Best Non-Fiction of 2017

There was less non-fiction in my 2017 reading list, but so much of it was incredibly inspiring, and I really had trouble coming up with my favourites, although #1 and #2 just blew me away.

1. Les Parisiennes
Anne Sebba
This is a wholly comprehensive look at Parisienne women during WW2. Edith Piaf, for instance, worked with the Germans so she could smuggle identity papers into concentration camps. Other women hid or smuggled Jews, catalogued stolen artwork, worked as spies, and spread resistance notices. Many women, like Colette, tried to ignore the whole thing, while some, like Chanel, thought their best bet was to collaborate. Masterfully researched, the book covers so many people it can sometimes be difficult to follow, but it does astound with the bravery and courage these women exhibited in the face of rape, torture, concentration camps, and death.

2. Hannah’s Dress: Berlin 1904 – 2014
Pascale Hugues
I LOVED the premise of this book, which is not about a dress, but rather a small street and its history. The author, a French ex-pat, researches her street in Berlin, tracking down and telling the stories of some of the many people who lived there, including the descendants of some of the well-to-do Jews (lawyers, doctors) who fled or who were killed by the Nazis. She finds some German families too, with their own tales of woe, and even some recent neighbours (like Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream, who hosted David Bowie in his flat during the 70s). The book falters in the translation, which is clunky in parts, and when Hugues is telling her own story about the present-day changes to the street, she often comes across as weirdly judgmental but this could also be a translation issue. Nonetheless, a really cool book that is worth a read.

3. We Were Feminists Once: From Riotgrrl to Covergirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement
Andi Zeisler
If everything is empowering to women, then nothing is actually empowering. Zeisler looks at the commodification of feminism and how it’s become just another way to sell things to women (while mostly still making us feel bad about ourselves). Read this, think about your choices, and understand both how you’re being marketed to and how to avoid it. Also, is “empowerment” just a pink, glittery, watered-down, inoffensive term for personal “power”? 

(more…)

Read More

Best Fiction of 2017

Last year, I managed to read 111 books. It was actually closer to 120 but there were a few I didn’t include on my big list, either for personal reasons (self-help or psychology books), or because I bailed less than halfway through. But I wanted to take a look back at my favourite titles and compile a Top 10. So here are my 10 favourite fiction books from 2017…

1. The Lonely Hearts Hotel
Heather O’Neill
This was perhaps the most breathtaking book I’ve read all year. It had gangsters, nightclubs, masochistic nuns, millionaires, twists of fate, junkies, rollerskating, imaginary bears, bejeweled apples, a pair of young star-crossed lovers and… clowns. A dark, gritty story about a pair of children who meet in an orphanage and discover they have special talents, who are then parted and have to find each other again. O’Neill’s descriptions are gorgeously vivid, her metaphors like bits of poetry. Her female protagonist Rose kicks ass throughout the whole story, and I love that O’Neill has made her so strong, such a great survivor. I so want to see this made into a film.

2. The Napoli Novels
Elena Ferrante
Counting these (as one entry) because I read 2 of the 4 in 2017. They’re fighting with The Lonely Hearts Hotel for 1st place, honestly. 
Read full review.

3. Men Walking On Water
Emily Schulz
An exquisitely woven story about Detroit-Windsor rumrunners near the end of prohibition. Schulz offers robust character development, a logical yet intricate plot, and a well-written, well-researched novel. Great flow makes it a quick read, even at over 500 pages.

(more…)

Read More

Book Review – Four Great Books About Strong, Amazing Women

lilacgirlsNot by design, my fiction selections recently have all been about strong, amazing women, and have all been written by women. This is the general inclination of my taste in fiction anyway (more Colette, less Hemingway), but there seems to be a general consensus in the mainstream that there just aren’t great stories about strong women out there. I think that’s an incorrect assumption. There might not be as many stories with female protagonists as there are male, but there is some great fiction available featuring fabulous gals doing memorable things.

Lilac Girls
Martha Hall Kelly

What do a New York socialite, a Polish underground resistance fighter and a Nazi doctor all have in common? Not much, actually, but in Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls their stories weave together through the time period of WW2 and the following decades. Polish teenager Kasia is sent to the all-female concentration camp Ravensbruck where Herta, a young German doctor, takes part in experiments on Kasia and her sister. Years later the sisters are helped by socialite Caroline to receive medical treatment to fix the damage done by the Nazi testing, as well as to track down Herta to ensure she can no longer practice medicine.

The strongest of the stories here, and the most heart-wrenching is Kasia’s, based on the true story of Nina Ivanska, which details the treatment of the camp prisoners, including the tests done on the “rabbits” of Ravensbruck. The guilt she feels at causing her sister, mother and some neighbours to also be picked up in the sweeps of Polish resistance fighters plagues her long after she is free from the torture of the camp. I felt that Herta was not explored in as much detail as she could have been, and there are whole periods where we do not hear from her (such as her time in jail, trial at Nuremberg, etc) that might have, if not made her more sympathetic, at least been a window into what she felt, or was thinking, during the tests she did on innocent women. We get her emotions and thoughts when she first arrives at the camp, and when she is fleeing from the allies, but not much to help us understand the why of her actions during the tests.

As Caroline doesn’t interact with Kasia until decades after the war, Kelly has given Caroline a fictional storyline to interweave her plot with the other main characters. While this love story would be a great novel on its own, it felt distracting interspersed with what was going on with the other characters.

Overall, though, a truly interesting story that had me searching the internet for more information about the Ravensbruck rabbits and how they recovered from their atrocious treatment.

(more…)

Read More

Four Books on Goth

gothchic

In my exploration of Nu Goth and Dark Mori recently, one of the points I kept coming across was that the Goth kids of today just didn’t take the time to learn about the origins of their subculture. And while there is plenty of information online for anyone capable of using the Goggle box, for some reason we still look to the dead tree format as the last authoritarian word on any given subject. So I went to the good ol’ library and pulled some books on Goth to see what exactly is the definitive and printed word on the subject.

I guess the most important thing to note is that there aren’t a great number of non-fiction books about Goth, and of those that exist, many were created by small imprints and aren’t widely available. What I was able to track down is fairly dated, but as they mostly cover the history of the scene, would be a good launch pad for anyone wanting to start from the beginning.

Goth Chic by Gavin Baddeley was originally published in 2002, making it the oldest of our collection. Despite the title, the book mostly deals with the origins and influences of the scene, including art, literature, film and television, and only touches on fashion in one chapter. Baddeley splits most topics into classic and modern chapters, separating the work of Edgar Allan Poe from from that of Anne Rice, for instance. The music chapter is more of a primer, covering the origins of Goth music and the first Goth bands, but keeps things pretty basic. Even with the “primer” aspect of Goth Chic, Baddeley manages to cram a lot of information into its 288 pages, in part by using a teeny tiny font. Printed in black and white, Goth Chic looks its age, but is a wealth of basic information.

(more…)

Read More

Book Review – My Life as a Pretender

 

chrissiehynde_reckless_cover

Reckless: My Life as a Pretender
Chrissie Hynde

The most interesting thing about biographies, especially autobiographies, is what isn’t included. So often, a person’s story intertwines with that of someone else’s, who may not wish to have their dirty laundry displayed for all to see.

In Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, the singer shares some incredibly raw events, but stays quiet on others. Telling the story of her life up to the end of The Pretenders and the deaths of band mates James Honeyman-Scott in 1982 and bass player Pete Farndon in 1983, Reckless details Hynde’s time as a hippie, witnessing the massacre at Kent State, and watching from the sidelines as all her friends in the London punk scene go on to form bands and sign record contracts, but is often mum or overly subdued on her real relationships. For instance, after nearly marrying Ray Davies of The Kinks, they went on to have a child together, and while Davies is included because their relationship fell within the time-line of the book, he had apparently asked not to be, so references to him are minimal.

(more…)

Read More

Not So Bright

There must be thousand of titles on bookstore shelves that deal with positive thinking. Achieve your goals, get your perfect mate, advance your career… all by simply being positive. Did you ever stop to wonder how many people that system actually works for?

Author Barbara Ehrenreich did, and wrote a book about it called Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. As evidenced by the title, Ehrenreich isn’t buying the positivity thing. Her own point of view comes from two separate situations, both of which she outlines in the book.

First, she recounts her experience with breast cancer and the seemingly constant mantra to always think positive thoughts. There is a whole industry surrounding cancer, particularly breast cancer, that hinges on people keeping positive and buying inspirational items (think of the pink ribbon campaign) to keep spirits up. When Ehrenreich admits on an online message board for cancer survivors that she sometimes feels grumpy or angry, people publicly admonish her. The belief that people are causing their own cancer, or are preventing their recovery by not being positive enough is quite prevalent.

Ehrenreich’s second experience with positive thinking – and the way in which people make money off of others’ desperation – comes when she writes a book about white collar workers who have been downsized and are trying to get back into the workforce. So much of the career counselling she writes about includes life coaches who help their clients learn positive thinking to achieve their career goals. But Ehrenreich isn’t buying it, noting that none of the positive thinking courses she took helped her to hone or improve workplace skills.

(more…)

Read More

Nose in a Book

It’s a sad fact that most of the reading I do nowadays is work-related. 200+ news articles a day to sort through for Save Your Fork and TasteTO, books to review, articles to edit. And even my “just for fun” stack of reading tends towards food theory.

Before the holidays I combed the book guides in the newspapers and spent an afternoon on the Toronto Public Library website requesting books, a number of which were novels. Three of them finally became available last week and I bemoaned my misfortune and lack of foresight in not making some of them inactive (TPL lets you stay in the queue for popular books but accept them only when you’re ready). How was I going to get through all of these in the three weeks I was allowed to have them checked out?

Of course, I forgot how fast I can read fiction. I forgot what’s it’s like to get my nose in a book. I forgot that when I’m in the middle of a story, nothing else matters and nothing else registers. Being pulled from that story, whether by interruption or necessity is physically, agonizingly painful. Like being awakened in the middle of a sound sleep and dragged out of bed. My facial expression during the 24 hours it took me to read The Book of Negroes was almost permanently at a scowl unless I was actually reading. If I wasn’t in the book, I was thinking about how I could get back to it, or how perturbed I was at having to set it down.

(more…)

Read More

Picking and Choosing

I had an interesting conversation the other night with two different people involved with small independent bookstores. The conversation touched on how customers come into their respective stores and get upset when they don’t have something in stock. But as a small indie shop, they don’t have the space or budget to carry every single title in the genres in which they specialize. So they have to make a decision as to what makes the cut. And their customers mostly have to trust that judgment.

The art of curating (or editing) – it takes place all the time, in every industry, on every level. It’s somebody’s job to decide what products make it onto shelves and racks in various stores, what artwork is included in a show, what stories make it to the pages of magazines and book anthologies.

There’s a certain unfairness to it, of course – depending on the topic or product there might be 5 or 20 or 100 things that don’t make the cut for every 1 that does. This also comes with a lot of responsibility – woe be to the fashion buyer who chooses incorrectly and sticks her store with something that doesn’t sell – especially if it was ordered in the hundred – or thousands.

(more…)

Read More