Ali Smith’s 2016 novel, Autumn, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and also landed her in the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2017. The novel moves between scenes of central character Elisabeth visiting her 101-year-old former next-door neighbor as he lies in a care home, reminiscing of their visits when she was a child and her art thesis on Pauline Boty. Set to be the first in a four-volume series, Autumn is never gripping but is always interesting as the story takes place around the time of the Brexit vote. It has a surreal and has a dreamlike quality as it moves through time and back again. The follow-up Winter was published in late 2017.
I’ve been a subscriber to the James Clear newsletter for about a year now. Every week he sends out advice on how to improve daily habits. This fall, Clear released his first book Atomic Habits that expands on those newsletters and offers much additional information. This is not earth-shattering advice that comes out of nowhere but instead offers tactics on how to get a little bit better every day and keep improving over time. Instead of saying, “I want to lose 20lbs” and not following through, work on following the process of making it to the gym three times this week. Fall in love with the process instead of the results and you’ll get there in the end. Lots to unpack and learn from in this book.
In 2017, Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for the second time with her novel Sing, Unburied Sing. The book chronicles a family living in rural Mississippi. Meth addict Leonie and former prisoner Michael have two kids, JoJo and Kayla. The pull between the interracial parents is stronger than the love of the two kids who identify more with their aging grandparents. Chapters are dedicated to different character’s points of views and often features beautiful writing. “…like paint dissolving in water, its scales turned black… until it was the color of the space between the stars”. While the story is a sad one, there is much to like here.
Steven Hyden is the music critic at Uproxx and has appeared on such websites as Pitchfork, A.V. Club, Grantland (RIP), etc. He is also the host of the excellent podcast Celebration Rock. Twilight of the Gods is his second book following 2016’s Your Favorite Band is Killing Me. In this latest book, Hyden focuses on the classic rock he collected as a teenager growing up in Wisconsin. Rock music fans in the 40ish age range, especially those from the Canadian prairies and American Midwest, will find much to love and identify with here as Hyden is often very funny, a bit nerdy yet offers interesting perspectives on a wide range of music including several pages on his love of Phish.
With a civic election currently happening in my hometown of Winnipeg, Hyden’s look back at Chicago’s Disco Demolition night from 1979 proves particularly insightful with one of my favourite quotes of the year:
I live by one rule: When documentaries are made in forty years about the present day, you don’t ever want to be on side of those pushing against history. Rather, you want to be aligned with those who are trying to move the world forward a couple of inches.
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein caught fire with dog lovers around the world upon release in 2008, spending 156 weeks on the New York Times best seller list. The novel tells of a father torn apart from his family through the eyes of his dog, Enzo. Enzo’s narration can veer from being stiff in places to extremely insightful in others. One memorable passage appears towards the end when Enzo points out that, “We all play by the same rules; it’s just that some people spend more time reading those rules and figuring out how to make them work in their behalf”. While the ending is predictable, the darker turns in the middle of the novel are not as expected. And while you know the plot moments are coming, Stein does a good job at tugging at the heartstrings when you hit them.
It was fitting that the first book I’ve taken out from the Winnipeg Library in about 20 years was Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader which tells the story of Queen Elizabeth discovering books at a late age. The 2007 novella by the English playwright is a quick read at just over 100 pages and acts as a love letter to the written word. The Queen experiences that feeling that many of us do of so many books/albums and so little time. How do you cover all the important ground? You can’t really but just be happy with your sliver in the world. Towards the end, the Queen finds her voice by looking beyond just reading and starts writing. As she states towards the end, “You don’t put your life into your books. You find it there”
Released last fall, Sticky Fingers, the biography of Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner sent shockwaves through the publishing community. Wenner randomly ran into author Joe Hagan and asked him to work on his biography which eventually Hagan did after much deliberation. At over 500 pages, Sticky Fingers is well researched with many facts but mostly focusing on what a terrible person Wenner is. Tawdry tales of sex, drugs and not as much rock and roll as would have been expected; politics plays a bigger role throughout the book. Almost shockingly in the Afterword, Hagan notes that Wenner is “one of the great magazine editors of my lifetime”. Touching on Wenner’s personal life but putting it in greater context of the times or the publishing business would have been more interesting than all the tiresome stories that appear here. 6/10
The Sri Lankan born, Canadian based author Michael Odjaante is most famous for his book The English Patient which won the Booker Prize in 1992. In total he has published seven books including the recently released Warlight. Published in 2011, The Cat’s Table is his sixth book and tells the story of a young boy who travels from Sri Lanka to England aboard a ship called Oronsay. His travelling companions are Ramadhin and Cassius along with his aunt and cousin. The book switches between the boat and what happens to the characters after their journey. It’s a fascinating book with beautiful passages throughout including a wonderfully described scene at an art gallery many years later. 7.5/10
Steve Martin started his entertainment career doing card tricks at Disneyland as a young boy then worked his way all the way up to touring arenas in the late 70s. Born Standing Up is about the growth of both Martin as a person and his comedy act. A quick read, it touches on both philosophy and self-improvement strategies that many self-help books promote (working hard, letting go of what’s not working, dedicating time to your craft, research, etc). Born Standing Up is an entertaining account of Martin’s rise through touring comedy before walking away completely. 7/10
For the past few years my reading of books has been off/on at best. Read two books in a row then nothing for a few months before starting up again. In 2018 I vowed to change that with a goal of reading a book a month. Not exactly a stretch target but one to keep me going. I’ve been posting on Instagram as I finish each one but wanted to post here as well. I have not written about books in the past as my literary knowledge is good but limited. Instead of trying to write a few paragraphs every month, I decided to write quarterly about the three books I read. Here is the first installment…
Annie Proulx’s 1993 novel The Shipping News won the Pulitzer Price for fiction in 1994. The story tells of Quoyle who moves back Newfoundland with his two daughters and aunt after his wife leaves him. His family was from the area of Killick-Claw area but his parents had emigrated to New York state many years before. Reviews for the book veer from “masterpiece” to “rubbish”. I fall somewhere in the middle but closer to the latter. While Proulx paints a vivid picture of Newfoundland, I never fully connected with the characters and had to push myself through it. 6/10
Mark Manson released The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** in the fall of 2016 and since then has sold millions and the author has gained many followers. There are moments in the first few sections of the book where “f***” gets used quite a bit and grows rather tiresome but once that gives way, there are plenty of good life lessons revealed. A lot can be boiled down to “don’t sweat the small stuff” and don’t run away from your problems. Face them, tackle them, then trade up to more important problems. You only get so many f***s to give in life so choose wisely. Excellent book that I look forward to reading again in the near future. 9/10
The Rosie Project is the debut from Australian writer Graeme Simsion that has sold a few million copies since being published in 2013. The novel follows the plight of professor Don Tillman trying to find a wife who fits his rigid criteria when he meets the less than perfect Rosie and decides to help her find out who her real father is. Simsion keeps this romcom of a book moving along swiftly with many funny moments that has the reader rooting for Don and Rosie to get together. A movie has been in the works with directors/actors coming and going for a few years now, hopefully it sees the light of day soon. 7.5/10