Readings November 2023
Sometimes I need the walking off the edge of the universe feeling when trying to find a book to read. That is, I want total entertainment. Ann Leckie supplies this in spades with her Imperial Radch trilogy: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy. These are science fiction on steroids, what has been called ‘space opera’. I loved the notion of space ships controlled by AI who control human bodies, who are the ancillaries. These stories are set centuries in the future, and so the author could really play, for example, the Radchaai do not distinguish gender, which can and does lead to many misinterpretations. Her latest book, Translation State, keeps us in the future, with clashes between different ‘cultures’ – humans, and ‘others’ – what is not to love. These books are as enjoyable as Martha Wells Murderbot Diaries Series.
The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake is similarly addictive, though written for young-adults I suspect. This is magic fiction, a cross between Harry Potter and Tolkien. It deals with the initiation of 6 new recruits to The Alexandrian Society, who are caretakers of lost knowledge from the greatest civilizations of antiquity. This is a Society of magical academicians in the world – the AAAS of magicians! “Those who earn a place among the Alexandrians will secure a life of wealth, power, and prestige beyond their wildest dreams, and each decade, only the six most uniquely talented magicians are selected to be considered for initiation.” The 6 recruits are well drawn young adults from a variety of backgrounds and interactions between them are fascinating. I liked the parallels of the magic world and our world. A quick read, and the interplay of the unique magic of the 6 recruits is fascinating.
But then there is the reality of our world. American Prometheus by K. Bird and Martin Sherwin, basically the life and times of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a monumental biography, doing for Oppenheimer what Robert A. Caro did for Lyndon Johnson. It is a blow-by-blow, every personality included and inspected, tour of his life and of what was going on the USA and the World at the time. I’m glad for the wonderful film, because often I got lost in the weeds of the mediocrity that surrounded him in the biography. Oppenheimer was brilliant, charismatic, organizational. What comes across is how much he was respected by other physicists and scientists, how respected and idolized by students, and with that approbation, how awful to be suspected by his own country. How petty, government officials and politicians can be.
Firestorm – How Wildfire will shape our Future by Edward Struzik is a heart thumping dose of reality, and a multiple Science and Non-Fiction awards recipient in Canada and internationally. For two months in the spring of 2016, the world watched as The wildfire that ravaged the Canadian town of Fort McMurray in 2016 last full-on for 2 months, but wasn’t extinguished for a full year. The town of 100,000 people was evacuated safely, which is quite extraordinary, because there was only one 2-lane highway out of Fort McMurray and the nearest next town, Edmonton, was 14 hours drive away. And the population returned – to nothing! Firefighters named the fire “the Beast” it jumped rivers, devastated everything. The author moves the reader to the reality that we live in a world in which fires like the Beast are commonplace. A glance at international headlines shows a remarkable increase in higher temperatures, stronger winds, and drier lands– a trifecta for igniting wildfires like we’ve rarely seen before. And these changes are particularly noticeable in the boreal forests. Humans need to be prepared to deal with an escalation of fire during periods of intense drought and shorter winters, earlier springs, potentially more lightning strikes and hotter summers.
By chance, I pounced on Michael Lewis’ latest – Going Infinite – in my library, before others had the chance to grab this amazing rollercoaster of a book on Sam Bankman-Fried. What a ride. The book looks at the scandal surrounding Sam Bankman-Fried and the epic collapse of his cryptocurrency companies. A review says the book “ aims to answer the question: How can a man go from earning billions of dollars in a matter of years to losing it all in a matter of months?” Well it does that, but it also shows a highly Asperger individual, a math/statistics genius, with few social skills, other than those he had to learn, e.g., how to smile, who was “let loose” in the casino of high profit trading firms where his Year 1 salary and bonus was well over $1 million. And why would he settle for that when the casino of cryptocurrency is out there without a dedicated trading structure outside China. This is all the Macau Casinos adrenalin rushes at once. And he controlled the play, except for those pesky Chinese firms. It is hilarious, especially as reading the book you realize there are billions of dollars awash in this crypto casino world, that depends on math and statistic skills, and the time differences around the world. It makes one think of a world with no time differences – what would happen? And Michael Lewis who shadows Sam Bankman-Fried for 2 years, writes brilliantly. And Yes, I felt sorry for the protagonist. He had all those billions, wanted to buy Trump to not compete for the election, was following a utilitarian philosophy, but really wanted life to continue just as it had at Math Camp when he was a teenager – competing on video games with similar minded friends.
Of course, there were numerous podcasts, videos with Michael Lewis and Walter Isaachson, the author of ‘Musk’ on Elon Musk and so I needed to read the latter. As the New York Review says “Elon Musk wants to save humanity: the only problem is People”. This is a very different book than Going Infinite. It is very in-depth and detailed on all aspects of musk’s life and endeavors, much more like the treatise on Oppenheimer. Elon Musk also has Aspergers, and is socially inept, but is driven to make humans a multi-planetary civilization and hence SpaceX. He is also a technological genius, one of the founders of Paypal, who wants to bring sustainability to the world, hence Tesla and Tesla wall batteries. He also sees the world in terms of data and its acquisition. Tesla cars now produce millions of videos daily, to add to the data monolith. His purchase of Twitter can be viewed in a data acquisition mode also – it produces billions of twitters (or whatever they are called now) daily. He is disturbed by people who do not reproduce, he really wants smart people to have kids. More than anything he is totally driven, will walk the factory floor at any time of the day or night, constantly pushes boundaries, constantly asks the ‘why?’ of any decision or regulation. Despite his megalomania the USA is lucky to have this genius.
I reread Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer and enjoyed it even more the second time around. It so beautifully explains the rigor needed to climb Everest and the hubris and ‘lack of cop’ of some who pay substantial sums of money to be among the few who can breach Everest in any year. I came away with 2 messages, you can never be too-prepared. And, most importantly, be able to rely on yourself. Because despite all the experienced expedition leaders the year Krakauer went on Everest, there were unnecessary failures and deaths.
I loved The Postcard by Anne Berest - a French autobiographical/historical novel which I've just read in translation. It won the Prix Choix Goncourt and is a fascinating investigation into a family’s recent history triggered by the arrival of an unsigned postcard with 4 names on it. Who are these people and how do they relate to the protagonist? It is a story of the chance survival of one of her relatives, her grandmother, during the Holocaust. Her mother has kept all the papers she could find on the family and so Anne and her mother tease out the family history since the First World War. It made me realize how many families are in a similar situation, not knowing ‘what happened’ during and after the Holocaust or other war horrors. Ayaan Hirshi Ali began her book ‘The Infidels’ recounting her family lineage – “I am Ayaan Hirshi, daughter of …, who was son of….., who was son of……” and back through generations. Many of us in the West have the security of being able to trace our lineage also. But what of those, like Anne Berest, who hit a wall. The Postcard lays bare the need to find out what happened, no matter how distressing.
Readings May 2023
This was a long winter, with really inconclusive weather, one day cold and sunny, the next grey and overcast and the snow not really suitable for snow-shoeing. But I did read a lot, or at least started many books! We did Eyes of the Rigel by Roy Jacobsen for a Book Club. It was my first exposure to this brilliant Norwegian author. The book is the third in the series about Ingrid Barrǿy living on one of the northern Norwegian islands, a place that seems quite like one of the Arran islands. I didn’t warm to Ingrid and so will not read the earlier two novels. Ingrid is a survivor, who in this third book goes in search of the father of her baby daughter, a Russian who was one of the POWs on the Rigel. The book is more fascinating for the picture it gives of northern Norway just at the end of WWII, where nobody trusts anyone because they are unsure who were collaborators, and/or on the other side, and/or deserters, and/or partisans, and/or refugees. People are kind to Ingrid in her search, but rarely give her a straight answer. Most disturbing are the POWs in a camp in Sweden hedging their bets about returning to a Stalin-run Russia. It’s a book that makes you think about the flotsam of war – the ordinary people caught up in politics and games not of their making.
I just loved Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry which on the surface is about the retired policeman, Tom Kettle, hauled into helping to solve a cold-case that he had worked on many years ago. Below the surface though, the book is about the years of priests sexual abuse in Ireland, the fact that Tom and his wife had been the brunt of this abuse as children, and that Tom had killed as part of his job in the British Army. But that again is the surface, because Sebastian Barry’s prose is an immersive experience. Probably only Claire Keegan can rival him in that. And like all of his books that I have read you are tugged in backwards as it were. You don’t know where you are going but then you realise you have been in Tom Kettle’s mind and world for awhile. The Guardian reviewer said “I don’t expect to read anything as moving for many years”. Read it.
My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor is the first in a trilogy and I’ll be looking out for the next two books. As the Guardian reviewer put it – it’s a literary thriller of the highest order. The story is based on real events of an Irish priest, working in the Vatican during WWII, who sets up and executes a smuggling operation to get Jews and allied troops out of Italy in 1943. It has wonderful writing and I was enthralled with the complexity of the smuggling operation and the tight control the Germans had on Rome, and the narrow border between Rome and the Vatican.
White Noise by Don DeLillo is considered by some sources as among the top novels of all time. I had not read any of his earlier novels and enjoyed some of this one. We are introduced to Professor Jack Gladney a Hitler expert at a small university. He has been married 5 times and has children and step-children, most of whom seem to live with him or wander in and out of his house and some of which are interesting characters. There is a local chemical spill (somewhat similar to what happened in East Palestine, Ohio in 2023) and the citizens need to evacuate. There is the upheaval of evacuation. And then there is the agonizing wait to see if anyone will die, an exhausting obsession with death, and over the top efforts to get access to a drug which is an experimental treatment for the terror of death. As Wikipedia says, “The novel becomes a meditation on modern society's fear of death and its obsession with chemical cures”. I know that it is as relevant for today as much as when it was published (1985), but Orwell’s 1984 it isn’t.
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon was fun though I’m glad Chabon went on to write other books. I didn’t have much sympathy for the main character – Tripp, who is writing the nth draft of an interminable novel, or his student, Leer, who clearly will finish his novel. The title of the Review from the NYT sums it up “A Novel about a Novelist and his messy life”.
The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid is good, but probably will mainly resonate if you live in the USA. It’s a play on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, or Saramago’s Blindness, but this time the protagonist, Anders, wakes up to find that he has gone from white to brown. Shock and horror, rather than delight in being less pasty! Of course Anders does everything to avoid showing himself. But over time, brownness spreads to everyone in his town. There is an upsurge in white militants trying to get rid of “the plague”. It was only when I read Hamid’s rationale for the book, that I understood my pasty white privilege, that “The Last White Man” evolved from his sudden loss of White privilege after 9/11. “I had always been a brown man with a Muslim name,” he writes. “But I had been white enough — as a relatively well-paid, university-educated inhabitant of cosmopolitan cities — to partake in many of the benefits of whiteness. And now my partial membership was being revoked.” In the anxious days and months after al-Qaeda’s surprise attack on the United States, Hamid found himself detained for questioning at airports and eyed with fear by fellow passengers on buses and trains. In a moment, it seemed, his skin had turned dark and suspicious.”
Now Elizabeth Catton won’t win another Booker for Birnam Wood, but I enjoyed this book much more than her Booker winner The Luminaries. It’s a story we can relate to about eco rebels of today that sound like they dropped out of the 1970s. The group are environmentalists using any spare ground to plant vegetables which they sell on. They ‘borrow’ equipment from the land owner, do their planting early in the morning or at night, and when they have their monthly meetings have the kind of intellectual discussions that I remember from university days. I liked the characters. Into this mix comes a Peter Thiel style billionaire who is willing to fund them and let them plant on a property he is in the process of buying. They are his front while he explores the mineral wealth below ground. He ‘borrows’ their eco-credentials. He is a nicely painted egoist of the worst type. And of course, things go downhill. It’s a “I can’t put down book” and as the Washington Post review said its “a novel that dramatizes political, technical and environmental crises with such delicious wit”.
I romped through Kate Beaton’s graphic non-fiction work Ducks and loved it. I was pretty hesitant because it was the first full-size graphic work I have broached, and it is harder to skim a graphic work than a written piece. But my good Irish friend, Eithne, praised it, and she was so correct – its wonderful. Kate Beaton, who is a well-respected graphic artist from Cape Breton, spent 2 years in the Alberta oil sands doing different jobs, as a way to pay off her student loan. Bédéiste, the French term, I think is an elegant way to describe her. These camps are tough – 50 men for 1 woman – and many are there long-term, only seeing their families on a bi-monthly or longer basis. I was in camps along the Alyeska pipeline route in Alaska, and her representation of life is perfect. Granted, I never spent more than a night in any camp – she was there through all the family holidays.
Elizabeth Hay captures life in Canada beautifully. I loved ‘Late Nights on Air’ which I read aeons ago. Her latest is Snow Road Station, which captures PERFECTLY weather and life in the triangle of Ottawa, the Arnprior/Stittsville/northeast of Perth region, west of Ottawa, and the hamlet of Snow Road Station. You know you are in for a gentle story with a book entitled Snow Road Station! Okay, I found it all a bit saccharine, except for the sweats before a production, but it is a quick, lovely read, and a lovely introduction to that region of Ontario.
I’m now reading The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese. I loved his book Cutting for Stone. He is an effortless Story-teller and teacher. I am learning so much about life in Kerala and around Chennai in India, and how the world there changed over the life-span of the protagonists.
Readings January 2023
I had read Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life a few years ago when it first came out and I was submerged by her addictive prose on the tight friendship between these four East Coast US men. And that submergence and addiction happened again with her recent novel To Paradise. I don’t know how she does it but the spell is cast and I had to follow the story, even though I didn’t take to the characters at the outset. In this book she turns American history on its ear, with a very different play of States and outcomes following the Civil War. The book is in three parts, set 100 years apart, all centered on Washington Square Park in New York. In 1893, we are in a USA where homosexuality is legal and most of the rich NY families living in the area are headed by a homosexual couple. As the reader I was held like a fly in a web, addicted, following this world of normality, even though the broad premise was not the history I knew. I jumped the second part, set in Hawai’i of 1993, perhaps because I would not be able to suspend reality for a period that I had lived through. But I was back, entranced, hooked, submerged in her vision of 2045-2093, a dystopian future, where recurring Ebola and Covid type viruses have caused the US to go off the rails into a police state of such rigidity that you can only evoke Kafka, or police states of the 21st century. Of course, there is the inevitable backlash against homosexuals because they cannot reproduce, and just a wealth of other observations on subtle racism and classism. You know that things are bad when leaves are stripped from trees to use in teas, when Museums and libraries get shut down and you get one book to read every 2 weeks, I could go on. And her protagonists do, because they want to survive. And the will to survive and extraordinary friendship were what I’ll remember from this amazing book.
I finally got around to reading Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I enjoyed the history aspect of it, because I had not been aware that there was a gold rush in New Zealand just as there had been in California and Yukon. I had visited Hokitika, the gold rush town on holidays, and so I could picture the gold rush scene, just as you could in Dawson, Yukon. But none of the book’s characters grabbed me, the astrological framework was a bit too complex for me, and I finished it because it was a “who done it”.
Kim Thúy’s book RU is luminous, telling the story of her life. She was born in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive into a large and wealthy family. She and some of her family escaped Vietnam as Boat people and ended up in Malaysia in a retched refugee camp. They were eventually allowed to go to Canada where the family ended up in Granby, Quebec. The story of cleaning other people’s houses, living in cramped quarters, skimping to send children to school, learning to negotiate another culture is lyrically told. Again, the book is driven by the will to survive, and the knowing of what was left behind. The author is a Canadian phenomenon now with books, TV shows etc., and she and her family so deserve it.
Cormac McCarthy’s book Passenger is a wonderful, weird novel, which I loved the feel of – it sucked me in. It captures the USA of the Anthropocene, if that ends up being defined by the first hydrogen bomb explosion. The characters are really intelligent, super smart in some cases, but they are “world weary”. This part of the review in the Guardian gives the feel “And so it is with The Passenger, which sets out as an existential chase thriller in the mold of No Country for Old Men before collapsing in on itself. Western might outpace his pursuers but he can’t escape his own history. So he heads into the desert, alone, to watch the oil refineries burning in the distance and observe the carpet-coloured vipers coiled in the grass at his feet. “The abyss of the past into which the world is falling,” he thinks. “Everything vanishing as if it had never been.”
I read Katy Hay’s Cloisters between Christmas and New Years and it was a wonderful insight into a place I didn’t know existed - The Cloisters, also known as the Met Cloisters, a museum in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, New York City. It specializes in European medieval art and architecture, with a focus on the Romanesque and Gothic periods. The central character is Ann Stilwell, from an unsophisticated part of Washington State who is spending a summer as a research assistant, initially at the Metropolitan museum, but who is seconded rapidly to The Cloisters to join a group of enigmatic researchers studying the history of divination and tarot cards. It’s a wonderful insight into these topics as well as being a study of cut-throat academic ambition in the brutal world of Academia.
Readings September 2022
It has been months of wonderful books, and books, tried and cast aside. It has been hard to settle down with a good read. I think that is because I’m working on my textbook on mites and I want distraction and entertainment rather than information. At least this explains finding H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald overblown and heavy. She is training a goshawk, which is impressive, but the book is mainly a self-help for herself to get over the sudden death of her father. The book laboriously interweaves the training of goshawks by other falconers and especially the author T.H. White. I learned way more than I wanted about T.H. White and really little to nothing about McDonald herself or her father. I wanted to set the bird free and find out what it would prey on first.
Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes was a quick and interesting read. Ostensibly, a platonic relationship between a middle-aged teacher and her close to middle-aged student it has the story of Julian the Apostate as it central theme and question mark. Julian was Roman emperor from 361 to 363 and his rejection of Christianity, and his promotion of Neoplatonic Hellenism in its place, caused him to be remembered as Julian the Apostate in Christian tradition. Elizabeth wants her students to think about how humanity would have been different if Neoplatonic Hellenism had won out over Christianity. And it is a brilliant thought exercise: no more martyrs; Catholicism; Protestantism would have no reason to arise; less religious wars; different morals; different moral emphasis etc. the exercise in how things would have been different can continue indefinitely. It is a quick read and I expect that all readers would have liked more Elizabeth-type teachers in our lives.
Upgrade by Blake Crouch was another interesting read. It’s considered sci-fi, as it focuses on gene-editing and gene drive in the future. But as both are already in use in science today, the book is more of a thriller, more of the “what if” gene editing goes awry? And of course it does, in the body of Logan Ramsay who gets a virus that infects his genome with all kinds of modifications – some you wouldn’t mind, others not. I liked that Crouch is clearly a scientist and knows his genes and what they do. The book is great fun, a fast read, and does make you think of the implications of the multiple viruses awash in our environment.
Hell of a Book by Jason Mott was just as the title says, a hell of a book. The author is Black and the book centers around his cross-country book-tour promoting his best-selling book entitled - Hell of a Book. But the core of the book is Soot, a black boy, who sees his father shot by police. Soot is possibly imaginary, but I think, is the author himself. It is a lovely, gentle book, although dealing with the astounding racisms in the US.
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout was an enjoyable Summer read, though dealing with a central human question, why people stay connected to each other, even through divorce, bad-feelings, insecurities etc. The central character is Lucy Barton and you get the feeling the title should have been 'Oh Lucy;. a friend once said "you have to work at friendship" and this book shows how this is can be done.
Of course, I gobbled up Bad Actors by Mick Herron. Could I tell you the plot now? Of course not, except that Slough House and Jackson Lamb are once again to the rescue of the denizens of M15. They probably need to let him loose on the entire House of Commons. Somehow Lamb reminds me of Lyndon Johnson, the US President – he’s obnoxious, but he knows where all the bodies are buried and who did the burying.
Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson is wonderfully inventive, with a large cast of individually profiled characters, who surprisingly fit together like a Rubik’s cube in this fascinating look at how to reverse global warming. Stephenson as usual is thought-provoking, showing that dealing with global warming needs to be a global war effort, and needs clear science, but also clear politics to get anything done. It needs the UN of global warming.
Of course, for really FUN sci-fi, I read Martha Wells' Network Effect and Fugitive Telemetry, two of the Murderbot series of novels. As the blurb says, this is about an artificial construct, i.e., robot, designed as a Security Unit (think body-guard) which manages to override its Governor module, and so develops independence. They are so much fun, a bit like off-shoots of Ready Player One.
But for the real nitty-gritty, I read How the World Really Works; how we got here and where we are going by Vaclav Smil. He is a scientist greatly admired by Bill Gates. I like the fact that there is no sugar-coating. He, and other recent authors, point out that ‘things’ started to go down-hill with agriculture, as humans could support larger populations. Our population quickly grew beyond carrying capacity and we continue to increase our dependence on fossil fuel despite making all kinds of promises to the contrary. He points out that we have no way of producing cement, plastics, steel without inputs of fossil fuel, components central to our overpopulation.
Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe is devastating, thought provoking, and although I did not ‘enjoy’ it as much as his brilliant Say Nothing, it is almost an essential read for someone who lives in North America. It is a bit too long-winded and the Sackler family is almost too exposed in all their awfulness. I suppose the book was cobbled together from a number of the author’s articles in various American newspapers and magazines, and the book's over thoroughness shows this. But, the shear marketing genius of the Sackler family, their hubris, and the overbearing hubris of family members is a cautionary American tale. They are modern day Rockefellers, similar to the other behemoths from the gilded age of grift and greed.
Born in 1948, I grew up in the world of Fintan O’Toole’s brilliant and essential reading for any Irish, We don’t know Ourselves. I was a child during the post war period when “Ireland emerged into the world of the postwar boom as a backwater and an irrelevance. It had a high emigration rate and a shockingly low marriage rate. Between 1949 and 1956 the GDP of the countries of the common market had grown by 42%, Britain by 21%, Ireland by only 8%. The population was at an all-time low of 2.8 million in 1961, by which time Ireland had to decide whether “to open itself to free trade or remain as a protected but even more isolated space.” O’Toole covers all the changes in Ireland from then to the mid-2015 and as a reporter, he was in the ‘know’ of many of the changes. And the changes were and are vast – the hold of the Church, Charles Haughey, the North, the beef barons, the impact of joining the EU. More than anything he captures the multi-layered Irish way of dealing with the contradictions; the layers behind the statement ‘Ah sure, it will be grand”.
I was blown away by When We Cease to Understand the World, “a gripping meditation on knowledge and hubris” by Benjamín Labatut and one of the NY Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2021. The book is about the complicated links between scientific and mathematical discovery, madness, and destruction. It is about how the quest, often unfulfilled, of scientific discovery will drive men to madness and to developing terrible tools. It is about how this drive, this quest, this unquenchable urge to ‘know’, to ‘prove’ can lead to the Holocaust, and the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yes, and also at times, ‘value’ for humanity.
“Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger—these are some of scientists into whose lives Benjamín Labatut sends us as reader, showing us how they grappled with the most profound questions of existence. They have strokes of unparalleled genius, alienate friends and lovers, descend into isolation and insanity. Some of their discoveries reshape human life for the better; others pave the way to chaos and unimaginable suffering.” I will need to read the book again, because it is such a tight, fast read. But, it certainly made me think about how and why we put these, granted brilliant, people on pedestals.
Readings as of January 2022
It’s been a frigid cold January 2022 in eastern Canada and to add to that gatherings were cancelled at New Years because of Covid, and we were limited at Christmas. Once again, we have been zooming for everything – yoga, mites and Book Club. But the reading has been good.
I enjoyed The Promise by Damon Galgut, the Booker Prize winner for 2021. It is an extraordinarily written family saga set in South Africa. We follow the family Swart, white south Africans and horribly bigoted in a Downton Abbey kind of way, from 1986 to the post-Zuma era. We follow the 3 children in this family, the 3 A’s – Astrid, Anton and Amor from the time of their mother’s death to the present. She had reverted to Judaism before her death and insisted on a Jewish burial, so we are confronted from the outset with religious bigotry. This continues throughout the book, sometimes in a hilarious way, for example, when Anton is buried by the spiritualist lover of his sister, who before spiritualism had turned Catholic to allow her a second marriage. The author rattles every prejudice of white superiority. These are not nice people, we would not want any of them as friends, and yet the language and narration absolutely hauled me in.
I tore through State of Terror by Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny, it was a fast, good read, along the lines of the Bill Clinton and James Patterson book, though I preferred the latter. Of course, the best part is the insight on what female politicians or Heads of Departments have to put up with in the patriarchal, male environment of US politics. We know most of this from reading the subtext of many News reports – but this book gave Hillary Clinton the opportunity to speak her piece.
I loved The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier – it was both an excellent take on current culture from many angles and also wonderful science fiction. A flight from Paris to New York goes through a violent storm leaving all the passengers and the crew shaken. Their flight is diverted to an military base for landing because the identical plane with identical passengers has arrived 4 months earlier. As the Washington Post reviewer put it “this unprecedented situation presents the United States government with a national crisis. The military goes on high alert; the intelligence services spring into befuddled action. Are these clones an elaborate trick engineered by an enemy country, or do they represent a fundamental glitch in the space-time continuum? None of the proposed explanations feels definitive, but the existence of these replicated people — out of sync by 106 days — calls into question the foundation of reality. “Conspiracy theories are proliferating,” Le Tellier writes. “When seven billion human beings find out that they may not really exist, it’s not easy to comprehend.” Much like in Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle, the intelligence services response is hilarious if we did not know that this is exactly what would happen. You have to be glad that Guantanamo Bay is already occupied. The French and USA react differently of course. The travellers on the original flight need to meet their duplicates and work out a future – sharing a spouse for example. But I particularly loved the end – the perfect US response.
Readings as of December 2021
Mary said – read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell it is wonderful. Oh, I so agree, it is transcendent. It is a love story, but more than anything a beautiful immersion into the time of Shakespeare, a time of wonder in comparison with today. The author builds a story around the death of Shakespeare’s son, the publication of Hamlet, and the absence of mention of the plague in any Shakespeare play, even though plague was widespread and recurring at the time. The feeling of this book sits with me, so much more so than any of the others I have read in the last few months. Probably the closest is Beautiful World where are You by Sally Rooney, which I loved. Like Hamnet it depicts the intensity of day to day living. But Beautiful World has millennials talking to each other about their day to day living via long emails. We have friends who have that tradition, that is, covering the intricacies and woes of the world via email. Like Rooney’s characters they are complex, amusing, and evoke the usual “are you mad?” Is it just Irish people who do this, that is, have a written-down life paralleling their real life?
I was disappointed by The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. I loved the author’s previous 2 books, but found this one too much a poor copy of a Dickens novel with overlays of Alexandre Dumas. I know I was meant to have sympathy for the characters because of what happened to them in their younger lives, or their mental peculiarities but I found them predictable and not particularly sympathetic, except for Sally and Ulysses. And I wanted this to be a real road trip, rather than a metaphorical road trip.
In contrast, Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is the real deal – a catapult into the unknown world Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s, as seen through the ongoing life of Ray Carney who has a small furniture store there. Although the son of a small-time crook, Ray wants to be above board. But this is New York and bribes, and back-hands and accepting to sell what ‘fell off the back of a truck” is expected. We join Ray and the other characters in his life as he navigates this world and eventually gains middle-class respectability for himself and family. I loved the characters, I loved the language. Like other of Whitehead’s book the language is like a rushing stream of words creating the atmosphere which holds you tightly in Ray’s world. You don’t have a choice but to be sympathetic with and to him. And we have the luxury of seeing the tight knit community of Harlem slowly putting feelers out to white New York and vis versa – a joy.
What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad is a beautifully written reminder of what it is to become a refugee, to be a refugee and what it takes to avoid being caught and sent back to the Hell you came from. The protagonist is a 9 year old Syrian boy who alone of the many refugees on a boat to Europe, survives. He is a kid, didn’t plan to be on this boat, didn’t plan to be wrecked on a Greek Island. All he knows is that the soldiers who are trying to find him and send him ‘home’ are no different from those in Syria, and so he runs. He is helped to escape by a local teenager. We don’t know his future, but I hope he gets taken in by …….We in the West should want him. More than anything, I want this not to be necessary.
I had a wonderful book romp through various mysteries, crime and thriller novels this Autumn. April in Spain by John Banville was his usual well-written Dr. Quirke mystery, this time set in San Sebastian. Once again Bainville revisits the main drivers of many of the worst events in Ireland during the 1950s to 1970s – the church, corrupt politicians, the church. I doubt it takes being Irish to feel the weight and malevolence of the Archbishop McQuaid and the Charles Haughey type priests and politicians. That this darkness is set against the sunshine, sea and warm breezes of San Sebastian is brilliant. Northern Spy by Flynn Berry is labelled a thriller and I loved it. Its set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, has sisters on either side of the conflict – it’s a quick read. On a much lighter note I rampaged through The Dark Remains by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin and The Bone Code by Kathy Reichs. Both books are crime novels with characters we know from previous books by these authors. It’s a bit like sitting around with a group of friends and getting the latest installment of an ongoing saga.
I have no clue what prompted me to borrow To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini from the library, but the story hooked me. This is an author of teenager fiction, mainly fantasy. Sea of Stars is listed as adult fiction, has won Science Fiction awards and is a tome in the manner and size of Seven Eves by Neal Stephenson. It is set long in the future when humans have dispersed throughout the galaxy, to live, reproduce and get resources to keep the human species expanding and thriving. I was hooked as soon as the main protagonist, Kira, a female xenobiologist, encounters an alien, intelligent life-form which forms a symbiotic bond with her. This book has touches of Fred Hoyle’s Black Cloud about it in that humans have difficulty in accepting a life form that is non Earth-based. I liked the excitement of this book, the various and diverse human characters, the author’s addressing of the many challenges of space travel, the overall plot. This book made me rethink the urge of various countries and the Bezos, Musks of this world to invade space. I used to think of this as personal, corporate or state bragging. Now I think, these are the Magellan and Columbus alternates of a new age. Humans are a technologically bright, exploitative species, already using 4x the Earth’s resources. Inevitably, humans will want to exploit resources of other planets which will lead to living under very different conditions than on Earth. Paolini writes about one possible outcome.
Latest Readings October, 2021
Summer 2021 has been a grand time for reading widely, and so I dipped into a bit of SF. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan was enough fun that I may watch the screen version. The premise is that the physical body is just a ‘sleeve’ and consciousness can be moved to another sleeve if the physical body dies or gets ill, disfigured or whatever. An individual’s consciousness is housed around the base of one’s medulla and can be removed easily and then put in a new sleeve, or be ‘resleeved’. It’s a nifty premise with the wealthy being able to resleeve as often as they want. Altered Carbon is basically a detective story (Bosch - style) in this world of the future, and was a fast, enjoyable and easily forgettable read.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa is also set in the future, but this is dystopian novel has elements of Franz Kafka - a very unsettling novel. It takes place on a small island where people can loose memory of items, places, anything over one night. For example, they can wake up one morning and the memory of roses has gone. They do not forget, the memory is gone. This loss of memory seems to be caused by the Memory Police, but we are given no reason as to why they want this kind of control, or its purpose - it is truly kafka-like. Of course, there are some that do not loose memory, perhaps because of genetics, and these are tracked down and presumably killed by the Memory Police. Again, we have no idea why, other than maintaining power and control. As the book progresses the loss of memory extends to a person’s body parts, for example, a leg. The inevitableness of this progression of control by the Memory Police is left to our imagination with the memory loss of body parts of the main character. This is a beautifully written book, a gentle story reminding of the importance of hanging onto the small things in life, a story of human need. It is a memorable book.
I really enjoy the writing style of Colson Whitehead, and while waiting for his latest decided to read Zone One, his novel about zombies and PASD, i.e., post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. It may be the only novel I will ever read about zombies, but Whitehead’s take on New York after the plague, which has brought about the zombies, and PASD, which seems almost appropriate with COVID, is hilarious and a joy. It does have a high level of gruesomeness and I would be frightened at any film based on it, but the interactions between his characters are so human.
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi was rated one of the best books of 2015. I’ve read Cadillac Desert by Reisner and The Dreamt Land by Mark Arax but missed this one. It is a really fast-paced thriller from the near future when the Colorado River has almost dried up and so water is more valuable than gold and is fought over as the key commodity by Nevada, Arizona and California. The protagonist is a ‘water knife’ that is he ensures that his boss, and ultimately the city of Las Vegas gets water. It’s an enjoyable thriller, again, really fast paced. But hanging over the reading of the book is the reality of the incredibly limited water resources in the American Southwest. The battles physically fought over water are disturbing given the droughts of 2021.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu could not be more different from the above reading. The book is written in the form of a Hollywood screenplay, which is bizarre enough and follows a Generic Asian Man who wants to become more than a bit player in films. This is scathing satire of the entertainment industry, but also of the focus on African American and Whites as lead characters, whereas the GAM only gets bit parts. To add to the insult the GAM, who was born in the USA, has to speak in a ‘stage Asian’ accent and act as a stage Asian. Of course, all Asians nationalities are lumped into the Generic Asian. They make little money and share lives (quite hilariously) in basically slum dwellings. Both the NYT and the Washington raved about this book, the latter recalling the satire of Paul Beatty in the Sellout. The book is brilliant satire, but I was
uncomfortable thinking of the number of times I might have ignored a Generic Asian Man.
Latest Readings as of August 2021
Its been an interesting time for book reading recently. My favorite is that written by my sister Mary Behan, ‘Kernels’. This is a collection of 12 stories, written over a 12 month period, that Mary started writing shortly after publishing her novel A Measured Thread. I’m almost afraid to tell her that I loved these stories more than her novel. Each is different, each is based on a kernel in Mary’s life and each grabbed me, and emotionally held me. I empathized with the protagonist in these stories. I was in the plane in “The Boys Club”. I knew the score in the ‘Business of Science’, and I also fell in love with Dadanawa. Read it.
My other short story read was ‘How to Make a Slave and other Essays’ by Jerald Walker. Walker is a National Book Award finalist, and this book is a quick read and insight into the everyday ‘slights’ that can be and are endured by Black in the White USA. If you do nothing else, read his essay ‘Dragon slayers’ inspired by James Alan McPherson, who was his teacher and mentor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and to whom he dedicated this book. Mary dedicated her book to me – I’m so honored.
Our Book Club brought us “The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother” by James McBride. I loved McBride’s “Deacon King Kong” and his upbeat take on life in the New York Projects. This is an author seemingly without negative baggage. He knows himself and his talents and his intellectual ‘worth’. And so you get the same upbeat buzz as from reading Barack Obama. The Color of Water, is a layered tale of his upbringing, along with his 11 sibs, by a mother who was an Hassidic Jew by birth and upbringing, and who married Black rather than Jewish. Their household sounds beyond chaotic, but his mother ensured that he and his sibs got the best education.
I can’t remember where I saw the notice of a new release of ‘The Black Cloud’ by Fred Hoyle, the astrophysicist. What a wonderful read, the world is threatened by a Black Cloud and the response of politicians is somewhat equivalent to what we have witnessed with COVID. The fact that the Black Cloud was published in 1957, well prior to the digital world we live in, is though-provoking.
Latest Reading as of June 2021
Dany Laferriére’s The Return, a translation of his L’enigme du retour, is a haunting, extraordinarily lyrical, prose-poem to emigration and the emigrant. He was a journalist in Haiti, clearly a member of the middle-class, but decided to emigrate when the Government of Papa Doc Duvalier turned against the media. He came to Canada because of no opportunities in Haiti. His trajectory as an immigrant is so familiar. His book evokes the ache of homesickness and loneliness, the longings for parental hugs, the missing of friends, the conversation, the chat. He describes going home in the book, he’s now famous as a recipient of every literature award that France can bestow, including membership in the l’Académie, and writes about the colours, the vibrancy, his mother and you get a sense of blood-pressure dropping, peace.
Its so hard to figure out what makes a book a total page-turner, but the latest Slough House by Mike Herron certainly is one. It’s fast paced, I know the protagonists from previous Slough House books, it excoriates Brexit, recent British politics and British politicians, its language is laugh out loud funny in some places, in others highly quotable, and of course, it doesn’t have an ending. Slough House Books are a serialized epic and I’m hooked totally, so much so, that I checked to see had it really ‘ended’.
John Bainville or his alias Benjamin Black has the same effect on me. I loved John Bainville’s Snow. As Benjamin Black he gives another brilliant insight into the West Brit attitudes and mindset in The Secret Guests his fiction of Elizabeth and Margaret being sent to Ireland for their safety during a bit of WWII. They end up in a mausoleum of a Big House owned by a distant relative of the Crown, who is in need of money to renovate his monstrous property. Here the central theme is not Church, but rather the disparity between the West Brits of the Big House and the locals; you have the feeling that they are living in alternate universes. Again, Strafford is central, meant to be minding that no one finds out about the Royals, which in the back-of-beyond of Ireland is impossible.
I also loved Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. Klara is an android, an Artificial Friend, programmed to be an empathic, complete friend for a teenager. She is displayed in a shop along with other AFs, she is bought by the mother of Josie, a teenager who is often sick. Klara is fascinating because of her take on humans. But I think more fascinating is her interaction with the world outside her AF comfort zone, which has been narrowly programmed. So for example, she doesn’t know where the Sun goes at night, doesn’t know what dust motes are, and doesn’t really understand sleeping. She cannot rapidly process eye-sight perception issues outside a structured suburban home. She is not programmed for the country and has depth perception and balance problems when she decides to find out where the Sun sleeps. Her shortcomings made me think how hard it is to make a really ‘human’ robot.
Michael Lewis’ Premonition is a ‘non-fiction thriller’ as they say. So I was hooked on the first page – he has that in common with John Bainville. Premonition explains to a great extent why the USA response to COVID was so dysfunctional at the outset, and to be honest, continues to be so, except for their Warp Speed vaccines. He doesn’t lay blame, points to Trump as a ‘comorbidity’, but clearly points out the flaws in the American Healthcare system, where capitalism, a dispersed and poorly funded Public Health system, covering your butt CDC, and lack of institutional memory trumps logic. In what other country that spends so much money on healthcare would Public Health personnel still be communicating by Fax? What other country would throw out reports from one Administration when another Administration comes in? What other country would be considered best in the world in terms of pandemic preparedness, but would disperse the experts and shelve any reports, because of institutional one-up-man-ship? Unlike ‘fiction thrillers’ I was left shaking my head.
Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary is a scientific romp. He wrote The Martian, and I think Project Hail Mary was written with one eye on a screen play. But it is superfun sci-fi. Once again the earth needs saving, this time from an alien superbug that feeds off our sun. The Hail Mary is sent to Tau Ceti, the protagonist, Grace, interacts with another life form from another planet infected by the same superbug. This alien life form is metal and rock based, communicates by sound only, but they work out how to communicate and save both their home planets. I like the biological logic of these two. They search for the home planet of the superbug, find out that it is part of a diverse ecosystem (many bugs) and that the superbug destroying Earth’s Sun and Rocky’s Sun has a predator.
Latest Readings January 2021
Snow, John Bainville’s latest book is as usual a wonderful read – I loved it. It purports to be a crime novel, but I thought it more a brilliant exposé – but that’s the wrong word, because everyone knew what was going on - of the Ireland of the 1950s where Archbishop McQuaid ruled almost every aspect of Irish life. It captures the smallness and the rurality of Ireland of the time, including: the distain of rural Gardaí for Dublin types; the local Protestants in the Big House, which is of course, falling apart, and with a dysfunctional family; the tinkers being the easy blame for anything, in this case murder; the hail-fellow well-met priest “loved by all” who is a predatory pedophile. And the whole atmosphere suffused with winter snow and the searing damp cold that we all knew in some house or other as children. Although I got caught up in the book as a crime novel, I realized this is an angry book. Bainville’s chapter 19 where The Detective Inspector meets Archbishop McQuaid at his summer home is a master class in innuendo. The author sums up Archbishop McQuaid in the telling sentence “Comrade Stalin’s right-hand man Mr. Beria will never be dead while his grace is alive”. And we find out that Detective Inspector Strafford had to go to the English newspapers to get the “story” of the murder out. You realize that none of the Irish newspapers of the day, including the Irish Times, could bear the wrath of the Archbishop, and Bainville must have come across such “stories” when reading for this book.
I was curious about the Booker hype for Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart; now I’ve read it and know why. This is a brilliant, unrelenting, searing view of alcohol addiction in Agnes, told from the viewpoint of her son Shuggie (Hugh) over the years of his childhood. It is devastating in its depiction of poverty in and around Glasgow, where families negotiate welfare of various kinds to support food, clothing and the drugs that make life bearable. As the Guardian review said “men do what they do and women and boys like it or lump it”; the men in the book are execrable. Agnes is beautiful, an Elizabeth Taylor lookalike, and her commitment to keeping herself, her children and where she lives well-presented is in stark contrast with her slovenly neighbours. The neighbours are all awful, although you feel they can’t be all that bad. But this book is written from the perspective of Shuggie, who adores his mother and will do anything for her, and to help her maintain her image. As Agnes deteriorates in her addiction, she becomes more and more defiant, but also dependent on Shuggie, and his older brother, Leek (Alexander) to clean her up after her bouts of drinking, and run-ins with abusive men. The depth of Agnes’ addiction and what she will do to get a drink, is heartbreaking, just devastating. And then there is Shuggie, a precocious boy, who speaks politely, tries to fit in, but is picked on constantly, and gets cramps and the runs when this happens. You know this has happened to Douglas Stuart, because it is so well depicted. There is so little empathy in this Glasgow world of Shuggie Bain – it’s awful, but a brilliant read.
Latest Readings November 2020
It has been a Spring, Summer and Fall of COVID reading, bingeing on thrillers, on Science, and books for the Book Club to which I belong. For science I’m slowly reading The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong and The Information by James Gleick. I’m about 50% through both and find both brilliant, but in need of the long read.
The Book Club reads are a smorgasbord and are an experience, exposing me to writers I would have easily overlooked. The - Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng - this has to be a satire of WASP suburban life in the USA - a cutout Barbie and Ken? The Innocents by Michael Crummey - is stylistically quite brilliant, believable, but SO hard. Love Lives Here by Amanda Knox about supporting and defending her transgender offspring and significant other is an extended blog post, but she had it tough. A Secret Music by Susan Hannaford is a beautiful book, set in Montreal of the 1930s, with the passionate love of music of a son and mother as it centrepiece.
One of my best reads was Mary Behan’s ‘A Measured Thread’. The book has its own thread of Mary’s life; it’s not autobiographical, but her passionate love for the prairie landscape, her cabin home in Wisconsin, and the West of Ireland shine through - a wonderful read.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates and his wonderful novel The Water Dancer were ……. and I don’t have the adjective. They made me so angry at the treatment of slaves, the extraordinary ignorance of ignorant, self-righteous slave owners, and their sheer cruelty. And then that as a father, Coates needs to warn his son of how he presents to the white world in this century - stunningly awful. My father gave me and Mary the gifts of love and freedom; Coates can only give his love. Even though I found The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead a brilliant read, I couldn’t finish it because of the wanton cruelty and neglect. If there is a happy ending, it will wait for a future read. In contrast, Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black was a light read, almost a fairytale. and I loved the romp that is Deacon King Kong by James McBride, what wonderful, decent characters in a community where people look out for each other, despite poverty, alcoholicism, ethnic divide and gentle squalor. I also liked the bravery and the willingness to stand up to bigotry in ‘In the Shadow of Statues by Mitch Landrieu.
But the book that stopped me in my mental tracks, that has stayed with me vividly and which parallels the books by Ta-Nehisi Coates is Apeirogon by Colum McCann about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians told through the story of one of each that loses a child as a result of the other side; yet surprisingly these men become close friends promoting peace together. I liked the telling in 1001 brief to long chapters mirroring 1001 Nights. I liked that I could ‘feel’ the angst of each as they went into opposing territory, I liked their friendship and the central tenant that colonization has to be broken as it damages both sides. As the Washington Post Review ends “the only revenge is making peace”.
The other book that stopped me in my mental tracks Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. I read him after hearing him interviewed by the superb Eleanor Wachtel on CBC’s Writers and Company. She’s a very generous interviewer, and yet I heard the hesitation in his voice of someone talking about something very personal, especially his interactions with, and obvious love for his parents. Although he was born in the USA he expresses the immigrant dichotomy wonderfully. The immigrant walks out on their security bubble at home and accepts the wonderful new, straddles two worlds really, is often homesick, and if lucky, can still return to that security bubble, as Ayad’s father does. Being an immigrant, I appreciated that Akhtar understood his parents’ immigrant perspective. But, of course, that is not the focus of this novel, whose characters include Akhtar’s family, friends and one presumes, himself. It is focused on post 9/11 America for a writer who looks Muslim, has Muslim parents and relatives, and who is treated as an immigrant, despite protestation. It is the ‘Black Lives Matter’, the ‘#me too’, the ‘Between the World and Me’ of such a person and is written brilliantly. The book’s chapters are vignettes, that enrage, horrify, make you smile, on Americana of the last 15 years. You want to scream at the lack of civility, respect, basic kindness. It made me so glad that I ended up in Canada. Its wonderful.
Latest readings April 2019
This has been a season of holidays and surgery, both conducive to much reading. I’ve read Munich by Robert Harris (insightful into the prelude to WWII), Wolf on a String by Benjamin Black (John Banville masterful as always), Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen (there is the world as seen through USA eyes, and then there is the rest of the 6.5 billion humans), 15 Dogs by André Alexis (a frustrating, unconvincing analogy of human existence?), Underbug by Lisa Margonella (on termites and those who study them) and Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
Four further books were a joy and really made me think.
How to Change your Mind by Michael Pollan didn’t so much make me want to rush out and try psychedelic drugs as question the tight, medical/pharmaceutical establishment that ensures they are prohibited. It’s a wonderful, highly readable history of research and usage of them, and dispels the concept that they did not really exist before Timothy Leary. I didn’t read Pollan’s account of taking psychedelics, as it was a very personal experience, but I certainly wouldn’t hesitate taking them if the opportunity presented or if they could help me. They would be an integral part of our medicine options if the pharmaceutical industry could make money out of them. As Pollan shows, there is a viable industry around their usage, and their usage should be de-criminalized.
Educated by Tara Westover. I was so saddened by this girl’s upbringing; it was so very different from my own. And then so admiring of her survival instincts, her extraordinary courage in breaking from her family and following her own path to an education. She is a woman apart. She had her moments of joy growing up, but the overhanging feeling is one of fear, of government, fear of what is out there, fear of the different. I am in awe of how she broke away from this surrounding of fear, and to write this book. She does show though the importance of mentors who saw her intelligence and were willing to help.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews. I read this after Educated and was blown away. I didn’t realize at the outset that it was based on a true event (what a trite word) in Bolivia where in an enclosed Mennonite colony over 100 women, of all ages, were drugged and raped over the years 2005-2009. It was an enclosed colony: women did not leave; men did the shopping etc. What were the women to do when they found out? They are being pushed to forgive, despite the men not showing any guilt or apology. They talk – and in that are the shifting interactions between any group of women who know each other from childhood. Just awful, and brilliantly written.
The Silk Roads: A New history of the World by Peter Frankopan. The Sunday Times had this as a best book of the year in 2015 and I don’t know how I missed it; it is wonderful, and I wanted to send a copy to friends so that we could talk about it. The history I learned at school was Eurocentric, actually Irish/British centric, and though I have read widely since school, that Eurocentric view remains. For example, Orhan Pamuk’s book, My Name is Red was the first time I realized the impact of Islamic art and architecture on Europe and that there was a flow of ideas, as well as goods, between East and West. The Silk Roads shifts the history of the world to Iran and further east and you have to revel in this approach because you learn so much, and are reminded of so much, e.g., the mishmash of Iraq, the importance of being an island to Britain’s ascendancy, the importance of trade and traders. More than anything, this book reminds us that populations have been moving and intermixing globally since before history.
Latest readings March 2018
I just started rereading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon again, a novel as pertinent today as when it was published in 1999, because I need the buzz of a good novel that reads multidimensionally, teaches me, and is fun. I just finished his latest, with Nicole Galland, The Rise and Fall and D.O.D.O., which I loved. It mixes quantum physics, time travel, deep history, magic, and magicians, with the most powerful being Grainne O’Malley! What’s not to love. The rise and fall of the Department of Diachronic Operations (D.O.D.O.), as a component of IARPA, is worth the novel by itself. I’ve worked for Government, and this is how bureaucracies grow, thrive, enlarge, try to manage their scientists etc. Its a wonderful satire of bureaucrats and especially the American Military version. And then there are the witches, wonderfully capricious ladies (all), and some politically smart, especially Grainne O’Malley, who know how to ‘use’ venal men. Again, worth a novel by itself. Of course the DODO objectives are ‘good’ - to change history inpreceptably to bring out a positive outcome in the present. To do this they need to time travel, this is where the witches come in. To get the history right, they need to hire herds of historians. And then they bring people back from the past, expose them to Walmart, with hysterical repercussions. This is a brilliant, satirical romp and the only equivalent ‘feel’ is from reading Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a tragic joy. I learned so much about the Korean experience during Japanese occupation - quite awful. It shows how the effects of occupation are not only economic and physical brutality, but also mental. And it continues to this day because Japanese Koreans are still not considered full citizens of Japan. Its about the strength of family, how family is all important, and so the suicide of Sunja’s son, who is to have his korean heritage exposed, is devastating.
The Latest Readings December 2017
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid was disturbing. His other novels that I’ve read I found disturbing also, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, but Exit West was more so. Perhaps because it was about refugees that become emigrants. It seemed to me that they crossed a line somewhere and this is what we do as emigrants when we decide not to return to our country of origin. The book captures the instability of the state of being a refugee.
I got about a third into American War by Omar El Akkad, but the fiction didn’t grab me the way Ken Burn’s documentary, Vietnam, which I watched on TV, did. The dystopian USA of El Akkad’s novel paled in comparison with the utter devastation of Vietnam and Cambodia - and for what?
I loved The Golden House by Salman Rushdie, what a glorious “blockbuster” of a novel. This has got to be made into a film - it is The Great Gatsby of the 21st century. And on top of the wonderful story and writing, you get the erudite throw-away lines on modern culture, the Trump debacle, elitism and the nouveau riche - its a ball!
John LeCarre’s Legacy of Spies was perfect for a long plane trip. Its a memorial to Smiley and Co., and reminds of the fear and double-speak of the Cold War. Mary advised me about Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, and I loved it also. Its a wonderful insight into the passion of a scientist for science, and trying to be a female scientist in the cutthroat academic world. If you need an enjoyable quickie - look no further than Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan, a walk on the wild side with the workers at a Red Lobster restaurant. We’ve probably all been to a Red Lobster, or somewhere similar, at least once - this is the world of the cooks, waiters and manager.
The way of Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood, is “an intimate journey into the minds of the Islamic State’s most radical true believers” and is gripping. Finally I understood why El Bagdadi was accepted as the supreme leader so quickly and that something like the Islamic State is not going away soon.
The Latest Readings August 2017
Slavery in the US South and on the Gold Coast of Africa bookended so many aspects of slavery that I hadn’t thought of. Colson Whitehead deserves all the praise that has been heaped on him for The Underground Railroad. His writing captures you and you want to follow the story, especially of Cora; the terrifying underground railroad that like a terrorist network has stations as ‘cells’, where nobody knows the full plan, who built the railroad, where trains are coming from or going to, and where the runaway leaps into an unknown. This book really gets across the fact of slaves as property, and as such, how determined the plantation owners were to retrieve slaves that had runaway, and to inflict awful punishment as a deterrent. There is an image of a ‘freedom’ highway with runaway slaves that were captured hung up on trees all along the edge. It also hints at how slaves of Ashanti descent were particularly prized. This is a visual, vicious novel about appalling barbarity.
Now, finishing The Underground Railroad, I’m listening to Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and swept away by the Africa to North America lyricism of the book. Again, the importance of Ashanti people their beauty and warrior status hit me. And, of course, the complexity of the ‘slave story' and the complicity of slavery as a business for so many countries.
I think “if you only read one book this year” so many times, but Just Another Jihadi Jane by Tabish Khair is mine for 2017. How did this writer get into the minds of these young, trying to be so cool, jihadis. Those female teenagers from Britain who went to the Middle East to be brides for ISIS are so understandable after reading this book. He doesn’t patronize, and to be honest, I couldn’t see how anyone could intervene to stop the momentum of these girls being swept up in the ISIS social media. This book left me thinking more than any other this year. In terms of "the effects of social media" this book portrays the most insidious.
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw is a fascinating insight into the fast paced living in urban, super-urban Shanghai seen from the perspective of 5 protagonists, of different worth, social standing etc. All are immigrants from Malaysia, though hiding this fact. As immigrants they thought they could have a different, more exciting trajectory, in a new country, and they variously fail in this. The story of each grabs you and I was caught in the web of their lives. Interesting ending as well. I'll check other books by this writer.
Every so often I want the Reamde rush of good Science Fiction and got it in the Imperial Radch series of books by Ann Leckie. I cheated by starting with Ancillary Mercy, the last book in the trilogy, but that was the book available in the Haskell library. I loved it, its Intergalactic, has powerful female figures and is so much fun. I did read the first book, Ancillary Justice, which explained all the mental question marks I had from Ancillary Mercy. And, yes, I will read the middle book, Ancillary Sword. The author deserves all those Sci Fi Awards she received. Its not the rush of SnowCrash by Neal Stephenson, but pretty close.
The latest Readings - January 2017
The holidays are a wonderful time to catch up on thrillers. But three books got me thinking for very different reasons. I found Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War a tough book; because of the topic of course, but also because of its style which expects real attention from the reader. Its so worth the read though. He and his family were immigrants from Vietnam, separated on arrival, or maybe before, because no family would sponsor a family of four. Some of his chapters are about the Vietnamese immigrant experience, but what he does brilliantly is frame what the Vietnamese call, The American War. He politely and gently skewers non-Vietnamese Americans for focussing on American trials during and after that War, focussing on the numbers of Americans killed, and making no mention of the millions of Vietnamese killed as a result of American actions. It is the American War to Vietnamese because THEY won it. Yet, to most in the West, including me, that War was what we saw in the movies - Apocalypse Now, The DeerHunter etc., and Americans, through Hollywood, decisively won the propaganda war and cultural war. It was a book that left me thinking of immigrant families, the horrors of that War, and the irony of why most Vietnamese don’t hold a grudge - they won.
You’ve got to be in awe of the brilliant structure of Solar Bones by Mike McCormack - how did he pull off such a marvellous prose-poem. The Guardian reviewer called it a hymn to small-town life - and he couldn’t have put it better. The small town is Louisbourg, Co. Mayo, a small town we know well, because our uncle was the town’s Doctor for a long number of years. He was married to my mother’s younger sister, so we’d often go there for short and long holidays, because Louisbourg is walking distance to the sea and the mountains. The protagonist isn’t the doctor, but it could have been. He’s the civil engineer and we follow him, or rather his thoughts, over his life from childhood until the recent past. And you’re sucked in - by small town life, by the venality of politicians, by the rhythm of roads driven, by the universal solution - the cup of tea, but most of all you’re carried on the rhythm of his writing, on its sheer lyricism.
Co. Mayo is bogland, but in a sense nothing prepares you for the blanket bogs of the Irish Midlands. That’s where Emma Donoghue sets The Wonder, which I finished in a sitting. Just like in Room, her writing grabs you, the tension mounts, you want to physically shake most of the protagonists, and there is a brief happy ending. As the Guardian reviewer put it, the story is based on the many cases of “fasting girls” reported across the world from the 16th to the 20th centuries: … who claimed to live without food for months or even years. This fasting girl is in Ireland, the daughter of small farmers who have just about survived the Famine. She is being checked for eating on the quiet by a nurse trained at the Crimean War by Florence Nightingale, who is agnostic, and a Sister of Mercy nurse. Of course, the family are Catholic, as are the villagers, the doctor, and the establishment, who are hoping the fasting girl will be the real thing, cause then they’ll possibly have a “saint” to boast about. Emma Donoghue packs so much of Ireland into this book, but especially the Famine. The effects of that bottle-neck on the Irish population are still being felt at the end of the Crimean war - food is still scarce, there’s passive antagonism against the English, there’s the road to nowhere - an English folly from famine times, there’s the unmarked graves. And added to this mix is the incompetently awful Doctor, and the priest who topped up the usual level of Irish religious/sexual guilt by bring the Redemptionist priests to the parish for a mission precipitating the ‘fast’.
The latest Readings - October 2016
The report on the “big whack” in the journal Astronomy Now, highlighted in ScienceMag on November 1, is about how a “Mars-sized space object likely knocked Earth on its side 4.4 billion years ago” disrupting both the earth’s and the moon’s orbit. Something like this is the premise of Neal Stephenson sci-fi novel Seveneves, but in SevenEves, it is the moon that gets whacked a few years from now, gets split in 2 big chunks which start a chain reaction of break-up that will predictably lead to a “Hard Rain” that will destroy humans in approximately 2 years.
I love Stephenson’s books, because he is such a technowonk, is so scientifically knowledgeable, and his sci-fi books are so plausible. In SevenEves, Earth’s governments have a “heads-up” on what the Hard Rain means and need to decide on and execute a strategy for human survival in the short 2 years. Stephenson’s take on global politics and his technical knowledge of how this could be accomplished by expanding the space station and the complexities involved make up most of the first part of the book. Then we jump 5000 years, when the descendants of the Seven Eves decide to go back to Earth. It’s a long read, but a fascinating and technical one – read it! Probably only bacteria were around for the first “big whack”, and certainly some bacteria would have survived Neal Stephenson’s big whack. Humans might survive a big whack also, but I liked his intimation that the event may be a trigger for allopatric speciation.
The latest Readings - August 2016
Reading The Sellout by Paul Beatty was like a Renaissance Course by a wonderful teacher. He riffs on racism of all kinds, and most of the other “isms” in the USA of today. He embeds so much history and historical illusions in this novel that I’m awed by the breadth of his own reading. Its a wonderful read, but not a fast one, because a bit like Noam Chomsky’s work, you want to actually listen to the sentences. The protagonist is amazingly erudite, and an ecological engineer (a farmer) with a mouthwatering love of genetically modifying fruits to seduce his community, so I was won over. There are parallels between the poverty and invisibility of his primarily African-American and Mexican community outside Los Angeles and those described by Paul Theroux in Deep South, his fascinating travels around the other USA. Both authors note that the poverty is worse than anything you would see in a Third World country. And Theroux has visited and lived in many of those. Listening to the radio today, someone in the USA was exhorting young people to go to Africa to build schools for the needy. They certainly don’t need to go that far - they could start in southeastern USA and poor neighbourhoods around Los Angeles.
The latest Readings - July 2016
A good friend with impeccable taste in novels recommended Euphoria by Lily King. It is loosely based on periods in the life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead. It focuses on a field trip she and her husband made to various tribes along the Sepik River in New Guinea and it is enthralling. I’ve been on loads of field trips, though none as long as the 3 month long one depicted in this novel. What this novel did brilliantly was capture the claustrophobia, closeness, competitiveness, rivalry of a group on a field trip. The Margaret Mead character is far and away the research leader, the driven Principal Investigator, the pivot for the group. I loved it, and wanted it to go on forever. Because like most field trips, members disperse, go on their individual ways after the field trip, and like the field trips I’ve been on, I wanted to know what happened to these people in their ‘normal’ lives.
I’ve been reading some brain candy – the ice-cream cones of the mind; books like Brilliance by Marcus Sakey and the Gods Eye View by Barry Eisler; all devoured in brain gluttony. But the one that blew me away was Arab Jazz by Karim Miské. It is a wonderful, marvelous totally plausible mix of drugs, murder, set in Brooklyn and Paris with the protagonists being a mix of Hassidic Jews, Muslims and Jehovah Witnesses. It is everything you could wish for in a fast paced reading thrill, and I learned so much in the process.
I'm one of a number of authors of The Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas, the first book to document the universe of species beneath our feet from a global perspective, was published in May 2016, and formally announced at the Second United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi. Conceived by the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative (www.globalsoilbiodiversity.org), in partnership with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, the book is freely available to download at http://esdac.jrc.ec.europa.eu/content/global-soil-biodiversity-atlas, and has already been downloaded more than 30,000 times. The Atlas represents the result of collaboration by more than 100 international experts, synthesizing the accelerating advancement of knowledge on organisms in soil (from microorganisms to macro and mega fauna and ecosystem engineers), their global distributions and their contributions to ecosystem services. This knowledge of soil biodiversity is placed in the context of their habitats which in turn underpin all terrestrial ecosystems. Integrating knowledge across the disciplines of soil science, systematics, molecular biology, biogeochemistry, plant, human and animal health, ecosystem science, climate change, education and social science, the Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas is also a joy with its numerous photos of beautiful soil biota.
The latest Readings - June 2016
Somehow Edna O'Brien's The Little Red Chairs has obliterated memory for many of the books I've read over that last few months. It is such a wonderful, actually fantastic, read. It is the story of women in Ireland in a small village in the West, and of women migrants/refugees/displaced who have ended up in England. The story of the central character, Fidelma, is pretty awful, but in contrast with that of so many women, who's story is truly horrific, Fidelma almost seems lucky. It shows the gentle kindnesses women can give each other and more than anything the migrants wish for Home. The last sentence says so much "You would not believe how many words there are for home and what savage music there can be wrung from it."
I did enjoy Purity by Jonathan Franzen, a story that could only be set in the USA. Where else could or would a billionaire reject all that financial security can bring - definitely a first-world problem. The reality that we are the products of family history and the difficulty of escaping that is brilliantly engaged. These are fascinating families but you don't want to be a member of any of them.
I did love The Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin, a brilliant insight into the mind of a handsome genius, his social gaps, his total self-absorption and disregard for his family; he is an outlier. That the main character is a math genius is a pleasure because we rub shoulders through him with the math wizards of the last two centuries. The novel is a different insight on addiction; the protagonist's addiction to alcohol matching his drive to solve one of the great math conundrums. He is such a challenging, unlikeable, yet fundamentally human character who just happens to be at the extreme end of the Human bell curve.
The latest Readings - February 2016
Do you remember the Biafran War and the Biafran starvation crisis in 1967-1970? I remember that we donated money to bring relief, but not much else about that time. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 'Half of a Yellow Sun' will bring it all back to you. Because before Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda and Syria there was the horror of Biafra. It raises the usual question - how can we be so bloody appalling and savage to members of our own species? Her protagonists are Academics, middle-class Igbo, no different than us, caught up in a cause that echoes in so many civil wars. She writes lyrically and empathically - its a wonderful but sad book, because everybody loses in war.
The latest Readings - January 2016
Patti Smith's 'M Train' is a joy to read. It is a lyrical meditation on time and space - her time and her space. Although very personal, she draws you into her spaces: cafes, beaches, rooms, and her sense of time, generously sharing. She writes wonderfully, so what more could you want?
Michel Houellebecq's ' Submission' which I just read in translation is a fascinating read. At one level it is has the brilliant plot of France succumbing to a democratically elected Muslim President in the near future, elected because other western liberal parties in France couldn't agree to combine against the Muslim treat. At another level it is a very erudite dissertation on French writers and philosophers of the 19th, early 20th centuries to the present - all men, and all seemingly oblivious to the other 50% of the species. But fundamentally I read it as a satire on French male academia, otherwise how to explain the absence of intelligent women in the second part of the book, and the assumption that all French women are either giggling 15 year olds or mature 40 year olds who are good cooks and who are all willing to submit! But definitely read it - it is so much fun.
'Islamic Academy Rise of the Islamic State' by the French reporter, Nicholas Henin, who was captured by Islamic State and kept in captivity for 8 months is my best book of 2016 so far. It is a brilliantly clear explanation of the origin, rationale, structure and operation of Islamic State. Henin explains how IS has used PR to its advantage and how our preoccupation with IS has played into the hands of the person he considers the real evil in the region - Assad of Syria.
Some books just blow you away with the writing. ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ by Marlon James, which won the Booker this year, was a brilliant but an oh so tough read - all that sex, killing, and dependence on the man, Bob Marley. But it did make me think of what a tough life he lived. He just wanted to make music, and smoke dope, and enjoy himself. Instead, the weight of a nation landed on his shoulders. And he couldn’t just toss it off; the hangers-on, the CIA, the groupies, even the visiting pop-stars all made sure of that.
The 2015 book that grabbed me with its writing was - “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara. Her four close male friends, friends since university, all intellectual stars in their ways, taught me so much about New York, the joys of an intense cultural life, jealousy, male friendship, and most importantly, the crippling long-term effects of childhood abuse (which happened to one of the characters). I’m probably not alone in assuming that you can “grow out of” or “overcome” childhood abuse. But as Yanagihara shows lyrically, it effects everything in life. These friends surmount hurdles of fear, self-loathing, wariness, self-abuse, rejection to care for their friend and each other. Best of all, the writing is lyrical; perhaps most similar to that in Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila.”
On the side I’ve been self-injecting the sheer joy of Neal Stephenson’s books; they are such a blast. I had read Cryptonomicon’ when it came out in 1999, but didn’t realize then that ‘Snow Crash” was out there for the reading - definitely a non-stop high for anyone. Over the last year, I’ve read his ‘Anathem’ and ‘Reamde’ and I’m amazed at the man’s inventiveness within a framework that as a reader I can see as possible.
David Eggers is such a superb writer, his book ‘The Circle’ is a frightening vision of social media and interconnectedness taken to extremes of control. But his book on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina - “Zeitoun” - would make anyone question the humanity of Americans. That a gentle man, who wished the best for family, friends and neighbours, could be brought to such degradation because of fear of the immigrant, ignorance, lack of organization, but most importantly, lack of civility, is an inditement. With Sheri Fink’s ‘Five Days at Memorial’, Zeitoun is a book that captures disorganization in time of crisis.
Mary has been on my case to write some words on my recent book readings. I dropped Peter Carey’s ‘Amnesia’ mid-way through. It’s wonderfully written, but centres around a time in Australian politics and the repercussions of that time that I know little about. In contrast, I was riveted by Elena Ferrante’s book ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’. It is set in Naples and Florence of approximately the same era, 1970s; a time of The Red Brigade, and intense confrontation between the State, the Communist Party and various Workers groups. That is the backdrop to the intense friendship between two girls from a very ‘working-class’ background and others from the same background, and their relations with the ‘intellectual class’. It’s the third book in a series, and though I read it in translation, it’s the writing that grabbed me, it’s brilliant. The girls, now women, are intensely real, intensely women. It’s a rare book where the complexity of friendship between women is so wonderfully explored.
The exultation in Ireland on the positive referendum for Gay Marriage was wonderful to behold. And about time. But we shouldn’t forget the backdrop of appalling, and often subtle pedophilia, carried out by Irish clergy. So I think John Boyle’s ‘A History of Loneliness’ should be read by everyone, Irish or not. It’s brilliantly composed and written, and reminded me of the importance of empathy, of speaking out where harm is been done, of basic caring.
‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan, is a Man Booker Prize Winner and was mentioned in The Bone Clock by David Mitchell – what higher praise can you get? Yes, it’s wonderfully written, but I felt I had seen the film already; in fact I’m sure I’ve seen the film! It’s about relationships between men under really appalling conditions, the importance of small kindnesses, never forgetting the importance of friendship. But I felt removed from the characters, and perhaps Flanagan did this purposely; to make me, the reader, realise that only by staying very private and removed could one survive the living hell he described.
No wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize, ‘All the Light we Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr is a joy. It has strong protagonists’ stories, sometimes interwoven, set in the time just before, during and after WWII. It is a brilliantly structured book with short chapters moving between the different story lines, and I was totally captured, and couldn’t put it down. I really liked the lack of sentimentality, my realisation at the end of the book that all the refugees and displaced people from WWII, and other wars, have stories. I’m so glad the author brought us these stories, the book is a gift.
How have I missed ‘The Buddha in the Attic’ by Julie Otsuka which came out in 2011? The history of Japanese picture brides, how they survived and ultimately thrived in the USA, and then their, and other Japanese American’s awful internment during WWII, is a lyrical read. I worked with the son of an interned couple in the USA, and with the daughter of an interned couple in Canada. The daughter spoke of the ‘shame’ her parents felt and their need for invisibility. How can humans be so mean-spirited to each other?
Some reading March 2015
I felt I ‘should’ read Henry Kissinger’s ‘On China’ and so have avoided it for years! He was definitely a rare US diplomat; he took the time to understand China, and their long-term perspective on everything, including relationships with the West. He points out that Chinese do not forget their history, e.g., The Opium Wars; rather they fold that past into dealing with the present. He gives a fairly rapid and useful overview of Chinese history before focussing most of the book on the West and China during the years he was US Secretary of State. Granted the book is intended to be a positive spin on his role in Chinese-West negotiations, but his admiration for the Chinese approach to negotiations, for Mao, and his respect for Zhou Enlai do come through.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Really enjoying this journey with a diverse cast of characters with very different voices and perspectives through dates from the mid 1980s to mid-21st century. Mitchell uses these voices for a series of brilliant literary riffs on power, the war in Iraq, the intense rivalry between authors, the writing process itself, and a post fossil energy world. He points out how important time, place and space are to the creative process. I'm not enjoying it as much as his “The thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”, which was my best read of the year when it came out.
The Establishment and how they get away with it by Owen Jones
This deserves all the kudos it got as one of the best books of the year. Fascinating insight into how hard core, market driven capitalism has crept up on Britain since the 1970s, to become the accepted ideology underlying 21st century Britain. Jones shows how neo-capitalist ideas were adopted and developed during post WWII Britain, then spread through think tanks, media and lobbying to take over as the prevailing ideology during the Thatcher era up to the present. He points out that there is no need for this ideology to be permanent; similar processes to those that parented present capitalist ideologies can be used to inspire a more socially democratic world. Also, its a brilliant read.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Eleanor Wachtel of CBC's Writers and Company had a wonderful interview with Colm Toibín and Marilynne Robinson about their most recent novels and with that I had to read Lila. Its a beautiful gentle book, and introduced me to the town of Gilead with its trusting, caring community. Do towns like this still exist in the USA of 2015?
Island by Alastair MacLeod
With Colm Toibín this is my favorite short-story writer – each story is perfect, holding you in its east coast of Canada grip. You could be on the west coast of Ireland easily – definitely Achill. It was our friend Gráinne who got me reading MacLeod; “Valerie shame on you that you haven't read the best Canadian writer” - you can hear her voice I think?
Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink
Definitely my best read for the first half of 2014. Almost impossible to believe the disorganization, lack of management, incompetence and frightening disarray at the major city hospital in New Orleans when hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. And Fink writes brilliantly. We hope that when the 'world falls apart' that some of our institutions will be a focus of leadership and caring, but this recounts a debacle.