National Geographic Traveller: Egypt 2nd edition
(National Geographic: 2007)
READ: December 2010 - January 2011
I actually never read through the entire book, but dipped in and out, here and there, as one is wont to do with a travel guide. Lonely Planet's forte is getting you out and about, explaining the how and why to go places. I like them a lot. We didn't feel a need to purchase a Lonely Planet guide to Egypt, however, prior to our travels there this winter, as most of our trip was going to be spent with a tour group, and we had a fairly clear idea of what we were going to do while we were not on tour. We bought the National Geographic guide because it was so beautiful, and had such extensive entries on the various sites, both from an archaeological and a cultural viewpoint. It was absolutely fantastic for this purpose, and served us well on a number of occasions where we had to decide between visiting Optional Location A and Optional Location B. (The option to visit neither never even occurred to us; this is how we travel.) The guide was well-written, with a lot of detail but never too much, and, quite importantly, beautiful photos accompanying the text to illustrate exactly what was being discussed (some other guides do not have enough photos). My only regret was that I did not have time to read through the entire long section on visiting the Cairo Museum before we actually went there.
My first mistake was trying to read this whilst on vacation in Mexico. While it worked well as a book to read on the flight down (indeed, I picked it up in a bookstore only a day or two prior to our departure), the post-apocalyptic desolation of the book did not ring true while on a lush, sunny beach. However, post-vacation, I was able to return to this book.
I had a few friends who had read it and sung its praises, one of the reasons I picked it up. They talked about the nightmarish quality of the book and of the engrossing nature of its writing. I thought the book was good and well-written; however, I wasn't sure why it was so lauded. One of the book's qualities, I think, was in how it keeps feeling like something is about to happen, yet nothing (almost ever) does. The post-apocalyptic world isn't full of monsters and excitement; it is full of day after day spent on the move, trying to find somewhere with enough food to sustain yourself. That was well-done by McCarthy. Maybe it is because I have watched Randal play Fallout 3 too much; maybe I have just spent too much time thinking, reading, or watching things about the apocalypse, but I didn't find McCarthy's vision of the post-apocalyptic world particularly frightening. Yeah, it's quiet, and scary, and hard to find food, and not everyone is out there to help you. It's the post-apocalypse.
In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century Geert Mak Translated by Sam Garrett (Pantheon Books, New York City: 2007)
First published in the Netherlands as In Europa by Uitgeverij Atlas, Amsterdam, c. 2004 Geert Mak.
READ: April 2009
Heather Mallick, one of my favourite Viewpoint & Analysis columnists on the CBC website, reviewed this book about 6 months ago, and I was immediately intrigued. The book instantly went on my must-read list, though in the form of a request on a long hold list at the public library.
Well, Christmas - as I like to call it when I get an email about a long-forgotten book now being held for me at the library - arrived at the beginning of April. I sunk into this book with very little hesitation, and found it quite hard to get out.
Geert Mak, a journalist for a Dutch newspaper and an acclaimed Dutch author, spent the year 1999 travelling all across Europe in search of eyewitnesses and contemporary accounts of historical events from the past century. He takes us to so many places and introduces us to so many people. The 20th century was anything but dull for Europeans. But Mak's book is not a mere recitation of facts, dates, and events. He assumes his reader already knows the basic outlines of modern history, and so, while he does spend some time giving historical and political background, he mostly explores events through the people who experienced them.
20th century Europe was not always a happy place to be, depending on where you ended up. There was so much bloodshed, so much violence, so much turmoil. Mak does a very good job at putting a human face on much of this. On the one hand, that makes things like the rise of Nazism and Hitler in 1930s socialist Germany easier to understand; on the other, it also makes things like "the Troubles" in Ireland that much more horrifying, gut-wrenching, and disturbing. Mak makes recent European history personal.
Weighing in at just over 800 pages, this is a huge book! I had to read it far too quickly, and had to absorb a lot of information, drama, and emotion in each sitting. Sometimes it overwhelmed me for that reason. But mostly it just compelled me to keep reading (even if that compulsion was occasionally caused by a feeling of "if you keep reading, things must get better"). Mak's writing is lucid and clear, his eye for detail is keen, and he knows how to tell a story in such a way that the events become very personal.
Happiness Will Ferguson
(Penguin Group Canada, Toronto: 2002)
READ: April 2009
One of my all-time favourite books. I have read it at least three times since first picking it up in 2004 (because I found the giant daisy on the cover was, ironically, pleasing). I hadn't heard of Will Ferguson before, though he has since become one of my favourite authors. I have since bought the book again at least three times, since I kept giving away my own copy to others.
It is a story about self-help books. One day, junior editor Edwin, desperate to show the boss that he is working on something, pulls - not out of his slush pile but literally out of the garbage - a giant, rambling manuscript someone had sent in, claiming it to be The Only Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need. The book and its claims are clearly ludicrous, but the boss gets Edwin to push through and get it published. The book is an instant success...except instead of reading it and moving along to the next trendy thing, people start taking its advice to heart. They quit their jobs, move to communes, start farming sustainably. They quit smoking and drinking, too. But even worse, they stop buying self-help books. Soon, the world's biggest problem is that everyone, everyone is just too darn happy. Except for Edwin.
The first time I read this book, I remember many laugh-out-loud moments. There were a number of chuckles this time around, too. Ferguson is witty and concise, his characters are likeable, and his insight into the human psyche is spot-on as well as amusing.
The Hike It, Bike It, Walk It, Drive It Guide to Ottawa, the Gatineau, Kingston and Beyond Ann Campbell (Boston Mills Press, Erin (Ont.): 2001)
READ: intermittent to March 2009
A good book to help me discover some of these places literally next door. I have yet to undertake an entire one of Campbell's suggested excursions, but I have done some in part; for example, hiking up to the Mackenzie King estate in Gatineau Park. I keep this one nearby and often consult it when starting to wonder what to do on an upcoming Saturday. My one complaint: each described excursion would be well-served by an accompanying map. There isn't a single map in the whole book.
Watchmen Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (DC Comics, New York: 2008)
Originally published in serialized form, 1986-87.
READ: March 2009
Read the graphic novel in anticipation of going to see the movie, and I was so glad I did. Seemingly the story of how a number of retired superhero crime-fighters are now, apparently, being slowly targeted and eliminated, it is also, and much more importantly, a larger story of the fight for world domination and the end of the world. I thought the movie did a decent job of conveying the story onto the screen. The action and movement that is packed into the novel, however, is amazing. I may have to read some more graphic novels, if anyone has any suggestions.
Frankenstein Mary Shelley Wordsworth Classics edition (Dover Publications, New York: 1994)
First published in 1816.
READ: February-March 2009
I've had this book for many years now, and had tried once or twice to read it with no success. This time, I did! You really have to be in the mood for some Victorian literature - it's wordy, with lots of big words. (Hey, I have 2 graduate degrees - I know a big word when I see one.) Plus, it's written in the "confessional" style, which is probably my least favourite writing style. And not only is it confessional in tone, it's purportedly written by Dr. Frankenstein, who hears all this from the monster himself. The monster had initially fled after Dr. Frankenstein expressed horror at the being he had just created. Over the course of many, many years, he apparently taught himself English by living in the shed of an unsuspecting family in Switzerland, listening to their conversations and watching their interactions, night after night. His English is impeccable! And very Victorian. Then there is a whole string of misunderstood events that lead to a fairly high body count, and a multi-country pursuit.
However, once I was able to suspend my disbelief and get past the fact that the monster spoke as if he'd fallen out of a novel, it was, in fact, a fairly enjoyable story. It is not a very long book, and the story has a good pace. By the end, you really do feel sorry for the monster.