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.

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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?

why reading at home is the best reading resolution

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Every year I promise to read better and read more. So here we go again, and since a wise man once said that “knowing is half the battle” I’m going to be honest about the things that will stop these resolutions from happening. And how I’m going to get past those roadblocks.

Read only three books at a time: This was my rule last year and, except for June and December, I actually kept to it. There was a book for bedtime, a book for commuting, and a book for home. This rule allowed me to read more fiction (bedtime) and helped against the temptation to start the shiny new book because I had a quota.

How it’ll fail: My December hangover continues so I’m reading five books, which means I have to power through two, and still finish the other three before I can start something new.

How I’ll make it work: I may have to abandon some to get back on track.

Actually read at home: That home book above always suffered the most. Tidy up the kid’s toys. Cook dinner. See friends. Clean house. Internet. Of course I still have energy to read! But this year I will make it happen.

How it’ll fail: Netflix.

How I’ll make it work: Will the world really end if I leave dishes until the morning? Let’s read instead.

Read the books I own: This is the bookish equivalent of resolutions like “I’m going to eat better!” “I’m going to go the gym!”

How it’ll fail: Did I mention I work in books? There are new books every day.

How I’ll make it work: If I nail the read at home thing, this. will. happen!

Read more academic books: Most of my unread books are from university presses and about the Middle Ages. And I collect them and desperately want to read them. Since they’re too dense for bedtime and too bulky for commuting, I have to make them my home books.

How it’ll fail: Bibliographies and footnotes are the book equivalent of Wikipedia. It’s so easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole.

How I’ll make it work: Ditto the read at home thing.

Read Gibbon’s Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire – all six volumes: A friend at work and I have independently attempted this a couple of times. Now we’ve promised each other to make it happen. Six volumes. Twelve months. Two months apiece. No problem, right?

How it’s going to fail: It simply can’t. The shame would be too much to bear.

How I’ll make it work: The allure of bragging rights.

So there we go. It all comes down to reading at home. And there’s no better time to get into that habit than during the cold winter months when the options are a) biting windchill or b) tea, scotch, a comfortable couch, and a great book.

What are your reading resolutions, and how are you going to make them happen?

2015 in books…in graphs

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It’s the end of the year and that means…yes you know it…geeky book graphs! I work in books which means it’s a business as well as a passion. No day is complete without an Excel spreadsheet and an analysis of performance.

And, like Prime Minister Trudeau says, “because it’s 2015”, that means it’s time to look back through both the year and to the beginning of the decade.*

First up, the book count:Untitled 6So the second best year this decade, and the first year-on-year increase since 2012. But, as always, it’s the page count that really…er…counts. Did I read lots of small books or manage to wade quickly through thick books?Untitled 7Again, second best year of the decade, but only just. 2010 was a high page year even though it had the lowest books read. So what does that make the average book length look like?Untitled 8Eeek! Not a great year for length. So even though the book count was close to my personal best, average length competed for some of the lower years. In other words, shorter books. But that being said, there are some exciting short books circulating at the moment. So much so that I wonder if it’s a new publishing trend.review_2015a

After all the numbers are done, it’s been a really interesting reading year. I had the closest fiction-nonfiction split I’ve had in some time. I read a great deal outside my normal interests – including things I absolutely NEVER would have picked up but now subscribe to the author’s podcast (this means you Cheryl Strayed). As usual there are a few books I can’t remember reading (I’ll Give You The Sun) and a few I wish I hadn’t (Thatcher’s Trial).

It was also a pretty moving, even weepy year with some really deep books.review_2015b

Most of all, friends and colleagues at the office really challenged me this year to read widely and across genres. So much of this great reading was part of our Best Of The Year committee. Check out the whole list, but the books I was – and am – the most proud to champion and share with many, many people were about a tweeting shepherd and a quirky twentieth century. Both authors who I was privileged to meet this year!review_2015c

And while I shared my favourites with friends, I hope was equally open-minded about their suggestions as they were mine, and gave all their books a fair chance.

I hope everyone had a great 2015 and are planning their reading for 2016!

*Yes, I know the decade technically starts in 2011. I’m enough of a date pendant to go toe-to-toe with people on dating by indiction and Roman kalends, nones, and ides. But 2010 just always looks better.

help me! and november (and october) in review

WHERE are all the good books?! Because although I haven’t written since September’s reading, and read seventeen (17!) books in two months, it’s been a real slog.

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Books Bought: none

Books Read: (october) Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed – I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson – The Fellowship by Philip & Carol Zaleski – A History Of The English Church And People by Bede – City Of Thorns by Ben Rawlence – The Vintage Guide To Love And Romance by Kirsty Greenwood – The Piano Maker by Kurt Palka – (november) The Grownup by Gillian Flynn – The Revenant by Michael Punke – The End Of Average by Todd Rose – The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales – Bee Time by Mark Winston – Submission by Michel Houellebecq – The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney – The Last Painting Of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith – Seven Brief Lessons On Physics by Carlo Rovelli.

Now obviously, there are some great books in there. Cheryl Strayed’s collection is gut-punching brilliance (but been around for a while); Bede’s work has been around even longer (more than a millenium); Gillian Flynn’s quick novella is a republished work; and Carlo Rovelli’s little explainer on the universe is what all science books should be but has been out for ages in Italian. The Governor-General winner Bee Time is the only new and memorable read.

So I’m looking for great recommendations for new books. Exciting books. Tear-open-the-cover-and-devour-in-one-sitting books. I’m pretty open to genre. But looking especially for newish and coming soon.

Because I want to get excited about reading again.

september in review

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Four. I read all of four books in September. And only the shortest one is even worth talking about here.

Books BoughtHow To Win An Election by Quintus Tullius Cicero.

Books Read: The End Of Tsarist Russia by Dominic Lieven – How To Win An Election by Quintus Tullius Cicero – The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian – A Dictionary Of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton.

Well, little brother Quintus (obviously frater to the more famous Marcus) wrote a practical handbook to help his idealistic brother win the Roman consulship. Think Karl Rove to…to…to…well there wasn’t really an upright shrinking violet in the Bush administration. But you get the idea. Marcus loved the Republic and its mos maiorum. I’m sure Quintus did as well, but he knew what it took to get elected. Which included smiling, lying, promise-breaking, and a little ancient negative advertising. A wonderful little book in both Latin and English.

And what about the rest of the month? Well I started three tomes in August and am still plugging through them. But once I’m done, I won’t be assigning myself non-fiction for bedtime reading again.

And then I was given reading at work for a committee which interrupted everything.

And then I spent a lot of time closing out the summer with friends. Which I suppose is, occasionally, an acceptable excuse for not reading.

august in review

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Wow. Was it ever a fictional month!

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Books bought: Silence by Shusako Endo – How To See The World by Nicholas Mirzoeff.

Books Read: The Tsar Of Love And Techno by Anthony Marra – Me Before You by Jojo Moyes – A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms by G.R.R. Martin – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee – Saga Vols. 1-5 by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples – Lamentation by C.J. Sansom – The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee – Thatcher’s Trial by Kwasi Kwarteng.

From a somewhat disappointing classic to a brilliant collection of short stories to a graphic novel series I’ve coveted for a while, I read no outstanding non-fiction this month. In fact, I barely read any non-fiction at all. Which was pretty relaxing for a change. Just relied on authors to tell a great story and didn’t worry about learning too much.

I spent a lot of time this year humble-bragging about never having read To Kill A Mockingbird. But when I got around to it this month, it was entirely familiar. So I must have read it in school but forgotten about it. I’m not surprised. The voice-crying-in-the-wilderness trope literally goes back to the Biblical tradition. But as much as Atticus Finch is such a figure for Alabama, his story isn’t particularly complex. He’s just a respected lawyer in a small town doing his duty (of course, with the publication of Go Set A Watchman, this is now really up for debate). Indeed, I would argue that To Kill A Mockingbird’s real strength is in Harper Lee’s exploration of small town social dynamics. But that discussion is better left to high school essays. I do wonder, though, what other high school texts I should go back and read?

Of course, G.R.R. Martin’s opus is a modern classic. And Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms is in his best tradition. All the epicness of A Game Of Thrones in one little, small package. Though, even Martin’s short stories run to nearly one hundred pages each! So I’m not sure anything he writes can be classed as small.

Anthony Marra. I think I’ve found a favourite contemporary author. And I basically think the contemporary world sucks. Marra’s all those things a great writer should be: eloquent, succinct, commanding, enthralling, and imaginative. But beyond his literary skills, he retains the common storyteller’s touch that makes his writing entirely accessible. And he’s quickly developed his own identifiable style. But most of all, he seems able to inhabit the soul of the Russian – or Slavic – people. Of course, that’s coming from someone who’s not Russian, so it’s a bit presumptuous of me to say he understands them, but it all just feels right. At the minimum, he’s immersed himself Solzhenitsyn. He’d better write again soon.

Finally, Jojo Moyes. <a href=”https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1354621681″>I won’t explain again.</a> But I read it on an anti-snob challenge. Just to prove I can slum it. And then it wove its way into my heart.

So now, it’s back to histories, medieval books, and university presses after a long fiction foray.

oldest books on the shelf

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If water, fire, or mice don’t get to them, books are endurable things. There’s no fiddling with file format or figuring out what device to use. Your fingers are all you need to turn the pages. Unless you have the privilege to happen across a book with uncut pages. Then you need a sharp blade, a dash of bravery, and a sense of wonder when you realize you’re the FIRST PERSON EVER to open that page. Old books are why we go to libraries, second-hand book sales, and save books from the junk pile. They smell great and they often have little clues about their past jotted onto the pages.

So with that in mind, I browsed my bookshelves looking for the oldest books.

1960: The Jewish War by Josephus: It looks old but is actually relatively young. But the brown cover design makes it stick out on my Penguin Classics shelf populated with their trademark black. It cost 5/- (that’s shillings) – a currency that no longer exists.

1951: The Story Of England And The Empire by John Mackenzie Wood & Aileen Garland: This is a revised edition of a school textbook published by The Copp Clark Company and it looks like the students who used it survive in their signatures on the back page. Sally, Jacky, Bonnie, Beverly, Nancy, Fae, Sharon, Linda, Shirley, Marilyn, and Marie: what did they think of this book? And I’m guessing they went to an all-girls school. Which suggests that Maurice, the one man who signed the book, at the front, and who included a phone number and room number, could have been a history teacher at Harewood, Ontario.

1900: Tennyson Select Poems edited by W.J. Alexander: The date’s right on the cover page: “Literature prescribed for the Junior Matriculation and Junior Leaving Examinations 1901”. Printed in 1900. What’s very cool (but probably was a bit panic-inducing for the University Of Toronto student at the time) are the reams of notes filling the endpapers. Definitions of metonymy and synecdoche. And useful advice like “Do not mix metaphors.”

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1905: Biblia SacraOtherwise known as The Bible, this is the Latin Vulgate. If my Latin is still good (there is not a WORD of English in here, including the introductions), this is the sixth edition printed in Paris in 1905. The first edition received its imprimatur from the Archbishop of Lyons in 1887, and this copy was awarded as a prize in 1908 to Alban Grafty attending St Edmund’s College in England. It’s the most beautiful book I own: gilded spine, leather cover, decorative endpapers, and gorgeous page edging. And best part – it was free. A friend saved it from a church junk pile.

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1890-1914: For Name And Fame by G.A. Henty: I have a number of G.A. Henty’s boys-own-adventure novels. Annoyingly, none of them are dated, so a little detective work is needed. Henty published this book in 1886, but his American publisher Hurst & Co. seems to have acquired rights sometime in the 1890s. The inscription is the most touching note I have in my books, and also gives an end date for possible printing.

inscription1872: Archbishop Gray’s Register (Surtees Society vol. 56) edited by James Raine: An old friend from my thesis days. It’s an edited version of a thirteenth-century bishop’s register, or diary. From the bookplate inside, it looks like this copy came from the library of Ripon Cathedral. And, yes, I’ve worked with the original thirteenth century manuscript!

So what are your oldest books? Tagging Reeder Reads and Chels & A Book.

Canada Votes 2015

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It’s Federal Election time again in Canada, complete with an historic eleven-week long campaign, a legitimate three-way race, and, perhaps, the NDP’s first ever shot at forming Her Majesty’s Government in Canada.

So, it’s obviously time for some recommended reading.

Get To Know The Leaders

The leaders of the main political parties are all subject of recent (or recently rereleased) books, many of them autobiographical. The NDP’s Tom Mulcair has a refreshing memoir called Strength Of Conviction. It’s less a political leaflet and more a, “Hi, I’m Tom and here’s my charming story of a large family, hard working parents, and standing up for what you believe in. And Jack, don’t forget Jack.” Which is exactly what Mr Mulcair needs – an introduction to the voters.

Justin Trudeau and Elizabeth May both wrote books last year, now out in paperback just in time for you to read again. Though according to colleagues who have read it, Mr Trudeau’s book just isn’t ready yet.

Stephen Harper, of course, didn’t write a book about himself. That was never going to happen. But longtime political commentator John Ibbitson has written an eponymous one. It’s the only in-depth account of our enigmatic Prime Minister’s early years, philosophical underpinnings, and disenchantment with the Canadian establishment after a youthful fling with Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals. It’s also about a strategic, dark-arts-of-politics man who jettisons allies and seems to have no friends left. But he loves cats.

Dig Into The State Of Play

A couple of great books have been around for a while about Canada’s political landscape. Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson wrote an insightful, somewhat controversial book called The Big Shift a few years back. It describes a Canada in which the old consensus is breaking down, especially as the West gains power and shifting demographics change political facts and priorities.

I’ve been meaning to get to Shopping For Votes for a while – so I guess now’s my chance. It’s a take on the segmentation of the electorate, a game being won by the Conservatives, and the turning of politics into a marketing game. An even more depressing take on politics comes from former NDP premier, yet also former Liberal leader, Bob Rae who’s written a review of what he thinks is wrong is Canadian politics.

And Remember The Last Nine Years

At the end of the first Conservative majority government since the Mulroney years, where are we? Two years back, Paul Wells wrote a superlative look at Harper’s ideas, tactics, strategy, and incrementalist vision for the country. The Longer I’m Prime Minister read like the first revelation of Harper’s mind, and is essential reading if you want to see what another Harper government would look like.

To get your blood pressure up, the angriest book out there is definitely Party Of One. Billed as a look at the centralizing tendencies of Stephen Harper, it’s an encyclopedic recap of the controversies, battles, shenanigans, and some would say outright lies of his near decade-long premiership. For a slightly calmer view of the same, check out Dismantling Canada.

And finally, although most of it covers familiar ground, Kill The Messengers opens with some incredibly smart chapters on the relationship between Canada’s media and governments right the way back to the fifties.

So read. And vote.