Tag Archives: reading

The Hunger Games: What’s all the fuss about?

Pretty much anyone not living under a rock, and probably some who are, have heard the phrase “The Hunger Games”  lately.   With the movie about to release, and the merchandise going crazy (check out the display at Chapters if you doubt me), it can be a little tough to tell whether the trilogy is really worth reading, or whether it’s just Hollywood sparkle.   As someone who has actually read The Hunger Games, and, in fact, read it when it originally came out, I think I can give you a review minus the hype.

The Hunger Games was published as a teen book, but I think that it’s a good enough story that adults can enjoy it too.  This is a classic adventure novel, full of action.  There are moral quandaries, questions of ethics, but they are fuel for the drama.  The setting is a classic dystopia, a post-apocalyptic world where all wealth is centred in The Capitol, and everyone else lives in one of twelve districts, where all food and resources for The Capitol come from.  The people in the districts are little more than slaves, and their lives are short and bleak.  The one event that can change that: The Hunger Games.  Teams of two, one male and one female, chosen from each district, compete to the death in an arena full of genetically altered animals and horrific booby traps.  At the end of the games, only one person will stand.    The whole thing is televised, and winning partly depends on capturing the attention of the audience, since audience participation is encouraged, and audience members can send food and medical supplies to favored competitors.

The story follows one of the competitors from district twelve, a girl named Katniss Everdeen, and how her life is changed dramatically when she volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the games.  The victor’s district will receive additional food supplies.  Imagine suddenly being the symbol of everyone’s hopes – especially as a teenager.

I’m not going to get into the description of the other two novels, since that will essentially act as a spoiler for the first one.

I do recommend these books.  The storyline is interesting, and offers some great visuals.  Once the story hooks you, it becomes one of those books that you drag everywhere with you, and don’t go to bed, because you  need to know what’s going to happen!  The other two books are excellent as well.   There are many debates about how the trilogy is ended, not everyone likes it, but that’s not unusual.  No one ever really wants a series they enjoyed to end, and in a story like this one, there are probably a lot of different ways people would have liked to see the story end.

Trust me, buy the trilogy, because odds are you’re not going to stop at one.   And from the number of adults snapping up mockingjay pins, I’m definitely not alone in enjoying the series.  It’s a fun read, is really what it comes down to.  Don’t read it for great literature, or thought provoking philosophy.  Read it for the book equivalent of an Indiana Jones movie, or Star Wars.  It’s a great adventure story, and well worth the purchase.  It is available on e-book, too, which is nice.


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Sad, Mad, and Bad

mad sad bad

I’m not a big non-fiction reader, but the title of this book caught my eye; Sad, Mad, and Bad: Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800.  The book is a look at “madness”, how its definition changed constantly, and how it should be cared for.  The book takes a look specifically at women who were considered insane, and how their care evolved.   It is not just for women, however, or about them, for that matter.

The author, Lisa Appignanesi, looks at mental health up to the present day (or at least five years ago, when the book was published).  This is not a light read; this is a book that takes its topic seriously.  It is, however, fascinating.  The book is very well researched, and well written, so it is a smooth read.  It probably helps that the author is primarily a fiction writer.

Aside from the obviously interesting, like unusual treatment methods, or bizarre diagnoses, what I wasn’t expecting is how much hasn’t changed.  People wondered why so many more people seemed to be mad, and doctors insisted it was just better and more sophisticated medicine and diagnoses.  Some doctors argued that people being different from what was currently considered being socially acceptable did not qualify as a disease.  There were debates over when someone committed a horrible crime, how you could tell whether they were insane.   There was research into whether the cause of mental illness was psychological or biological, and some pioneering doctors attempted very early to debunk myths that women’s reproductive organs had anything to do with it.

There are also some interesting profiles of famous individuals with mental illnesses.   The focus in these is not just on the symptoms, and treatment.  You get an interesting look at how they were viewed at the time, and how our perception of them now differs.

She is obviously trying not to take sides or make judgements here, which does at times make for somewhat of a dry read.   It also means that some areas go on and on, I’m guessing because she felt duty-bound to fully present both sides of the case.

Anyone who is interested in the topic of mental health, in almost any fashion, would find something of interest in this book.   It is the kind of book where you hope to find someone else who has read it, so you can talk to them about it.  So, for god’s sake if anyone else has read it tell me!  And if you haven’t, get going.



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Romance…Why the Shame?

I’ve noticed a weird phenomenon with women buying romance novels.  There are a lot of excuses. “I started reading them in high school, and I can’t stop.”  “They’re for my mom, really.”  “I don’t usually buy this sort of thing…”  “I just need a little break from Tolstoy.”  “I know they’re not exactly literature.”

It sounds more like teenage boys buying an issue of Playboy.  The wording of the excuses, obviously, differs (at least I hope it does), but the tone doesn’t.  In fact, people buying erotica aren’t as shamefaced as some of these ladies.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading romance.  Some of the authors are very talented as writers, if in no other way than the ability to deliver what the reader wants, time after time.  If it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, like indulging in Godiva truffles, that’s fine, but why act like they’ve been caught drinking vodka straight from the bottle?

To me, one of the reasons reading is wonderful is that it can create so many different experiences.  Not every book you read has to be “literature”, and you don’t have to like all the literature either.  I, for one, despise Joyce’s Ulysses .   Also, if you want a light read, a story with a happy ending, what basically amounts to an adult fairy tale, that’s romance.  They can be formulaic, sure – but most fairy tales, both romance and adventure, are.

The original definition of romantic meant knights, adventure, true love, duels, etc.  The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers are romance.  The Princess Bride is romance. Robin Hood, Canterbury Tales, stories of Arthur and Camelot, all classic romance.  Somehow, though, even though modern romance novels contain many of the same elements of heroes, villains, derring-do, true love, reconciliation, and happy ending, they are sneered at as being “fluff”.

Well, I like fluff.  I sometimes like a story where I know it’s going to work out ok.  Sometimes there is enough tragedy and politics and brutality in real life, and it’s nice to, for a while, live in a world where you know the hero or heroine will always save the day, the couple will always kiss and make up, and the bad guy will get what’s coming to him/her.   And the lovemaking never fails to be spectacular.  Every time.  Hey, it’s fantasy, right?

Romance and adventure novels (and many combine both elements) are, for me, the book equivalent of comfort food.  In fact, if I can read them while eating comfort food, that’s even better.   Ladies (and gentlemen, of whom I see even fewer buying romance), there is no shame in buying romance.

Reading Harlequin is not a crime.    It’s ok to have a bodice ripper next to Kafka.  Keep in mind that Shakespeare was the Michael Crichton of his time.   Or perhaps Steven Spielberg.

Bring your romance novels to the counter proudly, knowing that you’re going to have way more fun than the people in line who are only reading a book to impress their friends and colleagues.

Later, we can sit around, eating chips (from the bag), and drinking beer (from the bottle), and having a fabulous time.   Maybe we can convince those other guys to join us.



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Charles Taylor Prize


Toronto writer Andrew Westoll has been named winner of the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction for his book The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery.

A pretty impressive feat, since there were 345 books submitted, by 35 publishers world-wide.

His book is the story of his 10-week stay in a rehabilitation centre in rural Quebec among 13 physically and psychologically abused chimpanzees — the victims of medical and cosmetic industry testing, science and space program experiments, as well as discarded pets and circus animals.

For the heavyweight review:

“Andrew Westoll is a born story teller: The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, written with empathy and skill, tenderness and humour, involves us in a world few understand. And leaves us marvelling at the ways in which chimpanzees are so like us, deserve our help and are entitled to our respect.” – Dr. Jane Goodall

For an in depth interview with the author before the awarding of the prize, see the following article:


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The Lorax


With The Lorax movie coming out, I thought about the original book, which I read as a child, and shared with my children.  I didn’t realize it had such a controversial history.

For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it is the story of a young boy who lives in a polluted, ugly world. He asks a character (who is never seen, except for his arms) called the “Once-ler”, what happened to make his world the way it is.  The Once-ler tells the story of how the world was once beautiful, with lush forests and plentiful fauna.  The Once-ler, however, had an invention he was convinced was a necessity for everyone to own.  And this invention could only be made from the truffula tree.  So he began cutting down truffulas, to make his invention.  A creature called the “Lorax” (which looks kind of like an orange walrus) tried to warn Once-ler of dire consequences to the world, if he continued cutting down so many truffula trees.  The Once-ler ignored the Lorax, and continued chopping down the truffula trees, until there were no more left.  The animals left, the land was out of balance, and the Once-ler went bankrupt.  At the end of the story, the Once-ler gives the boy the very last truffula seed, and instructs him to nurture it.  The implication is that there is a chance to restore the world to its former beauty.

This is not exactly a subtle allegory, a story of the danger of destroying nature until the world is ruined.   A story to teach children about the environment.  There are many stories like this, but I’m not sure how many created as much controversy, perhaps because, for one reason or another, Dr. Seuss books tend to stay with you, and perhaps this one would leave a legacy.

In California, in 1989, some parents requested that the book not be part of the second grade curriculum, as it was unfairly critical of the logging industry.  One of the parents was employed by logging-equipment company.

There was a book published by Terri Birkett, whose family owned a hardwood-floor manufacturing compnay, called “The Truax”, which offered a more logging-friendly storyline (see the book at http://www.myteacherpages.com/webpages/NDow/files/TRUAX1.pdf ).  The book was published by NOFMA,  the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers’ Association.

A critique written in the journal Nature, written on the occasion of the book’s 40th anniversary, criticized the character of the Lorax as being a “parody of a misanthropic ecologist”. She called the book “gloomy”, and perhaps unsuitable for young children.  She did praise the book, however, for its understanding of “the limits of gloom and doom” environmentalism.

Apparently the story was also amended to remove a reference to Lake Erie, after the lake was cleaned up.

It speaks to Dr. Seuss’ influence, how threatened some very big companies were, by a short tale for children.

Me, I thought it was a good story to teach children about the consequences of our actions, the perils of ignoring other points of view, and the importance of not taking our world for granted.



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Boycott of Archie Comics Over Gay Marriage

archieArchie Comics has put out an issue that features a gay wedding, involving a regular character who is openly gay.  To me, this is cause for celebration.  To One Million Moms, a conservative group, this practically signals the end times.  They are threatening Toys ‘R Us with a boycott, if the chain doesn’t pull the issue from its shelves.

This is not the first time that the organization has threatened a retailer  with a boycott because of their views on homosexuality – the group recently tried to get Ellen DeGeneres fired from her position as spokesperson for JC Penney – unsuccessfully.

I feel the actions of the organization (as well as the related organization, One Million Dads) are wrong for a variety a reasons.  What my primary issue is with them is their efforts at censorship.  They don’t want anything about gay people in print.  They don’t want anything about gay people in advertising.  Or on tv.    Now, in either the JC Penney campaign or the Archie comic, it’s not like there is any sexual content.  I’m pretty confident that the JC Penney campaign doesn’t feature Ellen DeGeneres saying “Shop at JC Penney.  And I’m gay”.

In my view, having kids see or read about gay people, just living normal lives, is probably the best way for them to grow up free of that kind of hatred.  And I point out that rights and freedoms go both ways: Just as people have the right to believe that being gay is wrong, other people have the right to believe that being gay is just fine.

To me, what should be kept out of toy stores is hate.  Judgement.  That is what doesn’t belong around children.  There is a children’s book which is one I frequently recommended at work called My Princess Boy, by Cheryl Kilodavis.  It is a (non-fiction) story about a little boy who likes to dress up like a princess.  The whole point of the story is acceptance, and loving someone for who they are, not what you think they should be.  That is what we should be teaching our children, and that is a lesson that should be true in every aspect of our lives.  Ideally, we’re making our children better people than we are.  (For more about My Princess Boy, visit http://myprincessboy.com/index.asp )

I finish with a  quote from Archie Comics CEO Jon Goldwater:

“We stand by Life with Archie #16. As I’ve said before, Riverdale is a safe, welcoming place that does not judge anyone. It’s an idealized version of America that will hopefully become reality someday.

“We’re sorry the American Family Association/OneMillionMoms.com feels so negatively about our product, but they have every right to their opinion, just like we have the right to stand by ours. Kevin Keller will forever be a part of Riverdale, and he will live a happy, long life free of prejudice, hate and narrow-minded people.”



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Everybody Loves Zombies

A lot of the conversations I’ve had lately have had the topic of zombies come up.   One recent discussion with coworkers involved debating what actions we would take, given the zombie apocalypse (My vote is to head for the Arctic, others thought staying on the move and raiding small towns… it got heated).

The Walking Dead tv series is possibly one source of zombies on the brain (either that or the Oscars, and thoughts of Joan Rivers).  The tv series is based on the graphic novels of the same name, which are definitely worth checking out, and have a depth of storyline to them that isn’t often found in zombie stories.

walking deadnulljoan rivers

In fact, there are a lot of books that can be classified as zombie lit, ranging from survival manuals to novels, and a few in between.  Here are a few I recommend, with some suggestions from fellow zombie-loving (in the story sense, no necrophilia here) friends.

Want to plan for the zombie apocalypse?  Here’s your go-to guide.

zombie survival

I have mentioned Pride & Prejudice & Zombies before… this book will create a whole lot of new Jane Austen fans.  Loved it.


World War “Z”  comes highly recommended by several of the staff at the bookstore – written as a nonfiction account of the history of the zombie war, the new perspective alone makes it worth checking out.  Apparently it is being made into a movie, too.


For those who like mixing reading about the undead with reading about kinky sex (and who doesn’t), the   Laurell K. Hamilton’s series is full of zombies, as well as vampires, werewolves, and assorted other creatures of the night.  These books are definitely not Twilight (and I’m not just talking about the sex).  The stories are pretty dark, and can be downright uncomfortable.  But they are almost never bland, at least.  This is the cover of the newest one, coming soon:

Anyways, enough from me… have a great zombie read to recommend?  Let me know!  Also, I’d love to hear what your zombie apocalypse strategy is.



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Lamb: Something for everyone.

Anyone who has ever read a Christopher Moore book knows he isn’t easy to categorize.  With titles like You Suck, Island of the Sequined Love Nun, and The Stupidest Angel, it’s easy to categorize Moore as a writer of crude humor.  And he is.  But that isn’t all he is.

LambThe full title of the book I’m currently reading is Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.  For those who read with the intent of being offended, I’m sure they will manage just fine.  For those looking for crude humor, it is here.  Making fun of multiple major religions, check.  Also contains insight, satire, literary and social references, and a lot of sex. And yak shaving.

All in all, this is a fun book – I especially recommend it to anyone who loves Terry Pratchett, Kurt Vonnegut, or Neil Gaiman.  I also highly recommend the trilogy that starts with Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story.  I learned new and amazing ways to insult people that made me want to find someone to yell at.  And shaved cats.  What’s with the shaved animal theme, anyways?

If my bookstore manages to sell the most Christopher Moore books (in our chain), apparently Christopher Moore will do a signing, so don’t be too surprised if you hear stories of people being forced to buy his books by a crazed bookstore employee in Toronto.

I will finish with a quote from Carl Hiaasen about Moore: “A very sick man, in the very best sense of the word.”




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Bookstore Confessional

Working at a bookstore, I have heard personal details of the lives of many strangers.  Small details are unavoidable, because they are looking for a book on grieving, or how to handle an unfaithful spouse.  Some customers, however, will pour out their heartaches, problems, battles.

On my very first day, there was a young woman looking for baby care books.  Having two children myself, we got into a spirited discussion of the merits of various books, and I left her looking through a stack of them.  The next time I passed by, she waved me over, and asked if I could help her find another book.  She was looking for a book on mending relationships, since three scant months before the baby was due, her boyfriend had decided that he really didn’t want a commitment right now.  I had some serious trouble not pointing out to her the book on how to get rid of *&$@%!%$#&@$$.  I also got her some tissues, and a glass of water.  Poor thing.

I had a man tell me the complete details of his battle with depression, and his hope that the book he was purchasing might finally help him win it.

On one particularly memorable occasion, I was concerned about a woman who seemed to be in a lot of pain.  She waved me off, saying that it would pass… and then telling me that truthfully, she wished she was dead.  This, as you can imagine, didn’t reassure, me, and I lingered, debating whether I should take further action.  She then spoke curtly to me, telling me to go away, and she didn’t need anyone hovering, and making her feel self-conscious.   I refrained from telling her that if she didn’t want people to worry, she shouldn’t tell them she wanted to die – obviously she was in great pain, and didn’t want pity, so I left her alone, wishing I could have helped somehow.

I also get to be the first to hear good news occasionally.  Women buying books on pregnancy, who haven’t told anyone yet because it’s very early.  Men looking for ideas on the best way to propose.   A man who returned his books and do-it-yourself guides on divorce, because they had worked things out.  One woman, in her mid-fifties, who looked like the stereotype of the prim spinster librarian, who was picking up a copy of the Kama Sutra for her new boyfriend.

I sometimes wonder why  the impulse to share is there.  Is it sometimes easier to talk to a stranger?  Is it just a sympathetic ear at the right moment?  Perhaps it’s just that with so many people coming through the store, one or two are bound to want to talk?

In any case, the people in the bookstore often have stories just as fascinating as the books themselves.

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Retail Hostility

The other day, a homeless man came in to the bookstore where I work.  He settled in to a chair, and started looking through the shelves.  I asked if I could help him find something, and he said yes, he was trying to figure out ways to make his diet healthier while homeless, since it was really hard for him to have a balanced meal.   We went through a few book ideas, and found a couple of possibilities.

He thanked me.  And then thanked me again.  For not pretending he was invisible, or escorting him from the store.  For treating him like a human being.  He said our store was always great, letting him get cleaned up in the washroom, letting him stay as long as he wanted.   He told me that he used to be a teacher, but circumstances had left him homeless.   He was so happy, just because someone had been willing to have a conversation with him, treat him like a person.

He made my day.

And then there was the couple who came in, having issues with their e-reader.  The return date had passed, with us, and it was now under manufacturer’s warranty.  I offered to try to help them solve the issue, but they refused.   They yelled about customer support at the e-reader company.  They yelled at me, yelled at my manager.  There was swearing.  Everything we tried to say, they talked over.  Apparently they were having an issue with their treadmill,  that was our fault too.  We were thieves, it was a conspiracy.  We were horrible people who were knowingly selling bad products.

They ruined my day.

The contrast between these two encounters is ridiculous.  The homeless man was the soul of courtesy.  The well-off couple were horrible.   Why do people feel they can treat retail workers like dirt?  I can’t imagine someone behaving this way at a bank, but maybe they’re horrible there, too.   I’m not sure what lesson to take from all this.   If my kids behaved like that couple did, they would be in deep, deep trouble.

With other customers, I have taken hours to try to help them with issues they’ve been having with their e-readers, or to teach them how to use them.  I like helping people.  That couple, though, I will not exactly be going out of my way to help.  I’m guessing if I told them that, it would just be one more reason to shout at me.

Obviously, courtesy and respect are not tied to your bank balance.   The upstanding citizen?  The homeless man.

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