What I read in Fall 2010

What a refreshing thing, to write about books I’ve actually read instead of books I might read, one day.

September

  • Ann Patchett, Bel Canto (2001) – I wanted more from this but I’m not really sure on what level, or how I’d set my expectations in the first place. Maybe the best example I can think of for the technique Stephen King explains: don’t plot, just build a setting and let the story happen. Almost nothing happens in this book, in a sense, but the setting builds its own characters and the story comes out.
  • Ian Fleming, Casino Royale (1953) – Hooray, this was great and the best thing is that there are so many more, just like this.
  • Cliff Stoll, The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage (1989) – I’ve been working on a piece about computers that I will probably abandon. This was nice to read in the wake of Soul of a New Machine: the vague sense of dread that hung around that book came in clearly here. But it is also a memoir: the real day-to-day life of our protagonist, his understated little moral quandary, is what makes this more wonderful than just an “intriguing introduction to the futuristic world of international computer networking,” no matter how much fun that is on its own.
  • Nick Flynn, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (2004) – I read this in Surrey, looking after my mother’s dog for a week and finished on the night of my first lecture of my last course at SFU. And it is really good, a wonderful study of structure in memoir and in memory itself. I finished this at Steamworks – I wanted to have a beer and read a book every week after my class but I don’t actually like Steamworks very much.
  • Alice Munro, Who Do You Think You Are? (1978) – My annual Alice Munro short stories.
  • Jim Thompson, Savage Night (1953) – This was so short and I really had to fight with it. Not what I needed to read at that point in the month, the year.
  • Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride (1993) – I loved this. Something that I thought about w/r/t Wilderness Tips when I read it back in 2002 was the strangeness of Margaret Atwood as the major mainstream Canadian author when her books are so marginal. The reoccurance of what I would term “crystal people” – Charis, in this case – and this specific Toronto thing. But I would see that all as marginal – I’m from a different place. But it is a small slice of the country, I feel. Smaller than I ever imagined, growing up and knowing that Margaret Atwood was a big deal.

October

  • Russell Smith, How Insensitive (1994) – I loved this book no matter how sad it was. My friend Clea says that I’ll be really happy in my 30s and this little novel is all about that, the awful desperation of it all. I keep looking back, what I might have been doing in the world if I had not ended up in politics and I can see a path that looks something like this, the seriousness and total bleakness of being young in a big city.
  • Lorna Jackson, Cold-Cocked: On Hockey (2007) – The best hockey book I have ever read. Just what I wanted: someone to problematize the fan relationship, the fe/male gaze, the cult. Not from a critical perspective but as a fan, someone who loves hockey and loves the team and loves the players and asks why. An honest personal memoir of a really smart writer who knows how stupid hockey is and how stupid it is to be a hockey fan. The part of my life in which I exercise the least agency is the part of my life where I am a hockey fan and I’ve never before read a book that understood that.
  • William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2003) – What a downer. I’d been led to expect so much more, something spy/something perceptive/something that might tell me something, anything. But it is a badly-plotted spy story padded with reheated Adbusters theory. There was lots I wanted to like but the last thing you ever want from a spy story is to be cheated at the end and that’s how I felt!
  • Alan Furst, Night Soldiers (1988) – I was reading this forever. Two weeks? I can’t remember what happens but I can recall the time periods and the map: Bulgaria, Spanish Civil War, Paris, Vichy France. Again, the maxim to write scene, not plot; what does it mean when all I can recall is scene, not plot? I finished this in my room at the Empress hotel in Victoria.
  • Russell Smith, Young Men (1999) – Just as with How Insensitive, I didn’t read this as having any “comic potential” or as “terribly funny” but rather as really depressing. Which, as with all of it, says more about me than about Russell Smith.
  • Paul Auster, Leviathan (1992) – I can’t remember a thing about this now. I do remember reading it at Granville Island on a Saturday at the end of October and I also remember reading it at a club on Granville St, drinking beer and waiting for the Grapes of Wrath.

November

  • Dean Wareham, Black Postcards: A Rock and Roll Romance (2008) – Luna was a ‘utility band,’ a band that seemed to always have a new record and always come to town on a two-to-three years cycle and always had a pile of mid-‘90s albums on the rack at Charlie’s Music City on Granville. Especially Pup Tent, for some reason. But this is Dean Wareham’s memoir of the whole Luna story and his own take on the whole Galaxie 500 story and it fills in the texture of a whole run of otherwise faceless records that I’m suddenly listening to all the time. And somehow there is also this whole new window on what was going on in the 1990s, what someone my age now might have known then.
  • Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero (1985) – Oh man what a bleak grind of a book.
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter In The Dark (1938) – There’s almost nothing about this that I remember, aside from the hockey scene and the fact that since I finished this I have not been back to the Whip, where I read at least part of every book I finished this summer. It’s been cold and dark and now I’m working 12 hour days in New Westminster. I’ll go back next summer, a bright summer patio.
  • Anthony Swofford, Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles (2003) – Gulf War lit; nothing really happens. I read this fast and finished it at St Augustine’s between periods of a hockey game.
  • Simon Winchester, Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire (1985) – What a wonderful thing. The sad end of empire, and in a sense a show-up of what a ridiculous plan it always was, anyway.
  • Matt Cohen, Elizabeth and After (1999) – My favourite novel of the fall. Just what you need; small town Ontario and family history and it’s paint-by-numbers, maybe, but sometimes it is just what you need.
  • Teri Hein, Atomic Farmgirl: Growing Up Right in the Wrong Place (2000) – Another entry in my ongoing history of hazardous waste and the Hanford site in Washington state. But also another fascinating study of structure in memoir and memory. Just enough nuclear history to shade the day-to-day family story in the colours of the Cold War.

December

  • Duff Wilson, Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret (2001) – This was better than Atomic Farmgirl in that it is more lurid but also in how matter-of-fact it is about the commonly accepted practice of relabeling toxic waste as fertilizer and selling it to farmers. The best parts are the explorations into the state-by-state regulatory regimes and how they are developed in plain sight but without any attention. This is actually how things tend to work.
  • Alvah Simon, North To The Night: A Spiritual Odyssey in the Arctic (1998) – This was really wonderful, the trip to and from a frozen bay in the Canadian north, one guy alone with a cat in a small boat.
  • Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000) – I read this to and from Lonsdale, meeting my dad at a pub to watch a hockey game. And also to New Westminster and back, meeting my mom and aunt and sister for dinner. Kinda like Black Postcards – I haven’t read very much by Stephen King but now I have a texture for everything he’s done.
  • J.M. Coetzee, Slow Man (2005) – What a miserably frustrating book. I yelled at it: ‘what are you doing? What are you even trying to do here?’ But I can’t imagine what I’d be if all I read were spy novels and journalist accounts of toxic waste scandals.
  • John le Carre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) – I took a ‘Philosophy of Art’ class with my friend Rich at SFU in 2002 and in the textbook there was a chapter titled “What is Going On in a Dance?” and more than anything else from that course, that question stuck with me. So I ask: what is going on in a spy novel? I explained this book again to my dad as the anti-Bond, the spy book where only one person dies and only two bullets are fired and the whole story takes chapters and chapters to unspool and only then, when it’s out, do you even get to why: why spy?
  • John le Carre, The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) – I finished this in January but I’ll explain it here. Not as good as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, either in plot or in structure. There is this deliberate foreshadowing thing that does not work. I once read a take on le Carre: that he manages to completely unravel as soon as a pretty woman walks through his plots. I’ve never noticed it before now but there it is: the catalysts in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are not necessarily rational but they are understandable. The catalysts here are not only irrational but unbelievable. I read this on the bus and the ferry, to and from Victoria on New Years Eve.

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