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.]

My Periods

I recently posted a series of photographs on Instagram and Facebook. They were all pictures of me — some self-portraits and some taken by other people — from 1979 to 2000. I called them “retroselfies” and categorized each as being from a certain “period” of my life. I posted one a day for about two weeks.

I’m reposting the images here, on the Blork Blog, as an act of reclamation of ownership, since I don’t feel like I fully own what I post in the walled gardens of Zuckerberg.

So here, for my own sense of reclamation, and for the two or three of you who are not using Instagram and Facebook, is the series of photographs I call “My Periods” (hashtag #retroselfie).

My Periods (1979-2000)

(Not in chronological order.)

Me, in my centrefold period. (Corner Brook, Newfoundland. 1979.)

Corner Brooke, Newfoundland

.

Me, in my radio period. (St. Francis Xavier University, 1986.)

Antigonish, Nova Scotia

.

Me, in my “dark and stormy night” period. (Montreal, 1988.)

Montreal, Quebec

.

Me, in my top-hat period. (Nova Scotia, 1980.)

Halifax, Nova Scotia

.

Me, in my folk period. (University College of Cape Breton, 1982.)

Sydney, Nova Scotia

.

Me, in my Hemingway period. (Montreal, 1990.)

Montreal, Quebec

(It was suggested in the comments that this was more “Corey Hart” than “Hemingway.”)

.

Me, in my “Into the Wild” period. (Nova Scotia, 1984.)

Antigonish Landing, Nova Scotia

.

Me, in my Slacker period. (Cape Breton, 1979.)

Gabarus, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

.

Me, in my Pablo Escobar period. (Otavalo, Ecuador, 2000.)

Otavalo, Ecuado

.

Me, in my sweater period. (Glenfinnan, Scotland, 1993.)

Glenfinnan, Scotland

(Loyal readers might recognize this photo from this blog post, and this related one.)

.

Me, in my Early Steve Jobs period. (Montreal, 1991.)

Montreal, Quebec

Note: there was no “Later Steve Jobs” period. (It was suggested in the comments that this was more “John Lennon” than “Steve Jobs.”)

.

Me, in my Tri-X period. (Prague, Czech Republic, 1995.)

Prague, Czech Republic

.

And in conclusion, me in my WTF period. (Montreal, 1989.)

Montreal, Quebec

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.]

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Thai Chicken Burgers, Improved by Blork

I found Gwyneth Paltrow’s Thai-style chicken burgers recipe in Chatelaine magazine (May 2013) and it became something of a summer favourite for us this year.

The recipe comes from her It’s All Good cookbook, but it’s been reprinted all over the web, from Paltrow’s own Goop.com web site to various other magazine’s sites and 1001 blogs. It’s always reproduced exactly the same way (although there is at least one variation in the ingredients), which is a problem for me because I don’t like the way the method is described. This is normal for me as I virtually never like the way recipes are written. I alway re-write them when I’m transcribing them for my personal recipe book, and this one is no different.

The “improved” recipe below includes a few small ingredient changes (based on personal preference) and a greatly improved description of how to put it all together, including important information about how to deal with the very goopy nature of the meat before cooking. (I don’t know if I have the right to present the recipe here, especially if it is modified, but given that it’s already everywhere, and I’m giving attribution, and Gwyneth Paltrow seems to be a nice person, I’m going on the assumption it’s OK.)

I serve these burgers with lettuce and lime-pepper mayonnaise, which you can whip up in about 45 seconds using jarred mayo. The patties themselves pack so much flavour that it doesn’t seem right to pile on a bunch of extra things. These are best served as simply as possible.

A Note on the Goopy Texture

I confess I use supermarket ground chicken because I don’t have a meat grinder. Perhaps if you do grind your own this note won’t apply. (Hardly anyone on the web has mentioned this issue, and those who do usually add breadcrumbs as a binding agent.) But in my experience it has the texture and stickiness of fairly wet cookie dough after you’ve mixed in the aromatics and spices. This makes it hard to shape into patties, and even if you do, the patty loses its shape when you try to move it from a plate into the pan. There is also a high risk the burger will collapse and fall between the grates if you try to grill the burgers without firming them up in a pan first. The tips below will help you work around this problem:

  • Don’t bother trying to shape the meat into a burger patty before cooking; Instead, just divide it into blobs and use the “smash burger” technique when you drop it into the pan (drop in the blob of meat then quickly smooth it into a patty shape using the back of a greased spoon).
  • I do not recommend direct grilling (people say they do it, and I have done it, but it’s not fun and the burger can easily fall apart). I suggest frying them in a pan, or a combination of starting it in a pan (such as one of those grill-top cast iron pans) and finishing it on the grill. Both options are described in the recipe below.
  • Cooking spray is your friend. Spray the plate on which you place the blobs of portioned meat, and use a spoon that you’ve sprayed for transferring to the pan and smashing (flattening) the patties.

Here are the modifications I made to the original recipe:

  • From 3/4 cup of chopped cilantro to 1/2 cup (loosely packed) because it takes a TON of cilantro to even make 1/2 cup, and it seems like too much to me. (Note that some iterations of this recipe on the web specify 1/2 cup.)
  • One teaspoon of sambal oelek instead of a teaspoon of minced red chile pepper. I always have samal oelek on hand, and I never have a single red chile pepper handy. This is an easy and sensible substitution.
  • One teaspoon of fish sauce instead of two. Fish sauce is extremely salty and we should all be eating less salt.
  • 1/4 teaspoon of coarse sea salt instead of 1/2 teaspoon. See note about salt, above.
  • 1 teaspoon of mirin or agave syrup. This is not in the original recipe, but the magic of Thai food comes with the interplay of spicy, salty, sour, and sweet. This recipe has nothing sweet (except the shallots, and that’s a special kind of sweet). I find that a touch of sweetness helps here, especially since I use sambal oelek, which is a bit vinegary. You can add this or not. Just don’t add too much; a teaspoon, or two maximum.

Blork’s Improved Gwyneth Paltrow Thai Chicken Burgers

Ingredients

  • 450 g (1 lb) ground chicken
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 1 tsp sambal oelek
  • 1 tsp fish sauce
  • 1/4 tsp coarse sea salt (optional; the fish sauce 
is already very salty)
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp mirin or agave syrup (optional)
  • 2 tbsp grapeseed (or equivalent neutral) oil

Method

  • Mix the garlic, cilantro, shallots, sambal oelek, fish sauce, and salt & pepper in a large bowl. Stir it around until it’s mixed into a slurry.
  • Add the ground chicken and mix. Try not to over-mix it; just stir and turn until it’s reasonably well mixed together.
  • Divide into four (or six if you like them small) blobs on a greased plate.
  • Cook in one of these two ways:

PAN:

– Heat a heavy pan until hot.
– Add the oil then drop the goopy blobs of meat onto the pan, quickly flattening them into a burger patty shape about 2 cm (3/4 inch) thick. Do this one at a time; drop, flatten, drop, flatten, etc.
– Cook for about 5-6 minutes per side (being careful not to over-brown) or until the internal temperature reaches 75C (165F).

GRILL:

– Heat the grill fairly high, and put a cast-iron grilling pan on it to heat up to hot.
– Put the oil in the grill pan, then drop the goopy blobs of meat onto the pan, quickly flattening them into a burger patty shape about 2 cm (3/4 inch) thick. Do this one at a time; drop, flatten, drop, flatten, etc.
– Cook for about 1 to 1-1/2 minutes per side, flipping when the underside is fairly browned.
– After both sides have browned, transfer to the grill and finish about 2-3 minutes per side or until the internal temperature reaches 75C (165F).

Serve on lightly toasted sesame buns with lime-pepper mayonnaise and lettuce.

Lime-pepper mayonnaise:
Mix about 1/3 cup of mayo with the juice of 1/2 a lime and a lot of coarsely ground black pepper.

Download an easy-to-print (one page) version of this recipe.