EXPLORING A GAL’S FAVOURITE NOVELS: How To Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

howtobeaheroine_CoverI didn’t know the playwright Samantha Ellis before my eyes fell on the cover of her book in NetGalley —How To Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much. The cute artwork, featuring the spine of much-loved books, grabbed my attention. I confess that once I read the cover copy, I felt like this book had been written for me.

You feel like Ellis is having an intimate conversation with you over the book she reread in her mid-thirties, books you both loved:  Anne of Green Gables, Ballet Shoes, Little Women, The Bell Jar, and Jane Eyre (sigh!). She confesses: “Reading that pile of books again, I realised that some of my heroines had misled me, some now seem irrelevant, some I had wildly misread, some I now regret. But many — most – were a pleasure to meet again.”

You embark on a reading journey with Ellis. It starts when she tells you about her first literary obsessions: Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid. After a look at the different depictions of the fairy tale characters, she’ll make you chuckle by admitting her life “would have been different if [she’d] known Disney’s Little Mermaid, not Andersen’s.” She grew up in an Iraqi-Jewish and, like the sad mermaid, felt “caught between two worlds”: her parents’ homeland and England (where she didn’t quite fit in her youth). Ellis’ personal history continues to be revealed as she compares her life choices and obstacles to those of the many heroines in her cherished books.

She was a precocious girl reading Jane Austen novels while most of her peers (and me) were reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. In fact, she probably read most of the book I read in my late teens and early twenties when she was a 12-year-old girl. This detail probably explains why she had misread so many of the heroines during first reads (and excuses the fact that she had preferred Cathy over Jane in the never-ending Brontë sister debate).

The writer quotes lines by Anne Shirley (“The worst of imagining things is that the time comes when you have to stop, and that hurts.”) and by Mr. Darcy (“We neither of us perform to strangers”), then explains how those words influenced her life. She makes you laugh when joking about puffed sleeves, remembering 80’s Timotei shampoo commercials, calling Rhett Butler a metrosexual, and taking a jab at the worst-named character in the history of the world (Take a wild guess. It was Stefanie Meyers’s bright idea.). She tugs at your heartstrings when talking about a wedding cake, seizures, and her mother’s plight. When Samantha Ellis writes, “I’m beginning to think that all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need for them at the time,” you’ll nod in agreement, take another sip of tea, and wish Samantha could be your new best friend.

How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much
By Samantha Ellis
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 272 pages.

The hardcover edition is already available in Canada. The paperback edition will be available next month in Canadian and U.S. bookstores.

*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*


THE LURE OF EAST AFRICA : And Home Was Kariakoo by M. G. Vassanji

KariakooAnd Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa
By M. G. Vassanji
Doubleday Canada, October 2014.
400 pages, 32,95$.


The only Canadian novelist to have won the Giller Prize twice —for The Book of Secret in 1994 and The in-Between World of Vikram Lall in 2003— is none other M. G. Vassanji. He also won the Governor General’ s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for A Place Within (2009). Such recognition is warranted, for Vassanji writes both fiction and non-fiction with an inquisitive, lyrical style and a knack for storytelling. It is no surprise that his latest memoir And Home Was Kariakoo also captivates its readers with sharp insight and poetic descriptions of his homeland.

In this book, Vassanji revisits his childhood home: East Africa. At times, the book feels like a travelogue, for the authors tells us about his trek across Tanzania and Kenya. But unlike other travel writers (like Paul Theroux) who like to point out the dark side of Africa, Vassanji expresses awe for this land and its people:

“What makes this primitiveness, this forbidding solitude of the jungle so wrenchingly attractive from a distance? There is in this stillness a certain spirituality, a welcome loneliness that I’ve often treasured in my travels, in which there seems to be only the universe and I an endless moment devoid of fear or death.”

At other time, this work reads like a history book. Vassanji’s work informs us on the colonization and of these countries by European, Indian, and Asian immigrants. He maps out unfamiliar events that helped shape these countries, and thus dispels several Western myths. He also entertains us by telling us about his adventures with befriended locals and expatriates in various African cities and the changed landmarks he revisits.

This book offers a fresh, in-depth look at a society often misunderstood by Westerners. And Home Was Kariakoo delves into the world that helped make M. G. Vassanji the sensitive, seasoned man he is today.

*I received an ARC  in exchange for an honest review.*

WHIMS AND PHILOSOPHIES OF A SENSUIST: Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses

NaturalHistorySensesCoverA Natural History of the Senses
By Diane Ackerman
Vintage Books, 1991.
331 pages, $18.95

The mere sight of cobalt blue glass pebbles can not only elicit a memory of a jar’s mesmerizing translucency in the sunlight, but also the tingly eucalyptus scent its cleansing cream left on my mother’s soft cheek.

Diane Ackerman’s best-seller A Natural History of the Senses explores such occurrences with the sharp observations of a scholar and the melodic prose of a poet. She identifies with the term ‘sensuist as a person who “rejoices in the sensory experiences” in her pursuit to understand “the sensory idioms we use to speak of the world”. The book is skillfully structured in six evocative parts: smell, touch, taste, hearing, vision, and synesthesia. The writer claims that “both science and art have a habit of waking us up, turning on all the lights, grabbing us by the collar and saying Would you please pay attention”! After its release in 1990, this book rightfully received much acclaim for Ackerman’s innovative combination of both disciplines. She melds the complexities of popular science with the splendours of art —in her study of the five senses— as perfumer Sophia Grosjman blends the essences of roses and musk to create iconic fragrances.

Her diverse experiences and observations —such as massaging babies in a Miami preemie ward, taking flying lesson in upstate New York, and tagging monarch butterflies in the Californian coast— help her gain unique insights about the sensations that shape our world. Ackerman knows her subject thoroughly. She agrees with zoologist Desmond Morris’ theory on the origins of French kissing stemming from the “ancient comfort of parental mouth-feeding”. She stands behind the countershading theory of naturalist Abbott Thayer who was passionate about the camouflage of animals. She even appreciates Epicurus’ indulgence in the lavish lifestyle of wealthy Romans. Such wide-reaching anecdotes abound in this work.

The writer has an excellent grasp of prose, which she infuses with luscious metaphors and language. For instance, she describes the sense of smell as “[detonating] softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.” Such eloquence is the mark of a seasoned poet. Before the publication of this book, Ackerman had previously written four books of poetry, including Lady Faustus. She also shares her own poem entitled Whales Songs, in which the “sleek black troubadours” of the sea “beat against the wailing wall of water”. One is swayed by the lull of her words like a babe softly rocked in her mother’s arms.

Ackerman has a tendency to go off on a tangent during a discourse. Her digressions are usually fluid and pertinent, like mentioning the lines on an ape’s hand and the Catholics’ view of stigmata when recounting a palm reading at a psychics’ convention. She also tends to enumerate many examples while making a point. For instance, she explains the countless ways ‘nice girls’ like her kissed in the sixties, from kissing “torridly, with tongues like hot pokers” to kissing their “pillows at night, pretending they were mates”. Tangents are rampant and examples are abundant among the pages of this book. This quirk may turn off some readers, especially those of the left-brained variety.

That said, A Natural History of the Senses should not be read in one sitting, but rather savoured and spread over a lingering stretch of time. This book has wide appeal and should be a staple on the bookshelf of people who are sensuists at heart. Its pages should be revisited time after time to help keep the senses finely tuned.


TOP TEN HIGHLIGHTS of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft


On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
By Stephen King
Scribner, 2000.
291 pages, $17.99


The world’s best-known writer of horror fiction —Stephen King— wrote a memoir praised by novice and expert writers for its candour and wealth of writing tips. Do you have an itch to start writing or want to improve your skills? Read On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. You will learn almost everything you need to know. King shares stories about his childhood, his addiction, and his near-fatal accident in 1999, all of which helped shape him into the best-selling author (and compassionate man) he is today. He’s encouraging while maintaining a no-bullshit attitude towards writing —you need skills and you must work hard. His book will make you chuckle out loud, hold back tears, and avoid adverbs like the plague.

Here are the top ten highlights of this book:

10)          You will learn why having a writing desk in a quiet location (out-of-bounds for family members or housemates) isn’t a quaint fantasy —it’s a necessity.

9)            It seems obvious, but King states, if “you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” You practice your skills by writing often, you hone them by reading. You learn about language, dialogue, and characterisation not only when reading a well-crafted book, but also when reading one that is, well, the pits. For instance, I love Carol Shields’s Swann, a marvelous study of characterisation, since each character has a strong voice and distinct personality. I cringe at the mention of Nickolas Butler, in contrast, who missed the mark by creating a slew of flat characters with indistinct voices in Shotgun Lovesongs.

8)            This quote: “If [symbolism] is there and you notice it, I think you should bring it out as well as you can, polish it until it shines and then cutting it the way a jeweler would cut a piece of precious or semi-precious stone.” Yes! It’s not necessary for symbolism to be abstract or far-reaching, just good.

7)            King doesn’t write for the love of money. Never has. He writes for “the buzz” he experiences and “for the pure joy of the thing.” You will realize this even before reaching his revelation on page 248. Why? Well, the guy needs to write as much as he needs to eat or sleep. He loved it as a young boy and still loves it today. He thinks that all writers should feel this way about their craft. Heck, why bother if it doesn’t make you feel good?

6)            He doesn’t plot out his stories because “our lives are largely plotless” and doing so would kill the “spontaneity of real creation.” His analogy: creating a story is like discovering a fossil. You use your tools to unearth it, little by little. Got ya, Mr. King. I have my chisel and hammer in hand.

5)            The account of his serious accident in June of 1999 is horrific. The story of how he jumped right back into writing, regardless of the pain he felt in a sitting position, is inspiring. That was fifteen years ago, and Stephen King is still going strong. In fact, his latest  book, Mr. Mercedes, hit the stores on June 3, 2014.

4)            Stephen King doesn’t exclusively read horror books. He has enjoyed many of the same books as me, including Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Micheal Cunningham’s The Hours, and Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were the Mulvaneys. The reading list he includes is rather comprehensive, and I look forward to getting my hands on some of his suggestions.

3)            At the end of the book, King includes a step-by-step example of how he edits his works. First, you get to read the raw, first-draft of a short story. Then, you get to reread the same story with proofreading marks, edits, and side notes.

2)            He loves his wife Tabitha. So. Much. He writes with her in mind as an “Ideal Reader”. She is always his first person to read a new, completed story. Her feedback, more than anyone else’s, influences King when polishing his stories. Everyone should have an Ideal Reader they trust.

1)            Stephen King gives you his blessing to write, or rather “a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up. ”


THE COMPUTER AND BRAIN DYAD: Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson


Smarter Than You Think: How Technology
Is Changing Our Minds for the Better
By Clive Thompson
The Penguin Press, 2013
341 pages, $29.50

When famed writer and keynote speaker Dr. Don Norman was cut off the Internet during a trip to Madeira, his dependence on his iPhone unnerved him. He described the experience as being unable to function, saying, “When my smartphone becomes stupid, I too become stupid.” Have we lost the ability to think on our own with a swarm of information at our fingertips?

Clive Thompson, a Canadian science and technology journalist featured in The New York TimesWired, and Collision Detection, explores how digital tools and the Internet can hone our intelligence in his perceptive book Smarter Than You Think. Computers excel at repetitive tasks like calculating sums, collecting data, and formulating patterns, whereas humans are skilled at interpreting and giving meaning to information, and then applying it in a social context. When human and artificial intelligence team up, Thompson claims this collaborative relationship can enable humans to have faster, enhanced cognitive abilities. In fact, the author argues, “At their best, today’s digital tools help us see more, retain more, communicate more. At their worst, they leave us prey to the manipulation of the toolmakers. But on balance, I’d argue, what is happening is deeply positive. This book is about the transformation.” Thompson’s provocative book —a brilliant meld of sharp analysis, historical tidbits, current happenings, and human interest stories— is undoubtedly an in-depth look at this new, eye-opening transformation.

The Internet and the accessibility of digital tools allow everyday people to share and debate their thoughts and opinions with others on a global scale. Thompson believes that this revolutionary “public thinking” can help enhance our personal expression and creativity. He demonstrates how we are developing ““ESP-like ambient awareness,” a persistent sense of what others are doing and thinking.” In turn, this development “expands our ability to understand the people we care about” and “helps dispel traditional political problems like “pluralistic ignorance,” catalyzing political action.”

One of Thompson’s most poignant examples of how public thinking triumphs over adversity is when a popular Kenyan blogger —Ory Okolloh— reached out to her audience. She wrote an entry about needing help to map out the violence and destruction in her country during the 2007 elections. In less than a week, a programmer in Alabama responded with a flurry of coding and created Ushahidi —a “map-based tool for reporting violence.” Only days after its installation, thousands of incidents were recorded on a Google map of Kenya. Today, Ushahidi is one of the best-integrated, global digital tools used to catalogue incident reports during violent uprisings or natural catastrophes. Such indisputably ground-breaking examples of strangers connecting and building life-altering tools together help Thompson strengthen his case.

The writer goes even deeper, examining how the phenomenon of “transactive memory” —when we rely on the memory of friends, family, and coworkers in our entourage to remember information— can extend to technology. Thompson claims, “as transactive partners, machines have several advantages over human ones.” They have more reliable recall of detailed facts and can hook us into learning more about a subject. Also, when we access information repeatedly, we eventually end up retaining it without the help of our gadgets. Makes sense, right? I find myself at the mercy of password reminder e-mails, when accessing new websites, until I finally remember without aid. When wearable technology with on-tap recall (like Google Glass) will be readily available and more mainstream, Thompson believes “digital memories [will] amplify what people retain in their brains” when used correctly. Idealistic as this may seem, his points are solid —he has swayed me.

People who are convinced the evils of this relatively new technology threaten our intelligence —and our lives— should give this book a chance. True, it has a polarized view, but it has compelling points framed in a way that provokes and entertains us. Reluctant readers will surely consider new angles and facts they haven’t faced before. Thompson compares the current wave of naysayers to those of the past. When the printed word, the electric telegraph, the radio, and the television made their appearances, a sea of people protested them for fear they would dumb us down.

I am not preaching that we should glorify technology and disregard its adverse effects on the way we process information. However, I do wonder if future societies will crack up about the current fear of the Internet, the way we snicker about Socrates’ fear of the written word jeopardizing human thinking.