Clare Mackintosh - I Let You Go

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There is obviously a specific genre of book that I don’t love, a kind of “chick lit with spousal abuse” thing that many people on the internet do go crazy for. As a result of their love, books get 4 and 5 star reviews that just really aren’t very good books. Then I get sucked into reading them. Then I get annoyed and don't care if my notes contain all the spoilers.

I’d like to propose a moratorium on allowing the word “twist” to be used to describe the revelation that a man is beating his wife, particularly in the thriller, chick-lit, or pulp novel genres. I’d like to propose an outright ban on allowing abuse and child murder/ torture in the same book. And I’d like to impose some kind of sanctions on having abuse + child harm + animal abuse all bundled into one package. It’s a cheap ploy, and I won't fall for it.

If I want to feel awful, I will read literature so I can feel awful for a good reason at the hands of a master writer. I am fine with that. Or horror, in which the author’s agreed-upon responsibility is to scare and/or freak my pants off. Or I will read non-fiction about important social or historical issues. Some of those books make me feel awful, too, and I am more than fine with that. 

But when I pick up something that is supposed to be entertainment, I don’t want to spend 50% of my time reading vivid descriptions of physical and sexual abuse. I don’t want child murder to be thrown in when the abuse gets dull. 

I’m annoyed that this is like the 4th time it’s happened in the last year. I think it’s weird that people read this stuff for fun. And I think female readers - to whom these books seemed to be aimed - deserve more intelligent plots and characters, even in light pulpy novels. So there. Moving on. 

Hayao Miyazaki - Starting Point 1979-1996

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The first of two anthologies of interviews, speeches, and writings by the world’s greatest animated filmmaker, Miyazaki. This isn’t an easy read - well over 400 pages of granular insight into everything from Miyazaki’s changing views on Marxism to the difference between 5-cell and 6-cell animations of humans running. It’s the kind of treasure trove of information that appeals to ardent fans.

Miyazaki on animation

The general theme of currently popular shows seems to be that the protagonist jumps in a giant machine he couldn’t possibly have created on his own, battles the enemy in it, and then boasts about winning. I frankly hate these kinds of shows. I don’t care what types of robots are featured. For me, in a  truly successful mecha show the protagonist should struggle to build his own machine, he should fix it when it breaks down, and he should have to operate it himself. (1979)
Certainly, it takes great effort to create significant work given the current flood of animation. It is like pouring clear water drop by drop into the muddy flood waters. (1982)
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Miyazaki on life and work

As we grow from childhood into youth … anxiety grows exponentially, and we worry about how on earth we should live our lives. Our anxiety forces us to look for an antidote that will rid us of this feeling as quickly as possible. We want to find something that will help us grab our own chair in this world and sit in it. (1982)
What is needed when involved in collaborative work is the flexibility to use without hesitation a better plan than one’s own (even if it comes from a rookie hired the day before) and the determination to convince others through discussion to adopt the ideas one believes in. (1989)
When you criticize another person’s work at the workplace, you need to have an alternative plan and the ability to persuade other that your option is better. The workplace has no use for a critic. (1989)
Many people in Japan today are of the opinion that working all the time is a problem, but I happen to worry that in the near future so few people will work that it will become a problem. I think this is hinted at by the fact that so many people today just do the work they are told to do and are incapable of figuring out what they need to do beyond that. At the very minimum, I never want to lose the excitement I experience when I’m working. When I do, I think it’ll be all over for me. (1992)
What I’m trying to say is that if we’re mainly confining ourselves to big-picture, general statements about things, there’s simply too much beyond our control. One reason we humans have so many problems, I’m convinced, is precisely because there is this huge disjunction between the world of generalized statements and the wold of specifics, or details. But humans can be perfectly satisfied by working with the details. It’s an idea that I recently find very appealing. If you only think of problems from the big-picture level - as if looking down from a mountain or an airplane - they may seem to be truly unsolvable. But if you get closer to the ground, you may see a path to solve them that proceeds fifty meters or so. it may look like an appealing road, and if the weather’s good and the sun’s out you may feel energized and able to make it down the road. The point that intrigues me here is that by merely changing your perspective your thoughts on an issue may change as well. (1994)
Leaving decisions up to the collective wisdom of the masses just results in collective foolishness. (1994)
As humans, we probably can’t go on living unless we believe that within the finite environment in which we exist we can enjoy a variety of experiences, feel happy, and be emotionally moved. (1995)
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Miyazaki on environment

You can understand a lot about the world from looking at a single river. (1994)
The question then becomes, what is hope? And the conclusion I’d have to venture is that hope involves working and struggling along with people who are important to you. In fact, I’ve gotten to the point where I think this is what it means to be alive. We don’t know what’ll happen when we plant grass or clean rivers. Is it something that even connects us to the future? No, not at all. But nothing will happen unless we do it. (1994)
I think my neighbourhood river is better if it’s clean rather than dirty and foul smelling. If we do these sorts of things in our own limited way, thinking ho wonderful it would be if we could go fishing here, in just an hour of crawling around in the riverbed we can understand what it would take a renowned scholar to tell us in a two-hour lecture. (1994)
Opening an art museum is certainly a cultural act, but isn’t it also engaging in culture to consolidate electrical power lines, decrease the number of traffic signs, and make the city look less unsightly? (1995)

Peter Pomerantsev - Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia

I picked up this book thinking that it would be like a male-narrated, Russian version of Unreal. I wasn’t even sure if it was nonfiction until I looked it up about 1/3 into the book. (It is.) 

Turns out, it wasn’t like Unreal at all. That’s not a bad thing. It was actually a shocking look inside Russian culture (not in a “my culture is so much better than yours” kind of way, but definitely voyeuristic). 

A favourite part of the book was the focus on the individual stories of Russian people - pulling from the author’s documentary days. Those personal stories and experiences were really interesting (and often tragic) and would have been so had they happened to people from any country or background. I feel like narrating an individual’s story in long-form is a bit of a dying art, and I really appreciated the way Pomerantsev found characters with interesting stories and brought them into focus. I feel like I have a better sense of Moscow after this than I had after all the lengthier, more detailed historical fiction I read last winter.

I had no idea, for example, about the suicide epidemic that challenges former Soviet societies:

Six of the seven countries with the highest suicide rates among young females are former Soviet republics … Emile Durkheim once argued that suicide viruses occur at civilizational breaks, when the parents have no traditions, no value systems to pass on to their children.

Some quotes that reveal the basic premise of the book:

Many in the Russian public, cynical after living among Soviet lies so long, often assume the Kremlin’s reality is scripted. There were indeed some grounds for skepticism: the Russian security services had been caught planting a bomb in an apartment block (they claimed it was a training accident); the speaker of the Duma had publicly announced one of the explosions before it had taken place.

and,

The great drama of Russia is not the “transition” between communism and capitalism, between one fervently held set of beliefs and another, but that during the final decades of the USSR no one believed in communism and yet carried on living as if they did, and now they can only create a society of simulations.

So the book wasn’t funny and it wasn’t a satire and it was true, not fiction, but it was a fascinating read and absolutely something students of Western (esp. US) politics and media today should scan. 

Gail Honeyman - Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

In the vein of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk or even a Man Called One for the younger generation, this book shows why I’ll take a British writer over an American writer right now almost any day.

There’s not much in the way of plot here - awkward young woman makes a friend - but the characters are vivid. Also, after A Little Life, which I dislike more and more each day, it was wonderful to read a story about someone who had a difficult life who didn’t moan about it for 800 pages. The writer gets out of the way and lets the story unfold. 

Ann Patchett - Commonwealth

Ugh. This book was fine. But I’m sort of sick of/ over the avalanche of popular books from 2015-2016 in which (a) authors can’t start at the beginning and end at the end because they have a sneaking suspicion that the story and/or characters just aren’t actually interesting enough to pay attention to and (b) the stories are bleak for bleak sake.

My 16-year-old-self would be appalled that it’s come to this, but it seems that it has. Let’s be real. This is a book about  a blended family in which basically everyone dies. Why does everyone die? Because it takes place over something like 50 years. Sometimes kids die. Sometimes adults die. But the author doesn’t seem to care much about what happens during those 5 decades when people aren’t dying, so it all just gets stale. 

Why would you spend so much of your time, if you get to be a writer, writing about that part of these people’s lives? You get to be a writer! You get to imagine lives and make them up! And that’s the best you can come up with?!

The most interesting part of the whole book was the summer that one of the characters spends on the east coast with an older writer and his obnoxious New York friends. That was also the only part of the book in which someone wasn’t dying, just died, or reminiscing about the time that someone died. Oh, that and the baby shower in the first chapter and the birthday party near the end.

I blame everyone who read this book on the subway so openly and flagrantly for endorsing it and making me think I was missing out on something great (and its bright orange cover). 

Adrian Goldsworth - Caesar: Life of a Colossus

Two weeks ago, I was thinking, “Funny, there are parallels between Caesar and certain presidents.” I had just got to the part in Caesar’s life when he wanted to come back to Rome and be a political leader again, but he couldn’t, and so the only path to getting what he wanted was to overthrow the government and seize control of it for himself. Once in power, there are some historians who say he had no plan and didn’t know what to do with that power, policy-wise, and basically “this is a lot harder than my old job.” 

But then there was that whole kerfuffle with the play and Caesar reference and the costume and the sponsors pulling out and suddenly the parallels seemed less amusing and I was reminded why I prefer historical biographies to the morning newspaper/ Twitterfeed.

The book was basically  “Caesar did this and then Caesar did that” enumeration of his activities. He was an astonishingly prolific letter-writer, so there seems to be a good record. Fun side note: daughters were considered so irrelevant that they didn’t bother to give them their own names. Another fun side note: Caesar would sleep with the wives of his political rivals just to mess with their heads, which is bold. Very bold.

Terry O'Reilly - This I Know

Terry’s a friend and I don’t normally write about friends books, but it’s absolutely fair to say that this book delivers exactly what it promises, plus a little bit extra. It’s smart, a great read, and definitely the first book someone in business who wants to think about advertising and marketing should read. I plowed through it with my morning coffee. In hard copy. So that’s saying something.

Ann Cleeves - Shetland Series continued ....

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It’s not really clear why murder is a suitable antidote to the abuse and dark mayhem of the last few novels I picked up, but the next 4 books in Cleeves’ series became the spring palate-cleanser that I needed during a busy month. 

I read the first in the series last fall and liked it, but the books get better and better with each one. They’re like detective serials but with so much more space for the landscape and with really fully-drawn characters that grow and change. I feel no shame in binging on these four books, which deviate ever-more from the TV series.

The setting is obviously the best part - they’re called the Shetland series for a reason. After a few books, you can pretty much smell the salt in the air and taste the whisky. You can feel the dampness, I think, but that may also just be southern Ontario in the wettest summer on record. Hard to say. 

Hanya Yanagihara - A Little Life

A book about abuse so long and gruelling that it blurs the previously-unheard-of line between reading and intellectual torture. I finished this book because I needed to know if there had been a point to the layering of horror upon horror: Genius? (Is it all - life - worth it?) Pompous? (Look how crappy I can make you feel!) Insightful? (Stare directly into the abuse, do not shrug away) Exploitive? (Pile on the tragedy for the sake of entertainment!). 

It’s one of those books where you want to give the author credit because writing anything that long is a triumph and the characters are theoretically interesting, but where you also wonder if perhaps this is a call for help of some kind. I gave it leeway, thinking that the person who wrote the book must feel compelled to raise awareness for an issue - but then discovered afterwards the author has repeatedly been criticized for not doing any research at all. So I spent 700 pages submersed in fictional abuse without actually learning anything about the real-life issue, struggles of victims, and struggles of the people who want to help those victims. What was the point?

I walked away from the book wondering, not if life is worth it, but if this book itself was worth it. Why would an author feel the need to make so many people feel so awful for so long? Am I a bad person because I don’t actually like any of these characters? Because empathy was displaced by annoyance about 40% of the way into the book? 

What bugged me throughout the book was how much it felt like an adult, overwrought version of teen romance novels. In the teen novels, the plot goes something like this: girl who doesn’t think she’s super special has a problem, like a flat tire, and special boy drives buy, fixes tire, and also determinadly falls in love with her despite her own insecurities; he’s just so overcome with affection for her specialness that he can’t help himself. “Because she’s special” is the deus ex machina that is supposed to explain the entire novel. It didn’t work when I was 14 and it’s not working now.

In this book, Jude is just so uber-special that his entire adult life is spent collecting enormously wealthy and successful people who seem to have nothing better to do than to dote on him. He’s like a one-man Katamari Damacy of the New York elite. 

On top of that, the fact that Jude is also supposed to be a genius, highly attractive, a talented musician, a fine chef, an active swimmer, a world-traveller, etc etc makes his life pretty “perfect” (barring his relentless unhappiness). I couldn’t help but think about what a real person in his (preposterous) situation might actually have turned out like and how out of reach things like education, free 24/7 health care, multiple homes, free architectural services, etc. would be. I just couldn’t buy it.

Nathan Hill - The Nix

This was supposed to be one of the best audiobooks of 2016, and it was a victim of high expectations. It was fine, I guess, but not “best” of anything. Not even close. The book rambles and has little to no point. At the beginning, it seemed to wander in order to setup different characters. Fine. But then plot didn’t really kick in. It kept wandering. It felt super indulgent.

The gist of the multi-character wanderings is summed up with the statement that sometimes, "You're so wrapped up in your own story that you don't realize you're a bit part in someone else’s.” Yes, interesting point. But a point doesn’t make a novel, and this one feels more like the thought experiments of a teenager discovering postmodernism than something born of real craft. 

E.g., "I'll change your name to something silly, he tells ‘Periwinkle’.” Yes, I see what you did there. I see your self-reflexiveness. Clever. But not a book. These ideas are decades old, so I’m left with the impression that the author didn’t bother to read any of the postmodern writers who came before him. 

Characters come out of nowhere, named after and based on people from real life - Allen Ginsberg, a random comic foil, and Hubert Humphrey. (What was with the internal monologues of Humphrey, by the way?)

Also, the ending was a let-down, not just the plot but the writing itself. It was like even the author got bored and phoned it in. 

(And what was with the line line at the end about how pain just means it’s a new beginning, thus the looming economic crisis is a “good thing” because we can all start afresh? It was is just tossed in, out of nowhere.) 

Elizabeth Kostova - The Shadow Land

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Kostova's debut novel is a thing of much amusement in my house. I adored that book, a classic case of "right book, right moment". I gave it to someone to read and he declared, "This is just a book about a bunch of people doing research in libraries."

"No no, I said. It gets really good."

So he persists. To the climax. In which (massive spoiler alert) the villian (a vampire) captures the heroes and traps them so they will WORK IN HIS LIBRARY. 

...

Kostova's third book is exactly a mashup of any Dan Brown novel with Us, Conductors.

If you want to read US, Conductors but are daunted by the Serious-Canadian-Literature of it, or you want to read Dan Brown but are totally embarrassed by the Thrilling-Puzzle-ruined-by-the-Worst-Writing-Ever of it, then this is absolutely 100% the book for you. 

I was surprised by the Communist work camp storyline. After having delved so deeply into other Communist-themed novels in the last 4 months, I just didn't see this one coming. Definitely more politics in this book than the plot synopsis suggests ...

I was thrilled to read a book about Bulgaria. (Maps were definitely consulted in the reading of this book, and with some relief one of the characters near the end says "no one is really sure where this place is today.") While I am sure Bulgarians probably want to be known for more than historical work camp atrocities, at the very least I was introduced to the geography and political history of a new (to me) country. 

Also, part of this book conjured up Cloak and Dagger from my childhood. I won't give away the ending, but there is a moment when it is entirely possible that the old people aren't so nice after all. 

Norman Van Aken - No Experience Necessary

There are some spectacular chef memoirs out there, including a few of my favourite all-time biographies. That puts the bar really (and unfairly high) for Van Aken. Is it the greatest chef memoir ever written? No. But it also feels unfair to hold it against a chef/ author just because his life doesn’t include any astonishing tragedies or melodramas that make fact read like fiction. It’s a solid memoir. 

Probably the most interesting aspect of the book was the insight it offered into the growth of New American cuisine and some of the influencers who shaped a style of cooking, a business, and ultimately much of North American culture. 

I liked that Van Aken didn’t write as if he knew what he was doing would be noteworthy many years later. He doesn’t recall details or events as if he’d been keeping notes all along, planning his personal brand or whatever kids these days are doing. 

Side benefit: interesting insight into the growth of Florida cities/ culture in the 1980s. I didn’t know much about Key West (or “Key” Lime pie for that matter) until I read the book .

More than any other chef book I’d read, Van Aken exposes the business side of the restaurant world. It’s not all about the beautiful produce arriving at the kitchen door. It’s also about managing inventory, controlling spending, sketchy partners, and the lessons you learn when you move from staff to management to owner. 

Paul Beatty - The Sellout

I love biting, dark satire. The first third of this book fits the bill. It tickled my funny bone in exactly the right place. The “experiments” the narrator’s father subjected him to were especially fantastic. 

The two issues I had with the book were plot (it’s pretty thin for the last chunk of the book) and the character of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal.

Maybe it’s my lack of knowledge of the Little Rascals (and thus many lost references), but aspects of Hominy’s character (and his connection to the main character’s choices) were tough. The leap from Hominy’s personal quirks and desires to full-fledged “re-segregation” of a town was a very, very big leap. I had a hard time reconciling the biting humour of painful-but-oh-so-true social observations in the setup with the need to suspend disbelief to follow the plot in the second half.

It’s an enjoyable read, but as it continues you realize it’s more farce than satire. It’s fun and well-done, but not necessarily my cup of tea. For other readers, I’m sure the opposite would be true - once the adventure really gets rolling near the end, maybe they’d like it even more. 

Memorable quote: 

Like Nazis at a Ku Klux Klan rally, they were comfortable ideologically, but not in terms of corporate culture.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Americanah

I feel like we need to really wait 10-20 years to see how it ages, but for this moment in time, it’s such a great book for capturing current patterns of speech, academic, political, and social perspectives. It’s familiar, even when describing places, experiences, and cultures unknown to me. I finished it a couple of weeks ago and it’s lingered with me. 

This book sat on my shelf for a long time, largely because some of the reader reviews made it sound superficial. They mention “lengthy” excerpts from the character’s blog, long scenes where nothing is talked about except hair. Those criticisms are unfair. It’s not a challenging read in terms of the language, but the characters and the subject matter are so thought-provoking that there’s a lot to dig into. 

Plot-wise, it’s a fairly straightforward story of young love and separation. It’s not the plot that makes the book so engaging, but rather the characters (who are layered and who evolve over the years), the way the present era is captured, and the style. Race and outsider-ness is the dominant theme, but there are also interesting explorations of adulthood/ childhood, class, and gender roles.

A favourite excerpt:

In the den, Athena began to cry. Laura went to her and, soon enough, a string of negotiations followed: “Do you want this one, sweetheart? The yellow or the blue or the red? Which do you want?” Just give her one, Ifemelu thought. To overwhelm a child of four with choices, to lay on her the burden of making a decision, was to deprive her of the bliss of childhood. Adulthood, after all, already loomed, where she would have to make grimmer and grimmer decisions.

I’m so distracted by some reader reviews on this one. People who didn’t like it generally accuse the book of being rambling, of characters coming in and then disappearing. This is exactly one of the things I liked most about it, because life is like that. People pop up, hang around, and disappear. There isn’t a neat and tidy introduction-climax-departure cycle to normal relationships. Sometimes you really do only meet someone at one dinner party one time. Similarly, people are critical of the main character for being self-centred and sometimes contradictory. Most of us are - we see life from our point of view, not from the perspective of some omniscient narrator. This is an honest way of telling a story. Also, we change our minds. It happens. 

The other criticism comes from people who say the author preaches too much, comes across as judgemental. I don’t think that’s fair - an author should be able to put words into a character’s mouth without having to agree with those words. Just because it’s in the book doesn’t mean the author has to agree with it. 

For example:

“And we saw this quite unbelievable parade of little children with heavily made-up faces and then there was a lot of flag-waving and a lot of ‘God Bless America.’ I was terrified that it was the sort of place where you did not know what might happen to you if you suddenly said, ‘I don’t like America.’”

Does the author think that? Who knows? Who cares? A character said it in conversation at a dinner party, as people are wont to do. 

Mary Roach - Packing for Mars

I didn’t know that there was a limit to my interest in sewage, but Roach found it. Actually, astronaut porn was my limit. Sewage was just the icing on the cake. 

The premise - and first half - of this book was super enjoyable. I sprinkled “did you knows” about going to space, the moon, and Mars liberally throughout numerous conversations. It’s a book worth reading if you’re even remotely interested in space travel and you want to know about the real scientific and engineering challenges NASA et al face, not just the fancy and glamorous ones.

It wasn’t even really the sewage that got me, the floating faeces and horrid stench that apparently characterizes visits to space. It was the skin. The floating skin. An entire chapter with great detail dedicated to what happens to dead skin cells in zero-gravity. This is the kind of book that doesn’t lend itself as well to an audiobook, because you can’t control the pacing. Sometimes you want to just skim through the space skin bits. 

What is Water? - Jamie Linton

"The state of water always reflects, in one way or another, the state of society.” - Linton, 2010

I don't like reviewing books written by friends, acquaintances, or in my own field publicly. So I don't want to post much here.

I'll just say that my takeaway from this book is that people, especially people under 30, interested in working in water should read this book. 

The Housekeeper and the Professor - Yoko Ogawa

Honestly, I saw that this was another novel about a mathematician and I figured “I’m already on a roll ….” That was my entire reason for reading this book (that, and the good reviews). It’s a quiet novel, simple. A woman becomes a housekeeper for a difficult client - a mathematician whose memory resets every 80 minutes.

The characters are well-drawn and you can’t help but feel affection for each of them.

Math. Baseball. Mystery.

The reviews all say things like “charming”, “gem”, “elegant” and words to that effect - and they’re right. 

What’s Next?

Something 2017y, buzzy. 

Born a Crime - Trevor Noah

Born a Crime has one of the hallmarks of a great memoir - it would be an interesting read even if the person who wrote it wasn’t famous. If the guy in the book had moved to America and simply secured a nice desk job, went home on the weekends, and self-published this little passion project for fun, it would be a good read. 

As a North American, 1980s South Africa was a fascinating, mysterious place. The evening news taught me the word “Apartheid” at a young age*. Nelson Mandela was a hero. For a relatively small dot on the map, South Africa occupied a huge place in the global political imagination.  

Noah’s book was really the first non-fiction I’ve read about living in that era. And it’s fascinating. 

* I did think the word was “Apart-Tide”, as in “A tide of people kept apart” because I didn't understand it wasn't English.  I also thought that Central America had a “gorilla” crisis.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk - Kathleen Rooney

An 85-year old woman walks through New York City on New Year’s Eve in the 1980s. As she walks, she reflects on her life. Comparisons to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry are inevitable. If you like one, you’ll quite likely like the other.

It’s a straightforward book, but what I got out of it most were two things. First, Lillian is a woman who valued her career more than family (in a way) at a time when that was an incredibly unfashionable thing to do. Her story is captured with all the nuance and conflict and anxiety that making such choices would bring upon someone in that era with more nuance and grey shading than the usual corporate-boss/ stay-at-home-mom tropes conjure up. 

Second, as you learn more about Lillian, this becomes an interesting book about identity and mental health. It sneaks up on you. But then it’s there. And it captures that notion that all city-walkers have that each person they pass may have a life of great depth and change hiding behind their eyes. It evokes a big city street, rather than simply describing one. 

Bonus points for some interesting insider knowledge of the history of advertising. I particularly enjoyed the scene when Lillian was asked to be part of a panel discussion, only to have her old work mocked by younger experts. The young experts, as they do, assume that those who came before them did what they did because they didn’t know how to do it “better”. Hadn’t yet discovered all the things that the young experts had discovered. They didn’t recognize that perhaps it was the right work for the right time and thus, brilliant work. They didn’t recognize that they only know what they know because others came before them. And Lillian’s response is fantastic.