What I read – May, June 2013



  • Ann Patchett, State of Wonder (2011) – The last of my campaign novels. I read a lot of this on the bus, or late at night, waiting for it all to finish. Then it was over, we lost, and I rushed to finish the book when we got to Harrison Hot Springs the following weekend because I was done with it and everything else. There is a solid readable book here but it felt wholly inconsequential – exactly as Robin described when she read it in March. Although, months after I read it I found a review that raised an interesting question of gender that I did not remark on in May. The bit players are men – including the naïve/ingénue/MacGuffin at the supposed core of the plot, the dead doctor they have to save from the jungle – while the protagonist/antagonist are women drawn in full flesh and complexity. The difficulty of reading a novel about white scientists examining a tribe of brown people in the jungle was clear and present but I chose to suspend the question for the duration.
  • Paul Auster, Winter Journal (2012) – I think I’d forgotten about this book until I found it at Book Warehouse and I read it right away, when we were in Harrison and I needed something completely different. This is a memoir in the second person – “profoundly beautiful” and “evoking the liminal, almost supernatural corners of life.”
  • Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, All The President’s Men (1974) – I’ve seen the film four or five times but just bought the book this spring. So much of what exists about Nixon and Watergate is written in hindsight but this is the blow-by-blow, full of false starts and dead ends. A detective story and full of detail about telling a changing story over time through the strange medium of a daily newspaper. As much as I know the Watergate what, the how of the book was new to me.
  • Alice Echols, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Popular Culture (2010) – I thought I would stay with the 1970s, from Nixon to Disco. I ordered this paperback from Amazon after I found a hardcover copy at Book Warehouse last year and I’m glad I did because I’ve never seen another copy. About disco but more about the cultural effect of it all: disco in context. Exactly what I want from a book about music, and just what I was promised from a disco book written by a lesbian DJ/english prof.

She calls this song, from 1972, the first disco song. The lyrics alone are amazing – ‘Why march in picket lines / Burn bras and carry signs? / Now I’m for women’s rights / I just want equal nights’ – which sounds straight counter-revolutionary – but ‘you can fight society / just don’t fight lovin’ me’ and there is something more sly or more sinister or maybe simply comic going on. But the key to disco is in the breakdown – at 3:44 the song drops out and builds up slowly from the guitar riff over another four minutes – and apparently it started here.


  • Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up And Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (2005) – I found this at the old Kitsilano PulpFiction in 2011 when I was working across the street on the Point Grey by-election. An aspirational purchase – I know a lot about a couple of these bands while I know a very little or nothing about most of them and the ‘era’ has always been a monolith. A sense I’ve always had that things I haven’t heard are impenetrable and secret. At one point that was true about all the bands in this book – secret 7” records and tapes and zines and a secret history that informed the mystique. But now it’s all on YouTube. I read this book next to my laptop, listening to every song and record and Top of the Pops clip as it rushed past. To imagine if I was 15 again, reading about bands and wondering and it was all there – question asked, question answered – is hard to do. YouTube would have saved me a lot of money, at least. But beyond the music, this is a wonderfully creative, rigorous, and vibrant piece of history – how were people making music, sharing music, challenging music in these years?

P.I.L. is on the cover and serves as the frame for the book – beginning, middle, and end – and I’d never heard this song before!

  • Douglas Coupland, Shampoo Planet (1992) – Rip It Up was immersive – I needed to listen as I read so I left it at home so as to not miss anything – and while I read it fast I still needed something else so I started this, to read in bars or over lunch. I bought this in 2012 from Russell Books after looking at it repeatedly at Vancouver bookstores after reading Generation X 12 years ago. I should have read it then – either I’m too old now or it’s too old – 21 years! But no one told me that it is essentially set in a very thinly disguised Richland, next to the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state. There’s a lot that is good here but it is hard to distinguish, 20 years later.
  • Brian Fawcett, Virtual Clearcut, or The Way Things Are in My Hometown (2003) – One of my favourite scenes in Shampoo Planet is set in a British Columbia forest so I brought this along to read on a weekend in Youbou, which was built around a sawmill. I took this from the Student Society in 2005, I think, where it must have been a discarded review copy from The Peak. I read it in April 2007 and was thrilled – memoir and history and BC. In 2008 I read three more books by Brian Fawcett and was briefly fascinated with his routine. Since then I’ve read a lot more about history and memoir and BC and it isn’t quite so revelatory but this is still one of my favourite BC books. What is really going on in a clearcut? Or in a small town in the 1990s? Or in any town, at the end of the century?
  • Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Culture (2007) – This book is not too smart for me at all, despite worrying when I bought it in 2010 that I might need to go back to a cultural theory reader by the middle. It’s just about records. Or, conversely, I know more about cultural theory than I tend to admit. This is terrific – it’s as good as I wanted it to be after reading the table of contents:
  1. Where did you sleep last night? : Nirvana, Leadbelly, and the allure of the primeval
  2. Nobody’s dirty business : folk, blues, and the segregation of Southern music
  3. T.B. blues : the story of autobiographical song
  4. Heartbreak Hotel : the art and artifice of Elvis Presley
  5. Sugar sugar : faking it in the age of singer-songwriters
  6. Tonight’s the night : Neil Young and being “more real”
  7. Love to love you baby : disco and the mechanization of music
  8. Public image : punk’s paradoxes of authenticity
  9. ¿Y tú, qué has hecho? : the re-creation of cultural authenticity
  10. Play : Moby, the KLF, and the ongoing quest for authenticity.

Every time they say ‘This is what KLF is about’ it gets a little more confusing. 

  • Charlotte Gill, Eating Dirt: My Life among the Tree-Planting Tribe (2011) – Away from music and theory and back to the forests and theory of BC. This is wonderful and an excellent counterpart to Virtual Clearcut. One of my favourite BC books.
  • C.S. Giscombe, Into and Out of Dislocation (2000) – One of my favourite genres, ‘travel/memoir’ but in this case it’s not some horrible Paul Theroux visiting locals-as-curio but a poet/professor from Illinois who gets a grant to write a book in Prince George, where he may/may not have ancestry in BC through John Robert Giscome, a black Jamaican who went north at the end of the 1800s. This is about black men in BC, traveling in the Cariboo, riding bicycles, and a poet named Barry McKinnon, who is one of the Prince George writers that hung out with Brian Fawcett over the years in Virtual Clearcut and hangs out with the author again here. The smallest, most secret history of BC I’ve read.

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