Reading 2013

Another year, some more great books (see also 2011, 2012).



Cathedral, Raymond Carver – Always wanted to read Carver; Junot Díaz suggested this one in a recent interview. Some of the best short stories I’ve read in ages. Modern Chekhov, etc., sure. But they’re also slow-burning page-turners—and after all, isn’t that a large part of the point of reading? I can’t say that they always preserve a kind of dignity in the everyday-or-worse characters; but they make them real and mundane in a way that’s extremely compelling and fascinating and believable. But beyond that, it’s the interactions between people that shine: it’s almost a relief to be shown that what can be most important are these encounters, whether in crisis situations or not. I read this from Carver: Collected Stories, and look forward to reading more.

The Dog Stars, Peter Heller – Good and sometimes great writing; insightful, suspenseful, pensive, and with three-dimensional characters. And it’s a page-turner. I don’t care how many post-apocalyptic books have been written blah blah blah; does it really matter? Anyway, I haven’t read many, but I think this stands on its own, and the situation is ultimately a framework, a platform for characters (mostly Hig) trying to understand themselves and their motivations. Beautifully done, in my humble opinion. A great summer read—but I say that partly because I read it in the summer, I suppose.

Tenth of December, George Saunders – Saunders draws you in with surprising humour and squeezes, simultaneously. In less capable hands, some of these portrayals might have come across as condescending; but there’s enough insight, not to mention familiarity, to push things forward in a sympathetic way and towards ends which render the details just that. The reader feels inside these heads and incorporates a complete internal consistency. Entertaining and enlightening.

Levels of Life, Julian Barnes – An unusual premise, to say the least: the history of ballooning leading into the loss of a spouse. But it’s pulled off beautifully. Barnes has become one of my favourite writers.

Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat – It’s a beautiful arc, but at a point—specifically, through some of the chapter “Di Mwen, Tell Me”—the writing falls apart a bit. But overall it made me want to read some of Danticat’s earlier books.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan – For some reason I read this over a longer span of time, more like a series of related short stories—which I’ve heard argued they really are; but I’d like to go back to it and make the character connections more concrete. Even as short stories, though, I found the book sharp and entertaining.

A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers – Some reviews I’ve read are I believe over-thinking things. This is a novel about a character that is perhaps not likeable, but at the same time maybe it exposes some fears that there’s more of him in us than we feel comfortable with. I thought Alan was developed quite well. It’s important to remember that we’re restricted to his world view—not, perhaps, an unreliable narrator, but one who is somewhat aware of his naïveté and has lost confidence as a result—and that the language is his, and what we can see of politics and Saudi Arabia is from his point of view. He’s self-aware in his unawareness, and that’s pulled off pretty well. It’s an easy read, a lightweight book in many ways perhaps, and the ending is perfunctory. But I think Eggers made an uninteresting type into an interesting centrepiece, if not exactly a protagonist.

After the Quake, Haruki Murakami – I didn’t take notes and honestly can’t remember much about this book. Maybe that says something.



Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens – More than any other writer, I think, reading Hitchens feels like being engaged in conversation: one after which I feel sharper, and speak and writer better. I don’t read a lot of memoirs, but this one is distinct because he was such an interesting guy, so ultimately a lot of the book is not directly about him. The chapter “Mesopotamia from Both Sides” is particularly brilliant, providing more context and explanation for Hitch’s “support” of the second Iraq war, and reducing it to the personal in an incredibly affecting way through the story of Mark Daily.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer – No single volume of course can completely (and impartially) distill the tone and direction of a country like the United States over the course of several decades. But this gives a strong impression of a wide range of some very American characters through their fascinating stories. The only Writers Fest event I attended this year was an interview with Packer, and it was great.

Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, Eric Klinenberg – Due to “the rising status of women, the growth of cities, the development of communications technologies, and the expansion of the life course,” many—most—of us are now living alone. I didn’t need convincing (I live alone and cannot imagine ever cohabiting again), but thought this would be an interesting read. It was, although there was I think too much emphasis on the elderly. It’s a new area, so the author has actually done a pretty good job of pulling together anecdotes from various cultures and countries (pointing out once again, among other things, how backwards and behind we are in terms of social policy compared with the Scandinavian countries). I bristled every time he described the appearance of a woman interview subject, though; I don’t think I’m misremembering or miscounting in believing that he didn’t do so to the same extent with the males. Perhaps my biggest lesson from this book is that I should plan to live close to my daughter when I’m older. Ultimately it’s one of those books that probably could have been shorter by half, perhaps comprising a series of interesting articles. But if you’re interested in the topic, it’s a worthwhile read.

Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks – I didn’t enjoy this as much of some of Sacks’ other books: the chapters are organized around types of hallucinations, with patient stories sprinkled throughout, whereas I really enjoyed the expanded case studies of, for example, “An Anthropologist on Mars.” Still, lots of fascinating material here; the author always makes one think about one’s own perception. If you like his books, there’s no reason to skip this one.

I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains, Chuck Klosterman – My initial review for this book was going to be: “Merely clever.” But then as I got further I started to think it wasn’t even very clever; and it isn’t funny. It’s too bad, because I enjoyed a couple of Klosterman’s earlier books. Here are a couple of quick examples: “Necessity used to be the mother of invention, but then we ran out of things that were necessary. The postmodern mother of invention is desire; we don’t really ‘need’ anything new, so we only create what we want.” If he’s trying to be funny with this sort of end-of-history thinking, he isn’t succeeding. But I don’t think he’s trying to be funny here. Do I need to give examples? I’m not going to bother. Or this sentence: “He refused to pretend that his life didn’t feel normal to the person inside it.” WHAT?! The book is full of this kind of thing. It would be head-scratching if it was worth scratching one’s head about. But it isn’t.

How Should a Person Be?Sheila Heti – It’s hard to rate this book. It feels like an early draft of something else; the question is whether that something would ever be any good. I tend to think not. I suppose that the main problem is that the narrator is for the most part so incredibly unlikable. Narcissism doesn’t really describe it; perhaps vacant and spoiled do. To be sure, there are a few decent moments; but they’re buried. For me the book and the author were made all the worse for apparently completely misunderstanding one of the nicest moments in The Little Prince.

Reading 2012

I read a few more books in 2012 than the year before, and started posting more consistently to Goodreads; you can follow me there if you like. Most of these books are fairly current; where they’re not, I’ve indicated year of publication.



The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers. Almost relentlessly good writing, sometimes great, very occasionally over the top. Horror and response to horror minutely and beautifully observed and reconsidered, and again. “The details of the world in which we live are always secondary to the fact that we must live in them.” There’s a continuous passage—pages 144-146 of the Little, Brown hardcover—that is as powerful as anything I’ve recently read, and as far as I know or now feel, an accurate accounting of these Arab wars or any war; or at very least something very affecting was got into me by the author.

This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz. Economy and energy. Almost a novella. Brilliant stuff. Given an extra dimension for me by the reading he gave at the Vancouver Writers Festival this year: perhaps the most gracious and keenly intelligent writer I’ve heard.

Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson (1992). Mentioned by Junot Díaz in a recent New York Times interview. Absolutely brilliant. Almost every sentence a revelation. Read it. I picked up “Train Dreams” (below) on the strength of this.

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (1958). A ripping yarn. And yet, I kept hoping that the women, outcasts, and slaves (!) of Umuofia would rise up. Ultimately, it’s the tale of one idiotic set of beliefs replacing another. I know, it’s a story, but it’s not simply presented as such. I feel about as little sympathy for Okonkwo as I do for the missionaries who destroy the Africans’ “way of life” (not that they had any right to, of course)—which is defined and enforced by a ruthless circle of brutal men.

Lionel Asbo: State of EnglandMartin Amis. One is left wondering, “What’s the point?” A good yarn, but so what? I have to go back and read something like “Money,” I suppose. I enjoyed “House of Meetings“—completely different tone.

Ancient Light, John Banville. Some great writing—it starts strong—some middling. Someone else on Goodreads pointed out similarities to Barnes‘ “The Sense of an Ending,” but this is not quite of the same quality. Very enjoyable though, particularly around the vagueness of (all sorts of) memory. The slight twist at the end reinforces the overall message of the unreliability of not just memory, but perception—of places, events, and in particular people, those closest to us. Perhaps not as understandable to someone not yet in middle age. I may read more of him—I understand this is the third book of a trilogy.

Pulse, Julian Barnes. I loved “The Sense of an Ending” last year so picked this up. A solid collection of short stories. I liked those in “One” better than the perhaps more adventurous “Two,” but all were good. The “At Phil & Joanna’s” series was entertaining and funny.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000). A ripping yarn, compellingly told. It doesn’t quite sustain its quality to the end, but I’ve picked up “Telegraph Avenue” and am eager to read it. Saw Chabon at the Writers Festival and he was intelligent and funny.

Train Dreams, Denis Johnson (2002). Not quite of the same quality as “Jesus’ Son” (above), but well worth reading.

The Listener, David Lester. The first graphic novel I’ve read. I have nothing against the genre. But this is a bit thin, and in particular suffered I think from an adolescent tone. I’m sure we’ve all encountered the type: oh so knowing, oh so superior, oh so intellectual. The depth isn’t there, in my opinion. It has its moments, and I think the artwork is great and supports the story well. But I wanted more: depth, maturity, and even history.

Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan. McEwan seems to focus so much on his “hook” of a surprise twist at the end of his books (incidentally, I wasn’t sure I believed reviewers who claimed to have figured this one out—perhaps I’m just thick) that the writing is sometimes secondary. I enjoyed this a lot more than “Solar,” but the characters seemed less involving than “Saturday“—I get it, that’s perhaps the point, but that seems like a bit of an excuse. If you like McEwan you’ll probably enjoy this. But I’m losing my enthusiasm a bit, when there’s so much great writing out there, from Michael Chabon to Denis Johnson. I think “On Chesil Beach” was his high point.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver (2003). A rare case of a movie that prompted me to go back and read the book. Having finished the book, I want to see the film again; like ‘2001: a space odyssey,’ though not written and filmed in tandem as Clarke and Kubrick did, I see them as somewhat complementary; and it seems Shriver is quite the fan of the film adaptation of her book. At any rate, I thought this was a great book. Sentences that were surprising and original; and of course the characters of the mother and son intrigue. That’s the crux: insight into the psychology of some interesting characters, and by extension of us all. To what extent Eva is an unreliable narrator may be in question, at least until the end of the book. But more interesting is the character of Kevin. I don’t know enough about such psychopaths to judge the quality of the portrayal, but for the most part it convinced me. The only two things that stuck out were Kevin’s altered behaviour during his illness; and his apparent racism. Although I can understand the “breakdown” in his carefully constructed world as he aged from sixteen to eighteen in prison, his relenting during an illness when he was younger was not really explained—not that his behaviour could really be explained, but it made me wonder. Likewise, his precise and controlled intelligence would seem to be at odds with some of the racist remarks he made when a bit older. But these are quibbles. Although having seen the movie first may have dulled somewhat the impact of the book—I won’t post spoilers here—I recommend this book. Though not in terms of style, it reminded me somewhat of Philip Roth‘s “American Pastoral.” I have seen enough of almost-over-the-edge teenage thinking to appreciate the thought that went into Kevin, if not actually being a little scared in retrospect.

The Lake, Banana Yoshimoto (2005). A slight and contrived story masquerading as profundity. Made all the worse by cringe-worthy clichés—though I suspect the translation, by Michael Emmerich, is poor—and unnecessary supernatural BS.




Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo. I can’t say it much better than does David Sedaris on the slip cover: “As rich and beautifully written as a novel.” Would that all non-fiction be so compelling. Depressing, yes; but the people shine. Definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. Not much more to say, other than “read it.”

Thinking, Fast and Slow, Denial Kahneman. I need to re-read this: a goldmine of information on psychology; I should have taken notes as a lot of it is applicable to my work. Anyway, fascinating, and definitely recommended.

Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of GrungeMark Yarm. I was almost next door in Victoria and Vancouver during the “grunge” years in Seattle, so the whole scene seemed almost knowable. This book provides fascinating background information, but is particularly fascinating for how it traces the arc of a scene. Ultimately very sad, of course, not just thinking about Andrew WoodMia Zapata, Kurt Cobain, and Layne Staley, but the toll that addiction took. And how quickly fashion moved on and forgot about the town. I went to see a grunge/Nirvana exhibit at the Experience Music Project in Seattle recently, and it was great but ghostly to see artefacts in glass cases from this music that was so human and alive. If you are even a casual grunge fan, you should read this book. My only criticism is that there are so many characters that I found myself having to go to the index repeatedly to remind myself who some of them were.

Vancouver Special, Charles Demers. He picks and chooses, but nothing is sacred and I got a sense of the flavour of my city, both what I already knew and some new angles. And he admits, “Drug money is the unknown variable in almost any economic equation that you can’t otherwise reconcile in Vancouver.”

This Is Not the End of the Book, Umberto Eco et al. I am going to post an expanded review of this book. Some good points, although the two men—Eco is in conversation with someone named Jean-Claude Carrière—are hopelessly clueless about technology, which is central to the argument.

Mortality, Christopher Hitchens. Exactly what you’d expect from Hitchens. And if you’ve read him, that’s pretty good. At the same time, heartbreaking.

Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now: As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It, Craig Taylor. I picked up this book after returning from a week in London last summer (pre-Olympics). A great format to learn about a city: conversations with and stories from Londoners. Would that more cities had such volumes.

Who I Am, Pete Townshend. On balance probably more interesting than Keith Richards‘ “Life,” but it had even more of an absence of any talk of composing the music that is so central to the story. As if how the tunes and sounds were composed is incidental to the events and times and especially the stories, in particularly the “rock operas” Tommy and Quadrophenia. I’d have loved to have read, for instance, about how Townshend put together the synthesizer lines for some of the early ’70s material—but he seems even to have forgotten they were ARP synths.



Last year my post was titled “Books 2011” and thinking about that recently I realized that I don’t read as many books as I’d perhaps like to because I’m often reading periodicals and “newspapers.” In 2012 I expanded my iPad subscriptions. I read the New York Times and New Yorker pretty consistently. Wired is so cheap it’s a no-brainer; if I read four articles a year it’s worth the price. I subscribed to The Economist but didn’t find myself reading it as much as I should: a 2013 resolution. The Walrus finally became available on iPad; it was my last print subscription and I had really stopped reading it because I just don’t think of picking up a paper magazine. There are a couple of wine magazines (Wine Access and Snooth Buyer’s Guide) that I look at now and again. I subscribed to The Guardian/Observer partly because my daughter was living in the UK; but I cancelled it near year’s end as she’s returning and it was also probably too much given all of the above.

Special mention is due The Magazine. I find the articles sort of engaging, topical for a “geek” perhaps. Perhaps. But the interesting thing for me about this “experiment” of Marco Arment‘s is how dismissive he—and apparently much of the audience—has been of the iOS Newsstand. Well, I have to say that all of the publications I’ve listed above so far outshine the writing in The Magazine that this is pretty surprising. Maybe, despite my focus on usability, I find that the problems with, specifically, the Adobe Publishing Suite are completely overshadowed by the quality of content in something like the New Yorker. I like the Magazine app, sure, but I’m not sure it could support the volume of one of these other publications, at least not yet. Maybe it’s the app/framework that Arment should focus on.

Vancouver “Writers Fest”

I wanted to include a note about this event. It seems to me that it’s time for the organizers and announcers to pass it off to a new generation. I saw Martin Amis endure an embarrassingly awful interview by Anne Giardini. At the David Suzuki/Tim Flannery event, “The State and Fate of This Small Blue Planet,” the authors were barely introduced by Hal Wake, who was far more concerned with introducing the “rebranding” of the festival to “Writers Fest”—as he’d done ad nauseum at the other events. Who cares, and what was wrong with “Vancouver International Writers Festival”? Worse, he instructed the audience not to engage in social media during the talk. It seems to me the event needs as much publicity as it can get, especially to attract a younger audience; real-time Tweeting should be permitted. Wake was a bit better while interviewing Michael Chabon.

The best event I saw was An Intimate Interview with Junot Díaz, who was free to talk without a moderator or interviewer. Granted, he didn’t need one; he was incredibly entertaining and gracious—I’ve never seen anyone better at taking a poor or naïve question and turning it around to seem like the most insightful query he’d ever received.

Well, Vancouver is a small town. I’m thinking about going to the New Yorker Festival this year.

Books 2011

I got through a good varied crop of fiction and non-fiction this past year. Here are some of the highlights and other notables.


The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes. This was my favourite novel of the year. The ambiguities of theme, plot, and characterization provided by an unreliable narrator were conveyed brilliantly (I had fun reading through some online discussion forums on the book). A story of reflection and re-appraisal and revelation, and a page-turner.

The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje. Not at the level of, say, In the Skin of a Lion, but a solid coming-of-age story. The present-day scenes perhaps tie things up too neatly in a way that’s not really necessary; the entire story on the boat has a lot of insight not only into childhood but also a sense of how this might extrapolate into later life.

Half-Blood BluesEsi Edugyan. I thought I would pick up the Governor General’s Award-winning book this year. It’s a great story of jazz music, the stirrings of war, and like the two previous books, memory and coming of age. The author takes her time with harrowing scenes and sharp characters, and a couple of the settings—in particular a closed and darkened club in Berlin, in 1939, where the core scenes of the novel are set—are almost characters in themselves, perhaps similar to how Ondaatje works them into his books.

Tinkers, Paul Harding. Having enjoyed The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao last year, I bought this 2010 Pulitzer winner. A dying man recalls his life and his father; simultaneously ethereal and keenly observant, it’s a journey back and forth through time and lives that ultimately makes some sense of them; and the reconnection at novel’s end strengthens and ties things up in a way that doesn’t feel gratuitous.

Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), David Sedaris. Hilarious—enough said. (I include this under fiction because, although on the surface it’s autobiographical, I’m sure a lot of liberties were taken.)

Non-Fiction, Biography, Memoir

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick. There is so much in this book I’m not sure how to provide an overview that does it justice; and I have to re-read it—it’s difficult to absorb it all the first time through. It’s fascinating overall, and important information for the modern age: so much context that we’re missing or take for granted. From Ada Lovelace to Claude Shannon to Kurt Gödel, from the origins of writing—Gleick argues, interestingly, that the written word is the origin of consciousness, of thinking—to the first dictionaries, through the telegraph and finally information overload; from Dawkins‘ memes (the genetics of ideas) to a seeming grab bag of mathematical and other concepts that nonetheless tie everything together to make sense of what information is, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to all of us who live within, produce, and are information.

The Rise and Fall of Ancient EgyptToby Wilkinson. Since I was young I’ve been fascinated by Ancient Egypt. On a trip to the Metroplitan Museum of Art in 2008 I spent enough time in their Egyptian collection that I realized this hadn’t changed, but my knowledge was sketchy at best. I happened upon this book at City Lights in San Francisco, and overall it was just what I was looking for. I have several minor criticisms, although these may disappear somewhat on a re-reading. It seemed to me that some of the stories of the common Egyptian were lost a little bit as the book moved through the centuries. Perhaps related, the focus on the “dark side” of pharaonic culture seemed to become more implicit than explicit later in the book. I would have enjoyed more maps showing the later dynasties and in particular the centres of the Late and Ptolemaic Periods. Finally, it may be my failing but I found myself having to remind myself of the vast sweep of time represented by the history. It is perhaps more difficult to fathom in the modern world, where more cultural change happens in decades than apparently did over millennia in ancient Egypt.

Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. & Cacilda Jethá, M.D. It can be a bit repetitive, but the basic insight here—that monogamy is not our natural state of sexual being—is supported not only by (repeated) references to Bonobos, our closest genetic relatives, but everything from sexual cultures that work but that we wouldn’t recognize, like the Musuo, a matrilineal culture in southwest China, to an argument that the shape of the penis evolved to remove other men’s sperm from women. In a sense it demystifies sex,which we are wont to mystify, by reviewing and speculating on its social and biological history. A fascinating and eye-opening read.

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, Michael Chabon. A wonderful, very emotional and very conscious review of manhood (but it’s not just for men), life, and family. “Wondrous, wise and beautiful,” as the New York Times review (linked from the title here) observes.

The Mind’s EyeOliver Sacks. Another engaging collection of stories of insight via cognitive and physical impairment, this time with a focus on vision and a personal story: Sacks lost his binocular vision as the result of cancer. His own account is insightful and full of detail. If you like Sacks’ books, this is another good one; if you’re not familiar with them this is as good a place as any to start, though I still recall enjoying in particular An Anthropologist on Mars—perhaps, though, because it was because it was the first of his books I read.

Life, Keith Richards. A great voice. The book is a bit scattershot, with the first third riveting not only for its relating the hard work in musical woodshedding and getting the Stones off the ground, but for Richards’ perspective on growing up in postwar England. The middle bit is almost all heroin, and the story of the music drops away after Exile on Main Street (as it arguably did in quality as well). The last bit is basically human interest, and it is endearing. Overall, one gets a sense—and this is from the man himself, of course, but one can read between the lines—that behind the swagger there is a real gentleman, and a keenly intelligent and observant one.

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson. Jobs’ death was a big event in the tech year, and though of course I didn’t know the man he obviously had a significant impact on me not only via Apple’s products, which I’ve used since my first Apple ][+, but in my profession as well: Jobs is arguably the most successful interaction designer of all time. So I raced through this book as soon as it was available. In fact I did a bit of an experiment with it: I bought the print edition as well as the iBooks version. I found that I liked the paper at home, but having it available on my iPad was great when I wanted to read a bit at lunch; and particularly my iPhone if I was standing in line somewhere. I wish that publishers would include a soft copy with the hardcover purchase; I want both.

But to the content of Steve Jobs. I’ve obviously been following Jobs, and Apple, very closely for a long time, so I was chomping at the bit for some insight on the period since Jobs returned to Apple fifteen years ago. To be sure, there are some stories here that I hadn’t heard before. But overall, the book is a big disappointment. It feels rushed, and Isaacson didn’t do a lot of investigative work: he just took Jobs’ word at face value. There’s too much to go into here, but I agree almost completely with John Siracusa‘s detailed criticisms of the book in two Hypercritical podcasts: The Wrong Guy (as in, Jobs picked the wrong guy to write his biography); and The Scorpion and the Frog. If you’re at all interested in Jobs, you owe it to yourself to listen to these discussions. The definitive book on Jobs, and on Apple during this era, has yet to be written. (Isaacson has made noises that he is going to revise and expand the book, perhaps aware that these criticisms are valid ones.)

Arguably, Christopher Hitchens. I didn’t finish this—I may never read every single essay—but Hitchens’ writing is so learned and entertaining, and just damned readable—that I wonder why people watch television instead of burying their noses in this sort of thing. It’s a shame he died before his time.