Friday, June 14, 2013 at 7:00 AM - 0 Comments
Chris Eaton, A Biography
By Chris Eaton
Everyone ego surfs. The act of putting one’s name into a search engine is a measure of self-worth—proof you are important enough to be carved out of the Internet’s chaos by way of a Google algorithm. Blessed with a common name, Chris Eaton (the New Brunswick-born author and musician who does a pretty trippy version of Justin Timberlake’s SexyBack) uses the lives of other very real Chris Eatons as narrative fodder for a novel about his many namesakes.
There’s Chris Eaton the politician, the maker of Star Wars figurines, the tortured experimental musician, the Cure-obsessed weird kid, the 18th-century orphan, the wrestler. Chris Eaton is gay, straight, male, female, dead, alive, an enduring success at life, an abject failure. They are tied together only by name and by Chris Eaton’s beautifully overstuffed prose.
Nabokov could write about his back porch and make it interesting; Chris Eaton does much the same with his fellow Chris Eatons. On Chris Eaton, the portrait artist: “He could not picture being the only one wearing a seat belt and Tony being tossed neatly out the window as the van did its first flip, as if God had just reached in and yanked him out like a tissue, couldn’t recall Conrad’s head striking the passenger headrest, his nose driven sideways across his face, snapping like one of those plastic cases that kept cassette tapes high enough to see in the stacks previously made for LPs, couldn’t even fathom the steering wheel meeting Phil’s ribs, driving them into his bladder and eventually causing an infection that would prevent him from having kids and ruin his first marriage.”
Nestled in these marvelous, car-crash-worthy run-ons are dead-stop morsels of succinctness: “Sports, especially televised sports, were the lotteries of the chronically poor, on that level of social strata that exists beneath hope.” Ahh. You don’t read Chris Eaton: A Biography so much as surrender yourself to Chris Eaton’s barrage of effortless digression.
By Dafna Izenberg - Friday, June 14, 2013 at 7:00 AM - 0 Comments
And The Mountains Echoed
By Khaled Hosseini
In some ways, Hosseini’s new novel reads more like a collection of linked stories. The book opens in 1952, its lens trained on Abdullah, a 10-year-old Afghan boy, and his three-year-old sister, Pari, to whom Abdullah is wholly devoted and whose birth was the occasion of their mother’s death. But the perspective quickly shifts to their stepmother, and each section thereafter focuses on a different person, living in a different time period. There is an allure to this structure, as when a character is introduced whose connection to Abdullah and Pari is mysterious—the 12-year-old son of a rich warlord, for example, whose story is set in 2009—but ultimately it leaves the reader waiting to learn the siblings’ fate, after they are wrenched apart at the end of the second chapter.
Hosseini writes with remarkable descriptive fluidity. The image he’s identified as an early spark for the novel is especially vivid: Saboor, the children’s father, travelling by foot from their village to Kabul, pulling little Pari in a red wagon with Abdullah walking alongside. There is also a widowed schoolteacher marching to work, her “fist closed at the neck of her sweater,” and a 10-year-old girl, crying in the kitchen as she reads a note from her mother saying she’ll be away for the weekend. Description holds the narrative together more effectively than plot, and small moments ring truer than momentous events—a jealous sister’s wicked act of vengeance feels melodramatic; a kindly doctor’s colossal failure of a child he cares for seems unlikely.
Some sections race by, filling in the gaps. Some feel tenuously connected to the central family, but could work well as stand-alone stories. One particularly moving scene comes from a Greek NGO worker’s reminiscence of his childhood on a tiny island. He and a friend build a camera from a cardboard box then hit the beach to test the contraption. He takes her picture—from the back, so as to conceal her significant facial disfigurement—and the photo takes on its own life. It is this kind of “snapshot” that makes Hosseini such a treat to read.
By Sarah Weinman - Friday, June 14, 2013 at 7:00 AM - 0 Comments
Crime Of Privilege
By Walter Walker
A word to the wise for those who may pick up Crime of Privilege and experience a strong sense of déjà vu: yes, Walter Walker’s legal thriller is a thinly veiled treatment of some of the most tawdry, scandalous chapters from Kennedy family history, including the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley and the 1991 William Kennedy Smith rape trial. But the book is much more than that: it’s an unsettling, multi-layered look at the insidious symbiosis between power and corruption.
When we first meet George Becket, a young lawyer who owes his entire career and social standing to the wealthy, connected Gregory clan, he’s in close proximity to a criminal act. What he witnessed comes into sharper focus when, years later, the distraught father of Heidi Telford, a beautiful young woman found with her skull bashed in at a Cape Cod golf club, seeks Becket’s help finding out what the man’s convinced the cops aren’t investigating: whether one of the Gregorys, or several, were responsible for Heidi’s death.
The real and thrilling whodunit of Crime of Privilege is less about which Gregory killed Heidi and more about whether Becket will be able to comprehend the depths of the clan’s power, how casually they wield it to cajole, threaten, or hurt others, and how much he’s been under their thumb. Walker, himself a San Francisco-based trial lawyer returning to ﬁction after writing several award-winning crime novels in the 1980s and 1990s, skilfully exposes Becket’s misunderstanding of his own and his benefactors’ motives even as his description of exclusive parties, back-room dealings, and political machinations underscore the author’s own familiarity with privilege. We like to think America is a land without class; underneath the guise of a gripping thriller, Crime of Privilege demonstrates why that statement is dangerously false.
By Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Friday, June 14, 2013 at 7:00 AM - 0 Comments
Feral: Rewilding The Land, The Sea, And Human Life
By George Monbiot
In the first paragraph of his latest book, George Monbiot eats a plump and juicy bug. Specifically: a beetle larva that tasted “faintly smoky,” apparently “like alpine butter.” After braving the high seas on his kayak to fish, Monbiot guts his catch and eats a few mackerel—raw, of course. Elsewhere, in a forest, he lifts a dead deer around his shoulders like a sack of potatoes and confesses he “wanted to roar.” Yes, Monbiot, the cerebral and bespectacled British author, has gone primal. In response to a dispiriting feeling of ecological boredom, a detachment from untamed nature, he sets off to find a “richer, rawer life” in his British Isles.
Readers are sure to chuckle at the author’s occasionally overwrought excursions on the wild side. Yet Monbiot is on to something, and mostly this is a highly analytical and richly researched book. He does not have more zoos in mind. Rather, Monbiot proposes the “rewilding” of public spaces, whereby large areas could be ecologically resuscitated to some of their former glory and then allowed to develop and change of their own accord without further deﬁlement by economic development or the micromanagement of conservationists. The goal is accessible wildness.
Monbiot clamours for the reintroduction of lynx, beavers, bears and wolves back to Britain. After all, he reminds us that it was only 100,000 years ago that hippos and lions prowled the land where London’s Trafalgar Square now stands. True to his penchant for provocation, Monbiot decries Britain’s “white plague” of sheep, ahistorical conservationist tyrants, Britain’s tiny and ecologically indifferent landholding class, status-quo-ensuring farm subsidies, and plenty more.
Monbiot accepts that rewilding cannot proceed or succeed without ample public support. Costs require consent; change requires a constituency. It very well may be that we have become so alienated from nature that we can no longer sufficiently value it. This is lame. Wolves are cool. A few more sheep might bite the dust, but this could be a small price to pay for enough fresh-aired awe to pry our fingers from our remote controls.
By Erinn Beth Langille - Friday, June 7, 2013 at 6:00 AM - 0 Comments
Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing The New Domesticity
By Emily Matchar
Nary a brunch or glass of wine can pass amongst women without debate on whether we can, in fact, have it all. Successful career-and-family balance seems increasingly improbable, resulting in a turn toward a more meaningful life experience—the New Domesticity, where the heroism of Working Girl is replaced by Pioneer Woman. In her fascinating book, Matchar explores the reasons why women, and men, are leaving the rat race to stay at home, attachment-parent, sell crafts on Etsy, grow organic vegetables and homestead—all the while sharing on blogs. She wonders about the future results of these lifestyle choices.
The author proclaims the positive aspects of the New Domesticity: self-sustainability, concern for the environment, need for flexible work, the reclaiming of crafting and domestic arts to empower women in the global economy and a revaluing of the parent-child bond. But she also points to some of its more insidious repercussions.
Images of cherubic babies and homemade jam on lifestyle blogs are illusionary standards of living. The mainstream workplace is so demonized that it may discourage women from achieving financial equality, which is essential to independence. The focus on all things “natural,” from breastfeeding to co-sleeping, reinforces gender essentialism (Mom knows best, leaving men, and medicine, behind), while hyperindividualism—anti-vaccination and home-schooling, for instance—can be detrimental to communal well-being. Matchar argues that if people, particularly women, “opt out” of the workplace, those often soul-crushing environments—the government, the public school, the city—stay that way.
She builds her argument that the New Domesticity may undermine advances of feminism by culling from well-documented research and a range of personal stories. While the movement unites the far right and far left of the political spectrum, it doesn’t unite race, age, sex and class—New Domesticity is a distinctly middle-class, white experience. In any case, it’s very thought-provoking and should be discussed in knitting circles and boardrooms alike.
By Brian Bethune and Bookmarked - Friday, June 7, 2013 at 6:00 AM - 0 Comments
By James Dawes
The genius of this unsettlingly brilliant book lies in its endless circles of irony, its assertion that harm—or at least potentially harmful paradox—lies in every approach we can take to wartime atrocities. We are morally obliged to reveal inflicted trauma, but we are morally obliged not to re-victimize. To fully detail the wrongs men do, we must assert the human freedom to choose otherwise, even as we reveal ourselves as the products of our circumstances. And most important for Dawes, a literature professor and long-time human-rights activist: To communicate victims’ private grief, a writer needs to establish intimate relationships with them—but also treat them as “material,” as characters to be manipulated and displayed. Everywhere Dawes looks, the spectre of atrocity porn floats before him.
Troubled as he was, Dawes carried on with his study of atrocities as seen through perpetrators’ eyes, because he had a rare chance to speak to an exceptional group of war criminals. The men of the Chukiren were the last of 1,100 Japanese POWs imprisoned by the Soviets in conditions of extreme brutality at the end of the Second World War. They were eventually handed over to Communist Chinese forces, who treated them benignly, as long they went along with thought reform. Many had a quasi-religious conversion, becoming militantly anti-war. Back in Japan after 1957, they openly confessed to their wartime crimes: murder, rape, torture, even vivisection. By the 21st century, the survivors were old, sick, discouraged that official Japan still denied the horrors inflicted in China and ready to talk to an American, someone whose countrymen had just committed the abuses recorded in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. (“There’s always context,” Dawes dryly notes.)
And what did Dawes learn? Some things positive: There are red lines, including a deep reluctance to kill children—“the one thing we’ve all been, children,” says Dawes. And some far more negative: Rape came easy. But what he learned paled beside what he felt, a kind of vertigo, as Dawes experienced sympathy for the old men, and worry over the value and effect of his work. “What will happen,” he directly asks his readers, “when you read this book?”
By Jaime Weinman and Bookmarked - Friday, June 7, 2013 at 6:00 AM - 0 Comments
Superman: The Unauthorized Biography
By Glen Weldon
Why do we need another book about Superman? Because the majority of books about the most famous comic-book character of all time haven’t spent much time discussing his comic books. Weldon, a commentator for National Public Radio, spends much of the book looking at Superman in his natural habitat, the comics pages, and examining how individual comic stories constantly change the nature of the character. “Everything about him exists in a state of perpetual flux,” Weldon tells us, except his basic unselfishness and determination to succeed.
Weldon does what many Superman histories don’t bother to do: He reads and summarizes many of the big man’s earliest appearances in Action comics and his own eponymous title, helping us see how he gained his signature traits over the course of his early years. The chronology, which includes Superman’s successful early ventures into radio and cartoons, helps us see how the character became what he is, and what had to be discarded along the way to get him there: The first attempt at a supervillain to fight the invincible hero was not Lex Luthor but the “Ultra Humanite,” a scientist whose mind gets transplanted into a sexy woman’s body.
The pileup of plot summaries can get a little wearying, especially since Weldon was not able to get the rights to show samples of the comics he writes about. But the book still leaves you impressed, above all, with the resourcefulness of the artists and writers who have been assigned to work on Superman. Weldon admits that he is a “corporate-owned, narratively static character,” yet people still come up with ways to insert their own interests into the character and his friends and enemies, whether it’s the mulleted Superman of the ’90s, or the time Lois Lane learned about race by turning herself into a black woman.
By macleans.ca - Friday, June 7, 2013 at 6:00 AM - 0 Comments
Downward mobility is counterintuitive to the American Dream; no wonder our neighbours to the south are having trouble adjusting to the American Nightmare. With folksy compassion, Garson crosses the country to interview ordinary Joes and Jills about their predicaments. Some (younger ones, mainly) have reset their expectations; others are doggedly trying to make the best of things until (they hope) the economy returns to normal.
These are human stories of denial and pluck, a burgeoning new class of the “rich” poor—unemployed yet still going out for coffee each day; people who were relatively well off but are now forced to choose between paying the rent and having a tooth extracted. Most will do anything to keep their jobs, including acquiescing to a company’s expectation that employees will donate free days of work while enduring the tension that comes from understaffed workplaces. There’s young dreadlocked Michael, who has arrived at the hippie ethic from another direction, and who considers his friend with a steady job at a living wage the epitome of success. One of the best stories concerns the celebrity who, having lost his millions in an investment scheme, describes how he scaled back his lifestyle.
Garson provides in lay terms a historical assessment of where it all went pear-shaped; how, in the mid-1970s, the wealth gap started widening, inflating a bubble that ballooned for more than 30 years, only to burst spectacularly, thanks to the banking sector.
While the book is better suited to an American audience, it does offer a glimpse into the Byzantine concoctions of a financial sector that practises “free enterprise” beyond the reach of the law and morality. As Garson’s subjects show, there is a quiet get-even anger percolating: Many are making strategic decisions to default on their debts and mortgages. They know it’s wrong, but it’s all about looking out for No. 1 now.
By Dafna Izenberg - Friday, June 7, 2013 at 6:00 AM - 0 Comments
Maggie and Me
By Damian Barr
Barr discovered Margaret Thatcher in 1984, the night his parents split up. He was eight, in a strange new home, curled into the curve of his mother’s arm and dreading the moment she would go to join her boyfriend in bed. On TV was coverage of the IRA bombing in Brighton, at the hotel where Thatcher was staying. Barr marvelled at the indomitable blond woman, her remarkable calm as bloodied bodies were pulled from the rubble. At the moment, his own life seemed to be falling apart, Barr cleaved to the Iron Lady’s strength.
Since Thatcher’s recent death, reviews of her legacy have noted the acrimony her policies bred in small-town Scotland, where Barr grew up. His father worked at the Ravenscraig steel mill (closed by Thatcher’s administration), which would turn the sky orange on the nights he helped pour out tons of liquid steel. These second sunsets, as Barr thought of them, helped him stay connected to his dad, but they couldn’t protect him from his abusive stepfather, the stigma of being gay or, later, the shame of living in a council house where the adults blew their disability cheques on weekly drunken bashes. Barr took solace from Thatcher’s gospel of hard work and responsibility, and pushed himself at school.
Barr has pegged this memoir to the woman he calls his “other mother,” but its biggest strength is the heart with which he depicts his own family. Rather than focusing on the suffering caused by his mother’s alcoholism and poor choice in men, Barr writes about her warmth and loyalty. And feistiness—the way she smiled sunnily at her ex-husband’s girlfriend, then shouted “Hoor!” in her face. Best of all is the poignant humour with which Barr remembers his younger self—his annotations in The Catcher in the Rye: “OXYMORONIC!”; his calls to random numbers in which he’d utter “Help me,” then hang up. It’s too bad Maggie didn’t live to read this book. She’d have been proud of Barr’s resilience—and his generosity of spirit.
By Erinn Beth Langille - Friday, June 7, 2013 at 5:00 AM - 0 Comments
To Eat: A Country Life
By Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd
Part memoir, part cookbook, part gardening book, To Eat: A Country Life is a delight. Fans of the authors’ previous books, among them A Year at North Hill: Four Seasons in a Vermont Garden and Our Life in Gardens, will find similar rewards in the latest offering in which educated musings on country life and growing tips are delivered in prose more akin to poetry and literature. Describing a homegrown lime, for instance, they write, “Whole worlds seem locked in an ovoid, greenish-yellow globe, waiting for release.” They, and their writing, are to gardening what M.F.K. Fisher was to food: a revelation.
Each chapter is dedicated to a different food type. Some chapters are pointedly joyful, such as the one on blueberries; some reflect intense work, such as their efforts for peas, or have an almost scientific feel, as with their instructions on how to achieve the white core of the Belgium endive. There’s personal lore, such as how they came to rescue Egyptian onions from a riverbank in Boston, and then the linking of their adventures with the greater world, as in the historical development of Boston’s Fenway Gardens, where they first transplanted the onions. Chapters include simple recipes that reflect the bounty of the harvest. An unusual one, chicken stew with unborn eggs, is not likely to be found elsewhere.
The sensibilities of the book are best summed up when they write, “If gardening has a purpose, it is to engender plenitude, a delicious human fantasy that want is banished. And not unlike the other arts—poetry, music, novels—gardening does try to achieve the real thing, the Eden of our imaginations, here and now.”
The book brings both laughter and tears. The afterword is particularly solemn. Wayne Winterrowd died in 2010 in the middle of writing the book, and it will be the last joint effort by the pair. Loss, in life and in the garden, is a bitter truth.
By Marni Jackson - Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 8:00 PM - 0 Comments
An architect wins a prestigious competition but is consumed by despair when he proceeds to lose his wallet on the subway. A patient assures his therapist that he wants to change, “but not if it means changing.” A husband lies to his wife about having advanced lung cancer—and then lies about recovering. A woman refuses to face the mounting evidence of her husband’s infidelity, until she visits him in his “work” apartment, opens the dishwasher, and sees two of everything, perfectly stacked. Her question—“Who loaded the dishwasher?”—becomes the banal, life-changing moment in their lives.
This may sound like a great collection of short stories (and it often reads like one) but it is in fact a lapidary collection of vivid true-life tales gathered by a psychoanalyst in the course of his 25 years of practice. Although the author teaches psychoanalytic theory at University College London and has treated a wide range of patients from the criminal to the privileged, the writing is anything but clinical. There is a lucidity and a gently amused empathy to the stories that feels Chekhovian in their ability to recognize the small, transformative moments in our relationships. And this therapist isn’t a blank slate; his doubts and daydreams in the consulting room enter into the stories, which helps level the playing field between therapist and patient, and triangulates the mystery. (One of the more fascinating chapters reflects on why he finds one patient so “aggressively boring.”) One wonders how his well-disguised former patients feel about seeing their stories recast like this, of course. But I see our time is up now.
By Mike Doherty - Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 8:00 PM - 0 Comments
It’s surprising that Connors, who won a record 109 pro tennis tournaments, should have waited 20 years after leaving the circuit to publish this memoir: he so often relished playing to the crowd. That said, as his book’s title suggests, he’s always his own man—to a fault.
His on-court tantrums sometimes led to penalties and fines, and he has been critiqued for the somewhat cavalier and self-serving way he reveals in The Outsider that Chris Evert, his then-fiancée, had an abortion in 1974. There’s also a bitter passage about Andre Agassi, who, he claims, somewhat disingenuously, “didn’t affect my life in any way.”
But he’s not without a conscience. He agonizes over an early-’80s affair and regrets the compulsive gambling that for a while dominated his post-tennis life. Connors ultimately rejects anything that might harm his family, which is, for him, inextricably linked with tennis: he learned a “woman’s game” from his mother, and derived his fighting spirit from seeing her and his grandfather savagely assaulted by thugs on a public court in his hometown of East St. Louis when he was eight.
By Patricia Treble - Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 8:00 PM - 0 Comments
Nannies are so beloved in upper-class British society that Prince William invited his childhood nanny to every major royal event, including his wedding, and then dropped everything to attend her funeral last year. For more than six decades, Brenda Ashford was that person to hundreds of her charges. As the quintessential nanny, she swaddled babies, instilled manners into children and earned the respect of parents. Now she’s passing on her hard-earned wisdom in the most charming of biographies, which also proves why she earned a “very good” mark in storytelling from Norland College. Ashford entered the legendary nanny-training school in 1939 at age 18. Her father’s business had collapsed and she needed to work. There she learned everything from housewifery and pram shining to nursery rhymes and the proper way to launder diapers. She and her classmates even cared for sick babies and children at the famous Great Ormond Street Hospital.
When war broke out in 1939, she looked after terrified inner-city children who’d been separated from their parents and evacuated into the strange world of country life. As her confidence grew, so did her belief that clearly outlined and consistent rules were the best way to raise children. Snacking between meals was forbidden, as was the answer “no”—instead she’d offer an alternative solution or an explanation for her refusal. And along the way she saw the transformative power of love, affection and cuddles. She passes along her Mary Poppins-esque knowledge under headlines such as “bake the best apple pie ever,” which includes a mouth-watering recipe, and “have treasure chest fun,” while roundly criticizing today’s electronic obsession.
It was a vocation of long hours and low pay. Her daily schedule, given at the start of each chapter, often started at 7 a.m. and ended at 10 p.m. Though she had a few romances, Ashford, now 92, never married. Her charges were her life. The love was mutual. She’s still flooded by visits and cards from those now-grown children.
By Marni Jackson - Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 8:00 PM - 0 Comments
Playwright and activist Eve Ensler’s new book is a brilliant, ferocious memoir about the experience of going through cancer, but that’s just for starters. There are radical and refreshing ideas here, as the author connects her illness to our collective dissociation from the ailing body of the earth, as well as to the suffering of women around the world in countries where rape and sexual violence have become part of military combat. Any brief synopsis is going to make this book sound dire and doomy, but the experience of reading it is exhilarating. It’s unputdownable, and shot through with an almost shamanic energy.
Ensler writes about how she grew up completely dissociated from her body, as a result of sexual abuse by her father. When her play The Vagina Monologues became successful, she travelled around the world meeting women who naturally felt compelled to share their stories with her. Often they were sagas of sexual violence. But the stories that shattered her were the ones she heard in the Congo, where eight million people have been killed and many thousands of women raped in an economic war over minerals like tin, gold and copper. Oddly enough, however, the Congo was also where Ensler encountered optimism and hope. “Inside this world of atrocities and horror was a red-hot energy on the verge of being born,” she writes. “The women had hunger and dreams, demands and a vision.” Ensler joined forces with a group of Congolese women and they were about to open a new UNICEF-supported sanctuary for women when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer (stage three). She describes her seven months of treatment in a series of verbal CAT scans that capture images, memories, visceral epiphanies and ideas all at once. The result is a genuinely brave and passionate book that makes us rethink our connection to our bodies, each other and to the world.
By Erinn Beth Langille - Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 8:00 PM - 0 Comments
Early-20th-century writer Willa Cather worked hard to preserve her stature as a great artist, refusing to participate in lecture series, popular engagements and paperback editions of her novels. In her will, she also banned the publication of any personal letters. Despite her wishes, selected letters have been made available for the first time. Scholars rejoice, but what would motivate the layperson to read the collection?
First, there is charm. Her voice, cherished by readers of her fiction, including My Antonia and the Pulitzer-winning One of Ours, is equally spirited and big-hearted here. The letters reveal the growth of a literary powerhouse who, while joyful, was equally self-deprecating, critical and exasperated. They cover the majority of Cather’s life, from her teens in Nebraska until a week before her death, and are issued to childhood friends, family and such notables as S.S. McClure, Robert Frost, Sinclair Lewis, Sarah Orne Jewett, Alfred Knopf and H.L. Mencken.
There was speculation that the letters would reveal that Cather was, in fact, gay, but those looking for a direct admission of homosexuality will not find it. There are crushes, but Isabelle McClung Hambourg and Edith Lewis, two of Cather’s more lengthy female attachments, have only two surviving letters each.
By Bookmarked, Patricia Treble - Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 8:00 PM - 0 Comments
After devouring Fifty Shades of Grey, a lot of readers must have looked around the erotica market and realized they could find plots a whole lot kinkier than that of a billionaire with a penchant for tying up his lover during sex. How about a man who is insatiable in bed, can turn into a wolf and also shares his lover with his other half? Or a bisexual dominant vampire warrior who, when not in a sex playroom even Christian Grey would envy, turns his beloved into a ghost?
“It’s definitely something readers were looking for,” says Cindy Hwang, a vice-president of Berkley Books, which, for more than a decade, has published erotica, including paranormals. These books—featuring stalwarts such as vampires and werewolves, as well as angels, aliens, shape-shifters, psychics, eagles, Bengal tigers and the odd coyote or two—have long been popular among erotica aficionados, but now they are getting their moment in the mainstream sun.
“Fifty Shades opened up this broader market and now they’re going, ‘Gee, I like it, I want more,’ ” says Raelene Gorlinsky, publisher of Ellora’s Cave, the world’s largest producer of erotic fiction, with a backlist of more than 4,500 titles, of which one-quarter are paranormal. Gorlinsky expects overall sales to increase by up to 30 per cent this year and sees a distinct uptick in interest in the paranormal genre.
By Bookmarked and Jessica Allen - Tuesday, May 28, 2013 at 11:02 AM - 0 Comments
It’s been a big day in book news.
Next May Australian rock star Rick Springfield will publish a work of fiction called Magnificent Vibration.
According to USA Today, “The book portrays a man ‘who has hit a dead end in his life, but who serendipitously receives a 1-800 phone connection to God via an inscription in a mysterious self-help book that may just give him a shot at saving the planet.’”
Springfield’s publishers promise that the Grammy Award-winning author’s debut novel will be “”hilarious, poignant, spiritual, over-the-top, and deeply meaningful.”
In 2010, the singer-songwriter, perhaps best known for the single Jessie’s Girl, wrote a tell-all biography called Late, Late at Night, which was a New York Times bestseller.
In other literary headlines, bestselling U.K. author Helen Fielding is working on the third novel chronicling the zany exploits of everybody’s favourite singleton, Bridget Jones. The title of the book, Bridget Jones: Mad About The Boy, was announced today on NBC Today.
By Bookmarked and Brian Bethune - Friday, May 24, 2013 at 1:00 PM - 0 Comments
What makes life on Earth, our only home (so far), so lively is exactly what makes it so deadly: the planet’s inherent instability. Over its 4.5-billion-year history, Earth has been smothered in greenhouse gas emissions, choked by ice, bombarded by cosmic radiation, split open by megavolcanos, and—as if the planet’s own dangers weren’t enough—hammered by the neighbours, too, in the form of that dino-killing asteroid 66 million years ago. In the last half-billion years alone, there have been five mass extinction events. Each time 75 per cent or more of all species died out in less than a million years, a geological blink of an eye. In one, the cheerfully named Great Dying, the species death toll hit 95 per cent 252 million years ago. One way or another, rapid climate change, too fast for most creatures’ adaptive reactions, was always the culprit.
Ninety-five per cent, however, is not 100, as Newitz stresses. There have always been survivor species, and from our earliest evolution humankind has borne the marks of one. Like sharks, another great survivor, we are natural wanderers (the Scatter of the title); who will “eat any old crap,” as Newitz sums up the human and shark diets (Adapt). Lately—the last 100,000 years or so—we’ve added something even more useful to our survival kits: memory. We know what’s happened before and what will surely come again.
And that’s where this engaging account of past catastrophes becomes arresting. If we’re going to last long enough to get off this murderous hunk of rock—the ultimate scatter—we will need to give up our mindless fossil-fuel addiction and our ecological dreams of restoring untouched nature (since it’s nature that’s trying to kill us). We have to actively manage the planet, argues Newitz. And from geoengineering to regulate sunlight to crafting living cities, half-constructed and half-natural, we’d better get going.
Visit the Maclean’s Bookmarked blog for news and reviews on all things literary
By Bookmarked and Jaime Weinman - Friday, May 24, 2013 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
Many people have written about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but Armstrong, a former Entertainment Weekly staff writer, is the first to put it all into a concise, readable popular history of arguably the most influential U.S. sitcom of all time. Not that it started as a sure thing. Moore was returning to TV after a disastrous attempt to become a film and theatre star. But arriving just when TV was desperate for smarter stories and younger demographics, the show wound up as one of the first to feature a woman as “a strong, independent single lead character.”
The book is told largely from the point of view of a few key people, particularly Treva Silverman, the first of several female writers hired by creators Allan Burns and James L. Brooks to provide the perspective of a modern single woman. The downside of this approach is that it sometimes neglects other key people or even whole seasons of the show after Silverman left. And Armstrong, anxious to tell a story of how the series “helped usher in a more woman-friendly era in the television industry,” treads lightly around facts that don’t fit the narrative, such as the virtual disappearance of women from the writing staff in the final three seasons.
Still, Armstrong has gathered many of the most interesting stories, including the show’s multiple brushes with cancellation in its first season. She’s at her best creating portraits of the behind-the-scenes people, particularly the young female writers like the future Saturday Night Live innovator Marilyn Suzanne Miller, who cold-called Brooks with the greeting “Hi, I’m 22, I’m in Monroeville, Penn., and I’d like to send you a script.” If Armstrong can’t quite make the case for The Mary Tyler Moore Show as a feminist work, she at least makes it clear how exciting it was that, for the first time, there was a show on TV in which intelligent young women could see themselves.
Visit the Maclean’s Bookmarked blog for news and reviews on all things literary
By Bookmarked - Friday, May 24, 2013 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
Our latest book reviews:
- How to Host a Dinner Party, by Corey Mintz, review by Jessica Allen
- La Historia del Español: The Story of Spanish, by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, review by Brian Bethune
- Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice, by Marjorie Shaffer, review by Peter Shawn Taylor
- Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, byJennifer Keishin Armstrong, review by Jaime J. Weinman
- Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H.M., by Suzanne Corkin, review by Ken MacQueen
- Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz, review by Brian Bethune
By Bookmarked and Ken MacQueen - Friday, May 24, 2013 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
The title of this gripping book pretty much says it all about the “tragic mistake” by a brain surgeon that left 27-year-old Henry Molaison unable to remember new experiences for the remaining 55 years of his life. Athletes often credit success to “living in the now” during an event. But what if “now,” and memories of a distant past, are all you’ll ever have?
Molaison was born in 1926 in Manchester, Conn., blessed with sly wit and above-average intelligence; cursed with debilitating epilepsy. In desperation a neurosurgeon tried a targeted lobotomy in 1953, curing his epilepsy but erasing all future memories. Consider the horrible implications of this: losing your job because you can’t remember the task you started; unable to walk alone because you can’t find the way back.
No one was better suited to be his memoirist than Corkin, a neuroscientist at MIT. She was a young graduate student at McGill University when she first met Molaison in 1962 as he underwent tests at the Montreal Neurological Institute. It began an almost five-decade relationship as Corkin, among others, used insights into the wounded mind of H.M. (as Molaison is known in countless neurology texts) as keys to the mystery of the brain. H.M. was both patient and friend to Corkin, though he’d forget their many conversations within seconds and she would remain a vaguely familiar presence, perhaps a high school friend, he figured. “We watched one another age over the decades, although he did not know it,” she writes a bit wistfully.
Above all, Corkin is a scientist. She recounts in chilling, clinical detail the elaborate autopsy after his death in 2008 at 82. “Seeing Henry’s precious brain in the safety of the metal bowl was one of the most memorable and satisfying moments of my life,” she writes. The research lives on. His brain, perhaps the most studied in medical history, is sectioned in 2,401 slices. Corkin delivered a tender eulogy at his funeral. “In loving memory” is etched on his urn. He is gone, but, ironically, never to be forgotten.
Visit the Maclean’s Bookmarked blog for news and reviews on all things literary