Liz Moore - The Unseen World (26)

The premise of this book is that the young Ada Silbelius is raised by her single father, a brilliant computer scientist. Until something happens. The characters are fully realized, haunting. I cried for about 35% of the book. There are secret codes. It’s partially set in the 1980s. I really loved this book. 

Sadly, I can’t say anything more about it without giving away the entire mystery. 

What’s Next?

Another female author, another father/ daughter relationship. This time, Canadian. 

Amor Towles - A Gentleman in Moscow (25)

The longest, posh-est “bottle episode” I’ve ever read. I’m not sure what to say about this book except that it’s lovely and sweet and the characters are well-drawn. There is not a ton of action - the main character is sentenced to life imprisonment in a luxury hotel, after all - but for a character-oriented bit of historical fiction it was a good read. 

What’s Next? 

Time to hit the re-set button. The “first audiobook of 2017” is a lofty title and I’ll need to find something worthy ...
 

Johann Hari - Chasing the Scream (24)

The subtitle is “The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs”. It’s an eye-opening book. I hadn’t seen the TED talk or heard of the author’s past issues with journalistic integrity but am relieved to see that the original interviews that seed the book are all online and that critics focus more on his conclusions and analysis than the basic facts. Because it was the scenarios and real-world examples that interested me most.

First, the opening section about the history of the drug war in the USA were fascinating. The story about Billie Holiday was so tragic and infuriating that I stopped the book to buy one about her for later reading. 

If you are interested in institutional racism and the characters who buried it in the foundations of  some USA institutions, this is an important read. Ditto for addiction, drugs, crime and the justice system, and anyone studying how policy ideas spread from one country to the world. 

What’s Next? 

Back to fiction. I can’t stop thinking about One Night in Winter, so something in that vein. 
 

William Finnegan - Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (Q)

This is one of the most highly rated memoirs of the last year, and I’ve been looking forward to reading it. Unfortunately, the audiobook is poorly made (an example of why most authors shouldn’t read their own audiobooks). I almost didn’t read it, but the reviews kept pulling me back. 

Depending on how much you love surfing, the book wanders from good to fantastic. Thirty years of waves around the world are described in great detail, and if the topic of surfing is interesting to you then the book will be an incredible read. This is not one of those books where the memoir is a vehicle for a larger point about life - there is no universal theme that will draw in readers who don’t care about surfing. It’s not a metaphor. It’s a well-written chronicle of the adventures of a surfer. 

What you take from it is that surfing isn’t like other sports and hobbies. You’re at the mercy of waves and weather. When they call, you go. And if you don’t heed the call, you’re not a real surfer. Towards the end of the book, there are descriptions of how waves change - hurricanes, dredging, construction. When that happens, the use of the shore changes. The people who use it change. The local economy shifts. (Granted, I read a lot into a short chapter.) Only surfers would see this. Because only surfers are there, on the water, looking back to shore. 

What’s Next?

More water. But this time, back in Canada.

Michael Moorcock - The Dancers at the End of Time (P)

Technically, this book is a trilogy made up of three books: An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands, and The End of All Songs. It is set (mostly) at the end of time and tells the last love story of all time (between Jherek Carnelian and Amelia Underwood).
 
I read this book in university, and the idea of the "fin de siècle” never left me. The term literally means “end of the century”, but also refers to the end of an era. In the book, it means the end of a time when humans have reached peak decadence.

At the end of time, everything is possible. Every wish can be granted, every desire fulfilled. Aliens visit the earth, but humans don’t leave the planet. Humans have everything they want or need, so ambition and adventure have largely disappeared. Using “power rings”, they can manufacture homes, clothes, food, transportation, anything at all. The only things they can’t create are books and music - a hint that the items being made are illusions, not actual creations. 

At the end of time, people want for nothing. But they haven’t noticed that the world around them is actually declining. Their power sources are running out. Their life is not sustainable. Enter Amelia Underwood, a woman plucked from Victorian England against her will and brought to the end of time. Adventure ensues.

I wasn’t sure if the book would hold up, but it totally does. It drags a bit in a few places (it is three books, after all), but it’s such an interesting exploration of time, place and character.

It was a hard book to track down, and I was curious about the author. Turns out, Moorcock is well known; the Times of London has even called him one of the best writers of the late 20th Century. He’s an interesting guy, above and beyond his fiction. 

There’s his article “Starship Stormtroopers”, in which he argues that many popular sci-fi/ fantasy writers are authoritarian-loving, bourgeois reactionaries, Christian and/or Stalin apologists (and bad writers to boot). 

There’s this interview, in which he slams the genre: 

Most fantasy and SF is vaguely liberal, some of it is disturbingly right wing, writ- ten by people who like the idea of slicing other people’s heads oand so on. I was attracted to it originally because it wasn’t a de ned genre, there was very little of it and, like rock and roll, you could make something of your own out of it. If I was a young writer today, I’d have absolutely nothing to do with it.

And also explains why he lobbied bookstores to think carefully about where certain books are placed: 

I’m not for censorship but I am for strategies which marginalize stuff  that works to objectify women and suggests women enjoy being beaten.

What’s Next?

There wasn’t enough water at the end of time, so I’m heading to the beach. 

Hermann Hesse - Peter Camenzind (O)

Certain books come along at exactly the right moment. This is one of those books. It’s been sitting on my e-reader shelf for ages, patiently waiting. After a three week road trip through Europe, it seemed like the perfect book for the flight home. It was.

Hesse is probably my favourite writer. Definitely top three. I love both his fiction and his nonfiction. But I’d never read this, his first novel. It follows Hesse’s usual bildungsroman structure - male youth struggling to find his way in the world, torn between two worlds, falls into dark times, and eventually makes a choice. In Hesse’s epic Glass Bead Game, the choice is between the cloistered, intellectual, pure world of academia and the dirty, messy “real” world.

In Camenzind, the choice is between urban life and remote mountain life in the early 20th Century. What better way to end a road trip through the Alps than with a book about a man who must decide if he wants to leave the Alps behind?

Hesse spends more time with nature in this book than in most of them, which is why it’s special. The struggle is the struggle between nature/ instinct and intellect/ social construct. The first is pure, but lonely. The second is impure, but fulfils a human desire for achievement, progress. It’s basically the apple/ Garden of Eden story, but with more mountains, no snakes, and a sneaking suspicion that “knowledge" is a distraction rather than a gift. 

Here's how the theme develops, (leaving out the plot parts where the protagonist realizes he's a pretentious git who needs to grow up): 

I would lie for hours by the window gazing down upon the black lake and up at the mountains silhouetted against the wan sky, with stars suspended above. Then a fearfully sweet, overpowering emotion would take hold of me - as though all the nighttime beauty looked at me accusingly, stars and mountain and lake longing for someone who understood the beauty and agony of their mute existence, who could express it for them, as though I were the one meant to do this and as though my true calling was to give expression to inarticulate nature in poems.

And

“You are a poet,” said the girl after a moment.
I made a face.
“I don’t mean it that way,” she went on. “Not because you write stories, but because you love and understand nature. It doesn’t matter to most people that the wind sings in the trees or that a mountain shimmers in the sunlight. But you find life in all this."

And then

And what if my love of nature should enable me to speak the language of woods and streams - for whom should I be doing this? Not solely for those I was fondest of, but really for the sake of a mankind I wanted to lead toward love, even teach to love.

And then

I wanted to teach people to listen to the pulse of nature, to partake of the wholeness of life and not forget, under the pressure of their petty destinies, that we are not gods and have not created ourselves but are children of the earth, part of the cosmos.

And finally one of my new favourite quotes of all-time

I wanted you to feel ashamed of knowing more about foreign wars, fashions, gossip, literature, and art than of springs bursting forth outside your towns, than of the rivers flowing under your bridges, than of the forests and marvellous meadows through which your railroads speed.

Who doesn't want to be a poet cheese farmer here, drinking straight from those mountain streams? iPhone snap from Austria. 

What’s Next?

I read this entire book on the flight back to North America. There’s another book waiting for me at home, one that’s been sitting on my shelf for a year - this time, it’s set in the future. 

Sabaa Tahir - A Torch Against the Night (N)

ATorchAgainstTheNight_CV 4.14.jpg

I have been waiting for this book for a year.  It is young adult and has a female protaganist, so it does not get much attention from people my age. But I figure if Harry Potter and Hunger Games can win people over, then so should the Ember in the Ashes series.

It is much easier to read than Game of Thrones, but involves similar fantastical themes (no dragons, yet). It scratches an itch. 

Now I only need to wait a few years (?) for #3. 

What's Next?

A book I have been sitting on for a few months.  Now that I have seen the Alps, I am ready. 
 

Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany - Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (M)

Nothing says "on vacation" like devouring a Harry Potter story in a single day. The "book" is really a script for two plays, plays that are selling for astronomical ticket prices in London.  You couldn't see ome of the plays without seeing the other, and you probably do not get much from the story if you have not read the original series.

Between this and the Magical Beasts trailer, it is nice to have Harry stories back. 

What’s Next?

One more vacation book to come. 
 

Laura Young - Solo but never alone (L)

A book about every person who has swam across Lake Ontario (and other Great Lakes). How could you go wrong?

Each person's story has the same core - they swam (or tried to swim) Lake Ontario. But every person's story is also different: their reasons for doing it, the lake that met them, the challenges they had. 

The title of the book captures the recurring theme: a swim across the lake is a "solo" swim, but the athletes can't do it on their own. From the swim masters to the coaches to the support boat operators, it takes a team to complete one of the toughest marathon swims in the world. 

What’s Next?

Vacation book!
 

John Riley - The Once and Future Great Lakes Country: An Ecological History (K)

Tough. Slog. This book took me forever to read. So long, that I actually can’t remember a time when I ate breakfast reading something else. In fairness to the author, it’s almost like a textbook. The structure that makes it hard to read front-to-back likely makes it a good reference book. But boy did I work hard to get through this.

First and foremost, this book as the most comprehensive summary of indigenous communities in the Great Lakes region that I’ve seen. That early section of the book alone is worth reading just for that purpose. (In fact, I kind of wish the author had just published that section as a stand-alone book. It would reach a larger audience, I think.)

It shatters notions that the North America was pristine and unchanging when Europeans arrived. It also shows how gut-wrenchingly quickly Europeans ravaged the landscape. Most of the region was decimated before Canada was even a country. 

I am absolutely glad I read it, but I do have to question the editor. A heavier hand with the red pencil would have eliminated a lot of the repetition, particularly in the last third of the book. The author includes a ton of lengthy, direct, and repetitive quotes from journals and diaries of the past. All interesting information, but when strung together you almost can’t see the forest for the trees so to speak. Less would definitely have been more. 
 
There’s a lose interpretation of “Great Lakes” and “future”. There are huge chunks of information about happenings in New Jersey, a neighbour of the region okay, but also places like Florida. Again, interesting stuff, but the main argument gets unfocused. It’s cool that the book focuses on the past, but there’s not a ton of “future” in here. Be prepared for a history textbook with little contemporary commentary or future predictions.

Also, this is one of the most depressing books I have ever read. (And I read this kind of thing for a living.)

Saul & Curtis - The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement (I)

I know The Stop program through friends. Everyone who supports or volunteers for the organization raves about its work, as well as the offshoot Community Food Centres Canada. I spotted this book in a local second hand shop and figured it would be a good read.

It’s a great introduction to the organization and exploration of the issues surrounding hunger in cities. The authors spend a great deal of time exploring the issue of food banks and whether they address roots causes (or “upstream” issues) or whether they mask the true depth of hunger and poverty problems. 

It’s written in the first person, without the kind of insidery exploration of nonprofit organizations that would have been fun fodder for Charity Case. But it’s an accessible way to tell the organization’s story and explain the issues they’re trying to address. A nice, local read. 

What’s Next?

More of the non-fiction, current, local focus … but with more water. 
 

Doris Lessing - Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (G)

This “book” is actually transcripts of Doris Lessing’s 1985 Massey Lectures. Lessing kept coming to mind when I was reading Atwood and Station Eleven, but I wasn’t ready to leave the comfort of nonfiction. So, I ended up here.

The “prisons” Lessing refers to are the crushing political and social states we create because, for whatever reason, humans seem unwilling to objectively study our past behaviour and take steps to shape our own futures. We jump from ideology to ideology, oppressing groups of people across eras, countries, and cultures.

In the most prescient section, Lessing talks about the ways politicians manipulate public opinion. She’s writing about mid/late 20th Century politics, but her observations are even more relevant today. 

Favourite Quotes

This business of seeing ourselves as in the right, others in the wrong; our cause as right, theirs as wrong; our ideas as correct, theirs as nonsense, if not as downright evil....
There is no such thing as my being in the right, my side being in the right, because within a generation or two, my present way of thinking is bound to be found perhaps faintly ludicrous, perhaps quite outmoded by new development— at the best, something that has been changed, all passion spent, into a small part of a great process, a development.
[a] detached, curious, patient, investigative attitude ... is the most valuable thing we have in the fight against our own savagery, our long history as group animals.
Perhaps it is not too much to say that in these violent times the kindest, wisest wish we have for the young must be: “We hope that your period of immersion in group lunacy, group self-righteousness, will not coincide with some period of your country’s history when you can put your murderous and stupid ideas into practice. “If you are lucky, you will emerge much enlarged by your experience of what you are capable of in the way of bigotry and intolerance.
You will understand absolutely how sane people, in periods of public insanity, can murder, destroy, lie, swear black is white.”
Government by show business.... Well, every authoritarian government understands this very well.
The researchers of brain-washing and indoctrination discovered that people who knew how to laugh resisted best.
 

What’s Next?

Eyeing the Trumbo biography ...

Ed Catmull w/ Amy Wallace - Creativity, Inc (F)

Building an organization is messy. Success is hard and, often, a bit of a fluke. Books about management aren’t very helpful. Sometimes you’re wrong. There is no substitute for talent.

These are the types of lessons in Creativity, Inc., the book about Pixar’s emergence as an iconic animation studio.

I loved this book. I’ve read most of the management classics, and I largely dislike them all. The message is usually “become a completely different person, devoid of all flaws, and you’ll be fine.” They perpetuate the myth that success is something you can control, that you can accomplish what you want to accomplish if you just follow the secrets, 10 steps, or routine patented by the author.

Creativity, Inc. is an enormous relief because it throws all of that out the window. As good as those filmmakers are, the studio almost didn’t make it. As good as they are, they struggled to grow and replicate their early success. As good as they are, the work is still hard. Phew. 

It falls into the genre of management book, but it works as a corporate biography, an inside look at the filmmaking/ writing process, and really an interesting story for anyone thinking about how to make things with a group of people. 

Favourite Quote/ Scene

The dominant question is “how do you create an environment where people feel comfortable taking risks?” How do you make it okay for writers to question ideas flowing from some of the most respected directors of our time? How do you create a culture where ideas can be criticized without feelings being hurt?

“You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.” 

Creating this environment, suggests Catmull, is his only job.

“What interests me is the number of people who believe that they have the ability to drive the train and who think that this is the power position—that driving the train is the way to shape their companies’ futures. The truth is, it’s not. Driving the train doesn’t set its course. The real job is laying the track.”

He stresses the importance of failure, saying it’s the only proof you are trying something new.

"Always take a chance on better,” he writes.

And he shares one of Pixar’s earliest lessons:

"Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better."

What’s Next?

Crossing back over from audiobook to print …
 

Emily St. John Mandel - Station Eleven (E)

A post-apocalyptic book by a female author set in the Great Lakes region and focusing on a travelling band of musicians and actors. How could I not read this book? 

Favourite Quote/ Scene

This quote connects to other themes from environmental studies and history that are fascinating to me, particularly shifting baseline syndrome. People born into the post-apocalyptic world are happier because they have less understanding of what they are missing. 

“We have been lost for so long,’ ” she said, still quoting from that scene. She looked past him at the boy. The boy was staring at the gun in his hands. He was nodding, seemingly to himself. “ ‘We long only for the world we were born into.’ 

And this quote just makes me laugh:

None of the older Symphony members knew much about science, which was frankly maddening given how much time these people had had to look things up on the Internet before the world ended.

 

Observations

Flu wipes out most of the people on earth, along with organized society of all kinds. Collectively, much has been lost. But the other plot line - chronicling the life of actor Arthur Leander - shows that, individuals often lose/ give up a lot more during the course of a single lifetime. 

What’s Next?

I know where I want to go from here, but it’s back on my e-reader. So an interim audiobook option is needed ...

Margaret Atwood - Survival (D)

Survival is a guide to Canadian literature written by Margaret Atwood in 1972, a time when we barely recognized “Can lit” as a thing.

She asks “Is there such a thing as ‘Canadian literature’ and, if so, how would you define it?” The answer is in the title: yes, it exists; the dominant theme in Canadian literature is survival; oh, and the central character is the “victim”.

Favourite Quote/ Scene

Dennis Lee’s poetry + Alden Nowlan’s “A Night Hawk Fell With a Sound Like a Shudder” - in any hunt I'm with the quarry.

Observations

The framing of the  stages of victimhood is a helpful device. Position One: denial. Position Two: acknowledge and accept without challenge. Position Three: acknowledge but challenge the inevitability of your victimhood. Position Four: become a creative non-victim. That said, I’m not totally convinced that this particular formula is unique to Canadian literature. Many, many narratives from many, many cultures have characters who would fit Atwood’s definition of “victim”.

More helpful is the index of symbols, themes, and literary tropes that can be found in Canlit, particularly those related to nature and animals. This is where Atwood is strongest and where the authors and works are most interesting to me personally. 

Atwood herself says it is not an exhaustive and analysis of all Canadian literature and notes that the book has become dated - but it’s an excellent introduction to literary and art criticism.

Even if you think the framework is limited - and some critics do - the fact that we’d argue about the accuracy of her theory is proof that she won the main argument in 1972: Canlit is a thing.

What’s Next?

Canlit, obviously. Preferably a female author to balance out the first three books in this thread. 

George Elliott Clarke - George and Rue (C)

I can’t remember who recommended this to me, but it was on my “To Read” list when I was trolling for a new Canadian writer to follow Babiak. Intrigued by the setting (eastern Canada), the era (post-War 1940s), and the characters (brothers, of Mi’kmaq and African descent), I went with George and Rue.

The novel shifts seamlessly back into the killers' pasts, recounting a bleak and sometimes comic tale of victims of violence who became killers, a black community too poor and too shamed to assist its downtrodden members, and a white community bent on condemning all blacks as dangerous outsiders.

Favourite Quote/ Scene

Setting is king in this book. It’s a time, place, and community that are rarely explored in literature and Clarke’s prose is appealing enough that it’s a good read for those reasons alone. 

Observations

The publisher descriptions do the book a bit of a disservice, setting it up as a rollicking crime adventure when it’s a much darker, slow-paced character study.

Fun Fact: I happened to pick up this book the same week Clarke was a guest on Canadaland Commons. It’s a great interview.

What’s Next?

Before I delve deeper into Canadian literature, I want to visit Margaret Atwood’s Survival - both for the analysis and to add a female voice to this thread.

Todd Babiak - Come Barbarians (B)

Todd Babiak’s Come Barbarians has virtually nothing to do with Forkey’s research on Canadians and the natural environment except for the fact that I met Todd at an event related to Canadians and the natural environment and have been meaning to read this book ever since.

It’s “Canadian”, in the sense that the author is from Canada and the main characters used to live in Canada, but the book itself is set in France. 

At the beginning of the novel, we find Christopher Kruse grieving after a horrific accident. Slowly we learn that Kruse has moved from Toronto to the south of France with his family. He looked after his young daughter, Lily, while his wife, Evelyn, worked for a man who was vying to become the new leader of a right-wing political party, the National Front. After Lily is killed by a drunk driver, Evelyn goes missing. Kruse must draw on his former life – as well as dredge up guilt from his past – to find her. The story follows his attempt to find his wife and uncover the truth about the accident.

Favourite Scene/ Quote

I’m a sucker for books set in the south of France. Babiak plays off the setting, contrasting the idyllic setting against gruesome crime. It’s kind of hard to go wrong there.
The wife’s character - and her interest in politics - is fascinating. It’s not a huge part of the book, but there are a lot of interesting layers there.

Observations

The book is Canadian without being “Canadian”. It fits into Atwood’s “Survival” theory, but in a whole new kind of way. There’s no winter, no fighting with wild animals ...

What’s Next?

Still happy in the “Canadian” fiction realm, but looking for something focused on characters not from a predominantly white/ anglo/ European background. 

Neil Forkey - Canadians and the Natural Environment to the Twenty-First Century (A)

I am always reading at least two books at once - one audiobook, one print/ e-book. Inevitably, my threads cross over and the audiobook thread leads to print and vice versa. This is the first book of my “A” thread, which started the year off as the print/ e-book thread.

Since 2016 is the first year that I’m not in school in over a decade, I am really looking forward to having time to explore more books in my field, and not be so locked into required reading for classes. I started off with Forkey because I’d used one chapter of this book in a research project last year and couldn’t wait to dig into the rest of it.

Canadians and the Natural Environment to the Twenty-First Century is a great introduction to the relationship between this place called Canada, the people who live and have lived in it, and the influence of the environment on culture, laws, policy, and art. There are lengthy sections describing visual and literary arts and the influence of environment. It provides a good overview of historical concepts of “environmentalism” and “conservation” and “nature”. 

It’s non-fiction, but not crushingly academic, and a pretty fast read. Pretty much “required reading” for anyone interested in the environment and Canadian culture.

What's Next?

As I finished the Forkey book, my audiobooks were shifting into nonfiction, so my next read will be something“Canadian-ish”, but fiction.