Among all the self-improvement books out there, one that appears every now and again is Cal Newport’s 2016 book, Deep Work. At the beginning, the book is more scholarly but then it starts to settle in to rules to follow. Much of today’s work life involves reading emails, answering instant messages, and being tugged in 20 different directions. What Newport gets into is the importance of going deep on a project without distractions for a few hours a day. He also preaches such ideas as getting off social media, think about problems when doing other activities, focus on important tasks, and not working so late that you burn yourself out. All of these items while simple in theory can be hard to do in the office so one must find ways to incorporate deep work into their routine. A fine book about an important topic.
Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2005. The novel tells of Irishman Willie Dunne who signs up with the allies to fight in WWI. The war conflict also causes much conflict for those left behind in Ireland who are under British rule. Willie has a hard time connecting with his policeman father and the love of his life who he meets just before joining. The novel is wonderfully written as it speaks of the horrors of war on both the front and home lines.
Mansfield Park is the third published Jane Austen novel that came out in 1814 but did receive any public reviews for several more years. As a child, Fanny Price is sent to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle and their four children. From there it follows the typical novel of this time of trying to find love and get married. Slowly Fanny wins everyone over but it takes several years before she becomes the most beloved. Lesser of the first three Austen novels, Mansfield Park is still widely published and has been turned in radio broadcasts, TV specials, stage presentations and movies.
A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths takes it’s title from one of the band’s most loved songs. The book starts out with extensive research into Irish immigrant life in Manchester, England before it finally lands on Johnny Marr and Steven Patrick Morrissey. The band starts when Marr knocks on the future singer’s door and asks to start a band. Adding bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, the band take the nation’s indie rock fans on a nonstop ride until it all crashes down just a few years later. Fletcher’s account is very well researched and creates a vivid picture of life within the group. It can more than hold its own on The Smith’s bookshelf alongside acclaimed books by Simon Goddard and Johnny Rogan.
Jeanine Cummin’s American Dirt novel is about Lydia and her son Luca as they make the harrowing journey across Mexico to the United States. Lydia is on the run from a Mexican cartel who brutally murdered her husband and the rest of her family. Upon release, the book met with both widespread acclaim and derision for the depiction of Mexican life. Hard to comment on that aspect of the book from Canada, however, the tale is a gripping one that is hard to put down as you root for them to make it across the border to “freedom”.
Noted authors John Green & David Levithan team up for this YA novel about teens Will Grayson and his fabulous best friend Tiny who is working diligently to put on a high school play about his young gay life. Will is the more subdued, loner type vs larger than life Tiny who is constantly hooking up and trying to get Will hooked up. There are plenty of laughs and a few poignant moments as they try to get through high school life.
Self-improvement books are all the rage on Instagram with most pages holding up the same handful of books. One that doesn’t appear on those lists as often is 2012’s The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The book centres around the habit loop of Cue-Routine-Reward. In order to change the loop, change the routine. The book has several interesting anecdotes, with two of the better ones being how Rosa Parks started a revolution through her social connections and Paul O’Neill’s time at the aluminum manufacturer, Alcoa.
Normal People is Sally Rooney’s critically acclaimed second novel which then went on to be a TV series on BBC 3. The book is about two Irish teenagers, Connell and Marianne, who start a secret relationship in high school that carries on into young adulthood. Every time they move on with someone else, they keep coming back to each other. Where the book stands out is for its realism as the two lovers find it hard to fully break free from one another. The characters are both likable, yet frustrating, as they try to figure out their lives.
Canadian author, Ross King first wrote of French Impressionism in his book The Judgement of Paris. Ten years later he returns to the subject with Mad Enchantment, a biography of Claude Monet which focuses on his later years as he paints his world-famous water lilies. Like his previous books, Mad Enchantment is very well researched and depicts a country at war with Germany while Monet works on in his studio/garden in Giverny, France. His masterworks came later in life, as Monet continued to learn even while his eyesight deteriorated. His ego flashes with his vulnerability while fellow artists, politicians and art collectors pay homage to his genius.
Originally published in 1844, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas has stood the test of time as one of the finest ever written. It tells the story of an ambitious young sailor Edmond Dantes who is wrongfully convicted of treason when a letter conceived by three of his acquaintances is sent to the authorities. Edmond then spends several years in jail before returning to seek revenge on those who wronged him. At 1200 pages, it is an extraordinary work that feels like it could continue for another 1000 pages. An absolute marvel and one of the best books I’ve ever read.
The 2017 novel by Celeste Ng is a New York Times Bestseller and now a mainstay of book clubs with an adapted TV show from Reese Witherspoon. The story follows the Richardson family from Shaker Heights, OH who rent out an apartment to an Mia and her daughter Pearl. Soon Mia is working for the Richardsons and Pearl is best friends with the kids. The book is a straightforward telling of their lives with a mystery built around Mia’s past. Highly entertaining, it is one that makes you think of what you would do if you were in the character’s shoes.
This high brow short novel by Ian McEwan won the Booker prize in 1998. The death of a former restaurant critic brings many of her former lovers together at the funeral. From there if follows the lives of composer Clive Linley and newspaper editor Vernon Halliday as they handle some of the most important work of their lives. The book is very well written and keeps the reader engaged through its arguments, decisions of its main characters and the ever-present wine drinking.
Flash Boys, the Michael Lewis book from 2014 dives deep into the world of the US stock exchange, big banks, and high frequency traders. The book starts by speaking of the industry’s need for speed where transactions are timed by milliseconds. It also follows the story of the Goldman Sachs case against former employee Sergey Aleynikov for stealing code and Brad Katsuyama, the RBC employee who wanted to change the way the markets do business by creating IEX (Investor’s Exchange). At times the book reads like a movie where the story telling is brisk, funny and exciting. At other times it gets bogged down in financial details. For most people, this would have made for a very engaging article rather than a nearly 300 page book.
Thus far George RR Martin has released five volumes of his ever popular A Song of Ice and Fire series with two more expected to be released at some point. The first book sees the family of Winterfell torn apart as Ned Stark is chosen as the new hand of the king to his good friend Robert Beratheon as he goes through troubles on the throne. Like the series, the book is chock a block of characters and places so having seen the TV show makes it a bit easier to follow and picture what is happening. Introductions are made to Khaleesi, Jon Snow, the Wall, the Lannisters, the Starks, etc as they venture through Martin’s fantasy world. The thick book is hard to put down as the action moves swiftly from one seen to another in this excellent fantasy novel.
The Break, the first novel by Winnipegger Katherena Vermette, won the author a boatload of awards and appeared on numerous year end lists in 2016. The novel centres around a brutal assault and how the extended family each deals with that trauma and the other events in their lives. Each chapter is written in the voice of a different narrator to gain insight into what each character is going through. The Break is a memorable story that takes place in Winnipeg’s north end area which shows both it’s grittiness and the loving people who try to carve out a life in Manitoba’s largest city.
Steven Blush’s 2016 book, New York Rock takes the reader through the NYC rock scene from Lou Reed/Velvet Underground through the Alternative rock scene of the early 2000s. It touches on scenes such glam, punk, hardcore, noise, etc. It is not just the music that Blush writes about but also the bars/clubs that played such an important role in the development of all these scenes. The problem here is that it tries to touch on every band within a scene vs writing about a few of the major player. It ends up just being a list of bands that most rock fans will never have heard of or will ever care about. Oddly, even though it touches the new century Blush does not even mention The Strokes. A similar but far better book is Meet Me in the Bathroom that instead focuses on one particular time period to better effect.
Jill Jonnes 2010 book Eiffel’s Tower is one of those that sat on my bookshelf for years. The tower acts as the centrepiece of the book that is actually about the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. Notable characters including Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Thomas Edison, and artist Paul Gauguin all play pivotal roles to create the scene of the fair. It does a very good job of describing the trials and tribulations that Eiffel went through to both have his tower built as well as accepted by Parisian society. Jonnes paints a colourful history of life in 1889.