Guide: Van Gogh Museum from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

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Guide : Van Gogh Museum
from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

READ: November 2008

Bought this when we went to the Museum in 2005. It's actually in French (they were out of English copies). "The Sower", the painting I was writing a paper on for my art history course is actually on display at the van Gogh Museum, so there was some good information specifically on that particular painting. I really like museum guides generally - they are a good reminder of what I saw at the museum - and this is certainly one of the better ones.

Van Gogh by Keith Wheldon

Van Gogh
Keith Wheldon
(Smithmark Publishers, New York: 1995)

READ: October-November 2008

Again, I read this for my art history course paper. This is a giant coffee table book that a friend gave to me many years ago before moving overseas. Finally I had a reason to use it, rather than moving it from bookshelf to bookshelf in one apartment after another (bookshelves it never fit on, I might add). Wheldon looks at van Gogh's work in the larger context of contemporary art movements, and many of the works have a few pages dedicated just to critiquing (detailing) the techniques used in each one.

Discoveries: Van Gogh: The Passionate Eye by Pascal Bonafoux

Discoveries: Van Gogh: The Passionate Eye
Pascal Bonafoux
(Harry N. Abrams, New York: 1992)

READ: October-November 2008

I was writing an essay on van Gogh and, in particular, his painting "The Sower" for my art history course. I have had this book on my shelf forever. It is a detailed look at van Gogh's art and his life, including extracts from his numerous, lengthy letters to his brother, Theo, and others. While more factual than scholarly, it is a good examination of van Gogh and his particular style of Impressionism (expressionism?).

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

The Library at Night
Alberto Manguel
(Alfred A. Knopf Canada, Toronto: 2006)

READ: June - July 2008

This is a delightful book and I was sad to finish it (though largely unable to stop from compulsively reading it) and sadder still to send it back to the library from whence it came.*

Alberto Manguel is not a librarian, though he would make a marvelous one. He is a bibliophile, and knows his way around books and the written word so incredibly deeply and thoroughly. I can only hope to ever have a tiny fraction of the bookish worlds in his head. This book should be required reading for every first-year library school student. It is a wonderful tour of library history with stops at many interesting, quirky places along the way.

Some slices of my favourite parts:

  • Talking about how early Arab libraries often divided books by subject rather than alphabetically (as most early Western libraries tended to do), Manguel tells us about the doctor Abou Ali El-Hossein Ibn Sina ("Avicenna") who discovered a library at the home of one of his patients in what is today's Uzbekistan. While the doctor's account deals mostly with the expert classification of the books, I was struck in particular by the doctor's description of the resident librarian as "keeper of the live memory of the books". How apt.

  • His discussion of how the digitization of materials may, in fact, not be the saviour of our times is an interesting look at the other side of the coin. While slanted a little heavily toward the printed word - "As any reader knows, a printed page creates its own reading space, its own physical landscape in which the texture of the paper, the colour of the ink, the view of the whole ensemble acquire in the reader's hands specific meanings that lend tone and context to the words" - it is certainly enlightening in terms of helping us to question the attitude of complete and total reliance that we have taken toward electronic materials. As one good example, in 1986, the BBC undertook a massive project to digitize the Domesday Book, a census of England from the 11th century. As of March 2002, the digital copies could no longer be accessed on a computer (even on the original computers for which the discs had been made). The original paper copy, however, is still available and perfectly useable (though, granted, you have to go to Kew in Britain to see it). At the very least, these sorts of examples could be used to good effect in a library school debate on the subject.

  • Manguel's admittance that his library is larger than what he will perhaps be able to read in his lifetime made me laugh, for my library, while undoubtedly infinitely smaller and not as broad-based, is fast taking on the same unmanageable nature. "I know that my books have unlimited patience," he writes. "They will wait for me till the end of my days." I love that. In a similar vein, he then goes on to discuss the decidedly odd Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century compiler of the infamous Dictionary of the English Language, who "thought it 'strange advice' to urge someone to finish a book once started. 'You may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep to them for life.'" While I try in most cases to finish the books I have started, I am not as wedded to that ideal as I once was. With so many good books out there, why waste time reading something you don't enjoy? There are always other books waiting.

But don't get me wrong: You don't need to be a librarian to enjoy this book (though it will certainly help!). You do, however, need to love books. I for one will be keeping my eyes open and will pick up a copy of this as soon as I can find it at one of my favourite second-hand bookshops. Because, like a good friend, it would be nice to have around.

* Having written this review a few months ago and then having forgotten to upload it to this site, I am happy to add that I have since bought my own copy.

The Dog Who Wouldn't Be by Farley Mowat

The Dog Who Wouldn't Be
Farley Mowat
ill. Paul Galdone
(Bantam Books, New York: 1984)

First published by Little, Brown in 1957. Two pieces in this book first appeared in magazines - one in the Atlantic Monthly, one in the Saturday Evening Post.

READ: June - July 2008

Who doesn't know and love this book? I read it as a kid, of course, but recently re-read it during my daily commute (as are, indeed, the majority of my books consumed these days). Mowat has a very familiar, conversational, and almost intimate tone in this book, which made me, the reader, feel like he was telling me these stories directly, and I felt so pleased that he was sharing them with me. However, I find it an oddly suspicious coincidence that no sooner had I finished reading this book than Rion had his own skunk encounter. My telling of Rion's misadventure is neither as eloquent nor as entertaining as Mowat's rendition of Mutt and his numerous escapades (and, for that matter, numerous trysts with skunks). Perhaps I am biased toward dogs, but all in all, an enjoyable read.

Les Enquêtes de Vipérine Maltais : Mortels Noëls by Sylvie Brien

Les Enquêtes de Vipérine Maltais : Mortels Noëls
Sylvie Brien
(Gallimard Jeunesse, Paris: 2004)

READ: June 2008

Un livre d'enfant, évidemment. En 1920, à Montréal, Vipérine Maltais, jeune pensionnaire, est chargée de déterminer s'il fut vraiment un fantôme qui a fait peur la nuit à une des soeurs. Concept simple, mais toute une histoire se développe. Très intéressant, facile à lire, puis une bonne manière de pratiquer mon français (j'ai appris toutes sortes de nouveaux mots).

A children's book, obviously. In 1920, in Montreal, Vipérine Matais, a young girl who lives in the convent, has been assigned the task of determining whether it really was a ghost that scared one of the nuns one night. A simple premise, but a whole story develops out of this. Very interesting, easy to read, and a good way to practice my French (I learned a bunch of new words).

First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea by Paul Woodruff

First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea
Paul Woodruff
(Oxford University Press, New York City: 2005)

READ: June 2008

Jury's still out on this one. It was ... fine. But I didn't think it was very well-written (still trying to figure out why, however), and it frightened me how often I disagreed with or disputed some of his claims, leading me to wonder if I really believe in democracy at all!

Highlights (?) include:

  • The tale of the frog and the snake, one of Aesop's fables, used to illustrate how our laws are often absurd, yet somehow necessary in order to protect from tyranny (p. 211 et seq.). I found this argument unfounded, illogical, and, frankly, ridiculous. I also think the fable was a poor illustration of the point being made.

  • The fallacies in the arguments of those who would oppose democracy: mainly, that citizen wisdom will always fail since the ordinary person has neither the time, the education nor the will to make decisions, so best to defer to those with the expertise to do it for them (see p. 159 et seq.). I agree with Woodruff to a point; yet, again, his arguments (remember he is disagreeing with these claims) are not carried out as fully as they should have been.

  • In a discussion of whether the United States and other similar so-called "democracies" are ready for actual democracy (rule actually for and by the people), Woodruff has a throwaway paragraph about Canada in which he points to the actions of a citizen activist group in British Columbia as proof that Canada is, in fact, ready for actual democratic reform such as proportional representation (see 213 et seq.). Not likely, Mr. Woodruff. First of all, while proportional representation is a popular idea generally, the chances of it becoming the norm in Canada as a whole is highly unlikely, given the structure of our government. Second of all, a citizen group in B.C. is unfortunately not going to have the leverage to get this idea successfully promoted cross-Canada ... even if they could get the B.C. legislative assembly to agree. Their activism cannot be taken as representative of Canada's prevailing political will.

On the plus side, Woodruff knows a lot about the workings of Greek democracy, and that was fairly interesting. However, there are better books on the origins of democracy, and while this is a short read at just over 200 pages, I'm not sure it's worth the time.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini
(Doubleday Canada, Toronto: 2003)

READ: June 2008

One of those remarkable books where you can't really put it down despite the fact you don't really like the narrator (he *does* grow on you somewhat) and despite the fact that the last quarter of the book (or so) feels like you're watching a train rushing to an impending collision in slow-mo. Hosseini's writing is vivid and his characters jump off the page. I haven't eaten up a novel like this in a while. Truly enjoyable.*

* There is also now a movie, which I have not seen and about which I have heard mixed reviews. I'm always torn on the book-to-movie transition - a really great book does not need a movie to make it more real. And really great books often translate into mediocre movies - you can only fit so much into 2 hours. Thoughts?

Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate by Felicity Lawrence

Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate
Felicity Lawrence
(Penguin Books, London: 2004)

READ: May-June 2004

I stumbled across this book in my library's catalogue whilst searching for something else food-related for a client. Intrigued, I requested it be sent to me, and it was quite a fascinating read.

Felicity Lawrence is an investigative reporter for The Guardian in London, England, and she has been writing on food-related topics (and other things, too, undoubtedly) for over 20 years. This book focuses on the food industry in Britain*, but I have no reason to believe that things are substantially different or better in Canada and the U.S. I'm willing to bet that while things may differ in the details, the larger brushstrokes of our food distribution chains are similar.

From the back cover (because sometimes they just say it better):

In a series of undercover investigations tracking some of the most popular foods we eat at home, Felicity Lawrence travels from farms and factories to packhouses and lorry depots around the world. She discovers why beef waste ends up in chicken, why a third of apples are thrown away, why bread is full of water and air. And she shows how obesity, the plight of migrant workers, motorways clogged with juggernauts, ravaged fields in Europe and starving farmers in Africa are all connected to a handful of retailers and food manufacturers who exert unprecedented control over what we eat and where we buy it.

This book is well-written and fascinating. Lawrence isn't preachy. She isn't trying to get us to switch to all-vegetarianism or all-organics or all-local. Rather, in a series of exposés (Chicken / Salad / Beans / Bread / Apples and Bananas / Coffee and Prawns / The Ready Meal), she is simply trying to make us more aware. She eats meat, and doesn't shun (all) processed food. She even sometimes buys bananas. However, she wants to make us more aware of where our food comes from, and what is done in the system to make food as cheap and abundant as it is today (at least in the Western world). Her general philosophy is: As much as possible, buy local, seasonal, and direct. Sounds like fine advice to me.

The book is an eye-opener. Sure, I've been hearing for years about the appalling conditions in which many animals destined for slaughter are raised (chickens in tiny cages where they can't even turn around, etc.). Lawrence mentions these things, but doesn't dwell on them. Rather, she walks us through the steps in production of some of the most basic things. Like salad: there are an unbelievable number of steps involved in getting today's ready-cut, pre-washed bags of salad to the grocery store. And if you want a mini-lesson on the effects of globalization, read her chapter on Coffee and Prawns. You'll suddenly have a much better understanding of why so many countries can't afford to feed their own people.

A rather timely read, as the headlines these days are full of dire predictions for the food supply in the not-so-far-off future, and we keep hearing about the rise of food prices despite any direct evidence of that here. This book helps me understand this rising debate, and I am looking forward to reading more on the subject.

* Perhaps in some ways it would be more accurate to say "the food industry not in Britain".

Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy by Noam Chomsky

Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy
Noam Chomsky
(Owl Books (Henry Holt and Company), New York City: 2006)

Part of the American Empire Project.

READ: April-May 2008

I studied Mass Communications in my undergrad, and I remember having to read a bit of Chomsky. I didn't like him. I had no idea what he was talking about. Only much later, when I rediscovered Chomsky, did it occur to me - I had only ever been exposed to Chomsky the linguist and never[1] Chomsky the media theorist or Chomsky the political junkie.

There's a number of his books on our bookshelves, and I am looking forward to eventually making my way through them. Chomsky is just too right too much of the time. This was a very good read.

In Failed States, Chomsky traces how the United States is increasingly fitting the profile of what are generally considered to be "failed states". Some salient points that stuck with me:[2]

  • US military expenditures approximate those of the rest of the world combined, and the alleged fears over other countries strengthening militarily are likely less of a threat than the fact that the US already controls so much (shipping, etc.);

  • the derision and outright aggression directed toward those intelligence experts who have exercised caution or tried to understand the roots of terrorism (i.e., anything beyond an "us versus them" mentality);

  • Washington's long-standing habit of exempting itself from international law when appropriate;[3]

  • negotiations surrounding the Non-Proliferation Treaties of the late '90s and early '00s;[4]

  • the credibility of intelligence in various international conflicts;

  • the promotion of democracy and institutionalization of state-corporate control;

  • the incredible lack of health care;[5] and,

  • the intricacies of country-to-country relations (e.g., NAFTA, Cuba-Venezuela, etc.).

I'm a left-leaning small-l liberal who believes that corporate interests have taken over way more of our daily life than is healthy. So needless to say, I agree with Chomsky a lot. But even for those who might not agree so readily, he's pretty hard to argue against. His information is all painstakingly footnoted and documented. While no doubt there is a certain level of spin applied to what he is saying, you can't dismiss him as a crank. He is obviously knowledgeable and clearly interested in the future of the US. He also writes clearly (unlike his linguistics work which, having recently returned to one text out of simple curiosity, I still can't make heads or tails out of) and compellingly. Even for those who may not be hugely political persons, this book will surely interest and captivate.

[1] Or, to be fair to my program, never as far as I can remember, some 15 years later.

[2] Somewhat unfortunately, I am writing this book review almost two years after reading the book. I don't remember many details. However, somewhat fortunately, I did make liberal use of sticky tabs whilst reading this book.

[3] The particular passage that I marked had a mention of Michael Ignatieff, now the leader of the Liberal Party, and his apparent support of some of the violations of the Geneva Convention (see p. 54). I really must learn more about this.

[4] Including a quote from the recriminations from the head of Canada's delegations, Paul Martin (see p. 77). Yay for Canada references!

[5] Keeping in mind I read this book two years ago, that was waaaay before Obama's health care reform was even a twinkle in the electorate's eye. And it was hugely overdue (and one of the better signs of real common sense that I've seen coming out of the US in a really long time).

You Grow, Girl: The Groundbreaking Guide to Gardening by Gayla Trail

You Grow, Girl: The Groundbreaking Guide to Gardening
Gayla Trail
(Simon & Schuster, Toronto: 2005)

READ: April-May 2008

This was another good recommendation from Rebecca; apparently her sister swears by it. It's a perky guide to gardening with lots of great ideas (both very practical and very I-have-better-Martha-Stewart-things-to-do-with-my-time). Doesn't assume you know what you're doing from the get-go - if I knew how to garden, do you think I'd be buying a how-to-garden book??? Trail starts really from scratch and explains everything, from soil composition to reading a seed packet label to dealing with bugs, etc. Lots of handy illustrations, lots of fun projects, lots of encouragement. Most importantly, she recognizes that: (a) not everyone is a good gardener, so she shows how to scale projects appropriately; and (b) not everyone has a large garden space to make their own, so she includes projects such as container gardening and even guerilla gardening. I would have never bought this if Rebecca hadn't recommended it; at first glance, it seems kind of trendy and - *gasp!* - chick-litty, but it really does have some good, solid information in it.

Stitch 'N Bitch: The Knitter's Handbook by Debbie Stoller

Stitch 'n Bitch: The Knitter's Handbook
Debbie Stoller
ill. Adrienne Yan, photos John Dolan
(Workman Publishing, New York City: 2003)

READ: April 2008

Rebecca recommended that I buy this book. Having learned to knit whilst in Japan, now back in Ottawa I no longer had a regular knitting group upon whose experiences I could draw,* so she suggested I pick this up. And I am so glad she did - it's fantastic!

It's clearly written, with good examples and step-by-step instructions. I've learned lots already and can't wait to try some of the projects in here! Stoller has a good sense of humour, and the book is quite entertaining. But she also takes the time to explain basic techniques and tips. I always keep this book nearby for easy reference, and I consult it quite a bit. I've recommended it in turn to one or two friends who have recently taken up knitting, and they've found it quite useful. I almost took it on vacation with me recently, though luggage weight got the better of me and I left it behind, though not before committing to memory certain upcoming stitch styles in the pattern I was working on (which did make the trip south). I really do recommend it highly, especially for new or newish knitters, though I bet more advanced knitters could find a useful thing or two in there, too.

* Writing this review now, in April 2010 (yes, I'm behind), I am pleased to report that I do now, in fact, have a knitting group here; just a few friends who knit, and we meet downtown at a bar every couple of weeks or so.

Vintage Ondaatje by Michael Ondaatje

Vintage Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje
(Random House, Toronto: 2004)

Includes selections from The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter; "Travels in Ceylon", "Passions of Lalla", and "Photograph" from Running in the Family; the poems "Light", "Claude Glass", "The Cinnamon Peeler", "Elimination Dance", and "To a Sad Daughter" from The Cinnamon Peeler; "The Bridge" from In The Skin of a Lion; "Katharine" and "In Situ" from The English Patient; the poems "The Great Tree", "The Story", "Step", and "Last Ink" from Handwriting; and "Linus Corea" and "Anil" from Anil's Ghost.

READ: April 2008

I am a die-hard Ondaatje fan, and really, the only question remaining for me is whether I prefer his prose or his poetry. This book is a good chance to compare the two, but the question, alas, remains unresolved. I will say this, however: While there are other authors out there whose prose comes close to the quality of Ondaatje's, I have yet to discover a writer whose poetry falls so easily off my tongue (for poetry is best read savouring each word in your mouth), like water skimming across rocks in a shallow, fast-flowing stream, whose words are so natural yet so carefully-chosen to be always and exactly just right.

Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky

Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance
Noam Chomsky
(Henry Holt & Co., New York City: 2003)

READ: April 2008

One of the more rational, clear-headed thinkers out there. Chomsky's book is well-thought out and, in my opinion, fairly uncontroversial - just because you might not agree with him doesn't make him wrong - everything he says is backed up with real evidence, and he's pretty good about showing the evidence in the other direction, too. A must-read.

Noam Chomsky was one of those authors who would show up from time to time on my undergraduate mass communications degree reading lists. Though a linguist and philosophy professor at MIT, he has written many works that also lie firmly in political science and media studies. At the time, however, I remember dreading the Chomsky readings. However, I have grown to truly appreciate much of his work, mostly because I have learned more since then and am now more ready to understand and engage with his work.*

In this book, Chomsky outlines the tactic of "full spectrum dominance" pursued by the American government in its international relations since at least the end of WWII. From the Bay of Pigs, through Nicaragua, Cuba, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and, most recently (at least at the time the book was written, in 2003), Iraq, the U.S. has followed policies and practices geared toward global control, a new kind of colonialism. At the same time, it has fairly consistently worked to undermine certain principles of international law, and refused to recognize many instruments of international justice, such as the World Court and the International Criminal Tribunal.

I'm going to leave the review at that, closing off with a blurb from author Arundhati Roy on the book, because she says it better than I could:

"If, for reasons of chance, or circumstance, (or sloth), you have to pick just one book on the subject of the American Empire, pick this one. It's the Full Monty. It's Chomsky at his best. Hegemony or Survival is necessary reading."

For more on this topic, see the American Empire Project.

* Sometimes I feel that university is wasted on 17-21 year old students. Better we all go at 32, no?

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales
Oliver Sacks
(Touchstone, New York: 1998)

Many of the case studies previously published in similar forms, starting in 1970 and through 1984 (when book was first published).

READ: April 2008

This was an interesting read, with some truly fascinating stories of people with various mental disorders. Dr. Sacks has been working with patients with neurological disorders for a very long time, so he has many stories to tell.

While I enjoyed the book on the whole, I found it a little unsatisfying, however - I wanted more in terms of neurological explanations and perhaps even a word or two about the philosophical side of neurological disorder (which Dr. Sacks kept alluding to but never going into more detail about). For the majority of the stories, Dr. Sacks just states the facts of the case, makes one or two observations, then moves on... I understand that it was not always possible to follow-up with the patients, to see perhaps how a particular type of treatment was working out, but it felt a little too much like I'd sat down with him in a bar and now he was telling me story after story without a chance for me to get a word (or question) in edgewise: "Here's an interesting story ... Here's another one ... What about this guy? ... It makes you wonder about what it really means to be human doesn't it? But enough about that already, how about this case here?"

So overall: Interesting, but if you were hoping to get some insight into how the human mind works or a bit of an understanding for why a certain disorder may or may not develop, you'll have to look elsewhere.

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World
Mark Kurlansky
(Vintage Canada, Toronto: 1998)

READ: April 2008

Who knew that a history of the Atlantic codfishery could be so entertaining? Focusing largely - though not entirely - on the once-fabled Grand Banks off Newfoundland, Kurlansky starts with the Basques, a small group of peoples living near the Spanish border with France. Somewhat oddly, they were renowned seafarers, and as early as the 15th century, they were selling dried cod, fairly different in taste and texture from the North Sea cod that was already well-known to ports across Europe. The Basques never divulged the secret of where their cod came from, but now it seems the jig is up, so to speak: it was from the Grand Banks. They didn't want to tell anyone, because they didn't want others to share in the spoils. And so Columbus "discovered" America; and John Cabot, able to report back with news of the terrific splendor the Banks had to offer, where you could dip a bucket in the water and bring it back up brimming full of fish.

Kurlansky takes us through the heady days of exploration of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, showing how cod became a commodity not only in its own right, but also as a necessary resource in the business of waging war against the other colonial powers. (He who had the most cod could feed the most soldiers.) Through the 19th century, the codfish's allure continued, and well into the 20th. In fact, the Grand Banks are the main reason France continues to hold on to the tiny island colonies of St-Pierre and Miquelon in the Gulf of St. Lawrence: it allows them to retain some fishing rights. Finally, Kurlansky takes us to the last few decades, with the decline of the cod fisheries, both here on the Grand Banks and elsewhere (for example, off the coast of Cape Cod - ever wonder why it is called that? - and in the North Sea). He does a good job of showing the tight links between culture, politics, and cod. Iceland in particular proves to be an interesting case study in the ways to handle (or not handle, as the case may be) a domestic fishery.

Throughout the book, while clearly well-researched and exceptionally informative, the tone is kept light. Kurlansky personalizes the story by telling anecdotes, including photographs, and re-printing various recipes for cod, both very old and very new. My only complaint with this book, in fact, is that it is a little dated. It was written in 1997, only five years after the Canadian moratorium was announced. In the book, Kurlansky states that in 1994, the Canadian government estimated the moratorium would last till at least the end of the century. Some experts opined it would be about 15 years before the stocks would be viable again. Well, both those dates have passed. I'm not sure what the state of the cod fishery in Canada is nowadays (though, granted, it shouldn't be too hard to find out), but I almost wish that Kurlansky would do an update to the book, putting some of those figures into a more current context.

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

The Selfish Gene
Richard Dawkins
(Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York: 1989)

First published by Oxford University Press in 1976. This edition, 1989, with extensive endnotes updating the original material, as well as two new chapters.

READ: March-April 2008

Why does Richard Dawkins get such a bad name? His name is constantly being bandied about, and now that I've finally read something of his, it's a bit unfair, I think. This is an exceptional book, and really cleared up a lot for me regarding genetic theories and evolution.

I think the thrust of the misunderstanding of Dawkins, at least in regard to this book, is that people misinterpret (whether purposely or not) what he means by a "selfish gene". He doesn't believe that any one particular gene, sitting inside my body right now, is so selfish that it will do whatever it can to perpetuate itself. We would have gone extinct long ago were that the case. Obviously there is a reason that life on earth is so varied. Rather, and I am sure I am oversimplifying it here to such a degree that Dawkins would probably no longer agree with me, genes act selfish on the class level. It is classes or groups of genes that are selfish, not individual ones. And because they are selfish, they try to find the best ways to perpetuate themselves, but at the macro- not micro-level, if that makes any sense.

It's a bit daunting at first, but once you get going, his style is clear, simple, and immensely readable. It's a complex subject, but he's not afraid to take time with it and give good, concrete examples of each point. Somewhat amusingly, since this particular edition is a 1989 update of the 1976 original, he has added extensive footnotes that counterpoint arguments that have been made against his theories. He also - and this is one of the marks of a good scholar - is quick to note where his theories have since been proven incorrect, and often takes a page or two or more to elaborate a different or a concurrent theory to replace the old, incorrect one. This is probably one of the more enjoyable books that I've read so far this year.

The Bells of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai

The Bells of Nagasaki
Takashi Nagai
(Kodansha International, Ltd., Tokyo: 1984)

Originally published in 1949 by Hibiya Shuppan under the title nagasaki no kane. Translated and with an introduction by William Johnston.

READ: March 2008

Dr. Nagai was the dean of the School of Medicine at Nagasaki University, and was on the frontlines of the atomic explosion. His school was destroyed, the majority of his students and colleagues killed instantly or within days of the incident. His wife was also killed. He himself was grievously injured, but with the remaining staff and students, they moved to one of the neighbouring villages in the surrounding mountains, and spent a month or more tending wounded people for whom, oftentimes, there was not a lot they could do.

The book is fairly bluntly written. But it is honest, and a simple, sobering read. Dr. Nagai spends no time feeling sorry for himself or for others, and very little time philosophizing about the situation. It is a lot to take in. The no-nonsense tone of the book, and the perfectly tiny amount of time spent lamenting the loss and wondering about the horror of the use of the bomb, might throw some readers off. But it is important to remember the book is a product of its time. The fellow characters who populate Dr. Nagai's book are also medical personnel. They were trained to respond and react quickly to medical situations and emergencies, and they did their work well. While they never thought they'd have a situation so dire (to put it lightly), nor one in which they, too, were casualties, they remembered what their duties were. Dr. Nagai was trained to be cool and detached in these situations, and his book reflects that. He doesn't dwell on philosophizing about the merits of using the A-bomb, or about Japan's actions during the war, and some might perhaps criticize the book on that front, but that is not what this book is about. Those issues are for a different book.

Some knowledge of Japanese history and especially more traditional Japanese culture will help toward better enjoying this book. While certainly not necessary, it will make a lot more sense if you have at least a slight understanding of Japanese culture and ideals throughout the period between the two world wars and even earlier. While nothing can give us a sense of what it was like to be on the ground in Nagasaki on that fateful day, it clarifies the picture a little bit by allowing us into this man's professional life. I say "professional" because I only learned from the book's introduction that Dr. Nagai's wife was killed in the atomic blast. I also know from some of the accompanying pictures that he had two children who survived the bombing and (I think) its aftermath. I wish he had spoken more personally. But again, I guess, that would have made this a different book.

What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin

What the Body Remembers
Shauna Singh Baldwin
(Vintage Canada, Toronto: 2000)

First published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, Toronto, in 1999.

READ: March 2008

What the Body Remembers tells, put simply, the history of two women and the man they both love. The more complicated version is that it is the story of families, cultures, and religions struggling to survive against the backdrops of the 1930s, World War II, and ultimately, the partition of Pakistan and India after the Second World War.

Singh Baldwin's writing style is lyrical, yet clear. She knows her characters well; sometimes too well, in fact, as occasionally I wanted her to step back and explain why someone was acting in such a way, though I could tell their actions were based in cultural norms (but ones with which I am unfamiliar). She does better on the personal level than she does on the political level; but in a way, that is fitting, since the characters themselves, especially Roop, do not really comprehend what is happening in the world outside their small circle, at least not until near the very end of the tale (when India and Pakistan are undergoing their very chaotic, violent partition).

My only negative comment about this book, then, would stem from this: I wanted a bit more politics and a bit less story. However, in all fairness, I think that is telling of my current reading interests, rather than a real critique of any fault or shortcoming of this novel.

The Annotated Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, with annotations by Douglas A. Anderson

The Annotated Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien
Annotations by Douglas A. Anderson
(Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston & New York: 2002)

The Hobbit, first published 1937.

READ: February - March 2008

The classic text of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, with detailed annotations on the text by Douglas A. Anderson, a leading Tolkien scholar. The annotations cover everything from differences in text between various editions (and, in particular, explanations of how parts of the text were changed from the first edition to the second in order to bring some aspects of the story more in line with The Lord of the Rings), influences on Tolkien's work by other authors (Anderson is, after all, the same person who edited Tales Before Tolkien, so he has a decent grasp on the subject), and excerpts from Tolkien's own writings explaining why the story developed in certain ways. Most charming of all, however, was perhaps the inclusion and explanation of various illustrations from different foreign-language editions of The Hobbit, which, if you hadn't realized it already, really drives home the idea that The Hobbit is a true classic tale that speaks to many different cultures. A wonderful book.

Journeys of Frodo by Barbara Strachey

Journeys of Frodo : An Atlas of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
Barbara Strachey
ill. Barbara Strachey
(HarperCollins, London: 1998)

First published in Great Britain by George Allen & Unwin, 1981.

READ: February 2008

I love books.

I love maps.

I love the Lord of the Rings.

Therefore, it logically follows that were there a book of maps based on the travels in the Lord of the Rings, I would love that, too. Journeys of Frodo, happily, proves this hypothesis.

In this marvelous gem of an atlas, what Strachan has done is gone through all of J.R.R. Tolkien's writings related to the Lord of the Rings, and matched up descriptions to detailed maps. Tolkien was largely consistent in his descriptions, but he occasionally gave conflicting evidence, and in those cases, Strachan has done her best to reconcile differing accounts. While you won't find a story, per se, in the pages of this book, it is a lovely complement to anyone who wishes to have a deeper, more detailed understanding of Middle-Earth and the travels of the Fellowship.

Next by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton
(Harper (HarperCollins), New York: 2006)

READ: February 2008

I didn't have quite the visceral reaction to this book as I did to The Da Vinci Code, but almost. My mom left this book behind after coming to visit one weekend, and so I figured I'd read it.

In his book, Crichton states that Next is a work of fiction, "except for the parts that aren't." He then leads the reader through a dizzying whirlwind of genetic science events. A drug addict is cured by a gene therapy that causes accelerated maturity. A cancer patient who donated some of his cells for gene therapy to a university loses control over those cells, and those of his descendants. A monkey-boy is created when a researcher injects some of his sperm into an ape. You dream it up, Crichton's probably already put it in his book.

According to a review in the New York Times, "oddity after oddity in 'Next' checks out, and many are replays of real events." To which I respond, "Sure, but so what?" Just because something is true, doesn't make it worth reading. I've studied enough law and read just enough science to know that certain genetic procedures are still currently operating in a Wild West as far as patent law is concerned. I even agree that some, if not all, of these developments are troubling. But if you're trying to bring the issue to the forefront, why not do so in a less tabloid-esque way?

And that, I guess, is my main problem with this book. Fundamentally, I can agree with Crichton's main thesis. A novel with a thesis, you may ask? While certainly not every work of fiction can be said to have a central thesis, in an Author's Note to Next, just in case you didn't "get it", Crichton clearly lays out his five conclusions:

1) Stop patenting genes.
2) Establish clear guidelines for the use of human tissues.
3) Pass laws to ensure that data about gene testing is made public.
4) Avoid bans on research.
5) Rescind the Bayh-Dole Act [which grants universities, small businesses, and non-profit institutions in the U.S. the control and ownership of any intellectual property on inventions resulting from federal government-funded research, rather than the IP rights going to the government].

On their face, these are laudable goals. And a novel, of course, does not have to be neutral in its politics. However, I find Crichton's method of hammering the reader over the head with example after example of why our current legislative scheme (or lack thereof) is faulty, to be tedious, deplorable, and even somewhat insulting. Next is geared to prove that these five conclusions are inevitable. While this may or may not be true, a proper exploration of the issues would have been more appropriate. A proper exploration could very well, in fact, lead to the same five conclusions, but without me feeling like I've been dragged through 300+ pages of bias to get there, leaving me a happier reader as a result, and perhaps more concerned about the issues.

But Next dismisses any need for a proper debate. It says, "It's so obvious," and then throws 37 different examples my way. It portrays the guys (yes, mostly guys) in the biotechnology business as cowboys, bent on getting the results they want at any cost. Everything is black and white. Even those issues that could have been dealt with more subtly are painted with fat brushstrokes: Alex - whose father is the cancer patient mentioned above whose cells, and those of his descendants, are now "owned", as it were, by the university who developed a particular gene therapy - is a lawyer. But wait! - she's not a blood-sucking, money-leaching lawyer, like all the others in the book. She is nice and cuddly, and prefers to settle matters out-of-court whenever possible, rather than dragging everything out into a prolonged court fight. She only starts to get mean when her son is threatened. I mean, c'mon - it's her son! And then there's David, the 4-year-old "monkey-boy", who is rescued by the researcher who created him when it turns out David is scheduled for termination (due to the lab being worried about the ethical ramifications that may arise if David's existence is discovered, though why that hadn't happened earlier when David first started showing signs of being anything other than a regular ape is a good question, but I digress). He is brought to live with the researcher's family in California, and things only come to a head when another young boy starts challenging David. But this boy is not just your average neighbourhood bully, not just that kid who didn't get enough hugs from his mother when he was very young - oh, no, this kid is mean, escalating from a brief schoolyard scuffle to an actual gunfight in the blink of an eye. Shed no tears for the bully; David needs them all.

Crichton dumbs down the issue by using such broad, obvious strokes. In addition, the style of the book, with its short, fast-paced chapters, cutting from storyline to story line, and interspersed fake news articles written to look as if they are real, further debases the actual importance of these issues. Really, all I ever needed to know about cloning, I did not learn from Jurassic Park (to be fair, I have not read the book), and I am dismayed at the thought that people will think they have "learned" about genetic testing from Next.

Final thought: For an example of how to rewrite Next - even in such a way that it has almost exactly the same plotlines - but with less bias and more exploration of actual issues rather than the panic-stricken tone adopted here, take a look at Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. In it, Stephenson clearly and concisely sets out the history of cryptography, and also explores future possible developments of the technology of cryptography, both good and bad. It's a big book, and will take you longer than 3 days to read (which is roughly how long it took me to get through Next, mostly while commuting to and from work), but there are certainly worse things on which you could waste brain-cells and time.

Your Own Worst Enemy : Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement by Kenneth Christian

Your Own Worst Enemy : Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement
Kenneth W. Christian
(HarperCollins, New York: 2002)

READ: January - February 2008

Not my usual fare, but Randal had picked this up at some point in Japan, upon a number of recommendations, so I figured I'd give it a try.

Well, the book was an interesting read and it certainly gave me a good perspective on some of the habits I have that may not always be the most productive. So I guess it was helpful in that it made me a bit more aware. I mean, most people would probably not consider me to be an underachiever. For all intents and purposes, I come off as an overachiever: I have two graduate degrees, a good job, a stable relationship. But - and Dr. Christian would allude to this again and again in his text - I could have done more. I am happy with where I am, with (most of) the choices I have made, and with what I am doing; however, along the way, I occasionally have made choices that were clear underachiever choices. But this is a book review, not a personal review.

It was hard, sometimes, to see the book as truly relevant when I was consistently being give examples of fairly extreme cases - people who had truly and completely dropped out, either socially or academically, despite having shown great promise, talent, and ambition early on. This was a little disappointing - I think there are probably a lot more so-called adult underachievers who are more like me: borderline underachievers. But maybe that just means I needed to read a different book.

I probably could have gotten more out of the book if I had taken more of the advice given - for example, there were numerous suggested written exercises that I merely read over and did not attempt. All things considered, however, this was still a useful book. If nothing else, it made me more aware and more conscious of how I deal with things, helping me to perhaps fend off potential problems or issues in the future, and also more aware that it's important to be content with where you are in life, something which is often parroted but not often practiced.

Tales Before Tolkien : The Roots of Modern Fantasy, ed. Douglas Anderson

Tales Before Tolkien : The Roots of Modern Fantasy
Edited and with commentary by Douglas A. Anderson
(Del Rey Books (Random House), New York: 2005)

READ: January - February 2008

Douglas Anderson, a leading Tolkien scholar, has collected here 21 stories that either inspired Tolkien directly in the creation of his seminal The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books, or are striking examples of the lineage of prior fantasy works from which Tolkien drew inspiration.

While I understand that some sort of criteria needed to be followed in order to choose from a more finite pool of candidate stories, the selection criteria indeed seemed (as the editor himself admits) a little arbitrary: That the authors be born at least 5 years before Tolkien, not that the stories have directly influenced Tolkien. There's many other works I would have liked to see in this list, of which I have become aware from one of Anderson's other works, The Annotated Hobbit.

At any rate, as I expected to find in a work of this scope, many of the stories were wonderful little gems in their own right (for ex., The Elf Trap by Francis Stevens), while others struck me as being vastly inferior to what came later (for ex., The Golden Key by George MacDonald). Some stories were quaint and charming (for ex., Puss-cat Mew by E. Knatchbull-Hugessen), while others were simply off-beat (for ex., The Coming of the Terror by Arthur Machen).

For anyone who is a fan of fantasy literature, whether or not you are a huge fan of Tolkien, this is a book I'd recommend.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
Mordecai Richler
(Penguin Canada, Toronto: 1995)

First published by Penguin Canada in 1964.

READ: January - February 2008

As someone who professes to love Canadian literature, I have been a little embarrassed to admit that I have never read any Mordecai Richler. So when I had a chance to pick up a nice copy of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, I jumped. (I haven't even seen the movie.)

I can see why the book is as lauded as it is; however, I hate it when I finish a book and still dislike the main character as much as I did upon starting. Still, there's something about this book that grabs you, and I can understand why it's endured as it has. The writing is, of course, excellent, and Richler really did a good job of developing the story. Still, the characters were a little one-dimensional, and that's probably why I disliked Duddy as much as I did. I had no starting-ground in common with him from which I might attempt to try to put myself in his shoes.

That being said, I am looking forward to reading more Richler.

Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland

Hey Nostradamus!
Douglas Coupland
(Random House of Canada, Toronto: 2004)

READ: January 2008

Possibly the most puzzling Douglas Coupland I have ever read. For a book I'm not even sure I liked, it really grabbed me - I couldn't put it down, and I couldn't stop thinking about it whenever I wasn't reading it, and even now that I'm done.

As a general rule, I like Coupland. He is, mostly, brilliant: witness Jpod, Microserfs, Generation X, and Life After God, to name a few. But then he'll fall into a dismal hole of ... well, I don't even know how to describe it. Girlfriend in a Coma, which I read years and years ago, was one of those abysmal moments. In fact, it turned me off Coupland altogether for about 3 years. From what I actually managed to read of it, Polaroids from the Dead was another. It's as if, every now and then, Coupland just becomes too self-aware of his brilliance, and he just inputs too many of his conventions and his what-it-is-that-makes-him-brilliance (his je ne sais quoi, as it were), and the result is overloaded and heavy.

But Hey Nostradamus! doesn't quite do that. It tries to - it tries very hard to be too self-aware and too Couplandesque - but it never quite manages it. And so you end up with this: a book that ought to be terrible, but isn't. Damn you, Coupland, for writing a book I want to dislike but can't!

2008 Booklist

  1. Hard-to-Answer Questions About Japan by Uchiike Hisataka and Michael Brase

  2. Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy, ed. Douglas A. Anderson

  3. Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland

  4. Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement by Kenneth Christian

  5. The Annotated Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, annotated by Douglas A. Anderson

  6. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler

  7. Islam: Art & Architecture, ed. Marcus Hattstein and Peter Delius (unfinished)

  8. Next by Michael Crichton

  9. The World's Greatest Art : Asian Art by Michael Kerrigan (re-read)

  10. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

  11. What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin

  12. Journeys of Frodo by Barbara Strachey

  13. The Bells of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai

  14. Vintage Ondaatje by Michael Ondaatje

  15. Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky

  16. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

  17. Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky

  18. Stitch 'N Bitch: The Knitter's Handbook by Debbie Stoller

  19. You Grow, Girl: The Groundbreaking Guide to Gardening by Gayla Trail

  20. Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy by Noam Chomsky

  21. Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate by Felicity Lawrence

  22. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

  23. Les Enquêtes de Vipérine Maltais: Mortels Noëls by Sylvie Brien

  24. First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea by Paul Woodruff

  25. The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

  26. The Dog Who Wouldn't Be by Farley Mowat

  27. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

  28. The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't Be Jammed by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter

  29. A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

  30. The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

  31. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

  32. Butterfly Mind: Revolution, Recovery, and One Reporter's Road to Understanding China by Patrick Brown

  33. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman

  34. 20,000 lieues sous les mers by Jules Verne

  35. What Just Happened by James Gleick

  36. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

  37. Discoveries: Van Gogh: The Passionate Eye by Pascal Bonafoux

  38. Van Gogh by Keith Wheldon

  39. Guide: Van Gogh Museum from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam