- Robert X. Cringely, Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date (1992) – Another entry in my series on the secret history of computers in America. The author is apparently a pen name for a series of writers that wrote a gossip column in the magazine InfoWorld. Reading this 20 years after publication is a thrill; the book itself is as interesting as what it describes.
- Don DeLillo, Mao II (1991) – The last time I read this was in 2005, in part on a day trip to Golden Ears in Maple Ridge. Rev. Sun Myung Moon died this month and all I could think of was the opening scene, “marching into American sunlight.”
- Trevor Paglen, Dark Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World (2010) – I read this in part at Youbou, looking up at the clear sky and thinking about amazing secret satellites, the ‘Other Night Sky.’ I thought this would be a Lone Gunman style list of secret things but it’s even better than that. There’s a wonderful chapter on privatisation and contracting out in US intelligence services and it ends with a brutal chapter, “Screaming their heads off, in the dark, around the world” about the dark geography (what a term!) of torture under George W Bush, both literally, in cells and prisons, and figuratively, under the law and in Congress.
- John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (2004) – Dark Spots On the Map also included two chapters about US operations in Central America through the 1980s which reminded me that for some reason I put this book aside in 2010, after reading the first 20 pages over lunch at Sushiyama. My time at SFU through 2001-2005 left me deadened to anything about American foreign policy was but I’ve had enough space to think about all of this again, without the weight of terrible reactionary feature stories in The Peak from 21-year-old poli-sci students in the way. This book is really great, as much a memoir as a denunciation.
- Joan Didion, Salvador (1983) – I read this quickly in 2009 but the context of the previous three books deepened it this time. A perfectly horrifying little slice of history.
- Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty (2005) – I needed a change from the American empire and this was perfect, the second novel I read this year billed as “an elegy to the 1980s” but rather than married life in financial New York, this is gay life in London under Thatcher. A beautiful novel and one of the best things I read this year. A novel with perfect heft.
- Dan Balz and Haynes Johnston, The Battle For America: The Story of an Extraordinary Election (2010) – my third recounting of the 2008 campaign, framed now by the 2012 campaign. Still striking to consider that Obama may never be on another ballot, may never headline another rally, and is already, arguably, drifting away.
- Steve Paikin, The Dark Side: The Personal Price of a Political Life (2003) – Ontario-centric, sure, but a really wonderful set of anecdotes about the bad end of politics. Since I quit my job at Purdy’s Chocolates in 2004, I haven’t worked outside of politics and one of the most useful guiding thoughts I’d held onto is the belief that I will have little, if any, control over how I end up leaving this line of work.
- Bob Rae, From Protest to Power: Personal Reflections on a Life in Politics (1996) – This is Bob Rae’s first memoir, written just after he left power in Ontario and it’s been unread on my shelf for 10 years. It’s a fascinating story, both for the situations presented and the ultimate end, now in 2012. So much I didn’t know about Bob Rae! It all makes so much more sense now.
- Paco Underhill, The Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping (2004) – As I child, I remember going to malls, then hating malls, then working in a mall, and now walking wide-eyed and fascinated through the old malls in my new Victoria home. This is written as a-day-in-a-mall and it’s about so much more than malls. One lesson: don’t take anything for granted; there are little truths in everything.
- Helen MacInnes, Decision at Delphi (1960) – Like a big warm blanket. I read this in high school, twice; for some reason, I picked it off the shelf at the library and loved it. It’s the same as every other little boom I’ve read by Helen MacInnes – ordinary people in extraordinary events, a form of the ‘cozy catastrophe’ that John Wyndham was accused of – but for the lovely context of the post-WWII civil war in Greece. There are little bits of espionage in here but the real story is about history and politics. I read this in a weekend at Youbou, just before the by-election was called.
- John D’Agata, About A Mountain (2010) – I still struggle with how to read during a campaign. I spent a month working on the Victoria federal by-election and only managed to read this one book. I didn’t like it but that may be a function of the campaign, rather than the book. I still can’t believe I didn’t like this; it’s about everything I like to read about: Las Vegas, nuclear waste, ‘how it all fits together’ but I think it’s an overreach. The author just doesn’t make it work.
- Chip Ward, Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West (1999) – This is similar but better, because the target is lower. “Not just a memoir but a manual for citizen activism” it says, and that’s true, in part. This is about the resistance to building a nerve gas incinerator in Utah and it was interesting to compare a book I read in 2009 about the same situation in Anniston, Alabama. The latter tried too hard to tell me what a big deal it all was but a nerve gas incinerator sensationalizes itself. This is closer in spirit to my favourite ‘pollution in the American West’ book, “Fateful Harvest” about hazardous wastes being ‘recycled’ into fertilizer in Washington state.
- Alice Munro, Friend of my Youth (1990) – My annual Alice Munro book, as good as ever.
- Simon Winder, The Man who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond (2006) – I was conflicted about Skyfall, as I am about all the good James Bond movies. In a sense, the bad ones are easier to deal with; Die Another Day and Moonraker were just bad, move on, nothing to worry about. But when Bond is good there’s a lot to consider: empire, for one, and in this specific case the question of accountability in intelligence services. Ultimately, Skyfall made the case for an intelligence service fully divorced from the citizens of the modern state – except for, presumably, its ability to act against them. Which is a perfect message for the current Bond, a sort of fascist-thug-Bond. Hooray, hooray, here’s a book that deals with all of these wonderful doubts and ambiguities I feel, cheering in the audience for a soldier of the Commonwealth.
- Dave Cullen, Columbine (2010) – I bought this in the summer, not sure if I would ever end up reading it but it was suddenly all I could read after the school shooting in Connecticut. An exhaustive and amazing piece of journalism – not just ‘what happened’ but what happened after, and how people got it wrong. As much an analysis of the coverage and reaction and slow understanding as of the shooting itself; the most amazing feedback loops of kids, in the school, learning about the situation first from CNN, then being interviewed later, on camera, and knowing only what they’d heard from the same news channel hours before. In telling a specific story, every detail of one situation and its facets over 10 years, the broader implications are clear: this is, more than anything, an example of ’show, don’t tell’ in action.
- Paul Theroux, The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain (1983) – I was ready to read this after the James Bond book, a tour through the end of an empire, and I didn’t realize at first how true that was. Paul Theroux travels the coast of Great Britain by train, but he does it in the shadow of the war in the Falklands, from start to finish, and crafts a little story of ‘life during (phony) wartime.’
- Ellen Ullman, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents (1997) – I found this on the shelf at Russell Books; the book I’d been looking for and I didn’t even know it existed. On the back, it says “a little masterpiece” and yes, that is true. What a perfect little book about computers and growing old and working in the world.
- Nick Flynn, The Ticking is the Bomb (2010) – I think we are finally approaching a point of reckoning with regards to the George W Bush years, without the ‘No Blood For Oil’ and ‘Bush is a Moron’ sloganeering in the way. Exit the pundits and enter the historians or, in this case, the poets. This book is amazing – an impressionistic ‘life during wartime’ and all the more remarkable for not being a story of being in war at all, but trying to come to grips with what is being done, outside of ‘war’ proper, through the dark geography of law and prison in the name of security.
- Joan Didion, Blue Nights (2011) – I put off reading this for almost two years, somehow thinking that I knew what it would be and that I didn’t really need to read it anyway. Through 2009 I read a lot of Joan Didion; maybe too much, so that in 2012 I felt as though I’d been there, done that, moved on, and didn’t need to bother anymore. Which is obviously untrue. There’s a certain level of impressionism here too: in the details and the repetition is a larger frame that the smaller elements serve almost as a distancing device.
- Katie Hafner and John Markoff, Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier (1991; 2nd ed. 1995) – From the subtle business histories to what might be the first major computer panic book, my ongoing secret history of computers in America. This is absurdly sensationalized but, again, instructive as much for what it is as for what it describes.