Monday, November 23, 2009

Human Leftovers

“’Trash’: A Queer Film Classic”
By Jon Davies
ISBN No. 978-1-55152-261-6
If you need any proof that this shiny little pocketbook is a serious academic discussion of an old Andy Warhol movie just turn to page 76 of the book. There you’ll find the line, “The second scene finds Joe arguing with Holly…” That’s “second” as in the scene that comes after the title credits and first scene – both of which apparently demanded the first 75 densely detailed pages to explain. Now THAT’S academic.
The movie’s plot is deceptively simple. Joe Dallesandro, a hunky hustler and drug-addict, lives with Holly Woodlawn, a drag queen who turns the trash she collects in the street into furniture for their apartment. In search of his next hit Joe floats from one neighbour to the next, while Holly stays home and fumes. That’s it. That’s pretty much the whole plot of “Trash.”
But whether or not you’ve seen “Trash”, you’re in for a bit of a shock when you start to read this analysis of the movie. The first shock is just how much the movie predicted today’s disposable culture – art- and people-wise. The second shock is just how much mileage (172 footnoted pages!) Davies gets on a single, largely forgotten Andy Warhol movie. Seriously, in a broken English age of texting teens it’s both enlightening and exhausting to read something by someone reading so much into one line of dialogue, one scene, and one movie. Even more daunting is just how cerebral Davies gets. Sure, kids today are socially smart and tech-savvy but I’m not sure they’re going to be able to grasp the “classicism” of a blowjob. That’s a shame, really, because, in our sexually saturated culture the book manages to return the reader to that wow-worthy era when sex wasn’t a spectator sport, drugs were dangerous, and movies were actually worth discussing and arguing about. Carefully sifting through the aesthetic of “Trash” Davies unpacks the movie’s central theme, espoused by the movie’s director, Paul Morrissey: “(T)here’s no difference between a person using drugs and a piece of refuse.” This is heady stuff for those of us who thought “Trash” was just strung-out kids filming each other doing nothing because there was no YouTube back then.
Of course, this being an Andy Warhol movie, the message is muffled (or amplified, if you’re doing a doctorate) under a lot of art school pretensions (male nudity, an opening shot stolen from Marlene Dietrich’s movie “The Blue Angel”) and, like the cocktail chatter at a film festival, some of that zeal amps up Davies’ assessment of “Trash” itself. Sometimes he manages to make the movie sound much better than it is (he mentions the movie’s “thrilling dynamism” and its “stylized super-proximity”). But if you’re going to be cornered by an excitable movie patron at a film festival you’re lucky if it’s Davies. He’ll have you longing for that waaaay bygone era when movies were actually art.
Sure, perhaps at its most grandiose, “Trash” (the book) suggests that “’Trash’ [the movie] urges us to accept as valuable the limited, the tawdry, the vulnerable, and the sordid because they are the common qualities of the human condition.” Oo-kay… We’ll try to ignore the fact that pretty much every movie asks us to accept as valuable the limited, the tawdry, the vulnerable, and the sordid because they are the common qualities of the human condition. But given the ongoing drama of what to do with Vancouver, Canada’s poorest and drug-addled neighbourhood, the downtown east side, “Trash” is more topical today than when it was first released. As for “’Trash’: A Queer Film Classic”, ultimately, it’s a passionate swirling of ideas that makes discovering old movies sound like the most thrilling pursuit ever. Davies’ book has the whispering intimacy and wide-eyed excitement of great date dialogue. Who knew that the most erotic title of recent memory would be a very long review of an old Andy Warhol movie?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Plants for the Grim Gardener

“Black Plants: 75 Striking Choices for the Garden”
By Paul Bonine
ISBN No. 978-0-88192-981-2
How’s this for two words you’d never expect to use together: black plants. No, not the oil-slick shrubs and trees that got major ink in the media when that pipeline burst in a residential area of Vancouver a few years back but actual healthy, thriving plants that just happen to be, well, black. And not the bark-black or brown-black of certain wall flowers or cedars, but the black-Black-BLACK of debt or death. Is there such a thing? Well, according to this surprisingly original gardening book there are actually 75 such things, each of which gets a colour picture, a paragraph and the moisture and light requirements it needs to survive. The Hillside Black Beauty bugbane, for instance, likes “part sun” and “light shade” and – perhaps given the stress of being the only black plant in a garden of rainbow colours – drinks a LOT of rainwater. The book goes on to say, almost with the same relish that Poe wrote about his raven, that the bugbane sports black “lacquered” leaves “as ornate as the carved designs on a piece of Moorish furniture.” As for why some plants are black, science says it likely has something to do with either compounds the plant creates to protect it from sunlight or some pigment-particular genetic trait.
The book suggests that including a black plant in your garden can give the space the mystery and depth of a Dutch realist painting. I think gardeners are more likely to use big black plants to put a period on where their garden ends; kind of like Nature’s Edge. Regardless, whether you use black plants in your garden or put the book “Black Plants” on your coffee table you’re guaranteed a conversation piece.
In Margaret Atwood’s futuristic “Oryx and Crake” much was written about the Chicken McNuggets of the future coming from a genetically modified headless bird. The idea of black plants is similarly sci-fi distressing. In a culture where even funeral flowers are colourful and cheerful, a black plant (black – that metaphor-heaviest of colours) that’s alive and flowering seems downright inconceivable. Can we – should we? – stop and smell the flowers if they’re black? But then again, maybe I’m reading too much into the existence of black plants. It’s not like nature is trying to tell us something. Uh, right?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"A Life in the News"

And Now a Word from Canada's Ted Baxter...

“A Life in the News”
By Tony Parsons
ISBN No. 978-1-55017-461-8
There’s a chapter in this funny, thoughtful memoir from the anchorman of British Columbia’s most popular news program that’s titled “A Short Chapter on a Long-Standing Gripe” that unexpectedly sums up the whole book. In it Parsons complains about on-air flubs and typos. Viewers of Vancouver’s Global news (the show he hosts) will wonder how such an incident-rich history could be such a short chapter. Parsons, apparently, wonders as well. Well, he wonders why all those Middle Eastern regimes insist on electing men with unpronounceable names. He quotes letters from annoyed viewers telling him the difference between “pursuing” charges and “perusing” charges (one of his show’s typos). Then he shares some funny on-air gaffes, like when his former co-anchor called a bone marrow donor a “boner donor.” And then there are the missed cues; moments when the camera is on and the anchor doesn’t know. And what about whe- Sigh… Weren’t the Webster awards (Global has won a few over the years) supposed to be for excellence? Rejoice, fans of The Mary Tyler Moore Show; WJM-TV is alive and well and telecasting from Burnaby B.C.!!!
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (okay, it is if you’re a serious news junkie). The public has spoken and this is what they want: to watch stories hot off the wire service read by the same kind of people they wouldn’t mind chatting with while they’re waiting for the bus: unthreatening, smiling, and admittedly human in that ‘everyone-makes-mistakes’ kind of way. A memoir by the anchorman of such a show should be a no-brainer; a behind-the-scenes look at the people behind the news. But while Mom and Pop Canada will be charmed by Parsons’ self-deprecating honesty about his bouts with drink, depression, and marriage (he’s currently on his fourth), aspiring journalists will do a lot of skimming – until they get to a couple of wow-worthy chapters where Parsons talks about covering political scandal, the future of TV news and – especially - his vivid recollection of being disciplined for criticizing his boss and co-workers publicly. Still, the book is also likely to give anyone who cares about proper English and likes their news delivered with some dignity a major mad-on about the current state of the fifth estate. Yes, Parsons says, he’s frustrated by the on-air typos. And, yes, according to the book he’s hand-delivered dictionaries and books on correct grammar to the office gremlins himself. All of which begs the question: So why do the flubs just keep coming? And why is Parsons complaining to the public when he’s the one in a position to demand it get fixed? Maybe the Global on-air crew should just ad-lib the news if reading it is such a bother. Whatever your potshot, it’s a disturbing, enlightening and bizarre situation that a book that’s supposed to celebrate an anchorman’s legacy should instead prompt the question: Why should anyone care about proper spelling and grammar if the most watched news show in B.C. doesn’t? I mean isn’t the news, as Lou Grant once told Mary Richards, something sacred?
Well, apparently the rules are different at Global and the result is that everything that the Global news show touches gets tainted: the ratings system which says they’re the most watched news program in B.C. (which in itself is a sorry statement about the devolution of the Canadian voter), the news shows on other channels (in a bid to catch up to Global, ratings-wise, the formerly smart CTV newscast has adopted the former’s torturous friendly banter between cackling on-air “personalities”), and especially those “awards” for “excellence” Global’s won - despite all those on-air typos, missed-cues and mispronounced words.

Friday, October 16, 2009


By John Lee
ISBN No. 978-1-894974-90-5

Have you ever given a stranger directions and thought later on that you could have done it better? Well, John Lee’s book is ALL directions. And not the wussy directions given by most guidebooks (a description of a place accompanied by a pin dot on a map), but real “turn left here and then turn right there” directions. This book really wants to show you Vancouver. It’s like the author is walking right beside you, talking right into your ear.
Subtitled “36 strolls to dynamic neighbourhoods, hip hangouts, and spectacular waterfronts” the book cleverly grids and defines Vancouver into the essence of each of its areas. The book is designed for maximum user-friendliness with lots of easy-to-read maps and even a “Points of Interest” and “Route Summary” at the end of each “stroll” for wanna-get-going powerwalkers. Oddly – especially since Lee is the author of 14 Lonely Planet guidebooks - the only colour pictures in “WalkingVancouver” are on the book’s jacket. All the pictures inside the book are black and white; kind of like Woody Allen’s view of New York in “Manhattan.”
Considering that Lee lives in Vancouver and he’s basically telling his neighbours how posh, kitschy or rundown their homes are, this book could be a very personal and risky undertaking for him. Because defining, pigeonholing and labelling - like any Top Ten or Best Of list - is totally debatable and sometimes downright fist-fight-worthy. I don’t think anybody’s going to get violent over “WalkingVancouver” (unless they take Stroll No. 5 into Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside - which Lee rightly calls “Canada’s poorest postal district”), but seeing your lifestyle crunched down to a term like “vivid” is certainly phone-a-friend funny. For foreigners, “WalkingVancouver” is kind of like Google Street View – but with whispers of local gossip and folklore. It also might emerge as a Vancouverite’s survival guide. With roads slowly, eventually evolving into bicycle lanes and 2010 Olympic road closures ensuring that they’ll be walking EVERYWHERE, “WalkingVancouver” won’t be just a topical book; it’ll be required reading.


By Maurice Gee
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-209-5

You’d think that after the glut of “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” books and movies that any young adult fiction series of books with supernatural overtones would pale in comparison to “Twilight” and “Harry Potter.” But after the aforementioned glut of “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” books and movies any young adult fiction with supernatural overtones is a breath of fresh air simply because it ISN’T a “Twilight” or “Harry Potter” book or movie. Still, “Salt” has a bit of an uphill battle re-thinking pre-conceived notions born in a “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” world (romance, danger, the showdown between good and evil) but it also has a nice way of making the required devices of youth fiction sound fresh and inventive. For starters, “Salt” is more fantastical than the “Twilight” books and darker than the “Harry Potter” ones. It’s the story of Hari, a young man who really can talk to the animals, trying to free his dad, Tarl, after the latter has been captured and enslaved by a sinister corporation called “Company” and banished to the hellish working prison of Deep Salt. Along the way he meets an aristocratic young woman fleeing an arranged marriage with help from her gifted maid named Tealeaf. Then things get weird… Perhaps the best thing about “Salt” is it doesn’t remind me of “Twilight” or “Harry Potter” at all. While I was reading “Salt” I was transported back to the 1980s and all those Piers Anthony novels I used to read back then. Like those books “Salt” creates a wholly unique and timeless universe of weapons like fizzing rings and fingertip bolts while keeping character motivations firmly grounded in that’s-what-I’d-do territory. It’s certainly an adventure of a read. My only nitpick is the chaotic writing of the action sequences where necessary description is sacrificed for breakneck pacing.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Tweet Travel

Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Experiences
ISBN No. 978-1-74179-945-3

If Workman Publishing’s 1,000 Places to See Before You Die wall calendar is the version of travel (nice colour picture + today’s date + enough of a box for you to remind yourself it’s garbage day) then “Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Experiences” is the tweet version of global travel in an internet age.
It was bound to happen and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. In our big Bandwidth, 500-TV channel universe the audience for pretty much anything has become so fractured and fragmented that the old definitions of “experience” (education, sexual, career) no longer hold. Today people go to online schools, explore kink and telecommute from home. Now, everyone has the power to take roads less travelled – although we wouldn’t mind having someone along the way to point out the potholes for us.
And that’s where this very cleverly titled book comes in. 1000 Ultimate Experiences? 1000? No way! It’s both boast and dare; top ten list and checklist; a litmus test to figure out if you’re getting enough out of your life - or not. Man, you just gotta have a peek and see what you’re missing…
Given LP’s history for exhaustive researching there really is something for everyone here and it’s all neatly broken down into intriguing sections with titles like “Strangest Museums,” “Greatest Little-Known Neighbourhoods,” and “Top Tourist Traps Worth the Crowds.” The book then smartly levels off its lightweight short paragraph premise with heavy, luxurious paper stock and grand glossy pictures. It’s a potent combo: suddenly all the experiences sound both wildly exotic as well as teasingly accessible.
Whether they’re talking about having steamed dumplings in Shanghai or seeing works of engineering genius, the coverage is pretty much the same: a short, sweet paragraph that sums it up so perfectly and succinctly that they should be required reading for anyone writing their online personal ad. I’m not kidding. Word-wise the LP entries are an education in picking just the right words for economical yet maximum evocation. Voice-wise they’re even better: they’re a master lesson in how to make any reader feel like they’re reading a postcard from a best friend.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Calendars V. 2010

The National Audubon Society’s 365 Songbirds & Other Backyard Birds 2010 Calendar

365 Days in Ireland
365 Kittens a Year
(both available through

Just as the English language has been crunched down to evocative shortcuts (like “sexting” and the combining of proper names like Brad and Angelina to produce “Brangelina”) so too has that highbrow staple of publishing, the big, grand art book, undergone a major downsizing in the age of the internet., with its potent combo of holiday or arty pictures taken by the common folk has singlehandedly re-shaped the idea of the art book. Visit the site and you can see what your peers think is art: a Beijing alleyway, a busy Cairo street or the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. (Big minus points for the “artists” who tilt their cameras or shoot all their stuff in black-and-white.)
No wonder then that the calendar has become the middleman between art book and Flickr sideshow, with the best calendars (those most resembling the big, grand art book) assigning a single, lovely picture to each day of the new year.
The National Audubon Society’s 2010 Calendar, 365 Songbirds & Other Backyard Birds (available through and Workman Publishing’s, 365 Days in Ireland and 365 Kittens a Year (both available through are wall calendars where every month’s grid of squares is accompanied by either a bird, a kitten or an Irish hillside, meal or pub. It’s all very beautiful to look at and contemplate as you figure out how to spend another year but even better the pictures remind you of little things or big dreams that get pushed aside in the daily grind of the here and now. Even better, the kittens’ calendar is made up of pictures sent in by the public so each of them represents Global Cat Love; a little, furry, tactile life out there somewhere else in our rapidly evolving digital world.

The Lottery Winner Cometh...

"Ragged Company"
By Richard Wagamese
ISBN No. 978-0-385-25694-0
Welcome to a new genre: Recession Reading. First the plot: A group of homeless people squatting in an old movie theatre find a winning lottery ticket worth 13+ million dollars. Trouble is they’re homeless and only someone with a fixed addy can claim the prize. Can they trust – I mean, REALLY trust – a burned-out journo who just happens to be in the movie house (but has a house of his own) to collect and share the winnings?
The economic crisis, the homeless problem, the coming winter. Together they’ve created the perfect storm for a book that’s equal parts moral parable, cautionary tale, and wish fulfillment. Even better (or worse?), living in Vancouver, Canada, the book conjures up images of our poorest neighbourhood, the downtown east side. And the book’s movie theatre? It sounds just like that neighbourhood’s Lux Theatre. Political. Personal. Popular. What more could you ask for in an engrossing page-turner?
There are things about the book to nitpick, of course: each character in this ragged company fulfills a certain thematic niche and represents a particular socio-political issue. For instance, the journo who’s going to be the mule for the lottery ticket is named “Granite” because, well, he’s the closest thing to a rock these vagabonds have. And the others? They’re the kind of characters you saw in movies like “Crash” or “The Breakfast Club”: stereotypes complaining about being seen as stereotypes – except these stereotypes are sick and tired of being seen as stereotypes and their anger and frustration gives the novel a potent push that’s irresistible to anyone who’s read a lot of books or seen a lot of movies. For a good long while the characters really are dangerous and unpredictable and you’re curious to see how their story ends.


By Norah McClintock
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-152-4
Youth lit has certainly grown up since the days when “The Catcher in the Rye” – which was about a youth – was considered an adult novel (publishing house editors have since said if the book were published today it would most likely be a youth title). Fast forward 50 years and witness “Taken”, which takes as its premise the POV of a girl kidnapped by a serial killer (It’s like a prequel to “The Lovely Bones” without the pretensions).
Now, this being youth lit publishing and not the wild west internet you just know that Stephanie, the book’s narrator, is going to mine her confidence, resources and survival lessons taught by her grandfather to survive her ordeal. That’s a given, right? Right? What we’re not prepared for, though, is the news that since Stephanie’s run away from home before she knows the police won’t be looking for her. Uh oh. And suddenly “Taken” takes on a whole new emotion for this genre: dread.
But before any happy ending (and I’m not saying there is a happy ending just that most youth lit books have happy endings) we’re treated to the obligatory checklist of do’s and don’ts for at-risk kids (which is another major ingredient of youth lit). Thankfully, the lessons are made palpable by McClintock’s winning way with the way tweens and teens talk and think and text. Even more impressive is how effective the book is at warning and informing parents and kids about avoiding dangerous situations and dealing with them when they happen. “Taken” is a keeper.

Monday, September 14, 2009


“Aya of Yop City”
By Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie

It’s the late 1970s and the people of Yop City, just off the Ivory Coast of Africa, are having affairs, landing and losing jobs and wondering aloud who fathered young, pretty Adjoua’s new baby. Finally, an Africa that patrons of daytime television can get on board with.
For while it sounds an awful lot like a bad Maury Povich episode on paternity tests, “Aya of Yop City” is perfect for a graphic novel because this kind of grey area subject matter would be trickier than hell to pull off in print fiction (a light tone would be considered derogatory; a serious tone unflattering and racist; just think of the balancing act of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye”). In graphic novel format, however, the story is…well, sweet. The Angry Black Rapper loaded down with bling and a mouth full of grillz has really demoralized the market for serious stories about black culture (I mean REAL black culture; not mediagenic black culture). And while you’d think that graphic novels – the renegades of publishing – would have downgraded black culture even further with their love of the shock element, the GN format is actually ideal for depicting the small detail, nuance, and dynamics of an African village in loving and affectionate terms. Even better, the illustrations are quietly charming with the occasional big, full-page set piece reminding you that this is an intimate epic bit of story-telling.

Kid Literature

“Learning to Fly”
By Paul Yee
ISBN No. 978-1-55143-953-2

“Watch Me”
By Norah McClintock
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-039-8

Both available through

It used to be that if you wanted to read A Classic you had to suffer for it. The perverse sentence structure, the obscure religious references, the Big Statement symbolism turned tiny because no one gets it anymore; even the “Moby Dick” academics recommend skimming some chapters because they’re just too dense and verbose for contemporary readers.
Instead of shying away from the big thick books, however, Kid Lit is taking its cue from classics that have practically become unreadable now thanks to their ye olde English style of writing. If you like to read – and you like to read classical stuff – there’s never been a better time to be a tween. For instance, in “Watch Me”, an angry kid evens up things in the universe by stealing a lady’s purse and then suffering mightily for it “Crime and Punishment”-style. In “Learning to Fly“ a recent Chinese immigrant tries to find his way in a racist, corrupt society. The first half of the book is equal parts Salinger’s “Catcher in the Ryle” and “David Copperfield” with its worldly, bored narrator wondering if he’ll be the hero of his own story. Mid-way through the book echoes Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” with its characters ostracizing each other through the tyranny of style and cliques. By its hopeful ending (the only thing that really deviates Tween Classics from Ye Olde Classics, it seems) you’ve had the complete Comparative Literature Experience – but without any of the university-level pain.

Gay Titles

“Got ‘til it’s Gone”
By Larry Duplechan
ISBN No. 978-1-55152-244-9

By Daniel Allen Cox
ISBN No. 978-1-55152-246-3

Both available at

If two things can start a trend then it’s safe to say that Fall Fiction has just gone gay.
"Got 'til it's Gone" really is about the love that dares not speak its name - if only because so few books speak about the midlife gay black man experience. The man doing the speaking is Johnnie Ray Rousseau and “Got ‘til it’s Gone” is his fourth appearance in Larry Duplechan’s series of Johnnie Ray books.
This time around Johnnie is having a midlife crisis and being a Daddy to a much younger guy. What follows are lots of Johnnie’s contemplations on life, love and popular culture. The best part of the book? Oddly enough, when Johnnie is cruising online. I dunno, there’s something novelistic and solitary about reading about characters separated from each other and typing away in chat rooms. Duplechan does a great job conveying this sense of being in a big city and still feeling lonely; of having all your options open and still feeling trapped. Unfortunately, his characters keep distracting themselves from the Big Sadness by watching TV, listening to music or reading magazines. They’re not pioneers; they’re archivists.
Remember the young man with the Daddy issues in “Got ‘til it’s Gone”? Well, he could be the narrator of “Shuck”, if he were just a bit more nihilistic, self-deluding and full of himself.
“Shuck” has the best beginning of any novel I’ve read in a long while. Its narrator plays anthropologist for us, re-writing the cruising ritual at the local supermarket.
“See how he cruises you like a piece of fruit, and how disappointed he is when you don’t give him the signal,” he writes. “He dumps the taco shells and ice cream in the magazine rack, and leaves empty-handed.”
Unfortunately, our narrator spends a LOT of time at the magazine rack himself; either mentioning the products he wants to place (“Star Trek”) or ticking off the things he thinks readers of gay fiction want to read about (a young guy appraising his own genitalia). Eventually the narrator’s neediness exhausts the readers’ interest. Yes, some of it adds to the 1990s New York time period. And some of it is left over from Bret Easton Ellis. You’ll finish the book; it’s that interesting. It’s just that it could have been so much better.
And therein lies the problem with “Got ‘til it’s Gone”, “Shuck” and a lot of gay fiction.
They so want their readers to be in sync with their sentences that they shortcut their way to any emotional impact by referencing movies, music, magazines and – in the unforgiving case of “Got ‘til it’s Gone” - Idiot Rapper, Flavor Flav! Even the first-person narration seems a bit calculated. What should read like friendly chat or deepest confession comes off like a sales pitch, a product placement shopping list. Yes, I know the technique suggests an over-stimulated culture and its resulting pessimism but it doesn’t make it any easier to search between the lines for the stuff that makes these books deserve to be books: the human stuff.

So a Goat, an Ojibway, and four Chinese families walk into a bar...

“Give a Goat”
By Jan West Schrock; Illustrated by Aileen Darragh
ISBN No. 978-0-88448-301-4

“One Native Life”
By Richard Wagamese
ISBN No. 978-1-55365-364-6

“Yi Fao: Speaking Through Memory: A History of New Westminster’s Chinese Community 1858-1980”
By Jim Wolf and Patricia Owen
ISBN No. 978-1-894974-40-0

What do books about a goat, a native Ojibway and four families of Chinese settlers in Canada have in common? Well, they’re all serious: serious for kids, socio-political serious and Michael Cunningham serious.
First up, the inspired, catchy title of “Give a Goat” is a huh?-worthy refresh on the tired activist cheer of “Give a damn!” about world hunger and poverty. The goat of the title is the gift that a classroom of privileged Maine kids fundraise to send to a family in Uganda after reading about an organization called Heifer International. Working like a petting-zoo version of online bill payment HI will will take your donation and buy things like goats, chickens and water buffalo for families in developing countries. This is the kinder, gentler version of that tiger park in China where tourists can buy chickens for the cats that’ll be promptly served freshly thrown out of the window of a car driven around the reserve by a guide. According to the book, the goat of the title is a goose laying golden eggs. The goat will be a vineyard: providing enough milk to feed the family and enough surplus to sell and send the family’s kids to school. It’s a cute, serious piece of work with nice pictures and a socio-political lesson that’s palatable for both children and adults. And even if you’re not a kid or a smart adult the book has an even bigger selling point: a typo! For those of you who collect these things the book is a must-have.
“One Native Life” is the super-serious title, a back-from-the-brink memoir by a 52-year-old Ojibway native who, living in a cabin in Kamloops , B.C., re-traces a life of abandonment, alcoholism and search for identity. It should all sound lecture-ish but given that Vancouver, B.C.’s downtown east side has practically become a mediagenic genre unto itself (lots of news reports and books and films about displaced, depressed natives) it’s actually nice to hear a single-person account about how it all goes wrong and what can be done to make it right.
Even better – especially if you syndicate for radio like me - the book has a chapter called “My Nine-Volt Heart”, a lovely love-letter to the first thing that the author remembers calling his own: an old General Electric transistor radio. “It was as if the world had come within my reach,” he writes. “That old radio taught me that there’s more to the world than what I can see, and I owe it to myself to seek it out.” Sigh…
The four family oral and photo album history, “Yi Fao”, is the Michael Cunningham-ish title; a book that looks at the big, grand, poignant full-arc of life in small, simple families. The book’s title means “second port” but it was also lingo for New Westminster, B.C.’s status as the second point of entry to British Columbia (Victoria was the first) for early Chinese settlers. The book follows the Law, Lee, Quan and Shiu families as they live, grow, marry, work, retire and die. That’s it. Essentially the book invites you to listen in as they live their whole lives. Yet there’s something awesomely humbling about bearing witness to their struggles and triumphs. The oral history format is particularly effective here. There’s a sense that things are being passed down from one generation to the next just as they must have done in pre-historic times. When George Quan recalls “My mother would make these deep-fried cookies that were very crunchy and very tasty” your heart breaks – until his next line. “I would bring them over to the gambling hall and sell them for five cents each,” he writes, and then you realize that you’re reading a better-than-fiction real story. Even better (or as an assistant of mine once said “lots more better”), the pictures are haunting. My only complaint is about the book’s format: a book this grand deserves the same hardcover treatment as Paul Yee’s wonderful “ Saltwater City : An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver ” (2006; On the other hand “Yi Fao”’s paperback format really adds to its story’s sense of impermanence.

The New Endangered Species

"Me Sexy: An Exploration of Native Sex and Sexuality"
by Drew Hayden Taylor
ISBN No. 978-1-55365-276-2

"The White Guy: A Field Guide"
by Stephen Hunt
ISBN No. 978-1-55365-302-8

Remember that line from "Annie Hall" when Carol Kane tells Woody Allen she loves being reduced to a cultural stereotype? Well, it's 1977 all over again - but with a big twist. In the ensuing thirty years the stereotypes have either crystallized or caved in.
"Me Sexy" is the progressive title. This is an honest, unflinching and surprisingly well-researched argument about viewing the native man and woman in a hot new light (the cover of the book is of a native man in a pulp romance clench with a fair-skinned woman). What makes the book's plea for a re-think of native culture so palpable is the humour with which it's all written about - along with some things you probably never, ever thought about. There are chapters about indigenous erotica and sexually provocative Inuit art in this book that will have you looking at soapstone in a whole new light.
"The White Guy" is the dark side of cultural stereotyping, onein which the white man is seen as Satan. Stephen Hunt does a great job blaming white men for every conceivable ill of the world - and then some. He studies their leisure habits, their quirks, their likes and dislikes - and then blames them some more. It's a witty piece of work, owing much of its existence to that bible of whitebread stereotyping anthropology, "The Official Preppy Handbook" that was published two or three decades back and treated wealthy whites as some sort of exotic species and studied their shopping and mating habits. Considering that, "The White Guy" should feel dated but weirdly it doesn't. It's a credit to Hunt that his book seems like both a topical episode of "Wild Kingdom" as well as a starting point for the inevitable snappy sequel.

Two Books with the Word "Hope" in their title

"Where Hope Takes Root: Democracy and Pluralism in an Interdependent World"
by His Highness The Aga Khan
ISBN No. 978-1-55365-366-0

"Hope in Shadows: Stories and Photographs of Vancouver 's Downtown Eastside"
by Brad Cran and Gillian Jerome
ISBN No. 978-1-55152-238-8

So this is what it's come to... Maybe it's the current climate of Obama vs. McCain but His Highness The Aga Khan sure sounds like he's running for something. Much (most? all?) of his book is speeches and much of the speeches unfortunately read like the empty platitudes of the hopelessly political, sound and fury signifying not much of anything if you listen really closely. "Civil society organizations need to reach for the highest level of competence to justify their support," he bravely writes. "Without support for pluralism, civil society does not function," he writes a few pages later, going wayyyy out on a limb. In another chapter he writes tha- [Sigh] Whatever... Just as the nightmares of TV news turning into entertainment from 1976's "Network" have actually come to pass so too, apparently, has the disheartening evolution of spiritual leaders into the likes of the Peter Sellers' character from 1979's "Being There" (the slow-witted gardener who comes out with in-plain sight observations like "There will be growth in the spring" and is declared a genius.) The problem with "Where Hope Takes Root" is that some of us have heard real activists who actually SAY things that MAKE sense that ARE solutions; not highbrow fundraiser cocktail party chat. (Hmmm... maybe I should have just reviewed "A Passion for This Earth" [; ISBN No. 978-1-55365-375-2] instead. Now David Suzuki, THERE'S an activist who perfectly marries the high and lofty with the nuts and bolts! And come to think of it APFTE is also a collection of essays too - by 20 Susuki-psyched journalists, scientists and environmentalists - but they don't read like speeches at all.) "Where Hope Takes Root" does have a reason to exist, however. For one thing, it’s excellent reading for university students majoring in political science and anyone else interested in the semantics of political discourse.
"Hope in Shadows" is, as Aga Khan might say, "another book with the word 'hope' in the title." But that's where the similarities end. See, "Where Hope Takes Root" is like those mediagenic tours the Governor General takes every now and then through Vancouver, B.C.'s downtown east side (DTES). You know, the ones where she wanders down a single run-down main street, making empty promises, giving false hopes and exploiting every photo op possible while surrounded with a bunch of bodyguards. (Tellingly, appropriately, Canada 's former GG, Adrienne Clarkson, writes the introduction to Kahn's book.) "Hope in Shadows," however, is the smart activist yelling at the GG from the sidelines.
"Hope in Shadows" is also the kind of book I like to think as being not just part of the solution but also beyond review. To go Aga Khan-lofty for a second it's about something so profound, important and topical that all a reviewer can - and should - do is bring it to the attention of others. For the past five years, Vancouver's Pivot Legal Society's annual Hope in Shadows photography contest gave DTES residents 200 disposable cameras and asked them to document their lives in Canada's poorest neighbourhood. This book is an archive of the personal stories behind those photographs. Whew... and wow! What else is there to say? It's all here: heartbreak, class struggles, drug addiction, poverty, dreams and a sense of home. Coming from the same publisher that brought out the stunning "Every Building on 100 West Hastings” in 2002, "Hope in Shadows" is - to go Aga Khan-lofty again - that rare document: a palpable, user-friendly piece of academia about a people and place that will be studied decades hence to find out what kind of people we were. I heartily recommend Adrienne Clarkson get a copy of it.

Martin Amis gets his very own 9-11

"The Second Plane"
by Martin Amis
ISBN No. 978-0-676-97785-1

It should have been so simple; an easy bet; a no-brainer: America 's greatest writer vs. the cultural context of 9-11.
And while most of reviewers have been kind to Amis' collection of essays and fictions about 9-11 I seriously suspect they didn't understand it - or read it all the way through. Because "The Second Plane" is a red herring; a book that must have been published when Amis' editors were still in shock. And the shock now is tenfold.
Certainly the book expands the vocabulary about 9-11 and anything by Amis is a welcome publishing event. But there are missteps (a looong what-if about one of the hijacker's last day). There is hard-to-remember political contextualizing (did he call them "radical Muslims"? "Irate Iranians"? Man, I cannot remember...). And then there are the curious words that seem to pop out of Amis' mind alone and stop the reader's eye cold and remind one of Dan Rather's homespun cornpone dialect. It’s like Amis was ahead of all the other writers trying to describe the image of the second plane hitting the towers juuuuuuust right; it’s a literary free-for-all (it’s kind of like the myth that Eskimos have 20 words for snow). It'll all make you wonder if Amis did indeed write his masterpiece"The Information" (one of the few books I took a highlighter to just to make it easier to get to those passages I wanted to read to friends over the phone) all on his own. (He does, however, include in "The Second Plane" a splendid piece about conspiracy theories.)
But 9-11 was a literary trap other august writers with pent-up dinner party pontifications were waiting to fall into. Don DeLillo and John Updike both wrote interesting failures ("Falling Man" and "Terrorist", respectively) and a relative newcomer, Jonathan Safran Foer, wrote one that was practically unreadable (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”). Apparently the victims from 9-11 are still being counted.
All of which means that even America's finest writers are as confused and conflicted about 9-11 as the layman on the street which makes 9-11 even more disturbing than it was the day it happened.

420 Part 1

“Mind-Altering and Poisonous Plants of the World: A Scientifically Accurate Guide to 1200 Toxic and Intoxicating Plants”
By Michael Wink and Ben-Erik Van Wyk
Timber Press
ISBN No. 978-0-88192-952-2

How’s this for a provocative book title? Given the alarming “recent studies say…” news pieces on the latest deadly variety of plant/plastic/paint a book with a title like this (and an equally potent subtitle) is required reading for even the most militant anti-herbivore.
Of course the core audience for this kind of book is the pothead. To them the “scientifically accurate” claim in the subtitle sounds like nothing short than the “satisfaction guaranteed” that they get from the local headshop. Even better, the authors’ names have the giddy sound of a pleasant hallucinatory ep.
OF course it would be a 420 to reveal much of what’s inside the book. I think people should go see it at their local bookstore. Their local PUBLIC bookstore. It’s there that they’ll get a little thrill doing something forbidden. Because not since Madonna’s “Sex” in the mid-1990s has reading seemed so…so…naughty. “Mind-Altering and Poisonous Plants of the World” will singlehandedly restore your faith in the power of publishing to shock and inform.
What I will reveal is that the book is in hardcover (making it an ideal bookshelf reference source) and is so well-written you could really read it when you’re high (okay, maybe not the pages of chemistry table schematics…). Even better, the book is full of glossy pictures of the plant culprits. Everyone from the usual suspects (marijuana) and some unlikely ones (Spanish Turpeth Root) are here – in mug shots straight out of some marvellous hypnotic daydream.

420 Part 2

“The Official High Times Pot Smoker’s Handbook”
By David Beinenstock and the editors of High Times magazine
ISBN No. 978-0-8118-6205-9

First of all although I’m reviewing this book I nor this website in any way shape or form condone the use of marijuana except in the medicinal sense and only when the patient is near death.
Pity the pothead. His heyday was in the 1960s and just when it seemed like he was thisclose to legalization the militant anti-smokers came to town. He’s 40 years old and still no one understands him. So like that classic of satire from a few decades back, “The Official Preppy Handbook,” comes this reference guide to his slacker sibling, the pothead.
You don’t have to be high to get this new handbook. It’s a wise, witty piece of work that has a real affection for its subject. It’s a laugh-riot with a heart and a head. But again, I must remind you that although I’m reviewing this book I nor this website in any way shape or form condone the use of marijuana except in the medicinal sense and only when the patient is near death.
That said, “The Official High Times Pot Smoker’s Handbook” is more like a tome. It’s all in here: the origins, history, and cultural and social context (and consequences) of pot culture. There’s even lots of cool pictures if you’re really high. Even better, none of the above stuff is dry enough to merit skimming. It’s a consistently good and entertaining read whether you like weed or not. Yes, some of the stuff is borderline ‘duh…’ For instance, the book’s 420 things to do when you’re stoned reaches and I mean REALLY reaches: “burn some incense (Just don’t expect it to disguise your smoky smells. Everybody knows about incense.).”
But for every half-hearted-hah-hah there’s some phone-a-friend-worthy zingers. In a section on “How to Smoke-Proof Your Dorm Room” the authors recommend – again - incense because it has a “nice smell [and] can be stolen from church.” Some stuff in here fits the pothead profile so perfectly it’s as if the authors themselves smoke it. But again, I must remind you that although I’m reviewing this book I nor this website in any way shape or form condone the use of marijuana except in the medicinal sense and only when the patient is near death.
It’s in the section titled “living nightmares (five pests that plague pot production” that the book really soars. Here it so perfectly captures not only that feeling of entitlement singular to the stoner but also the inner businessman and gardener that they all seem to fancy themselves no matter how high they get: “F***ing spider mites! Nature’s ultimate weed mooch, eating up your plants and kicking down nothing in return but an infestation nightmare.” Now THAT really sounds like a pothead!

The World Without Kids

“Nobody’s Father: Life Without Kids”
Edited by Lynne Van Luven and Bruce Gillespie
ISBN No. 978-1-894898-74-4

A sequel to 2006’s “Nobody’s Mother,” this collection of essays by and about men reconsidering fatherhood is so emotionally honest it’s almost a bit embarrassing. Yes, the title conjures up those mediagenic divorced fathers’ rights stunts that make it into the newspapers (dads dressed as superheroes flying banners from bridges complaining about the unfairness of divorce law) but “Nobody’s Father” is about a quieter group of men; those who don’t have children and whose lives might not leave any footprints once they’re gone – and they’re sort of okay with that. Basically, the book is a series of perceptive first-hand accounts about why some very hard-thinking men got fed up with doing their societal duty: carrying the family name past the present tense.
The book starts off hopefully enough with John Gould’s “Mine”. This story about how the typical hopes and dreams of graduating teens get turned on their head when having kids is removed from the equation is bookended with Don W. Maybin’s stunning summation of how choices and circumstances can turn a childless man into “Everyone’s Uncle.” Between them the stories pile up in ways that don’t remind you so much of the rumour that Adolph Hitler’s siblings made a pact to not have kids as it does of the recent book about humanity dying out, “The World Without Us”. “Nobody’s Father” is a really interesting, intimate document; a piece of work that might be studied decades from now by archaeologists trying to figure out what kind of people we were.

Reality Check

“The Doctor is In(sane): Indispensable Advice from Dr. Dave”
By Dr. Dave Hepburn
ISBN No. 978-1-55365-408-7

“I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids: Reinventing Modern Motherhood”
By Trisha Ashworth and Amy Nobile
ISBN No. 978-0-8118-5650-8

“Our Days are Numbered: How Mathematics Orders Our Lives”
By Jason I. Brown
ISBN No. 978-0-7710-1696-7

By Oliver Sacks
ISBN No. 978-0-3073-9817-8

Today’s epic column is all about reality checks and what better way to start our check with a check-up from a real live doctor?
If you don’t have a daily newspaper that publishes Dr. Dave Hepburn’s column then “The Doctor is In(sane)” is a great way to catch up on why he’s been called “The Dave Barry of medicine” and the new Frasier. Like the teaspoon of sugar that helps the medicine go down (anyone under 20 should Google the line for an explanation) Dr. Dave turns a visit to the doctor into a visit to the comedian. He’s “Grey’s Anatomy” with an anatomical punchline.
”A patient’s worst fears are too often followed by a patient’s burst tears as the diagnosis of herpes is explained to them,” he writes. “They often then deeply desire to bring a fatal conclusion to that attractive source of their disease.” He’s a witty, friendly doctor who’ll teach you new things and ways to look at the world as well as make you laugh.
He’ll also make you think about the bigger picture in ways you won’t imagine. When a columnist for a daily newspaper allegedly committed suicide; allegedly suffering from alleged depression and alleged severe back pain, I unallegedly crinkled my forehead and wondered: if they couldn’t get something worthwhile out of all the articles their paper runs about depression and back pain then what could there possibly be in there for the masses besides ads for leaky condos and work-at-home scams? In short, “The Doctor is In(sane)” made me wonder why the dailies continue to publish advertorials about cures for back pain and depression when even their own writers don’t get something out of them. People don’t need empty platitudes. They want to be informed, entertained and maybe learn a little something along the way. That’s where Dr. Dave comes in. His book has enough wow-worthy medical advice to necessitate the book’s index and enough humour and heart to make reading about even the toughest disease digestible.
The wonder of science – well, the results of procreation – figures prominently in “I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids.” Hmm…maybe “wonder” is too ambitious a word.
These authors have really gotten the Mommy Mindset down to a science – a nuts-and-bolts science. They catalogue every conceivable duty, obligation and thought that can pop into a Mom’s head – and then make great fun of it in a let-off-some-steam kind of way. Wisely, the book takes the women’s magazine format of LOTS of breezy, easy to read lists, quizzes and tips. There are user-friendly chapters titled “Am I a Bad Mom if I Don’t Buy Organic Spaghettios?” and quizzes like “Rank these questions in order of bitchiness.” But the best part of the book is the dozens of “Dirty Little Secret” entries where Moms confess stuff like “I want my own apartment because I don’t like people touching my stuff. And I would prefer if my husband didn’t visit.” Yes, even when you’re finished the book a certain “you had ‘em, you raise ‘em” mentality remains but the biggest recommendation I can give the book is that even guys will find it worth reading.
“On any ordinary day, from the time we get up in the morning until we go to sleep at night, mathematics shapes our lives.” That’s the starting line from “Our Days are Numbered” and if you’re like me (a math-hater) your first inclination is to prove the book wrong. Wrong in any way you can! Sure, you might wake up at a certain time (clocks are full of numbers) and you might have TWO pieces of toast and you might bike EXACTLY 1.2 miles to work, but like all those reality TV shows, if you ignore them they really kind of don’t exist. Math, like humour in medicine and good parenting is really all about having a mindset: it’s as complicated as you want to make it. And “Our Days are Numbered” wants to make it REAL complicated. The book starts out well. And like the start of the year in high school math you think you get what the book is about – until about halfway through when the teacher starts talking about differential equations and “logic.” Like cocktail chatter the book that started out interesting devolves into a highbrow bore. Sure, there’s something here for the geeks. And there’s something here for the squinters who have a lot of time on their hands. The book IS readable and its applications to daily life entertaining. The problem is that this book about days being numbered turns your daily life into a numerical, joyless grind.
After visits to the doctor, parents with screaming kids and dull math teachers it’s no wonder we finish off with a “Migraine.” This book from another doctor, Oliver Sacks. Sacks is so well known (Robin Williams played him in the adaptation of his own book in the 1990s movie “Awakenings”) that he doesn’t even use the title “doctor” on the cover of his book.
But then again, maybe he didn’t have any space left over. The elegantly understated font in this book could singlehandedly give you a migraine, and Sacks is sometimes so verbose that I’m pretty much reduced to quoting his book’s jacket to tell you what the book’s about:
“The many manifestations of migraine can vary dramatically from one patient to another, even within the same patient at different times. Among the most compelling and perplexing of these symptoms are the strange visual hallucinations and distortions of space, time, and body image which migraineurs sometimes experience.” The results, says Sacks, have been things like “Alice in Wonderland” (yes, “Alice in Wonderland”) and the art created by people while in the migraine “aura.” “Migraine” reminded me of people who try to draw or write songs while they’re high. They pretty much depress themselves when they sober up and finally see the evidence of their unlocked “creativity” is merely scribbles and vomit. Migraines and “Migraine” - according to Sacks - are vastly different and much more fascinating. This time the art comes straight from an illness within. In our over-medicated age “Migraine” is a really rare document; a medical mystery that even Advil can’t solve. This book is a horror story in sunlight. Now THAT’s a reality check.

I Dream of Maui…

“Hawai’i: The Big Island”
ISBN No. 978-1-74104-715-8
ISBN No. 978-1-74104-714-1

Both published by

How’s this for counterprogramming? Instead of reviewing those timely tomes about entertaining for the holidays why not think about yourself this year? Why not consider getting away from all of those people the other books want you to entertain?
Yes, I know there are grander beaches out there and more exotic ruins to be seen if you’re willing to fly for a dozen hours or so. But in our freefalling economy a vacation in the most obvious and cheapest tropical destination makes increasingly perfect sense. (For those of you thinking “hey, Mexico is cheaper”, full disclosure: I’m limiting my review to tropical places where your murder will be solved within a year.)
Simply put, these guides to Hawai’i and its little brother, Maui, are paradise in themselves – for readers, armchair travellers and those who actually have time to travel this winter season. Even better, these guides have more colour pictures than before.
Yes, there was a bit of a scandal when it was alleged by a former contributor that LP’s writers – gasp! – might not visit each and every single place they write about. Now, as a former editor of Adbusters let me say that: Yes, making it up is bad and, yes, faking it is morally wrong. But our jails are already full so let’s move on. Because I used LP’s guides to Beijing and Shanghai during a working visit to China and I thought they were spot-on when it came to summing up the sights and quoting the RMB. Hell, even The Temple of Heaven was EXACTLY WHERE THEY SAID IT WOULD BE!!! To which their Hawai’i and Maui guides face a special challenge: writing about that most westernized of tropical paradises in ways that respect the natives and inform the foreigners. Thankfully, their Hawai’i and Maui guides read like they were written by the natives themselves; natives who actually LIKE foreigners. Did the writers visit each and every sight they wrote about in the books? I don’t know. I can’t tell. The results are THAT polished and readable and… man, will you look at those glossy pictures! But they sure make you want to go and see Hawai’i and Maui for yourself.

The Appeal of Calendar

“1,000 Places to See Before You Die”
By Patricia Schultz
ISBN No. 978-0-7611-4937-8

“365 Days in Ireland”
Text by Colum McCann; Photographs by Peter Matthews
ISBN No. 978-0-7611-4882-1

Both available at

And if you’re STILL dreaming about being somewhere – anywhere – else other than a classroom then check out these two new “Picture-a-Day” wall calendars for 2009.
“1,000 Places to See Before You Die” is adapted from the book of the same name and to say turning it into a calendar was a genius move is an understatement. Love lists? Travel? Photography? They’re all here, wrapped up with some lovely sentiments about making each day count and taking some roads less travelled for your next vacation. And while the pictures are impressive make sure you read the text. Schultz has a nice travel-companion friendly way with the factoids.
As for the Ireland Page-a-Day calendar, well, I’ve been to Ireland and considering you can drive around the whole island in one very long single day a calendar celebrating 365 WHOLE days IN Ireland is a challenge. (Indeed, the tiny you-are-here map in the upper corner of each new month’s location correctly crunches down the “foreign-ness” of Ireland into a very small, manageable island - but it also amps up the history: you’ll be shaking your head over how an isle this small can have so much history – or pubs.) But what I love about this calendar is that it’s a reference guide of signifiers; all those little totems that define a place. Some months have big signifiers (The Cliffs of Moher was really big in the 08 calendar) but most of them are small asides; touches that give you as much a lesson in the historical particulars of a community as a quick education in art direction in movies set in Ireland. It’s lovely, day-dreamy stuff.

The Dancing World

“A Year of Festivals: A Guide to Having the Time of Your Life”
ISBN No. 978-1-74179-049-8

How’s this for the perfect back-to-school book? Lonely Planet has catalogued all the parties going on year-round in the global village.
The best thing about the book is the sense that the world really is open all night; that there’s a party always going on somewhere on the planet. The second best thing about the book is that each festival reveals religious and cultural insights in a smart edutaining way. You read. You smile. You learn.
For instance, if you lived in Morocco you wouldn’t be lining up to buy overpriced books tomorrow; you’d be celebrating the Imilchil Wedding Moussem. It’s a three day welcoming back of herders who’ve spent the summer parking their meal tickets in far away grazing grounds. But the fest also “gives singletons the chance to sing, dance and flirt,” says the book. (Dress code: available men wear white turbans; women show off the family silver.) Mass weddings are expected to follow the hook-ups.
And if you’re already dreaming about that Spring break kegger wait until you read about the holiday of Holi in Northern India and Nepal. Holi happens three days around the full moon in March. The rules: you say ‘goodbye’ to winter and ‘hi’ to spring by taking to the streets and dusting yourself and others with a rainbow of day-glo powders. “Authorities urge the use of natural dyes, so they can be easily cleaned off,” the book says. “But you could be a mobile colour chart for days or weeks after.”
The book is full of whole calendars of these festivals, each one nicely summed up in economical pictures and text; each one turning the dry semantics of geography and political science into almost the hottest invite on Saturday night.

Tweener Fiction Grows Up

by Katherine Holubitsky
ISBN No. 978-1-55143-851-1

by Susan Vaught
ISBN No. 978-1-59990-230-2

Books for adolescents have officially come of age. Long gone are the easy moral lessons tucked into reader-friendly adventures. Today's youth lit is dead serious and plays for keeps.
Take "Tweaked" for instance. It's about two young brothers, one of whom is a methhead. That's it. That's what the book is about. Kid gets hooked and drives his family to their respective breaking points as they try to get him into rehab. The book's most obvious connection to youth literature is that Holubitsky's narrator is the clean brother and his eyes are those of the book's reading audience. And what he sees will rightly scare kids straight (there's some very effective After School Television Special stuff about the physical ravages of meth) and make them think twice about using.
"Trigger" is a trickier piece of work and just as addictive a read whether you're a child or an adult. (I dunno...maybe it's just the manufactured pretensions of adult fiction but it's so nice to read books with linear storylines.) Essentially, "Trigger" is about a boy recovering from a bullet wound to the head and the subsequent brain injury it caused. But it's also about youth violence, their sense of invincibility and failure to consider consequences. But wait, there's more. The book is also about hearing voices, feeling different, peer pressure and what it might be like for survivors of the Columbine massacre after the headlines fade. The writing is forthright and direct; the story surprisingly affecting. For young readers it'll be like a friend telling you a secret. For adults and parents it'll be like a conversation with a usually laconic kid. "Trigger" a "Catcher in the Rye " for the millennium.

The Bad Tween

“Running the Risk”
By Lesley Choyce
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-025-1
By James C. Dekker
ISBN No. 978-1-55143-995-2
By Norah McClintock
ISBN No. 978-1-55143-989-1

All available at

Pity the kids. When you’re a child you get to read fairy tales, a bit older and you’re into Archie comics, but when you turn tween every book becomes a how-not-to. Such are the perils of being society’s most treasured resource.
“Running the Risk” is all about how not to get yourself killed by doing something stupid. Chasing that risk is all Sean wants to do after he survives an armed robbery at his workplace, Burger Heaven. Addicted to the adrenaline rush he starts to seek out increasingly dangerous situations and people to test his invincibility until he gets into some real trouble. The great thing about RTR is how acutely the book captures the appeal of victimhood (Sean is suddenly a celebrity at school) and why kids think they’ll live forever. Even better, adult fiction usually takes up twice as many pages to explain the risk-taking mentality and often comes up short.
The emotional wallop in “Impact” comes from a place we don’t read often enough about in youth fiction: impact statements. The book has a moral to teach (the consequences of violence) but it smartly looks at it in the rear view mirror instead of as a preventive measure (pretty daring when you’re writing for kids). There’s a mystery here to keep the young ones reading, of course (did Jordan know more about his brother’s death than he’s saying?) but the real appeal is how the author shows what a child’s death does to the remaining family members and how slowly he rolls out the big reveal.
“Back” is all about what happens after the violent act, the impact statements and the jail time. Here, a bad seed gets released from prison. Is he reformed? Has prison made him even worse? Is he targeted for revenge? The book hits all the obligatory notes about how the sentence never fits the crime, how society is responsible for making these monsters, and the frustration felt by the law-abiding populace. But it also has a genuinely surprising ending that makes everything that went before it make perfect sense. There’s a scene in here with a child and a rock that rivals anything in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” - The G-rated Version

“Special Edward”
By Eric Walters
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-092-3

You have to admire a kid’s book that dares to tweenize “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” “Is Edward special or special ed?” the back of this book asks. Well, Edward is a career slacker whose passing grade at school is threatened. And like McMurphy from Cuckoo’s Nest (who avoids jail time by being declared insane and institutionalized), Ed has himself declared “special” (as in requiring special education) because the special ed kids get kid glove treatment like more time to complete tests. Edward thinks he’s found the perfect way to cheat the system but if he’d read Cuckoo’s Nest all the way through he would know that the system always wins. Kids will identify with Edward, no problem, but older readers will find lots to like here too. Part of the fun of reading this book is figuring out who’s who from Cuckoo’s Nest. For instance, Nurse Ratched becomes the middle-aged Dr. McClintock in this book (she was “attractive-for a woman that age,” Edward says) and Cuckoo’s giant Indian becomes – what else? - a big, lumbering, grade 12 kid. Thankfully, the book’s cafeteria doesn’t include anything like Kesey’s description of scrambled eggs; a vision that still haunts me two decades after reading his book.

Children’s Department: Idioms & Myths

“Monkey Business”
By Wallace Edwards
ISBN No. 978-1-55453-228-5

By Teresa Cardenas & Margarita Sada
ISBN No. 978-0-88899-795-1

Attention word lovers: there are books out there that want your kids to love strung-together letters as much as their authors do. There really are books around that will smarten up – not dumb down – your kids.
“Monkey Business” isn’t a long book. It isn’t even a very complex one. What it does have is a wholly contagious celebration of the sing-song delicacies of the English language that’s frankly beautiful to see given today’s kids’ devolving understanding of how words work, what they mean and why they matter.
Essentially, Edwards takes an idiom (defined in the beginning of the book as “a group of words whose meaning cannot be understood from the meaning of the individual words; an expression, peculiar to a specific language, that cannot be translated literally”) like “snug as a bug” and illustrates it as, in the bug’s case, a grasshopper wrapped up in a brightly coloured blanket reading comic books. That’s it. That’s the whole book. What no single review can convey, however, is what a joy it is to see “illustrated idioms” that remind you how lovely and playful words can be when rightly appreciated. It makes you think about all the other nooks and crannies of language (metaphors, personification) that you just don’t notice anymore because you’re too busy trying to decipher the legalese in your cell phone contract. [Sigh] It’s so nice to see words played with in such a respectful way instead of being massacred and hacked up by texting idiots. This book should be required reading for the little ones. Maybe there’s hope for the post-Millennials yet.
Words figure prominently in “Oloyou” too; from the mysterious title of its main character to a story told in dual translation. But whereas “Monkey Business” is all about the building blocks of language, “Oloyou” is all about the sharing of a mythic piece of storytelling from one culture to another.
The story goes something like this: At the beginning of time God-child creates Oloyou the Cat so he’ll have a friend. But one day Oloyou falls into the depths of Nothing and the kingdom of Aro, the Sea. When Oloyou falls in love with Aro’s mermaid-daughter her angry father throws them both back up into the heavens. And then things get complicated.
Parents raised on fantasy books like “The Lord of the Rings” will either want to read “Oloyou” themselves or read it to their lucky kids. The plot might sound complex but the book is friendly and accessible and its illustrations watercolour daydreams. The book not only introduces kids to an ambitious kind of storytelling but also to a different culture (the book is based on a Yoruba myth borne of a Cuban religious tradition brought to the Caribbean by African slaves). I complain a lot about how children’s books don’t challenge them; how most of them are just television in a flip-book format. “Oloyou” and “Monkey Business” are red flags for the kid lit publishing industry. These progressive bits of glorious edutainment and storytelling will get young imaginations racing.

It's a Grimm World After All!

"Definitely Not for Little Ones"
By Rotraut Susanne Berner
ISBN No. 978-0-88899-957-3

Finally! A book for any parent who ever wanted to shorten the bedtime stories they read to their child. No ye olde English text to plod through. No long, meandering plotlines. No heavy metaphors to decipher. Yes, for a kid’s book this is one weird piece of work. The drawings are comic-strip kitschy, the stories sometimes so succinct they’re hard to follow, and the pacing breakneck. And while the book is subtitled “some very Grimm fairy-tale comics” there’s not a grim thing in here. Gone are the dire warnings and moral lessons of the old fairy tales (unless you remember them from your own childhood); instead the fairy tales are re-invented into almost a kind of funny limerick. And while I was personally hoping for something along the lines of 2001’s “Strange Stories for Strange Kids” (Spiegelman & Mouly; HarperCollins) the bonus here is that DNFLO isn’t likely to frighten kids or tire out their bedtime story-reading grandparents. They’ll also be grateful they don’t have to answer any questions from the little ones about cannibalism. Short. To the point. Colourful. Welcome to Grimm for the Internet age.

Impress Me Much

“Swallow Me Whole”
By Nate Powell
ISBN No. 978-1-60309-033-9

Pity the comic book industry. Their most obvious fanbase is fanboys, those dwellers of parents’ basement suites who spend all of their time gaming, role-playing and indexing the latest bit of Trek trivia into their cramped minds. They’re not interested in great literature; they’re interested in being wowed and awed. That’s why comic books and graphic novels favour stunt publishing (Funky Winkerbean confronting his alcoholism) over the politely trailblazing (the living-with-HIV graphic novel, “Blue Pills”). What’s the point in toiling over the Great Graphic Novel – I mean the Great Serious Graphic Novel - when its core audience will probably miss it?
But with even mainstream movies more awful than ever and novels with pedigrees in a collective humdrum slump is it possible that serious, ambitious graphic novels might finally establish themselves as the missing link between film and word? Is “Swallow Me Whole” the best chance yet of a Graphic Novel filling a void created by our drive-by culture?
Aimed at mature readers 16 years and older, “Swallow Me Whole” is about teen siblings pathfinding their way through a minefield of eldercare, peer pressure, OCD and mental illness. This is one heavy novel – graphic or otherwise - and Powell is up to the task of telling its story in ways that are both provocative and thoughtful. Nothing about the book feels contrived.
What sets SMW apart from other graphic novels, however, is that not since Robert Altman’s “Images” has a medium so perfectly conveyed the experience of schizophrenia (Altman fans take note, Powell’s panels even come with the kind of overlapping dialogue favoured by the film director). The visions in SMW fit with their setting and their characters and feel totally organic to the storytelling. The austere dark and whites of the drawings give the effect that this drama about the pressures of growing up is a nightmare in sunlight of sorts. Even better, Powell announces a sense of dread (of the daily grind, the impending hallucinatory episode) with a surprisingly effective cloud of black tentacles rolling in from one side of the panel. There’s just something so…so…right about so many choices in this book that you’re almost afraid to talk about how good it is for fear of breeding pessimism among those who haven’t read it yet.
After a book is published it takes a long time for the dice to stop rolling. Sales have to be calculated, reviews have to be quantified. But for “Swallow Me Whole” the verdict is already in. It’s the best graphic novel since Craig Thompson’s “Blankets.”

When Reading is a Lot Like Work

“The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”
By Alain De Botton
ISBN No. 978-0-7710-2603-4

“Historic Maps and Views of Paris”
By George Sinclair
ISBN No. 978-1-57912-798-5

By Chuck Palahniuk
ISBN No. 978-0-385-66629-9

“Sips and Apps: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Cocktails and Appetizers”
By Kathy Casey
ISBN No. 978-0-8118-6406-0

“Night: A Literary Companion”
Edited by Merilyn Simonds
ISBN No. 978-1-55365-396-7

No one really enjoys their work. Why else would homemakers – those people in charge of flirting with the mailman and making sure Oprah has on what the TV Guide said she’d have on – tally up how much they’d be paid if making a home were real work? Reading “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” feels like work - specifically morning at the office. It’s slow, plodding and has one major point to make (just like a university’s philosophy textbook). Listen: if you don’t know where a book that starts off with a chapter titled “Cargo Ship Spotting” is going then you deserve to keep working until you’re 105 years old. On one hand the author is mocking the worker bee for not smelling the flowers and on the other he’s saying you can get pleasure from your work if you just snort enough philosophy. Oh, there’s stuff to enjoy here: deep, dense thoughts, big questions, long walks (by the author) to wonder what it’s all about. What it’s all about is if this book were a wanted ad in our freefall economy it’d be looking for a very select audience: working people who aren’t tired of someone else telling them what to do or why they’re doing it. Communications Majors, please remember to footnote anything you quote from this book properly.
Now, depending on what you think of your job your day will continue in one of two ways. You may daydream about a great holiday in Paris that you can take with the money you’ve earned at work or you may want to buy a gun and thin out the crowd around the watercooler. For the former please refer to “Historic Maps and Views of Paris.” Remember a few years back when engineering blueprints and ancient maps of the world were considered art? HMAVOP is like that except it’s about Paris. This makes sense because with the Mexican health advisory and all, people aren’t thinking of tropical paradise anymore; they’re dreaming about being a stranger in a beautiful bustling city and watching other people go to work in beautiful buildings. The pictures in this book are just lovely; halfway between a watercolour painting and friendly directions to get to the Louvre. (And yes, they are definitely frameable.) However, if your workplace daydreams lean toward starring on the six o’clock news check out Chuck Palahniuk’s “Pygmy” for tips on maximum mayhem. This book is about a totalitarian state youth masquerading as an exchange student to infiltrate the U.S. and blow things up. As with all of his previous books, the premise is the hook and the production is hmm-worthy (some words are blacked out like you’re reading a declassified document; refer to Palahniuk’s “Survivor” – which brilliantly begins with a single man on a commercial airliner that’s about to crash. Of course the book’s page numbers start high and go low). The problem with “Pygmy” is that it continues Palahniuk’s inability to end a novel correctly and that even John Updike – John Updike! - wrote a book about a terrorist so it’s a done topic. “Pygmy” is readable but just too melodramatic in a world where suddenly everything is melodramatic. But then again there’s an excellent workplace message in this book: you can be a really successful writer and still hate the world.
Now, after work you’re most likely going to go home, make a drink and watch “Wheel of Fortune.” That’s where “Sips & Apps” comes in. And while it’ll get you fed and drunk the book will also remind you of great days gone by; that era when people actually liked other people and invited them over for nice, elegant evenings. Everything does look nice here. The food is colourful and fancy and the drinks should have their own best-dressed list. Ironically, the recipes for such well-dressed food and drink don’t read like differential equations; everything seems forthright and user-friendly. This book is about how a nice, classy party restores your faith in the capitalist system – and how if you drink enough you’ll forget about what happened at work. Even better: you can throw out that old, dog-eared cocktail recipe book your parents gave you and replace it with this beautifully produced one.
Okay, so you’re full of arty food and exotic liquor. Now what? Sleep, that’s what! And what better way to drift off than to a few entries from “Night.” Sure, it’s just the inside of your eyelids to you but like your boss yelled at you earlier today to think outside of the box, “Night” suggests a re-thinking of the dark hours by people much more successful than you (you know, the published kind). Night: it isn’t just for binners and racoons anymore. Now, reading any anthology requires a certain amount of patience; these books are kind of like everyone talking to you at once. But what talk! One entry is from a writer noticing a new star in the year 1572. This shiner stood out because, he wrote, “I had, almost from boyhood, known all the stars of the heavens perfectly.” And in a split second you realize how small your cubicle is, how wasteful your distractions of TV and the internet are, and what a grand world it is outside your workplace.

World of Crime

"No Such Creature"
By Giles Blunt
ISBN No. 978-0-679-31432-5
Vintage Canada

You know, I’ve been going online for quite sometime now and I’ve never read a chatroom profile where the person says they’re a fan of crime fiction novels. Not once. And that’s because crime fiction novels are the Ultimate Fight Club of publishing; they’re very popular but no one admits they’re a fan. In that respect, NSC is the UFC’s latest bout – with a twist. Because while the book still fulfills all the expectations of its genre (accessible plot, human evil, deceit, violence), it’s punched up with the smarts of a real novel; a real non-crime-fiction novel. ”On a cool night in late June the traffic on Highway 101 was not heavy”, the book begins. “Not for a Saturday night, anyway – and moved along at a steady clip, people cruising out to restaurants or movies or to spend the evening with friends.” What a promising start! And then you just know that author Blunt’s name is just too appropriate for this genre and, sure enough, he writes a line where another character describes a minor player by his whole name. And then another character does the same thing describing another character and then every other supporting character in the book begins to resemble a movie extra. I have no idea why crime fiction novelists are required to use the whole names of supporting characters – many of whom never actually make an appearance in the book past the dropping of their name, but for real readers of actual books it’s a speed bump for the eye. This is really too bad because NSC is better than most novels of its ilk. The story (man and nephew on a cross-country crime spree) is dangerous, the writing economically menacing and the ending kinda existentialist (even if opens the door for a whole series of man-nephew crime spree novels). At its worst the book is typical of its genre. At its best it’s just too good to ignore. Listen up, diehard fans and newbies; this is that best kind of crime fiction: the kind that doesn’t read like crime fiction.

Folk Art for Kids

"City Alphabet"
By Joanne Schwartz and Matt Beam
ISBN No. 978-0-88899-928-3

How’s this for a never-ending English lesson? The premise of this unusual book is that language is alive and well, and all around us: sentences spray painted on walls, letters inlaid in a cement sidewalk, words pieced together with vinyl decals on a storefront window. If we just look around enough, the book suggests, we’ll see walls, sidewalks and windows talking to us; we just have to be open to what they’re saying. Each letter of the alphabet gets two pages in the book. On the left hand side we see the letter itself and on the right an image of the word containing the letter captured in the concrete jungle (each photo is captioned about where the letter or word was found). It’s a disarmingly lovely valentine to the idea of “found art.” But the beauty of the book isn’t its startlingly simple yet effective concept. It’s that it invites children to consider the world around them as a sort of story constantly being written, edited and then re-written. As for HOW the words got onto a wall, sidewalk or window, well, that’s never explained and becomes part of the bigger wonder about the English language in general (I don’t know why but I’m picturing the creatures from Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” doing the engraving and taping and pasting; you know, typical Vancouverites putting their flyers up on lamp posts at 3AM on weekends). “Alphabet City” looks at urban geography as the most exciting library ever – one in which even adults can have fun spotting the words and then wondering about the story behind them.

Everything Really Old is New Again!

"Vermeer, Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum"
ISBN No. 978-1-55365-471-1
Vancouver Art Gallery
Douglas & McIntyre

Picture this: you’ve just seen the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibit of Vermeer and Rembrandt artwork that corresponds with this book and now you’re standing in the gallery gift shop trying to figure out what to get. Fridge magnets? Greetings cards? Somehow the artwork of this exhibit is too important, too heavy to be summarized by mere trinkets. Simply put there is no grander memento of your visit to the VAG than the artwork itself, which is beautifully re-created in this exhaustive, opulent catalogue of the exhibit (which runs at the Vancouver Art Gallery until September 13. 2009).
Given the crowd mentality that gathers and builds around major exhibits at the VAG, those of you who can’t stand other people will benefit exponentially by this book. You can appreciate “Still Life with Flowers on a Marble Tabletop” without having to push your way in to see it. You might have thought it was pretty on the gallery wall but you’ll get so much more out of “The Tailor’s Workshop” without feeling like you’re stuck in the longest line-up in the world to see the tailor. There’s also SO much to see in the exhibit (and so many obscure pieces) that you can’t see everything unless you’re really, really fast and have a photographic memory. No, the book isn’t quite like seeing the art work in person. It’s actually better. For art this momentous only the solitude afforded by the reflective medium of print will do (and if you really, REALLY admire art, then you’ll understand perfectly what I mean).
Even better, in our Photoshop era of adjusting exposures and colours (you know how some posters or greeting cards of famous art are either lighter or darker than the actual artwork?) the pictures in the book are preserved with the gallery curator’s eye for prosperity. There’s no guessing about what the original looks like. And there’s no inane chatter over what the artist intended; each piece in the book is accompanied by an enlightening, academic yet user-friendly essay. All of which means the book lets you visit the exhibit without listening to the unwashed masses (I’m talking about the newspaper critics, of course) hem and haw over chiaroscuro. This book is the final, definitive document, and argument-ender to all queries about the show - and it beautifies any coffee table.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Atwood's Grandest Gamble

"The Year of the Flood"
By Margaret Atwood
ISBN No. 978-0-7710-0844-3

If there’s one thing writers love to write about it’s the end of the world. Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, the editors of US Weekly; all soothsayers and truthseekers, it seems, have taken a turn picturing what the next world will look like. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get a book that keeps proving itself readable and prescient (“Brave New World”). If not, we get Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” And if we’re really, really lucky we get Margaret Atwood playing Mother Nature herself.
As you’d expect from Atwood, “The Year of the Flood” is as elegantly intellectual as her previous book, the dystopian chiller, “Oryx and Crake.” And if you already know that “Oryx and Crake” is a biomedical nightmare love story set in the future, then all you need to know about “The Year of the Flood” is that it’s sort of a continuation of “Oryx and Crake.” It’s usually at this point that the reviewer goes into spoiler alert mode but I’m going to limit my synopsis to a very brief, publisher-okayed description of three characters from “The Year of the Flood”: Adam One, the meek leader of God’s Gardeners (a faith that marries science and religion), Ren, a young trapeze-dancer, locked inside a high-end sex club; and one of God’s Gardeners named Toby, who is barricaded inside a spa. That’s it. That’s all anyone who hasn’t read the book needs to know because a book this good should be read, not read about.
Great books of fiction are so few and far between these days that a reviewer gets protective when dealing with even a decent title. In an effort to not give anything important away we end up talking about what book writers’ rightly fear most: the nuance stuff, the paragraphs that set the tone and establish a set piece; the easily nitpick-able stuff. But Atwood – again working in the most overworked genre of sci-fi - does a remarkable job here of getting her story’s little asides wow-worthy spot-on. You can picture the streets, the buildings, the clothing, even the jellyfish bracelets. Sure, there are some clunky moments; a few too many generalizations about how things will “look” (yes, yes, they’re needed to make the book accessible for the fantasy- and sci-fi-challenged) but Atwood’s clunks trump most other writers’ triumphs and add to the story’s discussion value. For instance, in “Oryx and Crake” I thought she clunked big time with the description of the McNuggets of the future (you’d think animal rights would trump all by then) and then I thought she got it so perfect when a character is trapped by roaming warthogs of the future that I can still see her words in my mind.
Even better, the sense of dread in “The Year of the Flood” is delightfully, perfectly well-timed for the start of the new school year and the run-up to family holiday get-togethers with others of your gene pool. The greatest compliment I can give “The Year of the Flood” is that I wished I could have saved it to read on my off time. I wish all books could be this wondrous. “The Year of the Flood” is that rarest of fiction titles: the creation of a new myth on a biblical scale.