7 books to ACTUALLY understand the american election

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This election year is baffling, especially to non-Americans. On one hand, there’s a candidate who has an elastic relationship with the truth. And on the other hand, there’s Donald Trump.

So how do you understand it all? There’s a surplus of writing (and bile) out there explaining the Trump phenomenon, taking down the Clintons, and trying to put the candidates in their best light. See, here, Clinton’s Hard Choices and Trump’s Great Again. But instead of reading these books, which we’ll all thankfully forget after November, there are more enduring, interesting titles to take a look at.

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Hillbilly Elegy: Proud hillbilly J.D. Vance writes about growing up in Appalachia among the forgotten and maligned people of America, who slowly shifted from Democrats to Republicans. In the best tradition of the American Dream, Vance picks himself up (with some help from Marine drill sergeants) and graduates Yale Law. Here’s someone who sees both sides of an increasingly divided America.

 

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Unequal Gains: Much of this election is about the revenge of the have-nots. In America’s answer to Thomas Piketty, this book reveals how America always manages to rebuild itself after a crisis – the Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression – but at the cost of dividing the rich from the poor.

 

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Constitution Of The United States Of America: Everyone argues about rights, and amendments, and freedoms. Here’s a novel idea…why not read the Constitution? It’s a pretty short document and a model for governments around the world.

 

 

 

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The Federalist Papers: And when the arguments about the Constitution end, people ask, “What did the Founding Fathers mean?” Um, well, in a series of letters to each other, the Fathers debated just that and wrote it down for posterity. Includes contributions from the original Alexander Hamilton!

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Democracy In America: An outsider’s view of America. Alexis de Tocqueville travelled America in the 1830s and sketched a young, vibrant democracy for readers back in Europe. This travelogue still explains to America and the world what truly is great about that country (spoiler: it’s not a wall).

 

 

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Things That Matter and DriftAmerica wouldn’t be America without ongoing debate and ~polite~ disagreement over the direction of the country. For these counterpoints try out conservative icon Charles Krauthammer and liberal lion Rachel Maddow.

 

i’m lovin’ it…

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What if you don’t get going until your fifties? Keep that question in mind – we’ll come back to it.

Think Apple and you think Steve Jobs. Amazon,  Jeff Bezos. Tesla, Elon Musk. Young companies still live under the shadow of their, often, young founder. Books about these visionaries are mainstays of bestseller lists and must-reads for managers.

But what about older companies whose brand overshadows their founder? Mature companies aren’t as sexy, and their founders are long dead so we don’t read about them as often. Which brings us to McDonald’s. No one’s idea today of an exciting brand. But a brand so embedded in the culture, protestors routinely trash it when they can’t get to the American embassy. What Tim Hortons is to Canada, McDonald’s is to our southern neighbours.*

And now there’s a movie:

The movie comes from founder Ray Kroc’s autobiography Grinding It Out. It’s an ode to hard work and grit from a Depression-era travelling salesman. And grit is a popular idea these days. Kroc was an immigrant who worked two jobs – milkshake mixer salesman and lounge pianist – before stumbling across a family-run burger chain in California. He took a chance, opened a franchise, and spun that into a global behemoth.

He bought that franchise at age fifty-two.

And THAT’S the great lesson from this book. At an age when most people are closer to retirement than their first job, clearing their mortgage, and ushering their kids out of the house, Kroc started a whole new life. The mantra today is that you need to make (or lose) your first million by thirty. In my previous life in academia you published or perished by your third decade. And at thirty, the sports stars are already past their prime.

Now, it’s not that Kroc sat around doing nothing until opportunity crept up in later life. During his travels, he gained insight into markets and demand. He developed an expertise and instinct that came from a career of observing and serving customers. It all set him up to take advantage when he could.

So, when we millennials can all expect to retire in our seventies instead of our sixties, and hopefully live into our nineties instead of our eighties, we shouldn’t worry that we haven’t yet made it in our thirties. Certainly, some of us will. But some of us will wait. We’re still learning. We’re still gaining wisdom.

And part of that wisdom is two lessons: don’t be scared of the slow lane. You’ll see more and learn more. But, secondly, when that fast lane comes up on you at a completely unexpected time, don’t be scared to jump into it.

Check out Ray Kroc’s story. Just because the book is old and he was *ahem* a mature entrepreneur doesn’t mean it has no lessons for us today.

*Proving  – pace Bill 101 – that you don’t have to drop an apostrophe or good grammar just for branding.

six best books of 2016…and one to come

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It’s that time of year again, when I unilaterally and authoritatively decide what are the  best books of the year so far. And as a bonus, add one book that you should all look out for later on in the year.

6. Seven Brief Lessons On Physics by Carlo Rovelli: I feel I finally understand the Theory Of Relativity. Anyone who can explain all of known physics in fewer than one hundred pages has clearly written a genius book. This one is so easy to get through, it should be added to high school curricula.

5. Tribe by Sebastian Junger: from the author who brought you The Perfect Storm comes an essay-length book on why humans work well in groups. And why we need groups. And group hugs. Inspired by Junger’s own PTSD after years as a war correspondent, Tribe is an important and troubling book about how our society’s individualism is becoming a collective exercise in self harm.

4. Dark Matter by Black Crouch: a novel set in the multiverse inhabited by who-knows-how-many versions of the main character. Who sometimes IMs himself across the void. And that is all you need to know. Read it before someone turns it into a movie.

3. The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: one of the most anticipated debuts of the year did not disappoint. A family of four backbiting siblings pre-spends their inheritance only to discover it’s not there. What do they do now?

2. Morning Star by Pierce Brown: brings to a close the Red Rising Trilogy. Intergalactic warfare. Intimate betrayals. Some surprising character exits and even more surprising returns. This rounds out a trilogy that is part Hunger Games, part Star Wars, part ancient Rome, and all political intrigue and science fiction adventure.

1. Pumpkinflowers by Matti Friedman: the best memoir of modern warfare, and ranks up there with All Quiet On The Western Front. This isn’t written by a gung-ho volunteer, but by a draftee doing what everyone else his age is doing. Regardless of your thoughts on the the intractable Israel-Palestine conflict, this is a poignant, truthful account of the low-level but long-running conflicts we send our children into today. These wars have the self-perpetuating logic of the Great War, the quagmire of Vietnam, and a lack of great battles and concentrated casualties to focus our attention on ending them. Matti Friedman could be any modern soldier, though one with a gift for remarkable phrases and just the right balance of cynicism and duty to his comrades.

And one to look out for later in the year…Trainwreck by Sady Doyle: I’ve never seen gendered double-standards called out with such vim. A book that will change minds. And how you view Britney Spears and Vincent Van Gogh. Yes, I just put them in the same sentence.

So, what have I got wrong? What would you add? Share your Best Of So Far and what you’re looking forward to this year.

read the north

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During high school, most of us read through the venerable CanLit canon. Atwood. Roy. Richler. Munro. There’s nothing wrong with these fine writers. But, as with any venerable canon, it isn’t particularly modern or appealing to teenagers. So it left me with an aversion to anything that smacked of CanLit.

It doesn’t need to be like that.

This month, Indigo launches the Read The North movement (also #ReadTheNorth). All your favourite CanLit is there but so are new voices from Canada in 2016. There is some INCREDIBLE Canadian writing out there, and its not all angsty, snowy, Mountie literature. These great reads have convinced this CanLit doubter to give it another shot.

fiction | The Orenda by Joseph Boyden: an historical novel about a Jesuit among the Hurons treads familiar CanLit ground, but does so with a fresh take, a realistic portrayal of the period, and at a breakneck pace. It singlehandedly restored my faith in Canadian fiction.

biography | A House In The Sky by Amanda Lindhout & Sara Corbett: I confess I haven’t read this one. But all I ever hear is how I’m missing out. This is a hard, but great Canadian story about a young woman who followed a dream, suffered, but didn’t let that stop her from trying to make the toughest places in the world a little better.

business | Double Double by Douglas Hunter: the story of our national shrine, Tim Hortons. Started as the retirement plan of a hockey player it grew into the dominant coffee chain in the country and, today, is so iconic it travels with the Canadian Army and hosts political photo ops. Now that’s a successful brand.

history | The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King: first of all, Canadian history isn’t boring. Secondly, it has never been so well told. I challenge anyone who dismisses First Nations history, culture, and place in modern Canada to think the same after reading this passionate book.

politics | The Longer I’m Prime Minister by Paul Wells: a snarky, clever, balanced look that explains the Harper years. Written just a few years before he lost government, it explains why Canada gave him with the country for so long, and how he tried to change it permanently.

fantasy | Sailing To Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay: I’m convinced that Mr Kay is our own J.R.R. Tolkien or G.R.R. Martin. With just a little fantastical twist of history, he crafts incredible worlds that suck you in and leave you wanting more.

nature | Bee Time by Mark Winston: no polar bears or Canada geese here. Instead, a poetical book about the hidden life of bees and what human societies might learn from them.

So, this Canada Day weekend, find a Canadian book and Read The North.

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“may” in review

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Why the quotation marks? Because that could not have been a whole month. Not with only four books read. One of them less than 150 pages and the other a perennial re-read.

books bought: none

books read: Assholes: A Theory Of Donald Trump by Aaron James – The Don Camillo Omnibus by Giovanni Guareschi – Fates And Furies by Lauren Groff – Invisible Influence by Jonah Berger

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Whenever the days get long and I’ll fall asleep reading, Guareschi’s collection of short stories is my go-to. It’s a collection of charming, comedic caricatures of a small post-war village in Italy. How does that turn into five hundred pages of short stories? Imagine a burly, cigar-smoking, duck-hunting, passionate social worker who cares so much, he occasionally gets carried away with his fists…or war surplus TNT.

Except by social worker, I meant the parish priest, Don Camillo.

And his main opponent? A die-hard, well-meaning, war veteran and mechanic who’s involved in local politics for the Communist Party. Who has his own “collection” of war matériel.

Except by local politics, I meant the the village Mayor, Peppone.

Together these two – who happen to be best friends and served together in the war – keep their small village running. When they’re not running at each other with fists or worse. But, despite their differences, they ALWAYS band together against outsiders.

These stories remain incredibly popular in Europe. Probably for their understanding description of small town politics. Where doctrine and rules are…stretched…between friends, and backs are scratched to make sure that people are treated justly and fairly. Not some bureaucratic checkbox of fairness, but a fairness rooted in a humane conscience that defaults to kindness. Or, as Guareschi says himself:

“If there is a priest anywhere who feels offended by my treatment of Don Camillo, he is welcome to break the biggest candle available over my head. And if there is a Communist who feels offended by Peppone, he is welcome to break a hammer and sickle on my back. But if there is anyone who is offended by the conversations of Christ, I can’t help it; for the one who speaks in this story is not Christ, but my Christ – that is, the voice of my conscience.”

all your books…and more stats

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Ever wonder what all your books look like? Or know how many unread books live on your shelves?

In a moment of long weekend madness I pulled all my books of their shelves. Every. Single. One.

So what did it look like? First of all, you can pull some cool f-stop work with your camera.

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Secondly: plan, plan, plan. I just piled books up into read and unread piles. This resulted in serious structural integrity issues. Two major collapses. And one dogeared casualty.

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Now, I confess, this didn’t include the six boxes of books downstairs in storage. And since I didn’t plan, the comparison of piles isn’t scientific. But I’m calling it for the unread books. Thoughts? Read are on the left (and check out that tilt in the front!) and unread on the right.

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So I’ve got some work to do. And that means some book statistics, which are always fun. Let’s call it about eleven feet of unread books. Or, assuming about 1 1/2 inches per book and an average of 250 pages, upwards of 20,000 pages. Which, at my reading speed, probably means over 10,000 minutes or 167 hours or about seven days. Non-stop. One day I’ll skip sleeping, and eating, and take a week vacation, and read every unread book I own.

Until then, those books had to get back onto their shelves. And that lead to another unplanned moment…but more on that another day.

my tattoo story…and april in review

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April was a slowish reading month, but I did buy and read a great little book which I have to add to with my own story.

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books bought: Pen & Ink Isaac Fitzgerald

books read: Sex Object by Jessica Valenti – Dark Matter by Blake Crouch – Brown by Kamal Al-Solalyee – Lily And The Octopus by Steven Rowley – The Hidden Life Of Trees by Peter Wohlleben – Pen & Ink by Isaac Fitzgerald – The Fix by Jonathan Tepperman

Apart from a great book translated from a German bestseller explaining that trees really could be Ents, and the entertaining multiverse of Jason Dessen(s), I didn’t get a whole lot of memorable reading done. Until I found Pen & Ink.

With contributions from Cheryl Strayed and Roxane Gay, this is a commonplace book of tattoos. Everybody’s story is illustrated – both on their skin and in this book. I have to say, most of them are not happy stories. Death, divorce, and depression seem the reason for many tattoos. But they do come at a turning point in people’s lives, at a point when you can hope that better days are ahead. This is a special book. Like the tattoos, the struggles and hopes of these people are permanent and, often, hidden. So it’s a privilege to be let into their lives.

My own tattoo came at a turning point. It wasn’t at the beginning of my divorce, and it wasn’t at the end – I’m not sure that sort of thing has a defined end. Rather, it came at the end of the beginning. At the point when the most of the darkest days were behind me and I could at least imagine things getting better even if it didn’t feel like it right then. “miserere mei deus – have mercy on me O God.” It’s the opening line of Psalm 51 and among the most brilliant pieces of music in history. Today it feels like we all only get one chance. One true love; you only live once; and if you screw up, the web remembers forever. So perhaps we could all do with a little mercy. A little second chance. She and I couldn’t make it work. But I’ve given myself a permanent reminder that do-overs are indeed possible in life.

march in review – and military memoirs

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A great and rare thing happened this month. I read a real gem.

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Books bought: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Books read: American Girls by Nancy Jo Sales – Pumpkinflowers by Matti Friedman – Grit by Angela Duckworth – Silence by Shusaku Endo – The Hatching by Ezekiel Boone – Shrill by Lindy West – Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – Tribe by Sebastian Junger

So many books cross my desk in a year. So many. And several of them are really good. And a lot of them are fairly good but interesting. Not too many of them are terrible – terrible books have a hard time finding a publisher.

But it’s relatively rare that you read something that stands above all of them. That you can’t wait to get in hardcover and immediately add to your shelves. Pumpkinflowers is one of those books. I’ve already reviewed it over at goodreads so not too much more to say. A colleague has described it as the book of “Israel’s Vietnam.” And I’m convinced it can hold its own with the great novels and memoirs of the First World War.

What is it about military writing that draws us in? I’m sure there’s something about peeking into a radically different world. But it can’t just be that. In the age of mass armies, plenty of veterans wanted to read about the war they themselves had fought. For the same reason it can’t just be about wanting to imagine how we would react in battle.

I think, instead, it’s something that appeals to everyone. Men and women, young and old, civilian and veteran. It’s about searching for that profound connections that soldiers seem to form. Something beyond friendship and love. Civilians want to touch it and veterans want to relive it. It seems to me that very few of us, very few of us, develop the deep almost primal bond that seems to form in war. And in an individualistic world – even when surrounded by friends, families, and lovers – something about that calls out to our very meaning as humans.

To connect.

february in review…and feminism

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Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, it went downhill from January.

Books bought: none

Books read: For The Glory by Duncan Hamilton – All The Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister – The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins – Morning Star by Pierce Brown – Algorithms To Live By by Brian Christian & Thomas Griffiths.

Despite February having a whole extra day this year, note that I’m only getting to this post in March. While my daughter naps. And STILL only read ninety-five pages of my Gibbon Challenge. And apart from Morning Star, there wasn’t anything particularly brilliant. Interesting, sure. But brilliant…

Although I did manage to start a minor goodreads fight.

I’ve been reading, over the past few years, an increasing amount of pop-feminist literature. I call it pop, because it’s not Judith Butler. There’s been no commercially viable monograph on feminism constructed through post-colonial discursive subalterity. But still  these authors often have an incredible – almost innate – grasp of current feminist theory and the intellectual chops necessary to wrestle with it.

This wasn’t a reading program. Or a conscious attempt to read in the area. But, instead, these books are eminently readable for a general audience and there are simply more and more of them. It feels like we’re about to tip into a new golden age of feminist writing. The books range from the brilliant (Bolick’s Spinster) to the terrifying (Eltahawy’s Hymens & Headscarves) to the pithy (Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists) to the cautionary (Sales’s American Girls and Johnston’s Drink). And this year I can’t wait for Roxane Gay’s new book, Hunger.

It’s encouraging that this writing is increasingly breaking into the mainstream commercial market. And that there exists a growing pool of readers. There is really no downside at all here. These writers are grappling with new and old issues for new generations. And they’re doing it in ways that enlist men as allies. Although it’s a little discouraging not to see more men’s profile pics reviewing them or marking them ‘to-read’ on goodreads.

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C’mon guys! Train’s leaving the station…get on board. I’m certain men ARE reading these books, or at least some of the guys at work are, because we talk about them. But it would be nice to see more men participate in this trend. Let’s not witness all these great books publish only to have them languish in some gendered ghetto. This really is something we’re all in together. So next time you’re looking for a gift for your boyfriend, husband, office colleague, random-guy-in-your-life…or you want to have your daughter give Dad a birthday or Father’s Day gift, make it one of these books.

He’ll thank you for it.

what just happened!? january in review

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Apparently we’re already one month into 2016 and it’s already looking pretty bleak. But more on that below.

Books bought: none

Books read: Smoke by Dan Vyleta – The Matthews Men by William Geroux – Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig – The Name Of God Is Mercy by Pope Francis – All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker – Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg.

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I went into the new year with a bookish hangover – literally several unfinished 2015 books hung over me. And out went all the reading resolutions. Read only three books at once (did you see the photo above? It’s my currently reading pile). Read at home (Ha! Not when you’ve discovered The Fall on Netflix). Read academic books and books I own? (Not when I’m not reading at home). And, no, I haven’t started Gibbon yet.

So I’m going to do what all good resolution failures do. Declare a do-over and say the year really starts in February!

Meanwhile, there were some great reads this month after the doldrums of late 2015. Smoke is a magical realism story reminiscent of Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellAll Is Not Forgotten is an exciting and worthy successor in the domestic thriller genre told by a trustworthy but something’s-not-quite-right psychiatrist narrator. The book by the Pope – well it’s a book by the Pope. One of a handful of authors who gets to use ‘The’ in his name (like The Dalai Lama or The Queen, though she’s never written a book). And Charles Duhigg’s thoughtful new business book is a rare second go that’s just as good as his first one.

So despite the temporary setbacks on my goals, I still found some great books from across a number of genres. And for that I’m thankful. How’s everyone else’s reading resolutions going? Discover anything great this January?

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