Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Catherine McGratton Reviews

Anne Hillerman

Your life can change in a moment; this is the opening of this novel by Anne Hillerman. The Navaho Nation police department are having breakfast together; a long-time revered member of the force who is now retired leaves and is gunned down in the parking lot. The force is stunned, but with Jim Leaphorn in the hospital fighting for his life, every member of that police force is determined to bring the shooter to justice. From the intriguing title to the last page of the book, one is immersed in the culture and stories of the Navaho nation. This novel is a story within a story, a mystery and a journey into an old nation with old ways, trying to live in a technological age. It is about relationships, life’s trials, and treasures lost and found and preserved. It is a legacy from a father to a daughter. Anne Hillerman has taken up where her father left off and has created a work of fiction he would be proud of.   

A stunning first novel by this author, weaving a picture of life in the American Southwest, from the descriptive alliteration of the sunsets and stunning architecture to the life of the current day reservation. This novel entices the reader to visit the area, well worth the read!

Kelly Corrigan

When Kelly Corrigan is told by her doctors that she must have her ovaries removed, it reminds her of a time in her life when she was a nanny in Australia for a family that had recently lost their mother. Written by the author about a time in her life when she was on her personal journey to become interesting, one is moved to tears of sadness (a few) and tears of laughter (a lot), as one identifies with many of the thoughts and situations described in the book.  

The book is autobiographical, but one can’t help but identify with the author and her relationship with her mother and father. It’s about a girl growing into a woman, about love and family relationships, commitment and the impact each of us can have on other people, and the good we can do in the world. It’s about parents letting their children grow up find themselves, and children realizing that all those things your parents tried to instill in you growing up, become useful as we age. I thought the language and flow of the novel was great; I know people like this! This book is a masterpiece of literature, that I believe will become a classic, read by mothers and daughters everywhere, a perfect gift for the women in your life.

Ariel Lawhon

Justice Joseph Crater disappeared in New York City in 1930. This work of fiction suggests what happened to the Judge on that long ago evening. How can someone disappear in one of the busiest city’s in the world? Lawhon has woven fact and fiction together to present the reader with an entertaining and plausible explanation. The characters in the novel are larger than life, well filled out, their actions believable. We are taken from 1969 back to 1930, to a wife who every anniversary of her husband’s disappearance has a ritual drink in a bar, back to the days leading up to Judge Crater’s disappearance. We are transported to the days of showgirls, mobsters, and speakeasies, and introduced to the main characters in this story. The Judge who possibly made a deal with the devil to get his coveted position, the wife who realizes that though she has to dress and act the part of a Judges wife, her husband can and does have mistresses, the maid who sees and hears more than she is supposed to, and the mob boss who calls in favours and manipulates people in his circle to achieve his own ends. This is an entertaining and enjoyable novel with a twist in the end. I enjoyed it very much.

Catherine McGratton

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Shane Neilson

Will is Shane Neilson's first book of short stories after three books of poetry (Complete Physical, Meniscus, Exterminate My Heart) and two of memoir (Gunmetal Blue, Call Me Doctor). Published by Enfield and Wizenty, beautifully hardbound, with a sewn in bookmark and every other sign of attention to detail, Will is the kind of book that is a pleasure even before it is opened.

Most of its stories centre around characters who have connections to Neilson's own life (many are physicians, others are young men growing up in Atlantic Canada, a few are writers), and they are usually told in a limited, first person voice, so the effect is personal and intimate, if not quite autobiographical. There is the sense that many of the stories are alternative lives in a sense, the lives that Neilson might have lived had circumstances been different.

The prose bears the influence of Neilson's poetic voice, attentive to tone and cadence as much as to narrative. This tonal richness never becomes overly formal, however, because it is balanced by characters who speak a colourful and colloquial language, humourous and foul-mouthed and tender and uncertain and real, so that they seem to speak in counterpoint to the surrounding prose.

This part of Neilson's characters also works to undermine the roles that his protagonists often occupy, especially those who are doctors and writers. In almost every case, the official exterior of these figures is undercut by a whole range of vulnerabilities. His doctors are always hiding addictions or insecurities, treating patients who reject, sometimes violently, the authority of their position. His writers hide behind lies, are desperately dependent on the emotional support of the women in their lives. In this way, his stories seem to recall for us a complex humanity, a lived life that is behind the roles to which people are often reduced, even if these roles are not avoidable, even if they are simply an additional complexity that his characters must negotiate.

For just this reason, Will is not a book to be read all in one go. It will not keep you up at night turning pages, desperate to see what comes next. It needs to be read with a little more patience than that, but it rewards patience, and it may still keep you up at night after all, because its characters stay with you, their vulnerabilities exposing your own, long after the book is finished.

Jeremy Luke Hill teaches literature, makes jams and preserves, reads continental philosophy, uses open source software, bakes bread, watches documentary film, plays old-man basketball, and writes poetry, among other things. He is the founder of Vocamus Press, an organization that supports reading, writing, and publishing in Guelph. He has a book of poetry, short prose, and photography called Island Pieces. You can read his blog at at, and you can reach him at

Friday, January 24, 2014

Red Wolf

Jennifer Dance

Red Wolf presents a unique challenge as a book to review, both as a book meant for a young adult (9-13 year old) audience, but also in that it is set in a largely glossed over period in Canadian history. The novel shares its name with the protagonist, an Anishnaabe boy who befriends an orphaned wolf cub named Crooked Ear. The two maintain an unorthodox friendship through Red Wolf's childhood, until he and his parents are forcefully evicted from their home by European settlers. After his parents have their legal standing revoked, Red Wolf is taken away and forced to attend the infamous residential schools. What follows is an illustration of one of the uglier parts of Canadian heritage, as Red Wolf resists the cultural imperialism of the Catholic church masters who govern the school, and experiences firsthand the racism and abuse that too many First Nations children endured. Luckily, his old friend Crooked Ear has yet to give up on him, and together the two seek to escape the tyranny of the school, and return home before the cold winter sets in. The only question left is how much of Red Wolf's home will remain for him to return to, if any.

As an historical account of the conditions within the residential school system, Red Wolf does an excellent job. The drudgery of forced labour, and Eurocentric schooling methods that denounced and shamed the heritage of the various First Nations, are (unfortunately) consistent with the accounts taught in our high schools. At the schools, children were also shamed and abused into believing their people to be savage, dirty, and barbaric. Dance puts a human face to the history books by portraying the terror and confusion of a young boy ripped away from his family and forced to conform to the rules of a cruel and bigoted world he doesn't understand. What is especially impressive is how Dance manages to capture the internalized self-hatred forced upon the students of the residential schools. Even when Red Wolf is allowed to visit his parents, he has been so thoroughly conditioned to loathe and despise his own heritage that he simultaneously feels anger towards his parents for wanting to return to their roots, and guilt towards himself for the conflicting feelings of longing, mixed with the seeds of prejudice that were sewn during his “education.”
Red Wolf also makes an interesting teaching tool, as it makes reference to many of the important events with respect to the immigrant occupation of Native lands and the ousting of their original occupants. Dance captures in vivid detail the struggle of First Nations peoples forced into artificial lifestyles while simultaneously being turned away for homes, jobs, and loans by the people that shackled them to European tradition in the first place. That being said, I feel as though it's the type of book that should be read with children, whether in a classroom setting or at home. Largely due to its brevity (it weighs in at roughly 200 pages, and has relatively large font), Dance's novel tends to simplify the events involved, as well as the relationship between white immigrants and First Nations people. While I understand the need to keep the book at an accessible length, I hope that Red Wolf will be used as a gateway to go into greater detail, perking children's curiosity so that they can learn important (if ugly) truths about how poorly that we have treated our Native citizens. As any individual of Native heritage will tell you, these issues are incredibly complicated, but Jennifer Dance has taken a bold step in the right direction by subverting the idyllic doctrine kids are typically taught about Canadian diversity.

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. Check out his FB page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman, for more musings from the dark corners of the internet. Plus the occasional cat photo.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Last Banquet

Jonathan Grimwood 

The Last Banquet is an intriguing novel. Its canvas is both broad and singularly personal. Jonathan Grimwood's take on pre-revolutionary France is a fascinating, ambitious and altogether brilliant exploration of a unique period in France's history, viewed through the eyes and told from the perspective of a minor noble who starts life in a dung heap and finishes it as master of a sweeping estate and castle in the south of France, one that also doubles as the retirement home of a range of exotic animals no longer fit for life at the Palace of Versailles. The book tells the story of all that comes to pass in between.

Grimwood has written a historical novel that does an exceptional job at not actually reading like a historical novel. A deft illustration, caricature and—at times—skewering of the norms and social customs of France during a period of perverse inequity, brutal injustice and ridiculous class distinctions, it neither lectures or passes judgement. Above all, however, The Last Banquet is a story of life, love, friendship and, particularly, food. Taste is a sensory sub-narrative that weaves through the book, tangential and yet essential to the overall structure. From the sweetness of dung beetles to the richness of roquefort to the fresh sweat at the edge of his first love's neckline, there is no taste left unexplored and unsavoured.

Without question, The Last Banquet is my favourite book so far this year. It is a richly drawn tale of what it means to be human, and to make choices, and to succeed and fail—to live and die—by those choices. But it is a singularly human tale, one that draws you in and doesn't let you go until the absolute and inexorable conclusion. Grimwood's characters are deftly drawn, his dialogue is exceptional and his story telling is superlative. It is Timothy Findley's Famous Last Words, as written by Joanne Harris. And worth the read because of it.

Mark Mullaly is an avid reader, sometimes writer, enthusiastic motorcyclist and lover of wine (and endeavours to engage in only one of these pursuits at any given time).

Last Train to Paris

Michele Zackheim

This novel set in the 1930’s takes us into the mind and heart of a true pioneer. Rose Manon grew up in small town Nevada with a dream to be a journalist in New York City; when she learns of an opening for a reporter at one of the newspapers there, she heads off to start her dream. The Editor had been expecting a male correspondent, but Rose manages to persuade him to give her a chance. As it was in the 30’s, Rose has to prove herself to a higher standard than her male counterparts to gain recognition and respect within the industry. But she soon shows that she has the talent and ambition that it takes to succeed in New York City, and in 1935 starts pursuing an opportunity to take her to Europe.  Before she goes abroad to France in 1937, Rose discovers her ethnicity, a secret her parents had kept hidden from her. 

Once in Paris, reporting for the Paris Courier, Rose meets Leo, a German radical and anti-Nazi, and realizes that, while Paris is an exciting city to live in, the real stories are unfolding across the border in Germany. She manages to get assigned to the Berlin office, where she is happy and in love, until the outbreak of WWII. We are then caught up in the terror, worry and anxiety of Rose’s life as she fights for those she loves. Her mother, a woman she has had a difficult relationship with her whole life turns up in Germany looking for Rose.

This story occurs when Rose is an old lady reliving her memories, living in a different world, but still considered a pioneer of her time. This book is riveting, we can feel the panic and anguish of Rose as she fights for those she loves, the love-hate-duty relationship she has with her mother, and a certain naivety of the times; people outside Germany did not believe the war would happen. Personal and insightful, it should be prescribed reading for young scholars today.

-Catherine McGratton

A Star for Mrs. Blake

April Smith

This is a tremendously emotional novel set in the 1930s about five American women—Gold Star Mothers—who travel to France to visit their soldier sons buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery near Verdun. For people who have visited one these military cemetery’s in their travels, they will recognize the emotional toll the trip takes on these women. Seeing so many graves of America’s finest youth in one place is overwhelming, and the author has managed to capture the feelings and actions of the women in such a way that the reader feels a part of the story. The women are from different strata of society, from cities and towns and small rural places. We see Europe in the 1930’s through their eyes and are introduced to a journalist badly disfigured in the war who runs a piece on the women in the local newspaper; and just like that, they become minor celebrities overnight. This one act of journalism also provides the novel with the twist in the tail. 

A Star for Mrs. Blake is about sacrifice, by the soldiers on behalf of their country, and by the mothers in letting their sons go, but it is primarily a story of women who forge new friendships and come together with each other over a shared tragedy. Death is a great equalizer; money, social status and life experience cannot save us from the grief we feel when we lose a child. The reader is taken through a maelstrom of emotion as the story is told through the eyes of the woman, but you come away feeling uplifted and invigorated with a new-found belief in the human spirit. It’s a great book to read, to remember the sacrifice paid by so many both at home and abroad, those who served and those who waited for their return.

-Catherine McGratton

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Pheonix Island

John Dixon

While I was looking into Phoenix Island, another review mentioned that you should not start reading this book before bed because it’s too good and you will not want to sleep. I like to live dangerously but I should have taken that person’s advice. This book is so exciting and I couldn’t believe how great the writing was for an author’s first novel. Here's the basics: a government organization takes troubled orphans to an island where they are trained to be ultimate soldiers. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the plot, because I don’t want to give anything away.

I was expecting something like the hugely popular Hunger Games, yet I found this book more captivating and I connected much more to the characters. The television show Intelligence was based on this book, and I am now seriously considering watching the show because the book was just so original and creative. I would like to see how they transform such a fascinating story line into a series. 

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed The Hunger Games or any type of action/thriller book. This book is hugely suspenseful and I’m telling you not to start this book before bed because you will not be able to put it down! 
Wesley Wilson is a zoology student at the University of Guelph and works on campus at a microbiology lab. When Wesley isn’t studying away, she spends most of her time reading. Anna Karenina is her favourite book, but she enjoys reading a variety of different genres.  

The Impossible Knife of Memory

Laurie Halse Anderson

Seventeen-year-old Hayley has been travelling with her father Andy for years now; when they finally settle down in her late grandmother’s house, his memories have a chance to catch up with him. Andy is a war veteran scarred and damaged by his experiences, and Hayley’s upbringing has left her with scars of her own.

This book deals with memories—the ones we keep, the ones we hide from others, the ones we hide from ourselves.

Andy: Odysseus had twenty years to shed his battle skin. My grandfather left the battlefield in France and rode home in a ship that crawled across the ocean slowly so he could catch his breath. I get on a plane in hell and get off, hours later, at my home.

Anderson’s characters are vivid and real, and as always, she isn’t afraid to tackle difficult subject matter. In this book, it’s Andy’s PTSD and substance abuse, and Hayley’s learning how to cope with that and when to ask for help. Who to push away and who to hold close. None of the decisions are easy, and nothing feels pat.

It sounds dark, and while the book does go to some dark places, there’s lightness in there too, with funny banter between the characters and a great, believable teen voice.

Hayley: You know how some babies are blessed by good fairies when they’re born, fairies with names like Beauty and Brains and Kindness and Laughter? I was blessed by their evil underworld troll cousins, Gawky and Awkward. I stared at him and my troll fairies whacked me upside the head with their pointy wands, making me spectacularly… gawkward.

Strong writing, a resonant story and characters you’ll be thinking about long after you’ve closed the book combine to make Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory a great read for teens and adults.

Erin Thomas writes (and reads!) books for kids and teens from her home in Whitby, Ontario. For more information, visit

The Explorer Gene

Tom Cheshir
Imagine travelling to the top of the stratosphere or the bottom of the ocean, or circling the world in a vessel you’ve built yourself. Now imagine being the first to perform any of these feats without the advantage of an engineering background; seemingly impossible goals for ordinary people, but not the Piccards. Three generations of one family have been there and built that, making unbelievable contributions to science and setting a few records in the process. 
Auguste, Jacques, and Bertrand Piccard

Tom Cheshire’s The Explorer Gene is a true account of the Piccard family’s efforts in research, reading less like a documentary and more like a fictional thriller. The story outlines the trials and successes of Auguste, Jacques, and Bertrand Piccard, three extraordinary pioneers of inner and outer space. Page after page I found myself fearing for their lives, even though I was privy to their individual successes. Through minor explosions, weather disasters and premature obituaries, The Explorer Gene delivers not only a biography of one fascinating family, but a riveting story of three lifetimes of risk-taking, perseverance, and triumph.
Cheshire astutely turns historical facts into a fast-paced and unpredictably humorous read. His brief introduction piques the reader’s interest in the idea of an “explorer gene”- a section of DNA that might be responsible for novelty seeking. But Cheshire chooses not to make this the focus of the book, instead using the Piccard success as the underlying message that if something can be dreamed, it can be done. Be warned, though; The Explorer Gene may just spark the adventurer in you. 
Laura Martin's lifelong addiction to fiction took a back seat when she went to the University of Guelph for Molecular Biology and Genetics. She became fascinated with neurological conditions like Alzheimer's Disease and dementia, and is hoping to attend Dalhousie University in the spring for a Masters in Neuroscience.

The Invention of Wings

Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd’s wonderful storytelling capabilities show up again in her latest novel, The Invention of Wings. When I started this book I was prepared to enjoy the story, but its structure initially put me off. I’m not a big fan of alternating chapters between one major character and then another with the eventual merging of their stories. Yet, I was won over for many reasons.

The story is based on two real life sisters in the early 1800s who were the first female abolitionist agents despite being born into the Charleston aristocracy. One sister, Sarah Grimké, becomes entwined with Hetty—the fictionalized slave character—who was given to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. At this tender age, Sarah’s efforts to free her slave have no traction in a male and power dominated culture. In spite of her intellectual capabilities that were nurtured early by her father, she finds out soon enough that intellect has no place in a Southern and well-to-do female’s life. She is devastated by her father’s firm view on this cultural norm. Having had a father who embraced my intellect and encouraged me to ‘go left when everyone else is going right’, I felt Kidd was masterful in describing Sarah’s immense disappointment.

Hetty’s development as a rebel in her own sphere of life goes hand in hand with her owner and is appropriate to her very different station in life. The social structure of how the slave community lived within that of their powerful owners is interesting and remains a powerful reminder of the not-so-long ago times that continue to influence today’s culture.

As the story unfolds, Sarah is joined by her much younger and more outspoken sister, Angelina, in what becomes a lifelong endeavour to abolish slavery. 

The Grimké Sisters

Kidd’s character development and stage-setting is superb. Their personal strengths of character and driven focus to overcome their respective challenges, invites one to feel intense empathy for both the wealthy Sarah and impoverished slave Hetty. I enjoyed the short chapters that meant I could complete a vignette at each bedtime reading.

I suggest you don’t read the author’s remarks at the end of the book until you have read the story. While this background deepened my understanding of the story’s context, not knowing this at the beginning allowed my wonderment to evolve rather than immediately place it in an historical context.

Kidd’s intention was to write about two sisters. This book is a warm testament to sisters by blood and by mission- as they support each other through challenging experiences prompted by culture and mores of their era.

Jennifer Mackie has lived in Guelph for  over 40 years, is a business consultant with never enough hobby time for reading, sports, online puzzles and quilting. With her husband, Carl, they have 2 adult daughters who live in Toronto where she has the newly found joy of reading to their 20 month old grandtwins, Ella and Austin. She reads for entertainment and to discover the world of ‘curious’. Along with finding value in the story, she enjoys experiencing different writer’s styles and methods for how they entice one into their made up worlds.

A Hundred Horses

What is it like to be abandoned over the summer holidays far from home with a tedious set of cousins on a boring farm where everything is dirty, smelly, and unfamiliar?  This is the vacation Nell is facing in Sarah Lean’s story A Hundred Horses. It doesn’t take long for the joy of living close to the land and a mysterious appearance of wild girl Angel and her special horses to ensure Nell is intrigued.

What I found so fascinating in the novel was Lean’s ability to capture that lurching feeling of confusion as Nell treads the challenging path of trying to understand who to trust and how to navigate her own feelings of loneliness and distrust of domineering adults. Angel is aggressive and terrifying, appearing unexpectedly; she is more malevolent than fairy-like and Nell is spun about in her seeking for meaning.
Sarah Lean
The reasons behind Angel’s strange behaviours emerge, just as they would in real life, in a chaotic and blundering kind of way with Nell misunderstanding almost every step. Behind the brave front are a heartbreaking stories of loss and a sweet story of the love of a trusted adult that balances the other story strands of desertion and unreliable behaviour.

Having grown up in a rural area where hanging out on the farms of my friends showed me it’s not all fluffy goslings and cute foals, I appreciated the mixed emotions of Nell’s experience. The land can be awe inspiring but also a dramatic reminder of elemental forces and emotions at play in our world. I can highly recommend this book, especially for those in the early tween years who are torn between doing the right thing and facing the realities of emerging understanding of more than the immediate world of family and personal feelings.

- Rosslyn Bentley

Sunday, January 12, 2014

On Such a Full Sea

Chang-rae Lee

I keep seeing her, Fan, the protagonist of Lee`s novel On Such a Full Sea. I see her clearly for a few seconds, then she is gone behind a line of trees or row of houses. She is always moving forward, never back to the familiar, to some measure of security. Where are you now, Fan? I feel like one of your people left behind in B-Mor. I want to add to the graffiti. Your leaving us was a sign. Everything is not good here. We are not protected and we are not content.

Why can't I let go of this novel? Because Chang Rae Lee's dystopian fiction of a future America is too near. It's an unsettling vision, his declining America, with its abandoned neighbourhoods turned into self-contained labor settlements where workers are descended from “originals” who, to escape an uninhabitable China, were brought to America to cultivate fresh, unspoiled, seafood and produce for wealthy residents living  in charter (walled and gated) villages. For their contributions, workers in the  B-Mor (Baltimore) Settlement live secure and predictable lives designed for contentment, but when two of their number disappear, they are forced to recognize the discontent and violence that permeates society. Yet, it's Fan's quest for her boyfriend Reg and their unborn child that invites possibility into this dystopia; the possibility of free will acting on fate to change things, how life is lived, how we respond to what is going on around us.

Chang-rae Lee

Despite being told that it is dangerous to leave the settlement because you could be kidnapped by anarchic vagabonds in the “open counties,” Fan moves without fear and understands and trusts in “the improvisational nature of her will.” It's this quality that inspires the other characters in the book and us, as readers.

I found the most disturbing yet surprising part of the book to be about the girls who live with Miss Cathy and Mister Leo in one of the charter villages. There are seven of them living hidden, in a single room. Having arrived separately, each as a young girl, they are now in their late teens and address each other by their number—one being the first girl who started living in the room. The girls spend their days imagining their lives, which “Six” depicts in a mural on the wall.  When Fan joins them as number “Eight,” the girls become obsessed with her story and the mural expands to include greater possibilities for them all.

This is a strange book. I couldn't get into Lee's writing style at first but then the story, Fan's journey, and a feeling of the uncanny, of a here but not here, really kept me reading and thinking long after the last page.

Morvern McNie has a collection of old writing books--lined Hilroys with loose pages, several hard cover journals with flap closures--and in each you'll find a few pages of rebuke for spending too much time reading instead of writing.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Why Axis

Uri Gneezy and John List

The field of economic forecasting is often the butt of jokes, being called the modern-day equivalent to soothsaying. Economists read the entrails of Chicago school professors, together with anecdotal evidence, mixed into a pot with abstract theories and a large portion of wishful thinking, attempt to predict the behaviour of markets in order to better make business decisions. Needless to say, it's about as effective as it sounds. Even those within the industry are aware of the faulty methods used, as even Goldman-Sachs' chief economist Jan Hatzius was quoted as saying that “Nobody really has a clue [what's going to happen].” In The Why Axis, John List & Uri Gneezy attempt to rectify this problem by getting out of the lab and into the field, designing innovative experiments to get actual, empirical data on how various incentives motivate behaviour in order to solve real-world problems. They study a variety of issues, including the influence of patriarchal culture on individual competitiveness (dispelling the notion that women are intrinsically less competitive than men), how best to reduce inner-city school absenteeism caused by the threat of violence, and how to get people to donate more to charitable causes.

The thing that surprised me most about List & Gneezy's book was how fun it was to read. While their methods are both well-laid out and scientifically sound, The Why Axis reads more like a travel journal. The process of recording scientific observations is interspersed with the wild stories, like the time Uri attempted to cash $60,000 worth of traveller's cheques in rural India, or John's harrowing journey into Chicago's projects (where the number of gun-related deaths rivals the literacy rate) to get parents to sign consent forms for their previously absent children, so they could take part in beneficial programs. The two have a flair for not sacrificing methodology for accessibility, and the ease of prose with which the book is written makes it a great read for audiences from many backgrounds.

The Why Axis is also an important book for numerous reasons. First, it challenges the rolling train of hegemony present in the way many businesses are run. Data is gathered and decisions are often made a certain way simply because “that's how it's always been done”, and with a company's bottom line, well, on the line, those in charge are frequently resistant to a changing methods. Gneezy & List challenge long-held assumptions across the board, from hunches about what motivates people, to wider beliefs regarding the antagonistic relationship between altruism and capitalism. The latter is a persistent theme, as Gneezy & List work with individuals like the founder of Smile Train (a non-profit that provides cleft palate operations for children in third-world countries), and the founders of hedge fund giant Citadel, Kenneth and Anne Griffin, to tackle problems in health and education. Just getting to hear the stories of these self-made millionaires working for something greater than their bank balance is refreshing amidst the howling cynicism that surrounds the wolves of Wall Street. All in all, Why Axis is an uplifting read that offers new perspectives on a number of fields, and demonstrates the important point that a lab coat and pocket protector are not required to engage in science.

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. Check out his FB page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman, for more musings from the dark corners of the internet. Plus the occasional cat photo.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Little Failure

By Gary Shteyngart

Contrary to the self-deprecating title, Little Failure is a true account of the trials and successes of a Jewish Russian immigrant, settling in America with his well-meaning but rigidly frugal parents. Gary Shteyngart turns a lifetime of exclusion and longing into a heartbreakingly hilarious memoir as he takes the reader through a failure-by-failure account of his inimitable life.

From his humble beginnings as a sickly asthmatic child to his drug-induced education and the hazy working years beyond, Little Failure captures Shteyngart’s struggles to maintain a sense of self while simultaneously shedding an immigrant image. You can’t help but sympathize with the skinny kid from Hebrew school with a talent for story-telling and a tendency toward bullying. 

The need to please seemingly loveless parents, the failed relationships born of self-hatred, the bittersweet introduction to illegal substances, and most startlingly, the repressed memory of the Chesme Church; each painful admission from the author captivates the reader and provides a rare and candid glimpse into the life of a successful writer. Gary Shteyngart is flawlessly open in his midlife memoir, effortlessly evoking humour from the best and worst moments of his life.

If you’re struggling with an identity crisis or desire to fit in, or if you’ve enjoyed any of Shteyngart’s acclaimed fictional novels, you won’t want to miss Little Failure. You’ll laugh and tear up and relive each moment alongside Shteyngart. It may even inspire you to write your own life story.  

Laura Martin's lifelong addiction to fiction took a back seat when she went to the University of Guelph for Molecular Biology and Genetics. She became fascinated with neurological conditions like Alzheimer's Disease and dementia, and is hoping to attend Dalhousie University in the spring for a Masters in Neuroscience.