What I Read in Summer 2016

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May

  • Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (2011) – On to new nightmares. I’ve got more books to read by Michael Lewis but I increasingly would rather read a nasty Baffler takedown of his smug court jester routine than any more of his preening. I can’t help but feel there is a lot sacrificed here for the sake of the narrative but that resulting narrative is a blast. A fun lurid read that builds a case for the system by comfortably illuminating flaws with a wink.
  • Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron (2003) – This is better, and the associated documentary is better than the film of The Big Short. More than the technical aspects of the crazy financial structure – which I really enjoyed reading through – this book covers some of the cultural aspects of the Enron story: the 1990s New Economy; the weird prophetic futurism; Clinton-era decadence. Did 9/11 end the 1990s or did the fall of Enron end the 1990s? Maybe it was the latter that set a true disjuncture for the decades.
  • Jennifer Egan, Look At Me (2001) – A weird book that I’m glad I read but am still uneasy about. I like a novel that evokes another and this brought to mind Tom McCarthy, Remainder, which I read in the spring, and Don DeLillo, Americana, which I read maybe 10 years ago and have rarely thought of since.
  • John R Stilgoe, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places (1998) – I love that subtitle. I found a hardcover copy of this in a Value Village many years ago, maybe 2005 or 2006, and replaced it with a cheap used paperback from Port Book and News in Port Angeles last year. But it’s not very good. That subtitle is a good as it gets, and it’s what I wanted, but this is really Mickey Mouse. I read this quickly at Youbou on the Victoria Day weekend.
  • Marian Engel, Bear (1976) – Also at Youbou, on recommendation from Mike Hingston. Terrific book; “as plausible as kitchens, but shapely as a folktale, with the same disturbing resonance” says Margaret Atwood.
  • Larry Pynn, Last Stands: A Journey through North America’s Vanishing Ancient Rainforests (1999) – A beautiful book about forests; the sort of book I save for Youbou, staring at trees and clearcuts and logging trucks passing by and no reason for a town there anyway but for cutting down all the trees.
  • Kasuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (2005) – I enjoyed this, and read it on recommendation of Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds. I read this fast, maybe in a day. I read the school scenes as a mirror of John le Carre somehow, but I couldn’t place which novel and still can’t. The clubby cloistered world, equally privileged and tragic.
  • Alan Hollinghurst, The Folding Star (1994) – The best novel I’d read to date in the year; a beautiful book. Better than The Line of Beauty maybe and much better than Swimming Pool Library. This is an absolute fever dream.

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June

  • William Gibson, The Peripheral (2014) – 124 choppy chapters, perfect show-don’t-tell fiction. A rush after the languor and  The first 50 pages or so are wholly disorienting. The plot, as the world comes into focus, becomes a bit pedestrian but the structure and the pace and the fun: William Gibson is either the best worst writer or the worst best writer, to crib Carl Wilson’s take on Paul Simon.
  • ed. Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk, Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism (2007) – I read this first in 2009 and it suffered from distance the second time. The Peripheral is future and I read this as ‘the now’ but it is rapidly ‘the past.’ I should have followed up with the inspiration for this collection, from 1991, Variations on a Theme Park, which I read first in 2008.
  • John Branch, Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard (2014) – I remember this, when Derek Boogard died, and I remember seeing him in games before that, a terrible hockey player by almost any measure. This is not an easy book to read, both for the brutally bleak subject and the poor writing but I am glad to have taken the time and I am glad the story was written.
  • Mike McGonigal, Loveless (2007) – One of my favourite records.
  • Ben Watt, Patient: The True Story of a Rare Illness (1996) – An excellent memoir. I read this before I saw his show, 20 years later, in Seattle, after he made two of my favourite new records of the last decade, Hendra and Fever Dream. I mean to write more about this book, his records, and his old records, once I read Tracey Thorn’s books next year.
  • George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (2013) – I took this to Seattle with me to read on the ferry, in bars, over breakfast. The best sort of history, told through three long stories and many short fragments, of years and of people. I had been looking forward to reading this for several years and it was the best election year book I read about the United States.

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July

  • John Updike, Rabbit, Run (1960) – After my trip to Seattle we went to Port Angeles for Canada Day. I wanted to read the rest of the Rabbit books but I read this first in 2010 and needed to restart in order to continue. I read this in Tofino, February 2010, while hiding out from the first week of the Olympic games. I enjoyed it more the second time – as a better reader? or in a better space. My friend Renee suggested reading slowly but I sped through, the propulsion of prose.
  • John le Carre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) – We watched the BBC show, all seven hours, so I read this again for the third time – 2007, 2010, and now 2016. A thoroughly modern fable, richer in weight each time. Unlike so much spy fiction there is no stand-in for the audience, no dummy through whom we learn the words and the secrets. More show-don’t-tell fiction. A claustrophobic, bureaucratic study in power politics and one of my favourite novels.
  • Jan Morris, Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress (1973) – Connie Sachs says to George Smiley, “Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away” and there are maybe few lines more directly revealing of Le Carre’s context. The British empire, conventional and territorial, was still recent memory in the 1970s. Book one of three – “an impressionistic evocation”
  • John le Carre, Our Kind of Traitor (2010) – I read this in a rush after seeing the movie, which I didn’t know was coming until it was up on the marquee at the Odeon downtown. I’m glad I read the book second, because the end of the film would have been too disappointing to see otherwise. It rang false in the theatre and it was – the book is as brutal and bleak as ever.
  • Jennifer 8 Lee, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food (2008) – A fun enough book but the seams show; chapter 14 is even explicit – “my editor asked for this bit, and I didn’t want to write it, but here it is anyway. Whatever.” The hook – who invented fortune cookies? – is thin for 300 pages but I’ve eaten enough Chinese food in Vancouver to enjoy the anecdotes nonetheless.

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August

  • Carol Shields, The Box Garden (1977) – A beautiful small novel, as always, and the first of two weeks in Youbou.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest (1972) – The first novel of hers that I have read, and what a beautiful title – The Word for World is Forest. I save books about trees and forests to read at Youbou, surrounded by trees and clearcuts and ghosts.
  • Margaret Atwood, Surfacing (1972) – I couldn’t find my old pocket book, with a beautiful Alex Colville cover, so I bought a new trade paperback copy just before we left town. Seemed like such a good idea – read about going to the lake while at the lake. But no, not a good idea. What a terrifying book. Robin’s measure for a scary movie is ‘could it happen at Youbou’ and this, yes, yes it could. I read this first in my penultimate month of high school and a second time in August 2007 while staying in a UVic dorm for a CFS meeting.
  • Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (1962) – “unusual demands on the imagination” indeed. I read this many times in the 1990s. Hard to tell what I would have thought of it today had I not read it before, deeply.
  • Madeleine L’Engle, A Wind in the Door (1973) – “Merry Christmas ’95” it says inside. If anything this is even weirder. I read this first 22 years ago – and that was only 22 years after it was published.
  • Madeleine L’Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) – I understood “Wrinkle in Time” and “Wind at the Door” as a child but this one tested me; I think I only read it twice, effectively declaring surrender. The second time I used it for a book report – “In this chapter, Charles Wallace flies on the unicorn again and goes inside a different person, fifty years later” – that did not help me to understand. Reading it now, yeah, I think I get it.
  • Jane Rule, After the Fire (1989) – A beautiful small Galiano story; grounding and restorative after ‘A Swifty Tilting Planet’
  • Susan Orlean, Saturday Night (1990) – Marvellous survey of fifteen different ways that people in America spend their Saturday nights.
  • Jeff Vandermeer, Authority (2014) – I want to like this trilogy more than I do but the writing is just not strong enough to sustain the strange mania of the plot. Maybe the third book will resolve the weird detail and hanging threads but I am not inclined enough to read it quickly and will end up forgetting where this book left off.
  • Salim Jiwa and Donald Hauka, Margin of Terror: A Reporter’s Twenty-year Odyssey Covering the Tragedies of the Air India Bombing (2006) – As subtitled, more of a reporter’s notebook and memoir than a history and often dedicated to proving the author’s superior instinct over cops and others. But still a fascinating secret history of Vancouver that I feel foolish for not having known when I started to work in politics 12 years ago.
  • Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (2013) – I started this in Youbou but read it mostly over the following week back in the city.
  • Joan Didion, Political Fictions (2001) – Tremendous essays, on Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush. I read this first in 2009.
  • Lauren Beukes, The Shining Girls (2013) – I enjoyed this; sci-fi horror from the cheap shelf at Munro’s.
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