What I read – July, August 2013



  • Ken Silverstein, The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and his Homemade Nuclear Reactor (2004) – I finished Into and Out of Dislocation while we spent the Canada Day weekend in Port Angeles and read this little book in a day while we waited to take the Coho back to Victoria after buying it the day before at a very nice bookshop in town.
  • John Findlay and Bruce Helvy, Atomic Frontier Days: Hanford and the American West (2011) – I found this book at the same shop, Port Book and News, which is nice because I didn’t even know it had been written. I read On the Home Front, the first Hanford history, in 2009; this is far better. On the Home Front is a technical history, largely written from information was then-newly declassified; Atomic Frontier Days locates Hanford in a broader context – Hanford as federal enclave; Richland as Atomic City of the West; and Hanford as a new frontier, just as Western as any pioneer myth that had come before.
  • Frederick Turner, Of Chiles, Cacti, and Fighting Cocks: Notes on the American West (1990; expanded 1996) – I was ready for something very solemn and true about the American West after reading about Hanford’s place within the myth but I should have finished Something in the Soil by Patricia Nelson Limerick instead, which I read most of in 2009. This is good, quite good in parts, but it lacks an edge, or an aggression perhaps, that I want in history. I read a lot of this at Beacon Hill Park, watching ducks.
  • Paul Bowles, The Spider’s House (1955) – And now for something completely different: a big novel about Morocco and the colonial wane in North Africa after the end of the war. I read a lot of this on the rocks below Dallas Road, across from my apartment building, drinking beer and watching waves. As with The Sheltering Sky, I enjoyed this but I preferred the long setup to the entropic denouement. I need to read more but I feel he’s trapped at a midpoint, rejecting the colonial system and scornful of its remaining supporters but not entirely past his own orientalism. Maybe it’s nihilism: the occupiers are vapid and finished; the natives aren’t ready; let it all burn.
  • Alain de Botton, Essays in Love (1993) – I don’t know if this is a formal novel or if he’s written this as memoir; in either case, I never want to date this guy. He’s awful and he makes me glad for being as old as I am and for never having to be young again. On balance, I enjoyed this and read it quickly.  The most redeeming aspect is how he’s written each chapter: a series of numbered paragraphs. It’s a glib mechanism but it applies a structure and rigor that I appreciated.
  • Curtis Gillespie, Almost There: The Family Vacation, Then and Now (2012) – I brought a set of books up to Youbou for a the start of a 10-day session and started with this, for which I clipped a review from the Globe and Mail in 2012 and happily found on the cheap rack at Book Warehouse this summer. I’d be interested to know more about the editing; did he deliver a book of vacation anecdotes and was sent back to add some heft or did he deliver a book of sober tourism theory and was told that it would only sell as a collection of vacation anecdotes? I was hoping for the tourism theory and was far happier with the anecdotes threaded through than I expected. I read this in a day and will go back to it soon.
  • Philip Connors, Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout (2011) – I read this the next day at Youbou. A quick and serious journal of a season in a  New Mexico wildfire lookout.



  • Jon Krakauer, Into The Wild (1996) – Robin read this the day before I did at Youbou and it was a thrill to discuss the same book in the same week. We’d just watched Everest at the IMAX, which followed a common trope of celebrating the heroism and valour of mountain climbers rather than noting it as a hobby like anyone else’s, albeit more expensive and potentially much more draining on everyone else’s time. We were both happy that this quest ‘into the wild’ was treated as quixotic rather than a selfless or heroic act but the chapter examining why young men do this was curiously unexplored – the conclusion seemed to be that this was simply a ‘young man’ thing, to go off into the woods half-cocked, driven to some strange ascetic end, but that’s a cop out. To raise a question of gender and conclude by saying that “hey, it’s just a guy thing!” is disappointing. But we both enjoyed this; there have been follow up articles this year that I mean to read and further explore.
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord Of The Rings – We left Youbou for the weekend but came back the next week for a few more days. I brought other books but finally decided to reread these, which I did in those few more days. I’m glad I did and I’ll write more about it soon.

                                 The Fellowship Of The Ring (1954)

                                The Two Towers (1954)

                               The Return of the King (1955)

  • J.G. Ballard, Crash (1973) – I started this before we left for Youbou after buying it on the Munro’s cheap shelf but I left it behind and finished it when we got home. It’s just smut! Robot smut or snuff smut or just plain car smut maybe., and weirdly sterile for all of that. I don’t need to read this ever again but I was impressed with the focus and purpose.
  • Richard Ford, Women With Men (1997) – I keep reading books by Richard Ford and I keep enjoying them. I got this for a dollar when a horrible dank old bookstore was closing down on Johnston St. last summer. Three long stories, of which the first and third, both set in Paris, caught me.
  • Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street (1989) – What went on in the 1980s and how does it affect what we’re doing in the world today and should I have read more about this years ago, maybe especially before I read Brightness Falls? I took some time reading this – the prose is quick and easy and it would have been easy to gloss over what I didn’t understand because the context was clear enough to go past but I wanted to understand what this was all about: what happened to mortgages and trading and how does this all work anyway? I don’t know it all now but I know more than I did before. Less of a secret history than the underpinnings to a very public history.
  • Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall (2002) – What a marvelous book; I’ve been looking for a copy for years and I’m glad I took the time. This is different from The File by Timothy Garton Ash. It’s better and more aware – his book is his own story and while it’s gripping in its own right, this has empathy and draws a more intimate story that explains more through its closeness than a broader history might. She’s written this though memoir – her own discovery of these people and their stories as a thread and structure. I read this on the way to and from Seattle to see My Bloody Valentine when I was listening to old Heidi Berry records over and over. What a beautiful book.
  • Jonathan Raban, Waxwings (2003) – The ‘human predicament in the new millennium’ as told via Important Novel set in Seattle. I was ready to hate this for the same reasons that I was unsure about Stanley Park: instant zeitgeist; hyper-local cliché; too strident; self-important. But it was good; by the end it was very good, and it didn’t resolve, and there was no crescendo. I’m glad that I read this.
  • Lorrie Moore, Birds Of America (1998) – I didn’t like this and I regret that because if I’d read it years ago I would have been much happier. I’ve brought this on a few trips as backup (ultimately just ballast) ‘knowing’ (read: expecting) that no matter what I could read this and be happy. When I was reading Bill Gaston short story collections in 2006 this would have been a revelation. Now I read it as trite and tedious. Kinda the worst of what I imagine when I think of modern-American-clever-fiction. That’s meaner than I mean to be somehow – it was a fast and relatively enjoyable read. Waxwings was better than I thought it might be and subsequently this was worse.
  • Wayde Compton, After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region (2010) – I think I went to a launch party for this book with my friend Renee in 2010 and I’ve had a copy since then or slightly after but I only got around to looking at it closely this summer, after reading Into and Out of Dislocation. I enjoyed reading this but for the full-text citations which I found distracting and really difficult  to read past and around. A perfect little book about BC and Vancouver.
  • Ivan Vladislavic, Portrait With Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked (2006) – This is a perfect book, a striking and amazing book about a city I’ve never been to and probably will never visit. 137 distinct pieces over 183 pages, loosely looped together into ‘point A’ and ‘point B’ and listed, at the back, into further loose thematic cycles: ‘Security,’ and ‘Walls,’ and ‘Safe and sound,’ and ‘Body language.’ Some of these have been previously published as discrete packages. They are listed here as alternate ‘thematic passages’ through the text. I didn’t know about this book but I found it on the shelf at PulpFiction – ‘oh, a little book about a city I don’t know’ – and now yet another reason to always look inside a bookstore, any bookstore, because this book might be there on the shelf.


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4 responses to “What I read – July, August 2013

  1. I think I watched most or all of the movie version of Crash. James Spader, maybe? Not sure what the point was.

    I can’t see a search function – I’d like to know your thoughts on Stanley Park. I finished it thinking it was fast, fun fiction, and that was it. Kind of like Nikolski.

    I like the idea of reading explorations of cities you won’t get to. I used to love reading Lonely Planet guides to countries I wasn’t likely going to visit anytime soon.

    On a slightly different note, one of my favourite things to do is find a novel that is situated in a city I am visiting, and see how my interactions with the city relate to what happens in the book.

    • Here’s what I had to say about Stanley Park at the time, from May 2012: https://notesonreading.wordpress.com/2012/09/23/what-i-read-in-summer-2012/ . Fast, fun fiction is fair, and I think of it more fondly now than I did for the first 100 pg.

      Yes, James Spader was in David Cronenberg’s version of Crash in 1995, I think. I haven’t seen it and after reading the book I have no interest.

      • Interesting – I thought the first half of Stanley Park was more engaging than the second. You’re right, his original idea (weaving together two disparate ideas) doesn’t work, and I found that it really unravelled in the second half.

    • (I can’t seem to reply below, so I’ve replied up here)
      It was a matter of trepidation for the first half of Stanley Park – where is he going with this and should I stop reading this? I agree about the unravelling; by that point it was fun and there was nothing to worry about and I was happy to finish.

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