Category Archives: Cannonball Read 5

Survival Kit – Review – (-)

Zuzana_Sermer_1

I read a LOT of Holocaust lit as a kid (Jasper, Lisa, Daniel’s Story, Endless Steppe, Number the Stars, Diary of Anne Frank, Devil’s Arithmetic, and more). I know I watched Schindler’s List in middle school, but I don’t remember if seeing that movie was what led me to the books, or whether the timing was coincidental. At any rate, after my young adult binge, I…never really touched the topic since. It can be so exhausting to mentally put yourself in that place (thank god, of course, that I have the luxury of taking the break).

But last year, I began working at the Azrieli Foundation, which publishes the memoirs of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Canada. At the time, they had published 20 English language stories, although I believe that number is now 21. I was given the entire library to read, and it took me about a month to work myself up to the challenge.

What finally pushed me to start reading the books were the videos. The Foundation has also begun releasing short movies of survivors who have published memoirs with them. The movies feature a mix of book excerpts, interviews with the authors, and animation. I watched these videos during an afternoon of booth-manning, and not only did I finally feel ready to read the books, I also felt like I needed to. The videos were incredibly effective because once you hear them speak, and see them communicate, you (or at least I) feel the need to know them better.

Zuzana Sermer is a very thoughtful and articulate woman, and her memoir is probably the most novelistic of the ones I’ve read. One simile that really stuck with me was her comparison between Communism and zoos, and war, somewhat, and jungles. “Inhabitants of a zoo may be safe,” she writes, “but they are helpless captives without the richness that makes life worth living.”

I’ve reviewed 4 of these memoirs already. It’s difficult to find new things to say after reading and reviewing so many of a similar type of book, so I’m going to end with the following, which comes from my previous review and states my feelings as clearly as I can phrase them:

These people come from all over the world and have experienced anything from convents to concentration camps.  I don’t feel comfortable rating these books – they’re personal and historical documents, not intentional works of literature, so I’m temporarily shelving my star system for now. However, I did want to review them, because I think they deserve to be read, thought about, and remembered.

Each memoir is unique and fascinating, and each has a worthy and important story to tell. On the one hand, this is so obvious as to become trite (everyone has a story to tell! everyone is important!), but on the other hand, it is an important reminder that we can never know the full story of any situation, and there are as many sides to the same story as there are people to tell it.

Cannonball Read: 46/52

(Cannonball Read V: 7/36)

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Review – ***1/2

guernsey

The last time I wrote a book review (Stargirl), I began by saying, “I have been incredibly busy lately finishing up the memoir project, as the deadline for the completed manuscript is the end of this month. So perhaps staging this “one post per day” nonsense could have waited until next month, but oh well.”

Then it turned into a 600+ word review, so I got rid of that intro. But I’m using it for this review, because damn, February was a stupid month to choose for this project.

First, I would like to point out that if you are going to have a book take place in Britain, with characters from Britain, consisting of the letters that these British characters from Britain are writing to other British Britains, then you bloody well spell “honour” with a U, dammit! I’m not sure who is to blame for this, the publishers, the editors, or the authors, but come. on.

As for the actual story itself? Well, I found it endearing. Of course, it was incredibly cutesy (like Stars Hollow on rainbows), and most of the main characters lacked any actual human flaws. Also, and this is a common problem in epistolary novels, most of the many different characters’ letters – male and female, old and young, educated/literary and not – read suspiciously like they were written by the exact same person. I’m sure developing a unique voice for 10+ original characters is a difficult job, but them’s the breaks if you choose to structure your novel through letter.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society reminded me of nothing so much as The Secret Garden – so, so sickeningly sweet, and everyone is ridiculously wonderful, but you don’t really care because sometimes people really can be like that, and it works. There’s room in the world for books like this (and room for books like The Big Sleep, equally).

In short, hating this book is kind of like hating a litter of puppies. Most of the time, it’s just adorable and solves all the problems in the world, but every once in a while, if you’re feeling particularly bitter, all the cuteness might make you feel a bit…stabby.

Cannonball Read: 45/52

(Cannonball Read V: 6/36)

(Ok, this review also isn’t as short as I thought it would be. Hurrah for long-windedness.)

Stargirl – Review – ****

I have been incredibly busy lately finishing up the memoir project, as the deadline for the completed manuscript is the end of this month. So perhaps staging this “one post per day” nonsense could have waited until next month, but oh well.

stargirl(minor spoilers)

I started out frankly irritated with the self-indulgent purposefully bizarre antics of the eponymous Stargirl, to be perfectly honest. But she, and the book, really grew on my by the end. The writing was impressively thoughtful for YA lit, and the characters and high school setting was fairly believable. I’ll admit that my high school experience seems to have differed greatly from most of pop culture’s conceptions of what it’s supposed to be like – I never felt pressured to change my behaviour or who I hung out with, and while there were cliques, it was mostly based on mutual interest (the “art people” (aka the druggies), the “Mac geeks,” the “music hallways group”), and you could belong to all or none of them, if you chose. So the school-wide shunning seemed a bit much, although I can picture it happening due to my exposure to shows like Degrassi, and movies like Mean Girls.

But a girl who devotes an entire office to making note of people’s birthdays, triumphs, failures, and misfortunes, just so she can support and cheer them along the way? That’s universally wonderful, no matter what your experience. So despite the cliché premise, there’s an important message here. And that message is not just to “be yourself and do what makes you happy, regardless of what people think of you,”** but also to simply have less of an ego, to think and care more about other people, humanity, and nature, and less about what clothes to wear.

I also read this book during a very relevant period in my life. As I mention almost constantly, I am currently working on completing a list of 100 Things I’d always wanted to do, but been unable to accomplish for various reasons. Several of these Things (singing lessons, finishing drafts of novels, improv class, drawing in a sketchbook) were meant to force to stop avoiding scary things that I could fail at, and just do it. I read most of this book on the long ride home from my first singing lesson, during which I was forced, for the first time in my life, to sing a Capella, without any other voices or music or shower noises to hide behind. It was terrifying. I closed my eyes and sped through the song (Les Mis’s Stars), going faster and faster until I reached the final line, and then I finally took a deep breath and realised I was still alive. It was so hard, but I also know it’s important to care less about perfection and outcome and more on just doing. And that was another facet of this book’s message.

Stargirl was a tad predictable, but it was true. and doesn’t take the easy way out.

**As important a message as this is, the way it has been presented in pop culture has always rubbed me very slightly the wrong way. Sure, whistle off-key if you want to, but not, say, while other people are trying to have private dinner conversations. Sing happy birthday to people, but not to shy wall flowers who would be mortified rather than thrilled. Play the ukulele of the drums, but not when someone’s trying to sleep. It’s one thing to be true to be yourself, but it’s another to do it at the expense and annoyance of those around you. So yeah, praise Stargirl all you like, but she’s still a kid who needs to learn some freaking boundaries.

Cannonball Read: 44/52

(Cannonball Read V: 5/36)

The Big Sleep – Review – **

big sleepI think this might be the first book I’ve reviewed for the CBR that I haven’t actually enjoyed.* At all. And I was really hoping to, as I’m a huge fan of the mystery genre, Chistie and Doyle in particular.

Unfortunately, while the main mystery was somewhat intriguing, there wasn’t really much else for me to enjoy. I found it boring, and most of the similes laughable (the bad kind). The prose wasn’t good or original or magical enough to make the lack of any enjoyable or interesting characters worth suffering through.

But most of all, I didn’t like, nor was I interested in, any of the characters – Philip Marlowe was a dick (the bad kind), his client was a crank, his colleagues were personality-free, and the women. Oh, the women. There were three somewhat major female characters in The Big Sleep  and not one of them was portrayed in an even slightly favourable light. I know a lot of classics from, well, any era prior to this one are written by and for the good old Boy’s Club, but there’s a difference between not having any interest in, or understanding of, women, and outright hate of them. Good grief, I’ve never read so much disdain in the description of a woman’s tiny, glistening, shark-like teeth before.

(And given all these other problems, I wasn’t feeling too keen on letting things like, “she had an intelligent Jewess face,” pass, regardless of the accepted cultural norms during Raymond Chandler’s tenure on Earth.)

Minutes before I finished the book I felt a huge wave of relief: 15 pages left to read and then I am free of Raymond Chandler’s miserable world with horrible people in it, forever.

I want to make it clear that I have no problem with the noir genre or grim material in general; but there has to be something in there for me, and I just found this book incredibly off-putting. I would also like to note that I am aware this was Chandler’s first novel, and would be happy to give The Long Goodbye or similar a chance if anyone would like to suggest an improvement in his later works.

I would also like to clarify that I am not dumping on those who consider this a classic. I’ve talked to live human people who are of this opinion, people I consider intelligent, and I guess your enjoyment of this book, more than some others, must depend on your circle of experience. For some people, Chandler’s descriptions might read as brilliantly, uncomfortably true, but for me…let’s just say I have never in my life met anyone who remotely resembled Carmen Sternwood, and I have a hard time even imagining anyone like her existing outside of either a mental institution, or a school for the developmentally disabled.

Some of it was quite funny, though. Even on purpose!

Cannonball Read: 43/52

(Cannonball Read V: 4/36)

*I mean, Accidental Billionaires was terrible, but at least it was entertaining. Survivor in Death and Aristotle and Poetic Justice were also pretty bad, though.

How To Be a Woman– Review – ***1/2

howtobewomanAaand we’re back to memoirs.

[Just a warning – this review is definitely going to suck more than usual because I’m in a hurry; I recently realised I’ve posted every day so far this month, and now I would like to continue the trend. Thank goodness the month I chose to do this during is February.]

Ok, so the book. I bought this one (yay gift cards!) because I read an excerpt in one of mom’s magazine’s which basically stated, in funnier terms, my exact views on feminism, which is, essentially, the following:

All right-thinking human beings should be as comfortable labeling themselves “feminists” as they might be stating that they are pro good things and anti bad things. Because, you see, women and men are equal and should be treated as such, and all people are different from one another in some way, and these people can always find another group of people who share a bit of the same differences. So whether you divide them into men and women, introverts and extroverts, Community fans and non-Community fans, all people have worth, and should be treated as such.

In short, to be a “feminist” is to believe that women and men are equal. It is not the belief that men are bad, or that women are better (although I am pretty sure Community fans > non-Community fans). And that excerpt pretty much restated that. But, as I said, funnier. So, in other words, I liked what Moran had to say, and went out and bought the book. You know: duh.

But as I flipped through it at home, I couldn’t really find anything I liked. She was talking about being in love with some obvious douchebag and presenting on TV at the age of 18, and all I could think was, “I wasn’t that stupid at 18, and I’ve never been on TV.” Because…logic.

I put the book aside. I mentioned in my review of Bossypants that How To Be a Woman was next up on the line of things to read, and as you might have noticed (or not – I am reviewing them mere days apart after all, because…time management), I didn’t get around to actually reading it until months later. You know, after I put it on my Shelf in order to force myself to read it, given that I had spent the money, and it was in my house.

SO I started actually reading it and found the first few chapters hilarious. Like, I was seriously rolling on the [bed] laughing at each of the first three chapters, scaring the hell out of the dog, and being totally been converted to use of the word “cunt.” Her tirade on the porn industry is hilarious and true.  I also enjoyed the chapters on abortion and aging. And Nataly, if you’re reading this, I think you’ll really like the section on weddings.

I’ve read a lot of reviews that criticized Moran’s condemnation of the word “fat” while simultaneously calling people “retards” and making outlandish comparisons between that darned patriarchy and, for example, starving orphans, and I’m not sure this is entirely fair. For one thing, I didn’t read the “fat” chapter as an order to stop using the word, but more of a caution raising the awareness of what it can do to people. And for another, having scanned some reviews on Goodreads, it seems that the version I’m reading has been edited for the States, and I may be missing some of the more offensive phrasing. But mainly, she sticks to my preferred method of being obnoxious, which is to do it to all people equally, thus diluting its affect.

However, even when I disagreed with Moran’s points or conclusions, the tone of the book is friendly and conversational. I think part of what irritates people is the fact that her manner tends to suggest that her thoughts and opinions are the be-all and end-all, but I talk like that too, and that doesn’t mean I think that my word is the final word – it’s just a manner of speaking. We think it makes us sound funnier. So I’m less inclined to get my back up about the things I disagree with.

Of which there were plenty. Here are some notes I  made while reading:

“Disagree vehemently about women doing nothing for 100,000 years, but if you can get past that, she has some interesting things to say.”
“…That is not how the sorting hat works.”
“You don’t know me, stop telling me to do things.”
“Wait, you don’t like Top Gear? Your arguments are dangerously close to becoming invalid.”

Really, How To Be a Woman succeeded far more as a funny memoir in the vein of Jenny Lawson‘s, and less as a feminist screed, but Moran has a lot of interesting things to say, and is fearless in saying them. Whether you agree with her or not, she gives you a lot to think about, and new ways to think about it. If you’re looking for something to read the next time you’re snowed in, you could do a lot worse.

Cannonball Read: 42/52

(Cannonball Read V: 3/36)

I, Mona Lisa – Review – ****

I-Mona-Lisa-coverLook! It’s not a memoir! It’s fiction! I still remember how to read fiction!

I never got into Philippa Gregory (should I rethink this?) or historical bodice rippers, so I really didn’t expect to like this book at all. Shows what I know.

Last summer, I spent 6 weeks in Italy (4 on an archaeology course, 2 travelling), and fell in love with Florence, as so many do. I’m not sure whether it would have been better to have read this book before the trip – although it probably wouldn’t have meant anything to me then. Now that I’ve experienced these places for myself, the locations and monuments are real, instead of fantastic imaginary fantasies. Reading the book now was kind of reliving that wonderful trip.

I, Mona Lisa is an alternative history of 15th and early 16th century Italy, centering around the character of Lisa Gherardini, also known as the Mona Lisa herself. The story follows Lisa’s life and the creation of the famous painting, and weaves it neatly into the tumultuous events occurring in and around Florence at the time. Kalogridis does take some incredible liberties with history and what we know of the Mona Lisa, but I’m actually not sure how much of that is her fault – the book was published in 2006 (therefore presumably written in 2004/2005), and a lot of what we know of the Mona Lisa came to light in 2005 (see the above link). At any rate, I’ve decided it would be helpful to read books like this with one hand on the keyboard and one eye on Google. That way, the author can draw you into history with intrigue (murder! sex! sword fights!) and atmosphere, and you can be sure not to replace recorded history with half-remembered fictions from some book you once read.

As for the story itself, I was really impressed at the portrayal of Lisa’s relationship with her father, and how the tragedy of fictional Lisa’s life is real tragedy, not princess tragedy, giving the story real stakes. I must confess I called most of the twists before they happened (save the double one), but still found the book compelling. It’s a lesson on how to write twists, really, because no matter how clever the author, someone is going to figure it out, always, so you might as well make the story enjoyable beyond the cheap tricks.

The themes of prophecy, repetition and drowning were very effectively done, and the skill with which concepts like religion, religious insanity, sympathy for murdered and the insane, art, and politics was comforting – I felt like I was in very good hands while reading the novel.

In short, I think I’ve been turned – I should read historical fiction more often. I, Mona Lisa may not have been too historically accurate on the personal life details, but it was great with the big picture, and the writing was engrossing. Plus, Jeanne Kalogridis seems like a super cool woman.

Cannonball Read: 41/52

(Cannonball Read V: 2/36)

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection – Review – ****1/2

drop deadI’ve read all of A.J. Jacobs’ “stunt” memoirs. The Year of Living Biblically was my favourite by far, but his first, The Know-It-All is pretty damn good, too*. My Life As A Guinea Pig is fine – it’s a collection of articles written for Esquire following the Jacobs’ theme of experimenting on himself.

Drop Dead Healthy is just as good as Biblically. I spent the entire week I was reading this book reading quotes out loud to everyone around me, and making notes to improve my own healthiness.

It’s not your average self-help diet and exercise book, there isn’t one simple program that he hawks. It’s a fairly broad overview of all that healthy living has to offer, told with minimal judgement (a tone I call “respectful skepticism”) – a lot like Mary Roach. It’s not surprising that I’m always reading endorsement quotes from one on the jacket flaps of the other. There are the expected chapters on exercise and diet (encompassing everything from mindful eating, caveman living, and the veggie smoothie diet), but, as usual, Jacobs goes several steps further; you’ll also find chapters on ear health, back health, hand health, and more.

Some standout chapters are those on sleep (hilarious and, for this insomniac, so so relevant), and the aforementioned back (utterly, surprisingly, hilarious). This is that wonderful type of book that will cause you to accidentally learn things while entertaining you effortlessly. As a wannabee musician and athlete, the information on finger fitness was especially intriguing. The information on Retina A/tretinoin was very nice to know. I’m totally going to do HIIT for *my* mini-marathon. And he shared some truly terrifying information about sugar that the willfully ignorant like myself may have missed.

So four-and-a-half stars for you, A.J., and I’m looking forward to reading the next one.

*After reading them yet another quote from the book, my parents asked if I remembered anything from The Know-It-All, and I got to show off all proudly my remembrance of aposiopesis and apotropeic names, so there. Although I do remember purposefully trying to memorize those ones back when I was reading it, for the sole purpose of retaining *some* information, so…

Cannonball Read: 40/52

(Cannonball Read V: 1/36)

Favourite quotes:

“…As I learned in my year of living biblically, only by exploring the limits can you find the perfect middle ground.”

“If you could lock 10 thousand people in identical rooms for eighty years and feed half of them nothing but vegan food and feed the other half nothing but steak and eggs, and keep everything else the same, you could have some real data. But unless a Bond villain decides to pursue a doctorate in nutrition, that’s not going to happen.”

Reframing an airport security pat-down as a free massage? Hee.