Under a Mackerel Sky

Under a Mackerel SkyUnder a Mackerel Sky by Rick Stein
Published: 2013
Narrated by: Rick Stein

I came across Rick Stein a few years back. From what I understand, he was one of the early television chefs in Britain, but I don’t think his shows were ever broadcasted in Canada. His latest food programmes are based around travel, taking a barge through France or searching for his favourite curry in India for example, and he’s a bit of a book nerd. He’ll read passages from travelogues, poetry, and related literature for the camera when he arrives somewhere new. It’s a book-worm, foodie, and traveler’s delight.

So imagine my surprise when the majority of this memoir is about, well, banging ladies. From the girl who first saw his penis as a youth, the prostitute with bad body odor he picked up in London, to his first and second wife. I understand that relationships are a large part of one’s life, but my god – what a horndog.

He’s led quite an interesting life, so it’s not like he had to pad the book with his sexual escapades. As a teenager, his bipolar father took his own life, and as a way to cope he left home to work and travel his way through Australia, the States, and Mexico, before returning to England to attend Oxford. After university, he opened a seedy club that he eventually converted to a restaurant in an attempt to pay the rent, which is where his career with food began.

I really enjoyed this, although I do wish it had focused a bit more on food. His narration works well, and he can really tell a story. He does a terrific job of describing the people and places in his life. I’d love it if he started writing travelogues at some point. I still haven’t read any of his cookbooks, so that’s probably my next step.

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The Complete Essex County

The Complete Essex CountyThe Complete Essex County by Jeff Lemire
Format: Graphic Novel
Published: 2011
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions

Essex County comes up on a lot of must-read lists, and it’s touted as the quintessential Canadian comic, so I’ve been meaning to read it since getting back into comics a few years back. I’m a naughty Canadian, though, and I don’t really follow hockey, so I thought a lot of it might be lost on me.

While hockey is a large part of many of the characters’ lives, I wouldn’t say it’s central to enjoying any part of this. This is a collection of three main stories and two shorter stories, and it’s only a large part of one of them and doesn’t really require any knowledge of the history.

It’s hard to put my finger on why I enjoyed this so much. The art is simple yet evocative, and the stories are just beautifully told. Each one celebrates small town Canadian life, hockey, superheroes, and family. I normally get a bit bored with collections like this, but it took no time for me to feel invested in each of these stories.

Jeff Lemire has gone on to write quite a few comics, including Sweet Tooth which I’ve heard good things about, so I look forward to reading more from him.

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Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated CultureGeneration X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland
Published: 1991

This is Douglas Coupland’s debut, and the novel that popularized the term Generation X. I binged on a few of his books a couple years back, but hadn’t read anything of his since this. While this wasn’t my favourite of his, it was a nice reminder of why I should still be reading him. He’s has a creative way of telling stories.

The overarching narrative here is about three disenfranchised twenty-somethings as they meander through unambitious lives. They hold jobs that are beneath their skill levels, live in a dive apartment block, and spend their time telling each other stories. Their lives are just a framing device for the novel, and in a way it could be seen as a collection of short stories. These stories are sometimes made up, and sometimes personal, and they all give some insight into why these characters are the way they are.

Laziness is masqueraded as deep thinking, and it all comes off as pretension at times. In the context of the era, the characters could be seen as representatives of a shifting society, a generation that is fed up with rat race careers and a meaningless, empty culture, but that doesn’t mean I’d want to be around any of them. I feel like if you were in your early twenties in the late eighties to early nineties, when grunge music and ‘loser culture’ was growing in popularity, reading this at the time may have carried more weight, but right now it makes me feel a bit old and grumpy.

The entire novel is peppered with little margin notes that I really enjoyed. Little terms that describe an action or group that loosely relates to the story at that moment, such as:

EARTH TONES: A youthful subgroup interested in vegetarianism, tie-dyed outfits, mild recreational drugs, and good stereo equipment. Earnest, frequently lacking in humor.

Or:

NOW DENIAL: To tell oneself that the only time worth living in is the past and that the only time that may ever be interesting again is the future.

I wasn’t in love with this, but it did keep me entertained throughout, and it’s made me want to get back into reading his novels again.

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Shakespeare Wrote for Money

Shakespeare Wrote for MoneyShakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick Hornby
Published: 2008

This is another collection of Nick Hornby’s articles from The Believer, an American literature magazine, in which he recounts his reading and book-buying habits each month. This is the third volume I’ve read, out of the four that currently exist, and I still just love them.

These are essential a published book blog, but instead of a post for each book there’s a chapter for each month. It’s interesting to see how previous books and events in his life influence what he buys and reads each month. These collections don’t vary much, to be honest, so the description and review of the first book still pretty much holds up. I’ve actually been tempted to pick up a copy of The Believer to start reading his column, which can be previewed on their website, when it’s first published, but I really enjoy reading a year’s worth at once.

The Believer has asked Hornby to not write about the books he doesn’t enjoy, or at least to not mention them by name, so it’s usually a fairly positive and enthusiastic account. He will briefly mention why he didn’t enjoy a book, but it never really turns negative. At first this bothered me, as I quite like a rant now and then, but it does have the effect of making the column more of a celebration of reading rather than a nit-picking critique. I like to keep these books around for reading slumps, since I always finish them with a renewed love of reading.

Anyone who enjoys book blogs will love these.

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King Solomon’s Mines

King Solomon's Mines (Allan Quatermain, #1)King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard
Published: 1885

This is the novel that first introduced the world to Allan Quartermain, the English-born hunter, trader, and renown marksman of southern Africa. Sir Henry Curtis, and his companion Captain Good, recruit Quartermain to find his brother, a man who went missing after last being seen searching for the fabled King Solomon’s Mines. He agrees to lead them on the expedition for either a share of the treasure or payment to his son should he die on the journey.

They encounter an unknown civilization on the way, and the majority of the novel is actually focused on their civil war and the group’s influence on the fighting and diplomacy. Initially I found this a little jarring, as I wasn’t expecting the novel to go in this direction and wasn’t particularly happy about it, but it eventually did recapture my interest.

Since starting this weblog, I’ve found a love for classic adventure stories. The idea of heading into the unknown, of looking for long-lost, rumoured cities and treasure, is a fantasy that has stirred my imagination for as long as I can recall. Those were my favourite stories as a child, and I remember being genuinely depressed when I first realized how well explored the world actually was, that there weren’t entire continents still left a mystery, no blank spaces on the maps.

That being said, it wasn’t necessarily my love of the classics that brought me to this novel. I admit, my main reason for picking up King Solomon’s Mines is that I heard Indiana Jones was inspired by Allan Quartermain, and I’ve always had an obsession with Indiana Jones. Apparently the influence is mainly on his look, and is actually from the 1950 film adaptation, but there are similarities.

What I love most about Indiana Jones is that he’s a nerd mixed with an action hero. In most movies, the main protagonist brings with him a whining geek, a frail and awkward man who understands the lore and may be able to stumble through the language. He often has to explain to everyone why certain actions may lead to unfortunate consequences. Indiana Jones is that nerd. He speaks the language, understands the history and culture, and is driven by a desire to learn. Allan Quartermain, while not as book-learned as Indiana Jones, is the one white man in the group who understands the Zulu culture and language, but he can also hold his ground under pressure.

While I do love these old adventures, it does take patience to get passed the racism that inevitably bubbles up in them. Many of these stories feature journeys into unknown lands, where the adventurers find undiscovered civilizations. They’re typically depicted as black barbarians, and with that comes really off-putting descriptions. This novel certainly has some of that, such as the English being seen as naturally superior to most black characters, but it also depicts the Africans are heroic, intelligent and noble, which is a welcome change for that era. There’s even a blossoming interracial relationship, something that doesn’t often come up in century old novels.

King Solomon’s Mines really slowed down for me part way through, and I nearly lost interest, but by the end I was back on board. Overall, I really enjoyed it.

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The Things They Carried

The Things They CarriedThe Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Published: 1990
Narrated by: Bryan Cranston

When I read that Bryan Cranston was narrating this book, I knew I had to give it a listen. I didn’t realize at the time that this was so highly regarded, that it was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize, or even that it is commonly included in high school curriculums (I’m from Canada, okay?). Embarrassingly, I wasn’t even sure which war I’d be reading about.

Vietnam is the war, it turns out. Tim O’Brien is a veteran, and this is actually a collection of related short stories centred around a platoon of soldiers, based semi-autobiographically on his experiences in the war and the soldiers he served beside. I often have a hard time with short story collections, as I tend to lose interest and don’t really enjoy an entire book’s worth, but having all of the stories closely related, and with the same characters, really helped with that.

Tim O’Brien still clearly struggles with his memories of the war. The writes about trying to leave for Canada, to draft dodge, because he was against the conflict, but turning back and going to war purely because he was too embarrassed not to. He writes about losing friends, about how war can change a person, about guilt and fear and love and humour. I had assumed when started this, for really no reason at all, that it would be a fairly straightforward account of a soldier’s life, but I was surprised by how beautifully written and thought-provoking it was.

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

The semi-autobiographic nature of this book is interesting. At first, it seems almost dishonest to me, despite that he clearly states his intentions at the beginning. It felt like it would be manipulative, like a Hollywood retelling that adds a love interest, a chase scene, and a pet dog. One of his stories, How to Tell a True War Story, specifically addresses the balance of truth and fiction and finishes with a good point – that he’s using fiction to better show the truth of war, and it feels like he really succeeds at that.

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

This is not a flag-waving tribute to war. It is, however, a brilliantly written and moving look back, which, fiction or not, feels truer than most war stories I’ve come across.

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Maus I & II

Maus I : A Survivor's Tale : My Father Bleeds History (Maus, #1)Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale : My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman
Illustrator: Art Spiegelman
Published: 1991
Publisher: Pantheon Books

I read Maus I and II right after each other, so I figured I’d do a combined post. These are another example of a comic I picked up ages ago because I felt like they were required reading, but then let them waste away on the shelf untouched. I’m really kicking myself for not getting to them sooner. They were fantastic.

In the story, Art Spiegelman is interviewing his father Vladek, a Polish Holocaust survivor. The real story is of his parents’ struggle through World War II and their time in Auschwitz, but it’s framed with the story of the two of them and their somewhat strained relationship, which really adds another layer of humanity, showing how the war left its scars in their family. It’s a very personal account of a tragedy and its aftermath. The Holocaust is so extreme that I find it’s often an abstract idea to me, but personal stories such as this really help ground it and give it the weight it deserves, which is important I think.

In Maus, Spiegelman depicted Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, and the non-Jewish Polish as pigs. I’d read that this was to break the reader’s familiarity somewhat and see the events in a fresh light, and there’s also the obvious cat and mouse analogy. It does seem weird to choose pigs for the Polish, as the Jewish obviously aren’t really down with the swine, and that has some rather harsh implications. I can see how assigning an animal for each ethnicity could be very offensive, but if it’s read without considering any malicious undertones around that, whether they exist or not, it was quite effective.

This was the first comic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and it’s easy to see why. I’m very glad to have read it.

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My Life in France

My Life in FranceMy Life in France by Julia Child
Published: 2006
Narrated by: Kimberly Farr

I grew up watching Julia Child with my parents. I had no interest in actually cooking at that age, but I loved how easy and fun she made it seem. She even used a sword to cut up a chicken that time. I want to cut up a chicken with a sword. Many of my culinary ambitions can probably be traced back to her in some way. I have yet to cut up anything with a sword, but it will happen.

Julia Child led a more interesting life than many realize. She doesn’t go into World War II much in the book, but she was stationed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and tasked with setting up an underground network of secret agents in Asia. She was also involved in shark repellant research. Not Batman shark repellant, but close enough. It’s like if Ian Fleming’s M retired and started hosting a cooking show in which she cut chickens apart with swords.

While working in Ceylon, she met her husband Paul Child. They eventually found themselves in France, as Paul was station there working in the Foreign Service. It was there, in her late 30′s, that Julia Child began to learn how to cook and how to speak French. I’m always happy to hear of people learning foreign languages at a later age. It gives me hope that I’ve still got it in me. She not only learned to speak fluent French, but she also learned some German and Norwegian as well.

This autobiography also gives an interesting look into America post World War II, when the McCarthy witch hunt was blindly accusing everyone of being a communist. Paul Child’s foreign office, full of Americans who had fought and helped during the war, was slowing withered down during these accusations, and Paul himself was eventually interrogated as well.

This was written by Julia Child and Paul’s grandnephew during the last eight years of her life. I’m always astounded by the detail in some memoirs. The Childs exchanged a lot of letters with people back home while living abroad, and apparently those proved invaluable in writing this. If she had lived in the modern age of Skype, the descriptions in this would probably have been a lot more vague. I’d have to do some pretty major digging to figure out what I watched on TV last night. I can’t imagine trying to find the name of the owner of my favourite restaurant from 50 years ago.

I really loved this. There were people commenting on Audible that the narrator, Kimberly Farr’s, French pronunciation was terrible, but I was happily oblivious that that. Read this if you’re interesting in food, France, or awesome women.

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Audiobook Humble Bundle

If you’re a fan of video games, you’ve probably heard of the Humble Bundle. They are collections of games made available to purchase at the price of your choosing, in which the proceeds are split between the creators and charity. Altruistic shopping, what more do you want? This time they’re offering a bundle of DRM-free audiobooks. Here’s the pickings:

  • The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie
  • Stolen – Lucy Christopher
  • Abandon – Meg Cabot
  • Junky – William S. Burroughs
  • Found – Margaret Peterson Haddix

And if you pay more than the average (currently $5.62), you get these as well:

  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
  • Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
  • On a Pale Horse – Piers Anthony

I’ve only read On a Pale Horse, which I didn’t really enjoy, so I’m afraid I’m not much help with the recommendations. I have been meaning to get to McCarthy, Burroughs, and Rushdie though.

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Fuzzy Nation

Fuzzy Nation [Unabridged]Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
Published: 2011
Narrated by: Wil Wheaton

This is the third novel I’ve listened to Wil Wheaton narrate, the second written by John Scalzi, and he always does a great job. I don’t know why I seem to go into these books thinking I’d rather have someone else reading, but by the end of the first chapter I’m always enthralled.

Scalzi is officially in my good books after this one as well. Things were a bit patchy after RedShirts, and I was happy to find I loved Old Man’s War, but I was still a bit wary going into this one. In a way this book was the tie-breaker, and we came out on the positive.

This is a re-imagining of 1962′s Little Fuzzy, a novel which, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t know existed. It apparently has the same characters and plot, but has been updated for modern audiences. Something about that really puts me off, as someone who enjoys classics and finds it charming to read something out of date, but try not to let that stop you from reading this if you feel the same. It really is terrific.

On an unpopulated planet far from earth, ex-lawyer Jack Holloway works as a contracted prospector for a major interplanetary mining corporation. On returning to his home one day after work, he comes face to face with what appears to be a regular small furry animal, but soon he begins to wonder if this species understands more than he initially thought. If they’re proven to be sentient, the mining on the planet must stop, and a lot of people will be out of a lot of money.

Fuzzy Nation is hilarious, exciting, and thought-provoking. The characters spend a lot of time discussing what it means to be human, and it eventually turns into an interesting courtroom drama. If I’m honest, I don’t think I’ll ever read the original by H. Beam Piper to compare, but Scalzi seems to have done a good job with the update.

I don’t remember there being music during the audiobook at all, which is great as I typically can’t stand that, but it ended with the most out-of-place 80s guitar riff I’ve ever heard. It actually made me laugh out when the book finished, and I couldn’t tell if it was intentionally cheesy or not. It was very The Breakfast Club, in a good way I think.

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