Thursday, December 31, 2009

Book Review: Aimee Bender, An Invisible Sign Of My Own

Author: Aimee Bender
Publisher/Year: Anchor Books, 2000

Review:
Aimee Bender’s first novel (her first book The Girl in the Flammable Skirt was a collection of short stories) An Invisible Sign of My Own is quirky tale of a woman on the edge of compulsive collapse. Given its subject matter, it is not always the easiest novel to wrap your brain around. It holds itself slightly aloft from the reader, as if to underscore the broader theme of incomprehension that weaves its way through story. Regardless, Bender has painted a vivid portrait of psychological disturbance that is as serious and worrisome as it is humorous and enchanting. Not the easiest of combinations to pull off.


The central character of the story is Mona Gray, an obsessive compulsive who has recently retained a job as a math teacher at a local elementary school. She does not appear to have any of the qualifications for this position expect for her neurotic love of math. In her compulsion driven existence, numbers are her greatest comfort and stabilizer. In their absence, she finds herself knocking on wood until her knuckles bleed and washing her mouth out with soap whenever a sexual desire creeps to the surface.

Mona excels in the classroom, despite her lack of experience, thanks in large part to her fanatical attachment to math. She transfers this love to her rambunctious class of second-graders as a means to gain control over their restlessness. Mona charges them with creating numbers out of everyday material, an activity that brings to light numerous emotional foibles of the children. As a result, Mona’s classroom persona begins to give way to her wounded internal world as she becomes entangled in her pupil’s lives to various ends.

Bender’s rendering of Mona’s world is almost like a fairytale—a weird, warped fairytale but a fairytale no less. It is an imaginative tale carried forth by its dark and carefully constructed prose. Bender has created a surreal world wherein her characters drift through compulsions and obsessions with the steps of a professional ballet dancer constantly learning a new routine. You can never quite predict where Bender’s prose is going to lead even though she does not try to hide her character’s motivations and desires. As a result, An Invisible Sign of My Own is a most endearing and idiosyncratic story that creates a heroine and a world like no other.

Table of Contents

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Table of Contents: Tinsel - A Search for America's Christmas Present

Author: Hank Stuever
Publisher/Year: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009
Synopsis: Hank Stuever turns his unerring eye for the idiosyncrasies of modern life to Frisco, Texas, a suburb at once all-American and completely itself, to tell the story of the nation’s most over-the-top celebration: Christmas. Stuever starts the narrative as so many start the Christmas season: standing in line with the people waiting to purchase flat-screen TVs on Black Friday. From there he follows three of Frisco's true holiday believers as they navigate through the Nativity and all its attendant crises. Tammie Parnell, an eternally optimistic suburban mom, is the proprietor of "Two Elves with a Twist," a company that decorates other people's big houses for Christmas. Jeff and Bridgette Trykoski own that house every town has: the one with the visible-from-space, most awe-inspiring Christmas lights. And single mother Caroll Cavazos just hopes that the life-affirming moments of Christmas might overcome the struggles of the rest of the year. Stuever's portraits of this happy, megachurchy, shopariffic community are at once humane, heartfelt, revealing – and very funny.

What Others Have To Say:

Seattle Times
"an uneven but hilariously entertaining account about our Christmas culture."

Mercury News
"well worth reading, but it's a coin toss whether those who do so will find it funny or sad."

Entertainment Weekly
"While he occasionally lapses into bewildered snark, overcome by all those megastores and megachurches, he still manages to find the heart in his characters' obsessive consumerism."

Curtis Sittenfeld, Author
"In this dazzling feat of reportage, Hank Stuever gets at what's best and worst not just about Christmas but about us as Americans. Hilarious, insightful, compassionate, and hugely entertaining, Tinsel is a gift (holiday or otherwise) to anyone who loves great writing."

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Table of Contents: Candy Freak - A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America

Author: Steve Almond
Publisher/Year: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004
Synopsis: Driven by his obsession, stubborn idealism, and the promise of free candy, self-confessed candyfreak Steve Almond takes off on a quest to discover candy's origins in America, to explore the little companies that continue to get by on pluck and perseverance, and to witness the glorious excess of candy manufacturing.

From the Twin Bing to the Idaho Spud, the Valomilk to the Abba-Zaba, Almond uncovers a small legion of singular handcrafted candy bars made by unsung heroes, working in old-fashioned factories for tiny profits to produce something that they love. Fascinated by the emotional power of these confectionary delights, the primal and persuasive experience of the world in our mouths, Almond describes our candy cravings in sensuous and titillating detail. Though the road is laden with free samples, he discovers that the world of candy making is not the sweet world of childhood reveries but one beleaguered by stiff competition, closely guarded secrets, and increasingly limited markets. But no matter. As he also finds, every candy maker, even when poised on the edge of failure, is happy, indulgent, and childlike. For finally, even the darkest market forces, even the clout of the Big Three candy companies that threaten to wipe out all others, cannot lessen our desire to lose ourselves in chocolate.


What Others Have To Say:

The Village Voice
"As Almond tours generations-old factories and hears about the sanguine plans of the family members who run them, he sees the story as universal: It's an illustration of the Wal-Mart-ization of America."

Amy Sedaris, Actress and Comedian
"I got a real sugar rush and cluster headache reading this bittersweet book by Steve Almond-joy, the sugar daddy himself. I won't sugar coat it-this book is one sweet treat."

San Francisco Chronicle
"The factory tours eventually blur together, and Almond's overuse of the word "freak" as a noun, verb and adjective is the literary equivalent of shredded coconut -- a distraction from otherwise original prose."

The Boston Globe
"Part personal memoir and part cultural history, "Candyfreak" is the work of an obsessive."

Chicago Sun-Times
"It is Almond's almost stream-of-consciousness voice that lifts this material from a merely pragmatic investigation of chocolate, or of his own predilections, to a humorous yet thoughtful meditation."

Extras:
Read an excerpt (about 1/3 down the page)!
Read Almond's Candyfreak Tour Diary

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Book Review: Deborah Schupack, The Boy On The Bus

Author: Deborah Schupack
Publisher/Year: Simon and Schuster, 2003

Review:
The Boy On The Bus is a short book that lingers long past its pages have been digested. It is a deceptively simple story, relying more on psychological progressions and transgressions than any physical or tangible plot elements. The novel presents one idea and alternately shines a bright light and encases it in shadows as the narrative progresses to its fuzzy and somewhat uncomfortable conclusion.

The story starts with Vermont housewife Meg being beckoned to the school bus parked in front of her house to retrieve her eight-year old son Charlie. There is one slight problem with this task: she does not believe the boy to be Charlie. Something does not seem right with the boy who seems to look and talk and act like Charlie. Meg senses something amiss but fear stops her from immediately questioning the boy who may or may not be her son.

Once Charlie is off the bus, Meg begins the inevitable mental process of comparing the Charlie she knows to the Charlie that she sees before her. The Charlie that left the house that morning was asthmatic with a sickly pallor and a fear of life. The Charlie that returns is healthy, hungry, adventurous and emotionally stronger. Unsure if she can trust her observations and intuitions, Meg summons both Jeff, her common law husband, and Katie, her rebellious thirteen-year old daughter, home to get their opinions on this baffling Twilight Zone-esque mystery.


Both Jeff and Katie, as well as the local sheriff, Charlie’s pediatrician and neighbors join in on the ‘mystery’. But their involvement is teritiary at best and is wholly summed up by Jeff: “You’re his mother. You know best.” Yet the more Meg observes Charlie, the more she becomes unhinged and detached from the reality surrounding her. Her attempts at questioning and testing Charlie only yield more questions instead of the answers she so desperately needs. No definitive answers emerge over the course of her observations, making Meg more tense and anxious with each passing minute.

Meg is not the most likable female character you will ever come across. She is actually most unlikable, even to people who are not mothers. She passive-aggressively pushes people away when they obviously do not want her to control them. Charlie, with his illness, is the only one who cannot escape and she pours all her energies into making him dependent on her. But it is really Meg who is dependent on Charlie, which is partly why this new Charlie shakes her to her very core.

Charlie’s blurred identity mirrors Meg’s own imprecise identity. He is emblematic of her wasted ambitions, the goals unattained, the domestic prison she constructed for herself and her family. The title of the novel could have easily been called “The Woman in the House” instead of “The Boy on the Bus”.

The novel essentially calls into question whose identity crisis is really the precipice for Meg’s suspicions of Charlie. Is it Meg or is it Charlie that is really at stake? With this unclear motivation at its centre, the novel presents an eerily realistic account of a family in psychological limbo, with the characters bending and reaching over and through each other to determine and then escape their family’s dysfunctional existence. Their loneliness and pain on an individual and collective level bleeds through every spoken and unspoken word.

Schupack has created a crafty and engrossing mystery with her debut novel. Her sparse writing makes you want to keep reading in anticipation of having the answers unravel in one fell swoop. But the moment of revelation never comes as she makes the wise choice to maintain the unease of the reader, to not give them an easy out from the psychological web she has weaved. Schupack keeps the identity conundrum of The Boy On The Bus tightly wound and unresolvable. And it is this deliberate approach that makes it almost impossible for the reader to keep a distance from the characters and their plights.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Table of Contents: Mrs. Perfect

Author: Jane Porter
Publisher/Year: 5 Spot, 2008
Synopsis: For Taylor Young life is very good. She has a handsome husband who loves her, three gorgeous children, a personally designed and decorated dream house. Suburbanite trendsetter and super mom—life couldn’t be more perfect. And as long as no one notices the fragile woman beneath her coifed and polished image, things will stay that way.

Then, a devastating secret bursts Taylor’s fairy-tale bubble, suddenly making her a cul-de-sac pariah, and stripping her of the role that defined her. With her struggling to maintain her alpha image, Taylor finds help from the unlikeliest of people, her nonconformist nemesis, Marta Zinsser. But to become the woman her family truly needs, Taylor must first believe in the person she is hardest on—herself.


What Others Have To Say:

Chicago Tribune
"Jane Porter creates a richly emotional story about a realistically flawed and wonderfully human hero who only discovers what is important in life when she learns to let go of her quest for perfection."

USA Today
"Porter's authentic character studies and meditations on what really matters make Mrs. Perfect a perfect summer novel."

Book Reporter
"Porter’s charming book reminds us that it’s not our possessions that define us, no matter what Madison Avenue tells us. It’s who we are and how we treat each other that really counts."

Kirkus Reviews
“...The witty first-person narration keeps things lively in Porter’s latest. Taylor’s neurotic fussiness provides both vicarious thrills and laughs before Taylor moves on to self awareness and a new kind of empowerment. The glittery high-end fantasy is delivered with enough humor to leaven the silliness, making this a feel-good read.”

Extras:
Reader's Guide
Read an excerpt (scroll about 2/3s down the page)!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Book Review: Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea

Author: Mark Dunn
Publisher/Year: Anchor Books, 2002

Review:
Ella Minnow Pea, the title and lead protagonist in Mark Dunn’s quirky and loving ode to the alphabetarian in all us, lives a happy existence on the fictional island of Nollop. This island, located just off the coast of South Carolina, has a distinguished heritage as having been the home of Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Dunn’s modern fable is a spirited literary experiment evolving from the pleasures and devastations that arise as a result of the worshipfulness the Island’s residents lay at the feet of their famous history.

This worshipfulness is manifested in a brilliant monument to Nollop that includes his famous sentence. Time passes unmarked on Nollop until one eventful day a century later when the carefully constructed terracotta letters start falling off the monument one by one. As the letters continue to fall, the Island undergoes a widespread panic. They believe that the falling letters are a sign from Nollop himself, signaling them to reevaluate their use of these letters. The High Council’s resolution is to ban the use of the fallen letters, and those who do not follow the law are to be banned from the Island as well.



And so begins the transformation of this once peaceful place into a military state. Neighbors turn against neighbors. Books are burned. People stop speaking and writing for fear of punishment. Eventually, the monument has just five letters remaining, ‘LMNOP’ or (conveniently) Ella Minnow Pea. It is Ella and her small group of dissidents who first work to change the Island’s policy regarding the alphabet mayhem, and then work just as hard to develop a new pangram that will allow the Island to emerge from their language lock down.

Dunn tells the story in a series of letters, with each letter mirroring the restrictive communicative bounds taking place in the story. His literary device also stays true to the story as the people of Nollop are letters writers because of inconsistent telephone service. What Dunn provides with these letters is a first-hand account of how truly reliant we are on the alphabet, and how the loss of even one letter can severely affect people’s abilities to communicate and even function at a basic level.

You can also look upon Ella Minnow Pea as a light commentary on organized religion and government paranoia. As the story progresses, the Island moves from an ideal to a frightening parable on the devastating effects language sanctions can have on individual’s identity. Dunn constructs his characters and events deliberately to highlight how the fervor of panic can be tied to even the most trivial of items. The obvious solution to the problem would be to create new letters but the resident’s devotion blinds them to the easy solution. As such, it is a story of power abuse, as elders and elected officials take control and push their interpretations onto others.

Ella Minnow Pea is a clever exercise in creative writing. The novel can be a trying read as Dunn must, in order to maintain the story, use phonetic spellings and odd phrasings to keep the narrative moving forward. Readers may begin to feel less secure in their abilities to comprehend what is being said, what Dunn is trying to say, because of his approach. But take the time and expend the effort, especially if you are a language lover, as you will be most assuredly dazzled by what Dunn has constructed with his debut novel.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Table of Contents: Before I Wake

Author: Robert J. Wiersema
Publisher: Random House
Year: 2007
Synopsis: Injured by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street, Sherry Barrett lies in a hospital where her doctors say she will never wake up. Her distraught parents, Karen and Simon, make the painful decision to take her off life support. But when they do, Sherry spontaneously begins breathing on her own, the first of many miraculous events to occur.

Henry Denton, the driver who struck Sherry, is haunted by the accident and attempts to take his own life, only to be saved by an unexplained force. Sherry's nurse discovers that the little girl has the power to heal. When word of her gift leaks, the sick begin lining up to be saved and a mysterious stranger sets his sights on vanquishing the believers and the Barretts.



What Others Have To Say:

Quill & Quire
"While there’s no doubt that Wiersema’s compassion and sympathy for his characters are genuine, and that he tells a cracking good tale, occasionally it’s just possible that he may be pulling our leg."

Canadian Literature
An elaborate, unbelievable plot drives the novel and peoples it with stereotypical, unbelievable characters."

Quarterly Conversation
"Wiersema creates an intriguing novel that’s part literary, part supernatural thriller."

Extras:
Interview with CBC.ca

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Review: Emma Donoghue, Slammerkin

Author: Emma Donoghue
Publisher/Year: Virago, 2000

You may get the impression from one glance at the cover of Slammerkin that it is a bodice-ripping historical romance with more heated sex than one can handle. But first impressions can be wrong, and indeed they are in this case. For sure, there is indeed much sex within Emma Donoghue’s novel but it is anything but heated. And there is some bodice-ripping but not for reasons or exploitive plot points as one may suspect or expect. No, Slammerkin (slang for loose women or loose clothes) is a story that uses sex as the catalyst for demonstrating the damaging impacts of an ego indulged. Such is not the fodder for your typical romance novel.

Emma Donoghue based the novel on the true story of Mary Saunders, a young servant girl who murdered her mistress in 1763. All that is know about Mary’s life comes from snippets of information that Donoghue fastens together with great care. She deftly intertwines the real with the imagined to produce a vibrant, mesmerizing novel that leaves the reader wanting more and simultaneously wanting it to be over.


Slammerkin is staged during the last two years of Mary’s life. It all begins simply enough, with young Mary wishing for a different social station than that provided by her mother and stepfather. Mary’s is a poor existence, circumstances she bitterly notices are in direct opposition to her ambitions and want for the finer things.

Mary becomes fascinated with the local harlots, whose colorful clothing and perceived freedom represent her deepest desires. It is through her romanticized fascination with these ‘slammerkins’ that Mary begins to covet that which is seemingly out of her reach, specifically a shiny red ribbon worn by one of the harlots. Driven by her desire to have her own red ribbon, Mary decides to give into a peddler’s demand for a kiss in order to obtain this ribbon. It is an ultimately disastrous decision, setting into motion Mary’s expulsion from her family home, unqualified disownment and eventually, death.

Once on the streets, Mary is taken in by Doll Higgins, the same prostitute Mary used to watch. Doll teaches Mary how to earn the money necessary to buy whatever she wants. Faced with little prospects, Mary does as Doll instructs and becomes a slammerkin.

It is far from an idyllic life for Mary but she learns to be self-sufficient and learns the value of appearance in getting what one wants and needs. Eventually Mary is taken into a religious home for wayward girls and attempts to restore her life to one of virtue. The life offered by the home is at first welcomed but then disdained as its rules and confinements restrict the freedom Mary had when she was a “Miss”.

Mary escapes from the house and soon conspires to make her way to Monmouth, her mother’s childhood home. Through some deception, Mary becomes a maid and seamstress to Jane Jones. Yet again, Mary finds her attempts at redemption suffocating and she is soon back to her street ways. Her deceptions start to unravel and old desires resurface, trapping Mary with no escape other than murder.

Slammerkin is a strange and compelling read. Donoghue does not romanticize Mary’s life or the events that marked her troubled existence. There is a rawness to Donoghue’s writing, most especially in dealing with Mary’s abortion and subsequent harlot life, that is at times difficult to digest. Though her writing is unforgivingly real, Donoghue also infuses a surprising tenderness that compels the reader to constantly shift their perception of Mary from heroine to victim, transgressor to transgressed and back again.

As such, this is not a novel that one wants to read but rather, one that you want to consume. It is both fascinating and depressing, a testament to Donoghue’s skill as an author and as a storyteller. Slammerkin is an exercise in managing a conflict of emotions that is not unlike that experienced by Mary herself, both in the real and the fictional realms. And this ability to make the reader reflect on their own lives through Mary’s experiences is the defining quality that makes Slammerkin a most rewarding literary encounter.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Table of Contents: Still Alice

Author: Lisa Genova
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Year: 2009
Synopsis: Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children and a house on the Cape, is a celebrated Harvard professor at the height of her career when she notices a forgetfulness creeping into her life. As confusion starts to cloud her thinking and her memory begins to fail her, she receives a devastating diagnosis: early onset Alzheimer''s disease. Fiercely independent, Alice struggles to maintain her lifestyle and live in the moment, even as her sense of self is being stripped away.



What Others Have To Say:
The Globe and Mail
"hrough her depiction of real-life situations and their impact on a close-knit family coping with this tragic disease, Genova shows us that when you lose your mind, you still have your heart, your default emotional responses and your essential self. Something for all of us to remember."

USA Today
"...reads like a gripping memoir of a woman in her prime watching the life she once knew fade away."

Alzheimer's Society
"...represents a valuable step forwards in the drive to raise public awareness of Alzheimer's disease and dementia, a crucial aspect in the fight to defeat these devastating conditions."

Extras:
Reading group guide

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Book Review: Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher/Year: Picador, 2003

There can be no doubt that Jeffrey Eugenides’ second novel Middlesex was most worthy of winning the Pulitzer Prize in Literature. Middlesex is a devastating story, drawn in with varying shades of humor, pain, love, lust and betrayal. It is a powerful tale, raw, almost hypersensitive in its account of teenage angst and familial deceptions. It is a mesmerizing journey, soaring and grounding like a roller coaster ride out of control. Eugenides has constructed a hypnotic epic story and hero/ine, both of which the heart and mind stubbornly refuse to relinquish long, long after you have moved on to the next novel.

This odd and yet completely believable novel starts with what may be the greatest opening sentence of the past decade, “I was born twice, as a baby girl, on a remarkable smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” And thus begins the remarkable and riveting story of Calliope Helen Stephanides, or Cal, a 41-year-old hermaphrodite once thought to be the only daughter of middle-class parents.


The genius of Eugenides’ story lies 80 years in the past, in a family history stained with incest and a resulting rogue gene. It all starts in Turkey during the 1920’s where a fateful union of brother and sister sets off the events that come to shape Cal’s destiny. From there, the story leaps to Detroit during Prohibition, to the defining race riots of 1967, to the suburban middle-class existence of Grosse Pointe in the 1970s, and finally to Berlin in the present-day.

Throughout these settings, Eugenides taps into the confusing and aching adolescent love stories that create the basis of the story. He begins with Cal’s grandparents Desdemona and Lefty, delicately lending windows of insight into the culture and environment that sanctioned the evolution of their suppressed desires. From there, he moves to their son Milton who achingly falls in love with his cousin Tessie, a union that compounds the genetic trail that would eventually lead to Cal.

It is with Cal/lie’s various explorations in sex and love that Eugenides truly hits his stride, deftly layering his prose to develop a lead character and story that begins in feminine youth and eventually leads to an equally confusing and aching masculine adult love story. Eugenides’ mastery of the written word makes the sexual discoveries Cal experiences during early adolescence jaw dropping. He captures the emotions and confusion of the time with such keen magnification that feelings of sympathy, admiration, and perhaps even jealousy may be sparked in the reader.

And this is a major reason why Middlesex works so splendidly, the relationship between Eugenides and his muse. Eugenides manages to switch between Cal/Callie without disrupting the balance of the narrative. He does this by carefully constructing weapons of insight for the character—intelligence, insight, humor—that are transferable between both identities regardless of gender formation. The fluidity with which Eugenides moves between these identities propels the story forward at an astounding pace, leaving you slightly breathless in the wake of its detail and lyricism.

Eugenides has managed to do what few authors ever have--produce a story as elegant, as haunting, as enriching as their debut work (The Virgin Suicides). And while it may have taken ten years for Eugenides to release his Homer-esque sophomore effort, it is clear that those were not idle years. Middlesex is absolutely transfixing in its complexity and simplicity. There is little doubt that this momentous and exhilarating novel is going to occupy a place of honor as a literary masterpiece for decades to come.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Book Mark: Canada Reads 2010

CBC's 2010 Canada Reads contest kicked off Tuesday with the announcement of this round's book selections:

Novel: Generation X by Douglas Coupland
Champion: Roland Pemberton a.k.a Cadence Weapon, Musician

Novel: Fall On Your Knees by Anne-Marie MacDonald
Champion: Perdita Felicien, Hurdler

Novel: The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy
Champion: Dr. Samantha Nutt, founder of War Child Canada

Novel: Good To A Fault by Marina Endicott
Champion: Simi Sara, Vancouver media personality

Novel: Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner
Champion: Michel Vézina, Montreal belletrist

We look forward to re-reading a couple of our favorites, diving into the new offers, and hopefully providing a book review or two along the way.

The competition will air March 2010 on CBC Radio.

Adaptation: The Road

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Book Mark: Governor General's Literary Awards

The winners of the 2009 Governor General's Literary Awards were announced on November 17, and will be presented tonight by the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada.

FICTION
Kate Pullinger, London (UK) [originally from Cranbrook, British Columbia], The Mistress of Nothing. (McArthur & Company; distributed by the publisher)


Julie Mazzieri, Velone-Orneto (France) [originally from Saint-Paul-de-Chester, Quebec], Le discours sur la tombe de l’idiot. (Éditions José Corti; distributed by Diffusion Dimédia)


NONFICTION
M.G. Vassanji, Toronto, A Place Within: Rediscovering India. (Doubleday Canada; distributed by Random House of Canada)


Nicole V. Champeau, Ottawa, Pointe Maligne : l’infiniment oubliée. (Les Éditions du Vermillon; distributed by Prologue)


POETRY
David Zieroth, North Vancouver, The Fly in Autumn. (Harbour Publishing; distributed by the publisher)


Hélène Monette, Montreal, Thérèse pour joie et orchestre. (Les Éditions du Boréal; distributed by Diffusion Dimédia)


DRAMA
Kevin Loring, Vancouver, Where the Blood Mixes. (Talonbooks; distributed by Publishers Group Canada)


Suzanne Lebeau, Montreal, Le bruit des os qui craquent. (Leméac Éditeur; distributed by Socadis)


CHILDREN'S LITERATURE - TEXT
Caroline Pignat, Ottawa, Greener Grass: The Famine Years. (Red Deer Press, a division of Fitzhenry &  Whiteside; distributed by the publisher)


Hervé Bouchard, Saguenay (Quebec), Harvey. (Les Éditions de la Pastèque; distributed by Socadis)


CHILDREN'S LITERATURE - ILLUSTRATION
Jirina Marton, Colborne (Ontario), Bella’s Tree, text by Janet Russell. (Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press; distributed by HarperCollins Canada)


Janice Nadeau, Montreal, Harvey, text by Hervé Bouchard. (Les Éditions de la Pastèque; distributed by Socadis)


TRANSLATION
Susan Ouriou, Calgary, Pieces of Me. (Kids Can Press; distributed by University of Toronto Press). English translation of La liberté? Connais pas… by Charlotte Gingras (Les éditions de la courte échelle)


Paule Noyart, Bromont (Quebec), Le miel d’Harar. (Leméac Éditeur / Actes Sud; distributed by Socadis). French translation of Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb (Anchor Canada)

Book Review: Joël Glenn Brenner, The Emperor's of Chocolate

Author: Joël Glenn Brenner
Publisher: Random House, 1999

Review:
It took ten years, 250 interviews and countless phone calls, letters and emails for Joël Glenn Brenner to complete her investigation into the world of chocolate making. This investigation started out as a routine assignment for The Washington Post on how Mars succeeded Hershey as the preeminent chocolate company in the late 1980’s. However, the assignment soon turned into a more concentrated investigation when Brenner discovered how little was known about these two candy empires.

The result of her efforts, The Emperor’s of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, is an impressive exposè of the two corporations that have defined and refined, standardized and strategized the public’s appetite for all things chocolate. Brenner’s book is an eye-opening and mouth-watering exploration of the all-too-real Willy Wonka world of chocolate making. In fact, one cannot help but feel a little like Charlie in the chocolate factory—bewildered, amazed, excited, frightened—when reading about the exploits of both companies.


Brenner approaches her subject manner on numerous fronts, including historical, biographical, economical and cultural reference points throughout her discussions. Her varied investigative positions provide for a vivid rendering of how the mutual interdependency that characterized the relationship between Hershey and Mars throughout the early decades of both corporations had turned bitter and hostile by the late 1980’s.

What plainly emerges from Brenner’s presentation is that the delectable, addictive sweets contained within various hued paper and foil wrappers are anything but representative of the chocolate world. This world is as cunning and ruthless as any other major industry; we just tend to naively think of it otherwise because of the resulting product. But the reality is that the world of chocolate is big, big business. Forget the Cola Wars. Brenner sharply demonstrates that Pepsi and Coca-Cola have nothing on the madness and meanness that permeates the chocolate world in general, and Hershey and Mars in particular.

Brenner’s main thesis is that “the histories of these two industry rivals are closely intertwined. . . . Mars would not have succeeded without Hershey and vice versa.” This intertwining is most evident in Brenner’s reinforcement of the fact that early on Mars’ relied on Hershey to provide the chocolate for their products. However, one of the most interesting ways Brenner goes about proving her thesis is in relaying how M&M’s got their name. The M’s stand for the two senior executives at both companies, Forrest Mars Sr and William F.R. Murrie, president of Hershey. The partnership between these two men, while necessary at first for Forrest Mars to increase the production and stature of this product, quickly soured as Mars’ ambitions clashed greatly with those of Murrie and Hershey. Brenner threads this story throughout the book, using it to link how the individual behaviors and perspectives of the principle players of both companies – Milton Hershey and Forrest Mars Sr – became actualized in their respective corporate philosophies and outcomes. In brief: “where Milton Hershey saw utopia, Forrest Mars saw conquest”.

To her credit, Brenner does not rush to give Mars the chocolate maker crown. Rather, she concludes that it is understandable as to why Mars succeeded Hershey in the late 1980’s. Forrest Mars’ hunger for conquering new markets led to an expansion of Mars Inc into the international market, and consequently the creation of a global brand name. Such hunger is evident in Brenner’s detailing of Mars’ shrewd capitalization on the Gulf War to snag military contracts from Hershey, and the ‘Snickerization’ of Russia.

Conversely, Hershey was imprisoned by its own philanthropic history, resulting in a closing of ranks rather than full-on expansion until the mid-1960’s. The principles of family and “staying the course” that built the company were by then stifling its ability to grow as aggressively as Mars. Hershey was (and still is) accountable to a trust that made competing with Mars very difficult. It was almost inevitable then that Mars would eventually take top spot over Hershey. But Brenner accurately states that the bitterness between the two companies will never be stayed as long as Hershey and Mars are players in the chocolate world; it will only continue to grow and lend itself to even more conflicts.

What ultimately makes Brenner’s book so fascinating is that she was the first reporter ever allowed within the hallowed walls of Mars Inc. She eagerly takes her readers inside along with her, shedding light onto all facets of their operations. Hershey and Mars reacted to her book by slamming shut their corporate doors. Mars even went so far as to fire the public relations consultants who assisted Brenner’s investigation. But their reactions just make Brenner’s book all that much more important, all that much more richer as we know that we may never get a glimpse inside this secret world ever again.

Perhaps the greatest compliment one can give this book though is that Brenner never gets stuck in the minute details of the story. The histories of Mars and Hershey are not easily uncovered or assembled, and she puts her journalist skills to good use. She easily transitions between time periods, people and places, being sure to pick up the threads in later discussions to ensure the continuity of her arguments. Her attention to the various ‘stories within stories’ such as Hershey’s experiments and subsequent discovery of the sour Hershey chocolate provides for a rich and multi-layered book that never gets bogged down in its own complexity. It oscillates neatly between a harsh exposè and an unabashed tribute to the candy addict in all of us.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Table of Contents: The Dive From Clausen's Pier

Author: Ann Packer
Publisher: Vintage
Year: 2003
Synopsis: Carrie Bell has lived in Wisconsin all her life. She's had the same best friend, the same good relationship with her mother, the same boyfriend, Mike, now her fiancé, for as long as anyone can remember. It's with real surprise she finds that, at age twenty-three, her life has begun to feel suffocating. She longs for a change, an upheaval, for a chance to begin again. That chance is granted to her, terribly, when Mike is injured in an accident. Now Carrie has to question everything she thought she knew about herself and the meaning of home. She must ask: How much do we owe the people we love? Is it a sign of strength or of weakness to walk away from someone in need?



What Others Have To Say:

The New York Times
[Packer] is a careful, elegant writer who more often than not has deeper currents in mind as she describes the surface of Carrie's story."

Salon
Packer untangles compelling ideas about devotion and sacrifice from her protagonist's quandary."

USA Today
"The novel poses a plenitude of moral questions: what defines love, the meaning of responsibility, the concept of "being there" for people vs. pursuing one's personal destiny."

Extras:
A conversation with the Ann Packer.
Read an excerpt from the book.
Information on the 2005 Lifetime movie and find it over on YouTube.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Table of Contents: An Invisible Sign of My Own

Author: Aimee Bender
Publisher: Anchor Books
Year: 2000
Synopsis: Mona Gray was ten when her father contracted a mysterious illness and she became a quitter, abandoning each of her talents just as pleasure became intense. The only thing she can't stop doing is math: She knocks on wood, adds her steps, and multiplies people in the park against one another. When Mona begins teaching math to second-graders, she finds a ready audience. But the difficult and wonderful facts of life keep intruding. She finds herself drawn to the new science teacher, who has an unnerving way of seeing through her intricately built façade.


What Others Have To Say:

The Washington Post
"This novel is light as a zephyr and unique as a snowflake."

Denver Post
"Aimee Bender is one writer who is shouting clearly and beautifully from the hilltops that our lives are most definitely not ordinary and typical."

Entertainment Weekly
"...the book reads like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale overlaid with the futuristic alienation of Phillip K. Dick."

Extras:
Read Chapter One online.
Movie version coming out in 2010.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Book Mark: National Book Awards

The National Book Awards, recognizing the best of American literature, were announced this past Thursday.

FICTION
Winner: Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)



Finalists:
Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

NONFICTION
Winner: T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Alfred A. Knopf)



Finalists:
David M. Carroll, Following the Water: A Hydromancer's Notebook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Sean B. Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt)
Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy (Princeton University Press)

POETRY
Winner: Keith Waldrop, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (University of California Press)



Finalists:
Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan University Press)
Ann Lauterbach, Or to Begin Again (Penguin Books)
Carl Phillips, Speak Low (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Open Interval (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Young People's Literature
Winner: Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)



Finalists:
Deborah Heiligman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt)
David Small, Stitches (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Laini Taylor, Lips Touch: Three Times (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic)
Rita Williams-Garcia, Jumped (HarperTeen/HarperCollins)

DISTINGUISHED CONTRIBUTION TO AMERICAN LETTERS
Gore Vidal

LITERARIAN AWARD
Dave Eggers

Book Trailer: Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book Review: Susan L. Smith - Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

The following review was originally published in 2003 on the now defunct Chicklit.com site (publishing reference). It was the first piece of writing we ever had published and it was such a defining moment, that it feels right to re-publish it.

Author: Susan L. Smith
Publisher/Year: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995

Review:
No matter how many books I read, it never ceases to amaze me how the one book that I would never pick up voluntarily always seems to be the one I prominently display on my bookshelf. Such is the case with Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Black Women’s Health Activism in America, 1890-1950 by Susan L. Smith (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995). I read this book as a requirement for a seminar on the history of women and health conducted by the author herself. I can honestly say that the seminar topic did not set my soul ablaze with interest; I was basically looking to finish up my last senior-level credits for graduation. But I had already taken two other courses with the author and even though my interest was minimal, I knew her energy and enthusiasm would get me interested. And indeed it did.

My interest was especially piqued when I realized one of the required readings would be Smith’s own book. Always intrigued by professors who assign their own work for study, I half expected the course to have the aura of shameless self-promotion. This was not the case; in fact, quite the opposite. Smith let her book do the talking and I for one was completely fascinated. I may not have believed that black women’s health activism in the United Studies had any bearing on my current health care situation when I started the book. At its conclusion however, I was well aware of how indebted Americans in particular, and everyone else in general, are to the spirit and determination of all the women Smith so lovingly writes about. If I ever doubt the power of sisterhood in the face of political indifference and racial discrimination, I need only look at the plethora of notes littering every page of my copy of this book.

Taking her title from a rallying cry put forth by black civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer in the early 1960s, Smith presents a sensitive yet critical study of the history of the health care activism undertaken by black women in the first half of the twentieth century. Winner of the American Association of Women’s History Sierra Book Prize in 1996 and the American Association for the History of Nursing Lavinia L. Dock Award in 1997, Smith’s book places black women squarely at the front of the black health care movement:
Black health care reform was gendered to the extent that men held most of the formal leadership positions and women did most of the grassroots organizing. Much like the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, ‘men led, but women organized’. Black men played an important role in the black health movement as doctors, ministers, journalists, businessmen, and educators. Yet, men’s leadership often came and went, while women’s grassroots activity persisted.
Smith keenly demonstrates throughout the book that it was this persistence at the grassroots level that afforded black women the opportunities to navigate the intricately intertwined political machinery of the health care movement for the betterment of the entire black community. As she states:
Despite the fact that male leaders like Booker T. Washington and Dr. Roscoe C. Brown received credit for creating a black health movement, laywomen and female health professionals were the ones who pioneered grassroots health organizing. Whether as volunteers or paid workers, black women were the vital links between health initiatives and poor African Americans. They were integral to the implementation of black health programs at the local level, and they sustained black communities in the face of institutionalized racial discrimination and government neglect.
Black women carried the initiatives of the health care movement to poor black communities across the United States and translated them into active services. These women were the nurses, teachers, club members, sorority sisters, and midwives that formed the heart and soul of the push for better and greater health care reform for African Americans. Smith aptly illustrates that black women created their own solutions to health care issues. They learned how to skillfully move within and around political, gender and class barriers in order to increase the quality of health care for their communities. Their determined work led to numerous milestones within the history of American health care such as organized community health work, the development of a National Negro Health Week and the Alpha Kappa Alpha Mississippi Health Project.

While gender played an important role in the structure of the black health care movement, so did class. Class politics played a major, if not the critical, role in the health care movement. Smith uses specific case studies, such as the role of black club women in ‘spreading the gospel of health and cleanliness’ in the name of public health work and the prestigious positioning of black midwives in rural communities, in order to paint vivid pictures of the close ties between class welfare and political warfare.

One such case study is the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Smith is especially sensitive in discussing the devastating effects of this experiment on the African American community and the role of the Public Health Service in carrying out this experiment. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment was carried out from 1932 to 1972 and implicated 400 black men in its directives. The object of this experiment was to study the long-term course of syphilis until death. Unfortunately, as Smith states, the men who joined this study did so without knowing that they had syphilis, and without knowing that they were not receiving any treatment. This experiment is a key example in demonstrating how destructive any reliance on government health initiatives to take care of African Americans could be for poor African Americans. It is also grimly representative of how wanting to act in the best interests of poor black people, as Eunice Rivers, the public health nurse involved with the experiment strongly believed she was doing, sometimes forced black women to make risky bargains in the pursuit of better health care.

Smith’s overlying theme for the book is that the black health care movement was closely tied to the black civil rights movement:
Furthermore health reform was a cornerstone of early black civil rights activity. As the history of black women’s health activism demonstrates, from 1890 to 1950 black social welfare activity was indistinguishable from racial uplift work. In an era of legalized segregation, health improvement was not necessarily tied to the struggle for social change. Focusing on health issues permitted black women an authoritative voice in the realm of political organizing. They exploited the identification of health needs with the domestic realm in order to take on very public roles and engage in a little-recognized form of civil rights work.
Health care reform was a major foundational component for the much larger black civil rights movement. Both movements were inherently tied together through the struggle for social and political change, and both were greatly indebted to the work of black women like Eliza Farish Pillars and Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee in sustaining and advancing the agendas of both movements.

The struggle of black women to bring proper health care to their communities was definitely part of an even greater effort to get recognition and funding from the federal government for the basic care of black people. As such, Smith correctly argues that the work of these women needs to be recognized as being as political in nature as any other more visible activities carried out in the pursuit of improving the political, social, cultural and medical conditions of the African American community.

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired fills an enormous gap in the history of health care in the United States. Smith’s carefully documented investigation of the health care work carried out by black women provides valuable insight into the intersection of gender and class in American health care history. She provides a nuanced and sometimes thoughtful account of how black women’s grass roots activism, no matter how small, could put critical pressure on the right points to bring about desired change.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Table of Contents: The Department of Lost and Found

Author: Allison Winn Scotch
Publisher: Harper Collins
Year: 2007
Synopsis: Some side-effects of cancer treatment are pretty fabulous in magazine writer Scotch's debut novel. Natalie Miller, a driven 30-year-old senior aideto a woman senator from New York, is having a rough time: just days after she's diagnosed with breast cancer, her cheating live-in boyfriend ditches her. She's feeling gloomy, then, when she begins chemo. (Her hunky and sweet gynecologist, Zach, is a mitigating factor.) Though the election is six weeks away, Natalie is ordered to stay home, where she writes in her diary (excerpts appear throughout) and becomes addicted to The Price Is Right while an ambitious junior aide takes over her job. Natalie battles through rounds of chemo and a mastectomy until, out of the blue, an old love, up-and-coming rocker Jake, comes back to take care of her. He seems intent on making things work, but Natalie's long-simmering (and seemingly requited) attraction to Zach only intensifies. Meanwhile, Natalie's journalist friend Sally lands her first big story: an exposé of Natalie's boss. Her loyalties on the line and her cancer on the wane, Natalie makes some tough choices about the postcancer person she wants to be. [From Publisher's Weekly]



What Others Have to Say:

Publisher's Weekly
"“A bonbon of a book.”

Tampa Bay Tribune
"...Natalie's story is that rare thing: a serious comedy that shines light into the darkness."

Booklist
"The changes and realizations that the characters make are profound and moving....An impressive debut."

Extras:
Read an excerpt.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Table of Contents: The Ten Year Nap

Author: Meg Wolitzer
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Year: 2008
Synopsis: For a group of four New York friends the past decade has been defined largely by marriage and motherhood, but it wasnat always that way. Growing up, they had been told that their generation would be different. And for a while this was true. They went to good colleges, and began high-powered careers. But after marriage and babies, for a variety of reasons, they decided to stay home, temporarily, to raise their children. Now, ten years later, they are still at home, unsure how they came to inhabit lives so different from the ones they expectedauntil a new series of events begins to change the landscape of their lives yet again, in ways they could not have predicted.



What Others Have To Say:
January Magazine
"Wolitzer's writing is wonderful, amusing, warm, with an old-fashioned capaciousness allowing room for a host of details."

New York Times
"The tartly funny Wolitzer is a miniaturist who can nail a contemporary type, scene or artifact with deadeye accuracy."

The Independent
"Meg Wolitzer flings back the covers to reveal a more nuanced portrait of motherhood and female ambition."

New Haven Advocate
"This is a novel of manners as much as a literary take on a sociological dilemma, and as a portrait of the modern heterosexual urban bourgeoisie, much of it is wickedly bang-on."

Extras:
Read Chapter 1 online.
Author Interview

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Table of Contents: The Zero

Author: Jess Walter
Publisher: Harper Collins
Year: 2006
Synopsis: Hero cop Brian Remy wakes up to find he's shot himself in the head-and so begins a harrowing tour of a city and a country shuddering through the aftershocks of a devastating terrorist attack. As the smoke slowly clears, Remy finds that his memory is skipping, lurching between moments of lucidity and days when he doesn't seem to be living his own life at all. The landscape around him is at once fractured and oddly familiar: a world dominated by a Machiavellian mayor known as "The Boss," and peopled by gawking celebrities, anguished policemen peddling First Responder cereal, and pink real estate divas hyping the spoils of tragedy. Remy himself has a new girlfriend he doesn't know, a son who pretends he's dead, and an unsettling new job chasing a trail of paper scraps for a shadowy intelligence agency known as the Department of Documentation. Whether that trail will lead Remy to an elusive terror cell-or send him circling back to himself-is highly uncertain.



What Others Have To Say:
The New York Times
"This book’s heightened paranoia invites the asking of more questions, from why cellphones need to take pictures to why a piece of cake is so much more than its component parts."

The Washington Post
"It becomes increasingly hard to care for a narrator who is unsure of his own motives and whose goals remain murky even to himself."

Entertainment Weekly
"political satire at its best"

Wally Lamb, Author
"Jess Walter's The Zero is a tense and compulsively readable roller-coaster ride fraught with psychological thrills, unanticipated dips and lurches and existential truths. The novel frightened and fascinated me in equal measures. Walter has written a neo-noirish masterpiece."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book Mark: Giller Prize Winner Announced

A little bit of a shocker earlier this week with the announcement of Linden MacIntyre as the winner of the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Bishop's Man is MacIntyre's latest novel takes on the controversial topic of the Catholic Church and its never ending stream of sexual abuse allegations.



From the Globe and Mail:
Veteran investigative reporter Linden MacIntyre scored a surprise upset Tuesday night by winning the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize for excellence in Canadian literature.

Mr. MacIntyre's novel about corruption in the Catholic church, The Bishop's Man , beat four highly regarded literary titles to take the main prize.

Attributing his success to “an accident of consensus,” Mr. MacIntyre paid tribute to his fellow finalists and urged a glamorous crowd at Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel to “buy their books.”

He also acknowledged his colleagues at the CBC and other struggling media outlets. “I just want to involve them in this,” he said. Mr. MacIntyre also paid tribute to the people of Cape Breton, among whom the novel is set, “and last but not least, the priests and nuns who are struggling to do their jobs in spite of the failures of their leadership.”

Mr. MacIntyre's The Bishop's Man chronicles the emerging crisis of conscience in a worldly priest who has been assigned to keep a lid on church-related sex scandals that are destroying the lives of the faithful in rural Cape Breton. Super topical but not even slightly sensational, it is “a brave novel, conceived and written with impressive delicacy and understanding,” according to the Giller jury.

Perhaps the best known of all the finalists, Mr. MacIntyre, 66, is a veteran journalist who first came to national prominence for his work with The Journal , CBC's groundbreaking newsmagazine, and currently co-hosts The Fifth Estate , the network's investigative journalism program. He is the winner of nine Gemini Awards for broadcast journalism and two national non-fiction prizes for his most recent book, a boyhood memoir called Causeway: A Passage from Innocence . The Bishop's Man is his second novel.

Mr. MacIntyre said Tuesday night he is planning to write a third novel to complete the trilogy. “I'm hoping these characters will grow older. I'm hoping they will deal with some of the problems of age, which I know something about.”

As for the prize money, he said he hopes to share it “with some of the people who are important to me.”

Book Trailer: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

Friday, November 13, 2009

Best Books of the Year?

Tina Jordan over at Entertainment Weekly has proposed the question - what's the best book you read this year?

"It’s getting to be that time of year—the time for Best and Worst lists—and as I mull over EW’s, I’m thinking back over everything I’ve read since January.

It’s going to be a tough year to pick. On the nonfiction side, I loved Blake Bailey’s wonderful Cheever book, which, as I’ve said before, redefined biography for me. I could not get enough of the essays in A New Literary History of America. Almost a year after I read it, The Mercy Papers—Robin Romm’s searing account of her mother’s final three weeks—remains imprinted on my brain. There was the Dave Eggers book, Zeitoun; Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open; Dave Cullen’s Columbine; and the third volume of Mary Karr’s memoirs, Lit. Oh, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

In fiction, I loved Daniyeel Mueenuddin’s exquisite Pakistan-centered short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders and the latest Pete Dexter novel, Spooner. I could not put down Alice Munro’s latest book of short stories, Too Much Happiness. I bought a dozen copies of Jonathan Tropper’s dysfunctional family drama This Is Where I Leave You to give to friends and family. I was mesmerized by David Small’s graphic novel Stitches. And I still think about Stephanie Kallos’ Sing Them Home, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement and Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie."

Reading articles like this does two things: (a) reminds of books that have been read and enjoyed/hated, (b) reminds of books still needing to be read. In spirit of Jordan's question, here are some of the books considered as being most enjoyable here at Let It Read:

Fiction:
Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Lisa Genova, Still Alice
Jennifer Weiner, Certain Girls
Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed

Non-Fiction:
Jen Lancaster, Such A Pretty Fat
Raj Patel, Stuffed and Starved
Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle

There were numerous others, of course; some of which have been mentioned on the site already. It is just too hard to judge a book based on "goodness".

Table of Contents: Life on the Refrigerator Door

Author: Alice Kuipers
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year: 2007
Synopsis: Life on the Refrigerator Door is a poignant and deeply moving first novel about the bonds of love and frustration that tie mothers and daughters together. Told entirely in a series of notes left on the kitchen fridge—some casual, some intimate, some funny, some angry—it is the story of nine months in the life of 15–year-old Claire and her single mother. Preoccupied with their busy separate lives, rarely in the same room at the same time, they talk to each other in a series of short snippets that reflect the daily drama of school, boyfriends, work and chores that make up their days. Yet the mundane soon becomes extraordinary when a crisis overtakes their lives—a momentous change that will redefine their relationship and unfold in their exchanges on the refrigerator door.


What Others Have To Say:
Quill and Quire
"Kuipers’ novel begins as a lighthearted look at familial bickering, but is ultimately a disappointingly sentimental portrait of a typically dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship."

The Coast
"...Kuiper enables the reader to fill in the details with personal experiences and imaginings rather than spelling everything out."

CM Magazine
"Though published as an adult novel, Life on the Refrigerator Door should be a surefire hit with girls, and its contents will be readily accessible to weaker readers."

Extras:
HarperCollins Reading Guide

Monday, November 9, 2009

Table of Contents: Lottery

Author: Patricia Wood
Publisher: Putnam
Year: 2007
Synopsis: Perry Crandall has an IQ of 76, but is not retarded, as he'll have you know: his IQ would need to be less than 75 for that, and he knows the difference even if others may not. Perry, the 32-year-old narrator of Wood's warm-fuzzy debut, has worked at the same marine supply store for half his life and lives with his wisecracking grandmother Gram, whose gems of folk wisdom help him along. But when Gram dies, Perry's selfish, money-grubbing family members swoop in and swindle him out of the proceeds from the sale of her house—and then come a-knocking again when Perry wins $12 million in the Washington State Lottery. Suddenly everyone is paying attention to Perry, but who can he trust? Even his friends from the marine supply store behave differently, and on top of everything else, Perry finds himself falling for convenience store clerk Cherry, who has problems of her own. Despite his family's shenanigans and sinister maneuverings, Perry holds his own and discovers abilities he didn't know he had.


What Others Have To Say:
View From Here Magazine
"The language is very carefully selected and used to enhance our understanding of the characters, reveal prejudices or make the reader laugh."

Guardian
"Lottery is no less simple-minded than its hero."

New York Magazine
"...suspense lies in watching him negotiate a suddenly complicated life."

Seattle Times
"What really works here is Perry and the way he sees things, from certain oddities of the English language to certain aspects of the behavior of those around him."

Paul Theroux, Author
“What I love about Lottery is that it is much more than a novel about a windfall affecting a simple soul - it's a book about a stupendous event affecting a great number of people, all the winner's friends, and especially the reader.”

Extras:
Read an excerpt!
Reading Guide

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Table of Contents: Rock On: An Office Power Ballad

Author: Dan Kennedy
Publisher: Books of Chapel Hill
Year: 2008
Synopsis:When New York writer Dan Kennedy is hired by a major record label, he thinks he's chanced upon a dream job in the world of full-blown gonzo rock and roll excess that has pockmarked his dreams ever since he was a suburban Southern California teen. The sobering reality: he's basically walked into a nine-to-five world that's equal parts Spinal Tap and The Office—and he's just in time for mass layoffs, artists being cut from contracts, and sales hitting an all-time low.

But in these tame and dying days of the record business, Kennedy's twisted wit offers up the absurd, funny, and oddly heart-breaking story of a stranger in a strange land. In an irresistibly weird way, it seems he has shown up at exactly the right time. (Rock On website)


What Others Have To Say:
The New York Times
"...a succession of gently mordant vignettes, with hilariously spot-on asides about media image-making, music-biz hierarchies and sensitive singer-songwriters. It’s also a coming-of-age story."

Pop Zap
"It’s snarky, fun, clever, and accessible: you don’t have to know much about labels to appreciate the overall office humor, although your reading experience will be greatly enhanced if you know a thing or two about (rock) music."

Art Voice
"Rock On takes us into the bowels of the recording industry and dredges up its ugly incompetence."

Extras:
Read an excerpt from the book!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Table of Contents: The Little Giant of Aberdeen County

Author: Tiffany Baker
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Year: 2009
Synopsis: Massive from birth, growing into a 400-pound giant, Truly Plaice strives to be normal in a world in which she literally and figuratively does not fit. Truly's strength of virtue comes out when she steps into the role of surrogate mother to her estranged sister's young son. She endures daily verbal abuse from her egotistical brother-in-law, the town's only doctor, in order to provide a loving home environment to her growing nephew. In the doctor's home she uncovers a quilt that contains the key to the folklore rumors that have rested with the townsfolk in her rural upstate New York community. The knowledge the quilt contains gives Truly the power of life and death and leads her to discover her own inner strength and dignity.



What Others Have To Say:
South Florida Sun Sentinel
"Baker mixes real-world and folk medicine, contemporary issues and timeless legends, bitterness and sweet romance as she brews her story. The characters are outsize in many ways, but the spell she casts keeps the reader engaged in this very promising debut."

The Washington Post
"Baker knows how to spin an alluring plot, and she tells this emotional story in a lush voice that's spiked with just a taste of self-pity. She has a good sense of the dark comedy of melodrama, too, even if Truly's words of wisdom are sometimes a little too -- forgive me -- heavy-handed..."

Christian Science Monitor
"Baker has crafted a book big enough to hold her title character, and few readers would be churlish enough to begrudge Truly a happily-ever-after."

USA Today
"kind of book you find yourself stealing time from workday chores to read."

Chicago Sun-Times
"One of the beauties of Little Giant is that Baker never reveals how big Truly really is — her weight and height are not given. So Truly shrinks and grows in the reader's imagination, like a genie in a fairy story."

Extras:
Q&A with the author

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Table of Contents: The Delivery Man

Author: ."Joe McGinniss Jr.
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic
Year: 2008
Synopsis: Chase is a struggling artist who couldn't hack NYU and moves back to Vegas, where he is reunited with his adolescent flame, Michele. After being fired from his teaching job for beating up a student, Chase plans to hook up with his girlfriend, Julia, in California, but instead spends his summer as a chauffeur for Michele's call-girl business. Michele has plans for herself (buying a house, getting an advanced degree in women's studies), but for the time being is running the call-girl service out of a suite in the Versailles Palace Hotel and Casino with her boyfriend, Bailey. Girls too young for the job, readily available cocaine, untrustworthy business partners, memories of a family tragedy and glammed-out Vegas goons make Chase's summer more stressful than he had hoped for as he attempts to finish a few paintings for a group gallery show.


What Others Have to Say:
The New York Times
"...occasionally the prose runs hot, and McGinniss manages to whip the yearning and confusion of the woefully inarticulate Chase into dramatic, even gripping fare."

The Washington Post
"...the novel is, after all, about a group of people destined to go nowhere. And McGinnis charts that aimlessness with insight and dexterity."

Houston Chronicle
"...a solid novel about shaky people, a better novel than its characters deserve

Extras:
Author profile in USA Today
Film rights sold!