What I Read in the Spring, 2015

Spring2015-1

January

  • Caleb Crain, Necessary Errors (2013) – Great big mostly boring novel. Gay American kid in Prague after the fall, 1992. He lives his life. Similar to Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy: he has friends; they talk; they go drinking. Long tortured analogy between flowering capitalism and flowering sexuality. Perfectly pleasant way to spend a few intense days and I think there is a space for this, a long novel where not much happens. I read this mostly at Youbou and bought it at Pulpfiction on Main because it looked big and pretty.
  • Brooke Jeffrey, Divided Loyalties: The Liberal Party of Canada, 1984-2008 (2010) – Huge and wonderful secret history of Canada. It really ends in 2006 but that’s the major disjuncture in the major arc: the marvelous drama and intrigue of the long Turner-Martin vs. Trudeau-Chretien warfare.  The years from 2006-2011 are merely a long and arduous denouement. A highly accomplished history.
  • Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt (1952) – Entry two in queer-lit January. I read this on a quick trip to Vancouver. Just as terrifying and claustrophobic as anything she wrote but published secretly under a pseudonym by a lesbian press. Todd Haynes is making a movie that will be out before the end of the year.
  • Gore Vidal, The City and the Pillar (1948) – Entry three in queer-lit January.  I bought this at Pulpfiction on Main and read it the next day on the same trip; “the first serious American homosexual novel” it says. And it is worth noting that this was published as anything else of his at the time, under his own name, while The Price of Salt was kept secret until the 1980s.
  • George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know your Values and Frame the Debate (2004) – I should have read this at the time although it is still a fun trip back to the panic of the early George W. Bush years. The interesting ideas around framing and discourse are common parlance now and the rest seems oddly quaint and very specifically American.
  • Kaitlin Fontana, Fresh at Twenty: The Oral History of Mint Records (2011) – A secret history of Vancouver, and an amazing alternate history of how I might have spent my last 12 years. I went to a lot of rock shows in Vancouver between 2001-2004 and If I hadn’t run for a position on my student society’s board of directors in 2003 I might have kept going to shows and taken rock music seriously as a public endeavour rather than a private hobby. I saw most of the Mint bands between 2000-2004 at the Pic Pub; Richards on Richards; the Sugar Refinery; Video In; the Milkbar – a hidden geography of the downtown core: long-gone venues that I remember more vividly than any rock shows before and since.
  • Jennifer Woodruff, NDP Country (2014) – I read this so no one else would have to; a memoir of Gwen O’Mahony’s short term in office as MLA for Chilliwack-Hope from April 2012 – May 2013 written by her CA. It’s not a good book but it is an important little story and I am glad it’s been told. I had a small role in this, going out for a vacation E-day to pull the vote in Harrison Hot Springs with Gerry Scott. Makes a strong case that the turning point in the 2013 election was Gwen’s election in 2012. By winning Chilliwack-Hope with just 41% of the vote the BC NDP allowed the BC Liberals to make a persuasive case to their base that a split in their core vote was real and jeopardized even their safest seats. If Laurie Throness had won in 2012, the Conservatives may have survived until 2013 and the press (and our base) would have lacked the no-safe-seat narrative that proved intoxicating to the point of somnolence.

Spring2015-2

February

  • Arthur Phillips, Prague (2002) – An identical plot (i.e. none, really) to Necessary Errors but set in Budapest, not Prague. The Prague of the title is the relative paradise of Prague as imagined by the Americans in Budapest; the Prague of Necessary Errors – published 11 years later – fits perfectly into the space written here. This is a better book.
  • Judith McKenzie, Pauline Jewett: A Passion for Canada (1999) – Perfect small biography of a fascinating and complex but essentially anonymous opposition MP. Important and wonderful history.
  • Margaret Mitchell, No Laughing Matter: Adventure, Activism, and Politics (2008) – Not a good book but exactly the sort of unvarnished, direct memoir that we need from more MPs. Margaret Mitchell was MP for Vancouver East from 1979-1993; and I am curious if that run from 1979-2015 (and beyond?) is the longest run of female representation for any seat in the country?
  • Audrey McLaughlin, A Woman’s Place: My Life & Politics (1992) – There is a letter inside on MP letterhead dated April 1997, near the end of Audrey McLaughlin’s second full term in Parliament: “Dear Friend, please find enclosed my book…” I tend to be wary of books written by politicians who are still facing election but this is refreshingly substantive. The 1993 election was bad for the NDP and Audrey’s leadership has since been struck from our story; our current myth draws a line from Ed Broadbent to Jack Layton and while there is an obvious and glaring gender dimension to this omission there is a lesser but notable aspect of celebrating our relative successes while diminishing our relative failures and that is to our detriment.
  • Ian Fleming, Doctor No (1958) – Not sure why I read this when I did. We watched the movie again a month later and with the exception of the final sequence it is very faithful.
  • Ian McLeod, Under Siege: The Federal NDP in the Nineties (1994) – A fascinating follow-up to Audrey’s book and also fascinating to read in reflection on the BC caucus since 2005. I’ve worked with a lot of people who also worked in the 1993 campaign; some of whom are named in this book and provided interviews. We don’t talk a lot about this period – 1988-’94 – but it is just as interesting, if not more so, than the more recent campaigns. This was the time that I first became aware of the NDP – a party with nine seats in the house – and until 2011, the very existence of the federal party was a subject of debate.
  • Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me (2014) – The third in a series of short blue books; a fun and very direct set of essays. I’ve bought five more of her books since I read this.
  • Caroline Adderson, Ellen in Pieces (2014) – A big easy novel to read while we were moving. I liked this more than her other novels that I’ve read – Sitting Practice and A History of Forgetting.

Spring2015-3

March

  • Mark Simpson, Saint Morrissey: A Portrait of This Charming Man by an Alarming Fan (2003) – I found this at the new Pulpfiction on Commercial Drive; I wondered about it and nearly left it on the shelf but finally took it home. Morrissey is complex and wonderful and this is a fun book by a smart fan.
  • Morrissey, Autobiography (2014) – There was no ambiguity about this one. I didn’t know there was a hole in my life shaped like this little book until I knew about it. Unlike the Bruce Cockburn memoir, which I knew was underway for maybe four years before it finally came out last year, this was an amazing secret. And it’s terrific.  Here is a passage chosen at random (pg. 391). It’s all like this. All of it. Constantly breathless prose.
    • Leaving the hotel for the soundcheck I catch the glare of the very famous Eric Cantona frozen for an age-long few seconds as I emerge from the lift. In the mid ‘90s Cantona had been asked during an interview the very lazy ‘So, what have you been up to lately?’ question, and he had replied ‘Listening to Morrissey.’ With my usual tact I had been quoted in Time Out magazine during more or less the same period, saying, ‘I’m very fond of Eric Carmona as long as he doesn’t say anything.’ On this day in Paris, Carmona has clearly measured both quotes, and although I offer him a rarely used smile, he doesn’t want it and he turns away coldly, and I am nixed like a fatty at the church steps. Eric takes his place in the hotel restaurant for the catch of the day, which is evidently not me. 
  • Lee Marshall, Bob Dylan: The Never-Ending Star (2007) – Studies in intentional stardom, from Morrissey to Bob Dylan. It took me years to even try to listen to a Bob Dylan record; I finally tried Blonde on Blonde in 2009 when I read that ‘all night long, we would sing that stupid song,’ in Doctor Wu, was in fact Visions of Johanna, and I could get past the mess of myth and crack Dylan through the lens of Steely Dan, which I understood. This is a very smart book, by a smart fan, all about the myth and the construction of stardom.
  • Suze Rotolo, A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (2008) – Another angle on the Dylan myth through a wonderful book that isn’t very much about Dylan at all. Rather than build the myth, this breaks it down. I found this on the Munro’s discount shelf two or three years and finally broke the myth down enough through The Never-Ending Star myself to read this and I’m glad I did.
  • Don DeLillo, Libra (1988) – The most interesting takeaway from A Freewheelin’ Time was the paranoia that descended, particularly after November 1963. I’ve read this in fiction before but to read it in memoir seemed a confirmation. I read Libra before in 2006 but I’m a better reader now and what better time to re-read/revisit this spectacular book – a perfectly paranoid version of November 1963 and Lee Harvey Oswald.

Spring2015-4

April

  • Joan Didion, Miami (1989) – Throughout Libra Miami is invoked with totemic force both as a specific city and as a paranoid state of being and this book, which I read only glancingly in January 2011, sustains that paranoid state over 200 pages. “… not exactly an American city as American cities have until recently been understood but a tropical capital: long on rumour, short on memory, overbuilt on the chimera of runaway money and referring not to New York or Boston or Los Angeles or Atlanta but to Caracas and Mexico, to Havana and to Bogota and to Paris and Madrid.
  • Lesley Gill, The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas (2004) – And a book, that I found hidden away in the basement of the Russell Books auxiliary on View St, to put an academic framework and rigour to that paranoia. A sympathetic and inquisitive book about an unconscionable campaign of state-sponsored terror, waged by the US against Central and South America over decades. “An in-depth expose of the militaristic mentality, socioethnic tensions, and outrageous atrocities of the empire’s Praetorian Guard.”
  • Julie Greene, The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal (2009) – And further back to the roots of the School of the Americas and a story that I only recently understood: the Canal Zone was under colonial rule until the 1980s. I remember having a sense in high school in the late 1990s that Central America was somehow the front line of I all. I was reading about globalization and sweatshops and No Logo and Adbusters and post-Cold War, Central America was the new contested turf. After 2001 that title swung back to the Middle East and it’s taken me another 14 years to really consider what was going on south of the border.
  • Joan Didion, The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) – Another terrific book that I read in a rush six years ago and considered more deeply this year as an older, smarter reader. A novel located somewhere between Miami and Libra.
  • Carmen Aguirre, Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter (2011) – And the last book in the series, a straight and direct memoir to wrap the last six books together into a real story, a lived life.
  • Carol Shields, Small Ceremonies (1976) – And a palate cleanser, a perfectly brief Canadian novel with no plot.
  • David Lodge, Paradise News (1991) – A wonderful little novel about tourism.
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