What I read in Summer, 2015

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May

Don Martin, King Ralph: The Political Life and Success of Ralph Klein (2002) – In honour of the Alberta election, which had me paying attention to Alberta politics for the first time since I bought this book. It is not good. A glib and friendly book. Provides argument for my case that the only way the Alberta Tories sidestepped defeat in 1993, 2008, and 2012 was by picking outsiders for the leadership. Had any of Nancy Betkowski, Jim Dinning, or Gary Mar won, they would have faced the same bleak fate as machine-man Jim Prentice. Where Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford failed yet Klein succeeded was in re-consolidating the party post-election. Most important is the reminder that none of these dynasties, as we remember them, were sure things throughout their course. Every election, every budget, is fraught.

Mark Lisac, The Klein Revolution (1995) – A smarter, less clubby take on Alberta and Ralph Klein. Particularly interesting information on the Don Getty government, in this as well as King Ralph; a government more in the mold of BC’s old Socreds than the neo-con rage of the 1990s.

Alissa Nutting, Tampa (2013) – A quick and uneasy novel. The Guardian compared it unfavourably to American Psycho which I agree with but which maybe misreads American Psycho. This is more like Crash insofar as reliable narrators with sexual perversions but not nearly as interesting or rigorous.

Bret Easton Ellis, The Informers (1994) – I read over lunch at the Thai restaurant downtown when the house is not in session. The same server saw me reading two books by Joan Didion in April, then saw me reading this and was excited – “we read the same books! Oh man! You read great books!” Sorry ma’am but I will be back with a giant book about Mulroney next month and you will be disappointed.

Dava Sobel, The Planets (2005) – The Informers was well-styled but I wanted to read something beautiful and what better than “an incantatory serenade to the solar system.” I was not disappointed – this is a beautiful small book about the planets, how they were found, and what they mean.

Jacqueline Susann, The Valley of the Dolls (1966) – I regret turning to this rather than reading more about space. I have a nice book about the moon (‘a brief history’); a nice book about how they found Neptune; a nice book about looking for new moons around other planets (‘Moonhunters’). But I read this – “the All-Time Pop-Culture Classic” – and that’s fine. I found this at Value Village. 30 million people can’t be wrong; that’s more than The Great Gatsby or even The Cat in the Hat. Not as much as Bridges of Madison County, mind. An amazing blur between outright lurid and fantastically restrained and maybe a perfect reflection of the time? I don’t know; I wasn’t there but I am trying to figure it out.

Kate Braid, Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World (2012) – The perfect antidote. And, the book that disillusioned the server at the Thai restaurant downtown about my taste in books. “Oh, it’s the memoir of a construction carpenter in BC who is also a poet.” You say it sounds interesting, and I agree, it is really terrific but yeah, it’s not Bret Easton Ellis. This is a marvellous book; maybe the most satisfying book I have read this year.

Graham Steele, What I Learned About Politics: Inside the Rise – and Collapse – of Nova Scotia’s NDP Government (2014) – The book that I wish every MP or MLA would write upon retirement. Graham Steele was the Finance Minister from 2009-2012, after serving as an opposition MLA from 2001-2009 and a caucus staffer before that. He’s angry about it all, and I bought Howard Epstein’s book as a counter-narrative, but it is a genuine story and I am grateful that he put it out into the world.

Carol Shields, Dressing Up for the Carnival (2000) – I read this on the way to Vancouver and I don’t remember a thing about it, even now upon review. Very short stories; about 10pg each on average.

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June

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005) – A perfect and beautiful little book. I will read this again, soon.

Raye Ringholz, Uranium Frenzy: Boom and Bust on the Colorado Plateau (1989) – A Field Guide to Getting Lost finishes off in the American West, a perfect excuse to continue with this book that I found years ago at the Left Bank Books in Seattle. A wonderful narrative history of the uranium boom in Utah – a gold-rush tale complete with stock mania and sudden millionaires and lucky strikes and the atomic bomb. The mythic West meets the brutal future.

Catherine Caufield, Multiple Exposures: Chronicles of the Radiation Age (1989) – Placing ionizing radiation in context from the 1890s on to the 1980s. Fascinating and lucid.

Tom Zoellner, Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock the Shaped the World (2009) – I’ve read a lot of popular histories in this field but there is always a new frame; in this case, the original uranium mines, first in what is now the Czech Republic and then in what is now the Congo. Before the Colorado rush, which fuelled the boom of the 1950s, the uranium for Fat Man and Little Boy came from central Africa, via Belgium, after years of storage on a dock in New York.

ed. Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland, Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler (1997) – If only I’d found and read this at the time. All I had was Adbusters slogans and No Logo which was fine and helpful but this is what I was really trying to figure out. I was sitting in Surrey trying to figure out coffee shops and Beatniks and The Baffler had answers for me in 1993! They knew it was all nonsense. That’s what I thought too, but I was in Surrey and it seemed better than what was otherwise on offer and I thought it was probably nonsense; who do you ask about these things? Adbusters helped but those weren’t answers either. I put up BUY NOTHING DAY posters in my high school for the sake of being obnoxious and to what end? It was all in the Baffler, and now I know. This is obviously a bit dated – I’ve solved some of these high school questions myself in the intervening years – but these are cyclical issues.

Russell Smith, Young Men (1999) – I read this first in 2010; terrific pre-internet stories.

Donna Tartt, The Little Friend (2002) – A big novel for Youbou. I looked at this in shops and figured I’d probably never read it until I found it for $4 at the Value Village. Sit inside a big novel for long enough and you become trapped.

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July

Briony Penn, A Walk on the Wild Side (1999) – Still at Youbou. An almanac, collected from columns written for Monday magazine. A piece of old Victoria and a really wonderful set of anecdotes about this part of the world. Some of these are obviously shoehorned columns but the pride-of-place makes that easy to overlook. Had Briony Penn been elected as an MP in 2008, she’d probably have held her seat in 2011 and would be in cabinet today; Elizabeth May would have stayed in Nova Scotia or some other remote part of the world.

Ted Conover, Whiteout: Lost in Aspen (1991) – One of my favourite books of the year. I read about it, briefly, and there it was, two days later, at the little Fairfield Book Shop, which I tended to not stop in but will always look through now as I’ve never seen a copy of this anywhere else. Ted Conover wanted to figure out what the hell was going on in Aspen, Colorado at the end of the 1980s so he went there. A perfectly strange story.

John le Carre, A Murder of Quality (1962) / Call for the Dead (1961) – The first (later) story is OK; the second (earlier) is really, really good. The first Smiley stories, together at last.

Ted Conover, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (2000) – The New York corrections department turned down his request to shadow an officer, so he got hired on as a prison guard.

Debra Ginsburg, Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress (2000) – Not as good as Hey Waitress but a very good workplace memoir to follow Newjack.

Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (1987) – Back at Youbou. I read excerpts from this in history class at SFU, sometime in 2006; this was the first book of the New Western History. I finally found a copy this year in Seattle at Magus books. What is actually going on in the West, behind the myth.

Lawrence Martin, Harperland: The Politics of Control (2010) – I started work on the federal campaign and figured it was time to start reading my Stephen Harper books, in case he lost; now is the time, before they stale-date. But I stopped after this; I want to know how the story ends before I read these analyses. This book is brief and almost glib but covers the Harper minority governments well. In the wake of the 2011 majority, those first two governments were easy to overlook but their tone and climate shaped the last four years more than anything.

Ken Finkleman, The Newsroom: The Complete Scripts (1997) – This was only $1 at the thrift shop next to the campaign office on Yates st! What the hell, for a dollar it might be fun to have on the shelf. But I read it right away, over a day or two, and it’s funnier than I remembered.

Susan Riley, Political Wives: The Lives of the Saints (1987) – I found this at a thrift store in Ladysmith. Alternate title: ‘Walk Softly and Marry a Big Prick.”

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August

Jamey Heath, Dead Centre: Hope, Possibility, and Unity for Canadian Progressives (2007) – This was a blast to read in early August, when it seemed the plan mapped out herein – supplanting the Liberals as the Tories’ counterpart and leaving the Bloc and Greens for dead – was within reach. This is a history of the 2004 Liberal minority and the 2006 campaign that I should re-read now in the context of a Liberal restoration.

Siri Hustvedt, The Blindfold (1992) – The enduring question during an election campaign: to read politics or read novels? It took ages to read through Harperland and Dead Centre but just a weekend to read this terrifying little novel. From the back: “Hustvedt’s stakes are high, and one reads her novel at serious risk to one’s well-being – the only kind of reading that counts.”

Brian Topp, How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot: The Inside Story behind the Coalition (2010) – More recent history. And more ammo for the story of a slow and inexorable Liberal collapse that seemed real in August; less so today. We know now: there was no ‘new normal.’ The game was the same as it ever was and the rules remained.

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