Fiction, Humour

The Wangs vs the World

Cover image for The Wangs vs the World by Jade Chang by Jade Chang

ISBN 9780544734098

Charles Wang was mad at America. Actually, Charles Wang was mad at history.”

Charles Wang is a Chinese immigrant from Taiwan who came to America decades ago with nothing but a list of fertilizer manufacturers who might want to buy the urea produced in his family’s Taipei factories. Instead, he ended up building a cosmetics empire, which has come crashing down around him in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. With the factories shuttered, the house foreclosed, and the cars repossessed, Charles commandeers the vehicle belonging to his elderly Ama, and sets out with his second wife, Barbra, on the cross country trek to retrieve his younger children from their college and boarding schools, and join their eldest sister at her home in upstate New York. Along the way he plans to deliver Ama to her daughter in Nevada, drop off one last customer order in Alabama, and then find a way to return to China, and reclaim the land his family lost in the Communist Revolution.

The Wangs vs. the World is the ultimate dysfunctional family road trip, told in alternating perspectives among the Wang family members, and with a couple of vignettes from the point of view of the car they are driving, which once belonged to Charles first wife, and the mother of his children, May Lee, who died tragically in a helicopter crash at the Grand Canyon. Jade Chang approaches it all with a slightly crass sense of humour that starts right out from the fact Charles’ family essentially produces artificial chemical piss (urea) and carries on through such debacles as Andrew masturbating with a leftover ketchup packet. These jokes aside, the family dynamic has a tragi-comic flavour glossing over a deeper level of introspection, but some readers will probably find this tone off-putting.

On the surface, The Wangs vs. the World is a comic story about the shock of rich people who suddenly find themselves poor. Yet it also interrogates the American Dream, income inequality, and the bill of goods immigrants are sold about the possibilities of life in America. Tellingly, Charles goes bankrupt trying to keep afloat a line of cosmetics for non-white women, a huge untapped market that he believes will make his fortune. But skepticism among bankers about his social justice motives causes him to float a personal stake in the endeavour just as the market is about to collapse. Meanwhile, his son Andrew wants to be a comedian, but worries that he will only gain success in the American market by making fun of his own Asian heritage. They have all had to work out their role in a country that promised them everything, and delivered, but at a price they never expected.

While Charles and Barbra are mostly focused on money, and the loss of wealth, Saina, Andrew, and Gracie are also facing losses, not just of money, but the other things they have been taught to value as first generation Americans. The currency of the younger Wangs is mostly fame, though it comes in different forms. Andrew dreams of being a famous stand-up comedian, and asks his father to make stops in cities along the road that are hosting open mic nights. Gracie runs a successful fashion blog, with a currency in likes and followers. Meanwhile, the eldest sister, Saina, at first seems relatively untouched by the crisis, but as the story progresses we learn that after three critical successes, her latest art show was a controversial flop, and her reputation in New York City’s art scene is in ruins. She has fled to upstate New York to escape the fallout, and perhaps break it off with her cheating artist boyfriend once and for all.

(Content Warning: Rape) Another thing that is lost along the road is Andrew’s virginity, in a part of the plot that is perhaps one of the most confusing and disturbing aspects of the story. Having steadfastly refused to have sex until he is in love, twenty-one year old Andrew meets an older woman at a wedding in New Orleans, where the Wangs have stopped to visit an old friend of Charles’. Dorrie takes Andrew home, and proceeds to have penetrative sex with him, even after he tells her he wants to wait. Tied up and blindfolded, Andrew can’t resist her, and is profoundly confused about whether he wanted to. He never manages to tell anyone in his family about it after the fact, either. Andrew’s lingering virginity is an object of humour, and the way he loses his agency in the choice of when to give it up is passed over without much reflection about what was taken from him.

While the crasser side of Chang’s brand of humour wasn’t especially my thing, I think she has mastered the depiction of dysfunctional family dynamics, as well as the road trip narrative, and used the two together to reflect on the immigrant story in a new way, through the lens of the financial crisis. However, I enjoyed the more situational aspects of Chang’s sense of humour, and the odd predicaments the Wangs ended up in as a result, despite my reservations about how she handled Andrew’s story.

Canada Reads, Canadian, Humour, Memoir, Non-Fiction

Canada Reads Along 2018: Precious Cargo

Cover image for Precious Cargo by Craig Davidsonby Craig Davidson

ISBN 978-0-345-81051-9

Failure carries weight. Nobody tells you this. Cinderblocks stacked on your chest and piled atop your skull; you develop a persistent slump, your shoulders round in defeat. People can sense it. They avoid you as if you’ve got scabies.”

In the summer of 2008, Craig Davidson was broke and unemployed, a struggling writer who felt he had blown his one chance at success. After being rejected for a lunch monitor position, a flyer landed in his mailbox advertising school bus driver jobs—no experience necessary! By simple chance, the route closest to home was a mini-bus that transported five students with various disabilities to their middle and high schools. Over the course of the school year, the kids on the bus unwound Davidson’s sense of failure, and soon helped him begin writing again. Precious Cargo is his account of that year on the bus, and what he learned along the way.

Precious Cargo is divided into four sections by the seasons of the school year, beginning with Craig’s hiring and training, and progressing through to the following June. Interspersed with these main sections are chapters from an unpublished novel called The Seekers. It wasn’t immediately clear to me what was going on with these excerpts, which are not explained, but I soon realized that Davidson had cast the kids from his bus as heroes in an adventure novel about time travel. Over the course of the book, as we get to know the five kids, it becomes evident that they are largely geeky and creative, enjoying science fiction and fantasy, and making up their own stories as well. I wondered if Davidson had shared his invention with them, or involved them in it, but this is never touched on.

The portrayals of the five kids who rode Davidson’s bus are a bit uneven. Jake, a teenager with Cerebral Palsy who loves science fiction, and wants to be a writer, by far receives the most attention and detail, followed by Oliver, a dramatic character who has Fragile X syndrome. Vincent and Gavin (who is non-verbal) fall in between, and Nadja receives very little attention at all. I had wondered if this is might have been at the request or the kids or their families, but that turned out not to be the case. When this was brought up during the Canada Reads debates, defender Greg Johnson raised it with the author, who admitted that he connected more with some of the kids, and that the book reflects that. I think this was one thing that always felt awkward to me as I was reading the book; Davidson was an adult in a position of responsibility with these kids, but he clearly had favourites.

If some of the kids were barely sketched in, others are very closely described. I was left wondering how Jake and his family felt about the intimate portrayal of their situation. Davidson states that he told the kids and their families that he was a writer, but we never hear from them directly. In Jake’s case in particular, enough identifying details are provided that, although a pseudonym is used in the book, the family is easily identifiable with the most cursory internet search. Davidson very much centered himself and his journey in this account of his year on the bus, and I hope that it has not been at the expense of his subjects. While he seems to have genuine feeling for the kids, he also falls into common tropes, like referring to Jake as being “trapped inside his own diminishing body.”

Precious Cargo was defended in this year’s Canada Reads debates by tornado chaser Greg Johnson. In his opening arguments, Johnson lauded the book for opening his eyes on a personal level—this year’s theme is One Book to Open Your Eyes—and for using humour to tackle difficult issues. Certainly, its tone is different from the other books selected for this year’s competition. In his final rebuttal, he pointed out that this is the first time that a book about disabilities has been selected in the seventeen years of Canada Reads. However, it is a book that is told from an outside perspective.

The discussion of Precious Cargo on Day Two centered on whether or not the characters were fully realized. Although many of the panelists enjoyed the book, they also felt unable to connect with many of the kids other than Jake. Jully Black said that Jake’s father, Calvin, reminded her of her own mother, who cares for Jully’s sister who has a disability. Tahmoh Penikett also argued that while Precious Cargo was humourous and heart-warming, it does not deal with the most pressing issues that are facing humanity today, such as climate change, war, and radicalization. This led into a heated and sometimes chaotic debate about the darkness of American War, and the role of hopefulness and humour in delivering a message.

When it came time to vote, Greg Johnson and Jully Black voted against American War, while Tahmoh Penikett and Mozhdah Jamalzadah cast their ballots against Precious Cargo. Jeanne Beker was the sole vote for The Marrow Thieves, and was called on to cast the tie-breaking vote between American War and Precious Cargo. Surprisingly, given her vehement arguments against the darkness and despair of American War in the course of the Day Two debates, she chose to eliminate Precious Cargo from Canada Reads 2018. Asked to elucidate her decision in the Q&A after the show, Beker explained that as much as she enjoyed Precious Cargo, she didn’t feel that it had the gravitas to compete with the other books, and that it felt more lightweight than the others. She did not feel it was the book that most adult Canadians needed to open their eyes.

Catch up with yesterday’s recap of the elimination of The Boat People by Sharon Bala. Or tune in to the Canada Reads debates on CBC.

Essays, Graphic Novel, History, Humour, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Pandemic, Top Picks, Young Adult

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2017

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2017. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Born a Crime

ISBN 978-0-385-68922-9

Cover image for Born a Crime by Trevor NoahWhen Trevor Noah was born in South Africa in 1984, his existence was literally illegal, proof that his black, Xhosa mother and his white, Swiss-German father had violated the Immorality Act of 1927, one of the many laws defining the system known as apartheid. Noah is observant, and able to clearly convey the absurdity of the system he was born under while also explaining its function for a North American audience that is probably not terribly familiar with the ins and outs of apartheid. In addition to an interesting life, Noah also has a good sense of pacing and narrative style that make his recollections particularly illuminating. Noah is known as a comedian, successor to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show, but while there is an understated humour present in Born a Crime, for the most part it is memoir, not comedy. The humour comes mostly in the form of sly comments, though some of the stories are indeed laugh out loud funny. I actually read this book twice this year, once in print, and again as an audiobook, and would highly recommend it in either form.

Categories: Memoir, Humour

March: Book Two

ISBN 978-1-60309-400-9

Cover image for March: Book Two by John Lewis and Andrew AydinThis is a shout out to the entire March Trilogy, written by Congressman John Lewis with former congressional aid Andrew Aydin, and art by Nate Powell. The trilogy captures Lewis’ experiences as a civil rights leader and organizer, before going on to represent Georgia’s fifth congressional district for more than thirty years. In March: Book Two, Lewis and Aydin really master the structure of the frame narrative, which was a little stilted in the first volume. Lewis’ recollections of his time as an activist are framed by memories of Inauguration Day 2009, an especially striking juxtaposition with the violence that met peaceful civil rights protests. Book Two powerfully covers key events in the movement’s history, such as the lunch counter protests, the Freedom Rides, and the March on Washington.

Categories: Memoir, History, Graphic Novel

Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World

ISBN 978-1-61620-586-7

Cover image for Here We Are, Edited by Kelly JensenFeminism is a concept that has been loaded down with a lot of cultural baggage. In this collection of essays, poems, comics, and lists, editor Kelly Jensen has pulled together a selection of pieces for a teen audience that aim to clarify misconceptions, share experiences, and reinforce empathy for a variety of journeys and perspectives. Here We Are contains enough broad variety that no doubt different pieces will speak to different readers. It is reaffirming to read about people who share your experiences, and enlightening to read about different ones. Interspersed with the longer essays are short, fun pieces, such as feminist music playlists, poems, and comics. There were only a few things I thought were notably absent, such as a piece about affirmative consent to complement the discussion of rape culture. The chapter on romance and sexuality could also have used an essay about asexuality and aromanticism. Overall, however, I was pleased with the diversity of this introduction to feminism, and would heartily recommend it.

Categories: Young Adult, Essays

A Mother’s Reckoning

ISBN 978-1-10190-276-9

Cover image for A Mother's Reckoning by Sue KleboldIt is with caution that I include on this list a book that has stuck with me, perhaps even haunted me, since I read it this fall. Sue Klebold’s memoir is an intimate and gut-wrenching look inside the home of an ordinary little boy who grew up to be a high school mass murderer. When her son committed suicide in the school library following the rampage, she was left with more questions than answers, and a difficult public reckoning that continues to flare up to this day. Klebold does her best to recount the events in a way that is compatible with existing guidelines for responsible reporting on such tragedies in order to prevent imitation, something which she sharply calls out the media for failing to do in their treatment of the events at Columbine High School. It is a harrowing read because it shows people who commit terrible acts of evil as human, leaving aside the question of whether those who do monstrous things need to be humanized. I can’t imagine how upsetting this account might be for anyone who lost loved ones at Columbine, and it is for this reason that place a caveat on my recommendation of this title. Nevertheless, I can’t stop thinking about this book.

Categories: Memoir

How to Survive a Plague

ISBN 978-0-30770-063-6

Cover image for How to Survive a Plague by David FranceThis history is an insider’s look at the activists who advocated for AIDS treatments and victim’s rights in the early days of the epidemic. France’s account centers on New York, and the founding of such organizations as ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group, as well as the safe sex movement. France truly makes the reader feel the uncertainty and fear of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when even the cause of the disease was a mystery. How to Survive a Plague also delves into the bureaucracy and homophobia that delayed the development of effective AIDS treatments by researchers and public health officials. Desperation led to thriving experimental drug undergrounds without proper oversight or data collection. Especially if you were born after AIDS went from being a death sentence to a manageable health condition, this is an essential and illuminating read about a key aspect of LGBTQ+ history.

Categories: History, LGBTQ+, Pandemic

And that’s it for 2017. See you all  on the other side.

Canadian, Essays, Humour, Read Diverse 2017

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter

Cover image for One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koulby Scaachi Koul

ISBN 978-1-250-12102-8

Mom talks about moving to Canada as though my father had requested she start wearing fun hats. Why not try it? she thought, instead of This fucking lunatic wants me to go to a country made of ice and casual racism.”

The daughter of Kashmiri Indian immigrants, Scaachi Koul was born in Canada, and grew up in Calgary, Alberta before moving to Toronto for university. There she became a writer and editor for BuzzFeed Canada, and started dating a white man more than a decade her senior who she kept secret from her parents for many years. She sparked on a storm on Twitter in 2016 when she put out a call for more diverse submissions. Her debut collection of essays addressing growing up at the intersection of two cultures, fighting for a place in either one, while constantly defending choices her parents do not understand or approve of. Koul approaches this subject with a biting humour that belies the seriousness of the subject matter.

Koul vividly sketches a portrait of her family, including her parents, much older brother, and young niece. Her father in particular is a vivid character, the kind of person who will decide a year later that he isn’t done being mad about something you did that he didn’t approve of, and abruptly stop talking to you for months at time. The intergenerational conflict is at once unique to her situation, and recognizable to parents and children everywhere. Her niece, nicknamed Raisin, also plays a prominent role, as Koul often reflects on her experiences through the lens of what she hopes or fears Raisin will face growing up as a young half-Indian woman.

Koul shares her complicated relationship with race in general, and skin colour in particular, a relationship that shifts depending whether she is in Canada or India. In Canada she is brown, yet just light enough to be ethnically vague, and constantly questioned about her identity. Racists casually toss the n-word at her, because “racism doesn’t have to be accurate, it just has to be acute.” In India, her family is pleased with, and occasionally jealous of, her pallor. There, her relatives casually touch her skin, as if hoping the colour will rub off. Koul worries over the value her family places on this lightness, and particularly what this emphasis on whiteness will mean for her half-white niece. This push-pull is constantly at play as Koul tries to parse out her place between the two worlds.

The pieces in this collection range in tone, but even the essays that are pure humour have an undertow of cultural commentary. As she recounts getting stuck in a skirt in the fitting room of a clothing store where she used to work—and having to be cut out of it—Koul manages to perfectly capture the tendency to pin our hopes on the perfect wardrobe. Even as she is getting stuck, she thinks this is “The item, the big item that changes the way I dress and thereby changes the way I am as a person. It’s not just a skirt; it’s the entry fee for a better existence. I would exude a new confidence, it would smooth out the wrinkles in my body, it would hide all the ways I have disappointed and failed people in the past.” Body image is never far beneath the surface of these reflections, with race and gender only serving to further complicate matters. And this piece fits into the collection right alongside more serous pieces, such as the dissection surveillance as an aspect of rape culture, showcasing Koul’s diverse range and deft hand with a variety of subject matter.


You might also like I‘m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi

African-American, Essays, Humour, Read Diverse 2017

You Can’t Touch My Hair

Cover image for You Can't Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinsonby Phoebe Robinson

ISBN 978-0-14-312920-2

“In fact, throughout the Obama years, there has been, at the very best, resistance to change, and at the very worst, a palpable regression in the way the country views and handles—or more accurately refuses to handle—race.”

Phoebe Robinson is a writer and stand-up comedian, as well as the co-host of the comedy podcast 2 Dope Queens with Jessica Williams. You Can’t Touch My Hair is a collection of humourous essays that draw on Robinson’s experiences as a black woman, including “How to Avoid Being the Black Friend,” and “Uppity,” an essay that explores coded language and white guilt. In a style replete with pop-culture references and internet slang, Robinson recounts her relationship with her hair, highlights black hair in the media over the past thirty years, and addresses some of the racism she experiences on a day-to-day basis.

Robinson’s essays hit a range of tones, from mostly humourous to mostly serious. I read the book in print form, but I often found myself wondering if some parts of the book would have been better on the audio version, which Robinson performs. Her more serious essays hit home hard in print form, but delivery is a huge part of comedy. I listened to a couple episodes of 2 Dope Queens after I finished You Can’t Touch My Hair, and suddenly I could much better imagine how Robinson would deliver the material she had written. This might be less of a problem for people who are already familiar with Robinson’s comedy and then pick up her book, but this was my introduction to her. However some of the pieces are definitely best suited to print form, for example the second essay is about black hair in the media, and includes a lot of photos.

Two of the more serious pieces that hit hard were “Uppity” and “The Myth of the Angry Black Woman.” In “Uppity,” Robinson recounts an acting job where she was called uppity by the white director when she asked for a minute to review her lines. After she called out the director, he apologized so profusely, and displayed his guilt so dramatically that Robinson wound up being responsible for consoling him for his racist behaviour. “The Myth of the Angry Black Woman” is a bit meandering to start with, but ends up being just as loaded. Robinson admits that the piece was hard to write, but when she eventually gets down to the point, her story about being the only black student in the senior thesis workshop of her creative writing program is gut-wrenching. The workshop normally enforced a very strict rule that the person whose work was being critiqued had to listen silently to the criticism without defending themselves. But when another student debuted a very racist master/slave romance and Robinson had to give her critique, the white student who had written the piece cried and tried to defend her work, while the rest of the class and the teacher looked on.

The piece that made me laugh the hardest was “Casting Calls for People of Color That Were Not Written by People of Color,” which highlights the absurdities faced by non-white actors. The casting calls are parodied examples that highlight the different types of clichés that are common in roles for people of color created by white writers and directors. I think part of the reason this piece works so well is that it is clearly meant to be delivered in print form, whereas some of the other essays, while funny, seemed like they were intended for verbal delivery but adapted to written form. Overall I am torn about whether to recommend print or audio for this title, as it really is a bit of a hybrid. If you are in it for the comedy, I would say that audio is definitely the route to go.


You might also like I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi

Essays, Humour, Non-Fiction, Read Diverse 2017

I’m Judging You

Cover image for I'm Judging You by Luvvie Ajayiby Luvvie Ajayi

ISBN 978-1-62779-606-4

“Racism in all its many flavors is easier to recognize when it’s KKK-style Original Recipe. But when the form it takes isn’t slurs and hate speech thrown in your face, people don’t always want to see it, acknowledge it, or understand how much it affects the everyday lives of others.”

Sometimes I feel like I suck at being a human, more specifically, an adult human. But when I look around, I can see that I am not alone in the suck, and that we all have some work to do to be better, to ourselves and one another. Luvvie Ajayi, the blogger known for is on the case, here to side-eye and criticize our myriad failings as individuals and as a society. However, all of the material for I’m Judging You is new to this book, and is not made up of edited blog posts. With humour and self-deprecation, Ajayi tackles everything from toxic friendships to social media oversharing to rape culture and our tendency to treat Africa as a monolith.

Ajayi starts out by judging herself, fully admitting that she is prone to being terribly and unforgivably late for social events. This willingness to include herself sets her up as a good sport, and she uses the term “we” in a lot of places throughout the book. The first few essays are light and purely humourous, dealing with stingy friends who don’t want to pay their share of the restaurant bill, and the several types of bad friends (the Frenemy, the Enabler, the Lannister, etc.) But the subject matter, while always approached with a good sense of humour, gets serious quickly from there.

By the fourth piece, “Under the Knife,” Ajayi is discussing beauty standards and their intersection with race. She is still in it for the humour—she starts out with anal bleaching, after all—but moves into a more substantive discussion of bleaching creams for making black people look lighter, and a cultural obsession with plastic surgery so extreme that women have died from having concrete filler injected into their bottoms by unlicensed plastic surgeons. She goes on to tackle racism more broadly, calls out those who use Christianity as an excuse for homophobia, and discusses the need for intersectional feminism, among other topics. While the discussions can be entry level, they are approached with humour, and though many readers will already be familiar with Ajayi from her blog, others like me will be meeting her for the first time with I’m Judging You.

Marketing has put a bit of a self-help spin on the book, subtitling it “The Do-Better Manual.” But Ajayi is less about telling you what to do—let alone how to do it—and more about giving some serious side eye to the way we currently do things. Why are we so thirsty for fame that we don’t care what we’re famous for? Should you ever post pictures of Grandma’s open casket funeral on social media? Have you washed your bra more than once in the last year? If you do better for having read this book, it will be less because Luvvie laid out a plan of reform, and more because she made you felt shame for your inconsiderate or gross behaviour and vow to be a better human going forward.

I’m Judging You is best read over several days, a few essays at a time. While the humour makes the book go down easy, and you could finish this in a sitting or two, the essays are more enjoyable when you spread them out a bit rather than swallowing the book whole. Ajayi’s humourous commentary puts the heart in the book, but she goes out on a serious note, imploring readers to speak up, and donate where they can to make the world a better place. This light-hearted but sincere call to do better was exactly what I needed to start the new year.

Humour, Non-Fiction, Travel

The Almost Nearly Perfect People

Cover image for The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Boothby Michael Booth

ISBN 978-1-250-06196-6

“Though there were many aspects to Scandinavian living that were indeed exemplary, and from which the rest of the world could learn a great deal, I grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of nuance in the picture being painted of the region.”

After fifteen years of living in Denmark with his Danish wife and two children, Michael Booth noticed something curious. Although Denmark, and the other Nordic countries of Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, frequently topped global happiness surveys, they didn’t seem to be particularly happy. Moreover, the British and American media seemed to view the Scandinavian countries as some kind of northern Utopia, oblivious to the quirks and foibles that were clearly visible to him as a long-time resident of the region. This perception persisted despite the staggering popularity of the dark and gruesome mystery novels of the likes of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larson, and the surprising success of Scandinavian police dramas abroad. This cognitive dissonance prompted Booth to pen a travelogue about the aspects of Scandinavian history and culture the rest of the world seems willfully oblivious to.

Although he covers five countries, Booth is clearly the most familiar with Denmark, his long-time residence, a fact which shows in the fifteen chapters dedicated to it compared to only five for Iceland, and seven apiece for Norway and Finland. Only Sweden comes close, with eleven chapters, mainly filled out by Booth wrestling with the quiet contempt with which the other four nations sometimes regard their Swedish neighbours. Aimed at a British or American audience, Booth frequently refers back to equivalent British and American statistics to provide context for his readers as he explores the vagaries of Scandinavian life and culture.

Booth is an inquisitive and wide-ranging journalist, but you will get the most out of the book if you are expecting a humourous and insightful travelogue rather than an in-depth work of sociology. A more serious social inquiry wouldn’t leave the most likely explanation for Scandinavian happiness to a drive-by comment in the epilogue: “One of the keys to happiness, experts tell us, is autonomy in one’s life—the luxury of being able to decide your own destiny and achieve the fulfillment of self-realization.” The economic equality, educational opportunity, and social mobility of the Nordic countries provide this autonomy in spades. Booth has nevertheless made a concerted—though not scholarly—effort to delve into the Nordic psyche.

Whereas the rest of the world tends to idealize the Nordic countries, proximity has given them their own brotherly rivalries, and Booth turns to these stereotypes and jokes to interrogate the strengths and weaknesses of these modern Utopias. Why do their neighbours all think the Finns are drunks even though they consume no more alcohol than the European average? Why do Finnish men think Swedish men are effeminate? Booth has many theories about these perceptions, and he floats these balloons out to his various interview subjects with abandon. He allows them to poke holes in them, never particularly offended if one of his ideas doesn’t pan out. He is a sharp interviewer in that his ideas elicit interesting responses rather in that he is always right in his initial observations.

Despite some griping, it is quite clear that Booth is actually very fond of Scandinavia, something which is never more evident than in the blusteringly humourous chapter about Nordic monarchies. It is one instance where Booth seems to be wearing his own rose-coloured glasses as he views the region, venting his bewildered outrage about the fact that these supposed paragons of modernity are still clinging to such an “absurd, anti-democratic carnival” as monarchy. As the flustered English republican puts it, “That’s the kind of nonsense us class-ridden, postcolonial, socially desiccated Brits cling to; this is not the cut of social democracy’s jib!” Even as he views their faults, Booth can’t help but idolize the Scandinavians a bit as well.

Overall, the reader is less likely to emerge with a negative impression of Scandinavia than a newfound sense of differentiation and complexity amongst five countries that North Americans tend to regard as basically similar. Though I have spoken in generalities for most of this review, I now know more about the aftermath of the Icelandic banking collapse, the impact of Norway’s $600+ billion sovereign oil fund, Sweden’s open door immigration policy, and Denmark’s chart-topping personal income tax, in addition to more humourous topics like oil-rich Norwegians hiring Swedes to peel their bananas, and long-locked Swedish soldiers donning hair nets in the 1970s rather than submitting to a military buzz cut. Booth has both an eye for the weird, and a nose for the serious issues that cause Nordic life to fall somewhere short of our idyllic fantasies.

Fantasy, Fiction, Humour, LGBTQIA+, Mystery, Science Fiction, Top Picks, Young Adult

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2014

These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2014. Click the title for links to the full reviews. Check back on Friday for my top non-fiction reads of the year.

All I Love and Know 

ISBN 9780062302878

Cover image for All I Love and Know by Judith FrankDaniel and his partner Matt live a peaceful life in Northampton, Massachusetts. Their quiet existence is torn apart when Daniel’s twin brother Joel, and his wife, Ilana, are killed by a suicide bomber in a Jersalem cafe, leaving behind two young children. Both Joel’s parents and Ilana’s assume they will raise Gal and Noam, but neither set of grandparents knows about the promise Daniel made Joel and Ilana on his last visit to Israel.  Author Judith Frank lived in Israel for several years as a teenager, and her own twin sister still lives their with her husband. All I Love and Know is a complex and challenging novel that deals with not one but two important contemporary issues–gay parenting and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict–wrapped in a love story about a couple struggling to find their way back to one another after a devastating loss.

Categories: LGBT

A Thousand Pieces of You

ISBN 9780062278968

Cover image for A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia GrayMarguerite is an artist, but she is the daughter of two brilliant scientists, inventors of the Firebird, a groundbreaking device that enables inter-dimensional travel. When one of her parents’ graduate assistants murders her father and escapes by stealing a Firebird and jumping into another dimension, Marguerite teams up with another graduate student, and gives chase. Her mission: KILL PAUL MARKOV. With a twist on the idea of multiple universes, Claudia Gray invents a device that projects the consciousness of the user into the body of their alternate selves in other dimensions. While this eliminates the usual trope of accidentally encountering other selves, it creates its own set of moral and ethical quandaries when characters hijack the lives and choices of their counterparts. As Marguerite pursues her father’s killer through multiple dimensions, Gray has a forum to show off her talent with multiple genres, from science fiction, to contemporary, to historical in this fast-paced adventure.

Categories: Young Adult, Science Fiction

I’ll Give You the Sun

ISBN 9780803734968

Cover image for I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy NelsonThirteen-year-old Jude and Noah are twins, but also polar opposites. Jude is popular, outgoing and adventurous, where Noah is shy, introverted, and deeply weird . He is also in the closet. But despite their differences they are like two halves of the same person, both smart and creative. Three years later, the twins are unrecognizable. Noah is normal and socially competent, and Jude has withdrawn into herself, dressing in baggy clothes and shunning social interaction. They are also barely speaking to one another. Told in alternating perspectives, Jude and Noah relate how their family and their bond broke, and the secrets they are keeping from one another that prevent them from repairing their relationship. Poet Jandy Nelson has a beautiful way with words that translates into fluid prose and striking imagery. I’ll Give You the Sun is a dazzling, exuberant work of fiction full of art and passion, jealousy and loss.

Categories: Young Adult, LGBT

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

ISBN 9781250037756

Cover image for Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin SloanWhen the recession shuts down his San Francisco start-up, Clay Jannon finds himself working the night shift at a peculiar 24-hour bookstore. Not only are customers few and far between on the night shift, but they come in not to buy books, but to borrow them, from a special collection Clay is forbidden to read, but must carefully track in a log book. When Clay tries to digitize the process, he  accidentally cracks a centuries old code with his computer and a sense of humour. With the help of a couple of techie friends, Clay turns the power of the digital age on the mystery behind the secret code hoping to succeed where others have failed. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is  humourous mystery with something for both book-lovers and tech geeks alike. Robin Sloan has written a novel that both embodies the anxieties of the digital age, and shows digital and manual technologies working alongside one another.

Categories: Mystery, Humour

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

ISBN 9780316213103

Cover image for The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly BlackA raging epidemic of vampirism has swept across the world like wildfire, contained only by the invention of Coldtowns, government-run ghettos that are home to vampires and infected humans alike. Anyone can go into a Coldtown, but it is almost impossible to get back out. Inside Coldtowns, the most powerful vampires are internet reality stars, streaming a facade of decadence to the world that draws in human acolytes and misfits. The reality is much darker, as Tana finds out for herself when she and her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, are potentially infected at a party, and she turns them both in. Holly Black tackles the vampire novel with dark humour and a willingness to skewer tropes at every turn, while also acknowledging her debt to her forerunners. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is both a reimagining of the vampire novel, and a tribute to the classics of the genre.

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy

That’s it for me! What were your favourite fiction reads of 2014?