Thursday 20 October 2016

The Wonder Trail: True Stories from Lost Angeles to the End of the World by Steve Hely

The Wonder Trail
I checked out Steve Hely’s “The Wonder Trail: True Stories from Lost Angeles to the End of the World” for a few reasons:

1. He’s a former staff writer for “30 Rock”, which I think is one of the funniest North American sitcoms of all time;

2. Los Angeles is featured quite prominently in the beginning and that is a city I’m visiting this coming fall;  

3. I love traveling. 

The book boasts (both on the back cover and inside) that it is a book for those who love traveling and those who don’t, and I think that’s actually a very fair statement. It’s a book that reminded me about everything that is both wonderful and terrible when exploring the world: uncomfortable linguistic mishaps, loneliness, and shiny new people with interesting stories, overrated and underrated sights. It also features plenty of history, which Hely presents alongside his anecdotes in short chapters. You don’t like history? Skip those brief chapters and they won’t detract from the rest of the book. Hely is sharply observant, and while some of his yarns ring slightly self-indulgent, I appreciated the colloquial, relatable way he presents them.

This is a very personal book. Hely knows you can read more technically detailed books elsewhere, so his aim seems to be more about giving an idea of a place alongside a story that demonstrates what he did for fun while visiting. His suggestions for what to do at Machu Picchu, for example, include: “Take stuff in and out of your backpack. Saw a lot of people doing this one. I did it plenty myself…Explore…Feed an apple to a Ilama.”

If you like your educational information with a side of funny personal essay, this book is for you. If you like your funny personal essay with a side of educational information, this is also going to be a happy read. If you want an impartial travel guide with lists of five-star accommodations and local culinary delights, perhaps choose a different book from our travel guide section.

Thursday 13 October 2016

Fifteen Dogs

Fifteen Dogs
Fifteen Dogs

 by André Alexis
 I was first intrigued by this book when I saw it on the Globe and Mail’s “Best Books of 2015” list, because it involved two things I really like to read about:  dogs and mythology.  Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue, by André Alexis, opens with two of Zeus’ sons, Hermes and Apollo, wagering on whether animals that are given human intelligence will be happy.  What results from their bet is this often brutal yet thoughtful tale of 15 unsuspecting dogs that are given this “gift.” 
In discovering that they are able to think in human terms, with some of them learning to speak in the human language, the dogs are torn between their canine world with their natural dog instincts, and their new world of human consciousness. This divides the pack into those who embrace the new way and those who shun it and want to revert back to being dogs. Each of the dogs develops their own coping mechanisms to move forward in their new world, some seeking human companionship, others steadfastly rejecting any contact, some welcoming the freedom, others seeking ways to conform. The pack initially sets up their den in Toronto’s High Park, but soon enough the different reactions to their new fate leads to betrayal and bloodshed. At times, this tale reminded me of Lord of the Flies, with its somewhat expected breakdown of the pack as leaders emerge and assert themselves, and throughout it saddened me that this is in fact a statement on the state of affairs of the human condition.
The understanding that comes with the consciousness leads the dogs to a heightened awareness of their place on earth and the workings of the pack mentality send the dogs on their separate journeys. My favourite character was Majnoun, a poodle who ultimately finds a couple, Miguel and Nira, to spend his life with. Nira and Majnoun share an understanding of each other that allows Majnoun to learn many of the nuances of human behaviour, and they develop a quiet, lifelong friendship. I think I enjoyed their friendship the most as I want to believe that all dogs want to be loved and understood by their human companions.
André Alexis takes the reader right inside the mind of the dogs, which makes it a very personal tale of each of the canines. I recommend this book to anyone who has ever wondered what their dog might be thinking, and how your relationship might change if you truly could understand one another.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
the particular sadness of lemon cake
For nine year old Rose, having her mother bake her favourite lemon cake for her birthday is a real treat, until the day she bites into it and can feel all of her mother’s despair and sadness in the otherwise tasty morsel. At first confused, Rose has trouble grasping the incongruence between these feelings and her mother’s outward appearance of a happy can-do woman, but as the story progresses, she learns to deal with what she learns through eating, not only her mother’s cooking, but that of others as well.  The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender is at times a fascinating tale of magical realism. Through Rose’s unique talent the reader is reminded that we are not always as we seem on the outside, who knows what feelings lurk beneath the sunny exterior of the coffee barista, or the unhappy cookie baker.
I did enjoy Rose’s storyline, how she discovered what she could feel in different foods, how she learned to process that as a child and how it affected her relationship with her mother. I found I could really imagine how Rose felt every time she ate something, and I would wonder what she would get from the food she was eating, how it would make her feel.
However, I found the storyline of Joseph, Rose’s brother, a little odd and it took some time to sort out what was going on with him. Joseph frequently just disappears and then reappears, without explanation.  Not only does he disappear, but also he is able to morph into the form of an object in the room. It was, in my opinion, farfetched and did not really add anything to Rose’s story or to the book. Perhaps it is just me that found the ability to taste people’s feelings as plausible, but to understand the mysterious disappearances of Joseph took more belief than I could muster. It is possible that the Joseph story was never really developed or fully explained as why he needed to disappear, while the reader delves deeply into Rose, her feelings and her ability. Either way, it did not add anything to my reading experience.
This book is a good read for those who enjoy a bit of surrealism and secrecy mixed with a bit of magic.
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