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STAFF PICKS

December 2019

Jo's Picks

How to Change Your Mind

by Michael Pollan
(Penguin Books)

Just reading this book felt like a journey into mind expansion. As is his wont, Pollan dives deep into his exploration of psychedelic drugs: LSD which derives from ergot (a fungus that attacks rye), Psilocybin mushrooms,  DMT which comes from the poison glands of a toad, and ayahuasca. It is a heady trip because alongside a fascinating history of psychedelics as studied by psychotherapists, doctors and scientists for use in battling anxiety, depression, and addiction, is, infused throughout, an account of Pollan’s own personal experience with these entheogens, under the direction of a fascinating collection of guides. My favourite sentence - ‘The opportunity to smoke the toad popped up suddenly.’  Things were bubbling away twenty years before bombastic media glutton Timothy Leary even entered the picture, and brilliant future thinking writers (Aldous Huxley),  pharmaceutical companies, hospitals (Johns Hopkins), Universities (Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard), various organizations (Alcoholics Anonymous) mavericks and society leaders all had their fingers in the pie. What unfolds is a fascinating look at the suppression of knowledge, the politics of health care, the untapped mystery of the human brain, and the rebirth of interest in how these compounds can help and heal us, alleviating everything from childhood trauma to addiction to end of life fear.

 

The Starless Sea

by Erin Morgenstern
(Doubleday Canada)

Like the Pollan, this is another immersive book. A lush, vivid fantasy about…The thing is with Morgenstern at the helm, it almost doesn’t matter what the book is about. She weaves gorgeous fairy tales together in such a way that the reader is transported to a rich, surreal and yet believable world where books are the key to everything. At the end one wakes as if from a beautiful dream. There is a plot however. Student Zachary Ezra Rawlins finds a book in his university library, and upon reading Sweet Sorrows he discovers that a childhood experience is narrated within: the day he came upon an ornate door painted on a wall and he did not open it. It is something he has regretted ever since which is probably why he determines to go to a mysterious masquerade party in NYC and search for answers. What follows is an epic quest in and out of doors, and secret societies, and worlds where pirate ships float on seas of honey, where bees hold the key, where reality is shuffled like a pack of cards, and where sinister organizations threaten to shut it all down.  Joined by fierce pink-haired Mirabel who guards the secrets and Dorian whose alliances are unclear, Zachary finds love and friendship and purpose in the most unexpected places. A romantic ode to words and books and imagination.

 

Malamander

written by Thomas Taylor
illustrated by Tom Booth

(Candlewick)

A wonderful middle-grade story that captures all the magic of childhood. When Violet Parma comes through the window of Herbert Lemon’s Lost and Foundery located in the Great Nautilus Hotel in the town of Eerie-by-the-sea (during the summer season it is known as Cheerie-by-the-sea), she is looking for her parents who vanished 12 years before. All that was ever found of them were their shoes on the harbour wall. Violet thinks they may have been looking for the Malamander, a sea creature who lays a pink egg which can grant wishes. But someone is looking for Violet- an old man with a boat hook for a hand, and as Herbie and Violet begin their search they uncover more secrets about the quirky fog-bound town and its odd inhabitants who share mysterious pasts of their own. Mister Mollusc, Lady Kraken, and Mrs. Fossil are but a few of the idiosyncratic characters filling the pages.  Sure to charm any bookworm who longs for a romping adventure filled with folklore and whimsy.

 

Alice's Picks

Once Upon a River

by Diane Setterfield
(Doubleday Canada)

Once Upon a River starts magically in an ancient pub near the even more ancient Thames some time in the 1800s, in the middle of winter. The regulars are telling stories when a stranger bursts through the doors, a drowned girl in his arms. A few hours later, she returns to life, and then the story continues in wonderful twists and turns, like the river itself. Did magic bring her back to life, or a miracle? Who is this child? Why do two different families claim her? This is a beautiful, mysterious, strange and engrossing novel, with a full cast of characters, including the river Thames itself, who are fully realized. An excellent, transporting, expertly woven tale.

 

The Octopus Museum

by Brenda Shaughnessy
(Knopf)

Say there's climate change. Say we humans are responsible. You with me? Okay. Now: say the octopuses climb out of the ocean - are forced out - but then become our overlords and keep all of remaining humanity in a museum filled with specimens. That is the premise of this absolute knockout of a book of poetry by Brenda Shaughnessy, author of such other incredible titles as Our Andromeda and So Much Synth. The poems in The Octopus Museum are heartbreaking, hilarious, biting, painfully honest, and imaginative. An engrossing, brilliant book.

 

Bookshops: A Reader's History

By Jorge Carrión
(Biblioasis)

This is a magnificent and detailed celebration of bookshops all over the world, and it is definitely more than a travel guide. Carrión, translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush, in yet another excellent title from Canadian small press Biblioasis, celebrates the bookshop's importance as intellectual and social hub in its community. As he points out: "The history of bookshops is completely unlike the history of libraries. The former lack continuity and institutional support. As private entrepreneurial responses to a public need they enjoy a degree of freedom, but by the same token they are not studied, rarely appear in tourist guides and are never the subject of doctoral theses until time deals them a final blow and they enter the realm of myth." A brilliant, Borgesian book (there is a sense of the labyrinth to the knowledge written and displayed in each bookstore, after all, and this book may be read in a variety of ways). The author's love for the eccentricities and value of independent bookshops, as well as his scholarship, are fully evident in this intelligent collection.

 

Anne-Marie's Pick

The Shortest Day

written by Susan Cooper
illustrated by Carson Ellis

(Candlewick)

The Shortest Day opens with several wordless, double page spreads depicting the dwindling of the year. A mythical sun figure staggers through a browning landscape, falters, and finally sinks beneath the horizon. Ancient peoples race to gather their winter’s wood until the shortest day is upon them: “and everywhere down the century of the snow-white world came people singing, dancing, to drive the dark away.” Newberry Medalist Susan Cooper wrote the poem on which this book is based for The Christmas Revels, a theatrical celebration of the traditional Northern European winter solstice and Yuletide season. Caldecott Honouree Carson Ellis infuses the lyrical text with browns and greys, the palette of winter, but punctuates her atmospheric illustrations with warm candles and bonfires radiating hope into the darkness. In the author’s note, Cooper observes that, on a planet which circles the sun, the impulse to celebrate light and a year’s rebirth is universal; that candles on Christmas trees recall menorah candles and Diwali oil lamps. As a new year blazes awake, the book’s sun figure is reborn, cheered on now by modern Yuletide revellers whose delight is echoed through the centuries: “They carol, feast, give thanks, and dearly love their friends and hope for peace…Welcome Yule!”

Alice's Recommendations

Anne-Marie's Recommendations

Jo's Recommendations