Monthly Archives: February 2010

A Kid in a Candy Store

You know those days when you go shopping for clothes only to find nothing even close to amiable? The days when you secretly wish for the next season to hurry in or blame your city’s lack of shopping choices because nuh-thing is appealing? If you do, they you also know the opposite kind of shopping days. The kind where you can almost feel your credit card vibrating in your purse as you eye all of the wonderful items just waiting to be owned by none other than you.

I find the same experience exists at your nearest Chapters (in another post we can get into the big box versus independent bookstore owner. I too have watched You’ve Got Mail). There are days when I enter through the quadruple doors, immediately feeling at home surrounded by shiny hardcovers and Heather’s ubiquitous picks, eager to find a new read or two. Not often, but once in awhile, my shopping extravaganza falls flat as I stare at Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns for the umpteenth time and its numerous replicas. When the most exciting book is (still?) Lovely Bones. On these days, I am more attracted to the paraphanelia – the laptop pillows, the window-box gardens and tea cozies – than the main purpose for my outing: the books.

Luckily, today was not one of those days. I swear I could feel a change in the air as I walked into my ‘local’ big box book supplier. I scanned the front tables – the “New and Hot in Fiction” the “Best of the Decade (really?), the “Books with Buzz” and could hardly decide where to look. There were so many enticing new titles.

Here’s a couple of my buys and soon to buy:

Yann Martel’s What is Stephen Harper Reading? – I loved Life of Pi. It seems to me that book is a little like the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Not in the content, circumstances or anything pertinent but more in the way people reacted to the book. People either loved it or hated it. Praised Martel or passed him off as a one-hit-wonder. I was in the ‘love it’ camp. I added Martel to my ‘authors to watch’ list and so immediately started scooping up anything with his name on it.  So, what could be better than a recommended reading list written by the winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2002 (it’s hard to be lead astray by this list)!

His list seems to be what you would expect, ranging from the classics (Candide by Voltaire) to the nouveau-classics (George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Toni Morrison’s the Bluest Eye) to the unheard of (Maus by Art Speigelman) with a smattering of surprises (the Bhagavad Gita) and somewhat endearing choices (Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery). This will be a fly-through book I’m sure, one I can tear into hungrily while adding selections to my own must-read-list.

Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands by Aatish Taseer – Truthfully, it was praise by V.S. Naipaul smeared across the cover of this book that first caught my attention (well-played McClelland & Stewart, well-played). This book could be one in a million amongst the lineage of books examining India, the Middle East, the pervasive theme of religion…. That doesn’t really matter to me. We are always drawn to that which is ‘other’ or foreign. That is why children in the Philippines come out to see the falangs, why Michael Jackson was and will always be so fascinating and why shows like Jerry Springer survive. For me, all that religion is is foreign. I am somewhat familiar, of course, with the major world religions but the concept of religious devotions/adherence/subjugation/allegation is so far out of my nexus that I cannot help but be captivated by ‘these’ books. What’s even more appealing of Taseer’s book is that he himself grew up in India and could still not identify with his father’s religions allegiances.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer – Again I am biased by my first experience with this author. I was so surprised by how much I loved Foer’s earlier book, Everything is Illuminated – a magical realist account of the holocaust. Foer’s most recent pen, though, is much different, instead analyzing the way and the why we eat as he approaches his new life as a father. I feel a Zeitgeist-meets-Fast Food Nation-as-directed-by -Tim Burton in our midst.

Like any kid with a fresh bag of candy (or a recently discovered bag of last year’s left over Halloween candy), I have little will-power and I’ve got the munchies.

‘Till next time.

I See Something Shiny

Like most women, I am a multi-tasker. I Facebook (the verb) with the TV on, I cook while on the phone, I ask my husband how his day was while making the grocery list and I clean the house while singing along to Lauryn Hill (She makes me feel less oppressed about my womanly duties). I cannot multi-task when it comes to reading though. For me, reading is an almost palpable experience that requires my full attention. I cannot read with the TV on, I cannot read with the radio on, I cannot even read if I am not sitting in exactly the right position. Perhaps this is where my love of reading comes from. It is for me what movies and TV are for most people – a complete and utter escape from the chaos/drudgery/excitement/malaise/fill in the blank of the everyday.

That being said, I am a chronic cheater. I am almost incapable of reading one thing at a time. No matter how involved I become in a book, the fancy shiny cover of a new book can easily lead me astray. Generally, I observe the Rule of Three – 2 books and a periodical seems to strike a good balance – otherwise I tend to get a little punchy. The most recent (and I must say extremely pleasing) combination was: Vanity Fair‘s “Something About Meryl”, Beyond the Horizon by Colin Angus and Todd Babiak’s the Garneau Block.

Vanity Fair is the reliable old horse. Regardless of the cover, there is always a well written piece on a somewhat fortuitous topic that you can indulge in over a couple of days. The stop and start nature of a periodical means that Vanity Fair is not a commitment that must be added to the tower of to-do’s (or rather ‘to-reads’) but is instead a flavoring for anything else you’ve got on the go. The January edition (So I’m a little behind.  The pictures of Tiger scared me off of February’s edition. Take that Annie.) doesn’t quite fit the ‘fortuitous’ bill since Meryl (we’re on a first name basis) has long been a favorite Hollywood leading lady when actual acting merit is required and the edition expectedly follows the success of two recent movies: Julie and Julia and It’s Complicated.

So, the article on Ms Streep comes as no surprise but how about a 10-page article on the Large Hadron Collider near the Swiss-French border (glamourized by Dan Brown, examined by Kurt Andersen) or an in-depth look at Elvis before he was the king? Not to mention the always entertaining letter from the editor. Oh Graydon, wherefore art thou?

Beyond the Horizon was a stolen read, an Xmas gift to my husband that I kindly offered to ‘pre-read’ for him.  Drawn in mostly by the shiny cover , I picked up the “National Bestseller” wondering why I had never seen it while scouring the shelves at Chapters. The concept, to be honest, didn’t really grab me – “The great race to finish the first human-powered circumnavigation of the planet”. I needed more convincing. Simply seeing the word “great” does not send my neurons into overdrive, sorry to say.  To be honest, it was really only the fact that it was written by a Canadian that prompted me to turn the first couple of pages. Everything after that though was a direct result of author and explorer Colin Angus. It doesn’t take long to get sucked deep into the pages of this book or into Angus’ struggles as he prepares for his around the world voyage with then team mate Tim Harvey. As with any good story, there is a protagonist (guess who), an antagonist and a seemingly unending series of challenges which must be overcome before Angus is to be reunited with the love of his life. Don’t get me wrong, it does not read like a fairy tale and it never seems prescribed. Instead, as the reader, I became almost emotionally involved in the team’s struggles – I felt anxious when Colin was forced to spend time in an isolated Russian hospital, terrified when he became lost in a blizzard and irrationally elated at the smallest triumphs. This is the kind of book that makes you believe the impossible is possible, makes you idolize the writer and makes you wonder what the hell you’ve been wasting your life doing.

Todd Babiak’s The Garneau Block did not grab me initially either. Again, the cover preempts the reader’s own conclusions claiming the book is “the #1 Bestseller.”  It doesn’t specify beyond that though – in Canada? In Alberta? On the day of printing? Could you be a little more specific? Maybe if they’d called it a “Great #1 Bestseller” I’d have been more easily convinced. I jest.

In reality, I hesitated to open this book because I had already read parts of it. A number of years ago, the Edmonton Journal published excerpts of the then in-progress book by Journal staffer Babiak. I read a number of them sort of at random and could never make it through an entire excerpt. I felt Babiak bordered on obnoxious. He wrote as though he fancied himself a Kerouac of his day (without the identifiable or shocking style and certainly sans content). His writing was receiving high praise though. I felt like I was on the outside of a joke.

Cue Xmas again.  I received this book as a gift from my dad. I smiled and thanked him while mumbling something about the author writing for the Journal. I then piled the other books I had received on top, creating a tangible list of the order in which they would be read.  Later, on a ski trip I was forced to address Babiak’s writings after exhausting all other reading material.  Let me first say that I was pleasantly surprised. Let me quickly follow that by saying that I am still confused.

Babiak is currently on an ‘educational leave’ in France with his family and continues to write for the Edmonton Journal – think A Year in the Merde without the sense of humor or perhaps more apropos Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon without the soul, the beautiful prose and the effortless observations. Instead, Babiak’s writing seems contrived. Like he is catering to some false expectations. But I digress…

As I said, I was pleasantly surprised: the story reads well.  It is easy to become attached to the characters, all of whom are endearing in their own oblivious kind of way. The real reason I enjoyed this book so much though (and I did truly enjoy it, despite my harsh criticisms) is because it hit close to home. The book takes place is present-day Edmonton, more specifically in Old Strathcona and along the infamous (only to Edmontonians) Whyte Avenue. In this way, the book is so very satisfying. All of the stereotypes are there. It is like going to the states and seeing fat Americans, it is like going to Paris and seeing a woman riding une bicyclette with a baguette in her basket or like getting rolled by the KGB in Russia. Babiak paints the residents of Garneau with the colour of familiarity, speaking to anyone who has lived in Edmonton for a length of time. In this vein he stands up to his praise as one of the most “engaging young writers”.

I finished the book quickly as Babiak’s writing style poses no challenge and is conveniently sectioned into bite-sized chapters with titles like “the young indian from across the street”, “convincing david” and “a white van arrives” incase the reader is unable to identify for himself what is about to transpire in the subsequent pages.

I can’t help but think that the reviewers of this book should do themselves a favor and read something outside the bestsellers list, venture a little farther than Alexander McCall Smith or Dan Brown.  Forget the claimed talent, wit, and brilliance of other reviewers, Babiak paints a picture of his hometown with unmasked affection and he does so in an accessible way making this book a sure winner among locals. One reviewer, Books in Canada called The Garneau Block a “Witty and endearing love letter delivered to […] the city of Edmonton.  That’s exactly what this book is. No more, no less. And that’s okay.