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.