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.
A Giller Award winner from 2000, Mercy Among the Children is David Adams Richards’ story of an impoverished family living in small town New Brunswick is very well told but equally as bleak. The family endures ridicule and abuse from neighbours while they have barely two nickels to rub together. Sydney, the father, is stoic throughout but frustratingly so. It feels like if he lashed out a few times at his distractors, the family fortunes would have been a lot different.
In 1998 The Modern Library ranked Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner’s novel, The Sound and the Fury as the sixth best English language novel of all time. The novel is broken up into different narratives with each relating to the Compson family of Jefferson Mississippi. The book jumps back and forth in time and often in a stream of conciseness that makes it hard to follow. My favourite part of the book was brother Quentin wandering the streets and trying to find the home of a young Italian girl he befriends on his walk. The reviews on Goodreads vacillate between rating The Sound and the Fury was one of the greatest books of all time to being completely incomprehensible. I fall into the latter, I had no idea what was happening and enjoyed very little this novel.
David Mitchell’s third novel, 2004’s Cloud Atlas was later adapted into a movie starring Tom Hanks. Winning the British Book Awards Literary Fiction and nominated for several other awards, the novel is actually six connected stories that are split into halves. The first story takes place in the mid nineteenth century and each book then takes place at a different point in time including well into the future. Some readers will like other stories more. Letters from Zedelghem follows the tale of a British musicians working with a Belgian composer who then becomes involved with the composer’s wife. Luisa Rey is a murder mystery while Timothy Cavendish is an entertaining look at a British book publisher.
I wasn’t quite as interested in the more futuristic stories that took up a large portion of the middle of the book and turned into a hard slog of reading. The problem was that by the time I returned to the other stories, I had forgotten parts of what was happening so took several pages to get into it again. An interesting concept but one that does have its share of flaws.
Another novel listed on the Modern Library List mentioned above, Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 book Slaughterhouse Five came in at number 18. The satirical look at war and life, it tells the tale of Billy Pilgrim who fought in WWII then came back to the US to be an optometrist, gets married and is eventually abducted by aliens. It’s a humourous book that also veers between space and time, which seems to be a theme in recent book choices, but is far easier to follow. No matter where he is, Pilgrim seems to be one step out of sync with the rest of society as the world twists around him. “So it goes”, a true classic.
A mere six months after David Bowie in January 2016, Paul Morley released his biography of the Starman entitled The Age of Bowie. Expertly written from a fan’s point of view, Morley shows his deep knowledge of Bowie’s work that focuses on the 1970s. The decade is broken down into chapters for each year with major events in the singer’s life with a rundown at the end of each chapter of that year’s great albums and singles. There are no interviews or quotes, all the material seemingly deep well of Morley’s experiences, it is an interesting way to approach the singer’s life. It is a dense book that could have used some pruning as ideas that could be wrapped up in a few paragraphs instead extend over several pages. In all, a good read from an expert music writer.
The wonders of the local library was on display when several branches in Winnipeg had a copy of Brett Anderson’s autobiography, Coal Black Mornings. The pages were crisp as surly I was one of the first to have taken this quite good book home for the weekend. The Suede singer focuses on growing up in Sussex England, at the edge of a council estate to a family low on money. It follows Anderson as he moves through grade school, then college in Manchester before settling in London and starting the band that would make him famous. It was a coincidence that I finished this book right after the Bowie one listed above and it’s easy to see the similarities in their lives before becoming pop stars. The book offers a glimpse into English student life in late 80s/early 90s. Anderson has recently followed this up with another book that picks up where Coal Black Mornings left off.
I picked up George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia from Portland’s famous Powell’s Bookstore several years ago where it dutifully sat on my shelf until February of this year. The book tells of Orwell’s time fighting Spanish Fascists in the 1930s. It provides fascinating detail on what life is like on the front lines during a war with several funny moments and Orwell’s excellent writing. I have to admit, beyond fighting fascists, much of the politics was a bit beyond me. What was interesting was the amount of propaganda in the press and how life simply carries on even in the country where the war is taking place. When he finally leaves Spain, Orwell notes that upon returning to England the milk will be dropped off in the morning like any other day. In his forward, Richard Trilling talks about Populism politics. In what seems like our currently chaotic political times, it is true what people say that so much of this has happened in the past and one only needs to look at history. Unfortunately, history keeps repeating itself but while the darkness is here, this also means some light is around the corner.
My introduction to Ali Smith was a year and a half ago with Autumn. Late this winter it was time to pick up the next volume in the four book seasonal cycle set – Winter. This was the last book I checked out at the library just before the world went haywire and the libraries shut down. The story follows Art as he travels to visit his Mother over Christmas with his (fake) girlfriend in tow. The book touches on politics, the environment and relationships. Autumn received the acclaim but I think I enjoyed this one even more. Lux, the fake girlfriend, makes an impact on the family and brings them closer together, before she disappears. Sometimes life is like that, meeting people that you will never forget even if they are only around for a few days.