Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Prisoner of Tehran

Prisoner of Tehran: A MemoirPrisoner of Tehran: A Memoir by Marina Nemat

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat was my second “Canada Reads 2012” book. When reviewing these books, I ask myself: Should this one win the Canada Reads contest?

Marina Nemat does not tell about her life in Canada; Prisoner of Tehran is a very personal account of her arrest at 16 by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and subsequent escape a few years later.

The difference between this book and other political persecution stories is that Marina is saved by one of her captors. Ali falls in love with Marina after his first interrogation of her. How about that for love at first sight? Despite being kind to her, he threatens to harm her family and boyfriend if she does not accept his offer of marriage. Marriage will also allow her to leave prison.

Nemat’s narration is straightforward and easy to read, but it is also cool and makes me speculate about what is happening beneath that detached surface. The images of snow reflect the containment of grief and the reluctant appearance of angels.

There are some other striking images that show despair that cannot be controlled. For example, Marina’s friend, Sarah, while under arrest in Evin prison and just after hearing about the execution of her brother is compelled to write her memories all over her body and the walls of her cell. Only her back is left empty of words because she cannot reach back there.

As well, the book reveals the complexity of the Iranian Revolution. I love it when I learn something new. For example, I didn’t know about the lives of practising Christians in Iran. Also, the portrayal of Ali’s family is contradictory and human. They are so lovely. I wonder how Nemat feels about them, especially contrasted with her own emotionally removed family.

I think Prisoner of Tehran will help people who were born in Canada, understand and appreciate what others have gone through in order to get here. I often tweet quotes that resonate with me. The one from Prisoner of Tehran that was retweeted the most was: “I liked the name ‘Canada’—it sounded far away and very cold but peaceful.” The number of retweets shows that Canadians do want their country to be seen as a safe harbour. On the other hand, my experience with ESL students demonstrates that many people are intolerant and ignorant of what our new immigrants have gone and are going through.

Prisoner of Tehran is an important book because it tells just one of the stories that Canadian immigrants carry with them.

Perhaps, then, Prisoner of Tehran should be the winner of Canada Reads 2012.

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Monday, 19 December 2011

On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock

On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian RockOn a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock by Dave Bidini

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On a Cold Road is the first book on my list for Canada Reads 2012. The point of Canada Reads is to find the most quintessentially Canadian book for the year to recommend to all Canadians to read.

On a Cold Road delivers what the subtitle says: tales of adventure in Canadian rock by documenting the Rheostatics as they open for the Tragically Hip on a cross Canada tour. Interspersed with Bidini’s poetic expressions of band life, are interviews with the founders of Canadian rock. The book begins quietly dealing with the troubles of the music business, travelling on desolate country roads and playing in high school auditoriums, before building up to the debauchery of groupies and of Yonge Street, playing the hallowed ground of Maple Leaf Gardens, and detailing the end: band implosions. The book takes the reader on quite a tour.

As well, Bidini’s prose is exquisite. In a blizzard, wind “knuckles the roof” of their touring van, and Vancouver is described as a “kiss from a ponytailed girl”. The book is also a love letter to Canada. From experiencing “skin-peeling” prairie cold in playing small towns, to wild nights in Hamilton, the band “got to know Canada way more than [they] ever wanted to”. Through the music, Canada becomes a place “waiting to be explored”.

This book gave me a chance to relive my youth: These were the bands and songs that were playing on the radio when I was in high school and university.

I also felt a different sense of nostalgia while reading the book: The book describes a Canada that used to exist: a country where we citizens had much more in common. All the kids of a certain age listened to the same music. I don’t know if that’s true anymore.

Or at least it felt that way. This was the Canada I knew when I left in the mid 90s to live in Europe. Canada was not the same place when I returned. Canadians had suddenly become diverse without a common sense of self. I didn’t know what Canadians shared anymore.

Also, I initially found the transfer from Bidini’s narrative to the interviews jarring. I needed to YouTube videos of the singers and bands mentioned to remind me of who they were. Certainly they created great songs. Unfortunately, I haven’t remembered their names. Also, until now, I never knew some of these guys/gals were Canadian.

So a combination of the book being set in a Canada Past, and the fact that the musicians are no longer household names made this book feel dated.

Would On A Cold Road then be the ideal book for all Canadians to read this year?

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How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or LessHow to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In cinematic fashion, Sarah Glidden tells of what she learned during her Birthright trip to Israel. Upon departure, she thought she understood the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, some people on the tour dubbed her the “self-hating Jew”.

Even though the character of Sarah learns that things may not be quite as they seem, I found that there wasn’t a whole lot of new information. We do learn, via examples such as Masada and Frank the Republican, that there may be more than one version of a story/history. Also, in the end, despite Glidden’s best intentions, we never get to witness the Palestinian side of the conflict. Both Glidden and the reader are scared off.

I do find it interesting that there exists such an entity as the Birthright tours: a free trip for the Jewish Diaspora to visit Israel. I like that.

As well, Israel in 60 Days does convey the wide range of Israeli experiences and points of view. Glidden’s own self-deprecating portrayal and Rabbi Hartman’s impassioned lecture counters the “brainwashing” effect that Glidden fears the tour will create.

Still, Glidden does succumb to the “Birthright Glow” and wonders if she has “Jerusalem Syndrome”. She does feel a connection to Israel, which she doesn’t fully understand, but wonderful for the reader to witness.

Israel in 60 Days does provide a novice reader about the basics of Israel and does so in an engaging fashion. One word of warning: If you have older eyes like mine, you may find the lettering hard to read.

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Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media

The Influencing MachineThe Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media is not your typical graphic text. It’s a sweeping look at the history of the media, as well as a forecast on how technology will influence human evolution.

Equal parts philosophy, cultural criticism, and polemic, Gladstone’s Machine shows her reader how news has been reported and how public policy has been shaped from an American perspective.

Compared to a text-based book, Machine sometimes seems to dispense its information in bits and pieces. Also, some parts of the book get very academic and abstract, which might prove difficult for student readers. But that shouldn't stop them from using the book as a launching point for investigating issues surrounding the media.

Still, the book’s ideas provide the reader with many chewy parts to digest, and the visuals often add a humorous kick to Gladstone’s arguments. I particularly liked the part where Gladstone imagines how humans will interact with nanotechnology and vice versa.

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Saturday, 10 December 2011

Short Video about The Influencing Machine

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media

Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness

Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental IllnessPsychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness by Darryl Cunningham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! This collection is a series of eleven graphic stories about mental illness. Shocking and powerful, each story ends with a metaphorical kick in the stomach.

The book not only teaches compassion and understanding for those dealing with mental illness; it also provides insight to their caregivers and families.

Highly recommended.

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The Next Day

The Next DayThe Next Day by Paul Peterson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A graphic novella which depicts, believe it or not, suicide attempts.

The books has two sections: "The Day Of"; and "The Next Day".

It is powerful and moving: The lesson being that each of these people are grateful for having a second chance.

Each person's story is done is a different graphic style; still, at times, I had to flip back to find out who was who. Initially, it was difficult to follow a single character's storyline, since the book alternates amongst the four characters.

Graphic novels are continuing to impress me as a way to discuss difficult issues.

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Mendel's Daughter: A Memoir

Mendel's Daughter: A MemoirMendel's Daughter: A Memoir by Martin Lemelman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mendel’s Daughter: A Memoir is cinematic in its scope, visuals and voice. It is the story of ghosts who speak through dreams, and angles that intervene to save a life.

The author recreates in graphic novel form, an interview he had with his mother about her experiences during World War II. She was born in a Polish-Ukrainian Jewish shtetl and in the book she tells her son about their family’s history, its personage, and what happened to them when the Russians and Germans invaded. Mendel's Daughters also includes a context for the horrors to come: village markets, sharing a water well with neighbours, dressing up in friends' Polish costumes, school, suitors, and bike riding.

The accompanying visuals convey the emotional impact of the story just as much as the old woman’s voice does. There has been some criticism about the mother’s accent being recreated in the text, but being true to the documentary feel of the graphic novel, the voice must be true and unedited.

The visuals are a combination of drawings, photographs and real documents. The son has created a scrapbook from his mother’s memories. As she tells him: Sometimes your memories are not your own.

Now the reader of Mendel’s Daughter also has a part of those memories. This book is important because it lives longer than the witness of horrifying times. Already the impact and implications of the Holocaust are already being forgotten.

Man’s origin is dust and his end is dust. He spends his life earning bread. He is like a clay vessel, easily broken, like withering grass, a fading flower, a fugitive cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattering dust, a vanishing dream.

Man plans, and God laughs. –Yiddish saying

Mendel’s Daughter is a loving tribute a son has created for his mother.

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Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of those great non-fiction books that reads like a novel because it tells a gripping human story. Rebecca Skloot leads the reader back and forth in time to reveal the horrible, wonderful life of Henrietta Lacks.

At first, the book seems to be a tale about the power, importance and blurred ethics of medical research. What makes the book heartbreaking is that it also contains a family saga about race, poverty and the loss of a mother.

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed and treated at Johns Hopkins University. During her illness and at the time of her death, cell samples were taken. For some reason, these malign cells became the first cells to keep on dividing and growing in culture. These immortal cells were dubbed “HeLa” after the first syllable in each of her names.

The cells’ immortality was special because it allowed doctors and scientists to do continual, advanced research on the treatment of hepatitis, AIDS, polio, cancer, and many more diseases. They also provided a tool to study cloning and gene mapping.

We are in Henrietta’s debt.

The problem is that Henrietta did not give her consent for these cells to be taken, and a multi-million dollar medical industry has arisen around them. As well, Henrietta’s family did not find out about her cells until twenty years later. The family has not financially benefited from the research, and questions about their mother’s cells, more often than not, went unanswered. Even more distressing to her children is the idea that part of their mother is still alive and being subjected to research. Seeing how Henrietta’s children grew up without their mother adds to the poignancy of the book.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was on many top books of 2010 lists, and for good reason. It contains all the best ingredients: the wonder of science, the miracles of life, and the love of family in a well-written personal narrative. And, oh yes, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks made me believe in angels.

p.s. If you are wondering what happened once the book ended, here’s a link to an update:

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The Best Books of 2011

It's always the right time to read a great book, but the Christmas season is a great excuse to give one, or two, or...

Here are some Best of 2011 lists:

Happy shopping!

p.s. Just found the mother lode of lists: Largehearted Boy Blog