Reading List: Books I Read in 2015

Poke. Poke. Hello? Squeeeeee! Ding! Thump thump. Is this thing on?

(Ahem.) OK, it looks like the Blork Blog still has a bit of a pulse, so here’s a small injection to help it limp into 2016. It’s my annual report on the books I read in the previous year. As usual, they’re listed in alphabetical order, by author. Notable titles are highlighted in yellow, and graphic novels are indicated with “{gn}.” See the asterisk strings for any other notes.

  • The War Against Cliché, by Martin Amis *
  • Slightly Out of Focus, by Robert Capa
  • The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark **
  • Hellgoing, by Lynn Coady
  • The Last Thing He Wanted, by Joan Didion ***
  • The Berlin Stories, by Christopher Isherwood
  • The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson
  • Thinks, by David Lodge
  • The Bishop’s Man, by Linden MacIntyre
  • Happy Stories about Well-adjusted People, by Joe Ollmann {gn}
  • Science Fiction, by Joe Ollmann {graphic}
  • I Curse the River of Time, by Per Petterson ****
  • Paul Joins the Scouts, by Michel Rabagliati {gn}
  • The Song of Roland (“Paul à Quebec“) by Michel Rabagliati {gn}
  • Indignant, by Philip Roth
  • Dream Story, by Arthur Schnitzler
  • A Good School, by Richard Yates *****

Only seventeen titles (well, eighteen, because The Berlin Stories is actually two novels packaged together – Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin). Not a big year in terms of numbers, but a good year of reading overall. As usual, the books were interspersed with countless articles from copious magazines, both online and in paper, along with a noticeable uptick in podcast listening. It was also diffused by too much time wasted on Facebook. Not much time wasted on Twitter, however, as I spent very little time there at all in 2015.

I detect no particular trends in the reading, aside from the usual top-heaviness of “old white males.” Guilty as charged; only two titles by women this year, which is terrible. But I often pick up a book based on a gut-level interest, so it just works out that way. I really should try harder for variety. In my defence I should add that the proportion of women writers I read in magazines is significantly higher.

Here are a few additional notes on this year’s list.

The War Against Cliché, by Martin Amis. I did not “read” this in 2015, I finished it in 2015 after pecking away at it for about six years. Martin Amis is one of those writers whose vocabulary and rapier wit is thrilling to read, yet he constantly makes you want to punch him in the face. The closest I will ever come to doing so is using the term “rapier wit” in this paragraph (twice!) because I know he’d hate it so much.

** The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark. I should be clear that I only read half of this one (the good half). Not that there’s anything wrong with the other half (how would I know?) but this was borrowed from the library and read on a Kobo. I was a bit slow getting to it, so when my two weeks was up it vanished from the device. By then I felt I had read the parts that interested me, so I didn’t bother jumping through the technological hoops of renewing the loan. Perhaps one day I’ll elaborate on my use of the Kobo and why I am no longer in possession of it.

*** The Last Thing He Wanted, by Joan Didion. Joan Didion is cool. Hot dang, she’s cool. When I read Play it as it Lays a few years ago I thought that odd, detached, and weirdly strung-out style was an artifact of the 1970s. Her essays don’t read like that – at least not the ones I’ve read. So I picked up The Last Thing He Wanted thinking that this recent novel, with it subject revolving around 1980s US politics and Central-American covert operations, would be a real straight-up page-turner. Um. It was equally odd, detached, and weirdly strung-out as Play it as it Lays. I did manage to follow along and I did get through it, occasionally pulled in the way I like to be. But most of the time I felt like yelling “fer Pete’s sake Joan, just tell the goddamn story!”

**** I Curse the River of Time, by Per Petterson. This had been on my “to buy” list for at least five years but I couldn’t find it anywhere (excluding online sources; I wanted to flip though it before buying). I was captivated by the title, which is about the most haunting string of six words I’ve ever seen. I searched book stores all over Montreal and beyond but could not find it. I found a lone copy at Book Soup, in Los Angeles. Nabbed it! I wasn’t disappointed, although I did find myself occasionally restless as I read it. It’s basically a slow-moving and somewhat dark story of a man’s regrets and his inability to fully acknowledge or deal with them.

***** A Good School, by Richard Yates. This book is so Richard Yates. It’s one WTF punch after another and makes you cringe in ways you never thought possible. You’ll not wonder why Yates was such a boozer in his lifetime, as he lays his demons bare on the page for all to see and know. It makes you want to go back to 1970 so you can find him in a bar and instead of trying to save him you’d get him even drunker just to help ease the pain. Ouch. (More, please.)

[Previous years’ reading lists.]

Reading List: Books I Read in 2014

As has been tradition since 2003, I hereby present for the historical record a list of the books that I read in the year just ended (in this case, 2014). The list is in alphabetical order, by author:

  • The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker
  • Up Above the World, by Paul Bowles
  • Unwelcome Words, by Paul Bowles
  • Louis Riel, by Chester Brown *
  • The Efficiency Expert, by William Rice Burroughs
  • Night of the Gun, by David Carr
  • Summertime, by JM Coetzee
  • Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow
  • Brighton Rock, by Graham Green
  • The Human Factor, by Graham Green
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid
  • The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson
  • The Lake, by Yasunari Kawabata (translated by Reiko Tsukimura)
  • The Dinner, by Herman Koch **
  • Paradise News, by David Lodge
  • The British Museum is Falling Down, by David Lodge
  • Berlin, City of Smoke, by Jason Lutes *
  • Embrace the Chaos, by Bob Miglani
  • A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden, by Stephen Reid
  • Nemesis, by Philip Roth
  • The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth
  • Let’s Discuss Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris

Any trends? Few than I can see, other than the continuation of choosing titles that are largely of a pre-social media vintage. I don’t do this consciously, or at least very consciously. I’m simply more fascinated by people in a time before Facebook and Twitter constantly pushed phoney views of people onto each other. That’s not to say people were more “genuine” or more honest in the “old days.” Rather, it was the necessity to actually spend time with people before you could get a sense of who they are – or are pretending to be – that grabs me.

Feel free to shred that last statement. I’m not 100% convinced of it myself. But I do know that constant and ubiquitous social media has changed how we relate to each other, and not always for the better. It presents a significant challenge to storytelling in many ways, and I regret to inform you that I’m not very interested in how writers meet that challenge.

All of this is subject to change, as always. In the meantime, the crude statistics are as follows:

  • 22 titles by 18 authors.
  • 17 male authors and one female. Ouch. I didn’t do that on purpose.
  • Two graphic novels (indicated by *).
  • One e-book (indicated by **); the “like/dislike” (not strong enough to be love/hate) relationship with my Kobo is unchanged.

Standout titles are indicated in yellow highlight. Obviously these are standouts to me, not necessarily to the world at large, and their reasons for standing out are fuzzy at best. The short version of the criteria for “stand-out” is simply “how much did I enjoy it?” (Note that I enjoyed them all or I wouldn’t have finished them; the stand-outs are simply that; ones that really stood out.) A particularly pleasant discovery this year is David Lodge, who I hadn’t read before.

And to give you an indication of just how unreliable I am as a critic, you’ll notice that one of my “stand-outs” – possibly the standing-outest – is set in the present day, and incorporates some aspects of social media (The Dinner, by Herman Koch). If you want to discuss any of this further, you’ll have to invite me out for a drink.

[Previous years’ reading lists.]

Reading List: Books I Read in 2013

As per tradition, here’s a list of books I read in the year just ended (in this case, 2013), listed alphabetically by author:

  • Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Regeneration, by Pat Barker
  • The Eye in the Door, by Pat Barker
  • Days; A Tangier Diary, by Paul Bowles
  • Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden †
  • The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, by T. E. Carhart
  • Play it as it Lays, by Joan Didion
  • Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
  • Earth and High Heaven, by Gwethalyn Graham
  • Cockroach, by Rawi Hage
  • A Student of Weather, by Elizabeth Hay †
  • Berlin, City of Stones, by Jason Lutes (graphic novel)
  • The Way the Crow Flies, by Anne-Marie MacDonald †
  • Roll Up the Rim, by Leo MacKay Jr.
  • Black Betty, by Walter Mosley
  • The Spy Who Loved, by Clare Mulley
  • Burmese Days, by George Orwell * †
  • Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell * †
  • Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough, by John Ross
  • Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm
  • Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson †

* e-book
† Particularly notable

Some Notes

21 titles, which is an improvement over 2012’s 17 and continues the trend upwards since my low of nine in 2011. It would seem that commuting correlates strongly with my reading; since I started these lists in 2003 I’ve been a pretty regular commuter, spending anywhere from 90 to 150 minutes a day on buses and subways. That changed in 2011, when my pattern was, shall we say, “disrupted” by a layoff in June of that year. That layoff turned out to be the best thing that’s happened to me career-wise and sanity-wise in a long time. However, I did not commute for the entire second half of 2011 (I either happily did not work, or I worked from home), and thus, I didn’t read many more books that year.

Since early 2012 I’ve been commuting again, although not as regularly, as I work from home six or seven days a month. Correspondingly, the book reading has gone back up. I sometimes worry that if I ever become a permanent home-worker (or, actually retire) that I’ll stop reading books altogether. It doesn’t seem possible, but the evidence is there.

In 2013 I made a point of choosing more books by women. I generally abhor reading to a schedule or according to any requirements other than “hey, this looks good,” but loyal readers will recall that every year I comment on how my reading of male writers outnumbers female writers by a very large margin. It’s never a conscious choice, it just works out that way.

So for 2013 I made an exception and I purposely chose more women writers than usual. Ten of the 21 titles were written by women (representing ten male writers to nine female writers).

I can’t report any huge revelations. I am not converted or reformed; I’m just a guy who read some good books by women last year. That said, three of the five writers of the six books that I marked as particularly notable were women, indicating that my apparent bias is at least passive. And if you ignore Orwell for a moment (gasp!), as he is pretty much assured of a “particularly notable” position in any given year, then three of the four “particularly notable” books were written by women.

Perhaps the most notable book on the list is Anne-Marie MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies. I’ve had a hardcover copy on my shelf since 2003 but I could never bring myself to start reading it, partly because her previous novel, Fall on Your Knees, remains one of my favourite of all time so I needed some distance to temper my expectations. But there’s also the matter of it being a whopping 722 pages long. I don’t do well with long novels. But given my intentions to read more women this year, and given the tenth anniversary of me buying the book, it was time.

It was worth the wait, and the long slog. MacDonald’s skill in evoking a time and place is astonishing. They way she nails the details of how a nine-year-old thinks, in that nine-year-old’s voice, is almost spooky. (Example.) That said, it wasn’t perfect even though it’s my most notable read of the year.

I found myself thinking that the editor might have been too enamoured with her charge and was incapable of cutting some excess. There were many long sections of the book, one at the beginning (arguably the entire first 40 pages) and several in the second part of the book (set some 20 years after the first part), that just didn’t belong. Those passages were nicely written, but they did nothing to further the story or to help us know or understand the characters in any meaningful way. We know we’re heading towards a collision with the ghosts of the events in the first part of the book, so we just want to get there. Yes, we want to see how the characters and the situation have changed, but we don’t need dozens of pages of this middle-ground material. I found it frustrating; it took me out of the book, sending me down tangential pathways I wasn’t interested in, and I burned impatiently through them until we got back to where I wanted to be. Now I’m no book editor, but in my opinion, The Way the Crow Flies would have been as good as Fall On Your Knees had the editor trimmed out a good 100 pages of those tangents. Regardless, the rest of it was so good that this flaw didn’t knock the book off of my “best of the year” pedestal.

Another interesting note on the 2013 list is that two of the books, Roll Up The Rim, by Leo MacKay Jr., and Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough, by John Ross, were written by old friends from my days at St. F. X. University. Both rattling good reads, and both are recommended.

Overall, it was a very good reading year. Only one graphic novel, which is down from my usual two or three. Only two of the titles were e-books, which might be worthy of another conversation another day. Mind you, I said the same thing a year ago when I posted my 2011 reading list.

[Previous years’ reading lists.]

Talking About Books

I like talking about books. What I like even more is listening to people talk about books. Over the years I have entertained this fetish by listening to CBC Radio and by attending various book festivals around town, most notably the Blue Metropolis festival (which, while still good, was a lot better when it was smaller and less ambitious).

Top of the list on CBC Radio is Writers and Company, with Eleanor Wachtel. I’ve been listening to that show for 20 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad episode. It’s so good that I cry a little bit every week when I think about Ms. Wachtel’s long career; she’s older than me, so in my golden years, while I pass the hours in a squeaky rocking chair next to a warm Tivoli radio, my dear Eleanor will be long retired and Writers and Company will be no more.

The only strike against Writers and Company in the context of this discussion is that it isn’t really about books; it’s about writers. But since writers are more likely to talk about books than anything else, it still counts, and counts big.

CBC’s other books show is The Next Chapter, with Shelagh Rogers. I confess I’m not the hugest fan. I don’t dislike it; in fact I’ve enjoyed many an episode. But its cheery “fan” vibe is a bit much for my taste. All pens and no swords. Hugs and camomile tea. So it’s good, but it’s rarely (to me) great.

Then there’s the late, lamented Talking Books, hosted by Ian Brown. Now there was a books show. The format was a panel discussion, lead by Brown, with various grumpy and curmudgeonly guests, most of whom were regulars. The knives were long and the bouquets were florid. Lots of people talking and yelling over each other and a few times it sounded like it might come to blows but it always ended in laughter. If you told me the setting was a smoky pub on a stormy night I wouldn’t doubt you. Unfortunately, Talking Books was cancelled in 2008, after 11 years.

So what’s a guy to do if he needs a fix of grumpy book talk? He starts a book club!

Last year, while bending elbows with a few of my surliest friends, I proposed exactly that; a book club. The intention was to be as unstructured as possible. As such, we have but one rule: there are no rules. Neither are there required readings. We simply meet, every four to six weeks, and talk about books. If patterns develop, so be it, but they are not to be seen as rules or requirements.

And there does seem to be a pattern. Most of our book club meetings unfold as follows. We meet at Amelio’s on Milton at about 5:30 on a Thursday or Friday evening. Once ensconced we order our “book club special,” a large vegetarian pizza with Italian sausage. I never fail to add, while ordering, “because that’s the kind of vegetarians we are.” The waitress never fails to smile and pretend, ha ha, she’s never heard that before.

After the meal, which is accompanied by an inordinate amount of wine, we over-tip then make our way along rue Milton to The Word, a quiet, beautifully shambled tiny gem of a used bookstore. Having four burly men smelling of sausage, cheese and Sangiovese burst through the door of such an establishment is surely terrifying, but so far the police have not been called and there have been no injuries. We do eventually calm down and manage to keep things reasonably civil, and we always make amends by purchasing a few books.

Unfortunately these wine-fueled book benders have resulted in a few duplications on my bookshelf as I sometimes forget if the luscious object in my hand is one I desire because I want it or because I already own it. In one case I had a copy of Michael Frayn’s Headlong thrust upon me by one of the book club members, along with a five minute oration on its merits. So I bought it. At our next book club meeting the exact scene repeated itself, with the same book, and I bought it again. I also recently discovered that I have not two, but three copies of Brian Moore’s An Answer From Limbo. One is the paperback I bought at a church flea market in 1986 (my first Moore, and the one that turned me into very much a Brian Moore fan). Another is a first Canadian edition hardcover from 1962 that was given to me as a gift, and the third a hardcover “club edition,” that I likely bought at The Word during a book club meeting.

After The Word we usually end up in a pub downtown, often the Old Orchard on rue de la Montagne because it’s a convenient hub for our divergent exits homeward, and it’s usually not so loud as to it prohibit conversation.

So if you enjoy books, and in particular you enjoy talking about books, I highly recommend you form a book club. But if you want it to succeed I suggest you eschew the usual book club formalities of required readings. And stay away from the tea and crumpets. The most important thing is that you all be friends, and that you all really like books and talking about them. In fact, you can substitute “books” for just about any shared interest and you’ll achieve the same success. And to make it that much better, don’t put it on Facebook, and never, ever tweet about it.