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.

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?

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?

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?

Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper

2015-02-08 21.44.30There is no easy way to capture the essence of Etta and Otto and Russell and James. It is not a typical love story, but it is about relationships and bonds that last a lifetime. It is a pilgrimage story, but it is as much about those left behind as it is about those on the journey. The novel is dreamy, exploring memory, separation, and the mystery of life’s twists and turns.

One morning, 82-year-old Etta Vogel, who is struggling with the beginnings of dementia, leaves her home in Saskatchewan and sets out on foot for the eastern coast of Canada. She wants to see the ocean for the first time, and soon meets a talking coyote names James who accompanies her as she presses onwards. She leaves behind her husband Otto, who is plagued by memories of his own journey east as a young man during World War II. Their neighbour, Russell, starts off after Etta, but eventually ends up going on his own journey.

The novel moves continuously between time and viewpoints, shifting from Etta’s present-day pilgrimage to the coming of age of the characters during the 1930s. Otto, one of 14 children in his family, grew up with Russell, his neighbour and an honourary brother. Etta came to their town in rural Saskatchewan as a school teacher, just as everyone was leaving to fight overseas. When Otto leaves, he and Etta write to each other so she can correct his letters, and their relationship deepens.

Hooper’s depiction of rural Saskatchewan during World War II, a scene of endless dust and abandoned farms, is sharply written. She sets the scene with sparse, powerful writing. At the same time, nothing feels quite real – even in the past. The entire novel is magical realism and requires a suspension of disbelief.

The story explores many themes, one of which is aging and the question of whether it is ever too late for adventure or for forgiveness. It also explores the tension between obligation and desire. Though Etta and Otto and Russell seem to be inextricably linked, even as decades pass, it is easy to see how they could have taken different paths.

Yet for a story about relationships, the characters remain opaque. Because of the shifting of time and the blurring between fantasy and reality, we only see snippets of them. Much of the story is told through letters. While the characters are empathetic, we do not get to fully explore their motivations and relationships, and I found myself wanting to know more and to deepen my understanding.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is beautifully written. The whole thing reads as if it is a dream, and Hooper leaves the reader the space to take what they want from the world she has created. In many ways, the novel is what you make of it.

Have you read Etta and Otto and Russell and James? What were your thoughts about the book? What did you make of it?

Review: They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson

2015-02-01 18.26.30

We can spend years with someone – living with them, eating with them, talking with them – and never really know them. That’s a theme explored by Plum Johnson in her memoir, They Left Us Everything.

When Johnson’s elderly mother passes away after nearly 20 years of elder care, Johnson takes on the task of cleaning and dismantling the family home, Point O’ View (so named by her mother). The monstrous 23-room home, in a small town on Lake Ontario, is where her parents lived for over 50 years and raised Johnson and her four younger brothers. Thanks to Johnson’s packrat mother and frugal father, who passed away five years earlier, there is no shortage of treasures to be unearthed in their home. But as Johnson works her way through the dust and clutter over the course of 16 months, she begins to learn about her parents, understanding their lives – and her family – in new ways.

Although Johnson’s book is a personal memoir, I found myself thinking of my own childhood and family throughout. Thankfully, I’m not able to relate to the experience of parents passing away and cleaning out the family home, but I was still able to relate to what Johnson discovers: our parents leave us everything. The meaning of inheritance is that our parents are part of us in ways that we often do not even realize.

Johnson’s writing is both humourous and touching in turns, and I found myself laughing and nearly crying in parts. One of my favourite anecdotes is about a plaque Johnson and her brothers put up as teenagers, marking their house’s former owner as a slave driver (their father), and signed by The Oakville Hysterical Society. Their furious father soon redirects his anger towards the the Oakville Historical Society, who demand he take the plaque down – a demand he refuses – and so the plaque stays up for years.

Johnson doesn’t romanticize when she describes her parents. Her relationship, particularly with her mother, is complex. She paints a portrait of her mother as strong-willed yet almost needy at times, and her father as disciplined and meticulous. Yet Johnson comes to understand that her perception of her parents is not the way others saw them. She also comes to realize, through old letters and artifacts, that their relationship was perhaps not what she thought. Johnson’s journey through grief mixed with guilt after the death of her mother is intangible in many ways, but she manages to put the experience it into meaningful words that resonate.

They Left Us Everything has been shortlisted for 2015 RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction, and it’s easy to see why. It’s moving and heartfelt and incredibly relatable. It left me thinking about my parents, and what I thought I knew about them. It made me see them as people who once had an identity that didn’t include being parents. It’s a book that leaves you thoughtful about the meaning of family and legacy long after the last page.

Have you read They Left Us Everything? How did it make you think about the meaning of family? Could you relate?