Category Archives: non fiction

Giddy for the Giller

The Giller long list was announced on September 4th. You can see it here.
I’m trying my darndest to get through them, so we’ll see how it goes.¬† ūüôā

 

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Voices from Chernobyl edited by Svetlana Alexievich

Interested in?

  • Russian/Soviet history
  • science “fiction” – this stuff is stranger than fiction

The Book:

April 26, 1986, an incredibly significant event occurred in an otherwise little known part of Russia called Prypiat, Ukraine SSR. The event was the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. A malfunction in the plant caused one of the reactors  to reach a high temperature resulting in a large explosion. The  explosion shot fuel and materials high into the atmosphere. This included dangerous levels of radiation.

The amount of radiation that was released from the explosion was 400 times the amount that occurred in Hiroshima.  High levels of radiation were detected not only in Soviet Russia, but also all over the world and were directly linked to the disaster.  It changed our world.

Voices from Chernobyl is a collection of stories told to and collected by Svetlana Alexievich. The stories give account to the lives that were affected and are still affected by the Chernobyl accident.  The voices were powerful and engaging. I was addicted to the horror and the humanity of the events as described by the people who lived through this.

There is no narration in the story, and yet, maybe because of the collective consciousness of the Soviet people, the stories remain consistent and cohesive. Although interconnected, Alexievich also presents many different perspectives, from the old ladies who refused to leave during the evacuations, to the officials who  made the calls to send people into the plant to put out the fires. The most haunting tale is the memories of a wife whose husband had died from radiation poisoning. The radiation feels like a mysterious evil.

Why?

Alan (my husband) and I were watching The VICE Guide to Travel: Chernobyl, and, of course, nuclear power has been a timely issue since the Fukushiuma nuclear crisis. The show was slightly sensational, but still riveting. I was struck with the idea that there are spaces in the world that have been almost forever changed, as if they were different dimensions now. The movie, and the book are full of images of vacant schools with drawn pictures on the wall, and wild animals living in abandoned houses.

Voices from Chernobyl opened up this world to me. And, if ever I was hesitant about our dependency on nuclear technology, that we don’t understand or have the capacity to totally control, I have definitely been swayed. Not cool.

Another fascinating theme of the book was the patriotism of the people who were ordered by their government to risk their health in order to clean up the disaster and make it better for others. The Russian people knew that they were needed, and that they stood up to the challenge, even when it meant dying of cancer at an early age.  This is crazy stuff!

If you enjoy this sort of thing, then please pick up this book. You will be haunted by it for the rest of your life.

Where To Buy Books Online

Save Money on Books

I’m [Alan here, not Elisha] a huge advocate of saving money and getting freebies, wherever possible and ethical. It’s like a fun game that pays.¬† I assume that since you’re reading book reviews, that you read and buy books.¬† So, I thought I’d tell you all how to save a few bucks on books.

#1.  Go to your Public Library

I love using the library.¬† They rarely let me down, in terms of selection, and I can order the books online and wait for them to send me an email alert.¬†¬† The email comes in, and I say, “Oooo, finally the “Babysitter’s Club” latest novel!”¬† This applies for movies, magazines and cds (compact discs, for you young ones – a physical disc that plays “mp3s”).

#2.  Sign up for www.Ebates.com

This site applies to ALL kinds of online shopping. Dell, eBay, Groupon, etc.¬† There are lists of online shops on this website. If you click on the website that you’re going to shop from anyways, it will give you a percentage cash back.¬†¬† I don’t see why you wouldn’t use it.¬† I heard about it through this personal finance blog (click here).¬† This applies to many bookstores, such as….

#3.  Shop here for New and Used books

www.alibris.com

www.abebooks.com

www.amazon.com or .ca

Hey, they all start with “A.” This is not an exhaustive list, but it does touch on my three favourites.¬† Abebooks.com often has books for $1 (with shipping, sometimes substantially higher than the cost of the book).¬† Alibris and amazon also sell used books at very low prices.

Go ahead Рread and save.  You can thank me (Alan) by using the money wisely, by paying off some debt or giving it to charity.  Or blow it on iPhone apps.

Continue reading Where To Buy Books Online

Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

ÔĽŅ Who would like this book?

-someone who’s interested in the role of marriage in history and our current culture

-someone who thinks ALL this can be done in a 300-page book

-a hard-core Elizabeth Gilbert fan

I finished Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert in two days. I didn’t find it a particularly profound book. I read it at a time when I needed to hear Gilbert’s message¬†about living in the moment and being content. But all in all, I did enjoyed EPL, thought at moments it was hilarious, and recommended it to several people. The book was also my intro to”travel” memoirs.

Committed is the sequel to Eat Pray Love.

I heard Gilbert interviewed on CBC, and she said that it was difficult for her to write this book, as if her voice could not be found. As someone who “dabbles” a bit with writing, I picked¬†this up in the book almost immediately. Gilbert desires more than anything, for this book to be a different book then Eat Pray Love, which was on the New York Times Best Seller Book list for 187 weeks. ¬†It seems, from the feel of Committed, that she didn’t want to ride on the success of her book Eat Pray Love, and desired to release a different sounding book, but could not. I think that Gilbert does not want to be typecast. Or maybe she just got lucky with Eat Pray Love and couldn’t pull it off again in a sequel.¬†On an incredibly creepy note,¬† Gilbert is listed as one of the decade’s most influential people by Time Magazine.

The book Committed: a skeptic makes peace with Marriage, is a boring title for a boring book.

In the conclusion of the book Eat Pray Love, Gilbert meets a man who she falls madly in love with. He is Australian/Brazilian and she is American. Gilbert wants to settle in the lovely U.S. of A, but her boyfriend Felipe is denied the ability to enter the US unless she sponsors him through marriage. Gilbert is absolutely, positively opposed to marriage.

So, she wrote Committed to come to terms with forced marriage, and the entire institution of Marriage.

She researches marriage somewhat through history,  and somewhat across cultures to come up with a mental justification, a pretense so she can marry in good conscience. Chapters and chapters of ramblings ensue that include something about motherhood and about pioneers. She concludes ( I assume) that marriage is what you make of it. That it changes with each individual and evolves over time. Commitment means something different in each relationship.

I’m only assuming because I didn’t finish the book.

I am a very STRONG advocate of not finishing books. Life is too short to read books that you think you should read because it was recommended to you, or because you think they are culturally relevant. So this book fell into that category for me. I wasn’t worth my time. I only enjoyed the few parts of the book where Gilbert introduces someone she has met or talked to about marriage. She is a gifted humourist and can paint people vividly.

She pissed me off too, because she said that Alan and I were extremely likely to separate. Well, she didn’t address us personally, but we had the Liz Gilbert divorce factors nailed down:¬† getting married young, having kids, being Christian, wife with no career (husband with no career yet, for that matter)….¬†¬† What I can say to Elizabeth Gilbert, who is in her late 30s, is that life is not simply about factors that are met or not met. Marriage is much more complex than that. Maybe she said the same thing, but I didn’t get to that part in the book.

Cheers!

PS. If anyone LOVED this book, please argue with me!

 

Committed to Marriage
Ah...marital bliss.

 

Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers. A book review by Alan Judson

Malcolm Gladwell.  Outliers.

Who would like this book:

-People in business who want to spout of some interesting facts around the photocopier (Hey, speaking of flying, do you know why Korean Air had the most airplane crashes of any other developed nation…)

-Those who like a quick, entertaining, “cultural” studies books

-People who enjoy simple explanations

Malcolm Gladwell, Canada‚Äôs own prolific, best-selling author, brings his interpretation of statistics to the masses, in an entertaining format that jumps from Bill Gates‚Äô back pages, to the precise, mathematical equation, explaining why the Beatles became famous.¬† There aren’t many instances that I can use my hidden superpower (I found in school that I excelled in Statistics, of all things – why couldn’t my secret gift have been an angelic voice!).

A chart of Demetri Martin's - Stats can be funny...

This book is not strictly about stats – or it wouldn’t be a best-seller.¬† It is about success.¬† Why are some geniuses successful, while others are working normal or sub-normal jobs?¬† It is because of their upbringing and situation.

Malcolm’s basic argument is that outliers – statistical jargon for things that fall outside of the usual predictions or mediocrity – are not self-made, but the result of their circumstances.¬† Bill Gates, for instance, is not a computer business mogul only because of his intelligence, but because he happened to go to a school that had a computer (rare for his time), and happened to have liked computers young, and happened to get free computer time at a local university (also a rare situation), etc., etc.

Geniuses, like Bill Gates, had a series of fortunate events, that perfectly aligned to allow him to be one of the richest men in history. ¬† He is heavily on the side of nurture, rather than nature.¬† I don’t have a problem with this.¬† I don’t believe that having a “killing” gene, or a “infidelity” gene determines whether or not a person will murder or cheat.¬† But, Gladwell takes certain liberties that I don’t agree with…

Fine.¬† Environment is a huge factor.¬† But Gladwell kneads outs his examples until he can pin-point the cause of, say, Bill Gates’s success and the success of many successful computer geeks of his era.¬† He says the perfect time to be born is something like 1954 or 1953.¬†¬† What is more ludicrous than picking a golden year to be a giant software tycoon, is his proofs.

He gives a list of successful computer giants that were born on, or within, one year of the date.  I say, what about the thousands of successful computer geeks that were born in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s?

Although not all his examples are so absurd, I feel like he was stretching his examples to fit his argument.

Maybe I’m a logic snob, but I wouldn’t recommend this book because he tries to simplify complex concepts.¬†¬† I appreciate his reaction to the myth of the “self-made man,” but he could have still used entertaining examples, and softened his grand conclusions.

Outliers ‚Ȇread.

By the way, if you want to see a really funny mash-up of charts, graphs and humour, watch this Demetri Martin video (I featured his chart, above):

http://www.youtube.com/v/GuOaVRerZLY?fs=1&hl=en_US

Also:

Cool stats website that tallies World Population, Energy Usage, etc., in real time.

http://www.worldometers.info/

Alan

One Week Job, by Sean Aikens

Who:

  • me
  • someone disillusioned with the job market/ their career/ their life
  • teenagers/university grads who have to start to think about career choices
  • Andrew Keogh

The Book:

Sean Aiken graduated from university with a great education. He’s smart, talented and comes from a loving and supporting home. Young, with his whole life ahead of him, to make of it what he wants. Such freedom. Well, what’s his problem? Why did he write a book about it?

He had absolutely NO idea what he wanted to do with his life. He only knew he didn’t want to waste his time for a pay cheque. He wanted a meaningful career to complement a meaningful life. Sean Aiken did not do what I did. He did not waste his time applying for random jobs that might interest him. Instead, he set up a website and an idea. He wanted to try out a new job every week for an entire year. His hope was that he would get a feel for each job and each field.

He tried some very random things:¬† being a Bungee cord technician (not sure if that’s the correct title), chucking things out of the Hercs at CFB Trenton (airbase), selling stocks, and making pizza. It was a memorable year.

What Sean discovers, is that there is MUCH more choice then he’d ever imagined.

The book was inspirational, it forced me to evaluate what I am passionate about, what is important to me?

This issue seems to be all my husband and I talk about these days. Both of us are still young (27) and soon our lovely children will require less “hands-on” time. We may start to have the energy to engage in jobs/careers that we feel are significant, rather than just focusing on getting on our feet and paying off that whopper OSAP loan. I think this book would resonate with anyone who is in the same space as us.

A lack-lustre job, if you don’t generally like what you do, is not worth your time. I am starting to FIRMLY believe this, despite what my father’s generation says.

I would encourage anyone to pick up this book, even if they find their work satisfying, because it is a fun read and Sean Aikens calls us to rethink career and lifestyle choices.

My only beef about the book, is I’m not certain I like Sean Aiken. He made everything seem so easy, and maybe for him it was. But we can’t all just not work and, instead, travel North America and try out new jobs. There were a few moments when I felt that he was too spoiled. Like he was lucky. But I shouldn’t be so hard on him.

I think his message is great, but maybe life is not always about finding your passion. Maybe sometimes it is about being a hard stage and coming out of it.  As long as you can evaluate. The most important lesson from the book is that people will take time to evaluate.

Have a look at his website: www.oneweekjob.com

a boy of good breeding, by Miriam Toews

Stealing a kiss from Elijah at Christie Lake, July 8, 2010.

Who

  • females
  • someone who likes a quick easy read, but still with a bit of depth (perfect mid summer read)

The Book:

Has anyone ever read this book? It was published when I was fifteen. It’s a sparkly gem with a cute cover and it’s CanCon to boot.

I ate this book up. It’s fast, it’s heartfelt and aches in your mind when you aren’t devouring it. Oh, and it’s FUNNY (as other Toews books are). I laughed often at the pure silliness of the book, and frequently shared character antics with Alan.

A young mother, Knute, and her four-year old daughter named Summer Feelin’, return to their small hometown. Knute’s mother has asked them to help care for her ailing father. Except that this is a huge problem for the town’s mayor Hosea Funk. The mayor is intent on the town maintaining a constant population of 1500. No more, no less.

Hosea has a crazy scheme to win the title of the smallest town in Canada, which would merit a visit from the Prime Minister on Canada Day. It means his mayoral duties included moving the town limits to include/exclude people, or stressing over the sudden population increase of triplets, and convincing the town’s only doctor to set up practise elsewhere. He is so dedicated to his plan that he will not allow his girlfriend to move in from Winnipeg even though it is putting a strain on their relationship.

The father of Knute’s child returns, throwing the mayor’s numbers completely out of whack. I can’t really give many other details because Toews is good about hiding things until the end, sad or happy, and they make the book even more appetizing.

The book is goofy and the characters are ridiculous and unbelievable. Except that they are the people you know: your own father, your in-laws, the neighbours you understand and love but who are incredible quirky if you just think about it.

The book is at the same time heartbreaking. The characters are separated by misunderstandings. Toews shows that herein lies the meaning of life. It hides somewhere in being part of a togetherness with people that surround us and frustrate us, but also encourage us and give us purpose and a life to live.

I loved A Complicated Kindness which won the G.G. (Governor General’s) award in 2004; I’ve read it twice.¬† If you liked that book, this one will satisfy you too.

I read A Boy of Good Breeding the first week of July, and I loved that it coincided with the timing in the book. I felt the excitement of approaching summer and the undefinable moment you realize that spring is over simply because the entire world’s mood changes. The short spring (even shorter in Manitoba) has its subtle delights, like keeping your coat opened for the first time, and planting, and the smell of manure deep in your nose. Toews described the dawn of summer beautifully.

Also, the culmination of the book is Canada Day and it filled me with true patriotic love. It’s neat to read Canadian fiction.¬† It made it a perfect summer read.

Light, airy, and lovely. And a breath of fresh air after Wolf Hall, and our family being in between houses, and at the beginning of summer.

Miriam Toews, you made me smile and laugh.

Cheers!

Check in next week for a review on One Week Job by Sean Aiken. Great for anyone who wonders what they should do with their lives…. ( ie everyone).