Blog-o! Notes from

Sat, 31 Dec 2011

This poor blog has been sorely neglected, and especially the book blog. I feel like I haven't been reading much—I certainly don't get big blocks of time reading time very often—but I've managed to plough through a few books while brushing my teeth or waiting in line or taking the bus. I think these are most of them, although I always manage to forget a few.

(**) Loved
(?) Forgot
(x) Did not care for
(hm) Made me think

Books I Read With Delphine

  • All Creatures Great and Small and All Things Wise and Wonderful by James Herriot (**)
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Kids' and Young Adult Fiction

  • Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze by Alan Silberberg (**)
  • Scars by Cheryl Rainfield (hm)
  • Better Than Weird by Anna Kerz (**) (hm)
  • Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (**)
  • Masked by Norah McClintock
  • Knifepoint by Alex Van Tol
  • Comeback by Vicki Grant (?)
  • Rock Star by Adrian Chamberlain
  • Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Book Club Books

  • The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (?)
  • The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (x)
  • Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  • The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
  • The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon (hm)
  • Annabel by Kathleen Winter (**) (hm)

Pulp and Other Fiction

  • Gideon's Sword by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (x)
  • Guilty as Sin by Joseph Teller
  • The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
  • Open Doors by Gloria Goldreich
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Blackout by Connie Willis


  • Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert by John Gottman and Nan Silver
  • Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight by Linda Bacon (I know, right? Mmm, bacon...) (hm)


  • Too Safe For Ther Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive by Michael Ungar (?)
  • Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print—and How to Avoid Them by Bill Walsh
  • The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (hm)
  • Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer) by Stan Cox
  • Wrong About Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son by Peter Carey
  • Ah-choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold by Jennifer Ackerman
  • Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves by Adam Hochschild (**) (hm)
[Posted at 23:01 by Amy Brown] link
Sun, 06 Mar 2011

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood is a series of stories about a woman named Nell. The stories start in her childhood, move on to a weird (but just normal-weird, not freaky-weird) relationship with an older guy, and then ends with a pair of stories about her childhood and her relationship with her mother. Good, entertaining, interesting.

There's a kind of crankiness, a negativity, to Margaret Atwood's writing which stops me from reading two of her books in a row. Everything's described in the most sordid way. I mean, I could describe every annoying and stupid and gross thing about my life, and leave out all the good bits, and it would sound overwrought and terrible like Atwood's characters' lives, but really my life is not all miserable and icky, and I don't buy that Atwood's characters' lives are all miserable and icky. Sometimes it annoys me that her books are so relentlessly negative. Lighten up, lady! Give it a rest! (Lest you mistake this for intelligent literary commentary, I feel the same way about Stephen King books.)

On the other hand, the thing I love about Margaret Atwood, and this isn't something that seems to come up much, is her little jokes. (She likes that too: a friend of mine saw her do a reading, and apparently she laughs at her own jokes.)

(Careful readers will note that this is the first of my Alphabetical To-Be-Read List Plan, and that I have read several off-list books. If I'm going to get through any amount of my TBR pile I'm going to have to increase the on-list:off-list ratio.)

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin is our second book club book. (The girl who's planning this month's meeting decided we needed something a little lighter after The Things They Carried. On the one hand, Rwanda; on the other hand, cakes!) Baking Cakes in Kigali is about a community of ex-pats of various countries who have come to Kigali to participate in (or take advantage of) the post-war rebuilding and spending. Centreing the book on non-Rwandans is a great way to write a book about Rwanda without asking us to get into the heart of someone who lived through the genocide. Not that that's not a worthwhile thing to do, but it's not this book.

Our main character is Angel, a Tanzanian grandmother who has recently launched a custom cake business. Her husband works for the university, and is the reason they are in Kigali. They live in an apartment complex populated by people from other parts of Africa and the world, and one of the delights of the novel is reading Angel's thoughts on cultural differences within Africa. The main charm of the book is Angel, actually: her thoughts on her neighbours, on feminism, on running a small business, and on coping with hardship are reminiscent of the levelheaded philosophies of Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe.

(Leading, obviously, to the question of whether these white writers are creating a new sterotype, the "practical African woman". Both Precious and Angel are admirable characters who you would want to have by your side in a crisis, but I feel like I need to hear another voice from Africa, perhaps one that isn't so tailored to my taste as a North American reader.)

Baking Cakes in Kigali isn't a work of great literature, but it was a pleasant and easy read and raises enough discussion points that I think it will make for a good book club meeting.

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman was perhaps an unnecessary diversion from my TBR list, but Delphine had it out from the library and I hadn't read it, so I did. Besides, it was short. It's the story of Odd, who is odd and not entirely wanted at home, so he goes away. While he's away, he meets some more odd characters: a bear, a fox and an eagle who aren't behaving as you might expect a bear, a fox and an eagle to behave. Events transpire, Odd quests and succeeds, learns about himself and his family, saves the day and returns home stronger.

It's a wonderful little book, as you'd expect from Gaiman. He has a gloriously gentle, deadpan way of ushering you into his imagined world that I loved in the Sandman comics.

[Posted at 11:38 by Amy Brown] link
Thu, 24 Feb 2011

A few days ago I had this exchange on Twitter:

@amyrhoda: Yay, I finished a book off my TBR shelf! And added four more in the meantime... *headdesk*

@ryan_price: ha! I just added 3 books yesterday... But i didnt finish another :(

What I didn't tell Ryan was that three of the four books I added were children's novels or YA novels. Since then I read two of them, and then realized that the last one wasn't in keeping with my Alphabetical Reading List Plan , so I set it aside. (I'm adding new books to the end of the TBR pile; I can't read them until I've won the alphabet.)

These are the books I read:

Book Cover

Fairy Haven and the Quest for the Wand by Gail Carson Levine. Once upon a time I told myself I would read all the books my kids read. I don't know what crack I was smoking, because a) I don't even have time to read the books I want to read, b) Delphine reads about a million books a day, and c) she reads some serious crap. Good stuff too, but lots of crap.

This one intrigued me, though. On the one hand, Disney. (That's bad.) On the other, Gail Carson Levine. (That's good.) On the one hand, fairies. (That's bad.) On the other... Gail Carson Levine? Well, and I also love the illustrations, by David Christiana. And Delphine really enjoyed it.

So I gave it a read, and hey, it turns out to be pretty good. The fairy characters are interesting and well-rounded, in non-obvious ways. (Turns out Tinkerbell fixes things - she's a tinkerer, get it?) The conflict was exciting, the climax was thrilling, the writing was lovely. Gail Carson Levine trumps Disney!

Book Cover

Hoping For Home: Stories of Arrival is from the Dear Canada series of historical novels written as diaries. This one is a collection of short stories about immigration. (Well, and one about an aboriginal girl, which I guess was put in for political correctness but since it's not actually about crossing the Bering Strait/Pacific Ocean thousands of years ago I think it's a bit of a stretch to include it in a collection about immigration; and another story which I'm not sure what it was about.) The authors include Rukhsana Khan, Paul Yee, and Jean Little. For some reason I love immigration stories, maybe because I immigrated/emigrated so often as a kid, maybe because I find the fact that people choose Canada as their home perversely flattering, definitely because I am in awe of the courage of people who come here with so little resources and so much hope.

Whatever it is, this book satisfied me with lots of good stories, although I'm not a great fan of the diary conceit. I often felt that the writing was too good to be a diary, especially a child's diary, and that pulled me out of the story. The author who really captured a child's voice was Brian Doyle. I also particularly enjoyed Paul Yee's story of a boy joining his father in small-town Saskatchewan; he brings the reader on the same voyage of discovery that the protagonist is taking.

Incidentally, this book was a cheat on my Alphabetical Reading List Plan; it is a book we own, so I should have put it at the end of the list. (The Levine was a library book so I had to read it before we returned it.) I just forgot...

[Posted at 22:05 by Amy Brown] link
Sat, 19 Feb 2011
To Be Read Shelf - 1

Last year I made some kind of resolution about reading half the books on my To Be Read shelf. Our bookshelf (it's a 5 by 5 Expedit, which they apparently don't make anymore) has little squares, and right now my TBR pile is taking up two cubbies. I wanted to reduce it to one, but somehow the size of my TBR pile remains constant.

Like everyone, I imagine, I tend to avoid particular books. Various reasons: maybe a book seems hard, maybe it's one I feel I "should" read but don't actually want to, maybe I'm just never in the mood. Anyway, I find that some books lurk in the TBR shelf for months and years while some just disappear within weeks. This year I decided to steel myself and tackle the shelf alphabetically.

So here it is:

  • Atwood, Margaret: Moral Disorder (my mother sent me this)
  • Conrad, Joseph: Lord Jim (this is a "should" read)
  • Didion, Joan: The Year of Magical Thinking
  • Faber, Adele and Elaine Mazlich: Siblings Without Rivalry (a necessary re-read)
  • Frey, Stephen: The Power Broker
  • Gardiner, John Reynolds: Stone Fox (Delphine recommended this)
  • Goldreich, Gloria: Open Doors (my mother sent this too)
  • Grenville, Kate: The Idea of Perfection
  • Harris, Marvin: Cannibals and Kings (I picked this up at someone's curb; it seems thinky and interesting but maybe totally dated.)
  • Hawking, Stephen: George's Secret Key to the Universe (I borrowed this from a friend; I'm interested in it in theory but the cover is so tacky it's putting me off.)
  • Hegi, Ursula: Stones from the River
  • Hochschild, Adam: Bury the Chains (I got this as a gift from Greg Wilson. It's about the dismantlement (that is so a word) of slavery.)
  • Khan, Rukhsana: Wanting Mor
  • McCarthy, Cormac: All The Pretty Horses (Because I read The Road and I'm a huge masochist.)
  • McLaren, Leah: The Continuity Girl (see above re: masochist)
To Be Read Shelf - 2
  • McLaughlin, Emma and Nicola Krause: The Nanny Diaries (A friend swears this is better than it looks.)
  • McDonough, William and Michael Braungart: Cradle to Cradle (This is a book about sustainable design which I'm halfway through and can't finish. It's just so dry. I'm going to give it one more effort.)
  • Monbiot, George: Heat
  • Munro, Alice: The View from Castle Rock (My mother sent me this, too. She loves Alice Munro and thinks we should read this in book club.)
  • Nemirovsky, Irene: Suite Francaise
  • Ondaatje, Michael: The English Patient (My friend who liked The Nanny Diaries hates this book but I have another friend who loves it, so I just don't know what to think. I guess I'll have to read it and judge for myself.)
  • Petroski, Henry: The Evolution of Useful Things (This is another one I've started but got bogged down with. I want to like it, though; the subject matter is interesting.)
  • Ritter, Erika: The Dog By the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath (This is a book that I was interested in, so I grabbed it at a book sale or off the curb or something.)
  • Sebold, Alice: The Lovely Bones
  • Stross, Charles: Iron Sunrise (A while ago I said I wanted to start reading sf again, but I made a horrible misstep (in my earnest search for CanCon) and read a Robert Sawyer book. I still haven't recovered, but I hope this book will bring me back into the fold.)
  • Weatherford, Jack: Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World (This is the Indian version of that book about how the Scots are responsible for everything cool ever. Maybe I will read them both and declare a winner.)
  • Zinnser, William: On Writing Well
  • Blume, Judy: Summer Sisters

(The last thing on that shelf is the choral score to Mendelssohn's Elijah, which we are performing this spring. I just put it there to have it handy when we start rehearsing at the end of this month.)

There are a couple of rules. You'll see that the Judy Blume book is out of order: that's my wild card. If I just can't face the next book on the list, I get to read Summer Sisters. It's my only wild card, so I have to use it wisely.

Also I can interrupt the sequence at any time for library books, book club books, or books which need to be read right away for another reason, like how-to books.

Let's see how far through the alphabet I get this year.

[Posted at 20:55 by Amy Brown] link
Thu, 10 Feb 2011

I picked up I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou for free, or very cheap, somewhere because I knew I should read something of hers. I didn't know anything about her apart from that she's an American poet and highly respected. I didn't know anything about the book, either, apart from recognizing the title — I didn't know if it was poetry or a novel, if it was going to be hard to read or light (didn't really expect it to be light).

Turns out I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a memoir of Angelou's peripatetic and eventful childhood in Arkansas, California and St Louis, and while it wasn't light, it was an easy read. For the most part the language is straightforward (but beautiful) and the story is told forthrightly, without undue metaphor or digression. Occasionally Angelou steps out of her narrative to provide a larger context for a situation, or to reflect on an event with the wisdom of hindsight, but these asides are insightful and welcome.

I didn't expect to enjoy the book as much as I did, and I now find I want to know what happens next (the book ends when Angelou is sixteen). Where does she get her last name? What happens to her brother? I suppose I could find out from Wikipedia, but I'd rather have the story unfold in the author's words. Lucky for me her memoirs continue in Gather Together In My Name.

[Posted at 13:26 by Amy Brown] link
Wed, 02 Feb 2011

I read Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It by Gary Taubes after reading this very enthusiastic review in Skeptic Magazine's e-issue. As you can see, sceptical dude there thinks this book is pretty great.

In the book, Taubes talks about what's currently circulating as common knowledge about fatness: that it all hinges on the disparity between the number of calories we take in and the number we burn, and that eating fat makes you fat. He dismantles those theories pretty completely with counterexamples, logic and science, and at the same time explains why fat people eat more and exercise less. (Hint: our fat makes us do it!)

Then he lays out some more science, this time about how fat works, or more specifically how insulin works. Turns out insulin is evil: it inhibits the use of fat as an energy source, it forces fat cells to take lipids from the blood and store them as fat, it causes the body to create new fat cells. And what makes your body release insulin? Carbs! Ergo carbs are also evil.

This is where he gets into the Atkins/paleo-diet stuff which I have always associated with fat-obsessed loonies who will do anything to be thin, so my hackles are up. And then he says you don't need carbs at all. And fruit is bad for you! And then in the last chapter he lays out a diet which is basically plateful after plateful of meat. Mmmm. (Ick.)

So. This was an interesting book, and certainly compellingly argued. Not that it has any scientific value, but my personal experience certainly dovetails with Taubes's arguments. (The only time I lost any significant amount of weight and kept it off was when I cut carbs (although I didn't think of it that way): I stopped drinking juice and buying a dozen bagels every week.) There are counter-arguments to Taubes's conclusions on the Internet which I have yet to read, but for the most part the book rang very true and has definitely changed the way I think about fatness and nutrition. Although I won't be switching to that all-meat diet any time soon.

[Posted at 21:44 by Amy Brown] link
Tue, 25 Jan 2011

The second book I read this year was the book for our first book club meeting. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien is a collection of stories about the Vietnam war, and coming home from the Vietnam war. (And trying to avoid going to the Vietnam war.) It's also about storytelling, cameraderie, belonging, and the slippery morality of war.

The book club had an interesting variety of reactions to this book. One of us said she couldn't relate to any of the characters in the book on account of them being men, but that she really enjoyed the writing. I thought the writing was compelling but I didn't really notice it. Which would normally be a good thing, but I feel like I should notice writing, pay attention to it, so I can improve my own writing. I guess that's what the second reading is for, but I'm too impatient to read anything twice. Something to work on.

Another book club member thought she didn't like it, but in retrospect realized that she liked that one part... and the other chapter... and that bit about... actually it was really sticking with her and that must be good. It's that kind of book — you may not enjoy reading it but it gives you lots of things to think about. I liked it — the characters were compelling, and I liked the ideas and questions it raised, especially the question of the difference between a true story, and something that really happened.

[Posted at 22:09 by Amy Brown] link
Sun, 16 Jan 2011

My first book of 2011 was Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell. I read her The Hungry Gene, about the physiology of fatness (whoo!) a while ago and enjoyed it, so I was excited to hear that she had tackled a topic which weighs (Oh! No pun intended!) on my mind quite often: cheapness. My concern is mainly that most things are now too cheap to mend: clothes, electronics, furniture, if something breaks, rips, or wears out there's no chance you can get a North American to repair it for less than you can get someone in Asia to make a new one, even though it's not a particularly good one and you know it's going to break in 2 to 5 years anyway. As a result, our homes and landfills are full of flimsy, disappointing crap.

This book is about exactly that. Shell covers all the whys and wherefores of what make things so cheap these days: discount retailers, the history of sales, globalisation and sweatshops, and the erosion of quality in mainstream goods. The book is informative yet readable, and covers enough ground that I had a pretty thorough understanding of the big picture of cheapness when I'd finished reading it.

Shell did try pretty hard to get me to hate Ikea, and never managed it. Yes, some of the stuff they sell is shoddy (caveat emptor — some of it is just fine) and they have giant stores out in the suburbs which force people to drive out there (I manage to shop at Ikea without driving, and anyway I only go once a year so even if I did drive it wouldn't be a disaster). Also they make everything cheap by passing on the assembly work to you the customer (again, caveat emptor: you know what you're getting into. Plus you can hire dudes to assemble your Ikea furniture, at least in Toronto.) She turns her nose up at their attempts to make sure their wood is environmentally and ethically sourced, and I agree that they could probably stand to, oh, quadruple their forestry oversight department, but hey, at least they have one. Anyway, I'm sure it's just that I've been brainwashed by the overall adorableness of Ikea, but I just can't hate them as much as Shell clearly wants me to. But I do shop there are mindfully as I shop everywhere else.

Apart from our minor disagreement about the evilness of Ikea, Shell convinced and entertained me with this book. I look forward to her next one.

[Posted at 22:18 by Amy Brown] link