The season's crop of writing is rich in ideas

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      This spring's nonfiction titles will prompt a range of reactions, from full-scale freak-out over the environment to laughter about the little things.

      Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis
      (By Alanna Mitchell. McClelland & Stewart, $32.99)
      Toronto environmental journalist Alanna Mitchell writes a concise report card on our treatment of the planet's oceans, and the grades are—well, they're not good. In fact, they're apocalyptically bad. Mitchell shows how human appetites and technology are causing massive shifts in every aspect of the oceans, from their temperature to their chemical makeup, thus doing untold damage to the natural systems that regulate our climate and supply our oxygen. Read this book and act, before we all wind up facing something far scarier than a sashimi shortage.

      The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty
      (By Peter Singer. Random House, $25)

      That's a hefty subtitle for a short (224-page) book, but Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer's message is as compelling as it is straightforward: if everyone living comfortably in the world's wealthy countries treated international charity as an obligation, not as a gratifying afterthought, huge improvements could be made to the lot of the billion people on the planet who live in abject poverty. Without sermonizing, Singer takes a close look at the many complex reasons why we fail to act on this self-evident idea, including the sense of futility that many people feel when confronted by the statistics. More important, he argues impressively for an income-based scale of personal philanthropy that all can use without reducing the quality of their own lives. A testament to “the ethical importance of giving as an essential component of a well-lived life”.

      Unembedded: Two Decades of Maverick War Reporting
      (By Scott Taylor. Douglas & McIntyre, $34.95)

      Scott Taylor, a former Canadian Forces soldier and the publisher of the military-minded Esprit de Corps magazine, covers a lot of crater-pocked ground here. He's had a distinguished and dangerous career, from blowing the lid off of a high-level military cover-up during the 1994 Somalia scandal to providing ground-level looks at conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Taylor is willing to accept risks that confine many modern-day war correspondents to hotel rooms or the supervision of official handlers, and Unembedded gives a clear idea of what's at stake when a reporter plots his own course through a war zone: the book's most harrowing episode is the author's 2004 kidnapping in northern Iraq, where he was held for five days and repeatedly threatened with execution.

      The Secret Lives of Litterbugs
      (By M. A. C. Farrant. Key Porter, $17.95)

      Families are as rich in comedy as tragedy, as North Saanich writer M. A. C. Farrant proves in her latest collection of gregarious essays about domestic life. Ranging from her own years growing up in Victoria in the 1960s to her experiences as the mother of teenagers, Farrant's keenly funny descriptions of disastrous dates, boozy birthday dinners, and strange weddings suggest that the act of carefully observing the foibles of those closest to you is another form of affection.

      China Underground
      (By Zachary Mexico. Soft Skull Press, $22)

      Twenty-nine-year-old New Yorker Zachary Mexico has been travelling back and forth to China since he was a kid in his mid teens, infatuated with the language and culture. Here, in the short, affably told episodes of his first book, he documents the journey he took in 2006 to explore the huge array of urban subcultures that have arisen in the country. Hanging out with punks, barflies, students, gangsters, artists, hipsters, and outcasts, Mexico transforms the image of a society that most westerners think about purely in terms of economics and debates over human rights.


      The books below are definitely diverse, but each tells us something about being human that both disturbs and consoles.

      Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison
      (By Cathleen With. Viking Canada, $32)

      The baby Faith has started life in rough circumstances. She was born in fragile health on the same night that her 15-year-old mother, Trista, was implicated in a bloody crime, the violence of which is revealed slowly as this gritty debut novel unfolds in its setting of Jackfish Bay, Northwest Territories. Vancouver writer Cathleen With combines a bare-bones style with her emotionally charged experiences as a teacher in Inuvik to describe the daily lives of young women whose childhoods are damaged by poverty, addiction, and abuse. A moving, often wrenching story, illuminated by moments of kindness and a mother's resolve to hope.

      The Winter Vault
      (By Anne Michaels. McClelland & Stewart, $32.99)

      Thirteen years after storming the national and international literary scenes with her stylish first novel Fugitive Pieces, Toronto author and poet Anne Michaels returns with another work of rich, allusive prose that sifts through layers of the past for the roots of human intimacy. Set in 1964 in Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt, the story follows a young Canadian engineer in charge of relocating ancient temples threatened by a hydroelectric dam. As he and his wife discover, love “is not the moment of bringing your whole life to another—but rather, it is everything you leave behind.”

      Anne Michaels will read from The Winter Vault at 7:30 p.m. Friday (April 3), at St. Andrew's–Wesley United Church (1022 Nelson Street).

      (By J. Robert Lennon. Graywolf Press, $22)

      American novelist and musician J. Robert Lennon offers the slyly gothic story of Eric Loesch, a reserved but driven man who buys a densely forested stretch of land on the edge of Gerrysburg, New York, the decaying small town where he lived as a child. Loesch's search for serene privacy as he fixes up a rundown farmhouse is derailed by flashbacks to past horrors. And then there's that mysterious parcel of land in the middle of his property, whose owner is unknown. Due out April 11.

      Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives
      (By David Eagleman. Viking Canada, $26)

      Writing like Italo Calvino with a medical degree, American neuroscientist David Eagleman devises glittering, compact, often funny vignettes about what may await us on the Other Side. In one brief vision, you relive your entire life, but reshuffled according to category of experience: “You spend two months driving the street in front of your house”¦.Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting,” and so on. In another, “everything exists in all possible states at once,” so that you find yourself “simultaneously eating and not eating. You are bowling and not bowling at the same time.” Wry, weirdly profound, and full of evidence that the mind relies on its comic instincts when pondering infinity.

      Kids' books

      From rampaging poultry to the ghoulish denizens of a parallel reality, the main figures in this season's books for young people are sure to draw attention away from all those computer screens.

      Half World
      (By Hiromi Goto. Puffin Canada, $20)
      Burnaby's Hiromi Goto starts with the premise of so many classic books for young people—the idea of the missing parent—and conjures a magical, menacing vision of a universe out of balance. When Melanie's mother vanishes from their home one day, the teenage misfit gets a phone call from the demonic Mr. Glueskin, telling her that her mother is now his hostage in a purgatorylike realm between the worlds of spirit and flesh. What follows is part macabre fantasy, part spiritual quest, as Melanie sets out to rescue her mother and discovers that doing so will mean nothing less than restoring the cosmic cycles ruling life and death. A dark, one-of-a-kind epic about familial love.

      Boyology: A Teen Girl's Crash Course in All Things Boy
      (By Sarah O'Leary Burningham, illustrated by Keri Smith. Chronicle, $17.95)

      They're a mysterious species, boys, what with all the sweatiness and monosyllables and weird ideas. Luckily for puzzled teenage girls, Manhattan-based writer Sarah O'Leary Burningham breaks down the breeds: the Tortured Artist, the Surf Stud, the Tech-tilian, and the Mama's Boy, to name a few. With index entries like “Hands, holding”, “Dutch, going”, and “Boyfriends, loser types of”, Burningham's tone is light and breezy, but she's not afraid to take on heavier topics like drugs and sexual assault. I'm not a teenage girl and never have been, so I'll let Boyology's target audience judge its usefulness. But having once been a teenage boy, I can tell those readers they'll need all the help they can get.

      Chicken Butt!
      (By Erica S. Perl, illustrated by Henry Cole. Abrams, $14.50)

      Dad's just trying to read the paper in peace, but his brash young son won't let him. Bouncing off the couch and walls, the little guy keeps setting the old man up with one-liners (“You know what?” “What?” “Chicken butt!”), each of which sends a deranged-looking rooster marauding through the living room. This brightly drawn book for wee kids has all of the manic energy that children wield over the serious adults in their lives. And the gleefully dumb joke is hard to wear out. You have to admit, chicken butts are pretty funny. No one knows why. They just are.

      Shu-Li and Diego
      (By Paul Yee, illustrated by Shaoli Wang. Tradewind, $8.95)

      This one's not out until May, but it's worth noting now for the readers you know in grades 2 to 4. Following up his lively 2007 chapter book Shu-Li and Tamara, about cross-cultural friendship in Vancouver, author Paul Yee casts two young heroes into a world of trouble when they lose track of the big white dog they're supposed to be minding for a neighbour. Chinese-born artist Shaoli Wang is sure to show off the brilliant colours and dynamic sense of detail that she displayed in the illustrations for the previous book.




      May 4, 2009 at 4:14am

      Good article, very informative and helpful for professors and students in colleges. Thanks.

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