John Livingston - The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation (V)

Funny how you can go two decades in a field thinking you’ve read most of the leading thinkers/ writers and heard of the rest, then someone mentions a new name in conversation … that’s where Livingston came from. It’s a little eerie to think that I’d never heard of him, when there are very obvious parallels between his thinking and my (24x7) day job. But truly, I’d never heard of him before. 

He was the first producer of The Nature of Things. He was the voice of Hinterland Who’s Who. He was born and raised in Toronto. He taught at York University. He won the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction. How is it possible that I’d never heard of him? (Here’s a great obituary, by the way.

The Fallacy deconstructs the usual arguments in favour or wildlife conservation: use, self-interest, future generations, religion. It explains why none of them is up to the task of actually ensuring wildlife preservation. And then it argues that an individual's emotional, irrational physical connection to nature is the most powerful reason for preserving wildlife of all. 

It’s a powerful book that articulates a perspective rarely heard in conservation and environmental work. If there’s a weakness, it’s that Livingston never attempts to put his reason/ argument into a policy context. Why would a policymaker listen to the argument, however persuasive? I read the introduction and the interview with him at the beginning of the Reader and it offers more insight: Livingston believed that our (western) culture was broken. That wildlife conservation was likely impossible in the modern cultural climate. He accepted the possibility that no argument would actually work, that wildlife would not/ could not be preserved. Hence, he never promised that his “best” argument would actually win the day. Only that it was the most honest. 

Ann Cleeves - Raven Black (U)

Raven Black is the first in the Shetland Scottish detective series. I watched it after finishing the first two seasons of the Shetland TV show, so it’s hard to rate the book. The images of the show are so imprinted on my mind that the writing could have been dull as dishwater and I’d still have a strong sense of place. It scratched the itch after I devoured the Rebus book and wasn’t yet ready to move back to the nonfiction stuff I usually read in the mornings. I’d read more in the series. ‘Nuff said.

What’s Next?

Back to the real purpose of this book thread: some nonfiction to get me thinking.
 

John McPhee - The Control of Nature (S)

Here’s the setup: visit three places in the world where people have tried to hold nature at bay through engineering. In the first part, you visit the mouth of the Mississippi, where the river desperately wants to shift its position before it empties into the ocean. With locks and diversions, people have told the Mississippi where to go - and the river often, but not always, listens.

In the second part, you visit Iceland, where people used big hoses sucking seawater to hold lava from an erupting volcano at bay in order to save a fishing harbour.

In the third part, you visit Los Angeles, where debris slides from the mountains have the power to wipe out whole neighbourhoods - unless they can be contained by very large ditches. 

Elements of the book made me think immediately of the Baichwal, Burtynsky, de Pencier filmmaking trio. What would these places look like in pictures? How would locals’ stories sound if I could hear them in their own words? Unfortunately, I liked their imaginary movie version of the book better than the essays themselves. 

McPhee, who is an astoundingly successful writer on the topic closest to my heart, didn’t live up to what I wanted him to be. Are these places symbols of the Anthropocene? Are they metaphors or representative of a larger message? Why should I know this? 

In the end, it’s not clear if these locations were picked because they have  global significance, or if they were just the first three places McPhee thought to write about. I’m not sure what the lesson in the book might be - and not in the thought-provoking, non-didactic way that Baichwal loves. More in a “does this guy have an editor?” kind of way.

The book took a really long time to get through, mostly because the information - especially on the Mississippi - was so repetitive. By the time I was part-way through each essay, I started to get a bit resentful about the wordiness. Resentful because I genuinely care about the topic and wanted to know it better - just without all those words in the way.

What's Next?

Time for a change of pace ...

Paula McLain - Paris Wife (23)

I really loved One Night in Winter and wanted to stay in that era. There were several Hemingway references, so I gave The Paris Wife a try. What did I learn? Well, Ernest Hemingway was a jerk, apparently. Life in the arts in pre WWII Europe was pretty exciting - life in that time, in general, sans social media and internet and white noise makes for a fascinating read. 

But as a book, I think I missed whatever it was that inspired so many people to give it rave reviews. Maybe something happened in the audiobook translation that changed the tone. But it was kind of a boring read. And by the end, with the nicknames, I just wanted to grab them all by the ears and make them stop. Cutesy nicknames are not a substitute for actual affection. I scoured Goodreads reviews to see if there’s something I missed, but they are firmly divided into two camps: greatest book ever vs. boring book about boring person who happened to know some famous people for a while. I fall into the second camp.

Kudos to the author for the research and the lovely prose. But I just didn’t care a whit about the characters or see any real story arc - it wouldn’t have been that hard to amp up Hemingway’s career aspirations (which he obviously had) and amp up her growing domestic aspirations (which she also had) until there was an inevitable clash. Instead, the grocery offerings at the market are treated with the same level of detail and care as that time her husband’s mistress crawled into bed with them in the middle of the night and the time they stopped talking to their best friends because of an un-described “falling out”. All trees, no forest.

What’s Next? 

Something truly nonfiction.
 

Simon Sebag Montefiore - One Night in Winter (22)

I loved this book. The only reason I didn’t give it 5 stars is because I have hunch some people might find it a little slow, but it’s one of the best, most pleasing books I have read in a couple of years. (I reserve the 5-Star rating for books I believe should be rammed down all of humanity’s throats, whether they like it or not. It’s a high bar.)

I picked up One Night in Winter solely because I wanted to listen to a really wonderful narrator. I’m so very glad I did. It’s just this really wonderful slow burning political (mini)-thriller rooted in Stalin’s Russia in 1945. It weaves love stories in with the investigation of the political antics of children. There’s a paranoia that runs through it that gives you such a strong impression of what it must have been like to be close to Stalin during those times.

There isn’t a specific line or scene that stands out. Just wonderful drawn characters and a thoughtful, well-developed social and political context for them to romp around in. 

What’s Next?

Dipping into the library of old books, since I’ve eaten up all my audio credits for the month. 

McNish and Silcoff - Losing the Signal (20)

The story of the rise and fall of Blackberry/ Research in Motion. It came out in 2015, but mostly ends a few years before that. It centres on the launch of the Blackberry, the company’s global success, and then sheds light on how and why the company failed in the wake of iPhone and Android competitors. 

People interested in corporate case studies will find it fascinating how the company was simultaneously peaking and collapsing at the same time - the signals of success were screaming loudly at the exact moment that strategic decisions (and indecisions) were being made that doomed the company. The fact that those two things could be happening at the same time is an important lesson. 

It’s a good read, but it lacks the main thesis or moral that makes some corporate histories and biographies spectacular. At under 300 pages, there isn’t space to truly get inside the heads of the players involved in the story. As a result, it has the feel of a very long magazine feature, more than a book.

But it’s a fast read and an interesting counterpoint to the usual “yay Silcon valley rah rah” stories.
At the end of the day, many people walked away with a lot of money. You could spin it as a success story, and an American may have done just that. But because the company is now a shell of its former self, it failed to survive. Which makes it an inherently Canadian story. A nice post-script to Margaret Atwood’s analysis of the quintessential “Canadian” story of survival. 

What’s Next?

Fiction again. Something with a wonderful narrator, a voice that will lull me after weeks and weeks of long hours and travel. 

Frederik Backman - A Man Called Ove (20)

Ove (pronounced “ooh-vi”) is such a delightful old grump that you fall in love with him instantly (which is the entire point of the book). It’s an ensemble book with a cast of characters and voices unique, distinct, and 21st Century. It reminded me of “Up” (a movie I love) without the talking dog.

The book has a sweetness and a thoughtfulness to it. The story of Ove and Rune and their spat over cars is one of the most intelligent arcs I’ve read in a while. The spat is mentioned throughout the book - Ove doesn’t like Rune because Rune drove a Volvo until one day he traded it for a BMW. But when it’s finally explained, there’s so much nuance to it, so much thoughtfulness of character wrapped up in one short story, that it’s like you’re reading the novel version of haiku. 

Tonally, it reminded me of Heft, which I also loved.

What’s Next? 

Back to nonfiction.

B.A. Paris - Behind Closed Doors (19)

The act of writing a book, of putting words to paper and telling a story beginning to end, is worthy of respect. The blue-collar, “got-er-done” achievement of making a book is admirable. Very few people can claim this achievement.

Not every author appeals to every reader. Not every story, style of prose, or perspective is for everyone. But you have to respect the work. 

That’s what I’ve always thought. Until Behind Closed Doors came into my life. 

Paris is a good enough writer that I did read this book beginning to end. I didn’t put it down. I didn’t walk away. I feel strongly about the book. The characters were vivid. Those should have won Paris points. 

But the plot is so profoundly disturbing - and not in a good way - that I wish I’d never read this book. I stuck with it to the end because I wanted it to redeem itself - and me by extension.

After I finished the book, all I could think about was how long it takes to write a novel. How long a writer has to live with those characters. And why, with all the characters and all the plots in all of human imagination past present future, would an author want to spend any time with this plot or these characters? Why?

I can probably count on one hand the number of books I’ve criticized based on their plot. I will read anything, if the writing is decent. I don’t need to like characters or plot to value the experience of stepping into an author’s world. But I can’t forgive Paris putting this tiny fictional world inside my real life world. I want it expunged. 

Here’s why: (Spoiler, but trust me, it’s a favour): Woman has a sister with Down’s syndrome. Woman meets handsome, rich man. Woman agrees to marry man if he accepts responsibility for her sister. This is necessary because parents never wanted her in the first place and can’t be bothered to take care of their own child. Man agrees. Turns out, the only reason he is marrying woman in the first place is because he has fantasies of torturing a woman with Down syndrome for the rest of her life (plot twist!). Meanwhile, outside world thinks man and woman have the perfect marriage. 

If your idea of a good time is reading a book about spousal abuse and the torture of people with Down syndrome then please knock yourself out. But since this is no one’s idea of a good time, the fact that this book exists makes no sense. This is weird torture porn featuring abuse of someone with Down’s syndrome, and that’s not entertaining. 

It’s too much. It’s too far gone. It’s not a good book. And I think less of anyone who says they like it. 

What's Next?

I landed on this book because I wanted a domestic fiction story to follow up on Elon Musk and his nonfiction quest for Mars. Will aim for another highly reviewed book and hope it clears the ghosts from my head. 

Ashlee Vance - Elon Musk: Inventing the Future (18)

Where to begin with this. Okay, so first, it’s a decent read about a man at the head of two companies that are incredibly influential in shaping North American technology and markets right now. The book is worth reading for that reason alone. But it isn’t the 5-star change your life marvel that most reviews would lead you to believe. 

Whether or not Musk is a crazy person, a jerk, or some kind of demigod isn’s super relevant to me. If you want to like Musk, there’s enough in the book to make you think he’s a genius. If you want to hate Musk, there’s plenty here to make you think he’s a jerk. Moving on.

SpaceX and Tesla are young enough companies that the book can describe their early years and recent successes, but their true impact won’t be known for another decade. 

I disliked the author’s style, and there’s no way this is perfect book. Vance inserts himself into the narrative for no reason whatsoever - mostly just the lazy use of first person narration to stitch together information. This habit, combined with too much fanboyism for Silicon Valley in general, creates this feeling like the author wants desperately to be part of Musk’s world. It’s annoying.

One premise about Musk’s childhood confuses me. Vance makes a lot out of the idea that Musk had a “difficult” childhood. He hints at, but offers no details about issues with Musk’s father. He references bullying, but the examples he gives - Musk being called names, a friend being beaten up - sound more like any rough and tumble childhood before the bubble-wrapped 21st Century. I feel like anyone my age could tell similar stories. Better examples needed to be given in order to justify the amount of time Vance spends on this point or he needed to dispatch with it quickly, like say that he has good reason to believe something or things very serious happened but no one would go on the record. Instead, he labours the point and then offers weak examples. 

The most interesting parts were the stories about challenges Musk and his company faced. The general gist of it is that people basically always wanted Musk’s companies to fail - competitors, investors want to make power plays, rivals within the company, vested interests from old industry, people who dislike him personally, etc. 

To me, these stories were the best way to illustrate how Musk’s clarity of vision and singular, simple focus (go to Mars, make the best electric car) are the defining characteristics of both Musk and his companies.

Julia Scheeres - A Thousand Lives (17)

"No one joins a cult" is one of my favourite lines in the book. 

"No one joins a cult" is one of my favourite lines in the book. 

"A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown” is about the rise and fall of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple. Jones, an American, takes a group of followers to settle “Jonestown” near the Guyana - Venezuela border. Their journey ends with nearly 1,000 people dead.  

The book is based, in part, on reports from survivors. This is both a strength and a weakness. The survivors tended to be people who were jaded Jones followers, so they are unable to answer the most important question of all: why on earth would anyone follow this guy? Jones seemed like a strung-out, inconsistent egomaniac without any real religious conviction or idealism to capture people’s imaginations. The book tells the “what” but not the “why”, and the why seems like the more interesting part. 

Scheeres seems to make a case against the idea that Jonestown was a “mass suicide”. She argues that residents at Jonestown were starving, living in terrible conditions, and had guns pointed at them when they drank the poison.

The phrase “drank the Kool-Aid” should probably mean “chose the lesser of two horrid options”, rather than "going along with something out of obedience or peer pressure". One doesn’t normally have a gun pointed at them in those cases. This again brings me back to the main question: how did all of those people actually end up at Jonestown in the first place?

What’s Next?

Stepping onto an airplane, so going with something that was already in my audiobook library. Elon Musk it is (and nope, no connection between the two books intended). 
 

Margaret MacMillan - The Uses and Abuses of History (16)

In The Uses and Abuses of History, historian Margaret MacMillan gives examples of ways that political and military leaders have manipulated interpretations of history to further their agenda, often with catastrophic impact on lives and freedom. It flowed naturally from The United States of Japan, but it also called up a lot of the same themes as Lessing’s Prisons and Atwood’s Survival. 

The audiobook was lovely to listen to, but I’ll confess that it’s a pretty heavy topic that I whipped through casually. Her writing on the aboriginal land claims in the Canadian context deserves a re-read of the print version, because I’m not sure if I heard what she was saying correctly. It seemed as though she was dismissing truth and reconciliation on the basis that “if every group of people that has been wronged asks for restitution, society will never get anywhere.” I can’t believe that’s what she was actually saying, given the tone of the rest of the book. 

There’s really one, overarching point: history lessons are manipulated, so people should look for facts to support their beliefs. The strongest arguments in the book deal with mistakes and injustices that political leaders make when they choose to ignore (or be ignorant of) history.

That’s where the book most strongly echoes Lessing and where MacMillian’s anecdotes are most compelling.

What’s Next?

Another telling of history …
 

Peter Tieryas - United States of Japan (15)

This book injected itself into my reading stream after a road trip. Someone else was listening to it, and I got hooked on the first few chapters. It’s an alternate history sci-fi book that imagines Japan won World War II. It’s kind of Big Brother meets Ready Player One meets Pacific Rim. It’s an easy read, in the sense that the characters are well-developed, dialogue is fast-paced, and there’s lots of movement. It’s a hard read, in that it’s grim and violent and sometimes hard to tell who is good and who is bad. 

The stand-out concept for me was the idea that the government monitors people’s video-game habits. They track choices made in games and use patterns to identify people who might be rebellious or threaten the status quo. That’s a great premise for a book. With the right writer/ director, it’d be a great movie, too.

What’s Next?

I’ve been eyeing a book about the uses and abuses of history, but it never quite worked itself into my other book thread. After my frustrations with Sinek and the themes of USJ, this seems like a good time.
 

Simon Sinek - Start with why (14)

I listen to audiobooks when I’m riding my bike to work. Sometimes, on the long stretch of bike path near the railway path, I get going really fast. Every now and then, the wind gusts by and makes it a bit hard to hear. When I love a book, I crank the volume up so I can hear it over the wind, even though it’s too loud the rest of the time. Usually, I just miss a sentence here or there and keep riding. 

Sinek’s book is fine. It’s mostly geared towards marketing, branding, or business people thinking about how they differentiate their offering from their competitors’. There’s value in being reminded to get back to the true heart of why you do what you do.

It’s 7 years old, so it’s not Sinek’s fault that I’m reading it at a time when TED-inspired lessons about how you, too, can be a genius or be just like Steve Jobs are getting stale. But there was definitely that element. 

I liked it enough that I’d look forward to listening to it, but not enough that I’d crank the volume to drown out wind and trains. 

What’s Next?

Started an audiobook on a recent road trip - United States of Japan. Back to fiction.
 

Sara Gruen - At the Water’s Edge (13)

At heart, this is a romance novel, not quite as Gothic as Rebecca and not quite as formal as a Bronte, but in that vein. What grabbed me at the outset was the dry humour. The premise itself is so absurd that there’s no way the book can ever take itself too seriously. It’s so funny that people who might not otherwise want to read a british romance novel might actually enjoy it. And the relationships are dark and twisty enough that Gone Girl lovers may find a story they enjoy, set in the hills of Scotland.

So here’s the setup: It’s New Year’s Eve 1942. Young newlyweds get drunk. The husband embarrass the father at a family party. It is decided that the only way to get back into the family’s good graces is to travel to Scotland. In the middle of the war. And find the Loch Ness Monster. 

Off go the newlyweds. Drama ensues.

I like Gruen’s writing style and totally enjoyed this book. 

What’s Next?

Something non-fiction, where I might actually learn something instead of just consuming Scotland-based fiction like it’s candy. 

Rich Cohen - The Fish That Ate the Whale (12)

Subtitle: The Life and Times of America's Banana King 

Still on the memoir/biography kick. Clearly that’s my 2016 thing. This one has been on my reading list for a long time, but I’ll confess. I didn’t really want to read another book about an American with an idea who struck it rich, business lessons were had by all, and so on and so forth.  I’m more interested in common experiences and people than rare experiences and people right now … but I needed something to bring me back to life after the Great Lakes/ Murakami slog of June. This did the trick.

The book is positioned as a business biography, but it’s the colonial, meta-Colonial (what’s it called when colonies start colonizing other colonies?), corporate political influence angle that was most interesting. This is exactly the kind of book that would have blown my mind in my early 20s - true life stories of people doing unheard of things and shaping government, politics, and history on an epic scale. For example, regime change in the Americas to make it easier to sell bananas. 

It’s not a perfectly written book, but it’s an easy read so the flaws are easy to overlook. The content itself is so thought-provoking that I appreciate the author’s work and am glad he put this out into the world.

What’s next?

Fiction, please. Something in which the intrepid detective Logan McRae doesn’t play a leading role ...

Christina McDowell - After Perfect: A Daughter’s Memoir (11)

After getting bogged down in Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle, I wanted an audiobook diversion. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt, but the book really won me over. 

It’s a memoir by Christina McDowell (nee Prousalis). She was the spoiled rich daughter of an American businessman who went to jail for nasty business dealings. It’s rare that authors read their own books well, but she’s a skilled audiobook narrator.

It’s a challenging book to start, mostly because McDowell and the world she comes from aren’t that likeable. As a reader, you’re not sure how you’re supposed to feel - is it okay to dislike them? do other people dislike them? does the author know the things they are saying make her dislikable? When it all goes to hell, are you supposed to pity her? Or is it okay to not actually feel sorry for these people now forced to live basically the way every other person in North America has to live (getting jobs, paying bills, making their own food, etc.)

It’s interesting - rarely does a book so obviously reveal as much about you, the reader, as this one. I found myself not super sympathetic to her, largely because I don’t think having to live like I do is a pitiable state of affairs.

But as the book goes on, more layers are peeled back. 

Her parents never taught her how money works, how credit cards work, how bill payments happen. They’ve basically stunted her ability to function in the regular world. 

But, at the same time, she comes from a large enough network that she was able to find help and support often (not always). She found friends, roommates, and peers who kept her (mostly) off the streets. This speaks to being part of a network of privilege or advantage that many children of criminals don’t have access to. 

But then, she also makes some poor choices, helped enormously by the surprisingly seedy and icky side of life in Los Angeles. (It seems that young, desperate females in LA are only ever a conversation away from prostitution.)

It’s all complicated by the insight that white collar criminals can also be manipulative sociopaths. Unlike the "money-hungry, ambitious business people who push the envelope too far” trope that usually fills out the white collar crime narrative, McDowell’s father comes off like a plain old fashioned manipulative criminal. A guy who thinks that rules just don’t apply to him. A guy who would steal his own daughter’s identity to fund the lifestyle he and his wife believe they deserve.

So what you’re left with is less the story of a privileged girl whose father was a white collar criminal and more the story of a daughter whose father was a plain old fashioned criminal. 

Palette cleansed. Back to Murakami.
 

Stephen King - On Writing (9)

Stephen King’s On Writing is part memoir, part “how to write” manual. I’ve seen it referenced a million times, and it seemed like a good follow up to Patti Smith’s writing-in-a-coffee-shop memoir. This book deserves the love it gets. 

The first half of the book is entirely memoir, which introduces people like me to the writer and would appeal to fans who don’t care a whit about writing. 

The second half is the writing tutorial. The gist is: read a lot; learn the basics of grammar and structure so you have control; write the first draft without concern for what anyone else might think; then edit ruthlessly. 

Favourite Quotes

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.

 

Observations

It’s a blue collar approach to writing, geared more towards describing how a solid writer can develop her skill and win the chance to keep writing. It’s not about the product so much as it’s about creating the conditions whereby someone who wants to write gets to spend most her time doing just that.

This approach likely offends people who want to write the Greatest Novel of Our Time. Given the choice, I’d take doing something I love for the rest of my life over hitting the jackpot one single time. 

What’s Next?

Dunno. I figured a Stephen King novel would be a good follow up, but the Audiobooks are unlistenable. I need to cross back over to audiobooks, but don’t know where to go from here. 

Patti Smith - M Train (8)

Oh, Patti Smith. This is the book where my audiobook thread flipped over to print. I started to listen to this about two months ago, but I adored Just Kids in print and felt like I was missing something without the text and images. Patti Smith is meant to be read. 

Favourite Quote/ Scene

Nostalgia, melancholy, aloneness, poetry, nomadic living ... I will read all of her books forever.

Truly, my favourite part of the book was when she woke up, found cat vomit on the floor, and cleaned it up before making herself coffee. That’s a work ethic/ commitment-to-cleanliness that I envy. 

Observations

What’s to deconstruct? It’s just honest, raw, flowy, introspective, coffee-fuelled goodness. She’s lost the people who were the biggest influence in her life, the people to whom she was deeply attached. Now, she’s roaming the world, sitting in coffee shops, writing in journals, giving speeches about explorers, snapping photos, slightly haunted. Equal parts rock ’n roll and domesticity. 

What’s Next?

Smith’s focus on her journals made me think about the craft of writing … I’m thinking of a highly-rated book that’s half-memoir, half writing tutorial.