Friday, August 30, 2013

My Ghosts

My Ghosts
Mary Swan

Reading Mary Swan’s new novel, My Ghosts, is like poring over a family album of old black and white photographs or rummaging through a box of long-forgotten keepsakes. It is the story of a family of orphans that begins in Toronto in the late 1800s and moves through 150 years, recounting the lives of the siblings, the strays they took in, and the people who married into the family.

Mary Swan lives in Guelph and is the Scotiabank Giller-nominated author of The Boys in the Trees, as well as the winner of the 2001 O. Henry Award for her short story “The Deep.” In all her work there is a poetic sensibility for the detail of ordinary life, and this novel is no exception, showing the richness of the inner world of the most ordinary-seeming people. 

We begin in 1879 with a young woman, Clare, one of the strays taken in by the family. Her origins are vague and mostly joked about, the first of many mysteries that unfold over the course of the book. She is recovering from a bout of rheumatic fever and thinking about time, “how it can be Eternal, and yet gone forever,” caught as she is in the timelessness of fever in her attic room while the family of brothers and sisters carries on in the house below. The diagram of a watch in a book, “its pieces exploded out,” captures her attention, the pieces all in order so that it seems they could “at any moment…fall back into place with a tiny sound and become whole again.” The image could be a motif for the book, in which the stories of the family are “exploded out” to be examined and apprehended as integral parts of a whole.

Different people take on the telling of different parts of the story: Kez, whose twin sister, Nan, ran off for a brief, ill-considered marriage; Bella, daughter of Ross, the oldest of the siblings who left the family early and died in a cabin fire; Robbie, a young man who married Bella's daughter, Edie, and has just returned badly wounded from the war; and on to a great-great-granddaughter, Clare, a widow who in 1990 is packing up her home and preparing to move. There is a satisfying symmetry about coming round to another Clare a century later in the modern world who is still musing about time, remembering the girl she was in the 1960s when she traveled around Europe with a backpack and a makeshift family of other wandering souls.

Swan’s novel is foremost a book of memory, of “ghosts” that infiltrate lives, and each life is a ghost for the ones who come after. Throughout, there are common disasters such as fires, war, illness, and suicide—the “dark threads” that weave though the lives and reverberate through generations. And then there are all the small remembered moments that seem “too trivial to mention, dappled light through a breeze-blown curtain or a sentence a teacher once said, a brown horse dipping its head,” that are maybe not trivial at all: “maybe those moments are clues, a string of essentials.”

My Ghosts is a book to immerse yourself in, to put under your pillow and absorb through your pores, to alert you to “the ghosts that trail everyone,” to the way our lives are not just our own but part of a long chain of stories, part of a whole.

-  Melinda Burns

Melinda Burns is a writer and teacher of writing living with her ghosts in Guelph. 

Mary Swan will be launching My Ghosts at the Bookshelf eBar on Tuesday, Sept. 10 at 7:30 p.m.

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Somebody Up There Hates You

Somebody Up There Hates You
Hollis Seamon

If you were seventeen and dying, what would your end-of-life “bucket list” experience be? For Richard Casey, the central character in Hollis Seamon’s young adult novel Somebody Up There Hates You, it's the
perhaps expected wish to fulfill his part as a fully participating member of adult male society--having sex with a girl. The trouble is, his most likely candidate for his own deflowering is his hospice-floor neighbour: beautiful, smart, fifteen-year-old Sylvie, who is guarded by her “dragon-like” smouldering father.

The novel cracks along with a storyline and dialogue like Holden Caulfield revisited. If you’ve ever seen the movie Whose Life Is It Anyway? you’ll have an inkling of the pacts between nursing staff and patients who want to get a little of their autonomy back when faced with the uncompromising  trade-offs and daily humiliations around the most personal care needs that require another person's hands.

Richard’s hospice experience is poignant rather than sad. The promise of life curtailed pricks one’s eyes with tears, but his jaunty refusal to act like a dying patient keeps the smile on your face and an appreciation for the fierce life force that keeps even the terminally ill hopeful from day to day. Definitely a read that will keep you thinking and a great jumping off point for conversations about end-of-life planning and the will to live.

- Rosslyn Bentley

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Glittering Images

Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars 
Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae burst upon the scene at the beginning of the 90s and a storm of controversy followed.  Academics, art critics, and thinkers of various kinds weighed in. Television appearances and articles in the popular press have extended her reach to a broader public who remain enflamed—some against her, others in her defense. Earlier this year the London Sunday Times published her article “Why Rihanna is the New Diana,” and social media sites went wild.

In Glittering Images, Paglia tackles an issue addressed by many others of our time: the fractured nature of our daily lives. We are barraged with glittering, jittery images, whether driving through an intersection plastered with video boards, sitting at our computers, having a drink at a bar, even as we fill our cars with gas at service stations. The result, Paglia asserts, is that “instant global communication has liberated a host of individual voices but paradoxically threatened to overwhelm individuality itself.”

To survive in this “age of vertigo” Paglia wants us, and our children especially, to relearn how to see, to find focus, which she says is “the basis of stability, identity, and life direction.” And the best way to find focus—in fact, she says, the only way—is to “present the eye with opportunities for steady perception—best supplied by the contemplation of art.”

What follows in Glittering Images is a walk through history, guided by twenty-nine works of art presented in chronological order, each representing a style or school of art. The chapters are short, the reproductions of the art works are excellent (at least in my hardcover edition) and Paglia’s writing is as colourful as we’ve come to expect of her, and as well-documented. She is clearly writing for a general audience, young people included. But while the writing is clear and simple, the ideas are not dumbed down. Her wit and persuasiveness had me looking forward to the next chapter, not wondering when the lesson would end.

Take for example the chapter on Pablo Picasso’s eight-foot high painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Now owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Picasso painted it in 1907 in his squalid one-room studio apartment in Montmarte, Paris. Yes, Picasso is famous enough for almost anyone to know of him, but Paglia calls this “one of the most original and disturbing works in the history of art” and claims that it has stood up as “the most important painting of the 20th Century,” an epithet applied to it as early as the 1950s. I studied the photograph of the painting for a while, sceptical, and then read on.

Paglia draws attention to various aspects of the painting, pointing out the styles that influenced Picasso as he painted Les Demoiselles. That figure draws on Egyptian art with its anatomical contortions, and on the posture common to Greek statues of athletes. This one is channelling the winged Victory of Samothrace (created in 190 BC and decorating the Daru staircase of the Louvre since 1884). Those ones allude to the Venetian tradition of lazy, opulent nudes who also appeared in Turkish and Algerian works. The two with domed heads and large ears are based on pre-Roman Iberian sculptures found near Picasso’s hometown of Malaga in Spain. Those show echos of tribal masks that started to be collected and represented in a big way in Paris, including by Picasso’s friend and rival, Matisse. And the painting as a whole displays a revolutionary dual point of view, not seen since Byzantine art. Since all these styles were described in previous chapters, Paglia’s analysis in this chapter functions as a familiar summary and a compelling example of the progression of styles, each linked to what came before.

But when Paglia got to pointing out the raised eyebrows and claimed they came from a homoerotic statue that always fascinated Picasso, namely Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, I was ready to add a grain of salt again. But Paglia is a researcher and academic and doesn’t make her statements lightly, it turns out. She points to the vast array of materials available to us as we try to understand Picasso’s mind and works. Among them is a photograph of his studio that shows a life-sized plaster copy of this statue. Perhaps “fascinated” isn’t strong enough.

What seems to attract the avid attention of everyone from art critics to the general population is the philosophical underpinning Paglia brings to all her analyses. Mentored by Harold Bloom, influenced heavily by Freud, highly critical of the French post-structuralists, vocal about her politics and willing to change parties to support principles, and bringing a wealth of literary references to bear on her analyses, Paglia produces a maelstrom of ideas that spill out one after the other in her earlier works. But the role of sex gets everyone’s attention.

As she points out in Sexual Personae, every human must wrestle with nature but the burden falls most heavily on the female, who has the largest role to play in the creative force. We create societies as a defense against nature’s power, but societies are artificial constructions that can be wiped out by nature in minutes. Sex is a subset of nature while sexuality and eroticism are the intersection of nature and culture. Calling on Freud’s “family romance,” she believes we each have an incestuous constellation of sexual personae that we carry from childhood to the grave and that determines how we love or hate.

It’s no surprise then that nature, a deeply earthy force, will come through in art. Les Demoiselles is a “visceral adaptation of primitivism,” demonstrating the violence of ancient nature cults. In the painting, sex is “a gateway to a world of pure biologic force where man is nothing and where woman, a mother goddess splitting into her weird sisters, is everything.” Paglia also sees the painting as a ruined altar, laden with forbidden fruit and slabs of meat. The women’s snake-like eyes make them “sleepless watchmen of the heaven-hell of sex.”

Alongside her analysis of styles and assertions regarding the symbols that reveal deep truths about human existence, Paglia interweaves biographical and historical information. Picasso didn’t choose the title of the painting and was irritated by it, calling it “mon bordel” or “my brothel.” He also called it his first “exorcism painting,” a sort of experiment with black magic that lends credence to much of Paglia’s interpretation.

Each chapter reads well on its own. The final chapter on George Lucas’s Revenge of the Sith (the sixth film in the Star Wars series) was perhaps my biggest surprise of the book. She calls Lucas the greatest artist of our time and gives over considerable space to telling his amazing life story. He turns out to be a great inventor, building laboratories (with the profit from American Graffiti!) and creating new technologies that would turn out to make possible many more accomplishments by others. He also produced books that have made a major contribution to art education for young people. By the end of the chapter, I actually wanted to see all the Star Wars movies.

Read enough Paglia and you are bound to find brilliant new ideas and to be upset at some of the old comfortable ones that have to be re-thought. She is consistent and builds a case for her interpretations. Confine your reading to Glittering Images and you can comfortably focus just on seeing some spectacular pieces of art with new eyes and, yes, with a calm focus.

-    Reg Sauvages

Reginald Sauvages, PhD, is the nom de plume of a local bibliophile (read: bookworm) who goes on building bookshelves and buying paperbacks for the beach so sand doesn’t ruin favourite clothbound books, even while owning an e-reader.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Odyssey

The Odyssey
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Odysseus is a wily and courageous man who spends ten years on the battlefield of the Trojan War below the high walls of Troy. He is also a determined man who overcomes all obstacles for another ten years while returning home to his beloved Penelope. And Stephen Mitchell is a determined man who translates Homer’s Odyssey on the shoulders of previous translations by Robert Fitzgerald, Richmond Lattimore, and Robert Fagles, among others.

If you’ve been putting off reading the Odyssey, Mitchell’s translation is a good place to start because his vocabulary is contemporary. The Odyssey has been singing for over 2,000 years; Mitchell’s lines read easily and move the reader quickly through a story that sings again in his version. M. L. Finley’s The World of Odysseus provides a solid foundation for reading the Odyssey. In it, Finley reminds us of the intensity and depth of commitment required to present an epic like the Odyssey:
In 1954…a sixty-year-old Serbian bard who could neither read nor write recited a poem of the length of the Odyssey, making it up as he went along, yet retaining meter and form and building a complicated narrative. The performance took two weeks, with a week in between, the bard chanting for two hours each morning and two more in the afternoon.
That’s an accomplishment very hard to imagine in the era of Twitter, hashtags, and shrinking attention spans.

  Here are four short examples of translations of the same lines (lines 250 and following) from Book Twelve of the Odyssey. Odysseus has filled the ears of his men with beeswax so they cannot hear the songs of the Sirens, as anyone who hears their singing leaps into the sea and then drowns trying to reach them. Odysseus has been tied to the mast so that he can hear the singing that has led to death for everyone else who has heard it. He calls to his men to release him, but they are deaf to his requests.
The lovely voices in ardor appealing over the water
made me crave to listen…. (Fitzgerald 1961)

So they sang, in sweet utterance, and the heart within me
desired to listen…. (Lattimore 1965)

So they sent their ravishing voices out across the air
and the heart inside me throbbed to listen longer.
 (Fagles 1997)

This was the song they sang with their lovely voices,
and my heart longed to hear it. (Mitchell 2013)
Mitchell’s version is closest to our use of language today. But I retain a fondness for some of the early work by Fitzgerald, especially for his translation of the words of Odysseus when he finds himself surrounded by the spirits of the dead in Hades: “Here was great loveliness of ghosts!” Neither Lattimore’s “and now they gathered in swarms around the dark blood” nor Fagles’s “and there slowly came a grand array of women” approaches the mysterious beauty of the Fitzgerald translation. Nonetheless, if you haven’t read the Odyssey yet, I encourage you to start with Stephen Mitchell’s accessible translation.

- James Reid

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In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
Gabor Maté

Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts is a compelling tale of addiction, abuse, and compassion. Maté is a practising physician in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, and he based his book on two decades of personal experience and countless interviews with his patients. The focus of the text is addiction, but Maté covers everything from addiction to drugs to his own addiction to classical CDs. This Canadian best-seller is written with exceptional elegance and style despite the depressing and sometimes horrific stories told within. This book would appeal to a professional audience interested in medical and treatment issues, but also to people living with "hardcore" addictions who are seeking to put their own experiences into context, to gain an understanding of their illness, and to discover a path to healing.

The author makes it clear that conventional treatment and recovery are not exactly the end goal of his work. Maté’s approach has more to do with compassion—he strives to let people suffering from addictions be who they are without judgment, and in the process helps them to reduce the harm they would otherwise inflict on themselves and the local community. Canada's ground-breaking safe injection site is housed in the same building as Maté's office and is an example of this line of thinking: if you are going to inject yourself with drugs, at the very least you should have clean needles and medical staff nearby.

Maté takes issue with the punitive nature of Canada's drug laws and with a society that "ostracizes" those who become addicted to drugs. The non-profit Portland Hotel Society, where he is employed, offers a range of programs designed to meet the basic human needs of those who live and work on Vancouver's infamous Hastings Street. Basic housing, meals, and medical and dental care are the base services offered, and when the Society can afford it, it also organizes camping trips, movie nights, and other social events to provide alternative experiences to some of Canada's most abused, shunned, and forgotten inhabitants.

Vermin, disease, and death are all too common in the lower Eastside, and the first few pages of Maté’s book alone recount details of over ten lives lost to the lifestyles associated with drug addiction. The book is a mix of anecdotes, retold stories, and hard facts. Almost every patient of Maté's is a convicted criminal, more than half are diagnosed with mental illness, and a third are HIV-positive. But amid the heart-wrenching details of poverty-stricken Hastings Street, the reader is struck with a sense of awe regarding how the book portrays these homeless, and in many ways helpless, individuals as human and therefore worthy of dignity and compassionate care. Maté himself remarks how at times he feels "full of disapproval and judgment," but he also tries to recognize that the contradiction in his personal views originates within him and that there is a power imbalance in the role he plays in their lives, and the role they play in his.

Gabor Maté
It is this element of self-reflection that makes the book groundbreaking and effective in facilitating healing. While the first 100+ pages focus on crack, heroin, and meth addictions, the later pages offer insight into the author's own "high-status" addiction: the purchase of classical CDs, of all things. The switch is not only helpful to lighten the tone of an otherwise heart-wrenching topic, but it is also a very persuasive way to influence readers to self-reflect on their own addictions. The narrative allows readers to appreciate how they too are influenced by many of the same primal urges of instant gratification that drive addiction, and to reflect on how it is that some of us get addicted to crack while others seek pleasure in food, sex, or buying things like classical CDs.

The telltale signs of addiction, such as hiding details from friends and family, are confessed by the author in the context of his addiction to buying CDs in a way that encourages readers to deepen their understanding about their lives and addictive tendencies. Aside from being written in an interesting literary style, Maté’s own story is an incredibly powerful example that generates a compassionate understanding on the part of readers of the ways in which they too could have been crack addicts if their life had been slightly different, and most especially if they were more frequently prevented from accessing opportunities to gain thorough and compassionate self-understanding.

Maté is drawn to classical CDs partly because he was exposed to them early on. Might the addicts in this book have been drawn to something else if their childhood involved different influences, cues, and precursors?

- MaryCarl Guiao

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Veronica Roth

Beatrice is a girl facing a choice that will affect the universe one day. She lives in a future society divided into five factions: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), and Erudite (the intelligent). Growing up in Abnegation, her family’s own faction, is hard. It involves being selfless constantly and thinking of others first. Beatrice knows there is a place where she would better fit in, and when she turns sixteen, she will choose her new home, her new faction.

Beatrice can stay where she was born and live with her family or choose a new faction. But if she chooses a new faction, she won’t get in easily because there are multiple tests. If you pass, you are in the faction and can get a job and live your life. But people who fail become factionless.

When Beatrice makes a surprising choice, her family and others are shocked. She doesn’t know her choice will change humanity forever and start a war between all the factions, but it’s too late. Beatrice just a normal, plain girl? Think again.

Be prepared to be engrossed in this novel about the future of humanity, when people live according to their personalities. Divergent will change the way you think. It shows how Beatrice changed her life with one choice, and that one choice can define you for eternity.

-  Jamie Gibson

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

In Calamity's Wake

In Calamity’s Wake
Natalee Caple

Calamity Jane was an American frontierswoman famous for her participation in military conflicts with Native Americans and, in her private life, for her empathy and kindness. Her real name was Martha Jane Canary, and her nickname comes from her bravura, from her courting disaster and surviving it.

Natalee Caple uses Jane’s legend as the basis of her aptly named novel In Calamity’s Wake, in which Jane’s daughter Miette (also based on Jane’s real daughter—or a woman who claimed to be her), searches for her mother. It is a story about identity, as the search for our parents, who they are, what they are like, is a way to know ourselves. Miette’s quest is complicated by the legend that surrounds her mother. Everybody whom Miette meets or sees in a vision—a  madwoman, a troubadour, a madam, a ghost—claims to know her mother. Every story about her offers a different portrait: a soldier, a nurse, an entertainer, a drunkard, a good Samaritan, a lover, a friend. It could be that no one knew her at all, or that all these people knew only a part of her.

The book is written in poetic prose, in alternating chapters from the point of view of Calamity Jane or Miette. Their stories start at a physical and chronological distance and slowly converge in time and place until the mother and the daughter finally meet.

On another level, the novel is Natalee Caple’s search for the real Calamity Jane. In her attempt to imagine and recreate the life of this woman, Natalee Caple sifts through historical documents, diaries, pamphlets, letters, and memoirs as if panning for gold. The book is also the author’s search for veracity, the emotional truth of the worlds and characters she creates.

Fiction writers are the greatest liars, and their works are like their children. In her letter to Miette, Jane says: “A lie is a thing. It is a real thing in the world like a diamond or a gold nugget or a name or a hole in the wall…. Some believe in it, some don’t…. Once it’s there you can fill it, or cover it up, or elaborate on it.”

- Kasia Jaronczyk

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The Tiger

The Tiger
John Vaillant

John Vaillant’s The Tiger recounts the true story of a man-eating tiger on a rampage in the

Russian Far East in the late 1990s, the village it terrorized, and the team of trackers sent to stop it. The events surrounding the tiger’s attacks themselves don’t take long to relate, and Vaillant makes it clear from the opening pages who is responsible for the killings (the titular tiger was never tried in a court of law, but its innocence is dubious). He takes a more holistic approach: in order to truly understand the crime, you must first understand the society in which it took place.

While this broad scope means that it isn’t always entirely clear where Vaillant’s narrative is going, the writing is sufficiently entertaining to support the occasional meandering. Take, for example, Vaillant’s suggestion that “to say that a tiger is an ‘outside’ animal  is an understatement that is best appreciated when a tiger is inside”. Or, “the impact of an attacking tiger can be compared to that of a piano falling on you from a second story window. But unlike the piano, the tiger is designed to do this, and the impact is only the beginning.”

Some readers may take exception to how Vaillant ascribes intent or motivation to the tiger’s killings. He suggests that the tiger may have acted out of revenge, targeting specific victims who had previously harmed it in a botched poaching attempt. The extent to which that may be true is debatable, but nevertheless this is an interesting and well-researched story, artfully told. Recommended to anyone with an interest in conservation or the natural world.

- Tom Hall

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Jeff Guinn

You just can’t make this stuff up.

Manson, by Jeff Guinn, details the outrageous and horrific life of Charles Manson and his followers in the 1960s. The book begins with an detailed account of Manson’s childhood, highlighting the hardships of both Manson and his mother. Later in life, Manson would go on to inspire a cult following—his “Family”—to believe in an oncoming race war that Manson called “Helter Skelter,” inspired by the Beatles song. Manson himself tried to catalyze the race war by directing his followers to commit the tragic Tate-LaBianca murders, during which six people, including director Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, were killed.

Today, Manson remains an enigma more than forty years after his crimes, and Guinn tells us how it all unfolded like a straight-talking friend in a smoky tavern over a beer. Guinn elaborates on the more far-fetched antics of Manson, including his involvement with the Beach Boys, the mysterious drowning of a lawyer involved in the murder trial, and the attempted assassination of president Ford by one of his followers. But Guinn also captures the era as a colourful backdrop to the story, describing the streets of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and the tension between LA neighborhoods circa 1967. Manson is the type of book that you try not to read too fast, because the details are just that compelling. Guinn never writes a dull moment.

- Ingrid Sorensen

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Monday, August 12, 2013

The Fighter's Mind

The Fighter’s Mind
Sam Sheridan

The mental game, especially in combat sports, is an oft-discussed topic. But to a layperson it all sounds pretty vague, sometimes mysterious, and at times even absurd. What would motivate an individual to push his or her body to its absolute limit in order to gain a seemingly arbitrary prize? More than that, what is it that keeps the spirit going strong in those truly exceptional individuals at the top of their field even when the flesh has begun to yield to the ferocity of the contest? These are the questions Sam Sheridan looks to answer in his book The Fighter's Mind, in which he speaks to some of the world’s most prominent martial arts practitioners, coaches, and ultra-athletes to shed some light on what goes on between the ears of the world's toughest men and women.

Sheridan is no stranger to combat himself: in his previous book, A Fighter's Heart, he flew to Thailand to compete and train in Muay Thai kickboxing. He has sparred and competed alongside MMA (mixed martial arts) world champions in Iowa and boxed with Olympic gold medal winners. These first-hand experiences give his writing a more grounded feel—you know you're listening to the experiences of a participant in the pugilistic arts, not just an armchair athlete. Sheridan writes with a studious, impassioned enthusiasm, and inspires readers to experience the struggle for themselves in spite of its difficulty. While offering a wealth of insight, he doesn't hide that there is a certain visceral, phenomenal nature to the conflict which simply must be experienced and can only be truly understood and internalized firsthand.

The Fighter's Mind is an attempt to examine two seemingly diametrically-opposed concepts: the violence and the elegance that are simultaneously present in in-the-moment struggle. What results is a piece written from a surprisingly reflective, calm place, although upon further scrutiny I suppose it shouldn't be surprising. How else would a fighter maintain composure while feeling his face splintered by an opposing fist, other than by creating an emotional center of calm amid the chaos? How else could an ultra-marathon runner find the will to put one foot in front of the other, faced with the prospect of another 50km of ragged lungs and screaming tendons, other than by creating a deeply personal reason, a need to do so? The frank honesty of pain and conflict and the possibilities for self-discovery they pose are a recurring main theme in the book, and Sheridan's prose is suited to describing it, philosophical while pragmatically acknowledging the brutality inherent in the competitions he describes.

That's not to say that The Fighter's Mind doesn't offer up a thieves’ bounty of wisdom from a number of other diverse, wizened voices. Those interviewed range from famed MMA coaches Greg Jackson and Pat Miletich and combat legend Randy Couture, to chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin (who helps deliver my personal favourite chapter, where he ruminates on the process of learning and the art of remaining cautious on the verge of victory), to art critic Peter Schjeldhal and sports psychiatrist Michael Landon. A wide spectrum of perspectives is covered, from the ultra-practical to the calculatingly cerebral to the spiritual and even artistic. Sheridan does a great job of knitting them all together within a cohesive, entertaining, and eminently accessible narrative. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone interested in the human mind and its ability to overcome and improve.

After all, we're all fighting something.

- Vincent Smith

Vincent Smith is a taoist, aspiring writer, and dyed-in-the-wool psychology geek at the University of Guelph. You can find his writing on video games, comics, movies, and all things geek over at The Rogue's Gallery.      

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Letters from Skye

Letters from Skye
Jessica Brockmole

Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye is an entertaining story of love conveyed through letters written during the First World War. The story begins when David Graham, an American, writes a fan letter to Elspeth Dunn, his favourite author in Scotland, beginning a relationship filled with ups and downs. Years later, during World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, begins to worry when Elspeth begins searching for what happened to her American lover. Elspeth is acting strangely and repeatedly goes missing, causing Margaret to worry and wonder about the mysteries of her mother’s past.

Letters from Skye is written entirely in letter form, and Brockmole does a fantastic job of expressing her character’s feelings through their intimate letters. She clearly did plenty of research into the First World War, which allows her to create an interesting but also horrifying atmosphere for her characters. If you are a fan of romance, quirky humor, and World War I, I would very much recommend this book.

-Wesley Wilson 

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The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton
Elizabeth L. Silver

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton
is a riveting tale where little happens in the present, but the past is revealed in a way that keeps the reader guessing throughout the novel. It is the story of a young woman, Noa, who is on death row. The tale unravels slowly, driven by characters brimming with human weaknesses, from Caleb, Noa’s father, an ex-con who seems to really want to change and overcome his failures, to Marlene, the mother of the deceased, whose manipulations are the catalyst for disaster, to Noa herself, who refuses to do anything to help herself, and her lawyer, Oliver, who believes he can save Noa’s life.

This is a craftily wrought tale that keeps you wondering until the very last page.

- Elizabeth Dent

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Thursday, August 1, 2013

May We Be Forgiven

May We Be Forgiven
A. M. Homes

This is the funniest book I have ever read! And apparently I am not the only one who thinks it’s hilarious and very well written. It just won this year’s Bailey’s (as in Irish Cream) Women’s Prize for Fiction, previously the Orange prize. The novel is a Canterbury Tales of twenty-first-century America, chronicling the comical adventures of Harold, a Jewish (Vu den?), divorced, and soon-to-be-laid-off Nixon specialist, as he attempts to make sense of and cope with the extremely violent and basically insane actions of his narcissistic and psychopathic—Is there a difference?—younger brother, a successful TV network executive, not to mention a large dose of sibling rivalry and adulterer’s guilt. Move over Gary Shteyngart and Michael Chabon, A. M. Homes is the great Jewish comic novelist! A provocative thought because she was adopted, but who cares? It only proves the case of Nurture over Nature.

This book has it all: exploits in the American health system; the dangers (and delights) of Internet sex; a faux-English public (private) school replete with athletic competitions on Fields Day; an executive mental health facility known as The Lodge Inc. whose therapy options oscillate between tennis lessons and psychosurgery, and an aging, dyspeptic dog, the family’s emotional glue. But wait, there’s more: nursing home weddings, a Bar Mitzvah in a South African village, and Nixon’s role in the Kennedy assassination! It never stops. Every page is hysterical. ‘Nuff said—you must read this book! And may we all be forgiven.

- Brian Ostrow

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Evil in All Its Disguises

Evil in All Its Disguises

Hilary Davidson

Hilary Davidson’s third novel finds travel writer Lily Moore on a junket with a group of journalists to Acapulco with the intention of writing about a chain of hotels that, it turns out, belongs to Lily’s criminal ex-boyfriend Martin. Lily arrives and soon finds that one of her fellow travel writers has disappeared and hotel staff seem to be keen on sabotaging any of Lily’s attempts to leave the resort. Hotel manager Gavin’s suspicious behaviour, off-hand insults, and clumsy flirtations beckon the reader to wonder what alternative motives he has in planning this trip for the unsuspecting journalists, but his true target is Lily.

This is the third installment in Lily Moore’s adventures, so it was a bit difficult to truly connect with the characters, although Davidson does a decent job at catching the new reader up on Lily’s own personal circumstances, which have catapulted her into new, mysterious waters. Reading the novels in sequence would probably connect the reader better to Lily’s personal story, which contains an even larger mystery that overshadows the events in Acapulco.

Throughout the book, I was reminded of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mystery Evil Under the Sun. Although Davidson does not offer Poirot’s deductive logic and red herrings, she does give the reader an “Old Hollywood” suspense novel based on revenge, murder, money, and betrayal.

- Krista Kermer

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Betty Goes Vegan

Betty Goes Vegan: 500 Classic Recipes for the Modern Family
Annie and Dan Shannon

Growing up, I learned to cook from my mother’s Betty Crocker Cookbook. For the longest time it was the only cookbook in the house and the definitive guide for all recipes from raisin cookies to pot roast.

I was delighted to learn that authors Annie and Dan Shannon decided to resurrect those old classics with a vegan twist. In their introduction, they eloquently describe their goal: “We wanted to show that you can make anything vegan and that no animal ever needs to be force-fed, confined to a crate or cage, or boiled alive, or to endure any of the other nightmares animals face to satisfy our culinary desires.”

Well organized and easy to read, this large tome contains gorgeous photographs on quality paper, a table of contents, an index, and a listing of the recipes in front of each section. I especially enjoyed the authors’ witty commentary. Some of my favourites: “Hope this isn’t too braggy, but these vegan chicken strips are even better than squirrels and kittens hugging”; “Okay, this lasagna isn’t totally green colored, per se. But it does have green vegetables in it and is a great way to recycle leftover chili into something completely new.”

I’m planning to replace my tried-and-true pancake recipe with “Whole Wheat Banana and Chocolate Chip Pancakes.” I’m also intrigued by the “Fresh Lemon and Asparagus Soup,” which could easily be called asparagus chowder. A recent convert to quinoa, I plan to make the “Rainbow Quinoa,” but without the Himalayan salt.

So many recipes, so little time....

- Joanne Guidoccio

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