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Cake or Death: The Excruciating Choices of Everyday Life

by Heather Mallick

In her latest book, former Globe and Mail columnist Heather Mallick offers her characteristically outspoken and unapologetic opinions on this mess we call modern life.

Her perspective, in these previously unpublished essays, is that the world has gone to pot, as evidenced by such calamities as sweatshops, Bush’s re-election, Stephen Harper’s election, the plight of kidnapped children in the Sudan, obese Americans, Abu Ghraib, and, of course, poorly made shoes. This sad state of affairs makes her melancholic and gloomy, but she manages her ennui with such coping mechanisms as obsessively cleaning her well-appointed home, travelling to Paris, staying in posh hotels, and buying expensive designer clothes.

Many readers will likely find it hard to sympathize or even relate to Mallick’s brand of ivory-tower angst. While she is a clever writer, adept at making witty turns of phrase (“But I am in a trough of melancholy, like a wet trench in the First World War”), her writing does not convey wisdom. She attempts to be revealing, confessing embarrassing and humiliating moments – such as vomiting on a dinner plate and on her husband’s leg in a hotel, or compulsively cleaning the exterior of her house when she has writer’s block ­– but in the end she actually says very little about herself that is of interest or that transcends her own privileged bourgeois experience.

For example, a rant about the Brookstone mail-order catalogue details her disdain for ridiculous products they sell (electronic pool sharks, for example) without offering any insight into her own penchant for consumerism or its role in our culture. Another story details the challenge of staying in a luxurious hotel inconveniently surrounded by a slum in Kolkata, India. Another simultaneously derides Botox culture while bristling at what Mallick sees as the inherent ugliness of people.

Good comedy is about laughing at the experiences that make us essentially human, not at what makes us merely fashionable or unfashionable. If a writer is going to offer up bits of her life for insight or inspiration, she has to go deep. Unfortunately, for Mallick the well seems very shallow.