Review | Leonardo and the Last Supper, Ross King

9780385666091Ross King’s Leonardo and The Last Supper is a solid historical work on the artist and one of his most famous paintings. King does a good job setting the stage, by writing about the historical context in which da Vinci creates, as well as examining details of da Vinci’s distinct style and how it fit in within the larger context of art history.

The Last Supper has been the subject of many other art works, and yet da Vinci’s version became iconic long before Dan Brown launched a new generation of conspiracy theorists. King does a good job in examining what set da Vinci’s version apart from all others, in terms of technique, form and treatment of subject matter.

It is also interesting to get to know a bit of the man behind the work. Da Vinci has become such a cultural icon that it’s difficult to separate him from the mythos around him. King keeps the book firmly on the ground, and contextualizes da Vinci within his time, as well as paints a portrait of a man who is much more flawed than his “genius” moniker suggests.

My only concern with this book is that despite the rich history it explores, the writing itself is very dry. The beginning seemed a bit slow, and snippets of really interesting observations seemed almost lost within paragraphs of detail. I wanted to love the book, and I did learn some interesting tidbits throughout, but unfortunately, it was just very, very slow-going for me.

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Thank you to Random House of Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Sex and the Citadel, Shereen El Feki

13152722How does one explore their sexuality in a society where open discussion of the subject is taboo? In Shereen El Feki’s Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab Worldthe author explores various aspects of the sexual lives of men and woman in Arab society. She writes with an engaging style, using first-person accounts and historical research to create a compelling portrait of a society’s attitudes towards sex.

In one humorous anecdote for example, she tries to explain a vibrator to a group of women who had never seen one. Trying to find the right Arabic word, she comes up with one that means “a thing that makes fast movements,” but then realizes that could equally apply to a hand mixer.

El Feki uses this and other such anecdotes to reveal a world that many Western readers may find difficult to imagine. She doesn’t present her subjects as exotic, but rather presents them with warmth, empathy and humour. As with the vibrator anecdote above, the similarity between a sex toy and a kitchen tool is funny, but also reveals the rather radical misunderstandings that can occur in a society where it is forbidden to speak of the subject in public.

Through the lens of sexuality, El Feki examines various aspects of Arab life. She speaks about the struggle for female empowerment, attitudes towards marriage and the single life, and other such topics. Particularly striking to me is an interview with a man fighting for LGBTQ rights in the Middle East. Unlike much of the Western world, this man desires to be seen as equal but is staunchly against same sex marriage, because this goes against his religious beliefs. El Feki therefore presents an alternative perspective even to subjects that Western readers may initially find familiar. More significantly, she presents dissenting views within the society, thereby preventing any impulse to generalize.

I grew up in the Philippines, where religious and political institutions have long suppressed a certain form of discourse around sexuality. A recent political battle has brought this struggle to the public eye, and while major steps have been taken to open this discussion, and many more continue to be taken on the level of the individual, there is much work left to do, and this indeed impacts upon many other aspects of society — women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and general perceptions of equality to name a few.

El Feki tackles an important subject and presents a wonderfully frank view of an aspect of Arab life. The book makes real the human beings behind movements and issues we may have only heard of, and therefore makes us care even more deeply. There is a fine balance between respect for custom and propagating institutional ignorance, and El Feki makes a compelling case about the dangers of the latter, and reveals how current events may, in fact, already be turning the tide.

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Thank you to Random House of Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg

16071764I’ve had Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In on my Books to Read list for a long time. I believe passionately in her argument that women shouldn’t be afraid to “lean in” and go after what they want. I also saw a tweet from the Lean In organization which posited the question: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” This was from Sandberg’s book, as well as an aphorism on her office wall. I also just learned that Lean In has begun using this as a campaign. It’s a great question, a very powerful one, and one that I believe we all need to ask ourselves more often.

Sandberg acknowledges that there are many factors that prevent women from achieving equality in the workplace — social structures, unjust legislation, etc. Yet she also argues that part of what holds women back is internal, and since this is something we can change in ourselves, this is what she chooses to focus on. Her book makes some really interesting observations on how we (perhaps unconsciously) hold ourselves back. For example, after giving a talk on gender equality, Sandberg is approached by a young woman who says she learned from the talk not to put her hand down. Near the end of the talk, Sandberg said she had time for only two more questions — all the women with their hands raised immediately put them down, whereas the men kept theirs raised, and so were called on. Sandberg was horrified that she, even given the topic of her talk, hadn’t noticed the gender disparity at the end. More importantly, however, she uses this example as a call to action for women: keep your hand raised, because even a manager attuned to gender issues may not notice you if you don’t.

The book is filled with many similar examples. As a woman, I found myself realizing how many of these behaviours I am guilty of myself. She makes the case for women needing to lean in more at the corporate table and for men needing to lean in more at the kitchen table — certainly a gender double standard that is slowly shifting, and yet still has a long way to go. She also notes the disparity in gender attitudes towards work, where women are more likely than men to hold themselves back on the off-chance that a higher position would interfere with future child-caring responsibilities.

Some of what she writes is good advice for the workplace in general. For example, she talks about the importance of mentors. She writes about how many young women have asked her to be their mentor, and how when giving a talk to a graduating class, a couple of male students asked about company strategy and a couple of female students asked about more personal things, including how to find a mentor. Sandberg cautions against looking for a mentor as if looking for Prince Charming. Women, she says, are taught from a young age to await rescue, and this is an attitude that needs to change. She does give a few tips on how to go about finding a mentor, but ultimately, it shouldn’t be seen through the lens of a Disney Princess.

Sandberg advocates for setting your own limits for a work-life balance. She gives the example of a company whose employees quit because they felt burned out, and yet the boss later noticed that all of these burned out employees had unused vacation days. As that boss told Sandberg, the company will always make demands of you; it’s the employee’s responsibility to set the limits on how much they are willing to do. Granted, that’s rather naive, particularly when needing to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet, but it’s still advice worth heeding.

I only wish Sandberg had delved deeper. Her arguments are primarily anecdotal, and therefore limited. Even her examples usually focus on public figures or people she knows personally, who are inevitably CEOs or other people in power. She acknowledges her privilege and admits that for women not in power, it may be more difficult to do the things she suggests. I agree with her argument that even with those circumstances, a drive to “lean in” may still be helpful; I only wish she’d included stories and anecdotes from women who haven’t yet achieved the top of the corporate ladder.

The book as well focused only on the challenges women with children faced. As a single woman without a desire to start a family anytime soon, I wish Sandberg had gone beyond arguing that a family life and a successful career aren’t mutually exclusive. What about the issues single women without children face in the workplace? I understand that this book is primarily anecdotal, but when coaching women to “lean in,” I expected some discussion about a wider range of circumstances that prevent women from doing so.

Sandberg does give one example on this subject, with a woman complaining that she has to pick up the slack because her co-workers’ time with their children takes precedence over her own free time. Unfortunately, that woman then continues by saying that her going to a party is just as important as her co-workers’ spending time with their kids, because it’s by going to parties that she can meet a man and then start her own family. In principle, I agree that her right to go to a party should be given as much respect as her co-worker’s right to attend a child’s soccer game. But again, why does the right to go to a party have to be justified by the desire to start a family?

Even when Sandberg tries to be inclusive, she maintains a very narrow view, and I can’t help but think of all the different voices that were left unheard. Single women, women of colour, women from a lower income bracket, and so on. Understandably, no one book can hope to encompass the full range of issues women face in the workplace. However, the core of Sandberg’s message is so powerful, and so important I think for women to heed, that I really wish she’d made more of an effort to represent more of women’s voices.

Review | Smile at Strangers, Susan Schorn

I remember the first time I tried karate. I have never been athletic, and admittedly, one of the appeals of karate class was the rather low-key way the teacher introduced me to the drills. I may not be able to do a jumping, spinning, flying back kick, but even unathletic, uncoordinated me is still perfectly capable of forming a fist and throwing a punch. And the kiai? I thought I could at least mask the wobbliness of my kicks with a karate yell loud enough to rattle windows.

Here’s the thing about karate: you stick at it long enough, you work at it hard enough, and you eventually realize that your body is actually beginning to change. And I don’t mean just getting fitter. Your moves actually get sharper — and more importantly, you’re aware of just how sharp they are and just how much sharper they ought to be. You become in tune with your body, aware of the slightest movements and aware of the slightest shifts in balance. There’s a line in Susan Schorn’s Smile at Strangers where she talks about a black belt’s unconscious grace. I don’t think I ever quite achieved that grace (alas, my natural klutziness has no cure), but I did have a taste of what she meant. And even now, when I see karateka perform, I marvel at the fluidity of movement, the sharpness of force, as beautiful as it can be deadly.

9780547774336Susan Schorn’s Smile at Strangers is a personal memoir of her life in karate. More than just a retelling of stories however, she organizes her book into kowa, Zen proverbs. Fall down seven times, get up eight. If you want to feel safe, be prepared to feel uncomfortable. You’re doing it all wrong, and that’s perfect. The best part about karate isn’t the physicality, but rather the mental preparedness the training instills. Schorn writes about her experiences in the dojo, but primarily to support what she has learned for life outside karate.

In the beginning of the book, Schorn wonders about the math behind “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” If you fall down only seven times, how can you be down an eighth in order to get up again? She eventually interprets it as an added emphasis on defiance. No matter what crap life throws at her, she is going to leap up fighting — and leap up fighting one extra time just for good measure. Later on, however, something happens that makes her realize that, while she was prepared for a battle in her own backyard, the real danger happened elsewhere, far beyond her control, and she was left to wonder what, exactly, she was readying herself to battle for.

As Schorn writes about her karate journey, and how karate classes have helped her deal with personal challenges, we see her progression, from a frightened, outwardly defiant person to a calmer, more confident one much more useful for battle. This isn’t to say that karate transformed her completely — as with my natural klutziness, Schorn still cannot escape certain fears and insecurities. But she does learn a lot, and she takes us on this journey with her.

I read this book from the perspective of someone who has learned quite a bit about karate. So when Schorn writes about how karate has better equipped her to deal with life, I completely understood. Her karate experience differed greatly from mine — she studied Kyokushin (a close fighting, full contact style) and at a women’s only dojo with a focus on self-defence. I started with Shotokan (long-range, point sparring), which is probably the furthest from Kyokushin stylistically, and even though I eventually ended up with a more mid-range style, it was still very different from Kyokushin. So I loved reading about her school’s approach to teaching karate.

Will this book resonate as much with someone who has never studied karate? I don’t know. But there is an especially striking scene that I think most of us, even non-karateka, can relate to. As part of their self-defence training, Schorn and her classmates were paired off, and one had to make a series of requests while the other could only say “No.”

“No,” I told her. “No. No. No. No. No. No.”

This would have been boring if the embarrassment weren’t so agonizing. “I hate this,” I thought; “I hate it so much I can feel it physically.” The sensation of saying “no” to another person’s face made me writhe internally, and it took all my energy not to squirm…

It occurred to me, somewhere around my twentieth “no,” that I had probably said the word more times in the preceding half-minute than I had in the preceding month. I thought back over all the times I could have said “no” and didn’t…

Repeated over and over, without explanation, without placating gestures, without apology, it formed an unassailable verbal wall made of just one brick, one tiny word: no. [pp 15 – 16]

How often have you wanted to say no but then acquiesced to be polite? We’re ingrained to want to please people, and there are people who take advantage. The mere training then, of developing the confidence to say “no,” is something I think many of us will find useful. And you don’t need a black belt to learn it.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Joy of X, Steven Strogatz

13356649I’m a nerd. The idea that math can be used to explain everything, including (from the book jacket) whether or not O.J. Simpson did it, or how many people it is optimal to date before settling down, appeals to me. I love patterns, and I love the idea that numbers can be applied in the most esoteric situations in real life.

So Steven Strogatz’s The Joy of X instantly appealed to me. Life, the universe and everything… How can math play a role in understanding all that? And while I’m sure mathematicians can give me various answers, I looked forward to reading about it as written for a layperson’s perspective, and to understanding just a bit of the wonder that math can present.

Unfortunately, this book made the joy of X even more of a mystery to me. Strogatz begins with fairly basic arithmetic, and uses images like rocks and dots to explain addition and subtraction. He writes: “This side of arithmetic is important, practical, and–for many people–joyless. The playful side of arithmetic is a lot less familiar, unless you were trained in the ways of advanced mathematics.” I presume then, that the Tetris-style patterns with rocks represents this more playful side, which appears to be minor tricks with basic functions.

On one hand, I see what he’s trying to do — by presenting even the most basic arithmetic functions in new ways, he’s prepping us for the way he’ll present the (presumably) more fun, more advanced mathematics, such as how to calculate O.J.’s guilt, later on. The problem is, even the first few chapters gave me a headache. The four basic functions are math we as adults are already familiar with, and quite frankly, the struggle to see it from Strogatz’s new, supposedly more playful, perspective, just doesn’t seem worth it.

The book began as a series of columns, and possibly because of this, each chapter is a minor topic in itself, barely leading on to the next one. The result is a fairly shallow overview of various math concepts, and Strogatz seems to try too hard to make the math interesting. He explains the concepts well enough, though I personally think he either overcomplicates or underexplains his topics, yet never quite answers the question: so what? And when each chapter is its own topic, and each chapter begins a new attempt to present an aspect of math in a new light, the repeated sense of “so what?” becomes frustrating.

I remember starting Brian Greene’s The Hidden Realityabout parallel universes. I still haven’t finished it, mostly because it started getting really complicated, and honestly I think I need to start from the beginning to make sense of it all again. But unlike Strogatz’s book, Hidden Reality shows a progression — Greene begins with a really simple, accessible example of parallel universes, then slowly delves deeper into the subject, and explores further into scientific concepts. It’s not an easy read, but the payoff will be worth it — Greene tackles a complex subject and gently takes the reader deeper and deeper into it.

In contrast, Strogatz sounds like the high school teacher desperately trying to convince his bored students that math is fun (cue big grin and exclamation point). I’m not saying that the math he covers is simple — on the contrary, I’m sure most of it, particularly in the later part of the book, is over my head. But I do want to understand, and I feel Strogatz’s approach keeps one firmly in the elementary level of understanding. I’m sure this wasn’t the author’s intention, but I generally found his tone condescending — no way we readers could understand these concepts, so here’s a funny little story to convince you that it’s F-U-N!

I didn’t finish the book, so I don’t know whether or not math says O.J. did it. I did see the chapter about how many people one should date before settling down. It all boils down to a formula, and despite Strogatz beginning with a concrete example, it still ends up being really abstract. By the end of the chapter, I have a general idea of the solution (spoiler alert: it’s nothing you couldn’t have guessed without math), and still no idea of how to calculate it or why I should even bother.

A mostly joyless, shallow exercise, this book is hardly worth the effort.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Butler Speaks, Charles MacPherson

coverI often wish I had a butler. Blame it on P.G. Wodehouse — who wouldn’t want a lovely man like Jeeves around to fix all the random scrapes you get yourself into? Take a look at Smithers from the Archie comics, or Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey. One of my favourite books of all time is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the DayButlers have always seemed almost otherworldly, mostly unseen and unheard, but somehow always around to keep things running smoothly.

In real life, of course, a butler is slightly beyond my budget. In real life, I open my own door and hang my guests’ coats. Which is probably why I end up rarely entertaining guests at all. After all, what if I forget the sugar bowl when setting out the tea tray? Or worse, introduce people to each other in the wrong way? Fortunately for the etiquette-clueless like myself, Charles MacPherson has written The Butler Speaks, a handy, comprehensive guide to etiquette and housekeeping.

In all seriousness, it can be rather intimidating to enter a fancy restaurant and have no clue how to act. I grew up in a private all girls school where one of our home ec classes featured a lesson on proper table setting, and which piece of cutlery goes with which dish. The idea was that as daughters of politicians, CEOs and the like, and as future powerhouses ourselves someday (an alumna of my school went on to become President of the Philippines), we may be placed in situations where we’d have to choose from a dozen spoons and forks, some important dignitary across the table from us, and we must know how to comport ourselves. (Pro tip: Start from the outside in.)

MacPherson’s book is full of good tips. Even if, like me, you’re more likely to have beer and nachos in a pub than caviar at a state dinner, it’s always good to know how to introduce your boss to a potential important stakeholder. At the very least, it’s a lovely treat to set out proper afternoon tea for your friends, and really create an experience of luxury. MacPherson even includes some historical information on the roles of servants within a household, which is fascinating to a Downton Abbey fan like myself.

Then of course, even more applicable since most of us don’t have servants at all, the book contains tips on vacuuming, doing laundry, cleaning floors, and other such household chores. All drudge work I doubt any of us cares for, but seriously, doing them to the standards of a proper butler is a fun exercise in the imagination — not only are they useful tips, but we can also use them to imagine ourselves into a Downton Abbey sort of life. We may be on Team Servant within the Downton Abbey set, but it’s still a bit more of an adventure than simply cleaning the house in between work days.

Just as a proper butler always appears presentable, the book itself is lovely. Simple illustrations and an understated gold and cream colour scheme reflect the elegance of MacPherson’s theme, and make this a butler of a book.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Inward Journey: The Life of Lawren Harris, James King

9781771022064Lawren Harris is my favourite Group of Seven artist. When I first moved to Canada, the three things I wanted to know were: what is Canadian food, what is Canadian literature, and what is Canadian art? I still remember the blank looks I’d get at the question about Canadian (not American!) food. Some blank stares as well with my other two questions, but inevitably, questions about Canadian art led to the Group of Seven. And while looking through images of Group of Seven works, I found myself always drawn to the works of Lawren Harris.

Later on, I would learn that he believed in theosophy, that he deliberately used light to direct one’s eye toward the divine. At the time, however, I just knew that I loved the cleanness of his lines and the starkness of his colours. His images were bold, graphic, compelling, and when I decided to buy a piece of art to hang on my wall, a framed poster of Lawren Harris’ Mt. Lefroy was the first thing I bought.

So when I learned that Thomas Allen was publishing a biography of Harris, the title went right on my TBR list. Inward Journey by James King is  an extensively researched, utterly comprehensive overview of Harris’ life. On one hand, it’s almost too comprehensive — in the author’s attempt to write the definitive text on the artist, the biography sometimes gets bogged down with details, and the narration seems more about providing information than about hooking the reader in.

On the other hand, while not a page-turner, at least for this reader, Inward Journey is a great resource for anyone wanting to find out about Harris’ life. King writes in an objective, journalistic style, presenting the facts of Harris’ life, his marital problems, his personality flaws and his fascination with theosophy, and withholding judgement. As well, King talks not just about Harris as an individual, but rather about the artist’s role within the context of the Group of Seven and the history of Canadian art. There’s a wealth of fascinating information in the book, and certainly, it’s great to see the extent of Harris’ influence on history.

The book itself as well is just a beautiful addition to the collection of any Lawren Harris fan. Printed on glossy paper with full colour reproductions of Harris’ paintings and other artworks throughout, Inward Journey is just a beautiful book, an invitation to flip through time and again, and just appreciate the works.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.