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Contagious: Why Things Catch On
Contagious: Why Things Catch On
by Jonah Berger
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.80
47 used & new from CDN$ 14.06

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great advice to help any product or idea become Contagious, March 31 2013
Jonah Berger is a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Daniel Gilbert, professor at Harvard, has said that Dr. Berger knows more about what makes information go viral than anyone else in the world.

Dr. Berger observes that “word of mouth is not just frequent, it’s also important. The things others tell us, e-mail us, and text us have a significant impact on what we think, read, buy and do. We try websites our neighbors recommend, read books our relatives praise, and vote for candidates our friends endorse. Word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20 to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.

“Word of mouth is more effective than traditional advertising for two key reasons. First, it’s more persuasive. Our friends tend to tell it to us straight. Their objectivity, coupled with their candidness, make us much more likely to trust, listen to, and believe our friends.

Second, word of mouth is more targeted. It is naturally directed to an interested audience. No wonder customers referred by their friends spend more, shop faster and are more profitable overall.

What percent of word of mouth do you think happens online? In other words, what percent of chatter happens over social media, blogs, e-mail, and chat rooms? If you’re like most people, you probably guessed something around 50 or 60 percent.

The actual number is 7 percent. Research by the Keller Fay Group finds that only 7 percent of word of mouth happens online.

Most people are extremely surprised when they hear that number. People do spend a good bit of time online. But we forget that people also spend a lot of time offline. And that creates a lot more time for offline conversations.

We also tend to overestimate online word of mouth because it’s easier to see. Social media sites provide a handy record of all the clips, comments and other content we share online. But we don’t think as much about all the offline conversations we had over that same time period because we can’t easily see them.

So the first issue with all the hype around social media is that people tend to ignore the importance of offline word of mouth, even though offline discussions are more prevalent, and potentially even more impactful, than online ones.

The second issue is that Facebook and Twitter are technologies, not strategies. Word-of-mouth marketing is effective only if people actually talk. Public health officials can tweet daily bulletins about safe sex, but if no one passes them along, the campaign will fail. Just putting up a Facebook page or tweeting doesn’t mean anyone will notice or spread the word. Fifty percent of YouTube videos have fewer than 500 views. Only one-third of 1 percent get more than 1 million.“

“After analyzing hundreds of contagious messages, products and ideas, Dr. Berger noticed the same six ingredients or principles were often at work.

Principle 1: Social Currency

How does it make people LOOK to talk about a product or idea? Just like the clothes we wear and the cars we drive, what we talk about influences how others see us. It’s social currency. So to get people talking we need to craft messages (and content) that help people achieve these desired impressions (i.e provide them with OUTER-DIRECTED EMOTIONAL BENEFITS).

Give people a way to look good while promoting your product or ideas along the way.

There are 3 ways to do this:

a) Find inner remarkability

Snapple discovered unused real estate under the caps of their bottles (“owned” media). The marketing team at Snapple came up with a list of amazing real facts and put them under the caps (e.g. a ball of glass will bounce higher than a ball of rubber). These facts naturally generated discussion, made people look smart or interesting to their friends, and made them talk about where they found out this amazing information. Under a bottle cap. But not just any bottle cap – a Snapple bottle cap.

Many of the most successful videos shared on YouTube fall into this “amazing” category, for example Evian Roller Babies or Dove’s Evolution.

b) Leverage game mechanics

Frequent flier programs and other loyalty programs are examples of leveraging game mechanics. For example, when you are informed that you need only a certain number of additional points to get a reward. This kind of message often adds incremental consumption.

One way game mechanics motivate is internally. We all enjoy ACHIEVING things. Tangible evidence of our progress makes us feel good. Whether it is more points in a game or a better title in the workplace. Being a 3-star general is more emotionally gratifying than being a 2-star general, both internally and externally. A pope is better than a cardinal, which is better than an archbishop. A prime minister is better than a minister.

So game mechanics are not only gratifying internally, they are also gratifying externally. They encourage interpersonal comparison. Someone feels like a winner – and is recognized as a winner – because they have a BMW rather than a Volkswagen.

People don’t just care about how they are doing, they care about how they are doing RELATIVE TO OTHERS. This is especially true of extroverted people with outer-directed values.

Just like many other animals, people care about hierarchy. People love to brag about their golf handicap, their kids’ accomplishments (which are by proxy their own), and their Aeroplan elite status.

Leveraging game mechanics means quantifying performance. Some domains like golf handicaps have built-in metrics. People can easily see how they are doing and compare themselves with others. The status metrics should be visible for maximum effect.

For example different colored tickets for season ticket holders.

Foursquare is a master of leveraging game mechanics. Check into five different airports and get a Jetsetter badge. Not only are these badges posted on users’ Foursquare accounts, but they are also displayed prominently on users’ Facebook accounts.

For anyone who thinks they’ve evolved beyond Boy Scouts, think again!

Foursquare has made it a status symbol to be a fixture at the local bar. And not only do these badges promote the users, they promote the Foursquare brand.

Online leaderboards make it a status symbol to spend your life playing videogames.

Burberry created a website called “Art of the Trench”, which is a montage of people around the world wearing Burberry. Some are famous people shot by top photographers, but individuals can also submit their own photos which may be accepted, thus becoming part of this elite group, and promoting Burberry at the same time. And you can be sure that people whose photos make the cut will forward them to all of their friends…

c) Make people feel like insiders

Use perceived scarcity and exclusivity to make people feel like insiders.

Scarcity is about how much of something is offered. Scarce things are less available because of high demand, LTOs (limited time offers), etc. Think Cadbury Easter Eggs, or McRibs at McDonald's.

As Dr. Robert Cialdini demonstrates in his seminal book Influence, limited availability makes us feel like we have to act now.

Exclusivity is also about availability, but in a different way. Exclusive things are available only to people who meet particular criteria. It can be about knowing certain people, or being connected with people who do. It is often “by invitation only.”

If something is difficult to obtain, many people assume that it must be worth the effort. If something is sold out, the assumption is that it is POPULAR, that many other people like it, and so it must have QUALITY. People evaluate cookbooks more favourably when they are in limited supply, and find cookies tastier when they are scarce. Cool brands are often cooler when they can only be found in one place (e.g. originally Desigual jeans could only be found in Barcelona).

If people get something not everyone else has, or get it FIRST, it makes them feel special, unique, and grants them STATUS.

Think of the people who get the newest iPhone model, and spend the next few months ostentatiously displaying it at meetings and telling everyone they know that they have it.

The moral? People don’t need to be paid to be motivated. Managers often default to monetary incentives when trying to motivate employees. But that’s the wrong way to think about it. Lots of people will refer a friend if you pay them $100 to do so. But people are HAPPY to talk about companies and products they like. Billions of people do it for free every day.

Principle 2: Triggers

How do we REMIND people to talk about (and share) our products and ideas? Triggers are STIMULI that prompt people to think about related things. Peanut butter reminds us of jelly, and the word “dog” reminds us of “cat”. People often talk about whatever most easily comes to mind, so the more often people think about a product or idea, the more often it will be talked about. We need to design products and ideas that are frequently triggered by the environment in which the target audience frequently finds itself. TOP OF MIND LEADS TO TIP OF TONGUE.

Why does it matter if particular thoughts or ideas are top of mind? Because ACCESSIBLE thoughts and ideas lead to ACTION.
Back in mid-1997, the candy company Mars noticed an unexpected sales uptick in sales of its Mars bar. The company was surprised because it hadn’t changed its marketing in any way. What had happened?

NASA had happened. Specifically, NASA’s pathfinder mission to MARS. This had made the idea of “Mars” top of mind and on the tip of everyone’s tongue, triggering the sales of Mars bars. Far from an obvious link!

So being top-of-mind means being accessible to not only the conscious mind, but even more importantly, the unconscious mind.

Dr. Berger cites an example also mentioned by Dr. Leonard Mlodinow in his insightful book Subliminal:

"In a study on wine sales, four French and four German wines, matched for price and dryness, were placed on the shelves of a supermarket in England. French and German music were played on alternate days, from the top shelf of the display. On days when the French music played, 77 percent of the wine purchased was French, while on the days the German music played, 73 percent of the wine purchased was German." The vast majority of customers stated that the music had not triggered their choice, though it clearly had."

Dr. Berger describes one of his own experiments to identify the most effective triggers:

“One group of students saw the slogan ‘live the healthy way, eat five fruits and veggies a day’. Another group saw ‘Each and every dining-hall tray needs five fruits and veggies a day’. The students lived on campus, and ate in dining halls that used trays.

Our students didn’t care for the tray slogan. They called it corny and rated it as less than half as attractive as the more generic ‘live healthy’ slogan.

But when it came to actual behavior, the results were striking. Students who had been shown the generic ‘live healthy’ slogan didn’t change their eating habits. But students who had seen the ‘tray’ slogan ate 25 percent more fruits and vegetables as a result. The trigger worked.”

Dr. Berger goes on to show that people who vote at polls located in churches tend to vote more negatively against abortion or gay marriage; people who vote in a school tend to vote more favorably for educational initiatives. Different places where people vote unconsciously trigger different unconscious frames and voting behaviors.

So rather than just going for a catchy message, consider the context. Think about whether the message will be triggered by the everyday environments of the target audience. A strong trigger can be much more effective than a catchy slogan.

The Budweiser ‘Wassup’ campaign is a brilliant example of using the context. ‘Wassup’ was an everyday expression among the target audience of young men. And anytime they heard it, they were unconsciously reminded of Budweiser.

People experience different triggers based on the daypart or time of the year. One study showed that people were much more likely to think about products associated with the color orange just before Halloween, because of all the Halloween decorations in the environment. But as soon as this holiday is over, these triggers disappear.

Dr. Berger points out that if a stimulus can trigger many different actions, it is less effective. For example, the color red is a trigger for thoughts of Coca-Cola, but also for many other thoughts. Nonetheless, as Martin Lindstrom points out in his book Buyology, Coca-Cola makes excellent use of its brand colour and other triggers such as the shape of the bottle. He gives the example of American Idol:

"When asked by a fellow judge if he liked a contestant's song... Simon commented, `How much I love Coca-Cola!' and then took a sip... The three judges all keep cups of America's most iconic soft drink in front of them, and both the judges and the contestants sit on chairs or couches with rounded contours specifically designed to look like a bottle of Coca-Cola. Before and after their auditions, contestants enter a room whose walls are painted a chirpy, unmistakable Coca-Cola red. Whether through semi-subtle imagery or traditional advertising spots, Coca-Cola is present approximately 60 percent of the time on American Idol."

Triggers and cues lead people to talk, choose and use. Social currency gets people talking, but Triggers keep them talking.
Top of mind means tip of tongue.

Principle 3: Emotion

Blending an iPhone is surprising. A potential tax hike is infuriating. Emotional things get shared. So rather than harping on function, we need to focus on feelings.

A study Dr. Berger conducted on the most shared articles from the New York Times found that more interesting articles were 25 percent more likely to be shared, and more useful articles were 30 percent more likely to be shared. But it turned out that science articles were also more likely to be shared, and after further investigation, Dr. Berger found it was because they inspired the emotion of AWE.

According to psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, awe is the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity, or might. Think of the first time you saw Google Earth in action. Or the first time you heard about quantum mechanics.

So would any type of emotional content be more likely to be shared? No. In fact, sadness had the opposite effect.

Articles that are highly physiologically arousing – those that inspire awe, excitement, or amusement, but also those that inspire anger or anxiety – are more likely to be shared. Articles with a low emotional charge, whether positive (contentment) or negative (sadness), are less likely to be shared.

Marketing messages tend to focus on information. But many times information is not enough, because it does not have an emotional charge. Rather than harping on features or facts, we need to focus on feelings; the underlying emotions that motivate people to action.

Dr. Daniel Kahneman emphasizes the centrality of emotions in his important book Thinking Fast and Slow:

"The dominance of conclusions over `arguments' is most pronounced where emotions are involved. The psychologist Paul Slovic has proposed an `affect heuristic' in which people let their likes and dislikes determine their beliefs about the world. In the context of attitudes, System 2 is more of an apologist for the emotions of System 1 than a critic of those emotions - an endorser rather than an enforcer. Its search for information and arguments is mostly constrained to information that is consistent with existing beliefs, not with an intention to examine them." (cf. Dr. Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell).

When trying to use emotions to drive sharing, remember to pick ones that kindle the fire: select high-arousal emotions that drive people to action.

On the positive side, excite people or inspire them by showing how they can make a difference. On the negative side, make people mad, not sad. Make sure the drowning polar bear story gets them fired up.

Simply adding more arousal to a story or ad can have a big impact on people’s willingness to share it. More anger or more humor both lead to more sharing.

BMW effectively kindled fear and anxiety in a 2001 campaign. It created a series of short Internet films entitled The Hire.

The movies were riddled with kidnappings, FBI raids, and near-death experiences. The clips so highly aroused viewers that the series racked up more than 11 million views within four months. Over the same period, BMW sales increased 12 percent.

One way to generate word of mouth is to find people when they are already fired up. Exciting game shows or anxiety-inducing crime dramas like CSI are more likely to get people aroused than documentaries about historical figures. So there are media buying implications.

The same idea holds for online content. Certain websites, news articles or YouTube videos evoke more arousal than others.

Ad timing also matters. A specific scene in a show may be more activating than others. In crime shows, for example, the anxiety often peaks somewhere in the middle. In game shows excitement is often highest when people are about to find out how much they’ve won. We may end up talking more about ads that are placed close to these exciting moments.

Emotions drive people to action. They make us laugh, shout and cry, and they make us talk, share and buy.

Principle 4: Public

Can people see when others are using our product or engaging in our desired behavior? The famous phrase “Monkey See, Monkey Do” captures more than just the human tendency to imitate. It also tells us that it’s hard to copy something you can’t see.

Making things more observable makes them easier to imitate, which makes them more likely to be perceived as Popular (which is one of the 5 key components of brand equity). It contributes to their perceived Presence, thus building their top-of-mind Availability.

In his great book Buyology, Martin Lindstrom explains how the discovery of mirror neurons in the 1990s has revolutionized psychology. He quotes a professor at the University of California: "What DNA is for biology, the Mirror Neuron is for psychology."

Mirror neurons are neurons that empathetically "mirror" the feelings that other people around us are having - when we see someone eating a slice of pizza in person or even on TV, the same areas of our brains light up as if WE were eating the pizza. Similarly, our mirror neurons are responsible for us unconsciously mimicking the actions of people around us - yawning, running our hands through our hair, you name it. As Dr. Benjamin K. Bergen explains in his book Louder than Words, when we see someone doing something, part of our understanding involves spontanenously simulating in our unconscious minds what doing it must feel like.

"When other people whisper, we tend to lower our own voices. When we're around an older person, we're prone to walking more slowly." The discovery of mirror neurons has proved that "Monkey see, monkey do" is true in an extremely strong sense.

If you’re like most people, you probably follow a time-tested rule of thumb: look for a restaurant full of people. If lots of people are eating there, it’s probably good. The default position for most people most of the time, is to do what others are seen to be doing (cf. Mark Earls’ book Herd). And this often means what you and most other people have been doing in the past (cf. Neale Martin’s book Habit).

People imitate, in part, because others’ choices provide information. And to resolve any uncertainty we may have, we often look to what other people are doing and follow that. Psychologists call this idea “social proof”. Dr. Robert Cialdini has an excellent chapter on it in his book “Influence.”

We need to design products that advertise themselves. We need to create behavioral residue that sticks around even after people have used our products. We need to make the private public. If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.

Principle 5: Practical Value

How can we craft content that is useful? People like to help others, so if our products or ideas will save time, improve health or save money, they’ll spread the word. We need to make our message stand out. We need to highlight the incredible value of what we offer. And we need to package our knowledge and expertise so that people can easily pass it on.

Useful things are important. People don’t just value useful information, they share it. Word of mouth from our friends and family members helps us sift through the 3000 marketing messages to which we are exposed each day, to identify what is really useful. And just look at Wikipedia, or TripAdvisor, or at the how-to videos on YouTube.

If Social Currency is about information senders and how sharing makes them look, Practical Value is mostly about the information receiver. It’s about saving people time or money, or helping them have good experiences. It even reflects positively on the sharer, providing a bit of Social Currency. But at its core, sharing practical value is about helping others. The Emotions principle noted that when we care, we share. But the reverse is also true: Sharing is Caring.

Vanguard, the firm that manages my retirement plan, sent me an e-mail asking if I’d like to receive its monthly newsletter, MoneyWhys. Like most people, I try to avoid signing up for new mailing lists, but this one actually seemed useful. Last-minute tax tips, responses to common questions about investing, etc.

I don’t read every e-mail Vanguard sends, but I end up forwarding many of the ones I do read to people who I think will find them useful. Vanguard nicely packages its expertise into a short, tight bundle of useful information, and the practical value makes me pass it along. And along the way, I’m spreading the word about Vanguard and its investment expertise.

A cosmetic manufacturer makes a helpful iPhone application for business travelers. In addition to providing local weather information, it also provides expert skin care advice that is tailored to those local weather conditions. This practical, valuable information is not only useful, it also demonstrates the company’s expertise in this domain.

You might think that content that has a broader audience is more likely to be shared. In fact, narrower content may actually be more likely to be shared, because it reminds people of a specific family member or friend – it is RELEVANT to that person, it is “for people like them.”

Principle 6: Stories

What broader narrative can we wrap our idea in? People don’t just share information, they tell stories. Just like the Trojan Horse, stories are vessels that carry morals, lessons and other messages. So we need to build our own Trojan Horses, embedding our products and ideas in stories that people want to tell (e.g. Oreos tweeting that they could be dunked in the dark during the first minutes of the Super Bowl blackout). It’s often about being OPPORTUNIST and SURFING ON THE STORIES IN THE CULTURE, on what’s happening RIGHT NOW (the Harlem Shake, goats bleating like singers, etc.). Ideally we want to make our message so integral to the narrative that people can’t tell the story without it.

In his excellent book Tell to Win, Peter Guber makes the same point with Machiavellian glee: "Like the Trojan Horse, purposeful stories are a delivery system in disguise. They cleverly contain information, ideas, emotional prompts and value propositions that the teller wants to sneak inside the listener's heart and mind. Thanks to their magical construction and appeal, stories emotionally transport the audience so they don't even realize they're receiving a hidden message. They only know after the story is told that they've heard it and felt the teller's call to action."

People don’t like to seem like walking advertisements. The Subway sandwich chain offers seven subs with less than six grams of fat. But no one is going to walk up to a friend and just tell that information.

Contrast that with the Jared story. Jared Fogel lost 245 pounds eating Subway sandwiches. After Jared ballooned to 425 pounds in college, he decided to take action. He started a “Subway diet”: almost every day he ate a footlong veggie sub for lunch and a six-inch turkey sub for dinner. After 3 months of this self-imposed regimen, he had lost almost 100 pounds.

But he didn’t stop there. Soon his pants size had dropped from an enormous 60 inches to a normal 34-inch waist. He lost all that weight and had Subway to thank.

The Jared story is so entertaining that people bring it up even when they’re not talking about weight loss. The amount of weight he lost is impressive, but even more astonishing is the fact that he lost it eating Subway sandwiches. A guy loses 245 pounds eating fast food? The summary alone is enough to draw people in.

The story gets shared for many reasons. It’s remarkable (Social Currency), evokes surprise and Amazement (Emotion), and provides useful information about healthy fast food (Practical Value).

People don’t talk about Jared because they want to help Subway, but Subway still benefits because it is part of the narrative. Listeners learn about Jared, but they also learn about Subway. They learn that 1) while Subway may seem like fast food, it actually offers a number of healthy options; 2) So healthy that someone could lose weight while eating them; 3) A lot of weight. 4) Someone could eat mostly Subway sandwiches for 3 months and still come back for more. So the food must be pretty tasty. Listeners could learn all this about Subway, even though people tell the story because of Jared.

And that is the magic of stories. Information travels under the guise of what seems like idle chatter.

So, Dr. Berger summarizes, build a Social Currency-laden, Triggered, Emotional, Public, Practically Valuable Trojan Horse, but don’t forget to hide your message inside. Make sure your desired information is so embedded into the plot that people can’t tell the story without it.

This book is full of great examples and useful advice to make your brand story Contagious.

Along with Ed Keller and Brad Fay’s excellent Face-to-Facebook, it is one of the best books on Word-of-Mouth Marketing. Highly recommended!

The Headmaster's Wager
The Headmaster's Wager
by Vincent Lam
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.65
33 used & new from CDN$ 1.81

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating and well-written saga, Oct. 7 2012
This review is from: The Headmaster's Wager (Hardcover)
Vincent Lam is a writer based in Toronto. The Headmaster's Tale is a highly accomplished novel that expresses deep human and cultural truths, and the sweep of historical forces that upset everything in their path.

Like many fine novelists, Lam has chosen to offer a fictionalized account of that which is closest to him - his family and its history, as part of the Chinese expatriate community in Vietnam.

Percival Chen is a Chinese patriarch who, like many of his compatriots, has sought, and found, the 'Gold Mountain' of financial success outside China, as headmaster of a school that teaches English in Saigon. He is motivated by money and all of the pleasures and comforts it can buy. He is also confident that it can solve any possible problem, until he receives an unexpected visit at the Academy:

"Percival noticed a black Ford Galaxie pull off Chong Heng Boulevard, from the direction of Saigon. He considered it. Who was visiting so early? And who was being visited? Dark-coloured cars were something the Americans had brought to Vietnam, thinking them inconspicuous. They had not noticed that almost all of the Citroens and Peugeots that the French had left behind were white... The Galaxie turned the corner at the post office, floated past the church, and then pulled up at the door of the school. Two slim Vietnamese in shirtsleeves emerged, wearing identical dark sunglasses. Percival felt his own sweat trickle inside his shirt. That was just the heat, for why should he worry? Everyone who needed to be paid was well taken care of. Mak was fastidious about that.

`Unexpected visitors'. Had his friend, police chief Mei, once mentioned the CIA's preference for Galaxies?..."

Percival's son gets himself into trouble that even his father's money cannot undo. He is forced to flee Vietnam, but it is a tumultuous period in history, where safe harbours are only illusory.

What is fascinating about this book, particularly at our point in history when China is flexing its muscles globally, is the portrait it draws of Percival, the successful Chinese businessman.

He is loyal to his Chinese values and traditions to the point of hubris, but completely insouciant and even contemptuous of the Vietnam in which he grew rich. But regardless of nationality, ultimately power accommodates itself to power, whether that power is Chinese, American, or even Vietnamese.

A fascinating and well-written saga!

The Juliet Stories
The Juliet Stories
by Carrie Snyder
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 16.57
20 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars From Amulets to Disruption: A life in two worlds, Oct. 6 2012
This review is from: The Juliet Stories (Paperback)
Carrie Snyder is a writer based in Waterloo, Ontario. The Juliet Stories is a collection of short stories that tells the story of Juliet Friesen, from her childhood years as the daughter of peace activists in Nicaragua, to her adult years in Canada.

Short stories were really the right format for this narrative, because it allows for a mix of continuity and discontinuity.

There is a significant change of pace between the day-to-day intensity of childhood experience in a developing country in the first part of the book ("Amulets"), and the more reflective adult experiences back in our country ("Disruption").

The early stories in Nicaragua are filled with immediacy, excitement and menace, as seen through the eyes of an intelligent young girl. This part of the book reminded me in some ways of Carmen Aguirre's memoir of life as a young girl in Chile, Something Fierce.

However, Juliet's family is not native to Nicaragua, and her mother Gloria barely scrapes by in Spanish. Even simple tasks like leaving their gated home and going for some ice cream are excursions into an intimidating world:

"The girl doesn't know that Gloria has spent all their money on ice cream and soda pop; she doesn't know they aren't rich. They aren't rich, are they? Or does the girl know better than Juliet what they are, what all of the gringos are, no matter what they think they are? The gringos have passports and American dollars; they have another country to call home. They can come and they can go, and they do, and they will."

The Juliet Stories is an interesting exploration of a young woman's life in two countries in the same hemisphere - yet worlds apart.

The Purchase
The Purchase
by Linda Spalding
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.80
21 used & new from CDN$ 1.99

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An enthralling story, with impeccable writing, Oct. 5 2012
This review is from: The Purchase (Hardcover)
Linda Spalding is a writer based in Toronto. The Purchase is the story of a Quaker family that settles in Virginia in 1798.

Though the Quakers were abolitionist - opposed to slavery - through an inadvertent, almost delirious purchase, Daniel Dickinson finds himself the owner of a young slave boy, Onesimus.

This is an exceptionally well-crafted novel, and the writing style is very evocative of the period and authentic in its details: historical fiction at its very best.

It is often hard for us to understand today the theme of "man against nature", and how unforgiving the American wilderness was before it was settled. Throughout this great novel, there is a constant sense of how difficult the circumstances of day-to-day life were during this period.

There is also a very finely drawn portrait of the ubiquity of Christian belief at the time. Though Daniel owns a copy of the Aeneid, a biblical interpretation of the world is omnipresent. There may be differences between denominations in their interpretation of the bible, but there is universal acknowledgement that biblical quotes explain everything of consequence in the world, including an unbreakable natural law.

The reality of slavery is conveyed without exaggeration, but with brutal, heart-breaking honesty.

Early in the novel there is a gripping scene in which Onesimus breaks his leg, and Mary, the elder daughter of the family runs desperately to seek assistance at the nearest farm. She has taken the lot of this slave boy to heart, and we sense her desperation as she worries about him, and her strong sense of relief when she is able to help him. She genuinely regards him as a human being, whereas for others he is essentially an animal to be worked, like an ox or a horse.

Linda Spalding has done an absolutely brilliant job of creating an enthralling story, with impeccable writing, page after page.

A truly great novel, 5 stars!

Siege 13: Stories
Siege 13: Stories
by Tamas Dobozy
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 16.57
10 used & new from CDN$ 3.82

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant and fascinating treatment of dark subject matter, Oct. 2 2012
This review is from: Siege 13: Stories (Paperback)
Tamas Dobozy is a writer based in Kitchener, Ontario. Siege 13 is a collection of stories that revolve around the direct and indirect impact of the siege of Budapest in 1944, one of the bloodiest and most drawn-out battles of World War II, during which approximately 80 percent of the city was destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of people were killed, taken prisoner, starved, raped or tortured.

Dobozy is a superb writer, and while some critics have compared him to Nobokov, personally I found his style a mix of understated Hemingway with a hint of darkly absurd Kafka.

In one story Dobozy describes life at the Budapest Zoo during the siege:

"Unlike many of the other attendants, Sandor and Jozsef did not have families, and so they saw no reason to go home from the zoo except to risk dying in the streets, or being bombed out of their tiny apartments, or starving to death in the cellars that had been converted into bomb shelters. When the zebras were found slaughtered in their pens, large strips of meat carved hastily from their shoulders and flanks and bellies no doubt by starving citizens, the two men fed what was left to the lion and moved into the vacated stalls, Sandor ranting about how the zebras should still be alive and it was the looters who should have been fed to the lion."

From the mundane to the extreme, despite their dark subject matter every story is fascinating to read, offering a portrayal of the futility of people trying to cope under horrifying conditions.

Brilliant!

The Sweet Girl
The Sweet Girl
by Annabel Lyon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.77
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read about the ambivalent heritage of ancient Greece, Sept. 23 2012
This review is from: The Sweet Girl (Hardcover)
Annabel Lyon is a writer based in Vancouver. The Sweet Girl is in many ways a complement of her earlier novel, The Golden Mean, which was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

Both novels feature the great philosopher Aristotle, who has had a lasting impact on the way we conceive of philosophy, politics and science.

Whereas in the Golden Mean the focus was on Aristotle in his role as mentor to Alexander the Great, in the Sweet Girl the focus is on Aristotle in his role as father to his daughter Pythias.

In his glowing review of the Sweet Girl in the National Post, Jeet Heer observed that:

"As against more flamboyantly poetic and debonair sages such as Plato or Nietzsche, Aristotle was a stolid and unsexy proto-scientist, a collector of facts, a dissector of data, a taxonomist happy to subdivide the world into neat categories."

And while Aristotle's categorization has been foundational to modern science, there has been a dark side of this categorization, which is still present in our collective unconscious and social codes: either you were a free man (more rational, in the public world, civilized, Greek), or you were "Other" (more emotional, in the household, a woman, a slave, a foreigner).

What is enriching about Lyon's treatment, is that she is sensitive to this ambivalent heritage of ancient Greece and its most towering figures. Pythias, arguably as intelligent as Aristotle himself, is limited not by actual biology - the reality of being female - but rather of her biological classification as female, as "Other".

Brilliant as she is, rather than considering herself a victim, her eventful life is a shining challenge to her father's outdated biology.

A great read!

Y
Y
by Marjorie Celona
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.81
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An insightful and compassionate novel, Sept. 15 2012
This review is from: Y (Hardcover)
Marjorie Celona is a writer born in Victoria BC, now living in Cincinnati. "Y" was first published a few years ago as a short story, and received a great reception. Luckily for readers, Celona has expanded the story into a full-length, engrossing novel.

Y signifies "that perfect letter. The wishbone, fork in the road, empty wineglass. The question we ask over and over. Why?"

The first why/ Y of the book is "Why is a newborn baby abandoned on the doorstep of the YMCA in Victoria?" One of the great strengths of this novel is that the forks in the road are not facile, clear-cut choices between right and wrong, but rather contingencies.

Though most people would find it unthinkable, we learn that the act of abandoning the baby, Shannon, was not an evil act. Vaughan, a trainer at the Y, is the unique witness to the event:

"By now Vaughn is used to the way his life works: he is the seer. When the cars collide, he knows it two minutes before it happens. He predicted his parents' divorce by the way his mother's lip curled up once, at a party, when his father told a dirty joke. He was nine. He thought, That's it. That's the sign. It isn't hard, this predicting, if that's what it's called; it's a matter of observation. From the right vantage point -say, overhead - it isn't a matter of psychic ability to see that two people, walking toward each other, heads down, hands in pockets, will eventually collide.

`Sir, what did you see?'

Vaughn pauses before answering. He feels time slow, and he feels himself float up. From up here, he sees what he needs to: the sequence of events that will befall me if I am raised by my mother. It's all too clear. He wasn't meant to see her. He wasn't meant to intervene. He has seen the look in my mother's eyes; he has seen women like her before. Whatever my fate, he knows I am better off without her."

So weighing in at 4 pounds, Shannon is launched on her journey in the world. Lurching from foster home to foster home, she is a delicate leaf in the wind. Sometimes down one fork of the Y, sometimes the other, but it is never a question of having control of her own fate. Indeed the closest approximation she has to control is cutting herself.

But as much as she cannot control her fate, she is nonetheless driven to understand, to discover why her mother, Yula, abandoned her.

"Why" is the tragic question. It is a question that invites us to give "reasons" for how things turned out, when in the end often there are not reasons, but only causes.

Y is an insightful and compassionate novel. Recommended!

Our Daily Bread
Our Daily Bread
by Lauren B Davis
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 12.99
14 used & new from CDN$ 3.14

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A searing novel not to be missed, Sept. 14 2012
This review is from: Our Daily Bread (Paperback)
Lauren Davis is a writer born in Montreal, now living in Princeton, New Jersey. Our Daily Bread is a gripping novel inspired by the true story of the Goler clan of Nova Scotia.

It is a shocking and appalling story of torture, incest and abuse, all the more disturbing when you realize that these events actually took place, over many years and even generations, in supposedly civilized Canada (cf. On South Mountain: The Dark Secrets of the Goler Clan by David Cruise & Alison Griffiths).

Lauren Davis' fictionalized account presents the sordid situation, and asks the unavoidable question - how could this happen?

The answers are complex. As the brilliant social psychologist Henri Tajfel demonstrated, categorizing someone as "Other" has a profound impact on how they are perceived, how you interact with them, and ultimately how they perceive themselves and their opportunities - or lack thereof - in life.

The stage is set when the self-righteous people of Gideon ostracize the Erskine Clan, as ignorant, mountain-dwelling hillbillies.

Occasionally someone from the mountain dreams of escaping this isolation for a better life, but in cult-like fashion they have been indoctrinated by their elders that "Erskines don't talk, and Erskines don't leave." Despite the absence of physical bars, the mountain is a virtually unbreachable psychological prison.

Davis' writing is compelling, and the situation is dire. But perhaps most importantly, Our Daily Bread recounts some deep and disturbing truths about the human condition. As she quotes from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, "Hain't we got all the fools in town on our side? And hain't that a big enough majority in any town?"

Our Daily Bread is a searing novel not to be missed.

The Imposter Bride: A Novel
The Imposter Bride: A Novel
by Nancy Richler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.80
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling and touching story, Sept. 13 2012
Nancy Richler is a writer based in Montreal, and The Imposter Bride is the story of a young woman, Lily Azerov, who flees to Montreal from a devastated postwar Europe. Canada is not yet accepting Jewish refugees, so Lily immigrates on the pretext that she is engaged to be married to a Canadian. Sol has agreed to marry her, sight unseen, for a fee. However:

"When he saw the bride, he recoiled. Damaged goods. That's what he saw. A broken life, a frightened woman, a marriage that would bind him - however briefly - to grief. Let someone else marry her, he decided on the spot. He would never deny the widows and the orphans of the world. But neither, it turned out, did he want to have to marry them."

Lily is not what he had expected, so he leaves her high and dry. Fortunately his brother Nathan Kramer decides to marry her on the spot. But, it turns out that:

"Lily Azerov Kramer. She was not who she said she was.

No one really is, I suppose, but Lily's deception was more literal than most. Her name before... she'd left it there, in that beaten village where the first Lily had died, freeing, among other things, an identity card to replace the one she'd discarded, an identity that could propel a future if someone would just step into it.

Someone would, of course. The village was in Poland, 1944. Nothing went unused."

Lily has a child with Nathan, but with no explanation, suddenly disappears.

As she ages, Ruth, their daughter, is driven to understand the truth about her mother, about where she went, and where she came from.

A compelling and touching story.

Ru
Ru
by Kim Thuy
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.68
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A poetic meditation on the ever-changing human condition, Sept. 12 2012
This review is from: Ru (Paperback)
Kim Thuy is a writer based in Montreal. Ru, her first novel, won the Governor General's Literary Award in its original French.

Ru is an autobiographical novel that recounts the author's flight as a refugee from Vietnam to Quebec as a young girl, and the culture shocks she experiences as she adjusts to her new homeland.

It is somewhat misleading to label this book a novel, because it is really halfway between a novel - a sustained linear narrative - and poetry - a collection of insightful, finely-crafted and evocative images.

This beautiful book - the hardcover edition is as attractive physically as is the writing - opens with the explanation that "In French, ru means a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge - of tears, of blood, of money. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby, to lull."

And this double-meaning is in fact very appropriate for this book which flows between cultures, between times, between emotions.

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus observed that "you cannot step in the same river twice" - in other words, there is no being, only becoming - a sentiment conveyed perfectly in this volume.

Thuy recounts the flow from a family life of privilege in Saigon to misery as refugees, the harbinger of impending change sensed by her mother:

"My mother waged her first battles later, without sorrow. She went to work for the first time at the age of thirty-four, first as a cleaning lady, then at jobs in plants, factories, restaurants. Before, in the life that she had lost, she was the eldest daughter of her prefect father. All she did was settle arguments between the French-food chef and the Vietnamese-food chef in the family courtyard (...)

However, far from us blood still flowed and bombs still fell, so she taught my brothers and me to get down on our knees like the servants. Every day, she made me wash four tiles on the floor and clean twenty sprouted beans by removing their roots one by one. She was preparing us for the collapse. She was right to do so, because very soon we no longer had a floor beneath our feet."

Ru is a beautiful, poetic meditation on the ever-changing human condition.

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