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Alison Pick may well be the best contemporary writer in Canada today.

Nay, in North America.

NAY! In the world.

I'm serious.

Okay, semi-serious. But I'm trying to make a point.

I read a lot. Approximately 100 books a year. And I don't tend to bother reviewing them because A) I'm not a reviewer anymore, and B) Most of them suck.

Alison Pick's books do not suck.

Back in 2005, when I was still working for the wonderful Dose, I did a brief email interview with Pick about her first novel: The Sweet Edge. I remember thinking at the time how shockingly well-written it was, how smart, how intertextual, how emotionally compelling, how beautiful, sad and true. Of course, the piece I wrote for the paper didn't really convey any of that. It was seriously dumbed down. (Part of my job description at the time. Ugh.)

Since The Sweet Edge, I've been eagerly awaiting Pick's next work of fiction. I have all her poetry, which is great, but I was hankering for a novel. And finally, it arrived.

It arrived in the form of Far to Go, a heartbreaking bit of historic fiction that tells the story of one Jewish Czech family's experience during (and after) the Munich Agreement and Germany's annexing of Czechoslovakia. 

It's hard to find the right way to describe the book. At first (once I twigged on to the subject matter), I was wary. I didn't want to read one more overwrought, capitalizing, not-very-effective book about the Holocaust. (Why do so many mediocre writers think that subject matter can save them?) I shouldn't have worried. Pick's book isn't anything like those weak, contrived attempts. It's completely authentic. And as a result, completely unsetting.

It's not really fair of me to complain. I was warned. Says the story's post-modern narrator: "I wish this were a happy story. A story to make you doubt, and despair, and then have your hopes redeemed so you could believe again." The quote is right on the jacket.

Far to Go is not a happy story. That said, I couldn't put it down. I actually tried a few times. As I read through it, section by section, I tried to take breaks. I tried to rest my tense muscles and my acidic, anxious gut. But I couldn't stop. I had to know what happened. I had to know what was going to happen.

And ultimately, I think that's what this book does perfectly. Without getting into life at the camps, and leaving out a lot of really horrifying details, it nonetheless both describes and inspires that feeling of needing to know, needing to understand.

In the end, I don't want to say I liked Far to Go better than The Sweet Edge. It's just too raw. But it may well be a better book.

Would I recommend it to just anyone? No. Nathan, for example, with his family history and personal closeness to the Holocaust, might find it be a bit too much. (Though he plans to give it a try.) My parents, also, are resistant to this kind of text and would likely find it too focussed on the imagined individual and lacking in political history.

But if someone were to come to me and say, "I need a really good book. A really affecting, really well-written, really engaging book," and I knew they could handle it, I'd say,
"I have just the thing."

 
 
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I've written an extensive post about my recent trip to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York already (for work), but I thought I'd throw up a short review here too, just because. Because I felt like it. Because I was in the mood.

And because the exhibit -- Why Design Now? --  was so darn inspiring.

First of all, we got into the show for free! The usual entry cost is something like $16 USD, but it so happened that they were letting folks in for free during the exact week of our trip. Thanks to New York Magazine for letting us know about the deal. (If you go to NYC for fun, pick up a copy of the mag while you're there. It's a great resource and will tell you about stuff that real New Yorkers do - as opposed to the usual tourist things.)

Audio tours were also free (as long as you have a decent photo I.D. to surrender in exchange for an iTouch). The audio tours really made all the difference. There was a lot to see and take in and being able to hear the artists speak and watch videos about how the products worked really helped me process it all.

Without the iTouch, I would have felt burnt out much sooner and would have missed a lot of great stuff about the exhibit, like this amazing, solar-powered sun shade that is both a lamp and an umbrella and opens and closes itself like a flower:
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SunShade, prototype. Lianne van Genugten (Dutch, b. 1984), Lianne van Genugten Product Design. The Netherlands, 2009–10. Aluminum, polypropylene, flexible solar cells, nylon, LED light, acrylate. Courtesy of designer. Image from Cooper-Hewitt website.
 
But inspiration aside, here's the thing that struck me most about Why Design Now?:

The glaring question of WHY  these products AREN'T being made. Why are they mere prototypes? Why are so few of them actually available. WHY!? Imagine "invisible" solar street lights, environmentally friendly resins that mimic plastic, paper made of sheep's poo, biodegradeable food containers that can be microwaved and reused, silk that is harvested without killing the silk worm. Imagine it. See it. Read and hear about how possible and tangible it could be. And then ask yourself, as I did, WHY we aren't taking advantage of it, right now.

The glum, jaded skeptic in me thinks that the sad truth is that ethics don't sell. Many of these products mean consuming fewer resources, and frankly, spending less money. And the corporate machine doesn't want us to do that. Innovations like these mean change, and big companies and bullshit superstores don't like change. They live to preserve and growing the business they've already got. Who cares if we're all destroying the world, exploiting other cultures and making a market for sweat-shop labour, right? Sigh.

Why Design Now? is not really now, unfortunately. And that is a depressing thought.

Still, on the bright side, it's a great exhibit if you're interested in sustainability, design and innovation and a nice change from what you'll see at many big museums and galleries in New York. And maybe it will remind you of what is possible. If more of us got on board, we might actually be able to move forward and make real products instead of mere prototypes. It could all be very exciting. :)