BOOKSHELF: MARCH

Over the past five or six weeks I’ve taken a big step back from social media (thank you, CAL NEWPORT) and managed to recover my powers of concentration and love of reading. Here are some recent reads, and my thoughts. N.B. This post does not cover “Split Tooth” as I haven’t finished it yet. -JRS

I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, Jen Agg

The statement that follows is poor tact, or in poor taste, perhaps, but here goes: A lot of the food writing I read, from cookbooks to criticism, ranges in quality from poor to passable. Not so here, for I Hear She’s a Real Bitch is a very well-written book; Agg has a clear, competent and confident style that proves both engaging and entertaining. (It also lacks the naive over-romanticism as well as the hero – i.e. chef – worship endemic to food writing and filmmaking.)

You may care for Agg’s personal story, or you may not (I did). You may care for the “insider information” about the Toronto food scene, or you may not (I didn’t; don’t know these people, don’t care). But I Hear She’s a Real Bitch offers much more than that.

If you work in a restaurant, for example, or – God forbid – want to open one, you could consider this a textbook of sorts. The work reams with insight into the starting and running of a business from someone with a very deep understanding of the hospitality industry.

Would-be writers and critics can take note, too: Agg has an enlightened, experienced take on the footing and function of food writing and criticism and this insight, like her restaurant and bar knowledge, has tremendous value (see Chapter 13, “On Getting a Bad Review”).

I devoured this book (FOOD PUN) and, as a reader, writer, and someone obsessed with food and restaurants, recommend it warmly.

War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges

Veteran journalist and war correspondent Chris Hedges examines the realities and myths of war through the lens of his experience in the Balkans, South America, the Middle East and Africa. Deeply personal and devastatingly profound, the book serves as a potent counter to popular conceptions of conflict.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling

It is common for people like me – those with waylaid ambitious of writing and backgrounds in the study of literature with a big “l” – to look down on works of popular or genre fiction. Books, we contend, must be as heavy as their subject matter, and anything – anything – but entertaining. (How dare you make me smile.)

Too often, we give too little credit to the act of creativity – conjuring something out of nothing, spinning worlds out of words – or the art of storytelling. The Harry Potter series represents a tremendous achievement on both counts.

Working through these books for the first time as an adult (yes, really) recalls the experience of reading as a child, the pure joy of wandering into a story for story’s sake, the thrill of the narrative unfolding around you. Magic.

Chop Suey Nation, Anne Hui

Anne Hui’s book offers valuable insight into an element of Canadian and Quebecois life so common as to be taken for granted: the local Chinese restaurant. A sea-to-sea tour of such by Hui and her husband becomes a catalyst to explore the story of her family, particularly that of her father. In fact, while the stories behind the numerous restaurants prove interesting, the book shines best when Hui engages with that personal history, pulling the pieces together into a poignant portrait.

Chop Suey Nation does, in the quality of the writing, feel like a first book (in places, like a first draft) and, in that respect, might require some patience on the reader’s part. That aside, the work merits a read, and a recommendation.

Le premier quartier de la lune, Michel Tremblay

A moving, magical representation of life on the Plateau-Mont-Royal in the 1950s. The book centres on the experiences of two young boys, and Tremblay’s portraits form a prism of childhood – the spaciousness and capriciousness of the imagination, the awkward approach of adolescence – that has distinct power and recalled sharply my time as a bookish, day-dreaming boy.

Lost Connections, Johann Hari

An important, timely work—the sort of book that encourages hyperbole, as in “everyone must read this book”. Hari explores depression and anxiety and explains how the concept of “chemical imbalance” is but one story in a complex picture (and a minor one, at that). Lost Connections blends contemporary research with personal stories to form a comprehensive study of depression and anxiety, their causes and solutions.

Rather than proclaim “everyone must read this book”, I’ll state the following: If you deal with depression and anxiety, or know someone who does, you might find this book fascinating and helpful. Strong recommendation.

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