Social Studies

“Looking Blackward”

By Arthur Black

ISBN No. 978-1-55017-590-5

Yes, yes, the title is a groaner – but then the author has a lot to groan about: bad tattoos, frivolous lawsuits, and crimes of fashion. That he’s basically complaining about the bad habits of the big cities from the safe distance of Salt Spring Island is probably the most hilarious thing about the book.

If you enjoyed Black on CBC’s “Basic Black” then you know what to expect with “Looking Blackward”: a bit of history, a bit of humour, an affectionate hair tousle of all the stupid Canadians and ex-pats who inspired such chapters as “Internet: You Get What You Pay For”, “The Hundred-Mile Diet. Not” and “Spread Your Tiny Wings” (in which Black says he’s “sexually intimidated by Newfoundland – it’s on page 71 for anyone reading this on a mobile device in a Chapters bookstore). Some of the book is very funny (the first chapter is about using newspapers as gardening tarp); other parts a strrrretch of context (Black compares the business suit to a cockroach. Oo-kay…). It’s an enjoyable book: witty, smart, thoughtful. Still, how you actually ENJOY the book may depend on HOW you read it. If you read it quickly its observations and indictments feel like manic stand-up comedy. Let your eyes take in each and every word and its gentle confessions and clever insights sound just like listening to late night CBC Radio.


“Here’s Mike”

By Mike McCardell


These days every news outlet has its “salter”. That’s the industry term for the on-camera person who’s so sensitive to the little wonders around him/her, that they’re always stopping and smelling the flowers and then shoving them into everyone else’s face. (The term “salter” comes from an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” where news anchor Ted Baxter, after surviving a heart attack, begins to appreciate the wonders of everything – starting with grains of salt.)

“Hey Mike”, by Mike McCardell (who’s been smelling the flowers for a local TV station for some time now) is full of salt - the minutia and ephemera others might miss. He’s a nicer Mickey Rooney. In the internet age of the  nanosecond attention span, a book of McCardell’s meanderings would seem iffy but in execution it reads like letters from a friend (although the best thing McCardell ever did was catch a litterbug in the act - and on camera - and confront him, turning the segment into both a public service announcement and a “Judge Judy”).

Sure, the audience for “Hey Mike” is likely to be blue-haired and bingo-playing, but it’s a book that everyone can read – and appreciate. Maybe little “wow”s and shared “guess what I saw today”s are the new tradition of oral storytelling. “Hey Mike” solidifies McCardell as the God of Little Things.


 “Lost Memory of Skin”

By Russell Banks

ISBN No. 978-0-307-40173-1

This novel could be made up of headlines: “Youth Sex Offender Lives under causeway”, “University Professor exploits sex offender youth”, “university professor has secrets of his own.” Then  – no spoiler alert here – each of those headlines is rolled out and folded into the developing plot in the same way that modern media “advances” a story: characters are cast, secrets are revealed, lives are redeemed or destroyed. That might seem calculated but given the demands of publishing these days (books need to be topical, readable and, most of all, marketable) even well-established writers are looking to the cultural zeitgeist and publisher’s publicist for their inspiration. Reading this book I kept thinking I was researching a story ABOUT the story in the book. Was this Russell Banks’ intention? (Some of the same themes – albeit litigiously – were covered in “The Sweet Hereafter.”) The only thing that kept reminding me it was a novel – and a good one - was the author’s trademark dour dialogue and drawn-out description. Few serious writers are as seriously talented as Russell Banks. 

“The Leftovers”

By Tom Perrotta

ISBN No. 978-0-307-35638-3

Tom Perrotta’s previous books were about high school politics (“Election”; great book, great movie), an extramarital affair (“Little Children”; great book, awful movie) and a censored sex education teacher (“The Abstinence Teacher”; great book, soon-to-be a movie). A reviewer called Perrotta “an American Chekhov” and the title fits. His view on the lives of quiet desperation being endured by your neighbours reaffirms your belief that literature still exists in a world where even the idiots from “Jersey Shore” publish books (books!) in the pursuit of media domination. It was only a matter of time before Perrotta took (another?) aim at evangelical American politics. As such, the title and plot of “The Leftovers” is depressingly appropriate. It’s vintage Perrotta, for sure (terrifically written with the most natural dialogue in books today) but it’s also an uneasy visit to Chuck Palahniuk territory (painstakingly detailed and weird for weird’s sake). When some Mapleton townsfolk suddenly disappear “POOF!”-style, the leftovers (or those “Left Behind” – to use the name of a series of movies about The Rapture made by a former child actor from TV’s “Growing Pains”) wonder if the explanation is scientific or religious, and adjust their lives belief-wise. In new mayor Kevin Garvey’s house, that includes his wife joining a homespun cult called the Guilty Remnant, his son trailing after a charlatan prophet called Holy Wayne, and the possibility of a new romance with a woman whose whole family went POOF!

What results is what usually results when a writer writes about religion – especially new sects. Perrotta spends so much text laying down – and then reminding us of - the ground rules of his story’s premise that the reader really works for that payoff at the end of an especially long paragraph about The Unburdening. Yes, it’s frequently hilarious, but sometimes you really do feel like The Leftover who “couldn’t sit still for lectures…the professor’s words blurred into a meaningless drone, a sluggish river of pretentious phrases.” Perhaps religion is already so melodramatic that it’s become un-parodyable.

Still, this is Tom Perrotta and the book is both a smart hoot and a witty indictment of the hypocrisy and stupidity that freely flows around our culture courtesy of too many internet connections, too many stupid people, and too few reliable news sources.  The disappeared of the book aren’t just the figments of our religious culture, but also the smarts of a dying literature, as well as “The Disappeared” (to quote the title of Kim Echlin’s book) of far-flung exotic locales where young men and women just go missing for seemingly no reason at all and no one with any power seems to care. Perhaps the most distressing lesson learned from “The Leftovers” is how anyone envisioning a world of constructive thought, of actual ideas, a place where the Tom Perrottas of our world publish frequently and freely, is likely to be rewarded, instead, with a society still mired in the political dark ages of Fox News.


“Tragedy on Jackass Mountain: More Stories from a Small-Town Mountie”


By Charles Scheideman

ISBN No. 978-1-55017-550-9


It sure didn’t sound promising: a former RCMP Sergeant corners you and proceeds to tell you all about his “adventures” in tiny town B.C. But given the RCMP’s recent headlines (taser deaths, unnecessary roughness, shoplifting; yes, shoplifting!), hearing about the time he helped a big moose get across a quiet street constitutes first-degree boredom. But darned if – metaphor alert! - TOJM doesn’t pull you over and arrest you with tales that sound more “Twin Peaks” than “Northern Exposure.” The book is divided into 30+ chapters, each one detailing a specific case investigated by the author. It should sound dry and clinical – and it does (the book’s few black-and-white pictures are of valley vistas; how “crime-scene”). But then you slowly realize you’re being invited into solving a mystery too and what you thought was the author’s direct approach is actually something you haven’t seen enough of in literature lately: being talked to as if you’re a thinking human being. No werewolves. No vampires. No pyrotechnic prose. Here, story is all – and it’s a wonder to behold. The writing is so elegant, ominous and measured – with nary a trace of pretension - that an open-and-shut case about the on-the-job deaths of two lumberjacks (years apart but under oddly similar circumstances) becomes the most involving mystery ever. As the tales pile up there’s something cumulatively, eerily, satisfyingly “epic” about this book. Herman Melville said “Moby-Dick” was about man’s inability to govern nature. James Dickey said “Deliverance” was about man raping the environment. And in the hard, rustic climates and locations, the cases recounted in “Tragedy on Jackass Mountain” are a compelling catalogue of nature exacting some awful revenge on the men and industries that dare to clear cut the woods – and the men hired to keep some semblance of law in them.



"My Korean Deli”

By Ben Ryder Howe

ISBN No. 978-0-385-66412-7


Now this – THIS – is a memoir! Forget all those whinefests about escaping the Nazis and recovering from a meth addiction, “My Korean Deli” is “The Godfather” of corner stores. The premise is right out of a TV sitcom: It all starts when Howe’s wife (the daughter of Korean immigrants) buys her Mom a convenience store.  When Mom can’t keep the business going, it falls to Howe and his own Mrs. to run it. What follows is the American class struggle squared: In bleakly hilarious and yet thoughtful prose, Howe explains how he edited The Paris Review by day (alongside George Plimpton) and then sold lottery tickets and bologna by night. What makes “My Korean Deli” such a good read is that it seemingly covers all genres of entertainment. There’s the fish-out-of-water premise: At first, Howe writes, “It seems unreal to be on the other side of the checkout counter.” Then there’s the cost of doing business in a mercilessly political correct marketplace (the coffee has to be from “ecologically responsible land tenure systems in countries that provide universal pre-K-through-3 education and have no military.”). And finally, there’s the suspenseful power struggle: the threat of two new convenience stores in the same neighbourhood. It should all read like a really long magazine article but Howe turns his tiny, intimate story into an engrossing epic about the changing face of American culture. 


“Nothing Left to Burn”

By Jay Varner

ISBN No. 978-1-56512-609-1

Forget “Mommie Dearest” and “Running with Scissors”, we have a new childhood memoir that defines the tell-all memoir. How’s this for a good hook? A son reports on fires for the local newspaper, his dad fights them, and his grandfather sets them. Amazing in premise and engrossing in execution, this bizarre history of THE dysfunctional family to end all dysfunctional families makes everything else you’ve read about distant fathers and alcoholic mothers seem tame by comparison. Even better than the book’s hook is its subtle motif: the destructive and yet cleansing effects of fire – so perfect for an age of Global Warming. Quote me on this: I believe that the vampire trend will eventually be replaced by pyromania.

Even better, Varner writes with both the economy of a newspaper reporter (a heat wave “feels like the countryside is sealed inside a clammy Mason jar”) and the florid poignancy of the best writers of fiction (“His face looked washed in exhaustion-blue crescent pouches formed under his eyes, and the lids look permanently heavy”). It’s a potent combo for audiences enjoying an embarrassment of riches as more and more non-fiction (Dave Cullen’s “Columbine”) turns out to be even more compelling and rewarding as the best fiction.



“Frumkiss Family Business”

By Michael Wex

ISBN No. 978-0-307-39776-8


The first thing you notice about this book is its cover. Okay, maybe not. Coloured an unappetizing hard blue-green, and featuring a rough-hewn etching of what appears to be a Dodo or turkey smoking a cigarette on the cover, you could be forgiven for judging this book by its cover. Usually, something like this would a major nitpick for me; I’d argue that while I can’t single-handedly smarten up slaves of the internet to read actual books, publishers of books need to make their covers as neat and sparkly as a Facebook page to lure internet eyeballs.  Yet that’d be a mistake in this case. The book cover perfectly summarizes the tone of a tough, thoughtful, and oddly engrossing view of Toronto’s Jewish community. Our main characters are Vanessa, Randall and Rachel, the three children of Canada’s most famous podiatrist. Outwardly they seem like the perfect products of metropolitan Toronto, but each of them is constantly being affected and re-shaped by new revelations (and no spoiler alert; they’ll stay revelations for the reader) about their grandfather, Faktor. What makes FFB such a great read can be illustrated by Vex’s description of a character named Milner, who “dressed like a pushcart peddler in a photo from 1892…[dished] out a way of being Jewish so authentically rooted in the lives of real Jews that some of it hadn’t been written down or recorded until he came along.” The same could be said about Wex’s book. The characters, the culture, and storyline should be stale and well-worn (Wex’s previous title was “Born to Kvetch”) but they all feel fresh and inventive; like a Lonely Planet guidebook to a family history. Think of “Frumkiss Family Business” as “Moonstruck” + Jewish history X 2 Chers and 1 Nicolas Cage. 


“Krakow Melt”


By Daniel Allen Cox

ISBN No. 978-1-55152-372-9


You know how when you group your books in your bookcase by genre and there’s always a few of them that defy easy cataloguing? “Krakow Melt” is such a book. Even though it’s only 151 pages the book requires reams of text to explain even its minor plot twists. Simply put, it’s about two Polish firebugs fighting homophobia in Krakow in 2005. Wrapped up in that sales pitch, however, is the firebrand POV of its renegade author. Gender roles, sexual orientation, socio-political commitment and materialism are given valentines or bull’s-eyes in the galvanizing prose of Cox. An author’s second book is usually his safest but Cox, proving that his first book, “Shuck” was no fluke and that he still has a masterpiece in him, seems even more reckless the second time around.  The characters are smarter, the dialogue is sharper and the words themselves seem to come straight from Cox’ unconscious. The book is so conversation-worthy that you don’t want to spoil it for other readers by quoting anything at all. But still, like a song stuck in your head, lines linger and demand sharing: “She then returned to her reading, which I found ridiculously sexy,” he writes. “A book lures you into a state of bodily comfort and then, once your limbs are placed just right, finger-f---s your insides. I wanted to be the book, stretching her open a little wider with very pithy sentence.” Whew… Is there a literary genre called Mental Hook-up?


“The Rapture”

By Liz Jensen

ISBN No. 978-0-385-66702-9


With a lot of books a reviewer writes about what the book is about. With “The Rapture” it’s more appropriate to talk about what the book is “like.” With its flawed and haunted psychotherapist, Gabrielle, there are echoes of the young priest in “The Exorcist”. With the mother-murdering, disaster-predicting teenager under Gabrielle’s care, Bethany, there are echoes of, well, the young girl in “The Exorcist”.  And if the comparison seems both flattering and simplistic, that’s intentional. That book, Pauline Kael said, “is a manual of lurid crimes, written in an a easy-to-read tough-guy style yet with a grating heightening word here and there, supposedly to tone it up.” She could just as easily been talking about the first line of “The Rapture”: “That summer, the summer all the rules began to change. June seemed to last for a thousand years.” There’s isn’t much else I can reveal without revealing too much but suffice to say that from there it all goes downhill; into horror, the folly of science to explain the unexplainable and then the redemptive minor hopeful uplift at the story’s end. As a formula, “The Rapture” has a lot going for it. And as a publishing event it hopefully marks the splintering of the audience of vampire books into a readership of more complex fiction.  




By Dave Eggers

ISBN No. 978-0-307-39906-9


The first thing you notice about the paperback edition of this book, about a married couple suffering through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, is the praise. It’s the first thing you notice because you can’t miss it. It’s the first seven, eight, nine, (no, wait, there’s some of the back page) TEN pages of the book. You’d think “Zeitoun” was “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (another Eggers’ title). But the praise overload is fittingly ironic because when Bush 2 spun the deadly hurricane into an empty aria about the brave American spirit, even Mama Bush (Barbara) got into the act. (She suggested that camping out in a stadium was a step up for most New Orleanians. Most New Orleanians thought not.) 

The Zeitoun of the title is Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun, a New Orleans married couple and their two daughters dealing with, first, a flood of biblical proportions and then bureaucratic blunderings (racial profiling, accusations of terrorism) worthy of a Joseph Heller novel. For the sake of surprise no spoilers will be revealed here. Suffice to say that cataloguing each new humiliation Eggers’ becomes something like Rodin’s The Thinker, and the Zeitouns the helpless souls he’s looking down on as they wither and flail in the seven circles of governmental hell. Interestingly, while Eggers still writes beautifully, he now seems to write intentionally beautifully. For instance, the opening scenes of Abdulrahman recalling magical nights of fishing for sardines in Syria (the gathering fish looked like “…a slow mass of silver rising from below”) is just too perfect, poetic and lulling a description in a book this blunt. He needs a hard word in there because having things too perfect (and then too awful) is such a clichéd American way to write. Still, that’s a minor complaint for a book that deserves every bit of praise the mainstream media have given it. As well, genre-wise, “Zeitoun” is the latest in a hopeful publishing event. Like the vastly superior “Columbine” (by Dave Cullen – who really did write “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) it’s non-fiction that’s more engrossing than any fiction.


“The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book”

By Gord Hill

ISBN No. 978-1-55152-360-6


Batman, Spiderman, X Men; all comic books; all turned into blockbuster movies. For a while there it looked like the comic book had gone the way of the Sunday newspaper funnies: light, disposable entertainment. And now comes “The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book” and it’s a reminder about just how complacent popular culture has become in the oppression of human rights, and how wonderfully engaging and provocative comic books can be if they’re done properly. The set-up is simple. Gord Hill, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation, and an activist in the Indigenous people’s movement, whose causes stretch from the 1990 Oka Crisis to the anti-2010 Olympics campaign, documents – through historically accurate black-and-white drawings and text – the resistance of Indigenous people to the European colonization of the Americas. The images and stories are shocking – and not just for the gore quotient. They’re shocking because when it comes to the calendar of the world, Columbus’ visit to America in 1492 is pretty recent and still ripe for re-interpretation and correction (both political and humanistic). What’s really impressive about the book, however, is how the medium fits and re-energizes the message perfectly: the anarchy of comic books, and their ability to shape young minds. And therein lies the true importance of a comic book as brave as this one: it has echoes of the topicality of headline-grabbing causes that the government ignores, wishes would go away (and, thus, get worse). Wow…




By Christine Wunnicke (Translated by David Miller)

ISBN No. 978-1-55152-344-6


First things first, this is not a sequel to “Brokeback Mountain.” An homage maybe, but not a sequel. There are similarities, of course. Both books are slender, written by women, take the name of a place for their title, and are about gay cowboys in the American Midwest. After that, they’re completely and totally different books. Sort of. Whereas “Brokeback Mountain” was set in the 1960s, “Missouri” takes place in the wild west of the 19th century. And whereas ‘Brokeback’ began with a sad memory, “Missouri” begins with a makeover. Yes, a makeover. Here, Douglas, a poet and intellectual sodomite of Oscar Wilde dimensions has come to cool his heels and change his hair colour after a nasty bit of scandal has driven him from England. Things look bleak in this drab little town of landmarks with hee-hee names like Bone Bank and Wabash River and New Harmony. That is, until Douglas fulfills every sex tourist’s dream by being both robbed and taken hostage by a scruffy, young outlaw by the name of Joshua. I’m not giving anything away when I say that the two men click because that’s what it says they do on the book’s back jacket (well, actually a bit more poetically: “a remarkable secret is revealed, these two very different men grow closer”) or that their relationship is threatened when Douglas’s brother tries to save him from his uncivilized surroundings (or as the book jacket says: ”Douglas’s brother tries to ‘save’ him from his uncivilized surroundings”). In-between all that is a love story of surprising delicacy. Still, I guess the biggest curiosity of “Missouri” is just how far the sex scenes go (one thing I won’t be giving away) which is a pity because while “Brokeback Mountain” re-wrote the Marlboro Man mythology of the old west, “Missouri” means to re-write the pop cultural mythology of “Brokeback Mountain.” Sad ending or not (and I’m not saying it is or isn’t) the characters in “Missouri” learned a lesson from ‘Brokeback.’ The result is that they all seem to know how short a life can be and that every second – especially in a book this thin – counts.


And Now a Word from Canada's Ted Baxter... 

“A Life in the News”

By Tony Parsons

ISBN No. 978-1-55017-461-8

There’s a chapter in this funny, thoughtful memoir from the anchorman of British Columbia’s most popular news program that’s titled “A Short Chapter on a Long-Standing Gripe” that unexpectedly sums up the whole book. In it Parsons complains about on-air flubs and typos. Viewers of Vancouver’s Global news (the show he hosts) will wonder how such an incident-rich history could be such a short chapter. Parsons, apparently, wonders as well. Well, he wonders why all those Middle Eastern regimes insist on electing men with unpronounceable names. He quotes letters from annoyed viewers telling him the difference between “pursuing” charges and “perusing” charges (one of his show’s typos). Then he shares some funny on-air gaffes, like when his former co-anchor called a bone marrow donor a “boner donor.” And then there are the missed cues; moments when the camera is on and the anchor doesn’t know. And what about whe- Sigh… Weren’t the Webster awards (Global has won a few over the years) supposed to be for excellence? Rejoice, fans of The Mary Tyler Moore Show; WJM-TV is alive and well and telecasting from Burnaby B.C.!!! This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (okay, it is if you’re a serious news junkie). The public has spoken and this is what they want: to watch stories hot off the wire service read by the same kind of people they wouldn’t mind chatting with while they’re waiting for the bus: unthreatening, smiling, and admittedly human in that ‘everyone-makes-mistakes’ kind of way. A memoir by the anchorman of such a show should be a no-brainer; a behind-the-scenes look at the people behind the news. But while Mom and Pop Canada will be charmed by Parsons’ self-deprecating honesty about his bouts with drink, depression, and marriage (he’s currently on his fourth), aspiring journalists will do a lot of skimming – until they get to a couple of wow-worthy chapters where Parsons talks about covering political scandal, the future of TV news and – especially - his vivid recollection of being disciplined for criticizing his boss and co-workers publicly. Still, the book is also likely to give anyone who cares about proper English and likes their news delivered with some dignity a major mad-on about the current state of the fifth estate. Yes, Parsons says, he’s frustrated by the on-air typos. And, yes, according to the book he’s hand-delivered dictionaries and books on correct grammar to the office gremlins himself. All of which begs the question: So why do the flubs just keep coming? And why is Parsons complaining to the public when he’s the one in a position to demand it get fixed? Maybe the Global on-air crew should just ad-lib the news if reading it is such a bother. Whatever your potshot, it’s a disturbing, enlightening and bizarre situation that a book that’s supposed to celebrate an anchorman’s legacy should instead prompt the question: Why should anyone care about proper spelling and grammar if the most watched news show in B.C. doesn’t? I mean isn’t the news, as Lou Grant once told Mary Richards, something sacred? Well, apparently the rules are different at Global and the result is that everything that the Global news show touches gets tainted: the ratings system which says they’re the most watched news program in B.C. (which in itself is a sorry statement about the devolution of the Canadian voter), the news shows on other channels (in a bid to catch up to Global, ratings-wise, the formerly smart CTV newscast has adopted the former’s torturous friendly banter between cackling on-air “personalities”), and especially those “awards” for “excellence” Global’s won - despite all those on-air typos, missed-cues and mispronounced words.



 Reality Check


“The Doctor is In(sane): Indispensable Advice from Dr. Dave”

By Dr. Dave Hepburn

ISBN No. 978-1-55365-408-7


“I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids: Reinventing Modern Motherhood”

By Trisha Ashworth and Amy Nobile

ISBN No. 978-0-8118-5650-8


“Our Days are Numbered: How Mathematics Orders Our Lives”

By Jason I. Brown

ISBN No. 978-0-7710-1696-7



By Oliver Sacks

ISBN No. 978-0-3073-9817-8


Today’s epic column is all about reality checks and what better way to start our check with a check-up from a real live doctor?

If you don’t have a daily newspaper that publishes Dr. Dave Hepburn’s column then “The Doctor is In(sane)” is a great way to catch up on why he’s been called “The Dave Barry of medicine” and the new Frasier. Like the teaspoon of sugar that helps the medicine go down (anyone under 20 should Google the line for an explanation) Dr. Dave turns a visit to the doctor into a visit to the comedian. He’s “Grey’s Anatomy” with an anatomical punchline.

 ”A patient’s worst fears are too often followed by a patient’s burst tears as the diagnosis of herpes is explained to them,” he writes. “They often then deeply desire to bring a fatal conclusion to that attractive source of their disease.” He’s a witty, friendly doctor who’ll teach you new things and ways to look at the world as well as make you laugh.

He’ll also make you think about the bigger picture in ways you won’t imagine. When a columnist for a daily newspaper allegedly committed suicide; allegedly suffering from alleged depression and alleged severe back pain, I unallegedly crinkled my forehead and wondered: if they couldn’t get something worthwhile out of all the articles their paper runs about depression and back pain then what could there possibly be in there for the masses besides ads for leaky condos and work-at-home scams? In short, “The Doctor is In(sane)” made me wonder why the dailies continue to publish advertorials about cures for back pain and depression when even their own writers don’t get something out of them.  People don’t need empty platitudes. They want to be informed, entertained and maybe learn a little something along the way. That’s where Dr. Dave comes in. His book has enough wow-worthy medical advice to necessitate the book’s index and enough humour and heart to make reading about even the toughest disease digestible. 

The wonder of science – well,  the results of procreation – figures prominently in “I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids.” Hmm…maybe “wonder” is too ambitious a word.

These authors have really gotten the Mommy Mindset down to a science – a nuts-and-bolts science. They catalogue every conceivable duty, obligation and thought that can pop into a Mom’s head – and then make great fun of it in a let-off-some-steam kind of way. Wisely, the book takes the women’s magazine format of LOTS of breezy, easy to read lists, quizzes and tips. There are user-friendly chapters titled “Am I a Bad Mom if I Don’t Buy Organic Spaghettios?” and quizzes like “Rank these questions in order of bitchiness.” But the best part of the book is the dozens of “Dirty Little Secret” entries where Moms confess stuff like “I want my own apartment because I don’t like people touching my stuff. And I would prefer if my husband didn’t visit.” Yes, even when you’re finished the book a certain “you had ‘em, you raise ‘em” mentality remains but the biggest recommendation I can give the book is that even guys will find it worth reading.

“On any ordinary day, from the time we get up in the morning until we go to sleep at night, mathematics shapes our lives.” That’s the starting line from “Our Days are Numbered” and if you’re like me (a math-hater) your first inclination is to prove the book wrong. Wrong in any way you can! Sure, you might wake up at a certain time (clocks are full of numbers) and you might have TWO pieces of toast and you might bike EXACTLY 1.2 miles to work, but like all those reality TV shows, if you ignore them they really kind of don’t exist. Math, like humour in medicine and good parenting is really all about having a mindset: it’s as complicated as you want to make it. And “Our Days are Numbered” wants to make it REAL complicated. The book starts out well. And like the start of the year in high school math you think you get what the book is about – until about halfway through when the teacher starts talking about differential equations and “logic.” Like cocktail chatter the book that started out interesting devolves into a highbrow bore. Sure, there’s something here for the geeks. And there’s something here for the squinters who have a lot of time on their hands. The book IS readable and its applications to daily life entertaining. The problem is that this book about days being numbered turns your daily life into a numerical, joyless grind.

After visits to the doctor, parents with screaming kids and dull math teachers it’s no wonder we finish off with a “Migraine.” This book from another doctor, Oliver Sacks. Sacks is so well known (Robin Williams played him in the adaptation of his own book in the 1990s movie “Awakenings”) that he doesn’t even use the title “doctor” on the cover of his book.

But then again, maybe he didn’t have any space left over. The elegantly understated font in this book could singlehandedly give you a migraine, and Sacks is sometimes so verbose that I’m pretty much reduced to quoting his book’s jacket to tell you what the book’s about:

“The many manifestations of migraine can vary dramatically from one patient to another, even within the same patient at different times. Among the most compelling and perplexing of these symptoms are the strange visual hallucinations and distortions of space, time, and body image which migraineurs sometimes experience.” The results, says Sacks, have been things like “Alice in Wonderland” (yes, “Alice in Wonderland”) and the art created by people while in the migraine “aura.” “Migraine” reminded me of people who try to draw or write songs while they’re high. They pretty much depress themselves when they sober up and finally see the evidence of their unlocked “creativity” is merely scribbles and vomit. Migraines and “Migraine” - according to Sacks - are vastly different and much more fascinating. This time the art comes straight from an illness within. In our over-medicated age “Migraine” is a really rare document; a medical mystery that even Advil can’t solve. This book is a horror story in sunlight. Now THAT’s a reality check.


 The World Without Kids

 “Nobody’s Father: Life Without Kids”

Edited by Lynne Van Luven and Bruce Gillespie

ISBN No. 978-1-894898-74-4


A sequel to 2006’s “Nobody’s Mother,” this collection of essays by and about men reconsidering fatherhood is so emotionally honest it’s almost a bit embarrassing. Yes, the title conjures up those mediagenic divorced fathers’ rights stunts that make it into the newspapers (dads dressed as superheroes flying banners from bridges complaining about the unfairness of divorce law) but “Nobody’s Father” is about a quieter group of men; those who don’t have children and whose lives might not leave any footprints once they’re gone – and they’re sort of okay with that. Basically, the book is a series of perceptive first-hand accounts about why some very hard-thinking men got fed up with doing their societal duty: carrying the family name past the present tense.

The book starts off hopefully enough with John Gould’s “Mine”. This story about how the typical hopes and dreams of graduating teens get turned on their head when having kids is removed from the equation is bookended with Don W. Maybin’s stunning summation of how choices and circumstances can turn a childless man into “Everyone’s Uncle.” Between them the stories pile up in ways that don’t remind you so much of the rumour that Adolph Hitler’s siblings made a pact to not have kids as it does of the recent book about humanity dying out, “The World Without Us”. “Nobody’s Father” is a really interesting, intimate document; a piece of work that might be studied decades from now by archaeologists trying to figure out what kind of people we were.


Flaming Fall


“Got ‘til it’s Gone”

By Larry Duplechan

ISBN No. 978-1-55152-244-9



By Daniel Allen Cox

ISBN No. 978-1-55152-246-3


Both available at


If two things can start a trend then it’s safe to say that Fall Fiction has just gone gay.

"Got 'til it's Gone" really is about the love that dares not speak its name - if only because so few books speak about the midlife gay black man experience. The man doing the speaking is Johnnie Ray Rousseau and “Got ‘til it’s Gone” is his fourth appearance in Larry Duplechan’s series of Johnnie Ray books. 

This time around Johnnie is having a midlife crisis and being a Daddy to a much younger guy. What follows are lots of Johnnie’s contemplations on life, love and popular culture. The best part of the book? Oddly enough, when Johnnie is cruising online. I dunno, there’s something novelistic and solitary about reading about characters separated from each other and typing away in chat rooms. Duplechan does a great job conveying this sense of being in a big city and still feeling lonely; of having all your options open and still feeling trapped. Unfortunately, his characters keep distracting themselves from the Big Sadness by watching TV, listening to music or reading magazines. They’re not pioneers; they’re archivists.

Remember the young man with the Daddy issues in “Got ‘til it’s Gone”? Well, he could be the narrator of “Shuck”, if he were just a bit more nihilistic, self-deluding and full of himself.

“Shuck” has the best beginning of any novel I’ve read in a long while. Its narrator plays anthropologist for us, re-writing the cruising ritual at the local supermarket.

“See how he cruises you like a piece of fruit, and how disappointed he is when you don’t give him the signal,” he writes. “He dumps the taco shells and ice cream in the magazine rack, and leaves empty-handed.”

Unfortunately, our narrator spends a LOT of time at the magazine rack himself; either mentioning the products he wants to place (“Star Trek”) or ticking off the things he thinks readers of gay fiction want to read about (a young guy appraising his own genitalia). Eventually the narrator’s neediness exhausts the readers’ interest. Yes, some of it adds to the 1990s New York time period. And some of it is left over from Bret Easton Ellis. You’ll finish the book; it’s that interesting. It’s just that it could have been so much better.

And therein lies the problem with “Got ‘til it’s Gone”, “Shuck” and a lot of gay fiction.

They so want their readers to be in sync with their sentences that they shortcut their way to any emotional impact by referencing movies, music, magazines and – in the unforgiving case of “Got ‘til it’s Gone” - Idiot Rapper, Flavor Flav! Even the first-person narration seems a bit calculated. What should read like friendly chat or deepest confession comes off like a sales pitch, a product placement shopping list. Yes, I know the technique suggests an over-stimulated culture and its resulting pessimism but it doesn’t make it any easier to search between the lines for the stuff that makes these books deserve to be books: the human stuff.



I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out!


“Reflections 2008: The NHL Hockey Year in Photographs”

ISBN No. 978-1-55365-399-8


The perfect winter title. That’s it. You don’t get much more wintry than hockey. But even more than that this book of hockey photographs has the emotion, competition, machismo and violence that make it THE ideal holiday book for our tabloid culture. And even better, the book (and the sport) has the contradictory hook that redeems every reality show on TV these days: the proceeds of this book about a barbaric sport go to the Hockey Fights Cancer charity. “Reflections 2008” is a media studies’ doctorial candidate’s dream! Sure, there’s the appeal of seeing pictures of a sport in which everyone has to keep moving or they’ll fall over or get hip-checked, and yes, the book is a must-have for the die-hard hockey fan. But “Reflections” is also a sly anthropological portrait about just how much hockey resides in the cultural crosshairs. Look through the pictures here and you’ll start to realize how this sport opens up a larger arena of social discourse. There was the CBC TV series about hockey wives, the recent sex abuse case where young hockey players would do practically anything to appease their God-like coach, and the recent opening of the Richmond, B.C. Skating Oval for the 2010 Olympics. So while “Reflections” is basically a series of photographs for the sports nut (and it does not disappoint) it’s also a fine book to base your thesis on if you have a prof who’s a big hockey fan.  



So a Goat, an Ojibway, and four Chinese families walk into a bar...


“Give a Goat”

By Jan West Schrock; Illustrated by Aileen Darragh

ISBN No. 978-0-88448-301-4


“One Native Life”

By Richard Wagamese

ISBN No. 978-1-55365-364-6


“Yi Fao: Speaking Through Memory: A History of New Westminster’s Chinese Community 1858-1980”

By Jim Wolf and Patricia Owen

ISBN No. 978-1-894974-40-0 


What do books about a goat, a native Ojibway and four families of Chinese settlers in Canada have in common? Well, they’re all serious: serious for kids, socio-political serious and Michael Cunningham serious.

First up, the inspired, catchy title of “Give a Goat” is a huh?-worthy refresh on the tired activist cheer of “Give a damn!” about world hunger and poverty. The goat of the title is the gift that a classroom of privileged Maine kids fundraise to send to a family in Uganda after reading about an organization called Heifer International. Working like a petting-zoo version of online bill payment HI will will take your donation and buy things like goats, chickens and water buffalo for families in developing countries. This is the kinder, gentler version of that tiger park in China where tourists can buy chickens for the cats that’ll be promptly served freshly thrown out of the window of a car driven around the reserve by a guide. According to the book, the goat of the title is a goose laying golden eggs. The goat will be a vineyard: providing enough milk to feed the family and enough surplus to sell and send the family’s kids to school. It’s a cute, serious piece of work with nice pictures and a socio-political lesson that’s palatable for both children and adults. And even if you’re not a kid or a smart adult the book has an even bigger selling point: a typo! For those of you who collect these things the book is a must-have.

“One Native Life” is the super-serious title, a back-from-the-brink memoir by a 52-year-old Ojibway native who, living in a cabin in Kamloops , B.C., re-traces a life of abandonment, alcoholism and search for identity. It should all sound lecture-ish but given that Vancouver, B.C.’s downtown east side has practically become a mediagenic genre unto itself (lots of news reports and books and films about displaced, depressed natives) it’s actually nice to hear a single-person account about how it all goes wrong and what can be done to make it right.

Even better – especially if you syndicate for radio like me - the book has a chapter called “My Nine-Volt Heart”, a lovely love-letter to the first thing that the author remembers calling his own: an old General Electric transistor radio. “It was as if the world had come within my reach,” he writes. “That old radio taught me that there’s more to the world than what I can see, and I owe it to myself to seek it out.” Sigh…

The four family oral and photo album history, “Yi Fao”, is the Michael Cunningham-ish title; a book that looks at the big, grand, poignant full-arc of life in small, simple families. The book’s title means “second port” but it was also lingo for New Westminster, B.C.’s status as the second point of entry to British Columbia (Victoria was the first) for early Chinese settlers. The book follows the Law, Lee, Quan and Shiu families as they live, grow, marry, work, retire and die. That’s it. Essentially the book invites you to listen in as they live their whole lives. Yet there’s something awesomely humbling about bearing witness to their struggles and triumphs. The oral history format is particularly effective here. There’s a sense that things are being passed down from one generation to the next just as they must have done in pre-historic times. When George Quan recalls “My mother would make these deep-fried cookies that were very crunchy and very tasty” your heart breaks – until his next line. “I would bring them over to the gambling hall and sell them for five cents each,” he writes, and then you realize that you’re reading a better-than-fiction real story. Even better (or as an assistant of mine once said “lots more better”), the pictures are haunting. My only complaint is about the book’s format: a book this grand deserves the same hardcover treatment as Paul Yee’s wonderful “ Saltwater City : An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver ” (2006; On the other hand “Yi Fao”’s paperback format really adds to its story’s sense of impermanence. 


The New Endangered Species


"Me Sexy: An Exploration of Native Sex and Sexuality"

by Drew Hayden Taylor

ISBN No. 978-1-55365-276-2


"The White Guy: A Field Guide"

by Stephen Hunt

ISBN No. 978-1-55365-302-8


Remember that line from "Annie Hall" when Carol Kane tells Woody Allen she loves being reduced to a cultural stereotype? Well, it's 1977 all over again - but with a big twist. In the ensuing thirty years the stereotypes have either crystallized or caved in.

"Me Sexy" is the progressive title. This is an honest, unflinching and surprisingly well-researched argument about viewing the native man and woman in a hot new light (the cover of the book is of a native man in a pulp romance clench with a fair-skinned woman). What makes the book's plea for a re-think of native culture so palpable is the humour with which it's all written about - along with some things you probably never, ever thought about. There are chapters about indigenous erotica and sexually provocative Inuit art in this book that will have you looking at soapstone in a whole new light.

"The White Guy" is the dark side of cultural stereotyping, onein which the white man is seen as Satan. Stephen Hunt does a great job blaming white men for every conceivable ill of the world - and then some. He studies their leisure habits, their quirks, their likes and dislikes - and then blames them some more. It's a witty piece of work, owing much of its existence to that bible of whitebread stereotyping anthropology, "The Official Preppy Handbook" that was published two or three decades back and treated wealthy whites as some sort of exotic species and studied their shopping and mating habits. Considering that, "The White Guy" should feel dated but weirdly it doesn't. It's a credit to Hunt that his book seems like both a topical episode of "Wild Kingdom" as well as a starting point for the inevitable snappy sequel.



Two Books with the Word "Hope" in their title


"Where Hope Takes Root: Democracy and Pluralism in an Interdependent World"

by His Highness The Aga Khan

ISBN No. 978-1-55365-366-0


"Hope in Shadows: Stories and Photographs of Vancouver 's Downtown Eastside"

by Brad Cran and Gillian Jerome

ISBN No. 978-1-55152-238-8


So this is what it's come to... Maybe it's the current climate of Obama vs. McCain but His Highness The Aga Khan sure sounds like he's running for something. Much (most? all?) of his book is speeches and much of the speeches unfortunately read like the empty platitudes of the hopelessly political, sound and fury signifying not much of anything if you listen really closely. "Civil society organizations need to reach for the highest level of competence to justify their support," he bravely writes. "Without support for pluralism, civil society does not function," he writes a few pages later, going wayyyy out on a limb. In another chapter he writes tha- [Sigh] Whatever... Just as the nightmares of TV news turning into entertainment from 1976's "Network" have actually come to pass so too, apparently, has the disheartening evolution of spiritual leaders into the likes of the Peter Sellers' character from 1979's "Being There" (the slow-witted gardener who comes out with in-plain sight observations like "There will be growth in the spring" and is declared a genius.) The problem with "Where Hope Takes Root" is that some of us have heard real activists who actually SAY things that MAKE sense that ARE solutions; not highbrow fundraiser cocktail party chat. (Hmmm... maybe I should have just reviewed "A Passion for This Earth" [; ISBN No. 978-1-55365-375-2] instead. Now David Suzuki, THERE'S an activist who perfectly marries the high and lofty with the nuts and bolts! And come to think of it APFTE is also a collection of essays too - by 20 Susuki-psyched journalists, scientists and environmentalists - but they don't read like speeches at all.) "Where Hope Takes Root" does have a reason to exist, however. For one thing, it’s excellent reading for university students majoring in political science and anyone else interested in the semantics of political discourse.

"Hope in Shadows" is, as Aga Khan might say, "another book with the word 'hope' in the title." But that's where the similarities end. See, "Where Hope Takes Root" is like those mediagenic tours the Governor General takes every now and then through Vancouver, B.C.'s downtown east side (DTES). You know, the ones where she wanders down a single run-down main street, making empty promises, giving false hopes and exploiting every photo op possible while surrounded with a bunch of bodyguards. (Tellingly, appropriately, Canada 's former GG, Adrienne Clarkson, writes the introduction to Kahn's book.) "Hope in Shadows," however, is the smart activist yelling at the GG from the sidelines.

"Hope in Shadows" is also the kind of book I like to think as being not just part of the solution but also beyond review. To go Aga Khan-lofty for a second it's about something so profound, important and topical that all a reviewer can - and should - do is bring it to the attention of others. For the past five years, Vancouver's Pivot Legal Society's annual Hope in Shadows photography contest gave DTES residents 200 disposable cameras and asked them to document their lives in Canada's poorest neighbourhood. This book is an archive of the personal stories behind those photographs. Whew... and wow! What else is there to say? It's all here: heartbreak, class struggles, drug addiction, poverty, dreams and a sense of home. Coming from the same publisher that brought out the stunning "Every Building on 100 West Hastings” in 2002, "Hope in Shadows" is - to go Aga Khan-lofty again - that rare document: a palpable, user-friendly piece of academia about a people and place that will be studied decades hence to find out what kind of people we were. I heartily recommend Adrienne Clarkson get a copy of it.


Martin Amis gets his very own 9-11

"The Second Plane"

by Martin Amis

ISBN No. 978-0-676-97785-1

It should have been so simple; an easy bet; a no-brainer: America 's greatest writer vs. the cultural context of 9-11.

And while most of reviewers have been kind to Amis' collection of essays and fictions about 9-11 I seriously suspect they didn't understand it - or read it all the way through. Because "The Second Plane" is a red herring; a book that must have been published when Amis' editors were still in shock. And the shock now is tenfold.

Certainly the book expands the vocabulary about 9-11 and anything by Amis is a welcome publishing event. But there are missteps (a looong what-if about one of the hijacker's last day). There is hard-to-remember political contextualizing (did he call them "radical Muslims"? "Irate Iranians"? Man, I cannot remember...). And then there are the curious words that seem to pop out of Amis' mind alone and stop the reader's eye cold and remind one of Dan Rather's homespun cornpone dialect. It’s like Amis was ahead of all the other writers trying to describe the image of the second plane hitting the towers juuuuuuust right; it’s a literary free-for-all (it’s kind of like the myth that Eskimos have 20 words for snow). It'll all make you wonder if Amis did indeed write his masterpiece"The Information" (one of the few books I took a highlighter to just to make it easier to get to those passages I wanted to read to friends over the phone) all on his own. (He does, however, include in "The Second Plane" a splendid piece about conspiracy theories.)

But 9-11 was a literary trap other august writers with pent-up dinner party pontifications were waiting to fall into. Don DeLillo and John Updike both wrote interesting failures ("Falling Man" and "Terrorist", respectively) and a relative newcomer, Jonathan Safran Foer, wrote one that was practically unreadable (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”). Apparently the victims from 9-11 are still being counted.

All of which means that even America's finest writers are as confused and conflicted about 9-11 as the layman on the street which makes 9-11 even more disturbing than it was the day it happened.


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