What I Read in Spring, 2014

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January

  • David Vann, Caribou Island (2011) – I finished White Teeth on January 1 and read this the next day at Youbou. A bleak and awful little novel; Alaska as the end of the world.
  • Marshall N. Klimasewiski, The Cottagers (2006) – More bleak, more awful; now set in East Sooke. South from Alaska but just as cruel a landscape, and a remarkable setting for a writer based in Missouri. Not as effective as Caribou Island but notable for holding my interest despite resting almost entirely on dramatic irony – my least favourite literary device. I felt awful reading this, and that’s what I love in a novel, what I want in a novel – “the axe for the frozen sea.”
  • Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (1979) – I nearly threw The Cottagers across the room and I nearly did the same with this “breathtaking epic.” I can’t stomach the description of “true heroism and courage of the first Americans to conquer space.” The problem is in the language – “heroism” and “courage” and “Americans” and “conquer;” I reject the heroism and the courage because these terms rely on context. I can imagine the courage to speak truth to power, to make a meaningful difference for justice in the course of human history – but not the ‘courage’ to indulge romanticized/fetishized garbage about military supremacy for the sake of sabre-rattling on the public dime in an unequal nation – which speaks to the clarity of Americans, Conquering, rather than Humans, Learning. BUT, that said: I still had to get past all the men being men all over this book and then I could read it as a really entertaining and wonderful history of a really bizarre time. Just 50 years ago, and amazing for that.
  • Mitchell Waldrop, The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (2001) – I ducked downtown for an errand during the 2012 Victoria by-election and ducked again into the Russell’s technology section and found this heavy book – “not a casual read” as it says on the inside cover. An intellectual history of computing and its transformation from ponderous mainframe to personal and networked. The most exciting computer history I’ve read, for its breadth and rigour.
  • Andrew Blum, Tubes: A Journey to the Centre of the Internet (2012) – In comparison this was lacking – about half the length of The Dream Machine but a fifth of the heft. This could be a series of magazine features and not suffer but the story is still neat: what are the physical pieces of the internet that make it all work? Where are the joints, the joins, the splints, the rack and racks of cables and boxes that make up the physical infrastructure? But beyond how neat all that is, there’s not a lot to this book.

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February

  • Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers (1998) – This was better! As much about how we managed to deal with the telegraph and learned how to use it as humans as how we actually learned how to build the thing in the first place. A fun and wonderful social history.
  • Hal Niedsviecki, Hello, I’m Special: How Individualism Became the New Conformity (2004) – This book is not good. Credit to Hal – this came out in the same year as The Rebel Sell so he may not have been able to read that first but surely an editor could have pushed him to read what those guys were reading (like something or anything by Thomas Frank to start, then further back, further back) and told him to spend a few more years thinking about capitalism and the forces at work behind his strange stunted construction of ‘individuality vs conformity.’ He’s putting together neat anecdotes without any framework and it’s simply inconsequential.
  • Renee Sarojini Saklikar, Children of Air India: Un/Authorized Exhibits and Interjections (2013) – My friend wrote this, over the years since we wrote NaNoWriMo together in 2008 and 2009, and I have been lucky enough to see her read from it twice. Last month it was named “best full-length English-language book of poems for adults by a Canadian writer” by the Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry which means Poet of the Year. “Individual loss, situated within public trauma” – yes, the location of a story and a history within the structures we allot: the Queen of Oak Bay, the Legislative Library, an inquiry, a coroner’s report. The most important and wonderful way to tell history; arguably the only honest way to tell or to read history and to understand what has actually happened. I read this in Youbou, on Cowichan Lake, in the woods, outside Duncan, just west of the village Paldi.
  • Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal (1971) – The spy story as puzzle; as flow-chart. 400 exacting pages that I ended up enjoying more than I thought I might through the long drudge.
  • Len Deighton, The Ipcress File (1962) – As I leaf through this now, five months later, I can’t remember a thing about it. Maybe I never did understand what was happening over the week (two weeks?) that I spent reading, slowly, strangely. What a weird book.
  • Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books you Haven’t Read (2007) – The funniest and happiest book I’ve read in years – or ever? The ways of Not Reading (skimming, forgetting, hearing about a book, simply not knowing about a book); how to deal with Literary Confrontations (at a party, with a professor, with a lover, with the writer); and how to Behave. All about what books mean, and don’t mean.

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March

  • Jonathon Gatehouse, The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever (2012) – Rather than a story about Gary Bettman, a story about the big business of hockey using Gary Bettman as a frame. In freeing the business of hockey from the nationalism/nostalgia trap, has Bettman allowed that same trap to flourish in such a way that it’s as inescapable as ever? By draining the business end of sentiment, or ‘remaking the league’ I don’t know that the game has been changed, or if the marketing has merely revved up to compensate for the absent fluff in the front office. The most astute observation is that Bettman has made fans see the game as a business first. The salary cap makes a player’s salary and contract terms as interesting to a fan as the scoresheet. Is this the ownership society marching on – every fan’s an armchair labour arbitration officer? – or have we just turned labour economics into another game?
  • Ken Dryden, The Game (1980) – Next to The Instigator, this is the least sentimental book about hockey I’ve read. Or the most but the truest, for questioning and challenging the sentiment it admits. “The best hockey book ever written” it says, which is probably true.
  • Christina McCall Newman, Grits: An Intimate Portrait of the Liberal Party (1982) – From Canadian hockey in the ‘70s to Canadian politics in the ‘70s. Or: from one dynasty to another, Canadiens to Liberals.
  • Michael Azzerad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991 (2008) – From the business of a nation treated as summer camp to the stories of a bunch of rock bands treated as the business of a nation. The bands profiled tend to have a healthy sense of their place in the grander scheme but the author sees them on a higher plane. I remember seeing bands that way too, and I’m glad I read this book now, not then. Exhaustive, yes, and for that I am grateful and I enjoyed the book, but the hagiography over 500 pages is difficult.
  • Ethan de Seife, This Is Spinal Tap (2007) – I was a teenage Spinal Tap fan. In fact, I was a Spinal Tap fan before I’d ever listened to any rock music louder/goofier/heavier than Dire Straits. Spinal Tap was less of a lampoon than a fantasy on its own.

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April

  • Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (2008) – The subtitle tells the story: doubt as an official product has been generated by some of the same scientists over the years. It’s all true! Decision-based evidence making.
  • Mike Doughty, The Book of Drugs (2011) – I was also a teenage Soul Coughing fan.
  • Ellen Ruppel Shell, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture (2007)
  • Leslie T. Chang, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (2010) – Wonderful story of industrialization in China told through the people living through it all. Sensitive and not sensational; excellent and empathetic journalism.
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