When you have an unpopular opinion on a book

img_0368I was fortunate to have the chance to review the book ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ by Ottessa Moshfegh. (You can find my review here.)

Here is the deal: I didn’t love the book. It did keep my attention, it was different but I just didn’t gel with it. Nothing wrong with that, right?

The book has received much buzz. Mostly about how awesome it is. There has been praise for its ‘dark humour’ and being ‘caustic and acute’.

A few weeks ago (yes, I am behind on the blog posts) when the review for the book was on the cover of the New York Times Book Review section. Obviously I was curious on what the reviewer had to say.

I will take a minute for an aside. One of the really cool things about this blog is that I (we, because my husband does it too) get access to books before they are published and can read them before there is any press or other reviews. It gives me a chance to make up my own mind on it. Not that I don’t when reading a book that is already out, but it’s a bit different.

Back to the New York Times…

The reviewer said of the book: “…darkly comic and ultimately profound new novel….” And went on to have positive things to say.

Huh. Maybe I missed something.

Here is the awesome thing about books – you don’t have to like every one. That’s why there are so many books in different genres.

I will say that the New York Times review did have some interesting takes on the book. The thing is, when I am reading it and then reviewing it I look mostly at the enjoyability factor. Did I like reading it and would I recommend it to my family and friends? I am not really into looking at the literary quality or the writing technique or all that other stuff (I leave that to my husband, who is way smarter about these things than I am).

I think that if I had read the review in the New York Times and then read the book, I would definitely have had a different reaction. Ok, maybe not definitely, but I think that I would have gone into it reading it with a different mindset.

The positive reviews don’t change the fact that I didn’t love the book. Also, just because I didn’t love the book, doesn’t mean it’s not a good book. So if you are interested in it, a fan of her writing or are just curious, go and get yourself a copy. Let me know how you like it!


Why libraries are important

img_0362I saw a disturbing trend on Twitter on the weekend, people were talking…”talking” about how Amazon should replace libraries. The good news is that most of the talk about this, or at least it was on my feed, was saying a big old HELL NO to this idea. That gave me hope.

This whole thing was apparently started by a piece in Forbes magazine: Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money (which they have since taken down). The good news is that when I googled the situation, this was the first article that popped up: Forbes suggested Amazon should replace libraries, and people aren’t having it.

Whew. But I still feel like I need to have my say in this. Because…well, what’s the point of having a blog if I can’t yammer on about things that I feel passionate about.

Some of my earliest memories that make me warm and fuzzy are about the library. The excitement of going in as a child and having basically endless possibilities of reading materials (I actually still get the same feeling now). My mom used to take me to the  story telling time at the local branch. All of these things instilled a life-long love of books and reading.

One of the first things I did when I made the move from Toronto to Toledo was get a library card. It was partly to get access to the reading material: magazines and books. But a large part of that for me was that it was an anchor and a way for me to start building roots in a new and unfamiliar place. It represents a sense of community and belonging to a group of people who love books and reading as much as I do.

I spend a lot of time alone during the day. And it gets lonely. One of the places I have frequented is the library. People are friendly. It’s mostly quiet. There are comfy chairs to read and tables with outlets to plug in your computer to do whatever work or research you need to do (or just plain old goofing around on the internet). But I was with people. I didn’t need to talk to anyone or make friends. I didn’t want to have to buy a $4 fancy coffee. I just wanted to sit and be in the world. How many other people find solace in the library when they have no where else to go?

I get that puts the “burden” on taxpayers. Why should I pay for someone to have a nice place to go and goof around on the internet? Here is why. Especially today where the world feels fractured and is so impersonal, we need to have spaces for people to go and gather and feel like they are part of a community. Where children can go and hear stories read to them and feel the joy of picking out a book and learn about caring for books and responsibility. Where people are there to help you find what you need – that book with the blue cover, or whatever you are seeking. The library is about more than books. It always was and it always will be.

I think that libraries have done a great job in keeping up with the times and technology and the needs of their users and give people a reason to use their services. How many businesses can say that? I can read magazines on my iPad or computer, I can watch movies, and I can even stream music now. Oh right, and that’s besides the books I can rent for free. This is because libraries understand that they are part of the community and bringing people together.

I am happy that there was a rally around libraries – all over Twitter there were stories from people who have sought help from their local library, how one actually had a stuffed animal sleepover and sent out pictures (cute!) and generally how the library is important to a lot of people. It gives me hope that the world isn’t as sucky a place as it sometimes seems.

Here is what I suggest: if you don’t have a library card go and get one. It’s super easy, and you don’t even have to go outside. Many libraries have online cards so you can check out electronic media. And if you are feeling adventurous, go to your local branch. It will make you happy. I promise.



Fourth of July! By the book…

1067See what I did there? By the book…it’s a book blog…


So this is my first fourth of July living in these United States. The first thing I will say is it’s definitely a different experience than how Canadians celebrate Canada Day (which was July 1st). I will say that Canadians are better (more enthusiastic) about embracing their nationalism but it’s nothing like it is in America.

However…..on to books…

American history is way more interesting than Canadian history. There, I said it. Is it because it’s more or less interesting? Not particularly. But I do think Americans are better at selling the origin story. There are heroes: George Washington, Paul Revere and more “recently’ Alexander Hamilton. I dare you to name a hero of Canadian confederation? I’ll wait over here…<plays Jeopardy music>

Admittedly I have read more books on US history and presidents than I have about Canada. In my defense, I have read books on Trudeau (Pierre, not Justin), Montcalm and Wolfe….and, well that’s possibly it. I did start one about Sir John A. Macdonald (the first PM of Canada) but I couldn’t finish it. I won’t bother to start a list of American related history books I’ve read, we would be here all day.

The one that comes to mind is 1776 by David McCullough. First off, McCullough is a master storyteller. I have read a few books by him and they are all extremely entertaining. You feel is if you are reading a novel, not a history book. And the story of 1776 is interesting – a bunch of guys who wanted to create a new  country and wanted to vanquish the big bad king. (Or something like that.) It’s a good vs. evil story. You have rogue dudes. A guy riding at midnight on a horse with a lantern. And fancy hats!

In his post, BJ mentioned that his step-father didn’t learn about US history in his British school. But being as I was in Canada and we are next-door neighbours, we definitely learned about US history in school. So it’s more familiar to me.

Anyway…..enjoy the day! Have a hot dog and enjoy some fireworks. Happy Independence Day!




Fourth of July Reading

img_0316Happy 4th of July to everyone.  Or, happy Independence Day, though most people seem to just call it the 4th of July.

A few thoughts about our holiday, from a literary perspective.

First, these books represent only a fraction of the books I’ve read about the American Revolution.  There could be twenty-five more around here somewhere, if we had the energy to look.  (Including Chernow’s Hamilton, McCullough’s Adams…).

And these books represent only a portion of the total number of books that have been published.  Another note.  These are not academic treatises.  These are popular books written to be ready by laypeople or at least lay-adjacent people.

There are just so many.

The reason is that the American Revolution is our origin story and these books are our mythology.  If you’re reading this blog, I’m sure you know that the current use of the word mythology to mean “something that isn’t true” is not the full story.  Every society has a primal need to tell origin stories.  We want to understand and shape the idea of where we came from as a way to express who we are.  Ask Joseph Campbell if you don’t believe me.

Once you realize this, you see it everywhere.  As a PR practitioner, you realize this is an essential part of storytelling.  There’s Hewlett and Packard in the garage, those Google guys in that woman’s house, Woz and Steve hacking long distance calls…you get the idea.  “For Bobby Entrepreneur, the key moment came when he watched an ice cube fall into a glass of tonic.”

And the American Revolution is our culture’s mythology.  When I say our culture, I mean it in the most literal of ways.  No one else thinks this is a big deal.  My stepfather grew up in England and when he moved here (around the time of the Bicentennial), he told us that they had spent precisely zero seconds studying the American Revolution in school.

You can chalk that up to English arrogance if you want, but their history around that time is far more concerned with their wars with the French, of which the American Revolution (and the War of 1812) are considered extensions.  If the English don’t study it, you can be pretty sure no one else does either.

For my part, the most important part of reading the histories and biographies is to understand that our history was created by men and not Gods.  There is a tendency, particularly among those on the right, to deify our Founders.  To me, that’s a disservice.  When we view historic people with that lens and then our current leaders with a human lens, we end up thinking that we are less than they were.

That’s not the case.  Many of the founders were brilliant.  They had incredible courage and some of them had a true vision for a different way to found a society.  Many of them could also afford to think these great thoughts because slaves were performing all their labor.  They were also often bickering, small-minded, factional, jealous and even wrong.

But what they did was important and meaningful, especially to those of us who live here.  And the story is fascinating and compelling.

If you’re looking for something to start with, McCullough is always the answer.  1776 and the John Adams are both great books to understand how the whole thing unfolded.  Also, a Washington biography is essential.  His military leadership, in which he lost almost all the battles and won by never losing the war, and his unique ability to lead the nascent union are critical.  Had he died before 1789 and Adams, Madison or Jefferson ended up as Chief Executive, its possible things would have turned out differently.

Especially Jefferson.  Don’t get me started.

So enjoy the day.  Have a hot dog.  Watch some baseball.  Read a book.

Canada Day, US Version

IMG_0390Here’s the photo I took last year when Barb and I were in Toronto for the Canada Day celebration.  It was a special one because it was Canada’s 150th Birthday.  The fireworks above are coming out of the CN tower.

Anyway, I thought I would take this opportunity to give a stateside impression.  Today, our Canada Day has consisted of Barb pining for Swiss Chalet sauce and saying that a Tim Horton’s back home would never refer to a sandwich as a “hoagie.”  Apparently, they would call it a “sandwich.”

Also, she didn’t mention that there was a recipe for Roast Antelope in that Canadian cookbook.

Bookwise, I had a couple thoughts as it relates to Canada.  Everyone’s aware of some of the greats.  Alice Munro has a Nobel Prize and Margaret Atwood should have one.  There are others, of course.

For example, I’d point you to Wayne Grady’s Emancipation.  This book, set mostly in Windsor, is a terrific story of people involved in the African-Canadian experience directly across the river from Detroit, where the bloody and violent African-American experience was playing out.  (I also learned that Newfoundland was not part of Canada until 1949.)  It’s pretty timely for today–and I don’t mean Canada Day only–because it lends some understanding to how Canada is as diverse as it is and has still been immune to the global xenophobia trend, a statement I make even while noting the election of Doug Ford.

When you are in Windsor and you drive down the main drag, you see signs in English and then it transitions effortlessly to Arabic.  It has to mean something.

By the way, Richard Ford’s Canada also ends in Windsor and you might get the idea that Windsor is some kind of underappreciated literary capital, and if you had that idea you’d be wrong.

Another author that I don’t think most people know was Canadian is W.P. Kinsella, who wrote Shoeless Joe and other fictional works related to baseball.  Shoeless Joe is the book that Field of Dreams was based on.  Kinsella (who has since passed) was a brilliant writer.  He wrote like a painter.  He had the ability to describe colors in a way that set your brain on fire with images.  I’d recommend anyone check back on his works, which are really about how people try to find peace in the struggles of everyday life.  Also, he’s a natural-born storyteller, and you know how I value that.

I didn’t realize until now that Patrick DeWitt, the author of the transcendent Sisters Brothers is Canadian.  Also, the decidedly more immanent Yann Martel.

So, Happy Canada Day to all!  Put an antelope on the grill, pop open a cold one and enjoy a great book.

Happy Canada Day eh!

img_0280It’s Canada Day in my homeland. A day where we celebrate all things Canadian: hockey, poutine and apologizing. Actually it’s usually just an excuse to sit outside, or at the dock and drink beer for most of the day until the fireworks start.

BJ and I were trying to think of what to make for dinner today to celebrate. We were researching Canadian food and I remembered that I had a Canadian cookbook. What? Yes, it’s true. There is a picture above.

I borrowed this book from my mom a while ago. I had a hankering for date squares and the ‘good recipe’ was in this book. I did ask if she wanted it back recently but she told me to keep it (honest, you can ask her)!

This is an old book, well it’s older than me! My aunt gave it to my mom as a gift in 1967 (per the inscription on the front page).

As I was flipping through the book the thing that struck me the most was the strong memories some of the recipes had for me. The ones I remember my mom making were mostly cookies at Christmas. There are two – one for shortbread and one for thumbprint cookies.

I remember sitting in the kitchen, when I was little, with my mom as she pressed out the shortbread cookies with a metal press into different shapes: stars, Christmas trees, wreaths, and helping her decorate them with red and green cherries.

I remember being excited to be old enough to help her roll the cookies in walnut pieces for the thumbprint cookies, make the indentation in the cookies and help fill them with jam once they cooled from the oven.

And the date squares. I recall they are one of my dad’s favourites. I don’t LOVE them, but I do have a hankering for them occasionally and they taste like home.

So on this Canada day I am thinking of home and all my friends and family!

Have a beer for me, eh?!

The NY Times Reviews a book I reviewed

optimistic decadeI have kind of been waiting for this to happen.  One of the things with Netgalley is you get the books early and then the grown-up critics weigh in later.  This happened recently with The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel.

First, one of the things about reading a book early is you get the book before any of the validators on board.  It could be a relatively obscure indy….or it could get reviewed in the New York Times Book Review.  You’re forced to read it on its merits, and not on whether other people found it important.

The book has been widely reviewed, in fact, in all the big places.   I gave it 3-stars, which is also the most common rating on Goodreads as well.

I had it in the “like but don’t love” category, like most readers on Goodreads.

I thought that the book did a great job of creating a sense of place and had well-done characters (with one exception).  I liked many of the themes, I just didn’t think it came together as a compelling, thrilling read.

So what did the New York Times think?

Their reviewer was Zoe Greenberg, whose day job is in the NYT Opinion section.  Of course, the Times doesn’t give stars, but I’d say their review is more positive than the unwashed Zeitgeist.

I thought the most interesting thing that Greenberg notes, that never occurred to me, is the parallel between the exodus into the camp and the Zionist exodus.

Is this a book about the failure of Zionism, an exploration of the limits of idealism or a literary coming-of-age novel? It’s a bit of all three. Most interestingly, it doesn’t just rehash the story of the Holy Land we already know, but imagines a new, subversive ending. Despite the emphasis on the land — its particular specialness and beauty — the devoted of Llamalo come to a radical conclusion: It’s not about the land at all.

Which is to note that there is a heavy influence of Judaism upon which the book draws.  Greenberg goes on to identify the book’s focus on mitzvah–which are actions (often routine) which develop sacred significance–as the true test of faith, as opposed to occupying a holy place.

I agreed with Greenberg that Abel is highly perceptive as well as the rather jaundiced eye that Abel turns toward the book’s liberal activists, teetering delicately on the line between gross over-drawing and winking sardonically.

Anyway, I guess the New York Times did OK.  HA!