What I read in Fall, 2013

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September

  • Robert Lindsay, The Falcon and the Snowman: A True Story of Friendship and Espionage (1979) – I saw the 1984 movie on the recommendation of the guy behind the counter at Toby’s off-sales, where I bought a remarkable amount of beer between 2003-2010, when I lived at Trout Lake. Applause Videos – unfortunately spelled ‘Video’s’ on the big sign – is gone now but over those same years I rented and watched every spy movie they had on the shelf. This is a spy story in a sense – it’s about terrible, accidental spies and the small potatoes that drove the Cold War in its real, day-to-day grind. Minor secrets and minor people and minor ambition. Unfortunately, the book is overdone, and could be edited down by maybe even 100 pages. I bought this at Magus books in Seattle, when I went down in 2010.
  • Eric Ambler, Journey Into Fear (1940) – A marvelous little spy story, from Istanbul to Italy on a boat.
  • Robert D. Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus (2000) – I read this thinking that it would be a nice spy story in a different sense but it took me on a different path altogether. As with any of Robert Kaplan’s books he tells you as much about what he thinks will happen next as he does about the trip and the past, which makes this a strange reference point – what did we think was going to happen in the Middle East in 2000, before the US went to war? I struggled to read this for a week in Vancouver, where I was staying at the Kingston downtown for work, and nearly put it aside for a novel by Alan Hollinghurst; it seemed to take forever to read. I bought this in Seattle at Elliot Bay Book Company in 2009.

October

  • Michael Hingston, The Dilettantes (2013) – As much as I wanted to keep reading about the Middle East, I also wanted to read my friend’s novel before I went to Vancouver for his readings at SFU and PulpFiction on Main st. Besides, he sent it to me from Edmonton! And my name’s in the back! I loved the book and was worried about my capacity to assess it: of course I loved it; it’s about the SFU that I lived so how could I possibly not love it? But that makes me a more difficult audience, when I consider – if someone had written a book about a time and place that I shared, and had gotten it wrong, I’d throw the book out the window. I know Mike got this right because I was there too, and that’s really great. As I’m now nearly six years away from SFU and less and less likely to write anything real myself about those years, I’m grateful to Mike for writing this and sending it out into the world.
  • Don DeLillo, The Names (1982) – This is still my favourite novel. I read this twice at SFU in 2003 or 2004, borrowed from the library, then twice again in 2007 after I bought my own copy in 2006 from Powell’s in Portland. I didn’t read it for six years, in part out of fear. It’s a pleasure to have a favourite book, and that pleasure transcends the book itself and after a point I’d rather not know if my tastes have changed, or if I was wrong all those years. Which in this case is silly: it’s a wonderful book and it’s always a thrill to read. My friend Renee borrowed my copy in the difficult month of February 2011 and I’ve kept her four annotated sticky notes on the margins. I read this in Vancouver, when I went over from Mike’s reading, and finished it at Youbou the next week.
  • Patrick Hennessey, The Junior Officers’ Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars (2009) – I read this in two days at Youbou and it went right past me – there’s a lesson there, in reading slowly to let it all sink in. But this is a fast book. A British soldier in Afghanistan and Iraq – the empire returning to manage the post-Ottoman, post-mandate wreckage.
  • Leilah Nadir, The Orange Trees of Baghdad: In Search of my Lost Family (2007) – I saw the author speak on a panel in 2009, which is where I got a free copy of this book and I wondered if I would ever read it. Sometime, someday, I would finally get around to reading about what happened in the last decade and I finally broke through this last fall. This is a beautiful small book, about life during wartime, from overseas.
  • Sandra Mackey, The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein (2002) – All I wanted to read after The Orange Trees of Baghdad was a solid political history of Iraq and I found this on the shelf at Russell Books. The rare moment of buying a book and reading it the next day. I don’t know how well this stands up as an academic history but it’s a good and concise popular political history which is all that I wanted – what happened, in what order. Was this commissioned to come out at the beginning of 2003 or was it long in genesis and rushed through the final stages to hit shelves in time for war? There’s a horrible line that I grew up hearing, and still hear today – the Middle East has always been at war and will always be at war – but I don’t believe that it’s true. These wars are not states of nature but the results of intention, over many years. There’s a receipt in side – Judith Evans bought this book from the Washington DC National Airport (not Dulles International) in February 2005.

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November

  • James Mann, The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (2004) – I rolled my eyes when this came out! ‘How many books can they churn out against Bush!’ And I still think that when I see piles of Bushwacked! and Bad President and maybe these are all engaging, insightful books but I’m still exhausted but how much we all had to hate George W. Bush for all those years – and I can only imagine how I’d feel if I actually lived in the US. But this is a solid book. It’s not a novelty – this is a solid intellectual/political history of the Bush foreign policy team that goes back to the Nixon administration and Vietnam.
  • Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds (2001) – I tried to read Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk on the way to Vancouver for the NDP convention but I bought this on the way to the ferry and read it instead. A perfect little book about perfect ordinary birds.
  • John le Carre, A Most Wanted Man (2008) – This was on the cheap stacks at Munro’s Books for months and I finally bought it last summer. It wavers in and out of rhythm – a comfortable old Cold War bank and an awkward new woman-lawyer that reminded me of a quip I read that Le Carre is marvelous up until a woman wanders into his plot and all the seams start to show. The last five pages shocked me and redeemed the book; as intricate and clever as anyone wants to get about the law, the new muscular exercise of hard power is a trump card and the plot here exemplifies that: build an intricate structure, stomp all over it with boots – quickly – and close.
  • Stephen Grey, Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Rendition and Torture Program (2007) – More than any other book about the last decade, reading this felt like bearing witness.

December

  • Barry Werth, 31 Days: The Crisis That Gave Us the Government We Have Today (2006) – Specifically, the first 31 days of the Ford administration which might be a bit thin for a book of this length. The drawn-out awfulness of what to do with Nixon’s papers and tapes is exhausting and maybe unnecessary but serves as a metaphor for the weight of the whole sordid mess. The real frame is of the days before Ford offered Nixon a pardon, and the machinations and angst that preceded the decision. We went to see ‘Our Nixon’ at the Vic Theatre which finally drove me to read this, after trying to for years; I bought this at Powell’s in Portland in 2009.
  • Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women (1971) – My annual Alice Munro collection, now in the wake of her Nobel prize win; a far cry from 2005 when I started with The Progress of Love as a simple collection of short stories. I’m glad I started reading these ages ago, when the only cultural frame I had was ‘really good short stories; not as boring as they sound’ rather than ‘#1 best author and national treasure for all time.’
  • J. M. Coetzee, Age of Iron (1990) – The theme was Nobel winners, I guess, and I also hadn’t read anything by J.M. Coetzee since 2010. I recently read him described as ‘joyless’ which is true. This is a stark and relentless novel.
  • Jowita Bydlowska, Drunk Mom (2013) – This is also stark and relentless; unhappy and mean, even.  This excellent review in the Globe said “vehemently unsentimental,” which is what makes it such a striking thing to read.
  • Carol Shields, Larry’s Party (1997) – I’ve waited to read this since 2009; I bought this when Bibliophile bookshop on Commercial was changing owners. My friend Clea bought me a copy for my birthday that same year, just months after I bought the copy I still have. I read this and thought of The Sportswriter although while this novel covers 20 years, The Sportswriter passes in just a weekend.
  • Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000) – After Larry’s Party and Age of Iron the hyperventilating prose style here was really difficult to handle and I nearly put it aside after the WWII scene at the end of the first section that could only compare to The English Patient in my mind. Why am I reading this chaotic exhausting mess of a novel when I could just read The English Patient again? It only got better from there although I was mostly happy to be reading a great big novel. In sum, it read as a comedy that tied up a bit too neatly. But I might have felt entirely differently had I not had Age of Iron so heavily on my mind.

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