Sunday, April 15, 2007

MISSISSIPPI SISSY by Kevin Sessums (2007)

This memoir will make you laugh until you weep and then make you weep again. Sessums is a longtime contributing editor to VANITY FAIR and ALLURE and this first book has launched him to superstardom with its directness and moving prose.

Born in the south to an NBA player for the New York Knicks and his adorable wife, Sessums became the man of the house when his father was killed in a car crash when Kevin was only seven and then his mother died of cancer a year later. Kevin and his younger siblings Kim and Karole were raised by their maternal grandparents. To cope, Kevin divined an imaginary friend, a little Black girl he named Epiphany and chanelled Arlene Francis, his t.v. idol from What's My Line--that campy socialite who flounced about in evening gowns and wore a black silk eyemask dotted with diamond chips.

Sessums read at Harborfront last week and won me over with the authenticity of his voice. If you want to treat yourself, get yourself a copy of this book and watch the author emerge in this fine portrait of the artist as a young man.

BITTER CHOCOLATE by Carol Off (2006)

Subtitled INVESTIGATING THE DARK SIDE OF THE WORLD'S MOST SEDUCTIVE SWEET, Carol Off's foray begins with tracing the origins and lore of the cocoa craze in South America while revealing the exploitation that has always been part of the production of the treat. More recently, the complicity of Western governments and corporations that turn a blind eye to the child labour that makes cheap labour possible in Cote D'Ivoire (which produces nearly half of the world's cocoa beans) reveals the indentured servitude of thousands of young boys who have never tasted chocolate. Part history lesson, part expose of the multi-billion dollar industry, BITTER CHOCOLATE will shock you into never reaching for a Mars bar or Snickers or package of Smarties again.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

THE NAMING OF THE DEAD by Ian Rankin (2006)

Taking place in the days surrounding the G8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland in July 2005, the latest Rankin novel immediately had my attention because I had been in Edinburgh at the end of June that same year and witnessed the barricades being set up near Holyrood House and talked with shopkeepers who were considering boarding up windows along Princes Street.

Although the big show would be to protect the diplomats arriving for the official confab about making poverty history, with the focus on increasing aid to sub-Saharan Africa, the real show for Inspector John Rebus and his colleague Siobhan Clarke is a series of murders with clues left at the nearby Clootie well in Auchterarder. And, when an UK civil servant seems to leap to his death from the rampart at Edinburgh castle, the stakes increase. And, that's not all. Rebus's nemesis, the intimidating Ger Cafferty, seems to be implicated in back room dealings as well as paying off dirty cops.

Add Rebus's own personal loss of his only brother, Michael, at the beginning of the book, and you have a sophisticated mulit-layered tale of which Rankin is the master weaver. THE NAMING OF THE DEAD is not to be missed.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN by Claire Messud (2006)

Set in NYC in 2001 the novel follows three friends and their hangers-on throughout the summer and early fall. Things fall apart, the centre does not hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon their worlds, to bastardize W.B. Yeats. It's a little like a soap opera for a literary palate.

One t.v.-producing girlfriend is having an affair with her best friend's father, a famous writer. Another is a gay freelancer who pays the bills by temping and bedding his handsome boss who wears bespoke suits. An indulged Bryn Mawr princess who has never held a job in her life, moves back in with her parents in their lavish apartment overlooking the Park and then falls for an Australia anarchist who has great designs on conquering New York with his brilliantly conceived satirical magazine.

Add the loner, university dropout nephew who stirs every pot and leaves the extended circle of friends and relatives with their perplexed heads swivelling from side to side, and you've got Messud's version of modern society. Over indulged and over indulging. Though disappointed with the ending, up until the denouement, I didn't want to put this book down.