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.]

Books I Read in 2011 (…and a few notes about my iPad)

A as per new-year tradition, here is the list of books I read in the year just ended, with commentary to follow:

  • Stet, by Diana Athill*
  • A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
  • Homo Evolutis, by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans*
  • Headlong, by Michael Frayne
  • On Being a Photographer, by Bill Jay and David Hurn*
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré
  • The Happiness Manifesto, by Nic Marks*
  • Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, by Peter Maas

Yes, that’s a whopping nine books, two of which (Homo Evolutus and The Happiness Manifesto) are “Kindle Shorts,” meaning they are very quick reads. Clearly the trend is downward, as 2010’s list contained 23 items and 2009’s contained 32. My high point since starting this tradition in 2004 was 38 books read in 2007.

The list is so short I’ll dispense with the usual breakdown of author by gender, fiction vs. non-fiction, etc., as you can see all that at a glance. One thing that is worth mentioning is the ratio of electronic books (“ebooks”) to paper ones; in this case 4:5. (The titles in the list marked with an asterisk were e-books that I read on my iPad.)

There are two factors that I can blame for this decline in book ingestion:

  • A significant change in my daily routine. Since early June of 2011 I have stopped commuting, so I no longer spend 150+ minutes a day crammed into a stinking and overcrowded subterranean tube with only my books to save me;
  • My iPad.

I won’t go into details on that first point, as the new paradigm (working from home) is still a work in progress. I’ll need at least another six months before I can say anything definitive about that.

As to the iPad, it’s both a blessing and a curse. The blessing part is easy; just watch the iPad commercials on TV. The curse is that the iPad is so full of instantaneous endorphin-jacking delights that I fear my brain is being trained away from the kind of pleasures one typically hopes for from a long and solitary reading experience, such as:

  • Deep immersion into a another world. It could be a world with a bunch of different characters, locations, and situations, but if it’s all in the same book then those things are unified by the author’s voice and intentions. Falling into that for extended periods (read: more than 140 characters at a time) is a pleasure and maybe even an acquired skill. In either case I fear our ability to go there, or to even know there is a there to go to, is rapidly disappearing.
  • Deep focus on the characters, locations, and situations within the world of the book. This isn’t quite the same as simply being immersed. When you achieve focus it puts that immersion on a whole other level.
  • Relaxation and mindfulness that come from the above mentioned immersion and focus. It can be meditative and good for the mind. From what I’ve read, studies have shown (and my personal experience bears this out) that spending time on Twitter of Facebook before going to bed can cause problems falling asleep. The oversimplified explanation is that those rapidly-firing tweets and posts and links cause your brain to fire rapidly too, putting it into an uneasy and unrestful state and making it harder to relax and go to sleep. You don’t get that with a book.

On The Other Hand…

Lest you think I’ve only been reading in multiple doses of 140 characters, let me put that idea to rest. One of the joys of the iPad is the easy access it gives me to long-form magazine writing. In 2011 I read far more long articles in The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Economist, Slate, Salon, Al-jazeera, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and various other newspapers and magazines, than I have in any other year in recent memory. Most of it comes via Twitter, where I follow a lot of those rags as well as people who link to them. For me, that’s the best thing about Twitter: endless linkage to great articles.

I use Twitter together with Instapaper to make it a more comfortable experience. Twitter provides the link, and if the article seems worth reading I’ll shoot it over to Instapaper where it is trimmed of all extraneous clutter and ads. It then sits there patiently, waiting for me to read it at my convenience (I don’t even have to be connected to the internets). I’ll describe this in detail in a later post. To many of you it’s probably second nature, but for people who don’t have iPads and who don’t use Twitter, you gotta see this stuff to believe it.

So I’m still not sure if the iPad is more blessing or more curse. I love the on-board dictionary that you can call up any time by just touching a word. I love that I can highlight and write margin notes on any ebook and many online articles. But I am short attention-spanned by nature, so it is hard to spend time simply reading a long piece without slipping out for a Twitter or email break every few minutes, which inevitably breaks the flow of the immersive experience.

I hope to read more books in 2012. I already have half a dozen on “standby” on the iPad, and my frequent trips to The Word on Milton, S.W. Welch, and Drawn & Quarterly mean my ever-expanding pile of unread paper books remains ever-expanding. Here are a few that I pulled out yesterday and put on a dedicated shelf in an attempt to force a commitment to read them this year:

Books I will read in 2012

Wish me luck!