Review: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? by Timothy Caufield

2015-03-14 20.18.46I loved this book. This was one of those books where I found myself constantly nodding along and marking every other page with a sticky note (as you can see in the photo – and yes, those are cat sticky notes). It was engaging, fascinating, funny, and just so on point in our celebrity-obsessed culture.

Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? is written by a University of Alberta professor, Timothy Caufield (and I’m a U of A girl, so I was sold from the start) and it’s about, as the subtitle describes, “when celebrity culture and science clash.” It basically explores the power that celebrities have in our society, and how celebrities impact our decisions about health and even our life choices.

The book pulls from statistics, interviews with experts, and also Caufield’s firsthand experience. He goes to an American Idol audition, suffers through a Goop-approved cleanse, and more. Early on he points out that while he’s skeptical about celebrity claims, he loves celebrity culture. This book is both for haters and those that love it as he does.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, “The illusion of celebrity authority,” was my favourite by far. Caufield explores diets, cleanses, plastic surgery, tanning beds, and more. He describes the tension between celebrity recommendations and science, while exploring the influence celebrities have on our health choices. For example, this section on tanning:

“In 2013 British Cosmopolitan quoted Gwyneth as saying, ‘We’re human beings and the sun is the sun-how can it be bad for you? I think we should all get sun and fresh air… I don’t think anything that is natural can be bad for you.’ Putting aside that absurd idea that all things natural are healthy (consider for example, arsenic, black widow spider venom, tar sands, earthquakes, gravity pulling you toward the ground at terminal velocity), the idea that we should all be tanning is so clearly wrong that it makes you wonder what Gwyneth was thinking.”

What’s very interesting is the impact of social media on these phenomena. Caufield points to psychology about the way people compare themselves to others – the social comparison phenomenon – and the dissatisfaction this can cause, especially when we compare ourselves to celebrties. Because the problem is now, with celebrities on social media, they look and seem just like us. As Caufield puts it:

“A couple hundred years ago, the only images available of other men or women were either the people themselves, physically present, or a painting or drawing of them … So your comparators were real humans … But now our social comparators are rarely real. They are illusions created by pop culture.”

The second section, “The illusion that you too can be a celebrity,” explores some of the astronomical odds of becoming famous. It points to statistics to show that children now are more interested in being “famous” than being anything else, including scientists or doctors or lawyers. It explores the psychology behind why people believe that they can become famous, and often make great financial and personal sacrifices to try achieve these goals.

The third section, “The illusion that celebrity status is worth having,” builds on the second and asks the question of why anyone even wants to be famous. Caufield points to statistics that point (unsurprisingly) to the rather distressed lives of celebrities, many of whom struggle to maintain relationships and have serious health issues, particularly with addiction. In this section, he also discusses the way the media focuses on the benefits of celebrity, while not truly exploring the difficulty and loneliness that accompany being famous.

Caufield defends himself by saying that he’s not a “dream crusher,” but that people need to be informed about what celebrity life is truly like, the astronomical odds of making it, and the inaccuracy of the health and beauty claims perpetuated by the BIEB (the beauty industry efficacy bias).

This book is a great commentary on our culture, and explores a wide range of health-related issues. The statistics and commentary from experts is fascinating and enlightening. Caufield writes in a voice that is often laugh-out-loud funny, yet he makes the statistics and the science accessible. There were so many lightbulb moments in this book that I could hardly highlight them all in this one review, but I’d highly recommend this book for anyone interested in celebrity culture, psychology, or public health.

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Review: The Evening Chorus, by Helen Humphreys

22812800War is not just felt on the battlefield. In war literature and movies, the focus is often on bloody and horrible battles, or the ill-fated escape attempts of prisoners of war, or major events like the Blitz of London.

While these themes are present in The Evening Chorus, they are on the periphery. The central plot of Helen Humphrey’s new novel set during the Second World War is on the everyday turmoil caused by war: broken relationships and disrupted lives.

James, a POW in a German camp, is not looking to escape, although some of his fellow POWs are. He seeks something to occupy his attention while he waits out the war – something to help guard against the monotony. He turns his attention to a pair of redstarts who build a nest near the camp, studying them meticulously. Meanwhile, at home in a rural cottage, his new bride Rose is left feeling as though she never knew her husband at all, and begins an affair with another man. James’ sister, Enid, comes to stay with Rose after she loses her home in the Blitz and the two begin an unlikely friendship.

All three experience the grief of war, and yet their tragedies are not presented in a dramatic way. The novel seems almost peaceful at times, until Humphreys masterfully reminds the reader of the wartime setting with an unexpected moment of violence or tragedy. Just when the novel seems to be progressing as you expect, it shifts. Later, the novel moves forward in time to the 1950s and Humphreys subtly demonstrates the unpredictability of life – at any time.

Yet through all the twists and turns in the lives of the characters, the one thing that remains constant is the natural world. For James, it’s the redstarts who take flight in a way that he cannot. For Rose, it’s her relationship with her dogs. For Enid, it’s observing and studying the heath and its vegetation. The characters all receive solace from focusing on something outside themselves.

I always enjoy World War II novels, and Humphreys provides a unique take on this particular period in history. The writing is lyrical and Humphreys uses allusions to nature and birds to create beautiful imagery.

The Evening Chorus is a quiet wartime novel. Ultimately, the message is that life can change in an instant, and it may turn out very differently than we thought. The real task is having the ability to move on, whether in war or in peace.

Have you read The Evening Chorus? What did you think about it? How did it compare to other World War II novels?

Month in Review: February 2015

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It’s been a great reading month. Here’s what I read this month:

Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey
Yes Please, by Amy Poehler
Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
Ru, by Kim Thuy

Not all of these are pictured because some had to go back to the library. I really enjoyed all of these books. I started off the month with Elizabeth is Missing, which had been on my TBR for a while and I really liked the sense of mystery. I was also on a bit of a female comedian kick apparently, reading books by Amy Poehler and Mindy Kaling. I liked both for different reasons – Amy’s was more introspective and almost wise, while Mindy’s was laugh-out-loud funny.

It’s the two CanLit titles on this list – Ru and Etta and Otto and Russell and James that really stick out at me as my favourites from the month. Further proof that I love CanLit, I suppose!

How was your February? What were your favourite books that you read?

Review: Ru, by Kim Thúy

Ru coverAs a story, Ru is disjointed and difficult to follow at times. This is a not a book with a traditional, linear plot. It is like snippets of poetry, jumping around between countries and between different moments in the life of the narrator.

It’s jarring at first, but the form is appropriate, almost mirroring the experience of the narrator herself. Kim Thúy grew up in Vietnam in a time of great upheaval, following the Tet Offensive, and her childhood is ripped from her. Her family flees, first to a Malaysian refugee camp before making it to Quebec, Canada. While Thúy expresses gratitude for her new life in Canada, she also describes what it’s like to feel her Vietnamese identity slipping away. Like the book itself, Thúy seems to live her life in both the past and present; in both Vietnam and Canada.

This conflict was reflected when Thúy describes a man who died when everyone else left the boat after arriving on a beach near Club Med.

“He retraced his steps to fetch the gold taels he’d hidden in the boat’s fuel tank. He never came back. Perhaps the taels made him sink, perhaps they were too heavy to carry. Or else the current swallowed him as punishment for looking back, or to remind us that we must never regret what we’ve left behind.”

Yet Thúy cannot help missing the smells and sounds of her childhood and Ru serves as a fascinating contemplation on what it’s like to be an immigrant. Thúy seems to feel stuck between identities, or perhaps even without an identity. As a child, she does not quite fit in in Canada. At first, her family didn’t understand that people wear different clothes for different seasons, and in winter they layered, like the “homeless.” She describes her teacher thinking she misunderstood the question when she tells her that for breakfast she eats soup, vermicelli, and rice. As an adult, she describes a newspaper article claiming that “the ‘Quebecois nation’ was Caucasian, that my slanting eyes automatically placed me in a separate category…”

Yet, when Thúy goes back to Vietnam as an adult, she does not fit in there either. A waiter thinks she’s too fat to be Vietnamese. She describes the “American dream” as almost a blessing and curse: “Once it’s achieved, though, the American dream never leaves us, like a graft or an excrescence.”

“But the young waiter reminded me that I couldn’t have everything, that I no longer had the right to declare I was Vietnamese because I no longer had their fragility, their uncertainty, their fears. And he was right to remind me.”

What’s left is a woman with an identity crisis, who feels like she’s floating, separate from her roots. Yet despite these fascinating themes, the writing is often sparse and direct. Thúy doesn’t sugarcoat the horrific experiences that she went through as a child. She relays them to the reader as they happened.

I picked up Ru because it was part of CBC’s Canada Reads 2015 and it sounded like a very interesting and powerful story. I did find the form a little difficult to get into at first and I feel that to more fully grasp the story, I would need to re-read the book. But the writing is beautiful. The story sheds light on an interesting and often unknown time in Vietnamese history, and the themes of identity, memory, and immigration are beautifully and personally explored. Ru gave me insight into a different Canadian experience than my own, and I believe it achieves the Canada Reads theme of breaking barriers.

Have you read Ru? What were your thoughts? Have you read any other 2015 Canada Reads books?

On Reading: Freedom to Read Week

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“A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” ~ Jo Godwin

Some of the most popular titles in literature have been banned or challenged at some point in their history: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien; Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut; The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. That’s just a few of many.

February 22 to 28 marks Freedom to Read Week in Canada. It’s a week to raise awareness on issues of intellectual freedom and to celebrate freedom of expression. It’s an important cause, especially for raising awareness, because it seems many people think books aren’t challenged anymore – that this battle is won.

After all, in Canada our freedom to read is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the United States, it’s protected by the First Amendment. However, this doesn’t stop people from trying to take away our right to read. In 2013 alone, 307 challenges were reported in the United States and 85 challenges were reported in libraries in Canada. These challenges may very well have included your favourite titles: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins; The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky; Looking for Alaska, by John Green; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.

One person or group didn’t like what these books had to say, and so they sought to take away your right to interact with the ideas in these books. The people behind these challenges often feel without a doubt that these books should be challenged and that they should not be available. It is often the case that these books contain ideas that are unpopular or offensive.

Certainly not every book is right for every reader. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and readers have the right to not read certain things (and for children, their parents may choose to decide what is appropriate). But one person or group should not be allowed to limit the reading choices of everyone just because a book conflicts with their worldview or they don’t think it’s appropriate for their child. In fact, it is essential that libraries contain books that reflect the experiences and worldview of every reader. The Canadian Library Association’s statement on intellectual freedom reads: “it is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular, or unacceptable.”

For example, I loved Sherman Alexie’s book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s powerful, engaging, and tragic. But it’s been challenged and banned because some believe the offensive language, drugs, alcohol, and sexual content is not age-appropriate (it’s a young adult book). Yes, the experiences of teenage protagonist may not resonate with all (especially the more privileged), but there are certainly First Nations teens or teens living in poverty that will see themselves in the protagonist. And those that do not see themselves can learn something about the experiences of their peers. That’s why it’s so important this book be available for those that want to read it.

The third law of library science is “every book its reader” (S. R. Ranganathan). A book may not be important to you, but it could be supremely important to someone else. Readers should have the right to access any book, regardless what others may think of them. That’s why I believe in freedom of expression and that’s what I’ll be contemplating this Freedom to Read Week.

Some of my favourite banned/challenged books:

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
  • Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
  • To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling
  • Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Thanks for reading my librarian rant. What’s your take on Freedom to Read Week? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Review: The Devil You Know, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

2015-02-12 22.04.09There’s something about being a woman. You move through the world, riding the bus or walking out alone, but you’re on alert. You take in each person you see on the street and measure the potential threat. You’re constantly gauging your own feeling of safety. You’re careful.

That’s perhaps even more true for women living in 1993 in Toronto, when the Paul Bernardo murders came to light and murdered young women dominated the news. That serves as the setting for The Devil You Know, Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s debut novel.

Twenty-one-year-old Evie Jones, a novice reporter covering the crime beat, is living in this climate of fear and hyper-vigilance. It doesn’t help that when she was 11 years old, Evie’s best friend Liane was abducted and murdered in a case that remains unsolved, with the suspected killer still on the loose. Now, as Evie investigates the murders of other young girls, she is haunted anew by her friend’s death and becomes obsessed with solving the mystery. At the same time, living on her own for the first time, she’s paranoid and filled with terror, convinced that someone is coming after her next.

The Devil You Know is a page-turner. The suspense and the desire to solve the mystery of what’s really going on keeps you reading until the end. I picked up The Devil You Know because, like a lot of people right now, I’m into the nail-biting thrillers like Gone Girl. It delivers as a thriller, with twists and turns that create a tense atmosphere that keeps the reader guessing.

But it is so much more than just an average thriller or typical crime novel. I knew it was set in Toronto, but I didn’t realize that de Mariaffi would address real crimes, like those committed by Paul Bernado. This causes a blur between fiction and reality, which makes the story all the more terrifying – as a reader, you know this is fiction, but you also know that these types of things actually happen in your own country. It’s dark and heavy subject matter that hits closer to home. This is a book about evil, and about how that evil impacts women, society, and ultimately, our culture.

In many ways, The Devil You Know serves as a social commentary on violence against women. De Mariaffi did an excellent job portraying what it feels like to be a woman on alert, living in a climate that breeds fear. It’s equally thrilling as a novel like Gone Girl, but more serious and disturbing. It left me with an uneasy feeling long after I was finished.

Have you read The Devil You Know? What did you think of it? How did it compare to other thrillers and crime stories?

Book Versus Movie: Wild

Book vs. MovieWhenever there’s a movie made about a book, there’s always the question of “which was better?” Did Hollywood change too many things, or did the actors not look at all like what you pictured the characters to be? Books come alive in our heads, and then when somebody else makes a movie of their vision, it doesn’t always line up.

I just finished reading Wild by CherylStrayed, and I saw the movie last Saturday, so I saw the movie before I read the book. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is a memoir written by Cheryl Strayed. After the tragic death of her mother and the end of her marriage, Strayed spirals out of control. She decides to hikes more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in an attempt to regain her life and become the woman her mother raised.

The book tells a compelling story. While I found Strayed’s prose a little flowery and overdone at times, there was also some beautiful poeticism to some of her words. Beyond that, I enjoyed her story, especially the passages about the relationship between Strayed and her mother. I learned from the book that Cheryl chose the last named “Strayed” for herself after her divorce, and there’s several mentions of her being a literal “stray” after her mother’s death. Strayed loses her mother at the age of 22 and she writes very honestly about the impact of this loss and not getting the chance to appreciate her mother:

“[Her death] had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced me to instantly grow up and forgive her every motherly fault at the same time that it kept me forever a child.”

I know a lot of people really dislike this book. They think that Strayed is self-absorbed, or that the book isn’t accurate because she wrote it over 10 years after her hike and she romanticizes some of the darker details of her life. For me, even though it’s a memoir, it’s still a story and I think Strayed has the liberty to tell her story how she’d like, so these critiques honestly didn’t bother me. It wasn’t my favourite book, but I also didn’t dislike it. It fell somewhere in between.

Having read the book, I think the movie was well done. It stays true to most of the main stories in the book, which I appreciated. They didn’t add in anything to make it more dramatic for the big screen. I thought Reese Witherspoon did a great job of portraying Strayed and capturing her emotions. It was difficult to understand the vastness of her journey in the movie. Having read the book gives a lot more context to how far Strayed travelled and where she was on her trip.

Overall, if I’m pitting the book versus the movie, I’d choose the book. The extra context makes the story more compelling and the emotional side of the story is portrayed with words in a way that’s difficult on a screen. That said, I’d recommend seeing the movie as well (but maybe read the book first if you can).

Have you read Wild or seen the movie? What did you think of them? Which did you enjoy more?