1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

1Q84The 1100+ page tome that is Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 languished, taunting me from its high shelf, for close to two years before I finally decided to take the plunge. As per my usual rule, I reassured myself that I could reassess my zeal for undertaking such a large project at the 50-page mark. As it turned out, there was no way I was stopping after 50 pages. The characters and the vaguely fantastical feel of the story grabbed me straight away. I will admit to feeling very pleased with myself after I sailed through the first 400 pages or so, at which point I was overcome by the strong sense that Murakami was f-ing with me. “Ha ha,” he seemed to be saying, “Based on the first 1/3 of this novel, I bet you thought that all 1184 pages would be at least an equally riveting thrill-ride! Did you know it’s hard to write a really, really long novel that’s exciting the whole way through? I know I could have written 1Q84’s story in about 700 pages, but in order to have the biggest, fattest book on the bestseller shelf, I had to create pointless characters, describe them in excruciating detail, and hope that since you’d made it to the halfway mark of the novel you wouldn’t give up.” Curse you, Murakami. Believe it or not, I don’t care how many times a character takes a puff on his cigarette, what the cashier in the store was wearing, or the minute details of an inconsequential character’s childhood. Get. To. The. Point. Halfway through this book I hated Murakami. He draws you in with this compelling story about a parallel universe of some sort and a strange, but captivating woman assassin named Aomame. The other main character is a rather boring but likeable writer/teacher named Tengo, who is asked by a publisher friend to secretly rewrite a novel about a land of Little People who crawl out of dead goats’ mouths.  Good start, right? Well, it all comes to a screeching halt with the introduction of a completely ridiculous and unbelievable (even in a parallel universe) character named Ushikawa. He is ugly beyond belief, a point that is hammered into us, the readers, over and over again for a purpose I was not able to discern. If you ignore the Ushikawa chapters (and he becomes a central character, so this is difficult), you’re left with: two lovers who have not seen or heard from each other since they held hands once as children; an immaculate conception; and a gang of elusive “Little People” who may or may not control the world’s affairs and whom you can’t help but imagine as the dwarves from Snow White. (The only thing they ever say is “Ho, ho”, which really doesn’t help.) Needless to say, this is unlike any novel I’d ever read. And to Murakami’s credit, once you climb out of the trough that is approximately pages 400-700, you are desperate to know how the whole mess ends. Personally, I would have liked a bit more closure to the novel, but it ends satisfactorily enough. If you are more of a fiction ‘traditionalist’ (i.e. you don’t like anything that requires you to stretch your imagination), stay away from 1Q84. However, if you’re into magical realism or science fiction, and you are a quick reader, I’d say give it a shot. If anything, you’ll feel an enormous sense of accomplishment when you finish it!

Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line, by Michael Gibney

sous chefI admit it. I, like many others, am food obsessed. In the Western world, we’ve entered an age where eating is no longer just a means to an end (to keep from not dying) and has become instead a form of art. Today most of my friends are into making meals out of organic, local, and fresh fruits and vegetables, or feel guilty about it when they don’t have time. Living in Vancouver, I’m in one of the food capitals of North America, home to star chefs and fabulous restaurants and farmers’ markets in every neighbourhood. People here are fascinated by food and I count myself as one of them. When I heard about the book Sous Chef, I was quick to order it. I’d just finished reading Delancey and the nonvella Foodville, by Timothy Taylor, who muses about this new age of food. I was eager to continue on my food theme a little longer. Sous Chef did not disappoint. As I do the bulk of my reading in the hour before I go to sleep, I found myself excitedly anticipating going to bed each night. I love books where you are immersed in another person’s reality. The funny thing about the life of a chef is that you can almost picture what their days must be like – after all, you cook dinner, right? You eat out at restaurants? But actually the life of a chef is so demanding, physically and mentally exhausting, yet incredibly skilled that unless you’ve done it, imagining the day-to-day life of a chef is akin to imagining a day in the life of an astronaut or a ballet dancer or some other equally foreign profession. Michael Gibney does an excellent job of giving the reader a peek at his gruelling job as a sous chef. You will finish reading it and wonder why anyone would want that life. How anyone can sustain that level of intense focus in a daily environment characterized by tight deadlines, hung-over and unpleasant co-workers, and the constant fear of making a mistake, is beyond me. However it makes for an excellent read. The funny thing about the book is that it’s written in the second person. I found this a highly effective tool for putting myself in Gibney’s shoes. Although it does take some getting used to, it feels so much more personal. Gibney also does an excellent job of explaining the layout of the kitchen, all the tools, and the roles of the other kitchen personnel. The first couple chapters are a bit dry as he gets all this necessary information out of the way, but the book quickly picks up pace. It’s one I’ll likely read again and I highly recommend it!

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanahAmericanah is a good novel. It’s well written, it has interesting characters that feel like real people, and a loose plot line that involves boyfriends and break-ups and the challenges of adapting to a new culture. It was enough to keep me reading and in the end I did enjoy the book but I had the sense throughout that Adichie was just trying to hard. The issue of race is the tie that binds the book together. The main character, Ifemelu, moves from Nigeria to the U.S., starts what becomes an acclaimed blog about race, and pontificates to friends, family, and all her readers about her observations and challenges she’s faced. Being Caucasian, I found her perspective intriguing, especially the notion that race is almost non-existent in Nigeria. I am not equipped to cast doubt on this assertion but I do wonder. As you may have gathered, the race theme of the book is not subtle. You are knocked about the head with it and Adichie even goes so far as to include entries from Ifemelu’s blog, which for me constituted low points in the novel. Ifemelu, despite being very clever and well educated, is a terrible writer and the reader questions why the blog is so popular (or perhaps that’s why it’s so popular). It feels as if a 13-year-old wrote it, despite some of its observations being eye-opening for me as a white person. The whole novel was clearly an excuse for Adichie to write about race; the main storyline is meandering and essentially boils down to Ifemelu trying to negotiate a new life in America and wrestling with maintaining a relationship with her high school sweetheart back in Nigeria. I wouldn’t mind the flimsy plot line so much except that Adichie’s previous novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, is one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read and so I couldn’t help but feel let down by Americanah. Perhaps that’s the risk of writing an excellent work: you now have a very high standard to meet. Perhaps if I hadn’t read Half of a Yellow Sun, I would have liked Americanah more. As it stands, I recommend Americanah if you’re interested in issues of race, the immigrant experience, and culture differences.

Best Damn Muffins

2014-08-12 15.52.12I may never make another muffin again. In my opinion, this is the holy grail of muffin recipes! Keep in mind that these are not your healthy, low-fat variety of muffin but nor are they cupcakes either. The beauty of this recipe is it is versatile: the batter gives a nice base for adding any kind of fruit or nut. I think it’s best with a sour fruit like cranberries or red currants. (The muffins in the photo are red currant and blueberry.) They are good even on day two and freeze well!

If you want to veganize it, replace the butter with canola oil, use egg replacer in place of the eggs (flax eggs would probably work really well too), and make vegan buttermilk by stirring in a teaspoon of white vinegar into a half cup of soy milk. I have yet to try veganizing this recipe but I see no reason why these substitutions wouldn’t work.

Melt 1/4 cup of butter in a small bowl. (For a lower-fat option, skip this step and double the canola oil below.)

In a large bowl, mix together:
2 cups of all-purpose flour
1 cup of sugar
2 tsp baking powder
zest of one lemon
1/2 tsp salt

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together:
2 eggs
1/4 cup canola oil
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup buttermilk
And then add the melted butter.

Combine the wet ingredients with the dry and mix just until incorporated. Add in 11/2 cups of berries such as cranberries (frozen or fresh) and any other fun things you like: pecan pieces, pumpkin seeds, etc. Spoon batter into 12 muffin cups (either lined or greased) and top with a sprinkling of coarse sugar (optional). Bake in a 350 degree F oven for 25 minutes. Try and let them cool for at least 15 minutes before attacking.

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The Big Short, by Michael Lewis

shortA few years ago, I was a teaching assistant for a third-year geography course that dedicated one week to the cause and effects of the financial crisis. I remember doing the readings and trying to organize a tutorial for that week in a blur of confusion amidst terms like ‘mortgage-backed security’ and ‘subprime loans’. With only a thin grasp of what actually occurred in 2008, I somehow squeaked through the tutorial and managed to convince the class that I knew what I was talking about. It has always bothered me that I didn’t understand the events that led to the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression and when my husband, P, bought The Big Short, by Michael Lewis, I thought this was my chance to rectify the situation. As it turns out, things were much more complex than the readings for my geography course had led me to believe. On top of the aforementioned terms I already had trouble with, I was confronted with even more confusing ones: collateralized debt obligation, credit default swap, mezzanine CDO, and the concept of ‘shorting’, which although I think I understand I’m not sure I could actually convince someone that I did (and I won’t attempt that feat here!). As it turns out, I don’t even really understand what a bond is (there’s a reason P does all the household finances!). As a result, it took me several months to read this book. The strange thing is, although I had to read many paragraphs several times, then ask for clarification from P, I really enjoyed the book. The story of the events that led to the final meltdown of the financial system and the massive bailout of the big investment banks by the U.S. government, was told creatively and skillfully by Lewis through the eyes of a few people who saw the whole thing coming years in advance. The events are demented, and it should be shocking to anyone that it was allowed to happen. Surely even the staunchest free market capitalist would question his own convictions after really understanding how greed and self-interest caused such a dramatic collapse of our system, to the detriment of millions of people. A highly recommended book to anyone with an interest in the financial crisis as Lewis’ journalistic skills shine through the telling of the disaster using the perspectives of these perceptive insiders, who are entertaining characters in their own right.

At Day’s Close, by Roger Ekirch

days closeI feel an enormous sense of accomplishment having completed this book. It was a slog. It was a slog in the same way that some of the readings I had to do during my undergrad were a slog: dry, overly academic, little sense that they were written with any consideration for the person who would have to learn something from it. This book was so dry it actually made me angry because it had so much potential! The subtitle of the book is “Night in Times Past.” Now I’m not much of a history buff but I do have a fascination with pre-industrial times: hygiene, crazy diseases and their even crazier “cures”, dentistry, the class system, and generally how difficult life must have been back then. When I read a (positive) review of At Day’s Close in The Globe and Mail awhile back, it struck me that I’d never considered how different nights would have been before the invention of artificial light. It seems obvious but torches and fires can only do so much. How did people spend their nights, once the sun was down? What kind of socializing occurred? What was crime like? These questions are addressed, albeit in the most boring way possible. Ekirch has clearly done his research, but he is so wrapped up in presenting his findings in as much detail as possible that he forgets to weave in a narrative. For example, he refers many times to a man named ‘Pepys’ but gives no introduction for who this man was other than mentioning that he kept a highly detailed diary. Here is a golden opportunity to discuss what nights might have been like through the eyes of a person who actually lived them! Instead, Ekirch chooses to insert seemingly random quotes and passages from Pepys’ diary that almost always seemed to appear out of nowhere. He uses material from other surviving diaries and correspondences as well but again, no introduction or explanation of who these people were is given.

All this being said, I did glean some interesting information, particularly from the last few chapters, which for some reason were a lot more coherent. For instance, much time is spent discussing the idea of ‘two sleeps’, wherein a person would awake midway through the night for a period of time – perhaps an hour or two – before lapsing back into a second sleep. This apparently was very common before the advent of artificial light and Ekirch suggests that this might be a more natural way for humans to sleep. Another tidbit of information: roads were very dangerous in early modern times, particularly at night. Writes Ekirch, “Gibbets with human corpses littered the early modern countryside. These were tall wooden posts with one or more arms from which hung the decomposing remains of executed felons, though trees provided handy substitutes. Often corpses would remain suspended in an iron cage or chains for months, warning prey and predator alike.” As gruesome as that is, this is the kind of thing I want to read about! Unfortunately, these descriptions were few and far between throughout the book.

If you are writing a paper about life in the pre-industrial era, this would be an excellent resource for you. However if you are looking for a non-fiction bedtime read, I’d probably give this a pass.

The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht

tigerIt is not often that I feel the simultaneous urge to both read a book at a voracious pace and discontinue reading it altogether. The Tiger’s Wife may be the first. This seeming paradox was achieved by Obreht’s beautiful writing and the intriguing story she creates, coupled with the intense and disturbing violence riddled throughout the novel. I actually had to skim a few sections – something I can’t recall ever doing in a novel. Luckily Obreht’s main character, Natalia, was someone I connected with immediately. Natalia is a young doctor, trying to inoculate young children in a war-torn region. The story takes place in an unnamed country in the Balkans, but through the various descriptions and invented place-names, images of Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo come to mind. I liked that Obreht chose a fictional place for her novel; there was never any pressure to read up on the history, culture, geography of the place, since it didn’t exist (I often feel this urge when I’m reading about a place I’m not familiar with). All you need is a passing knowledge of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and actually, you could probably get away with not knowing anything at all.The main crux of the story is that Natalia’s grandfather turns up dead in a remote town and no one knows how he got there or why he was there in the first place. About a third of the book centres around Natalia trying to figure out this mystery; the other two-thirds are comprised mainly of Natalia recalling some of the stories her grandfather often told her. I’m not one for a story-within-a-story. Normally I find it a fairly annoying format. However the two major stories, that of The Deathless Man and The Tiger’s Wife, are so interesting and wrapped in a good layer of magical realism, that I became completely absorbed in them. Obreht manages to create a very dark world but also one that is mystical and bordering on the absurd. It’s hauntingly beautiful. Except for the violence. It’s hard to ignore the violence. As a vegetarian I didn’t particularly enjoy the graphic descriptions of animals being butchered and their bodies cut apart. But the worst by far were the terribly brutal scenes of a young deaf-mute girl being beaten by her husband. I could only get through it by skimming. I guess the violence – both animal and human – are meant to represent the savageness of war and what years of conflict can do to a people. I appreciate the point of the violence, I just didn’t enjoy reading it. However if you can make it past those difficult sections, you are rewarded with a well-crafted story and very high-quality writing.

As an aside, Obreht was only 25 years old when this novel was published. It’s astonishing that a 25-year-old could write something so sophisticated, dark, and teeming with wisdom. I don’t know who to be more jealous of: Téa Obreht or Eleanor Catton. Sigh.

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