Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Rating System

Since this is a book review blog, I should probably consider some sort of rating system for the books I review. Right now I've just been giving fairly arbitrary stars to the books I've reviewed. Most have been between three and five stars. In order to restrict the number of five stars (because I'm a generous person, as long as the book doesn't make me want to throw it at someone. I'm looking at you, Breaking Dawn.) I present my very own rating system. I'll add it to the sidebar for easy reference (which keeps growing longer and longer, I noticed):

1 star: I wanted to throw it out the window.
2 stars: I didn't resort to violence, but I wasn't terribly impressed either.
3 stars: I could take it. I could leave it. Probably won't read again.
4 stars: A lively read, but I won't be picking it up again any time soon.
5 stars: Fabulous—it left a profound impact on me and I'm putting it right back on the TBR pile.

On the Eve of 2009

Happy New Year's Eve, everyone! Hope your celebrations go well, and all that jazz.

I've thought about making some bookish new year's resolutions, but I can't really think of anything other than to read more. I have joined three challenges, all meant to get me to read more, and I think I will; even if I don't read all of the books on my lists, at least I will try. I don't think the point of new year's resolutions is to reach them all; it's an occasion to set yourself new goals for the year, or remember the goals you set for yourself last year, and think about your accomplishments from the previous year. Once you pick yourself up off the floor from New Year's Eve, that is...

Maybe that's why New Year's Day is such a perfect day for reflection? If you've done the night before proud, you're lying in bed anyway. So once you've slept off that hangover, you've watched enough movies to make you go blind, you can start thinking about the year ahead. What's in store for you? What are you planning on doing? Who was that guy from the night before?

On a related note, I had a most extraordinary day yesterday. I had a haircut appointment at 6:00 o'clock that evening. Having arrived about an hour early (why drive all the way home and then go back downtown, right?), I went to the Toronto Reference Library intent on grabbing a book and reading for the forty-five minutes, instead of window-shopping. Yorkville is lovely, and there are many wonderful shops (I'm looking at you, The Cookbook Store), but it's like taunting a starving dog with a big marrow bone—just plain cruel.

I didn't miss the window-shopping at all. The Toronto Reference Library has an extensive graphic novel collection. I was in heaven. I picked out Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (book 1 in my challenge reading list!) and found a table (with a cute guy already there, no less...reading's great; reading in the presence of a hottie is even better, though).

I didn't get to finish my book. Wasn't even a quarter of the way into it when I had to go, but I knew I would be back. So perhaps this is a new year's resolution? Or maybe just a plan: I'm going to go back to the library on a weekend in January, and I'm going to spend the whole day there reading. My favourite Mexican restaurant is across the street as well. I'm considering splurging and having lunch there or perhaps capping the day off with dinner with a friend there.

If nothing else (other than reading more), I plan on doing that more often in 2009—enjoy days with myself. I know it seems silly to have to plan them, but I think we all do. We're accustomed to making plans with other people, but not with ourselves.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Book Review: Laika by Nick Abadzis

I should have known this book would be sad. I should have known, because I know the basic story of Laika, the first animal in space. Launched in 1957 in Sputnik II, Laika survived a total of five hours in space before succumbing to heat exhaustion and stress. She became the first animal to orbit the earth, and the first to die in space.

Nick Abadzis details the short life and death of Laika (Kudryavka, to the scientists and lab technicians who knew her best—she is actually renamed by the scientists shortly before launch), her trainer Yelena, and Koralev, the chief designer of the Sputniks in his graphic novel.

After the successful launch of Sputnik I, Koralev is ordered by Khrushchev to build and launch another satelitte to be launched by the anniversary of the October Revolution, a deadline only a month away. To make the launch stand out from the original Sputnik, they decide to send an animal. Little is known about the conditions a living organism can withstand in space, and with such a short deadline, they can make it a one-way trip.

These are the facts surrounding Laika's doomed flight. To fill out the story, Abadzis creates a world for Laika, focusing on her relationship with her trainer, Yelena. The real sorrow lies in how this relationship grows, and must ultimately be cut off. There is really nothing Yelena or anyone else can do to prevent the dog's death, and it makes the launch a sombre affair.

As the launch approaches the characters (the historical figures, indeed) try to rationalize to themselves and each other that the dog's death is for a great cause, but they cannot deny that it is a sad way for an animal to die.

I've never read anything so sad as this simple story about a Russian dog in space. It's made even more poignant by the final page of the book, a quote taken from Oleg Gazenko, the scientist who chose Laika:

"The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog."

The facts exist, cold and austere. Abadzis gives Laika a new story, one that shows that she was loved, even as an experimental animal. Her death may have been unnecessary, but she will always be remembered.

This is an excellent graphic novel, but I wouldn't read it if you've just lost a pet.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Graphic Novel Challenge Book List

Looks like I've convinced myself to join another book challenge. This one is unique though—a graphic novel challenge! I've been a fan of graphic novels and comics since I was a child, so I feel fairly confident I can take on this challenge. Plus, anything that encourages me to read more of them is a-okay in my book. The best part is I'll be blogging about it over at the Graphic Novels Challenge Blog.

Given that I'm fairly certain I'll do well at this challenge (not to toot my own horn or anything, I just really love graphic novels), I'm opting for the Major level (twelve choices). Here are my picks:

1. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
2. The Umbrella Academy: Vol. 1 by Gerard Way
3. Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw
4. Watchmen by Alan Moore (re-read; it's been awhile since I've read it)
5. Too Cool to be Forgotten by Alex Robinson
6. The Sandman Vol. 1-? by Neil Gaiman (how many of them can I read in 2009?)
7. Mister Wonderful by Daniel Clowes
8. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
9. Loca: The Maggie and Hopey Stories by Jamie Hernandez
10. Berlin, Book Two: City of Smoke by Jason Lutes
11. Red Colored Elegy by Seiichi Hayash
12. Aya of Yop City by Abouet & Oubreri

Ambitious? Yes. Really fun? Most definitely. Some of these I have been dying to read for ages, though. Nothing like a challenge to finally cross them off my list! I thought about cheating and putting the two graphic novels I'm currently reading on the list, but I decided not to. There were too many choices as it were. I couldn't think of what to remove!

Here's to 2009—the year of the graphic novel.

Book Review: The Girls by Lori Lansens

Twins. When I was little I wished my family had a set of twins. An instantly large family—that was what I always wanted. It remained just the four of us, though, until my sister Kathy got married and had her own children.

I sometimes wonder what life would have been life if my sister and I were twins, though. We're pretty similar to begin with...would it have only intensified by being born at the same time? Or perhaps, being twins, we would naturally want to differentiatae ourselves as best we could?

What if we were conjoined though?

In Lori Lansens's The Girls, the Darlen family is very similar to my own. An older mother and father, a strong tie to Eastern Europe (Slovakia in the Darlen's case), and a pair of girls. That is where all similarity stops, though, for Rose and Ruby Darlen are born conjoined at the head. The novel is written as a memoir, primarily in the voice of Rose, with chapters from Ruby interspersed throughout. On the eve of their thirtieth birthday, they are the oldest living set of craniopagus conjoined twins. This mighty feat prompts Rose to begin her autobiography, but because her life is so closely tied to Ruby's she cannot tell the whole tale, which is why Ruby is given a chance to tell her story as well.

The two voices compliment each other, revealing pieces of the story that the other chooses not to. It gives the story greater depth, because you feel like you are being treated to two sides of the same tale. You feel true sorrow by the end of the book, for the hardships and frustrations these two very unique individuals have gone through. Living in smalltown Ontario is hard enough as it is. To be a local oddity makes it infinitely worse.

In the end, though, the girls learn that they are more than the sum of all their parts. While they have lived together for thirty years, they have still lived separate lives. What one girl sees, the other may not have, and you come to realize that as they tell you more about themselves.

This was a fantastic book, and I was really pleased to have read it. I bought it on a whim, and it was very worth it. I recommend it to anyone who has a sister, a twin, or just thinks their family is a little weird. You will fall in love with these girls and they will break your heart.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Booking Through Thursdays

Booking Through Thursdays asks:
What are the most “wintery” books you can think of? The ones that almost embody Winter?
While I haven't finished reading it, I would say Orhan Pamuk's Snow is probably the winteriest book I can think of. It's still on my TBR pile, as I had borrowed it from the library and couldn't finish it in time before it was due back (and with a 100+ person waiting list, I couldn't renew it). What I remember vividly from the first chapter was the description of a remote Turkish village, covered in a thick blanket of snow, as we are introduced to Ka, the poet who has finally returned after twelve years of exile. It was so wildly different from the image I have of Turkey in my own mind, that it stuck firmly. It's hard not to when the story begins thusly:
The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow.
With that, I bid you a Merry Christmas. :)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

At Last—The 2009 To-Be-Read Challenge

It's here! It's here! My favourite reading challenge is here!

No themes this year. This list has been carefully compiled from my to-be-read pile, and I am ready for the challenge. Twelve books, twelve months. Personal goal is five out of twelve. I know, I know. Given that my average is four out of twelve, I'm not setting my goals high.

1. Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
2. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
3. In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak.
4. Fangland by John Marks
5. Forbidden Fruit: Banned, Censored and Challenged Books from Dante to Harry Potter by Pearce J. Carefoote
6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
7. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
8. No Fixed Address: Life in the Foreign Service by Christine Hantel-Fraser
9. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
10. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
11. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
12. Night by Elie Wiesel

I've tried mixing more non-fiction into the collection because I feel like I don't read enough, even though A LOT of my TBR pile is non-fiction. Maybe that's why I don't read enough? They're all waiting...?

Anyway, I'm EXCITED. This is gonna be fun! Wish me luck. :)

It's Okay to Eat Food* Book Review: In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan

* Food being the operative word.

In Michael Pollan's newest book, a response of sorts to his previous work, The Omnivore's Dilemma, he suggests that it's okay to eat food. In fact, he has a manifesto: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

With that, he begins In Defense of Food, a roughly two hundred page essay on the problem with what we consider food today, and how we can change the way we eat.

Pollan has a real issue with the western diet, which largely consists of processed foods, made from grain like wheat and soybean. According to him, much of the diseases found in western civilization, like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, are linked to these foods. Never before in history has man been so "underfed yet so undernourished." The reason we eat so much, yet remain so unhealthy is because the food is so highly processed. Much of the nutrition from processed foods is removed, and then replaced by vitamins, and 'nutrients' like omega-3 fatty acids by scientists. But, because we know so little about the science behind nutrients and how our bodies absorb them (even after at least a couple of centuries of experimentation), we aren't actually getting any healthier from these "healthy foods."

He laments the loss of our former diet inspiration—our mothers—and vilifies nutritionism as a demon who has taken our cultural diet and turned it into a mass-produced industry.

Pollan's book joins a number of voices who are now calling for a return to whole foods. And with the rise of the slow movement, it feels like western society is slowly but surely moving towards a healthier diet.

Of course, while Pollan's manifesto is an important one, it doesn't offer any insight into how an entire population can achieve this, only the individual. Organic, whole food diets are expensive, and cannot feasibly support an entire country's population. Weight and health are proportional to income. The people most likely to suffer are the ones who need a change in lifestyle the most—the poor. But when a Big Mac a day costs less than a full week's worth of groceries, and you don't have to make it yourself, it's hard to change your lifestyle.

Still, for those of us who can afford to adopt Pollan's ideas, it's worth a try. Today we are encouraged to do everything as quickly as possible, but switching to a diet of whole foods automatically slows down your lifestyle. Even if you don't eat "mostly plants," you're already a step ahead of the curve.

Rating: Five stars

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Ghost of Christmas Reflection

According to Wikipedia, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol was published today in 1843. It's hard to believe, but Dickens wrote the class tale about generosity and family togetherness during Christmas at a time when Christmas wasn't celebrated with much fanfare. England still held a largely Puritan belief regarding Christmas, making it a holiday left uncelebrated by much of the population. So the Christmas that we know and love today—full of good tidings, joy, and mountains of cookies—owes a lot to Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge.

Within a week of publication, A Christmas Carol sold over 6,000 copies in London. That's no small feat in mid-ninteenth century England! Since then Christmas has transformed into what it is today. I know many people complain that Christmas is too commercial, and doesn't really reflect the moral ideals of society anymore, but even with the over-commercialization, I still think a big part of why Christmas is so important in western society is that it brings families together. Only in December do we make the conscious effort to really see each other, even if it's for a cup of coffee on a blustery December afternoon.

So I just wanted to say thanks, Charles Dickens. You may have just been trying to fill the coffers, but what you inadvertantly changed was our very belief in the holiday. I don't think you really need much more praise than you already get, but I think it's important to note this significant contribution.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Booking Through Thursdays

Booking Through Thursdays asks:

1. Do you get to read as much as you WANT to read?

(I’m guessing #1 is an easy question for everyone?)

2. If you had (magically) more time to read–what would you read? Something educational? Classic? Comfort Reading? Escapism? Magazines?

1. No, not at all. However, this has improved over the years. Looking back two years ago I would have emphatically said no because I was still in school, and consequently mired in required reading and seminar notes. Now, I at least don't have as much homework to do. Still, there are never enough hours, are there?

2. I would read more nonfiction if I had more time. Although, I may just be saying that. There are lot of nonfiction books in my TBR pile, but they always seem to fall shorter than the fiction. I guess I just like escapism a lot more than furthering my knowlege. Is that sad? I don't think so. I read enough nonfiction to keep satisfied for now. *points to current Shelfari icon*

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

To-Be-Read Challenge End of Year Update

Image by mintlips

This is the second year I took part in the TBR Challenge. Last year, I forgot about it. I ended up reading 4/12 novels. While it wasn't the full twelve, I'm glad I read some of them. After all, the whole purpose of the challenge is to read books that have been on your TBR pile for ever. Taking four books off of that list leaves four whole spots to fill!

This year I came up with the brilliant idea of making the challenge themed. I chose the Great American Novel as my theme and whittled the list down to these twelve books:

1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
2. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
3. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
4. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
5. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
6. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
7. Animal Farm by George Orwell
8. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
9. Beloved by Toni Morrison
10. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
11. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
12. Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

The bolded books are the ones I ended up reading. So four seems to be my constant. I guess next year's goal is to beat four. I don't think I'm going to make it themed again, though. It made it tougher to choose from my TBR pile, and I ultimately had to pick a few that weren't on there, which defeats the purpose.

I'll publish the next twelve books in the TBR challenge shortly. There's still time in December. Perhaps I'll beat my goal yet and read a fifth before January 1, 2009!

Book Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I've never read a Cormac McCarthy novel. I was at the library, fifteen minutes before closing time, and I couldn't find a single book in all of the trade paperback section to take with me. Finally my eyes settled upon The Road and I grabbed it instantly.

I didn't know much about it, other than the cannibalism, which I spoiled for myself (and perhaps you as well) by reading an article about the soon-to-be-made film version. Regardless, the scene which I ended up ruining for myself was much worse than anything I could have imagined, mainly because of McCarthy's writing. Stark and rich with words that I can't rightly say I understand, it's a novel about family, hope, and survival.

Creating a post-apocalyptic world helps make it easier for the reader to bond with the characters because their survival in a world that exists outside of our own (a world a handful of people could one day see; cause, let's face it, not ALL of us will...) hinges upon staying together. By not telling the reader WHY all of this has happened, McCarthy forces the reader to consider the characters alone. Frail creatures who could be any of us.

The end is heartbreaking, but ultimately satisfying. I was convinced throughout the novel that This Would Not End Well. Indeed, while your heart bleeds for what ultimately happens, there is still hope. Ultimately, that's what McCarthy wants us to believe. Despite all of the pain and suffering one must go through...there is always hope.