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.]

10 Years of Cassandra Pages

The noise in the blogosphere has long surpassed the signal, which may explain the decline in relevance of the “personal blog.” Where once the platform was largely about personal writing and exploration, blogging now is a vehicle for competitive foodieism, personal branding, and all forms of marketing.

This shift was inevitable, so there’s no point in complaining about it. Fortunately, many personal blogs still soldier on, including this one (although in my case “limp” would be a better choice of verb). Some toil in obscurity, others attract a bit of attention by issuing screeds and rants. And then there’s The Cassandra Pages, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last week.

The Cassandra Pages is written by Beth Adams, who I’ve been privileged to know as a friend for much of that ten years. Martine and I met Beth when she and her husband Jon showed up at a YULBlog meeting some time around 2004. (It might have been 2003, or even 2005; I have a terrible sense of time past, a gift I inherited from my father.) She and Jon were engaged in a very slow process of moving to Montreal from their home in Vermont where they’d lived together for 30 years. I was attracted to them immediately, partially because their story was so different from the others at YULBlog, but mostly because of their genuine warmth, intelligence, and curiosity.

Since then I have had the triple pleasure of knowing them as friends, seeing Jon’s photographs, and reading Beth’s blog. Don’t go there for rants or shopping advice. Turn away if you’re only interested in tech noise or social platitudes. The Cassandra Pages is a ten year (and onward) personal writing space for Beth’s experimentation and expression, and for your reading pleasure. It strikes that rare note of being a personal blog – based on a life being lived and the observations made along the way – while remaining approachable and relevant to anyone who cares to read it. As with all good memoir writing, it never comes off as being “all about me.” Rather, it’s about us; the “we” that forms when a writer connects with her readers, and readers see truth and thoughtful inquiry in a writer’s impressions.

Congratulations Beth, on 10 years of The Cassandra Pages!

Jack Kerouac and Poutine

Recently, on Twitter, @Audrey_Sprenger tweeted that Jack Kerouac’s favorite snack was “Med rare cheeseburg on Engl muf w mayo & fried onions” because “it reminded him of poutine.” My bullshit detector immediately sounded, and I replied saying so. After a bit of back-and-forth, I backed down, deferring to Sprenger’s expertise, because, as it turns out, she’s a Kerouac scholar and therefore knows a thousand times more about Jack Kerouac than I ever will.

However, my doubt persists. Unfortunately, Twitter only allows 140 characters per post, so there’s no way for @Audrey_Sprenger to provide much evidence, and conversely there’s no room for me to present my counter-argument. Hello Blork Blog!

This really should be a discussion in a hazy bar over several beers, but since it’s 2011 we have to hash this stuff out over the internet. Thus, here in brief, without malice, is why I doubt that Jack Kerouac had much – if any – nostalgia for poutine: the timing simply doesn’t add up.

Before we get into the details let’s take a quick overview. According to Wikipedia, poutine was invented in the late 1950s. As we all know, Jack Kerouac died in 1969. That leaves a ten or twelve year window for him to (a) find out about poutine, (b) get to like it, (c) get nostalgic about it. And that’s assuming he made the statement about his favorite burger in the year he died. What if he (supposedly) said that in 1964? Or 1960?

Let’s drill down a bit. First let’s look at Kerouac and his timing. To begin with, Jack Kerouac was not a French Canadian. His parents were French Canadians. Kerouac himself was born and raised in the United States. Although he spoke Joual before he spoke English, the majority of his cultural influences growing up would likely have been of the red, white, and blue variety. Even if French Canadian culture was very present in the Kerouac home, it would have been the culture of his parents’ generation. His parents moved to Massachusetts before Jack was born in 1922 – his birth being some 35 years before poutine was supposedly invented. Their nostalgia for Quebec would have been for things as they knew it in the first few years of the 20th century, a good 50 or more years before poutine arrived.

Anyone with a map will tell you that Massachusetts is not far from Quebec, and no doubt the Kerouacs maintained ties as close as they could. But there was no internet then. Long distance telephone calls were expensive and working-class people usually restricted them to emergencies or brief exchanges of news. I doubt there were any French Canadian newspapers or magazines in Lowell, and very likely no French Canadian radio. More importantly, by the time poutine was invented, Jack was long gone from the household, living at various times in the 1950s in New York, California, and Florida. How would word of the invention of poutine ever have reached him?

Now lets consider the timing of poutine. If Wikipedia is correct and it was invented (in the form and by the name we now know it) in the late 1950s, how long would it have taken for it to become a Quebec-wide cultural phenomenon? There was no internet in the 1960s. Whereas today a phenomenon can go global in a matter of hours, poutine had no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to hurry its popularity. It would have spread slowly, one grease bath at a time, fanning out from Drummondville.

From its invention in the late 1950s, it probably wasn’t before the mid-1960s that it became a regular feature at casse-croutes across Quebec. Maybe longer, but let’s say it was that soon. In the meantime, Kerouac was enjoying literary and pop cultural success, living the “high” life, strung out, drinking, and doing the bo-ho-beatnik lifestyle. Where, in that haze of opium and hash smoke, booze, and poetry, would he have had the time and inclination to find out about an obscure snack in the home of his parents, and to not only know of it, but to try it, like it, and become nostalgic about it?

But then, I’m not a Kerouac scholar. I’m basing this all on logic, a sense of timing, and a pretty clear understanding of how rumours, folklore, and magical thinking spread.

On Twitter I made the mistake of thinking that Audrey Sprenger was just a random Kerouac fan who easily fell for a line of bull (as we all do when we’re fans of something). So perhaps I’m also mistaken with my counter-hypothesis. If someone is able to prove so (or even present compelling evidence) I’ll gladly accept it and will be grateful for the knowledge. But until then, I’m sticking with my gut feeling on this.

To reiterate, my gut feeling is that Jack Kerouac was never nostalgic for poutine.

I will leave room for the following possibility: I know that towards the end of his young life Kerouac was suffering from a number of problems, including an identity crisis of sorts. That identity crisis might have lead him to investigate his French Canadian heritage (I think I’ve read something to that effect, but I can’t cite it) and in doing so he might have heard of this new-fangled poutine thing. He might even have taken a road trip to Quebec in order to try it. And he might have mentioned it a few times, which under the circumstances would not qualify as true nostalgia but as a type of cloak-wearing, not unlike what we saw in that famous episode of The Sopranos when Tony and the boys go to Italy to attend to some business, and Paulie Walnuts finds himself being more Italian than the Italians even though he gets it all wrong and can’t even speak the language.

But that’s all just speculation based on how things go when people start questioning who they are and look to their heritage for answers. I have no idea if Jack Kerouac did that, but it would provide an explanation for a poutine reference, if indeed one exists.

Books read in 2010

As I’ve done every January since 2004, I present here a list of the books I’ve read in the previous year, with commentary.

  • Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
  • The Stranger, by Albert Camus (translated by Matthew Ward)
  • My Antonia, by Willa Cather
  • Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon
  • Utz, by Bruce Chatwin
  • Enemy at the Gates, by William Craig
  • The Story So Far…, by Sheldon Currie
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
  • Little Man, What Now, by Hans Fallada
  • The Garden of Eden, by Ernest Hemingway
  • Island, by Alistair MacLeod
  • Broken Glass, by Arthur Miller
  • Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller
  • Homely Girl, A Life; and Other Stories, by Arthur Miller
  • Murder over Dorval, by David Montrose
  • Judith Hearne, by Brian Moore
  • In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O’Brien
  • The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
  • A Day in Our Lives, by Seán O’Crohan
  • The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson *
  • Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín
  • Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. *
  • Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson

* Read electronically.

That’s 23 books, significantly fewer than usual (my all-time high since I started logging was 38 books in 2007). That said, I do not feel that I read noticeably less last year. The difference is that I read more long form journalism than usual, and for that I thank my iPad and Instapaper, a combination that turns a slab of metal and glass into an amazing library of long articles curated by none other than yourself. While the same can be said of any Web-enabled device (such as a desktop computer or a laptop), the iPad/Instapaper combination puts the experience on a whole other level of portability, which I will talk more about in a future blog post.

In contrast with that very contemporary note, I seem to be continuing my fascination with mid-20th century prose. 12 of the titles (just under half) were published between the 1920s and the early 1960s. Six were published in the mid-60s to the mid-80s, and only five are “contemporary.” To my shame, only two were written by women.

Highlighted titles are the ones that really stood out for me. I’ll spare you the long reviews, largely because I’m an unreliable reviewer. A positive response does not always line up with a sober critical analysis, and that’s OK with me. Sometimes a book just bores into you and rubs up against something in your mind that triggers emotions and memories so strongly that almost make you feel high on chemicals. That’s purely subjective and has little to do with style or even story.

For example, The Garden of Eden is widely acknowledged to not be among Hemingway’s finest (it was incomplete upon his death and published posthumously) yet it had me reeling for balance and feeling knocked outside of myself for the couple weeks during which I read it. This kind of response is highly personal and has more to do with evocation and yearnings that with strict formal precision. In my case I have a real soft spot for the south of France (where most of the novel is set) and a hard-wired, knee-jerk romantic response to Hemingway’s time and the struggles of his characters.

And it doesn’t hurt that Hem was a master stylist.

The only book I put down unfinished in 2010 was The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr. The book received a lot of attention when it came out in 1995, and was on the New York Times‘ Best Sellers list for over a year. That was 15 years ago, so I figured it was about time for me to give it a look. (If you haven’t noticed, I am completely unmoved by any sense of urgency when it comes to buying and reading books. They exist outside of time for me.) I can’t say for sure what made me put it down – that was more than six months ago and I took no notes – but I recall feeling bored and unmoved by the prose.

That’s surprising given the topic – a memoir of growing up in a small industrial town replete with various abuses of the mind and body. Gritty stuff, and something I can relate to. But it just didn’t seem very interesting. It felt like she was telling us instead of showing us, and I recall there being sweeping and expository comments about “society” that were written as if the author thought that everyone on Earth lives in the United States. To be fair, I didn’t get very far in, and perhaps it gets better further on. I should also note that I didn’t throw the book across the room, I just sort of put it down and never picked it up again.