tales from outer suburbia

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan.

From the back cover: “Do you remember the water buffalo at the end of our street? Or the deep-sea diver we found near the underpass? Do you know why dogs bark in the middle of the night? Shaun Tan, creator of The Arrival, The Lost Thing and The Red Tree, reveals the quiet mysteries of everyday life: homemade pets, dangerous weddings, stranded sea mammals, tiny exchange students and secret rooms filled with darkness and delight.”

The cover of this book beckoned me from across the library one day and – I know I should be ashamed to admit this, but I’m not, or rather I’m mostly unashamed, but still a little ashamed, as with most things, come to think of it, since that’s just the way I am – I almost ignored it since I thought it was a graphic novel. Yes, yes, I know graphic novels are the way of the future and so awesome and revolutionary and whatever. Stop hounding me about how great graphic novels are. I don’t get the appeal, okay? Call me old (true) and inflexible (true) and a snob (somehow also true, despite my shame), but I have zero desire to read a graphic novel. (And don’t get me started on graphic novel versions of the classics because I will become truly unpleasant. What is wrong with WORDS? Words as they were written?)

In any case, I don’t need to rant about Tales from Outer Suburbia because it is a lavishly illustrated book of very short stories, not a graphic novel. It’s a picture book for adults, say. (Not those kinds of pictures for adults. I know where your lecherous mind went.) It would be perfectly suitable for kids and teens too, with its intriguing mix of the poignant and the absurd.

The illustrations are fantastic and I suggest you check out Shaun Tan’s website for samples of his work. Seriously, his talent and creativity make me want to barf. Life is so, so unfair.

Anyway.

Tales from Outer Suburbia: Highly recommended.

Shelf Monkey

Shelf Monkey by Corey Redekop. ECW Press.

From the inside flap:

“Thomas Friesen has three goals in life. Get a job. Make friends. Find a good book to curl up with. After landing a job at READ, the newest hypermegabookstore, he feels he may have accomplished all three.

All is not peaceable within the stacks, however. Discontent is steadily rising, and it is aimed squarely at Munroe Purvis, a talk show host whose wildly popular book club is progressively lowering the IQ of North America.

But the bookworms have a plan. Plots are being hatched. The destruction of Munroe is all but assured. And as Thomas finds himself swept along in the maelstrom of insanity, he wonders if reading a book is all it’s cracked up to be.”

1. I love the word ‘maelstrom,’ don’t you? I really need to find ways to work  it into casual conversation more often. I also like ‘skullduggery.’ And ‘fortitude.’ And ‘slipstream.’

2. I love the cover of this book. Kudos (ooh, another good word) to the designer, David Gee, because it was the cover that enticed me to pick up the book in the first place. Yes, I am that shallow.

3. I love the book. It’s smart and funny and creative and (as much as I usually cringe at this word) thought-provoking, raising questions about what qualifies as ‘literature,’ about how our opinions are shaped and by whom, about our compulsion to try to shape the opinions of others, and about the evolution of a society that wants everything to be as easy, comforting and unchallenging as possible.

Very highly recommended.

Bossypants

Bossypants by Tina Fey. From the inside flap: “Before Liz Lemon, before “Weekend Update,” before “Sarah Palin,” Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV. She has seen both these dreams come true.”

I was both eager and reluctant to read Bossypants – eager because I enjoy Tina Fey’s work on 30 Rock and reluctant because I’d heard several disappointing reviews of the book. The bad reviews all seemed to have the common theme, however, of the readers having been let down because they had really high (read: impossibly high) expectations. This is why I generally avoid books that receive the massive hype and publicity Bossypants received. How could they ever live up to the buzz? I’ve been burned enough times that I now refuse to read most bestsellers, including practically mandatory works like the Harry Potter series or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. I’m tired of getting my hopes up that a book will be really spectacular, only to find it’s simply okay. Or worse, that it’s terrible. This, I’ll think, this is what everyone is having kittens over? And then I’ll spend way too long wondering what’s wrong with me that I don’t enjoy the things everyone else enjoys and, really, I don’t need to spend any more time comparing myself unfavourably to others. Already got that one covered.

So. Bossypants. Thumbs up or thumbs down? I’d say thumbs up. Was it the finest piece of literature I’ve ever read? No. Was it life-changing? No. Was it funny? Yes, by times. It was laugh-out-loud funny occasionally. Sometimes it was thought-provoking and sometimes it was mildly interesting, but I never found it boring. Do I wish I had bought it from the bookstore (for $29.99) instead of borrowing it from the library? No.

Tina Fey comes across as humble and down-to-earth and honest and approachable and a wonderful departure from the ‘diva’ attitude among female entertainers that seems to be in fashion now. If you read the book from the perspective of ‘spending time with an amusing and charming person’ instead of ‘golden words from a comedy genius,’ I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

kitchen scraps

Kitchen Scraps by Pierre Lamielle. From the inside cover: “Remember your mother’s favourite cookbook? The one dog-eared to the hamburger with canned soup recipe? This isn’t that cookbook. And what about that cookbook your too-perfect friend has? The one where all the recipes are about stacking things on top of each other and garnishing them with a hard-to-find leaf? This isn’t that cookbook either.”

It’s true; I’ve never seen a cookbook like this one. The recipes look good (I confess I haven’t tried any yet), but it’s the crazy illustrations and witty stories before (and during…and after…) the recipes that really set it apart. It’s super-creative. I liked it a lot.

Highly recommended, even for those who don’t cook.

Light Lifting

Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod. The blurb from the back cover: “Light Lifting, Alexander MacLeod’s long-awaited first collection of short fiction, offers us a suite of darkly urban and unflinching elegies. These are elemental stories of work and its bonds, of tragedy and tragedy barely averted, but also of beauty, love and fragile understanding.”

I read Light Lifting more than a month ago and have been waiting since then for a few free minutes to put together an intelligent review and, well, that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. Not the ‘free time’ part or, let’s be honest, the ‘intelligent’ part. Instead, I’ll tell you what I’ve been telling everyone within earshot for weeks now: you must read this book.

Read it as soon as possible.

It is so brilliant and so utterly absorbing that it was all I could do to not pitch it away in a fit of jealousy. (That’s a compliment.)

So…you’re going to read it, right?

The Best Laid Plans

The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis.

The online blurb (in lieu of the back cover blurb since I don’t have the book to steal from): “Here’s the set up: A burnt-out politcal aide quits just before an election – but is forced to run a hopeless campaign on the way out. He makes a deal with a crusty old Scot, Angus McLintock – an engineering professor who will do anything, anything, to avoid teaching English to engineers – to let his name stand in the election. No need to campaign, certain to lose, and so on. Then a great scandal blows away his opponent, and to their horror, Angus is elected. He decides to see what good an honest M.P. who doesn’t care about being re-elected can do in Parliament. The results are hilarious – and with chess, a hovercraft, and the love of a good woman thrown in, this very funny book has something for everyone.”

Considering The Best Laid Plans won CBC’s Canada Reads this year, I scarcely think it needs my insignificant stamp of approval, but I’m giving it anyway, just in case your alien abduction coincided with the Canada Reads hoopla and you missed all the media coverage. It’s okay; I’m always several months behind the rest of the world too.

Much has been written about how Fallis initially had to self-publish this book because no publishers would take it on, which, believe me, says more about the publishing industry than the quality of his work. The Best Laid Plans went on to win The Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and only then was picked up by a publishing house. Crazy. After all these accolades, however, I doubt he’ll ever have to worry about self-publishing again.

Anyway. The book. It’s funny and smart and well-written and interesting, even though it’s about politics. (Seriously, I almost didn’t read it because I thought, politics? Snore.) The characters are enjoyable and while the plot is somewhat predictable, it’s still a pleasure to watch it unfold.

Highly recommended.

Have you read The Best Laid Plans? What did you think?

The Bone Cage

The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou. From the back cover: “Digger, an 85-kilo wrestler, and Sadie, a 26-year-old speed swimmer, stand on the verge of realizing every athlete’s dream–winning a gold medal at the Olympics. Both athletes are nearing the end of their careers, and are forced to confront the question: what happens to athletes when their bodies are too worn to compete? The blossoming relationship between Digger and Sadie is tested in the intense months leading up to the Olympics, which, as both of them are painfully aware, will be the realization or the end of a life’s dream.”

If you aren’t the superstar athlete I am, you might be reluctant to read a sports-themed novel, but fear not, my friends, because The Bone Cage is much more than jock talk. The characters are complex and realistic, the plot is absorbing, the setting is perfectly drawn, and the writing is clean and clear and a pleasure to read.

What elevates The Bone Cage above the level of ‘merely entertaining,’ however, are The Big Questions it raises: After years of pushing everything else (family, friends, education, occupation) aside to train, what does an elite athlete actually have once the athletic career is over? Are all those years of training and sacrifice worth the reward? What if there is no reward? What is it that drives athletes to devote everything to competition? Is this drive to be respected or pitied? Who are any of us without our careers, our talents, our obsessions?

The Bone Cage: Highly recommended.

The Book of Awesome

The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha. From the inside cover: “The Book of Awesome reminds us of all the little things that we often overlook but that make us smile. With touching, warm, and funny observations, each entry ends with the big booming feeling you’ll get when you read through them: AWESOME!”

This book was in huge demand at the library all last summer and although I generally shy away from super popular bestsellers (having either truly superior or godawful taste – it’s open to debate), I felt the need for a little more awesomesauce in my own life.

So…I tried, okay? I tried to get in that ultra-optimistic, head-bobbing groove the book wants to create, but I just couldn’t. Don’t get me wrong – some of Pasricha’s awesome things really are awesome, like “Fixing electronics by smacking them,” and “Seeing somebody laugh in their sleep,” and “Saying the same thing a sports commentator says just before they say it.” Some I found odd, like “The smell of gasoline,” and “New socks day,” but whatever. He’s allowed to think those things are awesome. I’m understanding that way.

No, what bugged me most was Pasricha’s trying-way-too-hard-to-sound-hip-and-enthusiastic tone. Take this: “The other side of the pillow, folks. Because it’s flat when you’re sagging, fresh when you’re stale, and cold when you’re hot, baby.” Or this one: “Yes…you’re suddenly a Bus Fleet Fat Cat, swimming in tickets and tokens, commanding your private army of Sugar Rollers around town to pick you up and drop you off as you see fit. Baby, if you’re feeling this buzz, then there’s no reason you can’t get right into it too…” Or this one: “Head in the freezer, hands in the oven, whatever your move, just make it. Pick a temp, baby, then bake it. Pump up the thermostat, bang on the rad, or crank up the air.”

Looking at these Tidbits that Made Me Roll My Eyes (that name is in honour of the way Pasricha likes to make everything into a proper noun:  moviegoers are The Back Row Crowd, Middle of the Packers, La-Z-Boys and Girls and Front Row Crazies, for instance), I realize my first objection might be the repeated use of the word “baby”. I don’t find it funny or hip or even ironic – just irritating. And that sing-songy patter got on my nerves. Just speak normally, guy. I’m sure I can understand whatever it is you’re trying to express without you presenting it in the form of a schlocky pop song.

Would I recommend this book? Well, surprisingly, despite This Blog Post of Bitchy, I would. Why? For one thing, I truly believe gratitude is A Good Thing (that one belongs to Martha Stewart) and we could all practice it more regularly. For another, Pasricha seems like a nice guy and it isn’t his fault I have this life-threatening allergy to kitsch. I can see how most people would enjoy this book. For those like me, with ice water running in their veins and hearts of granite, I recommend reading the titles only and skipping the commentary. You’re smart enough to figure out why “The sound of rain from inside the tent” is awesome. I’m pretty confident of that. And the bonus is you’ll finish the book in about twenty minutes. AWESOME!