Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally, 4/5
Many books have been written about the inhumanity of Nazi Germany during WWII, but fewer portray the bureaucracy. Behind the scenes, the business of war gave Oskar Schindler an opportunity to leverage the “ordinary” vices of extraordinarily evil men in order to save Jewish lives. Almost all of the seven deadly sins make an appearance as Schindler schmoozes, name-drops, threatens, cajoles, bribes, wines and dines his way through the war. A man who, at the beginning of the story, could barely be described as “decent” transforms into a fanatic who risks everything to sabotage the German war effort and protect his Jewish workers. It is a fascinating tale, both from a historical and a psychological perspective, though the author’s writing style is a bit dry and idiosyncratic.
Why I read it: I’ve never been motivated to watch the film (way too depressing for movie night) so I was excited to come across the book instead.
Discovering Antique Maps by A.G. Hodgkiss, 4/5
This is more of a booklet than a proper book, but it still contains a satisfying amount of basic information on the characteristics of maps from ancient times through the 19th century. There are a decent number of black and white illustrations, but I longed for more and for colored ones as well. I think this book serves its purpose of whetting the reader’s appetite without overwhelming with too much dry information. After reading it, I feel a greater appreciation for antique maps and also that I might be able to look at them with a greater eye for detail than before.
Why I read it: I think I came across this in a Canadian used bookstore.
Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8000-meter Peak by Maurice Herzog, translated from the French by Nea Morin and Janet Adam Smith, 4/5
I’m not particularly interested in the topic of mountaineering, but have read a wide enough variety of books to realize that a good author can make any subject fascinating. My gamble paid off in this case; Herzog is a competent writer and his passion shines clearly in this intense tale of the 1950 French Annapurna expedition’s journey to the heart of the Himalayas, preliminary exploration, eventual summit, and harrowing return to civilization. The more dry, technical sections are supplemented by helpful maps and photos, including a large map of climbing routes printed on the inside of the dust cover. This is clearly a high-quality book that was prepared with great attention to detail.
I would recommend this book, along with Kon-Tiki, The Voyage of the Beagle, and Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic as great for armchair adventuring and representative of a golden era when unthinkably brave men put their lives on the line in the name of exploration and were heroes to the general public. One can only assume that such people still exist, but they certainly aren’t making the front page of the news like they used to. While I appreciate living a life of safety and comfort, there is something about the concept of risking it all to find ultimate fulfillment, so well-expressed in Herzog’s foreword, that strikes a chord deep inside me.
In overstepping our limitations, in touching the extreme boundaries of man’s world, we have come to know something of its true splendor. In my worst moments of anguish, I seemed to discover the deep significance of existence of which till then I had been unaware. I saw that it was better to be true than to be strong. The marks of the ordeal are apparent on my body. I was saved and I had won my freedom. This freedom, which I shall never lose, has given me the assurance and serenity of a man who has fulfilled himself. It has given me the rare joy of loving that which I used to despise. A new and splendid life has opened out before me.”
-Maurice Herzog, foreword to Annapurna
And that language from a man who lost all of his toes and most of his fingers from frostbite!
Further research revealed quite a bit of controversy about the accuracy of Herzog’s account, but I’m willing to chalk any inconsistencies up to fallible memory, oxygen deprivation and extreme trauma.
Why I read it: A thrift store find, I think. The cover is very heroic, so I thought it might be worth a try.
Ghost Stories of Canada by Val Clery, 4/5
This collection of short stories does not get off to a great start, opening with a stale tale that features a cliched haunted doll. Luckily, the rest of the book has a fun, Canadian flavour and shows off the author’s respectable story-telling skills and personal enthusiasm for the topic.
Why I read it: a thrift store find.
Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin, 4/5
Almost half of this book consists of childbirth stories told by members of The Farm, a counterculture community that peaked in the 1970s. It is both entertaining and educational to read about other people’s experiences, but there are a couple factors that affect the helpfulness of these personal accounts, in my opinion. Firstly, it is clear that most of the narrators are deeply invested in the particular form of spirituality and beliefs associated with The Farm. The way in which the shared experience of such a close community can affect an individual’s way of thinking and communicating is something an outsider must account for. For example, the words “psychedelic,” “trip,” and “aura” clearly have a deep and nuanced meaning to these people, but it’s a little unsettling to encounter such vocabulary in a book that also gives serious medical advice. All in all, while there was a lot of interesting and helpful info in this book, I found Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth to be less dated, more accessible and more trustworthy in tone.
Why I read it: a friend recommended it to me.
The Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski, translated by David French, 4/5
In this installment of the Witcher Saga, Sapkowski really dives into the politics of his fantasy world, a focus that I did not find particularly interesting though I appreciated the worldbuilding. In addition, a satisfying amount of interesting characters (some new, some old), exciting scenarios, and a somewhat elevated tone, raised this book in my opinion closer to the level of the first in the series.
Why I read it: I’m gradually working my way through the series.
Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way by Susan McCutcheon-Rosegg, with Peter Rosegg, 4/5
I read this book for a laugh, expecting that almost 40 years of advancements in the field of medicine would have rendered it largely useless by now. To my surprise, I found myself being won over by the commonsense advice it presents, emphasizing mindful relaxation, supportive coaching, patience and faith in the natural process. After all, the act of childbirth is as old as time and if, as so many experts assert, we still experience primitive influences on a biological level, why should we rush to intervene with little excuse?
The Tale of Despereaux: being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread by Kate DiCamillo, 4/5
This charming story begs to be read aloud near a cozy fireplace and I think even children too young to read would love hearing it. I appreciate that, in the style of all classic fairy tales, it does not shy away from portraying darkness to balance out the light. By acknowledging the violence and tragedy of existence in a matter-of-fact and age-appropriate way, the author puts a backbone in what might otherwise have been a silly, sappy, story for kids.
Why I read it: a student’s mom, Paige, recommended it in conversation.
Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 4/5
Written by a bona fide Arctic explorer, this book reflects a bygone era of exploration, when sane men packed up and left on insane adventures into unexplored territory from which they well knew they might never return. Indeed, every one of the five stories in this book involves death or disappearance, often punctuated by the horrors of starvation, betrayal, cannibalism and pure ineptitude. The author is not shy in drawing his own conclusions for each scenario and though his writing style is not the most entertaining, his first-hand experience and rational approach to the information available at the time make for a fascinating read.
I learned a lot from this book, such as that the Arctic, which I once imagined to be an abandoned ice desert, is (or at least, was) actually livable land, teeming with life. Unintuitively, the Inuit would move north during winter due to the abundance of game in the frozen landscape, killing everything from seals to polar bears without the aid of guns (often in territory in which well-armed Europeans managed to starve to death). I also learned a lot about scurvy, its causes and surprising psychological effects. According to Stefansson, scurvy plagued those explorers who tried to maintain a European diet, even when supplemented by fruits and vegetables. It was the author’s strong opinion that a diet consisting solely of native, fatty meat was the best way to stay healthy in the Arctic. It’s strange to think that the ketogenic diet is still controversial after over 80 years of arguments and studies.
Why I read it: an impulse buy in a used book store; for $3, who could resist?
House of Leaves: A Novel by Mark Z. Danielewski, 4/5
This book is so bizarre that I’m tempted to refer to it as this “book,” as if quotation marks will somehow convey its reality- and genre-bending strangeness. Its core is an incredibly inventive transcription of a fictional documentary film, wrapped in layers of contrived academic interpretations which are communicated via endless footnotes and interspersed with the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of an unreliable narrator, all while periodically diverting to tedious appendices. This mental obstacle course of a book ranges in tone from academic analysis to B-horror and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say it manages to check off nearly every know narrative technique.
The more I tried to analyze and understand House of Leaves, the more useless it felt, as if a “point” did not exist outside of attempts to explain it. By confounding literary (and non-literary) genres and techniques, the author creates his own layered reality, a house in which a reader can easily become lost and confused while trying to determine what actually exists both inside and outside of the leaves (pages) of the book. The whole experience stimulated me to re-consider how my perceptions and expectations shape my sense of reality, and to acknowledge the extent to which interpretation can create meaning instead of just conveying it. All-in-all, reading this book was a uniquely frustrating and rewarding experience.
Why I read it: my sister, Anna, was recommended it by a friend and passed it along to me with a somewhat ambivalent review.