Category: Top Picks

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2016

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2016. Click the title for a link to the full review. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Being Mortal 

ISBN 978-0-8050-9515-9

Cover image for Being Mortal by Atul GawandeIn Being Mortal, Dr. Atul Gawande examines how society and the medical system can improve the treatment and care of elderly and terminally ill patients. He balances the personal and the professional, using stories from his own family–his wife’s grandmother, and then his own father–as well as case studies from his practice. The book provides an overview of different end of life care options, showcasing their benefits and short-comings. Particularly key to Gawande’s criticism is our failure to provide the sick and the elderly with as much control as possible over their own lives, even when the final outcome is beyond their control. Gawande demonstrates the price patients pay in quality of life when we over-emphasize safety. I truly want to make everyone read this book. Younger readers will be better prepared to navigate conversations about aging with their parents. And of course, anyone of any age can find themselves faced with an unexpected illness that catapults them into facing their own mortality sooner than they might have wished or planned.

Categories: Medicine

The Fire This Time

ISBN 978-1-5011-2634-5

Cover image for The Fire This Time, Edited by Jesamyn WardFollowing the death of Trayvon Martin, Jesmyn Ward turned to Twitter to raise her voice against the injustice. But while she found the medium powerful in the heat of the moment, its ephemerality left her wanting more. So she turned to the work of James Baldwin, and from there reached out to gather the voices of a new generation of writers on race in America today. The result is a collection of seventeen diverse pieces, largely essays, but with a poem or other more stylized piece opening each of the three sections. Many of the essays resurrect events that have long since slipped out of the news cycle, memorializing the victims, and decrying the injustice that cost them their lives. The tone ranges from humourous to angry to hopeful as the writers probe their experiences, and draw connections to America’s broader history and legacy. Each reader will undoubtedly have their own favourite pieces in this collection that speaks powerfully about continued racial tension in America today.

Categories: Essays

Just Mercy 

ISBN 978-0-8129-8496-5

Cover image for Just Mercy by Bryan StevensonAs a young law student at Harvard, Bryan Stevenson was unsure about his calling, but a summer internship at the Southern Prisoner’s Defence Committee led him to found the Equal Justice Initiative in 1994, defending indigent prisoners on Death Row in the South. The main thread of Just Mercy is Stevenson’s investigation into the conviction of Walter McMillian in the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison, which is like something out of a television crime drama. The tenuousness of the evidence on which McMillian was convicted is scarcely believable, the racism poorly concealed, and the unwillingness to admit an error simply stunning. In the chapters between, Stevenson highlights other types of abuses that lead him to do this work, such as life without parole sentences for children, the incarceration of the mentally ill, and the prosecution of women who have suffered still births. While this results in a book that is less focused on a particular case, it ultimately proves to be a strength. These chapters serve to show that Walter McMillian is not isolated or even a particularly extreme case, and give a better idea of the breadth of the problem.Thus Stevenson paints a broad portrait of a problem that goes beyond any one wrongfully convicted prisoner, and serves to highlight a broken system in desperate need of reform.

Categories: African-American, Memoir, True Crime

Milk and Honey

ISBN 978-1-4494-7425-6

Cover image for Milk and Honey by Rupi KaurThis simple and stunning collection is the first book of poems by Canadian writer Rupi Kaur. The book is divided into four sections, entitled “the hurting,” “the loving,” “the breaking,” and “the healing.” Kaur describes it as “the blood sweat tears/ of twenty-one years,” and it does indeed feel like she has put her heart in your hands in paper form. Kaur’s style is short and to the point, but she can punch you in the gut with only a few words, as she explores first love and heart break, family dynamics, and sexual abuse. Her writing has a stripped-down feel, denuded of capital letters and most punctuation, relying on rhythm and visual formatting to do some of that work. The pieces are accompanied by simple black and white line drawings, many of which are really quite elegant, all clean lines and positive and negative space working together. I read this collection at least three times this year, and also listened to the audiobook performed by the author.

Categories: Canadian, Poetry

While the City Slept 

ISBN 978-0-6700-1571-9

Cover image for While the City SleptIn the early hours of July 19, 2009, a man entered the home of Teresa Butz, and her partner Jennifer Hopper in Seattle’s South Park neighbourhood. He raped both women, and slashed and stabbed them with a knife. Eventually they were able to escape screaming into the street, where neighbours came to their aid, and the police were called. Eli Sanders—who received the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his coverage of the South Park attacks in Seattle’s weekly newspaper, The Stranger—begins at this crucial moment, and then circles back to Jennifer and Teresa’s childhoods, and chronicles how they eventually met and fell in love. Sanders then turns to Isaiah Kalebu, the man accused of raping them and murdering Teresa. His story is an education in the results of deinstitutionalization, the conditions for involuntary commitment, and mental competency to stand trial. It is the story of one missed opportunity after another, of a young man who slipped repeatedly through the cracks in the system, despite his family’s best efforts to get him the help he so desperately needed. While the City Slept is a love story, a tragedy, and a gruesome murder mystery. But it is harrowing not merely because of the violence it recounts, but because of the way it methodically exposes the flaws and failures of both the mental health and criminal justice systems in Washington State.

Categories: LGBT+, True Crime

2016 was honestly a pretty great non-fiction year, thanks in part to my resolution to read more of it. There were a lot of great runners up that are worth checking out, too, including The Boys in the Boat, Hidden Figures, Lab Girl, Not Just Jane, and Where Am I Now.

What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2016?

 

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2015

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2015. Click the title for a link to the full review. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Between the World and Me

ISBN 978-0-8129-9354-7

Cover image for Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesBorrowing the conceit that James Baldwin used in his 1963 best-seller The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ meditation on what it means to be black in America takes the form of a letter to his fifteen-year-old son. This technique allows the work to feel at once deeply personal and widely applicable. Coates shares how his own awareness of his place in society developed, and then contrasts that with how different his son’s upbringing has been. He rejoices in having been able to give his son a better life, and also shares the painful ways in which he has not been able to make his child’s life different, the ways in which he has felt powerless to save or protect his son from the assumptions that always shroud young black men. The best sections include Coates’ thoughts on the role education, formal and informal, has played in his life, and his reflections on what it is like to be a secular black man in a community that has traditionally leaned on religion.

Categories: Memoir

The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami 

ISBN 978-0-8166-9198-2

Cover image for The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami by Matthew Carl StrecherWinona State University professor of Japanese literature Matthew Carl Strecher undertakes an extensive examination of two of the most fascinating stylistic elements present in the works of Haruki Murakami: magic realism, and parallel narratives. The Other World is present from Murakami’s earliest works, right through to his most recent novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami traces its evolution. Strecher explains Japanese literary traditions and techniques the Western reader might be unaware of, while also examining Murakami’s works through the lens of European literary theory, including Baudrillard, Derrida, and Barthes. He also contextualizes Murakami’s place within the Japanese literary tradition, even as he characterizes him as a global writer. For those who have read a large portion of Murakami’s work, and want to gain a greater understanding of its significance, Strecher offers a readable scholarly overview.

Categories: Criticsm 

The Inconvenient Indian

ISBN 978-1-4529-4031-1

the-inconvenient-indianIn this sweeping and unconventional history–which was one of the 2015 Canada Reads selections–Thomas King draws examples from the United States and Canada to illustrate the fate of the native peoples of North America since the arrival of European colonizers. King’s work is an informal account rather than an academic history, and his approach involves a healthy dose of humour, which may be off-putting to some readers given the serious nature of the topics he is dealing with. For King, humour is part of how he copes with the darkness of the history he is addressing, and this may help make a difficult topic more accessible. During the Canada Reads event, Craig Kielburger compared it to the humourous approaches used by Rick Mercer and Jon Stewart for raising awareness of current events. The litany of abuses King covers provides a very clear idea of why First Nations and Native Americans might be distrustful of government efforts to improve their current situation. While King is primarily looking back at what has already happened, understanding these issues is also crucial to moving forward.

Categories: Canadian, History

The New Jim Crow

ISBN 978-1-59558-643-8

Cover image for The New Jim Crow by Michelle AlexanderLaw professor and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration is the most important racial justice issue in America today. Alexander’s rhetorical device is to make a metaphorical comparison between the impacts Jim Crow once had on the lives of black people, and the disproportionate effects of mass incarceration on the African American population today. However, Alexander is careful to acknowledge and point out important differences between Jim Crow and mass incarceration. Although she sees significant similarities, she is by no means saying that the two are the same, or should be approached in the same way. Rather, her bold assertion seems designed to illustrate how a system that is intended to be colorblind can, through the conscious or unconscious biased application of discretion, have an outcome that is similar to that of an overtly racist system of control like Jim Crow. The New Jim Crow is also important because it breaks down the differences between the racial hostility and open bigotry that most Americans recognize as racism, and the quieter, more insidious forms of racial bias that are now that primary form of discrimination faced by American minorities.

Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed

ISBN 978-1-250-05293-3

Cover image for Selfish, Shallow, and Self-AbsboredEdited and selected by novelist and essayist Megan Daum, Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed is a collection of essays by writers about the decision not to have children. Each writer has their own journey to making this choice; some knew this fact about themselves all along, and others came to it more gradually. The essays vary greatly in tone. Some are quiet and introspective, while others are angry or angst-ridden. As a whole, this collection neither disparages parenthood, nor advocates the child-free life, but simply seeks to ease some of the stigma that surrounds the decision by offering a window into the minds of those who have made it, and found it to be the right choice for them. Once inside, it shows that the variety within the group is at least as great as that between those who choose children, and those who chose not to procreate. Within its scope—predominantly female, American writers—the collection offers a varied look at a personal decision loaded down with a great deal of cultural baggage.

Categories: Essays

That’s it for me! What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2015?

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015

These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2015. Click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

ISBN 9780316013697

Cover image for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman AlexieIt only took me eight years to get around to reading Sherman Alexie’s popular young adult novel about a Native American boy who decides to leave the Spokane reservation to attend school in a nearby town that is predominantly white. Junior hopes that the education he receives there will help him achieve his dream of becoming an artist, but he struggles to be accepted by his classmates, and also faces rejection by members of his tribe who believe he has betrayed them. Alexie uses dark humour to cope with the tragedy Junior faces in his life, and Ellen Forney’s accompanying illustrations are just as poignant as the prose, but more concise. I actually read this book twice this year, once at the insistence of a friend (thanks, Amelia!) and then again with my book club.

Categories: Young Adult 

Americanah

ISBN 9780307455925

Cover image for Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieBy contrast, it only took me two years to get around to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s critically acclaimed novel about a young Nigerian couple, Ifemelu and Obinze, who are separated when Ifemelu goes to the United States for college, and Obinze is unable to get a visa to join her. With America’s borders closed to him, Obinze finds himself in living London on an expired tourist visa, and working as an undocumented immigrant under other peoples’ names. Fifteen years later, Ifemelu decides to return home to Nigeria, though she is unsure if she wants to see Obinze, who is now married. Americanah is a big, sweeping novel that combines cultural criticism with the story of star-crossed lovers. During her time in America, Ifemelu explores the differences between the experiences of a Black African woman, and those of African Americans, and is forced to confront American beauty standards, particularly as they concern hair. When she finally returns home, she must face the fact that she has been changed by America, and that Nigeria has changed in her absence.

Carry On

ISBN 9781250049551

Cover image for Carry On by Rainbow RowellWhen it comes to books I read this year that were just pure fun, Carry On is at the top of the list. Spinning off from her 2013 novel, Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell brings to life the world of Simon Snow, formerly only a story-within-a-story in Fangirl. Simon is the Chosen One, supposedly destined to defeat the Insidious Humdrum, but as he enters his final year at Watford School of Magicks, he is more concerned about the fact that his roommate–the devious vampire Baz–hasn’t turned up for classes, and is probably out there somewhere plotting to kill him. Carry On features a playful magical system built on the power language gains through puns, word play, literary references, and other usages tap into our common imagination. Rowell also riffs on familiar themes and tropes from Chosen One stories, and generally has a rollicking good time.

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult 

Everything I Never Told You

ISBN 9780143127550

Cover image for Everything I Never Told You by Celeste NgThis heartbreaking novel of family tragedy by Celeste Ng topped a lot of last year’s best fiction lists, and for good reason as I finally discovered. When sixteen-year-old Lydia’s body is found in the lake of a small Ohio college town in the spring of 1977, the rug is pulled out from under the Lee family. James and Marilyn’s mixed race marriage is a delicate balancing act, and their children Nath and Hannah struggle with being among the only non-white residents of their small town.  Each member of the family takes a turn narrating, and each understands something about Lydia that the others have missed, but alone none of them can quite understand how she could have died.  As Celeste Ng peels back the layers one at a time, her novel becomes an autopsy of a family in the aftermath of the death of one of its members.

Manners and Mutiny

ISBN 9780316190282

Cover image for Manners and Mutiny by Gail CarrigerAlthough I’ve singled out Manners and Mutiny here, honestly this is a tip of the hat to Gail Carriger’s entire “Finishing School” series, of which Manners and Mutiny is the fourth and final volume. I devoured the first three volumes as audiobooks, delightfully narrated by Moira Quirk, whose accents and voices bring Carriger’s witty banner to life. However, I read Manners and Mutiny in dead-tree form, and can confirm that the books themselves are just as much fun. Sophronia Temminnick’s mother deplores her daughter’s adventuresome behaviour, and decides to send her off to finishing school to become more ladylike. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Temminnick, Mademoiselle Geraldine’s is no ordinary finishing school; in addition to learning etiquette and charm, Sophronia also receives a first class education in espionage aboard a wandering dirigible. At the school, Sophronia makes friends and enemies, and becomes versed in the supernatural politics of a Victorian England populated by werewolves and vampires as well as mechanical servants. In Manners and Mutiny, Sophronia is called on to foil a Pickleman plot to take over the nation’s mechanicals. She must also make a choice between Soap and Felix, two very different boys who have been vying for her affections.

Categories: Young Adult, Steampunk

 

That’s it for me! What were your favourite fiction reads this year?

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2014

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2014. 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.

Brown Girl Dreaming

ISBN 9780399252518

Cover image for Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline WoodsonI received an advance reader copy of this memoir in verse at ALA Annual in Las Vegas this summer. I had been asking publishing house representatives at various booths about books with diverse protagonists, when a lovely rep for Penguin Young Readers excitedly pressed a copy of Brown Girl Dreaming into my hands. I’d never read anything by Jacqueline Woodson, and a memoir in verse didn’t really sound like my thing, but the rep’s excitement stuck with me, and I took the book home. Then, in November, I was following the National Book Awards on Twitter when the watermelon incident unfolded. I hadn’t yet read Brown Girl Dreaming, but it seemed like time to pick it up. I read the entire book in less than twenty-four hours. Far from being a challenging read, Woodson’s flowing free verse slides down easily, telling the story of a black girl who is born in the North in the 1960s, but grows up at her grandparent’s home in the South at the height of the Civil Rights movement. This beautifully written memoir is both timely and a pleasure to read. I never wrote a review because I didn’t make a single note while I was reading, but I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Categories: Young Adult, Poetry, Memoir

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me

ISBN 9781592407323

Cover image for Marbles by Ellen ForneyShortly before her  thirtieth birthday, artist Ellen Forney was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder. Worried that medication would damage her creativity and destroy her ability to earn a living as an artist, Forney resisted treatment until she become so depressed she couldn’t function. Marbles chronicles the trial and error process of finding the right medication to treat her illness, while also exploring the relationship between mental illness and creativity that has plagued so many artists. At the same time, she must come to terms the fact that things she once considered part of her personality and identity are in fact symptoms of her disease. Forney’s evocative black and white images capture the experiences of depression and mania in a way that is entirely different from the many prose novels about the subject.

Categories: Memoir, Graphic Novel

My Life in Middlemarch (US)/The Road to Middlemarch (UK)

ISBN 9781482973556

Cover image for My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca MeadOne of my favourite reads of the year, I listened to My Life in Middlemarch as an audiobook, performed by the unsurpassed Kate Reading, who as far as I am concerned can read all of my audiobooks to me forever. Unfortunately for my blog readers, I almost never review audiobooks, since I don’t make any notes while I’m listening. My Life in Middlemarch combines memoir with literary criticism and biography. Writer Rebecca Mead tracks her long relationship with George Eliot’s famous novel from her first reading at the age of seventeen, to more recent revisitations in middle age. With each reread, it is not Middlemarch that has changed, but Mead, who finds her focus shifting to different aspects of this multifaceted novel as she moves through adulthood. Interspersed with her own memoir and musings are reflections on the life of George Eliot, also known as Mary Ann Evans, who herself led a very interesting life that defied social expectations of the period.

Categories: Biography, Memoir, Criticism

The End of Your Life Book Club

ISBN 978-0-307-96111-2

Cover image for The End of Your Life Book Club by Will SchwalbeIn 2007, Will Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, returned from a humanitarian trip to the Middle East with what initially looked like hepatitis, but which turned out to be Stage IV pancreatic cancer. As she began treatment to slow the disease and hopefully prolong her life, mother and son started trading books, and discussing them when he drove her to medical appointments. Their books become a proxy for important conversations about mortality and end-of-life care, helping them navigate the difficulties of Mary Anne’s final months. Packed with wonderful book recommendations, and a great story about a mother-son relationship, The End of Your Life Book Club is especially recommended for those who agree with Mary Anne, that “reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”

Categories: Memoir

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

ISBN 9780062242167

Cover image for Tinseltown by William J. MannThis true crime mystery set in silent film era Hollywood investigates the unsolved murder of film director William Desmond Taylor, who was killed in his home on the night of February 1, 1922. William J. Mann profiles three actresses who may have been involved in Taylor’s death, including two prominent stars, and reveals the secrets hiding behind Taylor’s cultured facade. Like any true crime writer, Mann believes he has cracked the cold case, but what really sets Tinseltown apart is his grasp of the history and politics of Hollywood. Mann situates Taylor’s murder in the broader context of the scandals that were plaguing the film industry in the 1920s, with particular attention to  the damage control done by Adolph Zukor, the CEO of Famous Players-Lasky, the largest film conglomerate of the period. This is a great pick for film lovers and mystery readers alike.

Categories: True Crime

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

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?

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2013

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2013. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. You can see my top 5 fiction titles for the year here.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (ISBN 978-0-14-312201-2)

Cover image for The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven PinkerThis was the first book I started in 2013, and it proved to be the most difficult and rewarding read I tackled the entire year. It is not uncommon for people to believe that we are living in the most violent period in human history. The record size of our current population means that the absolute number of violent deaths recorded today are larger than the numbers of historical violent deaths. Our global media structure also means that knowledge of these events is more widespread. But as a percentage of the population, Steven Pinker shows that the number of violent deaths in the modern world is lower than it has ever been in recorded history; you are less likely to die of violent causes today than at any other time in human history. Pinker expects readers to doubt his hypothesis, and the first part of the book is spent marshaling evidence for his claim, while the second part focuses on identifying the factors that may have contributed to this decline. Although the numerous examples of historical and modern violence make for heavy emotional reading, Pinker’s optimism that we can do better, and his insights into how, are incredibly important.

Categories: Science, History, Psychology, Sociology

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (eISBN 978-0-307-95295-0)

Cover image for The Black Count by Tom ReissLiterary history records two men called Alexandre Dumas, a father, who wrote well-known novels such as The Three Musketeers, and his somewhat less famous son, the playwright. But the novelist’s father, also Alexandre Dumas, the first of that name, is formidable character in his own right, and it his life that is chronicled here by Tom Reiss. Born the illegitimate son of an itinerant French noble on the island of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Dumas became a free man upon his arrival in France. Dumas achieved power and success in the French Revolutionary Army, before the colour of his skin brought his fortunes crashing back to earth when Napoleon assumed power. His son eventually drew inspiration from his life story for many of his novels, but the real story is perhaps even more interesting. The Black Count is as much a history of revolutionary and Napoleonic France as a biography, but Reiss writes about history with an immediacy that makes his overviews extremely readable.

Categories: Biography, History 

I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies  (ISBN 978-0-307-26916-4)

Cover image for I Do and I Don't by Jeanine BasingerI Do and I Don’t articulates the important differences between romantic comedies and the genre  Jeanine Basinger defines as the marriage movie. The work is descriptive rather than analytic, assembling evidence for the existence of this new genre, and laying out the types of plots and problems most commonly dealt with in movies that are about marriages rather than courtships. Basinger’s encyclopedic knowledge of American cinema, sense of humour, and willingness to go against popular opinion make her the perfect guide. Existing in a space somewhere between academic writing and popular nonfiction, I wouldn’t recommend this book to just any reader, but if you have an interest in film studies, or cultural portrayals of marriage, I Do and I Don’t delivers.

Categories: Criticism, Film, History

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (ISBN 978-0-393-08157-2)

Cover image for Gulp by Mary RoachTake a sharp sense of humour, ruthless inquisitiveness, and the willingness to ask awkward questions, and you have the popular science oeuvre of Mary Roach, who is able to hit the mark time and time again with her humourous investigations into the grossest and most obscure areas of scientific research. Her sense of humour can carry even a squeamish reader through these topics, and her explanations and anecdotes are accessible even to those with little to no science background. In Gulp, Roach takes on the science of the digestive system, from saliva to flatulence and everything in between.

Categories: Science 

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (ISBN 978-1-4000-6980-4)

Cover image for Salt Sugar Fat by Michael MossWell known for his investigative reporting on food issues, Michael Moss takes on the processed food industry, examining the roles that salt, sugar, and fat play in making these food products edible and craveable. Flavour and taste have been extensively researched, and food companies use this knowledge to design products with precisely honed “bliss points” that make them almost irresistible. However, this book is interesting not because it retreads the well known harms associated with processed food products, but because Moss delves into the difficulties these companies face in improving the health profiles of their products in the face of killer competition, and minimal government regulation. In fact, American government food subsidies for meat and cheese may even play a role in the high fat content of the American diet.

Categories: Business, Science 

___

Looking for more recommended reads? Check out my top five non-fiction reads from 2012. 

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2013

These are my favourite fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2013. Click the title for links to full reviews. My top 5 non-fiction titles for 2013 will go up Thursday.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (ISBN 978-0-7704-3640-7)

Cover image for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony MarraAnthony Marra’s debut novel is set in Chechnya around five days in 2004. From the woods behind her home, eight-year-old Havaa watches as her father, Dokka, is “disappeared” by Russian soldiers. Desperate to save Havaa from the same fate, Ahkmed, the incompetent village doctor who dreams of being an artist, delivers her to a nearby hospital, and into the reluctant care of Sonja, a British-trained physician trapped in Chechnya by the war. Marra’s lyrical prose contrasts with the brutal reality of the war torn country in which his story takes place. Dark and depressing on one hand, and buoyed by hope on the other, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena delivers the highs and lows life under difficult circumstances. Full of beautiful, striking details, this moving and resonant novel captures the heartache of war, and the depths of human resourcefulness in a narrative that will remain with you long after the final page.

Categories: Contemporary

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (ISBN 978-0-06-228022-0)

Cover image for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil GaimanA man returns home to Sussex for a family funeral, but instead of attending the wake, he finds himself revisting the ancient Hempstock Farm, home of his childhood friend, Lettie. As he sits next to the pond that Lettie called her Ocean, he recalls seemingly impossible events from his childhood. When he was seven years old, the suicide of a boarder at the edge of this ancient property set off a chain of supernatural events, unleashing a malevolent force convinced of its own beneficence. A relatively short novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane simply distills everything that is wonderful about Neil Gaiman’s work into a smaller, more concentrated story that highlights his skill as a story teller for all ages.  This novel is for those adults who do still want to read about daft things like “Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies.”

Categories: Speculative Fiction, Fantasy

The Golem and the Jinni (ISBN 978-0-06-211083-1)

Cover image for The Golem and the Jinni by Helene WeckerDebut novelist Helene Wecker combines mythology from the Jewish and Arabic traditions to tell the stories of two magical creatures who arrive in the diverse  immigrant community of New York in the late 1800s. Chava is a masterless golem, brought to life from clay by a disgraced rabbi who practices dark Kabbalistic magic . The jinni emerges from an ancient flask taken to a Syrian metal smith for repair. Strangers in an unfamiliar land, both the golem and the jinni struggle to find a place in their new home, while trying to conceal their true natures from the people around them. Wecker brings the immigrant communities to life as the two beings forge an unlikely friendship despite their opposing natures. Their relationship between them and their two communities will be key to defeating the evil forces that are converging around them. This novel is rich in both mythology and historical detail.

Categories: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

The Dirty Streets of Heaven (ISBN 978-00-7564-0768-1)

Cover image for The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad WilliamsEarthbound angel Doloriel, also known as Bobby Dollar, is a heavenly advocate, charged with defending the souls of the recently departed at their final judgement. He goes head-to-head with the demonic advocates who want to claim those same souls for the ranks of hell. Closer to humans than angels, Bobby has never met God, isn’t much of one for prayer, and doesn’t really trust the angels and principalities higher up the heavenly food chain. There’s no love lost on their side either, so when a soul Bobby is supposed to be representing disappears before judgement, he worries that he will be held responsible if he can’t track it down. But of course, this case runs deeper than one missing soul.  Tad Williams masterfully blends urban fantasy with noir detective fiction in a fast-paced adventure that engages with Christian lore and puts a new spin on angels and demons. Book two, Happy Hour in Hell, also deserves an honourable mention as one of the best books I read in 2013. 

Categories: Urban Fantasy, Mystery

Eleanor & Park (ISBN 978-1-250-01257-9)

eleanor-and-parkEleanor and Park couldn’t be more different from one another. Park has had a normal middle class upbringing, even if he was occasionally teased because his mother is Korean. Eleanor, on the other hand, was kicked out of her home by an abusive step father, and spent a year living with family friends who didn’t really want her. Eventually Richie lets her come home, but the abuse has only gotten worse in her absence. Eleanor sticks out like a sore thumb at her new school making her a target for bullying, but sitting next to Park on the bus offers her some measure of protection. One bus ride at a time, they build a tentative friendship that quickly becomes first love, even as the situation seems to doom their romance to failure. Rainbow Rowell has written a YA novel that is at once hard and brutally truthful, but also beautiful and touching. Slow paced and yet never boring, Eleanor & Park is an entire book made up, almost exclusively, of tiny, amazing, resonant, details. Rowell’s second novel of 2013, Fangirl, also deserves an honourable mention.

Categories: Young Adult, Romance 

___

Looking for more excellent reading? Check out my top fiction reads from 2012.

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2012

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read (not necessarily published) in 2012. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. You can see my top 5 fiction titles for the year here.

Quiet (978-0307352149)

Cover image for Quiet by Susan CainThis title is at the top of a number of booklists for 2012 with good reason. Bookish folks, myself included, related powerfully to Susan Cain’s passionate message about the undervaluation of introversion in Western culture. The book cuts a broad swath, from outlining the rise of the extrovert ideal, to the psychological roots of introversion, to the perception of introversion in other cultures, to tips on how introverts and extroverts can work better together. Cain strips away the cultural stigma attached to introversion and examines the unique and underutilized skills of the quiet folks. This title was incredibly well written and researched, and Cain’s voice is passionate and compelling. You can watch Cain’s TED Talk on the power of introverts here.

Categories: Psychology

Joseph Anton (978-0812992786)

Cover Image for Joseph Anton by Salman RushdieSalman Rushdie thinks of himself first and foremost as a writer, but for over a decade, his life was dominated by disparate public perceptions stemming from the aftermath of the fatwa in which Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence for the blasphemous contents of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie gives a compelling account of his struggles to hold on to his identity as a writer, and to continue to produce fiction under the incredibly trying circumstances of a protection. He filled many roles during this time, planning safe houses, engaging in free speech advocacy, lobbying the British government to intercede on his behalf, and struggling to secure a paperback edition of the book. I picked this book up because I admire Rushdie’s commitment to intellectual freedom, but I came away with much more respect for his integrity and determination as a writer, even as I felt I had seen the darkest and least flattering parts of the man.

Categories: Autobiography

The Portable Atheist (978-0306816086)

Cover Image for the Portable Atheist by Christopher HitchensStretching from Greek philosophy to contemporary humour and science writing, The Portable Atheist contains a broad selection of essays chronicling the evolution of atheist, agnostic and humanist thought in Western culture. The essays are selected and introduced by “New Atheist” writer Christopher Hitchens, but the pieces demonstrate that some of our currents ideas about atheism have very old roots indeed. This volume was slow, hefty reading, but extremely rewarding.

Categories: History, Philosophy

Elizabeth the Queen (978-0812979794)

Cover image for Elizabeth the Queen by  Sally Bedell SmithWhether you are a royalist, and abolitionist, or simply indifferent to the British royal family, Elizabeth Windsor has had a long and interesting life and reign, presiding over six decades of rapid change. Queen Elizabeth II is simultaneously one of the most public figures in the world, and yet intensely private, so it is fascinating to catch in glimpse into her world, particularly in a way that so humanizing. Sally Bedell Smith profiles the Queen with the same attention to detail she is known for in her previous works on the Kennedys and the Clintons. This title focuses on Elizabeth’s time as queen with little attention to her childhood, and the author is certainly friendly to her subject, but overall this was a well-written and informative read.

Categories: Biography

The Storytelling Animal (978-0547391403)

Cover Image for The Storytelling AnimalThe storytelling phenomenon appears across time and cultures, raising the questions of what purpose, if any, it serves in human evolution. Gottschall examines contexts in which our desire to impose narrative order on the world is useful (recognizing patterns) and detrimental (eyewitness testimony is unreliable due to the plasticity of memory). Dreams and daydreams, the pretend play of children, and the relationship between empathy and fiction are all examined in this brief and tantalizing introduction to the neuroscience behind our narrative impulses.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Science