Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor

The title: The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor
The author: Sally Armstrong
Publication: Vintage Canada, 2007
Got it from: SC, past Christmas

Charlotte Taylor was an actual historical figure - the author's great-great grandmother, if I remember correctly, and the first woman settler on the Miramichi. Charlotte led an extraordinary life. In 1775, at the age of twenty, she ran away from her home in England with her secret lover, her family's black butler. As the book opens, Charlotte and her man are enduring a hellish trip across the Atlantic Ocean. They arrive in Jamaica without any money or connections, and Charlotte's lover soon dies of disease. Charlotte is now three months pregnant.

This is the beginning of her incredible story, some of which is documented fact, some educated guesses on the part of the author. The first half of the book moves along at a nice pace. With the kindness of a man named Commodore Walker, Charlotte is taken to northern New Brunswick, an untapped wilderness at that time. She befriends the local Micmac tribe and even lives among them for awhile when she delivers her baby. She falls in love with a Native man, and their unspoken love becomes the thread that binds the rest of the story together, right up until Charlotte's death at the age of 85.

Charlotte's unwavering resilience is inspiring. Despite being married three times (and only once to a man I would consider "nice"), she soldiers on like the brave pioneer women of my old history textbooks. She pops out at least ten children. I can't remember the exact number, because it was starting to get a little ridiculous toward the end. She uses knowledge from the Natives to keep her family well-fed and healthy. She fights off rebels coming upriver from America during the Revolution. She scraps with neighbours over the ownership of her land, even spending ten days walking down the river to petition the government in Fredericton. That's right, I said on the river. It was frozen.

I am in awe of just how much research Sally Armstrong must have done to make this book happen. There are so few books written about this place, this time period. I have to say, being from New Brunswick, that this book held a definite appeal to me. Even though I'm about two centuries away, I could still see the recognizable New Brunswick features in my head.

It's too bad the ending felt a little rushed. I know it can't be easy to fit in everything from such an amazing life, but I started to get confused over all of Charlotte's children, in-laws and grandchildren when they started appearing lightening fast at the end. I suppose when one has something like 70 grandchildren, even Charlotte herself would have a hard time keeping them straight. Her oldest daughter alone had 16 children. All I can say is thank heavens for modern-day birth control.

A definite recommended read. Don't let "boring New Brunswick" put you off. It's better than your eighth grade social studies class and more interesting than many historical novels I've read.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

First Semester

We interrupt the princess thing for something completely different...

The title: First Semester
The author: Cecil B. Cross II
Publication: Kimani Press, 2007
Got it from: Library

James "JD" Dawson grew up in the hood, but left a life of violence three thousand miles behind to make something of himself at the University of Atlanta. But when the freshman got off to a fool's start-kicking it with his new homeboys, showing up late to class, not studying and checking out the shorties-JD was assigned a tutor, the luscious Katrina Turner. She made studying real fun. But if JD wanted to get with a girl like Katrina, he'd also have to learn to grow up.

I can't really talk about this book without revealing some spoilers, so be warned.

I read this book as a kind of extension to last year's New Year's resolution to expand my reading scope. When JD's friend dies in his arms after being shot at a party within the first chapter, I knew this was definitely not going to be like other books I've read.

I liked the premise of this book, and also the aims of the publisher: to "address the triumphs, issues and concerns of today's Black teen audience with candor, wit and realism." They weren't kidding. There's so much slang in this book, it was almost like reading another language. Whenever I couldn't figure something out, I assumed they were talking about either a) drugs; or b) sex.

This book definitely had a strong beginning. JD is from the hood, he wants to get out and make something of himself. At first he's overwhelmed by his new university in Georgia, but he quickly makes friends and becomes accustomed to college life.

Unfortunately, after the excellent set-up, the book kind of petered out. I felt like the author was introducing all sorts of characters who had subplots that went nowhere. Maybe that's real life, but it seemed unnecessary. Towards the end one of JD's friends died and I couldn't even remember who it was. It was set up to be this big shocker, but everybody gets over it and we never even find out what happened with the guy.

My biggest problem with this book overall was JD's character development. He started out as sympathetic but turned into a Level A asshole. It should have been the other way around. At first he seems to genuinely care about the guys he meets at school, but as the story goes on he just keeps laughing at their misfortunes. True, they're all idiots who treat women dispicably, but aren't they supposed to be his friends?

Then there's the problem of his continual cheating on his tests and essays. One of his professors takes an interest in him and tries to turn him around, and to some extent JD does try. But he never seems to learn from his mistakes. He doesn't see any problem with cheating and when he's caught, he lets his roommate take the rap like the jerk that he is. Even at the end of the semester, when he's supposedly learned the value of studying and working hard, he boasts of being the master of cut-and-paste. Like we're all supposed to be proud of him for hard-earned grades.

The worst part about how JD acts concerns his new girlfriend, Katrina. She serves as little more than a cardboard cutout of every guy's fantasy, a hot upper classman who brushes him off at first but then inexplicably lets him in her pants. Considering she's a big safe-sex advocate, I find it hard to believe she didn't check to see if JD was wearing a condom. The fact that he didn't wear one was the turning point for me, and his behaviour went completely downhill after that. Although he professes that nothing's worse than an insecure woman, he's immaturely jealous of Katrina's relationship with her ex-boyfriend and refuses to trust her.

The end comes like some sort of afterschool special. Katrina finds out she's HIV-positive and JD completely flips out at her. Instead of being kind, sympathetic and caring when she's crying that she needs help, what does he do? He smacks her to the floor because he's angry that she may have given him AIDS. Dude, YOU were the one who was stupid enough to not wear a condom. Even though he finds out he's not positive himself, he still refers to Katrina as "that bitch." What a nice guy.

I'm sorry that this book was so lousy, because I really thought it could be funny and a good story. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that a book about a young man going to an American university would be pathetic, but I had high hopes that it might be different. If it actually had a heart, and if JD hadn't been such a self-centred &$!*@^, this review would have been kinder.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Mmm...doughnut...I mean, The World is Fat

The title: The World is Fat
The author: Barry Popkin
Publication: Penguin, 2009
Got it from: Library

The world has changed so much in the past fifty years, writes Barry Popkin, that there are now more overweight and obese people in the world than undernourished.

That is the premise of this interesting look at the history and politics of why we weigh what we do. I found it particularly fascinating when he outlined our dietary habits through history, from prehistoric times to his own childhood in the 1950's. It's incredible to think that just fifty years ago, fast food restaurants did not have the stranglehold they have today and that up until the 20th century, what we ate didn't vary all that much from our early agricultural days. It's only in the past fifty years that we've become obese (even less in the developing world). This book looks at the changes that have brought us here:
-A decrease in overall physical activity. The advent of time-saving appliances and farm equipment, as well as cars, has decreased our activity levels dramatically. Although it may not seem like much, the author shows how something as simple as washing dishes by hand adds up in terms of calories over a lifetime.
-An increase in portion sizes and the amount of sugar, fat and calories in the average meal, not to mention the increase in snacking.
-A major push by the food industry toward advertising junk food and value menus in fast food restaurants
- Junk and fast food being cheaper than healthy food

What's interesting about this book is that it chronicles not just the US but other countries as well. Mexico in particular is being hit hard. In less than twenty years, they went from a relatively healthy nation to the second highest obesity rate in the world. In poor countries it's not just a matter of eating right to lose weight. Most people don't have the money to pay for expensive fruits and vegetables. They drink pop because their water is contaminated and it's the only cheap option around. They don't have the information on diet and exercise that we have access to. Etc etc etc. Fifty years ago, only the rich could afford to be fat. Now it's exactly the opposite. The richer you are, the more likely you are to be thin and vice versa.

I know I don't always eat as well as I should, but I was shocked-SHOCKED-when he described typical lifestyles of some of these overweight families. Tacos and Coke for breakfast every day? Absolutely no activity at all for anyone? Have things changed that much since I was a kid, or was my family just a bunch of freaks? I wasn't the most active of kids, but my sister and I would spend a lot of time playing outside because it was fun. We'd always eat at home, except maybe Friday nights. And our cereals and juices may have been sugary but at least they were breakfast foods for heaven's sake. We had gym class and recess to burn off our excess energy. Nowadays, apparently, kids just text each other on the playground.

I actually wish this book had been longer in some areas, because I found it very absorbing. In particular, I was hoping he would discuss the social effects of eating. So much of my happiest memories growing up involved food because that's what my life revolved around. My family would eat out on Friday nights and that was special. If a friend had a birthday, we'd have cake and ice cream or popcorn at the movies. If my family went on a Sunday outing, we'd often end up having a doughnut at Tim Horton's. While these weren't everyday occurrences, they definitely imprinted on my mind that fun times=unhealthy food. I think that was the case for a lot of people of my generation, who don't have as good a time unless there's a treat in it somewhere. Eating healthy at a sleepover or when going out with friends would have been unthinkable.

I definitely recommend this book. It will make you think twice about what you're eating and why your body isn't built to handle all the sugar and fat you put into it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Volume IV 1/4: Valentine Princess

The title: Valentine Princess
The author: Meg Cabot
Publication: Harper Trophy, 2006
Got it from: The Book Depot

Heh. My copy of this book has a great big tear where the heart is, because I got it at the Book Depot, which specializes in selling flawed books at deep discounts.

I read this book in 45 minutes this morning. Here's my summary:
*Grandmere hires this astrologer named Dr. Steve, who Mia is grossed out by and thinks might be some sort of Rasputin character. Dr. Steve says Mia's true love is a Leo, which bums Mia out because Michael is a Capricorn. Dr. Steve also says that Grandmere will sustain a bodily injury and receive a marriage proposal. Which happens at the end, when Dr. Steve proposes to Grandmere and she breaks her leg trying to run away from him.
*Mia is sad that Michael doesn't believe in Valentine's Day, but he naturally comes through for her in the end.
*More appearances by J.P., aka The Guy Who Hates It When They Put Corn in his Chili! Oh J.P., will you hurry up and get here soon?
*Best moment: Mia gets her bodyguard Lars a Valentine with a heart holding a gun that says, "Valentine, I'm gunning for you." And Lars gets teary-eyed.

Happy V-day everyone! I'm off to enjoy some of my pink-and-red Valentine's Smarties mom sent me.

You could see it coming for a mile, or; Princess in Love

The title: Princess in Love
The author: Meg Cabot
Publication: Harper Trophy, 2002
Got it from: Hannelore's

Mia is now kind of/sort of dating her bio partner Kenny, even though she realizes now that she is totally hot for Michael. Mia's royal cousin Sebastiano shows up at the Plaza where Grandmere is staying and designs some dresses for Mia, even though she's convinced he's trying to off her and take the throne himself. She has to study for her end-of-term exams, prepare for her official introduction to the people of Genovia and break up with Kenny. Oh yes, and she still hasn't been asked to the Nondenominational Winter Dance.

Things of note:
*Mia gets to lie on Michael's bed and smell his bedsheets
*Mia lists Anne of Green Gables on her list of books that sucked??? Nooo, how could you??? But redeems herself by putting "the guy Brendan Fraser played in The Mummy" on her list of "guys Mia Thermopolis could see herself committing to for all eternity." Also, Wolverine.
*Mia leaves anonymous love notes to Michael with such epic poetry as:
Roses are red
Violets are blue
You may not know it
But someone loves you
* Not only does Mia pull the school's fire alarm (for a good cause), she smashed Lana Weinberger's cell phone. You go, girl!
*Kenny breaks up with Mia 'cause he thinks she's in love with Boris Pelkowski
* This is where Michael confesses his true feelings to Mia (awww!)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Princess in the Spotlight

The title: Princess in the Spotlight
The author: Meg Cabot
Publication: Harper Trophy, 2001
Got it from: Hannelore's

It's PD day again. Princess Diaries, not personal development.

So Mia's mother announces at the start of the book that she's pregnant and Mia's math teacher is the father. Mia handles it pretty well, all things considered. Mia's mom wants to elope, but her grandmother (the Dowager Princess) plans this big wedding at the plaza. Mia's hick grandparents from Indiana come for the wedding, including hunky farmboy cousin Hank. (Mia: "Thank God first-cousin marriages were made illegal in Genovia in 1907.") Meanwhile, Mia is getting secret love letters from somebody who thinks she's the "Josiest girl" in school (yeah, she doesn't know what that means either). She hopes it's from Michael, but doesn't know. Oh yes, and she humiliates herself on a nationally televised interview.

Things of note:
*Lily's boyfriend Boris, who I forgot to mention before. He's the Russian violin prodigy who they lock in the closet at school when he plays the violin, and Mia is obsessed with mentioning how he is a mouth-breather and tucks in his sweaters. He punches Hank in the face in a jealous rage.
*They mention the World Trade Center (this book was published a few months before you-know-what)
*This is the book containing the infamous incident where Mia drops an eggplant out of Lily's 16th floor apartment window. Nice!
*John Tesh plays at Mia's mother's wedding. Also, Martha Stewart helps her design a Halloween costume.
*Mia's self-description: "ostensibly female, but lack of breast size lends disturbing androgyny."
*First mention of J.P.!!!! At this point, though, he's still the weird guy who hates corn in his chilli.

Coming soon: a Valentine's Day love spectacular, where I review both Princess in Love and Valentine Princess! Yay!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Princess Diaries

The title: The Princess Diaries
The author: Meg Cabot
Publication: HarperTrophy, 2000
Got it from: Pearson International Airport, December 2004

February will feature a blogger (me) re-reading The Princess Diaries series. If this kind of book doesn't float your boat, there's still time to close this tab and visit Oh look! A fuzzy widdle rabbit!

You're still here. Good for you! So yes, my goal is to re-read The Princess Diaries series. Even those little half books and the princess guides. Actually, I've only read up to book eight (plus the supplementary material) so it's not all rehashing.

In this book, we meet our heroine, fourteen-year-old Mia Thermopolis, who discovers over the course of the tale that because of her father's testicular cancer, he can't have any more children and therefore she is, in fact, a princess and heir to the throne of Genovia (which she didn't know before). Here we meet many of the characters who will play important roles in the books to come: Mia's mother, the avant-garde artiste who raised Mia single-handedly in a NYC loft; Mia's math teacher with the big nostrils who happens to be dating her mother; Mia's dad, the balding Prince of Genovia; Grandmere [can't find the little accent, sorry], Mia's sidecar guzzling grandmother and Dowager Princess of Genovia (and one of the greatest comic characters ever); Mia's best friend, outspoken feminist and activist Lily; and of course Lily's brother Michael, a computer nerd who has an obvious crush on Mia. Then there's the secondary characters who make this book so great: Lars, Mia's Eastern European bodyguard who fancies her French teacher; Tina Hakim Baba, the romance novel-loving daughter of a rich Middle Eastern oil baron (whose bodyguard Wahim becomes great friend with Lars); the guy with the foot fetish who keeps sending presents to Lily care of her public access channel; and Lana Weinberger, Mia's token snotty blonde school nemesis.

If you've only seen the Anne Hathaway movies, you're missing out big time. Although I'm not dissing the movies, because they were awesome in their own way. Things of note about this book:
* Lily and Mia's list of "ten hottest guys" (the beginning of many references to their lust for Joshua Bell. I should keep count).
* I used to be a Michael fan, but knowing what I do about him in later books, I found him kind of a jerk in this book. Still, I am many books away from J.P. so he'll have to do. I really hope Mia ends up with J.P. instead of Michael. Or neither.
* Mia's mother's references to "The Cult of the Patriarchy."
* Grandmere ripping up Mia's list of women she admires because it doesn't include Coco Chanel and Grace Kelly.
* Lily's boycott of Ho's Deli ("We oppose the racist Hos!")
* The fountain in Tina Hakim Baba's apartment. Why can't I have a fountain?!

I love these books.