Reading With Ava – Shadowshaper

Reading With Ava – Shadowshaper

Sierra Santiago is a Brooklyn teen, trying to have a normal life and hang with her artsy friends. But she discovers that in her family are Shadowshapers, manipulators of ancient spirits that utilize art as a conduit, for Sierra, this comes in the form of mural painting. With the help of a fellow artist, Robbie, Sierra is able to bring her murals to life but the Shadowshaper’s are in danger. Sierra’s grandfather shared the secret of Shadowshaping with an anthropologist, Dr. Wick, and he’s trying to gain the power of the Shadowshapers for himself.

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Book Club – The Lord of the Flies

Book Club – The Lord of the Flies

I’ve read Lord of the Flies three times, once in high school, once about ten years ago and again last month because I decided to tag along with my mother to her book club. If you came here through a Google search looking for something to help you with a high school paper, I’ll try to update this soon with something useful.

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Gift Ideas – 2012

A few years ago my brother-in-law gave me Moneyball by Michael Lewis and although I hate baseball, he said I’d still like the book. It was a fascinating read about taking a statistical approach to a game dominated by the gut instincts of baseball scouts. Being ignorant of all things baseball, it even turned into a bit of a thriller – would the Oakland A’s win the World Series with their kooky math and cheap, ragtag crew? (Spoiler alert – No)

When I get a book as a gift, I’d prefer that it resonated on some level with the person who gave it to me. I also recognize that sometimes you might want to buy a book for someone with vastly different reading tastes than your own. With that in mind I’m going to recommend a few potential gift ideas:

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I wrote a piece for a Junot Diaz fan site looking at the short story ‘Invierno’ from his new collection This Is How You Lose Her.

If you didn’t know, I’m a huge fan of Junot Diaz. I was really disappointed that I didn’t get to see him when he was in Toronto for the International Festival of Authors this past October. I was away in Niagara seeing another of my favourite artists, Morrissey that same weekend (and I had bought the Moz tickets months before). It was a shame that the two events I most wanted to see all year were on the same night.

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The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual EnlightenmentThe Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The best and worst parts of being a part of a book club is being introduced to works outside of your normal reading spectrum. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now (along with Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper) made me quit my local book club. While this seems like an easy target to criticize, there was something I found very troubling about this book. It’s more than the fact that it’s poorly written, or filled with pseudo-spiritual nonsense.

I found the bio of the author, Eckhart Tolle, to be the most troubling aspect of this book. It claims that he was depressed for much of his life and then underwent an ‘inner transformation,’ a two year period when he was a bum (but in a state of ‘deep bliss’), and then came out the other side a spiritual leader. It reminded me of this post, for some reason.

It seemed his cure for depression was to just snap out of it. (Or perhaps the cure for the depression is to write a best-seller and become a millionaire). This suggestion is troubling at best, dangerous at worst if he is recommending this type of introspection as a treatment for depression. I would implore everyone to go to the Amazon website, click on ‘Look Inside’ and read the introduction where one minute he hates the world and is contemplating suicide and the next everything is awesome because of his new life perspective. It is convoluted, ridiculous, a little unbelievable and involves being sucked into a void.

The spiritual advice is conveniently non-denominational (presumably to appeal to as many religions as possible). The gist is live for today (oh, and don’t sweat the small stuff (and it’s all small stuff)). The interesting part of this book is that while it tries to provide a path to spiritual enlightenment, there is no empirical way to test if someone is spiritually enlightened. You would have to take someone at their word that Tolle’s teachings have enlightened them or gave them peace or happiness in their life. And you could probably assume that such enlightened people would have no need for any other self-help book, ever, and certainly not another from Mr. Tolle. And then you could look at the sale numbers of Tolle’s follow-up book, A New Earth, and it’d be pretty easy to determine how many people he led to enlightenment…

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My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

My Sister's KeeperMy Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Jodi Picoult is a best-selling author of 18 novels. My Sister’s Keeper was my first introduction to her writing and is responsible (along with Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth) for me skipping most meetings of my local library book club. The plot revolves around a family whose eldest daughter has leukaemia, they have another daughter who was genetically selected to be a bone marrow donor. The younger daughter gets tired of being a guinea pig and gets a lawyer to speak up for her and threatens to tear her family apart. An interesting premise, apparently Picoult tackles these odd but interesting ethical quandaries.

My Sister’s Keeper is a book bloated with Halmark card sentimentality and fortune cookie wisdom. The story jumped between SIX different narrators, which is supposedly another trademark of Picoult’s. What surprised me about this was that all the characters had, more or less, the same voice and the way she distinguished between narrators was to SWITCH FONTS, which is nothing but a cheap, lazy parlour trick. Several characters could have been cut and many of the story lines were uninteresting and extraneous (my personal favourite superfluous moment of sentimentality was during the lawyer’s flashback to childhood where his rich daddy was yelling at him on the yacht? Who didn’t shed a tear during that scene?)

Stories like these are the reason I turn off the television and this is a movie of the week, at best (although I heard Cameron Diaz starred in the big screen adaptation. Who knew?). Several people I spoke with noted how well researched this book was, but the writing is lazy and many of the little details are very sloppy (ie: Brian mentions if one travels in space for three years, 400 years will pass on earth – not true, Christopher Columbus didn’t launch the satellites in space, nor is one of the cheif concerns of the Mars mission the ‘fact’ that 800 years will pass by the time they get back. One has to travel close to the speed of light for that. In another scene, a woman shows up at a hospital in an octopus costume, raises ‘one arm and eight others move along with it,’ meaning that the costume had ten arms, or eighteen arms (2 real and 8 tied to strings on either side). In another scene Julie says she got her Guatemalan bag (Central America), that she witnessed the weaving of, on her trip to South America. I could go on all day, really). There were so many little details wrong that it led me to question the plausibility of the bigger points of the story (ie: could an embryo be genetically designed or even selected to be a genetic match as a bone marrow donor?).

By the end I didn’t care what happened and the actual ending is ridiculous and unsatisfying, albeit very ‘real’. Everything wrapped up in such a way I could imagine myself in front of the television watching the characters go about their business and then become frozen, mid action, while a little blurb tells us their fate. So, if greeting cards make you cry and if the things you read on fortune cookies resonate deep within you, then you may just love this book.

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Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

OutliersOutliers by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was living in South America in 2008 so I missed a lot of the zeitgeist books of the time, including Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. When my local book club put it on their list, I decided to see what the hype was about.

As a reader I consume far more fiction than non-fiction and the main pattern I’ve observed in the non-fiction I’ve read goes something like this: present story that supports the book’s thesis, present thesis, mix up evidence and supporting cases with diminishing returns, finish weakly. And for non-fiction this pattern works well, I think a book can have a profound impact even if it fizzles out in the end, which is almost impossible to accomplish in fiction.

Outliers is not too dissimilar, it starts out with the strange case of Roseta, Pennsylvania, where the longevity of its inhabitants is owed to nothing other than a sense of community. Gladwell sites Dan Levitan’s 10,000 hour theory (the theory that there is no such thing as ‘raw talent’ but a mastery of anything can be accomplished by 10,000 hours of practice) and applies it to Bill Gates, the Beatles and others.

The book seems to tread uncomfortable waters when addressing why South Korean pilots were the worst in the world and why Asians are good at math. Gladwell manages to avoid controversy and examines the cultural legacy behind these issues to come up with a plausible explanation for the phenomena he observes. The ending of the book is interesting too because Gladwell delves into his family’s history in Jamaica (which explains his awesome hair) and how certain privileges and circumstances led him to where he ended up in life.

In this regard I think the book is very effective, it challenges the reader to examine their own background, opportunities and cultural legacies. I looked back at two events in my life in the context of what was discussed in Outliers. When I was in the second grade I spent 1 week with the ‘gifted’ readers before being demoted. I remember thinking that I wasn’t good enough to be with those other kids, that I wasn’t smart enough. But being a November baby (Gladwell states that our educational system, like the hockey system that results in 40% of NHLers being born in January, February or March, has an age bias built into it that instills early patterns of success and failure) and a recent immigrant to the country with parents with poor English skills, it was no wonder I couldn’t keep up. I also remember in the 9th grade when my guidance councilor recommended I drop down to General level math from Advanced because it was probably ‘too hard for me.’ I was lucky that I had a university educated father who pretty much said, ‘you’re lazy, smarten up,’ because that decision could very well have ruined my life – I certainly wouldn’t have tutored algebra and calculus through high school, university and my early married life to make ends meet and I certainly wouldn’t have received a university education in the sciences.

I talked about the book with my father and I asked him how his father, who was a poor taxi driver in Lima, Peru, had three sons who went to university and I got to hear different stories that I hadn’t heard before about his advantages, opportunities and lucky breaks. I can’t think of another book that revealed new information about my family to me.

But I think the book affected me most as a parent, it gives the hope that greatness is available to anyone and that your children can be better than you with the right guidance and opportunities (oh, if you spend an hour a day doing something, it’ll take about 27 years to get your 10,000 hours in, so maybe greatness isn’t available to everyone, per se). If my kids aren’t math geniuses, scientifically literate and book devouring nerds, then I think I’ll have failed them in some regard.

Although Outliers contains two chapters on Genius (titled ‘The Trouble with Genius’ parts I & II), I thought this wasn’t fully addressed. It didn’t examine creativity or imagination, probably because it couldn’t. I think what fosters these uniquely human traits is still not fully understood. Gladwell gives the story of his background, but what is it that makes him recognize and seek meaning in odd patterns? What is it that creates great vision or even the desire to create in someone? Perhaps that can be the subject of his next book. Or perhaps his next book is one of these: http://www.malcolmgladwellbookgenerator….

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Pitouie by Derek Winkler

PitouiePitouie by Derek Winkler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this book on a whim at a Broken Pencil event and found myself quickly caught up in the story. The plot alternates between the present on the titular island where large industrial corporations bid to use a lake in a dormant volcano as a toxic waste dump and a second which takes place 35 years earlier at a radar base and Inuit village in northern Canada where a mining scam is being perpetrated. Having worked in both the environmental and mining exploration fields, I kept watch for technical errors or unrealistic portrayals of the industry. I couldn’t really find any (I wonder if Winkler might write for the Northern Miner), I thought the book was researched well enough to be convincing and didn’t bog down the plot with boring details. I read a couple of reviews that said the Island story was the more interesting plot line but I disagree. I found the set up of the mining scam to be very interesting and I felt pangs of anxiety when Lars couldn’t get his snow mobile started (I’ve been there, it’s absolutely horrifying to know you’re in the middle of nowhere, it’s -40 and too far to walk back to camp and that you will die if your snowmobile doesn’t start up). All the way along I was wondering how the two stories connected and without giving anything away, it was done very cleverly.

Although the book is fun (and funny), it gave me much to ponder as I read through it. Some of it was absurd, such as what would happen to the industrial waste if the volcano became active again, would it disassociate under the heat or vapourize, etc., etc., and some was more hefty when thinking on the actions of the characters and the various layers of corruption. I found the book hard to put down for the last 50 pages or so and all in all, I thought Pitouie was a very pleasant surprise.

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