Book Review: Aubrey McKee by Alex Pugsley

Aubrey McKee
Alex Pugsley

This collection of stories about a well-to-do kid from Halifax’s South End is apparently meant to be the first in a 5-part fictionalized autobiographical series. This book covers Aubrey’s childhood and teenage years in the 70s and 80s, and includes a cast of characters that range from his parents’ friends to drug-dealing ruffians from the poorer parts of town, to a collection of eccentrics and misfits who are the early adopters of Halifax’s vibrant punk music scene in the early 80s. But Aubrey’s life is pretty insular and posh. Private school, tennis lessons, and yacht clubs all play a role in his development and it’s only when another character tells him off and points out that his life is nothing at all like that of other Halifax youth (a refreshing twist, because I wasn’t sure the author actually had that self-awareness up to that point and was beginning to think he might be an awful jerk), that it became clear that somebody had the great good sense to consider Aubrey a poncy twat, and to call him on it.

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Bookish – In Which I Offer Mini Reviews for Many Books

Nobody reads my book reviews anyway, so I figure it’s totally okay if I cheat and pile a bunch into one post. I just want a place to record everything I’ve read because otherwise I’ll pick up the same title five years from now and read it again, and seriously, there are too many books to read, I’m not reading something twice unless it changes my life in some way.

So here’s what I’ve been reading lately…

Crow Winter
Karen McBride
This novel about a young Anishinaabe woman returning to her family home after the death of her father reads more like a young adult novel with traditional characters from the spirit world coming to life to help her come to terms with her loss and save her community. Beautiful artwork throughout by the author. A good entry point for readers of colonial descent to learn more about First Nations culture.

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Book Review — Lonely, Count Me In

Lonely: A Memoir
Count Me In: How I Stepped Off the Sidelines, Created Connection, and Built a Fuller, Richer, More Lived-In Life
Emily White

This pair of books by Emily White came to me at a strange time. Earlier this year I came down with a very weird case of laryngitis. Part allergic reaction/part bizarre cold (it’s entirely possible that I came into contact with Covid-19 before the official counts started), I was without a usable voice for six weeks, during which time I tried to go out and be social but failed miserably because I couldn’t talk loud enough to take part in any kind of conversation. I was feeling isolated and lonely (I’ve never found social media to be particularly “social”) and picked up Lonely thinking it might offer some solutions.

White was a Toronto environmental lawyer who left her practice to become a writer. Her loneliness did not stem from actually being alone with no social supports, however. She had family, friends, co-workers, and neighbours, but felt disconnected from all of them. She explores the differences (and similarities) between depression and loneliness, as well as the stigma attached to the admission of being lonely in an extroverted world. Ultimately she deals with her loneliness by getting out into the world where she meets her partner and is able to move away from the anxiety that has crippled her.

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Book Review — The Authenticity Project

The Authenticity Project
Clare Pooley

While most of us would acknowledge that we don’t share our true selves with the people around us, even the ones we love the most, are we more inclined to share our true thoughts with strangers? What about if we knew those strangers might come back to haunt us?

When artist Julian Jessop pours out his heart in a notebook and leaves it in a cafe for someone else to find, ideally also sharing their own story and then passing it on, he didn’t expect that the book, and the readers, would find its way back to him and the cafe. In its travels the green notebook collects Monica, the anal retentive cafe owner; Hazard, a… well, a bro-dude douchbag; then Riley, an Australian landscaper; on to Alice, a Mommy instagrammer pretending to have a perfect life; and then Lizzy, the busybody who brings the happy collection of friends, and the lies within their “truths”, crashing down.

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Book Review — wow, no thank you.

wow, no thank you
Samantha Irby

Is it possible to make a career out of blogging? More specifically is it possible to make a career out of blogging about your digestive issues? Comedic writer Samantha Irby has not only done that but has translated her hilarious blog Bitches Gotta Eat to three books of essays (plus an ebook about New Year resolutions), as well as writing gigs for television shows such as Shrill.

Irby’s latest book wow, no thank you. continues on the themes in her previous titles, with fun new content as she writes about her life in Kalamazoo, Michigan where she is now a married homeowner with two stepkids. The essay Detachment Parenting talks about how she should not be a role model for kids, and A Guide to Simple Home Repairs speaks for every one of us who were never taught how to be handy when faced with issues such as “what do gutters do” or “what is that damp looking shit on the ceiling.” I was less enthralled with Late-1900s Time Capsule which details every song Irby would put on a mixtape and why. Not because Irby isn’t funny and earnest as she explains her selections, but because if her choices are not your particular groove, it probably won’t resonate. Continue reading “Book Review — wow, no thank you.”

Book Review — The Cure For Hate

The Cure for Hate: A Former White Supremacist’s Journey from Violent Extremism to Radical Compassion
Tony McAleer

Anyone who lived through the punk scene of the late 80s/early 90s probably remembers the nazi punks. Devolved from their enlighten anti-racist skinhead brethren, these boneheads made a game out of showing up at punk or industrial gigs and starting fights in the mosh pit. They’d strut, arms linked, down Yonge Street to stand outside gay bars threatening patrons with violence (incidentally, no matter how tough of a nazi skinhead you think you are, that 6’4″ drag queen is probably a better street fighter than you’ll ever be). I knew (and punched) a fair number of nazi punks in my time, but from the perspective of supporting friends who were gay or people of colour, I never really grasped what made these jerks such angry racists.

Turns out… not much.

Tony McAleer had a good childhood; supportive parents, private schools, trips abroad. But because his father was vaguely neglectful (and I’m not judging here, really, but McAleer’s teenage reaction to his doctor father’s absences seem out of line given how bad his life really wasn’t), he became an angry youth who found friendship and support within a music scene that morphed at some point to make hate its main focus. From there he moved further into the white supremacist movement, becoming the face and spokesperson for many organizations both in Canada and the US.

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Book Review — Recipe For a Perfect Wife

Recipe For a Perfect Wife
Karma Brown

I flagged Recipe For a Perfect Wife after a review (or maybe it was a press release) made it out to be a bit of a thriller. While there was murder and mayhem, it was of a more genteel sort, served with tea sandwiches and cake, that was not much of a challenge.

A dual storyline — Nellie in the 1950s and Alice in 2018 — tells of both women’s lives in the same suburban house. Both women have secrets, and are living unhappy lives, making choices mostly to please their respective husbands. Nellie’s mid-century marriage is full of abuse, belittlement, and even rape, while Alice is a modern working gal who has torpedoed her career and agrees to move to the burbs as some form of self-imposed penance.

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Book Review — The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony

The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony
Adam Platt, 2019

Adam Platt has been the restaurant critic at New York Magazine since 2000, when he took over from Gael Green. His own food background skews heavily to Asian cuisine as he spent his formative years in Japan and China, so while he has no formal cooking background, he has a deep understanding of the current food scene.

The early chapters of The Book of Eating read more like a very tasty auto-biography, detailing Platt’s childhood eating experiences in the US and abroad. These are engaging as part of the bigger story and especially for anyone interested in regional Asian cuisine, but I can see where and why some readers on Goodreads gave up near the beginning as Platt doesn’t really dish a lot of dirt on the NYC food scene, and he can tend to be repetitive with phrases that he presumes are witty (the term “boiled owl” appears far too often).

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Book Review — The Great Believers

The Great Believers
Rebecca Makkai

I approached this one with trepidation. Set partially in 1985 – 1990 in Chicago’s gay scene, it deals with the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the devastation it caused within that community. My first job after high school was delivering meals in a hospital and although the gay scene in Halifax was tiny there were still a handful of AIDS patients at that time, placed on the cancer ward because the hospital didn’t know what else to do with them. Amongst a flood of ignorance and misinformation, many of my co-workers refused to deliver trays to these patients, so I found myself regularly getting called in for an evening shift and working only one ward (about 25 beds out of 900). I got to know a lot of these men in their last days, and with many of my close friends also being gay men, it was terrifying to watch.

The Great Believers follows Yale in the 1980s as he watches his friends die one by one, supported by his friend Nico’s younger sister, Fiona. The book then jumps to 2015 as Fiona arrives in Paris in search of her estranged daughter. The work jumps back and forth between time frames and while it first seems as if the book is two separate, disjointed story lines, things come together and we discover that Fiona, jokingly referred to as “Saint Fiona of Chicago” for her support of her brother and many of his friends as they died carries her own trauma and PTSD which has affected her life and that of those around her.

Makkai creates a parallel between the AIDS epidemic and the Great War/Spanish Flu epidemic with the storyline of Nora, Fiona’s great aunt, who was a model in Paris before and after the first world war, and who has valuable artwork that Yale tries to secure for the gallery where her works. Nora lost many of her friends and colleagues, either at the front or from the flu, or other related ways (such as suicide) after the fact.

Although the story appears to be about Yale, Fiona is actually the central character, both in her involvement with her boys in the 80s and in 2015 as she goes searching for her daughter and discovers that she’s never really let go of the trauma of the 1980s; she still lives and works in Chicago at a charity shop that donates proceeds to AIDS charities even though most of the people she loved are gone.

But the world has changed in 30 years. Some of the men she knew came through the epidemic unscathed (no glove, no love, people!), some who were believed to be dead show up healthy and robust thanks to the advances in drug therapy in the late 1990s/early 2000s. And Fiona realizes that she’s the only one who hasn’t let go and moved on. And that her dedication to the memory of her boys has destroyed other, current — and incredibly important — relationships.

The Great Believers has been picked up for development by Amy Poehler, so we can probably expect to see the book made into a series within the next couple of years. Still worth reading in the interim though, especially if you lived through those awful years and are still carrying those memories around with you.

June 2019 Reading List

There Are No Grown-Ups: A Mid-Life Coming of Age Story
Pamela Druckerman
The author of a best-selling book on French parenting, Druckerman’s take on turning 40 is less self-help or advice and more memoir. Which, despite having read most of the book, didn’t do much for me. As an old freak, I keep looking for takes on turning 40/50 with a unique perspective and while Druckerman (an American living in Paris) does have interesting theories and experiences on this issue in terms of France vs America, especially when it comes to things like style, sexual affairs, and body-positivity, ultimately it felt a bit light.

The Paragon Hotel
Lyndsay Faye
A gangster’s moll in 1921 Harlem, sporting twin gunshot wounds and dragging a bag containing $50,000 in counterfeit cash, boards a train heading west. And ends up at the only black hotel in Portland, Oregon, one of the whitest towns in America. There she meets a whole cast of characters and finds herself enmeshed in the kidnapping of a young black boy, which becomes a race to find him before the cross-burning KKK do. Dealing with racism, gay and transgender issues, class-ism, gangs, sex work and more, this is a sharp snapshot of a particular time period. Faye’s got the snappy wit bang on, and the dialogue, while often cryptic with references of the day, is just enthralling. Favourite work of fiction so far this year.

I.M.
Isaac Mizrahi
The most important part of the memoir/auto-biography genre is what the books don’t tell. Mizrahi spends a lot of time on his childhood; growing up in a Syrian-Jewish family and knowing he was gay at a young age causes just about as much anxiety as would be expected. Many anecdotes as well about his early fashion career, but a lot of stuff gets glossed over as the book heads into his career as an entertainer. Seriously — we all want to know about the Scarlett Johansson boob squeeze! Mizrahi is at his best as a writer when he’s describing clothes, whether his own designs or the great outfits of his mother’s that have inspired him.

The Durrells of Corfu
Michael Haag
If you fell in love with the TV series based on Gerald Durrell’s fictional Corfu trilogy, this is the real story of the Durrell family, from their time in India (where they were all born) to their time in Greece and after the war. All the stuff that was left out and that will help the trilogy and the TV series make more sense (Louisa lost a child — born between Larry and Leslie — to diphtheria, and that’s why Leslie was so coddled; she also made a friend of the gin bottle and had a nervous breakdown while in England, prompting the family’s move to Corfu). Find out who was real (Theo, Spiro, Lugaretzia), and who was left out (Larry’s wife Nancy, who was with the family in Greece the whole time, was not included in the books or the series). This filled in a lot of holes for me, and knowing more about the family’s life in colonial India (they had piles of servants, the kids had an ayah) explains much about their often uncomfortable interactions with the people of Corfu.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
Matthew Walker
I’ve been a staunch advocate of getting enough sleep — every night — for a long time and Walker’s research links lack of sleep with lots of bad stuff, most notably dementia. He also explores the differences in the types of sleep and why we need both. If sleep is the last thing on your to-do list, you’ll be prioritizing things differently after reading this.

The Cutting Season
Attica Locke
Set in 2009 on an Antebellum-era “living museum” sugar plantation, The Cutting Season maybe tries too hard to be too many things. There’s history and mystery and they weave together, but also race relations, gentrification, a story about family and family history and the interlacing of families. Which is a lot to pull together. Descriptions are beautiful and characters are mostly well-developed but I found there to be too many flashbacks and most readers will have figured out the identity both of “who done it” and “who is it” early in the plot.

Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad and Criminal in 19th Century New York
Stacy Horn
Blackwell’s Island, now known as Roosevelt Island, was once the place where the undesirables of New York City were sent to be treated, or not. The island housed an asylum (famously documented by journalist Nellie Bly), a almshouse (where aged or disabled people went when they were completely unable to work), a prison, a hospital, and a workhouse (different from the British workhouse model, this was more like a jail where people served short-term sentences). None of these institutions were run properly, and Horn details the various travesties that took place over the course of the 1800s. Terrifyingly, some of the same issues with poor patient treatment continued into the 20th and even 21st centuries.

Daisy Jones and the Six
Taylor Jenkins Reid
Another contender for favourite fiction of the year. Daisy Jones and the Six were the biggest band in the world until they all walked away from fame, mid-tour. Told as an “oral history” of inter-spliced interviews with band members, co-workers, and family, Reid has hit upon something brilliant here. If, like me, you often get frustrated with the “It was a dark and stormy night…” wankery of authors who over-dress their setting, the minimal descriptions in each interview pushes plot, action, and dialogue to the forefront. Reid catches all the fun quirks of oral history, including how characters’ stories don’t line up or even directly contradict each other. Five stars, would read again.

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
Ruth Reichl
Detailing Reichl’s time as the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and how she took it from a fusty old tome for “gastronomes” to a hip and cool publication that helped shaped the current international food scene. The world was devastated to learn that the Conde Nast was pulling the plug on the successful magazine and Reichl explains how none of the staff really saw it coming. Offers great insight into the world of mainstream media, the process for putting together a monthly magazine, and Reichl’s own life at the time. Told in her engaging and informative style, this will just make you want to flip through old copies wishing it was still around.