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sean s. (montreal)
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A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel
A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel
by Marlon James
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 24.75
38 used & new from CDN$ 24.75

4.0 out of 5 stars The Quentin Tarantino of Caribbean literature, Aug. 8 2015
A Brief History of Seven Killings is the fictionalized account of Jamaican street gangs that have now gone international with the Colombian drug cartels, and the circumstances surrounding the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. However, many of the people and events in the novel are true: “The Singer” (Bob Marley); “the Storm Posse” (the Shower Posse); the ghetto “Copenhagen City” (Tivoli Gardens), etc.

Marlon James is an incredibly inventive writer, and his descriptions as well as his mashups of English, Spanish and Jamaican dialects are exhilarating and visceral. A Brief History of Seven Killings is a wild ride, and James is the Quentin Tarantino of Caribbean literature!

Satin Island
Satin Island
by Tom McCarthy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.99
22 used & new from CDN$ 19.62

5.0 out of 5 stars The most theoretically avant-garde novelist writing in English today, Aug. 7 2015
This review is from: Satin Island (Hardcover)
Tom McCarthy is the most theoretically avant-garde novelist writing in English today. His earlier novels are infused with themes from contemporary French philosophy, and his latest work, Satin Island, propels cutting-edge thought even further. Satin Island is a challenging book, in the best sense: McCarthy pushes the reader to his or her conceptual limits, and beyond.

In their famous discussion 'Intellectuals and Power', Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze observe that "from the moment a theory moves into its proper domain, it begins to encounter obstacles, walls, and blockages which require its relay by another type of discourse (it is through this other discourse that it eventually passes to a different domain). Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall.' Deleuze further expands on the rhizomatic nature of power in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

The protagonist in Satin Island, "U", is an anthropologist working on an immense, top-secret project for a shadowy organization that seems modelled on Alex Karp's Palantir Technologies. Network theory and practice are the themes of the novel - and it really is necessary to describe them as themes, because Satin Island does not have a plot in the conventional sense. It is experimental fiction at its very best: challenging but extremely rewarding!

The Fishermen: A Novel
The Fishermen: A Novel
by Chigozie Obioma
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 21.75
32 used & new from CDN$ 21.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A true master of imagery, Aug. 5 2015
This review is from: The Fishermen: A Novel (Hardcover)
Chigozie Obioma is a Nigerian writer still in his 20s, and this breathtakingly accomplished novel heralds a brilliant future ahead of him. The great linguist George Lakoff demonstrated that all of our thoughts are embodied, and that even our most abstract language is ultimately scaffolded from our bodily experiences. But it takes a viscerally compelling novel like The Fishermen, overflowing with evocative metaphors, to really hammer this point home.

The story revolves around four young brothers, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin, and is narrated by Benjamin many years later. They go fishing secretly in the local river, and a local madman prophesies that the eldest brother, Ikenna, will be killed by one of his brothers, a “fisherman”. From this point on the story becomes a tragic and complex tapestry.

Obioma is a true master of imagery, making the novel truly cinematic. The New York Times identified him as “the heir to Chinua Achebe”, and with this consummate skill at such a young age, there is every reason to believe.

The Illuminations
The Illuminations
by Andrew O'Hagan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 22.45
2 used & new from CDN$ 22.45

4.0 out of 5 stars Dark themes but ultimately positive and hopeful, Aug. 4 2015
This review is from: The Illuminations (Hardcover)
Andrew O’Hagen’s novel The Illuminations is mainly the story of an 82-year-old woman, Anne Quirk who is trying to remember her past, and of her grandson, Luke Campbell, a soldier who is trying to forget. When she was young Anne was an accomplished photographer, and as she loses her memories, her photos remain a bridge to her former self, some aspects of which are shrouded in mystery.

This is a novel of jarring contrasts, between the worlds of the young and of the old, between exciting action on the battlefield abroad and dull daily routine at home. Despite the adrenaline of combat, O’Hagen harbours no romantic illusions about it, describing the cynical role of Xbox in luring young men to war through their thumbs.

Although it addresses dark themes, the Illuminations culminates in a positive and hopeful note. Recommended!

Sleeping on Jupiter
Sleeping on Jupiter
by Anuradha Roy
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars A majestically beautiful and iconoclastic look at a taboo subject, Aug. 2 2015
This review is from: Sleeping on Jupiter (Paperback)
Sleeping on Jupiter offers a majestically beautiful and iconoclastic look at a taboo subject: the sexual abuse of children under the guise of spirituality. This story happens to take place in India, but of course the theme is universal, with Christian churches and indeed other religious institutions having their own shameful history. After all, according to the hierarchy in the bible: “The head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3).

Nomita is a 7-year-old girl in India who witnesses her father’s brutal murder, and ends up losing her entire family. She is then placed in an orphanage run by a religious order, where she suffers at the hands of its spiritual leader. Twenty years later, she returns to India from Norway, to confront the demons of her past.

According to the World Values Survey, while Norway may be thousands of miles away from India geographically, it is light years ahead of the country in terms of social values. While India is still in the Dark Ages in its religious superstitions and misogyny, Scandinavia is now the region in the world where women are treated most equally. In her sensitive, beautiful and evocative writing, Anuradha Roy makes clear that it is not a clear-cut case of Indian men oppressing women; rather, the women are often complicit in their own oppression, through their silence in the face of barbarity and their adherence to belief systems in which they are little more than obedient slaves.

Thought-provoking!

The Chimes
The Chimes
by Anna Smaill
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 16.78
2 used & new from CDN$ 16.78

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A profound meditation on music, language, memory and power, July 31 2015
This review is from: The Chimes (Paperback)
This is Anna Smaill’s first novel, and one couldn’t ask for a more spectacular debut than The Chimes, a book that is as deep in its insights as it is scintillating in its prose. This finely-crafted masterpiece couldn’t have been written by anyone other than an accomplished musician and a poet, and Anna Smaill is both.

Simon Wythern arrives in a post-apocalyptic London after the death of his mother. People live in a never-ending present, because the past has been essentially obliterated through a brainwashing technology called the Carillon, which goes through several stages in a 24-hour cycle: Matins, which communicates the master narrative OneStory, Chimes which takes place at Vespers, and at the end of the day an unbearable pitch destabilizes people’s mental faculties, so they are unable to retain any memory of what has happened. And it all starts over again the next day. The only memories people retain are their autopilot bodymemories (implicit and procedural memories), because writing has been banned.

In Tristes Tropiques Claude Levi-Strauss writes that “The only phenomenon with which writing has always been concomitant is the creation of cities and empires, that is the integration of large numbers of individuals into a political system, and their grading into castes or classes. Such, at any rate, is the typical pattern of development observed from Egypt to China, at the time when writing first emerged: it seems to have favoured the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment… The primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery. The use of writing for disinterested purposes, and as a source of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure, is a secondary result, and more often than not it may even be turned into a means of strengthening, justifying or concealing the other.”

Though it is undoubtedly true that writing, and more recently, databanks and “the cloud” have facilitated social control and exploitation, it is also true that writing and education are double-edged swords, that can be critical resources for postmaterialists to question common sense and overturn received wisdom, a point made eloquently by Michel Foucault in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, by Ronald Inglehart and the World Values Survey, and now by Anna Smaill in this spectacular novel.

The Chimes is challenging, but in the same way that climbing a magnificent mountain is challenging: the experience and the fresh, new perspectives it brings are well worth the effort. Brilliant!

A Spool of Blue Thread
A Spool of Blue Thread
by Anne Tyler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 23.99
7 used & new from CDN$ 17.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A Sprawling Family Saga, July 30 2015
This review is from: A Spool of Blue Thread (Hardcover)
Anne Tyler is an accomplished writer who returns time and again to similar themes: the strengths and frailties, trials and tribulations of families. Members who hold the family together, and those who almost tear it apart.

A Spool of Blue Thread is a story spanning several generations. It is wonderfully realistic in its portrayal of day-to-day life, and in its observations about the passage of time - that it moves so slowly when you are young, and much faster as you age; before you know it, you are old.

Tyler has said in interviews that A Spool of Blue Thread will be her last novel, and this sprawling family saga is an impressive culmination of an illustrious literary career.

A Little Life: A Novel
A Little Life: A Novel
by Hanya Yanagihara
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 26.25
26 used & new from CDN$ 25.50

5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best novels of the decade, July 29 2015
This review is from: A Little Life: A Novel (Hardcover)
A Little Life is the epic story of four close friends across the span of decades. As the narrative unfolds, we learn that one of the characters, Jude, was the victim of horrific emotional and sexual abuse while he was young, a history that has left him both figuratively and literally scarred. His friends do their best, each in his own way, to try to help him pick up the pieces. But there are no easy fixes.

This hefty novel is extremely enthralling, and the reader will find himself or herself drawn into the passionate, tragic events. Hanya Yanagihara is an exceptionally observant and empathetic writer, and the fact that she could decode with such talent and delicacy all the nuances of male friendship and gay male friendship is a testament to her skill. A Little Life will likely be recognized years from now as one of the very best novels of the decade.

Speak Quebec!
Speak Quebec!
by Daniel J. Kraus
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.06
9 used & new from CDN$ 8.19

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent conversation starter with anyone and everyone in Quebec, June 19 2015
This review is from: Speak Quebec! (Paperback)
As an anglophone who moved to Montreal from Toronto in 2000, I was able instantly to recognize the relevance of this book. For my first 4 months in Quebec, I took an intensive French course for 6 hours each day at l'Université de Montréal, only to realize later that what I should have taken was a course in Québécois, which is not exactly the same thing!

My professor from France taught me a lot, but there were huge gaps in my knowledge of the way real Quebecers talk with each other on an everyday basis. Speaking French with a Parisien accent in Quebec is comparable to speaking English with a British accent in English Canada - people will understand most of what you're saying, but you will come across as a snob disconnected from ordinary people.

In recent years I have learned a lot of Québécois ("tigidou" for okey-dokey; "mononcle" for old-fashioned, but there was still a lot that I learned from this charming little book. As well, it's an excellent conversation starter with anyone and everyone in Quebec, anglophone and francophone alike. Highly recommended!

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
by Ashlee Vance
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 22.77
39 used & new from CDN$ 22.77

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Most Exciting and Visionary Entrepreneur Alive Today, May 19 2015
Elon Musk is arguably the most exciting and visionary entrepreneur alive today. He has often been described as the inspiration behind Iron Man or the next Steve Jobs, and an article in Business Insider observed that “A Lot Of People Think Elon Musk Is Already Greater Than Steve Jobs Ever Was” (Business Insider, August 2013). TED curator Chris Anderson wrote a great portrait of him when Musk was named Fortune magazine’s 2013 Business Person of the Year (“The Shared Genius of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs”, Fortune magazine, December 2013).

In this biography, Ashlee Vance describes Musk’s incredibly impressive evolution from an unhappy childhood in South Africa, to university life as a student here in Canada, and finally to his current position as a Silicon Valley multi-billionaire at the head of no less than 3 revolutionary companies: Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity.

It is no accident that Musk has focused his efforts on technologies that protect the environment and slow catastrophic climate change. “What Musk has developed that so many of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley lack is a meaningful worldview. Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.” Encouragingly, “Musk has visited the White House several times, and has the ear of President Obama.”

“One of Musk’s most ardent admirers is also one of his best friends, Larry Page, the co-founder and CEO of Google. Page comments that: ‘I find Elon to be an inspiring example. He said ‘Well, what should I really do in this world? Solve cars, global warming, and make humans multiplanetary. I mean those are pretty compelling goals, and now he has businesses to do that.’ Page holds Musk up as a model he wishes others would emulate – a figure that should be replicated during a time in which the businessmen and politicians have fixated on short-term, inconsequential goals.’” If Charles and David Koch are the iconic representatives of what the World Values Survey calls non-ecological materialist values, Elon Musk, along with Tom Steyer, Li Hejun and Naomi Klein, are brilliant representatives of ecological postmaterialist values.

“As a child Elon would take himself to the bookstore when school ended at 2 p.m., and stay there till about 6 p.m., when his parents returned home from work. ‘Sometimes they kicked me out of the store, but usually not,’ Elon said. He listed The Lord of the Rings, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as some of his favorites, alongside The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. `At one point, I ran out of books to read at the school library and the neighborhood library,’ Musk said. ‘This is maybe the third or fourth grade. I tried to convince the librarian to order books for me. So then, I started to read the Encyclopedia Britannica. That was so helpful. You don’t know what you don’t know. You realize there are all these things out there.”

Whereas Naomi Klein is a champion of non-capitalist solutions to impending climate chaos, Musk is a champion of market-based solutions. And where they both agree is on the central role that solar energy can play in freeing us from our dependence on fossil fuels:

“Musk’s longtime interest in solar power and in finding new ways to harness energy expanded at the University of Pennsylvania. In December 1994, he had to come up with a business plan for one of his classes and ended up writing a paper titled ‘The Importance of Being Solar’. The paper predicted a rise in solar power technology based on materials improvements and the construction of large-scale solar plants. Musk delved deeply into how solar cells work and the various compounds that can make them more efficient. He received a 98 on what his professor deemed a ‘very interesting and well written paper.’”

“With SolarCity, Musk has funded the largest installer and financer of solar panels for consumers and businesses. Musk helped come up with the idea for SolarCity and serves as its chairman, while his cousins Lyndon and Peter Rive run the company. During a time in which clean-tech businesses have gone bankrupt with alarming regularity, Musk has built two of the most successful clean-tech companies in the world.”

“SolarCity is a key part of what can be thought of as the unified field theory of Musk. Each one of his businesses is interconnected in the short term and the long term. Tesla makes battery packs that SolarCity can then sell to end customers. SolarCity supplies Tesla’s charging stations with solar panels, helping Tesla to provide free recharging to its drivers. Newly minted Model S owners regularly opt to begin living the Musk Lifestyle and outfit their homes with solar panels. Tesla and SpaceX help each other as well. They exchange knowledge around materials, manufacturing techniques, and the intricacies of operating factories that build so much stuff from the ground up.”

“The first people to notice what Tesla had accomplished were the technophiles in Silicon Valley. The early adopters proved willing not only to spend $100,000 on a product that might not work but also to trust their well-being to a start-up. Tesla needed this early boost of confidence and got it on a scale few expected. In the first couple of months after the Model S went on sale, you might see one or two per day on the streets of San Francisco and the surrounding cities. Then you started to see five to ten per day. Soon enough, the Model S seemed to feel like the most common car in Palo Alto and Mountain View, the two cities at the heart of Silicon Valley. The Model S emerged as the ultimate status symbol for wealthy technophiles, allowing them to show off, get a new gadget, and claim to be helping the environment at the same time. From Silicon Valley, the Model S phenomenon spread to Los Angeles, then all along the West Coast and then to Washington D.C. and New York. Consumer Reports gave the model S its highest car rating in history -99 out of 100- while proclaiming that it was likely the best car ever built.”

“Tesla’s recharging stations now run alongside many of the major highways in the United States, Europe and Asia, and can add hundreds of miles of oomph back to a car in about 20 minutes. These so-called supercharging stations are solar-powered, and Tesla owners pay nothing to refuel. While much of America’s infrastructure decays, Musk is building a futuristic end-to-end transportation system that would allow the United States to leapfrog the rest of the world.”

And last but not least, “SpaceX has become the free radical trying to upend everything about the space industry. It doesn’t want to handle a few launches per year or to rely on government contracts for survival. Musk’s goal is to use manufacturing breakthroughs and launchpad advances to create a drastic drop in the cost of getting things to space. Most significant, he’s been testing rockets that can push their payload to space and then return to Earth and land with supreme accuracy on a pad floating at sea or even their original launchpad. Imagine one airline that flies the same plane over and over again, competing against others that dispose of their planes after every flight. Through its cost advantages, SpaceX hopes to take over the majority of the world’s commercial launches, and there’s evidence that the company is on its way toward doing just that.”

So Elon’s story is really spectacular. That having been said, the book itself is rather poorly written, and, even more surprisingly, in numerous snide remarks, Vance makes it clear that he is not a big fan of Musk. Why bother to write a book about someone you really don’t like?

For those who are turned off by Vance’s plodding text and irritating side comments, I recommend the article “Meet tech billionaire and real life Iron Man Elon Musk” that delivers a great summary of Elon’s life trajectory, available for free online (The Telegraph, January 2014). For those who don’t mind shelling out $20 to better understand one of the greatest figures of our era, this biography is a mediocre though readable three-star rendition of a remarkable five-star genius. So four stars overall!

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